The Voice from Beyond the Desert

The low whine of a single locust tittered through the midday heat before abruptly and percussively ending with a crunch of the Botanist’s sandal into the Mojave ground, kicking up a somber cloud of desert dust. The Botanist set down her pack and shaded her eyes with a hand to her forehead as she surveyed the horizon for her next subject. She spotted the spined and clubby hands of the yucca brevifolia waving hello to her from behind a nearby boulder.

After collecting samples and taking down notes and measurements, having scientific conversations with the Joshua Tree she had traveled here to study, she looked towards the dying light in the sky. The sun had gotten low as her conversations with the trees rambled away from her. She had meant to head back to camp hours ago; the Geologist would be waiting with dinner ready over the fire by sundown. The Botanist grabbed her pack and started making her way back in the direction of their shared research camp.

The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled with static air as the Botanist’s shadow loomed behind her, elongated and alien. The rocks and boulders and Joshua Trees of the Mojave were traced with golden yellow light against the yawning sky. The walk was long. As the sun died beneath its desert coffin and the stars started to show themselves, the Botanist clicked off her walkie-talkie. And breathed deep. Dry air. In, out. Sandpaper breaths. She looked upwards.


Back at their camp, the Geologist was stewing. Pacing. Idly scratching his stubble. Walking in an equilateral triangle around their campsite, over and over. Retracing, the same measurements. She should’ve been back by now. He wasn’t worried. He was angry. Feeling slighted, and left standing in the now cold sand, with just the rocks and the dust. He shoved one of those rocks with his foot within the interior of the triangle.

“Hello? Where are you?” he said, flatly, into the walkie-talkie.

“…”

Only static air. Sandpapery.


The viscous darkness continued to thicken as the Botanist edged closer to the camp through the cold desert. There was a part of her mind that tugged at her body like it was attached to a string; it slowed her pace. She continued her gaze upwards, to the now bright, bright stars. There was that gnawing feeling in her bones, it inched towards fear, but settled more into the canyon that echoes with lonesomeness. She thought of the Geologist. And then she didn’t. The walkie-talkie stayed dormant, purposefully off. She looked down for a beat, brows furrowed, but her subconscious brought her gaze back upwards. The lonesomeness slurred into longing. Cold wishes. She waved hello to the vacant stars.

She glimpsed a light in the distance, maybe less than a couple miles further southeast of their camp. It looked like… a streetlight? Shining in this desolate scape? How had she not noticed it before? Maybe she was seeing things, maybe the stars burned light ghosts in her eyes. Maybe she was hoping. But the coals of their campfire were defined now, surely a different light–closer, quiet and red, and the Geologist was probably asleep in their tent.

“Nice of you to join me,” a voice rattled from the darkness, settled on the triangle the Geologist had worked so hard to draw for them.

She jumped at his voice, breath caught, and then, “I’m sorry. I got carried away. It’s beautiful out there, you know.”

“It’s desert. Rocks and dust.”

“And the Joshua Trees. And the sky.”

He stood up from the ground shadow in which he was sitting. In which he held his vigil, cold and cross-armed.

“Goodnight.”

She sighed. She kicked some sand and a rock or two onto the dying firelight, and followed him into the tent.

Watchers

The car took him to therapy before work, never a good sign. He called in from the waiting room. Jann didn’t like it of course, but what could Rick do? If you wanted health care you followed the rules and that included emergency therapy. He just wished he’d known. Rick had skipped breakfast and now he was sitting there hungry. You didn’t dare ask the receptionist how much longer. They scrutinized you constantly and even a twitch meant something. He tried to look happy. That’s what they wanted to see.

The android behind the counter called his name. The bald face mimicked a human persona remarkably. “Andrea will take you back, Mr. Dalton.”

He followed the tall, platinum-haired woman in the pleated black dress to a therapy room. Once he settled into the waterlounger, she went after his tea. “Mint, hot?” she asked from the alcove.

He had this. Rick drank mint iced except in the morning, except during emergency therapy when he always asked for it cold. “If you don’t mind, I’d like iced.”

“Of course. Doctor has a note. You’re to take this.”

A small square section of the table rose. In the center dimple sat a little gel cap. He sighed as he picked it up. “Thank you.”

She was there with his beverage. “Doctor will be with you presently.”

“Thank you.” He watched her leave, careful to look away appropriately. He swallowed the gel cap, sipped, and glanced at the Monet. Studied the ballerinas a bit, because he was sure they knew he liked it. Then back to the tea.

The space behind the desk shimmered as Dr. Kim’s hologram appeared. “Hello, Rick.”

“Hello, Dr. Kim.”

Dr. Kim’s image flickered and then the sharp eyes were back. “Rick, we had a spike in your routine I wanted to discuss.”

He felt a chill. How serious was it? Not reevaluation, please not that. They would pick him apart for a week. He remembered to interact: “I’m sorry if I let myself down.” Straight out of the therapeutic handbook.

“Two areas we need to cover—meds and diet.” Dr. Kim waited.

“My medications—Dr. Plummer gave me permission to-to use Diatholyn . . . Only when I need it.”

The hologram stared. “And your Reatox?”

“It makes me nauseous sometimes. You said you were going to see about trying something else.”

Amusement, like a snake eyeing a mouse, slid over the doctor’s face. “You do realize that willful withholding of prescribed medication is a crime, Rick.”

“Doctor—”

“Let’s move on. Diet.”

“I’m eating normally.”

“Breakfast? This morning?”

“No. I skipped it. I was running late and—” That was a verifiable lie and he had to retract. “I wasn’t actually late but I didn’t want to be late and so I was in a hurry. I have been trying to lose a pound or so.”

“A mini-diet, then?”

“Yes.”

“Then you weren’t planning on visiting the vending machine for a strawberry crunch before work, I suppose.”

He admitted, “I was.” No sense making this worse.

“Rick, according to what I have here, your predilection for snacks has increased your caloric intake well over six thousand calories in the past few weeks. This explains your gain of one-point-eight pounds. Okay. We’re finished.”

“What?”

“I’m recommending reevaluation.”

“Doctor, please.” Rick tried to control his voice but he was upset.

“Rick, you’ve displayed independent behavior and you have lied about it to your therapist.”

He wanted to scream back the truth. That the pills took away his spirit and replaced it with a lie. But that would only earn him a session under the laser. He remembered to respond. “I’ve been foolish and irresponsible, Dr. Kim.”

“Therapeutic medication is the foundation of our society. Try and remember that.”

“I will.”

“After reevaluation, I’m certain you’ll do fine.”

“Is that necessary? I promise—I’ll take whatever you prescribe from here on out.”

“I don’t know. There’s also your eating disorder. It’s just a mess, Rick.”

“No more breaking the rules, Dr. Kim, I promise.” Rick’s voice had a touch of huskiness; he almost believed it himself.

“Wait.” The hologram froze.

Wait? Now Rick was going nuts. The escort androids could burst in at any time. He sighed. He hated reevaluation.

Dr. Kim’s image reanimated. “Rick, I may be able to help you. If you’re willing to cooperate.”

“Certainly.”

“There’s someone from NSA. Wilson. Once I receive a confirmation from him that you’ve cooperated fully, I’ll consider this entire matter closed.”

“No reevaluation?”

“No. Just stick to your prescriptions, and your diet, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thank you.”

“We’re finished.”

Canvas Captured

Breezes of brilliant hues flowed from the Painter’s brushes to stroke the canvas with shadow and light. This evening, a summer night indefinite in time, she danced a mirror upon the canvas, sunset flashing through the paint-flecked gate as it flashed through the real gate outside.

Yet it was a broken mirror in one aspect: in the real world, the gate was locked and could not be opened by her. Her patron refused to release her, save when she needed inspiration, a new scene to paint. Then she went boarded up in a carriage and concealed from prying eyes. By these machinations, the Duke hoped to convince the City the paintings were his, but rumors of the Painter were enough to sustain the truth of her work. There was too much of her in the paintings, too much life, too much brilliance set free.

She had never painted the gate before, open or closed. Every one of the Duke’s tamed gardens and exotic curiosities had been depicted by her hand – but never the gate. It was the one pain in her heart, and it ached to look at the reminder of her captivity.

Even as she painted it, the gate changed in her mind. It became a thing of light and hope, beckoning, inviting… as if the world in canvas were as real as the world in flesh.

She sensed when the Duke entered the room and did not turn, rapt upon the tumult of tones. He would often watch her for a time, but never interrupted her.

The Painter finished smoothing the last daubed shadow and turned to face him. She did not need to stand back or study her work to know it was complete. The rich orange sun gleamed, bathing the path outside in promise.

The Duke’s eyes flashed with a moment’s wonder, but he dismissed it. “I wish you would do portraits,” he said. “That’s where the money and the fame is. The artist who captured my late wife works for the High King now.”

She thought of the cold, pale likeness hanging in the great hall, trapped more completely than she, and suppressed a shudder.

“I am done,” she said.

“Good. My cousin in the treasury has need of new adornment to -”

“I didn’t mean with this painting.” His eyes widened, for she had never interrupted him. Before he could react, she continued, “I meant with working for you. The paints run dry. I am done.” She felt her breath and her heart echo in her ears, a fearful thrum.

The Duke paused, his first reaction panic, and then fury. “You can’t. My reputation – our reputation -” He grabbed her arm. She recoiled; he tried to wrench her around, and instead lost his grip. She tumbled into the still-damp canvas.

She fell through… and kept falling through an expanse of green. She should have felt fear and instead felt like a bird with new wings, tumbling towards the skies. She landed with a gentle stop on a mossy path. The stones under her hand were indistinct blurs of grey and green, more suggestion than reality. She inhaled, delight and consternation both as she realized what had happened.

The Painter had become part of the painting.

It was not, she thought, such an impossible idea – obviously, considering it had happened, but there was power and possibility in the images she created. Why couldn’t there be life within them? She thought then of the Duke, who had hurled her here. She craned her head up and found the sky above a void the color of blank canvas. She had not painted it; it did not exist.

Could he see her within the painting? What if he smashed it? Fear riveted her to the spot; she lifted up her hands to shield her face, masking the brilliant color that surrounded her. Terror consumed her in a flash of fire… and then faded when her world remained, a soft, silent place with orange light that pierced through her fingers.

She remembered the gate and lowered her hands, breathing until her body quieted. It stood before her, beckoning into an endless sunset. Tranquility filled her as if poured like water, and to the surface rose the hope she had felt while painting. She walked into the light.

She blinked and found herself on a snow-swept hillside dotted with old-woman trees in white veils. The cold refreshed without chilling her; the wind tickled her skin and breathed winter’s secrets down her neck, as welcoming as an old friend. She turned her face up – oh, there was sky here, lavender fading into deep blue and inked with stars – and reveled.

She recognized the scene: it was another of her paintings, a much older composition from the year before her brother had sailed beyond the City. Her hands moved, tracing brushstrokes she almost remembered and lingering over the details. The scenery moved, subtly, breathing – the optical illusion of paint placed just so.

The Painter walked onwards and emerged under a summer waterfall, then into a field of flowers. It didn’t take long to realize all the paintings were hers, and though she felt the same wonder that had inspired her to craft them, the familiarity began to pale, and she missed the City. She tried to think of a way out… but she had always painted scenes from nature, not cityscapes with their limitless doors.

She knelt before a stream and parted the waters, painting a whirlpool with her hands. The landscape did not respond as her pigments did in the real world. She picked flowers and attempted to grind them up to make pigment of her own. They simply melted, more dream than substance. A slow dread formed in the base of her throat and spread through her body. What if she never found a path out of the paintings?

She was not sure how much time passed, but she never grew hungry or thirsty, and what little weariness she felt shifted with the landscape: the most dark and dreary of her compositions made her feel old and brittle, just as those of light and beauty gave her back years she had never realized were lost. As she wandered through the suspended scenes, she remembered a painting she had done years ago, her last before she entered the Duke’s service. It might be her way out.

Painting without Canvas

“It’s nice to see you,” I whisper, digging deep into Enzo’s broad shoulders.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “I got lost.” His voice is barely audible over the humming escalator and conversation bouncing between foyer walls.

“Aren’t you always lost?” I smile but it feels as if the joke brushed too close to reality. Maybe it has been a little too long since we last saw each other. I haven’t heard from Enzo since we went to the movies three weeks ago, but he called last night to ask if I would meet him at the Museum of Modern Art.

We slip from our hug and he holds me at arm’s length, one strong hand on each of my bony shoulders. His wide eyes are half hidden under overgrown brown hair, which curls on his forehead. I am staring back at him, looking at the swirls of purple and red and orange my fingertips left on the fabric of his sweater. My pasty fingerprints, made of the same material as watercolor pigments before they’ve been saturated with water, have left an imprint on Enzo’s shoulders as they always do when I hold him that hard. I pressed harder this time, thinking both the affection and the color will lighten whatever darkness Enzo feels, or maybe just wanting to leave a mark that will last the distance suddenly present between us.

He turns towards the escalator and I follow, using my right pointer finger to trace a rainbow heart on the outside of the metallic wall before turning to walk onto the first step. It’s something I leave for others to see without knowing where it came from and how it got there, like a random smiley face someone might scribble with a Sharpe.

On the step in front of us, an older man and woman with interlocked arms are smiling in amusement, exchanging few words. They’re watching the young woman in front of them, who is focusing through wide glasses with translucent frames on her son. Trying to keep him still as she holds a tissue to his nose and asks him to blow.

This trip feels different than any of the others I have made to the Museum of Modern Art. I’m aware of the people around me, the sounds and words filling these white corridors with life, as if I’ve just pulled off a pair of sunglasses. My usual rush to get on and off the escalator is not controlling my movements. That drive to get to the art as fast as possible is muffled by fear of what I might discover about myself, about Enzo, or about our relationship. I focus on the moving escalator railing – thin and thick hands, young hands, older and frailer hands, all of them careless. My hands, which appear like all of the others, are a work of art in itself; my fingertips swirl teal, orange, and purple. Stepping off, we move into the first gallery.

“Do you remember this one?” I say.

We are standing in front of Monet’s Agapanthus, the grassy yellows and greens swaying with brighter blues in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish between the colors. Yet I feel these colors as if they’re completely separate from one another.

Enzo and I had written about this painting in an art history class at Manhattan Marymount, where we met nearly one year ago. The professor split the class into groups of partners for weekly writing assignments due each Thursday, and this was one of our favorites. Throughout the fall semester, we combed over dozens of paintings and dissected each stroke of color every Wednesday night.

A minute passes without a word and I turn my head slightly to see what part of the painting has him so preoccupied. I notice he isn’t looking at this painting or any of the others, but is fixated on his cardigan, pulling it flat with his left hand and trying to rub out the dull colors from my fingertips with his right. He huffs over the marks, which settle deeper into the sweater as he rubs.

I’m thinking about a time in high school when I felt the same way about my abnormality. When I was a freshman, I sat in front of a girl named Veronika in earth science. She would comment on the layers of rock in the cross section only for a few minutes before giving up and offering a merciless impersonation of the teacher: “Stop leaving pink erasure pieces all over the desk!” Because it was my first year, I hadn’t talked too much, uneasy with the attention my skin automatically drew and unsure if others would see my flamboyance as I did – beautiful. But I felt as if I could talk to Veronika because her outgoing personality and quirky humor drew attention away from me.

Looking at the Monet and listening to the soft scuffs of Enzo rubbing his shirt, I feel as if I’m back in that moment when everything changed. While Ms. Pierson was lecturing about pyroclastic flows, I turned to Veronika and began to mimic our teacher. “The rocks pummel down mountains with speeds upwards of one-hundred miles an hour!” I whispered, raising my voice a few octaves in pitch. But then Ms. Pierson stopped talking.

“Jett, will you stop flirting with Veronika?” The silence was heavy. “Move your seat, now.”

Silt and Shale

My life’s always been a slate sunset, but it really hit a shit river one cold evening on Pier Thirty-three, Brynn Bay.

Sita and I had nabbed a keg of spikeberry wine and taken it to the pier, where we dangled our legs while we drank it down and hallucinated all night. The sea crashed against the pillars and made the world quake and Sita, prone, moaned and clenched the wood slats ’til her fingers went white. I stood tall at the end of the pier and the sea roared and swayed me back and forth and side to side, but never could topple me. I laughed to the black sky, I raised my fists high and bellowed at the night and called for lightning to incinerate me and scatter my ashes into the bay, but heaven never took to my taunts, so I laughed ’til I cried, I cried ’til I laughed, I laughed ’til I rasped, I rasped ’til I cried again. Sita clutched my legs and threw up all over my boots, then my tummy twisted and I found myself keeled over too. The wine hurtled out our bellies and splattered into the bay.

Sita pressed her face against my ankles. “What’s happening, Kaani?”

“It’s just the wine.”

We laid quiet for a long time as we waited for sobriety’s return, while Brynn Bay hammered the pier.

They found us. I think. It may have been a spikeberry vision. Two men stormed Pier Thirty-three, their only weapons biceps thick as tree trunks, their skin even darker than mine, so in the night, they seemed headless, angry eyes over burly bodies. They trapped us against all of Brynn Bay, a thousand gallons of chilled saltwater, and I had nothing but a flax gown and a oak keg of wine and Sita at my side.

I rolled the keg to the edge of the pier and clutched the bung. “Come closer, and Brynn Bay’s getting drunk on all your precious wine.”

“That’s the Gutterking’s wine. You dump it in the bay, you’ll never pay off that debt. You could spend your life spreading your legs for every man in the city and you’d never make enough. That wine’s worth your life, fifty times over.”

“Fifty of yours too.” I grinned so wide it hurt my jaw. “What will the Gutterking do to you if Brynn Bay drinks up?”

I couldn’t see it, but I sensed their scowls, I sensed the air stiffen and crackle with their violent intent. They advanced. I yanked the bung out and let a gulp of red spikeberry wine splash into Brynn Bay before I jammed it back in. “That’s one life! Back up!”

They did. The tide crashed against the pier and the world swam and intricate patterns glittered on the sea foam. The men muttered as they pondered a new plan. I held my hostage close, the oak cold against my fingers. Sita wiped her mouth and stood beside me.

The men noticed her, and a light gleamed in their eyes. “She’d make a fortune posted in Sava District. A lot more than the ugly one.”

I hissed. Of course Sita would. I pulled her behind me.

The men opened their stances, their fists became open palms, their faces became amicable. “You want a future, miss? You could make more money than you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m Nurul. This is Tcha. What’s your name, miss?”

Sita held my hand and trembled.

“Forget the wine. Come with us and your theft’s forgiven. Don’t you want a future?”

Sita and I backed up against the end of Pier Thirty-three. Night tightened around us. The sun had set long ago and dreamed of never rising again. Up and down the edge of Brynn Bay, the other piers held the odd fisher or midnight wanderer, and mud shacks lined the coastline and brimmed with sleeping souls. I could yell, I could cry out, and people would run to our aid, but Sita and I were the thieves here, the evidence in my shaking hands. Down that thread, a jail cell beckoned, a cell guarded by the Watchguild, and those men were the last men you’d ever want to see if you were a woman.

Nurul took a baby step closer. “The Gutterking pays all his girls a fine advance, twelve silver fingers. That’s two full hands before you service a single client! No more petty theft to get by. That’s a life of leisure. That’s a future anyone would want. Don’t you want that future?”

Sita touched the keg bung. “Would you wish that future upon your mother?” She tore the bung out and the wine gurgled into Brynn Bay. She kicked the keg and it crashed into the water.

The men cried out and lunged at us. I shoved Sita off the pier, then I dove after. Brynn Bay ate us, its maw ice. My skin screamed but my mind didn’t flinch, the pain a welcome shock that reminded me I was alive, reminded me that the thread with Nurul had unraveled. Colors shimmered far beneath us, a blurry sunrise in the depths. I swam. I cut across the bay, Sita in my wake. I hit another pier and Brynn Bay spat us out. We scrabbled up the rough, barnacle-strewn side, then we panted and shivered on that pier ’til a fisherman spat a chaw of sunleaf at us and cursed us for scaring the fish. We stumbled away. On Pier Thirty-three, Nurul scooped the keg out of the water, but from his distraught wail, he’d lost a lot of money, the Gutterking’s money. He and Tcha raced after us.

We ran. We dove ‘tween the mud shacks ’til they gave way to tall, wood and steel building faces with eyes that gleamed torchlight yellow and brick chimneys that belched black smoke. We climbed one. Our fingers were slippery and our minds were fuzzy, but we’d scaled those chimneys a thousand times before, every time the shopkeeps or hawkers caught our fingers in their purses or stockrooms, so Sita and I reached the roof quick. Nurul and Tcha arrived too late. The roofs by the bay jammed into a maze untraceable to anyone on the ground.

Nurul waved the empty keg high and seawater dribbled out the bung hole. His voice was a ghost ship. “This debt ain’t something you walk away from.”

Sita spat but missed his face.

“I almost pity you. Your futures are wilting fast.”

I found a loose slate shingle and cracked it off and hurled it at Nurul, but he blocked it with the keg. I bared my teeth. “Never had a future anyways.”

“You can run today. Tomorrow too. But the Gutterking will find you.”

I belted out a laugh. “We’re two thieves with not a finger of silver. We’re nothing to him.”

“You’re nothing. But she is something.” Nurul grinned at Sita. “With a face like that, she’ll make ten times his best girl. She might even service the pale princes of the Tomb Keep. She’s a damned diamond, and the Gutterking’d be a fool not to snatch her up.”

Sita shriveled next to me. I didn’t feel her heartbeat but I knew it jittered with fear and rage and bitterness as mine did. She clutched my hand and whispered, “Let’s go.”

Hosts for the Rains

They came with the rains.

I had my suit on. Jane didn’t.

The turquoise sky just frosted over with clouds as quick as a finger snap, and the rains fell.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. To let her take her suit off. But she was desperate. You get that way sometimes. You just want to feel real air against your skin, the sun warming your hair. These tin cans can feel like a tomb and you just have to get out of your shell or you’ll go mad.

So I let her.

And now the rains are falling all around us, plinking off our suits with tinny clinks, and we just look at each other through our fishbowls.

There’s an ocean between us, but not a word comes to our lips.

By now, they’ve wriggled in through her pores, burrowed straight down through her flesh and into a vein, caught a ride on some hemoglobin up into the brain, and are feasting.

I watch her pupils swell till her eyes become black holes.

And then I run.


I’ve this mad notion that I can reverse this. That it’s not too late. That I can somehow use the ship’s equipment to suck the squiggling tadpoles out of her grey matter and there won’t be just swiss cheese left.

I pound across the cracked earth in my titanium suit, shouting into the COM to open the ship’s door. Shouting for help.

I mount a red dune with just a couple of strides. I cross a desert with a bound. When I mount the final hill, I see the ship is gone. Just its square prints are left in the red earth.

They’ve left us.

Left me to die at the hands of my deranged wife.


From what I know, the adult parasites burrow in and live symbiotically with the host; whilst it’s the juveniles that live in the clouds who are hell-bent on life and death. They fall down with the rains, land on a host, and send it on a rampage, killing everything it can get its hands on. Then the bodies in its murderous wake become more hosts for the rains. And on and on the cycle of life goes.

But the adults are solitary creatures. They’re known to consume any competition in the host. They even heal a host’s body, give it life, vitality, which is why the Imperium pays us top dollar to collect them.

If I could just…

“Bruce. Can you hear me?”

My heart stops.

“Bruce, my sweet, sweet love. Where are you?”

My startled gasp frosts the front of my fishbowl.

It’s her voice coming through the COM, her exact voice. But she can’t be. She’s infected. They’ve eaten away her brains. She shouldn’t be able to even speak.

“Bruce. Where are you, my sweet love? Talk to me baby. Tell me where you are?”


I spend the day hiding in a crevice, crying my eyes out and listening to her call for me.

That moment where I tell her it’s OK, that I’ll watch the skies while she sunbathes in her underwear, plays again and again in my mind.

And I see myself run, like a coward. I throw it all away and just run because I was scared.

That’s the most unbearable bit of it all. In a split second, I abandon her after twenty years of marriage.

“Bruce. I’m scared. Tell me where you are? I need you.”

A terrible cry surges up my throat. I bite down on my lips to stop it from spilling out. Tears make the rocky, desert landscape a wavering, liquid sea.

I was on a collecting crew one time where some idiot forgot to keep his gloves on. He went mad. He became a senseless killing machine. Took a shovel and smashed open the foreman’s fishbowl, then crushed his windpipe with his bare hands. Then he lifted a girl up by her legs and dashed her like a doll against a rock.

But Jane seems sane. It hasn’t affected her like it’s done to others. Perhaps what I’ve read isn’t completely true?

A pebble plinks off my fishbowl and I look up into the chink of day.

She’s high above, bent over the crevice and looking down at me. Her long brown hair has fallen forward and pooled in her fishbowl, her face just a furry mass.

“Bruce! There you are!”

And then she heaves down a fist-sized rock at me and I’ve no time to react.

It hits my fishbowl square with a resounding gong that nearly splits my head it two. The world seems to separate and then come back together.

Cracks spread across my fishbowl, and there is a soft hiss as the outside pressure equalizes.

I can taste the planet’s air now, it’s arid and sweet.

And I run.

White Haze

Title of the story is: White Haze. The genre could be considered fantasy/paranormal. Word count is 8,226.

Sweat runs down my cheek and drips from my chin. My shoulders ache and my chest burns. I stab the shovel into the ground and look up. She’s looking at me with sweat glistening on her face from the harsh sunlight. I wipe my brow and tell her to hand me the seed.

From her pocket, she removes a tiny object, round, with hard ridges that are almost like spikes. She hands it to me. Sunlight graces the edge of the hole. I plant the seed and jump out.

She looks at me. “You have anything you want to say?”

I look to the flatlands behind us, the empty field and the house about three miles from ours. The sun bleeds orange light over the land like a severed artery, and though the world has its own set of colors—green, brown, and blue—all has been blanketed in the giant star’s saturation. The wind kicks and dust lifts from the arid terrain and funnels into a twister, rising high into the sky and dissipating. What trees surround us bend and sway with the wind, the pine needles howling as the air wisps through the branches.

I shake my head.

She closes her eyes and kneels before the hole. The shovel is next to her, and the shadow of her and the tool stretch out over the bull grass. She raises her clasped hands to her mouth and whispers. The gusting wind ceases, and I hear her say ‘amen’ before she runs her hands over her thighs, stands, and brushes her knees off.

“Let’s cover this little guy and get it some water,” she says and looks at me. “I hope this works.”


White surrounded me, silence engulfed me, and cold burrowed into my core.

Haze drifted with slow ethereal movement; swelling, then shrinking. Pillars were hidden in the fog, disappearing when the haze thickened. I sat up and noticed people walking about with empty expressions on their faces. Their footsteps were muted. Their legs were hidden in the haze. There was no color.

I rubbed my temple. Pain surrounded the left side of my skull. At the back of my head was an incessant urgency to remember something. Yet the pain stopped me from pursuing that need, planting me in this foreign landscape.

A stranger approached me, bent, and held out a hand. He had white hair and wire rimmed glasses. His smile gave just a hint of color to his otherwise whited-out face. I took his hand and he pulled me up. Cold gripped me from inside and I shivered. My teeth chattered, but there was no sound.

“Good morning,” the old man said, his voice cutting through the white and yet suffocated by it.

“Cold,” I said, then pushed hair from my face. “Why is it so cold?”

“You’ll get used to that.”

The pain in my head increased, pumping. The urge to remember returned, and I wanted to reach into my mind and pull out whatever was causing this great agony, what felt like would explode if I didn’t figure it out.

The old man looked at me. “You doing all right? You look paler than most.”

“Most?” I said, and put the heel of my hand on my head. “What’s going on here? What’s with this place?”

He toyed with his glasses. “I couldn’t explain even if I wanted.”

“Where are we?”

The old man looked around. “Might be able to say it’s a holding station.”

I stared. “You mean a prison?”

He gestured to those appearing and disappearing from the haze. “You see any prison bars?”

Weariness kicked in, and standing became too much. “What’s happened?” I closed my eyes against the throbbing hurt. “Why am I here? What the hell is going on?”

The old man said, “There’s a bench over yonder, we should sit.”

Pain spiked my brain as if someone drove a metal stake into it. I held out my hand and the old man guided me. Out of the white, the bench appeared. He helped me down and I heaved a deep sigh that disturbed the haze. The old man joined my side, swinging an arm over the bench’s back.

People came and went—figures dressed and faded in white, forgotten when the haze took them—some passed glances, but there wasn’t an ounce of vitality on anyone’s face. The silence of their movements made me quiver; this wasn’t the world I knew, this was someplace else.

“Pardon?”

I looked at the old man.

“You said something.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t.”

“Yes you did. You said something wasn’t right.”

I rubbed my head. “What happened to me?”

“I can’t answer that. I have no idea where you’re from or what you’re supposed to be doing. But you are here, and there’s something you need to know.”

Screeching sounded from afar, and I raised my attention to the shifting haze. People who had been moving about halted and turned. The sound grew louder, and I recognized it as a subway train. The white parted and formed a pathway, revealing tracks and tunnel openings.

“This a train station?” I said.

“You could say that,” the old man said.

“Dear Jesus God!” someone shouted. People turned. The haze shifted. It was a woman, her hair brown with streaks of white around her ears. She wore glasses, the lines on her face copious, tracing around her features like race tracks. Her face was locked in an expression of realization and fear.

“I remember!” she said. “Oh my God, I remember what happened! I remember it all!”

The train entered the station. The doors opened in silence.

Everyone turned to the woman.

She whimpered. “Don’t make me leave.”

Red light beamed from the open train doors, coloring the colorless world, saturating a pathway from the train to her.

“What’s going on?” I said. “What’s she remembered?”

The old man looked at me. “What we are all here to do.”

“Please,” the woman cried. “I want to do so much more. I can’t leave. I can’t! I need another chance!”

The pain in my head grew worse. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temple. The woman’s cries filled my head, echoing within the empty caverns of my memory.

“I’m sorry,” she said, speaking to someone. I tried to look up, but the light created new pain in my head, putting pressure on my haggard brain. She continued to beg. “I’m so sorry! Let me talk to my husband. Let me at least tell him I love him!”

Understanding struck me and the pressure disappeared. I looked at the train, saw the woman enter the red light, pleading as she went, then the doors shut and her cries were silenced. The train began to leave.

I looked at the old man. “I’m dead!”

The man returned his attention to me and gave a single nod. “You got the first step right.”

The last of the train exited the station, and silence resumed its ironclad grasp upon the desaturated world. My eyes grew heavy, and I leaned over and closed my eyes.

The Interdimensional Megastar

Gull Stanton hurled a brick at the Public Information Booth and watched with satisfaction as the glass fell away, taking with it the garish poster of Captain Aerial, self-proclaimed interdimensional megastar. Sorting through the shards with his boot, he slid the poster towards him and ground his heel into the man’s face – a face that apart from a few subtle differences was identical to his own. It wasn’t fair. Why should that big-shot be raking in bluebacks hand over fist, while he had to work double shifts in a dead-end cleaning job just to buy food? He was everything Captain Aerial was. It should be him flying around arenas with his jetpack, singing songs to hordes of adoring fans.

From what he’d read in interviews, their lives had diverged five years earlier when they’d each received their share of the profits from the sale of his dead grandmother’s house. Gull had used the money to go on a year-long vacation, living a playboy lifestyle at the Hotel Métropole in Monte-Carlo, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and various other fashionable hotels; Captain Aerial had started a small salvaging business, specializing in the collection of obsolete satellites from the earth’s upper atmosphere, and discovered a revolutionary transportation device capable of opening doorways between dimensions aboard a derelict alien spaceship. The potential applications of such a device were mind-boggling, but Captain Aerial had chosen to use it to make obscene amounts of money, first by offering interdimensional tours to a rich clientele and then by launching a music career. The man turned out to have a pretty good voice, and once he’d hired himself a decent backing band, there was no stopping him. Flitting from universe to universe, he’d achieved a widespread fame like nobody before.

At Christmas the previous year, Captain Aerial had arrived in Gull’s dimension for the first time, and the moronic public had immediately started buying his albums. They chatted about him endlessly, blogged about him on social media, idolized him. It was all right for them! He wasn’t their counterpart. When they saw pictures of the bastard driving away in a Lamborghini, they weren’t constantly being tormented by the thought that it should have been them. Damn the man! Why couldn’t he have stayed in his own freaking universe?

Gull felt a shard of glass pressing against the side of his boot and realized he still had his foot on the poster. He stepped away quickly. Cops tended not to bother themselves with shitty parts of the city like this, but it was best not to take any chances. The last thing he wanted to do was to spend the night in a cell.

As if on cue, a siren sounded in the distance. He hurried onwards along the street. Concrete tenements covered with graffiti rose to either side of him, interspersed with liquor and convenience stores fortified with wire mesh, while at the end of the block there was a power station behind a high wall topped with security spikes, its four metal chimney stacks belching steam into the air above. People said the area was up and coming, but even though there were a few building sites in evidence, it had a hell of a long way to go before it arrived. Gull’s eyes shifted to the downtown area. It couldn’t be more than a mile or two away, yet how different it looked – a forest of towers piercing the sky like giant fingers – classic American skyscrapers beaming out advertising from three dimensional monitors built into their glass facades, the pagodas of Chinatown, the fantastical creations of the bioarchitecturalists with their treelike columns branching upwards to impossible heights.

Gull cocked his head to the side, listening intently. That flaming siren was getting closer. He needed a place to hide. He spotted a bar on an intersecting street and jogged towards it.

A sign above the door identified the place as ‘Pitchers and Pitchers’, so he wasn’t surprised to find it was baseball themed. The walls were hung with photographs of famous players and other memorabilia, and there was a waxwork figure of Babe Ruth standing in the corner. Probably, it would have been a nice place to spend some time in its day, but now, there was a distinct air of neglect. Most of the seats had tears in them and there were patches of mold on one of the walls.

Gull paused in the doorway, surveying the customers. They were blue collar types – construction workers, truck drivers, mechanics.

He groaned as he noticed a television behind the bar projecting footage of a Captain Aerial concert. Perhaps he should accidentally spill a drink on it to see if he could short out the circuitry. No, tempting as it was, that kind of behavior was a good way to get himself thrown out. Instead, he sat down on a vacant stool and ordered himself a bottle of beer.

He stared moodily at the image of Captain Aerial prancing about on stage as he raised the bottle to his lips. He could move better than that if only someone would give him the chance.

“He’s really something, isn’t he?” said a voice from the seat beside him.

He turned and found himself looking at a middle-aged woman with a chubby face. She was a desperate singleton by the look of her – skirt ridiculously short, hair dyed neon pink and swept up in a gravity defying style, a thick layer of pale foundation smeared across her face to hide the wrinkles.

Assuming she was referring to Captain Aerial and having no inclination whatsoever to talk about him, Gull ignored her.

“You look a little like him, you know,” the woman went on, unperturbed by his lack of response. Actually, you look a lot like him. What’s your name?”

Gull sighed. “My name’s Gull, and I don’t look like him; he looks like me.”

The woman’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Is there a difference?”

“Yes there is,” Gull snapped.

“I take it you’re not a fan, then?” said the woman.

Gull took another swig of beer and slammed his bottle down on the bar in front of him. “No, I’m not.”

“Any particular reason?” the woman asked.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Gull replied.

“But that voice…” said the woman, half closing her eyes in dreamy contemplation. “How can you not love a voice like that? It’s so full of passion. And those lips… what I wouldn’t give to be kissed by a pair of lips like that.”

Gull blinked. This was a come-on, wasn’t it? He looked her up and down. She wasn’t close to attractive, but he wouldn’t say no if she was going to hand herself to him on a plate. As a lowly hospital janitor, he wasn’t exactly inundated with romantic interest. He puckered up his lips. “Your wish is my command.”

The woman looked unimpressed. “Sorry sugar, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

“Maybe not,” said Gull, “but it’s the closest you’re gonna get.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you believe it. Captain Aerial’s playing the Rainbow Arena at the weekend, and I’ve got a ticket and a plan to get in his pants. I’m going to hang back until he plays “Every Me Loves Every You,” then I’m going to jump the stage and twerk for him.” She smiled smugly as if this was truly inspired. “It was nice talking to you.” With that, she turned away and began chatting to a man on her opposite side.

Gull felt a pang of disappointment. Why was it things never went his way? Because they were too busy going Captain Aerial’s, that was why. He gulped down the rest of his beer and went back to studying the television. What was the singer’s secret? Why was he so damn popular? Gull stared into his eyes as the camera zoomed in, but there was nothing there that he hadn’t seen thousands of times in the mirror. Suddenly, he had a burning desire to see Captain Aerial in person. Perhaps then, it would all become clear.

Once the idea had occurred to him, it was hard to shake. He thought about it as he stepped out of the bar a few hours later, he thought about it as he watched a group of girls taking pictures of themselves with a billboard poster of Captain Aerial through the sky-bus window on his way home, and he thought about it the following evening at the hospital as he dragged an industrial strength vacuum cleaner around the maze of insipid corridors. Yes, he needed to do this, and the gig at the local arena was the perfect opportunity. All he had to do was buy a ticket. It would cost him a small fortune no doubt, but that was life. If the worst came to the worst, he could always sell an organ to raise the money. He’d done it before. In this day and age, the artificial replacements they were giving out were almost as good as the real thing.

So it was that when the time came for him to take his break, Gull headed straight to the staff room – a soulless basement affair with three vending machines and plastic furniture – and posted an online ticket request with his phablet. Within minutes, he was inundated with replies, all saying the same thing – the concert had sold out months ago.

Gull tossed the phablet onto the table in front of him and went to buy a packet of potato chips. As he did so, an advert on an interactive notice board beside the vending machine caught his eye. He was in luck. One of the E.R. doctors had a ticket on sale. He would have to move fast, though. At the price the doctor was asking – face value for a quick sale – people would be lining up to buy it. Tucking his potato chips under his arm, he punched out a response on the on-screen keyboard.

Gull received a call from the doctor before he had even sat down. It turned out the man had not yet finished work for the day and wanted to sell him the ticket immediately. Gull agreed, went up to see him, and after a moment’s hesitation when it came to actually transferring the money, the deal was done.

The Ruritanian Duke of Kunlun

Winslow North suspected a diplomatic incident afoot from the moment Arthur Armitage invited him to take tea at the finest club in Ruritania’s capital. Five minutes into his first cucumber sandwich, Winslow, who subscribed to – not pessimism, surely, but a certain bracing realism – found his prediction rewarded.

“Oh, Your Grace,” sighed Arthur, looking distressed indeed, with his face pulled long beneath his strawberry-blond curls. “I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for your friendship, and how wretched I feel for calling on its services in so gauche a manner. Nevertheless” – here, he heaved another gusty sigh – “the trouble cannot be otherwise helped. I feel a damnable fool, in truth. Do you think me a very great fool?”

Winslow, over the rim of his teacup, said rather dryly, “I find I cannot make a proper assessment of a man’s foolishness, great or small, without first knowing its cause.”

“The trouble began with my school,” said Arthur, stirring his tea with a melancholic air. “Poor school! How it suffers on my account.”

Winslow frowned. “School?”

“You know the one, Your Grace –”

“Winslow, please,” said Winslow, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. He’d lost count, in truth, of how many times he’d corrected Arthur on matters of address. Winslow massaged his temples. “I am only properly a duke in the Kingdom of Kunlun. Dukes in my grandparents’ country hardly deign to run companies, or take tea with Western businessmen, as I do here in Ruritania. They consider the handling of money and the willful fraternization with foreigners uncouth, and never quite forgave my father for adopting an English surname for our business purposes. My family in Kunlun would hardly approve of our friendship, Arthur. Which,” Winslow added, to forestall any perception of insult, “I of course hold in the highest esteem, regardless of any elderly great-aunt’s antiquated misgivings.”

Arthur beamed. “I do so admire your humility, Your Gra – ah, Winslow. Indeed, it is a quality I most admire in Kunlunese people like yourself. That is why I started the school, you see,” he added earnestly. “Surely, you’ve heard about the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. I teach the martial arts course for gentlemen myself. My father was terribly proud.”

“Indeed,” said Winslow, taking care to curb the wryness of his tone. He had no doubt regarding Armitage Senior’s satisfaction in such an enterprise. The Armitages were businessmen, and trade deals recently struck between the young Western government of Ruritania and the forward-thinking, great-aunt-scandalizing Crown Prince of Kunlun had made all things Eastern abruptly fashionable in the West. Kunlunese magic – and its accompanying martial traditions – had won particular favor with Western gentlemen of a certain class and sensibility.

“The school has been quite the success, as I’m sure you know,” Arthur went on. “I have the grand tour I took across the Asian continent in my boyhood, not to mention my month-long education in Chinese sorcery fundamentals, to thank for that.” He winked. “I do, unlike most Western Ruritaneans, know my Kunlunese enchantments and martial practices.”

“Surely any obstacle at your School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments could be overcome by a full month’s worth of Chinese magic instruction,” replied Winslow.

“But that is just the problem!” exclaimed Arthur. “Some – perhaps misunderstanding my history, and indeed, the nobility of my intentions – do not approve of my school.”

Winslow sat up a little over his cooling tea. “Really.” Now, this was interesting. Not many in Ruritania dared quarrel with the Armitages, even over something silly enough to be called the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. Winslow frowned. “Perhaps they disapprove of an institution of Asian sorcery.” Ruritania, for all its young government’s earnest talk of peace and progressivism, also gave home to those who misliked the growing repute of Asian and African Ruritanians. A certain cosmopolitan aesthetic which sampled the occasional Persian chemise pattern or Vietnamese soup course was all very well, but Western nations, with their notoriously delicate constitutions, could only stomach so much of the strange and exotic.

“Oh, it is not a matter of intolerance,” said Arthur, drooping further still, “which is a shame, really. To snub the intolerant is quite fashionable in respectable Ruritanian circles now. Unfortunately, the critic I speak of is herself a Kunlunese. One Miss Mabel Lee, though she went by a properly native name in Kunlun, Ming-ling or Mu-lan, or some such thing.”

Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “She?”

“Indeed.” Arthur leaned across the table with enthusiasm. Subtly, Winslow rescued the tray of miniature fruit tarts from Arthur’s flailing elbow. “A female magician – and a martial practitioner, at that!”

Winslow felt his eyebrows climb higher still. Women martial-magicians, sworn to the code of Jianghu, were rarer than their male counterparts, and according to the old sages of Kunlun, rarely as strong. Still, such women were not unheard of. “What seems to be the young lady’s complaint?”

“It is the most unconscionable thing!” replied Arthur. “She came to the school – for lessons, I thought – but no, the heartless creature wanted merely to pillory me. Going on about how my teachings lack authenticity. Mine! I, who spent a full year traversing the Asian continent.”

“It contains a good many countries,” said Winslow, comfortingly. “Pray, do not spill your tea over such a trifle. One disgruntled young lady, Jianghu disciple or not, should not provoke such emotional excesses.”

Arthur sniffed, curls flopping over his forehead, where they clashed unfortunately with his reddening face. “Perhaps my honor and reputation are a trifle to you, but I expect you should care rather more about the honor of your royal family.”

“Ruritania has no royal family,” said Winslow, puzzled. “I’m given to understand the young government is quite proud of its democratic achievements –”

“Don’t be daft, man! I speak of the Kingdom of Kunlun, of course.” Arthur’s gaze darted about the club, a bit nervously, as he adjusted his cravat. “In truth, I had not wanted to spread such gauche gossip about your homeland –”

“I was born in Ruritania, Arthur. And all gossip is, by definition, quite gauche, otherwise it would not be worth gossiping about.”

“– but I am privy to certain rumors. My father’s business associates, you know, they do go on. It seems the young upstart who impugned my teachings has also impugned the reputation of the Crown Prince himself. It is a scandal, of quite literally royal proportions!” Arthur looked triumphant. “Is the Prince not your own flesh and blood?”

“Prince Tai?” Winslow frowned. “I am a cousin of his, yes. However, save our blood, there is precious little in common between a rising head of state in a remote mountain kingdom, and a displaced duke who runs a Ruritanian company and takes tea with Western gentlemen.”

“But the thickness of that shared blood must stir even your wretched heart!” exclaimed Arthur. “I must say, I do so admire the Kunlunese devotion to family. I am sure your noble cousin would agree that the Lee girl is a cross-continental menace, and must be stopped.”

“Now, Arthur, you cannot simply class every woman who wields a sharp tongue as a menace, or the men of Ruritania would have none left to wed. Besides,” added Winslow, a bit impish-grinned, “I daresay I would not fare any better with such women than you do at your father’s Winter Ball.”

Arthur’s color deepened further. “I am being serious, Winslow. And it is not for nothing. Speak to your cousin. A conversation between family is not such a difficult thing.”

Winslow thought, wryly, that Arthur clearly had little experience of Kunlunese house-matrons during his year-long tour of the Asian continent, but refrained from saying so.

“I shall make it worth your while,” Arthur continued. “If you do this small thing for our friendship, I will entreat my father to stop nipping at the heels of the North Enterprise, as it were.”

Winslow froze, staring at Arthur. “How do you know about that?”

“I know some may think me an empty-handed dandy,” said Arthur, heaving his grandest sigh yet, “but I have ears. As I said, I am privy to certain rumors. My father has been attempting to snap up your family’s company since spring.”

“And I have expressed, time and again, my refusal. What does the Armitage trading empire need with a quaint little research company? We fund minor magical inventions and spell-work experimentation, not trading routes.”

Arthur shrugged. “Kunlunese magic is in fashion. My father is a businessman.”

Winslow’s fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly, on his teacup. “If I speak to my cousin of this Miss Lee of yours, you will ensure that your father puts a stop to this nonsense about an acquisition?”

“I shall speak most firmly to him,” promised Arthur. His curls bounced up and down when he nodded. “You have my word.”

Winslow leaned back in his plushly-cushioned seat, and cast a long-suffering glance toward the tea room’s finely-painted ceiling, a delicate imitation of Moroccan tile. “It will be good for my constitution to exercise my scrying mirrors, I suppose.”

My Grandmother’s Garden

My grandmother was a witch.

By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.

I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.

When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.

I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.

The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.

My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.

I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.

The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.

One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.

“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”

Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.

“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”

That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.

Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.

To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.

Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.

Until now.

I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.

As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.

“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”

“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.

“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.

“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.

“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.

It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.

An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.

“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”

I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”

“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.