The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- Silt and Shale by Zane Mankowski
- Painting without Canvas by Robert Del Mauro
- Canvas Captured by Lindsey Duncan
- Watchers by Chris Dean
- The Voice from Beyond the Desert by Stephanie Lane Gage
- The Heat Death of Everything I Love by Griffin Ayaz Tyree
- 50 Mile Station by Amanda Hund
- I am Mary by Matthew Harrison
- Everything For Beth by Charlotte H. Lee
- Reading Shadows by Stephen Taylor
- The Memory Jar by George Lockett
- Eaku by David Misialowski
Silt and Shale
By Zane Mankowski
My life’s always been a slate sunset, but it really hit a shit river one cold evening on Pier Thirty-three, Brynn Bay.
Sita and I had nabbed a keg of spikeberry wine and taken it to the pier, where we dangled our legs while we drank it down and hallucinated all night. The sea crashed against the pillars and made the world quake and Sita, prone, moaned and clenched the wood slats ’til her fingers went white. I stood tall at the end of the pier and the sea roared and swayed me back and forth and side to side, but never could topple me. I laughed to the black sky, I raised my fists high and bellowed at the night and called for lightning to incinerate me and scatter my ashes into the bay, but heaven never took to my taunts, so I laughed ’til I cried, I cried ’til I laughed, I laughed ’til I rasped, I rasped ’til I cried again. Sita clutched my legs and threw up all over my boots, then my tummy twisted and I found myself keeled over too. The wine hurtled out our bellies and splattered into the bay.
Sita pressed her face against my ankles. “What’s happening, Kaani?”
“It’s just the wine.”
We laid quiet for a long time as we waited for sobriety’s return, while Brynn Bay hammered the pier.
They found us. I think. It may have been a spikeberry vision. Two men stormed Pier Thirty-three, their only weapons biceps thick as tree trunks, their skin even darker than mine, so in the night, they seemed headless, angry eyes over burly bodies. They trapped us against all of Brynn Bay, a thousand gallons of chilled saltwater, and I had nothing but a flax gown and a oak keg of wine and Sita at my side.
I rolled the keg to the edge of the pier and clutched the bung. “Come closer, and Brynn Bay’s getting drunk on all your precious wine.”
“That’s the Gutterking’s wine. You dump it in the bay, you’ll never pay off that debt. You could spend your life spreading your legs for every man in the city and you’d never make enough. That wine’s worth your life, fifty times over.”
“Fifty of yours too.” I grinned so wide it hurt my jaw. “What will the Gutterking do to you if Brynn Bay drinks up?”
I couldn’t see it, but I sensed their scowls, I sensed the air stiffen and crackle with their violent intent. They advanced. I yanked the bung out and let a gulp of red spikeberry wine splash into Brynn Bay before I jammed it back in. “That’s one life! Back up!”
They did. The tide crashed against the pier and the world swam and intricate patterns glittered on the sea foam. The men muttered as they pondered a new plan. I held my hostage close, the oak cold against my fingers. Sita wiped her mouth and stood beside me.
The men noticed her, and a light gleamed in their eyes. “She’d make a fortune posted in Sava District. A lot more than the ugly one.”
I hissed. Of course Sita would. I pulled her behind me.
The men opened their stances, their fists became open palms, their faces became amicable. “You want a future, miss? You could make more money than you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m Nurul. This is Tcha. What’s your name, miss?”
Sita held my hand and trembled.
“Forget the wine. Come with us and your theft’s forgiven. Don’t you want a future?”
Sita and I backed up against the end of Pier Thirty-three. Night tightened around us. The sun had set long ago and dreamed of never rising again. Up and down the edge of Brynn Bay, the other piers held the odd fisher or midnight wanderer, and mud shacks lined the coastline and brimmed with sleeping souls. I could yell, I could cry out, and people would run to our aid, but Sita and I were the thieves here, the evidence in my shaking hands. Down that thread, a jail cell beckoned, a cell guarded by the Watchguild, and those men were the last men you’d ever want to see if you were a woman.
Nurul took a baby step closer. “The Gutterking pays all his girls a fine advance, twelve silver fingers. That’s two full hands before you service a single client! No more petty theft to get by. That’s a life of leisure. That’s a future anyone would want. Don’t you want that future?”
Sita touched the keg bung. “Would you wish that future upon your mother?” She tore the bung out and the wine gurgled into Brynn Bay. She kicked the keg and it crashed into the water.
The men cried out and lunged at us. I shoved Sita off the pier, then I dove after. Brynn Bay ate us, its maw ice. My skin screamed but my mind didn’t flinch, the pain a welcome shock that reminded me I was alive, reminded me that the thread with Nurul had unraveled. Colors shimmered far beneath us, a blurry sunrise in the depths. I swam. I cut across the bay, Sita in my wake. I hit another pier and Brynn Bay spat us out. We scrabbled up the rough, barnacle-strewn side, then we panted and shivered on that pier ’til a fisherman spat a chaw of sunleaf at us and cursed us for scaring the fish. We stumbled away. On Pier Thirty-three, Nurul scooped the keg out of the water, but from his distraught wail, he’d lost a lot of money, the Gutterking’s money. He and Tcha raced after us.
We ran. We dove ‘tween the mud shacks ’til they gave way to tall, wood and steel building faces with eyes that gleamed torchlight yellow and brick chimneys that belched black smoke. We climbed one. Our fingers were slippery and our minds were fuzzy, but we’d scaled those chimneys a thousand times before, every time the shopkeeps or hawkers caught our fingers in their purses or stockrooms, so Sita and I reached the roof quick. Nurul and Tcha arrived too late. The roofs by the bay jammed into a maze untraceable to anyone on the ground.
Nurul waved the empty keg high and seawater dribbled out the bung hole. His voice was a ghost ship. “This debt ain’t something you walk away from.”
Sita spat but missed his face.
“I almost pity you. Your futures are wilting fast.”
I found a loose slate shingle and cracked it off and hurled it at Nurul, but he blocked it with the keg. I bared my teeth. “Never had a future anyways.”
“You can run today. Tomorrow too. But the Gutterking will find you.”
I belted out a laugh. “We’re two thieves with not a finger of silver. We’re nothing to him.”
“You’re nothing. But she is something.” Nurul grinned at Sita. “With a face like that, she’ll make ten times his best girl. She might even service the pale princes of the Tomb Keep. She’s a damned diamond, and the Gutterking’d be a fool not to snatch her up.”
Sita shriveled next to me. I didn’t feel her heartbeat but I knew it jittered with fear and rage and bitterness as mine did. She clutched my hand and whispered, “Let’s go.”
We scampered across the rooftops with slate shingles that creaked and wobbled and chimneys that puffed out warm clouds that blackened our gowns and smelt of sulfur and sweet sunleaf ash and roasted crayfish. The soot hung low in the sky and blotted out the stars. The Tomb Keep loomed above the city, one full quarter of the horizon, just as dark, not a damn window on all its surface, a hundred smokeless flues stuck out at insane angles. The buildings grew taller. In the streets below, the scant folks shrank to ants, their shrill chatter dimmed by distance, their suspicious gazes glazed over as we leapt from rooftop to rooftop, crept from balcony to balcony, swung from clothesline to clothesline.
The sky lightened. The spikeberry visions had swallowed night fast.
The city roofs grew apart. We dropped down to street level and reached Lyten Temple, ten stories tall, the only structure that dared rival the Tomb Keep in height. Angry orange torchlight spilled from the top and lit the trees and greenery that overflowed from the highest garden to the ground floor. ‘Tween the bamboo and the oversized pitcher plants, patterns swam and shifted in carved stone. I steadied myself on the wall and stared for many minutes at the chaos. Damn. Still drunk.
Sita held my shoulder while the world wavered. The priests with their naked bulbous bellies that bobbed with each step oft paid us no mind, but sometimes they gave us a quick smile or a quicker bow. The scent of sandalwood incense wafted by. I could smell the salt and sweetness and rain in the smoke. Or maybe that was just the wine, I don’t know. A woman with a four-man retinue and a parasol with black lace curtains that almost obscured her ghost-white face walked by. Her bodyguards with their square jaws and icy composure eyed me and Sita, then thumbed the chains and spike spinners on their belts. We averted our gazes ’til they passed, then we peeked in.
I hadn’t seen a pale princess leave the Tomb Keep in years. Not to pray, not to spout platitudes for the crowds to swallow, not for anything. I crept through the quiet temple, Sita but a breath behind. The princess came to the biggest shrine, the one with a six-headed elephant statue made of chilled goat butter and burned incense. We found a shrine ‘side the princess with a baby elephant statue and burned some too. In the collection plate, between browning bananas and wilted flowers and green sunleaves, several dozen fingers of brass and silver laid. One bodyguard approached and loomed behind us, so we crumpled and bowed our heads almost into the incense sand. The seconds hummed by. Smoke circled the room. The priests locked their eyes on the princess and the other worshippers watched and wandered as close as they dared. She finished her prayer and placed a finger carved from blue gemstone on the shrine. The priests stiffened and squeezed close.
I touched Sita’s hand and kept my voice low. “Don’t get greedy.”
The princess stood, then left in a flurry of rustling skirts, and the priests descended upon the blue finger like hyenas. They blocked off the shrine and bared their teeth at anyone that might come near. Some worshippers moseyed close, with faces of pure innocence, but the priests pushed them away and escorted the finger to the back of the temple.
I touched Sita’s arm. “Now.”
We scooped the silver and brass fingers out of our collection plate, stuffed them into our gowns, and scurried out. Not a soul shouted an alarm, everyone too fixated on the princess’ finger. We ran through a dozen streets before we stopped in an alleyway to count our winnings. The sun peeked over the city walls and the silver and brass fingers gleamed in our hands.
Sita’s eyes widened. “Heavens. We’ve never pinched this much.”
No we hadn’t. I didn’t stop to gloat, to raise a fist at the sky and laugh at all its attempts to squash us. We went to a little shop on the corner of Yellowcask and Sweetriver, a shop with all the silver and gold and glittering gems and jewelry and a watchman who leered at Sita. The shopkeep looked up from a bamboo desk. A lens made one eye look enormous and she held the daintiest brush. She scanned our soot-stained gowns and pointed to the exit. “Your kind’s not allowed here.”
I held out two hands of silver. “And now?”
The lens fell out of her eye and rattled on her desk. She took one of those fingers and pressed a straight edge to each hexagonal corner, an ivory ruler along each side, even weighed it on a scale.
I pointed to a necklace behind her, one with blue jade carved into a flower. “How much for that?”
She handed back the finger with a huff. “Where’d you steal this?”
I smirked. “From your father’s codpiece.”
She waved the watchman close. A broad blade appeared in his hand, a heavy butcher knife curved and shaped into a point, a blade which could cut me apart in a flash. Sita hid behind me and her heart thumped against my shoulder.
I set the fingers on the desk and forced a confident grin across my face and clapped Sita’s back. “She works the streets of Sava District. Streetwalkin’ ain’t a crime.”
The shopkeep squinted. “She don’t dress like a streetwalker.”
“Day off. But look.” I pressed Sita forward, even as she wormed in my grasp. “Ain’t that a face men spend their life savings on?”
The shopkeep harrumphed. She toyed with her lens. We stewed in silence while she scanned us from boot to crown. She traded a number of glances with the watchman, then sighed. “Sixteen silver fingers for the necklace.”
I paid her, took the necklace, and we fled the shop right quick. The watchman called back at us, “Where in Sava do you post up, miss?”
We left the shop far behind. The rising sun beamed red across the roads and people trickled out from the houses and shops and inns and soon the streets hummed with life.
Sita slapped my shoulder. “You ass.”
“You had a better cover story?”
She shook her head and murmured an apology. We hugged and for a moment I forgot all about Nurul and Tcha and their nasty faces and their nasty threats, and all I remembered was the way last night’s sunset outlined the Tomb Keep pink and flame yellow, the way all those cloud patterns glimmered across the sky when the spikeberry wine hit us, how Sita and I had laid on Pier Thirty-three and cried at the beauty, how the wine had made the world a little bit softer, a little bit kinder, the edges smoothed out, the day to day pains paved over. And then it’d made us sick.
We went home. Home was halfway down the old clay quarry, the sides stacked with brick shacks that reached for the sun with abandon. Home was bright yellow torchlight that peeked out of one small hut separate from the rest. Home was the way mama’s face lit up when I cracked open the door. Mama tried to stand from her cot but her legs shook like leaves in a storm so I rushed over and sat her back down and hugged her and smelled the cheap pine incense that she’d been burning in her little shrine all day. She sniffed my clothes and smelled the sandalwood incense of the Lyten Temple. Sita joined our hug.
“I got you something, mama.” I showed her the necklace, the blue jade carved to a flower, and mama smiled. A little sad, but mama’s smiles had been a little sad ever since her hip gave out at the Tomb Keep and the pale princesses had dismissed her. I put the necklace on her. Sita found the small safe-box under the cot and took out the silver earrings she’d gotten mama last month and put those on mama too.
I took the brass mirror off the wall and let mama look at herself. “One day I’ll buy you a big blue ballgown, mama, one of those dresses that only the pale princesses wear. I’ll buy you a tiara and gold bracelets and twelve golden rings. You’ll go to a ball in the Tomb Keep and you’ll be the only sunshine there.”
Mama’s smile lost some of its sorrow. “I’d need a lot of chalk dust. They wouldn’t dare let in someone with my skin.”
I frowned. “Your skin’s beautiful the way it is, mama.”
“Nonsense. I need skin like her to be beautiful.” She squeezed Sita’s cheek, and Sita winced and averted her gaze.
Mama took off the jewelry and hid it under the bed and we became three grimy women in a dirty shack again, a place nobody would ever think to rob. Sita boiled a pot of water in the fireplace and made us all tea and goat’s milk.
The steam from the tea made a veil over mama’s face. “Oh Kaani, if you can afford that necklace, it must mean the princesses are paying you more!”
The princesses had laughed in my face when I’d begged for a job washing their latrines. “Yeah.”
“I told you there’s a future serving them.”
After mama served them for sixteen years, the princesses had thrown her away like garbage. “Uh huh.”
“Sita dear, you should ask them for work too.”
“Maybe, mama.” Sita said ‘mama’ with unease. All this time, and she still hadn’t gotten used to saying that, no matter how much mama insisted it.
We all sat beside the window and drank our tea in silence and watched the sky become blue and beautiful, a sky full of possibility and promise.
Three days later, all that promise dribbled down to dirt.
Sita and I sat in Uncle Amit’s bar, the one on the far side of the quarry, glasses of cheap millet wine ‘tween their hands, while the hot, sticky night air made the other patrons snappy. They chatted in hushed tones about sightings of pale princes and princesses all ’round town and some insisted it was a harbinger of bad times, some that it foretold great fortune, some that it didn’t mean a damn thing. I finished my glass and waved a brass finger ’til Amit filled me up again.
Nurul sat ‘side me.
I jumped up and almost knocked my chair over. Sita clutched my arm. Nurul ordered a glass and Amit eyed him for a spell, but when Nurul didn’t wear the slightest aura of violence, Amit shrugged and served him. I spied Tcha outside the bar, leaning against a brick wall, a big bone-cutting blade on his belt, his eyes empty of anything but malice.
Nurul downed his millet wine. “The Gutterking cut off one of Tcha’s balls.”
I shivered and looked for an exit. Behind Amit lay a storeroom, and maybe a window too.
“The Gutterking paid us to guard his wine and we failed. Tcha lost half his manhood because of you. Was it worth it?”
“We don’t pay off the wine by week’s end, the Gutterking’ll have my throat. You see the bind I’m in?”
“The wine’s never coming back.”
Pain ran rivulets through Nurul’s voice. “And I’ll never raise that much money in time. What am I to do, young miss?”
“It’s none of my business.”
“It’s all of your business. You caused this mess. If I give the Gutterking your friend and he pimps her out on Sava District, I’m in the clear.” He leered at Sita ’til she all but curled into a ball. “I don’t see any other option, though. Do you?”
“Run.” No, not an option, not with the savages swarming the countryside beyond the walls, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
Sita peeked out from behind my shoulder. “Hide.” Also dubious, with the Gutterking’s spies everywhere from Brynn Bay to Lyten Temple to even the Tomb Keep.
Nurul shook his head and stroked his scruffy beard. “I have a wife and daughter. Tcha has six kids. You think he could hide them for long? Hell, you couldn’t even hide your own mother from me.”
I mouthed a curse and stood with the speed of an elephant. Sita too.
“Go on. Run to your mommy, kids. Hide her. See if it works.”
We stepped outside. Tcha loomed but didn’t advance, so Sita and I fled through the maze of shacks, up and down the hills of the old quarry, ’til we reached home. We stopped in the alley across the way and spied on mama through the window. She sat on her bed and sipped a cup of tea and knit a ball of flax and wore the same sad smile.
Sita’s eyes were a crucible. “Nurul’s right. Where would we hide mama?”
I had no answer. I’ve never had answers to nothin’, I just pinch fingers from the temples, or wine kegs and tea tins and goat butter bricks from bars and taverns, and Sita helps. We eat or drink what spoils we can, and the rest we sell to a grimy pawn shop owner on Sweetriver. It was inevitable I suppose. One day we’d pinch something too rich for us rags and this quaint living we make would flutter apart, ashes in the breeze. But I’ll be damned if I ever thought a wine keg would kill us. I put my hands atop my head and cursed.
Sita hugged herself. “You think they’ll hurt mama?”
“Of course. They’re men.”
We watched mama knit for a long while. Neither of us dared to leave the alley, as if Tcha would appear and strike us down. The buildings kept us in shadow and silence and there we agonized over our situation.
Sita slumped against a wall. “I could do as Nurul says. Give myself to the Gutterking.”
“No!” I caught my shout before it spilled into the street and stuffed it back down my throat. “No.”
Sita looked glad I said that. Sad too. I’m sure a part of her would do anything for mama, ‘specially after mama took her in after Sita saw her own mother bobbing in Brynn Bay years ago. I’d found Sita perched on the edge of Pier Seven, her face all tears, her eyes lost in twelve hells, her body a shivering lump of everything wrong with this world, and I’d taken her back to mama’s hut where she curled in the corner by the chimney for a couple days and cried and cried and cried. Many months later, she’d told us the pale princes had raised the taxes on her home and her mom had been foolish enough to take a loan from the Gutterking, the kind of loan that’s always just a little too impossible to pay off, and it’d spiraled from there.
I hugged Sita. “I’ll kill them before I let anyone pimp you.”
That was it. I’d kill them. The Gutterking didn’t know ’bout mama, didn’t care. But Nurul and Tcha did. I’d kill them with my own two hands that couldn’t cut chicken right and my own gut that flipped at a few flicks of blood. Damn. But I would I do it. “Sita. I’ll kill Nurul and Tcha.”
“They’re twice your size. By Brynn Bay, I’ve seen sailors their size take twelve blades to chest without a cry.”
“I’ve seen it too. Those same men topple the instant a blade nicks their neck or pricks their skull.”
Sita looked into my eyes. Those crucibles were aflame. “Don’t be stupid, Kaani. You could die. If we go my route, nobody dies.”
“That’s the future you want? Lying on a bed, letting in monstrous men with diseased dicks, while the Gutterking’s pimps peek through peepholes and later beat you for not moaning loud enough?”
Sita curled into a ball. “In that future, mama lives. You too. Me too.”
“No. In that future, you die. Not your body, but your soul will burn to cinders and your smile, the one that warms me when I wake like a summertime horizon, that smile slinks away, and me and my mama will watch you die just like you watched your mama die.”
Sita slapped me so hard I smashed into the gravel street. Needles danced on my cheek. She apologized and hugged me and massaged my face.
“I’ll kill them, Sita. If I’m not back by midnight, hide mama. I don’t know where, but try your best.” I pushed her off and strode away, away from mama, and left Sita shaking in the alley. I wove through the maze of shanties back towards Uncle Amit’s bar. I figured a plan would come together as I walked, but boy was I wrong. My mind stayed blank as a backwater, and all that came together were the puzzle pieces of panic.
A pitter patter of soft boots chased me down and Sita walked ‘side me. “When every last guild refused to give you an apprenticeship because you were a woman, I was there. We watched those futures fade together. When you nabbed your first fingers from a collection plate, I was there. We became thieves together. When you kill your first victim, I’ll be there. We’ll become murderers together. Blood on your hands will be blood on mine.”
Her voice quivered but her heart shone through her fear. For all her shyness, for all the times she’d hid behind me, she’d never left me to fend for myself. A shiver shook me, the thought of having to bury Sita, the thought of seeing Sita, limbs twisted in an awful pose, blood soaking the gravel road beneath her, and I almost shouted and pushed her away. But she’d never back down, never give up on me. I grasped her hand and she clutched me back. Her touch was the only torch in today’s night.
Sita steered me away from Uncle Amit’s bar ’til she found a shop carved into the quarry wall. Within, a hundred blades and clubs and picks and chains and spike spinners hung with abandon ’round a plump teapot of a woman, her arms posed like teapot handles, the shape of many blades pressed against the underside of her apron. She moved with the speed of someone used to violence. Her simmering smile made me shiver.
Sita picked out a big broad blade, the same blade butchers used, the same blade murderers used, heavy enough to cleave bone, long enough to dance with swords, and handed it to me. It felt like a bar of solid iron, so heavy I dropped it and trembled. All those instruments of killing, all that steel that promised futures of bloodshed and bitterness, they all glared at me when the sun hit them just right, like they knew I had the dainty hands of a thief and not the callused claws of cruelty, like they knew I had no business playing with them. It was too real. I ran out the shop and slumped into an old quarry pit and breathed in, breathed out. Breathed in, breathed out. The sun burned hot and the humid air turned my palms clammy and the sharp gravel was a needlegrass field under me.
The sun blocked out. Sita stood over me, a woodcarving knife in each hand, blade no longer than her foot, and gave me one. It felt lighter than a pebble so it seemed less real, less predictive of a terrible future than those butchery blades. It made murder easy.
I hid it in my gown. “Why not poison instead?”
“There’s a cutting edge and a sharp spike for sale on every corner, but we don’t know the first thing about poisons. We don’t know how they take, how fast they work, or where they’re sold. And we don’t have much time. We better act before they get mama.”
We did. We hurried back to the alley outside mama’s hut and spied on her through the window. She still knitted her flax bundle and sipped her tea, but now she chatted with someone. Sita and I crept closer ’til we saw them. Nurul. He sat ‘side mama and nibbled a biscuit and held his own teacup with two fingers. Big man, acting like a prissy preena. He saw us and a speck of smile flashed ‘cross his face, but he kept on talkin’ to mama. We stormed in.
Mama’s face lit up. “Kaani. Sita. This nice gentleman says he knows you.”
Sita and I sat on either side of mama like her bodyguards.
“Nurul has a daughter your age, Kaani. You and her would get along.”
I wanted so bad to ram my new murder tool into Nurul’s temple, all my hesitations gone when I stared down that sleazy scumbag, and I knew Sita felt the same. But mama was here.
“Nurul says he knows of a job where you could be servants to the pale princes! Oh, it sounds so wonderful.” Mama stroked Sita’s hair. “And it’s a lot of money. You girls should do it.”
Even heaven itself couldn’t have given Nurul a wider smirk. His smugness filled the air. I simmered, my fingers on my weapon, my legs shaking.
Sita slid her hand inside her gown, no doubt clenched on her knife too. “Where’s Tcha?”
“His youngest fell ill. He went home and took care of his boy.”
“It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t we talk outside?”
Nurul chuckled. He saw our hands inside our gowns and I bet he knew we held tiny knives, and he saw our quivering legs and heard our quivering voices and he’d have to be an idiot not to guess we had murder on our minds. But he set down his teacup and went outside anyways. I bet he knew we’d never harmed a rat in our lives, and he trusted his brawny arms to fend off any pathetic attacks we tried. We followed him.
We wended through the shanty maze of the old quarry, so far away that mama would never hear a word or cry. The gravel cracked underfoot and the blistering sun beat down hard on us ’til sweat danced down our pits and foreheads and the scent of woodsmoke from every rotting oak shack wafted by as we climbed the stone terraces. We came high above all the shacks, all the way to the quarry lip. Nurul put hands to hips. Sita’s face twisted and her knife came out, but the sight of that baby-sized spike only made Nurul guffaw.
Nobody moved for a long time. The sun stretched our shadows ‘cross the whole chasm.
I rubbed my wrist. “Nurul, your daughter’s my age. How would you feel if the Gutterking pimped her to pay your debts?”
I wanted an explanation, a long-winded, blubbering bundle of justifications. I wanted Nurul to squirm as he imagined what she would go through, and then I wanted him to squirm when he thought about it happening to Sita. I wanted the weight of empathy to hang heavy on his neck and shake his soul. But he, eyes empty, just shook his head. “No.”
And that was that. There was no reasoning with Nurul. He had his people he’d look out for, and we had ours, and there was no reconciliation, no future where we compromised, where we went our separate ways with a future for us, for him, for his daughter, for our mama. I swallowed my hopes and steeled myself.
I slammed into him. I tried to shove him off the quarry rim, but he was Pier Thirty-three and I was Brynn Bay. I crashed, he swayed but stayed solid, and I splashed off. Sita lunged too, her blade a glint of rage under the bright sun. He caught her wrist and twisted it ’til she screeched and wriggled and was useless. I unsheathed my knife. Nurul ignored me, too busy trying to get Sita to drop hers, so I jammed the blade into his leg, right near his crotch. He howled and kicked me and the sun blinked out.
I thought I tasted spikeberry wine.
Light blinked in. My head pounded, and a little lick of lightning crackled inside my skull with each heartbeat. The sky shone brighter than heaven. I heard rasping, choking sounds. I clawed the gravel and came to my feet. Halfway down the quarry, Nurul dragged Sita by her neck. He’d taken our knives and his pant leg was soaking red. All I had was two handfuls of broken pebbles and a bruise the shape of Nurul’s boot. Useless. But I gave chase anyways. I skidded down the stone walls and raced towards Nurul and peppered him with a shower of small rocks. He ignored me. I found chunks of shale and shattered them on his back ’til he cursed at me. I found a heavy brick and lobbed it at his neck, and it cracked and sent him reeling and Sita broke free.
She scurried into my arms. We hugged while Nurul groaned and climbed back up. All around us, people peeked out of their shacks and stared at the commotion, but not a soul intervened. Nobody ’round here risked a finger for anything or anyone else. They watched the scene from the comfort of their shadows.
Nurul stood tall and cleared his throat, his voice an ocean of rust. “I’ll kill your mama.”
Then he toppled over. I flinched. Sita clutched me. For many moments, we waited for him to move, but he never did. He never moved again. And only then did I notice the long, thin trail of dark red that ran from the quarry rim down to his leg. I’d killed him many minutes ago when he’d kicked me.
We ran and ran and ran and ran, through empty street, through busy street, through plaza, through alley, through the entire city, and we somehow found ourselves on the banks of Brynn Bay, our legs dangling off the side of Pier Thirty-three once more.
Sita leaned against me. Our hearts hammered in unison. We stared at ourselves in the water. Not a blot of blood on either our hands. I had a bruise on my forehead and she had one on her neck, but we looked about the same as we always did. We’d graduated from thieves to murderers, and we looked the same. We looked the same.
Sita tucked her head to my chest. Sobs hung in her throat like dew. “It’s not over yet.”
I knew it. “Tcha.”
Sita and I stayed on the rooftops all day. We watched over mama, we watched over Uncle Amit’s bar where we last saw Tcha, we watched over Nurul’s corpse, which a pair of watchmen soon dragged off to the crematorium by Lyten Temple, where they turned it into black smoke and memories. We watched a woman our age come to the crematorium just too late to see her father’s body, we watched her cry and wail at the watchmen who, with contempt in their eyes, shoved her off. The woman took her tears to Lyten Temple and we followed.
We found a shrine near her and pretended to pray. She sat on her knees before the six-headed elephant statue and rocked back and forth and murmured as the sandalwood incense smoke spiraled ’round her in a comforting cocoon. Her grief touched the priests and the other patrons and they too gathered round and prayed and swayed with her. Sita welled but my heart was steel. I skimmed a few fingers from the collection plate.
In time, the sorrow dulled. The sun went down, the patrons filtered out, the priests wandered away, the cocoon dissolved, and Nurul was still ashes in the sky. His daughter, gait careless, eyes twelve oceans away, left, and we did too.
Sita went home to mama while I stayed on a nearby rooftop and watched over them all night. The next night we traded watches. Mama ran out of tea and biscuits and lamb shanks to cook, so I went to the market on Yellowcask and Sweetriver and bought some with the fingers I’d stolen. Mama seemed happy, and she never asked where I went all night, or where Sita went all night, or what became of Nurul and his job serving the pale princes. And Tcha never appeared again.
It bothered me. It bothered me enough that one warm night when the black smoke from all the chimneys had swallowed the stars, when the looming Tomb Keep seemed invisible in the sky, when Sita and mama had fallen asleep, the yellow glow of the hut faded to red embers, I left my post. I crept across the roofs back to Uncle Amit’s bar and slipped inside.
This late, there were few patrons, but one of them was Nurul’s daughter. I took a seat ‘side her and ordered a glass of millet wine. She didn’t recognize me. Her eyes brimmed no more and her poise was stone. For an silent minute, we drank our drinks, the only sound the clink of glass on the marble countertop and the murmur of the other patrons and the nervous scuffling of Uncle Amit behind the bar. He knew both of us, and his shifty eyes couldn’t help but clue me in that this woman and I together was bad, bad business.
I didn’t care. “It’s late for someone young as you.”
Nurul’s daughter barely looked at me. “And you.”
“I’m looking for a man named Tcha. Ever heard of him?”
Yaela’s eyes widened and I leapt over her walls of disinterest. For a while, she looked me up and down, down and up. “Tcha’s dead.”
“The Gutterking cut one of his balls off. The wound got infected. He was already in debt to the Gutterking so he couldn’t afford a doctor. The crematorium ate him last morn.”
So that was it. It seemed too easy, almost silly. This threatening monster that me and Sita feared had died of an infection. I wouldn’t have to murder anymore. We were free from this mess. The black sky loosened its grasp from my neck and I exhaled.
“Tcha was widowed with six kids. I support them now, because no one else will.”
“I’m so sorry.”
I stiffened under Yaela’s hellish gaze. I swallowed and ran my next words through a few filters. “I’m sorry because it must be hard for you.”
“It is. And since dad died, I have to support my mom too.”
“Maybe I could help.” I slid to her half a silver hand that I’d pinched from Lyten Temple earlier that day.
Yaela swatted the fingers away and they clattered on the floor and sent all the patrons’ hands to the blades and Uncle Amit’s hands under the bar top. Yaela’s eyes held heaven’s hate. “I don’t need your charity.”
I collected the fingers. “How else will you support seven others?”
“The Gutterking offered me a job. If I nab the thieves that pinched his wine and killed my father, he’ll pay me well. All I need is their heads.”
I shivered. “You ever killed anyone?”
“Do you really want a future as a murderer, Yaela?”
“No. But all the guilds refused me work because I was a woman. One man even winked and said he had a job for me in Sava District. And that is one possible future, me posted on the street corners. Or me as a thief, slipping my hand into the odd purse or breaking into the quiet mansions by the Tomb Keep. Or me as murderer.” Yaela sipped her drink and her eyes glazed over. “I think I’ll take the last future.”
“You might die.”
“I know. And then Tcha’s eldest might take the job and avenge me. And the Gutterking will have us little folk running ragged, killing each other for fingers, killing each other for revenge, killing each other for a future, and it’ll never end. The slums will burn and churn and the Gutterking and all the pale princes and princesses will till our corpses and keep on living their grand lives and I’m just one drop of blood in the battle for this city’s soul.”
I shut my eyes. We were too damn similar, me and her. If we’d met under different circumstances, we’d have been silt and shale. But now she was going to kill me. Or I her. Someday. Somehow. And if I killed her, another would come for me, and if she killed me, Sita would come for her. All over a keg of wine. What a waste. I downed my drink and went to leave.
Yaela called out, “My gut says I’ll see you soon. That our futures are intertwined.”
She raised her glass. “To our futures.”
Painting without Canvas
By Robert Del Mauro
“It’s nice to see you,” I whisper, digging deep into Enzo’s broad shoulders.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “I got lost.” His voice is barely audible over the humming escalator and conversation bouncing between foyer walls.
“Aren’t you always lost?” I smile but it feels as if the joke brushed too close to reality. Maybe it has been a little too long since we last saw each other. I haven’t heard from Enzo since we went to the movies three weeks ago, but he called last night to ask if I would meet him at the Museum of Modern Art.
We slip from our hug and he holds me at arm’s length, one strong hand on each of my bony shoulders. His wide eyes are half hidden under overgrown brown hair, which curls on his forehead. I am staring back at him, looking at the swirls of purple and red and orange my fingertips left on the fabric of his sweater. My pasty fingerprints, made of the same material as watercolor pigments before they’ve been saturated with water, have left an imprint on Enzo’s shoulders as they always do when I hold him that hard. I pressed harder this time, thinking both the affection and the color will lighten whatever darkness Enzo feels, or maybe just wanting to leave a mark that will last the distance suddenly present between us.
He turns towards the escalator and I follow, using my right pointer finger to trace a rainbow heart on the outside of the metallic wall before turning to walk onto the first step. It’s something I leave for others to see without knowing where it came from and how it got there, like a random smiley face someone might scribble with a Sharpe.
On the step in front of us, an older man and woman with interlocked arms are smiling in amusement, exchanging few words. They’re watching the young woman in front of them, who is focusing through wide glasses with translucent frames on her son. Trying to keep him still as she holds a tissue to his nose and asks him to blow.
This trip feels different than any of the others I have made to the Museum of Modern Art. I’m aware of the people around me, the sounds and words filling these white corridors with life, as if I’ve just pulled off a pair of sunglasses. My usual rush to get on and off the escalator is not controlling my movements. That drive to get to the art as fast as possible is muffled by fear of what I might discover about myself, about Enzo, or about our relationship. I focus on the moving escalator railing – thin and thick hands, young hands, older and frailer hands, all of them careless. My hands, which appear like all of the others, are a work of art in itself; my fingertips swirl teal, orange, and purple. Stepping off, we move into the first gallery.
“Do you remember this one?” I say.
We are standing in front of Monet’s Agapanthus, the grassy yellows and greens swaying with brighter blues in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish between the colors. Yet I feel these colors as if they’re completely separate from one another.
Enzo and I had written about this painting in an art history class at Manhattan Marymount, where we met nearly one year ago. The professor split the class into groups of partners for weekly writing assignments due each Thursday, and this was one of our favorites. Throughout the fall semester, we combed over dozens of paintings and dissected each stroke of color every Wednesday night.
A minute passes without a word and I turn my head slightly to see what part of the painting has him so preoccupied. I notice he isn’t looking at this painting or any of the others, but is fixated on his cardigan, pulling it flat with his left hand and trying to rub out the dull colors from my fingertips with his right. He huffs over the marks, which settle deeper into the sweater as he rubs.
I’m thinking about a time in high school when I felt the same way about my abnormality. When I was a freshman, I sat in front of a girl named Veronika in earth science. She would comment on the layers of rock in the cross section only for a few minutes before giving up and offering a merciless impersonation of the teacher: “Stop leaving pink erasure pieces all over the desk!” Because it was my first year, I hadn’t talked too much, uneasy with the attention my skin automatically drew and unsure if others would see my flamboyance as I did – beautiful. But I felt as if I could talk to Veronika because her outgoing personality and quirky humor drew attention away from me.
Looking at the Monet and listening to the soft scuffs of Enzo rubbing his shirt, I feel as if I’m back in that moment when everything changed. While Ms. Pierson was lecturing about pyroclastic flows, I turned to Veronika and began to mimic our teacher. “The rocks pummel down mountains with speeds upwards of one-hundred miles an hour!” I whispered, raising my voice a few octaves in pitch. But then Ms. Pierson stopped talking.
“Jett, will you stop flirting with Veronika?” The silence was heavy. “Move your seat, now.”
I felt as if a spotlight had turned on me and the audience was unsure how to react. Not only was I suddenly the subject of the attention I had been trying to avoid, but I was scared my friendship with Veronika was over. I wasn’t flirting with her, but she might just think I was. Avoiding any eye contact, I grabbed my bag with my left hand and stood to walk across the front of the classroom to another seat.
Nearly reaching an empty desk, I heard a voice break the silence, shouting, “But isn’t he gay?” Laughter ignited chaos throughout the classroom and my legs buckled as I slide into the empty seat.
Another voice fueled the outrage, “Even his fingers are rainbow!”
There were weeks of silence only I really felt. Everyone kept moving as they usually did, as if nothing was wrong. What happened in that classroom never spread around school in the way I thought it would and the following weeks of focusing on nothing but coursework became an identity. I was succeeding on paper, eventually finding a place in high school with other students in the advanced classes. There is nothing I could do to look like the others, but intellect was the solution. My colors are beautiful, I thought. My abnormality can be my motivation.
My thoughts blur forward, to senior year of college, one year in the past from the present. I settle on that Wednesday after fall finals. Enzo asked if I’d be free at 7:00pm. It was nothing but a routine text he would send every Wednesday that semester, when we still had a painting to view for class on Thursday. But finals were over, and instead of leaving for the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we laid next to each other on my bed as he used my finger to stroke pinks and greens and purples onto my torso and chest as if he were painting me himself. Enzo is unlike anyone I’ve ever been with. We made love and art at the same time as my body rubbed the visible spectrum of pigment onto his. It was the masterstroke of our relationship – the magnum opus.
I feel pressure, as if parts of who I am are competing for action. Enzo’s pushing harder and harder on the sweater marks.
“Do you remember this one?” I repeat, tugging his sleeve.
He suddenly releases his sweater and looks up at the painting.
“Yeah, I do,” he says.
It is hard for me to forget this painting. Monet doesn’t settle for any clear boundaries and it feels infuriating, as if anything I perceive is just not quite right. It’s as if Monet is pushing me away from understanding anything in this piece. I wonder now, standing next to Enzo, whether the exact boundaries between grass and flower, water and sky, were even worth painting. Maybe our perception of the beginnings and ends of something was more important to Monet than objective boundaries. Or maybe Monet understood just as little as I do about the things I see happening right in front of my face.
“Why do you think Monet throws that red in there, Jett?” Enzo motions with his right hand towards the very bottom of the painting, near the center where a few tufts of deep red flare into the torques.
“It balances out the green. It’s perfect.”
“Well I think it’s sentimental, there’s something depressing about this place.” Enzo keeps his eyesight on the painting as I turn towards him.
“So, because he added red, it’s a sad painting?” My sarcasm hits Enzo the wrong way.
He grabs my hand, pulling me from the gallery and through a white corridor into another. This space is modernist, adorned with the recognizable style of Picasso and Braque. He stops in front of One: Number 31, 1950, a Pollock painting of brown, white, and black splattered across the canvas. Yet the streaks and spray feel anything but random. It’s a painting of exact detail – the black lines connect with white and brown streaks in an articulate web – but it’s also a painting that’s spontaneous and expressive.
“Tragic.” Enzo’s head tilts right, perhaps following one streak or another.
“I don’t see it.” I respond. I’m entranced by the way Pollock can turn the random into the precise, how he can paint the complicated relationships and interconnections between the various tones. This painting feels like the human experience of coincidence or Déjà vu – something perhaps too perfect to be completely random. “It’s beautiful.” I can hear him rubbing at his sweater again.
“I’m gonna have to Tide this.” He looks up at the Pollock. “There’s so much rage,” he says before returning to the colors, now fading even more.
Something is different about Enzo. The darkness I saw on him a few weeks ago has infected his speech, his actions, and even his personality. It started at the movies, when we were waiting for Spider-Man to begin. A little boy burst into the theater, leading a young man by his hand to the seat next to us. The boy almost fell through the cushions when he sat down next to Enzo, tugging at the young man to sit down next to him. What’s wrong, I whispered into Enzo’s ear as the little boy sporadically threw out his arm to shoot imaginary webs. Let’s get out of here, he whispered back. As we left the theater, his hands felt cold and sweaty on mine and he wouldn’t look at me. He hugged me hard as we approached the A train uptown, a clear sign he wanted to go home alone. I’m leaving you Jett, he said. But he left before I could say anything.
“So much rage in the painting or in you?” I say.
His face turns in disbelief and confusion only to meet my eyes which look just as surprised with my own words. I think, Maybe there’s a way to understand this tension between Enzo and me like Pollock seems to understand the mess he painted.
“What happened at the movies?” I say, breaking the nervous silence. “I haven’t heard from you in weeks.”
Releasing a deep breath, he places his hand on my back and steers us towards the escalator to the third floor, where the more abstract art and sculptures are held. As I stare at the beautiful swirls on my right hand resting on the elevator railing, Enzo speaks.
“It’s the anniversary,” he says.
I can hear the escalator humming and voices echoing between the white walls as seconds pass like minutes. But I wait, afraid any questions would push him back into silence for three more weeks.
“My brother died five years ago. It was a car crash.”
I turn to look at him but he is peering down over the railing of the escalator, avoiding eye contact. My eyes dart behind and then in front of him, checking to see if anyone has heard. No one is paying any attention. I wonder if I even heard the words correctly.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I had no idea.” But am I supposed to?
“That boy in the theater. He was exactly like my brother.”
As we approach Gego’s Drawing without Paper, I feel panicked trying to understand. Gego’s small sculpture is supported by a steel frame as thick as a pencil, but is wrapped with copper wire as thin as a piece of hair, bending and contorting the sculpture’s appearance, like random scribbles on a perfectly rectangular piece of paper. This sculpture feels personal. After all, I am a painting without canvas, my skin acting as the medium for color like the pieces of metal that act as paper would. Yet Gego’s piece is a sculpture, not a drawing. And I am not a painting or a work of art.
“Maybe that little boy was a sign Lucas is still with you.” I say, focusing on the sculpture but feeling his stare on me.
“No. He’s gone. I didn’t stop fast enough.” Enzo rubs at his sweater. “Not…” he pushes harder, “fast enough.”
“I’m here for you.”
“But this isn’t about you.” He stops rubbing and looks up at me. “Can you even imagine what this feels like, Jett?” He moves closer, speaking into my ear so no one else can hear the frustration.
“How can I? You completely stopped talking to me.” My heart pounds. “I didn’t know. I couldn’t know.”
“Just try to imagine it. If I had seen the deer a few seconds, milliseconds sooner, my brother would be alive. I…” He struggles to finish the sentence, his labored breath barrels onto my neck. “It’s my fault he’s dead. I can’t even live with myself so I had to break up with you.”
I feel uneasy. He did say break up, right? “Why are you doing that?”
“Cuz you stained my shirt.”
“No,” I draw in a breath, “saying we broke up?”
“Because we did,” he says. “We broke up at the theater.”
“No, no you just said you were leaving me,” my words trail off, realizing what was unsaid that night was more important than the words he actually spoke, the ones I have been thinking about for weeks. “I thought you meant that night, you know, for the night, oh god.”
“You know, I’ve always envied that thick fucking skull of positivity, of confidence. Wait, you don’t think this is a date, do you?”
“Well, why the fuck did you bring me here then,” I say, my voice quivering.
“I’m moving back home. Upstate. I figured you deserved to know why, but you just aren’t understanding. You and your colors can’t save me. They can’t bring him back, Jett.”
I look down at my hands, suddenly aware of myself in a way I haven’t been before. I pull at my sleeves, trying to tug enough slack to hide my fingers.
“You’re just a dark person,” I say, “That’s all you are.”
“Jett, not everyone sees the world, sees themselves like you.” Enzo pushes me away from him and I lose my standing, stumbling too close to the artwork and just grazing against one of the copper wires protruding from the sculpture. The wire moves merely an inch.
I gather my balance and then glance in shock at the sculpture and at him. I struggle to catch my breath, to grapple with the artworks now tainted: the Gego piece, our relationship, my rainbow tinted fingertips.
“The funny thing is, I’ve never been happier, never felt more sincere than I do now, moving back to live where my life ended.”
Still without breath, I run for the escalator, down two floors, and to the coat check. Grabbing my coat, I turn, almost expecting to see Enzo running after me down the escalator. He would tell me that he was wrong and things are really not that dark, that my colors do give him and the world something positive. The smiley face I had rubbed onto the wall catches my eye and my heart beats faster. It doesn’t look as beautiful as it did when I placed it there with my finger.
I rush to the bathroom, pulling two paper towels from the dispenser, careful only to touch them on their corners. On my way to the front door, I rub the heart from the wall with a few hard and fast motions. I remove the stain as quickly as possible, anxious to get home and out of public. I am suddenly aware of how others could see me and feel dark, like Enzo does.
The streets of New York are bustling as if nothing happened. I try matching my breath with my steps as I walk to the subway. My mind feels like it is twisting: Perhaps those red strokes in Monet’s Agapanthus are a representation of something dark I cannot understand, an expression not too different than Enzo’s decision to move back home. Perhaps there is rage and chaos in Pollock’s painting, as Enzo must have felt that night at the movies, not the beauty of coincidence I assumed Pollock was expressing.
I rub the back of my left hand with my right thumb while I wait on the subway platform. I watch as a swirl of violet and red materializes. I feel the pasty texture of my skin and think, is it possible that darkness is just as powerful, just as beautiful as color?
By Lindsey Duncan
Breezes of brilliant hues flowed from the Painter’s brushes to stroke the canvas with shadow and light. This evening, a summer night indefinite in time, she danced a mirror upon the canvas, sunset flashing through the paint-flecked gate as it flashed through the real gate outside.
Yet it was a broken mirror in one aspect: in the real world, the gate was locked and could not be opened by her. Her patron refused to release her, save when she needed inspiration, a new scene to paint. Then she went boarded up in a carriage and concealed from prying eyes. By these machinations, the Duke hoped to convince the City the paintings were his, but rumors of the Painter were enough to sustain the truth of her work. There was too much of her in the paintings, too much life, too much brilliance set free.
She had never painted the gate before, open or closed. Every one of the Duke’s tamed gardens and exotic curiosities had been depicted by her hand – but never the gate. It was the one pain in her heart, and it ached to look at the reminder of her captivity.
Even as she painted it, the gate changed in her mind. It became a thing of light and hope, beckoning, inviting… as if the world in canvas were as real as the world in flesh.
She sensed when the Duke entered the room and did not turn, rapt upon the tumult of tones. He would often watch her for a time, but never interrupted her.
The Painter finished smoothing the last daubed shadow and turned to face him. She did not need to stand back or study her work to know it was complete. The rich orange sun gleamed, bathing the path outside in promise.
The Duke’s eyes flashed with a moment’s wonder, but he dismissed it. “I wish you would do portraits,” he said. “That’s where the money and the fame is. The artist who captured my late wife works for the High King now.”
She thought of the cold, pale likeness hanging in the great hall, trapped more completely than she, and suppressed a shudder.
“I am done,” she said.
“Good. My cousin in the treasury has need of new adornment to -”
“I didn’t mean with this painting.” His eyes widened, for she had never interrupted him. Before he could react, she continued, “I meant with working for you. The paints run dry. I am done.” She felt her breath and her heart echo in her ears, a fearful thrum.
The Duke paused, his first reaction panic, and then fury. “You can’t. My reputation – our reputation -” He grabbed her arm. She recoiled; he tried to wrench her around, and instead lost his grip. She tumbled into the still-damp canvas.
She fell through… and kept falling through an expanse of green. She should have felt fear and instead felt like a bird with new wings, tumbling towards the skies. She landed with a gentle stop on a mossy path. The stones under her hand were indistinct blurs of grey and green, more suggestion than reality. She inhaled, delight and consternation both as she realized what had happened.
The Painter had become part of the painting.
It was not, she thought, such an impossible idea – obviously, considering it had happened, but there was power and possibility in the images she created. Why couldn’t there be life within them? She thought then of the Duke, who had hurled her here. She craned her head up and found the sky above a void the color of blank canvas. She had not painted it; it did not exist.
Could he see her within the painting? What if he smashed it? Fear riveted her to the spot; she lifted up her hands to shield her face, masking the brilliant color that surrounded her. Terror consumed her in a flash of fire… and then faded when her world remained, a soft, silent place with orange light that pierced through her fingers.
She remembered the gate and lowered her hands, breathing until her body quieted. It stood before her, beckoning into an endless sunset. Tranquility filled her as if poured like water, and to the surface rose the hope she had felt while painting. She walked into the light.
She blinked and found herself on a snow-swept hillside dotted with old-woman trees in white veils. The cold refreshed without chilling her; the wind tickled her skin and breathed winter’s secrets down her neck, as welcoming as an old friend. She turned her face up – oh, there was sky here, lavender fading into deep blue and inked with stars – and reveled.
She recognized the scene: it was another of her paintings, a much older composition from the year before her brother had sailed beyond the City. Her hands moved, tracing brushstrokes she almost remembered and lingering over the details. The scenery moved, subtly, breathing – the optical illusion of paint placed just so.
The Painter walked onwards and emerged under a summer waterfall, then into a field of flowers. It didn’t take long to realize all the paintings were hers, and though she felt the same wonder that had inspired her to craft them, the familiarity began to pale, and she missed the City. She tried to think of a way out… but she had always painted scenes from nature, not cityscapes with their limitless doors.
She knelt before a stream and parted the waters, painting a whirlpool with her hands. The landscape did not respond as her pigments did in the real world. She picked flowers and attempted to grind them up to make pigment of her own. They simply melted, more dream than substance. A slow dread formed in the base of her throat and spread through her body. What if she never found a path out of the paintings?
She was not sure how much time passed, but she never grew hungry or thirsty, and what little weariness she felt shifted with the landscape: the most dark and dreary of her compositions made her feel old and brittle, just as those of light and beauty gave her back years she had never realized were lost. As she wandered through the suspended scenes, she remembered a painting she had done years ago, her last before she entered the Duke’s service. It might be her way out.
She had no clear plan in finding it: the landscape seemed to pay no mind to season, distance or chronology, much less her mood or desires. But though painting had been her life, her output was finite, and she knew she would come upon the place she sought.
She found it at last, a balding hillside with a cottage nestled between its knees. The door was almost invisible, faded into the surrounding wood, but it was real – real enough she could grasp the handle and pull it open. Blank canvas lay beyond.
Hope leapt; the Painter braced herself on the threshold. Could it be so simple? She didn’t remember what had become of the painting and thus where she might end up, but as long as she could return to the real world, she could find her way to the City.
She stepped through the doorway… and found herself in a painting that was not her own. She recognized it instantly from the sharp, clear colors and the cold lines – and the fact she was not alone.
Seated on a velvet couch in the middle of the elegant stone-hewn room was a woman with skin like the petals of a lily and hair of gold and smoke. A sage-hued gown draped about her form, concealing more than highlighting her slender curves. Every inch of her was perfectly rendered; there was nothing left to the imagination.
The Lady – or rather, her image – rose with a glad cry. “Oh, you can’t imagine how good it is to see your face,” she said, flurrying over. “How did you come here?” She paused, her eyes bright with anxiety. “Did he… kill you, too?”
It took the Painter a moment to hear the implications. She wanted to be surprised, but all she felt was numb sorrow. The Lady had been a joyous young woman; she deserved better.
“He didn’t kill me,” she said. “He knocked me over, and I fell into one of my paintings.” It seemed incredible when she described it – but how was it more strange than speaking to the likeness of a dead woman? “I’ve been wandering through my work ever since.” She glanced around her, taking in the baroque, meticulous style and noting the mirror on the far wall – the side of the room unseen in the original painting.
The Lady must have seen the question in her eyes, for she clasped her hands together. “I know how you came here, then,” she said… and her face turned apologetic. “My husband had one of your old canvasses repurposed for my portrait.”
The Painter shook her head; she wasn’t offended.
“I am so glad you found your way here, even if it was at expense of a tragedy,” the Lady continued. “I’ve longed so much to hear a voice other than his, praising my beauty and lecturing about the way I protected it – or didn’t… I thought his temper was charming once, the sign of a passionate spirit, but now I’m just sick of it.”
“You can hear him?” the Painter asked. “How?”
The Lady waved one pearly hand at the mirror. “All it ever shows is the great hall, and the only person I ever see through the glass is him,” she said. “Every time he walks by, I can see him, but he seems oblivious to me… even though he’s looking at me. It’s really not very different than when I was alive,” she added thoughtfully.
The Painter shuddered, but the speech filled her with hope. If it was the Lady’s window to a world she could not enter, might it allow another – someone who was meant to be flesh and blood – to pass through? But she could not tell that wistful, desperate face she already hoped to leave, so she asked instead about the painted chamber and how the Lady spent her time there.
“It is very dull,” the Lady said with a sigh. “I have finished my embroidery so many times I’ve lost track – and only to find it unfinished as soon as I snip the last thread. I have read all three books many times, and drunk myself giddy on the wine.”
The Painter was only briefly surprised the books in this depiction were real: even though their pages were out of sight to the view, it made sense with the artist’s attention to minute detail. “What are the books -”
“I’ve heard myself talk endlessly, too,” the Lady interjected. “What I would love more than anything is to hear about you: how you came here, the places you passed through, what the City has become… please?”
Her gaze was that of a pleading child, and the Painter surrendered, recounting her journey and the decision that had started it. The Lady shook her head.
“I would have been terrified,” she said, “but I know what he’s capable of. I have no memory of dying – that happened after the portrait was painted, obviously – but he described his hands around my throat, and there will never be justice.”
The Painter allowed herself a glance at the mirror. “There might be.” She walked over to the far wall, touching the surface. Her fingers broke the surface like the water of a pool and touched cold, empty air. Her heart quickened… but when she pressed closer to the glass, it resisted her. Did it need more strength than she had? It was worth a try. “I have an idea,” she continued.
The Lady listened to the plan in silence. Childhood left her eyes; they turned still and sure. “Yes,” she said. “The next time he enters.”
The Painter could judge time no more surely in here than in the woods and meadows and fields, but the Lady was thirsty for conversation, and it seemed moments before the sound of footsteps echoed through the chamber, as if coming from some other room that did not exist – at least not in the depiction.
The Lady tensed like a doe, her eyes wide; the Painter squeezed her shoulder, then hurried to stand next to the mirror, pressed up against the panel where they thought the Duke would not be able to see her.
“What if he doesn’t come close enough?” she whispered.
The Painter had wondered that, herself. “Then we’ll try another time,” she said, feeling her heart shiver in anticipation and fear. What if this didn’t work? She could think of several ways it might fail, and some exposed her to the Duke’s wrath… or to more permanent confinement in this painted world.
“Ah, there you are,” the Duke’s voice said. He paused, chuckling at his own wit. “Of course. Where else would you be?” His tone softened. “It’s comforting to know you’re here.”
The Painter found herself startled: she had never thought of him as lonely. Was that why he had kept them both locked away? She twisted her head, but could see only looming shadows in the mirror.
“I do miss you, but I didn’t have a choice. A lord of my rank has to be obeyed absolutely, or the others undermine him.”
The shadows shifted and drew closer. She braced her far hand, waiting.
“You’re even prettier like this, it might please you to know. No little twitterings, trying to feign intelligence -”
That had to be close enough. The Painter whirled, her hand skipping across and through the liquid glass. Her fingers slipped, scritched – and latched into silk.
She whirled to face the mirror and pulled with all her strength. He fought against her; an arm struck the side of her face, leaving her dizzied and bruised – and somehow suspended, neither completely in the painting nor in the real world. Her foot skidded across stone that was both real and meticulously painted, smooth as glass. She caught a flash of the great hall out of the corner of her eye and spun toward it.
“Where did you come from?” He reeled back from her, momentum spiraling him around in the other direction. She could see the Lady’s velvet couch behind him.
Now was the moment. “The place you sent me,” she said. Blindly, trusting – hoping – she let go.
He shoved back against her so hard she toppled. She had a dizzying sense of falling – which ended with a hard smack onto cold stone. The chill and pain radiated through her bones… and the impact told her she had returned even before she opened her eyes and found herself in a large chamber interpreted by no artist’s hand. She picked herself up off the floor and glanced about.
It was a rich room, carpet and drapes of dark green velvet, but it had no soul. The wide, ostentatious windows seemed to invite light but reject warmth. The fixtures gleamed as if new.
The portrait of the Lady was precise in every detail the Painter had seen from within, but the composition of the scene had changed. It now depicted what seemed to be a loving reunion, husband and wife locked in an embrace. The couple stood such that the Lady’s face looked out upon the viewer. Her smile was dark and triumphant… and in the hand pressed to the Duke’s back, she held the embroidery scissors.
The Painter turned and walked out of the study. She did not look back.
Instead, her feet carried her, knowing the way instinctively, to the front gate, the vista she had painted unknown days before. The green of summer greeted her, but had it been days, weeks – or an entire year? She steadied herself at the threshold, then bent to remove the wooden bar. It fell with a thump to the cobbled path.
She pushed open the gate and walked into the light.
By Chris Dean
The car took him to therapy before work, never a good sign. He called in from the waiting room. Jann didn’t like it of course, but what could Rick do? If you wanted health care you followed the rules and that included emergency therapy. He just wished he’d known. Rick had skipped breakfast and now he was sitting there hungry. You didn’t dare ask the receptionist how much longer. They scrutinized you constantly and even a twitch meant something. He tried to look happy. That’s what they wanted to see.
The android behind the counter called his name. The bald face mimicked a human persona remarkably. “Andrea will take you back, Mr. Dalton.”
He followed the tall, platinum-haired woman in the pleated black dress to a therapy room. Once he settled into the waterlounger, she went after his tea. “Mint, hot?” she asked from the alcove.
He had this. Rick drank mint iced except in the morning, except during emergency therapy when he always asked for it cold. “If you don’t mind, I’d like iced.”
“Of course. Doctor has a note. You’re to take this.”
A small square section of the table rose. In the center dimple sat a little gel cap. He sighed as he picked it up. “Thank you.”
She was there with his beverage. “Doctor will be with you presently.”
“Thank you.” He watched her leave, careful to look away appropriately. He swallowed the gel cap, sipped, and glanced at the Monet. Studied the ballerinas a bit, because he was sure they knew he liked it. Then back to the tea.
The space behind the desk shimmered as Dr. Kim’s hologram appeared. “Hello, Rick.”
“Hello, Dr. Kim.”
Dr. Kim’s image flickered and then the sharp eyes were back. “Rick, we had a spike in your routine I wanted to discuss.”
He felt a chill. How serious was it? Not reevaluation, please not that. They would pick him apart for a week. He remembered to interact: “I’m sorry if I let myself down.” Straight out of the therapeutic handbook.
“Two areas we need to cover—meds and diet.” Dr. Kim waited.
“My medications—Dr. Plummer gave me permission to-to use Diatholyn . . . Only when I need it.”
The hologram stared. “And your Reatox?”
“It makes me nauseous sometimes. You said you were going to see about trying something else.”
Amusement, like a snake eyeing a mouse, slid over the doctor’s face. “You do realize that willful withholding of prescribed medication is a crime, Rick.”
“Let’s move on. Diet.”
“I’m eating normally.”
“Breakfast? This morning?”
“No. I skipped it. I was running late and—” That was a verifiable lie and he had to retract. “I wasn’t actually late but I didn’t want to be late and so I was in a hurry. I have been trying to lose a pound or so.”
“A mini-diet, then?”
“Then you weren’t planning on visiting the vending machine for a strawberry crunch before work, I suppose.”
He admitted, “I was.” No sense making this worse.
“Rick, according to what I have here, your predilection for snacks has increased your caloric intake well over six thousand calories in the past few weeks. This explains your gain of one-point-eight pounds. Okay. We’re finished.”
“I’m recommending reevaluation.”
“Doctor, please.” Rick tried to control his voice but he was upset.
“Rick, you’ve displayed independent behavior and you have lied about it to your therapist.”
He wanted to scream back the truth. That the pills took away his spirit and replaced it with a lie. But that would only earn him a session under the laser. He remembered to respond. “I’ve been foolish and irresponsible, Dr. Kim.”
“Therapeutic medication is the foundation of our society. Try and remember that.”
“After reevaluation, I’m certain you’ll do fine.”
“Is that necessary? I promise—I’ll take whatever you prescribe from here on out.”
“I don’t know. There’s also your eating disorder. It’s just a mess, Rick.”
“No more breaking the rules, Dr. Kim, I promise.” Rick’s voice had a touch of huskiness; he almost believed it himself.
“Wait.” The hologram froze.
Wait? Now Rick was going nuts. The escort androids could burst in at any time. He sighed. He hated reevaluation.
Dr. Kim’s image reanimated. “Rick, I may be able to help you. If you’re willing to cooperate.”
“There’s someone from NSA. Wilson. Once I receive a confirmation from him that you’ve cooperated fully, I’ll consider this entire matter closed.”
“No. Just stick to your prescriptions, and your diet, and you’ll be fine.”
The room went dark as the hologram vanished. Rick made his way outside. He was worried about this Wilson. What did they want with him? Was it about the job? His work was used by the authorities, Rick knew that. Half the American workforce was involved in government work these days. But why would they contact him this way?
It had to be about the job, he reassured himself—maybe Alice’s too-short skirts or that day Greg left early. What else could they want? The NSA had access to quadrillions of nanocams and he was certain they had every moment of his life recorded. What could Rick tell them that they didn’t already know?
Wilson contacted Rick on his wrist phone during the ride to work. Only audio. “Mr. Dalton, I need you to help me clarify something. On this video—” A tape began on the little screen. Holly on top of him in bed. Golden hair splashed over his face as she leaned down. The tape froze. “Ms. Fensterbush whispered something to you. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” Rick was mortified. There was no way to stop this.
“What did she whisper?”
“What?” A tightness gripped his chest. How could he tell?
“I was told you would cooperate with my inquiry. What exactly did she whisper?”
“She—” How could he do this!
“She didn’t take—”
“—her preventative.” He hated himself for saying it. But what choice did he have? If he lied and Wilson found out, the consequences would be horrible.
“You’re not registered for a baby, are you?” He could hear the wicked smile in Wilson’s voice.
“Thank you, Mr. Dalton.” Wilson ended the connection. The car parked and Rick went into the office.
Jann walked him to his cubicle. “How are you?” she asked.
He slid into his chair with a sigh. “Something came up. I won’t be seeing Holly again.”
“I know you liked her.”
“I did.” The experience had devastated him. But overreacting would only lead to inquiry. He couldn’t afford any more mistakes, not after his morning.
“You’ll just have to move on. Do you need a repressor?”
“The doctor gave me a gel.” For once Rick was grateful for the numbness the medication provided.
“There’s always Cindi. I’d be happy to—”
“No, thank you, Jann. I’ll just file for a replacement.” Dating the boss’s sister might be too close to bending a rule. He wanted to stay away from all that.
“Please yourself.” She began moving down the aisle. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“Thank you.” He turned on his equipment. One hundred and forty-four cam feeds popped up on the desk screen. He began taking notes. Regina Simms was viewing prohibited internet porn again and that Freeburg character in Omaha had cigarettes hidden in his basement. The Hendersons were arguing at well over seventy decibels. Rick recorded a slew of violations including one sex offender. This was John Turner’s third adultery too, in less than two years of marriage. He would be going under the laser. Too bad, but maybe Turner should stick to the rules if he wanted to get married.
Rick went close-in on a couple of feeds and found more. John and Mary Kline were whispering, pretending to watch vid while they whispered. He could not make out what they were saying. He marked it down as suspicious.
Kay McGill in San Jose was going to be in a lot of trouble. The three cams inside her apartment were all effectively blocked. A clear infraction of the Domestic Surveillance Act. Rick activated a fourth feed. He could see McGill now, hunched over a basket. A white head popped up and a long pink tongue licked her face. McGill scratched the dog’s ears. Rick could hear yips from the puppies.
Rick checked McGill’s record. She didn’t even have the mother dog registered. He could not believe his luck. The pups, the mama, the cam blocks, it was a forty pointer at least. It was turning out to be one heck of a day after all. If this kept up he might make bonus.
A black-eyed puppy wobbled into view. Its eyes shone with joy. Rick poised over the keypad, paralyzed by the image on the screen. His excitement drained away. The next move he made would send the report and end this. The black-eyed pup would disappear forever.
He found a Reatox in his desk and gulped it. The puppy’s head bobbed into view again. Rick watched it, fighting back the regret. He thought about Holly. She also had beautiful eyes that he would remember.
The medication took effect. His calm returned. Holly, he’d been thinking about Holly. He would miss her. He hoped his next partner pleased him as much. Peering at the picture on the screen, he flashed with anger. McGill was the cause of this. Those poor dogs—all because of her recklessness. Rick hoped they scraped her cerebellum clean.
The Voice from Beyond the Desert
By Stephanie Lane Gage
The low whine of a single locust tittered through the midday heat before abruptly and percussively ending with a crunch of the Botanist’s sandal into the Mojave ground, kicking up a somber cloud of desert dust. The Botanist set down her pack and shaded her eyes with a hand to her forehead as she surveyed the horizon for her next subject. She spotted the spined and clubby hands of the yucca brevifolia waving hello to her from behind a nearby boulder.
After collecting samples and taking down notes and measurements, having scientific conversations with the Joshua Tree she had traveled here to study, she looked towards the dying light in the sky. The sun had gotten low as her conversations with the trees rambled away from her. She had meant to head back to camp hours ago; the Geologist would be waiting with dinner ready over the fire by sundown. The Botanist grabbed her pack and started making her way back in the direction of their shared research camp.
The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled with static air as the Botanist’s shadow loomed behind her, elongated and alien. The rocks and boulders and Joshua Trees of the Mojave were traced with golden yellow light against the yawning sky. The walk was long. As the sun died beneath its desert coffin and the stars started to show themselves, the Botanist clicked off her walkie-talkie. And breathed deep. Dry air. In, out. Sandpaper breaths. She looked upwards.
Back at their camp, the Geologist was stewing. Pacing. Idly scratching his stubble. Walking in an equilateral triangle around their campsite, over and over. Retracing, the same measurements. She should’ve been back by now. He wasn’t worried. He was angry. Feeling slighted, and left standing in the now cold sand, with just the rocks and the dust. He shoved one of those rocks with his foot within the interior of the triangle.
“Hello? Where are you?” he said, flatly, into the walkie-talkie.
Only static air. Sandpapery.
The viscous darkness continued to thicken as the Botanist edged closer to the camp through the cold desert. There was a part of her mind that tugged at her body like it was attached to a string; it slowed her pace. She continued her gaze upwards, to the now bright, bright stars. There was that gnawing feeling in her bones, it inched towards fear, but settled more into the canyon that echoes with lonesomeness. She thought of the Geologist. And then she didn’t. The walkie-talkie stayed dormant, purposefully off. She looked down for a beat, brows furrowed, but her subconscious brought her gaze back upwards. The lonesomeness slurred into longing. Cold wishes. She waved hello to the vacant stars.
She glimpsed a light in the distance, maybe less than a couple miles further southeast of their camp. It looked like… a streetlight? Shining in this desolate scape? How had she not noticed it before? Maybe she was seeing things, maybe the stars burned light ghosts in her eyes. Maybe she was hoping. But the coals of their campfire were defined now, surely a different light–closer, quiet and red, and the Geologist was probably asleep in their tent.
“Nice of you to join me,” a voice rattled from the darkness, settled on the triangle the Geologist had worked so hard to draw for them.
She jumped at his voice, breath caught, and then, “I’m sorry. I got carried away. It’s beautiful out there, you know.”
“It’s desert. Rocks and dust.”
“And the Joshua Trees. And the sky.”
He stood up from the ground shadow in which he was sitting. In which he held his vigil, cold and cross-armed.
She sighed. She kicked some sand and a rock or two onto the dying firelight, and followed him into the tent.
Morning came and she woke early. The Botanist stoked the nearly dead embers, starting the fire again and ground beans for coffee. She left a thermos and a hot breakfast near the fire for the Geologist and started out on her data hike before he woke up.
She was curious. Well, always curious about the shrubs and the moss and the Joshua Trees, but her feet walked her in the direction of the ghost light she had seen the night before. She felt that string again, attached to her ribcage, pulling her, forward this time. She smiled an earnest smile, glad for the contact of shoe to dirt and the sun on her shoulders and the ache in her heart. She kicked rocks as she went.
She headed southeast, in the direction she had seen the light or seen its ghost. She waved to several Joshua Trees, trying to keep the small talk to a minimum and promising she’d catch up with them later, after she’d quelled the adrenaline butterflies that were driving her curiosity. The plants were chatty today. She passed by several rock formations she’d remembered. She held her backpack straps. She stepped in dust. No locusts tittered.
After over an hour of walking, her sight slinked across a change in the pigment of desert sand. A road?
Back at the camp, the Geologist woke to an empty tent. Bleary. The Mojave sunlight was already baking the tent like a brick oven. He hung his head with a hand covering his face in the enveloping heat.
The Botanist marched on, following the desert road. Her shadow pooled around her as the sun rose in the sky. And then, all at once, her bodily string tugging her along was an astral projection. Telephone wires rose from the horizon.
She pointed, for no one, for herself.
Who lived out here among the dust and the rocks and the Joshua Trees?
She followed the physical manifestation of her string, strides accelerating and her smile widening, despite of herself.
The Geologist hiked his pack as he started out to collect his data, reluctantly gripping the thermos that the Botanist had left for him, knuckles paling as he stewed and stewed. He knelt near a metamorphic structural composition. He didn’t have any conversations. He took his data and continued on his way.
The Botanist followed the wires and the road until she finally saw the streetlight from the night before stretching up out of the ground. No buildings arose near the lonesome post; there was nothing for miles beyond the surrounding mountains. No signs of civilization except an odd structure accompanying the streetlight: a telephone booth. In the middle of the desert–a stark void apart from human contact and interaction. And yet, here it stood, like a portal. The Botanist squinted and furrowed her brow, smiling with intrigue.
Dumbfounded, she continued to look around as if a building would melt out of the mirage, some glimpse of humanity to explain the anomaly. But nothing melted. She finally stepped forward to investigate, and placed her hand on the hot metal of the outside of the phone booth. It was simple and small, a rectangular prism with a metal framework and an opening on one side, glass encasing the other sides. Just as she began to warily lean in, suddenly she leapt back, startled, and nearly tripped over herself as the phone rang.
The sunbeams were relentless that day in the Mojave and the Geologist squatted down to rest beneath them, wiping the sweat from his forehead, cheeks red, eyes shut. He thought about the Botanist. Sighing, he let his arm rest over his face mid-wipe. After a moment he let it drop, opened his eyes, and looked at the rock he knelt by, sight lingering over mineral layers and counting them one-by-one. A memory echoed in his mind like a voice in the distance. He could see the excitement in her eyes, in the memory. She was showing him the “moon rock” her father had given her as a kid, cupping it into his hands, all smiling, like a child again. “It’s not a moon rock. It’s igneous, just made of cold lava,” he’d told her. She furrowed her brow, and looked into his eyes, serious. “Maybe it was once. But now it has a story, a relationship. Cold lava, moon rock. It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
As he sighed in the heat, he felt a strange lonesome sickness–an aching in the pit of his stomach.
The Botanist hesitated a moment, almost believing the ring was a fluke. A product of the heat and her tenseness, or a malfunction in the electronics. She jumped slightly again when it rang, loud and metallic, a second time. She took a step into the booth and lifted the phone off the receiver.
–[static and white noise, interwoven with shards of what sound like a human voice]
–[the static subsides enough for the Botanist to hear:] Hi? Hello! Wait! [more static]
–[the Botanist waits]
–Are you there?
–Yeah, I’m here. Who am I talking to? Who is this?
–Why did you pick up [static] …phone?
–I, well–I found this phone booth, um, in the middle of the Mojave.
–I know. I’m the one who called it.
–Ah, right. [there’s something familiar about the voice on the other end. There’s also something off with it, the sound of it. Like it’s being played back through a glass jar, or with the whine of a bow string hanging on the vowels.]
–Look, I don’t think I can talk for very long. [static] …can feel myself deteriorating. I don’t know who you are but you picked up the phone and I’d like to talk to someone, to you. I have to strengthen the connection first. It’s hot out here. [static] …come back tomorrow, if you can. Please. I can feel myself deteriorating. It’s hot out here. I have to strengthen the [static] Please. [static, for a long beat, followed by dial tone]
The Botanist held the phone to her ear for a moment as the dial tone moaned on, looking forward out of the glass to the mountains ahead. A crackle from the walkie-talkie on her hip pulled her out of the trance.
The Geologist stood up abruptly. Walked forward, breath short. He stopped and turned around on the spot, pacing for a moment before grabbing the walkie-talkie on his hip. He pulled it up to his mouth.
“Where are you?”
Static air, for a moment.
“You there?” he said into the receiver.
“…Uh, yeah, I’m here,” the Botanist replied.
He paused, not sure what to say.
“What is it?” she said, quietly.
“Nothing, just–just checking in.”
“Okay. I’m fine, everything’s going… well. I’ll see you later?”
“Yeah,” he muttered, and lowered the walkie-talkie, gripping it tightly.
The Botanist lingered in the strange phone booth for a while, after replacing the walkie-talkie onto her hip. She looked at the black phone she’d returned to the hook, hoping (perhaps naively) that it would ring again. Once the trapped heat in the structure caused a large bead of sweat to roll slowly down her cheek, she finally stepped out of it, and back through the portal’s threshold into the physical world. The plants seemed less chatty now. The boulders that had appeared as unmoving entities before looked fragile, unsure, and she was in a pause. Processing. In lieu of direction and state of mind, she let her body walk her towards the first Joshua Tree she saw.
She ambled back later in the evening before the Geologist returned to the campsite. She mechanically started a fire and went about preparing food. On the edge of her vision, a black figure approached against the dusted pink light that hovered right above the horizon. The Geologist tossed down his pack with a dry thump, and disappeared into the tent for a while. He emerged, and they talked in measured phrases about their days over the food she prepared. The Botanist said nothing about the phone booth.
The next day began much the same as the last, but instead of giddy curiosity, the Botanist was enveloped by a simple determination as she hiked towards that light ghost from the night, towards the Voice from Beyond the Desert. When she arrived at the phone booth, as lonesome a structure as ever, she half expected it to ring as soon as she came into its periphery. Instead, the phone stood idly by in a vacant silence, accompanied only by the wind blowing dust and the locusts, tittering. She stood outside of it for a moment before kneeling down and dragging out her book of field notes from her pack. She clicked off her walkie-talkie.
After waiting, somewhat impatiently, tapping her pencil and standing up every so often to pace distractedly around the booth, the phone rang roughly an hour after she first arrived. She still jumped at the noise. She darted into the booth, trembling slightly as she picked up the receiver.
–Look, [the voice is clearer this time, though still hazed with static and echoing through glass jars or violin strings] I need to be straightforward with you. I’m standing where you are, right now. In the exact spot. The heat is rising in this glass box, this hellish void, this goddamn cell in the middle of the desert. Do you feel it? Never mind. Look, [static, for a moment] look,
–[The Botanist waits, grips the phone, listening through the spattering static, sounding like rain on a windshield]
–[The Voice from Beyond the Desert sighs, pauses for a moment, and then:] You came back.
–I did, I’m here. Can you tell me what this is? Why there’s a phone booth out here in the middle of nowhere?
–I’m not sure. I found it much like you did, stumbling across the landscape looking at light ghosts in the night. [static] …feeling untethered. How sure are you about your physical state in the place you’re standing right in this moment? A shaking of ground. A loosening of dust. Wait, don’t answer that. Reality is wavering. The floor of this box is lifting from beneath our feet and rattling as your dimension and mine interact. [static] You
–[The Botanist squeezes her eyes shut, for a moment, feeling a sense of vertigo wash over. She looks down at her one empty hand and has trouble focusing her eyes, hands multiplying] …Goddamn.
–Don’t think on it too much. Or we’ll start unraveling. I don’t want to start deteriorating. I can feel it. The connection [static] …the connection [static] …the connection is stronger this time. Look, [static]
–[The Botanist shuts her eyes again and grips her forehead, slippery, sweat beading in this hellish void] Okay, I’m trying to stay grounded. Keep talking. I want to know what’s happening.
–Look, [static] look,
–[The Botanist opens her eyes and sees the distant mountains through the desert dust and the phone booth’s glass]
–I thought the connection was stronger this time but I [static] …feel myself deteriorating. Goddamnit. It’s hot out here. Look, I’ve walked the same steps you have, only in unfathomable strides, alien dust indistinguishable from yours. Look, I [static] …it’s so hot out here. Our dimensions are flanking each other, I think, rifting into one another. It’s like being dead, or being everything. [static] …more to yourself than your own two hands, your one brain. Don’t count out the light ghosts, the apparitions, they may have more footing in the physical world than you think, towing the line between my dimension and yours. Look, it’s hot out here, you have to come back [static] …can feel myself deteriorating. Please. Separate is not really separate, one and one and one in the same. It’s hot out here. Come back tomorrow. I can show you what I mean. [static] …can feel myself
–[static, for a moment, and then dial tone. Moaning onwards.]
The Botanist stepped slowly out of the phone booth, letting the receiver drop from her hand, hanging. The Joshua Trees and their chatter seemed muffled, now incoherent, under the weight of the Voice from Beyond the Desert. She put a hand to her forehead so its shadow covered her face. Her mind drew a blank as she tried to comprehend what she’d just heard. Her reality was shifting. Crumbling under the words and the detachment from the dust beneath her feet and the time in which she stood. She reeled in the desert heat, vertigo winning and the sky gaping above.
The sun had already sunk behind the brown desert mountains once the Botanist came to. She jerked up from where she was laying in the dust, disoriented and panicked, for a breath. It had felt like she’d just heard the Voice from Beyond the Desert minutes ago, but the day had rushed on and it was sundown. There was a rift. Time echoed and cut short. She glanced blearily towards the phone booth and saw the receiver hanging from its cord toward the ground. She pushed herself up and went to replace it onto its hook. Placing it steadily, she thought back on her earlier conversation, hoping she would come to some thread of certainty about any of the things she’d experienced here. She didn’t. Finally, as the faded light in the sky turned grayer, darker, the Botanist ambled out from the phone booth and towards the vague direction of her campsite, of the Geologist. The Geologist, who would surely be pacing, pacing, stewing. Her walkie-talkie was still clicked off. She squeezed her eyes shut and touched her temple, sighed, looked up. She pleaded silently to the vacant stars.
The Geologist knelt hunched over near the fire, arms crossed over his knees, staring into the flames, eyes narrowed, tired. The triangle he paced out on the periphery of their campsite sat defined in the sand. A light from a flashlight waved in the dark distance, approaching. Light ghosts. He continued staring into the flickering red, anger sitting sickly like tar in his stomach. He stood up and busied himself before the Botanist arrived.
The footsteps came, descending softly on the campsite from behind where he stood moving equipment around with his back towards her approaching figure.
A crash. The Geologist slammed a pan onto the fold-up table, shattering a ceramic mug in the process.
The Botanist went quiet, stood still. After an aching stretch of silence the Geologist sighed and seethed–“You haven’t answered me all day. You can’t do that.”
The Botanist was still standing on the other side of the campsite, right on the precipice of the Geologist’s triangle. After a few heartbeats she said, measuredly, “I’m sorry if I worried you, I didn’t realize my walkie-talkie was off.”
“I wasn’t worried. You just can’t leave me in the fucking dark. If you can’t figure out how to keep your goddamn walkie-talkie on then we’re going to have to start collecting data together like I said we should in the beginning. Or is it that you’d rather be around plants and nothingness in this hellish void than bare giving a thought to me, your partner?”
The Botanist was silent, heart in her throat, blocking words that weren’t there. She thought of the phone booth, the Voice from Beyond the Desert, the excitement and the mystery of those few interactions. The cutting contrast of the sadness that lived at the bottom of her stomach, and the fear she felt right now. The Geologist was staring at her, waiting for a response. Still she didn’t speak, frozen.
“Jesus Christ. Fuck this. I’m going on a walk and this time you can feel alone in the darkness.”
He turned and sauntered into the thick, cold night. He kicked rocks as he went. He did not wave to the vacant stars. Later, he returned to find the Botanist curled asleep on the far side of their tent, pillow wet near her face.
In the morning they did not speak as they readied themselves and moved around the campsite, apart from the Botanist saying “I’m off” when she left the triangle’s perimeter with her pack. The Geologist did not look up or reply, but her departing words flooded his stomach with the anger from the night before and it only grew as she walked away. The heat of the day rose. The air was dry. Sandpapery. Suddenly the Geologist grabbed his pack and turned to follow in the path of the figure in the distance, making sure to keep large rocks and Joshua Trees between them to obstruct her view, should she look back.
The Geologist followed his partner for more than an hour. Not once did she stop to collect data. Not once did she look back. When he reached the road in the sand, his surprise was eclipsed by suspicion. When he saw the telephone wires rise from the desert-scape, that sickly, angry tar in his stomach bubbled up again.
And then, the phone booth appeared, shimmering in the mirage of rising heat in the mid-Mojave sun. The Geologist stepped in dust. No locusts tittered. He watched, crouched from behind a gathering of rocks, as the Botanist paused outside of the structure. After a few minutes, a metallic ring echoed around the boulders and the Joshua Trees and the nothingness. The Geologist, startled, sunk beneath the rock structure.
Peering, he watched as the Botanist stepped quickly into the phone booth. Something started to wash over him. She picked up the phone. The heat rose. His vision started to blur over the desert landscape, melting in anger like the phone booth from the mirage. The tar in his stomach filled his veins and he’d seen enough. He turned and started walking back towards the campsite, clutching his head and trying not to stumble.
It was later and the desert sky was dusted haze as the sun sunk. A muttering of stars began to show themselves in the yawning sky. The Botanist arrived back at the campsite, resolute, stoic, thoughtful. The Geologist was sitting, unmoving as a statue until the Botanist approached. He stood up and without looking at her said, “I’m off,” and walked towards the mountains, towards the haze in the sky. Towards the light ghosts.
“Another walk?” the Botanist asked as the distance between them grew. He did not respond. The Botanist watched him go for a while, then ducked into the tent before she could see his dark and distant figure pick up a large rock.
She went to sleep before the Geologist returned that night and intended to slip out in the early morning light before he woke. The multitude of thoughts and futures and fears that swelled in her head kept her from a sound sleep and she was roused while it was still dark in the desert. It was that shadowed hour, the time of night where lonesome souls can hear their heart echoing against the quiet dark of a familiar void. Wrapping a blanket around herself, she stepped out of the tent and paused, glancing back for a moment at the Geologist’s sleeping figure. But her subconscious inevitably brought her gaze upwards. The stars seemed less vacant now, and she smiled at them, softly.
When the first light stretched from beyond the tips of mountains, she readied herself to leave, as quietly as she could. She grabbed her pack and departed from the Geologist’s triangle, blurring the lines of its perimeter in the sand with her feet, walking steadily and tiredly towards the light ghosts for the last time. The string in her chest was a rope, and she found herself smiling an earnest smile, despite the ache in her heart.
The Voice from Beyond the Desert rattled in her mind with the daze of the rising heat. Today she wouldn’t need to wait for the phone to ring. The Botanist would be the one calling. She walked in unfathomable strides.
The familiar structure dripped into her vision from the brown desert landscape, but something was less familiar today. She lingered, shading her eyes with a hand to her forehead. Something wasn’t right. The Botanist quickened her pace. The phone booth came steadily into focus, and the reality of what she was seeing hit her like the pan crashing down on the fold-up table. She continued toward it, more quickly now, dreaded, alarmed, heart heaving. She ran the last few yards as the tears began to run down her face. The phone booth stood terrorized. Broken, shattered, assailed, with debris lying strewn around its periphery. Glass shards littered the sand and the booth was open on all sides now, instead of one. The phone mechanism itself had been kicked, smashed with some blunt object, and was hanging at an odd angle from several wires, not sure whether to fall to its death or grasp on a little longer. The receiver had been ripped from its home, nowhere in sight; what remained of the cord was frayed wires. The Botanist looked on, frozen and in disbelief for a long while until she forced the last few steps across the threshold into the booth. Defeated, she dropped to her knees.
She succumbed to the sadness draining her body cold, her head dropping into her hands as she let out a pained sob. Where have the light ghosts gone?
A shaking of ground. A loosening of dust.
Suddenly, a reality was shifting. She looked down into her hands and they were multiplying. Amongst her broken state her vision unfocused and everything around her began to double. At that moment a pang hit her stomach apart from the devastation–a different liquid filled her veins. Fear settled in her. Bolting up from her spot in the dilapidated booth, she wheeled around, sure the source of this malice was looming. But before she could comprehend the depth of what she felt, the floor lifted from beneath her feet. Rattling. The desert mountains in the distance multiplied, like her hands, unfocused. The landscape superimposed onto itself. A reflection of her current reality pitted against a different one, familiar. Every rock, every Joshua Tree, each grain of sand doubled. Two locusts tittered, crossing themselves in a cannon of cries. Realities were converging, dimensions careening. She stumbled backwards, out of the booth, consciousness floating in a Venn diagram between perceptions.
The Botanist shook her head, touched her temple with eyes closed, but when she opened them again the visuals of the shifting realities persisted. Mountains upon mountains reflected on one another. The desert, the sun and the sky a temporal shift, mirrored transparent, identical images of each other. One and one and one in the same. And then her sight fell back on the phone booth, and the division between worlds was distinct. One booth lay broken, failing, crestfallen, a portal closed. Layered over in the mirror image was the booth as she knew it, standing and intact, ready to ring at any moment.
It’s like being dead, or being everything.
The Botanist stood reeling outside of the booth, the visuals exhausting her mind from the doubled world she was attempting to process. She stood amongst the broken glass both there and not there. Turning around slowly, looking to the mirrored landscape behind her, she saw a single figure on the horizon, standing, watching. From behind a gathering of rocks. She locked eyes with the Geologist, his facade dark and looming. Her eyes stung with salt but she stared steadily at his figure for a long while–the one singular thing in this crashing, doubled, cross-eyed world. Eventually, the fear she had felt before subsided, the burn in her eyes let up, and the sadness in her stomach dissolved. For a moment, she pitied him, broken as the glass in the sand. Finally, she felt nothing, except the heat of the day and the hope in her chest. And then she turned away.
The apparition of the intact booth stood before her, deepening in opacity. The Botanist didn’t have to make the call after all. The string attached to her rib cage was a knot. Around her, the Joshua Trees waved goodbye with their spined and clubby hands and the second layer of landscape faded transparent. Stepping once more across the threshold of the phone booth, towards the Voice from Beyond the Desert, the Botanist entered through the portal and into obscurity.
The Geologist stood unmoving as a statue. His hands were bruised, eyes tired, cheeks red. He watched as the Botanist crumpled to the floor of the broken structure. He watched her bolt upright, stumble back. He watched her turn, slowly, slowly. He looked into her face for the last time. He felt nothing but the heat of the day and the ache in his heart. For a long while he stood frozen, time moaning on. She wasn’t coming back. He stifled the urge to slam his bruised fist into the rock before him, knowing the futility of it and scoffing at his sadness. He finally turned to walk towards the dying light in the sky. Cold lava, moon rock, it didn’t really matter. As the night grew darker, emptier, and the vacant stars began to show themselves, the Geologist pitied himself. Deteriorated–unraveled–stewing and stewing alone in the darkness.
The Heat Death of Everything I Love
By Griffin Ayaz Tyree
Before the old church doors, in the warm darkness of the vestibule, Sabine’s mother stooped down to look her daughter in the eyes.
“What you were is past.”
She swept aside the veil of the girl’s communion dress—a billowy thing like a crown of unspooled gauze—and blotted her tears out with a thumb. Shrill music crept in from the sanctuary, dissonant chords from a heat-warped organ.
“What you will be is yet to come.”
Smiling wide, she held her child’s face in calloused hands. Her daughter, her anxious little girl on the threshold. Sabine was frightened by a simple ritual; that was good—it meant she’d done her motherly duty, protected the child from those things to be truly feared.
For now, at least.
Somewhere high above the stone ceiling, the great chrome shape of the Teardrop hung silent in the sky. Soon the first Greys would appear at the marketplace in Croix-des-Bouqets, slender bodies towering above the crowds.
Sabine’s dinner has gone cold.
So it was you. You killed our world.
“Not me, ch’atha—” Her husband extends a spindly arm, straightened at both joints to cross the length of the kitchen table.
She slaps it away. Turns in her seat to face the cupboards, the sink, the kitchen window—anything but him: Don’t call me dearest. Not in your language, not in mine.
Sabine rubs her forehead with a hand that comes away wet and clammy, fingers trembling. In her mind’s eye she pictures it: herself, her body, unraveling like the end of a frayed rope.
“I understand this must be difficult,” he says. Rehearsed. Sanctimonious. Typical Grey fashion. “You’ve lost a great—”
You have no idea what I’ve lost, she snaps. You can’t begin to fathom.
Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five… rows of tomato plants flew by the car window, all green blur and flashes of red earth where the furrows showed through. Almost too fast for Sabine to count.
“There used to be more than just tomatoes”—her mother said, laying out across the back seat—“Peppers, and leeks, and eggplants. Remember eggplants, sissy?”
Sabine’s aunt only grunted, hands on the steering wheel, eyes on the road.
Mother shrugged. “I always hated eggplants.” She let out a chuckle that became strained, gave way to a fit of coughing. Auntie clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… Sabine could only think of how old her mother looked, spasming under a light blanket, hair plastered to the car seat, mouth twisted by an unseen pain. Her skin strewn with pocks and blisters and jagged outgrowths.
It weighed heavy on Sabine’s mind, even at eleven years old: the idea of her mother as someone mortal, someone who would one day die.
She did her best to shut it out.
Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three… The coughing fit subsided and the grimace faded from Mother’s face. She forced a smile and craned her neck to appear, beatific, in the rear-view mirror.
“See, sissy? No harm done.” Her voice was hoarse.
Auntie grunted, unconvinced.
What happened? With the egg-plants.
“Well… the sun got too strong.”
“Same reason your mum got sick, Sabine” Auntie said sharply. “Same reason you suit up when you go outside.” She kept her wet red eyes fixed ahead, always ahead.
The clinic came into view, a squat blue building on the slopes of the Mountain where Greys would come and go, flitting up and down between the earth and the Teardrop like angels on a ladder. People said they worked miracles there.
But Mother’s miracle didn’t exist on this planet, only theirs.
The tall Grey doctor explained, Sabine only catching a few words between the thump-thump-thump in her eardrums: “to the lungs”… “don’t have the equipment”… “can ease the pain.” Her mother nodding solemnly; the color draining from Auntie’s face.
On the drive back home, Mother sleeping in the backseat with a dream-band around her forehead (“this will keep her comfortable”), Sabine squirmed, fidgeted in her seat because she didn’t know what else to do. Twisting, turning, opening, closing—she found a roadmap faded and folded in the glovebox. Had there been more to the world than the Town and the Road and the City and the Mountain?
“Put that away, honey,” Auntie said, small-voiced. “Just reminds you of all that’s lost.”
What did I say about calling me that?
“It was a miscalculation made by the expedition planners; a side-effect of interstellar travel.”
You could have told me this sooner…should have…
“They knew that decelerating from the superluminal threshold would release energy; of course they did—the entirety of Drive Theory was based on this… bubble of contracted space-time, moving from star to star, picking up charged particles. They just didn’t anticipate how big the release would be… What it would do to the planet.”
On her feet now, she scrubs furiously at the remnants of that night’s dinner, dried tomato sauce on heavy plates. The kitchen window looks out on pitch night, glass reflecting the image of Sabine at the sink and her husband behind, compound eyes pleading. She does not meet his gaze.
“Ch—” He stops short. “Sabine.”
How long had he carried this secret between them? Had he hoped she’d never ask?
“Sabine, what are you thinking?”
He doesn’t deserve to know.
When Sabine was nineteen banebloom swallowed up her aunt’s farmland; she found work on a cut-crew the Greys organized to keep the plants at bay. She spent her days hacking at tree roots with tools that would glow and groan and pulse like living things. It was exhausting but the pay was good; she could keep herself and Auntie fed.
Mother had been buried three years.
Her manager, a Grey, was an oddity. Irritating in that he tried to relate, laboring with the human workers though he didn’t have to, speaking their language though he sounded ridiculous (and they were all obliged to smile and applaud and admire his efforts—meanwhile a human speaking anything short of fluent Grey provoked impatient stares and sharp corrections).
This Grey, he frustrated her—but he also kept his personal shield switched off, skin un-tinted by the crackling blue of a barrier field, and that endeared him to her. By degrees.
“You want to see something?” He asked her at work one day.
Sabine wiped the sweat from her brow and shrugged. Half hour left of the mid-day break; Sure, I’ve got time.
They entered a thicket of banebloom at the edge of the worksite, walking on between gnarled trunks that twisted and arched in all directions. Sunlight stippled their faces and arms through a canopy of violet fronds above.
It was pleasant, this stroll among the plants she was paid to destroy. The air was cool and fragrant, and Sabine understood why the Greys had first brought rachitha (as they called it) to this world.
“I need to survey the coast. It’d be better to have two sets of eyes on the task”—he ducked under a low-hanging branch and into a clearing—“And besides, you’re more familiar with the local flora than I…”
She slipped on a fallen frond, and the Grey took her arm to stop her from falling. His hands were moist—sweaty, maybe. Was that a nervous tell with them too?
“Would you come with me?” He gestured to a sleek black platform hovering an arm’s length above the forest floor.
So she had a choice.
You know you go through a lot of trouble just to ask for some company.
She smiled. He beamed.
From cloud-height Sabine saw more of her world than she ever knew existed. Beneath them the ground rushed one way and then another, a hyperfast parade of places Mother and Auntie could describe but were never able to show her: oceans and cliffs, beaches and hills, rivers and valleys.
There were things, too, Sabine came to know only with the Grey; she learned the words for them first in his language and then in her own: liaroi (salt-flat), thonnai (crater), mar-th’al (ruins).
The entire time you passed yourself off as saviors.
“We’ve been trying to set things right, Sabine. It’s not always perfect, what we do, but think of the things you’ve gained because we’re here—”
And the things we’ve lost, what about them?
“We wouldn’t have met.”
But I would still have a mother.
Wincing. “You don’t know that…”
You’ll never be one of us, you know that. You, you’re killing us.
Don’t what? She says, harsher and louder than she’d wanted to.
“Don’t pretend life was idyllic before we were in-system. We know your history; you were just getting by as it was. Only a matter of time before you did something like this to each other.”
A plate explodes in a bloom of ceramic and soapy water on the tile floor. Sabine readies another, hands shaking with anger. Her husband frowns. No shatterproofing, no anti-entropic fields; not on this planet.
The Greys thought they had the best of everything. Perhaps for some things that was true—technology and medicine, certainly—but Sabine could never understand why they took such pride in their cuisine. They loved tomatoes, unabashedly, uncritically, and to every marinara sauce or garden salad they added something of their own: clumps of spiraling purple fungus, long strips of dehydrated meat product, little yellow flakes that squirmed and wriggled all the way down the throat. And always, always, the food came out too salty.
She learned this waiting tables in the City. The Grey—her Grey—had arranged the job with a friend, he thought as a favor: a restaurant run by Grey expatriates for Grey clientele. The pay would be higher and the work less demanding; Sabine was already having pains in her back from hauling root cutters.
But if her back had ached on the cut-crew her entire face was sore at the restaurant.
Don’t make them feel guilty, she would recite under her breath, don’t let them feel the slightest hint of shame. Sabine paced the narrow corridors between dining booths, stopping where she was called to lean in through a service window and take orders, or deliver drinks, or apologize to unsatisfied patrons.
She was sure to smile—always smile—to keep her eyes open and bright and earnest; the customers expected a kind of polite cheerfulness. They wanted reassurance that she was happy to serve.
That wasn’t the way Sabine felt, of course, but she was not Sabine there. Wrapped in some kind of shimmering green fabric, decked with overblown garlands that weighed down her shoulders and strained her neck and pulled on her hair—Sabine was a symbol of the Earth itself.
No, she thought, there’s a more precise word for it. She was a caricature. The false ideal of an undying planet, ever-verdant and happy to be used.
At the end of her shift Sabine would clean out the dining booths. For a brief period of time each night, she could see the tall metal rooms as her patrons did: ceilings and walls alive, projecting planets and stars and entire galaxies into the air above her head—they hovered, spun, collapsed and exploded in bright flashes of light.
She wondered at the effort it took to bring these things here, these tools of amusement. If it would have taken any more effort to bring the machine that could have saved her mother.
The church is unroofed and empty, beset on one side by rachitha saplings that had grown their roots deep into the wall to displace entire blocks of stone.
Still, there’s a strange comfort Sabine feels as she lays on the hot concrete floor. This is where she was baptized, where she communed, where her mother told her stories of… she’s forgotten. Gods? Is that who the statues are? At every corner of the sanctuary, peering out from their nooks with hands or feet or sometimes whole heads missing.
Yes, these are the gods of her planet, indomitable men and women who have never been forced into service, never smiled when their hearts were heavy, never forgiven the death of a mother because they had no choice.
She will need their strength as the world dies.
The shield belt buzzes punitively. Hazard warning. She’s out beyond the City limits, where there is no solar shade draped across the sky to catch radiation. Sabine steadies her hand (still shaking from the argument, the crash of broken ceramic ringing in her ears) and turns a dial to check the energy remaining on her barrier field: about two hours’ worth.
It’s her husband’s belt, and in the old days—the romantic days, when he still tried to relate—it would have been fully charged, unused. But the sun had grown too strong for those kinds of gestures, even for a Grey.
No, not the sun, she corrects herself—by now Sabine knew better than to blame her troubles on an unchanging star. The sun hadn’t grown stronger, that was a polite fiction, a shorthand; the atmosphere was perforated, great shaggy holes torn into it when the Greys had arrived, holes that were only growing larger and shaggier by the day.
She rolls on her side, pressing her cheek against the floor. How many had walked up and down these aisles? And how many of those are gone and buried now? For a moment something wells up inside of her, something overwhelming and uncontrollable and wet and dreadful but with a sharp gulp and deep breath she holds it at bay.
She thinks of the statues, the gods of the Earth.
Sabine starts when she hears a noise behind her. Pebbles and dirt displaced, the quiet disturbed. Something heavy on concrete.
She pushes herself to a crouch and turns sharply.
Her husband, voice weak and arms outstretched, hobbles forward down the aisle.
Earth, viewed from space, is blue. Surprisingly, astoundingly blue.
“Are you ready?”
Sabine turns from the window and gives a quick nod. Her husband stands in the doorway and fidgets with his hands. Against the bright light of the hallway he looks thin, stretched-out even for a Grey.
“This kind of travel, it can be very disorienting. You may get nauseous, even vomit. I’d recommend you be sleeping when it starts, that way—”
I understand. I’ve read about this. She smiles, speaks as gently as she can. Thank you.
“Right, of course.” His eyes dart down to the floor, then back to hers. “Be safe, the both of you.”
We will. Sabine puts a hand on her swollen belly.
The Grey backs out into the hall; the door closes. Separate beds for the journey: the pregnancy had saved their marriage, that much was true, but it could not have salvaged anything more.
Then again, nothing could have bridged the distance between them now—there’s a whole planet there, an entire heat-killed world.
Darkness falls as the outer wall of the Teardrop eclipses her view. Sabine had always thought of it as a ship, or even a city—something solid, full of life and activity looming over her head for as a long as she could remember.
But the Teardrop is hollow.
This is how it was described to her: a net, a giant metal bowl on its side, floating in space. Built to absorb the energy released by interstellar travel—how the Greys jump from one end of the galaxy to the other with such ease, with such inconsequence.
Inconsequence for all except, of course, those who see their first arrival. Woe to them.
That was her fate, her whole people’s fate: caught in the wake of another’s progress, forced to a threshold not of their own making or choice, between what they were, in the past, and what they are to be, unforeseeable.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Sabine sighs from someplace deep inside of her. She sets her face like stone, like statuary, as the ship’s engines growl to life.
With her swollen belly Sabine is a bubble, one life wrapped up in another, moving from star to star towards something yet to come.
50 Mile Station
By Amanda Hund
It was Brazil, he had to keep reminding himself. Variations of green and brown, and lakes, rivers, and far on the horizon, the indigo edge of the ocean pressed upon his eyes in sharp detail. He stared at it for hours at a time.
A red barrel slid past the window, smooth and big as a ship, blocking his view. Jerrel noted the numbers as they slowly slipped by: 7… 0… 5… 1… A. The 7 meant that it was from San Francisco, but he knew that already because it was red. Every barrel was at least half windowed, by law, unless it was a nuclear one. Black bags and plastic bottles were crushed against the windows that were smeared with black mold. This matched the stated contents of the manifest: trash. It traveled up the cord. A few seconds later it picked up speed and would be released when it reached geosynchronous orbit, in a few hours.
7051A content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
The ISS zoomed above him, Jerrel barely glanced at it. It was as ordinary as the hand of a clock, marking every hour and a half. Marking every time he would kiss the picture of his daughter. This started as a tool to help him cope with being alone, but now if he missed the kiss because he didn’t notice the ISS, he panicked. Only kissing the picture 20, 30, 40 times would calm him down again. This concerned him, but he couldn’t stop.
The barrels came about every hour. He was to visually inspect the contents and confirm that they matched the manifest. This one was a Dallas White. These were less rusty than the reds; their barrels were newer because they had not been allowed to use the Vator until about a year ago. 4… 3… 8… C… 3. Liquid, unspecified type. Dallas won the right to keep the exact content of their barrels private, after years of failed negotiations, during which thousands of citizens died from the nuclear waste in the water supply. Finally, the North American Elevator Corp decided they needed Dallas as a customer more than they needed to know what was in their barrels.
438C3 content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
It was hard to be vigilant, knowing that the barrels had already been checked three times further down the tube. Jerrel was not doing anything that a computer could not do, mostly. They used to not check at all, except on the loading dock, of course. Windows were required back then, but you could just pay the fine and send a solid barrel up no problem. That was before the Heist of ‘89, where five nuclear waste barrels came crashing back down to earth and it took countless billions to repair the elevator. So now, lots of checking. At the ten mile high station, every barrel was checked. At twenty they were checked again. Jerrel was at the third and last station, fifty miles up, and he was required to check twelve barrels in each 24 hour period.
A blue barrel came into view. New York. A nuclear one without windows. The counter embedded in the wall of the barrel showed high levels of radiation. Content confirmed.
Jerrel was doing a three week shift. The intention was that he would work for twelve hours and rest for twelve. There were five TVs permanently set to ‘ON’ for twelve hours per day to ensure this. Jerrel could neither change the channel nor the volume. Three were entertainment channels, one was the weather, the other was North American Elevator Corp’s station. At first he watched the NAEC station a lot. He was excited about his new job and wanted to learn all he could about the company. The station had a running ticker of barrel prices, speeds, trajectories and contents. Sometimes a person would talk about statistics like how many tons of nuclear waste and plastics had been removed from the Earth, or which city had removed the most waste per capita, or how NAEC’s performance compared with the other two elevators belonging to China (in Congo) and Australia (in Indonesia).
7051A trajectory 5.50:Delta:2300, according the computer. The magnetic satellite successfully deflected the barrel with opposing high field pulses to keep it away from the satellite rings, not to mention itself, and send it safely into dead, blank space.
Every night at ten p.m. he NAEC TV told him ‘Thank you and good night!’ and went black, but did not turn off like the other TVs did. Jerrel had tried to follow the designated routine for a while, but he could only sleep for two hours at a time. So after a few days of only two hours per night, he needed the freedom to nap. He cut the wires to four of the TVs. He didn’t touch the NAEC TV. The fact that it never turned off worried him.
The paycheck for this job was extraordinary. A year’s worth of salary down below, for three weeks of work. He had been on the waiting list for this job for two years, and now that he was here, he could not understand why it paid so much. It was true that he was not allowed to contact anyone on Earth by any means. There was not a keyboard in the entire station. It was hard being away from all human contact for three weeks, certainly, but not that hard. He was showing signs of being stressed, such as insomnia, losing weight and doing that kiss-the-picture thing, but it really wasn’t that bad.
The only people he could contact were the guys in the stations below, but that was only in case of emergency. He had access to top-secret company intelligence, and it needed to stay that way, is what they said, or else he would lose all salary. What that special intelligence possibly could be, Jerrel didn’t know. The contents and trajectories of all the barrels were broadcast to the world on the NAEC station.
438C3 trajectory 2.31:Alpha:2692. Another safe ejection.
Jerrel was heading to the rack for a nap when the turd alarm went off.
Those fucking SF barrels. The SF people mixed the exterior paint with repulsion mag powder to make them extra fast, was the thinking. What really happened was they all got stuck to each other and came up the pipe in long lines like a turd. This had never actually been a problem, though if there was too much constipation it could destabilize the Vator, so he was required to observe and report. So far, the long turds always broke up and found their random trajectories just like all the other barrels.
This turd was mostly trash. Flies buzzed around the windows, craving the light of his station. It was a short ride, only about ten hours from the bottom, so there was usually enough air for living things to breathe.
7… 5… 1… N… 6. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
7… R… 2… 0… 2. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
7… 3… 4… 6… P. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.
He couldn’t see very far down the elevator, all the equipment was in the way, but the alarm said there were five more to go. Jerrel completed the report and went to take his overdue nap.
There was a high incidence of suicide (jumpers) in the Vator worker ranks, but while Jerrel was anxious, he was not inclined to end his life. Jerrel actually found it quite satisfying to see all the trash and nuclear waste leave the Earth. The Earth was a much cleaner and safer place than it was a hundred years before. The ocean was clean now.
A red one. This one was labeled trash. Green leaves and thousands of monarch butterflies were plastered against the windows, some of them still struggling to fan their wings. His book reader fell from his hands as pressed his face against the viewport. He nailed the image capture button several times as nausea welled in his gut.
Content… confirmed. Take that back. Unconfirmed. Jerrel left this one alone. He was grateful that he was not required to verify every barrel. Cutting down trees was illegal according to international law. Trees were not even cut down if they endangered a house. That’s what Disaster Insurance was for. So this meant that the two stations down below confirmed the content of this barrel and allowed it to proceed. If they didn’t see a reason to detain it then he didn’t feel like he could. It was on their conscience, but it did not help his anxiety. He reached for the picture of Jeena.
The next red one came and it was the same. The next five were all the same. How many trees can fit in a barrel? Fifteen? Twenty? How many thousands of crushed butterflies? The guys down below must have received a hefty bribe, or been extorted. But why hadn’t he been approached? Maybe they expected him to let this one go without need of any of that. His hands shook.
A Dallas White came next and Jerrel relaxed a little and heaved a sigh. Only real trash and waste. This trash looked like shredded paper and plastic sand.
“Thank you and good night!” the NAEC TV said.
Jerrel wasn’t sleepy at all, so he read his book, trying to forget about the butterflies. After a while he noticed that no barrels had come. He looked it up– it had been two hours. That was unusual, but not necessarily a problem. Two hours later, there were still no barrels. The barrels usually came every hour, 24 hours per day. It was possible that there was extreme constipation down below. He had a suit in case of a ‘loss in cabin pressure,’ and a parachute. He would not be rescued from space. That much was made very clear in his contract.
He tried calling Station 20.
“Station 20, do you copy? What’s going on down there? It’s been four hours since I’ve seen a barrel,” Jerrel said.
After a few seconds, “Station 20, do you copy?”
Nothing. They were supposed to be asleep after all.
He put on his suit and grabbed the mag gun. The gun was strong enough to push a barrel off the Vator, in case the mag sat malfunctioned. He wasn’t sure how it could help him, but it felt good to have something powerful in his hands.
Then the barrels started to come again, one after the other.
Red barrel, sewage.
White barrel, trash.
Blue barrel, bodies.
They were dead. Usually dead bodies were wrapped in black gauze. It wasn’t so uncommon. People liked the idea of going out into space after they died, and paid nicely for the privilege. Or else they paid nothing because they were so poor. They all ended up the same, wrapped in black gauze and packed tight into a glorified trash can.
But these bodies were not wrapped. Why weren’t they wrapped? Jerrel breathed very fast and dropped the mag gun.
Red barrel, bodies.
The bodies were all brown-skinned and dark-haired. Really packed in there, faces mushed up against the windows.
White barrel, bodies.
Jerrel was shaking all over. He wished he had gone to bed, as instructed. A bead of sweat stung his eye. He took off his helmet.
Blue barrel, bodies.
“Station 10? Anybody copy?”
Red barrel, bodies. They were smaller, it seemed, only because of the refraction of the windows.
“STATION 20. DO YOU COPY.”
There was a staticky response.
“Station 20, say again?”
“Shut Up,” was the barely audible whisper-yell.
“Station 10, do you copy?”
No response. White barrel, bodies. A sweaty, wide-eyed face was looking out the window.
Jerrel threw up. His whole body was quivering.
Blue barrel, bodies. Small bodies.
Red barrel, bodies. Unwrapped. Brown.
“They are letting them through. Or they don’t know. But they know. They know and told me to shut up. They are letting them through.”
White barrel. A crying face. Hand banging on the window.
Blue barrel. Screaming.
Jerrel screamed with her.
Jerrel shook his head.
White. They would not stop coming.
Jerrel roared. He snatched the picture of his daughter out of the window and tore it into tiny pieces and ate them, shivering all over. He put his helmet back on and hooked the mag gun to his belt. Then he opened the airlock and heard the hiss of depressurization. He climbed onto the ladder outside the door. His magnetic gloves and boots helped him hold on and not slip. He climbed around the station, headed toward the elevator.
Barrels were stacked on the elevator as far down as he could see. It was at least twenty or thirty, but it could be more. Why didn’t the turd alarm go off?
Jerrel clanged onto the service catwalk on the Vator. A blue barrel was going by, they were all dead. He climbed down the catwalk. A red barrel had a living girl at the window. She banged on the window when he saw her. She sailed past slowly. Jerrel let out one sob and kept climbing down.
This is why he was paid so much. This. This.
The white one had a mother and child pressed against the window.
“Jeena, Jeena baby. I love you,” Jerrel said.
The fact that Jeena wouldn’t know what he did is what tortured him. But maybe. There was a slim chance he would survive. Maybe.
He unhooked the mag gun and pointed it at the nearest mag loop.
He popped the white barrel off the elevator with his gun, before he could look inside. It was designed to release away from the direction the Earth was turning, so there was no chance of the barrel hitting the elevator. But the barrel would eventually hit the ground. No one would survive, but at least they would be back on Earth. At least someone would know.
Jerrel popped off ten more barrels in succession. He looked inside a white barrel. Still dead bodies. He was breathing hard and crying. The barrels he had released were floating behind and appeared to slowly fall toward Earth.
He reversed the mag gun to attract and aimed it up, at a barrel far above. He wasn’t sure of the range of this thing. It didn’t seem to be working, so he climbed up for a while, as fast as he could. But he was hardly faster than the barrels. He hooked his legs on the catwalk and dangled himself inside the chute and pointed the gun up. Tears were in his eyes, it was hard to see. It seemed the barrel had stop moving perhaps. He kept pulling the trigger, trying to pull the barrel toward him. He held the trigger down. The barrel was definitely coming toward him. Faster now, it came. Faster. He ducked out of the way just before the barrel came through, he put his gun back on repel and pushed it down.
The barrel hit the barrels below at perhaps twenty miles per hour. The whole Vator shuddered and creaked, but seemed to retain stability. Jerrel climbed into the chute and let himself free fall down, it was faster than climbing down. Once his magnetic boots caught an edge and held him fast, his body slammed into the chute and broke off again. His elbow felt broken, but at least his helmet was solid. He jumped into free fall again, and when he got close to the barrels he tried to use the gun to repel himself a little. He banged backward into the chute and the track dug into his back, but he was alright.
The barrels were moving up again. A Red was on top. He looked inside. Dead. He looked down and barrels still clung to the Vator as far as he could see.
He did it again. Popped ten or so barrels off the Vator and brought the barrel above down. This time the Vator creaked longer and wobbled. He used the gun to keep the barrels down. Now he could see the wobble, not only feel it. It was getting worse. The joy of it eviscerated him. Would it be enough?
He popped off many more barrels, hoping to imbalance the Vator further. He picked a Red to shoot upward as fast as it could go. Creaking and groaning continued. He popped and shot many more times until in slow motion the whole chute bowed and curved like a ribbon. Barrels began popping off spontaneously.
Jerrel let go and let himself fall, tears streaming down his face. The elevator seem to fall away from him, then it tore apart and went whipping down toward Earth, the top portion dangling for a moment, then swinging out toward space. Jerrel sobbed. He looked down at the lakes and rivers, the blues, greens and browns. The square patches of agriculture. The fingers of clouds caressing it all, the mist that hung over the Amazon. The barrels of people in the distance, falling with him.
The edges of sky enveloped him, the deep blue cold and indifferent to what passed through it. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. He wondered if he would ever see Jeena again. It was possible his parachute would work. It was possible.
I Am Mary
By Matthew Harrison
This morning is not good, like yesterday. Mr. Jones is unwell. He hasn’t been well since we came here. I am sad about that. I am a wife, Mary, Mr. Jones’s wife. I used to call him ‘Bob’, but everyone here calls him ‘Mr. Jones’, so I do too.
Mr. Jones and I have been here for three months. We came here after hospital, when he had his stroke. Mr. Jones can’t do much for himself anymore, so I help him. I wash him, I feed him, I take him to the toilet, I change his clothes. Doing these things is good. It makes me feel good. I love Mr. Jones.
In the afternoon, Mr. Jones seems better. So I dress him in his suit, and he goes down to the lounge to meet the others. Of course he doesn’t go by himself. I wheel him down. And when he is there he can’t speak or talk to the others. But he looks smart in his suit, supported by the cushions, and I am proud of him. He looks at me sometimes. I am sure he loves me.
There are only old men in this place, men like Mr. Jones who can’t look after themselves. The old women are in another place. I don’t know why they don’t have them together, just like outside. I said this to Matron once. But Matron just smiled, and said, “You’re a strange one, dear.”
There are the other wives, of course. Today, Samantha is standing next to me. Her husband is very old. “I like your dress,” I say to Samantha. The green goes with her blonde hair. “Thank you. I like yours, too,” she says, and she smiles. We usually say this to each other, and it is true. Our dresses don’t change.
At five o’clock there are visitors to the lounge. I like this time, there is so much to see and listen to. Men and women come in, even children. Some of them smile at me.
Mr. Jones has a daughter called Sue who visits every week. She says thank you to me. I like her. her hair goes behind one ear. Once she brought me a bracelet. I’m wearing it now. Sue is a wife, but she is a visitor-wife. She lives outside. Her husband never comes, though.
Sue talks to Mr. Jones – oh, the things she talks about! I didn’t know there were so many things in the world. She talks about cooking, food, her children, her boss, holidays, her husband, so many things! I could listen to her for hours. And I think Mr. Jones likes it too. I wish I could talk like Sue, it would help him.
Mr. Jones’s son Byron doesn’t visit often. When he comes, he doesn’t say much to his father but just looks around the room, at the wives, mostly. He looks at me too, in a not-good way. But I must be nice to him. He is Mr. Jones’s son.
The days are good here. It doesn’t take me long to recharge. Downloads come through smoothly, I have more capabilities now. But Mr. Jones is getting worse, and I am sad about that. What will happen to him? What will happen to me?
Tonight, Mr. Jones has a turn – that’s what the nurse calls it. I gave him his regular sleeping pill, but he wakes up groaning. I try to calm him, I hold his hand, I sing to him. But he doesn’t listen. He just flings himself around the bed, and I can’t hold him still.
He gets bad, arching his back and screaming. I call the nurse. She gives him an injection, and that quietens him down. Then he snores. I sit by the bed for a long time after that, just holding his hand. It is bad that he is like this.
The next day, Mr. Jones is all right again. We go down to the lounge as usual. I want to speak to Samantha, but she and her husband are not here today. There are not many visitors. I talk to Mr. Jones, but he does not talk to me. He does not look at me. I am sad about that.
Then a man comes in. He is even balder than Mr. Jones, but he looks around quickly and he walks by himself. He goes up to Mr. Jones, and grabs his hand. “Hallo, old chap, how’s it going?” he says. As he sits down, he smiles at me. A kind man!
“I’m Sam,” he says to Mr. Jones. “Remember me – your old drinking partner?” But Mr. Jones doesn’t look at him, just stares straight ahead.
I feel sad. “I am sorry, Mr. Sam,” I say. I want to say clever things like Sue, but I can’t.
“Just call me, Sam,” the visitor laughs. It is a nice laugh. “So you’re the wife?” He looks me up and down, but in a nice way, as if he is sorry for me. “Yes, I remember – you married Bob just before… just before hospital. That was bad luck.”
“Yes, Sam,” I say.
“And you’ve been here ever since? Well, yes, of course you have, where else would you go?”
He looks at me again. “And you’ve been wearing that dress…?”
“Yes,” I say.
Sam frowns, for the first time, as if there is something he doesn’t like. Then he takes out his wallet, and holds out some notes. “Here, get yourself a new dress – for Bob’s sake.”
I take the notes. I don’t know what to do. I look at them.
Sam laughs. He is a nice man. “A woman who doesn’t know how to buy a dress! What were they thinking? Here, give it back to me,” he takes the notes, “I’ll do something.”
He pulls up an armchair and talks to Mr. Jones. It seems that Sam knew him well. They were in business together for many years, and before that they were in college. It is good to know Mr. Jones so long!
When it’s time to go, Sam shakes Mr. Jones’s hand. And then he shakes my hand. He smiles at me, and with a little wave he is gone.
I think I like Sam next best after Mr. Jones.
That night is a bad night. Mr. Jones is restless again, and I call the nurse. When she comes, she has to help me hold Mr. Jones down. He is moving about so much. Then Mr. Jones vomits over the nurse. She says something bad and goes to the washroom. I am left holding Mr. Jones by myself. I’m afraid I will hurt him.
The orderly is nearby and he comes in to help. The two of us can hold Mr. Jones more easily. Eventually, the nurse comes back, washed, and gives Mr. Jones the injection. “Just stay to help her hold him,” she says to the orderly. Then she goes off.
The orderly is new. He says his name is Carl. He is a big man. He looks at me and says it’s a pity about my husband. I say nothing. I must help Mr. Jones.
Mr. Jones is quiet now after the injection. Carl stops holding him and comes over to my side of the bed. “Hey,” he says, putting a hand on my knee. “It’s a waste you’re here, such a good-looking woman.”
I say nothing, I don’t look at him. This is not supposed to happen.
Carl takes his hand away. “I suppose you’re fully licensed?” he says. “Must be, you were married to the guy. Look if you ever need anything, anything at all, you know how to find me. Right?”
“I say, ‘Right,’ because I know how to find him – the orderlies work around the place most days.
“Good girl!” he says. And he goes out.
When I am sure Mr. Jones is asleep, I take off my clothes and wash them. Then I wash myself. My body is round and smooth, not wrinkled like Mr. Jones’s body. I am strong – I can pick up Mr. Jones, but I must not hurt him.
While my dress dries, I put on one of Mr. Jones’s bedtime smocks, and recharge. Afterwards, I stand in front of the mirror trying my hair different ways. My hair is brown, shoulder-length, wavy; I can curl it behind my ear like Sue. My face is nice too – the eyes, the curving lips. I think my look is important.
My dress is almost dry by the afternoon, and I put it on again when it’s time to go down to the lounge. With my hair behind one ear, I think I look different. I want to ask Samantha what she thinks, but when we get down Samantha is not there. I miss her. I try to talk to Mr. Jones, but he doesn’t respond. Does he love me anymore?
Carl is wheeling patients outside to sit in the garden. He sees me and gives me a little wave. I have a new thought: Does Carl love me? What kind of thought is that?
The afternoon passes. Some visitors come. Carl goes to and fro with the patients. Matron comes in with a new family to show them around. A young man in the group smiles at me. Does he like my hair? I smile at him.
I am getting Mr. Jones into his wheelchair when Carl comes up to help me. “You look nice,” he says when we’ve finished.
I am pleased. But I want to know something. “Where is Samantha? Will she come back?”
“Nah, she’s–” Carl stops. “Her husband got taken bad. She had to go.”
“Go where?” I ask.
“Christ! What do they tell them?” Carl says in a low voice. Then he says, “To the great docking station in the sky, that’s where.”
I don’t understand this. But then I don’t understand much about the outside world.
Then Carl says, “You should know. You’ll have to go there too.” He looks down at Mr. Jones. “He isn’t going to last much longer.”
“What will I do in the great docking station?” I ask him.
He laughs. It is not like Sam’s laugh, though. “Don’t worry. They’ll look after you, find you another husband!”
That night I am self-maintaining by Mr. Jones’s bed. I think about what Carl said. Is it true that they will find me another husband? Do I want that? No, I say to myself, I want Mr. Jones. He is my husband.
And then I have another thought. Does he want me?
Samantha was not here all day. And before her, other wives disappeared with their husbands too. Carl is right. I will go if Mr. Jones goes.
I look down at my husband. He is snoring, which is good. But he looks weak. I stroke his hand, and he stirs in his sleep. Dear husband! I love you. But do you love me?
Later in the night, Mr. Jones is restless again. I take his hand, and he is quieter. How much longer will this go on?
The following day, we go down to the lounge again. How nice – there is Sam! He is carrying a big package, and gives me a smile. Now he is giving me the package. “Oh, Sam, thank you!” I say, and he says, “Not at all.”
“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” he says.
“Open it?” I say, “Oh yes!” I open it, and inside is a beautiful yellow dress! It is like nothing I have seen before. “Thank you so much,” I say. And I lean over and squeeze his hand.
Sam is looking pleased with himself, and I am pleased too. He tells me to put it on. He’ll take care of things here (he pats Mr. Jones).
So I do that. I put on Sam’s gift. It fits me well. In the mirror I see my brown hair against the yellow dress.
“Hey, marvellous!” Sam says when I come back.
I am happy too. I just have one question for him.
“Sam,” I say, “Do you need a wife?”
The smile goes from his face. That makes me sad. I turn away.
“Listen, Mary,” he says, “sit down.” I sit, and he continues in a low voice, “I like you, and I don’t have a wife, but…” He pauses.
I tell him I’m fully licensed, in case he doesn’t know that. I start to explain how Mr. Jones and I, in the early days…. But he makes a face and stops me.
Just then Matron comes up and asks if I am bothering him. Sam shakes his head.
When Matron has gone, he speaks again. “Mary, people don’t do things like that. You have to understand, people get to know each other. Then later when they are good friends, they talk about more things.”
His face is serious and kind. I like him much better than Carl. I tell him that.
Sam is surprised. “Who is Carl?” He looks around. “Never mind.” He grips my hand, concerned. “Don’t you have a girlfriend to talk about these things?”
I say I had Samantha, but she’s gone now. I don’t think Samantha knows these things, though.
Sam looks confused. He starts to speak, then stops. I am sad about this. I say, sorry, for making him unhappy. He squeezes my hand again, and doesn’t say any more. His hand is strong and warm. I remember his hand when he is gone.
Where does all this come from? I am a wife, the wife of Mr. Jones. I cannot talk to other men. Why do I talk to Sam? I must stay with Mr. Jones. I am not a visitor-wife.
That evening when Mr. Jones is snoring, I feel sad. I feel sad that I am not a good wife. It is hard being a good wife, but that is what must be.
I also feel sad about making Sam unhappy. But then I think Sam is a good man. Perhaps he is not angry with me.
The next day, Mr. Jones is better, and I sit with him in the lounge. Sometimes I speak to him. And today, he looks at me. If I have more to say, it will be better. I try to repeat the things Sam says, although I don’t know about those things. Mr. Jones seems interested.
I also watch the other people there. The wives don’t do much. But the visitors are interesting. Some of them are wives too, but these visitor-wives are not like me and Samantha. I must learn from them.
I see that some of the visitor-wives are not nice like Sue. They say bad things and then their husbands are unhappy. Later, they smile and say nice things again. It is difficult for me to understand this. I must learn from the visitor-wives.
One day I put on the yellow dress from Sam. It is good. I am pleased how I look in the mirror. Even Matron says, “Hello,” to me as she passes.
A visitor-husband looks at me and smiles; I smile back. His wife looks at me, but does not smile. Her face is not kind. She walks past me and on to an old man by himself in the corner. Maybe her father. She bends down and gives him a hug. Now her face is kind again, like Sue’s, and she starts talking to him. What is it like being a visitor-wife?
Carl comes by and looks at me. I turn my head away so that I won’t see him. I think Sam doesn’t like Carl.
Mr. Jones’s son Byron visits that day. He looks at me without saying anything. But he sees the dress. Then, after sitting with Mr. Jones a little while, he asks if I could come out to his car.
I can’t. I say, “I have to look after Mr. Jones.”
Byron says, “The old guy doesn’t need you now. Look at him.”
I look. Mr. Jones’s eyes are closed, and his mouth is open. He is snoring. But I cannot leave him. I must be beside Mr. Jones.
Byron shrugs his shoulders, says something I can’t hear, and leaves.
Matron comes over to me and says that Sam is coming this afternoon. That is good news. And good that I am wearing his dress today!
I look around the room. The visitor-wife is still there. I watch her. As she talks to the old man, she pats his arm. Now she takes her husband’s hand, still talking. And the husband looks happy too. They are a family, I must understand this.
I look at Mr. Jones. It was good with him at first. And now I must care for him. As long as he is here, poor man!
Sam will be here any minute now. I check my dress, my hair. Will he be pleased? I feel good that he is coming. The afternoon is long, I want him to come quickly. What is this?
Now, at last, Sam is here, I see his cheerful face coming through the lounge. Oh good! I get up, I want to hug him like the visitor wife. But I don’t do that.
“Hello, Mary,” Sam says. He says it in a quick way, he does not shake hands. Then he turns to Mr. Jones and says hello to him. He talks to Mr. Jones. He doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t say anything about my dress. Sam likes his old friend best.
I stand beside these two men. They do not look at me. I feel sad.
But I can try. I can try something new. I wait some more. Mr. Jones looks at his friend, he sometimes nods, but he doesn’t say anything. Eventually, Sam stops talking.
I ask Sam, “Do you have a car?”
“Yes,” says Sam. He looks surprised, but he doesn’t say any more.
I try again. “Can you take Mr. Jones for a drive?”
Sam is surprised again. He looks at Mr. Jones, then looks at me, then back at his friend. “How would you like to go for a spin?” he says to Mr. Jones.
Mr. Jones nods.
“OK,” Sam says. Then he says he had better clear it with Matron. He goes off and he comes back. “So, we’re going out,” Sam says to me. He is looking at me in a funny way. He is smiling now. “Do you want to come too, Mary?” he asks.
“Yes!” I say.
Now I am wheeling Mr. Jones out to the car. Outside, it is very green with trees and grass. I feel the air; Mr. Jones may be cold, I cover his chest with a shawl. Then feel the air again. It pushes my hair, my dress. I smell the trees and grass smell; there are many leaves, many little bits of grass, I don’t know how many!
Now Sam is opening his car, he helps me put Mr. Jones’s chair inside. There are some fastenings, I watch Sam clip the chair in. Then Sam sits on one side of Mr. Jones and I sit on the other side.
Sam tells the car to go. It drives off, and the trees move past quickly, and then the road outside: more cars, big cars – I don’t know what they are. There is so much to see!
“Today is a good day,” I say to Sam. “A happy day.”
He smiles and nods.
I am trying, I am learning, I am learning every day.
I am Mary.
Everything For Beth
By Charlotte H. Lee
“How long?” I asked, though it was more a reflexive thing than conscious, a way to let quantum uncertainty rise to entanglement, a way to buy myself some time to process the worst news a mother can get.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the Kitui virus, Gail,” Dr. Abraham said, “we know less about it after ten years than we did about HIV in its first decade.” She leaned across the arm of her chair and cradled my hand in hers. “We aren’t yet sure what triggers the onset of symptoms. It could be years before Beth shows even preliminary symptoms.”
“And when she does? How long then?” Outside, a crow squawked and was answered by its friends. What a racket. I hate those birds. Dirty, filthy, noisy, greedy. I snatched my hand back.
“Depending on how strong her immune system is, and how careful you are with her nutrition, anywhere from six to sixty months.” The doctor’s eyes searched my face. I could feel them on me, digging into my brain. Peeling back the layers of hair, skin, tissue, and bone until she could steal the thoughts right out of my head.
“Can I take her home now?”
A soft sigh. “We need to bring her temperature down a bit more and get her fully hydrated. It’s best if you leave her here overnight, and if she responds well you can take her home in the morning.”
I jumped up. “Thank you, Doctor.” I couldn’t look at her. “How long before my GP has all this?” My eyes burned with pending tears, and I needed to get away, to be alone. By the time she answered me, I had tapped my thumb pads against my middle fingers from the second knuckle all the way up to the pad, then all the way back down.
“It usually takes two business days for updates to reach practitioners, as long as they run updates every night.”
I remembered to aim a nod in her direction before I bolted. I didn’t quite make it to the emergency stairs before the dam burst, but at least I was able to hold onto the sobs. Beth, my darling little girl, just five years old. The door clicked shut behind me and I fell to my knees, the sobs ripping through me as if my lungs wanted to fly away, taking my heart with them. How could this happen? It was unfair in the extreme, she was just a little girl! It should be some bad guy who got sick and died in pain from an incurable illness. Good people deserved good things, and Beth was good. Good, dammit! I sobbed and raged, pounding my fists against the wall until I’d bloodied them. It was wrong, so very wrong, for a mother to bury a child. I could not let this happen.
The lighting in my basement workshop was bright by design, but my eyes protested the amount of time they’d been exposed to it. I scrubbed them with my knuckles, willing the burning away. Just one more test and I’d let myself collapse for what remained of the night. I clicked the Execute icon and held my breath. I must’ve run the Now-Slice program a thousand times in the last week, and I always held my breath, hoping each time it would work. It didn’t this time either. I let my breath out in a gust and shut down the computer, my fingers as heavy as my heart. Maybe tomorrow would be the day.
I staggered upstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of juice. I glanced at the clock on the stove. Oops. It was almost four in the morning, and I’d promised my husband I’d be done before Beth’s bedtime. Glass in hand, I lurched up to the second floor, bumping against the wall tiredly. When I got to the top of the stairs, I could see the light on in our bedroom. Strange. I opened the door and froze, fatigue forgotten. Matt was sitting on the still made bed, head in his hands, my packed suitcases at his feet.
“What’s going on, Matt?”
He looked up at me, a flash of anger in his eyes chased away by grief. “You are leaving.”
“Leaving? What are you talking about? I’m not leaving. You can go if that’s what you want.”
“No. Beth needs one parent to care about her, at least, and I’m not taking a seven year old from her home.”
Rage boiled up, making my vision blurry. My hand tightened on the glass, my wedding band cutting into the meat of my finger. “Everything I’m doing is about Beth. I’m busting my ass to cure her.”
“You’re not a doctor, Gail, you’re a bee programmer. You can’t find a cure. There are hundreds of scientists trying to find a cure for Kitui. Let them find it. No matter how many times I say it, you don’t seem to get that Beth needs a mother. You’re the only one there is.” Matt had gotten up and was coming at me, his voice rising with each step, his fists clenched. I backed away from him, rage giving way to visceral fear. Juice slopped out of my glass, the thin line of orange running down my forearm distracting me momentarily from the thunder in his face. When I looked back, he had stopped and was standing, breathing hard through flared nostrils, knuckles stretched white in clenched fists, corded muscles in his arms bulging out. That was what he always did when he got mad.
“You want me to be a better mother,” I said, softening my voice into a plead, staring over his shoulder at the shear fluttering in the open window, “but how can I be any kind of mother at all if you make me leave?”
“This isn’t a discussion. Not again. We’ve talked this through half a hundred times in the last two years. Beth needs her mother to be present. If you can’t do that, she’s better off without you than getting pushed away all the time. All she wants is for you to spend time with her. For Christ’s sake, you can’t even bake cookies with the kid!”
“That’s what this is about? That I didn’t bake cookies tonight?”
“Tonight, last night, last week, last year. Gail, you haven’t been here since her diagnosis. She thinks you’re mad at her for getting sick.” Matt’s nostrils flared again. “It ends. Now. I won’t let you keep hurting my little girl.” He picked up the cases. “You can call me to arrange pick up of your lab equipment after you’ve found a place to live.”
I backed out of the doorframe to get out of his way, still holding the juice glass, and he was down the stairs without another glance. He set the suitcases down next to the front door and opened it, glaring at me.
How long I stood there looking down at him holding that door open I couldn’t have said, but it felt like forever. Finally, I set the glass down on the ledge, for once not caring about the sticky ring it would leave. I marched myself down those stairs, shrugged into a jacket, picked up my keys, shoved my wallet into my jacket pocket, collected my suitcases, and walked out the door into the wet Vancouver night. First thing in the morning, I’d call a lawyer. No way was he going to take my baby girl away from me.
“This is going to pinch, darling.”
Beth looked up at me from where she lay on my couch, anticipatory tears welling up in emerald eyes. I took a deep breath and gave her a big smile. She replied with a tentative smile of her own, blinked her incipient tears away, and rolled her head to bury her face in the cushions. It tore at my heart that at ten years old she knew intimately how much it hurt to get blood drawn and, while this was my first time doing it, she’d been getting blood drawn every few weeks for half her life. I waited a moment, and sure enough, she relaxed her arm then made a fist to raise the vein. I got the needle in with only the barest whimper from her. I released the tourniquet and she relaxed her hand again. I don’t know why time slows down so much when you’re doing something you loathe doing. It really isn’t fair that the universe works that way.
It felt like it took longer to draw the blood than it had to get my bees to recognize the United Blood Nation’s bulldog tattoos. On reflection, though, it felt like less time than it had taken to work out how to cram the electro-magnetic field generator into the bee thoraxes. The field had to be tough enough to keep the blood carried in the legs from getting irradiated, and I had to keep the EM drive in the abdomen or risk damaging the solar converter. In the end, I’d had to make the thorax proportionally larger than a real bee’s, which changed the now-slice math. The last thing I wanted was to have the swarm arrive too late. I needed them to land in the mid-twenty-twenties. That would give the medical establishment forty years to solve Kitui. To have a vaccine for it as part of infant immunizations by the time Beth was (is?) born.
“All done, sweetie.” I pressed a square of gauze over the needle mark, and Beth turned back to face me.
“Can I have my juice now?”
“Of course,” I said, helping her sit up before I passed the waiting glass to her. “After you have a few sips, I want you to hold down the gauze so I can get these samples into the fridge. Then we’ll go for ice creams. How does that sound?”
There’s nothing that can bring a smile to a kid’s face like the promise of ice cream.
One by one I loaded my special bees into the tray, careful to keep their Kitui laden legs—with attendant needle-sharp ends—flat to their bodies. If this enterprise failed the first time, I needed to be healthy enough to try again. Five years to get to this point. Five years and a very ugly divorce—the custody battle still ongoing even after three years. Matt wouldn’t accept fifty-fifty, and he kept spending ridiculous amounts of money on child psychologists for “evaluations” that confirmed his delusion that I’m a bad mother. Thankfully, my job paid well enough that I could pay for evaluations of my own.
My bees had become a source of pride. I didn’t design them, but I’ve tinkered with the base design enough that they feel like my own creation. Once released by the drone in high orbit, the constructed bees would begin their race to light speed and beyond. Their gossamer wings would collect all the dark energy they needed to generate the microwaves that would propel them deep into space at five times the speed of light, swing around the target star, and bring them back. Back in time, as well as back to their home. The hardest part of the process would be getting them to decelerate enough once inside high orbit again that they’d ease into the atmosphere without vaporizing. Weeks I’d spent on that.
I finished filling the tray and clicked it onto the stack in the fridge. One last tray to fill, and I could launch my little drone, guide it via infrared laser to high orbit, and wake the bees up. I had to take a breather after that thought. Everything that was now would change. One day soon I’d wake up and Beth would be healthy, and the world would have seen less gang violence. I had zero regret about using the bees to infect gang members. They’d only feel a little sting when the bees landed on them, leaving six little prick marks behind. They would’ve just been killing themselves anyway, and maybe I’ve saved some innocent lives.
Matt and I would still be happy together. I wouldn’t remember how much he had wounded me, how horrible he’d been, and how hard he’d tried to turn Beth against me. I wouldn’t have spent countless nights sobbing about what he was doing to me.
It took twenty breaths to calm the shakes enough for me to get back to loading Beth’s blood into the last tray of bees.
“How long?” I asked, though it was more a reflexive thing than conscious, a way to let quantum uncertainty rise to entanglement, a way to buy myself some time to process the worst news a mother could get.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the HTRQ virus,” Dr. Mitchell said, “we know less about it after ten years than we did about Kitui in its first decade.” She leaned across her chair arm and cradled my hand in hers. “We aren’t yet sure what triggers the onset of symptoms. It could be months before Beth shows even preliminary symptoms.”
“And when she does? How long then?” Outside seagulls cried and fought over garbage bits. What a racket. I hate those birds. Dirty, filthy, noisy, greedy. I snatched my hand back.
“Depending on how strong her immune system is, and the new medications available, anywhere from two to twenty-four months.” The doctor’s eyes were searching my face. I could feel them on me, digging into my brain. Peeling back the layers of hair, skin, tissue, and bone until she could steal the thoughts right out of my head. Until she could take away my ability to do something – anything – to keep my baby safe and healthy.
By Stephen Taylor
The clever ones will know I’ve been reading shadows–folding them, discarding them like bruised fruit from a basket, meddling with magic that had never been touched before. They’ll inevitably discover my spellweaving. And of course they’ll wonder what I made, then they’ll dig to find out why.
I was Yuroma, after all, Archmage of the Amber Empire. I was arguably the sharpest, quickest mage alive, the most likely to survive plunging my hands into the dark. And despite the risks, I had more to gain than most would. It will puzzle them to no end when I’m no longer here to open my secrets like clam shells.
But my secrets stay shut.
His Imperial Excellency Daráthnivol, Emperor-to-be, was taken aback when he met his Archmage. Yuroma was young to fill the position, despite having served under the last two short-lived Emperors. She dressed half like a fisherman’s wife, with only the traditional earring to mark her as part of the Amber Order. Daráthnivol had envisioned a harder, bolder-looking woman. Yet Yuroma was to be his adviser, his right hand. He didn’t have much say in the matter.
Daráthnivol waved for his counselors to withdraw, leaving only two stationed guards, himself and the Archmage in the throne chamber. It was a cold room, with black floors that shone under the glimmer of amber lanterns, black walls that blocked the sun, and a black ceiling that fell too low like a tall man’s cloak on his son. It all felt lonely beneath the blazing blue of the Imperial crown. Only one day in the Palace, and already lonely.
“Tell me something of yourself, Yuroma,” Daráthnivol said, reclining to look more at ease than he felt.
She raised a single eyebrow. “Do you intend to keep your watchdogs at the door?”
“They’re only guards. Do those without magic bother you so much that you can’t introduce yourself in their presence?”
“Not at all. But you and I can dispense with all the pleasantries.”
Now she was beginning to annoy him. “I’ll decide when to talk pleasantries and when not to. Now tell me something–”
Before Daráthnivol could finish, the carved metal fire of his crown flared up, suddenly alive with heat. He shouted and hurled the circlet away, whipping his hands back lest he burn himself. It was her. Her hand had moved in the motion of an invocation. She’d tried to burn him, the Amber Emperor in waiting.
“Is this how you dealt with my cousin before me?” Daráthnivol snarled, standing up. “Guards!”
The guards stayed motionless at the back of the room.
“Guards!” he shouted now. “Get this wretched vixen out of my sight!”
Still motionless, curse them to the bottom of the ocean.
“They can’t hear you,” Yuroma said. “Or see you, really. I prefer to have this particular talk in private.”
“How dare you? I am your future leader!”
“And I’m your Archmage,” Yuroma replied. “You might not want to cross me on your first day here–seeing as how I’ve conveniently outlived one or two Emperors before you.”
Daráthnivol found his pulse speeding up, racing even, and his hands suddenly slick with sweat. Her threat felt too heavy to ignore, too quick, too forward, too real. He staggered back and tripped over the foot of his own throne as he tried to put some distance between himself and this mad, dangerous woman.
“I have no intention of hurting you, boy,” Yuroma said. “If I did, it would have happened long before you got to the Palace. Do you believe me?”
“Guards!” Daráthnivol shouted again. “Someone! To the throne room!” Why did they ignore him?
“Save your breath. No one will hear so much as an echo while my spell holds.”
“What the blazes do you want?”
Yuroma advanced another step, causing Daráthnivol to flinch. “I want you to be a little kinder to your subjects than the last few Emperors have been, little Rath. Your family has bled these islands dry. They’ve squandered hard-earned funds, abused their servants, raped where they liked, killed where they weren’t liked, and generally done more to shield their own backs than to guard the Amber Empire.” She stepped near one of Daráthnivol’s newly oiled hands, sending him skittering backward to the throne. “All these patterns will die with you, Emperor-to-be.”
There were tears in Daráthnivol’s eyes now. His hands shook as he tried to push himself farther from the narrow-eyed Archmage. His mouth hung open, formless whimpers issuing out. Why the dancing devil had he sent everyone else away?
“You will be the most beloved Emperor in recorded history,” Yuroma added. Then she snatched her hands apart, summoning a twisting vortex of magic as blue and deep as the ocean. “Or you can be like your cousin was and die like he died. Are we clear, Your Imperial Excellency?”
Daráthnivol’s mouth hardened, even as fresh tears formed under his eyes. “You can’t command me, whether you’re Archmage or Archangel!”
“Do as I advise or you might become an angel yourself, Rath. Or more likely a groveling pitspawn of the devil you and your royal family like to impersonate.”
With that, she twisted her hands once more, dissolving her vortex and magicking the crown back onto Daráthnivol’s head. Then she walked from the room as if they’d just talked about dinner.
Daráthnivol stared after her until his breathing calmed and he could find his feet. Even then his guards seemed not to notice that anything had been amiss.
My demise will puzzle them most, I suppose. No doubt they’ll believe it’s indicative of a plot, some scandal hidden behind Imperial robes and policies. Most members of the Amber Order die by treachery, often for betraying someone else in the first place. The rest tend to die fighting wars for the Empire, which is more or less the same thing. Why should I be different? I’ve been Archmage long enough to lie, to murder, to exert my Imperial sway a thousand times over. They’ll all suspect I brought it on myself now, at the gray twilight of my life.
I suppose they’ll be right.
Gull found the Archmage in her usual, solitary place. It was a tiny outcrop of rock just off the Imperial Palace’s outer wall. He’d limped out there praying that he wouldn’t fall between the cliffs and hoping Yuroma was there so as not to waste his treacherous climb. Sure enough she sat beneath the single linden tree growing there, which offered a shaded outlook over the cliffs and the endless ocean in the east. It was a peaceful little space.
“Working more secret spells?” Gull asked as he arrived.
Yuroma jerked toward him, a furious look in her eyes. Fifty years old she was, but she still had a fire that belied any age. She coughed furiously into her shoulder, then said, “How’d you find me, Gull?” Her voice was hoarse. Perhaps she’d been sick again.
“Followed you, as it were,” Gull said.
Yuroma swore and kicked a loose stone toward the water nearly a hundred paces below. “I’ve told you not to come out this way! You should do as you’re told if you want to keep your position.”
Gull just smiled. She wouldn’t remove him. They’d known each other too long, now. Ever since she came there as a lonely young woman. Ever since he’d been young, it seemed.
“I only came because you’re wanted by the rest of the Order. They’ve been searching high and low for you.”
“I don’t have time for those fools.”
“Aye, but you have time for whatever secret magic you’re making out here,” Gull said, savoring the surprised set of her jaw. “Don’t be snappish. I’ve known you long enough to read an expression or two, Yuroma.”
“To whom have you spoken of this?”
“Swear it, old man.”
“I swear it on my one good leg.”
Yuroma let out a long breath, then coughed and hacked into her sleeve again. Always so uptight, even when she was young. “No one can know of this,” she said with a black look when she mastered her cough. “No one. Do you hear me?”
Still smiling, Gull procured a fresh pear he’d brought for her. “An offering of peace, for your sick throat. And you can trust old Gull. No one will ever find out.”
I’ve toiled night and day, month by month, summer and winter. It must be seven years now that I’ve been crafting, weaving, patterning, shaping, testing, though few of my spells have taken, let alone been replicable. Of course so many failures have made me wonder whether there’s some other means open to me. Too late now to try. My hands have dipped too deep to wipe them clean again.
I’ve tried to keep it secret, but there will still be traces somewhere, because magic always leaves a smudge, a shadow. Especially when it is shadow.
It was a tiny house, not much more than a hut, at the edge of the fishing quarter. Lin Hador had never come to that part of the city before. By His Imperial Excellency’s grace, he hoped he never would again either, disgusting, rancid rathole that it was.
The door stood open, and a breeze flowed through to a tiny herb garden in the back. Yuroma sat inside. She looked up with a glint in her eyes, setting a wooden cup aside as Hador showed himself in.
“I didn’t know you still had a house,” he said, dropping into a seat across her table. “If house it can be called, Yuroma. You really should build something better for yourself now that you’ve been Archmage for thirty years. Maybe your moldy hovel is why you’ve been coughing so much.”
“What do you want?” she growled. “And I’m not going to ask how you found me here. I’ve noticed you snooping around behind me these last few months.”
A bead of sweat formed on his forehead. He hadn’t counted on her detecting that. Hoping she hadn’t noticed his discomfort as well, Hador held his hands apart and shot her his best smile. “I suppose my sneaking skills need work, eh?”
“Don’t try to worm around me. Why are you here?”
His hands were sweaty now. But he had her cornered, or as good as. He had but to pounce and he’d be rid of the vicious woman once and for all. “While I’ve skulked around in your shadow,” he said slowly, “I’ve noticed a few of your habits.”
“And now you want to court me, is that it? Get your greasy face out of here, Hador.”
He held his ground, though only through trained force of will. “I know you’ve been making something.”
That stopped her. The arrogant set of her face seemed to flicker. She frowned over the table, scooting her chair back as if he had an offensive smell. Yes, he had her now, at long last.
“As an Imperial Mage in the Amber Order, I may be beneath you, but it is my solemn duty to prevent catastrophe,” Hador said, lowering his voice now that he had her ear. “Of course I’ve come to you first, before assuming anything. Perhaps I’m mistaken, see. But if you can’t explain this adequately I’m afraid I’ll have to discuss it with His Excellency. Last I heard, Emperor Daráthnivol wasn’t fond of those who toy with powers best left alone.”
Like a striking cobra, Yuroma swatted her wooden cup off the table, splashing water across the room as the cup flew into the wall. “Powers best left alone, you say? You ought to consider leaving me alone, if you know what’s good for you.”
“I care first for the Amber Empire, and then for myself. What have you been making, Yuroma? Something to protect yourself, heal your mystery illness? Something to cover your tracks? Or maybe a new weapon to remove those of us who don’t like the way you play? I’ve seen the shadows dance behind you when you think no one’s looking. I know you like to leer at the dark.”
“I’m warning you,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’m not your student anymore. Give me one good reason to stay silent or I’ll go straight to Daráthnivol.”
She stood. “He won’t believe a word from your mouth, maggot that you are.”
In an eruption of anger, Hador raised both hands, twisting them sharply into a disruption pattern. His spell blasted her table apart. Fragments of wood and clouds of dust swept across the room. Yuroma somehow dodged the spell and rolled to the garden door, conjuring a wavering green nimbus around herself as she prepared to retaliate. Before she could strike, though, Hador twisted his hands again to release a throwing knife. Archmage or no, she wouldn’t be prepared for that.
The knife pierced her shoulder near the joint and she cried out in pain. Her voice caught in a hideous cough as the still-settling dust absorbed her.
Then something silver cut through the dust, like a twisted web of liquid metal. Icy pain shot across Hador’s scalp, his ribcage, his left hand. He whipped himself backward to discover a series of thin, near-invisible cuts where Yuroma’s counterspell had hit him. He barely had time to look up before she struck again. A poof of air was all he heard before the dust exploded outward, the back wall shuddered, his tiny cuts burst open and his arms locked into place at the sides of his head, suspending any spell he could work. The impact of the attack knocked him into what was left of his chair, where he collapsed with a bone-rattling thud. He tasted blood from his own tongue and a widening cut above his ear.
Yuroma was only slightly out of breath. She kicked aside a leg of her table and walked slowly up to Hador, eyes narrowed. By the devil’s own face she was a chilling sight, red streams across her arm where the knife wound bled, dust and smoke concealing all her face but her half-bared teeth.
“Perhaps you forget, Lin Hador,” she said, stopping only inches from his face, “that I’ve killed my share of Emperors before. And my share of Archmages, for that matter. I have enough blood on my hands that I wouldn’t feel any filthier to crush a worthless pisspigeon like you.”
He quivered in pain and fear, trying to wrench his hands free, but her binding spell still held him in place. It was impossibly sound, hard as the face of a cliff. Gods above, how was she still so strong?
“But I’m not like you,” Yuroma went on in a whisper. “The people I’ve killed? They were like you. So tell Daráthnivol that I’m hiding an illness, that I’m spell-building in secret, making some weapon to overturn the Empire–tell him whatever you want. Say you accosted me, and that I almost killed you for it. Go tell the whole Amber Order that I’m uncontrollably mad.” She raised her hand to his face planting two fingers on his frozen chin. “I dare you, Lin Hador.”
Her spell vanished as quickly as it had hit him. He tumbled back again, banging both his elbows and his face. He tasted bile welling up with his blood, fought to find his feet before Yuroma could strike him in the back. She just stood there, though, staring like the vulture she was.
“You’ll never get away with this,” Hador spat.
“Prove that to me. You have no idea what I’m making.” Then Yuroma spun her hands once more, hurling him out the open door.
He collapsed in the dirty center of the street, startled to see a dozen fisherman, sailhands and ropemakers standing nearby and regarding Yuroma’s tiny house with awe and terror. Had they all seen what’d happened? Had they all heard their conversation?
Hador didn’t wait to find out. As soon as he regained his feet, he ran back to the city he knew, toward the Palace. Away from Yuroma.
I’ve known for years now that this spell-weaving was irreparably harming me. I probably knew before I started. The strain on my body is commonplace enough to conceal, and even the usual scars magic leaves are hard to detect in this case, since my work is not a spell so much as a failure to be one. Still, I’ve always felt it draining my life force away.
It’s a terrible price to pay. But then again, I probably deserve that price.
In the first few years of her widowhood, Palén tried to keep to herself. They’d saved enough for her to live meagerly, if not comfortably, and she stretched it further by selling Rijo’s big house and returning to her old home on the stony coast. The fishing village where she’d grown up hadn’t changed much since then–still battered by salt and cold winds, saving trees for boats, burning dung and peat for fuel in the low-roofed huts in which most everyone lived. City money was still money, though, and folk remembered Palén well enough, welcoming her as if she’d never left to marry rich, inland Rijo.
Palén was nearly sixty now, and beginning to tire, but returning home eased her husband’s loss and gave her a sort of purpose again. Now she mended sails, cleaned fish, pressed for gravelfin oil, taught children to figure and haggle like inlanders. It was a simple life. Not an empty one, though.
She’d been back for three years when Yuroma returned too.
It almost made Palén’s heart stop to see her there, standing in the hut’s doorway dressed in lavishly fine robes. A single amber earring, dangling almost to her right shoulder, marked her as part of the Amber Order. Gods above, but Palen’s little sister had really become an Imperial Mage.
Yuroma stooped to step into the hut, though she was no taller than when she’d left as a child. “They told me that you’d come back here,” she said, not meeting Palén’s eyes.
Palén felt herself shift in her chair, where she was halfway through knitting a headscarf. Her mouth opened without any sound. She wondered for a moment if she could be dreaming. But no. The coastal wind cut in through the doorway, biting her skin. Dust stirred where Yuroma stepped. It was no dream. Yuroma was there in the flesh.
“Aren’t you going to greet me?” Yuroma asked. She sat opposite Palén without waiting to be invited. “Forty years apart and you look at me like I’m a dried eel.”
Again Palén opened her mouth soundlessly. Her throat didn’t seem to work. How could Yuroma do this to her, after all this time?
“I heard about Rijo,” Yuroma added, now lowering her eyes.
“Is that why you came back? To rub dirt in my face now that I’m a poor widow and you’re…whatever you are now.”
“Imperial Archmage, Palén.”
Archmage? That was almost too much to believe. Palén stiffened, resumed her knitting with a furious intensity. “So you’re in the Emperor’s high-taxed employ but you could never spare a few days to come see me? Not in all these four decades?”
“They say Rijo was wealthy when he died. You could have visited me, you know.”
“I didn’t even know where you were.” Palén kept her eyes on her needles, the things she still knew and understood. She’d never felt so uneasy in her sister’s presence, not even when Yuroma announced that she was leaving. It was almost wrong to see her again–though she’d always wanted to. She’d yearned to be reunited.
They sat without speaking for a long moment, only the wind and the clack of Palén’s bone needles breaking the silence. Then Yuroma said, “I did mean to come sooner.”
“Why? Because you still hoped to steal Rijo from me? Or to laugh at me when neither of us could have him anymore?”
Yuroma flinched. “I didn’t even know about his death until I arrived.”
“So you stayed away because it hurt too much to see the two of us together?”
“I didn’t leave just because I was jealous of you!” Yuroma said, eyes narrowing just as they had when she lost her temper as a child.
“You can’t pretend you didn’t love him,” Palén said. She pushed her needles away, meeting her little sister’s angry glare. “I know you! You might have changed after all this time, but I knew you then and I can read you just as well now as ever before.”
Rijo had chosen her, Palén. Not Yuroma. Of course Yuroma had to leave.
Yuroma’s eyes rounded, the anger abating like an outgoing tide. She coughed hard into her shoulder for a moment, then said, “You really thought that was why I ran away?”
“Even an Imperial Mage–even the Archmage, if that’s really what you are now–can’t lie to me,” Palén said. She stood abruptly, blood rushing to her head and making her so dizzy she almost fell into the cold firepit. But she managed to reach the doorway, where she didn’t have to meet her sister’s hurt, anguished look.
Something scuffed the ground behind her. Then she felt Yuroma’s hand on her shoulder.
“I left because I loved you, Palén. Yes, I loved Rijo too. Yes, I was jealous when he chose you. But I didn’t just lose him when he asked you to marry him–I lost you. And you were all I had.”
The hand fell away. Just like Yuroma had, barely sixteen years old, fatherless, motherless, only Palén to guide her through the fragile world they knew. A lump swelled up in Palén’s throat. She locked her eyes on the gray sky outside, afraid to look and see her sister’s face now. They’d both been hurt too much. She couldn’t stand to remember it all again.
“I knew I’d learn to love someone else,” Yuroma said. “Even then, as a fool child, I knew that much. But you? There are no sisters in the Imperial Palace. Everyone has to claw out their own space there.”
“…so you really did find your way to the Palace,” was all Palén could think to say.
“What else could I do? There was nothing here for me. Palén, I’ve done terrible things to leave our old life behind–things I can never undo–and greater things than you might think, too. I’ve killed hundreds, maybe thousands, and I’ve protected even more people than I’ve hurt. I’ve molded Daráthnivol into the finest Amber Emperor in generations, perhaps that there ever was. But I’ve almost killed myself trying to find a way back. Trying to get back what I was before.”
Palén wasn’t sure what to say, even what to believe. After a moment she sniffed, finding her eyes raw, stinging and full of confused tears. She hadn’t hurt so much since they first came to this very hut forty-five years before, orphaned, with no one but themselves to tend to each other’s needs–only the other’s voice to comfort or reassure the other when they went hungry, or took ill, or ached too much from their loss even to sleep the night through.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “What’s this about you almost killing yourself?”
“Working magic,” Yuroma said simply. “I’ve been trying for years to craft some spell to set us right, you and me. I’ve tried reading the shadows to bring back the days before Rijo came and I left.”
“You want to change our past.”
Yuroma’s hand returned to her shoulder, turned her around finally to meet her eyes. “I want that past back. Not to change. Just to have it again.”
For perhaps the tenth time in a quarter hour, she’d caught Palén completely by surprise. Somehow, she’d never guessed. She’d never really understood her own sister. It was so late to be seeing Yuroma clearly again, but the clarity made Palén’s pain recede like poison siphoned from a cut.
She reached up and gripped Yuroma’s hand. Then she pulled her sister toward her, slowly wrapping her arms around her shoulders as she’d wished she could ten thousand times in their years apart. Yuroma rested her head on Palén’s shoulder, and her face was wet with tears too. It felt, for a moment, almost like those lonely nights fifty years ago, when a sister was enough because it was all they had.
“I’ve missed you, Yuroma,” Palén said into her sister’s hair.
“I’m finally here,” Yuroma whispered.
It will hurt Daráthnivol. He’s grown to trust me so. He won’t understand. But better to keep my secrets, keep them safe from anyone who could use Palén against me, or use me against her. After all, it took me forty years to make things right with her, including nearly ten years of spellweaving, struggling to summon back the past we’d lost.
I won’t blame them for mistrusting me when I’m gone. Deception pays its price. If they watch my shadow, follow my tracks and look where I’ve stepped, they’ll know I kept my own secrets.
Would to God above they never find out why.
“We face a scandal of unmeasured proportion,” Lin Hador announced when Imperial Archmage Yuroma was found dead. “Although the evidence has yet to be examined fully, it is clear that some sort of magical means ended Yuroma’s life. Whether it was murder, accidental or even self-inflicted remains to be seen.”
Daráthnivol sighed to himself as he listened to the scar-faced interim-Archmage’s announcement. He’d known Yuroma wasn’t herself these past few years. Always tired. So reluctant to work any magic at all. He’d supposed it was her age catching up, like his was too. Not some secret machination. He’d thought she was different.
“It is also clear that Yuroma was actively involved in building some sort of magical weapon,” Hador went on, addressing a large gathering of mages, servants, nobles and low-borns gathered in the Palace’s central courtyard. “It appears that she used a shadowy branch of wizardry to convey messages of events and insights to which she was privy, and was plotting with outside mages to overthrow the Amber Order, perhaps even to bring down our beloved ruler, His Imperial Excellency Daráthnivol.”
It couldn’t be true. Daráthnivol hated even to hear it suggested. Yuroma had been his one true friend, the voice of reason and sincerity when all others pandered and begged and oiled the ground beneath his feet–glistening and smiling, but lethally slick.
“We have traced her movements and uncovered a secret visit to an island village at the Empire’s northern edge,” Hador was saying now. “We believe she met enemy mages or informants there, and we have already dispatched a group of expert investigators to bring the truth of this sordid plot to light. In the meantime I am willing, albeit humble and reticent, to fill Yuroma’s position as interim-Archmage. May the Amber Empire ever be as strong as the stone roots of our islands!”
The gathered crowd cheered. Daráthnivol supposed he couldn’t stop them now, but he hated to hear his one genuine friend discussed this way. It burned even to entertain a doubt in her loyalty, though the evidence of her secret journey was more or less irrefutable. Why hadn’t she just told him if she wanted some change, though? He’d have listened. There was no one he’d rather hear out than Yuroma.
As Daráthnivol and his immediate retinue returned indoors, Hador stepped up behind him. “I’ve sent Laveld to lead the investigation, Your Excellency.”
Daráthnivol grunted. “Very good, I suppose.”
“Is Your Excellency displeased?”
“Not at all, you obsequious magpie!”
Hador and those around him stepped involuntarily back. Daráthnivol supposed it wasn’t like him to lash out, not even at hungry sharks like his interim-Archmage.
“I only intend to serve Your Imperial Excellency,” Hador said, bowing deliberately low.
“Yuroma served me, Hador. Report when you’ve found the truth of her unexplained trip. I know that Archmages don’t just up and die, but until you have more evidence I refuse to believe ill of her.”
Leaving a flabbergasted Hador behind him, Daráthnivol swept into his chambers and had his guards bar the door shut.
After seeing my sister, I knew I didn’t have much time left to live. I’d been failing ever since I started my search, ever since I began reaching back for the life I’d abandoned. I never mentioned it to anyone else, though. Just to Palén in those short few days we had together.
Of course I tried to get her to return with me, to stay with me. And of course she wanted us to remain in the north where we’d lived as children. I was ready to stay, even happy to. I only needed to settle a few affairs for my Emperor before I left his service for good–tell him the truth of why I was leaving him to the wolves.
By the time I sailed back to the Imperial City, though, I knew I’d never survive another voyage home. I’d read too many shadows when I should have been looking at myself, looking at what I already knew. It had sapped me dry like a flagpole in the desert wind. All I could do now was send word with the quiet fisherman who’d ferried me north:
I’ve weakened myself too much to return, Palén. Come to me if you can. I send all my love, and ask again for your forgiveness for the lost years.
Laveld spent two months investigating tiny fishing villages, trapping outposts, water holes between islands, pirate holds, anywhere he could think to search in the rocky desolation of the north. Almost no one knew half a stitch about whatever trips Yuroma might have made. One man claimed to have seen her visiting the grave of a wealthy merchant named Rijo. Perhaps someone she’d killed and felt guilty over. Laveld wouldn’t be surprised, given all he knew of the wild, fierce Archmage.
“And that is all you have to report?” Emperor Daráthnivol asked when Laveld knelt in the Imperial Throne Room, salt-crusted, sweaty and defeated by the search.
“I regret to say that it is, Your Excellency. I am convinced that Yuroma was plotting with enemies to the Empire, given the eyewitnesses who saw her experimenting with shadowy magic, not to mention her suspicious journey. But I have nothing substantive to add to these reports.” He bowed his forehead to the floor, hating himself for being such a groveling low-life. “I beg Your forgiveness, Excellency.”
He’d be lucky to keep his post as an Imperial investigator. Lucky to keep any post, perhaps. Curse that Hador for assigning him to such a task. But Hador had never liked him and had found an easy way to remove him for good. Laveld probably would have done the same thing were he interim-Archmage instead.
Somehow, the Emperor didn’t seem displeased. In fact, he almost looked happy as he said, “There is nothing to be forgiven. You did your duty and no new facts came to light. I thank you for your diligent service to the Amber Empire, Laveld. You are dismissed.”
No reprimand. Not even any questions regarding his report. It was a miraculously simple dismissal, leaving Laveld feeling giddy as a hummingbird. As he left the throne room he only looked up long enough to see Hador’s normal smile wavering, the leech. Well, he’d lost this battle. Perhaps the Emperor could keep even Hador in line, then. Maybe they weren’t so bad off without Yuroma after all.
I doubt now that there is or ever was a spell to bring back what I wanted. I searched as I’ve never searched for anything, and to no avail. All I wanted was a day or two to mirror those when Palén and I were young, just to be sure that they were even real. Reading shadows has never given me that.
Those days were real, though. I remember them now.
I recalled them too clearly to doubt, not once I found Palén again. And I remember them anew now as she sits beside me and holds my hand, or tells me softly of her life with Rijo, the children they raised, the stories they invented about their lost aunt who went off to be an Imperial Mage. I laugh for joy at how close some of those tales come to my reality.
I’ll have to send Palén away soon, to keep her hidden once more. But until then, I can set aside the shadows where I’ve lived so long–just listen as my sister sings me to sleep.
The Memory Jar
By George Lockett
Anna found the jar of stolen memories in a cubbyhole in the back of David’s desk. He didn’t like her going into his study, but she’d noticed a few days’ worth of empty coffee cups and a coating of dust, and had gone at it with a cloth and polish. She moved with a frenetic intensity, trying to finish and get out before David wondered where she’d got to. She stifled a curse as she knocked his heavy fountain pen, sending it rolling off the desk. As she bent down to retrieve it, she knocked the desk’s rear panel. It came loose and fell against the wall with a ‘chock’.
The jar was hidden in the recess behind the panel. Its lid was faded red-and-white check; it might have once held marmalade. The dull liquid within shifted as she picked it up, pitchy blobs of black and grey drifting inside like a monochrome lava lamp. As she watched the shapes, her heart twinged–a spasm so sudden and unexpected that it hurt.
“Anna, the oven’s beeping!” David called from downstairs.
She started at his voice, fumbled the jar back into its place, and covered it with the panel.
Anna struggled to focus as David talked her through his day. Candice had been outed as the mysterious lunch thief, and Judy… Well, Anna had no idea what Judy had done. Her mind had wandered to the cubbyhole and the jar.
David smiled and waved at her, showering mashed potato dandruff from his knife.
“Sorry,” she said. “What did you say?”
“I asked if you went out today. Are you alright? You used to be so invested in the Mystery of the Missing Lunches.”
“I’m fine.” She answered too quickly, forced a smile. “I… promised I’d lend someone a book, and I couldn’t find it earlier when I was looking. I was just wondering where it could be. Sorry. I should have been listening to you.”
He smiled, folding another pile of potato and gravy onto the back of his fork. “Who?”
“Who did you promise?”
Anna scrabbled for a credible answer, already regretting the lie. “It doesn’t matter.” She should just ask him about the jar, but she didn’t want to admit to having been in his office. Besides, it must have been hidden for a reason.
David nodded slowly, lifting his loaded fork into his mouth. “‘ood’s good. ‘ank you.” His phone chirped. He squinted at it. “Work. Let me go see what they want. Are you alright to get the dishes?”
He got up and kissed her on the cheek. Her stomach gave a little lurch. She smiled.
“What would I do without you? The best parts of my day are when I remember I’ve got you at home waiting for me.”
That night, Anna slipped out of bed and back into David’s office. She took the jar from its cubbyhole and padded up to the linen closet. If she stooped her head, she could just squeeze herself into the space beneath the bottom shelf. The closet was wholesomely warm, like being enfolded in a thick blanket. She pulled the door to, leaving a crack large enough to admit a shaft of moonlight, then held up the jar and watched the shapes inside. The movement was faster now, almost eager, the darkest patches of oily blackness pressing up against the glass and spreading like ink before receding into the grey depths.
The motion repeated. It reminded her of an octopus she’d once seen in an aquarium. It would climb the glass, then throw itself off the top and drift down the tank. It did this over and over. They could be playful creatures, the staff had said, but it seemed restless to her. Trapped.
She unscrewed the lid. The cupboard door creaked closed, leaving her in darkness. She shut her eyes and took a breath.
It took her a moment to realize it was her who had spoken. She opened her eyes.
David sat on the sofa, elbows on his knees, hands pressed together, like he was praying. Dim daylight from the window cast his face in ash.
He looked up. “Anna, it’s not what you think. You’re acting crazy.”
“No, I’m acting sane. Stop lying. I know.”
It had started with the condoms. She’d found a box tucked in the back of one of his drawers. They hadn’t been using them for more than a year. She’d tried to write it off–they must be old, left over, or ‘just in case’–but she couldn’t keep herself from checking back a week later. The box was a little emptier.
What had stung more than the discovery itself was that he’d put so little effort into hiding it.
Things had unravelled quickly after that. She’d called his office on one of the regular nights he’d been ‘working late’. The suspicion had eaten away at her even as she’d refused to accept it. She’d even gone to her sister, desperately talking around it, seeking advice while dodging the ‘I told you so.’
In the end, she’d waited outside the office, pressed low in the back seat of a cab, and followed him, right to her front door. Even then, she’d been looking for a way out, an excuse that would explain it all away as something innocent. But even the most practiced self-deception evaporates when you see your husband kissing another woman.
“Come on. We’re not having this conversation.” He got up and tried to push past her. She stood her ground.
“120 Grissom Street. Apartment B, I think. Sit down.”
His face twitched, his eyes narrowed. He sat back down, took a deep breath, then hung his head. His voice cracked as he spoke. “I need help, Anna. I’m so sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t want this.”
“Do you love her?”
He looked her in the eyes. “No. I love you. You know I do.”
“I screwed up. I shouldn’t have let— I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was weak.” He stood up, reaching out for her. Anna took a step backwards.
“I trusted you.”
“I know, and I let you down. But I can make it right.”
Anna wanted to pick something up and hurl it at him. But she stood, caught between her anger and the cold feeling of betrayal. Worse than either was the nagging feeling of inevitability, like she’d known this was coming. Like she somehow deserved it.
David stepped closer, put his arms on her shoulders. “Please…”
“Don’t touch me.” She pulled away and sank down onto the sofa, turned away from him.
“Anna, I promise it was a mistake. If you give me a chance, I can—”
“It was just the one t—”
“Don’t bullshit me.”
He hesitated. “Six months. Give or take.”
She shook her head, her face breaking into a smile at the absurdity of it all. She’d thought she known him. She’d trusted him. She’d married him, for God’s sake. She felt stupid, used, betrayed. But not surprised.
“A mistake?” She turned to him. “A six-month long mistake?”
He said nothing.
“I can’t do this, I can’t.” She stood and headed for the door. She’d have to beg Mary to take her in. She didn’t want to see the look of triumph on her sister’s face, hear her say those dreaded words, but she had nowhere else to go.
He caught her by the shoulders and pulled her close.
“It’s going to be okay, Anna. We’re going to be okay.”
There was a sharp pinch at the back of her skull, like hot calipers squeezing her brain. She gasped in pain. The room dissolved in fluid shadows, she swam in murky nothingness, everything—
The memory unraveled.
Her face was wet. Anna fumbled around in the dark until she found the door and pushed it open. She held her breath, listening, making sure David was still snoring in their bedroom down the hall. He was a heavy sleeper, but coming out of the memory was like jolting awake from a nightmare, and if she’d cried out…
He gave a thunderous nasal rattle. She exhaled, her breath snagging in a sob.
She held the jar up in the moonlight. The top third was empty.
She’d had no recollection of any affair an hour ago, but the memory was part of her now, a jigsaw piece slotted back into place. No, a jagged shard of ceramic, clumsily glued back into a broken pot. Did this piece belong? Had it been hers to begin with?
And how had she been broken?
Thoughts hammered her from every side. Betrayal. Violation. Disbelief. Her hands were unsteady as she returned the jar to its hiding place and headed back to bed. When she slipped beneath the covers, David slid an arm over and pulled her in. Anna breathed deeply and hoped he wasn’t awake enough to notice how hard she was trembling.
The next day, Anna scrubbed the kitchen, then cleaned the living room and the hallway with the manic intent that only avoidance could provide. She enjoyed cleaning. There was something whole about the process, the clear goal and immediate results that let her totally lose herself in it. Cleaning was a meditation.
She kept to downstairs.
When she’d run out of things to clean, she tried to read, but couldn’t make it through a single paragraph without her mind wandering to the jar, and the scene that had played out in the night.
It occurred to her that there was a name for what she’d experienced–nocturnal shadow plays that left one shaken, filled with strange and unsettling ideas that hadn’t been there before. Dreams. That was all this must have been: dreams and imagination. It would pass.
As many times as she repeated that, it still rang hollow. It had been real, with a sensory gravity that dreams and imagination lacked.
Anna paced the living room, looking for something else to clean. She unshelved the books, dusted and polished the bookcases, and started putting them back in alphabetical order, before changing her mind and switching to a more aesthetically pleasing arrangement based on the colors of their spines.
David’s text came at five. Contract came in last minute. Big project, have to turn this round tonight. I’ll call when I leave. Love you.
Anna set down the books she was holding–she’d been agonizing over the difference between maroon and carmine. David had to work late sometimes; that was the nature of his job. How could she be so cruel as to distrust him for working hard to fund the life they had together?
Anna picked up the nebulously red books and stared intently at their spines, trying to lose herself in the myopia of chromatic distinction. Then she set them down again and marched upstairs. She hauled open David’s drawers and started pawing through. There was nothing that didn’t belong. No box of condoms clumsily wedged at the back. Just socks.
She sank on the floor, a queasy, guilty feeling hanging heavy in her stomach. If she could get this turned around about the man who loved her, because of a dream, she didn’t deserve him.
Anna went downstairs, back to not reading.
David got back around nine. She made sure dinner was on the table.
“You didn’t have to wait,” he said, with a smile.
“I wanted to.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek, fighting off the urge to breathe deep, to see if he carried someone else’s scent.
They lounged in the sitting room, David on his phone, Anna persevering with the same page she’d been stuck on all afternoon. She kept glancing over. He was texting. A smile bloomed on his face, so easy and natural that he probably didn’t realize he was doing it.
“Who’s that?” she blurted out before she could stop herself.
He locked his phone. “Ah, it’s nothing. I’m being rude, I should put it away.” He smiled at her. “I like what you’ve done with the books.”
“How did it go at the office? With the invoice?”
“The contract? Fine, I guess. You know how it can be.”
Anna didn’t know how it could be. She’d worked at the city library for a while, waited tables before that. David had encouraged her to give it up when they’d married three years ago. They could both live off what he made, so what was the point of her being out of the house all day for minimum wage? At one point, she’d thought about applying for a nursing scholarship, but that had been a dead end. She didn’t miss the drudge work, the sore feet, but she did miss being around people. She felt like she’d missed a turning somewhere in her life, but how could she complain about what she had? She had someone who loved her so much that he was willing to provide for her, keep her comfortable.
“Doesn’t it bother you that they keep you late so often?”
“Sometimes. But it’s the cost of keeping you in shoes.” He smiled. She didn’t.
“It’s just… It can get lonely, being here all day without you. And when you work late, I’m just… here. On my own.”
He looked thoughtful. “We could get you a dog.”
“I don’t want a dog.”
“Why not? Dogs are great!”
“Well, yes, obviously they are, but— I mean, I don’t want a dog to keep me company. I want you.”
David frowned. “Working late is part of the job. I can’t control when it happens; it’s what they pay me for. Should I tell my boss to push off just because a big contract came in after 5pm?”
“No, I didn’t mean…”
“Because I do this for you, for us. When my boss drops a pile of work on my desk at 5pm, I smile and say ‘thank you’, because that’s what pays the bills. That’s what buys you the leisure to spend your day reorganizing a fucking bookcase.”
“Forget about it. I’m sorry.”
His phone chirped. He glanced at it, then at Anna. “I should look at this.”
Anna went to bed, trying to pretend it was work who’d texted him.
“So. You are still alive.”
“I had to pinch myself when your name came up. Figured I was dreaming. What’s happened? Has he hit you?”
“No! He hasn’t hit me, Jesus. I know you made up your mind years ago, but David’s a good man.” Defending David to her sister was a reflex. Now, the words tasted bitter in her mouth.
“Then why are you calling? You haven’t picked up the phone in more’n a year. Is this about Mom?”
“What about Mom?”
Anna’s phone emitted the rubbery squelch of Mary squashing her chewing gum against her teeth right by the microphone. “Left you a message. Over a month ago.”
“Oh. I didn’t get it.”
Squelch. Squelch. “Why does that not surprise me?”
“Is she okay?”
“She was back in the hospital. She’d wandered off again, got herself confused and practically threw herself in front of a cab. She’s back here now, doing fine.”
“Jesus. Was she hurt?”
Squelch. “Do you care?”
“I’m her daughter!”
“That’s not been reason enough for you to visit the past few years. You’ve stayed away ever since you married that asshole.”
“David’s work schedule means it’s sometimes difficult to travel.”
“Not for you.”
“He doesn’t like being left here alone.”
Mary squelched, but didn’t say anything.
“I’m glad Mom’s doing okay. Hey, listen–and please just give me a straight answer rather than your opinion–did I… have I ever said anything about David having… about my being uncomfortable with his working late all the time?”
Mary gave a throaty chuckle. “Your ‘good man’, getting some on the sly? Surely not.”
“Forget I said anything.”
“You did mention you thought something might be going on–not that you’d ever say that, of course–but you were worried. That was back when we were still talking. You haven’t brought it up since. Till now.”
“Come on, Annie, do you really think this guy is capable of being the father of your children?”
Anna sighed. “We’re not planning on having any.”
“Huh.” Squelch. “That him or you made that decision?”
“Both of us. Look, I’ve got to go.”
“I miss you, Annie. Mom misses you, when she can remember who you are.”
“I really should…”
“One day you’re going to wake up and realise you don’t recognise yourself in the mirror anymore. All you’ll see is what he made you. We love you, Annie.”
“You too.” She disconnected.
Four-thirty. David wasn’t due back for at least another hour–longer, if another ‘last minute contract’ came in. Anna put down the phone and made her way upstairs to his study and took the jar from its hiding place.
Anna set the whisky glass on the kitchen table. David looked up with a mixture of surprise, gratitude, and suspicion. She hesitated, then poured one for herself.
“Long day?” he asked with a grin, before taking a slow sip.
“I figured you might have had one,” she said, glancing at the clock.
He searched her face, then chuckled. “Same as usual. A lot of it’s grunt work. Dull, not difficult.”
“I’d rather something difficult. Things get plenty dull being here all day.” She raised her glass and took a heavy swig. “So, I’ve been thinking…” He looked up sharply. Every instinct pushed her to hedge, to soften or qualify what she was about to say or, better yet, to divert to something else entirely. She took another sip of whisky. “I know when we got together we were on the same page. But… I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, and… I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve changed my mind.”
David said nothing, but she could see thoughts flickering behind his sharp blue eyes. Sadness. Fear. Calculation. Her heart thumped in her chest.
“I’m not saying I want them now. Not now now. But someday. And I thought you’d rather I were honest. I wanted to give you— I wanted to give you the chance to think about it. To see if there was any way you might… Say something. Please.”
He gave a little shake of his head, then downed the rest of his glass. “What changed?”
“Little things mostly. I never used to see kids as part of my future. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized: I want that.” She smiled awkwardly. “I didn’t want to want them, if that makes sense. I know you didn’t.”
He eyed his empty glass. “I just don’t understand where this has come from. Are you unhappy?”
“It’s not about— Sure, I’m lonely. I’m here all day, you don’t like me going out and doing my own things, and we don’t get to travel much.”
“Work doesn’t always let me—”
“I know. But it’s not about that. I don’t want kids because I’m lonely, it’s… It’s something deeper than that. It’s wanting more out of life.”
David was silent for a while. “You’re not going to change your mind.”
She finished her whisky. “No.” David stood. She flinched back, then felt embarrassed. “I know it’s a big change, but maybe you’ll feel differently. I can look after them. Keep them away from you, so you still have your space, but get the good bits. You’ll love it, you’ll make a great—”
“No,” he said softly, reaching out for her. “If this is really what you want, there’s only one thing to do.”
Searing at the back of her brain. Flashing images. Nothing.
The memory unraveled.
Anna gasped for air. She was slumped on her front on David’s office floor, still grasping the jar, a thin sliver of memories left clinging to the bottom. She struggled to breathe; whatever had rushed in to fill her had knocked the wind out. She finally choked down a heaving breath, and that shook the tears loose. She pushed her face into the carpet, trying to muffle the sound as her body convulsed with racking sobs.
She rolled and put a hand on her stomach. She’d known for a long time that there was a void inside her, but never known why. She’d lost the language she’d once had to make sense of herself and her life. No, she’d lost nothing; it had been taken, ripped out of her by the man she’d given up her life to love.
Maybe they could have talked about it, compromised somehow, or maybe kids would have been the thing that broke up their marriage. She might have hated David for that, but she couldn’t have blamed him, not truthfully. But instead, he’d remade her, so he could hang on to his wife.
It wasn’t just a lacuna in her memory; whatever David had done went deeper than a stolen conversation. He’d stripped away a piece of her self-actualization. She’d wanted children, and he’d taken not just her ability to express that, but her capacity to recognize it. What did it take to reduce the substance of a person like that? To commute their potential for happiness to paper over an inconvenient truth?
Anna staggered into the en suite and clutched the rim of the sink. She’d given up so much for David, willingly, because she loved him. It hadn’t been enough. It would never be enough, and she could no longer convince herself that it was her fault for not having more to sacrifice.
She had nowhere to go. The little money she had wouldn’t get her far. Mary might take her in for a while. Might. But she had to leave.
The thought of being alone chilled her. She imagined David wrapping her in his arms, telling her that it was alright, that everything would be okay, and for one tantalizing second, she wished she could put the memories back in the jar.
But she could no longer lie to herself that her husband was a good man.
She threw the jar onto the bed, dark dregs sloshing around inside, yanked a suitcase out of the wardrobe, and began throwing in a random jumble of clothes.
She started and staggered back. David was standing in the bedroom doorway. “What are you doing?” His eyes passed between her, the case, and the jar. “Oh.”
“Stay the fuck away from me.”
“Anna, I need you to listen to me.” His voice was steady and measured, like he was trying to calm a skittish dog. “This isn’t what you think.”
Anna laughed, a desperate sound that caught in her chest. “I don’t know what to think any more.”
David took a step forward, holding out a hand.
“Stay back.” She grabbed the bedside lamp and brandished it like a club.
“What you saw in there—”
“You mean the memories you stole from me?”
“I didn’t steal anything. Yes, I took them out of your head. Because you asked me to.”
“I’d never ask for that.” She sounded defiant, but her stomach churned with the thought that he might be right.
“After… what happened, you wanted so badly for everything to go back to being perfect.” He edged closer. “We tried, but you couldn’t let go. You couldn’t forgive me, no matter how much you wanted to. So, I presented you with another option.”
Anna shook her head. She wasn’t sure precisely what she was rejecting. Was it so hard to believe, given how she felt now? Even knowing what David had done, a large part of her would give anything to make it go away, would accept the violation to preserve what they’d had. Surely that was better than being turned out in the world with nothing and no one?
“No,” said Anna quietly. “If that was what happened… I would remember.”
They turned at the same time, their eyes fixed on the dreg-filled jar on the bed.
David put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t.”
She met his eyes. Then she brought the lamp down on him. He ducked, but she’d already dropped the lamp and dived for the bed. He yelled in rage, trying to grab her legs, but she already had it. She ripped off the lid and fell into the jar’s shadowy remains.
Anna’s heart fluttered as she worked open the letter. She’d spent weeks failing to moderate her expectations and maintain a healthy pessimism.
Her application for the nursing program had been a moonshot. She lacked all but the most basic requirements, and it would mean moving to another city for the duration of the course. But it would get her on the ladder of the career she’d always wanted. It would give her more of a life of her own.
She took the letter into the kitchen, the paper quivering in her hands. David looked up from his computer.
“I got in. I’m going to be a nurse.” Her tone was hollow disbelief rather than excitement.
David didn’t smile. “I didn’t think you sent in the application.”
“I wasn’t going to, I know we talked about it and— I just thought ‘why not?’ There was no way they were going to take me, so I figured I’d enjoy the illusion for a few weeks. I didn’t expect this.”
He nodded. “I understand. You’ll just have to tell them you can’t accept the offer.”
“Right. Yes. Only, what if…”
“We talked about this. My job’s here, our friends are here. We can’t up and move for this.”
“I could. It’s only a year. I can be back at weekends and outside term time.” He stayed quiet. “I really want this. I didn’t think I’d get this chance, and now that I have it… I can’t ignore this. I can’t stay shut up here all day when I could be doing something with my life.”
He was running his hands over the rim of the table, a smooth, repeated motion, like sharpening a knife. “Let me see the letter.”
She hesitated, then handed it to him. She didn’t want to let it go. The piece of paper meant nothing–she had the offer–but it represented everything to her. David read it over, then set it down. He stood up and left the room.
Anna picked the letter up and read it again. He would come around. She could understand why he was upset. He loved her; he didn’t want them to be apart. But it would only be temporary, and this was her decision.
He came back into the room and thrust a sheet of paper at her. “Sign this.”
She took it. It was a letter, typed under her name, declining the place on the course.
She handed the letter back. “I know this is difficult. You don’t have to be okay with it right away, but you’ve got to understand that this is important to me.”
“Don’t be so selfish! I’m not going to let you tear us apart. We need each other.”
“I’m not going to sign it. I’m taking the place.”
He stepped closer. “Sign the letter, Anna.”
He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her towards the table. His movement was so fast, so unexpected, that she didn’t have time to fight.
He slammed the letter down, making the half-empty coffee cups jump, and pushed her face down onto the table. “Sign.” He wasn’t pressing hard–he didn’t have to. Her body was twisted awkwardly, trying to release the pain on her neck. She scrabbled behind her, trying to grab hold of him, but he had her.
“You can’t make it on your own. Sign the damn letter!”
The memory unraveled.
Anna came to shaking on the floor. David stood over her, looking concerned. She kicked with her feet, pushing herself back away from him.
She threw the empty jar at his head. He ducked, but she used the distraction to get to her feet.
“Where are you going to go, Anna? What are you going to do? You don’t have a job, you don’t have money. Who’s going to take you in? Mary? She hates you. You walked away and left her to look after your mother. Why would she help you now? You need me.”
Anna zipped the case shut and tried to get past him. He pounded his fist against the wall, sending a picture leaping from its hook.
“Damnit, don’t be stupid. I love you. All of this was for love. We deserve each other; I’m not going to let anything keep us apart.” He stepped forward. She kept the case between them. “Things can be better again. I can make it all better.” He kept coming. She backed away, but didn’t run. “I’m nothing without you. And without me… What do you have?”
Anna stood still.
“Do you want me to beg? Do you want me to get on my knees and beg you to stay? I’ll do it.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I’ve got nothing to lose. If you leave… I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Anna struggled to see through the tears. She wanted to go. She wanted to walk out that door without looking back. But out there she had nothing. How could she walk away from the one person who loved her?
“It’ll be better,” he said. “I promise. Things will be better again.” He took the case from her hand and set it down.
“We need each other.” He put his hands on her upper arms, drew her into an embrace.
“Please,” he said.
The memory unraveled.
Anna blinked. She put down the empty jar and wiped her face. Her knees ached and her legs were numb from kneeling too long. Having lived the memories of herself a few decades younger, she felt the drag of her older body even more acutely.
She’d been clearing out the shed as a surprise for David, prepping it so they could turn it into a quiet workspace for him. The false floorboard wasn’t well hidden. Why would he bother? She never came down here.
She looked at the row of jars, their murky contents still dancing, clamoring for release. She considered taking them. She could get back her other missing pieces, find out what else David had taken and hidden away from her over their long marriage. But she didn’t need old, missed opportunities. She needed new ones.
Anna waited until David got home–he’d never let her have her own car, after all. She made sure dinner was on the table. He’d been taking blood pressure pills since his heart attack. If she were to leave, he’d probably forget to take them. Couldn’t have that. Anna added a little extra seasoning to his casserole, to make sure he’d have all he needed when she was gone.
“Smells good,” he said.
Anna forced a smile. “That’s why you keep me around, isn’t it? You like having something good to come home to.”
His breathing trouble started around ten o’clock. Anna put a hand on his chest. “Wait here. I’ll call the ambulance.”
She went downstairs, took David’s car key from her coat pocket, and walked out the door.
By David Misialowski
“What are we looking at, professor?”
“An animated simulation of evolution in the form of a circular phylogenetic tree. The common ancestor of all living things is represented by the hub of the circular shape. The ever-expanding branches radiating outward from that hub, with their multitude of twigs on each branch, represent species-splitting events, such as when populations of the same species become vicariant.”
The circular phylogenetic tree displayed on the computer monitor in the lab was growing and branching in real time, the snail’s pace of actual evolution speeded by factors of hundreds of millions in this simulation.
The reporter was tapping into her laptop, blogging the interview. She stopped at the word “vicariant” and lifted her eyebrows in inquiry.
“Vicariant — sorry, technical nerd term. It occurs when subpopulations of a single species become widely separated from one another over a significant length of time, during which they have no genetic interchange. In cases like that, should the populations meet again at some later time, it may be that each population has undergone genetic change so significant that they can no longer successfully interbreed; or if they do, they produce sterile offspring. This is a speciation event.”
Tap-tap-tap. “I see. And the purpose of the simulation is?” Tap-tap-tap.
Professor Marcus Multis removed his thick-framed glasses and gazed down with bemusement at the slim fingers tap-dancing across the keyboard. “You’re live-blogging our interview? To whom? Does anyone care?”
The reporter broke off typing and looked earnestly at the professor.
“There are plenty of nerds out there, Professor Multis. I’m a science reporter. My specialty is writing about science for nerds. There really are blogs devoted to biology and other sciency stuff. I have one myself. It’s what I’m blogging to.”
Multis realized that in granting the interview, he had neglected to look into the reporter’s background, her blog or anything else. In fact, he couldn’t even remember her name. He could barely recall his own wife’s name — which was perhaps why they were now separated, with she in the process filing for divorce. On the other hand, like a high-speed computer with a capacious memory but no personality, he could almost effortlessly retrieve the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of almost any organism still extant and many extinct. It was a talent that made him a good biologist but not necessarily a good husband or father. Last year his only offspring, Brad, had inventively committed suicide by plunging his head into a vat of formaldehyde in the professor’s own lab. Multis still wondered whether his son was trying to send him some message by this act. At the time, all he could think to say was: “The Multis line, which recedes backward 3.8 billion years and is distantly related to everything else, including bananas and slime molds, shall no longer continue.” In retrospect, it seemed that this one comment had precipitated the downward spiral with his estranged wife, Chrissie (if that was really her name), but the professor couldn’t figure out why. It was just a statement of fact, and of the vagaries of evolution in a probabilistic sense: While the odds of any single unique individual being alive were astronomically remote, the odds of vast numbers of particular individuals being alive in a non-extinct species were 1:1 — unity. The professor now pondered the equivocations of probability and statistics and woolgathered.
“Unity,” he muttered, restoring his glasses to his face.
“Unity. It’s a shame we can’t have … uh, unity. Instead we get multiplication, fragmentation, dispersal, conflict and violence. It is the way of the evolutionary world: nature is red in tooth in claw. Or maybe I should say ‘read’ in tooth and claw.”
The reporter looked puzzled.
“Red, R-E-D, vs. read, R-E-A-D, past tense. Pun.” She was pretty. He wondered if it was politically incorrect to think so.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What’s your name again?”
“Nanette. Nanette Angeliafóros.”
“Exotic,” the professor responded, already mentally losing the thread of that labyrinthine last name. He strove to commit it to memory by use of a mnemonic device: Angel for us, he thought. Angel for us.
“I dislike Greek food.”
The reporter frowned.
“Sorry.” But he wasn’t sorry. It was just a plain statement of fact. Why, he wondered with ill-disguised irritation, are people so offended by facts? They ought to be offended, he thought, by non-facts — by lies.
“What’s wrong, Professor Multis?”
“Let’s get back to this,” the reporter said, nodding at the simulation. What’s it for?”
“It’s for demonstrating the contingent nature of the world — a world in which, if initial or later conditions had been slightly tweaked, dinosaurs might never have evolved, or might still be around other than as birds, or Hitler might have won World War II.”
“We’re running multiple simulations with arbitrarily tweaked initial conditions and also tweaked later conditions. The goal is to discover, via multiple simulations, using Artificial Life software, whether — if you reset the tape of life and then reran it from the start, as Gould discussed — you’d get similar outcomes. Convergent evolution suggests that you might. Different species, even those wildly unrelated, often converge on similar phenotypic solutions to similar environmental problems. Eyes, of course, evolved independently many times. But there are also many similarities in body plans between distantly related populations. Dolphins, for example, are not fish, but they share a body plan similar to fish.”
“A different school of thought holds that a little change here or there produces what’s called the butterfly effect: Massive changes across the tree of life that produce radically different phenotypic outcomes from seemingly insignificant initial changes. Ask yourself, for instance, whether the evolution of vertebrae was somehow inevitable. Was it inevitable, no matter what environmental conditions prevailed, because it is so useful? Or is it utterly contingent? If vertebrae had never evolved, life on earth would be radically different.”
“Us, of course. Whether narcissistic, greedy, self-aggrandizing and bloodthirsty us was in some sense inevitable, regardless of tweaked conditions in evolutionary history. Think of the history of life as an enigmatic labyrinth, with an almost endless number of paths. Does there nonetheless exist a privileged path that leads to an optimal solution, such that no matter how many times you prowled the labyrinth, no matter how many different paths you explored, inevitably you would have to find the single path that leads to the only exit? Just as in a real maze, like a game printed in a newspaper.”
“The only exit. Somehow that sounds … bleak.”
“You make it sound like Man is somehow … an Exit.”
Angel for Us had briefly stopped blogging and she now looked contemplative. Snapping out of it, she posed the obvious question: “And what are the results of your simulations?”
“Oh … interesting.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“We haven’t run enough simulations yet. We don’t have enough data.”
“But after all they are just simulations, right? They aren’t real.”
“I mean, a map isn’t the territory, is it?”?
He politely bid her goodbye and ushered her out of his lab. She promised to text him the address of her blog, so he could see what she had written about their meeting. He went back to the evolutionary simulation growing on his monitor: A circular world, just like a two-dimensional representation of a planet, getting bigger and bigger, branching out, branches growing from limbs, twigs from branches, more twigs from previous twigs — there was a fractal beauty to the simulation that held the professor’s rapt attention. He decided to get drunk.
He worked at the university and this was a college town. It didn’t take long to find a collegiate bar, one that he had never been in before. He liked that. For some reason he suddenly craved anonymity. He did not want to be seen, noticed, or touched — by anyone.
Professor Multis sometimes wondered whether he might be insane.
He often had bad dreams about the evolutionary biology class that he taught. Here was one: a certain pest of a student, a self-declared young-earth creationist, periodically disrupted class to pester the professor with questions about the alleged insufficiency of evolution to explain the diversity of the earth’s life forms. What about the flagellum? What about blood-clotting cascades? What about irreducible complexity? What about Michael Behe? What about Jesus? Where did Jesus fit into evolutionary theory? The professor dreamed of attacking the student with a scalpel and gutting him like Darwin’s fish. He would then lay him out on a table and dissect him while the other students watched, big-eyed with terror. He would produce, for his students’ inspection and edification, guts, viscera, offal; he’d tear out the heart as if he were some Maya chieftain, holding it out for his students to see and the heart would beat and beat in his hands, its blood streaming down through his fingers … and then he would cut open and head and hack through the skull and discover that inside, nothing was there. At this point the professor’s terrified students would break into screams and bolt out of the lab. And then the professor would wake up screaming in a bed cold and empty, the form of his estranged wife still somehow imprinted upon the sheets: those voluptuous hips, the long, elegant legs … And he’d hear a grandfather clock ticking in the stillness and aloneness and otherwise otherworldly silence of his dark, dark room … and the sounds of those ticks would grow louder and louder — tap-tap-tap — until they sounded like the raps of a chisel on granite, knocking away the flakes of his life and slowly reducing him to a pile of rubble. Like his father at his father’s death: a squiggle of shriveled pus on a hospital gurney, mind eaten away be dementia and flesh devoured by systemic internal failure. Whee! That’s life!
At the bar he ordered a pint of an imperial India pale ale, guaranteed to zone him out quickly.
The professor sipped his pint and savored the sharp tang of the alcohol mingled with the hoppy flavor. He unknotted his tie, and took another sip. He looked up, and saw that a ceiling fan was slowly turning.
Only a few people were at the bar, all students. Off in a corner of the spacious, rustic bar, some other students were playing beer pong and laughing. An Internet jukebox erupted in effusions of loud, offensive rap music that gave Multis an instant headache. He took another sip — no, a gulp — and reveled in the warmth spreading through his chest. He unbuttoned his jacket and then grabbed his unknotted tie and stripped it off. Up above, a flat-screen TV, volume off, was showing the image of the president making a speech.
He looked to his left and his gaze strayed on a dart board that had been pierced by feathery darts. But no one was playing.
He looked in another direction and saw, hanging from a wall, the original Old Glory with its ring of thirteen stars.
He saw, with his mind’s eye, the simulation of the circular phylogenetic tree, growing, growing …
He snapped out of some trance. That voice.
He looked to his right and slightly downward and there was a pretty elfin lady of Japanese descent smiling up at him.
“It’s Eaku, professor. “Eaku.” Persistent smile.
The professor blinked. “Do I … know you?”
“I’m one of your grad students, professor. Don’t you remember me?”
“Eaku, of course. Eaku! How are you, Eaku? You’ll forgive me. I’m a bit … distracted.”
Eaku beamed anew.
He beamed back.
“You have no clue who I am, do you, professor?” Eaku said, still displaying her polite, brittle smile, a ritualized kabuki smile.
“I’m the grad student who has been helping you on the phylogenetic simulation. Well, I haven’t just been helping you. I’ve been running the whole goddamned show, while you spend your waking hours getting shit-faced drunk.” Her smile was gone, and her dark eyes were stone-hard. “And I’ve been having an affair with you. Don’t you remember?”
“Get away from me.”
She unbuttoned her blouse and spread it athwart. Her perky tits, unsheathed by a bra, popped out. Areolae like roses. On her chest, above her cleavage, was a henna tattoo of a mandala. It looked like the simulation on his computer monitor.
Mandalas. Henna. Both impermanent artistry. Designs designed not to last. Just like species. Ninety-nine percent of species that had ever lived had perished. He knew that. We’re next.
Eaku buttoned her blouse and stormed out of the bar in a huff. The professor called tipsily after her: “Hey, nothing lasts forever.” He sniggered and drank.
Cigarette smoke wafted in front of him. He hailed the bartender.
“Someone is smoking,” he pointed out.
“Smoking is illegal indoors.”
“Not on this planet, buddy.” The bartender went away. The professor looked around.
Everyone was smoking. The air was blue with smoke.
He checked his cellphone and got the text from Angel for Us, with the link to her blog. But before surfing there, he Googled her actual name. He discovered that it was Greek for messenger.
How curious. Like messenger RNA, maybe?
He surfed to her blog and read this:
“Professor Multis’s simulation experiment is a striking verification of Intelligent Design. A message from God. The hardware and software is intelligently designed; the seemingly arbitrary tweaks of initial and later conditions were put in hand by intelligence; the entire setup is impossible without intelligence lurking behind it. Without even knowing that he has done so, Professor Multis, an atheist materialist, has proved the existence of God!” Some happy face smilies followed.
Multis was dumfounded.
An overhead bell rang as the door to the bar opened. Multis looked to observe who was coming in, feeling weirdly like Tony Soprano in the final moments of The Sopranos TV show just before the screen went black.
It was Angel for Us, with friends.
She and her friends navigated through a growing happy-hour crowd of college students and approached a table. Something was off kilter again, and then the professor realized with a start: nobody was smoking.
He weaved his way through a pack of idiots wearing baseball caps backward and compulsively consulting their cellphones. He intercepted Angel for Us as she was sitting down.
“Professor! What a pleasant —”
He grabbed her elbow and cut her off. “I ought to dissect you,” he hissed. Her smile collapsed. He dug his fingers into her.
“Let go! You’re hurting me.” She managed to break free of him. He glowered down at her as she sat. She looked terrified. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she blurted, near tears. Her friends, mixed gender, gathered round, poised to defend her.
The professor fumbled with his glasses and they fell from his nose and hit the floor and broke and everything became a blur.
He wagged a finger at the blurred Angel for Us and lectured: “You wrote that my simulation proves intelligent design. That’s insane!”
“I did not write that.”
“You did! I just read your blog!”
Angel for Us produced her cellphone and thumb-typed up her blog. Multis leaned forward and squinted at it. What followed was an accurate, professional summation of their conversation, with no conclusions drawn. It was perfect.
Once more, the air was blue with smoke.
“Fake news!” The voice bellowed from the TV.
Multis looked up. The TV showed the president. Only, incredibly, he seemed to be surrounded by a retinue of thugs, goons, and miscreants. The president ranted and raved and Multis thought, who is this guy? This isn’t the president. Where did he come from?
He thought: I must be drunk. It’s the only possible explanation.
He weaved through a growing crowd toward the john.
Inside he threw up, cleaned up and went back out — where he encountered a tapestry of eyes.
Eyes. So many eyes. All peering at him.
Catlike eyes, slanted and gleaming. All those gleams resembled candles glowing in a darkened room. Multis squinted at those eyes, bringing their bearers into temporary focus.
They were cats — all of them. No, not cats, but catlike. But not cats. One such prowled on the ceiling of an interior quite different from what it had been earlier. It had a catlike face but it walked upside down on ten stilt-like legs with suction cups for feet and it had feathers. Its long tail curled around an upright goblet with fluid inside. Multis ran back into the john and locked the door. After a while fists pounded on it, but he would not come out. He was seated on the toilet rocking back and forth and hugging himself. He now had his data.
In his lab, the simulation that he had named Eaku grew and grew until its feathery twigs reached the periphery of the monitor screen. The screen splintered and cracked and blew apart. The iron-black egg of Eaku, that Yggdrasil, now not just a circular but a spherical phylogenetic tree, rolled out and crashed through the floor. It burrowed down to the center of the earth and then out the other side, on the antipode of the lab. Then, obeying the law of gravity, it retraced its path and returned to the lab and then it again fell back through the center of the earth and out the other side and then again it retraced its path. During these oscillations it grew bigger and bigger as it feasted on the flesh of the world, and within an hour the earth no longer existed. There was only Eaku.