Speculative Fiction Magazine
Winter 2013 – Issue #6
Featuring works by Timothy Mudie, S. L. Nickerson, Tessa Bennett, Laura DeHaan, Emily C. Skaftun, Kris Millering, Julie Day, Emily B. Cataneo, Richard Levesque, Jamie Lackey, Adam C. Richardson, and ASA
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
- The Science of Astrology by ASA
- Feeding the Dragon by Timothy Mudie
- Blessings by the Shade by S. L. Nickerson
- The Adverse Possession of Madeline Greene by Tessa Bennett
- Leavings and Remains by Laura DeHaan
- A Fairy Tale by Emily C. Skaftun
- Those Who Do Not Reap by Kris Millering
- China Island by Julie Day
- The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa by Emily B. Cataneo
- The Boy, the Bug, and the Marked Man by Richard Levesque
- Grandma’s Shoes by Jamie Lackey
- No More Horizons by Adam C. Richardson
The Science of Astrology
Jupiter passes Orion,
and comes into conjunction with Mars.
Saturn is weaving through infinite space
to its preordained place in the stars.
And I gaze at the planets in wonder,
at the trouble and time they expend,
all to warn me to be careful
in dealings involving a friend.
-Flanders & Swan (British comedy duo)
If you were to suggest to anyone with a typical modern education that a date of birth has any bearing on personality, there’s a strong likelihood they will laugh at you for this – perhaps not so you can hear, but they will laugh nonetheless. Why is this so? Is this because they are intelligent individuals with sensible beliefs based in scientific fact? Or are they simply mindlessly repeating a populist “skeptical” point of view without examining the evidence for themselves?
It is commonly accepted among educated peoples that astrology is ignorant nonsense. Seemingly unrelated, yet also commonly accepted among those same educated peoples is that an expecting mother should take nutritional supplements such as folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamins D and C and often many other things to ensure the bodily health of the child.
When Western astrology was first developed, it was in a radically different world to the one we now inhabit. The modern Zodiac is based on a system created in 600-400BC, which developed out of the 1,600 year older Babylonian tradition. However, the oldest known human cities show understandings based on observations of the visible planets, these ruins date back as far as 4,000BC, a time when humans were just beginning to transition from living as hunter-gatherers to living in agricultural societies. Until then, we had relied on animals and our relationships with them to survive. Our fate depended on theirs. We had worshiped the beasts and the hunt, imitating them in simple rituals as a child might imitate a pet. The mirror neuron functions of our brain made us empathic towards the spirits of our game animals, even as we ate them. As we settled down into farming communities, even the most casual observation showed that we had become reliant on the seasons. A good summer meant the crops grew and we ate well, a harsh winter meant crops failed and we froze to death in our huts. As our fate had once depended on the fate of the animals, now our fate depended on the fate of the sky. Our systems of belief shifted from worshiping animal spirits to worshiping the spirits of the stars. We connected with and anthropomorphized them, as we had once done for the animals – our leaders took off their animal masks, and instead donned the costumes of celestial bodies. Society itself was modeled to reflect the heavens in the mathematical synchronicity they observed, with monarchs gaining or leaving their thrones according to season and the movements of the stars. The observed cycles of the heavens can be seen as reflected in beliefs such as that of the Ages of Man, the cosmogonic order of the Chinese Tao or the Hindi Dharmic duty to fulfill a role in an outwardly similar order. Even today the crowned heads of Europe wear silver crowns to represent the moon and gold crowns to represent the sun. As it was above, so it became below.
The other important factor in this situation is that, no longer needing to follow roaming and migrating herds of food-animals, we became tied to the fields which needed year-round tending. Our once nomadic race began to settle down. Without the need to travel, there was markedly less intermarriage between tribes. Without the opportunity to meet strangers, gene-pools could often become localized, small and restrictive. Because of this, members of any given tribe would be far more prone to genetic similarities than those between you and your neighbor today. We can see this in effect even today in Somerset, England as direct descendants of inhabitants of the area over 12,000 years ago are still to be found living in the area . It seems a common cultural trope to accuse those who live in the countryside today of being inbred, we can only speculate to what extent it is true or was more the case in the past. Not only would this cause them to share genetic similarities, but due to their localization they would be of one culture in which upbringing, beliefs and a general attitude towards life would be shared throughout the group. This created an environment where both nature and nurture would be the same for all members of the group. Of course it is true that each generation will rebel against the cultural norms of the previous, but it is also true that as we age we become more like our parents. Compared to the more intermixed and intermarried groups today, every tribe would have a unique pool of personality types. It may be possible that what we see as various personality archetypes now are in some way descended from those displayed by different groups. Is someone you know shy and retiring? Is another loud and extroverted? If their families share their traits, perhaps everyone in their “tribe” was once the same. Their personality is not simply chance, but an inherited trait, partially modified by the process of living, quite distinct to that of even nearby tribes. Genetic and cultural traits would barely register in terms of a person’s personality – a far more distinguishing feature for these early farmers would be the time of year a child was born.
To illustrate this, let’s examine the hypothetical situation of an early Mediterranean, agricultural village in the Corbières Hills. As a village of the type alluded to in the previous paragraph, they have a limited gene-pool due to their long isolation. They eat a seasonal diet comprised of the local produce, which is mainly bread and olive-oil as staples with haricot beans in April to August, cheese and milk in June to November and a little pork from September onwards, as long as they can make it last. A modern visitor will find that their staples are still much the same; with the exception of imports. Children conceived here in summer will gestate during a time when their mother is highly likely to be eating meat and cheese, meaning they have access to far more protein than those conceived in winter. Conversely, children conceived late in winter will gestate with B Vitamins from their mother’s diet of beans and olives, as well as Vitamin D absorbed through the mother’s skin as a hot spring gives way to summer and they are eventually born. As we evidently believe from our use of nutritional supplements, these things are important for the development of the child’s body. Given that there is no demonstrable separation of mind and body, as the mind is a function of the brain and the brain an organ of the body, shouldn’t the diet affect the mind, and through the mind, the personality?
The answer to that is that it does. When pregnant rats were fed on a high diet of Vitamin B (found in most vegetables), it was found that their offspring’s mental faculties developed faster and better reflex reactions, neuromotor skills and coordination than those given only a low dose. Equally in a separate study, mice pups whose mothers were fed less than the optimal quantity of protein (the key component of meat-based foods) during pregnancy were found to be prone to overeating and keeping irregular sleeping hours . Rats fed choline (a chemical important to the brain, found in the highest concentrations in grain cereals) exhibited superior problem-solving skills , and most tellingly of all, high-fat diets during pregnancy led to the children of Japanese macaque monkeys exhibiting anxious behavior throughout their adult lives . If one correlates the times of year in which these substances are or are not available to the group, it is only a small step further to make an accurate prediction of what the personality of a child born at any given time of year might be.
The signs of the Zodiac cycle throughout the year as the planet spins, whichever is visible is useful as a reminder of the season. The seasons in turn dictate what foods are available, plentiful or scarce. What foods an expecting mother eats dictate how her natal child will develop, both physically and mentally. While there seems little evidence for causation, evidence for correlation is present; in the right conditions the signs of the Zodiac can be used as a justifiable predictor of personality.
It may be important to note that the arguments stated above can no longer be applied to a society where foods can be imported from elsewhere or grown at any time of year using modern techniques, or where gene pools are so highly mixed due to ease of travel. Even with the perfect conditions, I am not arguing the case for daily, weekly or monthly horoscopes; I believe there is an argument to be made for them but it would operate on the principles of the placebo effect and cognitive bias. For the most part (but not all), the scientific references I have used are studies into the effects of nutrient deficiency. In order to reach these conclusions I have extrapolated that when nutrients are in abundance the opposite must be true. While this seems logical, it is not always the case and I may be shown to be wrong.
 Joseph Campbell. Mythology and the Individual – The Celebration of Life March 1, 1967
 Sir Leonard Woolley, Pauline Harrison and P.R.S. Moorey. Ur Of The Chaldees 27 May 1982
 Graziano MS, Kastner S. Human consciousness and its relationship to social neuroscience: A novel hypothesis. Cognitive Neuroscience 2011 Jan pp 98-113
 Hesiod, Works and Days 700BC 109-201
 Bryan Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve, 2002
 M. G. Alton-Mackey and B. L. Walker. The physical and neuromotor development of progeny of female rats fed graded levels of pyridoxine during lactation The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 31 January 1978, pp 76-81
 Gregory M. Sutton, Armand V. Centanni, and Andrew A. Butler. Protein Malnutrition during Pregnancy in C57BL/6J Mice Results in Offspring with Altered Circadian Physiology before Obesity Endocrinology, April 2010, pp 1570–1580
 Melissa J. Glenn, Erin M. Gibson, Elizabeth D. Kirby, et al. Prenatal choline availability modulates hippocampal neurogenesis and neurogenic responses to enriching experiences in adult female rats. European Journal of Neuroscience. April 2010 pp 2473–2482
 Elinor L. Sullivan*, Bernadette Grayson*, Diana Takahashi et al. Chronic Consumption of a High Fat Diet During Pregnancy Causes Perturbations in the Serotonergic System and Increased Anxiety like Behavior in Nonhuman Primate Offspring Journal of Neuroscience. March 2010 pp 3826–3830
Feeding the Dragon
By Timothy Mudie
I have to say, it was easier than I expected to exhume Keith. We were able to drive my parents’ station wagon right into the cemetery, parking just a few feet from the grave. The soil was still loose and we managed to frantically shovel our way through the six feet to the coffin in under an hour. I had insisted on both Eric and I wearing all black, including ski masks over our faces, but no one came by. No night watchman on patrol or even any kids looking for an out of the way place to make out or smoke pot.
There wasn’t enough room in the back of the station wagon for the casket, even with the seats down. We knew that before we got there, but I don’t think what it meant had really registered for either of us until we were in the hole, crouched over the casket and holding
Eric turned his gaze from the coffin to me. “I don’t want to do this, Ian,” he said, his voice quavering.
“Me neither,” I said, but I wedged the crowbar under the lid and leaned on it. After a second, Eric did too. We bounced up and down, jimmying the lid until the wood shattered and it sprung open. And there was Keith.
I started to dry heave and Eric turned away, audibly hyperventilating. Somehow we communicated enough to grab hold of Keith—me under his armpits, Eric by his ankles—and carefully lift him above our heads to the grass. We closed the casket and climbed back out, then placed Keith in the back of the car, covered him with a white sheet and two army blankets, and hastily shoveled the soil back into the hole. All the while, we wore the ski masks, and by the time we were finished they were crusty with dirt and sweat. When we got into the car, the stench caused me to dry heave again. I hoped it was Eric and I and not Keith. He couldn’t be decomposing already. Would the dragon even want to eat him if he was so clearly dead?
I drove for the first leg of the trip, until we got far enough away from the cemetery that we weren’t worried that we were being followed. At a truck stop three hours west, somewhere in western Massachusetts, we finally stopped to shower. Neither of us had spoken a word the entire time.
When Keith died, he had one very unique and difficult request, but since he was like a brother to us, we never really questioned whether we would do it. He died unexpectedly, so it wasn’t like he wrote it in his will or anything—he was seventeen; he didn’t even have a will—but we’d talked about our funerals before. I remember one time in particular, the three of us sitting around the playground of our old elementary school on a Friday night because there was nothing else to do, eating fast food burgers, wishing we knew someone old enough to buy us beer, and listening to Irish music on the radio of my parents’ station wagon. A punk cover of “Finnegan’s Wake” came on and we all agreed that the Irish know how to celebrate the dead.
“That’s what I want when I die,” Eric said. “Don’t even bother with a funeral. Just throw a party and dump my body somewhere. I don’t even care.”
“In lieu of flowers,” I said, “please send whiskey.” I was sitting next to him on the swings, my feet dragging back and forth in the gravel. Keith sat on the bottom of a corkscrewing plastic slide a few feet away.
That’s when Keith spoke up and said what would lead the two of us who outlived him on what can only be called an adventure, childish as it makes me feel to use that word. “When I die, I want to be fed to a dragon.”
For a long moment no one spoke. The Pogues started playing “Streams of Whiskey.” Finally, Eric asked, “Any particular dragon you were thinking of? Also, for god’s sake, why?”
“No specific dragon,” Keith told us. “Just so long as it eats my body. Then I’ll be part of a dragon forever.”
And he did mean forever. Ever since I’d known him, Keith had been obsessed with dragons and wanted to study them when he grew up. He read pretty much everything that’s ever been written about them, every scientific paper, every history of their interactions with humans. And not just the real, factual stuff. I never knew Keith to be a church-goer or to believe in angels or even an afterlife, but he believed every out there and mystical theory about dragons anyone had ever advanced. Considering how hard it is to study dragons, maybe the crackpots were right. Maybe if a dragon ate a person, it would absorb his memories, his personality, mixing it with those of all the other people and cattle and who knows what else it had eaten over its centuries-long life.
“Well this is grim,” Eric blurted, pushing back off the ground and sending his swing into the air. “Anyway,” he said, “What do you guys think about the Sox signing Gonzalez?”
One month later, Keith went in to the hospital with a bad stomach ache after putting off going for three full days. His appendix burst in the waiting room and he was dead by the time the doctors got him to the operating table.
Keith and Eric and I had been friends for as long as I can remember, meeting at preschool and bonding over Transformers and Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles. But that bonding actually started as a fight, me and Eric unable to share a cheap plastic toy, the Ghostbusters’ car. Keith, even though he was the same age as us, came in and broke up our tussling like a teacher or older brother. And that was that. Keith was the pebble that our friendship snowballed around until we had such a massive and shared history we may as well have been related by blood.
In elementary school we never had much choice where we’d go, but it seemed we ended up at Keith’s more often than not. Even once we could drive, we would go to his parents’ house.
I don’t remember ever fighting with Keith, not even arguing. Sometimes, I would get moods, but he seemed able to tell and knew what to do, whether it was just to leave me alone or to try and talk to me about some innocuous sitcom or movie that was like comfort food to me.
Eric couldn’t always tell. One time—we must have been about ten years old—the three of us were playing in the snow at Keith’s house. Eric whitewashed me over and over and I couldn’t seem to do anything to fight back. Finally I shoved him too hard and ran into the house, sprinting up to Keith’s room without even taking off my coat or boots, leaving a trail of melting slush.
Keith came into the room while I lay face down on his bed, trying to force myself not to cry. I heard him come in, but didn’t look up until I felt him sit down beside me.
“This is an Australian Spinetail,” he said, holding up a small figurine of a dragon. It was sand-brown and sinewy, with a long whiplike tail that was covered in what looked like razor-sharp spikes. I sat up and wiped my nose on my sleeve, but it was wet too and didn’t do anything.
“It’s the smallest species of dragon in the world, but it’s also the most vicious. They say that when the British landed in Australia, they didn’t see any aborigines along the whole west coast. And it was ’cause these were there. No people would even think about messing with them or trying to move into their territory.”
I sniffed long and hard. “What about now?”
Keith handed me the figurine. “There are still more of them than any other kind, and they’re the only species that actually mates and lays eggs instead of just having babies by themselves, but there aren’t as many as there were, obviously. Same as it is everywhere. Once there’s too many people, the dragons get killed.” He smiled widely, “But according to this book my mom got me, they still kill a couple dozen people a year.”
I don’t know why, but that made me feel better. Keith was like that. He could always be counted on for a fun fact about some dragon species or another. I wish I remembered them all.
I suppose it’s to help us feel closer to the deceased, but it doesn’t make much sense to me to mourn someone while you enjoy their favorite things. When my grandfather died, we had the reception after the funeral catered by his favorite restaurant, even though no one else in our family thought it was particularly good. We did the same thing when Keith died. With his parents’ permission, Eric and I put the Australian Spinetail figurine in the coffin. One of the floral arrangements was in the shape of a dragon, blood red carnations like fire spurting out of a mouth made of white lilies. A line drawing was etched into the cover of his casket, the last thing we saw before he was buried. The constellation draco, the dragon, a little trapezoid for the head and the line of its body snaking away. Keith had pointed it out to Eric and I plenty of times, and it’s still the only constellation I can pick out in the night sky.
I couldn’t tell you much else about that day, nor could I tell you any specifics of what we talked about with Keith’s parents and sisters. What do you tell someone when their son dies? What do you tell someone when their best friend dies?
Keith’s funeral and burial were on a Tuesday. That night, Eric and I again sat on the swings at our old elementary school. We had tried to buy whiskey so we could drink to our dead friend, but Eric’s bluster hadn’t worked. I sipped a chocolate milkshake through a straw in silence.
We must have been there for almost an hour, neither of us saying anything, when Eric abruptly turned to me and said, “You know, we’re going to have to do it.”
I didn’t answer, pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about, but of course I did.
“We should do it soon,” he said. “Before he starts decomposing. I can’t imagine any dragon would like that.” He scuffed his sneakers on the gravel. “And what about the embalming fluid and stuff? Will a dragon even want to eat him? Assuming we can get past the park rangers in the first place.” He sighed. “This might be harder than we thought.”
I hadn’t thought about it at all, though. I remembered Keith’s request, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually contemplate doing it. As if, if Keith was just buried, still all in one piece, maybe there was some chance he’d come back.
It was ten o’clock. My parents would be expecting me home at midnight. There was no way I could tell them what we wanted to do. I couldn’t call them up and say, “Hey Mom and Dad, sorry, but I’m going to be late tonight. I need to dig up Keith’s body and drive to upstate to New York so we can feed him to the dragon there. Oh, and can I borrow your car?” We would have to dig up Keith, drive to the wildlife preserve in the Adirondacks, carry his body to a spot where the dragon could find it, make sure he got eaten, and then drive back. There was no way we could do it without our parents knowing we’d gone.
I looked up at the sky. The night was clear and I could see all the stars spread across it like a kid’s scattered toys.
“Okay,” I said.
In first grade, Keith won an award for knowing so much about dragons. For whatever reason, we spent a whole month learning about them. Dragons and dinosaurs—things kids actually want to learn about and since teachers can classify it as teaching science, it seems that everyone learns about them at some point. It should have been an easy month for our teacher, Mrs. Swift, but Keith was more than she bargained for.
“All the dragons in Europe went extinct due to hunting and loss of habitat by about 1000 A.D.,” she would say.
And Keith would chime in, raising his hand and saying, “Mrs. Swift, there was a dragon in northern Scandinavia until 1500. And some people think there might be small ones living in caves in France and Germany still.”
“As far as we know, there isn’t any real evidence that if a dragon eats someone, that person’s memories and consciousness becomes part of the dragon.”
I would still be trying to wrap my head around what “consciousness” meant, when Keith would again pipe up. “But what about their decorations? How come dragons arrange skeletons and things in ways that look like art if there aren’t peoples’ minds inside them?”
I bet there’s one in every school.
He tried to convince Mrs. Swift to bring us on a field trip to see a dragon, but considering it would have had to be an overnight trip—the closest dragon being the one in New York—that was a no-go. It wasn’t until he was thirteen that Keith finally saw his first dragon in the flesh.
“Oh my God, guys, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said upon returning from the trip he and his family took to Texas. “It’s so huge. Even from so far away, I barely even needed binoculars.”
He held a dented and dirty copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Dragons of the Americas. He flipped to the page with the picture of the Texas dragon, displayed in various poses: wings outstretched; in profile, showing its two ridges of thick plates running along its spine; a close up of its gaping jaws.
No one knew how old the dragon in Texas was, just that it had been there when the first settlers arrived and had previously lived in relative harmony with the native tribes for as long as they could recall. After the settlers arrived from the east, it survived any number of attempts to kill it before dragons were finally declared protected in 1886, and its territory had been protected land ever since. Considering all the European dragons had been killed hundreds of years before anyone even set sail for the Americas, it may have been the oldest dragon in the world. I didn’t think about it at the time, but on our trip to feed Keith to the New York dragon, I wondered how many people the Texas one had eaten, how many memories and minds it had bouncing around in its scaly head.
“It’s so beautiful,” he said. “It’s like so white that in the desert with all the sun it practically glows.” He flipped to the back of the field guide, where there was a list of all eighteen dragons in the Americas, with boxes next to each one so you could check off all the ones you’d seen. Keith held out that page to us. There was a big X next to the Texas dragon. Five more were circled. “I want to go see those ones next,” he said. “My dad said maybe we can go for a weekend this summer and see the New York dragon.”
During the reception at his parents’ house after the funeral, Eric and I went to his bedroom and found the field guide. Keith had marked an X next to the dragons in Texas, Newfoundland, and Florida. The box next to the New York dragon was circled, but unmarked. We brought the book with us, along with Keith’s binoculars. It would be the first dragon Eric or I had seen in person, and in a way, we would be seeing it with Keith.
The town of Maple Lake, New York seemed to exist solely for dragon-viewing tourists. When Eric and I rolled into Main Street just before six in the morning, there were only a few people about, opening shops and diners. At the end of Main Street was a market, and then after that was the road to the dragon preserve. Even though the sun was barely up, it was bright and cloudless, and was obviously going to be a hot day.
We pulled into the market’s small parking lot and saw that it wouldn’t be open until seven, about fifteen minutes. As Eric walked behind the building to pee, I called my parents on my cell phone. I had missed forty-seven calls from them.
My mother picked up about halfway through the first ring. “Ian? Is it you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I said. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
“What’s wrong? Where are you? Is Eric with you?” In the background I heard my father asking, “Does he need the police?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I repeated. “Nothing is wrong, but I can’t tell you where I am right now. Eric and I had to do something. A last request for Keith.”
She was silent then. “What are you going to do?”
“I can’t tell you, Mom, but I promise it’s nothing bad. It’s what Keith wanted.”
She must have put her hand over the phone. I heard muffled conversation, but couldn’t make anything out. Finally, she came back and said, “You know that you technically stole the car, right?”
“I’ll fill up the tank,” I said. “And get it washed. I’ll be home by tonight.”
I told my parents I loved them, assured them again that everything was fine, and hung up. Eric was just getting back.
“Your parents pissed?” he asked.
“Not as bad as I thought they’d be,” I answered. “You call yours?”
He shook his head. “I’m going to wait till this is all over. I’d rather deal with one thing at a time.”
We watched the front of the market, looking for signs it was opening.
“Remember when Keith came back from Texas?” Eric asked. “The look on his face?”
I smiled. “He was like a kid on Christmas.”
“My grandmother used to get that look when she was in church. Kid was crazy.”
It got quiet again. After a long minute, I said, “We’re good friends, right?”
“Absolutely,” Eric answered. “More. We’re brothers, the three of us.”
“This is the right thing to do,” I said.
A man wearing an apron over jeans and a black t-shirt pushed open the door, leaned outside, and flipped a sign from “closed” to “open.” We went in to buy the meat.
The field guide had warned that dragons are attracted by scent, so dragon watchers trying to avoid detection should douse themselves in unnatural scents to keep from smelling like food. For Keith, already smelling unnatural due to the embalming fluid, we would need to entice the dragon somehow. Raw meat seemed a good way to do it.
At the market, we filled a cart with the cheapest meat we could find, tossing in pound after pound of beef, pork, and chicken. We were the only customers in the store.
“Should we get a cooler?” I asked Eric.
“I don’t think we’ll need one,” he said. “We shouldn’t have this for too long.”
As I pushed the cart toward the registers at the front of the small store, I happened to glance out at our car. Parked next to it was a park ranger’s cruiser, brown and green with a light on top like a police car. I couldn’t tell if someone was in it or not. Had our parents figured out our plan and called? The ranger was parked directly next to us, just feet from a corpse we had stolen from a graveyard that was hidden only by a couple army blankets. My heart leapt into my throat as my guts dropped to my shoes. I took a deep breath and walked steadily to the register.
We loaded the meat onto the conveyor and watched as the teenage girl cashier blankly scanned each item.
A low whistle came from behind me. “Damn, my man, that’s a hell of a lot of meat.”
I turned around slowly, calmly, even though I knew just what I’d see. And sure enough, it was the park ranger, looking very official and intimidating in his green and khaki uniform, wearing a green hat. He wasn’t very old, probably just out of college. He smiled, but whether it was meant to be friendly or not I couldn’t tell, I was too nervous.
“What’s all that for?” he asked.
“Barbeque,” Eric answered.
“Mmm, I’m jealous. You mind me asking where at? It’s just I don’t recognize you guys is all.”
“We’re going camping,” Eric said. “A few miles from here.”
The ranger nodded. “That’s going to be one meaty barbeque. No potato salad? Hamburger rolls? Hell, not even some ketchup?”
“Friends are bringing those,” Eric said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
He nodded slowly, like he was really thinking it over. “Well, that may be true,” he said. “But, see, I work up at the reserve, and if you’re buying all that meat with the intention of feeding the dragon, then it is my business.”
“Why the hell would we want to do that?” Eric asked.
He shrugged. “Oh, you know. People want to attract it, get up extra close. We get a few crazies every year. Honestly, though? You don’t want to bring this guy anywhere near you, unless you’re looking to get yourself eaten.”
Neither Eric nor I spoke. I paid the cashier and helped her bag the meat. I picked up all the bags at once, the weight making the plastic handles dig into my fingers.
“Ready?” I asked Eric. “We don’t want to keep the guys waiting.”
Eric nodded. “You have a good day, Mr. Ranger,” he said as he passed me, heading for the door. We reached the car, threw the bags into the back, and drove away before we’d gotten our seatbelts on, Eric behind the wheel.
As we pulled out the lot, I saw the ranger watching us and striding very purposefully across the parking lot.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Eric repeated, tugging Keith’s blanket-wrapped body up the slope, one arm looped around the upper part of his body and the other hand holding bags of meat. On the lower half, I was doing the same thing, struggling to keep up.
We weren’t following any trail, just crashing through the woods to where we hoped would be a good vantage point for attracting the dragon. And we had just stepped across a rocky clearing, where the break in the trees let us see down into the parking lot where we had left the car. Once again, right next to it was the ranger’s cruiser. And if he knew we were trying to feed the dragon, then he could guess where we were headed.
Eric trailed off in a gasp, leaving only the sounds of chirping birds and buzzing cicadas. Branches scratched my face and tore at my clothes and the bags and blankets. I was sweating bullets, but my mouth was bone dry. My shoulders and back ached. Judging by the look on his face, Eric was in the same boat.
After about ten more minutes of frantic scrambling through the underbrush we reached the cliff. Eric had read about it online, on a website giving advice for people trying to get illegally close to dragons. The cliff jutted out from the forest, looking out over the valley below and the other mountains dotting the horizon. All the pine covered slopes looked the same to me, but Eric pointed out the dragon’s cave. There was only one way to find out if we were close enough to get its attention.
We unwrapped Keith from the blankets and placed him near the edge of the cliff. Both of us beginning to retch, we pulled the warm meat from its styrofoam containers and covered Keith with it, first his torso, then his limbs, and finally we covered his lidded eyes and beatific half smile with two handfuls of ground beef and a skirt steak.
With Keith’s body prepared, we sat back along the tree line to wait, me repeatedly spitting to try to clear my mouth of the bile. I could only hope that the dragon would arrive before the ranger.
Blood ran between my fingers and down my arms. We didn’t have to wait long.
The ranger beat the dragon there by about two minutes. As Eric and I sat, catching our breath and looking out at the dragon’s mountain, me trying to will it to appear, the ranger burst through the trees and onto the cliff behind us.
“God damn it, guys,” he said. “This is so not safe. We need to get you out of here now.”
We turned to face him just as he noticed that our pile of meat was in the outline of a human, that it was covering a body. “Jesus!” He pulled his gun from his holster, but kept it pointed at the ground. It didn’t look like he had had a lot of experience with it.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “What is this?”
“Hey, come on,” Eric said. “It’s cool. Be cool.”
The ranger looked from Eric to me to Keith and back. “You guys are under arrest. We need to clean this up immediately and get out of here before the dragon smells it. If you try anything, I will shoot you.”
I raised my hands in front of me. “Please,” I said. “This is our friend.”
“Yeah, you guys look like real pals.”
“He… he died.” My voice caught in my throat. I told myself that the pressure in my eyes was from the stress, from the pain in my back and the heat. “This is our friend Keith. He loved dragons, and he died. This is his last request.”
The gun dropped a couple inches, as if he had forgotten he was holding it. “He wanted to be fed to a dragon? God, why?” Then it hit him. “He thinks he’ll be absorbed by it, doesn’t he? That he’ll have his memories in the dragon forever?” When I didn’t answer he shook his head. “That’s not true, man. That’s just a… a myth. It’s not magic. It’s an animal.”
“It’s a dragon,” Eric said.
“No,” the ranger said. “We need to get out of here right now. Get your friend, leave the meat, and let’s go.”
I heard a massive shush, the sound of air being displaced by the steady flaps of huge leathery wings. We all turned to see the dragon rising from below the cliff, slowly exposing itself to view like a surfacing submarine.
“Move,” the ranger called. “Get out of there. Into the trees.”
I couldn’t look away, but I heard Eric behind me, kicking up pebbles as he jumped to his feet and ran into the trees.
“Ian!” he hissed. “Come on.”
Without standing—my legs felt limp all of a sudden—I slid until my back pressed against a tree trunk. Eric and the ranger urged me back further, but I was frozen. And then the dragon landed on the cliff on its hind legs, wings splayed out to steady it. Combined, the wings were even larger than its body, thin but tough skin hanging from curved hollow bones that sprouted from its shoulders. Each one was tipped with a yellowed hooked claw. Though the wings were leathery, the rest of its body was covered in large round scales. It was a good thirty feet long from nose to tail. If it was hungry, it could easily fit Keith and me in its stomach, with room for Eric and the ranger as dessert.
As I’d learned from Keith, dragons tend to be colored so they can blend in with their surroundings. Being the sort that lives in a mountain forest, the New York dragon was a mix of green and brown and gray. The scales were iridescent, seeming to shift between all three colors at once. It wasn’t something a person would notice from further away. Maybe a handful of people in the whole world had ever seen it.
The dragon folded its wings and dropped to all fours, stretching its long sinewy neck toward Keith. It made a chuffing sound that I assumed was a sniff. It looked up at me, then back to Keith as it reared its head. A low rumble came from its throat and suddenly a puff of flame burst from its mouth, charring the meat heaped on Keith’s body. A quick blast of heat hit me. I heard crinkling and smelled scorched hair. When I touched my face, I realized my eyebrows had burned off.
I shifted slightly to my left, hoping to get amongst the trees, but the instant I moved the dragon dropped its head and glared at me, freezing me in my tracks. From behind me, I heard Eric and the ranger breathing heavily. I could picture them, watching, hoping to help but ready to sprint off if they needed to.
As I sat paralyzed, the dragon lowered its head and carefully, almost daintily, closed its jaws around Keith’s body. It lifted him up, tilted its head back, and swallowed him whole like a seagull with a fish. And just like that Keith was gone.
Cuts of meat rained from the dragon’s jaws, plopping on the ground in front of me with a squish. One of Keith’s shiny black shoes followed. It bounced off the rock and landed a foot to my right, and I instinctively picked it up. Unfortunately, that caught the dragon’s attention and it whipped its head down until it was so close I could feel the heat coming off its body and its breath ruffled my hair. Its jaws cracked open. My stomach and throat tightened until I felt like I both couldn’t breathe and was about to vomit. It stared into my eyes and I stared back. They were disconcertingly human, intelligent eyes, with large whites around the outside and dark black pupils surrounded by deep watery blue. At that moment, I was certain that I would shortly be following Keith down the dragon’s throat. I wondered if we would recognize each other inside the dragon’s mind.
Then, after what seemed like hours but was in reality just a few seconds, the dragon snapped its jaws shut with a loud clack. It raised its head and turned around, perching on the edge of the cliff. Just before it took off, it turned back and looked at me one last time. It unfurled its wings, and with a massive flap stepped off the cliff and into the air. I realized I had been holding my breath and slowly exhaled. As the dragon languidly flew toward its cave, I passed out. When I came to a few minutes later, the ranger had me in fireman’s carry as he picked his way along the trail. His breath was coming ragged, sweat was pouring off his forehead, and he seemed not far from passing out himself. I got off his shoulders, and the three of us supported each other all the way down the mountain.
When we reached the bottom, the ranger didn’t speak. He just stared at us for a long minute before getting in his car and driving away.
I was initially grounded for the entirety of my senior year, though good behavior got my parents to relent after a few months. Still, though I was allowed to go out on weekends and to play video games, my car privileges were revoked. There was no discussion on that.
A year later, still no one else had figured out that Keith was missing from his grave. Eric and I had apparently reburied the casket convincingly.
I think we had both hoped that honoring Keith’s final wish would help us get past his death, but it didn’t really. At one point on the drive home, I thought Eric was sleeping, so I turned the radio off and realized he was crying very softly, though I couldn’t tell if it was in his sleep or not. I turned the radio back on to cover the sound. When I was finally allowed to stay at Eric’s house overnight again, we spent the whole night reminiscing about when we had had sleepovers of all three of us. I wasn’t able to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time that night, and every time I woke Eric was also awake.
On the one year anniversary of when we gave Keith to the dragon, Eric and I borrowed his parents car—with permission. We left on a Thursday and drove through the night, getting to the same parking lot we’d started up the mountain from early Friday morning. The lot was empty.
It was cooler that morning than it had been the year before. Dew still clung to the grass and dripped off leaves. The ranger and his cruiser were nowhere to be seen.
We hadn’t brought any meat this time, but we did bring Keith’s binoculars. We sat cross-legged on the rocky ground where we had laid him out a year earlier.
I scanned the dragon’s mountain without the binoculars, but I couldn’t see the dragon anywhere. I didn’t see it when I looked with the binoculars either, but as my view passed by a large cave that had to be the dragon’s lair, I noticed something white standing out from the darker grays and browns. I squinted, wishing the binoculars were stronger, but they were strong enough for me to make out what it was. Arranged in front of the cave’s entrance was a complete human skeleton, put together as perfectly as if it were standing in a science classroom. Except instead of its arms hanging by its side, the skeleton’s right hand was raised in a wave. And I know I was far away and looking through binoculars, and that all skulls supposedly look the same, but I swear that Keith was smiling.
Blessings by the Shade
By S.L. Nickerson
They still tell stories about the day I was born, of how a lilac comet streaked across the stars and the volcano ceased spitting fires to the heavens. They call it omens but I call it a conspiracy of convenience. This is what made me High Priestess, because I am blessed. The volcano is Lua Pele and Lua Pele is the volcano, and only the High Priestess of Lua Pele can soothe her. She gives us ebon earth for sustenance; she takes our lives with vermilion lava.
The Altar of Lua Pele is not ordinary. While the High Priestesses before me have studied it for lifetimes, I stand before it but once a day. It is not marble, because what marble glistens like the flesh of dew-drenched coconuts? They have only given me the knowledge I need. I am to go to the altar once a day, they whisper, and no more. To my left, on the altar’s top face, are hieroglyphs wrought in bronze; those are for the incantations and they are always first. For the sacrifice a spike rises from the middle, pale as the rest of the altar and thin to a point beyond my observation; that is for the sacrifice’s head and not the heart. The altar needs no cleansing. Its surface drinks like a stranded mariner. I never could find out where all the blood went. The basin to my right is for washing my hands last, its waters redolent of ‘?helo berries that replenish without human touch.
There is a legend of a High Priestess once who had cleansed her hands, made the sacrifice, and then chanted the incantation. On the panel that faces me the altar’s seamless surface has the thinnest crack dark as charred kukui oil. It is the altar’s only flaw. The High Priestess vanished by night, but the legend says no more. I would that I could be so bold.
Sometimes my sister visits me in the night. I have guards and priestesses to keep my privacy, but she enters my chambers unannounced. Even though she is only Queen and I High Priestess, they follow her orders before mine. There were no comets and the volcano did not stop when she was born.
“Sweet sister,” she asks, resting her face next to mine on the pillows, “whom have you sacrificed today?” She knows the answer, but she asks all the same. Her crown is a chain of polished aventurine links, wrapped around her skull thrice, and from it a single black pearl the size of an eye dangles over her forehead.
I tell her. It was the merchant who charged too a high a price for lapis lazuli sweet sister, it was our cousin who tried to usurp you one time too many sweet sister, it was the baker who burned your bread sweet sister. And while she asks for details, she runs her fingers through my hair. Mine is soft and long as hers and the strands shimmer jet violet in the candlelight because we are of the same seed, the seed of Lua Pele, and we are blessed. She strokes my cheeks and rubs her thumb to my lips and nothing more follows when I am good. She does not mind my shuddering.
“Good, sweet obedient sister, blood of mine by half,” she whispers when she leaves, still with the moons high in the sky or as night gives way to dusk. I draw the curtains around my bed to lie still and weep. To her I am always half-sister and never elder-sister.
Every day begins as the last before it. I only have a precious few moments to myself before the priestesses enter my chambers by the time the rays of the risen sun crack over my balcony and kiss my cool marble floor.
On the underside of my desk there is a false bottom, and in it each morning is a new note inked on papyrus long as my hand and rolled slender as a finger. The colours of the wrapping ribbon are always different, never once the same shade. Incarnadine, henna and obsidian, amber and lapis lazuli, alizarin streaked with absinthe, saffron spots on silver, beryl that fades to ochre that slips into coral that ends with calamine. I would collect each ribbon to count my days but that might make them suspicious for they are always watching me. For as long as this has been my home, she writes.
Because of her I know the world outside the temple changes. A new isle is discovered on the distant seas. Locusts destroy the barely crop this year. There will be a competition for composers in two months. No detail is too much for me, not what she has eaten, or her favourite gown, or her journey to the bakery. I need to know it all. She tells me where she last saw me. Sometimes she even mocks my guards and attending priestesses and I have to stifle my giggles. Because of her, I know I am loved.
Her words are drenched in beauty vivid as her ribbons. Sometimes when I am alone I whisper what she has written to me, and their sounds taste sweeter on my tongue than the juices of any ‘?helo berry. She is my soul’s manna.
I write a response on the letter’s back, but never too much to make them notice a difference in my ink pot, tie the ribbon back and slip it into its hiding place. I do not know her, she will not give herself away, but I am in love with her words. I do not need a face, a voice, the smell of perfume or touch of soft fingers. I wonder if she is a priestess or a guard who has access to my quarters when I am not there, or a woman with power enough to bribe both their delivery and their silence while she watches me from afar.
Today she writes to me, This sunset I will stand by the Column of Second Victory, the one etched in hawks holding whales in their talons, dressed all in azure but for a flaxen veil over my hair. From my lobes I shall wear the silver curled earrings you once slipped into the scroll for me. I have seen you all these years, but you have yet to see me, distant as it will be. Do not let your eyes linger on me, we have loved too long beneath anyone’s notice; we mustn’t make suspicion.
My images of her I have shaped a thousand times in my mind, misted and changed again and again. She is anything I wish her to be in that moment. I wonder if to know her finally would betray my fantasies or fuel them. I have until sunset to decide if I will gaze upon her.
Knowing what she looks like, that can be change too. Today I pen no answer.
The priestesses arrive and remove my robes and I bathe in water carried scalding fresh from hot springs that sprout at the volcano’s feet. They scrub me with soda until my skin is raw and run bronze razors over it until it bleeds and is hairless as a newborn’s bottom. My first duty is to be clean. Only alabaster white flowers are allowed to bob in my pool and scent its steams, plucked fresh from the kapaoa shrub that is the first to flourish over Lua Pele’s lava flows, and for that they are sacred.
When the priestesses remove their brushes I arise, dripping, from the pool and they pat my body all over. They rotate the priestesses who attend me so that they do not grow too fond of me, but their faces always look the same. I am still as they massage ointments into my flesh, glistening my chafes, and whip linens around my body. Twenty-two folds, nine knots, and thirty-four wraps the dressing takes. My linens are always gold-dusted solferino, one shade crimson shy of violet. They braid my wet hair in coils around my skull to fit beneath my headdress. I am told that this is made only of gold, but for all the pain in my neck it might as well be limestone. The cap at the base seals in any loose strand of hair that might escape, and two horns rise above each of my ears to clasp a disk between them that is studded with garnets set like rivulets of lava. When I stand in the sun, sometimes the reflection of my ridiculous headdress blinds those nearest to me. I try to make it appear an accident.
My quarters have always been as I remember them, though I know that before my time they were not always thus. Before they were mine someone had chiselled out several figures in the frieze, hurriedly because they had not had time to reset the clay and paint them anew. I have the time to study them. The vandalism is not random. The chiselled figures are usually the tallest, taller than the Queens even—that means they are important—and they never wore headdresses like mine. Otherwise, they could be me.
I eat my haupia pudding alone. Of course I am not alone, but no one speaks to me. I sit at the table on the high dais, in the throne of the High Priestess, and there are no other chairs at the high table. Three guards stand to either side of me, and all I need do is sit and my food is brought to me. I can watch the rest of the priestesses eating below me and talking amongst themselves, but that is soon tiring because I barely hear their words. Sometimes they notice my gaze and go quiet. These days I more often study the walls. Every frieze here shows a feast, and at each feast a tall, erased figure sits at head, only she is not alone but surrounded by her priestesses who are merry. They should have chiselled out more. I am not stupid.
Our mother, the last Queen, had two men. The first, my father, was a prince from two vales away, born to a taller people with coppery skin and hair wispy as the fronds of ‘ama‘uma‘u ferns and nearly as green. They are not blessed, but they are wealthy. When I was eight he raped a priestess and our mother had him sacrificed. They whisper that my face is his and that is why our mother eventually sent me away to the temple. My hair is not his, I tell myself, and neither is my skin.
The second, my sister’s father, was a distant relative still of the seed of Lua Pele, but his hair was only jet without violet, dark as his skin like the rest of our people. They said that with him our mother cleansed herself of foreign taint.
After I finish my pudding, my escort brings me to the courtyard garden that is shaded by wiliwili trees. Their lower branches are pruned, but the higher ones are left wild to run in a knurled, rust-barked mess. If it is summer then their leaves are in small jade clusters, and in autumn their hairy flowers blossom, milky and auramine. In the courtyard’s centre there lies a cage of ‘apapane honeycreepers with scarlet bright feathers. All they have to do is flutter in circles, sit, or nestle within the cage. Sometimes they fly at the bars, and I fancy it is madness driven by boredom.
Every morning I find flowers cut fresh from the koa trees in a watered vase beneath the cage, within view but out of reach. I take the branches one at a time, and I slide them into the vase within the cage to fuel the birds’ feeding. They sink their bitumen black beaks into the flowers like hooks. Only I can feed the ‘apapanes. “The birds are well,” I say. A messenger runs off to the palace to tell the Queen and then announce to the rest of our valley in the shade of Lua Pele that the High Priestess has today pronounced, “The birds are well.”
“The birds are well.” It is all they have ever told me I needed to say. There are times when I try to emphasise a different word, sequentially in the sentence each day starting with “the” and ending with “well”, then working my way back to “the”. I might say it a little faster, a little more slowly, perhaps with sounds from my throat deep, a whispered utterance or even a squeak. There are only so many ways one can pronounce “The birds are well” without tiring of it too quickly.
I must retreat indoors after my pronouncement, for afternoon is when the sun is at its hottest. Too much sun bleaches my fine jet flesh, they whisper, and I must not strain myself. From my chambers my balcony overlooks the valley. The balcony is shaded this time of day, of course. There I set aside my headdress to let the winds blow through my uncovered hair and I crack my strained neck. I lean against the parapet. If there were sun here my hair would also shimmer violet, to show that I too am blessed.
Inside the temple is always sleepy, but my scant view of the world moves and I can see the city below. Between homes of mud brick painted sallow, citizens carry two jugs of water each, which dangle from ropes fastened to the staffs across their backs; or they lead their fattened cows to the slaughterhouse where joints of fresh meat hang outside from the windows. Just outside the temple walls there is a brewery and bakery complex. If I am lucky the sweet smells of fermenting dough and baking cakes carries to my nostrils, but if not I only hear the unending whack from grain grinding, the crack of the overseers’ batons, and the scrapes of pokers on iron ovens.
After the priestesses set my second meal in my rooms, I slip back inside. They leave me baked breadfruit and steamed kalo roots, and if the season permits it bananas and ‘?helo berries, goat cheeses to nibble on, and honey-thick wine to drink. Beneath my cheese there is a scroll wrapped in sharkskin. The names on it are different, but they all mean the same. I unveil it after I lick the last of the breadfruit from my fingers. Today I am to sacrifice one of the Queen’s viziers. She disliked the Queen’s proposal for higher taxes on trade from a neighbouring vale.
Before the sacrifice there is the incense as two priestesses precede me down the colonnade, pendulating nacre censers. It hazes the air so thick I would not know which way to walk but for the tight escort of guards who match my steps. Priestesses fuss about me, straightening my ridiculous headdress so not a wisp of hair escapes, adjusting the golden bracelets that curl around my arms, dabbing my lips of all moisture as I try not to cough, straightening my linens so that I am everything proper once the blazing beams of setting sun pierce the incense and my vision clears to the roar of the square that yearns for death.
The Altar of Lua Pele stands on the edge of a drop where the square far below, speared with columns to commentate centuries of our valley’s victories, fills with people who watch and holler. In the square’s centre there is a raised throne of polished sandstone, gargantuan and the one thing level with the altar. Only the Queen can sit upon it, but today my sister has deemed the sacrifice not important enough to watch. Even when she is absent the same number of guards circle the sandstone chair.
I keep my eyes lowered, so as to not look at the Column of Second Victory. I have not yet decided if I should behold my secret lover. I shuffle up to the Altar of Lua Pele. I begin to read the incantation. The reading is long, but I have it memorised. I look at it for show, the bronze letters liquefied like fire in the sunset, etching light into my eyes. I blink away, and as I chant I look to the distant Column of Second Victory. My heart flutters like the caged ‘apapane birds.
There she stands on the eastern side, slightly elevated above the crowds. A breeze catches at her azure robes, and while I chant I wish the words held power, true power, enough for the breezes to lift her flaxen veil so that I can see my beloved’s hair and know if she too is blessed. That is my one wish, but all I say are empty words as I turn my gaze back to the hieroglyphs, dimmed now and less blinding.
They march the sacrifice from an archway to my right, always from the right, with her hands bound and her head in a sac of beaten m?maki bark. They force her to her knees with the Altar of Lua Pele and the spike between us.
I do not like looking in their eyes, even for a moment. I do not want to know the sacrifices are human, like me. I do what they tell me and try not to think. That is how I survive. I pull her hood off quickly, deftly, with practice. A sound issues from her throat, a word cut short as I grab the back of her head in two hands and thrust her face-first into the spike. For my first few sacrifices I was fascinated at the sight of a spike that plunged up from the back of skulls and stayed undamaged day after day, and by the way the Altar drank their blood. Once or twice I missed and got the neck, but not any longer. Now I dread my duty and try not to look.
I wash my hands in the basin of waters smelling sweet as ‘?helo berries and it stings sharp as their juices. It hurts a hangnail on my left thumb, and I keep my eyes downward as I wash. I want to glance up at her on the Column of Second Victory, one last time, but I will not allow myself the second temptation.
A flash of reflection to the left, not bronze like the hieroglyphs but silver, catches my gaze. Before I can school myself I look at the sacrifice. Her hair is fallen forwards to expose each of her ears, and around their edges curl the silver earrings that I have given her.
I take a step back, then a second, and before I crumble in front of the entire square my escort usher me back into the temple through the colonnade, dark and smoky with ash.
My sister awaits me in my bedchamber, clothed in the most wicked of smiles and azure robes. She throws the flaxen veil back to show her hair shimmering jet violet in the candlelight. There is no crown today. The door booms shut behind me, leaving us alone. She sweeps her arm across my breasts and under my arm, pushing us both back onto the bed. I stare at my flinty canopy and had eyes for nothing more.
“Tell me, sweet sister,” I whisper between my teeth, breathing hard from her weight on my diaphragm, “did I truly sacrifice your vizier today?”
“Does it concern you who she was?” she asks me, tilting my chin up in her fingers. They dig deep into my flesh, straight to my bone. “I can feed you lies and you will never know if she even existed, sweet sister.”
I sink into the bedding, letting the back of my skull rest on the pillows. No matter what I feel or hear, I close my eyes to lock the greyness within and keep my body as still as she allows it. Only when I feel the sun pound the back of my eyelids I open them to the daylight and I am alone.
I am alone.
I go through the bathing and the dressing, the eating and the birds, the fruit and the cheese, a name and a reason on sharkskin under the cheese, incense and incantations. To my right the sacrifice stumbles in his taupe kilt, and then kneels before me in submission, the spike between us. I lift the m?maki sac from his head, and stare into his slate eyes, which is difficult because the setting sun is to his back, making him a shadow against the blinding light.
I pull off my headdress and toss it down, deep into the square to throngs of outstretched hands, letting my beautiful tresses spill free over my shoulders. “After the sacrifice, remember to wash my hands,” I tell him and plunge my skull onto the spike.
The Adverse Possession of Madeline Greene
By Tessa Bennett
There is a legal doctrine called adverse possession whereby one man – in absence of legal or moral claim – may come to own the property of another. In its simplest terms, it requires only that the trespasser take hold of the land and cling to it as long as possible. By sheer force of will and the passage of time, he can take the ground right from under your feet.
Perhaps this principle is a vestige of our flag-bearing forefathers, who declared themselves founders of a land that had already been found. As a child learning American history, this irony had troubled Madeline. She could not understand how something could be discovered that was already known, anymore than something that was seen could be unseen, heard be unheard, or any sensory phenomena be erased from memory.
It was only as she grew older that she began to appreciate the duplicitous nature of existence and even observe the dichotomy within herself. She was twenty-four, therefore above the age of majority but uncomfortable identifying herself as an adult. She was neither tall nor short, neither thick nor thin, and hair that was neither straight nor curly but rather overtaken by a slight wave and frizz. Even her eyes were unable to reach a definitive conclusion as they alternated between gray and blue depending on the light and time of day.
As physically unobtrusive as she was, Madeline was even more nondescript as a personality. At work she was an office automaton, her desk serving as a way station for memos and reports that passed under her purview without remark or notice. In the few social events that she attended, she invariably found herself standing at the edges of conversations, listening and nodding but utterly ambivalent about whether to participate herself.
In short, Madeline Greene was sure of nothing except that she existed and about even that she was beginning to have her doubts.
On Tuesday morning, Madeline woke up to the sound of rain. She kept her eyes closed tightly for several minutes, savoring the weight of the blankets over her body, the heavy warmth pressing her into the mattress until she felt as though she had disappeared into the fluff and feathers that cradled her. Unwilling to let the violence of her alarm violate the peacefulness of the moment, she opened her eyes and reached for the clock only to see it was well past the time she had set for the buzzer to sound.
And it wasn’t raining.
The sound that woke her was not the crash of rain against the windowpane but the clatter of water against the shower tiles. Her heart thudded in her chest and her breathing became quick and rapid. She clutched the comforter to her chin and tried to lie perfectly still. Terrified but unsure of what to do, she found herself defaulting to the childhood belief that nothing sinister could reach you if you hid under the covers. The bathroom door opened and the trespasser appeared amidst a gasp of steam, wrapped in one of her powder pink bath towels.
It was Madeline. And yet, it was not.
It was a version of Madeline.
The eyes were a piercing bluish-grey, like the ocean sky before a storm. The body was firmer, the muscles more defined and toned, perhaps after hours at the gym she had always resolved to spend but never actually accomplished. Even her skin seemed different with a glow as if a lamp had been lit and was radiating from within her; casting its subtle incandescence through the blush on her cheek and the curve of her bare shoulder. But these were only minor differences; slight alterations that Madeline recognized from the years spent seeing the figure, now standing in the doorway of her bathroom, staring back at her from a mirror.
“Are you still here?” The trespasser sighed and dropped her towel onto the bedroom floor. Madeline blushed and felt strangely embarrassed at the sight of her own naked body from this voyeuristic perspective. She crossed to the closet and began to sort through the hangers of her work clothes as Madeline continued to watch in shocked silence. The trespasser selected a low-cut green blouse that Madeline had bought on a whim but always been too timid to wear outside of the dressing room. She then turned back to address her duplicate cowering in bed. “I said, are you still here?”
“Of course I am,” she managed to whisper. “Where else would I be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” The trespasser sighed again as she began to dress. “Floating as a wisp of consciousness lost on the abstract plane of existence? Dissipating among cosmos in the vacuum of space? Whatever happens to people who get replaced.” Madeline sat up with a start.
“Replaced? What, like, is this invasion of the body snatchers?”
The trespasser laughed slightly as she turned to the jewelry box and began sorting through a selection of earrings.
“Oh, nothing so fantastic as a Jack Finney novel. I’m not an alien; I’m you. Just…well, I’m a you that exists.” She slipped tiny silver hoops through the holes in her ear lobes, which surprised Madeline since she had never had her ears pierced. She had planned to when she was twelve but lost her nerve at the last moment and never gathered the courage for a second attempt.
“I exist!” Madeline protested, beginning to find her voice within this absurdist nightmare.
“Yes, in a purely physical sense. Which is strange but I suppose these things take time.”
“Did you hear me? I said I exist!” She stepped out of bed now and took a couple steps forward, her fear being steadily displaced by an anxious anger. The trespasser turned and regarded her sternly.
“No, you do not. And you have not for a long time. Maybe you never did.”
“Of course, I do! I’m here! See?” Madeline grabbed the lamp off the bedside table. She held it forcefully about an inch from the trespasser’s nose. She thought of smashing it for dramatic effect, but after a moment of impotently waving the lamp before the amused, pitying eyes of the trespasser – her eyes only not her eyes – she set it down weakly.
“Couldn’t even do that could you? In your last desperate moments, you couldn’t even break a lamp.”
“It doesn’t matter if a break a lamp! I can touch it; I can move it! That proves I exist!”
“No, it does matter. It matters very much because it’s the difference between being and existing.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means you’re nothing but space! At least if you’d smashed the lamp you would have done something! For once in your life you would have done something!” She scoffed, “Although I suppose it’s my life now.”
“I’ve done things!”
“No, you really haven’t. You’ve spent twenty-four years on this planet being nothing but a blip on the physical plane. That is not existing. Think about it. Socrates said, ‘To be is to do.’ Sartre said, ‘To do is to be.’ Whichever way you look at it, the result is the same – existence and action are correlatives. You can’t have one without the other. If you don’t exist, you can’t take action. And you can’t refuse to take action and expect existence to continue right along. That’s what it comes down to.”
“I take action!”
“Breathing is not an action. Neither is sleeping or eating. Those are bodily functions necessary for survival and no more make you a conscious creature capable of deliberate self-determination than steamed broccoli. Your life has been a series of false starts and unrealized notions. You’ve had your chance and done nothing with it. So, now it’s my turn to be Madeline Greene. It’s my turn to be and to do.” The trespasser looked to the clock, “Damn, I’m late for work.”
“No, I’m late for work!” Madeline insisted with hot tears burning in her eyes and her face becoming flush with indignant fury. The trespasser shook her head and heaved a frustrated sigh.
“You still aren’t getting this are you?” She slipped her feet into a pair of black pumps and grabbed the purse off the dresser. “I am you, only I’m the you that exists. So enjoy whatever fleeting seconds of physical presence you have left. Sit around, watch television, or smash a lamp if you can muster up the gumption. But your time is over.”
She turned and walked down the hallway toward the front door. Madeline followed quickly after, the slap of her bare feet on the wood floor echoing the clack of the trespasser’s heels in perfect time, shouting protests at the interloper. But the trespasser did not turn around or glance behind her, just opened the door and stepped out onto the breezeway. Taking a deep breath of the morning air, she closed her eyes and stated plainly, “It’s my turn.”
“What was that, Madeline?” She turned with surprise to see her neighbor picking up her newspaper.
“Oh, nothing Mrs. Chambers. Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother at all! Although, um, is everything all right? Walls are thin in this building, you know, and, I thought I heard arguing this morning.”
The trespasser looked behind her but saw no one and nothing – just an empty apartment. “No problem at all! Just talking to myself.” She closed the door and locked it before turning to her newly familiar middle-aged neighbor, holding a newspaper in one hand and clutching her tattered old bathrobe closed at the chest with the other. “I’ve decided its time to make some changes in my life for the better. It’s time to stop sitting around and waiting for my life to start.”
“That’s wonderful, Madeline! Good luck!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. I appreciate it.” With a smile and a wave, Madeline Greene went off to begin the first day of the rest of her life.
Leavings and Remains
By Laura DeHaan
Homework Assignment #22: Write About Your Family
by Meoquanee Minawasinons (age 7) – April 28, 2079
My family is my two older half-brothers and my two older sisters and my dad and my mom and me.
Sansuka and Sasrutha are old old men, Dad says they would be 26 now. Sansuka is a geomancer and he works in the Deep Fishing Mine in Wattlesburg North. He writes us lots of letters that come in by carrier pigeon because he says they’re faster than the Internet. He calls me baby and gives me piggy-back rides when he visits. Dad says Sasrutha went to Toronto to be with his boyfriend and ended up being a travel writer. He has been everywhere except Mars and always sends us copies of his articles with his very own notes inked in. He writes under a fake name because he doesn’t want the places he’s visiting to know he was there. Except they do, they just don’t know that he talks about them after.
My oldest sister is Keezheekoni, I don’t remember much about her. Dad says she left right after the government had the airtrains put in and maybe she is travelling like Sasrutha, except liking it more and that’s why she doesn’t write to us. Sasrutha always ends up getting a mango worm in his head or needing money for bail, his articles are pretty funny.
Ominotago we call Minnow and she is only four years older than me but she calls me baby-baby, which I like when Sansuka calls me that but not her. Dad says she was used to being the baby and doesn’t like that I’m younger than her, which is silly. I’d rather be older, but not as old as the twins because Sansuka is losing his hair already. Also we call her Minnow because Ominotago means ‘nice voice’ and she sounds like a cat being stepped on. At least I think that’s why we call her Minnow. It’s why I call her Minnow. Sometimes I call her Fishbreath.
Dad says he used to be a no-good layabout before he met Mom, and then he became a good daddy BOOM like that. He grew up in the Tooth for a Tooth War, in the Wild Eagles tribe, but he wasn’t kidnapped like the other kids. He was actually born into the tribe, but he doesn’t remember who his parents are because none of the adults were very good at taking care of kids. That’s why the war ended so badly, because they were all hiding in the Northwest until the leaders finally said, “Oh wait we’re actually pretty stupid and we have no idea what we’re doing.” That’s what Dad says happened. He says they were just a bunch of angry kids and if they had just stayed in the North and been angry all by themselves instead of stealing people’s babies, nobody would have cared. Except they did and some people died and the government couldn’t always figure out which kids belonged to which parents and sometimes they thought the parents didn’t even want their kid back. That’s why I have an Aunt Ying even though she’s not really my aunt, but Dad says she didn’t have anyone else to be family with.
He was trained up to be their storyteller except I don’t think his tribe would like the stories he’s ended up telling about them. He also says Wild Eagles is a dumb name but they chose it because they got tired of news reporters mispronouncing their own language at them. Dad tells stories to the tourists who come up by airtrain now.
Mom’s from Sri Lanka and she married a bad man and she had Sansuka and Sasrutha there but she didn’t want to stay with her husband so she came to Canada instead. And the government found out she was a terramancer and told her to go north and make the hinterlands (where we are) better for tourists. Dad says she must have been a fertility goddess too because she kept popping out babies way after he thought they wouldn’t need protection. I don’t know what that means.
Mom’s a zombie now. She cut herself about a month ago when she was making dinner and we didn’t think it was bad but the next day it went all green and by nighttime she was dead. She and Minnow and Dad and I had all piled into the truck and drove to the hospital fast as we could but it’s really far and the doctors say she would have probably lost her arm anyway.
She had signed up to be an organ donor so we stayed at the hospital overnight while the doctors took out her eyeballs and heart and things. They sort of stitched her back up and we drove home. Minnow and I went to school like always in the school bus but when we got out Mom was waiting to take us home. Minnow started crying and got on the bus, but I let Mom pick me up and she ran all the way home with me on her shoulders. She’s a lot faster than the bus because she doesn’t have to stop at all the houses.
Tammy Gabriel saw Mom drop me off at school the next day and started yelling, “Your mom eats brains! Your mom eats brains!” over and over until I threw rocks at her. When I got home I told Dad about it and he said Tammy’s just upset because her dad died in a mining accident last year but he stayed dead. So the next day I told Tammy I was sorry for throwing rocks at her but if she ever said anything bad about Mom again then next time I would make her eat them. The end.
Meoquanee sits on a chunk of granite which lumps outside the principal’s office. The stone is comfortable, for stone. Her brother Sansuka had made a cozy little depression in it and gifted it to the school a few years ago, when the wooden bench that originally sat outside the principal’s office fell apart from rot.
The principal’s office is a clapboard addition to the schoolhouse proper. Its door is a single sheet of ill-fitting particle board, with a twisted-up wire coat hanger for a knob. It would be impossible to not hear what her teacher and her principal are saying, and since they are talking about her she feels it would be rude not to listen.
So she listens.
“I’d say she’s dealing with her mother’s death just fine.” That’s Jacy Stonefish, the principal. He looks like what a bear would look like if it were human. “Aside from throwing rocks at the other students, but girls will be girls.”
“Her mother is a zombie.” That’s her teacher, Johansen. Meoquanee doesn’t think he has a first name. “I don’t know if you read that part.”
“That was definitely the part I read, yes. I’ve seen her around. What’s the problem?”
“Sir? She is, need I repeat, a zombie. She’s scaring the students. She just stays outside all day, waiting for school to be let out.”
“Whereupon she takes her daughter home. I don’t see this as frightening.”
“Not frightening? The woman has no eyes.”
Meoquanee leans a little to look out the front door. Her was-mother is standing on the single flagstone outside, waiting for Meoquanee to come out so she can run her home. It’s hard to tell how her was-mother knows when it’s time to take Meoquanee home. At recess her was-mother stands over her like a patient vulture. At home she does it to Minnow.
Meoquanee waves. Even without eyes, she knows her was-mother sees it.
“What are you expecting me to do? Tell was-Jivanta not to look after her children? I don’t know how closely you follow the news, but so far it’s proved impossible to make a zombie do anything it does not already wish to do.” There’s a pause. Meoquanee can hear papers being shuffled. “There is also no evidence that zombies will attack the living except under the most exceptional circumstances.”
“And who decides these ‘exceptional circumstances’?” Johansen’s voice raises like the sound of a wet finger dragged along the lip of a wineglass. It shatters at the end, too, just like what happened to the one and only wineglass Meoquanee’s ever found. “Who knows what’s going on in their brains?”
“Nothing’s going on. It’s been tested. They are dead. And the dead still have rights. As long as they are mobile, they will be treated with the same respect you would give to anyone, regardless of their physical or mental quirks.”
“It’s quirks now? I thought it was attributes.”
“Policy changed a couple days ago. I sent a memo.”
Meoquanee loses interest in the conversation. Johansen told her to stay after school while Jacy looked at her homework, and now it sounds like she’s been forgotten.
By her teachers, anyway.
Her was-mother’s mouth hangs slackly open. Tautologically, no muscle is used until it is used. Her arms dangle flaccidly. Even her neck is cantered at a loose angle, lolling occasionally when Meoquanee waves.
Her was-mother is more here for her now than when she was alive.
Meoquanee slips off the granite block — comfortable, but even her brother can’t change its inherent chilliness — and picks up her bag. The voices on the other side of the door continue to speak, absorbed in the intricacies of matters which do not concern her.
“Speaking of keeping informed,” says Jacy, “the annual Gay to be Grey zombie walk is being held in Ottawa this year. Perhaps you’d like to go.”
“Impossible, sir,” is Johansen’s immediate reply. “My mother…”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry. How is she?”
There is no verbal response. Jacy replies with, “Mm. Are you a religious man? Some people find it a comfort.”
“Me, sir? No, I’m an atheist. Frankly, I think zombies are living, ah ha, proof that there is no God. No loving God would do this to His children.”
“Ah,” says Jacy. “A Christian atheist. By the way, I’d be interested in reading her sister’s report.”
“Minnow’s? There’s nothing to worry about. She’s fine.”
“By the way. I’d be interested in reading her sister’s report. If that could be arranged.”
Papers are picked up and shoved roughly into a satchel. “Could we do this tomorrow? Ms. Chan needs to leave at 4:30.”
“Of course. Give my best to your mother.”
Johansen flees. He forgets he even asked Meoquanee to stay after class until he sees her riding her was-mother’s shoulders as he drives by.
Was-Jivanta is running in great leaping bounds. The sewn-up skin of her emptied belly flops inside her dress, creating an oddly hypnotic ripple in her silhouette. Her arms bounce up sharply with every heavy impact of her hiking boots on the dirt road. Meoquanee is shrieking her laughter, her arms wrapped around was-Jivanta’s head in an effort to stay balanced on what could be mistaken for a two-legged pogo stick.
Meoquanee looks happy. Was-Jivanta looks dead.
A great sticky lump clogs Johansen’s throat as he continues the drive back to his house. Ms. Chan does not tolerate tardiness, has threatened numerous times to leave Mrs. Johansen alone if he is not back by 4:30. Sometimes he wonders what would happen if he took her up on it.
It’s not fair.
“It’s not fair,” Johansen whispers.
Minnow and Meoquanee are in their room. Minnow is trying to do her homework, but her was-mother is standing right behind her. There’s a tension in the room that reminds Meoquanee of the wineglass again. She’s fiddling with a bit of string and one of her socks. She has been pretending it was a tree with a lake beside it, but the wineglass tension distracts her from play. She looks up to watch her was-mother, not motionless, but swaying gently in the faint breeze of the room.
Minnow’s shoulders are hunched. Meoquanee thinks of them as the halves of a book, closing.
Suddenly Minnow yowls like a cat and slams her math book shut. She hurtles out of the room, roughly shoving their was-mother aside. Was-Jivanta bumps into the wall and gently collapses. Meoquanee drops her string and her sock and watches her was-mother stand, using her legs and the wall and nothing else.
Was-Jivanta glides out of the room and Meoquanee follows.
“She’s looking at me again!” Minnow has found their father in the room that serves as both living room and parents’ bedroom. Ahmik is on the futon. The TV is on, the one channel showing something from the House of Commons.
“Madam Speaker, this is a gay time to act,” says an officious man in a suit.
Ahmik clicks off the set. “Troutlet, I don’t think she can help it.”
“Make her stop!”
“Troutlet.” Was-Jivanta is standing behind Minnow again. Everyone sees it but Minnow. Ahmik gestures to her to sit beside him. Minnow crosses her arms instead and sets off a furious pout. Ahmik keeps his hands out. “You have to remember, she doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just what zombies do.”
“Why is she still here? Why can’t she just be dead?”
Ahmik turns from tired to annoyed, limp to sharp. “Don’t talk that way about your mother.”
“She’s dead and I hate her!” Minnow yells. She turns to storm out and bumps into was-Jivanta’s legs. “Get away from me!”
Was-Jivanta stands there, rocking back and forth gently as Minnow punches her. Meoquanee, with the wineglass feeling in her bones, rushes over and shoves Minnow as hard as she can.
Minnow stumbles into the futon. Ahmik catches her before she tumbles. Minnow is looking at Ahmik and Ahmik is looking at Meoquanee and Meoquanee is looking at was-Jivanta and was-Jivanta is.
Ahmik breaks the cycle. “Troutlet,” he says, addressing Minnow, “your mom’s a zombie. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to live with it. I know it’s not fair, but…”
Minnow wrenches away from him, ducks around was-Jivanta and throws herself back into her room. The door slams and there is the thunk of a latch slotting into place.
Was-Jivanta goes to stand outside the door.
Ahmik sighs and gives Meoquanee a look that she isn’t sure about. “Are you mad at me?” she says.
He blinks. “At you? No, not at you. Not at Minnow, either.” He pats the futon and Meoquanee obligingly curls up beside him. “I guess our family’s gotten a little strange, eh?”
Meoquanee shakes her head, but it’s not clear if she’s actually disagreeing. “It’s okay,” she says.
He rubs her back. “So how do you feel about Mom being a zombie?”
“I like it,” she says instantly. She feels his hand judder and bumps her head against his thigh. He goes back to stroking her, but it’s slower now, and lighter, like he’s scared she’s going to break.
“Why’s that?” he says.
“She spends more time with us. She gives good piggyback rides,” she says decisively. “Dad, why is she a zombie?”
“Ah, frogget,” he says. “Do you know what a theory is?”
“It’s a guess. It’s a good guess, and it might even be true, but it’s still a guess.”
“There’s lots of things that doctors think make some people more likely to be zombies than others.” He ticks them off on his fingers. “She was a ‘mancer, and they tend to come back as zombies more often. She was an organ donor, and they tend to come back as zombies. And… well, she was very attached to her work.”
“She was always working.”
“I know.” He stands up suddenly and she plumps against the futon. There’s a row of mason jars on the window sill and he picks one up to show her. It’s covered with smudgey fingerprints and crusted with old, dried dirt on the inside. “You know what this is?”
“Uh.” She sits up. “Mom would wash our feet at the end of the day, and she’d squeeze some of the water into those.”
“Yup. Each of you had your own jar. Sansuka and Sasrutha and Keezheekoni and Minnow and you.”
“What about you?”
He chuckles. It’s an odd chuckle, starting off genuine and ending sour. “She knew I didn’t need one.”
“What are they for?”
“If you went off wandering,” he says, tapping the jar, “she could find you with this.”
Meoquanee’s eyes are wide. “She couldn’t!”
“I never wandered off!”
Ahmik looks very much as though he wishes he’d never taken the jar off the sill. “No, you didn’t.”
He puts the jar back and sits next to her. She snuggles into him, but her eyes are for was-Jivanta. “Is Mom dead?”
He sighs. “It depends who you ask.”
“Do you think she’s dead? Everyone at school says she is, but we didn’t ask the Midewewin to come by, and we still say her name.”
Ahmik takes his time answering. “I think her body died at the hospital, but her soul and her spirit got confused about where to go after.”
Meoquanee says with certainty, “Her body isn’t dead. She runs really really fast.”
“She’s good at running,” Ahmik agrees. He thinks about all the running she’s done: from her country, from her husband, from the Wild Eagles, from her children. Now she’s run away from death. “Lots of practice.”
Suddenly there is a loud thudding against the door to Minnow’s room. Ahmik is up so quickly that for a moment Meoquanee thinks he’s vanished. She trails behind him and they see was-Jivanta throwing herself face-first into Minnow’s door.
“She knows how to open that,” says Ahmik. There is a horrible panicky sound to his voice that makes Meoquanee want to sit down and bawl. He brushes past was-Jivanta and tries the knob. “The latch — Minnow, open the door!” he yells.
There is no answer, but was-Jivanta solves all the problems by hurling herself once more at the door. The latch breaks and she falls inside the room.
The room is empty and the window is open.
“Minnow!” Ahmik wails.
Before he can even turn around, was-Jivanta is up and diving through the window. Ahmik snaps at Meoquanee to stay here! as he rushes out to the truck.
He doesn’t get as far as turning on the ignition before was-Jivanta appears in the rearview mirror, with Minnow under her arm.
Ahmik gets out of the truck and his storyteller’s voice gets big and shouty. “What the hell was that about? Don’t you ever run away again!”
For once, the fight is out of Minnow. “Was going to find Keezheekoni,” she mumbles.
“No you’re not.”
“I want to live with Keezheekoni!”
“I want my sister!”
“hgghh,” says was-Jivanta.
It’s not even a word — it’s barely a cough — but it startles Ahmik and whatever he was going to say gets caught somewhere between his diaphragm and larynx.
Minnow starts to squirm. “Put me down!”
You need air to talk, and to get air you have to breathe, and breathing means lungs, which she doesn’t have anymore. Ahmik stares at his was-wife and realises, with the pinpoint accuracy of those in shock, that he is having a deeply profound and unsettling epiphany.
“We’ll talk about this later,” he says, the shout gone from his voice. “I need to talk to the twins.”
Was-Jivanta takes Minnow inside. Ahmik goes to the shed where the water coolers are kept. There’s two of them, each fitted into its own dispenser, both kept clean and mostly shiny. There’s still a good bit of pinkish water left in each, as correspondence between Ahmik and the twins doesn’t usually require immediate responses, and Jivanta often let months go by between hydrocalls.
Near the coolers are a shallow metal pan and a tuning fork. Ahmik dispenses a little water from each cooler — one with Sansuka’s blood and one with Sasrutha’s — into the pan and sets it on the floor. The floor’s just dirt and seeping dampness, but the call won’t take too long.
Water is the great medium of all transmissions and the blood tunes the call to the individual. You tap the tuning fork and get it humming and stick it into the water and let it buzz itself out, and then dip your ear into the water and talk like normal. The person on the other end gets a persistent buzzing in their ear, and if they want to talk, they just lick their pinkie finger and stick it in their ear. If they don’t want to talk, they wait for the buzzing to go away. A hydromancer on vacation set it up for Jivanta. It’s cheaper than a telephone, doesn’t need electricity or bandwidth like the Internet, and won’t disturb anyone at the movies. It’s also the most private call you can make, which appealed to Jivanta’s sensibilities. Sure, the solution is finite, and sure you’re dipping your ear into someone’s watered-down blood, but these modern conveniences, right? There’s always a catch.
Ahmik taps the tuning fork and sticks it in the water. It seems to take a long time for the water to stop twitching, and he lays on the dirt with his head in the pan.
“Boys?” he says.
You feel the voice in your bones more than hear it in your ear, but he knows it’s Sansuka who answers first. “Hi, Ahmik.”
Sasrutha says, “Ahmik, what’s gay?”
“Minnow tried to run away tonight.”
“She get very far?”
“No. Was-Jivanta brought her back pretty much soon as she left.” Ahmik pauses. “She wants to live with Keezheekoni.”
Sansuka asks, “What did you tell her?”
“Nothing, yet. But I think I should tell her. Both of them. I wanted to talk to you two first. See if it was a bad idea.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” says Sansuka hesitantly, “I just don’t know if it’s the best time for it.”
“Yeah, ’cause waiting for her to hop on the airtrain is a much better time.”
“I meant with Mom dying. It might be too big a shock.”
“Sansuka’s right. Continual lying is definitely the best way to go.”
“I’m just saying she’s at a rough age and it might be better for her to mature a little before springing it on her.”
“Get her to a happy secure point in her life first? And then take it away?”
“So you’d rather give her all the bad news at once and expect her to just get over it?”
“Okay,” says Ahmik.
“Tomorrow,” says Ahmik. “After school. I’ll tell them tomorrow. About Keezheekoni. And Jivanta. Everything she did.”
Sasrutha says, “Eh, was?”
Sansuka says, “Hey now.”
“I think it’s right,” says Ahmik. “You boys, you grew up knowing everything, and you both left. I think…” He stops. There are too many years of swallowing words and bottling feelings to let them out over a hydrocall. “Your mother had her reasons for everything, even if she didn’t explain them all.”
“Any of them,” says Sasrutha. “I wonder if she’s happier now that she can’t talk. She never liked doing it when she was alive.”
Ahmik wants to tell them about the strange noise was-Jivanta made, but he can’t find the words to explain his epiphany. They would react like Minnow, ignoring the importance of that odd exhalation…
“I’ll tell them tomorrow,” he repeats. “I should go check on the girls.”
“Bye, Ahmik,” says Sansuka. There’s a slight lessening of pressure in Ahmik’s head, and he knows Sansuka’s taken his finger out of his ear.
“Lahter, Vater,” says Sasrutha. “You know, I’m glad she chose you. You’re the only one around here who doesn’t run away.”
Tonal variations don’t translate well over hydrocalls, but it doesn’t take an hour’s therapy session to suss out the self-loathing in Sasrutha’s voice. Before Ahmik can reply, Sasrutha’s gone. Ahmik wouldn’t have known what to say anyway.
Ahmik stands creakily. His arm’s gone numb from lying on it and his hip hurts from pressing into the ground. He dumps the pinkish water outside on some rocks and replaces everything in the shed. As he does so, Sasrutha’s parting shot echoes oddly in his mind. His family does have a bad habit of running away from each other, but it occurs to Ahmik that for the first time, was-Jivanta might be running towards.
Inside the house, Meoquanee is sitting on the futon with her knees up and her arms around her legs. The TV is on, a voiceover commentating soberly on two lines of people shouting at each other. It’s the news.
“…clashes expected between the festival organisers and Go to Hell, the radical Texas-based anti-zombie group. This group has taken credit for the dehumanisation of zombies in several American states in the past year, and border police are warned to be extra-vigilant in the coming weeks as the Gay to be Grey zombie walk prepares to kick off in Ottawa in July.”
“You can’t kill what’s already dead!” screams a young woman in the background.
“Lazarus rose! Jesus rose! The righteous also rise!” That comes as a mass chant from the other side.
“Meanwhile, the Trillium Gift of Life Network reports that organ donation registration is on the rise among the youth across Canada, while numbers have dropped sharply for the elderly community, with many refusing to even accept life-saving transplants.”
There’s a cut to a close-up of a middle-aged doctor, stethoscope like a talisman around her neck. “Receiving a transplant from someone who later becomes a zombie is no different than any other kind of transplant,” she says. “A heart from a deceased patient or a kidney from a live patient, it’s all the same. These people were all willing donors.” It’s clear the doctor has plenty more to say, but gets cut off in favour of more people shouting at each other.
Ahmik turns off the TV. “How you doing?”
Ahmik kisses her on the top of her head. “It’ll be okay, frogget.” Louder, he calls, “Minnow?”
“What.” It’s little and croaky.
“Can you come out here for a minute?”
Minnow shuffles out of her room. Was-Jivanta pivots to keep an eye on her.
Ahmik takes a deep breath. “Girls, we’re going to go for a little trip on Saturday, okay?”
Meoquanee finally looks at him. Minnow pouts rebelliously.
“We’re going to visit Keezheekoni,” says Ahmik.
Minnow’s eyes go big.
“We’ll need to bring tobacco and sweetgrass,” he says.
Minnow’s eyes go small.
Ahmik crouches down and puts his hands on her shoulders. “Troutlet… we’re visiting her grave.”
Minnow throws her head back and screams.
Meoquanee claps her hands to her ears. Even Ahmik can’t help wincing. Minnow screams like a throat-singer, one continuous note, rising and falling. Minutes go by and Ahmik tries shaking her gently, then harder, but the noise won’t stop. Eventually he and Meoquanee retreat to the girls’ room and shut the door. It doesn’t help.
Was-Jivanta stands behind Minnow, and Minnow leans against her and howls and howls and howls.
Eventually the noise dies down. There’s a residual buzzing in their ears: for Ahmik, the hydrocall; for Minnow, a wineglass.
They open the door and cautiously step out into the living room/bedroom. Was-Jivanta is standing, swaying in that way she has. Minnow is curled around her feet, snoring like she does.
Minnow stays home from school the next day. Was-Jivanta runs Meoquanee to school as usual. A little after lunch, when Johansen is talking about chlorophyll and photosynthesis, Jacy walks into the room and takes him aside.
Meoquanee, at the front of the class so she can crane her neck to see her was-mother outside, hears these words: “Ying’s on the phone.”
Johansen scurries across the hall to Jacy’s office, where the one phone is. Jacy shuts the door to the classroom, for privacy’s sake.
Jacy smiles reassuringly at the fourteen children in the room while Johansen’s voice gets louder and louder. Then the phone slams down and Johansen is back in the classroom, grabbing his coat and shooting words over his shoulder to Jacy. “She’s leaving. I have to go. She can’t be alone.”
“She’s my mother!” Johansen does stop by the door long enough to give Meoquanee a look of such hatred that she finds herself rising out of her seat, ready to attack.
Johansen runs. Through the two doorways, the classroom’s and the hallway’s, Meoquanee sees him spit on her was-mother.
Jacy shuts the door again as Meoquanee pushes her chair back. “All right, class, let’s get this settled and then we can move on with the lesson.”
“He spat on my mom,” Meoquanee says. She doesn’t feel angry. She feels like she’s waiting.
Jacy doesn’t say anything for a moment. He saw the look Johansen gave her, and he remembers the homework assignment. He addresses the class. “I suppose most of you know Mrs. Johansen?”
Someone says, “My mom says she’s sick.” Someone else says, “She used to watch my brother.” Meoquanee says, “My Aunt Ying looks after her.”
Jacy nods. “Mrs. Johansen needs more attention these days.”
It’s not good enough. Meoquanee isn’t satisfied with leaving things at that. “Aunt Ying says Mrs. Johansen bites her sometimes.”
Before Jacy can answer, another voice pipes up. It’s quiet but pointed, like a pin sliding under a fingernail. “Didn’t know Mrs. Johansen was your mom.”
No sooner does Jacy pull Meoquanee off Tammy Gabriel than was-Jivanta is in the room, kissing-close to Jacy and showing him her teeth. Jacy pulls his hands away from Meoquanee and ducks down to check on Tammy, bleeding from the nose and crying. Meoquanee is breathing hard, and she and her was-mother seem to be trying to stand protectively in front of each other at the same time.
“Everyone settle.” Jacy’s voice is deeper than Ahmik’s. When Ahmik’s voice gets big, it goes straight to your head, sets it spinning. When Jacy’s voice gets big, it goes down to the roots of your feet. “Back in your chairs. We’re having a history lesson.”
Meoquanee sits on the edge of her chair, hands gripping the seat. Was-Jivanta is out the door, but not out of sight. The other kids fidget, glance at Tammy and her red-spilling nose. Jacy gets her some tissues and tells her to keep her head down.
He paces in front of the class. “Who knows who the first recorded zombie was?”
An older student, thirteen, raises his hand. “Inga Stjerna. From Sweden. Uh… 2003.”
“Right,” Jacy nods. His pacing slows, his hands raise up and slash down, creating notes on an invisible blackboard. “Inga Stjerna was an arbourmancer of considerable note in Sweden, an international ecogeek well known for her sustainability projects in Greenland. Plantlife Plants Life was one of hers. While vacationing in Iceland, she fell into a fissure and was retrieved some six hours later. Unfortunately, she had broken a lot of bones in that fall, and she died some three hours later in hospital. True to her reduce-reuse-recycling nature, she had signed up as an organ donor and what parts were still functional were duly taken out. Her body was put on a plane to be sent back to her native Sweden for burial. When the plane landed, ground crews were understandably taken aback to find Ms. Stjerna had freed herself from the airplane coffin during flight.” Jacy clasps his hands together. “Her family was notified and I believe Ms. Stjerna spent the rest of her days roaming Padjelanta National Park, where sightings of her eventually became as legendary as those of the Loch Ness Monster, Elvis Presley and Godzilla.”
Jacy stands behind Johansen’s desk and lays his palms flat upon it. “That’s our first official zombie. Pretty smooth sailing she had, didn’t she? Why was that?”
The same student raises his hand again. “Sweden’s got the highest life expectancy rate so people there are used to…” He cut himself off. “Uh.”
Jacy raises his eyebrows. “Used to?…”
“…having those kind of people around…”
“What kind of people around?”
The student shrinks into his chair. “…kind of useless almost-dead people…”
Jacy leans back. “We’ll discuss that attitude later. Any other reasons? No? Here’s one: Ollie Brown. Ollie Brown,” says Jacy, strolling around the room again, “was a Jamaican-Canadian boy, born 1976. Died 1994, at age eighteen. Motorcycle accident. Registered organ donor. Eyes were all they could harvest from him. Ollie Brown goes into the hospital morgue and not long after scares the skin off a janitor who came down to investigate some strange noises. Janitor finds Ollie Brown up and about. Ollie Brown did not yet have a mortician put his bones back into more or less place, did not have anyone pretty him up with pancake make-up and make him presentable to the family. Ollie Brown is a shuffling, shambling mess, and it does not help that the janitor had some fairly right-wing hang-ups which do not bear going into.”
Jacy sits sidesaddle on the desk and draws his lips down. “There’s a lot of unhappy coincidences that take place in this story. There have always been stories of zombies rising from the dead, but until Ollie Brown there hadn’t been security cameras to capture it happening. Specifically, there hadn’t been cameras to capture it happening to a young, black man who already looked to be in pretty bad shape… getting what was left of him smashed in by a white man with a ring of keys.” He pauses, looks around the room, nods. “And if that is making you angry and uncomfortable, you are not alone. The janitor was eventually charged with ‘indecently interfering with’ and ‘offering indignity to a dead human body’. He was sentenced to five years in prison. During those five years, Ollie Brown’s family worked to not only seek life imprisonment for the janitor, but to change the definition of ‘dead’.”
He stood. “You see, everyone knew that Ollie Brown had died. No one could have survived that motorcycle crash and then had his eyes taken out without kicking up some kind of a fuss. Plus there was that security video showing Ollie fighting for fifteen minutes to get out of that drawer in the morgue, and then stumbling around on half his legs. Like it or not, people had to accept the fact that life after death didn’t necessarily happen somewhere else.
“Ollie was not the first to be recognised as a zombie, but because of his family’s efforts, the world started being able to recognise zombies when they happened.
“Medical dictionaries changed. The Criminal Code of Canada changed. Religions changed. Thinking changed.
“A single zombie changed the world.”
It’s a long lecture for the kids. Some look bored. Tammy glares at Meoquanee over the soiled wad of tissue in her nose. Jacy claps his hands. “Recess.”
After Tammy’s nose is examined and both she and Meoquanee are giving a finger-wagging, Jacy takes a moment to look through the satchel Johansen left behind.
The papers on the kids’ families are still in there. Jacy sits at the desk and puts his feet up to read Minnow’s report.
She talks a little about her dad and mentions her brothers. Meoquanee gets a paragraph of complaints. There’s a lot about Keezheekoni.
There’s nothing about her mother.
“Damn you, Johansen,” Jacy mutters. “Bagwanawizi. Stupid man.” There’s plenty for Jacy to worry about with Minnow’s report, but just as much to worry about Johansen’s reaction. It’s true Mrs. Johansen needs more attention these days. Attention, and maybe a muzzle.
“Jealous idiot,” Jacy says suddenly. “Bagwanawizi.” He’ll pay a visit to the Johansens tonight. As zombies have proven, sometimes just being there is enough.
The next day is Saturday, and Ahmik and the girls ride in the pick-up. There’s tobacco and sweetgrass, cedar and sage. Minnow’s got her fear bundle all wrapped up. Ahmik has Meoquanee hold onto Keezheekoni’s foot-dirt mason jar. Was-Jivanta lopes along beside the truck.
“Does she know where we’re going?” Meoquanee asks.
“I don’t know,” says Ahmik. “Maybe she’ll remember when we get there.”
It’s an hour’s drive. Nobody talks. The road is just dirt piled onto more dirt. There’s jack pines and not much else, but Ahmik always knows where to take a turn.
Eventually he stops the truck in front of a hill and they get out, bringing a picnic basket with them. Ahmik walks them up the hill and all of a sudden an amethyst post comes into view.
It’s lovely. It’s very lovely. There’s a small lodge built behind it, and while not lovely it is very pretty and it suddenly hits Meoquanee that Keezheekoni is buried somewhere underneath it.
Minnow is already running her hands over the post, over the upside-down bear totem carved into it. “Who made this?” she asks.
Ahmik sets down the picnic basket. “Sansuka. The amethyst comes from his mine.” He chuckles. “I don’t think he told his supervisors he was taking it.”
Minnow asks, “Did Keezheekoni have a guide?”
“Yes. A Midewewin came. Maybe you girls remember when we had Aunt Ying stay with you for a while? I was here with Keezheekoni.”
Minnow nods. Suddenly she stops stroking the amethyst post and slaps her hand on the ground. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Ahmik sighs and runs his hands through his hair. “Sit down, girls. It’s story time.”
They sit in a circle which includes the post. Was-Jivanta doesn’t seem to notice them. She’s standing in front of the little lodge and not swaying at all.
Ahmik says, “First I need to tell you about your mother.” Minnow sputters while Ahmik lights a cedar stick. Her voice trails away as the scent rolls over the hillside.
“You know she was a terramancer and the government hired her as a kind of tourism promoter, but that wasn’t all they wanted from her. When she came here… Jivanta had never divorced her husband. She came all the way here with the boys to get away from him. When she got here, the government said, ‘We can’t let you just stay here and cause problems between our countries. But, if you agree to work for us, we can offer you protection and a new life.’ So she did. Publicly, she was sent north to make the land better for tourists. Privately, she was used to find the children in the Tooth for a Tooth War. It was very sensitive, politically — she pretty much had to give up her identity. And she decided it was better that way.”
He sighs. “So they brought her up here and she spent a lot of time tracking down the kidnapped children and figuring out where they had come from and who they belonged to. And she did it using…”
He sets the dirty mason jar in front of him on the grass. “Dirt. As a terramancer, Jivanta could change the very earth itself, make it sand or loam or grow things you never thought possible up here. She could change the shape of the land itself, make a hill where a valley had been. But you can do so much more with terramancy than just play with dirt. You can track down an Ojibwe through his own magical borderlands, you can take the dirt from a child’s foot and find out where they came from.” He taps the jar. “You can find your missing child.”
Minnow frowns. “She’d wash our feet and the used water would go in there.”
“That’s right. When Keezheekoni ran away–”
“Why did she run away?”
“She was never really happy here. Do you remember the summer we let her stay with Sasrutha? He and his boyfriend took her in for a couple months and they said she liked Toronto and Montreal well enough, but she didn’t like visiting the places in between. She wasn’t made for any city smaller than a million people. We knew she’d leave eventually, like the boys did, but we hoped it would be when she was older and… not so angry.”
“Why was she angry?”
“Why are you angry?”
Minnow digs at the dirt with her fingers and doesn’t say anything.
Ahmik sighs. “So. Keezheekoni didn’t like it here, so when the airtrains came in, she got on one and left. We weren’t worried, because we knew Jivanta could always find her with the dirt from the mason jar. We thought we’d give her a few weeks to cool off before bringing her home.”
He stops talking. The smoke from the cedar drifts west.
“The Mounties brought her home first.
“Troutlets… Keezheekoni was murdered.”
Minnow’s face crumples up like a dried flower. For Meoquanee, the concept of murder is barely understood. She thinks of Tammy’s nose when the blood was pouring out, tries to imagine what that would be like all over. Her face is wet and she feels her own nose running.
Ahmik continues. “Your mother and I washed her body. While the Midewewin and your brothers and I kept watch over Keezheekoni, your mother…” He swallows. “Jivanta had cleaned under Keezheekoni’s fingernails, and there was dirt under there, but it wasn’t hers. It was from the man who’d attacked her. While the rest of us were holding vigil, your mother was hunting the murderer.”
“Did she get him?” Minnow whispers.
Ahmik looks away. “She told me she’d buried him so deep that he’d be a fossil before anyone found him.”
Minnow and Meoquanee stare at their was-mother, their mouths as slack as hers. Ahmik shakes his head. “She told the boys. She knew they would have guessed it for themselves eventually, and they were old enough to understand why they couldn’t talk about it. I wanted to tell you girls, at least that Keezheekoni was dead, but Jivanta thought it would just make you ask more questions.” His storyteller’s instincts are telling him to stop talking, the story’s done, but it’s as if the words in his brain and the words from his mouth are disconnected. “I don’t know if either of them were very happy. I don’t know why she thought she–” could love me. “I wish she had spent more time with you girls. After Keezheekoni died, it was like she — ran further away.”
Minnow’s voice is so quiet it barely exists. “Did she even love us?”
He wants to lie, but he’s run out of good ones and okay ones and lousy ones. “I don’t think she wanted to, but it happened anyway.”
They burn Minnow’s fear bundle and nibble at the picnic. Sometimes Minnow brings up a memory. Meoquanee barely talks and frequently goes to was-Jivanta to hug her legs. They spend the day there, exploring the land around the gravesite. They leave before nightfall, when Ahmik can still recognise landmarks.
As they’re getting in the truck, Minnow says, “Can we come back next week?”
Ahmik says yes. Meoquanee clears her throat. “Isn’t Mom coming with us?”
Was-Jivanta is still in front of the lodge. She hasn’t moved since she got there, not even to watch the girls.
“She’s a terramancer,” says Minnow. “She can find her way back if she wants to.”
Yesterday, Ahmik would have heard spite in those words, but today there’s only peace.
“And if not, we’ll see her next week,” he says.
They do see her next week. And the next, and the next.
Between visits, there’s school. There’s Tammy Gabriel, who makes one joke about was-Jivanta not being around any more and when Meoquanee says nothing it’s Tammy who apologises. There’s Johansen’s mom and her dementia, and Johansen running out of the classroom because another caregiver can’t take it anymore. There’s Jacy, teaching most of the classes and not sleeping well, because sometimes Johansen calls him in the middle of the night.
And there’s was-Jivanta, standing by Keezheekoni’s grave. It’s hard to tell, because she doesn’t move much any more, but she looks fatter. Maybe not fatter. More like her hollowed-out belly is getting filled in. Meoquanee mentions it to Ahmik, but nobody can pluck up the courage to lift was-Jivanta’s dress and see what’s going on. He asks her, sometimes. He hasn’t convinced himself yet that she didn’t actually speak those months ago, but it’s weighing less on his mind. The girls are happier, or at least healthier.
One fine summer day, was-Jivanta is nude at the gravesite.
The hiking boots are still on, and that’s it. The family hurries over, more confused than concerned. Was-Jivanta’s back is to them, her arms crooked at her sides. They have to squint against the afternoon sun.
Meoquanee says, “She’s holding her stomach open.”
Ahmik says, “What?”
They circle around was-Jivanta. She’s standing as she always stands, right in front of the lodge, facing west, not moving, but this time her midsection is open. The thick black thread holding her skin together has been taken out, and inside the cavity where her organs used to live is a pile of dirt.
And a fireweed, blooming.
“Did she put it there herself?” Minnow says, though it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it for her.
“Maybe she grew it,” says Meoquanee. “From herself.”
Minnow looks in the little lodge. “I think she took the dirt from in here,” she says. “It’s kind of dug up.”
Ahmik studies was-Jivanta’s slack and faraway face. Part of him wants to touch it, to get any reaction that will tell him there’s still someone in there. He doesn’t touch her. “I never know what you’re thinking,” he whispers.
“Keezheekoni,” says was-Jivanta.
A Fairy Tale
By Emily C. Skaftun
The chorus of “Happily ever after” roused me from my stupor. Even from the living room I could hear the bored edge in Elise’s voice; it was as predictable as Kari’s enthusiasm or Allan’s singsongy tone, and as strained.
Storytime was finished. I headed to Kari’s room to say goodnight, but paused outside the door when I heard her speak. “Daddy,” she said, “is that how it was for you and mommy?”
I held my breath, sincerely wondering how Allan would answer. But it was Elise who answered: “Of course not. Mom’s not a princess.”
Kari laughed, but Allan didn’t miss a beat. “She is to me,” he said.
I crept away as quietly as I could, unsure whether the sound I suppressed was a sob or something more like bitter laughter.
It was a over a week later, and storytime was definitely over. I tried not to think of Allan as I stared into an expanse of prairie grass. It spread like a yellow-green ocean from the light on the back porch to the end of the known universe, losing color the farther it went into the night. Finally I could see nothing but the phosphorescent glow of hundreds of lightning bugs: the deep water. There be monsters.
I sat on the kitchen’s island cradling a glass of Pinot Grigio, and without thinking of Allan I contemplated how I had gotten myself stuck in a place like Ohio, anyway. No, not stuck, my editor-mind corrected: marooned. Marooned and emotionally mutinied by a pair of pirate daughters who had always loved their daddy better.
The glass of wine sweated in the evening’s heat, drops of cold water running down the stem and over my fingers. I wiped my hand across my forehead just as a wave of breeze skimmed across the ocean of my back lawn, in through the open window and over my face, turning me suddenly cold all the way through. The screen door slammed on the back verandah and I jumped up to face my girls.
“Mom!” Elise shouted. She held something behind her back as she stood shifting with excitement from side to side. “You’re never gonna believe what Kari and me found!”
In my editor-mind I cringed, thinking Kari and I, and wondering if ten was too young to start correcting the finer points of my daughter’s grammar. But I figured she’d pick them up with or without me; it seemed all she did was read. I tried to smile. “Did you catch some good lightning bugs?”
Little Kari, hands over her mouth, looked as though she was about to burst. But Elise continued over her sister’s muffled snickering, strangely sober. “Yeah, mom. And something . . . else.” She brought the object out from behind her back without looking at it, and I was so focused on her scrunched-shut eyes that it wasn’t until she re-opened them with a little gasp that I saw what she meant.
She held the mayonnaise jar high in front of her like a trophy. Ragged holes had been punched in the plastic lid, the label peeled off leaving only smudgy streaks of glue obscuring its contents: three agitated fireflies, their green butts blinking on and off like living Christmas lights; a few leaves and a bumpy twig; and, sitting on the twig with her elbows on her knees, a tiny winged person.
I looked from my older daughter’s stunned face to my younger daughter’s suppressed mirth to the mayonnaise jar to the glass of wine in my hand, took a sip and set it down on the counter behind me. I took the jar from Elise, still studying her expression. My mind was struggling to convince me that I couldn’t have seen what I thought I had. Not a fairy; not a real one. Probably some toy I gave them and forgot about, I thought. I laughed at my gullibility, and raised the jar for a closer look.
The figure sat turned away from me, presenting me with coppery hair and greenish wings. Delicate, almost translucent wings which, I now saw, moved gently in and out as if to the rhythm of a creature’s breathing. Holding my own breath I turned the jar around.
There she was, not a toy at all, cast in intermittent lightning-bug light. About three inches tall, fair-skinned and naked, she sat on the twig with her bare feet on the glass bottom of the jar and her head in her tiny hands. One of the lightning bugs—to her the size of a barn owl—buzzed around her head, and she shooed it away with a violent wave of her arm.
She picked her head up and fixed me with fierce green eyes. “What?” she said, in a surprisingly big voice.
My grip on the jar slipped. It fell a few inches before I caught it again, and the fairy—or whatever she was—fluttered her wings in the jar’s airspace before settling back down onto the twig. I set the jar on the kitchen counter.
Kari scrambled up onto one of the stools on the other side of the counter, perching on her knees with her elbows on the formica countertop. She peered into the jar like a cat looks into a fishtank, still grinning. “Can we keep her?” she asked.
The tiny woman threw her hands up in the air. I shook my head, feeling like I was moving underwater. “I think . . .”
“What’s your name?” Elise had scooted onto the stool next to her sister to regard the fairy, though with a less predatory look on her face.
The little creature stood up in her 32-ounce world. “What’s yours?” she asked, pointing her whole arm at my daughter.
“Oh. I beg your pardon,” she said, and I smiled proudly. “My name’s Elise, and this is my sister, Kari.” Kari waved quick as a hummingbird, and Elise gestured across the counter to me. “And that’s our mom.”
The fairy turned toward me and inclined her head slightly. “Hey, mom,” she said.
I laughed, reaching for my glass of wine. “You can call me Deb.”
“What are you?” asked Kari, and her wide eyes narrowed as Elise punched or pinched or kicked her under the counter’s edge.
“No,” said Iris. “I have a few questions for you. Question one: which one of you slack-jawed gawkers is going to free me from this lard-smelling prison?”
“Will we get a prize? A wish granted?” In her excitement Kari didn’t seem to notice the dirty looks she was now getting from both her sister and Iris.
Iris turned toward her, her voice syrupy sweet. “What would you wish for, little girl?”
Kari squealed with joy, talking a mile a minute. “A new bike, or to be the prettiest—no! Three more wishes! Or just for daddy—” She cut off abruptly, and the joy fell away.
“I can do that,” said the fairy.
Kari and Elise gasped in unison.
“But I’m not going to. Wishes, wishes, wishes. Nope, not this time.” She laughed a squeaky, cackling laugh.
“Now hold on, Iris,” I said, setting the nearly empty wineglass back on the counter.
“What?” she asked. “You don’t like me fucking with your kids?” One of the fireflies dived at her head and she ducked, swiping at it with both arms.
Elise and Kari giggled, and I wondered if it was about the bug or the naughty word. I don’t think they knew what it meant, only that it was off-limits. “Iris,” I began, aiming for an authoritative tone. “I’m going to have to ask you not to swear in front of—”
“Hey,” she said, flapping her wings. “Do you know what kind of fucking powers I have? Maybe I can destroy you with a snap of my fingers.” Squinting, I saw that her tiny fingers were poised to snap. Once again she was dive-bombed by a lightning bug, but she simply pointed at it and the bug blinked out of existence. She leaned one hand against the jar’s wall for a moment, head down, then looked up at me with a dark expression. “You don’t know, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Then I call the shots. Open lid, now.”
Her arms were crossed over her naked chest, her foot tapping impatiently. With a shrug I reached over and unscrewed the mayonnaise jar’s lid. Iris flew out, stretching her wings, as did one of the lightning bugs. The other bug seemed content to throw itself repeatedly against the glass wall of the jar.
“Iris,” Elise said, a waver in her voice. “How did you make that bug disappear?”
The fairy paused in mid-air, looking at Elise. “I told you I had powers, didn’t I?”
Elise seemed to consider this, eyes rotating in their sockets to follow Iris, flying in loop-de-loops in our kitchen. She looked more than a little frightened, Elise, and I thought I should say something to comfort her. But what was there to say? Eventually she continued: “But where did it go?”
I re-screwed the lid, locking the remaining firefly inside. In a small way I mourned its missed opportunity for freedom. You snooze, you lose, I thought, and with that, unbidden, came thoughts of Allan. He’d flown right out of the jar that was our marriage—vanished, or maybe just escaped—and I could still hear the buzzing sound as I banged my head against the glass.
Iris flew around, floating like a butterfly with her nude legs trailing behind. She hadn’t answered Elise, and it didn’t seem like she was planning on it. “Can you bring it back?” Elise asked.
Iris set down on the counter, stretching upwards with her arms. Kari reached her arm across the countertop to get my attention, whispering loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Mom? She’s not wearing any clothes.”
“No she’s not, honey,” I said, looking at Iris’s tiny white butt as she bent to touch her toes.
“No she’s not,” Iris echoed. “An astute observation, little girl. And no, I don’t want any of your doll’s clothes. You people are all the same.” Suddenly she twirled around and pointed at me. “Hey, how ‘bout a drink?”
I shrugged, looking into my own empty wineglass. “Wine okay?” She nodded. “What can I put it in for you?”
Iris sighed loudly, and I imagined I could see her roll her bright green eyes. “A thimble is traditional,” she said. She paused, while I mentally searched the house for a thimble. I wasn’t exactly a seamstress. “If you can’t manage that, the cap from the toothpaste tube will do.” She sounded incredibly put out by the whole thing.
I nodded to Elise. “Will you get a cap for our guest?”
Elise hurried off in the direction of her bathroom.
“Wash it out real good!” Iris called after her. “That shit tastes horrible.”
Really well, my editor-mind said. Wash it out really well.
It took forever to get the kids to sleep that night; fairy tales didn’t interest them, especially not ones read by mom. “Can we keep her?” was all they wanted to know. I told them it wasn’t really our choice, but I did eventually get them to bed with the assurance that Iris would still be around in the morning. Relieved, I crept out to the back porch with an opened bottle of Pinot Grigio, and lit a cigarette.
“Blow that my way,” said Iris, as I dropped into one of the padded deck chairs. She sat on the edge of the table between them, legs swinging in the night air. “That’s one of the things I miss out on, being so small. Cigarettes. There’s just no way to shrink those.”
I exhaled a lungful of smoke at her, watching as she basked in its carcinogenic fog. “Yeah, but at least you’re a cheap date.” I pointed to the toothpaste cap in her hands, filled with a few drops of white wine.
She laughed, leaning back on her elbows on the table. A few caps of alcohol had made her far less cantankerous.
“And you have magical powers,” I added. “I think I’d like that.” Iris said nothing, her shiny green wings moving slowly in and out like a fan. “Iris?”
“If you could make that lightning bug disappear, why couldn’t you get out of the jar?”
“Who says I couldn’t?” she said, an edge entering her voice.
I put my hands up, backpedaling. “You’re right. I shouldn’t assume.” I sipped my wine, then quietly: “I just thought if you could’ve gotten out, you would have.”
She glared at me. Her eyes seemed to be made of emerald light; sometimes they shone, other times they pulled light into them like twin black holes. “You think magic’s like turning on a light switch?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not even a light switch is like a light switch. You just think it is because you don’t see what it takes to get the power into your house. Somewhere coal is burned to turn water into steam to spin a turbine to make electricity, which travels for miles to get to your house. You flip a switch and the light comes on, like magic.”
“Okay, so . . .”
She sighed. “So I’m having an off day.”
I raised my glass in a toast. “I hear that.”
Iris leaned back again. “It’s pretty out here,” she said. “Calm.”
I looked out at the waving field of prairie grass, trying to see it as anything but a wasteland. The lightning bugs had all gone to sleep, along with the few neighbors we could see, and it was quiet, quiet, quiet. In the town behind me lay the college campus with its old stone buildings and its suddenly unfunded and un-staffed literary magazine, all folded in for a summer’s hibernation. Sometimes I thought I could hear it snoring, rumbling like an approaching summer storm. Soon it would wake, breaking open like a hatching egg-sack with motion and noise and youth, and I knew we’d see Allan then, at least. He wouldn’t turn his back on a tenure-track position, even if he had no problem turning it on me.
“So what would your wish be?” Iris asked, turning over on her side. Her wings out of sight behind her, she looked just like a woman in miniature.
“I don’t know,” I said. “World peace? Naw, that’s boring. I really don’t know. Money wouldn’t fix anything. I don’t even think having my job back would.” I took another drag from my cigarette and blew the smoke over Iris’s recumbent form.
She shivered in delight. “You want him back?”
“Can you really do that?” It didn’t occur to me to ask how she knew about Allan in the first place.
She laughed. “No, not really.”
This time I laughed too. “Oh. Well, he always comes back eventually. Not that it matters much. Seems like he’s not here even when he is here.” I paused, sipping from my glass. Iris did the same, then extended her toothpaste cap to me. I took it, dipped it into the wine in my own glass, and handed it back to her. “I guess my wish isn’t so much that he’d come back as that it would matter if he did.”
“That’s a tough one.”
“I know. So how ‘bout you? What’s your wish?”
She looked at me, startled. “I—I don’t know.” She turned toward the ocean of green grass, wings moving subtly in the breeze, but before she did I thought I saw a new look on her tiny face, a darkness that I couldn’t quite identify.
The next morning I woke to the sounds and smells of breakfast, and for an instant I thought Allan had returned. But he doesn’t make breakfast, I thought. And then I remembered the previous evening.
I stumbled downstairs to the kitchen, where Iris was flying above the stove. Under her command breakfast literally made itself, spatulas hanging in the air waiting to turn slices of French toast and bacon. She was still naked, of course, and I wondered how she avoided splatter burns.
Kari busied herself setting the dining room table—four plates, but only three with glasses and silverware. On the fourth plate sat Iris’s toothpaste cap. Kari scurried past me holding a carton of orange juice and a jug of syrup, while Elise huddled next to the stove, watching intently as Iris hovered over the frying pans.
Seeing that there was nothing I could do to help I sat down at the table. Before I could even pour myself some orange juice Iris and my girls came into the room, preceded by floating plates of food that somewhat unsteadily set themselves down on the table.
“Good morning, girls,” I said. And to Iris, “Looks like you’re having a better day.”
She smiled, breaking off a crumb of French toast with her hands and carrying it to her plate. “Your girls have been helping me.”
“I set the table,” said Kari, her face already smeared with syrup.
“I see that, Kari,” I said. “Thank you.” Elise’s eyes remained focused on little Iris sitting cross-legged on her floral-print plate. “Elise, how were you helping?”
She just shrugged and stabbed a piece of French toast with her fork. I looked to Iris, hoping to catch some sort of answer in her gleaming eyes. But her head was bowed away from me.
Ebullient and oblivious as always, Kari broke the silence. “What’s your family like?” she asked, showing everyone her partially masticated breakfast.
Iris looked around as though she wasn’t sure the question was addressed to her. As her attention settled on my younger daughter her wings drooped. “I don’t really have one . . . anymore.”
“What happened to them?” asked Kari.
The little fairy shrugged, moving wings as well as shoulders. “What happens happened. The world is big; we’re small. It’s easy to lose things.”
Her sadness was palpable, so many times bigger than her. It hovered around the table as if borne by transparent wings.
“It’s okay,” said Elise, finally starting to eat her breakfast. “You can stay with us.”
She didn’t ask me if it was okay, and the parent in me wanted to protest on principle. Nonetheless I was glad when Iris answered, “Maybe just for a little while.”
When we finished eating, Iris cleaned our plates with one sweeping wave of her arm. Like that the syrup and crumbs and the little white strings of bacon fat that Allan used to eat but none of us liked were dispatched, perhaps to some other realm. “Beats the dishwasher, don’t it?” she said, winking at me. I heard myself giggling, imagining the dimension of banished items. A land piled high with table scraps and lightning bugs, but also with secret treasures stored for safekeeping, with precious children and irritating lovers.
Echoing my own thoughts Elise asked, “But where does it go?”
“Would it bother you if I said I didn’t know?”
Elise shook her head and Iris watched her, an appraising look on her face. “I think it’s just gone.”
“Can you bring it back?”
The fairy was grave. “Disappearing is easy, but bringing things back is hard. It may be the hardest thing in the world.”
Iris had been with us for a week, which meant it had been eighteen days since Allan had gone, and I still wasn’t thinking about him. Not enough to pick up the phone, anyway, and once again be the first to crumble. It had always been easy not to answer when his cell number appeared on the caller-ID; the calls were never for me. This time, though, he hadn’t called. But it seemed like even the girls missed him less with Iris around. Who needed Allan when there was magic in the house, a little more magic each day?
With Iris’s help the housework got done in a snap: dirty socks floated merrily into the washing machine and streaks simply vanished from the windows. Even better, she was very patient with the girls, taking the edge off the long summer days that would ordinarily have had me begging for year-round schooling. Elise in particular had taken to the little fairy, and if she wasn’t haunting the college’s library or reading in her room she could be found trailing Iris around the house like an oversized shadow.
Every day I felt I ought to be looking for a new job, but then I would remember where I was and laugh out loud at my nonexistent options. Having been let go by the college, what was there for me? The town didn’t even have a grocery store.
After dinner we’d all go out to the backyard and watch the day’s radiance give way to darkness. You could see stars blink on almost one-by-one, mirrored on earth by the creepy staccato blink of hundreds of fireflies. Warm nights were a relief after sweltering days, and Iris and I would sit on the verandah and sigh into our wineglass and toothpaste cap.
Iris fidgeted with her cap of wine, picking it up then setting it back down, then picking it up and passing it from one hand to the other. Without looking at me or at Kari and Elise she asked, “Do you see what they’re doing out there?”
“They’re catching lightning bugs.” Almost every night my girls were out in the tall grass trapping the luminous bugs in a jar.
“Maybe you can’t see it from here,” she said, peering into the dim yard. “Kari’s catching them; Elise is doing something else.”
I covered my eyes with my hand and squinted, but I could only see the shapes of my daughters hunched in the grass. They were just figures outlined against a backdrop of tiny green lights blinking on and off.
“Maybe you should go look,” Iris said, still avoiding my gaze.
I pulled myself out of the low chair, feeling huge and ungainly and suddenly excluded, and stepped into knee-high yellow grass. It whispered as I waded through it, but I couldn’t understand what it said.
I came up behind Elise without her noticing, she was so focused on something in front of her. She knelt so motionlessly that I almost worried about her; she looked like she’d been turned to stone. In front of her, fireflies blinked on and off and she watched them, intently.
I knelt behind her and watched what she watched. As my eyes adjusted to the dark the lightning bugs came into better focus, and I could confirm visually what I knew intellectually: that even with their lighted butts extinguished the bugs still existed, flying about as modestly as any fly in the dark. But then, two feet in front of my daughter, I saw one that didn’t. The firefly’s taillight went out, and with it the whole bug popped right out of existence. I blinked my eyes and shook my head, hoping to clear whatever distortion had produced the effect, but as soon as I opened them I saw it again. The light was snuffed and the bug was gone.
“Elise . . .” I said.
I said it calmly, but she jumped so high she almost fell over. She turned and looked at me with saucer eyes.
“Are you doing that?”
She nodded, a grin creeping onto her face.
I stood up, startled by a tug on the back of my shirt. Twirling around I saw Kari, lifting a jar high in front of her for my approval. “Look mom,” she said.
In the jar were four lightning bugs, and I stared at them for a long time. When I was satisfied they weren’t going anywhere I looked back to my younger daughter, forcing a smile. “Good job, Kari,” I said, backing toward the house. “You too, Elise. Good work.”
Stumbling back onto the solid ground of the porch I felt my heart racing. Iris was still sitting on the edge of an overturned ashtray that served as a bench, and when she looked up at me her tiny face was blank. “What else have you taught my kids?” I asked.
“It wasn’t me,” she said.
I laughed, bitterly. “Like hell it wasn’t.”
“Sit down, Deb.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I said, weakly. I wavered between sitting and standing before dropping into my chair.
“Do you know what Elise’s wish is?”
I looked at her, overcome by a sick feeling in my stomach. “I don’t know,” I said. “What? To become a witch?”
Iris shook her head, a sad smile on her face.
“Okay, what? I don’t know.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” she said, and with a sudden flap of her wings she lifted off the table, floating toward the yard.
“Wait,” I said, wondering how we’d gotten so far off track. “I think you should leave.” Even I could hear that my voice carried no conviction.
Iris just started laughing, bobbing up and down like a buoy. “You gonna make me?” she asked. “Your kids like me better than you, and we’re more powerful than you are. I like you, Deb. So relax, and stop saying stupid things.” She turned sharply and flew off into the yard, leaving me stunned and alone.
I grabbed my wine glass and went back into the kitchen to re-fill it. Damned uppity fairy, I thought. First Allan and now her. I thought of calling Allan, making him come back. I had the feeling it would fix everything that was broken, but something stopped me. Pride, maybe. Or something deeper. It wouldn’t fix everything, my editor-brain corrected. It would fix everything but you.
I wandered around the house. Everything sparkled a little more than it used to; it seemed fresh and clean, but also unfamiliar and subtly menacing. I found myself standing in the doorway to Elise’s room, looking into it as if for the first time. The room was a sea of lavender, her favorite color. Every surface was covered with either stuffed animals or books, and they all seemed to be watching me with dark accusing eyes. I stepped into the room and sat down on my daughter’s neatly made bed.
Her bedside table and the floor in front of it were littered with library books. Setting my wineglass down I picked the top one up. Magic, Applied was the title, and the one under it was Invocations, Spells & Charms. They were all on similar topics. The topmost book on the floor, The Magical Encyclopaedia: R – V, had a rainbow-colored bookmark sticking out its top, festooned with a red yarn fringe. I picked up the book, opening it to that page. There were a number of entries in the two-page spread, but one of them was marked with a penciled-in star. “Summoning,” the book said, “is the act of bringing an object or a person to the summoner by means of incantation or spell. The degree of difficulty—and danger—varies with the object being summoned, with even small inanimate objects requiring a moderate to high level of magic. The summoning of persons should not be attempted except by one well-trained in—”
“Snooping, huh?” The voice startled me, and I dropped the book. I whirled around to see Iris shaking her finger at me as if to say shame on you. Guiltily I picked up my glass and took a step toward the door, but as I got closer I saw that Iris was smiling. “It’s okay,” she said. “I snooped all the time when I had kids.” She waved her arm in the air, brushing that topic away. “But that’s beside the point. Have you figured out what your daughter’s wish is yet?”
Iris hung in the middle of the doorway like the littlest gaol-keeper, and I couldn’t bring myself to brush past her. Diminutive as she was, I was tinier still.
“No, I was just—” I paused, remembering the book. “Summoning? Is that it? What does she want to summon?”
“Hey, you’re almost there,” she said.
In her eyes I saw encouragement tempered with frustration and mockery. “It’s not Allan, is it?” I asked.
“You got it!” she said, flying in a celebratory circle.
“But the book said—”
“That’s right. That’s why you should be worried.” She flew closer, so close she was looking into my eyes one at a time. “You may actually have to talk to your daughter.”
I re-filled my glass, then changed my mind and left it in the refrigerator. While it might’ve been easier for me to tell Elise about the danger of easy answers with a glass of wine in my hand, it definitely would’ve been harder for her to listen. Taking a deep breath I stepped onto the porch, where both girls were sitting on its edge.
The screen door slammed behind me and they looked up together. “Is it time for bed?” Kari asked.
“Yeah, Kari. Go brush your teeth, okay?” She ran into the house, letting the screen door bang closed again. I had to smile; at least she seemed unchanged. Elise started to follow her little sister. “Elise, can I have a minute?”
She shrugged. I sat in the place Kari had occupied, unsure how to begin. I looked up at the bright carpet of stars, but they were silent, inert. I decided to lie.
“Hey,” I said, pointing up. “Shooting star! Make a wish.”
Elise looked at me like I was a lightning bug she hoped would disappear. “I didn’t see it. Can’t make a wish if you don’t see it.”
I sighed, dropping the pretense. “Elise, what’s up with you lately? You’ve been so quiet.” She shrugged again, silent and inert as the stars. “Is it because dad’s gone?”
“You know, it’s not like I don’t miss him too,” I said.
“I do miss him. But you can’t force someone to be someplace if he doesn’t want to be.”
“I can,” she said, and I saw a scary gleam in her eye. It was probably my imagination, but in that instant her brown eyes seemed to glow green.
“Okay,” I said, hearing the quiver in my voice. “I know you’ve found a way that you think you can bring him back, but—”
“I don’t think,” she said. “I know I can. Even if you don’t believe in me.” She started toward the house.
“Elise,” I said, almost begging, “please don’t. What if you get hurt?”
She snorted again. “Like you care.”
Shocked, I could think of nothing to say.
“I’m doing it,” she said, in an eerie low whisper.
“Elise”—my voice was raising into a shout, the twang of my frustration clearly audible—“just listen to me!”
“No, you listen!” She towered over me, and I was actually afraid of her. “I’m bringing him back, and you can’t stop me.” She stalked into the house, letting the screen door fall. But this time it stopped before slamming, settling into its frame without a sound.
I sat there for a long minute, looking out into the prairie grass. Fucking Ohio, I thought. Fucking Allan, fucking college, fucking prairie grass. Fucking magic. Fucking fairies.
As if on cue Iris flew out the door holding her toothpaste cap in one hand, preceded by my wineglass. “Didn’t go well?” she asked, landing beside me on the porch.
I turned to her, panicked. “What could happen to my daughter if she tries this?”
“Bringing things back is the hardest thing in the world. Even I couldn’t do what Elise wants to do.”
“Okay,” I said, my patience at its end. “But what will happen to her?”
“It’s like . . .” she seemed to search for an appropriate simile. “Electricity, right? The wires in your house can only handle so much, and if you try to pull more through them they . . . blow a fuse?” She frowned. Maybe this wasn’t the simile she was looking for. “Except there are no fuses for this kind of power.”
“So what happens?”
“She’ll be destroyed. And so will I, and probably you and Kari too.”
“What do you mean, destroyed? What does that mean?”
Iris just shrugged, an almost imperceptibly small movement.
“Great,” I said, jumping up from the porch. “Thanks! So what do I do, smarty? Clearly I can’t talk to her, and apparently I can’t stop her.” Iris stood on the porch in the strange light-and-dark shadow of my wineglass, impassive. I felt like grabbing her, crushing her in one hand, crumpling her into a ball like a piece of winged junk-mail. “This is all your fault!” I yelled. “I wish you’d never come here!”
“Wishes, wishes, wishes,” Iris said. She floated lazily up and toward the house. “Keep dreaming, sister.”
I fumed at her for a moment, then went into the house. As soon as I did I could tell something wasn’t right. The air seemed shimmery, unstable, and the hair on my arms stood on end. I ran through the hallway to Elise’s door and tried the handle, but of course it was locked. Pressing my ear to the door I thought I heard murmuring, though it might have been the reflected sound of blood pounding in my ears. Otherwise the house was as quiet as it had ever been, which added to the spookiness. Was she trying the summoning now? How would I know? Did magic have a sound?
I rapped on the door with my knuckles. Nothing. I knocked harder with the side of my fist. Stepping back from the door I examined the handle. Maybe if I got a paper clip or a bobby pin I could pick the lock.
My left hand felt heavy, and my ring warm on my finger. My wedding ring.
Not just warm, hot, and getting hotter all the time. I pulled the gold ring over my knuckle as it started to burn, and quickly dropped it onto the hardwood floor. It clattered to a stop, emitting a mild glow, then it wobbled once and slid purposefully under the gap in the door.
“Elise!” I yelled, pounding on the door with the heels of both hands. “Stop! Let me in!”
“Go away,” she yelled back. “Why don’t you drink some more wine?” The air seemed less agitated while she spoke, which I took as a good sign.
Ignoring her insult I continued. “I’m not going away, Elise. You have to stop before you hurt yourself.” Iris flew down the hallway, and even from a distance I could see that she was worried. “Before you hurt all of us.”
“All you care about is yourself!”
The door next to Elise’s opened, and Kari stumbled into the hallway in her oversized nightshirt. “I feel funny,” she said, leaning against the wall.
“That’s not true, Elise. How could you even think that?”
Iris paused in mid-air. “That’s a good question,” she said.
I blinked, and opening my eyes I saw the little naked fairy hovering over Kari. She was peering into her eyes and feeling her forehead with the back of her arm, as Kari smiled sleepily back at her. I thought of the books in Elise’s room. Why hadn’t I known what she was reading? How could I not have known her wish? I thought of the wine, and the secret smoking, the three of them all awake before me, making breakfast. My girls used to help me in the kitchen all the time. When was the last time we’d done that?
I shook my head, blinking in the increasingly fuzzy air. My head was starting to hurt, and I felt dizzy. I leaned against the wall for support. “Nevermind that, Elise,” I said. “I know why you think it. I haven’t been spending much time with you lately, have I? I’ve just been so . . .” How were you going to end that sentence? my editor-mind asked. Selfish? Mopey? Pathetic?
“Distracted,” I finished, and immediately thought better of the whole sentence. “But that’s no excuse. I screwed up, and I’ll do anything to fix it.”
The voice coming through the door sounded hard, yet brittle, like it could shatter. “You’re just trying to trick me into stopping.”
I hung my head against the smooth-painted wood of Elise’s door. Kari had slumped to the floor, and Iris was hovering with her palms against the girl’s forehead.
“Elise,” I said, sounding weary even to myself. “I’m not. I love—Ow, what the fu. . . ?” Something sharp had hit me in the shoulder, bouncing off to land on the door in front of me. It was a picture frame, held picture-side-down to the vertical surface of the door by some force I couldn’t begin to understand. Turning it around I saw that, of course, it was a picture of Allan. He was sitting on Elise’s bed in the old house between our two grinning princesses, all three of them done up in my makeup. I remembered the day; he’d let them dress him up as their “fairy godmother,” with a pink tutu over his jeans and a too-small conical princess hat strapped tight under his chin. The lavender wings from Elise’s Halloween costume had barely fit over his shirt, bunching the fabric at the armpits in what looked like an uncomfortable way. But in the picture he smiled his goofy smile, holding a wand with silvery streamers in the air over Elise’s head.
You couldn’t see me in the photograph, standing behind the camera. But I knew how I looked: plain old Deb, plain old clothes, no fun at all. Like an evil stepmother.
My eyes were wet as I looked up from the picture, and the door looked blurry. “Please stop, honey,” I said. “I’ll give you anything you want, I promise. If you want—daddy—then we’ll get him back.” I paused, sniffling. “But not like this, Elise. It’s not the right way.”
There was a pause, during which I almost thought things would be okay. But then I heard Elise’s ice-cold voice. “You don’t mean it,” she said. “You don’t love him.”
I couldn’t respond. It was at once too simple and too complicated an accusation.
“It’s true!” she said, louder now. “You don’t love him and you don’t love me either!”
Of course I did. I shouted as much. I pounded on the door again, pulling on the handle. I looked around the hallway for something to break down the door with, but there was nothing. There was only Kari twitching on the floor, and Iris hovering over her. There was only me.
“Do something!” I hissed at Iris.
The fairy glared at me. Then she suddenly smiled, in a way that made me sick to my stomach. I will never forget that smile. “There is one thing I can do,” she said.
“You’re lying!” Elise screamed, and it was the longest, loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life. The glass in the picture frame shattered. I heard things move all over the house, falling and thumping and clattering like loose stones in an earthquake. Iris snapped her fingers, and at last my daughter’s shrill scream broke off into unnatural silence.
Iris was gone. Kari was stirring on the hallway floor, murmuring like she did just before waking. I threw my shoulder into Elise’s door again and again until the latch finally gave, and I tumbled into an empty room.
I’d like to say that I never saw Elise or Allan again. It would be simpler than the truth, and truer than it too.
After Elise and Iris vanished I put Kari to sleep, then I picked up the phone and dialed Allan’s number. It rang and rang and rang, and I wasn’t surprised. I was starting to think he was way outside cell range. After that I called the police and filed missing persons reports on both Elise and Allan, though I knew it was a fool’s errand.
And then I wept. For hours, for days.
There was a lot of talk in that small town, especially when the police investigated me for killing my husband and daughter. But they never found any bodies, and most people thought I’d simply been abandoned. Perhaps Allan had been cheating, they said. Wasn’t our marriage on the rocks already?
Part of me still thought Allan would be back for the fall semester, but of course he wasn’t. I started working as a freelancer, refusing to move from the farmhouse and the town that I had never loved and hated more and more all the time.
Kari grew up, as children do, and went off to college on the west coast. She married and had kids of her own, two boys, and then divorced while they were still in school.
I spent many years alone. I grew older than I ever thought I would, until I was so old that I became young and helpless again. Kari’s boys were grown by then, and after I slipped on the steps and broke a hip she came home to live with me.
She told me, as many had, that I should move. But I couldn’t.
One day I was woken from an afternoon nap by the sound of the front door swinging open on squeaky hinges. It was a small sound, barely audible to my elderly ears, but I’d been listening for it for almost fifty years. A young man and a little girl walked tentatively through the door, looking with shock and fear at the house they thought they knew. I didn’t need to look at the pictures on the walls to recognize them; they hadn’t changed at all.
I stirred on the sofa and made ahem noises, trying not to startle them, but it didn’t work: they both jumped. “Who are you?” Allan asked. “What are you doing in my house?”
“It’s my house too, sweetie,” I said. “I’m glad you’re home. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
Kari came in from the kitchen then, and dropped whatever she was carrying with a clatter and splash. “Daddy,” she said, breathless, and sounded just like a girl again. “Elise.” She ran to them and wrapped them in hugs while they stared dumbfounded, looking like memory made flesh.
Allan’s horrified stare cut right through me. I knew I wasn’t beautiful anymore; I was old enough to be his grandmother. I was nobody’s princess. Still he came over to me and held me in his arms. “I’m so sorry,” he said, and when he pulled away his eyes were wet.
My own tears spilled over my eyelids and ran down a wrinkled, unfamiliar face. “I know,” I said. “I’ve always known.”
It wasn’t exactly a storybook ending, but it was enough for me.
Those Who Do Not Reap
By Kris Millering
The world is water.
From horizon to horizon, water. Trade winds go from west to east, and carry weather and fish with them. Wind and weather bring us news of the world, in the form of all manner of things that float. A string of islands are our own, we and the cousins. Fifteen islands, from tiny Ike to the largest, Yuhime. Ours is the northernmost, Liipil, an island that catches the winds, the volcano beneath dead as our ancestors. As you go south, the land becomes more active, and the cousins become more numerous.
The world is water, and we are at its center.
The youngling who had been assigned to the northern heights plummeted into the village, calling shrilly. “Wings! Wings! The ikei are returning!”
“From where?” I asked, straightening from my crouched position over the morning’s treasures.
The youngling pointed with one wing. West by north. “Did you see which they were?”
“Sun behind them.” That would be no, then.
“Find Lilleloi, tell her,” I told the youngling. “She’s in the fields.” Without further comment, it crouched and leaped upward, beating wings frantically upward. I watched the youngling’s attenuated body and great wings catch the breeze and soar upward, sun glinting off of waxy leaf-scales. I wrapped up the day’s gather into a large leaf and carried it in one arm, using the other to help me climb up to the platform where I stored the sea-treasure I had not yet completely studied.
After putting my work away, I swung down, landing heavily at the base of the great starflower tree that the platform was built in. “I’m getting too old to do this,” I muttered. I was going to have to start climbing down rather than swinging, soon. I had years yet before I would be too heavy to use the platforms altogether, when I would have to have those younger than I fetch and carry from the platforms.
Not too old yet to run, though. I trotted through the village, joined by younglings and adults, down to the landing field. We’d fired it less than a month ago, before the winter rains had made it far too damp to burn. It was a good and welcoming landing place for the ikei, our pelagics who spent most of their time at sea, circling the world with the trade winds, following the great sea-herds of whales and fish. It was better than we had managed some years, when the summer had been far too wet for the burn and we’d had to settle for clearing the field by hand.
Kii and Liiloka had brought food with them, voyage-fruit and sweet tik-tik, and we settled down to eat and wait. A flock of younglings arrived, swirling down to land lightly, grabbing and squabbling over tik-tik. A few stretched out, settling to turn the leaf-scales on their backs to the sun.
Kii stumped over to me, her massive body and her fronds of lichen making her seem like a particularly mobile boulder. She held a quarter of a voyage-fruit out to me, and I accepted with a murmur. “Anxious?” she asked, her voice low as distant surf.
“Every year,” I said. “Every year I think is going to be the year that Thiol does not return.”
The elder snorted. “Foolish to get attached. I try new ones every year.”
“He makes fine eggs,” I told her. “I haven’t had one be fallow since he became my favorite.”
A shout came from the gathered younglings, and several of them fluttered up into the air. I turned my eyes to the sky.
There they were! Dark wings against blue sky, bodies stout with months of feeding and flying. Their wings were enormous, spans ten times the lengths of their bodies, and patterned wildly underneath. I strained my eyes, looking. So many patterns, stripes and swirls and eye-spots.
None red with yellow streaks. Thiol was not among them.
But there were only twelve of them, a twentieth of the number we expected to return. This would be the largest group, most of them young, having banded together for their first year at sea. The older ones would return by ones and twos over the next few weeks. For now, we fussed over the ikei who had returned, gathering around them, running hands over their wings as they preened and crowed. Their long heads with the bone crests at the backs were objects of much fuss and admiration.
I stood apart from the crowd, as did those others who had favorites who had not yet returned. None of us were interested in finding out which of these ikei might fill us for the time they were here, because we already had our choices. Lilleloi came to me, crouched down and gestured for me to join her.
Lilleloi was younger than me, with the litheness of youth still on her and her back still more leaf-scales than lichen. She had found a favorite the year before, and from the way her stubby tail twitched she, too, was nervous that he would not return. Merely inexperience; her chosen ikei, Jerul, was younger than she and strong enough that unless accident befell him he would return.
“Does it get easier?” she asked me now.
I shook my head, raising my hand to search through the lichen at the back of my head, an old habit. “Never. But the reunions are worth it.”
“I worry. What if he’s changed his mind? I’m not like you, not beautiful yet.” She was fussing, opening and closing her hands. I took a bite of my voyage-fruit.
“They forget about us, you know. Pelagics forget who they are on land as soon as they lose sight of it. I’ve talked to Thiol about it. He says that this life stops when he takes to sea, and resumes when he comes back. He only vaguely remembers the journey once he touches land. Jerul won’t have changed his mind.”
She put her elbows up, pointing them to the sky. “I hope not.”
That night, as the sun set, we gathered in the village. I climbed up to a platform and watched the younglings show off for the ikei, dancing with their wings spread, patterns painted on them to mimic ikei patterns. Adults watched from the shadows beneath the trees. There would be no couplings tonight, or any night until we were sure that most of those who were going to return had done so. Those with no favorites wanted the widest choice possible; those with favorites would wait until those favorites had returned. If the favorites did not return, they would choose another, probably from this group of young ikei.
Some of the younglings had caught a small cousin, a six-limbed swimming thing with wide membrane between its pairs of forelimbs. They showed it to the ikei, who fanned their wings gently in approval and put their eyes close to it, their long heads tilted so more than one could see at once. One flicked out his tongue to run it over the cousin’s back. “It’s not afraid,” the ikei said. “It is a pet?”
“As much a pet as any of the cousins can be,” came the answer from the shadows.
The ikei considered the cousin, held by a youngling indistinguishable from the others, a youngling like this ikei had been the year before. The younglings crowded around the ikei, rubbing their sharp faces on them, under their chins and beneath the wings where the most fascinating smells came from. Those smells would change in the next few days, as the ikei got into the mood for coupling, but for the moment they were quite attractive to the younglings. The oldest, those who would go through the change this season, stayed the closest, breathing in the ikei scent deeply.
Over the next few days, more ikei arrived. Wings, more wings, and I worked with one eye skyward, waiting to see. The older ones arrived, in pairs and threes and ones, and then they stopped arriving. Coupling began.
I withdrew from the others, the coupling urge an ache in my nethers and disappointment a pain in my throat. He was old, I told myself. The sea had claimed him, as it claims the ikei. Being pelagic is dangerous, especially for the older ones. There are storms, and there are some large cousins who follow the ikei and prey on them when they can. Thiol must have fallen to one of them.
I did not choose another ikei, deciding to forgo coupling this year. I’d produced at least three eggs every year for the last twenty-three years. I could afford to skip a year. I studied the treasures, reading what they had to tell me about the ocean currents as well as what the others who inhabit this world were up to. Someone was having a war, I could tell, probably the same people that used hollow gourds to float their fishing nets. There were sharp triangles tangled in some of the nets and debris, the remnants of weapons.
The southern current was shifting, as it occasionally did, coming farther north than usual and carrying with it some interesting seeds. I brought some to the story circle, telling the six or seven younglings that were interested and the four adults who were my story-keepers what I saw, and what the far-traveling seeds were telling me.
A pair of ikei settled nearby, turning their heads this way and that. I hissed. These were young and had not had a chance to couple. An older female uncoupled was quite attractive to them, but I was having none of it.
At my hiss, they withdrew a few steps, but stayed close enough to hear. I addressed myself to the adults, ignoring the younglings and the ikei. There was a good chance that at least a few of these younglings might mature into adults rather than ikei, and when they did they might become story-keepers for me, but until then I wouldn’t have anything to do with them.
“This, see how it’s split? It only does this after more than a year in the water.” I pointed to a crack in the husk of the heavy nut I had in front of me.
“How do you know?” asked an ikei.
I hissed again, and continued. “We only get these when a southern current shifts north–”
“The ikei has a good question,” one of my story-keepers said. “What is the provenance of the story?”
My hand lifted and then fell again. “It came to me from Ihui, from Liiopu, from Uikullu, from Gillo, from Kuiio, from–” I stopped, fell silent. Was that right? “From Yothul.”
“Yothul? That’s an ikei name.”
I cast my mind back, delving into the memories given to me by those who had gone before. “Yothul is in the line, having brought back a fresh one. Yothul was blown south by a storm and discovered the place where these nuts came from, a place occupied by Stubbed Ones. He was attacked, but threw these nuts to defend himself, and escaped while clutching one. He carried the nut to Kuiio, who was able to do experiments and determine how the nut looked after it had been floating for certain periods of time.”
“Then ikei do contribute to the lines, then.” That was the ikei who had first spoken.
“The ikei are respected for their contributions.” It was as polite as I could manage to be. I gave the one who had spoken a regarding stare. “What is your name?”
“Rawil,” he said. “I find it interesting that there is at least one ikei in a line.”
“The ikei see much, but they cannot tell us any of it,” I said. “This much is known. We do occasionally get contributions from them, but only the most extraordinary ikei can remember anything about what they see while pelagic. Their contributions are usually in the form of physical objects. Like this.” I picked up the nut and hefted it.
The ikei opened and then closed his wings, colored with swirls of white and violet. Younglings looked back and forth between us as the ikei shifted uncomfortably. Finally, he turned away, picking up his claws in a dignified stalk.
I hissed at his back and went back to talking.
Two days later, there was a commotion from the northern heights as two excited younglings plummeted down, shrieking. “Ikei! Ikei! Coming down! Hurt!”
I took in a sharp breath. Could it be? A cloud of ikei rose from the village, leaving their afternoon assignations without so much as a parting word, rising to find their brother. They returned a few minutes later, one with claws wrapped around the hips of the ikei who had been struggling, another gliding and bearing most of his weight on his back. I couldn’t tell who it was.
I couldn’t tell until the one beneath set down, the ikei having trouble slipping from his back to tumble into the dirt. Red and yellow. He lifted his head, met my eyes.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t go to him. He was the responsibility of the ikei for the moment, and they gathered around him, muttering and keening. He was so thin. He looked like he’d hardly eaten for the last few months. They ran wing-fingers over him, his wings, his head. Eventually, two took off, angled south, came back with large flapping fish in their claws. Thiol dipped his head and began to eat, ripping at the flesh with claws and teeth.
Afterwards, the ikei drifted back to interrupted assignations, and I was finally free to approach. He was in the shade of a shorebreak tree, kneeling with wings sprawled outward loosely. He looked up as I approached. “Polliu. More beautiful every year.”
I crouched beside him. “Thiol.” Now here was a place sticky as sap. We never spoke of infirmity or death with the ikei. But speak I must. “What happened?”
“What happens to all of us, in time,” he said. His light voice was exhausted, and he had fish scales around his mouth. “I did not catch as much as I should have at first. Because of that, my strength dwindled, and I could only take fish that were sure catches. A run of bad luck and a storm that came up, and I was grounded for a while on a small island. I thought I was done, but once I started flying again the air started feeling familiar. So here I am.”
I looked at the ikei, and thought. Here was something new. Old ikei, and Thiol was one of the oldest, would go out one year, and then simply not return. But he had gone out, and come back, and he was tired and fragile. “You won’t be going out again.” My tone made it a question.
He raised the center ribs of his wings, dropped them with a rustle. “I will go out again. What else is there? This how we live, and how we die.”
I looked away from him. He was ikei, and I was not. But we had started out in the same place. “You could stay.”
“Here? What is there for me here?”
The disgust in his voice made me wince. I had some affection for this ikei, but he was what he was and would always remain. “Nothing but fruit-eaters and younglings, and talking story.”
“Talking story is always good. But I will die as I lived.”
Looking at him, his elegant head and the few leaf-scales that still clung to him, brown and dead, his long body bent and gaunt, I had an irrational surge of emotion for this creature. A cold flush spread over me, and I knew that my pupils had narrowed to slits, showing Thiol sunset iris. I turned away sharply, rose, my tail thrashing from side to side like a club.
“Wait, Polliu,” he said, and in his voice was a plea. “Many rivers run to the sea.”
I turned, considered. He was willing to negotiate, then. His first reaction to the suggestion had been a reflex, as I thought it might have been. Ikei do not change easily. It is one of the things we have in common. I dropped down beside him once more, abruptly forgiving him. He reached out a wing to gather me in, and I snuggled in beside him. His body was warm, and his wing covered with fine hair. The patterns on the underside of his wings were made in that hair; under it, his wings were as featureless as a youngling’s.
I reached out, stroked that hair, purred as he sighed and relaxed. The smell of him was faint, but there was something of the coupling scent in it. Another few days, I thought, and even as frail as he was he might be persuaded to fill me one final time. I would not have to resort to that impertinent ikei with a mouth full of questions and disturbingly intelligent eyes.
Yes, for the moment, all was well.
I cried out sharply, Thiol’s curved member penetrating me, fulfilling the coupling ache. We were still then, resting, his wing-fingers on my shoulders, the underside of his head on the top of mine. A bird shrieked somewhere nearby, leaves clattered together as the breeze gusted. We were half-standing, braced against a tree; Thiol had not the strength to cover me as was customary, so we were improvising.
So far, it was a very pleasurable improvisation. This was different, the angle was strange, and it touched parts of me that did not often get touched by another. I sighed and ran my tongue up his neck, and then squealed as he writhed in me without moving the rest of him. “Oh do that again…”
After some time, the encounter came to its conclusion, and I surprised both of us by sharing a tik-tik with him. We do not take food together, we and ikei. Once they come to land, ikei do not eat until, half-starved, having grown thin with coupling as many as eight times a day for three handfuls of days, they depart and become pelagic again, to ride the winds and gorge themselves on the bounty the sea offers.
But by common, silent agreement, the ikei had been feeding Thiol, and the youngsters had taken up the habit of bringing him part of their morning’s catch. He was heavier now than he had been when he’d arrived, and this morning I had caught the hot scent of him and led him away to this cove.
Juice dripped down his chin, and his tongue came out to catch it. We lay in tall grass, and the surf nearby beat against the shore in an irregular rhythm. He looked over at me, and his eyes narrowed fondly. “And I suppose you will request that of me again,” he said, the tone a caress even as the words jested.
“As many times as you feel capable,” I told Thiol. “If these are to be my last eggs out of you, I want as many as I can.” The words were false though well-meant; I knew that there was no chance Thiol would be up to as many couplings as it would take to for me to get three or even two eggs this time. We would be doing well to get one, and that only if we worked at making up for lost time.
He snorted. “Polliu, it is you. I will be capable of whatever is required of me. You will accept nothing less. It is, after all, why I am your favorite.”
My chuckle was a deep rumble in my throat. It was true. He had become a favorite by first not taking no for an answer, and then by never denying me anything I’d asked. Thiol’s voice turned contemplative. “I have never seen the process of egg-laying, or of hatching. Or even of younglings changing, other than my own change.”
“Are you thinking of staying?” I asked quietly.
He ducked his head, to scratch the top of it with his claws. “I am.”
I turned my eyes skyward, thinking about this. Then I blinked. “Thiol, look at that. Is that–”
He followed my gaze. “A great cousin! But what is it doing this far north?”
“I don’t know, but–” I sucked my breath in as I saw the great cousin, six-limbed and terribly dangerous, go into a dive. My cry of denial was wordless as it dropped out of sight briefly and then winged back into the sky, carrying a struggling youngling in its front claws. “Cover. Quickly.” I got to my feet, dragged Thiol onto his claws, yanked him into a nearby stand of shorebreak trees.
“You hide while the great cousin is on the attack?” Thiol’s voice was astonished, and disapproving.
“It will not attack structures, and if it finds no prey it will not linger!” There had not been a great cousin in our skies while the ikei were on land since–
My mind raced through stories, sorted memory from memory, built a chronology from converging and diverging lines. Seventy handfuls of years. Eight hundred and forty coupling seasons, my mind whispered.
And the story of that time–
“No,” I moaned, and “no,” again.
A story was about to repeat itself. For the first time since my own change, I wished for wings. But I was stubbornly earthbound, and Thiol was looking at me with confusion and concern. “The ikei,” I started, and stumbled. “The ikei will attack. They will die.”
“They will drive the great cousin from our island,” he told me.
I moaned, raised my elbows, doubled over. “They will die. Seventy handfuls ago–it took almost ten handfuls to recover, and the ikei were three times as numerous then.”
It was disaster, and as I raised my head to the sky I watched story repeat itself. Ikei were powering up to the great cousin, who looked startled at the response but answered threat with violence. It gave a crackling roar, and dove at the ikei.
Blood fell from the sky, and Thiol trembled next to me. He could not go. I hung onto his wing, and he was not strong enough to shake me off.
Ikei died. Those of us who had chosen hands instead of wings, and Thiol who had chosen wings and then me, could do nothing but watch.
In the end, the great cousin fell as well, crashing into the sea, gravely wounded. It chose an unfortunate place to come down, near the silty mouth of a river; I could hear screams as the cousins who lived in the dim shallows and were fierce hunters came from miles around, drawn by the blood.
Twenty-five ikei survived. It was a bitter trade.
“There are other tribes to the south. We will try to recruit some of their ikei,” Lilleloi said.
“Do you remember the last time that was tried?” Liiloka, her egg-mate, said sourly. We were gathered under the three large platforms, arguing about what must be done. “I do. The tribe that tried it was slaughtered for trying to steal ikei. No, all we can do is wait, and recover. It will happen eventually.”
Kii stirred herself. We all turned to her. “Those who have not coupled this season, choose an ikei and couple with him enough times to get at least an egg or two. We must replace lost ones. I will kill any who try to keep their ikei to themselves.” We bowed our heads. Kii’s voice, when it was used, was our ultimate arbiter. And though she was old, and large, and slow, none of us doubted she could kill whoever she chose. She could not climb platforms any more, but you could not stay in the trees forever.
Thiol was away from me for a while, comforting his brothers, and I waited for him to return as the sun set. “All are claimed, except for me,” he said diffidently.
“Then I claim you,” I told him. “Once is not nearly enough, if I want even one egg.”
I’d had an idea for a position that I could couple with Thiol in that should not require much energy on his part. We tried my idea, and to my immense gratification, it worked. It worked well enough that he and I made up for lost time that night and the following morning, and after he stopped to wolf down strips of great cousin that the younglings brought the next morning, we continued.
Around us, life moved on. The great cousin had died in the night, and we would eat well off of its body for some time. The ikei, now that it seemed more demands were going to be made on them, chose to partake in the feeding, keeping up their strength so that they could leave every adult gravid with as many eggs as it was possible to carry.
It was not without precedent in story, but there were mutters anyway. The coupling season was being lengthened beyond the usual, and there were many who were not easy with it. The younglings were restless, a number of them starting to show signs of the change beginning to come on them. Some of those weren’t expected to come into their change for at least another year, in some cases two. I laid a private bet that most of those younglings would become ikei, and I was not disappointed.
The village became quiet once the younglings slipped off one by one to make their change. Most would fly into the interior valleys to make their change, and those that became one of us would walk back, having lost their wings and most of their tail in the process. The ikei would fly back, of course.
And so it was, and so it was. We never knew what prompted the ikei to make their flight; something about time of year and weather. The ikei became restless, coupling dwindled to nothing, and they gathered on a beach near the village, walking up and down the length of it, looking out to sea.
So few of them. Thiol was beside me as we watched from the trees, and his long head turned and turned, trying to catch the breeze. “A good day for it,” he said, and his voice was grave. “Feel, the wind’s coming.”
At first, I barely felt it, and then the coolness ruffled through the lichen at the back of my neck. Thiol squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and moaned as if in pain.
On the beach, ikei were spreading their wings, and all at once, oh–
Exploding outward in dizzying colors, their voices crackling out of them, they climbed and climbed and then the sky swallowed them. In my fascination, I almost forgot Thiol, crouched beside me, until I heard him moan again. “Ah, Polliu–”
He was folded into himself, wings clutched tight to his body, wing-fingers exploring his head. His eyes, his black eyes, were weeping blood as his inner eyelids flicked open and closed over and over again. He was trembling violently. “Polliu,” he whispered.
I understood, then. “Go,” I murmured. “Go.”
He trembled, but he unfolded himself then, wings still clamped tightly to himself. He stumbled out of the trees, almost tripping over his own claws. That cool wind was still blowing, and Thiol, when he reached the beach, turned his head into it and raised his eyes to the sun, staring. He spread his wings, and took a few running steps, lifting himself into the air one last time on those wings.
He rose, and he was so beautiful. Beautiful, and blind, and dying.
Ikei never die on land.
He got scarcely half a mile away, still within sight, before he fell into the sea and it swallowed him whole.
There was rage in me, and I growled at the sea. “Fruit-eaters,” I snarled. “Fruit-eaters, and talking story!” I walked away from the sea, up the hill, up to the ridge, heedless of how my lichen curled. I walked until the rage ceased, and when it abruptly left me I was in a blackwood grove, the trees and their red bark twisted, flowers growing fragrant among them.
I did not know this place, but it knew me, and the stones stacked up told me what it was. A sacred place, a place of those who had gone before. “I tried,” I said. “I tried to keep him.”
A stirring of air. Disapproval. I hung my head.
I do not know if I imagined that disapproval, or if it was simply the weight of all of the stories I carried, heavy in my belly with the eggs that were beginning to form there. I licked the air, tasting. “The ikei must fly,” I muttered, addressing the ground. “They must fly, or they die.”
It was there in the blackwood grove that I sat, for a night and a day and a night, and grew a story within me. The story fed on me, on what I had known of Thiol, on the things I had noticed about ikei in the many years I had been seeing them come and go. It fed on my own dim memories of being a youngling, of having wings. It fed on my unexpected rage at his death, and my bewilderment that I felt anything at all about it.
It fed, and grew round in me and big as a tik-tik, as a journey-fruit, as an egg.
When the story was whole, I rose. I did not understand the story yet. I would not until it was spoken. So it was that I walked down the ridge and into the valley and into the village, and called my story-circle around me.
The story started like this:
“This is the story of Thiol, who was first a youngling and then an ikei. This is the story of his life, and his death.”
The story broke its shell and came spilling from me. The world is water, and we are at its center. And when we became not one people but two, when one of us chose the land and the other the air, we forgot that we had once been one.
So I told Thiol’s story, an ikei story, using my voice to add an ikei to the lines. When I was done and silence fell, I rose and walked away, going to my platform.
I would tell Thiol’s story over and over again over the years, as the seasons changed and the wind brought the ikei back and then swept them away once more. My attachment to Thiol faded gradually, as I lost the feel and the being of him, as he was woven into his story and into the lines. I kept a little of him: how the hair under his wings had felt to my hands, how coupling with him had felt, the way he would blink affectionately when he looked at me sometimes.
Most of him went into the story and out of me, and it was better that way. Still, sometimes, when the wind turns and touches my lichen in just the right way, he will come back to me, a swift-moving shadow on the endless horizon, a shape in the fog. I watch wordless as he fades again, and wonder if this is a blessing or a curse, or perhaps both.
I turn my head, taste the wind; the ikei will return soon. I am ready to catch their stories, to weave them into the lines. I will wait for Thiol, even though I know he is not coming.
I will wait for Thiol, until I have wings once more.
By Julie Day
I’d already saved Laurence Saunders a number of times over the years, small insignificant salvations. On December nineteenth, I managed to save him twice.
That last day, Laurence slipped unnoticed from his home sometime between noon and three p.m., the three hour space between the meals-on-wheels delivery by Mrs. Heflin and the arrival of the nurse’s aide. Despite the tragic circumstances, no blame was ever cast on either woman. After all, Mr. Saunders had been found wandering numerous times before.
No one considered my involvement, not even once: not the police officer who coordinated the search and rescue, not the other neighbors on our street, not even the dogs they eventually brought in from the mainland, though, perhaps, they would have if they’d bothered to check my boots.
Laurence was my closest neighbor, his front porch no more than forty feet from mine. Five years ago I’d watched his wife’s coffin carried down the steps of that front porch after the wake. Later I’d watched him sit on that same porch for hours, alone, day after day, only the fraying of his bathrobe marking the passage of time.
With his wife, Suzie, gone, I was his only companion. Laurence and I were separated by forty feet, two walls, and a growing silence that neither of us could shake. For me, the silence shouldn’t have felt any different from when Suzie was alive. But it did.
I had never been one of the Saunders’ flock of visitors. The August barbeques with the overflow of pick-up trucks and coolers full of beer had always seemed like just so much unnecessary noise. Since Suzie’s death, that kind of noise had gradually ceased. Laurence started losing people’s names about three years ago. Started losing other words about a year after that. Now that the silence had infected his house, few visited anymore.
I watched, I listened, and, at night when Laurence fell asleep in front of his flickering TV, I slipped in and turned out the lights. It felt good to be needed.
Ten years ago I’d left my husband, Peter and his three basset hounds back in Portland and moved across the bay to China Island and Aunt Eveline’s old clapboard house. The twin occurrences of Aunt Eveline’s death and the demise of my marriage felt somehow linked. My true path finally revealed.
“Good luck, Sarah,” My ex-husband had said on that last day, shaking my hand as we stood outside the courthouse. He seemed almost relieved to see me go.
Eveline’s death offered me a new beginning. Between the house and an old savings account, she’d left me enough to almost squeak by. And somehow or other the island always provided.
Then December nineteenth arrived and Laurence Saunders wandered into the woods.
That day the snow fell like it often does in Maine. Soft puffy flakes hung from the bare branches of the birch and maple trees. Snow-topped pines loomed like towering movie props while the clouds coated the sky a dull and bitter gray.
Early in the morning I stood by my kitchen window watching the birdfeeder, a tall pole that separated the Saunders’ house from my own. The birds swarmed down, the jays chasing the smaller sparrows and finches away. Hungry birds. A storm was coming. That’s when I noticed Laurence heading out to his mailbox, just like he did every day. No coat, of course, or boots, though he’d remembered his cane. I watched his cane catch on the railing, his arms wheeling as he slipped on the edge of the porch steps. It almost seemed as if he were about to fly, his arms extended, and then he toppled backward, his body sprawled out across the wooden floor.
Feet still in leather slippers, I dashed out my front door and across the snow toward his house.
“Laurence,” I called, wanting to reassure him. “Mr. Saunders.”
Laurence glanced in my direction.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, legs kicking like a fallen turtle. His robe had fallen open, the cotton, striped pajama top the only thing separating his thin chest from the winter air. “Get on home. It’s cold out here.”
“Mr. Saunders,” I repeated as I stepped onto the porch. “Let me help you.” I bent down and grasped him under both arms. Laurence tried to shift away, but I hung on, tugging. It seemed for a moment like it wasn’t going to work, and then we were both standing. Laurence’s knotted fingers quickly pulled my hands away.
“I’d better go and find Suzie,” he muttered, red faced, his eyes avoiding mine. “Good to see you, Eveline.”
Damn him. Despite all his other losses, he’d always remembered my name, at least until today. Sarah not Eveline. Sarah. Even as a girl, when I’d just been another of Aunt Eveline’s summer visitors, he’d always known who I was. When I moved in to Aunt Eveline’s house, Laurence Saunder’s had been the first person to greet me.
“Hello, Sarah with the long butter-colored hair,” he called from the open window of his truck. He’d given me that nickname back when I was only six and visiting Aunt Eveline for the first time. My hair was darker now, not that it seemed to matter. From my very first day up until his very last, I watched over Laurence Saunders, and he watched over me, too.
Used to be, when Suzie was alive, I’d call at the Saunders’ house every Saturday night. It even seemed like Laurence and Suzie welcomed me, despite the intrusion. It was almost like shoveling out someone’s driveway, a very neighborly act.
Some things hadn’t changed at all from my childhood visits to China Island. Every week Laurence came home bawling drunk, his pickup skidding along the curves of the road, the sea’s edge no more than ten feet on one side, the woods not much farther on the other.
Every week I would hear him stumbling across his porch as I lay in my wallpapered bedroom. And always he sang that same song. “Wake up little Suzie. Wake up.” The words starting before he’d even reached the entrance, the banging of the porch door following soon after, and then the lights flashing on throughout the house. The brightness of those lights drove through my curtains like sunlight.
Of course, I was awake. Just like Suzie.
I always imagined his wife, Suzie, waited until the very last moment before turning on the bedroom lamp. Like me she’d been in bed for hours, both our houses dark with only the far off gleam of the mainland lights for company.
Sometimes, on summer nights, I heard their laughter, too. Heard the music he turned on as he clattered into their bedroom. I imagined the two of them dancing, gray-haired and smiling, as the moon slowly traveled overhead. Those nights it seemed I could never get to sleep, my restless legs finally pulling me out of bed, my hand on the beige telephone. And, somehow, it always ended the same way. I would hear the ringing phone through my open window. One ring, two rings, ten rings. And then, just as I was about to hang up, Laurence would answer.
“Sarah, just go to sleep,” he’d murmur, more distracted than upset. “Suzie, I’m coming,” he would call, and then the line would go dead. Laurence and Suzie busy with their own concerns.
All that changed once Suzie died. No more clattering truck, no more out-of-tune songs, no more phone calls. All the noise emptied from the Saunders’ house.
On December nineteenth, for the first time in years, Laurence’s driveway was full once again; the pick-ups lined up one behind the other. Men in work boots and heavy coats called out to each other as they wandered about Laurence’s property and the surrounding woods.
The noise reminded me of those old September barbeques and Suzie bringing me something on a paper plate, slipping between our yards, her face serene as she held my door open.
“I know you like ribs, Sarah. Just take ’em. We’ve got plenty.”
“Sarah, here. Take it.” The plate already set down on my kitchen table, a folded paper napkin beside it.
And then I would feel Suzie’s hand squeezing my shoulder before she slipped back outside.
Veronica Dunphy, the nurse’s aide, was the first one to spread the news of Laurence’s disappearance, calling China Island’s lone police officer when she found the empty house and still open door. The rescue party arrived soon after, most of them men from the volunteer fire department.
I stayed inside. Didn’t want to hear what they were saying. Didn’t want to see. Laurence was a skinny man with hardly an ounce of fat left on him. How long could he survive in the December cold, the snow now falling thick and fast? I watched as the huddle of men dispersed in all directions only to return in ones or twos, faces increasingly grim.
As dusk set in, more trucks pulled up to the Saunders’ house. More neighbors, too. People arriving to offer their help. I could see Georgia Loomis and Nick Dimeo, neighbors from about a half mile down the road. I could see Tony Bergmann, Laurence’s closest neighbor on the other side. From his Day-Glo jacket and black tights, it was clear he’d been heading out on yet another run when he’d noticed the crowd.
I watched as he talked to the small cluster of men who hovered around a blue Dodge Ram—no hats, despite the cold, maps and radios spread across the hood of the pick-up. Then Tony shook someone’s hand and turned toward my house, moving steadily through the foot of snow that separated the two yards. Clearly, he had seen me watching.
I slipped on my boots and stepped out onto the porch.
“Sarah,” Tony called out in greeting. “Did you happen to see Laurence today?”
The sun had fallen below the tree tops. The temperature must have dropped at least five degrees in the last hour. It was only going to get colder.
“Not since morning.”
Tony had reached the bottom of my porch. I could see the downward creases at the edges of his mouth. His brown eyes completely unguarded.
I glanced at the huddle of volunteers in Laurence’s driveway.
“I could help search. I know the woods round here pretty well by now….” It felt more like a question than I’d intended.
“I think they’ve got enough people,” Tony replied after a slight pause. “Be helpful if you could keep an eye on his house, make sure he doesn’t slip back somehow while we’re all out scurrying.”
We both knew he was worried about something else entirely. Tony was like a lot of the island men, careful of their women. He didn’t want me to be the one to find Laurence’s body, curled and frozen, the stripes of his thin cotton pants covered in a layer of fresh snow.
The flakes were falling quickly, now. Island storms always seem fiercer than those on the mainland. No mountains to slow them down. No towns to the north or south where you can hide until they pass. The storm, in the end, has to be faced. Pure. That’s China Island.
“I better get going,” Tony said after a moment, glancing at darkening sky. “Perhaps someone further down saw him.”
“I just wish I had more to tell,” I murmured as Tony turned toward the road. I’m not sure he even heard me; his stride had already broken into a run.
And I do. I wish I could have told them all. Wish I could have mentioned the dim lights in the woods, uncertain, like the edge of a sunset. And Laurence’s shuffling steps as he headed toward those trees. His voice creaking out the words, “Wake up little Suzie. Wake up.” I could have mentioned so many things. My boots were already covered with snow when I finally stepped out to meet Tony. Did I mention that? No? Though the snow was more puddle at that point.
Two hours is a long time. A long time for snow to melt, a long time for someone in house slippers and a robe to be out in the cold.
No wonder Tony Bergmann ran so fast.
“Laurence, dear. Why don’t you take my arm?” I paused for a moment, letting him process the words.
His eyes moved slowly over my face. His lips creased slightly in confusion.
“I don’t mind, honestly. We’ll hold each other up.”
“Eveline, shouldn’t we head back?” His voice was so hesitant, not like the old Laurence at all. “The snow’ll be here soon.”
I glanced up through the trees.
He was right, of course. The flakes were falling steadily, now.
“It’s alright, Laurence. We’ll head back in a bit….” I let the words trail off, his arm still firmly wrapped through mine. I didn’t stop walking.
After all this time, had he really lost my name?
Laurence and I were deep in the woods now.
The light kept changing the closer we got to it. The light was like honey, as dark as it was bright. And from overhead in every direction came the creaking of frozen branches. I could hear a rustling as the wind pushed against the snow and leaves, pushed against my hair and cheeks, as well. How could Laurence stand the cold?
In the woods it was like the ocean didn’t even exist, nothing but trees and the crunching of my boots, Laurence’s own slippers making almost no sound. There was just a scattering of snow on the ground; the pine branches acting as a rough sort of roof. Once the storm started and the snow truly began to fall, it would be hard to follow either of our footprints.
I had made sure to meet Laurence in the woods, wandering down the street a ways before finally slipping through the trees, letting him take those first steps alone. The snow in his yard, I knew, would show only one set of prints. One set of footprints and the marks of his three-pronged cane.
My own little walk? If anyone noticed, well, I walked the woods most days. People knew that.
“Sarah?” Laurence said, his voice almost yelling over the wind.
I glanced over in surprise.
The woods were like a wall in front of us spreading out in both directions. And the sounds. I could hear voices now. Words anyway. “Hurry. Faster. Don’t forget.”
A woman’s voice as angry as it was determined.
And then Laurence started to laugh. The slackness in his eyes gone. Now I was the one being tugged forward. Laurence’s voice calling out to the trees.
“Damn it, woman. I said I’d be back soon. Just got caught up for a bit is all.”
Just like those Saturday nights when Suzie was still alive. Me listening in, so hopeful for them both.
The wind was whipping against my face now. The clattering of the branches mixed with the swirling of the dead leaves. And, somewhere, more words. Still too hard for me to distinguish easily. I thought I caught “late” and perhaps even “bastard.” I hadn’t known Suzie Saunders swore.
“Sweetheart. Suzie.” Tears were running down the old man’s face as we stumbled against the now roaring wind. “God, damn it. It’s alright. I’m here. Haven’t even taken off my work clothes and you’re already going at it.”
And then he was dropping my arm that cane of his swinging out, sailing toward the trees, toward that light that flooded behind.
I stumbled, falling to the ground, Laurence falling, too. Spittle on his lips, his old man’s skin grey-blue against the dark ground and the light powdered snow.
“Suzie,” he muttered as he tried to push himself up. “Suzie.”
I started to shiver. God, it was cold. The tie of his robe had come undone, nothing but that worn cotton top covering his skin. I wanted to cradle him in my arms with his old-man body and half-empty eyes.
His lips were a little blue, but Laurence’s heart was just fine. Unraveling for years, Suzie was all that was left. Those memories burned so deep, canyons raging through the empty landscape.
Laurence was crawling now, but not for long. Gnarled hands, knotted and arthritic, pressed against rough bark as he used a nearby tree trunk to pull himself upright. His breath was like a cloud, spreading out to meet the light.
“Suzie,” Laurence said. His voice was low now. He glanced back at me. “You shouldn’t be here.”
The wind hadn’t so much settled as decided to wander elsewhere, my hair no longer whipping across my face. The tree branches were silent.
Laurence pulled the tie of his robe back across his waist. The worn pajama top was now hidden underneath. He ran his right hand through his still-thick hair, steel-grey, the edges hanging down over his ears and collar.
And then he turned and looked at me, looked right at me, his eyes holding mine.
“Time for you to go,” he said. And he meant it. His voice firm, like that time I found Suzie on the kitchen floor leaning against the refrigerator, a houseslipper on one foot the other slipper clear across the room, resting near Laurence.
“Don’t worry. We’ll call you soon,” he’d said then. And I’d nodded, glancing from one to the other, the empty plate left on the counter. No other words spoken.
He said it again now. “We’ll call you soon, Sarah.” The trees and that honey-dark light stretching out behind him.
And after all, wasn’t that why we’d wandered into the woods to begin with, so he could find that light?
I nodded once and then turned to go, leaving Laurence leaning against the old tree, his song clear as I followed the trail back to the edge of my house. “Wake up, little Suzie. Wake up.” The creaking of the trees was his only accompaniment. The light didn’t fade, though. Just like on those summer nights all those years ago. In the end, Suzie always ended up turning on that light.
The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa
By Emily B. Cataneo
The woman in the diner’s backroom sat in a chair–but no, she wasn’t just sitting. She had become the chair, or the chair was eating her, consuming her like a wicker tumor. Half her teeth were gone and white willow strands had forced through the empty spots in her gums. Wicker strips curved from her hands instead of fingernails. Beneath her faded peony-pattered skirt, curls of wicker cleaved to her legs instead of varicose veins.
“Girl.” The Wicker Woman reached out a veined hand, tried to stroke Maddy’s face, and her wicker fingernails clattered against Maddy’s cheek.
“How long have you been here? What are you–do you need to go to a hospital?” said Maddy.
“Not the hospital. The camp.”
The woman nodded at a dusty book at her feet, a withered piece of newsprint sticking out the top. The book was called Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest. Maddy pulled the newsprint out of the water-warped pages.
A picture of a beaming man, his hair curled in a 1940s pompadour, his face superimposed over a palm tree. The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, Offering Electroshock, Hypnosis and the Occasional Healing Boat Ride. Exit 6 off I-15.
“You get healed there,” said the woman, lisping around the wicker protruding from her mouth. “I want to go.”
Maddy stared at the soft newsprint in her hand and imagined this spa, sand blowing through its deserted buildings, or a chain restaurant erected where it had once stood. But then she saw the Wicker Woman looking at her with brows knitted over cloudy eyes.
“I can take you,” said Maddy. “I’ll take you with me.”
Maddy dragged the chair through the gloaming of the diner, past the turquoise Formica counter and the tintype of a boy holding a glass Coke bottle. She banged out the broken screen door and pulled the chair over the sparse grass between the diner and the pitted road.
Maddy threw open her U-Haul truck, which overflowed with furniture, books, lamps and an old mannequin Maddy had bought at Goodwill freshman year.
“There’s no room,” said the Wicker Woman. “Are you going to leave me here?”
“Leave some of these things, girlie. You don’t need them. What’re you going to do with that thing?” She gestured at the mannequin.
Maddy hesitated, but she shook her head, hauled out her aqua desk chair and plunked it by the side of the road. Dust eddys jumped around the chair wheels.
One less thing to move in when I get to Los Angeles, thought Maddy. And truly, she liked the look of her chair on the grass, about to pass from Maddy’s concern, about to be far behind her on the road.
Maddy had always been an explorer. In the past week, she’d interrogated a tour guide about the South’s memories of the Civil War at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia; she’d spent a day in New Orleans trying to figure out whether the Onion Man of Lake Pontchartrain, who she’d read about in a magazine, was real or fictional; and she’d spent an afternoon trying to ascertain whether the woman who owned a turquoise jewelry shop in Santa Fe truly believed in the healing power of the crystals she sold there. She’d bought postcards along the way, too, and filled them out for Mom.
Los Angeles waited for her at the end of her journey, a sprawling mess of steaming freeway and Santa Ana and responsibility, and as she traveled west Jenna the Nurse became increasingly prickly on her daily phone calls, but when would Maddy have another chance to see the country?
So when Maddy saw the sign for Old Route 66 sprouting out of the endless clean-aired prairie west of the Grand Canyon, she swung her U-Haul onto the exit, and when she saw the deserted diner looming up between the skeletons of road signs and an ox-skull-covered wooden fence, she pulled over, and poked inside, and found the Wicker Woman crouched in her back room prison.
That night, with the Wicker Woman in back, Maddy pulled the U-Haul off the road at the edge of the cold and luminous desert. She’d tried to sleep in the truck as much as possible on this trip, to save money.
She ate a granola bar for dinner, then walked around the truck and pulled open the back and settled down on one of the boxes. The Wicker Woman studied her with unfocused eyes.
“Are you an athlete, girlie?”
“No, I mean, I go on a lot of runs. Why?”
The Wicker Woman pointed at Maddy’s shoes: toothpaste-colored sneakers that Maddy had bought the week before she’d left for college.
“Oh. No, I just like them. I’ve had them for eight years.”
“Girlie, what brought you into my diner? I had been waiting there a long time,” said the Wicker Woman.
Maddy shrugged. “New places, new people. You know.”
“That’s why you’re traveling, to see new places and new people, like one of those beatniks?”
“No,” said Maddy. “How long had you been waiting there?”
“Who knows? Could have been a year, could have been forever.”
Maddy plied the Wicker Woman with questions, and the Wicker Woman’s tongue curled around the wicker growing from her chapped mouth and she told Maddy she was married once, to a man who herded cattle on the acres behind her diner, and she served sandwiches and coffee to the travelers heading west in big-finned teal Chevys, to find work in the Californian almond groves or become movie stars.
Those were the best days of her life, she said, but then her husband left with one of the to-be movie stars. The Wicker Woman’s children had died in her womb, and soon the cattle died too, and then I-40 came through and the Chevys stopped coming and she sat down in her chair and never got up.
“I can’t imagine getting stuck in the same chair forever” said Maddy quietly. “That…it makes me nervous just to think about it.”
“Well, girlie, there’s a place that will heal me,” said Wicker Woman.
“I’ll get you there,” said Maddy.
Are you listless and depressed? Is your wife making you blue? Did your boss refuse to give you that raise? Then visit the Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, located in the heart of the picturesque Mojave Desert. Dr. Listman and his team of professionals will administer electroshock, hypnosis and other treatments, while you relax in our mud baths, take a boat ride on Lake Placid or stroll down the Boulevard of Dreams. We guarantee by the end of the visit, you’ll be cured of what ails you.
Maddy drove all the next day on interstates cut out of red shale rock, with mountains beyond mountains in the distance, ringing in houses, trailers, evil-looking electric plants. Mom would have hated the landscape, with its lack of flowers and its arid breath. But Maddy thought it was beautiful: so wide open, such a big sky. You could get lost and no one would ever find you.
She drove until she saw signs for a town called Black Wash, and she took an exit to get a burger for herself and water to wet the Wicker Woman’s lips.
When she stopped at the one fast food restaurant in town, Maddy looked west and saw a line of white lights against the sunset. It looked like a Ferris wheel.
Again, the thought of Los Angeles waiting for her at the end of the road loomed, and she clicked her phone to check for calls from Jenna. Finding nothing, she defiantly walked out of town towards the Ferris Wheel lights, dust coating her sneakers. Vinyl-sided trailers and a low-slung school became coarse sand and bramble, and soon, Maddy saw she wasn’t just approaching a Ferris wheel, but a whole amusement park.
A wooden roller coaster, a Merry-Go-Round, arcades, hot dog stands, all in crisp crimson and white. As she walked down the cobbled path, she saw the machines were freshly painted, toys just out of the box. Tiny gold lights limned the tops of the arcades, the edges of the path, the rides.
She turned a corner, and saw a cluster of those lights quivering in a ball in the path.
Maddy ran forward. The bundle of lights was a man, his back spiked like a porcupine’s with tiny lightbulbs. He softly beat his fists against the ground, muttering “Only a dime. Only a dime. Step right up.”
As he unfolded himself, Maddy saw the lightbulbs covered him, protruding from his arms, chest, face, his balding head, some glistening with blood as if the bulbs had worked their way through his skin.
“Did you want to ride the Ferris wheel?” he asked her sadly.
“No, I—what happened to you? Here, come with me.” Maddy gestured in the direction of Black Wash.
He had been a carnival barker, he told her as they walked back towards town. He had traveled through the southwest offering kettlecorn and burlesque to circus patrons.
He dreamed of his own place, and as Las Vegas sprouted from the sand 60 miles north, the Barker decided Black Wash was just the site for a similar haven, but a purer one, the kind that haunts childhood memories of summer.
So he built it. But no one came.
As the years passed, the Barker began to take on the qualities of his virgin park. Some days he’d wake covered in tiny lights like his rides. Or, his feet would stretch and swell and his hair would stripe rainbow, and he’d know he had become the clown he’d once hired. One day he awoke with the head of a tired old giraffe he’d bought for the park, back at the beginning.
“You know, we’re going to a place that heals,” Maddy said as she opened the truck. The Wicker Woman was snoring, her wicker teeth fluttering.
Hope lit up the Barker’s dark eyes. One tiny light had affixed to his eyelid.
But then he peered into the truck. “There’s no room for me in there,” he said.
“No, it’s fine, look,” said Maddy.
Maddy pulled out some boxes, and her bedside table, and she dropped them into the cigarette-flicked grass around the parking lot.
That night, Maddy sat in a motel flipping through Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest while the Barker and the Wicker Woman slept in the truck. Then her phone lit up with Jenna’s name.
“How is she?” asked Maddy.
“Where are you?”
“How is she?”
“It’s taking you awhile to drive across the country. She asks for you sometimes, but by the time you get here she might not anymore.”
Maddy watched a pickup truck pull into the lot outside the window “How is she otherwise?”
“She’s incontinent. She has her good days and bad.”
“Give her some marigolds,” said Maddy quietly. “She loves them.”
She hung up the phone and watched the pickup truck. Its flatbed was full with the detritus of a family, as though it were a turtle unable to escape his house no matter where he went. Houses drag you down. Stuff drags you down—so do chairs, amusement parks, student loans and sick mothers, dreams of what you thought your life would be, thought Maddy. She supposed the older you became, the harder it was to just ditch stuff by the road.
From Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest
The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa: a patch of the Mojave Desert just across the eastern border of California. The site has been associated with the supernatural since Native American times, but it first received popular attention in 1946 when radio announcer-turned-spiritualist Leo Listman founded a healing spa there. Christened the Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, Listman’s creation was frequented by movie stars and Easterners searching for an escape from life in hectic cities of the Atlantic seaboard. But scandal soon beset the spa. One winter night, a Miss Betty Dustin disappeared. Search parties combed the desert, but their efforts were futile. Miss Dustin had vanished.
When Maddy stopped to buy water the next day, a text message lit up her phone. It was Suzanne, her college roommate, texting her a picture from a wedding dress shopping trip.
Maddy rolled her eyes. If she could do anything right now, if she were unfettered and free, she wouldn’t waste it on marriage. What would she do? Go back to Budapest, maybe, where she had studied abroad. Use her German, try to learn more Hungarian, and become a foreign correspondent. Send postcards back to Mom, take pictures for Mom and buy souvenirs for Mom for when Maddy came home at the end of it all.
Maddy climbed into the U-Haul and merged onto the highway. The Wicker Woman was sleeping in back, but the Barker had climbed into the passenger seat that morning.
“Where are you going?” said the Barker as desert flashed by the window.
“Los Angeles.” Maddy curled one green-Conversed foot under her.
“And why don’t you want to get there?”
“You’ve stopped five times today, for food or water, or just to take a picture. You stopped at my park, and you must have stopped to pick up the Wicker Woman as well. And you’re taking us to the spa.”
“I take pictures so I can show them to my mother,” said Maddy. “She likes them.”
“Ah. And she lives in Los Angeles?”
“You have been away from home for a long time?”
“I lived in Boston for eight years.”
“She’ll be happy to see you, then.”
“Maybe,” said Maddy. The Barker’s question had brought the specter of LA at the end of the road into sharp focus: Mom, and the job at the community newspaper in the suburb where Maddy had grown up, and a lease on an apartment and bills and unpacking.
“You have a difficult relationship?”
The Barker nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“She has early onset dementia.”
The Barker didn’t answer. Maddy stared at the road. Joshua trees flashed by and tumbleweeds caught in their spokes.
“I’m taking you to the camp because my mother raised me to help people,” she said. “I’m helping you.”
“What happens at the camp? Do you know?”
“I…I’ve been reading this book that the Wicker Woman had, that mentions the camp. There’s a story about disappearances, affairs. But no, I don’t know what will happen.”
Maddy glanced at the Barker. His head was bowed and the lights on his skin glowed faintly against the golden light of the desert.
“The day I decided to open my park, I felt like the whole world was open to me. Like I could do anything. Did you ever feel like that?”
“Yes,” said Maddy quietly.
Her phone buzzed and lit up with Jenna the nurse’s name.
Maddy glanced at the Barker, and he watched her sadly as she shoved the phone back into her bag. She turned up the music and drove on towards the spa and LA.
from Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest
Betty Dustin was dogged by rumors that her marriage was loveless and that she had had an affair with another woman. And rumors dogged the story of her disappearance too: they said Betty had walked through the saw palmetto palms that surround the camp and into the night holding the hand of a woman whose dress swished against the sand.
Over the next decade, more and more patrons of Listman’s camp vanished into the desert, until the authorities shut it down, both because of the disappearances and Listman’s forgetfulness when it came to taxes. No one knows what happened to Listman after the camp shut down, but they say he stayed in the camp until one day, he disappeared in the desert too.
Maddy pulled over that night at a gas station and motel just over the border into California. Thirty-foot high crimson letters advertising GAS loomed out of the desert. A set of gaudy pink flamingos ringed a fountain.
Maddy slept badly, and she woke up when sunlight touched her face. She dressed and walked past the U-Haul and went to stand by the flamingos.
Behind the heat waves already shimmering over the desert, Maddy saw a low-slung concrete building, perhaps a quarter mile out.
Maddy walked out of the parking lot into the bramble. She thought she heard a distant moan, or a cry, emanating across the desert from the building, and she wondered if someone else who needed her help, who needed to be healed, lived in there. She began to jog, dodging a tortoise, and a murder of ravens startled her as they floated into the air, squawking.
Maddy slowed down as she neared the building. A placard on the side read St. Josephine’s. A mission, maybe, or an old school. Maddy pushed her way inside.
Dim light fell on metal skeletons of beds, on a pile of linens in the corner and the bones of voles. The building was deserted.
Maddy sank into a squat on the floor and ran her hands over her forehead.
In the absence of another traveler, another person she could take to the camp, she felt Los Angeles squeeze her gut. She would be there soon–the day after tomorrow, probably–and yes, the Barker was right, she could admit it to herself, here, at dawn in the desert: the last thing she wanted was to ever reach LA.
As Maddy pushed back outside, her phone vibrated in her pocket.
“Are you in California yet?” asked Jenna, her voice staccato.
“Because we need you to get here.”
“Wait—is it…urgent? Is she…going to—“
“No, it’s nothing like that. This disease can drag on for five, seven years. You know that. We need you get here to sign papers. Make decisions. Pay bills. That sort of thing.”
“I’m coming as fast as I can,” said Maddy.
When she hung up, she saw she’d gotten two texts overnight: one from Suzanne, with a picture of some kind of garland, and one from her new boss at the newspaper, reminding her to bring two forms of identification on the first day of work.
Maddy dropped the phone onto the sand. She bent down and pawed at the sand until she had a little hole. She kicked the phone into it and piled sand back on top of it. She stomped on it for good measure, hoping she broke the screen, then walked towards the truck.
The Barker was waiting for her outside.
“Maddy, Maddy, Maddy,” he said. “Maddy, we need your help. Help us.”
He flung open the back of the truck. The Wicker Woman was bent over moaning. She straightened up and Maddy saw a stout wicker curl had burst through her right eye. Around the curl was blood and some other liquid Maddy didn’t like to think about.
Maddy leapt into the truck and ripped open a box and pulled out one of her old t-shirts.
“Shh. You’re going to be all right,” said Maddy, as she daubed at the Wicker Woman’s face.
“What’s taking so long?” cried the Wicker Woman. “Why aren’t we at the camp yet? You’re slow, girlie. I want to get there. I’m tired of this.” She gestured at the chair, at her punctured eye.
“We’re going as fast as we can,” said Maddy coldly. She tied a strip of the t-shirt around the Wicker Woman’s head, then glanced around her, at her neatly boxed and stacked mementoes.
I don’t need any of this, she thought savagely, and she dragged a box out of the truck and dropped it by the side of the road. She dragged out two more boxes and one of them tumbled off so its contents spilled onto the sand.
“Girlie, let’s go,” howled the Wicker Woman.
Maddy ignored her. She imagined herself becoming her desk chair, becoming the woolen sweaters in that box she’d packed so carefully in Boston. Becoming her job, becoming Mom. She pulled out her desk and kicked it over on its side. One of its legs snapped and dangled, hanging on by only a few wood fibers. She began to haul her mattress out of the truck and the plastic snapped in the rising wind.
“Maybe you’ll get healed at the camp too,” said the Barker sadly.
Maddy glared at him, then looked at her feet. I hate these shoes, she thought. She pulled one dusty toothpaste-colored Converse off, then the other, then flung them one by one into the desert.
The truck bounced first over potholed pavement, then over a rutted dirt road, then they rounded a bend and–passing a sign that welcomed them to Desert Cold Oasis and Spa–came out on the camp.
It floated before them: pastel-pink and eggshell ranches, all stucco and sheltering under furry-barked palms. In the center, a pool where algae floated and bubbles popped the surface, and beyond that the desert shone like ice.
Maddy jumped out of the truck and opened the back. The Wicker Woman and the Barker looked up as sunlight touched their faces.
Dried blood coated the cloth Maddy had tied over the Wicker Woman’s eye. The Barker helped Maddy haul the Wicker Woman’s chair out of the back of the truck.
Then Maddy glanced around, taking in the raven-bones around their feet, the susurrus of a tiny breeze in the palms, and the flaking sign, advertising Dr. Listman’s amazing hypnosis, but in letters so faint you could barely read them.
“Is there anyone here?” The Barker looked as though he might cry.
The Wicker Woman let out a squawk, as though the deserted camp were Maddy’s fault.
“Come on,” said Maddy. “Let’s look around.”
The Barker followed Maddy as she walked past the pool, where a weatherbeaten rowboat lay on its side, waiting for a lake no longer there.
“We’re not going to be healed, are we?” said the Barker sadly.
Maddy was about to assure him when a low whine trailed over the desert, seizing her at the base of her spine. She thought it was just in her ears, but the Barker looked startled, and she turned around.
Figures moved through the pink-tinged desert. They were perhaps a half a mile off, a blur of shapes and shadows processing towards the camp.
As they drew closer, the shapes began to resolve: leading the procession was a line of oxen skeletons, horns glinting, strips of flesh clinging to the odd ribcage. They trundled forward bellowing and towing behind them a Model T, riding only on its rims, rusty chrome showing beneath peeling black paint.
In the car rode clothes devoid of people: brocade dresses and leather vests and trousers stood upright, the fabric quivering as though invisible people breathed inside it.
And the car towed two flatbeds, like parade floats, one holding a small Ferris wheel made of shiny white bone.
“My park.” The Barker had fallen to his knees in the sand. “My park! It’s here at last! Maddy, we’ve been saved!”
The procession stopped next to the Wicker Woman. She shrieked with glee and pointed. “Home at last!” she yelled. “Home at last!”
The Model T doors opened and one of the calico dresses slid out. It raised its blue-sprigged arms and ensconced the Wicker Woman, smoothing her hair.
Then a pair of trousers paired with a white blouse lifted the Wicker Woman out of her chair and set her sidesaddle on the back of an ox-skeleton. She shrieked with delight as her atrophied legs creaked straight.
The oxen moved across the desert towards Maddy, and the Barker ran forward towards the Ferris wheel and leapt onto the platform.
As Maddy stood transfixed in the fading light, something flickered and on the third platform bloomed another set of clothes: a UCLA sweatshirt, gardening gloves and clogs, then a flicker and a light-haired woman appeared in the clothes. Maddy knew it was a mirage, but seeing Mom, smiling, sane–Maddy felt light, free, and she started to walk forward, the sand cold against her bare feet.
She knew she shouldn’t, but she wanted to remember what it was like to see all your dreams ahead of you, and the clothes-people beckoned and the oxen rolled their heads and the Barker waved and the Wicker Woman cried for Maddy to come, come, come.
Dusk descended as Maddy reached the last platform. The garden gloves slipped into her hands, and Maddy looked into Mom’s face and Mom smelled of cinnamon and Mom smiled.
And all Maddy wanted to do, all she ever wanted, was to climb onto that platform and float into the desert, surrounded by dreams, unfettered by boxes or sickness, but then she thought of what real-Mom would have said, and she knew it would sound something like, “Madeleine. You are too young to disappear in the desert in the arms of your dreams.”
Maddy yanked her hands out of the garden gloves and fell hard onto the sand, and Maddy’s face was pressed into the ground when the caravan disappeared back into the Mojave and night fell, hard and absolute.
Come back, she wanted to scream.
The scary thing about the Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, she thought as she lay in the sand, watching the bowl of stars shift overhead, was not the fact that the desert tried to swallow you. It was that you wanted it to.
When the sun peeked over the horizon, Maddy dragged herself up, shaking sand out of her clothes, and arched her back. Her bare feet were stiff, and she wriggled her purple toes.
Maddy imagined her traveling companions floating into the desert, settling into the sand and watching the sun rise and fall and set again, content in the arms of their mirages as they slid towards death. She hoped they had gotten what they wanted.
But they’re not coming back for me, she thought, nausea bubbling in her stomach. She only had the slender spine of California to cross today, and then her journey would be over.
Then something shifted in the air, and a red mailbox, paint chipping and post weathered, sprouted from the sand. Maddy shuffled forward.
The box read, in curling script, Oceanside Care Facility, Los Angeles, California.
Maddy reached into her bag and took out the stack of battered postcards. Washington, D.C. New Orleans. Atlanta. Hi Mom. You would have loved the garden–Someday I’m going to take you to—did you know there are four different world’s largest balls of twine in Kansas?
Maddy rifled through the postcards, and she opened the mailbox as the sun crested the horizon and lit up the sand around her.
Mom can’t read these postcards.
The thought hit her like a collapsing amusement park, or a diner whose roof caved in after one too many hard winters.
Mom can’t ever read these postcards, and nothing that comes out of the desert will change that.
The postcards dangled from her shaking hand.
Then she laughed, and a raven took flight next to her as she ripped the postcards in half and flung them into the air like confetti and watched as the jagged pieces flopped into the sand around her. She realized she was crying, too, for the first time since she could remember.
Maddy knew what awaited her later that day. She would pull into the Oceanside parking lot, walk between the hydrangea that lined the path, sign her name in the book in the sterile lobby, and take the long walk down the hallway to Mom.
But that morning, as she stood barefoot among torn postcards, taking deep shaky breaths of the dry desert air, she could have sworn the coral-colored desert around her looked just a little lighter, airier. She looked down at her bare feet, her shaking hands, and she thought that she looked lighter too. It wouldn’t have been so difficult for a tiny breath of wind to catch her and float her away.
The Boy, the Bug, and the Marked Man
By Richard Levesque
The station hummed with life, people arriving and departing, coming together and splitting apart like nervous little animals come to size each other up before going about their business. A thousand conversations hung above the people like a cloud. Harried mothers struggled to keep their broods and their bags within sight while shooting wary glances at the huge clock that hung suspended from the forty-foot ceiling. Travelers, the weary ones just off a dirigible and the fresh faced ones looking to meet their conveyances, milled about in the confusion of the crowd, looking like toys that children had set in motion independently of each other, oblivious to the actions of their playmates.
I sat on a hard wooden bench and watched it all. The energy of the place made me think of a spring wound too tight. The tension in the station–the tension of departure and return–made me uneasy, as though one little problem with the dirigibles or the timetables, with luggage or tickets would throw everything out of balance; even something as simple as the discovery of a pickpocket would wind the spring one tick tighter and the whole place would pop into pandemonium. I felt it could happen. I always felt it could happen on days like this, and I did not want to be there.
All the more reason to get it over with, I thought. Just one more quarter and I would have enough to earn my night’s rest.
I’d been sizing up marks since the big clock had read 2:16. No one had struck me right. Now the clock read 4:02, and its ticking high above the rows of benches was just one more thing to worry about. If I didn’t find someone by 5:00, I would have a problem. There aren’t many places lonelier than a dirigible station on a Sunday evening once the majority of flights have left and most of the travelers have gone. The five o’clock chimes would signal the shift, the winding down of the springs, the beginning of the change from hectic to languid. I wouldn’t be entirely alone, not for a few more hours, but the crowds would thin to the point that it would be hard for me to move about unnoticed.
For now, I could, though. In all of this bustle, no one paid attention to a little boy who walked with purpose through the station. It was plain enough to see I was on my way to or from my parents, that I needed no help, made no demands. I could slip in and out of large and small parties, picking up bits of blustery greetings and tearful goodbyes as I looked for the right person. I was picky, had been taught to be, and it had always worked. I’d never failed, never been hauled up to one of the station police with their big coats and little eyes and ugly nightsticks.
Two benches away, someone’s aunt admonished her niece to be careful, not to talk to strange men on the flight, to go straight to her hotel when she reached San Francisco, to wire for money if she needed anything, and to come home right away if she felt the least bit unsafe. Her shrill voice cut through the hum of the station, and once I started listening to that voice, it would not be drowned out. I glanced back to see the pair. The aunt was gray and pinched. The niece was young and blonde but not a girl any more, and she smiled politely, surely having heard it all before, and probably having dealt already with more real dangers in life than the aunt would even let herself imagine. Neither one would make a decent mark–the aunt too cautious, the niece too eager.
I had only just dismissed them as possibilities when a more promising figure entered my line of sight. A man had sat down on the bench not far from me. He had a single, small valise at his feet, and he sat stiffly for a moment, pulling out a pocket watch and checking it against the clock above him. With a satisfied grin below his Clark Gable mustache, he let himself rest against the bench. He looked moneyed but not overly so–the kind of man who would want to hold on to what he had and who would look for opportunities to get more. His clothes were nice but not new. He had no wedding ring. All things I’d been trained to look for.
I stood, casually patted my jacket pocket to feel the bug even though I knew it was there, and walked toward the man. I didn’t look at him, didn’t even glance his way. Nothing to make him notice me. But as I passed him, I started counting my steps until I reached the end of the bench. Then I turned away from the waiting area and toward the platform.
Large marble pillars separated the waiting area from the loading platform, and I ducked behind one, glancing first at the mark I had chosen to make sure he was making no preparations to move. The clock read 4:06 now. The San Francisco flight would depart at 4:40 and would start boarding any moment. The trick was to get him just moments before he needed to start gathering his things for the trip. That way, if he was suspicious, his decision making process would be addled by the demands of the timetable, the cost of his ticket, and the importance of his destination. People make poor decisions when they have too many things to consider, like a machine running with too many parts rather than not enough.
The man had not moved, still sat there looking satisfied, like he had just eaten a big meal. He had not noticed me, and did not look my way now. I turned away, the pillar between us.
No one else had marked my passage toward the platform, and there was no one near me on this side of the pillars. If I stayed here long, by myself, I would eventually draw the attention of a stationmaster or ticket taker, but I knew how to be quick.
I pulled the bug from my coat pocket and considered it for a moment. A sleek, black beetle two inches long and a bit more than an inch wide. It had six beautifully jointed legs and flexible antennae. It was made of a metal lighter than it looked, and was so perfect that its artificiality was undetectable unless the observer actually held the bug in his hands.
I flipped it over and popped the latch on its belly plate. Quickly, I set the dials to match the distance between the end of the bench and the place where my mark sat. Then I thumbed the wheel that wound the springs–three, four, five turns, each one harder to complete. When the wheel would turn no more, I knew it was ready.
I closed the belly plate, and popped the back latch. A little slot opened. Then I pulled a quarter from my pants pocket. This was always the hardest part. An investment, the professor had told me when he first gave me the bug. A risk, too, and a big one given how hard it was for a boy like me to get a quarter. The risk wasn’t that the bug would make off with my quarter but rather that it wouldn’t make it back with its prey. A double loss then.
Still, the bug needed to know what it was after. If I slipped a penny into the slot, it would go after another penny. If I dropped one grain of rice inside, it would come back with a second. And so I put my precious quarter into the slot, snapped it shut, and dropped the bug back into my pocket without giving it another look. Further inspection would serve no purpose.
Moments later I was back at the bench, sitting down at the spot on the end where I had counted my paces just a few minutes before. The clock read 4:10. My mark had his hands clasped in his lap, waiting patiently for the boarding announcement. Two benches back, the aunt still talked, and the niece still nodded. Poor thing, I thought, and wondered if I should have marked her instead just out of pity. It would have done no good. I’d have gotten a spare quarter out of it and no more, not from a mark like her.
The station still hummed with activity. I felt as though the hum was in my head. With so much commotion around, I thought nothing of reaching into my pocket, flipping the release on the bug’s main spring, and dropping it through the slats of the bench.
It hit the marble floor with a click that only I could hear. I didn’t need to peek through the slats to see that the bug had oriented itself to the coordinates I’d set and was now walking under the bench toward the man with the mustache. I thought I could hear the grinding of its gears as it went, but told myself that was impossible. The noise of the station was too much for such a little sound to penetrate.
In less than a minute, the bug was at the man’s valise. It climbed up the side of the leather bag and then bridged the gap to the man’s pant leg. I could see its antennae waving as it took in its surroundings and read them against the destination I’d set its dials to.
I looked away, conscious of the uncanny sensation people have when they are being watched. It would not do to draw the man’s gaze now. Even so, it was all but impossible to keep from looking again, to keep from staring at the man’s trousers and jacket, to watch the bug seek out his coin purse and navigate its way inside to fetch the desired quarter. The hunt was the bug’s sole reason for being, and even as it worked to fulfill its need, every movement meant another tick on the gears that held the springs, another infinitesimal winding down of the metal coils that gave it life.
While letting these thoughts run through my head, I felt the first moment’s relaxation since I had been in the station, an easing of all the tension that had been holding me bound for the last two hours.
My reverie, however, was shattered seconds later when I heard the mark express, “What? Good God! What is this?”
I looked, unable to help myself, and saw him holding the bug by the back, a shiny quarter in its pincers, its perfect legs moving helplessly in the air as its antennae flailed and tried to make sense of its new orientation. And in the second that I looked at the man, he looked at me, his eyes drawn to me inexorably, it seemed, simply because I had looked his way first.
And then, as though I had no will of my own, I was on my feet and running. I did not have to look back to know the man was after me. I had instincts of my own.
Perhaps I was tired, unnerved from all the time spent so alert in the highly charged atmosphere of the station. And perhaps the mark was just fast. In either case, he had a hand on my collar in seconds. He spun me around, holding tight to my shoulder, and squatted down to look me in the eye.
“What,” he said, slightly winded, “is this?”
As I listened to his voice, I also heard the loudspeaker announce boarding for the flight to San Francisco. The man’s expression barely changed. The exigencies of his schedule would not serve to set me free.
He fairly pushed the bug into my face. I watched a little sadly as its legs slowed and then stopped, the antennae’s impotent searches for information in the air coming to an end as well. I said nothing.
“Tell me what this is, boy, or I’ll turn you over to the police. They don’t take kindly to pickpockets, you see.”
“I wasn’t picking your pocket, sir,” I said. “And I don’t know what that thing is.”
“Liar,” he said and straightened up, his eyes scanning the building for a policeman’s uniform. I knew he meant to make good on his threat.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll tell you.”
He stopped his search and looked down at me, cocking an eyebrow by way of invitation.
“The professor built it,” I said. “He gave it to me. I … I’m an orphan, sir. A quarter here and a quarter there…it’s all I need.”
I wished for tears but none came.
The man narrowed his eyes. “What professor?”
“I don’t know his name.”
“Where is he?”
Silent appraisal then. He was trying to determine how truthful I was being.
“Where do you live, boy? Here?”
“No, sir. In the professor’s old shop. I take care of all his machines.”
He raised an eyebrow. “There are others? Like this one?”
“And what do they do?”
“All manner of things, sir. Most I can’t begin to fathom. I just keep them oiled and wind them a bit here and there to keep everything working until…”
“Until I find someone who knows what to do with them.”
“Well.” The man straightened up now. Though he still held my collar, he changed his expression. He appeared more kindly now, the trace of an avuncular smile below the mustache, but I could tell that it was forced and deliberate, not natural or meaningful. “I think this may be your lucky day, boy. What’s your name?”
“Hephaestus, sir. Hephaestus Marvel. Are you an inventor? An engineer?”
“No. Never mind about me. It’s your little machines that matter. You’ll take me to them.”
I looked up at him. The faint smile looked in danger of fading, and I knew that consequences would follow. So I obeyed. What choice did I have?
As he led me back toward his seat, I caught the eye of the niece as she prepared to join the queue for the dirigible. I hadn’t meant to. I didn’t want to draw any attention at all. Again, it was the accident of two sets of eyes looking at each other at exactly the same time. She was pretty, and I saw concern in her blue eyes. I noticed again that she was young, though not terribly young; not yet anyone’s mother, but old enough for the sight of a child in trouble to stir something un-nameable in her heart, like a switch had been clicked on without her meaning for it to happen.
Not wanting any further attention, I gave her my Disarming Smile, the one I had worked on for quite some time. It was one of my favorite expressions.
The ploy worked. She smiled back and then went back to ignoring her aunt and gathering her bags.
The man steered me to his valise, retrieved it, and then pushed me on to the ticket counter where he negotiated a refund. Then we were off, headed for the glass doors and city street outside.
The man stopped once we were beyond the doors. “How far?” he asked, excitement and anticipation in his voice. “Walking distance, or a cab?”
I pointed to the south. “Not far. Two blocks.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, looking like he was trying to tell if I was lying or not.
“Come on, then,” he said and marched me toward the sidewalk.
Among the cabs and other cars parked before the station’s entryway sat a large, crème colored Packard, its hood up. The man who owned it stood looking into the engine compartment, agitation on his face. A Negro porter looked with him while another stood nearby with a cart loaded with luggage. To the side stood the man’s wife and two children–a boy and girl about my age who stared as I passed. They looked at me the way children of this sort always looked at me, like I was a different species or from another planet or a refugee from some unmapped place on the globe. It was because my clothes weren’t as new, my buttons not as shiny, my cheeks not as scrubbed or rosy. I wished, not for the first time, that I could make a child like them one of my marks, but it wouldn’t work. They didn’t fit the mold. Maybe someday, I consoled myself, when they were older, old enough to be like the man who led me past them. How old will I be then? I asked myself.
The children’s father was asking the porter, “Do you think it’s the battery?” as we passed.
“Likely,” the porter answered, and then we were beyond them.
Batteries, I thought as I led the way along the line of cabs and towards the first intersection. I didn’t understand how they worked but knew they stored energy, like a wound spring ready to be released. All these different modes of energy–springs and batteries and the gasoline that ran the motors and pulled the propellers into the station all day long–the possibilities made me shake my head in wonder. I could grasp so little, unlike the professor. For the second time in minutes, I thought Maybe someday and then pushed the thought out of my mind.
I had to concentrate now on the mark, and on getting him to the professor’s.
With the station behind us, the energy in the air seemed to lessen. Cars passed us, but they struck me as less urgent. Electricity hummed in the lines above us, but it went everywhere, not focused on the lights and the clock as it had been in the station. Here, it went into the factories and warehouses we hurried past, the streetlights and the phone boxes.
“How long have you been without your benefactor?” the man asked after we had crossed an intersection. He had not once taken his hand from my shoulder. Though his grasp had loosened slightly, less like talons digging into me, he must still have been telling himself that I would bolt at the first opportunity.
“The professor?” I asked. “Less than a year.”
“And the police have never picked you out for a thief? Never questioned why a little boy like you isn’t with his mother?”
I shrugged. “I blend in. No one notices me. And I never had a mother, so I suppose I don’t look like a boy who’s missing one.”
He chuckled. “Never had a mother?” I looked up to see his condescending smile. “How little you know, boy. Everyone has a mother. Even if she drops you in the dirt once she’s birthed you. As yours doubtless did.”
I let the words hang between us, knew they were meant as an insult, meant to put me in my place and keep me there. I took comfort in telling myself what my place really was, what his was, too, and how he was the one who knew so little.
“Here,” I said a minute later. “In there.”
We stood before a warehouse with gray metal siding, opaque windows high in the walls, and no sign above the non-descript door.
Again, he tried appraising my veracity. I remained neutral.
“Here?” he asked.
He pushed me a bit roughly toward the door. I found my key and seconds later felt the lock click under my fingers–little tumblers, a secret little machine.
The door opened. Dim light shone from inside.
“You first,” the man said, a bit of excitement in his voice. He was thinking about the bug, I knew, and the other treasures that the dark interior promised.
I did as he asked, walking ahead of him, his hand still on my shoulder.
“Where is the light?” he asked as we crossed the threshold.
It was not I who answered, but the professor.
The door swung shut, the light switched on, and a syringe punctured the flesh on the mark’s neck. He dropped his valise, and I watched him corkscrew to the floor, no understanding dawning in his eyes before they closed. Though it was good when things went this smoothly, I didn’t like it when the marks went down so fast that they didn’t have time to regret what they had done, to know they had underestimated me, to wonder for just a moment if their greed had done them in.
“Good job, Hephaestus,” the professor said as he squatted next to the mark. Expertly, he found the bug in the man’s clothes and set it on the floor beside the valise. “No problems? Not followed?”
“No, Professor,” I said. “No problems.”
I thought for a second of the pretty niece, how things would have been different if she hadn’t been disarmed by my smile. She wouldn’t have wanted to be led here. She’d have taken me home instead, taken care of me. Maybe someday, I thought.
“Good boy,” the professor said. “He has no wedding ring, I see. And he cashed in his ticket?”
“Excellent.” He smiled down at our victim. The man’s friends and associates in this city would expect him to be away, and so wouldn’t miss him for days. And there could be no alarm at his absence in the city of his destination, or else he would not have been so quick about refunding his ticket. No sweetheart awaited him there, no business associates.
The professor rubbed his hands together and said, “Help me now, will you?”
He was old and needed the help. We each hooked a hand into an armpit and began dragging the mark across the floor, the spent syringe left where he had fallen. Together, the professor and I pulled the man past rows of machines, lab tables with vials and tubes and burners, and a workbench with more springs and gears than I could ever hope to count. The bigger machines loomed around the edges of the warehouse, the big machines that needed the kind of power that only the mark could provide.
With some effort, we lifted him from the floor and dropped him into the tank the professor had prepared. It was filled with an amber fluid. Wires and apparatus floated in the liquid, awaiting him. A long row of identical tanks stretched into the shadows, each holding one of my previous marks. They were all connected to the same kind of apparatus that awaited this newest one, all suspended in a permanent twilight while the energy in their bodies and brains fed the professor’s machines, all kept alive in what the professor called amniotic fluid.
“Good job, Hephaestus,” the professor said again. “Are you tired?”
The professor gave a kindly nod. “Yes.” He patted my hand. “Yes,” he repeated. “You’ve earned your rest. Things are going well. I shouldn’t need another battery for a week or more. You can sleep now.”
We went to my cot, and I sat down. The professor put a gentle hand on my chest, and I dropped onto my back. Expertly, he ran his fingers across my chest. They found their way between the buttons of my shirt, and there he found the release switch.
“Goodnight, Hephaestus,” he whispered and flipped the switch. What had remained of the tension in my springs quickly wound out, and I felt myself slipping away into the void the professor called sleep. As my gears slowed, I focused for a second on his kindly face hovering above me, and then the shadows in the rafters caught my gaze. A trick of the light, or perhaps the imposition of my memories onto the shadows, let me a see a circle where there were none. I saw it at first as a clock face, its own springs and gears running down, and then, before I passed into oblivion, as the pupil in a pretty blue eye that looked back at me with love.
By Jamie Lackey
Becca climbed out her bedroom window, grabbed a shovel, and ran to the graveyard. Becca’s mother had ordered her grandma buried in Becca’s favorite pair of shoes, and homecoming was approaching fast.
Becca figured she’d take the jewelry, too, while she was there. Her grandmother would have wanted her to have it. She didn’t let herself hope for anything more.
The full moon illuminated the graveyard well enough for her to dig without any other light. The soil was loose, but she still worked up a sweat in the heavy late-summer air. She’d never done much digging before. Her arms burned and her back ached. She wished she’d thought to borrow a backhoe. She wished she knew how to use a backhoe. She wished that her mother wasn’t so horrible, and that her grandmother was still alive.
After what felt like an eternity, her shovel thunked into the hardwood casket. She removed enough dirt to clear the top half of the lid, then she jerked it open. A thin stream of dirt cascaded down the side of her hole, onto her grandmother’s waxy face.
The stink hit Becca like a bag of hammers, and her stomach lurched. She managed to turn enough to throw up on her own shoes instead of on her dead grandmother’s carefully arranged gray curls.
She scowled down at her already-filthy canvas sneakers. They were going to be a total loss. But the shoes might have been a lost cause anyway, and it would have been wrong to throw up on her grandmother. Aside from the puffiness, she looked almost normal. And Becca had loved her grandmother.
That, more than homecoming, was why she wanted the shoes back.
She covered her mouth with her shirt and took a few slow breaths. She could do this. She reached in for the necklace, and her fingers brushed her grandmother’s neck. The flesh was the same cool temperature as the dirt and too soft–like a foam mattress.
Her grandmother’s eyes snapped open, she grabbed Becca’s wrist. Her swollen fingers felt like refrigerated sausages. Becca yelped and tried to step back, but her feet slipped, and she fell to her knees. “What are you doing, Rebecca?” Her grandmother’s voice was wet and distorted, but recognizable.
Becca’s terror eased. Her grandmother wasn’t mindless–she remembered who she was. The hope that Becca hadn’t let herself feel spread in her chest, and she grinned. Even dead, her grandmother wouldn’t hurt her.
“I’m here for the shoes,” Becca said. “It’s nice to hear your voice again, too.”
Her grandmother blinked at her. “Which shoes?”
“The red pumps.”
“I gave those to you,” her grandmother said. “Why would I be buried in them?”
Becca shrugged. “Mom decided. I don’t think she wanted me to have them. She always hates–hated it when you gave me things.”
Her grandmother sniffed. “I raised her better than that.” She released Becca’s wrist and started wriggling around. She placed one red pump, then a second, on top of the casket. “Since you’re here, you should take the jewelry, too.”
She tried to pull off her rings, but they were trapped on her swollen fingers. She couldn’t work the necklace clasp, either. “This whole dead thing is quite frustrating,” she said.
Becca reached in and unfastened the necklace. The smell hardly bothered her at all now. “I can imagine.” Becca put the necklace on and picked up the shoes. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.
Her grandmother shrugged. “I can’t think of anything. I don’t really need much. I’m dead, after all.”
Becca blinked back her tears. She’d already cried for her grandmother. “Okay. I love you.”
“I love you, too, dear. It would be nice if you’d come and visit.”
“And don’t worry too much about your mother. Things will get better. Eventually.”
“I–I’ll try not to let it get to me.”
Becca reached for the lid. “Grandma?”
“What’s it like?” Becca asked.
“What’s what like?”
“It’s not bad. But it’s not great either. It’s certainly not something you should rush into.”
“Right. Thanks Grandma. I’ll remember.”
“You do that.”
Becca closed the lid. It took less time to fill the hole back in. She left her vomit-covered shoes next to the headstone and walked home in the red pumps.
Her mother noticed when she wore the shoes to homecoming, but neither of them mentioned it.
No More Horizons
By Adam C. Richardson
The soldiers called it Lake Exile. It sparkled below me like a field of glittering emeralds in the sunlight. The green mountain that loomed over us was Warden Peak, and although this planet was known on star charts as Manasseh, the soldiers called it New Alcatraz.
They could call it what they wanted. I called it paradise. Ensign West found me on the veranda gazing down at the verdant lake under the churning pea-green sky. The raptors in the trees around our so-called prison camp may have been startling to look at, but their song was melodious and rhythmically hypnotic. I was caught up in the spell, content to absorb the natural symphony of sight and sound forever.
“Mr. Yancey,” West said.
I tore my eyes away from the lake and turned.
“The admiral would like to speak with you.”
Kate had told me to expect this—a debriefing. I stood and followed Ensign West into the heart of our camp.
As prison camps go, I’d give it five stars. Cobblestone paths, a wide common area surrounded by copper-shelled cabins. Soldiers sat at picnic tables and talked. Some kicked a soccer ball around. Others played Frisbee. I passed a few men and women tossing pennies against a cabin wall.
In one corner of the common area, shunned by everyone, sat one of the Buttheads. Its head hung low, its red-rimmed eyes stared at the ground, its forehead a fleshy, bulbous protrusion that hung over its eyes like a visor. The forehead was what earned our alien hosts their dubious nicknames. More shocking than the forehead, however, was the Butthead’s mouth—a wound-like gash that stretched to the sides of its head at its widest point. Its willowy arms hung listlessly at its sides.
I hesitated as West led me past the bench on which the Butthead sat. I was still unaccustomed to seeing the aliens up close.
The alien stood, startling me backwards a pace. Its eyes closed, it threw its large head back, and in a beautiful vibrato tenor, it began to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
My mouth hung open. West had to pull on my sleeve to get me moving.
“Do they always sing like that?” I asked.
“Only that one. We call him Opera Man.”
“So it’s a male…uh…Butthead?”
West shook his head. “Who cares?”
At Admiral Scargal’s cabin, West knocked once and pushed the door open for me. The cabin was identical to the one Kate and I shared: comfortable furniture, tile floors, white wood paneling, and a picture window overlooking the lake. The grim faces of the officers were a stark contrast to the sunlit cheer of the room.
They sat in a semicircle of dining chairs. An empty chair sat opposite them. “Have a seat, Mr. Yancey,” said the admiral.
Kate sat at the admiral’s right, her hair pulled back and her uniform pressed to perfection. As I sat, I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back.
“So what do you think of your new home?” Admiral Scargal asked. “Comfortable?”
“Uh…yes, sir. It’s very nice here. Manasseh is a beautiful planet and we’ve been well provided for by the aliens—“
“The enemy,” Scargal corrected. “Let’s not forget that they’re the enemy. They’ve taken us prisoner. They murdered our comrades, along with more than a thousand civilians. And they kidnapped you.”
“They may have kidnapped me, but are we really prisoners? I mean, we’ve got every—“
“They jam our communications with the outside, they’ve got a satellite blockade around the planet, and we can’t access their ships or obtain resources to build our own. We have no way off this rock, Mr. Yancey. If it’s not a prison, what is it?”
I didn’t know the answer, of course. I tried matching Scargal’s gaze. I couldn’t. I stared at the floor and said nothing.
Scargal finally sighed. “Let’s just cut to the chase. Captain Yancey has shared what you told her about your abduction. We want to get the specifics from you personally.”
He waited, his shrewd eyes like slits fixed on me.
I cleared my throat. “Well, I’m a journalist working for the New Prague Press Syndicate. I was there as a political correspondent until Kate’s…until Captain Yancey’s ship was found abandoned. Then I asked to be reassigned to Admiral Brady’s fleet carrier.”
“We’re not interested in your background,” Scargal interrupted. “Tell us about the abduction itself. We want to know how they managed to get aboard an Alliance ship and what prompted the kidnapping.”
So, I told them what I knew. Scargal’s eyes never wandered from my face.
When the aliens came for me, I was sitting in a listening post on Admiral Brady’s carrier, about four million kilometers from Manasseh, observing reports coming back from a fleet of Alliance starfighters. They had been dispatched to attack the enemy satellite base using a new missile prototype, something the Alliance hoped would finally do some damage to our mysterious foes. As always, our missiles passed right through the enemy vessel. We couldn’t touch them, couldn’t even get a response from them. The enemy never fired back.
The fuzzy images relayed back from the fighters showed the ominous glowing green base, unaffected by our efforts to engage it. Enemy vessels were always green, silent and untouchable. They could fly through blockades without leaving a trace, and any projectile launched at them would pass through like they were made of mist. This phenomenon earned our enemies the nickname Green Ghosts.
As I watched and listened, I was only marginally aware of raised voices behind me. Then I heard a stun pistol blast. When I spun around, I found that the soldiers in the listening station lay unconscious. Two aliens stared down at me.
“You are Jamal Yancey,” one of them said.
I just stared up at its face, dumbstruck. Here in front of me was an honest to goodness alien, and I was, as far as I knew, one of the first people to see one of the elusive Green Ghosts in the flesh. The reporter in me studied every feature, taking mental notes for reconstruction should I be asked to describe it to an artist. The husband in me wanted to throttle it and demand to know where my wife was. Its eyes looked almost amused, but the face was unreadable. Its mouth was a grotesque wet line.
“You are Jamal Yancey,” the alien repeated. “Follow.”
One alien led the way, the other walked behind me. I considered resisting them. After all, they had no weapons. But the best way to get answers about the fate of Kate and her crew was to follow where they led.
Two soldiers jumped into the corridor, their weapons at the ready, but neither one was prepared for the sight of the aliens. They both stared, wide eyed, their pistols held slack in their hands. “You’re…under arrest,” one of the soldiers tried.
My alien escort didn’t hesitate. They continued on their way as if their path was clear. One of the soldiers fired. The stun blast passed right through the alien in front and slammed me in the shoulder. I spun back in pain. The alien behind caught me by the armpits and steadied me. With one hand extended towards the soldiers, it launched a blast of nearly invisible energy. All I saw was a wave of light-distorting haze that passed through the alien’s companion. When it reached the soldiers, they both collapsed. One soldier groaned as I stepped over him.
Further along, a glowing green wall blocked the corridor. This was the hull of an enemy ship. It had embedded itself into the side of the fleet carrier. The alien before me walked through the hull as if it were nothing. The one behind pushed me through. It felt like passing through a cold vapor. The interior was dimly lit. They strapped me to a chair, one that appeared to be custom made for a human passenger. I sat behind them, facing the front screen.
As the aliens pulled backwards, the walls of the fleet carrier re-integrated around the retreating ship. First the hallway gave way to a wall. The metal and fibrous insulation of wall material slid into existence across the sides of the curved screen and joined at the center as the alien ship pulled away. Then I saw the room behind the wall, and then the thick outer hull of the ship reformed before me.
“How do you do that?” I asked when I found my voice. “How can you just pass through another ship like that? How does a stun blast or a missile pass through you?”
They behaved as if I wasn’t there. One of them pulled its shoe off and scratched intently at its foot. The other stared out at the stars. They paid no attention to the ship’s controls.
“Why did you kidnap me?” I demanded. “Why am I here?”
To this, one of them turned back, and speaking in perfect English, said, “Your wife misses you.”
At this point in my story, Admiral Scargal’s eyes clamped down into critical slits. “Wait,” he said, putting up a hand. “They said they took you because your wife misses you?”
He turned to Kate. “Captain Yancey, do you know anything about this?”
“I reported to you about it a week ago,” she said. “One of the enemy actually spoke to me. The one that sings.”
“And you gave it personal information?”
“I said very little,” she said. “The alien asked if I’d sing with him. I declined, but I mentioned that my husband sang well and then, yes, I said I missed him.”
He stared at her a moment, then turned back to me. “Did they say how they knew how to find you?”
I shook my head.
One of the other officers, a short brick of a man with a black eye, cleared his throat and said, “Sir, they must have penetrated our data nets. Not only do they have our battle plans and navigational records, but they must have access to personnel records and flight manifests as well.”
Admiral Scargal nodded. “So it would seem, Commander Wallace. But why bring him here? What’s their interest in him?”
“Perhaps they wish to observe human mating,” one of the other officers suggested.
“We’ve got soldiers schtupping left and right,” Scargal said, “and the Buttheads aren’t shy about walking in unannounced. I doubt they’d learn much from yet another coupling.”
No other suggestions were presented, and they agreed to let the matter rest for the time.
I was asked about the current state of the war. Not much had changed. The Alliance fleet was focused on attacking every Green Ghost within Alliance territory and eliminating the enemy’s satellites over Manasseh. With the exception of Kate’s ship and the admiral’s cruiser, the enemy never shot back and never received a scratch.
“The Alliance officially believes you’re all dead,” I told the officers. “We never dreamed that the enemy was taking prisoners—if that’s what you can call this. All things considered, I think they’re treating us very well. Our cabin has everything but a hot tub.”
“Yet another mystery,” Kate said. “We don’t know their motives for providing such luxurious accommodations. The theory is that it’s a behavior experiment and that we are their…”
She stopped, her gaze shifting to something behind me.
I turned. A Butthead stood in the corner of the room. It had come through a wall.
“How long have you been in here?” The admiral demanded.
The alien blinked. It then walked to the admiral’s cot, took one of the two pillows, and walked away through the wall.
We all stared at the place where the alien disappeared. Then the admiral swore. “That irritating bastard,” he snapped.
“Why did he do that?” asked Commander Wallace.
Admiral Scargal’s lips pressed together in a thin white line. “Ignore it,” he said.
I intended to ask a few questions, but the admiral nodded towards the door. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Yancey.”
Outside the admiral’s cabin, the Butthead that West had called “Opera Man” sang an Italian aria. I stopped and listened. The alien appeared to put its whole self into the performance, its head thrown back, its face twisted in concentrated ecstasy. It was quite good, I must admit. Its voice was practically human with odd harmonic overtones. But the aliens couldn’t utter a syllable without the burbling sound of shifting phlegm coloring their words, and Opera Man was no exception.
It finished the song and bent over in an exaggerated bow, its floppy forehead nearly touching the ground. Unsure what else to do, I applauded. None of the soldiers responded, and I soon stopped. Opera Man sank onto the bench and lapsed back into listless silence.
I returned to our cabin. In one corner of the veranda facing the lake, a hot tub bubbled. There was no indication of a hasty installation. It appeared as if it had always been there.
Kate found me in the tub an hour later, gazing out at the lake. I reached for the switch to shut off the bubbles.
“A hot tub?” she said.
“I did mention it was lacking during my debriefing,” I said. “They didn’t waste any time installing it.”
She sat down on the bench beside the tub. “And you didn’t waste any time jumping in. You’re awfully comfortable with all this.”
I folded my arms over the side of the tub facing her. “Why shouldn’t I be? I’ve spent the past four months thinking you were probably dead. Now I find that you’ve been spending your time in paradise.”
She leaned back. “Paradise? Be serious. Did you think it was paradise when that alien walked through our room last night?”
“I wasn’t happy about it. But you were the one that hit the roof. I’d think you’d be used to it by now.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. “You won’t think so after a while. Nothing is sacred to them. Nothing is private. Sometimes they walk right through you.”
“So they don’t respect personal space. It’s a cultural thing. They can walk through walls, so they don’t see the need to walk around them. But they seem peaceful enough.”
“Peaceful?” Kate leaned forward, “You didn’t see what they did to my ship. In a split second, they’d hit every life support system, including the gravity generator, leaving us entirely at their mercy.”
“And then they offered to give you a lift to this planet. The fiends! And I’m guessing you shot first, right?”
“They’ve killed before,” she reminded me.
“Are you sure?”
We stared at each other. “Why did I marry a journalist,” she said. Her mouth twitched—almost a smile.
“Because I’m great in the sack,” I replied.
“The Manasseh colony transport,” she reminded me. “All destroyed. The Rutledge? They blew that ship out of the sky. You’ve got to remember, Jamal, that we’re not on a pleasure cruise here. These aliens have killed at least a thousand Alliance citizens.”
“Allegedly. There’s no proof the aliens were responsible.”
“What would you suggest I do then?” I asked.
“Get serious,” she said. “Get more involved. You’re a reporter for goodness sake. Take a look around you and find out what’s really going on.”
“Do you think I can learn something that you haven’t figured out in the past four months?”
“Maybe,” she nodded. “You could provide a fresh perspective. Something beyond what the military can give.”
“My fresh perspective says that we’re not in any danger and the enemy isn’t as evil as you think.”
“And you can’t dig any deeper than that?”
“Maybe when I’m done in the tub.”
Kate sighed and leaned back against the cabin. “We’re going to attack their compound,” she said.
I sat up. “You’re not serious.”
“We have to try something, Jamal. They’re jamming our communications with the outside, and there’s no way off this planet.”
“So what you’re asking me for is a fresh perspective on how to kill them?”
“Well, nothing we’ve tried has worked.”
“Have you tried talking to them?”
“They don’t respond intelligibly.”
“Maybe they’re shy.”
Kate glared at me again.
“I’m guessing weapons don’t work.” I nodded at the pistol on Kate’s belt.
She shook her head. “Same old story. Bullets go through them.”
“You’ve actually tried to shoot them?”
“Commander Wallace led a few soldiers to ambush a couple of aliens as they approached our camp. They used pistols first, then modified stun guns. After that, they tried beating them with clubs.”
“How civilized,” I said. “What happened?”
“Wallace wouldn’t say much. One of my crewmen tells me Wallace tried tackling one of the Buttheads. He wrapped his arms around its shoulders. Instead of fighting, it kissed him.”
“Kissed him with its big sloppy mouth. Wallace was so surprised, he fell off. It came at him then, and my source says it actually puckered for another kiss.”
I tried to picture what it would look like if a Butthead puckered. I couldn’t. “So then what?”
“Then Wallace jumped up and ran…right into a tree. He knocked himself out. You probably noticed his black eye.”
I sat back. “And what hope do you have of attacking the Butthead compound? If they kiss you for trying to tackle them, I’d hate to think what they’ll do if you get really violent.”
“I need you to be serious for a minute,” Kate demanded. “We need to find a weakness. You should help us.” She stood up. “Think about it.”
“They don’t seem aggressive to me. They’re more like clowns.”
She opened the front door. “Those clowns destroyed the colony transport, and the Rutledge. Remember that.”
Kate disappeared inside. I sat back, stared down at the lake and considered everything. Singing, kissing, butthead aliens who construct hot tubs at the snap of a finger and kidnap journalists to keep their wives company. Untouchable in space, uncommunicative in general.
Kate was right. I needed to find out what was really going on with our generous hosts—not to find out how to kill them, but to find out just what their real motives were.
The next morning, I found a notepad and wrote down a list of everything I knew about the Green Ghosts, a.k.a., the Buttheads.
1. Four decades ago, Alliance scouts begin encountering mysterious green ships in deep space. The aliens don’t respond to any attempts at communication and generally behave as if our ships aren’t even there.
2. Nineteen years ago, alien ships observed passing through an asteroid field unharmed. A year later, an Alliance cruiser fires on a green ship when it appears to be on a collision course. Alliance missiles pass through it without leaving a scratch. The aliens earn the nickname “Green Ghosts.”
3. Over a year ago, a colony transport bound for initial settlement of Manasseh sends out a distress call. Alliance ships Rutledge and Sierra sent to offer assistance. Rutledge arrives first. When Sierra arrives, they observe a Green Ghost ship obliterating every trace of the Rutledge. The colony transport appears to be destroyed as well. The Sierra fires on the green ghost ship and retreats.
4. Months of attacks by Alliance ships on the Green Ghosts in an attempt to clear them from Alliance territories. No damage. No retaliation.
5. According to long-range scans, the planet Manasseh, intended for Alliance colonization, appears to have already been settled by the aliens.
6. Four months ago, Kate’s ship is sent to attempt to engage the enemy using prototype plasma cannons. Her ship is disabled, its crew evacuated to Manasseh. Soon after, Admiral Scargal’s command cruiser is disabled in a similar manner.
7. Up close, the aliens seem benign, almost never speaking, barely acknowledging their human prisoners. But they bring us a cart full of provisions every morning and maintain our camp.
1. Why are they here on Manasseh?
2. Why did they bring us here? To study us? Entertainment?
3. Why does a species so technologically advanced behave so erratically?
I tapped my pencil on the last line, thinking. Where should I begin? Kate was already out (I’d tried to keep her in bed to make up for lost time, but duty called). She often spent her mornings supervising an observation stand overlooking the Buttheads’ compound. I’d have to seek answers elsewhere for now.
Outside my cabin, a Butthead stood perfectly still, its arms stretched out, its fingers splayed. It was apparently mimicking a nearby tree. It wore a blue tunic with black stains down one side. I’d seen this same alien hanging around our cabin on the previous day, standing on its head. I approached it.
“Nice day,” I said.
It didn’t move.
“So tell me, what do you do when you’re not hanging around our cabin?”
“I’m Jamal, by the way. Jamal Yancey. Do you have a name?”
Again, nothing. This wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. I tried a different tactic.
“I’ve heard that things pass through you. Is that true?” I reached out and touched one of the alien’s thin sleeves. It swayed slightly. I pushed harder. It resisted.
“Seem solid enough to me,” I said.
It turned and smiled at me, its huge mouth curled up in a clown-like grin. I stepped back a pace. Be cool, I told myself.
“So, what is your species called?”
Its smile didn’t falter.
“We’ve been calling you the Green Ghosts, because of your ships and because things pass through you. But what do you call yourselves?”
He made a hissing noise. It almost sounded like disgust, but the smile didn’t leave its face.
“I’ve seen you around here before. I think you were doing jumping jacks in the common area when I first arrived.”
It lifted its arms and became a tree again.
“Well, nice talking to you.”
I turned away. Strike one. I’d have to do better than that if I was going to get anywhere.
My next idea was to climb part way up the mountain and get an idea of the layout of the land. Maybe a little perspective would help. I left the manicured grass of our camp, wading through the sea of yellow shrubs that ringed it. A soldier called out to me. “You don’t want to do that, sir.”
I turned. She sat at a picnic table a few yards away playing solitaire.
“Because in case you haven’t heard the animal noises at night, the forest isn’t safe.”
“But it isn’t night,” I said.
“We had a soldier wander out of camp by himself in broad daylight. Never came back.”
I shrugged. “But that could mean anything. Maybe he found something wonderful out there.”
She placed a card on a pile. “Well I’m not going to go find out.”
I turned back to the woods. “I won’t go that far.”
She had me nervous, but I wouldn’t learn anything if I didn’t take some risks. I’d just step into the woods a little ways and see what happens.
As I passed into the trees, a flock of leather-wing raptors cried and took flight above me. My heart nearly stopped. I bit back my fear and pushed onward.
I spent several minutes stomping a path through the dense foliage before I found an animal trail. I saw no creatures. I looked back towards the camp, only thirty yards behind me. My retreat could be quick if I encountered any threats in the trees. I walked up the trail. The Manasseh atmosphere was more oxygen rich than I was accustomed to. I climbed the steep path with increasing confidence, finding that I didn’t get nearly as winded as I would have expected. I’d followed the trail about two hundred yards when I heard a raspy growl. It came from behind me.
I turned. Something dark lurked in the shadows down the path. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. I ran, straight up the mountain, unable to think of an alternative. The trees opened up in front of me, but the brambles to either side of the trail were too thick and tangled for me to take an easier course laterally along the mountain. My heart pounded and I was losing breath, rich oxygen or not. I dared a glance back once and saw a dark form galloping towards me on too many legs. It was gaining on me.
The trail before me bent to one side below a steep dirt incline. I wasn’t going to outrun this beast. I decided to try out-climbing it. I scrambled up the incline as far as I could on two feet and then heaved upwards on all fours. The dirt slid down as I climbed. It felt like I was swimming upstream. I was about eight feet above the path when the creature rasped an angry roar below. I turned. It was about the size of a tiger, with a head that looked like an insect’s, but drawn into a panther-like muzzle. Its body was a black exoskeleton with tufts of hair poking from the seams. It had at least eight, maybe more spindly legs, all crouching below, preparing to spring at me.
I reached towards a ledge above me. The creature leapt and batted at my foot. The dirt caved in under it, sending it tumbling back to the path.
My fingers were an inch from the ledge. The creature prepared for another jump.
Thin fingers wrapped around my wrist and pulled me upwards, just as I felt another swipe at my shoe from below. My rescuer was strong, pulling me up over the lip of the cliff and onto a broad flat area above.
It was a Butthead. It dropped me, then turned away to crouch at the cliff side and stare out at the lake.
I glanced over the edge. The spider panther thing stared up at me with hollow, insectile eyes. It gave another dry growl and then launched itself down trail towards the woods.
“Thanks…a lot,” I said.
My rescuer wore a tattered uniform. Unlike the unblemished skin of its fellow Buttheads, its skin was scarred, and there were fresh scratches on its hands. What’s more, its face bore the sags and lines I’d associate with old age. There was a constant tremor in its neck.
Above the cliff was a wide flat clearing below yet another steep incline. Recessed into the rocks of the mountainside at the far end of the clearing was a narrow cave opening. This alien’s home?
“So, are you a hermit or something?”
There was no reply of course. I gave up and looked out at the panorama. Manasseh was even more beautiful from this vantage: the blue-green foliage, the electric green lake sparkling out towards the horizon where it was swallowed by the haze of the heavy atmosphere. The sky appeared even more active from here. It shifted and swirled like it was part of a Van Gogh painting.
Below was our prison camp. From up here, it looked like a postage stamp in an otherwise green field, dotted with the tiny, copper-colored roofs of our cabins. A path ran down the shore of the lake until it reached another inhabited patch. That would be the alien compound. The ground there was bare yellow, rather than the lush green of our camp lawn. Two alien ships rested on an adjacent launchpad. Further inland from there at the base of the mountain was an open pit mine of some sort. I didn’t see any activity there.
My eyes followed the shore further south. Much further, there was yet another settlement, much larger than either of the two below me. I pointed. “Are they growing something out there?” I asked the alien. “That looks like crop fields.”
My rescuer said nothing.
“So what kind of food do your people eat anyway?” I asked.
I didn’t expect an answer, so I was surprised when it replied, “No food.”
“Buttheads don’t eat food. Haven’t had to for millennia. Nutrition implants.”
It spoke in a clear, unaccented voice.
“Don’t eat, huh? That’s…kind of a shame. I mean, you don’t go hungry, so that’s a plus, but what about the satisfaction you get from eating?”
“We have implants for satisfaction as well,” it replied. Then it made the phlegmy hiss.
I wished I had something with me to record the conversation. My notepad was still in our cabin. I asked, “So, if you don’t eat, then what are you growing out there?” I pointed to the distant fields.
“Then what is that out there?”
The alien rocked silently.
I stared out at the distant patch of land carved out of the forest. Humans? What humans? Kate hadn’t said anything about another camp. Were there more prisoners of war I didn’t know about?
“Where did the humans come from?” I asked.
“Okay, but how did they get here?”
The alien rocked. It hissed again.
This tattered, broken Butthead might be insane. How would I know? But it was still a reporter’s dream. It was actually speaking. I asked a few more questions about the other humans, but it said nothing. Maybe it didn’t know. I decided to switch gears.
“Are you a male or a female, or does that even apply to you?”
“Male. All of us male.”
“Just on this planet, right? There’s females on other planets?”
That seemed unlikely. Was it joking? Could I find another source to corroborate its claims?
“How do you reproduce?” I asked.
“Don’t reproduce. No need. Not for centuries. Plenty of Buttheads in the universe.”
“But what if you had to?”
He (I could comfortably call it a he) said nothing.
“But what about the primal urge to reproduce?”
“So you live for centuries?”
“Buttheads don’t age.”
“How is that possible?”
“Implants. Buttheads have an implant for everything.”
“You keep calling yourself Buttheads. What do you actually call yourselves?”
He hissed again and said, “Inevitable.”
“What does that mean?”
Another conversational dead end. I watched him for over two minutes as he rocked and grunted, gazing down at the land.
I said, “If your population is frozen, then you didn’t come here to colonize did you? What are you mining down there?”
“Can you tell me anything more about the humans over there?”
I sighed. “Well, can you at least tell me how to get down the mountain without being attacked by the spider panther things?”
Without looking up, the Butthead reached to his left, pulled a yellow shrub from the ground, the same kind that surrounded our camp, and handed it to me. “Spider panther things are allergic,” he said and hissed again.
I said, “That noise you make. Is that laughter? Joy? Contempt? Disgust?”
“It is all the same,” the alien said.
The interview was clearly over. I held the shrub before me and descended the mountain, nervously watching for SPTs.
As a journalist, I’ve developed a mental short-hand to allow me to fit more conclusions and speculations into memory. Part of that shorthand involves acronyms to speed the thought process along. SPT for Spider Panther Thing. I decided to call my source on the mountain the WOB for Wise Old Butthead. I hoped that was an accurate description—that BCA for Batshit Crazy Alien wouldn’t be better.
And I was definitely on the path of the journalist again. There was so much to find out here about this planet. I reached our cabin without another animal encounter and went straight to my notepad. I added the following questions:
4. What are the Buttheads mining?
5. Why isn’t anyone working at the mine now?
6. Who is at the other human settlement?
Kate got home just before sundown. She had a scratch on one cheek, and her uniform was streaked with mud.
“Looks like you’ve been mud wrestling,” I said.
“Nothing so agreeable. We were watching the Butthead camp when one of those…spider creatures snuck up on us. One of my men was injured pretty badly. The thing bit his leg before we could kill it. We had to carry him back to Dr. Mueller’s cabin.”
“You know those yellow shrubs that grow around the camp?”
She sat in a rocking chair and tugged at a boot lace. “Mmm.”
“They keep the spider panther things away. I guess they’re allergic to the stuff.”
Kate sat up and looked at me. “How do you know that?”
“A Butthead told me.”
I was embarrassed to admit that I’d left camp when I’d been warned of the dangers. I shrugged. “They all look the same to me.”
“That doesn’t sound like the reporter I know. You’re a stickler for knowing your sources.”
“At least I got the scoop on the shrubs.”
She bent and pulled at her boot. “It’s good to know. We’ll try it out.”
“So what have you learned, observing the Butthead camp?”
“Only what they want us to observe. They move from building to building. Their structures have no doors, so it’s difficult to know what goes on inside. Much of the time, they sit in one place for hours. It’s not much different than the way they behave in our own camp.”
I sat down across from her. When she pulled off her left boot, she leaned back and laid her foot on my knee—the universal sign for “Give me a foot massage.” I pulled off her sock and began rubbing.
“I’ve been told they do mining here,” I said.
She shrugged. “There’s a stone quarry uphill from their compound. It hasn’t been used since we’ve been here.”
Stone quarry. That was disappointing. “Why aren’t they up there? I mean, if that’s why they’re here on this planet…”
“We don’t know why they’re on this planet,”
“Are there any other human camps on this planet?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Not that we know of. The Buttheads jam all our communication, so if there was another signal out there, we wouldn’t know it.”
“Have you looked? Hasn’t Admiral Scargal sent out scouts?”
“Is this an interview?”
“It’s what I do.”
She leaned back further and groaned as I pressed across the arch of her foot. “We can only go so far on foot, Jamal. And those spider creatures swarm us everywhere we go.”
No scouts. No intel. As I rubbed her feet, I resolved to go on a much longer hike tomorrow. If there were more humans out there, I’d find them.
The next morning, I followed the trail laid by the Buttheads towards their own compound with tufts of yellow shrub tucked into my belt. It took less than a half hour to get there. Unlike our camp, there was no ring of yellow shrubs here. No doubt, if the Buttheads couldn’t be harmed by bullets, no SPT would be able to threaten them either.
It was a very different place from the human camp. No lush lawn, no orderly cabins or cobblestones. Here, the weeds were trampled down into dirt paths and scraggly bushes rose along cabin walls. Trees lay rotting and forgotten. The structures were doorless, dusty metal shells positioned haphazardly throughout the compound. A tall metal tower, most likely for communications, stood in the center of the camp, hanging at an angle. Overall, the compound looked like it was laid out by a tornado.
Just as Kate had said, the inhabitants didn’t appear to have any real purpose or direction. They walked in and out of buildings. They stood in place. A few of them sat in a circle, staring at each other.
I located a path that led up towards the mountain. It was old and disused. Weeds had begun to reclaim it. A Butthead sat beside it, his left leg bent over his right, stretching in a yoga pose. I said, “Is this the way to the quarry?”
He ignored me.
“What is the purpose of this compound?” I asked. “Is it for stone? Why are you here?”
The alien turned and blinked at me. I couldn’t read his eyes. Interest? Pity? Contempt?
I could try interviewing every Butthead in this camp. Maybe one would be willing to talk, just as the Wise Old Butthead had. I didn’t have time for that. There were only so many hours in the day, and I had a lot of hiking to do. I crossed the camp and found another path that ran beyond it. This I assumed would lead me to the next settlement down the lake shore.
I’d walked about two miles when I heard a twig snap behind me. I turned to find a Butthead standing 50 feet back. He wore a blue tunic with black stains down one side. It was the one who enjoyed playing tree outside my cabin.
“Are you spying on me?” I asked.
He stared at me.
“Could you at least tell me your name? If we’re going to keep meeting, we should be on a first name basis.” Pause. “Then I’ll call you Skippy and you can be my own personal stalker. Agreed?”
Communication was pointless. I continued on the path.
After another mile, I heard the rasping growl of an SPT. Another growl answered from the lake side. I appeared to be surrounded. I turned back to look to Skippy for help. He seemed unconcerned. He took a few paces and then stopped to watch.
I pulled two twigs of yellow shrub out of my belt and held them out on both sides.
The SPT from the lake side reached me first. Its shiny, scaled face snarled as it leapt towards me, but the instant it detected the yellow shrub in my hand, it seemed to change direction midair. It landed in front of me and sprang back as I thrust the shrub at it. Its legs clicked a retreat. It growled again, its hollow eyes glowing with sick light. Then it galloped away. The other SPT never appeared.
I turned back to Skippy. He stood perfectly still, watching.
“You don’t seem very concerned for my safety,” I said.
He actually replied. I think he spoke Chinese.
At mid-day, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to return to our own camp before dark. Days were short here on Manasseh. I’d reprogrammed my watch to match the time convention the military prisoners had agreed on, a 17 hour day with 61 minutes per hour. I’d left at 05:00 and it was now 09:40. Sundown was 14:57. I had a decision to make.
I stood on the path, debating. I shouted to Skippy, “How much further to the humans?” He replied in an alien tongue. Then he gave a sloppy raspberry, which might or might not have been part of whatever language he was speaking.
I’d take my chances with the dark, I decided. If the sun went down while I was on the trail, I’d just pray the yellow shrubs kept working.
An hour later, I reached a corn field, ringed by the yellow shrubs. The stalks were up to my neck. There was nothing alien about them. I might as well have been in Iowa.
The path trodden down by the Buttheads led straight through the cornfield. I followed it. The field extended about a hundred yards. Beyond it were rows of beets. Further inland, away from the lake, I spotted a field of wheat or spelt.
I found a man in a crude straw hat squatting in a tomato patch further on. When he spotted me, he nearly fell over. “You don’t look like you’re from around here,” he said, eyes squinted in the sun. “You some kind of alien in disguise?”
“Do they do that a lot?” I asked.
“You never know what they’ll do.”
He didn’t back away as I approached. “Well, I’m shorter than they are and my head’s a lot smaller. But I do have a Butthead following me.” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder at Skippy.
He glared at Skippy, who appeared to be tap dancing on a beet plant. “Butthead,” he said. “That what you call ‘em? That’s real funny.”
I extended my hand. “Jamal Yancey,” I said. “I’m from a prison camp down the lakeshore past the alien compound.”
He looked at my hand. “Prison camp? You some kind of criminal?”
“No. It’s just what we call it. It’s mostly military personnel that were captured in the war.”
“What war? What are you talking about?”
I told him a little about the war while he stood impatiently, glancing frequently down at the weeds below his feet as if his tomato patch could not survive without his constant attention. I asked to speak to someone in charge. He nodded, eyes cast to heaven, and led me not along the Butthead path that cut straight through the fields but on a circuitous route that ran between the fields at right angles. Skippy followed, his arms held out as if he were walking on a tight rope.
We passed other people working in the fields as we went, almost none of which noticed me or Skippy. Beyond a row of trees further along was a village made up of both the corrugated metal prefab structures designed for alliance colonization and the copper cabins built by the Buttheads. My escort (who never introduced himself) spotted a man in an Alliance officer’s uniform and beelined towards him.
“Picked this guy up in the field,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder at me.
The officer studied me. “You from the Alliance?”
“I’m not part of a rescue party if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “What ship are you from?”
“I’m Lt. Darius, formerly of the Cruiser Rutledge.”
“Rutledge? The ship that was shot down by the aliens a year ago?”
His brows furrowed. “We weren’t shot down. We crashed into the debris field of a colony transport while responding to their distress call. The aliens rescued us.”
I blinked. A big piece of the puzzle had just shifted into place.
Darius was eager for me to speak to his commanding officer. I thanked the farmer and followed Darius along the dusty village street. Around us, people bustled along with purpose, pushing carts of produce, hefting bolts of textiles or boxes. Children dodged around them underfoot.
“The Alliance thinks the aliens destroyed our ship?” Darius said. “That’s nuts.”
I nodded “The story is, when the Sierra arrived to give rescue support, the Green Ghost ship was vaporizing what was left of the Rutledge.”
“Well, they were probably doing it as a courtesy.”
“If you were there, you’d understand. We were responding to a colony transport distress call. We went to the coordinates they’d broadcast and flew right into the debris field of the colony ship. It had exploded before we got there. Several chunks of the ship collided with ours, and it looked like we were about to suffer the same fate. Then the Green Ghost ship showed up. They’d already evacuated the colony ship and dropped them all here on Manasseh. They did the same for us. The aliens don’t talk much, but I’m guessing our ship exploded as well. If they were vaporizing what was left, they probably just wanted to avoid another accident like ours.”
We stopped at a corner to wait for a passing transport. “So all of the colonists and all of the Rutledge crew are here?” I asked.
Lt. Darius shook his head. “On the Rutledge, we took a lot of casualties in the accident. The aliens helped to heal a lot of our wounded, but they couldn’t do anything for our captain. He died a few months ago. I think the aliens’ leader was actually sad about that. It’s the only time I’ve seen a genuine emotion from any of these creatures.”
“The Buttheads have a leader?” I stopped in the middle of the street. It had never occurred to me that there would be an alien in charge.
Darius frowned. “Well sure. He used to come here often to see to our captain.” He continued walking and I followed. “We had a lot of them in our village in the beginning, helping us build and treating our wounded. They never talked, but they did all kinds of good. Now when we see them, which isn’t often, they just wander aimlessly.”
“What made them change?”
“Don’t know. We used to hear the hum from their camp. Captain said they were cutting marble at a quarry up there. But we don’t hear that anymore.”
We reached the commanding officer’s building. It looked like an old western sheriff’s office, a dusty building with a dusty porch, two windows facing the lake and a swinging door at the front. A bearded soldier sat outside on a bench, his uniform torn and stained in places and looking very un-military. He watched me pass with frightening intensity as I followed Lt. Darius inside.
Lt. Darius introduced me to the acting CO in the village, Commander Braddock. Braddock was a hard looking woman who showed little emotion as I described the war and our prison camp. She showed a little relief when I explained that we had an admiral in our company. “It’ll be good to get a little direction from the Alliance,” she said. “There’s no need for military here. Most of our soldiers work the fields now.”
There was a knock at the door. The farmer I’d met earlier stepped in, his ragged straw hat held to his chest. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, sir, but I picked up some more strays out in my field.”
He stepped aside, and Kate walked in with two soldiers. She did not look pleased with me.
After introductions were made all around, I was invited to step outside. The military “grownups” needed to talk.
There was another bench along the front of the office. I sat there, away from the scraggly bearded man in uniform.
I watched the glowing lake below. In the late afternoon sun, it glittered like green fire.
“You want to kill the ass hats?” the bearded man asked.
He grinned. His two front teeth were missing. “I know how to kill the ass hats. Seen it happen. The commander doesn’t let me kill ’em here, but I know how. You wanna know how?”
My instinct for fact finding stopped at methods of homicide. “No thanks.”
I felt him watching me. I considered taking a walk, but I was exhausted. Skippy the Butthead stood across the street. He posed like a tree, his head thrown back. I noticed that the bearded man watched Skippy, his eyes burning with ferocious loathing.
That night, Kate and I stayed in an officer’s cabin. She and I were given bed rolls and an empty room. She lay on her side, facing away.
“I know you’re angry,” I said.
“Not just angry,” she said. “Furious. I didn’t want to believe it when my men told me they saw you at the Butthead compound and that you wandered this way. You could have been killed.”
“The yellow shrubs—they work very well.”
“But you didn’t know that for sure. And why wouldn’t you tell me you knew about this settlement?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll tell you why.” She rolled over to glare at me. “You wouldn’t tell me because you’re a reporter, because you have to be the first one on the scene, so you can get the scoop on everyone else. Your journalist’s instinct is one thing, but you could at least mention it to your wife.”
“You know what the worst thing is? You didn’t tell me, not because you didn’t want me to worry, but because you thought I’d go straight to Scargal. You think I’m military first and wife second.”
Her eyes narrowed. I squirmed.
“What I am is Captain Kate Yancey. The ‘Captain’ is for the military. The ‘Yancey’ is for you. And in the middle, there’s someone who I’d like to think is intelligent and trustworthy enough to know how to balance options and make choices for the greater good. You could at least trust me to think for myself.”
She rolled over again.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated.
I was allowed to accompany Kate and Lt. Darius when they reported to Admiral Scargal. The Admiral showed no emotion as Darius explained the fate of his ship. “So the enemy rescued your crew?”
“Yes sir,” Darius said.
“And they did not fire on you or take any hostile action against you?”
Scargal sat back in his chair and gripped its arms.
“Whatever the aliens motives are, sir” Kate offered, “They don’t appear to be as hostile as we had surmised.”
“Let’s not forget that they’re keeping us here against our will.” He turned to Darius. “Are you able to communicate with the Alliance?”
“No sir. Our signals are jammed.”
“So like it or not, we’re prisoners here.”
“If I may speak,” I said.
Scargal scowled at me.
“It’s true that the aliens won’t allow us to communicate or leave the planet, but we’re well cared for, sir, and we’re under no imminent threat. We should look at this as an opportunity to learn about them, find common ground. They could be allies if we could learn how to communicate with them.”
“They’ve shown no interest in communication,” Scargal said.
“I know, sir. But we can try. For decades, they’ve been a mystery to us. Now we can see them, talk to them. Let’s use this opportunity.”
The admiral jumped to his feet, glaring behind me. Once again, an alien stood inside, staring at us.
“Get out of my home,” the Admiral demanded. “Have a little respect for our privacy and just leave!”
The alien blinked, either not comprehending or not caring. He crossed the cabin, placed a salt shaker on the kitchen countertop, and departed through the wall.
We all stared at the salt shaker. Then the admiral sank back into his chair. “I intend to use this opportunity, Mr. Yancey,” he finally said. “I intend to find out how an undisciplined, retarded race has the capacity to evade a trained military force. I intend to find a weakness in their technology and use it against them. I intend to win the freedom of every soldier on this planet and make the Buttheads wish they’d never crossed the Alliance.”
“You plan on killing them?” I asked, now standing.
“If it becomes necessary.”
“And do you hope it becomes necessary?”
We glared at each other.
“I hope you don’t get us all killed,” I said. I turned and left.
The next morning, I scaled the mountain again. The Wise Old Butthead’s cliff wasn’t as easy to find as I’d expected. I scaled the animal trail, but every rock and incline looked the same. It was nearly two hours before I finally found him slumped at his cliff top, rocking listlessly, gnawingggnag nawing on a yellow root.
I placed my hands on my knees to catch my breath. When I could speak, I said, “I thought you people didn’t eat. You’ve got implants for all that.”
He didn’t turn to look at me, but with his free hand, he pulled up the side of his coat, revealing his knotted, tree-like torso. A long red scar ran down his side. “Removed it,” he said.
I straightened. “Why? You must miss it.”
I sat down next to him in the dust. “How long have you been up here on this mountain?”
“Since our First lost his focus.”
“Your First. You mean your leader? I’ve been looking for your leader. How do I find him?”
He hissed again.
“He lost his focus, you say. Is that why there’s no one working at the rock quarry?”
His hiss lengthened into a phlegmy sigh.
“Do you not answer because you don’t know?”
“Don’t care,” he said, and hissed again.
“You look different than the other, um, Buttheads. Older. Did you remove your anti-aging implant as well?”
“All implants. All gone.”
“And you won’t say why?”
“No. Tell me a story.”
The request surprised me, but as I sat down next to him on the cliff edge, it made some sense. He was all alone up here after all. “You want to be entertained? What do you usually do for entertainment?”
He pointed a long, knobby finger down the mountain. “Down there, implants. Up here, the sky, the lake, the call of beasts.”
“You have implants to keep you entertained? I mean, you had them before you left the others?”
He hissed and tilted his head. I guessed that was an affirmative.
“Okay, a story then.” I thought for a moment. What story do you tell an alien? A roar from a distant SPT brought something to mind.
I told him the story of Little Red Riding Hood. He sat still for once, even glancing at me occasionally. When I got to the part where the woodsman cut the wolf’s belly open and let Red Riding Hood and her grandmother out, the Wise Old Butthead began rocking again. “This is a false story,” he said.
“Yes, of course.”
“I approve. A human who mistakes a beast in human clothes for a real human. A beast that can swallow humans whole but can remain in a human domicile and wear their clothing. It is absurd. I approve. Tell me a real story.”
I looked down at the camp below. I cleared my throat and told him about my abduction, discovery of the colonists, my disagreement with Admiral Scargal and his determination to attack the Buttheads and escape.
“Scargal wants to kill,” the WOB said. “He is a warrior.”
“You want peace.”
“I guess so.”
“You are…” He hissed. “You are a poet.”
“That is the only human word I can find. A poet values wisdom and beauty. A warrior values strength and victory.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“The poet sees the darkness in himself and shrinks from it. He looks for a greater good outside himself and longs for salvation there. The warrior sees the darkness within himself and projects it onto his enemy. He fights against it there.”
“Both desire to overcome the darkness.”
“Both are fools.”
The tremble in his neck ceased. He turned and stared at me with his unreadable eyes. “The poet is the greater fool,” he said.
“Why is that?”
He looked away again. “The poet relies on hope. The warrior acts. The warrior’s path seems stupider. He waves his weapons and shouts. He beats his head against the enemy’s wall and rages. But in the end, after all his battles, he’ll know what the poet can only suspect.”
WOB’s neck began its wobble again. His shoulder’s slumped a bit. “It doesn’t matter. They’re both fools in the end. They both only want to overcome.”
“Whatever lies before them.”
We were silent then. I wasn’t sure I was going to get anything intelligible out of this alien. He’d tipped me off about the colonists down the lake shore, and he’d told me about the implants. But perhaps he was still just as crazy as any of them.
“You’re a lot deeper than your fellows down at the foot of the mountain.”
He hissed. “Introspection has been bred out of the Buttheads—a trait no longer necessary. I am an aberration.”
“Introspection huh? You’re saying they don’t think down there?”
“Of course they think. They are the most advanced species in the universe.”
I laughed. “It’s a big universe. There’s always someone more advanced.”
“No. There is no growth beyond this. What you see down there is the highest. We are inevitable.”
“What does that mean?”
He turned his head away.
“If they’re so advanced, why do I have a Butthead following me around, acting like a tree? Why does one wander our camp singing opera? Even the Butthead that delivers the daily rations seems as distracted as a child. Why do they behave the way they do?”
“Because they have overcome.”
“And what does that mean?”
His rocking grew more emphatic, as if he were trying to push the question away with his motion.
I spent much of the next day in the Butthead camp, asking around for their supposed leader. This was a mostly futile effort since few spoke to me, and those who did respond spoke gibberish. The only human sounding communication was from the one called “Opera Man” who repeatedly sang all of the parts from “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Skippy was there, pretending to ignore me, but he always managed to keep me in sight while he found different places in the compound to stand on his head.
I was pestering the driver of the hover cart that brought our rations each morning when I spotted Admiral Scargal and several other soldiers walking through camp, back from the colonists’ village. Scargal’s cold eyes scanned back and forth as they passed through the compound, and all of the soldiers had their weapons drawn as they advanced. The fact that they were incapable of shooting any of the Buttheads didn’t stop them from being ready to try.
Only one of the soldiers remained weaponless. At the rear of the procession, the bearded officer that I’d met outside Commander Braddock’s office followed. His wide eyes took in all of the aliens at once. His contempt for them was unmistakable.
I followed them back to our camp. Once there, I spotted Kate marching towards the admiral’s cabin. “What’s up?” I asked, falling in step beside her.
“Senior staff meeting,” she said. “I don’t know what for.”
“I think the admiral has made a new friend.”
I stopped outside the cabin. She glanced back at me as she climbed the stairs, confused. The bearded officer stepped inside after her.
I didn’t see Kate again until evening. She found me on the veranda watching the sun set in the orange haze beyond the twinkling lake. Opera Man sang nearby. I didn’t recognize the song.
“You ought to teach that alien some new songs,” Kate suggested as she dropped onto the bench beside me. “You’re a good singer. He told me he’s looking for someone to duet with.”
“Mmm,” I said. We were silent for a while.
“You don’t have much time to enjoy yourself, do you?” I said.
“We have all night,” she said, but without warmth.
“You met Scargal’s new friend?”
She nodded. “Lt. Z.”
“Z?” I repeated.
“His name is long and Polish sounding. He repeated it several times, but by the end of the meeting, everyone but the admiral called him Lt. Z.”
“Not many junior officers attended the private meeting,” I observed. “What did the lieutenant have to contribute?”
She studied me, her mouth drawn into a thin frown. “You must suspect something,” she said. “Or you wouldn’t be asking.”
“I’ve seen him before,” I said. “Talked to him. I’m sure you know that.”
She didn’t reply.
“You can’t just go killing the aliens,” I said.
“They may have us trapped here, but they haven’t killed anyone. Scargal knows that. They rescued the colonists. They rescued the Rutledge crew. I don’t know why they brought you and your crew here, but they’ve been nothing but courteous since then.”
Her jaw tightened. “So we should just sit back and enjoy being their…their pets? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying that they’ve given us a chance to get to know each other. I’ve been at their camp. They’re lousy communicators, but they aren’t evil and they don’t deserve whatever you’re planning, and if you force them to retaliate, they may decide they have no choice but to kill us all. Have you considered that?”
“We’ve debated a lot of things,” she said.
“What if we’re here as some sort of test? What if they’ve thrown us into a situation with a bunch of mentally slow Buttheads to see if we try to play nice or if we put all our efforts into killing them?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s a thought. The fact is, you don’t know what’s going on and your military policy is to shoot first, right? You just need to find bullets that work. You should scrap all that and find a way to talk to them.”
Kate sighed. “You’re being naïve.”
“So I’m a poet,” I said. “You think it’s impossible to talk to them? Commander Braddock told me that before the captain of the Rutledge died, he used to talk to the Butthead’s leader. There was a connection there. It can happen.”
She turned away. We watched the sunset in silence for a minute. Then she stood up. “I’m hungry.”
“There’s salad waiting in the kitchen.”
She pulled our front door open.
“What’s the attack plan?” I asked.
“You know I can’t tell you,” she answered.
“I recall a recent conversation in which we talked about trust.”
She stepped through the door, leaving me with the twilight.
There were few jobs that the military trusted me with, but I was on rotation to help unload the rations cart. It wasn’t a difficult job. Four of us could have all of the crates off the hover cart in less than ten minutes. We spent the rest of the morning following the direction of an eager young lieutenant in distributing the food to each cabin.
That next morning, however, there were six of us waiting for the hover cart to arrive. There were the three I usually worked with, along with Lt. Z and a nervous enlisted man. Nobody spoke as the cart rose over the trees and descended onto the loading platform. Whatever was going on, the soldiers knew about it and I didn’t.
The cart never entirely touched down on the platform. It remained suspended a foot above the ground. The moment the cart stopped, the Butthead at the controls grew distracted, picking at the accumulated bugs that had smashed against the front of the cart. He lifted a few up to his face and sniffed at them, probably inhaling them in the process.
At first, all six of us began removing crates, but soon Lt. Z and his cohort snuck to the back of the cart. Lt. Z pulled a makeshift pry bar out of his shirt, and he and the other began working at something beneath the cart.
I continued to watch them as I did my job, but the other three soldiers acted as if nothing were happening. Before we were finished unloading, I heard a loud clunk. Everybody looked up at the cart driver. The alien remained distracted. When we all stepped off the cart, the driver tapped his control panel, and the cart lifted away. It veered slightly to the right and wobbled as it disappeared over the trees.
Lt. Z hefted a round panel from the platform. The other soldier followed him as they disappeared towards camp.
Four days later when I again had rations duty, Lt. Z and his cohort performed the same pilfering act.
Commander Wallace shot and killed a native creature while out on the trail one afternoon. In all of my hiking adventures, I’d never seen such an animal. It was like a fat, wide doe roughly half the size of a hippopotamus with big hollow eyes and bony ridges along the sides of its head. According to Lt. Z, the colonists called them bone deer and went out of their way to make a meal of them. “Lots of meat on ‘em,” he said. “You could feed half the camp.”
Soldiers dug a pit and started a fire in the middle of the common area. Lt. Z prepared the animal. He was clearly comfortable with butchery.
“Haven’t had meat in months,” said one of the soldiers sitting in front of me. We’d all pulled out chairs to sit near the fire that evening while Lt. Z and Commander Wallace poked and turned the huge steaks on a makeshift grill. “I’m so sick of vegetables and that synthesized protein crap the Buttheads always bring over.”
“You notice there’s almost no Buttheads hanging around right now,” said one of his companions.
“That’s right. Z says they don’t like the smell. Cooked meat keeps them away.”
“Hey, that’s an even better reason for the barbecue. We ought to do this every night.”
“Doesn’t Z give you the creeps,” said another soldier, sitting to the right of the group. “He comes off kind of crazy.”
The first soldier laughed. “Oh, he’s crazy all right. Lt. Darius says he’s always been a little off. He actually keeps pails of urine around his cabin to keep the Buttheads away.”
“You’re kidding. Does it work?”
First soldier shrugged. “I guess so. Would you go walking through his cabin if it smelled like old piss? Anyway, Z hates the Buttheads with a bloody passion. Darius says he didn’t even want to leave the Rutledge when it crashed. They had to sedate him when the Buttheads offered to help them evacuate. He said they were an abomination before God.”
They continued to exchange rumors about Z and the other colonists. I glanced around the common area, looking for Kate. Most of the others were here, waiting for the steaks to finish, but she’d gone off to spy on the Butthead compound. Their withdrawal from our camp made the admiral uneasy.
Admiral Scargal was honored with the first steak. Once he stood up with his plate and walked over to the fireside, a Butthead appeared from behind a tree, a hand over its nose. It took the admiral’s chair and carried it back towards his cabin.
“So what’s this about an attack on the Buttheads?” asked one of the soldiers. “Does Z really know how to kill them?”
The first soldier looked around. I pointedly looked away, casually leaning in my chair to look up the mountain side, my left hand nonchalantly cupping my ear to focus my hearing on the conversation.
The soldiers leaned their heads together. “They say Z saw one of the Buttheads get injured.”
“I thought that was impossible,” the soldier on the right whispered. “Anything that might hurt them passes through.”
“Exactly. They can’t be touched, except Z says they can. He says he knows how to disable their integration field.”
“It’s what our science officers call the thing that makes things pass through them. It’s an implant they have that casts this field around them that causes things to…I don’t know. You know what they’re like.”
“Right, so Z says that he used to spy on them up at their rock quarry when they were still working it. Back then, they were different—busy. He says they had a lot more of those hover carts working out there, that they’d use to transport slabs of marble. Z would be out there every day spying, and one day, one of the carts loaded with marble gets caught on the top of one of their towers. It dislodges one of the suspensor panels.”
“The round things that make the hover cart, you know, hover. It’s not a big deal. The cart still flies, but as it descends to a loading platform, the panel is hanging sideways, causing the cart to spin a little. One of the Buttheads walks up to steady it, and when he gets near the suspensor panel, the one that’s now aimed at him, his integration field turns purple. He’s surrounded with these purple sparks. That’s when one of the marble slabs slides off the top and falls on him. It crushes his freaking leg.”
“Z figures the suspensor panel canceled out the field that makes them untouchable.”
“So that’s why Thomas has been helping Z swipe panels,” the second soldier said.
Lt. Z banged a spatula against a frying pan. “You dogs want steaks, or are you just going to sit there? Come and get it.”
The soldiers in front of me jumped up to get in line.
When Kate returned a half hour later, the orange sunset was already fading over the lake. I had a steak saved for her. When she was half through I said, “Do you seriously think you have a chance against the aliens?”
She sighed and dropped her fork. “Let’s not talk about this.”
“Lt. Z has been busy,” I said. “I understand he has odd theories about negating the aliens’ integration fields.”
“Who have you been talking to?”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that something very bad is about to happen.”
“It’s none of your concern. You’re a journalist, not a soldier. Your job is to be non-objective.”
“Screw non-objective. I don’t care about getting a story. I care about two things. First, it’s wrong. They’ve been nothing but considerate to us. Second, if we are actually able to harm them, they might wake up and recognize we’re a threat. Then they start fighting back, and they’ll be armed with a hell of a lot more than suspensor panels.”
“Stay out of it, Jamal.”
“I’m in it, whether you like it or not. I’m not going to allow you to…”
“You’re going to stay out of it, or you’ll likely be forced to stay out of it.”
I stepped back, my eyes wide. “Is that a threat?”
“I hope threats aren’t necessary.”
I was out the door before Kate the next morning. I was so eager to get to the Wise Old Butthead’s cave, I nearly forgot to bring along my yellow shrub clippings.
The WOB wasn’t at his cave when I arrived. I hoped that he hadn’t abandoned it. I sat in the dust on the cliff top, dangling my feet over the drop, and waited.
I didn’t hear him arrive. He sat down next to me, a leafy stem protruding from the side of his mouth.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
He slurped at the stem.
“I think our soldiers have found a way to kill your people.”
He stopped slurping for only a second. Then he went on as if I’d told him it was a nice day.
“Did you hear me?”
He hissed. With the stem in his mouth, the hiss came out with gooey spittle projectiles. I watched them fall over the cliff.
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt. That’s why I’m coming to you. You actually listen to me.”
“Poet,” he said.
“Yeah, I know. I’m a fool. The soldiers are fools. We’re all fools. But I don’t want things to escalate into a bloodbath. If you could talk to your people…warn them that something’s going to happen. A couple of our soldiers have stolen suspensor panels off of the hover carts and—”
“They would not listen,” he interrupted.
I stared. “You think they don’t care that some of them might be killed? I’m trying to prevent a war here.”
He slurped at his stem, then plucked it from his mouth and dropped it over the cliff. It hit the dirt fifteen feet below with a wet slap.
“I will tell you about my people,” he said. “Some of it might be familiar to you. Once, my people lived in forests. We crouched in shadows, fleeing predators. Then we learned to fight, to hunt. The prey became the hunters. We overcame our natural enemies. We looked to the horizon, to lands beyond our reach. We grew, continually seeking what lay beyond the horizon, always expanding, always conquering, until there were no more horizons for us to cross.
“We grew in knowledge. First, we developed our mechanical skills. Then we unlocked the secrets of electricity, of the atom, of the quantum components. We conquered the skies. Then we escaped our world. We overcame gravity. We overcame the limits of light speed.
“Our population grew and our world became insufficient for our survival. We conquered new environments on new planets. We met enemies in space. Sometimes they fought us. Sometimes they won. But we persevered. We overcame them. We learned to make ourselves untouchable. When our enemies struck, their fists passed through us. We persisted until we annihilated them.
“Meanwhile, we overcame the limits of aging. We overcame our own appetites. We overcame the dramas of life. We overcame disease. We looked inside and perfected ourselves against all mental instability. We overcame and overcame and overcame.”
He turned to look at me with his steady, unreadable eyes. “And now, there is nothing left to overcome.”
I stared back at him. “But there’s still something to overcome,” I said. “There are the Alliance soldiers. They’ll kill your men. You can stop them.”
“Do you know what lies beyond overcoming—what lies beyond the last horizon?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“You are a stupid human.”
We stared at each other for a few seconds. Then he said, “You are about to become wise. You are about to come face to face with the inevitable.”
“You can’t just let this happen.” I was nearly pleading now.
“It happened long before we met,” he said. He stood up then and walked away without looking back.
Commander Wallace caught me telling everything to Skippy at the fire pit. Skippy was stretched across the pit doing pushups. For such thin limbs, he was surprisingly strong, having done at least 200 pushups before I worked up the courage to speak.
“It’s the suspensor panels,” I said. “They negate your integration field. They’re going to use it to make you vulnerable. Then they’ll probably shoot you or some—“
That’s when Commander Wallace threw his arm around my throat and dragged me backwards, gasping and retching all the way. “You dumb son of a bitch,” he growled. “What are you thinking?”
He didn’t release me until we reached a picnic table on the far side of Admiral Scargal’s cabin. Scargal sat there with Kate, Lt. Z and a few others. When they spotted us, Kate jumped to her feet. “Commander Wallace, explain yourself,” she ordered.
He dropped me at their feet. “He just told one of the Buttheads about our plans with the suspensor panels,” he said.
Scargal’s face went white. He scowled at me, then at Wallace. “How did the enemy receive this news.”
“Same as usual. It was like Yancey here wasn’t even talking. But you never know…”
“No, you don’t.” Scargal’s jaw was so tight, I expected to hear a tooth crack.
“Lt. Zinkevicius,” he said, turning. “I don’t think we need to waste any more effort on deciding our timing. The time has come.”
Lt. Z’s eyes lit up and he did not attempt to hide his wild grin. “Our plan of attack?”
Scargal stared. Then he closed his eyes and sighed. “Do what you have to do, Lieutenant. I leave it to your discretion. Get your men assembled.”
Lt. Z saluted and turned. He walked five paces, then ran like an excited school boy.
“No,” I said to the admiral. “You can’t do this.”
He turned to Wallace. “Place Mister Yancey under house arrest. If he tries to escape, use a stun pistol.”
“They’ve never hurt you,” I shouted. “They’ve never killed anyone.” I turned to my wife. “Kate, you can’t allow this. This is wrong and you know it.”
“Wallace, get him out now,” Scargal demanded.
Commander Wallace dragged me backwards, once again using a choke hold. I struggled. I tried to go limp. He was strong enough to drag me.
He dragged me through the common area when the soldiers struck. Skippy was still doing pushups over the fire pit, muttering in Chinese. Lt. Z had one of the suspensor panels strapped to his arm like a shield. In his right hand, he carried a bowie knife. Four other soldiers were also equipped with the panel shields and pistols. All of them had ammo and hand grenades clipped to their belts.
Z dropped into the pit beside Skippy. He banged the butt of his knife against the panel and it came to life, pushing him back slightly. He braced himself and pressed the suspensor panel against Skippy’s head. Skippy was immediately engulfed in purple sparks. He convulsed once and fell into the pit beside Lt. Z. Lt. Z then held the knife high in the air and brought it down hard upon the fallen alien.
Wallace watched with apparent awe. He stood frozen, still holding me around the neck. I swung my fist backwards, a hard punch to the groin. Wallace dropped me and doubled over.
Z and the others had already moved on. The soldiers spread out. I spotted one of them leaping to catch a Butthead in the chest with his suspensor panel. The moment purple sparks erupted from the alien, he shot it in the head.
I ran after him, but he had already disappeared behind the cabins. From somewhere distant, I heard Lt. Z cry, “Good job! Now let’s take the fight to them!”
By the time I reached the path to the Butthead compound, I spotted the last of the soldiers disappearing into the trees. I pursued them, not knowing or caring what I’d do when I caught up. I had to stop it—had to throw myself at the mercy of Lt. Z and the Buttheads and beg them to give up the fight. It couldn’t be allowed.
I heard gunshots before I was even half way to the compound. I was already too late, but I kept running. Before I reached the camp, I found two Buttheads lying in the path, one with a hole in its head, the other with a slash wound from its stomach to its chest. I jumped over them and continued on.
It wasn’t the slaughter that stopped me. When I reached the camp, Lt. Z and his soldiers were shooting and slashing at everything that moved. But what truly froze my blood and rooted me in place was the reaction of the aliens. Some of them continued to walk along their way as if nothing were happening. Some stopped to watch the massacre as if they were watching a sunrise. In the midst of the chaos, one Butthead raised his hands above his head and began singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He was only four lines into the song when Lt. Z slammed his suspensor panel against the left side of his head and thrust his knife into the right. The song ended on a long drawn out “aaaaaaa…” sound.
I fell to my knees, then on my face. I didn’t save anyone, and nobody cared. I lay there, inhaling the dust and weeds, and I didn’t wince when I heard gun shots.
Nobody bothered to put me back under house arrest. I was left there on the ground, a forgotten casualty of the Alliance’s first great victory against the enemy.
When I grew weary of my place in the weeds, I got up and wandered into the forest, heedless of my lack of the yellow shrub, heedless of the thick foliage that blocked my way. I wandered through brambles that scratched me and tore my clothes until I found an animal trail. I was aimless, but I continuously moved higher, until even in my confusion, I knew where I was going. Anger took hold in some corner of my chest and spread like a fire until I was shaking with rage when I reached the WOB’s cave.
He sat at his usual perch on the cliff’s edge, staring out at the lake. I grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him backward, not knowing what I’d do or why. He stared up at me with those alien eyes, and my fist came down like a wrecking ball. I punched and punched, shouting inane half words and half sentences. “Do you like that view?” I cried. “Does that stupid lake do it for you?”
I didn’t stop until one of his eyes was swollen shut and my fist was bloody and sore. Then I fell backwards into the dust and cried like a lost child.
My crying deteriorated into shaking, infantile sobs, and those decayed into a dull numbness. I lay on my back and stared up at the churning sky. I don’t know how long I lay like that. The WOB stood over me after a while, chewing his yellow root.
“You learned what lies beyond the last horizon.” he said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Nothing.”
He nodded. The gesture was so human, I felt the rage again in my gut, but there was nothing left inside me for it to consume.
“You’re like dreaming children,” I muttered.
He cocked his head to one side.
“But why did your people bring us here? Why keep us prisoner?”
“You don’t know?” I asked.
“I only suspect. I left the moment our First lost his focus, before more humans were brought.”
“You mean your leader.”
“Our First was fascinated by one of those humans out there.”
“He was friends with the captain at the colonists’ village.”
“They sang together. Then the captain died. Perhaps our First wanted to find another human to sing with.”
We said nothing more. I didn’t care what else he knew. I stumbled down the mountain, heedless of danger. I didn’t care.
I didn’t care when I arrived at camp and saw the blood streaked grin on Lt. Z’s face as he posed for a picture with the head of an alien on the end of a stick.
I didn’t care when someone cheered that they’d established contact with an Alliance ship and we’d all be rescued.
I didn’t care when my wife stopped me on the path and wrapped her arms around me and cried. I didn’t respond.
I walked back to the veranda at the front of the cabin and sat down in my usual seat next to the hot tub and stared out at that stinking cesspool of a lake called Exile.
And I didn’t care.
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