Fiction

Our Mutual Friend

Mommy sang to me. She meant to sing only to me, but she sang to you too since you were there as well. She could sing more notes than there were stairs leading up to the fourth floor where our apartment was back when we lived in the city. This was before she bought our first house, “a house of our own, Sweetie,” she said. It was small, like a box, with only the rooms we needed. I sometimes wanted a bigger house like my friends. They had more toys and space to play, more indoor space away from the mud and slush in our front yard, my play space. Still, I liked our house. I could hear the birds sing from my window every morning and identify them by their calls, like you had taught me. Then we moved again. I did not know why then, Tobias.

Mommy and I moved a lot. There was a time when I was four when Mommy and I moved late in the night. She had me hide in a suitcase. That was the night I learned grown-ups could be scared. She told me to go in, and that she would zip me up. “Don’t make a sound,” she said. “If you do, we’ll get in big trouble.” Shortly after I was all zipped up, I heard loud angry voices climb up the stairs of our apartment. I think they broke down our door. I squeezed myself as small as I could. The suitcase was so tight, and I felt the fabric all around me. I could not see anything it was so dark. The air was stuffy, and tasted like sweat and cloth. I shuddered and tried not to squirm. I wanted to scream, but I remembered Mommy’s words, so I put my hand over my mouth and cried really quietly.

I listened and heard a man’s voice call Mommy “Paula”. I had recently learned that Mommy had another name that grownups called her: Paula. He kept asking where Genevieve was. Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve. Mommy said that she put her up for adoption, something like that. Eventually, the men left, and Mommy said I could come out of the suitcase. I gasped to breathe the air. She slumped into a chair breathing heavily. She looked like I felt when I would come crawling into her bed after a scary dream. I thought she was afraid, so I cried, and Mommy held me. We left hurriedly, scared that we would be seen since it was a full moon, but only a barn owl saw us as it flew across the sky. You told me what type of bird that was later.

Maybe that night is why I met you, Tobias. We were on a train, while Mommy and I were in the process of moving. It was the day after she had me hide in the suitcase. I think she was exhausted. I had never seen her nap before. I sat on her lap while her head fell back into the seat. Her eyes closed, and her mouth fell open. I stared at her. Her head lurched with bumps, and she never reacted. I poked her arm, surprised that she did not scold me, because it is rude to poke. Instead she continued sleeping, and I remembered being in the suitcase. I started crying again, but then I met you. You sat across from us at that moment in our compartment, calmly watching us. You were a grownup like Mommy with forest colored eyes and dark hair. I startled. You had not been there before, and I knew Mommy had locked the compartment.

“Mommy, Mommy,” I said, and like any mommy, she woke up at the sound of her child’s voice.

“What?” she groggily answered with her eyes closed.

“Look,” I said pointing at you.

“What?”

“Look.”

“That’s the seat.” And then you were no longer there.

“Oh.” I said. “I poked you when you were sleeping.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have.”

Afraid of where the conversation could go, I changed the subject. “Mommy, who’s Genevieve.”

“Oh you heard that. I had hoped you had fallen asleep in the suitcase.”

“But who’s Genevieve?”

“Sweetie, Genevieve isn’t real. She’s someone that man wants to be real.”

“What’s apopsion?”

“Adoption? Adoption is when you don’t have parents, so other parents become your parents.”

Crusaders

Beneath the September night sky, black as a pool of ink, sharp orange flames illuminated London. They were like pits of fire from a hellish world, with great billowing clouds of smoke, demons released from their confines. Or so it appeared to Will.

Flying five thousand feet above the city in his Spitfire aircraft, Will was caught in the thick of the smoke. Although it clustered around the fires closer to the ground, up here, smoke from the bombed sites merged into a dark haze that obscured not only the other planes in his squadron, but the German bombers as well. Will could just see the tail of Eric’s plane off to his left, wavering in and out of the miasma. His hands clenched the stick with expert concentration, and he had strapped his goggles onto the top of his head so that the additional glass wouldn’t obscure his vision.

This was by far the worst he had seen. Admittedly, at nineteen years old, he hadn’t seen much, but beneath his laser focus on the surrounding battle, his imagination styled this as an apocalypse with those demons rising from the inferno, and the people below fleeing from incinerated hideaways toward deeper shelters. Or perhaps just giving up. Will could never understand that, giving up. That was why he and his cousin Rory had come to England, leaving their family on the Isle of Skye to join the RAF. Because if the world was going to end in a hellfire, Will would rather burn in the conflagration than starve on its outskirts.

These melancholy considerations were halted, however, when Jim’s voice sounded in his headset, scratchy with a static buzz. “This is Jim Hartshorne. Squadron leader is down. I repeat, Reginald’s plane is down. I’m taking his position at the front.”

Will bit his lip. He continued flying in the formation, at least, what he assumed was still the formation. Jim, only two years Will’s senior, was a master at improvisation, but leading the squadron was another matter entirely.

“Backing you up on your left,” Will heard Eric’s voice in response.

Then Jim spoke up again. “I see a bomber up ahead, fifty feet above us. Will, I want you after him.”

“You want me to break formation?” Will spoke into his microphone, which was flush against the side of his jaw.

“I want you to do what you were made to.” Jim’s voice was barely audible amid the static. Perhaps the radio tower had taken a hit. “It’s not ideal, but damn, is any of this ideal?”

Although Will knew that was a rhetorical question, he still responded, “No.”

“Then go get the bastard. You’re the sharpest pilot here. Besides, you’ve got the best plane.”

It was true, at least, the part about his plane; Will couldn’t say that he was sharper than the other pilots, though he always trained the hardest.

“Gain some altitude first,” Jim continued. “Then shoot him down like a vengeful angel. I want that plane out of commission in five minutes. You hear? Go get him, fairy boy.”

“I’m on it.” Will felt like adding something to effect of not calling him ‘fairy boy,’ but decided that now was not the time. Yet it did make him glance to the top left of his dashboard where a small picture was taped above the controls, the source of his nickname. It was a picture of the tattered Fairy Flag. Its pale yellow-brown silk was worn thin so that it was no longer a square, but a haphazard sort of polygon. Upon its surface were red spots, forming no particular pattern, “elf dots” as Will’s grandmother called them. Although it looked like no more than a rag in the picture, when he had seen it in person, taken out from where it was usually locked in a wooden chest at Dunvegan, the MacLeod family castle on the Isle of Skye, he had sensed a power within it. It was easily overlooked at a cursory glance, but it was as if each thread had been woven by the singing voices of fairies, bringing the strength of the Other World into it. Even after the other men of his squadron had no shortage of amusement at Will’s expense after having bribed Rory into telling them that the picture was of the Fairy Flag, Will never went on any expedition without it.

Although its origins were shrouded in mystery, the flag was known to protect the clan MacLeod. It had supposedly won them various battles in the past, and had also stopped a plague some centuries ago. Will wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but it gave him a strange sense of courage. He didn’t believe that it came from fairies, and was not at all certain about its reputed powers, but it was an emblem of the courage of his people, his distant ancestors as well as his family back home, and the hope for their future.

As he ascended to overtake the German plane, he could hear the whir of his Spitfire’s propellers speeding faster and faster. He had gained enough altitude, so focused in on the plane below, weaving in and out of the smoke like a sea monster only half visible in dark waters. Yet it was visible enough to shoot.

Before Will could become that avenging angel, an enormous bang deafened him. It reverberated down to his bones, and a swarm of heat washed over him. The choking smell of burning fuel pervaded his senses, and the front of his plane surged with flames. He quickly brought his goggles back down over his scalding eyes.

Despite having been hit—probably by a bomber hidden in the smoke above him—he was heading right into the path of the German plane below. He tried to eject, for he would burn up in a moment. Yet the latch on his seat had fused together from the fire creeping beneath the plane, and his hands burned beneath his leather gloves when he touched it. He had nearly reached the German plane, though he tried to turn off to the right to gain himself more time.

Please, he thought, glancing to his picture. If you can do anything, if—

He felt himself whirl into a misting gyre. It was not his plane that was falling, nor even his body, but his mind seemed to be travelling alone. Down he swept, hardly aware of his surroundings, not even able to be dizzy with the great speed at which he was descending. And then even the gyre was gone, and all sensation left him.

A Diamond in the Mind’s Eye

Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.

“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.

This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.

Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.

Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.

In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.

Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.

“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.

Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.

After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.

The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.

Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.

“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”

“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”

“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”

“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.

“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”

“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”

“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”

Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.

“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”

The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.

“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”

The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.

“How’s your arm?”

“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”

“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”

“You tried to fix me.”

“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”

“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”

They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”

“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”

“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”

“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.

“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”

“They never had any flavor.”

Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”

“It didn’t have to be so long.”

“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”

“You look tired.”

“I am. I need some jet-nap.”

“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”

“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”

The Last Gift

1.
With the last bits of shredded wrapping paper stuffed into a black plastic trash bag, I turned my attention to the ornaments on the Christmas tree. I wanted it all down, every light and every silver thread of tinsel. Tara told me to leave the tree alone. She knew what the holiday meant to us, but maybe she wanted us to pretend we could forget about it. I thought, to hell with her, and to hell with my dad for not standing his ground. Staring her in the eye, I dropped the glass ball I took from the tree. It popped on the ground into tinkling silver shards.
Tara shook her head at me and clucked her tongue. She gave Dad that stupid exasperated expression she put on any time she had to interact with me.
“Richard, clean it up and be more careful. We will take the tree down next week,” he told me. He poured another half-cup of coffee, then filled the other half with whiskey.
Tara looked ready to have a fit. I saw it creep over her thin shoulders, up her skinny neck, but then to her credit, she bit her lips and held it back. She didn’t want a fight on Christmas. Hell, she just wanted a special day as a family. She wanted that Christmas promise of smiles, thank-you hugs, sledding, and then cocoas until dinner is ready. Dad was her first marriage and it was her first Christmas with a family of her own – second-hand as it was. Whatever Christmas meant to her, to Dad and me, it was a eulogy we had to suffer every year for a month. That’s why Dad drank until the tree and wreaths and lights and holly all blurred together, and kept on until they faded completely as he passed out.
Four years ago, I used to love Christmas. I’d nest in the wrapping paper before Dad had a chance to throw it away. When I gave Mom her thank-you-hugs she smelled like peppermint cocoa. She served breakfast on the big, round coffee table in the family room, so we didn’t have to leave our presents. With everyone still in their pajamas, we ate waffles soaked to the plate in butter and warm syrup and had tall glasses of pulpy orange juice to wash it down. After we dumped our dishes in the sink, we’d head to the living room, grab a blanket, then find a comfortable place on the sofa or floor to curl up and watch a holiday movie while our food digested. I’d fall asleep twenty minutes in, warm, full, and content.
When I woke up, all the wrapping paper was gone and my presents would be waiting for me, stacked up on my bed. Jackson, my little brother, and I would play with our new toys until Mom hollered at us to make ourselves presentable for guests. Family was coming for dinner. When all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents arrived, the house would swell with laughter and excitement. Jackson and I would compare our presents with our cousins to see who had won that year. Then we would run around the house, sometimes playing games, but mostly I think we were trying to burn off the delirium and joy.
The air of the house would grow thick with the smell of food. Jackson and I would sit with the cousins, squirming at the kids’ table. Our plates would fill up with turkey and mashed potatoes all covered in gravy. Even vegetables somehow tasted good on Christmas. Then there was pie and eggnog, crammed on top of our fit-to-burst stomachs. The pile of dirty dishes everyone took turns washing never took as long as I thought it would. Everyone hugged their goodbyes. The younger cousins were carried out asleep, like rag-dolls in their parents’ arms. Dad would carry Jackson to his bed. Mom would kiss me good night. I would take one last proud look over my presents before crawling underneath my covers. The post-Christmas blues would set in as I drifted to sleep, but I’d still be smiling.
All that was gone now. All that family was on my Mom’s side. Dad didn’t invite them over anymore and never took them up on their invitations. With Mom and Jackson gone, everything felt uneven and the remnants of our family collapsed in on itself. We had buried Christmas at their funeral. December became just a cold month spent eating take-out and watching action movies. Then Tara came along and dug it back up, but it was a lifeless, zombie of a Christmas now.
His two-hour Christmas vacation over, Dad was back to work on his laptop. Tara began sucking down mimosas, trying to drown the regret of joining our broken family. Things were back to normal. It was just Wednesday again.
I swept up the broken ornament. Some of the glass got under the tree. Bending low to get at it, I noticed a red ribbon that wound itself around a gold wrapped box. It was about the same size as clothing box, but heavier than clothes. There was no tag saying who it was from and who it was for.
“There’s one more present under the tree,” I called out.
Dad grunted. He’d already given all the attention he could spare for one day. Tara leaned back in her chair to look through the kitchen doorway. She gave me a lazy smile, waving her hand in the air to say she didn’t care, and then went back to pouring champagne into her orange juice.
“Fine. I guess it’s mine,” I said to myself.
I put the present on my lap and tore the paper away from a clear, plastic box. Inside the box were nine balls, each of them was a different opaque color and about the size of a baseball. I thought they were more Christmas ornaments for Tara at first, but they were too heavy to be ornaments. I opened the box and took out the red, gooey ball. It felt sticky and squishy, like a ball of firm Jell-O, or more like the sticky, hand-shaped slapper things I used to get as a kid for two quarters out of toy machines. Fifteen was too old for toys, so I figured they were from Tara. She was clueless on everything teenager. They could’ve been some sort of game, but there were no instructions. I held the red goo-ball in my hand. An overwhelming urge to throw it against the wall came over me. It stuck with a very satisfying splat. I took out the purple goo-ball and threw it next to the red one on the wall. They both stayed stuck.
“Whatever you’re doing in there knock it off, or take it up to your room,” Dad bellowed.
“And don’t forget to take out that garbage,” Tara said.
I stood smiling off into nothing for few seconds after I pulled the goo-balls off the wall. When I tried to think of why I had started to smile, I couldn’t. It was like I had a good idea and then forgot it completely.
In my room, I dumped my presents on my bed. There was this building anticipation in my gut. There was all this energy in me. I licked my lips and took out the red ball again. I squeezed it in my hand, relishing the way it bulged between my fingers. I flung the ball against the wall with another satisfying splat and it stuck there quivering. I yanked out the other goo-balls out of the molded tray. First, I chucked Yellow and Blue against the wall, followed by Orange and Green, and then Teal and Purple, Amber, and finally Chartreuse. They stuck to the wall, wiggling a tad, but holding firm. I pulled them off one by one, and one by one, I threw them back against the wall. I kept at it until Tara came up to scream at me. She’d been calling me down to dinner. Eight hours had passed like a daydream. My shoulders ached and my arms shook with fatigue. My cheeks pinched with soreness. Apparently, I had been smiling the whole time.
Dad and Tara went to bed, and I was on my way to brush my teeth and do the same, but ended up out in the garage with the goo-balls. Hours passed. My tired eyes stung and deep yawns shook my whole body. Still, I didn’t want to stop. I only wanted to lose myself further in the peaceful repetition of throwing and pulling the goo-balls.
On one throw, the orange had stuck to the wall in a more oblong shape. Then the purple flattened against the wall in a rounded square. A thrill ran through me. Chartreuse stuck in a triangle. Amber, motionless in an octagon. Teal was a parallelogram. I went through every shape I could remember from geometry. When I couldn’t think of any more, Green hit the wall and spread into a smiley face. That gave me a cold rush of reality. I had somehow been controlling the goo-balls, deciding what shape they’d be when they hit the wall.
I threw Yellow on top of Teal, to see if it would stay there and, of course, it did. Then I threw Chartreuse followed by Red on top, and they stayed put too. I threw the rest of the balls and got them all to stick in a row straight off the wall. It was like having a dream where you realize you can fly. At first, you feel a little excited, but then it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
“Richard!” Tara shouted at the doorway with her hands pressed against her hips. “What the hell, man?”
The goo-balls fell onto the concrete floor.
“Wh-What?” I croaked, feeling disoriented like I had woken from a deep sleep.
“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Stop whatever the hell this is and go to bed.”
“I was, uh… trying out my presents,” I told her, picking up the balls and dropping them back into the tray.
“What are those things? Did your father get them for you?” Tara asked as she poked the teal goo-ball. “Are they toys?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, I guess. There wasn’t a tag or label or nothing.”
Tara’s eyebrows raised and she clucked her tongue. “Aren’t you a bit too old for toys?”
“Isn’t my dad too old for you?” I muttered.
“What did you say?” Tara said, grabbing my arm.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You know what?” She couldn’t finish. The fight went out of her and she dropped my arm. “Just go to bed.”
Back in my room, I flopped onto my bed and had the best night’s sleep in my life. The next morning I woke up with thick layers of sleep crusted in my eyes. My arms were heavy and warm. Something had changed in me; I could feel it. Something was better.

Willingly and with Joy

Waves smashed into boulders strewn like a giant’s bread crumbs in front of the seawall. Caught by the setting sun, the spray glittered gold as it was cast into the air and fell in drops of citrine. Zeninna laughed and raised her arms to catch the wild energy. Wind tangled her unbound black hair and billowed her clothes. Though the wind tried, the gusts lacked the strength to knock her from her perch on the seawall.

“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”

The roar of wind and angry waves along Landis’ empty seawall gave Zeninna the courage to yell her triumph to the sea. She pealed with laughter, delighted with her success.

She’d sworn she could. Stood up before the Iridescent Court and scoffed at those who mocked her as too young, too wild, too loud. Unruly as the sea in storm, her own mother screeched at her. Zeninna’s supporters begged her to keep her temper leashed. She hadn’t. She couldn’t. The old hags made her too angry. But she won the right to try.

And she’d succeeded. She pressed her hand over her heart and felt the papers stashed inside her coat crinkle. Her acceptance papers. Tomorrow morning, she would enter the Great Library of Cerulea as an Acolyte.

“I did it!” She screamed once more into the wind and waves.

A dark shape popped out of the water between two of the boulders. Zeninna’s heart stopped as a wave crashed over the rocks. Had she just seen…? Ahead of the next wave, her cousin Viridis hopped half out of the water onto a bowl in the rock.

Shock held Zeninna momentarily speechless. She’d spent too long around well-fed, healthy humans. Viridis looked green and positively skeletal.

“Are you crazy?” Zeninna looked wildly up and down the seawall. Relief tempered her outrage. Viridis, not her best friend Perseah. Perseah was safe at home.

“I would hope you wouldn’t be screaming at the top of your lungs if there were humans in the vicinity to hear.”

“That they can’t hear over the wind and waves doesn’t mean they can’t see you from a window.” Zeninna gestured wildly at the town behind her.

Viridis smirked. “Human sight isn’t that good. I’ll take your message to the Court. How long before they should expect you?”

Screaming reminders at herself not to give Viridis reason to suspect anything, Zeninna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her mind rocketed about and found the perfect way to spin the answer. “I’ll know better after Orientation tomorrow.”

“Should I meet you here at dusk then?” Viridis raised her eyebrows.

Zeninna frowned. It wasn’t like Viridis to offer to play messenger. She shook her head. “You can come. I can’t promise I’ll be able to get away.”

Viridis narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget the importance of your mission.”

Fury propelled Zeninna off the wall. Imbecile! Viridis couldn’t possibly understand the importance of Zeninna’s mission to the Irides! Viridis only knew the Court’s version of the task, not the actual plan. The gall of her brainless cousin to attempt to remind her what was at stake! Whipping back around, Zeninna sneered at Viridis. “I will not forget. Now I must go. I’ll be missed.”

Wouldn’t You Rather

For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.

He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.

After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.

It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.

“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”

“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”

He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.

“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”

“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.

“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”

Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”

“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”

Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.

When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.

“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.

From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”

“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”

She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”

Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.

“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”

Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Sounds like fun to me.”

“Yeah, I bet it does.”

“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”

Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.

“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.

He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.

That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.

The Pen

They say success is one part talent, two parts application and three parts luck. Well until that dark November night I had no cause to believe otherwise, and every cause to bemoan my fate. I was a writer with talent in abundance, and a steady determination, but good fortune had at that point been as elusive as snow in summer.

I returned to my rooms late, having spent the evening in a tavern at the end of the road called, ironically, the Shakespeare, a name which was undoubtedly given to mock me. I had been moderately, pleasantly drunk until it became my turn to stand a round, and then, discovering that I had but one farthing to my name, had to suffer the ignominy of being thrown out onto the street by men I believed to be friends.

My attic room was up three flights of stairs and in my drunken state I had quite forgotten the creaking floorboard outside my landlady’s quarters. She must have been waiting for me to return, for she had her speech carefully planned.

“Mr. Humbolt, if I might have a word?”

My landlady was a comely widow not yet into middle age and normally a delight to gaze upon, but that evening I could not bear to face her. “It is very late, Mrs. Prentice.”

“It’s about the rent.”

“Tomorrow. It is far too late now.”

“So is the rent. And you promised it tomorrow three weeks ago.”

She was still talking as I slammed my door and struggled to remove my boots. Her subsequent knock was far from timid.

“When I sell my next story, Mrs. Prentice. Then you will have your rent.”

“Tomorrow, Mr. Humbolt,” she shouted through the thick wood. “Or you will need to find new lodgings.”

My fire had grown cold, grey coals barely glowing. I didn’t bother checking the pail for more. Those were the last. There was barely enough heat in them to light a taper for my candles. I shivered with the realization that these, too, needed to be rationed.

It had not always been that way. When I first came to London to seek out the great Mr. Dickens I felt my fortune was assured. My parents had predicted otherwise but I had not really believed my father when he said ‘come back a raging success or do not come back at all’. But my letters asking for support went unanswered and my fortunes became ever more precarious.

I first saw the great writer in a salon off the Charing Cross Road, giving a public reading of his most recent success, an oversentimental serialized tale called David Copperfield. I was mesmerized, and could barely summon the courage to approach him after his performance. I had hoped he would take me under his wing, but instead as soon as I announced myself a fellow writer his face took on a haunted look and he peered ostentatiously at his pocket watch. But I was dogged in my pursuit and eventually he offered me the crumb of an introduction to his editor, a redoubtable looking fellow by the name of John Forster, before departing hurriedly to his carriage, leaving the grim faced editor behind to respond to my entreaties.

Alas, Forster proved no judge of talent and my work was swiftly rejected. I was not to be deterred, however, and soon sent other work, and found other editors and sent them my stories too.

To no avail. So that chill evening I sat in fading candlelight contemplating eviction and disgrace. There was nothing more I could do.

There was, though, one more action I could take. I had often stood in the middle of Tower Bridge late into the evening looking out over the dirty water of the Thames and listened to the cold, siren cry of the murky eddies entreating the unwary and despairing to join them. Now I, too, was in that sorry state of desolation and hopelessness. My path was clear.

The Quantum Watchmaker

In the summer heat, the clocks ran slow and the very substance of time seemed to drag. All watchmakers knew this, but only the very best–of which M. Guilbert was perhaps the greatest–were clever enough to engineer compensatory mechanisms into their creations. His accuracy was legendary. It was as though time itself was forced to do this watchmaker’s bidding. Some said I was privileged to witness a master at his work, but what did they know of the burdens he forced me to carry?

I served my apprenticeship in unprepossessing circumstances. A kind of perpetual gloom existed inside the watchmaker’s shop, the kind that eventually seeped deep into one’s soul. M. Guilbert worked in a windowless back room, a black velvet curtain always drawn across the doorway. Misshapen stubs of candles erupted like toadstools from every available surface so that he might see to do his work. The air was thick with the smell of burnt tallow.

He would not talk to me of his strange mechanisms, and certainly he taught me nothing of their design. How was an apprentice to learn from a master such as this? I glimpsed intricate components of brass and silver but these bizarre mechanisms grew larger than any mere watch or clock, like rampant weeds sprouting where a delicate flower had once been. And I saw other things too, materials which no ordinary watchmaker had need of.

How could I not help but feel disconsolate? My days were long, fumbling with tiny cogs and fragile movements, clumsily assembling the workmanlike pieces that kept us fed, until my fingers were sore and my eyes ached from the strain. The bustle of the town square glimpsed through the shop’s mullioned windows was as remote as a foreign land. Long days passed with no customers to break the silence or disturb the dust settling thickly on our bare wooden floors. It seemed I had become no more than a ghost trapped in this place, yearning for escape.

In time I learned that none was to be found.


One day, the little bell above the door gave a harsh, muted jangle, protesting its long period of inactivity. The open door threw a sudden, startling beam of sunlight across the plain wooden boards. A bubble of summer warmth wafted in, stirring the dust into swirls.

I straightened from behind the counter, blinking as I removed the jeweler’s eyepiece and set down my tools. The silhouetted stranger advanced. I saw expensive clothes, glimpsed beyond the door a fine carriage, and heard the impatient snort of a waiting mare. The man took a long moment to peruse the timepieces arrayed on the shelves. I tried to follow his gaze, to see where it lingered and gauge his interest. Those would be the pieces M. Guilbert would do well to haggle over. Times were hard and paying customers the rarest of creatures.

For an instant I imagined I saw the watchmaker’s shop through this stranger’s eyes: a gloomy interior, shabby furnishings, an air of genteel neglect. The little silver and gold timepieces: each exquisitely crafted, yet carelessly scattered across every conceivable surface, many lying forgotten on high shelves where they gathered dust–of which there was no shortage. And what of us? The master and his apprentice: equally gloomy, shabby inhabitants of this place.

“Why do none of these mechanisms work?” the stranger inquired, completing his inventory.

“Oh but they do,” I assured him, hurrying out from behind the counter. I glanced towards the inner sanctum of my master’s workshop, willing him to appear and relieve me of the burden of dealing with this self-important stranger. M. Guilbert never closed the door but the thick black curtain was always drawn when he was inside.

“In every other watchmaker’s premises I have ever attended,” the gentleman said, “my ears have been assaulted by the ticking, whirring and chiming of a hundred timepieces. But not so here. Do your mechanisms keep time insufficiently well that you dare not set them running?”

“On the contrary,” I said, with one last futile glance at the drawn curtain. “M. Guilbert makes devices of only the greatest precision. But my master believes it is… disrespectful… to wind a timepiece that does not yet have a purpose. Would you not agree?”

“Indeed. Perhaps.” The gentleman seemed entirely unpersuaded.

“Allow me to show you the truth of it for yourself.”

The stranger fingered the fob watch I proffered with no more than mild curiosity. “I am not the prospective buyer. But M. Guilbert’s reputation has reached the ears of my master.”

Your master?” It seemed unlikely someone dressed in such finery would serve any master.

“The Comte Bachellaix desires to purchase a timepiece. He has heard that M. Guilbert’s skills are second to none.”

“Indeed!” I said, thinking of the sheaf of unpaid bills stuffed into the ledger book.

“A timepiece suitably decorous for a lady, is what the Comte desires. You have such things?” he asked, looking doubtfully at the shelves.

“But of course! M. Guilbert will be greatly honored to equip the Comtess with the finest, most delicate watch ever assembled.”

The man smiled thinly. “Yes. For the purposes of expedience, let us assume this will indeed be a gift for the Comtess.” He paused and in the silence the town hall clock in the square could be clearly heard striking eleven. The gentleman glanced around the silent interior of the shop, frowning. No echoing chimes came from the dozen or so carriage clocks, not a single one. Hurriedly I said, “M. Guilbert will ensure there is a fine selection for the Comte’s perusal. I shall wind them personally.”

The gentleman grunted. He wafted a gloved hand ineffectually at the dust hanging in the air. “See that you are prepared for the Comte’s arrival. He will come at noon tomorrow.”

He left and gloomy silence fell over the shop again. I hesitated by the curtain, knowing better than to draw it back uninvited. As though reading my thoughts, M. Guilbert snatched it aside and pushed past me.

“Damn you, Boy. Why did you not send him away?”

“The Comte is an important man. And we have bills to pay.”

“Bills. Pah.” He rummaged in a drawer beneath the counter, returned brandishing a thin jeweler’s blade which he waved in my face as though I had purposefully hidden it from him. “Why does everyone insist on disturbing my work?”

“Perhaps if you would let me assist you?” I asked without much hope. What use was an apprentice whose master would not put him to good use? Who would not teach all that he knew? Lately I had begun to dream about M. Guilbert’s mechanism that he worked on so furtively. Its little brass parts–the myriad wheels and ratchets and pinions–gleamed with a light brighter than any mere reflection and when the mechanism moved, it purred rather than ticked, like some slumbering creature. Lying in my bedchamber tucked under the shop’s eaves, I would stare into the darkness and feel the irresistible pull of the device, stronger even than the gravity drawing me to my bed. I burned to learn more about it.

“I think not,” M. Guilbert said with a final withering stare. He thrust the curtain back into place behind him.

“These people you so despise are called customers,” I called. There was no answer. The mechanism on the bench was already devouring all his attention.

I sighed. The Comte’s visit could be the making of our fortunes, if we played our cards right. But it had occurred to me that it could be our undoing, too.

The Houses They Became

The house, which had once been Tina’s mother, did not stir even once as she passed. Earlier, a window used to open, or the door creaked, whenever Tina would be in sight—a confirmation that her mother recognized who she was.

Ma was wholly a house now—a house filled with the personality of those who lived there.

Tina never knew what triggered the change. Maybe it was age, or maybe it was being thwarted in love a second time, or maybe it was something else.

Maybe it was the talks of the war and the fear that her son would be called to fight.

Within a week, she became a stone house that had found a safe place on an empty patch of ground in the marketplace. The owner of the land had allowed the house there, in return for his condition.

“We get the house for free.”

Tina knew that she, and her twin brother, Thomas, would become houses too one day, that one day she would wake up and feel the heaviness in her body, the desire to remain still, rooted to the ground. At least, that was what Ma had told them.

“Long ago, it was your Grandma who had first turned into a house. But the house she turned into grew wings, or so they say.”

“Where did she fly?”

“It’s just a saying, Tina. Houses don’t fly. There are many types of houses you can become, depending on who you are. But have you heard of flying houses?”

Tina shook her head. “Maybe it was only Grandma.”

Ma shook her head. “Houses don’t move, dear.”

“Will you take me to the house Papa has become?” she had asked her mother then.

Ma’s hands had tightened a little more around her. “Papa didn’t become a house. He—left.”

“Why?”

“Because when I got pregnant with you and your brother, I told your Papa that I could transform, because the transformation’s always brought about by some major changes in life. He couldn’t face it. Coward.”

“Do you think he would have stayed if we were normal, Thomas?” Tina asked her brother later, the day after Ma had changed.

Thomas smiled and put an arm around her. “We are normal, Tina.”

“Normal people don’t change into houses.”

“They all change into something. It’s not always visible.” Thomas said.

Tina smiled and hugged her brother. Thomas always knew the right thing to say. Ma hadn’t been able to afford school for the two of them, but Thomas had taught himself to read and write from the newspapers he found in dustbins. He’d taught Tina too, and nowadays, whenever they were free, they would read to each other the various events of the day.

“One day I’ll open a library, or a school. Or maybe I’ll become one.” Thomas said, laughter in his eyes. Tina smiled along with him, but in her heart she felt something heavy.

Tina still ran the flower shop her mother used to run. But really, with war approaching, she didn’t see how people would still buy flowers. They’d have to find other ways. Schools were being shut down, turned into shelters for soldiers, and Tina wondered whether she and Thomas could go to people’s houses and teach their children in exchange for a little food. Surely there would still be people who wanted their children to learn things other than gunshots and bombs and yells.

One evening, she returned home and saw Thomas waiting for her with a letter in his hands.

He met her eyes as he spoke.

“They’ve called me to the front. I have to go. Tomorrow.”

Silence followed his words as Tina stared back at him, unable to speak, unable to move.

Thomas was still speaking. “I have to report at the station in the next town, because our town doesn’t have one. And then—”

The next morning, before night had fully vanished, he was gone, a backpack on his shoulder, the imprint of his body still on the bed.

Tina didn’t even say goodbye before he left. She wasn’t able to.

Her brother was gone, along with countless others, to save the country. Who had gone to save them?

That afternoon, when she finally had the courage to get up from bed and face the day, she felt her hands being weighed down by something. She looked down. Her hands were larger than she remembered them being, and their color was not that of skin anymore, but wood.

Her heart sank. Her transformation had begun.

She didn’t have a plot of land she could belong to. Neither did she have any intention of sitting in one place, waiting to fade out in the shadows of the people who would come to live there.

She needed to be there. For Thomas. What if the transformation had started for him too? What if his hands felt heavy and his feet dragged? What if they thought he was useless and killed him? What if he never got a chance to fight, to defend himself, to defend someone he had become close to?

Thomas had always protected her. He was six minutes younger than her, but he had been her savior, the one who got bloody knuckles by fighting off bullies, the one who sat with her and played with dolls when she had no friends, just to see her smile. The one who had gently stood by her when Ma had gone.

It took an eternity for Tina to rub away the tears from her eyes. Her wooden hands left scratches on her cheeks. But it didn’t take long for her to decide.

She was going to meet her brother. She was going to save him.

But her feet dragged. She had become taller now, and she could see past the tops of some trees. In the distance she could see the world, blackened with smoke, meeting the gray sky.

Going through the forest beside her town would be the fastest way to reach the railway tracks. Passing the forests was agony. So much soil for her to sink into, to just remain rooted.

I’m going to be my own sort of house, she told herself as she walked, the soil cool beneath her feet. Her body creaked as she walked, never stopping, though her body became heavier by the second.

Night fell, but still she trudged on. She spoke to herself, in her mind, to remind herself who she was. My own sort of house. My own sort of house.

The wood in her body groaned with fatigue. By the time she reached the end of the forest, another day was dawning, and her eyes had disappeared. But she could still feel the surroundings.

She could follow the railway tracks to wherever her brother had gone. She was changing fast, but she could still feel herself. She was still Tina, her heart nestled in the foundations of the house. Her mind remembered Grandma and her wings. How Grandma had traveled the world in those stories, how she’d housed those who had needed it.

Tina didn’t have wings. But she hoped she would. She was a moving house, and maybe she could house those who needed her, like Grandma had, if only in stories. She’d hold the sick and the wounded close to her, and protect her brother.

The house moved forward, one step at a time, a smile opening the door wide.

Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Zetetic: A Record Of Unusual Inquiry and elsewhere. She tweets @sengupta_tamoha.

The Cartographer Gene

Jordan Sofer’s sixteen-year-old daughter appeared in his office crying one rainy Tuesday in March, sparking a chain of events that sent his life’s trajectory hurtling down a long, serpentine fuse toward a powder keg.

Jordan, Helion Engineering’s Director of Cartographic Solutions, sat at his workstation in a San Francisco office tower, correcting a topographic map of Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano. An intern had used 2005 elevation data, which didn’t account for the height added in 2010 when molten rock last spewed from Arenal. “You need a little boost,” Jordan said aloud to the volcano rendered on his display.

As he redrew contour lines, Jordan became aware of muffled sobs behind him. Millie huddled on the floor in the corner, her knees, naked under her short denim skirt, drawn to her chest.

She hadn’t used the door. Whatever made Millie cry had also filled her with the familiar, overpowering urge to draw.

“What happened?” Jordan glanced out the vertical glass panel beside his office door to the hallway, empty except for framed antique maps on the walls. No one had seen Millie materialize. He knelt beside Millie and kissed the top of her black-haired head, pushing the soft curls she inherited through Carole’s Haitian ancestry from her light-skinned forehead, the genetic contribution of Jordan’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. Millie smelled fresh, like honeydew. Her tears dampened Jordan’s blue Oxford shirt, leaving translucent streaks in the cotton.

“Tyler,” she said. “After school, he said if he couldn’t have me, no one could. Ben caught up to us and Tyler started shouting. I ran to tell Mr. Kramer. Then into an empty classroom.” Jordan felt for her index finger, still tacky with blood.

Millie didn’t have to tell Jordan what happened in that empty classroom; he’d have done the same if he feared for his physical safety. He pictured Millie searching for notebook paper, or perhaps cardboard, an index card, a discarded paper bag, anything on which to draw. Then rummaging for a pen, or a pencil, chalk, crayon, anything to mark that surface.

In Millie’s highly agitated state, details poured from her memory with photographic accuracy. She drew, as she could only when desperate–without training, without straight edges, protractors, compasses, CAD programs or reference materials, without erasures or strike-throughs–a professional-quality floor plan of her father’s office. A place she’d been before and felt safe. She’d pricked her skin, closed her eyes, and laid her bloody finger on the map.

Jordan tapped his iPhone. His son, Ben, Millie’s twin, answered on the second ring. “Where are you?” Jordan asked.

“Home,” Ben said, his mouth full.

He’d be in the kitchen of their San Carlos house, on a quiet hillside twenty-five minutes from downtown San Francisco, in front of the open side-by-side refrigerator. Pouring cornflakes into his mouth straight from the box. Washing them down with milk straight from the plastic gallon jug.

Carole would have made Ben get a bowl. After Carole succumbed to breast cancer four years ago, Jordan became lax about minor rules infractions. A single parent had to pick his battles. With Ben, Jordan dumped all his discipline points into one bucket: listening. The kid’s ears, like broken antennae, seemed unable to tune to the frequency of Jordan’s voice.

“Millie’s here,” Jordan said. “You okay?”

“Kramer came out before Tyler could slug me. He’s suspended for three days. It sucks having to stand up to bullies instead of just teleporting the hell out of there, like some people I know.”

Always with the barbs, that kid. The who-cares attitude worn like a flak jacket, envy smoldering underneath. Why did it always have to be fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, one with the ability, one without? Ben was so much like Jordan’s twin sister, Sarah. They both lacked what the family called the “Cartographer Gene” though its origins, whether in biology or something more arcane, were obscure. And they both resented their siblings and parents’ power. Jordan wondered whether all “Cartographer” families–the population’s tiny fraction across all races and ethnicities believed to have this trait —- experienced the same fractured dynamic.

He deflected Ben’s remark, finding it much easier to keep Ben at arm’s length than to engage.

“We’ll be there soon,” Jordan said.