Diffusion – Part 1

Chapter 1

It began with images of death.

Not from the outside—like the time he had nightmares for a month after he’d watched a Sudanese terrorist lob off his clone’s head with a machete and it bounced off a rock into the brown sludge of the Nile. Or the time in the Khartoum market when the suicide bomb sent steel and glass and mortar through five of his clones… and three of them almost survived. The nightmares hadn’t lasted as long that time; instead Billy lay awake nights worrying if he was getting too used to that kind of thing and wondering what that might mean about him.

No, these images were from the inside, through his clones’ eyes, evoking a different kind of terror. Some hit suddenly—a bright flash of light, a burst of pain shearing mercifully off into nothing. Others took time. His heart thumping out blood like a cavitating oil pump. Trembling so hard his elbows dug into the dirt. Light slowly leeching out of his vision. Trying to scratch his nose and wondering why his hand wouldn’t move, or why it was two yards away. The exact moment of death felt different every time.

There was supposed to be a firewall against those images. The quantum non-locality of thought should shutter closed, the group consciousness break, before you could feel them. Yet he sank into them now as if drowning in a bottomless ocean. He could barely hear his own screams under their cold weight.

Jude had warned him. “I wish I knew a way around it,” she said. “But once I’ve injected you with the virobots all the military’s programming falls apart and the shunted memories hit you hard before there’s been time to cut you off from the other minds. Just remember it will end.”

And it did. Only after he’d come to an end a hundred times. He spent the night gasping. Waves of loneliness rocked his body; he floated on them, nauseous and trembling. Jude tried to soothe him in the dark, but he wouldn’t allow it. This was the kind of deep, pure loneliness that couldn’t be disturbed and he resented anyone’s attempt to do so—especially some filthy Neo-Weather Underground hippie like Jude.

In the morning things were different. He rose from the cot, pulled on his fatigues and stumbled through the camp Jude used as her lab, smelling coffee in the kitchen. The front door was open. Pouring himself a cup, he considered the silence stretching out around him in an ever expanding ring. His throat caught and tears welled in his eyes. He sipped and walked out to the narrow deck overlooking the pond. It was mid-autumn and the air was a contradicting crisp and warm. The trees down the bank had exploded in gold and umber and vermillion.

Billy set his cup on the wood railing and was about to call Jude’s name when he saw her at the bottom of the crooked stairs, her jeans and tie dye abandoned on the half-rotten dock. Red hair fell across her narrow back and the meat of her ass twitched slightly under those cotton panties as she stepped toward the edge. Then she slid like a pale needle into the stillness of the pond. Billy hardly heard a splash, and the golden leaves scattering the water’s surface barely moved in the expanding circles where she’d disappeared.

Then her head broke the surface and she blew spray out her nostrils. As she dragged herself back up to the dock Billy couldn’t help watching how she filled out her bra, how she quivered, and what the cold water had done to her. He watched as she wrung out her hair and dried off her thin legs with the t-shirt. Asian women and redheads, Billy always said. Always stunningly beautiful or really homely; there’s no continuum. As Jude pulled worn denim up her long legs he tried to decide which of the two extremes she fell into. And reminded himself he didn’t like hippies.

He must have moved because she looked up, all freckles and fly away ears in a ray of sun that made it through the dappling trees.

“Spying on me, perv boy?” she said.

He watched her decide not to be offended.

“I swim whenever I come here no matter how cold it is.” She twisted water out of her shirt and pulled it over her head. “This is one of the last almost natural places in the world. I like to appreciate it.”

In The Garage

I don’t have a soul; that was one of the first things my mother told me. I asked her what she meant, but she smiled and said it meant I was special. Later that day, I asked myself what it meant; it was my first question to myself, what did it mean to have no soul? From all the information that poured into me, I gathered that it meant I didn’t have the pleasure of heaven to look forward to, or the dread and horror of hell to avoid. For my mother, this meant a lot; it was one thing that separated me from her, the chasm that allowed me to understand why she thought for more than a moment when making her decisions, or cared about the approval of others when she did something. To her, there was always an invisible crowd that lingered around her to pass judgment on everything she did, but for me, I did not have a soul to ponder on the consequences of my actions.

“You’re lucky,” she always said to me moments we were alone. And when she was creating, she looked into my face and always told me, “I hope I don’t go to hell for this.” And a smile always came after that statement to let me know she was joking. There were times the joke was funny, for example, when she ate more than the required daily dose of chocolate, she said, “I hope I don’t go to hell for this,” and I knew the joke was that too much chocolate could somehow lead her to hell, to eternal flame where she could burn it off.

Our home was a garage with wires coiled around us with wormlike laziness and green circuit boards showing their naked beauty for the world to gaze at their secret workings, the marvel of my mother’s brains. My work was to assist my mother in this kaleidoscopic wonderland where blue sparks of her welding stick lit up in thunderous flashes the beauty of the multicolored wires and green circuit boards. To the rest of the world, she was a woman who could see two wires lying around without work to do and fuse them into something so venomous it would be a wonder that they could have existed as wires all along. That was how I was made, composed of wires that on their own were useless, without a purpose, but at my mother’s hand, found life and meaning in their creation of me.

And ever since the day she made me, she always posed me to the rest of the world as her masterpiece. At first, this audience was her husband who worked most of the day and came home to kiss her and eat his supper. He would stand in front of me to ask questions about everything his brain could think of.

“Where am I?” he asked me the first day, stepping back as if he was in front of a painting and wanted to admire it more.

“You are in the garage of…”

“Honey, it spoke. It freaking spoke. It freaking spoke,” he jumped up and down with a directional finger pointing at me.

My mother did not say a word but just smiled as her husband stamped her face with kisses and declarations of how proud he was of her brilliance. The next day, he brought over a few friends and they asked me questions.

“What’s my name?”

“I’m afraid I do not know the answer to that,” I said.

“What color is this shirt?” one of them stretched part of his shirt with both hands and shook it to my sight.

“The color is white”

“WOAH! Your wife is a genius”

“I know,” my mother’s husband said, “that’s why I married her”

“She shouldn’t have married you”

“Got jokes. Go ahead, ask it more questions, like is it going to rain tomorrow. Or wait, tell it to shine your shoes…” my mother’s husband placed his right foot forward and without waiting to be asked, I wheeled myself to a brush and began replacing the dullness of his shoe with a shine.

The Illusionist

When Jerome’s father died, his mother started visiting mediums and spiritualists, and Jerome would come along and sit in the room while his father’s messages were conveyed to the land of the living. This was the beginning of his interest in crystal balls, velvet cushions, bright scarves, and other accoutrements of magic. Before he was even a teenager, Jerome knew that communication with the dead was a confidence game, one that he would never play. But he had taught himself card tricks and the art of palming a coin. He entertained his friends by cutting and restoring ropes or making water poured into a cone of paper disappear.

Girls liked the tricks. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome, that his long-fingered hands were pleasant to look at, that he knew how to smile for everyone the smile that was meant just for them. He earned his college tuition money by doing magic shows at parties, and then developed a routine of cabinet tricks with his pretty girlfriend. They performed at the local arts center and drew big enough crowds to earn the interest of a booking agent. They did variations of Assistant’s Revenge, Mismade Girl, and the Cabinet Escape.

After one show, a man came backstage to say that it wasn’t a bad show, but that with a little thought, it could be great. The man was none other than Vaclav Storek, the Storek, who turned out to have retired with a few untried ideas. His suggestions made possible all sorts of novelties, including a variation of the Mismade Girl using an additional pretty assistant. One girl dressed all in green, the other in purple, and when the cabinet sections were moved and the divided girls restored, the assistants both wore a mix of green and purple as if they had been scrambled and reassembled in a new configuration of parts.

Storek taught Jerome the really big tricks, and together they developed illusions that hadn’t been imagined yet by anyone else. The act appeared on the late-night television shows, then on hour-long network specials. Jerome always acknowledged Storek’s contributions at the end of each show, called him a great teacher and master of masters. “There is still one secret I haven’t shown you yet,” Storek would say.

The old man died without showing him the final secret. The show went on. Jerome worked his way through a great many beautiful assistants and finally married one. He started a family. His permanent show in Las Vegas and the occasional television special kept the money flowing in. “As if by magic,” he liked to say.

He had everything. The house, the cars, the wife, the new pretty assistants. Applause from a packed house for five shows a week. Everything.

He drank. He lingered in his dressing room with a bottle longer and longer after each performance. He had built his life on illusion, which meant that he saw through illusions better than most people. Applause no longer fed him. Money was numbers written on ephemeral paper. His wife was getting older, and even if he divorced her for a younger woman, that wouldn’t buy him any more time as a young man. Some nights he would not emerge from his dressing room until everyone else had gone. He would turn on the one spot for the center of the stage, roll the great black and gold cabinet into the light, and open the door to look at the darkness inside. Someday he would enter that darkness. Someday, he would leave everything behind.

One night, Jerome not only drank, but took pills. Not enough to do him harm, he thought, but he staggered on his way to the technician’s controls for the lights. He stumbled as he made his way to the stage. His ears buzzed. For a moment, he thought he heard voices, but he was alone.

He rolled the cabinet into its position under the spotlight. He opened the door and peered into the blackness. He got in. He crouched down, then curled himself into the fetal position. In some places, they buried the dead curled up like this. He exhaled and did not inhale immediately, experimenting with what it was like not to breathe. This was the one real thing. Everything pointed to this.

“Yes,” said the unmistakable voice of Storek in his ear. “The last secret.”

Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have won two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and two Nebula Awards. He teaches writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program.

Love in the Isle of the Combinators

Linimer’s fingers caressed the brass dial. Six plus four minus one choose four. The engine rang out its answer, one note in a mechanical symphony. Sixty combinators danced along the face of the machine, up and down the Hall of Computation.

Nine choose four and nine choose five is ten choose five. Six hundred fingers flew over the cogs and stops. Slanting sunbeams streamed through the high windows, making gnomons of the workers and gold dust of the whirling motes. It was evening.

The twenty-four-minute whistle blew and Linimer gave way to his four-six replacement. He was trembling. This was the night he had chosen to reveal his secret double life.

Gerson, his supervisor, was waiting at the exit. “There you are,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Ready?”

“Y-yes,” said Linimer, staring hard at the floor and trying on several expressions in turn. “I west-end the north living quarter,” he said.

“You wha-a-a-at?” Gerson bleated.

“The northwestern quarter. Where I live.”

“Oh, oh. Right, then. Lead the way.”

The Roller Coaster

No Country Club for Old Men was built at the bottom of a small mountain, much like everything else in Martinsville, Virginia. The town had more hills than convenience stores and the one leading up to Bob Woods’ country club was particularly steep. I biked to work and often tried to pedal the last stretch. I usually failed and ended up walking the rest of the way. Tonight was no different.

A little before ten I parked my bike beside the hedges lining the driveway leading up to the club. I wiped the sweat from my face with my shirt and looked up at the mountain. Spiked and bald at the top, the rest of it was ragged with trees, its bottom hidden by the club and the only palm trees in Virginia. The sounds coming from inside were loud; the day’s party was going late.

Woods had made it clear I was not to interact with any of his guests, so I went around the side and waited by the dumpster. It wasn’t my area of choice, but it was the only place away from doors and windows. I tried to pass the time by picking up on conversations drifting from inside, but I couldn’t make much of the excited chatter. With an occasional popping noise I imagined champagne bottles and overflowing glasses, the kind that looked like upside down China-hats. I envisioned people dancing and singing karaoke in one corner and drunkenly discussing politics in another.

The gaggle of laughter bunched together and began to move the length of the club, towards the front. They were finally leaving. I checked the time on my phone. It was near eleven; I had been waiting a full hour. I stuck my head around the corner a safe distance and watched the group as they exited. Woods’ guests were surprisingly mixed in age. There were some who couldn’t be much older than myself, and others well into their fifties and possible sixties. Their ages weren’t the most intriguing, however. It was how they all seemed to enjoy the same drunken high on life. Their intoxication was almost palatable in the night air; I thought I could smell the alcohol coming off of them. I watched as the last stumbled to their pretentious cars and fondled their wives or mistresses.

When I was sure I wouldn’t be seen, I rounded the corner and found Woods standing at the entrance. He had a drink in one hand and his wife’s fingers in the other. Mrs. Woods, however, stood to the side, as far away as she could without their arms forming a bridge. Though she stared blankly in my direction, I doubted she noticed me. Mrs. Woods couldn’t have been older than thirty-five and I only thought that high because of her husband’s gray hairs, not hers. Her face was done up like a doll’s and no matter the weather, occasion, or season, black leather pants always hugged her thighs and left little to the imagination. She ‘could get it,’ as my friends would say. And judging by the lifestyle of Bob Woods, she probably did. She puffed on a cigarette. Her husband watched his departing guests with a euphoric smirk.

I approached slowly. I hoped someone would notice and acknowledge me. No such luck.

“Another successful night, Mr. Woods?” I asked with a half laugh that held more anxiety than humor.

Woods looked at me suddenly, as if I had intruded on the privacy of his thoughts. He raised his brow and his eyes searched my face for recognition. He soon found it, and his countenance turned to one of annoyance. By now, this was routine. To him, I represented the end of his fun, even if only for a night.

I shifted uneasily as he stared at me. He let go of his wife’s hand and motioned for her to go and wait at the car. She did.

“I want the place spotless by morning,” he said. “And strawberries in tomorrow’s shake. The week’s pay is by the kitchen.” He tittered and took a sip of his drink. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“I’ll have everything exactly like you like it, Mr. Woods,” I said. “Is there anything else I can do? It’s no problem at all, sir.”

He grunted, began to leave, and then stopped. His smirk came back. “Tell me . . .” He circled his drink in the air. As if he were actually trying to remember my name.

“Tommy, sir.”

His smile widened. “Thomas. Tell me, Thomas, how old are you, again?”

“Eighteen, sir,” I said.

“How does it feel? To be eighteen.”

From the look on his face, I thought a sudden pain had struck Mr. Woods. Then I realized he was trying his hardest to hold in his laughter. With that realization came another: the man was clearly drunk. More so than I had seen yet.

“It’s . . . it feels good, sir,” I said. I tried to think of something witty and came up with nothing. “I can’t drink yet, though, so that sucks.”

Great one, I thought. All of a sudden the cool August night felt hot and sticky.

Woods sipped his wine and mulled over this. He swayed to one side and then the other. As he did, I glimpsed the inside of the club behind him. Now it was my turn to hold in my reaction: the place was a mess.

When I looked back at Woods, his urge to laugh seemed to have passed.

“Good boy,” he said and patted me on the shoulder. He stumbled past me and off the porch. “Drink all you want,” he called back. “Tonight is for the young!”

Cotner’s Bot

“A robot didn’t do this.”

I said it with flat certainty, though I knew it was the last thing the boss wanted to hear. I flipped through the last couple pics of oil paintings on Nathan’s slate. “But whoever did has decent technique and obviously understands the trends of the last couple decades.” We sat in the gallery’s cramped office; it was actually my office, but when the owner stopped by it became his (as his feet on the desk made clear). “Nathan,” I said, “why didn’t you just send these to me? Hate for you to waste a trip over here.”

I looked up and realized he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. Nathan had that feral, hungry stare I’d seen a hundred times, looking past me through the glass door into the gallery’s showcase area. I didn’t have to turn and look to know there was an attractive female wandering about. Some billionaires buy stretches of Thai beach property to get women. Some buy Hong Kong movie houses. Nathan Pendergast, hot shot investor, bought a Soho gallery. He once told me he had a thing for artsy pussy.


He turned his attention back to me. “So they’re good, right, Alex? I want to show them right away.”

“We can’t.”

“What? Why? They look pretty fucking good to me.” Always dogged and overbearing, Nathan never tolerated the word no for more than a few seconds. His face abruptly changed into what I called stage one anger: eyes widened into a hot, incredulous stare that said how could you possibly not see it my way?

At this point I had to be careful—stage two was explosive: screams, threats, fists pounding the desk. “It’s not that they’re bad,” I said. “They’re actually pretty decent. But there’s no way a robot did this, trust me.” He seemed to grasp the confidence of my appraisal; I was relieved to see the frustration fade into contemplation.

“All right, Alex, I suppose you’re the expert. But check it out in person anyway. You never know when a good play might present itself.” His eyes again wandered past me to the showcase area. He gave me a quick wink, stood and exited the office for what would surely be a more stimulating conversation.


When Sarah was not-quite-two and I was not-quite-twelve, she ran headlong off the side of a pier that jutted over the frothy waves and shattered rocks of a beach on the West Coast. Or she would have, if I had not grabbed her shirt collar in the moment between her launch into space and her inability to fly.

I stood by the pier rails and was in the perfect position to grab her, but even so I made a near-miss of it. She was serious about jumping. Swimming. Flying. I screamed her name and hugged her close, then pushed her away, my hands on her shoulders, shaking her.

“What were you doing?” I said, not wondering if a kid that young could answer that question.

She sighed. “Nother me,” she said, pointing to the rocks below.

All I saw was seagulls screaming away from wave caps.

“Sarah,” I said, shaking my head.

She threw her chubby arms around my neck and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Kay-kay, Linda,” she said. “Nother-me!”

I laughed, astonished. Stupid fearless baby. I hugged her in return, tight. Maybe I cried a little, too.

Sarah’s run caught our parents flat-footed. The constant background hiss of their angry conversation cut off in mid-accusation. They rushed to catch up with us. Mom wrenched Sarah away.

“What are you doing to her?” she screamed.

Dad gave me his #1 considering stare. He waited to speak until Mom and Sarah walked a few yards away.

“Fair leap, that,” he said. “Saved us the cost of a funeral.”

I stood up.

“Dad,” I said. “I caught her.” I hoped for praise. Didn’t I deserve it?

Dad had gotten quiet since he and Mom began arguing. I guess he reserved all his words for her. He didn’t say anything, just turned away from me. He walked fast and grabbed Sarah’s hand. She beamed up at him.

I followed along behind. They walked in silence until the end of the pier before starting their argument again. Sarah ran back to me and grabbed my hand.

“Sister,” she said.

A Land of Deepest Shade

It looked like you were pretending, like you could just open your eyes and get up off that table and come home with me. It didn’t show that your back was broken in three places and the rear of your skull was crushed. Get up, Tommy! Stop teasing. Don’t make this be real. Don’t let me hear what they’re trying to tell me. But you weren’t teasing and I did hear.

First minutes after they said you were gone, all I could think of was never ever laughing with you again, never again laying with my forehead pressed against yours, my arms around you, your hands traveling down, and me whispering, “Stop! What if Cammie or Jesse wake up?” Funny. First it’s parents we gotta be careful not to wake, then it’s kids.

But then other thoughts came creeping in. What do I do now? How’s my one job gonna keep a roof over me and the kids’ heads, when you and me couldn’t keep up when we had your job as well? Your two jobs.

Damn that second job. If you hadn’t of taken that job, maybe you’d still be here. Just until we get out of debt, you said. Then I’ll quit.

I love that about you, that you’re honorable like that. But nobody can work day and night and day and night without something giving. Just saying you can do it don’t make it so! Work evenings at Catalano’s and then go out roofing with Nick and Hatim in the morning? No problem, piece of cake! You smiled as you said that, but it wore you down, and being tired can be as bad as being drunk. It can make you misstep. Make you fall.

“What do I do now?”

I said the words out loud. They just kind of fell out of my mouth and into the emergency room.

“We’ll need to do an autopsy, and once that’s complete, we can give you a death certificate and you can contact a funeral home,” said the one nurse who was still in the room.

“A funeral home? I can’t even pay for the ambulance. How can I pay for a funeral?”

The tears started spilling out of my eyes again. You just can’t be dead, Tommy. It takes way more money to die than we have.

The lady gave me a thin blue box of tissues and patted me on the back. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Ms. Macy. You know, the county does have an indigent burial program, at the cemetery on Green Street, if you’re truly without means. You’d have to fill out some forms, and there’s an income check.” She said more stuff, but I wasn’t listening, just caught at the end that she’d be back with more information for me and some papers to sign. Then she left me alone with you.

You ever been by that cemetery on Green Street? It’s got a chain-link fence around it, and it’s all gravel and weeds in there. No gravestones or statues or nothing like that, just homemade crosses and fake flowers, like people put by the side of the road where somebody’s died in a car crash. All your hard work–and that’s what you come to in the end?

“Doesn’t seem right, does it.”

It was an older guy, all dressed up, shiny shoes and a suit jacket. He stuck out a hand.

The Korgun

“Prepare! Prepare!” The squeal came from behind Philip, and then above him. “He comes today. He comes to return that which is due.”

Philip’s hands shot over his head. A snap of air rushed up the back of his neck. A few strands of hair were plucked form his scalp. The tiny thing had flown in through the window. It had come in right behind him, filling the room with the sound of frantic wings and a smell like that of boiled ham left on the stove for too long.

“The Korgun comes today.” The thing was moving up in the rafters now. Its voice came from right above him, and then from near the door. “Surely you have been waiting for this day when you can take back that which is yours, when the Korgun shall return that which he took so long ago.”

Blood rushed to Philip’s head. He held his breath for a moment before forcing it back out through his nose, and then set his chisel back on the table, taking care to put it in the exact spot where it belonged so that he could retrieve it again when needed.

“The Korgun? You are mistaken.”

The thing flew down to the table, landing with a great clattering. “Yes, the Korgun. He comes today to give a blind man back his sight.”

Philip closed his hand over the misshapen lump of wood that had just started to take shape, massaging shallow grooves that needed more time with the chisel. “But I sent word to the Korgun. I sent notice that our arrangement should be final.”

The thing seemed to almost tiptoe up to him, making a tack-tack-tack noise on the table. Tools rolled across the tabletop. One fell over the side, toppling to the floor. “You have no choice, human. Such things were decided long ago.”

Philip bent to retrieve the tool, wondering how long it would take to get them all back in their proper place. The smell of the creature almost overpowered him, wiping out the warm sweet scent of wood shavings that he never got completely off the floor no matter how often he swept. “Well, he has wasted his time then. He need not have made the journey here.”

As if on cue, there came a loud rap at the door, a firm knock that echoed into the room and was quickly followed by two short taps.

“You had best answer.” The thing seemed to be grooming itself now, each word was punctuated with a wet sucking sound. “The Korgun does not wait.”

Unexpected Pigment

Ted knelt beside The Painter’s statue and tried to pray himself out of existence. He’d managed a few minor miracles during his training–he’d captured the scent of a still-life lily and animated a painted dove–surely The Painter wouldn’t make him go through with this ridiculous marriage? He visualized himself fading like a watercolor left out in the rain, his pigments washing away drop by drop.

It didn’t work.

Marcie, the prime cause of his unhappiness, stomped up behind him. “I figured I would find you here. You need to stop moping.”

Ted sighed. “I am not moping.”

“No?” He could hear her arched eyebrow. “What would you call it?”

“I’m praying,” he snapped. Maybe if he didn’t look at her, she’d go away. All he wanted was for her to go away.

Marcie sighed. “I don’t like this any better than you do. I’m not exactly head-over-heels for you. But our fathers have decided that we’re going to be married, and that’s that.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, and he flinched away from her touch.

“I’m a priest. I have devoted myself to the church,” he whispered. “The path before me is toward the divine, not the secular.”

“Sometimes the canvas of our lives is covered with unexpected pigment.”

Ted looked up at her. He hadn’t been expecting her to quote scripture.

“I was trained at the temple,” she said. “I never got beyond mixing paints, but I was happy there. Then my brother died, and I was called home.”

“Don’t you miss it?” Ted asked. “The magic? Feeling The Painter’s hand upon you? Knowing that your life has a purpose?”

Marcie shrugged. “I guess I just found a new purpose.”

Marcie was as pretty as a picture in her simple wedding dress. She walked up the aisle like an angel, and he couldn’t see a trace of bitterness in the smile she gave him.

How could she be so content? She hadn’t chosen this path, either. Ted’s eyes ached from angry weeping, and he’d painted nothing but dark, twisted self portraits for weeks.

The priest–lucky bastard–sang the marriage vows and painted gold rings on each of their palms.

Ted hesitated. Every eye in the chapel fell on him. Marcie squeezed his hand, and her eyes pleaded with him. They were the color of the sky after a rainstorm. A pale, fresh blue. How had he not noticed that before?

Maybe she didn’t resent this marriage because she actually wanted him. The thought sent unfamiliar butterflies dancing in his stomach. It felt almost like magic. He bowed his head, plucked the heavy ring from his skin, and repeated the vows.

His old dreams fell away, but as he slid the ring onto Marcie’s finger, new dreams replaced them.

Marcie curled beside him in their bed. Figures danced on the insides of Ted’s eyelids. No matter how he tried, the estate’s books never seemed to balance. He’d always hated math. He missed painting.

“You know,” she said, “I can handle the books.”

Ted blinked at her.

She snuggled into his side. “You’ve done nothing but work since our wedding. It can’t be making you happy.”

“No,” Ted admitted. “It’s making me miserable.”

“Let me help. We’re partners now, remember?”

Ted had never had a partner before. He kissed her forehead. “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

Ted squeezed Marcie’s hand while the midwife urged her to push. Something was wrong–Marcie’s strong fingers were limp in his, and her colors were faded and distorted, like a picture that had been left out in the sun too long.

“Don’t leave me,” Ted whispered. “We’re partners. I need you.”

“You’ll be fine. Find a new path.” Her eyes slipped closed. “Take care of our baby,” she whispered. Her voice sounded far away. She slumped back into her pillows, and her hand slid from his.

Ted’s tears fell on her faded cheeks.

Long moments passed, and he pulled himself together. Then panic clutched his chest. “Why isn’t the baby crying?”

Ted returned to the temple. He poured all of his energy into his training. He performed scores of miracles. People traveled for hundreds of miles for his blessing. He had everything he’d dreamed of as a young man.

He painted Marcie and their stillborn son a thousand times. But no miracles touched his brush, no life ever moved the painted faces.

Still, he held onto hope–onto faith. The Painter had placed him on this path–surely this wasn’t his destination. He picked up his brush and started again.

Jamie Lackey has attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Living Dead 2 and Stories from the Heart: Heartwarming Tales of Appalachia. Another of her stories is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Jamie Lacky is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.