Speculative Fiction Magazine
Spring 2013 – Issue #7
Featuring works by Zachary Tringali, Amy Holt, Maigen Turner, Rebecca Schwarz, Jamie Killen, S. R. Algernon, Sadie Bruce, Kate O’Connor, J. J. Roth, Kevin Kekic, John Zaharick, and Michael Shone.
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
- The Wolf who Howls at the Hollow Moon by Zachary Tringali
- Four Leaf Clovers by Amy Holt
- In Glamourglass Court by Maigen Turner
- The Gyre by Rebecca Schwarz
- Primordial by Jamie Killen
- Once More, onto the Beach by S. R. Algernon
- Illuminate: A History and a Future by Sadie Bruce
- The Land of Dreams by Kate O’Connor
- Bottle This by J. J. Roth
- Garden of Little Angels by Kevin Kekic
- Fossil Fire by John Zaharick
- The Flower Garden by Michael Shone
The Wolf who Howls at the Hollow Moon
By Zachary Tringali
These are our lands—the hills and the valleys, the corn fields and streams. We know these paths as a man knows his own body. People think they kick us out of their towns with their ugly stares, but honestly there’s no place we feel more at home. There’s dust in our throats, grass at our backs, and a warm fire always within reach. I’ve never been happier than with the caravan, watching alongside my family as the stars come out.
But there has always been one thing in Skadi that has drawn me away.
I sit on the edge of the carriage as it trundles up the hill, reaching along the familiar paths into the air and plucking a blossoming star out of the dimming sky. Once it’s milled down, I pinch a bit of stardust from the bowl of my mortar and rub it between my fingers. The dust is cool and soft, but beneath that there’s an energy like liquid lightning as it turns my skin from the heather of my people to the pale white of the mud walkers. I hate having to do this, but I know that it’s worth it.
By the time I finish, the hillside is alive with music. The wagons have been pulled into a circle, the cook fires glow in the center while the people sit and play their lutes and tell their stories. Each old story is fresh, never the same from one telling to the next, and it fills my heart with a secret thrum. The old, weathered voices travel a familiar road into my being where they will live in my bones until I’m little more than dust in the sky, long gone.
Two of my family are sitting by the bridge that crosses into Skadi. One of them has tied a string to a stick and is trying to fish in the river while the other picks at a lute that he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of.
“Orri!” the fisher says, turning so the pale moonlight washes over his face, flashing his eyes both green and gold when he laughs. He runs a thumb across his cheek. “Almost didn’t recognize you like that. Sneaking into town again? You know what will happen if the mud walkers find you.”
“Hakon! Ah, let them throw their stones, it’s worth it.” I clap him on the shoulder and lean across the gorge, peering down into the water below. The night sky twinkles in the slow waters. “No luck today?”
“’Fraid not, the fish don’t want to come out.” Hakon frowns, furrowing his brow and twitching the stick. He thumbs back across his shoulder to the lute player. “I brought Petur out to help me call to them, but…”
“Say no more. I think your lute needs an adjustment is all.” I squint up at the sky, counting the stars that halo the moon.
“It’s not the lute, I just need more—” Petur begins but soon stops, gasping.
“Here, try this.” I fish my hand through the black sky and call down two stars. They alight on the tips of my fingers, sending shrill and cold rushes across my skin and making my hair prickle. My breath is held in my chest when I touch my fingers to the lute and only releases when I feel their power leave, humming sweetly through the maple wood and fine strings. “The fish will come to your call now, surely.”
“Orri, you can’t use magic to solve all of your problems,” Hakon says but he’s laughing and I can see him licking his lips already as he adjusts his fishing pole.
“At least for tonight it won’t hurt.” I wink at Petur, who is already testing his fingers on the new strings. The sound is as quick as lightning and as sweet as a flower. The fish jump in the water below, adding a tinkling melody just beneath.
I’m already halfway across the bridge before they notice I’m gone and start shouting their thanks. I look back to see the glistening shape of a fish on the line. Hearing the laughter trill across the way is enough to make me smile.
I wouldn’t leave the caravan for anything in the world if it weren’t for her. It’s the way she smiles that makes going into Skadi seem worth it at all. The dirty streets and cramped roads are enough to make my stomach cinch, to say nothing of the men who would as soon kill my kind as say hello, but the memory of her keeps me moving. We only come through once or twice in a year. It’s never enough, but it’s always welcome.
All of the familiar paths lead back to her and I scale the trellis soundlessly. I have, after all, been doing this for years. I know every nook and cranny, my fingers find where the wood is weak and nimbly move away.
She’s working a thick brush through her brown hair, sitting on her bed and looking off into the distance—where, I do not know. I would like to imagine that she is thinking of me, the way I think of her. Perhaps there’s still some part of her that remembers the last time we touched, where a hand may have brushed, or where our lips met.
“You can brush it a thousand times, but the stars are already jealous of you.” I tease as I slip down from the balcony and into her rooms.
She sits up a little straighter; her hand flies to her chest to calm her heart. She doesn’t smile. Her eyes, once like shining amethyst, are broken by tears. She curls her fingers around the locket she wears and looks away from me.
“Remei…” I go to her, I fall on my knees before her. When I try to touch her she recoils. She covers her face with her hands but it doesn’t stop the sobbing. “What’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”
“Orri.” She gives in at last and falls into me, coiling her arms around my neck. Her tears are hot on my skin, burning paths down the pale stardust. “The stars must have heard me, they knew that I needed you here.”
“They must have.” I smoothed a hand across her cheek, tucking her hair back behind her ear. “Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
“It’s my mother,” she blurts out all at once, the words running past her lips as freely as her tears. She mops at her face and stands, pacing while she wrings her hands. “She got sick last night. She had a little cut, a tiny thing. She called me over to look at it and I gave her a salve even though I thought it was nothing. She was worried, I thought I just had to put her at ease…”
“Where is she now?”
“In her chambers, still. It was only just this morning that she—“ She bites her lip and shakes her head, her hair goes spilling down across her shoulders. She looks to the ceiling and swallows a cry, the chamber of her throat quivering. I want nothing more than to take her into my arms and hold her, but she is already moving past me. “I didn’t know what to do, Orri. It was such a little thing. How could this happen?”
“It’s going to be all right, Remei. I’m here with you now.” I follow her down the hall, knowing my words are useless—pointless. Among the Seers we have stories for this, but it means little in this place. These people build walls to reflect how closed they are, and Remei is more open than most, but not now.
I follow her into her mother’s chambers. Sticks of cinnamon have been tied to the canopy of the bed, but it does little to keep the scent of death away. Already the body has begun to stiffen and I can see a darkening of the skin where it has laid. Remei freezes in the door but I rush in.
“Her eyes are closed,” I say.
“Out of respect—”
“If her eyes are closed how will the stars see her to take her spirit?” I can hear the frantic edge on my own voice, I’m already worrying if it has been too late, too long. I touch her forehead, her skin is cool. I open her eyes, they stare back at me already milky and white but I think there might still be enough there, it may not be too late to let her go peacefully to the stars.
“Orri!” Her voice is shrill and wounded as she flies to me, pulling me backwards.
“I…” I began, but there was no explanation. I should respect her wishes, her ways, but how could she keep her mother from seeing the stars? For the first time, I fumbled for words.
And then I watched her fall to her knees by her mother’s bedside. Nothing has ever hurt me as much as watching her cry does now.
“This never should have happened, Orri.” Her anger with me has passed, fleeting as a bird. “It must be my fault, such a little thing and now…” She shakes and even holding tight to herself she cannot contain it.
“What if I told you I could change it?” I say the words before I think them through.
“Orri, that’s not possible.” She bites her lip. She practices medicine, she heals people using salves and tonics. She knows these things, or she thinks she does.
“Do you know what the name Orri means to my people?” I sit beside her, carefully taking her hands. I wait until her sobbing has quieted enough for her to hear me. I make her look at me so she won’t have to look at her mother. “It means he who fixes things. Remei, I can fix this.”
“How?” Her voice brooks between anger, pain and hope.
“Rekki comes and collects the souls of the dead after they last see the stars. Rekki, the wolf who howls at the hollow moon. She takes them to the hillside to sing to the stars one last time before she takes them from this world. This is what my people say, this is the truth. I have seen Rekki when she came for my mother, and her mother before.”
“But if you can turn Rekki away then why didn’t you then?” She did not want to give way to hope, she was too afraid of being hope.
“There is a time for everything, Remei. My people do not mourn the dead, we celebrate that they will be among the stars.” I touch her lips, quivering. “It’s not that way for you… You shouldn’t be sad.”
“There’s no more time for questions. I need your help if you want this.” I’m standing and already know that she’ll listen, her tears have stopped and I can almost hear her heart fluttering in her chest. I pull back the curtains and push the doors open onto the balcony. “Go to the farms and bring me back a goat. I’ll need a knife as well.” I look back at her and if she hesitates, it’s only for a moment. By the time I blink she’s gone.
By the time Remei comes back—the goat bleating and clomping its hooves from down the hall—I’ve covered the balcony in blankets, lined the parapet with candles, and taken her mother out to lay beneath the stars. As it should be. Remei pauses for only a moment in the doorway, her breath caught in her throat while she tries to wrestle the goat to be still.
“Orri, I’m not sure about this…” she says, but there’s a hitch in her voice she can’t deny.
“Everything will be fine, Remei. Did you bring the knife?” I take it from her before she can even answer. Her eyes are red, her cheeks are pink where the rest of her has gone pale, but there’s something else now. There’s a light just behind her eyes.
She doesn’t look away as I take the goat down into my lap. I haven’t the time to be soothing to the goat, but I haven’t the heart to kill it in its confusion. I smooth my hand back across its head until its bleating quiets and when it stills I use the knife. A quick, clean cut across the neck. Its body jerks but my arms are tight around its neck and I hold it as its blood warms me in the cool night air. Remei makes a sound but says nothing. She touches her hand to her lips and I wonder if she’ll be sick.
“What will you do?” she asks instead, swallowing her nausea and fear.
“Fool Rekki.” I cannot fight the smile from the corners of my lips. I have always had a cleverness for stars and magic, but fooling the wolf god is something the Seers only ever spoke of. No one had done it in ages, but the thought lived on in our stories and now I was living them. “The light is passing from your mother’s eyes and even now Rekki is on the prowl, scenting what is left of her. But if we present her with something better she might leave your mother be. In time her spirit will return.”
“Orri, can you really—“
She was speaking still, but the words became a distant thrum in the back of my head as I reached for the sky.
I spoke the words, sweet and clear as water and lured two stars down from their cradle beside the moon. I breathed my life into them before I lay the goat down and put the twin stars into his eyes.
His heart beats again, if only for a moment.
It is enough. I can feel Rekki now, as close as if she possessed a body and paced across the balcony, breathing on my neck. Remei’s lips are twisted as she watches, her fingers are curled in the draperies and her mouth works wordlessly.
Remei’s mother breathes, a sick and stuttering thing that rattles in her chest and snakes into the air. The goat twists once and moves no more as the light of the stars dwindle in his eyes.
Rekki’s teeth sink into the mangy flesh, worrying at the goat, and I feel the stars leave. I feel at once at peace and then as though I’m tipping into something more, as a child falling from the shallow waters into the deep. A moment of freedom tempered by shrill fear as my stomach floats in my body and my feet feel as though they’ve left the ground.
“Orri, what’s happening?” Remei’s voice came, but I cannot see her any longer. My eyes have been blinded to all but the beast that stands before me, as sleek as a willow branch and as dark as night. She moves like a shadow slipping into my eye, consuming me from the inside.
I want to cry because Rekki is looking at me with those eyes like burning coals—I can see them so clearly now—and I know then that I have never fooled her. Steam comes from her muzzle with every panting breath. The wolf has come for me as payment for my foolishness and no goat or star will satisfy her. Somewhere, I can hear Remei crying out for me, shaking me, but it’s all muddled and I fall back from her. I reach for something and my hands catch upon the curtains, I can hear the fabric as it rips and I’m sent tumbling back into the rooms again.
Her mother is breathing again, the color is coming back to her cheeks. There is a joy in all of the madness, but there’s no room for my mind to focus on it because I need to move. I need to leave Remei, even as every part of my body yearns to stay with her until the bitter end.
Rekki scents me and her teeth make the first tentative pulls upon my flesh. I flee the room, flee even the sound of Remei’s voice and I am running down the halls, knocking over tapestries and vases that spill and break in my wake. Rekki is following on my heels and I can hear her paws now as real as any wolf, padding and playing at the great game of chase that all beasts love.
I tumble out into the streets and my magic has faded, the people see me for who I am and even though it is late they are all shouting at me in a sound that is so consuming I can think of nothing but their hatred. They have all grown old and fat on the stories of the Seers, they say we steal their children and poison their wells and now they see me here but they do not matter. The hate in their eyes is nothing compared to the nipping of teeth at my heels.
Only Rekki matters.
The vague noise of their shouting follows me out into the streets and towards home. Home where the caravan is, where the fires glow and there is no wolf. Home where there is mulled cider and familiar stories that I can slip into as a babe in a blanket.
But I leave the walls of Skadi and there is no bridge and there are no hills, only darkness. The familiar paths have worn away as if by a strong storm and even my memory cannot hold their shape anymore. One road looks as much like any other and any or none of them may lead me back home. I look to the sky for answers but there is only the sickle of the hollow moon, there are no stars that I can see, nothing left to guide me.
For the first time in my life I am lost. There are no paths and my feet do not tread familiar ground. Every step seems to unearth a stone underfoot, every corner seems to reveal a new bend in the world that I have never known. Lost without a star to lead me, I know only one thing: Rekki is following me, her growl as thick as thunder in the air and her breath as hot as fire on the back of my neck. She yearns for what was stolen from her.
I run blind into the night and I know a fleeting—perhaps foolish—thought, that if I could go back I would do it all again. For her. Somewhere in the darkness of the world she is crying, now, but her mother is back and one day she’ll be happy again. I can run for as long as my legs will carry me and when I lay down in the dark and my legs stop moving, I will shut my eyes and pretend that she still thinks of me and that she can still feel the spot where my hand last touched her, where our lips last met.
Rekki howls at the hollow moon and I run until the darkness swallows me.
Four Leaf Clovers
By Amy Holt
Her name was Polly, or Brandy, Savannah maybe. The name didn’t matter as long as she did what she was supposed to do. They had warned: do it or we’ll make you.
The field lights were on, illuminating her feigned search. She fished through green stalks and petals. Her eyelids were red, her nose pink from torrents of furious tears. Even if she saw one, she wasn’t going to pick it.
Popcorn steam and grill smoke perfumed the humid summer air. Children with blue popsicle mustaches giggled in step with their running legs as they darted under bleacher beams and up and down sloping hills. One of them tripped. A man dressed in a pressed polo and fine posture helped the child up with his free hand.
Old Lady Joe spotted him first. His simple dress didn’t fool her; he was a reporter, one of dozens at the game who came to write some witty four-paragraph chain about a small town with big town clovers that would launch his career from one made of local featurettes to one of national features.
This one had a good eye, however, as he spotted Old Lady Joe at the same time she spotted him. She was about the right age, he judged. Subtracting the years, she would have been a teenager when the field of clovers became infamous Clover Field. That and she was town royalty, complete with secret guard eyeing her every move—a man and a woman at the top of the stands, an older lady three seats down, and two men standing at the fences. The old woman might as well have been wearing a crown, wielding a scepter.
“Excuse me,” he said, sitting beside her. He tried to sound casual, but his voice said formal, and there was always that posture, one that only big-city animals had. “I’m from a couple towns over. I was wondering about the story of this field, and you look like the one to ask. Were you here when the phenomena first began, Miss—”
“Call me Mrs. Joe.” She was a stickly thing with whole landscapes of wrinkles and a voice rough and phlegmy from chain smoking. She raised her voice half an octave to speak to this man, and opened her eyes a bit wider, smiling with greater frequency, folding her hands as if she wasn’t dangerous.
“Mrs. Joe,” the reporter complied.
“Which paper are you with?”
He hesitated. “How’d you know?”
“Burg has had almost a hundred newspapers profile Clover Field over the years. Considering I’ve been here for all of those years, I think I know what a reporter looks like. Now, which paper?”
“The Chicago Sun-Times. My name is Tyler Feld.” Old Joe forgot his name, but giddied at the rest—the kind of publicity that could counteract, just a bit, the damage the girl had done to the field’s prestige.
“Nice to meet you. So, where shall I begin? With that first day so many years ago? Or are you interested in my theories as to why the luck stopped two games ago?”
“The former, if you don’t mind, Mrs. Joe.”
Old Joe liked the reporter because of his hungry eyes. They were like hers, long before, when she and Willa had stepped on the field and first imagined what was to come. Her skin was smooth then, and voice not so gravelly. She’d held up the lucked clover that kept her niece from choking and asked, “Are there others, Willa? Are there others?” And Willa said yes, that she could help one see them. For a price. “If you pay enough, you can get enough.”
“You got it,” Joe told the reporter.
She dulled her eyes and smiled sweeter, hiding her cunning and craft, and weaved yet another story of the night luck became pluckable. Just the night and nothing more, and even then Old Joe stripped down the tale to the truest lie it could be, altering small details to suit her mood.
Tonight she was twenty, not eighteen, and she sat on the knoll when the first one was plucked, not the wooden bleachers by third base. Her hair was up not down, her skirt deep green not violet. She ate a hot dog during the second inning, when the man two blankets over started speculating on the girl, the girl of that time. He was balding, his wife wore a polka dot skirt. Their two children worked at a puzzle. The boy cried for juice.
But the rest was the same. Her soon-to-be husband, Gerald, spilled soda on her ankle. Before she had a chance to level her eyes and curse at him, she felt the aftershock. Luck had been claimed.
The crowd couldn’t have been more silent. Only their shallow breaths dared, their beating hearts and rising goosebumps. Those visiting could not feel it, but knew: a weight had shifted. The verdant magic zipped across the field from the plucker’s feet, hitting the home team first and strongest and then the locals who’d touched field soil as youngsters, breathed in field air as teens. It tingled from their feet to their foreheads. Young Joe exhaled swiftly then. The baby in her belly stretched and kicked. She had won; her plan would work.
Second inning. Home team down, 1-3
Principal Menning looked from Old Joe to the scoreboard with red numbers already laughing at their efforts. Another looked too. He exchanged a gaze of meaning with the woman—Nancy Olsen. She had four light and thin scratch marks across her right cheek. He had a matching set across his forearm. They’d just tried to make the girl understand: the luck was for the town, for the team, not for random strangers having a rough time.
Menning shook his head just thinking about it. Kids these days: when did rebellion for the sake of rebellion become a thing? Picking the right girl every four years had been getting harder and harder—
Someone pointed in his direction. It was Old Lady Joe and her young reporter. Menning took a swig of soda and waved. What now? The reporter came up to meet him.
“Principal Menning? I’m Tyler Feld. I work for the Chicago Sun-Times.”
“What can I do for you Mr. Feld?”
“Mrs. Joe down there said you could quick show me the framed clovers inside the school. Do you think that’d be alright?”
“Of course,” Menning smiled, gesturing forward. He eyed Joe. She nodded her approval. Always manipulating, always arranging she was.
They walked over the tiny gravel mouth of the parking lot, crunching stones instead of speaking, and into the side entrance of the high school.
For over fifty years the clover collection had been contained in the principal’s office. Mr. Menning presently, before him, Mrs. Blomme, and before her a Mr. Lindeman. For the sake of mystique, rarely did a reporter get to photograph the collection, but Old Joe allowed it because of Tyler’s high caliber, because the town was in trouble after losing two Field games after a fifty year winning streak, because green-filled images would draw a reader’s eye more than plain blocks of typeface.
Dots of jade hung in twelve-inch square frames, one frame per year since the luck had become pluckable. Over six hundred clovers in all, dates and opposing teams listed below each one. They weren’t all green. Some were more brown, others even blackish. But the more recent the year, the better preserved the clovers.
Tyler began to examine them, pulling out his prosumer camera and snapping as much as he could without seeming desperate. “Wow,” he marveled, “so they’re not all four leaf.”
“No. Luck comes in all hues and shapes on this field.” Menning stepped back and admired the collection as he did every day. He liked to think that some of the excess luck, decades of it, leaked into his tissues as he sat at his desk.
“So if it’s not because of a clover commonality, is it because of the pickers?”
“No. The pickers are unrelated, otherwise we could win a game in any town. It’s because of the field, plain and simple. The field says one clover and not another. The field chooses the picker. And the picker merely sees them. There’s nothing to be theorized beyond that.”
Menning was halfly lying. Old Joe, he, and the others were the key, not the field. Sure, the field had offered real luck, randomly takable luck. But it had been Joe that made the discovery and thought up the idea of turning it into money to keep the town from fading into one of those ghostly remnants haunting county roads. It was Polly who connected Joe to Willa. It was Isaac who handled the mayor’s meddling, Kevin who knew how to drug the girls, Nancy and Menning who painstakingly sought out the right student every four years, and Rob who helped with whatever was needed.
Tyler nodded politely.
“Wasn’t your final home game last summer against Wapsie?” Tyler asked, research fresh in his mind.
“Yes,” Menning answered.
“The clover’s missing for that game.” Tyler pointed at the spot where it should have been posing.
“Yes,” Menning smiled, “the athletic director and I and some of the volunteers get together after the last home game each summer and blend the final clover into a heaping batch of margaritas to celebrate. It’s a bit of a tradition now. Off the record.”
This story wasn’t true either. Tyler laughed, not knowing the difference.
Third inning. Home team down, 3-6
Nancy eyed the score board again, those looming stats. She looked over to where Menning should have been—they all sat in the same places every game—but he was absent, still showing that reporter around. She slid past her neighbors’ knees and picked up his half-full coke bottle. He would find her later to get it back.
Nancy sauntered to the fence beside third base. The girl hadn’t found one yet. Nancy doubted she would. There were probably three lucky clovers dotting that field, and from what Nancy remembered from when she was picker twelve years prior, they were all buzzing conspicuously with the magic of fortune. The girl avoided them on purpose.
The scratch marks on Nancy’s cheek itched. At least that meant they were healing.
Menning always wondered how Nancy could support the cause after knowing what had been done to her. And Nancy always shrugged—it didn’t matter that they’d drugged her, fed her some liquid spell, and buried her in Clover Field for three days so she’d become in tune with its ways. Because she understood the purpose. If you pay enough, you can get enough.
She had two kids now, loving school, enjoying the fruits of small town life, quiet streets, large backyards. Without the picker, without these rough magics, the income would dry up and the town would die. The town couldn’t die. Someone had to be faceless and nameless so the town could have a face and a name, a life regardless of new interstate or super mall—
The crowd skidded into silence. The girl leaned. Her hand ruffled the grass to better see among the blades. A deep breath.
Liar, Nancy thought. If it’s there, it’s there. No need to muss around.
A sigh from the masses. No, the girl shook her head at them, playing a part, she hadn’t found one after all.
“You weren’t at your spot,” a voice called. Menning.
“Here’s your soda,” she said.
Menning leaned against the fence beside her, six dots of light reflecting in his eyes. He loosened his tie, loosened the principal ensemble momentarily because they were alone.
Eight years before, Nancy had paid Willa twenty thousand dollars for a never-shrinking candle that, when burned once a day, kept her husband from leaving her for his mistress. But after meeting Menning, Nancy daily thought of neglecting to light the wick. She would finger the match, swipe it along red phosphorus so it would flame to life with a hiss. But her hand would hover, she’d pause to think. She would draw in breath to blow it out, candle unlit. But then the what ifs came. Courage went. And the candle flickered once more.
“Still nothing, eh?” he asked.
Nancy shook her head. “She’s not going to, Joel.”
“Maybe not. But the next girl we choose will, and the reporters and the out-of-towners and the money will keep on coming.”
“No. Not after losing three games. The magic is over. We’ll be downgraded from Wonder to Kitsch.”
Menning reached out a hand. “Nancy—”
“Hey you two.” This voice was Rob’s. He was a slightly balding man, arms and chest bandaged in layers of muscle, and every pair of jeans he owned were so worn they were almost white in color and holing in dangerous places.
“Hey Rob,” Menning said, sipping his soda again and inching away from Nancy just enough. Rob knew Nancy’s husband.
“I was just checking up on our backup plan,” he said, “making sure my car hasn’t been stolen or set on fire or something. Old Joe doesn’t want it out until the last inning, if it gets that far. Hopefully it won’t.”
“It will,” Nancy told.
“But we’ll get our way even so.”
Menning loosened his tie a little more, thinking, seeing more of Nancy’s point of view. “The girl remembered, Rob. She could cause us trouble long after this game is over. Threats didn’t work—verbal or otherwise. She’s a fiery thing.”
“What’s her name again?” Nancy asked.
“I thought it was Frankie,” Rob said. “Whatever. We’ll figure out how to handle the girl later. I’m just looking forward to when this is all over, a good night’s sleep, and a morning at Willa’s Cafe that’s back to how it used to be with all of us a little more relaxed, none of this spying and kidnapping crap.”
“So the doll is fine?” Nancy asked. “Looks good and everything?”
Rob stretched and rubbed his gut to see how much room was inside. He liked to eat when he was nervous. “Sure does,” he answered.
“Willa’s here, ya know. She’s sitting a couple rows behind Joe. I guess she was curious, hearing us scheming every morning. Came out to see the finale.”
“We’ll I’ll be damned,” Rob chuckled. “I’m going to grab some popcorn. You two want anything?”
“No,” they chorused. The other team scored.
Forth inning. Home team down, 3-7.
The mayor occupied the center of the stands behind the catcher. He frowned. Everywhere he looked, he saw flaws. The trashes were overflowing, holding much more than a night’s worth of waste. Weeds lined the fences. The visitors’ stands needed painting. The concession stand menu board needed to be reprinted, a few prices upped and a couple items removed. Where was the money going? Abbott may not have been on the school board, but he knew the softball program was getting loads of money. Yet none of it was showing on the field apart from consistent mowing. It reflected poorly on his town.
The answer was Willa, the woman sitting right beside him. Most of the budget went to her from the people of the town as payment for their luck-seer spell once in a quadrennial.
Willa looked like a simple woman of fifty, though a fellow sorceress would have been able to judge her as two hundred and fifty. She had a head of tomato curls kept at bay by a white and navy kerchief, and her hands were scarred by cauldron sprays and griddle burns. She could have wiped the scars away with three words, but appreciated them as she appreciated the life and spells that gave them. She was an old fashioned sorceress with an old repertoire of spells—nothing like mind-reading, divining, or such fancy—and in that, she was well-suited to an old town that could just as well have wasted away some fifty years ago.
Willa’s eyes swept over to Menning, Nancy, and Rob. Menning ordered breakfast special #2 whenever he came in, Nancy an english muffin with a side of peanut butter and a diet coke, and Rob ordered special #3 with extra bacon. Always the same things. Their group sat among the rest: the grumpy farmers with John Deere hats, little old ladies unable to turn their necks anymore, and lone wanderers in town on a construction job or part-time field work.
From Willa’s secret menu, the farmers and wanderers wanted personal prosperity, and the old ladies wanted the strangest and darkest things you’d imagine.
So Old Joe’s group was strange in that along with caring for themselves, they cared for the good of the town, the grand and valuable other. They realized that if the other died, they would whither, this late in their lives with no firm way out. They and the town were bound. Most small town folk didn’t realize that.
The athletic director, another of Old Joe’s allies, Isaac, took a spot behind Willa. Abbott began to pester him about the condition of the field. Willa listened absently, wondering if Old Joe would ever get up to smoke a cigarette.
She hadn’t moved much since the game started—still that hunched posture, those sewn lips and a crumpled brow. She didn’t palm the doll yet, but when she did, the girl would be sorry. Most were sorry when they messed with Joe, be it step-sibling, fresh faced copywriter, a mayor from a rival town, and now an eighteen year old girl.
When Old Joe was eighteen, she was with child, living in the trailer park north of down, and working at Willa’s Cafe. Oh, and then she was stealing, digging up graves for supplies, running strange errands in the dead of night with her baby sleeping in a car seat, attending nursing school to be Willa’s on-call aid for those townspeople who paid in tiny limbs or bags of blood. All to repay Willa for the picker spells.
When the younger ones started helping, Joe stopped all that to make sure her daughter grew up right and landed in some stable suburb with a kind husband. She’d put in her time. Until last night, that is. For the doll she’d given like the old days—a pint of blood, two nursing jobs, and the oldest silver-based coin in Gerald’s coin collection. Others had given other things, but that’s what Old Lady Joe gave.
Willa had the coin in her pocket now. She’d spelled it to act as a white-hot omen if danger were near. Since Willa didn’t know many of the skills others of her kind knew, she had to resort to these simple methods to keep herself in Fate’s loop of knowledge.
Willa stared at the girl who rebelled.
She was pretty. She had a bruised rib no one knew about, and a black eye the crowd couldn’t see from this far away. Her fingernails contained traces of Nancy and Menning’s skins. They’d provoked her in trying to frighten her. Now she wouldn’t give in without a fight, and even then—Willa shuddered. She had an impulse to stand up and leave, as if the coin had turned hot, but it hadn’t just yet, and she calmed back down.
The girl regarded Willa. She didn’t know the redhead was the one who sold magic with pancakes, but she had her suspicions. And seeing Willa there in the stands when she’d never come previously moved suspicion to full theory.
She added the name to her list: Rob, Kevin, Nancy, Principal Menning, Old Joe, now Willa. One of them was the witch and whoever it was would die.
Fifth inning. Home team down, still 3-7.
Isaac joined the concession stand line. Rob was in front of him, getting a hot dog now; his stomach needed filling again. In front of Rob was Kevin.
Kevin craved a walking taco—a bag of crunched Doritos with taco meat and cheddar cheese poured inside eaten with a fork as you walk around. He used to eat them with his pinky in the air as he mixed and picked through the bag, but he had no pinky now. He sold it to Willa in exchange for the deeds to the land his two hog farms sat on top of. Willa used the pinky in making Nancy’s keep-candle. Neither knew.
Kevin ordered and walked away.
Rob ordered, chomping down on his dog the second he set two one-dollar bills on the counter. “Oh, hey Isaac,” he said, mouth full, when he saw the next-in-line.
“Hey, Rob.” Isaac didn’t know Rob as well as some of the others because Rob didn’t work at the school. Menning, Nancy, and Polly worked at the school. He also didn’t have to go on the gritty errands as much, being so busy with Clover Field politics and PR it often kept him away, even from morning meetings at Willa’s.
“You want to come with me to the outfield fences?” he asked after ordering. “Abbott’s been pestering me for the last half hour about the grounds. He says there are exposed wires on the field light behind second.”
“Yah, sure,” Rob said, hot dog inhaled.
The two passed Kevin on their way. He was lingering between where the teens hung out and where the bleachers ended. “I’m going to ask Kev along too,” Isaac said.
“Why?” Rob whined, after which he burped into his fist, an attempt at being polite around someone he didn’t know as well. A dull pain growled through his wrist where a mass had been removed, a deadly thing from the curse of an old friend. Willa got paid for curse and cure that time. She never took sides in the matters of the town, probably because she stood to gain the most from a principle like that.
The one that cursed Rob was now dead, buried on John Grint’s land the next county over.
“Because he’s one of us,” Isaac went on. “Just because he didn’t properly sedate the girl all those years ago doesn’t mean he did it on purpose, and it doesn’t mean he deserves to be shunned. Come on.”
Rob pouted for all of two seconds and then let it go.
“Hey, Kev,” Isaac called.
Kevin flinched at his name. He looked skitzy, guilty even. And maybe he was. Maybe he’d started feeling guilty the last time they did the burial, botched the anesthesia sort of on purpose, knowing it’d cause trouble down the line and end the whole thing. They still had the spring fair to bring in money, and the reputable football program. Those could keep the town going until something replaced magicked softball summers. He just couldn’t help but think that being buried alive for three days, suffocating, pissing on yourself, drifting in and out of consciousness was damaging to a person, even if she was drugged. And the black sludge and bullying—what if they didn’t like softball in high school even if they did in junior high?
It just didn’t seem right.
Isaac invited him along and he went.
“How have you been lately, Kevin?” Isaac asked.
“Good.” He swallowed nervously. His adam’s apple swung from the center of his thin throat to the base of his double chin. “One of our ventilation fans broke down today. Took all afternoon to fix. And I went to Willa’s this morning. Old Joe was there and we talked for a while.”
“What’d she say?” Rob asked, craving a frozen orange juice.
“She said she understands. Mistakes happen. She wants me to teach Nancy how I do the drugging so two of us know and we can check each other’s work. She also said we need to start wearing masks when we grab them, so even if something goes wrong again, at least the sight of one of us won’t trigger their memories like it did this time… with me.”
“Sure, sure. That’s a good idea.”
They walked on in silence. Kevin put his four-fingered right hand against the fence and it bobbed against the links. Isaac noticed the weeds; Abbott was right. Maybe he could funnel over some baseball budget money to hire the mower for an hour extra each week to trim and fix things up. The boys’ team didn’t make much money anyhow. They used to because they used to be the team playing on Clover Field. But young kids, not believing in supernatural luck, thought they were winning because of talent and moved their games to a fancy field at the edge of town. The girls took over and wouldn’t give the field back when the boys started losing.
“You think these young ones will ever believe in magic?” Isaac mused. “I mean, when we’re all gone, will some of them believe and keep it going?”
Kevin didn’t answer. He just looked at the girl.
“I think about that too sometimes,” Rob said. “These kids enjoy the magic of wizards in secret schools and paranormal creatures made good because of love or some crap like that. But our magic—what magic really is—they don’t believe in that. They wouldn’t like it. It would disappoint them I think.”
“Would it have disappointed us when we were young?”
Isaac found the exposed wires. He stuck his plastic fork into the ground to mark it against a mower or misstep.
The gold band around his thumb glinted against the lights. It was ring of fortune, simple enough. He wouldn’t get sick or die early. He would move up the ladders of career and love at all the right times. Isaac Tusston would never want for anything. In exchange, he did anything Willa asked and always would. He was happy. If you pay enough, you can get enough.
A bat smacked against a ball. A home run for the home team with two players on base, not a leap towards a win, but at least it evened the score.
Sixth inning. Home team still losing, but not as much, 6-7.
“What’s that girl doing with her head down? Doesn’t she know someone’s up to bat?” a man asked without particular aim at a particular body.
He was an out-of-towner.
One inevitably appeared at each game, a man or woman in the area visiting relatives with a hankering for some local fare, or one who’d heard about the field in the news and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Roaming in boredom till dusk, seeing the blazing field lights, the creature would stroll on down to Clover Field and sit on the cold metal behind the catcher. He or she would scan the crowd. Looks normal, even picturesque. But then he would see the girl in the outfield, the only one with her head down while the rest had their heads up for, you know, spying balls and catching them.
“Oh, she knows,” one of the town answered. Menning. “She’s looking for the luck. Always does. When the bat cracks, she’ll look up. But what you want to see is that blonde ponytail fall forward and her hand ruffle the grass. Because that, sir, means she’s found one.”
“Found one what?”
“A lucky clover.”
Menning and Nancy exchanged one of their looks. Menning hadn’t retightened his tie. Nancy tried not to smile too big.
The town didn’t mind the out-of-towners. They bought popcorns and sodas, expertly charred hot dogs and more sodas, then rooms at the Motel 6, return-trip gas and snacks at the local convenience store. Money, the town craved, quarters, dollars, credit cards. And out-of-towners were beasts to milk.
“What happens when she finds a clover?” the man asked next.
“Why, the home team wins,” Menning announced. Listeners hollared and clapped. Nancy giggled.
Seventh inning. Home team down, 6-10.
Isaac and Rob sat down between Menning and Nancy, forgoing the usual routine. Rob had gotten his frozen orange juice. Kevin was back to haunting a random patch of fence. The polo-shirt reporter—they forgot his name—tried to get a quick interview, but Kevin said no. The man had tried to get interviews from each of them throughout the night. He had a good sense, that one, gravitating toward juicy stories even if he didn’t know what they were.
Presently, he was interviewing a kid whose sister played first base. Next he would interview the kid’s mother. The longer the game rambled without a clover presented to the air, the more his questions bent toward fitting an article about Clover Field’s final defeat. Lucky Clover Field Loses its Luck, the reporter would title his story.
But home team wouldn’t lose this night, all willed. And even if they did, there would always be some obscure newspaper from Whositwhatsit, Indiana that would want to do a feature on the field and its used-to-be supernatural clovers. Reporters would still come, they would. The following summer at least, maybe the next too. But no, no, the group told themselves even after these admissions, the game would turn out alright this night.
“I wish I’d been here when it first happened,” Rob said just below the din.
“It was bad,” Nancy said. “I’ve never seen Old Joe so…”
“Defeated,” Menning finished.
“The crowd filed out around us. She didn’t speak for almost an hour. She just stared straight ahead, arms crossed like usual, lips pursed.”
Rob poured the last of the orange ice into his mouth. “What did Willa say about the whole thing the next morning?”
“You know Willa,” Nancy shrugged. “She told us to bother her when we had a specific spell in mind to handle the problem. ‘If you pay enough, you can get enough.'”
Menning scoffed. That line had become their motto. He was the only one that hadn’t used Willa for personal gain, for some ring or spot of land, and he had no plans to. Pinkies and graveyard thefts were out of his price range.
“Man, how did the girl come across it?” Rob moaned. “After all our tests when she was younger, the spying, the research, she was the last one I expected to become curious.”
“Me too,” they echoed.
Isaac shrugged. “So people can change.”
“Or, you can never truly know someone,” Menning said. They all nodded in agreement, thinking of themselves, thinking of the girl.
She had been a quiet child and quiet adolescent, never causing trouble, never stepping outside the many lines of rules and expectations. When other students snuck out of the house to meet up with boys, the girl stayed inside reading books. When other students started having parties with scary movies and a little stolen alcohol, the girl took long walks to the town parks and back, and her mother knew where she was at every moment. She obeyed. She followed the rules. She didn’t smart off to adults or insult her classmates. So she should have stayed compliant; she should have followed the norms.
It must have been the books, and all that time spent thinking, two things that reared their vicious heads and made the obedient, revolutionaries. They would have to be wary of that next time, if there was a next time.
Rob slapped his knee just thinking about it, getting popcorn butter on the white patches of his jeans. He’d gotten another bag of popcorn too.
Eighth inning. Home team down, 6-11. Home team on the field.
Old Joe and Polly had migrated to the announcer’s box. The announcer was a man named Harry Plattsmith. Polly grew huffy about revealing the doll in front of him, but Old Joe dismissed her protests. Harry was one of them in the end; Willa’s magics had helped him lose eighty pounds after all.
Harry eyed the doll then pretended it was invisible.
It was a remarkable little wonder. About as long as Joe’s forearm, the doll was made from the black cloth of one of the girl’s shirts. The insides were bags of grass, flowers, earth, and leaves from the girl’s yard, boiled and dried until they formed a dust as heavy as sand. On the doll’s head were three locks of the girl’s hair. Black dots and lines marked the places of possible harm—heart, brain, ribs, knees.
All of this was the reason the doll cost them pints of blood, two hogs, six errands, three weekend trips, one ball of hair from the shower drain, an eighth teaspoon of tears, a coin.
Willa made the doll all on her own, which included sneaking around the girl’s house, gathering bags of ingredients, breaking in, cutting hair with a silence equaling that of the bedroom walls, and growing the hair back before the girl could notice. Not to mention staying up all night to treat the earthen materials. Polly was surprised Willa was awake enough to come out for the game. Then again, she wasn’t quite human.
Polly eyed the door and stairs for anyone unwelcome.
She was ten years older than Old Joe, and the one who knew Willa first. The position of town queen could have belonged to Polly, but she didn’t want it. She hadn’t the stamina for protecting the town’s life year after year. Part-time teaching was enough. Instead, she crept in and out of the group’s activities according to humor.
Polly shooed away the reporter with the polo. He was desperate for an interview from one of Joe’s secret guard. Refused again. Polly shooed kindly, though; he looked some like her son Daniel.
Polly’s first encounter with Willa was to save Daniel from a bad case of the fever when he was eight. All she had to do in return was grow a tomato plant in her garden and water it with the boys’ urine until his fever was gone, after which she was to use water. Spells were so cheap back then.
The crowd hushed at another of the girl’s faked attempts. Polly held her breath. Old Joe scoffed; she’d had enough. She took the silver pin in her fingers.
The girl’s neck was getting tired from playing at this lie. Two more outs and it would be over. The coach would try to make her Courtesy Runner for the pitcher when the team took their turn at bat, but she wouldn’t look then. And the team would lose.
A clover glistened to her right. There was another at the back of the field by the pole with exposed wires marked by a white plastic fork.
They sparkled three shades of green in darkening sequence, blinking slowly in the plucker’s direction. Sometimes the girl thought she heard tinkling bells call her name. Whenever she picked one from the ground, electricity fizzed through her fingertips, down her arm to quake her heart then rattle her ribcage and buzz the rest of the way to her feet and shoes where the luck would dissipate into the rest of the team and then, the town.
The luck began with the touch, her touch, she’d mused once, which had led to the idea of saving the clovers for other moments, other people.
It wasn’t long before she was visiting the field in the early mornings, fog and dew early, when not even the old folk were awake and she could pluck in peace. But she would pluck with tweezers in the morning, slipping the glittering clovers into a ziploc, and touch them with her spelled fingers later on.
The first stolen clover she used on a first date that she desperately wanted to go perfectly. The second was for a day of writing scholarship applications—two funds had already replied in her favor. The third on a random night just to see what happened—that first date guy told her he loved her. After that, the girl felt guilty for using luck on herself. She hung around the library and listened to the librarian gossip, at Russ’ to hear the barkeep whispers, then the Hallmark store for the best juice of all.
The girl took the tidbits—soon to be foreclosed homes, kids with sick parents, parents with late bills, failing businesses—and visited the gossiped ones to say, in the most delicate way possible, “I can give you a clover’s luck on the day of your choosing. Do you want it?”
The girl was unexpectedly sly. The girl was getting away with it.
Until the softball game when she realized she’d not left a lucky clover in the field to win the game. That was when two guys, Rob and Kevin, started following her around in a rusty red truck that smelled of hogs. They followed her to gossip scouts and victim meetings. They hung around the field at odd hours, hours she needed. What did they want?
The girl finally marched right up to the truck one humid afternoon. She wanted to know what she’d done wrong. Had she broken some rule? If so, she would have believed them and stopped the misbehavior immediately. But then she saw Kevin.
One night years ago, she remembered, a kidnapping, black tar down her throat, being buried alive, screaming until her throat was raw, clawing at the boards. Her fingernails peeled off. She painted the boards in red. She kicked the red, punched and kneed. One of them broke. Earth, roots, and wriggling worms piled onto her feet—
The bruise on the girl’s side ached. She pressed her hand against it and began to act again. Look left, look right, lean a foot forward.
Kevin was alone by the outfield fences. Rob was in the stands between Mrs. Olsen and Principal Menning. Oh how far the evil had spread. The girl smothered a hiss.
The pain again, this time at her sternum. Strange, Nancy and Menning hadn’t kicked her there. She cleared her throat, which irritated the pain, sent it frothing and bubbling into new places. Her ungloved hand pressed, as if to hold the pain down. She winced.
It traveled to her heart now, a rip and a tear. She couldn’t breathe. The pain made it impossible. Breathing in would set her guts exploding out her chest, burst the tear open further. The girl turned to a teammate and mouthed, “Help.” But the teammate was confused.
The girl collapsed. A deep navy sky and sharp field lights faded in and out of the black sea that seemed to be washing over her body.
Then a hand touched the girl’s shoulder. She opened her eyes to see one of her teachers, the athletic director, Mr. Tusston. Isaac. His head blotted out three of the suns above. Not suns, field lights. His eyes were kind, his voice full of coos.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Not so good,” the girl said. “Where’s coach?”
“Not yet,” he whispered. “First, we need you to pick one of the clovers.”
Her heart almost stopped, and not because of the pin hovering in Old Joe’s hand above the heart dot on the doll’s cloth body. He was one of them, she realized.
“You too?” she asked, she choked.
Isaac sighed, glancing over to the group, to the vague souls here and there who would also help if asked. “Me,” he admitted, “and many others. You’re going to help the town now.”
The girl shook her head. Tears slipped from her eyes with each turn.
In the stands, the crowd had their theories: The girl was telling Mr. Tusston that she was out. She was playing sick. She couldn’t take the pressure of being a picker on this last game with all the reporters and photographers. The reporter whose name they forgot weighed the theories, brainstorming sentences, titles, and tag lines for each as he snapped photo after photo of the girl crying to the athletic director. Maybe the man would give him an interview later, tell him what she said.
Menning and Nancy exchanged a look across Rob, who was munching on a roll of Sweettarts now. Willa was inscrutable. Her eyes were red and tired, but unemotional, her curls waved softly in light breezes.
Isaac looked up and nodded to the announcer’s box. The crowd thought it meant she would pull through and started clapping wildly. But the group from Willa’s knew the nod was for Old Lady Joe, to halt her pins, matches, and wrench.
The girl stood up and the crowd clapped louder. Isaac said a few parting words and left her on the field. The ref conferred that all was okay, blew the whistle, and the game returned to play. The town was ready.
She offered no pretense.
She didn’t wait for a batter or two to step up to the plate so it wouldn’t seem so obvious. No, as soon as the whistle sounded, she turned a specific number of degrees, walked a specific number of steps, knelt down, and plucked the sparkling thing.
It happened as it used to: green-colored luck burst through four clover petals into the girl’s fingers, flaring up and down her limbs, along the strands of her flaxen hair, into her bones, to her toes, through her shoes and into the earth. Chills ran up the home team’s spines, raising little goosebumps and straightening little hairs. Then the electric magic slammed into the crowd, those on stands, hills, and fences, and onward into oblivion. The luck had been plucked. The girl left the field. The crowd cheered the stride of a nameless girl once buried in the earth to give them their joy.
From here it would be quick—three strikes, the switch, a home run for two runs, another for three, and two final plays before the clock runs out making the final score 13-11. Home team for the win. The screams would be deafening, the flashes blinding.
Nancy, Rob, and Menning climbed down from their places. Polly and Old Lady Joe too. Isaac completed their little circle behind the bleachers as the inning finished. They smiled at each other, even Old Joe. They could see the article titles now: Clover Field Gets Lucky Again, Lady Luck Returns to Clover Field, Leprechaun Sighted on Clover Field. And then the following summer: Clover Field Strikes Again – Eight Game Streak. Old Joe and Isaac were already dreaming up reasons to give reporters for the three losses. Something about a passing comet maybe, or a black cat living in the concession stand. Whatever it was, it would be okay. Give it five years and the money would be flowing the same.
The black box with the doll sat on the ground beside Old Joe. Ten fingers wrapped around it—
“Hey,” Old Joe called, seeing the theft from the corner of her eye. But her voice caught, out of surprise and not fear. It was the girl.
The girl pulled the doll from its felt bag and box and examined its details. She recognized the shirt. She saw the hair and fished around her own.
“Give that back,” Rob said. He was top heavy, but the girl could outrun him.
“No,” she bit back.
“Oh, I don’t care,” Old Joe growled. “We’re done with her. The magic will fade from her fingers in two months or so. Your time has passed, young thing.”
“My name is Dawn,” the girl said. Her features sharpened at that, as if her name was a magic word. Isaac noticed she had grey-blue eyes like a cold sunrise sky. Nancy noticed she had a scar along her left eyebrow—possibly another source of her unpredictability, a detail they had missed in selecting her.
“So?” Rob asked.
“So, I promise you won’t forget my name this time.”
The girl ran.
The group stared after, unsure and maybe two bones shaken. Nancy’s hand slipped into Menning’s. That reporter approached Old Joe for a post-pluck interview. Polly sent him away again. Children with blue mustaches laughed, teens kissed under the field lights.
Kevin idled in his beat-up truck. The seats and floor mats smelled like his farms. His hair did too. He always wondered if other people smelled the hogs on him. That’s what first got him going to Willa’s; the odor of fresh brewed coffee every fifteen minutes, the pork grease, smells of sizzling beef for lunch always managed to overwhelm his own.
A country song strummed of melancholy wafted from the speakers.
Once the doll was brought out and Old Joe in the announcer’s box, Kevin had left his spot at the fences. He planned on judging the outcome by the home team’s reactions as they filed into the parking lot. He would leave with the first of them once he knew.
To his surprise, it was Willa who was first across the gravel, pulling out her car keys. He never knew she had a car, having imagined she traveled by teleportation instead, or at least one of the brooms from her cafe, the vacuum even—he saw that in a movie once.
The sorceress looked a bit spooky in the dark, Kevin thought. He was used to veils that made her seem like them—the cafe air, the metal spatula in her hand whenever she came from the kitchen the waitresses weren’t allowed in, the island in front of her grill covered in mixing bowls, spice jars, buckets of flour and sugars that were really cauldrons and spell ingredients. Sometimes Willa would heat up a spell when the cafe was still open and a strange smell would lay over the bacon and eggs. He always liked that.
Willa started her car. Kevin didn’t know, but her coin had turned molten.
The first of the fans spilled through. The ones he recognized were suited in giant smiles and giddy arms. The ones he didn’t wore slouches and furrowed brows. Home team won after all. The doll had worked.
Kevin started his car in turn, ready to follow Willa onto Johnson Street—
A car smashed into Willa’s. The sound was an explosion; the metal and glass wandered far. Kevin flinched when three shards hit his windshield.
The girl wanted revenge and she got it. She figured the final piece when she saw them celebrating. Only two people would have been absent: the coward who made the mistake and the witch who sold the magic. Willa was the latter, the way to bring them down.
She clutched the recent clover in her hand as she sped off—she took that from them too so even if they found another sorceress, they wouldn’t have the freshest clover with which to brew a new spell. She had three suitcases in the back of her car and two still-lucked clovers in a ziploc to employ when needed. Also five friends in various states ready to house her, one who happened to know about magic.
She was a sly girl, that one. All those books and thoughts did her well. Blood, fingernails, tears, sanity. If you pay enough, you get enough.
Kevin didn’t stick around to see the others come running, to see that reporter sneak photos and brainstorm the phrase Clover Field Wins, Patron Loses, to see the ambulance and the rescue attempt, then be part of a scavenger hunt through Willa’s house to find the address of another sorceress. They would clutch each other, try to figure out who’d done the worse thing. But it would be no use.
The crutches of the town had been snapped in two. Kevin was glad he lived in the country, relied on his farm instead of Main Street shops and high school press.
He turned out of the lot. He switched the radio station to something of cheer. He should have been sad, maybe. But he felt rather happy as he drove down unsuspecting streets to the highway where he passed by the girl as she tried to look normal. Kevin waved with a smile.
He remembered now: Dawn was her name.
In Glamourglass Court
By Maigen Turner
Detective Inspector Mordan leaned back in his chair and frowned at the tidy stack of paper before him. The Lacey investigation had grown into a distinctly untidy mass of accusations, counter-accusations, and contradictory evidence, punctuated by a thorough lack of respect for the laws against murder and littering. The problem with humanity, Mordan had long ago decided, was its lack of respect for law. The world would be a far more orderly place if people stopped putting personal concerns ahead of duty and justice.
Quick footsteps crossed the hall outside. Mordan straightened, aware of dawn’s grey light seeping through his window. Good news rarely arrived so early.
“Sir.” A stout-boned woman halted in the doorway. She tucked her helmet under one arm, her blue tunic rain-spotted in the gaslights’ glow. Mordan gave her the nod to speak. “I’m Constable Kerr, sir, from Isleton Street. Commander Brant sent for you. We’ve a body in Safton Circle.”
Mordan let his eyes narrow. Safton Circle lay halfway across the city, and the local patrols were quite capable of handling fresh corpses. Indeed, in that section of the capital, it was an unusual morning when they failed to encounter any. There were only two sorts for which they would summon Mordan.
“Do you have a dead wizard,” he said, “or someone killed by a wizard?”
The constable’s upper lip twitched, wanting to curl, but her voice remained even. “A wizard, sir. The commander thinks he’s from Clan VanMere. Shot to death, so far as we can tell, sometime last night.”
Mordan rose and lifted his leather case of tools from its shelf. VanMere? Interesting. Usually they were more courteous than to end their disputes in the public squares. Cavenaugh would have scathing things to say. If internal Clan politics had led to the death, though, at least Mordan’s unofficial partner would be a reliable source of information on them.
“Has anyone summoned VanMere Richard Cavenaugh?” Mordan asked.
Constable Kerr shifted her weight back, not quite bracing herself. “It’s his gun they found at the scene, sir.”
Mordan stiffened, sharp questions caught on his breath. The constable stared at the oak paneling behind him.
“Commander Brant says the dead man looks to be someone else, sir, and there’s a gun in his own holster, but no one can be sure of anything and they want you to look it over as soon as possible.” She cleared her throat. “There’s a hansom cab waiting, sir.”
Mordan snatched up his hat and strode past the constable with a haste just shy of indecent.
Mordan ducked under the ropes strung across the street. The constables guarding them gave him harassed nods; the traffic around Safton Circle was both snarled and snarling, as trapped wagoneers expressed their opinion of the route closure. Mordan regretted the necessity, but they dared not open the area until it had been cleansed of magic. Though wizards infected others primarily through sexual contact, objects might be contaminated by simple exposure.
Especially to something like, say, a wizard’s spattered lifeblood.
Mordan tightened his jaw and scanned Safton Circle. He spotted Commander Brant, a man whose figure bore unmistakeable resemblance to a wine barrel, flanked by two others in dark police coats. They stood beside one of the narrow brick buildings that ringed Safton Circle. Those had been old and fine houses, a century ago; now smoke from the nearby factories stained their walls, and they served as shabby but sturdy warehouses. The area must be deserted at night, Mordan judged, which rendered it convenient for any number of illegal activities.
He crossed the cobbles toward Brant, soot crunching underfoot. Also from the factories, Mordan was inclined to suspect. VanMere magic rarely involved fire or its side effects.
“Detective Inspector,” Brant said as soon as Mordan entered earshot. “Welcome. I had officers go about, but no witnesses made themselves known. All evidence of the crime seems confined to the immediate area.”
Brant saw no point to idle chatter, one of the qualities Mordan appreciated about the man.
“I thought you’d want to see this first,” Brant added, and extended a hand. Over his palm stretched a linen handkerchief, and atop it lay an ivory-handled pistol.
Mordan leaned closer, not touching it. Likely enough people had already handled it to destroy any useful residue, but he need not add to the mix. “This was found near the body?”
“Two strides away.” Brant’s voice slowed. “I recognized VanMere Cavenaugh’s sigil from the Lastninth Bridge case you and he worked, do you recall?”
“Quite.” Four years ago, Mordan noted; Brant’s memory matched his sharp eye. Mordan studied the sigil inked into the pistol’s hilt. The crossed knife and half-mask marked every VanMere enforcer, but only one ringed them with V.M.R.C. in flourishing copperplate style.
Mordan straightened. “And the corpse in question?”
Brant led him around the building’s corner. A streetlamp burned there, not yet extinguished, and beside it a man’s shape lay curled. The cobbles around him sparkled silver with broken glass.
Mordan caught himself trying to make out the wizard’s face. He scowled; appearance was guarantor of nothing, among VanMere, and he ought to focus on the task at hand.
He pulled out a notebook and recorded observations of the scene. The constables who’d discovered the body had scuffed trails through the glass, destroying any hint of its original pattern. They had, fortunately, failed to step into the pooled blood; Mordan disliked having to confiscate boots for burning. He might need to anyway, though, depending on the glass shards’ nature.
Mordan pulled on his boot covers, canvas sheathes dipped in seawater and dried, then picked his way forward. The broken glass neither whispered nor slithered after his feet: a good sign. He crouched beside the dead wizard.
The man lay sideways, his face turned to the grey sky. Half that face was blood and ruin; the other half showed sharp, bony features. Curls of blond hair strayed over his remaining temple. Mordan inhaled and drew a vial of salt from his pocket.
He sprinkled a pinch over the wizard’s face, watching for the shimmer of a disturbed illusion, a shift of mis-reflected light.
A second pinch of salt followed the first. The wizard’s cheeks did not broaden; his hair did not darken to gold-brown. The crossed leaf and half-mask on his coat lapels did not alter to knife and half-mask.
Mordan pressed his elbows to his knees, head bowed. It was not Cavenaugh, lying here dead in the drizzle.
He capped the vial of salt, his knuckles only a little white, and in his notebook carefully wrote unknown wizard of Clan VanMere. The metallic scent of blood and rain weighted the air.
Given that Cavenaugh was alive, or at least that his corpse was not presently decorating Mordan’s crime scene, the question grew more pressing: why was his pistol here?
“Please send a messenger for VanMere Cavenaugh, if you would,” Mordan said over his shoulder. Brant, watching from the corner, nodded and stepped away.
Mordan donned his gloves, cotton stiff with seawater, before touching the dead wizard. His predecessor had neglected such niceties, which resulted in a remarkable demise involving suffocation by shadow. Mordan turned the stiff corpse onto its back and began going through its pockets.
Those revealed nothing of interest, only the usual supplies a VanMere might carry–coins, twigs, scraps of silk. Mordan logged them in his notebook. The wizard’s hands were covered in small cuts, damage consistent with a mirror-based defensive spell. His pistol contained the full six rounds; no blood smeared its oak handle. He’d had no time to draw it after his spell’s destruction, or had been otherwise constrained from doing so. If he knew his killer, perhaps he’d expected a chance to plead for his life.
“There’s a bloody lot of traffic out there,” a deep voice said. “I ought to have known you were responsible, Mordan.”
Mordan packed up his tools and stood. “Cavenaugh.” The tall enforcer ambled toward him, flanked by a pair of Brant’s constables. “I apologize for summoning you from your bed, Richard.”
Cavenaugh slowed, brows drawing in. They never called one another by given name, which–Mordan tracked the comprehension in Cavenaugh’s face–made it a test of identity.
“Well,” the wizard said. “Among VanMere, as you say, appearance is guarantor of nothing. Good morning, Mordan.”
Mordan released a breath. An imposter might have replied with Mordan’s first name, Mordecai, or let the remark pass unchallenged; few but the true Cavenaugh would navigate the exchange correctly. Even Brant, head bent as he lit a cigarette, frowned at his matches in puzzlement.
“Welcome,” Mordan said. “Would you care to identify your comrade?”
Cavenaugh stepped to Mordan’s side, leather duster swinging, and studied the tableau of blood and glass.
“Cyril Gillivray,” he said. “Someone finally shot him, then. Can’t say I’ll weep over it.”
Behind the wizard Brant lifted his head, eyes narrowed, and exhaled a drift of smoke.
Mordan kept his expression neutral. “He was your enemy?”
Cavenaugh shrugged. “Mine and half the Clan’s. I’d not be surprised if he earned enemies in every other Clan, too. Cyril had a knack that way.”
“Do you know his business here last night?”
“No.” Cavenaugh frowned at the body. “His patron was Charles Gillivray. That one might have a notion.”
“And where were you last night?” Mordan asked.
Cavenaugh slid the frown sidelong to him. “On private Clan business.”
“Really,” Mordan said. “Would that Clan business explain why we found your pistol beside VanMere Cyril Gillivray’s body?”
Cavenaugh stared, an instant of blank stillness, before alarm jolted his expression. His hands dropped to the gunbelt slung around his hips. When both palms found ivory hilts, he blinked and scowled. “Beg pardon?”
Brant stepped forward, his prize displayed in one outstretched hand. Mordan darkly suspected the commander of latent theatrical tendencies. He restrained a glower, while Cavenaugh squinted at the pistol bearing his sigil.
“Look at the fang scars there,” the wizard said at last. “I know this gun. I lost it years ago.” His frown deepened; he glanced once at the dead man, and his eyes narrowed further. “I lost it up north, before you ask. A pack of us were hunting a rogue. I don’t know who got hold of the gun afterward.”
Mordan stared at him in silence. Cavenaugh tried to match the gaze, but after a moment tilted his face away. Mordan took icy satisfaction that it at least discomfited Cavenaugh to lie to him.
“You might have lost that gun,” he said, “but Cyril Gillivray will wake up and demand tea before I believe you suspect nothing about its path here.”
Cavenaugh pressed his lips thin. “I didn’t shoot Gillivray.”
“No,” Mordan said. “You simply identify the dead man as your enemy, acknowledge the gun as your own, and give your whereabouts last night as ‘on private Clan business.'”
Cavenaugh glared. “Private is private, Mordan. I didn’t shoot Gillivray.”
“And procedure is procedure,” Mordan snapped. With effort he moderated his tone. “I have no choice but to order you taken to the central station house. Commander Brant, please send to Clan VanZharsa for a pair of wizards to escort VanMere Cavenaugh.” Brant outranked him, Mordan remembered, and added, “If you would.”
Brant gave him a dry smile. “And the body?”
“The VanZharsa can also escort it.” VanDrake’s hall was closer, but that Clan needed no encouragement to involve itself in smaller Clans’ affairs. They were the most effective at decontamination, however, given their preference for fire. Mordan surveyed the darkening sky. He’d face a larger mess if rain washed so much wizard blood into the sewers. “Once the scene is cleared, request aid from VanDrake in cleansing it.”
Brant nodded. “You’re departing?”
Cavenaugh, sunk in angry silence, looked over at that. Mordan lifted his leather case of tools. “I go to Clan VanMere’s headquarters,” he said coolly. “Someone must give Charles Gillivray news of his subordinate’s death.”
The Clan hall, formally Glamourglass Court, lay in a neighborhood lined with ancient trees. Cavenaugh maintained that they were ordinary trees; Mordan distrusted any greenery so unnatural as to thrive in the city air.
“Detective Inspector Mordan to speak with VanMere Charles Gillivray,” he told the door guard, an enforcer with Cavenaugh’s height and pale eyes. She waved him into the entry hall. A boy of perhaps ten waited there, equally pale-eyed. Clan VanMere was notorious for drawing its apprentices only from a certain nest of bloodlines. As Mordan understood, the associated families gave their firstborn to be wizards the way others might send a second son to sea, or a third son to the Church. Other Clans mostly drew apprentices from among the street children, those desperate enough to risk magic’s infection and young enough to usually survive.
At the enforcer’s word, the apprentice darted off. He returned shortly and led Mordan to an office of polished wood and marble.
Mordan scanned the room before he crossed its threshold. A man in shirt and waistcoat stood behind the desk; a woman sat in the window alcove, her lap spread with strips of leather. Grey hair marked the man’s temples and lines marked his hands, a multitude of thin scars that matched Cyril Gillivray’s wounds. This VanMere had survived his fights, however.
Mordan stepped forward. “Charles Gillivray?”
“I am,” the man said, and nodded to his companion. “My wife, Sabine Fairfield.”
Mordan removed his hat politely. The woman smiled at him and returned to her tangle of leather–a horse’s bridle, Mordan realized, that she was knotting with rook’s feathers and iron nails. A spell to prevent a rider from going astray, he would guess, although there were less innocuous possibilities.
“Mr. Gillivray,” Mordan said. “You are Cyril Gillivray’s patron?”
Charles Gillivray inclined his head. “I am.”
“I am sorry to inform you that we found him dead this morning,” Mordan said.
Sabine barely glanced up, wisps of golden hair falling about her face. Charles frowned at the air. “Found Cyril dead?” he said eventually. “Found him killed, I presume you mean. He would hardly permit it otherwise.”
“The matter is under investigation,” Mordan said. “What might–”
“Is this why Richard Cavenaugh was called out earlier?” Gillivray said.
Mordan restrained a disapproving stare. Police ought to be the questioners, not the questioned. “VanMere Cavenaugh is assisting us, yes. Which of Cyril’s enemies would you consider most likely to kill him?”
Charles tapped the desk edge, then cast a contemplative look at his wife.
Sabine spat a ribbon into her palm. “It was none of my people.”
Charles shrugged, a cat’s irritated twitch of motion–there, at last, the anger of a Clan lord with a dead subordinate and thus a provocation to his power. He returned his gaze to Mordan. “In that case, Inspector, I advise you to ask Cavenaugh. He and Cyril had a shouting match halfway to knives the other day.”
“In the front hall,” Sabine said, frowning at a cheekpiece. “Eminently tasteless. Though if Richard Cavenaugh chose to commit murder, I’d expect a crime too clever to be identified as such.”
Mordan, caught between offense and agreement, occupied his hands pulling out a notebook. A fight between Cyril and Cavenaugh–an unwelcome fact, if true. Did Gillivray know about Cavenaugh’s gun at the scene? Perhaps he had ordered his own subordinate’s death and was using it to incriminate an enemy enforcer.
It was a comforting theory, which meant it was most likely false.
“What did they fight about?” Mordan said.
“Clan business.” Charles narrowed his eyes. “As is this entire matter, Inspector. We apologize for the inconvenience to which you’ve been put. The Clan will deal with this issue further.”
“Convenience is irrelevant to pursuit of the law,” Mordan said sharply. “Despite your opinion, Mr. Gillivray, wizard Clans are in fact subject to the legal code. This matter will be fully investigated and the appropriate actions taken.”
“You may certainly attempt to do so.” Charles Gillivray consulted a pocket watch on a plain silver chain. “I wish you good day, Inspector.”
There were many responses Mordan might have made, and several he was tempted to. Instead he bid the pair a polite farewell–Sabine looked up from her spellwork long enough to nod in return–and made his way out to the central staircase.
Another wizard leaned against the banister. Mordan slowed warily. The man watched the coin he was flipping, a piece that flashed gold. He caught it in his palm, displayed a bronze penny, and slid it into his coat.
“So,” he said. “I hear Cyril Gillivray is dead.”
“Thomas Cavenaugh.” Mordan halted, appreciative: the Cavenaugh faction head had recalled the signal to prove his identity. “You are informed correctly. I was about to send for you.”
The wizard slanted a glance at Mordan, any expression hidden by a face as weather-creased as a sailor’s. “Oh?”
“What did Richard Cavenaugh and Cyril Gillivray argue about the other day?”
“Clan business,” Thomas said.
There had been a fight, then. “What was the nature of that business?”
Thomas sighed and folded his arms. “The Gillivrays are involved in the sort of enterprises that earn our Clan an unsavory name, Inspector. If you want further detail than that”–malice touched his voice–“isn’t your own Cavenaugh answering?”
The VanMere facility with appearance lent itself to illegal yet lucrative activities, for those so inclined: smuggling, sabotage, untraceable assassination. Mordan considered it in grim silence. Richard Cavenaugh felt strongly enough about magical wrongdoing to consistently aid officers of the law, despite his allies’ disapproval and every wizard Clan’s opinion on siding with outsiders. Now a man deeply involved in such crimes was dead after a personal clash with him.
“A last item.” Mordan kept his voice neutral. “Where was Richard last night?”
Thomas Cavenaugh, old VanMere, paused hardly a moment before giving Mordan a pleasant smile. “A fair question. I’ll ask around, Inspector.”
The rawest constable could translate that: Cavenaugh’s own kin didn’t know if he’d shot Cyril Gillivray, but by sunset there’d be five wizards willing to swear to his innocent whereabouts.
Mordan made a rather chilly farewell and went back to the station house.
Cavenaugh’s guard was a lean woman as dark as the VanMere were fair. The two-headed firebird of VanZharsa emblazoned her black coat, its scarlet vivid against the cell block’s grey stone.
“Your partner?” Mordan asked.
“Helping examine the corpse,” she said dispassionately, and unbolted the cell door.
Cavenaugh sat at a scarred wooden table, arms folded. They’d confiscated his coat and weapons, but had not inflicted the indignity of manacles. Mordan crossed to the chair facing him and sat.
“Where were you last night?”
Cavenaugh gazed past him. “On Clan business.”
Another lie, Mordan now knew. He drew out his notebook and laid it on the table, and aligned their edges with stricter care than necessary. “I spoke with Thomas.” His voice came out almost even. “Clan business of which your own faction-head is unaware, Cavenaugh?”
The enforcer glanced at him and away, a flick of guilty apology. “My whereabouts have nothing to do with your murder investigation, Mordan. I swear it.”
Cavenaugh had already lied to him at least twice, Mordan did not point out. “According to others, you recently had a notable fight with Cyril Gillivray.”
Cavenaugh scowled. “That. Yes. I’d almost gathered sufficient testimony to have him up on charges before the Clan. Then I lost my witnesses.”
“Lost?” Mordan said, lifting his head sharply.
“Cyril did nothing physically or magically to them.” Cavenaugh narrowed his eyes. “But all mysteriously decided they had been mistaken about crucial events.”
Mordan grimaced in commiseration, before he remembered he was still angry with Cavenaugh. “That instigated the fight?”
“The fight, yes. But I didn’t shoot the man.” Cavenaugh glowered at the air, or perhaps the memory of Gillivray. “A lot of people would’ve liked to. Cyril was ambitious enough even Charles Gillivray might have seen the advantage.”
“An easy explanation,” Mordan agreed. One that did nothing to account for Cavenaugh’s reticence about his whereabouts. He tapped his pencil on the page, staccato irritation. “You suspect something about your gun’s path there. Who had it?”
“I don’t know,” Cavenaugh said, and at Mordan’s glare shook his head. “I don’t. There were six of us up north, when I lost it, and most answered to different kin-heads. My pistol could have made its way to any of them.” He folded his arms tighter. “I can’t tell if this incident was specific or general–if it was intended toward me, or if my gun and the argument with Cyril merely provided a convenient means to stir trouble between the Cavenaughs and Gillivrays.”
“Hm.” Mordan scrutinized his partner. “Who would gain from that?”
Cavenaugh frowned. “Charles Gillivray, possibly. In the Clan’s eyes he’d have the right to retaliate.”
And likely not by a legal method. Mordan sniffed and noted the reply, then listed the other VanMere Clan heads. “What about Thomas Cavenaugh?”
“Picking a fight against himself?” Cavenaugh squinted. “If he wanted to provoke a war with Charles Gillivray, I can think of more useful attacks.”
Mordan consulted his list. “Charles Gillivray, Thomas Cavenaugh. What of Sabine Fairfield? Would she gain from conflict?”
Cavenaugh’s brows twitched. “Maybe so,” he said, after a moment. He shrugged and uncrossed his arms. “Maybe so.”
Mordan, mouth already open to ask about Robert Kelling, another VanMere power, halted his question. That easing of Cavenaugh’s posture, the defensive stance unfolded, seemed more relief than should greet merely a new line of inquiry.
“Sabine,” Mordan said again, more slowly.
The skin around Cavenaugh’s eyes tightened. He’d wanted her passed over, included among the guilty–and why should he be glad she was suspected, unless it prevented suspicion of something else. Mordan considered Sabine Fairfield’s bright gaze and elegant hands, and reasons Cavenaugh might hide his whereabouts of a night.
“Really, Cavenaugh,” he said. “Another man’s wife?”
Cavenaugh set his jaw. Mordan sighed. He enforced temporal law, not spiritual, but there were standards of decency.
He tapped his notebook. “You may as well speak. I’ll have the facts out eventually.”
Cavenaugh glared at Mordan, the wall, the profile of the VanZharsa wizard. Voices filtered from the cell block down the hall. “I confess,” he said.
Mordan stared. “I beg your pardon?”
Cavenaugh folded his arms. “Cyril and I argued over private Clan matters. We decided to settle it with an unregistered duel. I won.”
Mordan continued to stare, disbelief pinning his voice. Cavenaugh not only lied to Mordan, he now sought to mislead justice itself? A false confession was an affront to all, a betrayal of truth that worked to divert the law’s rightful course. It protected the guilty; it punished the innocent. It contravened every principle under which he and Cavenaugh served.
“Write it down, Mordan.” Cavenaugh stared past him, jaw tense. “Please.”
“I will not participate in your willful perversion of this inquiry.” Mordan gripped his pencil. “What possible reason–”
Cavenaugh canted forward, chair scraping, fast enough to draw a warning hiss from the VanZharsa. He pressed his palms flat to the table. “Mordan, the Clan cannot learn that Sabine and a Cavenaugh enforcer were consorting.”
Over petty deceits, he betrayed the law. “Why?” Mordan said bitterly. “You fear for Sabine’s reputation?”
Cavenaugh glared at the wall. “The Cavenaughs and the Fairfields are blood enemies, Mordan. As soon as they discover this, our kin will start killing each other over the dishonor.”
“How splendidly barbaric.”
Cavenaugh shrugged, a tight jerk of his shoulders. “The feud’s a century old. Someone broke a deal, someone else got shot, and the retaliation involved an associated-family’s massacre. VanMere don’t forgive that. There’s been plenty of blood since.”
Mordan gave him a withering look. Under such circumstances, his and Sabine’s decision constituted a remarkable piece of folly. Mordan could not bring himself to comment on Cavenaugh’s choices, much less his moral integrity, and so only said, “This has nothing to do with Cyril Gillivray. Once I establish the gun was out of your possession–”
“How, Mordan?” Cavenaugh clenched his fists on the table. “You may seek evidence, but any discussion of the scene elicits the very question I dare not answer.” He looked away, voice low. “I cannot risk my cousins over this.”
“And so you ask me to abandon the truth,” Mordan said, “and accept a confession I know for false?”
“Yes,” Cavenaugh said.
Mordan stared at him, words strangling in his throat. “A man is dead,” he managed at last. “His murder deserves an honest and impartial inquiry, the same as any other. The law requires no less.”
Cavenaugh shook his head, shoulders an unhappy hunch, but kept his silence.
“The law is the law.” Mordan rose, his spine so stiff it ached. “My investigation proceeds as it must.”
Cavenaugh watched the wall. Mordan gathered his notebook and dignity, straightened his coat, and crossed to the cell door. The VanZharsa extended her hand.
Mordan offered his own. She pricked his fingertip with a silver needle, her face professionally distant, and tapped the drop of blood into her palm. The blood ignited, a candle’s brief flame. Whatever secrets of identity it revealed to the wizard remained obscure to Mordan, but she nodded and stepped aside.
Mordan tipped his hat and went to see what knowledge her partner had gleaned from the corpse.
“Not much, I’m afraid.” The other VanZharsa rubbed his chin and frowned at Cyril Gillivray’s body. It lay seemingly untouched on the stone slab, though the cellar reeked of cinnamon and burnt feathers. “I can tell you someone intended that outcome, though. There was salt all over the man.”
Mordan tensed. “I sprinkled a little on his face, to ascertain his identity.” Had he destroyed his own evidence?
The VanZharsa tapped callused fingers on the slab. “Unless you flung a double handful over the corpse, the damage was already present. Rain touched it all as well. I could hardly tell the dead man cast the mirror-spell, much less who broke it.”
Mordan scowled at the ivory-handled pistol beside Gillivray’s body. “What of the gun?”
The VanZharsa grimaced. “Too much rainwater and handling destroyed any hint of its wielder. It was indisputably used to kill this wizard, though. There was a strong taste-correspondence between it and the bullet I called from his skull.”
Against the far wall, the coroner’s deputy shifted and looked slightly pale around the lips. Mordan cast a grim look at Cavenaugh’s gun. So ended the hope that it had simply been planted at the scene, not used in the crime.
“I thank you for your assistance,” Mordan told the VanZharsa. “Please write up your tests and findings in a thorough report, then dispatch the corpse to Clan VanDrake for burning.” He turned toward the stairwell. “And I expect a receipt for its arrival there,” he added.
The wizard gave a faint, regretful sigh. Trafficking and use of wizard body parts was strictly illegal, but no VanZharsa would voluntarily let such a trove pass from his hands.
Mordan returned to the upper hall, pondering his options in frustration. Perhaps he could determine the wizards present on that long-ago mission, and thereby trace their patrons–
A man with a soldier’s bearing stepped from the side passage. Mordan glimpsed silver shoulder insignia, an instant of warning, and smoothed his expression.
“Detective Inspector,” said Lord Pryor, high commander of the watch and Mordan’s immediate superior. “Just the man I hoped to find. I am informed that you have a dead wizard in the cellar, and not one but three live wizards wandering my station house.”
“Sir,” Mordan said. “Technically one of those wizards is confined.”
“Any damages are coming out of your department budget, Inspector.”
“Of course, sir.”
Pryor tamped down the tobacco in his pipe, then gave Mordan a flat stare. “I want this resolved as soon as possible.”
“Sir.” Mordan swallowed and stared back. Pryor would take acute interest in Cavenaugh’s confession, should he learn of it. “My inquiries are proceeding, sir.”
Pryor’s clerk approached and murmured in his ear. The commander grunted. “A correction, Inspector. It seems there are now four live wizards in my station house.”
Mordan tensed. “Sir?”
“One is visiting your prisoner, it seems. Gave the name of Thomas Cavenaugh.” Pryor stepped aside. “Do carry on, Inspector.”
Mordan hastened down to Cavenaugh’s cell. The two VanMere stood within it, facing each other stiff as angry cats, while the VanZharsa looked on. Mordan slowed, his pulse still fast.
“–a fool, Richard,” Thomas Cavenaugh said, before he spotted Mordan and fell silent. He turned a last glare on his kinsman and stalked out, halting just long enough to let the VanZharsa burn a drop of blood.
The VanZharsa watched him go, then waved Mordan into the cell. Richard Cavenaugh leaned against its stone wall and folded his arms.
Mordan resisted the urge to fold his own. “Thomas doesn’t approve of your plan to enjoy Westmoor Prison?”
Cavenaugh’s jaw worked. “Seven years isn’t so long.”
“That is irrelevant,” Mordan said sharply. “It does not matter whether you are sentenced for illegal dueling or executed for murder. You did not commit the killing in question, and so punishment is unjust.”
Cavenaugh blinked, his scowl losing definition. He eyed Mordan sidelong. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m executed?”
“If you committed murder, I would escort you to the gallows myself,” Mordan snapped. “And if I committed murder, I hope you would do the same.”
Cavenaugh smiled. “Fair enough.” The smile faded, and he bent his head. After a long breath he said, “Thomas and the others would provide an alibi. So long as I told them my true whereabouts last night.”
And thus caused the very outcome he feared. Mordan considered him, tight-lipped. Cavenaugh was stubborn as a bulldog, he well knew. Even if Mordan turned up evidence indicating the actual killer, Cavenaugh would maintain his confession to safeguard his kin. What jury could be asked to disregard a man who claimed guilt and convict one who claimed innocence? Mordan needed to debunk Cavenaugh’s story entirely.
There was, he realized, a wizard quite capable of doing so.
Mordan crossed to the cell door, not looking at Cavenaugh. “If you will not remove yourself, there remains one person who may.” The VanZharsa pricked his finger and performed her test.
“Mordan?” Cavenaugh said warily.
Mordan stepped past the VanZharsa, then forced himself to look back. “Perhaps Sabine Fairfield will care to render assistance.”
Cavenaugh shoved away from the wall, eyes wide. “Mordan, don’t!” The cell door slammed shut, a harsh clang as Mordan turned away, and Cavenaugh’s voice mingled with the echoes. “Mordan. Mordan!”
Mordan set his jaw and strode onward.
The halls of Glamourglass Court remained tranquil, even at midday. An apprentice fetched Mordan upstairs to a door painted pale green.
VanMere Sabine Fairfield answered it at the first knock. Or at least, Mordan corrected, someone wearing her face and blue walking dress did. “Good day, Inspector. May I ask your purpose?”
He removed his hat. “Merely some further questions on the death of Cyril Gillivray, Mistress Fairfield.”
She tilted her head, unsmiling. “I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time. As you heard this morning, I know nothing about the matter.”
Mordan held her gaze. “I find that unlikely, given your associates.”
Only the true Sabine would know he referred to Cavenaugh, not the Gillivrays. She regarded him a long moment, then opened the door wide.
Mordan concealed relief. The first hedge cleared: he’d had no promise she would not claim Clan business and leave Cavenaugh to his own fate.
He stepped past Sabine into her office, or perhaps workroom, given the assortment of objects on shelves. She latched the door and gestured him to the room’s center.
Mordan obeyed, matching her silence. She lifted an item from her desk–a scarlet object that appeared variously a knife, a stone, and a cord–and circled the chamber once. Upon completing the circuit, she turned the mirror above her desk so its glass faced the wall.
Sabine tucked the red item, now a feather, into her chignon. “Speak freely, Inspector.”
Mordan folded his hands behind his back, throat dry. He might speak freely, but if he spoke wrongly he would never gain her cooperation. “An old gun of Richard Cavenaugh’s was used to kill Cyril Gillivray,” he said. “Under questioning, Cavenaugh confessed to an unlawful duel rather than reveal he spent the time with you.”
Sabine’s face remained still. “I see.”
“I do not know what attachment lies between you and Cavenaugh,” Mordan said carefully, “but–”
Sabine turned such a venomous stare on him that he froze, afraid she would order him out. “What is your request, Inspector?”
“I have no evidence to disprove Cavenaugh’s claim.” Mordan realized he was clutching his hat brim, and forced his fingers to loosen before he crushed it. “Another wizard murdered Gillivray, Mistress Fairfield, but as it stands Cavenaugh will absorb the guilt. Illegal dueling earns seven years in prison.”
Sabine studied him, her lips thin. Considering seven years, Mordan hoped, spent far away and cold.
“That is not a request,” she said.
“I ask you to offer your own statement,” Mordan said. “You know Cavenaugh did not kill Cyril Gillivray. Who did?”
She puffed air through her nostrils, a faint scornful snort. “My wager would be Robert Kelling. He’s ambitious, and he would gain from tension between the Gillivrays and Cavenaughs.” Her gaze sharpened. “But I have no evidence, Inspector. My statement could not help trap the guilty.”
“No,” Mordan said, and swallowed. “But it could free an innocent man.” He gripped his hat tighter. “Cavenaugh told me of the blood feud. I understand what you risk, Mistress Fairfield, and I do not discount it.” Cousins that were close as siblings, parents, children: the nearest family a wizard ever had. Their actions were their own, but Cavenaugh would never forgive him the bloodshed. “I still ask you to speak the truth.”
Sabine turned her face aside. She did not dismiss him, however, and long moments slid past. Serpent hope stirred in Mordan’s chest. Sabine cast him a sidelong glance, once, twice, before she lifted her chin in sudden decision.
“This choice is not mine only.” She turned a clear-eyed stare on Mordan. “Richard has spoken of you, Inspector. Tell me: what does he wish?”
Mordan went still. Cavenaugh wished none of this; Mordan remembered the shouts after him, the desperate cry. That mattered nothing to justice. He ought to tell Sabine that Cavenaugh wished freedom, that he required only Sabine’s permission and aid. It was not illegal for police to lie to civilians.
Sabine would speak, if Mordan pressed her. He ought to do so, in pursuit of the law; he ought to leave Glamourglass Court with her statement written and signed and irrevocable. It would serve justice. It would destroy Cavenaugh’s wrongful sacrifice.
Sabine watched him, her gaze steady with expectation of truth. Richard has spoken of you, she had said. She expected truth only due to Cavenaugh’s reflected faith in Mordan.
He ought to lie to her.
“Cavenaugh stands by his confession,” Mordan said, and looked away.
Sabine drew a swift breath. She sat on her desk edge, a rustle of skirts, and stared downward. Seven years, her tight-clasped hands said; when she lifted her head she wore a smile that was almost steady. “Thank you, Inspector. Unfortunately I am afraid I can be of no help to you.”
“I had thought not.” Mordan’s voice scraped at the edges; he coughed it clear and donned his hat. “Good day, Mistress Fairfield.”
Cavenaugh sat alone in his cell, head leaned against hands. He straightened warily as Mordan approached.
Mordan halted across the table. He met Cavenaugh’s waiting gaze, but could summon neither glare nor smile. “Sabine will not gainsay you.”
Cavenaugh shut his eyes an instant, then slid over a pen and sheet of parchment. “It’s all written. You need only sign and the case will be sent to the court.”
Mordan stared bitterly at the confession, at the tidy lies in beautiful copperplate hand. So simple, to certify their truth and finish sundering every oath he held. He took up the pen.
“Thank you,” Cavenaugh said softly.
Mordan signed the sheet and went to file it with the magistrate.
The next morning, when Mordan was certain Cavenaugh had been safely ensconced on a train to the moors, he went to Pryor’s office.
“Sir.” He laid his badge on the desk. “I must offer my resignation.”
Pryor gave the badge a quizzical look, as if it might wish to explain; when the object remained mute he turned his gaze on Mordan. “Inspector?”
“I wrote a full report, sir.” He offered the sheaf of paper. Pryor took it, but continued watching expectantly. Mordan cleared his throat, cheeks cold with shame, and launched into a complete account of the Gillivray investigation.
“In conclusion, sir, I have broken the oaths I swore to uphold the law. I have engaged in unethical and illegal conduct, betrayed my duty to seek justice, and disgraced the profession in which I serve.” Mordan inhaled. “I must step down from my post.”
Pryor leaned back, surrounded by pipe smoke, and studied Mordan through the haze.
“No,” he said.
Mordan stared. “What?”
“I refuse to accept your resignation,” Pryor said. “You’re the only wizard hunter we have, Mordan. I don’t care to draft an unwilling replacement.”
Mordan drew himself up. “I actively connived against law and order,” he said stiffly. “In point of fact, I should be arrested for assistance to perjury and intentionally certifying false documents.”
Pryor inspected his pipe bowl. “A wizard killed someone, and a wizard went to prison for it. It’s close enough to even, isn’t it?”
“It is not.” Mordan choked on outrage that anyone, much less a senior officer, could make such a statement. “The rule of law requires its honest application to every citizen, regardless of station or status. To act otherwise is a mockery of the very concept we serve, and”–in for a penny, in for a pound; he glared coldly at Pryor–“I find it both shameful and dishonorable that you would suggest so.”
“And that is why you’re keeping your job, Inspector.” Pryor lifted the report. “I will place this in your file, along with a reprimand so severe it will blister the eyes of anyone reading it. Now.” He leaned his elbows on the desk. “This Robert Kelling. You believe he had your victim murdered?”
Mordan blinked. “I have no case beyond hearsay and logic. Sir, my resignation–”
“Is irrelevant,” Pryor said. “With that reprimand you’ll never rise above your current rank, which is precisely where you do the most good. Consider it your sentence.” He puffed on his pipe. “If Robert Kelling is having fellow wizards shot in the street, he’s up to other things. I want a thorough report on his associates and activities, criminal and otherwise, and I want it as soon as possible.”
Mordan looked at his badge, feeling adrift. He had failed his duty; the cleanest answer was to surrender it. “Sir–”
“Investigating is your job, Mordan.” Pryor took another puff. “Get out of my office and go do it.”
Mordan looked again at the badge, sturdy polished brass. He had failed his duty once; would he also abandon it?
“Sir,” said Detective Inspector Mordan, and tucked his badge safely into his coat before he went.
By Rebecca Schwarz
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean the Gyre turns in a great lazy whorl. The current carries with it the trinkets of civilization: bottle tops, cigarette lighters, barnacled gym shoes, and Ziploc bags clear as jellyfish. Lost fishing buoys trail tangled nets, which in turn haul their unintended catch of dead fish, shredded Mylar balloons and schools of water bottles.
She spent her days collecting the most unusual items as they drifted past. Her hair, dark as kelp, brushed against her powerful cetacean tail as she moved through the water. She carried the things she found in a little flock of plastic bags. Plastic was all around her in various states of degradation. Their original shapes transformed under the agitation of the waves into a confetti that caressed her with its tendrils as she passed, decorating her hair, sliding past her shoulders and breasts, her hips and tail.
She hung the bags off her elbows and moved through the crystalline sunlight. Adrift, they looked ephemeral but inflated with seawater they felt heavy, solid. Her favorites were the ones with the big red letters. The words on the bags said:
Earlier that day she found a plastic doll, naked and missing an arm. She’d seen dolls and parts of dolls before, but this one was different – a miniature man. He rode in the bottom of a bag along with a pink, plastic flip-flop and a round container top decorated with the face of a pig-tailed girl.
She stopped, fished the tiny man out of the bag and looked into his still perfect face. Biceps stood out on his remaining arm. Bifurcated legs grew from his hips like the arms of a starfish, except bulgy and muscled like the rest of him. His limbs were jointed like a crustacean. She tried to put his legs through what she imagined was a walking motion and giggled. They must look ridiculous, these creatures, stomping around on land.
She hadn’t noticed the boat above, as a pod of whales had recently passed overhead, but its shadow lingered. Rising she saw a long pole with a small net at the end reach into the water and scoop up a glinting potato chip bag. The pole receded into the sunlight and disappeared beyond the edge of the boat.
She drifted closer. The pole returned, trolling through the water for another item. She searched her bags and pulled out a toothbrush with bristles so curled it looked as if it were facing into a strong current. She pushed it toward the seeking net, which scooped it up. As the pole retreated, the silhouette of a head and broad shoulders leaned out and over the boat’s edge. A second head appeared, and together they examined her gift.
She lurked in the shadow of the hull and watched them collect more items from the Gyre. She could just hear their voices, wavering and garbled, punctuated by staccato laughter.
Day faded to evening, but the ship did not leave. Only after the first small points of starlight appeared did she break the surface to get a better look. Lights twinkled along the mast. The bags drifted around the crooks of her elbows. She held the man-doll in her hand, not wanting to lose him. The ship’s engine gargled quietly as it had throughout the afternoon. The slick taste of diesel lingered in her mouth.
Three people moved about the deck talking and laughing. The man with the broad shoulders poured a dark liquid from a bottle into plastic cups the others held. She swam closer, keeping her head low in the water. He picked up a curved container made of fine wood and began moving his hands across the strings stretched along its length. She drifted along with them, enthralled. The sounds were both complicated and soothing. The notes progressed forward, then circled back to as if to find something that had been left behind.
When she was a child, living among the vast estates of junk the merfolk collected in the bioluminescent twilight of the deep, an old aunt would put her to bed in a broken Plexiglas yacht that rocked on the sea floor. She told stories of the people who walked on the land: how their lives were comically short but, in exchange, they possessed a soul hidden away inside them. Instead of turning to sea foam when they died, their souls would live on forever.
She asked her aunt how she knew this, and her aunt replied that long ago one of them had fallen into the sea and that her sister, the girl’s very own mother, had eaten it.
“The human?” she asked, incredulous.
“No,” her aunt laughed. “Just his soul. The rest of him she left for the fishes.”
At the time she believed this explained her mother’s absence, which none of her relatives would discuss. She remembered being immediately jealous; thinking her mother now possessed an eternal soul. But the old woman explained that, no, she didn’t have it — because she had eaten it.
She wanted to know where these souls went when they were through with the bodies they’d inhabited, but her aunt was impatient by then and claimed neither to know nor care, and that, in any case, she’d heard that men’s souls weren’t very filling.
Before leaving her alone in the sunken boat, her aunt softened and told her that, according to legend: a wish you make after eating a person’s soul will come true for as long as the soul survives within you. She lay awake for hours that night, thinking of all the wishes her mother might have made.
The people battened down the boat, tittering and unsteady on their feet. She watched their silhouettes, trying to imagine the souls confined within them like the fish swimming obliviously inside a net before it’s hauled up. When the people disappeared below deck, she sank beneath the surface and slept, drifting and dreamless, trailing her bags of treasures, which she’d tied around one wrist.
The next morning the ship was out of sight. She swam in concentric circles hunting for it. Clouds covered the sun, and it took some time to pick out the outline of the boat against the gray sky. She started for it, but stopped when she saw him below her. He’d attached large fins to his feet and a tank to his back. Wobbly bubbles trailed up behind him. Curly, golden hair floated freely around his facemask. She watched his legs kicking languidly, separately. He too collected the objects that floated all around them, choosing a plastic bottle and a shredded vinyl purse. Her aunt had told her that people only took living things from the ocean.
She descended and crossed his line of sight. He stopped what he was doing and stared at her with an intensity that made her skin flush. She continued sinking into the dim cool below. She knew that her kind could attract people. Had her mother attracted her sailor so? Her heart pounded as he turned and followed with a kick. Then he pulled something from his belt and trained a powerful light on her. She threw her arms up too late; the beam left a purple smear across her vision. Frightened, she turned away, powering her dive with strong strokes of her tail. The light made a halo around her as she swam through the dark, wavering tunnel of her shadow.
The light faded and she turned, hoping he hadn’t broken off the chase despite her fear. He floated above, the light now pointed away from her face. She swam closer. Without taking her eyes off him, she reached into her bag and found the little man holding it up for him to see. He moved the light to it and with a kick of one foot drifted closer. His eyes, through the mask, moved from the doll to her face.
He pointed to it then to his own chest. She nodded, as the current drew them together. He reached out and let some of her long hair flow through his fingers. When he exhaled, bubbles danced between them. They drifted along together for some time. He handed her the light and kicked his legs out in front of him so that she could inspect them. She reached out and touched the end of one of the flippers. He bent his knee and took it off, revealing a pale foot decorated with five little appendages, like fingers only stubbier. She laughed with delight. Replacing the flipper, he smiled releasing more bubbles.
Tentatively, he ran his hand past her hip, feeling the thick muscle of her tail. His eyes filled with disbelief and delight. She reached up and traced the line of his jaw with her fingers. She held his gaze until he took the thing he used to breath out of his mouth and kissed her. His mouth was warm and tasted of rubber and salt. She dropped the light then and pulled him to her. She thought of the soul hidden inside and thrust her tongue deep into his mouth. He responded, caressing her neck and breasts before wrapping his strong arms around her waist. When he broke away his eyes were unfocused, but he didn’t take them off her.
Below them she could just see the light’s beam slowly careening away, but he didn’t seem concerned with that. Putting his breathing device back in his mouth, he pointed at a gauge on his wrist, then toward the surface. He held out his hand. She took it and they started up. It was a fair distance, and they moved quickly.
She watched him as they swam up into the light and thought of her mother and the sailor, gone so long now she was hardly more than a fairy tale herself.
This man was so strong and fine. She couldn’t imagine he could possess something so delicate it would not survive inside her. She decided that she didn’t want a wish; especially a wish that wouldn’t last any longer than it took to digest a meal.
He stopped swimming. His hand clenched hers painfully then he began thrashing. She grabbed the straps that held his tank and hauled him up, kicking with all her strength. They ascended, slowly at first then gained speed, racing to the surface.
They breached in a spray of foam. White-capped waves collided with each other, and rain pelted them. He spit the thing out of his mouth with a wheezing gasp. She pulled his mask off and dropped it into the sea. After some fumbling, she unhooked his tank and let it fall away too. Now she could pull him easily, his head resting against her shoulder.
With each swell they rode, she scanned the sea for his ship. At last she spotted it bobbing in the waves. She pulled him along while he labored to breathe, his eyes bloodshot and unfocused. He tried to kick but could no longer control his legs; instead they bounced stiffly against her tail in a motion not unlike that of the articulated doll.
By the time they reached the boat he was groaning softly. The other two were on deck scanning the water. When one pointed at them, she ducked under and pushed him closer, falling away as his friends hauled him aboard.
They told him he’d been in the hyperbaric chamber for three weeks, but it felt like he’d been on this narrow bed his entire life. Every time he looked through the double-paned window he was surprised to see a generic hospital room on the other side. The only difference between the room he was in and the one he looked out on, was the pressure and the concentration of oxygen. The other room had a chair, usually empty, his, a gurney.
He slept as much as possible to dodge the suffocating claustrophobia that pursued him when awake. It wasn’t the confinement of the chamber; it was that he still couldn’t feel anything below his waist. Propped up on an elbow, he looked down at the soft sheet, and the topography of his legs under it. With every day that went by, the sight of the still firm muscles of his legs felt more and more like an empty promise. The doctors couldn’t say, in such a severe case of the bends, when, or if, his legs would come back.
Because they never turned the fluorescent lights off in the room on the other side of the chamber, the time he spent awake and the time he spent dreaming fused together. His dreams of the Pacific Garbage Patch were always the same. A blueprint for how things should have gone. He collected samples and took pictures for Planet Neptune’s Clean-Up Campaign. He never dove too deep, never rose too fast. But also, he never discovered her.
The campaign was just a tax shelter for the amusement park. When the narwhals he’d captured died and the animal rights people got involved, the park’s management exiled him to the swirling garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific. Just until things cooled down they promised.
He’d spent two months in the North Sea hunting the small whales. They were going to be a real moneymaker for the park. No aquarium had ever kept a narwhal alive in captivity and Planet Neptune spared no expense building a large, beautiful tank. Still, the mammals stubbornly refused to survive. After languishing only a few weeks, they died within twenty-four hours of each other. He’d begged management to let him hunt down another pair, but they sent him to the Gyre instead.
In other dreams she would join him in the chamber, long green hair flowing over full breasts. Her narrow waist widening into the sinuous tail, its flukes trailing off into a gossamer membrane. He would float free of the bed and swim around the small room with her through twisted fishing nets, mateless shoes, and drifting medical equipment. Barnacles attached themselves to the walls. Millions of plastic nurdles filled the seawater like a bloom of plankton, the little, round beads tickling his ears and drifting into his nose. He pursued her until he caught her up in his arms, then held her and kissed her, his tail twined around hers.
She was more real to him than the nurses and specialists who appeared randomly to draw blood or check his vitals, who told him they were scraping something sharp across his feet, or that they were wiggling his toes.
They could do nothing for him, but that didn’t mean he was useless. He would find her and put her in the gorgeous narwhal tank at Planet Neptune. The park had many ways to acquire specimens, but when they wanted something from the sea, he had always been their man. He couldn’t imagine a more sensational exhibit. With her in the park, no one would doubt his ability.
The next doctor who arrived to check on him found him sitting up with his legs dangling over the side of the bed. He told her he was ready to begin rehab.
She cleared him to leave the chamber, fitted him with a streamlined wheelchair, and moved him to a room with a window that looked out on a pristine lawn punctuated by an ellipsis of three scrawny ginkgo trees. He spent his days strapped into various weight machines working on his arms and core. In the evenings he swam laps in the hospital’s clear pool that stank of chlorine, grabbing great handfuls of water, pulling himself forward, towing his legs behind him.
Back at work, he pulled on his old wetsuit and proved that he didn’t need the use of his legs to scrub algae off the tanks. He took the swing shift, rolling in at sunset, maneuvering around the last sunburned, cranky families as they left Planet Neptune. He crushed popcorn containers and plastic cotton candy bags under his wheels. Grackles quarreled over french fries strewn across the paved paths. Every trashcan vomited crumpled food bags, sticky cups, straws, and diapers. A child’s swim goggles hung from one can. Swarms of bees hovered, feasting on hidden pools of warm soda.
In his spare time, he quietly prepared the abandoned narwhal tank. When it had become clear the whales were dying, management cordoned off the path to the exhibit. Now, the only evidence that they ever existed were their spiral tusks displayed in the gift shop over a basket of narwhal plush toys.
The tank was beautiful, with a coral reef painted on the back wall and a faux-rock outcropping rising out of the water in the middle. From there the mermaid would be able to look across the park, down past the suburban rooftops, all the way to the shimmering Pacific.
While he worked on the tank he imagined hunting for her among all the things people threw away. He would take her from the sea, lifting her into the boat in the narrow canvas sling. On the trip home, he would smear lanolin on her tail and spray her with seawater.
Management knew of his extracurricular activities, but for now his chair bought him a lot of leeway. He intended to use every bit of it. One evening, just as he was pulling himself out of the water his friends appeared, climbing through the small door that opened onto the molded plastic beach of the exhibit.
They had spoken a couple times since the accident, but never about what had happened to him out in the heart of the Garbage Patch. He scooted himself up to his chair, pulled himself into it and told them both everything. He could see they thought he was crazy, but it didn’t matter as long as they agreed to his plan. He’d said, “humor me,” and let them believe that it would help him accept his new condition. He assured them he just wanted to go back for a look, so that he could put it all away.
They took Planet Neptune’s other boat, the one with the sling for transporting marine mammals, and set off for the Gyre. The trip went just as he imagined. He didn’t dive alone this time. His friends had promised him three days, but the mermaid turned up on the second, a dozen grocery bags hooked on each slender arm.
She swam right to him and pulled out the same one-armed G.I. Joe doll she’d shown him when they first met. He moved to her slowly, carefully concealing the hypo until he was close enough to inject the tranquilizer somewhere around what would have been a thigh. She jerked back, her eyes wide with surprise for just an instant before she began to drift. He caught her in his arms, and they hauled her to the surface.
As they got underway, he busied himself making her comfortable, keeping her tail moist and picking bits of plastic and nylon fibers out of her long, wet hair. The others buzzed around behind him, taking pictures and oohing and ahhing in disbelief. When her bags fell away in the water, he managed to grab the doll. Thinking it might comfort the creature; he laid it in the sling next to her.
They docked in the middle of the night, covered her with blankets, and paid off a couple longshoremen to help haul the sling to their pickup, then paid them a little more not to ask any questions. He sat in the truck bed between her and his folded chair turned the blanket down and tucked it under her chin as they drove up the hill to the aquarium.
The man’s head hovered over her, silhouetted against the night sky. He combed his fingers through her hair and spoke to her soothingly in his language. An engine roared in her ear. Her body, dry and sluggish, was wrapped in something scratchy. Whenever they rolled over a bump the ridged floor jolted against her back.
When they finally came to a stop, most of the stars had faded into pale morning light. The man pulled the blanket off her and scooted away. Someone she couldn’t see pulled her by the tail, out of the truck bed and through a small doorway.
She twisted, clutching at the smooth slope to slow her decent. The little doll skittered down after her. Two people disappeared through the doorway, closing the door behind them; then the relief of the water rushed over her. The doll floated overhead. She grabbed it and looked around the small enclosure.
The crude image of a coral reef decorated the smooth wall behind her, but most of the tank consisted of thick glass. She looked out at a gray path that followed the curve of the glass. Beyond that two low slabs of wood flanked a large round container. The water smelled stale and dead.
The other two from the boat walked along the path stopping at the center of the window to look in at her. One sat on one of the wood planks. Then the man joined them in a curious chair with wheels. He gripped the rims with his hands, turning them to roll the chair along the path. His legs didn’t move at all. She clutched her doll and looked around, her bags, all the things she’d collected, were gone. Except for a tower of rocks in the middle, the tank was empty.
In the beginning, the man appeared in his wheeled chair with small groups of men and women who all wore complicated, formal clothes, the men in dour colors, the women in tight skirts that made their bottoms look like tails until the fabric ended at the knee and revealed their dual legs.
Soon, more and more people crowded the path, fat and thin, old and young, some carried babies or rolled them along in little canvas seats. All day they passed by, talking, laughing, and arguing. She had no idea the world contained so many people. They wore hats to shade their faces and held small, metal boxes up to the glass, which released bright, white flashes of light. One boy turned the thing around and, leaning over the railing, held it up to the window. The box held a tiny image of her floating alone in the empty tank.
She and her one-armed doll looked out on them. They drank from bottles filled with dark or bright liquid, used plastic spoons to shovel shiny blue sludge into their mouths, and dug pink fluff out of clear bags with sticky fingers. Others munched on greasy, brown sticks or loops that they carried on paper saucers. They ate and drank all the time, stuffing the empty wrappers and bottles in the round container until it flowed over. They put other things in the container too. Things she recognized. Had he brought her here to show her their origin? The things she collected in the Gyre, they were just the worn out shells of what people consumed with such abandon.
She missed sleeping in the little Plexiglas boat. Since most plastic liked to float the things she brought home would rest against the ceiling over her bunk, twinkling as they jostled each other in the gentle, constant motion. If only she could climb the out of the tank and choose a few items, for company, but the high walls of her enclosure were impossible to scale. When she could bear to look no longer, she swam in endless circles around the tank grazing the glass with her shoulder and fin until the sun set and the crowds thinned then disappeared. Tonight, a child’s shiny plastic sandal lay on the path, bright yellow and tipped on its side, the shape of a flower imprinted on the sole. She wished he would bring it to her.
He pulled himself through the little door every night with a bucket of mackerel and slid down the slope to join her in the water. The fish were already dead and a little stale but edible. Every night after she ate, they struggled awkwardly up onto the rock in the center of the tank, her with her tail and him with his useless legs. Once settled, she would lean against his broad chest and listen to the melody of his voice, looking out over the trees and housetops all the way to the sea, waiting blackly, the stars above unable to touch its surface.
He avoided her tank during operating hours, didn’t want to try to plow through the crowds that clogged the path, didn’t want to see her looking out at him from the other side of the glass. In the evenings, when he wheeled past the last stragglers leaving the park, almost every kid clutched a plush toy mermaid. Management had ordered thousands in three sizes with dark green hair and shiny fabric for her tail.
Still, he could see she was not happy, alone in her tank, nice as it was. The exhibit would be better with a pair. His return to the Gyre, to find a companion for her, had already been approved. If there was one, there had to be more he reasoned. Management would give him everything he needed, boats, equipment and a crew. In the meeting, the suits went on to discuss timelines and schedules, brainstorm events for the park, but he’d stopped paying attention. The hunt was the hunt. It would end when he captured another of her kind and no sooner.
He picked one of the plush mermaids off a spin rack on his way to her tank. It rode along in his lap next to the bucket of fish as he rolled up the path to her exhibit. In the water she held the G.I. Joe and the stuffed mermaid together in one hand while she ate. She looked almost human, the way she always chewed with her mouth closed, but he didn’t think it was manners. It just made sense underwater.
She took longer than usual, eating a couple fish then swimming around with the toys before returning for more food. She wrung all the air out of the mermaid’s stuffing so that it would travel underwater with her.
His arms got tired sculling so he swam over to the rock and hung on, legs dangling below. Finally, when she finished her meal she swam up to him, smiled and held the mermaid toy up squeezing the water out with a wheezing hiss. He reached for it but she pulled back, her smile vanishing.
He climbed up on the rock and waited. Eventually she joined him, her narrow back warming his chest. A nearly full moon rose to preside over the sky, its light bouncing off the ocean below. He ran his fingers through her now clean hair, and explained that he would be going away. He told her he wouldn’t come back until he’d captured a companion for her, maybe even a mate. He knew that was a long shot and he’d told them so at the meeting, but everyone agreed that acquiring a breed pair for the park would make Planet Neptune the hottest ticket in the country.
She sat, petting the little mermaid where it lay limp and sodden in her lap. Finally, she seemed to lose interest in the toy and tossed it in the water where it disappeared into the darkness. She slid in next and swam around. With only her head above the surface, she could be just a woman. She turned to him and lifted her arm out of the water, delicate fingers splayed, beckoning. He rolled off the rock and splashed into the water. She drifted away arm still outstretched. He swam to her.
When she pressed herself against him a jolt from his lifeless bottom half surged up through his chest. He flushed. He hadn’t kissed her since that first time in the Gyre. He’d wanted to, but it hadn’t seemed right now that she belonged to the park. And she hadn’t shown an interest, until now. What the hell, he thought. He’d be on his way to the Garbage Patch tomorrow. He dipped his head brushing her cheek with his lips until he found her mouth. She responded like she had before: deeply, searchingly. She swung her arms around his neck and they sank together, tumbling gently through the black water.
Eyes closed against the darkness, he kissed her as long as he could. Only when the air in his lungs was spent did he try to pull back. She responded by wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He tried to get a hand up to push her away. She locked her hands behind his back. Arching back, he could just make out her eyes in the dimness, unfathomable and predatory. He coughed and inhaled, stars burst in his field of vision. She held him patiently. Her mouth found his one last time and she pushed more water from her lungs into his.
She drifted down with him until they came to rest on the bottom. After the struggle, his soul rushed into her filling her like the bright balloons bouncing on the strings tied to the wrists of the children who walked by the window.
She bobbed up to the surface remembering her aunt’s fairy tales and made her wish. She couldn’t imagine her mother wishing for a pair of legs, but she wanted to go home and couldn’t think of any other way out of the park.
She lost track of time then, the pain was so great, but it was still dark when she swam to the landing area using the curious scissor kick she’d seen him use in the Gyre before his legs failed him.
She stumbled out of the water, clambered up the slick plastic beach and found the little secret door in the wall unlocked. She climbed down and began to walk toward the sea. Each foot swung out in turn and slammed into the ground, every impact reverberated up her spine jarring her head. The landscape bounced sickeningly.
She cut across the park’s maze of paths, tracking downhill straight toward the sea. The pavement scraped against the tender bottoms of her feet, in the grass sticks and gravel stabbed them. Gasping in the cold predawn air, she lumbered ahead one foot at a time as fast as she could, her progress excruciatingly slow.
She fell to her knees at the gates and crawled under a turnstile. Even as the sky grew bright in the east, her eyes were failing. His soul dissipated, already tenuous inside her. Taking it had been easier than she thought, but she could not keep it. Still she didn’t think her body would consume it so quickly. She understood now that there would not be enough time.
She thought of her aunt, who raised her, shooing her every night into the little boat that rocked at the bottom of the sea. Who complained and pretended she did not have time for her, but always stayed to tell her one more story. Her aunt, down under the Gyre, who wanted nothing to do with the people of the air.
Hands and feet numb now, she stood and limped across the empty parking lot. A row of dusty oaks blocked her view of the sea. The last thing she felt was the warmth of the salty tears that ran down her cheeks as she dissolved into a puddle of foam at the edge of the lot.
Later that morning, as the sun reflected off the cars in their ordered spaces, a plastic bag tumbled across the pavement and over the little puddle of foam, which clung to it for as long as it could, until it dried, releasing it to the breeze. Plumped with air, the bag floated up and continued its inexorable journey to the sea and to the Gyre forever turning inside it.
And the words on the bag said:
By Jamie Killen
“You have a way. I know you have a way.” To Aiden’s shame, his voice broke on the last word.
Magda glared at him. “No. Can’t be done, not without God’s help anyway. And I don’t believe divine intervention is real, either, so let’s just say it can’t be done, period.”
“Don’t lie to me. I saw Missy Engle talking to you, alive, after she died. After Tara came to see you.”
For a moment, he feared that Magda would stand up and slap him. After a few seconds of staring at him in icy rage, she looked away and bit a thumbnail. “Don’t know where people get these stupid ideas, like I’m a witch or something.”
Aiden drew a shaking breath. “I don’t think you’re a witch, but I know you’re hiding something. And if it’s something that can bring him back, then. . . I’m sorry, but I won’t leave you alone until you tell me.”
She stood, then, and brushed some speck of lint off her denim work-shirt. “I’m sorry that you lost Milo. I truly am, and if I had a secret laboratory that could resurrect him, I’d do it. But what you’re asking, I can’t do.”
Aiden didn’t move. “What about Tara Engle’s daughter?”
She looked at the floor. “That’s a sad story, and not one that’ll help you. Please leave, now.”
Aiden sat in his car, and watched Magda’s house, and thought about Milo. He thought about that day over a year ago, when he had almost finished closing up the café. The bell over the door, which he thought was annoying but the tourists found quaint, had jingled to announce an arrival. He turned, mouth open to shoo away a would-be customer, when he saw that it was Milo.
“Help you close up?” Milo asked. He smiled as he said it, but Aiden saw the exhaustion in his eyes. Milo had been going grey for years now but had never looked old, not until that moment.
Aiden wiped his hands on his jeans and crossed the room. “God, Lo, I’m sorry. Come here.”
Milo leaned into the hug, and they stood like that for a while. Finally, he pulled back. “It was Missy. You know, Tara and Chase’s oldest.”
Aiden swallowed. “Christ. What happened?”
“Oh, her fucking boyfriend hit a tree with his car. He’s fine, but she went through the windshield.” He shuddered and looked away. “She was alive when they brought her in, but. . . I mean, those head injuries. . . Well. I couldn’t get her stabilized.”
Aiden rested his hands on Milo’s elbows. “Lo, did you do everything you could?”
“Then you don’t have anything to feel guilty about.”
Milo nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose. Aiden could see the lines he got between his eyebrows when his head hurt. “Yeah, I know. It was just hard, seeing Tara there. She was in shock, babbling, not making any sense. After I told her, she just kept saying ‘I have to find Magda, I have to talk to Magda.’ Wouldn’t even acknowledge it.”
“Magda?” Aiden frowned. “Did she mean Magda Warren? The one who sells cheese and stuff at the market?”
“Maybe. That’s the only Magda I know.” Milo retrieved the dishcloth and tossed it to the sink behind the counter. “Maybe they’re good friends or something.”
“Hm.” Aiden tried to recall ever seeing Magda Warren in their neighborhood. Tara’s house was visible from the front porch, and he and Milo usually went outside to sit there several times a week. They watched the neighbors come and go, and saw when strangers arrived. He doubted Magda could be a frequent visitor without him noticing, and she lived well outside of the town. Aiden talked to her occasionally at the market, and found her likable in a brusque sort of way. He couldn’t quite picture her being close to Tara, who was friendly but also loud and a gossip.
Milo noticed Aiden’s thoughtful expression. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Tara might have a sister named Magda, right, I mean, we’re not her best friends or anything. And anyway, in her mental state, God knows what she was thinking. You ready to go? I need to go home and relax and have a beer.”
“Beer and a backrub?” Aiden offered, grabbing his keys.
Milo smiled, and it was tired but genuine. “How’d you know?”
Aiden waited three days before walking over to the Engle house. He wondered if he was supposed to bring something, and then wondered if he should be going at all. It was always like this when someone died, he thought. Nobody knows the rules for grieving or giving comfort. Milo refused to go. “The last thing they’re gonna want to see right now is the doctor who couldn’t save their kid.”
“That’s not how they’ll think of you,” Aiden had protested, but Milo got that stony look and he knew it would be a mistake to push harder.
So Aiden crossed the street by himself and knocked on the door before he could think better of it. As he heard footsteps from inside the house, he looked down and realized he still had on the stained T-shirt and jeans he’d worn to do yardwork earlier in the morning. He’d washed his hands, but there were still traces of dried mud on his pants. Cursing himself, he wondered how much of a breach of protocol it was to pay your respects in the same clothes you use to pull weeds. He’d never heard it discussed, but it certainly sounded like the sort of thing that would earn him a disgusted sigh and a smack upside the head from one of his sisters.
As soon as Chase opened the door, Aiden saw that he needn’t have worried. A grenade could probably go off and Chase wouldn’t spare it a glance. “Hi, Aiden,” he said, mechanically and without making eye contact.
Aiden took a hesitant step forward. “Chase, hi. Look, I don’t want to intrude, but I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Missy. If there’s anything we can do–”
“Not unless you know a good hitman.” When Aiden didn’t respond, Chase added, “You know, for her boyfriend.” His mouth formed a hard slash in his doughy face. Aiden had always found Chase nice enough, if a little dull, prone to staring off into space and drifting in and out of conversations. This was the first time he’d ever heard the man say a harsh word about anything.
Aiden glanced down at the porch. His eyes fixed on a Super Soaker one of the kids had left leaning against the railing. “Well,” he said at last, “Can’t help you there, but if you need us to watch the other kids or something, just let us know.”
Chase nodded. “I appreciate it. Might take you up on it, actually. It’s just been me here for the last two days, and without Tara, it’s getting. . .”
“Where’s Tara?” Aiden asked before thinking.
Chase took off his smudged glasses and wiped his red eyes. “She’s at Magda Warren’s. Don’t ask me why, they’re not even friends. I think she’s just lost it. So, yeah, I might bring the kids over tonight and see if I can go get her to come home.”
“Yeah, of course, any time. Whatever you need.”
“Thanks, man.” Chase reached out and shook Aiden’s hand. His grip was limp and cold. “And thanks for not bringing a fucking casserole. Got so much casserole in this house, I’m gonna have to start feeding it to the dogs.”
Aiden slowly walked home, picking over the conversation in his head. Milo was waiting at the kitchen table. “How are they?” he asked.
“Hm? Oh. Chase is pretty much a zombie.” He pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured himself some water.
“What about Tara?”
Aiden thought about repeating what Chase had told him. But it would lead to speculation about what Tara was doing, and he knew Milo wanted to think about that as little as possible. He settled for, “I don’t know. She wasn’t there. But we might be watching Jaden and Mackenzie tonight while they take care of some stuff.”
Milo blinked, and some of the tension drained out of his shoulders. Aiden knew what he was thinking: Tara and Chase would never let him babysit their children if they blamed him for Missy. Milo exhaled quickly and stood. “Great. I’ll see if we have any movies they’d like.”
The doorbell rang at 7:00 the next morning. Aiden, pouring more orange juice for Mackenzie, exchanged a glance with Milo. Milo stood at the stove with a spatula, pausing in the act of flipping a half-cooked pancake. Both of the kids sat in silence, still wearing their rumpled clothes from the previous day. Setting down the cup of juice, Aiden went to see who it was.
The kids had been quiet and morose when Chase dropped them off the previous evening. They’d never really acted normally, of course, but they’d been somewhat cheered by Aiden’s spaghetti and Milo’s enthusiasm for drawing. They’d eaten dinner, watched a movie, and played a few rounds of Jenga without any problems. The kids even giggled a little at Aiden’s exaggerated reaction to knocking over the column of blocks. There was no mention of Missy, and both Mackenzie and Jaden seemed grateful for the distraction.
Around 10:00, though, Aiden started to worry. The kids were young, five and eight, and he felt pretty sure they were supposed to be asleep by now.
“When did Chase say he’d be back?” Milo murmured as Aiden checked his phone for messages.
“Two hours. It’s been almost five.”
Aiden tried calling several times, always going straight to voicemail. He even, after a moment of hesitation, tried Tara’s number.
By 11:00, both of the kids were asleep on the couch and Milo went to make up the bed in the guest room. They carried the kids to the bed, tucked them in, and returned to the living room to wait. “Where was he going again?” Milo asked.
Aiden rubbed one of his eyes. “Tara hasn’t been staying at the house since Missy died. He was going to try to get her to come home.”
Milo raised his eyebrows but said nothing. At 1:00 am, they both gave up waiting and went to bed, only to be roused at 6:00 by Mackenzie knocking on the door and demanding to know where Mommy and Daddy were. “They’re just taking care of some things, pumpkin,” Aiden replied, trying to sound more awake than he really was. “They’ll be back soon. Come on, let’s go get some breakfast.”
Aiden opened the front door and froze, mouth open. Chase had been dead-eyed and lost the previous day, but now his grief seemed raw and new. His face was swollen and eyes bloodshot with crying. He leaned against the door frame with one hand, as if unable to support his weight. “I’m here for the, for the kids,” he said, breath hitching between words.
Aiden finally got his voice to work. “I’ll get them. Do you want to come in?”
“No. . . No, I’ll wait.” And he covered his face in both hands and turned away, shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.
As Aiden turned, he saw Tara. She stood on the sidewalk, one hand on the open door of Chase’s car. Her head was bowed, blonde hair covering her face. Deep crimson scratches covered her arms. As he watched, she turned to look at him. Unlike Chase, she hadn’t been crying. There was grief in her expression, but also shock and deep, powerful guilt. She met his eyes without a word for several seconds. Then she turned away and wandered down the middle of the street, vaguely in the direction of the Engle house. She wore no shoes.
Aiden went back in the house, almost fleeing from the sight. He quickly bundled the kids into their coats and shoes. Milo started to protest, started to say they could take them home after they’d finished their breakfast, but Aiden silenced him with one hard shake of his head.
“What the hell was that?” Milo asked as Aiden closed the door. Chase had taken the kids’ hands and turned away without making eye contact. “Thank you, Aiden. Tell Milo goodbye for me,” he’d muttered, barely audible.
Aiden returned to the kitchen and sank into the nearest chair. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, and if asked he knew he wouldn’t be able to say why. Milo stared at him with wide eyes. “What is it?”
“Just. . . I don’t know. Something must have happened.”
Milo sat down across from him. Aiden thought about taking his hand, but didn’t want him to know he was trembling.
“Well, I mean, they’re in mourning. That’s how it is in these situations, for a while they’re ok, and then suddenly they’re hysterical. It’s hard to see, but it’s normal,” Milo said soothingly.
No, you idiot, something happened, Aiden wanted to shout, then felt ashamed of himself. He forced a nod of agreement and stood to clean up the mess from breakfast.
Two days later, Aiden heard that the Engles had disappeared.
“What do you mean?” he asked, paused in the act of assembling a chicken sandwich.
Elsa Belicek raised her palms in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know. I tried to call, because both of the kids have been out of school since Missy died. Parents usually think it’s best to keep them at home when this kind of thing happens, but I try to encourage them to send kids back to school as soon as possible. You know, get them back to a normal routine. Anyway, when they didn’t call back I went to the house, and it’s empty. I mean, not completely, there’s stuff strewn around, but there’s no furniture in the living room. I was hoping they said something to you, since they’re your neighbors.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Aiden noted that one of the part-time waitresses, Tanya, was taking a very long time making espresso. The customer, a tourist by the look of her, sighed and gave her watch an ostentatious glance. “Need a hand, Tanya?” Aiden asked.
She jumped and scurried into action. “No, sorry, I got it.”
He turned back to Elsa. “No, sorry, I had no idea. Didn’t even see any moving vans or anything. I can ask around the neighborhood, though.”
She sighed in relief. “Thanks, Aiden. It’s just, I worry about those kids.”
“Yeah. I’ll check into it.”
Once he and Tanya had served the remaining customers, she pulled him aside. “Sorry about that earlier. She was my principal when I was a kid. I was just curious. Because I kinda knew Missy, you know?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Aiden started to turn away and stopped. “Hey, Tanya, did Missy spend any time with Magda Warren?”
Tanya frowned. “No. In fact, her mom told her to stay away from Magda.”
Aiden avoided eye contact, busied himself with emptying a coffee filter. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I just remember when we were at the summer fair once, and Magda was selling stuff there. Missy didn’t want to try any of Magda’s samples, because she said that Mrs. Engle had said Magda was into creepy stuff, but I don’t know what she meant by that. But, you know, Missy and I weren’t that close, so she might not have told me even if she knew anything else.” The bell over the café door chimed and a couple of regulars wandered in. Tanya moved to the register with a bright smile and started taking orders, leaving Aiden to his thoughts.
The drive to Magda Warren’s little ranch took Aiden out of town and along several miles of winding highway surrounded by thick Oregon forest. When he rolled down the windows, he could almost smell the salt air coming in from the coast. Bruise-colored clouds gathered on the horizon, but overhead was just a thin layer of grey, enough to soften but not completely block out the sun. Usually, drives on this road meant a hike with Milo, or maybe a longer journey to Portland for the weekend. Now, though, Aiden found himself ignoring the scenery and gripping the wheel a little too hard.
He’d never been to Magda’s, but a sign for the Warren Creamery marked the drive to her house. Aiden parked in the gravel driveway between the simple ranch house and the barn, adjacent to Magda’s beat-up Bronco. He could see two other buildings farther back on the property, ones not visible from the road. As he stepped out of the truck, Aiden smelled goats and heard their bleating from the fenced pasture next to the barn. He turned a full circle, scanning for signs of Magda or anyone else. Maybe the Engles, although he couldn’t think of any reason for them to be here.
Failing to see anyone, Aiden trudged up to the house and knocked on the front door. The sound of a barking dog came from inside, but no one answered.
After a few minutes of knocking and calling Magda’s name, Aiden went to check on the barn and the other buildings. He found no one there, and nothing more interesting than livestock feed and some gardening tools.
Just as he gave up and started back to the truck, Aiden heard a voice over the crunch of gravel under his shoes. He paused, wondering if it was just one of the goats. But, no, he heard it again, the sharp tones of a raised female voice too far away to be heard clearly. He turned around and made his way past the barn and the small outbuildings. The voice faded for a bit, starting up once more as he passed the tool shed. This time, it was close enough for him to determine that it came from the woods at the back of the property, where the goat pasture ended at a wall of mossy tree trunks and brush.
Aiden found a rabbit trail and picked his way through the trees. He wondered why Magda hadn’t cleared some of the dead limbs and brush; with a little maintenance, these woods would be a perfect place to hike or picnic. As it was, though, it was a nuisance to navigate and maybe even a fire hazard. Cursing slightly, Aiden hopped over a tangle of brambles and kicked a branch out of the way. Looking up as he came over a small rise, he saw Magda less than fifteen feet ahead. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with deeply lined skin and rough hands. Her braided hair, though, remained a bright, youthful red. She stood next to a fallen log, talking to Missy.
Aiden froze. He stared, hoping the sight would resolve into something comprehensible. The longer he looked, though, the more certain he became that it was Missy. She had a distinctive cloud of black, curly hair, so unlike either of her parents. Like Tara, she had paper-white skin with a smattering of freckles; she’d also inherited Chase’s only beautiful feature, a pair of large green eyes. She said nothing, and she stood wrapped in a blanket that trailed the ground, so that Aiden couldn’t see what clothes she wore underneath.
Magda was speaking, hands on Missy’s shoulders. “Look, I’ve told you, you can’t come around here. If you wait, I’ll bring–” She stopped and turned quickly, responding to some sound Aiden didn’t know he made. Her mouth dropped open, and panic flitted across her features.
Missy stared at him, too, but her expression was more confused than frightened. She had always waved to him when they passed on the street, but now there was only vacant incomprehension in her eyes.
“This is private property. You need to leave,” Magda snapped, a slight tremor in her voice.
“That’s. . .” Aiden began.
Magda turned back to Missy and placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Listen. Go now.”
Missy glanced at Aiden, then back at Magda. She made a convulsive bobbing gesture with her head, one that made Aiden feel a little sick to see. She muttered something that sounded like, “Yesyes. Yesyes, waterwetlakepuddle.” And then she sprinted into the woods, bounding elegantly between the trees.
Magda turned and made shooing motions at Aiden. “Go. I said, go now, I can call the police if you don’t leave now, go–”
Aiden took an involuntary step back, eyes still glued to the spot where Missy had vanished into the forest. “What the fuck. . .”
“I said, get lost.”
Aiden finally got himself to focus on Magda. She stood with hands on hips, face set in a stony glare. “That was Missy Engle.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Magda, that was her.”
Magda took two steps forward and jabbed him in the chest with her index finger. “Now you listen. That was not Missy, I swear to you. What you think you saw wasn’t what you saw. And that’s the last I’ll say about it, because it’s got nothing to do with you.”
Aiden tried to think of a response. I should refuse, he thought. I should demand an answer. But every muscle in his body screamed at him to run, to get away from this place. In the end, he nodded and mumbled something, and let Magda nudge him back toward the barn and his truck. Before he climbed inside, he forced himself to turn to her. “Just answer me one question, ok, and I’ll leave you alone. I just came here to ask one thing. Do you know where the Engles are? Tara and Chase and the kids?”
Magda’s jaw tightened. “They left. They went to a relative’s place, somewhere in California. They’re ok, but they won’t be back.”
Aiden nodded. “Thank you.” He climbed in the truck, slammed the door, and sped all the way back to town.
Milo sat in silence after Aiden finished his story. He perched on the edge of the sofa, elbows resting on his knees, hands folded. Aiden stood, had been unable to stop pacing while he spoke. A glass of whiskey sat untouched on the mantelpiece; it had sounded like a great idea, just the thing to steady the trembling in his hands, but his stomach clenched every time he thought about taking a sip.
“Come here,” Milo said at last. Aiden sat next to him, and Milo took his still-shaking hand. “You know that this puts me in a weird position, right? I know you wouldn’t lie to me, but I also can’t believe you.”
Aiden nodded and swallowed the instinctive, angry retort. “Ok.”
“Aiden, I declared Missy myself. I was there when she died.” He held up a hand to cut off Aiden’s response. “And, let’s say I made a mistake and she wasn’t really dead. Even then, Aiden, her skull wasn’t just fractured, ok, it was crushed. Even if she wasn’t dead, and she’d somehow lived, which I don’t think was possible, she would have been persistent vegetative for the rest of her life. There’s no medical way she could have gotten up and wandered off. Not to mention the body would have to have gone missing. So I know it wasn’t her you saw.”
Aiden said nothing; the tightness in his chest told him his voice would break if he tried to speak.
Milo squeezed his hand and continued. “But I can tell you saw something that scared you. I mean, I’ve never seen you this scared. So I’m willing to concede that you saw something you can’t explain. I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts–”
“I never fucking said it was a ghost. I’m not stupid.”
Milo bit his lip and took a deep breath. “Ok. I’m not saying you did. I’m saying, you had a weird experience. And I’m willing to accept that and say that unexplainable shit happens sometimes. But I also need you to let it go, and not try to convince me it was her. Because if you keep telling me that a dead girl is walking around in Magda Warren’s woods, how would you expect me to look at that?”
Aiden let out a shaky sigh and held his head in his free hand. “That I’m losing it. That’s probably what I’d think if it was you.”
He sensed Milo nodding. “I don’t think you’re crazy, I really don’t. But please don’t make me worry about you.”
Aiden let Milo pull him into an embrace. He leaned his head against Milo’s chest, and breathed in his scent, and held on tight. “Ok. I won’t talk about it anymore. I won’t,” he promised after a while.
And he didn’t. They stopped talking about Missy, and a new family bought the Engle house, and Aiden was almost able to convince himself that it hadn’t happened. Still, he avoided Magda’s stall at the market, and when driving chose routes that didn’t take him near her place. Milo may have noticed these behaviors, but if so he said nothing.
Eighteen months after Missy Engle’s death, the phone at the café rang. It was Beth, one of the physician’s assistants who worked with Milo. “Aiden? You better get down here. Milo collapsed, it looks like a heart attack.”
Aiden’s knees threatened to buckle. “Is he ok?”
Beth hesitated just a little too long. “They’re working on him.”
Later, Aiden would be unable to remember the drive to the hospital. He would only remember stepping through the ER’s automated door, and seeing Beth waiting for him. The mascara-stained tears streaking her face. His lungs seemed to forget how to draw in air, and he found himself sitting in a molded plastic chair with Beth’s hands grasping his shoulders. “It’s ok, just breathe, just breathe. . .” she kept saying.
“Let me see him.”
She didn’t argue. Taking him by the elbow, she led him into a cold room where Milo’s body lay under a sheet. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t look like he was sleeping. Aiden stared, and tried to see Milo, but could only see a corpse with vaguely similar features.
He stumbled out into the corridor. Beth had wiped the mascara off her face. “I’m so sorry, Aiden,” she whispered.
“I have to go,” Aiden heard himself say. He already had the keys to the truck in his hand.
Beth laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Aiden, I’m sorry, but there’s paperwork to be filled out. I know it’s the last thing you want to think about, and I feel terrible about it, but. . .”
“No. Later. Just don’t. . . Just keep him here.”
Beth tried to step in front of him. “Aiden, you shouldn’t be alone. At least let us call someone.”
“I have to go,” he repeated. “I have to find Magda.”
Seven hours after Magda had told Aiden to leave, she came out to his truck. “You aren’t gonna go home, are you?” she asked with a resigned look in her eyes.
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose as if to ward off a headache. “Ok. I’m going to show you something, so you can understand why I can’t help you. Because I’m scared of what you’ll do if you just go poking around here yourself, and don’t understand what you’re looking at.” She met his eyes. “But this isn’t going to help. I need you to accept that.”
Aiden said nothing. Magda shook her head and turned away. “Come on. Just follow me and do whatever I say. You’ll be safe, as long as you don’t do something stupid.”
Aiden followed her into the woods. On their way to the path, Magda stopped in one of the outbuildings to pick up a bucket containing apples and carrots. She gestured at a plastic bag. “Carry that for me.” Aiden obeyed, peeking inside and finding only a package of rock candy.
As they left the driveway behind, it occurred to Aiden that Magda could be carrying a gun. She could be taking him somewhere where his body would never be found. She could be insane. He considered the idea, and found it held no fear for him.
They walked for over half an hour, so far that he couldn’t hear the cars on the highway anymore. Aiden saw none of the usual signs of human passage he usually found on hikes. No cans, no cigarette butts, none of those things that made Milo grumble about a lack of consideration for fellow backpackers.
Magda stopped at the top of a small slope. She gestured for Aiden to stand next to her. “Look down there,” she said. “But be careful. Don’t get close to it.”
At the bottom of the slope was a clearing, an empty space that the forest seemed to lean away from. At the center lay something that Aiden at first mistook for a large mud puddle, until he saw it bubbling. It took him a moment to recognize it as a tar pit, roughly six feet across and bordered by a tiny ring of barren sand and scrub.
Aiden turned back to Magda. She squatted on the ground, taking the fruit out of the bucket and arranging it in several small piles. “I didn’t know we had tar pits around here,” Aiden said after a moment.
“It’s not a tar pit. Put the candy next to that bush and come stand behind me.”
Aiden did as he was told. They stood in silence for several minutes, watching the scattered clusters of food. As they waited, Aiden listed to a bird whose call he didn’t recognize. It sounded a bit like a mourning dove, but with some odd little clicks interspersed in its song. It grew distracting enough that he scanned the forest for it, finally spotting it on the underside of a branch almost directly overhead. Wait, no, he thought, frowning. It can’t be hanging upside down like that. But it was definitely a mourning dove, with dappled grey feathers and a pudgy body. As he watched, though, it swung up and gripped the branch with two legs that extended out from under its wings. It crawled along the bark, lizardlike, undersized wings occasionally flapping as if for balance. Aiden let out a curse and took several hasty steps backward.
Magda followed his gaze up to the branch. “Oh. Yeah. Don’t worry about those.”
“What the hell is it?” he asked in a low voice.
“Just shut up and watch.”
The first of them showed up about five minutes later.
Twigs cracked in the underbrush, and Aiden nervously glanced around to see if there was a bear. The shrubs straight ahead of them shifted with the weight of an animal, something moving low to the ground. When it came out of the ferns and headed for the food, Aiden’s stomach twisted in revulsion and he had to fight the urge to turn away. Everything about the creature screamed wrong, even before Aiden saw exactly what it was.
Its hairless skin was a light pink, like a baby’s. It crawled on all fours, limbs short and stocky like a badger. The stump of a tail swung in the air over its hindquarters. The small head had blue eyes set into the sides of the face.
But it was the mouth that finally made Aiden see it for what it was. Beautiful cupid’s bow lips, and behind those a set of straight white teeth. The lips parted, and the teeth crunched down into a bite of apple, licked up drops of the juice with a human tongue.
The second one walked upright. From a distance, it might have passed for a naked man. Up close, things were missing: hair, fingernails, nipples, navel. The eyes had no iris, just tiny pinpoint pupils amid the white of the eyeball. It made it nearly impossible to tell if the thing was looking at Aiden or not. The rest of the face was flat save for a thin slit where the mouth should be.
The third was Missy, or at least the thing that wore her face. Now, though, she didn’t have a blanket wrapped around her; instead she carried it under one arm, just like a toddler with its blankie. As soon as he saw her, Aiden wondered how he could possibly have ever mistaken her for human. Below the neck, her body consisted of an undersized torso and four long, boneless limbs. Both legs and both arms extended at least five feet from her body, tapering down to points rather than fingers or toes. They flexed and swayed in the air like tentacles. The limbs looked weak and fragile, yet Missy easily balanced on the ones where her legs should be, curving the lower ends into something resembling feet. The legs bent in too many directions as she walked, sometimes forward like a human knee and sometimes to the sides like nothing Aiden had ever seen.
Missy moved toward the one with no features. “Wine Easter swimming,” she said, shaping the words slowly and with apparent care.
It reached down for a piece of fruit, bending awkwardly at the waist. “Calcalcalcaldera. Streetstreetstreet.”
Aiden realized that Magda had his arm gripped tightly in one hand. He managed to tear his eyes away from the things long enough to glance at her. “Just stay quiet,” she muttered.
Missy undulated towards Magda. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out. “Hello,” Magda said quietly. “Eat your food.”
Missy frowned. “Your. . . Your food fad eat at. . . Halo. . .” Her whole body spasmed and she snapped her teeth together three times in quick succession. Aiden backed up two steps, unable to go farther without breaking Magda’s grip.
“Sh,” Magda said. She reached out and covered the girl’s mouth with her free hand. “Sh. Go eat.”
Missy drifted away, mouth still forming silent words.
The fourth one made Magda cry, just silent tears on her stony face.
It had blonde hair and a handsome young man’s face. The body was insectile, thin and jointed with six limbs. Instead of chitin, though, it had pale human skin covered in a downy layer of golden fur. It walked on its lower four legs, top two folded against the thorax. When it saw the food, it smiled like a child and opened its all-too-human mouth; pincers emerged, and it scooped up the rock candy with wet sucking sounds. All the while, Missy and the tall male one chattered incomprehensibly to each other.
Magda began to speak, voice flat and monotone. “They came out of the pool. Those two–” she indicated the one with no features and the one that moved low to the ground, “—those two were here before I found this. God knows how long. The one with the blonde hair was my son.” She paused to glare at Aiden. “And you know where Missy came from.”
“How?” The word came out like a gasp.
“I can’t tell you how. I can only tell you what happens. Things go in the pool. Dead things, live things, anything with DNA. The pool recombines it and creates something new. Squirrels and lizards. Birds and mice. People and insects, or cats, or fish, or snakes.” She pointed at Missy. “That isn’t Missy Engle. It doesn’t have her memories, her personality, nothing. It just has some of her genes.”
The one on all fours left his food and snuffled around Magda’s feet. She ignored it. “I found this eighteen years ago, doing research. I saw it in action, just dumb luck. An injured deer died on the edge, half in the mud, and it got sucked under. A few hours later, I watched it jump back out and run away. Or I thought I did.” She stared into the trees. “Probably I would have seen that it wasn’t just a deer anymore, if I’d gotten a better look.”
“How did your son. . .” Aiden murmured, eyes locked on the thing sucking down lumps of crystallized sugar.
“I didn’t understand. I thought I knew what the pool did, and he died, and I acted without thinking.” She stepped in front of him, stared right into his eyes. “Can you even fucking imagine what it feels like to see the face of the person you loved the most on one of those things? Think about what that would be like. That’s why I’m showing you this, so you don’t ever have to go through that.”
Aiden staggered backwards until he bumped into a tree. “He’s gone.” He closed his eyes and tried to picture Milo exactly as he’d looked this morning, drinking coffee and reading the news. There’d been nothing special about this morning. No great romantic gestures, nothing different except that it was the last. He tried to recall if he’d even kissed Milo goodbye before driving to work. He couldn’t remember.
Something rustled in front of him. He opened his eyes and saw the thing with Missy’s face standing before him. She watched him for a moment, then slowly extended one of her limbs. It held an apple. “Mid. Flash. Mid.”
Aiden gingerly accepted the apple, and she smiled. “What does that mean?” he asked.
Magda stooped to pick up the bucket and plastic bag they’d carried the food in. “Nothing. They can mimic the sounds of words, but they can’t attach meaning to them. Believe me, I’ve tried to teach them. I think there’s enough human genes in there that they know they’re supposed to be verbal, but they can’t quite do it. Doesn’t stop them from trying, though.”
Aiden took a clumsy step forward. Tears felt a long way off. Right now he just felt too heavy to move. Magda took him by the elbow; this time, though, it felt like support instead of restraint. As they moved out of the clearing, Missy and the blonde boy tried to follow them. “No,” Magda said sternly. “Stay.”
Missy reached out with both limbs and the boy let out a whimper, but both stayed and watched them walk away.
Aiden found himself in Magda’s living room without quite remembering how he got there. She wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and started arranging kindling in the old fireplace. “I should go,” he murmured.
“It would be criminally irresponsible to let you drive right now.”
“Tell me. . . Tell me what happened with Tara.” Aiden heard himself say the words, and realized that he didn’t particularly care. He just didn’t want silence.
Magda sat in her armchair and stared into the fire. Her dog, a black border collie, nuzzled her hand and she absently stroked his head. “She found out years ago. Before Missy was even born. I was still experimenting back then, with dead animals and things, trying to see if I could control it. I thought if I could figure out how it worked, I could reverse. . .”
She cleared her throat. “Anyway. Tara came to me one day and said she knew. She’d been in the woods and saw me put something in the pool, a dog or something. I didn’t show her anything, but I managed to convince her that it was something that needed to be kept secret. I kept expecting her to blab about it, but I guess even she realized that it was important. Then a year and a half ago she shows up crying on my doorstep, saying I need to bring Missy back. Saying she can handle if the girl has deformities, as long as she gets her back.” Magda let out a dry, humorless laugh. “Deformities. That’s what she thought she’d get. I told her I wouldn’t do it, and she threatened to tell everyone, so I told her we’d talk about it. I assumed if I let her stay here and waited until she calmed down, she’d see reason.”
“And then Chase came to find her,” Aiden murmured.
“Yeah. They went out in the driveway to talk, and next thing I know they’re both gone. Up in the woods. By the time I got there, they’d already dropped some of Missy’s hair into the pool, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it from happening.” Magda pressed her lips together and shook her head. “They thought she’d be Missy, just a little different. And then that thing came out, and they saw what they’d done. No wonder they left town.”
“So now it’s just you taking care of them.”
Magda looked at the floor. “If you can call it that. That thing, that pool up there, it’s a fucking miracle. Hell, for all I know it could even be the primordial soup, you know, the stuff that started everything. There’s a chance that pool might be able to explain life on Earth, but, Jesus, I hate it. I can’t even stand to look at it. And I can’t stand to look at them, any more than I have to.”
They fell silent. Aiden stared at the fireplace and thought of Milo. The next thing he knew, he was waking up to morning light streaming through the kitchen window. The fire had burned down to ashes. He took a deep breath, stood, and walked outside without a word.
Aiden turned off the truck’s ignition and gazed through the windshield at Magda’s house. Reaching over to the passenger seat, he grabbed a bulky paper grocery bag and opened the truck door.
Magda came outside before Aiden reached the house. He saw the wariness in her eyes, saw her preparing for an argument. He held up a hand. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to ask you for anything.”
Magda folded her arms and waited.
“I had him cremated,” Aiden said after a moment. He looked down at the gravel of the drive. “We scattered his ashes off the coast. So even if I wanted. . .”
Magda’s features softened. “Well. That’s good. I won’t ask how you’re doing. That was one of the worst things about when Cole died, people asking that all the time.”
Aiden nodded. There had been the week of drinking, and the week spent in bed, and the week snarling at anyone who spoke to him. There’d been moments of quiet and warm memories, and moments so lonely he’d thought his chest would cave in. There’d been too much food from the well-meaning neighbors, and a visit from his sister than left him wanting to be anywhere except in the house with her. Underlying all of it was the ache that he would never have the words for, but that he recognized when he looked at Magda.
“I feel like I’m ready to do something,” he said.
The idea had come to him the day before, standing at the kitchen sink. He’d looked out the window and seen a stray cat darting across the yard, and had been struck with the memory of when Milo had found an abandoned kitten several years earlier. Even though he hated cats, he’d still fed it with an eyedropper and kept it alive and healthy until they found a home for it. Aiden had let out a little laugh at the memory of Milo getting out of bed at 2:00 am and grumbling about feeding the damn kitten. With sudden clarity, Aiden realized what Milo would be doing right now if he was alive, what he would have done long ago if he’d been the one to see what hid in the woods behind Magda Warren’s house.
Aiden held up the grocery bag he’d brought from the truck. “I brought some things for them. You know. . .” He gestured toward the woods.
Magda stepped warily toward him. “What things?”
“Just. . .” he rummaged through the bag, “paper and crayons and some other art stuff. And a little CD player, for music.”
Magda looked at him silently for a moment. “What do you think they’ll get out of that?”
Aiden shrugged. “I dunno. I think they’re lonely, and they don’t know how to communicate, and you’ve been dealing with them alone. I don’t know if I can get them to talk, but maybe there’s a way to get through to them. Maybe it’ll be easier for me, since. . .”
She shifted on her feet and stared at the woods. “I don’t know how much you’ll be able to do,” she said at last, “but if you want to, go ahead and try.” She turned back toward the house. “I’ll have coffee waiting for when you get done with them.”
Finding his way to the pool was easy. There was a smell, he realized, something that got stronger as he went farther along the path. Something like earth and blood.
The thing with Missy’s face followed him there. He caught sight of her halfway to the pool, peeking from around a tree, but she darted away until he started walking again. She appeared and reappeared, getting a little closer each time. Aiden’s heart hammered whenever he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, and he wondered how long it would take for the fear these things triggered to leave him.
Aiden stopped on the slope above the bubbling pool. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, he arranged the contents of the bag in front of him. Brush rustled off to his right. “It’s ok,” he said in a low voice. “It’s ok, you can come out.”
After a few minutes, the thing with Missy’s face edged into the clearing. “Hi,” Aiden said. When it didn’t bolt, he picked up a crayon and a sheet of drawing paper. “My name’s Aiden. I don’t really think you can understand me, but we’ll see if we can work on that. You’re alone out here, aren’t you? Why don’t you sit down with me for a little while?” As he spoke, he moved the crayon across the paper to create a swath of green hillside. To the hill he added the outlines for a little house, one similar to Magda’s. When he glanced up, he saw the thing watching the movement of the crayon, openmouthed. Aiden slowly reached over and tore off another sheet of paper. “Here,” he said, “you try.”
The thing hesitated, glancing between the sheet of paper and his face. She frowned, as if trying to work something out. Extending one of her limbs, she picked up one of the scattered crayons and lowered herself to the ground. Slowly, carefully, she pressed the tip of the crayon to the paper and began to draw.
Once More, onto the Beach
By S. R. Algernon
Iniala… Iniala… Iniala…
The sound ebbed and flowed through the water, cutting through the darkness. With each repetition, a patch of the ocean glowed and shimmered. It reminded her of times, back on the beach, when moonlight had glinted off the water’s surface and the icy water had stung the soles of her three-toed feet.
Iniala… Iniala… Iniala…
She gravitated toward the sound, certain it led to safety. As she swam, the undulating glow revealed a shape ahead of her– a bulbous yet streamlined form with trunk-like legs swept backward and pressed against its blubbery underbelly. She recoiled, feeling a rush of water flow through her gills and letting a few bubbles escape from the blowhole at the top of her head. The sight of the beast triggered a rush of hunger and adrenaline.
The beach. The thought came to her as an image and a comforting memory of sand underfoot. She retreated toward sunlight, away from the strange creature, until she broke the surface and flopped down against the water. The sky was there, as it had always been, but the beach was gone.
She looked down at her reflection, expecting intuitively to see scales, a slender jaw and nostril slits. Instead, a hulk of smooth, gray skin, a bulbous snout and two deep-set eyes looked back at her.
If her mind could form words, the terror and revulsion would have asked the question: What am I?
The water’s surface broke once more. The beast she had seen before appeared beside her.
“Iniala,” it said, as if in reply to her unspoken question.
In the open air, the voice sounded rough and stale, but to Iniala it sounded real. It connected to visceral feelings of belonging and trust. This time, Iniala understood that the beast was calling to her, and that the sound–Iniala–belonged to her somehow.
Iniala studied the black splotches on the behemoth’s face. Another image formed in her mind. She had seen those splotches before….
An orange lizard stood on the sand and turned its face toward me. Its forelimbs, drenched in blood up to the knees, tore into the abdominal wall of a fresh kill. I saw the brown splotches on its face, and my heart slowed. I knew I would not have to fight for my meal tonight. My tongue flicked eagerly at the scales around my mouth. I dug my claws into the sand and sprinted toward the feast.
Having roused Iniala from her daydream, the beast performed a quick swimming stroke, starting with a flick of the shoulder blades and ending with a swish of the tail.
“Kelem,” said the beast.
“Kelem,” said Iniala, in a flash of recognition. The sound tied sight to memory. The wordless, inchoate beginnings of sentences stirred in her mind. The beast is Kelem. The orange lizard is Kelem. Kelem is her name.
In the months that Iniala spent with Kelem in the bright surface waters, she embraced this sound game. Each new association cut through the sensory chaos of her new world and built rough swaths of past from the half-buried visions in her dreams. Words joined into sentences. Sentences formed thoughts that the lizard mind of her memories would never have grasped.
For months, Iniala drifted along, picking up words the way her baleen picked up food, until Kelem’s next lesson set Iniala’s hunter mind on the trail of a new sort of prey.
“Follow me into the dark water,” said Kelem. “I want you to see something.” She led Iniala to a calm patch of ocean, and then turned to face her.
“Look,” said Kelem, “but with your ears, not with your eyes.”
Iniala had learned all of those words, but together they had no meaning. Looking is what you do with your eyes, she thought. Had she learned the word wrong?
“Iniala,” said Kelem. As she spoke, the water in front of her glowed as if the sun were shining on it. Within the brightness, a spiral twisted in the water, quivered, and faded into darkness.
“There are some sounds you can hear, and there are other sounds you can see, if you look with your ears. The scholars call it ‘ultrasound.’ The poets call it ‘Podsong.’ With Podsong, we can create the impression of shapes and movement. It is true speech, the gift that separates Podswomen from the animals. Iniala, say your name but keep the muscles in your face taut. Move the air back and forth between your nasal passages and let sound go out through the bones, right past your eyes.”
The sound came out fine, but when Iniala looked with her ears, a misshapen blob of Podsong flickered into being. It disappeared an instant later, as if it were ashamed of its own existence. Iniala shook with laughter from snout to tail. A few bubbles escaped from her blowhole.
“Watch your air,” said Kelem. “We can’t have you going back to the surface for a refill a half-dozen times just to have a simple conversation.”
“Sorry,” said Iniala.
Kelem smiled at her.
“It takes time,” said Kelem. “Your own song never looks the same in your own head as it does to everyone else, but it comes naturally. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, just like I did and all the others.”
“You’ll see. When you’re ready, I’ll take you to the Pod and introduce you to some new friends.”
“The Pod…” said Iniala. “Is that like the… the place where we were before?” Iniala searched her mind for the right words, but found none.
“Before? When I met you?”
“No. Before that. When we were… somewhere else, outside the water. Your skin was orange and you… we… were smaller.”
Kelem’s body stiffened. She turned to face Iniala and watched her for several awkward seconds. Instinctively, the tug-of-war between fear and anger reminded her of a lizard sizing up a rival during a hunt. Iniala’s jaws tightened, and the absence of teeth between them worsened the sense of wrongness in her gut.
“The beach? You remember the beach?” The words “beach” and “remember” meant nothing to her, but the tension in Kelem’s voice came through.
“Yes,” ventured Iniala.
“Promise me something,” said Kelem. “When we get to the Pod, tell no one that you remember the beach. Don’t even say it to me when other people might hear. Can you do that?”
“Are you sure?”
“Kelem, I’m sorry.”
Kelem brushed the side of Iniala’s face with the tip of her snout.
“It’s all right. Let’s get back to your lessons. You have a lot to learn before we return to the Pod.”
The Pod… Iniala could only imagine a throng of Kelems. That night, Iniala drifted into a half-sleep while she swam.
The shore teemed with lizards of every color. Hundreds of them clung to the sides and back of an immense gray beast as it lay on the sand. I paid no attention to my rivals or to the rasps of the stricken beast. I saw the orange lizard at the base of the beast’s neck, with its head buried shoulder-deep into the blubber. I knew where I belonged. Together with two other lizards, a fearsome grey one and a pallid runt, I raced to Orange’s side, eager to guard its flank and then to eat my fill.
“We’re getting close now,” said Kelem. “Can you see it?”
Iniala heard a hum with her ears and felt a vague glow ahead. As she and Kelem approached, the glow coalesced into a point of Podsong.
“It looks as if a star had fallen in the water,” said Iniala. Iniala thought she understood why Kelem had been so ready to put her memories of the beach behind her.
Kelem chuckled, sending a ripple of Podsong in her direction.
“Maybe,” said Iniala, dropping out of Podsong and speaking with her mouth in her excitement, “the stars are just faraway pods for people who live in the sky.”
“People who live in the sky?” said Kelem. “Podsong does not travel through air the way it does through water, but it is remarkable for you to ask such questions at such a young age.”
“But remember, Podsong is the language of the Pod. Once we reach the Pod, use child-speech only with me and only in a whisper. Your words are reflections of your mind, and they will determine your place in the Pod.”
“Y-yes,” said Iniala.
The Pod was not a solid surface, as she had thought, but a mosaic of overlapping plates of Podsong. As Iniala and Kelem approached the Pod, a circular ripple appeared in the Pod’s surface, and one of the Podsong plates vanished. A guard hovered in the gap.
“I am Kelem, and I speak for Iniala.”
The guard sang an arrow pointing inward. Iniala followed Kelem into a cacophony of Podsong that made her memories of the beach seem serene by comparison. Hundreds of people glided through the water in all directions. Some filled the water with spectral conversations, while others silently ferried cargo on their backs. Others swam in place and sang the walls and signs that gave the Pod a semblance of structure. Iniala swam close to Kelem’s side.
“Don’t worry,” said Kelem. “The Podsingers point the way. We’ll be someplace quiet soon. From what you said before about star people, I’m sure Nili will be glad to meet you.”
The Archive was an oasis of calm within the Pod. Podsingers patrolled its edges, filling the room with ambient Podsong. Aside from the singers, the room held about forty others. Most swam in place to mark its boundaries. Others hovered in columns off to one side of the room. One swam toward Kelem and Iniala when they arrived.
“Welcome back,” said the Podswoman, whose skin sagged slightly around the edges of her face. “It seems like only yesterday that you left to stand watch. And this is…?”
“Iniala,” said Kelem.
“Of course.” She turned to Iniala and spoke in slow, enunciated Podsong. “I am Nili. I am an old friend of Kelem’s.”
“Pod Archivist Nili,” added Kelem. “A mentor to all of us. Even the Elders would be lost without her.”
“Your flattery could use a shade of subtlety,” said Nili, with a chuckle. “Are you sure she is ready?”
“We are of the same clutch,” said Kelem, “and Iniala crossed the shoreline alone.”
“If only we all could be blessed with such omens. Come, let me show you our latest find. Lagi! Bring the table with the stone on it.”
Lagi, a slender Podswoman, swam to Nili with another, larger individual in tow. The large one was stocky and bore deep scars on its neck and shoulders. It did not speak or look up as it approached.
“Welcome back, Kelem,” said Lagi. Her face fell when she saw Iniala. “Why have you brought her in here? Are we running a nursery now?”
“Iniala shows promise,” said Kelem, “She should see our work.”
“If Nili wishes it,” said Lagi, “but try to keep her out of the way.”
“Enough,” said Nili. “Lagi may have an odd way of showing it, but we have all missed you deeply. Now let me show you our most recent discovery. The scouts found this on the continental shelf. They say it fell from the sky.”
Kelem, Nili and Lagi surrounded the silent individual, positioning themselves for a good view of her back. Iniala joined them and saw a flat square of stone resting on the silent one’s skin.
“We have examined the stone thoroughly,” said Nili, “visually and in Podsong reflection. It might be a purified form of rock, but we can’t be sure.”
“The stars represent a purer existence,” said Kelem. “If rock exists in their realm, it is natural that it should be purer than anything we know.”
“I don’t see the point of all this,” said Lagi. “It’s clearly not a star, so what does it matter? We are archivists, not trash collectors.”
Iniala shook with excitement. On the beach, she had never seen such things. She leaned forward to examine the object with her snout.
“Keep her away from that,” said Lagi. “She’ll knock it off the table.”
“I thought the star-stone didn’t matter to you,” said Kelem.
“It does if it sinks to the ocean floor and Nili makes me chase after it.”
“Quiet,” said Nili. “Iniala, now that you’ve examined it, what do you think?”
“It has scratches on it.”
“Behold, the prodigy speaks,” said Lagi, in delicate, over-enunciated Podsong. “Does our learned colleague have any other revelations?”
“What if,” asked Iniala, “an animal made them?” Iniala remembered that animals made tracks in the sand. She remembered following the tracks of prey and leaving marks of her own on the base of tree trunks, although she had never considered the meaning of those actions before. “What if it is a message?”
“Talking animals in the sky?” said Lagi. “Can’t you find something for this child to do?”
“A message…?” said Nili. She craned her neck toward the stone relic.
“Table,” said Iniala. “Why don’t you move closer to Nili so she can see better?”
“This is how you talk to furniture,” said Lagi. She nudged the mute beast with her shoulder, and it slid forward toward Nili.
“The podbeasts do not speak,” said Kelem. “They serve the Pod with their muscles, not their minds.”
“Why can’t they speak?” asked Iniala. “What happened to her back?”
“Let Nili concentrate, Ini,” said Kelem.
“The scratches are regularly spaced,” said Nili, “and some of them repeat. These might have meaning.”
“Words?” offered Iniala.
Lagi grunted and said something in Podsong that Iniala did not understand.
“Ini…” said Kelem, in a scolding tone.
“No, not words, child,” said Nili. “Words are the signature of a true mind, which can only be achieved in the Pod. These scratches could be territorial markings, or even something like child-speech, but it would be a grave mistake to think of them as words.”
“If you really believe that,” asked Lagi, “then why are we wasting our time staring at them?”
Lagi stormed off toward the stacks, where other podbeasts swam in place, bearing the archive’s collections on their backs. As Lagi left, a cocoon of Podsong enveloped her. The song rippled and drifted from her body, fading mournfully as it trailed off. The words flowed into one another and built off one another with such speed and depth that Iniala could not hold them in her mind.
“Lagi, come back,” said Nili.
Bewildered, Iniala turned to Kelem.
“Those,” said Kelem, “are words. Words do not merely refer to things. Words bring things to life. They are a tangible extension of the mind beyond the body. I know you meant well in your discussion of the star-stone, but to compare those markings with genuine song… Lagi is right to be offended. You’ll understand when you’ve learned more.”
Lagi was already mad at me before that, thought Iniala, but she decided not to ask why. Over the next few weeks, Iniala spent more time in a study cubicle along with a Podsinger chaperone and the six podbeasts that comprised the walls. She felt like a prisoner and felt sure Kelem had done it in order to make peace with Lagi. It isn’t fair, thought Iniala. How am I supposed to know what offends her?
When Iniala’s head hurt too much from worry and the strain of sculpting Podsong, she escaped into dreams, letting her memories take the reins for a while…
I scurried into the underbrush in pursuit of a palatable creature with tufts of green fur. Furry-Green’s scent and the sound of its footfalls urged me on, yet I restrained my appetite, waiting for long minutes until Furry-Green strayed far enough from its hiding place to give me a clear line of attack. At the right moment, I kicked off against the soil and lunged. My claws grazed Furry-Green’s back, and…
Impact, from my right side. As I tumbled, a hated odor filled my nostrils. Gray jaws snapped shut just short of my neck. The sight of Gray’s face flooded my mind with memories of hunger, humiliation and pain.
I kicked the hated gray lizard in the midsection, forcing it to retreat, but I had already lost. Its companion, a pallid, scrawny lizard, dragged Furry-Green out of view while Gray stood guard. Too tired to give chase, I faced another night of bitter toads and stringy, tasteless grubs.
“Not good enough,” said Kelem. “You may think I’m strict, but the Elders will be harder on you. Do the drills until you can do them without thinking. Your muscles should know what to do.”
“What happens if I fail?”
“Then you won’t become a Podswoman,” said Kelem, “but there isn’t time to think about that right now. All this worry is affecting your song. Just relax and practice and you’ll never have to worry about all those what-ifs.”
“But what happens? Do I go back out into the open ocean?”
“Look at me, Ini,” said Kelem. “When I first crossed over, I was just as anxious as you are. I had to put those worries aside. So take all the energy you were going to spend on worry and planning for failure and pour it into your lessons. You’ll feel better, and you’ll do better too. I have to go. Nili and I are presenting our analysis of the star-stone to the Elders. I’ll be back afterward to see how you’re doing.”
Right, thought Iniala, all I have to do is focus. Despite her efforts, after a few hours she had slipped into reverie once more.
I seethed with anger and lashed out at the nearest lizards, biting at their eyes and throats until they scattered. Now in the clear, I sprinted ahead toward the beast, launching myself at its knee and climbing over my rivals’ bodies onto the beast’s back. Nearby lizards swiped at me, defending their patches of hide, but I shook off their attacks.
Now on the beast’s back, I studied it as I would a prey animal. Its head drooped with fatigue, allowing the sunlight to catch the fresh blood on its tattered skin. An intoxicating scent filled the air, compelling me to tear into flesh, root out the source of the odor and consume it. The splut-splut of the beast’s footfalls continued, now muffled by the water and slower in pace. Soon, it would collapse, and I would have all the time I needed to feed.
The beast’s head swiveled, bending impossibly at the neck in order to face upward and look me in the eye.
“Show me Verun’s Elementary Motion Series,” it said.
I tried to shape the dry air into moving waves and ripples. A dispirited croak rattled in my throat.
“Unsatisfactory,” said the beast.
A swarm of lizards converged on Iniala, and she awoke just before their claws struck.
Focus, thought Iniala. She tried Verun’s Rotating Cube, but it wobbled when stationary and dissolved into a swirling glob when she tried to set it spinning. She tried turning the glob into Kelem’s face but the distorted result only horrified and depressed her.
Iniala floated quietly in despair, giving her gills and heart a chance to calm down. She longed to feel something other than water beneath her. For the first time, she thought of leaving the Pod and going back to the beach one last time, even if it meant letting the lizards tear her apart.
As if in answer to Iniala’s restless thoughts, a melody pierced the veil of Podsong. The aching dirge drew Iniala out into the chaos of the Pod. At first, the visceral connection with the song startled Iniala, but as she listened, she heard the familiar rhythms of the sea against the shore, of claws against the sand in the moment before a predatory lunge, and of the fluttering beats of a miniscule heart. Whoever composed this song, Iniala decided, remembered the beach.
Iniala followed the sound back to the Archive and found Lagi amid the stacks. The Podbeasts that carried the Archives collection on their backs offered no comment on her performance.
“I hope I can sing like that someday,” said Iniala.
“Go away,” said Lagi. “Go back to your playroom.”
“There’s only one more day,” said Iniala. “If I fail, I won’t have another chance to ask. What have I done to make you angry with me?”
Lagi sighed. Even the sigh drifted in a delicate ring of Podsong.
“I’m not going to explain such things to a child.”
“Fine,” said Iniala. “Tell me about those songs you sing. Did you make them yourself or did someone teach them to you?”
“What difference does that make to you?”
“Not much, I guess,” said Iniala, feigning indifference as best she could.
“I learned at the feet of Xerfala. She wrote them, and she was the greatest poet of her generation. You couldn’t possibly understand.”
“I don’t know the name,” said Iniala, “but I know what she was singing about. She remembered the beach, didn’t she?”
Lagi’s toothless mouth crinkled into a scowl, and her stubby legs shook as if she were running in place. Her eyes narrowed with rage as she swam forward in a burst of motion and released a focused shriek of Podsong. The flash left Iniala dazed and her head ringing.
“You have no right to say such things about Xerfala. You are nothing compared to her. You deserve a fate worse than the podbeasts for what you’ve done.”
“What could I have done?” asked Iniala. She dropped into child-speech because her head swam and her snout throbbed. At that moment, Podsong was the furthest thing from her mind. “I’ve never met her. I haven’t met anybody here except you, Kelem and Nili. Well, and the podbeasts.” As she spoke those words, she realized that they weren’t quite true. She remembered one beast–the one Orange had killed–and maybe one more as well, unless it was just a dream.
“This is like talking to an imbecile,” said Lagi. “I’m not going to spell it out for you.”
“You don’t have to,” said Iniala, speaking in excited gasps. “Not anymore. Xerfala went to the beach to lay eggs. She went across the sand to the hatching pools, like all the others. We waited for them. Hundreds of us waited for our chance for the kill of a lifetime, but only a few get to stand on the behemoth’s back and bathe our jaws in its blood. It happened to Kelem long ago, and then it happened to me. That’s why we crossed over. That’s what happens when a lizard eats–”
Lagi spun and slapped Iniala on the side of her head with her tail, but Iniala stood her ground.
“How did you fill such a little head with such filth,” said Lagi, in barbed, jagged Podsong. “Maybe you are growing up after all. Xerfala was above animal passion. When the beach called her, she ordered a dozen podbeasts to weigh her down with their bodies, no matter how she thrashed and cursed, until the desire passed. In a few years, she would have reached the age where the desire would have faded forever. She would have taken her place among the Elders.”
“But she didn’t?” said Iniala.
“Last year she went to the beach,” said Lagi. “‘There must be someone to carry on after me,’ she said, as if her students and admirers didn’t matter. Only her bulging egg sac mattered, and that filthy little gland at the base of her neck, the one that makes the lizards tear us apart. Don’t you see? The lure of the beach clouded her thinking. We did all we could to stop her, but she left us. The world has been silent since then.”
“If you taught me to sing like that,” said Iniala, “I could tell you…” Iniala stopped. Every word filled her head with bolts of pain. She tasted her own blood in the water. Once, she knew, she had tasted Xerfala’s blood on her tongue, and the taste was familiar even though it had lost its allure.
“Shut up, you stupid child,” said Lagi. The rage had faded from her voice, but resentment lingered. “Don’t tell anyone about any of this.”
Loud Podsong lit up the room. Lagi shrank away from it like a Furry-Green caught in a thunderstorm.
“Ini,” said Kelem. “I’ve been looking all over for you, and… what happened here?”
“I… know why Lagi… hates me,” said Iniala. She forced the words out through aching, swollen nasal air sacs.
“Lagi,” said Nili, “What have you done?”
“Xerfala’s song could make even the Elders weep,” said Lagi. “If this child is even half as good as you say she is, a bloody snout isn’t going to keep her from getting through the basic drills.”
“You’d better hope so,” said Kelem, “or so help me, you’ll answer for it.”
“Just leave her be,” said Nili. “I’ll find a doctor.”
“Can we postpone the judgment somehow?” asked Kelem.
“Only the Elders can delay a judgment,” said Nili. “We will have our chance to ask them tomorrow.”
That night, Iniala strained to remember. I will dream of crossing over, she told herself, and whatever my fate might be, at least I will face it knowing who I am.
I launched myself at the beast’s knee and climbed over my rivals’ bodies until I reached its back. Nearby lizards swiped at me, defending their patches of hide, but I shook off their attacks. An intoxicating scent filled the air, compelling me to tear into flesh, root out the source of the odor and consume it. The splut-splut of the beast’s footfalls continued, now muffled by the water. The sight of my enemies, their facial patterns still clear through the blood, extinguished the last of its fear.
I lunged at Pallid and felt the satisfying snap of a knee joint within my jaws. I twisted my neck with all the force I could manage, wrenching Pallid off of the beast and sending it tumbling into the water. I turned to Gray, who was now bloody from shoulder to snout. My instincts were clear–follow the scent, fill your belly with the flesh–but vengeance was a higher calling. I vaulted over the others, clamped my jaws around Gray’s neck and squeezed until Gray’s body stilled.
As I caught my breath, I stood on an island of flesh, with many body lengths of water between me and the shore. As I braced myself for the chill of the water, a strip of flesh with a cluster of tiny blue nodules slipped from Gray’s jaws and landed on the beast’s back. The scent of the nodules, muted before, now struck me with its full force. I released Gray and swallowed them. In ecstasy, I lost my footing on the slick hide and fell into the sea.
The water numbed my skin and sent my muscles into spasms. My pinwheeling legs propelled me further from shore. My lungs cried out for oxygen, but their pleas went unanswered as I yielded to the water, even as my body continued to swim.
An eternity passed until a voice broke through the darkness.
Iniala… Iniala… Iniala…
“Iniala! Iniala! Wake up!”
Kelem’s blaring Podsong jolted Iniala out of the dream. “Hurry to the Archive! You have a visitor.”
A dour husk of a Podswoman waited by the entrance. Iniala noticed that the Podbeasts that formed the doorway edged away from her as much as they could without leaving their posts.
“Iniala, child of Xerfala, ward of Kelem,” she said. “The Elders are ready for you.” She swam off without waiting for a reply.
Iniala kept close to Kelem’s flank as they traveled the winding paths through the Pod’s interior. Podsingers radiated Podsong at regular intervals, straining to overcome the chatter. Podbeasts swam in place on all sides, their bodies marking the boundary of chamber after mysterious chamber.
“The podbeasts here all have scars on their backs,” said Iniala, “just like the tables at the Archive.”
“Shh!” said Kelem.
The path widened into a vast spherical chamber bounded by more mute sentinels arranged in formation, stacked side by side, back to belly. The Elders, three giants, stood in the center of the chamber. Four podbeasts swam underneath each of the Elders, supporting each of the Elders’ knobby feet.
“Approach,” said the Elders, speaking in unison. Their song was shot through with ornaments and flourishes down to the limits of Iniala’s hearing.
As Iniala swam toward them, a veil of white noise rose up behind her, cutting her off from Kelem and forcing Iniala to strain her ears to follow the Elders’ subtle song.
“Show us Verun’s Five Foundational Shapes.”
Iniala swallowed, sucked in a mouthful of water, spit it out and set her jaw. The first shape, a sphere, was suitably spherical. The second, a pyramid, wobbled at the top, with one corner blurry and longer than the others. The cube started out looking almost cubic, but it sploshed into a meaningless puddle after three seconds. Verun herself would not have recognized Iniala’s attempts at the torus and the twin-sphere. Iniala could only watch helplessly as the Elders muttered in Podsong amongst themselves.
“Show us Verun’s Pyramid once more,” the Elders commanded. The new rendition did resemble a pyramid, but the sides rippled slightly and it was off-center about ten degrees to the left.
“Now rotate it ninety degrees to your right.”
Iniala froze. In desperation, she imagined herself singing a pyramid on its side and wrenched her song toward the image. The pyramid exploded like an egg dropped from a great height. Eventually, the chaos coalesced into a pyramid on its side, but by then Iniala’s swim bladder and nasal air sacs fluttered too hard for her to keep anything in focus. Abruptly, the veil of sound parted so the Elders could publicly proclaim their judgment.
“This is not satisfactory,” said the Elders. “Iniala, child of Xerfala, has yet to master even the rudiments of Podsong. She is no Podswoman, and even Podsinger status may be beyond her. We cannot permit her ascension to the Pod.”
“I hope you’re satisfied, Lagi,” said Kelem.
“If we had more time, and in consideration of her recent injury–” said Nili.
“We have taken too much time with this already,” said the Elders. “There is no need to compound the loss of Xerfala with yet another failure. Iniala shall be taken to the Place of the Sharp Stones and there without delay–”
“Wait,” said Iniala. “There is something I need to tell Lagi first. I didn’t kill Xerfala. I know because I remember.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Lagi, “You crossed over just after she came ashore.”
“But it wasn’t me,” said Iniala. She was dimly conscious of her Podsong becoming fluid as her memories took hold of it. She sang with a sprinter’s cadence. Her words had teeth now. “The gray lizard attacked her, not me. The creature that deserves your hate is the same one I had hated for so long, and it died on the shore a lifetime ago.”
“You are dreaming,” said Lagi. “You stupid, stupid child.”
“I crushed the life out of it myself. I felt its blood run from my jaws. I remember.”
“This is gibberish,” said Lagi.
“That’s not all I remember. I saw Xerfala step out onto the shore willingly. She lasted long enough to reach the pools where the lizards hatch, and she was on her return trip when I reached her. That means her children are out there somewhere. Maybe you’ll meet them one day, when you make the trip for yourself.”
“Shut up! I can’t bear this!” cried Lagi.
“Please, Ini,” said Kelem. “Don’t say anything more. The Elders…”
“Silence,” said the Elders, “Iniala, come to the center of the chamber. We wish to speak with you alone.” The acoustic veil reformed, leaving Iniala to swim into the churning haze.
Once Iniala had done as they commanded, the Elders left their podbeast pedestals and encircled her. They spoke with tightly focused Podsong.
“Repeat what you just said, and we will know if you lie.”
“I remember the beach,” said Iniala. “And so do you.”
The lines in the Elders’ faces smoothed out as the muscles tightened behind them. The Elders must have come from the same clutch, thought Iniala. They remembered how to hunt in a pack. Did they believe the poetry about the nobility of Podsong, or were their judgments just an excuse for them to relive their greatest triumph when they, alone among the multitudes, triumphed over the great beast?
The Elders kept up their acoustic smokescreen, but they said nothing. Iniala remembered the times when she hunted alongside Kelem. She stood alert, waiting for prey, waiting for the command to kill. I was a follower once, her posture said. I can be again.
“You believe,” said one Elder, “that Xerfala’s offspring prowl the beach as we speak?”
“It was an idle thought,” said Iniala. “I said it to put things right with Lagi.”
The Elders circled Iniala once more, but this time they examined the skin above her spine at the base of her neck.
“If they do cross over,” said another Elder, “they will need a mentor who shares their bloodline.”
“Or better still,” said the third, eying the base of Iniala’s neck, “we could recombine the halves of Xerfala’s bloodline. Imagine who might cross over if one of Xerfala’s children were to consume this whelp.”
Iniala knew that she had escaped a death sentence, but that her sculpted Podsong and careful words had counted for nothing. Breeding, after all, had carried the day.
“Your idle thoughts may have saved you for the moment,” said the Elders, “but they have consequences. A price must be paid, to send a message to the others. Learn from this, whelp, while you can.”
The Elders let the veil drop, released Iniala, and addressed the others.
“Iniala’s recent outburst reveals an adequate mastery of Podsong, and even some echoes of Xerfala. However, the word is the mirror of the mind, and here we find a deviant mind still driven by animal instincts. We cannot allow such a mind to speak with Xerfala’s voice. We stand by our judgment. She is unfit for admission.”
“Wait,” said Kelem. “The fault was mine, Honored Elders. I was consumed with my work and failed to educate Iniala properly in our cultural tradition. Iniala spoke out of ignorance, not malice. So that my mistake does not dishonor Xerfala’s sacrifice, I ask you to appoint a surrogate mentor for Iniala, one who might succeed where I have failed.”
The Elders trained their eyes on Kelem. Iniala recognized their predatory gleam, but, just as in her dream, fear reduced her voice to a harsh, animal croak.
“Our tradition allows this,” said the Elders, “and we are mindful of Xerfala’s sacrifice, but you would take on Iniala’s transgression as your own, and the judgment as well. Do you accept this?”
“Kelem,” said Iniala and Lagi in unison. “You can’t!”
“Honored Elders,” said Nili, “for the sake of mercy…”
Iniala had seen enough to know that mercy had slipped from their bloodline long ago. Who crosses over, after all, without first shedding the blood of her neighbor?
Kelem turned to Nili.
“If I went to the beach a hundred times, I could not produce one such as Iniala. If I lived to become an Elder myself I could not achieve the greatness she is destined for. Nili, I ask you to take Iniala under your care until the Elders decide she is ready.”
“Is there no other way?”
Nili approached Kelem and softly brushed her snout against the side of Kelem’s jaw. As she pulled back, she whispered to Kelem so the Elders could not see.
“Whatever happens,” said Nili, “you will always have a place with us. I will see to it.” Turning to the Elders, she asked, “Will the Honored Elders allow this?”
“This is acceptable, so long as Iniala displays no further deviant tendencies. From this time forward, Kelem, child of Lexi, will no longer take her place among Podswomen. From this moment forward, the vessel that bore that name shall be known only as podbeast.”
The Elders summoned a dozen large Podswomen as guards. They flanked Kelem and escorted her from the Pod. Lagi and Iniala jostled past the guards when they could, swimming close enough so their forelegs touched hers.
From the Pod, they traveled toward the beach, where the sea floor was shallow. They reached a point where rocks had fallen from an undersea cliff and landed in a pile at the base. The cliff’s edge was ragged and unnaturally sharp in places, as if someone had chiseled spines into the rock.
“Stand aside,” said one of the guards. Iniala and Lagi hesitated until two of the larger guards pushed them out of the way. Two more guards pressed themselves against Kelem’s flanks, and two others pressed against her from above and below. Lastly, a hulking Podswoman approached Kelem from the front and studied her, feeling the contours of her face in a mockery of Nili’s earlier gesture. The Podswoman drew back and screamed. In the lower frequencies, Iniala heard a sound like splintering wood, while the higher frequencies tore into Kelem. The sound struck again and again until the sides of Kelem’s face bulged out. Her eyes swelled shut as fluid collected in the surrounding flesh.
The four guards lifted Kelem into a vertical position, with the sharpened tip of the rocks against the base of her neck. In a practiced and precise move, two of them pinned her while two other guards reared back and hammered her downward with as much force as they could manage. A cloud of blood spilled out behind Kelem. As the guards released her, Iniala, Nili and Lagi swam underneath her to carry her weight.
“What can we do?” asked Iniala.
”I will take care of her,” said Nili. “You two need to keep quiet until the Elders forget about what you both have said.” Iniala allowed Nili to take her place beneath Kelem.
“No,” said Iniala. “I am not going back to those monsters. Not after this.”
“But Kelem is your true sister,” said Nili. “You are of the same clutch. She sacrificed herself for you.”
“I have not forgotten Kelem. I know what I have to do. The Elders can say what they like, but I know there are some voices that speak louder than Podsong.”
Iniala turned away from Nili and swam through the spreading cloud of blood. She returned and faced Nili with the gland clenched in her jaws. She felt her bond with Kelem strengthen in a way she had never expected and the Elders could never have imagined.
“Just promise me you’ll wait for them,” said Iniala. “Promise me you’ll tell them what the Elders have done. Perhaps they will learn to read the words on the star-stone. When the Star People return, perhaps they will be able to speak for us.”
“Wait for who?” asked Nili. “Tell who?”
“You really are dangerous,” said Nili, in quiet, subtle Podsong that showed she was no longer speaking to a child. “You have my word. I will stand watch for them, as Kelem did for you.”
Iniala swam to the ocean floor, felt for some sharp slivers of rock and took them in her mouth. By pressing them against the gland, she separated the nodules and split each one into pieces. That task done, she swam to the beach and charged onto the sand. Though her thin hide offered little protection, she moved quickly, and her speed confounded the lizards’ initial attacks. The lizards dug into her flesh until the blood ran down the sides of her legs and colored her footprints in the sand.
Iniala reached the edge of the woods and dove for a deep, familiar pool. The creatures waited; their ancestral knowledge told them Iniala would lay her eggs and leave, but Iniala, still young, had none to lay. Instead, she arose and spat the contents of her mouth in a wide arc onto the mud, within reach of the horde.
How many pieces? A dozen? A hundred? More? Kelem had said Iniala had crossed alone, so she was Xerfala’s only child. She was sure it was because she had swallowed the gland whole rather than letting the other lizards tear pieces off for themselves. How small could a piece be and still trigger the transformation?
Iniala hoped dozens, even hundreds, of lizards might cross over, enough to form a new generation conceived in mercy instead of bloodlust. Amid the chaos, a familiar sight made her forget her pain for a moment. A pale lizard with a scarred and misshapen leg limped to the pond’s edge and lapped at the water.
The Elders had words for what Iniala saw when she thought of the future. They called it anarchy, disaster, ill-omen. Iniala, though no poet of Xerfala’s stature, had a word for it too.
Illuminate: A History and a Future
By Sadie Bruce
Voice Over – Hannah Skerritt
“My life is a lesson about the things people refuse to accept. And about what they choose to accept. And maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a lovely life. Or maybe you’re thinking it’s a horrible life. And while you’re thinking it’s a horrible life, the person next to you is thinking it sounds pretty great. That’s the problem with everything, you never know what the other person is thinking. So, ok, you take a drug to try and connect. Or you sing a song or paint a picture. And suddenly you get it, you can tap into the perception of the person next to you. That’s the point of creation, right? I never intended to hurt anyone.”
Illuminate: A History and a Future
This is the only shot I’m going to be in. It’s me against the wide blue sky of Idaho, standing along a strip of highway outside Boise. I spent two days waiting for the right weather and the right light. The road bends behind me, the yellow stripes recently painted and bright on the asphalt. Every few feet a stubby pine tree pokes up out of the long grass.
I’ve got a microphone, mostly for looks. I wear a pants suit and kitten heels. My hair is dyed a honey blonde because I think the highlights will look good in the sun. I’ve come to Idaho to visit the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center and finish my documentary. It has been four years since I started and the stretching road seems like a bad metaphor. I hope it doesn’t come across that way on screen. I snort, thinking of the thing ever making it to a screen, small or otherwise.
Lucus pans his camera across the backdrop. I met him two weeks ago at a local bar. He told me his name was Dermot but everyone called him Lucus. I replied that my name was Alexa and that’s what people called me, whether I wanted them to or not. He asked if it was all right if he called me Alexa too. After a few drinks, he took me to his apartment and showed me pictures he’d taken of his niece after she’d broken her arm. Even in black and white I could tell the girl was shaken. Her eyes round as melons and her bottom lip curled in like little kids do when they are dead afraid, as opposed to pouted out when they are merely frightened. I couldn’t tell how the photograph made me feel or if it made me feel anything at all.
“Did you take Illuminate to get that photo?” I asked him.
He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, saying, “I don’t do drugs.”
I laughed and hired him on the spot.
It’s important to have good, creative people working alongside me and they must have a sense of humor. He frames me in the shot. He waits for my cue and I give it. Start rolling.
“This stretch of road is a main conduit for transporting phenoluxamine. Or Illuminate, as it is commonly referred. Developed at a small medical lab in a Boise research park, Illuminate has been steadily making its way across the country. The path dips down into the southwest and along the northern states and, lately, crosses up Canada. Following the drug is an undeniable surge of creativity. Here in Boise, five wooden statutes were carved, overnight, out of trees in the downtown park. The statues, which we’ll visit later, were seemingly created with no hesitation. There is no suggestion that the artist or artists ever paused to make changes. The result is a flawless and strange depiction of a Bacchanalian orgy.
Down south, a farmer in Nebraska reported finding a Mandelbrot set etched into his field. In Wyoming, a full novel was dropped off at a bar, reportedly by a long standing patron who was, as far as anyone knew, illiterate. The incidents may be unrelated. After all, there are plenty of people who ingest Illuminate and do not manage to produce Van Gogh levels of art. However, as the addiction rate rises so does the creative impulse of the users.
I’m going to Pocatello to meet the woman who claims to have created the drug. Her name is Hannah Skerritt. She’s twenty eight years old. She’s white. Upper middle class. And one of the biggest dealers the Idaho Highway Patrol have ever arrested.”
I put the mike down and give the camera one last look.
A truck speeds past. The sunlight reflects off the side mirrors and blinds me momentarily. Lucus tucks the camera into the case. I turn and watch the truck drive into the distance, my director’s mind wondering where the car is going, who’s driving and what it is they want. I watch the day’s footage, standing on the side of the road. It isn’t right. It’s not quite the way I envision it.
“What do you think?” I ask Lucus.
“No, really, I value your opinion,” I tell him. I’m sincere.
“It’s good,” he says.
“Let’s do one more take.”
He nods and pulls out the camera again. “One more take might be wise.”
I fight the familiar urge to be insulted and we do another take.
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center
“So, I met Rory when we were working in a call center at Bellflower Mall. Have you been there?”
Hannah Skerritt sits in a plain wooden chair. Her hands are free but her feet are shackled. The table is polished wood and the setting sun causes a terrible glare that I can’t seem to work around. I try several angles and Lucus shrugs. He’s doing the best he can. It’s not good enough. I try to angle my shadow to cover the glare.
This is the time she insisted we meet. And she purposefully scooted the chair to let the obnoxious ray in. Two inches to the right and she could block it but, she won’t. I set the shot as a close up and I’m doubting that choice now, watching her pores and her vicious mouth. She runs her hands through her hair and the sides stick out.
“I was in college. I was poor, right? Why not? Why not answer customer complaints for a drug company who, it turns out, has a very decent research department and very poor public relations. They hired me and across the cubicle with his spiky hair and his nose-to-ear ring was Rory. I told you he was lovely, didn’t I? Because he was. For the first week, I just sat there and drank him in, like had these crazy fantasies where I would stride over there and rip off his phone and bury my nails in his spikes and he would kiss like a boxer. Even though I have no idea how a boxer kisses, that’s just the kind of stupid shit I was thinking at the time.
“Two weeks later, I said hello.
“Three weeks after that, I switched my major to chemistry.
A year later, there was a chance to go deep in Rory Wellington and an opportunity to be a research assistant. I took them both and maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a lovely life,” she notices my expression, “Or, whatever, maybe you’re thinking it’s a horrible life and while you’re thinking it’s a horrible life, the person next to you is thinking it sounds pretty great.”
She winks at Lucus, biting her pinky nail, tugging at it with her stained teeth and raising her eyebrows. He asks her questions about her youth. I’m much more worried about how I’m going to wrap this into my narrative than any kind of philosophical discussion to be had with a drug dealer.
Hannah asks for a bathroom break and Lucus turns the camera on me.
“What do you think about Hannah Skerrit, director?” he asks, grinning and turning his cap backward.
“I think she’s a complete waste of air,” I say.
He laughs. “So angry.”
“This is supposed to be fun,” he says.
“Are you fucking serious?”
Old Mom’s Diner, Boise
Greta Luntz shows me her driver’s license. I hold it up for the camera. In the picture, Greta is a cherubic twenty something with a spattering of freckles and a ring of kohl eyeliner. She is smiling, looking both amused and tired and it is the expression of a hundred girls, on their own for the first time, standing in line at the DMV. It is the face of new responsibility and freedom. I lay the photo down and Greta herself fills the screen. Or half of it.
Her face has collapsed. Cheekbones and the ridge of her eyebrow jut out at sharp angles and cast a shadow over the rest of her features. Her eyelashes have been plucked out. She grinds the palm of her hand into her eyes.
“Haven’t slept in days,” she tells us. “My eyes hurt. Didn’t ever know your eyes could hurt like this.”
She smiles weakly and drops her hand in her lap. Along the edge of her thigh, the entire time she’s talking to us, she plays an invisible keyboard. She’s composing a song that will never be played, may not even be remembered by its composer, but there is no doubt it is beautiful. Unlike Greta, the silent music is robust and full of life.
“What kinds of things do you like to write about? What do you try and convey in your music?” I ask her.
She twitches involuntarily and I think she might slide off the chair. I reach out to steady her, trying to keep out of the shot.
“Sorry. Been taking Lily so long that I’m one of those lucky people. I get a jolt every now and then, a free shot,” she’s grinning like a child at the ice cream truck. The thigh music speeds up, her fingers moving so fast they begin to blur. The fabled creative rush is happening. I sit up straighter and realize my own heart is racing. I need to get her a keyboard, something so we can hear what’s being made.
“What are you composing?” I ask.
A fleck of spit gathers at the corners of her mouth. Her right eye rolls inward.
“My eyes hurt,” she says again.
I can’t use that. It doesn’t make any sense.
“Do you want to sing something for us?”
Her head lays back. She presses her legs together and the skin piano is wider. The silent song gets more involved. She moans, a guttural sound. Her collarbone pokes through the top of her t-shirt. I reach out and touch her wrist. She’s colder than I expected. Her skin is waxy.
“She smells like the dark room,” Lucus says. I put my finger to my lips, telling him to hush. Lucus and his photography.
Greta slips off the chair, cracking her head on the edge of the seat. She lands on the floor in a pile of bones and exhaustion.
“Shit,” Lucus says, setting the camera down. Sighing, I pick it up and adjust the lens. Lucus gathers her in his arms, stroking back her hair, slicked with sweat. He shakes her and she opens her eyes. I’m trembling, wishing he would move out of the shot and, at the same time, wondering if perhaps him being there is a good connection point for the audience.
“Thought I was sleeping,” she mumbles.
“Sorry, sweetheart. You all right?” he asks.
“They should just stick all of us in a building and blow the fucking thing up,” she says.
She shoves Lucus off and looks at the camera. I pull back to capture her wild appearance.
“That’s what they should do. Kill us all. Burn the Lily factories to the ground. Yes, yes, yes,” she lays down on the ground.
She doesn’t fall asleep. Her open eyes stare at the ceiling but I know she’s done talking. She is still. Almost peaceful. Then her arm floats above her, as if by its own motivations, and begins playing a new song on the chair.
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center
After her break, Hannah shuffles to her seat and collapses. She doesn’t appear to like using her hands, preferring to let them hang by her sides or rest on the table. I reach over and pick a stray hair away from her uniform. I tell Lucus to focus in tight. Her looks have faded drastically. She’s aged twenty years and a day. I find myself wondering what her mother makes of things and maybe I should ask, except Hannah has made it clear she will pull her cooperation if I approach her family.
“How did you first create Illuminate?”
She rolls her head on her twig neck and when she’s facing us again, her mouth is a hard line. “I had this theory, right, not really a theory, just a hunch. About serotonin. You know what serotonin is?”
I don’t answer.
“Serotonin is basically happiness,” she speaks slowly, as if addressing a child. Her attitude is grating. “You get flooded with serotonin and you’re going to feel pretty damn good for a decent amount of time. Serotonin can be found in two places, the central nervous system, in other words, the brain, or the cells of your gut. You’ve got your garden variety drugs that releases serotonin in your brain, right? It’s nothing new. However, there’s this limited supply there and it gets worn out fast. You build up a tolerance and you can’t access the same level of your first high unless you do more drugs. I wanted something long lasting and something that could be accessed, even after the drugs main affects wore off. Like a jolt or an extra hit.
So, I’m thinking, where are all the great untapped serotonin wells? Like I’m looking for oil. And it comes to me one night, while I’m watching Rory on stage. Did you ever see him? There would be a point in a song when he would lean back and his body would stretch out and I was watching and I thought, there it is, in his belly, untapped happiness potential. I just had to figure out how to get it out of those cells and into the brain. It wasn’t as hard as it sounds.
There has been endless research about keeping seratonin sitting on the brain. MAOI inhibitors block seratonin absorption. I used that and added a transport component. The transporters take the seratonin to the brain. Not all of it, or even half. I think only like 40% actually makes it but man, that’s enough.”
Her face softens and her mouth eases up into a slight smile, “And I was so fucking happy in that moment. You know what it’s like when you realize that you can solve everyone’s problems. Like, not just your own but the person you care most for in the world? I could make Rory Wellington so goddamn happy. I thought, maybe, if he was high enough for long enough he could tap into some musical talent he was resisting but, mainly, I just wanted to impress him. I wanted him to see himself the way I saw him and, yeah, ok, see me the way I wanted him to see me too. That’s the problem with everything, you never know what the other person is thinking. I was after making Rory happy because the poor guy was so damn sad all the time. And the only thing that made him happy was drugs. And music,” she pauses, her eyes running down the length of the table and back, her thumb picking at a nail, “and me.”
I can tell she doesn’t believe the last part.
“It never occurred to me that I could make him a rockstar.”
Hannah gets quiet. She chews her bottom lip. Lucus glances over to me and I twirl my finger, keep rolling. He shakes his head.
“She looks sick,” he mouths.
I wave him off.
Come on, give me what I need, I lean forward, hoping to coax it out of her.
“In hindsight,” she says, “I should have seen it coming.”
Dr. Jack Chapman
Boise Medical Examiner’s Office
“Uh, huh. I autopsied Rory Wellington on July 7, 2012. His body was, hm, extremely emaciated. He was discovered by his, well, I guess she was his girlfriend. Though I never spoke to her. I just spoke to his parents.”
The medical examiner stops there. He’s a terrible interview subject. He keeps glancing down and, on screen, that’s going to look like he’s fallen asleep. I ask him to describe the body. He blushes and taps his fingers together. That’s going to make him look maniacal. I motion for the Lucus to center on the report. I try my best to keep the man talking. I’m fumbling. I want this segment to be powerful, to be a big reveal.
“Ok, well, he technically died of heart failure,” Dr. Chapman says, “Though starvation and sleep deprivation were contributing factors.”
I flash a picture of Rory Wellington four weeks before his death. He’s a healthy, handsome young musician.
Dr. Chapman nods, “I know. It’s amazing how quickly phenoluxamine addicts deteriorate.”
“You believe Rory Wellington was an addict?’
He nods again.
I open and shut my fingers like a duck beak, to indicate he needs to speak.
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center
Hannah swings her head back and forth in an arc, her hair dragging across the table. When the camera is turned on and I say her name, she stops, lifts her head, and stares into the lens, slack jawed.
I’m not amused. I will play Hannah Skerritt any way I want. I fight the urge to lean across the table and whisper, “Editing, bitch.”
Instead I wait. Lucus shifts. I put my hand on his hip to steady the camera. He’s so jumpy, lately. The night before, in the hotel, I caught him snapping pictures of a family pulling luggage out of their car.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Trying to find some warmth,” he said, turning his camera on me.
The resulting picture is a woman frowning.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said, snapping another shot.
The next picture is a woman, smiling in spite of herself.
“Look, I’m not giving you the recipe for Illuminate,” Hannah says, “That’s just fucking nuts. I cooked it. It took a while to get it right.”
She opens her mouth to say something else but I stop her. I consult with Lucus about the shot. I want something different, something softer, a way to shoot Hannah so she’s not the seen as the hopeless, strung out prison junkie she is. He has no opinion and I’m annoyed.
Hannah groans, “You’re just like fucking Rory. You want to express something and you think to yourself, hey, I know how to do this. Only you don’t know, do you? You can only dream about the day you wake up and suddenly, you get it, you can tap into the perception of the person next to you. ”
Lucus sets the camera down. He touches my arm and I pull away.
“Pick the camera back up,” I tell him.
“I’m sorry,” Hannah says, “I’m sure your documentary is piece of shit but I’m also sure people will want to see it.”
I shove my chair back and walk out of the room. I lean against the wall, closing my eyes.
“She’s a whore,” Lucus says.
I hadn’t realized he followed me. I’m touched, I guess. I can’t open my eyes to look at him or he’ll see I’m about to cry. Over a stupid girl in prison who’s never done one worthwhile pursuit in her whole life.
“I just want this to be good, you know?” I say, “It doesn’t feel right. Do you ever get that? When you’re taking a picture? Like you’re missing the point?”
“Totally,” he says. “I take it anyway. Come on, let’s go back inside.”
Gunster Medical Research
“Is that what she told you? She was a research assistant?”
Genevieve won’t stand still. Lucus scampers behind her and I try to keep up along side. We hurry down a bare beige hallway that smells of antiseptic. It reminds me of a hospital. Wide gray doors line the hallway and room numbers on black plaques fly by. We aren’t filming. We should be but we’re not because Genevieve won’t be seen on camera. She told me last minute and I heard her trepidation over phone. She was willing to talk but not on camera, she’s sorry, no she won’t do a behind a screen.
Instead, I record her voice on a phone in my pocket. I’ll add her picture, drop her vocal range an octave, and ask for her permission after she sees how well her story plays. That’s the plan anyway.
Genevieve has been at Gunster for ten years. She started when she was twenty but she looks older than thirty. She’s a wunkerkind of sorts. Gunster is known for hiring young kids straight out of or in college. I ask her about this. She rounds a corner and the carpet turns to faded lime-speckled linoleum.
“Yeah, right, it’s true they do hire young people. But, I’m telling you, they didn’t hire Hannah Skerritt I would have been here, what, two years at that point. So I was down the totem pole and I would have remembered someone like her. I heard people mention her name, that she was trying to get a job here. And maybe she got even lower level grunt work than research assistant, I’m not saying she’s lying about getting a job. I’m saying she’s lying about which one.”
“What about the creativity?” I ask.
Her coat swings around her legs as she walks, billowing out when she picks up the pace. “What about it? It’s a side effect, a relatively common one,” she pauses, “What I mean to say is, it can’t be predicted, at least, not that any of us can tell.”
“Why would you try and tell? Are you interested in selling a creative enhancement drug?”
Her heels stop clacking and she stops at a door labeled Lab. She sighs, her hand resting on the handle. She chews the inside of her cheek, glancing down the hall. I resist the urge to tell her it’s still empty, just like it was the last fifty times she checked.
She pushes into the room. I catch my breath. It’s not like I expected. The lab is empty, devoid of the mad scramble I always see in movies. It’s quiet and the tables are slightly dusty. Genevieve crosses to a bank of tall cabinets and opens one. Pill bottles line each shelf. She selects a bottle and hands it to me. I don’t recognize the label.
“It’s an inhibitor. For depression. Basically you’re always releasing seratonin and then reabsorbing it. The inhibitor blocks part of the absorption. Phenoluxamine is made up of some of that inhibitor’s compounds except what Hannah managed to do was discover the holy grail of inhibitors. She figured out a way to pull the seratonin out of the blood cells in the gut, get them to the brain and then keep them there. For a long time.” Genevieve’s shakes her head, “I mean, yes, it’s impressive. But, clearly dangerous. And irresponsible.”
“Why’s it dangerous?” I ask.
“Because we don’t know what effects seratonin has when it sits on your brain like that. Obviously, I’m simplifying things for you here,” she lowers her voice and I strain to hear her, “I mean, it doesn’t literally flood your brain but the transport component works differently in some users. It takes the seratonin to the part of the brain responsible for creativity and leaves it there. Forever. You’ve seen the affects.”
“Incredible bursts of creative impulse and execution,” I say.
“Massive amounts of brain damage,” she replies.
“What if you could get the seratonin off of the area in time?” I probe.
“I don’t know. This lab has been trying to figure it out for months,” Genevieve takes the pill bottle and goes to put it back on the shelf. She stops, turns and tosses it to Lucus. “Take it. You look like you could use them.”
He grins and pockets the bottle. I won’t be getting any steady camera work out of him tomorrow. I glare at him but he doesn’t notice. The shots have been off lately. They can’t have been set the way I set them. He must be tweaking the light exposure or something.
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center
“I wasn’t the one who found him,” Hannah coughs and stretches. I scoot back in time to avoid getting hit with her spit. The last few weeks have been rough. She’s up for appeal and a whole room full of dead teens were found in a basement, the first confirmed cases of overdosing on the new batch of Illuminate. The new batch is stronger, longer lasting, and lethal in relatively small doses. I wonder if Hannah is taking anything inside. Her eyes are dull and she’s lethargic.
I interrupt her rambling memory to ask about Illuminate’s potency. She leans back in the chair, back far enough the two front legs lift off the ground.
“Fuck, yeah, the potency. Well, I mean, that’s what drug cooks do isn’t it? Make bigger, better, badder stuff? Isn’t that the general idea of drugs in the first place? Drugs and movies, right?” she slams the chair down, her body coming forward and I think she might hit her face on the table when she catches herself. She lifts her head and gives the camera a glare. “This documentary, it’s so pat. It’s made up of everything I would think it would be. Interviews. A running theme maybe. Am I the theme? Am I the thing you keep coming back to? How original, Jesus Christ. Aren’t you supposed to reach for something when you do this?” she dismisses the camera with a flick of her wrist.
I’m tempted to break my enforced silence. To defend my work.
Alfie Wanson, P.I.O. Boise Police
The body is covered with a tarp. I hurry over, covering my nose. The smell is disgusting. Lucus keeps gagging and I hope the noise isn’t picked up. The section of street is blocked off with police tape, even though no one in their right mind would be down by this part of town. On the wall behind the body, I can see the mural.
The Boise Police Department public information officer frames himself over the wall and in the center line. He’s a man named Douglas Wanson who goes by Alfie. His title card will say Alfie Wanson. Alfie is a trim man with a trim mustache and light eyelashes. He looks awful on camera, like part of him will blend into the background. I motion for him to take a step to the right so he won’t block the mural.
A set of men sit in a canoe on a calm river. At the bank, tall trees arch over the water and the artist has managed to paint wind without a single brush stroke. By that I mean, the trees are swaying and leaves are twisting. The men in the boat are terrified. There is something lurking on the edges of the forest. I can sense it. Lucus can feel it, I can tell by the way he zooms the camera in and out, trying to find something in the underbrush.
“What you’re looking at is a symptom of an Illuminate addiction,” Alfie says, “This mural is over ten feet tall and was painted by the deceased in about four hours,” he clears his throat, “We found five more like it along the highway. I assume they are from the same artist – ‘scuse me.”
He blushes and waves at the camera, “Can I start over, I screwed up. I meant to say addict.”
I nod. Lucus pans over the mural. I hope he gets a decent shot. He’s been sullen and slow the last day or so, saying I’m taking him away form his real passion. Perhaps, I have been harsh. Yelling at him every time he steps away from the documentary to take a picture. I’m tempted to tell him what his photography lacks but I need him to finish. It’s almost done, I tell him, over and over, almost done. Hang in there. You’re doing a good job.
“We assume they are from the same addict. Eventually he dropped dead from exhaustion. I have to wait for the final coroner’s report, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this young man hadn’t slept or eaten for days,” Artie waves a hand dismissively at the tarp on the ground.
“What will you do with the mural?” I ask.
He blinks. He looks over his shoulder at the men in the boat and back to the camera.
“Paint over it, I guess.”
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center
“Right, so, the basic way it works is you ingest the Illuminate. I know down south there’s some discussion of shooting it but I’m telling you, ingesting is the most effective way. Either by snorting or taking a pill. When I made the first batch it was a dusty, yellow powder that tasted like complete shit and worked pretty much the same way meth does, except with a slightly longer effect and that right there would have been good enough. Except, I don’t know, I just had this feeling I could do better. You know?”
I do know.
Hannah’s leg jiggles and her knee occasionally bumps the table. When it does, she emits a small mew, like a kitten and resumes her bouncing.
“I went back to the drawing board, with this idea of serotonin in the gut. Rory wanted to be the first to try it,” Hannah says. “I knew he would be.”
I want to press her on the issue of Rory and why she would take such a risk with the man she claimed to love. Instead, she reaches into her orange jumpsuit pocket and pulls out a piece of notebook paper,
“I made this list one time, of all the reasons I thought I loved him.”
She flattens the paper on the table and Lucus places the camera directly over it. I didn’t direct him to do that. I hesitate, not sure if I should interrupt the flow of the interview to correct him or if I should let it go, maybe the shot is effective. I’m stunned to find I don’t know the answer.
Hannah pushes the list towards me.
1. You are so thin that when you stand with your head back against the brick wall of the call center, you look painted on. Like you could just blend into Bellflower and be a part of it until the end of time, mistaken for a street taggers art.
2. You hardly say anything at all.
3. You are good at doing drugs.
4. You have so much passion and zero ambition which makes you all dreams and no failure.
This is the reason I know I love you and can’t make sense of:
When we play Jenga and there’s no other moves to make and our whole tower is swaying and your hand reaches out to take the block that will inevitably send it crashing to the table, it takes all of my concentration not to stop you. But you let it fall fearlessly and that’s how I feel when I’m around you – like a shaky stack of blocks ready for one last touch.
“Loving him was wonderful,” Hannah says.
She pulls a picture of Rory out of her other pocket and lays it beside the list. It was taken sometime before he hit big with his first single. He reminds me a little bit of Sid Vicious in that way all punk singers do. His hair is spiked, his body is graceful and thin but he hasn’t quite reached the last stage of Illuminate addiction. He looks relatively healthy even though his hip bones push at his jeans.
“He read that list and didn’t get it,” I say and her falling face is satisfying to me, like torching a wasp’s nest. “You wrote every sweet word you could and he still didn’t get it. So you gave him your drug instead and he took it and left and not once did he understand how you felt.”
I glance at Rory’s image. Even through the glossy paper, I can sense his magnetism. I wonder if it will come through on camera. I wonder if I’ll ever see the shots in my head the exact way they show up on the film or if it will always be this constant guessing game.
Hannah runs a hand down her face, stretching her features into some kind of macabre, melting girl. “My life is a lesson in the all things people refuse to accept. Limitations. Mediocrity. Rejection. So, ok, you take a drug. Or you sing a song or paint a picture. Make a movie, whatever. I wrote the list because I refused to accept – because, I knew, I knew he loved me. I knew it.”
Hannah is framed in the view finder like a portrait. A parting shot of a demon, a woman, a biological mess of cells and psychology. At home, viewers will feel something. They will feel whatever part they identify with – her devotion, her regret, her pessimism at how it’s all going to turn out. She sighs and looks directly into the lens.
“I’m not sure, you know, I couldn’t have imagined it would go this far. I thought it would just…I never intended to hurt anyone.”
She trails off.
I’m praying for a tear at this point. Or actually, lots of them.
She tilts her head, looking at me, “You’re a filmmaker. Would you ever try it?”
I resist answering. I’m not a part of the story.
“I mean, this – “ she waves at the camera and her voice takes on a harder edge, “this thing that you’re making. It’s crap, right? I mean, you know it is. It will play like every other goddamn documentary or interview I’ve ever done. Are you calling it Chemist Zero? Because that’s already taken by some film student from Nevada. So, would you? If you knew, and you do know, it will make you better, make this better. Would you take it?”
She’s glaring at me now. Lucus shifts next to me.
I think of a final shot, me in my bathroom, sitting on my old floormat and shooting Lily.
“Of course not,” I turn to Lucus. “ Would you?”
“Lucus’s a photographer,” I explain. “He takes these halfway decent pictures of kids with injuries. But he’s never sold a single one.”
“I would maybe try it,” Lucus says, and through the microphone his voice takes on a strange, alien quality, “But not for my art. Just, because.”
I think of another shot, Lucus in the old Motel Six, on the same faded comforter we’ve been sleeping on, sharing a bed and a few awkward leg brushes before rolling over to our own edges. Lucus fiddling with his lenses, snorting row after yellow row.
Across from us, Hannah lays her head on the table, peeking out at me from under her elbow. We understand each other. I will leave. I will find Lucus some Illuminate and I will film him as he tries it. As he descends into his addiction, as his photography takes flight, and his pictures of shocked children turn into something worthwhile. That is the documentary I was supposed to make. That’s what the four years of struggle was for. It will be more than I could ever imagine. Thanking Hannah for her time and, silently, her drug, I reach over and turn the camera off.
The Land of Dreams
By Kate O’Connor
Cass set the last feed bucket down and leaned against the paddock fence, idly tugging a soft clump of gray-green dream pig fur out of the wire. The sun was breaking free of the distant mountains just in time to be swallowed up by blossoming amber clouds. She frowned, twisting the wool around her fingers. Just another normal day on the farm. Morning chores were almost done, but she couldn’t seem to settle into her usual rhythm. Even her eyes felt gritty and irritated. She rubbed at them with a cleanish patch of her shirt sleeve.
“Sleepy? Her father hung his elbows over the top wire casually, missing her mood entirely.
“Yup.” Cass shrugged. Agreeing was easier than trying to explain the restlessness that had been tugging at her. They stood side by side and watched while a couple of yearling dream pigs mock-battled over the last few bits of slop. Their curved horns clashed, donkey-sized bodies smacking into each other. “Hey, Pop? You ever thought about expanding the farm?”
“Into what?” His gaze stayed fixed on the posturing dream pigs, but his tone was carefully neutral, putting her on her guard. It was the tone that meant he already knew where he stood on a topic.
“I dunno. Maybe a few more hands to help around here. More stock. We have the best dream pigs around. Who knows? Maybe we could even have farms on other planets someday.” Cass watched him hopefully, for the first time letting her daydream sneak out into real life. There was no telling what might happen if they tried to make things better.
“I like it the way it is. We can manage what we have as a family. Tulandra’s where the dream pigs came from and Tulandra’s where they should be raised. Other planets won’t suit as well.”
“But you don’t know that.” Cass wanted to clang him on the head with the feed bucket. He was always so single minded.
“Getting the off-world itch, Cassie?” He might as well have asked her if the farm and her family weren’t good enough for her anymore. She knew it was what he meant. Her parents had worried about her wanting to leave since she had mentioned looking at off-world farming techniques once when she was fifteen. It was worse now that the new spaceport was finished barely twenty miles from the farm. She hadn’t missed the fact they weren’t all that keen on her running errands out that way alone or lingering there for any length of time.
“It ain’t that. It’s just – what we do is special. We could use that to make a better life.”
“Sometimes, when things get too big, they stop being special. Gotta give something to get something. What’re you willing to give up to make this place bigger? Your home? Your family? Get a bunch of strangers in here and that’s what might happen.”
“It was just an idea.” Cass shrugged, trying to brush off his dismissal. She didn’t think it was fair to assume that making the farm a little bigger would ruin their lives. She should have known better. He never wanted to hear her thoughts about farm stuff. “Don’t you ever get tired of it, Pop?” Cass looked out at the building cloud bank. If she looked him in the eye, he’d know she wasn’t ready to let it go. Then he’d get stubborn back and that would be that. “One bad flood, a new pig-plague, economy crashes…any of that or a thousand other things and we’ve got nothing. Nothing.”
“You think I don’t know that, Cassie? We’ve been here three generations now.” He looked at her like he had when she was six years old and tying bows in the piglets’ fur. “Jimmy’s family settled here around about the same time. Look at them now – no land left after the Land Grant Agency decided they hadn’t made good enough use of what they’d been given. Now they’re all stuffed in a little place in town, living off of what I can afford to pay him.”
“All the more reason to make things better here.” Cass turned towards him.
“Better means a bigger investment. We take enough risks relying so much on the dream pigs for profit. No.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he shook his head. “Leave it alone, girl. We’re doing well enough right now. Be happy with that.” The all-weather comm hooked to his belt beeped and he turned away from her to answer it.
Cass clenched her jaw. Maybe she was wrong. It just galled her that he was willing to settle for ‘well enough’.
“C’mon, enough sulking.” Pop clapped her gently on the shoulder. “Jimmy needs help with Tika. Birthing’s not going smooth.”
Pop opened the barn door just enough to for them to slip inside. The scent of sweet hay and musky-clean animal made Cass sneeze. Twelve pens made a ring around the barn’s open center. Eight were occupied with dream pigs munching on their morning meal. They ranged in color from deep navy to pale rose. Across the way, Cass saw Jimmy kneeling in the bedding of the open birthing pen.
She’d seen him birth hundreds of dream pigs. Even as a scrawny kid just starting working as a farmhand, he’d had a gift for getting piglets to take their first breaths. He’d been good enough that Pop had forgiven him for talking too much about his schooling in crop rotation and animal psych. Jimmy wasn’t nearly so scrawny now and he thought longer before he talked, but his hands were still the best at gently starting piglets in the world.
“Heya, nerd,” she greeted him, shyly bumping his shoulder with her knee before hurrying to wash her hands. He nodded a greeting, eyes on the pen monitor.
Tika’s heart-rate and temperature were above normal, even for a sow in labor. She lay on her side, ribs rising and falling rapidly. Cass chewed her lower lip, not liking what she saw one bit. They usually gave birth standing.
Tika’s belly rippled and she groaned. When the contraction had passed, she raised her wedge-shaped head, whistling a breathy greeting. Cass whistled back, settling into the fresh bedding and twining her fingers into the dream pig’s indigo curls. Tika looked up into her eyes for long moment before the sow’s gaze turned inwards and her muscles tensed again.
“How’s it look?” Pop’s voice said he already knew the answer.
“Not good. If she’s got one stuck, we’re gonna need the vet here,” Jimmy answered.
Pop frowned. “Doc Taylor’s transport threw a tread yesterday. Doubt it’s fixed yet. I might have to go collect him.”
“Miss Cassie and I can manage. We’ll keep her steady ‘til you get back.” Cass felt her face flush. Even as worried as she was about Tika, Jimmy’s trust in her ability made her cheeks color. He wasn’t exactly an intergalactic celebrity-quality beauty, but his eyes crinkled in a way that made her turn a bit silly. Cass wouldn’t say she hadn’t been noticing that he listened intently to her opinions, not to mention how his muscles rippled when he hauled hay around.
Pop thought a minute then gave a nod and headed for the barn door. It shut behind him with an echoing click. Cass sat stroking Tika’s curls and glancing up at Jimmy every so often. Usually they chatted their way through work, but the silence between them stretched. They both knew they were getting past the point where a good outcome was likely. Cass dug her hands more deeply into Tika’s fur. There had to be something they could do.
“Have you tried walking her?” Cass blurted out. She was sure he had. It would have been one of the first things he tried.
“Yeah. She won’t get up and your old man didn’t want to shove her around much more.” Jimmy gave her a worried looked that clearly said he didn’t like this any more than she did.
“Let’s try again. It can’t hurt any more than leaving her laying until Pop gets back with Doc Taylor.” She tried to keep her expression firm as he glanced over at her, but her insides were twisting. It would be all too easy to hurt Tika or the unborn piglets. He didn’t look at all convinced. “Please, Jimmy. She might do it for me.”
Unexpectedly, Jimmy chuckled. “All right, Missy. I ain’t gonna tell you ‘no’ with that look on your face. We’ll give it another go.” She smiled back at him. Pop never would’ve given her the chance, but Jimmy slipped Tika’s halter over her nose and tossed Cass the lead line. “Your show, Boss. How do you want to do this?”
Cass grabbed a spare towel from the birthing kit. Heaving up on Tika’s shoulder, she wedged it underneath the dream pig’s bulky body. “Grab it from the other side, will you?” With Jimmy holding the other end, Cass pulled the towel snug around Tika’s barrel-like ribcage, making sure it was clear of the sow’s straining belly. “We’ll use it like a sling. If we can get her front up, she might be able to do the rest. Ready?”
Jimmy nodded. “One. Two. Three.” Cass pulled, straining to lift several hundred pounds of animal off the ground. She gasped as her shoulder muscles began to burn. Tika groaned, writhing briefly before settling back on her side.
“It ain’t working.” Jimmy grunted from the other side. “We have to let her down. We’ll hurt her.”
“No!” Cass pulled harder, rocking her weight into the sow’s shoulder. She felt the dream pig shift. “C’mon Tika. Move!”
All at once, Tika thrashed, forelegs windmilling and finally catching ground. Jimmy jumped out of the way, narrowly avoiding the sow’s cloven hooves. The three of them stood staring at each other for a moment, panting and surprised, before Tika began to kneel again. Cass grabbed the lead line and tugged her forward. With a sigh, the sow took a few slow steps. Cass kept her going, walking in a steady circle at the barn’s center.
“I’ll be damned.” Jimmy leaned back against the pen gate, grinning at her. “I think you just saved that pig’s life, Cassie.”
Cass beamed back, taking Tika on another circuit of the barn. Halfway around, the sow stopped, a quizzical expression on her long face. Cass started to pull on the lead again, but paused when she realized Tika wasn’t trying to lie down again. “Jimmy! It worked! Jimmy! I see a nose!”
He was already coming with a fresh towel.
Five hours and six piglets later, the barn was dim and still. Dr. Taylor had looked over the new arrivals and Pop and Jimmy had gone to see him out. Cass sat with Tika’s head in her lap, watching the new litter nurse. Six was a good number. Not so many that Tika would need help feeding them, but enough to pay the bills when the time came to sell them off-world.
Cass’ eyelids were getting heavy. She knew she should go back inside. Sleeping in the barn wasn’t a good idea. Jimmy was always on about the pheromone that dream pigs secreted, but for as long as she could remember, she’d known that people sleeping near them experienced deep, intensely realistic dreams.
Both of her parents had made sure she knew how risky it was to sleep in the barn. The longer a person was exposed to the dream pigs, the stronger the reaction was. Every now and then they got the story back about a person who’d actually gone and believed what they dreamed. Jimmy said that was also why people were willing to cough up so much hard-earned cash for them. Pop was crystal-clear when he said he’d give anyone he found dozing in the barn a talking-to.
Talking-to or not, it didn’t seem right to disturb Tika after she had worked so hard. Besides, Pop didn’t know everything. She’d close her eyes a bit and then get up and get back to work. A minute or two couldn’t hurt.
Her hair fell in elaborately arranged curls down her back. The diamond flakes artfully dusted over her designer dress glittered in the candlelight. Music played softly as a few couples moved in time on the dance floor. One of the up-and-coming entertainment celebrities waved to her. She nodded politely back before turning the other way. It had been a long day. She wasn’t up for another inane conversation with someone who was after her sponsorship.
Cass smiled as Jimmy returned with drinks and a sparkle in his eye. “I made us a new connection.” He handed her the drink and settled into the chair next to her. His back was straight and his suit perfect. He had come a long way from muddy boots and shoveling manure. “Those men over there are from Silta. More than that, they practically own Silta. The whole damned planet, Cassandra. And they want to meet you to talk about starting a dream pig farming complex. We can charge them anything we want and they’ll pay it happily.”
“Put it on my calendar.” Cass waved her hand, feigning casualness that she didn’t feel. A contract with Silta would solidify her position in this part of the galaxy. It might even give her a base to start shipping dream pigs out to more distant systems. The old family farm would keep growing, keep making money.
Jimmy looked taken-aback for a moment before he burst out laughing, eyes crinkling. “You almost had me there. As if you aren’t dying to run over and work out all the details right this minute!”
“Of course I am! Just don’t tell them that. Better they think we’re taking our time with it.” Cass laughed with him. She never would have guessed that she had a head for business. It was a shame her father hadn’t lived to see his little farm become a galactic phenomenon. He might have realized how much a little bit of risk could do – how much she could do.
“Up you get, Missy,” Jimmy was leaning over the side of Tika’s pen. He looked so different from his dream-self that she barely recognized him. Cass blinked, trying to get her bearings. The dream had been so vivid. Not a surprise given where she’d fallen asleep, but disconcerting just the same.
Jimmy held out his hand. Cass eased out from under Tika and took it. She tried to picture him in the three-piece suit from her dream. In the light of day, she couldn’t imagine him all fancied up. Jimmy heaved her to her feet and she stepped out of the pen. He was watching her with a worry-line between his eyebrows.
“What?” Cass brushed a tuft of fur off the front of her coveralls and picked some bedding out of her braid.
“You know better than to fall asleep out here. You’re not a kid anymore, Cass.” She glared at him. She knew that. Hadn’t she just proved it with Tika?
“You looking to try to escape school work by going a bit crazy?”
“I didn’t mean to.” Cass frowned. He wasn’t even ten years older than she was. Old enough to be different from the boys at school, which occasionally made her a bit too nervous and giggly, but why was he suddenly treating her like a kid? “Relax, Jimmy. A nap or two won’t drive me loopy. We sell the pigs as pets all the time. None of our clients are any crazier than they started out.”
“They’ve got only one pig each, like the law says, not a whole herd of them. Before you know it, you’ll start thinking they’re telling you the future. Just look at old Benji down the other side of the spaceport. The other day he was down at the bar sayin’ that harmony lilies will fly in space and bloom all over the galaxy. And he’s only got a small herd.”
Cass snorted in amused disbelief, as Jimmy had no-doubt planned. Harmony lilies were a pretty sort of weed. Mum had talked about growing them in the garden but the insects they attracted drove the pigs to distraction. “All right, all right. It won’t happen again. Now move. I’ve got to get the yearlings under shelter before this storm breaks.” She could feel Jimmy watching her as she went.
Cass put the littlest piglet on the scale. Yet again, the diagnostics couldn’t find anything in particular wrong with him besides mild dehydration and somewhat delayed development. He hadn’t put on weight like his siblings and was growing increasingly listless. She knew the feeling. For the last few weeks, she’d been so busy taking care of the litter that she’d had no time to think about her dream.
The piglet shivered again. Cass couldn’t resist. She picked him up, wrapping the little violet ball of fuzz in a thick towel and cradling him to her chest. She had been on the farm her whole life – more than long enough to know that not every baby animal made it to adulthood, even with the costly high tech gadgets. Cass hated it every time.
Pop already had given up on him, but she wasn’t ready to let it go. Pop might be one of the most respected farmers in the area, but she was tired of him having the only say on how things were. Sometimes a little extra was all it took. It couldn’t be that dangerous if she brought the piglet in. A strong dream was nothing compared to a piglet’s life. One handed, she pulled a bottle of nutrient formula out of the warming tray.
Cass checked her watch. It was late. Her parents had been asleep for hours. She could sneak him into the house. She’d be in trouble if they found out. She could almost hear Jimmy’s voice, telling her that Pop would be mad as a stuck boar and no one in their right mind would want that. But then he might also say that a life was worth it.
She paused outside the door, re-tucking the towel around her small charge. “Okay, buddy, now’s the part where you have to hush. You give us away and it’ll be right back out to the barn for you and talking-to for me.” He cooed and wiggled. Not exactly reassuring. Cass waited a moment for him to settle and then tiptoed as quick as she could to her room. Her father’s snores echoed down the hallway even after she shut the door carefully behind her.
Cass settled the piglet on her narrow bed, mounding up the blankets so he wouldn’t fall off the edge. “Stage One complete, pal. One night in and then I’ll sneak you out early enough to keep us from getting caught.”
The piglet nosed his way out of the towel, but didn’t explore further. Her heart sank. Usually they were crawling everywhere at this age. Clad in clean pajamas, she climbed onto the bed. She propped herself up on the pillow and tucked him into the crook of her arm. She offered him a bottle, feeling an untoward surge of hope when he latched onto the nipple.
“You need a name.” Naming him was a bad idea. It would just make it worse. But he was hers. Maybe if he lived, Pop would be willing to trust her like Jimmy did. “How about Lios? It’ll give you something to aspire to anyway.” She grinned. Jamie Lios, superstar singer/songwriter extraordinaire, knew all about taking risks and living the glitzy life. He was tall, gorgeous, and had a voice that turned her heart over… The idea of naming a sickly, squeaking, dream piglet after him was ridiculous enough to tickle her fancy.
Lios smacked his lips and burped. He had finished most of the bottle. Cass set her alarm to wake her in an hour and tucked it under her pillow. “Night, Lios. Get better, huh? That’s an order, midget.” She tucked the blanket around them both, threading her fingers gently into his violet curls and enjoying the hope that disobeying the rules gave her. She fell asleep to the feel of his tiny heartbeat trembling against her fingertips.
Cass stumbled back into her tiny cubicle of an apartment exhausted and smelling strongly of alcohol. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. If one more drunken spacer spilled his drink on her… she didn’t know what she would do. Quitting wasn’t an option. The bills weren’t exactly going to pay themselves.
She had given up looking for a better job. It was the same thing over and over again – she just didn’t have the qualifications for anything other than slinging drinks at the spaceport bar, picking up trash, or heaving baggage for cut-rate cargo liners. She’d tried them all. At least serving drinks there wasn’t as much possibility of being crushed under a pallet or catching some weird trans-galactic disease.
Her old monitor beeped with an incoming message. Cass sat down on the bed and ran a hand through her short hair to straighten it. She’d stopped wearing it long years ago. It was too much trouble. She pressed to button to accept the call without looking at the ID. This late there was only one person it could be.
“Heya, Jimmy!” She put on the sunny smile she used to get good tips as the video feed popped up. Her stomach did a little flip-flop that she worked hard to ignore. He looked tan and tired, but under it he seemed content. He had almost totally taken over running the farm as her parents had gotten older. Since she had left. It suited him.
“Evenin’.” He frowned and Cass smiled harder. She knew he would run straight back to her father as soon as the conversation was over and tell him all about how she had seemed.
“Mum and Pop okay?” She didn’t know why he paid for intergalactic calls, but he phoned every other month or so. The conversation was always pretty much the same. Abruptly, Cass didn’t want to deal with it. She was beat and work started again early.
“Yeah. The folks are fine.” His slow drawl annoyed her. It sounded so… backwater.
“What do you want, Jimmy?” Cass cut through whatever he had been about to add.
He blinked, strong face crumbling a little. “Was just gonna ask if you’re coming home soon. Your parents miss you.” The hurt in his eyes ate at her. All he had ever wanted to do was work on the damn farm, make the pigs happy and the crops grow. He probably even wanted a wife like Mum who puttered around with gardens and sewing and raising kids. It pissed her off that he didn’t want more. Well, he could have the farm and all of its rules. At least here she wasn’t stuck doing the same thing every day, seeing the same faces, never being allowed to have an opinion.
“No.” Cass felt the smile slide off of her face. She didn’t want to have this argument again.
“Just a visit. You wouldn’t have to stay. Just let us see that you’re okay. In person.” Jimmy’s voice was pleading.
“I’m fine.” Cass shook her head. She had snuck away from Tulandra seven years ago. She hadn’t been able to take it anymore – the insecurity, the unending, backbreaking labor, the isolation, the rules about who she could be and what she could do. She had taken her meager savings and hopped the first outgoing ship without telling anyone she was leaving. It had taken Jimmy months to track her down. She hadn’t been back to Tulandra since leaving and had no intention of doing so now. Not that she had any way to scrape together enough money in the first place. That life was a long, long way away. “Drop it, Jimmy.”
“Why are you so damned stubborn? You got no life there. Whatever you thought you were gonna do out in the big, wide universe didn’t work. You look like hell and keep getting less and less like you. Give it up, Cassie. Come home to the people who love you. There’s good stuff for you to do here. We need y—”
She hit the disconnect button hard enough to shake the monitor. He didn’t understand. She couldn’t go back. She was nothing there. Cass threw herself back on the bed and buried her face in the single, flat pillow. Tears soaked into the thin fabric as his words sank in. There was too much truth in them for her to stomach. How was it that after trying so hard for so long she was nothing here too?
Cass startled awake with her alarm buzzing in her ear. Her cheeks were damp and her nose clogged. She didn’t want to go and be nothing. She didn’t want to stay and be nothing. Were those really the only choices for her?
Something tickled at her toes and she almost kicked out at it before her sleep-fogged brain caught up. Lios blinked up at her from the bottom of the bed. He trilled happily when she moved, smacking his lips and toddling over her knees toward the empty formula bottle.
Cass set him on the floor as she hurried to get dressed. The dream lingered heavily in the pit of her stomach. She told herself it was no more real than any other dream. There was nothing that said it would end like that if she left home. She wouldn’t go without telling her parents anyway. They would worry. Jimmy would worry. But if she did decide to go, there was a good chance they would try to stop her.
A noise from the floor distracted her. Lios had spied her bedroom slipper and was giving a threatening series of hoots, his curls bristling. Cass laughed, clapping a hand over her mouth to stifle the noise. She shook her head, grinning as his antics chased away the hopelessness the dream had brought. Her parents would be up soon. Time to get him back to his mother.
The green and purple mountains were barely visible in the pre-dawn light as Cass crept across the yard with Lios under her jacket. The domed barn was a dim, hulking shape in the gloom. She pulled open the door and ducked inside, breathing a sigh of relief as she shut it behind her.
“Cassandra.” She jumped at the sound of Pop’s voice. Her stomach plummeted from where it had been just starting to recover from the dream. Pop was standing by Tika’s pen, flashlight in hand.
“I couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d get started on the chores.” She stammered the words too quickly. It sounded way too much like an excuse.
She heard him sigh in the dark, as if he was too tired to be angry at her. “All my life on this farm and you think I don’t know pig-dreams when I have them, girl?”
“He’s sickly. I thought it would help. And it has. He’s better today. We can’t afford to lose the money.” She already knew this was going to end with her in trouble.
“Put him back in the pen, Cass.” Pop’s voice rumbled. “Losing one piglet won’t break us, but spend too much time with them and they might just break you. As long as you live here, they’re livestock, not pets. You’ve been warned more than once. You’re nineteen. I shouldn’t be telling you again.”
Cass hit the light switch with more force than necessary. Her eyes stung in the sudden bright glow. She stalked towards the pen, pulling the fussing piglet out from under her coat. His curls were ruffled, but he did look a lot more active. Her jaw clenched and she shot her father a defiant look. If he was going to be like this, maybe she didn’t want to live here anymore.
“You’re done with this litter. Jimmy will take over caring for them.” His voice was matter-of-fact, but she could hear the steel in it.
“But, Pop!” It was unfair. She’d taken great care of them. Not that Jimmy wouldn’t, but they were hers.
“No.” He pointed towards the door.
“I know what I’m doing. I’m not a kid anymore!” Cass kept her voice down, but the nearest dream pigs stirred anyway.
“Then get your head out of the clouds. This ain’t a game, Cassandra.”
“I know it’s not. I saved Tika and the litter, didn’t I?” Her voice shook. “You’re not the only one who has ideas.”
“A few lucky chances don’t make you an expert.” Pop folded his arms across his chest. “Now get back to the house. We’re done talking about this.”
There was nothing left to say. Feeling defeated, Cass left the barn. He never listened and he never would.
Cass stowed her bag next to her in the hayloft. Dream or no dream, she was leaving the farm. It wasn’t just the fight with her father. She felt like she’d been trying to get away for years. She couldn’t imagine herself as a farmer’s wife, chasing stock, birthing piglets, and programming the household machinery – keeping things going and wondering if ends could be made to meet each month. Always wondering when the next disaster was coming to ruin them.
Her father was up in the top field, mending fences. He’d made it clear he didn’t want her help. Jimmy was down at the spaceport getting a part for the tractor. Pop had made sure she didn’t go along on that errand either. Was he trying to keep her away from Jimmy now too?
She rolled over onto her stomach, pieces of hay poking here and there. She would leave tonight. She couldn’t ask Jimmy to take her to the spaceport – he still had to work for Pop. All three moons would be in the sky before midnight. They would provide enough light and, if she took her bike, she could be there before dawn. After that, a cheap ship to anywhere would do. She’d figure it out, even if the dream of what might happen had scared her a bit. Cass set her jaw firmly. That just wasn’t her.
The late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows. Most of the dream pigs were outside, but Tika and her litter were still in their pen. Lios was tussling whole-heartedly with his siblings. The night in the house had made all the difference. She would miss them terribly when she went, Lios in particular. Him being alive let her know that she could do things right, even if she felt sick when she thought about her plans. Cass shut her eyes, the warmth and quiet making her drowsy.
The shuttle docked with barely a bump. Annie squealed with delight, clapping her chubby hands and bouncing as much as the straps holding her in her seat would allow. Cass smiled at her daughter, packing away snacks and toys as the flight attendant relayed the usual information about disembarking and gate changes.
Jimmy unhooked Annie, settling her expertly on his hip. “C’mon, little miss. Your grandparents are waiting to meet you.” Cass’s smile became a grin as Annie grabbed two big handfuls of her father’s hair and pulled.
“Easy there!” Jimmy leaned back, trying to escape her reach.
“Hold still.” Cass stood on tiptoe and laughingly disentangled Annie’s fingers. “She’s going to be stronger than you in no time.” Annie had spent most of her short life on shuttles. The trip back to Tulandra had been a long one. Cass was glad the lower gravity didn’t seem to have affected her development. The doctor had assured them it was safe, but she had worried a bit anyway.
They walked down the aisle and out into the spaceport. It had grown almost unbelievably in the time Cass had been gone. It was hard to believe it had been ten years. College had gone by in a blur and she had jumped straight into the job with the Farm Research Bureau afterwards.
Reconnecting with Jimmy had been a surprise. They had spent years talking across the galaxy, but after so long he had seemed more like an imaginary friend than a real person. At least until he had come for an extended visit to see about getting a patent for their strain of dream pig. She grinned. Turned out a nine year age gap wasn’t such a big deal after all. Her parents had been at the wedding via webcam. To her relief, Jimmy had never once mentioned returning to the farm he loved.
She had been the one to bring it up once they’d known Annie was on the way. After a few bureaucratic tussles, Cass had gotten the FRB to let her relocate her work to Tulandra. She wanted Annie to grow up without the constant bustle and pressure of the larger worlds. There would be time enough in her daughter’s life for that and Cass wouldn’t keep her from it when the time came.
The doors opened and Cass breathed deeply. The air was rich with the end-of-summer smells of cut hay and damp earth. Across the road, her parents were waving. Cass wrapped her free arm around Jimmy’s waist and hugged him tightly. They were finally home.
The barn door opened, bringing Cass out of her dream. She peeked over the edge. Relief flooded through her as she watched her father cross the room. She wasn’t ready to face Jimmy after all of that. It was just plain awkward that it was so easy to think of him as ideal husband material. She got up and climbed down from the loft. Pop had his back to her, washing his hands in the deep sink.
“Pop.” She was surprised at how calm her voice sounded. Her hands were trembling. “I want to leave the farm.” Her dream gave her last minute inspiration. She knew what she wanted. “I want to go study at a university. One of the ones on Pollin.”
He finished washing his hands in silence. Cass waited, knowing he must have heard her. At long last, he turned around. She met his eyes, squaring her shoulders and fighting the tears that were welling up. As they stared at each other, his shoulders slumped. The tears got away from her, running down her cheeks of their own accord. She crossed the distance between them and threw her arms around him. “Not forever. I promise. I just have to go for a bit and see other things.”
“Okay, Cassie. Okay.” His strong arms came up around her. “But you get to tell your Mum.”
At that, the tears came on even stronger. He was going to let her go and the he’d let her come back.
The transport was packed and her ticket bought. “Pop, c’mon! I’m gonna miss the shuttle!” Cass’s stomach was fluttering with nervous excitement. Her mother was already in the driver’s seat, having wasted no time telling all of the neighbors that her girl had gotten accepted at a fancy university. Cass leaned out the window, searching the yard for her father.
“Calm down, Cassie. There’s plenty of time. He’s just got to go get something.” She caught Mum’s smile in the rearview mirror. “Now don’t forget, Jimmy’s cousin, Anna, will be meeting you when you get to Pollin Station. She says you can stay with her as long as you need.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I have her picture and her number.” She and Jimmy had already said goodbye. It hadn’t exactly been the stuff of romance vids. He’d pulled her ponytail and told her to punch any guy who looked cross-eyed at her. She’d hit him for practice’s sake, though not too hard.
Pop finally came out of the barn with a travel crate. Cass rolled her eyes in exasperation. She should have known he would take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Tika’s litter was ready to go to their new homes. Obviously he had scheduled one to leave today too.
He put the crate in the back and settled into the passenger seat. They started off down the road. Cass twisted in her seat and peeked into the crate. Lios whistled at her. Her heart sank. Even though she was leaving, she had hoped he would stay at the farm. “Where’s he going?” she asked quietly.
“With you.” Pop answered in a gruff voice. “You’ll need company out there. Already called the university. They let you have one pet.”
“Oh.” Cass settled back into the seat, her grin threatening to split her cheeks. She reached back and stuck her fingers through the slats. Warm breath huffed against her skin and Lios trilled softly. Her special midget was going with her. In the distance the spaceport was visible, growing clearer by the mile. She shivered in excitement. All of her dreams began there.
By J. J. Roth
“I didn’t want oyster sauce,” Simco said. “I wanted miso.”
Above the sneeze guard streaked with mustardy residue, the cafeteria jock’s brown face tilted down to her, pulpy as pudding, without edges. Simco leaned against the tray rails and peered through the acrylic panel, her breath misting a circle on the acrylic that overlapped someone else’s nose print.
Stir fry bubbled in a line of industrial pans that gave off clouds of oily-smelling steam. The jock’s plastic-wrapped hand dropped grey tofu lumps into the first pan and greenish chicken cubes into the next three. His other hand, ungloved and permanently dingy, sloshed a ladle of grainy, tan liquid across all the pans.
Simco looked up at the spongy face. Beads of sweat collected at a hairline receding under a navy bandana worn pirate-style. Simco could not picture the jock’s life outside the Bottle This Laboratories, Ltd. company cafeteria. He seemed a creature born into a steam table habitat; an organism adapted to a job not even androids wanted. He wiped his moist cheek on the shoulder of his shirt, dumped the to-go container that held Simco’s screwed up order into the recycling chute, and rubbed the mustard streak with a grey rag.
“Been a while.” He seemed surprised Simco still worked at Bottle This.
“Big project,” she said. “Lots of meetings. They usually bring lunch in.”
He raised a coarse eyebrow and squirted water from a squeeze bottle, the kind used for ketchup, into a pan of gurgling vegetables and bean curd. Steam hissed and billowed. “What do you do here?”
“I’m a lawyer,” Simco said.
“No fooling,” he said. The bloated lips wormed a smile, exposing a darkened tooth outlined in gold. “My uncle’s a lawyer in East Palo Alto. Personal injury? Emotional distress?”
“No,” Simco said, unsure for a moment whether he was asking about her life or her legal practice. “Commercial transactions.”
“Nice,” he said. “Big project, huh? Important deal?” The stir fry slithered into the Neo-foam clamshell box. He set the open box on the sneeze guard.
“I can’t talk about it,” she said. “I’m sure you understand.” She wrested a pair of wooden chopsticks wrapped in red paper from the plastic basket next to her lunch, eyed the stir fry, nodded, and closed the container.
Back in her beige-walled cubicle, Simco sat in front of her data screen and un-wrapped the chopsticks. Her tiny desk barely gave her enough room to open her lunch. It seemed like forever since Simco could stretch her arms out without hitting something, but she’d only been in this new, smaller cubicle for a few months. The Bottle This bean counters had redrawn the floor plans again to save real estate.
Cost-cutting had been a way of life in Pharma Row since the last century, when Pharma Row was known as Silicon Valley; before the IT industry moved wholesale to China, leaving bio-tech companies poking up like vertebrae along the San Francisco peninsula’s thin commercial backbone.
Through the low wall close behind her, Simco heard a voice murmuring and a muffled chuckle. Her neighbor, a junior lawyer, was gossiping and trying not to be heard, perhaps, or data screen chatting with his wife.
Simco had first learned about Bottle This almost 20 years ago when her psychiatrist, Dr. Nimmer, prescribed Energy. Colorless, tasteless, and without texture, the medication smelled of salt and musk and hummed like an electro-magnetic field. Simco had tried to read the scientific product information, but the letters crawled like bugs along the bottle’s info-screen and her weary, ailing mind refused to make sense of it.
She’d tapped the info-screen until she came to the customer brochure, written at an eighth-grade reading level and illustrated in garish color. This she could handle, even from the depths of depression. “In the 21st century, our great-grandparents had a saying — ‘If only we could bottle this and sell it!’ Now, thanks to Bottle This Laboratories, Ltd., their dreams are your reality.”
A video clip played, boys chasing a ball down a soccer field. More words scrolled. “Feeling unmotivated? Run down? Depressed? Derived from the activity, growth, and metabolic levels of primary school-aged boys, Energy may be just what you need. Use only as directed: full strength for extreme sports or diluted with Bottle This Calm for daily use. All natural. Prescription only. No boys were harmed in the creation of Energy — they have more than enough to go around!” She’d felt too tired to wonder why Dr. Nimmer hadn’t prescribed Calm as well.
Simco titrated to a therapeutic dose of Energy over several days. Before her next session with Dr. Nimmer, she’d been alone in his waiting room, listening to the shushshush of the white noise machine in front of his door and the elevator’s plaintive dinging in the hall outside. She noticed, for the first time, the orchid in the waiting room’s far corner.
On a white marble pedestal table, in a China blue glass pot, the flower’s beauty had made her heart swell to the point of pain. Dainty clips kept the plant erect against a stick wrapped with floral tape. Above the last clip, a graceful parabolic bend of green stem held white, purple-veined blossoms that shone under a soft, recessed spotlight. It looked like love. Perfect, but fragile and out of reach.
A miso-saturated tofu cube dropped from Simco’s chopsticks onto her lap. She cursed and reached into the bottom drawer of her small, grey-enameled steel credenza for an Eradi-towel, just as her data screen woke from hibernation and Cunningham’s face appeared with that fish-eye look that data screen cameras gave to even otherwise handsome men.
Cunningham was a smart, even visionary, R&D VP, and Simco’s favorite client at Bottle This. He respected her legal skill, business judgment, and career potential, while her own senior management saw her as a solid worker, but too old and too introverted to promote.
Simco couldn’t say exactly when her career had gone off the rails. It started well: a law degree from Harvard, a few years as an associate at a big firm. But she’d never found a mentor at the firm, or in the two legal jobs she’d had since. Maybe her career had faltered while she struggled with her grief over her mother’s death, or during her divorce – both in 2135, 15 years ago, leaving her an adult orphan as well as an only child. Or while longing for children and despairing of ever having them, or while adjusting to motherhood.
However it happened, one day she woke up feeling vulnerable instead of valued, worried about keeping the job at Bottle This that fed her kids, Cal, eight and Miles, six — a feeling more acute now that her live-in boyfriend, Steven Barrow, had been laid off. Every school kid knew the economy had never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. With androids now entering the medical, dental and legal professions, the situation was grim, especially for older humans in these professions.
“Jessica, you there?” Cunningham was English, of African descent, and about ten years younger than Simco. His shaved head and penetrating golden eyes made him look younger still. Simco found the quieter tones of his British-accented speech especially appealing. Once — only once — she’d allowed herself to wonder what might have happened had she been younger, and had he not been married with two daughters older than Simco’s sons.
Behind Cunningham, a nursery school room full of two- and three-year-olds of various colors and ethnic origins sat at low tables, finger painting. All the children wore aluminum helmets with spidery tubes winding from them to steel collection vats that droned a metallic engine noise.
Simco gave her lap a once over and decided the Eradi-towel had cleaned her up enough to avoid embarrassment. She tapped her data screen. “Go ahead, Roger.” A spot on Simco’s screen made it look as though something was hanging from Cunningham’s left nostril. She reached for a screen wipe and rubbed it away.
“Has the government deal been inked yet?”
“Not yet. We’re on track for month-end.”
The big deal Simco had mentioned to the cafeteria jock was a government contract for a newly-released Bottle This product, Anti-Bigotry. Under the contract, Bottle This would supply enough Anti-Bigotry to enable all US Federal employees — from the armed forces to members of Congress — to take daily doses as a condition of employment. Washington watchers geared for the inevitable free speech challenge over the “right to hate,” but pundits agreed that the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, a former white-supremacist turned civil rights champion, would swing the Court to uphold the policy.
Ordinarily, Simco negotiated transactions with private hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and sometimes individual medical practices. This government contract was unprecedented. Bottle This would exceed expectations with Wall Street for its next quarterly numbers on the strength of this deal alone, just when the market had taken another downturn. Simco’s top priority was to close the deal, and the end was finally in sight.
Cunningham pulled his chair closer to his screen and lowered his voice. “Can you delay?”
“What?” Simco felt her blood pressure spike. If Bottle This couldn’t report revenue from the government deal this quarter, someone would take the blame. An image flitted through her mind of a target blossoming on her back, like a time-lapsed video of a rose blooming.
Cunningham’s soft-spoken, patient voice launched into a technical explanation. Simco heard the soothing tones, but only absorbed one word in three. “Young kids generally don’t discriminate on racial, gender, religious or other grounds, and with no understanding of sex they can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation. But we’re finding, quite unexpectedly, that some kids pick up on parental biases before age two.”
A daydream floated on the current of Cunningham’s voice. Simco sitting in a sandbox, her vibrant red plastic shovel swooshing through pristine sand. Her mother watching, her smile warmer than the sun on Simco’s bare arms. “We’re focusing on San Francisco and Seattle, where the problem is less severe. And we’re looking into using younger donors. But the parallel play ability must be established to collect the right material, and it doesn’t show up much earlier than two in most kids.” A little black boy with a shaved head crawled into the sandbox next to Simco. He pushed a toy earth-mover while Simco shoveled.
Simco became aware that Cunningham had stopped talking. She forced her mind to pick through the words she’d heard and make sense of them. “It’s a supply problem?”
“Potentially.” If Cunningham, ever the optimist as the best executives were, was admitting to a potential problem, this was huge. “We think we can extract the contaminating attitudes, rather than having to re-collect the raw material we’ve been stockpiling these last few months. Going forward, we’ll filter the contaminants out at the source. It’s just a question of when the filter will be ready, and when we can confirm extraction works. If we can do that in the next two weeks, we can still fill the initial orders.”
“You want to put off signing for two weeks?” Simco brought up her calendar. Bottle This’s quarter ended in three weeks. Even if nothing went wrong, they’d be cutting it close.
“By then we’ll know whether we can make the first ship date or have to go back to the table.”
“What do you need from me?” At the bottom of Simco’s data screen, an appointment reminder popped up. Couples therapy with Dr. Nimmer’s colleague, Dr. Tribe started in thirty minutes.
Cunningham ran his hand over his smooth, brown scalp. “I’ve got it managed. I’ve put some other projects on hold and redeployed two teams. I’ll keep you posted.” Cunningham signed off, leaving a ghost silhouette dissipating slowly on Simco’s data screen. She wiped the screen again where Cunningham’s face had been.
Simco reached into her credenza’s bottom drawer for her handbag. At the edge of her vision, in the lockless drawer’s back corner, was the miniscule vial of Bottle This’s highly controversial and long discontinued product, Eternal Peace.
She’d found it in one of the less used R&D labs a few years back when she’d gone to meet with a client, slipped the vial under her suit jacket and hid it in a dented tea canister under stale Dragon Well leaves.
Simco wasn’t sure what made her filch the death-in-a-bottle, and even less sure what made her keep it. Her symptoms had improved with Energy and other bottles Dr. Nimmer prescribed, particularly Self-Esteem and Optimism. She’d even applied for a job at Bottle This out of gratitude.
But there were still those moments when even Cal and Miles, her islands of joy — the kids she expected to be smart, but not beautiful and who surprised her by being both — could not fill that empty space she felt, sometimes less, sometimes more.
In those moments, she tried not to dwell on the thought that neither her ex-husband nor Barrow loved her enough to father her children. She’d inhale Self-Esteem and fantasize about the anonymous sperm donor she’d chosen as a 42nd birthday present to herself after Barrow told her he still wasn’t ready to be a father.
When Simco thought of destroying the Eternal Peace, her empty space dilated to cavernous proportions, making her reach for her bottle of Relax.
Barrow sat across from Simco in Dr. Tribe’s office, an ocean of blue-green industrial carpeting between them. Barrow had been going on at length, and at high volume, about the many ways in which Simco made him furious.
Most sessions, Simco defended herself. Today, she couldn’t even hear Barrow, let alone listen to him. Her mind drifted into a blank space, a deep, dark pit. She felt pressure behind her eyes that might be the beginnings of tears.
Simco was trying to think of her mother when, from the corner of her eye, she registered Dr. Tribe’s shoes, moving. He wore soft leather moccasins when his gout flared. Today he wore new mocs in a lurid shade of clearance rack orange-brown that made even expensive leather look like cheap synthetic.
Dr. Tribe extended his long, thin legs between Simco and Barrow and crossed them at the ankle; a dividing line, like a tennis court’s net. Barrow immediately lobbed an emotional nerve-gas grenade over it. “I fell in love with you because you made me feel more like myself than I did alone. Now, being with you, I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
An image of the androids that ran across-court snagging net balls at tennis matches flashed through Simco’s mind, a memory of herself at Cal’s age on its heels. Her mother, five feet of unselfish kindness, opening her arms to a sobbing Simco whose best friend had just said, “I hate you. You’re not my friend anymore.”
Simco remembered the steady heartbeat, the quiet voice resonating in her ear, pressed against her mother’s chest. Her mother repeating a little nonsense rhyme she said when she tucked Simco into bed: “I love you better than stars or water, better than the King’s fat daughter.”
Dr. Tribe had turned his attention to her. “You went somewhere while Steve was talking just now. Where did you go?”
She shrugged, fixating on a faint miso spot the Eradi-towel had missed as she blinked back tears. Her tongue went heavy in her mouth.
She and Barrow had been together 14 years, starting after Simco’s divorce. For four of those years they’d been in couples therapy. Simco had begged Barrow to go, hoping to reclaim their initial happiness. Now she just hoped the constant yelling would stop. Once, Dr. Tribe had asked why she didn’t leave Barrow, an easy-sounding question with no easy answer. Dr. Tribe had not pressed her when she said, “Love. Hope. I left my marriage rather than work on it. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again.”
Dr. Tribe said Barrow’s anger, a “typical male expression of depression and fear,” had been “modeled in his family of origin.” He urged Simco to see the scared little boy inside Barrow, uncertain when his raging father would hit him next. Barrow had also agreed to see Dr. Nimmer and had started using Calm. Things seemed to get better for a while, but Barrow was still so angry all the time. Dr. Nimmer said he might be one of the .0004 percent for whom Calm provided no relief.
The room had gone quiet. A siren wailed outside the building, Doppler shifting as an ambulance passed. “Where did you go, Jessica?” Dr. Tribe asked again.
She sighed, her breath shuddering like a death rattle. “I was thinking that I haven’t felt loved — really loved — since my mother died. My kids love me, but it’s not the same. I can’t put a name on it.”
A well of loneliness pooled in Simco’s heart, pulling like a cold, iron weight. Moisture seeped from her eyes and nose, and she heard her own shaking voice ask Dr. Tribe, “Can you?”
Dr. Tribe tucked his legs under his chair and leaned toward Simco. “Unconditional love.” He handed her a tissue and smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
When Simco got back to her cubicle, a woman she didn’t recognize was in her chair. Late 20s, with blue-black hair that hung in a curve around her face, the woman wore a spotless, white linen shirt and a short, black gabardine jacket. “I’m sorry,” she said. “They told me you were in meetings all day. I’m Janet Wu. From the Princeton office.”
“I’ve heard your name,” Simco said, conscious of her facial muscles as they formed polite words. Wu, it was rumored, was being groomed for promotion.
“I’ll pack up.” Wu started to gather her things, and Simco noticed, with an odd sensation of relief, that the tomato-red polish on Wu’s manicured nails had chipped off at the right index finger and the left thumb.
“No worries,” Simco said. “I’m not feeling well. I’ll work from home for the rest of the day.”
“Hey, thanks,” Wu said, as Simco hurried away.
Barrow was out when Simco got home. She tossed her hover car remote and handbag onto the kitchen counter and kicked off her shoes in the hallway as she raced to her home office.
She unrolled her data screen and navigated to the Bottle This product bible, the group of databases listing all Bottle This products: current, former and in development. She ran searches in all the databases, even those requiring security clearance (which she’d received while working on a deal for Mental Acuity a while back and no one had bothered to revoke).
After an hour, she was sure. Bottle This had never had an Unconditional Love product, nor was the company developing one.
As she sipped a cup of malty, motor oil-colored Assam, a form message blinked on her data screen reminding all employees that the annual competition for best new product idea started next month. The person or team that could show proof of concept on the most promising new product would win a bonus, an automatic highest rating at next year’s review, and lifetime job security.
Simco almost deleted the message reflexively, as she’d done every year for the 14 years she’d worked at Bottle This. Instead, she contacted Cunningham.
He didn’t laugh at her idea as she’d feared, and the more they talked it through, the more his entrepreneurial instincts took over. He even started mentally staffing the development effort, ticking off which engineers they could trust with the proof of concept and which might steal the idea.
Cunningham said he found the idea so compelling, he’d ask his best engineer from the Anti-Bigotry project to lead the team, which he’d cobble together by killing some of his own skunk works projects. “I’ll look after that myself,” Cunningham said, when Simco expressed concern about the two-week window for solving the Anti-Bigotry contamination problem.
“What’s your take on the key question, Jessica? What donors produce enough unconditional love to spare?”
Simco thought of Miles, ignoring her warning against running at the community center swimming pool, slipping on the slick tile, and banging his head. Of Cal disobeying Barrow, taking the cash chip with all of his savings — allowance, gifts, Tooth Fairy leavings — to school and losing it. How she felt their pain, rather than dwelling on how their limitations produced it.
She’d held the crying boys, felt the tickle of Miles’ brown curls, Cal’s soft blond waves on her cheek, and inhaled the salty warmth of their skin. She’d recognize them from that smell alone, even if she lost all her other senses. She remembered saying something about better choices next time. She didn’t have the heart to berate them for disobedience and poor judgment.
“Mothers,” she said. “I’d start at playgrounds.”
Two weeks later, Simco arrived at work to find a young man she’d never seen before, golden-skinned and wearing a turban, sitting at her desk. A display screen reading “Reserved for Pradeep Singh, April 18-20” had been pinned to the exterior wall of Simco’s cubicle next to her name plaque.
“You’re here,” he said, flustered. “I’m a new intern.” He shook her hand. “They told me I could sit here while they set up my cube. I can move somewhere else.” Singh looked all of 25, gangly as a fawn and as likely to freeze if a bright light hit his pupils.
Simco had become used to finding strangers in her seat. She’d spoken to her android assistant, Joel 5, about it. Joel apologized for the error. The android department manager had gone in for maintenance the day Joel told her Simco’s meetings were over, and the data had been lost during servicing.
“It’s okay, Pradeep,” Simco said. “I owe a client a visit.” Singh let out the breath he’d been holding. He seemed to shrink two inches before her eyes. A smile tweaked at Simco’s mouth as she headed to the south campus.
Cunningham, back from his Anti-Bigotry-associated travel, was in full headset mode on a data screen conference. He motioned her into a project room and joined her ten minutes later.
He set coffee in front of her. Fancy coffee, from the gourmet kiosk near the cafeteria. “Milk, no sugar. I know how you feel about sweetened coffee.” If she’d still been young and lean, his attention to how she took her coffee would have sent her stomach a-flutter. As it was, she took the kindness as something he’d do for anyone.
“Softening me up for bad news?” she said. The coffee scalded the roof of her mouth and she winced. A brown drip and a lipstick smear stained the cardboard under the cup’s lip.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “Though we’ve run into a hitch with Project Mum.”
Anxiety trickled down Simco’s neural pathways. She rummaged in her bag for her inhaler, shook it more vigorously than necessary, and breathed a whiff of Relax. “Go on.”
He sipped his coffee, black with a sprinkle of cinnamon. “Surprisingly, some mothers do not love their children unconditionally. We had to add a screening process to the donor sample on the front end to sift those out.”
“That doesn’t sound fatal,” she said. Her fingers drummed on the table like the galloping hoof-beats of tiny horses.
He opened a small tin of mints and pushed it toward Simco. “They go well with Relax. Synergistic effect.” When she waved them away he asked, “When was the last time you took a day off? Gave yourself a treat?”
Simco stared at a greasy black scuff on the cream-colored wall. If she looked at Cunningham, she’d cry or spill her guts about her personal life, both things she’d regret. “There’s more to the hitch?”
“Unconditional love is specific to a mother’s children. It doesn’t scale to strangers. We tried birth mothers and adoptive mothers. Same results.”
“That can’t be right,” Simco said. “There’s got to be a way.” She snatched a mint from the tin and bit down on it. Volatile oil burst from the mint, rushed through her soft palate and burned her sinuses. Her eyes watered.
“I’m not giving up yet,” he said. He dropped another mint into her hand, his finger brushing against her palm, and smiled. “It works better if you let it melt in your mouth.”
If she didn’t sob, he’d think the mint caused her tears. She let herself look at him; let the tears come. How absurd that simple civility and the mere ghost of a touch could move her so. How had she come to this? She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and cleared her throat.
“And Anti-Bigotry? Are we ready to sign?”
Cunningham went to an electronic white board on the wall and began drawing diagrams with a stylus, leaving lines the color of sour apples. He narrated a detailed description as he drew, the refuge of scientists who want to avoid getting to the point. Simco wished he’d just look her in the eye and tell her they were screwed.
He stood by the finished diagram, fingering the stylus. “We’re going to come up short. We need to negotiate the first two deliveries down, or slip the start date a month. That’s the bottom line.”
Simco pushed her knuckles into her temples, but the pressure didn’t relieve her pounding head. “Don’t worry,” Cunningham said. “I’ll run interference with the sales team and the executive committee, and I’ll put in a word with your management as well.” He cocked his head and winked. “After Unconditional Love wins the contest, they won’t be able to sack you.”
She folded her arms on the table and laid her forehead on them. She knew she had felt unconditional love not directed to Cal or Miles. But when? Why didn’t it scale? Cunningham patted her shoulder. “Jessica. How else can I help?”
And then it clicked. Simco lifted her head, and for the first time in months, smiled. “Pregnant women. Before they’ve seen their babies. Before they think of them as individuals, or even know whether the fetus is male or female. That’s our donor pool.”
The meeting invitation had winked onto Simco’s data screen a few days after the conference with her manager, her manager’s manager, and Cunningham, in which she and Cunningham had walked them through the events leading to the Anti-Bigotry contract’s delay.
She hadn’t thought much about it until the day before the meeting, when another participant — Roberta 3, the human resources android that supported the Bottle This legal department — was added to the meeting invitation. This was not an irony unique to Bottle This, Simco knew. For the past 50 years, most large companies had outsourced the human resources function to androids. Incapable of emotional investment, pity, or concern over death threats, androids had proved uniquely well-suited to handling terminations.
Simco would not have noticed the change if she hadn’t overheard a manager in the cubicle across from her talking about an upcoming layoff. She strained her ears but didn’t hear her name. When she passed that manager in the hallway later and he avoided meeting her eyes, she immediately checked her calendar.
Roberta 3’s name had been added to the meeting without a flag to announce the change. Simco inhaled a double dose of Optimism and went outside, waiting for it to kick in. She found herself walking toward the R&D building, to Cunningham’s cubicle.
“Project Mum is looking up,” he said, opening a tin of heart-shaped sugar cookies his wife and daughters had baked. The unevenly shaped cookies, scorched black on their bottoms, had been decorated with red, pink, and white sugar crystals that bled color onto their beige surfaces.
Simco declined a cookie. Cunningham smiled at a large red heart before he bit into it.
“I’m expecting a working prototype in a few days.”
“How many is a few?”
“Anywhere from one to four, depending on how much testing my blokes can jam in after their day jobs,” he said. “The deadline isn’t for another week. We’ll make it.”
Sugary crumbs clung to the corner of Cunningham’s mouth. Simco reached out to rub them away out of habit, as she would with Cal or Miles. When she realized her mistake, she made an awkward transition to rubbing her own mouth. “You have something there.”
He smoothed a finger against his lips. “Now?” he asked.
“Gone,” she said.
She wanted to tell him about the meeting with Roberta 3, but he’d already done what he could to absolve her of fault. Telling him would just make him feel sorry for her, the last thing she wanted.
When Cunningham appeared on her data screen three days later to say he’d submitted the prototype, Simco didn’t answer.
She couldn’t face him, knowing, as Roberta 3 had told her that morning, her job was being eliminated. Knowing, as she did from watching this happen to others, that her job in another guise would open up to younger, less experienced, and more “hail fellow well met” applicants as soon as her termination went through. Knowing, as she wished she could tell him, that those applicants would lack both the judgment and expertise she’d developed over a 30-year career and the knowledge of his group’s business she’d gained over the six years she’d supported it.
And knowing that when she finally told him she’d been let go, he’d wish her well and say they’d keep in touch, but that in the fickle, superficial social environment of Northern California, they never would.
Simco put off going into the office to turn in her data screen and gather her personal belongings until the day before her termination became effective. She spent most of the intervening time in bed, staring at the wall, wondering whether Eternal Peace smelled like mint. Barrow, to his credit, took up the slack and made sure Cal and Miles got their homework done and to school on time.
With no more run way, Simco made herself shower and dress that morning for the first time in a week, which was fortunate because Roberta 3 contacted Simco at home while Barrow was taking the kids to school.
Roberta 3 was a short, stocky android with features modeled to suggest a mixed-race human. Simco took the communication in the family room.
“I’ll be in today to get my stuff,” Simco said. At least Roberta 3 would report to Simco’s management that she had presented a professional image after being fired.
“There’s been a change in your status,” Roberta 3 said. Simco could learn nothing from Roberta 3’s eyes, but she stared into them anyway. “Your invention with Roger Cunningham placed first in this year’s competition. Because you’re an active employee until tomorrow, the award supersedes your termination. Take the rest of the day, but please report for work tomorrow.”
Simco clapped her hands, jumped up and let out a scream. Roberta 3 had no reaction, not even a blink. Simco thanked the android and signed off just as Cunningham appeared.
“And get this,” he said. “I’ve never seen a prototype need so few improvements. We start ramping production next week.”
“You have no idea how great this news is, Roger.” Her eyes drifted from Cunningham’s beaming face to the framed image on the red brick family room mantle. Simco standing with her mother, arm in arm, next to a purple-veined orchid in a China blue pot.
Dr. Nimmer sat in his usual boxy, grey upholstered armchair, but Simco had risen from the couch. Someone had moved the orchid from the waiting room corner into Dr. Nimmer’s office, in front of the picture window. Simco ran her finger over a petal, tracing the purple vein. Its softness, perfect and delicate, finally within her grasp.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I hope by now I’ve earned your trust, Jessica.”
“But Dr. Tribe said it’s what’s missing.” Simco let her hand drop from the petal to her side. “The only reason Bottle This even has an Unconditional Love product is because of me. I took responsibility. I went after what I needed, just like you’ve always said I should. Why are you doing this?”
A drop of blood beaded on a hang nail Simco had tried to tear off with her teeth. Dr. Nimmer’s watery, blue eyes peered up at her, sad and dog-like. When had he become so ancient? She felt a surge of panic that he might reach 115 in the next year and retire. Or was 115 now the new 105? She hoped so, and if not, that she’d be able to find another human shrink who was still taking on new patients. She couldn’t face the idea of telling her problems to an android. She longed for someone with body heat and a pulse to listen to her.
“I’ve read the literature, and I’m concerned,” he said. “You’re putting all your hopes for a good life into this product. I find no indication that it will do what you think it will. It won’t replace your mother, Jessica. It won’t even make you feel loved, as she loved you.” Dr. Nimmer walked to Simco and put a warm hand on each of her shoulders. “Science can’t solve everything, Jessica, even in the 22nd century. It can’t solve feeling alone, feeling unloved. That’s one reason some people still turn to religion. Still believe in God. Come. Finish your session.”
Simco brushed past Dr. Nimmer, sat with a violence that caused the couch’s spindly legs to screech and carve a two-inch gouge in the wood floor, and crossed her arms and legs. She felt the muscles and veins in her neck bulging, her skin burning red.
She knew she looked the picture of hysteria, a picture that two centuries of feminism hadn’t eradicated from the collective consciousness of men. But she was too angry to worry how Dr. Nimmer saw her and what he’d write in his notes. She jabbed her bloody finger at him. “How many times have you told me not to be afraid to ask for help? That I settle for less than I deserve? This is me asking for help. If you won’t prescribe it, I’ll go to someone who will. That will be me not settling.”
Dr. Nimmer sighed and shook his head. “Do you honestly think this will solve everything?”
Yes, she said to herself. Oh yes, yes. That pit, that hole, I’ve had for so long. Filled. Gone. The missing part, found. Once it is, how can everything else not click into place?
She looked over her shoulder at the orchid, remembering its feel.
“Of course not,” she said, her gaze hanging on the orchid as she said what he wanted to hear. “It won’t bring back my mother.”
She thanked Dr. Nimmer and left his office, while a prescription for Unconditional Love pulsed its way from his data screen to the pharmacy across from the Bottle This offices.
When she imagined the moment she would first hold Unconditional Love in her hand, Simco saw herself savoring every millisecond. Taking in the shape and color of the bottle, how heavy it felt in her palm, the size and shape of the product information’s font, how the promo video had been shot and cut. She imagined taking notes with every sense like a wine connoisseur, likening the color within the bottle to mahogany or tangerine, the aroma to stone fruit or leather, the sound to distant tides or the flutter of wings, the taste to citrus or rose, and the feel to a perfect orchid petal.
But as soon as she was in her hover car, she tore open the packaging with trembling hands, without so much as a glance at the bottle or what was in it. Instead, she closed her eyes and attacked, gulping the substance into her lungs like a woman too long under water, starved for air.
When she opened her eyes, Simco was lying in the back seat of her hover car, a puddle of drool sticky between her cheek and the ivory leather seat. The burl walnut dashboard’s data screen said 11:30 a.m., two hours since she’d arrived in her office parking lot. She had no memory of those two hours and braced herself for a rush of panic. But none came.
She climbed into the front seat to look in the mirror. Except for her tousled hair, she looked fresh and rested. She peered into her middle aged face and felt the sensation of looking at a child -– a child who needed, and deserved, her love. Her heart went out to that child, full of silent promises.
Inside her office, Simco opened her credenza to stow her handbag. The Dragon Well tin, shinier than she remembered, caught her attention. Hadn’t there been a dent on the front? She picked it up. Yes, the dent was right where it should be, in the slick, silver finish under the last, graceful Chinese character. No more than a slight bend in the tin’s surface, really. It had seemed so much larger before.
Her aisle was empty. She suspected everyone was at lunch or in meetings, but just in case, she held the tin under her desk where no one could see her open it. The tea leaves’ scent wafted to her nose, fresher that she remembered, sweet, green and vegetal, though the long-expired date on the tin hadn’t changed. She took a stylus from her desk drawer and poked among the leaves, intending to dig out the vial and, finally, destroy it.
It was gone.
Simco closed the tin and set it on her credenza next to the images of Cal and Miles. She thought of Janet Wu, Pradeep Singh, and all the others who’d sat in her cubicle over the past months. How many had found her credenza drawer unlocked when looking for a place to park a gym bag or a lunch box? How many, curious and unwatched, had given in to the impulse to go through her belongings, even so far as to open her tea? One of them, with his or her own secrets and hurts, had found the Eternal Peace she’d stolen and pilfered the vial.
And Simco, who hours before would have begun to sweat and hyperventilate upon finding the vial gone, sat with a steady pulse of 60 beats per minute and felt her heart overflow with love and concern for Janet, Pradeep, and the others, the children they’d been, and the mothers who loved them.
“You remembered.” She smiled at the cafeteria jock.
He smiled back. He must have whitened his teeth, she thought. His brown skin, firm across his cheekbones, glowed with a healthy sheen, as though he’d just taken steam after a brisk swim. Simco watched through the spotless acrylic as he ladled the miso over pink-white chicken cubes sizzling among crisp, bright broccoli, carrots and mushrooms. He moved deftly, cooking by feel, with confidence and pride.
Simco imagined him as a boy, playing with pots on his mother’s kitchen floor, presenting her with pretend crab ceviche and mushroom flan. She imagined him this evening, going home to his wife and baby, cooking real mushroom flan with cilantro fresh from their small garden.
“How’s your big deal going?”
“It’s done,” she said. “Hey, I don’t think I know your name?”
He stopped mid-stir, shifted uneasily on his feet, and then smiled again, like a shy child. How many of the hundreds who ate here daily took the meals he prepared without asking his name? How many saw him as a creature of the steam table habitat, or worse, didn’t see him at all? “I’m Emilio.”
“I’m Jessica,” she said.
He poured her stir fry into her to-go container with an artful flourish. Why had she thought his hands were dirty? Even his nails were even and clean.
“Looks delicious,” she said, as he placed her open container on the sparkling acrylic. “You could be a chef at La Montagne.”
“Nah,” he said. “All the top restaurants have android chefs now. The owners prefer it that way. No food-borne illness, no sick days, no prima donnas. If you’re a human who wants to cook for other humans, this is where the action is.”
A tide of love and pride washed over Jessica. For Emilio, and for the mother who encouraged him to follow his star. When the tide receded, it left forgiveness for Steven, the beaten boy whose mother failed to protect him. Forgiveness, like a perfect, gleaming shell on a beach washed clean.
She thanked Emilio and went back to her cubicle to prepare for her one o’clock with Roger. She thought she might bring him fancy coffee from the kiosk, black with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Garden of Little Angels
By Kevin Kekic
“Katelyn, d-do you think they are p-poison?” Arabella asked me. Her voice sounded hoarse, the cold air sending small puffs of mist from her lips. Next to her, little Gregory bounced on his feet, the possibility of food giving the boy a sudden burst of energy. It was our third day alone in the Whispering Forest, our third day without food. The waterskin I had stolen from Father was almost empty, and dusk was fast approaching.
“I don’t know,” I answered. The bushy plant stood two paces high and held many clusters of berries. I pulled one from the clump. It was a juicy, deep crimson. A quick glance at Gregory revealed a string of saliva hanging from his chin, just above the sickening bruises where Father had strangled him.
“What if it’s baneberry?” Arabella questioned, her brown eyes both panicked and hopeful.
“No,” I answered, “baneberry has pointed leaves. I used to pick them for Mother when she had an ache in her belly.” One or two baneberries could remedy a stomach cramp. Six or more could stop your heart.
A sob escaped Arabella’s throat. She clutched my arm. “I miss her,” she murmured, and I immediately cursed myself for mentioning Mother. My little sister was only eight years old, and Gregory six. Our perilous escape into the Whispering Forest was wearing heavily upon them. I could see it in the hollows of their eyes, the sag of their shoulders. “As do I, little dove, every day,” I said softly, my mind wandering to Mother’s passing. It still held a great weight on us. She was the one who had held our family together, who made life in the Whispering Forest bearable. After her freakish death everything changed. Our world grew darker, the forest more threatening. But Father, Father had changed the most. In my mind I could still hear his scream as he strangled little Gregory, shaking him until the tips of his toes scraped the wooden floor of our cabin. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” He had yelled at my baby brother. “Don’t you shut that damn door!” I remembered turning and seeing the cabin door closed and latch
ed. Why shouldn’t the door be closed? I wondered, legs trembling, as Gregory let out a muffled yelp. His brown eyes pleaded for help, the skin on his face darkening as he struggled for breath. I picked Father’s sword off the dinner table. It felt so heavy in my hands. I walked to them…
Arabella’s sudden scream broke me from the spell of old memories. I spun and saw her lunge forward and swipe at Gregory’s face. But it was too late. Little Gregory smiled, his lips and teeth streaked red from the juice of the unknown berries.
“What are you doing?” I shouted, reaching out and slapping at his hands. He stepped backward, dropped the clump of berries to the forest floor, and started to cry. His face was chapped and the streaks of fresh tears made his pink cheeks glisten. I went to him, pulled him close. “How do you feel?” I said, trying to sound calm. “Tell me.”
He sniffled, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his deerskin. “I’m good,” he said. “It feels warm.” He patted his belly. I waited a moment, observing, yet saw no signs of sickness or poison.
While I was concentrating on Gregory, Arabella had wandered off a few paces ahead. “Katelyn,” she called out, “come see what I’ve found!” I guided Gregory through thick brush and found Arabella beside more berry bushes. Further beyond, a group of young saplings grew bunched together. Their bark looked sickened, taken with a fungus, yet as I drew closer I saw the smooth bark had in fact been painted on from the red juice of the nearby berries. Images of flowers and butterflies, of knights and dragons, wrapped themselves around the young trees like a child’s totems.
“Other people have been here!” Gregory shouted.
“And look,” I said, pointing to the nearby berries. “They’ve been picked from.”
“That means we can eat!” my sister said.
“Yes, I believe so.” Yet I wondered for a moment if the berries had been picked, not to eat, but only to decorate the saplings. Although I did not believe so—for what children would want poison on their fingers? And Gregory, he had shown no ill effects from the berries he had eaten, so we immediately began pulling clusters from the bush. I put three in my mouth and bit down. They were delicious and sweet. I felt a comforting warmth spreading in my belly, as if drinking from a glass of wine.
Once my stomach was full I spent a long moment enjoying my brother and sister. No longer hungry, their fingertips dipped into the berry juice and became crimson quills, creating the edges of a broadsword on an unmarked sapling. The sun had fallen lower, and the forest shadows grew long and thin. I closed my eyes, breathed in the cold air, and heard the sound of a giggling child.
I sprung to my feet.
“What w-was that?” Arabella asked in-between a harsh bout of hacking coughs.
“Someone’s over there,” I whispered. “Come.” We stayed close, continuing down the slim pathway. The trees were tall above, their branches gripping one another other like the outstretched hands of old, dear friends.
A shadow rushed between the trees.
“I’m scared,” Gregory said, clutching my hand tight.
“Hush now,” I scolded. We did not move. Waiting in silence, the wind howled, making my eyes water. I pulled the hood of my deerskin tight against my ears, stifling the chill. As I was about to step forward another figure appeared. “Weeeeeee…” it called forth, its shadow slipping between the trees, although much higher than the last, as if floating in the air.
“It’s a ghost,” Gregory said.
I told him he was being foolish, yet my thoughts had been the same as his words. After all, the laughter of children was known to be heard in distant areas of the Whispering Forest. Mother had called them ghosts of the young dead, forgotten not just by their families, but also the Gods, and left to roam the forest until the end times.
With my brother and sister each gripping one of my arms, I stepped from the tall oaks and into a clearing. To my left a shadow approached quickly with a glow of light at its center. I pulled my little ones close and watched the shining pink orb grow near. It rose above the ground, and from this closer distance I could see what made these people float. A rope was tied to an overhead branch, high up on a maple tree. The figure swung from it, sailed into the air, and landed nimbly on the ground before us.
It was a young girl, perhaps a year older than Arabella. She stood and stared with big blue eyes. I nodded to her and she giggled. She wore a long cloak, dyed pink, which matched the glowing light around her neck. Her shoes were pointed sandals shaped to the grooves of her feet.
“Hello,” she said with a smile.
“Hello,” I replied. I was about to say more, but the girl pulled the glowing necklace free and placed it around Arabella’s neck.
“Keep it,” she said quickly, “I have more.”
“Thanks,” my sister replied, but the girl was already on the move, skirting past a fallen tree, over a shallow creek, and out of sight.
We all stared at the glowing necklace. “What is it?” Arabella asked. I touched it gently with a fingertip. It was round, warm to the touch, with five narrowing points jutting out of it, each of which pointed in a different direction. The pink aura it encased us in seemed magical. “I believe it grows from ancient everling trees,” I said. “Most call them star apples.”
Arabella held it up to her eye. “It’s beautiful.”
“Come, we must hurry,” I said, pulling the sleeve of Arabella’s deerskin.
Gregory’s dark eyes held me in suspicion. “Why?” he asked.
“Because I want to see what lies beyond that creek.” We reached it just as the sun set. Darkness clung to everything outside the glow of the star apple. The creek waters were low lying, and we easily hopped across flat stones to the other side. As I was about to climb back up to the forest floor when I noticed something strange. Just in front of my eye the rock wall lightened from dark gray to a light silver. I put a finger to the darker stone and it came back moist. I helped Arabella and Gregory out of the creek, wondering how the water line had dropped so far, so soon. There hadn’t been a rainstorm in over a fortnight, and the weather had been quite dry.
So why had the creek waters been full?
With the night fully upon us we pushed forward to the chatter of crickets and the crunch of dead leaves. An orange glow appeared in the distance. I heard crackling and chattering and laughter.
“Fire!” Gregory yelled. I couldn’t stop him—he was running to the flames before I could say a word. Arabella followed, the hood of her deerskin slipping to her shoulders as she tried to keep Gregory in the glow of the star apple. I followed, and within moments we were engulfed in the glow of a massive bonfire. Its logs were stacked against each other in the shape of a cone, crackling and popping. Nearby children quickly surrounded us. Girls in pink cloaks and boys in blue ushered us closer to the fire. Soon I was seated beside my brother and sister as a wave of heat melted away three days of cold and fear. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, comfortable. My nose was runny and my eyes watered, but I did not care. For I was warm…we were warm.
The children offered hot cider and watched us drink. I took a small sip, enjoying the delightful heat spreading inside my belly. Gregory took quick sips, not taking the time to smile or speak. Arabella meanwhile, was quite the contrary, chatting with the little girl who had given her the star apple as if they had known one another for ages. The hoarseness in her voice lessened with every word. The usual sparkle in her eye was returning as well. Even her cough had slowed. “Where are we?” Arabella asked her new friend with the big blue eyes.
She smiled and said, “You are in a special place. A place for lost children to play!”
“Our garden of little angels,” a pleasant, yet older sounding voice spoke out just behind me. I turned to see an elderly woman smiling at us. She wore a plain tunic and a snug fitting cap tied under her chin. Many of the children ran to her. “Mother Dyana!” they exclaimed. She embraced them, yet never lost my eye. “A place where children can grow,” she said. “A place of hope.”
“Wonderful,” I said, and took another sip of hot cider. “But what is this doing out here? And why have I never—”
“Come with me for a moment, child,” she interrupted as kindly as possible. “I will explain.” She directed the other children back to the fire. They huddled around my brother and sister, as I was ushered along a dirt pathway. I glanced at Gregory and Arabella. They were laughing and joking with the others. Gregory had a tart in his hand, as did several of the other boys. He took a big bite, smiling as he wiped custard from the tip of his nose. Beside him, Arabella clapped hands with her new friend, reciting an old song I remembered singing when I was her age.
Here lays Thorus, snoring in the forest
By first light he will whisper death’s chorus
I left them there, at ease in their safety, and followed Mother Dyana down a curved trail, brightened by the light of torches staked into the nearby ground. They glowed in different shades and colors—reds and blues, violets and greens—creating the illusion of walking, not on a dirt pathway, but on the edges of a rainbow.
We approached two cabins, each with a wooden sign near its roof. As I looked closely, I saw pictures of dolls and soft bears had been painted on one, and on the other, a silver sword and shield. As I closed in on the cabin with the painted sword and shield I noticed something so spectacular I almost shouted out in surprise.
Windows! The cabin had glass windows!
“It’s beautiful,” I said, placing a gentle finger against the glass. It had been years since I had seen a window, and never before had I seen one so large. Beyond its invisible wall, under the glow of candlelight, toy swords and wooden shields lay on a table of white cloth, surrounded by painted carvings of famous knights. One of them was dressed in black armor with an insignia of an iguana on its breastplate.
The mark of the Talum.
I let my finger play along the edge of the glass where the Talum Knight stood with his sword pointed outward and ready to strike. I thought of Father.
“You can have that Talum Knight come the morn,” she said.
“No thank you, Mother Dyana,” I said with dryness. I stepped away from the glass, sadness gripping my chest. My father was a Talum Knight, and the finest swordsman I had ever seen. He knew both glory and honor. But after our Kingdom fell to the barbarian tribes, and the good King Rhaedon butchered in his own king’s chair, Father had taken us south, away from the promise of death and torture, and to the free cities, where a peaceful life could never be found. For father was a Knight of the Talum—and no matter how much we tried to hide, tried to blend—in the end he would always be recognized. And then we would run again. And it wasn’t until after many seasons of running that we finally escaped to the Whispering Forest. For only a fool would follow us any further. And there were no fools to be seen this far south of the compass—just ghosts and death.
Mother Dyana patted my shoulder. “Just wait until dawn,” she said near my ear. “The smell of the bakery will have your mouth watering before you take your first step from bed.”
“You have a bakery?” I asked, forgetting both the Talum Knight beyond the glass wall and the injured one, or perhaps dead one, I had escaped from back home. The bakery should not have surprised me, not after seeing Gregory eat the tart by the bonfire, but it did nonetheless.
“But wheat cannot grow in the forest.”
She put her hands together as if in prayer, and said, “In this forest, in our village, everything grows.” She smiled, making the folds of skin on her neck and cheeks wrinkle. “The children feed our garden with their love, their innocence, and from this sustenance we will always eat, we will always survive. It is the way it has always been. This is the forest’s gift to us.”
I nodded, wondering how that could be. As we continued down the path I indeed saw a bakery, larger than the toy shops I had just passed. It had two round chimneys of stone. They were unused at the moment, but I could only imagine the smells they would create come the morn. Further along stood a butchery. Mother Dyana pointed to the nearby pits. “We are roasting a boar for tomorrow’s feast, in celebration of your arrival.”
My stomach grumbled like a hungry bear. “A feast? You are too kind to us, Mother Dyana.” She smiled and we pressed on. “Do you always feast for the arrival of lost children?”
“Not always, my dear.” She placed a hand upon my arm and led me toward a grand looking homestead. “But young Angelet seems to have taken to your sister. And it has been long since I have seen her smile the way she had been by the fire.”
As we neared the front door I told Mother Dyana our names and explained that we had become lost in the Whispering Forest. I left my family’s story untold, although I did explain to her that both my mother and father were dead. She remained silent throughout, and at the end patted me softly on my back. She then pointed at the large structure before me. “This is the girls’ quarters,” she said. “On the other pathway of the forked road is the boys dwelling. But not to worry, Gregory will sleep with you tonight. I’m sure he will want your comfort for several nights, until he becomes settled.” I smiled, thankful that she understood my feelings.
Inside I was told to take off my leather boots and hung my deerskin on a large rack beside the door. The soft wool rug felt wonderful under my feet. I took in the comforts of the room. Toys and dolls lay on white tables, brightened by nearby oil lanterns. Vibrant paintings hung from the walls. A fireplace sent strong heat on my arms and face. Just beside it a door was propped open, and from the door a strapping boy entered carrying an armload of wood. He was perhaps my age or slightly older, with long dark hair, and handsome green eyes. He set the wood down, pitched in two logs.
“Boy, bring Katelyn a cup of cider, and some bread and honey.”
The boy turned, bowed, and walked out of sight.
I followed Mother Dyana up a twisting set of stairs. The lodging seemed much larger from the inside. Once on the third floor she showed me to my bed. “Your sister will sleep here,” she said, pointing to the bed beside me. “And Gregory on the next. You can bathe come the morn.”
I smiled and said, “Thank you Mother Dyana. Thank you so much.”
“You are quite welcome, child.”
“Do you—” I said, and then stopped, hesitating.
“Do I what, child?”
“Nothing, I just…have a question.”
“And what is your question, Lady Katelyn?”
“Do the children ever leave?” I asked quicker than I would have liked.
I watched her smile twitch, just once. “Now why would anyone want to leave our garden?” she asked, before standing up and smiling once again. “This is more than a passing stopover for these children. This is home.”
“Good. Now have a bite to eat and get some rest. I’m sure it’s much needed.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been so kind.” I sat upon the mattress. It was soft, so soft, and the blanket heavy and warm.
“Not to worry child, I have spent almost a lifetime here, and I have helped countless children find their way.”
A moment of silence crept by as the young man brought me the bread and cider. I took a bite of the deliciously sweet bread. Mother Dyana had not yet left, she was primping the pillow on a bed across the way, so I questioned her one last time. “Do other elders live here?”
She turned to me. “Yes child,” she said. “Damerus the butcher, and Espan our watch guard. They have served our children for many seasons.” Downstairs I heard the rush of happy children. My brother and sister soon found me, filling my arms with a warm embrace. It was so joyous to see them looking healthy and without fear. But then my eyes found the bruises on Gregory’s neck, and a cold chill rooted deep in my bones, as Father’s mad words continued to echo in my ears, in my head. “Don’t you shut that door!” he screamed, clutching Gregory’s throat until his eyes seemed about to pop from their sockets. “Don’t you shut that damn door, boy!”
I watched them wander off. Arabella played with her new friend, Angelet. They clapped hands on the mattress beside me.
Sleep forever, always together, holding each head that we dismember
The old song brought gooseflesh on my arms and neck. Arabella’s smile, however, was like magic.
I placed the empty dishes from the cider and bread on the bare floor just before the lanterns were put out. The girls had quieted, and even the blue-eyed Angelet had retreated to her bed. Gregory was still awake, beside the only lantern which still held flame. He sat on Mother Dyana’s lap, as she told him an old bedtime story. I did not like the way he looked at her, with those wide eyes, and that big grin. And the way he called her mommy—not mother, or Mother Dyana—but mommy. It made me quite angry, yet the comforts of bed soon pushed such emotions away. I struggled to hold open my eyes, but they were much too heavy. I pulled the thick blanket over my shoulders. The warmth was immediate.
The sound of heavy footsteps and the scent of musk told me the handsome boy had returned to take away my empty plate. I felt hair brush along the side of my cheek, felt warm breath as he leaned much closer than needed. As Mother Dyana spun tales of knights and kings to little Gregory, I heard him whisper beside my ear.
“You never should’ve come here.”
The early morning was filled with the bustle and excitement of the coming feast. The girls seemed in high spirits, dressing quickly into their linens and robes, chattering all the while. Angelet had already found my sister’s bed. She was lively, chirping like a robin. “It will be so much fun! We haven’t enjoyed a feast in ages!” Beside her, Arabella smiled from ear to ear. Her eye found mine, and she jumped from the mattress and into my arms. “I love it here,” she told me. I struggled to hold back tears. She looked so healthy. And her smile so genuine. “I know little princess,” I told her.
Soon after, Mother Dyana appeared with little Gregory at her side. I wondered where he had been, but was not surprised to see who he was with. “Mother Dyana has clean garments for us,” Gregory said. He wore a blue robe and newly crafted leather boots. He hugged me and I could smell the perfume of soap on his skin. “You bathed him?” I asked sharply.
“Why, yes,” Mother Dyana said. “Little Gregory was quite untidy. Such a mess young boys can make.”
“Yes, such a mess they can make. A mess suitable for his sister to clean.”
“Now, now, Katelyn,” she said sternly. “There is no need to be haughty. Not here.”
I forced a smile. “Yes, and no need for my brother to be undressed by strangers,” I answered, my voice holding sternness as well. “Even here.”
Mother Dyana seemed about to speak, but then paused and took a deep breath. She exhaled, appearing to lighten some as kindness returned to her eye. “My apologies, Lady Katelyn. I’ll be sure to tell you of the on goings of your family from now onward.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Although soon you will see just how much larger your family has truly grown.”
I nodded. “I look forward to it,” I said with a smile.
Gregory squeezed me tighter. “There’s a hot bath for you and Arabella. Mommy said—”
“Mommy is dead, Gregory,” I said, trying to hold on to that same smile.
“Not her,” Gregory replied, “new Mommy.”
I felt my stomach spike with anger, yet said no more. I allowed Mother Dyana to lead us outside, where several large wooden barrels sat beneath a large canopy. One of them was filled with bubbles of warm water. Gregory played in the nearby dirt while Arabella and I scrubbed off three days of dirt and grit in the soothing bathwaters. We then dried off, changed into clean linens and pink robes, and followed the sounds of laughing children. We walked the same path from the previous night, although no rainbow fires lit our way, just the golden rays of the morning sun. Outside the butchery Damerus swung a cleaver, chopping meat. He was thick and burly, with a balding head and eyes black as coal. His apron was stained red with blood. As we passed by him he did not look our way. I was thankful for that.
Near the bakery children ate steaming hot cereal and drank wild cider. Arabella explained how apple trees grew in abundance in the garden beyond our sleeping quarters, so cider was plentiful. She also was pleased to tell me the name of the berries we had eaten last night—sunberries. They only grew in the garden and other close, surrounding lands. I assumed Angelet had told her this, but did not ask.
We ate at a small table. Even though the porridge was made with plain water instead of milk I couldn’t deny its sweetness.
Once finished we crossed the path and made way to an area of flat land where the children played. It was a wondrous sight to behold. Rope swings hung from the branches of tall oaks and maples. Children swung, cheering and screaming, some letting go high in the air and crashing down into giant piles of leaves. Further down, old amber trees had been hollowed out and scattered along the grounds, creating a series of lengthy, joining tunnels. Some dipped underground, before reappearing elsewhere along the grassland. The boys seemed to mostly play in those.
The grandest sight, however, was a massive wooden horse as tall as the trees, which it surely was fashioned from. It was a remarkable work of craftsmanship, and, judging from the amount of children playing upon it, was also the most beloved. The horse reared on hind legs, muzzle pointed skyward, as if a grand knight should be mounted on its saddle, inspiring the beginnings of some great battle. From a distance it seemed as if the children could easily fall, but as we walked closer to the structure, I could see small steps carved into the wood. There were also shafts fastened for the hand to grip. Some of the boys played high atop the horse, fighting with wooden longswords. The muzzle, at least what I could see of it, was empty of children and seemed much too high for the boys to dare try and conquer.
I let Arabella and Gregory play while I watched from a table near the bakery. Emotions pulled me in opposing directions. I was glad to be away from Father and his vicious cruelty. I could not forget the way he glared at Gregory as he grabbed him, strangled him. If I hadn’t struck my father with his own sword, plunged it deep into his side, Gregory surely would have died.
Yet even in the comforts of this newfound land I still felt a cold sense of dread. I did not know who to trust in this garden of angels. I did not know who to believe. The boy from last night could have just been toying with me, trying to frighten me because, well, he was a boy. And Mother always said I was hardheaded. Trust did not come easily.
Dusk approached, the sun fell behind the trees. Angelet had gathered another star apple and placed it around Arabella’s neck. The star apple from last night had lost its glow before sunrise, so my sister was quite thankful for another. I heard a bell ring near the butchery. The children ran to it, cheering “Feast! Feast!” Gregory scurried away to Mother Dyana, who scooped him up and carried him toward the pleasant scents of roasting boar.
I was about to follow, for I did not like the way Mother Dyana embellished him. But a passing glance at the giant horse made me stop and change direction. The boy from the previous night, the handsome one who said I never should have come here, was sitting atop the horse’s muzzle, as high as the tips of the surrounding trees.
And he was watching me.
A strain of great effort took me just below the horse’s muzzle. The muscular young man sat above me, looking to the feast, where the children ate and played. “Hello, young man, can you hear me?” I yelled as loudly as I could, yet was answered only by the whispering winds. I yelled again, louder.
“I hear you, girl,” he said, shortly. “But you must meet me up here if you are to see the truth.”
A frightful moment of nerves left me unmoving. I dared not look down. I closed my eyes, took a long breath, and started to climb. It took great effort, and once I had almost lost my grip, but I made it. Scraped, bleeding and sore, but I made it. I sat next to him. “You could have helped me.”
“I could’ve pushed you.”
I had no answer for that. “So where is this truth, boy?”
“So where is this truth, William?”
He pointed out into the distance. “Beside the tower, Katelyn.”
A man stood on the high tower, looking off into the surrounding lands. “That must be Espan the watch guard,” I said. “Mother Dyana informed me—”
“Never mind him,” William said. His head snapped my way, long hair flapping like the wings of a crow. “Look below, at the base of the tower.”
“I see the creek.”
So I did. The waters rushed fiercely. “Is it the same I passed over last night?”
“It seems more like a river.”
He studied me. His green eyes almost glowed in the setting sun. “And why do you think that is?”
I had an answer, but was afraid to say it. “Because Espan controls the water…”
“Very good,” he said, nodding. “How did you know?”
I shrugged. “The water mark was high on the creek’s wall when we crossed it last night, yet the water itself was much lower.”
“But do you understand why?”
I thought this over.
“Because it’s a trap,” he said, answering the question for me. “Look around and see—how close together the trees grow to the east, how jagged the land grows to the north. There is no escape.”
Far below, the children ate and drank. No one seemed to notice I was gone. “Have you ever tried?” I asked.
He grimaced, spat to the ground far below. “Yes.”
“And what happened?”
“My little brother was taken to the garden,” he said, pointing east to an open area my eyes could not quite see. “I never saw him again.”
A jolt of anger struck me. “If that is true, then why are you still here? Why do you not fight?” I spit to the ground, just as William had a moment before. “Unless you are a coward.”
He considered me for a moment, perhaps deciding whether to push me to a crushing death or leave me be. “I have a sister,” he finally said. “Dyana said she would not call her here as long as I tended to the chores of the garden.”
“Call her?” I questioned. “Where is she?”
“She lives with Mother, near the edges of the forest. My brother Jon and I went hunting last summer. We lost our way, ended up here.” Down below, the torches that burned rainbow fire the previous night had returned, although now the fires burned purple and pink, Arabella’s favorites. As I watched below for my brother and sister, William continued, “My sister comes looking for us from time to time. She knows we—knows I—live somewhere in these parts. She hears some of the secrets these trees whisper.” Near William’s feet a sliver of wood had splintered off from its smooth mast. He snapped it off, dropped it over the side, and watched it fall. “Once, my sister grew so close I could hear her calling for me, for Jon.” He looked to me. “I feared more than a thousand deaths that she would cross over that stream and become trapped. You see, it is not just the high waters that cage you in—there are things, deadly things, with razors for teeth and a taste for young flesh—that swim in the creek waters when its level ris
es. And I will do what must be done to see that my sister does not become caged, like you, like me…” A moment of silence passed between us. I thought to question him further, yet his mind seemed farther away than the setting sun. Eventually he questioned me. “How did you come to be here?”
I gave him a simple story, much like I had to Mother Dyana. Although I did tell him truly of Mother’s passing. How a short walk to pick mushrooms turned deadly with a simple slip in the rain. And although William had begun to earn my trust, I did not tell anymore. I did not mention Father, and how he found her—for he finds everything. And how he carried mother home to our small cabin he had built the summer before and burned her on a slab of stone. “I will not bury her,” he said simply, his eyes sunken, as they would be from that day onward. “For the roots grow deep here. And I will not let them whisper her name.” I did not mention how he had changed after her death. How he no longer smiled, no longer put us to bed. How his days were spent sharpening his sword until it cut through the meat and bone of a skinned deer in one smooth stroke. He liked the sound of steel scraping the water stone. It was pleasing to him, he said. It silenced the whispers.
Once finished I asked him, “So what of us? What will become of my family?”
“You can stay here, enjoy the garden’s pleasures. Until it takes you.” He paused and let his legs hang over the side of the wooden post, rocking them back and forth. “Most everyone gets taken.”
“And what of this feast? Who will be taken tonight?” I asked, as a cold dread spread throughout my belly.
“Don’t you know this already?”
“I do not,” I snapped at him, “So tell me, boy!”
“New children do not get taken unless they are of such pure spirit the forest need not whisper in their ear.”
I felt a sudden dizziness.
“Bad children are not wanted here. Joy must be grown inside. So those torches become fake sunshine,” he said, pointing down below. “That bread becomes cursed soil. The cider wicked rain.”
William paused, as if deciding what to say next. “A pure soul, is she not? She’s always believed in you hasn’t she? No falsities needed to lighten her spirits?” I felt helpless. Hot tears burnt away the bitter wind stinging at my cheeks. The boy continued. “I believe Angelet sees this clearly. The other children are unaware of the happenings here, the diversions of this garden are many, but Angelet is different. She seems young, yes, yet she has been here longer than I, and her eyes see deep. Was it she that placed the star apple over your sister’s neck?”
“Then I am sorry, Katelyn. For once Angelet placed the star apple upon your sister’s neck, her fate was decided.”
“The child who wears Angelet’s star apple is the one whom the garden has chosen.”
“That is the way it has always been,” he said, and tried to squeeze my hand.
“No,” I screamed into the growing darkness, pulling away from him as if he was diseased.
“Where are you going?” William called forth, but I was already on the move. The moonlight was slim, and I hardly could see. William called out again, but I paid him no mind.
I was no coward. I would not let them take my Arabella.
My hands were numb from the bite of the cold and I feared losing my grip. As I climbed lower the wind relented, and I was able to reach the flatland safely, crunching over dry leaves as I ran to the butchery.
The children sat spread out in the grass. Some sat near the tables, stuffing boar meat into their mouths under the wash of purple and pink torches. Several children greeted me warmly, yet Arabella was nowhere to be seen, nor was Gregory. And as I looked around I could not find Mother Dyana as well. I asked a few of the children and they just shrugged their shoulders. The door to the butchery swung open and Damerus stepped out carrying a large wooden plate. “Where are they?” I asked, but he passed by without a word, went to the boar, and began pulling meat straight off the bone. I followed him. “Where are my brother and sister?” I asked again, and he turned, his fingers dropping a hunk of steaming meat on the plate. He smiled. The purple glow of torchlight and the orange flames roasting the boar made him appear mad, a vision from an old nightmare. He nodded to the pathway. “A feast is always a good day to see the garden, m’lady.”
I started to run, rushing along the pathway, a sickness growing in my stomach as I stormed past the girls’ lodgings. Running in the direction William had pointed out from atop the horse, I soon came to a clearing. Up ahead a torch burned. As it grew closer I saw a cabin. The torch was staked into the outside wall beside a door. I pushed and the door opened with a groan. Inside was a quiet stillness. Oil lamps burned, revealing a tidy room. Cupboards held items both strange and unfamiliar. I saw bones and spices, dried snakeskins, and a plate holding a tall mound of salt. The floor was hard wood. I stepped beside an old table where a black cat sat, watching me with emerald slits.
I entered a hallway. Up ahead a door rested half open.
This cabin is where Mother Dyana sleeps, I thought. This is her home. I went to the door and opened it fully, revealing a room flooded with light. Candles surrounded all four sides, neatly so, their flames flickering as one from the gust of air caused by the doors open thrust. On an old, worn bed Mother Dyana and Angelet sat together. Their eyes were closed, and they seemed to be in some kind of prayer. Gregory sat at the foot of the bed, leafing through the pages of a weathered book.
“Where is she,” I yelled with a fury. Angelet opened her eyes, calmly. “She is in the garden, Katelyn,” she said. Her eyes were icy diamonds in the firelight. “Down the hall. Go see, go see.”
Gregory hummed an unfamiliar song. He never took his eye from the book.
I left them there and stepped out into the hallway. I felt cold air on my lips, as if kissed by something long since dead. At the end of the hall was another door. I opened it and went outside, listening. Just the quiet of the night, the soft murmur of wind.
“Arabella?” I called out softly.
Star apples glowed from their branches, revealing rows of sunberry bushes. Beyond those a field of wheat stretched onward. Yet Arabella was nowhere to be found.
“Arabella?” I called out, moving forward. I approached the sunberry, praying for the sound of her voice. “Arabella…” A gale of wind pushed at my back. It chilled my ears and tossed my hair over my eyes, making me wish for my deerskin. I shivered, rubbed at my arms.
I stopped, glanced to the ground at my feet. A star apple lay in the grass, just before the first row of sunberry. A rope hung from it.
Tears welled in my eyes. I picked up the apple and stared into its glow.
Maybe she is just picking berries, I told myself. She does love them so…
A slow moan cut through the wind ahead of me. It was feeble, but I heard it well enough. Even in the cold my heart raced, and as I neared the source of the sound, I found her.
I dropped the star apple and stared for a moment, confused. My mind could not quite understand what my eyes were seeing, and when it finally did, the beginnings of a smile turned quickly and cruelly into a scream. Tears filled my eyes. It was as if the garden was consuming her. Everything below her waist was under the soil’s surface. And the rest of her, the parts that I could see, had changed. Branches had burst from her skin. Some were needle thin, while others were thicker and already sprouting young buds. They were everywhere—her neck, her face, from the arm that reached for me. I grabbed her hand yet quickly let go when I felt rigid, spindly wood instead of fingertips. “Oh, my little one,” I said, reaching for her face instead. “What have they done to you?” I dropped on my knees, close to my little sister. The brown had been taken from her eye, leaving a white film in its place. A single, small sunberry had formed in this whiteness and when I caressed her face it popped, sending a streak of red down her
cheek as if she cried blood.
“What have they done?!” There were other berries growing from her skin, and the beginnings of a small clusters forming on the twigs pushing through. “My little one, my little princess, what have they done.”
Arabella opened her mouth to speak but just a low exhale of steam came from her lips, followed by a low moan. From where her mouth hung open I saw earthy green. Where here tongue should be, rounded leaves were twisting, moving.
I gripped Arabella’s arm tight and pulled, trying to free her from the earth. She did not move, only made a sickening sound—not quite a scream—and I released her, cursing the cold night. I stood up, crying, wishing for a large rock between my hands so I could bring it down upon Arabella and end her suffering. As I glanced around for such a thing I heard the door creek behind me. My eyes found Gregory. A smile was on his lips and his skin was ghostly pale. Behind him, Mother Dyana stood with a hand upon his shoulder.
“What have you done to her?” I screamed, and ran towards the door. “What did you do to my sister?” But neither said a word. The only answer I was given was little Gregory’s grin as he backed away and closed the door before me.
As I raced to the door I could see my father clearly in my mind—the mad anger in his eyes, the purple vein swelling in his neck like a fat worm. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” he had yelled, and as the door snapped shut in front of me, just before my fingers could jam inside the opening, I wondered if he had known, if he had somehow seen this wicked cruelty.
The door was barred shut from the inside, and I heard Gregory speak just beyond it, “Mommy, can you tell me a bedtime story?”
“Gregory,” I shouted, “Gregory, open this door!” I pounded on it with a balled up fist until the side of my hand was raw and bleeding. He would not answer me, although I had not expected him to. Not when Mother Dyana was telling him a story. I could feel her words slithering through my mind, through my bones.
Our garden will smile on us tonight, little Gregory. The leaves whisper to the birds and the soil.
I took a step back, struggling with my footing. Looking down, I saw grass creeping over my boot. I pulled away as hard as I could. My foot broke free.
What do they whisper Mommy?
The ground moved below me. I stepped away from the door.
Arabella, I thought. I must go to Arabella. So I went to her, pushing forward. Yet my feet seemed heavy. Each step harder than the last.
They whisper of hope. Hope for all lost children.
Something crawled up my leg. It scratched through my linens, cutting into my skin.
I love it here Mommy. Can I stay forever?
I ripped it free. It was a root, slithering like a snake.
Why of course. All children stay forever in our garden. Our little angels will always have a place to grow.
A torch burned beside the locked door.
Perhaps I could pull it free and burn this cursed garden to the ground? But my footing would not allow it, and as I lost my balance and fell backward my body struck one of the star apple trees. I gasped from its impact. Surely I would have fallen to the ground if not for the branches tight on my skin. I screamed, struggling, but the embrace of the whispering forest was too strong to break.
On the second floor of the cabin was a small, wooden window. And from this window Angelet watched me. It was not made of glass, just simple wood, and she had swung it open like a door. As the tree crept along my skin, swallowing me inward, she spoke to me. “She doesn’t like your taste very much,” she said with a giggle.
I tried to yell up to her, but things were inside me, crawling in my throat, scraping it raw. “She will take you anyways,” Angelet continued, “though it will take much longer than Arabella. She was what the forest needed, not you.” From the tips of my fingers I felt pointy twigs sprout from the skin and under my nails. The tree’s bark seemed to be crawling up my spine, attaching itself to me. It itched and burned as it changed me. “Although your star apples will grow bright, I am sure of this. Just as I am sure to place the brightest around the neck of the next child the forest brings us.” She closed the window. From the side of my neck came a pink glow. I could feel it, not warm, but cold as ice. It bubbled just on the edges of my skin. Surely more would follow.
I wished to scream. But the Whispering Forest would not allow it. It was already twisting deep in my throat, in my mouth.
Soon I just wished to die.
The morning hour came. The sun did not warm the flesh of my body, for it was no longer flesh. It had hardened, darkened. Leaves twisted into my hair. My feet were rooted deep into the soil. Everything was cold.
Eventually children came out to pick sunberries. They talked of how wonderful they appeared, how red and plump and delicious they would surely be. “Never have they been finer!” one young boy said, plucking berries right from the bush that was once my Arabella, his face smeared red with crimson juice. It was Gregory. He rubbed his belly and walked past me. I reached for him, yet my brother would not look my way. Although I was sure there was a hint of a smile playing on the edges of his lips.
As the children left the garden my thoughts became thick and confused. I thought of Mother, and how different everything would have been had she not slipped in the creek bed. I also thought of what Father said to us after her freakish death. “The roots grow deep here. And I will not let them whisper her name.”
Back then, I had thought the act of burning Mother to ash to be an act both cruel and cowardice. She should have been buried—such is the way of our people.
Although now I knew the truth.
The roots did grow deep here. Of that my father was honest. And while the forest will never whisper Mother’s name, it already whispers Arabella’s. I could hear it deep in my mind, in the cold place where my heart once beat.
She must feel so alone, my sweet Sister.
But she won’t for long.
Because soon, very soon, the forest will whisper my name as well.
By John Zaharick
I learned the secret of Justin’s fossilized fire shortly after I realized I wasn’t in love with Melissa anymore. We were drinking on the hill over Shenecker’s farm in the evening, like when we were kids. I wanted to tell him I didn’t know why I was married, that I had been playing along for the past few years, hoping things would fall together, only to realize pretending wasn’t going to make it real. Instead I asked him about the fire.
He sold shards in bottles at the flea market. They stood out from the homemade jewelry, blankets, and wooden ducks. The red and orange pieces curled about themselves, thin as leaves, but hard as stone, like twisted sheets of mica, a flame trapped in a single moment, never changing.
He wouldn’t tell anyone how he made them. If you asked his wife, she’d mention his workshop in the basement, but knew nothing else. I’d been in Justin’s basement, seen his hobbies. He had no kiln, no way of blowing glass. Besides, his flames looked nothing like glass.
They were his secret. So maybe it was the alcohol that loosened his tongue, or our friendship, or both.
“If you know where to look and how to look, you can see it–the second sun.” He stared across the fields and spoke with a seriousness that should have been mine, discussing my marriage. The grass was a few inches high, but would be a few feet come summer. Beech and maple trees grew behind us, but in front headlights drifted down two lane roads around plowed fields.
“Where is it?” I asked. “The other sun?” He didn’t make any sense, but this was the first time he ever said anything about the flames.
“Look to the right of the sun. It’s there.” He pointed to the sky with the hand that held his bottle of lager.
“You’re gonna make me go blind.” I smiled and took a swig from my beer.
“Then don’t worry about it. I’m the only one who can see it, and I’m fine with that.” He finished his beer and placed the empty bottle in the cardboard six-pack. “Where’s the bottle opener?”
“You’re full of shit.” I handed him my keys. “We all know you make them in your basement.”
“Keep on knowing then.” Justin popped the cap off another bottle. He always looked in need of a haircut, and random tufts stuck out of the back of his head.
We didn’t say anything for a few minutes. The sun was behind the hills in the distance. We still had enough light to see without the glare being annoying. Spring peepers chirped in the trees, growing louder, replacing the overbearing light of the setting sun with the overbearing cries of frogs.
“I don’t think I’m in love with Melissa,” I said.
Instead of responding Justin sipped his beer, and then, “It’s too late for that.”
“I know. I don’t dislike her. I just don’t…she’s just another person, and I always thought a wife should be someone I feel passion for.” I looked at the homes below, some lit, some not, spread out among the farms.
“Are you cheating on her?” As secretive as he was about himself, Justin was blunt with everyone else.
“No. I haven’t replaced her with someone else. I feel like I’ve lost something.”
Despite the frogs, I lowered my voice. Justin stayed monotone. “When did this start?”
“I realized it about a month ago, but I think I’ve felt this way since Sarah was born. I’ve been too busy thinking about her and trying to support them to notice.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know. I seriously don’t know.”
Justin took another drink. “That sucks.”
“Yeah. Thanks for listening to me.”
“Don’t tell anyone about the sun. Okay?”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone how crazy you are.”
We had been in our house for three years by that point. It was just a row home with a porch and a small yard, but better for Sarah than the apartments Melissa and I had been living in. A real home is what we were supposed to have at this point in our lives. I thought about my parents’ house as I ran my hand along the railing and then opened the screen door. I grew up in a house like this and now I owned one. That’s how things were supposed to go.
Melissa came into the living room with a small grin as I took off my shoes. “You’re back. How’s Justin doing?” she asked. Her blonde curls bounced as she moved.
“Same old. We had a few beers and talked about work and stuff.” I put my arm around her back, pulled her close, and kissed her on the forehead.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, wrapping her freckled arms around me. Her grin became curiosity. “You have that sense about you.”
“Nothing. I just have to ask people for money tomorrow. The last guy I laid brick for still hasn’t paid me. It’s annoying.”
She slid away from me. “People are such jerks. Anyway, dinner is pretty much finished. Can you get Sarah upstairs while I set the plates out?”
“Sure.” I watched her leave the room. If she was a stranger on the street I would call her pretty, but I wouldn’t bother to talk to her, even though I once did.
A few months passed and I forgot about the conversation with Justin. So I wasn’t expecting it when I saw it. I walked through the square to the coffee shop for lunch, feeling the summer heat. An electric sign announced the town fireworks display. I glanced at it and then looked up. I don’t know why. I never look at the sky. I should have jerked away from the harsh light, but I saw it, next to the real sun, like Justin said–a second star, a green sun, dimmer, hidden in the glare of the original, but there. Two eyes burning down on me. My eyelids squeezed shut and I turned my head away, spots dancing in my vision.
People walked down the street, jogged, led children along. Did they see it? I looked up again, but it was gone.
Maybe it was a trick. The glare on my eye, a double image from the brightness. Was the idea still lurking in my mind, ready to jump out when I stopped paying attention to it?
I felt dizzy in the heat. I kept going to the coffee shop, to sit in the air conditioning. I looked at the sun again. Only one. But everything felt odd, like when the tint is wrong on a television.
I wanted to tell Melissa, but I didn’t know how. She folded Sarah’s laundry in the living room when I came home. I needed to say something, so I blurted out, “How are you doing?”
“Sarah gave me trouble all day. She took a crying fit in the supermarket and I left before I could finish getting everything we need.” She spoke without looking at me, her eyelids sinking.
“Do you need me to look after her right now?”
“No, she’s taking a nap.” She gave me a weary smile. “How was your day?”
A pressure built in my chest. I wanted to tell her what I had seen. “Fine. I’m almost done the chimney for the Platts.”
She put the clothing back in the basket. “Do you mind if we just order a pizza or something tonight? I’m really tired and it’s too hot to cook.”
“Actually I kind of wanted to see Justin, so that’s fine.”
She stood and shoved the basket into her hip. “You can go over there. I’ll take care of Sarah.”
“Don’t you want to eat first?”
“If he doesn’t feed you I’ll have something saved for you. You worked all day. Go have a good time.” She took the basket upstairs. Reliving the moment I could tell she was mad at me, but at the time I simply took her advice.
Justin’s black lab lifted its head on the porch as I approached. It barked twice and then jumped up, claws scraping the wood as it got to its feet and ran toward me.
“Down, Muddy, down!” I yelled as the dog put his front paws on my stomach and tried to lick me. I scratched the back of his head and then pushed him to the ground. The screen door creaked and Justin came out with a dish rag in his hand.
“Muddy, come here!” The dog turned and ran to him. “I told you no jumping.” Justin swatted the dog on the nose. “Hey, Mike. How’s it going?” he asked. Inside the house I could hear his children screaming and his wife giving warnings about how long to play videogames.
“Good.” I hesitated. Dark blue stained the wisps of clouds in the sky as the last light crept over the horizon. “I saw it. The green sun.”
Justin lost the smile on his face. “Let’s go downstairs.”
A box of marsh grass and cattails sat next to the washing machine under a window. Justin filtered his wash water through the plants, and then used the gray water to flush his toilet. He didn’t do it to save the Earth so much as he enjoyed having projects to build and obsessing over things. He once told me he never used the remote key on his car because he didn’t want to drain the tiny battery.
Past the washing machine and dryer was his workshop filled with wood, plastic and metal pipes, and racks of tools.
“I never told you what color it was,” Justin said. He pulled a wooden crate out from under a table. Mason jars containing the fossilized flames clinked inside.
“I wasn’t looking for it. I just glanced up and it was there. I saw it this afternoon, but only once. It disappeared when I looked again.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll come back.” The jars rattled as he set the crate on the table. He removed one. The smell of river weed filled the cold room.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s frozen, like all of these. It doesn’t change like the regular sun. And it doesn’t give off its own light. It just reflects, like the moon.” He removed a piece of fire. “Calling them fossils works well at the flea market.”
“Why can’t anyone else see it?” Looking close, I could see flecks of green lodged behind the red and orange.
“I don’t know. You’re the only person I’ve told. Maybe that’s why you noticed it.” He put the flame on the table. “A little bit after my father died I was out at the Grape Hole, remembering when we used to swim there. There was a splash of something hitting the water. I looked around, but no one was there, not even on the ridge top. Under the ripples, I saw one of these. There was another splash farther out. I looked at the sky and that’s the first time I saw the green sun.
“I go out there once a month and collect the fossils from the shallows. There must be a mountain of them in the deeper water, but I don’t feel like swimming.”
“Kids still go there,” I said. “How come no one else has found them?”
“Hell if I know. It’s like they can’t be seen until I touch them. I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me they’ve found them too or they can see the sun, but I spend every weekend sitting at the market, seeing two suns in the sky, and no one else notices.” Justin turned from the flame to me and relaxed a little. “Do you want to go out there this weekend? Maybe you’ll notice something I didn’t.”
“Yeah, let’s see where these things come from.” I looked at the still flame, waiting for it to waver and continue burning.
The flooded coal quarry was on private land, but it was easy enough to sneak on and go swimming. We parked in a supermarket’s lot and walked into the nearby forest. A trail led to the water. When we were kids, the owner would come around sometimes and tell us to leave, but that was it. I’m sure as adults we were more likely to be identified and arrested later, but no one had noticed Justin here yet.
Sheer cliffs formed a wall against half the water filled pit. A shoreline of coal refuse and random weeds bordered the other side. Sycamores grew everywhere. In the Fall their leaves covered the water. They looked like grape leaves, and everyone called it the Grape Hole.
We used to climb a trail to the top of the cliff and dive off at various points. Our parents warned us about coming here, claiming we could drown. Along with the No Trespassing signs on trees, a large wooden sign warned against swimming.
This is where Ryan Dulin died when we were seniors. A bunch of rocks at the jumping off point had collapsed and he fell with them. Me and Justin never really talked to him, but he was Melissa’s boyfriend at the time. We never swam here after the accident either. But people forget.
Remains of a campfire and beer cans littered the shoreline. Cigarettes, gun shells, and a condom were scattered over the rocks. I saw a red sliver in the shallows, and then looked at the sky. The green fossil had returned.
I picked the flame out of the water.
Damn it!” Justin yelled. He was a few yards away flailing his hand about. He sucked on his finger as I walked over. A flame was in his other hand. Blood trickled from the wound when he took his finger out of his mouth. “I cut myself.”
“Maybe we should wear gloves,” I said.
Justin closed his eyes and squeezed his face together, like my uncle would do whenever he had a migraine. His eyes popped open.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Yeah. I just…I remembered when I cut myself as a kid, while using an X-ACTO knife.”
“It was that traumatic?”
“No.” He looked at the cut. “It just came on really strong, like I was there again, slicing my finger for the first time.”
“We better get your hand cleaned. We don’t know if these things are poisonous.”
“I’ve cut myself on them before. I’ll be fine.” He looked at me like he didn’t understand why I should be worried, and then took the flame to the cardboard box of jars on the shore. I put my flame in one too.
Insects hissed in the trees. It was sunny and hot, the perfect summer day, but a day that felt empty. I wanted there to be kids here, laughing and swimming. I wanted them to be the people I knew, many who have moved away. The day Ryan died, he stayed here by himself. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have left with Melissa when all of us packed up. I remember Justin trying to skip stones and failing. Now he was sucking blood from his finger.
We found five pieces before leaving.
I sat on the couch in the living room, dolls and coloring books all over the floor. Melissa had taken Sarah to the park. I looked at the flame in a jar and scratched at the glue from the spaghetti sauce label stuck to the glass. I was afraid. I didn’t understand how this thing could exist. If something as ordinary as the sun could go wrong, then how could I trust anything? Even the air in my house felt different. I had the sense that things were going to keep changing until I didn’t know where I was anymore. Wanting a distraction, I put the jar in the crack between two cushions and began picking up Sarah’s toys.
The front door opened. Melissa led Sarah in by the hand.
“How was the park?” I asked.
“Good. Tell Daddy what you did, sweetie.”
“I made a castle for Susan.” She held up her doll and her green eyes beamed with joy. Those were Melissa’s eyes, but Sarah had my brown hair.
I forgot about the sun for a moment as I lifted her in the air and she giggled. “Does she live in a high tower like this?”
“Justin gave you some of his glasswork?” Melissa asked, noticing the jar.
“Yeah, I was helping him this morning with one of his projects.”
“You’re not going to start hanging out at the flea market every weekend, are you?” she asked with a tired smile.
I laughed and put Sarah down. “No, I’d get bored too quickly. Justin’s the one who loves talking to strangers.” She walked to the stack of toys I made and scattered them.
“Did you pick up the stuff?” Melissa asked.
“You forgot.” She frowned. “I knew I should have stopped by the store on the way back from the park.”
“You never asked me to get anything,” I said.
Melissa was already walking down the hallway to the bathroom. She turned around at the door. “I told you I couldn’t finish because Sarah threw a fit in the store. I need pasta, eggs, mayonnaise, and celery to make macaroni salad for the picnic on Tuesday. It’s the Fourth of July, Mike.”
“God. Never mind, don’t worry. I’ll go back out.”
I got in bed that night while Melissa changed her clothes. I was thinking about the quarry when she asked, “When was the last time we went out for dinner?”
I paused. “I don’t know. A month ago?”
“I’m glad there’s the daycare for Sarah, but I’m still so stressed out.” Melissa rubbed her fingers on her forehead, illustrating her weariness, but found a pimple as a result. She moved to the vanity to pick at it. “I hate the office. I hate dealing with emails from idiots. Janice annoys the hell out of me. Proper etiquette says don’t discuss politics at work.” Melissa smeared a white cream on the blemish and rubbed it until it vanished. “Instead I have to listen to people whine all day about the government.” She got in bed with me.
“Now your face is red.” I poked her with my index finger. She faintly smiled. I could still go through the motions.
“We need to go on a date,” Melissa said. “Sarah is just too much for me after a full day at work. I was older than she is now when my father left us for Cheryl, but still, I’m amazed my mother was able to raise me by herself.”
“We’ll get a babysitter this Saturday,” I said. She lay next to me and I rubbed her leg, feeling day’s old hair growth.
“We need to get through the holiday first,” she said.
I kissed her, my hand on her leg, thinking about how nothing stays how you leave it, especially not smooth skin.
“Did you notice anything when you examined the fire?” Justin asked. Sunlight leaked in through the small windows near the basement ceiling.
“I can see green now,” I said. “There’s an emerald core under the red and orange. I never saw that before, but now it’s blatant.”
“What do you think it feels like?” he asked.
“I didn’t take it out of the jar. I’m afraid of cutting myself.”
Justin sighed. “I was hoping you would.”
He took a margarine container from a shelf and opened it. It was filled with red-green powder. “It breaks into dust if you grind it.” He touched it and got a dab on his finger. “The first time I cut myself I was suddenly lying on the ground, my knee bleeding from the rocks I fell off my bike onto. And I was ten.” Dust drifted about the window. “Then I was back here in the basement. So I nicked myself on purpose and there I was again, trying not to cry, scraping the dirt from my wound. It was the first hot day of summer, so I had shorts on. I wouldn’t have ripped my skin off if I was wearing jeans.”
He waited for a response, but I didn’t know what to say. Justin licked the powder from his finger.
“What are you doing?” My face twisted in disgust. He stood there, eyes closed, not moving. I grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “Justin!”
His eyes opened and I stepped back. “That was only a little bit, so it didn’t last long.”
“You’re eating it?”
“Well I guess you could smoke it or something, but that seems like too much work.”
“What just happened to you?”
“I was playing basketball with you in gym class.”
“You’re messing with me and I don’t like it.” My heart sped up. The world was changing again.
“Try it,” Justin said. He pointed to the tub on the table.
“No. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It’s memories, Mike. The fire is memories. When you get it inside of you, you go back to whatever you’re thinking of at the moment. You relive it.” His eyebrows rose and a hushed tone barely kept back his excitement.
“You’re hallucinating?” I asked.
“No. Not at all. This is real.” He jabbed a finger at the powder. “When you remember a conversation, you remember the meaning of it, but not every word. You remember in general what someone did, but not every movement. Our minds aren’t VCRs. But this is. Any little detail you’d like to see again, everything you can’t remember, is right here. This is frozen experience, stored forever up in the sky.”
Justin had always been my closest friend, ever since we were boys, but now, for the first time in my life, he made me uncomfortable. “You don’t know what the hell this stuff is. How do you know it isn’t poisonous?”
“It hasn’t hurt me yet,” he said.
“How long have you been eating this?”
He raised his shoulders and turned his palm up. “About a year and a half, I guess.”
I looked at the powder, my throat tightening. “I need to leave. This is too much.”
“It’s safe Mike. You’re my friend and I’ve wanted to talk about this since I found it. You can see it too. You know I’m not crazy.”
Maybe he saw the fear on my face and was disappointed at how badly his revelation had gone because he didn’t chase after me when I left.
I remember watching fireworks as a kid. We sat as close to the shooting ground at the football field as we could, where it was loudest. They whistled from their tubes in a flash of light and the explosions made me feel like I was in the war movies my father watched. My ears rang all night.
When we were teenagers we moved to the hilltops along the forest so we could have privacy. In eleventh grade me and Justin were with girls who aren’t around anymore. Despite that, I wanted Melissa. We were in homeroom together and I would steal looks at her whenever I could without making it obvious. She was with Ryan though.
He came to drinking parties and swimming at the Grape Hole, but I never spoke to him. When I heard him talking, I knew he wanted everyone to know how smart he was. He was always going on about something only he knew about, usually religion, talking about people who said they saw the Virgin Mary.
Some people become teenagers and want to chase girls. Others develop strong opinions and need to tell everyone about them. Ryan did both. I don’t know what Melissa saw in him, but I was jealous. In the summer before our senior year, I had broken up with my girlfriend, so I sat alone on the hilltop, watching the fireworks. Justin was with his girlfriend. Melissa and Ryan were there too, and a bunch of others. I left halfway through the show, drunk, miserable.
Fifteen years later I sat far from the fireworks again, not for privacy, but to keep my daughter safe from the noise. And Melissa was finally mine, only now I didn’t want her. Justin wasn’t there. I’m not sure if he was watching them with his family, but I didn’t want to see him. At least until I could understand what was happening.
I was glad for the night. I didn’t want Melissa, I didn’t want Justin, and I didn’t want to see the green rock, its twisted veins like a marble, always overhead.
I looked at Sarah, her small face in awe at the lights.
It was hot in the garage. We had an air conditioner, but I kept coming here. Even with Melissa’s car, there was enough space to allow a workbench at the rear.
I took the jar from behind a box, the flame rattling inside. One of the tips had cracked off. I wanted to throw it in the garbage or crush it in my hand. I wanted to pull the false sun out of the sky and sink it in the quarry. I wanted to get drunk with Justin. I wanted to kiss Melissa and feel good again. But now we were fighting.
“When are you going to mow the lawn?” she had asked.
“When I get time to. I work late every day. Can it wait until Saturday?”
“You said you were going to have it done this week.”
“I never said that.”
“Don’t lie to me, Mike. I asked you to do it on Monday. Now it’s Thursday. Why can’t you be here when I need you?”
“I don’t remember you asking me about it at all.”
“Fine, maybe I should just do it myself.” She left the room.
I had been in the garage a lot the past month. This wasn’t the first time she accused me of not doing something she asked me to do. Other times it had been about making dinner or staying home to watch Sarah when the daycare wasn’t available. She had to know what was missing between us. She could tell something was wrong and was acting on it.
I hadn’t spoken to Justin in a month. At the time I couldn’t take my life getting any weirder, but now I didn’t care that he was eating it. If this is how things were, I accepted that. But I was afraid to show my face after how I reacted to him. I shouldn’t have been such a coward.
Why not try it? Melissa accused me of forgetting things. According to Justin, I could find out.
I laid a rag on my work bench, unscrewed the jar, and removed the flame, resting it on the cloth. I then wondered why I had gone through the trouble of being gentle with it when I intended to break it. I found a hardware store receipt on the table, put a tip of the flame over it, and began to sand the fossil. A reddish-green powder collected on the paper. After a few seconds of rubbing, I stained the tip of my finger with the powder and licked it off while thinking of Melissa.
We ate dinner. The lasagna she had cooked Monday night, steam rising off the top, a bit too hot for August, but still good. The seasoning was the best part, a recipe from her aunt. I didn’t remember this. I relived it, tasted the food again, felt my tongue burn when I couldn’t wait to eat.
Melissa complained about her job. I tried to offer support, but nothing I said felt meaningful. Finished eating, she left the kitchen to give Sarah a bath. If she had asked me, it wasn’t during dinner.
Then I was in the garage again, staring at her car. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes had passed. I must have stood there, zoned out for as long as it took to relive the meal.
I took another taste, less this time, and thought of the chimney I was building at the historical society. I was there again, in the cool room, brick in my hand over the dirt while the rest of the floor was covered in wood. Elizabeth, the society president, gabbed in the background. I thought she had been saying something about her granddaughter being in the newspaper, but now she was talking about some magazine, her granddaughter writing for it.
Justin said our memories weren’t perfect, and that the fire was. But why should I doubt my own mind and trust this?
I took some more and thought of Melissa. Whatever I remembered is where I found myself again. I began noticing details that seemed new, like what she was wearing or snippets of conversation I hadn’t recalled. Didn’t I pay attention the first time around? I listened to our conversations from the week again. She never asked me to mow the lawn. Did she think she did though? Intend to do so and not? I thought of the last time I could remember her asking me and found myself in July. I told her I would have it done before the end of the week.
The powder was used up. I put the rest of the flame back in the jar, and then tried to think of somewhere else I could be alone.
I was actually in her house. Yellow stucco walls, the brown carpet frayed where it ended at the stairs. Ceramic animals and glass candle holders on the book case above an encyclopedia set. The dents in the old furniture where people had sat for years.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Melissa’s mother asked.
“No, I’m good right now,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Have a seat. I’ll go see if she’s ready yet.” She leaned close and whispered to me. “Thank you for doing this, Mike. She needs to be around her friends again. She’s been depressed ever since the accident.”
“It’s no problem,” I said. My left shoe was uncomfortable, just as I remembered. The color of Melissa’s corsage wasn’t what I thought though. More little details different.
“Hey.” I looked up from the flower to the voice. Melissa wore a teal dress that fell to her ankles. She smiled shyly. Seeing her in make-up with her hair pulled back and still eighteen, I realized how pretty she was. Was that it? Were we just getting older and Melissa the overworked mother was no longer the beautiful teenager?
She blushed when I put the blue flower on her. I noticed her reaction at the time, but didn’t trust that it was real, that she felt attracted to me too. On the second viewing, watching her lips bend into a smile, her eyes widen, I knew she was pleased to have me paying attention to her.
Coffee. That memory wasn’t wrong. A month after prom I asked her out. We went to Maggie’s Diner. Afterwards, we kissed. In the movies the girls taste like strawberries. Melissa tasted like coffee. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but as soon as I was reminded the memory came back. I knew which details would happen seconds before I relived them.
Three years later and I’m on the phone with Justin. “How the hell are you?”
“Good. I’m good,” he said. “Cleveland is interesting. Not as noisy as other places I’ve been to. I drive cars all day, moving them from where they get unloaded to dealerships. It’s tiring, but it’s decent.” He left after high school, didn’t want to live in the area anymore. He had no plans. He just wanted to go, wandering from place to place, working wherever he could. He eventually found whatever he was looking for because he came back, met a saleswoman from the newspaper, and settled down.
“Do you think you could take a break for a weekend and come visit?”
“Yeah, I can plan a trip. It’ll be great to see you again.”
“Well you don’t have to rush back right away. We don’t have a date yet but…look, can you be my best man?”
Fireworks opened the sky and I wandered away, arms itching from touching the dry grass. I saw Ryan holding Melissa as the hill lit up.
Both my shoes fit this time. Suit was nicer too. I watched her uncle lead her down the aisle. During the prom she kept looking down. Now she held her head high. Thin white straps went over her shoulders and embroidery wrapped around the top of her dress. At her waist it spread out into a smooth cone, like a snow drift.
The flowers tied to the pews were different. I was thinking of the poinsettias we had at home every Christmas and imagining them at the wedding too. But these looked like lilies. What an odd thing to confuse. My cousin Charlie wore jeans. At least his shirt had buttons. I hadn’t realized that. I know I spoke with him at the reception, but I had no memory of him being underdressed.
Melissa was in focus. The details I remembered about her were true in the fire, but the further things were from her, the less I knew them.
Dan and Mosley tried to light the campfire, but couldn’t. The wood was wet and they had burned half a notebook in the process. It would flare up, people would cheer, then the kindling would burn through and we’d be left with nothing again.
Justin mumbled about them, annoyed, but offered no help.
“How do you know it’s not like when people see shapes in the clouds?” Steve Kinnet asked. I wanted to turn to look at them, but couldn’t. That’s not what I had done in the past, and my body kept facing the campfire and quarry.
“There’s pictures of her, man,” Ryan said. “I’ll show you the book next time.”
“I don’t know. You can fake pictures.”
“Thousands saw her, even the Muslims.”
“You said it was just some light reflecting off a church at first.”
“God, not this again,” Jennie Petrowski moaned. “No one fucking cares.”
My body finally turned. Melissa sat next to Jennie on a beach towel. She wore a tube top. I could see the freckles on the tops of her breasts.
We lay in the hot darkness of our first apartment, no air conditioning, and she told me about her parents fighting and her father leaving, about dating Ryan because he made her feel better. Until he left too. Naked with her, I don’t think I was jealous.
I played with toy trucks in the backyard, scooping dirt with a front end loader and putting it in a dump truck. The neighbor’s big yellow cat lay in the grass, watching me. My mother and aunt sat on lawn chairs, smoking. Aunt Ruth had started to turn gray that young?
Chlorine from the school pool burned my nose. I climbed out of the shallow end, followed a trail of classmates to the deep side, and jumped in for another lap.
My mother shook me awake. The clock said 11:17, but I could barely open my eyes.
“Do you know Ryan Dulin?” she asked.
“Yeah, why?” I groaned. I fell back onto the pillow.
“They found his body in that quarry you all go swimming at. I’ve told you hundreds of times not to go there. They put the warning signs up for a reason. What if that was you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I whined with closed eyes.
“A kid from your high school drowned in the rock quarry.”
Melissa tried to hide her smile, but couldn’t. My boots were still covered in mortar as I stood in the living room. But she didn’t care about the carpet. Instead, “I’m pregnant.” I couldn’t breathe for a second.
“How many of these have you sold?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Dozens. A hundred. I never kept track.” Justin shrugged.
When I had called, he said he was afraid I was mad at him. I told him it was me who was afraid, afraid of the fire, but I had been using it.
“If you cut yourself so easily, other people have to know.” We were in the workshop, the crate of jars on the table.
“If they do, they never told me. I sell them as art. Maybe everyone’s afraid to take them out of the jars and risk breaking them.” The dryer rumbled, hiding our conversation.
“How often are you using this?” I asked.
“At least once a week, when I feel like reminiscing.”
“You need to relive things that much?”
“Yeah, why not?” he said defensively. Next to him, the jars looked like pictures, refusing to flicker. He lowered his voice. “If you think too much about your memories, you lose confidence in them. They’re vague, untouchable. The past may as well have been a dream. That’s how alike my memories of dreams and reality are. And our memories change every time we recall them. What good are memories when they’re lies?” He looked at the jar in his hand. “This is different. This is pure experience, preserved forever.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. “You’re right, the details in the fire are different than the way I remember them, but what makes you think the fire is true?”
“I tested it.” He waved his hand as if it was obvious. “I thought about James as a baby, moments I know we videotaped. I wrote down everything I could remember. Then I did the fire and relived them. And then I watched the videotapes. My memories didn’t match the tape, but the fire did. It’s recordings, but of everything and in so much more detail.”
I looked at the jar in his hand. “I’ve spent hours in it. It seems too easy to get lost.”
“I’m not using it for entertainment,” Justin said. “When I decided to see my father again, I chose a fishing trip. A black snake swam across the creek. It was the first time I saw a snake in the wild. Back there again, I could see the joy in my father’s face. I was excited to see the snake, and my reaction made him so happy. He was happy to simply have a son.”
“So are you going to take James fishing or hang out down here getting stoned?”
“Don’t say that, Mike.”
“I know what this does now, and I’m worried about what you’re telling me.”
“I was living in another state for three years when my father died. I lost that time to spend with him. This is a blessing. I’m not remembering. I’m not forgetting on pot. I’m going back. If you’re telling me there’s something wrong with that, you can leave.” The tumbling of the dryer filled his pause. “Everything’s always becoming the past. My life can’t have meaning when everything’s always disappearing.”
I thought of Melissa in her wedding dress. “Don’t get lost in it.”
The house was dark. I wondered where Melissa and Sarah were, but I was also relieved to have time alone that didn’t involve hiding. I thought about this as I opened the door. At first there was something missing when I looked at her. Now I was wishing to be alone.
A silhouette sat on the couch.
“Why are you in the dark?” I asked. “Is everything OK?”
“I’m fine. I’m just sitting here. Where were you?”
I turned the lamp on. “With Justin.”
Her eyes were red. “Oh.”
“What’s going on?”
She kept her head straight, only moving her eyes to me. Her mouth opened to speak, but she closed it, eyes drifting away.
“What did I forget to do?” I asked.
“He’s fine.” I stepped towards her. “You’ve been crying. What is–”
“You’re cheating on me.”
“What? No. Why did you say that?”
“You’re always busy,” Melissa said. “Saying you’re off with Justin or taking walks.”
I looked down while touching my forehead. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. I’ve had a lot of work lately. I guess I do spend too much time elsewhere when I should be here.”
“Don’t lie to me!” She flung her hands to her sides. “Even when you are here you’re distant. You don’t seem like you care about me anymore.”
The air stopped in my throat. “Where’s Sarah?”
“Why do you think I don’t care about you?”
“Stop pretending, Mike.” Her words snapped the air. “I can see it in your expressions, in how you treat me. You’ve been disappearing since summer began and missing all week. When I do see you, you act like you want to help me with things. But you’re still not there. I’m raising our daughter and working and I have so much to do…and you can only think about yourself.”
I stared at the hair on my hands. Confronted with my feelings, I could only be practical. “I know where Justin gets his fire.”
“I don’t give a fuck about Justin! We need to talk about us.”
“No, this can help. There’s something very strange going on and I don’t understand it.”
“What? What is so important between you and Justin?”
I hesitated. “He doesn’t make the fire. He finds it…at the Grape Hole. They fall into the water. There’s this green sun in the sky and I can see it and I don’t know why.”
As I spoke the words I knew I was making things worse, sounding like an idiot, like I was joking during a serious situation. Instead, Melissa’s scowl turned to shock.
“I know. I sound insane. I’m sorry. But Justin’s been eating this stuff, and it lets him relive his past. I’ve tried it too. I’ve gone on our dates again.” I couldn’t say the right things to make her feel better. I just had to say what was happening.
Melissa looked like I had informed her of a death. “You were never friends with him. He said he never told anyone else.”
Not the reaction I had expected. “I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Ryan. You’re bringing up my relationship with Ryan to fuck with me.”
We were having different conversations and it took me a second to understand her. “Why did you think of Ryan just now?”
“You know why. Why else would you bring up the Grape Hole and the sun?”
My body became weak. “Ryan saw the green sun?” I asked, my voice barely making it out of my mouth.
Melissa looked at me and then away. “Who told you this?”
“Justin. He saw it over the quarry. And then I did.”
Her face trembled. “Ryan told me something very strange once. He told me that sometimes he saw two suns in the sunset. I thought he was just staring at it for too long, trying to see the Virgin Mary or something. Now you’re telling me the same thing, all these years later.”
“Did he ever mention the fire?”
She hesitated. “No. What is going on here? I barely see you anymore and now you’re going on about Justin’s sculptures and Ryan. I don’t want to remember what happened to him.”
“I’ll show you,” I said. I went to the garage and retrieved the flame. As I unscrewed the jar lid in the living room, I realized I forgot the sandpaper.
“I don’t understand what you’re doing, Mike.”
“What else did Ryan say about the sun?”
“I…I don’t know. He was always telling weird stories. He didn’t believe in God because of his parents or church, but because of stories about miracles, like these people in Spain who saw the sun dance in the sky because the Virgin Mary predicted it to some children.”
I put the jar on the coffee table. “I need to break this up. I’ll be back again.”
“I’ve never actually touched one of these,” she said, reaching out.
“This is going to sound even weirder but–”
Melissa hissed as the flame cut her finger. She flung her hand away, and then froze for a few seconds. The effect wore off and she realized she was in the house again.
“What was that?” she asked.
“What did you see?”
“I…I was at the quarry, on top of that cliff where the flat rock juts out from the bushes. Ryan wanted me to jump, but I was too afraid. It’s so high, everyone below so small.”
“You go back to whatever you’re thinking about.”
She looked at the flame in the jar, mouth hanging open, and then exhaled, “What?”
“Justin grinds it into a powder and eats it. You have to get it inside of you somehow. Like the cut.”
Red seeped out of her finger. She held it to her mouth and then reached out to touch the flame again. Her finger ran along the crystal, and when the cut touched an edge, her eyelids pulled open wide. The trance broke with another breath.
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve been doing this? With Justin?”
“Not with him. He found it first though. I know I haven’t been around lately. I’m sorry. But I’ve been reliving our life together, all the things we’ve done.”
“This is terrible.”
Her reaction cut short my confession. “You think this is wrong?”
“Why would I want to relive all that? I’ve been trying to get away from my past. Ryan’s death, my parent’s fighting, my father abandoning us. Do you know how scared I am that the same thing’s going to happen to Sarah?”
“It’s not. I know we’ve been having problems lately, but I’m not leaving.”
“Ryan jumped in that water with no one around, no one to see him in danger. I don’t know what he saw, but it killed him. And now you’re seeing it too?”
“You’re not going to lose me. I love you.” I said it as a reaction. But even seeing the moment again, I don’t know what I actually felt besides panic.
She sucked the blood from her finger, wide eyes on the flame, before leaping from the couch and running to the bedroom. The door slammed shut.
“Melissa!” I yelled, my voice losing strength on the last syllable. I sat on the floor, covering my face with my hand.
Ryan dove from the cliff. When he struck the blue water, it turned white. The splash settled and he was gone. A second passed. His head broke the surface.
“Look out below!” Dan Shenecker screamed as he leapt off next and crashed into the water feet first.
Several lawn chairs were set up on the shoreline around the cooler. Four of us lounged around while three others swam in the water. I sat on the hot rocks and dirt sipping a can of beer.
Dan, Steve, and Ryan came out of the water.
“You should give it a go,” Ryan said to Jennie, who lay in a chair tanning. She wore a bathing suit, but was still dry.
“I’m fine with walking in, thank you very much.” Large sunglasses covered her eyes.
“It is scary the first time, but there’s such a sense of tranquility when you’re in the air. For a second you’re weightless and there’s nothing else in the world.”
“Dude, I’m not hitting my head off those fucking rocks.”
“We’re all still here,” Dan said, waving his hands about. Jennie stuck her tongue out at him.
Ryan sat on the ground near me. He wore a crucifix and yellow and black swim trunks. His hair was matted to his head.
“How are you doing, Mike?”
“Oh I’m good,” I said, looking at the water. It was deep blue and the sky was cloudless. I took a drink.
“Where’s Justin at? You two are always together.”
“He’s coming later. I’m just waiting until then.” I didn’t have to remember how I felt. I could hear the annoyance in my voice. “Where’s your girlfriend?” I asked.
“Ah, she’s busy with her mom today.” He tilted his head straight up for a few seconds before bringing it back down. I could feel the heat on my arms and the back of my neck. He was looking at the suns. I wanted to look too, wanted to tell him I knew. Tell him not to dive for the flames.
“Beautiful day today, man.”
“Yep,” I responded.
“You know, they say one day the sun is going to expand and burn up the whole Earth.”
“Do they? Well I hope I’m not around for that.”
He laughed. “Nah, it’s not for a long time.”
I got up to piss. Walking to the trees, I heard something plop into the water. I couldn’t turn to look. Standing against a tree though, I had a clear view of the hole. Several more rocks fell into it. The splashes weren’t large enough to be heard from our campsite, but I could see the cliff coming apart, falling into the water. Beyond that, Ryan entered the path that led to the top.
Back at the lawn chairs, moisture clung to the outside of my beer can. The buzz was finally starting to come on. I could feel even that sensation again, but never my emotions.
“Time to clear out,” Steve yelled. A blue Toyota pickup truck pulled into the clearing. The group folded up the lawn chairs and ran off with them over their heads. Steve and Dan closed the lid of the cooler and hurried away, stumbling once in flip flops on the rocky ground as the ice chest swung about. I just watched. We never got in any real trouble. I think they ran to make it more exciting, to feel like they were actually being chased off instead of begrudgingly leaving.
Doug Altland got out of the truck. He was sixty-something, but still probably stronger than most of the teenagers who hung out at his quarry. He wore dirty jeans, work boots, and a faded lime green t-shirt with a construction company logo on it. The scowl on his face was meant to be threatening, but all I did was stand up
“What are you doing here?” he yelled.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Then you got no reason to be here. This is private property. You kids want to drink, go find somewhere else.”
I rolled my eyes and walked away.
“Is there anyone else out here?” he asked.
“No, they all ran off when you pulled in.” The temperature dropped as I entered the shade of the trees.
This was new to me. I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten of that day. I knew I was at the quarry, but I had no memory of seeing those rocks falling. I didn’t know Altland had chased us that particular time, or that I had spoken to him. All my memories of the quarry seemed to have blended together. Melissa and Justin weren’t even there, but I thought they had been. I never talked to anyone about Ryan afterwards.
He probably thought he was seeing God, a miracle in the sky. Justin called the fire a blessing. I didn’t feel that way. I wanted life to be simple, but this thing wouldn’t let it. My marriage was failing, I was empty, and I couldn’t even trust my memory. Justin was right. Everything goes away given enough time.
Light from the hallway outlined Melissa lying on top of the blankets. I lay down and held her. She fidgeted.
Memories of fighting last week came to me, of not talking the month before, of getting by before that. A year ago this month we were at the movies. So much had happened between then and now. I thought of last fall, winter, Christmas, all the Christmases in this house; of our parents visiting us; us visiting Melissa’s mother a few months after the wedding; seeing my parents; the time we spent here before Sarah was born; after; memories of Melissa pregnant; Melissa flat stomached before that; high school; graduating; working. The more I thought of the past, the heavier it became. So much time, so many days, all of it overwhelming, but there was no point. Even this moment would become the past, everything slipping away.
“I’m afraid,” she said. I held her tighter.
The suns were setting over Shenecker’s farm. We sat under the trees, the tall grass having taken our spot on the hillside.
“It’s my fault Ryan died.”
“You didn’t kill him,” Justin said.
“If I had been paying attention–if I didn’t hate him–I would have realized he was going swimming. I should have noticed the rock breaking. I should have told Altland one more kid was there. He would have waited for Ryan to appear at the top of the cliff. Either yelled at him so Ryan never would have walked onto the ledge, or seen him fall.”
“The past is done. We can only see it again, not change it.”
The farm was dark. Dan was supposedly selling his parent’s land to developers. They were going to put a Walmart on it.
“When you left after high school and went travelling, what did you find?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just more of the world. It may look a little different, but it’s all the same, no matter where you go.”
“Why did you go? I always figured you were trying to find something.”
“I guess so. I wanted to see what was so great out there. People expect you to move away, so I did. I lived in cities and the middle of nowhere. It’s all nice, but there’s nothing that’s not already here.”
Car lights drifted around the farmland as daylight faded. I held up two fingers to block the light from each star. “I don’t think I’ve been paying attention to Sarah either. I’m only taking care of her because I’m supposed to.” Something ominous drifted into the landscape. I remember the feeling well, the sensation of something bad about to happen.
Justin laughed. “And you want to tell me how to raise my children.”
It broke inside of me, like a bridge collapsing, and even though I was sitting, I felt like I was falling away from the hill, concrete dust filling my lungs.
“She only exists because he died. Everything I have exists because I made a mistake, and I’m going to lose it because I’m making the same mistake again.”
“We can’t lose anything anymore,” Justin said. “We have the fire.”
“I don’t want to see Melissa in the fire. I want to see her now. I don’t remember the way things really happened because I haven’t been paying attention to anything in my life. Everything will wear away with time, even passion. But it’ll wear away faster if I let it.”
Justin didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look at me.
The fire was on the coffee table and powder on a napkin when I came back.
“You’ve used it,” I said.
Melissa sat hunched over, palms on her cheeks. “I wanted to see my parents together again.”
“How was it?”
She shrugged. “Most of the time they were indifferent to each other. Sometimes they screamed and broke things and the police came.”
I sat down with her. “In high school, I never knew how upset you were. Not until you told me years later.”
“I feel like something’s been taken away.”
“It’s because I haven’t been here.”
“No, I mean with my parents. I don’t feel bad about them anymore.”
“I’m not going to leave you like your father did.”
“It really seems like you will.” She said it without emotion, resigned.
“I know how I’ve been behaving, and I’m sorry. I’m not going to keep making mistakes.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because I saw Ryan in the fire. The day he died. He drowned because of me. I saw the cliff beginning to collapse that day, but I didn’t remember it. Then Doug Altland chased everyone away, but Ryan was in the woods and I didn’t tell him. I’m responsible for what happened.”
Annoyance slipped into her voice. “You keep bringing him up.”
“I’m responsible for you and Sarah too. I don’t want to lose the two of you. I love you.”
She stared at me as if seeing a second sun. “Just stop it.” She hit the air with her hand. “I don’t want to hear about him anymore. I don’t want to see,” she waved her hand at the table, “this. I just want everything to be normal again.”
“It will be.” I touched her shoulder and she lowered her hand. As much as I wanted to reassure her in the moment with promises, I didn’t feel confident in my ability to. But I had to keep trying.
“Let’s get rid of this,” I said. I took the flame to the trash can in the kitchen. She followed me with the powder filled napkin.
That’s how I almost lost Melissa the first time, before I realized I did love her. I just forgot we weren’t teenagers anymore. But now I’ve lost her again.
The quarry’s gone, and I don’t know where the flames fall anymore. Justin still has some. He refuses to tell anyone what they can do, afraid of becoming a cult leader or drug dealer or something like that. Best let them stumble on it on their own, he says. Keep it subtle.
My legs ache, but I still live in my own house. Sarah and David visit with their children. I tell them stories about growing up. And when they’re not around, I have the flames. I threw the one away long ago, but Justin always has more.
I used to have Melissa. We forgot that summer, like some things need to be, forgot our troubles and lived our lives together. But now she’s gone for good, taken by age.
No, I’m still confused like I was all those decades ago. She isn’t really gone. Neither is Ryan, or Justin’s father, or anyone. We’re all still here, eternally. I can see everything I’ve ever done, even when I forget.
My eyes are poor, but I know it’s still there–a fossilized sun, burning backwards through time.
The Flower Garden
By Michael Shone
Greg Winden saw the living machine thing from the Lockheed’s window as the aircraft made its final approach into Garnet Hill. He’d always enjoyed seeing his father’s house from the plane whenever he flew in from Newark, but it was weird seeing a mechwurm just across the highway. He remembered his father grumbling about being so close to a flight path when planes came over. Garnet Hill was so small that there were only a couple a day, and nowadays the aircraft were so quiet you barely noticed them anyway. Really, his father had little to complain about.
The alien machine changed that. His house and garden were in its path. Both would be crushed under the thing.
Greg stared at it as the plane went by. His earset snapped off some photos.
The thing was like some ancient whale-sized bottom-dwelling sea creature. Bigger than whale-sized. Its black, segmented body would have looked little bigger than a snail, from the altitude, but the passing cars on the highway almost straight below belied its real expanse: they looked like toy cars. Like a kid’s micro-slot car set, with a fascinated frisky cat about to pounce on them. It had to be two hundred yards wide, and more than three times that in length.
Apparently it was one of the smaller ones. Some of the biggest, in Africa, had grown to several miles in length.
Then it was gone, the plane making a last banking maneuver, correcting for final approach.
In the small terminal, Greg saw Annie Smith in an airline uniform, checking baggage tags. She was still slim, though her hair had lost its sheen. They’d dated in school. Two months, then she got pregnant to one of the linebackers. For a moment–a year or more–Greg had felt like he’d never recover from the betrayal, but looking at her now, he felt no animosity. She was just another woman approaching middle age, still living in Garnet Hill.
“Greg,” she said as he reached for his bag.
“Annie.” He pulled the bag off the carousel.
She waved her scanner at the bag, then at his earset. “Not stealing someone else’s bag are you?”
“What’s your little magic thing there say?” He stared at her eyes. There was something about them still. Like a kind of homing beacon. Land here they said, everything’s safe. He was surprised at still feeling a physical attraction.
She glanced at the scanner. “Well,” she said. “Who’d have thought. It’s actually yours. Staying long?”
“Maybe. Dad’s not well.”
She nodded. “I hear that thing’s heading straight for his house.”
Greg nodded. “Crazy, huh? I saw it from the plane. Like a giant slug.”
“Yeah. A few months ago it looked like it was going to mow right through Garnet Hill’s downtown, such as it is, but then the thing budded and changed direction a little. People lost interest when they knew their homes and businesses were safe..”
“But now it’s heading for my old family home back off highway 91.” Greg watched other people taking bags and leaving the terminal, meeting family or heading for the Hertz kiosk.
“Sorry. I remember your Dad. Came back from San Francisco.”
“Shouldn’t you be checking those bags?”
Annie glanced over, then back at him with a grin. “It’s Garnet Hill, Nebraska. Who’s going to steal a bag?” She paused, watching his face. “Regulations. I’ve got to appear to be checking bags. Makes everyone feel better.”
“Sure.” Greg shuffled his bag up onto his shoulder and headed for the kiosk. “Nice to see you again.”
“Uh,” she said. “Go for a drink? While you’re in town?” She paused. “Maybe.”
He looked back around. Her eyes were wide, the grin had faded. Greg nodded at her. “Sure. Why not?”
She thumbed her earset and he did likewise. His gave a quiet tinkle that it had received her details.
“I’ll be in touch,” she said.
The kiosk gave him a Camaro and told him to have a good day. He found the car–painted cliché red–in the lot between two beige Toyotas. Highway 91, he remembered, was favored by cannonball hoodlums who would try to make it from Omaha to Scottsbluff–clear across the state–in under five hours. His father would complain about them tearing past him when he drove into town. The man would have something to say about Greg arriving in a muscle car.
At the 7-Eleven he grabbed a burrito and an auto-refilling mini-gulp. The store wasn’t set up with earset payments and he had to pay with a manual tap at the counter instead of simply walking out with his purchases. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen an actual person operating a till in New Jersey or on Manhattan. Welcome back to Nebraska, he thought.
Outside of town, he passed a sign about a forthcoming highway closure a mile or so before the turnoff for his father’s house. Greg pulled off the highway near the alien thing to get a better look. He sat on the hood with the burrito and soda. There were some other cars pulled off onto the shoulder too, people leaning up against the fence with bigger cameras. One guy with a tripod.
In the field, the grass was long. Whatever stock the farmer had been running had been long removed. Greg wondered if there were compensation packages for farms. He’d read that the passage of the things chewed up the soil, denuding it of elements, leaving silicon and oxygen, but taking all the metals, lots of carbon. Kind of like mine tailings.
A group of teenagers had walked out into the field to go over to the thing. Someone had strung up Danger tape on a row of posts, but the kids had slipped under or over and were taking pictures of each other pretending to climb up the side.
Greg had never seen one this close up before. Its nose was only a few hundred yards from the highway. It sat, almost motionless on the ground, like a big dark rock. He thought of photos he’d seen of Ayers Rock in the Australian outback. The alien was shaped like that but darker, almost black. It glistened in the low sun as if slick and greasy. It was clearly mechanical: its surface seemed to have some hydraulic sections, joined to cogs and wheels and hinged panels. Most of it was made up of stiff sections. A carapace. Inside, he’d read, the thing was almost as organic as he was, but the exterior was armored like a tank. Better than a tank. The things were practically impossible to kill.
One of the teens threw something into the air. It arced up for a moment, then flew on higher. A radio controlled plane. The kid with the control box moved his arms and whole upper body as he directed the plane, as if the flaps and rudder and throttle required hefty actions rather than simple thumb twiddles.
The plane circled around, rising steadily. After several circuits the boy turned it towards the leviathan. As the little craft swung in close one of the kids yelled something at the pilot and the plane turned as they all laughed, a crash averted.
The alien was higher than Greg had thought at first. Its dark exterior belied its size. It was perhaps as much as three hundred feet high. As tall as a twenty story office block. And, he reminded himself, it was one of the smaller ones.
The plane gained more height and came back towards the alien.
It was then that Greg realized he could tell that it was moving. Tall grass seed heads bent down as the thing pushed across them. It wasn’t fast, slower, he thought, than the movement of an hour hand on an analogue clock. Or perhaps between the speed of a minute hand and an hour hand. Just fast enough to be able to tell that it was moving but so slow that you could never be quite sure from second to second.
The toy aircraft crested the top of the thing and vanished. The boys started arguing. Greg guessed that they must have a camera mounted on the plane, feeding a signal back to their earset screens so they could keep track.
“Some sight, huh?” someone nearby said. A man in a red plaid shirt, leaning on the fence. “Lucky it missed town.”
Greg nodded. “Sure is.”
“Figure it’s going to keep on clear up to the Arctic. Just going to chew a line right through the Dakotas and on through Canada.”
“Really? How far has it come already?” Greg peered back around through the fields. He could see the thing’s track for a while, but lost it in the grasses.
“A couple of hundred miles. Maybe further. They first picked it up somewhere near Dodge City down Kansas.”
“Absolutely. It was already the size of small truck by then.” The man turned and jerked his hand towards a GMC pickup parked across the highway. “Big as my little miss over there.”
“It budded from another one?”
“No. Original. Grew from one of those flecks, I guess.”
Greg had read about the origins, though mostly it seemed sheer sensational speculation. Enquirer stuff. Seeds brought back from one of the exploratory star-probes, accidently scattered across the globe on the wind. The press wanted the drama of it. They likened the aliens to scale insects on a plant, said that they started out just as tiny.
“Are they going to try to stop this one?” Greg asked. He balled up the burrito wrapper and slipped off the rental’s hood. A car pulled up behind, and he saw another park behind the GMC. A police cruiser rolled by, ambling along under thirty. Greg went over to the fence. “Winden,” he said, holding his right hand out to shake. “Greg Winden.”
“Oh, you’re Allan and Bette’s boy?” The man shook Greg’s hand.
“I’m Ed. Ed Standish. I bought an outboard from your Dad’s store a couple of decades ago. How’s your mom doing? She was-”
“She died. About six years back.”
“Sorry to hear that. They moved to San Francisco, didn’t they?”
“Yeah. Dad came back after. He’s raising flowers now.”
“Flowers.” Ed rubbed his chin. “Lot of money in that, I guess. Sure does cost me enough when I’ve got to go out and buy make-up flowers for Kate.” Ed winked at him. “And I gotta do that more often than I’d like, know what I mean?”
Greg agreed, though mostly any flowers he bought seemed to go to waste. It had been a long while since he’d gotten a third date.
“Anyway,” Ed went on. “There were some army types who had a go at blowing it up, back before it changed tack,” the man told him. “But it was kind of token anyway. They’re pretty indestructible.”
“And there’s a lot of them.”
“Army and everyone’s stretched thin. Gotta focus on the big centers. Little Rock.”
Greg nodded. One of the things twice the size of this had scraped its way through a swath of Arkansas, through the city, just missing the Capitol building. They’d evacuated sections of the city, abandoning homes and stores and factories in the thing’s path. Halfway across, it had budded, each section heading off in slightly different directions, sparking a wave of new evacuations.
“Unstoppable,” the man said. “Still, at least there’s nothing much in the way of this one.” He grinned a little. “Well, Canada, but nothing of any consequence.”
Greg smiled, sure that he knew a few Canadians who might take exception.
The boys with the plane yelped. Greg looked across and saw the one with the control box drop his hands to his side. One of the others punched him.
Standish laughed. “See, I could have told you they’d crash it.”
The boy handed the controls over and ran across to the alien’s side. He started climbing. Scrambling up he grabbed protrusions and crevices.
The man shook his head. “What, he’s gonna climb a couple of hundred feet up that thing to find an eight dollar toy?”
Greg heard a whoop on a siren and looked around. The cop had circled back and come to a stop by the Camaro’s left fender. The cop held a microphone to his mouth.
“Son,” his voice came through the rooftop hailer. “Why don’t you come on down from there?”
All the teens turned to face the road. The one up the side stayed where he was, head twisted around.
The kid looked down. He pushed out, let go and dropped to the ground like he knew how to parkour.
“Back this side of the safety tape.”
The teens razzed each other, and hooted, but they walked back away from the alien. The cop racked the microphone and drove off.
“Kind of entertaining, if they’re not cutting your town in half,” Ed said.
“If you’re sixteen.”
“Got that right.” Ed stepped back from the fence and glanced over at his truck. “And it’ll still be here tomorrow. I’d better be on my way home. Say hello to your dad from me. Wish I could say I still had that outboard, but it crapped out years ago.” He held his hand out for Greg to shake. “Not that I can afford to keep a boat anymore anyhow.”
“I know how it is.” Greg took the hand and shook.
Standish headed across the highway. Greg turned to the rental as the teens began clambering back over the fence, laughing and joking.
The sheer volume of flowers surprised Greg as he pulled through his father’s front gate. He didn’t know the kinds of flowers, but there were clearly well-delineated banks of species. Carnations, he knew, the bunched-up reds and yellows thick and vibrant. His father had about an acre, but the flowers had spread out across into the neighboring properties, growing wild and even more lush than in the tended areas.
The old clapboard two-story house had been painted recently. Greg wondered how long it was since he’d actually been out to visit. It could have been as much as a year. There had been flowers, but they’d been nothing like as dense then. He wondered how many florists and supermarkets his father was supplying.
Parking by the old pickup, Greg found his father on the veranda, looking back out at him with his hand on a telescope.
“You made good time,” his father said, raising his hand.
Greg closed the door. “Stopped for a bite. Garden’s looking good.” He went to the trunk to get his bag.
“Ah, the dahlias have got aphids. Infested. It’s all I can do go get them to bud.”
“You spraying?” Greg walked up to the front step. It looked like double-glazing had been fitted to the front rooms. Garnet Hill could get cold in winter.
“Dish wash liquid and lemon juice.”
“Going all organic?” Greg dropped his bag and held out his hand.
His father shook, his grip weaker. Weaker even than Ed Standish’s had been. “Ah, I tried some Monsanto liquid–looks like gold and costs near as much–and it did nothing. Tried and true.”
Greg nodded. “You look well.” His father’s face was drawn, the lines deeper than before, his skin tone just the human side of gray.
“Doctors give me four months, at least.” Smiling he released Greg’s hand. “Maybe six. Most of that’s going to be lost in a morphine haze anyway. Not living, that’s for sure.”
Greg managed a smile back. “Sedation could be kind of fun, no?”
His father snorted and gestured off across the flowers. “This thing’s going to crush my house long before then anyway.”
Greg looked. Through the hedgerows beyond the flowers he could see flashes of cars out on the highway, but beyond, the bulk of the alien worm rose like a mountain. Squinting a little, he could see that he was looking head-on at its leading edge aimed right at him.
His father put his hand on the telescope. “Been watching it for the last week or two. Since it broke through Tony Sinclair’s hedges way out there. Probably be here in a day or two. Nice car, by the way. You get that at Alamo?”
“Hertz. No one else at the airport.”
“See, you should have gone into town. There’s a minivan shuttle, you know? Suze works at Alamo and she would have given you a deal. She knows me.”
“Sure Dad.” Greg didn’t know there was another rental agency in town, and couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t just be at the airport anyway. “What are you going to do?”
“About Suze? Nothing. She’s young enough to be my daughter. Actually, while you’re in town, she could use a date.”
“Stop it Dad. I’m not dating. And I mean, what are you going to do about this thing?”
His father shrugged. “What can I do, huh? The only thing that stops them is a nuke, and, well, that’s not going to leave much of my place now is it?”
“No it’s not.”
“What am I doing? You want a beer? I’ve got Doritos and Coors. I guess you’re a Miller man, but I was going to watch the game later. You’d have time to do a run into town for a six-pack.”
“Coors is fine.”
“Dad.” Greg pointed at the alien. “Your house, your garden, it’s all about to get eaten by that thing.”
“Ah, I’m sure they’ll nuke it before then.”
“The nukes don’t work either. I don’t think. The Africans tried it. Stopped that one, for sure, but it just spread spores all around.”
“That’s right. I remember the Kenyans almost going to war with Zimbabwe over it. There hadn’t been any there, then next thing Nairobi’s dealing with a dozen.”
“Well, guess I’ll just have to wait it out.” His father crouched around, sitting on the edge of a wicker chair and placing his face up to the eyepiece on the telescope. “I figure it’s moving nine or ten yards an hour. What do you think?”
“Sure.” Greg was already starting to plan moving his father out. Get his clothing, medications, toiletries. Definitely his television and connection. Some furniture. The old armchair that had been an antique when Greg had been a boy. Books and CDs. Some of those would be valuable now. His father would never forgive him if he allowed them to be chewed up by the monster.
“Five hundred yards off.” His father looked up from the telescope. “I guess the gives us time.”
“Good. We can get you packed out.” Greg wondered if Suze at Alamo would have a furniture truck on her books. There might be some students around who could help box up for minimum wage.
“Sure. We’ll find you somewhere else. I’ll get your stuff out.”
His father stood. “I’m not going.”
Greg looked at the thing. A land leviathan, bearing down inexorably. It might be slow, but there was no stopping it. “It’s coming right this way. Do you have some plan about stopping it? Turning it?”
“Can’t turn them. Did you see what happened with that wall they built in Chihuahua? Big concrete thing fifty feet high, ten feet thick. You could have held back a reservoir with it. Their wurm slowed down, but only while it chewed its way through. Assimilated all the raw materials into its body. As far as it was concerned it was feeding time. Didn’t discourage it a bit”
“Yeah. I read about that one too.” For a while the mechwurms had dominated the news. Now it had become more like traffic accidents. Dreadful things you learned to live with. “So you need to start packing up. You can’t stay here.”
“Watch me.” His father kept his gaze locked on Greg’s eyes.
After a moment, Greg had to look away. The sun was just setting, sending long streamers of golden light through the horizon clouds and filtering up into the atmosphere. Watching the sun out here always felt like coming home. The perpetual New Jersey haze, and the continuous ranks of buildings always divided him from sunsets. He felt organically linked to Garnet Hill.
“I was getting you a beer, no?” his father said.
Greg nodded. His father headed inside. “How’s that acting thing working out these days? I saw you on the television not so long ago.”
“You saw that?”
“You looked good. Knew what you were doing.”
“I’m not even famous in Nebraska,” Greg said. He wished that his extra work was the least of his acting resume, rather than the most. “It was just a walk-on,” he said. “No lines. I’ve been doing a little theatre work.”
“Accounting pays well. Community theatre not so much.”
His father laughed. “Ah. I guess it’s good being self-employed at that, huh? You can drop everything and rush off to some of those walk-on roles. It was that cop show, wasn’t it? You were in the crowd at the police line at the murder site. Then later on you were in the diner.”
“I was recycled for the week. I had to put in eighty hours on the books the following week just to catch up.”
“Important to do what you love. And to work hard to make your rent and car payments.” In the kitchen his father pulled open the fridge and took out a couple of cans.
“I’m lucky I can balance both.” Greg took the can his father offered. “So, are you just going to stand out in the yard and watch this thing mow down your house?” For a moment Greg thought they might be able to get house movers to lift the house off its foundations and truck it a few hundred yards to the east. He wondered how much that would cost.
“Nope.” His father popped the can open and the chilled beer sizzled for a moment. He sipped. “Gonna be right inside it.”
“Upstairs.” He frowned at Greg. “I’m not leaving the property.”
“Well that’s just foolishness. You’ve got… you can’t just stay.”
“Son, this is my home. See the way the flowers are coming up?” He turned to look through the kitchen windows. “How could I leave this?”
Greg followed his father’s gaze into the maze of vermilions and golds and siennas and thick thick greens. “It’s a farm,” Greg said. “You can plant elsewhere, start again. Or just replant after. If your insurance doesn’t cover the house, we’ll figure it out.”
His father grinned at him. “I’m lucky with the insurance. Well, I mean, you are. It pays out. It’s in the clauses the state made them write in. Turns out that it’s cheaper to rebuild an equivalent than it is to try to move this. You’ll get the option to either take the newly-built house, or take a cash payout.” He squinted a little. “I think the cash option is less by some percentage, but it’s still generous, in a way.” Setting the can on the dining table, his father pulled out one of chairs and sat. He indicated for Greg to take a seat.
Greg stayed standing, but he put his own can down. “Is this because you’re sick?”
His father gave a non-committal wobble of his head, neither a shake or a nod. “The insurance on that is a whole other thing.”
The answer to that seemed obvious to Greg. He put his hands on his forehead and ran his fingers through his hair. “So take the cash and come move in with me. I can get you on my insurance.”
“Oh, sporadic extra work’s got a great plan now, huh? And you can add in family members who’re already terminal?”
“Barris, Cutchen and Alderson. The accounting firm I contract for-”
“When you’re not on the stage.”
Greg managed a smile. “Yeah, that’s right, Dad. Anyway, I have a plan through them, tagged for self-employed. It’s not going to take care of chemo, or whatever, but it’ll do something. I’m sure.”
His father laughed. “You might need to check your plan, son. And it won’t affect my decision.”
Greg kept trying to comprehend what his father was telling him. Staying at the house, watching: that he could have understood, but to commit suicide by letting that alien thing devour him, that was just so far outside reason. He picked up his beer and took a hefty swig.
“You could grab some things, though,” his father said. “You know, some mementos. I know you liked the easy chair from your grandfather’s cabin. I had it recovered about five years back. You can have it.”
“I don’t want that old chair. I want my father, alive. I already lost Mom.” Greg could feel his voice breaking a little. His father didn’t have the right to top himself like this.
“Son. Your mother went much to young, I’ll admit, but me, I’m old.”
“Seventy-three. That’s hardly-”
“And sick, don’t forget that. I’m not making it to seventy-four. Even if you drag me screaming back to Hoboken to eat up your insurance. Let me go with some dignity.”
“Dignity?” Greg thumped the beer back against the table and turned. He went out to the front veranda. The sun was gone, but the sky was still streaked up with red and umber. He could hear crickets out among the flowers, and the soft rustle of the wind through the plants. There were lights out on the highway, shining up at the alien. Its surface glistened back at him. In the time he’d been talking with his father, it had probably advanced another couple of feet.
He heard his father step out behind him.
“There’s no sense in fighting over it. Enjoy your visit.”
Greg almost turned on him. Almost told the man that he would have him forcibly removed. Surely the cops wouldn’t let someone simply lie in their bed while their house was demolished around them.
“I need to be with your mother,” his father said.
“I’m going out,” Greg said. He stomped off the veranda and headed over to the Camaro. His father didn’t try to stop him.
Annie arrived at the bar ten minutes after he’d called. She’d let her hair out, and put on mascara. She looked much younger than when he’d seen her at the airport in her uniform with her hair in a severe bun. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she said, pulling herself up onto the stool next to him.
“I just hadn’t expected… well. Wow.”
She grinned, blushing a little.
“Just a soda, for now,” she said. “Diet Sprite.”
Greg signaled the bartender who filled a glass for her.
“I didn’t think you’d call,” she said. “Kind of surprised.”
For a moment he was about to lie, to tell her that had been his plan from the moment he’d seen her checking the bags. “I needed to talk to someone. My dad’s got some crazy idea and I need to figure out what to do.”
“Uh-huh.” Nonplussed she looked down at her glass, stirred the soda with the little straw.
“Sorry, I’m too old to play games.”
“I get it.” She looked up. “Likewise. What are we now? Thirty-six, thirty-seven?”
“Thirty-seven. You’re, what, twenty-nine?”
“I thought you wanted to be serious, not all playing games.” But she grinned. “And I’m a couple of months younger than you.” She looked around the bar. Some bikers were racking balls on the pool table and some businessmen sat in a corner booth. Someone had the jukebox cranked up with late career Bruce Springsteen. “We could get out of here and grab a bite. Somewhere quieter.” She took a swallow from the soda and set it back down. Slipping off the stool, she said, “And you can tell me about your Dad.”
Greg was done explaining just as their meals arrived. The atmosphere in the diner was quieter, the smell of the coffee enough to keep him awake.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Annie told him. She leant back a little to let the waitress place the plate of wings.
“Maybe if it was your father.” His steak was steaming, but dark and dry. He slopped gravy over the whole plate.
“Maybe.” She looked from his meal and up at him. “I don’t think any amount of gravy is going to make your charcoal there any more edible.”
“I like it well done.”
“You sure do. Did you talk to him?”
“Sure. He’s just a stubborn old man.”
Annie snorted. She picked up a wing and nibbled. “See, I think that means you didn’t talk to him. I think there are a whole bunch of things you just plain don’t know about him.” She kept stripping flesh from the bone with her teeth.
Greg carved into the steak, scooped on some of the potato. It was good. No blood left in the meat at all.
“It sounds to me,” Annie went on, “that you’ve got but a couple more days with your dad, and then that’s it. If it was my father, I’d be spending every moment with him. Not out with some floozy I hadn’t seen in ten years.”
Greg took another bite. He’d thought she was looking pretty, but maybe just a little confrontational for a first date. Not that it was a date, though if he was going to be stuck out here for a week or two sorting things out for his father, then maybe he could see a little more of her.
“My father died,” she said. “Both of them. You don’t know that, I guess. Not long after you’d left town. When you were off in San Francisco, I think. I never saw you after that.”
“I didn’t come home. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah.” She put down the wing and wiped her fingers and her mouth. “If I could have another day with them… well. You know, there are things to say, or not. Maybe you’ve just got to go sit on his front porch with him and chew the fat for the next couple of days. Don’t make him something he isn’t.”
Greg licked his lips and took a sip from his water glass. “I just don’t want him to die.”
“He’s going to die.”
“Not like that, I mean.”
Annie looked at her earset screen. “It’s not even eight-thirty. We should go out to see him.”
“You should take me out there. I might be able to help.”
“Help? I think you’d just try to take his side.”
Annie shrugged and touched her plate. “You think we can get these to go?”
Greg knew his thinking was impaired. He was halfway back to his father’s house, with Annie in the passenger seat nursing two doggy bags. And it meant that he was also going to have to run her back into town later. She might have some vague plan about staying over, but if she did, this was the worst possible way to go about it.
“It’s real close to the road now,” Annie told him. “I saw on the news there was one in Florida, marching through some sugar plantation. It was on track to go between two of the houses on the farm, but the alien budded about three days before. Split into two. The two of them set off on different directions, one heading for each house. Craziness.”
Greg watched the thing as they drew nearer. There were still cars parked on the shoulder. It was definitely closer to the highway than when he’d arrived.
“Nobody tried to stop them?” he said.
“Sure. There was footage of a farmhand with some kind of sugar machine, kind of like a bulldozer, trying to push one of them to the side. Even the budded ones are too big to budge. Their tendrils dig down deep. And the army and all what have you, they’re busy with the really big ones.”
Greg swung the car into his father’s driveway and pulled up near the old pickup and stopped. His father was on the veranda with the telescope. Greg climbed out and walked over.
“Company,” his father said.
“You remember Annie?” Greg said. “I brought her over to talk some sense into you.”
“Hey,” Annie said. “I brought wings.” She held up the bag.
“Wings.” Greg’s father smiled down at her. “I could go for some wings. You bet.”
“They’re just leftovers, really.”
“I’m not fussy.”
Inside his father arranged the wings on a plate and nuked them. In moments they were crispy hot again. “So,” he said, setting the plate on the table. “Going to talk some sense into me, huh? People have been trying that for decades.”
Annie laughed. She took one of the wings, and his father took one too. Greg just sat. He didn’t like the way his father looked at Annie. Not quite a leer, but it was at least flirtatious. He was too old and sick to behave like that.
“I figure you’ve got plenty more life in you,” Annie said. “I don’t understand this attachment to the land. There was a whole long period that you didn’t even live here.”
“That’s right. And there’s two things. First, what I’ve got is terminal. I don’t have plenty more life in me. Unless I let them experiment and, you know, quite frankly I don’t have the energy for that.”
“Experiment?” Greg said. “There are other treatments?”
His father nodded towards him. “That’s part of it too. My son here is always looking for other ways around it. I call it guilt. He feels bad because he doesn’t get out her often enough to see me. Thinks if he can talk me into living a few years longer then he’ll make a promise to himself that he’ll come out more often. He might even move out here. If he could make a go of his acting lark, then he might just be able to live around here someplace and have himself flown into Hollywood for a couple of weeks’ worth of shooting, then fly back to chop wood and tend the flowers.”
“Except there won’t be any flowers anyway, will there?” Greg wanted to deflect from the whole acting thing. What actor wouldn’t want to be able to take offers instead of occasional extra or speaking-extra roles? He was lucky to have a fall back career in accounts. What his father was talking about was the stuff of dreams.
“You’re still acting?” Annie said. She reached over and slapped his wrist with a greasy hand. “Oh, that’s oily. Sorry.”
“Got it.” His father stood and retrieved a roll of paper towels, passing them over.
“Yes,” Greg said. He tore off a towel and wiped his wrist. “I’m still doing some acting. A few commercials and extra roles.”
“You never mentioned it at dinner. You should have.”
Greg balled up the towel. “Yeah. I kind of wish it was like Dad says, you know, in demand. But it’s not.”
“Saw him on television just a week or two back,” his father said. “On one of those crime scene programs.”
“Well, really? See, Greg, you just got a whole lot more interesting.”
Greg managed a smile. Nobody spoke for a moment, then his father said, “That thing is going to mow right through the whole flower garden. It might just leave one of the corners, but really, it’s wider than the yard. Coming in at an angle, but it’s going to go right through the middle. I got the measurements from the cops, and I read up about how fast they grow. Not much, but it will be something over two hundred yards across at the base when it clanks and chuffs its way over my property. It will bowl the house right down and munch it up.”
“You could get away,” Annie said. “See some of the country maybe. There’s still plenty out there. And you must have friends still in San Francisco you could visit with. Take a trip. If you come back in a couple of weeks it will all be over and the rehabilitation crews will be working things back up to normal.”
His father shook his head. He took another wing. “These are good. For reheats.”
“We could go house hunting, then,” Annie said. “Look around for another place. There’s got to be somewhe-”
“Dad, please,” Greg said. “Just let us come up with alternatives.”
“Your mother’s here,” his father said. He tore a strip of flesh from the wing and chewed.
“My mother? What?”
Taking a paper towel, his father wiped his face. “Her ashes.”
Greg shook his head. “San Francisco bay. We scattered them off the ferry.” He choked up a little. Getting up he went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, taking a swallow. “I can’t tell you how hard that was. My mother. Knowing it’s what she would have wanted, but it was all I could do just to not break down in a howling mess.”
His father made that half-nod, half-shake of his head again. “Pine and newspaper ashes. Some burned and broken up chicken bones to give it texture.”
“Pine? Why would you do that? We had the urn, it was a ceremony. It was a celebration of her life and now you’re telling me that it was wood ashes and chicken bones?” Greg felt like taking the plate of wings and hurling at his father. Why would the man deceive him like that?
“She belonged here,” his father said. “And if I tried to explain that to you, all that you would have done would be try to talk me out of it. Like you’re trying to talk me out of staying put right now.”
“You’re dead right,” Greg said. “She loved San Francisco. She’d been happy there.”
“She died there.”
“And that’s why it was fine for her to stay there. Her ashes, I mean.”
His father didn’t say anything for a moment. Now it felt like everything Greg could do not to walk out. He could just get in the car and go. Drive back to the airport, fly back to Hoboken and never have to deal with any of this again. Let the monster alien chew up his father and then enjoy spending whatever was left of the estate.
“I’m sure you father meant well,” Annie said.
“Meant…” Greg trailed off. He didn’t know what to think.
“If you’d just calm down for a minute,” his father said. “I could tell you that you’re right, she loved San Francisco. We both did. It was like a second honeymoon for us. An extended honeymoon, even though the both of us were working.”
“Working vacation,” Annie said.
“Thank you. And she shouldn’t have died. We would have come back here anyway, to retire and collect on those pensions. Except that she died and that just caved San Francisco in for me. It’s like a blot on the coast there. I can’t ever go back.”
“Oh,” Annie said.
Greg saw what his father meant, then. “And you would have had to go back to visit her ashes.”
“Sounds weird, huh? Creepy. Since they would have been long ago washed out to sea. But I would have had to go out there, just to go on the ferry, just to talk with her. To her. And can you imagine how I’d feel flying in to the airport at South San Francisco, coming over the bottom end of the bay, seeing all the places we’d been.”
“It could have been a kind of celebration of her,” Greg said.
His father smiled. “Maybe. Call me a coward.”
“So where is she?” Annie said. “Interred at Regal Place Cemetery?”
Greg knew, in that instant, but he waited for his father to say.
“She’s in the garden. Scattered all through the flowers.” His father managed a weak smile. “She’s fertilizer.”
“Oh,” Annie said. She glanced back at Greg. “That’s why he can’t leave.”
“Or leave that thing to devour the whole garden.”
His father swallowed. His smile had gone and his face had become downcast and bleak.
“You mean to be with her, like that?” Greg said.
“Inside the monster?” Annie said.
His father nodded, the motion barely noticeable. “Call me crazy,” he whispered.
No one said anything for a moment. From out on the highway, Greg heard the sound of a cop siren, just a couple of pulses. More people fooling with the leviathan.
“Anyway,” his father said, pushing back from the table. “Now that you’ve found out all my secrets, I’m going to turn in. You two should do the same.” The man looked frail and old, as if he’d aged through the course of conversation at an accelerated rate. He walked, almost a shuffle, by Greg and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m sorry for the deception,” the old man said, and continued on to the stairs.
Annie sat watching after him. She let a moment pass, then looked at Greg. “You doing okay there?” She stood. “Lots to take in all at once.”
“Guess I should be getting back, really,” she said.
“I guess. I’ll run you into town.” Greg blinked and refocused. “It was nice to see you again. Like this.”
“Yes. Likewise. If you decide to follow your father’s plan there, you know, and move back so you can fly off to your shoots, you should look me up again.”
A part of Greg wanted to flirt back, but he just fumbled for the car keys and headed for the door.
In the dim suffuse light from the Garnet Hill streetlamps miles off, the flowers glowed with a vibrant ethereal shimmer. Greg imagined his mother’s ghost lying in wait, taking care of the flowers.
“He did the right thing,” Annie said, slipping out onto the veranda.
Headlights. A car was coming up the road.
“I know,” Greg said. “I even know why he didn’t tell me, but it still hurts.” He glanced at her. He felt raw at his father’s lie.
“Company,” Annie said as the headlight beams swung across them, the car turning into the long driveway.
The car swept up between the flowers, adding a stark, practical light across the plantation. As the vehicle pulled in behind the Camaro, Greg saw it was a police cruiser. The lights shut off, leaving him with flashing afterimages.
“Dale,” Annie said. She stepped down past Greg and walked across.
Greg followed. A tall cop stepped out and adjusted his hat. “Hi Annie,” he called. “Hope you’re not heading back into town tonight.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “We were just leaving.”
“Sorry, they’ve closed the highway.”
“Closed it?” Annie said, at the same time as Greg said, “Who?”
Dale sighed. “National Guard. It was planned for the morning but they moved it up. They’ve put out people at the intersections back a ways, and they’ve roped off the highway.” Dale lifted off his hat and scratched his head. “At least three days, they said.”
“Three days?” Annie said.
Greg understood. It took the alien monster a days to travel its own length.
Dale looked back at the highway and put his hat on. “It’ll take thirty hours to get across the road, then they’ve got to assess the road bed and begin rehabilitation. Apparently they chew up roads pretty bad. Lots of mineralization in the concrete and the underlayers.” He sighed again, and came around the car. “If you’re going back into town, you’ll have to go around Grace Road and through Cobblestone.”
“Some detour,” Greg said.
“Yep. You know, on the freeways, they lay a new temporary road a thousand yards out.”
“Gotta keep traffic moving,” Annie said.
Dale smiled. He looked up over their shoulders. “Mr. Winden.”
“Deputy,” Greg’s father said.
“Still can’t convince you to leave?”
“Doctors give me six months, six months ago. At best. One of them said four. Where am I going to go?”
“Six months,” Dale said. “You could get in a lot of golf.”
“All Downhill. Slow and painful.”
“And the morphine,” Greg said. His father nodded, thin-lipped.
“Still,” Dale said. “Some nice places for sale out along Campbells Road. Good acreage.”
“Might take a look. How much you think I’ll get for this place?”
“Dad,” Greg said.
“Government’s taking care of that,” Dale said. “But, I know. Already you explained it to me, and I understand. But officially I’ve got to at least try to talk you into leaving.”
“But you don’t have to forcibly remove me?”
“Not at this point. Justice in town might have other ideas.”
“I talked to Benny too. His wife died of something like my nasty disease here. She didn’t even last the three months.”
“You could just take it upon yourself,” Greg said to Dale. “Isn’t that something you do? Evictions?”
“Boy, I sure don’t want to go back to those days.” Dale huffed out. “If there was a court order, then I could act on it, but there’s nothing.”
“And there won’t be one,” Greg’s father said.
“Anyway,” Dale said. “You’ll excuse me, I’ve got other folk to see along the highway. G’night Mr. Winden. Greg, well, nice to see you. Good luck with talking some sense into him. Annie.” Dale touched his hat and got back into the car. He started it, backed around, then nosed out along the driveway.
“Well,” Annie said. “Guess I’d better have a sleepover.”
“You’re welcome to stay, of course,” Greg’s father said.
“I can still run you in,” Greg said.
“Nah. I’m bushed. It’s a forty-five minute drive, then you’d have to drive back. Unless you wanted to stay over.” She winked.
“Oh, please,” his father said. He turned and went back inside. “To think I was going to make up the couch,” he muttered. “Saves on laundry.” The door closed after him.
Greg opened his mouth, shut it again. “I’ll take the couch,” he said.
“You better.” She turned for the house and took his hand as they walked up. “I enjoyed tonight,” she said. “I mean, except for the whole giant alien monster bearing down on your family homestead, but, you know, your company.”
“Likewise,” he said, unable to muster anything better. He liked Annie, still. He was surprised at how attracted he was to her. She’d lost that youthful sparkle, and slimness, but she’d gained something else. She’d grown up, but was still playful. “I think I could learn a thing or two from you.”
She gave his hand a squeeze and released. Up on the veranda, she stopped and looked out across the flowers. “So beautiful,” she said. “A pity.”
Greg moved a little closer. “Yeah. I’ll miss the place.”
“You’ll miss your Dad.” She turned to him and he could smell her hair. Apples. “Even though you don’t get out much, it still changes the world. No matter what. You become an orphan and it’s like curtains being drawn. You lose your backup plan. You can’t just phone up and say ‘listen, Mom, I’m stuck here and I can’t figure out what to do’.”
He was about to say that he never phoned his father like that, but realized that he did understand what she meant. He felt like he was looking over the top of a fence and could see the desert beyond. It would be weird to have his father gone. In the morning he would talk to him. One last run at getting him to come out East.
“Whoops,” Annie said, touching his arm. “You disappeared.” She moved to the door. “I’m going to turn in.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling his hand tingle where she’d been squeezing. Somehow he’d missed a moment. “I… have you got… things for the night? I mean, you know, whatever…”
“Ah, you’re cute. Yes, I’m fine. I’ve got my handbag. Just show me where the spare room is, and the shower.”
Greg followed her inside, wondering if she was prepared because she’d always intended staying the night. He led her upstairs and showed her his old room, and the bathroom.
“Of course,” she said, “I’ve been here before.”
“Twenty years ago,” he said. “And as I recal you didn’t stay over that time.”
“See you in the morning,” she said, and closed him out of his room.
Downstairs, Greg grabbed another beer and went out to the yard on his own. He walked along the flower rows, the pollen scent drenching his nasal passages.
Near the far corner, he crouched to the soil and scooped up a handful. It was damp and thick. The kind of soil his father would have been proud of: well-maintained, composted and turned. He could hear sounds from out at the highway. People calling, and the mechanical clankings and buzzings. The National Guard working on their roadblock. There were lights too, a hazy glow rising up from over at the highway.
Greg let the soil crumble through his fingers, unable to escape the thought of his mother’s particles in there. Finishing the beer, he headed back for the house. The light was still on up in his bedroom. Annie, preparing for bed.
He went to the rental and got in, setting the empty beer into a cup holder. He sat behind the wheel for a moment, feeling just a little light-headed from the beers and the evening.
It was an odd sensation, imagining his father dying in a day or two. Intentionally.
The man didn’t seem that unwell, really. He was walking around the house just fine, not shuffling too much, not complaining of aches and pains. He seemed as fit as anyone his age.
Greg sniffed and wiped his eyes.
Reaching down, he thumbed the Camaro’s starter. The engine thrummed and he pushed the accelerator, spinning the car around. Greg sped out along the driveway. He bumped onto the tarmac and accelerated. It only took a minute to reach the cordon. Hefty orange and white plastic barriers blocked the highway. The pieces looked like oversize bricks from a child’s toy. There were army trucks too, and police vehicles. Someone had set up some stands with bright halogen lights beaming back towards town.
The wurm just caught the edges of the light. In the evening shade it seemed more menacing and mountain-like than earlier when the kids had been fooling with it. In the dim reflection Greg imagined that he could see it moving.
It was only twenty or thirty yards from the highway now. There were people all around, mostly in police and army uniforms. Some of the cops were out of county. He saw some of them with real cameras, taking photos of the creature.
Greg parked, got out and walked to the cordon. The highway had been cleared for a good half a mile and he could see another barrier down there. More vehicles and people. Some people were walking around ahead of the thing. Someone was marking the road with pulses from a spray can.
No one seemed to be bothered by his presence, so Greg leapt the barrier and walked along closer to the alien. He whispered to his earset and took a few photos himself.
This is the thing that will destroy my family home, he thought. The thing that will ingest my mother’s ashes.
And, if his father had his way, it would ingest him too.
“Hey,” someone shouted. “You can’t be in here.”
Greg kept walking, taking more pictures as he went. His feet crunched over the gravel shoulder and then he was in the grass before the fence.
“What’s he doing?” More people were noticing.
“Get him out of there.”
Greg started moving faster, the grass blades whispering against his jeans. He reached the fence and flipped himself over. A couple more steps and he was practically in front of the thing.
He’d never been so close to one. He could see how the boy had been able to climb up it. The surface was a mass of lumpy projections and indentations. The shapes almost formed diagrams or pictures. Patterns, at least, with whorls and buttons of decreasing size turning around to form what could be rills running down from the top.
It was, he knew, only partly mechanical. The organic parts of it created functional machine parts similar to how his own body had once grown bones and teeth.
“Sir. Please come back this side of the fence.”
Those rills were the joins between the parts. The exterior was formed of overlapping or abutting plates. It wasn’t just an exo-skeleton: they were organic but still substantially machine-like inside too. In Africa they’d been dissecting some of the ones they’d managed to kill.
He stepped closer, reaching up towards the skin.
“Sir, you need to step away from the alien.”
If only there was a real and practical way to divert it. What would a cornfield matter? Or some pasture? But his father’s garden? His mother’s ashes?
He thought he could hear it munching its way across the soil. A quiet, moist, but grating sound, barely audible over the background hum of crickets.
Greg slipped down to his knees. He hung his head. If he could kneel here and block the thing he would.
There was an under-resourced program involving explosives experts boring through the top of the aliens and blowing them up from inside. But they were still learning, and sometimes the thing didn’t just die, it budded and the problem multiplied.
It felt so unfair. All of Nebraska to cross and the thing chose his father’s place to aim for.
Greg felt strong hands on his arms, hauling him up. “Come on mister, you can’t be here.”
“My father’s house,” Greg said. But he didn’t resist, just let them pull him back towards the fence. They let him go and he turned to face them. A pair of cops, silhouetted in the halogens.
“Am I under arrest?”
“I sure would like to do that,” the taller one said. He inclined his head. “Have you been drinking sir?”
Greg shrugged. “Coupla’ beers.” Wouldn’t that be something? Go home with a DUI.
The cop shifted his hat back a little. “You’re Allan Winden’s boy? Grant?”
“Yeah. Sorry about your Dad’s place. Nothing I can do about it. Wish there was, but it’s all I can do to keep people away from it.”
“Case in point,” Greg said.
“Yeah. You going to get out of here, all peaceful and quiet? I’m plenty busy right now.”
Greg nodded. The cops stepped back and headed for their cars. Greg went to the barrier and clambered over. He got back into the Camaro and drove slowly to the house.
When he pulled up, Annie was sitting on the veranda, feet down on the top step.
“Hi you,” she said as he got out. “Little late night drive?”
He glanced at the driveway, still not sure what he’d achieved by getting out. Perhaps just to see the thing. Perhaps hoping that it had stopped.
It all felt too weird.
“I went out to look at it,” he said. “It’s practically on the highway.” He looked back across the flowers and trees towards the glow from the cordon. “It’ll be here in the morning, I guess.”
“Come back in. It’s getting cold.”
Greg pushed off the car and walked over. Annie stood as he came up. Her eyes sparkled with reflected light from the halogens. “You look like an angel,” he said.
“You’ve been drinking.” But she stepped down to the path in front of him, looking up into his eyes.
“Like I told the cop, just a couple of beers.”
She smiled and shivered. It wasn’t that cold. He liked her smile and he found himself bending to kiss her. She responded. She tasted of minty toothpaste and beer and apples. He wondered how he tasted. Probably just of beer. He pulled back.
“I guess we can talk more in the morning,” she said in a whisper.
He kissed her again. She pressed into him. It lasted longer this time. She felt soft in his arms. Her hair smelled of apples still. Shampoo, he thought.
This time she pulled away. “This is nice,” she said, “but you’re not really here.”
He nodded. She was right. “How am I going to get him out of the place?”
“Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
Greg realized he was holding her hand and he gave it a squeeze. She smiled. “I’m thirty-seven, not a teenager. I’m not going to bed with you.” She glanced up at the house. “Especially not with your father in the next room.”
“We don’t have to rush,” he told her. He started into the house, still holding her hand, still surprised.
“You live in Hoboken,” she said. “I live in Garnet Hill.”
“You’d like Hoboken. Lots of industry. Plenty of airports looking for people to come work for them.”
“See you think you’re funny, but that’s hardly ‘not rushing’ things.”
“Ribbing you.” He closed the front door behind them, glimpsing the lights from the highway as the door clicked into place. “I’m considering coming back here anyway. Didn’t we talk about that?” But all he could really think about was the approaching monster and his father upstairs not willing to shift.
“Ribbing you back.”
“Yeah.” He turned from the door and she was already partway up the stairs, grinning. “See you in the morning then,” he said.
Her grin widened. “Yeah.” And she went up the stairs.
He didn’t expect to sleep, really, but woke, surprised to find sunlight creeping across his face through the living room windows. He was on the fold-out sofa.
“Hey you.” Annie. She was sitting in an armchair watching him. “Late start.” She was dressed in the same clothes as yesterday. Of course, she’d stayed over.
“What time is it?”
“After nine. I called in sick.”
Greg sat up. His mouth tasted dry and bitter. “Breakfast?”
He was in boxers. He swung his legs out and grabbed his jeans.
“Mmm,” she said. “You’re in good shape for middle-age.”
“Middle-age?” he said. “You mean prime.”
She laughed. “Honey, boys half your age are just coming into their prime. You’re doing okay, but… well, yeah.”
“If I’m doing okay, you’re doing fine,” he said. “Did you just call me ‘honey’?”
She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh.”
The alien, he thought. He pulled on his tee-shirt and went to the front door.
It had crossed already to the edge of the flowers. It towered there like a rock wall. As he watched one of the fence posts snapped off right in front of it.
“I can’t believe they let us sleep here,” Annie said.
“They know how fast it moves.” Greg felt hollow. It was about to begin ingesting the garden. His mother’s ashes.
“Is that Dale?” Annie said.
Greg saw a cop car coming up the driveway again. “I guess they’re going to move us out soon.” He stepped out to the edge of the porch, resting his hands on the rough wood. Again the cruiser stopped in behind Greg’s rental and a cop climbed out. It wasn’t until he took off his hat that Greg realized it was Dale.
“Sorry to coop you up like that last night,” Dale said. “The road’s clear now, you can head on into town. They’ve graded one lane.” He looked back across the garden. “Sure is going to make a mess of this place. It tore up the road in a really nasty way, like it was digging right down into the substrate. Like it was mining.”
“That’s what it does,” Greg said.
“I’m real sorry about your dad’s place, Greg. It’s a shame. I used to come out here just for the smell. So many flowers. Sometimes your dad would let me take a couple of bunches for Estelle.”
“You go ahead and take all you want now,” Greg said. He stepped off the veranda and walked across.
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean to suggest that I should be able to-”
“Nonsense. Look at this thing.” Greg pointed at the alien looming over the edge of the garden. “It’s just going to chew its way across everything.”
“It is at that,” Dale said.
“You should get everyone up here.” Greg wondered why his father hadn’t cut all the flowers beforehand anyway. Looking back up at the house, he saw his father standing is his bedroom window staring out across the field. He took a gulp from a glass of water, then turned away without even seeing Greg.
“Well,” Dale said. “I’m sure the guys would appreciate it.”
Greg looked down from the window and out at the flowers. His mother’s ashes were in there. “You know, I think I made a mistake. I don’t think Dad would want that.”
Dale looked around, eyebrows up. Greg could see him thinking they’ll go to waste.
“It’s a long story. My mother’s ashes. He scattered them through the garden.”
The alien leviathan was already crunching through the flowers. He could hear the little pop-pop-pop of the stiff stems as the it broke them off.
Annie came down and stood between them. She put her hand into Greg’s.
Greg smiled. “But Dale, you should take a few. I mean a decent bunch. Really.”
“Nah, that’s all right.”
The three of them stood just watching the alien approach. Its metal hide glistened in the sun. Greg thought he could smell its oily, organic odor over the flowers. It moved so slowly, but he knew in a few hours it was going to knock down the house. And it would ingest it all. He only had a limited time to convince his father to get out.
“We should move the cars,” Annie said. “Right out to the driveway.”
She was right, he thought. And he should have gotten on to moving the furniture and other things out of the house. Still, a couple of hours and he might be able to get most of the important stuff. He could load up the pickup. “I forgot to clear out the house,” he said.
Dale pushed back from the car. “Need some help?”
“No, I…” Greg trailed off.
“Yeah, he does,” Annie said.
“We just need to move it out of the path, really,” Dale said.
Greg looked at the approaching thing. It was as wide as the property. Coming in at an angle, it was going to take down everything. Not just the house, but the flowers, the trees, the old shed, the cool store out back and his father’s garage. “How wide is it really?” Greg said.
Dale sighed. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a couple of hundred yards across. As wide as it is high.”
“Let’s get started,” Annie said. “He doesn’t have that much stuff really.”
Greg took another look at the monster, then headed inside. In the living room, there were some old books on a bookcase with a few trophies and souvenirs. In the corner his T.V. was bolted to the wall.
“Let us get this,” Annie said. “You should talk with your father.”
Greg nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.” He looked back at her grim face.
Greg went upstairs. From the landing he could see out the front windows across the yard. The thing seemed to be moving faster. Almost its whole width was across the yard now. In a way he expected to have sightseers in the yard. It was different, he guessed, to the highway. Back there it was obvious to passersby but here it was just another piece of land and old house getting bowled over.
“Dad?” Greg knocked on his father’s door. Usually his father would be up before him and down making breakfast. It wasn’t so early really.
Greg pushed open the door and saw his father laying on his bed. “Dad?” But he knew already that it was too late.
Going across, he saw the empty pharmacy bottle on the side table next to the empty glass of water. He put his hand on his father’s forehead. He wasn’t cold yet, but he was cool.
“Oh, Dad,” Greg said. He sat on the edge of the bed. “You didn’t have to do this.” Greg didn’t know what the bottle had contained, but he didn’t have to. His father wasn’t breathing. The room felt cold and silent. Greg got off the bed and went to the window.
The alien was coming ever closer. An unstoppable force. In the time since he’d gotten up, it had crossed several yards of the property. It mowed the flowers down in slow motion.
He wished again that there was some easy way to stop them. When you looked on a map the aliens seemed like such small things. Their tracks were narrow and their progress slow. In the wider world they were a minor problem. But when you stood in your old childhood home with one of them bearing down on you they didn’t seem so minor. If it had only been a few hundred yards to the left or right it wouldn’t have made any difference. His mother’s ashes would have remained undisturbed, and his father wouldn’t have taken his own life.
Greg gasped, and began crying. He hadn’t meant to, but the tears just came. He leant his forehead up against the window and tasted salt as a drip ran into his mouth.
“Greg?” Annie said from the doorway. “Oh my.”
Greg turned and walked over to her. He didn’t even look at his father.
“But he…” Annie said. She sighed. “We wondered where you’d gotten to. Your father? He’s…”
“It’s what he wanted,” Greg said. He stopped between Annie and the bed. “He knew I wouldn’t let him stay in the house. Dale would have helped me to drag him out.”
“We need to get Dale. We need an ambulance.”
“It’s too late,” Greg said. “He was sick already.”
“Oh, Greg. I’m sorry. Real sorry.” She stepped forwards and hugged him.
Greg put his arms around her and held on. “Yeah. He’s going to join Mom.” His voice broke a little.
He felt Annie nod against his shoulder.
“And literally. When that thing eats the house, it will have already eaten her ashes.” He let Annie go.
She managed a smile. “We still need to get Dale. He needs to know so your Dad doesn’t get listed as missing.”
“Yeah,” Greg looked back at the bed again. His father seemed relaxed. Ready. “It seems so weird, to think that he’ll be ingested by that alien.”
Annie nodded and hugged him again. Greg felt at home in her arms.
They got Dale and he rubbed his chin and hemmed and hawed. “You know,” he said after a few moments. “My condolences.”
“Thanks,” Greg said. “You’re thinking of paperwork, right?”
Dale sighed. “Yeah, I am.”
“And from what you said, he wanted to be here? Wanted to go with the house?”
“Kind of creepy, but if that was his last wish, well, who am I to stand in his way?” Dale adjusted his hat and stepped back out to the hallway. “I don’t know what I’m going to put on the forms.”
“You’ll think of something,” Annie said.
“That I will.” He looked between the two of them and smiled. “I’ll be downstairs grabbing stuff.” He headed off along the hallway.
“Thanks,” Greg said.
Annie hugged him again. “I’ll go help. You should take as long as you need.” She let go and followed Dale downstairs.
Greg watched her go, then looked outside. From where he stood by the door, the whole window was taken up by the distant alien. He wouldn’t be able to take as long as he needed.
Five minutes, he decided. Not long to grieve. His father seemed happy. On the side table Greg saw a piece of paper from a writing pad. He picked it up, but didn’t know if he could read it. His father’s suicide note.
Looking at the body, he knew it was what his father wanted, but to exit like that, so abruptly, and on his own seemed a waste. Greg would have liked a few more minutes to talk with him.
Greg started crying again. “Silly old fool,” he said.
Sorry to do this, the note read, but I know you’d try to talk me out of it or drag me off. Please just leave me here and let me be with Bette.
It was signed, and dated.
“I’m sorry too,” Greg said. He stared at his father for a moment longer, and headed downstairs to help the others.
Later they parked the pickup and other cars out of the Alien’s path. Dale had some confiscated beers in the cruiser’s trunk, and Annie had found some old deck chairs hanging in the back of the garage. After all the lugging and packing the beer tasted great. A toast to his father.
Greg had given Dale the note and Dale thanked him. “Not like a notarized will,” Dale said, “but it will help with the paperwork, thanks.”
Greg didn’t know what to say.
They set the chairs up at the end of the driveway, out of the alien’s path, but with a good view of the house.
“You’re sure you want to watch?” Annie said.
“It seems like the thing to do,” he told her. It did. In a way it was like a funeral. How was watching a house get bulldozed down and ingested so very different from watching a pine box lowered into the ground?
The alien had almost reached the house by now. It was late afternoon. The sun was sending shafts and streaks through the distant thunderclouds. The smell of flowers was almost overpowering as the mechwurm trundled across, throwing out all the pollen and crushing stems and petals. It made for quite a send-off, Greg thought.
Some more people had gathered at the end of the driveway to watch. Dale offered them beers and there were some takers. The alien had moved out of the flowers and was crossing the mown grass around in front of the house.
The thing knocked down the garage. Greg thought it looked like something from a time-lapse photography documentary. The whole structure shifted on its foundations, then tilted and collapsed, one wall lying on the ground. The roof came off and tumbled over the grass. The creeping alien rumbled across it without slowing. The wood made crackling, popping sounds and it was ground up.
“Here.” Dale passed him another beer. Greg waved, declining. It had tasted good, but he wanted to be very clear-headed.
Over the next two hours the alien crept on across the grassy yard. As the front end came up on the veranda Greg got out of his deck chair and walked across to the house. The metal leading edge touched the railing, and Greg put his hand out onto the wood, feeling again the roughness and the layers of paint. He could feel the wood shivering under his hand. The house creaked.
“Greg,” Annie said.
He didn’t turn.
“You should come away,” she said.
He held on a moment longer. Turning, he took her hand and walked back from the house.
The alien loomed up over the place, not so much like a rock wall now, but more like a factory or a refinery. He could hear a snick, snick, snick sound as it moved, and again could smell that oily-organic scent.
The first timbers fell before they’d reached the deck chairs. As with the garage, the house shifted, then tilted. The windows shattered. Some of the frames fell out. The weatherboards burst away, some spinning off into the flowers in the backyard.
“That sure is something,” Dale said.
“Yep,” Greg said. He felt like another beer. It was so extraordinary to watch his home being destroyed this way. He felt sad, but kind of awed at the same time.
As the house went right over, Greg pictured his father tumbling across the room. He hoped that the body wouldn’t drop through the doorway and out the back window.
“Like a slow-motion train wreck,” one of the rubberneckers at the fence line called.
“Hey,” Dale shouted back. “Little respect.”
“Sorry officer,” the man called, but the rubberneckers all laughed.
It took more than an hour for the house to be demolished, and then another hour and a half for the remains to be ground up through the machine alien.
When it was done, the alien heading off through the last of the flowers, Greg stood up from the deck chair. The bulk of the alien still covered the area where the house had been. The sun was setting, though they’d been in the alien’s shadow since it had reached the house. The clouds hung a bloody red over the top of the thing. Annie stood by him and took his hand.
“Well,” Dale said. “I better head back into town. You got a place to stay, Greg? And my condolences again on the loss of your father.”
“Thanks,” Greg said. He kept staring up at the alien. It was a surreal end to things, he thought. A strange farewell to his childhood.
“He can come stay at my place,” Annie said. “Least I could do. And lose that grin, officer. He’s sleeping on the sofa.” But she gave Greg’s hand a squeeze.
“I wouldn’t think otherwise, Annie.” Dale adjusted his hat and got into the cruiser.
“I’m glad you came back,” Annie said as Dale drove off.
“Me too,” Greg said. He squeezed her hand. Despite the destruction and the slow funeral for his father, it seemed right somehow. The remains of both his father and mother now mixed through the spoil the alien would leave behind. Morbid, but right. It would be okay to come back here, he thought. He figured he could still do a lot of is contract accounts by distance anyway.
“Come on,” he said to Annie, “Let’s go get something to eat.”
Download the current issue of The Colored Lens: