The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- For a Song by Jamie Lackey
- Echoes of the Rebel Yell by Theron Couch
- Bait by Terry Golob
- Crowd, Unnamed Street by Sinéad McCabe
- Our Mutual Friend by Bethany Doyle
- The Last Gift by Benjamin Clement
- Hers by Mandi Jourdan
- The Last Hope of a Hopeless Nation by Jasper Sanchez
- Carson’s Crackers by David J. Gibbs
- A Diamond in the Mind’s Eye by Jeff Bagato
- Crusaders by Mary-Jean Harris
For a Song
By Jamie Lackey
The ocean’s whisper filled the night air as Lydia walked across the cold sand. But she wasn’t here to listen to a whisper. She was looking for a song. She kicked off her shoes, left her clothes in a crumpled pile, and waded into the dark water.
Her skin instantly ached from the cold, and shivers wracked her body. She forced herself forward, one step at a time, till she was deep enough to throw herself into an oncoming wave. She gasped when her face hit the water, and the salt burned her throat.
She struggled forward. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, and the cold made her limbs heavy and listless. “I will do this,” she said, and choked on another mouthful of water.
In her senior year, Lydia’s homeroom desk was near the middle of the room, fourth row, third seat back. Donna Harrison sat in front of her. Sometimes, Donna’s long brown hair would brush against Lydia’s desk.
Lydia loved Donna’s hair. And her always-perfect nails, and the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Donna was on the basketball team and dating Tommy Miller. She’d been in Lydia’s class since second grade, and they’d never talked. No one ever talked to Lydia. But sometimes, Donna would smile at her when she handed papers back. Lydia always smiled back.
Lydia caught lilting notes over the sound of the waves and the hammering of her heart. The song pulled her now, her legs kicking, her arms pulling her forward without effort.
The siren sat on a rock, knees tucked up to her chin, singing up at the moon. Her eyes were shadows as she stared down at Lydia.
She finished her song and started another. Lydia couldn’t feel her fingers, though she could see that they gripped coarse rock.
Finally, the siren finished her second song. “Why are you here?” she asked, in a voice like shattered dreams.
Lydia knew just what that sounded like.
She’d asked Donna to sign her yearbook. It was a small thing, hardly out of the ordinary. Donna had spent a long time with her head bent over the blank page, her pen motionless in her hand.
Eventually, she wrote, “Lydia, I’m sorry. I wish we could have shared more. Goodbye, and good luck out there.” She signed her name with a big, loopy D.
Lydia reached out and ran her hand over Donna’s hair, just once. Donna didn’t pull away, and Lydia gathered up her courage. “I think you’re perfect,” she said. “I’ve always thought that.”
Donna’s smile was sad. “Only God is perfect, Lydia.”
“Why are you here?” the siren asked again.
Exhaustion tugged at Lydia’s limbs. The water felt warmer than the air, now. She thought about letting go, about letting it wrap her in its liquid embrace. Her teeth chattered as she answered the siren. “I loved someone, and she–she didn’t love me back.”
“That is what happens when you love,” the siren said. “But many people face unrequited love and do not seek me out. Why are you here?”
Lydia usually walked home from school. But one day, she didn’t. Tommy Miller dragged her into his Buick. His eyes were glazed and he smelled like rum, but he was still strong. “Donna says you’re a dyke,” he said. “You know that’s wrong, don’t you? I can help you. Like I helped her.”
“What do you mean?” Lydia said. Her head spun and her throat ached. Donna had said that about her?
“She told me about her impure thoughts, begged me to get them out of her head. I did, but then you put them back. But I can help.”
“I don’t want your help,” Lydia said. She punched him in the throat, scrambled out of the car, and ran. She ran to the beach, the one that nobody ever went to, because sometimes, when the wind was just right, you could hear the siren there.
“I don’t belong there,” Lydia said. “I don’t want to go back.”
“Don’t be foolish, girl,” the siren said. “You are angry, but it will pass.”
“Aren’t you lonely?” Lydia asked. “I know what that is like. Don’t send me away.”
The siren’s face was beautiful in the moonlight, her long hair as dark as the water. “What do you want?”
“I want you to teach me to sing,” Lydia said. “I’m here to learn your songs.”
The siren stared at her for a long time. “You don’t have the strength to swim back, do you?”
Lydia stood on the shore and listened to the siren sing. She heard her own loneliness echoing back to her, across the waves.
She thought about Donna, and what it must have cost her to write what she did. She wondered how much it would have cost Donna to do more.
Lydia wondered what she’d be willing to pay to reach out and end someone else’s loneliness.
“I wouldn’t go, even if I could,” Lydia said. “I’ve made my decision.”
The siren took Lydia’s hand and pulled her up onto the rock. “Stubborn child. Very well,” she said. “I suppose I have been lonely. I will teach you my songs.”
Echoes of the Rebel Yell
By Theron Couch
The guardsman pinched my passport and driver’s license between his thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but imagine him saying “Papers, please” before letting me continue into the wilds of Nebraska. The guardsman’s eyes flitted back and forth between the pictures purporting to represent Rod Lemon and the actual Rod Lemon seated behind the wheel of a three year old Ford Explorer. My pictures were several years old and out of date in a few cosmetic ways: I’d given up glasses for contacts, and my once close trimmed black hair was now shaggy and laced with silver. The guardsman studied the disparities as though he were discerning the provenance of two identical works of art.
“You should get new pictures,” he said while returning my identification.
I grumbled a reply, took the driver’s license and passport, and turned toward the passenger seat where my editor was fidgeting beneath the gaze of another guardsman who seemed intent on boring into her with his eyes. Finally Meredith was able to reclaim her ID as well.
“On your way.” The guardsman added a subtle forward wave as flourish.
I awakened my vehicle, pulling forward and away from the National Guard checkpoint and easing the SUV toward the westbound onramp for Interstate 80. The heavily armed presence off the 42nd Street interchange, marking the rough border between federally controlled Omaha and the military district that encompassed the rest of Nebraska, sprouted like a weed in what was otherwise an overgrowth of neighborhoods and strip malls. I accelerated down the ramp and brought the vehicle up to speed, finding that sweet spot right around 73 miles per hour where I could indulge my desire to speed without entirely destroying my gas mileage. It would be several more miles before we passed the 80-680 interchange and a few miles beyond that before we escaped Omaha’s city limits. For all practical purposes, though, the stretch of the interstate we were on was already a border land—nominally in the government’s jurisdiction but not heavily patrolled.
“And to think—a few years ago I complained about the TSA.”
I’d switched on my digital recorder as we pulled up to the checkpoint. The mystery story that I was chasing was still hundreds of miles away, but as a rule I recorded everything I heard and said in the military districts—a precaution against missing some revelatory nugget.
“Don’t tell me that was really your first time through a checkpoint,” I said.
“New York’s a long way away.” Meredith turned toward her open window; the wind ruffled her short red hair. “What reason would I ever have to come out here?”
The interchange loomed ahead; I stayed in the left lane as it curved toward the southwest in the shadow of tangled ramps above.
“Curiosity,” I answered. “You were a reporter once. You’ve never wanted to see what’s going on out here?”
Meredith held her gaze out the window and said nothing for several moments. She’d been lost in thought most of the way from Des Moines. Was she from Nebraska? Or maybe somewhere else in the Midwest? I couldn’t remember, and my thoughts drifted down a rabbit hole in consideration as we sat momentarily in silence.
“That’s what I have reporters like you for. So I don’t have to visit the wrong side of military checkpoints and get in Dutch with a bunch of rebels.”
I heard the animosity in her voice—personal, venomous.
Wide billboards proclaimed the end of federal jurisdiction and cautioned that anyone proceeding beyond the next exit did so at their own risk.
“There you go,” I said as I pointed. “Rebel territory.”
“What is this—your sixth trip into a military district?”
“Sixth since you came aboard. But it’s been eight times—nine if you count my trip into Wyoming before Hostetter was assassinated.”
“Wyoming,” Meredith said amidst a hollow gallows chuckle. “Feels like a long time ago. I always forget that you covered the occupation in the state capitol.”
“Wrong place wrong time. It was just a vote recount when I got there.”
I expected Meredith to continue the conversation but whatever had been dominating her attention since before we reached Omaha still held sway. We drove in silence, and the hours passed. The afternoon sun fell toward the flat horizon. For the first chunk of the drive—the stretch from Omaha to Lincoln—normalcy reigned. We pulled off the freeway in Lincoln, filling up on gas and snacks. Nothing in the small city suggested citizens in rebellion. We received a few curious looks at the gas station—most likely owing to our out of state plates—but only a few. Were there even rebels in the city? I couldn’t remember reading anything about rebel activity in Lincoln—or, for that matter, eastern Nebraska. But obviously there was enough unsecured territory in the state to make the government draw their red line back at the border and around Omaha.
“I’ve been trying to remember since the checkpoint,” I said later when we were about twenty minutes west of Lincoln. “Are you from Nebraska?”
“Omaha. North 60th Avenue.”
Meredith turned her eyes from the featureless green landscape to me. She was almost smiling; I think the expression caught her by surprise—the idea of simpler, happier times.
“I loved visiting after I left for college. Just a few blocks to Maple Street and bars and restaurants running the gamut from speakeasies to local breweries.”
“Do you still have family there?”
Meredith turned back to the window, her smile fading.
“No,” she answered after a long time. “You remember what it was like in Omaha after Hostetter was killed? The protests and National Guard? They were…in the wrong place at the wrong time. A protest that turned violent. One of the sides shot them—I don’t know which.”
I heard Meredith’s voice start to break near the end of her story, but she shored it up and crushed the emotion before it could escape. Again I waited for her to continue talking. Again she chose silence.
Interstate 80 in Nebraska is a pair of black lines cutting across an otherwise flat, green expanse. I’d driven it several times—a few of those trips as a college student long before I had reason to visit the area as a journalist. Once upon a time the 440 mile trip could be counted on for its boredom. Not so since the rebellion. As day transitioned into dusk I watched a trio of military Humvees, complete with mounted guns but no soldiers manning them, speed down the eastbound lanes. An assortment of civilian vehicles, all pickup trucks and SUVs, followed in pursuit about two minutes behind. I counted a dozen vehicles in total, and as they passed us going the opposite direction one of the trucks peeled off from the back of the group and cut across the dirt and grass divider.
“What’s going on?”
I let Meredith’s question hang unanswered. I also ignored the foolhardy escape idea I visualized and pulled my SUV off to the side of the road. The federal government could claim they controlled military districts all they wanted, but the truth of it was that if the army wasn’t standing there to enforce federal law it was the rebels who were in charge.
“Just the rebel equivalent of that National Guard checkpoint in Omaha.”
Rather than pulling up behind us like a police officer might, the truck drove against traffic, coming at us from the front and eventually swinging in on a curve to sit across the two lanes at an angle and block our way. The man in the driver’s seat turned toward me but didn’t take his hands off the wheel. A woman in the back of the cab poked out the window with a hunting rifle. Likewise two men sat up in the truck bed, one armed with another hunting rifle and one armed with an AR-15.
“Should we…” Meredith started as her arm extended toward the backseat.
“No.” I grabbed Meredith’s wrist to prevent her from grasping one of the handguns we’d brought along. “Just go along with it. Everything will be fine.”
The man with the AR-15 hopped out of the truck bed. A second woman, handgun holstered at her hip, walked around from the passenger side.
“This happen a lot?” Meredith asked conspiratorially.
I rolled down my window.
“Depends on how close you get to active conflicts between rebels and the military.”
The woman with the handgun made a beeline toward my open window. AR-15 Man held back a little, maintaining an angle where he could cover both me and Meredith through the windshield.
“Sorry if we got too close to something,” I said once the woman was up to the window. “We’re just passing through.”
“Iowa plates,” the woman said. “You’re a long way from home. And DC rule.”
I reached from the steering wheel to the lanyards dangling from the rearview mirror and handed them to the woman.
“Seriously?” the woman asked.
“What?” said AR-15 Man as he walked toward the driver’s side.
“He’s media.” The woman added a derisive snort. “With the Post.”
AR-15 Man tensed up as he stepped yet closer.
“You don’t belong here,” the woman continued. “The media’s been lying for DC since the campaign—nothing but liberal shills. Turned everyone against Hostetter until some pissed off lib shot him. And then where was your gun outrage when he was shot? Nowhere.”
James Hostetter. Republican presidential candidate who was assassinated after losing the election. For those who thought Hostetter’s rhetoric had trafficked in the worst kind of sexist, racist, and classist stereotypes his electoral loss wasn’t always enough. American intelligentsia wasn’t necessarily above celebrating the end of a life. The rebels lost Hostetter as their symbolic leader, but his shadow and those celebrations were endless gusts of wind at their backs.
The woman threw the lanyard in my face and I flinched back—enough movement to get a quick look at Meredith who appeared on the verge of making a horrible decision.
AR-15 Man stepped closer again.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I recognize this one. He does a lot of embeds on our side—a lot of interviews with our guys.”
The woman tossed a look from me to AR-15 Man and back before offering an angry backhanded wave of dismissal and walking off toward the rebel pickup. AR-15 Man stepped up closer.
“I like your stuff,” he said. “Just telling the story regardless of how your subjects come off. Even back during the Cheyenne occupation. Being skeptical of big media doesn’t always mean not reading it.”
“We’re headed to Cheyenne,” I said, hoping to take advantage of the little bit of goodwill I’d earned. “Anything we should know about?”
“Not in our neck of the woods. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, there’s an exit for Grand Detour a ways down—motels and restaurants. It’s nice and quiet.”
AR-15 Man stepped away after that—rejoining his comrades. Once everyone had returned to their starting places within the pickup it accelerated across the pavement, jumping into the center divide and returning to the eastbound lanes in pursuit of its fellows off in the distance.
“You have quite the readership,” Meredith answered.
I couldn’t resist a laugh.
“Not a bad thing to have a diverse audience.”
The drive toward Grand Detour proved uneventful. The town itself was further from the interstate than I wanted to go so we stayed at the traveler’s oasis of motels, gas stations, and fast food joints. Our experience of checking in to a motel for the night and grabbing a cheap if overly greasy meal felt no different from cross country trips I’d taken before rebellion broke out.
Meredith bid me goodnight relatively early. I spent the evening staring at my tablet and hunting down all the news that could be useful for two non-rebels driving through Nebraska toward Wyoming. Not for the first time I second guessed the decision to lengthen our drive by flying into Des Moines rather than into Denver or Omaha. But Omaha’s airport was a source of vital resupply to maintain the military presence there so commercial flights were at a minimum, and despite the fact that Colorado wasn’t considered a military district, Denver was a calm island amidst waves of unrest in surrounding areas. The truth was that cross country travel just wasn’t as simple as it had been two years earlier.
A sharp knock on my door woke me early the next morning; I’d fallen asleep holding my tablet. We grabbed breakfast and resumed our drive—Cheyenne bound.
“Are you sure about this?” It was the only question I could think of when, hours later, I caught site of smoke plumes rising from the small city’s far edge.
“That’s where my contact said he’d meet us.”
I’d never given Cheyenne a second thought before the occupation of the state capitol; in all my trips on I-80 prior to that I’d never even stopped in the city. In size and scope Cheyenne looked little more than a way station on a long drive through the Rocky Mountains—a concrete weed in a sea of mostly brown.
“He say where we’d meet him?”
“Get off at state route 212. Just outside the city.”
The closer I drove, the easier it was to make out details. The smoke originated from the city’s west side where it butted up against Warren Air Force Base. In the rebellion’s initial days—before the president had realized how widespread the problem was—the National Guard had attempted to advance out of the base and secure Cheyenne. The initial push devolved into urban warfare that played badly on TV. After that push fizzled out, though, I couldn’t say as I knew of anything much happening in Cheyenne, so the signs of violence caught me by surprise. I followed Meredith’s directions until we were sitting in a shopping center parking lot. We both stepped out of the car, Meredith to make a phone call and me to stretch my legs.
“He’s on his way,” Meredith announced after a few moments.
I was only half aware of what Meredith said when she said it. As so often happened when I found myself in more active areas of rebellion I got lost in my own observations. I’d have expected a lunchtime crowd at the shopping center—there wasn’t one. The parking lot was nearly deserted and traffic was sparse. Gunfire echoed from far away, the sound repeated periodically and always coming from the direction of the air force base.
“Lincoln seemed normal,” Meredith said. “Where we stayed the night, too. This…it’s not the third world but it’s not America, either.”
“Standing out here you’d think that.” I meandered away from my editor, warming to my subject. “But walk into a Wal-Mart—their grocery shelves are all stocked, and they’ve got all the new releases on Blu-ray. Twenty-first century America: you can’t have peace but you can go shopping.”
A little more meandering.
“Waste of lives,” I said.
“That’s pretty cynical. You don’t think putting down the rebellion is a worthwhile fight?”
This time I let loose the gallows laughter.
“If the rebels could agree that it is a rebellion, sure. They prance around on the knife edge between violent protest and all out insurrection. They can’t even unite in common cause. And the president…The president is too worried about losing a PR fight, appearing weak to Russia, or interrupting military efforts abroad to actually put this thing down. So commerce within the military districts is the same as without. The states still hold elections and have representatives in Congress. There’s nothing worthwhile in fighting if you’re not going to fight to win.”
Meredith’s reply was swallowed by the sound of a pickup racing through the parking lot on a course straight toward us. I jogged back toward our SUV and reached into the open driver’s side, my fingers extending toward the gun nestled just behind the seat.
“Wait. Rod!” This time Meredith intervened before a weapon could be drawn, grabbing my wrist before I could grab my gun. “That’s him.”
The pickup roared to a stop next to our SUV. Meredith’s earlier timidity was nowhere to be found as she walked right up to the driver’s side window and left me, standing between the two vehicles, to watch in silent curiosity.
“Have any problems getting here?” the driver asked from inside his car.
“Just a bunch of cowboys in Nebraska who didn’t think much of the press.”
The driver looked past Meredith as I stepped forward.
“This him?” the driver asked.
“Rod Lemon. As requested.”
The driver climbed out of the pickup but kept his eyes locked on me like some kind of invasive exam. Meredith provided introductions and revealed that the driver, Brad, was her younger brother. He looked the stereotypical farmer—the kind of muscular physique earned doing work rather than frequenting the gym, a permanent tan on his face and arms, windswept brown hair; had Meredith not said otherwise I would never have assumed he and the petite redhead I’d traveled cross country with were related.
“Trust me,” Meredith urged when I voiced skepticism.
“Just what am I out here reporting on?” All Meredith had revealed to me was that she had a contact within the rebels who was willing to go on record with something big—something that could change the face of the not-quite-war ripping the country apart. She’d pled ignorance to anything beyond that. Maybe going on faith because Brad was her brother was enough for her.
“I’ll explain on the way,” Brad answered. “Grab your gear.”
Meredith offered a final reassurance, and I did as Brad bid. The two vehicles parted ways moments later, the departure silent save for the enthusiastic sound of Brad’s engine and the punctuating bursts of gunfire in the background. I watched Meredith start on a return course out of the military district.
I only knew one thing about Brad so, as he drove us through Cheyenne, I began there.
“It’s not just a cliché. The whole brother versus brother thing—or sister in this case.”
“Different miles on our souls. Maybe if I’d have left too we’d be on the same side. Or if she stayed.”
“But she still trusts you?”
“I’ve never given her reason not to.”
Brad continued north along 212; the city—such as it was—grew less dense with each half mile.
“Where are we headed?”
“I-25. The long way around. We’re staying well clear of the base.”
“You know what’s going on out there?”
“Hotheads trying to cause trouble. Happens every now and then.” Brad warmed to the subject, something of a personality shining through for the first time. “Sometimes the soldiers. Sometimes us. Waste of time. They didn’t have the will to take the city before so I doubt they’ll try again, but they’re also not going to let us overrun a base that’s responsible for 150 Minutemen ICBMs.”
“Then why the fighting? In a lot of other places with that kind of equilibrium both sides have been content with a quiet standoff.”
“The freeway interchange is part of it. Neither side has made any movements to seriously restrict trade—if DC stops trucks going into the military districts it prevents the two firmly loyal coasts from sending goods back and forth, and if we interdict shipments to keep them only for ourselves it would almost certainly force DC’s hand in launching an aggressive anti-insurgency campaign. But even so, each side would rather it be in charge of the major thoroughfares and interchanges. Just in case.
“As for the rest—this all started with that protest and occupation of the capitol grounds during the recount. Cheyenne’s a symbol.”
212 had curved west and I’d hoped to get a closer look at the conflict along the base, but Brad turned onto another state route running north parallel to Interstate 25.
“Sounds like you’re fairly well plugged in. Were you out here during the occupation?”
“No,” Brad answered, leavening the syllable as though there was more to follow the single word. I sat in silence as Brad drove on, eventually pulling on to I-25. I turned around, thinking to see something of the events at the base but only finding wisps of faded smoke in the distance.
“No,” Brad repeated. “I was still in Nebraska when everything got rolling. Reading stories like what you were writing about the recount.”
“You know my work?”
“I was a politics junkie long before that election. I’ve read your stuff. Can’t say I really remember what you wrote about the recount.”
“Probably wasn’t my best work. I was filling in for someone else who was assigned but couldn’t go. I didn’t want to be there. Sure, the Democrat winning Wyoming was downright bizarre. But Hostetter had cratered so badly coming out of October that just about anything was conceivable. I didn’t expect to find much of a story.”
I waited for Brad to continue the exchange but he’d gone from animated and engaged to mute and stone still. How big a Hostetter supporter had he been? I worried that I might have come off as too much of a cheerleader for a particular viewpoint and poisoned the dialogue. My stories aren’t supposed to be about me.
“There’s something under your seat,” Brad said after a few minutes.
I reached forward and patted at the floor of the car until I could grasp an object. Pulling it out and sitting up, I found myself looking at a dog eared, yellow-edged paperback with a blank black cover. The book was a little taller and wider than a typical paperback and 140 pages thick. I opened it, found I was looking at it upside down, and tried again. There was no title page, no copyright page. One blank page separated the cover from the beginning of the prose.
“What is it?”
“I didn’t come here to—”
Brad’s outburst left no room for interpretation. I started reading. Written in the first person, the prose dripped with venom from word one. The writer had just received a pardon, and I felt his bristling indignation at not having been afforded a trial to prove the legitimacy of his cause. The anger was too obvious—too intense—to be taken seriously until I read the word “secession.”
“What the hell is this?” I asked, flipping to the last page in the hope that the mysterious author who hadn’t been revealed at the beginning signed his work at the end. “Jefferson Davis? The Jefferson Davis?”
“First and only president of the Confederate States of America. Keep reading.”
I returned to the first page, picking up where I left off. Every word I read filtered through a near bottomless well of doubt. I refused to get caught up in the emotion that Davis—purportedly Davis—had poured into his writing. The product of a man who’d been defeated but not beaten, the manifesto was first an indictment of the Union for not having the courage to put Davis’ views on display in a trial and then later a call for continued rebellion within the Union lines. The goal of a white man’s republic wasn’t dead to Davis’ way of thinking—it had simply been approached in the wrong way. I slogged through the book for as long as daylight allowed, rolling my eyes in frequent intervals.
“This is some alt-right fan fiction?”
“Real deal.” Brad sounded unfazed by my question—downright serene compared to when he insisted I read the book.
“A real deal that somehow escaped notice for a century and a half? Jefferson Davis calling for ongoing secretive rebellion would be taught in every class on the Civil War if this were legitimate.”
“If it were common knowledge. Davis spent the last years of his life encouraging reconciliation, and he wrote a memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, that came out at the start of that period. What you’re holding was written just after his pardon in 1868. He never published it but he did share copies with others of the Confederate’s angriest partisans. There’s no evidence he ever acted on it, and it’s not hard to believe a man might have a change of heart in 12 years—especially as he gets closer to the end of his life. Regardless, though, of Davis’ intentions when he wrote it or afterward, the people he showed it to believed in it and never wavered from it.”
Awareness and control of my own bias was a critical part of being able to present a fair retelling of my experiences with rebels, but so often I wanted to scream at them over the absurdity of some of their views. Political disagreements were one thing, but wholesale disbelief of established facts and the occasional racial superiority fetish—that crossed a line that often left me needing a shower. And here my editor had stuck me with her rebel brother who was conjuring up some sort of lost history fantasy in the mold of Tolkien or Martin—just with less magic. It took a few minutes of staring out into the night to reset my emotions.
“Where are we headed?” I asked at last, my toe dipping back into the water of conversation.
“I’m going to need a little bit more than that.”
“Northern Wyoming. Should be there in thirty minutes or so. We’ll stay there tonight.”
“Why have me read the book?”
“For context of what I’m going to tell you—what we did.”
“You mean the rebels?”
Brad glanced my way. In the dark I couldn’t translate his expression though I guessed he had bristled at the designation I’d given him. Most rebels hated being called out on what they were—it didn’t jive with their internal thinking—and I usually avoided the term when interacting with them. But I thought Brad needed some grounding if we were going to continue.
“Yes,” Brad conceded. “Certain rebels. And everyone else who got swept up in something they weren’t aware of.”
“Let’s get to Buffalo first.”
I gave Brad the silence he requested for the remainder of our drive toward the small Wyoming town. The vibe I felt when we arrived was closer to Lincoln than Cheyenne—people in Buffalo looked to be going about their business as though little had changed in the last two years. Brad parked at a motel, checked the two of us in, and then led the way on foot down the street to a restaurant.
“How much do you know about the Civil War?”
The question was Brad’s opening remark after we sat down. I suppressed a sigh—this still wasn’t what I was expecting to discuss.
“Whatever I can remember from a college history class.”
“The advantage the Confederates had over today’s rebellion was that even though there was some pro-Union sentiment in the Confederacy it was insignificant. The Confederate states were more or less a united front.”
“They had slavery to rally around.”
“Kind of. There was a whole class system at work that even the poorest whites bought into. But the overarching idea was a white man’s republic.”
“Yeah, the author of that alternate history in your car used the phrase more than once.”
Brad bit back his response as the server arrived with our food and drinks. I pressed him further.
“What does that book have to do with why I’m here? I don’t write or review fiction.”
Brad’s eyes flicked up toward the server as she finished depositing our orders; I took the hint and waited in silence until she departed our table.
“Who’d you vote for?”
“I asked you about the book not—”
“Who’d you vote for?” Brad repeated.
That time my sigh was audible.
“I live in New York City. I voted for exactly who you think I voted for. You?”
Brad had dug into his meal while I answered. A bite of potato in his mouth, he was cutting a piece off his bleeding rare steak when I spoke, and I didn’t receive an answer—not that it was ever in doubt—until Brad finished chewing.
I heard in that single word a regret I’d never heard from a rebel—and not just the regret of somehow being let down by the man, but the understanding that somehow the failure was inevitable and that Brad had known it even as he voted.
“I tried ignoring the nasty, inflammatory rhetoric and did my best not to think about what voting for him said about me. I listened to all the talk from his surrogates about what his policies would mean, and I wanted to believe that my folks and I would be better off with him than with four more years of what hadn’t been helping us for the last eight. And yes I knew I was rolling around in the mud hoping that somehow I’d emerge cleaner.”
No two interviews were ever the same, but I’d found subjects with similar backgrounds often fell within a predictable range. So it had been with most all the rebels I’d met—different points within a common shared space. Brad’s answer placed him far beyond that spectrum.
“So why get caught up in the rebellion if you knew how toxic he was? I mean—fine, vote for him. But from what you’ve told me you’ve gotten more involved since the election—not less.”
Brad worked at his steak and potato—a delay that reminded me of the chicken and rice growing cold in front of me.
“I knew people that believed Hostetter when he said the election would be rigged. And if you had heard the things those people said about the other side—the disgusting vitriol… But I never believed what he was saying. How do you rig the election independently in all the swing states? Then Hostetter lost Wyoming. And I don’t care how big a wave election it was going to be—it was Wyoming.”
“It’s not like Wyoming put it over the top,” I answered. “Hostetter would have lost either way.”
“Sure. But still weird. And close enough for an automatic recount. You were there—as soon as the recount started the original results looked suspect. It made you think—if the result could be manipulated in a solid red state like Wyoming with Republican state officials, what might have happened in all the others? Hostetter, meanwhile, had conceded but as soon as news about Wyoming is released he starts egging everyone on again. Poisoning the well. You get protesters occupying Wyoming’s capitol building. You get protests in other states. Then Hostetter is shot. It was a snowball that became an avalanche—it was hard to keep ignoring what he’d been saying. Even so, if that had been the only thing I probably would have stayed in Omaha.
“Did Meredith tell you about our parents? I was with them when it happened. I don’t know who fired the shots. But the violence broke out that day because the National Guard opened fire on a protest. I know that for certain because I saw it. We were out shopping and drove too close to the protesters’ path. They were angry people. Furious. If they hadn’t been diehards to begin with the trouble in Wyoming, Hostetter’s murder, and the federal government’s efforts to crush ‘anti-government activists’ had turned them into diehards. It’s amazing how loud a group of angry people can be. The protestors were marching and the National Guard had established a perimeter; you could feel in the air that the world was just a little bit off—a little bit wrong. We tried to get away from the protest but there was nowhere to go. We got out of the car, trying to get inside somewhere and away from the fray. Then it happened.”
Brad reached for his beer, taking a long pull from the pint glass. When he set the glass back down his eyes stayed fixed on it, staring at something beyond the object more than looking at it.
“I don’t know if there was an order to fire or if one person got nervous. Someone fired into the crowd of protesters. Then they all fired into the crowd of protesters. I wouldn’t have thought you could hear people screaming amidst that much gunfire, but you can. The protesters ran in every direction, the group of them seeming to explode under the assault. For a few moments it was a one-sided massacre. Then some of the protesters started shooting back. Mom and dad and I—we ran. Heads down and screaming we ran. But there were too many other people and we were separated.”
Brad reached for his beer again but didn’t quite bring it to his mouth.
“Fifteen minutes. They say the whole thing lasted fifteen minutes. Felt like an eternity. Felt like hell. Then I found my parents’ bodies and realized it was.”
Brad downed his beer and stood up. He tossed some money out from his pocket.
“We’re headed up to Billings tomorrow. I’ll wake you up when it’s time to go.”
Brad’s words echoed in my head long after he’d gone—ghostly sounds that matched the ashen look on his face. If that book he’d given me to read was context just as he said, then I’d received a great deal more in our conversation over dinner. But context for what? I wiled away the rest of the night alone and found, when I returned to my room, that Brad had left the dubious Davis manifesto on my bed.
We left early the next morning. I was tired of context. I wanted whatever story Brad thought he had to give.
“So far we’ve talked about whom you voted for and what pushed you toward the rebellion,” I said. “And I’ve read Jefferson Davis’ long lost manifesto. What does that have to do with why I’m here?”
“You finished the book?”
“I did. Davis is all but endorsing the creation of a secret society within the Union—a plan to win through long term deception and corruption what couldn’t be won through force of arms. It’s ludicrous.”
“Not so ludicrous. Think of how Southern politics solidified after the war. The Greys—that’s what Davis’ believers have called themselves—dominated a wing of the Democratic Party. You remember George Wallace?”
“Avowed segregationist governor who ran for president—yes.”
“He was a Grey. But Wallace’s failure and the decision of Democratic leadership to embrace civil rights convinced the Greys that they needed a new approach and a new home. Enter Nixon’s Southern Strategy.”
I laughed. I had to—there was just no other option. The Greys with these powerful politicians in their pocket—Brad was straying into Illuminati territory.
“Richard Nixon—he was one of these secret adherents to Davis’ lost manifesto? You should write fiction—alternate history. You’d be good at it.”
Brad glanced at me with a look cold to the point of freezing. He said nothing. I composed myself.
“The Southern Strategy,” I said. “The Republican focus on winning in the Electoral College by winning the entirety of the South. What about it?”
“The Greys jumped ship to the Republican Party. They got in with Nixon’s campaign. They were more subtle this time, fomenting the Southern Strategy—an implicitly racist tactic that focused on the South’s dominant white population. The strategy worked so well for Nixon that it’s been a cornerstone of Republican strategy since. In response the Democrats diversified, tailoring arguments to every minority group they could. That focus—and Nixon’s impeachment—gave the Democrats the White House three terms in a row and gave the Greys the ability to push the GOP, in desperate times, to slowly make the Southern Strategy more explicit. Like a frog in water brought to boil, most Republican voters and politicians didn’t realize what was happening to their party until it was too late. And a few elections later the Greys find their perfect candidate.”
I can’t pinpoint the moment my brain decided Brad’s tale was plausible, but at some point I lost the urge to laugh.
“Was Hostetter one of these Greys?”
“Just a patsy that ran for president. The Greys, by now wielding a lot of influence on the right, maneuvered behind the scenes to make him the Republican nominee. Hostetter’s outsider resume, penchant for saying anything no matter how inflammatory, dubious policy ideas—it was a dog whistle piped through a loud speaker that the Greys could use to manipulate angry, disaffected voters while staying close enough to Republican tenets to hold the party faithful.”
We passed a sign; Billings was an hour away.
“You know there’s no way that I can write this,” I said. “Even if I believed it—if I hand this story to Meredith she’ll chuck it in a paper shredder.”
Brad didn’t speak, but neither did he direct that cold and unforgiving glare at me. What I saw of his expression reminded me of that same regret I’d felt the night before. Assuming that what Brad was telling me was real—or that at the very least he believed it—I found myself wondering whether the regret I sensed was rooted in sharing with me what he was sharing or in appearing to be the sort of person the Greys might recruit in the first place.
“Why are we going to Billings?”
“Because you need evidence.”
That proved the end of the interview for the rest of our drive north. I asked a few more questions, the first of which was what the Grey’s backup strategy had been in the likely event that Hostetter lost. I expected the answer to be something like the occupation of Wyoming’s capitol building—a piecemeal attempt at opposition that got lucky when the situation spiraled out of control. But Brad wasn’t in an answering mood.
As Brad took an exit on the eastern edge of Billings, I turned my attention to the world beyond the car window. As was the case in Lincoln and Buffalo people seemed to be going about their business as usual.
I rolled down the window, listening for signs of battle like those in Cheyenne but heard nothing. Billings possessed one standout feature, though—everywhere I looked I saw signs and flags either in support of the rebels or in opposition to the president. Montana might be quiet so far as conflict went, but it offered strong opinions.
“I’m going to park,” Brad said. “Keep that press lanyard visible. And stay in the car.”
Brad parked along a curb a few blocks hence. He climbed down from the pickup’s cab and walked toward a house. Brad knocked on the door, stepping inside after an older man opened it for him. I watched and waited. In that moment my thoughts drifted back to Meredith—just what had my editor embroiled me in? Presumably she’d been promised some kind of story, and I suppose because it was her brother who did the promising she’d believed him. But I’d seen no story besides a broken, mournful man who’d invented a fairy tale to justify choices he regretted.
Gunshots rang out from inside the house, interrupting my navel gazing. The front door flew open and out ran Brad, a bag slung over his shoulder and a black pistol in his right hand. His left hand pressed against his side as his legs pumped.
A stupefied expression was my only response.
“Drive!” he repeated.
My brain caught up to the moment at hand. I slid across the seat and started the car as Brad ripped open the passenger door and climbed into the cab before falling across the seat. My foot found the gas pedal and slammed against it.
“Back to I-90,” Brad said amidst heavy breathing.
I flipped a U-turn at the first intersection and sped back the way we’d come. By that point the older man who’d greeted Brad at the front door was outside and shooting—vaguely but without success—in our direction.
“What did you do?” I screamed the question.
“Just drive. I-90 east. Get off at Old US 87. They’re going to be after us. We need to stay off the interstate.”
A list of questions sat on my tongue, but the time for them wasn’t in the middle of a desperate escape from whatever fury Brad had brought down upon us. I drove as directed. It wasn’t until we reached the onramp for the freeway that I saw vehicles in pursuit—two cars, both of them old Crown Victorias that had spent former lives as cop cars.
“We’ve got company.”
Brad pushed himself up which gave me the first look at his blood stained shirt and the truck’s blood stained upholstery. Brad groaned as he reached behind the seat and retrieved a .308 hunting rifle.
“Keep us steady,” he choked out while sliding open the back window.
Absent any other options I endeavored to do as Brad asked. Uneven pavement wasn’t making my job any easier, but I kept the truck on a straight line as best I could. Single shots rang out in quick succession. I glanced toward Brad but couldn’t take my eyes off the road long enough to see what he was aiming at. I watched my driver’s side mirror, practically staring at the two cars in pursuit. They adjusted their position, moving to run side by side as they chased us. I drifted into the middle of the interstate to keep either one from accelerating next to us and to give Brad a clearer shot at both.
Brad continued firing. Shot after shot achieved nothing until at long last he sunk two rounds into one of the cars’ engine blocks. That car fell behind and Brad turned his attention to the second one, eventually breaking the windshield and hitting the driver. I couldn’t tell if it was a fatal shot, but it was enough to send the Crown Victoria into a swerve toward the right shoulder.
Brad dropped back down, his rifle slipping awkwardly behind the seat. The exit for Old US 87 came up and I swerved toward it, slamming the brakes so I could safely turn right on to the highway.
“We need to get you to a hospital.”
Brad groaned and shifted on the seat, forcing himself upright.
“We will,” he answered. “Eventually. Just keep driving.”
“What did you do? What was in that house?”
Brad breathed deep and loud for several seconds. I wondered if I was going to get an answer.
“I told you the Greys were about messaging and manipulation,” Brad finally said, practically exhaling the words. “They didn’t need a backup plan when Hostetter lost. They hoped he would. They expected a Hostetter administration would be a bumbling, disorganized mess that would turn people fast against him. They only wanted him to put people in the right frame of mind. The bag—the bag was the next part of the plan.”
Brad reached to the wheel, holding it steady as we came to a straightaway.
I reached toward the duffel Brad had taken from his house. The most conspicuous item was a chrome handgun with a black grip. Several thumb drives rattled around with it.
“Hostetter’s behavior made his victory impossible,” Brad said as I retook the wheel, “but not before he gave the Greys their opening. Davis’ manifesto told them to build their republic from the grassroots up—to make the followers rather than the leaders break the Union. We’ve all let politics divide and subdivide us until common cause seems too difficult. We self-sort and distrust those who disagree. Hostetter’s purpose was to convince enough people he could never legitimately lose.”
The last few words faded as Brad spoke them. He shifted on the seat, adjusting how he held his side. He just sat and breathed for a while before he continued.
“The Greys have people in state government. Since they couldn’t win the election, they destroyed its legitimacy. The reason no one could find proof that the Democrats rigged Wyoming even with all the irregularities was because the Greys had thrown the state for them.”
“Wait. Hostetter’s people rigged Wyoming?”
“And made it obvious that it was rigged,” whispered Brad. “Yes. That’s what’s on the thumb drives.”
“The Greys were counting on Hostetter’s supporters’ outrage.”
Brad stopped talking. He continued to pale. He retained consciousness, but I could tell he wasn’t applying much pressure to his wound. When I pulled off to the shoulder Brad stared at me in confusion and curiosity. I retrieved two shirts from my bag behind the seat. The first I pressed against Brad’s side and urged him to hold it firm in place. The second I ripped along one side to make wider and then tied the ruined garment around Brad so the makeshift bandage would stay tight in place. With Brad a little better off, I pulled up the GPS on my phone and found a hospital.
“Just hang on for another forty minutes,” I said as I pulled back into the lanes.
Brad mumbled his assent.
“So that’s it? Your Greys rigged Wyoming and got lucky when someone shot Hostetter?”
“I was a fool,” Brad whispered. “Year after year where I fell behind. The election. My parents. The spiral never found bottom. Weight on my chest as I drifted—somewhere along the line it made me angry. I chased that anger to Wyoming, to the rebellion. I chased it until a Grey took me for a kindred spirit and let me in on the secret. I saw something dark and perverse inside her and the others—an anger without boundary or reason. I worried if I stayed angry long enough…what I might have let myself become…”
Brad kept rambling like that for most of our drive—not quite delirious but unable or unwilling to carry on a conversation. I pushed the pickup as hard as I could on that old road until we made it to a town called Hardin and a small county hospital.
“It wasn’t luck.” Brad gripped hard to lucidity as I pulled in, a breathy urgency behind his words.
“Hostetter. The rigged election in Wyoming gave people a grievance. But the Greys wanted a martyr. That man I just robbed—he killed Hostetter. With that gun. Using Davis’ own plan he’s ginned up enough popular support to try birthing a second white man’s republic. And the longer we live in what seems like a split country—the more comfortable we get—the likelier it will stay that way.”
I parked in front of the emergency entrance and ran to find help. Doctors and nurses poured Brad out of the pickup onto a gurney. I followed behind as they rushed him inside.
“Keep the pickup,” Brad said as I chased him down the aisle. “Get back home. Give my sister a hell of a story. They’ve all been played—make them see.”
That was the last I saw of Brad—though he did pull through. They wheeled him further into the hospital, and I jumped back into his pickup—driving off before anyone could ask me questions. Heat radiated off the stolen bag, and I could barely keep my eyes off it. I spent that entire drive out of the military district considering the implications of Brad’s tale and realizing I no longer doubted it. Yes the Greys had manipulated us. But in our dismissal of each other we’d left ourselves fertile ground for them. The truth had rescued Brad from his anger; for my whole drive home I hoped the rest of us weren’t so far gone that the truth couldn’t save us as well.
By Terry Golob
The interior of the houseboat floating on this quiet backwater canal could have been the interior of any low rent, poorly furnished apartment complex in any city, anywhere. All seven units have creaky hardwood floors, raspy hinges on over-painted doors, and blinds whose fractured slats let almost everything in.
We don’t even have a door to the shared hallway. Our neighbor opens theirs a crack, pokes his nose into the hall, and retreats. It doesn’t shut completely.
Edaelia, my frizzy haired roommate, full cheeks, and fierce curves, leans against the window with the eye-level slats parted. “Some shit coming up the canal.”
I nudge her a little and cop her slats. Churning up the canal is a rusty yellow barge pushing mushy brown sludge in frosting-like waves to the crinkled metal breakwater along the far shore. The vacant houses are shuttered; the residents long since removed. “There hasn’t been a barge in six months.”
“Six months and three days,” she says.
There is a mucky slap of barge churn against our hull and the sizzle of their Current Probe on our Cloaking Grid. The window is now gradually obscured by dirty yellow corrugated metal. The Carrion Scythe, Hunter Class, rises from the barge and hovers just above it, emitting a glowing blue cauldron from its spinning orange exhaust ports.
Edaelia exhales a slow incantation. It sounds like a curse, but isn’t really language. The exposed muscles of her long brown legs, midriff, and arms ripple with the curvature of the phrase. Her pajamas are a pair of black, hip hugging shorts and a slate grey tank top. Neither the barge nor the Carrion Scythe are an issue until the electro-gristle of the Current Probe begins to taper away and the barge wake slapping against our hull ceases. Out the window the barge stops. We take a quiet breath.
Edaelia reaches up and opens the slats at the top of the window. “The Scythe is moving into position.”
“It couldn’t just move on past. It has to stop and fuck with us?”
The neighbor’s door pops open. He sees our shared expression. “Don’t tell me.”
“A Carrion Scythe is moving into position.”
He retreats, not completely closing the noisy door. Moments later, panic whispers.
I frown. “What should we do?”
“What we always do.” Her expression is stern.
“I’m glad it’s your turn.” I step away from the window, head towards the closet. “I’m tired of killing.”
To open the closet, I yank because the door sticks to the frame. I reach in and remove a black orb from the crowded shelf. Without looking I toss it to her. Calibrating, it glows blue in her hand, then flicks off. “Are you going to change out of your pajamas?” I ask.
“Why even bother,” is her nonchalant reply.
She heads over to the neighbor’s door and gives it three light raps. Their two month old starts crying. Their whispers get frantic, so fast it sounds like gibberish.
“Time to go upstairs.” Edaelia says, leaning into the door. Their whispers stop, but the baby screams louder. “You don’t want me to come in after you, do you?” I recognize his footsteps in their hallway. His nose peeks out. “No.”
“Bring the baby.” She grabs the door and opens it wide with a loud creak.
Their expressions resigned, our neighbor, his wife, and screeching baby file out of their apartment into the hall. Edaelia points them to the darkened stairwell and they sheepishly head upstairs. Edaelia follows them, closing the door behind her. I hear the deadbolt lock into place.
Step after heavy step, they creak their way up the steep staircase. The pitch and volume of the wailing infant is unbearable. Perfect. Reaching the top, Edaelia shoves them out the door onto the roof.
Seeing the helpless couple with child, the crew of the Carrion Scythe will break protocol, open their hatch, and begin the rescue. That’s when Edaelia will strike. She powers up the orb, which drops the Cloaking Grid, revealing our houseboat for what it really is: a glowing, malleable, blue-black Phosphor-Cysting Field.
I hear the hysterical burst of cross chatter from the Scythe. Edaelia emerges from what was the stairwell, the orb emitting a focused myriad of amber Dis-Tension Beams that annihilates everything. The child’s screams are abruptly silenced. The ship and everyone in it, powdered.
Edaelia recalibrates the orb with a quick twist; then lobs it into the barge. It explodes with a loud clang.
Out the window I watch the dirty yellow barge swallowed by thick, snotty sludge. The Cloaking Grid reboots, retraces, and the houseboat returns. I hear Edaelia’s measured footsteps coming down the stairwell and think, I’m tired. Then wonder, When can we stop snaking around this inter-galactic speciary picking off the last remnant of humanity? When can we pack our shit, leave this backwater galaxy, and go home?
Crowd, Unnamed Street
By Sinéad McCabe
There was a crowd at the corner of Named Street, a crowd of long grey coats and peering faces. Above them, the pall of a dun-colored night, bisected at its center by a great beam of glaring white light, a vast cone of hard and dead radiance which shone from somewhere low on the ground, up into the sky. The source of the light was invisible from Named Street, emanating from somewhere on Unnamed Street, but its glare had turned the puddles of rain upon the pavement into a tiled path of portentous hieroglyphics, some resembling silver ghosts with their classic drooping arms shaking in the air, some looking like cross-sections of fabulous worms. Worn and sturdy black shoes trod now upon a dancing octopus, now upon the features of the blowing wind; but all, all the fantastical paving slab pictures had been carved together, by the late rain, and the light shooting radiant into the gloom of the night sky.
Mortimer’s tread was steady as he pushed through the crowd of damp, malodorous coats, and to any who blocked his path he flicked his brass disc and said flatly, “LAW”, pacing into the center of the crowd on Unnamed Street, squinting against the light and listening to the silence of the crowd. Not a person spoke, and they moved only to crane their necks.
It was the center, the involuntary source of the light. It was wet, perhaps from the rain, and terrifyingly tiny and vulnerable, fragile as a milk-white baby. It had limbs, but neither hands nor feet on them, and was only as big as a good-sized spaniel dog. On its pointed face a multitude of tiny leaf-green eyes in clusters gazed imploring at Mortimer as he dropped to one knee. The light was beaming through a tiny tear in the fabric of its torso, and it flickered now as the being tried to cover the wound with its trembling, jelly-soft limbs. Looking up into the heavy lidded night, Mortimer had a sense of a membrane torn or split, through which the creature may have fallen. In any case, it seemed young. He realized that his decision had been reached the moment he laid eyes on the thing, but he flashed the brass disc again, too quickly for anyone to notice that it was out of date and thus he was now retired, and said, “LAW. This comes with me.”
He took off his grey overcoat, wrapped it about the thing to cover the wound and keep it warm (and hide its light) and stood up scowling with the unexpectedly heavy burden in his arms. The crowd backed away, one step, two, and he turned on his heel and returned the way he had come, only now the miraculous hieroglyphics on the slick and gritty stones were invisible, silent in the dark, the only sound his thudding footsteps and the quiet, discontented murmurs of the crowd, bereaved of its reason to be, not daring to speak out.
Huge and weighty buildings moved ponderously by. Mortimer’s stolid footsteps did not alter or falter, but he sang, in the dark of his heart.
Puffing from the exertion of the three flights of marble stairs, Mortimer reached his rooms, which were dim, dusty and lamplit, with a weary smell of old age, meat and unopened windows. He noticed this with surprise, and after putting down his precious burden on a pink velvet armchair, he flung wide one of the great windows, letting in the smell of rain and cabbage frying, before securing the shutters for privacy, and kneeling to examine his prize.
The limbs were as soft, moist and bonelessly flexible as that of a very young baby, but the torso, he ascertained with the very softest of clasps, was solid and boned like the staves of a barrel or the whalebone of a corset. There was no hair of any kind anywhere on the tender pale body, but a flexing slit in the face seemed to be a mouth, confirmed he thought by the kitten-soft mewing which emerged from it as he carefully stroked the bulbous head and gazed into the bright and multitudinous eyes. It was pleased. The slit of light beaming from its body threw dazzling rings onto the lofty, dirty ceiling.
For the first time in three years, Mortimer smiled. “Well then,” he whispered, his knees popping as he stood, “Let’s see if we can work you out.”
He made notes as the days passed, using an old and well-loved cypher, and kept the shutters closed until the wound which spilled light began to heal, and close. As to where the light came from and why the thin and fragile skin hid it so effectively, he vowed that nobody would ever find out. He was no vivisectionist, at least not as a hobby, and anyway he was retired now. Hadn’t done anything like that in years. He was… reformed.
He had been alone for a long time, but now it was the two of them, and it was not afraid of him. He nursed it, tried many ways to nurture and please it. He tried various different nutrients, peeling them from the rationed packets and offering their gritty brown and green bars to the mouth, but it would not take them. Spooning water into its mouth produced no actual objection, but he tried the same with a small spoonful of fabulously precious fruit juice, and the thing shat itself continuously for almost forty minutes. Mortimer cleaned up the malodorous green mess and comforted the thing as best he could, throwing the shutters wide to freshen the air. Far across the city, a thundering roar was followed by fire, purple flames which climbed high into the sky, and Mortimer sighed and pulled on the gas mask which hung in the window before the inevitable fumes began. The thing in his arms peeped in alarm, and he hastily closed the window.
He thought it must be a baby.
Whatever it was, it was quite helpless, and therefore might as well be a baby. Mortimer could vaguely remember the birth of both of his sons, but they were long gone now, of course.
He took the thing to bed with him, and it seemed content enough to be there, waving its limbs with a motion of willow branches in a gentle breeze.
In the morning there was an orange haze over the narrow dark streets, and Mortimer resolved to risk leaving the thing alone – he really must give it a name soon – while he collected his pension from LAW. It was meagre enough these days, but he was determined to somehow acquire some milk – perhaps it would drink milk. He would sit it in a bucket before he fed it this time, though. His rugs were ruined.
On the street, he passed only two people, one a woman with a scarred mouth, and one an elderly, hostile man, and he knew they knew him as a former LAWman, but he was fairly sure he didn’t know them – so they probably weren’t part of the crowd which had seen the creature in Unnamed Street. It was in any case unlikely that anybody would be fool enough to tell tales on a LAWman, even retired. Following the rain of the long night before, this short morning threatened to be very dry and very hot; his mask protected against the dust but nevertheless he quickened his pace. For once, he wanted to be home. The black-brick megalith of LAW before him failed to arouse the usual prickle of awe mingled with disgust; he merely hurried across the vast square, through the fifteen-foot doors and through the labyrinthine, mean little passages of grey that led to the Pensions Department, taking his tokens and thinking of nothing but milk. He knew a place where he could find it, of course.
In the café nook the bargirl, Glenda, stared at him with a face which went beyond hate into something almost serene, but she took his pittance and she gave him back white gold, losing a small fortune in the process. It was no wonder, really, that nobody was ever very pleased to see him.
The sky darkened as he was walking home, a brown gauze falling over the city, putting a hazy distance between Mortimer and the life which, he supposed, he’d helped to shape. Almost home now, but as he marched past the black mouth of a crooked alley, the mouth opened and he heard its voice, a ghastly rusty screaming which echoed down the street to mingle with the steady wuther of the winds; for a moment his palms went cold, but the unearthly screams were only a dying fox, which staggered out bloody from nose to tail, and died at his feet. In disgust he pushed it to the wall with his shoe where it could rot with the other detritus; but he failed to see there the corpse of a cat half liquid with rot, and pushed his shoe into the noisome mess before running sprightly up the stairs to see his little one.
Wild with excitement, myriad button-bright eyes blinking and sweet soft limbs flailing, the creature yipped and mewed and knocked over the cup containing the precious milk, its slit of a mouth popping like a goldfish. It took Mortimer half an hour to understand what it wanted. Half an hour later, then, he was heavily gloved with a menthol-soaked scarf about his face, gagging as he scooped the cat into a sack. Somewhere, there was a siren blaring and nearby there was the rumble of many feet running. A curtain twitched across the street and a woman with no eyes looked out. Mortimer had to look for quite a while before he realized that she wasn’t one he’d done. His memory wasn’t what it was and there had been so many. Glancing at the sky, he carried the sack at arms’ length up the narrow stairs, deciding to host the meal in the bath tub as he did so.
He couldn’t stay in the room while the creature was finally eating, the stench was too much, but he sat at his dusty kitchen table and listened to the ecstatic little cries and murmurs that only a hungry baby could make, and a wholly unfamiliar, helpless smile of tenderness creased his old mask of a face.
He cleared out the bones and rinsed the slime while the creature slept where it had fallen, distended with putrid meat, tiny iridescent lids whirling over its little bright eyes in the strange rhythm of its sleep. He let it snooze for many hours, watching and wondering what it dreamed of, before he gently woke it and told it, “Now you’re a mucky pup. Covered in that dreadful stuff, you’re a mess. Time you had a bath, ain’t it lucky you’re in the right place?”
He heated water on the stove to a gentle warmth, and with the pot in his hand they cooed at each other, happy and in harmony while he poured the water and the creature splashed, until he lathered up the soap and touched it to the creature’s skin, when it shrieked like something from hell and six razor-sharp blades of black bone shot out from sudden slits in its warm and silky sides, two of them piercing his palms.
Time ticked to a stop and there was nothing but shocked silence from them both, then Mortimer’s own scream pierced the dark and the creature was shrieking along in shriller pitch, the blade-bones shooting back inside its barrel-torso and sending another explosion of agony into Mortimer’s hands. There was a moment of darkness for Mortimer, but it was ended with dazzling light; the creature was rolling helpless at the far end of the rub, wailing in pain and distress, and the white beams on the ceiling left him in little doubt as to why. He’d hurt it. He hadn’t meant to- he truly hadn’t- but he had. Gasping in fiery pain, he reached out his bloodied hands to comfort the creature, but before he could get within a foot of it, the blades shot out again, and how it wailed!
It wailed all night!
He sat up in bed, with his bandaged hands burning on the blanket before him, cold and alone all night, while it wailed, on and on, from the bathtub.
It hadn’t meant to hurt him, he was sure of that. And yet this dark flame of anger because it wouldn’t understand that he had never meant to hurt it, either. That was not who he was any more.
One comfort was that in spite of, or much more likely because of, the endless note of pain in the ceaseless screaming, none of his neighbors alerted LAW. He imagined them lying sleepless in bed, imagining that he had come out of retirement. He had a cold hard smirk on his old face, but inside, he wanted very badly to cry.
The dawn came white and peaceful like something from a book, so impossibly calm that it shocked him. With his damaged hands like claws, he managed to scoop the wounded creature from the tub where it was finally sleeping, wrapping its wounds and cuddling it in a blanket, and taking it back to bed, where he whispered promises to it, and it whimpered in its sleep.
That evening, Peto called. Mortimer had forgotten it was their night for rum and chess. He decided to risk it and left the creature in the bedroom, snuggled up in the bed. If it woke and screamed, he could always tell Peto it was a two-token whore. It would give Peto a laugh.
It didn’t wake and Mortimer found he rather enjoyed an evening away from its soft, heart-wrenchingly vulnerable company. He smoked three large and illegal cigars, and enjoyed the game, which he won. “Fuck!” Peto had exclaimed when he saw Mortimer’s hands, “what the hell happened?”
“Burned them on the damn stove,” Mortimer said quickly, and Peto raised his immense white brows: “You had fuel? You must still be better connected than me, you old sod.”
At the back of Mortimer’s mind, though, was always the memory of those blades of black bone, and he frowned, trying to flex his fingers through the pain.
In the night, a howling began from every direction of the globe, wild and eerie, rising and falling but never ceasing; “Wild foxes and wolves and other creatures without names,” Mortimer tried to explain to the shrieking little thing, but it would not be silent until he smothered it and poked it in a practiced way where he knew that on a human the solar plexus would be, a move causing both fierce agony and temporary suffocation for the recipient. It didn’t have the same effect here, he was sure; the little thing eventually stopped shrieking when it ran out of whatever breaths it took. When he took the pillow away, its multitude of eyes were shining up at him in terror and reproach, rapidly cycling through a panic of blinks in a way that reminded him of the heaving of a chest struggling for air. It shook like a jelly. This time he did cry, terrible dry old man’s sobs, his teeth clenched in fury and his hands hovering, helpless, over the creature, trembly with remorse and baffled tenderness. By the time the great dull sun rose, they were curled up close again, both worn out.
In the five days which followed, things continued.
The creature bruised a vivid green, and keened like a baby fox in the night.
Another creature was found in The Street Whose Name has been Forgotten, some misshapen thing which bit several grey-coated bystanders and was subsequently stomped to death by two passing LAW members. (“See how lucky you were that I found you? Now I’m retired, of course?” Mortimer demanded of the little creature and, halfway through a meal of decomposing fox, it looked up peaceably and peeped in what he took for agreement.) Nobody knew where it could have come from; there were those who peered fearfully up at the skies and those who poked mistrustfully in the sewers. One evening, the cobbles of Mortimer’s own street rose all at once with a rough grinding sound, slid in a graceful ballet up to the level of the door knockers, and slowly subsided. He shook his head, the creature cradled in his arm, and pointed at this fresh atrocity. See what we’ve come to, his eyes said.
On the stairs, Mrs. HM Barnes from the ground floor (two brothers and a grandfather taken by LAW, one returned, under surveillance but no current red flags) glared at Mortimer from the corners of her red eyes, and after forty serene and unassailable years of placid torture and state-sanctioned murder, Mortimer cringed away from this sign of judgement, because he was afraid she knew what he’d done; scooped up a creature fallen or pulled from another kind of place entirely, meaning only to care for it and learn its secrets, and then burned it with his cigarette end when it threw his china cup to the floor in a tantrum.
He tried to deny this to himself, as he walked past the gibbet and its Sunday crowds; he told himself that when his sons had fled in terror from him and his wife slashed her wrists on discovering of the true nature of his work, he hadn’t turned aside or drooped in shame. So why would this be any different?
Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps only now –
He stopped, in the very center of The Glorious Square. He stopped and looked around, really looked, for the first time in … awhile. The sky was too many colors, empty and vast, ringing like a tongueless bell. Great black shadows, too big to be cast by the battered buildings alone, hovered over the deserted square. The old market stalls were still leaning up against the ancient walls, the faded covers torn by very old bullets, and rats the size of cats were squealing in battle fury, fighting in every shadow. The sirens began to sing again and Mortimer felt very old and very suddenly full of dread. The wind began to rise. It was the kind of wind that could tear your scalp from your face, your soul from your nostrils. Full of sand and dust and bones. Mortimer covered his face and tried to run.
Flung down side-streets, hurled across roads, gasping and crying, he nevertheless managed to dodge two noseless, one-legged furies who shot from an alley howling for revenge. He ran, he fell. The world fell dark, the sky black as tornadoes but not a living cloud was seen to move. The sky was cover; the sky was hiding its own deeds. Mortimer tore open the door to his building and staggered up the stone steps.
“Peep! Peep!” crowed the battered little creature on seeing him, one limb hanging in a sling, a dozen slits of light sending a dozen signals through the dark. It was glad to see him. Mortimer buried his face in his hands and drew breath to scream until his throat was raw; then his breath caught in his throat as the wind cut out in a millisecond and the world fell utterly silent.
No less dark.
Silence, and darkness, both holding their breath; both waiting. He stumbled to the window, dread now coursing through his veins, his bowel hot and weak. He tried to pull the shutters, but they were motionless; not stuck or stiff, simply being held.
Motionless. The whole world, motionless. He tore a breath into his lungs and scooped the creature into his arms; he knew that he hurt it, again, but this time it did not keen, did not howl, only its whole body vibrated like the string of a tiny viola. Its eyes were motionless, bright and green as a heart monitor. Staring up.
The blackness was total up there until a light flashed, on and off, joined by another. Like a picture he’d once seen of the aurora borealis, electric green they flashed, more and more of them. He looked down at the creature, flashing in response, humming like a wire, longing and hope pulsating from its tiny form; looked at the sky and the great eyes opening all over its vast black canvas. Mortimer understood then what had come and why it had come, and he looked again at the creature waving its limbs in loving welcome and relief, bruised and burnt and cut and terrorized. The sky was gone; something beyond comprehension in size and power was looming over the city, looking for the creature in his arms.
“But I love you,” he sobbed to the little one, “I did love you. You are all I’ve got. I didn’t mean to-”
The darkness shot without warning into the room, and he was blinded by it, suffocated and deafened. His arms went limp with blank terror, and the warmth of the creature was lifted away. He was alone. Vision returned slowly, in shades of bruise; he blinked drily up at the unknown quantity above, and there was a long, long pause while the quantity took the lost creature home, and saw what had happened to it.
A great suction and then oxygen, nitrogen whirled up in the tornado of an indrawn breath of rage. Choking, Mortimer staggered down on one knee, still staring into the neon-green whirling stars above, cold and vengeful as every human eye he’d stared into for the past forty years. Screams, sirens, howls arose from the wrecked streets and Mortimer knew that the quantity had the power and the motive to destroy every mote of this wretched city; it could end them all with a breath. He sank onto his back and his eyes fell shut and a smile of the most unbearable, blissful release creased his hard mouth. Finally. Thank God, they would finally all pay and there would be an end to this.
His trembling smile widened. He waited.
Blinking, the grey day met his furtive peep. The dust in the air was settling on his prone body, the light from the window was dirty and full of moans and yells. Above the protesting hubbub, the drone of a collection van, a loudspeaker “Go back to your homes. Stay indoors.” Mortimer stared at his own filthy yellow ceiling in blank disbelief. He inhaled. His apartment stank of rotting flesh. His bath was grimed with the unspeakable. It was cold. He was alone.
He groaned to his feet and stumbled to the window; in the street, terror and rage, business as usual. In the sky, nothing but poison and filth. Turning in a circle, Mortimer was alone. Had anything ever truly been…? Yes, there was one of its blankets, stained with its fluids; there was the china cup it had broken. Yet it was gone. Its parent was gone; they had disappeared, and taken the worst vengeance of all; they had left this world untouched, and left him to live in it.
When his sobbing was done, Mortimer climbed up to the roof. He could always go back to work. Or he could jump and break his own neck. Staring into an electric blue sunset, Mortimer considered his options, of which there were really none at all. He’d made all his choices years ago; made them wrongly, and could never make them again.
Our Mutual Friend
By Bethany Doyle
Mommy sang to me. She meant to sing only to me, but she sang to you too since you were there as well. She could sing more notes than there were stairs leading up to the fourth floor where our apartment was back when we lived in the city. This was before she bought our first house, “a house of our own, Sweetie,” she said. It was small, like a box, with only the rooms we needed. I sometimes wanted a bigger house like my friends. They had more toys and space to play, more indoor space away from the mud and slush in our front yard, my play space. Still, I liked our house. I could hear the birds sing from my window every morning and identify them by their calls, like you had taught me. Then we moved again. I did not know why then, Tobias.
Mommy and I moved a lot. There was a time when I was four when Mommy and I moved late in the night. She had me hide in a suitcase. That was the night I learned grown-ups could be scared. She told me to go in, and that she would zip me up. “Don’t make a sound,” she said. “If you do, we’ll get in big trouble.” Shortly after I was all zipped up, I heard loud angry voices climb up the stairs of our apartment. I think they broke down our door. I squeezed myself as small as I could. The suitcase was so tight, and I felt the fabric all around me. I could not see anything it was so dark. The air was stuffy, and tasted like sweat and cloth. I shuddered and tried not to squirm. I wanted to scream, but I remembered Mommy’s words, so I put my hand over my mouth and cried really quietly.
I listened and heard a man’s voice call Mommy “Paula”. I had recently learned that Mommy had another name that grownups called her: Paula. He kept asking where Genevieve was. Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve. Mommy said that she put her up for adoption, something like that. Eventually, the men left, and Mommy said I could come out of the suitcase. I gasped to breathe the air. She slumped into a chair breathing heavily. She looked like I felt when I would come crawling into her bed after a scary dream. I thought she was afraid, so I cried, and Mommy held me. We left hurriedly, scared that we would be seen since it was a full moon, but only a barn owl saw us as it flew across the sky. You told me what type of bird that was later.
Maybe that night is why I met you, Tobias. We were on a train, while Mommy and I were in the process of moving. It was the day after she had me hide in the suitcase. I think she was exhausted. I had never seen her nap before. I sat on her lap while her head fell back into the seat. Her eyes closed, and her mouth fell open. I stared at her. Her head lurched with bumps, and she never reacted. I poked her arm, surprised that she did not scold me, because it is rude to poke. Instead she continued sleeping, and I remembered being in the suitcase. I started crying again, but then I met you. You sat across from us at that moment in our compartment, calmly watching us. You were a grownup like Mommy with forest colored eyes and dark hair. I startled. You had not been there before, and I knew Mommy had locked the compartment.
“Mommy, Mommy,” I said, and like any mommy, she woke up at the sound of her child’s voice.
“What?” she groggily answered with her eyes closed.
“Look,” I said pointing at you.
“That’s the seat.” And then you were no longer there.
“Oh.” I said. “I poked you when you were sleeping.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have.”
Afraid of where the conversation could go, I changed the subject. “Mommy, who’s Genevieve.”
“Oh you heard that. I had hoped you had fallen asleep in the suitcase.”
“But who’s Genevieve?”
“Sweetie, Genevieve isn’t real. She’s someone that man wants to be real.”
“Adoption? Adoption is when you don’t have parents, so other parents become your parents.”
I did not understand how someone could be “given up for adoption” and how Mommy could have given up someone for adoption, especially somebody fake. I thought about it, and Mommy slid back into sleep on the train. Maybe grownups lived in a bigger different world than me, but I was big. I was four.
The train took us to a town where we spent the night in a house that belonged to some grownups that were older than Mommy. Their names, at least to me, were “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. Mommy called them “Mom” and “Dad”. Tobias, Mommy called them “Mom” and “Dad”. Adults had mommies and daddies too? And if Mommy had a daddy then-
“Mommy, do I have a daddy?” I asked when we had finally completed our travels and had a house of our own.
“Why do you ask, Gracie?”
“Because you have a daddy. Or do only mommies have daddies?”
“Everyone needs a mommy and a daddy to be born, so yes, you do have a daddy. He just wasn’t nice to Mommy, and I didn’t think he’d be nice to you, so I had to leave him. That’s why you don’t know him.”
“Oh. Why wasn’t he nice?”
“Sometimes people stop being nice. Now, would you like to sing a song with me?”
And so Mommy and I sang. Mommy did not like songs like “Old McDonald” so we sang “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Hey Jude”. I liked singing. Singing was fun, but the friends I made did not know the songs Mommy and I sang. You did though. You did.
When I played with other kids from church and preschool sometimes the other moms looked at my mommy strangely. Other times other moms were really really kind to us and would give us meals though Mommy said she could care for herself.
“Why do they treat us differently?” I asked you once when I caught you sitting on our old couch in the living room.
“You will know when you’re older, child,” you said. Your voice was soothing.
“But why can’t you tell me now?”
“Because it’s something you need to learn for yourself at your own time. You’re a child. I’m here to keep you that.” You crouched down. “Now do you want to tell me about the cool thing you did in preschool today?” And I did.
I wished I spent more time in our house. I went to preschool, and then later real school for big kids. I went to daycare. I had play-date after play-date after play-date with the kids whose mommies who were kind to my mommy. Mommy said that she did not spend much time at home either since she worked and worked a lot, but I did like it. I watched you follow me.
I liked school and learning. I liked to play dress-up and dolls with my playmates. I liked it when I would play outside and feel the mud beneath my feet and the sun on my arms. You told me the tree in our yard was an American Basswood. Then you told me the names of the sparrows, chickadees, and other birds that landed on it. Mommy never knew how I could name the birdies. “How do you know that’s a barn owl?” she said.
She did know how I could find and name chrysanthemums, her favorite flowers, though. That was because she taught me that instead of you. She pointed at the bright orange splotches one day and said, “See those, Grace. Those are chrysanthemums, my favorite flowers because new life can come in the fall.” I think she thought our peace would end. She had me practice packing for if we ever had to leave in an emergency.
When I was six, I got back from first grade to see Mommy sitting at the kitchen table. Normally when I got home, she took me to a friend’s house or daycare while she would go to work again. Instead she just sat at the kitchen table with her phone out in front of her. She played something on her phone. It was a voice message, a man’s voice. “I know where you are, you liar, and this time I’m taking Genevieve with me.”
Then she saw me and sighed. “Honey,” she said. “Your name is Grace Louise Colden. Never let anybody call you anything else, especially not Genevieve. We need to move now. Go pack like I told you.”
As I went to do as she said, I heard her muttering to herself, but really to the man on the phone. “Keep underestimating and warning me, you bastard, because I will always win. You might have taken everything, but you can’t take her.” She didn’t win.
I think you knew what he wanted though, for you whispered at night to me while you stroked my hair in the motel room that Mommy and I slept in, “Remember you matter, my child.”
When we got to my grandparents’ house, they treated Mommy like she treated me when she was upset. “Why did you come here?” they asked with their faces tense while Grandma grabbed Mommy’s arms. “He knows you’re here.”
“How, how, how?” she asked as she collapsed into the living room chair with her face in her hands. She looked up at them, her face paling and collapsing.
“We don’t know how. Why didn’t you cover your tracks?” Grandma said throwing her hands up.
“I did. I did everything I could, but he still found me, so I left and came here. It was the only place I could go. He had found my previous homes. How do you know he knows I’m here?”
“He called two hours before you arrived,” Grandpa said. “He said you were coming and that he was taking her with him.” Grandpa pointed at me when he said “her”. All three of the adults looked at me, like they had just noticed I was also in the room.
“Has she ever met him?” Grandma asked.
Mommy shook her head. “What did he call her?” she asked.
“Genevieve Susanna Olsen.”
“He can’t even call her by her name. He always had to have his way.” She looked back to me. “Gracie, I need you to listen to me. While we are here, you are never to leave the house unless you are holding hands with one of us. Do you understand me?”
“Do you know what that means?” I looked back to her. “It means no going outside, no playing outside, no anything out. I know it’ll be hard, but you need to stay in here, so what are you to do?”
“Stay in the house and never go outside.”
“How long will you stay here?” Grandpa asked.
“Until I can get something figured out,” Mommy replied.
“What about school for her?”
“She can miss parts of first grade. She already knows how to read.”
“Does she now?” Grandpa turned to me and pulled a small notebook out of his pocket. He scrawled a word on a blank page and showed it to me. “What does this say, Sweetie?”
“Cat,” I replied.
Grandpa wrote word after word on the sheet until he got to sentences, but those were easy too. I could read books. He wrote for me until Grandma scolded him for not helping her prepare dinner. Mommy had slumped into a chair with her face in her hands, and once again I was left unattended, so I went after you. I found you upstairs sitting on my bed.
“Are you afraid?” you said as I rushed in for a big hug. I nodded glumly. “I will be here for you.”
Mommy said she was looking for a place for us to go, but it looked like all she really did was mope. Grandma and Grandpa made a few phone calls where I heard Mommy’s and my names come up. A day or two later, two new people, a man and a woman close to Mommy’s age but maybe a little older, came to the house. The woman looked a lot like Mommy.
Right as they entered, the man bent down and said with his face very close to mine, “You must be Gracie. I’m your Uncle Luke.”
I stared at him for a moment with my mouth open while I quietly said, “Hi, Uncle Luke.”
He looked up to the woman who accompanied him and said, “See, Tracy, she really does look like Paula, and wouldn’t Lila be her age?”
The woman, who I took to be Tracy, looked to me and looked back to the man. “Yes, Lila would be her age.” She looked at me and said, “Hi Gracie, I’m your Aunt Tracy.”
“Hi Aunt Tracy.” Uncle Luke shuffled along and followed Grandma and Grandpa to the kitchen where Mommy was, but Aunt Tracy stayed.
“So, how old are you, Gracie?” she asked.
“Wow, so are you in first grade?”
“Have you learned a lot in first grade?”
“Yeah, I got better at reading and writing. I can do math, but I wish Mrs. Snow would teach us more about plants and animals, like Tobias does,” I said letting your name slip.
“And who’s Tobias?”
“Okay. I think I need to go talk to your Mommy, but I would love to talk with you later.” Then she followed Uncle Luke to the kitchen.
“Why do they need to talk to Mommy?” I asked you realizing that you had entered and put your hand on my shoulder.
“They need to decide what’s best for your safety.”
“From him. But don’t worry now. Let’s look at the birds.” You led me away to the window. You knew there was no one around to see me. We looked at the birds and flowers from the window, and watched the clouds go by. Grandma and Grandpa came over after a while and led me to the kitchen, and everyone but Mommy asked me if I wanted to go visit Uncle Luke’s and Aunt Tracy’s house.
I liked the idea, so I nodded along. Mommy did not like my response. She smashed her palms into the table and yelled, “She’s my child!”
“If she is, then why haven’t you treated her as such and gone to the police?” Grandpa asked
“Why haven’t I gone to the police? I thought I made that clear years ago. When I first threatened to take Grace, leave him, and file a police report, he promptly introduced me to his lawyer. Now he’s gotten even richer. You can’t fight against Jeff Olsen.” She had said his name, a name I later repeated to you each night before I fell asleep. The other grownups all startled and stared at my mother.
Grandma was the first to collect herself. “He’ll never follow her to your sister’s. They live in the middle of nowhere. He tracks you,” she said.
“But you’d do the same as him to me!”
“She needs a normal life,” Aunt Tracy said.
“You just want what you can’t have.”
The grownups went quiet. Aunt Tracy put her hand over her mouth resting her elbow on the table while Uncle Luke stood behind her with his hand protectively on her shoulder. They all looked at each other, and I learned at that moment that adults could cry. Mommy’s face fell into her hands while she sobbed. These were not the cries of a little kid. Aunt Tracy turned to me and said, “Let’s go pack for a vacation.”
The moment I got up the phone rang. Mommy, who was closest to it, answered it. I could tell from the sounds that it was a man’s voice, and my mother’s face twisted angrily while she listened. She could not even let him finish. “You will never fucking have my daughter!” she screamed before slamming the phone on the table.
“There’s a child here!” Uncle Luke snapped.
“I know that!” my mother snapped back.
“But clearly, after all this moping, you’re not in full acknowledgment,” Aunt Tracy replied. Then she looked at me and said, “Come Sweetie, let’s go pack your things.”
“All of them.”
Mommy watched Aunt Tracy lead me away with her eyes wide open and her mouth half closed. Aunt Tracy and I packed up all my things, neatly folding all my clothes. Aunt Tracy sang happily while we packed, but her voice was not as low and deep as Mommy’s. She also tucked me into bed that night. That was weird, but you tucked me in a second time. The next morning, I had to have a talk with Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke.
“Since you will be living with us,” Aunt Tracy said, “could Luke and I be your mommy and daddy? Can we adopt you?”
It sounded cool to have a daddy, but “I already have a Mommy,” I said.
Aunt Tracy nodded her head and raised her eyebrows at that and said, “I know. You won’t have to call me ‘Mommy’.”
“But you can’t be Grace Louise Colden anymore,” Uncle Luke added. “You need another name so people can’t find you who shouldn’t find you.”
“Does that mean I need to be Genev-”
“No! No! No!” Her shouting surprised me. “You will never be Genevieve. Don’t even say that name.” She took a deep breath. “You are just going to have a new name.” I could change my name? “Your last name will be Singer, since that’s our last name. What would you like your name to be?”
“Do I have to choose now?”
“No. You can take the whole day to choose.”
I thought for a several hours that day until I looked out the window to the autumn day outside. I saw some shrubs and color, Mommy’s favorite flowers, and I knew what my name was to be. “I have a name,” I said to Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke that evening at dinner. “Chrysanthemum.”
They both looked at each other. “Are you sure that’s what you want your name to be?” Aunt Tracy asked. I nodded while they continued looking at me questioningly. I even knew how to spell chrysanthemum.
“Do you have a middle name?” Uncle Luke asked.
I shook my head. I had not thought of one, but at that moment, I knew what I wanted it to be. “Hope,” I said. “My middle name will be Hope.” They liked that. The next few days were a blur. Phone calls were made. Something about avoiding CPS came up. Uncle Luke apparently went to a shady place and came back with a fake birth certificate where my name had always been Chrysanthemum Hope. I eventually realized that Grace Louise Colden no longer existed. Mommy watched all this happen silently from across the room.
“Give your mommy a hug,” Aunt Tracy said as we were leaving. Mommy shot Aunt Tracy an angry look. She hugged, but the hug was not as big as she usually gave.
“I’m going to take a bath,” Mommy said when I pulled away from her.
“What?” Aunt Tracy asked.”
“I’m going to take a bath,” she said louder for everyone in the house to hear.
“Well you go do that.” With that we drove away. It took about seven minutes of driving in their minivan before Aunt Tracy realized something was wrong, but it was already too late then.
“Luke turn around,” she said.
“Turn around.” Uncle Luke followed her command.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“There shouldn’t be,” she replied. There are some adults that cannot lie to children. When we got back to the house, the adults rushed in leaving me to follow in behind and forgotten. Grandma was at the bathroom door. Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke joined her.
“Joe! Joe, get over here!” I heard Grandma yell. Joe was the name other adults called Grandpa. “I need you to help me break down the door!”
“What?” Grandpa shouted. Then I heard his footsteps take off towards the bathroom. I began to feel what I felt when Mommy had hidden me in the suitcase two years prior–fear. In that instance, I felt your hand softly press against my shoulder, and I looked up and stared into your eyes.
“Is something wrong?” I asked you, knowing I could expect a response.
You knelt down so you were level with me and said turning my face away from the bathroom, “Yes, something is very wrong, but have faith. Come here.” You opened your arms, to hug me. I readily fell in. That was when the bathroom door fell down and the screaming began.
You pulled me closer, allowing me to press my face against your shoulder and smell the scent of forest that accompanied you while your soft hands went through my hair. “What’s going on?” I whispered to you.
“Someone will tell you soon.”
We heard the screaming of the adults, and we heard the same sound that my mother had emitted earlier while sitting at the table–sobbing. We heard adults weeping. We heard grief.
“What happened?” I asked you.
“I’m going to let one of them tell you, but remember that I am with you, child.”
“Call 911,” we heard Grandma say followed by the sounds of phone dialing.
“But what do we do about the girl? They could betray her to him,” we heard Grandpa say.
“Paula taught her to hide. Paula.” Sobs.
“Oh my God!” we heard Aunt Tracy shout as if she had just remembered something. There was silence, and we heard Aunt Tracy’s feet go towards me. You let go of me so I could face my aunt, but your hand remained present on my shoulder while you knelt behind me.
“Chrysanthemum,” she said as she stood in the doorway. Her face was red with crying. “Chrysanthemum.” She rushed to me and enveloped my small body in a hug. She pulled her face away, swallowed, and grasped my arms. Your hand remained on my shoulder. “Gracie,” she began again, “I’m going to tell you something hard. Your mother is dead.” Her face twisted. “Do you know what dead means?”
“It means she’s gone. She’s gone forever. She’s gone to Heaven?”
“Yes. Come here.” She pulled me into a deep hug. “Go ahead and cry, Sweetheart.” And I cried. I cried and cried, realizing that there would no longer be anyone singing “This Is the Day” to me in the morning, no larger fingernails for me to paint pink, and no one to tell me stories of a life with me when I was too young to remember.
Police officers and EMS were in our house for hours getting all the details of my mother’s death. I was told to hide in the closet in my room and not make a sound so he would not come after me. You were with me in the closet the entire time, holding me while I cried. I did disobey the instructions to be quiet once though, as you know. I looked you directly in the eyes in that dark closet and said, “Tobias, promise you’ll never leave me. Promise.”
“I promise. I promise to never leave you unless you want and need me gone.” And I was comforted.
I do not know if I slept that night. I do not know if anyone in the house did, but the next morning, we had to leave. “Are you sure it’s safe to take her to the same state as him?” Grandma asked as we left.
“He’d never think to look under his nose.” Uncle Luke said. “And besides, it’s not like we’re going to be anywhere near the city. Plenty of New Yorkers have never been to New York, if you get what I’m saying.”
That move from my grandparents’ house was my last childhood move. It was a long trip, but we made it to a small house in the middle of nowhere. It literally was the in middle of nowhere, in the woods in a mountain range called the Adirondacks. We were in a small lakeside town whose population fluctuated with the beauty of the weather in the summer, the color of the leaves in autumn, and the freshness of the snow conditions in winter. The only time it was desolate was in the spring. Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke, who wanted me to call them “Mom” and “Dad” ran a business that rented out jet-skis in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. Uncle Luke/Dad was the president of the town’s snowmobile club.
They sincerely desired for me to call them Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad. Calling Uncle Luke “Dad” came naturally enough. There had never been anyone in my life to call “Dad” before, not even you. Ever since I had played with children from other families, there had been a small desire to have someone in my life to call “Dad,” but calling Aunt Tracy “Mom” was another matter. She was not Mommy. That woman was dead. At least Aunt Tracy acknowledged it. For a while, she seemed weighed down. I could not call her “Mom,” but once when I was eight I came home from school, and she gave me a giant bear hug.
“Chrysanthemum,” she said, “I wronged your mother.” We never spoke of my mother in the open day for fear of being overheard. “And in doing that, I wronged you. I’m sorry.” She never explained more, but she was crying. An adult was crying…again.
You saw it happen. “You must call her ‘Mom’ now,” you said after that, and calling her ‘Mom’ came easier.
That small town in the Adirondacks was the perfect place for me to finish my childhood and grow up. The years went by much more peacefully than they had ever gone by when I had lived with my mother, my biological mother. We never moved from that house in the woods. The seasons came and went every year with the thick white blanket that covered the land in winter amidst days where it was too cold to go to school, the fresh musty scented wet and floral springs, the mosquito laden summers where the forests and lakes turned gold at sunset and sunrise, and the wild tumultuous autumns where the mountains turned sun colored.
This was a house of our own. This was what having a home was supposed to feel like, and it seemed that the threat that kept my mother and me on our toes during my early childhood had all but disappeared, but I knew he was still there. I kept a small suitcase always packed in my closet just in case. I awoke in the middle of the night shaking with visions of being in a suitcase and hearing the screams of my grandparents and adoptive parents in front of the bathroom door. I remembered the name no one wanted to speak as I spoke it to you every night: Jeff Olsen. I learned, as the education I garnered broadened my world, that I could keep track of him. He was not a man of low profile. His name occasionally ended up in the newspapers, and I could always find those pages torn out and in the trash. The computer taught me more, as long as the browser history was deleted. He was rich. He ran a company. He worked on Wall Street. Destroying other stock brokers seemed to be a hobby of his. He never mentioned once having a wife and daughter.
I continued to watch the seasons go by from our house, fearing the day when we would have to leave in the middle of the night. School was never a difficulty for me, and my teachers always lauded me with praise, but you were the only one who taught me about the woods I lived around, what I cared about. You were the one who went on countless hikes with me. You were the one who reached up and took hemlock needles to suck on, and dirtied your fingers digging up Indian cucumber while we both tasted the sweet white root. You were the one who stood out in thunderstorms with me to feel the pounding of the clear water drops, feel the booming of the thunder, and see the bright flashes of light up close. My teachers were surprised to find that I had no ambition of applying to any big name colleges during my senior year of high school.
I said money was the reason. It really was not like renting out jet-skis and snowmobiles made a lot of money, and that was why everyone believed it. You knew the real reason though, why I still woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, why I got anxiety in crowds, for fear of being seen, and why even the idea of going to Albany scared me. I dared not leave the isolation my aunt and uncle raised me in. I spent my first two years at the closest community college to me, determined to hide. I commuted for an hour every day to get to class. I worked a few days a week at my aunt and uncle’s business. Everyone knew that I could have applied for and received a scholarship, so everyone wanted me to do that and transfer my junior year. That was what expected of me, so I applied to transfer to a state school near Canada.
By April, it seemed that the plan was set. I knew where I would go, yet I clung to our house in the middle of the woods. I clung to the trails I hiked up. I clung to the trees and tasted the wet bark. I gazed for loons out on the lake. I put my hands in the wet mossy April dirt beneath my feet. And so, on that one weekend, I took myself up a mountain while the landscape around me hurled itself through pounding rain and burning sun. I found you in a grove. I knew you had been waiting for me, but I was not ready for what you had to say.
“You’re not going to go to Canada for college.” Thus ended any sweet soothing remarks or lecturing.
“The school still is in New York.”
“But that doesn’t change that you deliberately applied to it because it was as close to Canada as you could get.”
“You’re not going there. You need to stop hiding.”
I looked at you. I gazed at your face, my friend, still completely unchanged after all these years. I looked at you, you who never failed to care for me. The wind tousled your hair, but you left no footprints in the dirt. “You know,” I said determined not to change my plans, “most people don’t keep their imaginary friends after age six.”
You took my arm, and I felt your warm hands against my cold skin. “You’re not most people, and I’m not imaginary,” you said. You paused locking your eyes with mine. “We’re going to New York City today.”
“You heard me. You need to stop running. It’s time to end this fear.”
I felt myself pale. “I can’t…I can’t go there.”
“Mom will never forgive me.”
“My child, if she practices anything she believes in, she will. As I said, we’re going to New York, and I’ll be with you.”
I took my truck. My adoptive parents would easily believe I was going camping for a weekend. It was something I did again and again, and I had taken a tent. They had forgotten the threat that had haunted my past, as long as they never spoke the name. My hands shook as I drove south constantly looking to make sure you were still in the passenger seat.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked.
“Yes, I do.” And you did, as you directed me out of the Adirondack Park and through the highways that crossed the state as the day wore on. The wilderness that we had lived in vanished, and buildings became more and more frequent and closer and closer together as the sky grayed and darkened. I tensed and breathed more heavily. “I am with you,” you said, “and you are going to do this.” I was.
We entered the city after hours of driving, and careened through the loudest, worst, and most stimulating traffic I had ever been in. The world was now made of concrete, fake light, and noise. When we pulled into a parking spot in a parking garage, I put my hands over my face and screamed. The air did not smell of musty trees, but of burnt carbon and people. I did not hear birds in the air, but the buzz of voices, and the constant hum, honk, and screech of cars. When I stepped out of the car, I vomited on the concrete. There was so much concrete, so much concrete everywhere. You grasped my arms, looked into my eyes, and said, “Don’t fear, kid. Come on.”
You led me out of the garage, and gave me space to cover my ears when we stepped out into the crowds, flickering blinding lights, and noise. I breathed, and we continued to move on. I just looked at you while we moved. You were the only constant in the overwhelming cityscape that surrounded me. You were the only person out of the many I could not avoid bumping into who was actually with me, though you seemed to walk through the people, as they could not see you.
At one point, I realized we had stopped, and you were staring at the glass doors of a high rise in front of us. “We timed this well,” you said looking to me. “He’ll come out at any moment.” At that, while staring into the tungsten light of the building, I felt my head begin to spin and my vision grow fuzzy. I could not do this. I could not confront this man. I could not confront Jeff Olsen.
“Think of your mother,” you said to me. “Think of Paula Colden,” and I remembered the soothing contralto and the long hair I played with. I remembered the first voice I ever heard. If it had not been for that man, she would probably still be alive; however, I would not be. When that man, that man who my aunt and uncle refused to speak of, stepped out of that building, I knew what to say. I felt your hand on my shoulder as you stood behind me.
“Jeff Olsen,” I said. He must have heard people calling him all day and knew what voices to listen to and knew what to ignore, but he stopped for me. He turned. He looked, and I saw fear in his eyes when he took in my face. “You killed my mother. You drove her to her death. Paula Colden. I hope you remember that name.”
He glanced to my left, to where you were standing with your hand on my shoulder, and then back to me. “Genevieve?”
“Do you seriously think I’d answer to that?”
He looked in your direction again. Odd. He cautiously took a few steps towards me. “Why are you here?” He said that to me, but his eyes flickered back to where you were standing.
With your hand still on my shoulder, I heard you say to both his and my surprise, “Well, Jeffrey, I did say you would see me again.” I heard something in your voice that I had never heard from you before, anger.
I whirled to face you. “What?” I said as you removed your hand and turned to face that man.
“Tobias?” His face was white. “She sees you?”
“Of course she sees me. I made it that way.” You grabbed both our arms and began to lead us. “Come,” you said. “Let’s go someplace private so people don’t start thinking either of you are insane as you talk with someone invisible.”
You led us through the maze of people, flashing lights, erratic noises, and bad air. I felt myself breathe more frantically and my vision began to become spotty again, but you squeezed my hand. “Be not afraid,” you breathed into my ear, and I calmed. I looked at the man who followed, and he seemed just as placeless as I did.
“We’re at my apartment,” he said when we stopped in front of another high-rise.
“That we are,” you said. “You must let us in.” I watched as the man took a key card from his wallet and used it to let us in the building. He led us through a brilliant white lobby with a fountain and a suited doorman to an elevator lined with spotless mirrors. He inserted his key card into the slot and pressed the button that took us up to the penthouse, and the elevator zoomed up faster than I had ever cared to ascend. The silence of the building contrasted to the city outside, but it was stifling, nothing like the silence of nature. I leaned against the elevator wall, and looked at the man’s unblemished business suit. He had a leather wallet. His shoes were leather. His smartphone, which he took out of his pocket to glance at, looked brand new. I had never had any of these things. This man was my father.
The elevator ride to the 97th floor was a short one, and the doors opened directly into the foyer of the penthouse. The place looked like it was from a catalog for the most expensive furniture imaginable. The outside walls of the penthouse were made entirely of glass, leaving the apartment permanently illuminated from the lights of the city. You walked in, the most comfortable of our party. You swung your arms, turned around to face us, and said, “That elevator won’t hold you forever.”
With that, the man and I both walked out. You pulled out a chair from the dining room table and fell into it, with your elbow propped on the table. “Please, take a seat,” you said. “We have work to do.” We both obeyed. “Jeffrey,” you said, “this is your daughter. You ruined her childhood. She has been answering to the name Chrysanthemum since she was six. My child, this is your biological father. Do either of you have anything to say?” I was silent. I gazed outside through the glass. I had never been this high on a man-made structure before. It was disconcerting to know that only steel and concrete were holding me up instead of a mountain.
The man remained sitting as rigidly as a badly sculpted stone. “I never thought I’d see you again,” he said to you. “Where have you been all these years?”
“Well, I did say you’d see me again. Let’s see, I did some wandering, but I’d say I spent most of the absence raising your own daughter!” You drove your fist into the table with a loud thud.
The man looked up at you with his brows furrowed and his hands up. “Well maybe if Paula hadn’t stolen her, I would have raised her.”
“Stolen her?” You got up from your chair as you said that. “Stolen her?” Your fist collided with his face, and both he and I yelled in surprise as he fell out of his chair on to the floor. Your foot drove into his chest, and then your other foot drove into his back.
“Tobias!” I shouted. You were violent?
You stopped and looked back to me with a deep mournful expression. You turned back to him lending your soft hand. “I’m not going to kill you,” you said as he took your hand. “I would never kill my children.” The tenderness left your voice. “And when your colleagues ask about the bruises, just tell them you fell.” You paused. “Like your wife!”
He sat back down and shuddered. He turned to you and said, “What do you want from me?”
“I think you should ask her,” you said motioning to me.
“It’s not what I want from you,” I said, “it’s what you wanted, or, at least, why were you after me, and why did you stop?”
The man stared at the table for a moment. He slowly blinked, but then he rubbed his lips together and shook his head. He grimaced and kept his mouth shut. “Answer her,” you ordered.
“There was no point in going after you when Paula died.”
“Answer her first question.”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Are you sure?” you asked, “because I know.”
“Then why don’t you tell her?” You straightened up and put your palms flat on the table. He shrank back.
“Because you need to tell her yourself.”
“The last time you told me I needed to do anything, you were telling me to do something that would cost me my success in college, which led to my success in life.”
“And so you kicked me out, but did that improve your life?” He was silent. “You know, Chris Parkton is a superintendent of a competitive school district in California with two adopted children in medical school.”
“Well good for Chris. So that’s where you went in between me and her and why he suddenly wasted his potential and went into education in college.”
“Did he waste his potential?” Silence. “I know you and your friends thought he did, but he’d disagree, and since we’re talking about wasting potential here, I have a girl here who, thanks to you, we’d both agree is wasting hers.” You both looked to me.
“How?” The man asked. Did he not realize the impact he had on my life?
“I probably could’ve gotten into Harvard, you know.” He looked back up to me at that. He had gone to Harvard. “But I didn’t even apply. My high school was pathetically small. There were only twelve kids in my graduating class. I think they were off to SUNY schools or nowhere, but my teachers had other plans for me. I managed to take AP Bio and get a 5 on the exam even though my school didn’t offer it, so they naturally thought I was destined for bigger and better things. Too bad I had no plans to leave the Adirondacks. You know, shortly after I learned where you lived, I developed an irrational fear of cities and then just plain crowds. No Ivy Leagues for me. Do you know why that is?”
He looked confused and questioning. “I think all throughout my childhood, my mother had me practice hiding and being silent, but nothing compared to the real thing. When I was four, I had to hide in a suitcase while men came and broke down the door. Can you imagine the sort of impact that can have on a four-year-old? Then there were other moves in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what was going on. When I was six, my own mother committed suicide, and I had to hide in a closet while emergency services were in our house so I wouldn’t be found and brought to you. I had to change my name and do my best to erase that past life of my mother. Now I know it was all you!” I was shouting.
The man looked away from me and then back to you, but you remained impassive. He grimaced and turned back to me. “You look just like her, you know,” he said. “And you sound like her too. She was around your age when we met, though obviously, I was older. So, what do you want now, me to pay for you to go to Harvard?”
“No. Why would you think I came here for that? Although that does sound nice.” He looked puzzled. “Because that’s what you’d want,” I answered for him. I got up from my chair and shoved it back in loudly. His gaze followed me, and I looked to you. Truth to be told, I did not even know what I wanted. You had decided to bring me here. Your arms were crossed, and you were looking down. What happened to your elder child, my dear friend?
“What’s the matter with you, Tobias?” he asked. “You never looked so somber when I was a kid.”
“This isn’t how I raised you after your father died,” you replied.
“Well, why do you think I kicked you out?” He looked back to me. “Why don’t you want me to pay for your education? Look, I can give you even more than that if you want.”
I walked over to you and put my hand on your shoulder. “Don’t think you failed,” I whispered in your ear, as you would have done to me.
“I haven’t yet…child,” you whispered back. Child.
“I met Tobias on a train when I was four,” I said to him. “He comforted me in ways no one else could’ve while you were pursuing us. How did you meet him?”
“My father’s funeral when I was five.” He looked down. “He did the same…He did the same. Tobias,” he began and you looked up, “I never thought I’d see you again.”
“More than that. You stopped thinking I was even real.”
The man suddenly jumped in his seat and stared out the window. I turned and saw the tail end of a large bird flying by. “That was a barn owl flying high in New York City,” he said.
“I know,” you said. You had not even looked.
The man got up and looked around, staring out the window as if to catch another glimpse of the bird. “It’s a full moon too,” you said, “though you can rarely tell in the city.”
He walked to the window and pressed his hand against the glass. “I remember the owl moon that night.”
“You should,” you replied still not looking.
“We went a few nights after the funeral. My mom was sleeping, but you took me out in the cold to see the owl moon. Those days in the woods were the best days of my childhood. I can’t remember the last time I saw a barn owl.”
You got up to join him in staring out the window. After a while, I followed in suit. “Dawn’s coming,” he said. He recognized the time of night. We watched and waited while the sky slowly purpled. An arabesque of colors formed banishing the remnants of darkness from the sky, while a glowing red orb crept its way up from the horizon between the towers in front of us. No matter how far removed from nature the city could be, the sunrise could not be taken away. So the three of us watched it. It was a new day.
The Last Gift
By Benjamin Clement
With the last bits of shredded wrapping paper stuffed into a black plastic trash bag, I turned my attention to the ornaments on the Christmas tree. I wanted it all down, every light and every silver thread of tinsel. Tara told me to leave the tree alone. She knew what the holiday meant to us, but maybe she wanted us to pretend we could forget about it. I thought, to hell with her, and to hell with my dad for not standing his ground. Staring her in the eye, I dropped the glass ball I took from the tree. It popped on the ground into tinkling silver shards.
Tara shook her head at me and clucked her tongue. She gave Dad that stupid exasperated expression she put on any time she had to interact with me.
“Richard, clean it up and be more careful. We will take the tree down next week,” he told me. He poured another half-cup of coffee, then filled the other half with whiskey.
Tara looked ready to have a fit. I saw it creep over her thin shoulders, up her skinny neck, but then to her credit, she bit her lips and held it back. She didn’t want a fight on Christmas. Hell, she just wanted a special day as a family. She wanted that Christmas promise of smiles, thank-you hugs, sledding, and then cocoas until dinner is ready. Dad was her first marriage and it was her first Christmas with a family of her own – second-hand as it was. Whatever Christmas meant to her, to Dad and me, it was a eulogy we had to suffer every year for a month. That’s why Dad drank until the tree and wreaths and lights and holly all blurred together, and kept on until they faded completely as he passed out.
Four years ago, I used to love Christmas. I’d nest in the wrapping paper before Dad had a chance to throw it away. When I gave Mom her thank-you-hugs she smelled like peppermint cocoa. She served breakfast on the big, round coffee table in the family room, so we didn’t have to leave our presents. With everyone still in their pajamas, we ate waffles soaked to the plate in butter and warm syrup and had tall glasses of pulpy orange juice to wash it down. After we dumped our dishes in the sink, we’d head to the living room, grab a blanket, then find a comfortable place on the sofa or floor to curl up and watch a holiday movie while our food digested. I’d fall asleep twenty minutes in, warm, full, and content.
When I woke up, all the wrapping paper was gone and my presents would be waiting for me, stacked up on my bed. Jackson, my little brother, and I would play with our new toys until Mom hollered at us to make ourselves presentable for guests. Family was coming for dinner. When all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents arrived, the house would swell with laughter and excitement. Jackson and I would compare our presents with our cousins to see who had won that year. Then we would run around the house, sometimes playing games, but mostly I think we were trying to burn off the delirium and joy.
The air of the house would grow thick with the smell of food. Jackson and I would sit with the cousins, squirming at the kids’ table. Our plates would fill up with turkey and mashed potatoes all covered in gravy. Even vegetables somehow tasted good on Christmas. Then there was pie and eggnog, crammed on top of our fit-to-burst stomachs. The pile of dirty dishes everyone took turns washing never took as long as I thought it would. Everyone hugged their goodbyes. The younger cousins were carried out asleep, like rag-dolls in their parents’ arms. Dad would carry Jackson to his bed. Mom would kiss me good night. I would take one last proud look over my presents before crawling underneath my covers. The post-Christmas blues would set in as I drifted to sleep, but I’d still be smiling.
All that was gone now. All that family was on my Mom’s side. Dad didn’t invite them over anymore and never took them up on their invitations. With Mom and Jackson gone, everything felt uneven and the remnants of our family collapsed in on itself. We had buried Christmas at their funeral. December became just a cold month spent eating take-out and watching action movies. Then Tara came along and dug it back up, but it was a lifeless, zombie of a Christmas now.
His two-hour Christmas vacation over, Dad was back to work on his laptop. Tara began sucking down mimosas, trying to drown the regret of joining our broken family. Things were back to normal. It was just Wednesday again.
I swept up the broken ornament. Some of the glass got under the tree. Bending low to get at it, I noticed a red ribbon that wound itself around a gold wrapped box. It was about the same size as clothing box, but heavier than clothes. There was no tag saying who it was from and who it was for.
“There’s one more present under the tree,” I called out.
Dad grunted. He’d already given all the attention he could spare for one day. Tara leaned back in her chair to look through the kitchen doorway. She gave me a lazy smile, waving her hand in the air to say she didn’t care, and then went back to pouring champagne into her orange juice.
“Fine. I guess it’s mine,” I said to myself.
I put the present on my lap and tore the paper away from a clear, plastic box. Inside the box were nine balls, each of them was a different opaque color and about the size of a baseball. I thought they were more Christmas ornaments for Tara at first, but they were too heavy to be ornaments. I opened the box and took out the red, gooey ball. It felt sticky and squishy, like a ball of firm Jell-O, or more like the sticky, hand-shaped slapper things I used to get as a kid for two quarters out of toy machines. Fifteen was too old for toys, so I figured they were from Tara. She was clueless on everything teenager. They could’ve been some sort of game, but there were no instructions. I held the red goo-ball in my hand. An overwhelming urge to throw it against the wall came over me. It stuck with a very satisfying splat. I took out the purple goo-ball and threw it next to the red one on the wall. They both stayed stuck.
“Whatever you’re doing in there knock it off, or take it up to your room,” Dad bellowed.
“And don’t forget to take out that garbage,” Tara said.
I stood smiling off into nothing for few seconds after I pulled the goo-balls off the wall. When I tried to think of why I had started to smile, I couldn’t. It was like I had a good idea and then forgot it completely.
In my room, I dumped my presents on my bed. There was this building anticipation in my gut. There was all this energy in me. I licked my lips and took out the red ball again. I squeezed it in my hand, relishing the way it bulged between my fingers. I flung the ball against the wall with another satisfying splat and it stuck there quivering. I yanked out the other goo-balls out of the molded tray. First, I chucked Yellow and Blue against the wall, followed by Orange and Green, and then Teal and Purple, Amber, and finally Chartreuse. They stuck to the wall, wiggling a tad, but holding firm. I pulled them off one by one, and one by one, I threw them back against the wall. I kept at it until Tara came up to scream at me. She’d been calling me down to dinner. Eight hours had passed like a daydream. My shoulders ached and my arms shook with fatigue. My cheeks pinched with soreness. Apparently, I had been smiling the whole time.
Dad and Tara went to bed, and I was on my way to brush my teeth and do the same, but ended up out in the garage with the goo-balls. Hours passed. My tired eyes stung and deep yawns shook my whole body. Still, I didn’t want to stop. I only wanted to lose myself further in the peaceful repetition of throwing and pulling the goo-balls.
On one throw, the orange had stuck to the wall in a more oblong shape. Then the purple flattened against the wall in a rounded square. A thrill ran through me. Chartreuse stuck in a triangle. Amber, motionless in an octagon. Teal was a parallelogram. I went through every shape I could remember from geometry. When I couldn’t think of any more, Green hit the wall and spread into a smiley face. That gave me a cold rush of reality. I had somehow been controlling the goo-balls, deciding what shape they’d be when they hit the wall.
I threw Yellow on top of Teal, to see if it would stay there and, of course, it did. Then I threw Chartreuse followed by Red on top, and they stayed put too. I threw the rest of the balls and got them all to stick in a row straight off the wall. It was like having a dream where you realize you can fly. At first, you feel a little excited, but then it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
“Richard!” Tara shouted at the doorway with her hands pressed against her hips. “What the hell, man?”
The goo-balls fell onto the concrete floor.
“Wh-What?” I croaked, feeling disoriented like I had woken from a deep sleep.
“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Stop whatever the hell this is and go to bed.”
“I was, uh… trying out my presents,” I told her, picking up the balls and dropping them back into the tray.
“What are those things? Did your father get them for you?” Tara asked as she poked the teal goo-ball. “Are they toys?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, I guess. There wasn’t a tag or label or nothing.”
Tara’s eyebrows raised and she clucked her tongue. “Aren’t you a bit too old for toys?”
“Isn’t my dad too old for you?” I muttered.
“What did you say?” Tara said, grabbing my arm.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You know what?” She couldn’t finish. The fight went out of her and she dropped my arm. “Just go to bed.”
Back in my room, I flopped onto my bed and had the best night’s sleep in my life. The next morning I woke up with thick layers of sleep crusted in my eyes. My arms were heavy and warm. Something had changed in me; I could feel it. Something was better.
There was a week left of winter vacation, a week of being stuck in that depressing house. I spent the rainy days in my room pressing the goo-balls against the wall so they oozed between my splayed fingers, and then pulled them off, matching their wet sucking sound with my mouth. I had been at it almost nonstop for two days. When the rain let up, I couldn’t get outside fast enough.
The fields behind my house where I used to ride my bike along muddy trails were now converted into a tract housing development. Christmas had turned the place into a ghost town. Nothing was finished, but there were plenty of walls up, long stretches of flakeboard nailed to wood frames. I spent the afternoon walking between houses, throwing the goo-balls against either side and pulling them free on the way back. Out of curiosity, I stopped and stretched Red out as wide as my arms would go and tied it around a wood stud. Holding one end, I walked backward into the open field, about ten yards. It held taut the whole time, but it never pulled back. Somehow, I knew it would stretch out forever if I wanted it to.
A black R/C truck with green lightning bolt decals zipped around the corner of a house. The pitch of its electric motor rising to a shrill whine as it sped up. A boy in a blue beanie followed behind, a remote control in his hands. He looked up and me, and followed the red line that stretched all the way back to the house frame. I let go and it whipped back into a ball, stuck to the side of the beam.
“Coooool,” the boy said, staring at it with an open-mouthed smile.
He dropped the controller to the R/C in the bed of the toy truck and ran towards Red with outstretched hands. My heart pounded and cold sweat dripped from my armpits. I ran, out-of-my-mind desperate to reach it before the boy. My head throbbed, and my hands clenched into stone-tight fists, ready to hit him as he reached for Red.
“DON’T TOUCH IT,” I shouted.
The kid jumped back, staring at me wide-eyed and scared. I put myself between the kid and Red, turning my back towards him as I pulled the ball off the beam. Holding it to my chest with both hands, I hunched over and caught my breath in deep stuttering gasps.
“Jeeeez,” the boy said behind me. “I just wanted to look at it. You don’t need spaz out.”
Like a mother protecting its young, I clutched Red close to me, panting, waiting for the threat to pass. The whine of the R/C’s little electric motor started back up and faded away into the distance. I watched the boy jog away from the development, shooting me scared looks over his shoulder. When he was gone, I crept into one of the unfinished houses. I calmed myself by bouncing the goo-balls against the floor. They bounced instead of sticking because that’s what I wanted. It was only natural that they would do anything I wanted. We were starting to understand each other. I got them all bouncing in a circle, off the walls, floor, and ceiling. I stepped back and sat down watching them bounce around and around. I flung my hands out, like throwing confetti, and laughed as they went wild, bouncing off every surface in a blur of zigzagging of colors.
New Year’s came. I spent it alone in my room. I threw the teal goo-ball against the wall and it spread into the shape of nine, then an amber eight, and on down to a Chartreuse zero. Happy New Year. The goo-balls tumbled from the wall to the floor as I watched a broadcast of other people watching fireworks, and then got ready for bed.
My teeth were straighter. I noticed after spitting toothpaste out of my mouth. It was undeniable. There had always been that one front tooth that angled and overlapped the other. It wasn’t anymore. They were all white and even. I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror: I noticed I was taller too, or my posture was straighter, no… it was like I was altogether better. My unwashed hair was still long and greasy, but it was fuller now, not limp or stringy. The overbite and hooked nose were still there, but less pronounced. My shirt used to fit loose, but now it pulled at my armpits and squeezed my arms. I slipped it off over my head and looked at my bare torso. The muscles there, too, had risen under my once flabby layers and took definition. I smiled at myself in the mirror. For the first time ever, I liked what I saw.
Walking back into my room, I stepped on Yellow. It squished beneath my shoe, spilling out on the sides. When I picked my foot back up, it sprung back into a ball. I stepped back down on Yellow until it covered the bottom of my shoe and did the same with Purple. Pushing one foot across the wood floor, I leaned into the motion and slid forward. Then I pushed with my other foot and slid forward, slick and smooth. The best I had ever done on skates, roller or ice, was standing on them long enough to crash into a wall. It wasn’t like that on the goo-balls, I didn’t feel the fear of losing my footing. I felt steady, in control, and like I needed more space to move.
I put on my coat and stuffed Chartreuse and Blue into the pockets. I slid out into the hall. The blue glow of television spilled out underneath the door of Dad and Tara’s room. I moved past their bedroom quiet as a whisper. Out in the backyard, I slid over the brick patio onto the grass, hardly feeling a bump. The pebbles on the gravel path didn’t even stir as I slid to the gate. Fireworks and excited calls of ‘Happy New Year’ came from the next block, but my street was quiet and dark. No one was watching. The gate swung open and I glided out onto the street.
Summers Lane stretched long and straight in either direction. I pushed myself, pumping my legs, to see how fast I could go — would dare to go. Houses blurred by. Normally, it took me around fifteen minutes to walk to the elementary school that stood at the end of Summers Lane, but I doubt more than a few minutes of sliding had passed before its brick walls came rushing up. I must have been going at least 30 mph. The problem was, I didn’t know how to slow down, let alone stop. I was going to leave an awful stain on the side of the school if I didn’t figure it out quick. The best I could do was to turn and hope I wouldn’t go rolling across the pavement. Gritting my teeth, I leaned to the left and prepared for the fall. I didn’t fall. Instead, I made a 90-degree turn, a perfect right angle, without even feeling the inertia. Letting out a breathless laugh at the impossibility of it all, I made another quick turn down the next street. I wove between cars parked on the side of the street. On someone’s lawn, I did a figure eight between their mailbox and tree but was gone before the motion detector light flicked on.
Back on my street, I sped past my front door and headed to the housing development. I darted between and through the incomplete frames and leaped out into the fields behind them. Across the grass and dirt roads, I pushed harder, willing myself faster under the cold light of the half moon. The wind roared in my ears and made my eyes water. The winter night air bit at my face and ears. I told myself I could go faster, that I could be invincible. The goo-balls would help me do whatever I wanted.
My house was far behind me. Hell, the whole town was miles away. Everything felt far away, even that looming sadness that had been hanging on me like a wet towel. I slid to a gradual halt on the rise of a hill and stopped at the top. A dark forest stretched in front of me, the moonlit farmland I came through stretched out behind. My hand slipped into my coat pocket and wrapped around Blue, squeezing it. Soon, I thought, without knowing what soon meant. Something was happening, and building, growing or coming. Was it me? Were the goo-balls making me into something new, stronger and better? My inner voice shouted so loud I jumped — YES.
When Christmas break was over, I didn’t dread going back to school. My skin had cleared up. It was now smooth and had a healthy color. I was bigger now. Not only taller but also built with muscle. Dad said nothing of my transformation. I honestly couldn’t say if he had turned away from his laptop long enough to look me in the eye in the four years since Mom and Jackson died. Tara did notice. The straps on my backpack were tight around the shoulders. She gave me a look over when I stopped to adjust them before heading out to catch the bus.
“You must’ve hit a growth spurt,” she said.
“Guess so,” I offered with a shrug.
“Maybe this year…” Tara took a moment to gather her strength. “Maybe you can try making some friends?”
Poor Tara. Would she ever stop trying to have a normal family?
“Probably not,” I responded.
“Why?” she asked. The desperation in her voice made it high and whiny. “Why are you so against having friends?”
“I’m a junior now. It’s too late. Everybody decided I was a weirdo the first day I came to school, and I was — am. Nobody is going to change their opinions about me this late in the game.”
Tara nodded as if this made perfect sense. I don’t think she agreed with me, but she didn’t want to argue. “Then you have no reason not to focus on your grades. There’s still enough time to raise your GPA, and then you can get into a good school.”
I rubbed my thumb over the blue, yellow, and teal bracelets around my wrist. “Maybe,” I said, straightening the backpack on my shoulders as I went out the door.
Classes crawled by. Most teachers let the first day be an easy transition back into school after the break, showing quick films, or having light discussions. Most teachers except for Mr. Kakkar. The hard-ass dug deep right into chapter 5 for Algebra 2 and ran us through impossible problems with his quick, flat voice. I think in his head, the lesson was a refresher, but the class either scratched down notes as fast as they could or just leaned back in their chairs with uncomprehending faces. Normally, I would’ve been in the latter group, but everything he said was sticking. The expressions formed in my mind as he lectured. Some things he said would trip me up, and the perfect equations in my mind would get tangled. But I soon realized it wasn’t me. Mr. Kakkar was decent at math, but he was a terrible teacher. A lot of his solutions were so convoluted and imprecise, it was a wonder anyone passed his class.
“Richard,” Mr. Kakkar called to me. “I can see I’m boring you. So I can only assume you know the material. Do you care to come up and show us how to simplify the statement, expressing the answer using positive exponents?”
Mr. Kakkar crossed his arms waiting for my usual routine of apologizing and pretending to pay attention. He cocked his head to the side like a confused dog when I wrote the solution on the blackboard, and then as an afterthought wrote down my work. Mr. Kakkar thanked me, trying to blink away his shocked expression.
As the week went by the same problem came up in all my classes: I already knew everything. I finished homework in class before the teacher finished the lesson. If there was a time I didn’t fully understand a subject I’d rub my bracelets, and the answers came. The following weeks, when test scores came back perfect, more than one teacher accused me of cheating. With more confidence than I’ve ever had in my life, I asked them to prove it. They shrank back from my gaze and sent me on my way.
Before Christmas break, socializing had been impossible for me. My brain stopped working when people started conversations with me, or it went too fast, overanalyzing everything they said. But then it was like I knew what everyone wanted to hear. Suddenly I knew when to throw a joking insult to the excitable meathead or when to dole out the compliments to vain airheads. At all the right times, all the right words flowed from my mouth like cream, and everyone licked it up. The assholes that pushed me aside in the halls were stepping out of my way. The dudes who used to sneer at me like a puddle of piss gave me head nods. The girls who had cringed if I was too near were flirting with me. People who had been around me since grade school thought I was a new student. For years, these kids had thrown sharpened pencils at the back of my neck, put gum in my hair, and spit on my lunch. The fact they didn’t recognize me burned like acid in the back of my throat. I wanted to give them some of that acid. There were so many things running through my head, succinct little sentences to embarrass and tear them down in front of their friends. But my inner voice said, NO. So I swallowed back the mean words that came so easy. Making a joke of it was better. We all laughed together.
Jasper, Cory, and Terry were the few holdouts that didn’t take to my new charm. Hating me had been their passion since 7th grade. It bonded them as friends over the years.
After lunch on Friday, they came around as I was leaning against Naheed’s locker. Naheed and I were talking about meeting up over the weekend. I had successfully talked her into going on a date with me. Since grade school, my crush on her had jumped around in my stomach like a scared rabbit. I was always too shy before, but I wasn’t anymore, not with the goo-balls wrapped around my wrist like bracelets. Two weeks worth of light flirting was all it took to get her interested in hanging out with me. But along came Jasper and his cronies to try and ruin it.
“Oh great, it’s rodent mating season,” Terry said.
Jasper leaned against the lockers close behind Naheed. Too close. “Why are you slumming with this rat, Naheed? You’re better than that.”
“You’re too hot to be talking to vermin,” Terry grinned, running his eyes up and down her. “You could do so much better. You could do me.”
My fingernails dug into the palms of my balled fists, tightening at my sides. Anger welled up inside me and I was ready to fight, but my inner voice told me to WAIT.
“We could exterminate him for you,” Cory shoved me against the lockers.
“Knock it off!” Naheed yelled, slapping at Cory.
“Ooooh,” Cory threw up his hands in surrender. “Sorry, Princess Jasmine. We didn’t mean to offend.”
Terry laughed, “Are rats, like, sacred as the cows to you Indians?”
The thin little barrier that kept all my rage down in my stomach tore away. The anger burned up my throat and pushed through my clenched jaw. I thought I was going to say something, but all that came out was a low growl. My hand shot up and found Terry’s neck. His tracheae pulsed between my thumb and fingers as he swallowed. He stared me straight in the eye, never losing his smug smile.
“What are you gonna do rodent?” He hissed, sending spittle in my face as he hit the T.
My inner voice again told me to stop. The voice was so loud I dropped my hand. Jasper was on me then. He took my head and bashed it into the locker twice. He then sunk his fist into my stomach. I doubled over holding my stomach. Terry shoved me over with his foot.
“Knock it off! Leave him alone!” Naheed yelled, batting at them with her fists.
Jasper laughed and pushed her off.
“Don’t worry. We’re done with your boyfriend,” Cory said giving me one more little kick to the side, adding, “For now.”
Jasper looked around at the crowd we had drawn. A teacher wouldn’t be far behind. He stretched his mouth back into a smug smile. Patting Terry’s shoulder, he said, “C’mon dude, I gotta wash the rat germs off my hands.”
Maybe my climb into their social graces went unnoticed by my schoolmates, but there was no doubt they had seen me fall. I was sure that little display would remind them that I was an outcast. I thumbed the orange band on my wrist, thought about pulling the goo-ball over my head down to my toes and letting it swallow me.
“You okay?” Naheed asked, slipping her shaking hands beneath my arm and helping me to my feet. “I can’t believe those psychos. You want me to grab a teacher? You might need to go the nurse. We have to get a teacher. Everyone saw. We need to get them expelled.” The altercation had freaked her out more than it had hurt me.
Then we were suddenly hugging.
“I’m fine. I don’t need to hide behind a teacher.”
“I’m not saying…”
“I know. It’s just… they already embarrassed me. If I snitch, it just shows everybody that I’m weak.”
“No, it doesn’t. It stops the psychos from doing something worse to you – or someone else.”
I stood up. There were a lot of people glancing over their shoulders, whispering to their friends. But, they weren’t sneering or smiling. They actually seemed worried. I couldn’t believe it. No one was laughing at me, and I wasn’t glad for it. It hurt more than if they had. It enraged me that they weren’t pointing and snickering. Where was this concern before, when every day was a living hell for me? So now that I was one of them they cared. Before, they would’ve all took turns kicking me after Cory was done.
“You don’t have to prove anything. Not to them or me,” Naheed said, wiping the blood at the side of my mouth with her sleeve.
“I — I’ve just been taking crap from those guys for so long. I just want to put them in their place.”
Naheed pulled her hair behind her ear. ”You know when you lash out like that you’re no better than them. It would have pissed me off if you hit them back. I’m so proud you didn’t. You came out of your shell, which is so great, but I hope you didn’t do it just to become like them.”
It was a kissing moment. After we laid all that vulnerability out on the ground like filthy clothes, we were too shy to look each other in the eye, so we puckered up. There were some whoops as Naheed grabbed my head and really went for it. I hoped I didn’t look as terrified as I felt. A teacher had to split us up and send us to class. We were a steady thing for the rest of year and all through the summer. We hardly came up for air.
At the beginning of my senior year, everything had come together. Naheed and I were all-over-each-other in love. I had friends and went to parties. My grades were flawless and even the teachers were warming to me. Naheed was pressuring me to apply to the university where she was going, and it was looking like I could actually get in. Life was looking up and I think I was happy for all of a month. By October none of it was real to me. The social life I had wanted for so long had come to bore the shit out of me. All my new friends just felt like stepping-stones. Even the excitement of my relationship with Naheed had begun to fizzle. I mean, I still loved being with her and all, but I couldn’t shake the feeling there was something even better than her waiting just ahead. The perfect path I was on, I knew there was a sudden turn coming. I didn’t know where it led, but I knew I would leave everything behind for something greater.
The first week of November, Frank Wies’ parents left for Vegas. In A.P. English, Frank told me they went every year and every year he had a party. This one, he promised, would be like a Roman orgy, but with better drugs. He gave me the address to his mini-mansion up in the hills. He told me it was far enough away that the police had not once come to break it up.
Naheed dragged me to the party. I didn’t care about going, but she insisted. Nothing interested me very much anymore, except the goo-balls. They had a purpose. I had a purpose with them, but I hadn’t been able to figure out what and it was making me antsy. If not for Naheed, I would have sat in my room brooding over what that purpose was every night. At the party, I got a little out of my head. Frank pulled me into a drinking game. I was either losing or winning but too drunk to understand which. My vision got blurry and everyone looked the same. My head was spinning and my mouth flushed with drool. I excused myself and ran to a bedroom bathroom, leaving everyone laughing behind me.
When the tacos I had for lunch came out, my stomach had finally emptied all it contents. I fell back away from the toilet, still sick, but so much better. I stumbled to my feet, ready to grab Naheed and beg her to take me home. When I opened the door, Jasper, Terry, and Cory looked up from the bedside table where they were snorting blow.
They shot up to their feet, at first scared, and then angry, but then smiles eventually spread across their faces like jackals.
“Oh, shit,” Terry laughed, “Was that you in there, Rat-turd?”
“He almost filled the fucking toilet.” Cory was behind me. I hadn’t even seen him move.
Jasper stuffed the cocaine bag into his pocket. He paced around the room checking out into the hall, and then shut the door and locked it.
“Gross, Rat, you didn’t even flush,” Terry said pushing me from behind. I could have sworn he had been in front of me the moment before.
They all moved so fast around me, it started my head spinning again. They paced around me and said fast angry things, sniffing and wiping their noses. I stumbled from foot to foot trying to keep up with them.
I hadn’t realized they’d been holding me until they started pushing me back into the bathroom. They all took turns pissing in the toilet. I didn’t put together what they were doing until Jasper told me.
“Lunch time, Rat. We made your favorite,” he whispered in my ear.
They pushed me down to my knees. My limbs wouldn’t move right, they were all rubber. They flopped against the rim of the toilet as I tried to fight back.
“Eat up, Rat,” Terry growled.
The punch of urine made my nose sting a moment before my head was thrust down into the warm water. I thrashed in the sewage, but their hold on me was firm. My chest ached for air. My mouth opened on reflex, letting in the foul water. I bucked and thrust myself out of their grasp, falling back against the wall and then into the bathtub. I sat in the tub, vomiting bile on myself. They washed their hands, barking with laughter. Terry stomped his heel into my stomach, blaming me for the urine that splashed on his shoe.
When they were gone, I got the shower on. The water was frigid, but I stayed under the spray, teeth chattering until my vision cleared. I snuck out the sliding glass door and shambled into the trees behind Frank’s house. Naheed ran around the house calling my name, but I stayed hidden, shivering behind the scrub bushes. I was crouched there, motionless, watching the party from my hiding spot until Cory came out on the balcony for a smoke. He leaned over the railing and shouted at Naheed to shut up. I pulled the green goo-ball off from around my wrist. Holding a pinch between my thumb and finger, I whipped out Green like a frog’s tongue at Cory’s head, giving it a good yank when I felt it stick. I shuffled off before the screaming started.
The next morning, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. After an hour of twisting in my sheets, I realized my hangover wasn’t going to let me go back to sleep, so I took a look at my messages. There were sixteen texts from Naheed: Where did you go? — Where are you? — Are you alright? — Are you still at the party? — I’m gonna leave without you, asshole! —Answer your phone!!! — Cory Poole just fell from a balcony. He broke his arms and jaw. Totally lost a bunch of teeth. Ambulance is coming. I’m going to leave. I hope you made it home, OK. — What happened to you last night? — Are you alive? — If you’re not dead, I am breaking up with you!!!
I texted her back: Sorry got really drunk and really sick — Phone must have died — I walked home. Never doing that again! — Sucks for Cory.
The phone buzzed before I could drop it back on the nightstand. IGNORE HER, my inner voice shouted. The loudness of it surprised me. I missed the nightstand and dropped my phone on the floor. Every time it buzzed on the carpet, my head throbbed. I left it there.
I went downstairs to the kitchen. I guzzled down water and stuffed a half-frozen breakfast burrito down my throat. The food quelled my stomach enough, but my head was still throbbing.
Tara came in. “How are you feeling,” she asked. “I noticed you came stumbling in at 1:00 in the morning. You’re lucky your father didn’t catch you.”
“As if he cared.” I squinted up at her, my eyes burning in the sunlight. “Why didn’t you tell him?”
“Because, if you told him, he’d be pissed at both of us. Me for being drunk and you for bothering to tell him,” I interrupted.
She kind of crumpled in on herself and nodded. “I’m gonna leave.”
“Later,” I said over a mouth full of tortilla and frozen egg.
She stopped halfway to the stairs. “I didn’t tell him because I was happy you were at a party. I’m —I was happy you had friends. A girlfriend, even. You have turned yourself around so much with your grades and, well – just with everything. You even look happier and healthier. I thought, for a second, things were going to get better. I thought you were coming around, and maybe your Dad would see that and that he would come around too. But you were never going to let me in and neither is he.”
That was quite a blow. I knew Tara was miserable, but I thought that was just part of being in our little fractured family. I thought we had all accepted our places: an absent father, a depressed teenager, and she was the bitchy stepmom. I thought she was here because, like the rest of us, she didn’t believe there was anything better. I had fixed my social life, sort of, but never thought about repairing my family life. I knew how to do it, like I knew everything now; the words that would pull us together were rolling through my head. It started with me standing up to hug her, but my butt stayed planted on the stool, my head hung over the plate, refusing to look into her crying eyes. I wanted to. I really did. So bad my chest ached. That voice in my head, the one I thought was mine, told me, SHE DOESN’T MATTER. I didn’t believe it, but I listened anyway. I blamed the hangover.
She was gone by the time my dad got home. We didn’t talk about it. He saw her clothes were gone and didn’t even bother to ask where she was or if she said anything before she left.
“I guess you’ll be gone soon enough, too,” was all he said before walking up the stairs. He didn’t say it in a sad way like he would miss me, but more like he was grateful he would finally be alone.
By Sunday, the hangover had faded. Naheed was still sending text after text: Why are you ignoring me? – Why are you being weird? – Do you want to see a movie? – Did I do something wrong?
I texted back: Stop being so needy. I felt a flush of panic as I hit send, but it faded just as quickly as it had come. It’s not what I wanted to say, but it didn’t matter. It was time to move on. My crappy family life was all but over. Still, Naheed, my friends, school, the whole damn town was boxing me in. I needed to stretch out, do something amazing.
At school on Monday, Naheed ignored me, probably hoping I’d get the message and apologize. I never did and she didn’t stop ignoring me. It was fine, the voice in my head told me. It was better that way. She was only ever a distraction. Better things were on the way, and I didn’t need distractions.
In the two weeks before Thanksgiving, I thought any feelings I had for Naheed had dried up and withered away. All those squirmy feelings she riled up in me every time I had looked at her had been replaced by a comfortable coldness. I was pretty good at forcing myself not to think of her, and I was pretty sure she was completely over me the way I’d see her laughing with friends as we passed in the hall. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving weekend, we came out of our classes and our eyes just kind of locked. She didn’t have her friends with her this time and she wasn’t laughing. We stared at each other for a long minute before she ran crying into the bathroom. I walked into the boy’s bathroom and shut myself in a stall. The voice in my head was loud and its words callous, but it couldn’t stop the tears.
Of course, my dad and I didn’t do anything for Thanksgiving that year. There was no point in even pretending it mattered with Tara gone. In the weeks after she had left, my dad had yet to say more than a few words a day to me. I never realized how much she held our fragile relationship together. Without her, Dad was a ghost I occasionally found haunting the house before I went to bed. Since the day she moved in, I wanted her gone. She was nothing more than an annoying stranger who made bland dinners. I thought it would be better for Dad and me to heal on our own, but she was the only thing stopping up the wound Mom and Jackson left when they died. Without Tara, that wound reopened and festered. Instead of being thankful we still had each other, I guess Dad and I just reminded one another of what we had lost.
So yeah, no Thanksgiving for us. Holidays were for families, especially Thanksgiving. We ignored it like we ignored each other. Instead of a turkey dinner, I wandered through the housing development with a pizza pocket. ‘For Sale’ signs were stuck in the rolled out grass, which was still so new I could still see the cracks between the strips of sod. One block was finished, but there were two more to go with houses in varying states of completion. An early snow began to fall in big wet flakes. A truck went speeding past. The brake lights flashed and the truck skidded around the corner. Jasper drove a truck, and if it was him, I was in no mood to deal with his shit. I turned off the street and cut into a field along the backside of the house frames. The snow had turned the field into a sheet of white with patches of yellow grass waving in the wind. I wandered into a house with plywood walls to take a break from the cold. I bounced Yellow and Teal off the beams. At peace, not a thought in my head, I zoned out to their rhythmic thumping.
“Hey, asshole!” Jasper shouted, ruining my meditation.
The goo-balls dropped to the ground, sticking without a wiggle. I cursed myself for stopping in the house. I should have just kept on walking to be sure I lost him. Jasper stood in the doorway staring at me, the world turning white behind him.
“How’s Cory doing?” I asked with a humorless smile. I had heard he had casts on both arms and would be wearing dentures for the rest of his life.
“You threw something at him, didn’t you?” he asked. “I saw you down in the trees before he fell. I saw you throw something.”
“I was pretty drunk. I don’t remember a lot beyond being drowned in piss.” I stepped closer, picking up Yellow and Teal and stuffing them into the pockets of my jacket. MAKE IT GO AWAY, the voice in my head thrummed.
“I fucking know it was you, Rat-turd.” He shook his head, baring his teeth and dragging his breath through them. “I’ve been waiting to get you alone, so I can take care of this myself.”
“Fine.” Purple unwrapped itself from around my wrist and slid up my arm. Beneath the shirt I wore under my coat, it coated my chest and wrapped around my torso. “What are you gonna do about it?” I asked.
“What do you think? Fucking eye for an eye, Rat-turd. I’m going to knock your teeth out and break your arms.”
Jasper came striding forward, closing the space between us. He threw a fist at my face. I slapped it aside. He gave me a quick look of surprise before slamming his other fist into my stomach. He hollered in pain, pulling his hand back to see why it was in so much pain. His red knuckles pushed out the wrong way. His middle finger curled to the side.
“What the hell?” Jasper screamed, holding his broken hand to his stomach.
I lifted my shirt to show him the purple surface wrapped around my stomach. It had hardened like steel before he punched me, but was smooth and warm on my skin a moment later.
“What is that?” Jasper yelled.
“It’s the best toy ever,” I told him with a proud smile. I opened my hand and the purple ball unwound itself from around my waist and fell into my palm. SHOW IT MORE, the voice commanded.
I threw the goo-ball at Jasper. It splatted against his face, covering his eyes and nose. He pulled at the purple goop with his good hand but only ended getting it caught as well. The knock of his knees hitting the floor echoed through the house. Purple oozed over his ears and came together at the back of his head. It slid down his neck and over his shoulders. It closed over his feet in seconds and he was left looking like a huge, bumpy eggplant.
The snow was dumping outside. It took my attention for a moment. This nice, peaceful feeling fell over me, watching the big flakes drift down. When I looked back to Jasper, he was already gone. Only the purple goo-ball was left sitting in sawdust. I picked up the ball and held it to the dim gray light coming through the window. In the translucent purple, a few dark specks shrunk into nothing. I bounced it against the floor and walked out into the snow.
Monday morning, Mr. Maldonado, the vice-principal, pulled me out of class and walked me to the school office. There, a police officer and a detective flanked the principal, Mr. Tuft. The detective asked the questions and I gave him the answers he wanted to hear: “Yes, Jasper and his friends bullied me,” and “The last time I saw them was the night they dunked my head in a toilet bowl,” and “Yes, I hated him and wanted to hurt him,” and “No, like punch him in the face, that’s all.” The detective asked the same questions in different ways a few times before thanking me and sending me back to class.
That week the whole town came together to search for Jasper. They walked in long lines through the fields and forest out behind the housing development. We hadn’t talked in weeks, but Naheed asked me to go with her to help look. A last ditch effort to rekindle us, I think. I told her I was busy.
A lot of rumors flew around about Jasper’s disappearance. Some say he ran away. Some say he fell into a sinkhole in the woods. I imagine there were rumors about me too. I mean, I didn’t hear any whispers, but some kids at school were always turning their heads away when I caught them staring at me.
One girl who stared at me a lot, Cali, asked me to prom and I agreed to go. Usually, the voice in my head would start shouting anytime something social came up, telling me how useless it all was, but this time it said, YES.
I didn’t much like Cali or any of my friends by then. They were all the same: dumb and tragic. Everything mattered so much to them, and I just couldn’t make myself care about anything. If I’m being honest with myself, I never really liked anyone, except for Naheed. But the voice in my head started shouting otherwise every time I thought of her, so I tried not to think of her.
Tara stopped by the house the same night as prom to pick up some boxes of her stuff. Dad didn’t want to be anywhere near her, so he went out to the bars. She came in as I was staring in the bathroom mirror, working my bowtie into a hopeless knot.
“Do you need help?” She asked.
“What’s happened to you?” she asked as she pulled the knot loose.
“What? I’ve never tied one before,” I told her.
“No, I mean you’ve changed,” she said as her deft fingers pushed and pulled the red silk into loops and folds that magically became a bow.
“Growing up I guess. Happens to a lot of teenagers.” I smiled and admired the smooth knot and even loops of the bowtie perfectly situated in my black collar.
“Yeah, I guess, but you are a completely different kid. Just a year ago you were… I mean, you used to look so…”
“So much like a rat?” I finished for her.
“Hell, Richard, you never looked like a rat.” She frowned at me. “I mean, maybe you grew into your nose. And your teeth — I mean you never had braces, but now they are all straight. It’s just strange. You’re so run-of-the-mill handsome now.”
“Gee, thanks. Got any more compliments before I head out?” I sneered at her a lot harder than I meant to.
“You’re not Richard anymore.” She said searching in my eyes as if she was looking for him.
“No, I’m not, but you never liked him anyway.”
She shook her head, sad and slow. “I wanted to love you and your father so much for so long. But I was never welcome… No matter how hard I tried, it would never matter. I would never be like your dead mother.”
A flush of anger warmed my cheeks. The bands around my wrist rippled and bumped like gooseflesh against my arm. I had an image in my head of the goo-balls bouncing up and down on her, so fast, she turned into a fine red mist I could wipe off the tile with a paper towel. The voice in my head rang like church bells: GO AHEAD. SHOW IT THAT IT WAS NEVER NEEDED. YOU NEVER NEEDED IT TO HELP YOU. IT DOESN’T MATTER TO YOU.
“I’m sorry, that was mean. You don’t deserve that,” she said, wiping at the tears on her cheeks.
I wrapped my hand around my wrist. One of the goo-balls swelled up into my palm. I held it down. The voice in my head went on and on pushing me to let the goo-balls do what they were made to do, but I pushed back. Ignoring the voice pinched my thoughts and it was a struggle to get the words out. I got them out, though. They needed to be said and I had a feeling it was going to be my last chance. “No, you never were going to be a part of our lives like she was.” The bands writhed beneath my palm, eager. I squeezed them down flat. “But, we – I –should’ve welcomed you more.” The voice had stopped making words and was just thrumming. A needling pain worked behind my eyes. I had to stop for a moment. I rubbed at my eyes trying to soothe the pain. I imagine Tara thought I was wiping away tears. “We should have made you part of our lives in a different way. We are weak and sad, Dad and me, but you didn’t deserve to take all the misery we constantly dumped on you. I’m sorry for my part in it.”
She laughed. “See, not the same Richard at all.” She kissed me on the cheek and said, “You go dance with Naheed and have fun. Treat her well. She’s a good one. Don’t let her go anytime soon.”
I nodded my head, not wanting to correct her by telling her how much of an asshole I had really become. Not that I could have said anything else by that point anyways. The voice ruined that first little spot of happiness I had felt since leaving Naheed. Its violent words roiled in my brain until the needling pain in my head had become a pounding agony. Tara wrapped me up in a hug. My skin crawled at her touch. When she pulled away I couldn’t see her as a person anymore. She was fabric and flesh wrapped around a bumpy trunk with bending limbs sprouting off the sides. I was horrified by how alien it was. If she would have stayed a moment longer, I know I would have thrown a ball at her.
The headache had faded when the limo came at sunset, but it was far from gone. The limo was already filled with squirming kids. Cali was somewhere in the jungle of limbs wrapped in shiny, stretched fabric. It was only after she kissed my cheek and whispered sultry promises into my ear that I could tell her apart from the other tangles of limbs wrapped in Easter pastels. All the sweaty faces floating above the black tuxes were too similar to tell apart.
The auditorium had been turned into Van Gogh’s Starry Night done in gold and silver. As I looked over the crowd, the headache I had since leaving the house pounded in my temples. Everyone looked the same. They were all the same things, twitching and writhing together. There were so many of them. Too many. Then I thought about how many more there were all over the world, and I got a cold, dizzy feeling.
“Wow! It looks great in here!” the excited pink thing at my side said. “Jane and the homecoming committee did an awesome job, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, rubbing my cold hands over my warm cheeks.
“C’mon, let’s dance!” The pink thing grabbed my hand and pulled me to the center of the dance floor. Jostling black tuxedos and bright dresses filled with stinking, squirming grubs jerked and swung around me to the rhythm of the music.
I did my best to mimic everyone else: smile and wiggle and laugh and wiggle. I couldn’t keep it up very long. The music throbbed and swelled along with the pain in my head. The smell of perfume and sweat clogged my mouth and nostrils. I couldn’t breathe. In the flashing lights above, I watched the steam rise from their hot sweating bodies. My mouth started watering and my stomach cramped. I was going to vomit. I shouted something about getting some punch to the pink thing in front of me and slid off of the dance floor. The pink thing whined and mewled behind me, but I lost it in the crowd.
Out in the hall, I crouched down and put my head between my knees. I tried to catch my breath while rubbing the back of my neck. The end of the movie Carrie kept rolling over and over in my mind. In my version, instead of pig’s blood and fire, there were zigzagging streaks of color that swallowed up the screaming teens until everything was nice and quiet.
“Are you okay?”
I looked up and saw Naheed standing against the opposite wall with her arms crossed over her chest. She didn’t look like everything else did. She wasn’t another squirming thing. She was Naheed.
“I don’t know.”
“You look like you’re going to be sick. Are you drunk already?”
“No, It’s… something is wrong with me.” I stood up looking at my shaking hands. “I – I hate everything.”
“Oh, good. So it’s not just me you hate.” She dropped her head and shuffled her feet. Her arms wrapped around her waist.
“No, I don’t hate you. I don’t want to hate anyone. But my head keeps telling me I do.”
I took a step towards her, my hands out. Maybe if she could’ve just hugged me, the thrumming voice in my head would stop telling me to squish her into nothing. Maybe I could have took off the goo-balls writhing around my wrist and thrown them in the trash. Maybe the voice would have gone away and only one person would have died. Maybe one hug could’ve saved the world. But she put a hand up, stopping me before I got any closer.
“Huh, sounds awful. Also, sounds like Cali’s problem now.” She sneered. It was ugly. It made her look like all the other things.
“I think I need help.”
“Go drink some water and sober up. That should help.” She walked away wiping at her eyes.
I threw the orange ball where she had been standing. Orange spread over the brick wall. It took only seconds to reach the ceiling and floor. The pink thing found me in the hall. It asked what the orange stuff was, reaching out to poke it. I left it to its fate and opened the doors back to the auditorium. I threw Green and Yellow into the crowd. The pink thing’s limbs were stuck in Orange and it was squealing like a mouse caught in a glue trap. The goo slid over its head, cutting off its screams as it begged me for help. I pushed open the exit and walked out into the clear, cool night.
The black, starless sky stretched above me. The thought of emptiness struck me as a good idea. It seemed right to me. People, these ugly, grubby things in clothes, were always procreating, filling up every patch of Earth with their fleshy, wide-mouthed maggots. It was all so cluttered with their busy limbs. The time had come for purging. The Earth needed to be cleared up for something better. That was it, I realized,: that great or amazing something I knew was going to happen. The final purpose the balls were meant for – what I was meant for – to clear it all away and start over fresh. I stared up at the black vastness, and I could feel something staring back, waiting for me to get started.
Out in the parking lot, two things giggled and groped each other. The sight of it sickened me, so I walked in the other direction. I took the teal band off my wrist and threw the ball over my shoulder in their direction. The giggling stopped.
“Hey, Rat-turd,” Terry shouted from the hood of his car. I’d never mistake him for the rest of the things.
He had a bottle in one hand and a beer can in the other. His date took the bottle of booze, rolled her eyes at me and took a swig. Beside him, Cory took a drag of the cigarette he held in the fingertips sticking out of his cast. Terry cocked his head back and sucked at the beer until it was gone. He threw the can against the ground then jumped off the hood and landed on it. He stumbled as it crunched beneath his feet. Once he got close enough for me to smell it, he let out a long, rattling belch. His breath was sour. The bitterness of it pinched my nose. The corners of his mouth hung down as he stood there, swaying from side to side in front of me, silent like he was waiting for me to say something.
“I know it wazyou,” Terry slurred, jabbing his finger into my shoulder. He stumbled backward and then regained himself. “He said you threw something at Cory, and he was gonna sm-smash your face in for it.”
Terry’s date took another drink from the bottle and screamed, “Kick his asssss, Terry.”
Cory stood puffing his chest behind Terry but didn’t say anything.
“He came after you, but you got rid of him somehow. I don’t know how, but somehow.” Terry stomped back to his car and took the bottle from his date. He took two long pulls off of it and shivered, breathing through the burning booze. “Because you are a fucking rat. You spread your plague around and ruin everything. That’s why. I-I mean that’s how.”
I laughed. He was right. I was a plague.
Terry rushed forward and punched me in the mouth. “You fucking, fucking spreading your filth around. Someone has got to exterminate you. I’m the damn exterminator.”
I stumbled back. My hand came away from my mouth, bloodied. I spit some on the ground.
“There you go, spreading more germs. You can’t even help yourself, you rat fuckin’ piece of shit.”
I pulled the purple band off my wrist and held it up so he could see it reform into a ball. “He’s in here,” I told him.
“What?” Terry asked, rolling his fists, ready to hit me again.
“Jasper is in this ball.”
Another fist caught me beneath the eye. My cheek throbbed with heat. I could feel blood trickling down. I stumbled back and felt the cut on my face. Terry was damn fast when he was drunk.
Terry looked at his knuckles. Wiped them on his slacks. “Not, getting me infected. Not spreading your…”
I was done listening to his drunken rambling. I threw the purple ball against his chest, cutting him short. His hand instinctively went to it, only to be swallowed up. He started to scream something, but the purple oozed over his teeth and went down into his mouth, pulling the hand along with it. He dropped and thrashed on the ground as strands licked out over him to pull more of his body into his widening mouth.
Terry’s date screamed first, so I threw the amber goo-ball at her. It enveloped her and shrunk down to its normal size before it bounced back to my hand. Cory started running. I threw Blue against his back and it burst like a water balloon, sending him sprawling forward. It had covered him by the time he hit the ground, and then Blue gushed outward like a flood, spreading through the parking lot, covering the cars.
The windows of the school glowed orange, yellow and green. A corner of the roof fell in and Orange pulsed out into the open air. I threw Chartreuse out into the road. It spread like a wave of slime, holding cars in place as they slid screeching into it. I threw Red far into the air and watched it spread out as big as the Football field it fell on. The lights and bleachers cracked and screamed beneath its weight. A rush of air blew over me when it landed on the grass. I threw the rest, one after another, as far as I could, and I could throw so far.
In the morning, when everything was cleared away, I was filled with the proud sense of accomplishment. The voice in my head purred to me with praises of a job well done. It assured me that the small twinges of guilt I had about Dad, Tara, and Naheed being gone were the last ties to my former pointless existence. Cutting them away freed me to do the great mission laid out before me. The whole town was gone and I didn’t have to be sorry for a speck of it. No, I had a purpose and I couldn’t worry about the faces that were already fading from my mind. What I was sorry for was that I had started before the sun rose. I wished I could have seen my town covered in all that color. There was so little of it left by morning. Still, with the rest of world waiting out there, it was no big loss.
By Mandi Jourdan
I never imagined myself getting involved in this war. I’d planned to throw myself into my political career after I finished with school and steer clear of my people’s conflict with the volucri, but of course, I hadn’t anticipated falling for Septima.
We’ve been acquainted since childhood, as our parents ran in the same social circles. I remember chasing her up the stairs while our parents sat at the dining room table discussing business, or maybe how humanity should’ve had a tighter claim to Electra than the bird-men known as the volucri and how these beasts wanted us all dead to reclaim the land they’d had to themselves before our people arrived. I remember eyeing with awe how meticulously pristine she kept her toys while mine had suffered breaks and scuffs from overuse. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so careful and still manage to play.
Then one evening, she tripped over a model spaceship I’d left lying on the floor and tried to steady herself by grabbing onto one of her shelves, and the impact sent one of her delicate porcelain figurines–We can’t play with those, she’d said, they’re too fragile–crashing onto the hardwood. I should’ve known from the size her eyes swelled to that something horrible was going to come of this, but I tried to calm her, to tell her that her parents would understand that it had been an accident. I ran down the hall in search of a broom to sweep the mess away, but I froze outside her door on my way back at the boom of her father’s voice from within, sliding back to flatten myself against the wall and avoid being seen.
“Stupid girl! Do you enjoy breaking things or are you just incapable of paying attention?”
I’d never heard the air go silent after a hand smacked flesh, and it wasn’t until her father had gone and I hurried into the room, broom in-hand and heart thudding like a bird’s wings against my ribs, that I understood that was what had happened when I took in the tears streaming down Septima’s cheeks and the scarlet imprint of a hand on her pale face.
It was in my third year at the Electran Arts Academy–her second–that I realized I was completely in love with her. I was running late to class already, but I paused to hold the ladder that had started to sway as she descended from hanging a poster for the upcoming dance, bits of glitter flecking her face and her smile unwavering even as the ladder wobbled. She beamed at me.
“It’s all coming together, Leo. I’ve been going crazy trying to get everything organized–we’ve gone through three different catering companies, but I think this one will work. I can’t wait for you to see all of it.”
She’d found a way to give herself some form of control over her life–she’d thrown herself into the dance preparations completely and given her whole self to them, and gods, I almost didn’t recognize her. I’d never seen her so happy, and I’d never realized how beautiful she looked when she smiled, even with her makeup smeared from sweating and her nose peppered with glitter. I realized then that I’d hardly ever seen her smile since our playdates had decreased in frequency after her father and mine had disagreed about something I couldn’t recall, and I knew I wanted to see this expression much more often. She deserved happiness, and I planned to make sure she had it.
“I can’t wait to see,” I told her. “Are you going with anyone?” She shook her head, and before I had time to second-guess the impulse, I blurted, “Want to go with me?”
Her smile brightened, and I knew I was trapped by my need to keep it in place, but I didn’t mind. If she was happy, I would be.
“I’d love to,” she said, and her blush mingled with the gold of the glitter.
Though we’d known each other for so long, I was still somewhat surprised that she agreed. I had no idea at the time that I would become so entrapped within the war effort, but my plan to ascend to the Electran Senate wasn’t something I bothered to hide, and I feared someone who disliked conflict as much as Septima would find little appeal in moving anywhere near the cutthroat world of politics. When I finally managed to ask her to dinner, however, my hands trembling behind my back as I walked her home from school the week after I’d spent the entirety of the dance unwilling to let her leave my arms, she just smiled her crooked smile and asked “What took you so long?”
I’ve always considered myself to be strong. She’s the only one who’s ever managed to bring out the cracks in my armor.
A few months ago, I was in the middle of a debate with one of my enemies in the Senate when a thunderstorm started to rock the building, and I let the man believe he’d won the argument so that I could rush home, where I found Septima exactly where I knew she’d be–curled in a ball on our bed, her hands pressed to her ears as she muttered that the storm would pass. The other Senator went on to brag about my concession, and I couldn’t find it within myself to care, despite how embarrassed I should’ve been, because at least I’d gotten home in time to hold my wife through the worst bouts of thunder.
Storms and her father are the only things I’ve ever known her to fear. I, on the other hand, have always been deathly afraid of the volucri.
The day the volucri bombed our high school, we’d been together for less than a month. I followed the masses out onto the lawn and immediately began to scan the area for her. For what couldn’t have been more than five minutes but felt like the sum of several lifetimes, I had no idea whether she’d escaped, and I’d just shoved my way through a group of teachers in my charge back toward the crackling, smoking building when I felt her hand on my arm. I can’t recall a time before or since that I’ve felt such indescribable relief, like I’d finally reached shelter after being stranded in a hurricane.
“You’re all right,” I breathed, pulling her close.
“I’m fine, Leo,” she assured me, tears shining in her eyes. A glance at her hands told me otherwise; her skin was covered in deep cuts and scrapes, blood caking her pale flesh. I reached for her wrist to lift it gently and examine her injuries, my brow furrowed. Septima sighed. “A few people were trapped under rubble. I couldn’t just leave them.”
“You could’ve been hurt. Badly. Or–”
“But I wasn’t,” she snapped. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t have helped them?”
“Of course I would’ve, but…” I paused, attempting to determine the best way to phrase my disagreement. Yes, I would’ve done the same. Yes, I knew she’d done the right thing. But the idea that she’d been in danger charged through my mind like a livid hornet, leaving my thoughts a jumbled, buzzing mess. I could handle danger, but the thought of losing her… “You could’ve been hurt,” I said again, lamely.
She stared at me for a long moment, and then her face softened and she wound her arms around me. “I’m okay,” she said.
But I wasn’t about to allow any harm to come to her again while I was breathing.
I missed our third date to volunteer for a covert group led by Lieutenant Commander Moore. He called it the Human Liberation Army, and at the time, I believed liberation was truly the goal. I thought we’d finally be fighting the volucri in the open. I thought there would be a full-on war and then this would end. I didn’t realize then that I’d signed up to become a shadow in the night, gaining information by force and disposing of those who could offer no further assistance.
Now, a little more than a year into our marriage, I’ve admitted exactly where I’ve been going after the Senate adjourns and before I stumble in covered in injuries worse than those she sustained in the bombing–a broken clavicle, a few shattered ribs, my finger cut to the bone.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have told her I’ve killed. It was a weak moment, admittedly, but I had to tell someone, to unburden myself, and she’s the only one I trust.
“How could you do this?” she demands, her fists clenched so tightly her arms tremble and shake her shoulders violently. “How could you agree to help him with something so–so insane? This isn’t you, Leo. This isn’t the man I married.” Her lips are pressed into so tight a line they’ve started to drain of color.
“Septa…” I reach out for her shoulder, but she draws it back so quickly I flinch. I let out a frustrated cry, throwing up my hands in surrender. “Don’t you get it? This is all for you!”
“For me?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, scowling. “That’s–”
“It’s true,” I say through gritted teeth, my fingernails biting into my palms. This time, I’ve come back with my chest aching, and I’m afraid another rib is broken, but I ignore it, for now. I need to focus on Septima. “For you and the family we’ve always wanted. Do you think I feel safe in a world where the volucri could wipe us out at any second? Do you think I want to bring our children into that world? If I can stop the volucri before they have the chance, then–”
She laughs shortly and turns away, toward the wall. “Oh, so you’re perfectly fine with throwing yourself into the line of fire. How the hell am I supposed to sleep, knowing you’re out there risking your life?”
I sigh and lay my hand on her arm, and she doesn’t pull back, though she still doesn’t look at me. “I can only sleep,” I tell her, “because I know that if I’m doing this, you won’t have to.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she says, and though her tone is hard, I catch sight of a tear sliding down her cheek. “You want to protect our future, but at what cost? I’d never have asked you to go this far.”
“I… haven’t scared you away, have I?” My heart thuds against my ribs, and I’m not sure I can bear the answer. I can’t begin to imagine my life without her.
She’s still for a moment, and then she lays her hand over mine on her arm. There’s pain in her eyes, and I hate myself for causing it. “Someone has to help fix you when you come back like this,” she says. “You’re an idiot if you think I’d let it be anyone else.”
The Last Hope of a Hopeless Nation
By Jasper Sanchez
In the halcyon days of that final fall, when you worried in the abstract about the havoc Alistair Gilby might wreak on the off chance he were elected, you never thought about the silence. Nuclear winter, of course. The cold and the dying of a withering world, but in those nightmares you imagined a death rattle alongside every war cry. Sonic booms and siren shrieks. Even the patter of acid rain on rooftops. You never imagined it would be like this–only the whisper of snowfall, the crackle of fire, and the wheezing rattle in your own failing lungs.
You’re not cut out for the silence any more than you are the solitude. Before, before, you always had your headphones on. At your desk, on the metro, in your bed. As you worked and as you slept. You grew up in a world of earbuds and smartphones; you were addicted to the cadence of other people’s battle songs. Music was your constant lullaby in a dangerous world.
To say nothing of the human element, the riot of noise and love that made you feel so alive. Henry’s off-key humming and Hannah’s offbeat laughter. Hell, even talentless buskers and aggressive drivers. You were a city boy, through and through–raised in San Francisco, came of age in New Haven, lived in DC ever since–all you knew was noise.
Now the whole world’s a silent graveyard, and you’ll never be out of mourning.
So when they come for you with helicopters that beat the snow bank like egg whites, you’re sure the apocalypse they promised all those years ago has finally arrived–the one that you told yourself, in the darkest hours of the night, would have been a blessing. Maybe you’ve lived this long as penance, to see the price of your cowardice, and now this clamor that could fracture the firmament itself is here to call you to your reckoning. Not the trumpets they promised, but the endless roar of rotors calling you to meet your fate.
You leave your tea kettle whistling on your wood-burning stove, stalling only to jam your feet into shredded scuffed galoshes and drape an old hunting coat over your shoulders. You’re dressed in threadbare flannel pajamas, but there’s nothing you can do about that now.
Outside, the helicopter has landed, and half a dozen men and women dressed in fatigues disembark. They’re armed to the teeth, bandoliers and automatics over their shoulders, as if they’re stepping into an active warzone.
The woman who steps forward to meet you, where you’re guarding your hearth as if it’s still worth something, is taller than you are. She’s thin but not emaciated, not like most of the earth’s ailing population. Her faded auburn hair is done up in a tight bun, her skin like crepe paper. Age is difficult to guess–everyone tolerated the radiation differently–but you’d guess sixty, if you had to. The truth is you wouldn’t know her from a common foot soldier if it weren’t for the four stars embroidered in metallic gold thread at her collar. That, and the unequivocal note of command in her voice when she calls your name. “Arden Chang-Haas?”
“What’s left of him,” you wheeze, then cough into your fist. It’s been months since you last used your voice, and now you fear your larynx is just another instrument in disrepair.
“Your country needs you, Mr. Haas.”
“It’s Chang-Haas, and I didn’t think I had a country anymore.”
“What’s left of it, then,” she smiles. “See, I believe you’re operating under the false assumption that you have a choice.” She snaps her gloved fingers, and her goons level rusted assault rifles at your chest.
Warily, you consider your options. An open grave here is no different than what you had come to expect in a handful of months. Whatever she’s offering, it’s something other than dying alone at your in-laws’ lake house. You don’t dare assume it’s a chance to atone, but Henry would have wanted you to try. “All right.” You raise your hands in mock surrender. “What do you want?”
“Get your things. We leave in ten.” She waits for you to turn away before she calls out, “Oh, and Mr. Chang-Haas? You won’t be coming back.”
Ten minutes to pack up a life you’ve already lost. What relics do you have left?
So you throw your tattered clothes into a duffel bag, and you rifle through the piles of ephemera on your desk. So many memories like sand through an hourglass, sifting through your fingers until they’re lost. In the end, you save only a stack of photos with curling edges and your set of crumpled journals. All you have left of your family and the stories you wrote to them, after they were gone. The words you used, in vain, to fill the silence, as futile as raindrops sieging a dam.
By the time you join the general aboard the battered helicopter, only five minutes have passed.
Noise-canceling headphones damp the screech of the tin dragon. Strapped between a cold bulkhead and a silent soldier, you watch the Blue Ridge Mountains recede to lumps of sugar on the disappearing horizon.
You fly for hours, sunrise chasing at your tail, and you stare through the porthole at the ruins of the country below.
It’s all alike. Amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and the fruited plain leveled to a barren wasteland. A frontier gone white with ash and snow.
They tell you later that the bunker where you land is under the desert of New Mexico, but truth be told, there’s no way you could tell the difference.
The General sends you off to the dorms after you land. Tells you to rest up because there’s a briefing at 0900.
Soldiers lead you to a double room no larger than a prison cell and just as sterile. They shove you in and lock the door behind you.
There’s a woman in the far bed, curled away from the door, weeping rivers into her pillow. As desperate as you are for human contact, you don’t have it in you to disturb her.
You choose to believe what’s left of the army has evolved enough to arrange gender-neutral housing, rather than default to the mislabeled F on your birth certificate. For a brief shining moment, when there was a Camelot, you were a man in the eyes of the law, until Alistair Gilby rolled back every law and statute on transgender rights. Took away your personhood—your manhood, to be exact— with a swish of his Mont Blanc. Thought that would be enough to strip you of your manhood, too, as if your masculinity were as fragile as his, but yours was forged in fire–tested, tempered, shatterproof.
You clean up with icy water in the en suite bathroom before you lie down on the your egg carton mattress of the empty bed. Remove your boots, but you don’t bother with anything else. Stare up at the mottled concrete ceiling, looking for constellations in the fault lines.
You don’t sleep.
At the briefing, an aide-de-camp arranges you and a dozen other civilians around a conference table like dolls at a tea party.
Presidencies usually age their presidents, but Gilby was preserved in amber, rendered immune through an uncanny marriage of bioengineering and modern medicine. His presidency aged the rest of you. Everyone here is gray and haggard, every face a topography of canyons and drought-cracked deserts.
Unlikely heroes for this, the last resistance. Or so you assume.
At the head of the table sits the woman who pulled you from your home. General Constance Fletcher, you learned. Lesser generals perch like prized birds at her side. She stares you down with her steely blues and informs you, “The thirteen of you are the last hope of a hopeless nation.”
The yarn she spins, the twine between such unlikely suspects as a pastry chef, a zookeeper, and a journalist, is something out of this world. The kind of story your editor never would have published, even if you’d had a four-star general as an anonymous source. But, this world hasn’t been itself in twenty-two years, so maybe–maybe time travel is no more surprising than fascist dystopia was all those years ago.
Fletcher talks about lynchpins and pivot points. Fulcrums and levers. People who had–who have–the power to change history. “If we send the right person back, we can prevent the War from ever happening,” she says. “Reverse nuclear winter before it starts.”
“And you think that’s one of us?” your roommate asks with a stiff lower lip. Her warm brown skin glows under the fluorescent lights.
“According to our calculations, Ms. Amador, all of you have the potential to rewrite the past.”
You feel sick, a swarm of locusts in your stomach, because you know what they want you to do. What you should have done, all those years ago.
Just like you know why there are only thirteen of you assembled at this table, and why you’re such an odd fellow bunch. Everyone else–every other pivot point, every citizen who resisted, every person who had any real power then–is dead. All killed by Gilby’s secret police.
Like you would have been, if you’d done then what they want you to do now.
That afternoon, you sit across from Fletcher under the glare of halogen lamps. The far wall is a lustrous mirror. Your own reflection stares back at you, ragged beard and scraggly hair, but you blink past it.
One-way glass. No doubt Fletcher’s cronies are listening from the other side.
You know an interrogation when you see one.
“Do you understand what we’re asking of you, Mr. Chang-Haas?”
“Go back in time. Kill Hitler. Stop the war. I think I’ve seen that movie.”
“This isn’t a joke, Mr. Chang-Haas. The future of the free world is at stake, here.”
“I think you mean the past.”
“I mean your husband’s life, and your daughter’s.”
“My daughter wouldn’t have had a life, if I’d published. Gilby would have had me killed a year before Hannah was even born.”
Fletcher scoffs. “Supposition. A coward’s escape hatch on a sinking ship.”
“Supposition?” You seethe. “Do you remember how many journalists they killed? How many accidents and disappearances went uninvestigated? Because I do. I watched my friends, my colleagues, the best investigative writers I knew, die.” The most courageous journalists of an era buried in empty coffins under platitudinous headstones.
“But the tip you threw away, Mr. Chang-Haas, had the power to destroy Alistair Gilby, once and for all. You had proof of an impeachable offense. If you’d published, Congress would have removed him from office. The FBI could have put you in protective custody. You’d have been safe, if that’s all you cared about.”
“You don’t know that, not for a fact.” You debated all of this twenty-two years ago. You agonized over your pro and con lists, and all you found was doubt. Your life depended on the good graces of the country’s most corrupt politicians–men who proved, again and again, that they’d rather kneel before Gilby’s iron fist than fight for anyone.
But then again, so did you. You gave up your reputation as a hard-hitting political correspondent and became the kind of journalist who wrote puff pieces about the First Lady’s dresses–sugar-spun confections, empty calories for polite consumption–while the whole world burned.
“Do you know, Mr. Chang-Haas, what sets you apart from the other men and women we’ve assembled here?” Wan lips drawn thin, Fletcher sneers, “You knew. The rest of them didn’t realize what power they had, but you? A journalist with one of the most prestigious papers in the country. A scandal that threatened to crack the very pillars of our democracy. The story of the century fell into your lap, and you threw it away. You threw it away knowing damn well what could happen.”
You did. You knew, you did. You sink in your chair, like the spineless jellyfish Fletcher thinks you are under the force of her scrutiny.
Fletcher leans forward, her palms flat against the table. “Can you really tell me you’re prepared to make that same mistake twice?”
“What do they want you to do?” Esperanza Amador whispers in the artificial silence of your dorm that night. Over the course of an hour, the two of you lie in your respective beds, tracking the ceiling with hooded eyes, exchanging sob stories, the only currency you have left. Your voices never break a furtive whisper, an unavoidable habit of living in a panopticon for too many years.
She is the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who watched Gilby deport her entire family when she was only seventeen. She got a job as a pastry chef at an upscale bakery in Georgetown, made a life for herself, but she was alone.
You tell her about your life as a second-generation Chinese-American trans man, about your Black Jewish firefighter-turned-soldier husband, and about your brilliant daughter, who wanted to be a journalist, like you, and would have lit the world on fire if only she’d had the chance.
“They want me to poison him,” Esperanza admits into the forgiving dark.
“They want me to tell the truth,” you confess in kind.
Even in the dark, you mark the furrow of her brow. Not a fair exchange, in her mind. Her life, forfeit, and yours? Redacted question marks in goldenrod files. “Would it have been so bad?”
“I thought it would, at the time.”
“Worse than this?”
The room is silent but for the whir of recirculating air and the shudder of your breathing.
While Esperanza sleeps, you huddle on the cold linoleum of the bathroom, and with numb fingers, you shuffle through the photos you brought with you. Your eyes have adapted to the dark, but even so, you can barely make out the shape of faces you used to know better than your own.
You stare and stare at a dark-skinned man in his dress blues, who holds a toddler in a red gingham dress at his hip. He wears a slick-billed cap over his buzz cut; she has his freckles and his button nose, along with a gap-toothed smile and curls for days. There are other photos, photos of the three of you, or you and Henry years earlier, or you and Hannah years later, but it’s this that nares your attention. The last photo of him, home on leave from the Middle East before they sent him to the Balkans. And the last of her without a ghost in her eyes of the father she lost.
You smooth your fingertips over the ink. Trace their faces like you used to. Like you can’t, ever again.
You made a choice. You lived, and the whole world died, including the two people who made it a place worth living. All you have left is the silence and the guilt that eats away at you like moths in a darkened closet.
You were so afraid, then, of what Gilby could take from you. What you didn’t understand was how easy you made it. You clung so tight, you squeezed the life out of the very thing you were trying to protect.
You don’t know what you were expecting, but it wasn’t this. Not a DeLorean or a TARDIS. Not the Guardian of Forever. Just a high-backed wooden chair with restraints on the armrests.
“You’re sure this isn’t just a glorified electric chair?”
“Would it make a difference?” Fletcher asks as you sit.
Her aide-de-camp straps you in with a clinical touch. Cool leather chafes your wrists. Fletcher looms over you.
“What does it feel like?” you ask her. “Will it hurt?”
“You won’t feel anything at all.”
A needle sinks into your skin as they hook you up to an intravenous drip. Clear, viscous fluids from two sacks, a paralytic and a sedative, seep into your welcoming vein.
Fletcher lowers a perforated metal helmet over your head, occluding your vision.
You shut your eyes. Breathe in deep. If this works, you’ll see Henry again; if it doesn’t, well, you were a dead man, anyway, and not just because of the cancer rotting you from the inside out. You wrote your own death sentence the day you said no. Everything else has just been solitary confinement on death row.
“Good luck, Mr. Chang-Haas,” Fletcher croons in your ear. “You’ll need it.”
Music. Roaring organs and a driving beat. Beyoncé, your alarm and wakeup call.
The power ballad jolts you to consciousness. All at once, sensory overload, a million forgotten sensations. A warm comforter draped over you, a solid body at your back, and music, honest-to-god music in your ears.
“Morning.” A greeting mouthed against your skin. An invocation. A voice, Henry’s voice, and god, oh god–
“What day is it?” Your own voice, rough with sleep, rather than radiation poisoning.
“Very funny,” Henry laughs, a warm rumble that tumbles from his diaphragm. “You’ve been counting down and marking off days on the bathroom calendar for a year and a half. The first Tuesday following a Monday in November….”
Which means they sent you back early. To election day. You’re sure they meant it as a gift but you can’t see this as anything other than cruelty wrapped in a barbed wire bow. To remind you what you had, what you lost, what you’re fated to lose all over again.
Now Henry’s kissing your back, your shoulder, the nape of your neck, and it’s so much, too much, every fuse in your body short-circuiting all at once.
“Sorry,” you breathe, “sorry,” and extract yourself from his embrace.
So you run to the bathroom and brace your arms on the counter. Lose a staring contest with your reflection.
What you see is a body shaped and sculpted and chiseled by testosterone, only just beginning to go soft again. For you, for the molting body you left behind, it’s been fifteen years since your last T shot, since you last felt at peace in your own skin. Hormone replacement therapy was just another casualty of the war that killed the world. Now you’re twenty-seven again, in the prime of your life. Unblemished skin and a full head of hair. Bare-chested, your top surgery scars are still red, clearer than they’ve been in years.
Your knees give out and you spill into a puddle on the cold tile floor. That dam you built inside yourself finally gives out, collapses under the pressure of a tidal wave of feeling. And you cry and cry in a way you haven’t in months, not since the day Hannah died.
You didn’t think this was possible. Part of you still doesn’t; your rational brain’s still searching for any other explanation–dream, hallucination, afterlife–but this feels so real. The tile stamping one-inch indentations into your kneecaps, the phlegm clogging your sinuses, the ache where your heart is supposed to be.
Now that you’re here, now that you’ve heard Henry, felt his warmth against your lonely skin, all you want is to beg forgiveness. Tell him you’re sorry you weren’t stronger.
“Arden?” Henry calls through the door, concern a claxon in his voice. “You okay in there?”
“I’m fine.” You know your voice is ragged, worn as thin as the clothes you wore yesterday, the fabric of your lie just as fragile. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
You scrub your face with a washcloth until the rest of it is as red as the rims of your eyes. You blow your nose, and you breathe and breathe until you’re sure you can face him without crumbling.
So you open the door, and you look at Henry Charles Haas for the first time in seventeen years. Your
husband fiancé. Smiling at you with dusky lips and pellucid hazel eyes. Dressed only in boxers and a Henley.
Memories cascade through you like running water. Henry in a tux, under cherry blossoms, sliding a gold band on your ring finger. Henry holding your hand in a hospital room as you pushed and pushed until Hannah’s first cry pierced the air. Henry pushing Hannah on a rope swing under the willow tree at the lake house. And you remember the call, remember the words
killed in action that stopped your heart.
Except none of that has happened yet. None of that will ever happen if you complete your mission. Casualties of the road less traveled.
Henry’s not smiling anymore. He’s right in front of you, his hand arching up to cup your cheek, and you can’t help it, it’s been so long, your eyes flutter shut. “Arden,” he murmurs, half caress and half reproach, “you’re scaring me.”
You force your eyes open. Twist your lips into a sketch of a smile. Pour humor into your voice like seasoning. “Sorry, just had a minor panic attack thinking about the possibility of Alistair Gilby winning tonight.”
“Heaven forbid,” Henry laughs, limpid as a lake in summer, as he tilts your face up and endeavors to kiss your worries away.
Henry never thought Gilby stood a chance. He scoffed when your colleagues projected that Gilby had a one-in-six-shot at the presidency. After all, Gilby was a third-party candidate, no matter how popular he might have been, he shouldn’t have had a viable path to victory. Still, you told Henry that you still bring an umbrella when there’s a fifteen percent chance of rain, but he just laughed. Maybe you do, Arden.
You didn’t really think he’d win, either, but that didn’t stop you from worrying about it. From writing out against him, every chance you had. He even called you out at a press conference, once, a few weeks before the election. Called you a liar and a slur you’d rather not repeat. Questioned your citizenship, too. You could laugh about it, then, because he didn’t have any power. You thought, if you wrote clear and hard about the clear and present danger he presented to the nation, it would be enough.
It should have been enough.
You don’t bother voting. You did, the first time, of course you did. Wore your I VOTED sticker like a Medal of Freedom. Thought, one day, you’d tell your child about the day you voted for the first Muslim president.
Today, you don’t want to puzzle out whether voting twice on account of temporal displacement counts as voter fraud, and you know your vote won’t count either way. It didn’t count the first time, and you’re no Sisyphus. There’s no point waiting in hour-long lines to push a single boulder up a hill when you know how the story ends–with the boulder careening down the hill and crashing into your face.
Instead, you go to work. You sit in your cubicle at The Post, and you shed smiles on people whose funerals you attended. Don your over-ear headphones and blast percussive pop songs you used to hate. Stare at the documents you left open on your laptop but don’t type a single word. Glance up at the flat screens, where pundits on every major news network spell infinite variations on it can’t happen here.
You leave at four o’clock, hours before the first polls close.
The first time around, you spent election night at work, of course you did. It was your job; elections are journalists’ Super Bowl, or maybe their Thunderdome. So you spent the night in your cubicle, biting back tears over a cup of instant noodles, and knocking back shots of your editor’s bottom drawer scotch in your tea-stained coffee mug.
This time, you go home. You go home to your Logan Circle apartment to spend the last night before the start of the end of the world with your
Let this first point of divergence be yours.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” says Henry when you come home with enough Chinese takeout to outlast a hurricane.
“Are you complaining?”
“Not at all.” Then Henry’s wrapping his arms around you, hugging you tight even though your raincoat is slick with dew and you haven’t had a chance to set down your bags. He buries his face in your sopping wet hair and breathes in the petrichor-sweet scent of you, as if he can’t quite believe you’re real.
“What was that for?” you ask when it’s over.
“You came home.” He smiles, as if it’s that simple.
You don’t remember how you ever lived without this.
One by one, red and blue states alike turn yellow. The screen flickers like a faulty Etch A Sketch. Sure things change colors like a game of Manhunt, the one Hannah used to play with her friends. The same pundits you watched earlier sputter in disbelief, their commentary as mercurial as the sprinklers on Capitol Hill. The twin candles Henry lit burn down to stumps as the Electoral College sways and tips, a tree listing before it falls, and Henry’s arm turns to timber around your shoulders.
“Unbelievable,” he mutters, alongside a train of expletives you’d rather not repeat. You missed this, the first time, missed the flash boil of his anger and the unadulterated fear in his eyes. You remember only the next morning, when you came home in wrinkled shirtsleeves, two ships crossing paths for mere moments before he went to work, and he reassured you with not-quite-stoic surety that everything was going to be all right.
This time, he fetches two beers, Sam Adams, from the kitchen. He hands you yours without comment, but seldom raises his to his lips. He cradles the sweating bottle in laced hands and worries the water-logged label with his thumbnail until it crumbles, flake by flake.
When they make the call and anoint Gilby President-Elect with polite smiles and staid praises, citing the largest electoral margin in thirty years, Henry plants one last wet kiss on your cheek before he goes to bed in disgust.
He leaves you alone on your mid-century modern sofa, and you crumble, too.
You feel weepy all over again, a leaky faucet in disrepair. Maybe it’s because knowing how the story ends doesn’t make a plot twist any more believable on a second read-through. Or maybe it’s because this body is off T for the first time in five years, just starting fertility treatments so you and Henry can make a family together. So you can make Hannah. Your brilliant daughter, who laughed as easily as rain in winter, who loved like an oncoming freight train. Who grew up reading history books filled with screenshots, tweets that started wars, snaps that brought down empires. Who died at nineteen, with jelly bean tumors riddling her malnourished form. Last fall, you were too weak to give her the burial she deserved, so you hauled her lifeless body out to the willow tree with the rope swing. You left her under a white sheet, the only shroud you could find, and left her to the embrace of the cold, cold snow.
The television bathes you in pale blue light, every teardrop a prism, and you sit and sag while the world somehow keeps on turning.
It snows the day Alistair Gilby is inaugurated, powdered sugar sifted over the National Mall. Under a black umbrella, he takes the oath, so help him God.
The army marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in full regalia during the inaugural parade, and the White House summarily blacklists anyone, journalist or politician, who objects.
Later, examined through the blood-stained looking glass of two long decades, it will seem obvious to you that Alistair Gilby did not suddenly take hostage an unwilling nation, as it seemed to you then. Election fraud notwithstanding, his candidacy awoke the murky things that lurked far beneath the surface, along the black of the ocean floor. The eels and anglerfish were always there, but he roused them with the scent of blood. Made mainstream the darkest undercurrents of American ideology, ideas as old as they were ugly.
Which meant the carnage Alistair Gilby wrought did not happen overnight.
However, in the moment, it did feel instantaneous, as if fascism rose as easily as raising a flag at dawn. You awoke one morning to a traitor’s colors uttering over the nation you called home. And when you told yourself, in those first few days, that you would scale any and every flagpole to tear down his banners, you really, truly believed it.
The call comes just as you remember it, thirteen days after the inauguration. Unknown number, digitized voice, impossible to trace. All they give you is a time and an address and an abrupt hang up.
Already, Gilby has closed the nation’s borders and threatened enemies and allies alike with force, all while schilling his xenophobic policies as patriotism of the highest order. Already, police and national guardsmen patrol the streets in riot gear.
Nothing has changed except you. Your war-torn consciousness in a body at its prime. Afflicted with phantom aches and a psychosomatic cough. You are the only variable.
The first time you got the call, your jackrabbit heart beat with as much excitement as trepidation. You saw intrigue and political espionage, glossy and glamorous as a Hollywood spy thriller; you didn’t understand, yet, how much it would cost.
Now, your phone slips from your sweating palm as dread seeps into you like saltwater through the cracked hull of a sinking ship.
The location for the meet is the same as before, a hipster burger joint on the Hill, the kind of greasy spoon that dirties up clean cutlery to give it character, full of bargain-suited interns and tourists in American flag ponchos.
You choose the closest table to the kitchen, the farthest from the windows so you have a view of the whole room and perpendicular to the door so that neither of you will have your back to it. You made different choices the first time, and your contact was twitchy the whole time, her hand never straying from her holster beneath the table. Last time, you also ate the chef’s special burger with the kitschy Americana name, but today, your stomach’s too turbulent for anything solid. So you sip your vanilla malt, and you wait.
Then comes the woman who has haunted your nightmares for the past twenty-two years and sits down across from you with a veggie burger and sweet potato fries. She’s lean, lithe, and butch, in her utility jacket and buzz fade, her skin a deep umber, a few shades darker than Henry’s.
You know as much about her as she knows about you, but you can’t let her know that. Swallow your malt, instead, and ask her, “Are you the one who called me?” When she doesn’t answer right away, tell her, “I’m Arden Chang, but I think you already know that.”
“You have quite the reputation, Mr. Chang.”
“And the death threats to prove it,” you parry. “How do I know you’re someone I can trust?”
Wright flashes her FBI badge quick. You don’t spare it so much as a glance, but you did the first time. Stole a momentary glimpse of her name. Looked her up, later, using The Post’s databases. Special Agent Kristen Wright, a preacher’s daughter. Served three tours in Afghanistan before she went to Quantico, where she graduated first in her class. You read everything you could about her because you wanted to understand; you needed to know what made her brave.
You never did figure it out.
So Wright tells you, in hushed and coded phrases, about the FBI’s investigation into a private security firm’s tampering with voting machines in two dozen states. She implies, just this side of plausible deniability, that Gilby’s campaign worked with that private security firm, and she suspects that Gilby himself knew. When you ask her why she’s telling you this, she says she has hard evidence of an impeachable offense, but the FBI won’t break Gilby’s gag order. She’s a whistleblower, and she needs you to be her megaphone.
But you already knew that. Just like you know, the first time around, she died two months after you turned her down.
“Are you interested?”
You go to the Capitol Visitor Center, after. You’re only two blocks away, and it’s been so many years. So you go and take a guided tour. Stand in the rotunda with a hundred tourists. Stare up at the murals. Remember that the introductory video called this room, where the country’s most honored dead lie in state, the temple of your democracy, as if democracy were a religion that promised eternal salvation.
And you pray.
You’ve never been a religious man.
That Friday, you spend Shabbat at Henry’s parents’ brownstone in Alexandria. His whole family lives and works along the Beltway. His father teaches ethics at GW, and his mother works for the ACLU. His oldest sister clerks for a liberal Supreme Court justice, another lobbies against tobacco, and the youngest studies literature at Georgetown.
Henry holds you tight against him through the prayers, and you break challah with your in-laws for what might be the last time.
You’re quiet during the meal, considering the merits of parables and poetry as you listen to anecdotes and reminiscences. You muster benign pleasantries when they ask you about wedding planning, and you hope they don’t see right through you.
The Haas clan doesn’t, but Henry does. As he drives back into the city on a dark road illuminated only by the distant bulbs of taillights, he steals sideways glances at you while you keep your gaze fixed on the horizon.
For weeks he’s been nagging you to stop by the tailor, the baker, the florist. Preparations for a wedding you won’t live to see. But you remember everything you chose the first time around–white tux, raspberry mousse, cherry blossoms laced with peonies–your dream wedding, on the banks of the Tidal Basin. It was easy, then, because you said no. Threw yourself into wedding planning so you wouldn’t have to think about the guilt. Now, since your meeting with Wright, you can barely bring yourself to go through the motions of normalcy, and you’re drowning in another kind of guilt.
You haven’t told him. You can’t tell him.
“Would you tell me,” murmurs Henry, “if something were wrong?”
The whole world’s gone wrong, you don’t tell him. “I’m scared,” you admit. In a story with such a clear-cut antagonist, you don’t think it gives anything away to admit you’re scared of Gilby. As a gay trans man of color, you’d be crazy not to be.
He’s itching to reach out, but he keeps his hands on the wheel. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he swears.
And your eyes slam shut because you know where that promise leads.
He holds you all through the night, and you don’t sleep a wink. You lie on your side, the heat of him curled around you like a question mark, as you ask yourself, again and again, what the hell you’re doing.
Filter pros and cons through a fine mesh sieve as you watch night shadows flicker across your bedroom wall. Pro: you save the world, maybe. Con: you die, probably. How’s that for a cost-benefit analysis?
At dinner Henry’s sister talked about her favorite poems and poets, of futures lost as irretrievably as tennis balls at twilight and wastelands razed in the shadows of valleys of stars. You almost asked her about Frost, but you restrained yourself. In her professional opinion, what the hell is the point of two roads diverging in a wood if they both have the same destination? Why choose one over the other when both converge on your vanishing point? Why walk down either when neither has a happy ending?
Two lives, and neither has a happy ending. In one, you live long and alone, guilt fermenting in you like grapes in a wooden cask. In the other, you’re a tragic hero, at best, and at worst? Nothing changes. There’s no guarantee publishing the article will motivate corrupt congressmen to introduce articles of impeachment. No guarantee Gilby won’t blacklist everyone at The Post to punish you before he kills you. No guarantee he won’t still kill the world just to prove he can.
It’s a zero-sum game, and either way, you lose.
You lose Henry. You lose Hannah.
You lose every last inch of the life you fought so hard to build for yourself.
You meet with Wright eight times over the next three weeks. Always in public, always a different location. The last time, you pick the place.
An upscale bakery in Georgetown, all done up in frills and pink lace like a pampered poodle.
Wright reads a draft of the article you might not have the courage to publish. It’s a hard copy, typed on a rusty typewriter, the only way to keep it safe from all-seeing, surveilling eyes.
As she proofs her own story, you nibble at a maple bacon cupcake and try to think about anything but the hieroglyphs she etches in red ink along the margins. Think about the cupcake, instead. Remember you’ll have to brush your teeth before you go home because Henry keeps kosher and won’t kiss you with pork on your breath. Now think about kissing Henry. Think about his rough hands on your skin. Think about the weight of his arms around you. Think about the hickory taste–
Think about the wedding you won’t have. The daughter you won’t conceive. The life you won’t share.
The cupcake is a sticky, cloying thing in your stomach.
“What does your editor think?” asks Wright, just in time to distract you.
“He doesn’t, yet.”
Her gaze shutters. “I see.”
Lie. Lie quickly and convincingly, and don’t ever let her see your doubt. “I wanted your opinion, first. To make sure I got it right.”
That appeases her, but she still leaves in a hurry. Leaves you with your marked-up draft and your stomachache and your doubt, churning in you like butter.
At the counter, you ask the cashier, if, by chance, Esperanza Amador is in.
Moments later, a girl in a chef’s jacket comes out to greet you. Flour dusts her warm brown skin. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m Arden,” you say. “Arden Chang-Haas.”
She smiles at you with polite incomprehension. “Did you order something?”
Lie again. Easily, as if it costs you nothing. After all, you’re getting so good at it. “Yes, sorry, I was wondering if you did custom wedding cakes.”
She’s young. She’s so young. Reminds you of Hannah, with her easy smiles and unconscious naivety. An ingénue, so out of place in a story like this.
The Esperanza you roomed with in New Mexico was kind but hard, glazed and brittle like the surface of a crème brûlée. This isn’t her.
Fletcher must have sent her to a different, later point in the timeline.
Or maybe the choices you’ve made–all the divergences you’ve hoarded so selfishly–have already irrevocably severed this timeline from the original. Maybe your mistakes have made it impossible for them to send anyone else because you’ve erased the future from whence you came, winked it out like so many stars at twilight.
In which case the entire future of humanity hinges on you and you alone.
In bed, in the dark, you’re brave enough to ask Henry the question you’ve wanted to ask him for weeks. “If you knew there was something you could do that would save lives, even if it meant sacrificing everything you held dear, would you do it?”
He says yes before the ink of your question mark is dry.
Stupid question. Henry runs into burning buildings. He suits up in futuristic gear like the superheroes in all your favorite comics. And he enlisted. As soon as he decided Gilby’s extracurricular military activities jeopardized homeland security, he said it was his civic duty as an able-bodied, red-blooded American to fight to defend it. To defend you, his sisters, the elderly woman and her yowling cat who live in the apartment above you. He died for a war he didn’t believe in because that’s the kind of person he is. Heroism, stitched into his skin, the very fabric of who he is.
It’s ironic, because everyone used to tell you you were so brave. For being trans, for coming out, for transitioning. Every step you took toward living as the person you already were, people told you that you were brave. Family, friends, strangers the moment after they clocked you. But it wasn’t bravery; it was a survival tactic.
You’ve always been good at doing what you had to, to survive.
Even when you shouldn’t.
He turns to you, his eyes catching the glint of the streetlight like matches. “What’s this about, Arden?”
Search for a lie and come up short. Tell the truth–about the story, not the time travel. Talk him down from his fears while downplaying your own. Say impeachment and protective custody as if they’re sure things rather than pipe dreams.
So you rest your head on his shoulder for what might be the last time, and you let him hold you as if you’re about to disappear.
“Are you sure?” your editor asks you the next morning.
Dev Chandrasekhar is a Hindu man, devout when it suits him and judiciously agnostic when it doesn’t, who told you, once, the news was like the universe, endlessly destroyed and recreated, the same old stories eternally reincarnated as stars birthed in nebulas formed from the ashes of their ancestors. No news, he told you, is ever really new, but he dared you to prove him wrong.
You think of Hannah, seven years old when she found a box of back copies of The Post in your closet, telling you so earnestly that she wanted to grow up to be just like you.
You want to be the kind of man your daughter would be proud of, even if she never lives to see it.
Set your hands flat on his desk to stop the shaking. Tell him, “Yes,” you’re sure.
Hannah Charlotte Chang-Haas is born in spring.
By David J. Gibbs
It was a shit gig and Carson knew it, but it couldn’t be helped. It seemed that no one was interested in hiring someone in their eighties nowadays. Never mind that he still had all of his faculties and was fit as a fiddle. Granted, maybe it was a fiddle with just three strings, but that was two more than most. It also didn’t seem to matter that he wasn’t talking to himself, drooling the hours away in some home or that he could hold a conversation for more than ten seconds without having to check a smart phone.
Carson heard Derrick, his boss, coming in downstairs. A few moments later, he heard the footfalls on the steps and knew the weasel would be making an appearance any moment, and the peace and quiet would be shattered.
“Knock, knock,” Derrick said, “Daddy’s home.”
He said the same joke every night and it was as tired and worn out as the man’s god awful hair piece. He looked ridiculous and couldn’t help but be an asshole. After all, the kid was young enough to be his great grandson and born during the first Clinton administration for Chrissakes. What the hell could he possibly know?
“How are things going for you this fine evening Carson?”
Honestly, he was tired, dead tired, but he wasn’t about to tell the idiot that. He didn’t sleep much at all anymore, no matter what he tried. The clock would tick the hours by one by one and he’d still be awake staring at the ceiling. If he happened to nod off, it didn’t last long, things whispering and reaching.
“They’re going, just like they always are. I’m still here farting dust and you’re still showing up every night smelling it. You know, I think sometimes you just show up to work to see if I’m dead in this chair.”
That seemed to fluster Derrick.
“That’s not true at all. I fully expect you to outlive all of us here Carson. Do you ever take a day off?”
“I did for about a decade when I retired, but it didn’t take. I had to find something to do or I’d lose my crackers. Besides, I’m not one for sleeping much these days.”
His grandmother once told him when he was a little boy that she didn’t sleep much either. When he spent nights at her house, she’d pace all night, her slippers shuffling along the hardwood floors. She told him it was because all the people on the other side were constantly scratching at the door and it was wearing thin. Sometimes, she’d said, you could hear them whisper too, which is why she played music most of the time. When it was too quiet those voices were clearer.
Carson wasn’t sure if he believed her or not, but he knew his grandmother was bat-shit crazy toward the end. He sure hoped he didn’t go out like that. It wasn’t like he was hearing voices or anything, but those things his grandmother told him still lingered at the back of his mind.
He didn’t answer, not wanting to tempt the things from his dreams. It was bad enough they didn’t stay put and surprised him from time to time, lurking in the cellar or whispering to him on the phone.
“No, no, nothing like that. Don’t have much need for dreaming at my age. Nobody does. I’ve already seen it all and done it all.”
“That it is.”
“Seems like there’s probably a thing or two you haven’t done yet. I mean in this great wide world where anything is possible, there are always things coming you didn’t even think of.”
“You don’t say?” Carson asked, making sure his keys were secure at his belt, not really paying all that much attention to Derrick.
“Well, yeah, I mean what about sky diving?”
“Shut up. Really?”
“Yeah, except when I jumped out of planes people were shooting at me, you know, in the war. After that, how much fun can just jumping out of an airplane be?”
Derrick was quiet, just staring at him, an odd expression on his face. Carson took that as his cue.
“Going to make the rounds.”
“Sounds good Carson. When you get back I’m going to go out for some coffee. We’re out.”
He didn’t answer, just saluted to indicate he understood. Standing up, having to wait a moment for the dizziness to pass, just like he always did, Carson picked up his flashlight and stepped out of the control booth on the second floor. Shutting the door, the sound echoing throughout the art museum, Carson walked down the hallway to the main display room.
It didn’t matter how old he was, Carson didn’t like wandering through the place when it was completely dark. Maybe it was from watching too many Twilight Zones or reading too many Weird Tales comics as a kid, but something about it made him a little uneasy. The shadows sometimes seemed a little thicker than they should be in certain places. It made him wonder if something was crouched there salivating at the thought of sucking on his bones.
Why did he do that to himself? Now, he’d probably not be able to sleep at all with that thought bouncing around in his head. Wonderful.
Turning on his flashlight, he directed the beam into the corner behind a marble bust of an artist whose name he couldn’t pronounce. His dusty heart lurched awkwardly for a beat or two as a section of darkness leapt away and seemed to vaporize into other shadows around him.
The beam cut through the darkness as he looked for the movement, but he never found it again. He had to wait a few moments to get his breathing under control, hating that he was old. It was just a damned shadow for crying out loud.
“Carson, this is Derrick, over.”
The static of his radio broke through the darkness in a squawk of sound, his heart skipping a beat.
Wouldn’t that be perfect? Death by static.
The walkie-talkie was another thing he hated about the job. Why did that idiot need to say it was Derrick? Who else would be radioing him? He always had to add his name at the end of the transmission as if there was someone else here in the building using the walkie-talkies.
“What’s up Derrick?”
“Please use proper protocol, over.”
Dear God, take me now.
“Sure thing,” Carson said, pausing while counting to three, knowing it was driving Derrick nuts on the other end, before adding, “Over.”
Derrick cleared his throat, obviously irritated before saying, “One of the sensors in the main gallery tripped. What’s your location? Over.”
“I’m just getting ready to enter the main gallery, over.”
“You see anything up there? Over.”
Didn’t the idiot think that if he did, he’d call down to him? It wasn’t like anything ever happened while they were on rounds. They didn’t have invaluable pieces of art in the museum, if anything they had all the leftover crap that no other gallery wanted.
“Maybe it’s another mouse.”
He almost told Derrick to use proper protocol, but decided he just wanted to finish his rounds so he could go pop a squat at his desk and relax.
“Could be, I guess. Nothing’s been getting into the food in the office though. I’ll keep my eyes peeled. Over.”
“Roger that. Over.” Derrick said, as he crunched a mouthful of what Carson guessed were Frito’s.
“Over and out,” Carson said, sliding the walkie back into the holster on his belt, wondering what he did wrong in a past life to be saddled with Derrick every night.
Despite his misgivings about his boss, he knew he had a job to do. He stood still a moment and listened. Sounds always seemed to stretch out and get lost in the big rooms, but he listened anyway. Not hearing anything, Carson walked into the main gallery, his footfalls echoing. The ceiling somewhere high above him was lost in the darkness, the massive tapestry always a little unsettling.
“Catherine, how are you this evening?” Carson asked, without bothering to look above him. He knew she was there.
The plaque beneath it read ‘Foster and Melnyx battle below Catherine.’ It showed a warrior climbing across a jumble of uneven rocks, with rats at his heels, rising to fight the slithering creature crawling ahead of him. Above them was the beautiful Catherine, a princess, gazing across the vast rolling hills of her kingdom, oblivious to what was happening below her. When the early morning sun moved through the room and Catherine’s face caught the light, he thought she resembled his beautiful late wife Doreen.
At night, however, he didn’t like to look, because the faces sometimes became twisted with shadow and the eyes seemed to linger on him a bit longer than he liked.
Twenty minutes later, he walked into the guard booth, putting his flashlight on the desk and sitting down.
“So, no mouse?”
He shook his head.
Carson shrugged, hands on the armrests of his chair. He needed a nap.
“I hope we don’t need to have the system recalibrated. I filled out the incident report already and logged it.”
Opening his thermos, Carson poured a cup of tea and sipped it.
“Carson, you okay if I go make that coffee run?”
Nodding, he said, “Sure.”
Carson rubbed his temples and closed his eyes as he heard Derrick leave the guard booth. Carson suspected that it wasn’t just coffee Derrick was going to go get, but he kept those thoughts to himself. He caught bits of quiet conversation while Derrick was on the phone in the booth and he sometimes caught a whiff of cheap smelling perfume. It wasn’t any of his business and honestly he didn’t care. There was a time when he was just as careless and selfish as Derrick was.
A beep sounded from the console in front of him and he opened his eyes. Another sensor tripped. It was from the main gallery room. He flipped a couple of switches and a picture jumped on the screen in front of him. Adjusting his glasses across the bridge of his nose, Carson tried to figure out what could’ve tripped the sensor. The picture was so grainy, he could hardly tell the difference between the bust sculpture and the floor, but he did think something was moving across the floor.
“What the hell,” he said aloud and almost scared himself with the sound of his own voice.
He adjusted the contrast a bit, flashing back to a time when he had done the same thing on an ancient black and white Zenith so he could watch the ballgame when he was a kid.
The floor became clearer on the monitor and it was obvious that things were moving on the floor. Frowning, he messed with the knobs again and realized Derrick was right. They did have a mouse, or more correctly, mice, dozens of them moving across the floor.
He looked around to see if Derrick was coming back yet, but he was nowhere in sight. Carson stood up a little too fast, his vision graying out a bit, making him stumble into the edge of the console, the usual wave of dizziness taking him by surprise.
“Dammit!” Carson yelled, more at himself than anything else.
He grabbed the flashlight and wandered out of the office, heading toward the main gallery. Shining the beam into the gallery, he didn’t see anything moving across the floor. He blinked, wondering if he’d somehow scared them away. Maybe they’d heard him approaching.
But, there were so many. Where’d they go?
He opened the panel just outside the gallery’s entrance and flipped on the lights, the large room exploding with light. He blinked against it, squinting, looking for the mice, but he didn’t see any.
He stepped into the room and, after making sure there were no mice, Carson looked up at the tapestry and his breath caught in his throat. Catherine was looking at him now instead of out across her kingdom. She looked even more like Doreen from this angle. His heart felt like it was being squeezed, the sensations moving through him so strange.
Carson thought Foster looked as if he were closer to the beast, his sword now raised above his head ready to strike instead of at his side. What held his attention though was below Foster, scurrying over the rocks. It was the wave of rats. They didn’t seem to be racing toward Foster, but instead, away from him toward the bottom of the tapestry.
He immediately thought about Aunt Meg and wondered if the walls of his brain had finally softened enough that they were collapsing, folding ever inward. Carson looked at his hands and flexed his fingers, waiting for them to turn into a flipper or something equally strange.
The sharp yelp of static from his radio made his heart skip.
“Carson what are you doing down there?”
Taking a deep breath, trying to get himself together, he took his walkie-talkie out.
“Thought I saw something on the monitor and came down to check it out. There’s nothing here though.”
“Sensor trip again?”
He didn’t answer, hand on his hip, walkie held loosely in his hand.
“I’ll be down in a sec.”
He didn’t bother to answer, slipping the walkie-talkie into the holster and sat down on one of the artsy-fartsy looking benches that were far too small to hold up more than one person’s butt at a time. Carson could still feel Catherine’s eyes on him. He didn’t dare look up at her.
Derrick came into the main gallery.
“You’re okay, right?”
He looked at him like he was crazy.
“Sorry,” Derrick said, catching Carson’s frown.
“I’m fine. I saw something on the monitor and came down to check, like I already told you.”
“Okay, don’t get worked up about it.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“You all but asked me what I thought I saw, not what I saw. There’s a world of difference between those two things.”
“So, tell me what the monitor showed.”
Carson looked up at the rats in the tapestry.
“Do you see anything wrong with the tapestry?” He pointed to Foster and Catherine.
“Other than Catherine needs a little less clothes?”
Derrick’s smile disappeared in the wake of Carson’s glare.
“Carson, come on, man I’m trying to lighten the mood here.”
“So, you don’t see anything different?”
He knew there was no coming back from what he was about to say. Derrick would either think he was nuts or drunk, but he didn’t have a choice.
“Anything different about the way they’re posed or what’s in the tapestry.”
“Different? I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“Do you see the rats toward the bottom edge, beneath Foster’s feet?”
“And Catherine is looking at us?” Carson asked, without bothering to look up at the tapestry.
“Right, she is.”
“The rats weren’t there, they were running toward Foster’s legs, and she used to look out over her kingdom.”
“Kingdom?” Derrick asked, laughing uneasily.
“Do you remember that or not?”
“What are you talking about? Of course not. I never look at the crap hanging on the walls. All this dumb art crap is boring.”
“I think you should come back to the office and sit down awhile.”
“Because I’m older than dirt and might crumble to pieces?”
“No, no, I just think maybe you should let me take the next couple of rounds, okay?”
In all the time he’d worked there, Derrick had never offered to do that.
Must have him spooked.
The shadows seemed to be whispering to him, but he didn’t want to listen. They would only make things worse. Once inside the guard booth, Carson sat down heavily in his chair. He ran a hand across the crown of his head a few times before putting the flashlight down on the console.
Maybe there was a reason nobody hired people his age.
“Do you think it’s a sensor acting up? We haven’t had any go bad in a while,” Derrick said.
Carson didn’t want to tell him what he really thought was going on.
“I don’t know maybe.”
“What did you see on the monitor?”
“There were things moving on the floor.”
Derrick put his feet on the floor and went to the monitor, cueing up the main gallery feed.
Looking at the Monitor, he could feel Derrick watching him intently. The grainy picture did look like things were moving across the floor, but it wasn’t as defined as it had been earlier.
“Sort of. I know the monitor’s a piece of crap, but I saw things moving around. It was clearer than that picture.”
Derrick looked between Carson and the monitor. He didn’t say anything and didn’t have to. Carson knew the score.
“I’m going to make my rounds. I have fresh coffee over there in the bag if you want any.”
Derrick left the booth a few moments later, leaving Carson alone with his thoughts. He closed his eyes, not wanting to look at the monitor, but eventually he had to. The tapestry was wavering back and forth and as he watched, he could see the rats dropping from it to the ground in a steady drip and then scurry across the floor.
He picked up the walkie-talkie and then thought better of it. Standing up, he waited for the dizziness to pass and then walked back to the main gallery.
Throat dry, and heart skipping a little too quickly inside his chest, he came to the entry archway for the gallery. He stopped before going inside, Foster no longer driving his sword into the creature, instead lying dead on the rocks with what looked to be dozens of bite marks across his exposed skin.
“Catherine, what is going on?”
He forced himself to look at her and it was Doreen, he was sure of it. It was no longer just her likeness, but really her in the regal gown standing on the balcony. She pointed to the other side of the room, her mouth open to try and warn him.
When he looked, the rats swarmed toward him. He stumbled and bumped into the bench, losing his balance for a moment. They still closed on him, ravenous. Carson reached for one of the display cases, but missed and fell hard to the floor under the tapestry.
The rats swarmed over his body and began nipping. He tried desperately to fight them off, hitting a few with his flashlight, calling out for Derrick, but it was no use. They gnawed away at his skin and began to burrow deeper.
Closing his eyes, his struggles growing weaker, he suddenly wished for nothing but to be in Doreen’s arms again, feeling her next to him. He longed for her whisper, for her warm breath against his bare neck, to smell her after soaking in the tub. The fur rubbing against his skin, and the gnashing of teeth were far away, as he felt her silken nightgown in his hands, body pressing against him, he smiled, comforted, that sweet scent carrying him.
Derrick was shaken. He’d never seen anything like it. He couldn’t explain it, the police asking the same questions over and over again. He kept looking behind him, his eyes wide, fear boiling away inside.
Sitting on the ridiculously small patron bench, he looked at Carson lying on his side, dozens of tiny tears in his uniform, bite marks across his body. That was chilling, but what disturbed him even more was the tapestry.
It was different.
Foster was dead, his body chewed up just like Carson’s was, the rats having made quick work of him, their swarm long gone. That was frightening enough, but what he couldn’t wrap his head around was the fact that Catherine wasn’t in the tapestry anymore, she was on the floor beside Carson. She was a silken cut-out. Her arms reached for him, touching him, as if in a comforting hug, the fabric arms wrapped around the small of his back. Her lips were against his forehead.
He couldn’t explain any of it. Derrick couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t a blonde anymore either. She had fiery red hair, cascading over her shoulders. How was that possible? How could any of this have happened? Was he losing it like Carson?
He shivered at that thought.
All of it swirled around in his mind, but the nagging question, the one that kept needling the edges of his heart was, where were the rats?
A Diamond in the Mind’s Eye
By Jeff Bagato
Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.
“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.
This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.
Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.
Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.
In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.
Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.
“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.
Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.
After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.
The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.
Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.
“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”
“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”
“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”
“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.
“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”
“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”
“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”
Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.
“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”
The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.
“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”
The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.
“How’s your arm?”
“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”
“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”
“You tried to fix me.”
“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”
“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”
They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”
“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”
“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”
“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.
“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”
“They never had any flavor.”
Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”
“It didn’t have to be so long.”
“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”
“You look tired.”
“I am. I need some jet-nap.”
“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”
“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”
He took one shot of jet-nap and then another. Closed his eyes. In ten minutes he awoke, feeling as refreshed as after a ten hour sleep.
Maitch looked at the robot. “I’ve got to get back to work. Power down for now. We can talk again later.”
“Okay. Good night, Maitch.”
“Good night, Darling.”
The explorer sat down before the monitor. Supernova starlight! The computer flashed the coordinates of the diamond planet on the screen, along with a dozen text alarms about the proximity of their target.
With shaking hands, Maitch programmed the spatial data, the trajectory, speed and other minutiae of a short range astral leap.
The biggest diamond in the universe. Maitch could see it in his mind as clearly as if it actually appeared on the screen, as realistically as if it appeared before his very eyes. In his plans, his dreams, his every waking thought and even in nightmares, the diamond had been present. He begged it to appear, worshipped it, cursed it and loved it. Sometimes he felt he willed it into existence. Something he knew he would find one day, fulfilling a life’s ambition, a life’s hard work and sacrifice.
Maitch had sold everything, given up everything, even his wife and child, his business and home, his friends and enemies, his planet and his people. No matter. Upon his return as a hero, he would have all that and more. Legends, gods, don’t sweat the small stuff.
“Just a matter of days, now,” Maitch told himself. Those stars, the white dwarf and red giant pair that had captured a passing red dwarf—would loom up on the screen, and then he would circle in, tracking the orbit of the one he sought, like a lover pacing the one true love, the most beautiful planet of all.
When at last he closed on the diamond’s location, the screen showed nothing there. No fragments, no moons, no planet of any kind, of any mineral or rock.
“What is this?” he asked the computer. “Check the algorithm and recalculate the trajectory.”
[[Trajectory is correct.]] The computer printed the words on the monitor. [[Visual evidence not available. Mass differentiation indicates the presence of an irregular, oblong object, approximately 2000 miles diameter at smallest point.]]
“That big? Wow!” Diamond light radiated from his consciousness, as if projecting the image of what he sought on the empty space before him.
Some tales said it was invisible. That would explain how it had eluded the greatest diamond hunter of them all, Dax Tallissi, who spent nearly a thousand years at the task. But something so simple and obvious as mere invisibility would not deter Maitch Esso. He alone had been too clever to be duped like the others.
“Try an alternate scanning protocol. Red shift, ultraviolet, x-ray, radiation, and so on.”
The computer got busy with the assigned functions. He pondered additional techniques.
“Fire a laser array into the area. Let’s see what reflects.”
The ship emitted a carnival of focused lights, fanning out in beams and pulses and myriad preset patterns that danced in the vacant aether before him. He lost himself in the swooping curves of a random shape as it folded over itself, carving out an asemic poem he could almost make sense of. Maitch imagined the cryptic, floating text might contain instructions for solving the mystery of the diamond planet’s location.
Nothing reflected back, so the experiment had failed.
“Danglers! Think again, Maitch.”
The various scans also gave negative results, as did a half dozen other remote imaging strategies.
“Only one thing left, Maitch, and that’s the human touch. The one thing that can’t be masked or fooled. You’re going out there, buddy. No diamond planet is going to slip through your fingers!”
Taking a well-worn pressure suit from a locker, he inspected the patches covering much of its outer shell. One loose patch, and another. He got out the heat gun and glued the fabric down. Then he began pulling the protective garment over his body, sealing it, testing the seals. It would do.
The airlock routine went smoothly, and he released the umbilical bit by bit, backing away from the ship. With 500 feet of line to play with, he felt he could cover a good area. Something had to be within that range, if the scanner was correct, although why it hadn’t pulled the ship in with its gravity he couldn’t figure.
“Who knows what kind of gravity well a diamond planet will have,” he told himself. “No one’s ever experienced it. It’s one more textbook page that will have the name Maitch Esso all over it!”
He had his arms outstretched, which proved to be the best possible move because his body bumped into something, and he might otherwise have cracked the faceplate on it. As excitement overtook him, he scrabbled at the invisible wall for a moment. The portable scanner showed nothing specific, just a wavering set of numbers. Where was the mass? Where was the gravity?
He felt the invisible wall sliding under his gloves, then he grabbed at empty space. A force sucked him in, drawing out the umbilical until it snapped taut, catching him there for a moment. Oddly enough, the background stars had disappeared, all except for a small circular patch back there, up the line. Then it closed off. The tether came loose and he fell on and on, like tumbling into dreams, until he could feel his mind and body no more.
Maitch awoke in an elegantly finished room feeling more refreshed than he had in years. A carefree sense of lightness filled his mind, like he had achieved a major goal or finished a big project. His muscles were loose, mind clear and alert. And something was missing. Anxiety and loss and a desperate sense of struggling for something just out of reach.
The mattress under him rested on a real wood frame and possessed a firm, pillowy softness, like it had been made from some packed gel; the linens felt soft and thick, and the comforter had a fluffy pile like he had never seen. The nightshirt covering his body was made of fine white fabric. Although sparely furnished, everything had been made from high quality materials: nightstand, a small chest of drawers, a simple desk and swiveling chair to match. He vaguely remembered going on a spacewalk, and yet he had ended up in the finest hotel room available to man anywhere in the galaxy. Perhaps this was heaven, his just reward for a lifetime of hard work, diligence, self-discipline. What had he done with his life? He wasn’t quite sure, but he knew it had been successful to have earned this.
Getting out of bed to inspect the room, he found beautiful clothes folded in the dresser: fine cotton shirts, gabardine slacks, men’s hose and a pair of Italian leather shoes. After changing, he felt ready to face the remainder of this hospital, hotel, heaven, or whatever it was. The doorknob turned without a hitch, so he pulled open the door. A long, featureless hallway in a neutral, glowing white faced him, stretching out to a fine point of perspective in either direction. The ceiling reached far overhead. He began to walk. Then he found a waiting room, where creatures like he’d never seen before stood around a table, conversing and possibly taking a meal.
They looked like trees, he thought at first. Eleven or twelve feet high—fifteen or more, depending on the individual, if you counted the branches sprouting from their heads. Their trunks, long and tubular, with a rough, bark-like skin, tapered down to legs that ended in broad, flat feet, more like splayed sections of the trunk after being split up the middle to one third of its height. At the midpoint of their bodies, two pairs of long thin arms stretched out to end in six or seven long thin fingers. Their faces were made up of two widely spaced knots filled with a kind of blue glass—their eyes, Maitch supposed—and a single, broader knot below that, perhaps a mouth or nose.
One of the trees stepped away from the group to approach him.
“Greetings, Sire, most graciousness,” the creature said through a translation machine. The gaping hole of a mouth did not move. “My name is Crenth. Pleased to meet my fellows Jenib, Karof, Forll, and Zulkad. Your sleep has been most well, I believe.”
“Yes, I slept fine.” Maitch struggled to find his thoughts so he could put them into speech. Where to begin? “Uh, how did I get here? Was I in some kind of accident?”
“Accident, you had on your spacewalk.” Crenth said. They really should get that translator adjusted, Maitch thought. “Unconscious found you when.”
The creature used the stick-like fingers of one of its left limbs to adjust something hanging from the branches above its head. “We found you unconscious. Nearly dead.”
“Wow. I’m not sure what happened. Did you see what happened?”
“Did not. We could not. No, we arrived on the scene much later.”
“Is my ship still out there?”
“We located your ship, many thousand miles away.” Maitch thought it seemed odd the creature used the specifically Earth American unit of distance in its translation. “It is now docked to our craft. You can leave anytime you feel able.”
“That would be great. I have really important things to do. If only I could remember what they were. There might be something in the ship’s log. My computer will know.”
“Your computer suffered damage. We have rebooted it. A courtesy, you understand, to facilitate you safely.”
“Okay. I appreciate that. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me.”
“A pleasure it should be ours,” Crenth said. “Would you take a meal with us, before going you on?”
“I’d like that. I am pretty hungry.”
“Excellent. We have synthesized some food for your metabolic system. Join us at our table.”
The surface of the table stood far over Maitch’s head. As he stood beside it, a small platform rose under his feet, pushing him up until he stood at a correct height and distance for eating. A place setting had been made for him. In a bowl, pale yellow noodles writhed in a green sauce, and unusual blue florets, yellow leaves and red nuts bobbed with their motions. On a plate, strips of burnt bacon lay in a thick orange gravy. Maitch did not want to seem rude to his hosts, who had saved his life. He picked up a piece of the bacon and dipped it in the sauce.
“Hey, that’s not bad!” More like beef jerky, the meat tasted great in the cheese-like sauce. He cleaned the plate, hoping he would be full enough to beg off eating the noodles.
“Try the spaghetti,” Karoff said. “I worked the synthesizer very hard to make it authentic.”
“You’ve met humans before?” Maitch asked, giving the bowl a sideways glance. He had never eaten a worm, although he had heard they were nutritious. He picked up the spork beside the bowl and twirled up a noodle, spearing one of the florets to hold it in place. Closing his eyes, he inserted the food into his mouth. Chewed. The noodle twitched, but it tasted just like homemade pasta, the floret like broccoli, or a close relative. Strand by strand, he finished the meal, drank some of the liquid, which proved to be just water, despite the greenish tinge.
“I don’t suppose you synthesized any scotch?” he asked.
“Scotch? We do not know this food. What can we make it for you?”
“Nevermind. This meal was great. I appreciate it.” Something snagged in the back of Maitch’s mind. Something he was forgetting to do, some work or repair. Maybe that was it. He had gone outside the ship to repair something, forgot to anchor his line. A rookie move.
“I guess I’ll go back to my ship now.”
“Fine will you be that,” Crenth said. “Forll will guide your way.”
“Great. Well, goodbye!”
“Goodbye, Sire, and you are met well.”
The tree Forll lead him down a maze-like collection of tunnels, all in white.
“How do you find your way around, Forll? Are you sure we haven’t been walking in circles?” Maitch hoped the creature had a sense of humor.
“The light tells me the way. Can you see the change in its luminosity? These make signs to remind me where to go, although I have traveled this path many times.”
“It all looks the same to me.”
“We are sure it does.”
They came to a circular patch in the wall. “This airlock leads to your ship,” Forll said. The entity used long fingers to probe a small rectangular patch of brighter light, and the airlock dilated open, shutter blades fading into the walls. “Have safe travels on your way to Earth.”
“Earth?” Maitch repeated. “No, I won’t go back there. I have family on Aldebaran Three. It’s a colony world.” An image rose out of a dense fog in his mind. Achelle and their son living in a house there. His house. His home. That had been a long time ago. Too long.
“Let your journey be swift and your life be long.”
“I thank you again for all your hospitality and assistance.”
The tree bowed slightly. “A pleasure it is ours.”
One airlock is much like another. After a few paces, Maitch arrived in his own ship. Standing before the control panel, he had a clear vision of his last actions there: looking at the computer screen, programming a course of action, wearing his patched and worn pressure suit. He had been planning to go outside, on a spacewalk. After that, he could not remember.
“Where have I been?” he asked the computer. “What did I leave the ship to accomplish?”
[[You left the ship to fix the portside radar dish. It had developed an electrical fault. A cloud of space dust cycled through, piercing your suit and weakening your line. You broke free and must have been unconscious. I could not reach you on the faceplate monitor.]]
“Ah, I understand. I had forgotten all that.” But he hadn’t forgotten, Maitch knew. The ship did not have a portside radar dish. Punching in some commands, he called up different views of the vessel’s exterior, jumping from camera to camera along that half of the ship. Then he saw it. There was a radar dish. It looked pitted and worn, as if it had been there for centuries, faithfully sending data to the computer. Yet he felt certain it had never been there before.
Taking off his suit and flopping it on a chair, he sat down at the computer screen, began the routine checks of prelaunch. He had to calculate a course. ‘I guess I’ll go home to Aldebaran Three,’ Maitch thought. ‘Might as well.’ Halfway to typing in the destination, the search field automatically filled in the remainder of the word and called up a course, already charted and programmed. Yet Maitch could not remember having thought to go home prior to this moment.
“Where were we headed when I went out to make the repair?” he asked the computer.
[[To Aldebaran III. You wished to go home for your son’s birthday. He will be 23 years of age in two months. You might be slightly late.]]
That would be an understatement. His son would have turned twenty-three many years ago. Maitch calculated a moment. Perhaps 500 years ago! Maitch had missed it during one of the sleep-freezes. Unless his son had been spending most of his time in cryopods, he would not be celebrating any more birthdays.
Now his arm itched. Rubbing his left forearm with his fingertips, he felt a bit of cryogel on his skin. ‘I thought I got all that off,’ he thought now. His eyes strayed to the spot, the kind of slow scan one performs when expecting something unpleasant. As if pointing to a spot on a map, his fingers rested on two images inscribed on his arm long ago: the two things he loved most in the world. His wife Achelle and a diamond. Did he give his wife that diamond? No, he had taken it away. Taken it back, along with all the other things he had sold to buy this ship. For a time, a mystery greater than love had overtaken him. The diamond. A world of diamonds. A mine. Or a planet. His memory caught on something, like when his suit snagged on a burr of metal protruding from the wall. Then it began to tear open, just a little at first, like with the suit, and then it opened all the way. A memory rushed through, then dozens of memories, a cascade of longing, searching, struggling, maintaining a journey long grown old and tiresome; obsessions he could not shake, could not put aside. Not now. Not after everything else had been put aside and had receded far into the past.
He had gone out to check for the diamond planet. A force had stopped his progress. Then it had admitted him. His line had broken. He had woken in the hotel room on the alien ship.
And the trees had lied to him. His computer had lied. His ship had lied. There had never been a portside radar before; it had not developed a fault; he had not gone to repair it; he had not been struck by meteors; the aliens could not have found him floating half dead in empty space.
“They must be hiding the diamond planet!” he said, his voice harsh and strained. “Preventing me from achieving my goal!”
Thoughts came to Maitch in a rush, a set of plans forming in crystal clear windows, like facets on the diamond planet he was about to discover and claim for all mankind. At this moment, his own ship must be inside the barrier the trees had erected to block detection of the planet. They would be observing his ship carefully, to ensure that he departed as planned, heading for the fake destination of a human colony world he had not known in centuries and had no pull to now.
Fingering the keys, Maitch performed a single command for the computer: he turned on its voice. “Now listen to me,” he said. “I am going outside. The aliens must not know where I’m going. When they contact the ship, you are to first tell them I am engaged with calculating our trajectory; second, that I am performing a complete inventory of the supplies; and third, that I am reviewing the functionality of all systems. That should give me three days to search for the planet they have hidden around here. After that, they will try to investigate the ship, so you will set a course for Aldebaran Three. Proceed in that direction for three more days. Then return to this point in space. I should be able to contact you to pick me up. At that time, I’ll be a legend, the first Earthman to touch down on the diamond planet! Did you get all that?”
“Yes, sir.” The computer’s voice juddered and squawked, raising the hairs on Maitch’s neck. “I shall serve you faithfully as always.”
“Great. Now I have work to do.”
In a few moments, Maitch was jetting away from his own ship, marveling at the size of the alien craft beside him. The bright white hull, formed as a tube and pocked with unusual knots, boles and goiters like the trunk of an ancient sycamore, stretched to a vanishing point ahead and behind him. Off in the distance, he could see a dwarf planet, but a round one. Perhaps a diamond in the rough, but in any case, the aliens had been hiding it, and he would know what was there soon enough.
The charcoal orb loomed closer and closer. His heart pounded and his mouth felt dry. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he thought. ‘I’m going to touchdown on the diamond planet.’
The sphere clearly had no atmosphere, and it orbited a sun so distant it could not be seen except as another point of light in the firmament of lights that filled the larger view. He came down, the planetoid rising up as an arc below him, as if it spread loving arms wide in welcome of its conquering hero. A gray surface jumped at him, and he triggered hard fire from his jets to slow his fall. When his feet touched solid ground, Maitch staggered a few paces, but not just to catch his balance. His mind was reeling at the possibility of achieving his goal after centuries of search, many lifetimes of sacrifice. Tears forced themselves from his eyes. At first, he swiped his glove up to wipe them away; hitting the faceplate, he remembered where he was, what he was about to do.
The low gravity of the dwarf planet did not hinder his movements as he set off on foot, picking a direction at random. A step launched him a couple feet in the air; with some trial and error, he used this effect to his advantage, taking giant steps across the gray-green surface, kicking up tiny clouds of dust and grit. The place seemed featureless, flat and largely unmarred by space debris. Perhaps all this material had accreted on the giant diamond underneath. If he kept walking, he surely would find some area where the crystal itself was exposed. He could take pictures of it with the camera in his suit helmet, and that would be his proof of discovery.
Hours later, Maitch felt tired despite the low level of work required. The surface had not changed. No craters or scratches or cracks presented themselves; nothing that would reveal the true surface underground. The pedometer in his wrist control unit indicated that he’d already covered twenty-five miles.
‘Right about now,’ Maitch told himself, ‘those drifting trees are contacting my ship to inquire about my delayed departure.’ He chuckled, thinking of the ruse he had set up. Then he thought again. The last laugh would be on himself, after he’d spent his three day lead walking around in this wilderness.
“Just a bit more, Old Buddy,” he said, coaching himself. “This ain’t so bad. Firm ground. The goal within reach. Fame and fortune ahead. After grinding it out for so long in that cryogel and on the flight deck, this is a walk in the park!” He laughed at that.
After another few hours, he lowered himself to the ground. “Just a quick rest and back at it,” he promised himself. Maitch stared at the unbroken, gray horizon, thinking about facets glinting in the light of his helmet. Cold pierced his suit, so he turned up the thermostat. His eyes closed on their own. Now he floated in a tunnel of light; this time, he could see the gradations in the luminosity, like shades of white on paint sample cards. The various pieces and differentiations of brightness formed a picture he recognized as Achelle, what would be a very old picture now. This picture moved; his wife shook her head, and her lips opened, “No diamond is worth that, Maitch Esso! No diamond is worth that!” Their last words, their last argument, the last time he saw or spoke to his beloved wife. She was the true diamond in his life, and he had shucked her with the rest.
Another voice spoke out of the light. “You’re a fool, Maitch. You’re a fool! There’s no diamond planet, and if there was, diamonds wouldn’t be worth a damned thing.”
He had to think a minute to place the speaker; the picture had formed from gradations too subtle for him to distinguish. Then he remembered. Those were his own words, spoken every time he climbed back in the cryopod, the gel filling the capsule and rising over his body. He said it every time, twenty-six times now, and each time he had woken up to go on searching.
As if the light tunnel had imploded, causing a flash behind his eyes, Maitch came back to consciousness with a jerk. He felt hot tears on his cheeks. He had committed himself once again; now he was too far to go back. Struggling to his feet, struggling to push one foot out in front of him, to keep his balance as he launched into the thin atmosphere, to keep his eyes on the horizon, the explorer pushed himself forward. Another mile. Two miles. Five miles. Ten. Fifteen. He walked until couldn’t bear to look at the pedometer again.
His eyes blurred on the path ahead; the landscape had changed in some slight way. Yes, like heat shimmering off a desert plain, bending the light, teasing his vision with the refractions. Perhaps the reflection of a flat crystal surface! Taking huge leaps, Maitch bounded forward. The wavering field intensified, thickened, brightened until he came upon a waterfall of electric light pouring up from the surface and dancing there in his vision. What lay beyond remained obscure. In some way, it appeared as if the ground kept going onward, but then he saw his own image imbedded in the haze of flowing illumination. The barrier simply mirrored the landscape around it, effectively erasing what lay beyond.
“This is it,” Maitch moaned. “Behind this wall. I know it! Lies the diamond!”
Extending a gloved hand, he touched the lighted wall. No negative effects, so he pushed through, inching his way forward, arms outstretched. Moving particles of light engulfed him, and then he was through them. At his feet, the same dull, flat surface. Looking ahead about a mile, the ground rose sharply into a curved structure, like a meteor had hit the malleable surface material and forced it out and up, creating a circular mountain range around a massive depression.
This could be the break in the surface he had been looking for, the one that revealed a sizeable portion of the planet’s true surface.
Once again, Maitch pushed himself forward, galloping toward the barrier. His pace slowed as he climbed the steep sides of the crater. One step at a time, each one a monumental effort, as if he now had become reluctant to face the reality of his goal—or its ultimate failure.
At last at the top. Maitch had his eyes closed as he made the final steps. He stood on the ledge of the crater, shifting his legs into a power stance. Then he opened his eyes.
The crater seemed a couple miles across; he could see the other side, but only as a faint, curved edge. How deep it went, he couldn’t know, for it had been filled in with crystals, from one edge to another and up the lip until just a yard from the top. Looking down, he could tell the stones had been cut into the classic diamond shape, with a broad upper surface that formed a cap over the straight sides tapering down to a faceted cone below.
He scooted down the inner wall of the crater, got right to the edge of the vast crystal pool. Kneeling in a deliberate way, like performing a focused yoga posture of considerable complexity, Maitch Esso reached his hand into the pool and pulled up a handful of the clear stones. A half dozen right there in his glove, and every one of them a perfectly carved diamond, none of them below 25 carats.
In a daze, he took his first tentative steps into this sea of diamonds, a crazy grin plastered on his face. The gems covered his boots as he waded into them, like walking on water sparkling with a myriad shards of sunlight, hope, and glorious victory. Then the explorer collapsed onto the pile of cut stones, and he cried, shedding tears for his wife and his son, for his lost friends and lost lives and lost years. And he cried for himself. All the hardships, sacrifices, loneliness, years of nanny blocks and jet-nap, recycled air and stale, depleted water, hoping and moving forward into nothing.
There was no diamond planet, but there was this lake of diamonds. Was that better or worse? Where would he go now, and how would he get there? And what could he possibly say about his discovery? How would people react to the fact that the legend was a hoax which had cost many men their lives?
A party of the aliens found Maitch Esso sitting on a small hill of diamonds amid the vast sea of them in the crater, running jewels from hand to hand. As if he had been blinded by the light reflecting from the crystals or just by the shards of his own broken dreams, he did not recognize the trees at first. They spoke to him, but he did not respond right away.
When the explorer finally did speak, his words were angry. “What is the meaning of this charade? How dare you! You’re murderers, worse than murderers, for all the lives you’ve taken by this little trick. How could you hide the truth about the diamonds? Why would you do it?”
Then he made demands. “I’ve spent many lifetimes searching for these stones. I’ve given up happiness and success and worldly goods. And now these stones are mine. I claim them all. I will fill my ship with them, and then I will come back with a tanker, a fleet of tankers, to take them all away. And you won’t try to stop me!”
The trees conferred among themselves. Then Crenth stepped forward, holding up its hands. “You have duped yourself. There never was any evidence of a diamond planet, but you believed it anyway. We never made you so gullible. You have a singular power, you humans; you can each manifest an idea so powerfully that it becomes real. Long ago, we found one of your kind, searching for something he believed to exist. To help him, to give him peace, to restore his life and happiness to him, we invented a machine to remove this idea from his mind.
“As it was extracted, this kernel of thought turned into a physical object. And that crystaline thought, all trace of it, was erased from his mind. That is the function of our machine. It is as if the thought itself has become physical, so it can only be fully extracted in that form. We have found that only humans have such a powerful ability at self-delusion.
“We do have our own weaknesses. We developed a lust for these diamonds, and in our zeal, we traveled to Earth and all its colonies and planted the rumor of a diamond planet in Earth-human populations. We thought we would collect a few jewels for ourselves, having no way to predict the effect our actions would have. Each diamond in this crater represents one human thought. Hundreds, thousands and millions of earthmen have come this way, bearing these diamonds in their mind’s eyes. Feeling guilty for the pain we have caused, we set ourselves the task of removing each diamond, hoping to restore peace. But still you keep coming. Long ago it became a burden to us, but it is a burden we bear, in penance for our own greed.”
“Penance?” Maitch croaked. “Retribution. Reparations. Peace of mind can’t replace the lost years! I’ve given up everything I ever loved for this one dream, this one blind search.”
“Why did you do it?”
That stumped him. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “The dream consumed me. All the others striving and reaching, all the tales and evidence…it fueled me, it drove me on. My life seemed mundane in comparison to the adventure, the thrill of the chase.”
“You have had that thrill, that adventure. Was the price too high? Nonetheless, you paid it.”
“Yes. That’s true.”
“We can tell you now. You were the greatest of them all. Your diamond, the one you held for so long in your mind’s eye, is larger than any other we have ever extracted.”
Maitch gave a grunt of cynical laughter. “Another lie. No doubt you tell every one of us suckers the same tall tale, as if that alone would make it all worthwhile.”
“We’ve never had another human discover the truth. Once the diamond is removed, all memory of that quest is also removed. We plant a new memory and send them on their way. They seem satisfied then. They seem content. There is no anger, only gratitude.”
Shaking his head, Maitch growled. “Fine. But I’m not grateful. I do remember my quest, and I know it was all a lie! I expect something else in return for the trouble your deceit has caused.”
“We owe you nothing. If we could, we would put you under the machine again. However, it works only once.”
“That’s not good enough!”
“Furthermore, we cannot allow you to leave this place. If word got out, your governments would send military fleets to destroy us and steal our jewels.”
“Damn right! And so they should!”
Crenth overlooked that outburst. “You will be our guest on this planetoid. We will provide you with a shelter, nutritious food, and the fine accoutrements you saw in your room on our ship. You will live out the remainder of your years here. As I understand human physiology, after so many years soaked in cryogel, you won’t have long to wait. That should console you in your exile. It will be short. But you will also get one wish you have made. For that time, all these diamonds will be yours.”
“Danglers! You’re damn right it will be short! I’ll escape!”
“I don’t think so. We will prevent any ships from landing, and you will not be able to fly out once we take your jet pack.”
The explorer glared at the trees as they lowered a self-contained, pressurized quonset hut to the surface and loaded it with boxes of materials. They prepared a platform for landing supply drones and showed him how to signal in an emergency. Then the trees turned to their ship.
Maitch felt the leviathan weight of solitude looming over him, wrapping his body in its powerful coils; as the monster tightened its muscles, it applied pressure in slow, steady increments. He began to suffocate, his ribs cracking, his skull breaking. A high pitched sound, like a naked scream of terror, rose in his mind. How had he passed all the long lonely years already? One idea had kept reality at bay, and the power of that idea had dissipated to nothing, and to less than nothing. All that remained was a faint, mocking laughter, heard as if somewhere far away, hiding behind the shriek. Now the tonnage of those years crushed his mind, grinding his body to dust against the barren surface of this isolated world. To live out his years in this place, with nowhere to go, no sleep freeze to keep him numbed to the passing of time, no hope or dream to keep him going; he could not bear it. Here was the true price of the diamonds. He could not pay that price.
“Don’t leave me here,” Maitch begged. His hysteria forced itself out in a sob. “Kill me, set me adrift, take me with you, but don’t leave me alone!”
“We cannot do any of those things,” the tree Forll said. “Is there anything else we can bring you from your ship?”
“You have it?” A new idea had come to his mind, expanding rapidly until it filled the space once occupied by the diamond. A new hope, a new dream.
“We retrieved it, yes.”
“I’d like to have my wife as company.”
“Your wife? There were no other humans on board.”
“It’s an android with my wife’s voice. It will help me pass the time.”
“Ah, companionship. There was a robot there, but it is in poor condition, falling apart. We can provide you a better one.”
“No, I don’t want another one. I want my wife.”
“Very well. I will seek approval, but I don’t think that will be forbidden.”
“I hope not.”
The trees left in their spacecraft. In an hour, another craft hovered over the landing pad. It dropped a line laden with boxes. Maitch rushed over and cut open the cartons. Some of them held food. In one, he found the robot. He felt the pressure on his body releasing, the scream in his mind subsiding. He pressed the magnetic key to the back of the robot’s neck. It took him a moment get his first words out. What if its speech circuits had broken?
“Activate voice. No recordings.”
“Hello, Maitch. I’m glad to see you.”
“Hello, Darling.” Something was shining before his eyes, sending its bright beams deep into his brain, filling him with an almost tangible substance, like joy but more effervescent, almost explosive. It had to be contained in his mind, and he struggled to keep it in.
“So you found the planet?”
“Yes. I brought you here to share it with me. We cannot leave, but I don’t suppose there was anywhere we could go. Everyone I ever knew is gone, buried in the centuries. We’ll be here until we die. It’s likely to go fast for me. They say people who spend too much time in sleep freeze age rapidly when they stay out.”
“Will I die?”
“You will run down, eventually. You’re already falling apart. Soon I’ll start falling apart, also. I just hope you’ll do a better job repairing me than I did on you.”
“I will do my best, Maitch. I’m glad we’re together. Now we’ll have our grand adventure. A home, a life, together.”
Maitch smiled. He could feel himself relax; the leviathan had slithered off. “Let me get this stuff inside. I’d like to take this suit off. Then we can talk. I don’t ever want you to stop talking. That’s the most valuable jewel on this whole drifting planet full of diamonds. Even the giant one I made in my own mind can’t hold a candle to it.”
The yellowed plastic face of the android seemed to brighten with joy, as if it had developed its own AI after all the centuries. Maitch knew it must be his imagination. A robot like this couldn’t have feelings. Nonetheless, it said, “That makes me very happy, Maitch. We’ll be comfortable here, you and I, no matter how long we have remaining.”
He took her good hand and looked into her lively, sparkling eyes, moist with tears of happiness. Her soft lips formed a smile that sent ripples across her flushed cheeks. Wrinkles, crow’s feet, laugh lines, these were to be expected. Neither of them was as young as they used to be. She had returned his grip, and her hand felt hot in his, so he glanced down at it. On her arm he saw a rose and the word “Maitch” tattooed in dark green ink on her skin. A new reality rushed at him, filling his empty heart, rising to fill the vast spaces in his mind vacated by the monstrous idea of a planet-sized diamond.
Achelle, again at his side, and nothing else would matter more than this ever again.
Maitch lead his wife through the hut’s airlock. It opened on their new home, a single bright room filled with beautiful wooden furniture: a bed with an intricately carved headboard, a love seat, a wardrobe with inlaid panels. To one side stood a mahogany dining table, its legs carved into luxurious curves by a lathe, accompanied by two matching chairs. A fine pile carpet spread across the floor. There was a small kitchen area, with a range, a sink, pots and dishes, cooking utensils and silverware. The walls were hung with textiles bearing a simple pattern of tropical leaves and flowers.
“It’s lovely, Maitch,” Achelle said.
“Yes, it is.” His voice came at a distance, for his eyes had discovered something else. On the table lay a crystal stone, its facets gleaming in the clear light. Back in the human worlds, it would be the rarest, most beautiful, and most valuable diamond ever known. They could take it on an exhibition tour and make a fortune. Instead, they were trapped here, alone with it. “That’s the largest diamond I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s almost as large as my head,” she said. “Is that the one you carried in your mind for so long?”
“It must be. It’s like a cruel joke for those trees to leave it here. It stands for everything I sacrificed, everything I lost, all the time and loneliness.”
“If it weren’t for this stone,” Achelle said, “we wouldn’t have this now. That’s the important thing. I think it’s beautiful.”
Maitch saw the gem on the table through her eyes. The bitterness left him, replaced by a new feeling he could barely understand. For once in his life, the explorer felt content. He had his diamond, and his diamond planet, but now something new occupied his mind.
His wife stood beside him in the radiance of the stone, and she glowed with a far more beautiful light than any diamond.
By Mary-Jean Harris
Beneath the September night sky, black as a pool of ink, sharp orange flames illuminated London. They were like pits of fire from a hellish world, with great billowing clouds of smoke, demons released from their confines. Or so it appeared to Will.
Flying five thousand feet above the city in his Spitfire aircraft, Will was caught in the thick of the smoke. Although it clustered around the fires closer to the ground, up here, smoke from the bombed sites merged into a dark haze that obscured not only the other planes in his squadron, but the German bombers as well. Will could just see the tail of Eric’s plane off to his left, wavering in and out of the miasma. His hands clenched the stick with expert concentration, and he had strapped his goggles onto the top of his head so that the additional glass wouldn’t obscure his vision.
This was by far the worst he had seen. Admittedly, at nineteen years old, he hadn’t seen much, but beneath his laser focus on the surrounding battle, his imagination styled this as an apocalypse with those demons rising from the inferno, and the people below fleeing from incinerated hideaways toward deeper shelters. Or perhaps just giving up. Will could never understand that, giving up. That was why he and his cousin Rory had come to England, leaving their family on the Isle of Skye to join the RAF. Because if the world was going to end in a hellfire, Will would rather burn in the conflagration than starve on its outskirts.
These melancholy considerations were halted, however, when Jim’s voice sounded in his headset, scratchy with a static buzz. “This is Jim Hartshorne. Squadron leader is down. I repeat, Reginald’s plane is down. I’m taking his position at the front.”
Will bit his lip. He continued flying in the formation, at least, what he assumed was still the formation. Jim, only two years Will’s senior, was a master at improvisation, but leading the squadron was another matter entirely.
“Backing you up on your left,” Will heard Eric’s voice in response.
Then Jim spoke up again. “I see a bomber up ahead, fifty feet above us. Will, I want you after him.”
“You want me to break formation?” Will spoke into his microphone, which was flush against the side of his jaw.
“I want you to do what you were made to.” Jim’s voice was barely audible amid the static. Perhaps the radio tower had taken a hit. “It’s not ideal, but damn, is any of this ideal?”
Although Will knew that was a rhetorical question, he still responded, “No.”
“Then go get the bastard. You’re the sharpest pilot here. Besides, you’ve got the best plane.”
It was true, at least, the part about his plane; Will couldn’t say that he was sharper than the other pilots, though he always trained the hardest.
“Gain some altitude first,” Jim continued. “Then shoot him down like a vengeful angel. I want that plane out of commission in five minutes. You hear? Go get him, fairy boy.”
“I’m on it.” Will felt like adding something to effect of not calling him ‘fairy boy,’ but decided that now was not the time. Yet it did make him glance to the top left of his dashboard where a small picture was taped above the controls, the source of his nickname. It was a picture of the tattered Fairy Flag. Its pale yellow-brown silk was worn thin so that it was no longer a square, but a haphazard sort of polygon. Upon its surface were red spots, forming no particular pattern, “elf dots” as Will’s grandmother called them. Although it looked like no more than a rag in the picture, when he had seen it in person, taken out from where it was usually locked in a wooden chest at Dunvegan, the MacLeod family castle on the Isle of Skye, he had sensed a power within it. It was easily overlooked at a cursory glance, but it was as if each thread had been woven by the singing voices of fairies, bringing the strength of the Other World into it. Even after the other men of his squadron had no shortage of amusement at Will’s expense after having bribed Rory into telling them that the picture was of the Fairy Flag, Will never went on any expedition without it.
Although its origins were shrouded in mystery, the flag was known to protect the clan MacLeod. It had supposedly won them various battles in the past, and had also stopped a plague some centuries ago. Will wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but it gave him a strange sense of courage. He didn’t believe that it came from fairies, and was not at all certain about its reputed powers, but it was an emblem of the courage of his people, his distant ancestors as well as his family back home, and the hope for their future.
As he ascended to overtake the German plane, he could hear the whir of his Spitfire’s propellers speeding faster and faster. He had gained enough altitude, so focused in on the plane below, weaving in and out of the smoke like a sea monster only half visible in dark waters. Yet it was visible enough to shoot.
Before Will could become that avenging angel, an enormous bang deafened him. It reverberated down to his bones, and a swarm of heat washed over him. The choking smell of burning fuel pervaded his senses, and the front of his plane surged with flames. He quickly brought his goggles back down over his scalding eyes.
Despite having been hit—probably by a bomber hidden in the smoke above him—he was heading right into the path of the German plane below. He tried to eject, for he would burn up in a moment. Yet the latch on his seat had fused together from the fire creeping beneath the plane, and his hands burned beneath his leather gloves when he touched it. He had nearly reached the German plane, though he tried to turn off to the right to gain himself more time.
Please, he thought, glancing to his picture. If you can do anything, if—
He felt himself whirl into a misting gyre. It was not his plane that was falling, nor even his body, but his mind seemed to be travelling alone. Down he swept, hardly aware of his surroundings, not even able to be dizzy with the great speed at which he was descending. And then even the gyre was gone, and all sensation left him.
Scattered. That was what Fingal was, not just physically lost in this hushed Palestinian forest, but he felt as though his mind had scattered up into the trees during his run here. He stood with his tunic drenched in sweat, the chain mail over his chest heavy and sagging, as he stared down at his dagger embedded into the back of a Turk. It was just the two of them, one dead and lying in a pool of crimson blood, the other living. But it could have easily turned out the other way if the man hadn’t tripped over a root.
The droning cry of a cicada kept Fingal hovering there, the sheer fact that he was alive slowly becoming comprehensible. He dabbed his moist forehead with the sleeve of his tunic and crouched next to the man, then gingerly removed his dagger. He frowned when a gush of blood thoroughly soaked the man’s white robe.
Fingal stood and went to a bare patch of grass to wipe the dagger clean before sheathing it at his waist. He began to feel more himself after performing this simple duty, and so went to search for the way he had come. There was no path nearby, for after the Turks had surprised them at their camp, Fingal, along with the other crusaders, had been chased into the woods, and without his sword, he really had no choice but to flee. He didn’t expect that his companions would have been able to take down their pursuers as easily as he had.
It might have been an hour since he had left camp, and after a few false starts, he was only led back to that clearing with dark blood staining the greenery of summer. A swallow had landed on the man’s back as if he had become no more than a rock or tree that belonged to the forest. Fingal ran his hand through his long dark hair and swept it off his damp neck. What with the surprise attack, he had no provisions, no sword, though was fortunately wearing his woolen tunic and chainmail beneath a surcoat of light blue with the holy cross emblazoned on the front in silver, his dark leather leggings, and black riding boots that had, over the past weeks, become pale brown from dust and scuff marks. He dared not think about how his comrades had fared, many of whom had been resting in their tents to escape the heat of the day before the attack they had planned for that evening.
Fingal went off in another direction. He didn’t mind being out in the forest, though had never been the one to scout out a trail, let alone look at the map. Now, after at least two more hours of walking, he began to regret it. He felt so foolish: going to the East to reclaim the Holy Land, when, despite his skills as a swordsman, he couldn’t even find his way through the wilderness. He thought of his brother back on the Isle of Skye who knew every uncharted pass through the moors, whereas the only landscape Fingal could navigate was the narrow confines of a battle field. With his throat dry and eyes blurred from the heat of the sun that seemed woefully inadequate.
The forest eventually thinned, though instead of giving way to civilization, the land broke up into rocky hills, striated with pale green lichen and minor shrubbery. Fingal figured that he would be better off gaining higher ground so that he could spot Jerusalem, or any village for that matter. The hills built off one another, ascending until Fingal was up in the highlands, probably, he assumed, the Judean Mountains. It was cooler up here, what with the wind to dry the moisture from his skin and the cliffs blocking much of the sunlight. He wandered up a narrow pass, to the left of which was a drop of a few hundred feet toward the forest, and to the right, an equally unforgiving wall of stone. Whenever Fingal grasped it for support, it crumbled into dusty fragments between his fingers. Yet he needed to go higher, for the forest and the taller mountains still obscured his view. The rocks beneath him soon became more uneven, and walking on the path—if it could even be called a path—became more of a climb.
At one particularly forbidding pass, no more than a foot wide against the mountainside, he spotted an opening in the cliff. Although this would by no means help him find Jerusalem, he was curious as to where it led, so, edging sideways along the path, careful not to scrape away any of the loose stones with his chain mail, he reached the opening and ducked inside.
The scent of earth pervaded his senses, and dull orange firelight illuminated the enclosure from a crude torch on the side wall. The far wall was lined with a wicker bench, something of a cot, upon which sat a wizened old man wearing a flowing white robe. His black hair and beard were lined with strands of grey, and his face was angular with a hooked nose and boney ridge over his eyes. Fingal, stooped beneath the ceiling, halted beneath the hermit’s dark, unblinking gaze.
The man said something in a language Fingal couldn’t understand, his voice stony like the walls about him.
Fingal only shook his head.
“Do you at least speak Latin, boy?”
“Ah.” The hermit’s face softened. “You’re not hopeless yet.”
“Do you have any water?”
“Water is hard to come by here.”
Fingal licked his cracked lips. The cave seemed to meld into a kaleidoscope of flames that flickered over the dark walls. “I have some coin,” he said, reaching into his pocket. It was only a single silver coin, but surely that would be more than enough for water.
The hermit peered over at the coin and shook his head. “What use have I for silver?”
“Then what do you want?”
The hermit studied Fingal as if judging what could be wheedled out of him. After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, with the only sound the crackle of fire from the torch and Fingal’s own pounding heart, the man said, “Come. Sit.” He gestured to the ground before his feet.
Fingal came to kneel in front of him. He couldn’t have said whether the man really would give him water after this, but felt that it was worth a try.
“Down the path to the east,” the hermit began, sweeping his boney arm in the direction Fingal had come, “lies the dwelling of the Daughter of Thunder. She guards the path to Jerusalem, the shortest route from the mountains. Yet none take it, for she is an evil spirit wrought upon destroying all men, Christians and infidels alike. I am not strong enough to defeat her, yet I have the one weapon that can.” He reached into a wicker basket behind him and pulled out a roughly heart-shaped piece of wood and held it out to Fingal.
Fingal took it and examined it. “I don’t understand. How can this—”
“It is a piece of the True Cross!” The hermit’s eyes blazed with a religious fervor.
“Oh.” Fingal had naively assumed that any relic from Christ would exude some spiritual light, or at least feel ancient and holy. Yet this might have been chipped off a tree and sanded only yesterday. But still, he was curious, so asked, “You want me to defeat her, then?”
“Then I shall do it.” Fingal figured that if the wood failed, he still had his dagger.
The hermit nodded contentedly, like a king setting one of his knights out to battle. He reached into the basket again and produced a leather wineskin with a wooden stopper, as well as a chunk of bread.
Fingal took this much more eagerly than he had the wood, and before the hermit had finished saying that he could drink half of it, Fingal had swallowed the entire contents of the wineskin. It was unpleasantly sour ale, but it quenched his thirst, and he began to feel stronger. He then ate the bread, stale though it was, before the hermit could take it away.
The hermit scowled. “Go along. When you are a mile down the path, turn right down the escarpment—there are wooden planks nailed into the stone you can use for your footing—and you will enter her domain of the forest.”
Fingal stood, and with a bow to the hermit—he had, after all, given him sustenance and a piece of what was supposedly the True Cross—he turned to leave.
At the threshold of the cave, the hermit called to him. “Young crusader. If you are successful, return the cross to Jerusalem.”
Fingal agreed that he would.
As he was making his way back along the narrow pass, now unfortunately with the glare of the sun in his eyes, he wondered about the hermit’s words. If you are successful…If. How powerful was this Daughter of Thunder, if she had the ability to hold out against a piece of the True Cross?
The escarpment, which Fingal had heedlessly passed during his ascent, was over a hundred feet above the forest floor. The uneven cliff face, crumbling in places, did indeed have a set of wooden planks nailed into it. Fingal tried out the first one cautiously. It wobbled at his weight, but it didn’t feel as though it would come off entirely, so, grasping the stone ledge and trying to keep most of his weight supported by his arms, he began to climb down. He reached his foot down to the next plank and slid his hands along the stones until he found a sufficient hold. He glanced down at the planks forming a winding pattern down the cliff face. Already, his hands were chaffed from the stones and slick with sweat. He’d have to be quick. Besides, then he wouldn’t have time to feel the extent of the danger he was putting himself in.
After nearly half an hour of maneuvering between the planks and protuberances in the cliff face, Fingal at last reached the final step, where vines were already claiming the cliff as their own. He jumped to the forest floor and landed in a crouch.
A slight wind stirred the branches of pine and carob trees, and Fingal spotted a hare bounding into a tamarisk bush. Somewhere, he knew, the Daughter of Thunder was lying in wait for him.
He brushed a lock of damp hair from his eyes and looked down to his burning palms. Seeing the raw skin, pink and scratched, he knew he would have been better off getting here the long way. He untucked his tunic and tore off a piece to wrap around his right hand. It was enough, at least, so that he could wield his dagger if the True Cross failed him.
As he started forward into the woods, he clutched the piece of wood in his right hand and smoothed its surface with his fingertips. He tried to imagine what would happen. Would he just have to hold it out to the evil spirit, or would he have to say a prayer to ‘activate’ its powers? He should have questioned the hermit further, and wished he hadn’t been so careless in accepting this task. Yet if he did defeat the spirit, he would surely gain great honour among the crusaders.
Fingal stopped upon hearing a rustling in a thicket of trees up ahead. He shifted the wood to his left hand and slowly drew out his dagger with his right. He couldn’t see anything, and figured that it was probably just a hare or a deer, but after that noise, the forest had become silent. The wind no longer stirred the branches, and not even the drone of a cicada gave life to the dead air.
Fingal felt his hair brush down over his right cheek, but before he could flick it away, he paused. It was not his hair; it was a cool, soft touch, like fingers…He spun around and saw a lady standing before him, nearly as tall as he was. The hand that had stroked his cheek was still raised, and she curled her fingers back to her palm. Yet these were no human hands. They were a soft white-grey like the rest of her skin, and the fingers were unnaturally long and pointed at the end with pale green nails.
Fingal was at first unable to move, for although he knew that this was surely the Daughter of Thunder, he was overcome by her ethereal beauty. She was tall and slender, with a pointed chin and ears and narrow, spring green eyes. Her luscious waves of white-blonde hair reached to her waist and were hinted with pale green strands. Colorful flowers were woven into her hair, forming a circlet about her head. She wore a light green and brown gown of silk with sleeves that flowed in long wisps from her elbows, as well as a belt of flowers similar to her circlet. A wry smile crossed her thin lips.
Suddenly recalling his task, Fingal held the piece of the True Cross up to her, expecting some explosion of light. Yet the only thing that seemed to exude a spiritual power was the lady herself. The cross, she glanced at without concern. Speaking in Latin, Fingal said, “Begone, Daughter of Thunder! Tremor before the True Cross upon which Christ gave his life for humanity!”
The fey, however, only trembled with laughter, her voice like a twist of wind through silver chimes. She tried to pluck the wood from Fingal’s hand, and her nails cut his skin.
He snatched his hand back. “Are you the Daughter of Thunder?”
Her green eyes sparkled like sunlight dappling over forest leaves. To his surprise, she responded in Gaelic. “I am not.”
He took a step back, but before he could retreat further, she pounced at him and grasped his neck. “I am Thunder itself,” she whispered, bearing her teeth in a wicked grin.
Fingal didn’t think. He just reacted as he would have in battle. He raised his left hand and brought the wood down on her head hard, forcing her to release her hold on him. She hissed, flicking her head back sharply, and he threw the wood at her forehead. One of the edges cut into her skin, and a whitish-yellow fluid like sap tricked down the side of her face. She pounced forward again, and although Fingal was ready with his dagger, she skirted around him with unnatural speed and shoved him onto his knees.
He spun back around and slashed her legs, slitting her skirt and drawing more of that clear blood from her leg. Yet she still came at him, grasping his neck again and piercing her nails into his flesh. Fingal gritted his teeth and slashed her arm. The woman shrieked and spun around him, still grasping his neck and drawing blood as she twisted her nails into his flesh.
Fingal couldn’t shake her off, so instead, he fell onto his back with the intention of crushing her beneath him. He wasn’t sure that he succeeded, for although he heard the snap of a bone, her hold on him didn’t weaken.
“You will not succeed, traitor,” she gasped in his ear. “You may destroy me, but we shall never let you escape.”
Fingal rolled over, and, quicker than her this time, plunged the dagger into her chest. The lady screamed, the shrill cry of a thousand crystal glasses thrown against a stone wall. Fingal dropped his weapon and grasped his ears. The world about him swirled with green as if the trees were swaying and the very earth itself was moving. A strong wind rustled the leaves of the trees in a long moan.
The lady fell back unconscious, this woman of thunder. We shall never let you escape… Her words returned to Fingal as he knelt there, trying to regain himself. He breathed deeply, each breath raw as if his throat had been sliced open. He fell to his hands and saw a dark fluid drip from his neck. It was from the lady’s fingers, and reaching up to his wounds, he found that they were deep. His fingers did not become coated in red, but a very dark green, almost black.
We shall never let you escape…
Fingal only managed a final ragged breath before collapsing next to Thunder.
He was held beneath a veil of music, the dancing of light feet upon silver bells, wandering about the hollows of his mind. It was peaceful, and Fingal wanted nothing more than to lay where he was, absorbing the music. Slowly, he became aware that he was lying on something cushioned like leaves, and that it was pleasantly cool. The scent of stream water and rich earth suffused the air. His mind danced with the music, and when he opened his eyes, he found himself beneath a dense forest canopy creating a loom of sunlight that shifted with the notes of the music. Fingal felt that he might be in a hollow below the forest floor, though trees still grew thickly down here as well.
Yet however peaceful, Fingal soon became curious about that music. And the fact that he no longer had his dagger or the piece of the True Cross—though he now doubted the identity of that piece of wood—didn’t give him confidence that he could defend himself.
He first felt his neck, and was pleasantly surprised that the wounds had healed, leaving only small bumps where the skin was still scarred. When he sat up, he became aware that the music was coming from behind him, and, upon turning, he beheld its source. There was an organ built within the trunk of a wide pine tree, with pipes carved out of the wood and a set of keys that curved out from the tree at about waist height. The keys, of a pale green hue, were each a different size, but somehow, still looked beautiful together. The trunk above the keys was decorated with engravings of vines and flowers.
Upon a wooden stool before the organ a young girl sat cross-legged, her legs tucked up under her dress. She was perhaps fifteen or so, her white-blonde hair was tied in a bun with a sheer green silk scarf, and she wore a translucent gown of pale blue and white. Fingal remarked that her skin was the same grey-white as the Daughter of Thunder—or ‘Thunder,’ as it were—but he was not apprehensive. He just sat there, watching her play the organ, wondering if she was an Eastern fairy, for she was unlike any of the fairies from Scottish legends.
Eventually, her song came to a close with a flourish, and she turned to Fingal as if she had known that he was awake and watching her. Her narrow eyes were bluer than a bright summer’s sky, and her ears and nose were pointed like the other spirit.
“Have you repented yet, MacLeod?” she spoke softly.
Fingal swallowed. “For…”
“You killed my mother.”
“I am sorry. I was sent to kill the Daughter of Thunder, and…” He suddenly realized if he had indeed killed Thunder, and this girl was her daughter…but was she really evil? He had been so caught up with the hermit’s task that he hadn’t thought about whether or not his words had been truthful.
“Will you kill me, then?” the Daughter of Thunder asked, though she didn’t sound particularly concerned. “I, who saved your life?”
Fingal felt his neck again. “Why did you save me?”
“You and your people have a great destiny to fulfill. Far up north you rule your island, but what is even greater than the courage and nobility of your people is your very blood, for it connects you to the earth. Your people are closer to the fey than any other; the fair folk flock to that isle, for it is where our deepest power lies. You must return to your land to preserve the clan, and so preserve our greatest sanctuary. Your blood will always lead you to us, whether you wish it or not.”
After she spoke this, she reached into one of the pipes of the organ to produce a cloth of pale yellow silk. Upon unfurling it, Fingal was struck with its shimmering brilliance, as if it had captured the sunlight of a summer’s day. There were small square crosses wrought in golden thread upon its surface that seemed to radiate light. Fingal could do no more than stare at it in wonder. This was what he had expected from that piece of wood from the hermit, but this cloth was greater, for it drew memories of his home, of the verdant moors, the whisper of a breeze off Loch Dunvegan, and the cool morning mist through which one could almost see the fair folk gliding like graceful dancers. He now knew how foolish he had been. He could have blamed the hermit, but it had been he who had drawn the blade, he who had spurred Thunder to fury.
“I am sorry,” he said. He stood and knelt before the girl, who was still regarding him sternly. “I will never again harm the creatures of the Earth.”
“You ought not to,” she said. “For you are now one of us.” She spread the flag out on the ground before him. “With this cloth wrought by my music, I revived the life within you. Otherwise, you would have perished as my mother did. Destroy this cloth, and you destroy your life and the lives of all your descendants.”
Fingal breathed in the cool, damp air, his eyes fixed upon the cloth.
“In this glen, you are bound to the cloth, yet if you leave, you will perish. You must pledge yourself to us and the earth beneath you, or else you can never leave this place.”
She returned to the organ, and reaching inside another pipe, produced a small metal dagger with a dark wooden handle. Fingal made to rise, but the girl pointed the dagger at him to gesture that he remain kneeling. “Give me your hand,” she said.
Fingal tentatively brought his right hand toward her, which, like his neck, was almost entirely healed.
The Daughter of Thunder pointed the knife to the center of his palm, not too hard, but enough to draw a trickle of blood. “Anoint the cloth.”
Fingal tilted his hand over the silk, letting drops of blood spread over its surface. At first, he thought it a shame to mar it, but the drops of blood added a beautiful red to the silk, and the spots remained bright rather than drying in brown smudges.
When the silk was anointed to the Daughter of Thunder’s satisfaction, she knelt and set the dagger on the ground, then carefully folded the cloth into a small square. It was no longer glowing, but its presence still impressed upon Fingal’s mind. He was about to wipe his hand on his leggings, but found that the wound had healed up on its own.
The Daughter of Thunder handed him the cloth, and he took it carefully. It was so light, as if it was formed of air itself. Yet so too was it his very life, something he would have to guard until his dying breath.
“This is not a curse, young MacLeod,” the Daughter of Thunder continued. “Although you may be bound to the cloth, it was born of my magic, and so carries its own powers. When you return to your clan, you must fashion the cloth into a flag. When your clan is in dire need, they may unfurl the flag before the difficulty and aide will come. This may only be performed three times, and only by you or your descendants. After the third unfurling, the flag and its bearer will return to us, never again to set forth in the mortal world. It is your choice, whether you unfurl it the third time. Though if you do not, the clan may suffer extinction. It is the price of our magic. Yet although your descendants may only gain our strength by unfurling the flag, you may call upon us directly. Remember, if you need my aide, I am the thunder in the ancient stones, in the churning waters, and in the old brambled grottos.
“Now leave, and fulfill the destiny to which you are bound.”
Fingal bowed his head before standing. He felt the earth around him, whispering in his mind, tingling in his blood.
Before he could thank the fey, she had vanished—or rather, he had vanished from the grotto. He was now standing upon a moor covered with long dewy grass in the early morning. The large rising sun was an orange-red with hints of yellow, the same hue as the silken cloth in his hands. He was before the castle Dunvegan that his clan called home. Its stout towers rose before mottled purple-grey clouds, and upon the central turret flew the red and blue MacLeod flag of a bull’s head with the motto Hold Fast.
Fingal may have been wrested from his crusade, and he may have lost some essential part of his life, but he knew that he had gained much more. As he started down toward the castle’s bridge, he realized that he was about to embark on a different crusade, one that would continue until his last breath, and would be carried forth by countless generations to come.
Will didn’t know how it had happened, but he had ejected from his Spitfire. His parachute that, by all rights, should have melted in the heat of the engine’s fire, had borne him down to a rooftop in the east end of the city.
He tore his goggles off and unbuckled his air mask, letting it drop to the side. It wasn’t as though the smoke-dense air was congenial to breathing, but at least he could breathe. At least he was alive.
He just sat there, reflecting upon the miracle, sitting amid debris from his plane, and maybe the German bomber as well. He recognized a part of his dashboard next to him, and absently flicked at some of the controls. Yet his hand hovered over a charred piece of paper that was taped to it. It was only held on by one corner, and the rest had flipped over so that he was actually looking at the back of it. Carefully, Will removed it and turned it over.
The picture was unmarred. Except for the charred edges, the part with the flag was just as it had been when he’d last seen it. He took a deep breath, suddenly remembering what had happened after he crashed into the plane, or at least, what had happened in his mind. He had entered some sort of dream, or a vision, of the man in the middle ages who had first obtained the Fairy Flag, how he had killed Thunder, and had been rescued by her daughter. Although the Flag was now tattered and the golden crosses had faded, Fingal’s blood—indeed, Will’s own blood—was still sprinkled upon it in those red spots.
Had the flag really saved Will? His life too was wrought into those yellow threads, and although he might not have Fingal’s power to summon the fey at his command, perhaps something of its power remained in him as well.
Will looked up from the picture to the fire and smoke cast over London. Surely, this wouldn’t last. He still breathed the air, and although it was fouled with soot, as long as his life lasted, he would fight.
So, tucking the picture of the flag into the chest pocket of his uniform, Will stood and made his way from the rooftop to complete his own crusade.