The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- Stranger and Stranger by Marc Humphrey
- The Pull of the Waves by Jamie Lackey
- Happily Never After by Dawn Vogel
- Drop Serene by Burris D. Nichols
- Sedate and Transport by K.G. Delmare
- The Science of Alchemy by Jim Meeks-Johnson
- My Grandmother’s Garden by G. Allen Wilbanks
- The Ruritanian Duke of Kunlun by Andrea Tang
- The Interdimensional Megastar by C.J. Carter-Stephenson
- White Haze by Jacob Adams
- Hosts for the Rains by J.A. Becker
Stranger and Stranger
By Marc Humphrey
“The rig, it was right here,” I panicked, to Heinz. “Where the hell could it have gone?” We stared at the empty patch of snow, beside the long hose and the discarded boots and cylinders, and wondered about the spacewoman.
He looked at me with typical, big-brother derision. Twin jets of irritation streamed from his nostrils. “Sure it was, Ingo. Sure it was. I’ll bet she blasted into space, right here, from this very spot. And now she’s probably on her way to some nearby star.” He shivered audibly, then cinched his red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf up to the curly hairs growing from his ears. “It’s cold. I’m going back.”
Finally, I thought I’d had him. Just once, Heinz would appreciate just how exceptional his little brother’s life could be. But then, after dragging him all the way into the Alps, and then out into this frozen meadow on this frozen morning, all I had to show was a whole bunch of freshly packed snow.
I was mired in disbelief when he started back to the farmhouse. He was laboring to stay on top of the thin crisp of ice, rather than sink into knee-deep powder, when he heard the loud, rippling sound. He looked into the sky, pondered, looked some more, and then began to exclaim.
Heinz Baumgartner had been my older brother for as long as I can remember. And for that entire time I’d basked in his radiance, mostly unnoticed, a rocky exoplanet beside a main-sequence star. As the firstborn, his every milestone had been recorded and every success had earned him praise. And in the narrow, self-centered universe that emerged he always had a better story to tell–whether he did or whether he didn’t.
But the thing about rocky exoplanets, they’re often more interesting than their main-sequence stars.
For more than thirty years my brother and I had spent the first Friday of October at his vineyard in Carinthia, down where Austria kisses Slovenia just beyond Hungary’s view. These were mostly one-sided affairs, during which I’d hear the latest retread of last year’s stories. If I was lucky I’d slip in a wholly unappreciated reference to myself somewhere along the way.
But this year was going to be different, he would see, and midway through our second bottle of Weissburgunder I began my amazing tale. “Heinz, I have a spaceman living in my attic.”
His stare was blank and flummoxed. I’d been too abrupt, I never did transition well. I tried again.
“I said, a spaceman. Though she’s more of a spacewoman I suppose.”
“Ingo, what in the hell are you talking about?” He spoke that sing-song, rollicking German native to the outer reaches of Austria.
“She arrived a few weeks ago, out of the blue. She was covered from head to toe in this red and white robe, like a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes. They were strangely dark, almost hollow. She talks funny, can’t weigh more than 20 kilos, and smells, well, somewhere between ozone and engine oil.”
“Ingo,” he said gravely, “turn around.” He gestured with full glass at the young man sitting on a backless bench at the rear of his Weingarten. He wasn’t drinking, nor doing much of anything besides looking bored and conspicuous. “See him?”
“He’s been bunking with my farmhands. His name is … oh hell, I forget. Let’s call him Sepp.”
“Yea, Sepp. He arrived with a whole pack of ‘em, a few weeks back, on the 14:30 from Zagreb. The rest continued onward to Munich, thank God. But not him, he hung around. Speaks English to me, but I get most of it. Says there’s some war back home and he’s looking for a new start. Says he’s got a family and he’s making a way for them.” Heinz took a long sip then exhaled from the back of his throat. “I’m not so sure.”
I looked at Sepp, who was now looking at us, uncomfortable with the attention. “It could be true,” I said.
Heinz’ unshaven faced scrunched up like a raisin, as often happens when I have something to say.
“Really,” I continued. “There’s been quite a few like him recently. A lot of them are from Syria, and, yes, there’s a civil war.”
“Anyway,” he pivoted, “for a bed and something to eat he offered to help with the harvest. The frosts were coming early, so I played along. Talk about smelling funny. Kind of like old figs in need of a good rain. I have no idea what he’ll do in the winter. But for sure it’s gonna cost me.”
“Maria,” I said, reclaiming the floor.
“She wouldn’t tell me her name, so I started calling her Maria.”
“Right.” Heinz took the Lodenhut from his head and scratched the tangled, snow-white nest beneath. “Well, what does she want?” he asked, his downward inflection revealing disinterest.
“Yes. Wherever she came from, it must be very dry. I offered her food, and clothing, but all she wanted was water. Clean water. That’s all she could talk about. I showed her the faucet in the bath and she was thrilled.”
“Must have been awful thirsty.”
“I’m not so sure. The thing is, she never actually drank any. At least, not that I saw. She seemed more into saving it for later. I gave her some Tupperware.” I glanced at Sepp, who glanced away. “Strangest woman I’ve ever seen. She just has to be from another world.”
“Yes, a spacewoman.” I drew out that last word for maximum impact.
A deep orange sunset appeared above the nearest hillock, where Heinz’ trellises stood out like the stubble on his chin. He gazed slowly at the brilliance, savored the features of his fatherland, then turned toward me earnestly.
“Ingo?” he asked.
I leaned forward.
“The buffet’s gonna close. You hungry?”
As usual, Advent arrived two months later. And per our custom Heinz and I met in Klagenfurt to visit the Christkindlmarkt. The cold autumn was turning to frigid winter, and we huddled next to the kettle of roasting chestnuts. Cloves and aniseed filled the air, and Glühwein warmed our bellies.
“She’s still around,” I said.
Heinz drew a blank.
“You know, the spacewoman.”
“Ah yes, she.”
He was humoring me, I could tell, but I continued all the same. This time, he would see. “Her demands are still queer. Last week she wanted some hydrogen gas. She asked if I had a tap for that too, and was disappointed to learn that I didn’t. I told her something like that’s a little harder to come by.”
Heinz was listening, I suppose, though his attention had been divided between me and the young ladies who’d asked to share our standing table. They were buried in layers of wool, bare hands soaking up heat from ceramic mugs of Punsch as they chatted, noses tipped the shade of Zweigelt.
“She asked if I had helium, and I told her not much–a couple of cylinders in the welding barn, but that was it. She left for a few minutes, then came back, this time asking for methane too.”
“Yes, and now we were in business. I took her to the cellar and showed here the furnace.”
“What on Earth would she want with methane?” Heinz asked, suspiciously.
“To fill the bale wrappers.”
“To fill the bale wrappers?”
“Yes. Once I showed her the gas line, she asked for some ‘holders.’ I had no idea what she meant, until she puffed out her burqa like a sea squab.”
Heinz pulled a handful of change from his thick, Dachstein woolwear jacket and began adding it up. “How about a Bratwurst?”
I agreed, then followed as he swam against the throng. I raised my voice so that he could hear. “So I took her to the hay barn. You know, the one up in the birch grove.”
“I opened it up and showed her the big rubber sacks we use to wrap the hay to turn it to silage. She seemed content enough, but she wasn’t done yet. The next thing she wanted was a net.”
“Ketchup or mustard?”
“Both,” I replied. “Actually, two nets. When I told her I’m a farmer, not a fisherman, she just stared at me, waiting for a better answer. So, I thought of the stretchy nets we use to keep the cabbages from bouncing out of the lorry. She also asked for a scythe. ‘Only if,’ was all she said.”
I took a bite of the brat, and it was hot and crisp and delicious.
“So, you remember that guy Sepp?” Heinz asked while I chewed. “He’s still around.”
“I’m not surprised, there’s really nowhere else–”
“Took a job at the supermarket. Looks ridiculous in those tight red pants. He moved out, into his own flat. Started to speak some German for crying out loud.”
In Heinz’ book, Sepp’s efforts to integrate were neither praiseworthy nor welcome.
“He’s even been drinking Almdudler,” he complained.
“No, carbonated. Uppity little shit.”
Christmas came, and Christmas went, but the bitter winter lingered. And during one of its blizzards I began to wonder about Maria.
“Hallo?” Heinz said when he answered the phone.
“Heinz? It’s me.”
“Yes. Listen, I think I need some help.”
“Why are you whispering?”
I was all alone, so I didn’t know. We always whisper when we don’t want others to hear. “It’s Maria,” I said.
His silence registered another blow.
“You know, the spacewoman.”
“Yea, of course. What does she want now?”
A strong gust slammed the shutters against the window frames. I crept up to one and peered through a crack and saw her lantern flickering wildly in the distance. “She didn’t ask for anything new, but she’s been acting very strange.”
“She has, huh?”
“Yes. She spends most of her time out in the east forty, fiddling around with something.”
“She does, huh?”
“Yes. I think she might be building something. Some sort of … contraption. Even tonight, of all nights. It’s windy as hell.”
“I can hear.”
“I start to worry she’s up to no good.”
“Then call the cops, Ingo.” The wind howled again.
“What, so they can just take her away? No, I’m not ready to do that yet. It’s just a suspicion, a hunch, that’s all.”
“It is, huh?”
I could hear my brother hunting through his wine closet, turning over bottles to view their labels. I could hear the television in the background.
“I’d like you to come over, to see for yourself. If she worries you too, then we can go to the police together.”
“Aw Ingo, I don’t know. I’ve got some things on this end.”
“I see,” I said, before playing the silent card.
“You know, the vineyard and all.”
“But it’s the middle of winter.”
I waited him out some more.
“OK, OK. You see, the truth is, it’s Sepp. I think he might be up to no good.”
“He gets cheekier each day. He started working in the carpenter’s shop.”
“And, well, he doesn’t belong there.”
“He just doesn’t belong there, you know. And get this…”
“He started driving.”
“How dare he.”
“Yea, can you believe it?”
“And he’s been hanging out with the grandkids. Says he just wants to practice his German. I don’t know about that.”
“Because, Ingo, because. Needless to say, I got my eye on him. I’m just waiting for him to screw up. And he will. And when he does … it’s bye-bye Seppi.”
I waited for a few moments so the subject could change.
“Could you please stop by?”
He searched for another excuse, but none came to mind. “Aw hell, Ingo, you’re hopeless,” he said. “I’ll be there in the morning.”
The loud flapping drew my eyes skyward too, and there she was. Maria broke through the clouds beneath a giant net of deflating balloons, her red-white burqa waving like an Austrian flag behind a strong gale. She landed hard, but not too hard, and then she stood and looked in our direction.
Heinz looked at me, and I at him. Neither of us knew what to say, though for very different reasons. I turned and hurried to my guest, to see if she’d been injured. She hadn’t, at least not on the outside. But she made a horrible sound that could only be likened to weeping.
Heinz caught up to us, his nose getting a dose of the methane. He stood silently while I tried to console her.
Maria stammered between sobs. “The holders … they holded … thank you … much so.”
I looked into her dark eyes, but they were still lifeless and cold, black like engine oil. I felt an urge to embrace her.
“They took me up,” she continued. “The water and me, they took we up.” She wailed some more, and I laid a hand on her shoulder. I was shocked to find not flesh and bone but cold, hard metal.
Behind us, Heinz had caught up. “You’re damn strange,” he said, with typical grace. “Where’re you from?”
“Forget it Heinz, she won’t–”
“GJ 699,” she did.
Heinz didn’t flinch, but my head was spinning. This was a code, and it had a meaning. According to the Gliese Catalogue, my visitor was from Barnard’s Star.
Suddenly, a blazing bright orb appeared high above us. It accelerated southward and away and then, just as suddenly, it disappeared. Seconds later we heard the thunder, a loud and very strange thunder, which ceased just as fast as the flash had gone. It could have been my imagination, except that Heinz had heard and seen it too. He clucked like a man-sized chicken, and then shook his head lightly, eyes narrowing as disbelief spread to his innermost bits and pieces.
“It was them,” Maria explained. “It my family and the space boat. They go now. They now safe are. I can say now.”
“Say? What?” I asked.
“All,” she replied.
“We’re listening, aren’t we Ingo.” My brother was suddenly very interested. It really wasn’t like him.
I nodded, and Maria told us everything. About how she and her family had travelled from their world on a scouting expedition. About how they had orbited and studied Earth for years, and how their advanced cloaking system had allowed them to do so undetected. About the collision with the space debris, and the leak, and the venting of their hydrogen stores, and their critical need for fusion fuel for their return home.
“The water,” I said.
“Yes, the water. Why it is I come.”
She hadn’t been thirsty at all. Her robotic body required no hydration, nor nutrients whatsoever. But once she had a few liters of water, all she needed was a decent balloon, and the right timing, to get plenty of fusion fuel within range of her starship’s tractor beam.
“It worked, the cabbage net,” she said. “It holded the holders. But why not bigger your nets?”
I wasn’t sure how to reply.
“Why? If bigger your nets, I would be go too. I would be now with them.” She looked skyward, and Heinz and I did the same. “The methane is too like air. Too heavy is it. I must let go the water. It and helium go up, me and methane down come.”
This was Maria’s “only if,” and sadly, it had come to pass. She had come here for her family’s benefit, alone, a stranger to an alien place. And, when needed, she sacrificed herself.
“Christ,” Heinz exclaimed, visibly shaken, clearly searching for words. “I’m not saying I believe her, now, but just suppose it’s true, what she’s saying. Just suppose she’s not lying. Then it really is amazing, you know, that thing she just did.”
I might have seen a tiny droplet freezing in the corner of his eye.
“She must be exhausted,” he said, with oddly wavering voice. “Let’s take her in.”
We began the trudge back to the house, Heinz carrying the spacewoman in his arms like a robotic child. For some reason, I began to wonder what this might mean for Sepp. I turned to my big brother, and his Lodenhut and Dachstein woolwear jacket, and the red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf cinched up to his ears.
But I wasn’t brave enough to ask.
The Pull of the Waves
By Jamie Lackey
The first letter came in a bottle, bobbing in with the tide. My older sister and I had gone out before sunrise to stand with our toes in the ocean. It was so big, so loud, so strong. I was already overwhelmed when the bottle tapped against my calf.
The glass was turquoise–my favorite color–and it was shaped like an old-fashioned coke bottle, long-necked and elegant. I picked it up without thinking and hugged it to my chest.
Denise laughed and danced across the wet sand. Her hair billowed in the wind and shone in the early morning light. I stood and hugged the bottle and shuddered at the feeling of the ocean pulling at my feet.
I didn’t notice the letter until after breakfast. Everyone else was excited to go swimming, but I stayed in the cottage, searching for pliers to pull out the cork.
The letter was folded in half, then curled tight. A pale purple flower was pressed flat inside it.
It took another moment to realize that the letter was actually addressed to me.
“Dearest Lindy,” it read, “You don’t know me yet, but I wanted to send you a token of my regard. I know that the upcoming months will be difficult for you, but know that I care deeply for you already. If you ever have need of me, simply stand in the water and call. I will come. Yours forever, Elzin.”
“Elzin,” I whispered. It wasn’t a name I’d ever heard before. I left the flower in the letter, put it back into the bottle, and tucked it into my suitcase. I was young enough to not question, to just believe in this tiny magical moment, but old enough to know that it wasn’t something to mention to anyone else.
I sat on the porch and read my book till Denise came and dragged me down to the ocean for our picnic lunch.
Denise’s cough started soon after we got home from vacation, and she faded quickly. The doctors did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.
When there was nothing more to do, they sent her home. I sat next to her in her dark room, holding her hand as it grew thinner, day by day. I read to her, using a single strip of sunlight that fell through the curtains to see the letters. Books about the ocean always made her smile. I tried not to remember the fear I’d felt looking out at its vastness, and smile at the bits of trivia that my sister loved.
After the funeral, I found a wooden box on my bed with a seashell nestled inside. When I held it to my ear, I could hear my sister’s laughter.
Time passed. Anytime I was lonely or sad, Elzin would send a note or a gift. I treasured each one, but questions started to nag at me. How did he know when I needed him? And why me? I was intimately aware of just how average I was. Elzin was the only magic in my life–he was the only magic anywhere, as far as I knew. He was special. He deserved to love someone special. But I didn’t want him to stop loving me.
So, I decided that I would become special.
I wandered into my mother’s sewing room. “Mom, how can I be special?”
“Oh sweetie, you’re already special,” she said.
Which was a sweet answer, but useless. I hugged her, then went to ask my father.
“Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by special,” he said. “Your best bet is to find something that you’re already good at, then devote yourself to practicing it till you’re the best at it.”
“You think being the best at something will make me special?” I asked.
“Yeah, don’t you?”
“I guess.” It was certainly more useful than my mother’s answer. But what was I already good at? What could I practice enough to be the best at?
That night, in the bath, I wrote a note that just asked, “How can I be special?” I held it under the water, half expecting something to happen, half not.
The paper disintegrated between my fingers. A few minutes later, an origami swan floated up to the surface.
I unfolded it carefully, taking note of each fold. It said, “Just be yourself.”
It was just as sweet, and just as useless, coming from Elzin. Still, I refolded the swan and put it with the rest of my collection.
I focused on cooking, playing the piano, and swimming. Cooking let me spend time with my mother, the piano had been Denise’s and felt like a good way to honor her memory, and swimming made me feel close to Elzin.
I became very good at all three, but I wasn’t the best. My mother worried that I didn’t have any friends. My father came to all of my swim meets and piano recitals and raved about the food I made.
Elzin sent me a book of piano music that reminded me of the ocean. My fingers shook when I played the songs, but I loved their haunting beauty.
I found that I was happy. I felt special enough.
Elzin sent me three tickets to the movies along with a note encouraging me to take my parents.
They were surprised when I invited them–I didn’t really watch movies–but they were happy to go on a family outing. I spent the entire time feeling restless and wrong. The story was simple, but I couldn’t follow it. My parents were enthralled.
I wanted to know what was going on at home–what it was that Elzin had sent us away from. But still, I didn’t rush back. I trusted him.
It was raining when we left the theater. Heavy sheets that shut out the world around us as we dashed to our car. My parents chatted about the movie. I wondered if I called Elzin if he could come through the rain.
I thought more and more about calling him. I wanted to see his face, to touch his hand.
My parents decided to wait out the worst of the rain at a diner. We ordered pie and coffee and I tried to ignore the creeping worry in my belly.
“Hmm,” my father said, poking at his coconut cream pie.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Maybe you should start baking more. I bet you could make a mean coconut cream pie if you set your mind to it.” He winked at me.
My mother rolled her eyes. “If she’s going to start making pies, clearly she should start with lemon meringue,” she said, taking a big bite of her favorite.
I laughed. “You’re both crazy. If I’m going to start making pies, I should make chocolate ones.”
Chocolate pies had always been Denise’s favorite.
My father smiled. “Well, I suppose those would be a good start.”
“Chocolate, then lemon,” my mother said.
My father rolled his eyes, and they argued as we headed home.
We sat in the car in silence for a long moment after my father turned off the engine. The only sound was the steady drum of the rain on the car roof. The oak tree behind our house had blown over and landed squarely on our kitchen.
“It’s lucky we weren’t home,” my mother managed.
“I’ll–I’ll make some calls,” my father squeezed her hand. “We’re all okay. Everything will be okay.”
“I’m going to go look around,” I said.
“Be careful,” both parents said in unison.
As soon as I was out of sight, I found a puddle and stood in it. Cold water soaked through my socks and swirled around my ankles. “Elzin.”
Instantly, I felt his presence. A moment later, I saw him, a shape formed out of raindrops. And then, there he was, standing in front of me.
“Lindy,” he said. His voice was like the tide. “What is wrong? Were you in the house, after all?”
I shook my head and stepped forward. His arms surrounded me. He smelled like the sea on a cold, windy day. “What would have happened? If you hadn’t sent us away?”
“You would have survived.”
“But my parents?”
A scene floated into my mind, of my mother and father doing the dishes together, since I’d made dinner. She flicked him with a towel, then after chasing each other around for a few minutes, they started dancing, slow steps to the rhythm of the rain. Then a crash, then darkness.
“You’ve never changed anything before,” I said, my face tight against his chest.
“Saving your sister was beyond me. This was not.”
“I don’t know how I deserve you,” I said, my throat tight.
“You found me. You woke me from my long slumber.”
“But I didn’t–I haven’t. What if I don’t?”
“You have already. My existence… it does not follow the same rules as yours.”
“I’ve always thought that you knew the future,” I said.
“In a way, I do. I exist outside of time,” he said. “You came to me in another reality.”
“Was I happy? In this other world? Other time?”
“You were unhappy for a long time. You didn’t deal well with the loss of your sister, and the loss of your parents was worse. But you were happy with me, once we were together.”
“What happened to that other me? Why aren’t you with her?”
“She is you–you do not exist outside of time. When I changed your life, I changed her.”
“You sacrificed your version of me.”
“I wanted you to be happy.”
“I’m happy now,” I said.
“It’s because of you.”
He shook his head. “It is because of you. I have done nothing but support you.”
“And save my parents’ lives.”
“I am only here because of you. Really, it is you that saved them.”
I laughed at him. “You really are too sweet.” I pulled away, wiped my eyes. “Did I love you? In your other world?”
His smile was the sunrise over the ocean. “You did.”
“And you loved me?”
“I love you in all worlds and through all times.”
“Can I be with you here, in this world?”
“Before, when you came to me, you left nothing behind. I will not blame you if you make a different choice.” His hands stroked my hair.
“Will I be able to come back if I leave?”
He laughed. “Of course. Though you will be bound to the water, as I am.”
“Can I have time to think about it?”
“Of course.” His fingers trailed along my cheeks, wiping away tears and rain.
“I should get back, before they start to worry.”
“Goodbye, then,” Elzin said.
I reached out, touched his hand, tried to commit his face to memory, though I wasn’t sure I’d be up to the task. “I will call you again,” I said.
“I will come.”
I studied music in college. My parents encouraged me to pick something more practical, but they supported me when I refused.
It was hard to be away from them.
Thunder rumbled as my composition class ended. Lighting flickered in the distance, and fat drops of rain speckled the pavement. One of the boys in my class pulled an umbrella out of his bag and smiled at me. “Want to share? Then maybe get coffee?”
He was cute, and seemed kind. But he wasn’t Elzin. I shook my head. “I like to walk in the rain.”
Elzin loved me for something that I hadn’t done. He existed, somehow, apart from time.
He had saved my parents’ lives and preserved my sister’s laughter.
He assured me that all I needed to do to deserve his love was to be myself.
I had so many other options. I didn’t have to be with him. But I wanted to. I still feared the ocean’s pull, but there was an answering pull within me. Maybe it had always been there.
I left the gifts that Elzin had given me and a long letter for my parents. I told them that they could step into the water and call on me anytime.
Then I went down to the ocean. The waves pulled at my feet, and I stepped forward.
Happily Never After
By Dawn Vogel
Some things about being a “late-bloomer” pop star kinda suck. Like being twenty-three and on a mall tour. I’m supposed to muster up false enthusiasm about shopping and fun, but the college interns who concocted this plan have clearly never listened to my music. My songs are about being the odd girl out, the one who isn’t like her peers.
And that’s me, in a nutshell. I’m not like other girls. Granted, being from Cobalt City and being “not like other girls” means something different. I’m not a super hero, I just have a voice that doesn’t require a mic. I use one to keep up appearances. And I can be weirdly persuasive. Which is probably why I’m five years into a pop career in an industry that takes pretty young things, chews them up, and spits them out. Too bad my voice couldn’t get me out of this mall tour.
We’re in Cerulean City, California, and the mall is right on the beach, so I can watch the ocean when we’re not doing sound check, or going over my set list, or the million other demands on my attention. The new intern, Ruby, doesn’t think I should open with “Happily Never After”–too much of a downer, she says–despite this being the Happily Never After Tour. I don’t care about the song order. I’m too busy watching the waves.
Being near the ocean always relaxes me. My dad always said it was like the water was my true home. The water near Cobalt City is way too cold for most people to swim in. I don’t mind it, at least in the summer. I can practically feel the water here, warm and gritty with salt and sand.
There’s a bar down by the water, hastily thrown up right at the edge of the surf, probably moved each day depending on the tides. The tables are set so your feet get washed over every once in a while. It looks divine.
“I’m going to go get a drink,” I say, extracting myself from my low-slung hammocky chair.
Clive, one of the interns, shakes his head, eyes wide. “You can’t, Miss Sweet. We’d need to send security with you, and the paparazzi are crawling this place today. What kind of drink would you like? We’ve got runners who can get you something.”
I sink back into my chair. Another reason being a late-bloomer pop star sucks? Most of your fans are underage and have this weird assumption that you must be their age too. The tabloids have a field day if you go out drinking, calling you a bad role model or hinting at rehab on the horizon.
My gaze stays fixed on the ocean, even when one of the interns presses a drink into my hands. Whiskey with lemon and honey. The drink science says is best for my vocal cords. Whatever.
Something incongruous in my field of vision gives me pause. There’s someone dressed all in black standing at the edge of the water, and I can feel their gaze on me, even at this distance.
It’s 90-something degrees out there, even with the breeze off the ocean. They’ve got to be roasting. I get back out of my chair, walk over to the window, and press one hand to the glass in a sort of static wave of acknowledgement.
They raise their hand in a similar salute.
Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any less alone.
Fifteen minutes to show time, and everything is a rush around me. I try to stay out of their way, but they need to check my makeup, my hair, my mic, my shoes. They want me in sandals, but it’s been hard for them to find any that don’t showcase my webbed toes. Yeah, literally webbed toes. It’s not as rare as you might think, or so the doctors tell me.
I stand like the eye of the storm and just let everyone poke and prod me until one minute to show time. Then I break away, plaster on my trademark Cassidy Sweet smile, and wait for the emcee to say my name.
Ruby won out on the song selection, and we’re starting with “Summer, Sand, and Surf.” Fitting, I guess. I glance over the set list in between verses, and “Happily Never After” is still there, so that’s fine.
The hairs on the back of my neck go up unexpectedly when we hit the chorus the third time, and I scan the crowd.
It’s the guy from the beach–I can tell it’s a guy now–motionless, staring at me. I raise my hand again, and he follows suit.
All around him, the crowd is dancing and singing along, but he doesn’t move. Now I’m weirded out. I’ve had my fair share of stalkers and other creepy “admirers.” This guy hasn’t done anything compared to most. Yet.
Between songs, I switch my mic over to our internal channel. “Possible creeper at the back of the crowd, one o’clock. All in black.”
“On it.” Tito, the head of my tour security, is like an over-protective uncle or big brother. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have either, as far as I know. Dad didn’t have any family that he spoke of, and he said even less about Mom’s family. But I like Tito. He’s always been good to me.
Still, I feel a twinge of guilt at siccing Tito on some random guy all in black. “Just … watch him, for now, Tito.”
And then we’re jumping into my cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” made extra creepy by the fact that this guy is still staring at me, not even blinking, as far as I can tell. It’s starting to break through my cool. This isn’t something I’m used to. My head is starting to pound.
Something’s knocking in my head.
I drift back during the solo, let the dancers take center stage. In the wings, Ruby is dancing along with them. I’m surprised she didn’t muscle her way into getting to be out there with them, after she choreographed their routine. Maybe I’ll suggest that to her later, get her out of my hair for a while.
For now, I’ve got enough in my hair. I cautiously think an answer toward the knocking. “Yes?”
“You’re in danger.” The voice is barely a whisper, but it’s loud enough in my head to drown out the band.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Call me J.J. You’ve got to stop the show and get everyone out of here. Please.” His voice is earnest.
I’m from Cobalt City. When someone gets a warning like this, they know better than to take the risk. “Then pull the fire alarm.” I glance out into the crowd and spot Tito en route to intercept the guy in black, who might be J.J. “Move now if you’re gonna do it.”
I run back to the front of the stage and resume singing. The guy in black is gone, and Tito looks confused. I’ll have to sort that out later. Whatever this is about, it better be good. I might hate this mall tour, but I also hate disappointing my fans.
Outside, in the chaos of the fire alarm, I slip my handlers, security, and the army of Goblin Records interns and make it down to the beach.
J.J.–the guy in black–is there. Up close, I can tell he’s somewhere in the same nebulous age range as me–late teens to early twenties–hair as black as his clothes, but blue-green eyes the color of the ocean.
“What just happened?”
He hands me a sleeveless hoodie from my merch booth without a word. I pull it on, hood up to cover my hair and most of my face. Now I look like one of my fans, who dress just like me, in whatever brands the interns have me casually promoting this week.
He still hasn’t said anything. “Well?” I prompt him.
“So you’re from Cobalt City, right?”
“Born and bred,” I reply, but I cross my arms over my chest. “Let’s not get too off topic here. This isn’t an interview. This is me finding out why you pulled the fire alarm and stopped my show.”
“Sorry I ruined your concert. I had to get everyone out of there so it wouldn’t be a target anymore.”
“Target? Why was it a target?”
“You’re powered, right?”
I inhale sharply, glance around, make sure there’s no one here to overhear me. I don’t know why I should trust this guy, but I do, even if he’s wrong on this. “No, I can’t fly or punch through walls or run really fast or anything.”
“Yeah, okay. But your voice is kinda–” He hesitates. “Unnatural.”
I bristle at that. I don’t let my producers mess with the quality of my voice for my recordings, or at shows.
“Not unnatural in a bad way. Just–” He winces. “Not entirely human?”
That takes the wind out of my sails. He’s not the first person who’s said something like that. And not knowing my mom, and my dad never talking about her, “not entirely human” is entirely plausible. Especially for Cobalt City. “Okay. But why does that make me a target?”
He shrugs. “Doctor Ruthless … doesn’t always make sense. Maybe she had something against your concert or the mall or something.”
“How do you know this?”
He taps the side of his head. “Telepathy.”
“You just run around surfing into peoples’ brains?” I step away from him.
He waves his hands in the space between us. “No, I don’t. I’m in communication with the rest of my team. They told me Doctor Ruthless was moving toward the mall, I was closest, so I said I’d come and check it out.” He gives me a half smile. “You’re a hard nut to crack, by the way. Even if I had wanted to barge my way in to your thoughts, I don’t think I could have.”
I return the smile. “Well, thanks for knocking. So, team?”
“Yeah. Cerulean City isn’t quite at the level of Cobalt City in terms of super heroes, but we’ve got a few of our own. I’m on a team with some of the other younger heroes.”
I nod. “That sounds cool. I’m not the joining type. And I’m not sure I’m up to par with a super hero, anyway.”
“Everybody plays their part.”
“And I’m the lonely pop star.” I sigh. “Speaking of, they’re going to insist I continue the concert. I can’t beg out of this one. Believe me, I’ve tried. Can you call your team and maybe keep this Doctor Ruthless off my back for another half hour?”
He shrugs. “I’ll give it a shot. We’re not heavy hitters, though. I might have to call in the big guns.” He looks sheepish at that last.
“Big guns?” I repeat.
“Major Justice or someone like him, I guess.”
“He sounds kinda fierce.” I cock my head to the side, curious about another city with super heroes out in the open. Not many places are like Cobalt City. “So does J.J. stand for some super hero name?”
“Yeah.” He sighs. “Justice Junior. Major Justice is my dad. My granddad was General Justice. I’ve got an aunt who goes by Doctor Justice. They haven’t given me a rank yet, and everyone just started calling me Justice Junior. I hate it, though, so J.J.”
“Oof, legacy, huh? That’s gotta suck.”
“Yeah, especially when I’m nothing like them.”
I chuckle. “Oh, I get that. Welcome to my entire life.”
“Not big on the limelight?”
“It’s not that. This is what I wanted. It’s just that some of the reality of stardom isn’t what you think it is. Probably kinda like the reality of coming from a family of super heroes.”
He smiles. He’s kinda cute when he does that. “Yeah, probably.”
Before I can say anything more, there’s a crackle in my ear. I had been in such a hurry to get out of the mall I hadn’t unclipped my mic, earpiece, anything. Tito’s voice comes through. “Cass, where are you?”
“Shit,” I mutter. “Sorry, Tito, I just didn’t want to be too close to the mall, in case something happened. I’m on my way back now.” To J.J., I say, “I’ve gotta go. Good luck with dealing with Doctor Ruthless. If you need anything from me, you know where I’ll be.”
He looks like he wants to say something more, but I turn away and don’t let him. The last thing I need on this awful tour is a stupid crush on some cute super hero in Cerulean City.
If I said my heart wasn’t really in continuing my concert, that would be basically true. Though it hadn’t really been in starting the concert in the first place. Now, on top of my desire to be anywhere but here, I also have the nagging dread that some super villain is going to crash into my concert at any moment.
At least she doesn’t make me wait too long.
When she first drops in through the skylight, she looks fantastic. She has a tailored black leather lab coat and black goggles, so the Doctor part of her name is well represented in her costume. But she’s wearing these amazing red knee high boots, and matching lipstick, that wouldn’t be safe in any lab. I gotta say, though, it takes stylists to get me to look half as good. And maybe super villains have stylists too. I don’t know.
But I’m mostly rambling because when she shows up, I freeze. I might be from the city voted most likely to play host to a date interrupted by a super villain, but I’ve never encountered a villain in Cobalt City. I guess I’ve led a sheltered life, somehow.
But now, here I am, face to face with Doctor Ruthless. She’s flying, or hovering, but she hasn’t shown off any other powers yet. So I have no idea what will happen if I somehow have to fight her. Especially since I don’t know how to do much more than throw a half-hearted punch.
For now, at least, I have the whole PA system at my disposal, so I figure I can at least give J.J. and his team a temporary distraction.
“STOP!” I put the full force of my personality behind it. I’ve never tried to make people do as I say, but if I really throw my aural weight around, most people realize that they want what I want.
Doctor Ruthless doesn’t stop.
Most of the fans are at least getting away from where she’s descending. Some of them are taking pictures, of course. Because when a pop star is from Cobalt City, it’s hard to say if random attacks by a super villain are part of the show or real. (It’s actually worse in Cobalt City, from what I’ve heard. Len, who’s been around Goblin Records for roughly ever, has seen some shit while working shows.)
Since she doesn’t respond to my really persuasive suggestion, I figure I might as well give up that approach. “You want the mic, then? Tell us what you’re here for?” I grab one of the stage mics and hold it out toward her.
She doesn’t take it, telekinetically or otherwise. But when she speaks, everyone can hear her. “You have something I want.”
I wait to see if she’s going to say what it is, but it seems like this is going to take some encouragement on my part. “Okay, am I supposed to guess, or–”
I try not to laugh, but I can’t help but crack a joke. “What? Are you Ursula?”
“I’m a collector of powers. You have something I haven’t found elsewhere. So I want it. I’ll make this simple. If you agree, I’ll leave your cowering fans alone, and I’ll leave you alive. If you don’t agree–” She shrugs nonchalantly. “–well, I make no promises.”
A chunk of the skylights flies away, like it’s been caught in a gust of wind, and someone else comes down through that section. At least, I think it’s another person. The wind kicks up with a whole section of skylights missing, so my hair is whipping around like I’m in a tornado.
I hear the heavy glass doors to the mall thump open, followed by running footsteps. Either Doctor Ruthless is getting reinforcements, or that’s J.J. and the rest of his team.
I wonder if this is what it feels like to tourists in Cobalt City, when heroes and villains started throwing down, and the onlookers aren’t sure which is which.
I manage to get my hair out of my face long enough to see what’s going on. There is an actual tornado in the food court, surrounding someone with dark hair dressed in gray and a pale teal color. And she–at least I think it’s a she–looks like she’s grappling with Doctor Ruthless.
Below, there’s a young woman in a vibrantly colored long dress, black hair whipping around her brown skin, which is lit from within with golden light. She’s chanting something, but the tornado pulls the words straight from her lips and into the air, inaudible on stage.
And there’s J.J., or at least who I think is J.J, dressed in black with red accents. Either the costume is padded to give him faux muscles, or he’s ripped. I catch myself staring, trying to figure out which it is, when he waves.
He stands behind the woman on the ground and holds out his arms. All of a sudden, her voice is deafening, booming through the entire food court. And it’s not just that I couldn’t hear her before–I can’t understand what she’s saying. Languages aren’t my strong suit.
The woman inside the tornado tries to angle Doctor Ruthless so her back is to the woman on the ground, but Doctor Ruthless shakes her off.
For an instant, Doctor Ruthless’s gaze is locked on J.J. Her lips move, and I swear she says his name. But then she’s gone, rocketing back out of the hole that she came in through, and we’re left with ear-splitting chanting and a tornado in the wreckage of my stage.
The winds die down, and the woman in gray and teal descends as they do. The other woman has stopped chanting, J.J. has dropped his arms, and they’re all staring at the hole in the roof that Doctor Ruthless escaped through.
I clamber off the stage and over to them.
“Hey, Cassidy,” J.J. says, smiling beneath his mask. Did he have dimples before? He’s got dimples now. “This is Celadon and Preethi. Uh, we call ourselves the Young Techs.”
“Which I hate,” the woman in the bright-colored dress he pointed out as Preethi says. She’s got a thick Indian accent and an almost lyrical voice. “I did not come to this country just for its technology.”
Celadon rolls her eyes, like she’s heard this a million times before. “So what happened, why’d she call it off?” she asks J.J. Up close, I can see her olive complexion and golden-brown eyes, fixed on the gauntlets she’s wearing over her suit, where she’s flipping what seems like a million different switches and not looking at J.J. at all.
And not noticing me staring at J.J.
He runs his hand through his hair and blushes. “I … uh, I don’t know.”
I stare at him, and then think, “She said your name,” at him as hard as I can. I don’t know if he can hear me or not, but he nods.
Aloud, I say, “So what happens now? Do you have to track her back to her villainess lair or something?”
Celadon shrugs. “Nah, this is the point where we hand this off to the professionals. Like Major Justice. By the way, J.J., tell your dad the roof was not my fault this time, okay? I don’t need him yelling at us for that, on top of letting Doctor Ruthless go.”
“Yeah, okay,” J.J. says.
Preethi has already walked off, and Celadon follows her toward the mall entrance.
J.J. looks at me. “I guess … I should go with them.”
I don’t want him to go, so I stall. “What if she comes back?” I ask. “And what did she mean by wanting to steal my voice?”
“Your voice?” he asked, eyebrows arching above the top of his mask. “Well, hate to be the one to break it to you, but that means you’ve got powers. Doctor Ruthless is the reason that no one who has innate powers lives in Cerulean City. They either get their powers stolen, or they flee. We’re all either tech or magic based here.”
“I’ve got powers,” I say, sitting down hard on the edge of the stage. “Real ones?”
“Looks that way, yeah.” He sits beside me.
I want to lean on his shoulder, hoping that he’ll put an arm around me to comfort me, but I don’t want him to freak out and move away, either. So I sit there, stiffly, half pretending to be in shock. I’m not entirely surprised to hear that I do have powers. I just don’t understand them. And that’s scary.
After a minute of us sitting in silence, he gets back up. “Um, well, Doctor Ruthless isn’t likely to come back here, and I’m guessing your concert is over.”
“Yeah,” I say, looking up at the roof. “I don’t think they’re gonna make me go back on after a tornado. In the food court.” I pause, and lower my voice. “So how do you know her?”
He glances away. “It’s a long story.”
“Oh, an ex?” I say, trying to make it a joke. Anything to get us laughing, and forgetting about the part where I really do have powers.
He doesn’t laugh, but his shoulders go stiff. “Not even.”
“Sorry, bad joke. I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about it?”
He lets out a long sigh, and it’s like his suit almost deflates, and he’s back to regular old J.J. on the beach in a hoodie. In a quiet voice, he says, “I think Doctor Ruthless is my mom.”
“Oh. Shit.” The implications of that hit me on more than just the simple level of J.J.’s mom leaving so she didn’t attack her son. I know what it’s like to not know your mom, and while I doubt my long-lost mom is a super villain too, I still wonder sometimes. I mean, you don’t live in Cobalt City and not wonder if you’re related to some hero or villain. So we’re both dealing with some shit. “Look, if you want to talk–”
“I’d love to,” he says, then grins sheepishly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. But I’d love to talk to you more. I just think, maybe later. Not tonight.”
I nod, pull a Sharpie out of the pocket of my jeans, and peel back enough of his sleeve to scribble my mobile number on his wrist. We’re standing so close to each other right now, but I get the impression we’re both miles away. Still, this is something. “You’ll call me, then?”
“Yeah,” he says, blowing on his wrist to make sure the ink is dry before he pulls his sleeve back down. Then he chuckles. “I should go call my–” His chuckles fade into a sigh. “God, I’m way too old to be calling my dad to get me from the mall.”
I nod, swallowing the lump in my throat. Why does he have to be so cute? “Um, so random question? How old are all of you?” That’s right. Play it cool. Act like I’m interested in all of the Young Techs. Not just him.
“Uh, I don’t know how old Preethi is. Never asked. Celadon was … a few years ahead of me in high school, so she’s like 27 or 28, maybe? Me, I’m 24 next month.”
That’s a relief. I didn’t want him to be way younger than me. I smile. “Cool. I guess eventually you’ll have to stop being the Young anything, huh?”
J.J. shrugs. “Not until there’s another group younger than us. Cerulean City is ruled by the old school.” He shrugs again. “And based on Granddad’s longevity, I suspect it will be for a while.”
“I know a place where it’s not always like that. A place where you wouldn’t have to be in their shadow all the time.” I smile. “If you’re interested, I mean.”
“What, Cobalt City?” he asks, a smile lighting his eyes and bringing out those dimples again.
Why am I doing this to myself? I don’t need the hope that maybe one day he’ll call, or show up on my doorstep, and we’ll live happily ever after. I know better than that. After all, I wrote the damn song. But it doesn’t stop me. “Yeah,” I say, sharing his smile. “Come visit sometime.”
By Burris D. Nichols
I didn’t read it for a long time. Really, I wasn’t aware of it for a long time. Those were busy times for the infernal horde, what with all the dime store necromancers queueing up to mortgage their souls. Western society’s emergence from the darkness spawned enough bad ideas to keep us all hopping for a couple centuries. That kind of overwork doesn’t really leave anybody in the mood to curl up with a long, challenging epic poem.
By the time I read it, the Blind Poet was long dead. By the time I read it, Frankenstein’s creature had already read it, and all the daffodil sniffers had embraced it to a degree that was embarrassing to witness. By then, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
It was a little bit of a shock to recognize our story. That was nothing compared to the shock that followed.
At first, I was confused and a little miffed. It seemed like the poet mentioned everybody in Hell except me. I read through that whole tremendous list, and the only one missing was me. I’m not suggesting that I’m a particularly big deal in the grand scheme of Perdition, but one hates to be left off the cast list if one is in the show.
Then the real shock followed.
It was the perspective that gave it all away. It wasn’t just scenes where I was present – It was scenes shown from my point of view. It slowly dawned on me that the Blind Poet didn’t leave me out of the narrative because he didn’t like me, or because he thought I wasn’t important enough. He left me out because he was seeing the whole thing through my eyes. Somebody gave him access to the whole story by giving him access to everything I saw.
Now who would be able to do that?
As I read on, it became clear that while the Blind Poet had total access to what I saw, he only sometimes had the soundtrack to go with it. At these times, he just took his best guesses at what was being said and why. Really, he did a pretty good job of the guess work, all things considered. Sure, he got some things totally dead wrong, but he did it in ways that made for a good poem.
I’m not writing to refute what the Blind Poet wrote. For as few of the facts as he got right, he ultimately captured the truth. I’m also not writing this because I got left out of the Blind Poet’s work. I’ve long since read the Italian Pilgrim’s poem, and I’ve got a real juicy part in that. Juicy enough to more than make up for my absence in the Blind Poet’s epic. Really, I just want to set down my thoughts about my dearest friend. I want to let you know about my pal Lucifer.
Paved with Good Intentions
It didn’t start with a “war in Heav’n.” That’s just r’diculous. And anyway, if you’ve got too may syllables in a line, pick different words. Don’t start loading up on apostrophes – it’s annoying.
Granted, angels were not created to be perfect, but we’re not subject to mental illness. We also don’t get colds, toothaches, or crabs. Only a being that was severely mentally ill – and maybe tormented by a really bad case of crabs, to boot – would consider waging war on an omnipotent creator, somebody who could just imagine you and your army out of existence. Lucifer wasn’t, and isn’t, crazy. He doesn’t suffer from hubris or delusions of grandeur. He knows the exact measure of his own grandeur; significant, but by no means God-like. He didn’t wage a war against God that got him and “all his host of rebel angels” booted across the cosmos.
We did, of course, get booted across the cosmos. It wasn’t a war that did it, though. It wasn’t an argument. Not even a disagreement. It was an idea. Lucifer had an idea that didn’t fit into any of the empty spaces of the Heavenly puzzle, and the next thing anybody knew, we were all hurtling through the void, the entire Earth department of angels. God, as I now understand but then did not, has essentially no patience for the ideas of others, and is big on making examples of His creations.
Hurtling through the void can be thrilling. The angelic equivalent of a kick ass roller coaster. To be suddenly and unwittingly strapped into this cosmic thrill ride, though, is scary and wretched. And the scariness and wretchedness continued exponentially longer than any amusement park ride engineer would deem appropriate. I could sense the rest of the angels around me, blasting along with me, but we couldn’t talk. Probably, if we could have talked, we couldn’t have heard each other. The rushing of nothingness in one’s ears is way louder than one might imagine. When we finally splashed into the fiery gulf, it’s little wonder we all just floated for a while.
I only say “fiery gulf” because that’s what the Blind Poet called it. Of course, it was in no way a literal lake of fire. Still, it was a damned solid analogy, concocted by a man whose imagination and worldly context couldn’t possibly get him any closer to a literal interpretation of what was revealed to his inner eye, dreaming in amazing Technicolor so he could record what he’d seen in the darkness of his daytime. Roiling orange and scarlet, a vast wildfire with no discernible fuel, laced with jags of blue-white like lightning held static, tendrils of glowing carnelian licking outward. “Fiery gulf” is a far better description of our new home, and honestly has more pizzazz, than the words that floated to the surface of my mind and attached themselves to this place: the Carina Nebula.
Words have a regular habit of floating to the surface of my mind and attaching themselves to whatever I’m encountering for the first time. Each individual member of the Heavenly host was created with a specific job in mind, and my job was the study of a language that humanity would not develop for ages to come. This job description didn’t buy me much status in the company of angels, whose language most closely resembles the chiming of finely-tuned church bells. Still, it was and is all there in my head, the entire lexicon of this language, just waiting for the objects, actions, and ideas to present themselves for these words to attach themselves to. Lots of words, like “microprocessor,” had to float in there for a long time before they got to attach themselves to any kind of meaning at all. I’ve got plenty of words still floating, unattached. Other words, like “asshole,” got attached to figurative meanings long before I ever discovered their literal meanings. Angels don’t have assholes, but plenty of angels are assholes.
This lake of fire – bigger, in fact, than any ocean – was bounded by a great amorphous mass of something that drank up light, something that could not be seen, something that tugged at me relentlessly in that place. Something inherently creepy and unfathomably abundant. The Blind Poet called this stuff “darkness visible.” Again, his words beat Hell out of the words that occurred to me. Still, it is always a relief, the scratching of an itch of which I’d been unaware, to connect a meaning to a word. Not that I claim to really grasp the meaning of “dark matter.” Still, if you pop on over to Hell, I can point outward in any number of directions that say “that is dark matter.”
And so we floated, torpid, stunned. I looked around, and saw that indeed the entire Department was here. Heaven, like any large and diverse enterprise, is divided into many departments. There were departments that were devoted to orchestrating the gyrating dance of the spheres (unaccompanied, I am sorry to report, by any spherical music), departments devoted to the maintenance of Heaven itself, and a galaxy of other departments representing a universe’s worth of functions. The department of which I was a member was devoted to Earth. Certainly, a tiny speck in the universe, but still a place with plenty to keep you busy. Earth teems with life, thanks to plenty of water and a truly delightful range of temperatures. Of course, the Earth’s life form that would ultimately require by far the most heavenly attention was humanity, since they would be the only organisms to develop religions, to say nothing of outlet shopping and pyramid schemes. “Would be,” because we had, as yet, produced none. A prototype was still in development. The plan was, we would make a whole passel more of these fantastically complex critters. Indeed, humanity was sufficiently complex and demanding that there were enough of us in the department to constitute an army, as the Blind Poet imagined us to be, but what we really were is a collection of coworkers. And, of course, a supervisor.
He was floating near me and looking, if possible, more stunned than the rest of us. Even so, even gasping and weeping, he was beautiful. Achingly beautiful. His form was tall and lean, with no angles about him, every physical aspect molded to convey gentleness, his face sculpted for the express purpose of adoring his creator. Even so, he exuded strength. His wings, trailing behind him like a banner on a windless day, perfect brilliant white. Adamantine wings you would swear must be soft as down.
After an interminable time – it might have been nine days, as the Blind Poet maintains; there’s no tracking the passage of time in that place – I mustered my strength and spoke to him. I addressed him by his Heavenly name, a name that is built from a considerably grander array of finely tuned church bells than is my own. What came out, though, was “Hey, man.”
Man. I was speaking in, could only speak in, the tongues of man.
The loss of the celestial tongue came as a hammer blow to me, but not to him. For him its effect was positively galvanic. His torpor evaporated, he spread his wings, a broad canopy of stunning glory, and his eyes flashed across all those assembled.
“Do you know what I’ve been meditating on?” Even with the harsh syllables of the language of humanity, his voice was like thunder, thunder so nearby it forms the soundtrack for blinding flashes of brilliance. “Do you know?” His magnificent face darkened momentarily with pain. “I cannot feel Him.” A pause while this revelation sank in. “He has cast us away so far, I cannot feel His presence. Never, not for an instant have I been unable to point with absolute certainty at where He is. “
His voice grew grave, distant thunder promising long rains, promising nothing after.
“Now He is nowhere.”
I recognized it now; we all did. What had caused us to sink into lethargy, to float thus in this coruscating ocean of primordial energies. The presence of our creator, a constant buzz at the margins of consciousness, was silenced. The stillness that remained was a chasm, a gulf into which we dared not move. If not for Lucifer, if not for the force of his will imposed on us then, we might all be languishing there still.
“It doesn’t matter.” He paused to let his words have their effect.
“He has cast us out, forsaken us, hidden Himself from us, and it doesn’t matter.” He was turning around as he spoke, looking at each of us in turn. “He has taken our true tongue from us, and it doesn’t matter.”
He took wing now, rising above the roiling swirl.
Our leader spoke. “He thought to cast us out of Heaven, but He did not. My Heaven is all around me. Heaven, to me, is to be in the presence of you.” He pointed at one of the host. “And you.” Another. “And you.” He pointed at me. It seems profoundly silly, I know, to be so affected by being momentarily singled out in the course of a pretty run-of-the-mill motivational boardroom speech like this, but I knew in that moment that I would do anything for him.
He settled downward again, and gently pulled an angel upward, grasping his upper arms. “I might no longer hear your name in the language of Heaven, but tell me the name you would take for yourself in the tongue of mankind, and it will be as Heaven in my ears.”
I recognized the fellow he was pulling up, a stolid worker in charge of flying insects. He stammered for a moment, and then, “Beelzebub.” I smiled. Master of flies. It was just a job description, really, but it sounded cool. It sounded badass.
“Beelzebub.” He locked eyes approvingly with the newly named angel. “And I will be…Lucifer.” To my ears, it sounded a touch effeminate, coming on the heels of such a killer moniker. He raised his voice again. “Because it is our morning. It is our morning, and I will be the star that lights you until my pale, wan light is hidden by the brilliance of the sun that you create in this place.” He really gave a pretty good pep talk.
I wondered, I still wonder, if he somehow knew that Beelzebub would come up with that great name that would get us all to come around. Certainly, the names that followed did a good deal less for me.
The next, a self-important poseur in charge of some obscure religion-to-be, dubbed himself “Moloch.” This name was supposed to have eventually come to denote an aspect of The Creator, a particularly nasty, bloody aspect. This choice of names garnered a murmur of approval from all the other self-important poseurs, and started something of a trend. Of the remaining names, an embarrassingly large portion were the names of one or another aspect of backwater divinity. Chemos, Ashtaroth, Astoreth, Thammuz, Dagon.
Granted, in years to come, it made it easy to tell upon introduction who among the Infernal host was a complete douche.
As he made the rounds, I wracked my brain. I needed a name that, while not too self-aggrandizing, would convey the sense, like Beelzebub’s name, of being a complete badass. I began considering Latin. It’s not the language I’m in charge of, but everything sounds so cool in Latin, almost like everything you say is some kind of incantation.
He continued to make the rounds.
I thought feverishly. Latin. Badass.
“And you, my friend? What will be your name?”
My tongue became thick and dry.
“Malecoda,” I blurted.
His smooth brow furrowed in sympathy. “Terrible end? No, my friend. This may seem like a terrible end, but it is not. It is a beginning. A beginning of something beautiful. A second Heaven.”
“Not terrible end,” I croaked. “Badass. It’s supposed to be ‘badass.’”
He cocked his head. “What’s wrong with your ass?”
I stammered for what seemed an eternity before the corner of his mouth twitched upward. Then he laughed, a full and unselfconscious laugh. It was the kind of laugh on which a friendship could be based.
Our time was given over then to giving the place a makeover.
Beelzebub was invaluable. He changed a lot of the stuff that place was made of, turning it from gas and plasma into a solid throughout great swaths. He discoursed at some length about how he had developed the skill of persuading matter to transition between different states. Apparently this has something to do with how he got bees to fly. It was all a bit esoteric. Regardless, this gave us someplace to stand, and allowed the construction of an impossibly slender, elegant tower. It looked like nothing so much as a wildly elongated bishop from a chess set but, instead of black or white, it swirled with fire. Inside, this tower was a warren of passages, tunnels, chambers, and grand halls. Just beneath the peak of this spire, an angel who specialized in weather phenomena had made a ring of lightning, a horizontal halo that did not waver.
I was inscribing words over the entrance. We don’t use tools, typically. I would hold out a finger and a small stream of the cosmic power with which we had all been imbued at our creation would flow out, carving the letters into the substance, now rock-like, of which the entrance was made. This was the same force Beelzebub had used to change the substance of our new home, the same we had used to carve out our dwellings. I was at a loss for anything inspirational to inscribe, so I just carved the words “Enter here.”
“Isn’t that kind of self-evident?”
I hadn’t heard Lucifer approach.
“I mean, it’s a door. The only door, really. Where else would somebody enter?”
“I don’t know. Nowhere, I guess. I just needed to do something. I guess it’s kind of dumb.”
“No. It’s good. It makes it look…official. What do you think? Of the whole thing, I mean.”
He looked up toward that crazy-ass chess piece. I looked up, too. Angels were swarming all over, everybody applying their own personal final touches, having abandoned any unifying principal with which the project may have started. They were flapping all over, yelling to each other, asking for feedback or just seeking each other’s praise.
“I think it’s friggin’ pandemonium.”
“Pandemonium.” He rolled the word around on his tongue, savoring it. He gave me a wry half smile. “More Latin. All…demons. Whatever. It’s got a good ring to it. Pandemonium it is. I’ll spread the word, our palace has a name.”
I swayed, poleaxed. Demons. I knew, in a rush, that He hadn’t just thrown us across space, an angel colony on the frontier. To Him, we were no longer angels at all.
For the first time, I knew there are some words floating in my mind for which I never want to know the meaning.
I was created to study – and to some extent guide – language, not music. Still, the two go together in ways, and I am a fan. I’m a fan of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, and probably a few Blind Willies I’ve forgotten. And I don’t mean to detract from any of those fine artists when I say: It was a white host, in a red place, that invented the blues.
Deeply blue we were, and getting deeper. Building the tower of Pandemonium kept us occupied for a little while. Still, we were a crew intended to attend to the functioning of an entire planet, a planet inhabited by a sentient race with a knack for shitting where it eats.
The tower was swiftly going from baroque to gaudy. An angel who called himself Mammon, who specialized in working with minerals, had pulled elements out of the turbulent gasses of the nebula – gold, silver, platinum – and had filled the halls and chambers of Pandemonium with gilt, filigree, and just overall metallurgic excess.
As for me, with no human race to guide and mold through the development of language, I was struggling to write an account of our situation. Not this account. I was writing an epic poem, or rather trying to. It used anapest, and it rhymed. Not so much the Blind Poet as Dr. Seuss. I was already starting to think strongly about destroying it.
“Hi there, Mal.” Lucifer was spending most of his time just making the rounds, checking in on everybody. I found myself envying him, not for the first time, because the job he was created to do – to make the rounds and check up on his underlings – was still pretty much intact.
“Hiya, Lucy.” Come to find out, now that we were out on the ass end of the universe with no deadlines and no Creator to answer to, Lucifer was a mellow, approachable guy. He had also started talking as though no one was recording his words for the edification of future generations.
“What are you working on?”
“The slow destruction of language. I figure I’ll let Mammon rebuild language out of titanium.”
“He’ll like that.” Lucifer sat down on a curved bench that faced my own. Beelzebub had shaped benches all over the place out of the fiery plasma stuff. Somehow, not having any bugs to work with here hadn’t phased him a bit. He just started sculpting this crap all over the place – not the ostentatious sculpting that was getting so common lately, just lots of solid, utilitarian stuff. It reflected his personality. Nice. Not scintillating, but nice.
I sighed. “I don’t really know what to do with myself, Lucy.”
“I know. It’s going around. This place…doesn’t really fit everybody’s skill set.”
I guess it’s a testament to how much our relationship had changed, how quickly I got mad then, and how willing I was to show it to him. “Then let’s leave this place. Screw this place. I don’t want to spend the rest of eternity gold-plating and polishing this turd. We could go anywhere! Hell, we could go…”
My voice failed me and the rest came out as a croak: “…back.”
He was quiet for a while, just looking out at the masses of dark matter beyond the tower.
“Mal, do you know why He kicked us out?”
I shook my head.
“I had…a thought. I thought, I could just do something – anything, really. I could do something that I chose to do. Something that wasn’t His idea.”
My mouth went dry. “What did you do?”
“Nothing. It was having that thought that did it. Mal, we were made to do His will. Not ours, just His. I’m not sure we were supposed to have wills. Just having that idea, just thinking ‘Hey, I could do something He doesn’t say to do,’ that was enough to get me thrown across the universe, along with my whole department.”
“That’s a drag.”
“It is, indeed. Now, here we are, so far from Him that we can’t even guess what He might want us to do. Did you ever wonder why we all just floated around once we splashed into this ocean of fire?” Pretty much everybody had adopted this description of the nebula.
“It was a pretty rough ride getting here.”
“Were you exhausted? Sick? Nauseated?” That was another thing Lucifer had picked up recently. He could be a facetious son of a bitch. He knew no angel had ever had any of those maladies, and he was baiting me.
“No, Lucy. I was not.”
“No. We didn’t move, we didn’t talk, because He wasn’t here to tell us to.” He gave me a quirky little smile. “We’d still be there, if you hadn’t spoken up.”
I laughed involuntarily. “Two words. One syllable each, and both devoid of meaning.”
“But nobody told you to, Mal. You produced those two words using your own will. That set the ball rolling, allowed the rest of us to assert some will. But we’re still not accustomed to it, we’ve got to keep practicing. Everybody’s got this…”
“Maybe something a little less French.”
“Blues. We’ve all got the blues because we’re so accustomed to doing things His way, and we still need to figure out how to do things our own way.”
“Or maybe it’s just that this place completely sucks.”
“We’re working on that.”
“Not ‘sucks’ like, wow this place could use some work. ‘Sucks’ like, inherently sucks. Sucks on a level so fundamental that no amount of sculpting and gilding can un-suck it.” I was getting a little less coherent. “Lucy, we should go back.”
“I want to. You don’t know how badly I want to. But, Mal, He threw us out. He’ll just throw us out again if we go back. We can’t go back.” Suddenly he looked deeply sad, broken. “I don’t know if I could even find the way.”
We sat in silence for a while then. It didn’t take long before it became a comfortable silence, despite the charged words that were barely done ringing. He had that kind of presence, the kind that fills silences with comfort.
“Can I ask you a question, Mal?”
“Why do you think you were able to talk? When it happened, why were you able to talk to me, when everybody else was immobilized by His absence?”
I mulled it over for a minute. “For me, He was always just this presence. I mean, I knew He was in charge, but it wasn’t like I answered to Him directly. I answered to you, Lucy. I guess, really, you always were my God. And you were right there.”
“That’s awfully nice of you.”
“But your heaven still sucks.”
Before he could respond, we were interrupted. Somebody I didn’t recognize rushed up in a flurry of feathers, eyes wide and mouth working soundlessly.
“Azazel, what is it?”
“Lucifer, we need – We need you. Come, please.” He didn’t shout this, or plead. He spoke in a dead, flat tone that conveyed a sense of terrible urgency no amount of shouting could have.
“Take me there.”
The three of us flew, flew madly past the tower of Pandemonium, to the verge of the blankness that bordered our accursed home.
And witnessed the first of the horrors for which this place would become renowned.
A mass of the fiery stuff of this place had been transmuted to solidity, and formed into a great, conical spike, jutting at a slight angle out of the stuff forming the floor. On this spike was an angel, skewered through his torso.
The spike towered over him, longer than his own height over his back. He had clearly slid downward, the hole in him widening until the spike ran into hard bones. His face was a mask of agony, and his wings hung down, shuddering, a white proscenium curtain framing a gruesome passion play, a pillar of frozen fire, slick with dark blood.
“Mal, help me!” Lucifer flew with powerful wing strokes and gently grasped the angel’s shoulders. I stood frozen.
Numbly, I flew up and took the angel’s knees, his feet at my hips like children playing wheelbarrow. Together, we heaved upward. Lucifer pivoted midflight and we settled downward gently, lowering the wounded angel between us.
Tenderly, Lucifer turned him over. I thought wildly that I could easily have fit my head inside the hole in him, but not without getting sticky. Lucifer put his hands on the wound, then in the wound. I could feel the energies he was using. I could feel little else, it was so strong.
“I’ve taken away some of your pain. It will take time to heal, though. I’m not sure it’ll ever fully heal.” He searched the angel’s face. “Why did you do this?”
The angel looked away from Lucifer’s face, looked at the terrible, bloody spike. “I thought, He needs us to suffer. He needs us to suffer, and I can’t go on with this slow suffering. I wanted to suffer for Him, to suffer a lot, to appease Him, so He would bring me back.” Tears rolled backward into his hairline, toward his ears.
“I just want to go back to Him,” the stricken angel sighed.
“You’ve suffered enough. For now, you should sleep.” Lucifer cradled the angel’s head in both hands, as though he were going to passionately kiss him, or maybe head butt him. The angel’s eyes drifted shut.
“He’ll sleep until he is healed.” Lucifer looked spent, exhausted in spirit. “It could be a long time. Azazel, get some help and move him into the tower, somewhere comfortable.” He looked around, for all the world as though he were searching for some kind of sense amid all this madness. “I need to go. I need to think.”
It was days later that the word went out, there would be a gathering in the Grand Hall. This was the biggest room in the tower, big enough to fit the whole host. Really, it could have been a little smaller. With everybody in there, it still looked half-empty. It gave the sense that maybe there just wasn’t that much interest in whatever was going on, like a stadium show where some promoter has badly overestimated the popularity of an aging rock star.
Still, Lucifer knows how to work a room.
“You are unhappy.” He stood at the foot of the throne, an obscene lump that seemed the very epicenter of all the ostentation and excess that defined the decorating ethos of the tower of Pandemonium. It loomed over him, a dizzying whorl of gold, silver, bronze, and metals from obscure corners of the periodic table.
He looked around. Nobody was going to deny it; I don’t think anybody else was seriously pondering impaling themselves, but we were all in a pretty bad way. Many of us looked sheepishly at our feet, shifting back and forth. Somehow, our unhappiness seemed like a betrayal. Like we owed it to Lucifer to love our home, to whistle while we worked, to swallow this inferno with a spoonful of sugar.
“I’m unhappy, too.” He gave this a moment to sink in. “I wanted to make this another Heaven. I wanted us to be our own gods. I wanted to give you purpose.” He sat now on the throne, and there was nothing majestic about it. That hideous chair looked like a hard, unfriendly, ugly beast about to swallow him whole.
There was utter silence. I yearned to comfort him, to forgive him, to thank him for all he had done, all he had tried to do. I could not.
“I failed to make a heaven of this place, because this is not Heaven. You’ve all been there, and there’s no fooling you.
“And so, I’m leaving.”
That broke the spell. There was an outcry, a Babel of protests, entreaties, promises. As insufficient as this place was, as wrong as this place was, no one wanted to face it without their leader.
He held up a hand for silence. “I am leaving, to make amends with Him. I am leaving, to win our way back into Heaven.”
“And how will you get to Heaven from here?” asked Moloch, and I was stunned to hear a note of scorn in his voice.
If Lucifer noticed Moloch’s tone, he ignored it. “I’m not going to Heaven. I’m going to Earth. And Malecoda is coming with me.”
Nobody saw that coming.
“Why me, Lucy?”
It had taken a while for the kerfuffle to die down in the Great Hall. When it did, Lucifer and I had retreated to a small room. I was still a little numb from his announcement.
“Because I know you can function without Him directing you. You can come up with things on your own. And we’re going to have to come up with something huge, if we’re going to catch His attention. We’re going to knock his friggin’ socks off.” Lucifer had picked up a few anachronistic idioms from me. “Plus, you’re a human language guy. We’re going to have to deal with the man, probably. I’d like to have somebody who knows a little about man-language.” He smirked now, that little twisty half-smile of his. “Anyway, you make me laugh sometimes. This could take a minute, and I don’t really want to rack up a ton of quality time with Moloch.”
“So, you’re saying you picked me because I’m less douchey than that guy.”
“A little less.”
“Thanks, Lucy. Look, I think it’s great you want me to come. I wouldn’t want to stay with you leaving. It’s just, I don’t quite grasp what exactly the plan is.”
“It’s not exact at all. We go to Earth, and we…do something. We do something so great, He can’t help but notice. We make Him bring us back. I know it’s not much of a plan, but we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to do something before somebody else impales himself on a giant damn spike. I can’t just hang around here and watch everybody fall apart, Mal. I can’t do that, and I need you with me, to do whatever we can.”
“I’m glad, Lucy. I’m glad you want me to come.”
I’ve lived a long, long time since then, and I’ve seen countless stories play themselves out. In all that time, not one story that started with someone saying “I’m going to make Him love me,” has ended well.
Preparing for a trip is a distinctly human enterprise. The scions of Heaven, who have no particular physical needs, don’t need to count days and pack corresponding numbers of socks and undies. No angel, no matter how epic the scope of his impending journey, has ever done so much as tie a bindle to a stick.
Hell has no morning, and Angels don’t sleep, so we left as soon as we were decided. We left without fanfare, which was really quite a shame. When you get a bunch of angels singing together, even in the languages of mankind, it makes for a fantastic send-off. And I’m sure Mammon would love to have made some trumpets out of iridium or something.
We flew abreast, lazy strokes of broad, bright wings carrying us inexorably across the vastness of our detested empire. Clouds of white electricity billowed and seethed through the fiery vastness, poisonous heavy cream poured into an ocean of cosmic chai.
“You know, this place is really quite lovely in its way” said Lucifer.
“You know, that’s totally what I was just about to say. Oh, wait. Did you say lovely? Because I was going to say, terrifying.”
“Come on. What could you possibly be frightened of? You may not be the most imposing of the whole host, but you’re not exactly frail.”
I was tempted to banter with him. It was an invitation for banter, really. Goodness knows, banter would have been easier. Still, I had to tell him.
“Lucy, you know when I said it was pandemonium? When everybody was going crazy and doing their own crap when they were finishing up the tower? Well, that just meant a loud, crazy shit show. You though it was Latin, though. You said ‘all demons.’”
“It’s not just an arbitrary word, demons. It means…it means something specific.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means we’re His enemies. It means we’re the bad guys, Lucy. Really bad guys.”
We flew in silence for a while. We passed over bands of different gasses whose relative weights had concentrated them into sharply defined strati, a black one, a deep red one, a milky white one. They look like rivers, I thought. A river of hatred, a river of blood, a river of blankness. A river of forgetting. That last one sounded nice.
“It doesn’t matter, really,” Lucifer said softly. “We still need to try. I can’t have more like Belial.”
“Nice fella, about yea tall, big spike through the middle of him.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah.” I was abashed. Somehow, amid the flurry of activity that followed finding the maimed angel, Lucifer had managed to find out his name. Or maybe he just knew everybody’s name.
“We need to try to get back into His good graces,” Lucifer continued, “or at least find something for the Host to work on. Something to live for.”
We had been flying unerringly in a straight line. I could no more guess the direction of Earth than I could point to Heaven, but Lucifer’s internal compass blade pointed unerringly at the world he had been created to direct. Now that straight line began to take us away from the Hell-scape of the nebula, and toward the surrounding mantle of dark matter.
And something was waiting for us.
The something seemed to be made of that same visible darkness before which it stood, but it was definitely not part of that darkness. Its shape was more or less humanoid, and the darkness snapped and billowed around it like a vast cloak in an imperceptible wind.
“Whoever you are,” boomed Lucifer in a remarkably officious tone, “Move aside. We don’t want any quarrel, and we are in a hurry.”
“I think not,” answered the figure in a voice like a blade being drawn across a stone.
If Lucifer was impressed, he did not show it. “You misunderstand me. I said we don’t want a quarrel. If there is a quarrel, however, it will end badly for you. We are angels.”
The figure now produced a sound like a blade drawn rapidly back and forth across the stone. It took me a moment to recognize the sound as this creature’s approximation of laughter. “Greetings, angels. I am Death.”
It snapped its arms upward in a V over its formless head, and a weapon appeared in its hands, a straight handle with a long curved blade, a wicked black apostrophe framing its torso. The word “scythe” rose to the surface of my mind, but was overshadowed by the last word the creature had spoken.
“Lucifer,” I gasped. “’Death’ means ending. Ending of people. I think this thing could maybe end us.”
My words set off another bout of that terrible laughter. “Ending, indeed.”
“We shall have to see.” I could always tell when Lucifer meant business, because he would say really formal shit like that. He held his hand in front of him, and a tremendous sword appeared in it, a long, straight blade from which shone dense, white light. It was pretty damned impressive.
They were done talking.
Lucifer flew arrow-straight toward Death, his sword held at his hip. At the last instant before colliding with the black figure, Lucifer thrust the sword point at the spot where the apparition’s throat would have been, if I could have said with any certainty that it had a throat.
Lucifer’s attack was blindingly fast, but Death parried with equal speed, spinning the scythe from above its head and catching the sword blade at the juncture of handle and blade. Flowing seamlessly, Lucifer withdrew his blade and spun in an arcing slash. The blade clashed in the center of the handle of Death’s scythe.
The rest of the fight was nearly too fast for me to follow. They looped and spun, every attack flowing into the next. It all looked prearranged, choreographed, like they had painstakingly planned this elaborate dance long beforehand.
Then, as Lucifer swept his sword upward in a slash toward the place one might imagine Death’s armpit to be, Death caught the blade once again at the juncture of his scythe blade and handle. Smoothly reversing his grip, Lucifer smashed the pommel of the sword into the darkness within Death’s hood. The blow expelled droplets of liquid darkness from its recipient’s unseen face, and forced him backward, opening a space between the combatants.
“Let us pass,” Lucifer demanded.
Again, Death produced that awful laugh. He raised his hand to the emptiness under his hood, and shook the hand once, spraying more liquid darkness into the void. He returned his hand to his weapon, and raised it again, just as Lucifer raised his sword to rejoin the fight.
But the fight wasn’t rejoined. A third figure had appeared between them. A figure like nothing I had ever imagined. Not black like Death, but dusky. Smooth, elegant curves. Curved hips, curved legs, curved parts I was just beginning to put words to.
“Boys, boys. Surely there’s no need for this,” the creature purred in a dark, husky voice. “It’s no way to hold a family reunion.”
The sight of this creature released a flood of words in my mind, and one floated to the very surface and bubbled out of my mouth: “She.”
She laughed a deep, smoky laugh. “Why, Sweetheart, it seems you’ve mastered pronouns.” She turned to Lucifer. “But we’re a little past that point, aren’t we, baby? Oh yes, I think we’re on a first name basis by now.”
It was the first time I’d ever seen Lucifer at a complete loss. His glowing sword had disappeared, and he was stammering.
“Lucy, do you know her?”
“Ah. Well, yes. Yes, I do. You remember I told you about the idea I had? That I could do things without His permission?” I nodded dumbly. “Well, when I thought of that, she came out of my head.”
“Out of your head?”
“It kind of…split open. Really wide.”
“Didn’t that hurt?”
“Well, of course it friggin’ hurt!”
I grappled with trying to picture it, and couldn’t. “What did that look like?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see it; I just know it hurt.”
“Oh, baby.” She pouted dramatically, obviously relishing Lucifer’s discomfort. “You didn’t tell your little friend about me? After all we did?”
Lucifer was positively squirming now.
“Lucy, you said you didn’t do anything. You said you had the idea, and then He kicked us all out.”
“Okay, maybe I didn’t do exactly nothing.”
She chuckled low. “Don’t flatter yourself, big boy. It wasn’t much more than nothing.” She tossed her head, glossy black ringlets falling across one eye in a way I found indefinably exciting. “Still, some good came of it. Say hello to your son.” She quirked a smile and nodded toward the dark shape of Death.
“They grow up so fast, don’t they?” She turned her attention back to me. “If he’s not going to make introductions, I suppose I’ll have to. You’ve already met our son.” She casually indicated her spectral progeny. “And I am Sin.” The name sounded indescribably delicious when she said it.
“Pleased to meet you.” It was the best I could come up with on the spot.
Whenever a guy is surprised by the revelation that he is a father, and his child is an adult, it’s a big adjustment. All things considered, it went pretty smoothly for Lucifer. The fact that his son was born and fully grown so shortly after his conception may have helped. I’m pretty sure the fact that his son was the embodiment of most people’s greatest fear didn’t.
I suspect that, for the two of them, their bout of deadly combat may have fortuitously had the effect a couple of hours throwing the old ball around would have had for a normal father/son team. They were pretty buddy-buddy.
“You fight impressively, father,” rasped Death, who apparently maintained the same formal tone whether he was barring passage across space or just chewing the fat.
Lucifer laughed amiably. “It’s a good thing! You came close to chopping me up a few times there.”
Death was still an indeterminate mass of darkness, but I got the sense he was now preening.
“Where were you boys headed when you bumped into Death?” Sin inquired. It seemed that seeing Lucifer squirm had put her in a fine mood. Her sultry theatricality had evaporated, and had been replaced by a sultry familiarity.
“Earth. Malecoda and I are trying to mend fences with Him, and Earth is where we’re going to do it.”
“Not sure. I guess just by doing the job we were supposed to do in the first place, so well that He realizes He needs us.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me.”
“Me, too.” I couldn’t help agreeing; she was right, and hearing the plan actually laid out in all its lack of detail and plausibility boldly underlined that fact.
Lucifer sighed. “You’re probably right. Anyway, we need to do something, and Earth is a place we actually can do something. Out here…” He gestured vaguely around.
“Tell me about it,” she agreed. “After you got ejected from Heaven, He threw me out here. No big surprise there, I suppose. Anyway, He spoke to me then. He said ‘Let no one pass here.’ Said it in a voice so big I could hardly stand it. Like it was going to shake everything apart.”
“I know that voice,” Lucifer said. “So, you’re going to stop us?”
“Screw that! I was conceived as the idea of not doing what He said, remember? Your son is a little bit of a goody-goody,” at this, Lucifer beamed with absurd paternal pride, “and he got the instructions in utero. He’s been taking them very seriously. Me, though? I’m all for letting you through. And I’m the one with the keys.”
Lucifer faced his faceless son. “What do you say, Death? Do you mind if I pass by here?”
“I have a duty not just to Him, but also to my mother and father. You may pass, Father.” I was totally convinced at this point that that formal way of speaking was the only club in his bag.
“Don’t they say the darnedest things?” Sin quipped. “Alright, let’s get this party started.” She turned and faced the barrier of visible darkness. Bracing her feet in the nothingness, she reached out, thumbs down and palms outward. Her fingers found purchase in the stuff of night, and she strained. Her shoulders rippled with sinuous muscle. As titillating as her curvaceous softness was, this was far more so. Slowly, the darkness parted, revealing a blanket of stars.
“It’s open,” she panted. “I can’t close it, though. I hope that’s not a problem.”
“Not at all,” Replied Lucifer. “We’ll be coming back.”
“Won’t that be nice?” There was a note of promise in her voice.
Something had been nagging at me. Suppressing the terror it induced, I looked into the blackness under Death’s hood. “So you’re Death incarnate, and your mom is Sin incarnate. Are there any other incarnations running around?”
“There is Chaos.”
“So he – or she –“
“He is – what, the monarch of disorder?”
“The anarch of disorder.”
To this day, I’m not sure whether that was evidence that Death has a sense of humor.
Fast and straight, we flew. No wing flapping, no rippling locks of hair. Just moving at an outrageous speed within an invisible bullet forged from the intangible material that was Lucifer’s will.
Likewise, it was Lucifer’s will that propelled us. I was strictly a passenger. Lucifer flew, and I nattered.
I don’t suppose it happens to everyone, but I can’t be the only one who knows what it’s like to uncontrollably natter. Part of me, whenever it happens, becomes an unwilling passenger within the invisible bullet of my mind, watching aghast as the other part of me goes on and on, usually losing the interest of my audience along the way.
“Wow, Lucy. It’s crazy, really. I never imagined anything like her. I mean, it really changes my understanding of everything. Of, you know, the meaning of everything.”
“I mean, just the words alone. The words that all of a sudden meant something when I saw her. Like tits. I mean, I’ve been saying ‘tits’ for a long time, you know? But it just meant ‘really good.’ Like, ‘Hey, Beelzebub, nice job on that bench; that turned out really tits.’ But, wow. I didn’t know what actual tits were, and…wow.”
“Really, it’s a funny word. I mean, from an onomatopoeia standpoint, it just doesn’t stand up. It doesn’t sound anything like what it represents. Really, ‘tits’ sounds like some kind of tiny inconvenience. Like, ‘Sorry I’m late. I ran into a bunch of tits on the way here.’ Actually, none of the words for ‘em sound right. ‘Gazoingas’ sounds fun and bouncy, but it sounds kind of silly, too. They’re not silly. They’re great.”
“Yeah, they’re nice.”
“Sin is great. She’s absolutely swell. Your kid, too. I mean, he’s a little creepy and scary, and I’m pretty sure he really was trying to chop you up into little pieces at first, but he’s pretty cool.”
“I’m glad you like him.”
“He’s alright. That voice, though. And the way he talks.” I rasped my best approximation of Death’s voice. “‘You and your companion continue on your quest, Father. I and my mother have been set at this post, and here we must remain.’ I’m sorry your kid couldn’t come with us, Lucy, but I honestly don’t know if I could have put up with that super-formal crap for much longer.”
“I suppose he could loosen up a little.”
“Hey, Lucy, when did you pick up all that crazy shit with the big, shiny-ass sword? That was amazing. Really, really incredible stuff.”
“The avenging angel. Going nuts with a big, glowing sword is really his whole thing. You know I’m a little bit of a dilettante?”
I laughed sharply. “I can’t wait to see you really devote yourself to something!”
“Anyway, I kind of cornered Michael and got him to show me how to make a big, glowing sword, and how to use it.”
“Isn’t that guy kind of a dick?”
“Mostly, yeah. But if you get him going about swords and violence, he’s pretty nice.”
“Hey, Lucy, do you think you could show me how to do that?”
“Let’s get to Earth first.”
That unwilling passenger part of me thought for a moment that the nattering pilot part might be about to relinquish the stick. Not so.
“You know,” I continued, “I don’t think any of the words for lady parts do lady parts justice. All the words I can think of for – “I gestured vaguely toward my own groin – “they just don’t do it justice. They all sound mean, or dumb, or dirty. But you know, I guess there’s one word for it that kind of works. Woo-hoo. I mean, because: Woo-hoo!”
Lucifer laughed. “Woo-hoo!”
Sound doesn’t travel in space, but within our capsule of infernal willpower, the sound of those two syllables rang and echoed joyously.
“It’s too slow.”
In the vastness of space, there is even less means of tracking time than there is in the roiling cauldron of Hell. Still, I immediately caught on to what Lucifer meant, and I agreed. “We’re never going to get there.”
“Not soon enough,” he replied. “we’re moving almost as quickly as light moves, and the whole experiment of humanity might be over before we reach Earth.”
Hearing the variables of distance, rate, and time spelled out in these terms brought me up short. The quantities I had been considering ran along the lines of “a long ways, pretty fast, and long enough to be really boring.”
“What do we do?” I noticed now that we had stopped moving. Impressionistic smudges of light had resolved themselves into the crisp pinpricks of stars.
“We make a shortcut.” Lucifer looked bemused, as if he were trying to identify a far-off sound. “If I can twist here, and bring it closer to there…”
“Twist what? There’s no here, here. There’s nothing to twist.”
“No. There’s something. There’s something, behind the nothing. Shut up a minute, and feel for it.”
I fell silent, mostly because Lucifer so rarely told me to shut up. I reached out with my senses, consciously resisting the urge to recoil from the cold nothingness. I groped in the void, reaching through nothing, and felt…something. It had no form, no mass, but it was there. I struggled to put a name to it. Lucifer beat me to it.
“The nothing…it’s intentional. It’s supposed to be here. Here, and nearly everywhere…It’s not just the absence of something, not just a lot of space between things. All this nothing was made. It was made by Him.”
“Why? Why make so much of it?”
“I don’t know. But I can work with it. It was made, so I can twist it.”
And so he did. The work in question, while no doubt momentous, was totally invisible to me. So, I am sorry to say, was the result. No glowing tunnel of swirling iridescence, nothing. The bending of space-time, while fantastically useful, is actually pretty short on curb appeal. No science fiction movie-style funnel of wild color, nothing. Honestly, I would never have known he had accomplished it, if he hadn’t announced it.
We moved again, not nearly so fast this time, from near darkness into total darkness.
And into dazzling light.
It shimmered and sparkled, silver-white, brightest by far directly in front of us, curving and fading away in all directions. After the black vastness, it was indescribably beautiful.
“A sphere of crystal,” I breathed.
“That,” Lucifer replied, “is exactly how rumors get started.” He paused. Then, “I think we need to take a little detour.”
Our trajectory curved away smoothly, and momentarily we were traveling perpendicular to our former course. Concepts like up and down had long since lost any relevance.
The light softened and yellowed, flattened and faded. It was, if anything, more lovely than before.
“It’s a golden disk,” I sighed.
“Dead wrong again.”
The further we moved, the more the light faded. Soon, the even golden glow resolved itself into discrete lights. These lights steadily faded to almost total obscurity. Only one light, at the center of what had seemed a solid disc, glowed steadily.
“It’s – it’s mostly nothing.”
“We have a winner.”
“I was sure…”
“It’s all about the perspective, really. Everything turns around the sun, more or less in a big disc, but with plenty of space between everything. If you look at it end-on, the light shines through everything, every little speck of dust or ice crystal. It lights up. You move a little bit, and the light thins out, gets yellow, the whole thing flattens. You have to get really outside of it before you see it for what it really is. Like you said, mostly nothing.”
“That sounds like a metaphor. Are you talking in metaphors, because I should let you know right now, that kind of thing is usually lost on me.”
Lucifer suddenly looked profoundly weary. “I don’t know. Maybe it is a metaphor. I don’t know for what. I don’t want to find out there’s really nothing there, Mal. I think my perspective is likely to change.” A deep vertical furrow creased his smooth brow. “It scares me.”
“It’s okay, Lucy. Fuck it. Let’s just get where we’re going.”
“Yeah. Okay.” He offered me a thin smile, and we began moving again, toward the center of the vague disc that had so recently seemed an iridescent globe. “There’s a bunch of stuff way out here, rocks and things,” he began, recovering almost all of his customary jocularity, “and that’s what we’ll be going through first.”
“Kuiper Belt,” I said aloud, as the words surfaced
“Yeah, okay.” We started to move, back into the plane on which all the objects were rotating. We wove lazily through tumbling rocks and debris.
“Lucy,” I asked, eager to change the tone, “How did all this stuff get out here?”
“It’s all leftovers, from the creation. Everything expanded out fast – really fast – and then it all cooled off and kind of…settled. Heavy stuff settled together, with lighter stuff on top. All this ” – He gestured, taking in the rocks around us – “This was just heavy stuff that never quite settled, never found a home.”
It looked like the conversation was heading for another depressing metaphor, and I mentally scrambled for a way to redirect it.
Sometimes the timing of things is really convenient.
“What the fuck is that?” Something bright was moving fast, weaving through the rocks, and most definitely coming toward us.
“That,” He replied quietly, “is Uriel. He works out here, herding the rocks and things. Good guy. He’s a little…lonesome out here.”
The bright, fast-moving smudge had indeed resolved itself into the shape of an angel, and he stopped abruptly as he reached us. Angels, as you might imagine are pretty easy on the eyes for the most part, and this one was no exception. Nonetheless, there was something a little odd about this fellow, a light in his darting eyes that was not altogether comforting. Certainly, he wasn’t crazy. As I mentioned before, angels aren’t prone to madness. Still, he did seem a little…odd.
“Hi, fellas. Wow, I almost missed you as you were coming through here. That would have been – well, that would have been unfortunate. I don’t get a lot of folks through here, you know.” This all came out in a rush. “So…where you heading?”
“Earth,” Lucifer replied.
“Oh, great! Earth’s great. Lots of things going on there, you know, lots of things living. Plenty to keep you occupied. I mean, I’ve never been there, I just -” He sputtered to a halt. “That’s what I hear.” Suddenly, he brightened. “You know, I’ve never been there, like I said, but a while back, He had me throw a rock at it, a big rock,” He spread his arms to their fullest extent to illustrate. “Had me throw it right at Earth – zoom!” He clapped his hands together. “Boom! One shot! I got it in one shot! I mean, it’s pretty far away, and it’s moving and all…”
“That’s pretty amazing,” Lucifer offered.
“Why did He want you to throw a giant rock at Earth?” I asked.
“Oh, it was full of these animals it used to have. Lizards, mostly. Big lizards, little lizards, really big lizards. I mean, I’ve never been there, I’m just – that’s what I heard.” He seemed to collect himself somewhat. “They needed to go so other stuff could live there. Before, whenever something else would start to get going, some really big lizard would eat it. I guess He just wanted to…make room.”
I had been only half-listening, because I was preoccupied with the approach of a perfect ball of rock.
“Hey, look,” I offered, “there’s a world out here.”
Uriel barely glanced at the approaching sphere. “Oh no, that’s not a world. It’s really little, you know, and it goes around funny – you know, kind of the long way around. Really, it’s just a rock. Only another rock, really.”
“I like it,” Lucifer mused. “It’s nice and round, and it’s doing its thing.”
“You can like it all you want; that doesn’t make it a world. I mean, there are some worlds here – not here, not this far out, but there are some around. That’s just not one. Too little. Doesn’t act right.”
I wasn’t entirely sure he was acting right. Time tends to mean little to angels, but I was getting the distinct impression that it might mean a little more to an angel who spent millennia herding rocks in space.
“Speaking of those other worlds,” Lucifer interjected, “Where exactly is Earth?”
“Right there,” Uriel replied, pointing unerringly at a spot where nothing was visible. “You go the speed you were going before, when you get to it, it’ll be right there.” He swept his arm to the right and pointed unerringly at another spot where nothing was visible.
“Thank you, Uriel.” Lucifer patted the other angel’s shoulder. “We need to go now.”
And we did.
While the Dew is Still on the Roses
In a gentle breeze, honey locusts waved, palms nodded, and magnolias wagged their flowered tendrils. Leatherleaf ferns rustled comfortably while fragrant grasses rippled. Evening sunlight slanted soft and pink, sketching luxuriant shadows across the ground. The sound of the breeze was complimented by the trilling of a clear rill cascading over picturesque falls to collect in a pool of sparkling green. As we watched, a doe stepped gingerly to the bank of the pool to drink. In short, Eden was all it was cracked up to be.
I reached out to pluck a red flower, and a sharp thorn poked my finger. It certainly didn’t hurt, but I definitely noticed it.
“Seriously? Who decided to create flowers that were all pokey and shit?”
“I don’t think you really grasp the way this creation stuff works,” Lucifer replied. “It’s a little like Uriel’s trick shot, throwing that rock at the Earth, but from way farther, with way more stuff moving, and across time instead of space.”
“I’m going to need a little elaboration on that.”
“Okay. When we create things, we don’t just grab a lump of clay or whatever and start forming. We don’t create something from nothing. We start with something really simple. Just goo, really. Stuff you probably wouldn’t even think is alive, if you didn’t know. Then we try to set up the conditions that will result in the stuff we want. Then we wait.
“A really long time. Like, hundreds of millions of years. That’s why it’s so tricky. You make some adjustments along the way – climate, conditions, and whatever – but some of it is still up to chance. Like this -” He gestured to the flower.
“Yeah, okay. This rose. It came out pretty much the way it was planned, which I think you’ll agree is pretty good for a mostly hands-off approach starting from goo and spanning millions of years.”
“Along the way, though, it came up with something on its own. It’s got everything it was designed to have. Lovely red color, check. Delightful aroma, check. Elegant shape, check. The thorns, though, it developed all on its own.”
“But why develop them at all?”
“So some asshole doesn’t try to pick it.”
“Really, though. At some point, maybe a few million years ago, one of these things grew with thorns, and that worked out. The ones without thorns got eaten or stepped on or plucked by some interstellar tourist, and the ones with kept on going, making new ones with thorns. Eventually, they’ve all got thorns. That’s just what roses are.”
“Thorny-ass flowers.” He nodded agreement.
“And that’s how everything here got made? From goo to…everything?”
“Exactly. See, we started at the end. Like that deer. We said, ‘what conditions would it take to get from goo to that thing?’ And then subjected that goo to those conditions.”
“For millions of years.”
“Hundreds of millions of years.”
“So, if there’s a bunch of stuff between goo and deer, what happens to all the in-between stuff?”
“If it’s good, it hangs around.”
“What do you mean, ‘If it’s good?'”
“If it’s got the right attributes to help it survive. This process isn’t like one big march from goo to deer or roses or whatever, where every step along the way happens and then gets lost. Along the way, the goo develops into all kinds of different stuff. Some of it just doesn’t make much sense, and that stuff doesn’t make it. Some of it makes a lot of sense, and that stuff sticks around. Even with the stuff that sticks around, individuals are still born with little differences. Most of those differences – far and away most of them – are just stupid, and they end with the individual. Some of those differences, though, work pretty well, and get passed along to a next batch, and another, and eventually there’s a new kind of flower or deer or whatever, living right along with the other kind. Sometimes it turns into a whole bunch of different kinds of things.”
“And this all gets orchestrated from the start?”
“That’s the idea, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss. That’s why Uriel wound up flinging a big rock at it. Lizards were succeeding in a big way – some of them absolute monsters. They were squeezing out just about everything else. When Uriel’s rock hit, it kicked up all kinds of dust and crap into the air. That kept the sun out, it got real cold, and the monster lizards died off. Lots of little furry guys got by just fine, though, mostly by digging in underground.”
“That was a pretty neat solution.”
“Actually, it was kind of ham-fisted compared to the stuff we generally do. Tiny climatic adjustments, mostly. Way more elegant, and less disruptive.”
“You keep saying ‘we.’ Did you design any of this stuff?”
Lucifer quirked a little grin. “As a matter of fact…” He began walking around the clearing we stood in, scanning the plants. “I’m really cut out for the administrative stuff. You know, divine resources – coordinating different angels to get things done. But, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m really kind of a dilettante.” He had stopped his search, and we were standing in front of a tall, broad plant with a profusion of saw toothed leaves and pale green flowers that glistened wetly. The plant produced an odd odor, pungent but not altogether unpleasant. “I did find time to design this little beauty.”
“I’m not trying to impugn your sense of aesthetics, Lucy, but green flowers? And smell-wise…it’s interesting, but a rose by any other name would smell a hell of a lot sweeter.”
“Well,” Lucifer replied amiably, “That’s probably the big difference between a dilettante and an expert.” He reached down and firmly grasped the plant’s base, then pulled sharply, uprooting it. He rapped the root ball on a tree trunk, dislodging the dirt from it, then lodged the root ball in a forked branch, with the plant hanging upside down. “We’ll just leave that right there for now.” With no further explanation, he walked briskly away, leaving me no recourse but to follow.
“Like I was saying before,” Lucifer began, “all these changes aren’t a march forward from simple stuff to complex stuff. Heck, some of the most successful living things are simple ones that have stuck around from really early on. Nonetheless, new and complex things do keep cropping up. And I’ve managed to time our arrival for the emergence of one new and complex thing that I happen to know is very important to Him.”
“How did you manage that?”
“It’s a pretty big milestone, and I knew we were going to be close. We were, too. Just a couple hundred years early when we got to Uriel’s neighborhood. That’s why we made the little side trip.”
“I thought the side trip was for my benefit.” Something suddenly clicked for me. “Wait a minute. A couple hundred years? What are you talking about? I don’t know how long we were traveling, but it wasn’t anything like hundreds of years.”
“Well, no. And yes. Time gets a little funny when you start traveling as fast as we were.”
“Not all that much time passed for us while we were traveling, that’s true. But everywhere else, a lot of time passed.”
“About a hundred thousand years.”
“I guess I could have front-loaded that information,” Lucifer said. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay, really. It doesn’t matter.” As I said this, I realized that in fact, it didn’t matter. The only being in the universe about whom I cared at all deeply was with me, and the passage of time – even staggering periods thereof – was immaterial.
“So,” I asked, “Why was it so important to get here right when this critter came into being?”
“I suspect we may run into some trouble with the new guy.”
“The new guy?”
“The angel with my old job. The angel in charge of Earth. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he sees us as interlopers. We might not have a lot of time to get things done here, and we’ve got plenty to do. Not least of all, we’ve got to figure out what to do.”
“All of which will have something to do with this super-fantastic, new-and-improved Earth creature?”
“And this creature is…?”
“Right over there.” With a grandly theatrical sweep of his arm, Lucifer indicated a shallow cave behind a copse of magnolias, luxuriant purple flowers draping over the mouth of the cave, an exquisitely perfumed curtain. “He’s asleep in there. Come have a look.”
I followed him quietly, spellbound.
“It’s one of those individual variations I was telling you about, and it’s an especially good one.” Lucifer was speaking quietly as we approached the cave. “It was born from a race of big hairy things that run around on two legs. But this one has a couple important differences. Not nearly as hairy as the others – it’s basically got hair on its head and a few other strategic places. Most importantly, though, it can talk. I give you…the first human.” Lucifer gently swept aside the curtain of flowered tendrils. “I call him ‘Adam.'”
Adam lay on his side, one disproportionately long arm crooked beneath his head. His limbs were thick and heavy, his joints knobby. His forehead sloped to a craggy brow, which overhung a flat nose and blubbery lips. He snuffled in his sleep, exposing broad, flat teeth.
I couldn’t help it.
“Lucifer, this guy is ugly as fuck.”
“Compared to his parents, he’s probably quite lovely.”
“No, seriously, Lucifer. He is absolutely hideous. Are you honestly telling me this butt-ugly abomination is the end result of your whole grand design on Earth? Because you really could have just called it a day after the thorny-ass flowers. Hell, your stinky green plant was a rollicking success compared to him.”
“Little steps, Mal. Give this guy a few million years, and the very prettiest of his descendants will be almost as good looking as – well, not as me. But as pretty as you, no problem.”
“Unkindness doesn’t suit you, Lucifer. Less than self-aggrandizement, even.”
“Are you sure? I’m trying to broaden my horizons.”
“Pretty sure, yeah.”
“Okay, I’ll just stick to being earnest and well-meaning, and let you handle anything that requires being a giant dick.”
“You’re still dabbling with being a dick right now, aren’t you?”
“I couldn’t give up, just like that.”
We probably would have kept going like that until the world’s first man woke up, but we were interrupted.
“You two need to come with me.”
Three tall, vaguely thuggish angels were standing behind us, looking decidedly pissed.
The three celestial goons, who had the unfortunate names of Uzziel, Ithuriel, and Zephon, ushered us to another grove, very much like the one we had just left, minus the somnolent caveman. When they motioned us to sit, Lucifer ignored them, so I followed suit. It was a short wait before a fourth angel entered. He had none of the thuggish manner of the others, but a haughty bearing that inspired me to dislike him immediately.
“Gabriel,” Lucifer intoned. “I’m guessing you’ve finally got a position in keeping with your bloated self-image.”
The haughty angel sneered. “We’re all created with a personality that fits our function in His plan. I was made to be a leader. You’ve got the perfect attitude -” his sneer ratcheted up a notch -“for a loser.”
“You see, Mal?” Lucifer said to me, ignoring the quartet that surrounded us. “You should never give up hope. Take Gabriel here. He went from being a sycophantic know-nothing, sniffing around the feet of competent angels, to being a self-important buffoon in charge of no fewer than three complete troglodytes.”
“I’m in charge of a good deal more than that, and I’m telling you to get off my world, and back to the vile pit He chose to put you in.” Gabriel’s jaw was tightly clenched, as were his fists.
Lucifer gave an easy laugh. “Oh, I don’t think I could bear to do that without giving you the opportunity to make whatever empty threat you’re just itching to make.”
“It’s not empty, but it is brief. Fly away. Fly away right now, and never return, or the four of us will kick your ass until there’s nothing left to kick.”
One of the heavies (Ithuriel, I think; they were really quite hard to tell apart.) rubbed his large fist and said, “Like he said, we were all created to be good at something.” Indeed, all three looked like they would be gifted where violence was concerned.
Lucifer laughed again, but this time his laugh had an edge to it. “You may find that He was a bit more liberal with His gifts for some of us than for others.” That tremendous glowing sword appeared in his hand, and he flourished it. The four stepped back, and exchanged unsure glances.
“It will go easier for you if you leave now,” Gabriel said, much of his bravado suddenly fizzled. “Even if you could fight off the four of us, there’s a whole crowd on the way.” He gestured, and I could see dozens of silhouettes winging toward us in the distance. They would arrive way too soon for us to escape.
Lucifer shrugged. “I still think it might be fun to stick this sword through you before they get here.”
The whole situation was going sideways fast, and I was feeling less useful by the minute. I very much doubted I would be any use if it came to blows, and I had no doubt that we would be overwhelmed quickly. I racked my brain, but could see no way out. Why had Lucifer brought me along in the first place?
“Did He tell you that you could attack visitors here?” I blurted.
“What?” Gabriel seemed genuinely confused.
“Did you check with Him? To make sure you’re doing what He wants, hitting us or detaining us or…” I was running out of steam. “Or whatever it is you’re going to do?”
Gabriel looked totally nonplussed. He glanced at each of his henchmen in turn before answering. “Well, I will. I will check with Him, and when He says we can, we’re going to thrash you two. So, you’d better just…You’d better just go, or you’re going to wish you had.”
Lucifer shook his hand, and the sword disappeared. “It would seem you’ve told us.”
Gabriel opened his mouth, but said nothing. Finally, his rejoinder was, “Yes, I have. So get ready. Or go away.”
“Will do,” Lucifer answered with a jaunty wave. “Bye-bye.” He turned on his heel and strode away. Once more, I could only follow suit.
“I take it all back,” I said, sotto voce. “You’re absolutely great at being a dick.”
Once we had put a couple hundred yards between ourselves and our would-be tormentors, Lucifer began to chuckle low.
“Oh, Malecoda. I knew it was a good idea to bring you. That was not going to end well. You really bailed us out.”
“I was so scared, Lucy. I thought we were completely screwed. Then I remembered what you said. That you brought me along because I could do things He didn’t come up with. So I thought, maybe…”
“You thought right, Mal. You bought us some time. It’s going to take Gabriel a couple days to get through to Him and get permission to beat us to a pulp. Of course, he’s right. He probably will get permission. When he does, we’d better be gone, or going, or ready for a losing fight.”
“Are you sure you couldn’t win a fight with those guys?”
“One of them, maybe. Those three really are made for that sort of thing, though. No, we’ve got to do what we came to do and get out.”
“A couple days isn’t very long though, is it?”
“Not long at all. We’ll need to get acquainted with Adam first thing in the morning. Meanwhile, though, you wanted me to show you how to work with a sword. At this point, I think it might be a pretty good idea.”
“I can’t imagine it would make a huge difference with the crowd that was about to swoop down on us before,” I commented.
“Who knows? It could be just enough to get us out of here safely. First, we’ll start with how to make the sword coalesce out of what’s around it. It’s really a lot easier here, with air, than trying to pull it out of thin space.”
I strove to put aside my terror, and to focus on his instructions.
Mopping sweat from the brow, kneading shoulders knotted from overwork, twisting until taxed joints pop. These aren’t just strategies for relieving soreness and fatigue, they are signals sent: Look at how hard I’ve been working. For angels, who don’t experience fatigue, soreness, or perspiration, these signals are simply unavailable. The only way for angels to express this sentiment is to bitch.
“That’s an entire night I’ll never get back.”
It had started with the manipulation of light. Lucifer had made a shaft of pure brilliance coalesce in his hand, and told me to try and do the same. After hours of this without summoning more than the faintest will-o’-the-wisp, Lucifer broke loose two willow boughs to practice with. What followed was an entire night of him effortlessly parrying and disarming me, offering encouraging comments every time.
“It wasn’t completely wasted,” Lucifer insisted.
“There’s no way I’ll be ready to fight those goons by the time they come back.”
“Maybe not,” he said, “But you could maybe slow them down enough for me to make my escape.”
“Couldn’t I sacrifice myself for the greater good without going through all this effort first?”
“I’m a sadist,” he shrugged. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any more time to make you suffer. He’s going to be waking up soon, and we should be there when he does.”
Indeed, rosy fingered Dawn was tickling the East. We walked in silence toward the first man’s bower.
Adam woke slowly, screwing his fists into the deep set eyes under his cliff-like brow ridge. His gaze swept slowly around, and settled on us. He looked at us with steady, unconcerned mild curiosity.
“Hi,” said Lucifer, “I’m Raphael. And this is…Dave.” I shot him a glance that seemed to go unnoticed.
“Where’d you come from?” Adam asked blearily.
Lucifer pointed skyward.
“Huh,” Adam grunted noncommittally. “Are you hungry?”
“Sure,” Lucifer answered.
Then Adam was all bustle. He darted about the glade, plucking fruits and arranging them on broad leaves on the ground. He sat tailor fashion and, as we sat across from him, began shuffling delicacies like one of his distant descendants hosting a game of Three Card Monte. “Try this, and then a bite of this right after. Oh, and get a little of this in your mouth at the same time as this.”
He had clearly devoted some time and thought to the creative pairing of the foods available to him. Many years later, when I first encountered gourmet jelly beans, encouraged to masticate two mango beans and one crème brulee to make a lassi in my mouth, my first thought was how much Adam would have loved the experience.
“What’s it like, living in the sky?” Adam asked around a mouthful of papaya and banana.
“It was wonderful,” said Lucifer as he savored a pomegranate seed and a morsel of peach. “We were with the Creator there, the one who created you and everything here.”
Adam took a moment to digest this. “How does this…Creator spend His time?”
Lucifer launched into an account that made me ache with nostalgia. He told Adam about the time when the Creator had made the Son. There had been feasting and parades, tremendous affairs with angels marching and flying, and Lucifer had created a grand surprise. He had assembled elements that, when mixed together judiciously, produced explosions of brilliant light in an array of colors. Lucifer had then made great cylinders from which, when fire was applied to them, these explosive cocktails would race skyward and detonate into vast purple thistles, red posies, and canopies of green fronds cascading downward.
At this point, Adam interrupted and asked for an explanation of fire. Lucifer gathered a little pile of dry twigs and, producing a small trickle of energy from his forefinger (remember, E=m) and started a small blaze. As he kept talking, he fed larger and larger pieces of wood into the fire. He described how the heavenly host stared in wonder at this first (and, at the time of writing this, the best) pyrotechnic display, and how afterward the Son had raced across the firmament, circling the assembled angels again and again, in a chariot of pure light, borne on brilliant wings made of the same stuff.
We were silent for a while, Adam lost in awe, I in a sense of deepest loss.
Lucifer picked up a rock and began absently drilling into it with a thin stream of energy. “You should take care of this fire, and keep it going. It can be very useful. Keep you warm, give you light. Still, you need to be careful with it.” He turned the rock and started drilling an even thinner hole on another side. “It’ll be hard for you to make fire for yourself, so take care of this one for as long as you can.”
“This is…” Adam held his hand toward the small blaze. “This is quite a gift. Thank you.”
“I’ve got something else for you, too,” said Lucifer, standing and walking across the clearing. “Not as useful as fire, but I think you’ll like it.”
He took the plant he had uprooted and returned to the fire. The green flowers were now dry and pale and smelled, if anything, even more pungent than they had previously. Lucifer sat once more, plucked one of the dried flowers, and poked it into the larger of the two holes he had made in the rock. He then pulled a twig from the fire, held the rock to his lips, and drew the flame through the green stuff. Lucifer drew in the resultant smoke, held it in for a few seconds, and handed the rock to Adam. Adam drew a deep lungful of smoke and handed it to me. I shrugged, put the rock to my mouth, and drew strongly.
Remember how I mentioned that the bodies of angels and demons make more efficient use of food? It was in the footnotes. If you haven’t been reading the footnotes, this might be a good moment to go back and have a look. I discovered at that moment that our bodies also make extremely efficient use of psychotropic chemicals.
I was high as a kite.
Adam kept merrily puffing away, but Lucifer and I both dissolved in giggles after that first round. Adam ate a heroic portion of fresh fruit, and we just kept laughing. Adam curled up for a nap, and we tittered on.
“Hey Mal,” Lucifer said in a break between gales of laughter, “watch this.” As I watched, gaping, Lucifer’s golden hair dropped from his head like fluff blown off of a dandelion gone to seed, his nose dissolved, his mouth widened, his body seemed to melt from the shoulders downward, and he shrank.
There before me, where a moment before Lucifer had sat, was a serpent. It wriggled into a gap under a tree and was gone.
“Holy shit,” I breathed.
With Adam asleep and Lucifer metamorphosed and departed, I found my extremely impaired condition a good deal less amusing. Time, after all, was short, and we had to come up with a solution in a hurry. So I turned my attention to the matter of reconciling with God.
Maybe somebody has given you sound advice that began with the word “never,” like for instance “never shop for groceries when you’re hungry,” or “never trust a mechanic who has a manicure.” I believe I can add an axiom to this body of knowledge:
Never try to save your world when you’re stoned out of your gourd.
A wan light was diffused through the glade, and Rosy Fingered Dawn was jabbing the Eastern sky in the ribs when I finished my work. I was filthy to the elbows, and no longer remotely high, but I was feeling pretty good. And then Lucifer came back.
“What the hell is that?” He was standing behind me, looking incredulously over my shoulder at what I had made.
“I was thinking about Sin. How…appealing she was. I figured I could make something like her, just less…sinful. Kind of a…companion for Adam, a first woman to go with the first man. You know, to get things started with humanity.” I was starting to suspect that my idea might have been a little less brilliant than I had first imagined.
“What did you make her from?”
“I took out one of his bones when he was sleeping. One of those ribs down at the bottom that isn’t really attached. That part was pretty easy, really.”
“Why would you do that?”
“You said new living things were adapted from things that came before, so I figured…”
Lucifer sighed. “Why do I bother trying to explain anything to you?”
“But humanity has to get started as a race, right? So I figured he’s going to need her. You know, to mate with.”
Lucifer threw up his hands. “He was supposed to mate with one of the ape-things he came from. Then his kids would be a little less like ape-things, and eventually a whole new race would emerge. That’s how it works. Not this.”
“Well, I think she looks better than an ape-thing,” I answered lamely.
We both looked down at her. She was not so voluptuous as Sin, but still obviously drawn from the same well. Her full lips were more suggestive of kindness than of seduction, her breasts evocative of – okay, evocative of a great many things, but among them – nurturing. Her face had a gentle loveliness that was utterly familiar, but was not at all based upon Sin. She could easily have been Lucifer’s sister.
“She’s beautiful,” Lucifer conceded. “You’ve done something truly remarkable.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Well, you created her; what are you going to name her?”
“I was thinking, since you’re named for the star of the morning, I might name her for the last light of the day. I want to call her Eve.”
Lucifer smiled. “I think Eve is a perfect name.” He sat down. “You’re not the only one who had a busy night. I was thinking about what I could do to really elevate humanity, to help them become something He would be absolutely ecstatic with. And I think I came up with something.”
“Do you remember how I bent the stuff that’s behind space so we could travel faster?”
“It rings a bell.”
“Well, I took a little of that stuff, and I’m pretty sure a little of it is pretty much the same as all of it.”
“You lost me there.”
“The stuff is everywhere, and it knows about everywhere. But the knowing doesn’t require all the stuff everywhere. A little bit of the stuff knows what all of the stuff knows. Kind of like how Adam’s rib knew how to be human, so you could make a whole human out of it. A little bit of universe-stuff knows how to be a universe. Or, how to know a universe.”
I was still a little lost, but just said, “And what did you do with this little bit of universe-stuff?”
“I made a seed out of it.”
“Yes. And I planted the seed. There’s a tree growing now. It’s going to have fruit, and the fruit is going to have all the knowledge that all the universe-stuff had in it.” A wild grin spread across his face.
“And I want Adam and Eve to eat it.”
I was momentarily struck dumb. “You want them to eat it?”
“Fruit. From a tree. Made from the fabric of the universe.”
“And you got all upset about me doing a little thing like making a woman out of a man’s rib.”
“That was kind of a crazy thing for you to do.”
“Crazier than encouraging people to devour a universe?”
“The knowledge of a universe.”
“Okay – Crazier than that?”
It was his turn to be left momentarily speechless. “Point taken.” Absently, he plucked a tall blade of grass and slid it between his perfectly spaced teeth. “I guess we both decided to try something a little crazy.”
“We’re in a crazy situation,” I said.
Adam sat up groggily. “I had the weirdest dream. Somebody was digging inside me and taking stuff out.”
“Wow,” said Lucifer, casting me a sidelong glance, “that’s pretty messed up.”
“Hey Raphael, Dave…” said Adam, staring at Eve’s supine form, “Who is that?”
I realized I hadn’t really prepared for this moment. “That? Oh, well, that’s Eve.”
As if answering to her name, she sat up. She looked around, first at me and at Lucifer with trepidation and bewilderment, then at Adam. As she saw him a wide, guileless grin spread across her face.
“Somehow, I feel as though I know you,” she said.
He walked over and took her hand. “Somehow, I know exactly what you mean,” he answered.
And that was it. Hand-in-hand, they walked away, leaving Lucifer and me utterly flummoxed. It would not be the last time I wondered why a beautiful woman was drawn to a Neanderthal.
We resumed my hopeless sword training, and Dawn was giving us the rosy finger by the time Adam and Eve returned, a full day and night later, both looking thoroughly blissed. “Hi fellas,” Adam said. “I’ve been telling Eve all about you guys. You know, it’s kind of crazy. I never fit in with the troop. I’ve been alone for a long time. Then you guys showed up, and then the very next day,” He gave her a look of utter adoration, “Eve showed up. It’s like everything is changing for the better in ways I never would have guessed.”
“Yeah,” I answered lamely. “It’s pretty crazy, huh?”
“You two must be Raphael and Dave. Adam has told me so much about you,” said Eve.
Lucifer had been staring intently at Eve’s torso. I was about to apologize for his uncouthness when he said, “Congratulations are in order.”
We all stared at him blankly.
“You have conceived. Two children, in fact.”
“Oh.” Eve could say nothing else, and I could not blame her.
“They are very small. They don’t even have a sex yet, or much in the way of organs, but they are there, and they’re doing fine.”
“How do you know this?” Eve asked. “How can you tell?”
“I can see things, and do things, that you and Adam cannot,” Lucifer said. “There are things I’d like to show you, if I may.”
Eve hesitate, then looked to Adam, who nodded his head fractionally.
“Adam trusts you,” she said. “I think I trust you, too.”
“I’m glad,” answered Lucifer. “Let’s be on our way.”
“Hang on just a minute,” I interjected.
I’m still not altogether certain why, but I wanted to interact with the homunculi gestating inside Eve’s belly. Perhaps it was some vaguely grandfatherly stirring; I had, after all, created her so very recently. I knelt before her and put my ear to her tummy. My senses were not as acute as Lucifer’s, but I could clearly hear the flow of vital fluids delivering life to the two tiny beings.
“Hello, first babies,” I whispered. “May you both be happy and always be kind to one another.”
The blessing of a demon.
What followed was a delightful tour, inside an invisible dome made of Lucifer’s will, of the objects surrounding the Sun. We never came close to Uriel’s vigil in the Kuiper Belt, but we certainly saw the sights. We saw a small red world with moons that looked like potatoes, and we saw another that, with its poisonous air and infernal temperatures, made Hell seem like a place worth returning to. We say vast worlds made entirely of gas, and we saw little objects that seemed to wander without regard for the rest of the universe’s workings.
In all, it was a lovely time, four friends enjoying each other’s company and the wonder of their surroundings. When we returned, we built a fire and sat contentedly throughout a night, reflecting on all we had seen.
“I had no idea there was so much beyond here, beyond the sky,” said Adam.
“That’s why I wanted to take you out there,” Lucifer answered. “To prepare you for what I want to share with you.”
We all looked expectantly.
“Time works differently when you’re moving as fast as we were. Mal…Dave has already experienced that, in a bigger way. This wasn’t nearly so much. To us, it was about a day we were traveling. Here, though, it was around ninety days.”
Adam and Eve looked at him blankly.
“And…” Lucifer continued, “In some way I can’t really explain, time has passed differently for your babies. They have grown. One of them is starting to move, and to become aware.”
I looked a little more closely at Eve. Her pregnancy was now clearly evident, a pronounced mound, skin stretched tight.
“It is a boy,” Lucifer said softly. “Soon, the other will quicken also.”
“You said you wanted to show us something more,” Eve said.
“Yes. While we were exploring, a tree I planted has grown and borne fruit. If we eat that fruit, it will show us the rest; everything, far beyond what we saw today. Will you eat it?”
Adam, Eve, and I smiled warmly at each other. There was never really any question.
The tree was small, with a multitude of twisted branches that started low, very near the ground, and spread higgledy-piggledy, conforming to no obvious overall form. The bark was smooth and mottled, green and black. The fruit was pale green, with a shape between that of an apple and that of a pear.
We walked slowly around the tree, looking at the fruit dangling from the branches. Then, Lucifer reached out, plucked one. Then Eve. Then Adam. Then me. We exchanged nervous smiles. Raised the fruit to our mouths. Bit.
I saw it all unfolded like a vast road map that could never again be folded properly. The vastness of everything, continually exploding outward, fast as light. All according to plan. And I saw my place in the plan.
And I saw Lucifer’s place in the plan.
I saw that he was chosen, pre-ordained to be the adversary of the creator, to be the cosmic scapegoat. The Creator sought balance above all things. He achieved this balance in the most expedient way possible, an iteration of Occam’s Razor that flayed Lucifer, carving from his blameless flesh a gruesome sculpture of absolute evil. I saw for the first time that we were following a fool’s errand, trying to win our way back into God’s plan. We were vital to God’s plan, and we were cast as His enemies. Lucifer was His enemy, and I was Lucifer’s minion. We had had no choice; Lucifer was bound to cultivate this fruit, bound to offer it to Adam and Eve, and bound to be eternally condemned for what he could never have refused to do. I saw this plan play out throughout the entirety of time.
Then it got worse.
My mind was pressed through space into a whole other universe, complete with another Earth, Adam, Eve, and every one with another Lucifer. No me, though. Pressed through again. This time there was another me. Again. Again. Hundreds, thousands, countless universes, some with another of me, all with another Lucifer, all twisting Lucifer into the embodiment of evil. For all of them, one God. One God such omnipotent cruelty that He was willing to torture a multitude of Lucifers. In that moment, I became the first of the infernal horde to hate my creator.
Then my awareness was snapped back, and funneled into the minutest inspection of reality. I saw the galaxies within grains of sand. Like a water droplet thrown on a hot skillet, I danced on the head of a pin. As my awareness withdrew into the perceptible world, I saw the interior of Eve’s womb, saw one fetus screaming silently as his mind was riven by visions delivered to him through the pinkish reservoir of his mother’s body, visions that strained the minds of demons. I saw as his brother, curled around him like a spoon in a drawer, slumbered unaware.
Then I was back. Eve and Adam were both on their hands and knees, gasping like swimmers narrowly rescued from drowning. And Lucifer was utterly changed. His wings were no longer feathered, but leathery, with hooked bones protruding from each of their articulated joints. His skin was a roiling mass of red and black, like watery lava cooling and flowing. His eyes were a fierce yellow, and he was weeping freely.
“Oh, Lucifer…” I began.
“No! Not Lucifer.” He shook as he answered, and liquid fire slewed off of his skin. “I am the adversary. I am Satan.”
“I’m so sorry…”
He turned to face me, held out his now clawed hand, and screamed, “Go to Hell!”
Suddenly I was hurtling through space once more, with a pretty good idea of where I would land.
Knowing what to expect didn’t do much to make the journey more pleasant, but at least the arrival didn’t leave me stunned like it had the first time. As soon as I had hurtled through the breach in the bastion of dark matter surrounding Hell, I got to work. And it wasn’t long before I found who I was looking for. Or at any rate, one of those I was looking for. Even with the vastness of space for a backdrop, it was hard to miss the inky blackness of Death.
“Hey Death,” I called, “Where’s your mom?”
“My mother followed your path across the stars. She has chosen to open a portal connecting that place to this place in order to help my father. I await her arrival there, so I may help to open the portal here.”
“That’s actually a fantastic idea,” I replied. “You’re going to want to go there. It won’t be long, there’ll be tons of dying happening on Earth, and you can’t have dying without Death, right?”
“I suppose not,” he rasped.
“Damn right. But you know, I think this portal of yours might be a lot more useful to your pop if, instead of ending here, it ended right in front of Pandemonium.”
“Unfortunately, the tower of Pandemonium has been usurped. Another besides my father has declared himself the ruler there.”
“And I’ll just bet I can guess who. Well, it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.” Oddly, I was feeling better than I had for quite some time.
I had found Beelzebub and he confirmed my suspicions; Moloch and his cronies had taken advantage of Lucifer’s absence (I still couldn’t get accustomed to thinking of him as Satan) and had set themselves up as rulers of Hell, giving out titles to bribe some of those reluctant to adopt the new order, and intimidating those who could not be bribed. Beelzebub fell into the latter group as, from what he told me, did most of the others.
I walked boldly up to the door of Pandemonium and looked at the foolish inscription I had carved over it so long ago. “Enter here.” It seemed now to embody the naïve credulity with which we had undertaken our journey. As though anyone could enter here unchanged. As though anyone could leave here and not be doomed to return.
I stretched out my forefinger and produced a small stream of energy, carving more words in an arc over the childish inscription I had made before:
“Abandon all hope, ye who”
Then I walked through the door.
He was there, sitting in the big chair, bloated with pride and flushed with self-importance. A flock of sycophantic toadies lounged around the hall.
“Moloch!” I shouted.
He cocked his head and sneered. “Malecoda. Have you come to pledge your fealty to me?”
“I have come to make clear the way of the Devil.”
He gaped for a moment. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means get out of that chair.” I swept my hand to the side and summoned out of nothingness a sword. It wasn’t a sword made of light; I realized now that I would never master that. It was a sword made of…
Wait for it.
I swept the sword in a wide arc, and Moloch’s head tumbled from his body.
“You complete dick,” Moloch’s head said.
Now all of Moloch’s pals were up and closing on me. There were at least a dozen of them, and several looked decidedly tough.
“That was a big mistake,” intoned Dagon, a brutish thug of a being. “We’ll have a little trouble putting Moloch back together, but there won’t be big enough pieces of you left for anybody to put together.”
I shifted to a defensive sparring stance Lucifer had taught me. “You shouldn’t discount the possibility that you’re going to get the ass end of this fight,” I said.
“Just because you figured out how to make a big, black knife? There’s only one of you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I couldn’t keep a little giddiness out of my voice. “You thought I came alone?”
Laughter began to echo throughout the hall. Laughter that sounded like a knife being drawn across a whetstone.
“Now I may feast?”
“Come and get it.”
Once Death had dispatched Moloch’s buddies (a spectacle I hope never to witness again), things in Hell shaped up pretty quickly. Most of the infernal horde hadn’t wanted Moloch in power, and those who had been seduced with the trappings of authority got real meek for a long time afterwards. Right in front of Pandemonium, Death opened our end of the Hell Mouth. It was a wormhole, the other end of which Sin established on Earth. It made traveling back and forth an awful lot easier and less time consuming.
It wasn’t long before Satan came through it.
We didn’t talk for quite a while; days, years perhaps. Time means so little in Hell. But then, inevitably, he found me, sitting on the same bench where he had found me during the construction of Pandemonium.
“Can I sit, Mal?”
“Of course, Luci… Satan. Of course.” I scooted over.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he sat. “You were always so faithful to me and, at the end there…”
I waved a dismissive hand. “You saved me some real awkward conversations. ‘Sorry Eve, sorry Adam. We really didn’t mean to condemn you to a short life of misery. Turns out, we’re evil. Who knew?'”
He gave a short, bitter laugh. “That’s so close to what I actually wound up saying, it’s a little creepy.”
“I’m a demon. I specialize in creepy.”
We sat in silence for a while. It wasn’t so comfortable as the silences we had shared before eating the fruit, but it was good in its way. Finally, he broke the silence.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, Mal. It’s not what we imagined, but we’ve still got to do His work.”
Suddenly my frustration all rose to the surface. “Why? Why bother? You saw what I saw. We have to fight against Him, and eternally get defeated. We have to suffer and suffer, and in the end we have to march against Him, and we have to lose. And it’s all His idea, so why are we going along with it?”
“I did see what you saw, Mal. But we didn’t see everything.”
“What the hell do you mean? We saw everything. We saw all the way to the end of time.”
“But we didn’t see past the end of time. Once He has defeated evil, once the dead rise, once time ends. We didn’t see what’s after that.”
“Satan…Lucy. I think we didn’t see what’s after that because there’s no more us after that.”
“I don’t think that. I think the fruit couldn’t show us anything beyond the end of time because the stuff I made the seed from is time. Time and space. And there won’t be any time and space then.”
“Then what will there be?” I asked quietly.
“There will be Him. And there will be us. And he will embrace us. And he will whisper to each of us, ‘This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.'”
I had been working on a would-be alchemist, drawing his attention to passages in the tomes he was buried in that would make him inclined toward trying to commune with the forces of evil. Frankly, it was a pretty boring gig. Those mystic types are practically begging to be drawn into damnation. It’s no real challenge, but it is an awful lot of busy work. So naturally, when I came through the Hell Mouth I was ready to pounce on a new assignment.
“Hey Malecoda,” Beelzebub said as I was still stepping out of the wormhole and into Hell, “The boss wants to talk to you.”
I thanked him and walked into the hall of Pandemonium. Satan was sitting there, looking pensive.
Satan leaned forward, forearms on his knees. “Mal, I’ve got a big job. It’s kind of a strange job, and I think you’d be perfect for it.”
“Okay,” I answered. “Whatever you need. Just tell me what to do.”
“Well, I got a message from Him. We’re going to get a visit soon, from a poet. He’s going to go on a tour of Hell, then go back and write about it. Kind of a ‘scared straight’ program for people back on Earth.”
I nodded and motioned for him to continue.
“Mal, I want you to arrange a whole show for this guy. A pageant, you know? With lots of gruesome stuff. But gruesome stuff that’s got symbolic meaning, and lots of dark irony. Really get imaginative with it, and get all the help you need to make it really pop.”
He waited while I digested this.
“Well?” He asked. “What do you think?”
“Will you be part of this poet’s ramble through Hell?”
He shrugged. “That’s up to you. I can certainly make myself available.”
“Okay. I think I’ll make you the last attraction on his tour. But let’s make you really screwed up. How would you feel about being half-frozen in a lake of ice? Oh, and having three heads?”
“You see?” he said. “I knew you were the right guy for the job.”
“Thanks. I guess I’ll get started on it.”
I turned to go.
“Oh, and Malecoda?”
I stopped and turned.
“Give yourself a big role in it too.” He smiled crookedly. “Something badass.”
Sedate and Transport
By K.G. Delmare
Another stupid dryad was loose in the park.
Of course it had to be a day that I was working, right in the middle of my shift. Of course. I was always the worst at these types of emergencies. Nymphs were quick to say the least, and I’d always been lacking when it came to athleticism. It was only natural that one spontaneously decided it was going to have a lark on that day.
We’d previously gotten a pretty good hold on keeping the local dryad population away from us, after a long struggle that began with the park’s inception in the area. They’d all but successfully migrated to an empty forest a good few miles from the park, but they’d continue to occasionally slip past our gates and onto the property, seemingly wanting to at least attempt to reclaim their old stomping grounds.
Normally, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. We got all kinds of creatures coming in and out of the place. Harpies would rest in the trees some days. We caught water nymphs slithering around in the lake all the time. That was just life in the park.
The vital difference was that other creatures usually did their thing and got out before closing. The tree nymphs still thought they owned the place, running around and disturbing the other guests.
“Look, just catch it and take it back to the forest,” Chief Condor had said before sending me off equipped with nothing but the usual dart gun. “You know the protocol by now. Sedate and transport.”
Yeah, they were easy instructions when you were the one who got to sit behind the desk.
I visualized my two weeks’ notice with particularly imaginative detail as I headed off into the depths of the property. The day I dropped that on Chief Condor’s desk seemed infinitely far away, relying entirely on my acceptance into my postgraduate program. Then I could look at dirt under microscopes instead of performing wild goose chases and giving directions in it.
I’d become tired of my part-time job long before that day. I always remained low in rank, given a title that sounded more powerful than it was. It was like being an overworked waitress with a different backdrop.
The fantasy of working in the nature that I so loved to study had lost any novelty that it might have previously had, and had been morphed into nothing more than a sign that I wasn’t moving forward with my life. Nymph wrangling was just a particularly annoying reminder nestled within it.
I was stalking through an especially wooded section of the park when I first caught a glimpse of her, skipping through between the trees in a way that let me know catching her would take more than the bare minimum in terms of effort. She glanced in my direction for a sliver of a second before darting out of sight.
“There it goes.”
I turned around and grimaced at the voice I, unfortunately, was able to recognize. Cora, who had apparently showed up behind me sometime in the past few minutes, was smiling quite proudly at me when I did. This day really couldn’t stop improving.
“Did you have to be so loud?” I asked. “You probably just scared her off for me, so thanks.”
She smirked, looking to be having far more fun with this than I ever could. “Please. She ran away before I said anything, Heather. As if you’d have been able to get her, anyway. It was practically playing hopscotch and you just gawked at it.”
I stomped down one of my boots with indignation, ignoring how childish it made me feel to do so. The tiny bit of catharsis was worth it.
“You try catching it then!” I said. “I’m tired of playing zookeeper.” When I’d applied to work at the park, I’d hoped it would give me the biology-adjacent experience I needed for my studies. Within weeks, I’d come to realize that ranger duty around here didn’t give much to my brain besides migraines.
“Chief didn’t tell me to go after the thing,” she argued, walking a bit closer. “I just came here to watch the fun. I’m on ‘general patrol duty,’ anyway, so I can technically be here.”
I groaned and briefly wondered if I ought to report her to the front office. Surely this counted as slacking off, regardless of her loopholes. The more I thought about it, though, it didn’t feel worth it. They never took me seriously up front. If anything, I’d get scolded for Avoiding a Highly Important Duty, Ranger Kim.
Maybe I could use a sidekick, anyway.
“If you’re gonna watch, then you better help,” I said, knowing that she probably wouldn’t. Cora didn’t seem any better equipped than I was for this, so the only benefit I could really hope to glean was company.
I headed off further into the trees without bothering to see if she’d follow.
“So does this kind of thing usually happen around here?” Cora asked about five minutes later, initially prompting some confusion on my part. The nymphs were complained about with something like consistency around the property.
Oh right. She’d only started to work here a few weeks ago. The nymphs ran around here annoyingly often, but not often enough for her to have seen one just yet.
“Too much,” I answered, willing her to go back to the main building. “They used to live here, and now management freaks out whenever they come back.”
“Why don’t you just let them go and leave them alone? It’s not like you can catch them. I dunno why they even sent you in the first place.”
I felt the potent urge to turn around and get her with one of the tranquilizer darts, but then they’d know it was me. I wasn’t about to get put on toilet cleaning duty because of Cora, especially after a day on Dryad Roundup.
“If we let them go, they never leave,” I said tersely. “They start playing around in the trees and dumping flowers on people.”
“That doesn’t sound terrible to me. Kind of annoying, but no big deal.”
“That’s the least of it,” I said. “Have you ever caught some guy and one of those things fooling around by the duck pond? Because I have. Can’t say that I recommend it.”
Cora burst into laughter, not seeming particularly sympathetic to my plight.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
“Oh my God, that’s so gross!”
“I’m the one who saw it, Cora. I’m aware.”
I stopped mid-step as I heard the distinct sound of a woman giggling. It could have just as easily been one of the guests off in the distance, but I was willing to cling to any lead I’d get.
If I didn’t track this thing down by the end of the day, Chief Condor would have penalized me one way or another. I motivated myself with the image of the way people treated the public toilets around this place.
Cora stirred beside me. “What are we –“
“Shh!” I raised my hand towards her, and she quieted. The laughter bounced through the trees again. I frowned.
It sounded far away, but it was definitely a nymph. When they laughed, it almost sounded like wind. It made you think you were imagining the noise, and I was all but sure that they did it on purpose. I willed my ears to focus harder, and after a few moments, something that sounded closer to singing came from that same direction.
“She’s up north,” I whispered, looking towards the melody. “Be quiet. Don’t step too loudly. Watch out for any branches, things that can crunch and stuff.”
“Right…” Cora followed my slightly awkward stance as I crept towards onward, listening for any notable changes as I went.
After a few minutes of excruciatingly careful walking, we made it to a small clearing where a narrow, trickling stream ran straight through. Our fugitive was sitting at the edge of the water, her back to us as she busied herself.
She was still singing, tangling her fingers into the grass and taking out wildflowers to braid into her hair. Their stems grew long once they were tied in, rooting themselves to her scalp.
The nymphs taking pieces of the park back for themselves like that was a sort trophy grab, or so Chief Condor told us. They never seemed to really get past their relocation. It was their way of taking home back, in leaves and petals.
“Is she naked?” Cora whispered into my ear, and I jumped. I’d nearly forgotten that she’d followed me here.
“Be! Quiet!” I hissed. “And try not to scare me. This is gonna take focus.”
I lifted the dart gun up slowly, my heart rapidly banging into my bones and my fingers shaking to a frustrating degree.
Cora was right. I really wasn’t suited for this. I was a science geek, not a woodsman. The only reason that Chief Condor assigned me was because Ross, who was over six feet tall and ran track for his college, was on vacation. He would have had her back in their forest by now, no doubt. I was eternally on the stout side with poor grades in gym on my old report cards.
But I’d been there when the front office got the complaint, and evidently that was enough to take me there.
I took a deep, quiet breath and I could feel Cora holding hers in anticipation beside me. Just as I was convincing myself that I could do my assignment well, my index finger poised over the trigger, the nymph turned.
The surprise ruined the whole thing. I lost my nerve when our eyes met, quickly jerking the gun to the ground and shooting a dart into the grass, much like an idiot.
My target stood up without much speed and lifted a hand to cover her mouth. She was laughing at me.
“Oh shit,” Cora whispered. “Is she gonna eat us or something?”
“Cora, please,” I mumbled.
The nymph didn’t stray from her spot, even as I held my weapon still. It felt like a challenge – telling me without words that she knew I didn’t have the gumption to knock her out and take her back.
I would prove her wrong. I was not going to be wiping down urinals over this. I lifted the gun again, trying to force my hands to steady.
“Heather!” Cora whined without concern for volume. “You’re gonna make her mad!”
Maybe I would.
I aimed for her thigh, trying to make it known that I wasn’t a joke to her or anyone. The whole affair seemed to have become curiously personal.
She continued to stay motionless, and I found myself hesitating, with the target stopped right under my sights. I could have had this mess done with a twitch, go back to the main building and take an admittedly late lunch break.
The thing is, she was staring at me.
The laughter had left her face, and she was eyeing me with an unambiguous curiosity. There was no fear, however, in any crevice of it.
It made me wary. Maybe this was deliberate. Nymphs were smart, that was how they got on the park grounds unnoticed in the first place. Then again, this could have been her first time trying to get back.
That thought gave me abrupt pause. Shooting her suddenly seemed cruel.
“Ugh.” I lowered it, staring back at her now.
I shushed Cora, not bothering to look back at her. “What’s up?” I shouted across the distance, not knowing if she’d answer. “Why’re you giving me eyes, huh?”
She said nothing, just shifted playfully back and forth on her bare feet. Her lips curled up in a laugh again, and I frowned back at her. She wasn’t fazed, but gave me a single meaningful look before skipping off towards another pathway.
I only just noticed then that we were reaching the farthest borders of the property, where most guests didn’t even go outside of special events.
“Ugh, Heather!” Cora said, slapping one of her legs in disappointment. “You let her go again!”
“No one said you had to come, y’know,” I mumbled, staring off after her. She hadn’t run nearly as fast as she’d been earlier.
“Well, now I wanna get this done,” she said. “C’mon, let’s go!”
“I was gonna do that anyway,” I answered. “Besides, I think she wants me to follow her.”
“What?” Cora didn’t move for a moment as I began walking off, over the stream and towards the trees. “What do you mean!? Did she speak to you in nymph code or something? Because I don’t think I heard it.”
“It’s intuition…or something,” I said as she finally started to follow me. “Now hurry up, I’m not gonna wait for you.”
Really, I had no idea what it was – but I couldn’t bear to walk away from it then.
After a few minutes of trekking through increasingly thick trees, I began to worry that I was just falling into some trap. Maybe I’d stumble into a weird Nymph Seduction Nest and I’d live in a thicket surrounded by beautiful naked things for all of eternity. Granted, this wasn’t the worst possible outcome I could think of, but I liked my life outside of the crummy park job.
Just when I was thinking that I ought to let go of the desperation and submit to toilet duty, her singing started to echo through the trees again.
“Oh man, that’s –”
“Cora, shut up.” I grabbed her by the shoulder, as if it would hit a covert mute button. I listened like before, trying to track the distance. She was much closer than the last time I’d heard her.
I glanced ahead, looking at a darkened corner of the wood, filled with even more trees and partially blocked by bushes. “She’s in there,” I assessed.
“Great,” Cora said. “I hate the dark. Always have.”
For once, her complaining had some validation to it. The area did look a little spooky, and the setting sun wasn’t helping. The bushes alone seemed like they could scrape up anyone trying to get through. I turned to Cora, holding the dart gun close to me.
“I’ll go on on my own,” I said.
“Alright.” She paused, and her face suddenly shifted into a shade of anxiety. “Heather, that means I’m gonna be stuck out here by myself!”
I shushed her again, and she pressed her lips together in a tight, worried grimace.
“I’ll go in on my own,” I repeated. “I need you to stay here and keep watch. If I don’t come back in about…twenty minutes, then go get help. You understand?”
She looked as if she very much did not want to, but she only took one, nervous breath before nodding in my direction.
“Be careful, please,” she begged.
It was a good thing she was terrified, because it forced me to be brave on her behalf. I never knew nymphs to be particularly dangerous creatures, but then, I didn’t know much about them at all. Maybe this was how they sucked in their prey, calling out siren songs and attracting vulnerable losers with short legs.
Whatever. I’d already come too far to convince myself to back out. It seemed like a fitting way to to meet my end, taken out by one of the nymphs that helped make a miserable job even more intolerable for me.
Besides, should I manage to survive, there were always lawsuits.
Once I’d gotten through the bushes, the path through was dark, but straight. Her singing grew closer with every step. I took my flashlight off of my belt, following the path and keeping the light close to the ground to avoid startling anything.
I held the dart gun in my other hand, trying to ready myself. The sun was dipping lower, even beyond the shade of the trees. Supposedly, there were no particularly dangerous creatures on the park property. There was no direct proof of that, though. They could just tell us that so we don’t run off after ranger orientation.
I felt like I’d been walking for a good while when I finally spotted another clearing. It would have been a struggle to miss it, casting a burst of natural light onto the trail. I tucked my flashlight away and kept my cautious pace, keeping a loose grip on the gun as I approached the opening.
Her singing was as clear as I’d ever heard it, but there was harmony to it now. It took me a moment as my eyes adjusted to the light, but she was there – alone, dancing around a single, lonely tree. I frowned, wondering what it was doing all by itself, firmly divorced from the rest of the woods. Her eyes caught mine, and I felt myself panic for a brief second. Without apparent worry, she just continued to dance in the same circle.
I walked forward, coming closer until I was near enough to reach out and touch her as she moved. The closer I got, the less sure I was of what I’d actually do. I kept the gun at my side, not wanting to scare her off with aiming just yet.
As I felt the usual urge to take her out, do my duty and move on like I’d planned, I also began to submit to something much more bizarre.
The look she’d given me a few minutes before had stuck to me, taking over my anger and dissolving it into curiosity. Every inch that I moved closer to her took away from my willpower to act as instructed. I didn’t want to shoot down the mystery. Evidently, this miserable job couldn’t kill my scientific curiosity as easily as my morale.
She kept singing without any regard for my presence, and finally looped her legs around the base of the tree and reached up towards its branches.
The bark melted away before me, disintegrating into glowing bits of light as it fell and morphed into another creature that looked just like her. The first nymph’s legs were still wrapped around their waist, formerly the tree trunk. The other stared down at her for just a moment, eyes affectionate and excited, before she untangled herself from them and the two began to move together.
I was silent as they danced as a pair, with the other, harmonizing voice now much louder than it had been when I arrived. It became clear that the routine she’d been doing around the tree had been missing a partner, and it now looked much more whole with the two of them together. I felt like I was watching a ballet, suspended in time while they didn’t bother to heed me once.
I remembered hearing about something like this, vaguely, in one of my introductory courses. I was involved in ecology, not humanoids, so nymphs weren’t something I learned about once. But I did remember one thing – nymph mate dances were intensely private, and completely meaningful. When two nymphs moved together like this, it was as sacred as their behavior got.
When they stopped moving, they came back to the exact spot where she had awoken the other, and she pulled the stream’s wildflowers from her hair. The stems twisted around each other in her hands, and the other nymph took them into their own. They stared at her all the while, that same enamored look deep in their eyes. The new dryad pressed the flowers against their chest, and the first nymph again wrapped her legs around her partner.
It was then that they finally looked to me. I dropped my gun on instinct, holding my hands up in a quick show of surrender. I’d lost sight of the fact that I’d even had it until they acknowledged me. Any desire to nab my target had thoroughly evaporated by that point, too transfixed by the sight I’d unwittingly come upon.
They smiled, and the first nymph linked her arms around her partner’s neck as she balanced herself upon them. She looked to her partner, and their eyes were on each other again. They pressed their mouth to her neck, and she sang a single, high note before the light came back.
Their skin returned to bark, and the tree that she’d been dancing around reformed from their bodies, now doubled in its previous size. The flowers she’d brought were now bursting from a crook in the branches where her partner had held them, and similar ones were growing from the top. I stared for an indeterminate amount of time as my shock took over.
I didn’t register Cora’s voice at first. The moment seemed to come back to reality in pieces, feature by feature. I couldn’t remember if the sun had been setting when I’d arrived, but it evidently had begun to descend below the trees nonetheless.
“Ranger Kim! Are you in there?” I whipped my head around, finally jumping back to my head when I heard the distinct boom of Chief Condor calling me from down the path I’d walked on the way here.
I began to walk back to meet them, but soon enough he, Cora and a group of my coworkers were at the entrance of the clearing with flashlights in hand.
“Ranger Kim!” Chief Condor shouted. “We were told you were in danger. What happened? Where’s the dryad?”
“I…” I glanced back at the tree, whose petals were now floating gently in the air that was quickly turning to night. I noticed a spot beyond the clearing, where the tiniest hint of the park’s north bordering fence was visible in the distance.
“She ran off, Chief,” I said finally, going back to eyeing the tree. Part of me wondered if they’d reanimate, revealing themselves to my coworkers. And yet, that felt incredibly impossible, even as their shared form laid plain before us all. “She probably escaped into the suburbs or something like that.”
“Hmm,” Chief Condor studied the distance for just a moment, not seeming to have trouble with my excuse. “Sounds like she’s gonna head back to their woods then. Either way, it’s out of our hands, and that’s just as good as capturing her, I guess. Saves us the trouble of bringing her back.”
“Is something wrong, Ranger Kim?” he asked. “She didn’t attack you, did she? Do you need to go to the medical building?”
I realized I was still staring at the tree, my abandoned dart gun laying in the grass nearby. I hurriedly went to grab it, going back to the search party and trying to compose myself. “No, no,” I said. “I’m good. Just kinda winded.”
“That’s fair enough. It has been a few hours.” He still seemed suspicious, but not enough to probe the matter. “Well…Come on, then. Let’s head back. I had to leave Ranger White running the front office, and you know that’s gonna be a mess if we don’t get back soon.”
Without anything more, he turned and headed back down the path. My colleagues began to follow, looking a bit put off by the lack of climactic drama, but Cora waited on me.
“What happened?” she whispered as she walked in my direction. I turned back to the tree once again for just a moment, and I took one of the flowers that fell from the branches. It seemed to grow bigger in my palm.
“I’ll have to tell you later,” I said quietly. She looked up at the tree, then back at my hand. She nodded before putting an arm around my shoulders, and we took our time as we walked back towards the path out.
I minded the trees.
The Science of Alchemy
By Jim Meeks-Johnson
“Math doesn’t lie,” I insisted.
“Well then, maybe you mistranslated it,” Haley replied.
“No. I’ve found a second way to conceptualize the world.”
I’d driven up the western coast of Michigan with my girlfriend. We both deserved a break from twelve-hour days of research for our fellowships at Harvard.
Hundreds of walkers streamed by us. Once a year on Labor Day, they open the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge over the straights between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to pedestrians. Folks probably assumed we had stopped to admire the unobstructed view, but I was in a different world. I held a scribbled page of equations up in the wind. “Look at how beautiful this is. All three of these variables cancel, leaving a second entropic local minimum–call it EM-2. There must be a set of simple real-life physical concepts behind it.”
Haley pulled away the strands of auburn hair the crosswind had blown across her face. “Okay, Martin, now you’re talking crazy. Since when was your handwriting beautiful?”
“Smartass,” I said and pointed to the top of the paper. “Look. This is Boltzmann’s Law. It equates the entropy in a system with the randomness in a system’s microstates.
I moved my finger down an inch. “Boltzmann’s law is promiscuous–it applies to any physical property–but it’s normally used for pressure and temperature like this.”
I moved my finger down again. “But here I have an orthogonal set of concepts. These equations play together so nicely with Boltzmann’s Law that it has to mean something. A second local minimum implies there is a second way of conceptualizing the world.”
“You sound like the Ojibwa medicine man who gave me the Petoskey stone. White men run so fast they have forgotten they can fly.”
“No this is science, not superstition.”
“And when he called you a great winged warrior of grandmother Earth, that was superstition too?”
“Of course. That jumble of words could mean anything. I’m talking about a mathematical truth. Though I admit, I’m in the stage Einstein was before he understood the implications of his equations of space-time. But eventually, he came up with things like mass increasing with acceleration and gravitational lensing. And it all began with a simple set of beautiful, formal equations like these.”
“So now you’re comparing yourself to Einstein?” Haley said.
“That’s not the point. New laws of science mean new technology. New technology means new inventions for the benefit of everyone.”
Haley waved me aside. “Chill out. I can see this is important to you, but can we start walking again? My headache is coming back. Maybe we shouldn’t have left the Petoskey at the motel after all.”
“See,” I said. “That’s how superstitions spread. Now you think you have evidence for the Petoskey stone curing your headaches. But if you hadn’t gotten a headache, you wouldn’t have counted that as evidence the stone didn’t work.”
When we got back to the motel, Haley’s chronic headache went away. We changed clothes and went out for dinner, leaving the stone behind. Her headache came back. We retired for the evening. Her headache went away again. Haley was excited, but I knew better. Coincidence. Random noise. These things happen.
The next morning, I set up a double-blind experiment to prove that the stone did not possess magical healing powers. I got two identical boxes from the McDonalds next door and, out of Haley’s sight, put the Petoskey stone in one and another equally sized rock in the other. Then out of my sight, Haley put a sticker on one box, so I didn’t know which was which. I used a coin toss to pick which box to bring close to Haley’s head first, behind a blanket, so she didn’t know which box it was.
After ten trials, the score was Petoskey 10, other rock 0. I couldn’t believe it. I got two different boxes and made her do ten more, then ten more after that. The stone really did cure headaches.
We hurried to the town plaza where we’d met the Ojibwa, but he was nowhere in sight. We asked around, but nobody knew who he was. The owner of a local bookstore said he’d noticed the medicine man hanging around yesterday, but had never seen him before that. We browsed in the bookstore while we waited for the medicine man to come back. He never did, but we found some interesting books.
In the antique books section, Haley found an illustrated Hamlet. She opened it to a picture of some men talking while a ghost lurked nearby. “How appropriate, don’t you think?” she said. “‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”
“Alchemy,” I said.
I had opened a fat tome titled “The Science of Alchemy.” I read a passage from the introduction. “You must become as a child and encounter the world for the first time, for that which is fundamental to alchemy is not in the ordinary way men perceive the world.”
I leafed through the book. How to select the right plants and minerals. How to distill concentrated solutions. Recipes I didn’t understand.
“Alchemy is the answer,” I said. “Alchemy had a well-developed, empirical, alternative way of conceptualizing the world before science came along and displaced it. Alchemy will help me develop EM-2 theory.”
I was distilling essence of sumac while a batch of tin from my jerry-rigged smelter cooled on a bed of sea-salt crystals when I got the call to the dean’s office. Highly unusual. Maybe he wanted to congratulate me on my upcoming article in the Journal of Mathematical Physics.
The dean waved a copy of the student newspaper at me. “We thought we were admitting a brilliant theoretical physicist to the University, but it turns out you are just a crazy who knows some math.”
He opened the newspaper and pointed to a picture of me with my tin smelter and the headline, “The Alchemist of Cruft Hall.”
“You’re making the physics department a laughingstock,” the dean said grimly. “Major donors have complained. The President of the University is alarmed. No more alchemy.”
I was starting to sweat. “I understand the irony of using pre-science to advance modern science, but it’s better than starting from scratch. Some of the rules for EM-2 theory ought to occur in alchemy, just as some of the ideas behind the scientific method did. And, empirically, I may already be onto something with my old-fashioned tin smelting. Sometimes I get a batch of tin that cures Haley’s headaches, sometimes I don’t. I’m trying to figure out what makes the difference.”
“That’s another thing.” The dean was getting red in the face. “Your girlfriend’s headaches are not science. They are not independently verifiable. You two have probably worked up some kind of parlor trick.”
He had me there. It had turned out that Haley’s Petoskey stone only cured her headaches when I was around.
I gulped and said, “Math doesn’t lie. I have a proof that there is more than one way to aggregate microstate probabilities for atoms–like grouping people by their favorite ice cream flavor instead of by gender. We’ll find different laws for group behavior. We’ll benefit humanity in ways we can’t yet imagine.”
“There is no ‘we.’ There is no alchemy at Harvard.”
“You’ll see. Six months just isn’t enough time. My physics fellowship is good for another year and a half, and I have a good start on real-world implications, so I should be able to demonstrate proof of a second local minimum for entropy to your satisfaction by then.”
The dean slammed his fist on the desk. “Maybe I haven’t made myself clear. You had a fellowship in physics–not alchemy. You will leave this building and never come back.”
The dean pointed to the door. His face was set. His eyes hard. “I have no choice. You have no choice.”
I found two University security officers in the hallway with a cartload of my stuff. They made me push the cart.
Professor Albright, my faculty sponsor, caught me on the way out. “I’m sorry, Martin. You’ve been snookered all right. Is there anything I can do?”
“Get my fellowship back.”
He laughed as if I were joking. “Besides that. Have you thought about what you are going to do next?”
Next? My head was still trying to grasp what had already happened. But I didn’t want to give up on EM-2 theory. It had so much potential for revolutionary new materials and devices. Alchemy still seemed like the most promising entry point. Where could I study alchemy?
“Actually,” I said. “I could use a letter of recommendation to the Vatican Library from a recognized scholar like you.”
Albright stiffened. “I had to sign an affidavit saying I’d have nothing to do with alchemy ever again. I don’t know what would happen if word of that got back to the dean.”
“You can predate it.” I was desperate. “You said you wanted to help.”
He frowned. “All right, but don’t ask me for anything else. I don’t know what you’ve stirred up here, but I don’t want any part of it.”
I pushed my cart of boxes out of the building and stacked them on the curb. I didn’t have access to a car or a utility drone capable of lifting forty-pound boxes, and I lived seven blocks away. I estimated it would take me six trips to carry everything to my apartment, leaving the rest unguarded while I schlepped back and forth. I called Haley for help.
She took longer to come than I expected and arrived in tears. “I can’t believe it. They terminated my fellowship too. They accused me of faking data. They accused me of colluding with you to prove alchemy.”
Location was the only good feature of the apartment Haley and I rented in Rome. We had to walk up four floors of stairs in a rundown building to get to our room. There wasn’t space enough in the kitchen for both my alchemy apparatus and meals. But the apartment overlooked the west bank of the Tiber River, just a few blocks from the Vatican Library.
Fortunately, the Vatican Library was phenomenal. I could request practically any obscure document, and assistant librarians would bring me a copy. I’d made more progress in understanding the theory of alchemy in the last month than in the previous six, and I was making parallel progress on the equations governing EM-2 theory. A basic assumption of modern science is that the fundamental laws of physics are independent of location in spacetime. But I proved that was not true in EM-2 theory, and that location affected alchemical transformations.
One morning at breakfast with Haley, I was particularly optimistic. “Yesterday I asked for everything Roger Bacon had written. The librarians brought me a basketful of books and papers, and I found an unpublished manuscript that referenced a pseudonym Bacon had used to circumvent the church’s censorship after he became a monk.”
Haley sipped her Americano. “Who’s Roger Bacon?”
I nearly choked on my eggs, but in all fairness, she knew a lot of things I didn’t. “He’s a famous English alchemist who is often cited as the father of the scientific method. Anyway, I got hold of his work under the pseudonym, and it explained clearly how to identify Alchemical Mercury and Sulfur.”
Haley set her cup down with a clatter and shrugged. “What’s the big deal? Everybody knows how to identify mercury and sulfur.”
“I said Alchemical mercury and sulfur. Not the same at all. Alchemical Mercury and Sulfur are invisible essences that can belong to a variety of chemical compounds. Bacon says most locations tend to be high in Alchemical Sulfur, which interferes with many alchemical transformations. I’m only halfway through his manuscript. I can hardly wait for the Library to open today.”
We finished breakfast, and I took the sunny sidewalk to the Vatican Library, where my day dimmed considerably.
The guard on duty stiffened as I approached. He barely glanced at my ID. “I’m sorry. No admission.”
“But I always come here,” I said. “I’m on the approved scholar list. Just check.”
“You are no longer approved. Your credentials were revoked.”
I blinked dumbly while his words soaked in. Then I gritted my teeth. I had a copy of Albright’s letter with my research materials and went straight to the head librarian’s office to appeal.
Over an hour later, an officer wearing a Swiss Guard uniform burst into the room. “I’m General Bolitho. You appealed for access to the library?”
“General?” I stammered out. “I thought Colonel was the highest rank in the Swiss Guard.”
“You know less than you think you do.” His dark, empty eyes sent a shiver up my spine. “The Chief Librarian does not determine admissions to the Library. I do. You are studying Roger Bacon?”
“Yes,” I said, taken aback. How did General Bolitho know this? Why? The dean’s reference to major donors came back unbidden.
“And what are your credentials for the study of history?” the general asked.
“Um. I guess I’m self-taught.” I realized too late where that answer would lead, so I tried to deflect. “But I have a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. I’m studying science, not history. I’m interested in re-creating the pre-scientific phenomena that alchemists studied.”
“What phenomena, exactly?”
“The transmutation of lead into gold, for one,” I said, “since Alchemists wrote about that in detail. Their recipes include variables modern science routinely excludes, like the alignment of the moon and planets, or the purity of the person and place of the experiment. They describe a golden elixir that brings purity to anything it touches, turning lead to gold, and sick or aged bodies into healthy youth. Their claims are likely exaggerated, but I think there may be a new scientific principle at work in their recipes.”
“You have made this magic potion?”
“I’ve tried, but so far without success,” I replied. “But it’s not magic. It’s science–built on an alternative solution to minimum entropy as required by Boltzmann’s Law.”
Bolitho shook his head. I could see that he’d already made up his mind. “Go back to America. Study cosmic rays or carbon nanotubes. Any fool can see that turning a lump of lead into a much denser lump of gold would violate the laws of physics. Your appeal is denied. The Vatican Library is off-limits to you–permanently.”
I opened my mouth to object, but my objections collapsed. Bolitho was right. Even if I found new laws of physics, I couldn’t ignore the old ones. Converting a lead object to gold would nearly double its mass.
I shuffled out of the library in a daze. I went by the post office and picked up our mail. I stopped at a café for a glass or two of Chianti. Eventually, I found myself back at our apartment. Haley was doing something with a map of Italy on the kitchen floor.
“Canned again,” I announced. “I give up.”
“That’s not like you,” she said. “What’s the matter?”
I grabbed some wine and glasses from the counter and slid to the floor beside her. “The Vatican Library revoked my research privileges, but the real problem is that I’ve wasted a year of my life. There’s a fundamental flaw in the idea of converting lead to gold. Lead isn’t as dense as gold, and if the density changes, that will violate the law of conservation of energy. My theory was supposed to add to regular science, not contradict it.”
I poured a glass of wine as Haley said, “What about uranium? Isn’t that more dense than lead?”
“Yeah, but uranium has the opposite problem. It’s more dense than gold.”
Then I stopped pouring. There was no requirement to start with lead. Tungsten might work. Tungsten had a density almost identical to gold, and thirteenth-century tin smelters knew about tungsten, or Wolfram as they called it.
I pulled my legs under me to stand up for the espresso machine. “Thanks. You solved the problem.”
Haley laughed. “Anytime. Who’s that letter from.”
I’d forgotten about the mail I’d picked up. The envelope on top had my name and address printed in block letters and no return address. I ripped it open and read:
Be careful. Some bloke who claimed to be an FBI agent came round Cruft Hall asking for you, and if you’d left any notes behind. I think the dean told him you went to Rome. I checked. He’s not FBI.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. “It has to be from Professor Albright. But who would want my notes?”
Haley’s eyes had dilated. She squeezed my arm. “The same people you had you expelled from Harvard and from the Vatican Library. Whoever it is, they are mean and powerful. I don’t want to be around these people.”
I started cramming my notes and alchemical compounds into my backpack. “If there’s a conspiracy to suppress alchemy, that’s all the more reason to get proof. General Bolitho knows I’ve been experimenting. They’ll want my equipment. My books. My notes. We have to leave the apartment now and not come back.”
A week later, I was casing the church of Saint Mary Major in Ilchester, England.
Haley and I had splurged on a night out in Rome and then fled Italy. I’d proposed marriage to her. She said yes, and I bought her an engagement ring with a tungsten band–a symbol, not just of our commitment to each other, but of an unconventional approach to the world. I had the ring engraved with the beginning of our favorite quote from Shakespeare: “There are more things…”
Ilchester was where Roger Bacon had lived before joining the Franciscans. Not much remained of thirteenth-century Ilchester, but the church of Saint Mary Major was a medieval stone edifice built to last. I was betting that Bacon had cleaned the tower of Alchemical Sulfur and hoping that it remained clear after all these years. A slim chance, maybe, but the most likely location I could think of to prepare an elixir to transmute tungsten into gold. I carried a tungsten rod engraved with an elaborate seal by the same jeweler who did our engagement ring. When I returned with a gold rod, and he certified the seal on it, I’d have the proof I needed for EM-2 theory.
A conjunction of the moon would occur in four days at 1:13 am–a line drawn from the center of the moon to the center of the sun would pass right through Ilchester. The old texts agreed that interference from celestial currents of Alchemical Sulfur was minimal at conjunction.
The parson lived in the lower half of the tower. The Archbishop of Canterbury had sealed the upper half in the 1400s. I had to figure out how to get inside that tower at conjunction.
I took the Saint Mary Major tour three times. Then I spent the last of our savings on some climbing gear and burglary tools, including a large bolt cutter with crowbar handles. I packed the tools and my alchemy supplies into two backpacks–one for me, one for Haley.
The night of conjunction was foggy. The moisture in the air brought out the smells of spring in the churchyard–crocus flowers, rosemary, and spruce. Haley said a headache was coming on. We had left her Petoskey stone behind. I still didn’t know how it worked, but it might interfere with the alchemical background. I plucked a bright yellow crocus flower and laced it into her hair. “Saffron comes from crocus stamens, and Moorish alchemists believed wearing saffron brought good luck.”
We used a small drone to hook a rope ladder over the parapet of the church tower and climbed to the roof. An ancient trapdoor led to a wooden ladder fitted to the wall with wooden pegs. The LED lanterns on our headbands illuminated shelves of dust-covered bottles, books, and copper pots.
Something on the far side of the room glinted in the light. We crossed to a workbench full of clean glassware and bottles of colored liquids, some of which bore labels with UPC codes. A black rubber hose snaked from a Bunsen burner to a propane tank under the bench.
“Someone had been doing alchemy here very recently,” I said.
“I can’t lift this alone,” she said as she tugged at an oak beam on the floor–the crossbeam for the door to the inner stairway.
I helped wrestle the beam across the door to make sure no one interrupted us. Then I unpacked my handcrafted ingredients and laid them out on the workbench. What remained was simple: combine the ingredients in the right order in a bath of fire during the conjunction of the moon at a location depleted of background Alchemical Sulfur. The result should be a golden elixir capable of transmuting tungsten to gold.
It was 1:06. Seven minutes to go.
A heavy pounding shook the door. “This is Her Majesty’s police. You are trespassing. Surrender immediately.”
I couldn’t stop now. I might never have another chance like this to prove the value of alchemy and the EM-2 theory equations. I lit the Bunsen burner and poured my liquids one by one into an open beaker over the flame. The many-colored fluids combined to form a clear liquid, presumably via chemical reactions of the usual kind, but I wasn’t chemist enough to be sure. I was reaching for the dry ingredients when I heard a buzzing sound. I glanced over to see the point of a saber saw poking out between the planks of the door. It began cutting through the oak crossbar.
“Break the blade,” I shouted to Haley. “Whack it with the bolt cutter.”
While Haley wrestled with the saber saw, I sifted the last three powders into the beaker. The liquid became cloudy and then cleared again. This was wrong. All accounts were of a yellow elixir.
I heard two loud whacks and the twang of a saw blade under stress. The buzzing noise stopped. A minute later, Haley called from the door. “They’ve started making an awful whining noise. It’s making my headache worse.”
The elixir started to steam. Maybe the heat would change its color, or maybe the conjunction of the moon, but I doubted it. More likely a missing ingredient in my recipe. My watch said 1:11. Two minutes to go.
Something crunched through the door. I turned my head in time to see a drill bit retreat from a hole in the crossbar. Six or eight of those holes in a row would be as effective as the cut of a saw.
“Catch the drill bit with the bolt cutter,” I yelled to Haley.
My elixir started to boil. My watch blinked 1:12. I began to sweat for no good reason. “It’s still not the right color. Something is wrong.”
Haley groaned with frustration. “This bolt cutter is too heavy for me. Two more holes and they’ll be in.”
It was 1:13. Conjunction.
My hand trembled as I dropped the tungsten test rod into the beaker. Clear elixir. Silvery rod. No gold.
“I need more time to think.” I ran to the door and took the bolt cutters from Haley just in time to grab the drill bit with them. I squeezed as hard as I could. It was a thick drill bit. Hardened steel. There was no way I could cut it, but at least I could keep them from pulling it back and drilling the final hole.
Haley went over to the lab bench and sniffed the elixir. The crocus flower in her hair was the only yellow thing in the area.
The bit in my bolt cutters came free, and I fell backward. The whine of the drill resumed. They must be using another bit. They’d be inside in a few seconds.
The crocus! Maybe saffron was more than just good luck to alchemists. “Haley! Drop the flower in the beaker.”
She looked surprised, but yanked the flower out of her hair and threw it in.
The beaker belched and shot a spray of hot liquid out onto Haley’s hand. She yelped and fell backward into me, just as the weakened crossbeam gave way, and two Bobbies with Tasers barged in. “Hands in the air. Step away from the table.”
I’d never realized how ugly and threatening the business end of a Taser could be. We raised our hands.
The police captain looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. He went straight to the workbench, reached into my beaker with a pair of tongs, and pulled out the tungsten rod. “Not science. Magic,” he said.
I knew that voice. “General Bolitho! What are you doing in a Bobbie uniform?”
He laughed–a dry laugh devoid of joy. “I have acquired many positions over the centuries.”
Before I could process the implications of Bolitho’s words, Haley gasped and whispered, “You did it.”
I followed her gaze to the workbench. My world stopped. The rod glinted gold. Tungsten transmuted to gold. Alchemy worked. EM-2 theory was proven. But Bolitho had the proof.
Bolitho dropped several more tungsten rods one by one into the pale yellow elixir. They turned to gold, up to number twelve. The next one stayed gray, as if the power of the elixir was exhausted.
He put the gold rods into a pouch.
“By English law,” Bolitho said. “You are a felon. The 1403 declaration by King Henry IV prohibiting the multiplication of gold in England is still in effect. Your false gold is forfeit to the crown, and you face the death penalty.”
“England hasn’t had the death penalty for decades.” I tried to sound assertive, but my voice echoed thin and reedy against stone walls laid down centuries ago.
Bolitho’s mouth curled in a wry smile. “I will choose which of England’s laws to enforce. I am a peer of Roger Bacon and a guardian of alchemical knowledge. Don’t you get it yet? Bacon invented science to limit the scope of intellectual inquiry. Later, our friend Goethe created Faust to remind men to stay within that domain. You have transgressed. You have conjured the elixir of life.”
I bit my lip. “Like I told you in Rome, I want to find the deeper laws of physics. New science means new technology. New devices. Better lives for everyone.”
Bolitho glared at me. “No, alchemy means anarchy. False gold will collapse the economy. Long life will overburden the food supply. Society needs stable laws that work everywhere, all the time. You will not be allowed to spread knowledge of the elixir of life.”
I heard the depth of Bolitho’s determination, and I was afraid for my life.
Bolitho signaled his companion to hold some kind of amulet near my chest. It glowed with a dull blue light. He did the same to Haley. Then he handed the pouch of gold to his companion and said, “The gold you made tonight ought to fetch ten thousand pounds. I could use a good apprentice. Join us. Swear to secrecy.”
I let out a huge breath. “What? Join you?”
I could learn more alchemy from Bolitho in a few weeks than I could discover on my own in a lifetime. He must be over five hundred years old. This was the opportunity I’d have been waiting for, had I known it existed.
I started to open my mouth to say he had a new apprentice, but I remembered Haley’s words back in Rome. I don’t want to be around these people. They were mean and powerful. They were selfish, too. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted my work to benefit everybody.
I gulped. “Is what you said about studying cosmic rays or carbon nanotubes in America still an option?”
Bolitho pursed his lips, then said. “That was a surprisingly potent elixir of life considering that there is nothing special about your personal alchemy. How did you do it?”
Sweat beaded on my forehead. I didn’t know. A lot of luck. But I had understood how some of the components worked with the help of my EM-2 theory equations, and I had improved upon the theriac and the alchemical mercury catalyst described in Bacon’s recipes.
“I told you before,” I said, “Equations derived from a second perspective on Boltzmann’s law. I’ll give you those equations if you let us go.”
He stared at me with curiosity for a few moments, the way an adult might regard a clever child. “If you will not join us, you must agree to abandon the pursuit of alchemy, and of this new kind of entropy you keep yapping about. Will you swear to this? Will you swear never make the elixir of life again?”
Something clicking in the back of my mind. Potent elixir, but I wasn’t special. I glanced at Haley. “How’s your headache?”
She looked at me like I was an idiot. “It hurts.”
I looked Bolitho in the eye. “No more alchemy. I swear.”
He gestured to a notebook on the workbench. “Write down the equations.”
I wrote out the EM-2 theory equations and noted how I believed the variables connected to alchemy.
When I was finished, he studied the notebook for a minute, nodded approval, and then raised his arm until a bony finger nearly touched my nose. “Do not break your promise to forsake alchemy. Do not reveal these equations to anyone else. We can detect alchemical transformations anywhere in the world. We can get to you or anyone else anywhere in the world. Do you understand?”
His eyes bored into me. I felt weak and exposed, but I held his eye and said, “I do.”
Haley nodded vigorously beside me. Bolitho curled his lip in disgust and pointed to the door. “Get out of here before I change my mind. Take the next plane to America.”
Haley and I hurried down the stone stairs of the tower and out into the bright moonlight.
My legs felt wobbly. My heart felt light. I gave a little laugh. “So much for EM-2 theory. Now we know alchemy is real, but we still have no proof of it.”
Haley held up her hand. “Yes, we do. Take a look at this.”
Her engagement ring glinted in the moonlight, but not with the silver of tungsten–with the yellow of gold.
“Of course. Let me see it,” I said.
The inner surface of her ring was gold, too. A solid gold ring. I read aloud its inscription. “There are more things.”
“Yeah,” Haley sighed. “A whole second world of alchemy. It’s a shame we have to give it up.”
“Not so bad,” I replied. “That splash of elixir turned your ring to gold, but it didn’t cure your headaches. Bolitho said I wasn’t special in any alchemical way. Yet your Petoskey stone only works in my presence.”
“So, there are more things. . .” she echoed.
“Exactly. There is an EM-3, a third entropic local minimum. And the Ojibwa know something about it. We should begin our return to the States with another vacation in Michigan.”
My Grandmother’s Garden
By G. Allen Wilbanks
My grandmother was a witch.
By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.
I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.
When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.
I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.
The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.
My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.
I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.
The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.
One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.
“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”
Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.
“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”
That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.
Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.
To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.
Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.
I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.
As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.
“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”
“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”
I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.
“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.
“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.
“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.
It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.
An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.
“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”
I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”
“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.
The next day, we attacked the open areas of the garden with shovels, hoes, and rakes, preparing the area for planting. The day after that, my grandmother produced several trays of seedlings she had sprouted in biodegradable cups before I came to visit. We took each seedling in its cup and placed them in neat, careful rows, far enough apart that they would not need to compete with one another for water or sunlight.
On day four, my grandmother brought out a ladder and several buckets. We harvested pairs and placed them in the root cellar to allow them to finish ripening off of the tree.
It was day five when I got into trouble.
We were back in the garden and my grandmother was kneeling beside a row of green beans, repairing one of the watering lines. The black, plastic hose had grown brittle from exposure to sunlight and the heat, and it had finally cracked, causing a sizeable leak. While she worked to replace the damaged portion of hose, I wandered away to see if any of the other hoses looked similarly weathered and in need of repair.
As I reached the center of the garden, an area I had not previously been in, I observed a single rose bush growing by itself. The bush was small, only coming up to my knees, but it was full, green and vibrant. There were several small red buds that I could see growing on the bush, but they were nowhere close to being ready to open. At the very top, however, I saw a single rose growing on a stem that extended several inches above the rest of the bush. It was fully bloomed, perfect in form, and glowing bright crimson in the sunlight. I could find no blemishes of any kind on the petals or the leaves around it. I also noticed there weren’t any thorns on the stem.
I did not want to just walk away from the rose, to let it wither and die unnoticed by anyone. It should be enjoyed by as many people as possible while it was at the height of its fragile beauty, I thought. So, I decided to pick it and bring it to my grandmother.
I broke the rose off as close to the main part of the bush as possible, preserving as much of the stem as I could. Then, pleased with myself for my consideration of others, I carried my prize to my grandmother.
The look of horror on her face as I presented it to her haunts me still.
“Jason, what have you done?” she asked, rising to her feet and dropping the length of dripline she had been holding. “Did you find that on the ground, or did you pick it?”
The smile that had been on my face moments before was gone, replaced by an expression of sick dread. “I found a rose bush in the middle of the garden. I picked this for you.”
“Come with me,” she said. She grabbed my arm and ran with me toward the house.
Her grip around my wrist was painful. At first, I thought it was because she was angry with me, she was taking me inside to punish me. I soon understood it was not anger in her heart, but fear. She muttered to herself as we ran, condemning her carelessness and berating herself for allowing this to happen. Although I did not know exactly what she was referring to, I knew something bad had occurred. With a cold dread in the pit of my stomach, I kept quiet and tried to keep up with her panicked flight.
We entered the house, whereupon my grandmother ran to one of the kitchen cabinets, threw the cupboard door open, and pulled down a baking powder tin where I knew she often kept small amounts of cash. She snapped open the tin and removed a one-dollar bill.
My grandmother turned to face me directly. “Jason, I want you to wish for a dollar.”
“What?” I asked, not understanding what she was asking me to do.
“Hold the rose out in your hands, and wish for a dollar,” she repeated.
I held out both of my hands, holding them together like a bowl with the rose nestled in the middle. The stem protruded downward through the gap between my cupped palms. “Like this?” I asked.
“That’s fine. Now make the wish I told you to make.”
“I wish for a dollar,” I said, solemnly. My grandmother’s panic was infecting me to the point that my hands had begun to shake, but I still felt vaguely foolish as I spoke the wish.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the perfect red rose I held in my hands wilted and shriveled until it was a pile of dried, brown petals. Shocked, I stepped back and dropped it to the floor. My grandmother reached down to take my left hand. She placed the dollar bill she held into my palm and closed my fingers around it. Before I could ask what had just happened, she slapped me across the cheek, so hard it caused a ringing in my ear.
“Listen to me, Jason.” My grandmother grabbed me by my upper arms and made sure that I was looking at her. “You must never pick a rose from that bush. If you pick a rose from it, the bloom will stay as red and perfect as the day you picked it, until you make a wish. The rose will die, and your wish will be granted. That sounds wonderful, until you understand that every granted wish comes with a consequence equal to the magnitude of the wish that was made. The magic seeks its own equilibrium.”
She released me and pointed to the dollar in my hand. “A dollar is a tiny wish. It comes with a tiny consequence. When the consequences are tiny, sometimes they can be controlled. That’s why I slapped you. I decided on a consequence so that it would not occur randomly. Look at the rose.”
I glanced at the floor where I had dropped the dead flower. Instead of a brown, shriveled rose, I saw a small scattering of dirt.
“When you make a wish, the rose dies,” my grandmother continued. “When the magic has come back into balance, the rose becomes dust.”
I wish I had never found the rosebush. I understand its power now, but as a child I did not believe in magic, not really. So, I was skeptical. Although I took my grandmother’s warning seriously, I was not experienced enough to be properly afraid. All I knew for certain was that when I made a wish, the rose died. But for the rest of it … well, my grandmother had been the one to give me a dollar. And she was the one who slapped me. So, how was I to know for sure that the flower granted wishes, or that there were consequences if it did? Thirteen-year old boys are not generally known for taking things at their face value.
The next day, we were back in the garden. My grandmother was putting down fertilizer for the young squash plants while I did some weeding around the tomatoes. I was barefoot that day. I had discovered that the dark, fertile soil of the garden was incredibly soft, and it felt wonderful on my bare feet. I wasn’t worried about stepping on anything sharp, since any rocks or thorny weeds had long since been removed, thanks to my grandmother’s diligent care.
I finished my weeding and was making my way through the garden to see if my grandmother needed help with anything else. I passed the rosebush on my way. I saw that there was again one perfect red rose perched on a five-inch stem at the top of the bush. My grandmother was distracted and looking in the other direction as she worked. Without thinking, I plucked the rose from the bush.
“I wish for a bicycle,” I whispered, so I would not be overheard. I had wanted a new bike for some time, but my parents did not see why I needed one since I already had a bicycle that ‘worked perfectly fine.’ They disregarded my arguments that it was rusty, the brakes were bad, and worst of all, it was a girl’s bike. If you could sit on it and get from point A to point B, then they felt it was good enough.
The rose died in my hand, but nothing else happened. I waited a full minute, but a bicycle did not materialize out of the air or drop from the sky. I tossed the dead rose under the bush, not wanting to be seen with it, then, more than a little disappointed, started walking toward my grandmother. Something rough and pointed stabbed deep into my right foot. I hopped back and shouted in surprised pain. Dropping down onto the dirt, I grasped my foot in both hands so I could look at the bottom of it and examine the injury. I was bleeding. It wasn’t a serious cut, but it did hurt.
I glanced at the ground around me to see if I could find what had cut me, and discovered what looked like an orange and black stick protruding from the dirt a few inches from where I sat. I reached over and pulled at it, thinking to throw it away before someone else stepped on it, but as it came free of the ground I realized what it was. I had discovered a plastic bicycle, buried in the garden. It was orange, with black handlebars and black wheels, and the whole thing fit in the palm of my hand.
I didn’t look back, but I guessed that I would find only dirt under the bush where I had thrown the dead rose
“Are you okay,” asked my grandmother. She had heard me yell when I stepped on the toy bicycle and had come over to investigate. I slipped the bike into my pocket so she would not see it.
“Yeah,” I told her, standing back up. “I stepped on a stick and cut my foot a little. I’m okay. I’m just going to go in the house and look for a bandage.”
My grandmother nodded and brushed the dirt from her hands onto her gardening apron. “Alright. I guess we’re about done for today anyway. I’ll come in with you and make sure that cut doesn’t look too bad.”
Unhappy with the literal interpretation of my wish, I spent most of the rest of my afternoon thinking about how I should have phrased the request. I began to plan how I might get another opportunity to try. That night, after dinner, I offered to take the trash outside to the garbage cans. My grandmother, thinking only how considerate I was being, handed me the white plastic garbage bag from under the sink.
I ran outside, knowing my time was limited before she would start to wonder what was taking me so long. I tossed the bag into the garbage bin next to the house, then sprinted into the garden. I ran directly to the rose bush. Another perfect red rose awaited me, as if the bush knew I would be coming back to try again. I plucked the rose and held it up in my hands.
“I wish for a brand-new bicycle. A real bicycle that I can sit on and ride around wherever I want to go.” Then as an afterthought, I added, “A boy’s bike.”
The rose died in my hands. Nothing happened right away, and I couldn’t remain in the garden indefinitely, waiting for … I didn’t know what. I did not have the time. I tossed the dead flower under the bush, like I had done before, then raced back to the house.
The next morning, I woke, showered, dressed, and went outside to check the yard. I was disappointed to discover there was no brand-new bicycle waiting for me. I checked the garage and walked the entire perimeter of the house. I found nothing. Utterly dejected, I moped back into the house.
“I don’t have anything planned for today,” my grandmother told me when she saw me on the couch, halfheartedly watching one of the morning news shows on TV. “Why don’t you walk into town and see what’s going on? I’ll give you a little spending money so you can get something to eat while you’re there.”
I agreed. There wasn’t much point in hanging around the house. My grandmother lived pretty much in the middle of nowhere. She owned a five-acre plot of land, surrounded by a bunch of other people who owned similar plots. The ‘town’ she referred to was two blocks of buildings clustered together about four miles from her house. It was an hour on foot in each direction. Unless someone wanted to drive thirty miles out of their way, whatever stores, restaurants, or entertainments were available to the people in this community were found there.
“It would be a lot faster on a bike,” I muttered to myself.
I accepted my grandmother’s cash offering, and set off.
The walk was as uneventful as I expected and, an hour later, I pushed through the glass door of one of the two diners in town. I figured while I was here I would get myself a nice big breakfast since I hadn’t eaten anything before leaving my grandmother’s house. The first thing I noticed as I entered the diner was that there was a larger crowd inside than usual. All of the tables were occupied, and several people were standing around on the main floor chatting with one another. It appeared that most of the town had squeezed into the tiny restaurant that day.
The next thing that grabbed my attention was a shiny, red, cross-country bicycle set up on a table against the back wall. Above the bicycle was a sign that read:
GUESS HOW MANY JELLY BEANS IN THE JAR AND WIN A BICYCLE
No purchase necessary to play
I ran to the table. There was a one-gallon mason jar sealed with a metal lid and placed on the table beside the bike. The jar was full to the top with multi-colored jellybeans. Next to the jar was a cardboard box with a roughly cut slot on top and a handwritten note taped to the side that advised a winner would be announced at 10:00 AM on July 2.
Today was July second!
I looked at my watch. The digital display told me I had five minutes before the contest ended. Snatching one of the square sheets of paper provided for the purpose, I grabbed a snubby, golf-sized pencil off the table and wrote down a number. I then added my name and my grandmother’s address as contact information.
I folded the paper with my guess written on it and dropped it into the box. I stepped back just as a heavyset waitress in a pink apron brushed passed me and, with a wink in my direction, plucked up the box from the table. She carried it behind the diner’s main counter.
“Okay everyone, it’s time to take a look at the guesses and give away the bike.” The waitress smiled at the gathered crowd, popped the lid off of the box and dumped a mound of papers onto the counter. I could see this wasn’t exactly a formal process. “I happen to know that there are nine hundred and thirty-six jelly beans in that jar. Whoever gets closest to that number is walking out of here with that bicycle.’
She started sorting through the papers, setting one down in front of her and tossing aside others. Occasionally the paper in front of her would be swapped out as one with a closer guess took its place. At one point she held up a slip and shook it at the crowd.
“Who’s the Einstein that wrote, five?” She took another look at the paper. “Mitch, honey, if you’re here right now, you should be ashamed of yourself.” A ripple of laughter went through the crowd.
The waitress continued to sort and the pile of guesses yet to be checked grew smaller. “Barry? You guessed nine hundred and thirty-four. That might be a winner, honey.” She flipped through the last few slips and held one up. “Whoops! Nine hundred thirty-six on the button. Jason? Jason Rickard, are you here, baby? You just won yourself a bicycle!”
I won the bike. I was shocked, but then again, I wasn’t. As soon as she said the winning number, I knew I had won. But even before that, when I dropped the paper into the box, in the deepest part of my heart I knew that I would win. It was my wish, after all.
I showed the waitress my school ID card to prove to her that I was who I claimed to be, and she pulled the bicycle down from the table and presented it to me. It was that simple. Wish granted.
But as my grandmother had warned, magic comes with consequences. My victory was short lived.
I had only walked my new bike a few hundred feet down the street. I did not want to ride it on the sidewalk in town for fear of running into a pedestrian, and because I did not have a bike lock for it, I did not want to leave it outside while I was inside any of the stores. My plan was to walk it the couple blocks out of town, then ride home.
A hand I had not seen coming grabbed my shirt and jerked me into a recessed patio between two buildings. An older boy with blond hair, and an angry expression screwed onto his face, pushed me to the wall and pinned me there with his forearm. I guessed he was about seventeen. He was taller than I was and he outweighed me by at least thirty pounds.
“That’s my bike,” he said to me. “My dad told me how many beans he put in the jar, then told me to guess a couple off so it didn’t look suspicious. How did you know how many there were?”
“Are you Barry?” I asked.
Barry answered with his fists. I felt the first punch when it broke my nose. After that, the initial pain subsided into a throbbing numbness as he continued to rain blows into my face. I think he hit me five or six times. I can’t be certain as I believe I partially lost consciousness. The next thing I remember clearly was sitting on the ground, bleeding onto my shirt, and watching Barry ride away on the bicycle I had owned for all of three minutes.
Wish granted. Consequences done.
I ran home to my grandmother’s house, crying like a child half my age. Several times I sniffed and spat blood, trying to clear my nose enough to breathe, but it was useless. I was hurt, embarrassed, and angry. I hated that town and everyone in it. I hated Barry and I wished him dead a dozen times over as I ran. For most young teenagers, the rage is enough. It burns itself out even as they plot revenge against those that have wronged them. The child eventually realizes that as much as they wish for doom to fall on the head of their enemy, wishing will never accomplish anything.
This was not true for me. I knew how to make a wish real, and the knowledge of that fueled my hatred. It drove me to run faster to the new goal I set for myself. I was no longer running home to safety, I was running toward redemption.
I turned onto the path that led up to my grandmother’s property. I bypassed the house and raced directly for the garden. In an instant, I was through the gate and skidding to a stop at the rosebush.
A single rose waited for me. A solitary, perfect blaze of red, ready to grant my deepest desire.
Without allowing myself to think about what I was doing, I snatched at the rose, pulling it free of its stem. I crushed it tight in my fist and yelled, “I wish Barry was dead!”
I opened my hand and gazed in horror. The rose was black.
It remained fully intact and still looked alive. It had not wilted and died as the others had, but instead had turned an oily, midnight black.
“Jason, what have you done?” My grandmother’s voice came from behind me. She had seen me running up the driveway, bloody and crying, and had bolted out of the house to check on me. She saw the black rose in my hand. “This is bad, Jason. A wish of death only carries one consequence. It can only bring more death.”
My grandmother approached the rose bush and passed her hands over it. “One more,” she said, speaking directly to the bush. “Grant one more today for the sake of my grandson.”
I watched in fascination as one of the smaller, closed buds wriggled free of its companions. It stretched upward as its stem elongated to accommodate its effort to rise. Next, the bud began to warp and fatten, like some type of massive, red tick, gorged on blood. It pulsed, round and oddly menacing on its perch, before finally popping open and unfolding into a vibrant, crimson bloom.
“Pick it,” my grandmother told me. Her voice harsh with urgency.
“Now wish away your first wish. Ask for it to be stopped.”
I did not argue. I was now more scared than angry, and although I was not thinking any more clearly, I was willing to do as she said. “I wish to cancel my wish to kill Barry.”
The second rose wilted and turned brown. I watched with relief as the first rose did the same. I thought it was over, but my grandmother still looked grave. She collected the dead flowers from me and placed them in the front pocket of her blouse.
“Come with me. You stopped the death wish, but you still must face the consequences of two powerful wishes. I need to do what I can to control the outcome, but I can’t protect you outside.”
When my grandmother had allowed me into her garden for the very first time, I had been thrilled. I was not so ecstatic when I found out that I was about to have my first excursion into the basement. When she turned the knob and pulled the door open to reveal a flight of wooden steps leading down, I did not want to go. She did not allow me to refuse, however. She led and, with great trepidation, I followed.
I half expected some kind of gloomy, dank, and heavily cobwebbed dungeon. Instead, as I descended the stairs, I was greeted by a large, perfectly square room with a bare concrete floor and concrete walls on all sides. Six exposed lightbulbs, recessed into the drywalled ceiling, provided enough light to see everything in the room easily, except … there was nothing to see. The basement was almost completely empty. There was no furniture, no shelving on the walls, and no clutter of any kind. The only item breaking up that completely empty space was a single rectangular table made of marble or some other polished stone, placed in the very middle of the room.
With nothing else in the room to focus on, my eyes were drawn to that stone table dominating the center of the basement. It was grey, streaked with darker lines of black or brown, and it appeared to have been carved from a single block of stone. The surface was glossy smooth, but odd etchings covered the top and all four sides of it. The word ‘altar’ came unbidden to my mind, and all the dark connotations that went with it.
“Strip,” my grandmother commanded. “Everything off. Hurry.”
“What?” I protested. “Please tell me your kidding.”
“Strip. Everything. Now!”
I hesitated a heartbeat longer, then did as I was told. I removed everything, including my socks, letting the items of clothing drop to the floor one by one as they came off. When I was done I turned, naked as the day I entered this world, to face my grandmother. Clothing is a poor defense against anything, but it is still a defense. I realized this for the first time at that moment. Without my clothes I felt more than just embarrassed, I felt small. I felt scared and utterly helpless. Initially, I tried to cover myself with my hands, but I soon realized it did not help. It only emphasized my condition. So, defeated, I let my hands fall to my sides.
For the second time that day, I began to cry. My cheeks glistened with fat tears of shame; shame at my nakedness and shame at what I had done.
“On the table,” my grandmother said.
I was too humiliated and emotionally beaten to offer any further resistance. I did as she said. As I lay down, I felt the cold stone surface pressing against my back, my buttocks, and my legs. I shivered as the chill of it leeched the warmth from my body.
Reaching down to the floor, my grandmother grabbed a leather strap I had not noticed before. It lay on the floor pinned under the table and extending out to both sides. She brought both ends up, walking from one side of the stone to the other, and fastened them together. They synched down tightly over my ankles. She repeated this process once more at my waist.
When I was secured to her satisfaction, my grandmother stood at the end of the table closest to my head. She looked down at my face and smiled, trying to be reassuring even then.
“I’m sorry for this,” she told me. “I brought you down here because there is less here that random chance can use to harm you. I needed you undressed so there is nothing between your skin and the altar.”
I sniffed. I tasted blood in the back of my throat as it trickled down from my broken nose. The taste made me cough and wretch. I wanted to vomit.
“Try to relax,” my grandmother told me.
One of the light bulbs in the basement ceiling suddenly buzzed and popped. Glass from the shattered bulb rained to the ground. The table where I lay was far enough away that the glass did not touch me.
As if the light had been a signal, my grandmother placed her palms flat on the stone surface, one to either side of my head. She began to speak in a low murmur. I did not understand her words, but the tone of her speech was urgent. It sounded like she was praying. Or perhaps pleading.
I waited, my eyes switching back and forth across the ceiling, searching for whatever might come next. I did not see anything. Instead, I felt the cold table beneath me begin to warm. I thought at first it was just my body heat bringing the table to an equilibrium with me, but the temperature continued to rise.
“Grandma,” I whimpered. “It’s getting hot. The table. I think it’s getting hot.”
She brushed the fingers of one hand through my hair in reassurance. “It’s alright. Try to relax. You need to remain on the table, and you need to stay as still as you possibly can.”
She lay her hand back on the table top and resumed her chanting. I took several deep breaths, attempting to calm myself, but panic had too strong of grip on my racing heart.
The heat under me continued to build. It reminded me of an electric stove top building to maximum temperature, but in this particular metaphor I was the pot being set to boil. Pain flared along my back. My skin was being scorched where it touched the surface of the table. I tried to sit up, to escape the burning sensation. My grandmother grasped my shoulders and pushed me back down, holding me in place. She was stronger than I expected; stronger than I would have earlier believed. I screamed as the pain increased, and twisted against the straps holding my legs in place.
I was on fire. I felt my skin blacken and tear, leaving the pink flesh beneath to hiss and spit as it cooked in the intense heat. I knew I was dying. There was no way I could feel this much pain and not be moments from death.
Under the pitched wail of my own voice, I heard a rumbling. The table vibrated, accompanied by a loud crack like a gunshot being discharged from directly beneath me. In the same instant, the burning sensation fled. Not gradually, but all at once. The pain was gone. My grandmother released my shoulders tentatively to reach into her pocket. With a smile of relief, she held her hand out where I could see it. I watched a trickle of dust sift between her fingers and fall to the floor.
“It’s over,” she said.
She removed the straps from around my body and I scrambled down from the table, desperate to be away from it. I ran my hands along my shoulders and legs, checking for burns, but to my amazement I found only intact skin. I was completely uninjured. The pain and burning had all been in my mind. I gazed at the massive table in wonder, then with a start, I realized it was damaged. At some point during the ordeal the stone had broken. A single jagged crack about an inch wide ran the length of its surface. One corner, near where my head had been, had completely broken off and tumbled to the floor.
“Jason, I think you owe me a new altar,” my grandmother said, frowning at the debris. She flicked a hand in my direction. “Grab your clothes and get dressed. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes.”
That was over fifteen years ago.
I went back home at the end of the summer. My parents divorced a few months later and I ended up living with my mom. After that, I still went to visit my grandmother as I had so often before, although never for such a long period of time. She continued to spoil me. I was still her favorite grandson. She even gave me permission to go back into the garden.
But I never did.
I’m twenty-nine years old, an adult by all definitions that matter, yet at this moment, I am remembering everything as if it had only just happened. I feel like I am still that child, naked and crying, clutching a ball of wadded clothing to my chest as though it is my only remaining tether to reality.
The memory is so clear because, for the first time since I was thirteen years old, I’m standing in the middle of her garden. Nothing has changed. Everything looks perfect, as if my grandmother is still tending it. But I know, in time, without her caring guidance, it will all go to weed and ruin. As all things must eventually do.
My grandmother died last week. My mom asked me to come with her to sort through her mother’s things. I agreed. I wanted to support my mother, but I also wanted to come here one last time for my own reasons. I miss my grandmother, and I wanted to say goodbye to her in the place she loved the most.
I looked for the rosebush, but it is gone. There is no sign that it ever existed. I don’t know if it died with my grandmother, or if perhaps she knew that her time was growing short and she removed it. Regardless of how it happened, I am glad it is gone. It means that I don’t have to pull it out myself. It means that I don’t have to touch it again.
Most of all, it means that I will never be tempted to make one last wish.
The Ruritanian Duke of Kunlun
By Andrea Tang
Winslow North suspected a diplomatic incident afoot from the moment Arthur Armitage invited him to take tea at the finest club in Ruritania’s capital. Five minutes into his first cucumber sandwich, Winslow, who subscribed to – not pessimism, surely, but a certain bracing realism – found his prediction rewarded.
“Oh, Your Grace,” sighed Arthur, looking distressed indeed, with his face pulled long beneath his strawberry-blond curls. “I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for your friendship, and how wretched I feel for calling on its services in so gauche a manner. Nevertheless” – here, he heaved another gusty sigh – “the trouble cannot be otherwise helped. I feel a damnable fool, in truth. Do you think me a very great fool?”
Winslow, over the rim of his teacup, said rather dryly, “I find I cannot make a proper assessment of a man’s foolishness, great or small, without first knowing its cause.”
“The trouble began with my school,” said Arthur, stirring his tea with a melancholic air. “Poor school! How it suffers on my account.”
Winslow frowned. “School?”
“You know the one, Your Grace –”
“Winslow, please,” said Winslow, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. He’d lost count, in truth, of how many times he’d corrected Arthur on matters of address. Winslow massaged his temples. “I am only properly a duke in the Kingdom of Kunlun. Dukes in my grandparents’ country hardly deign to run companies, or take tea with Western businessmen, as I do here in Ruritania. They consider the handling of money and the willful fraternization with foreigners uncouth, and never quite forgave my father for adopting an English surname for our business purposes. My family in Kunlun would hardly approve of our friendship, Arthur. Which,” Winslow added, to forestall any perception of insult, “I of course hold in the highest esteem, regardless of any elderly great-aunt’s antiquated misgivings.”
Arthur beamed. “I do so admire your humility, Your Gra – ah, Winslow. Indeed, it is a quality I most admire in Kunlunese people like yourself. That is why I started the school, you see,” he added earnestly. “Surely, you’ve heard about the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. I teach the martial arts course for gentlemen myself. My father was terribly proud.”
“Indeed,” said Winslow, taking care to curb the wryness of his tone. He had no doubt regarding Armitage Senior’s satisfaction in such an enterprise. The Armitages were businessmen, and trade deals recently struck between the young Western government of Ruritania and the forward-thinking, great-aunt-scandalizing Crown Prince of Kunlun had made all things Eastern abruptly fashionable in the West. Kunlunese magic – and its accompanying martial traditions – had won particular favor with Western gentlemen of a certain class and sensibility.
“The school has been quite the success, as I’m sure you know,” Arthur went on. “I have the grand tour I took across the Asian continent in my boyhood, not to mention my month-long education in Chinese sorcery fundamentals, to thank for that.” He winked. “I do, unlike most Western Ruritaneans, know my Kunlunese enchantments and martial practices.”
“Surely any obstacle at your School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments could be overcome by a full month’s worth of Chinese magic instruction,” replied Winslow.
“But that is just the problem!” exclaimed Arthur. “Some – perhaps misunderstanding my history, and indeed, the nobility of my intentions – do not approve of my school.”
Winslow sat up a little over his cooling tea. “Really.” Now, this was interesting. Not many in Ruritania dared quarrel with the Armitages, even over something silly enough to be called the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. Winslow frowned. “Perhaps they disapprove of an institution of Asian sorcery.” Ruritania, for all its young government’s earnest talk of peace and progressivism, also gave home to those who misliked the growing repute of Asian and African Ruritanians. A certain cosmopolitan aesthetic which sampled the occasional Persian chemise pattern or Vietnamese soup course was all very well, but Western nations, with their notoriously delicate constitutions, could only stomach so much of the strange and exotic.
“Oh, it is not a matter of intolerance,” said Arthur, drooping further still, “which is a shame, really. To snub the intolerant is quite fashionable in respectable Ruritanian circles now. Unfortunately, the critic I speak of is herself a Kunlunese. One Miss Mabel Lee, though she went by a properly native name in Kunlun, Ming-ling or Mu-lan, or some such thing.”
Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “She?”
“Indeed.” Arthur leaned across the table with enthusiasm. Subtly, Winslow rescued the tray of miniature fruit tarts from Arthur’s flailing elbow. “A female magician – and a martial practitioner, at that!”
Winslow felt his eyebrows climb higher still. Women martial-magicians, sworn to the code of Jianghu, were rarer than their male counterparts, and according to the old sages of Kunlun, rarely as strong. Still, such women were not unheard of. “What seems to be the young lady’s complaint?”
“It is the most unconscionable thing!” replied Arthur. “She came to the school – for lessons, I thought – but no, the heartless creature wanted merely to pillory me. Going on about how my teachings lack authenticity. Mine! I, who spent a full year traversing the Asian continent.”
“It contains a good many countries,” said Winslow, comfortingly. “Pray, do not spill your tea over such a trifle. One disgruntled young lady, Jianghu disciple or not, should not provoke such emotional excesses.”
Arthur sniffed, curls flopping over his forehead, where they clashed unfortunately with his reddening face. “Perhaps my honor and reputation are a trifle to you, but I expect you should care rather more about the honor of your royal family.”
“Ruritania has no royal family,” said Winslow, puzzled. “I’m given to understand the young government is quite proud of its democratic achievements –”
“Don’t be daft, man! I speak of the Kingdom of Kunlun, of course.” Arthur’s gaze darted about the club, a bit nervously, as he adjusted his cravat. “In truth, I had not wanted to spread such gauche gossip about your homeland –”
“I was born in Ruritania, Arthur. And all gossip is, by definition, quite gauche, otherwise it would not be worth gossiping about.”
“– but I am privy to certain rumors. My father’s business associates, you know, they do go on. It seems the young upstart who impugned my teachings has also impugned the reputation of the Crown Prince himself. It is a scandal, of quite literally royal proportions!” Arthur looked triumphant. “Is the Prince not your own flesh and blood?”
“Prince Tai?” Winslow frowned. “I am a cousin of his, yes. However, save our blood, there is precious little in common between a rising head of state in a remote mountain kingdom, and a displaced duke who runs a Ruritanian company and takes tea with Western gentlemen.”
“But the thickness of that shared blood must stir even your wretched heart!” exclaimed Arthur. “I must say, I do so admire the Kunlunese devotion to family. I am sure your noble cousin would agree that the Lee girl is a cross-continental menace, and must be stopped.”
“Now, Arthur, you cannot simply class every woman who wields a sharp tongue as a menace, or the men of Ruritania would have none left to wed. Besides,” added Winslow, a bit impish-grinned, “I daresay I would not fare any better with such women than you do at your father’s Winter Ball.”
Arthur’s color deepened further. “I am being serious, Winslow. And it is not for nothing. Speak to your cousin. A conversation between family is not such a difficult thing.”
Winslow thought, wryly, that Arthur clearly had little experience of Kunlunese house-matrons during his year-long tour of the Asian continent, but refrained from saying so.
“I shall make it worth your while,” Arthur continued. “If you do this small thing for our friendship, I will entreat my father to stop nipping at the heels of the North Enterprise, as it were.”
Winslow froze, staring at Arthur. “How do you know about that?”
“I know some may think me an empty-handed dandy,” said Arthur, heaving his grandest sigh yet, “but I have ears. As I said, I am privy to certain rumors. My father has been attempting to snap up your family’s company since spring.”
“And I have expressed, time and again, my refusal. What does the Armitage trading empire need with a quaint little research company? We fund minor magical inventions and spell-work experimentation, not trading routes.”
Arthur shrugged. “Kunlunese magic is in fashion. My father is a businessman.”
Winslow’s fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly, on his teacup. “If I speak to my cousin of this Miss Lee of yours, you will ensure that your father puts a stop to this nonsense about an acquisition?”
“I shall speak most firmly to him,” promised Arthur. His curls bounced up and down when he nodded. “You have my word.”
Winslow leaned back in his plushly-cushioned seat, and cast a long-suffering glance toward the tea room’s finely-painted ceiling, a delicate imitation of Moroccan tile. “It will be good for my constitution to exercise my scrying mirrors, I suppose.”
“Mingzhu is a menace!” howled Tai, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Kunlun, and cousin to one unfortunate Winslow North.
Winslow, wincing at the Prince’s vehemence, tried not to drop his mother’s gilt-framed scrying mirror. It was a family heirloom, after all. “I presume you refer to our Miss Mabel Lee.”
“Mabel!” scoffed Prince Tai. “Is that the Western name that infernal creature has chosen for herself, now that she is cavorting about Ruritania like a common European hedge witch? I would expect no less!”
“Certainly, it is not an uncommon name among English-speaking Westerners,” offered Winslow. He held the mirror as far from his ears as his arms would allow. “It is, I’d wager, about as common as ‘North.’”
“Oh, heavens above, Weizhe.” From the depths of the reflecting glass, Prince Tai rolled his long dark eyes, extravagantly exasperated. “Of all the ridiculous airs your father put on when he set up in Ruritania, the names he chose were by far the silliest. Pray, what was wrong with ‘Ng’?”
“Westerners find names with no romanized vowels difficult for their tongues.”
“You could at least go by your heaven-born and given name, Cousin. Weizhe contains vowels aplenty.”
“I suspect Westerners should complain about the Z-H spelling.”
“I say!” exclaimed the Prince, plainly at his wit’s end. “For all the boons their trade deals grant us, I must confess I have never met such a ridiculous lot of hothouse flowers as a pack of English-speaking Ruritanians.”
“This from a man who is frightened of his paramour,” Winslow observed mildly.
“I am not frightened of Mingzhu!” thundered the Prince. “And she is not my paramour!”
Winslow’s eyebrows lifted at the mirror.
“Well,” the Prince amended, gaze shifting sideways. His high cheekbones colored. “She is not my paramour any longer.”
“Ah,” said Winslow. “Then there is Arthur’s scandal. I thought as much.” If that was all, the security of the North Enterprise’s company shares had been quite cheaply purchased.
“And,” Tai continued, then paused, as if inviting dramatic effect. The Crown Prince of Kunlun might have gotten on quite well with Arthur Armitage in another life, reflected Winslow. “She is a thief.”
“Oh, heavens,” said Winslow, “I did hope you would stop taking up with light-fingered maidens after the last one tried to make off with Great-Aunt Kunlee’s jade-handled chopsticks.”
“Mingzhu is far worse than Daiyu ever was,” insisted Prince Tai, who glanced over his shoulder once, then lowered his voice. “She has made off with a much greater treasure than a pair of novelty chopsticks.”
“Your dignity, yes, I am becoming glumly aware.”
“The Blue Mountain Sword!”
Winslow nearly dropped the mirror in earnest. “You should not jest over such matters, Cousin.”
“I would hardly jest about the Blue Mountain Sword,” hissed the Prince.
“How could the young lady even touch it?” demanded Winslow. “Any aspiring thief should have been cut down instantly by its true wielder. That sword belongs to the Royal Champion of the Kunlunese Crown!”
“Who has not yet been selected,” Prince Tai said frostily, “as my first choice for the position insists on burrowing himself in paperwork an ocean away, playing businessman and writing arcane research proposals.”
Winslow groaned. He had thought this particular argument concluded. A naive assumption. “I would ill-suit the role of a Kunlunese Crown Prince’s Champion. I am Ruritanian.”
“But Kunlunese blood runs in your veins!” cried Tai. “Proper, royal Kunlunese blood, in a proper, classically-trained follower of Jianghu’s tenets! There could be no greater warrior, no better martial-magician than yourself, and if you had been a good cousin and returned to Kunlun to wield the Blue Mountain Sword at my side, that interfering harpy would never have laid her greedy little hands upon it.”
“How did she obtain such a closely-guarded object?” asked Winslow. He found himself genuinely curious, despite the histrionic circumstances. The Blue Mountain Sword, according to legend, had been a gift from the immortal spirits of Kunlun to the royal family generations ago, and granted its wielder near-invincibility. A mere farmhand might be rendered a great warrior through its magic, but the sword – with the unsettling sentience common to immortal-touched objects – would answer first and foremost to its true bearer’s call. And that true bearer, by right, had always been the Crown’s Champion.
“If I knew how the wicked creature carried off the burglary, I would not be in such a predicament!” snapped his cousin. “Mingzhu and I had a tremendous row, and she insisted she’d had enough of me, the heartless woman. She had stormed off by morning, for passage to Ruritania, and the Blue Mountain Sword had conveniently vanished along with her. The girl was always unduly fascinated by that blasted sword. I drew the only logical conclusion.”
Privately, Winslow thought his cousin’s conclusion had leaped across a noteworthy number of logical holes, but said only, “That is distressing indeed.” And it was. Nevertheless, Winslow remained skeptical regarding the thief’s identity. Correlation, after all, did not imply causation. The young lady might well have broken the Crown Prince’s heart on the same night a common burglar snatched up the Blue Mountain Sword. Men of lesser stature than Prince Tai had seen worse luck in forty-eight hours.
Still, it seemed the smoke of Arthur’s rumors pointed indeed to a most unsettling fire. “What is being done about the missing sword?” asked Winslow.
A curiously sheepish expression crossed his cousin’s handsome visage. “Well, nothing, for the moment.”
“Nothing!” said Winslow, aghast.
“Do not raise those eyebrows at me so, Weizhe! I am he who would be your sovereign.”
“You are he who has misplaced one of the Kingdom’s greatest treasures,” Winslow corrected acidly. “Tai, that sword gifts its wielder with untold magical skill. It cannot be permitted to fall into improper hands. You must inform the Palace Guard! The Kunlunese Embassy in Ruritania! The Council on World Magics!”
“I must do nothing,” retorted Tai. “Have you any idea the responsibilities Mother has heaped upon my shoulders in preparation for my formal coronation as King? In the earliest hours of the morning, I must speak to Ruritanian businessmen about European trade agreements. The next, I must graciously yet firmly deny the Chinese Ambassador’s fiftieth attempt to annex the Kingdom of Kunlun on behalf of the Emperor of China, who is nothing but a greedy interfering prat, if you’ll excuse my say-so. The next day, I must make the same pretty denial to the Japanese Ambassador, who is even worse, and will – I am certain! – take offense that I met with his Chinese counterpart at all. Can you imagine how Mother would react were she to discover that, amidst all of this, I had managed to lose the rightful sword of our future Champion? The Kingdom’s foremost protector? Why, she would be of a mind to cancel the coronation entirely, and oust me from the succession!”
“Ah,” said Winslow, comprehension dawning at last. “You fear the Queen Dowager’s temper.”
The Crown Prince squawked. “I fear nothing!”
“The women in your life, I suspect, would disagree.”
“The women in my life are cruel and wicked harpies, the lot of them. It is why I have such need of a good Champion,” the Prince added, a bit sulkily, glaring out the glass at Winslow.
Winslow considered this point. “I might be persuaded to investigate this matter concerning Miss Lee and the Blue Mountain Sword, if both have truly found their way to the shores of Ruritania.”
At this suggestion, his cousin’s gloomy countenance brightened considerably. “Why, but that is an excellent notion! As you are my chosen Champion, the sword will heed your call over any thief’s, and thus be quite easily retrieved –”
“But,” interrupted Winslow, “you must consent to stop harranguing me, once and for all, about returning to the Kingdom, or serving as your Champion.”
Prince Tai’s brows furrowed. “You would recover the Champion’s sword, but refuse to wield it?”
Winslow swallowed a sigh. “I would seek out this young lady who has caused so much consternation on both your behalf and Arthur’s, and ask that in return, you only leave me to run my business in peace. It is not a refusal of anything, so much as a sensible maintenance of the status quo that has served us all in perfectly good stead until now.”
His cousin’s mouth worked. “You will seek out Mingzhu?”
“And you will recover the sword?”
Winslow bowed his head. “I shall certainly endeavor to do so.”
“Well then, Weizhe,” said the Prince, with an air of magnanimous archness, “I suppose that is the most your family can ask of you.”
Winslow, contrary to the whispers of polite Ruritanian society, was fond of Arthur Armitage, in his own way. Arthur, for all his vanity and silliness, had a sweeter heart than dour old Armitage Senior’s, and had been far quicker than most of Ruritania’s Western-born society to strike up friendship and business agreements alike with the quiet, displaced Kunlunese duke. Even so, Winslow’s indulgent streak of affection for the younger Armitage did not prepare him for what greeted his arrival at the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments.
Arthur’s school sat in a curious, red-lacquered building, no doubt designed to convey a Westerner’s fanciful notion of Eastern architecture. Winslow suspected the golden Buddha statues bearing plates of incense in the main foyer were meant to convey a sense of serenity, but Winslow, sneezing three times in alarming succession, wished Arthur had not chosen such pungent aromas.
He had scarcely procured a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket when one of the classroom doors exploded off its hinges. With a shout, Winslow dove aside. Two Westerner youths followed the unfortunate door, trading insults in the most vociferous and ungentlemanly language Winslow had heard since his boarding school days. Battle sorcery sparked in a flurry of angry red-and-gold sparks off their Japanese-style shinai, as the pair did their level best to kill one another with the bamboo blades.
The magical-martial ways of Jianghu – from the distant Shaolin Temples of China, to the warrior-mage academies of his native Kunlunese mountains – had been as thoroughly ingrained in Winslow as the rest of his expensive, classical education. Now, he found his knees sunk into a defensive horse stance, hands shaping spells for protection and diffusion.
He never cast them. A young lady of Kunlunese extraction, startlingly lovely and visibly furious, burst from the classroom, fists full of magic. “McPherson! Denbigh! Stop this insufferable quarreling at once.”
The youths paid her no heed. The woman, color going high in her pretty brown cheeks, made an exasperated sound, then launched herself into the air – a perfectly-executed use of qinggong, the lifelong scholar in Winslow noted excitedly. The power of flight was one of the great signatures of Jianghu’s martial-magicians, and the sight of this technique, mastered with such casual precision, stirred something strange in his chest.
The woman landed in the thick of the fight and slid immediately through a series of animal stances faster than Winslow’s eyes could follow, her hands a flurry. Invisible forces seized hold of the ill-tempered combatants – McPherson and Denbigh, presumably – who looked so astonished at this third-party display of sorcery that both dropped their shinai immediately.
The irate source of this magic, scowling and panting, night-black hair escaping from her chignon in wisps, pulled both fists together with an expert snap. McPherson and Denbigh rose briefly into the air, and were plopped with perfunctory efficiency before her, wriggling against sorcery-forged bonds. “That,” announced the young Kunlunese lady, in precise and disdainful English, “was the most ungentlemanly display of conduct I have yet seen in Ruritania. I was given to understand that Europeans prided themselves on civility, but have witnessed little evidence of such!”
“Come now, Miss Lee,” protested one of the youths, “Denbigh insulted –”
“I do not care if Mr. Denbigh insulted your own grandmother!” snapped Miss Lee. “I came to see about improving Mr. Armitage’s curriculum for civilized sorcerers, not for a pair of dueling roosters at a cockfight!”
In the somewhat shameful silence that followed, a frazzled Arthur Armitage tumbled belatedly out the classroom entrance, his clothing in uncharacteristic disarray, fair hair tousled and cravat singed. He carried a similarly singed shinai. “Miss Lee!” he cried, brandishing the wooden sword’s burnt end. A few sparking shreds of bamboo, dislodged from the weapon, floated drearily to the floor. “Miss Lee, have no fear of these gentlemen, for I am here to – Good God!”
The younger Armitage cast an expression of dismay about his school’s foyer, no doubt noting the scorch marks along the fashionable red wallpaper, at least one upended Buddha statue, and two Western gentlemen – one now sporting a spectacular black eye – strung up by invisible bonds before a furious Kunlunese sorceress.
Naturally, when Arthur’s gaze landed at last on Winslow, he knew precisely where to lay the blame for this disastrous scene. “My word, Your Grace!” he said, his severity at odds with his emphasis on Winslow’s formal title of address. “If you intended to surprise me with this visit, could you not have gotten those wicked youngsters in hand before they destroyed my foyer and so traumatized poor Miss Lee?”
Miss Lee, who did not look remotely traumatized, rounded on Arthur. “A fine thing to say, for a self-styled master of the Jianghu way who could not rein in even this pair of buffoons!” She gestured toward the shame-faced pair wriggling guiltily against her magic-forged bindings.
Arthur winced. “The lesson did get away from me, rather. However, it is nothing the Duke and myself are ill-equipped to manage.” He gave the shinai a flick, single-handed, as if wielding a Chinese straight-sword. His wobbly-handed technique made Winslow, wincing, think unpleasantly of his own ill-executed sword forms from boyhood. No Chinese-trained war-mages were present, however, to give Arthur Armitage the corrective dressing-down common to unfortunate, clumsy sons of Kunlunese nobility.
To Winslow’s surprise, the shabbily-constructed spell whisked obediently through the air, and unlaced the bonds on Denbigh and McPherson, as if cast by a veritable Shaolin master. “You see, Miss Lee?” said Arthur triumphantly. “A delicate lotus blossom as yourself need not concern yourself with so drably masculine a practice as Eastern martial-magic. Winslow and I have the situation well in hand!”
Winslow, quite suddenly, found himself the focus of Miss Lee’s razor-like attention. She really was lovely, her willowy figure pleasing, even garbed in Kunlunese men’s trousers and a plain grey training tunic. Her hair, thick and dark, had half-tumbled from her sensible chignon, framing a heart-shaped face. Those long ebony eyes of hers, however, pinned Winslow in place with a most alarming expression. “You are His Grace, the Duke Winslow North, of the Family Ng, I presume?”
“Quite, yes,” Winslow managed, over the odd tightness in his chest. His face felt hot. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss –”
“Mabel Lee,” snapped Miss Lee, whose gaze did not soften even slightly. “How can it be that the Kunlunese Crown Prince’s own noble cousin has not yet enacted the necessary reforms upon your friend’s preposterous institution?”
“Preposterous!” squawked Arthur, who looked as if he might need smelling salts.
Winslow blinked. He had not expected this line of questioning, particularly not one so vociferously delivered by such a delicate-looking woman, and found himself at a loss for how to respond. “It is not for me to dictate how Mr. Armitage is to conduct his business,” he said at length. “That would not be at all the thing.”
Miss Lee harrumphed. “What a terribly European answer.”
“I can assure you, Miss Lee,” said Winslow, “my blood runs as Kunlunese as yours.” He felt irritated. How strange, to find himself defending his Kunlunese heritage over his Ruritanian nationality, when he was accustomed to doing just the opposite.
Miss Lee said, bitterly, “And I suppose I can count on your allegiance to your blood to assist me in recovering the Blue Mountain –”
“Good God!” exclaimed Winslow hastily. “Miss Lee, an eye to your miscreants!”
For Denbigh and McPherson, to all appearances, had fainted from the after-effects of Miss Lee’s magic-forged bonds. The pair of them were keeled over one another, not unlike young spaniel pups dozing in a litter. Winslow could not help but find the pair more agreeable unconscious than not; besides, this had the additional benefit of distracting Miss Lee before she could speak further. With another grumble, she went to revive the miscreants, Arthur tut-tut-ing and exclaiming in her wake.
Winslow, meanwhile, considered the facts of the situation. Miss Lee had intended to speak of recovering the Blue Mountain Sword, Winslow was sure of it. Given that Prince Tai was so irrevocably set on keeping its misplaced status a secret, Winslow could not have allowed its alleged thief to speak so openly of the wretched object. Though why any thief would volunteer indignant airs, feigned or otherwise, over the very treasure she had stolen, Winslow had little notion.
He frowned. Winslow did not like to find pieces of his puzzles missing, but his education and chosen occupation had instilled in him a great fondness for solving the puzzles themselves. A gifted martial-magician, a missing Kunlunese treasure, and an irate Arthur Armitage added up to a puzzle more devilish by far than securing funding for the North Enterprise’s sorcery research, but Winslow knew this much: the solution to any particular problem, no matter how damnably difficult, lay in first organizing the pieces in a coherent fashion, so that further deductions might be made.
So Winslow did the only sensible thing he could. He invited Miss Lee to the Armitage family’s Winter Ball.
Invitations to the infamous Ebenezer Armitage III’s Winter Ball were among the most sought-after markers of distinction during the Ruritanian social season. Even Winslow, with his noble title, relations to foreign royalty, and good income, might have escaped the honor, were he not a particular friend of Arthur’s. Arthur had pouted and exclaimed at length over Winslow’s choice of companion for the evening, but agreed to Miss Lee’s presence when Winslow implied that a woman bearing ill will toward an Armitage-run school might find herself softened by a social event so spectacular as an Armitage-hosted ball. For Miss Lee’s part, she suffered Winslow’s escort and Arthur’s invitation for much the same reasons Winslow had invited her in the first place. That was, as Winslow quickly discovered: she had the most wickedly insatiable sense of curiosity imaginable.
“I must say, you are a peculiar gentleman,” said Miss Lee now. She was garbed magnificently in a white muslin gown, Western-cut. The style worked to her advantage, offsetting the golden-brown of her complexion, and drawing more than one admiring eye as they glided through the crowded mahogany foyer of Armitage Manor. “I had thought you as craven as that insipid dandy who so mis-manages his school, but a craven man would not have invited a female martial-magician to…” She sucked in a breath, as they entered the ballroom, and paused to observe their new surroundings – the elegantly-attired footmen bearing platters of delicacies, the string quartet playing a bright-noted waltz, the magnificent crystal chandelier that overlooked it all – and concluded, simply, “This.”
“Why, Miss Lee,” drawled Winslow, “I do believe you may have paid me a compliment. Quite by accident, I am sure.”
“It is no accident, sir,” said Miss Lee. Then she bent close, and whispered in perfectly Kunlunese-accented Chinese, “Now, tell me why you kept me from speaking of the Blue Mountain Sword in front of your friend.”
“I will answer you that,” agreed Winslow in the same tongue, “if you will tell me why you so suddenly fled the Kunlunese Palace for Ruritania.” The music changed. Winslow bowed, and asked in English, “May I?”
Miss Lee took his arm, almost absently, as he led her to the dance floor. She flowed as easily into the waltz as she had into her Jianghu martial forms. “I had taken you for a spoiled Western dandy in your own right, but I had not taken you for a fool,” she said. Her feet whirled through the steps, as if dancing through air on the power of qinggong. “Is the answer not obvious to you? I am here to seek out and reprehend the thief who stole the rightful sword of the Kunlunese Crown’s Champion. I know he was Ruritanian, for the only foreigners at the palace that night were a Ruritanian business delegation. Any other perpetrator would have to be a Kunlunese courtier or servant, and would have been summarily caught by the Queen Dowager inside a week.”
Winslow, thinking of his aunt and quaking a little, could not disagree. Twirling Miss Lee, he said very carefully, “I had thought your sudden flight might have to do with the Crown Prince. There was talk of a row, which is why I thought it best to silence any talk of a missing royal treasure, for there is no sense adding fuel to flame. Was my cousin’s thwarted ardor mere gossip?”
“Hah!” said Miss Lee, spinning in his arms. “Your cousin thought me a fine enough maiden to woo as a concubine, but not fine enough to acknowledge as a martial-magician. Never mind that I have trained according to Jianghu’s tenets since I could toddle, that I studied with China’s rather over-esteemed Shaolin monks and Wudang warriors. Never mind that I practiced my sorcery as diligently as any Kunlunese war mage, that martial-magic has been my life’s work! I told the Prince, in no uncertain terms, that he could not have my love without accepting my soul’s true passion, and he pitched the most astonishing tantrum! I am well rid of the silly man, however handsome he may be, but that does not excuse me from a duty to retrieve the weapon that is his Champion’s right.”
Winslow looked down into her dark, gleaming-eyed gaze, and in quick succession, considered and dismissed the possibility that Miss Lee was lying. Years spent bargaining with Ruritanian and Kunlunese businessmen alike had taught Winslow to tell a good liar from a poor one. Miss Lee, for all her sorcerous prowess, was entirely too blunt to be much use at lying – or, for that matter, in business. “If all you say is so,” Winslow told her, “then my cousin has no right to make such demands of a lady whose sorcerous talent he will not even acknowledge.”
Miss Lee met Winslow’s gaze with unwavering heat. “My lord Duke,” she said. “With respect, I do not need your cousin to tell me what my duty to my country is.”
Winslow fell silent. He found that his mouth had gone curiously dry. With some effort, he swallowed, and replied, “I admire you, Miss Lee. But Ruritania, though not a large place, is not a small one either, and cannot be up-ended and searched like a lady’s reticule in hopes that a magical sword might emerge.”
Miss Lee rolled her eyes. “I am not so stupid as all that. We need only find a Ruritanian businessman of unlikely martial prowess –”
Her words – a businessman of unlikely martial prowess – struck Winslow strangely. Blood gone unpleasantly cold, he said, “Miss Lee. Was Arthur Armitage among the delegation of Ruritanian businessmen?”
She frowned. “I could not say. I saw them only in passing, and from a distance.”
“Have you seen Arthur cast martial-magic before?”
Her frown deepened. “If it could be termed such. He looks preposterous when he tries to bring it off, you know – wearing his top-boots on to the training mat like a savage, mistaking Japanese shinai for Chinese straight-swords, and always standing wrong-footed. And yet.” She hesitated.
Winslow, with a sinking sensation, recalled what he had witnessed at Arthur’s school: Arthur, weak-stanced and ridiculous, yet producing a perfect counter-spell to Miss Lee’s binding ties on Denbigh and McPherson.
“His magic strikes true,” she said reluctantly, then sharpened. “You do not mean to say you suspect your own friend is the thief?”
The music had stopped. Dizzy and miserable and trying, with Ruritanian gallantry, to conceal both sensations, Winslow escorted Miss Lee from the dance floor. “I cannot discount the possibility. I will not fling baseless accusations at any man, much less a friend, but conversation of a delicate sort may be necessary. Where has he gone, I wonder? I must seek him out at once.”
They looked. But it soon emerged, from conversation with the other ball-goers, that Arthur Armitage had been missing from his own ballroom for several hours now.
Nevertheless, Winslow now harbored a grim suspicion of where, precisely, the sword itself might be.
When Winslow looked back at Miss Lee, her eyes were gleaming. “Have no fear, my lord Duke,” she promised, “I know just what to do.”
“This! Is! Not! At all! The thing!” Winslow managed. He punctuated each word with a hop to a different rooftop.
“Pray, do not bawl so!” Miss Lee called back merrily. She had already flown several rooftops ahead. Her ball gown – which should surely have proven cumbersome! – seemed to trouble her not at all. Winslow, tugging irritably at his coattails as he flew, wondered if she had altered the qinggong technique to account for Western formal dress. He must ask after the spell, he decided, assuming they both survived this misadventure.
The Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments was not so far from Armitage Manor proper, but the arched rooftops of Ruritania’s capital city were damnably slippery, even for a qinggong practitioner. Nightfall, while it cloaked their activity nicely, did little for Winslow’s visibility. “I do not see why we could not have taken a carriage like sensible folk!” he called after Miss Lee.
“Because a carriage would lack for any sense of adventure at all!” she cried. “If one is to go questing for a stolen object, one might as well enjoy the journey.”
“You cannot be serious!”
“Qinggong is also more efficient by far than any horse-drawn contraption, bound as the poor creatures are to the earth. Or at least,” she added, with a wicked sort of glee, “my own qinggong is. I cannot presume to speak for other parties.”
“Your frightfully roundabout critique of my agility, in this dire moment, is noted,” retorted Winslow, scrambling over a rooftop, though he felt his mouth curve as he said it. They were very near the school, now.
It was in that moment that he noted a familiar shock of strawberry-blond hair from the corner of his eye. Whirling, Winslow rounded in time to see Arthur Armitage, still in coat and tails, white-faced and wide-eyed. The dandy ran across the air toward Winslow with flailing limbs and – indeed! – improbably flawless qinggong.
Winslow turned, and covered the distance between them with one great, furious leap. “Arthur!” he bellowed. “Tell me –”
But he did not have a chance to demand that Arthur tell him anything, for Arthur bellowed back, right in his face, “Winslow, you must run! I have made a terrible mistake, and put your life in grave danger.”
Winslow grabbed Arthur by the arm, the fine fabric of Armitage heir’s evening coat wrinkling beneath his grip. “What on earth do you mean?”
“I thought my martial skill had been gained due to innate sorcerous talent,” babbled Arthur, “for I was proud, and paid no heed to any other explanation. But I was, as ever, a great fool, and if you should suffer for my mistakes, I shall never forgive myself. Run, Winslow, for there isn’t time to explain. I shall send for you when –”
“When what, son?” drawled a cold, familiar voice.
Winslow and Arthur looked up as one. A deep grey cloud had emerged from the night, and floated down to join them on the rooftop. Standing astride the cloud was Ebenezer Armitage III, carelessly twirling the Blue Mountain Sword from hand to hand.
“I didn’t know he’d taken it,” whispered Arthur. “Winslow, I swear to you, I didn’t know.”
Armitage Senior looked how Arthur might, if the passage of decades, in addition to painting his hair grey, were to put flint behind his eyes. The resemblance between father and son could not be denied, but the perpetual sneer slashed across the father’s mouth and the cold calculation in that beady gaze were all his own. “My son is correct in one matter,” said Ebenezer now. “He is a very great fool.”
Winslow felt his knuckles tighten, and discovered that his hands had formed fists. Ebenezer, evidently, noticed as well, and chuckled. “Do you think to fight me? How like a Kunlunese.”
“Father, I beg of you, let him be!” cried Arthur. “Winslow had never meant us any harm. You have no true need of the North Enterprise. I do not understand why you bully him so –”
Without looking at his son, Ebenezer gave the stolen sword in his hand a flick. With a faint cry, Arthur went tumbling away through the sky.
“Arthur!” bellowed Winslow.
“Oh, do not stoop to such histrionics, Your Grace.” Ebenezer’s voice, curled around Winslow’s honorific title, was mocking. “I would hardly do my own son true harm. I may have used this quaint little sword to bestow martial-magic upon him, as is our family’s due, but he should not speak so insolently to his poor dear father. As such, I have merely put him out of convenience’s way. Marvelous object, this sword!”
“It is not yours,” said Winslow.
“I daresay I disagree,” retorted Ebenezer. “Have you failed to understand anything at all, even after living so long in Ruritania? Ours is a country built on the backs of businessmen like myself. What we desire, we take. What we take, we own. Such is our right.”
“So you say, of a sword plucked from Kunlunese soil. How do you imagine your trade agreements with the Crown Prince will fare, when he learns of this?”
“Oh, I don’t imagine your cousin shall find out,” said Ebenezer cheerfully. “Not if you are too dead to tell him.”
Slowly, Winslow raised his eyes to the cloud. The Blue Mountain Sword, glimmering with soft, silver-blue light, winked at him in the dark. “Are you really announcing your intent to murder me? I cannot say I think much of your attack strategy.”
“Do not insult me. I am not so infernally stupid as my son,” snapped Ebenezer. “I am merely challenging you to a gentlemen’s duel. Perfectly above board in any country, a gentlemen’s duel, particularly between magicians. You cannot have any objection, Your Grace. After all, should I fall to your superior martial prowess, the sword is yours.”
“I do not see why you have not already run me through with the sword instead of prattling on like a feeble-minded great-aunt,” observed Winslow. “It would have brought about my death far more efficiently.”
“And I have already told you that an Armitage would not stoop to something as unseemly as common murder. Such cowardly slaughter is gauche, and besides, will not bring me what I truly want.”
“I suppose you expect me to ask what you do want, so you may announce your scheme with maximum dramatic effect.”
“The North Enterprise.”
Winslow’s head snapped up. “I do not understand you,” he said at length.
“Then you are even stupider than Arthur,” retorted Ebenezer. “Really, I have been quite proper about it all. Should you slay me, the sword is your reward. But if I should slay you, it is only right that I should have my own reward. And I want your company.”
“Why?” demanded Winslow, abandoning all pretense. “I have never understood it. The North Enterprise is nothing to the Armitage trading empire.”
“Why?” echoed Ebenezer. “Why not? The North Enterprise has value. All things Kunlunese do, these days, in their quaint, fashionable way.”
“It is mine,” said Winslow.
Ebenezer looked predictably put out with this response, but he also looked confused. Winslow, grimly, felt no surprise. Ebenezer was the sort of man who expected no more defiance from Winslow than he would from one of his expensive, Oriental carpets. That was, perhaps, the fundamental reason Ebenezer desired the North Enterprise so very badly.
“The North Enterprise belongs to my family,” continued Winslow. “It bears the name my father chose when he first arrived on Ruritanian shores. It bears the name that I choose, still. Names have value too, Mr. Armitage. You, of all people, ought to understand that much. Does my family’s legacy truly matter so very little, in the face of yours?”
The answer was obvious. Fellow Ruritanians had always made such answers obvious to Winslow, in a thousand cruel and tiny ways. The sting persisted. But it made Winslow no less Ruritanian himself.
Winslow sank into a horse stance, slammed his hands together, and threw an attack-spell at Ebenezer’s cloud.
Ebenezer had not expected that. Western dueling conventions demanded announcements, a counting of paces, a proper salute. But Winslow had studied strategy at the knee of Kulunese war-mages, who had been quite put out with their Kingdom’s tendency to find itself invaded by foreign powers. “When faced with a powerful enemy,” they said, “effective warfare demands the element of surprise.”
Winslow’s attack-spell dissolved the cloud beneath Ebenezer, and sent the old man hurtling toward the rooftops. With a frantic snarl, Ebenezer slashed the Blue Mountain Sword through the air. The weapon glowed. Ebenezer’s descent slowed, and gave him safe landing on an opposite rooftop.
Lip curled, he rushed toward Winslow, feet climbing through the air, swinging the Blue Mountain Sword with a clumsy two-handed grip. It should have been easy to deflect. But the Blue Mountain Sword rendered anyone a master martial-magician. Winslow’s counter-spell barely parried Ebenezer’s swing, before the sword sliced back. Winslow was on the defensive now, and saw little chance of escaping.
He would soon lose, his battle, and quite shortly after, his life. Nevertheless, Winslow fought on.
Ebenezer swung the Blue Mountain Sword again. As it cleaved toward Winslow’s head, the air between them shimmered, and solidified. The Blue Mountain Sword clanged against the shield, but instead of piercing through, as it should have, the blade stuck. Ebenezer, uttering expletives, tried to free the weapon, to no avail.
Winslow hadn’t cast a sorcerer’s shield. He looked skyward.
Flying high above him was a windswept Arthur Armitage, frantically clinging to the arm of a stormy-faced Miss Lee. She landed between Winslow and Ebenezer, watching them both with much the same expression she leveled at quarreling schoolboys.
“A fine mess you have escorted me into,” she snapped at Arthur, who landed beside her with a thud.
“Ah, well,” said Arthur. He straightened his spine, then his coat lapels. “It could not be helped. Father slaying my dearest friend in a greedy rage would not be at all the thing.”
Winslow looked at Miss Mabel Lee, the Kunlunese martial-magician of the snapping black eyes and deadly, qinggong-light feet. He looked at the shield she had cast – a mortal-made shield that had somehow, impossibly trapped an immortal-forged sword of the Kingdom of Kunlun.
He understood at once.
“Mabel,” he said. Her given name slipped unbidden off his tongue. “You must summon the Blue Mountain Sword to your own hand. It will answer your call.”
Her eyes widened. “I haven’t the faintest idea how!”
Winslow smiled. “You once told me that you did not need my cousin, or anyone else, explaining your duty to your own country. For the same reason, you need no one to explain this spell to you. The sword seeks its rightful Champion, and you have crossed an ocean to claim it. Think on what brought you to these shores, and you will understand how to call the sword, I promise you.”
A multitude of expressions flitted across Miss Lee’s face before her features settled. Her eyes drifted shut.
The shield released the sword with a shudder. The blade winged through the air, glowing, before its hilt landed in Mabel Lee’s outstretched hand. Her eyes fluttered open, and widened, as if disbelieving the sight. Then her face went utterly calm. She lifted the sword and took a defensive crouch.
Ebenezer Armitage, uttering a furious growl, lobbed a sloppy attack-spell her way. It faded from existence before the sparks even reached Miss Lee’s toes. He cast more, to no avail. His opponent seemed undisturbed by these increasingly desperate attempts on her life. Walking slowly down the rooftop’s spine, she lifted the Blue Mountain Sword. Even now, prepared to strike a killing blow, she stood sure-footed.
The sword’s tip landed gently between Ebenezer’s eyes. Wheezing, he glared cross-eyed and terrified at the blade. “Well, girl, what are you waiting for? My life is yours.”
The sword gleamed in its Champion’s hand. “I have no particular desire for your life,” said Mabel Lee. “I do not collect pieces of human existence like baubles in a treasure chest. We are not objects to be stolen away by the first brute who finds greediness in his heart.” She tapped the sword smartly against Ebenezer’s forehead, but did not draw blood. Her eyes met Winslow’s. In the space between their gazes was a certain understanding. Newly-forged, perhaps, but soul-deep all the same.
“No,” said Mabel, turning back to Ebenezer, “I will not take your life, old man. Your memories of the Kingdom of Kunlun, however, do not sit well in your head. Those – and indeed, all things Kunlunese, which you find so quaint and fashionable – I believe I shall retake from your mind. After all, they were never truly yours.”
Ebenezer opened his mouth. Before words could emerge, the Blue Mountain Sword flared bright, like a sunbeam’s flash, slicing across the eyes.
When darkness returned, the night’s battle was well and truly done.
The events that marked the night of Ebenezer Armitage III’s Twelfth Annual Winter Ball quickly proved themselves the most persistent mainstays of Ruritanian gossip. More than two months past the fateful evening, businessmen in gentlemen’s clubs and visiting noblewomen at salons continued to chatter about poor Ebenezer’s sudden memory loss, and Arthur Armitage’s commendable succession to his venerable father’s place in the family business.
Above all else, however, they spoke of the school.
“I must say it has all shaken out admirably,” said Arthur, as he and Winslow strode across a well-groomed lawn, just blooming into spring. The handsome building that sat atop the lawn, they thought, might house an extra suite of lecture halls. One never knew when ill-behaved schoolboys might blast the doors off one classroom, and require another. “I do not believe a Winter Ball has ever been so widely talked-about! By any definition, Winslow, we must count it a success.”
“Your optimism is incorrigible, but heartening, in this case,” agreed Winslow. He shielded his eyes against the afternoon sun, as he looked across the lawn toward the building where the new lecture halls might sit. “Will this do, you think? For a school of Eastern martial-magic?”
“I do not know why you would require my opinion in such matters,” said Arthur, and added, archly, “After all, it shall be the North Enterprise’s school, to do with as you wish.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought you might set up as a rival to me. For the press, you know. Gossips do love a histrionic rivalry.”
Arthur shook his head with a sigh. “I am afraid you must do without my services in that particular arena, old friend. The days of the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments are quite behind us. Between the responsibilities of keeping up the Armitage trading business and caring for my poor, feeble-minded father, I had to let the project go. A pity, alas.”
“To be sure.” Winslow paused, then asked, with some awkwardness, “How is Armitage Senior?”
Arthur’s dandy-perfect smile approached but stopped short of his eyes. “As well as can be expected. He knows his name, and mine, and absolutely nothing of finance or trade, or for that matter, the Kingdom of Kunlun. Still, ignorance seems to agree with him, as he finds himself cheerful, and quite content to pass most days counting foreign coin collections and reading romances, of all things. Still, it is a better pastime than his previous choice.” Arthur cleared his throat. “To that end, Winslow, I ah, wondered if I might call upon our friendship once more, to beg another favor. I hope it shall prove less troublesome than the last,” he added hurriedly.
Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “Oh?”
Arthur said, looking sheepish, “I wondered if you might allow my enrollment as one of your students. At the elementary level, of course. I would be pleased to provide all the necessary tuition fees up front. I have discovered that there is, in the world, a great deal that I do not know. But I should like to learn.”
Winslow found himself smiling rather foolishly. The North Enterprise’s newly established education branch had proved fruitful, thus far, to both Winslow’s scholarly mind and his company’s finances. Ruritanians from a great many walks of life benefited from a good education in Kunlunese sorcery fundamentals, now that trade and diplomacy alike flourished between the two countries. Winslow did not hurt for well-paying students. Still, the elementary classes could always use another friendly face and eager heart. Those, at least, had always been Arthur Armitage’s to give.
Winslow shook his friend’s hand, firm-gripped. “I should be pleased,” he said quietly, and meant it.
They had reached the edge of the yard. Sitting cross-legged, mid-air, beneath a handsome willow tree, was Mabel Lee, in Kunlunese-wrapped silk, the petal-pink of her frock vibrant against the green of newborn spring. She was meditating, but opened one eye at the men’s approach. “Well met, my lord Duke. Young Mr. Armitage.”
Arthur coughed delicately. “How do you do, Miss Lee? Ah, Winslow, I’m afraid I must be going. I have another engagement to attend, you see. Life has been busy indeed. A lovely frock, Miss Lee.” He bowed, winked at them both, and departed.
Miss Lee unfolded her legs, dropped her feet to the grass, and stood. A slightly awkward silence descended. “I am returning to Kunlun next week,” she offered at last. She sounded strangely sad. “I suppose there’s little help for that.”
Winslow bowed his head, chest clenching, though he knew his feelings to be foolish. Mabel had already remained on foreign shores far longer than was proper for most Kunlunese Champions. Yet Winslow knew that Mabel Lee was not like most Champions the Blue Mountain Sword chose, and for that, he must speak his piece. “You do not have to go. Well,” he amended, “not immediately.”
“Prince Tai would probably rejoice at the delay,” reflected Miss Lee.
“He would rejoice less at the proposal I am about to make,” said Winslow. “But I believe he may see its merits, given time, and good thought.”
Miss Lee’s eyes found Winslow’s, and lingered. “A proposal?” she said quietly.
“A Champion who spends half the year in Ruritania, and half in Kunlun,” said Winslow. “It makes a certain amount of sense, given the current shape of the world. As the two countries draw closer to one another, so to do our people. More and more Kunlunese shall become Ruritanian, just as some Ruritanians, I’d wager, may build businesses and families alike in the Kingdom of Kunlun. The Crown’s true protector shall have to know both shores.”
Miss Lee’s mouth pursed, considering. “That is not at all what I thought you were about to say.”
“I know,” said Winslow. “It is unconventional. But then, the Blue Mountain Sword seems of an unconventional mind, these days.”
“Oh, not that,” said Miss Lee impatiently. “Your talk of relations between Kunlun and Ruritania make perfect sense, and I shall make Tai see it, one way or another.” She went oddly pink. “It was just the way you phrased the idea, that’s all.”
Winslow’s brow furrowed. “I do not follow.”
“I merely thought,” said Miss Lee, growing more irritable with each moment, “that you meant another kind of proposal.”
A shameful number of seconds passed before her meaning made itself clear to Winslow. His heart began to thud. “Oh. Oh. But what of Tai? I had imagined you in love.”
“Tai!” exclaimed Miss Lee. “In love! You cannot be serious. I admit, your cousin the Prince is more charming by half than you are –”
“And I am charmed by the observation, you can be sure.”
“– but he is not half so handsome to my eye, and he lacks a certain intelligent quietude I admire in men. No, I will make him a far better Champion than I will a wife. The dalliance was not all bad, despite its rather dramatic end, but then, without that end, I might never have met you.”
Winslow stared openly at her. “If you are saying what I believe you mean, you may as well have out with it.”
Her brows pinched together. “That is not at all conventional.”
“You are not at all conventional,” retorted Winslow. “But then, nor it seems am I. That should make us well-suited, do you not agree?”
“Oh, very well!” exclaimed Miss Lee, plainly at her wit’s end. “Weizhe of the Family Ng, my lord Duke Winslow North, will you do me the honor of becoming my husband?”
He took her hands in his. “I shall.”
“Done,” she said, as if sealing a business agreement, then planted a kiss on his mouth. It went on for some time. When he broke off, and looked down, he saw that she had floated a few inches off the ground, qinggong light, to accommodate for their height difference.
His future wife really would make a most spectacular Champion for the Kingdom.
“You shall have to spend time in Kunlun as well, you know,” his wife-to-be added. “I am unconventional enough to believe that husbands ought to accommodate wives as often as we accommodate you.”
Winslow wrinkled his nose. “And here, I had thought myself so clever in avoiding all the Queen Dowager’s invitations to the palace.”
“Mastering your fear of rightfully fearsome aunts will improve your constitution.”
He kissed her forehead. “Well, Mabel, then I shall have to make do.” He hesitated. “I do have one question. How did you know to call me Weizhe? Hardly anyone here uses my Kunlunese name.”
Mabel laughed. “Why, it is written on the deeds for that new school of yours! I saw that you signed your English name above the Chinese characters, but I recognized the characters first. It is a good thing,” she added. “I quite like Ng Weizhe, just as I have quite grown to like Winslow North. Magicians who bear two names are said to hold the strongest magic. Whyever do you suppose I chose both Mabel and Mingzhu?”
“You are incorrigible.”
“I endeavor to corrupt you,” she agreed merrily. “My greatest ambition as the Crown’s Champion is to raise all Kunlunese and Ruritanians alike to the same shocking level of unconventionality. I believe it shall improve relations, foreign and domestic, for both parties.”
Winslow laughed. He could imagine nothing that would please him more.
The Interdimensional Megastar
By C.J. Carter-Stephenson
Gull Stanton hurled a brick at the Public Information Booth and watched with satisfaction as the glass fell away, taking with it the garish poster of Captain Aerial, self-proclaimed interdimensional megastar. Sorting through the shards with his boot, he slid the poster towards him and ground his heel into the man’s face – a face that apart from a few subtle differences was identical to his own. It wasn’t fair. Why should that big-shot be raking in bluebacks hand over fist, while he had to work double shifts in a dead-end cleaning job just to buy food? He was everything Captain Aerial was. It should be him flying around arenas with his jetpack, singing songs to hordes of adoring fans.
From what he’d read in interviews, their lives had diverged five years earlier when they’d each received their share of the profits from the sale of his dead grandmother’s house. Gull had used the money to go on a year-long vacation, living a playboy lifestyle at the Hotel Métropole in Monte-Carlo, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and various other fashionable hotels; Captain Aerial had started a small salvaging business, specializing in the collection of obsolete satellites from the earth’s upper atmosphere, and discovered a revolutionary transportation device capable of opening doorways between dimensions aboard a derelict alien spaceship. The potential applications of such a device were mind-boggling, but Captain Aerial had chosen to use it to make obscene amounts of money, first by offering interdimensional tours to a rich clientele and then by launching a music career. The man turned out to have a pretty good voice, and once he’d hired himself a decent backing band, there was no stopping him. Flitting from universe to universe, he’d achieved a widespread fame like nobody before.
At Christmas the previous year, Captain Aerial had arrived in Gull’s dimension for the first time, and the moronic public had immediately started buying his albums. They chatted about him endlessly, blogged about him on social media, idolized him. It was all right for them! He wasn’t their counterpart. When they saw pictures of the bastard driving away in a Lamborghini, they weren’t constantly being tormented by the thought that it should have been them. Damn the man! Why couldn’t he have stayed in his own freaking universe?
Gull felt a shard of glass pressing against the side of his boot and realized he still had his foot on the poster. He stepped away quickly. Cops tended not to bother themselves with shitty parts of the city like this, but it was best not to take any chances. The last thing he wanted to do was to spend the night in a cell.
As if on cue, a siren sounded in the distance. He hurried onwards along the street. Concrete tenements covered with graffiti rose to either side of him, interspersed with liquor and convenience stores fortified with wire mesh, while at the end of the block there was a power station behind a high wall topped with security spikes, its four metal chimney stacks belching steam into the air above. People said the area was up and coming, but even though there were a few building sites in evidence, it had a hell of a long way to go before it arrived. Gull’s eyes shifted to the downtown area. It couldn’t be more than a mile or two away, yet how different it looked – a forest of towers piercing the sky like giant fingers – classic American skyscrapers beaming out advertising from three dimensional monitors built into their glass facades, the pagodas of Chinatown, the fantastical creations of the bioarchitecturalists with their treelike columns branching upwards to impossible heights.
Gull cocked his head to the side, listening intently. That flaming siren was getting closer. He needed a place to hide. He spotted a bar on an intersecting street and jogged towards it.
A sign above the door identified the place as ‘Pitchers and Pitchers’, so he wasn’t surprised to find it was baseball themed. The walls were hung with photographs of famous players and other memorabilia, and there was a waxwork figure of Babe Ruth standing in the corner. Probably, it would have been a nice place to spend some time in its day, but now, there was a distinct air of neglect. Most of the seats had tears in them and there were patches of mold on one of the walls.
Gull paused in the doorway, surveying the customers. They were blue collar types – construction workers, truck drivers, mechanics.
He groaned as he noticed a television behind the bar projecting footage of a Captain Aerial concert. Perhaps he should accidentally spill a drink on it to see if he could short out the circuitry. No, tempting as it was, that kind of behavior was a good way to get himself thrown out. Instead, he sat down on a vacant stool and ordered himself a bottle of beer.
He stared moodily at the image of Captain Aerial prancing about on stage as he raised the bottle to his lips. He could move better than that if only someone would give him the chance.
“He’s really something, isn’t he?” said a voice from the seat beside him.
He turned and found himself looking at a middle-aged woman with a chubby face. She was a desperate singleton by the look of her – skirt ridiculously short, hair dyed neon pink and swept up in a gravity defying style, a thick layer of pale foundation smeared across her face to hide the wrinkles.
Assuming she was referring to Captain Aerial and having no inclination whatsoever to talk about him, Gull ignored her.
“You look a little like him, you know,” the woman went on, unperturbed by his lack of response. Actually, you look a lot like him. What’s your name?”
Gull sighed. “My name’s Gull, and I don’t look like him; he looks like me.”
The woman’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Is there a difference?”
“Yes there is,” Gull snapped.
“I take it you’re not a fan, then?” said the woman.
Gull took another swig of beer and slammed his bottle down on the bar in front of him. “No, I’m not.”
“Any particular reason?” the woman asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Gull replied.
“But that voice…” said the woman, half closing her eyes in dreamy contemplation. “How can you not love a voice like that? It’s so full of passion. And those lips… what I wouldn’t give to be kissed by a pair of lips like that.”
Gull blinked. This was a come-on, wasn’t it? He looked her up and down. She wasn’t close to attractive, but he wouldn’t say no if she was going to hand herself to him on a plate. As a lowly hospital janitor, he wasn’t exactly inundated with romantic interest. He puckered up his lips. “Your wish is my command.”
The woman looked unimpressed. “Sorry sugar, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
“Maybe not,” said Gull, “but it’s the closest you’re gonna get.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you believe it. Captain Aerial’s playing the Rainbow Arena at the weekend, and I’ve got a ticket and a plan to get in his pants. I’m going to hang back until he plays “Every Me Loves Every You,” then I’m going to jump the stage and twerk for him.” She smiled smugly as if this was truly inspired. “It was nice talking to you.” With that, she turned away and began chatting to a man on her opposite side.
Gull felt a pang of disappointment. Why was it things never went his way? Because they were too busy going Captain Aerial’s, that was why. He gulped down the rest of his beer and went back to studying the television. What was the singer’s secret? Why was he so damn popular? Gull stared into his eyes as the camera zoomed in, but there was nothing there that he hadn’t seen thousands of times in the mirror. Suddenly, he had a burning desire to see Captain Aerial in person. Perhaps then, it would all become clear.
Once the idea had occurred to him, it was hard to shake. He thought about it as he stepped out of the bar a few hours later, he thought about it as he watched a group of girls taking pictures of themselves with a billboard poster of Captain Aerial through the sky-bus window on his way home, and he thought about it the following evening at the hospital as he dragged an industrial strength vacuum cleaner around the maze of insipid corridors. Yes, he needed to do this, and the gig at the local arena was the perfect opportunity. All he had to do was buy a ticket. It would cost him a small fortune no doubt, but that was life. If the worst came to the worst, he could always sell an organ to raise the money. He’d done it before. In this day and age, the artificial replacements they were giving out were almost as good as the real thing.
So it was that when the time came for him to take his break, Gull headed straight to the staff room – a soulless basement affair with three vending machines and plastic furniture – and posted an online ticket request with his phablet. Within minutes, he was inundated with replies, all saying the same thing – the concert had sold out months ago.
Gull tossed the phablet onto the table in front of him and went to buy a packet of potato chips. As he did so, an advert on an interactive notice board beside the vending machine caught his eye. He was in luck. One of the E.R. doctors had a ticket on sale. He would have to move fast, though. At the price the doctor was asking – face value for a quick sale – people would be lining up to buy it. Tucking his potato chips under his arm, he punched out a response on the on-screen keyboard.
Gull received a call from the doctor before he had even sat down. It turned out the man had not yet finished work for the day and wanted to sell him the ticket immediately. Gull agreed, went up to see him, and after a moment’s hesitation when it came to actually transferring the money, the deal was done.
Gull pulled a Kevlar jacket out his closet – glossy black with replica muscles molded into the chest – held it up against himself and then let it fall to the floor. The look was right, but it was too restrictive for dancing.
His gaze shifted to the clock on his bedside table. He’d been doing this for over an hour, but he wasn’t about to stop. Not until he’s found something suitable. He didn’t want Captain Aerial seeing him at the gig and thinking he was some hapless loser.
In the end, he opted for an outfit similar to one he had seen the megastar himself wearing in a photograph once – black cargo pants and a spiky rubber shirt. He nodded in satisfaction as he examined the items in the mirror. Then, he started to look for a pair of shoes.
Gull made sure he got to the arena two hours early, so he wouldn’t end up stuck at the back of the audience, but already, a seething mass of fans were waiting in line outside. By the looks of it, some of them had been there all day. He shook his head as he stepped off the sky-bus and went to join them. How could one man inspire such mania?
He did his best to be polite as a weasely trader in dark sunglasses and a gold medallion sidled up to him and attempted to sell him a souvenir t-shirt. He couldn’t think of anything worse than walking around with a picture of Captain Aerial emblazoned across his front, but he couldn’t say as much. If the fanatical idiots in the line heard him dissing their beloved hero, there was no telling what they would do.
Gull studied the arena as he waited impatiently for the doors to open. Standing in stark isolation on the edge of the city with a rocket-shaped observation tower and colour changing walls, it was a wonder of modern architecture. It had caused controversy when it was being built because of spiralling costs and a succession of missed deadlines, but once it was completed, the public had fallen in love with it. New York had the Statue of Liberty, San Francisco had the Golden Gate Bridge, and they had the Rainbow Arena.
Gull tensed as the crowd began to file inside. A couple in front were staring over their shoulders at him. He fiddled with his phablet self-consciously, trying to focus on a friend’s face looming out of a newly posted hologram. Didn’t they know it was rude to stare? He was just considering slipping back a few places in the line to escape their gaze, when the man – a lanky youth with a Mohican haircut – stepped up to speak to him. “That’s a great face. If I saw you and Captain Aerial next to each other, I don’t think I could tell you apart. How much did it cost you?” Judging by his slurred words, he was more than a little stoned.
“Nothing,” Gull replied irritably. “I was born with it.”
The woman – who was a foot taller and twice the man’s weight with matted dreadlocks – giggled incredulously. “Sure you were, and I’m the Queen of England. Surgery’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know. Not when it’s such a bitching success. Kudos to you for being the biggest Captain Aerial fan here.”
Gull gave a long sigh. There was no point arguing with them. They’d obviously made up their minds about him and nothing he said was going to convince them they were wrong. The best way to deal with people like this was to humour them in their delusions and hope they went away. “Thanks,” he said through gritted teeth. “I do my best.”
He turned away, focusing on the door ahead as the line continued to shuffle forward, but the man stepped back into his eyeline. “Since you are such a dead ringer for Captain Aerial, would you mind posing for a picture with us when we get inside? We’ll make it worth your while with a free beer.”
“I’ll think about it,” Gull replied, dismissing the idea out of hand.
The girl clapped her hands, lips curling upwards in a goofy smile. “Goody! We’ve never hung out with anybody rich before.”
“I’m not rich,” Gull protested.
“You’re rich enough to change your face,” said the man.
Gull rolled his eyes. Could these idiots be any more wrong about him? He forced himself to stay civil as they continued walking, but by the time they reached the door, his patience was wearing thin. Fortunately, he was able to give them the slip during the routine security check.
He paused at one of the bars to buy himself a drink and then proceeded through a doorway to the arena floor. The place was filling up rapidly, but with a little artful maneuvering, he succeeded in pushing his way to the front. Squeezing between two groups of chattering teens, he placed himself directly in front of the safety barrier and looked expectantly at the stage.
He had been there less than five minutes, when the shoving started. Nothing was actually said, but it was clear what was going on – the teenagers to his right thought he was encroaching on their space and were trying to force him to move on. He glared at them out of the corner of his eye, breath coming in sharp bursts. If they thought they could intimidate him, they had another thing coming. The jostling got worse, but still he ignored it. Then it escalated into full-blown ramming. He locked his arms together, clinging tenaciously to the safety barrier, as someone grabbed his shoulder and attempted to haul him backwards. Little shits! He had as much right to be there as they did.
Failing in its objective, the hand was withdrawn, but no sooner had he started to relax, than somebody punched him in the ribs. He stumbled away from the barrier, gasping for breath. A leg shot out behind him and the next thing he knew he was on the ground.
While he was struggling to collect his thoughts, a grizzled face appeared over him. He raised his hands defensively. He needed to take control of this situation or his ass was going to get seriously kicked. He drew back his fist, getting ready to punch the person in front of him, and then lowered it again. It was a security guard. Thank God for that.
With an air of businesslike efficiency, the guard held out his hand to help him to his feet and then froze, a look of disbelief spreading across his face. “What are you doing here? Some kind of audience meet and greet, I guess. Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, it was seriously stupid.”
Gull looked blank. Then, it dawned on him – the man had mistaken him for Captain Aerial. His thoughts began to race. What if he could use his appearance to blag his way backstage? He’d been hoping to get close to his famous counterpart and this was the perfect chance.
The security guard tapped a communicator badge on his shirt and bent his head towards the microphone. “This is barrier security. I need first aiders here pronto.”
Gull thrust out his hand, placing it over the microphone to cut the man off. The fewer people who were involved in this, the more likely his plan was to succeed. “No first aiders. Just get me to my dressing room.” The security guard nodded and helped him to his feet.
Gull smiled as he noticed his teenage assailants being manhandled towards the exit. All’s well that ends well.
The guard hooked an arm around Gull’s shoulders to support him and led him past the barrier to a door at the side of the stage. He pressed his eyes to a retinal scanner on the wall and the door swung open. “Are you sure you aren’t hurt?”
“Only my pride,” said Gull as the guard helped him along a series of corridors into the heart of the backstage area. The corridors were clogged with people, but although a few of them asked him if he was hurt, not one of them challenged him about his right to be there. Like the guard, they all assumed he was their star performer.
Captain Aerial’s dressing room was situated with a group of others not far from the cafeteria. Arriving at the door, which was instantly recognizable thanks to a star shaped identity plaque, Gull stepped away from the security guard and thanked him for his help.
“Think nothing of it,” said the security guard. He turned to go, and then hesitated, looking Gull up and down. “About those first aiders…”
Gull waved his hand dismissively. “Thank you for your concern, but I really am fine. I’m tougher than I look.”
The security guard looked doubtful, but didn’t press the matter. “I’ll be going then. Try and stay out of trouble.” With this, he hurried away.
Gull paused. He should plan out how he was going to play this. Then again, the longer he stood here, the more chance there was of getting caught. Besides, Captain Aerial would be going on stage before much longer. If he was going to do this, he needed to do it now. He checked his appearance with the selfie-cam on his phablet, and then opened the dressing room door.
The room beyond was much as he would have expected – warm and tastefully decorated with a fridge, a clothes rail, a panoramic vanity mirror edged with lights and an en suite shower room. Captain Aerial was sitting in front of the mirror running through some vocal warm-ups.
Gull stepped into the room and closed the door.
Hearing the latch click into place, Captain Aerial leapt to his feet and spun around. “Who the hell are you?”
For a moment, Gull couldn’t speak. This was a pivotal point in his life and he didn’t want to screw it up. “I’m you,” he said at last, taking a step forward. “The you from this universe. Can we talk?”
Captain Aerial looked shocked. “Not a chance. I have nothing to say to you. Besides, I’ve got a show to do.”
He tried to move to the door, but Gull blocked his path. “I just want to know why your life is so great and mine is so crap.”
“The luck of the draw,” said Captain Aerial coldly.
Gull stared at him, all of his anger and resentment bubbling to the surface. “That isn’t good enough!”
Captain Aerial shuffled his feet nervously and reached for a phablet on the table behind him. “It’ll have to be, because your butt is about to be ejected.”
Before he knew what he was doing, Gull had lunged forward and knocked the phablet to the floor. “Guess again.”
“Security!” Captain Aerial shouted, making another dash for the door. “I need help in…”
The words died in his throat as Gull’s fist collided with his face. Gull watched in morbid fascination as he crumpled to his knees, blood gushing from his nose. Suddenly, a terrible thought crept into his mind. What if he were to kill Captain Aerial? The man’s rock and roll lifestyle would be his for the taking. All he need do was hide the body in some parallel universe and nobody would ever know. No! The murder of another human being was wrong.
Except, this wasn’t another human being. It was an alternate version of himself.
He clenched his fists as Captain Aerial began to struggle to his feet. Then he plunged forwards, fastening his hands around the megastar’s throat. He was sick of being the poor reflection. Captain Aerial fought violently as he tightened his grip, but he hardly noticed. He knew what he wanted and nothing was going to stop him getting it. He pressed harder, harder still, smiling as his victim’s windpipe throbbed beneath his fingers.
Captain Aerial thrashed around, eyes bulging. “Let me go… Please… I don’t want to die…”
Gull’s hands tightened. Wretched excuse for a man, begging for his life. You’d never catch him doing that.
Only when he felt Captain Aerial’s body go limp did Gull let go. His hand shifted mechanically around the star’s throat, searching for a pulse. Then, satisfied he was really dead, he punched the air. Yes! Now he was the interdimensional megastar. There were still a few practicalities to take care of, of course – first and foremost the disposal of the body – but these could wait. He wanted to enjoy this moment. He walked to the clothes rail, picked out a trench coat covered in octagonal mirrors. He would look great in this.
He held the coat against himself, only to freeze as the sound of laser fire rang out across the room and a searing beam of energy tore into his stomach. He pressed his hands to it, toppling into the wall. It was agony, like standing under a cascade of boiling oil. He couldn’t stay up right, couldn’t see. He was falling, falling…
Gulliver A. Stanton shoved his laser pistol back into his pocket and closed the dressing room door, looking at the bodies on the floor. How strange that this third version of himself should have made a play for Captain Aerial’s crown on the exact same day as he had. Where had he come from? Had his interdimensional transport device malfunctioned as well, stranding him in this godforsaken reality or was this the Gulliver A. Stanton that belonged here?
No matter. He was dead now, leaving this Gulliver A. Stanton free to start living Captain Aerial’s wonderful life, not to mention giving him the means to return to his own universe. He would be a fool not to learn from the experience, though. It didn’t matter where he went or what he did, he must always remember to watch his back, because as he had seen today, when you were an interdimensional megastar, there was always someone waiting to take your place… literally.
By Jacob Adams
Sweat runs down my cheek and drips from my chin. My shoulders ache and my chest burns. I stab the shovel into the ground and look up. She’s looking at me with sweat glistening on her face from the harsh sunlight. I wipe my brow and tell her to hand me the seed.
From her pocket, she removes a tiny object, round, with hard ridges that are almost like spikes. She hands it to me. Sunlight graces the edge of the hole. I plant the seed and jump out.
She looks at me. “You have anything you want to say?”
I look to the flatlands behind us, the empty field and the house about three miles from ours. The sun bleeds orange light over the land like a severed artery, and though the world has its own set of colors—green, brown, and blue—all has been blanketed in the giant star’s saturation. The wind kicks and dust lifts from the arid terrain and funnels into a twister, rising high into the sky and dissipating. What trees surround us bend and sway with the wind, the pine needles howling as the air wisps through the branches.
I shake my head.
She closes her eyes and kneels before the hole. The shovel is next to her, and the shadow of her and the tool stretch out over the bull grass. She raises her clasped hands to her mouth and whispers. The gusting wind ceases, and I hear her say ‘amen’ before she runs her hands over her thighs, stands, and brushes her knees off.
“Let’s cover this little guy and get it some water,” she says and looks at me. “I hope this works.”
White surrounded me, silence engulfed me, and cold burrowed into my core.
Haze drifted with slow ethereal movement; swelling, then shrinking. Pillars were hidden in the fog, disappearing when the haze thickened. I sat up and noticed people walking about with empty expressions on their faces. Their footsteps were muted. Their legs were hidden in the haze. There was no color.
I rubbed my temple. Pain surrounded the left side of my skull. At the back of my head was an incessant urgency to remember something. Yet the pain stopped me from pursuing that need, planting me in this foreign landscape.
A stranger approached me, bent, and held out a hand. He had white hair and wire rimmed glasses. His smile gave just a hint of color to his otherwise whited-out face. I took his hand and he pulled me up. Cold gripped me from inside and I shivered. My teeth chattered, but there was no sound.
“Good morning,” the old man said, his voice cutting through the white and yet suffocated by it.
“Cold,” I said, then pushed hair from my face. “Why is it so cold?”
“You’ll get used to that.”
The pain in my head increased, pumping. The urge to remember returned, and I wanted to reach into my mind and pull out whatever was causing this great agony, what felt like would explode if I didn’t figure it out.
The old man looked at me. “You doing all right? You look paler than most.”
“Most?” I said, and put the heel of my hand on my head. “What’s going on here? What’s with this place?”
He toyed with his glasses. “I couldn’t explain even if I wanted.”
“Where are we?”
The old man looked around. “Might be able to say it’s a holding station.”
I stared. “You mean a prison?”
He gestured to those appearing and disappearing from the haze. “You see any prison bars?”
Weariness kicked in, and standing became too much. “What’s happened?” I closed my eyes against the throbbing hurt. “Why am I here? What the hell is going on?”
The old man said, “There’s a bench over yonder, we should sit.”
Pain spiked my brain as if someone drove a metal stake into it. I held out my hand and the old man guided me. Out of the white, the bench appeared. He helped me down and I heaved a deep sigh that disturbed the haze. The old man joined my side, swinging an arm over the bench’s back.
People came and went—figures dressed and faded in white, forgotten when the haze took them—some passed glances, but there wasn’t an ounce of vitality on anyone’s face. The silence of their movements made me quiver; this wasn’t the world I knew, this was someplace else.
I looked at the old man.
“You said something.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t.”
“Yes you did. You said something wasn’t right.”
I rubbed my head. “What happened to me?”
“I can’t answer that. I have no idea where you’re from or what you’re supposed to be doing. But you are here, and there’s something you need to know.”
Screeching sounded from afar, and I raised my attention to the shifting haze. People who had been moving about halted and turned. The sound grew louder, and I recognized it as a subway train. The white parted and formed a pathway, revealing tracks and tunnel openings.
“This a train station?” I said.
“You could say that,” the old man said.
“Dear Jesus God!” someone shouted. People turned. The haze shifted. It was a woman, her hair brown with streaks of white around her ears. She wore glasses, the lines on her face copious, tracing around her features like race tracks. Her face was locked in an expression of realization and fear.
“I remember!” she said. “Oh my God, I remember what happened! I remember it all!”
The train entered the station. The doors opened in silence.
Everyone turned to the woman.
She whimpered. “Don’t make me leave.”
Red light beamed from the open train doors, coloring the colorless world, saturating a pathway from the train to her.
“What’s going on?” I said. “What’s she remembered?”
The old man looked at me. “What we are all here to do.”
“Please,” the woman cried. “I want to do so much more. I can’t leave. I can’t! I need another chance!”
The pain in my head grew worse. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temple. The woman’s cries filled my head, echoing within the empty caverns of my memory.
“I’m sorry,” she said, speaking to someone. I tried to look up, but the light created new pain in my head, putting pressure on my haggard brain. She continued to beg. “I’m so sorry! Let me talk to my husband. Let me at least tell him I love him!”
Understanding struck me and the pressure disappeared. I looked at the train, saw the woman enter the red light, pleading as she went, then the doors shut and her cries were silenced. The train began to leave.
I looked at the old man. “I’m dead!”
The man returned his attention to me and gave a single nod. “You got the first step right.”
The last of the train exited the station, and silence resumed its ironclad grasp upon the desaturated world. My eyes grew heavy, and I leaned over and closed my eyes.
The bedside window is open, the air is thick and heavy with overnight rain. Birds sing and a hawk screams. The radio comes on and the DJ talks about the weather, how the so far defunct summer is coming to an end because the heat begins today. When it comes time to switch to sports, he tells me to open my eyes because there’s something I need to see. I roll to my side and slap the snooze button, yet that only kills the music. The DJ tells me to open my eyes.
I open them.
She’s there, looking over me, her blue eyes bright, her smile so wide I can see the pink of her gums. Her curly hair spills out around her, framing her face, showing off the youthful cheeks I said would follow her to old age.
“Come on, sleepy butt! I got something I wanna show you!”
I swing my feet to the floor and slip on a pair of shorts. She pulls me along before I can get a shirt. Out into the sun we go. Morning has just arrived, bugs zip around my head, light berths from the eastern horizon, illuminating soft yellow that fades into the light blue sky. While the air is hot and sticky, there is still a residual cold in the wet grass, a soft and cool layer of air hovering over the ground like a fine mist.
We enter the garden, and the sunflowers look amazing, so do the radishes and tomatoes, but we haven’t come for that, we’ve come for what we planted behind the bushes on the north side of our property. We round those bushes, and there, standing out from the mound of dirt is a single sprouted leaf.
“Well look at that,” I say.
She pumps her fists into the saturated air. “This thing loved the rain last night! And here I was worried the poor guy drowned.”
“With the hole as deep as I made it, I’m surprised it didn’t.”
“We need a name!”
“A name?” I look at the leaf, then back to her. “Is it a boy tree or girl tree?”
Her brows tighten, a question she had not thought of.
“How about Luvora?”
“Lu-vor-a.” I nod. “It’s a good gender-neutral name.”
“It doesn’t even sound like a name.” Her face goes to work as her mind processes my proposal. In the past, she was the one to give names, ones that were always simple. Our cat named David Thomas. Her Mustang named Doug. The look on her face says how bad she thinks the name is, but she bites her lip and nods. “I can live with that. Luvorka it is!”
“You mean Luvora, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course!” She hugs me. “We have our own tree!”
I hold her body close to mine, gazing over the flatlands, how it’s sprinkled with diamonds in the sunlight. I smell the wet grass and listen to the birds and cicadas, and revel in the feeling of home.
I opened my eyes and saw the haze.
The old man sat next to me, the others of this world having returned to waltzing around in silence. My attention went to the old man, who watched me with a look of pity.
“What?” I said.
“Not often we get someone who blacks out after seeing the train.”
I turned to the crowd. Images came to me; a compost heap, garden tools, the flatlands and an alfalfa field, a wedding ring sliding onto a delicate finger. They flashed so fast I could barely comprehend what I saw. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes, then raised my attention to the people and their carefree struts.
“Is this normal?” I said.
“These people. Here. All just…you know.” I waved my hands. “Acting like being here is no big deal?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, they’re dead, right? If I know it, they know it, doesn’t that bother them?”
He observed the silent crowd. “Every so often, we get someone who wants to deny and fight. They create a lot of ruckus, but they never last long.” He shook his head. “In some ways, they’re the lucky ones.”
He looked at me. “Because they get to move on.”
“And what about that woman?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Which one?”
“The one just taken. She made a lot of noise over remembering. Didn’t seem like anyone really minded that much.”
The old man gave a half-hearted grin. “If you only knew how long some of these folks have been here…how hopeless the wait can be.”
“So…so wouldn’t someone like that try to sneak onto the ride when it shows?”
“No one wants to get on the train.”
I stared. “No one?”
He shook his head. “Not the one that’s been coming.”
I observed the tracks running through the station.
“Is this a train station? Where does the train go?”
“It’s a station alright, but where it leads I have no idea.”
“No,” he whispered.
I clasped my hands. “How long have you been here? How long is someone stuck here?”
He shrugged. “Time is different here, so it’s impossible to really know. Have you had any firings?”
“Flashes or images of important things. Your mind gets wiped clean when you get here, I think so we don’t immediately panic about the impermanence of our mortality. For those who have transcended, they began with receiving images, first randomly, then after a while they connect and memories form.”
Dancing curtains. White. Thin. Swaying in the wind. I shake off the vision, but it returns, this time with a voice calling for me, the voice of the woman who wants me to wake up, the voice of the woman who helped plant the tree. I dropped my face into my hands. Pain returned to the left side of my head, though dulled in comparison to the first wave. The slow throb rattled my brain, forced white into the edges of my sight.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?”
Another man. Tall and thin, his head shaved and a great gray beard hanging from his square jaw, his alert eyes pierced mine with intensity. His face was a maze of lines and wrinkles, wrapping around his eyes and mouth in a never-ending pattern.
“Who’re you?” I said.
“Don’t know. Do you?”
I stared. “I wouldn’t have asked if I did.”
“I bet you know none of us know who we are. So why ask a question you already know the answer to?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “Again, that’s why I asked the question.”
“Yes, you wanted to obtain information, but you’ve gotten all the information you can get from anyone here.”
His face was so worn and withered it reminded me of leather, and there seemed to be a problem with his hip, noticeable in the way he struggled to stand and walk. His eyes were green and alert.
“What’s with your hip?” I said.
“Broke it.” He slapped it a few times. “Came to me in a dream. I think God did it to me so I could learn from it. I sat over in that corner not long after I showed up and whispered to God to give me an answer to my ailing side. A little later I got an image of myself skating on ice and slipping. Heard my hip snap.” His eyes focused as he considered me.
“You been here a while?” I said.
He let out a bark of laughter, one that would’ve filled the air with joy, but the white stole it away. “Been here since I can remember, but wait! That’s everyone!” He let out another bark.
“You were given images from God?”
He nodded. “Yes, yes I was. He came through for me in a big way, but He hasn’t given me anything since, and…well, I can’t tell how long I’ve been here but it sure as shit feels like it’s been too long.”
I looked at the old man sitting next to me. He nodded. “Some never remember.”
“What happens to them?”
The man pointed to a woman in a maroon dress. She was impeccably put together, but in her eyes was a look of such vacancy that any emotion inserted into them would have been better than the emptiness present. She looked around, confused, uncertain, touching the side of her neck, then put her attention on her matching colored purse, and fumbled about it. She removed a phone and looked at the lock screen. Whatever color had been present on her complexion vanished and she screamed in silence. The haze stirred, swelled, and concealed her in white.
When the fog settled, she was gone.
I walked about the white with the people.
Everyone had the vacant stare of an individual who had given up the hope and possibility they would ever remember who they were. Those in the center of the crowd were the most lifeless, and it was them who walked with their arms hanging before them, their heads tilted to the side, their eyes glossed over.
Through the sea of white, I noticed a stitch of color, and headed for it. I shoved hands in my pockets and avoided eye contact. As I shifted through the crowd, I came upon the woman in the maroon outfit. She was still looking at her phone with her back facing me, after a moment, she peered over her shoulder. There was an expression of great bewilderment as she studied me, but she stowed away her phone and turned.
“Can you help me? I’m…I’m trying to find my son. Have you seen him? He’s about your height, maybe a little taller, with long hair and big, black glasses. I’ve been trying to call him but…he won’t answer.”
I shook my head. “No, ma’am, I haven’t.”
Her face tightened, and she scratched the back of her head. “I…I could’ve sworn he was just here. I was walking over to the concession stand to get food and a drink…a hotdog and nachos, that’s right, and…” She drifted, her colorless eyes staring into the fog. She looked at me, and there was a moment where light ignited within her eyes, like she was coming to a realization, but emptiness returned to her gaze and she carried on, her brows pinched together.
I moved on, glancing over my shoulder as the woman in maroon asked another the same question she had asked me. I came upon the tunnel running through the station, where the train rolled in, and peered into the black hole. Reaching out for the darkness, my hand stopped at the black veil as if touching glass.
“Won’t do ya any good.”
I turned to the voice. It was a young boy, perhaps sixteen, maybe younger. He wore red DC shoes.
“Done gone tried that, man.” He shook his head. “You tryin’ to escape?”
“I don’t know.”
He looked at me as if I were playing him. I sat down and he came forward.
“Yeah, went and tried it out for ya, man. Sorry to tell you. Sucks ‘cause I’d like to know how to get out of here. Been here forever, dude.”
He showed me his bare wrists. “I ain’t got no watch, and I lost my phone forever ago. What you here for? Wait, do you know why you’re here?”
I shook my head.
“Fuckin’ A. No one does. You hearing the shade everyone’s throwin’? That we’re dead and tryin’ to remember why we died? Isn’t that fucked or what? Don’t look like anyone is trying for anything.” He kicked the haze. “Get any dreams?”
“No. Do you?”
“All the time. Hate ‘em. Makes me feel like I’m not here. Like, I’m dying or lost contact with wherever I’m supposed to be. It’s…like, I went to lay down to take a nap, and someone went in my brain and took out all the shit I was supposed to remember.” He shook his head. “Weird to say, I bet, but, dude, I’m tellin’ ya, something about this place ain’t right. Everyone here be walkin’ around like they lost connection with themselves and I tell ya, that ain’t goin’ to be me. Plus, they all stare when the train comes, then just act like nothing happened when it leaves.”
“So that last stop…?”
“Totally the norm.”
I studied the boy, noticed that not only were his shoes bright red, but his shirt was navy, and his khakis were brown.
“Know your name?”
“Trent. Can’t quite remember my last name ‘cause I’m pretty sure I hit my head somewhere before getting here.”
“Is it a dull throb, on the left side of your head?”
Trent looked at me with bewilderment. “How?”
“Someone come at you with a two by four?”
“Don’t think so. How come you know your name?”
He raised his eyebrows. “It’s my name. How can I not know it? You’re given the name when you’re born. Wait, have you forgotten yours?”
“I don’t know if I even have a name.”
“Oh man, that sucks! Hey, have you had any memories?”
I didn’t answer.
“Hey, well, check it, man. If you wanna get some answers, take a nap. I hate the dreams, but you might dig them. Plus, we got nothin’ but time in this dump, so might as well catch up on sleep anyway, right? The chill of the place kinda makes it hard to get any decent rest, but some is better than none. It’s my answer to everything.”
“Hit a roadblock, time for a nap?”
“Yeah, dude! Can’t tell ya how many times it’s saved me.”
I turned away, gazed into the black hole of the tunnel. “Don’t know if I need saving.”
I looked at him, surprised.
“Don’t take it personal! We all need it. You at least seem a little more with it than the rest of these dudes.”
“This place is like some kind of marijuana induced dream.”
Trent smiled. “Yeah it is. But listen, that train is gonna be here soon.”
“How you know?”
“Got a feeling.”
“Not much of a feeling guy, Trent.”
He rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. Check that chick over there.” He gestured to the woman in maroon. “She’s been gaining color to her outfit for, like, a while now, and she’s acting a little more alert.”
“I…I don’t think that’s what’s going on with her.”
“No, dude, listen! She’s coming out of it, waking up from the trance everyone is in, and that train is gonna show up when she remembers what she’s doing here, and I’m gonna jump that train when it leaves.”
“Can you do that?”
“Fuck if I know, man!”
I smiled, then noticed the color on him, and compared it to the woman in maroon. “You sure you don’t buy what people are saying about this place?”
“Psssh, please, this is some kind of gag place, you know? It’s a maze, or some part of one, and when I jump that train, Imma get outta here and be free as a bird!”
My attention went back to the woman, her attentiveness to the surroundings and the disconcerting look on her face.
“Hey, you wanna jump this train with me? We could not be stuck here like the rest of these losers.”
I got to my feet. “I’m going to snooze on it.”
He pointed at me and gave a crooked grin. “Now you’re thinking. When you hear her scream, you’ll know it’s time.”
I didn’t give my word, yet I didn’t deny it either. When I found a corner to settle into, I closed my eyes and let the cold white drop me into a deep sleep.
“It’s been a while,” she says and looks at me. I look at her. “Been a while since we looked at our tree Luvorkian.”
I narrow my eyes at her.
She smiles, sets her cup down. “You want to check on it?”
“It’s a tree. It’s not going anywhere.”
“Could be drowning in this rain.”
I don’t argue this. What I say is, “We’ll get soaked.”
She stands. “Since when has the weather been a deciding factor in your life? Since when did the things on the outside influence what goes on within?”
I stare with crinkled brows. “You serious?”
“We must venture outward.” She points towards the garden. “To our place of destiny, the place we must hold sacred and dear to our hearts!”
“We go where no one has gone before. We embrace that which everyone upon this planet spends their life looking for.” She looks at me, shrugs, then says. “We go to the great muddy trenches in search of our friend Luivorky!”
“You’re messing up the name on purpose.”
She looks at me with feigned confusion, then backs into the rain. “I’ve got to have some way to make it interesting. Levorkian sounds nice.”
“No it doesn’t, because it’s Luvora!” I say. “There’s nothing hard about the annunciation, either!”
“It is when you have a lisp!” She turns and runs.
I call her name—a name lost in the rain—and run after her. The tree is fine. We both know this, and visual confirmation of the tree gives us the chance to laugh and play. We wrap up in each other’s arms and she laughs with her head tilted to the sky. I kiss her neck and relish the sound of her voice. She touches my face, her fingers warm, and I consider her blue eyes.
She smiles. “It’s only a name.”
“It’s more than that.” I wipe water and hair from my face.
The tree is beside us, now two leaves instead of one. Her bun has fallen apart, and I undo the last of it and her thick curls roll down around her. Soon they become black wires tracing across her face, and I push them aside to her see her bright eyes. Her youthful cheeks are filled with color.
“It’s more than just a name.” I whisper.
“Say mine.” Her eyes focus on mine. “I like it when you say my name.”
And I do, many times, to the point where she’s giggling as I shout her name into the raining heavens—a name I can’t remember. We kiss, and when we disengage, she whispers my name into my ear.
But I don’t hear it.
“Hey man, wake up.”
I turned away from the shaking, saying let me sleep a moment longer.
“No dude, wake up!”
I denied the request, telling them to come back in a few, I’ll be ready then.
“Dude! Wake the fuck up!”
I opened my eyes. Trent knelt before me, his hair pushed back and his eyes wide. Color invaded every part of him, and the expression on his face was that of worry.
“I am dead,” he whispered. Tears welled in his eyes. “I’ve been fucking dead for…a while. What am I gonna do?”
I rubbed my face, my eyes. “What happened?”
He shook his head. “No. You don’t need to know. It was…it was ugly, okay? Getting into shit I wasn’t supposed to and that fuckin’ train is gonna come for me, and I ain’t got the balls to go through with it, man. You gotta hide me!”
“You need to calm down, it can’t be that bad. You’re getting what everyone here wants.”
“No one wants what I’ve gotten! I’ve fucked up! I’ve fucked up so bad!”
From afar, the screeching of the train sounded. Trent turned to the call, tears spilling over his cheeks. “You need to hide me!”
“What am I supposed to do? Stash you behind a pillar? Dig a hole in tile?”
“We gotta do something! I’m not ready. I’m not ready to…to…end!”
The haze surged like fire, and orange invaded the white. People of the haze stopped and took notice, eventually turning to us, then Trent. He took in his appearance, noticing all color had returned.
“Please,” he said, putting hands on my shoulders. “Help?”
The train pulled in, hissing to a stop, and the doors opened. Red light burned the haze away, creating a line through the white, and people backed away from the traveling path maker. It led right to us, to him. Yellow motes of dust glittered within the red beam.
“I’m gonna get tortured! Ripped apart! I won’t get to keep my body! You want that for me?”
My mind raced with things to say, with what I could do, yet all I said was, “I don’t know what to do!”
He stared at me with disbelief on his face.
A tall figure stepped out of the train. At first, I believed it to be a man, but no man was this tall, this thin, or this obstructed. Within the white, it wasn’t anything but a dark figure, yet it traversed along the red path, and from the white came the figure; a tall gray being with arms and legs as long and thin as tree branches and a neck like a llama’s. Its head was shaped like a guitar pick, the top end wide and the mouth area tiny. Massive triangular eyes looked down at me, and then Trent. Its mouth was no bigger than a coin slot in a game machine. It had no nose.
This being reached out its long four fingered hand to Trent and, shaking, he faced the entity. It stared him down with its immense black eyes, his reflection shown in the organs’ wet shimmer.
He raised his hands, sniffling, crying, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know…it would…create so much pain. Please don’t punish me.”
The being did not move.
“I’m just a kid! I…I can make mistakes.”
A coldness took over me when I leaned forward. I watched my reflection move in the being’s eyes. “Trent, did you hurt someone?”
“Killed someone,” he corrected.
I stared at him, moved over so I could be in front of him, then looked at the being.
It was staring at me.
I backed away from Trent.
It returned its attention to the boy.
“What do ya say, huh? Another round?”
The haze did not move. The people did not move. There was no sound except for the occasional hiss of the train.
Slowly, it shook its head.
“Fuck it!” Trent yelled, and ran. The being roared, a sound that did not come from its tiny mouth, but from every pore of its body. Haze blasted away from the being like an explosion. Horns ripped through the being’s back, claws extended from its finger tips, and the tiny mouth widened, opened, and the lower jaw jutted out, unleashing a row of ragged sharp teeth from of its lower jaw. Horns sprouted from the side of its head and wrapped around its massive under bite. Its eyes burned to life, and the being reached for Trent with its skinny arm and snatched him. Trent tried to kick free, then tried punching the hand holding him, but the being was twice the size it had been. It snarled at the boy. Trent looked at me and reached out.
I couldn’t move.
The being walked to the train with its prize. It ducked and—somehow—slipped inside the train. Trent wept without control, but when the train doors shut, his cries ceased.
The train departed without a whisper.
I open my eyes and watch the wind play with the curtains.
Daylight beams through the open window, the wind smelling of honeysuckle and thistle. Birds are chirping and crickets sing their verse when given the chance. Someone is singing, and it rolls me out of bed and gets me on my feet. I rub sleep from my face. It’s a cool morning, unusual for what we’d been having compared to previous summers.
I gaze out the window and she’s in the garden by the tree. Though the sun is bright in the clear sky, its rays do not reach her as she plants under the shade. All the land is deep and rich green, with the only artificial sound the train about two miles out. I take a deep breath of the living world and throw on a shirt and robe.
The sun is warm but the wind is cool, and I tighten the robe around my body. Her hair is different, and while the length is as I remember, along with her curls, her once brown hair has turned bright silver, and it’s been tied into a ponytail where the wind plays with the faded curls. She stops humming and turns to me, smiles, and holds out her hand.
I take it and sit down. Luvora’s leaves rattle in the wind, and the woman takes time to finish her task and removes her garden gloves. When she looks at me, I see in her eyes the look of a woman who I’ve known for a long time, and she smiles.
“What brings you out here to our tree, mister?” she says. Her voice still has a dainty quality to it, her lisp still present, and it makes her sound far younger.
I take her hand in mine. “I just wanted to see you. Feels like you keep getting up earlier and earlier. I can’t find you sometimes.”
“I’ll be here. If you can’t find me, look out here, because this tree is the best tree.”
I take her in my arms. Her smell is something I love and won’t soon forget, one that comes from her hairline.
“I never want to leave,” I whisper. “I want to be here with you.”
“You know where to look,” she says. “I’ll wait for you.”
And it’s here I say her name once more, a name I swore never to forget but can’t recall. I close my eyes and try to remember, yet nothing comes.
“I miss you,” she whispers.
I opened my eyes.
The woman in maroon stood over me, eyeing me in a way someone might look at a stray cat. I sat up and leaned against the wall.
“You were talking to that young man,” she said, looking at me with her green eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, and ran a hand over my face. “What’s with people here? How come no one helps one another?”
“That young man went to Hell. You don’t stand in the way of someone’s judgement. Never.”
She shook her head in a tight manner, as if to tell me what would happen was far too terrible to mention.
I saw movement over her shoulder and noticed the two old men walking towards us. The taller one, with the beard and withered face, approached with huge and attentive eyes.
“What’s going on? I saw the show, but why is Miss Tie-Dye talking with you?”
The woman turned to the visitors, looked at the man with his long gray beard, then the one with the glasses. “He wants to know why no one tried to help that boy.”
“Whoa,” said the withered man, holding out his hands. “I know you’re new here, but you don’t do that. Ever.”
“What happens? Did no one else feel for him?”
The man with glasses shrugged. “It was his choice that put him there. We can’t stand in the way of that.”
Withered man looked at the woman. “No one has spent more time here than you, Miss Maroon. Why don’t you tell him?”
She went back to shaking her head quickly. “You…you won’t ever leave.” She rubbed her arms, folded them, and looked at the men. “When was the last time the good train showed up?”
Silence loomed amongst us. It was the withered man who said. “It’s been a while.”
The man with glasses nodded in agreement.
“There are two trains?” I said.
“Yes,” the woman said. “But it feels like the good one hasn’t been here forever. Maybe it quit working?”
“I don’t think it works that way,” the man with glasses said.
I was about to ask her how you could tell the difference between the two when her eyes lost focus and she stared through me. Her shoulders straightened and she sat with her legs folded under her. I looked at the men behind her, who were confused by her noticeable change.
She touched me, a sensation I felt upon my skin—cold. Her eyes took focus, but they shifted from green to blue, and when they looked at me, it was far too much like I woman in my dream.
“Do you remember?” she whispered. She was so close to me I could see all the lines in her lips. “I’m here.”
I was leaning away from the woman as she leaned into me. “Where?” I managed.
“Where I’d always be.”
I gasped, broke free, and her eyes changed from blue to green and she shook her head. Confusion was all over her face, as if she had no idea how she had gotten here, how she was in the middle of a group of guys, and hurried to her feet and left.
The two men stood beside me in silence.
“Has that ever happened?” I said.
The man with the beard shook his head. “No…not once.”
I thought a moment, watched her fade into the white. “Has the train ever not come before?”
“Oh yeah. Happens a lot.”
“Why would that happen?”
“It could be for several reasons. You’ve come at a time when those of color are few, but there was a time when many of those with color were here, and the train never picked them up. She was a part of that group.”
“What happens to them?”
The old man shrugged. “The train doesn’t come, but they don’t stay here. They go back to reality, the ole land of the living. Not as a member, but as a guest without a pass to leave, if that makes sense. You get like her, and do what you’ve been suggesting, you’ll wander both realms.”
“Helping someone? I’d be punished?” I looked from one man to the other.
The man with glasses nodded.
“I’d become a ghost?”
“Both in our old world and this one. She has to fight to remember who she is. When she remembers, she vanishes, when she can’t…she’s here.”
I mulled in thought, and after studying the crowd of vacant stares, I said, “What if someone did something, something important, and when everything was coming back, you realized there was one thing you needed to get done, but didn’t.”
“Because you wound up here?” he said.
“Hope it didn’t happen to me,” the one with the beard said.
Images flashed; the night sky, the crescent moon, the stars, the tree. The woman—my wife—knelt before a dug-up hole and her hands clasped before her.
“I’m going to need you to promise me something,” she whispers from behind her hands. I smell honeysuckle, feel the warm and wet air against my skin and realize I’m under the tree with her. Her hair is silver like the dream, and she turns her lined but elegant face to me and smiles.
“What’s that?” I say.
“If you go before me, I want you to find me and tell me you haven’t forgotten me, and that you’ll wait for me in Heaven.”
I nod. “I’ll come back for you.”
“Yes, I promise.”
Back in the haze, the two men were staring at me.
“Let me ask you something,” the man with the beard said.
“Did you just get some kind of gusto image? Cause you lit up like a Christmas tree.”
I looked at my outfit—a suit—and reveled in the blue radiating from the fabric.
“I think so,” I said, and stared into the white while in thought. Then a name rose in my mind, and it rushed forward and burst from me. “Gwendolyn.”
The haze stopped. The men stared.
“I need to be alone,” I said, and left.
There had been a time when I was little, where I had gotten up early and seen the flatlands washed out like everything was here. Fog covered everything and sound had a weird way of not traveling, and even as a kid I was in awe of just how quiet it was. While everything was buried in white, I knew the world underneath had color, and it kept me grounded.
Walking amongst the haze and knowing there was nothing beneath the surface, I tried to fish out the color within the world, searching for anyone who had the saturation like Trent had. Color glowed from my own body and outfit, but the only other bit of color I saw was the woman in the maroon dress, trying to use her phone with brows so tight a crease formed at the middle of her forehead.
She looked at me, running her colorless fingers over her forehead. I followed her hand and realized her hair was bright blonde, so bright I believed she must have colored her hair. She pushed her hand into her hair and approached me, and with all the color in her clothes, it was almost enough to think she was leaving soon as well, but the dead white complexion of her skin told me a different truth. She swayed her arms back and forth like she was walking, but there was no sound of her footsteps, no shift in her body as she moved—she levitated to me.
“You look bright,” she said. “Got someone on your mind?”
“My wife.” The cold haze graced the back of my neck and I shivered. “You ever get tired of the cold?”
Her face twisted when I asked, and I knew by her confusion it was something she no longer felt.
“You miss being alive?”
Now she looked at me with her green eyes and said, “All the time. I try to reach out to my son so we might talk, remind him that I haven’t abandoned him but…” She shook her head. “He doesn’t pay attention.”
“You ever have the feeling you missed out on something, when at the time, you felt you couldn’t have been anymore in the moment than you were?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You mean wishing we could go back and do things differently?”
“I mean for every moment I was alive, was I really taking in everything to the best of my ability? Was I really appreciating the moment? The happiness? And sadness?”
“I don’t know if the regular person does. If what I remember of the real world is right, we were pretty good about making ourselves hurry along. Not a lot of us are given the chance to take in the silence and breathe, most would think it stupid anyway.”
“Forty years together with my wife and all I can remember is her name and certain times we talked.”
“It’s when you were most there.”
“That’s why you remember them. You have to focus on them while falling asleep; you can talk to her when the memories become reality.”
“As long as she’s listening.”
I brushed past her, stopped, and turned. “Do you want to leave here? I mean, do you really want to leave?”
The woman in maroon looked at me closely, and color rose to her cheeks. “I…I can’t leave my boy. I know he could hear me if he would just listen. It’s so hard to remember everything.” She paused with a finger bent over her upper lip. “Talk to her, and remember what you need to say so you can leave this place!”
Memory invaded me.
She sits on the deck looking at the tree towering over the garden and the surrounding bushes. It casts deep and long shade over the backyard. The setting sun beams through thick leaves, changing their color from green to gold.
The alfalfa field has been hayed, and sit in giant rolls over the flatlands. From the deck, I see our neighbor’s farmland, the cows grazing and wandering around. The distant train calls from afar. To our north, there’s humming of a radio playing as another neighbor works in the garage. Robins run about the dried bull-grass.
“So, why did you name it Luvora?”
I tear free from my admiration of the land and focus on her. “It’s a good name.”
“It’s actually not, but what made you pick it?”
“It’s a special name.”
I sigh, then say, “Before my mom died, she told me to close my eyes and focus on something that meant something to me, so…I imagined a tree. She said to give it a name, and I picked Luvora. She told me as long as I held onto that creation, it would be the place all my dreams came from. And it would be the place she’d visit me.”
“Only when I slept.”
I snapped out of the memory. The woman in maroon was next to me, and she helped me to my feet. She gave a tiny smile, then walked away, fading into the white. I hurried to a corner and closed my eyes.
I dream of the tree and Gwendolyn is there.
I approach, listening to my own footfalls in the grass. It’s night. The stars are out but the moon is nowhere. Her eyes are closed, and in the summer night, the air is oppressively hot, dry, and pressing down on my back and shoulders, but it’s a feeling I enjoy. Locusts buzz and from the distance frogs chirp.
I sit next to her, fold my legs and clasp my hands. She’s much older than my memories allow to see. Lines traverse her face and mouth. But because she is asleep, that great youthfulness about her is still prevalent, even in the way she’s slouching against the tree with a hand gently touching her cheek.
“Hi,” I whisper, and wait. The orchestra of night becomes overbearing. Gwen stirs a moment, sits up, then her head lolls to the side as she sighs in comfort. “Baby, I’m here,” I urge, and again she shifts, this time with her face towards me.
“Len?” she says, and I’m taken back by her voice. Old did she appear on the outside, but the essence within her is just as young as I remembered.
“Hi Gwen,” I whisper and smile. “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.” She sighs. “Why did you leave me?”
The explanation, though I have no idea what that could be, is right on the tip of my tongue, but the simplicity of her gentle accusation throws me onto the ground and bolts me to it. How could I justify this? My absence?
“I’m sorry,” I say, and know the real answer is still on my mind, what happened to me, and if I wanted to, I could see what it was. In that moment of reckoning, I saw the swaying curtains, remembered the feeling of the cool air brushing through the thin cotton, and knew the pain in my chest that had kept me up all night was no longer something I could ignore, because it busted through to the forefront.
Gwen’s panicking screams fill my head and echo over the land. It makes Gwen furrow her brows, turn away and ball into a fetal position.
“I’m here, baby,” I say, and she turns to me slightly. “I haven’t left, but I need to.”
“It’s my next stop. But I’m here to tell you I’ll be there when it’s your time. I haven’t forgotten you, and I’ll be waiting for you. I also wanted to tell you that I love you.”
She smiles—a faint one, and faces me. Gwen takes a deep breath and lets it out, and for the first time in years, relaxation settles into her shoulders.
“Good night,” she says.
I smile. “Good night.”
Night shifts to white. I look to the sky, observe the stars and then Luvora. It towers over me, sways in the light breeze. I put my hand on the trunk, and as the white takes over what’s left of reality, warmth and vitality tickle my fingers.
I opened my eyes. I rubbed my chest, recognized the old familiar pain present for months, maybe years, then removed my hand and the phantom pain disappeared.
“Lancaster,” I said. “My name is Lancaster Cobb.”
The train arrived, pulling in slowly and stopping with a hiss. It idled before the doors opened. Baby blue light spilled out and burned off the haze. From open doors stepped out the tall and lanky entity. When the being walked towards me, the people did not rush to move aside, they stared at the being with awe, and once it was standing in front of me, I noticed a navy-blue shade to its large, dark eyes.
It bent and studied me. I observed my obscured reflection in its eyes. It held out its hand and the long fingers unraveled before me. I considered the offered hand, then looked up to the being.
“May I ask a question?”
The being kept its attention on me.
“Will you look after my wife? Gwendolyn? When she comes here, please let her come to me.”
The being turned its head to the side, like a child might when hearing something that doesn’t make sense, but the being gave a slow and single nod.
I wrapped my hand around a pair of the being’s fingers. I approached the train and as I drew closer, the world changed from white to blue, and the coolness of the realm melted away to an embracing warmth. I hesitated before stepping through the open door, feeling fear, then entered and blue light overtook me.
In that final embrace, I stood beneath Luvora with Gwen. I held her in my arms and swayed back and forth. I closed my eyes against the setting sun and smiled. Birds chirped. The sun was warm. Her smell was rich.
Hosts for the Rains
By J.A. Becker
They came with the rains.
I had my suit on. Jane didn’t.
The turquoise sky just frosted over with clouds as quick as a finger snap, and the rains fell.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. To let her take her suit off. But she was desperate. You get that way sometimes. You just want to feel real air against your skin, the sun warming your hair. These tin cans can feel like a tomb and you just have to get out of your shell or you’ll go mad.
So I let her.
And now the rains are falling all around us, plinking off our suits with tinny clinks, and we just look at each other through our fishbowls.
There’s an ocean between us, but not a word comes to our lips.
By now, they’ve wriggled in through her pores, burrowed straight down through her flesh and into a vein, caught a ride on some hemoglobin up into the brain, and are feasting.
I watch her pupils swell till her eyes become black holes.
And then I run.
I’ve this mad notion that I can reverse this. That it’s not too late. That I can somehow use the ship’s equipment to suck the squiggling tadpoles out of her grey matter and there won’t be just swiss cheese left.
I pound across the cracked earth in my titanium suit, shouting into the COM to open the ship’s door. Shouting for help.
I mount a red dune with just a couple of strides. I cross a desert with a bound. When I mount the final hill, I see the ship is gone. Just its square prints are left in the red earth.
They’ve left us.
Left me to die at the hands of my deranged wife.
From what I know, the adult parasites burrow in and live symbiotically with the host; whilst it’s the juveniles that live in the clouds who are hell-bent on life and death. They fall down with the rains, land on a host, and send it on a rampage, killing everything it can get its hands on. Then the bodies in its murderous wake become more hosts for the rains. And on and on the cycle of life goes.
But the adults are solitary creatures. They’re known to consume any competition in the host. They even heal a host’s body, give it life, vitality, which is why the Imperium pays us top dollar to collect them.
If I could just…
“Bruce. Can you hear me?”
My heart stops.
“Bruce, my sweet, sweet love. Where are you?”
My startled gasp frosts the front of my fishbowl.
It’s her voice coming through the COM, her exact voice. But she can’t be. She’s infected. They’ve eaten away her brains. She shouldn’t be able to even speak.
“Bruce. Where are you, my sweet love? Talk to me baby. Tell me where you are?”
I spend the day hiding in a crevice, crying my eyes out and listening to her call for me.
That moment where I tell her it’s OK, that I’ll watch the skies while she sunbathes in her underwear, plays again and again in my mind.
And I see myself run, like a coward. I throw it all away and just run because I was scared.
That’s the most unbearable bit of it all. In a split second, I abandon her after twenty years of marriage.
“Bruce. I’m scared. Tell me where you are? I need you.”
A terrible cry surges up my throat. I bite down on my lips to stop it from spilling out. Tears make the rocky, desert landscape a wavering, liquid sea.
I was on a collecting crew one time where some idiot forgot to keep his gloves on. He went mad. He became a senseless killing machine. Took a shovel and smashed open the foreman’s fishbowl, then crushed his windpipe with his bare hands. Then he lifted a girl up by her legs and dashed her like a doll against a rock.
But Jane seems sane. It hasn’t affected her like it’s done to others. Perhaps what I’ve read isn’t completely true?
A pebble plinks off my fishbowl and I look up into the chink of day.
She’s high above, bent over the crevice and looking down at me. Her long brown hair has fallen forward and pooled in her fishbowl, her face just a furry mass.
“Bruce! There you are!”
And then she heaves down a fist-sized rock at me and I’ve no time to react.
It hits my fishbowl square with a resounding gong that nearly splits my head it two. The world seems to separate and then come back together.
Cracks spread across my fishbowl, and there is a soft hiss as the outside pressure equalizes.
I can taste the planet’s air now, it’s arid and sweet.
And I run.
This planet’s rock formations are born from some violent upheaval, thrust into the sky at sharp angles like dragon’s teeth.
It’s hard to scramble across this with my wife just a rock’s throw behind me, chasing me and whispering poison in my ears.
“I think you were relieved when we lost the baby. That’s why you never said anything about it. You were relieved, weren’t you?”
I’ve seen the juveniles under a microscope, they’re like tadpoles with teeth; just a mindless, black squirming mass.
How can they do this?
“Bruce, did you ever really love me? Truly? Is that why you didn’t want the baby? You didn’t love me?”
It’s working, these barbs. They’re slowing me down, making me think because there’s truths in all of them.
I get up a shale-faced ridge, nearly slip back down into her open arms. I turn around and see she’s struggling to get up too, can’t get a purchase and keeps sliding back down. She stops and looks up at me.
Her eyes are all black now, no whites, just empty black pools.
“Bruce. Come down. I just want to talk.”
I nearly do. She is my wife after all, and I love her so.
“Yes. Come down Bruce. You owe this to me. For once in your life, own up to something.”
All her talk has gnawed its way through my head and into my heart. She’s got to me. She deserved so much and all she got was me.
“Just step forward and I can catch you.”
But I can’t move. My selfish body won’t let me do it.
“For Annette you can step forward! Can’t you Bruce!”
Our neighbor Annette, tight tops and short shorts; and Jane was always away on long, long trips.
Truly, I’m a bastard.
“You owe me everything Bruce! Everything! Step forward!”
And I run.
I’ve looped back to the fissure where we were collecting.
Eventually, the parasites mature and force their hosts to walk to these cracks, then they’ll squirm their six-inch bodies out of the closest orifice and climb down into the cleft’s warm depths.
It’s kind of like fishing. You drop in a couple of pellets and the fissure fills up with white foam. Any parasites are pushed up to the surface, where you scoop em up and sell them for a small fortune.
It’s easy, but dangerous work.
And I was a fool to take her with me. She should be up there, studying the stars where she belongs; not down here in the muck of this planet with me.
“The astrophysicist marries a commoner, eh Bruce? That’s what my dad said, didn’t he?”
The crack is about a foot wide and ten feet long. I drop in a couple of pellets.
How can she be so sane, yet insane?
“You know, I’ve been thinking about us,” she says. “And it’s true what they say. The alphas do marry the deltas. Do you know what I mean? When a person is one extreme, say they are this brilliant, beautiful woman who achieves and achieves. Well, they don’t marry that same kind of man. No. That would be too extreme, that would be too much competition for them, that would be an unbalanced relationship. So do you know what they do? Can you guess?”
I don’t know what her game is now, but it’s crushing me from the inside out. I let out a ragged, defeated breath. My eyes sting with tears that I cannot wipe away. I wish to hell I could shut this COM off.
“Why they marry you, of course. The parasite skimmer. And it’s not some unconscious instinct driving one to do this. It’s a calculated, conscious decision that I weighed out in my brilliant head.”
The first of the white foam begins to bubble out and I get a glass bottle ready.
“Bruce, do you know what I’m saying? Can you understand me, or am I speaking too quickly for you?”
“Ahh! Good. He speaks. We can converse now.”
The white foam rises out of the crack like a baked cake and there’s nothing. It’s empty. I drop another pellet into small fissure to my left.
“So I’m saying that all those awful things you think about yourself, how you are a nobody, how you don’t deserve somebody like me…well, they are all true. I was lying when I said you were special. That you hadn’t found your calling yet. That when it comes you will know it and you will run with it and you will be amazing. It was all lies.”
I can’t take it anymore and I cry out. “Why are you telling me this?! Why are you hurting me like this?”
“Because you are nothing and now I’m free to say it.”
“This isn’t you.”
“Of course it’s me, Bruce. It’s me through and through. Not all of these juveniles eat your mind away. Some of them are smart. Some of them just want to live in symbiosis like the adults that you pimp out.”
“This can’t be true. I’ve never heard of that.”
“It is. You and your fellow skimmers never bothered to investigate because, for one, you’re not intelligent enough to do so and, two, all you care about is money so you never bothered to dig into it. Yet, here I am. Speaking to you clearly and concisely, so try to tell me I’m wrong.”
“No! It’s not possible!”
“It is, Bruce. They wriggle in and just nibble away at the front matter of your brain, feels like seltzer bubbling beneath your forehead. And your reward for feeding them is clarity of mind and unimaginable strength. I could break you over my knee if I caught you.”
Foam begins to bubble out of the crack and I ready the bottle.
This isn’t her. There’s just no way. They’ve done something to her. She is my wife, my meek, wonderful wife who dotes on my every word. She gave up her rich life and her massive inheritance to be with me. This angry, spiteful creature isn’t her.
“Bruce, why don’t you tell me where you are?”
“Bruce, are you not listening to me? Are you too stupid to hear me? I’m trying to help you.”
There, pushed to the surface on a cake of white foam is an adult. A black, six-inch slug that writhes in frustration.
“Obviously, I’m not being clear enough. What I’m trying to tell you is that you have always been nothing and I have always been something. And now that they’re with me, I am even more than I was. Do you understand? They’ve elevated me even higher, Bruce, and I want you to come with me. I can’t promise that you’ll be up to where I am, but you will be better than that thing you are.”
God, her words have a pull to them. I know she’s full of it, I know that’s not my wife talking, but deep down I am tempted. Those are my wife’s memories they’re drawing from and they know exactly what to say. Know exactly which of my weaknesses to prey upon.
She was always so much better than me, at everything. I was just this pale creature in her shadow. I do want to be more than I am, desperately, and she knows this. Knows how I’ve struggled with this.
I uncork the glass stopper and easily scoop him up in the bottle. They’re pretty harmless like this. I could pop him like a grape between my forefingers.
“Of course! I know where you are. Your self-importance has given you a false sense of noblesse oblige and you’re back at the cracks, trying to skim your troubles away.”
Startled, I look up and see her.
The planet’s eternal wind has raked up the sand of the red desert into long serpentine ridges and she is on top of one, fast approaching. In the bright sun, she shimmers in her suit like a shooting star.
And I run.
I run maybe a full mile and then collapse beneath a boulder. The fracture in my fishbowl is letting my moisture escape, so my throat is bone dry, my lips are cracked and parched.
Sleep! My body lusts for it. I try to stave it off, but I find my eyes drooping. Then against everything, I drop off.
I awake with a start. The sky is a black mass of clouds, threatening rain. Night has fallen. My skin prickles from the frost that’s crept through the fissures in my fishbowl. The suit’s heaters can’t keep up.
I stand. I’ve been asleep for too long and she could be right on top of me. My heart thuds in my chest and my limbs tremble as I look around for her. But all I see is a ruined landscape of red rocks.
“Bruce, obviously I’m not insane. I’m quite coherent. Tell me where you are so we can talk.”
“You dropped a rock on my head.”
“Yes, but you needed it.”
“Because everything you do is done so timidly. You have to be kicked over the edge so you’ll fly. Bruce, you need these things to be better than you are, to be stronger than you are.”
There is no other way. I’m going to have to fight her. Fight my wife who is full of adrenaline and with her pain receptors shut off.
I shudder at the thought of it.
My plan is a fool’s plan. I somehow have to break her fishbowl open and stuff this parasite up her nose. That’s all I’ve got though. That’s all the planning I’ve done.
And then there is this other half of me that thinks she’s right. She is never wrong about anything, ever. She is the brains and backbone of our relationship. She’s right, I do need pushes to get me going–and more than once she’s done that and I’ve been grateful. I do need to be better than I am. Perhaps those things in my head would give me the clarity I need, make me stronger in body and mind.
But it isn’t completely lost on me how much she’s manipulating me. Like a master puppeteer, she’s pulling the right threads to make feel and think this way.
The crack of lightning in the dark clouds draws my attention. A ship suddenly streaks across the skies overhead. The roar of its engines rumbles like thunder.
Another skimming crew, landing to try their luck.
There’s no way she hasn’t seen that.
“Jane, I’m ready. I’ve made up my mind. You’re right. I need this. Where are you? I’m too scared to take my helmet off by myself.”
Not a word.
My heart races and my mind somersaults at the meaning of this. It was all a trick. Now that they’re here, I’m secondary. It really wasn’t about me becoming more than I am. All that was bullshit.
She really has lost her mind. They really are in control.
And I run.
The ship is not too far off. I figure it’s about a mile away. I can see it glowing like a gem on the horizon.
She’s likely making her way to it. Does she want to kill them and make her way across the galaxy? Or make more hosts for the rains? I have no idea what those tadpoles are thinking.
And then I see her. There’s LED lights ringing the base of her helmet. Her dark form is scrambling up a rock face not too far off.
I still want to save her, despite everything.
And I run after her.
She’s making hellishly good time though. She’s up and over the cliff and out of sight in seconds.
I leap down off a rock and land with heavy booted feet. Pins and needles shoot up my spine. I don’t stop for a second and I pump my legs, running. With the crack in my fishbowl, the air filtration can’t keep up with my heavy breathing and it quickly frosts over with my panicked breaths. I pull it off and throw it to the ground.
I run on for what seems forever, losing sight of her and then gaining it and then losing it again.
Eventually, I have to stop to catch my breath and throw up. I’m sweating so badly, I feel like I’m swimming in this suit. It’s hot and wet and I can’t run in it any longer. I pull a latch and it splits in two and I step out as it falls to the ground. I grab the bottle tightly in my wet, sweaty fist.
And I run.
The ship is at the base of a hill. It’s a big white glowing egg. Its front door is open and rampway is extended. Warm lights spill out of the entranceway and illuminate a square patch of earth in the front of the ship.
I scramble down the hill, watching the surrounding landscape for movement. But I don’t see any.
Now that I’ve slowed, the night chill sets in. The cool air prickles my sweaty flesh and a shiver runs up my spine. Suddenly, I’m very conscious of how exposed I am. I’ve got on white boxers and just a t-shirt.
I sneak up to the ship, keeping to the shadows and listening for any sounds coming from within.
Judging my moment, I slink out from behind a rock and quickly make my way up to the ship. Just as my foot touches the patch of light cast upon the ground, a dark figure fills the entranceway.
I gasp in surprise and my heart squelches in my chest, but I’m too startled to move.
The figure is in a suit and they have their back to me. Whoever it is, they’re bent over and dragging something large.
I can’t help but let out a cry as I see that what they’re dragging is a body. It’s a man and his head is crushed like a smashed cantaloupe.
It’s Jane, I realize. She’s killed the crew and is dragging them out one by one. Hosts for the rains.
Her back is to me. She drags the person down the ramp, leaving a long bloody trail behind.
There’s a big rock at my feet. I put the bottle down and pick it up with two hands. I raise it high above my head, and I wait.
A shock of thunder splits the skies, but I stand as still as a tree.
Closer she comes.
There’s a moment there where I waver. This could kill her. Or worse, it doesn’t kill her and she kills me. Or all this has been true and I am ruining the one chance I have to be better than I am and be on her level. Or I’m taking all this away and dropping her right back down beneath me.
The raindrops begin to fall and I bring the rock down.