The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- The Stray by Christopher A. Jos
- The Pregnancy Room by Robert Dawson
- Travel Onward, Funani by Alexandra Grunberg
- The Glittering World by Andrew De La Pena
- The Monster with Many Eyes by Kristen Brand
- Darwinian Butterflies in My Stomach by H.L. Fullerton
- Consequences by Lynn Rushlau
- Cedar by Jude-Marie Green
- A Ghosted Story by Rob Andwood
- The Labyrinth Disme by Camille Singer
- The Spider and the Rose by Dana Beehr
- Sourdough by John Pederson
By Christopher A. Jos
Masura Kazamune rode untouched through the packed but silent street. The fingers of his right hand brushed against the scabbard of his sheathed sword, his left hand adjusting the position of two large sacks tied to his horse’s saddle. A soft drip accompanied the beast’s nimble steps. The bottoms of both bags were stained a dark red.
He ignored every stare, jaw set, focused instead upon the padding of his stallion’s hooves upon the parched earth. It seemed as if every man, woman, and child in that nameless backwater town had gathered to watch his return. Faces lined the building walls, the doorways, even peeked through the open windows. But none dared speak. Not in the presence of a man such as him.
His destination was a large structure at the end of the wide dirt street. The thatch on its sloped roof was new. Lean wooden columns supported the austere frame, built upon a foundation of assembled stones rather than stout stilts like the other nearby dwellings.
Masura squared his shoulders. In the old days, he had accompanied Lord Akano through many towns similar to this one, though the reception then had been far different. Inquisitive faces would’ve peered at him as now, but the women would’ve clasped their hands in gratitude, the children cheering, the men giving low bows. Lord Akano would’ve waved back, dismounted and walked among the gathered crowd on foot. A sign of deep respect for the peasantry. The lifeblood of the Hiratan Empire.
An aging male servant in a loose brown robe greeted Masura at the sliding entrance door of the elder’s residence. The old man didn’t bow, though he kept his eyes downcast while taking the reins of Masura’s black Kiyoso stallion. Masura ascended the shallow steps, a soaked cloth bag in each hand. A second male servant wearing an identical robe beckoned him forward.
Two figures waited for him at the far edge of the audience room. Horio Tamekage stood erect, feet shoulder-width apart, his receding hair tied in traditional topknot fashion. But Masura gave the man only a furtive glance, his gaze lingering instead upon the kneeling woman beside him. Suroda Tamekage was far older, her posture stooped, strands of long white hair pinned back around her shoulders. Unusual for a woman out here in the Marchlands to retain the role of elder rather than passing it onto a son, though such practices were becoming increasingly common throughout the Eight Provinces. No doubt a result of the Luminous Throne’s influence?and that of Hirata’s new Emperor.
Another twelve men stood along the walls in their black and gray robes. Daylight streamed through the windows to reflect off a dozen hands gripping the hilts of their sheathed single-edged swords. None of the scabbards or hilts bore the mark of the yejin, unlike Masura’s own sekari steel blade. The tart scent of bowstring oil was rampant. They likely had archers hidden behind the one-way partition at the back of the room.
Masura’s mouth twitched, though he stopped it from becoming a full-fledged frown. He gave a slight bow. “I dispatched the brigands, as requested.”
He tossed the two cloth bags onto the floor before either of the Tamekages could reply. The sacks rolled forward with a soft squish and left a pair of red smears along the wooden planks.
Horio Tamekage used a foot to prod the nearest sack. Strands of close-cropped black hair protruded through the open top, still attached to their scalps.
“Where are the rest?” Horio wiped the bottom of his blood-stained boot across the floor.
“They couldn’t be salvaged.” Masura had tried being careful this time, but when it came to properly cutting off a criminal’s head or staying alive?priority went to the latter.
“You had explicit instructions.” Horio kicked the sacks aside. A nearby servant was quick to gather them up. “Bring back every one of those brigands’ heads, or don’t bother returning at all.”
“Too many to carry.” Masura shrugged. “There were twenty of them.”
Eyes widened at that. Horio’s and those of the guards. Only Suroda Tamekage’s expression remained unreadable.
“Liar.” Horio jabbed a finger in Masura’s face. “No lone stray could take down twenty armed criminals. Not honorably.” Several nearby guards nodded. “Tell me, did you resort to using a coward’s poisons? Or perhaps you slit a few of those men’s throats while they were sleeping?”
Masura neither moved nor blinked. Horio wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. Masura had caught the brigands by surprise. Most had been too busy with other less honorable pursuits to even notice him. Captured farm girls for their pleasure, along with an open cask of distilled liquor seized during one of their recent raids.
Criminals and their victims?more casualties of the droughts ravaging Hirata’s rice crop in the Glimmering Terraces to the north, now well into its fifth year. Destitute men could be led to commit all sorts of heinous acts.
“Nothing to say in your defense?” Horio paced back and forth before Masura. He tapped his thumb against the hilt of his blade. “You present yourself with only six of these supposed twenty, and with no further evidence the other brigands are dead. How do we know you didn’t just raid a farmer’s field upon our lands and cut off the heads of six random peasants?”
Masura inhaled a breath, but not too deep. The wound at his side, hidden beneath the folds of his blue robe, still throbbed. The brigands’ leader had been neither drinking nor whoring, and had proved a worthy opponent, more skilled than his nineteen subordinates put together. Another yejin turned stray, just like Masura. Bandaging the wound from that man’s marked blade had been a hasty thing. It would need proper treatment and suturing to prevent infection, and soon.
“Ride into the hills and take a look for yourself. I’ll even draw you a map.” Masura kept his gaze level. He wouldn’t lower his eyes or bow to anyone who dared call him a liar. “And if you’re still unsure, question the husbands, parents, and siblings of the women I freed from the brigands’ bondage.”
All but one, anyway, whom two of the criminals had gutted during the chaos in a failed attempt to bargain for their lives. The other women had fled once they realized who Masura was. None had even bothered to thank him.
Horio’s mouth snapped shut, instead matching Masura’s glare. The man’s grip tightened on his sword hilt.
“It is of little concern to us.” Suroda Tamekage’s voice was quiet and frail, yet it cut through the ensuing silence. “We will pay you what you’re owed.”
She signaled behind her. A young female servant approached, head bowed, and knelt in front of Masura. The girl held out a leather coin pouch.
Masura seized the offering with one hand and counted the hollow-centered silver discs in the other. With each metallic clink, more whispers and mutters flared from every corner of the residence. The guards, the servants, the archers lurking behind the rear partition, even the elder and her son. Convention dictated Masura should wait until the meeting was concluded before verifying his payment. A gesture of respect and trust to the other party, though he had long since dispensed with such pointless courtesies.
Lord Akano certainly wouldn’t have approved. It was easy to picture his master’s heavy-lined face giving him a stern frown, seated in the manor study by lamplight, calligraphy brush frozen between fingers and paper. Lord Akano’s desk would’ve been piled high with letters to his many contacts throughout the empire?correspondence to secure labor agreements for desperate Hiratans eager for work.
But the dead couldn’t protest.
“This is only a third of what we agreed upon.” Masura tossed the pouch back at the Tamekages’ feet.
Horio sprang forward. “Be grateful we’re even giving you that, you oath breaking?”
“Enough.” Suroda raised a hand, and Horio fell silent. Her dark eyes settled on Masura. “What we’re offering is more than generous, considering you only brought us six heads. Do you think you deserve more, based on our prior agreement?”
The guards reached for their weapons?thumbs’ lengths of sharpened steel now visible. Masura’s gaze remained fixed upon the partition behind the Tamekages. The archers likely had their bows drawn, aimed at his heart and head.
He grasped the hilt of his own sword. Deflecting arrows was no small feat at such close range, even with the ethereal nimbleness of his sekari steel blade. But it could be done, as could taking on a room of twenty odd men, if necessary. It seemed to be his lucky sign.
He’d fought that same number when pursuing his master’s murderers. Twenty assassins from House Narisane led by the High Lord’s third son, dissatisfied with so many of those lucrative labor contracts given to Lord Akano in his father’s stead. Each of the twenty had fallen to a single swing from Masura’s sword?a wildfire tale that had spread throughout Hirata to become legend.
As had the rumor of Masura’s refusal to die after Lord Akano had been avenged, as yejin tradition demanded. A life of disgrace chosen over an honorable death. The life of an outcast. A stray.
Masura tensed, a sneer splitting his facade. These Tamekages had called him a coward and a liar. With their deaths?he would simply be defending whatever shreds of honor he still had left.
He exhaled his held breath. And be branded a murderer, hunted down like a common criminal. Like the assassins who’d killed Lord Akano. Like the brigands he himself had executed. And like their leader, the former yejin he’d dueled and defeated.
Masura released the grip on his sword. There had been far too much death in these hills already. Lord Akano would’ve been aghast if he knew his old gift was being used for such a purpose, especially if he was watching from the Other world. The last thing Masura needed right now was another name added to an ever-growing list. Masura the Quick. Masura the Oath Breaker. Masura the Stray.
Masura the Butcher.
“Well?” Horio said. “What’re you still standing there for? Take your payment and go?or you won’t be leaving at all.”
Masura gritted his teeth. Horio wasn’t the first to utter such a threat to him, nor would this elder’s overgrown whelp be the last. But he hadn’t come all the way out to this backwater town to answer their pleas for help, only to cause trouble after.
Time to move on.
It took Masura considerable effort not to press his hand to the crude bandage beneath his robe. Probably better to enlist the services of a healer elsewhere, though the next nearest town was more than a full day’s ride.
“I thank you for your generosity.” He left the coins on the floor and turned, perhaps a little too quick. Careless of him. He might take a blade in the back for his trouble, just like Lord Akano had. Horio Tamekage would be more than capable of giving that order, even if he wasn’t the type to swing the sword himself.
Masura breathed easier once his boots touched the compact earth outside the elder’s residence. That same elderly servant waited alongside his Kiyoso stallion. Masura mounted up and rode at a trot down the main street.
The crowd still lingered, pulling back at his approach. Women clutched children to their chests, men shook their heads, youngsters spat at his feet. Masura straightened himself in the saddle, one hand on the reins, the other hanging loose at his side, as far away from the hilt of his sword as possible. It wouldn’t do to show fear among the peasant folk. Not under the terms of this continued existence.
If he’d had his way, he would’ve killed himself upon avenging his master’s death. A short blade to the gut, in typical yejin fashion, to join Lord Akano’s remaining retainers in their sojourn to the Other world. But it hadn’t been up to him. All of Hirata didn’t understand, would never understand.
He was no coward.
A silent messenger had delivered a sealed letter the day after Lord Akano’s murder. Masura had memorized its contents, the characters scrawled in his master’s elegant but unmistakable hand.
The fact you are reading this means I have met my end in a most unexpected way. I bear no ill feelings against whichever house was responsible. Seek vengeance if you must, but I do not wish you to follow me into the Other world. Not yet. Thus, my final order to you:
Should the droughts continue, you and your talents will be of far more use to the troubled people of Hirata, even broken and reviled as you will be. Pledge loyalty to no house. Speak of this to no one. Protect those who cannot do so themselves for as long as you are able.
Your services will always be needed.
Masura had burned the rest, kept only a small crinkled fragment tucked deep within the sleeve of his robe. It bore but a single smudged character.
The thatched roofs of that nameless town faded from the horizon into memory. He would be visiting many more like it in the days to come.
The Pregnancy Room
By Robert Dawson
The three-story stone house murmured discreetly of old money. Could this mansion really be her university residence? Lyra Fong checked the number once more, took a deep breath, adjusted her grip on the bulging cardboard box that held her old pre-med textbooks, and labored up the front stairs.
“Hey. Let me get the door for you!” Blonde ponytail lashing, a girl strode past Lyra, slapped her residence card against the lock, and thrust the door open. “You moving in here? I’m Karine.”
“Thanks!” Lyra walked carefully toward the doorway. The box felt as though it might give way at any moment. “I’m Lyra Fong.”
“Welcome to Bix House!” The girl looked at Lyra appraisingly. “You haven’t joined our Facebook group yet, have you? Amanda was supposed to invite you.”
“I only got accepted to med school last week when somebody cancelled. Since then I’ve been so busy I could have missed it.” She gazed at the dark-varnished oak doors, framed in wide antique molding, with ornate roundels at the upper corners. Houses back in Oklahoma just weren’t like this. Chris was going to love it.
“No shit!” Karine paused, mid-hallway. “Which room did you get? It’ll be 4, 8, or 9, they’re the only ones still empty.”
“Room 4,” Lyra said. “My grandfather will go totally apeshit when he hears.”
“Dad’s folks are from China, and Yeh Yeh is superstitious. Feng shui, burning ghost money for our ancestors, all that stuff.” (There was the room, her room, right there at the bottom of the stairs!) “Sometimes I think he really believes it, sometimes I think it’s just a link to where he grew up. But number four is totally the worst luck. It’s pronounced ‘sei’ in Cantonese, which is like the word for ‘death.’ Can you hold this while I get my swipe card?” She passed the box to Karine.
Karine waddled in after her. “That’s hilarious – I’ve got room 13! Hey, we could swap if you want.” One corner of the box began to give way; Karine dropped it onto the bed with an audible sigh of relief.
“Thanks, but Yeh Yeh isn’t the one living here. And I’m totally not superstitious.”
“It’s got an awesome view,” Karine said. “You’ll like it.”
Lyra thought about the offer. In a house this size, Room 13 would probably be on the top floor, like her snug little attic room back home. It did sound appealing. And if it helped her make a friend… “Can I take a look first?”
“Sure! Then I’ll help you move your stuff in, and you could help me move mine down here. It’s still in boxes, mostly. And then we’ll go for pizza!”
Three hours later, over pizza and beer, Lyra had learned that she was now a “Bixie”; that it was the most awesome grad residence in Sutherland University; and that she should totally ignore the sorority girls, especially Beta Phi Phi, who were all stuck-up immature airheads. And that Karine was doing a MFA and was going to have to be a novelist, because her family were all too whitebread boring for her to be able to write a good memoir. And–after the third beer–that people said there was a ghost in Bix House, but Karine had never seen it, and would just die if she did.
Two days later, Lyra lay on her bed, in pajamas, listening to music and sipping hot chocolate. Room 13 was the fanciest room she had ever lived in: it clearly hadn’t needed much remodeling when they turned the old house into a residence. The floor was real hardwood, with a nice carpet, the desk was in a fantastic three-windowed dormer that looked out over a sea of green treetops, and the closet was huge. You could be Emily Dickinson in a room like this. Or whoever the medical equivalent was.
Two Dali prints and three photographs of Chris made it feel like home. Lyra had even made a calligraphic poster for her wall, three elegant Chinese ideographs in black ink saying “THE DOCTOR IS IN.” While the nights weren’t very cold yet, the heating system seemed adequate in its eccentric way, occasionally emitting puffs of hot air from a register she still couldn’t locate. She thought back to her shared cookie-cutter shoebox at the University of Oklahoma, and wondered how she had ever survived.
Her phone chirped with an incoming text: Sarah, another med student, whom she had met that afternoon at the rugby tryouts.
-My room at Bix
-Which room you got?
-13, top floor, it rocks!
-ZOMG!! The pregnancy room! O__o
-They say 17 girls in room 13 pregnant in 40 yrs 🙁 YOU BE CAREFUL!!!
-I’m in med, duh!
-Yeah right 🙂
So that was why Karine had been in such a hurry to swap? Well, if the dumb girl didn’t understand about birth control, maybe this awesome room should go to a medical student. No point feeling guilty about it. She stretched luxuriously and took another sip of hot chocolate. All this room needed to be perfect was a visit from Chris.
Over the next week, it seemed to Lyra that she’d met more people than she’d ever known before; and so many of them seemed to know the reputation of her room that she wondered if she should just wear a “Baby On Board” T-shirt and be done with it. Hah! That would be totally awesome for Halloween.
“Do I have to hide the pickles yet?” asked Sarah on Monday afternoon, as they waited for the Medical Ethics lecture to begin.
“You know, they should give whoever lives in my room a day’s extension on all their assignments,” Lyra said. “Just to make up for time wasted listening to lame jokes.”
“Sorry.” Sarah held her hands up in surrender.
“Hey, I’m kidding. But, look, I’m on the pill, okay? Everybody can just chill out and quit staring at my belly.”
“Yeah, for sure. But they say a lot of the girls who got pregnant were on the pill, too.”
“The failure rate’s one in three hundred woman-years, okay? Used right. Do the math. If they got pregnant it was because they weren’t taking the pills properly.” She hoped she’d remembered her own pill that morning. She could remember popping the little teal disc out of its blister… but was that today or yesterday?
She sat through Ethics, Genetics, Epidemiology, and Physical Diagnosis in an agony of uncertainty, then sprinted across the campus, scattering pedestrians and inline skaters as she went. By the time she reached her room, she was out of breath, and sweat plastered her T-shirt to her body.
Today’s pill was still in the package.
Her fingers were trembling as she pressed it free and took it, but maybe that was from the sprint. There had to be an app for this, some sort of med-reminder. Once her fingers were steady again, she picked up her phone: sure enough, there were dozens of choices. She found one that was free, with an interface that didn’t assume that she was senile, and downloaded it.
Maybe she should look into getting an IUD – or even an implant.
The Two Goats coffee shop was noisy, and Lyra was having difficulty paying attention to her Medical Ethics assignment. (What were horny small-town GPs meant to do, if they had the only practice in town? Date Christian Scientists? The textbook wasn’t clear.) She put the book face-down on the table, took a long sip of her chai latte and a bite of her pumpkinseed cookie, and looked up to see Karine hovering with a steaming mug.
The only empty chair in sight was at Lyra’s table.
“Hi, Karine,” she said. “Want to join me?”
“Thanks, Lyra!” Karine put her coffee on the table and plunked herself into the chair. “Is this where you usually study? Must cost you a fortune, the drinks here are so expensive. They’re a buck cheaper at the Student Union, did you know that?”
“I wanted a change. And I thought this might be a quiet place to work.”
“Hey, don’t mind me. Just keep reading. What’s the book?” She turned it around to see the title. “Sooner you than me! But, seriously, I haven’t seen you at Bix for days. Or on Facebook. Everything okay?”
“I’ve got a lot of classes. And rugby practice. And the rest of the time I’m mostly in my room studying.”
Karine sipped her coffee and put the mug down. She paused, took another slow sip, then another. “Uh, how’s the room?” she asked, cautiously.
“Oh, it’s totally cool! No monsters under the bed at all.”
Karine looked at her and laughed nervously.
“Sure you don’t what to swap back?” Lyra asked. “I feel kind of guilty, the view’s so much better than the ground floor.”
“No, we made a deal. And you wouldn’t want to have to fill out all those room change forms again, would you?” Karine took another sip, and stood up, leaving the half-full cup on the table. “Anyhow, I’ve got to go. Good luck with the rugby, okay?”
“Bye, Karine,” said Lyra. She took another bite of her cookie, washed it down with lukewarm latte, and turned back to her textbook.
-Guess what, Sarah?
-What? (Guessed it 🙂 )
-Chris called! He found a $60 flight for the weekend
-ZOMG 🙂 sweeeet! happy for you!!! Can he stay to watch us play sunday pm?
– 🙂 Has to fly back sunday noon.
-Sucks. But overnight 😉 you won’t have much sleep before the game.
-You be careful, Room 13! 🙂
-FFS, I’m in med!!!
Lyra stood by the curb, waiting impatiently for the taxi. There was so much to tell Chris – and so much not to. Hey, Chris! I’m keeping a log of my birth control pills now! Obsessive much? And how last week, with only three of the white placebo pills left in her blister pack, she’d been so sure she was overdue that she’d hardly slept. Her period had started the next day, and it had been almost that late other times: but the whole thing was driving her crazy.
The taxi pulled up. Chris’s blond dreads were unchanged, and he had a new T-shirt with a white-on-blue architectural sketch of the Toronto CN Tower. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him slowly and thoroughly.
“Get a room, guys!” That was Karine’s voice, behind her.
She whispered in his ear “I do have one, remember? Wanna come up and see it?”
“Totally. But after that, let’s eat, okay? I missed breakfast to catch the plane.”
She took his hand and led him into the house. She glanced at the door of room 4. Should she tell him about the swap? He paused at the bottom of the stairs, ran a fingertip down the fluting on the elaborately carved baluster, and raised his eyebrows. “Wow. I think I’m moving in!”
“Hey, doofus, you’re here to see me, not the woodwork!” She began to climb the stairs, pulling him along. When they reached her room, she waved him in ahead of her, and wondered whether to tell him about all the pregnancies that had supposedly started there.
She took a deep breath, braced herself in the oak doorframe. “Karine, that’s the girl who was leaving, says the house has a ghost.”
Chris made woo-woo noises, then pulled her inside and closed the door. They began to kiss in earnest. Soon they were lying on the bed, rediscovering each other’s bodies after four weeks apart. His hand found her breast, and the thought flashed into her mind: We’re about to have sex in the Pregnancy Room. She pulled back, and gently moved his hand away. “Not now.”
“But I thought…”
“C’mon, Chris. You wanted me to show you around Sutherland, remember?” What’s happening to me? Is this dumb myth turning me into a prude? “You’re hungry. Let’s go check out the food court!” She pulled him to his feet, hugged him, and led him by the hand out of the room.
They wandered across campus, Lyra acting as tour guide. “Here’s the student union building. And over there is where the Engineers did their frosh week Godiva parade.”
“Do they really do that?”
“Yeah. It’s totally dumb. Just a bunch of engineering students marching behind a woman on horseback who’s waving a slide rule.”
“I’d have liked to see that.”
“She was wearing a body stocking, you perv.”
“No, silly, the slide rule. I haven’t seen one of those for years,” he said. She laughed and punched him in the ribs, then took his hand again.
They ate at the Two Goats. She told him about classes and rugby, filling in the cracks from a month of texts and phone calls. They wandered around the campus, and he told her about architecture school, and pointed out features of the buildings they passed: spandrels, Corinthian columns, architraves. They did both loops of the hike by the river, her loins hinting at every step that there were better ways to spend an afternoon. They watched the sun set, went out for dinner, and took in a Renaissance music concert at the Student Union building. It was getting late, but she insisted on going back to the Two Goats for hot chocolate. Around eleven thirty, having done everything else there was to do, they went back to her room, holding hands and saying nothing.
Chris spoke first. “Is there something wrong, Ly?”
“No.” She guided him over to the bed, sat next to him. “It’s just that I’ve been worrying about my birth control pills recently. With all the changes in routine, I’ve been a bit careless taking them this month, and I don’t feel safe.” It was the truth, if not the whole truth, and she felt better. “You don’t have a condom, do you?” Barrier methods weren’t the best, but surely the two together–and a little luck–would be enough?
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry.” He kissed her, guiding her gently down onto the mattress, his hands moving over her body. “But that’s okay. Remember that first night at my place, before you were on the pill?”
“Mmmm. Of course I do. We haven’t done that for a while, have we?”
“Let’s. Or we could just snuggle if you’d rather.”
“Right now I need a lot more than a snuggle.” She started to unbutton his shirt.
Lyra woke up slowly, luxuriating in the feeling of Chris’s naked body spooned around hers. The sun was already up, so she must have had a few hours’ sleep somewhere. It would have to do.
Behind her, Chris started to stir. His hand felt its way blindly to her breast, and she felt her nipple harden in response. His fingertip, featherlight, traced a winding path down her side, circumnavigated the globe of her buttock, and wandered forward to her belly. She rolled onto her back and spread her legs in anticipation. His hand moved downwards, touching her, making her ready. She closed her eyes, losing herself in the moment. He started to get on top of her.
Suddenly she remembered.
“No!” She pulled her legs together, rolled convulsively away from him, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and crossed her arms over her breasts.
“I don’t feel safe, I told you!”
“I’m sorry, I forgot. You’re not usually like this.”
“Oh?” She crossed the room in three strides and took her bathrobe from its hook. “Well, too fucking bad, but that’s how I am right now.” She knew she was being unfair, but it was easier than explaining. Birth control pills maybe don’t work in this room. Just another of those weird traditions that older universities have, ‘kay?
“I’m sorry, Chris. Maybe I’ll feel better after a shower.” She tied the sash of her bathrobe and stalked out of the room.
It was mid-October, and the green ocean outside her window had turned to a dragon’s hoard of gold, amber, and garnet. The sun was setting, and there would be frost tonight; but the room was warm, with its strange drafts of even warmer air.
Lyra had a quiz the next day, but her endocrinology textbook lay open and ignored beside her as she tried to put together a text that would tell Chris what she hadn’t been able to say in three increasingly awkward phone calls.
Dearest Chris, I’m sorry I was so cold…
She went back and corrected: that sounded as if she’d meant it.
Dearest Chris, I’m sorry if you thought I was cold to you when you were here. Your last text sounds as if you think I might be having second thoughts about us, and I can see why you’d think that. But when I got here they told me that there’s some sort of curse on this room and that girls who live here end up pregnant. I know it sounds silly, but so many people believe it that it’s starting to feel real to me. Maybe next time you’re here we can get a hotel room. Or I’ll be more sensible…
There was another warm gust. She paused, midsentence, and looked up. It was dark outside, and reflected in the window, standing behind her, was a short, stout woman. Her hair was scraped back into a bun, and by some trick of reflection in the windowpane, it seemed as if Lyra could see the door though her, as if the woman was translucent. Heart in her throat, she spun her chair around.
The woman, about as old as Lyra’s mother, wore a long dress that could have come out of a silent movie. It wasn’t a trick of reflection: the boundary between the door and the white-painted wall was clearly visible through her. Weirdest of all, her skin glowed with an eerie red-orange, like an ember.
Lyra drew in her breath with a harsh croak, felt the hairs lifting on her neck and arms. For a moment she felt faint, then made herself take deep slow breaths.
The woman did not go away, nor become opaque. Some sort of hologram? “You’ll pardon me, won’t you?” she said. “I was just having a peek at your textbook. So much has changed – fascinating! I don’t suppose you could turn the page for me?”
“What are you doing here? This is my room,” Lyra said, thinking as she said it that it sounded stupid.
“I’m sorry, dear. It used to be mine, long ago, and I can’t really leave it. Not properly. I can be here, or I can be… Nowhere. Those are my choices.”
“Why are you here, then?”
“Well, maybe you’ve heard that when women reach a certain age there’s a change?”
“Menopause.” Lyra pinched her thigh, hard, and did not wake up. Right. She was talking endocrinology with a ghost. At least till she thought of a more logical explanation.
“Exactly. It’s good to hear women use the right words for things.” She looked at Lyra’s face carefully. “Especially…” She let the sentence die, as if she had thought better of it.
“I’d better: I’m a medical student.”
“Hence the textbook. Of course. So you know that as well as no longer menstruating, a perimenopausal woman gets other symptoms?”
“Hot flashes?” Lyra thought of the unexplained gusts of hot air that she’d never been able to find a source for.
“Precisely. And, let me tell you, for some women it’s damned unpleasant. Nausea, headache, fever – like the influenza compressed into half an hour. Well, I was perimenopausal when I died, it’s been eighty years, and I still haven’t got over it. It doesn’t look as if I ever will.”
“That sounds totally dire. But why did you come here? I’m not a doctor yet, and they aren’t going to teach me how to treat ghosts even when I am.”
“I didn’t come here to be your patient, dear. Just being around you young women makes me feel better. So get on with your work and ignore me.” Was the glow fainter?
That was easier said than done. “I’m Lyra Fong. You’re?”
“Dr. Emilia Bix.”
“Why are you haunting my room?”
“I was murdered here.”
Lyra shuddered, surprised that she was taking this as calmly as she was. Well, a doctor needed objectivity. “How did that happen?”
“I was the only doctor in the state who provided safe, professional abortions. When a girl got into trouble, the grapevine would send her to ‘Doctor Emmie’ and if she wasn’t too far along I’d help her.” The glow was definitely fainter now.
“Providing abortions was dangerous back then, right?” Lyra’s medical ethics class had talked a lot about the history of contraception and abortion last week.
“Ten years in prison, if they’d ever charged me. After a few years I was fairly safe–enough influential men knew it was because of me that their daughters’ reputations were intact. They probably thought I’d name names on the witness stand, too. I wouldn’t have, of course: professional ethics. But it’s what they would have done in my place, so I was safe. Until Jeremiah Salter came along.”
“Who was he?”
“Oh, he was a piece of work, girl. Twenty-dollar gold piece on his watch chain, hundred-dollar suit, picked his teeth with the penis bone of a raccoon, and had advanced gangrene of the soul. He got a girl pregnant, and when she asked him to marry her, he gave her a black eye and told her to go to hell. She came to see me, saying she’d kill herself before she’d bear Jeremiah Salter’s child. I got her sorted out, but a week later, he came to my house with a shotgun, pushed his way past the maid, and shot me, right in this very room. And the jury set him free. So, yes, I reckon in the end it was dangerous.” She shook her head. “But it needed to be done. Women should be able to choose when they have babies.”
“The Supreme Court thinks so too now. Roe vs Wade.”
The ghost, now completely nonluminous, smiled. “That’s good to hear. Anyhow, Miss Fong, from what I remember of medical school, you’ve got plenty of work to do! I should disappear and let you get on with it.” She matched her action to her words.
-Sarah, you will NEVER EVER believe this
-Try me 🙂
-I just saw the ghost O_o
-You kidding me?
-OMFG whats it like?
-Dr Emelia Bix. Google her she’s for real. Murdered in my room in 1933
-She left the house to Sutherland U for a women’s rez. They didn’t want it because murder and other stuff but they were broke (1930s right?) so they took it
-What’s she like?
-Bitchin cool lady 🙂
-You get all the luck 🙂
-Lucks a big thing in Chinese culture MMMMMMMMM 🙂
(lion dance smiley)
Lyra made her peace with Chris, but knew that there’d be more unhappiness unless she could get to the root of the problem. All those pregnancies couldn’t just be a fluke, could they? So what could the risk factor be?
The final piece fell into place as she was walking back from her Physical Diagnosis lecture. Professor Green, an energetic little man with a West Indian accent, had been explaining about syndromes and Occam’s Razor. “So, ladies and gentlemen: when you see two or three symptoms at once, then you just stop and you ask yourselves–what could they have in common? Because one condition is more likely than two.”
What did a string of pregnant students and a perimenopausal ghost have in common? There was something at the back of her mind, waiting to become clear to her, but what? She reached Bix House, climbed the stairs, entered her room, and sat at her desk, waiting for the next hot gust and trying to coax the idea into reality.
The sky outside slowly darkened from orange to blue to black. She turned the desk light on and continued to wait. Finally she felt the heat, like an invisible hair drier pointed at her cheek. She stood up, faced the direction it seemed to have come from, lifted her hands above her head, and intoned, in the most necromantic voice she could manage, “Doctor Bix, I summon you!”
The ghost materialized in front of her, flushed with that eerie glow. “Good evening, Miss Fong. No need to shout, I’m always nearby. And don’t start chalking pentacles on the floor, it doesn’t work and it’s bad for the carpet.”
“I’ve got a question for you, Dr. Bix. You may not think it’s my business, but I sort of think it is. Why does being in my room help with your hot flashes?”
The ghost was silent for a long time, biting her lower lip. Finally she said, quietly, “I don’t quite know how it works – but when I’m here with you, I can absorb your excess hormones. I hope you don’t mind too much.”
“Excess hormones? What excess hormones?”
“I think it must be good diet and all the exercise you young women get these days. Is that really a football over there?”
“Rugby football, yes.”
“So sensible. And not wearing corsets. Well, there was one young lady a few years ago who wore one, but her whole wardrobe was unusual. Brass goggles, and a top hat, and the strangest underwear.”
“I bet she didn’t dress that way for class.”
“I’m not so sure, she seemed rather eccentric. Anyhow, a lot of you modern girls have unusually high levels of estrogen and progesterone. I can sense it when I’m near you, like electricity in the air just before a thunderstorm. So you can easily spare a bit for an older lady who needs it.”
“Dr. Bix! In the last forty years, seventeen of the girls living in this room have got pregnant.”
“I knew about a few of them, and wondered about some others, but they left before I was sure. But seventeen? Really?”
“You died in 1933, right?” Lyra asked. If she didn’t get a straight answer right now, Dr. Bix’s tombstone was going to need a second death date added.
“So the words ‘oral contraceptive’ don’t mean anything to you.”
“Well!” Doctor Bix put her fingertips to her lips. “As a doctor, I know that many couples do that, and that’s their business, even though it’s illegal in most states. And of course diseases can be spread that way too, so using a contraceptive sheath would be a good idea–but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words used like that, no.”
Lyra suppressed a snicker. “It’s a pill, Dr. Bix. It was introduced in the nineteen-sixties. For as long as a woman takes it, she won’t get pregnant. Then when she wants a baby she can stop. It’s about ten times more effective than condoms. At least when women remember to take them.”
“But that’s wonderful! If I’d been able to prescribe that to my patients-” Suddenly she fell silent.
Lyra said nothing, waiting for her to work it out.
When the ghost spoke again her voice was flat. “Oh, God. How does it work?”
“The pills contain female hormones, estrogen and progesterone. It’s a long story, but raising the levels of those hormones prevents ovulation.”
“And I’ve been sucking it out of them. Out of you. Like–like some kind of vampire.”
Lyra sighed. “Looks like it.” It was hard to stay mad at the woebegone ghost.
“They thought they were safe. They were in my house. And I was responsible for them getting pregnant.” The ghost began to cry, quietly at first, then putting her face in her hands and sobbing so loudly that Lyra wondered if the rest of the house could hear.
Lyra wondered how you could hug a ghost. “You didn’t mean to.”
The weeping slowly died away to sniffles. “But I didn’t keep up to date on my professional knowledge. Never let that happen, Miss Fong! Of course, I’ll stop immediately. Which means it’s back to the fire and brimstone for me, when the hot flashes hit. And I’m so, so sorry for what I’ve done.”
“We have treatments for menopausal symptoms now,” Lyra said, and immediately felt foolish.
“I don’t suppose the pharmacopoeia gives the dosage for ghosts,” Dr. Bix said.
An idea came to Lyra. “Not the Western pharmacopoeias, no,” she said. “But half my ancestors are Chinese. Did you ever hear of chi bo, ghost money?”
“No nickels in this gal’s pockets. Wish there were, I could buy myself a nice cold sarsaparilla and cool off a bit.”
“They’re like counterfeit bills that we burn for our ancestors so that they’ll have a prosperous afterlife. My grandfather does it regularly for our ancestors back in China.” She turned to her computer and googled “hormone replacement therapy, images.”
“So how does that help?”
“Well, it’s not just money. They make paper images of clothes, cars, furniture. They even make paper Viagra tablets, though my grandfather thinks that’s tacky.”
“It’s a drug that helps men get erections,” Lyra said. “Yeh Yeh says he’ll do a lot for his ancestors but he’s damned if he’ll organize their sex lives for them. Anyhow, it gave me an idea. Let’s see if it works.” She opened her desk, took out a sheet of her Chinese calligraphy paper, put it in her printer, and printed the image that she had found.
With a great feeling of occasion, she took out her best pen and wrote a prescription for “chi bo transdermal patches, estrogen-progesterone, one per day as needed. Unlimited refills.” Pausing occasionally to bite the end of her pen, and once to consult a well-thumbed dictionary, she wrote it out again in Chinese ideographs, and signed it with an illegible flourish that she had been practicing during dull lectures. She folded the picture and the prescription in the special way that Yeh Yeh had taught her.
Now Yeh Yeh would pray. What to say? She thought back to her Medical Ethics class, and the old Hippocratic Oath. “Whatever house I enter, may it always be for the benefit the sick,” she recited solemnly. She should have burned a joss stick, too, but she didn’t have one. She clasped her hands and bowed to the ghost. “Dr. Bix, you helped so many women during your life. I hope that this will help you.” She cleared a few paperclips and a highlighter out of a red-glazed earthenware bowl, put the papers in and set fire to them, sending them to the Spirit Kingdom in the proper manner.
“Heavens, I feel better already!” said the ghost, her glow dying like an extinguished light bulb. “You’re going to make one hell of a fine doctor! If I may, I’ll drop by now and then to keep you posted on the progress of the case.”
“Please do, Doctor Bix. It’s been an honor to meet you,” said Lyra. But she was speaking to an empty room. She sat for a few minutes, then picked up her phone and called Chris.
“Chris here,” said a familiar voice. “I’m not available right now. Leave a message, ‘kay?”
Should she tell him now? No, she wanted to hear his response. “Hi babe, this is Lyra. Call me! I have some very interesting news.” She turned off the phone, and realized that she was starving. She mentally inventoried her supplies in the Bix House kitchen. Unless she wanted to dine on dry cereal with marmalade and soy sauce, it was food court time. The Two Goats closed at eight: better hurry!
She grabbed her backpack and raced down the stairs two at a time. At the bottom she almost bumped into Karine coming out of Room 4. “Whoops! Sorry, Karine!”
“Hi Lyra! Uh, how’s it going?”
Lyra patted her stomach and grinned. “It’s going to be a girl.”
Karine stared at her, open-mouthed. “You’re kidding me? Right?” she finally said in a small voice.
“Well, duh!” Lyra said, and snickered. “You should have seen the look on your face.” Her phone chimed, muffled by her backpack: she had it in her hand by the second ring. “Hi Chris!”
Karine stepped into the doorway of her room, took out an emery board, and started to pay elaborate attention to her nails.
“Hi, Lyra,” Chris said. “Got your message. Everything okay?”
“Oh, it’s more than okay, babe,” Lyra said, her voice low and sultry. Let Karine wonder!
“Yeah? What’s up?” Chris asked.
“Remember that little problem with my room? Well, I’ve totally solved it. Think you could come and visit me real soon? I think we ought to test it out, y’know?” She snuck a glance at Karine, who had given up all presence of manicure and was staring openmouthed.
“You bet!” he said. “This weekend okay? I’ll look for tickets. I should be able to find something.”
“Awesome! And I’ve got the weirdest story to tell you.” She opened the front door and stepped out into the moonlight.
Travel Onward, Funani
By Alexandra Grunberg
The video was well-preserved, and when Commander Arie stared into the camera, it was like she was looking into your eyes, divining the desires of your heart.
“The stars are not the distant dreams they were in the past,” Arie said, and her voice cut like a sliver of diamond, and it made you tremble to hear her voice. “The stars are our neighbors, and I will not rest until I have met every neighbor, and seen their backyards, and sat in their homes, and welcomed them into mine.”
Arie dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again her normally stony glare twinkled with a light and warmth that made her look twenty instead of a formidable forty-five. Years had distinguished her, and maybe her beauty faded a little, but her presence had outgrown her slender frame.
“I pride myself on being the perfect hostess.”
The reporters laughed. They asked her questions about Star Cluster 9, and Alpha Zeta, and Satellite Planet 41-003, and she smoothed down her long hair, already silver, a respectable color on her, and she answered their questions with a steady stream of knowledge, glowing with the wonder she felt whenever she visited a planet, the wonder she wanted all of Earth to feel. And they did feel it. At least, Funani felt it, and even when she was six years old, watching this video in her little bedroom covered in posters of galaxies instead of from the inside of her small quarters on an exploratory space vessel, she knew that she would follow Arie into the darkest hole of space.
Funani turned off the video.
“Nolwazi, how much longer until we arrive?” she asked her vessel.
“In three point two hours, we will reach the destination,” answered Nolwazi.
When Funani travelled with other astronauts, they complained that Nolwazi’s voice was too cold, too stern, but Funani designed the AI to be like another woman she respected. She designed her voice to sound like the familiar cut of a diamond. Nolwazi did not share Arie’s passion, but she shared her vast knowledge of the mysteries of space.
Funani turned on another video.
Arie was smiling in this one, and she rarely smiled, possibly because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth, though Funani guessed she could afford the technology that would fix her smile instantaneously. Arie was not smiling at the camera, she was smiling at a creature nearly twice her size that seemed to be composed entirely of tar. The blob creature had a gaping hole near the top of its shapeless body that could have been a mouth, and several blobby appendages that could have been arms, but it was probably just Funani’s mind trying to understand a shape that was entirely foreign to her.
“Arie!” a reporter off-screen shouted. “How did you manage to decipher the language of the people of Sept Printemps?”
“Most of the deciphering was done by the Sept Printempians,” said Arie. “I am just honored that they chose to reach out to me for first contact.”
The Sept Printempian gurgled, spitting a tarry blob at Arie’s feet. Are smiled, and shook his hand, and did not cringe or gag as her hand was engulfed in the creature’s gelatinous exterior. She pulled away, her arm stained black, and reached into a large blue duffel. She always brought her large blue duffel when she was meeting a new alien. Funani thought of the duffel as a treasure chest when she was a little girl, and it was still hard to see it as anything else. Arie pulled out a small bag, presenting it to the Sept Printempian, and the reporters laughed.
“You think aliens like maple candy, Arie?”
Apparently they did, because the Sept Printempian ate the entire bag, including the plastic wrap.
Funani loved that video. She loved any video of Arie meeting aliens, because Arie enjoyed it so much. Arie inspired Funani to become an astronaut, then join the exploratory astronaut’s league led by Arie. Funani missed home, she missed Earth, she missed people that looked like people and planets that looked like civilization, but if Arie was leading her, she would continue to travel deeper and deeper into the unknown.
Though the league followed Arie from planet to planet, they were always a few planets behind her, then a few more, until their leader no longer responded to their efforts to reach out to her. The other ships gave her up as lost, for forty years they gave her up as lost. But Funani refused to give up. If they gave up, then she was just far from home, and terribly homesick, with nothing guiding her forward. If Arie was not pulling her forward, then Earth was pulling her back.
She turned on another video of Arie.
“We will reach our destination in one hour,” said Nolwazi.
The others had given up. They had programmed their vessels to search for Arie’s form, copied from thousands of videos, but there was nothing like Arie in the universe. Then they programmed their vessels to search for life forms in the deepest, most sterile parts of the neighboring galaxies, and they found life forms they would have never believed could exist, but they did not find Arie. They decided to keep her alive through their exploration, and leave the hopeless search to Funani. Funani instructed Nolwazi to search for a blue duffel, far from any other signs of human civilization, and Nolwazi found it.
In this video, Arie was pulling a long scarf out of her bag, and wrapping it around a wide-eyed, multi-eyed, slug. The duffel was a treasure chest. And Funani followed Nolwazi’s treasure map to her hero.
The planet was cold, but the trees with their umbrella-like collection of thorns almost reminded Funani of home. She tried not to think of how much she missed her little bedroom, rising from solid Earth, and let her handheld guide lead her forward.
“The entrance to the cave is fifteen feet to the west,” said Nolwazi. “Night falls in five minutes. Use caution.”
Funani would use caution, but if Arie was inside the cave, there was nothing to fear. Arie was the perfect hostess, and she would never be rude to a guest. If she even was in there. If she had not abandoned an empty duffel on a planet and kept hopping the stars. If she had not landed and finally met an alien who did not care for her nosiness and offer of interstellar friendship. As the sun went down, the planet became colder.
“Shall I turn on a light?”
Funani nodded, and the handheld guide glowed, leading the way. She put out a signal before she stepped onto the planet, letting the other vessels know that she had found, or might have found, their old leader. None of the vessels were even in the same galaxy, though the closet ones were on their way. They cautioned Funani to stay on her ship until help arrived, or send in a drone led by Nolwazi, and she promised she would before she strapped on her spacesuit and began exploring.
Funani watched Arie explore a cave on a video, a cave that was on a very different planet. The creatures in that cave were not quite like bats, but that was how her mind saw them. That was what helped her understand an entirely foreign little, winged alien. This cave was much larger and darker than the one in the film. Who knew what kind of aliens lived in this cave, or how Funani’s mind would try to comprehend them?
Nolwazi did not tell her that there was danger ahead, so Funani continued forward. She continued into the cave until she could not see the planet she left behind her. She might have been moving down, or up, she was disoriented, but Nolwazi told her she was getting closer.
“You will reach your destination in five seconds,” said Nolwazi.
Funani stumbled over something soft on the ground. She had a terrible feeling it was a small, slender body, that her leader had crawled into this cave and died. But Nolwazi shone her light at Funani’s feet, and Funani did not see a body, but a blue duffel bag.
Funani turned, and there was something in the corner. It was a large lump, like a down pillow, or an undercooked loaf of bread. Its face was a mass of wrinkles, like a large shriveled apple with two slanted seeds for eyes. Thin strands of white hair trailed to the dirt of the cave floor, where two fat yarn lumps covered what were probably equally lumpy feet. The image was so unfamiliar to Funani, so foreign, so wrong. It did not match the voice that came out of the slit of its mouth.
It did not fit with Funani’s memories, or the videos, but somehow her mind managed to understand that this was Commander Arie.
“What are you doing here, Funani? Shouldn’t you be exploring?”
Her voice was quieter, but it still cut the air like a sharp diamond. It was still the same beautiful sound in a body that did not fit Funani’s memory of the commander.
“What happened to you?”
Arie chuckled, but she did not smile. Funani did not mind. She rarely smiled, and Funani did not want to see what her teeth looked like now. She thought that there may not be any teeth behind those sunken lips, and she realized that crooked teeth were not the worst thing in the world.
“Forty years happened,” said Arie. “Did you think I was immortal?”
She was immortal in the videos. If Funani turned on the tape right now, she would be as beautiful as she was in the past. That beautiful Arie made Funani want to explore the stars. This thing that Funani could barely see as Arie made her want to cry. If this was what waited at the end of the universe, she should have stayed home.
“I’m being a bad hostess,” said Arie, trying to rise to her feet, unable to rock her roundness to an upright positon. “Do you need anything?”
“I need you to go back to the way you were before,” said Funani. “Why do you look like this? Why aren’t you exploring?”
“When you’re older, see how easy it is to keep your figure,” said Arie. “And when you’re older, see how long you can keep running before you decide to rest. I’m tired, Funani. You have to explore without me.”
This cave seemed too small, smaller than her room on the vessel, smaller than her room back on Earth.
“I was following you,” said Funani. “If you’re not travelling, who do I follow?”
Arie did not say anything. This old woman could not explore the galaxy. She probably could not fit in the pilot’s seat, her girth would not allow the seatbelt to close. She would not be able to see the stars through her squinted apple seed eyes. She would not able to grasp the control with stubby fingers. Funani needed Arie to pull her forward, to new forms of life that she could never fully understand, to new worlds and neighbors that Arie loved, and in turn made Funani love, or else Funani would plummet back to Earth. Without the Arie she knew, how would she continue her journey?
“I will guide you to your destination.”
Nolwazi’s voice cut through the cave like a sliver of a diamond. She sounded like the woman who spoke through the aged lump. She sounded like the voice that guided Funani through the videos of the past. She would guide Funani forward. Funani was emotional, passionate, and Nolwazi could understand more than she could ever imagine.
“Before you leave,” said Arie. “Let me give you a gift.”
Funani did not want to watch Arie struggle to stand again, so she picked up the duffle and tossed it onto Arie’s lap. The old woman rummaged through the bag. Funani was surprised it was so full, but she probably did not meet many aliens these days. She tossed Funani a slick paper, folded so small, and Funani caught it in the air.
“I will lead you back to your vessel.”
Nolwazi’s voice guided her out of the cave, and she left Arie behind her. She would tell the others that there was nothing there, just a duffel, and she took a souvenir from the old treasure chest. She did not look back at Arie, because there was more of Arie in the voice of her guide than in the old woman swaddled in the cave, and she needed to move forward, or Earth would call her down. She did not look away from Nolwazi’s light until she was back on her ship, flying back into space.
“Where are we going, Funani?”
Arie was supposed to be the leader. How was Funani supposed to tell this diamond voice where to go?
Funani unfolded the paper in her hand. She unfolded it again, and again, until it was completely open, spilling over her lap, a large poster of a mysterious galaxy, so similar to the posters that hung in her bedroom when she was a little girl. It made her think of Earth. It made her miss home. But it did not make her want to go home. The posters always drew her heart to the stars. Funani stood up, and hung it by her pilot’s seat.
“Find me someplace new, Nolwazi,” said Funani. “Find me a neighbor we have not met yet. Find me someone who needs to be welcomed.”
Nolwazi lit a new map on her screen, leading Funani into space, and Funani followed her guide.
The Glittering World
By Andrew De La Pena
From far away they are coming, from far away they are coming.
From far away they are coming.
I am the child of Changing-Woman; they are coming
From the road below the East; they are coming,
Old age is coming for them; they are coming, from far away they are coming
From far away they are coming
From far away they are coming.
-The Old Age Spirits, Navajo Ceremonial Song
The Great Tree’s lethal foliage, blacker than jet, shades its dark inhabitants from the starlight. The branches merge and diverge above and below one another like the meeting of twisted highways. Small chittering beasts with angry red eyes, and smaller thorny insects sit amongst the leaves. The roots reach downward past layers of time, past Hell and the Underworld, and then farther down until the long black fingers dip into the deep wells of Earth’s molten core and feed upon it. The roots sip the liquid ores and convert them into fiery black magic that flows up through arteries. As it reaches the surface, it chars an obsidian gleam into the bark and wood. When lightning strikes the parched valley, it strikes this evil totem first, as if the gods of thunder and lightning hate the Great Tree and wish to watch it burn. But it never burns. And should any axe attempt to fell the Tree, that tool is shattered, its user cursed.
The land has travelled from Dark, to Blue, to Yellow, and then Man and Woman, guided by the black ants and climbing bamboo ladders, brought the Glittering World with them. The old spirits from the Dark World followed them. The Great Tree offered an oasis for Dark creatures in an ocean now drained, baked, and dried. Ancients lived in the sinister tree, primordial things that survived trapped by the change from ocean to land. Marooned from the early Dark World, they hated the Glittering World of Woman and Man. The English and Americans would call them Faerie; the Spanish, La Hada; the Diné call them Ch’indii. Once fair Yei spirits, they immolated their goodness and beauty in the pools of flames when Hashjeshjin, the Son of Fire and Comets, was young and creating the land. The Tree drinks from the calderas the Ch’indii once burned in when all was Dark and they were the only ones who could see. They were drawn to the sulfuric wooden heat; they couldn’t survive without it.
Once every century, always on the darkest moonless night of the year, the Ch’indii venture down the black trunk and creep spidery on all four of their lanky limbs towards the Diné sheltered in their circular fire-lit hogans. Their claws are hooked like fangs but leave no mark as they dig and scurry across the rocks and sand. Many stumble for they carry fruit plucked from the Great Tree, nightmares clutched tightly to their mangy chests. The terrors throw off their gait and make their snarls fierce and frenzied, while their hairy froglike faces cachinnate gleefully. Black beady studs rise on their bodies like warts on a Gila monster. Their wide flat teeth gnash and grin. They know the path to the Diné village by scent and only veer from it to play erotic games with the cactus needles and slap each other around on the succulents. They roam freely like in the Blue World, when they taught the animals how to kill. They rip the spines from lizards, eat newborn birds and mice from their nests, and repurpose many small unfortunates into bloody hoods to protect themselves from the blinding starlight.
They channel the speed of the Running-Pitch when the Jah-dokonth blasted all of the condensed saturation apart. The ritual must be completed, their hunger for fresh breath and new visions sprints them past the wind and down upon their prey.
Thankfully, the Diné, the Cultivators, friends of the well-mannered Peaceful Little Ones, sleep clustered together. The Ch’indii have dropped a few nightmares along the way, but still grip omens of Poverty, Old Age, Famine, Violence and Cold to their furry sunken ribs. They refuse to enter the hogan, as humans do- from the east where the sun rises. They hate the sun — the slayer of terror—Mother Dawn who dispatches Dark Creatures with her daggers of light. They trample the crops and scratch the animals, knocking them out. Their cackling awakens two people. As two men step out of the hogan, the Ch’indii’s pounce, ripping out the men’s eyes and stealing their voices. They suppress their happy grunting enough to form a straight line, and climb up the domicile to enter through the smoke vent exhaling from the center of the roof.
Their claws hook into the mud and pine ceiling, their drooling drips and collects on the floor. A few lose their grip and drop rolling themselves into furry shells, and bounce about unnoticed by the sleepers. Only embers remain of the communal fire. The slight firelight pains their eyes. The Ch’indii gravitate towards the lengthening shadows at the hogan’s inner circumference, circumambulating counterclockwise to stir up evil into the home. Couples, singles, children, and elders, no one sleeping more than an a few arm lengths apart from one another. They pull their blankets over their shoulders and chins, and drift closer together as the chill and effluvia spreads. The matriarchal sleeping arrangements assist in the spinning and casting of dreams and nightmares throughout the hogan.
The Ch’indii touch their nails gently to the temples of the youngest and oldest sleepers in the hogan and catch all the ages in between. They pull out the Great Tree’s fruit they had tucked away; microcosms of inevitabilities, small black eggs etched with molten constellations. The lumps are dropped into the mouths of the infants, toddlers and young children. The Ch’indii rub the children’s throats with their toe pads to encourage swallowing. They catch the human breath on their rotten lips and exhale it into the night; they steal more breath, again and again, and blow their own foul interior into the sleepers’ mouths. They inflate their neck pouches and a low rhythm hums from their voice boxes grating against their throats. Their chants lull the dreamers into a deeper sleep.
The fire has ended in a warm smoldering. The chanting shakes the air and quakes through the wooden beams. The Ch’indii’s former gill slits split open into ribboning crevices that ooze an oily tar, black sap hoarded from the Great Tree. They scrape the serrated inner edges with their claws and drip the foul nectar into the ears of the sleepers. They form a chain and swell their throat gratings so that the noise reverberates and swells. The dreamers swoon into a reverie as the Ch’indii wave their sinewy arms spinning Inevitable Truth by tight circles into the hypnotic web. Together, they could both see what is to come; the Diné could choose whether or not to believe.
Their chanting articulates into long drawn-out ghosts of words; “They are coming, from far away they are coming.”
The nightmare starts as a benign dream. The Men from Across the Water come at first starved, and then gleaming in impossible alloys and textiles. The Diné’s ears, eyes, noses and mouths fill with the pollen of precious things: magnificent crafts, jewelry, and trinkets, the inebriations that help them to forget. Consistent waves of people and things come from far away.
The Strange Men call them Apache, which means enemy to them.
“Navajo Diné.” They insist.
“Sí, Apache Navajo, pues.” The strange visitors answer.
Inevitability turns exciting new things nightmarish. Crossed pieces of wood and leather-bound sheets of pressed leaves hold a sacred power. The God provides Mercy, for His People need it. The Wet Death comes and wastes Navajo bodies. They survive. Friendly masks are removed so that demands can be made face-to-face. They fight. The God practices His famed benevolence by receiving, redeeming, and forgiving souls. They kill, and the Diné witness their grandchildren kill too, mastering the new weaponry and animals. Teaching dominates learning; the war pitting the Spirits against the God is lost.
“They are coming, from far away they are coming,” the Ch’indii whisper into the dreamers’ ears.
Steaming segmented metal worm-serpents charge through the northern mountains and into the desert valley. They breathe fire and belch smoke, they vomit out a chaotic civilization that nevertheless flourishes, or at least seems flourishing from the embellished style of dress, building, and living. There are more objects than people. The metal worm-snakes bring more and more so they lose the war of numbers, and the villages lose the war against the towns. The strangers dominate the valley and the Navajo lose the mountains.
“They are coming, from far away they are coming.”
The visions are terrible because they will be true. There will be mines that strip and degrade and create wastelands land with an ingenuity that kills magic. What the Diné have begun with their tools the Men from Across the Water will end with their machines. Machines that will swallow the world into White created from everything sparkling at once.
The Diné watch their heritage and future generations shepherded on the Long Walk as the world around them marches faster. The Navajo are taken to a Round Forest, neither a forest nor round; the Pale Riders expect them to grow one and live off it. They are reserved there, and then somewhere else. The metal worm-serpents segment further, divide and charge like angry buffalo flattening the land. The Navajo integrate carrying their ways and traditions like shadows. The night loses its darkness. They find each other in the white brightness through voice, movement and feeling. The Ch’indii rake their claws softly on the inner arms and thighs of the dreamers, and they lose each other to the shadows again.
“They are coming. From far away, they are coming.” The dread in their gravel grinds to a climactic pitch.
The chanting stops. The Ch’indii abandon the dreamscape and release the dreamers from the conduction. The monsters gather bewildered by the true nature of the Glittering World.
“They will leave nothing but White light!” The oldest goblin starts.
The others hiss. “It will overshadow the stars and sun!”
“Poison the rain!”
“Level the mountains!”
The Old One speaks again, “Lightening and thunder will be stolen and reshaped into unrelenting brightness. Even their God will lose His luster to the Glittering. There will be no Dark spaces left. No purpose, no power left for us, only White.” The White, The Last World, the final expansive bang before the universe contracts to start all over again in the Dark. Fresh breath will not be enough to restrain the forthcoming human tidal wave, they will need fresh life.
A sacrifice. The Diné will receive black magic, and in return, give up a son or daughter to follow the Coyote by walking in its skin. The effulgence towards White could be delayed by merging the powers of the Dark and the Glittering. The Ch’indii scurry about and find a boy a few years in age, just beyond toddling, with enough mettle to endure the liquid fires of the Great Tree. They pull themselves up to the shoulders of the mother cradling her son. The Ch’indii massage the temples of both to increase the weight of their dreaming.
“They are coming, they are coming. From far away, they are coming.” They whisper to each other.
The Old One hobbles forward, about the same height and width as the young human, although far more horrible and hairy. He explores the soft body with the tips of his nails as if drawing a map. He sniffs under the arms, neck, and legs, and uses his breath, nose and tongue to taste and smell the cavities and skin. He lifts the mother’s arm as his comrades pull the child away and settles into the vacancy. He is in the crook, just before the small feet are swept away, and lowers her arm upon his mangy shoulders.
The skinniest runt jumps forward, extends his long thin arm, and carefully, like a surgeon, reaches into the child’s mouth. Reaching deep, and, carefully, so as not to grace the sides of the gullet or mouth, the runt retrieves the fruit they had planted earlier, frees the nightmare from its host, and holds it up for the others to view. The tiny fruit had voluminous depth packed with stormy red seeds.
The runt holds high the shrunken universe of pain, as another opens the lips of the mother with a gentle pull on her chin.
“Fear makes delusion,” the runt whispers placing the nightmare on her tongue and caressing it down her throat.
The Ch’indii bring the human child, headfirst over to the changeling so that he and the wide sleuthing grin are face to face.
“Breathe.” The Old One says.
The child obeys and the monster’s cavity inflates like a ribbed bladder and deflates the inhalations back into child. He captures the young breath and it charges his power. He breathes it back into the newborn.
The tough hair and mange sheds to the ground and dissolves in cinders. The Changeling’s features become rounder and his skin smoothens into pliable softness. He grows a thick patch of feathery black hair on the top of his head and eyebrows to match. A perfect replicated likeness to the child. Only the rolling eyes and crooked grin, the impulses to impale grasshoppers could alarm the Diné family and tribe to his innate wickedness.
The Ch’indii bear the child, level as a casket, out the eastern entrance they despise. The blue hints in the night hurt their eyes.
They curse the Mother of Coyote and they quicken their pace; the two devilish critters at front can hardly keep the head balanced, their fingers petting the supple forehead so that the dreams remain unsettled.
They cry out as the color seeps back into the landscape and dark blue creeps into the sky. The unburdened wretches race past the others, charge up the Great Tree’s trunk, and hop on the branches like fat excited monkeys howling at their brothers and sisters to move faster.
The first crest of the sun peeks over the horizon and the air loses humidity as the temperature rises. The Ch’indii bearing the child grow tired. Their skin tightens and sinks into their bony skeletons. Horripilation, the fur bundles twist together and harden into barbed spines. The white streaks in the sky hit their backs searing them. They bite their tongues and scratch their bellies to distract themselves. They rush down the last slope and slow at the slight hill hosting the Tree. Their arms are unsteady and shaking the child, sometimes dragging an arm or leg.
The Ch’indii at the front lose their hold on the child’s head. It hits the ground with an eruption of throaty anger that scares away the carriers.
“Graahgyyye!” They scream and dash away; a few make it up the trunk of the Tree and are helped by their brethren.
Two of the most determined monsters turn around, they stumble and pull themselves forward flat to the ground, their hides cracking and steaming. They fail to reach the child and roll into scaly blistering balls screaming into the ground.
The Great Tree shakes with murderous, ravenous activity. They hug the trunk and stretch their tongues to collect the fiery sap between the bark, replenishing themselves.
The blue above them shoots quivers down their knees. They had seen all too clearly the full regalia of the Glittering World. The machines that would refine and sack the same raw energy the Ch’indii thrived on. It would not end in fighting or violence, just sucked dry and run over. Their ultimate defense lies on the ground writhing and crying: their Skin Walker, the warrior of both Dark and Glittering. Charged off the hatred in the Tree they bark and nudge each other off the branches.
A few courageous Ch’indii jump to the ground, scramble to the crying child and match its screaming. They maneuver their arms under his back and lift him. Their bodies steam and crackle, their eyes pool and boil. They drag the child by the arms, banging the soft head on the roots as it continues to bawl. Joints stiffen in their arms and lock their legs, but they still manage to drag the child until the base of the Great Tree and rest him against its trunk. Their muscles stick to their skeleton and harden against their shells. Their last wells of energy are spent climbing by the tips of their claws up into the Tree. There are still two Ch’indii laying exhausted at the roots, Daybreak has sent the Lady Rays of Sunlight, their nemesis, Mother of Women, and she strikes them down— blasts them into the ground as they gag on their melting organs.
The child’s howling reaches the Ch’indii’s in the Tree and tears through their earholes. They cover them and slough away from the great sun-daggers. The effort has claimed more than half the tribe.
The Ch’indii feel the Men from Across the Water crossing it, breaking through the unanimous blue. Eventually, they will destroy even that vastness. They will leave no mystery unrevealed; obliterate every unknown.
The child squelches his crying enough to turn over and begin crawling and walking away from his kidnappers.
The Ch’indii watch their last hope amble away. A sacrifice has never returned to the people. The child was too strong and willful. The Changeling will lose his magic if the son is reunited with his mother. The valley will lose both Witch Doctor and Skin Walker.
The ancient spirits huddle deeper into the leaves of the last Dark refuge shaking and quivering, too fearful and alert to sleep though their exhaustion demands it.
One of the last five remaining Ch’indii leans against the Tree’s rough trunk, stands and gestures at his brethren, their crooked arms and legs singed, slung and hanging from the branches. He licks his burnt lips with a dry tongue; the black iris in crystalline red is lazy, fixed upwards and to the right, as if betraying a lie. His voice is a high snare, a sustained death rattle. He speaks in words that predate language and linger in the air like smoke petroglyphs.
“They are coming, we will wait. We will hunger, we will shrink. Man and Woman are weak. They will doubt and they will die, we will hate and survive. We are older than Death, younger than the End. The Slayer of Monsters will die too, the Dawn Mother and Dusk Father will be eclipsed and forgotten. We will wait. Let us return to the Tree and sleep in the fire, for they are coming.”
He pulls apart the Great Tree’s black bark with his last remaining strength and breathes in the heat and hatred radiating from the core. The rest of the Ch’indii decrease to the size of upright pockmarked mice and trunkle into the red-orange glow. The last shrinks and steps through the bark curtains before they seal behind him.
The child loses his momentum halfway back to the tribe, and surrenders belly and cheek down to the ground. The vultures circle above him, swooping lower and lower to inspect the breathing carrion.
The Diné have awakened each feeling a bit disturbed, as if someone had rearranged them in their sleep. They find the men made blind and mute. Their looms, baskets, gourds and pottery are shattered and broken. The sand paintings are scratched away and their crops and food storage are ruined, trampled and fouled by excrement. The sheep are prematurely shorn by hacking strokes and shivering, and the goats are upturned with their legs waving in the air, their horns fast into the ground. They scout the surrounding area and follow a lizard-like trail of tracks to the wake of vultures pecking at some fallen life. They shoo away the raptors. The child is passed out, bloody and scraped but still alive. They wrap him in a blanket and carry him back to the village.
The tribe gathers around the mysterious child and they all recognize him and bring forth the mother carrying the Changeling. It cries, spits, writhes and slaps its face in her arms. She sees her son cradled by her brother and screams. The creature’s skin crackles and cooks, it dries, blackens and grows too hot to hold. The mother drops the feverish body and the tribe step back as the Old One bursts into flames and charges towards the bloodied sacrifice. The warrior holding his nephew stamps out the shrieking flames before it can pounce.
The mother takes her son and cleans away the dirt, grime and blood and feeds him. She kisses his bruises. As he takes mouthfuls of water, he rests his sniffling head on her breast— she can feel the nightmare that they had shared lodged deep within her chest. There is dread, a precariousness that hadn’t been there before; a fear they will carry with them as they weave mystery into story.
They hide the name Yehtso-lapai, the grey fish-eyed monsters, and call their visitors Ch’indii, Old Ghost Spirits. Cover the nightmares with dreams of better places and better things. They have no use for Dark magic, for they are the Diné of the Glittering World, and they had yet to meet anyone who could shine brighter.
The Monster with Many Eyes
By Kristen Brand
Mallory couldn’t pinpoint when she’d first noticed the monster. She supposed she’d heard it scuttling around in the walls for weeks before it had first attacked, but she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it. Though she knew it was stupid, a part of her hoped that if she ignored it, it would turn out to be a figment of her imagination.
When Mallory stumbled back to her apartment one evening after a long day of classes followed by a busy shift at work, it sprang out of nowhere and tackled her. Mallory’s back hit the floor, and she caught a glimpse of a shiny black exoskeleton and many, many eyes before it savaged her. Claws cut into her legs and sides, and teeth bit brutally into her shoulder. She screamed and flailed, but it made no difference. She could only close her eyes and cry until it ended.
Eventually, the monster crawled away, leaving Mallory a sobbing wreck on the floor. Nearly thirty minutes passed before she managed to pick herself up and limp to the shower. Once she was clean, she rifled through her cabinets and found the first-aid kit, every shadow and creak making her jump. But the monster didn’t attack again. She bandaged her wounds and went to bed, but the hours passed sleeplessly. She could hear the monster scuttling behind the walls.
If anyone noticed her limp or the dark circles under her eyes the next day, they didn’t say anything. When she finally got home, her hands shook so hard that she could barely unlock the front door. She slunk cautiously inside, the muscles of her back so tense they hurt. Whipping her head around, she looked for any sign of the monster. Nothing. Was it gone? She couldn’t be so lucky.
She sat on the couch, waiting for it to appear and attack, every second that passed making her feel more nauseous. But the minutes ticked by with no sign of it. Eventually, she opened her web design textbook and tried to read tonight’s assigned chapter, but she couldn’t concentrate. She kept glancing up and looking over her shoulder.
By the time she got ready for bed, she thought that maybe—just maybe—the monster had left. But then she opened the linen closet and saw its many eyes gleaming from the shadows behind a stack of towels. Mallory slammed the door shut and stumbled back, gasping for air. The monster didn’t burst out of the closet and attack, but it didn’t have to. Mallory knew it was there and barely slept all night.
It went on like that for weeks. Sometimes, the monster would attack; other times, it would just lurk. There was no pattern that Mallory could detect. It happened in the morning, afternoon, and even the middle of the night. An entire week went by once with barely any sign of it, but then it attacked three days in a row. It happened on good days, bad days, and every kind of day in between.
The constant fear and worry ate away at her like termites gradually gnawing down wood. Her grades slipped, and she appeared so lethargic and worn at work that her boss asked if she needed to cut back on her hours. Mallory couldn’t afford that. Falling behind on rent and getting kicked out of her apartment would be tempting if she didn’t know in her bones that the monster would follow her wherever she went.
She slept-walked through her days, exhausted from the anxious nights and constant attacks. After class, when she talked to Grace Cheung—the girl with vibrant blue hair who usually sat next to her—it wasn’t until the conversation ended that Mallory realized she’d agreed to have Grace over for a study session tomorrow.
Cue the panic. Mallory couldn’t let anyone else come into the apartment. Grace wasn’t in any danger—somehow, Mallory knew it was her own personal monster and would only attack her—but Mallory couldn’t bear to let anyone see the ugly, awful thing she’d let come into her life. Her face heated with shame just thinking about it.
Lying was her first instinct. She could text Grace and say something else had come up, but she’d only been going through the motions when she’d written down Grace’s number, and she couldn’t read the scrawl of her own shaky handwriting. All night, Mallory tossed and turned, debating every option from suggesting a coffee shop instead of her apartment to dropping the class and running away. Hearing the clicking of the monster’s pincers as it lurked in her bedroom corner, watching, didn’t help.
By the time Grace knocked on her door the next day, Mallory had thrown up in the toilet twice and was trembling from head to toe. She looked over her shoulder as she shuffled to the door. The monster was nowhere in sight, and she prayed it would stay that way. When she opened the door, it took her a moment to gather the courage to open her mouth and propose the coffee shop down the street, and by then, Grace had already come inside, complaining about their professor and whatever sadist had invented grading on a curve.
Feeling as if she’d lost all control, Mallory reluctantly settled on the couch next to her and opened her notebook. They reviewed their notes and flipped through the chapters of their textbooks, discussing concepts and what was likely to be on the exam. Mallory didn’t have much to say; she was too busy checking the doorway to the bathroom, the space behind the TV, and the cracks in the couch cushions for any sign of the monster. Luckily, Grace was one of those talkative people who could carry a conversation practically by themselves and didn’t notice Mallory’s silence.
They paused for Mallory to make coffee, the hot liquid sloshing out of the mugs and onto her quivering hands as she carried them to the couch. She handed one mug to Grace and sat down. They were just getting back to work when movement caught her eye.
The monster emerged from the coat closet, squeezing its glistening black body under the door like oozing slime. Fear lodged itself in Mallory’s throat, cutting off her air. The monster’s numerous eyes were focused on her, and drool dripped from its mandible in anticipation. Then it shot across the floor towards her on its spider-like legs, and Mallory could only whimper.
That’s when Grace chucked her textbook at it.
The heavy book struck the monster in two of its evil eyes, and it reared back and shrieked. Grace was already on her feet and charged it.
“Hey! Get outta here! Go on!” She kicked it with her red sneaker.
The monster shrieked again. Then its thick claw shot out and clamped around Grace’s ankle. She hopped on one foot, trying to keep her balance.
“A little help?” she called back at Mallory.
Mallory had been frozen on the couch, coffee mug clutched in a death grip between her hands. For a moment, everything seemed to slow, from the monster’s flickering eyes, to Grace’s waving arms, to the very molecules of air in the room. Mallory’s stomach twisted into a knot so tight that it threatened to pull her into ball. She took a deep breath, forcing her diaphragm to expand as the world sped back up.
The mug was the only thing Mallory had, so she flung it at the monster. The steaming hot liquid splashed into its eyes as the heavy ceramic mug smacked it. The monster screeched, its legs twitching, and it leg go of Grace. She immediately stomped on it, and before Mallory knew what she was doing, she ran to help. Kicking and stomping, the two of them drove the monster into the coat closet. Limping, it squeezed itself back under the door, where it let out a muffled, chittering whine.
Mallory stood there, panting, unable to believe what had just happened. She’d fought it off! It was possible to fight it—it was possible to win! She turned to Grace, who was flushed but smiling.
Mallory’s euphoria crashed like a torn kite. Grace had seen it. She knew Mallory’s repulsive, shameful secret—one that Mallory had been too weak and pathetic to handle herself. She’d seen everything. She wouldn’t sit next to Mallory, wouldn’t want anything to do with her. Oh, God, what if she told other people what had happened?
“I’m sorry.” Mallory was crying before she knew it. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean— You shouldn’t— I—”
“Whoa, whoa, it’s okay.” Grace put a hand on her shoulder and led her back to the couch. Mallory sniffed and wiped away tears, her face hot.
“Really, it’s cool,” Grace said. “I’ve got one of those things, too—and mine has tentacles. I know it’s rough.”
“What?” Mallory would have never imagined Grace, with her bright blue hair and effortless confidence, could have her own monster.
“Yeah. They’re easier to deal with when you have someone’s help.” Grace looked at her thoughtfully. “Have you talked to anyone about it?”
Mallory shook her head forcefully.
“Well, think about it. Talking about them makes them weaker. Do you want to…?” Grace waved her hand, indicating they could talk now.
Mallory’s throat tightened just thinking about it. Her body was shaky and weak, and her mind was still reeling from shock. “No. I don’t think I could. I—I need more time. Thanks, though.”
“No problem.” She shrugged. “I’m around if you change your mind, and you should check out some forums online if you don’t want to talk face to face.” She walked over to where her textbook lay on the floor and flipped through the pages. “Let’s answer these last few questions, and then I’ll get out of your hair.”
They finished studying, and Mallory thanked Grace profusely while walking her to the door. Grace waved the whole thing off, and when she was gone, Mallory grabbed a plastic bottle of carpet cleaner to deal with the coffee stain on the floor. Scrubbing with a rag, she thought about what Grace had said about talking to people online. She’d never tried that before. Part of her had been afraid someone would find her search history and discover her secret. The rest of her had feared what she’d find: that she’d confirm there was no getting rid of the monster, or that its attacks would eventually kill her.
Mallory put away the carpet cleaner and grabbed her laptop. She would just find a forum and look tonight. Then, once she’d built up her courage, maybe she would post something herself.
She heard a scuttling in the walls as the monster moved from the closet, probably still licking its wounds. Mallory froze in instinct, hunching over, but then she caught herself and determinedly straightened up. It hadn’t left. Maybe it never would. But it didn’t have to rule her life anymore.
Smiling to herself, she clicked on a link and started reading.
Darwinian Butterflies in My Stomach
By H.L. Fullerton
“I’ve made you an appointment at The Clinic,” her mother announced as they finished luncheon on their private terrace– the one that overlooked the south pond. “With Dr. Gabedian. He’ll see you this afternoon.”
Gabedian. Thayta’s hand nervously drifted to her stomach. Her mother saw and pointedly averted her eyes. Thayta pretended she meant to remove her napkin from her lap. “I have a doctor, Mother. The one who–”
“Gabedian has agreed. He says it can only help his reputation. Lord knows what it will do to ours.” Her mother rose, signaling that the conversation was over.
“Would you like to come?” Thayta called after her.
Regal as ever, her mother turned, hands lightly clasped under her bosom. “Why,” she said in glacial tones, “don’t you ask Finchly’s mother to join you?” She didn’t wait for an answer but disappeared into the house.
Thayta had known her mother was embarrassed by her, maybe even ashamed; still, she’d hoped the high-handed appointment-making meant a thaw in the permafrost. Her hand drifted back to rest on her belly. Oh, Finchly!
The Clinic was a charming antebellum mansion engulfed by a mirrored-glass skyscraper. It seemed incongruous yet apropos, considering what went on inside. Thayta watched a woman waddle like a penguin up the ramp and lean against a white Doric column before continuing through the pneumatic doors. Thayta herself wasn’t showing, but once she walked inside everyone would know she was pregnant. Worse, they would ask questions. About the father. About the baby. She wasn’t prepared for more censure.
The baby fluttered like a trio of dancing butterflies and resolve settled her. Finchly had been a fighter. She could be one, too. She hurried inside.
A white-clothed attendant escorted her to Dr. Gabedian’s waiting room. Thayta wished Finchly were here with her. She sat in the only available chair and pulled out a print-zine to hide in.
“Do you know what you’re having?” The lady seated next to her nudged Thayta’s womb with her eyes.
“A boy,” Thayta said.
“How nice!” Envy tinged the lady’s countenance. “A boy what?”
“Just a boy.” Thayta’s smile stretched tight.
“Oh! A human.” The lady’s smile faltered and her eyes scanned the waiting room for an empty seat next to a more suitable patient. Not finding one, she offered, “I’m hoping for a minotaur. Davinder, my husband, wants a cherub. We don’t care, really. As long as it’s healthy.”
Healthy. The word was bright and brittle. Enhancements were the done thing, but not so long ago recombinant gestation mishaps abounded and enhanced babies rarely made it past their fifth birthday. Still, everyone wanted one.
It had been the same with multiples, then clones and designer babies. Finchly had been a designer baby, called himself a New Darwinian. Survival of the richest, he joked even as his organs failed one by one.
In those early days, parents thought only of picking desirable physical attributes–gender, eye and hair color, bone structure–and avoiding genetic diseases. Finchly’s parents had chosen well; he was breathtaking. Unfortunately, his bodily processes weren’t as carefully planned and in human beings function did not follow form. Finchly hadn’t been expected to live past ten. He’d made twenty-two. A success story.
People told Thayta she was lucky–her parents had opted for gene expressionism. As her mother said, “Life is longevity. Cosmetic surgery can make anyone beautiful, but not everyone can choose to live past one hundred.” That meant Thayta now had eighty years without Finchly, give or take. But she’d have his child. If all went well.
Never, she recalled Finchly saying, let the parents chose. Genes aren’t light switches to be turned on and off at whim. Babies are like caterpillars, the womb a cocoon. To survive, a child should emerge on his or her own. Promise, Thayta, promise me, you won’t interfere.
“Promise, cross my heart. I’ll even make him chew through his own umbilical cord,” she teased and hit him with a pillow, lightly though, so nothing ruptured. “I won’t lift a hand to help.”
The memory seized her heart, clenched it tight. Blinking hard to forestall tears, Thayta told the woman, “My sister has a cherub. She’s learning to fly.” She and the lady chatted a bit more. Still, Thayta was relieved when the nurse called her name and led her to an exam room. She changed into a blue polka dotted hospital gown and matching slippers, then waited for the doctor.
She overheard low voices from the room next door.
“Do you want to know what it is? Or be surprised?” a man’s voice rumbled pleasantly.
“I want to know.” The woman’s voice shook. Thayta’s had done the same at her first ultrasound.
“Congratulations!” the doctor said. “You’re having a griffin.”
“A griffin. We were hoping for one.” Snuffling sounds and low murmuring. Louder, the doctor said, “Now. I’d like to see you back here in four weeks. Gotta keep an eye on those hooves.”
Thayta’s mother would be thrilled if she came home with griffin. Thayta imagined what Finchley would have said about a child with hooves, then wondered what he’d have said if he’d known it worked and she was pregnant. If only she’d–
A perfunctory knock on her door. “Thayta? I’m Dr. Gabedian.” The man with the rumbly voice entered, flipping through her chart. “No hooves, good.” He shook his head. “Everyone wants an ungulate. There isn’t anything worse for a uterus than hooves. Maybe beaks, and griffins have both. But that is why they come see me. To deal with such things. You are here for a different reason, yes?”
He grinned widely. “My first natural in years. Don’t worry, everything will go like clockwork. Not to say humans can’t be as tricky as imps. So, what procedure did you use? Splice and dice?
In uteru implant? Embryonic transplant?”
“Come,” Dr. Gabedian said. “I am a professional. I assure you I can’t be shocked.”
Sex, she whispered and he threw back his head, laughed. “This is the only designer I know that’s been fertile. Any enhancements I should know about?” he asked.
“No.” She took a steadying breath. “I thought I’d let the baby decide what to be.”
“I’m sure he’ll do splendid, but we’ll keep a close eye on him just to be sure. DNA can be very enterprising.” He scribbled on her, no, the baby’s, chart. “Have you picked his name?”
“Yes.” She smiled, the one that had captured Finchly’s broken heart. “Darwin Butterfly.”
By Lynn Rushlau
Carriel felt like a cloud of gloom hovering over a parade. The morning sun cast the snow into piles of glitter. Excited, bubbly people swarmed around her sister, Lionye’s golden child, winner of the Emberithshire Skating Championship, Junior Division. Bree laughed and chatted with friends, rivals, and fans.
Even Garray looked excited. Well, of course he did. Their grasping brother had set up this race to give himself another reason to gamble. He’d be thrilled all day, unless their little sister lost.
A whisper, like a sudden gust of wind, ran through the crowd. She turned, following the ripple. The crowd shifted, allowing a woman and a girl about Bree’s size to cross the park to the pond. She shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun on the snow, but even standing on tiptoes, she couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of the competition’s knit cap through the press.
Whistles sounded. Cheers erupted. Her sister flashed an elated grin. The head of the Lionye’s Skating Commission stepped away from the judges’ table and raised a megaphone to his lips.
“Welcome to today’s special event race. We’re pitting our very own Bree, the Winter Wind, against Tayla of the Peolline district of Feballiase.”
The crowd roared. Bree waved to her cheering fans. Tayla turned at her name and gave a tentative smile. Carriel blinked. What?
“Ladies, please take your places at the starting line.”
Snapping out of her shock, she grabbed her sister’s arm before she could hobble more than a couple of steps towards the starting line.
“What?” A bemused smile on her face, Bree turned. She clearly expected wishes of luck or advice. The usual before a race.
“She’s not human.”
“Huh?” Her sister glanced at the starting line.
“She’s some sort of winter Fae. I think she’s an ice sprite.”
Wild excitement filled her sister’s face. “Really?”
She gritted her teeth. “I know what I see.”
“Bree of Lionye, please join us at the starting line.” The ice sprite already stood there. She smiled, too innocently to be believed, when they looked at her.
“I’ve got to go.”
“So she’s an ice sprite. It’s just a race.”
“It’ll be a laugh. Tell Stacia.”
“You cannot hope to win.”
Her smirk turned mischievous. “Tell my coach. Let the word spread. Think about it. Racing an ice sprite? Sure I can’t win, but depending on how close I come? How fast and famous does that make me?”
The officials called for Bree again. Laughing, she spun and hobbled quickly to the ice sprite.
Carriel dashed over to her sister’s coach. Stacia cursed at the news and ran to the alert the head of Lionye’s Skating Commission. Blood drained from his face. Stacia continued to talk for a few minutes. The Commission Head turned and raised his whistle to his lips. One bleat.
Ice sprayed from their skates. The crowd roared. Neck and neck as they neared the first curve.
Carriel’s heart pounded. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t have allowed this.
The ice sprite pulled ahead on the first curve. On the opposite side of the pond, the ice sprite lengthened her lead. The crowd screamed for their Winter Wind to speed up.
A determined frown creased Bree’s face. Carriel had watched her sister skate enough times to pick up the minute increase in speed. She skated as fast as she could, perhaps faster than her fastest time. They wouldn’t know for sure on that until she crossed the finish line.
Which she did a good forty-five seconds after the ice sprite.
A crack echoed across the park.
Bree flashed out of existence.
The ice sprite pivoted. The glee on her face twisted into a good facsimile of shock.
The constable took the ice sprite and her coach into custody. Angry townsfolk followed them to the jailhouse and refused to go home. Bree had disappeared by magic and the ice sprite was magic. She–and likely her coach–must have done it.
The constable put both in a room for questioning and left them alone for no more than two minutes to send a fast messenger to Feballiase to request Winter Knight assistance. With their magic dedicated to protecting the kingdom, the Knights would be best suited to negotiate Bree’s return.
The constable left to inform Tayla and her coach about the wait. He returned, ashen and trembling. The room was empty. They were gone.
Numb, Carriel staggered back to the park. The two guards exchanged a look, but allowed her to enter. She fell to her knees beside the finish line and stared dumbly at the ice.
She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go home. Not without her sister. What could she tell their parents?
Hands lifted her. Her frozen legs refused to cooperate. Stacia and a guard carried her to a carriage. She understood nothing of what the coach tried to tell her on the way home. The only words that mattered, Stacia couldn’t offer. At the house, someone wrapped her in a blanket, shoved a hot mug of tea into her hands. An arm rested over her shoulders. The tea grew tepid. Her brain remained numb.
People chattered around her. None of the words cut through her fog, not until she heard the name “Garray.” She looked up sharply.
Her dad blinked at her. “Honey?”
“He arranged the race. Where is he?”
Dad turned and bellowed in the direction of the door to the living room, “GARRAY!”
She leapt to her feet. Her father on her heels, they ran up the stairs to her brother’s empty room. Sighing, her father went back downstairs. She searched the room. Tore apart his bed. She shook his books and papers, ignoring the drawings, looking for anything related to the race. Tossed everything not useful on the floor. Hidden in his dresser, she discovered a dozen betting tickets and pocketed those for leverage.
Downstairs their father stood at the door, bundling up.
“Where are you going?”
“To find him.” He slammed out before she could offer to go with him.
She paced the room. Dad would never locate him. He hadn’t the slightest idea where Garray went to drink. She strode to the door and shoved her boots back on.
“What are you doing?” Her mother looked up from the cold cup of tea she’d been staring at for at least the last hour.
“Going out to help find Garray.”
Her mother only slumped back over her tea. Sitting alone at the table. Though her heart ached at the sight, Carriel left anyway.
He wasn’t at either of the closest bookies, but she hadn’t expected to find him there. Not at this time of night. He thought the neighborhood pubs beneath his notice, but she swung through them before going to his hangouts. He wasn’t drinking at The Lost Hound, Lucky Star, or Flecks. Nor did she see any of his friends.
She ran into Dravitt drinking at The Checkered Past. Gods, she hated him. Why must he be the first of her brother’s friends she found? She strode to the table, jerked his drink out of his hand, and demanded to know where Garray was.
“Who?” Smirking, he reached for his drink.
Holding the beer out of reach, she growled. “You know damned well who my brother is.”
“Haven’t seen him, have I? He’s courting that fancy girl. Too good to drink in The Checkered Past these days.”
What fancy girl? “Where is he?”
“Give us a kiss and I’ll tell.”
“Tell me and I won’t upend this beer on your head.” She bared her teeth.
Dravitt snarled. “Try Pillars.”
She huffed and tilted the beer towards his head. “Bullshit.”
He held up both hands. “Swear it. I know, their beer is total swill, but that’s where his fancy girl’s brother and their friends drink. He’ll be there.”
Garray lacked the funds to drink there. She lowered the glass and set it on the table. Couldn’t afford the stakes at cards. No wonder he needed Bree to win for him again. His winnings from the championship must be gone.
But he would have won nothing on today’s race. Unless he bet against her? She clenched her fists. If he’d planned all this, she’d kill him.
Just as soon as he explained where their little sister was.
Pillars’ doorman was not inclined to let her inside. She’d dressed that morning to watch a race in the park, not visit an aristocrats’ pub. They argued for ten minutes before a group of young lordlings arrived, rolled over the doorman, and swept her inside with them.
Their compliments left her blushing and off-balance, and untangling herself from them wasted a good half hour. The longer the Fae had Bree the more harm they could do.
She stood alone in the center of the bar and turned slowly searching for her brother in the crowd of bright-colored silks and satins and smoky blacks. Garray dressed as flamboyantly as he could afford, which wasn’t much since he couldn’t hold down a job.
She found him at a booth in the corner with four extravagantly dressed young men. Beside them her brother looked like a valet. No, not quite well dressed enough for a servant. He looked like a charity case.
He wasn’t. She clenched her jaw. Their father was a barrister, who’d sent them all to the same good schools, provided a decent allowance, and offered all his offspring the chance to pursue their interests whether in sports or the arts or education. Garray neither appreciated nor took advantage of any of it.
She strode across the room and grabbed him by his aubergine ascot, pulling him out of the booth, choking him. “Where is Bree?”
“Are you crazy?” He easily broke her hold. “How did you get in here?”
“What did you do with our sister?”
He looked around with an expression of horror on his face. “I didn’t do anything with her. Something magical–”
She backhanded him. A couple of men seized her before she could decide her next action. Bouncers tossed the two into the street. She slipped and fell on the ice. He landed beside her.
“Banned for life. Both of you.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” her brother protested. Ignoring him, the bouncers strode back inside the pub.
She took advantage of his distraction and pinned him down. “Where is she? What did you do?”
He started to cry, of all things. “I thought she’d win.”
She slapped him again. “Against an ice sprite? How?”
“She’s the best–the fastest skater–”
“But the other girl was–”
“An ice sprite.”
He shook his head. “No. I met them both. They were human.”
She raised her hand to smack him again, but he caught her arm. Pushing her away, he staggered to his feet.
Glaring against the burn of tears, she scrambled after him. “What did you bet? Why’d you set up that race?”
He winced. Tears continued to trickle down his cheeks. “They promised me a fortune if she won.”
“And. If. She. Lost?”
He mumbled something.
He sighed heavily. “She said if her skater won she would take Bree. I didn’t know what they meant, but figured we’d win.”
“You asshole. You sold our sister.”
“I thought she’d win.”
“WINNING WASN’T POSSIBLE!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know–”
This was her fault. She knew better than to trust him. Should have shut the idea of the race down the minute he proposed it. “Where are they?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea.”
She spluttered unable render her feelings into words. In the end, she settled on, “Don’t come home.”
He followed her home. She tried to bar him entry but their father let him in. Even after she explained that he’d sold Bree to the Fae. Dad made an excuse for the “boy” as always. Poor boy only meant to set up a race, never could have known fairy folk were involved. After all, of this generation Carriel was the only one in the family who could see through glamour.
“I’m heading to bed. Your mother needs to know you’re back okay.” Dad kissed them both on the head and left them alone together.
“I can find them again,” he said softly.
“Why? To sell me into slavery as well?”
He looked pained. She didn’t buy it. He cared for no one but himself. “I’ll get her back. I’ll find them and get her back.”
“No you won’t. There’s nothing in it for you.”
“You can believe me or not, but I’m going after them tomorrow morning. At dawn.”
She laughed. She couldn’t believe she could still make that sound on a day like today, but he was ludicrous. He never rose before midmorning, and only woke by then if someone forced him to. He preferred to sleep in until–Oh.
“Oh, I see. You found them at some gambling den. Of course you want to return–”
That brought her up short. Moonsliver Falls stood more than half a day’s ride away. In the dead of winter. Her brother liked his comfort.
“What were you—never mind. Thank you for doing something right for once in your life. I’ll go after her at dawn. You can stay warm in your comfy bed.” She pivoted and stormed from the room.
“I’m going,” he called after her.
Before anyone could leave the next morning, a Winter Knight roused the house. Sir Drift wasted an hour in interrogations before setting out. He allowed both Carriel and Garray to escort him. The three remained silent until they’d ridden past the last farm on the outskirts of Lionye.
“What were you doing at Moonsliver Falls in the winter?” Drift asked Garray.
Her brother shot her an uneasy look. She pretended not to notice. He couldn’t possibly think she’d come to his aid. The Falls were a popular place for picnics, hikes, camping–summer sports all.
“There’s this story. Well, lots of stories about the most famous highwayman in these parts.”
“Tarvin of Vere?” Drift asked.
“Yes.” Garray squirmed uncomfortably. His horse shied to the side. “There’s this story I heard that his hideout was somewhere near Moonsliver. They said–the story included some key places to look for to find it. I thought maybe I could.”
Carriel snorted. Drift smiled.
“If it was ever there, I’m sure someone found it years ago,” he said. “Tarvin of Vere died nearly two centuries ago.”
“That’s not what the stories say.”
The Knight looked amused. “Would you tell everyone if you found it?”
“Hell, yeah.” Garray grinned.
“He’d want to be robbed blind,” she said. “My brother hasn’t the brains to keep his mouth shut and actually keep the treasure.”
He glared at her. “I am not stupid.”
“Of course, you’re not,” Drift said.
“Could have fooled me,” she muttered.
Drift shot her a warning look. “All of that treasure is stolen. Anyone who found it would not only confront other thieves coming after it, but the Winter Knights and other security forces pressing claim on the stolen goods on behalf of the original owners.”
“Original owners?” Garray scoffed. “They’re all dead.”
“Lord Yeterin is the currently Duke of Thistleflown. While Ladies Jioli and Johlyn have been fighting over the title of Countess of Gladevish for a decade now, they’re both much alive. Duchess Hashley rules Pommelith. The young Earl of Tawnloff might be underage, but he has regents running his territory who will press claims on his behalf. Jewels, silvers, golds, all of it on record–with drawings and descriptions–as lost at the hands of Tarvin of Verre. Any court in the Kingdom would uphold their claims.
“I would keep such possessions quiet should I have them.”
Garray’s jaw hung open.
“Then what would be the point of even finding them?” Carriel asked. “The coins are useful, but the rest of it is only good to sell.”
“Much of it could be melted down, or you’d need a fence, someone you already knew, someone you could trust–”
“Oh sweet gods,” she said. “Please do not give him any help on how to become a better criminal. He’s already sold his own sister to the Fae.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Yet you did.”
“Let’s focus on getting your sister back.” Drift held up a hand. “Tell me about the Fae. Were they there in a coach or on horseback?”
Garray frowned. “I don’t remember. They must have been.”
“You saw no horses? No carriages?”
“I didn’t pay any attention.”
“This is important.” Drift pointed at him. “Don’t just answer. Think about it. Remember. Picture the scene in your head. Look at that memory a few minutes. Then tell me what you saw.”
They rode along in silence for several minutes accompanied only by the clopping of their horses’ hooves. She cast skeptical looks her brother’s way.
“There were no horses. I was too stupid to notice.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. That’s great news,” Drift said.
“How?” she asked, glad of the chance to interrupt. Her brother deserved no sympathy. This was his fault.
And hers, a quiet voice in her head reminded. She was the responsible one. She was the one who knew better than to trust him or anything related to him. And still she’d not objected to the race.
She thought Bree would win too. Wanted another chance of riding on the glory of her little sister’s coattails. Basking in the sun that was Lionye’s champion.
She was almost as bad as Garray.
“No horses means they’re from there.” The Knight grinned grimly. “We’re heading to their home. How did they approach you?
“They sat–She walked–I turned–” He rubbed his forehead as if it pained him.
“It’s okay. What do you remember?”
“We picnicked. The girl skated on the frozen river. We talked about racing. Her coach and I. I bragged about Bree. She proposed a race.”
“Were she and the girl the only Fae present?”
“Yes. No. Wait. The girl was with a group, holding races. She wasn’t their fastest.”
He couldn’t provide any other information. Drift gave up after his following questions resulting in nothing but stammering. They rode the next few hours in silence after the Knight’s attempts at small talk fell flat.
Carriel was too worried about her sister to make polite conversation. Too upset with herself. She had seen what Tayla was, and still allowed the race to go on.
Her nose, toes and fingers ached and then went numb. She expected her brother to complain and insist on going back. To avow he’d done all he could in providing what little information he’d been able to recall for Sir Drift.
He didn’t. He fell back. Trailed behind her and the Knight. But he didn’t say a word, not the rest of the way to Moonsliver.
Her heart fell to see the frozen waterfall. As ridiculous as she realized it to be, she’d expected to find her sister here. To see her right away. Trapped amongst the Fae, but in plain sight.
Three crows perched on two trees in the field before the frozen waterfall. Regular crows, nothing eldritch. There was no sight or sound of any other living creature.
“She’s not here,” she pointed out the obvious as they dismounted.
“Give me a few minutes,” Sir Drift said with another grim smile.
He paced along the frozen bank, squatting a few times to touch the ice below his feet and whispering. She glanced at her brother before she could stop herself and found him looking back at her in puzzlement. Uneasy, she looked away. She didn’t want to share anything with him.
The Knight rose and turned to face them.
“I need you two to stay quiet and stay back. No matter what the Fae say, you must stay out of it. No bargaining, no accepting their offers. Let me do the talking. I’d like all four of us to leave here together. Promise me, you’ll stay still and quiet, no matter what is asked of you.”
“I promise,” Garray said.
She frowned. “What might be asked?”
“They like to bargain. They might propose something that sounds entirely reasonable, like the race did to your brother, but like that race, the proposition will be filled with hidden meaning and great cost. I aim to get your sister returned to us.”
She nodded. That was all she wanted.
“Promise me, Carriel.”
“I do. I promise.”
Drawing free the staff he’d worn strapped across his back, the knight pivoted on the spot and strode back to the frozen stream. He slammed the wooden staff down, it crashed through the ice. Flying shards glittered in the sunlight.
“Fae of Moonsliver Falls, I, Sir Drift of the Winter Knights, demand your presence as is my right under article four of the Treaty of Fallen Snow.”
He glared around the waterfall for several minutes. Nothing happened.
Carriel opened her mouth, remembered her promise, and snapped it close. Between one heartbeat and the next, Fae surrounded them.
Hulking abominable snowmen hovered on the tops of the cliffs. Creatures made of snow shaped like people and animals popped up along the opposite bank. Tiny snowflake fairies whirled and swooped around the falls. A dozen sprites twirled on the ice.
A whirlwind of snow spun on the far bank between two majestic snow griffins. The whirls of snow fell and a woman stood there.
Her skin and hair were the blinding white of snow in sunlight. Her dress glittered like ice as did the jeweled tiara on her brow. Carriel reeled. A snow queen, surely, but her face … her face was the same as the ice sprite’s coach.
How could she not have seen that before? Nothing magic had ever before been able to hide itself from her.
“Why do you trespass on our lands with your magics?” the Queen asked.
“You’ve broken the treaty. Stolen a human.”
The queen’s laugh was that of icicles shattering. “Does the boy lie to you? He traded a human child to us.”
“He traded someone not his to trade.”
The queen’s smile deepened. “He is her kin. The girl admitted as much.”
Drift whipped around and gestured for Carriel to shut up. She winced. She’d promised. The Winter Knight would handle this. She must leave it to him. She’d apologize later. Once he rescued her sister.
“You know the law. The Treaty of Fallen Snow states that a human may trade themselves away to the Fae without consequences, but cannot trade another person away. Bree is a person. She did not trade herself.”
The Queen drew herself up haughtily. “The girl agreed to the race.”
“A race only. No one informed her of any consequences if she lost.”
“The bindings that created the event required her advocate to inform her of the terms.”
Fist clenched, Carriel stepped forward. “She only agreed to the race to see how fast–”
The Knight glared her into silence. “The girl was never informed. Would never have participated in the race had she been. The peoples of Lionye use magical protections. Perhaps those destroyed your coercion before this young man could pass on the message.”
The Queen glowered. She twirled and half the Fae, the Queen included, disappeared in a swirl of snow.
Face twisted in fury, long white braids flying, Drift rounded on her. “Anything you say gives the Fae leverage and could change the outcome of this conversation for the worst. They left to consult amongst themselves.
“They know they’ve lost, but will try to find a way to squirm out of this. As long as you remain quiet, I will be able to retrieve your sister. They cannot afford to break the Treaty. Whatever happens from here, you must remain silent or risk losing her forever. Need I gag you?”
Tears pricked her eyes. His ominous words left her shaking with fear. She whispered, “I can stay quiet.”
He relaxed and nodded. “She’ll be okay. Stay strong.”
Another swirl of snow. He walked forward, but the sight before him caused him to miss a step. Carriel clamped her hands over her mouth. An abominable stood beside the Queen. Her sister hung upside down, her legs trapped in his massive hand.
“There are consequences when one lies to the Fae.”
The abominable clenched his fists. The snaps of Bree’s bones dropped Carriel to her knees. She screamed with her sister.
Drift yelled protests that went unheard over the screams. The abominable tossed Bree to the ground. Blood spilled from too many wounds to count. Shards of bones poked through her legs.
Drift’s yells barely broke through her horror. “–COMPLETELY ILLEGAL. –ACT OF WAR. IF YOU DO NOT FIX–”
A high-pitched scream tore through the falls. Sharp enough to break eardrums. Carriel slammed her hands over her ears and turned.
Garray held an ice sprite tight in his arms. No, not an ice sprite, the ice sprite. The one who’d pretended to be a girl named Tayla. The tip of an iron knife pierced its throat. A thin trickle of electric blue blood dripped down its snow-white attire.
“Unleash her!” The Queen’s growl vibrated bones and internal organs.
Drift looked wildly from Garray to the Queen. “Fix the girl, set her free, and he’ll release your sprite.”
“This violates the Treaty of Fallen Snows. I will kill you all,” the Queen screamed.
“You’ve already violated the Treaty. Look at what you’ve done.” Drift pointed dramatically at Bree. “Undo your damage. The longer the contact with iron the more likely your sprite will suffer irreparable damage.”
“And how will you fix what you’ve reaped?”
“This is in your power,” Sir Drift growled. “Fix the girl. Set her free, whole and well, as she was before you took her, before too much time passes. Save your sprite that damage.”
The Queen’s hiss knocked Drift off his feet. She flung out a hand over Bree. A flurry of snow engulfed her. Screams sounded inside the small blizzard. The storm floated over the river and landed a few feet from Drift.
Carriel ran, but the Knight beat her to Bree’s side. He squatted down, ran his hand over her legs. She shuddered at his touch. “Are you okay?”
Carriel crashed to the ground beside her sister, pulling the nodding, crying Bree into her arms. She barely noticed the queen screaming orders and threats in the background.
But the Winter Knight paid her heed. Rising, Drift pivoted. “Let the sprite go.”
Not moving, Garray glared.
“Let. The. Sprite. Go!” Drift thundered.
Garray held the knife up. Stepping back, he released the sprite. Free of his hold, the ice sprite disappeared. Moments later, she popped back up beside the Queen, crooning and squeaking. The Queen gathered the bleeding sprite in her arms. The look she shot Drift promised retribution. The Fae winked out of existence.
Drift hollered after them. Carriel didn’t care. Hugging her sister, being hugged back that was all that mattered. She didn’t even care that Garray looked pleased with himself. That her useless brother was now her hero.
By Jude-Marie Green
Cedar means love, never forget that. I made the rockers from cedar.
Aunt Suzie died before the fire, and Uncle Henry’s heart with her. I was glad of the burning, since it hid what I had done.
Black walnut boughs blown down in the forest with stripped bark and green moss, they did well for the arms.
The stomach cancer ate her up, the docs cut her open and stitched in a steel mesh for half her belly but that didn’t stop anything. Uncle Henry wasn’t gonna tell her but how could she not know? She faded from busy farm wife to bedridden frailty in the course of months, unable to keep down but a little this and a little that. Henry went from farmer to nurse, or rather both at once, out of his mind with worry over his wife and panic about his herd of milch cows and neglected fields of corn, not yet waist-high and still needing care. He called me in to help, which must have made him crazy after years of disparaging my living, wildcrafting the woods, harvesting the roots and herbs and berries, living in my own cozy place deeper in the hollow. Their house stood on a hill and I climbed it to sit by Suzie as she died.
Her weathered old rocking chair sat idle in a corner and her bed was stacked with a pile of quilts twice as thick or more than her own body. She’d never been a beauty, plain and tall and proud and with ivory colored hair that hung to her knees. Illness didn’t lend a deathbed glow, just carved her away from her own bones. I saw her with love and she was beautiful for being familiar, my aunt who’d sat me on her lap when she rocked in that rocker and read me Bible stories and sung me choir songs. No more songs, not even words through those ragged lips. I touched her hand so she knew she wasn’t alone.
She passed along a note. She must have written it long before, the writing was steady and measured. A recipe for soup. And a little something extra.
I pressed it back to her.
She didn’t have the strength of illness so often mentioned in stories but she had the persistence of a successful farm wife, used to running a house and a farm and hired help and a husband. Four or five times later I bowed my head and accepted the chore. “Tomorrow,” I said.
She couldn’t reply. She couldn’t nod. But she opened her eyes at me and I swear I saw relief.
The seat was a stone, flecked granite from the hill, carved deep with blue and gray lichen.
I poured the soup, herbs, marrow, mushroom, into a fat blue coffee cup sitting unused in the kitchen. I held the mug to her lips and she sipped, slow and steady, the first meal in ages. The last. I closed her eyes with a penny each and settled her hair and clothes and quilts then sat and rocked. Henry would return from the fields soon enough, no reason to bother him now.
The back was a tangle of morning glory vines. In time they’d take over if they got ahold.
Henry knew what I’d done, of course he did, why else ask me there? He beat me and drug me from the house. He followed a few minutes later, leaving behind flickers of flame. We stood and watched the house light up and burn down, the shingles smelling rich of cedar. Henry stood thin in his cotton shirt and overalls and boots and said, “Nothing left.” I think he went to sleep in the barn.
I waited the flames out. Morning dew damped the embers though the ruin was still hot. Heat never bothered me none. I found her room, her bed, her body under the quilts, and I gathered her up. I’m neither big nor strong but I was sufficient to the task. Henry had prepared the plot and I set her down in it. And got to work on that rocker.
A body needs a place to rest and so does a soul. Suzie’s rocker was her headstone, now.
He raged his way across the field yelling how dare I and too soon and leave her be and when he saw the rocker he stopped cold. He raced up the knock it over and stopped cold again.
“What are those?”
“Dunno.” He meant the crystals lighting up like fireflies but I meant the new-sprung flowers and herbs I’d never met before.
There was no breeze and yet the rocker rocked. No breeze yet the wind of its passage riffled my hair and dried the cold sweat on the nape of my neck. The scent of her perfume grew large, overflowing the rocker, engulfing me. I believe it was her silent voice that said thank you.
A Ghosted Story
By Rob Andwood
When Eliza returns from the bathroom, after fifteen minutes that saw me sliding from calm to fretful, she looks pale underneath the low lights produced by the restaurant’s chandeliers. Moving listlessly and a little awkwardly, she drifts along until she pauses in the empty stretch of hardwood floor between the kitchen and the dense puzzle of tables. A distracted waiter nearly runs her over, apologizes, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes roam through space like she’s forgotten why she’s there. They glaze over me, unseeing, and I raise a self-concious hand, give it a few limp waves. Eliza misses it but starts heading my way, the essence of noncommittal.
She sits down, but doesn’t pull her chair into the table. Her eyes fall on the candle flickering at its center, beside the bottle of wine, half of which has been distributed into our glasses.
“Are you okay?” I ask. I’m careful with the next sentence, lest I offend her. “You don’t look like you’re feeling so great.”
That’s an understatement. Eliza’s so pale I’m worried she’s about to fall out of her chair. She slumps back in it, half-dead in the face, and doesn’t answer my question.
“We can go if you want,” I say. “If you’re not well we don’t have to stay. I’ll pay for the wine and we’ll get out of here.”
She doesn’t say anything.
Still nothing. I lean back in my chair, brushing my cheek with my knuckles, aware that something’s gone terribly wrong.
The restaurant, which I selected, is a newish place surfing on a wave of delayed hype, the kind of place everyone talks about for a week but no one remembers to actually visit until a couple of months later. In response to rising demand, the powers that be have crammed in as many tables as possible, creating a maze through which the staff careens, running glasses and plates back and forth with manic intensity, near-misses happening all the time. It’s anxiety-inducing to watch, but beautiful in a way.
To the left and right of our table, couples dine so close I could reach out and touch their shoulders without locking my elbow. At a loss with Eliza, I shift my head to the man sitting on a diagonal from my right. Catching me, he raises his eyebrows.
“Are you really not going to say anything?” I return to Eliza to find she’s tilted her head back, to stare up at the distant ceiling. “If something’s wrong, you can tell me. I’m not going to mind.”
The woman at the table to my left is studying me, but when we meet eyes she drops hers, embarrassed.
Perhaps she’s wondering if she’s witnessing a first-date trainwreck. She’s not. Eliza and I have been seeing each other two or three times a week for a couple of months now, ever since our introduction at a brunch outing with mutual friends. It’s been going well, or so I’d thought until the moment she returned from the bathroom–well enough that I was inspired to hope for the first time since Mikayla and I broke up, plunging me into a morass of bad dates, poorly conceived Tinder messages, and too much drinking on weekday evenings. Eliza and I had similar views of life and relationships, our failures in each inspiring a healthy cynicism that still couldn’t break our natural tendencies toward optimism. She laughed at my bad jokes. I listened to stories about her narcissistic parents. We went to movies, to plays, to bars, to the planetarium. When we weren’t together, we texted regularly, sharing the little things that happened to us on average mornings and typical afternoons, things that didn’t usually leave our heads. I thought we were becoming something. When I rounded onto Congress Street and saw her waiting for me beneath the awning, in her black dress and denim jacket, the pulse in my neck started going faster, and sweat leaked out of my palms.
But now the speeding train has derailed. I observe the wreckage, which doesn’t amount to much–we were in the restaurant only fifteen minutes before she got up to find the restroom–and try to locate the fault, the crack where blame might fit. Our evening had been going well, at least as well as the others. Eliza referenced a joke from our text messages. I complained about my dentist’s appointment. She complimented my new shirt. I told her about the colors in the sky that morning, how I’d meant to send her a photograph like the one she’d sent me.
The waiter comes over. He introduced himself when he brought us glasses of water, but I’ve forgotten his name.
“How we doing over here?” he asks. “How’s the wine?”
“It’s good,” I say, taking a sip as if to prove it. When I ordered the bottle, Eliza giggled at my clumsy pronunciation. “I like it.”
“Excellent. Would you like to put in any appetizers, or should I give you a couple of minutes?”
Between my initial rapture with Eliza and my current state of confusion, I haven’t even glanced at the menu.
“A couple of minutes.”
“Certainly. I’ll be back.”
As he dashes off to tend to his other tables, I realize that he never once looked at Eliza. On the far side of the table, she’s sitting upright, with an expression of waiting-room boredom. Her roaming eyes never once land on me. And it might be a trick of the light, or of the wine, but I swear she looks less defined than she did, like she’s steadily fading from view.
“I should’ve slapped him,” says the woman to my left to the man across the table, who’s leaning on his elbows. “I would have, too, but my friend was, like, dragging me away.”
Determined to ignore Eliza as she’s ignoring me–an unsatisfying form of revenge, because I know she’s not going to care–I make a point of inspecting everything in the room with an expression of casual interest, as if that could make her reconsider how she’s treating me. Inside, meanwhile, I’m threatening to boil. In an abstract place behind my stomach, a box that doesn’t really exist contains all the worst parts of me–penchants for self-pity, revolting neediness, and narcissistic anger, all of which I can’t help but indulge, self-flagellation working as an excuse for emotional self-pleasure. These fragments of my narcissism, unleashed by whatever minor stimulus–a message gone ignored, another guy’s joke laughed at, an offhand comment interpreted as a slight–have spoiled every relationship I’ve ever managed to start. With Mikayla I became a seething, touchy, obsessive shell of a person; in the aftermath, I vowed to shut my bad parts away, to weigh them down and bury them somewhere from which they might never resurface. But as I don’t look at Eliza, with pressure mounting behind my eyes, the anchors fail and the box drifts free. Its flaps open and its contents release into my chest, where they merge into a storm. The closest point of egress is my mouth. For five seconds, I fight off words I know I’ll regret.
“Eliza, if it’s something I did, something I said, anything… Just tell me and I’ll fix it, I’ll do better, I’ll– Please, Eliza, don’t just sit there, please, I like you so much, I–”
I happen to glance over and see the man at the table to my right watching me. On his face is written an alphabet of pity and scorn that shuts me up.
“Jesus,” I say, placing a hand on my forehead. Then I bend forward, voice dropping to a hiss. “You’re being very rude. This is no way to treat a person.”
These sentences fail to provoke the hoped-for reaction. My neck itches, and sweat beads on my stomach, dampening the inside of my new shirt. I’m aware of eyes on me, but don’t dare to look. Eliza gazes into the empty space above my left shoulder.
The waiter returns.
“Any decisions?” he asks, again only addressing me.
I throw my eyes to the menu, picking the first item that resolves itself.
“We’ll split the calamari.”
“I’ll put that right in for you.”
When he goes, I’m seized by restlessness, the flight instinct taking over. I stand up too quickly, nearly knocking over my chair, and linger a moment. The man who’d given me the bad look is watching again.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I announce, though I don’t know to whom. I’m sure it won’t make a difference to Eliza whether I’m at the table, in the bathroom, or falling into an unknown dimension, as she appears to be. Before I turn, I observe that she’s become translucent. Shards of chandelier light pass through her paper skin and land on the hardwood floor.
Walking off carefully, lest my dizziness overcome me, I stop a passing busboy for directions to the bathroom. He points me to a lighted hallway branching off from the restaurant’s far corner. Just before I push through the swinging door to the men’s room, it opens the other way and I’m nearly toppled by someone exiting.
“Careful, now,” he says, before stuffing his hands into his pockets and strolling back the way I’ve come.
In a small, tiled space, with classical music emanating from the ceiling, I find to my relief that I’m alone. I go to the sink, and grip the countertop with both hands. My reflection is almost as pale as Eliza. Sips of cold water from the tap firm my gelatin legs, and a splash to the face clears my head. I’m staring into the porcelain basin and debating my options when I hear the door open behind me. I don’t raise my head until whoever it is steps up to the neighboring sink and clears his throat.
In the mirror I see the guy who’s taken special interest in my predicament; though his smile is friendly enough, I’m wary.
“Hey, man,” he says, “this isn’t any of my business, I know, but I feel like I should tell you to keep your chin up. It happens to everyone at some point; really, it does. Don’t take it as a reflection of yourself. That’s a nowhere road.”
So baffled am I by this string of words that I can’t put together a response. The man runs the tap, and starts washing his hands.
“My advice, unsolicited: don’t waste time moping. You’re already here, you got all dressed up. Might as well enjoy yourself, right? If I were you, I’d order myself a nice big steak, maybe a glass of single malt, whatever you’re into. Try your best not to think about her. Tomorrow’s a new day, yeah? All right. I’ve said more than my piece. I’ll see you out there, friend.”
He dries his hands under a stream of hot air and is gone, leaving me to watch the door swing back into its frame. After a few moments of aimless staring, I take another mouthful of water, scrub under my fingernails for no reason, and follow him.
Even at a distance of thirty feet, I see that Eliza is disintegrating, her matter making its way from the restaurant to somewhere else. The hard lines that composed her have softened and blurred, so that she resembles a loose collection of polygons, the infrastructure for a pencil drawing. Impossible, I know, but it’s happening, and I don’t question it. I cross the floor to the table and sit. Eliza is studying her vanishing fingernails, seemingly uninterested in whatever she’s undergoing.
And though I’m still angry, still self-hating, still jealous of wherever and whomever is receiving her, I manage to box it all up for the time being, though I wrestle to keep the flaps pinned.
The waiter comes over, a welcome distraction. This time he leans down toward me, so that I know whatever he’s going to say is intended to be private.
“I don’t want to embarrass you,” he says, one level above whispering, “but if you’d like I can take a card and charge you for the wine, and you can slip out. It’ll be very discreet. This may not make you feel better, but I’ve dealt with situations like this before.”
He waits. I try to speak, clear my throat, try again.
“That’s all right.”
He rises to professional height, beaming down at me like he’s just come over, like the last twenty seconds never happened. I make a fuller survey of the menu.
“I’ll have the grass-fed ribeye,” I say, “and an old fashioned.”
“Excellent choices. And still the calamari?”
“Still the calamari, yes.”
He jets off again, and I’m alone with Eliza, who’s hardly there anymore, just a silhouette. I know better than to try speaking to her. With no outlet for the bitterness in my throat, I pick up my glass of wine. I set it against my lips and, before tilting, happen to look to my right, where the man who gave me the pep talk is fully engaged with a story his date is telling. Still he catches my eye, gives me a subtle nod, and raises his own glass a few inches higher. I nod back, look away, and reduce mine to drops.
Once I swallow, the noise of a dozen surrounding conversations crashes back into my ears, threatening to overwhelm me. I close my eyes. When I open them, ten seconds later, the busboy who directed me to the bathroom is there, taking away Eliza’s unused dishes, stacking the small plate atop the large and the napkin-bound silverware atop that. He leaves the untouched glass of wine, so that, when he heads off, it might appear to any new observer that I’m still waiting for someone to join me.
Eliza’s chair is pushed slightly away from the table, just as she left it when she got up, smiled at me, and headed to the bathroom, or wherever the fuck she went.
The Labyrinth Disme
By Camille Singer
There’s a ghost in my bed. She’s crying. She is the first, and it has been three days since my Burning—a ritual of my people that resulted in an ashen wound down my back. It healed into the literal shape of a ship on a sea of smoke.
When Nylin saw the ship, she said she always knew I’d be a Ferrier. Nylin’s always right, of course, like most Watchers.
“Don’t take me,” pleads the ghost. “I can’t leave them. My family.”
“I have to,” I say.
The ghost stifles her tears and rubs at her cloudy face. “What’s your name?”
I tell her my name is Gavin, but it feels like a lie. I chose the name for myself two years ago and haven’t used it since. It feels foreign to my ears, in my own voice, but the ghost doesn’t seem to notice. The Disme people don’t need names before they turn eleven.
Her name is Sen. It feels soft, like the feathered edges of her soul.
Sen is maybe nine or ten. I don’t ask because I’ll know soon.
I pluck my dime off the stack of striped, folded tarp beside my bed. Nylin had given it to me, as well as the clothes on my back, the thin mattress beneath me, the lamp that burns only one simple shade of pulsing dim, like a heartbeat.
The dime fits perfectly in my palm, despite not being a perfect circle. It is more akin to a broken ten-piece than uniform currency. The cold metal weighs heavy in my palm and I try not to tremble with it.
I hold my palm flat between Sen and me, then I call my Disme Mark forth, the way Nylin taught me.
The burn comes off my naked back in a wave of chills, as if a cold finger is running a nail down my spine. I roll my shoulders, tense, and my spine pops. The sound echoes around my tent like canon fire. My Disme Mark coils and folds over my head in swirls of black smoke, like a hood being drawn.
It crawls down my face and creeps across my arm. The Mark plateaus on the dime displayed in my palm. It is an empty, silent ship, made of smoke and charred flesh. It is as real as I am.
My ship curls itself around Sen’s wispy, white frame, collecting her. With its first passenger, the Disme ship returns to me, pasting itself onto my back where it had been burned into me not three days before, on my thirteenth birthday.
Sen is no longer in my bed, but she isn’t gone. She is on my ship and for a time, I am ten.
I am thirteen, but I feel like I’m ten; the same age Sen was when she died.
I thrust my hands into the freezing river running around my ankles. Red dye is tugged off the linen canvas I’m scrubbing beneath the current. It stains the water, reflecting green trees and foliage, muddying it to a dense brown. The crisp air smells of pine and chemicals.
Nylin is working beside me, unfazed by the cold, dying canvas for a new tent in the Labyrinth. The hem of her white frock rests on the surface of the river and a strand of white hair brushes her wrinkled cheek.
“Where are we going next?” I ask, my teeth chattering around the words.
“Canada.” The thought makes me shiver. “There’s a portal there I haven’t been to in years.”
I nod to myself and continue working.
“Have you gotten any others? Besides the girl?”
I pause and glance at her. Nylin bunches the canvas and rubs it together. She doesn’t look at me. “Her name is Sen.”
“You spoke to her?” she asks.
“I did. Before.”
“Does she speak to you?”
I pause again and wait. I can feel Sen chuckling in my thoughts, lingering at the precipice between my Disme ship, where she now resides, and my mind. I welcome it and feel her age meld with mine. Ten. “Sometimes.”
Nylin makes a noncommittal grunt and dunks the canvas, sending up a splash. “And do you talk back?”
Don’t tell her. Sen’s voice in my mind startles me to stillness. She won’t like it.
I hear Sen’s words but ignore them. I clear my throat and dunk my own canvas. My feet are numb and my hands are stained a deep, terrible red. “Sometimes.”
Nylin turns and cuffs me on the side of the head with one, wet hand. “Hear me, boy. They are your charges, not your friends. They are on your ship long enough to be taken to their specific portals and that’s it. Don’t be getting close to them.”
Nylin cuffs me again, sharp and startling. “She’s dead, boy. You aren’t.” Nylin hunches over and wrings the water from her linen canvas. “She’ll be gone soon enough. Once we find her portal.”
I hunch my shoulders, shaking all over from the cold and from Sen in my thoughts. Her sorrow is worked into me like a piece of twisted thread. “But, what if Sen wants to stay? What if she doesn’t want to enter her portal?”
Nylin keeps her head down and her voice flat. “She will.”
I am seventeen, but he is twenty-six; my newest passenger.
The Disme Labyrinth has set up in Southern Europe on the tip of a boot. Amongst the tall, striped tents and milling patrons, I see a blonde. He likes blondes.
I follow her into the maze.
The blonde stops at a fork in the Labyrinth. I stand in a shadow cast by a swaying tarp striped red and crystalline grey. She contemplates left into a shadowed passageway, or right towards a hidden chamber. Her friends had gone left, trailing ribbons and bitter coffee in painted cups, but the blonde chooses different, as I hoped she would.
Gavin, don’t. Sen’s words come to me but they’re distant, like a foreign breeze. She tries to insert herself between me and the urges of my newest passenger, but her efforts are for naught.
The blonde turns down a darkened corridor of the Labyrinth. I cannot see her, but I can smell her, fresh herbs and sweet cigar smoke. I reach for her.
A crawl creeps down my spine; someone else’s Mark, watching me. I cannot see the other’s Marks when they’ve been called, but I can feel them, sharp and intrusive.
I let the blonde get away and turn to see who is watching me.
In total darkness, I am cuffed on the side of the head. A yelp escapes my lips. I am seventeen, I tell myself. Seventeen.
“You know better, boy,” Nylin’s voice rasps, almost screeches. “The eyes on my back are always on yours. I’m always watching.” Where my Disme Mark is a ship, hers is an owl. And watch, she does.
“I was just…”
She cuffs me again with the flat of her hand. It startles me, rocking my already absent vision.
Despite the dark, I can picture her face, scrunched and wound tight like aged leather. Yellow eyes, sharp as the edge on newly pressed paper.
“You and they aren’t the hat and the rabbit. You are the magician, this,” she swats at my back, “is the card up your sleeve. They are the faces on the card. Not a dime more, you hear me?”
“Yes ma’am,” I say to the dark. Nylin reels back her Disme, taking my shudder and breath with her.
“Don’t give in to them,” she breathes. “It won’t end well for any of you.”
The Disme Labyrinth has ten passages, ten pathways, ten dead-ends, ten games, ten riddles, ten displays by ten Disme Marked, ten hidden chambers…and an eleventh.
The eleventh chamber is not for them.
It sits at the exact center of the maze, surrounded by the tents of the other Disme Marked.
I walk the outer perimeter of the eleventh chamber thrice. No opening.
A few patrons have made it this far. I pass them with my head low and continue my walk around the tent. Once the last patron has left with the fading daylight, I stop. I am alone.
I walk backward around the outer tarp wall of the eleventh chamber. The ocean-blue sky is bled through with black ink. The white flecks of stars glide forward as I walk back, as if they are stones being pushed in a river.
The way opens.
I step into the eleventh chamber. The portal here is as different as the one in Istanbul is from the one on the coast of Southwest Japan. They are each unique, all seven hundred, twenty-one of them. Different souls belong in different places.
I drop to my knees beside a vortex of wind and earth. Though violent and ground-splitting, the wind doesn’t even rustle my hair or fan the open collar of my gray shirt.
I place my dime face down in my open palm. I call the Disme Mark from my back and it obeys. The ship settles onto the dime, docking there.
Only one is disembarking this time, the oiled soul of a charred creature better left in tales of woe and warning. Tet had slain the creature in a dock-side alley before we left Singapore. Monster and man alike, I collect every soul. Even those I don’t want to. Even those that don’t want to be ferried.
The creature disembarks my ship and is collected into the wild chasm below. A weight comes off my back, my chest, but a stain remains. I am eighteen, but I had been three-thousand, sixty-one.
The eleventh chamber is for me.
When it’s quiet, Sen begs me to find her portal.
“I will soon,” I promise. She knows I don’t believe my words and I let her sorrow flood me. I deserve it.
Why the show? she asks. Why set up a full Labyrinth with games and customers and libations, just to open a portal?
I stretch out on the mattress in my tent and stare up into the point where stripes of red and grey converge. It’s peaceful, for my ship is once again empty, save for Sen. “Nylin says it’s safer this way. The Disme ritual for opening a portal takes hours, precise measurements, and the use of our Marks. Hiding inside our tents calls less attention.”
I guess that makes sense, Sen says. But, the customers…
I chuckle. “We can’t very well set up a traveling Labyrinth and take no customers. That would be suspicious.” I draw in a breath and sigh. “Besides, we need the money, to get from place to place.”
Has it always been this way?
I nod, though Sen can’t see it. “My people were once troubadours in France. Then players in Greece. In recent centuries, the other Disme groups have had circuses, bands, theatre acts. Anything that allows us to travel and set up where we need to.”
There are more of you out there?
“Yes.” I swallow. “There are a lot of dead, Sen. A lot that need to be captured and ferried.”
Captured? she says.
“The creatures….” I trail off and roll onto my side. I try to stifle the shudder threatening to work me over.
Are we going to sleep?
“Yes, Sen. I’m tired.” I close my eyes and latch onto the calm of her. I think she’s humming.
I paint them, sometimes. I sit on the pallet in my train car, or the bed in my tent, pushing and pulling the ground corpses of insects or the dust of rocks, bound in linseed oil, over stretched canvas.
On a good day, they are each distinct. I paint the old man who went in his sleep, playing music for the dragon slain in Egypt. I paint the young lady who fell down a flight of stairs, dealing cards to a rabid wolf that was put down. I paint a girl picking mushrooms, with the Storm Weaver the triplets had trapped at the mouth of a Hawaiian volcano.
Today is not a good day.
I paint them all the way I see them on my ship. I call it “my ship,” pretending that these souls are not a piece of me. A tenth of me, to be precise.
I paint four heads and three faces. There are too many legs, not enough eyes. Tentacles, fangs instead of ears, claws instead of smiles. I paint them like this when I cannot tell the frantic child from the hungry beast, the breath of fire from the wail of tears.
On a good day, when my mind is clear, it’s almost worse.
On a good day, I know them. I know what they are and the pieces that make them. I paint them enjoying each other’s company and exchanging smiles. These paintings are like my ship, just smoke.
I wonder if it’s Sen who spoke, then reality dawns. I turn from my canvas, brush still poised with a glaze of red paint. Meadow is standing in the doorway of my tent. I can smell her, even over the pungent oil reeking of fish eggs. She smells like her name, warm, fresh, and subtly sweet, like honey. Her Disme Mark is a rope.
She is too tall and too thin, like her brothers. Her canary-yellow hair hangs limp around her narrow shoulders as she looks at the canvas on my easel. She usually smiles at me, but now she is wearing a tight frown on a long face. “There’s another.”
I follow Meadow to a river off the coast of Southeast Asia.
The corpse of a massive squid rests at Dell’s feet. He is holding his dime out to the creature, and I’m certain his Disme Mark has been called, keeping the creature’s soul still, powerless. I cannot see the Mark, but I can imagine the towering redwood, made of char and smoke like my ship, pinning the beast beneath it.
I get closer, my hand in my pocket, fingering my own dime. “Take him down yourself?” I ask.
“Her,” Dell corrects, pushing the copper hair from his brow. “Tet was here, but he had to get back to the Labyrinth for readings.”
I move closer to the squid. Her soul is so red it’s almost crimson, a struggling cloud of red haze.
I pinch the dime from my pocket and place it my palm. I tremble and offer Sen a silent apology. “Release her.”
The squid’s red soul squirms to get away but my Disme is faster. The ship crashes around my head, startling my hair. The black tendrils of smoke capture the red soul, encasing it in an ashen prison. Still the soul writhes and fights against the barrier of my Disme Mark.
The Mark returns to my back, stitching itself there in slow, painful pieces. The squid fights, ripping newly joined Mark to flesh. It feels like nothing but a sting from a bee or a shock from a door handle. The true pain is in my mind, where the squid is warring with the lad who overdosed in Ireland. I feel Sen scream.
I am one hundred, fifty-four.
The allure of Labyrinth Disme is mystery.
The people come to walk the maze of tarp and tent. They come to see the odd folk that work inside its passages and chambers, hosting games and besting impossible acts. They come to see the magic that any sane person would disregard as a trick of the light, smoke and mirrors.
We remain in one city long enough to hunt and harvest, then we disappear. Our arrival is never announced, and we leave nothing behind but dead souls in hidden portals.
When Count is healing from a bite, broken leg, or other injury, I work the ticket counter.
A father of three daughters steps to my window and tips his hat. “Say, do you offer a military discount?”
“No,” I say. “Our prices are fair.”
He leans an elbow on the counter. “How about this one time, son? I got my girls here, all wanting cocoa and churros. Stuff gets expensive.”
I flare. “Fuck off, you…”
I am clasped on the shoulders and jerked back into the booth. I stumble and fall on my ass, into a pile of tarp and ribbon.
Nylin moves to the window and apologizes to the man, handing him four tickets, free of charge. She closes the window and pulls in a long breath. The owl burn on her back stares into me with knowing eyes.
She won’t face me. “I know it’s hard, boy. I know it. But you got to keep them tied down. Can’t have you lashing out at the locals. Talk like that brings questions we can’t answer.” She glances at me over her shoulder. “Stop letting them in.”
I am nineteen, I remind myself. I am nineteen.
She is warm astride me, beneath me. She has dark hair and green eyes that are mute in the dim of night. Distant music meets my ear; the sawing of Glade’s cello.
My hand trails over her knee, and glides down the length of her thigh. Real. Flesh. Warmth. My own heart beats in my palm as I touch her, in my lips as I press them again her neck, her collar, her chest. She hooks her leg around my back.
She moans when I push into her, but it sounds like a scream. Her soft, warm hand tangles in my hair and cups my neck, but it feels cold. She digs her nails into my back, but they feel like claws. She rolls me over to straddle my hips, but I feel pinned. She breathes my name, but it sounds like a cry. Like battle.
When we finish she is so still that I expect to see her soul rise from her body. She takes a breath and rolls over to place a languid hand on my back. I know what she’s doing before the single finger begins tracing my skin. I let her.
“Is this a tattoo?” she asks. “Or…”
Her intake of breath is as sharp as the minor cord Glade hits on his cello outside my tent. I watch the pulsing lamp breathe in tune to the melody. Warm. Real. I am nineteen.
“But, it’s so dark. How’d you get it?”
“I was taken into a clearing by an owl when I was thirteen. She, an elephant, a pentacle, and a tree strapped me hand and foot to four posts. An ocean poured oil down my back then a crow set it ablaze with a torch wrapped in sage.” I say it because it’s true; because it’s absurd.
She rolls away from me, onto her back in laughter. “You carnival folk are so strange.”
Carnival folk, not quite. Strange, she has no idea.
I would kiss her, but I can’t remember her name. My ship is brimming with passengers and they threaten to overtake me. Cold. False. “You should go.”
A fury radiates from her that’s almost as palpable as the frost within me, but she leaves my tent. I roll onto my back.
You were cruel to her.
It’s rare for Sen to surface these days. She’s always there, probing gently, curious but not wanting to intrude; no matter how often I tell her that I enjoy her company. She’s been with me the longest, after all, and the others pay no attention to living age when they are all dead. They see only the hierarchy, of which, Sen is at the top.
When she surfaces, the rest quiet, and it’s peaceful.
“No crueler than I usually am,” I say, rubbing my face.
She could die, you know, Sen says in my thoughts. On her way home from here. Before she even leaves the lot. And the last thought she’ll have will be about you tossing her away without a smile and a kiss.
“I kissed her plenty.”
Sen’s scoff is hollow. Cold. False.
“Leave it be.”
Her sigh is worse; piercing and deep. You don’t love them, do you?
“You wouldn’t understand.” The abrupt silence leaves me feeling empty and tight as I wait for the madness to rush in around Sen’s departure. But it doesn’t come, not yet.
At least you’re alive, she whispers. While I’m stuck here with dregs and beasts, waiting for you to find my portal and take me home.
There is a demon in this city.
I follow Tet, Glade, and Count into a small marsh of dirt roads and boarded windows. The wet air touches my skin and rolls down my face in beads. I can smell the life, the death, and the dying, all rolled into a reheated plate of left-over casserole surprise.
The demon is dealing with a five-tailed fox, its back to us.
Gavin. Please. Don’t.
I try to shut Sen out, but it’s no use. I feel her fear as authentically as I feel my own. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper.
Tet, Glade, and Count each glance at me, their tired faces scrutinizing, questioning. I draw away from them, just slightly. They are Disme hunters; officers to my prison guard. They wouldn’t understand.
Count nods to me then releases his Disme first, slowing time to a glacial pace. Glade releases his next and the marsh concaves around the demon. The fox sprints away.
Tet’s Disme is slight and swift. It cuts through the demon before it has time to turn and address its attackers.
Then, it’s my turn. My Disme ship glides through the resistant air. It absorbs the demon whole like a paper towel to water. My ship returns and the demon is in me. I am more than a million.
“There’s a griffin down South and a serpent out West,” Tet says, rubbing his hands. “Dealer’s choice.”
“Tin will pick the griffin,” Count mutters, pushing his dime into his pocket.
The demon in me flares like fire, running rampant around my ship. I try to follow Sen, to make sure she’s safe, but there are too many passengers. I twitch. “The serpent,” I say, hoping it could wrangle this monster. I am too much.
I am twenty-one.
Tin’s hidden chamber is third in the Labyrinth. He divulges hidden secrets, historical tales, truths of creation; but like everything else in Labyrinth Disme, it is a trick of burned abilities.
He has a following in every major city, from New York to Tel Aviv. They come with questions of love and longing, wellness, both physical and monetary, questions about their heritage, their god, their unborn children. Tin, the showman that he is, answers them.
We are in Australia, I think. I can never be sure.
The hour is so late that even the stragglers are departing the Labyrinth, finding exit routes far easier than they had found entrances. A tip to Penny’s Disme, no doubt.
I wander into Tin’s chamber and sit across from him. There are candles burning on a multitude of open surfaces. My face is flush in the cramped space, a perfect circle with not stripes on the tent walls but tall numerals. Ticking clocks sit on the floor, hang from strung wires, and sit perched on wooden stilts. An open homage to his Mark.
“You come with questions,” Tin says in his monotone voice.
I wave a hand in front of his tired face. “It’s me.”
It takes him a moment. “Oh, Gavin. What can I do you for?”
I tilt my head to one side. “Where were you just now?”
“The Garden of Eden,” he says. “I was enjoying the fruit.”
I wonder if he’s making a joke.
“And you? Who are you right now?”
“Me and myself.” I am twenty-one. I am twenty-one.
Tin smiles and nods, cording his face into wrinkles. He isn’t as old as he appears, though his eyes have been fogged over for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wondered if he’s blind, in the conventional sense, but I’ve never asked.
“You’ve come about a girl,” Tin mutters, standing just enough to bend at the waist and crack his back. He sinks onto his seat with a lanuginose sigh.
“The girl,” I say.
“Ah, Sen. I thought you two were still in a row.”
“A constant.” Not that we fight often, of course. I have a job to do; to get Sen safely to her portal. A job I haven’t succeeded at.
Tin chuckles. “Still not so hot with the ladies?”
My cheeks warm with the flickering candlelight. “Sen isn’t a lady…so to speak.”
“A girl is a girl is a girl.”
Tin cracks his knuckles. “What do you want to know?”
“I was wondering if you could find her portal.”
To my surprise, Tin frowns at me. I watch his lip draw up and quiver slightly before he composes himself. “Sure, son. I’ll have a look.”
The elf has the boar by the tusks. I am ninety-four. I am eight.
The pixie is clenched around the throat by the hunter. I am two-hundred, seventeen. I am forty-three.
The Siren is singing to the black dog. I am. I am.
Their battles fade, falling away into the cavernous background and playing like a soft din of strings over rowdy dinner guests. This is familiar to me.
Gavin, Sen breathes.
“You’re back,” I exhale.
I never went anywhere.
I know that. I can feel her there, just on the edge, always.
But you. You want to send me away.
“I thought that’s what you wanted.” The demon is gone but the others on my ship are belligerent; warring with each other out of fear and rage. Sen is hiding below deck. She holds her knees to her chest and rests her head against the wall. She says nothing, and I feel her begin to drift. “Sen, don’t go, just…stay, awhile.”
She does, serving as a barrier between madness and me. It’s just a matter of time, I tell myself, until something truly awful happens to her…something worse than dying; but I don’t say this aloud. Sen already knows. She doesn’t speak into the silence for a long while. Not until I close my eyes.
If I were…out there…would you…with me?
Her pauses vibrate like little hums in my thoughts and it makes me laugh.
Don’t laugh. Not at me.
I bite my lip. “Would I what with you, Sen?” I try to picture her how she is now, older, and not the ten-year-old waif that had leveled on my bed in the guise of a white haze. I try to picture her real. Warm.
How you are with the other women?
“No,” I state, rolling my shoulders into the mattress. “I fuck other women, Sen. It wouldn’t be that way with you.” I regret the crassness in my words as soon as they leave my dry lips. The raw honesty pins Sen silent, fading.
“You are my only calm. My only reprieve. Sen…”
I catch myself. “Nothing.”
Is it nice, to be in bed with someone?
She would be eighteen now. She would have suitors of her own, boyfriends and the like, taking her for dates and dances, meeting parents and family. If she wasn’t dead. “It is.”
I envy you that.
“Envy is a beautiful color on you.”
She scoffs. You wouldn’t know. You’ve never seen me before. Just…this.
“Then tell me. What did you look like?” Did. The ugliest of words. Worse even than why.
Sen tells me about her long, dark hair in curls and braids. She tells me about her freckles, her blue eyes. She tells me about the blush on her skin, the way her smile caught the light. She tells me everything until I fall asleep.
Tet spreads the cards across a low table in his chamber. The hour is late, and Penny is knitting in the corner.
The cards are always different and today is no exception. Tet uses the cards for patrons, a visual to fill the gap between his Disme and the customer’s ignorance. His Disme Mark is a well.
Tet rubs his chin. “It’s hard to tell with you. Reversals oppose the original meaning, but, in your case, a reversal could speak to…well…”
“The dead souls inside me?”
Tet nods once. “What are you carrying these days? Besides Sen.”
What, because they are things and not people.
“A man,” who died of a gunshot wound at the hands of his wife’s lover. “Three ladies,” who died in a car accident at the hands of a high, semi-truck driver. “A Chimera, a Hell Hound, a Minotaur, two Fauns, and a water Nymph.”
Tet scrunches his brow down at the cards, as well as the open air between us. “That doesn’t sound so bad. The cards look worse.”
“Yeah, well, the Nymph is trying to seduce the man, while the Chimera is torching one of the ladies. The Hell Hound is feasting on the Minotaur who has another lady pinned by her throat, and the two Fauns are chasing the third lady around with pan flute music that sounds like gravel grating, a high whistle, and nails on a chalkboard.”
Tet stares at me.
“Oh, and there’s a guy with some sexual disorder masturbating to the whole scene.” But Sen is safe.
I glance over at Penny whose hands have stilled. Her eyes are wide beneath the frame of her pixie cut. She stands abruptly, drops her knitting and announces, “Closing time,” before all but running from the tent.
I am twenty-four. I am ten.
Sen stays with me. She follows me to the eleventh chamber. She sees portal after portal from the bow of my Disme ship and every time she is left behind. With me.
“This portal is for the damned,” I tell her.
“This is for the purest of heart.”
“This for the children younger than you had been.”
“This for those who don’t belong.”
“For those that did but do no longer.”
“For the cursed.”
Not even this one? she asks.
“You aren’t weak,” I tell her.
I was ten when I died. Surely, I was.
The Disme Mark returns to my back. The Jin wrangling the clock maker. I am endless. I am time.
I ask Nylin who will ferry me when I die. I ask her if I will live forever.
She doesn’t know.
Tin finds me. He has been avoiding me lately.
I circle the eleventh chamber. The stripes of red and grey are dull in this smog-infested city. It clings to my skin, my hair, the inside of my nose, the roof of my mouth. It is thicker than my Mark and muddies the already frantic static in my head.
“You found it,” Tin says.
I glance up at him and stop pacing.
There are patrons here, pointing and smiling, exchanging chatter. I wait for them to disperse; for my heart to stop pattering like a damn machine gun. “Here?”
Tin’s face is sallow. He nods.
I look back at the eleventh chamber with no entrance and no door. I tilt my head to look at the sun, still up but not high enough.
I chew at my lip and my hands shake. I stuff them into my pockets and my feet begin to tap. “I’m not ready.”
Tin nods again, sullen. “Is she?”
I shake my head, though it’s a lie. Of course, she’s ready. She’s been ready for eleven years. But me…
“Call her up, son. You need to tell her.” Tin turns, leaving me alone at the eleventh chamber of the last portal, at the center of Labyrinth Disme.
“Sen,” I say, butchering her name around the collapse in my throat. I clear it. “Sen?”
The way my name rings in her voice makes me bite my lip. I want to lie. I want to tie her down and keep her there, just there, at the in-between. I need her there, to keep me safe, to keep me sane. To keep me.
What is it?
I swallow. “We’re here.”
I walk backward and the sun falls. I walk backward, and the way opens.
This portal is feather soft of powder blue and yellow dust. It is clean, warm, and blinding to my own eyes.
I kneel beside it, longing to smell the strawberry fields and roasted cherries I know must be inside. I long to see the sun-drenched landscape, lush and green, the skies dotted with air balloons and clouds no thicker than a ribbon. I long to hear Sen laugh, running in an open meadow. I long.
I tap at the dime in my pocket. I had hoped to find it lost or misplaced, but no, it’s there, like always.
“Are you ready?”
I think so.
My hands are sweating. I pull the dime from my pocket. My hands tremble. I place the dime just so. I grind my teeth. My Disme Mark comes free and I close my eyes.
Gavin. Come with me. Please.
As much as I want to, I cannot board my own ship or take a portal not meant for me.
But the strawberry fields. The blue skies. Sen.
She disembarks my ship, falling from me like a lurch in my stomach. I linger, waiting for her to come back, to simply return as sudden as she had left, but she doesn’t.
I am left alone with the raging beasts and monsters at the forefront of my mind, the ship returned.
I am left alone wondering who will ferry me when I die. Will I die? Or will I simply be this madness for all time? “They are your charges,” Nylin had said. “Not your friends.” I bury my face in my hands. What am I without Sen?
“Gavin?” The voice is soft and warm. Real.
I turn and there they are.
Meadow stands at the center, a true smile on her face. Nylin is there too, beside Tet and Tin, Glade and Count. All of them.
“Nylin made dinner,” Meadow says. “Are you coming?”
Even Penny is smiling at me.
My eyes wander over their faces; considerate, knowing. I tremble as I stare at them, burying this ache and longing for Sen. Their faces hold no fear as they look on me, no judgement, no sorrow; only compassion. I consider each of them and their lack of understanding. But still, they’re here.
“Come along now,” Nylin says. “It’ll be going cold soon.”
I look from her to Meadow and back again, then push to my feet. I turn my back on Sen’s portal and with an indrawn breath, I let it close. I close my eyes and a tear rolls down my cheek as I tell myself again and again that Sen is safe. Without me, she is safe.
I open my eyes and Nylin frowns. She closes the space between us and I brace for a cuff or chastisement, for I surely deserve it. She reaches up and cups my cheek in one, trembling hand. Her yellow eyes consider me, soft and gentle. “I’m so sorry, my boy.” Nylin wraps her arms around me and I let her. I hug her back and press my face against her shoulder, where I weep through my smile.
The Spider and the Rose
By Dana E. Beehr
I hadn’t liked Aultmar Artos much when I’d worked for him in the past, and studying his flickering image now reminded me why. Something about those deep-set, hooded eyes in that long, lugubrious face resembled a serpent; and what I knew of his cold, calculating personality did not help much. Rumor said the Chairman of the StellarCast combine rarely smiled and never, ever laughed. I was fully inclined to believe it.
However, our business together had been mutually profitable despite my dislike–a sentiment I suspected was returned. I also suspected he did not care for the position in which he now found himself: supplicant to the Pantheon. But I could only guess at that, for I could read nothing in his expressionless face.
“It’s been a while, Chairman,” I said.
“The same, Athena.”
“I received a message from the Pantheon informing me you had requested my services.” A loose network for those of us who did black work and had risen to the top–the best of the best, and proud of it–the Pantheon gave those clients who could afford us an easy way to find us while preserving our own secrecy.
Those steely gray eyes blinked–eyes as gray as mine, and supposedly as artificial as they looked. Rumor had it that his eyes–along with almost every other part of his body, including his heart–had been replaced, modified, amplified, so that there was very little of him that was human.
Almost as little as there is of me. I buried the thought.
“I have a contract for you. If you will accept it, of course.” It must have cost Aultmar to ask that; he was not a man accustomed to asking if his will would be carried out.
“Details?” While I spoke, my mind accessed the starnet, pulling up background information on Aultmar: partners, associates, colleagues–not friends, for he had none. Info feeds scrolled directly through my mind, characters flashing in fully-formed, three-dimensional images, then dissipating.
His lips compressed. “There is a woman.”
That narrows it down. A little. Even cut in half, Aultmar Artos’ enemies list was truly impressive.
“Her name is Arakhne. She lives on Arcadia.”
Arcadia. Hmmm. I’d heard of the planet–a recent acquisition of the StellarCast combine–and after a moment I was able to call up some information on Arakhne. “An artist, is she not? A light-weaver?”
“Yes.” Those lips compressed further. “Find her. And kill her.”
“For a simple killing of a simple weaver, you don’t need me. Or my fee. What else?”
Those eyes flickered down toward my fingertips. “I want her memories.”
Now it starts to make sense. Perimortem memory capture was a skill very few possessed, and among those few, I would vouch with no false modesty that I was the best.
“That might be tricky. I’ve told you before, the process is not always precise or accurate.”
“I understand. Your standard fee if you simply kill her, double if you bring her memories back.”
My curiosity rose. The only reason Aultmar might want her memories would be if he suspected they contained something damaging. But what could a weaver know that would trouble him? I would dearly have loved to ask, but that would have been unprofessional.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “Usual conditions. I’ll inform you when it’s done.”
He nodded. “Thank you. And give my regards to the rest of the Pantheon.”
“I will. Zeus and Hera in particular have spoken of you with great regard.”
“That is pleasant to hear. Until next time.” He leaned forward and touched a control. Aultmar’s image winked out before me. And I was left with a mystery. Who is this Arakhne of Arcadia and why on earth does Altmar want her dead?
After the call ended, I set my research crawlers to gather and condense information on Arakhne, Arcadia, Aultmar Artos, and StellarCast, then booked transport under an alias for the next day. I had several aliases available at all times, never using the same one twice. This time I decided to be Mina Vantak, a clerical admin heading to Arcadia for a vacation in the wake of the StellarCast takeover.
There weren’t many transports to Arcadia; it wasn’t the kind of place too many people wanted to go. It would be at least a three-day journey from the central world Masque, so after boarding a battered old transport that looked as if it had once been a troop ship during the Expansion Phase over fifty years ago, I settled into my tiny cabin with my starnet interface and all the data my crawlers had collected.
At first glance, Arcadia seemed to be a quite ordinary habitable planet, much like any other save for the recent StellarCast takeover; yet after a moment, a name caught my eye: Seven Systems. The Seven Systems combine had been a precursor to StellarCast, broken up by the Astral Judiciary after losing a corporate war with IntraGalactic. Artos had been a minor officer in Seven Systems, and had through a series of lucky maneuvers and fortunate “accidents,” managed to secure headship of the rump corporation of StellarCast after the breakup. Yet, from what I knew about Artos, it was plain that he still carried a grudge for the loss of the former combine.
And Arcadia, I saw, had been a member of Seven Systems, briefly set free after the breakup until its recent reabsorption.
That explains a lot, I thought. For while Arcadia had by no means been the most important or the most vital of the worlds that Seven Systems had lost, Artos had never been one to let something go that had once been his.
The official reports on Arcadia’s takeover by Stellarcast had presented it as a stroke of good fortune, warmly welcomed by all Arcadians. My own sources, however, had it that the response to the takeover was less than enthusiastic, and that it had only come about after one or two of Arcadia’s ruling council suffered some very convenient accidents.
But what about Arakhne?
I turned to the report my crawlers had gathered on her and frowned.
At first glance, she seemed to be exactly what she appeared to be; an elderly artisan, born on Arcadia, who had never been off-world in her life. The crawlers had turned up no connection at all between her and Artos….
A maincast story flickered before my eyes about an art exhibition at the United Masque Planetary Friendship Museum. Like most combined homeworlds, Masque was a wholly-owned subsidiary of StellarCast Corporation; everything on the planet came from the combine’s generosity, and the United Masque museum was no different.
The story was headed: “United Masque Museum to host Exhibition of Arcadian Art.” Doubtless intended to showcase the benefit of StellarCast rule for the Arcadians, the piece was larded with passages such as: “the chance for some of the best among the rustic peoples of Arcadia to gain interstellar renown, and to bring the treasures of a simpler, more decent life to the eyes of people across the galaxy.” And there, on the list of featured artists, was Arakhne’s name.
The flickering picture showed an older woman with faded blue eyes in a lined face and a mass of white hair knotted up on top of her head in a bun. There was a strange distance to those eyes that I couldn’t quite place. The text read: “She looks like an ordinary grandmother–but Arakhne of Arcadia is a very talented weaver in one of the most demanding of the New Arts. She works with the light-loom, weaving strands of holographic light to make wonderful images, a craft she must have taught herself. In her works, the observer can discern a fascinating juxtaposition between the intricacy and sophistication of the highly technological medium, and the simple freshness of her untutored art.”
Could this be what caught Aultmar’s eye? Yet a quick perusal of Arakhne’s work showed nothing unusual: a shaggy black dog with large brown eyes; a small house framed by an overarching tree; a sled with chipped paint; a rose-patterned teapot with steam curling from its spout; a brightly striped ball.
A code, perhaps? I cross-checked “ball,” “dog,” “house,” “sled” and “teapot” in several thousand different languages but found nothing. Cryptology had never been my forte anyway; that was Theseus’ specialty.
What is in these works that convinced Artos she had to die?
Not that it mattered. Artos’ reasons were no concern of mine. Too much information on the target was nothing but a distraction. I need concern myself with nothing other than making the kill… and that should not be difficult.
Yet the image of the aged woman’s eyes stayed with me as the transport forged onward through the spaces between the stars.
Main spaceports are the same the galaxy over: bland, featureless, generic locations of too many bright lights, too many people, too much luggage, too much congestion. Arcadia’s was no different. I stepped from the transport to a teleport square that flickered me to a gate where a small shuttle waited; an older SubLight Systems model, probably reconditioned from something that had been none too flashy to begin with. Still, it would be good enough to take me to the capital city of the backwater province–rural even for this rural planet–in which Arakhne lived.
I watched the ground scroll by outside the window during the flight. Arcadia was mostly ocean broken up by archipelagos; there were a few larger landmasses, one or two with sizable urban areas, but by and large the planet looked as backward as I had expected. I saw little sign of any industry and except for a few relay nodes, not much in the way of telcom either. From what I’d read, Arcadia would not have been capable of industrialization or space flight for at least a thousand years without Seven Systems’ influence.
The shuttle was heading straight into the sunrise; green islands sparkled like jewels on a chain. The peaceful seascape seemed as far from the hypermetropolis of Masque as it was possible to get. On the Central Worlds, greenery was only found in parks and a few careful nature areas. Supposedly Aultmar possessed a private moon somewhere in Masque’s system that had been terraformed into a wilderness, but that was only a rumor. I myself had a virtual nature preserve–most elites did; the most popular model was the SpectraSense Safari 3000, accessible by neural link–but it had been a very, very long time since I had walked the wilderness in the flesh.
The little shuttle touched down on the far side of the world after three or four hours. As its steps unfolded, I stepped out onto the tarmac along with a few others, facing a shuttle port barely worthy of the name: a single prefab plascrete brick of a building across a modest expanse of more plascrete. The air was warm and rather humid; I felt my hair sticking damply to my head. The sky above was a very pale bluish green; somehow the green seemed to accentuate the blue, making it look hyper-blue, like the pictures I had seen of the sky on the old Terra or Sol-1, depending on how you counted it. Arcadia’s sun was bright, but distant enough that its warmth felt like a gentle caress; my ocular implants revealed levels of UV radiation within normal limits. It was a gentle sun, a mild sun; perfectly appropriate for this gentle, mild world.
I passed through the plascrete shuttleport, its recirculated air pleasantly cool; then proceeded down the stairs to the port’s main entrance. In the center of the lobby was a bronze statue of a bird-headed woman holding a tall tubular flower; probably a local deity.
The lobby walls showed moving light pictures immediately recognizable as the work of Arakhne. I moved closer, studying them. The images seemed perfectly innocuous: clouds over a waterfall; a strange insect on a leaf; two trees, their trunks twisted together. I pulled myself away from the weavings with a thin trace of regret, questions still nagging at me.
I stepped out onto a dusty road lined with lush green foliage studded with flowers; greenish gold fields drowsing beyond. A light haze was in the air, and I could hear the humming of insects. Above, clouds drifted through the sky. The fields were dotted with distant forms of people and animals; here, out on the very fringes of civilized space, draft animals were still used for plowing.
Several conveyances of various kinds were waiting; I approached a woman with a tired face under a wide-brimmed hat perched on the front end of a recycled hoversled hitched to a bored-looking horse. It was low to the ground, as if its lifters were in need of replacement. After a brief discussion in which she revealed she wouldn’t take creds–“Can’t spend them around here, y’see; no good;” I managed to dig up a few coins that I had picked up in the main spaceport, and she agreed to take me to town. When I said I was interested in some sightseeing, she snorted.
“Not many sights to see around here, that’s the Lady’s own truth.”
As the carriage lurched into motion, I sat silent, trying to take in the world around me, to attune myself to its tempo and vibrations. Between the drowsy heat, the rocking of the cart, the sounds of the horse’s feet clopping on the hard packed dirt road, I felt myself slipping into a light, trancelike, dozing state.
I could live like this, I mused, not really thinking. I did live like this, once…. There was something seductive about the slow tempo of life that I could sense all around me, a peace I hadn’t known for a very long time. I had almost stopped believing such peace, such gentleness, could exist…
What could possibly have come out of a place like this to draw Artos’ attention? I had hoped that once I had actually reached Arcadia, something about the planet would instantly explain the mystery, yet if anything I found myself even further at sea.
As the carriage drew closer to Arakhne’s village, a strange tension crept over me. The fields and trees gave way to hedges, then to fences, then to stone walls. The road became cobbled, and buildings came into sight on either side: one or two stories in an updated version of mud brick, in gentle colors–sand, beige, tan, cream. Flowering vines twined around fences and balconies, lines of green brightly splashed with red and pink and deep blue. My hands knotted.
The driver dropped me off in the town’s center, a large, circular cobbled area with a fountain in the middle. As I pressed the coins into her hands, I made sure the tips of my fingers touched her skin. A simple neural impulse, but I saw the moment of shock dawn in the woman’s eyes, then fade into incomprehension.
“Thanks,” I said, and she nodded vaguely, then turned away.
I knew what she would remember: almost nothing. She would have a vague memory of giving a ride to a tourist, but it wouldn’t seem very significant. After a few days, even that memory would fade and in a month she would remember nothing at all. I had done this hundreds–maybe thousands–of times before, leaving a trail of absence in my wake across the galaxy. Even now, when there was no trouble, it was the way I preferred to operate–unknown and forgotten.
The driver pulled away and I was left standing alone, in the crowded town center, as life bustled all around me.
For the first time, I confessed to myself that I didn’t know what I would do when I found this Arakhne.
I wound my way through the dust-laden streets, staying on the fringes of crowded venues where I could be just another face. I passed through the market and saw the farmers and crafters and their stalls set out; I filed along the banks of a stream, seeing men and women, boys and girls fishing; I wound my way through twisting, backwards lanes where wives and husbands shouted, called and quarreled to each other out of open windows. Even as these dusty scenes of village life that could have been hundreds of years ancient passed before my eyes, another image overlaid itself in my mind–a map, with a flashing point of light indicating my target.
I was surprised to find my heart beating almost as powerfully as the light flickered. And still I did not know what I would do when I got there.
I could see my goal ahead of me. It matched perfectly with the internal image I had called up: a low, one-story building, perhaps two or three rooms, with a large central dome surrounded by several bays. The door in the center of the dome stood open, but it was impossible to make out anything in the darkened interior. Yet a quick infrared scan of the building with my optics revealed that she was in there.
My heart was in my throat. I was suddenly aware that my blood pressure was rising. This was not the usual anticipation before a kill; this was something different, something frightening. I was about to come face to face with the person whose innocent-seeming light-loom weavings had drawn the attention of perhaps the most powerful man in the galaxy, had brought me, Athena of the Pantheon, halfway across the stars for the sole purpose of killing her. I hadn’t felt tension like this in decades, maybe even centuries. Can I do it?
My fingertips prickled as I activated the nodes and synapses for the neural net; with my other hand, I gripped the device I would use to store her pattern for delivery to Artos. Another target. Just another target. I repeated the words in my head as I readied my weapon. For this kill, I had one of my favorites. I called it the distaff; a small, spindle-shaped device emitting a pulse that would disrupt cardiac rhythm, causing instant heart stoppage. It was only good at close range, but it would work–and without excessive disruption to her precious neural patterns. I thumbed the distaff on. Just the touch of the device in my hand was reassuring; it brought me back. Focus. I felt my breathing slow; my heart rate drop. The cold precision of the hunter seeped into my mind. Another target. Another kill….
Silently, fading into the shadows, I drew nearer to the open door, intently scanning within. My target was kneeling on the floor, in front of a tall, faintly glowing contraption. Her light loom. It was a vertical open rectangle of metal and crystal, criss-crossed with glowing strands of light forming a pattern. The pattern was–
I froze in my tracks.
The pattern forming from the strands on her light-loom was exactly what I saw in front of me at that moment. Exactly. In the frame of the light loom was an open door, leading into a darkened interior; in the interior was the form of an old woman working at a glowing frame; the frame itself held a smaller image of another open door, with another woman, sitting at another frame…. Every detail was what I saw before me at that moment, reproduced in light, down to the very angle of the image.
It’s not possible….
I must have made some sort of noise because the old woman stopped and looked up from the loom. She turned toward me.
“So you made it then. Come in, Athena of the Pantheon. I’ve been expecting you.”
My heart seemed to stop.
“How do you know who I am?” Wild thoughts raced through my mind–Artos’ intentions had been discovered, someone had warned her ahead of time–Maybe–bright shock flashed into wild anger–maybe Artos set me up. Maybe he intended for her to kill me–My grip on my distaff tightened and I started to raise it, half unconsciously.
“Oh, I know all sorts of things,” the old woman–Arakhne–said. Her face was pale and lined, her bright blue eyes faded under a fringe of white hair; she looked exactly like her holoimages. “I suppose you might say, it’s a gift. I’ve always been able to know things, since I was a very little girl, and that was quite long ago. Aultmar Artos sent you to kill me, didn’t he?”
A gift. My eyes narrowed. Yet her manner was non-threatening enough I felt myself relax a little, though my grip on my distaff did not weaken.
“Yes,” I admitted, aware as I did so that I had just broken a rule of my own: never reveal the source of a contract. Yet if Aultmar had set me up, I had no particular interest in keeping his secrets. And if I’m planning to kill her, what does it matter?
“So, are you?”
“Am I what?” I asked, caught off guard.
“Are you planning to kill me? And for heaven’s sake, come in, child,” she said. “You look terribly uncomfortable standing there in the doorway.”
I slowly stepped over the threshold. The inside of the hut took shape around me: a hearth, pots and pans, large clay vessels against the wall; battered shelves, trunks and chests of drawers. A low archway led to an alcove mostly filled with a platform bed. Bunches of dried flowers and leaves dangled from the ceiling, and a braided rug was on the floor; leaning by the doorway was an old broom of twigs. A scent of dust and herbs hung in the air. I felt as if I were stepping back in time.
“Well, are you?” Arakhne asked again. She said it as casually as if she were asking whether I planned to attend a social function.
“I was when I came here, but now I’m not so sure.” Surely something must be wrong for me to be speaking so freely with a target.
Arakhne raised one thin eyebrow and shifted, groaning slightly as her knees creaked. “Forgive me; not as young as I used to be and these old bones ache. Why not? Isn’t that what Artos hired you to do?”
“He did,” I said, “but I don’t understand why. None of this makes any sense.”
“And you would like an explanation?”
“It would help.”
Of course it was absurd; I was asking my target for a justification that would help me allow myself to kill her. This is ridiculous. She owes me nothing, least of all an explanation. She has no reason in the world to help me. And yet somehow I sensed she would.
Arakhne settled onto her heels, straightening her back with another groan; she reached out and took a small battered teapot from the hearth. Somehow, without knowing how or why, I found myself moving to sit opposite her; we knelt together on either side of the inground hearth as if we were acquaintances–even friends. The sensation was so unfamiliar to me I almost could not recognize it.
“Here, won’t you have some tea?” The old woman proffered me a cup. I had seen her drink from the same pot, but that was no guarantee it wasn’t poisoned; as I took the cup, I activated sensors in my fingertips, scanning for toxic compounds. I found nothing and took a sip. It was strong, hot and sweet.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s good,” I said, taking another sip from the cup, which was not porcelain but solid-force, its surface flickering in ever-changing patterns. Solid-force objects had become quite popular back in the Central Worlds. I was surprised to see such a thing out here–and even more surprised at the sophisticated patterns flickering on the surface. A quick look at Arakhne, and I guessed that she had made it.
“Now,” Arakhne said with a smile, “what did you want to ask me?”
“What I want to know, old woman, is what have you done to make such an enemy of Aultmar Artos, one of the most powerful men in the galaxy? I’ve been trying to find the answer to that all the way from Masque.”
She offered a shrug. “I wove something, that’s all.”
“Yes, but what?”
“What I always do. The truth. As you can see.” And she gestured toward her loom, where the image of the doorway still flickered. With a quick wave of her hand, she blanked the web; the light retreated to the edges.
“The truth?” I mulled what sort of truth there could be in pictures of teapots and sleds and dogs to make Artos turn on her so. “But what truth?”
Arakhne shifted position, stretching her legs briefly and then curling them under her; her old bones creaked. “The truth about who Aultmar Artos is and where he comes from.”
Her answer told me no more than before, and I began to feel frustration rise. “And what is that truth?”
Arakhne raised one finger in reproof. “Now that would be telling.”
I glowered at her. “It must be dramatic for him to send me halfway across the galaxy to your little village just to kill you.”
She shrugged again, smiling slightly: a smile that could have meant anything or nothing. “Aultmar Artos is a strange man.”
“I won’t argue that.” I pondered, feeling the synapses of my neural net flicker against my fingers. “Where did you learn this truth? Did you know him before?”
“Not at all. I only weave what I see.”
“What do you mean?”
Now she sighed. “I see things, child. Things that were, things that are, things that will be. It’s the gift I was talking about. It happens when I weave.” She gestured toward the loom. “I believe the word that they use in the Central Worlds is ‘clairvoyance,’ or some such, but I’ve always just called it my little gift.”
“That’s an incredibly rare talent. If you were bonded and went corp, you could get off this planet, make a fortune–”
“And why would I want to do that?” Arakhne raised one brow. “Arcadia is where I was born. Arcadia is where I will die. This planet is my home, and no amount of money could ever induce me to leave it.”
I’d heard that before. Usually from people who have no chance of ever gaining the money needed to do so. Aloud, I said, “Well, this gift of yours isn’t doing you much good now. After all, you weren’t able to foresee that Artos would send me to kill you.”
She gave a small laugh. “Why do you think I wove my little pictures?”
Somehow that rocked me back on my heels. “You’re telling me–you knew?”
“Oh yes,” she said. She had turned again to her loom, and her hands were working, weaving, tracing threads of light against the darkness.
“I am old.” She shrugged. “I’ve reached the end of my life. And I am sick and tired,” she said with sudden feeling, “of Aultmar Artos and what he and his StellarCast have done to Arcadia. If I’m going to die, I’d rather go quickly. And if at the same time I can spit in Artos’ eye, and show him someone out there knows the truth about him, even if it’s just a dying old woman on one of his subject worlds, then that’s even better. Then my death will mean something.”
Those hands continued to dance the glowing strands back and forth in the open frame of the loom while I grappled with what she had said. I’d had my alterations done so long ago I scarcely remembered them, including life extension; like most of the galactic elite, I was now functionally immortal. Death was something that I brought to others, not something I thought of for myself.
“I have to admit, that’s a first for me. I can’t remember a target ever wanting to be killed before.”
“There are many more things in this lifetime than even you might experience, Athena of the Pantheon.” Arakhne’s hands were still dancing on the light-loom, ceaselessly weaving, though I could not make out the picture forming there. “So finish the job, child. Slay me.”
Yet I stood silent. Somehow it felt as if she and I had unfinished business. Arakhne turned and looked over her shoulder with one faded blue eye.
“I’m not accustomed to working for free.” It was a lame thing to say, but I could find no other words for the strange emotions she called up in me.
“You aren’t,” she said with a laugh. “Artos will pay you.”
“Yes,” I said, “but you want this too. That means you also must pay.”
I was stalling and I knew it. But why? It had been centuries since I had shrunk from killing anyone.
“You do not get something for nothing in this world,” I said more firmly. It was–had always been–one of my first principles.
“I see,” Arakhne said, smiling a little. She did not glance up from her loom; her hands continued, weaving, weaving, warp through weft and back again. “And what’s your standard fee?”
“You couldn’t afford it.”
“What if I have something that is valuable to you?”
“You cannot possibly have anything that would be worth that much.” As we were talking, I realized–and this was a relief–that I seemed to have made up my mind to let her live. It felt as if I had been searching for reasons not to kill the old woman almost since I had first seen her–since earlier, since I had landed on the planet.
She looked over her shoulder again, her face illuminated dimly by the light from her light loom. “What if I could tell you exactly what it was I wove to make Artos want me dead?”
That caught my attention as nothing else could. For that was a mystery I had not been able to solve–what was in pictures of a teapot, a black dog, a tree, a brook, to draw Artos’ ire?
How badly did I want to know?
Badly enough to take this old woman’s life?
Yes, I realized–part of me did. I told myself that I wanted to know because such information would be tremendously valuable, and might even give me leverage over Artos, and that was half the truth–but I also felt a powerful, almost overwhelming curiosity.
I nodded at last. “All right. Tell me.”
Arakhne smiled. “Look here.”
She pushed back from the light loom. I frowned in confusion, and leaned forward to see what she had woven there–
And in that one moment, I understood everything.
I don’t remember slaying the old woman. I don’t remember much of anything until I stood over her, my manual implants crackling with stored neural energy, and saw her body lying before me. All I remember is that image that no one, no one in the world except a little girl who was ages gone, should have seen, and no one except that little girl would have understood. An image the woman who had once been that little girl had spent all the ages since then trying to repress. A single, perfect rosebud.
The light loom lay shattered on the floor before me, its pieces fizzing and popping gently, that luminous, horrible image gone. I tried to grasp myself, to come to terms with where I was.
The contract is completed. The target is dead. As if on autopilot, I took out the neural storage unit I had prepared: a golden spider with glowing red eyes. Artos asked for her neural patterns, I remembered, and now I understood why. Because whatever it was–whatever image he’d seen, whatever he’d recognized in the published displays of her weavings–it would have been something that nobody but he should know. A message, sent from a humble weaver to one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, and one powerful enough to evoke a lethal response.
I closed my hands around the spider, thinking, and thinking….
Artos’ image danced and flickered before me; this far out, the data relays were spotty. However, even through the static, I could tell he was upset.
“I had asked for the old woman’s neural pattern–“
“I’m sorry,” I said calmly. “Transmission failed. I’ve told you before that recording and transferring neural patterns is a tricky business. The only pattern I managed to pull off the old woman was too degraded to be of any use.”
Those hooded eyes narrowed; but there was nothing he could say. I had offered no guarantees. At last, he nodded.
“Very well, then you will receive your standard fee. The funds will be transferred by morning Masque time.”
His image flickered out without another word–a strong indicator of his displeasure. Well–too bad.
I gathered my things; my transport was leaving in an hour, and the young clerical admin Mina Vantak would be heading home after a nice relaxing vacation on Arcadia, ready to start work when she returned to her homeworld.
Behind me, in the dim, one-room hut where I had slain the old woman, a golden spider hung from the ceiling by a single thread of light. Its ruby eyes glimmered in the darkness with a look that might be satisfaction–or revenge.
By John Pederson
“This is disgusting.”
“You’re just being difficult.” He always accuses me of being difficult.
“No, it’s disgusting.”
“Would you just go with it? This is supposed to help you.” He shifted his weight to his other foot, that way he does when he’s trying to look like he’s not pouting.
I sighed and rolled my eyes at him, even granted him a little smirk. Partly because he’s still cute – the salt-and-pepper at his temples is probably my fault – and partly because the hip-shift caused a weird little disturbance in the hologram being shot up by a hundred little projectors embedded in the floor. “Fine.” I could survive this. I was promised pizza afterward.
“Thank god.” He turned and started a little at the projection he had interrupted. There was part of a woman there, jaw agape in surprise. When he stepped back, the rest of the image was unimpeded, and her arm materialized in front of her. This exhibit was supposed to be solemn. I giggled anyways.
“This isn’t funny.” His pout gone, he now had on his stern eyes.
“I’m sorry.” I hoped it sounded genuine.
“This isn’t going to work unless you at least try to be serious.”
“I know, I know.”
He considered the hologram woman for a moment, now that he wasn’t standing inside her. She was lit up from the front, and her line of sight indicated something horrifying behind us. I knew what it was. I didn’t want to look yet.
“Michael Whitmore.” He read the tag that hovered next to the woman frozen in fright, her hand covering her face.
“Her name was ‘Michael?’” I tried the smirk again.
“Stop.” He sounded real serious this time.
“You like this sort of thing. You brought me here.”
“Because your therapist thought it would be a good idea.”
He looked down at the glossy pamphlet he held tight in both hands, then back up at me. “It’s a safe way – ”
“It’s a safe way to relive a traumatic event, allowing me to process it with higher-order thinking skills, to help the healing process.” She’d been feeding me that shit for weeks now, ever since the financing came through.
“It could help.”
“This has nothing to do with – ”
“Stop. We both know why she recommended this.”
“Yeah, but you secretly love it. It’s like the Hiroshima museum.” I wasn’t going to go down without saying my piece.
“Fine.” I leaned my head way back, stretching my neck. He could have this one. Besides, he did love museums. Who was I to deny him this?
“Michael Whitmore.” He faced the woman again. “She was a zookeeper, meeting the Thai ambassador to discuss breeding a captive Asian Golden Cat.”
“Boring.” I could taste the crust, flaky on the outside, steamy on the inside.
“She was a mother of two. Over there was where the shooting started. At least in this building. She was the first victim.” A red line on the floor indicated her eyeline, just in case visitors were too dense to figure out what she’d be looking at.
A man in a light brown t-shirt very obviously pointed a rifle in her direction. Only, the rifle wasn’t displayed in the hologram. So he just stood there like an ass with one hand twisted up by his nipple and the other cradling the air in front of him. Something about trigger warnings. Triggers. We could have opted into the tour that showed everything, but the therapist had other thoughts about that. Baby steps.
A blue square resolved a few meters beyond the woman, a crowd of people appearing with it, all responding to the same empty-handed assailant. There was a fat man with an unoccupied holster at his belt. He was frozen for all eternity trying to retrieve nothing out of it. Or until they needed the building for something else. Nothing lasts forever.
“Whitman,” he read the security guard’s badge. “He’s the only one named in the group. These were the – ”
“Whitmore and Whitman. No relation.” I tried to get him to crack a smile. “Whitmore and Whitman, attourneys at law? Nothing?”
“Babe.” He tilted his head to the side. Tired now. Another reaction for the bingo card.
“Okay,” I sighed, a little more dramatically than I intended, and he turned away.
I’d been through worse. And there was cheese and tomato at the end of this rainbow.
“We can either go down here, or across the way.”
“What’s across the way?”
He scanned the flyer again. “Uh, downstairs follows this shooter as he made his way through the building. Across the way is the adjacent building, where the other gunmen were.”
“This is morbid.”
“How long is this gonna take?”
“If we only do the one tower, it’s a little over an hour for a walkthrough. According to the flyer.” He offered it to me like it was another testament of Jesus Christ.
“Can we just do the one tower? I’m hungry.”
“The other tower is where the first of the explosions went off.”
“Don’t sound too excited about this.” I again tried to be playful.
“The daycare is in the other building, too.”
“I really don’t want to see that.”
“I don’t either.”
One time, at that museum in Japan, he had been weirdly drawn to this one replica of a schoolboy’s uniform. The title card said they couldn’t find a complete one, so the display had been cobbled together from the bodies of three separate children. This place wasn’t trying to echo that one, though. It was trying to do its own thing. Experimental. Pushing some envelope.
“There were three gunmen in the other building,” he rattled on. “Documents found later said this guy wanted to go it alone.” He shuddered.
“Let’s just stick to this one then.” Shortest distance between two points. “We can look online later at what’s in the other one. Like a highlight reel.”
“Always with the jokes.”
I stopped. “You have to let me process this my own way.”
“I just want you to take it seriously. If you’re just gonna keep being snarky it’s not gonna help.”
“Baby steps.” I finally gave him the eyes I knew he was looking for. He always gets all mushy when I give him that look.
The next floor down sent us around a corner and we were standing behind the same shooter, a wall of people rising in front of the three of us. They were all scrambling, parted in the middle like the red sea, those to our left falling right and those to our right falling to the left. He was empty handed still, in Rambo-pose, one leg cocked out in front of him, so masculine.
I’ve shot my rifle plenty of times. I’ve never kicked my hip out quite like that. Motherfucker had been grandstanding.
Strapped to his back was an olive backpack. Some hovering text told us that was where he’d schlepped the bomb along with him. It had dangly straps.
I stepped right in the projection of him, my frame smaller than his in most places. I tried to kick my leg out in front of me the same way he was, but my bones never came back together right so it hurt to pop my hip out like that. I blocked most of the hologram, even sticking my arms out in front of me, not-holding the gun the same way he had been. I couldn’t cover the backpack, making it sort of look like I was wearing it, and the sides of his chest were bigger than mine, so my boobs jutted out in front. Something about the position of my head kept his from rendering though, so I mostly blocked him from existence.
I wondered how many other people had done this. I pictured teenagers coming here and mocking the tragedy. They wouldn’t have lived enough life to know better.
“What are you doing?”
My heart dropped, thinking he might be thinking that I was trying to make fun in the same way.
“You wonder if other people come here –” I lowered my arms, and the gunman’s flickered in front of me again. “Do they come here and pretend if they stand right here, they can stop this from happening? Like retroactively?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Not for real, dummy.” I stood up straight again, much more of the gunman revealed now. “Like, do they come here, and just for a minute, pretend like if they stood here, then he wouldn’t exist, and all of those poor bastards there would still be alive?” My gaze fell to an old guy in a janitor’s uniform. Probably had expected this to be a typical work day. Wonder who he’d left behind.
He continued reading, something about a French restaurant below us, bomb placement, the structural integrity of this building.
“Where was the bomb in the other building?” I’d only been half-listening.
“Uh, says the next floor down over there was an electrical room. The uh, the model of the blast over there is actually limited to the floor above the explosion, since the floor they detonated it on was unoccupied.”
“Not much drama there.” All these people are still dead. And yet you’re still here.
“You okay?” He asked, emotional roulette making it all the way to “concerned” now.
“If this is too much –”
“No.” I on-purpose said this with what I hoped was resolve. “I want to see it.”
“If you’re sure.”
“You started this. ‘C’mon, let’s go to the memorial museum. It’ll be fun.’ Like I don’t know you’re in cahoots with her.”
“I’m in some of those sessions with you.”
I cherish the moments I get to deadpan him.
“Right. Kidding again. I just want to make sure you’re okay. I want to push you, but not too much.”
“I’m a big girl. I’ll tell you if you’re taking things too far. Besides, I know you’re eating this up.”
“You have to admit, it is interesting.”
“Maybe for you. You know I think ‘museum’ is spelled B-O-R-I-N-G.”
“You sure you’re okay?” Damn him.
“There are some things you just don’t want to see again.” He waited patiently for me to say it. “No, let’s go. I’m not going to let a display scare me away. Let’s at least have a look. That way you’ll get your money’s worth.”
The bottom floor of this wing of the museum had to have been where all the funding went. It was a twisty, turn-y corridor, and we followed our favorite tan-shirted mass murderer as he entered the foyer of said restaurant, did a teenage girl with a long, pretty ponytail, crouched to reload, and then moved in to the main dining room. There were people, frozen forever in a futile leap for safety, finding cover wherever they could. The whole thing was sick, but it was interesting to be able to view the incident from such a detached lens. I didn’t kid him again about how silly the censored gunman looked, but it made me think of a mime. A bald-headed, square-jawed murder-mime. Wish my sense of humor wasn’t so fucked up sometimes.
The next bend took us into a recreation of the kitchen. Our de-facto tour guide was menacing a waiter in a white shirt and black tie, and there was a chef, complete with the stupid hat, standing behind him, brandishing a frying pan.
“You have to admit, that’s a little funny.”
He finally gave a little, but it only showed at the corners of his eyes. There was my baby again, like he used to be. Always so worried ever since I got my deployment orders; always so serious now. I’m not going to break.
“So it says here the exhibit is designed this weird way, following him, you know?” He had the pamphlet open again, his nose stuck all the way into it. Geek. “They wanted to introduce him from Michael’s perspective, so you get the idea he was an invader, but then they wanted to depict the whole thing from his POV, I guess to try and humanize him? They didn’t want him to look larger-than-life the whole time.” He folded the paper closed and frowned.
“There’s no humanizing monsters like this.” I reached out and grasped at the projection of the frying pan. “I’m going to clobber you,” I growled.
“It kind of does lessen the impact,” he agreed. “But I guess it really happened. This chef’s name was – ”
“Let’s go.” I just wanted some pizza.
You know, Brooklyn Pie is right over by the museum. Eat shit.
We rounded the next bend and our man had his backpack on the floor, unzipped. The pamphlet said something about the cameras that day catching how violently the gunman ripped the bag open, and psychologists had pored over the footage in the years since, trying to deduce anything about his mindset via that jerky motion. Maybe the zipper had just been stuck. It happens. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
The explosion room was just ahead, just around the next corner. He was still reading aloud, something about this being the first 3D model to be recreated with the projectors, but he sounded far away. My heart beat beneath my collarbone. I wondered how hot it would be in there, how thick the air would be, what it would smell like. There were no smells in this museum. Maybe I’ll get mushrooms too.
He must have caught me breathing hard, because he got quiet. How long had I been doing that? How long had he been quiet? I was sweaty, and that was gross.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Let’s get lunch.” He reached out towards me and I jerked my arm away, harder than I meant to.
“I’m fine. I want to go in.” The corner was just up ahead. I could see some of the ambient light around it. The website claimed this was the more “visually stunning” of the explosions. There’s no way some stupid hologram can capture the force, the impact, the forever ringing in the ears, the aftermath of something like that. Why even try? For remembrance? It’s not sacred, its sacrilege.
I could walk right in there and pretend like I was a giant monster stomping through an explosion in a city.
He touched my elbow. “Are you sure?” Those fucking sad-for-me eyes again. But he wasn’t trying to do something for me, or make me do anything. He was just waiting. Like he always did. Waiting for me.
“Let’s go.” I went around, leaving him behind.
I got my pepperoni. And mushrooms. Big, foldy slices, the kind where the paper plate gets all greasy and translucent and loses all structural integrity after you’ve been sawing at them with a plastic fork.
I kid. Who eats pizza with a fork? Terrorists, that’s who.
And I got to seem cooperative, which would get both of them off my back for a while. Progress! the psych would say, over her glasses. And then I’ll smirk and lie about how much better I feel, how the blast hadn’t taken away anything I couldn’t get back. Baby steps.
He sat there with his hand on my knee, fork in a salad, still buried in the brochures he’d snagged on the way out. He always goes for my prosthetic leg when he wants to caress me. He confessed once that he did it so I still felt like a whole woman.
I’ve never told him that I don’t like it, because I know it’s way more reassuring to him than it is to me.