Fiction

A Canvased Soul

Sariah Williamson was born purple and blue but not because she wasn’t breathing. She leaked colors, warm colors when she was happy and cool when she was sad. The nurses cleaned her up cautiously and handed her to her mother, and Sariah’s skin sweat shades of orange as she nursed at her mother’s breast.

Fearing their daughter’s life would be under a microscope somewhere, the Williamsons fled. They found a back country town few people wanted to visit and made a home for themselves. And Sariah would have grown up happy there had it not been for her mother’s discovery.

One morning when Sariah had soaked her cloth diaper, Sariah’s mother stripped her of her clothes and placed her naked on the newspaper. As her mother went about doing the laundry, Sariah leaked happy colors onto the paper. When her mother returned, she found a wonderful masterpiece under her daughter’s bum. She took it into town to show a friend and a passerby bought it on the spot. “It’s just so beautiful,” he had said.

From that day on, Sariah’s mother would place her down on a canvas to nap, and as the naked babe dreamt, the canvas would fill with colors that dazzled her parents and art collectors alike. And soon these paintings were sold all over the world.

Sariah grew older, creating masterpieces from her sweat and tears. Her parents built her a studio where she would strip her clothes off and ponder the day’s emotions over a canvas. She’d think about her poor brothers and sister who were constantly criticized by their parents for not being as gifted as her. The canvas would swirl in blues and greens. Sariah would think about learning to drive in secret, for she was the only Williamson child forbidden from doing so, and the canvas would soak in oranges and reds.

After the piece was finished, Sariah would promptly then take a picture and send it to her agent who would then find a buyer. The Williamsons grew wealthy and their little cabin in the woods became a mansion with four wings, a high fence, and an Olympic-sized pool within it, though Sariah didn’t swim in it often because she’d dye the water for a week.

But lately, Sariah’s paintings were growing dim. “I think I’m running out of soul,” she explained to her mother.

“That’s ridiculous. How does someone run out of their soul?”

“I don’t know,” Sariah said. “I just feel really tired all the time, all dried up and spent.”

“Well, you can’t take a break. Perhaps you should drink more water,” her mother said.

Her father wouldn’t let Sariah take a break either. “How will we pay for all our things? Would you have your brothers and sisters wear hand-me-downs?” he asked.

Remember New Roanoke

Two roiling suns scorched the desert landscape as the gaunt man stumbled toward the bivouac site. Commodore Tina Morales wiped the sweat off her brow and took another glimpse through her binos. More bone than man, the colonist seemed almost feral. His shredded and grimy olive drab coveralls hung from his skeletal frame like a parachute.

The commodore had planned to send an expedition out to New Roanoke within forty-eight hours. She’d wanted to go sooner, but her command team had needed time to analyze the probes’ data.

Keying the comms device secured around her right ear, she said, “Reaper Six, this is Falcon Six, SITREP. Over.”

“Falcon Six. Reaper Six. Wait one,” Colonel Carlson replied.

She rolled her eyes. Space marines. Any chance they had to assert their authority over a fleet officer, they took it. Still, she was the highest-ranking officer on the expedition. Her only crime was she wasn’t a space marine, but she played along, because she needed them more than they needed her. “Reaper Six. Standing By.”

“Falcon Six. Identified male survivor at five-point-zero klicks and closing. Permission to engage with lethal force?”

Carlson had always been trigger happy, but this request was absurd. She was convinced he was the wrong man for this mission. She needed a ground commander who saw the world in shades of gray, not through a black and white prism.

She keyed her comms device. “Negative. Stand down. Acknowledge.”

“Negative. Contact could be infected. Over.”

An alien pathogen was a logical hypothesis. Over the last fifty years, something had reduced the colony’s population from the two hundred and fifty souls on the original colony ship’s manifest to fewer than ten.

What Morales found even more intriguing were the thousands of heat signatures remote probes had detected beyond the eastern mountains, but remote DNA spectral analysis had determined there was no human genetic material there, so Admiral Chu had limited operations to within fifty klicks of New Roanoke.

The intel was a one-time deal. The United Earth Ship Eldridge would be moving on toward the nearest star in twenty-four hours. After that, the expedition would be on its own and Morales would be in charge.

“Reaper Six. Engage with stun weapons only. Acknowledge.”

A long pause followed. “Acknowledged.”

“Reaper Six. Give me a SITREP in fifteen minutes. Out.”

Two six-wheeled mobiles carrying a space marine platoon streamed past. The marines seemed frisky this morning, almost too frisky. They’d never operated in a one-point-one gee environment before, and she worried their bodies might break before their enthusiasm did.

Morales surveyed the horizon. She still couldn’t get over seeing two suns in Alpha Centauri Prime’s sky, and knowing that somewhere out there laid the answer to the great mystery that had spurred her parents to leave Earth in an interstellar generation ship forty-four years earlier. Three quarters of the crew had been born in space, and this was the first time most of them, including her, had ever set foot on a terrestrial surface.

Leaky magic

It was dark by the time Mark Anderson opened his front door and staggered into the house clutching the dead weight of the shoebox to his chest. He gagged as manure-smelling blue slime oozed from the base of the box, down his suit jacket and onto the hall rug. He pushed the door shut and put the box on the hall floor.

Black beady eyes peeped through the air holes cut in the box, and a tiny finger ending in a brown, gnarled claw poked through. ‘Careful, yer clumsy git!’ came a voice from the box. ‘Yer nearly broke me back, chucking me down like that. Yer past it, yer silly old sod.’

‘Save your breath, kobold,’ Mark said. ‘I’m not listening.’

The kobold was a domestic goblin. Helpful around the place till it didn’t get its own way. After that, pure spite. Mark locked the front door and put his keys into his jacket pocket. His fingers brushed against the pink envelope containing the birthday card he had bought for Pat Court, his boss. It had taken him ages to find, hidden among cards showing fake knitting patterns with obscene captions, garishly coloured landscapes and cute teddy bears. Didn’t they have any that would be suitable for a woman who – like him – was sixty two, and not into foul language, soft toys or boredom? In the end he’d settled for a print of van Gogh’s sunflowers, blank on the inside.

‘Mark! Ma-ark! You’re feeling sleepy,’ the kobold wheedled.

Mark leaned against the wall, wondering what present to get for Pat. What about that perfume she liked? She always smelled lovely. Now, what was it called? Mark closed his eyes and tried to remember.

‘Come on, me old mate, old son, that’s it.’ Just let me out and we’ll say no more about it.’

Mark crouched down next to the box and his hand edged towards the lid.

‘Nice and easy, Markie.’

His eyes snapped open and he stood up. Nobody called him Markie, at least not more than once. ‘I said, shut it. You won’t get round me that way.’ He shook himself.

‘I’ll get yer next time. Yer spineless wimp.’

Mark pulled the bunch of keys out of his jacket pocket and chose one engraved with a pattern of sigils and ornate ancient Phoenician characters. It seemed to suck in the light around it, so that it pulsed blackness.

He went into the kitchen. Next to the washing machine stood the safe, the containment facility for unwanted entities. Its thick iron door was carved with the same ornate script as the key. He’d been careful not to install it next to the fridge. Despite guarantees that the safe would be impermeable to all sorts of magic, Mark didn’t want to risk food contamination. It wouldn’t do to open the fridge and find the food covered in mould, or worse, as though he was living in a student flatshare.

Mark unlocked the safe door. The walls were solid lead. The latest theory was that magic existed as a very high frequency wave form. Lead worked as well against magic it as it did against gamma rays, provided you knew the right incantation. The same black light lurked inside the safe.

He went out to the hall, picked up the shoebox and heaved it into the kitchen.

‘I’ll ‘ave yer! I’ll ave yer! Wimp!’ the kobold poked another finger out of the box.

‘Not so smarmy now, are you? But I’m no wimp, and I’m not listening! La, la, la.’ Mark shoved the box into the safe.

‘La la? Call that magic, yer big nellie? Yer great big pansy!’ The kobold’s voice quietened in a foul-mouthed diminuendo as Mark shut the door. Silence. He locked it and went into the hall to put the key away.

Back in the kitchen, he heard snoring coming from the safe. He took his jacket off, looked at the label and put the jacket into the washing machine. He’d switch it on in the morning.

The owners of the infested house had paid well. Pat should be pleased with the initiative he’d shown, being proactive. Silly word. Lovely woman. His next door neighbour; one day he would get up the courage to tell her how he felt. Today, business partners. One day, maybe more. Mark sat for a moment, thinking of Pat’s smile, wondering why she’d never married and didn’t seem to have a partner. He didn’t think she was gay. Too busy with her career, he supposed, work took up all her emotional slack.

Mark had suggested going for a drink on Friday evening to celebrate her birthday. Perhaps he’d finally tell her. There was a spell for bravery, but he wanted to do it unaided. But, what if she didn’t feel the same? How could they go on working together?

Mark yawned. Tapping into his own will had taken it out of him. There was still the marking of his fourteen- and fifteen-year-old pupils’ English homework to be done. Two jobs is one too many, at my age, he thought. Although, teaching teenagers and dealing with demons were much the same thing.

He got up and walked over to the washing machine. The snoring coming from the safe grew louder as he took the jacket out and retrieved his red pen from the pocket. Good job he hadn’t been able to do any washing, it was bad enough having kobold slime all over the jacket without red ink as well. He put the jacket back and shut the door.

He sat down at the kitchen table and took an exercise book from the top of the pile. It read ‘A sonnet is like a poem, only it’s got 14.’ He circled the figure 14 and wrote ‘Fourteen’ in the margin. Then added ‘and fourteen what? Apples? Oranges?’ The last book in the pile contained some typed pages, at least they were easy to read. The material looked like it had come straight from Wikipedia, including hyperlinks the student hadn’t bothered to take out. But she deserved credit for doing a bit of research, and the information was correct. Mark wrote ‘well done. You’re a shining example of what can be achieved with a bit of work.’

The doorbell rang. Mark saw Pat’s outline through the frosted glass panel. He straightened his tie and let her in. She walked past him into the kitchen and put her bag on the table next to the books.

The Shallows

Merpeople are just like regular people, except that they’re hideous and alien and inscrutable. Okay, forget the regular people comparison. The point is, they sorta saved me from drowning after they sorta almost drown me and now we’re friends. Okay, acquaintances.

It was just a beautiful accident that caused them to swarm me that morning. But, don’t blame them. It was my own fault. I was fishing. They hate that. Or they hate rowboats. Or they hate the color orange. Or they love it. Or they were drawn by the smell of the sun-warmed Doritos I was eating. Anyway, no one is to blame for what happened.

Tuesday morning at sunup is the best time to fish. That’s just fact. The little gulf inlet that points a crooked finger at my sleepy Florida town is all but empty then. It’s often just me, a few retirees, and maybe a couple other kindred spirits with the dedication and strength of character to call off work in the name of the angler’s life.

See, it’s all about laying the groundwork. On Friday, I might start to have a cough. Maybe I run into a coworker over the weekend and maybe I’m not looking so hot. Monday, I heroically drag myself to work, though nobody thinks I should be there in my condition. Then, on Tuesday, I’m paddling out to my favorite spot and dropping the anchor before the sun has risen enough to burn off the fog. The moment I cast my line toward the shore and the sunrise, back toward the poor saps working there, and wedge a breakfast beer between my knees, I always know that I’m doing the right thing.

This last time was the best yet. The sky was cobalt, the breeze was warm, and I didn’t see another soul. Perfection. I was shooting for flounder, running my lure low against the seabed, and I figured I’d have a good buzz on and a flounder on the grill before I’d usually be pulling the squished PB&J outta my lunchbox.

Everything was going as planned until I noticed that I was drifting more than made sense. I reeled in my line, laid my rod in the boat, and turned to test the anchor rope. I figured, hoping the damn thing hadn’t come loose, that I had better reposition the anchor, but when I went to pull it up, I found the rope was taut. But, not just taut. It was vibrating with tension and seemed to be pulling me off to sea.

“That’s not good,” I said to nobody in particular.

I wiped Dorito-orange fingers on my safety-orange lifejacket and considered my options. I could cut the rope, but that seemed a little drastic. I could swim to shore. Even more drastic. I could wait a bit and see. Sounded reasonable.

I gave one more tug on the rope, just to be sure. It was tight as a steel cable. I looked off at the open water, which I was quickly approaching, and decided that I’d better “wait and see” with knife in hand. My little rowboat wasn’t really made for the open ocean.

I was just clicking open the latch on my tackle box to hunt up a knife when an unforeseen possibility forced me to alter my plan. The metal bracket to which the anchor line was attached creaked like an old screen door then it, along with the entire prow of the boat, was yanked underwater. A moment later, I felt the rest of my little boat disappear from under foot and I was left bobbing like a cork near the mouth of the inlet.

Turns out, I should have cut the rope. The water was unexpectedly cold, so it took me a moment to jumpstart my brain. I was back online and thinking, “huh, that was odd,” when I was quickly forced to rethink my whole understanding of “odd.”

Hands, maybe a dozen of them, started feeling me beneath the surface. I let out an involuntary squeal and tried to pull myself legs up out of the water, but there was nothing to pull against. Trembling, I forced myself to look down. Vague shapes. All around me.

I crossed shark off my terror checklist first. Sharks don’t gather round and gently paw their prey. As far as I know.

Something like hope rose up in me when I had the thought, “asshole divers,” but that possibility quickly faded. I could see arms and shoulders. Dark, slick heads. But, the bodies tapered and undulated off to an unseen distance, trailing strange, streamer-like appendages. They looked a bit like those stylized oriental paintings of dragons. With that observation, final horror knocked the wind out of me, just as I was jerked underwater so hard I thought my hips had come out of joint.

I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was going to die. And I’ll say this for myself: I kept my eyes open. I almost certainly pissed my pants (for all that matters underwater), but I kept my eyes open. I’m strangely proud of that. Though, I really didn’t see much.

I felt like I was being jerked in several directions at once and I was sure that I was about to come apart at the seams. My legs were on fire. Then, I remember a moment of calm, followed by the burn and pressure as one of them bit me just beneath my right ear. Then they left.

For just a second, I registered obsidian eyes staring into my own, then sharp claws parted my lips and fingers like ice were thrust down my throat. It hurt. Everything hurt.

Other hands must have been shredding my clothing, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I just felt the frozen fingers in my mouth and the white-hot agony of the bites on my neck as the skin split wider and wider.

When the seawater poured down into the expanding wounds and met the fingers in my throat, iron-hard arms wound around my torso and began compressions, forcing the last of the air from my body and from my life. The pain in my neck and throat shifted. It was like opening a window and finding new air, sweet with a thousand smells you couldn’t describe, and realizing that you’d been holding your breath.

Is it weird to say I didn’t even notice when I stopped having legs? Well, I didn’t. It was all about breath for me. Trading air for water. Invigorating is too small a word.

I seemed to get new eyes thrown into the bargain as well. After the change, I could see everything. My broken little boat lying on the seabed. The shreds of my old clothes. Everything. I could pick out every fish for a hundred yards. I could almost count the scales on the merpeople as they swam back out to into the vastness of the open water. Fast as torpedoes. Without a single word or sign. Nothing at all.

I like to think they’ll be back. I’ve even caught glimpses of them out at the edge of sight. But, whenever I swim out of the inlet, the vastness makes me dizzy and I feel like I’m falling in every direction. They’ll be back for me. I figure they can’t just abandon me without showing me the ropes. I figure this is the equivalent of merpeople hazing, and we’ll all be closer friends for it in the end.

We’ll probably all laugh about this someday.

It’s hard to say how much my mind has changed. I still love flounder, though it tastes sweeter than ever before. I remember all of my life on land, and I get a giddy little thrill every time I realize that I’ll never have to go back to work again. I don’t think I’d even fit in my cubicle anymore.

I watch the swimmers and the dolphins. I study the comings and goings of the boats overhead. I visit with manatees and I toy with the idea of scarring the hell out of divers, but I always think better of it. And, most of all, I wait for my people to return. I’m the king of this sunny little inlet, but I’m alone.

Maybe some day I’ll get up the courage to swim out into the wide world and look for them. Maybe, but not today. Today, I’m pretty sure it’s Tuesday. There are more flounder here than I could ever eat and I even have some beer left. All in all, things could be worse.

Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a day. Make a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Plus, he’ll get to see if a manatee can get drunk. What’s better than that?

Jarod K. Anderson formerly taught English at Ohio University. Currently he works at
the largest botanical gardens in Ohio. Jarod writes about plants by day and robots, ghosts, and magic by night. It’s a good arrangement. His work has appeared in Escape Pod, Ray Gun Revival, Eclectica Magazine, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere.

Another Life

I don’t know what I am. Maybe I’m a God. If so, I’m the worst excuse for a God that’s ever been. The only thing I can be sure of is that I’m not normal.

The first time it happened, I had just woken up from a nightmare. Something malevolent had been chasing me through a twisted corkscrew of a hallway. I lost my balance and fell. As I rolled onto my back, I caught a glimpse of something jagged descending toward my face.

I woke with a shout, my heart-racing, arms and legs tensed. I lay dazed, barely able to breathe, trying to remember my own name. Rain pattered against the window just above me, while gusts moaned to one another in the dark.

Lightning struck with a sudden flash of light and a loud crack. My mind clenched and a stab of pain pierced my skull. Something inside me lurched.

One moment I was in bed, an after-image swirling across my vision, and the next I was somewhere else.

I stood on a hill, overlooking a city. A giant mushroom cloud dominated my field of view. White hot at the base. Yellow as it extended up. Red as it billowed outward. Dark gray at the rounded top. Each color shot through with streaks of black. It was beautiful and horrific at the same time. Larger than I could have imagined.

Two more, smaller but no less ominous, perched on the horizon.

I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I tried to turn away, but I was frozen in place.

Nothing moved. Nothing at all.

Ahead of me, an older couple clutched one another. A woman in a bright pink coat cradled a dog, crouched on a nearby sidewalk. Two guys, roughly my age, one wearing an Orioles baseball cap, froze halfway out of their rusted Ford Mustang.

Terrified and awestruck, I stared at a picture of nuclear Armageddon, and felt very small.

Not a single sound intruded on the hellscape. Not one car horn, not a single voice, not even the wind. Just empty, eternal silence.

This isn’t real. It’s another nightmare.

But it wasn’t, and in a flash I knew why. I wasn’t Bobby MacDonald, senior at Robert Murrow High School, candidate for class valedictorian.

No. I was Benjamin Joseph Shelton, senior foreign relations adviser to the President of the United States. B.J. to my friends. Benji to my wife, Melissa.

I was both at the same time. I knew everything about Bobby MacDonald. Every last detail of my nerdy little life. I remember asking Jenny Byars to go to prom with me. I remember getting Eric, Jason and Glenn to come over on a Friday night to watch the premier of Battlestar Galactica. I remember cursing at my mom and the resulting slap across my face. I remember my dad breaking down in tears when my granddad died of a stroke.

Those memories were me. Bobby MacDonald.

But I also remember catching a quick out from Skip Morris at the goal-line just as time expired. I remember my Bar Mitzvah. I remember asking Melissa to marry me at my parent’s lake house, and the joy of holding my newborn baby girl for the first time. I remember bringing my dog, Buster, to the vet to be put down. I remember the giddy, surreal feeling of meeting President O’Neil for the first time.

And because I was Benji, I knew the city was Washington D.C., and I knew why, most likely, there were mushroom clouds blooming all over the United States.

Eleven days ago, from Benji’s perspective, one of our Dart-class surveillance subs, the USS Lansing, disappeared. Intelligence reports placed her in the East China Sea and the top brass were ninety percent certain the Chinese had captured her. I attended one high-level meeting after another. The Pentagon had to bump my security clearance for a meeting with the President and Joint Chiefs. If I hadn’t been so terrified, it would have been a thrill.

The White House got me a hotel room ten minutes away, and a town car to chauffeur me. I hadn’t seen Melissa or the kids since the whole thing began, though I talked to them on the phone each night.

The whole situation spelled disaster. The Chinese postured, we blustered. It spiraled out of control. The UN stepped in. President O’Neil took us to DEFCON 1 earlier today, Tuesday, September 21, 2027.

Queasiness overtook me. It wasn’t 2027. It was Monday, January 21, 2013. Barack Obama had begun his second term, the East Coast continued their recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and a sick horror clenched my stomach at the thought of Sandy Hook.

I stared at the freeze frame in front of me. Nuclear devastation. An event that Bobby MacDonald could barely grasp, but one Benji Shelton could.

This isn’t an XBox game or a movie. It’s real. All too real.

I desperately wanted to cry, but couldn’t. A wild panic grew in my chest, flooding me with an insane desire to scream, long and loud.

Pain shot through my skull again.

When I opened my eyes and saw the dim outlines of the ceiling in my room, a burst of relief overcame my fear. My room, not Benji’s. I twitched a finger, wriggled my toes and raised a knee. I let out a shuddering laugh before dissolving into helpless tears.

At some point, emotionally exhausted, I blacked out and slept.

The Flower Garden – Part 2

Greg knew his thinking was impaired. He was halfway back to his father’s house, with Annie in the passenger seat nursing two doggy bags. And it meant that he was also going to have to run her back into town later. She might have some vague plan about staying over, but if she did, this was the worst possible way to go about it.

“It’s real close to the road now,” Annie told him. “I saw on the news there was one in Florida, marching through some sugar plantation. It was on track to go between two of the houses on the farm, but the alien budded about three days before. Split into two. The two of them set off on different directions, one heading for each house. Craziness.”

Greg watched the thing as they drew nearer. There were still cars parked on the shoulder. It was definitely closer to the highway than when he’d arrived.

“Nobody tried to stop them?” he said.

“Sure. There was footage of a farmhand with some kind of sugar machine, kind of like a bulldozer, trying to push one of them to the side. Even the budded ones are too big to budge. Their tendrils dig down deep. And the army and all what have you, they’re busy with the really big ones.”

Greg swung the car into his father’s driveway and pulled up near the old pickup and stopped. His father was on the veranda with the telescope. Greg climbed out and walked over.

“Company,” his father said.

“You remember Annie?” Greg said. “I brought her over to talk some sense into you.”

“Hey,” Annie said. “I brought wings.” She held up the bag.

“Wings.” Greg’s father smiled down at her. “I could go for some wings. You bet.”

“They’re just leftovers, really.”

“I’m not fussy.”

Inside his father arranged the wings on a plate and nuked them. In moments they were crispy hot again. “So,” he said, setting the plate on the table. “Going to talk some sense into me, huh? People have been trying that for decades.”

Annie laughed. She took one of the wings, and his father took one too. Greg just sat. He didn’t like the way his father looked at Annie. Not quite a leer, but it was at least flirtatious. He was too old and sick to behave like that.

“I figure you’ve got plenty more life in you,” Annie said. “I don’t understand this attachment to the land. There was a whole long period that you didn’t even live here.”

“That’s right. And there’s two things. First, what I’ve got is terminal. I don’t have plenty more life in me. Unless I let them experiment and, you know, quite frankly I don’t have the energy for that.”

“Experiment?” Greg said. “There are other treatments?”

The Flower Garden – Part 1

Greg Winden saw the living machine thing from the Lockheed’s window as the aircraft made its final approach into Garnet Hill. He’d always enjoyed seeing his father’s house from the plane whenever he flew in from Newark, but it was weird seeing a mechwurm just across the highway. He remembered his father grumbling about being so close to a flight path when planes came over. Garnet Hill was so small that there were only a couple a day, and nowadays the aircraft were so quiet you barely noticed them anyway. Really, his father had little to complain about.

The alien machine changed that. His house and garden were in its path. Both would be crushed under the thing.

Greg stared at it as the plane went by. His earset snapped off some photos.

The thing was like some ancient whale-sized bottom-dwelling sea creature. Bigger than whale-sized. Its black, segmented body would have looked little bigger than a snail, from the altitude, but the passing cars on the highway almost straight below belied its real expanse: they looked like toy cars. Like a kid’s micro-slot car set, with a fascinated frisky cat about to pounce on them. It had to be two hundred yards wide, and more than three times that in length.

Apparently it was one of the smaller ones. Some of the biggest, in Africa, had grown to several miles in length.

Then it was gone, the plane making a last banking maneuver, correcting for final approach.


In the small terminal, Greg saw Annie Smith in an airline uniform, checking baggage tags. She was still slim, though her hair had lost its sheen. They’d dated in school. Two months, then she got pregnant to one of the linebackers. For a moment–a year or more–Greg had felt like he’d never recover from the betrayal, but looking at her now, he felt no animosity. She was just another woman approaching middle age, still living in Garnet Hill.

“Greg,” she said as he reached for his bag.

“Annie.” He pulled the bag off the carousel.

She waved her scanner at the bag, then at his earset. “Not stealing someone else’s bag are you?”

“What’s your little magic thing there say?” He stared at her eyes. There was something about them still. Like a kind of homing beacon. Land here they said, everything’s safe. He was surprised at still feeling a physical attraction.

She glanced at the scanner. “Well,” she said. “Who’d have thought. It’s actually yours. Staying long?”

“Maybe. Dad’s not well.”

She nodded. “I hear that thing’s heading straight for his house.”

Greg nodded. “Crazy, huh? I saw it from the plane. Like a giant slug.”

“Yeah. A few months ago it looked like it was going to mow right through Garnet Hill’s downtown, such as it is, but then the thing budded and changed direction a little. People lost interest when they knew their homes and businesses were safe..”

“But now it’s heading for my old family home back off highway 91.” Greg watched other people taking bags and leaving the terminal, meeting family or heading for the Hertz kiosk.

“Sorry. I remember your Dad. Came back from San Francisco.”

“Shouldn’t you be checking those bags?”

Annie glanced over, then back at him with a grin. “It’s Garnet Hill, Nebraska. Who’s going to steal a bag?” She paused, watching his face. “Regulations. I’ve got to appear to be checking bags. Makes everyone feel better.”

“Sure.” Greg shuffled his bag up onto his shoulder and headed for the kiosk. “Nice to see you again.”

“Uh,” she said. “Go for a drink? While you’re in town?” She paused. “Maybe.”

He looked back around. Her eyes were wide, the grin had faded. Greg nodded at her. “Sure. Why not?”

She thumbed her earset and he did likewise. His gave a quiet tinkle that it had received her details.

“I’ll be in touch,” she said.

Fossil Fire

I learned the secret of Justin’s fossilized fire shortly after I realized I wasn’t in love with Melissa anymore. We were drinking on the hill over Shenecker’s farm in the evening, like when we were kids. I wanted to tell him I didn’t know why I was married, that I had been playing along for the past few years, hoping things would fall together, only to realize pretending wasn’t going to make it real. Instead I asked him about the fire.

He sold shards in bottles at the flea market. They stood out from the homemade jewelry, blankets, and wooden ducks. The red and orange pieces curled about themselves, thin as leaves, but hard as stone, like twisted sheets of mica, a flame trapped in a single moment, never changing.

He wouldn’t tell anyone how he made them. If you asked his wife, she’d mention his workshop in the basement, but knew nothing else. I’d been in Justin’s basement, seen his hobbies. He had no kiln, no way of blowing glass. Besides, his flames looked nothing like glass.

They were his secret. So maybe it was the alcohol that loosened his tongue, or our friendship, or both.

“If you know where to look and how to look, you can see it–the second sun.” He stared across the fields and spoke with a seriousness that should have been mine, discussing my marriage. The grass was a few inches high, but would be a few feet come summer. Beech and maple trees grew behind us, but in front headlights drifted down two lane roads around plowed fields.

“Where is it?” I asked. “The other sun?” He didn’t make any sense, but this was the first time he ever said anything about the flames.

“Look to the right of the sun. It’s there.” He pointed to the sky with the hand that held his bottle of lager.

“You’re gonna make me go blind.” I smiled and took a swig from my beer.

“Then don’t worry about it. I’m the only one who can see it, and I’m fine with that.” He finished his beer and placed the empty bottle in the cardboard six-pack. “Where’s the bottle opener?”

“You’re full of shit.” I handed him my keys. “We all know you make them in your basement.”

“Keep on knowing then.” Justin popped the cap off another bottle. He always looked in need of a haircut, and random tufts stuck out of the back of his head.

We didn’t say anything for a few minutes. The sun was behind the hills in the distance. We still had enough light to see without the glare being annoying. Spring peepers chirped in the trees, growing louder, replacing the overbearing light of the setting sun with the overbearing cries of frogs.

“I don’t think I’m in love with Melissa,” I said.

Instead of responding Justin sipped his beer, and then, “It’s too late for that.”

“I know. I don’t dislike her. I just don’t…she’s just another person, and I always thought a wife should be someone I feel passion for.” I looked at the homes below, some lit, some not, spread out among the farms.

“Are you cheating on her?” As secretive as he was about himself, Justin was blunt with everyone else.

“No. I haven’t replaced her with someone else. I feel like I’ve lost something.”

Despite the frogs, I lowered my voice. Justin stayed monotone. “When did this start?”

“I realized it about a month ago, but I think I’ve felt this way since Sarah was born. I’ve been too busy thinking about her and trying to support them to notice.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. I seriously don’t know.”

Justin took another drink. “That sucks.”

“Yeah. Thanks for listening to me.”

“Don’t tell anyone about the sun. Okay?”

I smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone how crazy you are.”

Garden of Little Angels

“Katelyn, d-do you think they are p-poison?” Arabella asked me. Her voice sounded hoarse, the cold air sending small puffs of mist from her lips. Next to her, little Gregory bounced on his feet, the possibility of food giving the boy a sudden burst of energy. It was our third day alone in the Whispering Forest, our third day without food. The waterskin I had stolen from Father was almost empty, and dusk was fast approaching.

“I don’t know,” I answered. The bushy plant stood two paces high and held many clusters of berries. I pulled one from the clump. It was a juicy, deep crimson. A quick glance at Gregory revealed a string of saliva hanging from his chin, just above the sickening bruises where Father had strangled him.

“What if it’s baneberry?” Arabella questioned, her brown eyes both panicked and hopeful.

“No,” I answered, “baneberry has pointed leaves. I used to pick them for Mother when she had an ache in her belly.” One or two baneberries could remedy a stomach cramp. Six or more could stop your heart.

A sob escaped Arabella’s throat. She clutched my arm. “I miss her,” she murmured, and I immediately cursed myself for mentioning Mother. My little sister was only eight years old, and Gregory six. Our perilous escape into the Whispering Forest was wearing heavily upon them. I could see it in the hollows of their eyes, the sag of their shoulders. “As do I, little dove, every day,” I said softly, my mind wandering to Mother’s passing. It still held a great weight on us. She was the one who had held our family together, who made life in the Whispering Forest bearable. After her freakish death everything changed. Our world grew darker, the forest more threatening. But Father, Father had changed the most. In my mind I could still hear his scream as he strangled little Gregory, shaking him until the tips of his toes scraped the wooden floor of our cabin. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” He had yelled at my baby brother. “Don’t you shut that damn door!” I remembered turning and seeing the cabin door closed and latched. Why shouldn’t the door be closed? I wondered, legs trembling, as Gregory let out a muffled yelp. His brown eyes pleaded for help, the skin on his face darkening as he struggled for breath. I picked Father’s sword off the dinner table. It felt so heavy in my hands. I walked to them…

Arabella’s sudden scream broke me from the spell of old memories. I spun and saw her lunge forward and swipe at Gregory’s face. But it was too late. Little Gregory smiled, his lips and teeth streaked red from the juice of the unknown berries.

“What are you doing?” I shouted, reaching out and slapping at his hands. He stepped backward, dropped the clump of berries to the forest floor, and started to cry. His face was chapped and the streaks of fresh tears made his pink cheeks glisten. I went to him, pulled him close. “How do you feel?” I said, trying to sound calm. “Tell me.”

He sniffled, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his deerskin. “I’m good,” he said. “It feels warm.” He patted his belly. I waited a moment, observing, yet saw no signs of sickness or poison.

While I was concentrating on Gregory, Arabella had wandered off a few paces ahead. “Katelyn,” she called out, “come see what I’ve found!” I guided Gregory through thick brush and found Arabella beside more berry bushes. Further beyond, a group of young saplings grew bunched together. Their bark looked sickened, taken with a fungus, yet as I drew closer I saw the smooth bark had in fact been painted on from the red juice of the nearby berries. Images of flowers and butterflies, of knights and dragons, wrapped themselves around the young trees like a child’s totems.

“Other people have been here!” Gregory shouted.

“And look,” I said, pointing to the nearby berries. “They’ve been picked from.”

“That means we can eat!” my sister said.

“Yes, I believe so.” Yet I wondered for a moment if the berries had been picked, not to eat, but only to decorate the saplings. Although I did not believe so—for what children would want poison on their fingers? And Gregory, he had shown no ill effects from the berries he had eaten, so we immediately began pulling clusters from the bush. I put three in my mouth and bit down. They were delicious and sweet. I felt a comforting warmth spreading in my belly, as if drinking from a glass of wine.

Once my stomach was full I spent a long moment enjoying my brother and sister. No longer hungry, their fingertips dipped into the berry juice and became crimson quills, creating the edges of a broadsword on an unmarked sapling. The sun had fallen lower, and the forest shadows grew long and thin. I closed my eyes, breathed in the cold air, and heard the sound of a giggling child.

I sprung to my feet.

The Land of Dreams

Cass set the last feed bucket down and leaned against the paddock fence, idly tugging a soft clump of gray-green dream pig fur out of the wire. The sun was breaking free of the distant mountains just in time to be swallowed up by blossoming amber clouds. She frowned, twisting the wool around her fingers. Just another normal day on the farm. Morning chores were almost done, but she couldn’t seem to settle into her usual rhythm. Even her eyes felt gritty and irritated. She rubbed at them with a cleanish patch of her shirt sleeve.

“Sleepy? Her father hung his elbows over the top wire casually, missing her mood entirely.

“Yup.” Cass shrugged. Agreeing was easier than trying to explain the restlessness that had been tugging at her. They stood side by side and watched while a couple of yearling dream pigs mock-battled over the last few bits of slop. Their curved horns clashed, donkey-sized bodies smacking into each other. “Hey, Pop? You ever thought about expanding the farm?”

“Into what?” His gaze stayed fixed on the posturing dream pigs, but his tone was carefully neutral, putting her on her guard. It was the tone that meant he already knew where he stood on a topic.

“I dunno. Maybe a few more hands to help around here. More stock. We have the best dream pigs around. Who knows? Maybe we could even have farms on other planets someday.” Cass watched him hopefully, for the first time letting her daydream sneak out into real life. There was no telling what might happen if they tried to make things better.

“I like it the way it is. We can manage what we have as a family. Tulandra’s where the dream pigs came from and Tulandra’s where they should be raised. Other planets won’t suit as well.”

“But you don’t know that.” Cass wanted to clang him on the head with the feed bucket. He was always so single minded.

“Getting the off-world itch, Cassie?” He might as well have asked her if the farm and her family weren’t good enough for her anymore. She knew it was what he meant. Her parents had worried about her wanting to leave since she had mentioned looking at off-world farming techniques once when she was fifteen. It was worse now that the new spaceport was finished barely twenty miles from the farm. She hadn’t missed the fact they weren’t all that keen on her running errands out that way alone or lingering there for any length of time.

“It ain’t that. It’s just – what we do is special. We could use that to make a better life.”

“Sometimes, when things get too big, they stop being special. Gotta give something to get something. What’re you willing to give up to make this place bigger? Your home? Your family? Get a bunch of strangers in here and that’s what might happen.”

“It was just an idea.” Cass shrugged, trying to brush off his dismissal. She didn’t think it was fair to assume that making the farm a little bigger would ruin their lives. She should have known better. He never wanted to hear her thoughts about farm stuff. “Don’t you ever get tired of it, Pop?” Cass looked out at the building cloud bank. If she looked him in the eye, he’d know she wasn’t ready to let it go. Then he’d get stubborn back and that would be that. “One bad flood, a new pig-plague, economy crashes…any of that or a thousand other things and we’ve got nothing. Nothing.”

“You think I don’t know that, Cassie? We’ve been here three generations now.” He looked at her like he had when she was six years old and tying bows in the piglets’ fur. “Jimmy’s family settled here around about the same time. Look at them now – no land left after the Land Grant Agency decided they hadn’t made good enough use of what they’d been given. Now they’re all stuffed in a little place in town, living off of what I can afford to pay him.”

“All the more reason to make things better here.” Cass turned towards him.

“Better means a bigger investment. We take enough risks relying so much on the dream pigs for profit. No.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he shook his head. “Leave it alone, girl. We’re doing well enough right now. Be happy with that.” The all-weather comm hooked to his belt beeped and he turned away from her to answer it.

Cass clenched her jaw. Maybe she was wrong. It just galled her that he was willing to settle for ‘well enough’.

“C’mon, enough sulking.” Pop clapped her gently on the shoulder. “Jimmy needs help with Tika. Birthing’s not going smooth.”