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Lavender Footsteps

Em’s missing.

“You never should’ve let her build those damned robots,” I mutter, making sure it’s loud enough Kammy can hear me.

Kammy lets out an exasperated sigh. “Em’s got a knack for these things,” she says in a voice that sounds like she’s pinching her nose. “If I don’t teach her how to program bio-silicate, who’s going to fix Taylor when he breaks down? You? Are you going to repair a Z-wave neural net, Olinda?”

I grit my teeth and finish lacing my boots. Maybe I can. Who knows what I could do before the accident? Maybe I’m a genius and none of us know it.

I suck in a deep breath as I stand, the scent of lavender and sweat swirling around me as I do. Kammy makes this oil we all brush into our hair. Keeps the lice away. I take another calming breath and put my hand on Kammy’s arm.

The air filtration system hums through the room and sends a hesitant vibration up into the soles of my feet. The air tastes stale and sterile. All the lights are off right now to save power. Boxes of slanting gray wash through the glass of the four south-facing windows and slash across the much-gouged wood flooring like a painting discarded by Van Gogh. The cabin is otherwise still as we gather our things.

Kammy turns and looks up at me. Her face softens slightly. She’s not a big woman, Kammy. If it weren’t for the hair she doesn’t let me cut, even her head would be tiny. Pretty much the opposite of me in every way, down to the fact she tans, and I burn in the summer sun. Her clothes are oft-patched rags of cloth we’ve found in storehouses over the years, just like mine.

“I’m worried,” I say, squeezing her forearm slightly. “The little wooden robot, Tony, seems fine enough, but that copper-plated one she made, the one she paired it with? That one keeps wandering.”

“She named it Joe for some reason. Em says they’re playing Hide and Seek,” Kammy mutters. “Don’t know why it keeps heading into the woods, though…”

Kammy opens the door and a stiff, frigid breeze sweeps into the large cabin. She grabs her old knapsack full of sensors and miscellaneous parts and steps outside. I follow, grabbing a couple walkies from their chargers as we leave. I close the door behind me with a sucking sound.

“There’s a storm coming,” Kammy says, staring off at the western horizon. “Half hour, hour. Looks bad. We need to find her.”

I hand her a walkie, then follow her eyes. A blushing crimson smears across the sky as the sun descends behind the incoming cloud front. It doesn’t look like much to me, but Kammy knows the weather by sight. She can even tell if the rains will be bad or good. Gives us time to get the fields covered.

Soft thuds come from the east side of the house as the old security droid, Taylor, wrangles the chickens. That’s how we found out Em was missing. Taylor was doing her chores while she took off.

Damn kid.

“I’ll go northeast,” I say. “Em said she saw a rabbit up there the other day. Might’ve gone after it.”

Kammy nods still staring at the clouds. “Sounds good. I’ll go north. I’ve got to replace some sensors anyway and God knows you’re all thumbs with these things.”

I smile and follow her gaze to the dark smudge on the horizon. “Good or bad?” I ask.

We could use some clean rain. Just been sweeping acid rain these past few weeks.

“‘No green, the waters clean’,” Kammy intones, then waves at me to go. “Be back before sundown. Taylor picked up some weird movement on his sensors last night, but a couple of the sensors went down last week, so he isn’t sure what it was.”

I nod, a ball of anxiety forming in my stomach. Quick flashes fill my thoughts.

Blood. Screams. Disjointed recollections of a broken mind.

Then they’re gone, and I don’t mention them. I never do. The memories come more often than I’d like to admit. They’re never good.

“Be careful,” I say, my heartbeat fluttering.

“You too,” Kammy says, then heads north on the beaten path to the north field we clear every year.

I watch her until she disappears under the barren trees, then head to where Em said she saw that rabbit.

I try, and fail, to dismiss the panic rising in the back of my throat as I break through the tree line.


Death and Two Women

In his bed-chamber, hung round with tapestries that emblazoned tales so ancient that the matter of them had been long forgotten, the Old Lord lay dying. His breathing made the only sound in the room save the mantel clock, and his bloody spittle flecked the linens.

At the foot of his bed, the Lady Myrilla sat in her cushioned chair, making the last neat hem stitches in his burial shroud; black work for a dark day. Her hair white as the linen, her eyes the faded blue of summer sky, she awaited the inevitable change of worlds. Her hands fell into the rhythm of the mantel clock while thoughts tumbled over in her mind, pleasure and pain, bitterness and joy in turn. The past washed over the present, yet she held the future at bay: the new age she could not bear to imagine.

Beyond the mullioned window, past the crenellated wall of the outer keep, the sea beat its own measure on the rocky strand. The waves advanced and withdrew, moving the shells and twisted, bleached driftwood now forward, now back. Straining her eyes, the Lady could see at the limit of her vision the mist-shrouded topmasts of carracks and ships of war, dancing to the long, steady swell.

He was a better Prince than a husband, though he never did me harm by word or deed. He would talk to me as though I were one of his Privy Council, and I loved that in him. My mourning I have done already, but I will never stop listening for his step.

A soft, almost tentative knock sounded at the door. “Enter,” the Lady said, threading her needle through the cloth.

Aramond, the Lord Chancellor, pushed the door open, his ironwood cane tapping on the stone floor. Myrilla presented her hand, and he made his way across the room, taking her hand in his own and kissing it. His middle finger bore the ring of his office, heavy with gold and holding an anachite diamond, sovereign against all poisons, natural or compounded by men.

He then went along to the head of the bed, steadying himself with one hand on the carved serpent that wound its way ’round the bed frame in a reflection of that great Worm which circumbinds the world. With an effort, he bent to touch the Lord’s brow.

“How long?” the Lady asked.

“An hour. Two perhaps, but no more.”

“Can you not, then, conjure against death?”

“Never so, most serene Lady.” He leaned on his cane, and pulled a chair next to Myrilla, with the dragon’s head of his staff against the arm. “We must talk, and not in fancy-dress phrases.”

“Go to! You were never a plain-spoken man.” In spite of the shadow that lay on the room, she smiled. “Let me have your last counsel.”


Cephi

The drone hovered outside the window of the high-rise, gazing at the occupants of the 36th floor. A man in a white shirt and striped tie was eating a sandwich at his desk, oblivious to its presence.

Four hundred and thirty-two feet below, Jerry Donovan held his finger above the remote’s trigger and regarded the man in the video feed. He did not know him; he never knew any of them.

Just then, the man stopped his chewing, and turned his head to the window, a piece of arugula dangling from his lips. He locked eyes with the camera.

Jerry pulled the trigger.

A jet of water and soap suds speckled the one-inch pane of glass between them and dribbled down into the window seam. Jerry fingered the joystick forward until the two-foot long squeegee made contact with the window. The drone dragged the squeegee downward, wiping away the soap and the residue of city smog.

The man in the striped tie began to chew again, watching the drone’s progress with distracted disinterest.

Jerry shifted on his makeshift stool on the sidewalk and gazed about at the throng of pedestrians moving around him. Like his drone, the people who looked at him barely seemed to register his existence.

At times, he missed being up there, suspended by a few ropes hundreds of feet above the sidewalk. He thought the advent of window-washing drones would put him out of the job, but they still needed operators. Whether it was safer to cling to a high-rise or sit on a crowded Los Angeles sidewalk, had yet to be determined. It had not stopped his boss from taking away his hazard pay. Fortunately, the city was due to expand, to push out into the Santa Monica bay. The sooner it did the better, in his opinion. The sidewalks were getting too crowded.

When his drone arrived at the thirty-fifth floor, all of his bitter musings evaporated.

Jerry sat straighter and maneuvered his drone to the next window. A small, rare smile tugged at his lips.

Along the length of the room sat five equally spaced desks, each occupied by a person staring at a computer monitor. Closest to him was a woman with large, dark-framed glasses and brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a white blouse beneath a slender dark gray business suit.

Jerry did not know her name, but he gazed in on her for a few minutes every week. Unlike other windows, he always took his time with this one.

It would have felt creepy, stalker-ish even, but she never failed to give him a smile and a wave. Today was no different, and her face brightened when she caught sight of the shadow of his drone on the carpeted floor.

Jerry dutifully sprayed the window with the cleaner.

The joystick was slippery with sweat, and he took a moment to wipe his palms dry on his pant legs.

Then he went for it.

The camera view pitched and yawed with the motions of the drone, and he unconsciously leaned from side to side, squinting into the camera feed. A moment later, spelled out in relief among the soapsuds, was the word “Hi.”

Through a clean part of the glass, he could see her smile broaden, and a hint of amusement in her eyes.

Then she broke her gaze to look at the office door. A tall man with immaculately styled brown hair entered the room. A face red with fury highlighted his scowl.

The man spoke, but the words were inaudible to Jerry. The woman stood, a white-knuckled hand grabbing the edge of her desk. Her face remained stoic, even as the man slammed a piece of paper down in front of her.

Mouth agape, Jerry stared into the feed as the man continued to shout, drawing the attention of everyone in the office. The man stuck out his hand, a single finger pointing to the door. Jerry didn’t have to hear him to known what he’d said.

You’re fired.

Jaw clenched, the woman watched him leave and then sat down in her chair, staring at the piece of paper. Blood drained from her face.

Jerry loosened his grip on the remote when its sturdy plastic creaked in protest.

A moment later, determination crept over the woman’s features, and she looked up, straight at his drone.

Startled, Jerry set the drone to cleaning the rest of the window.

The woman stood, folding the piece of paper and pocketing it, and then approached the window. Jerry brought the drone to eye level. She stepped right up to the window, pressed her hand to the glass, and looked down.

Jerry frowned and then his eyes widened. He looked up from his stool to locate his drone suspended next to the 35th floor of the building across the street. He could just make her out beyond the hazy sky reflected by the window.

Throat constricting, he looked back at his video feed to see a sparkle in her eyes and a smirk curling one corner of her lips. She’d seen him. She turned around and walked straight for the door on the far side of the room.

Jerry gulped and hurriedly finished with the window.

Now was a good time to take his lunch break, he decided.

He yanked back on the joystick and steered the drone across the street and down to where he stood on the sidewalk. Its buzz grew louder as it drew nearer, causing even the most distracted pedestrian to look up.

He cordoned off a five-foot-by-five-foot landing site on the street with four collapsible traffic cones, much to the annoyance of the driver waiting to claim the charging station he now blocked.

Jerry set to work with practiced efficiency, detaching the propellers, battery pack, and washer-fluid receptacle and storing each inside the large wheeled case that had served as his stool.

Just as he was loading the frame and controller in the case, the hard clicking of approaching footsteps lifted above the general bustling of the crowd. A pair of small black shoes appeared in his periphery.

Swallowing, Jerry stood from his crouch and turned to face the owner of the shoes.

Finding Papa

“It’s a secret magazine.”

Iro’s eyes widened for emphasis, and he looked left and right in the weedy backyard like he wanted to make sure no one could hear the three of them.

“There’s symbols on the last page, and if you read them out loud at midnight—but you gotta be alone, and it’s gotta be exactly midnight, not like, ten-thirty.” He scowled at Sandy, like she was some kid who didn’t know what midnight meant. “Then if you read them right, the aliens come!” Iro threw his hands up, “And they give you secret powers!”

Sandy covered her mouth with her hands. Her loose tooth moved; any day now it’d fall out, and Momma would panic again, even though everyone said losing baby teeth was normal.

“But you gotta really believe in them,” said Cait, her conspiratorial hush barely louder than the rustling shrubbery. “Or else when they come, they put you in the hospital.”

Iro nodded. “This kid Joey from school read the symbols five times. He’s been in the hospital three times…”

Sandy was rapt: “And the other two?”

“Who knows?”

“Whoa.”

She loved staying at her cousins’ house. Iro and Cait were already ten, and they knew all the cool stuff.

They remembered Sandy’s Papa, too, better than she did. She’d been just three when he vanished, and all she remembered was standing by his knee watching the night sky. Iro and Cait had known him better, and they told Sandy about him.

They said Papa loved stories about aliens and stars, so Sandy loved those stories, too.

“You think Papa read the special symbols? Maybe the aliens put him in the hospital!”

Momma said Papa was in the hospital ‘cause he didn’t know when to stop, but Sandy never knew what he was supposed to stop. Maybe he’d read the secret magazine too many times.

“You think that’s why Papa had to go away?”

Iro scratched his chin, sharing an uncertain look with Cait. “Eh…”

“You’re not really supposed to tell anyone when you read it,” said Cait. “It’s a secret.”

“Hush-hush,” Iro agreed, and their twin mops of brown hair bobbed in unison against Aunt Delly’s myrtle bush. Sandy relished in the excitement of their wonderful shared secret.

“I want to read the magazine!” She jumped to her feet. “Where do we buy it?”

But the twins looked mournful.

“We can’t buy the magazine,” said Cait, with a big sigh.

“They only sell it up in the city,” Iro put in. “And only if you got lots of money.”

“And you gotta know a secret code, or the seller won’t give it to you.”

Sandy wilted. “We can’t get the magazine?” What was the point of knowing about it if she couldn’t read the alien symbols and get powers?

“But we know where there’s a copy,” said Iro, and he lowered his voice as Cait looked cautiously around the yard again.

“Mikos keeps it under his mattress.”

A Skulk of Ghosts

They gather at his backyard every night. They sniff the pine-infused air, dark noses glistening with moisture, and orange-furred ears pasted to their skulls. Ivan watches through the patched screen door, the fine net stitching shallow indentations across his forehead.

The foxes are four in total: a vixen and her cubs. They prowl the swath of scraggly grass that connects his property to the outskirts of the forest. The cubs don’t seem interested in him. They chase, tackle, and nip each other, orange-black-white balls of yarn, tumbling. The vixen’s movements are slower, more deliberate. She doesn’t go near his cabin, only watches him as he stares back through the mesh screen, in his robe and slippers and skin coming apart at the seams.

Plum dusk gives way to muddy night, and the cubs yap and run back into the underbrush. The vixen lingers awhile.

She looks familiar. Painfully human. And he can’t tear his eyes away from her.


Theirs is a small village. On the rare occasion Ivan cycles to the shops for supplies, he hears people talk even when he doesn’t want to listen. The story goes like this: murderer; imbecile; hermit.

The rest he’s pieced together with the doctors’ help, but mostly on his own. He has all these photographs in an old biscuit tin. Baby photos and school photos and church choir photos. Then there’s Vera in a white sundress. Vera in a pearly wedding gown. Vera under a white morgue sheet. This last photo, shown to him while he was still in the hospital, isn’t actually in his possession—not outside his nightmares, at least.

What he knows but doesn’t remember: He was driving to the city on ice-slick mountain roads with his wife and kids when something darted in front of his car. Despite trying to swerve, he hit the creature and lost control of the vehicle. Fur and guts stuck to the grill of his car, which is how they could tell afterward that it was a red fox.

What he knows for certain, without rhyme or reason: The foxes in his backyard are Vera and the kids.

Now, he may have huge chunks of memories missing and little metal screws embedded in his skull, he may not remember how to tie his shoelaces so he only wears holey house slippers, but he hasn’t lost it—not yet and not completely. It’s not that his wife is a vixen, the three cubs their triplets. But maybe his family’s souls are trapped inside the foxes’ bodies. Maybe this is Vera’s reincarnation, there to torture him the way the Furies would torture murderers and breakers of oaths (to have and to hold and most emphatically to not kill in the mountains until death do us part).

At night, he hears them scratching and screaming by the vegetable patch outside his window. He lies awake in bed and counts the knots in the wood-paneled ceiling. Over and over again, he whispers, “I’m sorry I don’t remember you. I’m sorry I can’t feel sorry for what I did.”

With All the Soul of my Chemical Reactions


[1]

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield, just after sunset.”

“Say that again, Mr. Flax?”

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield. After sunset.”

“Yourself.”

“Yeah. But I was on my bike.”

“What did you—” the cop, who’s been asking questions through his boot-brush mustache groomed, or not, to hide the crooked buckteeth his slick cop benefits should’ve fixed by now, looks at his partner and flares his nostrils. “What did you do?”

“I foot-braked hard, swerved onto the gravel, called out.”

“And?” says Bootbrush. The other cop has been drawing what Pete can only guess are dicks in his notebook, bored as hell, saying nothing so they can get out of this shack, trying instead to make Bootbrush laugh. Pete watches him tilt the notebook over his paunch, ever so slightly toward Bootbrush, who strives valiantly not to look.

“He didn’t stop. I got back on my bike and came here, called you.”

Bootbrush, who had introduced himself as some dipshit cop name like Officer Sanderson or Anderson, makes a show of clearing his throat. Pete wonders if he ever chokes on one of his pubey mustache hairs. He raises his notebook, pretends to read from it. “So let’s get this straight. You were biking after sunset. You saw someone running in the ditch between the road and the cornfield. That person looked exactly like you in every respect. You stopped and called out. He didn’t stop.”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

“Yep.” Pete lolls his head back and sighs like an airbrake, but Bootbrush trucks on.

“What was the other guy wearing?”

“Jeans, white t-shirt, Kaepernicks—no, I don’t know, but nice shoes, real nice.”

“You sure you got a good look at his face?”

“Yep.”

“And he was running?”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

Pete opens his mouth to blurt some smartass joke about the definition of insanity—

“Mr. Flax, I think what Officer Blanderson”—Blanderson, dammit, thinks Pete, should’ve known—“is getting at is that it’s hard enough recognising someone in the day, let alone at night. And this guy was running.” The Dick Artist pauses, tilts his head to look curious, uncreases three neck-rolls in the process. “Have you ever consumed illegal substances?”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

The Dick Artist rolls his eyes theatrically. This guy gets all his preteen-girl emotes from Andy, Mandy, Brandy, & Brad. “Just doing our jobs, Mr. Flax.”

Bootbrush—Blanderson—looks knowingly down at Pete’s pants, black tights with neon green pot leaves all over them, draws his lips into a messy line, nods I-told-you-so-y.

“Okay, first of all, no. Second of all,” Pete looks squarely at Blanderson, “your idiot government is still grandfathering out all the pot plants.” The second Harper government—led by the monomaniacal Harper, now using a wheelchair and a vat of stem-cell cream after a salvo of strokes, propelled by some unquenchable thirst for his since-won title of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (23 years, 7 months)—had re-criminalised marijuana, after it had been legalised for nearly a full dozen years, in the first of Trudeau’s three lazy terms, and was now struggling to make good on that. “So this,” he pinches his tights and snaps them back to his leg, “wouldn’t be illegal if it was pot, which it isn’t. It’s fucking pants.”

A mischievous, no, a dangerous light glints in the Dick Artist’s beady eyes. “Don’t you fucking swear at us, Peterson. We’re here because you called us here, and you’re clearly fucking around. If we wanted to, we’d haul you in for one of the hundred other laws you’re breaking.”

Pete fumes, but sits rigidly still. Blanderson looks a little uneasy, keeps checking his oversized reinforced-poly watch.

“Whoever you saw, it wasn’t you. It’s not a clone. We don’t live in the fucking Black Mirror.” The Dick Artist, groundlessly proud of his thirty-year-old pop-culture reference, gathers his baggy legs under him and teeters off the low couch. “Don’t call us again, unless it’s serious,” he wheezes, clutching at the thin rail beside the door to catch his breath. “And stay away from the elections signs.” He turns to go, and Blanderson hops up and follows him out.

This Crated Sense of Anxiety

‘This Crated Sense of Anxiety’: 50 Years After Undipetra, Four Survivors Reflect on the Riot that Started a Revolution

by Andy K. Tytler, Features Desk
19 Esinat 7.00 RST

When veteran volitite miners Irro Tonhamgra and Ephrea Burold heard the shouting in the corridor, they assumed it was just the latest in the near-daily scuffles of that endlessly rainy winter. But then came the order from on high: lock it down.

‘We started the lockdown procedures, just going through the motions, you know, following orders,’ Tonhamgra says. ‘Didn’t realise anything was squint.’

We are sitting in Tonhamgra’s frontroom, a small but cosy space with a large picture window letting in the afternoon sun, and providing a view of the quiet street on the northeast side of Ofsoli, where Tonhamgra has lived since first starting as a packer at Undipetra Stand. Now Ofsoli is known for its trendy shops, quaint and affordable single-family detached homes, and excellent view of the stand, but back then it was just a place for the workers to live.

Burold sits on the sofa beside me, working his way through his third cherry biscuit. He lives a block away, also at the same address he was assigned when he first got the job in the laundry room on Rig 12. Each day they alternate hosting each other for lunch, then take a walk along the shore to watch the sun set over Undipetra. Both assert the daily walks and homemade meals are the secret to their longevity. He will be ninety-five this year, Tonhamgra ninety-six. Although Burold adds wryly that it might be all the cherry biscuits.

‘It wasn’t the first time we’d gone into lockdown, not by a long shot,’ Tonhamgra continues. ‘Not even the first time that winter. Everyone was on edge, what with all that sour-rain. It was the fifth week of it, and five weeks inside doesn’t suit anyone, let alone the Aviai.’

‘The whole place thrummed with it,’ Burold tells me. ‘Tempers flaring at the smallest thing, little scuffles and things breaking out a dozen times a day, accidents, sinks, mini-collapses through the roof.’

Tonhamgra nods. ‘The walls felt like they were closing in on us. There was nowhere for a moment alone, and all the time the rain, no sun, and the knowledge that you’re trapped. The whole rig was wrapped round by this crated sense of anxiety.’

She sighs and falls silent. Burold leans back wearing a pensive expression, his brow furrowed. Surrounding them on the walls of Tonhamgra’s front-room are old revolutionary posters and framed newspaper articles, including that now-iconic image of Tonhamgra at the march on the capital two months after the riot, hands up, arms trying to shield her face from the Civic Guard’s acid spray. The scarring on her left cheek, neck, and hands is gone now, long since replaced by skin grafts. Not so on her arms. She tells me when she catches me staring that she chose not to remove it. After all, she points out with a tone hovering between humour and reproach, she earned those scars, and she has nothing to hide.

After a lengthening period of silence, I prompt Tonhamgra to continue, but it’s Burold who picks up the story.

‘I was just about to put in my key so Irro could start the lockdown when we heard the cry for help, to wait, to keep the door open,’ Burold says. He’s still leaning back, his hands clasped together, and speaking without looking at me. The cherry biscuits are forgotten now. ‘We just sort of looked at each other, like “What now?” We both knew the official procedure is hermetic seals on all doors, no exceptions, but we’d also never been in a lockdown where there’s someone in the corridor begging not to leave them to die.’

Enter Tweil*, the Avia on the other side of the door.

Vigil

I receive word of my sister on a Wednesday morning in early May. My son Noah is out of school that day for teacher in-services; I’ve taken time off work to be with him at home. I’m making soup and sandwiches for us both when the call comes in–I take it over the kitchen speakers, assuming it to be work-related. “This is Kim.”

“Hi there.” The speaker is a woman, with a sunny voice and a hint of a Southern accent. “This is Judi with Puget Sound Oncology. Would I be speaking with Kimiko Fukada?”

I pause before replying–a phone call from a strange business entity, without video. Not an email, certainly not text or subvoc. I shift into a more formal register. “This is Kim speaking; how can I help you?”

“Great.” A few verification questions follow. “And our records show you as the surviving next-of-kin for one Noriko Fukada?”

I pause over the tomato I’m slicing. I recall a series of letters, dry official notices from the hospital. I started receiving them after our mother died, about eight or nine years back; after the first two or three, I simply threw them away. Now I set down the kitchen knife, slide the kitchen door closed with a gesture. “I’m sorry, what is this regarding?”

The Spirit Cave

We sit vigil by the fresh grave, waiting for my brother’s ghost for three nights and three days. The days are warm, but still short, and the nights are cold and long. Spots of snow still cling where the shade protects them.

When my brother finally appears, his eyes are empty, and he doesn’t respond to our voices.

“His spirit will heal,” my mother says. “It will just take time.”

Jehim, my intended, squeezes my hand. The rest of my family, living and dead, nod and mutter agreement. My brother has all the time in the world, now that he is a ghost.

My scrapes and bruises from the fight have healed, but the sick, angry feeling in my stomach has only grown with the passing days. I want vengeance. I want to crush the men who killed my brother. I want to hurt them so badly that it takes their ghosts centuries to recover.

“I am going to go to the spirit cave tomorrow,” I announce. Something that I can’t recognize flickers across my brother’s face. I storm away before anyone can object, and I feign sleep when my mother follows me home.


I rise at dawn, hoping to leave quickly and avoid talking about my decision. But my mother is already hovering over the breakfast fire, her hands fluttering like trapped birds. My father’s ghost stands behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. She hands me a bun filled with spiced rabbit, and says, “We love you. Please don’t do this, Narhana.”

I kiss her on the cheek, and I eat the bun as I take the path into the mountains.

The day is fine and clear, the air soft and filled with gentle sounds–birdsong, the breeze through the grass, the slow burble of the river. The rest of our family ghosts line the path that leads to the road. I ignore their frowns, but I walk quickly, not enjoying the intensity of their gaze.

I turn west when I reach the road, and I follow my shadow up into the mountains.

The sun is almost directly overhead when I reach the sacred spring. A ghost, one so old that her edges blur, regards me from the edge of the spring. “What brings you here, child?” she asks, her voice as gentle as the breeze through fresh spring leaves.

“I seek the spirit cave.” My voice is steady as I give the ritual response.

The ghost nods once and steps aside. “Once you are purified, you may walk the path to the cave of spirits. You must leave all of your possessions, though you are permitted to carry a stone to weight your steps.”

I strip and fold my clothing into a careful pile, then I heft a large, rounded stone to keep from floating across the pool. It takes both hands to hold it.

The steps that lead down to the water are cold and smooth beneath my bare feet. The water is glacier-cold, but I refuse to hesitate as I walk forward, one step at a time.

I almost cry out when the water hits my belly. My toes ache, and I can hardly feel the step beneath them. The water reaches my shoulders, then my chin. I take a deep breath and keep my eyes open as I continue forward.

The water stings, and the world swims around me. The cold seeps through my skin, settles into my bones, and I ache with it.

I’m grateful for the stone’s weight as I step down to the bottom, then start to climb up the steps on the other side.

My head breaks the surface, and I take a sobbing breath.

My grandmother’s ghost sits on a rock beside the spring. I am not surprised to see her. It’s only sensible that she is my family’s chosen representative. Their last hope of talking me out of my decision.

I reach the top of the steps, and drop my stone from shaking hands. I shudder from the cold and think longingly of the spring sunshine. But I stop before my grandmother, arms pulled tight to my body, naked and shivering.

“I understand why you want this,” my grandmother says. “But I also understand the cost.” Unshed tears glimmer in her eyes, and guilt twists in my belly. “Have you truly thought about what you will lose?”

“I choose to focus on what I’ll gain,” I say, tucking my freezing hands into my arm pits.

She nods. “You will have power. You will be able to avenge your brother.” Her hands tense into fists, then relax. “You would be able to protect our family.”

“If you understand, then why are you here to stop me?”

“Because I don’t think you’ve considered the costs.”

I shrug. “My spirit will be consumed, and when I die, I will vanish instead of becoming a ghost.” Ghosts are trapped to watch the world change around them, while they are frozen forever. I do not long to become one.

“But think of your life before then. Do you think Jehim will still want to marry you if you are sprit bound? Will he want to have children with you, knowing that you won’t be able to watch your grandchildren together after death? Knowing that eventually, you will vanish forever and he’ll be left alone?”

Jehim is a constant in my life. Like my parents. Or my brother. Our future has always seem set, immutable.

To lose him, too. It is unthinkable.

My grandmother sees my hesitation. “Your brother will recover. He isn’t gone.”

But his future is. There will be no wife for him. No children. Maybe Jehim will leave me. Maybe he won’t. I can’t control his actions. But I can control my own.

“My decision stands.”

My grandmother inclines her head. “Very well.” Her fingertips, feather light and ice cold, brush against my cheek. “Then you will need the key.”

“What key?”

“It is hidden in the pool.”

I am still cold, still shivering. My body still aches. I look back, at the water’s still surface. I don’t see a key. Still, I wade back in, one slow step at a time.

I pause on the third step. I can’t feel my feet at all, and I’ve stopped shivering.

The first ghost said nothing about a key.

Because there is no key. Only death in this pool, and then an eternity as a ghost. With enough time to forgive my grandmother for her lie.

I turn back toward the spirit cave and storm past my grandmother, too angry to look at her. She calls out to me, but I will no longer listen to her words.

The path is steep and rocky and my numb feet are clumsy. I stumble, right myself, stumble again. Blood drips from my elbow, my palm, my knees.

But I keep climbing, focusing on each step as it comes. Warmth gradually spreads through my muscles, but nothing touches the cold anger in my heart.

I am inside the spirit cave before I even notice it. The rocky ground gives way to sand, and I sag to the floor.

A tiger, his stripes night-dark against fur the color of moonlight, walks out of the shadows. His tail lashes back and forth as he approaches.

I am too tired to speak. I simply crawl forward and rest my forehead against his. His fur is warm, and when he flops onto his side, I curl up against him.

He has consumed a thousand thousand spirits, stripping out what they were in life and adding their strength to his own.

I offer him mine, and he takes it. Our spirits combine as his warmth seeps into my chilled body.

His strength is mine now, till my body fails. Till I die and become one more bit of power at his disposal.

He licks my wounds, his tongue dry and raspy and painful, but my wounds heal. I am no longer cold.

I do not know how long I stay curled against him, but eventually I roll to my feet.

I fashion myself clothing, weaving shadows and rocks into a dress that matches the color of his stripes.

I press my forehead to his again, then on impulse kiss his wet nose.

Even with my new power, I can’t destroy my grandmother’s ghost. But I could do her harm that would take lifetimes to recover. I can rip the men who killed my brother into a million tiny pieces with a thought. Instead, I continue up the mountain, past the spirit cave, to the icy peak. The cold can no longer touch me, and I sit and stare at the stars till the sun rises.

It is the first day of my new life.

My grandmother’s ghost appears beside me. “I didn’t want to lose you. Now, when you die, you’ll be gone.”

“No,” I say. “Now, when I die, I’ll become part of something greater than myself. And I think that is better.”

Soon, I will decide what to do to the men who killed my brother. But for now, I take my grandmother’s hand, because I can. And I forgive her, because I can do that, too. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Guinea Pig

The day my brother died I told him guinea pigs once grew ten feet tall.

“They weighed two thousand pounds,” I said, “and had tusks like elephants, which they used to defend themselves.”

He was looking out the window. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. The IVs in his arms weren’t working. On the table beside the bed was a picture of us with our old guinea pig Thoreau, whom we had stolen from the Institute where my brother was now housed.

This was about the time the coughing began, back when we thought his difficulty breathing was something he’d grow out of. We lived on the edge of the Institute and above us rose the bone-white buildings. For sixty years the Institute had been a home for tuberculosis patients. Scientists grew guinea pigs like Thoreau to inject them with serums and anti-toxins in the hope they might find a cure for the disease. When they finally succeeded and the buildings began to empty of tuberculosis patients, Mr. Wilkins, the last custodian, took care of the guinea pigs. When he died, we knew they’d be all alone.

The morning we went to save them, my brother had to stop often to hit his inhaler. We rested in the shade of the buildings among the old-growth pines. Pine trees were once thought to be an expedient for the cure of TB, and many of them had stood for hundreds of years. The Institute, despite the disease it holds within it, has always been beautiful. Our mother worked there for ten years, since just after my brother was born, but now she sits at home watching soap operas all day where people are suddenly struck down by terrible diseases.

At the top of the hill my brother said his lungs were burning, but he made it to the bunker where the guinea pigs were held. We had a key we’d stolen from our mother, and when we went in we saw them there in cages. There weren’t many left. We opened the cages and carried the guinea pigs—so small and warm in our hands, their hearts beating madly beneath their frail chests—outside, where we let them go.

The last one my brother kept. He named it Thoreau because they shared the same first name, or so I thought at the time. But maybe my brother already knew what was inside him—Henry David did die of TB, after all. We took Thoreau home, stopping often for my brother to hit the inhaler or rest beneath the big trees, me holding Thoreau and wondering what had been done to him in the secret rooms of the Institute where the scientists had, supposedly, saved the world.

We had him for less than a year. My brother would not cage him, and so Thoreau sometimes chewed through the baseboards and got beneath the house. Or he’d dart outside when our mother went on the front porch for a cigarette, and I’d have to catch him because my brother could not pass through the smoke.

The last time Thoreau got away my brother coughed so hard he began to shake. When he took the kerchief away from his mouth, we saw the fine spray of blood. Above us, the bone-white buildings stood like sentinels.

We always thought it was asthma, that he would eventually grow out of it. Turns out he was one of the first to get the new strain. Turns out tuberculosis can linger in small bodies and old buildings much longer than the scientists thought. We didn’t know then that the old diseases could come back. Or maybe my brother did, because he wanted desperately to find Thoreau. We looked under the house and all through the neighborhood and finally across the highway where the dark woods closed in. I could see my brother stopping often to draw in deep breaths and I thought he was dying, but I couldn’t get him to rest.

“We have to find him,” my brother said, voice almost unrecognizable, the handkerchief turned dark red now. In a month he’d be unable to get out of bed. Six months after that the Institute would re-open its doors, and he’d be the first patient admitted. The World Health Organization would send out its warnings, but it was already too late. The guinea pigs would be brought back. More tests run to try to stop the new strain that had sprung up all over the world. Some of the guinea pigs would escape the sterile halls where they were poked and prodded with needles, and before my brother died we could look out the window and see them all over the grounds of the Institute.

“That one looks like Thoreau,” he said once, not long before the end, which reminded me of the day I thought he was dying. His indrawn breaths sounded like sirens, or the first coming of some great cataclysm.

We never caught Thoreau. I saw him the day before my brother died, as I was walking back down to the house across the grounds of the Institute after visiting hours. He had grown as large as a house cat, but he ran when I got near. The next day my brother said Thoreau probably didn’t want to be caged anymore, which was why he ran.

“Did guinea pigs really weigh that much?” he asked. He would die in the night, alone. He looked so small in his bed. He had lost close to 50 pounds. The thin skin of his arms was bruised from all the drawn blood. We could see our house down the hill, and I knew he was imagining a world where Thoreau was as big as a mountain. Too big to be poked and prodded by men wearing sterile masks. Too strong to be brought down by any strain.