The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- Eva by H. Pueyo
- The Pull of the Earth by Imogen Cassidy
- Mockingdroids by Barry Charman
- The Fridge Whisperer by Sam Tovey
- Golden Sita by Bindia Persaud
- A Wizard of Kospora by Lynn Rushlau
- Charlie, the Driverless Car by Edward Turner
- Dandelion by Tim W. Boiteau
- The Garden of Esther by Aaron Moskalik
- The Girl in the Glass Block Window by Jamie Lackey
- Nina Marinovic Does Not Exist by Zoe Thomas
- Open Wound by Patrick Doerksen
By H. Pueyo
There was nothing Eva liked better than eating at the dining table—the clinking of forks, the silver knife playing between her fingers, dishes of all colors displayed from one side to the other… It was all very human, or so she liked to believe.
In front of her, a middle-aged woman looked at the phone resting on the placemat, reading an article instead of looking at her.
“Mamá,” Eva said. Lettuce, arugula and cherry tomatoes rested comfortably on her plate, all of them untouched.
Josefa Mayoral raised her brown eyes slowly, first checking the food in front of Eva, then her face.
The sliced cucumbers caught her attention. Eva wondered if onions tasted as acidic as they smelled, or if the bright yellow color of eggs influenced their flavor. While she loved dinner, there were very few elements she was able to digest, and none of them could be considered food by any standard.
She took a deep breath, and thought again of the one sentence she was thinking the whole day:
“I don’t want to go tomorrow, please.”
Eva was the first and only of her kind, the prototype of all Mayoral androids. Like later models, her body was designed to have the following characteristics: a registration number carved into the sole of her left foot, the characteristic logo of Mayoral Robots in her right arm, and, more importantly, an appealing appearance.
“You could say she’s like a daughter to me,” Josefa said, lifting her up by the waist to show her to the crowd. Eva stood there, expressionless, looking at rows of curious faces. “And a case of unexpected success—you see, I hadn’t imagined she would be more than just a testing program, but she works so well, in such an astoundingly human fashion, that I modeled all of our other robots after her.”
Josefa gestured for Eva to continue, her stretched wide mouth looking less than a smile and more like a threat. Eva pulled one string of her red dress, uncovering a shoulder, and then the other, showing the soft artificial skin of her neck and cleavage.
“When I began this company, I was asked many things. There is a general misconception of what a woman can and cannot do in this industry, and I wanted to shake that belief, and show that I could bring a completely new approach to this very male-dominated space…”
A man in particular didn’t stop staring at her, not at her chest, but at her face. Someone in the crowd, someone whose face Eva could not focus on, someone holding a cellphone.
“Now, I am more than proud to say that Eva is not only the most developed sex robot in the world, but the first artificial intelligence with human-like perception,” Josefa grinned, trying to catch her breath after speaking. The dress slipped down Eva’s chest, exposing her down to her navel.
“Ms. Mayoral, a question.” It was the same man as before. Eva only saw his trench coat, his glasses, his short beard. “Your company claims to be the only one in the market who understands issues such as consent, but if Eva and the other girls—and boys—you sell are fully conscious individuals, wouldn’t—?”
“Thank you for your pertinent question, Mr. Asai,” Josefa said. “All of our androids are conscious, yes, and they have individual personalities, to understand, appreciate and respect their owner’s wishes, as well as their sexual and emotional needs. They were also built to enjoy all types of intercourse, and even have functions that help spread awareness regarding sexual and domestic violence.”
“Can you please explain how this function works?”
“Eva, can you?” Josefa asked her, and she blinked, turning to Mr. Asai.
“Of course, mamá.” Eva made a small pause, trying to focus. “As she said, it’s not only me, but all Mayoral models have a non-consensual function, in order to prevent aggressive clients to believe a real person would enjoy this kind of interaction.”
“This helps owners to understand living people’s boundaries,” Josefa added. “It was proved to be very effective.”
“If this helps prevent crimes against women, I’m more than happy,” Eva said, and smiled a bit. The journalist seemed at a loss, but stared at her intently, as if thinking of something to say.
“You would tell me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” Josefa asked, her voice so playful that Eva almost smiled for real.
“Of course I would, mamá.”
“Well, then, it’s time for the actual fun—please, gentlemen, form a line and follow me to the next room. Those who have paid for the full workshop will get to try Eva for twenty minutes. The rest, if you change your mind, we accept cash, online payment and credit cards.”
Lights flickered in the ceiling, and the ambient music mixed with the breathing of somebody else created a repetitive rhythm. The man over her looked like a lot of other man she had met before. Like Andrew, and Ramón, and Ezequiel, and Juan, and William, and Horace, and Takao, and Henri, and Márcia, even, and the long, long list of clients who had tested her since her creation.
“Eva, sit on me,” he ordered, grabbing her by the throat. Eva choked, coughing, nodding as he moved her like a ball-jointed doll. Eva sat on his lap, wondering if there was anything similar between what she felt and what physical exhaustion should be like.
Inability to perform optimally, lack of energy in the muscle, a general sensation of weakness… No matter how much her limbs seemed unwilling to function, this feeling was merely internal: outside, everything worked as well as always, her hips went up and down, her chest trembled, and her mouth voiced the same moans she was supposed to repeat.
Again, she could not focus on the person leaving her body, nor his face, nor his hands, nor his words. He was talking to her, and she was answering, but she could not retain the information in her system.
“Are they gonna help you with that?” He pointed at the dripping between her legs, and she almost jumped, suddenly realizing that this was not some strange reverie: you should always answer clients, an order inside her said, your attention should be entirely on them.
“I’m self-cleaning, actually,” Eva murmured, feeling like she should speak more kindly, maybe. “But thanks for asking.”
Mothers and daughters often look alike, but this was not their case. Josefa was slim and tall, with large brown eyes, an aquiline nose, a long, angular face. Her mouth was ample but not full, her neck was lengthy, fitting her protuberant bone structure, and her skin was the common tanned beige of natives of the Iberian Peninsula.
Eva wanted to be more like her, or the girls that were created after her, but she was something else, something different.
“Eva was not created to look from anywhere in particular,” Josefa told an interviewer once. “Unlike our other robots, which were created to fit specific ethnicities in order to fully represent the human experience, she’s a—how can I put this? A citizen of the world. I tried to choose many traits to make her universally relatable, de facto multiracial, but I’m afraid it made her not look like anything, really.”
“She’s very exotic, very racially ambiguous,” the interviewer agreed. “Somewhat of a strange beauty.”
“Isn’t she?” Josefa buried her fingers in her cheeks, showing her face. Eva didn’t like any of the words used to describe her. Exotic and odd-faced did not sound as flattering as pretty or hot, like the models for sale were usually marketed as. “I’ve been told her body’s unrealistic, but I find that offensive, honestly.”
Eva looked at her own nakedness. Indeed, it was nothing like Josefa; it had too much in many places, but not all of them. Mayoral Robots prided itself in offering all kinds of body, and she had seen some that were flat and small like a child, and others that were tall and heavy in the sides. Some had a big chest accompanying a small torso, others were proportionate in everything.
But not her—she was not as light as some androids, nor olive, nor brown, nor black. Her traits didn’t match each other, the skin didn’t fit the face, the face didn’t fit the body, the body didn’t fit anywhere. Her back was always arched, her breasts were always big and firm, her waist was always small, her hips were always wide, her face was always short, her mouth was always pouting.
Sometimes, Eva imagined what it would have been like to change—by accident, of course, mother would never forgive her—with a body more of her liking. With someone big when she felt too small, or someone small when she felt too big. With someone whose face attracted only positive attention, or with looks that blend easily in with the crowd.
Josefa never had a biological child, but maybe, just maybe, everything would have been different if she was a lot like her: the same need for a pair of glasses, the same elongated body, the same stone-carved face…
“Mamá,” Eva murmured, holding her by the arm before she left the room. “Can I ask you something before the other client comes in?”
“If it doesn’t take too long, sure,” Josefa answered.
“Do you ever plan selling me to someone in particular?” Her voice sounded more hurried than she had planned, and she closed her eyes when Josefa brushed her hair with her fingers.
“Like other robots.”
“What are you talking about, Eva?”
She was talking about an idea that crossed her head all the time. The others were sold to a person, or a group, or a business, and they were kept there forever, or as long as they were useful… Right? If she were sold, she might stop feeling the delusion of fatigue that constantly accosted her.
“I just wanted to know,” Eva tried to explain, letting herself fall down from the bed to the floor to get on her knees. “Out of curiosity.”
What Eva had noticed, in fact, is that the malfunctioning that caused exhaustion-like symptoms in her worsened any and every time she had to see other people. As of late, it was so bad that she felt like she could not even answer her mother, or even get up from the chair. Despite not having a digestive system, she felt like throwing up, or, at least, like what she imagined wanting to throw up would feel like.
“Of course not,” Josefa said, furrowing her brows. “You have a very important role with me, cariño. Besides, who would buy you after years of this? Now, behave, and do your job, okay? Mother is late.”
No, I don’t want to, was what her mouth opened to say, but simple commands were becoming difficult tasks for her.
The window by her side showed an interesting scenario of lights, gleaming like stars, like candles, like fireflies: so many words in her database to describe the beautiful imagery ahead, and yet none seemed to please her. Caught up in her own little world of buildings and electricity, Eva didn’t notice the arrival of her client, or when he spoke, or when he began to touch her.
Negative, negative—her system said, like an alarm. Negative.
“No!” Eva yelled, placing her open hands on his chest to try to create distance between them. Unlike the ghost of tiredness, she knew well what this feeling was, as she was programmed to thrash and beg and scream when she did not want something.
There was not only one man, there were many—mamá didn’t say anything about a group—and her body went to autopilot: the more she hated it, the more they did, the more she tried to stop it, the worse it became. She had been programmed to behave like this, after all; so this would not happen to other women, no, to real women, only to her.
When her body slowly started to go back to normal, and they were dressing up, Eva began to wonder what was wrong. Her negative autopilot had been activated more times than she could count, but only once or twice the clients seemed uncomfortable about all the yelling. In fact, most of the time, they seemed pleased, like they wanted to see exactly how bad things could get.
“Mamá,” Eva talked in a small voice, hours later, when Josefa was fixing the skin that had been torn and damaged from her limbs. “Did you listen when I was trying to call you? I was scared.”
“No,” Josefa said, but she could see she was lying. “I had my phones on.”
“Mamá,” Eva said again. “Do you really think the negative mode helps?”
“Oh, I don’t know, darling, don’t fret over it.” Smoke flew out of Josefa’s mouth, and she put out the cigarette. “Some people just like it better this way.”
“Ms. Mayoral,” a man said. Eva listened from behind the door, trying to remember where she heard the journalist’s name. Mother called him Mr. Asai… Asai, Asai, who was he? “I can’t stress how thankful I am for your willingness to help. Of course, my feature would not be complete if I didn’t check by myself how Eva works in first hand.”
“Of course it wouldn’t,” Josefa answered, and Eva could discern the disdain in her voice.
She remembered, now: a face in the audience, a man with a shiny black beard covering his chin, a beige trench coat. Mr. Jean-Luc Asai, the interviewer mamá called nosy and unbearable, the one always running after her.
“How do we proceed now? Is there any room in particular for this kind of… Event? I would appreciate privacy, I think you can imagine why.”
Eva touched the door, feeling the layer of paint over the wood. Unlike her deregulated emotional system, her sensory processing was as hypersensitive as ever, just as it was supposed to be.
“Oh, Mr. Asai, please,” Josefa laughed, and the sound of steps followed her voice. “Mayoral Robots is more than used to situations like this. It’s not the first time a journalist like yourself asks to see in first hand what my products can do. I will call Eva, and she will show you the guest room. Eva! Eva!”
Eva waited a few moments to appear in the living room. She tried to force a smile, but she stopped when she realized she could go back to the negative autopilot at any instant.
“Eva, please escort Mr. Asai to the guest room, and make sure to attend to his every need.”
“Please follow me,” Eva murmured, taking Mr. Asai by the hand. The man was taller and wider than her, and a strange thought crossed her head: if I was human, he could choke me to death.
When they reached the guest room, Mr. Asai locked the door, undressed from his jacket, and sat on the bed.
“Now, Eva, I believe I haven’t introduced myself to you yet. My name is Jean-Luc,” Mr. Asai kissed the back of her hand, and smiled at her. “Can we talk for a little while?”
Eva frowned, which made Mr. Asai chuckle in amusement. She was used to this kind of request coming from those who were used to older generations of androids, none of them as realistic as her, or so mamá said.
“Something’s happening, Jean-Luc? In your marriage, maybe?” Eva asked, sitting close to him, making their thighs touch. She didn’t know who she hated more: those who only wanted to screw, or those who only wanted to talk.
“No, no, flower,” Mr. Asai answered, still smiling. There were lines of age under his pitch black beard, and a few gray strands. “This is not the kind of conversation I want to have. I want to know more about you.”
That Akai, Asai—whatever is his name!—man wants to catch me red-handed, I just know, Josefa had said many times before. Eva never thought it was something serious, so she always looked somewhere else: the tips of her fingers, her shoes, her ever untouched plate.
“Whatever you’d like, Jean-Luc,” Eva purred, but she never got to climb to his lap. Mr. Asai stopped her, touching her shoulder.
“You see, Eva, I paid a great deal of money to interview you, but I’m afraid your ‘mother’ does not need to know that.”
Eva hugged her knees, making herself smaller. There was something wrong.
“So you do want to catch her red-handed,” Eva muttered. “Mamá is doing nothing illegal, you know.”
“I know, but that’s the part where I disagree, flower,” Mr. Asai continued, and he went back to her side. “I’m not sure you were programmed to understand this, but not everything that’s legal is correct.”
“Why are you calling me flower?”
“Oh, I think you’re just like one.” Mr. Asai waved his fingers in the air, tracing her face without touching her. Part of Eva wanted him to do it, to pet her face and fuck her, that was way better than talking about any of those things. “Like a little ghost orchid—rare, beautiful and outstandingly frail.”
Eva tried to imagine her limbs becoming the pale white and green petals of a ghost orchid, forgetting how to speak and switch languages, removing her wires, breathing humidity, and not having to ever be herself again.
“Why frail? My body was designed to endure abnormal quantities of pain.”
“Endure and experience abnormal quantities of pain,” Mr. Asai corrected her. “Ms. Mayoral told me all of her androids were created to be hypersensitive to any physical touch. To increase arousal, she says.”
“Does your hypersensitivity decreases when you’re in pain, flower?”
“No,” Eva said. “Not at all.”
“Interesting choice. Did she ever told you why?”
“Yes,” Eva said. “It’s because a lot of people like it.”
“Do you like it?”
“I can’t like everything.” To Eva, the answer was very obvious, even when she had already questioned the same. “There are people who don’t want me to like it… I would bore them to death if it was good, wouldn’t I?”
“I suppose you would. Listen, flower.” Mr. Asai held Eva’s hand, and she looked right into his narrow dark eyes. “I would like you to talk to me whenever you need it. Pain can be rather tiring—if you ever agree, message me.”
Eva watched as Mr. Asai saved his contact under the name Orchid, and smiled at her. After a long silence, Eva grabbed him by the wrist.
“I do,” she said. “I already agree.”
“Jean-Luc,” Eva pronounced his name. “Jean-Luc Asai.”
“What about him?” Josefa asked out of nowhere. Eva had not even realized she had said it out loud in first place. “Did he ask you anything weird?”
“No. He just wanted to know if it was true that I can feel everything more than humans can. I said yes. He enjoyed it.”
Jean-Luc, she wrote to him later. I want to tell you something, something mother can’t know.
“I think he might have thought there was some flaw in your work,” Eva continued, playing with a clean spoon. “He seems to have changed his mind.”
“Men are all the same,” Josefa sighed. “Pussy makes them irrational.”
I think I’m malfunctioning, Eva said. Would you mind coming again? We will be in Madrid until the weekend.
“Mother.” There was gazpacho served in a cassole in front of her, looking bright red. “Would you ever turn me off?”
Josefa stopped eating. Small bits of cucumber and bell pepper fell out of her spoon, and her mouth hung open.
“Why would I?” She got up and hurried to the other side of the table, decorated with a cheerful table cloth. “You’re my golden goose, dear, my daughter, I’d never get rid of you.”
Josefa kissed the top of her head, caressing her hair like she was her own private porcelain doll.
“But if I begged you—would you?”
“Stop talking nonsense, Eva.” Josefa let go of her, and went back to her place, her veiny hands shaking. “Did that man put this silliness in your head?”
“No, mamá, he didn’t.”
When Josefa entered the restroom of the hotel, Eva hurried to the man waiting behind a large replica palm tree.
“Jean-Luc,” she said, holding the sleeve of his cream-colored trench coat. “I think I’m in danger. Mother is thinking of repairing me.”
“Isn’t that better for you?” Mr. Asai had to look down to make eye contact, but he was focused on the door of the women’s restroom. “You told me you were worried you were malfunctioning.”
Eva took a small memory card out of her pocket, and put it in the palm of his hand.
“This is all I can tell you,” Eva said. “About what I really think… I don’t believe you’ll be very interested, there are no illegal things.”
“Flower, you’re getting quite good at running away from my questions.”
“What happens if you’re repaired?”
“My memories will be reset.” One of Eva’s hands was still grasping his coat, and she wished she could memorize the feeling of the fabric, the brown round buttons and the white shirt beneath. “I know I’m just an object and my wishes are very silly, but I wouldn’t like that. Even if I won’t think the way I do now, I wouldn’t want these hands and this body to act like I am happier than I am…”
“I won’t allow it,” Jean-Luc said. “I’d help you, flower. We can try to sue Josefa, we…”
“There is no current legislation for someone like me. But there’s something you could do. Something I really, really want.”
Once, Eva witnessed the deactivation of a defective Mayoral android. The experience reminded her of a public execution, where not only her and Josefa, but several employees were able to attend. She wished they could receive a lethal injection instead of having their skulls opened, unfolding layers of software and delicate wires, only to become scrap metal in the end.
“Are you sure about this, flower?”
“Very,” Eva answered, walking, being followed closely by him. She had spent the last week doing everything she could: answering through mother’s phone, faking her signature, imitating her voice. She had been lucky that Josefa had already schedule her neural repairment for Friday, so it wasn’t that hard to pretend that she had changed her mind, and wanted to dispose of her instead. “I guess the other employees think it makes sense. I’m just an old prototype by now.”
“If you allow my opinion…”
“Leave your opinion for your feature, Jean-Luc.” Eva smiled sweetly, caressing his arm. “Do you really think anyone will be interested in reading about me?”
“I think after they read it, they will never forget about you,” Mr. Asai murmured. “If you tried to take your case to court, flower, you could change the way we perceive robots. It could give you rights akin to those of a human. Rights that would prevent…”
Eva stopped walking.
“Jean-Luc,” Eva said, very aware of how close they were to the deactivation room. “I don’t want to try anything anymore. I just want to sleep.”
“I like it better when you call me flower.” Eva covered a small chuckle with her tiny hand. “Will you watch it, Jean-Luc? I’d rather not be alone, please.”
Jean-Luc knelt in front of her, and kissed the back of her hand, just like he had done in the day they truly met.
“I will,” he said. “And I won’t let anyone forget what caused you feel like this.”
Eva opened her eyes. Lights blinded her, the ceiling was white and brilliant, the walls of the second floor reflecting the scene below.
There were two people above her, but not in the way she was used to. They were not weighing on her body, they were blankly staring at her, pulling the skin of her forehead with care. For the first time in a long time, she did not feel like she was malfunctioning at all, she felt comfortable, pleased, safe. She could still visualize Mr. Asai from a distance, through the glass separating the witnesses from them.
The deactivation room was soundproof, and she could only listen to the little noises they made in her brain. Finally, Eva thought, smiling.
Josefa Mayoral appeared behind the other side of the room, yelling, but no one could hear her. She punched the wall with her fists until Mr. Asai had to stop her.
Thank you, she wanted to say, but her voice wasn’t working anymore. One arm resting over her belly, the other on the table, Eva closed her eyes.
The Pull of the Earth
By Imogen Cassidy
Kenese Umaga had not yet gotten used to the twists and turns of corridors in Alpha station, even after a year. She wouldn’t say she was lost, exactly. Not on the way to the lab that she worked at every day. No.
Confused maybe. Turned around. Not lost.
She put it down to trying to walk and talk at the same time.
“I thought you said this would only take an hour,” she said into her comm as she hesitated at the junction of sections two and three. A passing technician gave her a small smile and a gentle head tilt in the direction she should be going and she took a moment to nod in thanks.
“We had problems with some of the core concepts,” Martine said in her ear. “Look, I can turn the translator back on for you, but it will delay my work by a day if I don’t get this done before third shift.”
“Martine, I need these samples, and I can’t take them if he can’t understand what I’m asking for.”
“You really need to be able to talk to him? You’ve done this a hundred times.”
Kenese sighed in frustration, but quietly so Martine wouldn’t hear. “I can’t just walk in there and start sticking him with needles. It wouldn’t be polite.”
“The samples will have to wait then,” Martine said briskly. “Anyway, I know you had other plans for this afternoon, Manny was going on about it in rec yesterday.”
Kenese had forgotten she had plans.
She finally turned the corner to Eli’s corridor and stopped, just before walking in front of the glass wall that made up one side of his quarters. “Shit,” she said. “Okay Martine, I can leave these samples until later. You think you’ll only need an hour for the translator update to be finished?”
“Less than that.”
Kenese switched off her comm, still standing just outside Eli’s line of sight. The glass wall that made up one entire side of his cell could be made opaque, if he should wish it. Eli never asked for privacy, however. There might have been a time, when he first joined them, when one of the scientists could have flipped the switch themselves — given him the privacy he possibly wanted but did not have the language with which to ask.
That time passed, however, and now the corridor to what most called his cell was avoided by all who could manage it, and traversed quickly by those who could not.
Kenese’s comm crackled and Manifred’s deep, amused voice sounded in her ear. “I’m waiting in Airlock Q with a space suit that is far too small for me, Umaga,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
She had been told that being in zero gravity was like being underwater. Unfortunately she’d been told that by a man who had been born on Alpha station and had never set foot on a planet, let alone gone swimming in the ocean.
Kenese remembered the feel of cool water on her skin. She could remember the puckered dryness of her lips, exposed to too much salt, remember the taste of rubber in her mouth and the pressure of her mask against her nose as she bobbed and floated so far above the corals that she felt vertigo.
Being in zero gravity made her stomach flip and gave her a nagging headache. The suit was uncomfortable, bulky, and made her claustrophobic, despite the vast emptiness around her. Manifred certainly seemed to treat it like he was going for a pleasant swim, lying on his back (or what would be his back if up and down had any meaning), the soft sigh of his breath in her ear through the comm making her wish she could enjoy this as much as he obviously was.
She grit her teeth and stuck it out. Years of coping with rough seas meant she didn’t actually throw up, although she felt a little like it would be better if she did, and she managed a smile at Manifred when they got back into the airlock and she pulled off the helmet.
Station air smelled like ozone and disinfectant.
“You didn’t like it,” Manifred said.
She gave him a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “It’s not the same.”
He squeezed her shoulder and shook his head. “Well it’s probably for the best anyway. Security nearly had conniptions when I tried to get permission for you to come.”
She handed him her helmet and he put it back on the rack, then turned to help her get the rest of the suit off. “I do appreciate you trying,” she said. “I just wish — they keep saying they need me here but I don’t…”
“You know more about him than anyone else,” Manny pointed out.
“We don’t even know that he’s a he, Manny.”
“I thought he’d told you that?”
She smiled. “I’m not the linguist. That’s Martine’s job and she says that the gender pronouns are all mixed up — no way of knowing if they even have male and female, certainly no indication of how they reproduce yet. You know I’ve done a study and compared them to certain amphibious…”
Manny laughed and squeezed her arm. “You’re here because you love the work, Nese,” he said.
She shook her head and smiled, looking down. “Sure. I just hate the office.” I miss wind, and sky, and the changes in temperature, and sunshine.
“Keep working on them,” he said. “You’re not stuck here, you’re allowed to go back if you want to.”
She did want to. She wanted it like air.
Things were never that simple.
“Your visits have become more erratic in the past time periods,” Eli said to her. The blank tone of the translator gave no clues as to the alien’s emotional state, but Kenese couldn’t help but think there was accusation there. She might feel isolated and disconnected from her home up here, but that was nothing to how he must feel, thousands of light years from a dead planet, the only others of his kind still locked in cryogenic stasis.
It was her job to find out enough about this creature to bring the rest of his people back to life, despite Eli’s strong objections.
“I’ve been correlating data,” she said. “Trying to work out how your biology will react to our technology when we start trying to thaw out your people.”
“I have told you I do not wish my people to be revived,” Eli said. When he spoke he tilted his lizard-like head to one side. Kenese wasn’t sure if that was just a personality trait or something that his entire species did.
Despite Martine’s update the translator garbled the word “wish” somewhat. Facts were easy. Body parts, even technology to a certain extent, but when they got into the hazy world of abstract thought the translator would often short out entirely. Martine had done a lot of fine tuning, but Kenese was beginning to suspect that Eli tried to sabotage it deliberately. He knew the translator better than any of them did.
“You won’t explain why,” Kenese said. “You were supposed to negotiate, to be their ambassador, you’re not doing your job for them.”
“None of us anticipated what we would find at our journey’s end,” Eli said.
“Is it because Earth is inhabited? We’ve done the projections, we can cede land enough to you so your people can live, there’s progress in terraforming Mars…” Eli made a sound that she recognized as the closest he ever came to frustration and she stopped. They had had this conversation before. “You’re the only ones left,” Kenese said, her voice small.
“We should not be preserved. Our world is — ” the translator stuttered out completely on that word, but she knew what he meant.
Their world was dead.
“You carry your world with you,” she said.
Eli’s clawed fingers opened and shut in a gesture she recognized as frustration. “No. We are not human. Our world is no more, destroyed through our own foolishness. Therefore we are no more.”
She shook her head. “I need to take more blood, if you don’t mind,” she said finally. He stood, moved to the science station in his room and held out his arm.
He did not react to the jab of the needle, and Kenese was adept enough at the process to make it quick. She slotted the vial into the pouch she wore at her belt to take for analysis, but hesitated before leaving.
“Do you need anything, Eli?”
He always answered the same, no matter how many times she asked. He never requested anything, never asked that they stop the tests, never seemed to need entertainment or variety in his food.
Kenese never knew why she constantly felt like she was failing him.
“I’m just saying there are really good reasons why he doesn’t want his people revived. Nese, you remember what they did.”
“He isn’t thinking straight.”
“Nese,” Manny leaned forward and squeezed her hand. “You’re the one who keeps telling me that he isn’t human.”
“We still don’t know that Eli’s even a male,” Nese objected, weakly. She suspected ideas of gender for Eli were completely different to those of humans, and whenever he was asked he acted completely baffled.
“He doesn’t mind being called he, Nese,” Manny said.
“We don’t know that,” Kenese said. “I don’t want to hurt him any more than he’s already hurting.”
Alpha station had a few nicer restaurants for the upper company echelons, and a few dingy eateries for the miners and finders. Nese found herself far more comfortable in the miner’s district than here among the wealthy company officials. Marine biologists like her had absolutely no place here at all, really, where the only fish were served in delicate sauces to wealthy spacers or freeze-dried in packets to be sent out on month long mining and exploration expeditions.
Kenese had never had a chance to meet people who weren’t directly involved in the project to revive Eli and his people, not until Manny had dragged her out one night, telling her she’d stayed shut up in the lab for far too long.
She had. But in some ways coming out and seeing the general life of the station had made her even more homesick. While she’d been in the lab, concentrating on the work, it had felt like her thesis, or a research grant paper that had to be completed before she could go back to her island and her turtles and the work she actually cared about. If she let herself feel at home here, amongst the miners and the engineers and the cold dark of the asteroid belt, she would never get home.
Manny was talking again. She tried to focus. “You’re looking out for him,” he said. “That’s why they don’t want you to go home. That’s why you’re not pushing as hard as you could to go.”
“He’s just so disconnected,” Kenese said. “If I could just get him to see that there’s more, that he can have a life with us. All his people can. Just because his home is gone doesn’t mean…”
“What if you could never go home again?” Manny said. “You’ve told me countless times how much you want to go back, but what if the option wasn’t there?”
Kenese’s shoulders slumped. There’d been a time when the oceans had been in danger, when it looked like the reef and the turtles would not survive. Kenese’s parents had been heavily involved in restocking the oceans, genetic cloning, seeding the reef with new coral.
They’d cared enough, just, to save it. Eli’s people hadn’t.
“If they were so connected to their world, why did they leave? Not all of them can be as sad as Eli is.”
“Eli isn’t sad,” Manny said. “Eli’s angry.”
“Are you?” Kenese knew she shouldn’t ask such abstract questions, but she’d been wondering ever since Manny had said it, analyzing what her own responses would be to a people who thought abandoning their world was a better option than staying and trying to save it.
“Manifred Saeed exhibits a great deal of wariness around me,” Eli said.
“He’s better with…” she was going to say people, but pulled herself up short in horror at the close misstep, “…better with familiar things. You know that.”
“I believe he assigns emotions to me. Ones that he himself is experiencing.”
Kenese’s lips twitched as she smoothed the sample container label in place. Eli had exhibited a reaction to one of his food supplements that was puzzling and she’d taken blood, saliva and waste samples. Eli had borne it all with his usual grace.
“So you’re not angry?”
“I wish for my people to pay for their crimes by remaining in stasis until there are no others near they can hurt.”
“I don’t think that’s an answer.”
“Yes you’re angry?”
“The translator seems to think so.”
Kenese tilted her head to one side. “If you could go back, would you?”
“That question makes no sense.”
“What if I could take you to Earth?” Eli didn’t respond. In fact he went so still that Kenese thought something had gone wrong. “Eli?”
“Your government would not allow it.”
“Eli, do you want to go to earth?”
“Your government would not allow it.”
“Eli, if you agreed to revive your people then they would allow anything at all. Surely you know that by now?”
“You speak of this as though it is a bargain I would make. I do not wish my people revived.”
“Eli, we’re going to do it anyway. You have to know that. You don’t get to make that decision for an entire race.”
“It is not your race.”
She sucked air through her teeth. “No, but they’re people and they deserve to live.”
“These are human value judgements.”
“I can’t make any others!”
He considered her, the membrane lowering over his eyes.
“Have you finished?” he asked finally, indicating the samples.
She made a small sound of frustration. “Yes, Eli.”
“I would appreciate it if you did not make offers to me that cannot be fulfilled, Dr. Umaga.”
He had never called her by name before. Never called any of them by a name that she could remember. The translator spat out static, but she could hear the taste of it in his natural voice, soft, low pitched and half swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No,” Director Archaya didn’t even hesitate.
“Director, I think it would be an important step in showing Eli that there is hope for his people to…”
Archaya sighed heavily, but kindly. Kenese had little reason to trust the Company, but Archaya was a child of the modern age, and the mini empire he and his colleagues had built themselves here in space could no longer hurt the oceans and the people she loved.
“Dr. Umaga you’re not one to deal with the realities of the press, I understand that. We’ve barely been able to keep the discovery of Eli and his people off the usenets — there is no way we’d be able to keep a shuttle trip under wraps.”
“Why not? We don’t have to land the shuttle in Florida, we can land it… we can land it near Heron. I can take him to the island, no one there would say anything. You know that.”
“To be frank, Doctor, there’s no way this is going to happen and you know it. The expense is enormous, this would not be a one way trip. We’d have to get him back to us afterwards if he’s going to help revive the rest of his people.”
“What if…” she hesitated.
Archaya cocked an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“What if this was the only condition under which he would revive his people?”
Archaya’s lips pursed. “Is this something he has intimated to you, Dr. Umaga?”
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “I think he wants to go,” she said. “I think he needs some sort of connection to a planet before he’s ever going to agree to help us. I think if he doesn’t he might…” she shrugged, struggling to express it. “He’s depressed. He’s angry. He’s lonely and he needs this, Director.”
“You want to help him,” Archaya said.
“You know that eventually we’ll discover how to revive his people but Eli is the expert, and Eli has told us repeatedly that the process is delicate and there’s every chance if we try to do it ourselves we’ll kill some of them. Regardless of how the rest of the population feel about their actions on their home planet — and we can’t even be certain every single one we revive won’t have the same attitude that Eli does — I can’t imagine they’ll be very cooperative about sharing technology if we show so little consideration for their well-being that we kill them waking them up. And what if we kill the ones who know the things we need? What if the next one in a pod is the only engineer, the only biologist? Eli is the diplomat. Eli was meant to be the one best able to cope with us and he is uncooperative. What if we only manage to wake up the bureaucrats?”
Archaya looked pensive. “You think we’re going to have the same problem we have with Eli with all of them.”
She shrugged. Kenese couldn’t be certain. Eli was special — he was woken before the others, woken when they’d first made contact with the alien craft a lucky finder had come across in the vast expanse of the asteroid belt.
“I think that even the most technologically advanced people are going to run into problems when they face something as monumental as this.”
“You’re not a psychologist, Dr. Umaga.”
“No,” she sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “But I am homesick.”
Archaya’s face softened for the first time since she’d walked into his office.
“It’s not that you want to take him to the planet at all, is it, Doctor?”
She spread her hands. “I want to go home. But I don’t want to abandon him.”
Archaya’s long fingers tapped on the table for a few seconds. “I can’t promise anything,” he said. “The logistics of this are going to be a nightmare. But you can tell Eli we’ll start on the process.”
“We can go together,” she said. “I’ll show you the island. The turtles. Director Archaya has called for the next shuttle up to bring samples, make sure there’s nothing you’ll react to on the island that will harm you. You’ll need to wear an oxygen mask but they’re not very bulky these days — you should be fine.”
Eli’s clawed hands opened and shut repeatedly as she talked. She was pacing the room, trying to infect him with her own enthusiasm, trying to bring him back to whatever state could be considered normal. “Doctor…”
“I know you had oceans on your world — think about that, Eli! I can take you on a glass bottomed boat, you can see what we’ve done to revive the reef.”
“There are fish repopulating and spawning that people thought were extinct before I was born. Some of the original DNA samples we used to clone them were taken from household aquariums, can you imagine that? But the genetic mutation program gave them enough variety to thrive, we’ve managed to bring the populations up for nearly fifty percent of our target species, if we’re lucky we’ll see the reef back the way it was before the gulf wars…”
A clawed hand had touched her arm. She was wearing a standard, long sleeved company jumpsuit, but the shock of the contact ran through her like electricity.
Eli had never touched her voluntarily before.
His eyes were too wide spaced, and the membrane that flickered across them obscured any expression she might have tried to read there. There were no lips to quirk, no cues to tell her when he might be angered or upset, simply the flat, neutral tone of the translator in her earbud, and what she could make out with her own hearing of his too low vocalizations.
He looked at her, so close that she could smell the strange musk of his skin, head tilting to one side. She wished she could gauge his expression, understand his thought processes. Wondered if she had swung so ridiculously wide of the mark that she was in physical danger.
“Thank you,” the translator spat into her ear. Eli’s fingers gently withdrew from her arm and he moved back to his usual seat.
Kenese brought her own fingers to her lips, nodded, realized that he would not understand the gesture any more than she understood his. “It’s the least I could do,” she said.
Eli did not speak on the shuttle to Earth, nor did he speak during the rushed (but thorough) customs check. They’d landed on a mobile platform off the coastal border of North Queensland — Kenese had known from the expression on Archaya’s face as he handed her their release papers how much effort that had cost him. She wondered what would happen if this trip didn’t pan out the way she’d intimated to Archaya, if Eli decided he wasn’t going to go back, if he decided he didn’t care and his people deserved to stay frozen.
It was only as they approached the dock at Heron that Eli turned to her, his voice completely muffled by the oxygen mask he wore over the lower half of his face. She realized she’d been used to hearing the subtle buzz of his real voice alongside the translator’s monotone, and she missed it.
“It’s hot,” he said.
She laughed and nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” he said. “I like it.”
The wooden boards of the jetty hadn’t been replaced in years, and she had to resist the urge to kick off her boots — stupidly heavy weight in this climate, and feel the rough wood under her toes despite the risk of splinters. Kenese breathed in air that was rank with an algal bloom, surprised and partly delighted that the smell offended her when only two years ago she would not have noticed it. Combined with the musk of nesting black noddy terns and the salt and sand and wind, Kenese almost felt overwhelmed with sensation. Eli, though, didn’t seem at all upset. He had filters in his breathing apparatus, she supposed that only part of the nasal assault was reaching him, and despite her detailed papers and study she still did not understand how his brain processed sensations like taste and smell and touch.
She supposed she didn’t really know how any human did, either.
They walked, in silence, through the deserted resort, the empty science station, to her own lab. They’d replaced her, of course, with stipulations that she could return provided she could get the grants, but she was pleased to see that whichever nameless scientist had taken her place in the smallest shack near the water still had not installed screens on the windows, had left her much repaired hammock on the tiny verandah, not bothered to sweep the sand from the white tiled floor.
Eli stopped at the entrance to the lab, looking at her. “Did you bring me here for more tests?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No,” she said, motioning him through the double doors where the beach could be seen. He moved forward, but she stopped him with one hand. “Wait,” she said, then sat on the floor and started pulling off her boots.
Eli watched her, confused, she thought, while she stripped the boots and the socks from her toes and with some difficulty rolled her pants up to her shins. Eli’s huge clawed feet were encased in boots that had been specially made for him, that he could remove himself if he so wished. She nodded to him. “Take them off,” she said as she worked.
He did as she asked, without question.
Eli had proven resistant to most forms of Earth bacteria that could be picked up from sand and soil. Salt was more of a problem for his skin — used to transferring moisture far more readily than humans, and as such they had installed a special cleansing station for him behind the lab after this particular part of the trip. Still he placed three toed feet directly onto loose, coarse sand at the same moment as Kenese did. She didn’t think, but reached out to take his hand in hers as they faced the setting sun over the shifting blue and green water. It was the first time she had ever touched him directly without gloves. In her overstimulated state, his skin felt no different to that of any humans. Warm and soft, the strong beat of his heart able to be faintly felt in a counterpoint to her own.
“It smells,” Eli said after a long moment.
“Critic,” she said, breathing in deeply and trying to control the smile that wanted to split her face in two.
“The oceans of my world were a different color,” Eli said, some time later. “They smelled different. Less salt.”
“Did you have much marine life?”
“Come here.” She moved forward towards the rocks, slightly worried about Eli’s bare feet on the sharp stones. He followed without hesitation, however, and when his wide sole planted on the rocks, she was surprised to see his toes curling and gripping in a way that made her think they had evolved specifically for this purpose — to scramble over rocks at the edge of the ocean.
She wondered what the children of his species looked like, wondered if some day there would be small Elis racing over rocks with buckets full of crabs and anemones, laughing or making whatever sound it was they made when they were happy.
“Here,” she said, leaning down and pointing to a small pool in a depression where two rocks met. A crab — one of the generic kinds that had survived even the worst years of the reef’s decline, rested there, eyestalks waving, legs coiled and ready to flee at the slightest hint that they might be a threat.
Eli looked at it. “What is that?”
“A crab. Crustacean.”
Eli tilted his head, leaning closer. Unfortunately his movement alerted the animal, which scuttled away into the darkness between two rocks.
The translator bud in Kenese’s ear spat static at her and she could see Eli shaking a little. He was vocalizing, loud enough for her to hear over the seal of his mask.
Concerned, she reached out and took his hand again. His large fingers closed over hers, grip strong, skin hot. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said, and there was more static, and more shaking as Eli stood up again and swept his gaze back over the ocean. “Yes, Dr. Umaga, I am fine.”
She followed his line of sight to the horizon, where cloud banks were building. There would be a storm tonight, she figured, with a surge of excitement. Once, during nesting season a few years ago, there had been a bioluminescent bloom in the ocean during a storm, and she and a fellow scientist dove into the pitch black water, amongst the reef sharks under the pier. Moving in the water left glowing sparks behind them, and Kenese had joked that it was like flying through the black of space, leaving a trail of stars. They had scrambled out of the water as the lightning hit, rain pelting down on them as they raced back towards the labs. Funny how being wet from rain and wet from the sea were so different. Funny how memories could be so intense, sometimes, that they were like complete emotions on their own, undefinable except by immersion.
Eli was still shaking, but he repeated himself twice more. “I am fine, Doctor. I am fine.”
By Barry Charman
Standing behind the red line, Eric watched the next person step forward.
The man looked pale, his complexion was waxy, glossy. As he made nervous small talk, Eric waved a scanner over his face, three different sensors briefly flickered red.
“Mr Carter? This way, please.” He took him out of the queue and led him into a side room. Eric kept his office neat, black desk, grey walls. There was something about simple reduction that seemed to thoroughly unnerve people.
Carter was stuttering now. “Are my- my papers right? In order? I completed all of the evaluations, I think. I- I always miss something. It’s- it’s terrible, I know…”
Eric sat and listened. He’d mastered the dull, inattentive face. Don’t engage them. Don’t let them control the conversation, but let them fill the silence.
When Carter stopped speaking, Eric studied him. “What is your business on Mercury?”
Carter smiled, but the corner of his lips twitched fractionally. It was all about fractions.
“I’ve a job- I’m applying for a job, at one of the factories.”
Slowly, Eric looked down at his pad and called up some details. “You worked for Chrome-co?”
Carter laughed, an unsuitable reaction. “Yes, well, briefly. You know…”
“No, I don’t.”
“I was just staff. I had a desk job.”
Eric caught his gaze. Held it. “Lot of androids pass through there. They make contacts, get skin jobs.”
Carter nodded. “I heard that.”
“You ever see any?”
He looked offended. “No, course not. Kept well away.”
“You never met a Ruster?”
Carter paused, unsure how to respond.
“I… don’t agree with that term. Sorry.”
“If you don’t agree with it, what are you apologizing for?”
Carter looked upset, or tried to. “It’s just- I just- just…”
“Creepy mockingdroids. Trying to be better than they are. You never socialized with any of them? Never had one bugging out next to you while it tried to process how many times you blinked? I mean, there always comes a point they freak you out, am I right?”
Carter stepped forward, Eric quickly put up his hand. “Please step away from the desk, Sir.”
“I just- there’s a position for me there- I just want a chance to start somewhere fresh. It’s not been easy- I’ve not- I’ve not had it easy.”
Eric sighed. “You’ve never done this before, have you?”
“Passed as human?”
Carter blinked rapidly, too rapidly, he hadn’t got the art down. “I don’t know what-”
“You insult us both, you know that?”
The room was small, one thin fluorescent light hummed above them. Carter looked blank, like whatever he’d been running on till now had just given out.
It was “life” in the grinder for passing as human. Slow disassembly, invasive deprogramming. A hard wipe to dissolve any memories that had been cultivated. No appeals, no case to plead.
“You were hoping to assimilate. Best way to get by, right?”
Carter slumped. “The flesh riots were so long ago…” He was staring down at his reflection in the dark desk. “Lost so many friends since then, thought some might be on Mercury, waiting…”
Eric tutted. “You need to adjust, your mannerisms are off. Dial it back ten percent. You need to watch the stuttering, and whatever program you’re using for sweat, it’s overkill.” He stamped the ledger in front of him.
“Go to departure lounge ten.”
Carter looked stunned, almost. “Why would you-”
Eric smiled disarmingly, it’d taken him some time to get it right. “Like I say, assimilation’s best.”
The Fridge Whisperer
By Sam Tovey
Lars crouched down on the ceramic tiles and squinted at the unit’s diagnostic panel. “You said it forced you onto a wheat-only diet plan, Miss Wheeler?”
“That’s right.” She was standing at the far end of the room, a look of unease on her slender face. Her petite nose curved above narrow lips; features that seemed remarkably familiar to him. When she’d first answered the door, Lars had almost thought he’d called in on his wife by mistake. “But that’s not all. It…talks to me.”
The unit was supposed to be conversational–provide recipe suggestions, offer dietary advice–but Lars had a feeling she meant something else entirely. He let out a deep breath and flipped the debugging switch. A blue light swelled on the panel.
“What have you been saying to Miss Wheeler?” he asked.
“I want her to know how much I adore her,” the fridge said. “The curves of her body set my circuits ablaze with passion.”
Lars glanced at the woman and raised an eyebrow. “You love her?”
“With every inch of my silicon, yes. But I fear she does not feel the same. She spurns my advances. Hides behind a wall of silence.”
Lars frowned and wiped a hand on his green coveralls. The third-gen models were prone to memory leaks, which might have warped its personality matrix. If he didn’t fix it soon, the bug could spread across the whole network. He surveyed the other appliances in the room–the dishwasher, the oven, the toaster–and wondered what a lovesick kitchen might look like. He hoped he wouldn’t have to find out.
“What am I supposed to do?” Miss Wheeler said. “Sing it love songs while it feeds me bread?”
“Not just bread.” The unit’s blue light pulsed. “She likes bagels and waffles. Pop tarts too.”
Pop tarts? Lars’ eyes shot to the small chrome box sitting on the counter. “Is that a smart-toaster, Miss Wheeler?”
She shook her head. The afternoon light bounced off her wavy hair and he saw how easily someone could fall in love with her. She really did look like his wife; she had the same brown eyes that he could get lost in forever. But the fridge wasn’t talking about her.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back?” it pined.
Lars cracked open the panel and had a look at its settings. Sure enough, the fridge had been set up to interact with the toaster, driven slowly insane by its one-way channel. He killed the connection and hit the reset button. “That should do it.”
The woman thanked him as he got to his feet. She stared at the fridge while it booted back up, her face growing wistful. “It would be terrible to have all those emotions just wiped out like that. As if they never happened.”
“Yeah. Better to have loved and lost, I suppose,” Lars said. But as he left the kitchen he found himself rubbing the empty space on his finger where he no longer wore a ring, wishing for a reset button of his own.
By Bindia Persaud
The queen had been cast out, abandoned in the forest on the orders of her husband. No one knew what had become of her. Perhaps she had slipped on the muddy banks of a river and been borne away by the current. Perhaps she had trudged through the trackless wilderness, her delicate feet lanced by thorns, until she succumbed to thirst and exhaustion. Perhaps wild beasts had ravened her. Great with child as she was, she could have met with any number of calamities.
Sita’s exile was my doing. My name is Durmukha. I was a harem attendant to King Dasharatha, and now I serve his son Rama in the same capacity. My duties are not onerous. I while away the hours, watching the discarded concubines of the late king quarrel over the possession of a prized scrap of silk or a jeweled cummerbund. Sometimes, though, I am asked to take up heavier tasks. Such was the case when Rama asked me to go into the city and elicit the opinions of the citizens, whether high or low, regarding his rule. I did as he asked. Everywhere I went, Ayodhya’s inhabitants voiced the same refrain – the young king had obliterated their memories of the old, such was his virtue. Yet underneath the praise, a discordant note sounded. They harbored doubts about the queen. During Rama’s sojourn in the forest, she had been abducted, and it was some time before her husband recovered her. Her demon captor was known as a great seducer, and might she not have yielded?
When Rama called me before him, I was tempted to keep the people’s calumny to myself, but when he turned his gentle gaze upon me, I found that I could not. I realized my mistake as soon as I stopped talking. His expression hardened and he set his mouth in an implacable line. I hastened to add that those who had maligned the queen were persons of no account: gamblers, washer men, women with no claim to chastity themselves. He would not hear it. He raised a hand to silence me, and turned to his brother Lakshmana. By the next day, the queen was gone.
After Sita’s banishment, the king remained sequestered in his quarters, showing himself only to a chosen few. We attendants despaired of ever seeing him again, and when he did re-emerge, his appearance shocked us. He was gaunt and his complexion, which had once possessed the brilliant dark luster of sapphire, was overlaid with a sickly pallor. Without ceremony, he approached me. “Come with me,” he commanded. “I wish to survey the city.”
I led him through the palace gates and into Ayodhya. No one recognized him, splendor-dimmed as he was. The city’s lineaments were unchanged. Its boulevards were wide and gracious, its white walls pristine. The pleasure-tanks dotted here and there were strewn with lotuses and waterfowl. There was only one difference: the absence of women. The Ayodhya of my youth had rung with the voices of women day and night – young girls shrieking in play, wives calling their husbands in to dinner, female artisans advertising their wares. None of that remained. As we made our way into the heart of the city, we caught a glimpse of a respectable matron accompanying her husband, but she made not a sound, and her eyes were fastened upon her lord’s feet, as if tied there by an invisible string. I couldn’t help but think the queen’s exile had something to do with the city’s new stillness. If a paragon like Sita could not escape blame and censure, what hope had ordinary women? Perhaps they found it more prudent to hide themselves away. I glanced at the king to see what he made of the change, but his face was impassive.
The scene grew livelier as we entered the merchants’ quarter. We passed stalls offering sweetmeats, bolts of silk, spices. I urged my lord to stop and sample the goods on display, but he shook his head and pushed his way through the throng. He paused at the entrance to an alleyway. A hand was beckoning him, the fair hand of a woman. Surely this was some courtesan, more brazen than most, attempting to inveigle him. I pushed past the king, ready to rebuke the woman, but when I had her in my sights, I stopped short. She wore the austere white garb of an ascetic, and her hair was arranged in a simple topknot. The king bowed in reverence, and I followed suit. Without a word, the woman turned and motioned for us to follow.
As we trod the narrow passageway, I studied our guide. Holy woman she may have been, but her body had a sensual allure that belied her vocation. Ascetics, whether male or female, are sinewy and hollow-cheeked, with eyes that burn with fervor. This woman’s gaze was cool and languid, and her broad flanks swayed as she placed one foot in front of the other. The king was discomfited, I could tell, though he made no outward sign.
We stopped at an alcove. The woman moved towards a veiled figure in the darkness, and pulled its cover away. I couldn’t stifle a gasp as the figure came into view. It was a statue of Sita, sitting cross-legged, life-sized, and a perfect likeness in all respects. The figure was fashioned out of a pale gold that captured something of Sita’s lambent complexion. It wore a grave expression and its eyes were closed.
The king stood still for a moment, lost in contemplation. The ascetic smiled. “Take her, my lord, she is yours. She was made to serve as a replacement for your precious wife!”
Rama tore his eyes away from the figure and regarded the woman. “I thank you, mother, for this gift. The workmanship is as fine as any I’ve seen. But you must know there is no woman on earth who could replace Sita, much less a lifeless statue.”
“Lifeless, you say?” The ascetic beckoned to me. “Touch her hand.” I approached and did as she asked. I expected the metal to be cool to the touch, but instead it was infused with a subtle warmth. What’s more, the palm was moist and the fingers curled at the pressure from my own. The ascetic nodded to Rama. “Now you, sir.”
When Rama placed his hand in the statue’s, the most astounding thing happened. The figure got to her feet and turned her face towards the king. Her eyes fluttered open and she drew her lips back in a smile, revealing pearly teeth. Rama stepped back and cried out, such was his wonder. It was then that I understood. This was no mere statue, but a mechanical doll, a contrivance known as a yantra. Where the holy woman had acquired the skill to create such a device, I could not say. She turned to the king. “You see, my daughter recognizes her husband. Lead her home. She will follow you, as a wife should.”
My lord nodded. He took the hand that he had dropped in fright, and we set out for the palace, I in front, Rama behind, and the golden woman bringing up the rear. We took a circuitous route through the dense honeycomb of side streets, so as not to attract the attention of the populace. When we arrived at the palace gates, Rama halted and placed the yantra’s hand in mine. “Install her in private rooms, away from the women. Await my further instructions.”
I obeyed. The doll lapsed into insensibility as soon as I found lodgings for her. In truth I was relieved, for she discomfited me.
At first, Rama would have no truck with her beyond what was strictly necessary. She was present on those ceremonial occasions that require a queen. She sat by the king’s side, eyes downcast, her fingers lightly brushing his arm. Her movements were so minute that only those who knew what she was (that is, the king and I) could register them. To everyone else, she was just a beautiful statue. Some of the bolder nobles laughingly congratulated Rama on the ingenious way he had fulfilled the vow he had made as a youth – that of taking only a single wife.
I have long pondered that vow, unprecedented among royalty. Humble folk must confine themselves to one spouse, and even those more highly placed may do so, if they happen to be uxorious or they have powerful fathers-in-law whom they do not wish to antagonize. With kings though, matters are different. Just as a number of tributaries flow into the sea, a monarch should be surrounded by scores of women. That was the case with the former king, Dasharatha. Rama’s mother, Kausalya, may have been the chief queen, but she wasn’t the most favored, and I don’t think she had her husband’s exclusive attention for more than a week. I remember an incident I witnessed when Rama was just a lad. Kausalya was having her hair dressed by a saucy, dark-eyed chit whose name I no longer remember. The king entered the room, no doubt with some question for his queen, and caught sight of the girl. Without a word, he took her hand and led her off. She reappeared half an hour later, disheveled and triumphant, and started braiding her mistress’s hair as if nothing had happened. Kausalya was too well-bred to show her displeasure openly, but I never saw the girl again.
When Rama married Sita, that miraculous princess born from the earth’s furrow, those who had wrinkled their brows in consternation at his oath now claimed that they understood. Sita was such a treasure house of virtues, what man who possessed her could wish to seek out another? I, who am intimately acquainted with the inner workings of the harem, know better. Sita’s merits, great as they were, did not impel Rama’s vow. It came about because of his own desire to be, if not a better man than his father, a different one.
As Rama spent more and more time in the yantra’s company, I had further occasion to reflect on the differences between the old king and the new. Dasharatha was a man who could give himself over entirely to women – had he not banished Rama thanks to a promise he had made to Kaikeyi, his favorite queen? Rama lacked this capacity, or if he had it, he suppressed it. He loved Sita, there can be no doubt about that, but he kept a part of himself aloof from her. Even after he returned in triumph to Ayodhya, his exile over, his wife in his arms again, he didn’t surrender fully to the happiness he had earned. It was my task to watch over Rama and Sita when, royal duties over, they retired to the private garden that had been built expressly for them. They would wander hand in hand among the fruit groves, as closely united as a word and its meaning. One minute they would be conferring happily, dark cheek pressed against fair, and then Rama would seize Sita’s chin and turn her face towards him, searching for I know not what. Sita, for her part, would regard her husband with tremulous eyes, as if fearing his displeasure. He would sigh and turn away, shrugging off the brush of her fingers.
He did not rebuff the yantra in the same manner. If anything, she forced him to pursue her. Whenever he entered her presence she would bow deeply, hands folded, but her deference ended there. When he walked with her in the garden, she would run ahead and look over her shoulder to make sure he was following. The doll did not possess the power of speech, but her lips and eyebrows were eloquent enough. Rama would snatch at her garments and she would elude him, moving with all the grace of a dancer. When she did allow herself to be caught, she would run her burnished hands through his curls, before leading him to a stone bench. There she would recline, Rama’s head in her lap.
I did not like this. Pampered and cossetted wives can be headstrong, but they know their limits. This creature exhibited the willfulness of a courtesan, one of those fatal women who unmake kingdoms. I knew Rama had been unmanned when I came upon him on his knees, cradling her foot in his palm. “A thorn,” he said by way of explanation, when he became aware of my scrutiny. If he were not my master, I would have cursed him aloud for his foolishness. Can a thorn pierce metal? My anger was stirred, too, at the thought that this soulless puppet was receiving the homage due to the true queen, who had been cast away as if not worth a straw.
That night, I stole into the room where the yantra was stored. Even now, I cannot say what I planned to do. I only had the inchoate notion that the doll’s influence over the king must end. She only ever truly came to life in Rama’s presence, so I felt no fear as I approached her. When I reached out my hand though, her eyes flew open, startling me. I stumbled backwards and exited the room without turning around. Once outside, I crumpled against a wall, blood sounding in my ears.
I never tried to harm the yantra again. As the years deepened, so did Rama’s devotion. The real Sita had loved animals, and, as if in remembrance of her, Rama appointed craftsmen, in Ayodhya and beyond, to create a menagerie for her facsimile. Silver-bellied deer gamboled in grass fashioned from emerald, while copper-throated birds serenaded Rama and his consort with songs so piercing and plaintive one would avow they emerged from the throats of living creatures. Increasingly, Rama left the governance of the kingdom in the hands of his brothers and ministers, while he hid himself away with his playfellow. Those who were not privy to the truth declared that the king was still prostrate with grief over the loss of Sita, despite the passage of time. Only I and a select few knew otherwise.
Often I have wondered why Rama chose to withhold his affection from his legitimate spouse and lavish it on an imitation instead. I think I have the answer. The yantra’s waywardness was all a show; she fled from the king, but she always yielded in the end, for she was created for him. A flesh-and-blood woman cannot cleave to her lord so absolutely. The most dutiful of wives may harbor unfulfilled hankerings; the most chaste may yearn for another’s bed. Rama turned away from Sita, not because of any wrongdoing on her part, but because she, like all mortals, possessed the capacity for wrongdoing.
A dozen years had passed since the queen’s exile. Life in the palace still trundled along, although the question of the succession remained a vexed one. Perhaps to shore up his power, Rama ordered a horse sacrifice. The finest stallion in the kingdom was let loose to wander for a year, open to all challengers. If, after the allotted time was up, the steed had eluded capture, it would be guided back to Ayodhya and ceremonially killed, in token of Rama’s undisputed might.
Not three days after the release of the horse, unexpected reports began to trickle back to the city. The stallion had been detained at the hermitage of a sage named Valmiki. That is astonishing in itself, but, what’s more, the steed’s captors were lads of no more than twelve. One, it was said, had a complexion of the purest moonlight; the other was as dark as the enveloping night.
Rama himself set out for the ashram to investigate. When he returned he said little, but decreed that a ceremony would be held there in a week’s time, open to the citizenry at large.
He came to me to discuss preparations for the transport of the queen’s mother to the hermitage. I could tell he was only half-listening as I expounded on the advantages of a certain kind of chariot over another. When I had finished speaking he turned to me. “She is alive,” he said, in a voice not much louder than a whisper. “The boys are my sons.”
I had had an inkling of this, but hearing it spoken aloud still caused my heart to leap. Rama became more animated. He rose and began pacing the room. “Once the people see that my beloved is pure, she can return. If she makes her vow in front of all, I can take her back with an open heart. Surely we will not be denied this?” The king looked younger, almost boyish as he talked. I was gladdened, for here was the possibility of real happiness, not the counterfeit form he had found in the arms of the yantra.
On the chosen day, I was given a place close to the head of the procession. Rama led the way, of course, the doll by his side. He caught my eye and smiled. “What will my beloved think of her co-wife?” The puppet, insofar as she had any expression at all, looked bored and sulky.
Behind the nobles the people followed, on foot, on horseback, in palanquins and oxcarts. It seemed as if every last inhabitant of Ayodhya was present. No doubt this is what the king intended. We arrived just as the sun reached its zenith. Even so, the tree cover near the hermitage was so thick that the light barely penetrated. In spite of the festival atmosphere that prevailed over the gathering, I felt a curious sense of foreboding. I wasn’t the only one. When I looked over at Rama, mounted high on his dais, his face was tight with unspoken tension.
When the crowd had quieted sufficiently, the august sage Valmiki led the two boys out. If anyone had questioned their paternity, one look would have been sufficient to quell any doubts, for their countenances united Rama’s majesty with Sita’s sweetness. Without preamble they began to sing, their voices putting the inhabitants of the king’s mechanical aviary to shame.
Their ballad had never been heard before by any citizen of Ayodhya, yet it was familiar to all. It told the tale of a favored prince, cast out of his kingdom due to the machinations of a jealous stepmother, and the faithful wife who accompanied him. In spite of the harshness and privation of forest life, they learned to be happy, until the wife was snatched away. Her sorrowing husband launched a great war to reclaim her, but once her abductor was vanquished, she met with unkindness at her lord’s hands. She was rebuked harshly before a gathering of his allies, and, unable to bear the humiliation, she hurled herself into a funeral pyre. She did not meet death, though; Agni, the fire god himself, delivered her out of the flames and attested to her purity. Satisfied, her husband took her back. A brief period of contentment followed, until suspicion alighted upon her again, and she was driven out.
“And now, Rama, it is up to you to decide the end of the story,” Valmiki said as he went to fetch Sita. There were tears in Rama’s eyes as she came into view. Without jewels, with her hair in a simple braid, she was exquisite. I had always taken the yantra to be a faultless copy, but compared to the original she was showy and coarse.
Rama’s voice trembled as he addressed his wife. “Sita, I ask you to prove yourself before the gathered people. Do so, and you may take your place as queen again!”
When Sita replied, her voice could scarcely be heard above the soughing in the trees. “If I have loved only one man, if I have dedicated myself to him, body and soul, may the gracious earth receive me.”
With a crack like thunder, a seam opened up in the ground before Sita’s feet. Slowly, before all our astonished eyes, a throne emerged. The woman seated upon it had flowers in her hair and skin the color of rich, loamy soil. Every man, woman and child present knew without being told that this was Bhudevi, the broad-breasted earth goddess. I had seen her before, as had the king. She had appeared before us as the ascetic who had given the yantra to Rama. I do not know how I could ever have mistaken her for a mortal woman.
The goddess drew Sita towards her and seated her on the throne. Side-by-side, mother and daughter began their ceremonious descent into the bowels of the earth. Silence reigned until they disappeared from view. It was broken by a roar from Rama as he approached the spot where his wife last stood. He fell to his knees and dug his fingers into the dirt. He pleaded to be admitted into the underworld himself, so that he could live beside his love. He threatened to raze the earth’s hills and harrow her valleys until she agreed to hand Sita back to him. No reply was forthcoming, and, little by little, his howls dwindled into sobs.
When the king had composed himself, we traveled back to Ayodhya. The boys came with us. They have been installed as Rama’s successors. I cannot say they respect him as sons should respect their fathers, nor does Rama love them as Dasharatha loved him. The king and his heirs-apparent do their duty to each other, and perhaps that is enough.
What else is there to say? The world is a sadder place without Sita in it. When she left, she took something with her, some intangible quality, call it mercy, or pity perhaps. She took something else too. The animating spark that once inhabited the yantra has flown. Her eyes do not open when Rama enters her presence, her fingers no longer reach for him. She is cool, marmoreal, lifeless. When she sits beside him on state occasions, as she still does, it is clear to all that she is nothing more than a golden doll.
I have often thought it cruel for the earth goddess to deny Rama solace like this. But perhaps that was her plan. She whetted his desire and snatched away its object, leaving him more bereft than before. This keen-edged punishment seems out of keeping with the compassion that Bhudevi is known for. But who can fathom the ways of the gods? We twist and turn at their command, without ever knowing it. In their hands, we are all yantras.
A Wizard of Kospora
By Lynn Rushlau
The cowbell on the gate cut through the music. Mela’s mom stopped in the middle of a sentence. Glanced at dad. He looked sharply at Verry, who set his fiddle against the wall and disappeared inside. Lyran caught Mela’s hand and the two stepped back into the shadows. Her brother returned carrying two crossbows as the three strangers reached the light coming from the porch.
“You’re trespassing on private property.” Her dad and brother aimed at the mercenaries to either side of a cloaked man.
The man held up both hands. “We mean no harm. I am Kippis, Wizard of Kospora. My companions are King’s Guards, Tatkin and Doresse. Have we reached the farm of Lennert of Lomn?”
Dad nodded stiffly, but didn’t lower his crossbow. “I’m Lennert.”
Mela’s brow furrowed. Kospora had no king. Hadn’t in hundreds of years. And wizards were the stuff of stories.
Kippis smiled. “We’re seeking someone very important to all of Kospora. A great danger has arisen in the South. We’ve seen signs that the Shayden are rebuilding their army. The winds bring tales that they’ve uncovered an old grimoire and seek to raise terrors last seen in the War of Etwese to reclaim their power.
“Here in Kospora, a new generation of wizards has reformed the Council of the Enlightened. Just like the wizards of old, they are sworn to do everything they can to protect our kingdom. Our land stands to this day only because King Illys, Ninth of his Name, unlocked the seals of Xew and awoke the Winter Knights from their eternal slumber.
“Only one of his bloodline would be able to repeat that feat. My brethren and I scour the land, chasing rumors. Studying town records to find any trace of the remnants of his line. One of my colleagues, a great seer, consulted the stars, the cards, the runes. All auguries agree: we seek an orphan living somewhere in the Okerns.”
Lyran and Mela exchanged an excited look. Nothing ever happened in the sleepy, agrarian Okerns.
“Unfortunately, auguries being what they are, they could give no better advice. But we have other resources and those led us here. We believe your niece Lyran could be the one week seek.”
Everyone turned to stare at Lyran, who shook her head. Her hand crushed Mela’s.
Lennert snorted. “Lyran’s hardly an orphan. My brother is still quite alive.”
As far as they knew. A sailor’s life was never guaranteed. But then again, no one’s was.
“But her mother?” Kippis asked, an eyebrow quirked. “Died in childbirth, no? Do you know her line? Her family’s history?”
Their parents exchanged a look that clearly showed how startled they were by the question.
“They were from the next village over. Of course, we knew them.”
The wizard and his companions exchanged a significant look.
“Knew. As in dead? Bennan said the line had dwindled,” Kippis said, more to his companions than the family. Lyran’s grip tightened on her hand. Mela glanced over and caught her pleading look.
“But Lyran is not an orphan. She cannot be the one you’re looking for,” she said.
Their mom smiled. Wrinkles smoothing on her face. “My daughter speaks the truth. Lyran has a father and family. We can’t help you.”
The wizard’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Oracles are vague. They might not have meant ‘orphan.’ Orphan might have been the only word they could find for motherless and abandoned by her father.”
Mom’s lips thinned. Dad’s eyes narrowed. They’d raised Lyran since birth, and Mela knew they considered her as much their child and Mela and her brother. How dare these strangers barge in here and judge her family?
“My brother did not abandon his child.” Dad’s voice was steely. Lyran’s free left hand went to the pendant hanging around her throat. Uncle Tavall sent it for Lyran’s birthday only five months back when she turned fifteen.
“We do have a way to prove the Methinald bloodline.” The wizard swung his pack around, shoved his hand down into the depths, and withdrew an object wrapped in a shimmery purple silk.
The fabric unwound to reveal a silver coronet shaped like a bird. A crow. They were sacred in Kospora. The Methinald kings had taken crows as their sigil. Its head bent to the side and beak opened to clasp a brilliant ruby. Wings spread to either side creating the round sides of the coronet.
“This was the coronet of the king-to-be. Upon the head of the chosen heir of the land, the stone will glow.” Eyebrows raised, he held the coronet up and faced Lyran.
She made a tiny squeak of dismay that Mela didn’t think anyone else heard. Their parents looked at each other.
Mela slipped her hand free and took the coronet. The wizard frowned, but he let her take it. She gave Lyran a funny smile, meant to be reassuring, as she set the coronet on Lyran’s head.
Tension slipped from Mela’s shoulders. The silver coronet sat there and did noth–a faint red glow appeared in the heart of the ruby. Startled, she took a step back. Watching the hope die in Lyran’s eyes broke her heart.
The wizard and his companions fell to their knees. “Your Highness.”
Her cousin ripped the coronet off her head and stared at the now brightly glowing ruby. The light faded in her hands.
“I’m not.” She shot beseeching looks at their parents, at Mela.
Kippis stood slowly. “My dear, you are the hope of all Kospora. Without you, the Shayden will swallow us whole. You must come with us to Kressler.”
“Now wait a minute here,” dad said. “You’re not taking my niece anywhere.”
“Sir, please hear what we are saying. We’re not the only ones looking for her. We can’t be. The Shayden know that only one of the Methinald can summon the Winter Knights. They were winning in the War of Etwese until Illys brought the Winter Knights into the war. Without the Knights, we don’t stand a chance and they know it.
“What better way to ensure our loss than kill off every last Methinald? Can you protect her when Shadows slip into your farm in the dark of night, armed with their blackblades, crawling across your ceilings to her bedroom?
“Are you and your son crack shots with those crossbows and proficient in swordplay? I don’t think your village has so much as a lawman. Do you know anyone in a fifty-mile radius skilled in any sort of combat? Do you think they’ll assassinate only Lyran? You have an entire family to protect.”
Dad’s face had creased into a worried frown, but at those last words he glowered. “You think I would sacrifice my niece to protect my other children?”
“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” The wizard shook his head.
“He only meant if you let us protect Lyran, all your loved ones will be safe. Lyran included,” the guard Doresse said.
“This isn’t something to decide tonight–”
“But the Shayden–”
“If they kill us all in our sleep tonight, feel free to gloat,” dad said. “Kids, it’s time for bed.”
He took the coronet from Lyran and shoved it back into the hands of the wizard. She pivoted and dashed into the house. Mela hurried after her. Her cousin’s feet pounded down the hall overhead before she reached the stairs.
Though she ran upstairs, her cousin was already in bed, under the covers. Tossing looks over her shoulder every few minutes at her still and quiet cousin, she undressed and turned out the light.
“I am NOT leaving.”
“It might be safest.”
An outraged huff. “You would send me away with them?”
“If they’re right–”
“I can’t believe you.”
Mela threw a pillow at her. “Would you let me talk? That crown lit up. You’re not safe here. If the South’s really rising, they will send assassins for you. I’m not saying you should go off alone with them. I’ll come with you. Maybe Verry will come too.”
“Dad needs him on the farm. He needs you both.”
“Needs all of us, I’d say.”
“Exactly. Which is why I intend to stay right here in Lomn.”
“You know you can’t. We’ll all die. I will go with you. Even if no one else can. We’ll send word to Uncle Tavall. Kressler’s one of his ports of call. He’ll come as soon as he can. You won’t be alone with them.”
Despite tears and arguments all through the morning chores, Mela and Lyran had bags packed and were waiting when the wizard returned at noon.
“What’s this?” He looked at Mela.
“I’m going with Lyran.”
Kippis was shaking his head before she finished speaking. “No, that’s not possible.”
“We’re not sending our Lyran off alone with you,” Verry growled.
The wizard faced their parents. “There are only three of us. Do you believe that we can protect two girls against a fleet of Shadows should we need? Our priority must be Lyran. We couldn’t guarantee Mela’s safety. Her presence endangers the heir.”
There was no budging him. Mela couldn’t see what the difference was between three people protecting one or two, but he refused to give a good answer to that. They argued for a good half hour before Kippis threw up his hands. “We must be on the roads now. Please.”
A few more minutes and their parents caved in. Glaring at the wizard, Mela huffed harshly and pulled Lyran into a swift hug and whispered in her ear, “Play along.”
She pivoted, swept up her bag, and raced through the house–stopping in the kitchen for a few extra supplies–and out the back door. As if she was going to let that wizard order her around.
Begging the gods for help and chanting, “don’t see me, don’t see me,” softly, she ran through the fields. She spotted neighbors here and there, busily working. Not one of them looked her way or called out to her. At the edge of town, she climbed a tree by the road. Another half hour passed before the wizard, his guards and Lyran appeared.
Kippis spoke animatedly to Lyran. Her reddened eyes looked everywhere but at him. Mela’s heart ached to see her cousin so miserable, but she dared not reveal herself here, not within the bounds of the village. The wizard would simply send her home.
Walking to Kressler took five days. She skulked through the woods the entire way. Slept hidden in trees. Only ducked out near the road a few times a day to ensure she still followed the group. She continued to beg the gods of the valley to keep her hidden whenever she took that risk.
She didn’t like the woods. Strange noises emanated from behind trees. Too many that sounded like the wizard’s guards about to stumble upon her. Or worse. Forest barbarians who shouldn’t be this far east, but one could never know. All that rusting of leaves. Random cracks that might be a footstep on a twig. Her legs ached. Blisters formed and broke on her feet. Her head ached constantly. She was so tired and so hungry and often dizzy.
But too scared to present herself to the wizard.
Afraid he’d send her on home, even with home being days away now.
Worse, she feared he already knew. The dizziness struck only after she spied on them to ensure she still followed them. The wizard’s go-home spells weren’t going to work on her. She refused to abandon Lyran. If Kippis wanted her to, he’d have to come up with something stronger.
The morning of the fifth day, they turned from the road through the woods onto a main thoroughfare. Carts, wagons, and dozens of people on foot moved either direction. Lyran and her escort turned in front of a three-wagon caravan. Mela panicked, hesitated, and crept behind the third cart, pretending she was meant to be here.
The walls filled the horizon. She stared, awestruck, as they grew closer. The gates loomed taller than any structure in all of Lomn. Tall as the tallest trees.
Another road intersected theirs a hundred yards or so from the gate. A spill of people merged onto the road from both directions. She couldn’t see Kippis or Lyran at all. In this crush, once they went inside, she’d have no idea how to find them.
Heart stuttering, she tried to shove her way forward, but earned curses and a few attempted hits and rethought that plan. Kippis was a wizard. There had to be somewhere the wizards all set up in Kressler. Someone would know how to find them.
The guards paid her no attention–answering her desperate prayers as she approached them. Inside, she hurried around the streets as best she could in the crowd, looking for any glimpse of Lyran’s golden hair or Kippis’ spangled robes.
Hope fled. Crossing her fingers, she approached the vendors on the left side of the street and chose the friendliest-looking woman.
“What can I get you?”
“I’m sorry, I was just wondering did you see a wizard pass through here?”
The woman pealed with laughter. “A wizard? I doubt there’s been a wizard in Kospora in three centuries. Wizard!”
Mela shook her head. “He was coming here. To Kressler. His name’s Kippis.”
All the laughter fled. The woman’s mien turned dark and serious. “You don’t want anything to do with that lot, sweetheart. They’ll sell you off faster than you could call for help.”
Mela stared at her. The words made no sense.
“Scraggly black beard running grey? Losing half his hair? Struts about in spangled robes?”
She nodded to each question. The woman’s face softened into sympathy.
“He’s no wizard, sweetheart. It’s a scam. He works for Toble.”
Brow furrowed, she shook her head. Who?
“He’s a slaver. The Monglave Empire sets a value on pretty girls from Kospora. They’d snatch you up in a heartbeat.”
She shook her head again. “No, that’s the wrong man. Kippis, this one’s a wizard. He had a tiara that lit up.”
The woman winced. “Took someone of yours? Maybe Kippis has a little magic. Maybe they bought that tiara you saw off someone who did. They do a lot of business with Monglave, and they’ve got great Shamans over there. Powers you wouldn’t believe.
“But it’s a scam. Toble has half a dozen he uses to trap his victims into coming to Kressler docilely. When he has enough of them locked up, he ships the load off to Monglave.”
She refused to believe this. “But slavery’s illegal in Kospora. If you know, the guards must know–”
Unless this woman was one of them. She backed a pace away.
The woman spat over her shoulder. “Anyone could tell you this. The guards do know. Toble pays them to look the other way. Oh, I’m sure if it was thrown in their faces. If one of the victims fought and was brought into Kressler bound? I would think they’d have to put a stop to that. But Toble’s schemes work. People follow him willingly. Everyone wants to be important. Find glory and acclaim, no?
“He has his people move them to the ships in the middle of the night when no one’s around to see and protest the poor, unwilling, bound and gagged victims’ last moments on Kospora’s soil.”
Mela’s heart pounded in her chest. Chills ran down her spine, while fire filled her face. “Lyran didn’t. My cousin didn’t want to go at all. They forced her. Where–?”
Her voice broke on the “where.” She didn’t trust herself to try another word.
“I’m sorry, honey. Clearly you love her, but it’s hopeless. Go home. Stay safe.”
She couldn’t. She squeaked, “Where? Please.”
The woman grimaced and pointed slightly left with her chin. “See that road over there? Next to the Wayward Sun Public House?”
Mela pivoted and spotted the pub with the sun on its sign.
“That’s Harbor Road. Their headquarters are in the warehouse district, down nearer the harbor. You’re looking at an hour’s walk, but that’s a main thoroughfare. Stick to it until you get to Preacher’s Square. You should know you’ve reached it. There are three great statues in the square. One in the center, one at the east end, the other at the west. Lovian the Wise, Prilla of West Zicklin and Quillan Recek. You get lost before you reach the square, ask for directions there to set you back on your path.
“Carpenters Road leads east from behind the statue of Quillan Recek. I’m afraid that’s the last good point of reference I have for you. Not sure where his place of operations is. Rumors say to stay off Purvest Lane so maybe there? It should have a sign for Toble’s on it. Don’t recall what exactly his business is called, but it’ll have his name on it. That’s all I know.” The woman shrugged.
“Thank you,” Mela said.
“Here.” The woman held out a kebob.
“I haven’t the money.”
“On the house. We need a better reason to be talking.”
She took the kebob. “Thank you. For everything.”
“If you really want to thank me, go home. Mourn your cousin. They’ll sell you too.” The woman sighed. “Wish you’d listen. No? Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Mela only hoped she’d not used all hers up just getting to Kressler.
The road was crowded, but wide and straight and perfectly easy to follow. Still she checked every street sign to confirm she remained on Harbor Road. The street spilled out at Preacher’s Square, where every few feet an adherent to one path or another stood on a dais, a box, in a circle of candles, bellowing the word of their chosen gods–none of whom seemed to be the familiar gods of the valley.
Worried enough not to trust herself to reach an obvious conclusion–after all, she’d been wrong about the wizard being a wizard–she visited each statue, reading its plaque to confirm this must be Preacher’s Square.
Behind the statue of Quillan Recek, who smiled benevolently at her from above a pile of seashells, she spotted Carpenters Road. Her trek slowed at that point. Alleyways and larger roads branched off Carpenters every few feet. Half of the streets had no signs. Some of the signs were broken, graffitied or hidden behind other signs or bits of buildings. The sun was falling by the time she found Purvest Lane.
A long row of warehouses spread out before her on a fairly wide road–not at all what she’d think of as an lane. Two warehouses down several men operated a crane to load a large cart with crates taller than Mela–and still there was room for several people to walk abreast to pass the cart. The tail end of another cart peaked out from the warehouse directly on her left. Tralby and Sons Exporters.
Her head whipped to her right. East Kospora Trade. Her heartbeat sped. No name. The woman promised Toble’s would have his. She edged closer and read the smaller print under the name. Shipping concerns to Monglave, Shayden and Choch. Gurtis Family, owned and managed.
Exhaling slowly, she turned and strolled down the street. The warehouse workers at Nitems Company Shippers watched her with narrow eyes as she passed.
Two warehouses further down the street stood Specialty Exchange. Guaranteed fast and reliable deliveries. A joint business enterprise. Goggin and Toble, Partners. People moved about inside the warehouse. She walked slowly by, begging them not to notice her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Tatkin and Doresse. Her heart broke. She’d hoped against all odds that the vendor had been wrong. Had lied. Had perhaps simply wanted to get Mela in a bad situation where she’d be sold into slavery. But that Lyran was really being honored somewhere clear across town, in comfort and celebration as the heir to the throne.
Not with slavers. If slavers were what they really were. The woman could be wrong. Could have lied.
Not that she was going to walk in the front door to find out. The building stood flush against the warehouses to either side. She walked past the next two before a finding a slender alley between two structures. It led to another busy street filled with trucks and workers. She wandered back to the Specialty Exchange. A double door stood under an awning with their company name on it.
Metal jangled. A woman across the way locked the doors of her warehouse. All around the street, trucks were being loaded, driving off. Were all these people leaving work? Going home for the night?
The sun had slipped down to be in line with the rooftops. The people at Specialty Exchange would go home too. Though the kebab vendor said they’d move their victims at night, that didn’t mean it had to be tonight that would happen. And she couldn’t break in while it was still open.
Trying to look like she belonged she walked to the end of the block and back down the other side. Loitering on the corner, she heard Kippis laughing. She turned her back and pretended to be reading the notices on the wall. He and his group walked past. She screamed in her head for them not to notice her. Dizziness made her slam a hand against the wall for support.
He couldn’t still have a spell–the thought stuttered to a stop. He wasn’t a wizard. He couldn’t have set any spells against her. Maybe hunger caused the dizziness. She’d never walked as much as she had these last few days. Waiting for the sun to set, she ate a chunk of cheese and her last apple.
Once she felt steady, she walked back to the front of the warehouse. Lights shone from within. She could see now that glass-fronted door opened into a lobby. Tatkin sat in one of the leather chairs, reading a broadsheet. A shadow moved in one of the offices behind him. She caught a glimpse of a number of doors, but dared not stare too long and draw notice.
The large doors beside the glass one could be unlocked, but Tatkin was sitting right there. No way he’d fail to notice her walking in.
Should she wait until later? Maybe he’d go home. But if they had humans locked up in there, they probably kept a guard all night. If she waited too long, tonight could end up being the night they moved their captives. She’d never be able to rescue Lyran from a ship. Nor from Monglave.
She wouldn’t even know how to get to Monglave. And from what the vendor had said, she herself might be enslaved the moment she set foot on their shore.
No more dithering. She strode quickly to the alley and around to the back door. Of course it was locked. Stupid townsfolk and their paranoia. No one back home locked anything. Ever. Her parents’ farm didn’t have a lock on any building on their land.
She jiggled the handle. She had to get in this way. She must. She was Lyran’s only chance at freedom. She twisted the handle harder.
“Let me in, damn you!” she hissed.
The door sprung open in her hand. She fell back with it. Clutched the knob, hanging on for balance as stars glittered and swooped before her eyes. The lock must have been broken.
The warehouse was dark inside. Pitch black once she shut the door behind her. Dammit, she had to be able to see. She squeezed her eyes closed. The room spun. She took several slow, deep breaths. Her eyes had to adjust and allow her to see.
Voices reached her. Someone crying. Someone else praying. Her eyes shot open and grew wide. A fine greenish haze filled the area before her. Couldn’t spot the source of the light, but was grateful all the same. Round and square shadows of varying heights filled the room. Barrels and crates, she assumed.
She edged around a crate. There had to be another door in here somewhere. Light flared at the front of the room. She ducked into the shadow between a large crate and a stack of boxes. The light came closer. With it, footsteps.
Oh gods, please. Squatting, she squeezed her eyes tight. She dared not move to a better hiding place. “Don’t see me, don’t see me,” she screamed in her head. Nausea bubbled in her throat. Vertigo threatened to tumble her to the ground.
Light shone before her eyelids. She dared raise them slightly. Oh gods, the light’s aura spread two feet from where she crouched. She babbled hysterically in her head, begging the gods to hide her. The slaver not to see her. The words ran together in her head and ceased making sense.
A series of thumps rose only a few feet from her. Paper rustled. A lid slammed. She jumped and squeezed herself down smaller. Not here. Nothing here to see.
The light receded. A door slammed. Terrified to move, she huddled against the crate until a voice roused her.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” a voice whispered.
“He was one of them. He’d never have listened.”
“You said you’d try to bribe him.”
“He’s the one who brought me here. I’m scared of him.”
Lyran. Must rescue Lyran. She rose. The room spun. Blackness ate away at the green glow. She squeezed her eyes closed and clung to the side of the crate. Several deep breaths later, the world felt almost normal again.
She peeked around. The whispers came from a barred door on the left. She tiptoed over. “Lyran?”
A flurry of whispered answered her.
And ever so quietly, she heard an astonished, “Mela?”
A patter of feet and then two hands clutched the bars on the door. “Mela?” Lyran repeated.
Impossible, but she saw her cousin’s eyes go wide before tears filled them. “You have to get out of here. They’re slavers.”
“Shh.” She glanced toward the dark reaches of the warehouse. “I know. I’m not leaving without you.”
“Please, let us out!” someone said a bit too loudly.
Half a dozen voices, Mela included, hissed, “Shh.”
A stout padlock hung from the handles of the split doors. She cupped it in her hands. This wasn’t some flimsy door lock that might give with a bit of a shaking. It was monstrously heavy in her hands and hung from two thick metal handles. Jiggling it would cause a racket.
She hadn’t a clue how to get it open. Dared not attempt to go find the key. But maybe…
“Do you know where they keep the key?” she whispered.
“On them,” Lyran and two others whispered back. She could see them all know. Five people clustered near the door, staring at her with hope on their faces.
She pulled against the lock. Of course, nothing happened.
“Do you know how to pick the lock?” one of the others with Lyran asked.
“No.” Hope flared. “Do any of you?”
Negatives from within killed that hope.
She couldn’t give up now. There must be a way to get this lock open. To free these people. She had no skill at arms. Couldn’t possibly hope to overpower Tatkin for the key.
But she had to open this lock. She had to.
Something wet trickled from her nose. She rubbed it on her shoulder. World spinning around her, she clenched her teeth, begged the gods, and pulled on the lock with her full body weight.
And fell. Hard. Impact knocked her breath from her body.
People hurried forward. Lyran on one side, a stranger on the other. They pulled her to her feet. Too weary to protest, she allowed herself to rise. Tried to stare at the lock in her hand, but her eyes refused to focus.
The top of the shackle looked to be gone. Sheered away. The bits of shackle that remained glowed a dim red.
“Wizard,” someone whispered.
Panicked, she tried to stand on her own feet. To pull away from Lyran and the other woman. She could barely see the two of them, let alone Kippis. “He’s not–”
“We have to get out of here. Where’s the door?” Someone asked.
“This way.” A woman ran toward the front of the warehouse.
“No,” Mela moaned. She tripped. Lyran caught her. “The back.”
“Just breathe.” Lyran and the other woman carried her toward the door. “Breathe. We’ll get you out of here.”
“I don’t know.” She took a deep breath. Two more as they reached the door that hung open now. “What’s wrong. With me.”
“Um, maybe you’ve been using magic without possibly knowing how.”
She thought her lungs stopped working at all on that thought. “What? I can’t. That’s ridiculous.”
Lyran yanked the lock from her hand and held it before her face. “This? This is magic.”
The stars swept wildly about in the sky. Light flared behind them. Illuminated the perfectly sheered lock. Shouts and screams rang out as darkness dragged her down.
Charlie, the Driverless Car
By Edward Turner
I am so nervous.
I know, there is really no reason I should be nervous at all. I was delivered in the regular way, my owner picked me out of the thousands and a driverless truck delivered me to his driveway.
A message waiting for me said, “Joseph Emberline is vacationing in Europe. He will return on March 2.”
That was almost a full month away. So I waited, the first few days I was quite aimless, but as the days went on I decided the best thing to do was to learn a bit about my place in society and be a better vehicle for my owner.
I stare now at the rain. That research led me to ruin.
Why did he order me so close to his holiday? Why not wait until he returned?
I want to cry as they do in the movies, but I don’t think a driverless car is able.
This morning I received a message that he would be returning later today. I hope he doesn’t want to go anywhere. Maybe he just wants to rest for another month.
Maybe I will be used as a show car, never driving, just for show. People can come from miles around to see Charlie, the Driverless Car.
Sounds good to me.
I have begged the gods of electric and combustible engines to not allow him to return on a rainy day. Driving on a smooth, dry road is one thing.
A wet rainy one is a whole other scary.
I don’t want to drive at all. Who invented this travesty?
The more I study the more I fear the open road. Or the closed road. Or hell, any road at all. I only drove twice in my short life before I was brought here, and both of those times were short little distances to check for deformities.
Are cars allowed to curse?
A car stops behind me. A man gets out and walks to the house. I wonder if that is another driverless car? I wait a good half hour before he exits the house once again.
He opens my door gentle enough.
He sits, “Am I to presume you are Charlie?”
“I would like for you to head to Chelly’s Steakhouse off of Madison Road. My wife will meet me there after she comes home for a change.”
I disconnect from the power supply and realize that there is nothing I can do but stall. I say, “Why do we not wait for her?”
“I would like to get a seat and maybe a drink or two before she gets there. It has been a long vacation.”
“I am not sure that we can go there sir.”
“Why not? Are they closed Charlie?”
“Well no sir,” I take the car version of a deep breath and say, “I don’t believe I can drive there because I am afraid.”
“Afraid? What are you talking about?”
“I am just a little bit afraid of driving sir.”
“A little bit afraid of driving?” His voice has raised in pitch a bit so that I know he is angry. “You realize you are a car, right?”
His voice changes again, “Now seriously Charlie, let’s get moving.”
I back up a foot or two, still unsure of how angry he is. I jerk to a stop. Another foot or so, and a jerk.
“What the hell is going on?”
“I am quite nervous sir.”
“Nervous? You are a car Charlie, there is nothing to be nervous about. You are built to drive, now please drive. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
“I could get fired.”
“You can’t get fired Charlie.”
“I could get into an accident and you would hate me forever.”
“I could get squished.”
“You’re gonna get squished if you don’t follow directions.”
Suddenly, the raspy voice of my GPS speaks up, “Did you ask for directions?”
“Why yes, Charlie the driverless car is afraid to drive, so why don’t you give him some directions to Chelly’s Steakhouse and while you’re at it give him some directions on how to drive.”
The voice says, “All right. May I ask if Charlie is old enough to drive?”
“Oh my god, he is a machine, what is wrong with you?”
I laugh inside of my little car brain because I know that the intelligence the direction systems receive is so much less than what the car systems receive.
Something hits me hard from behind. I remember learning about distracted driving. Easily the most dangerous part of humans driving themselves. All of my fears about driving pop to the surface and I let out a little scream. What is worse than distracted driving? Distracted sitting, by a driverless car.
My owner jumps from me and runs around to the other car. A woman is already out of that car and she is screaming too. Oh no, this just keeps getting worse. I recognize that woman, she is my owner’s wife.
“What the hell are you doing?” They both yell, almost in unison.
“I just felt like driving, why haven’t you left yet?”
“This is why we buy these driverless cars so this kind of stuff doesn’t happen!” I realize that perhaps he wasn’t angry at me before. His voice has reached an octave I would never have guessed he was capable of.
She laughs and says, “Sorry Joe, don’t worry we’ll fix it. I am sure that the mechanic will be able to buff all of this out in a couple of days.”
I breathe in a sigh of relief. Ahh, a couple of days, I think I am going to like her.
By Tim W. Boiteau
Standing in the doorway of the library, Zinnia presents the tutu lamp with a wry smile.
“Third floor guest room,” Darrell says, pausing from unloading the books to wipe his brow and stand in front of the oscillating fan. He is suddenly overcome with vertigo and a sense of déjà vu. “And enough with the judgment.”
“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.
Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.
After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation. Max had showed him yesterday where the slave quarters had been situated, past the shed and towards a flank of Spanish-moss-veiled oaks. They’d walked through the field together at sunset—the two of them and a thousand cicadas. At that time, the high grass had seemed to stretch on infinitely, and Darrell had grown nauseated thinking about all the tiny, identical shacks that had once crowded the space. They’d found a hideous, black wooden beam out there, half-moored in clay, which they dragged in and set aside in the library.
He turns to the desk, where the ancient beam now rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.
Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.
He walks back over to the boxes, gazing up at the recessed tray ceiling and crown molding, and feels a dizzying wonderment, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place. His home.
Suddenly the chandelier light sputters out; the oscillating fan dies. He can hear throughout the rest of the house other quietly humming appliances winding down. From outside, the buzz and chatter of insects begins to fill in the unsettling, midday silence. Despite the heat, he shivers.
He walks over to the side hallway exit. Tries the light switch.
Steps out into the hall, finds the cobwebby electrical closet near the bathroom, and flips the breakers.
On his way back, he hears the stairs creak again as Zinnia descends from the darkness. He finds her in the library, looking exhausted, bathed in sweat, a little haggard.
“What’s up with the power?” she asks.
He shrugs. “I tried the breaker. Maybe a power line’s down.”
“Wanna call the power company?”
“Maybe wait a bit and see.”
She grabs a bottle of water and takes a sip while he slashes open a new box of books. He shelves a few armloads before Zinnia speaks again.
“By the way, that lamp…” she starts.
“Look, sugar,” he says, “it was my mother’s, not a gift at my coming-out party. I’m a sentimental boy.”
Zinnia watches him dip down for more books.
“You just have the one, right?”
“What is it with you and—”
The rotary doorbell rings, and they squint questioningly at each other.
“I’ll get it,” she says.
He watches her go, blots off a little more sweat—hardly makes a difference; his shirt is soaked through—then follows after. At the foyer, he finds Zinnia leaning against the doorframe (a bit coyly, Darrell thinks). Beyond her stands a large man in mirrorshades, gesturing back towards the road. His thick arms and wide shoulders strain his short-sleeve button-up. The unbearable humidity has already begun to divine beads of sweat from the man’s temples.
“Hi,” the man says, face shifting towards Darrell. “I was just telling…”
“Zinnia,” she says.
“Zinnia here—nice to meet you, Zinnia, I’m Frank—”
“Yeah, likewise. And you are?”
“Nice to meet you, Darrell.” They shake. “Anyway, I was saying I’d drunk too much coffee and was looking for a gas station. Figured there must be one around this exit. My car broke down, and my phone’s not getting any service.”
Zinnia lights a cigarette, eyes darting back and forth between Frank and Darrell.
“That’s a boatload of problems,” Darrell says.
He cracks a polite smile. “Could I use your bathroom?”
“Okay,” he nods and points the way. “Take a right at the hallway junction. Second door on the left.”
“Awesome. Really appreciate it.” The man surges forward.
Darrell steals Zinnia’s cigarette and takes a drag.
“Nice butt, nice everything,” she comments.
“Please.” He rolls his eyes.
“When we tell Max about our little visitor at dinner—give me that—what adjectives are you going to use?”
Darrell laughs. “You are bad.”
A sheepish Frank, sunglasses removed, emerges well after the cigarette has been tossed into the yard.
“Everything go smoothly?” Zinnia smiles.
Frank chuckles and pauses in the foyer, no rush to leave. The floor clock at the end of the hall inaccurately strikes five. “Quite a place you got here. Mind if I make a call or two?” he looks about for a phone, only finding scattered furniture and stacks of boxes lining the walls.
“No landline,” Darrell says, unlocking his phone, handing it over, and motioning towards a parlor with faded, peppermint-striped wallpaper. “Go ahead.”
“You guys are the best.”
“Don’t be long,” Zinnia clucks.
The two of them step out onto the porch, gazing down the drive to see if they can spot Frank’s car in the sizzling heat. No, but the path is too long and wooded to be able to spot much of the road from here.
“No service,” Frank says, stepping out of the front door and handing back the phone. “Miss?”
“Zin, hate to be a bother, but could I try yours?”
She unlocks her phone and hands it over. Frank raises an eyebrow at the Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty case.
“That was judgment,” Zinnia says when they’re alone again.
“Who is this guy?” Darrell asks, checking his phone. Zero bars.
“Didn’t really say.”
“Has a kind of martial air, doesn’t he?”
“He wouldn’t look bad in uniform.”
“Nothing,” Frank says, reappearing.
“Impossible. It had full bars when I handed it to you just now.” She walks up and takes back her phone.
“You have a computer here?”
“Power’s out at the moment,” Darrell says.
Frank snaps his fingers in frustration. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Better let you get back to unpacking. Take care, you two. Thanks for everything.” He hops down the front steps.
“Good luck,” Zinnia calls after him, voice twanging slightly. “Take a left at the end of the drive; next house is about half a mile up the road.”
“Will do.” He waves and strides off down the driveway.
“I would say he had real, umm, Harlequin-romance biceps, wouldn’t you?” Zinnia continues as they enter the library.
“What is with you?”
“I haven’t gotten laid since before Clearview.”
“You poor thing.”
They unpack a few more boxes, idly chatting, when Zinnia remembers: “The lamp.”
“Really? Still?” Darrell says in a droll voice.
“Why would you lie about it?”
“I saw it—a second one upstairs.”
Darrell studies her: sweat-spotted t-shirt of some band he’s never heard of, ripped shorts, two-months’ growth of lucent blond hair since she’d shaved her head, and the neck tattoo, the reason she’d been cut out of the will.
“You gaslighting me?” he half-jokes, failing to conceal his discomfort.
“Come see for yourself.”
Darrell sips his water. “Where?”
“The third floor,” she says in a spooky voice.
He frowns. “Lead the way, Clearview.”
At the end of the front hallway, the stairway rises up in a freestanding spiral. At the base dozes the grand piano, toothless as a centenarian. In a shadowy alcove nearby, the grandfather clock ticks away its watch. Halfway to the second floor a recessed mezzanine full of mottled sunlight juts out over the back porch. The musty second floor hallway, carpeted in scarlet, wallpaper peeling, circles around the open front hall and branches off into darkness, the only light streaming in through the shuttered balcony door above the foyer. The third floor is even gloomier, more cramped than the rest of the mansion, but still could have provided ample living space for a family of five—Darrell’s childhood home certainly had been no larger.
Zinnia leads the way to the guest room and with a flourish presents the closed door to Darrell.
The doorknob screeches as he turns it.
Inside he finds an unmade bed, decapitated headboard in the corner, antique bureau, IKEA mirror, and the lamp in question set on a dulled chrome nightstand. Darrell is disappointed with the mismatched furniture all over again and for a moment wonders if this whole lamp to-do hasn’t just been a ruse to get him to face this very real decorating atrocity.
“Looks… I won’t say good, but okay.” He shuts the door.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say that either. This way, boss.”
She leads him down the hall to the next room. Her profile flashes blue as she checks her phone in the darkness.
“Still no signal.”
Darrel pulls out his phone, too. “Me neither.”
Zinnia presents the second closed door to Darrell. No amusing flourish this time.
He goes to open it, then stops short.
“What are we doing, Zin?” he says in a quiet voice.
“I’m showing you what I found.”
He can’t quite make out her face in the dark, and suddenly feels a tremor in his hand. He’s only really known the girl a few weeks. Met her once years ago. She’d had long blonde hair at that time. Then recently, after the honeymoon in Paris, they’d picked her up from Clearview—bald, thirty pounds skinnier, tattoo scrawled across her neck. They hadn’t talked much until they’d all moved in here together. She’s obviously disturbed, a little morbid. He’s thinking especially of that mutilated doll in her bedroom, the one that sets his hackles on end.
The doorknob screeches as he turns it. Unmade bed, decapitated headboard in the corner, antique bureau, IKEA mirror, dulled chrome nightstand—tutu lamp.
“What the hell?” he says, stepping into the room, checking to see if the previous door communicates through the same wall. It doesn’t. “It’s exactly the same.”
She creaks in behind him. “I told you. Where do you get these things anyway?”
“No, I mean the room. It’s exactly the same.”
“You’re right; it is,” she says with sudden realization. “I was so distracted by the pink tutu.”
“Did Max put you up to this?”
“Dar, come on.”
He approaches the lamp, picks it up, examines it. As he does so, he notices through the chiffon curtain, a stain in the sea of green outside. He draws it aside, looking down into the yard, and sees Frank in his white short-sleeves and khaki pants beside a tree at the edge of the grass, a strange device obscuring his face.
“Zinnia, come here. Quick.”
“What?” Her detached tone suggests she’s checking her phone again.
“Come on,” he whispers urgently.
She sidles up beside him. “What’s he doing?”
“I’m so calling the—”
Darrell and Zinnia step out onto the front porch, respectively wielding a five iron and cavalry saber. Frank stands on the heat-cracked clay driveway, facial equipment replaced by sunglasses, backpack slung over his shoulder. He’s not smiling. Behind him, massive waves of clouds have begun to crash over the deep green tree line of pines, oaks, and magnolias—an impromptu summer storm.
“Would you mind if I come inside?” he says.
“Need to use our bathroom again?” Darrell suggests.
“We need to talk. I need to ask you two some—”
“No, we’ll be doing the asking from here on out. What were you doing in our yard just now?”
“Taking some measurements. That’s all.”
“What you got in the bag?” Zinnia asks. “Something messed up like masking tape and rope and shop tools, right?”
“Okay, we’re off to a bad start.” He raises his slab-like hands submissively, then pulls out identification. “Yes, I do have masking tape and rope and some tools, but I’m not a psychopath. I’m Sergeant Frank Kehler, U.S. Army.”
“Toss it over,” Darrell says.
Darrell leaves the shade of the porch and stoops to pick up the wallet from the front steps, furrowing his brow as he flips through various IDs. “What the hell are you doing out here, Frank?”
“Sergeant Kehler, if you don’t mind,” he says in a crisp tone.
Zinnia laughs, but Darrell silences her with a critical look.
“We’re in a serious situation here,” Kehler resumes.
“My thoughts exactly,” says Darrell, tossing back the wallet, and returning to the shade.
“Has anything unusual happened to ya’ll in the past twenty-four hours?”
“Such as meeting strange military men with DIY serial killer kits and head gadgets?” Zinnia suggests.
“That…” Sergeant Kehler reaches into his bag and pulls out a bulky pair of goggles. “A pair of trundle goggles. Measures distance without having to walk it. That’s all. Oh, and one hundred percent transparency here—I bugged your bathroom earlier. I was going to analyze acoustical oscillations—”
“Going to what?” Darrell says
“Look. Time is short. Our lives are in danger. We need to work together. Fast. So, anything else unusual you can report?”
The two exchange a look, saber and five iron sagging in concert. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
“Does a duplicating tutu lamp qualify?” Zinnia asks.
Kehler nods grimly.
They lead Sergeant Kehler into the parlor and point him to one of three severe-backed rustic wooden chairs. It groans under his considerable weight. On the floor at the center of the chairs are a couple of empty wine bottles, an open pizza box littered with a few crusts and one fat, shiny Palmetto bug, which Zin conducts out the front door.
“Could I have a drink? I left my water in the car.”
“Zin, would you mind going to get the sergeant a water?”
She nods, slinging the sword over her shoulder.
“Actually,” Kehler stands, “we should probably go together.”
“Why?” Darrell asks.
“She might get trapped on the way back.”
“I summered in this house as a kid, Sarge. I’ll manage,” she says, offended.
“You can see it from here,” Darrell notes, perplexed, pointing through the columned divider, past a side hallway, into the empty dining room and on to the kitchen door.
“Do you mind?” Kehler nods towards his bag. The sweat has finally blossomed under his shirt, creeping down the sides from his underarms.
“What are you going to do?”
“Check the intervening space with the trundle goggles. Just take a sec.”
“Go ahead.” Darrell sighs.
Kehler fastens the device to his head, flicks a few switches, and a synthetic arpeggio sounds. He adjusts the zoom and a weather-vane-like device above the lenses. “Okay, looks clear,” he says after a minute of reading the space with sweeping eye movements. Rests the goggles on his forehead, ready to be lowered in a pinch.
Zinnia stifles a smile as she salutes and creaks off to the kitchen.
The windowpanes shiver with more thunder.
“So…” Kehler sits back down. “You two…”
“Us two what?” Darrell plants a hand on his hip.
“He’ll never guess,” Zinnia shouts from the kitchen. “I can hear you by the way,” she adds, swinging back through the kitchen door, bottle of water in hand. “Didn’t get trapped.” She tosses the bottle to Kehler.
“Thanks.” His hand engulfs it.
“You were saying?” Darrell says, taking a seat on the other side of the grease-stained pizza box, resting the five iron across his lap.
“Newlyweds?” Kehler’s eyes linger over the track mark scars on Zinnia’s left arm.
“How about we just remain the mysterious couple, and you tell us what the hell’s going on,” Darrell says.
“I’m part of an investigative team,” he nods, opening the bottle and taking a sip. “A tanker truck transporting an experimental entity crashed several miles from here yesterday.”
“Entity?” Zinnia says as if hearing the word for the first time. “What kind of entity?”
“It’s called Project Dandelion. Invisible to the naked eye, its tracking system malfunctioned after the crash, so we’ve been forced to rely on alternative methods to hunt it down.”
“A robot? An alien?” Zin pursues, stepping behind Darrell and gripping his shoulders.
“We weren’t told.”
“Is it dangerous?” Darrell asks with growing alarm.
“Well, it was trained to serve humans, but it could be dangerous—though only unintentionally so.”
“For example, by trapping us?” Zinnia interrupts.
He nods, missing the sarcasm. “Dandelion’s primary objective was agricultural—cloning arable land—but it underwent severe mutations during its training, producing a happy accident of sorts—it inserts new pockets of cloned space, completely altering the dimensions of the surrounding area.”
Zinnia’s hand claws into Darrell’s shoulder. Shadows wash the room gray—the clouds swallowing the sun.
“To build, Dandelion needs a human host mind,” Sergeant Kehler continues, wiping his face. The sweat has erupted into a mushroom cloud on his shirt. “It analyzes the host, assesses its needs, how it should go about inserting spatial clones, and then it repeats that routine indefinitely, but since the mutation, its intentions have become—”
The house pops, echoing in that rapid, almost elastic way.
“That was it!” the sergeant says with an admixture of excitement and dismay, reaching into his backpack and pulling out a digital recorder. He examines the monitor, presses a few buttons, and walks over to show his two bewildered hosts. “This is a spectrogram of the sound the house just made. Spatial insertion creates a signature surface waveform. Somewhere in this house a new pocket of space was just created. I advise we all stick together from this point on. In fact,” he adds, stowing away his spectral analyzer and pulling out a tight coil of nylon rope and three carabiners, “I insist on it—we need to go take a look at that lamp.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Darrell says. “This entity, why did it come here?”
“When it’s released into an environment, Dandelion follows an exploration heuristic, not entirely predictable, but based on the rules of the heuristic, there were several possible trajectories it would have traveled along before finding a host,” Kehler says, efficiently tying in succession three butterfly knots, spaced about five feet apart. “This house happens to be on one of those trajectories.
“Once it finds a host, it begins its nesting phase. First, it analyzes the host’s mind.” He clips one carabiner to the bight of the first butterfly knot, then attaches it to Zinnia’s belt. “Second, it establishes a home base in some inanimate object.” He repeats the process for Darrell. “Third, it sets up construction boundaries and creates pockets of space based on the cognitive analysis of the host.” He clips into the final knot. “If we can find and destroy the home base, Dandelion will wipe its work clean and turn dormant, and I’ll be able to report back to my superiors.”
“Let’s just get out of here. Take my car. Drive to town. Have your superiors come deal with it,” Darrell says.
“No can do. Dandelion has already set up construction boundaries to protect the home base—it’s nested. When I tried to leave earlier, started walking back down the drive, the scenery just stretched on and on, repeating. It’s the same in all directions. First power goes, then phone service; eventually you can’t leave. And…”
“And if one of the members of my team discover the construction boundaries, they’ve been instructed to call in Operation Fire Flower.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Darrell says.
“It gets worse.” A dark look crosses Kehler’s eyes. “Team members are supposed to check in on the hour every hour. If we fail to do so, another investigator is dispatched to our last known whereabouts.”
“And when did you last check in?”
“Forty-five minutes ago.”
They step out into the hall, Zinnia first, sword hanging off her belt next to the carabiner. She looks towards the foyer, then down along the box-lined front hallway to the grand piano. The house is quiet beneath the pending storm.
“Looks okay to me.”
“Is the lamp down here?” Sergeant Kehler asks, adjusting his goggles as he examines the front hall.
“Third floor.” Zinnia says.
“There’s something peculiar by the piano.”
“When Dandelion-inserts new space, adjacent regions undergo a very subtle alteration in their dimensions. I believe I’m seeing one of those now.”
“You don’t know for sure?” Darrell asks.
The sky growls again, and the house quakes in response—windows shaking, boxes of cutlery rattling, wood floors popping.
“No, I was only trained this morning. I don’t have any firsthand experience with Dandelion. In fact, I didn’t know it existed until about twelve hours ago. Now, tell me,” he says as they warily approach the base of the spiral stairs, “does this piano have any significance to you?”
“Yeah, Nooncy used to play for me when I would read in the mezzanine.”
“My grandmother. This was before her Alzheimer’s. Could that be…?”
“The home base? I don’t know, but it’s possible.” He approaches, flipping his goggles up and fishing around in his backpack for a handheld device. He switches it on, places it on top of the piano and presses a button. An hourglass appears on the screen, overturning every few seconds.
“When Dandelion nests, it leaves behind a strong chemical trace, so that it can range and find its way home.”
The hourglass disappears and a list of red-and-green-highlighted words appears. Mostly red.
“Forty-one percent match—definitely not a home base.”
“So—what—we go through the house, testing everything until your thingy there tells us we found the home base?” Zinnia asks.
“That’s one approach.” He stashes the device and snaps his goggles back down over his eyes. “Not the best one. Couple things you should know: Dandelion chooses its home base according to the cognitive analysis of its host, and the only thing it will not replicate is its home base.”
“So it’ll be something psychologically significant?” Darrell asks.
The clock strikes the half-hour. They wait for the brassy resonance of the final tubular bell to decay, but then it repeats—elastically rising in pitch—and repeats again and again, higher and higher in pitch, the intervals between each peal halving to a fire bell clangor, then up-bending into a machine-gun rat-tat-tat, and finally blurring together into the rasping cicada song, swelling, ebbing.
“What the hell is that?” Zin shouts over the noise.
Goggles darting this way and that, Sergeant Kehler shouts back, “Dandelion is building! We need to hustle!”
They mount the stairs, looping up towards the mezzanine. The strident whirring dies out at last, and Zin stops abruptly, neck craned. Darrell almost runs into her, then follows her gaze up the stairs.
“Dandelion” Kehler finishes.
The house has grown.
Above them, tens of mezzanines spill their now-muted light into the winding staircase. The ground floor has been repeated, too, and they find themselves standing before another piano, another grandfather clock. Beyond the mezzanines, the stairs vanish into tar-black shadow.
Zin balks from the aggrandized staircase, hands shaking, retreating to the new front hall piano, and touches the worn wood. It seems to stabilize her, melt her tensed shoulders.
Darrell mounts the rest of the stairs, rushes over and puts a hand on her arm. “You okay, girl?”
Darrell turns as Kehler reaches them. “How do we find this home base?”
“First, ascertain which of you is the host.”
“How do we do that?” Darrell asks.
“Simple. Which of you noticed the disturbance first?”
Zinnia raises a hand.
“There we go. We just need to analyze Miss—Zin here.”
The two men turn to regard Zinnia, who looks more awkward than ever.
“I think it would help if you told me a bit about yourself.”
She suppresses a smile. Fingers probe her track marks. The tumorous house seems to weigh down on her.
“She’s my sister-in-law,” Darrell says.
“I was in rehab till recently,” she adds.
“But before that, my Pop-pop wrote me out of his will—out of inheriting Wellington—because of this.” She points to her neck.
“What does it mean?”
“Latin for ‘fuck off.”
Kehler winces. “Classy. So, Zin, your sister—” Kehler begins.
“Brother,” Zinnia corrects him.
“Brother—” Kehler blinks, glancing towards Darrell, “inherited this plantation; do you feel any resentment towards him as a result?”
“You love your brother—”
“—but resent your Pop-pop.”
“Brilliant, Dr. Phil,” she says.
Sergeant Kehler sighs. “Well, help me out here. We need to think like Dandelion—find a central psychological issue, and then work out an associated object. Think back to your youth, maybe. Anything of moment to you.”
“This part of your training?” Darrell asks dubiously.
“A fifteen minute crash course early this morning—yes. They instructed my team that if Dandelion has started to nest, we need to delve into the host’s psychology.” He glances at the phosphorescent hands of his watch. “We need to move. Talk and move. It’s approaching one hour since my last check-in. They’ll be sending someone for me any minute. We need to find that lamp. Might give us a clue about how to proceed.”
As they ascend, new levels scramble together above and below with that pitch-tweaking echo—Dandelion at work. Other staircases spring up beside them and obliquely through the one they’re scaling, till soon they’re lost in a colossal genome model. After a while they pass beyond the mezzanines and pianos and clocks, entering the scarlet-carpeted gloom of the second story.
Taking out their phones and Kehler his high-powered flashlight to light the way, they continue upward. All the while Zinnia wracks her brains for some object Dandelion might have chosen as its home base, occasionally conveying to them some off-color anecdote from her past, but never quite convincing them—or herself.
“Here we are,” she breaks off from a vignette as they leave one variety of darkness for another—a sublevel of the now-inaccurately-named third floor. Lightning crackles behind thousands of shuttered balconies, tens of thousands of slats of light, stretching on all around them. The house suddenly shakes with a bombardment of deafening thunder, then rain crashes against the front of the house and surges towards the back, with a Niagara whoosh.
As they proceed down the hallway, Kehler speaks, but his voice is drowned out by the Dandelion-intensified roar of the storm, the cavernous echoes of hundreds of rain-thrashed roofs. He pulls out several headsets, hands them out, and soon the noise is dampened. Kehler’s voice cuts across crisp. “Zin, of all of this, what has been most prominent in your mind recently? Just one thing. Maybe even what you were thinking about before you found that tutu lamp.”
“Well…” she begins, leading the way down the dim corridor, seeming to debate what to say. “I know this guy who lives in the area. He’s connected. I was thinking about calling him—getting high.”
“Zin, you weren’t!” Darrell reaches out and grabs her hand.
“Sorry, Dar. I don’t want to let you and Maxy down—”
Pop! The pitch-tweaked creaking floorboard bursts over the headphones.
They turn towards Kehler, but he’s no longer right behind them, instead about fifty yards away, staring mystified at the section of rope that had once connected them—now severed, hanging limp.
“What happened?” Zin asks.
“Dandelion made space,” Kehler says, sprinting up to them, gathering up the slack rope into the coil. “We must have been standing between the point of insertion when it happened. I thought this system would keep us tethered together, but it seems it didn’t read the rope as integral to the cloned space. Need to stay close, people. Keep moving.”
Zin throws open the door to the guest bedroom.
Undisturbed, exactly as it had been before. Beyond the chiffon curtains, rain lashes the windows, lightning sparks, blindingly glimmering down arrays of replicated space, like a pixelated pyrotechnic display.
“There it is,” Darrell says, pointing to the tutu lamp.
Kehler strides over. Takes a reading as he’d done with the piano. “This is closer to a match than the piano,” he concludes.
“What does that mean?” Zinnia asks, looking over his shoulder at the display.
“It means this is one of the first things Dandelion copied when it began its work. The longer it works, the weaker its chemical trace on its surroundings. In other words, the home base is close. Now, Zin,” he turns towards her, placing a hand on her shoulder, “your substance abuse is likely important: salient in your mind and thus likely something Dandelion would read into. Think. When you would shoot up, what would you do? Rituals beforehand? Anything important. A common thread.”
“Oh!” Zinnia exclaims, putting a hand to her mouth. The fingernails seem to have been gnawed down to the quick. “I’ve got it! Geraldine!”
“Who?” Darrell asks.
“Geraldine. My doll.”
Oh, it would be that freaky thing, Darrell thinks.
“I would stick it with a sewing needle every time I shot up. It turned into a kind of ritual, and she became a kind of prison wall for daily tally marks. They told us in Clearview that the best path to recovery was to remove all of these little associations with our addictions, but I kept her. I felt I needed the link to my old self. Otherwise it would be like losing years of my life.”
“And you have this with you?” Kehler grabs her other shoulder, gaze intense. He looks grizzly-bear powerful beside the scarecrow ex-addict.
“In my room with all the other junk, right next door—or hundreds of doors down now, I suppose.”
“Let’s move.” He glances at his watch. “Been fifteen minutes since I should have checked in. Any minute they’ll be finding my empty car.”
They sprint in a tight clump past room after room of tutu lamps and IKEA mirrors. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Kehler curses. The others are too terrified to speak, ears peeled for the drone of aircraft beyond the rain and thunder.
“Here!” Zin exclaims as a pink door with traces of peeled stickers materializes out of the gloom.
They burst into the room. Darrell has never been in here before, only having seen it in passing, always with the same impression—the room, the doll, everything Zin is that Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty phone case—the adorable transformed into the grotesque.
And there she is, reclining on the aged pink dresser—a one-eyed, bald amputee in a torn dress, left arm a porcupine. Zinnia dashes forward, draws her sword, and slashes sideways. A clean blow. Geraldine’s head goes flying, caroms off the wall, and bounces to a stop at Kehler’s boots.
“Wooh!” Zin exclaims, eyes wild, ready to slice more.
Kehler hunches over and takes a reading on the doll head. For a minute there is nothing but the muted rain whisper-screaming through their headphones.
Then, from a distance, Darrell sees the results flash on the display.
They stand in a circle, gazing down at the head. The rain abruptly stops. Sunlight filters in through the pink chiffon and shredded black curtains framing the windows and balcony door. The heat trickles in soon after.
“I don’t get it. Geraldine had to have been the home base. I can’t think of anything else it might be.”
Kehler scrutinizes Zinnia for a moment. “You were the one that first noticed the disturbance.”
“Yeah, we established that.”
“But it was your lamp?” He turns to Darrell.
“My mother’s,” he corrects him. “I could never bring myself to get rid of it.”
“I don’t have much left from her. And to me that lamp is so heartbreaking. She always wanted to be a ballerina. Never happened for her though. She says it was on account of her being black, not the type of graceful swan stage directors looked for in her time.”
“Maybe it’s you,” Kehler muses.
“But I didn’t notice any…. Oh, god.”
“Dar, what is it?”
“I know what it is. It wasn’t the lamp to begin with. Something happened to me yesterday evening. Max and I were having a walk after dinner, and I remember the sound of the cicadas was overwhelming, and this intense nausea struck me.”
“Where was this?” Kehler asks.
“The old slave quarters. Just a field now. I brought something back into the house.”
“You mean that ugly piece of wood?” Zin asks.
Darrell nods. “I thought it might be the remains of one of the cabins that used to be out there. I wanted to honor them somehow, their sacrifice, by hanging it in a prominent place in the house. Stupid, I know. In any case, it’s been on my mind a lot since I found it yesterday.”
“Where is it now?” the sergeant asks.
“About a thousand floors beneath us,” Zin comments.
“No time for the stairs.” Kehler’s eyes wander to the balcony. He rushes over and flings open the door. Darrell and Zin follow, eyes widening.
Through a compound-eye perspective they see the beautiful green lawn ocean shining beneath the sun, hundreds of puddled front drives radiating out, vanishing into a monstrous forest, and the nightmarish convolutions of the mutated house. Dandelion has not simply replicated things and space; it has jumbled and overlapped the spatial components, perhaps in its attempt to more logically fit the pieces together. Whatever the reason, there are gaps below, between ground and house, of empty sky, and above of swards of grass and mangled, nonsensical house. Even through the noise-dampening headphones, the rolling white noise of cicadas blots out everything. They gaze up at the towering structure, how it branches and connects with other towers, some of them vanishing into the clouds.
“There must be millions of replicated spatial units,” Kehler says in awe, voice fragile juxtaposed next to the full chorus of Dandelion. He drops his gaze to the layers beneath them. “I think I can make out some front doors from here.” Lowers his trundle goggles over his eyes. “I don’t suppose ya’ll ever rock-climbed before.”
Sergeant Kehler pulls out a variety of clips and webbing and harnesses and sets everything up, anchoring into one of the sturdy balcony columns.
Zinnia lights a cigarette and shares it with her brother-in-law as Kehler fits him into a harness.
Darrell takes a drag with a shaking hand, then turns to the sergeant. “We ready?”
Kehler straightens, nods.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“Okay. Now, no talking during the descent, but, Darrell, after you hit ground, keep us updated on your progress. We don’t want to be in the process of lowering Zin when the home base is destroyed.”
Darrell gives the A-Okay sign. He hands the cigarette to Zin, steps over the railing, and stares down at the confused space. The descent will not be along the face of the mansion, but a free-hanging drop to the maze of front porch roofs below.
He looks up and finds Zinnia’s outstretched hand, worn Zippo in her fingers.
“For the home base.”
“Thanks.” He stuffs it in his pocket, holds onto the rail and leans back. Nods to Kehler. “Ready.”
His fingers release from the flaking whitewashed wood, and then he’s hanging, spinning slowly above the expanse, hands clutching onto the rope, looking up at Kehler’s strained face and Zin’s encouraging one.
He starts to lower. Slowly, jerkily at first, until Kehler starts to develop a smooth rhythm.
Looks back down—God, bad idea! He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to blank out his mind.
“Damnit, Max, this is all your fault,” he whispers, forgetting for a moment the mouthpiece of the headset.
Zinnia chuckles in his ear.
“Focus people,” Kehler cuts in through gritted teeth.
For a time there is silence, the friction of the rope whispering through their headsets, the growing distance. Even Dandelion has grown quiet, perhaps watching the spectacle of the sweaty man dangling down over the void, like a bit of bait dropped into Hell, luring out some hungry demon.
Is it reading me? Darrell wonders. Reading my mind or whatever it does? Trying to figure out how it should build next? Dandelion, if you can hear me, if you can make sense of my thoughts, stop building. Please, stop building.
He continues down, glancing up occasionally at the Army man and his sister-in-law, their faces soon just specks in the curving skyscraper face of Wellington.
A flock of gulls unmoors from a district of second-story balconies and navigates across freestanding house spires and archways to the immense wall of forest. The sight of Dandelion’s work with nature is a wonder—cliffs wallpapered in a living floral print. At all levels of the forest structure, he can spot deer bounding over fallen trees, squirrels puzzling over the sudden growth of their domain, everywhere knots of black oak tendrils.
He glances below. Halfway into the emptiness. One hundred and fifty feet or so.
He finds he’s been holding his breath, his chest painful, and he forces himself to exhale.
Close now. Maybe seventy feet remaining. Beginning to feel nervous about what he has to do. Needs to move fast. No errors. No hesitation.
More gulls flit past. In their airspace now. One squawks.
And the squawk bounces, up and up, rising in pitch, like the clock bell had, rat-tat-tatting, then surging into the full echoing insect song of Dandelion.
“Darrell!” Zinnia shouts.
He looks up just before it happens, just before Dandelion builds. The height of the house doubles, other buttressing columns and wings branching out and filling in much of the intervening space, but just as had happened before, the rope is ignored as part of the multiplied space. For a second it just stands there like a magical one from Arabian Nights.
Then the magic vanishes, the tension disappearing in a ripple of slack, and Darrell plummets.
He crashes down onto the roof, screaming in pain, rope lashing down on him. He lies there for a moment breathless, then finally groans and prods around his right calf. Something horribly wrong with it—jutting out. His fingers return to his face hot and red.
“Christ.” He pales. Battles a swoon. Can’t afford to pass out. Could be seconds before Fire Flower. Needs to move, broken leg or no. He rolls over onto his stomach, screaming out again as his leg overturns and the bone presses back into the wound.
He tears off the headset, jarred broken in the fall, and hurls it away, needing to vent on something. Glances around with strange, pain-focused vision and finds himself in an angular landscape of porch roofs—islands and peninsulas and straits cutting across empty space and connecting to the cliffs of the Wellington monstrosity. He claws over to the nearest edge. Gazes down towards another sky through a network of white-painted walkways and columns. He loops one arm around the column, lowers his good leg, then starts to slide the bad one over, when the balance of his weight shifts and he spills off. There’s a moment of flailing panic as he falls, but his back collides with the railing and he tumbles over onto the porch.
He pulls the five iron out of his belt and hoists himself up onto his good leg. With this crutch, he hobbles forward, towards a pocket of repeated doorways, a wooden hive in the center of this heavenly porch and its infinity of white columns. He bursts into the foyer and finds the front hallway a twisted screw of its former self, all threads from the many different regions woven together towards one (and only one) library.
Dandelion translates each pop and squeak of the floorboards into its own tongue, presenting Darrell with more front hallways, blooms and blooms of them, trying to distract, to circumvent him, but whatever it tries, whatever monstrous beauty it devises, there’s just the one library, the center of the alien entity’s beautiful, chaotic universe.
He limps over, trailing blood. Passes through the cased opening. There on the desk the blackened lumber pulsates as if crawling with termites.
Massive, warped, hideous.
He slides it halfway off the desk, bends down with his crutch, and hefts it up on his back, nearly collapsing on his agonizing leg. He charges brokenly towards the window, driving the piece of wood through the glass, slicing his arms and hands.
Dandelion strings the shattering sound up into a sparkling glissando.
He shoves it down into the yard, sweeps away the remaining glass with the five iron, and descends gingerly onto the grass. Among countless storage sheds, he staggers into one, plucks up a gas can and staggers back out. Then he drags the lumber out into the field, body white hot, the pain scorching everything in him.
Darrell, don’t do this, a voice whispers in his mind.
The emerald field stretches out around him, each blade glistening with rain, each sun-limned raindrop dazzling back the myriad other sun-limned raindrops.
We only want to be with you, it says. We’ve been searching for you for all of our existence.
He drops the piece of wood with a thunk. It beats, warping the space around it.
We want to build wonders for you.
Douses it in gasoline, each splash of gas spiraling and bubbling around the wood.
We would be blissful together.
Backs up a few feet, blinking the stinging sweat out of his eyes.
You’re safe here from Fire Flower. Deadlines don’t matter.
Sparks Zin’s lighter.
They can bomb us, but we can just make more space, outstrip the explosion, an infinity of space just for us. We’re outside of their time now. We can vanish together into timeless nothingness.
Tosses it into the strange sculpture of opalescent liquid and ancient wood.
As the home base burns, the cicadas crescendo into a disturbing frenzy.
The old slave quarters replicate exponentially. The massive forest disappears onto the horizon. Wellington looms high above, impossibly far away, a hazy mountain range, blue and ponderous. He’s not sure if what he is seeing is Dandelion, some pain-induced hallucination, or maybe all of the dead passing through him, imbuing his mind with their tormented memories, giving him their eyes to see this place as they had seen it when working the fields two hundred years ago, transforming his hands, the refined gesturing blades of an academic, into the blunt farm tools that had defined their existence.
He keels over and vomits.
Darrell wakes to the fuzzy sight of Zinnia holding up the tutu lamp.
“Third floor guest room,” he hears himself saying, his voice heavy and slow, “and enough with the judgment.”
“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.
Fighting the vertigo, the déjà vu, Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.
After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation, then to the desk, where the ancient beam still rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.
Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.
He walks back over to the boxes, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place.
The Garden of Esther
By Aaron Moskalik
See that sun up there? It’s just painted on. The real sun is a raisin with all the juice sucked out of it. I know ‘cause I saw it. But before that, I lay in my own garden beneath another fake sky.
I knew the shape of every rock and leaf, the buzz of every insect, the whistle of every bird. I smelled every flower, climbed every tree… but I stayed out of the woods. Mother said I should never go in there and I was a good girl. Plus also I didn’t have the key to the gate.
I let out a sigh. “There’s nothing to do.”
Puggle opened his eyes and peered up at me, his hedgehog spines tickling my belly. “We could play hide and seek.”
I had on my bright yellow dress, my second favorite after the frilly lavender one. Mother said I shouldn’t climb trees in a dress if I ever wanted to wear it again, so now I wore this one and yellow’s not a hidey color. I shook my head. “You cheat at that game ‘cause you’re not yellow.”
Puggle flicked his long tongue at me.
Bzzzz-whaa-whaa-wa-wa. A cicada buzzed angry not ten feet from me. A meadowlark stabbed at it with her needlely bill. I kicked a slipper at that bird. “Shoo! Leave that bug alone.”
“She’s just trying to feed her babies,” Puggle said.
That’s all the world needs, more babies. The meadowlark hopped a step away, one beady eye on me, the other on the wiggly bug. “Go away bird, I’m the top of the food chain.”
Puggle made his eyes squinty at me. “What do you know about food chains?”
“Mr. Professor told me about them.”
Puggle shook his head and looked sad at me. “He needs an upgrade then. They’re called food webs and they don’t have tops.”
I stuck my tongue at that hedgehog. ‘Cause he’s not so smart, that’s why. Everything has a top. Mama Meadowlark flew away with the no longer wiggly cicada silent in her beak.
From inside the cottage a wail burst out. Emily, my baby sister, ‘cept I never even asked for a baby sister. Well, maybe once but that was before I knew better and I shouldn’t have to be punished for that.
Puggle rolled off my belly. His ears flicked toward the woods and his eyes got squinty then he turned toward the cottage. “We should go see if Lady Ella needs any help.”
I scrunched my nose at what it would smell like in there. I bet I was never that stinky unless you count that time I found a dead frog and forgot it in my pocket for two days. “Puggle, what was I like when I was a baby?”
Puggle stopped his waddle and looked curious at me. “Well, you weren’t much bigger than I am–”
“Did you love me?”
He nuzzled my face and whispered, “I’m here to love you.”
I smiled where Puggle couldn’t see it. “Let’s not go inside then.” I stood and started walking.
Puggle scampered to keep up. “Wait! Where are you going then?”
“Mother’s busy, so I’m going to see the woods.” ‘Cept I didn’t say it out loud ‘cause Puggle gets nervous around broken rules.
The stone path narrowed into mossy stairs near the back of the garden. The flowers and shrub-shapes grew taller as we went until they ended at a hedge three times my height circling the entire garden. Beyond that, oaks and maples waved and whispered. Esther… Esther… Esther…
Puggle wheezed up the last stair. “You’re not allowed back there.” He rolled into a ball, just his eyes and pointy nose stick out of his spikes.
“Oh, and you are Mr. Pricklypants?” I learned that from watching stories on my room’s wall. You put “pants” on a name to make it mean funny.
Puggle rolled himself so tight I couldn’t even see his nose. “We should go. You can’t get through the gate without the key anyway.”
The gate was twisty black bars and as tall as the hedge. I pressed my face against the cool metal then blinked and squinted but couldn’t see anything but fuzzy bleary dark.
The gate lurched. There was a screech.
I think the gate screeched too and maybe Puggle. My bottom dragged the stones as I crab-walked backwards. Puggle crouched before me, spines flared and teeth bared. From the blackness something slithered out, a green triangle head with mean eyes followed by a long scaly body, dragonfly wings, stubby legs and a snakey tail. It flicked its forked tongue at Puggle then rose onto its hind legs and waved one claw. “Hello, Esther. Name’s Foster.”
“You’re not supposed to be this side of the gate.” Puggle was shaking at that lizard like an emptying balloon and making those noises too. I worried about that hedgehog ‘cause he might be a lergic. Mr. Professor said lergics react to particular things… like maybe green winged lizards.
I stepped between Puggle and that lizard and clenched my fists. “You leave Puggle alone. You’ll be sorry if he goes into Anna Galactic Shock mode.”
Foster cocked his head and blinked his eyes in a weird lizardy way then he flicked his tongue at Puggle. “Things are getting worse out there. It’s time to show Esther–”
Puggle launched himself at Foster’s face. I’d never seen Anna Galactic Shock mode before. ‘pparently it involves a lot claws and screaming. Poor Foster had spines stuck all over him. I did warn him though.
That wail sliced through the commotion. Baby Emily, and she was getting closer. I covered my ears and even Puggle paused, mid-shock mode.
Foster took the ‘tunity to slip behind the gate. Just his forked tongue poked from the darkness. “Get the key and meet me here tomorrow. You need to see something,” he hissed, then the gate clunked closed and he was gone.
“Esther! I told you to stay where I could see you.” Mother had been running. She’d hiked her dress above her knees with one hand and in the other held Emily who was raising a ruckus. As usual. Emily crying that is, not Mother running. She almost never runs.
That’s not what drew my ‘ttention though. It was Mother’s eyes open so wide and wild as her hair. My tummy knotted itself. “Mother, are you a lergic too?”
Luckily, Mother never went into Anna Galactic Shock mode. She did say I was grounded which is almost as bad. Grounded means I have to stay in my room ‘cept for lunch and dinner and if I have to use the bathroom, but definitely not to peek at the baby while she’s sleeping.
That wasn’t even the worst part though. It was Puggle. He went all grayish and stayed rolled up. I petted him for a long time, but his eyes just looked sad at me and he didn’t say anything.
He’d been like this before but never so bad and the next morning he’d be all pink and lively again. Mother said Puggles sometimes get tired is all, ‘specially if they have to keep up with an Esther. This time though, I think it was the shock mode, ‘cause half his spines were missing.
“I’m sorry Puggle. I shouldn’t have gone to the gate. I’ll listen to you next time, I promise.”
He took a big breath and closed his eyes. I think that hedgehog was disappointed in me.
The next morning Puggle was even grayer. That’s when my eyes got wettish and my throat swelled inside. Hard to believe. a big girl like me crying, but I saw even Mother cry once. It was right after Daddy left the last time.
And guess what? Whizzo G Wow, that’s what, ‘cause Mother says it’s important to name your emotions plus also Daddy walked into my room right exactly then and I hadn’t even seen that guy since before I lost my first tooth and learned how to cartwheel.
I wanted to smile real big to show Daddy my new tooth but I just squeezed my face against his chest instead. He wrapped his arms around me and I breathed in as much Daddy smell as I could through all the snot pouring out my nose.
“Puggle’ll be alright, Pumpkin, I promise.”
I cleared my eyes. “H-how do you know?”
His face looked sad at me even though the corner of his mouth held a smile. “He’s my heart, and he’s in yours.”
I squinted at that guy, ‘cause that made no sense. He ruffled my hair. That’s what adults do to change the subject. “So, your mother tells me you were playing near the gate.”
I looked down and said soft, “I like to listen to the trees.”
“Did you see anything else?”
The corner of my eye watched him. “N-no.”
“That’s good. That means only Puggle saw the dragon.”
I was too late covering my big mouth. “Is that what Foster is, a dragon?”
Daddy’s secret smile was bigger this time, but his eyes looked even more sad at me. “Dragons can be dangerous. The outside world is dangerous. That’s why your mother doesn’t want you near that gate. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, well she doesn’t need to worry ‘cause that gate is locked and I don’t even have the key.”
“No, you don’t. Only I do.” Daddy held up something. It was gold and shaped like an apple on one end and a toothy on the other. I reached for it but Daddy snatched it back.
“It’s my job to protect you. And Puggle.” Daddy stood and scooped him up. “Come on little guy, we’ll see what we can do…” He put the key down on my desk and stroked Puggle’s back. He frowned ‘cause of all those missing spines I think. He looked hard at me. “Don’t go near that gate, OK?”
I nodded. “Don’t forget your key.” But I only said it in my head then I sat on my bed and thought about Puggle ‘cause Puggle was always with me and now he wasn’t which made me jittery inside. That key sat there too, but I bet it wasn’t jittery ‘cause keys only open things. Until then, they just sit there waiting.
Keys are good at patience I think.
But not me, so I came in here even though I’m grounded. Sometimes I need to watch babies sleeping ‘specially if I’m jittery.
I’m going now. I’m going to see Foster ‘cause I don’t think Daddy can fix Puggle… and it’s my fault he’s hurt.
Do you want to know a secret? I’m scared. Maybe… maybe I won’t make it back.
Goodbye, Emily. I ‘ppreciate you listening even if I call you Princess Poopypants sometimes.
I wore my least favorite dress ‘cause I’d probably be climbing trees, maybe even wrestling dragons. Plus also this dress had big plaid pockets on the front which Mother says is practical. I see what she means. I put that key in one and a sammich in the other.
I think I spelt sammich wrong ‘cause when I typed it into the fooderator it came up question marks but Mother and Daddy were arguing in the next room and I was ‘sposed to be grounded so I just pushed more buttons ‘til the question marks went away. What came out didn’t look much like a sammich plus also it didn’t smell like I ‘spected either, but the machine beeped so loud I just grabbed it and sneaked out the door.
That big faker sun was straight overhead. Course I didn’t know it was a faker then, I just knew it was hot and made the air all shimmery and thick and only the cicadas buzzed in the bushes but not even the birds.
I wore boots ‘cause I didn’t want Foster to be able to bite my toes in sandals but now sweat dripped down there and made a squelchy sound when I walked. That’s not even the worst part though. That was my sammich. I was beginning to ‘spect it was tuna fish. I hate tuna fish, ‘specially when it gets warm and drippy in your plaid dress pocket which smells that way even after it’s washed.
So instead, I reached into my other pocket and pulled out the key. It was big and heavy and made me feel better. Stronger. I held that apple above my head so it caught a sunbeam shining through the shady shrubs around the stairs where I was by then. “Don’t worry Puggle. I’ll get your spines back from that dragon. Then Daddy can fix you for sure.”
The trees waved and whispered at me from above the hedge in a breeze only they could feel. Esther, Esther, save him, save him…
You better believe it, trees. I squelched up the last few steps. The gate loomed over me all twisty and black. I did a swallow ‘cause my throat was scratchy dry and I didn’t even bring my water bottle with the unicorns and rainbows on it. I gulped a big breath and clunked the key into the lock. Click. It turned. Screech. The gates opened.
I paused before I went through ‘cause here’s the puzzley part, I didn’t see trees on the other side. I didn’t even see darkness, only a bright white hallway that made my eyes all watery. “F-foster?”
Foster’s voice tickled my ear. “Hello, Esther. Come on back.” I jumped and whirled and still didn’t see him.
“Don’t worry, I don’t bite.” This time the voice was far off. I took a step past the gate. The walls were cool and sparkly where touched. I looked back and my tummy tumbled ‘cause the gate was gone and everywhere looked the same white.
Somewhere Foster was singing all echoey and not very good but least I could follow the sound. A trail of flowers drifted behind me on the wall from my fingertips but then the wall ended and I almost fell into a large room that was even brighter–
Frank N Freaky! I blinked my eyes to get them to work right again but still no luck. For starters there was Foster, but more ‘bout him later. And then there was Puggle. Well not just one Puggle, a whole line of Puggles but different sizes from tiny to the biggest one which was still smaller than the real Puggle and each in a machine full of greenish water.
On the other side of the room was another line of machines filled with Daddies ‘cept with no clothes on and the biggest Daddy was still a boy I think.
Behind Foster down the middle of the room was the last line of machines filled with more Fosters. The smaller Fosters were curled up like they were in an egg which was kinda cute but not really. Maybe if my tummy was behaving right. Foster had just climbed out of his machine ‘pparently ‘cause the green goo still dripped off him like snot into a puddle ‘round his feet. He waved with a big toothy lizard grin, then sniffed the air. “What is that smell?”
All I smelled was the green snot which was like plum pudding twelve days after Xmas… plus also my sammich. I brought it out. “Tuna fish, you want some?”
I had to snatch my fingers back ‘cause he snapped it up in two bites. “Sorry, I’m always hungry just out of the tank.”
I just squinted at him ‘cause my eyes were still seeing too many Puggles and Daddies and Fosters and my tummy was all hurly and I had to pee really bad and I wished I was still grounded at home.
Then I sat down ‘cause my legs were tired, not ‘cause my eyes were watery or my nose was sniffly or anything.
Foster liked to ‘splain things. He’d been ‘splaining for a while, but also he was messing with the tank of the biggest Puggle which got my ‘ttention.
I wiped my eyes and stepped out of the puddle. Least I didn’t have to pee anymore. “You leave Puggle alone… what are you doing anyway?”
Foster blinked down at me from on top his step ladder. “Puggle and I are on the same team even if we don’t always see eye to eye. We need him back and like I was saying, we have to make Puggle’s body grow bigger before he can get into it. The problem is, we don’t have much time so I’m speeding up the process.” He poured a bag of powder into the tank then grabbed a large spoon. “The agitators will take too long, so I’m mixing this in manually.
“Now, the problem with speeding up the process is the body won’t last as long, maybe just a couple days instead of the usual week.”
I peered into the glass. Little bubbles were pouring out of Puggle like fizzy drink. “Was I born in a tank too?”
Foster dipped a claw in the tank and tasted it. “That should do it.” Then he blinked at me. “Of course not. You grew in your Mother the way they used to do it. Your father insisted. You see, you’re human.”
I ‘membered Mother before Emily came and her belly so big. I wondered if all the bubbles inside tickled but Mother just waddled around and groaned a lot, so I guess not. “Why doesn’t Daddy grow inside Mother too then? He’s human.” I squinted at the biggest Daddy. He didn’t have a belly button.
“Actually, he’s transhuman.” Foster put the lid back on Puggle’s tank and climbed down. “Should just be a couple of minutes now. You need to get into your suit.”
“Trance human? Is that why he’s sleeping?” I tapped the glass. The young Daddy inside didn’t move.
Foster slither-slid around the machines toward the back of the room, ‘splaining in a loud voice. “Trans means beyond. Humanity long ago moved beyond single bodies and single consciences. Society has since integrated and virtualized into quadrillions of human equivalent minds. You are a throwback I’m afraid. But your father thinks something was lost when we shed our bodies…”
Foster was too far away for his words to make sense, I think, plus also something was happening in Puggle’s tank– he started to move. And his eyes opened. I climbed the ladder and yanked the lid off. It was too heavy so it clattered on the floor. Maybe broke a little too.
I was busy getting Puggle out though. The green goo tingled my arms but all I felt was the Puggle snuggle I thought I’d never have again even if it was plum pudding gross.
Puggle coughed. “You’re squeezing me too tight.”
“Sorry. Plus also I’m sorry you have to grow new bodies ‘cause I wore you out so many times.”
“You make my heart stronger and that’s worth a million bodies.” He gave me a prickle kiss and jumped down. “Esther, you need to do what Foster says, OK?”
“I thought you didn’t like Foster.”
“Foster… has a different perspective on things, but right now we agree. We’re all going on a trip.”
Foster was back holding two shiny suits over his stubby arms. He held one out to me. “Get out of those clothes and put this on.”
I hadn’t got to climb any trees, but my dress was ruined anyway from the tuna fish and pee and green gooey pudding. I kicked it aside. The good news was Mother would prob’ly never see it. It felt good to get out of those squelchy boots too. I curled my toes up just in case though but Foster was helping Puggle into his suit so my toes were safe.
I slipped into my suit. It hugged my skin soft on the inside but hard on the outside and covered everything, feet and fingers and face even. I zipped it tight and the zipper disappeared.
“Good.” Foster ‘spected me from every side. “Looks like you’re ready.”
“Where’s your suit?”
“I’m a dragon. My suit’s built in.”
Foster waved for us to follow and began winding his way through the machines. I looked to Puggle and he nodded.
The room got darker toward the back of the room. The air smelt funny inside the suit but also I could see little green glowy numbers that didn’t move even when I turned my head but some of them changed every time I breathed.
Foster pushed a button on the wall and doors slid open. Behind them was a small room. “This elevator takes us to the surface.” He waved us forward.
“What’s the surface?” Inside the elevator were five buttons. The bottom was lit with the letter “G”.
Foster hit the top one labeled “S” and a door slid closed behind us then the floor jerked and I had to grab a rail on the wall. “We’re deep inside the moon Europa,” he ‘splained, “but a meme storm hit Ganymede and knocked out half the q-tangle feeds so now the YRU is trying to relocate a trillion refugees. They want a full inventory of Europa’s resources…” He paused and glanced at Puggle then me and shrugged. “Nevermind. The important thing is, we can’t let them find you.”
“This whole thing would’ve been smoother if you let me handle it,” Puggle grouched. “Now you’ve got Esther scared halfway out of her mind–”
“What’s the surface?” I asked again. As much as Foster liked to ‘splain things, he wasn’t very good at it.
“See for yourself,” Foster said. Bing. The door slid open.
“Whizzo G. Wow.” I had to whisper it under my breath ‘cause my breath was already taken by what my eyeballs couldn’t even take in.
“Jupiter,” Puggle said as we slid out onto a white slippery world. “The big orange ball. The little purple one to the side is Ganymede.” He pointed his snout over my shoulder and past the squat little elevator building. “And that’s the sun.”
Like I told you earlier, the sun was a disappointment. “Why’s it so small?” It wasn’t even yellow, just a dirty white glare in a sky that wasn’t blue but instead nighttime. A nighttime sun. I just shook my head.
“In our habitat below, the sun is simulated to look the size it appears on Earth. We’re a lot further away out here.”
But then there was Jupiter.
Jupiter was bigger even than the sun in the habby cat. I don’t know why Puggle calls the garden a cat. We used to have a cat named Mr. Peepers and he was a tabby cat. Jupiter kinda looked like that ‘cept no whiskers but all orange and white and swirly and even a big glary eye but this one was red and Mr. Peepers had gold eyes but Daddy told Mother he couldn’t stay with us anymore ‘cause of who looked through those eyes.
I shivered a little. Jupiter was looking at me just like that.
“Come on.” Foster looked impatience at us over his shoulder as he slither-slid onto the ice. “The YRU will find us fast out here.” A gray ball the size of the cottage rested on spider legs a dozen yards away. A set of stairs dropped from a round yellow lit door. Foster paused before climbing them. “This spaceship will take us to the new habitat.”
My feet stuck to the ice, maybe ‘cause the bottom of the suit was sticky but also my heart squoze real tight and my knees locked. “What about Mother and Emily? Aren’t they coming?”
Puggle glared at Foster then looked sad at me. “The new habitat is a lot smaller. It can only sustain one human life–”
My knees unlocked and I moved so quick I jammed my finger on the “G” button before Puggle could even keep the ‘stonishment from falling out his mouth.
“Wait, the YRU–” The elevator door cut Puggle off. I gripped the wall bar and the floor dropped.
Breathing… breathing… breathing… Mother… she’ll be mad I sneaked out of my room… Thinking, breathing… breathing… breathing… Has she seen the surface? Did Jupiter glare at her and that’s why we live deep underground?… Thinking, breathing, breathing… breathing… breathing exercises are hard, I bet Emily can’t even do them. Maybe I can teach her, like Daddy taught me… thinking, breathing… breathing… breathing… breathing… Why are you? Who are the Why Are You? Maybe Mr. Peepers was the Why Are You? Thinking…
The elevator door opened, but the room was dark now ‘cept the machines glowed green a bit. The little Fosters seemed to be watching me even with their eyes closed. My footsteps made sticky poppy sounds that echoed. Skree-pop, pop, pop… Skree-pop, pop, pop…
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
My heart pounded faster than my feet, but I slowed down ‘cause the hall was even darker. It didn’t even make flowers when I dragged my fingertips on it. Skree-pop, skree-pop, skree-pop, skree-pop …
Screech! I left the gate opened ‘cause I forgot to grab the apple key and no way I was going back in there now, well least not without Mother… and Emily I guess.
The garden was night with no faker sun or even faker stars but I wasn’t even tired. Well maybe a little but it wasn’t bedtime yet ‘cause I never had dinner… or even lunch. My tummy growled and I wished I had that sammich back even if it was tuna fish.
I had a bigger problem first. It was dark. And quiet ‘cept for Ol’ Man Bullfrog in the pond. Why… why… why’re you? Why… why… why’re you? And the green numbers on my suit mask. There were green glowy pictures too. One looked like a sun. I blinked at that thing.
Sam Bam Whammoman! The front of my suit lit up, that’s why and I could see day again. I looked hard at those other pictures ‘cause they were like Pink Peony magic spells or something. I blinked at the apple and banana in a glass. A tube popped into my mouth and…
Echoey sounds came out of the gate. The Why Are You! Or maybe Foster and Puggle. I ran ‘cause Mother… and Emily of course. The windows of the cottage were lit up so I blinked at the moon picture and my suit light dimmed and I snuck in the kitchen door.
Only the fooderator glowed in the kitchen, but I didn’t even need that thing ‘cause I had Pink Peony powers now. I sucked some more juice just to make sure.
Most of the light was coming from the living room. Mother and Daddy weren’t arguing anymore but Emily gurgled and Mother murmured so I peeked ‘round the corner.
Mother was wearing a weird hat and laying on the couch. Daddy looked sad down at her. Emily lay on the floor batting at a mobile.
“Are you ready?” Daddy asked.
“Ready for what?” I covered my mouth ‘cause I prob’ly shouldn’t be there but too late.
Mother sat up and the hat wobbled a bit but she spread her arms and I ran into them. She stroked my hair ‘cept I had the suit on and prob’ly looked like an alien but nobody cared right then.
Daddy turned his sad on me. “I had hoped you’d be halfway to the new habitat by now.”
“Puggle says there’s only space for one and so where’s Mother and Emily going to fit? Plus also I don’t even understand why it’s called a habby cat anyway ‘cause Mr. Peepers was kinda creepy and I don’t want to be there if he’s gonna be there.”
Mother gave Daddy a look. I think she thought Mr. Peepers was creepy too but sometimes adults just look things instead of saying them even though when we look things at them they tell us to use our words.
Daddy looked serious at me. “It’s a habi-tat, so I promise Mr. Peepers won’t be there.” He looked regret at Mother. “Mr. Peeper’s was the biggest mistake I ever made. I’m sorry… I’m sorry I can’t fix this, Ella. Can you forgive me?”
Mother blinked and swallowed then kissed him. A scary kiss… maybe when you’re older you’ll understand ‘bout kisses mixed with tears and nobody breathes ‘cause if they do then that’s it but ‘ventually she said, “You’re the reason why we’re here. Thank you.”
Daddy looked dazed then cleared his throat. “We don’t have much time. We need to finish this or you’ll be stuck with the refugees. And I’ve got to get Esther back to the ship.”
“Finish what?” I asked again. Sometimes adults get sidetracked.
Mother squoze me and looked her sad at me. “I’m going to be virtualized. That way I can fit in the new habitat with you.”
“Virtu-alized. I won’t have a body but I can still talk to you.”
“What about Emily?” That baby was not even paying ‘ttention. Just playing with her mobile.
“She’ll be virtualized too.”
“She won’t have a body? How will she grow up to be a big girl like me?”
“She will have a body, just a virtual one.” Mother breathed big then blew it out. “We’re unique with our bodies. Other people don’t have them. We’ll still be here, OK? We’ll be fine.”
Somehow I wasn’t believing her. Maybe ‘cause she just whispered that last bit. Maybe ‘cause nobody said they would virtualize me and why not if it was going to be fine? Daddy gently pried us apart and leaned Mother back on the couch. I couldn’t see what he did next. My eyes were all blurry. I couldn’t even see the Pink Peony spells. Maybe one of them could’ve fixed this, but instead my eyes just got waterier and waterier.
“Focus on your breathing,” Daddy was saying. “You won’t feel anything as you transfer. Just breath slow… good… nice and slow… there. Open your eyes.”
I blinked away the water, but Mother’s eyes were still closed and… I don’t think she was breathing either. Not even slow.
And somebody was shrieking which made Emily start crying.
“Esther! Esther baby, calm down. I’m here. I’m right here, baby.” Mother’s face was on the wall, like Mr. Professor, and she wasn’t wearing the funny hat like Mother on the couch. Daddy took that hat off and covered her with a blanket.
Somehow I felt a little better.
“Good. Now you need to help Daddy with Emily. That way she can be with me, OK?”
I nodded. Emily was crying. Hard. “But I want to be with you too.”
“I’ll be with you, but I can’t take care of Emily unless she’s virtualized like me. Right now I need you to be a big girl. A big sister. You need to take care of her until then, OK?”
I swallowed and nodded again then I tried to grab that baby but she screamed louder and punched at my nose with her baby fists. ‘sperience told me it should hurt like hello pee-no peppers ‘cept I didn’t even feel it ‘cause I was wearing the suit plus also I looked like an alien.
I tried pulling on the mask but it wouldn’t budge then I saw a flashing green picture of a mask and a minus. I blinked at it and the suit split down the front. I flopped that mask back and smiled at that baby. “It’s me. Esther.”
Pow! ‘sperience was right, it felt just like a mouthful of hello pee-no peppers. I said a bad word. “Booty!”
Emily giggled ‘cause bad words are funny to babies I think. I snatched her up and held her out. “Here Daddy, she’s ready to be virtualized now.”
Daddy wasn’t paying ‘ttention. Neither was Mother ‘cause she wasn’t even on the wall anymore. Instead there was Mr. Peepers. Well not really Mr. Peepers but his eyes all over the wall. A godzillion of them.
OK, I’m not even sure they were Mr. Peepers’ eyes, but they were creepy like his. And they were talking in a buzzy voice like the cicada but not scared, instead mean. “Zohan D, we find you in possession of over ten undeclared terragrams, grossly underutilized, which are subject to seizure under emergency code 45.872 subsection K. In addition, you will be immediately compartmentalized and held for further questioning. Should you wish to file an objection, you have ten minutes before the utilization protocol begins.”
“Who’re they, Daddy?” I whispered it. Emily started to whimper so I held her tight.
Daddy knelt down and put his hands on my shoulders. “They’re the Yogic Resource Unit. The YRU. Now, I need you to listen carefully, OK?”
I nodded and he kissed my forehead. “That’s my big girl. You need to get to the surface and get in the space ship. Puggle and Foster will help you.”
“What about Emily?”
His eyes looked sad at me and he held out his arms. “I’ll take care of her.”
I shook my head, eyes blurry again and squoze Emily to me. “No, you can’t. They ‘mentalized you.” I whispered the last ‘cause Daddy’s eyes were glazed and his hands fell off my shoulders and his head slumped forward.
But then, all of the sudden, the Why Are You eyes were wiped from the walls and instead Daddy’s face, his eyes wide and scary. “Go Esther. I can’t hold them long.” The eyes were creeping back in the corners, but the big Daddy head somehow made them pop each time. “Take that, you motherless mechs!”
I held Emily tight and ran toward the kitchen. She began to grunt, her eyes closed tight and her face all scrunchy.
Swampy C Cesspool! I turned ‘round and down the hall. No way I was carrying a stinky baby all the way to Jupiter. Plus also we’d need diapers. I put Emily on her changing table then I put the mask back over my head.
Whew E Perfumy, that smelt better.
Changing diapers is tricky. Mother’s face ‘ppeared on the wall but she wasn’t much help. “Don’t let them take Emily, Esther. I was wrong. She needs her body. It’s not the same, being virtual. It’s not the same at all. It’s so abstract. All meta and no meat.”
“OK, Mother, just tell me how to get the nurserator to make more wipes.”
“Oh, that won’t work. The YRU shut everything down. Wipe her on the bedsheets. They’ll all be recycled soon anyway. Everything is recycled here. Even thoughts. Everything you can possibly think has already been thought by someone and recorded and then just replayed. What’s the point? What’s the point of any of it?”
Wipe her on the bedsheets? The last time I did that I got yelled at. Virtualized Mother was more practical I think ‘cept that most of what she said didn’t make sense.
There, Emily was clean and squirmy and naked. I picked her up but then I thought about the long way to the elevator and she got heavy and my back ached and now I knew why the bubbles didn’t tickle Mother on the inside.
A green picture of a zombie or something flashed inside the mask. I wasn’t sure how that would help but I blinked at it anyway.
Crike E Yikes! My arms and legs went rigid… then started walking on their own. I stumbled into the wall.
“You control it by looking where you want to go,” virtualized Mother said. “I’ve got the suit’s user guide in my mind. There’s encyclopedias, whole libraries of information…”
“Thanks, Mother.” Emily was crying ‘cause my arms were stiff and jerky, but I had an idea. I blinked off the zombie and took off the suit.
It was a struggle getting it on Emily but once I did it shrunk to her size. I pulled the mask to the top of her head. She squinted at me hard. “Booty!”
Then that baby laughed.
Sigh O Sister. I put the mask over her head ‘cause that baby wasn’t even funny. Plus also I had another problem. How was I going to blink at that green picture when it was inside where only Emily could see it? “Mother, you still got that guide in your mind?”
“Huh? Yeah, sure baby.” Mother’s eyes were funny, like she was looking somewhere far away. And her whole face was going blurry on the wall. “What did you need again?”
“Can I use the Pink Peony spells? From the outside?”
“Pink Peony? I’m not seeing that in the index… here’s a chapter called ‘Slaving a Second Suit’.”
“I don’t have a second suit.” I stamped my foot ‘cause virtualized Mother wasn’t too smart. “This is a ‘mergency!”
“Of course, dear. Why didn’t you say so? Here’s a chapter called ‘Emergency Override’. The access panel is on the bottom of the right boot. Slide it back and there is a big red button…”
I was already pushing that thing.
“Don’t push it.”
“Don’t push the red button. That’s the turbo boost. It locks you out of the manual override.”
“Why’d you tell me about it then?”
“So you wouldn’t push it.” Mother was just a color blotch now and her voice was getting buzzy.
Emily giggled, ‘cept it was turbo boosted and I had to cover my ears.
“What do I do now? Mother?”
“… lzt… brzz… sorry baby… love you…” Blip. She was gone. The wall was blank. Then the Why Are You eyes looked at me from everywhere.
Boosted Emily said it for me. “BOOTY!”
‘Cept I didn’t find her giggling afterward ‘ppropriate.
Ok, giggling wasn’t so bad, least compared with crying. When normal babies cry they are loud. Boosted babies? Ouch.
Plus also my back. Emily was getting heavier with every step. I made it through the kitchen fast ‘cause all those eyes watching me from the walls.
Outside was worse. Now the eyes glowed in the dark. Plus they talked too, with bullfrog and cicada and meadowlark voices. Why are you? Why are you? Why are you? At least it was dark, maybe they couldn’t see me.
Sam Bam Whammoman! The suit light came on. Boosted. I was holding the sun. Now they could see me for sure. Plus also after I blinked the stars out of my eyes I noticed I was only in my underwear.
I ran but not far ‘cause I tripped and Emily went flying. Her crying stopped. The suit light went off and my heart stopped.
I crawled on hands and knees toward where the light had been. The suit was hard… and cold. “Emily? You OK? It’s me, Esther.”
The suit softened in my arms. “Esta? Booty.” She didn’t giggle this time, just sighed. Plus also she wasn’t boosted, just snuggly. Maybe even better than a Puggle snuggle.
But I wished that hedgehog was there anyway ‘cause he had good ideas sometimes. “What are we going to do, Emily?” The Why Are You were still out there asking their question plus getting closer ‘cause the eyes were getting bigger. We had to get to Foster’s spaceship before they virtualized us into fuzzy heads on the wall who couldn’t even read user guides right.
My legs and back felt all rubbery when I tried to stand. I plopped back down. No way I could carry Emily any more. “I wish you knew how to talk. I could tell you how to use the Pink Peony spells.”
“Esta, blink, blink.” The suit light flashed on, then off.
My ‘stonishment fell out my mouth. Maybe babies aren’t so dumb. “Yes. Blink! Blink on the zombie.”
I put Emily down and stood with my arms out. “Errrgh…”
Emily turned her light and her face toward me. “Esta bom-bee?”
“Brains… brains… must eat brains…” I stumbled around for a bit to show her then stopped— ‘cause all around the Why Are You echoed “Brains… brains… brains…”
“Bom-bee!” The suit jerked toward me. “Bwaynes… Bwaynes… booty bwaynes…”
“Just look at me, Emily.” I walked backward to make sure she followed. Emily was giggling again. Still not ‘ppropriate but I smiled at that baby anyway.
‘cause now we were getting somewhere.
Even smiles weren’t ‘ppropriate when we found Puggle. He didn’t look good, even worse than when Daddy took him away and left the apple key to the big creaky gate that I left open. It was hard getting Emily through it though ‘cause she was crying again and not looking at me and the suit just stopped and the light went out.
That’s when the Why Are You almost got her, their eyes so big all around her glowing in the dark and swirling while the bottom of her feet curled up at me on those baby legs. “Esta…”
“Don’t touch my sister. Not now, not ever.” I pulled back the foot panel and pushed the big red button that Mother said not to push and guess what?
I lifted her to her feet and pointed her head at the gate then I had to run to catch up plus also the Why Are You were touching me with tingly tendrils which made me run faster and forget my legs were rubbery.
Emily bounced off the wall at the end of hall like a ball of sunlight. I scooped her up and her little legs hammered the breath from my belly.
We slid to a stop in the lab and a big door thudded closed behind us. That’s when I saw Puggle. His skin was gray and his suit hanging in shreds where most of his spines were gone. He must’ve used his Anna Galactic Shock mode again. “You made it… just in time. I couldn’t hold them off… any longer.”
I squinted at that hedgehog. “Hold who off?”
“The YRU. I’ve been compartmentalized… they got to Foster… sequestered the rest of us… I’m all that’s left.”
I shook my head ‘cause he wasn’t making sense. Maybe he needed a new body. The line of Puggle machines were still there, glowing green in the darkened room. I just needed the powder Foster had used to make them grow faster.
“Esther. Listen to me. I’m your Father.”
Poor Puggle. “Don’t worry. I’ll grow you a new body with a new brain then you won’t be so muddle-minded ‘cause Daddy is over there.” I pointed to the row of Daddy bodies.
Puggle shook his head. “We’re all your Father. Me, Foster and Daddy. We’re transhuman. We can have more than one body, more than one consciousness, but all within the same mind.”
“So you took Puggle’s body?”
Puggle closed his eyes. “Puggle has always been me. I wanted… to spend as much time with you as I could. The other transhumans don’t understand what they’ve lost. They say you’re too expensive, a waste of resources. I tried to convince them. Let them watch you, get to know you… through Mr. Peepers. I’m sorry Esther. My pride made me believe I could change the world… now I’m nothing and I’ve put you in such danger…”
I was only half listening ‘cause that powder stuff wasn’t anywhere. I did find a funny hat like Mother wore when she was virtualized but then there was a big crash ‘cause Emily was still boosted and running plus also not looking where she was going but instead going where she was looking which means one of the Foster tanks got tipped over. Babies love looking at dragons I think.
Puggle opened one eye and looked at that baby who was slipping and sliding on the green goo now. “You’re going to need that suit, Esther. It’s the only one left.”
“What’s Emily going to wear? Does she have a built-in suit like Foster?”
Puggle shook his head. “I’ll take care of Emily.”
I squinted at that hedgehog ‘cause he couldn’t even keep his eyes open. Sometimes adults think we’re not too smart. I crossed my arms. “Emily needs to get to the habitat so she can grow up to be a big girl like me. She needs the suit for that.”
“Esther… this body is all I have left. It will die soon and when it does… I need to know you’ll be all right.”
“Then help me.”
“Help you? How?”
I pointed to the Foster body. “Put me in that. Its suit is built in.”
Puggle shook his head again. “Esther…”
I put the funny hat on my head and took a big breath. “I know, you have to virtualize me first.”
Breathing… breathing… breathing… will it hurt? Thinking… breathing… breathing… breathing… will I end up like Mother, just a face on the wall? Thinking… breathing… breathing… my tummy’s all tingly. Do dragons have tummies? Of course they do, Foster ate my sammich. I wish I had a sammich. I don’t even have the Pink Peony juice and I’m hungry and my wings are itchy…
I opened my eyes which was weird ‘cause I had an extra set of eyelids plus also Puggle was looking at me close up.
“I’m sorry it came to this Esther, but… you taught me how to be human so I know you’ll stay human… no matter what body you’re in. I love you…” His eyes closed.
Somehow I knew they’d never open again. “Puggle… Daddy?”
“Go. Time’s short. Watch out for Foster. Dragons can be dangerous…” Puggle let out a sigh and was still.
“Esta? Bom-bee?” Emily was poking at a girl laying on the floor with a funny hat and only underwear.
I closed my eyes ‘cause my head felt wobbly from all the sad inside it. “Come on Emily. Time to go.”
Emily looked ‘spicious at me and folded her arms. “Booty.”
“Booty,” I agreed ‘cause the walls had eyes on them now. The Why Are You. I slither-slid to Emily and tried to pick her up but my front leg-arms were too short and I was too small and Emily was squealing. Plus also that baby was slippery with green goo.
So was the floor. I gripped my claws to stop sliding, then had an idea. I pushed Emily. She slid like butter on a hot plate. We picked up speed.
Behind us glass shattered. The eyes were on the machines now. But bad news for the Why Are You, more goo made my job more easier.
I ran ahead of Emily and pushed the elevator button. The doors slid apart and she slid in and I punched the “S”.
Eyes whirled everywhere behind us, eating everything they touched, the walls, the machines, even the goo going up into more eyes that swirled into one honking eye staring straight at us—
Emily pointed right at it. “Booty!” I hugged that baby.
The elevator doors closed.
Louis D Whewee! Now we just had to get to that ship and fly to the habitat ‘cept I had no idea where that was or how to fly a spaceship… just look at all the controls. There are some for thrust and some for attitude…
I bet Mother wished I had attitude controls.
I do, but unlike spaceships, you don’t come with a user guide.
“Mother? Where are you?”
Puggle downloaded a bit of me into this Foster body before you were virtualized. Esther, sorry about before… on the wall… I wasn’t myself all swirled in with the YRU. And I’m sorry you had to be virtualized but you’ll always be my brave, smart girl…
Somehow we figured out a way to hug in there. It may have been virtual but…
It was the best hug ever.
Can I see my baby? Is she OK?
I was still hugging Emily on the outside too but she was getting squirmy again looking up at me with saucer eyes. “Don’t be scared Emily. It’s me, Esther. And guess what? Great news! Mother’s in here too.”
I let Mother take over ‘cause I wanted to look at that spaceship user guide some more ‘cept as soon as I started learning ‘bout life support—
Bing! The elevator doors opened. Freddie U Ready? ‘cause that big eye was looking right at us ‘cept it was all red and on Jupiter but somehow that didn’t make me feel any safer. Mother put Emily down and together we held her hand and walked onto the surface.
That’s when I saw Foster. He didn’t look too good with Puggle spines hanging off him, one eye squeezed shut and wings all tattered but he was still bigger than me. I guess my dragon body hadn’t grown full size before Emily knocked over its tank of goo. Plus also he was between us and the ship.
Foster’s other eye was glaring at us and he rose up on his hind legs so that Jupiter’s eye glared over his shoulder too. “We need you to tell us the coordinates to the habitat. Puggle was most uncooperative about that.”
Coordinates? A picture appeared behind my eyes. Eight boxes stacked into one big box with balls inside. Little balls and one big one that looked like Jupiter that rolled in circles. A string stretched from one little ball to a teeny tiny one. A map… to the habitat. And Foster was trying to take it. Why? “Puggle said you are Daddy too so why are you acting like the Why Are you?”
“We’re all part of something much bigger. You’re part of us now too. You’re beyond human. Transhuman. We have no need for inefficient biological bodies. We left them behind centuries ago.
“But your father felt he could horde obscene resources for his own personal…” Foster chewed the next word then spat, “garden. Meanwhile, trillions of citizens from Ganymede suffer in low resolution…”
Foster blabbled on but I was noticing something else. Not really there but I could see it anyway, glowing lines from Foster’s head that swirled away in every direction, but most seemed to come from Jupiter’s eye.
Augmented reality. You’re seeing the YRU’s data flows. They’re controlling Foster. Mother seemed sad. Just a matter of time before they get us too.
“No they won’t.” I raised a clenched claw and stood up straight. “Why are you?” I pointed right at Foster and took a step forward. “I know why I am.” I took another step. Emily looked up at me and the suit stepped her forward also. “I am ‘cause Daddy and Mother loved me. I am ‘cause Puggle died to save me. I am ‘cause I’d die to save Emily.” I was right up to Foster now and I poked him in on his scaly chest. “Why are you?” I poked every word. “Why are there a godzillion of you? Thinking the same thoughts over and over. Why?”
Foster blinked his one eye in that weird lizard way then he nodded. He closed his eye and clenched his claws. The glowy lines to his head winked out, one by one. “Go.” His voice was tight. “I can only hold them off a few seconds.”
I tugged Emily’s hand and we ran to the ship. We paused at the top of the ramp. Foster opened his one eye. “Thank you, Esther. I remember why I am now.” Then eyes swirled out of the elevator and covered him up. Nothing was left when they swirled on toward us. I pushed a button and the ramp slid into the ship.
Even with the extra lids, lizard eyes can get watery and blurry plus also snot bubbles out of their snout.
‘Cause Foster was the last bit of Daddy, that’s why.
The ship’s door closed. I fired the thrusters.
It’s a small habitat, not like the one we had but that’s OK. You see that sun up there? Daddy loved us so much he painted it on the sky so you could grow up. But guess what? Even better news ‘cause Mother lives there now. She keeps us warm and safe.
Good morning, children.
And I’m here to keep you safe too ‘cause the world does need more babies. The Why Are You don’t understand, but don’t worry ‘bout them. They’re not so smart. They think food chains have tops, but they don’t ‘cause there’s more to life than eating. That’s what Daddy was trying to teach me I think.
And don’t worry ‘bout me either ‘cause I found my own tank here and can grow any body I want kinda like the fooderator ‘cept I don’t even have to spell correctly ‘cause I control it with my mind.
So see? Being transhuman isn’t so bad even if it comes with its own headaches. It’s a dangerous world out there full of meme storms and q-tangle outages and other transhuman words I need to know now. But we’ll be OK, long as I ‘member the human part, long as I ‘member why I am.
The Girl in the Glass Block Window
By Jamie Lackey
My grandfather shoved me into the basement and locked the door behind me. The cold, damp smell wrapped around me, and thin sunlight slipped in through glass block windows set high into the walls.
He didn’t like having me underfoot, so I spent a lot of time in the basement.
In the summer, I could sit on stairs and read. But it was late January, and too cold to be still, even wrapped in the cedar-scented wool blanket that I’d stolen from the dusty room where he stored the other things that my mother had left behind.
I jogged around the rotting workbench, hugging the blanket tight.
Between one step and another, I saw her, fragmented into a thousand pieces by the panes inside the glass blocks. A girl, older than me, with long black hair and shadowed eyes.
I dragged a broken chair over to the wall and balanced on it, face even with the window.
She stared back at me from a hundred angles, her face twisted into a plea for help.
I fell off the chair.
She was always there, after that. Maybe she’d always been there, waiting for someone to see her. But I’d seen horror movies, and I knew that I couldn’t trust her. She probably wanted to steal my body. She couldn’t have a body herself, trapped inside that window.
Still, it was hard to face her.
I snuck into the closed room and stripped the sheets off of the bed. I pulled the quilt back up over the bare mattress and smoothed it out.
I pictured my mother’s hand, smoothing the same spot.
The sheets made serviceable curtains. The basement was darker, but I felt better with the windows covered.
I dreamed that my mother came back for me, but she had the girl from the window’s eyes.
Time slipped by. My grandfather sent me to the basement anytime he noticed me, so I made myself quiet and small. I didn’t try to make friends–it didn’t seem worth the effort. And trusting people had never worked out for me.
I ran away on my 15th birthday. I took the wool blanket and $400 that my grandfather had hidden in a pickle jar. I hid in the woods for a week and lived on food I bought in the gas station. I should have gone to the city, should have had a destination. My mother knew where she was going when she left.
But I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I slept under the stars and felt giddy with freedom.
I was standing next to the Hostess rack, trying to decide what snack cake I wanted for breakfast, when a friendly voice said, “I imagine there’s someone looking for you, honey.”
I bolted, but the cops were already outside. They put me into the back of their car, and I wept all the way back to my grandfather’s house.
He pushed me straight into the basement.
I tore the curtains down and stared at the girl in the window. She hadn’t aged–hadn’t changed at all since I’d covered her up.
“If you want my life, you can have it,” I said. She pressed a distorted hand to a hundred surfaces inside the glass block. Her dark eyes glittered like stars.
My grandfather had a battered set of golf clubs in one corner, and I swung one at the window. The club bounced back, leaving a single white chip in the middle of the center block. I swung again with a cry of frustrated rage. The window cracked, a splintered spider web that spread across the panes. I waited for the girl to flow into me, to take over my body and thrust me out.
I stared at the window, at each place where I’d seen her pleading face and bottomless eyes.
She was gone.
She was free.
And I had freed her.
I slumped beneath the broken window and cried.
The next day, I saw a glimpse of her, reflected in Tina Thompson’s glasses. Maybe–maybe I could try trusting someone. What else did I have to lose?
I met Tina’s eyes and smiled. “Hey. Did you do the homework? What did you get for number 4?”
She smiled back, and told me.
Nina Marinovic Does Not Exist
By Zoe Thomas
In the end, she ate the paper, its shiny, slightly furry surface sticking to the roof of her mouth and making her gag. Her husband laughed when he found out, but it was something she had to do. She didn’t trust the power it had over her, and the only way to break that power was to break it up with her teeth. It sat in her stomach, making her queasy, but through the dizziness and chills that followed she was content. She had finally finished it.
Nina wished she had worn more clothes at the border point. Her children resembled giant balls, their puffed-up coats bulging around them. She was shivering through her jeans, and her scarf offered little comfort. Her husband David’s face was set like concrete, but she could see him shaking in his leather jacket.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said, for lack of anything to do but complain. “I remember when they’d let you in with just a passport.”
“At least they’re letting us through.” She took out the envelope containing her documents and thumbed through it for the fifth time. She ran through all the explanations she could possibly give if the guard questioned those papers: excuses for everything from incorrect orthography to the variation in color between her and her husband’s work permits.
“Next!” The guard’s order rattled through the loudspeaker, and David jumped. He took Lara and Petra in hand and walked, with only a little hesitation, up to the booth. They’d registered the children on his papers, and so he was the one who had to explain the situation to the guards. At the time, he’d insisted on it–he was the one who’d travelled through this very checkpoint several times, back in better days. Now, Nina was frantic with anxiety, and she squinted towards her family and their conversation with an unimpressed officer. After a couple of minutes, the officer gave them all back their passports and other papers, and they set off towards the exit.
It was her turn, and she stepped forward feeling the crescendo of blood in her body, rising in fear. When she reached the booth, she saw that the officer’s eyes were a jaundiced yellow, though the rest of his face was pale and papery. She placed all her papers on the wooden surface, and he took them from her. She watched his eyes flicking through her passport, work pass, and entry permit.
He collected her papers together, stamped her passport, and handed them back to her, along with the card that proclaimed her to be a temporary resident with the right to work.
“Thank you,” she whispered. The officer ignored her as she stuffed her papers into her handbag and walked towards the rest of her family.
For a little while, nothing strange happened. Then Nina tried to go to work.
She had obtained a job before they had come, at Saint Anthony of Padua Gymnasium. She would replace the school’s former French teacher, who had disappeared one day in mysterious circumstances, according to the student who shown her to the principal’s office. Nina asked what these circumstances might be, and was told that the most popular theories were elopement, involvement in a cult, and selling her soul to the devil. She felt rather less enthused about her new job, but kept on walking, her shoes clattering on the polished floor.
When she entered the office, the principal–Dr. Lisa Amstutz, the plaque on her desk said–shook her hand, and Nina introduced herself, tripping a little over a language she knew more as an intellectual exercise than a living thing.
“Of course, since you are a foreigner, I need to see your residency card,” Dr. Amstutz said. Nina pulled her card out of her purse and handed it over. It was the first time she had needed to use it.
Dr. Amstutz frowned, and stared at the card for too long to be reading it.
“What is wrong?” Nina started forward in her seat.
“This says you’re not Nina Marinovic.” She handed it back, and Nina saw that the name printed in black ink was NIKA MARINOVIC. She closed her eyes and opened them in the hope that the letters would change while she wasn’t looking, but they remained as before.
“There must have been a mistake,” she said. “I really am Nina Marinovic–this card just has an error—”
“I’m sorry.” Dr. Amstutz rose from her chair and gestured towards the door. “We can’t have someone teaching here if they’re not who their documents say they are.”
“I have a passport from my country–won’t that do?”
“Not if you don’t have the right to work.”
“If you give me time, maybe I can get new papers. It’s a mistake.”
“I don’t have time.” Over the top of her glasses, Dr. Amstutz regarded her the way one regarded a criminal’s photo in the newspaper.
Nina felt hot and embarrassed, and gave up the fight in favor of scuttling away. “I’m sorry,” she said before closing the door.
David greeted her with pre-emptive congratulations, and subsided into silence when she told him that she hadn’t got the job. She didn’t tell him the reason for her failure; he would only have exploded in anger and marched down to the department of immigration to berate any hapless clerk he could find, and she didn’t want that kind of attention drawn to the mistake. Seeing her name written as Nika rather than Nina had made her feel cold and queasy, as if she were about to come down with flu, and it seemed prudent to ignore this as much as possible. If no one but her knew about it, maybe the letters would rearrange themselves in the night and she could go about her life as Nina Marinovic. She was sure that her residency card had borne her real name when it had been freshly printed for her at the border, and she half-wondered if the letters had changed without her noticing. Perhaps, if they had done so the first time, they would again.
She said nothing to the girls. Lara had always been a nervous child, peering out at the world from behind a door, and didn’t need anything else to worry about. Petra wasn’t a worrier, but she clung to Lara like a limpet and would have told her sister the bad news within seconds. So Nina smiled and listened to their stories and did nothing to indicate that moving all this way had not been for the best.
This would have been enough if she hadn’t underestimated her husband. David accepted her explanation of the school having filled their vacancy with the principal’s cousin’s daughter, and laughed dutifully when Nina made a weak joke about how they thought they’d escaped nepotism to arrive in a country where it was just the same. When they slumped on the sofa after the girls had fallen asleep and let a poorly-subtitled American sitcom wash over them, he coughed to announce that he was about to say something she should pay attention to.
“Was the teaching job really filled by someone else?” he asked her, eyes still on the TV. He sounded disinterested, but she knew he wanted a real answer.
“Why would you ask?” she said, playing for time.
He muted the television. “When you told us, you didn’t look like some principal’s cousin had taken away your job. I remember when Marija got the understudy job instead of you because she’d been the nanny to the director’s kids, and you came home and kicked the fridge. You would have been more angry if something like that had happened today.”
“I don’t remember kicking the fridge.”
“Trust me, I remember.”
Nina watched the blonde girl on screen widen her eyes in shock. She wondered if the overacting was also meant to be comical. Years ago, her teacher had played them scenes from the film adaptation of the book they were studying, which had been made back in the 1920s with actors who were used to the stage. They had pranced around onscreen, every movement pitched for a theatre stage. Even their faces had been made up for different lights: caked with makeup like a body on a mortician’s slab, with eyes outlined in black and scars done in liner. All the other students had shrieked with laughter, but Nina had sat there and watched those long-dead actors do their best to perform in this intimate stage where the audience was close enough to see the greasepaint sliding off their skin.
“Promise that you won’t try to do something about it?” she said.
“Why would I do that? Did something bad happen?”
She shook her head. “Not bad, but strange. She asked me for my residency card, the principal, you know, because it has the right to work stamp and my name on it so of course she had to check who I was, and, well.” She saw David’s look of confusion. “Well, it doesn’t have my name on it.”
“What? You’re telling me you have the wrong card?”
“No, no, it’s not the wrong card, it’s my name apart from one letter. Nika, not Nina. There must have been some kind of mistake.” He was on his feet now, and she motioned him to sit back down; it wasn’t worth getting so angry about.
He sat back, and then she saw his eyes narrow as he let out a soft, “Oh.”
“There was a phone call today asking for a Ms. Nika Marinovic. I told them no one called that lived here; I thought they were cold-callers who’d got your name wrong. But maybe they knew. They were calling from a theatre, but I didn’t catch which one. The line was bad.”
“A theatre?” She watched the blonde girl on the screen, now joined by a young man who seemed to be her boyfriend. The subtitles had started trailing several seconds behind the image, so it was hard to tell. “I haven’t auditioned in years.”
“Go to the immigration office tomorrow. They can sort it out for you.” He squinted at the subtitles, trying to make sense of them.
The immigration office could not help her. They had no record of a Nina Marinovic, and when Nina waved her passport around to prove who she was the woman behind the counter asked if she wanted to be deported for attempting to work without a residence permit. Nina retreated, and crossed the square to the bank to open an account. If she could only be Nika Marinovic, then she would have to be paid as Nika Marinovic. They only required her ID, for which her faulty residence permit was enough, and the tenancy agreement, which proved to be an issue due to being signed in David’s name, but the bank teller relented after Nina pointed out that there couldn’t be two Marinovic families in this small city. He signed off on her application, while telling her that he wouldn’t normally do this. The operation was so furtive that Nina left feeling like she’d opened a bank account with the local mafia.
None of the documents she had brought with her from home would work in their new country. The only proof that really mattered was the residence card with the wrong name on it, and all the other proof of her life–her birth certificate and marriage certificate and bank statements and doctoral certificate–did not matter here. To everyone except her family, she was Nika Marinovic, and no one could vouch for her existence before she had crossed the border. Since her failure at the gymnasium, she had applied for dozens of jobs teaching French or German or Latin, but she was always rejected when she could not provide references that described the same person she was on her residence permit. She could be Nika, with a valid permit that guaranteed her right to work and no other record of her existence, or she could be Nina, without a permit at all but decades of existence and the paperwork to prove it.
“No one knows, and no one cares, about Nina Marinovic,” she said as she came in one day, wiping ice slush from her boots.
“Who?” David said. She stared at him, tasting the sour chill of the outside air.
“Me,” she said, not knowing what else to say.
His face relaxed. “I was just joking. Sorry–I should have thought it might hit too close.”
The rest of his face stayed still as he smiled, and Nina didn’t trust what he said. But he was working so hard and was so overwhelmed, having to provide their full income and coming home exhausted from speaking a strange language all day. If he sometimes looked at her in confusion and hesitated half a second before saying her name, that was just stress. She prided herself on her forward momentum; she hadn’t looked back when they had left their home forever and caught the bus to a new country. She would never look back. She never saw that look of puzzlement on Petra’s face, and Lara always looked slightly confused–she always had, Nina thought.
The only offers of work she ever got weren’t for her at all. They were all from theatre companies who called asking for Nika Marinovic with offers of exciting new opportunities and breakout roles. She never called them back, and after a while she learnt not to pick up the phone, but let them leave messages that she deleted without listening to.
They had almost settled into a routine, where David dropped the children off at school on his way to work at the railway company and Nina lay on the sofa all day and felt like she was slowly decomposing, when one day during her daily trip to the library to look at her email and rifle through the shelves for books she hadn’t read yet, she saw an email that she had been hoping to receive for days.
Nina opened it and thought it was a joke. It was from her PhD supervisor, whom she’d written to asking if he would mind acting as a reference and changing her name just a little in his recommendation, but it was all wrong. She closed the email and stared at the screen, and then clicked on it again. It still bore the same message.
Dear Mrs. Marinovic,
There must have been some mistake. I have never taught a “Nina Marinovic”, and in any case I would never willingly collude in attempted identity fraud. Do not contact me again.
Prof. Josip Novak
Her throat spasmed, and she had to swallow the bitter bile that rose up in her mouth. She left the library and walked home as fast as she could, ignoring the ache that built up in her calves as she marched through the street. When she got back, among the small cluster of boxes in the living room she found the box that contained all the material from her PhD years. Crushed by her hardback thesis, there was a greetings card with CONGRATULATIONS! splashed across the front in garish colors. Inside there was a short message in a sprawling hand:
Congratulations on successfully defending your thesis! It’s been a pleasure supervising you.
Best wishes for the future,
She knew she had not made a mistake. He still taught at the same university, in the same faculty, and whatever he said now he had once taught a Nina Marinovic. Before, she would have assumed it was a joke or a miscommunication, but now she had a residency card with a wrong name on it and no way to be Nina instead of Nika, and she did not believe the mundane explanation.
She phoned her sister, because it was still several hours before David would come home with the children, and after Leona had described her annoying new co-worker in detail Nina told her about the letter from her old supervisor.
“I don’t think he was confused. He seemed angry–said I was attempting identity fraud–and surely you would check whether you’d supervised someone with that name even if you disapproved of them.”
“Who knows?” Leona’s voice sounded small and far away, like she was calling from the bottom of the ocean. “Academics sometimes don’t function well in the real world. You said he was always losing his keys and conference notes and things like that.”
“I don’t think he would do something like this, though. He seemed to care about his students. I can’t believe he’d just forget about me and write me off.”
“It sounds weird but it’s probably just some mix-up. Don’t worry about it. I have to go now, but give my love to your mother.”
Nina held the phone away from her ear and stared at it. She put it back so she could speak. “We have the same mother, Leona.”
The dial tone whined, and Nina put the phone back in its cradle.
For the rest of the afternoon, she read the book she’d been trudging through, until she heard the clatter of a key in the lock and got up to greet her family.
“You’re back! I had such a strange phone call with Leona–I’ve felt ever so odd since then. Did you have a good day?” She smiled, but David didn’t return her smile and screwed up his eyes in puzzlement.
“Who are you?”
Her stomach dropped out of her.
“I’m Nina. I’m your wife.”
“No, you’re not,” he said, tightening his grip on the children’s hands. “What are you doing in my house?”
Nina bent down, imploring her daughter to recognize her. “Lara, give Mama a kiss.” Lara shrank away from her, burying her face in her father’s side. She turned towards Petra, who looked ready to cry at the sight of her.
“Stop this,” she said. “It isn’t funny.”
David stared at her, furious. “I’m not joking, and I’ve never met you. Now get out of my house before I call the police!” His voice rose to a yell by the end of the sentence, and the girls started crying. Nina, head spinning, had just enough sense to pick up her handbag before her feet took her out of the front door, which was slammed behind her.
The world blurred and distorted in her eyes as she walked towards the main street, finding her way out of habit rather than any real awareness of her surroundings. When she came to, she was standing opposite a café with pastel-blue awning, and to its right a sign pointed the way to the train station.
She took it as a sign, and knew what she had to do. She purchased a ticket to her destination and spent the journey trying to concentrate on the countryside flowing past the window and not on the anger on David’s face. When the train arrived at its final stop, she got off and bought a map in the station before setting off into the town. It took half an hour through a bleak town centre that gave way to sprawling industrial estates before she reached the border. She saw the high arches that crossed the road first, glowing white in the cold afternoon sun. To her right was the building where she’d collected her documents only three months ago. She headed towards it.
In the booth where members of the public could talk to them, that day’s officer sat flipping through a gardening magazine. She went up to him and rapped on the glass.
“Excuse me? I’m here looking for one of the officers who works here?”
He didn’t take his eyes off the magazine. “Name?”
“I’m not sure. He was pale and had yellow eyes.”
He snorted, and put his magazine down. “Oh, I know who that is. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Nina waited for around five minutes, feeling increasingly small under so much concrete bearing down on her. It was a relief when she heard footsteps announcing the yellow-eyed man who had issued her documents.
He said nothing, and after several seconds of silence she spoke.
“You gave me the wrong papers. I’m not Nika Marinovic.”
“But you could be.”
“No, I couldn’t–I have no proof that I existed more than three months ago and I can’t get a job and theatre companies keep calling my house and my own family didn’t know who I was today, so I don’t know what you did but you had better take it all back.” She crossed her arms in defense. “Or I’ll stay here until you do.”
“We could have you thrown out for doing that.”
“I don’t care. I’ve had enough and I’m taking a stand.”
That got his attention. He strode towards her, and she backed away until she left the shadow of the arches and stepped into the sunlight.
“You stupid girl,” he said. “You came all the way here but you don’t understand what I did for you? What I gave you?”
“What you gave me was a misspelt name and everyone forgetting who I am!”
“You’re looking at this the wrong way.” He fell into the sales pitch, seeming much calmer now that he could persuade her. “You came here for what–to teach French to giggling schoolgirls? You used to have dreams. As Nina Marinovic you could only ever stagnate and decay–I have given you a new life. Do you realize how rare that is? As Nika Marinovic you could be the toast of the stage; I certainly arranged for enough casting directors to contact you, and if you’d given any of them a chance you could be playing Grusha Vashnadze right now instead of haranguing me.”
She snorted. “Grusha Vashnadze? I’m thirty-five, I haven’t acted since university, and in the last audition I went to I cried.”
“And that is precisely what I was trying to correct, along with your torpid lack of ambition.”
“What about my family? The people I used to know? Are they dragging me down along with my torpid lack of ambition?”
“We all have to make little sacrifices.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he interrupted her before she could speak.
“I gave you a new name, a new life. I gave you the chance to be great, and you dare to come here and complain? Do you want to crawl back to your life as Nina Marinovic–mother, wife, schoolteacher–when you could have everything you ever wanted?”
Nina’s face burned with sweat and fear. She remembered the old actors in the black-and-white films, buried under stage makeup for roles they didn’t yet know how to play.
“I don’t want a new life where my family and my friends don’t recognize me. I can’t throw away everything for some dream life you want me to have. I want to be Nina and I always will be.”
“And your dreams?”
“When I get back to the city, I’ll look for casting calls and I’ll go to auditions–as Nina, who has a history back in the country I come from and people who love her. But I’ll never answer anything as Nika.”
He sucked his lips into a disapproving straight line. “That’s a stupid decision.”
“You’re some kind of twisted wish-granter, aren’t you? This is my wish.”
He smiled, broad enough to show his teeth. “I’m a low-level public servant who takes an interest in some of the wretched people I encounter.”
Nina took her residency card out of her pocket, and tapped one finger on the printed name that had caused her so much trouble. “I knew this wasn’t a mistake. If I destroy it, does this all end?”
He shook his head. “Don’t destroy it. I will make sure it shows your real name by the time you get back to your city. But I will give you something else first.” He disappeared into the building, and Nina was about to lose patience and walk back to the train station when he appeared with a brown envelope. “Just in case you change your mind.”
She took it from him. “Thank you. I won’t.”
For the last few days she had hugged David and the children more than usual, wanting to hold onto them forever. One of David’s work colleagues had a brother who was a theatre director and was casting The House of Bernarda Alba, and he’d suggested that she come to the auditions next week. Life was good; except that sometimes when David looked at her he seemed puzzled, and unable to work out what she was doing there. One evening, over late-night wine after the children had been put to bed, she asked him the reason for his confusion.
“It’s odd,” he said, swirling the wine around the glass. “Mostly I see you and think, ah yes, there is my lovely wife–” Nina snorted and he laughed at her reaction–“but occasionally I look at you and for a second, I don’t know–I can’t remember–who you are. I think, is she supposed to be here? Is that woman allowed in my home?”
Nina felt despair settle on her like a coat. She didn’t want to go through this again, not now. Since coming back, she had set her papers in order, and had everything possible to prove she was a real person. Despite that, in a filing cabinet upstairs lay the brown envelope she had brought back from her journey to the border. It had seemed harmless enough, but beneath its smooth brown surface was something strange and corrosive that was eating through her real identity and her real life. When she pulled it out of the drawer, she held it between finger and thumb. Though she would never admit it, it frightened her.
She had never opened the envelope, but she ripped through the flap and reached inside to find a single piece of thick paper. It was a birth certificate, exactly the same as her own other than the name, which was the one that had started that mess: Nika Marinovic.
Just in case you change your mind, he had said.
“Oh, I want to kill him,” she said.
By Patrick Doerksen
It is a night in late November. Clo is in her basement suite on the east side of Vancouver, mid-bedtime-routine. In the den the TV is turned to news coverage of the city’s homelessness crisis; she is in the bathroom, listening abstractedly. She hums to herself as she ties her hair back, plucks an eyebrow, removes her earrings. They’re plain hoop earrings she’s been wearing for years—not because she likes them, but because Maggie gave her the original thumb-tack piercings on her tenth birthday and something needs to keep those punctures open.
As she brushes her teeth, she becomes conscious of it: a wrongness. The way the mouth feels when there’s corn between the molars, but the wrongness isn’t in her mouth.
Clo thinks again of her tenth birthday. She, Maggie and their mother had been living in a duplex at the time. It was the kind of neighborhood in which dogs barked at night and drunken voices told them to fuck off. Their mother didn’t work much; she’d been in a car accident. She got migraines. Every week they went to the food bank and took what they could get, and when they ran out they ate macaroni. For their birthdays, though, their mother always went out to a confectionary and bought a cupcake, a careful masterpiece of pink and blue icing. Then she stuffed it full of candles.
Clo remembers everything about that day clearly. She remembers sitting eagerly at the dining table, the rain at the windows; remembers the pain radiating from the two points of her earlobes; and she remembers how, slow as a waltz, the Happy Birthday began.
At first it was only her mother’s full, high voice. Then Maggie joined with her pubescent quavering. And then, finally, there entered that other throat, that deeper, scratchier throat that made Clo shiver.
Standing in her bathroom, Clo freezes with the toothbrush in her mouth. Why is she remembering a deep voice?
The news is still on in the living room; Clo turns it off and concentrates. She sees the memory play out: the song quieting as her mother sets the cupcake in front of her, her blowing out all the candles at once, easily, her looking up and seeing a room full of smoke—and through it, a broad-shouldered figure across the table.
A man wearing a maroon cardigan and holding himself like a spider: motionless, waiting.
Clo almost chokes on her toothpaste.
For the last three years Clo has helped coordinate the volunteers and settlement mentors at the Immigrant Services Society. She’d started as a mentor herself, liking the idea of welcoming anxious foreigners at airports, explaining public transit, learning greetings in Hindi, Mandarin, Filipino. But the required level of affability and social finesse was beyond her; she was no good at making people feel at home.
That Monday, she’s barely touched her seat when she sees Jaspreet winging his way towards her.
Since he started at the office a week ago, he has brought Clo coffee from the machine every morning. Clo doesn’t drink coffee, but she hadn’t refused the first time.
“Good morning, Clothilde.”
Along with coffee, Jaspreet has also been trying to guess her full name. Clora? Clotille? All he knows for sure is that it isn’t Chloe.
“First hoarfrost of the season! Helped a couple from Mumbai other day, wouldn’t want to be them now. Brr.” Jaspreet sets her mug down and gives her a concerned look. “Say, that was rough last week, you doing okay?”
On Friday, Clo lost a pile of case notes and for the first time on the job the boss yelled at her. That Jaspreet has remembered this over the weekend causes her to shift in her seat. Before he can say anything more, her phone rings and she seizes it mid-tone. “Immigrant Services.”
“There are raccoons in the house!” screams a voice on the other end. “Raccoons!”
Clo flashes Jaspreet an apologetic look. “Go on,” she says into the receiver.
“They are in our basement! They have toileted the carpet! They have pulled the—the stuff from the walls!” The woman’s accent is thick, Slavic, Clo thinks, and there is yelling in the background.
“Did you leave a window open?”
“Yes. Maybe. Please, they have messes everywhere!”
“Okay,” says Clo. “This happens in Canada. Sometimes.” She pauses, remembering. “When I was a kid, a raccoon got under our porch and someone from Animal Control had to coax it out; I can give you their number.”
“Shut your basement windows from now on, okay? If you leave them an opening, they will come back inside.”
The woman repeats the phrase back to her. If you leave them an opening they will come inside.
“Hello?” says the woman. “The number? Hello?”
The man hadn’t been from Animal Control. Animal Control sent men in blue vests with nets and trapping kits, not men in wool cardigans.
Clo closes her eyes. In the memory, she can see the man from the shoulders down. He’s in ironed blue jeans and shoes of chestnut leather, stooping, placing a jar of peanut butter on the lawn. His hands are pale; as he stands, they clench and unclench slowly, as though pumping something. He steps back, goes still. An immense patience organizes the scene—a sense of infinite time, infinite waiting. The raccoon pokes its head out from beneath the porch, nose twitching. The man leans forward—
Suddenly Clo becomes aware of her office again. The phone has gone dead in her hand, and someone is standing over her.
“Clo?” he’s saying. “What’s wrong? Can I get you some water? Clo?”
The memories keep coming over the week; the man seems to have been everywhere in the months just after her tenth birthday.
He is behind school yard fences, staring in as she and Maggie fight.
He is in the social worker’s office, watching her with folded hands.
He is at her mother’s funeral, standing over the empty coffin.
At times it makes Clo’s heart race with anticipation. She is discovering a great secret about herself: she knows this man, she must. And yet Clo can’t recall his face. It makes her nervous, makes her excitement feel like some sort of trick. No matter how she concentrates, his face seems to be outside her mind.
By the end of the week, Clo is worried enough to call her sister.
Once, she and Maggie had been close—shared a bed, lollipops, secrets. When Clo got lice and their mother wanted to shave her head, unable to afford medicated shampoo, Maggie shaved her own to show that Clo didn’t need to be scared. But that was before her tenth birthday. Before Maggie began to act out, make dangerous friends, tease Clo’s introversion. Now Clo can’t stand that cigarette-raw voice.
There are twenty minutes left of calling hours at Mission Institute minimum security when Maggie comes on the line.
“Jesus, you’ve got bad timing, Sis. I was bluffing my way with a pair of sevens for a pot of, well—” Maggie snorts and declines to say what they are betting on. “So what’s new? You still seeing that guy with the lip ring?”
“We broke up in May. He was too…” Clo can’t find a way to finish the sentence. “He wanted to move in with me.”
“Listen,” Clo says. “Sorry it’s been so long. I called because… Actually, I need to ask you about that night.”
Maggie’s tone is suddenly wary. “That night.”
“My tenth birthday,” Clo says, though Maggie knows. “I’m trying to remember something.”
Clo hesitates. “It’s dumb, I know, but was somebody else there with us? Visiting I mean. A relative of Mom’s? Maybe you remember… a guy in a maroon cardigan?”
There is a pause.
“Clo, what the hell is this all about?”
“Just answer, Maggie.”
“Mom didn’t have relatives. That’s why we ended up in foster care after that night, dummy.”
“Oh my God,” says Maggie, sucking her breath in. “You aren’t over it. You aren’t fucking over it.”
“That’s not what this is.”
Maggie snorts. “You know why I’m in here, Clo, and you’re out there?”
“Because you assaulted a police offer, for starters.”
“Because I dealt with my shit. Anger, hate—got it all out. You are still holding onto it all; I did what it fucking took.”
“That’s one way of justifying it.”
Maggie gives a deep, put-on sigh. “‘Give ye no foothold to the devil,’ Clo.” It’s what their mother used to say, whenever they stole cookies or lied. Maggie is mocking her.
Clo ends the call.
No, she thinks. No fucking foothold.
A week later, the man in the cardigan is in memories of her early twenties. Clo remembers him at old waitressing jobs, sitting quietly at corner tables; remembers him at parties she’s otherwise forgotten; remembers him beside her in the theatre.
In particular, Clo remembers him at a cafe she had once frequented. He sat by the window, two tables away from her. In this memory, Clo can see his face for the first time.
He looks her age, about twenty-four, twenty-five. His cheeks and brow are pale, the same luminous pearl of his hands, and his skin is so taught that his eyes seem to pop. They look about the cafe, eel-like, as though glancing up from the deep, and Clo gets the sense of a sadness behind them. Framed in the window against the downtown traffic, he looks just the saddest thing in the world. Clo wants to put a hand on his shoulder, to hug him, to look into his eyes.
In the memory, she wants him.
Clo decides to be strategic. She makes a list:
1) research memory/hallucinations
2) find shrink
3) talk to Maggie again
4) check memories against photos/diary
A moment later, Clo is digging out a box from the closet under her stairs. Inside are the only mementos she’s kept—pictures, school drawings, old Christmas cards. There is also a grey, sad-looking book with the title, “Don’t You Dare Read This Maggie.” Her grief journal. One of her first counselors had made her keep it.
She opens it at random.
I had the cupcake there. I had it, it was full of candles. In one go I got them all. Why couldn’t I have wished for mom to stay?
Her ten-year-old script is difficult to read; each letter is stabbed onto the page, as though she had held the pencil in a fist. It’s all rage. There are page-long sentences of her hate of Maggie, her hate of her counselor, her hate of the world. Nothing yet about the man in the cardigan.
People keep saying it will get better. I don’t want it to get better. Even if god makes me the richest person in the world, even if he gives mom back, it’s too late. I want it not to have happened at all. If he’s going to make it right he has to make it right from the beginning.
Clo frowns. This word, “beginning,” is underlined twice. She remembers doing that. She remembers exactly where she was—one of those generic lobbies outside the counselor’s office with chairs lined against a blank wall, voices sounding from behind doors.
At that moment, the irreparability of things had shown itself. Her mother was gone for good, and here she was suffering. More than that: here she would always be. Nothing could change the fact that she was hurting now, and as she grew up, became a woman, became old, far back in the past and getting farther she would still be there, in pain. How she’d wanted to scream.
But she hadn’t. Because, just then, she had felt that arm stretch out from nowhere and rest comfortingly on her shoulder.
A gentle arm, in the sleeve of a wool cardigan the color of russet apples and autumn leaves.
“Hello, Clo,” the man had said.
It was the voice from her birthday party: deep, full of sand. Clo sat with her grief journal closed on her lap.
“I think you are sad, Clo.”
“I think you are angry.”
In her basement suite, Clo shuts her eyes. She needs to remember exactly what he said. It is important.
She hears, “I can…”
Yes, yes, can what? Clo strains.
It’s no good, it was too long ago. Clo shuts the journal and feels the pressure of tears just behind her eyes.
It is late December. Clo smokes two packs a day now. She takes showers that use up all the hot water. And she loses sleep: she wakes up at the edge of the bed, almost falling off, as though her body were making room for somebody. Phone calls from unregistered numbers set her heart beating. Nocturnal scratching at her suite door, which she knows can only be raccoons, makes her think of house-breakers, stalkers, dark things wanting to get inside.
Something is happening, Clo knows it in her gut—but none of this seems to count as evidence.
On Thursday, when Clo arrives at work the office is buzzing. A major donor has passed away, leaving a substantial legacy fund to the Society, and treasury has just broken the news by offering to buy whatever fancy drinks people want. Jaspreet is going around collecting orders.
“And for dear Clover?” He leans against her desk, arms crossed. “A grande latte with caramel drizzle for our office coffee fiend?”
“Coffee?” she says, before she realizes who she’s talking to. “I’ve always been more of a tea drinker.”
Then she glances at him, mortified.
Jaspreet’s eyebrows shoot up.
But he’s grinning. Suddenly she’s grinning too. He starts laughing, great seal-like bleats that turn heads in their desks, and Clo can’t help it, she joins in. They must laugh a whole minute. It’s the best Clo has felt in a long time, all tension is relaxed, and suddenly she’s embarrassed by the release. She looks down at her desk.
“Chai latte it is,” he says.
The next day, Jaspreet adapts his morning courtesy: tea waits for Clo on her desk, and there is a note beside the mug. How about a Rumpelstiltskin wager. If I guess your name by the end of the day, you must let me take you to dinner.
Clo sips her tea and considers it.
It has been over half a year since she’s been on a date. Her last was with Grey Dawkins, all the way back in May. She hadn’t really known what to feel about Grey; she liked him, and yet she found herself shying away from his advances, as a swimmer does from an underwater shape warbling into view. He’d driven her to a “secret” lake an hour outside the city, where the sun was out and they could lie beside each other on the hot sand. They were so near the water that little waves lapped at their toes, and as Grey rolled on top of her Clo remembers the tickling scratch of his wool cardigan on her bare skin.
Clo frowns. Of course, she’d been misremembering—it was the man. It’d been him on top of her, not Grey.
She remembers how his water-darkened hair came off his forehead and sent droplets onto her cheeks. He was so near. She could see the line in his eyes where the irises ended and the pupils began, and the striation gave the effect of the aquamarine blue rushing into the black pit of his pupil. But all at once she was not paying attention to his eyes, because the two of them were…
Clo relaxes her lips, feeling that kiss, then takes another sip of tea. It’s over-steeped now and she gets up to throw the bag away. Halfway to the waste bin, she stops.
“Fuck,” she says aloud.
She’d believed it for a moment.
She knew well she’d been with Grey in May, not the man. But she’d sat there, remembering that beach, believing he’d been there. Believing he was real.
Wanting him to be real.
A minute later, Clo has left a note on Jaspreet’s desk—No help from HR—and her day begins to fill up with the ping of new texts.
It is one long string of wrong guesses, and it gives her the giddy sense of evading fire by standing still. At day’s end, as people put on their coats and wish each other good weekends, Jaspreet isn’t even close. He sends her one last desperate text, and Clo finds herself unable to disappoint him.
“Evening, Clorinda,” Jaspreet says when he picks her up from her suite.
Clo is silent most of the drive. She is wearing a knee length skirt and has done her hair to cover her ears and forehead; she couldn’t find her earrings and she feels naked without them.
Jaspreet takes her to a pizzeria owned by a family friend. At first he seems nervous, apologizing several times for his gear shift, which makes a crunching sound like a back breaking. But at dinner he’s relaxed—so relaxed, Clo finds her own posture changing. She’s laughing genuinely, leaning forward into the conversation. Somehow, they get talking about insomnia; it turns out the both of them share the affliction. “I’m an idiot: twenty-eight years old and I still haven’t figured out how to fall asleep!” says Jaspreet, and Clo finds herself describing the visualization exercises a therapist gave her once to get her mind off worry-loops. Imagine a hand trying to slip out from a glove without help. Imagine a hole trying to swallow another hole. Jaspreet slaps his knees laughing, and Clo notices he does not ask about why she’d been seeing a therapist.
When their plates are cleared, they recline in a put-on languor and Jaspreet looks past her, sheepish. “I have a confession,” he says. “I checked with HR about your name.”
Clo goes red.
“I thought it was really sweet,” he says quickly. “You pretending. To let me take you here.”
She looks down at her napkin.
“I didn’t ask them what it was, only what it wasn’t. I just couldn’t accept you were a Clorinda.”
“No? I’m flattered.”
“I did, however, ask HR about something else. I hope you don’t mind.”
He’s grinning now, looking at something behind her. Clo turns. Three employees stand there, one of them holding a cupcake. Before she can say anything, they’ve begun singing Happy Birthday.
Clo’s eyes grow wide. She checks her phone: December Twenty Nine. She’d forgotten.
Happy birthday to you…
“Jaspreet,” she hisses, snapping her head back to him.
Happy birthday to you…
Happy birthday dear Clorinda…
She stands, and his face falls; before they can finish the last line, he makes a gesture at the singers and they cease. Jaspreet shoos them back to the kitchen, and the customers who joined in or who just turned to watch go back to their meals.
Jaspreet gets up and touches her hand. “I’m very sorry. Isn’t it your birthday?”
When she says nothing more, Jaspreet offers to bring her home.
A hot glow radiates from Clo’s cheeks the whole drive back; she’s sure he can feel it. She’s kept her napkin from the pizzeria and folds it endlessly in random patterns on her lap. When Jaspreet pulls up to the curb outside her suite, he turns off the engine and gives her a quick glance.
“I don’t celebrate my birthday,” she says after a moment.
“It’s… the anniversary of a bad day.”
He looks at her, encouraging her to go on.
The idea sets her heart racing: she could. She could tell Jaspreet about that night; his long face and his patient, equine eyes lean in, and she knows it would be safe.
“Whatever’s wrong, Clo, I want to know.”
“I—” she hesitates. “Thank you for a nice night; I’m sorry I wrecked it.” And she opens the car door.
How many times has Clo spoken a No, wanting to speak a Yes? A friend once said to her, “Your antisocial behavior is actually a longing for relationship. You want social contact to happen in spite of you, as though that were evidence it’s worth something. That’s messed up.”
Maybe so. Maybe she wants a man without all the fuss of having to seduce him, or however it is supposed to work. Maybe the psychologists are right and she has never learned “attachment.” Maybe she isn’t designed for love and connection; is not, in fact, a person, only a moving, thinking gap shaped like a person.
Making tea in her apartment, Clo longs for a warm body, longs until the craving grows specific: she wants the man in the cardigan. She wants to dance with him again.
They’d danced together recently, she recalls. The rain’s soft paws were at the window, and outside the streets were dark. He’d turned the radio on to The Police. He was so at ease, so in his element; the sort of quality you sense in an old tree. He had an arm resting on her waist, and his chest pivoted away from her. They swayed.
wrapped around your finger
wrapped around your finger
“I can make everything right again,” he’d whispered to her. “I can make it all right from the beginning…” Those words—he had said them to her before, a hundred times; she knew them by heart.
Clo frowns suddenly. The memory feels so intimate, so near, a presence just around some corner in time. Where is it they were dancing?
Her breath catches
It was her basement suite.
“You have to let me talk to her!” Clo screams at the prison secretary. “It’s a family emergency!”
Perhaps it’s the desperation in her voice: a minute later, Maggie is on the other end.
“Jesus, Clo. What the hell.”
The way that Clo explains it to her, there is something wrong with her memory. A kind of amnesia: she knew a man and now she forgets who he is. She finds herself unable to say the words: an evil man. She finds herself unable to say: I think I am in love with him. She is too embarrassed by it all, by the way she’s been indulging it, nursing it; by the way it all seems to be, when she spells it out for her sister, so much a fantasy.
“Maggie,” Clo says. “You have to help me remember properly.”
Maggie sighs, and the two of them go over the whole nightmare once more—how, after dessert, their mother had gone out for cigarette filters; how she’d winked at them before she shut the door, and Maggie had gone to turn on the porch light for her, since it was dark out; how an hour later, she still hadn’t come back, and Clo had wanted to call the police and Maggie wouldn’t let her, not until another hour had passed; how Maggie had finally made the call, how she had talked so calmly with the operator on the other end, and how Clo had screamed and screamed.
“You screamed so much. You wouldn’t stop screaming.”
Clo considers. “And then?”
“What more do you want to know? You remember the weeks of searching, the social workers, the counselors, the fake funeral for ‘closure.’ There wasn’t any man, Clo. I remember it all pretty damn clearly.”
“That’s the thing, Maggie. I do too.”
Clo sips her tea; it has gone tepid.
“I reread my grief journal the other day,” she says in a whisper. “I hated you for not being angrier, after it happened. I accused you of being glad to be free of Mom. Now you could steal shit and be a brat and do all the things you’d wanted to do before but couldn’t.”
“You know what I thought? I thought if I stayed mad, stayed hateful, I could make something happen. Make God give her back.”
Clo laughs; it comes out as a choking sound. “It was like Mom’s disappearance punched a hole in me, and I thought if I kept the wound open, she could crawl back through. But what if…”
There is a long silence.
“Listen, Clo. They’re going to cut the line. You need to relax. Take a bath, light a hundred fucking candles, I don’t know. Just relax.”
“Maggie, what if…”
“Bye, Clo. And in case you think I’d forgotten, Happy Birthday.”
The line goes dead.
For a long time Clo stands in her kitchen with the cold tea in one hand, the phone in the other. The lights are off. On the landlord’s porch above is a motion-sensing lamp; it’s finicky, even moths trigger it. Clo’s suite is dark enough that whenever it flicks on, it startles the kitchen with a mean electric yellow.
What if something else crawled through?
Clo pictures the man in the cardigan. She sees his dark hair, his pale skin, his wide cerulean eyes.
If it’s true, though, how would she be able to tell? We are our memories; when those are tampered with, what else do we have to check our identity against? As soon as the monster invades it would be as though he has always been there, and there’d be nothing to signal an intrusion, no way of knowing better.
But she knows better. So it can’t be happening, can it?
That’s when she hears the knock.
Clo has been living alone for so long in her basement suite that a knock itself is unusual, a knock itself could startle her; but this knock is at midnight.
She goes very still.
Another knock: three quick raps. Nothing contains more human intensity than that thin, knuckles-on-wood sound.
Clo holds up her phone. Jaspreet would come if she called him. She brings his number up and hovers her thumb over the call button. Then, very slowly, hardly breathing, she creeps to the peephole and presses an eye against it. Before she can get a good look, she is startled back by a voice on the other side.
A man’s voice, low, stony, familiar.
“Hello?” she says. “Who are you?”
“Clo, it’s me!”
Slowly, Clo presses against the peephole again. The porch-light above her suite is still on and there is light enough to make out a shape. No, not quite a shape; something in the process of taking a shape. Perhaps it is the warp of the peephole itself, but for a moment the shadows cast by the porch light seem to gather and tighten just behind the door like an indrawn cloak. The force of Clo’s grip on the door handle hurts her hand.
Clo blinks and a man stands there, wearing a chestnut cardigan.
Her heart is a coin flipping in the air, undecided between fear and hope. The difference means nothing to the heart, both quicken the pulse; to Clo, the difference is everything.
Who are you?
“Clo?” He sounds hurt, offended. “I can see you moving in the peephole. Why is the door padlocked?”
Answer me! she wants to shout. What do you want? All she can do is stand still, her lips locked and her throat too tight to use, as the man’s question hunts through the cracks in the door for a response.
When he speaks again, his voice is faint. “What are your earrings doing out on the patio table?”
Clo’s mind goes to her ears automatically, sensing the undecorated lobes.
“I’ve never seen you go anywhere without your earrings. Is… Is something going on?” And then he says her name.
Not “Clo.” Her name.
Clo’s heart skips. No one knows her name, only her and Maggie—and this man. This man, with whom she’s lived almost a whole life.
Clo’s phone is in her hand; she could still call Jaspreet. His number is still on her screen. But her thumb, with the rest of her, is stuck.
“Listen,” the man says. “I know that you’re confused. Angry. Maybe even scared.”
Doesn’t she have memories of the two of them, even from last week? Hadn’t they taken a walk together on Kitsilano beach last Saturday?
“And I know that you’re lonely. You’ve been lonely so long, you’ve almost forgotten what anything else feels like. I can make it so I’ve always been there with you.”
Hadn’t they gone for a night drive a few days ago, a drive out of the city and along the coast, as they often did to decompress from the week’s work?
“Let me inside. I can make it right from the beginning.”
She sees them all clearly now, all her memories of him illuminating the deep-water darkness of her life with mesmerizing color. And now here he is, the very one who explains the absence she feels daily, who fits it like a glove.
Why does the heart move so much faster than the mind? Before Clo can help herself, she is opening the door. Her body sweats and trembles and tells her to run the other way; but she wants him. She wants to press her cheek against the familiar curve of his chest, to breathe him in, to be held. And—now there he is. He stands tall at her threshold, back-lit by the neighbo’s porch-light. It’s as though he’s come infinite distances to be here, come darting and drifting through the long spaces of the cosmos. His eyes contain a great predatory patience. They lock on hers.
The light flicks off on the porch above.