Search Results for: ladder of ashes

Ladder of Ashes

I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”

The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.

Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.

Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.

The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.

Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.

And I slept.

I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.

“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”

The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.

The Colored Lens #23 – Spring 2017




The Colored Lens



Speculative Fiction Magazine



Spring 2017 – Issue #23







Featuring works by J. J. Roth, Tamoha Sengupta, David Cleden, Peter Ryan, Mark Bilsborough, Dale L. Sproule, Serena Johe, Subodhana Wijeyeratne, Madeline Olsen, A.P. Miller, Lynn Rushlau, and Jamie D. Munro.










Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Henry Fields, Associate Editor







Published by Light Spring LLC



Fort Worth, Texas



© Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved







www.TheColoredLens.com









Table of Contents




The Cartographer Gene



By J. J. Roth



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Home,” Ben said, his mouth full.


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


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


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


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


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


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


“We’ll be there soon,” Jordan said.



Jordan didn’t press Millie on the drive home. She stopped crying, but sat silently in the passenger seat. Her honeydew scent mingled with a hint of Freon from the aging Land Rover’s air conditioner and wet asphalt from the rain-slicked freeway. He knew he should talk to her more, try harder to reach her. He stole glimpses of Millie while she gazed out the window at the rolling green hills now grey under the overcast sky.


It had not escaped Jordan’s notice that even after puberty, Millie wasn’t interested in boys. With each passing year, more girls phoned Ben. Millie never mentioned anyone special. Jordan knew Millie was gay, but she never broached the subject, and he never asked. He hoped she understood he loved her; that he’d find offensive the suggestion her sexual orientation would make him feel otherwise. Though he did worry that Millie’s gayness might further complicate the Tyler situation.


When they entered the family room, they found Ben hunched over an X-Box controller playing a first person shooter. Fake machine gun fire and grenade explosions thundered in surround sound, rattling the sliding glass door to the redwood deck. “Turn that off,” Jordan said. “Tell me what’s going on.”


Millie sat on the black leather sofa, hands cupped in her lap. Ben locked and loaded his virtual bolt-action rifle and aimed at a pixelated terrorist. Unable to find the remote, Jordan strode to the television and touched the power switch.


“I know none of us are any good at this,” Jordan said. “But we have to talk.”


Ben tossed the game controller to the sofa’s far end. He crossed his arms over his orange T-shirt so only the words “Radio” and “tour” showed. Was that a skull tattooed on his wrist, or merely a mishap with a felt tip pen? His black-heeled boot clanked against the glass coffee table, and he crossed his legs at the ankle. Jordan stared at the boots until Ben smirked and eased them from the table to the maple hardwood.


“I thought this thing with Tyler was over, Millie,” Jordan said. “That after that incident in the library, you’d stopped being his orientation buddy and Mr. Kramer told him to stay away from you.”


“You didn’t tell him?” Ben asked Millie.


She shrugged, fingering a blue thread bracelet around her thin wrist. A gift from her friend, Hannah? “I thought I could handle it.”


“Handle what?” A small knot of dread formed in Jordan’s midsection and pulsed, dully.


Millie twisted the bracelet until it snapped apart. “Tyler’s still mad about the dance.”


“That was before the library,” Jordan said. “When he was told to leave you alone. Have I got the chronology wrong?”


Jordan recounted the history. Tyler started at San Carlos High six months ago when his family moved to the neighborhood from Nashville, Tennessee. The change proved something of a culture shock to Tyler. He showed up for his first day at San Carlos high wearing a Confederate Flag T-shirt, which made him the subject of whispering and avoidance, including from Ben. Millie took it upon herself to do the opposite, to try to help Tyler acclimate. He mistook her kindness for a different signal and asked her to the Halloween dance.


Millie tried to explain her refusal wasn’t personal. Jordan suspected, though he didn’t say so, that Millie told Tyler what she wouldn’t tell her own father. The next day, in the library, Millie was telling Tyler she’d be participating in the Anti-Defamation League’s “Becoming an Ally” workshop at the school next week. He grabbed her wrists, squeezing until her skin blanched. “He argued with himself,” she’d said. “Then he kissed me. I tried to get away, but he pushed me onto the carpet. Just then, some kids came in. He let me go. I ran to the girls’ bathroom to draw a map.”


There followed conferences with Mr. Kramer and Tyler’s parents. Jordan came away from those with the understanding Tyler was to have nothing more to do with Millie.


“Yeah,” Millie said. “All that’s right, except Tyler didn’t leave me alone. He’s been shoving notes through the vents in my locker. Love letters, weird ones, about me, him and some voice in his head, Denton. Disgusting comics of us naked, scrawled with ‘How do you know if you haven’t tried?’ He’s been sending emails–pictures he’s taken of me without me even knowing. Creepy messages, like ‘You and your brother brought this on everyone.'”


Jordan turned to Ben. “You knew about this?”


“Since last week,” he said. “Only because I overheard her telling Hannah.”


The kernel of dread snowballed in Jordan’s gut, gathering a layer of sadness here, anger there, until a cold boulder pressed against his chest’s walls, trying to burst him apart. How did he not know?


Because he didn’t want to know. He’d have to get close to them to know.


“I’m calling Mr. Kramer,” Jordan said. “Then Tyler’s parents, again. And the police. This has to stop.”


Neither of the twins replied. Millie texted. Ben dug the remote from between the sofa cushions and restarted his game. Jordan took his iPhone onto the deck and slid the glass door shut behind him, lowering the decibel level of Ben’s virtual combat zone to a pale echo.


As Mr. Kramer’s voice mail greeting droned in Jordan’s ear, Sarah phoned from her bio-engineering lab in Boston. Jordan switched to Sarah’s call, intending to try Mr. Kramer again after he’d spoken to his sister.


But the fuse, lit with Millie’s news, snaked around another s-curve, the fire creeping steadily toward an explosive end.


Jordan’s mother had died.


“I’m on my way to Houston to make arrangements,” Sarah said. “You’ll come?”


“Of course.”


Sarah sounded faint and distracted, liked she’d taken Valium with Merlot. Or perhaps it was exhaustion from the chemo. No sarcastic jabs, no “map on over to Houston, brother, or for that matter, Paris or the moon.” He longed for normalcy, for words thrust like foils in a fencing match. As though his mother would still be alive if only Sarah made him remind her for the thousandth time that those with the Cartographer trait could only teleport places they’d already been, and then only while fearing for their safety. As though his mother wouldn’t have died if only he could jab Sarah back for owning her own company, pulling down seven figures, and being able to afford jetting anywhere she wanted.


But Sarah just thanked Jordan like he’d offered to pick up her dry cleaning, not like he shared her shock and grief at having their mother stripped from their lives. The hub whose love reached out like spokes to all of them —- Jordan, Sarah, Millie, Ben, Jordan’s father–even as the connections between those on the wheel’s periphery became dry and brittle.


In the flurry of phone calls to arrange flights, inform bosses and teachers, cancel appointments; in the commotion of three hastily packed suitcases and a hurried drive to SFO; in the surreal consciousness that the loving presence who’d laughed with him on the phone just two days ago no longer resided in this world; in the exquisite pain of losing forever the one person whose love he’d never questioned and never had to earn; in the wake of it all, certain plans were, to be generous, tabled. In a less charitable view, they were forgotten.


Either way, despite his good intentions, Jordan did not phone Mr. Kramer, Tyler’s parents, or the police.



By the time Jordan and his kids arrived at the ranch-style house in southwest Houston where he and Sarah had grown up, most of the neighbors and friends bearing fruit plates and roast chickens had gone. Sarah let Millie take over answering the door; Ben went to nap in Jordan’s old room. Jordan pushed back in an olive green ’60s-era Naugahyde recliner, the one his father had always used.


“Isn’t it strange how life can just stop, with food in the refrigerator and letters to be mailed?” Sarah said.


Jordan hadn’t seen Sarah in the flesh in three years, long before her breast cancer diagnosis. The chemo had taken her dark, expressive eyebrows, leaving her face bland and unfinished. Tiny lines furrowed the space between where her eyebrows had been.


These lines hadn’t shown on Skype, not that Sarah and Jordan conferenced much, and neither had Sarah’s gauntness. Her engagement ring’s diamond, always perky atop her ring finger before, now drooped toward her palm. Sarah kept pushing the diamond upright with her thumb–Carole’s gesture, after the cancer spread to her spine. The sad irony that a variant of Carole’s disease now threatened Sarah made it impossible for Jordan to watch Sarah fiddling with the ring. To be reminded how Carole kept nothing down during chemo, how her cheeks, arms, and hips sharpened from healthy curves to angular points.


Jordan parked his gaze on a burn hole in the Naugahyde. He scraped its charred edges with his fingernail. “Where’s Steve?”


“He stayed in Boston with the girls,” Sarah said. “Things aren’t going so well with us.”


Jordan knew Sarah and her husband had been having trouble only because his mother had mentioned it. “I’m sorry.”


“I get it,” she said. “He’s scared. I’m scared, too. I just wish we could be scared together. It’s easier for him to handle if he distances himself.”


Jordan didn’t blame Steve; he wanted nothing more than to leave the room, as if more physical space would shield him against losing Sarah.


He stuck his fingertip through the burn hole, recalling the honeyed, nutty aroma of his father’s cigars. So many nights his father had sat in this chair, watching Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS and smoking, after spending the day in his beloved research lab, lecturing at the medical school, or writing a scientific paper. His father’s life had been his work.


And his mother’s life had been his father.


His parents talked in this room, after his mother put him and Sarah to bed. He didn’t hear the words, just the buzz of conversation and occasional laughter. He had wanted to speak to his father like that, to hear him laugh. To see him at Little League games and piano recitals like the other dads. But all his father’s meager affections went to Jordan’s mother.


When his father died, Jordan was still mourning Carole, still tangled in that loss. Regret sat heavy in his stomach, like a smooth, oval stone.


“I wish I’d been more ‘there’ for Mom,” Sarah said, voicing Jordan’s thoughts. “Too wrapped up in my own misery, I guess. She was never the same after Dad died. When I got here, I found full ash trays near her computer. Full fat cheddar in the refrigerator. Cobwebs and dust on the treadmill. All the things the doctors said to do to avoid another heart attack, she stopped doing. I found this, too.”


Sarah handed Jordan a careful, pencil-drawn plan of Beth Yeshurun cemetery, where tomorrow they would attend their mother’s funeral. The single roadway looping the neat plots. The white stone visitors’ benches. The majestic oak tree, under which his father’s headstone lay. The grassy nakedness of the adjacent plot, where his mother’s casket would be interred.


And a reddish-brown fingerprint, the whorls distinct as contour lines on a topographic map, over that empty plot.


“A caretaker found her when they opened yesterday,” Sarah said. “In that yellow knit suit with navy piping she loved so much. She must have sensed another attack, got scared and mapped to where she felt safest, next to Dad. Funny. No one seemed worried how she got there once the coroner ruled out foul play.”


How unfair that Sarah and Ben had to worry about protecting the family’s secret; a secret they could never use themselves. Feelings warred within Jordan. He wanted to thank Sarah for shouldering that burden. To tell her he was sorry they hadn’t been closer. He wanted to ask her about her prognosis, let her know he was pulling for her.


He wanted to walk out the door and keep walking until his Nikes wore through to his bare feet, somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana border. He pulled his finger from the burn hole, dislodging a vinyl fragment. He rolled the fragment between his thumb and fingers.


“I found this in a stack she’d planned to mail.” Sarah handed Jordan an envelope and excused herself to phone the funeral home.


The sealed envelope, addressed to Jordan in his mother’s neat architectural hand, writing common to all Cartographers–all capital letters at a slight angle, giving the illusion of motion–bore a Forever stamp.


Inside, he’d find a magazine or newspaper article with his mother’s editorial comments on a yellow Post-It. She’d have signed the note “Momcat,” a goofy nickname she adopted from a B. Kliban cartoon book. She started sending these when Jordan went to Stanford and never stopped after he graduated. At twenty-something, Jordan found these notes embarrassing; later he found them eccentrically cute. Now he’d never receive another. He wiped his eye with the back of his hand and ran his thumb under the flap.



Darling J,

You know how Daddy wouldn’t talk about the War? All he told me was the name of his town – Olomouc–in what’s now the Czech Republic. And that the Nazis rounded up his family during the War but he “made it out” of Theresienstadt. The rest of his family, including his twin sister, your Aunt Rebecca, died in Birkenau. Keep that in mind as you read this. Let me know what you think.

I love you better than stars or water,

Momcat


Underneath the Post-It, on filmy paper cut from The New Republic, was a review of a children’s book about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist who taught secret drawing classes to the children of Theresienstadt as therapy.


According to the article, Dicker-Brandeis saved thousands of those drawings in two suitcases, hidden before they sent her to Birkenau. A decade after the war ended, the suitcases turned up; the art was displayed in the Jewish Museum in Prague and in Yad Vashem. Several sketches and paintings had been reproduced within the article: strange, haunting, beautiful depictions of people with bundles boarding trains, of humanoid fairies, of keyholes opening from a frightening, grey world of watchtowers, starvation and typhus onto a colorful paradise of fantastic creatures and children running free.


In the margin next to one drawing, Jordan’s mother had placed arrows and exclamation marks.


A professional-looking street map of Olomouc.


Jordan had never been to Olomouc, and he couldn’t read Czech. But he could make enough sense of the cognates to pick out a university, Wenceslas cathedral, the Olomouc Orthodox church. A ruined synagogue, notated with slanted, all capital printing –- Jordan understood only the word, “Kristallnacht.” He pulled up a Helion Engineering street map of Olomouc on his iPhone and laid it next to the picture. He found the medieval fortress walls around the city, the former site of an intricate astrological clock, the streets, unchanged since the 1940s.


An inset detailed the town center, including a winding street labeled Trida Svobody, itself the subject of another inset: a stately, white stone apartment building. The floor plan for a suite of rooms on the fourth floor, one labeled “Rivkah,” another marked “Shmuel.” A bed against the wall, a desk, an armoire.


Over the armoire, a single brick-colored smudge.


His father would have been only seven in 1942, but even an adult couldn’t have accomplished such cartographic sophistication without tools, unless the one drawing had the Cartographer Gene.


Jordan had no doubt. Samuel Sofer “made it out of Theresienstadt” through a map. Little Sam went home, and his map found its way into an art teacher’s suitcase.


What happened next? How long had he hidden in that armoire, in the vacant, high-ceilinged apartment the Nazis hadn’t yet commandeered? Did a brave neighbor hide him for the war’s duration? Did he seek help at the cathedral?


Seven-year-old Sam saved himself but not his twin, his family, or the other captive, doomed children. Jordan shuddered.


Something inside him split open, releasing a painful wave of understanding that pushed against years of anger and hurt.


His father had not been indifferent.


He had been afraid.



After the funeral, with Millie asleep in Sarah’s old room and Ben asleep in Jordan’s, Jordan and Sarah nibbled rugelach and sipped Australian Kosher wine, gifts from shiva callers, in their childhood living room. After the second glass of wine, Sarah’s old, acerbic self peeped through her veil of grief.


“I’ve always wondered why you became a professional cartographer,” she said. “Isn’t your day job being the same as your superpower too close for comfort?”


Jordan smiled, grateful for the familiar sarcasm. “What can I say? I love maps,” he said. “I’m lucky to make a living doing something I enjoy. Not as tony as your living, of course.”


Though she’d started the banter, Sarah cut him off.


“We’re orphans now,” she said.


Jordan thought she would cry, but she just leaned her head against his shoulder. His muscles tensed at her touch, but if she noticed, she didn’t show it. To distract himself, he took in the room. The Baldwin upright where they’d both practiced scales and arpeggios, Sarah more than Jordan. The now-antique RCA stereo in a cherry wood cabinet, speakers blown from the summer they discovered Led Zeppelin. The wine’s plush tannins dried his mouth; the alcohol warmed his chest. An aroma of warm brisket lingered in the house. He reached in his pocket for the article on Dicker-Brandeis and handed it to Sarah.


“Imagine saving only yourself,” Jordan said. “The guilt he must have felt. No wonder he wouldn’t let himself get close to us. Just Mom. She had that uncanny ability to break down any barriers any of us put up.”


Sarah finished reading and folded the paper. “I didn’t say anything because I’m not done. But before I got sick, my skunk works research project took an interesting turn. I didn’t isolate the elusive ‘Gene,’ but I found a similarity in the blood samples I took from Mom, you and Millie.


“You’re all AB negative, the rarest blood type —- have you read the crap on the internet? That it comes from aliens. From reptiles. That people who have it have ESP. Ridiculous, but what I found isn’t. You all lack a clotting factor. You should be hemophiliac, but you’re not. You all have abnormal protein levels, but you don’t have myeloma. Your blood is special, Jordan.”


Now it made sense–why his mother always took him to Cartographer doctors as a child. She made him promise to do the same as an adult, so his blood’s abnormalities would remain secret. “Is this a side effect, like our writing escaping the page?” Jordan asked.


He remembered the day, in happier times, when Carole sat the twin toddlers at the kitchen table and gave them each a sheet of manila art paper. Ben wielded a midnight blue Crayola, Millie a sea green one.


Carole lifted Ben’s scribbled-on paper and tilted it. The crayon marks stayed put. When she tilted Millie’s, the marks fell from the page, forming a scraggly, sea green bird’s nest on Millie’s Elmo place mat. That’s when they knew Millie had the Gene. Cartographers’ writing and drawing required several minutes to set. Carole, so proud, had said, “It’s Millie!” and held Jordan close. A memory so vivid, he could almost feel Carole’s warmth against him.


“I think it’s the opposite,” Sarah said. “The drawing compulsion, the prodigious mapmaking talent–those are side effects. The power’s in the blood. It would explain the rumored hidden ability to transport others. What if Cartographers’ blood could be used to transport non-Cartographers?“


Sarah’s words punctured Jordan’s memory, leaving a raw hole of guilt. She’d spent precious hours of her life chasing an explanation for the power he possessed yet she could never wield. And even a way to expand it. “No one’s ever done that.”


“But it’s part of the lore. All legends have a grain of truth. What if there’s always been a way, but it got lost. Like how to pronounce YHWH?”


Exhaustion knocked Jordan back. He was too drained to think how different things might have been if Sam had been able to rescue others as well as himself.


Sarah hugged him goodnight. She felt small against him, not much bigger than Millie.


Lying on the guest room’s ancient fold-out couch, Jordan made a promise to himself. The familial cycle of emotional distance would stop with him. He would open his heart to those he loved, no matter how much it hurt.


He closed his eyes. Carole slept with him on this thin, striped mattress years ago. He could detect nothing of the clean, lemon and lily fragrance she always wore in the aged kapok’s mustiness. The mattress’s buttons, hard against his back, dug into his skin. He wept, without sound, until he fell asleep.



The day after the Sofers returned from Houston, on a sunny, clear-skied afternoon, Jordan left work early to help Millie and Ben with an extra credit project. He’d agreed to coach their moot court teams for an upcoming competition. They met in the school auditorium to practice: Millie and her moot court partner, Hannah, and Ben and his partner, Enrique. Their case, based on New Jersey v. T.L.O, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, concerned the constitutionality of searching public school students.


Millie took the podium, flustered. Jordan had walked in to find her holding hands with Hannah. Millie snatched her hand away, a punch to Jordan’s gut. He hadn’t expected years of emotional distance to disappear overnight, but he had hoped for at least a modicum of progress.


At that moment, the circuitous fuse bent around one last curve, the fire hissing down the home stretch, picking up speed: Mr. Kramer’s voice came over the PA system.


“We are in lockdown. This is not a drill.”


In the background, someone screamed, “Tyler, please, no! Oh God!” Four sharp, rhythmic blasts followed. The PA microphone whined with feedback. Tyler spoke.


“You heard the man. This is not a drill, Millicent and Benjamin Sofer. I’m coming for you.”


But the drills had taught them well. Each of the four kids ran to one of the auditorium doors and shut it. Enrique doused the lights. “Do these lock?” he whispered, pointing to the steel door he’d shut. The other three fumbled with locked padlocks dangling from chains wrapped around the steel push bars. Ben said, “Not without keys.”


“Is there a door we can lock?” Jordan asked.


“I did a play with the drama group,” Hannah said. “The dressing room doors lock. They’re backstage.”


“Bring your stuff,” Jordan said. “It can’t look like we were here.”


They ran up the stage’s wooden stairs and behind the red velvet curtains. Right before the backstage exit, Hannah pushed open a grey steel door and flicked a light switch.


The long, narrow room was painted an institutional sherbet green. Globe lights surrounded several large wall mirrors that hung over an off-white Formica countertop. Three vanity chairs were pushed under the counter, each with gilt-painted wooden arm rests and greasepaint-stained, dark pink velvet seat cushions.


Costumes hung from a metal clothing rack in the room’s back. A red and white dotted Swiss hoop skirt with matching parasol. Two black and white gowns from My Fair Lady’s Ascot race scene. Several long, black coats and black hats with plastic wine bottles Velcroed to their crowns from last year’s Fiddler on the Roof production. Assorted tights, vests and pantaloons. A small shelf held dried sponges stained with pancake makeup in various skin tones. Crumbling cakes of eye shadow in blues, browns and pinks. Dried bottles of spirit gum. Some discarded safety pins.


Jordan pocketed one of the pins and gave another to Millie.


An ancient Clairol makeup mirror on the counter caught Jordan’s eye. He pressed the power button. The lights alongside the mirror flickered on, emitting a warm, amber glow. Enough to see by once their eyes adjusted, but too faint to show under the door. Jordan signaled, and Millie turned off the globe lights.


“Anyone have cell reception?” Jordan asked, thinking it unlikely given the windowless, concrete walls. They all shook their heads.


Jordan said, “Millie, you know what to do.”


“Not without you.” Her lower lip trembled.


“Open your pack.”


Millie took out her English notebook, ripped out a page, and unsheathed a black felt tip. “Dad, don’t make me leave by myself.” Even as she spoke, her fingers twitched. Jordan knew they wanted, more than anything, to draw.


“We’ll be right behind you. Aunt Sarah figured out how to transport non-Cartographers.” Jordan hoped he sounded convincing.


“She did?”


“What the hell are you talking about?” Enrique said.


“Millie, show them,” Jordan said. “It’s easier than explaining.”


“We’re not supposed to let anyone know.”


“Sweetie, please. It’s an emergency.”


Millie sketched the neighborhood, the Sofer’s street, an inset of their house’s floor plan. When she finished her room, she kissed her father and brother and held Hannah close. She pricked her finger, handed Ben the safety pin and touched the map.


“Holy crap,” Enrique said, eyes like hula hoops. “What just happened?”


Hannah waved her hand through the space where Millie had stood. “Whoa.”


Jordan tore another sheet from Millie’s notebook. The impulse overpowered him. He drew the family room’s leather sofas, the plasma screen television and X-Box, the fireplace.


“Dad,” Ben said. “Enrique’s never been to our house.”


Voices cried out, like distant crowd noise from AT&T Park after a homerun. Faint, staccato sounds, pok pok pok pok, followed. One of the kids, Jordan couldn’t tell who, choked on a sob.


“Ben’s right,” Jordan said. “Stupid of me. We need a place you’ve all been, where you feel safe.” He forced himself to stop drawing and turned the page over. His hand flexed and cramped as he fought the compulsion.


“Foster Park?” Ben asked.


“Works for me,” Enrique said.


“Not me,” Hannah whispered. “When I was seven, a man I didn’t know came up to me at the swings.” She buried her face in her hands.


Jordan patted Hannah’s arm. “It’s all good. We’ll pick someplace else.” More screams welled like a ghostly wind, closer this time. “Iolanthe Circle?”


They nodded. Iolanthe Circle: a favorite meditation and contemplation spot, on a hilltop not far from the school grounds. Because of budget cuts, it was closed on Tuesdays, but they’d bypass the visitor’s center and their landing place would be deserted. Jordan let the urge take over, his hand a blur like a video on fast forward. He placed the completed map across his knees to set.


“What are we waiting for?” Enrique said. “Let’s get out of here.” He grabbed the paper.


Jordan’s map, all of it –- Crestview Drive winding up the hill above the school; its circular terminus at the hilltop, parking spaces striped bold and white along the sides; the pebble path into the redwood grove; Iolanthe Circle itself, outlined in smooth grey standing stones two feet high; the wooden meditation benches and Zen labyrinth inside the circle–slid from the page. It sprinkled the floor and settled into a pile, black and fine, like iron filings.


They stared at the heap of dried ink, wordless. Enrique held out the blank page to Jordan. It rattled in his shaking hand. “I didn’t know.”


Jordan closed his own hands over Enrique’s and held them there until Enrique’s were still. “It’s okay,” Jordan said. “How could you have known?”


In the makeup mirror’s dusky light, shadows clung to their faces. Enrique, now immobile, his breath choppy, shallow and too fast. Hannah, wet trails glistening on her cheeks, tearing a black-painted fingernail with her teeth. Ben, his only son, leg jiggling a rapid vibration on the pink-cushioned seat. All on the brink of panic. He could lose them any second, and once he did, he’d never get them back. And none of them would stand a chance.


“Let’s try that again,” he said.


They circled him like the standing stones at Iolanthe. Without anyone suggesting it aloud, they held hands. As Jordan began again, a high, thin siren wail, then two, then three, their rise and fall tumbling over one another in an elaborate braid of sound, carried into the dressing room. “They’re coming,” Hannah said. “Help is coming.” No one said more.


Jordan drew with fast sure strokes, as though some occult energy possessed his hand. The circle took shape on the page again. “The power’s in the blood,” Sarah’d said. Let her be right. Please God, let her be right. He caught a glimpse of Ben’s face silhouetted in the murky light, vacant with terror. He wouldn’t leave the others behind, like his father had. They would face whatever happened, together.


Screams pierced the air, so near Ben said, “That was Ms. Yamamoto. That was her.” The music classroom across the hall? “Cover your ears,” Jordan hissed, and the kids complied, clamping their hands hard to their heads against the coming din. Four seconds of metallic cracks. Then silence, so much worse than sound.


They shivered now, their faces tear-stained and sticky, their open mouths stringy with mucous. The close, sour air smelled of decaying taffeta and velvet and the cloying, powdery perfume of stale makeup. Jordan’s mouth went dry.


He opened the safety pin, pricked his finger tip and squeezed out a round bulb of blood. He resisted calling to Ben. He wanted Ben safe, but what if something went wrong? He could experiment with someone else’s child or his own. A choice awful to contemplate, but Jordan made it, even so.


“Enrique, right hand,” he said. Jordan smeared Enrique’s fingertip with blood and positioned it over the Zen maze. “Close your eyes, picture the maze, and think ‘here.'” Enrique nodded, closed his eyes and touched his finger to the map.


With Jordan, with Millie and Carole, with all the Cartographers he knew, transport happened the instant blood touched the map. Yet Enrique still stood in front of them, eyes closed.


The heavy steel door to the auditorium clanged shut and Enrique’s eyes popped open. “Keep them closed,” Jordan said. “No matter what. Concentrate.”


“I’m trying,” Enrique said. “It’s a little hard to focus.”


Tyler’s shouts pinged off the auditorium’s wood paneled walls. “Where oh where are you, my little Sofer mongrels?”


“Try again,” Jordan said. “Now.” He squeezed another drop of blood onto Enrique’s finger.


For a while, nothing happened. Then the outline of Enrique’s body blurred, like water colors seeping past inked borders. His image faded, became transparent and lost definition, a colored mist hanging in the air.


“What’s this? A backpack? Which whiny snowflake’s is it?” Tyler again. “Yes, Denton. Let’s open it and see.”


“Dad,” Ben whispered. “It’s mine. You said bring our stuff, but I–I didn’t.”


Jordan held his palm up to silence Ben. Down the I-told-you-so path lay more precious minutes they couldn’t afford to lose.


The mist that had been Enrique lingered in the air a moment longer, then dissipated all at once, as though sucked away into a vacuum.


“Hannah, finger,” Jordan said.


In less than a minute, a Hannah-shaped vapor shimmered in front of the costumes on the clothing rack, until an invisible force drew it away.


“Ben,” Jordan said. “It’s time.”


“Denton, look.” Boots clomped on the wooden stairs. Tyler had reached the stage. If they were lucky, he would try the stage right dressing room first. “Ben Sofer’s Algebra II notebook. Your handwriting’s so messy, Ben Sofer. You should be ashamed. It’s your fault these people will die. How I’ll enjoy killing your justice warrior sister.”


Jordan squeezed his finger. The pinprick had already closed. He felt around for the safety pin, putting his hands on nothing, the seconds ticking like a bomb in his brain. He became conscious of Ben’s elbow nudging him, the second pin opened like a V between Ben’s fingers. He jabbed his finger with the pin and laid a thick layer of blood on Ben’s finger.


The knob to the dressing room door jiggled. “Hiding? So unoriginal, Ben Sofer. You disappoint me. Isn’t he a disappointment, Denton?”


Jordan took Ben’s head in both hands and kissed his forehead. “I love you. Go now. I’m right behind you.”


Ben touched the map, just as the shooting started.


Then it stopped, a hole blown in the door where the knob had been. Tyler swung the door open.


He wore combat boots, fatigues slung with cartridge belts and a small black backpack. He carried two handguns in holsters: one at the shoulder, the other at the hip. He held, what Jordan supposed, having seen them only in the movies, was a semi-automatic rifle. That rifle now pointed toward Jordan, who raised his hands, but kept squeezing his fingertip between two adjacent fingers to keep the blood flowing.


Tyler, puzzled, gestured with its muzzle toward Ben’s dissolving mist. “What’s that? Who’re you? Where’s Ben?”


The vapor’s residue sucked away. An electric bullhorn crackled on and a reedy voice projected into the auditorium. “Tyler Nickelton. This is the FBI. We know you can hear us, Tyler. No one else needs to get hurt.”


“You just missed him,” Jordan said.


“I recognize your voice,” Tyler said. “From the phone messages to my house. My parents made me listen, over and over.”


A female voice, quavering and strained, came over the bull horn. “Tyler, sweetheart, it’s Mama.”


Tyler kept the rifle trained on Jordan. “Just like you blue-state vermin to bring an innocent woman into a thing like this.”


A drop of Jordan’s blood trickled from his raised hand onto the green tile floor. Tyler’s head whipped toward the motion. In that tenth of a second, Jordan reached toward the map.


Gunfire deafened Jordan. Something slammed into his shoulder and knocked him to the ground.



He was on his back. Enrique, Hannah and Ben peered down at him. The late afternoon sun shone through the redwoods above their heads. Jordan squinted against its brightness.


“You’re bleeding,” Ben said.


“I’ll call 911,” Hannah said.


“No!” Ben and Jordan said. Ben fished in Jordan’s pocket for his phone, pressed the emergency contact number, and asked the answering service to page their family physician, Dr. Kim. Enrique stripped off his T-shirt and wrapped Jordan’s wound.


Jordan smelled the sweet, earthy metallic scent of his own blood. He felt no pain yet, only numbness. His ears rang. “It worked,” he said.


Ben smiled. “I’m calling Millie.”


A short while later, Millie ran into Iolanthe Circle. She held Jordan’s hand until Dr. Kim arrived with the ambulance.



They had it all planned. When the police and news reporters asked, they told the truth. They just left some things out.


Jordan didn’t have to ask Enrique and Hannah to keep the Cartographers’ secret. They worked out for themselves why those with the power concealed their abilities. Why most people wouldn’t believe, and if anyone did, why that would be dangerous for Jordan, Millie, and others like them. They told Jordan they owed him their lives. The least they could do was to avoid endangering his.


“We hid in a dressing room, but we left before Tyler got to us and headed for Iolanthe Circle,” Hannah said.


“I guess no one saw us leave because they were all focused on staying alive themselves,” Enrique said. “Who’d be looking out a window during lock down? That’s the first thing they tell you not to do.”


“I didn’t see my Dad get shot,” Ben said. “He told me to go and he’d be right behind me.”


“I didn’t see a blood trail from my Dad’s wound,” Millie said. “But I read somewhere gunshot wounds don’t necessarily bleed right away.”


“It happened so fast,” Jordan said. “My shoulder was shattered. I was in shock. I can’t tell you how we got out. I’m just glad we did.”



They saw the rest on the news.


Tyler didn’t wait for SWAT to take him down. He had a pipe bomb in that black backpack. He detonated it there in the dressing room, among the black felt hats adorned with feathers, the green and gold brocade gowns, the worn calfskin character shoes, and the pointed, velveteen slippers, toes curled like the tongues of yawning cats. The dressing room burned before the Fire Department arrived, longer than necessary to reduce two blood-streaked maps to ash.


In Tyler’s room, investigators found hundreds of digital photographs of Millie; the early ones evoking a sense of shameful attraction, the later ones edited to depict violent fantasies. They found reams of what the news called Tyler’s manifesto, and videos of him arguing with Denton, who’d commanded violence against the school and blamed Millie and Ben.


Tyler’s English teacher told reporters his writings demonstrated a rare talent. A psychiatric expert said they, along with the photos and videos, revealed Tyler as psychotic; obsessed with Millie yet full of self-loathing because she wasn’t white, unable to accept her rejection, and plagued by auditory hallucinations.


The weapons came from an underground dealer Tyler found on the internet, in exchange for information about neighborhood homes whose owners were on vacation and vulnerable to burglary.



“You were right,” Jordan said.


Sarah, still in her lab coat, smiled from his workstation display, in front of a dining table covered with books, papers and dirty dishes. Two untidy tween girls squealed, ran through the room shouting, “Hi, Uncle Jordan,” and disappeared, giggling, into the back of the house.


“I wish Dad had known,” she said. “And I wish something in that blood could heal me.”


“Me too,” Jordan said.


Sarah removed her wig and scratched her bald head. “Chemo’s over in two weeks. My oncologist says I’m responding well. She thinks my chances are good.”


“That’s wonderful.”


“You’ve looked better, brother.”


A blue canvas sling and swathe immobilized Jordan’s reconstructed shoulder. His second surgery, to install a metal pin, had gone well, but a third loomed on the horizon.


“They’ll love me at airports now,” he said. He hesitated. Then he took the leap. “Sarah, thank you.”


She winked twice, the greeting they’d invented in kindergarten. The last time they’d been truly close.


Jordan winked twice back and signed off.


Then he booked plane tickets to Boston for the weekend after Sarah’s chemo ended, for himself, Ben and Millie.



Eighteen people died in the shooting at San Carlos High. Mr. Kramer was one of them, as was Ms. Yamamoto, Ben’s favorite teacher. Many young people the twins had known since pre-school perished that day. The Sofers mourned with the community and, with them, took the first slow steps toward healing.


The day of terror ended for most residents with the pipe bomb blast. A definitive finish to the course set in motion that wet, dreary Tuesday.


For Jordan Sofer, that day signified a beginning–an unreserved commitment to the vow he’d made in Houston, to be there, fully, for the people he loved for as long as they were on this Earth with him.


Several weeks later, while Ben was at baseball practice, Jordan and Millie sat together on a wooden bench in Iolanthe Circle.


“Dad?”


“Millie.”


“I know you know I’m a lesbian, though we never really discussed it.”


“Okay.”


“In case you’re worried about grandchildren, I want you to know I’m planning to have kids when I grow up.”


“Okay.”


“Kids are cool. Besides, I want to pass on the Cartographer Gene. It’s too awesome not to.”


The wind whistled through the redwoods. Jordan squeezed Millie’s shoulder. “That’s great, if that’s what you want.”


“I just worry that when the time comes, I won’t be able to find a Cartographer sperm donor. I see myself finding a wife.”


The breeze ruffled Jordan’s hair. He remembered a quiet black woman who came to sit next to him in a class at Stanford. Despite her shyness, she’d made a beeline for him. When no one was looking, she tilted the paper on which she’d been taking notes in neat, architectural printing. The words dropped into her hand. She poured the pile of spiky black ink into his palm. It crumbled into dust, softer than confectioner’s sugar. “I’m Carole,” she said.


“These things have a way of working out,” Jordan said.


Jordan took his daughter’s hand. He felt not even the slightest urge to draw as they went down the hill, on foot, toward the comfort and safety of home.




The Houses They Became



By Tamoha Sengupta



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


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


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


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


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


“We get the house for free.”


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


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


“Where did she fly?”


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


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


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


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


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


“Why?”


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


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


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


“Normal people don’t change into houses.”


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


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


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


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


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


He met her eyes as he spoke.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Her heart sank. Her transformation had begun.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




The Quantum Watchmaker



By David Cleden



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


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


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


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


In time I learned that none was to be found.



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



The Comte was not a tall man. Even bewigged, the top of his head did not reach to my shoulders. Were it not for the ornate embroidery of his cloak, the jewels on his pudgy fingers and the swagger with which he entered our shop, I might have mistaken him for an over-pompous page.


M. Guilbert stood scowling as I stepped round the counter and paid the Comte the courtesy of a low, formal bow.


Into the awkward silence that followed, the Comte’s aide, the gentleman who had visited the previous day, made a small irritated gesture at me and I hurried to produce the little red velvet pouch. From within I carefully withdrew a silver disk no larger than a sovereign. It caught the weak rays of light slanting through the freshly scrubbed windows and glinted in my proffered palm.


The aide stepped forward, his face flushed. “What is this? You dare offer the Comte a silver coin as though he has need of money? Why, that is–”


“Allow me to enlighten,” said M. Guilbert, stepping between us. With surprisingly dextrous fingers, he flipped open the upper surface of the disk and we all leaned forwards to get a better look at the miniature dial and delicate clockwork glimpsed within. “Those who cannot recognize a mechanism for what it is can scarce have the wit to make use of it.” I saw the aide grow red with anger. “But,” M. Guilbert continued, “I am sure the Comte has no such difficulties.”


I held my breath. The Comte fumbled for a moment, then found the tiny beveled winder and gave it a twist.


“Ah!” The Comte raised the watch, the better to hear the smooth purr of its motion now that he had set it going. “That is indeed most pleasing. So small! It scarcely seems possible such a thing could have been wrought by human hands.”


M. Guilbert accepted the compliments with a small nod. Perhaps he had forgotten how much of the craftsmanship in that particular device had been my own–skills that ought to have earned me a journeyman accreditation from the Guild had M. Guilbert remembered to put my name forward, which he had not.


“And does it keep time?” the aide asked, a touch sharply as he tried to recover his poise.


“As well as any sailor’s chronometer. Better, even,” M. Guilbert assured him.


“Yet so tiny…” the Comte mused.


They perused a dozen or more timepieces, each having been opened and wound by me an hour before the Comte’s arrival, but always his attention returned to the tiny watch fashioned like a silver sovereign. Every time the Comte’s gaze settled on it, I thought of those unpaid bills and how good it would be to free ourselves from debt, and my heart skipped a beat.


Business was concluded with a nod from the Comte. Without a word to us, he left the shop, disappearing behind the lace-curtained windows of his waiting coach. Pointedly ignoring me, the aide led M. Guilbert to the rear of the shop where they held a whispered conversation. Then the aide slipped the red velvet pouch containing the watch into a pocket and coolly bade us good day.


I turned to my master. “How much did it fetch?”


“What a fool the Comte is! He does not recognize true value even when it is right beneath his nose. I had no compunction making him pay a fine price for his ignorance.”


I smiled. “What did it fetch?”


“A fine price!” M. Guilbert’s eyes sparkled. It was rare to see him so animated unless admiring a particularly smooth rotator arm or fine-toothed escapement. “The Comte has come into possession of the library of one of the keenest thinkers of our generation. Yet he does not value books of science and engineering and thought to offer them as a trade. I have heard of this scholar’s reputation and now it seems I shall own his priceless notebooks! If the Comte only knew what he had exchanged so lightly. They will be shipped from the palace forthwith.”


“Books? We have sold one of the finest watches ever crafted not for a king’s ransom–which, by the way is its true worth–but for a pile of old books?”


M. Guilbert’s smile hardened. “Not just books. Knowledge. Beyond price.”


“How will books settle our debts?”


But M. Guilbert twitched the black velvet curtain aside and disappeared behind it, and there was nothing more to be said.



“He will not teach me. I learn nothing that I have not taught myself through patience and observation and practice.”


“Poor Johannes. You are wasted in his service,” Adrienne said. As a grocer’s daughter she knew something of what it meant to be in service, yet her words made me ill at ease. She traced the lines of the model ship with her fingers, each sliver of wood so perfectly shaped and fitted to the next that the surface was as smooth as polished marble. “This is a thing of beauty,” she said, truthfully. Fine silk served as sails, cotton thread for the rigging. Beneath the varnished decks, unseen except by me, were cabins and galleys, furniture and stores, tiny hammocks pitched in rows, baking ovens–all fashioned from shards of wood and metal and paste, accurate to the last. It was not such an unusual boyhood dream: to yearn to sail the seas and taste freedom upon the waves, yet how strange that fate landed me in a place three days’ ride from the nearest shores.


“You have such clever hands,” Adrienne said. “Such patience.”


“I am apprentice to a watchmaker,” I told her, taking back the model galleon. “Dexterity and precision are my trade. I must find ways to keep them honed.”


“Surely M. Guilbert tasks you sufficiently?”


“M. Guilbert has no use for me!”


I had meant to keep my anger in check, but suddenly it was all there, boiling to the surface. “Day after day, he toils at his pet projects, his mechanisms that we can never sell. I am the one left to mend the clocks and watches brought to us, as best I can. I am the one who must try to balance the books! Me, the apprentice! Customers come because they hear word of the great M. Guilbert. But if ever they should discover the truth of the craftsmanship they claim to admire, that it is the work of a mere apprentice, what then?” I made an effort to unclench my fists. “M. Guilbert claims he has no time to teach. No time for anything but his obsessions–which he hides from me. What use is it to be apprenticed to a master who will not teach?”


Sweetly, Adrienne took my hand in hers and immediately the warmth of her touch calmed me. “Then you should leave. Find another master you can apprentice to.”


I half-turned, glancing back across the square as though the little shop might somehow be watching or listening. “I should,” I agreed. Yet I knew I could not.



The books arrived in a cart, a great stack of them. I wondered aloud where we would find room to store them. I placed the half-finished hull of a Portuguese man-o’-war on a stool out of harm’s way and opened one of the books at random. I saw only page after page of incomprehensible equations, meaningless hieroglyphs. “Why, these are not even printed books! Nothing more than jottings in a journal.”


M. Guilbert retrieved the book from my hands and set it with the others in a wobbling column on the counter. “They are windows onto the thoughts of a great mind,” he said.


“What is a quantum?” I asked, pointing at the spine of the top-most volume and refusing to be pacified. M. Guilbert harrumphed and I thought he meant to ignore my question. Then he said rather grudgingly, “It is the smallest quantity of some physical property. The least possible amount that can suffice.”


“And what use is that to a watchmaker?”


He shook his head. “You wear your ignorance as though it is a badge of honor, Johannes. You know very well the watchmaker’s skill concerns the measurement of the very small. We strive to divide and subdivide a second into ever smaller parts, the better to measure its passing.”


“Yes. But with copper and brass and frictionless bearings and ingenious designs. What use are these mathematical ravings to any of that?” I was remembering the hours of work I had put into the Comte’s watch. It hadn’t brought the silver it deserved, only these worthless bundles of paper.


M. Guilbert sighed. “You complain so bitterly of my neglect in tutoring you. Here then, is a lesson. Let us see what you are truly capable of understanding.” He seized some items from the counter. “See? A grandpater.” He held up a little brass wheel with its sixty four glittering teeth. “And here, the pater.” He waved a smaller wheel. “Combine them and see what happens?” I nodded impatiently, unwilling to be patronized in this way. “Through the watchmaker’s skill, the almost imperceptible unwinding of a spring becomes a measure of a passing second. I have read in these notebooks you so despise that time and position are coupled, and it would seem to be so. The stately movement of a gearwheel becomes inextricably linked to the passing of a second within our clockwork mechanisms. What then, is the smallest such movement we can amplify and measure? The most fleeting instant of time that we can trap? Is there some theoretical limit in our pursuit of–” He seemed about to say ‘perfection’ but stopped himself. “Accuracy. A tenth, a hundredth, a thousandth of a second? How far can we continue to gear and divide until somewhere the tiniest, almost imperceptible movement of a cog signifies an infinitesimally brief passage of time?”


“Perhaps there is no limit?” I ventured.


M. Guilbert was silent a long time. “Perhaps there is,” he said at last. “And if intimate knowledge of time dulls our perception of space? What then?”


“Is this how your mechanism functions?” I asked.


He stared at me, whether in exasperation or pity I was not entirely sure.


“No. Not like that at all. Have you heard nothing that I have said?”


I shrugged. “You have said nothing I didn’t already know. When did you ever teach me anything?”


If he was angered by my impertinence, he hid it well, turning back to the counter and beginning to tidy away tools. “I have taught you that knowledge is dangerous in the hands of the ignorant. That the things we learn become us, and the things we do change us. And those changes cannot always be undone.” He seemed to tire suddenly, his whole posture slumping into an old man’s stoop. He collapsed onto a nearby stool and there was a brief splintering sound. M. Guilbert half rose, brushed the seat clear, as if the shards of matchstick were just breadcrumbs left behind from some meal, and sat again.


“The most important lessons you will have to learn yourself,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.



I crept in darkness needing no light to guide me, finding my way by touch and instinct alone. I knew every board that creaked, every mis-step that might betray my presence. The mechanism was the only beacon I needed.


I had waited patiently at M. Guilbert’s door, listening. He was a light sleeper but sometime in the darkest hours after midnight, I heard the pattern of his breathing change into something steadier, deeper. Yet even now I hesitated to pull back the velvet curtain.


The mechanism called to me. I had lain in my narrow bed, sleep a distant prospect, my thoughts filled only with tiny cogs and ratchets and shiny brass pins and coiled springs. I had to see it. More than that, I felt the need to comprehend its design, no matter how far beyond my grasp. The mechanism itself demanded to be understood.


Weak moonlight spilling through the shop window was enough to guide me. I drew back the curtain.


The scale of it took my breath away. Those furtive glimpses had revealed but a fraction of its size and none of its complexity. M. Guilbert had wasted no time on ornate cases; a simple iron frame held bracketed segments of the mechanism in place. A couple of brass plates had been unscrewed, revealing what lay within just as a surgeon’s scalpel might have laid bare internal organs on a mortuary slab.


The mechanism sprawled across two workbenches pushed together, layer upon layer of finely crafted clockwork and… other strange devices that I could not identify. So many different parts, each poised to spin in their tiny orbits: rocking, clicking, unwinding. The complexity of it overwhelmed me. How could I begin to understand more than a fraction of this grand design? This was no chronometer, no mere timepiece. This was… The truth was, I had no idea.


M. Guilbert had told me it was not yet finished but clearly there was a mechanism of considerable substance here, of purpose. Some parts I could recognize: flywheel accumulators with their springs slackened, manifold gearing mechanisms, bejewelled rotators. What an easy thing it would be to prime one of those helical springs, to watch the flywheels spin and hear the tick and whir of a mechanism I could not fathom. Dare I?


What harm could it do?


I reached out a hand and caressed the smooth brass surfaces. My fingertips felt the sharp bite of tiny-toothed pinions, and the slackness in the unwound springs–metal that felt warm and alive beneath my fingers. I had the strangest sense that the mechanism itself wished to be set in motion, to be set free.


–A small sound came from the room above. I froze. I heard footsteps on the stairs and slipped out of the workroom, pressing myself into the darkest corner beneath the counter. A moment later M. Guilbert passed only inches from me, a stub of candle throwing dancing shadows in his wake. I did not doubt M. Guilbert’s capacity for anger or that such flagrant disobedience might lose me my apprenticeship no matter how well I had served.


I heard the curtain twitch into place and the clink of tools being moved and silently released a pent-up breath. M. Guilbert often worked through until dawn on those nights when he could not sleep.


I waited until I could bear the silence no longer then crept back up the stairs to my own bed.


Sleep would not come. My mind was alive with images of the mechanism and with my own unanswered questions. The act of observing had changed me in some fundamental way. I felt as if the device had spoken to me and something deep within had answered.



The shop door crashed open. An unusual time for a customer, so late in the afternoon. I looked up to see Adrienne, hair disheveled and the most fearful look in her eyes. “The town is aflame!” she yelled. “Run for your lives!”


With the door flung wide, the acrid tang of smoke was unmistakable. I peered outside and saw bright red flames dancing along the rooftops not fifty yards down the street. I seized Adrienne’s arm as she turned away. “Where are you going?”


“I only came to warn you. My father needs me if we’re to save what stock we can before his shop burns to the ground.” Her expression was wretched. She pushed a strand of hair from across her face, leaving behind a sooty smear. Who else, I wondered, would have even bothered to warn us?


“Let me go back with you.”


“You’ll stay here, Johannes.” M. Guilbert had emerged from behind the curtain, face flushed, expression cold.


Adrienne pulled free and was already halfway out the door. “The fire’s seized hold of the town and isn’t about to let go,” she said. “Go now while you still can.”


I turned back to M. Guilbert, making a pleading gesture to let me follow.


“Close and shutter the door!” M. Guilbert ordered, the tone of command in his voice brooking no argument.


“Look for yourself! We must leave now or we will surely burn!” I glanced around. “Perhaps we can save some of the watches and clocks.”


“As if they mattered. Come with me.”


I followed him behind the curtain where the mechanism lay like some slumbering creature. M. Guilbert barked a series of orders and I fetched him tools and parts and held the candles closer when he needed more light, and all the while the air grew warmer and the tang of burning wood ever stronger. M. Guilbert ignored it, bending over his workbench, making tiny adjustments with a jeweller’s blade here, carefully winding a spring there, like a gardener tending to seedlings, nurturing growth where it was to be encouraged, pinching out where it was not.


While the fire raged close by, M. Guilbert worked on as if this were just another day–and I fetched and carried for him. Madness! The irony was not lost on me: here at last I was serving as apprentice to my master, perhaps in the last few minutes we had left together on this earth.


From outside came the sound of muted screams, the braying of terrified horses and the sound of running feet on the cobbles. When I peeked round the curtain, I saw little fiery flecks of ash falling like glowing snowflakes beyond the shop windows. How easily the town burned, I thought. How easy it was to destroy. How unjust when it took so long to build and construct. I fetched several buckets of water and doused the door and window frames, water puddling around me. It was something, but I doubted it would be enough to save us when the fire reached our little shop.


My master beckoned me back into his inner sanctum, bade me draw the curtain across and close the door that lay behind it.


“M. Guilbert! I beg you, we must leave!”


Instead of answering, M. Guilbert drew me closer. “See here? Where this gearing mechanism increments according to the bias of its companion until the pinion moves?” I bent closer and nodded. “And this compensator? See how this rod slides to adjust for irregularities? And here–a movement which compensates for any deviation in the compensator?” He talked on in this fashion, though much of it I barely heard, my mind swamped by fear. It grew hot in that little room; the air foul. Yet gradually, despite everything that was happening around us, I found myself transfixed by the intricacies of the mechanism’s design, the ingenuity of its execution–things that had been forbidden to me for so long. I thought I began to understand then. This was no clock, no crude device for telling the time. The passing of a second–or rather the passing of half that time, and half the remainder–and again and again, each tiny half-increment faithfully accumulated until somewhere deep within the mechanism a wheel turned the tiniest amount, registered the briefest instant imaginable–and in so doing, laid bare a little of the thread from which time’s fabric was stitched.


For what purpose had M. Guilbert designed this? I could not begin to imagine.


His voice had dropped so low it was scarcely more than a mutter. He was no longer talking to me I realized, only to himself. His words sounded like a confession.


And somewhere beyond, the town burned. Smoke wafted in the air between us, and the crack of beams in neighboring houses shattering in the heat sounded like cannon-fire–yet distant and intangible. I began to feel light-headed and it was so very, very hot. Yet M. Guilbert worked on. I knew the fire was upon us, surrounding us. I knew too that the old wooden rafters of the shop would condemn us; I had seen flames shooting skywards and consuming all in their path. But I couldn’t leave now. Was it M. Guilbert or the mechanism itself I could not bring myself to abandon?


The candles spluttered and shrank to tiny, indifferent flames as though in defeat. The smoke thickened until I could not make out details across the room. Every burning breath felt like it might be my last. Yet still M. Guilbert muttered about time and space, and talked of duality and uncertainty and the quantum nature of time–and I understood none of it, nor even cared. I thought it possible I might have died and that this was some kind of antechamber to hell: a place of heat and sulfurous fires where M. Guilbert would lecture me on things I could never understand for the rest of eternity.


Then I saw him wind the mechanism. –Just a little, a minuscule tightening of a spring here, a flick of a fingertip to set a wheel spinning there. Even above the fierce crackle of flames outside, I heard the sudden chattering, whirring sound as the mechanism stirred.


I must have reached for the door for M. Guilbert’s hand was suddenly upon mine. “The outcome is changed by the observer,” he said cryptically. “You must not look outside.”


The world grew hazy. Perhaps I fainted. Certainly I remember feeling the heat of the floorboards pressing against the side of my face and in a strange way feeling comforted by it. I saw a shaft of light beneath the door where the drafts blew in and the curtain did not fall straight. Where I lay, I could glimpse the world beyond through that narrow slit. M. Guilbert had bade me not to look but I could not help myself. I saw… Something. Perhaps I saw flames licking at the walls, or smoke rolling like ocean waves down the street, and yet I rather think I saw nothing at all.


I remember too, in the delirium of the moment, hearing sounds from outside that could not be–screeches like the cry of seagulls, the lap and draw of the tide on a beach, the snap of sails catching the breeze.


At some point I must have crawled into the little cot in the corner where M. Guilbert sometimes napped. I slept as I had never done before, waking briefly several times yet knowing I must still be dreaming. Once I thought I heard the hiss of snowflakes driven against the windows of the shop and shivered as tendrils of cold percolated beneath the door. Another time I heard a constant, high-pitched scratching sound, like the chorus of a million insects serenading me. I felt an oppressive heat settle across the room and heard the calls of unidentifiable creatures carried on moisture-laden air.


I drifted in and out of consciousness, and the world drifted with me.


Much later, when some of the townsfolk came searching, they expected to find only our charred bodies. When I stirred and sat up, face black with soot, one of the men screamed as though I were a ghoul rising from the grave. M. Guilbert sat quietly in the corner next to the stilled mechanism, now covered by its dust-sheet. The little watchmaker’s shop, scorched and singed by fire, had been the only dwelling in the street to survive virtually unscathed. In the following weeks as the town began to rebuild what had been lost, there were many who shook their heads and called it a miracle that the shop had not been taken by the flames.


But there were some who muttered different words under their breath.



The fire had exacted a terrible toll on the town but not so terrible that it broke the townsfolk’s spirit. The stalwart men and women had seen their town scarred by war and disease and times of great hardship. This was nothing that could not be put right with patient hard work and they began to rebuild even while embers still glowed in the streets ravaged by fire. I knew I should be helping the less fortunate but I felt uneasy leaving the shop unless absolutely necessary. Naturally I was curious to know who had perished. Sometimes I looked for familiar faces–or more tellingly their absence–through the little windows of the watchmaker’s shop but mostly I saw only strangers, as though the memories of people I once knew had already faded. Hadn’t there been a girl who had come to warn us? But try as I might I could not recall her name and in truth her fate no longer seemed important.


Then too, M. Guilbert kept me busy, and that was gratifying. Smoke and heat had damaged some timepieces and it fell to me to clean and repair those that were salvageable.


If I expected new bonds to have been forged between us, I soon realized my mistake. M. Guilbert would occasionally inspect a piece that I worked upon, offering words of advice, or guiding my hand as I beat or filed tiny slivers of brass into shape. But he would not speak of his own work, nor let me near the mechanism again. I caught him watching me covertly many times, the look on his face both suspicious and perplexed as though I had done something to vex him.


I wrote down all that I could recall M. Guilbert saying during his frantic work on the mechanism, but none of it made sense. I had heard him speak of certain principles that could never be known with utter certainty, that if we knew precisely where then we could never know when–as though to measure one with absolute precision inevitably meant relinquishing control over the other. But I could see no sense behind it all. Time and place were just… time and place. And now my frustration was worse than before. For a brief moment I had felt like the apprentice to a great master. Now I was nothing again: the apprentice whose master kept his secrets to himself.


And so I began to formulate my plan.



M. Guilbert no longer slept in his room. He worked late every night, eventually dozing next to the mechanism before rising at dawn to begin work again. Yet he seemed to have abandoned the mechanism for his books. I saw no tools out of place, no parts scattered across the work surface. The mechanism stayed hidden beneath its shroud. At noon I would prepare a simple lunch for my master and occasionally he would nap for an hour in the comfort of his proper bed before resuming his studies and reading long into the night. That hour afforded me my opportunity. If the master would not teach, then I would have to learn for myself.


For all its burgeoning complexity and strange function, the mechanism was still at heart a timepiece. I could see that much. I recognized movements, torsion balances, escapements, pinions–items familiar enough to any half-competent watchmaker. Fine-toothed gears meshed, gear trains transported movement across the device, tiny jewel-mounted oscillators sat ready to vibrate the moment their springs were wound. But for each element I recognized and understood, a dozen more were a mystery. I intuited that M. Guilbert had constructed layer upon layer of correctional elements, each resolving ever finer gradations of time until he measured and trapped the smallest possible interval, if such a thing could even exist. Was there even now somewhere in the heart of this device a subtle movement of a cog, a single tick of the great device that would signify such an instant?


I remembered M. Guilbert’s description of the thing he called ‘quantum.’ The least possible amount that can suffice. Suffice for what, I wondered?


And I wondered too, what would happen were the mechanism to be properly wound and set going.


One morning I rose to find the curtain to M. Guilbert’s workspace drawn back, unusual in itself. My master was bent over the mechanism and I felt my heartbeat quicken to see him working on it again. But I sensed a change.


“What are you doing?” I asked.


He turned, and I saw the hollow eyes, the lines on his face. I had always thought of M. Guilbert as an old man, but never this old. “I have been a fool,” he told me. “I let myself become obsessed by the art of the possible and lost sight of the dangers. Some ideas are better left unexplored.” He reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry too if I have neglected my duties as teacher, though I think you have learnt more than you realize. But to put you in such danger was unforgivable.”


“What danger? What are you talking about?”


He blinked, turning his attention back to the tiny screwdriver he was inserting deep into the workings. I swear I saw the glitter of tears in his eyes before he turned away. I had witnessed his many moods over the years: stubbornness, irascibility, child-like delight at some piece of cleverness in one of his designs–but never had I seen this kind of emotion laid so bare.


“Johannes, I will make it up to you. We will make a journeyman of you yet.”


“But what are you doing?” I persisted.


“I am dismantling the mechanism,” he said, without turning round.



I tried to distract him: irrelevant questions about commissions yet to be fulfilled, supplies to be ordered, even what meals I should prepare. He brushed all these aside. If anything, he worked with even greater application than before, teasing apart the mechanism, neatly stacking components back in their drawers and trays. Were it not for the mechanism’s sheer size and complexity, the task might have been completed quickly, but it was clear to me it would take days to carry out this slow dismembering.


While M. Guilbert napped, I spent every moment poring over the new sections that he had exposed, trying to see how the pieces fit together. In my head, I kept a plan as best I could, wondering if I would ever have the skill to somehow rebuild what was slowly being lost.


Then with no warning M. Guilbert fell ill, complaining of stomach pains and a headache. He struggled on until the discomfiture grew so strong he was forced to climb the stairs with heavy steps and retire to his bedchamber. I brought him hot broth at regular intervals, though he was able to keep little enough down. I cared for him as best I could and made him comfortable.


Here, at last, was my chance.



Several days passed and M. Guilbert grew a little worse, not better. I began to worry that the tincture I had carefully measured and stirred into M. Guilbert’s meals–paints and dyes I used on my model ships–had been more strongly acting than I realized. He slept for all but a few hours of the day, and his skin grew pallid and grey. I supposed I should send for a doctor, but I was afraid the cause of his sickness might be discovered. I did not mean for M. Guilbert to die, and yet…


And yet it afforded me the time and space to work on the mechanism unfettered. I kept the shop door barred and shuttered. I worked from first light until late into the night when my eyes became too gritty and unfocused to allow me to continue my work. It was clear I did not have M. Guilbert’s finesse nor his understanding. Despite my careful observations, not all the pieces seemed to fit as I would wish, so I fashioned new ones, adapting the design to one of my own. It took me days to repair the damage done but I thought I understood enough. And who was there to stop me?


M. Guilbert clung to life, barely. His breathing was so shallow as to be imperceptible. Sometimes I stood by his bed, convinced he had slipped away, only to see a twitch of muscle or hear a murmur escape his lips. Once, I thought he might be trying to say something and leant closer. “An observer–” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, “changes the outcome. Remember that.” A hand grasped my arm with shocking suddenness, those long, delicate fingers still powerful enough to leave bruises in my flesh. “Don’t… look!”


I had no idea what he meant. There were a dozen questions on my tongue but the effort of speaking had exhausted him and he slipped into unconsciousness once more.


I felt the call of the mechanism stronger than ever. The work was nearly done; the end of the matter so close. I could sense the physical bulk of it in the room below, a latent presence like a living thing about to be born. I obeyed its call because to do anything else would be inconceivable.


It had grown late by the time I laid aside the last of my tools. My head pounded and fatigue had settled over me, dulling my thoughts. Yet it was done. I hefted the little brass key, no bigger than my index finger, and wondered if I should wait for the morning and a clear head. But how could I sleep knowing that the mechanism sat ready, needing only to be wound? The mechanism would never let me rest.


I slipped the key onto the spindle and gave it a half twist.


It pleased me beyond words to think that I shared some small measure of credit for this mechanism. To be sure, M. Guilbert’s genius had conceived it, but my labors had rebuilt those parts that had been disassembled. No hand had guided mine, only my instinctive grasp of its form and function. My efforts were crude and rough-edged compared to the elegant precision of my master’s handiwork, but good enough, I believed. And far beyond the work of a mere apprentice.


I twisted the key again, a touch more savagely this time.


Was it too much to hope that my name might one day be spoken of in exalted circles? Or would it still be M. Guilbert who got all the credit?


Another full turn. I could feel how tight the spring was becoming, ready to release its energy the moment I let go of the key.


The blame for this was M. Guilbert’s. He should have instructed me more diligently in his craft. Trusted me. Had I not been a willing pupil? Instead, when he had deigned to notice me, all I received were his patronizing words. Johannes. You do not understand the lessons you have already learned.


The key was becoming harder to turn now, quivering in my grip as I fought the spring’s tension. I let my hand drop and took a step back.


For a moment the mechanism was utterly still. I wondered if my repairs had failed after all. Then I became aware of a change, like a gentle ripple spreading through the clockwork. I recalled that some of M. Guilbert’s finer pocket watches had movements so smooth they could not be said to tick; rather they hummed. If so, then this device sang. It was surely a song no human ears had ever heard before.


I looked closer, seeing tiny wheels deep inside the mechanism turning so fast as to blur. Accumulators shunted against their ratchets. Everywhere I looked, brass glinted in the candlelight as gearwheels spun, clicked and oscillated like some creature come to life. Flawed though it might be by my crude craftsmanship, I had breathed life into this clockwork.


I had a sudden fear then: of powers within the universe I did not understand, of time itself as some unfathomable quantity. What was it that M. Guilbert had read in those notebooks of his that had scared him so badly he had begun to dismantle his life’s work?


The mechanism whirred, trapping and meting out time in quantum intervals for purposes I would never understand. The least possible amount that would suffice. And even so…


The world did not end.


Time did not stand still.


My heart continued to beat. I watched my chest move with each breath. Dust stirred on currents of air.


Life continued.


Suddenly heady with elation I threw open the door of the watchmaker’s shop to draw a breath of fresh air and feel the morning sun on my skin.


I looked outside.


But outside was nothing, just a vast, blank grayness.


Time and place. Place and time. Did it follow with some kind of relentless logic that to measure one with absolute precision was to banish the other completely? Then I remembered M. Guilbert’s words. The outcome is changed by the observer.


I had set the mechanism going and it had measured a quantum of time, laid bare the detail of its warp and weft, the very threads from which it was stitched.


And now we were nowhere, nowhere at all.




When Bloodwater Boils



By Peter Ryan



Thirsty are the lips that taste the ocean. Sick is the belly that braves the stream. Dirty are the hands that bathe in bloodwater.


It had been one of his mother’s favorite things to say. What it meant would depend on the occasion. It could mean: you shouldn’t have drunk that, it’ll make you sick. Or: whatever trouble it is you’re in, you have only yourself to blame. She also could mean it literally. As in: don’t touch the bloodwater, it’ll dirty your hands.


But Nisean had weak arms, which meant he was no good for the mines. His sight was too poor for the rangers. He couldn’t read or write, and in any case, the shopkeepers had never liked the looks of him, with his filthy black hair and that scar from lip to chin where a horse had once kicked him. He looked like the sort that would rob them blind. And he might have, if it came down to it.


But there was money in bloodwater. Even for a boy with no skills.


It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ignored his mother’s advice.



The old man sniffed suspiciously at the day’s catch, which Nisean carefully laid out across his counter. He had wrapped them in his own undershirts, since he had no paper.


“What did you bring me?” the merchant demanded, though the answer was plain. They were fish, but not ordinary fish. Their scales sparkled green, with flashes of red when they caught the sun at the right angle.


“If you can name them,” the boy answered, “then you know your fish better than me. I’ve never seen the like.”


Nisean was thirteen. He was tall for his age, but his voice was still high and thin.


“Three coppers?” the man demanded skeptically, his eyes directed to the scales, as if the fish themselves might name their price.


“Six,” Nisean countered.


“Six!” the man repeated, “Six if they swallowed your mother’s pearls. What would you say to four?”


Nisean nodded hesitantly.


“You’ve robbed me!” the man cried with feigned bitterness. Then he dropped the coins onto the counter one at a time. They clattered noisily against the wood.


The boy smiled. He had no way of knowing the fish were worth five times that sum. He was on his own now, and he had to make do with what wits were left to him.



His mother had succumbed to the Nuisance. That’s what people were calling it now, but when she had been struck with it, it had no name. She just started bleeding for no reason—a little at first, dabbing her nose from time to time, but then in a steady, gushing stream.


They said you should steer clear of the houses where the illness had taken hold.


Nisean hadn’t left. He had washed her linens, made her soup, and wiped the blood from her nose, her eyes, and her ears. He had tended to her until her last day. He’d loved her, but he also hadn’t known what else to do.



There was a hole dug by a dire rat just beneath Master Tarogan’s barn. The burrow was nearly tall enough to stand in, and the rat died or moved on, so Nisean claimed it as his own.


He could get a room at the inn for six coppers, or he could eat for the next six days—soup and hard cheese even, not just bread. He was smart enough, at least, to prefer a full belly to a soft pillow. So he cozied into the rat’s nest, letting the sound of the rain pouring down over Tarogan’s cornfields lull him to sleep.



Some said the bloodwater came from the other side of the ocean, where the men lived wild and free. Some argued it was the water from the land of the dead. Others still claimed it came from the ancient past, when men, apes, and wolves all traveled in the same pack, and giants roamed the hills. One thing everyone agreed on was that if you went under the bloodwater, you never came back again.


It cropped up everywhere, like a weed. You could find bloodwater sometimes in puddles or in the middle of the ocean. If you poured a pitcher of water into a bowl, it might take on the same reddish hue.


It was never hard to find in the marshes. Beyond a thicket of reeds, Nisean found a patch large enough to wade in. He shuffled over to its outer edge. Then he rolled his sleeve up all the way to his shoulder, knelt down in the swamp where it was muddy but still somewhat clear, and plunged his arm into the opaque crimson depths.


Nisean stretched his arm as far as he could, until he thought his bones might pop from his joint, but he felt only water at the tips of his fingers. Then, without warning, something slimy brushed up against him, and he yanked his hand out of the water.


It’s just a fish, he reminded himself, Just a fish.


He dunked his arm back in to see if it would bite. He felt a nibble at his fingers. Whatever it was, it was big.


Nisean felt a sharp sting between his wrist and his elbow, as though a hundred tiny hooks had clung to his flesh. He pulled up, but it hurt worse when he did, and his arm didn’t budge. The fish yanked hard and pulled him in, all but his legs. He screamed, the air bubbles spitting out from his mouth and tickling his cheek. He pulled back again, but this only made the fish tug down harder, until he was fully submerged.



What surprised him the most was that the water was not entirely dark. There were bursts of light all around him, like fireworks seen through a murky red glass. He heard a creaking sound, like a ship capsizing, and voices singing without words. The melody was alarming in its simplicity: two notes, one high and one low.


Nisean kicked and kicked until he had set himself free, breaking to the surface. He pulled himself back up into the swamp, grasping at reeds. The bloodwater shrank behind him, until the black patch was gone. He began spitting into the air and dry heaving in case any of it had gotten down his throat. Three teaspoons of bloodwater was said to be enough to cripple a man, and four to kill him.



There was a chill that didn’t leave him, even after he had spent several hours drying in the sun.


Walking back to town, it began to rain again. A kindly looking woman herded her cattle back into the barn near the road, and Nisean had half a mind to ask her if he could join them, but her face curdled like old milk when she saw the question forming on his lips. He cast his eyes silently back down to the road in front of him.


He felt the copper coins in his pocket, tracing his finger around the face of the Emperor. As precious as they were to him, they were of no greater worth now than a bed, or a piping hot bath. He headed to the inn.



When he woke the next morning, the pillow beneath him had turned mostly red. He dabbed his nose and his finger returned with blood on it. He felt no pain.


His mother had lived six months from the time of her first symptoms, he reminded himself, but for some reason, this seemed only to add to his burden. Six months of scraping by. Sleeping in the open air. Eating stale bread. He would work and struggle right up to the end.


Yesterday’s discovery weighed suddenly heavy on his mind. It was a lie that one could not enter the bloodwater and return. A lie is an opportunity to tell the truth had been another one of his mother’s favorite sayings. But it seemed to him now more like an opportunity for profit.


He returned to the swamp in earnest. It was hot and the water steamed, creating a thick, soupy fog. The air cleared when he hit upon a small island of mud and brambles. He could see a bit of bloodwater a little further. The opening was just wide enough for him to slip through.


He placed his hands at his sides and dove in feet first. His head dipped beneath the water but then bobbed up again. He grabbed at the muddy soil and attempted to push himself back down again, kicking frantically to dig deeper into the water.


He saw a flash of yellow light. Then one of blue and green. The lights were everywhere, like fireflies on a warm summer night. He pushed himself deeper and deeper into the water, keeping his eyes wide open and alert.


He heard the creaking again, the sound of wood under pressure, no different really than the way the stairs at the inn had buckled beneath his weight. With it, came the two notes, high and low.


As he burrowed deeper into the water, he could see the ship. The quick flashes of light seemed to be concentrated there, as if they were feeding off the wreckage. When they lit up, many at a time, he could see it dimly. Otherwise, it blended in with the dark.


He hit the bottom, sand kicking up beneath him from an eel that zigzagged out from its hiding place between two large stones. There was no gold and no jewels there, as far as he could see.


The ship was tilted toward him. There was an enormous crack in the hull and he swam through it. He knew he would either find something to scavenge immediately or return to the surface empty handed. He was running out of air.


The flashes of light here had gathered around a door. He could see the bodies now of these fish, if that’s what one would call them. They had bubbly, transparent skin, revealing intricate pink organs within. They were the source of the sounds—some sang high, some low, each attracting the other.


Nisean tugged at the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He leveraged his foot against the wall and tried again, with the full weight of his body. The door cracked open. The boat creaked and the bubbles of light made circles around the door, trying to push their way in. Three bodies poured out, pressing into Nisean. They were mostly bone by now, with patches of flesh and fabric here and there oddly preserved, sticking to the bone like egg sticks to a pan.


He frantically kicked them off, as if the corpses were attempting to devour him. Then he felt a sting on his shoulder. One of the fish, the bubbles of light, had bitten him.


He pushed his way out of the boat, and launched himself towards the surface, realizing only now how difficult it might be to find his way back to the opening through which he had come.


He felt a bite on his cheek and another on his abdomen. Then, just above, he caught a glimpse of natural light.


He broke to the surface, gasping for breath, and then he pulled himself up out of the bloodwater and into the swamp.


He crawled to the small island of mud and brambles, nursing his wounds. Then he cried.



Nisean spent the night in the hole beneath Master Tarogan’s barn. In the morning, he could hear boots crunching their way through the corn stalks.


“Get out,” Master Tarogan shouted. He stood many feet away from the burrow and peered into the dark uncertainly, from a distance.


Nisean crawled out of his hole. The man immediately began to cough. Blood gushed out from his throat onto his chin, drenching his beard. He fell to the ground, heaving.


Nisean started to rush to his side, but the man held up his hand to stop him.


“Stay away boy,” he growled irritably. Then he stomped up the cobbled path to his house.


“I’ve got it!” the boy cried.


The man turned. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. When he saw that Nisean was serious, they softened. Then he cast them like stones to the ground, avoiding his gaze. He seemed saddened or ashamed.


“Same as you,” Nisean said, “I’ve got the Nuisance. But it’s early for me yet. I could take care of things for a time. Make you comfortable. Like I did for my Ma.”


The man looked up, his face no less ashen, but his curiosity piqued.


“How was she,” he asked, “At the end?”


“Brave,” the boy lied, “To the last.”



They hung the kettle above an enormous fire in the hearth. Nisean and the man sat together in ornately carved wooden chairs, cushioned with red pillows stuffed with feathers. It was cozy, and it was warm. But when Nisean checked the water to see how it was coming along, it had turned crimson.


“Bloodwater,” the boy groaned.


“Pour it out,” Master Tarogan instructed, “Start again.”


Nisean took the kettle outside and dumped it into the grass. He refilled it from a jug and placed it again over the fire.


“Death comes to tea,” the man called out, “when bloodwater boils.”


Nisean returned to his seat.


“My mother always used to say that,” he explained.


He sat in silence for awhile. The dead quiet held the room for so long that Nisean came to think that the man had fallen asleep.


“What would you do,” Master Tarogan asked abruptly, perking up in his chair, “If you could do anything?”


Nisean considered. “Live a good, long life.”


“I mean,” he said, “In the time that you had. If you had all the money you needed to do whatever you want.”


Nisean furrowed his brow in concentration.


“Dunno,” he said, “I’d like to sail the sea.”


The man laughed.


“What’s funny?”


“No offense,” he said, “I was a seaman for many years. You don’t have the arms.”


Nisean nodded and stared at the fire. They were quiet for a time.


“I have a small boat,” Master Tarogan added, “I’ll take you on the water tomorrow in the morning, should God grant me the strength.”


The boy smiled appreciatively, but he knew that when morning came, the odds of the man feeling up to this were slim.


“It is important to see all the good things in this world,” the man concluded, “before they are gone.”


The logs cracked in the fire, splitting in two. Master Tarogan was asleep in his chair long before the water was ready. Nisean set the kettle aside and brought the man a blanket, covering him lap to chin.


He turned his thoughts to the ocean. To ships and sails. Islands with clear blue water and beaches of white sand. Endless days drifting and the yearning for the shore.


If not tomorrow, then soon, he promised himself, he would set sail. The winds would take him wherever they willed. And for a short while, he would be content.


It seemed like an eternity before the kettle whistled with steam.




The Pen



By Mark Bilsborough



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


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


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


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


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


“It’s about the rent.”


“Tomorrow. It is far too late now.”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Invigorated by my new resolve, I decided to write a long note, which would no doubt be published to great acclaim posthumously, for what kind of writer would I be if I did not take the opportunity for one final flourish.


Alas my inkwell was dry. Frustrated, I began searching the drawers of my writing desk for fresh supplies, but to no avail. Was I to be denied the satisfaction of my final flourish simply because I had run out of ink?


I had a newfound determination though, now that I was on my final chapter. I recalled that it had been the fashion when this desk was built to include secret drawers and hidden compartments. I had not found any to date, but then, I had barely looked. Now, though, I examined the inlays in great detail. At the side, on the right, obscured by carved filigree, I found what I was looking for.


It opened with a slight push and clicked back, as if sprung. It was a thin shelf, capable of holding little more than a sheaf of letters. At first I thought it empty, but then I saw a faint gleam emanating from the very back of the drawer. I looked closely. It was a pen, with a smooth wooden shaft and bright, golden inlays. The gold encircled the pen and as I turned it I could make out the words ‘creatio ex nihilo’ in elaborate script.


I had no idea how the pen got there. I acquired the desk from a second hand emporium on the Portobello Road and could only surmise that it had been there all along, forgotten by the previous owner.


There was something else at the back of the drawer, wedged between bottom and top. A small bottle of ink. I could at last write my final note.


I filled my inkwell then paused. Perhaps, with a fine pen such as that, there was one more story within me. So with the resignation of repeated rejection I lifted the pen and dipped it in the ink. It was light to my touch, and as I began writing I felt my mood lighten as well. With all my previous stories I had needed copious notes beforehand, and hours of quiet contemplation in front of a roaring log fire, brandy in hand. This time, however, the words came immediately, and I found myself writing a fantastic story of supernatural intrigue, as worthy as anything from the pen of Mr. Poe or Mr. Hawthorne. Or even, if I may be immodest, Mr. Dickens himself.


I did not sleep that night. Instead, I filled page after page with thrilling prose and knew then that desperation had given me my muse. With restored spirits I dashed down the stairs, manuscript in hand, and ran out into the street.


It was barely eight o’clock when I arrived at the offices of Bentley’s Miscellany and I did not leave until well into the evening, when they had agreed to accept my story for a fee which exceeded my wildest expectations.


Elated, I ran half way across London back to my lodgings to tell Mrs. Prentice the good news. She was dubious at first, but with contract in hand I soon won her over and, with the added persuasion of a glass or two of Burgundy from my last remaining bottle, all talk of rent due was duly postponed.


The story was a huge success, and there were more to follow. With my pen in hand I spent my days writing feverishly, page upon page of mesmeric storytelling. I wrote of dark spirits and soaring battles, of men laid low by war and entranced by victory. I wrote of obsession and compulsion, great achievement and heart-breaking tragedy, and of a man, not unlike myself, achieving the greatness due to him and the respect and admiration of a grateful society.


In short, I had achieved all that I set out to do.


Perhaps that was why, one summer afternoon, I slumped exhausted in my seat and gazed longingly at the bright blue sky outside, wanting nothing more than to sit in St James’ Park staring at the ducks in the lake whilst drinking in the sunshine. I could do none of that, though, for my writing compulsion was too strong. Every day since I found the pen I had written page after page and, suddenly weary, I realized I needed a rest. Why not take some time to enjoy the rewards of success?


My hand moved across the page, spinning some yarn about a man constructing wings wide enough to fly to the heavens, but my heart was not in it. I willed myself to stop writing, but to no avail. Angrily I tore my hand away and in the violence of my movement, banged it hard against the edge of my heavy marble mantelpiece. I cried in pain, knowing instantly that something was broken, but that pain was tempered with elation as I realized I would not be able to write again for some time. I was released from my compulsion.


I headed for the door, eager to head for the park, but as I reached for the latch I heard a dull scratching behind me and, turning, saw the pen moving completely of its own volition across the paper!


I was stunned. As I watched, the pen continued my story, in my handwriting, as if I were guiding it myself. I concluded, as any sane man would, that the pain in my hand had dulled my perceptions and I was hallucinating. I needed medical treatment.


When I returned from the hospital in a state of euphoric sedation and with a heavily bandaged hand I noted with some detachment that the story was complete, and the pen was in the process of writing another.


The pen’s stories were every bit as lauded as my own. Indeed, I began to suspect that the tales I thought of as mine also sprang from the pen. Even after my hand had healed I had no need to pick up the pen. It seemed perfectly content to write on its own, provided I kept it supplied with paper and ink.


It was at that point that I started drinking absinthe hoping, perhaps, to gain an insight on those strange occurrences. The stories the pen was writing were undoubtedly the kind of tales I would have written, only better executed, and that realization hit me hard. I was redundant save as supplier of materials and delivery man to my publisher and although my fame was assured and growing, it began to feel increasingly hollow and fraudulent.


One night, on a chill November night not unlike the one in which I first discovered the hateful thing, in drunken delirium I became enraged by its incessant scratching, audible over the sound of the cracking flames from the fire. I snatched the almost completed manuscript and began reading.


It was a tale about a vain, arrogant man who believed himself to be more talented than he actually was, who stumbled on the kind of success others had to work hard for, and wasted that success on petty indulgences.


My hands shook. With fury I headed over to the fire with the intention of thrusting the odious story into the flames. But something drew my attention, just at the last moment. I turned to see the pen impossibly suspended in mid-air, and I imagined it looking at me as if in reproach. I pulled my arms back, ready to throw the sheaf of paper. But as I did so, the pen turned in the air until its nib pointed straight at me. It moved backwards, and, like a catapult bolt, flew across the room. Startled, I lost my footing as the pen impaled itself in my chest, digging deep into my heart.


As I lay dying I could hear the pen, ignoring me once more, scratching away.



Joshua Humbolt wrote this story posthumously, of course. Or, rather, I wrote it for him. I found in Mrs. Prentice a willing supplier of paper and patience, and unlike the unfortunate Mr. Humbolt she has no pretentions to talent of her own. Instead, she is content to let me draw stories from her, to be my inspiration and my public face. In return she is happy to reap the not inconsiderable rewards that brings. She no longer has to take in lodgers, and I am free to write. She does not have the same dark brooding arrogance that my Humbolt-tinged tales could project, but there is a ready market for stories flavored with hope and beauty, and I find the change of tone pleasing.


One day, of course, Mrs. Prentice will no longer be here and someone else will find me, in a drawer in a desk at a junkshop, just waiting to be picked up.


And then there will be new stories.




Ladder of Ashes



By Dale L. Sproule



I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”


The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.


Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.


Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.


The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.


Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.


And I slept.


I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.


“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”


The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.


Climbing out of bed, I stumbled through the thick air to the stairs. It grew cooler, almost bearable as I descended, then turned the corner into a kitchen swathed in shadows.


Dad was at the table, and the man across from him stood. “Brent, this is Lawrence Pelham. He comes highly recommended by the Mawlamyine Board of Trade as the best English speaking tutor in the area.”


Rumpled and groggy, I simply grunted as I plodded past them toward the fridge, the door barely open before Dad snapped, “Don’t open it when the power’s off. The food will spoil.” Blah, blah, blah. “There’s bread in the breadbox and fruit on the counter. And our guest brought us some local cheese.”


Hearing that word, I turned with a smile. I hadn’t had cheese in weeks.


“Leicester–British cheese–made locally since 1820. You see, I raise dairy cows – on the side. Tutor, rancher, entrepreneur. At any rate, felicitations, young man! Delighted to meet you,” said Lawrence, straightening his curved spine to achieve an impressive height while proffering a handshake that conveyed little of the intended enthusiasm of his words. His long fingered hands were unnaturally slender, arms so long that his bony wrists were entirely visible beyond the cuff of his white suit. He looked like Ebenezer Scrooge on a prison camp regimen – skin fish-belly white, and a long fringe of yellow feather duster hair surrounding his liver-spotted head. But the thing that struck me most was his voice – piping and proper, with a strange, slurpy British accent and a hint of a lisp. “As I understand it, getting you out of the house is our first order of business. And being your local dairy connection, I know a shop just an hour’s drive from here that makes primo Italiano gelato.” He turned back to Dad. “I’ll have him back by seven.”


“A trial run then.” Dad nodded. “Until the weekend.”


I didn’t seem to have any say in the decision. Which was okay I guess. Lawrence’s ancient Mercedes had state-of-the-art AC and despite being creepy looking, the old tutor was like a walking collection of interesting quirks. During the drive, he mostly just got me to talk about myself, but I also learned a bit about him, most surprisingly that he had been born and raised in Mawlamyine and spoke no other language than his peculiar and meticulous English.


He shrugged, the moist corners of his lips curling into a smile. “The street I grew up on was a closed community of old British families. My grandfather was a friend of Rudyard Kipling. My uncle was a counselor when George Orwell was on the local police force.”


“Like, the writer, Orwell?” My English teacher had loaned me Animal Farm and Orwell’s tale had absorbed me.


“Just like that, yes,” Lawrence grinned broadly. “We knew him as Captain Eric Blair. He had blue circles tattooed on his knuckles but he never said what they were all about.”


“You knew him personally?” I asked, trying to calculate how old that would make him. That would have to be like the 1930s!


“Perhaps not.” Lawrence laughed. “But my father’s stories were vivid enough I can almost remember being there.”


After that we talked about books. At least until we saw the giant Buddha reclining on the hillside ahead–at which point the conversation turned to local culture and the eclecticism of the Buddhist way. As we grew closer to the slumbering deity, life sized painted statues of monks carrying alms bowls appeared on the verge of the highway just before we took the turn off for the gelato shop. It was in a tiny cluster of wooden houses, mostly selling different representations of the reclining Buddha, none very well made or expensive. The gelato itself was pretty runny and lumpy with mango, but cold and good just the same.


After that, he took me to the monument that housed the Win-sein-Taw-Ya Shrine. It was filled with colorful dioramas of people being tortured and swimming in lava and turning into animals. “There’s another nearby shrine that’s rather like a carnival – with neon fountains and bowls moving across the landscape that the children can aim at. Doesn’t seem very dignified for a great religion, really. But who am I to judge?”


I admitted to Lawrence that I didn’t understand Christianity or Islam much better than Buddhism and he simply nodded, shrugged and said, “Religion is the opium of the people.”


To which I responded brightly, “Ernest Hemingway,” and enjoyed the admiring way he looked at me while people around us jostled and prayed and filled the many fountains with coins.


He said to me, “Such a relief. Someone of your generation who cares about literary masterworks. We should get along smashingly.”


The next day, he assessed my math skills by setting out a bunch of questions that involved my buying video games in Myanmar currency. All of his lessons were tied to real life – and when I went shopping in Yangon that weekend, I’m sure I saved about $40 buying games. Our attempts to contact Mom were a bit more successful and we talked for hours that weekend, but with that came the bad news that she had several more chemo treatments that would keep her grounded in Canada for months. I gave my new tutor a rave review and she helped convince Dad to keep Lawrence on, at least for the time being.


We got home early Sunday evening, and I excused myself right after dinner to go upstairs and install the new games on my computer. But as my bedroom door closed behind me, I realized it wasn’t eagerness that compelled me up the stairs. The instant the door closed behind me, it was like someone had opened a spigot in my chest and drained out every ounce of energy. I leaned back against the wall and slid toward the floor, and even before sleep had completely claimed me, the dream started pulling me in.


The woman in green was rushing toward me from the far end of the subway train. Leaning over me, she asked, “Did you find Henry?”


I reached into my shopping bag and pulled out a coconut shell like the one she’d given me in the previous dream. Instead of a larva inside, there was a face – Lawrence’s face – waxy and distorted. Red rimmed eyes peered out at me from deep within the sockets. The lips wrapped themselves around words, “Still here, Penelope, my love. Only you can see me, know me, release me. And I, in turn, release you. Can you hear me? Come to me?”


“Tell him, yes,” said the woman urgently, but it wasn’t until I saw my reflection in the wardrobe mirror that I realized it was actually me saying it. In true dream fashion, I had become Penelope. I put my hand to my belly, empty of the child it had once contained. Our child. I shook my head, confused as I heard myself saying, “We will be together again.”


My eyes fluttered open, and I sat staring at the reflection of a fifteen year old boy, sitting on the floor, clinging to a shopping bag. After a brief check to reassure myself it contained no coconut shells, I hung the bag from my chair. Any urge to check out the new games had long since dissipated, so I lay on the bed, listening to the pounding of my heart, until I finally drifted back to sleep. As far as I can remember, it was a totally normal sleep.


On Monday, with the power down again, we went to Lawrence’s house. Being wood frame, it had not survived the ravages of time and typhoon as tidily as Twelve Oaks. The teak interior had remained intact, but it had lost its gleam, fading almost to grey and creaking like a tall ship whenever you walked down a hallway or went up the stairs.


After retrieving some books from his library, we stopped off at a massive wooden wardrobe in the hall, where Lawrence seemed to have a sort of epiphany and threw open the doors with the flair of a game show presenter. The interior was filled with the crisp white suits that Lawrence always wore, each in its own plastic dry-cleaning bag. “They were purchased for the house staff – when we still had a staff. When I still had a family for that matter. Extremely well-tailored. The Burmen are slighter, so there are almost certainly smaller sizes that would fit you if you’re interested.”


Imagining myself in one of these suits, I had to put my hand over my mouth to hide my smile. I smiled so seldom back then that the braces felt weird against my lips and I was aware of them for the first time in a long time. “I’m good, Lawrence. But thanks.”


“All right then,” he declared throwing his hands in the air. “You don’t want a free suit. No accounting for modern tastes.


A few hours later, he said out of the blue, “Do I understand that your pater is trying to restore Twelve Oaks as a working plantation? If so, I have something he might be interested in. It’s called a steam mangle. They’re also called wringers. This one compresses slabs of rubber between rollers. And it’s steam powered. Perhaps even predating the dawn of the 20th century. I have an idea of how much it would sell for through Sotheby’s, so I shan’t let it go for a song. But I’m sure we can work something out, maybe even some manner of rental arrangement. Would you like to see it?”


I shrugged. “He doesn’t exactly confide in me, but he needs this sort of thing for the restoration. So he’d probably be interested.”


“I have a perfectly adequate hand mangle,” he explained, “so I don’t need this monstrosity. Come down for a look-see.”


I trailed him down the basement stairs into the darkness. When he flipped a bank of switches at the bottom of the stairs, I expected a glare like a football stadium, but the few shaded lamps that were still working merely struggled to make certain parts of the room a bit less dark than others. A thick sliver of light sliced into the room from between the big barn doors that opened into the yard.


Lawrence was delivering an enthusiastic sales pitch. “You can let him know what excellent shape it’s in. I bought some fresh thick-slab from a local gatherer and ran a few sheets through.”


As Lawrence stepped into the darkness to retrieve a sheet of rubber from the wire where it hung, I remembered the dream and asked, “Do you know anyone named Henry or Penelope?”


Lawrence stiffened as he reached up to take a slab off the drying line, then said, “So someone has told you the story? Or did you always know?”


“What story?”


“About the ghost at Twelve Oaks. Penelope MacGregor. Nothing like a good ghost story to attract tourists of a certain type? Any type, really.” He shook his head. “Poor Penelope. Always looking, looking, looking for her Henry. More sad than tragic, I suppose. Very romantic.”


“I didn’t know there was a story,” I said. “I’ve just been having dreams about her.”


He raised a brow. “You must have heard the story, even unconsciously. To remember the names like that.”


“Nope,” I shook my head. “It’s all in the dream. She’s always asking about Henry. Sure that I’ve seen him. Giving me messages and gifts to pass along.”


Even though he stood just a few steps away, Lawrence’s face seemed as featureless as the rectangular slabs hanging from the racks like meat in an abattoir. “What kind of gifts?” he asked. “Physical objects? Books or letters?”


I told him about the coconut shells in the dream, the larva and the face. “But nothing real. In the dream, you were Henry, only younger.”


“At least that’s how you remember it. Dreams are curious that way. Always changing.”


“The face spoke to me, but I don’t remember what it said.”


“You don’t seem as spooked about the prospect of a ghost as one might expect.”


“They’re just dreams,” I shrugged. “If I saw an actual ghost, I’d probably be more freaked out. But it might be pretty cool.”


Lawrence stepped out into the light, carrying a sheet of rubber the size of a bathmat. “Let’s take this sample to show your da how well the machine works.”


I took the rubber from him, surprised at its weight, given that it wasn’t much thicker than a cotton blanket. I draped it over my arm, but as I followed Lawrence back upstairs, I felt overwhelmed with curiosity about what would happen if I draped the sheet of rubber over my head – wondering if it would conform to my features.


As I came out of the doorway at the top of the stairs, I was shocked by Lawrence’s outburst as he shouted, “Take it off.”


As I spun it to look out through the gap, Lawrence grabbed the edge of the sheet and angrily pulled it off, nearly ripping my head off with it. The force slammed me into the wall and I stood there rubbing my shoulder.


“I’m sorry,” said Lawrence immediately, “About the unintentional roughhousing. I didn’t mean to do that. Rubber attracts mold spores. No telling what kind of jungle fever it may give you.”


I grimaced at his silhouette in the light funneling in from the far end of the narrow hall.


After a while, he said, quietly, “I do apologize. I did ask you to remove it. Are you… quite alright?”


I glared at him – surprised how strong he was for an old man. “Maybe you should take me home. We could do the math lesson there.”


“There’s not enough light at your house. Perhaps when the power comes back on.”


“It’s bright in my room.”


Lawrence smiled and said, “Wise tutors avoid going into their students’ bedrooms. Why don’t we just go into town? The Martaban Museum is displaying some newly acquired Mon relics. We can have curry for lunch at the Khit Thit and I might even buy you a beer as long as you don’t tell your dear da.”


As he spoke, the sheet of rubber dangled from his forearm like a big awkward wing. Within its flaps and drapes and jiggles, I saw the contours of a face looking out at me from the pliant surface–not my face, but Penelope’s.


It vanished into the folds as Lawrence turned away from me. I followed him out the front door and as he locked it behind me, I said, “On the way into town you can tell me the story.”


He gave me a blank, wordless look, so I went on. “You can’t just drop the bomb that there’s a ghost in my house and then not tell me the story.”


“I suppose I did open that can of worms.”


As we pulled the Mercedes out onto the highway, Lawrence said, “I’d have told you earlier, but didn’t want to frighten you unnecessarily. The locals call them preta, which translates to hungry ghost. Spirits that desire things they can never have. Twelve Oaks has its very own preta. Simply put, Penelope MacGregor died under mysterious circumstances after receiving news of the demise of her betrothed, my great-uncle, Major Henry Pelham. And she’s been waiting for him ever since.”


“That’s the whole story? I mean, Henry’s your uncle. Have you done any ghost-hunting? Has she ever come looking for him at your estate?”


“Why would she do that?”


I shrugged, “maybe her ghost tracked down his ghost.”


Lawrence shook his head. “Henry is long gone.”


“How can we be sure?” I said. “There has to be more you can tell me.”


“I know more details, background sort of thing. Major Henry Pelham was appointed to head up the front line garrison in Mandalay and tasked with quelling the latest round of unrest–both real and rumored – within the Raj. Family legend has it that my namesake, Lawrence Pelham, went out of his way to look in on and look after his elder brother’s fiancée while Henry was away. The young Lawrence adored her, her kindness, her beauty, even her faithfulness to his brother and knew there was nothing he could do to win her favor or her romantic interest.


She made it abundantly clear that she could hardly wait until Henry either returned from his post or called her to Rangoon to live with him. Then Henry died on the front. Suffocated in a burning barrack after an attack by insurgents. But even after he died–after his funeral–Penelope kept waiting for him and him alone, and is waiting still they say. She was delusional, hysterical, eventually institutionalized.”


“Is it possible that Henry wasn’t really dead?”


“The army couldn’t ship his body back for burial, but I’ve seen the casting that they made–a death-mask that’s entombed in his crypt.”


“If it was entombed, how did you see it?”


After a long silence, he said, “The crypt was damaged in a storm. It’s been resealed.”


“Did you know that he sent her letters, after he had supposedly died,” I asked.


Lawrence shook his head. “Do you have any of these actual letters, or did you just learn about them in a dream?”


I shrugged, unable to explain how I knew about the letters in the first place. But I remembered their neat script, their luminous words, Even in death, you consume me. How can I pass unto that cold land without us ever consummating our bond that made each day on Earth worth living? At the mercy of the seraphims who believe in love above all else, I have been given human form in which to come to you.


“Even in death, you consume me,” I said. “That’s how the first one began. He sent them after he died.”


“Ahhh, ghost letters! There’s a new theory.”


“She couldn’t tell anyone,” I explained. “The letter said that if their union became known to any mortal soul, it would become no more than a memory. The letter bid her to burn his letters so that he could climb the ladder of ash to her room.”


Lawrence’s voice croaked a bit as he said, “I’m not sure it’s safe for you to stay in that room. What if she draws you into her dementia?”


“Where else am I going to stay?” I put to him, realizing as I did so that the prospect of communicating with the ghost excited more than terrified me.



The next day, my dad sent a truck and three men to pick up the mangler. While everyone else was outside, hoisting the machine onto the truck, I explored the cellar. In an unlit corner, I found a cabinet that was nowhere near as dusty as everything around it. As I reached out, I was startled by a noise a hissing and slithering through the darkness. The ground seemed to squirm at my feet and I jumped back.


“It’s Henry,” the snakes hissed and slithered. “He’ssss here. Henry? Henry? Henry? Sssssssssssssssso near.”


A hand clamped over my shoulder and I just about jumped out of my skin as Lawrence said, “So we’re all done here.”


“Do you have snakes down here?”


He laughed. “There are probably snakes living under most of the houses in Burma. Did you see one?”


“It spoke to me,” I almost told him, but instead I said nothing.


That night on the dream train, Penelope sat down beside me.


“I don’t think I truly believed Henry would come back to me until the night he came knocking at my door,” Penelope whispered. Through her eyes, I saw his face perched upon the pillow. With her fingertips, I traced the curve of his jaw. Although all the features were Lawrence’s features, this was not him. It was Henry. Of course it was Henry, who had declared his immortal love, who had broached the greatest chasm to be with her for one beautiful night. It was Henry who had entered her and spilled his angelic seed inside her–completing their bond. It was Henry–right up until that awful moment when it wasn’t.


She handed me a book instead of a coconut shell. I awakened, certain I had seen a copy of that book, Pride and Prejudice, somewhere in the house. I got out of bed and started searching through the bookshelves, finding it in the living room. When I opened it, two envelopes, along with a yellowed, scallop-edged photograph slid out from behind the vellum frontispiece. It was a picture of a man in uniform – of Lawrence to be precise. On the back was inscribed, “Counting the heartbeats until you are back in my arms. All my love, Henry.”


“Look in his cellar,” an urgent whisper awakened me from the dream. The first thing I saw upon opening my eyes was Penelope’s face, inches from my own – locking her gaze with me, as she repeated, “the cellar.”


The next morning. Lawrence drove up and honked for me rather than coming in as usual.


“Did you dream of Penelope again last night?”


“She gave me something to show you.”


“Another coconut shell?”


“Something real this time. She told me where to find it.”


I refused to show it to him until we sat down in his living room. He read the inscription on the back then flipped it over and stared into his own eyes. “The resemblance is uncanny, I’ll give you that. He shrugged, smirked. “Genetics I suppose.”


I shook my head. “She told me to look in your basement.”


“Look for what?”


“Hell if I know.” I said, “But do you mind if we go down and look. Our personal ghost adventure awaits, right down these stairs.”


I grasped the knob, opened the door and stepped down. The surfeit of creaking behind me made me turn my head in time to see Lawrence coming up behind me, swinging a fireplace poker down toward my head, but I stepped aside and his downward arc carried him off balance and he tumbled past me down the stairs.


At the bottom of the stairs, I flicked on the bank of feeble lights to find Lawrence sprawled, face down on the concrete floor. One leg had snapped and was bent sideways. In the fall, he had dropped something that was now lying just beyond his outstretched fingertips – looking like the pupae from my dream. I nudged it with my shoe, and it unfolded as it rolled over.


It was Lawrence’s face, or rather, a rubber mask of his face – distorted and hollow eyed. I picked it up and stared into the empty eye sockets. Behind me, the man moaned and lifted his head. What was left of the features on his skull stood out like inflamed scabs on stretched white parchment. The creature gestured toward the mask, imploring me to give it back, which made me grip it tighter.


As I tried to step around him to get to the stairs, a strong hand clamped around my ankle. I didn’t fall, but as I struggled to free myself, he grabbed the mask, tearing it from my grip so violently that I was left clinging to a rubber ear and part of a jaw.


He toppled me onto my back. As he pulled what was left of the mask tightly over his skull, I could see his body begin to instantly repair itself, the broken leg bending and straightening back into shape as he climbed to his feet and took a clumsy step toward me.


I watched his rubber lips move, his eyes blink, almost normal again. “You found my masks, didn’t you? Yesterday? You better not have done anything to them or I’ll make a death-mask of you.” Blood poured down his neck from the missing ear and I glanced down at the bloody bit of cartilage in my hand.


He backed me to the corner where I had heard “the snake.” On the upper shelf was a plaster mask – the deathmask, I assumed. On the bottom shelf were rubber castings, a dozen masks at least – all with Henry’s features.


He pulled off the one he was wearing and threw it to the floor with a bloody splat. While he was replacing it with a fresh mask, smoothing it into place, I took advantage of the distraction, running past him, unbolting the swinging door and bursting out. As I glanced over my shoulder, it was not the elderly tutor my father had hired who I saw standing there, but rather the young colonial soldier whose face had supplied the mould. Lawrence had somehow become 40 years younger.


I ran through the rubber grove, screaming for help from anyone who might be out there, but seeing no one, no gatherers, no construction workers, or cowherds. As I paused, disorientated, the creature that was Lawrence caught up to me, hauling me down and straddling me. But coming up through the well of panic inside me, I felt a presence, and like in the dreams where I became Penelope, she stepped into my head.


I don’t know what Lawrence saw when I spoke in her voice, “Henry, you’re back.”


He stared back down and said, “You can’t possibly still be waiting?”


“And why wouldn’t I be?” said Penelope. “You have always been everything to me.”


He seemed paralyzed with shock and disbelief. Frozen enough at least that I was able to squirm out of his grasp and buck him off me. He jumped to his feet, but instead of attacking me again, he ran back into the house, slamming the basement door behind him. A moment later, I saw motion though an upstairs window, in the trophy room near Henry’s crypt. Penelope imagined him loading an antique rifle and since she was inside of me, I shared that supposition. I stood swaying in the hot morning sun, trying to convince myself to turn and flee, but she clung to me, refusing to let go.


“I’ve finally found him,” she told me. “I need you now.”


My eyes fluttered shut and I struggled to escape the waking dream, but she remained in front of me. “It’s not really Henry.” I said. “He’s Lawrence, he was….”


“I know.”


Her stark words hung in the air. “I know what he really is. There’s one honest thing he told me. If a mortal learns the truth it comes undone. Now that you know about him, he will come for you. If you run away, there’s no telling what he would do to silence you. He’d kill your father, I’m sure. But right now, we have the upper hand. We can destroy him.”


“But what is it I know?” I said to the ghost. “I’m so confused.”


“Come with me.”


My shock and terror was finally beginning to ebb, as Penelope’s outrage and hunger for vengeance filled me. I ducked down into a crouch and began running through the grove, not towards Twelve Oaks, but rather, circling back toward Lawrence’s house. Of course all the doors were locked. I was leaning back against the basement wall wondering how to proceed, when the door swung open. Thinking that he’d caught us and half-expecting a bullet through the chest, I staggered back, but the figure in the doorway cocked a sly brow at me as she turned to smoke. As I felt her flow back into me, I thought (or at least felt her thinking), there are some advantages to being a ghost.


I could hear Lawrence stomping and shuffling across the floor above me, walking as though he hadn’t just broken his leg. My breath caught in my throat as he moved back toward the stairs. The cabinet door was open and the shelves were empty. There on the floor, looking up at me, was the mask that Lawrence had discarded – the torn face that I had gotten to know as Lawrence.


I picked it up.


“Put it on,” said Penelope’s voice in my head.


She held it out to me, a layer of raw, bleeding flesh dimming its translucence.


I felt like puking on the floor or shouting what the hell do you want from me lady? Or just curling into a ball. But I knew what she wanted, and required me to turn the mask over, and lower my face into the bloody mess as though it was a hot towel.


Henry’s final memories flooded into me, of being dragged by his wrists out of a fire that was enveloping the barracks at the camp where he was stationed. He had regained consciousness, opening his bleary eyes to find himself lying in a box. The smell of plaster was overwhelming, the last face he saw before the viscous fluid flowed over his forehead filling his eyes was his younger brother’s long gaunt face. Henry opened his mouth to scream and the substance filled him, choked him, drowned him–trapping his soul in that living deathmask.


Inside me, Penelope writhed, her hunger for the truth undermined by its bitterness. In the same way that a part of Henry’s soul had been captured in the deathmask and transferred to the rubber copies, the thoughts and recollections now racing through my mind were from Lawrence’s perspective – far fresher, more fervid than Henry’s comparatively petrified memories. The whole story was laid out before her now, a banquet of poisons.


Through my senses, she experienced Lawrence’s nightly vigil while he watched, in a rapture of adoration and devotion, as Penelope prayed and got ready for bed.


We accompanied Lawrence on his journey to the shrine of the demon, Kama-Mara, in a huge hollow baobab bole in the jungle, vividly recalling the moment he pushed aside a great curtain of moss, to be enveloped in a haze of earthy incense that reeked like dung and mud and fungus. Unlike Buddha, who never greets you personally at the door, Kama-Mara was waiting cross legged in his thorny robes and grateful for their visit. When he took Lawrence’s hands in his, the young man staggered back and the demon laughed companionably. “You must let me feel your need. The better I understand it, the better I can help with your problem. Show me the depth of your desire.”


Lawrence had wanted his brother’s life. He had wanted Penelope. And so, the deal was struck, the steps were taken: the kidnapping from the battlefield, the making of the mold while Henry’s lungs filled with plaster, and the letter to Penelope in a very good approximation of his dead brother’s hand, (for Lawrence had practiced many years) declaring that death had not freed him from her love, the ink running where his tears spilled onto the page.


Putting his plan into action had been a gradual thing. There had been many letters, growing bolder each time. Explaining how difficult it was to cross between the realms, convincing her that she was pulling him inexorably into the mortal world by following his instructions – going out onto her balcony, touching herself in certain ways so he could watch. Henry’s dress uniform had hung large on him the first time he stepped out into the faint light that permeated the gardens of the estate, making sure she glimpsed him before stepping back into the shadows.


Then finally putting on the mask, on the night of the winter dance at the Anglican Church when he had convinced her to stay home alone. The love and longing in her eyes, the most powerful thing Lawrence had ever felt. As they kissed, all his worries were washed away in a tide of fulfillment and desire. She gave herself to him again and again and again, as they both forgot that the rest of the world existed.


Until a knock came at her bedroom door.


“We heard noises. Are you alright my dear?” came her father’s voice.


Lawrence whispered to her, “If they see me, then I will never be able to come back.”


“I’ll keep them away, my love.”


As he hid, he began to sweat and the mask no longer adhered to his skin. He tried desperately to put the disguise back on. When it didn’t work, he dressed quickly.


“What is going on in here?” her father demanded, bursting into the room. The mask slipped from Lawrence’s fingers, and with it, all pretense.


“Lawrence?” came the father’s voice. “What are you doing here?”


Penelope gazed at him with widening eyes as he fastened his belt. “Why are you wearing his clothes? Where is Henry?”


“Listen here young man! What are you doing in my daughter’s room?”


Wordlessly, Lawrence fled, leaving behind a crowd of open-mouthed onlookers and a wailing and very confused and grief-stricken young woman.


In the aftermath, she denied ever letting Lawrence into her bedroom and refused to believe that Henry was dead. She had seen him, made love with him…and as it turned out, was carrying his child. The family confined her to the house, ashamed of both her pregnancy and her growing madness. And Lawrence, having once tasted her, was both sated and banned from Twelve Oaks.


One moment I knew none of this, the next the memories were part of me. I even shared in the feeling of relief he’d felt upon hearing the news that Penelope had hanged herself following her return from the asylum.


Her screams of anguish and fury erupted from inside me. Her treasured memories of her final tryst with the man she loved now fully exposed.


I opened my eyes to see Lawrence coming down the stairs, holding an elephant gun he had shown off to me earlier in the week.


“What’s that on your face?” Lawrence demanded. “That’s not yours. That’s mine! Take it off!”


He pulled the trigger–and I’m not at all sure what followed.


There were curtains of rubber between us, which the bullets couldn’t seem to penetrate. They hit the barriers, unearthly and inviolable, and simply dropped out of the air, mingling with the shell casings on the floor.


As Lawrence stared stupidly at the empty gun, his face grew longer, mouth gaping stupidly, eye-sockets emptying of all sensibility as the final lies fell away.


“I know everything about you now,” I said. “And so does Penelope.”


As her name escaped my lips, her spirit seemed to billow out from my chest – her long arms reaching, her cold hands grasping his ankles as she pulled him back down the stairs, his enfeebled hands clawing, fingers snapping off, fingertips crumbling to dust. It screamed as she reached into him and tore out his life-force like gutting a fish.


Now knowing where Lawrence had put the masks, I ran up the stairs, opened the vault beneath the Henry’s monument and pulled them out. When I smashed the plaster deathmask onto the flagstones, I felt Henry’s spirit, pouring from the rents, rising up between the pieces. Penelope was there to gather them, And I left the two of them there, spirits swirling as I went back down to the basement to prepare an acid bath for the rubber faces–which were now no more than faces, with Henry’s spirit having escaped at last.


You might think I’d have been covered in his blood, but Lawrence had apparently lived a bloodless life. There was nothing left of him beyond the ash smeared white suit crumpled on the floor. The police investigation was over in a heartbeat. For all of his unnatural years, it seems that Lawrence did not make much of an impression upon the world.




Wouldn’t You Rather



By Serena Johe



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“I couldn’t say.”


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


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


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


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


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


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


“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”


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


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


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


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


“Sounds like fun to me.”


“Yeah, I bet it does.”


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


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


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


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


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


Clay slides into the booth, setting his coffee cup on the table to stick out his hand.


“Clay.”


“Jack,” the man smiles widely. His damp fingers are unpleasantly cold.


There’s an extended silence as Clay tries to figure out an angle. Jack, meanwhile, only continues to smile in that gleeful way, like a man about to leave on a long vacation. Eventually, his gaze once again drifts down to the tabletop, jumping from left over morsel to left over morsel, presumably in search of something to eat. The grin never leaves his face, though. It’s only his eyes that move.


“What are you writing about?” Clay asks at last, if only to get the reporter to stop looking a cat in a field of mice.


But Jack just flaps a hand at him. “Oh, you know. This and that.”


“You ask awfully strange questions, you know.”


There’s a piece of pancake on Cindy’s plate, sodden with syrup. Jack eyes it for only a moment before snatching it up.


“I love sweets,” he explains at the other man’s incredulous look. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Clay? Do you like dessert?”


“I didn’t sit here to talk about dessert.”


Jack’s smile grows. “An interview, then?”


“I don’t want one of your ludicrous interviews either.” Clay rolls his tongue behind his teeth agitatedly. “I want to know what you’re doing here. In my town.”


“Is that so…?”


At last, the expression on Jack’s face changes into something other than blithe indifference. He leans forward with his elbows on the table, chin resting in his hands. His head is cocked slightly in a way that reminds Clay of a young lady enamored with her date, and he can’t help but find it unnerving. Jack doesn’t seem to notice, however; he’s studying Clay’s face. His eyes are glittering with suppressed humor. The smile just barely tugging up the corners of his mouth is one a mother might give a child whose put all his clothes on backwards.


“Well, Clay,” Jack breaks the silence, snapping back into his normal posture so abruptly, like his joints are spring loaded, that Clay jumps. His knees hit the underside of the table and rattle the dishes. “I must be honest with you. I think you already know the answer to your own inquiry.”


He waits, but Jack apparently needs prompting. “Which is?”


“I’m here to ask questions.”


“Yeah,” Clay draws out the word. “But what for?”


“Answers.”


“Answers to what?”


“Why, questions, of course!”


“But…” he stops himself. The look on Jack’s face is infuriatingly smug. Clay stands stiffly, leaving his unfinished coffee settled between plates, his jaw flexed in irritation. “Screw you, buddy.”


He drops the other half of the check over Paige’s bills and leaves without another word. Jack’s eyes are on him the whole way out, but he doesn’t turn to look.


Who has time for that kind of nonsense?



Clay avoids the diner for two weeks. The reporter makes him distinctly uncomfortable in a way that he can’t quite describe. No man smiles that much, he thinks resolutely, unless he’s got that much to smile about, and whatever it is that’s got Jack so happy, Clay doesn’t want any part of it. Especially not after being caught in one of his idiotic games.


It’s baffling to him that there are so many others who continue to willingly subject themselves to Jack’s laughable line of questioning, though, but people do. He catches snippets of conversations throughout town and at work, and despite his desertion of the diner, Paige continues to drink coffee there while she writes. When they find each other after work, she informs him that Jack is still there doing much the same thing.


“I don’t know why you’re being such a baby about this,” she teases him over dinner, but Clay stubbornly refuses to go back.


“I just don’t like the guy. There’s something off about him.”


“Well, yeah,” Paige agrees, “but he’s not going to jump across the diner and kill you or anything. I just don’t see what the problem is.”


It’s a matter of principle, really. There’s just something wrong about a man wandering into town and bugging the locals, asking questions for his own gain and offering nothing in return. It doesn’t seem fair. Besides, even if Jack won’t spill the beans, Clay is more than certain that whatever he’s writing about is as empty-headed as the man doing the writing, so the fact that all these people are lining up to be a part of it is just plain disturbing. Surely Jack will leave soon anyway.


At the end of the second week, however, something else begins to bother him. He’d listened to Jack’s inane questions for nearly three weeks before confronting him. Of course he’d remember a few conversations. So, it’s strange, he thinks, when Collin gets a cat, but perhaps Jack’s question put the idea in his head. That wouldn’t explain Ms. McGruder’s winning a car in a magazine sweepstakes, though, or Cindy’s free airline tickets to Florida, or Carl’s mother’s cancer scare that turned out to be a benign lump.


There are others, too. His neighbor loses his great grandfather’s lighter but finds a thousand dollars sewn into his mattress while searching for it. Paige’s best friend drops twenty pounds in ten days. Oddities begin to pile up, and perhaps it’s because Clay spent so long eavesdropping on the interviews that he’s the only one that puts it together. Now, if only he could figure out what it is, exactly, that he’s put together.


On Monday morning, Clay returns to the diner. He’s not entirely sure what he’s come here to ask, let alone how he’s going to ask it, but the point is that there’s something that needs to be asked and somebody has to do the asking. Besides, he figures, Jack loves questions. Maybe he’ll like answering them too.


He finds Jack engaged in conversation at the back of the diner. The woman across from him is answering a question, something about jail or a coma. There’s a plate full of powdered raspberry donuts in front of him that he’s casually demolishing at a speed normally reserved for competitive eating. One of the donuts is leaking jelly, and this one, he picks up, squeezing it slightly and watching the bright red, sugary substance gather atop it like a kid watching Santa come down the chimney. He’s so intensely focused on the food that he evidently forgets the woman across the table until she remarks on the odd behavior.


“I love sweets,” Jack says with that broad smile. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Becca? Do you like dessert?”


Clay waits for them to finish up the interview. In the meantime, he pays for half-a-dozen strawberry croissants and two cups of hot chocolate, carefully balancing the platter of pastries on his wrist as he approaches the booth once Becca makes her way out. He slides the plate over the previous, now empty, one.


He’s obviously made the right choice. Jack wiggles his fingers delightedly.


“What a pleasant surprise!” He announces, clearly giddy, and immediately begins tearing into the first pastry. “Clay, to what do I owe the pleasure?”


He tries to make himself feel as sure as he sounds. “I want to know how you’re doing this.”


“Doing what?”


Clay inhales deeply. His fingers drum pensively against the table.


“Look,” he says with the exhale, “I can’t help but notice that these questions of yours–that the answers matter.”


“Well, of course they matter,” Jack says patiently. “Why would I ask them if they didn’t?”


“But I don’t understand.”


“Neither do I. That’s why I’m the one asking the questions.”


“But, you,” Clay rubs his hands over his face, “how is it that when you ask someone something, the way they answer the question actually happens?”


“You mean that their choice results in its own fruition.”


“Yes,” Clay affirms, perhaps a bit exasperatedly.


“Oh. Oh, I see.” The bell signaling an order is ready chimes loudly in the emptying diner. Jack, momentarily distracted, pauses with his mouth open. When he sees the plate of roast beef up on the metal counter separating the kitchen, he turns back to Clay, his usual smile in place. “Yes. That’s me.”


They spend a moment in contemplative silence. Jack’s expression remains frozen in place as his hand begins to slide toward another pastry, as if he doesn’t realize it’s happening. The inappropriateness of it jars Clay back into the situation.


When he speaks, it’s clear his sensibilities have been offended.


“That’s impossible.”


“Maybe for you.”


“No,” Clay says firmly. “No one can do that.”


Jack tuts disapprovingly. “It sounds like you’ve made a lot of assumptions.”


“It’s impossible,” he repeats, getting annoyed, but Jack merely tips his head toward the front of the diner. Clay hesitantly peeks around the booth, neck craned to see out the glass door and catch a glimpse of the sudden commotion out front.


Becca’s hands are cuffed behind her back. When Clay numbly slides back into his seat, he finds Jack looking quite pleased with himself.


“Okay,” Clay says shakily. “Okay. Okay.” And then, after a moment more, “What the hell are you?”


His earlier hopes are apparently for naught. Jack does not like to answer questions except with more questions.


“Would you rather know that,” he begins while Clay’s heart sinks into his stomach with dread, “or be able to choose the means of your own death?”


The word “death” coming out of this thing’s powdered sugar covered mouth is utterly disquieting. Everything about Jack, in fact, is disquieting. His brown eyes reflect his jubilant disposition. There’s stubble along his jaw. A pink tinge on his cheeks affirms his constant amusement, and his hair, dark shades of mahogany slicked back with pomade, contrasts all of his mannerisms in a way that is roguishly charming. He looks utterly human.


He’s not.


“What if I don’t answer?” Clay ventures, heavily disliking the way his voice quivers.


Jack’s body twitches to life suddenly. His elbows snap to his sides and his shoulders roll back in an instant. Clay’s knees hit the edge of the table again, exactly reminiscent of their first conversation.


“Then I’ll answer for you.”


There’s no way Clay’s about to let that happen. Besides, in this case, the question is an easy one. Nobody ever gets to choose the means of his death, anyway. It sounds more like a curse than a blessing.


“I want to know the answer,” Clay finally responds. Jack’s face lights up excitedly.


“Oh, good! I was hoping you’d pick that one,” he trills. “Alright, Clay, the truth is that I’m a scientist. An observer of sorts.” He pauses here to sip his hot chocolate and, finding the flavor too pleasing to resist, he finishes the cup in one swig. “Long story short, I’m conducting an experiment to learn about human behavior. I ask a question, then I observe both realities in order to see how reliably a human can judge itself.”


“Observe both realities?” Clay repeats, ignoring the rest of the odd wording. He wishes Paige were here. This is far more her field than his.


“That’s right. I watch the reality of this alternative, and the reality in which the other alternative happened instead. Some of you know yourselves quite well. Others. Well.” His eyes slide briefly to the door. Becca is long gone.


Okay, Clay thinks, clinging to the one word mantra. Okay. Okay.


What does all this mean?


Distractedly, he zeroes in on the details of Jack’s face. He’s got crow’s feet from smiling so much. The guy probably shops at Banana Republic for God’s sake.


“So, hypothetically,” the words come slowly, “if you asked me a question, and I answered it, you could tell me what would’ve happened if I’d made the other choice.”


“Exactly.”


“And a few weeks ago, when Sandra said she’d rather win a million dollars than be able to fly anywhere for free…”


“Tomorrow,” Jack confirms cheerfully. “She found a lottery ticket in her gutter this morning.”


A million dollars. That’s a lot of money. Hell, Carl could’ve won the whole jackpot if he’d been more heartless. And then there’s his neighbor with the thousand dollars, and Ms. McGruder with her new car.


“So, if I asked you to ask me a question –“


“Oh, no, no, no, no,” Jack interrupts emphatically, his finger wagging. “That wouldn’t be very scientific at all. It only works if I choose the questions.”


Of course that would be the case, Clay realizes. Otherwise he’d just be granting wishes. Still, he finds himself considering the words against his better judgment. For the most part, Becca aside, Jack’s inquiries generally seem to run the gamut of favorable outcomes and benign ones. The risk is certainly there. It’s just a matter of the reward.


A million dollars is a lot of money.


He taps his finger against his mug and asks before he can stop himself, “Would you ask me a question, then?”


“That doesn’t sound like a good idea for you.”


“Why?” He goes rigid in his seat. He hadn’t realized he’d been sweating, but the faux-leather clings to his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt. “Are you going to ask me something terrible?”


“I had no intention of doing that, but this is about foresight, Clay, and I’m sure you said you didn’t want an interview.”


“Yeah, well, I changed my mind.”


Jack’s grin widens minutely. Clay pretends not to notice. “Are you sure?”


“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” he insists, his nervousness fueling his impatience.


“Alright then!” Jack wastes no time grabbing his pen. He tips the notepad up toward him, obscuring his scribbles. “Let’s start with a fun one, shall we? Something very simple. If you could choose between falling in love or finding something you’ve lost, which would you pick?”


Clay’s posture droops at the question. He’s relieved and disappointed by the options. “But I’m already in love.”


“Oh?”


“Paige. My girlfriend.”


“The–oh, I see, the woman you–oh,” Jack draws out the vowel. His hand rises up to his mouth in a rather dainty and theatrical display of awkwardness. “How silly of me! I guess I’ll just have to save that one for later. Let’s see here.” He trails off momentarily, tapping his chin. Clay can easily imagine the light bulb clicking on above his head when he sticks his finger up in a moment of inspiration.


“I’ve got it. Would you rather marry the woman you’re dating now, or lose her to another man?”


“What?” Clay jolts halfway out of his seat, knocking over a half-empty glass of water. The waitress gives him a pointed glance and he slowly lowers himself back down. “What kind of a question is that?”


Jack looks mildly offended. “Well, I thought it was an interesting one.”


“But–those choices!”


“Yours to make,” he replies lightly.


Some choice. Clay wrings his hands in his lap. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. So much for a million dollars, he laments, because this is certainly going to be his last question. He’s suddenly glad that Paige isn’t here despite his earlier wish.


It’s not that he doesn’t love her, he reminds himself, woodenly sipping his hot chocolate and watching Jack coo over his dwindling plate of sweets. It’s not a matter of love, though. It’s a matter of life. Which is long. At twenty-six, he can reasonably expect to live for another fifty years, and to be with the same woman for the entirety of it is something he hadn’t considered. Forever is a long time to be tied down, and then, there would eventually be kids. He’d be stuck in this town without ever getting to see what else the world had to offer.


But that’s not fair, is it? What would Paige pick? Clay chews his tongue irately. Damn Jack, he thinks, and his damn questions. He and Paige have been dating for nearly two years, and while he’s enjoyed it, how could he reasonably assume that would remain true for the next five decades? There are a lot of people in the world. Not to mention possibilities, places to see, people to meet. If something like Jack can exist, there’s no telling what he might be barring himself from. If he marries Paige, he’ll never get the chance to find out.


“I pick the second one,” he finally mutters.


“Oh?” Jack gradually lowers the croissant just before it reaches his mouth. “I wasn’t expecting that.”


Clay tenses, immediately defensive, “I love her, but how can I be sure that I will when I’m thirty, or forty, or fifty-years-old?”


“That’s a good point,” he concedes after a moment’s thought.


And then he resumes eating. Clay waits for something to happen, some Adonis to drop out of the sky, but there’s nothing but the scraping of forks against plates and the quiet chatter of the sparse diners. Jack is licking his fingers clean.


“So?” Clay asks impatiently.


“So? Would you like another one?”


“No! I just–is that all?”


“Well, I mean, are you going to finish your hot chocolate?”


Bordering on furious now, he shoves the mug across the table. Some of the liquid sloshes up over the rim of the cup, but Jack doesn’t seem to care.


Clay yanks his jacket on and leaves without another word.



It takes three weeks. Three agonizing weeks. Clay wishes it would’ve been over with the moment he answered the question, but no. Time passes sluggishly in a daze of anxious paranoia. It feels to him that he spends the next twenty-one days wading through corn syrup.


It begins with the text messages, or so he thinks. He never finds concrete proof. Still, when Paige’s phone buzzes against the dresser at three in the morning, his hand immediately reaches for it, typing in her password at a near frenzied pace.


She merely raises an eyebrow at him. She’s barely visible in the dark, hopefully missing his panicked expression, and he replaces the phone back on the nightstand. It’s her sister.


The one reassurance doesn’t help. Each time her phone vibrates, an alarm bell in his head rattles along with it. After a few days, it’s enough to make her angry, and they fight for the first time in six months when she finds him scrolling through her text messages again. He’s on the couch, hunched over the screen. Paige stands on the other side of the coffee table and waits for him to notice.


When he does, she says impatiently, “Are you finished?” Her tone suggests that he promptly say yes. Clay nods, but his apologetic look hardly abates her frustration. “What has gotten into you?”


Clay puts the phone in her waiting hand and keeps his eyes in the table. “What do you mean?”


“I mean that a few weeks ago, you were so distant I wasn’t sure you cared anymore, and now you’re acting like I’m the one who’s about to disappear on you.”


“Well, I obviously care a lot then,” he tries to lighten the mood, but in the face of her anger, he may as well have told a knock-knock joke to a brick wall. She shakes her head, shoves her phone in her pocket, and grabs the car keys.


He makes no move to stop her. Paige pauses with one hand on the doorknob, the other on her hip. “You’d better figure yourself out, Clay, because I sure as hell can’t.”


He’s in the middle of asking her where she’s going when she shuts the door. The fight only exacerbates his worries. He turns her drawers inside out in search of a different brand of condoms, or new lingerie, or anything incriminating, but there’s never anything there. He apologizes at the end of every argument. He buys her flowers. He absorbs the tones and lilts of her voice, commits her jokes to memory, studies her face while she sleeps, right up until the end of the third week when she sits him down, her lips set in a grim line.


“We need to talk.”


It’s over, she says. She’s fallen in love with someone else.


Long before that moment, Clay knows he’s made a mistake. He storms into the diner early the next morning, his hands fisted resolutely in the pockets of his leather jacket, and takes a seat at the counter. It feels as though he’s been emptied out and filled with cement. He can hardly turn his head when the door chime announces the entrance of a new patron, and when Jack at last arrives in a flurry of good cheer, he hardly makes it four steps before Clay is grabbing him by the sleeve of his coat and sitting him down in a booth.


“I’m hungry, Clay.” Jack is smiling, but his words don’t sound very friendly. Clay wisely orders a dozen assorted pastries and two mochas. It’s only after the food arrives that Jack speaks again, and whatever emotion he’d hidden beneath his plastic smile seems to dissipate at the first sugary bite. “So, what can I help you with? Are you here for another interview?”


Clay is hardly in the mood for games. His tone is blunt. “I want my girlfriend back.”


“That’s not what you said a few weeks ago,” Jack answers easily.


Clay slams his fist against the table, ignoring the looks of the waitresses. “I don’t care! How could I have known which choice to make? You tricked me.”


“Why, Clay.” Jack gives him a sympathetic look as he tears a sugar cookie in two. “I don’t know anything about that, remember? I’m just an observer.”


“Bullshit.”


There is no reply. Jack dips the cookie into his drink, watching fascinatedly as the coffee drips from the sweet, forming a thin layer of buttery oil on the top of the liquid in his mug. When he takes a bite, his eyes light up, and he becomes immediately engrossed in repeating the process. It’s apparent he’s not going to answer.


“I want another question,” Clay says firmly.


“That’s not really what you want.”


“Yes it is! I want to fix this!”


Jack still doesn’t look up from his food. “Fine, then. If you could pick between being you, or being the man your girlfriend is in love with, which would you choose?”


Clay slams his hand on the table again. He shoots the staff a glance that has them quickly turning away. “That’s not fixing it.”


“I thought you said you just wanted to be with her.”


“It’s not the same!”


Jack shrugs. He doesn’t look concerned in the slightest. “So, you pick you, then?”


“Of course!”


“I really wish you’d stop doing that,” he remarks nonchalantly, waving a hand at Clay’s fist still pushed into the tabletop.


“I wish you would just give me a choice that makes any damn sense.”


“It’s hardly my fault that you don’t know yourself.”


When Clay’s hand comes down again, Jack’s smile fades. Just a little. He wipes his gloves on a napkin and laces his fingers together. If he’s angry, his tone doesn’t reflect it.


“I’ll level with you, Clay, and ask you outright. What is it that you think you want from me?”


“I already told you,” he replies through gritted teeth. “I want my girlfriend back.”


“I don’t have to be a scientist to tell you that’s obviously not true, not that you would know,” Jack continues before he can be interrupted, stopping Clay’s ready retort. “Would you rather kill your girlfriend’s lover and win her back, or leave things as they are?”


“That’s–that’s not…”


He trails off. This is yet another bad idea, but it’s not like he has a choice. The available decisions are bleak: rely on Jack’s questions to resolve the situation, or walk away. Clay puts his head in his hands, pressing his palms into his eyes to try and soothe a headache, and attempts to think through the rapidly escalating stress. He can hear the scraping of empty plates around him. The kitchen staff shouts in the background. The diner fills over the next ten minutes, the breakfast crowd multiplying as it nears close to eight in the morning. Jack mumbles quietly to the waitress, and Clay feels the table vibrate as she sets down another full platter.


It feels like there should be an obvious answer to this question, he thinks irritably, but there isn’t. Paige’s lover wouldn’t be the only one getting hurt if he died, and Clay has no intention of killing anyone. But he won’t lose her either.


When he finally looks up, Jack is tonguing the inside of a Bavarian cream donut in a rather suggestive way. He’s holding it above his head like he’s emptying a pitcher of water into his mouth. His trench coat separates slightly around the middle button, and it only takes a moment for Clay to realize that Jack is naked underneath it. The absurdity almost makes him laugh, but it’s hard to find anything funny right now.


“I would never hurt her like that,” he interrupts the spectacle before him.


“Really?” Jack removes his tongue from the pastry. He licks the sugar from his lips thoughtfully. “It’s funny you should say that. In another reality, your answers actually led you to kill her. Oh, don’t give me that look,” he chides, tapping Clay on the nose with a sticky finger like he’s teasing a child. “You had a reason. It’s a long story, but it involved the misinterpretation of some romantic poetry, and then there was this bear at the zoo, and she contracted this strange disease that–oh, nevermind,” Jack cuts himself off, forgoing the rest. “I’m sure you can figure it out from there.”


Clay can’t, of course, but he’s not concerned with trying. “I would never do that.”


“You have no idea what you’d do.”


“I wouldn’t do that.”


“But you di-id!” Jack singsongs in a wavering, high-pitched voice. “There’s no point in arguing about it, anyway. What’s your choice?”


Clay flexes his fingers around his mug, not quite meeting the eyes of the man across from him. “I don’t think those are very fair choices.”


“If choices were fair, they’d be easy to make, Clay, and I wouldn’t have a study at all.”


“I won’t choose.”


“Then I’ll choose for you.”


“No, you won’t.”


“Oh?” Jack tilts his head. “And why is that?”


“Because, if you did that, then you won’t know what I would’ve picked. It doesn’t fit in with your experiment.”


Jack stops eating. A pastry drops from his grasp and rolls. The corner of his mouth twitches. Like a marionette’s, his hands slide off the table and into his lap, and Clay wonders not for the first time if Jack is not, in fact, in control of his limbs.


“That’s very clever of you,” he admits. His shoulders convulse in an attempted shrug, but he doesn’t seem to notice the unnatural movement. “Tell you what, Clay. I don’t particularly like this situation you’ve created, but I’ll admit that your deduction is reasonable, given what you know, so I’ll offer you one last question and not a single one more than that. Do you accept?”


Clay nods, satisfied with both the option and that he’s taken Jack down a peg. Men like that, who think they can manipulate others so easily, deserve to be outsmarted once in a while.


“Alright, then. Let’s shake on it. No funny business, now, this question is very simple,” Jack explains, and after they’ve shaken hands, Jack’s fingers clenching and unclenching like ungreased hinges, he asks, “Would you rather die by the end of the week, or have you and Paige fall happily in love at the cost of someone else’s life instead?”


The question is immediate. “Who?”


“No one you know.”


“I thought you said I couldn’t choose my death,” Clay points out suspiciously, but Jack just smiles benignly at him. His eyes have started drifting to the pile of powdered donuts on the table again.


“Like I said, it’s a very simple question.”


The answer is easy, then. “Fine. I pick the second option.”


Once again, Jack returns to his food, and Clay waits once more to see if he’ll say anything else, but he seems completely uninterested in him, now. There’s powdered sugar forming a ring around his mouth. Some cream filling dots the corner of his lips. When he catches Clay looking at him, he grins widely.


“I love sweets,” he says. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Clay? Do you like dessert?”


Clay shudders. He shoves his mug away and stands. “You can finish that.”


“Oh, how kind of you!”


Jack’s giggling follows him out the door.



The same evening, Clay answers the door to find Paige outside, her eyes red-rimmed and wet with tears.


She’s made a mistake, she says. Clay replies that he knows a thing or two about that. At his insistence, they find new places for their breakfast dates, far from Jack and Diner 66. On Wednesday, four days later, they have breakfast in bed. On Thursday, they drive into the city to get brunch at a white tablecloth restaurant. Paige makes a joke about marriage, and Clay’s hand slides over the small box in his jacket, dampening the velvet against his sweaty palm. It’s still in his pocket when they get home. They have plenty of time now, he thinks, with the rest of their lives ahead of them, and there’s not telling what might change. There’s no need to rush an uncertain future. He leaves the ring in the drawer of his nightstand.


On Friday, they have a celebratory picnic in unusually warm weather.


Clay is picking her a flower when he’s stung by a bee.


Too bad he’s lost his EpiPen.




Big Blue



By Subodhana Wijeyeratne



When the documentarian comes over the ridge, the biologist is already unpacked and fussing over a bag.


He descends the slope, knees akimbo against the treacherous scree. His shadow tremulous in Nafthalar’s diffuse sunlight. The biologist’s tent is already up—a violence of silver amidst the giant teal fungi and strange trees like giant eyestalks. She does not look up when he approaches, though he knows she heard him.


He stops a few feet away, and swallows, and says, “Hi.”


She straightens and turns and bows briefly. She is wearing a breather and he knows that behind it she is pursing her lips. Her standard greeting. Rendered unfamiliar by the alien sun and the alien air and the technology keeping them alive.


She does not say anything.


“When did you arrive?” he asks.


“Not long ago,” she says.


“You look hot.”


“It is hot.”


He looks around.


“Here, then?”


“Yes. To begin with.”


“Where is he?”


She gestures with her head. She has cut her hair into a fierce bob and it looks good on her, he thinks, but does not say so.


“Over there. Down by the river.”


“How’s he looking?”


“Older.”


“Well that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”


She shrugs.


“Yup.”


She turns and resumes her fumbling. He lingers a few moments and then puts his backpack on the ground and takes out his drone. It skitters around on spindle thin mechanical legs, whirring and twittering like a mechanical rodent. Finally it straightens and fixes its lens on him.


“Online,” it says.


“Establish campsite,” he says.


He turns and wanders off because he cannot think of anything else to do. He can hear the drone working behind him. The shuffle shuffle of pebbles and the dry hiss of the tent. He cannot see it but he knows it is blooming behind him like a ripening dewdrop.


He peers down at the valley but he cannot see their quarry. After a few moments she wanders up next to him with a scanner.


“So, how are things?” he asks.


“Things?”


“Yeah. You know. Stuff.”


“Same as always.”


“How’s the new place?”


“The lab?”


“Yeah.”


“It’s good.”


“Just good?”


“It’s a lab.”


Silence.


And then, “You don’t miss Earth?”


“I’ll be back soon enough.”


“You will?”


Finally she turns to look at him.


“Soon enough,” she says.


“Well, I’m glad you’re happy out there.”


“Happy enough.”


“I’m doing well too.”


For a moment he thinks maybe she will draw near or at least smile, but she does neither. She just nods and says, “We’ll strike out just before dawn. Keep within a mile of him at all times. He’s old now so I don’t expect him to move very fast. But you never know.”


“Right.”


“Don’t get too close either.”


“I know.”


And with that she turns and walks to her tent and leaves him there with nothing but the answers he had prepared to the questions that she had not asked.



The nights of Nafthalar are long and absolute. No moon to illuminate the gloom and the stars so cold and so far. Nothing but creeping shadows upon the darkness and winds slow and directionless like the spirits of a lost army still searching for battle. He remembers how lonely it had been the first time he was here, and thinks how lonely it is now, though many years have passed and he is much changed.


He sleeps, but not for long. When he wakes he is alert and fretful. He reads the news a while, his face a topography of blue and black in the sharp light of the screen. After a while he gets dressed and clamps the breather over his mouth and heads outside.


Already a frost is forming on the ground and there is a thin swirl of snow in the air. He turns on his chest light and his pheromone pump and immediately something clatters away in the night with the sound of claws on stone. He walks away from the camp and up a ridge. Slipping sometimes on the ice underfoot. It takes him longer than expected but he is determined not to go back. Then finally near the summit he sees a hint of blue light and the excitement overwhelms him and he clambers up to the top on all fours as he did the first time and perhaps, he thinks, he is not so changed after all.


When he is finally at the top he stops and puts his hands on his hips, panting, and laughs.


Big Blue is there.


He is sleeping. A colossal bioluminescent explosion of tentacles and gently swaying cilia the size of a man. His airsac, twenty meters across, deflated in the cold. Great flaps of glowing flesh, gossamer thin and rippling with light. A vast mass of life possessed of neither head nor tail nor left nor right.


He is still beautiful.


The documentarian sits on the ridge and ignores the cold clawing at his buttocks and watches Big Blue slumbering. Yes, older, he thinks. Some of those vast fleshy flaps frayed at the edges. Scars on his elephant-legs, each fifteen meters high and as vast around as tree trunks. Smaller creatures sneak around it, seeking warmth and a meal of parasites, or perhaps just entranced by the glimmer and shimmer of those lights that chase themselves over its skin like they too were alive and had intent and places to go.


The documentarian turns up his pump and turns off his light and watches. Time passes and the glowing decreases as the fire of the sun finally leaves the animal’s flesh. Presently it begins to snow in earnest, fat spidery flakes, so heavy he can feel them coming to rest on his naked head.


When he returns to the camp a while later he sees that the lights are on in the biologist’s tent. He thinks of approaching but when he draws near her door he sees footsteps in snow. Footsteps heading towards the ridge. He follows them and sees she has taken a route just a few meters from his. Up to the ridge, where he just was. She must have slipped past him in the dark.


Suddenly he is very tired and he returns to his tent and dry swallows some pills and a few moments later is deep in a sleep as dreamless as Nafthalar’s night is dark.



The next day she is standing at the top of the ridge with her scanner when he comes out. Her bag packed and her drone a few feet behind her with a little cart hitched to its back. She descends clumsily and falls a couple of times but he knows better than to offer assistance.


“He’s warming up,” she says. “We have an hour or so.”


“Do you ever sleep?”


“Sleep is for the weak.”


He yawns and chokes immediately and begins to cough.


“Better get your breather on,” she says.


“Yeah. Hungry?”


“I already ate.”


“Of course you did.”


He is in his tent when he hears the deep rumble of Big Blue’s call. The squawking overhead of alarmed skyjackals. And then, the thud of a giant foot on the ground.


He comes out with his toothbrush still in his mouth in time to see the creature lumbering past like some titanic god from a time before reason or order. Its pillar legs not ten feet away. Its airsac distending rapidly as it goes, ozone blue like a Portuguese man o’war. In its transparent belly colossal coils of innards sliding in aureate ichor. He is stuck to the spot and a little dribble of toothpaste dollops fatly from the corner of his lip onto his jumpsuit but he does not care.


They head off after it, the drones buzzing and humming behind them. Twenty minutes behind schedule, the biologist chides, but the creature is not moving fast. They climb up the ridge and down and then over another. There is a little stream at the bottom, over-blue water and rippling sheets of living things half-plant and half-animal and altogether alien. Little scurrying creatures chasing each other in play or in hunger with equal violence. The biologist stops occasionally and crouches by some rock or pond and runs her scanner over the ground and mutters something into it and then looks at him and nods and they keep on. Never losing sight of Big Blue’s great crest like some gargantuan electric blossom up ahead.


“Sixteen hours to sunset,” she says. “We should take turns taking naps.”


“I’m going to try to make it all the way through,” says the documentarian.


“Suit yourself.”


They continue on. To the east a vast valley, flat and dull grey, with a river meandering through it in multitudinous mercury streams. The odd squat tree with crowns as flat and uniform as a mushroom’s hood. In the clearing sky motes that could be flying creatures or something else.


A little while longer in silence and the documentarian says, “Are you going to be like this for the rest of the trip?”


The biologist glances at him and doesn’t say anything.


“So you are, then.”


“Let’s just get this done.”


The documentarian sighs. “I know you didn’t expect this but I didn’t expect you to be so difficult.”


“I’m not being difficult.”


“Yes you are. I know you well enough to tell.”


“Maybe you don’t know me very well.”


“Bullshit. I know you as well as I know myself.”


“Maybe you don’t know yourself very well.”


“Jesus, seriously?”


She holds up her hand.


“Listen.”


“What?”


“No, listen. Can you hear that?”


They have come to a stop, all of them. Up ahead Big Blue’s tentacles all turn and point east. Their tips splayed and quivering.


“Skyjackals!” says the documentarian, and turns to his drone. “Shit.”


They lie flat on their bellies, pheromone pumps turned up high. The rich scent of the stuff in their noses, like sweat and pollen. The documentarian whispers something and his drone spits four small orbs of black into the air which zip off towards Big Blue.


“What’re you doing?” says the biologist. “You’re going to lose them.”


He doesn’t say anything. He is holding a small screen to his face and in it the flying things from the east are resolving into shape. Hummingbird-like wings, four each, and slung between them a carnivore. Vicious teeth in elongated snouts and the staring eyes of all things that kill to live. They zoom towards Big Blue and the colossal creature shudders and the flaps on its body open up like sails run through with vivid violet veins.


“Sixteen of them,” says the documentarian. “Two alphas. See that? Two alphas!”


“I see it,” says the biologist.


The creatures bear down on Big Blue and orbit him, as tiny as flies against his colossal flanks. Then one or two of them fly straight in between his flaps to the delicate flesh of his torso and hover there a while, scratching at the skin and nuzzling it. Then another slips in, and another. Soon all are deep in Big Blue’s folds, busy at some task neither human can see.


“I’m going in closer,” says the documentarian.


“Don’t.”


“I’m going in closer.”


They stare at their screens, and after a few moments the biologist says, “Are those parasites?”


“Looks like it.”


“Wow.”


“Yeah.”


“Wow, look at them go!”


A deep rumble, and Big Blue’s flaps quiver. Shimmering colors all over his body, turquoise and deep blue and crimson like fresh blood. Then he shudders and a thin spray erupts from him in an aerosol haze. With it a strange aroma not quite of vinegar and not quite of flowers. The skyjackals scatter in chattering rage and then circle back and slip back up to Big Blue’s hide and get back to their feast.


The biologists laughs. “He loves it! Look at him. Look at that flushing!”


“Old boy’s got some new tricks.”


“Yeah,” says the biologist. “Who’d’ve thought?”


Though the documentarian cannot see it, she is smiling.



They make camp not soon after the end of Nafthalar’s lingering dusk and Big Blue has settled for the evening in the lee of a low hill. The biologist disappears into her tent as soon as it is erect with a nod and nothing else. The documentarian lingers watching the stars wink into view in the moonless sky and eventually the rim of the Milky Way fades into view and blazes above like it were the revelation of all revelations.


When the cold begins to bite he goes to his tent and extracts a little cooker and a packet of bacon and some bread and a small bottle of black sauce and a little pan. A few minutes later he hears a tapping over the rustling of the fat and the oil.


“Hold on,” he says and takes a plaster and covers the ring on his right hand. “Come in.”


The biologist’s head peeks in and for an instant he remembers an occasion just like this from long ago and feels a nostalgia that evaporates as she starts to speak.


“Is that bacon?” she says.


“Yup.”


She steps in and zips the door of the tent up behind her. A brief hiss as it repressurizes.


“You brought bacon?”


“Yeah. Who’d leave Earth without bacon?”


“I did.”


“That’s tragic.”


“So, you want some?”


She nods.


“Sit down.”


She plonks to the floor, cross legged, across from him. The sizzling meat between them. It crackles and curls at the edges and the fat turns from milky to brownish and finally to clear gold. The biologist opens her mouth but before she can speak the documentarian has extracted three dripping rashers and placed them on a slice of bread and squeezed a thin line of brown sauce over them with the flourish of an artist savoring the last few strokes of a masterpiece. He holds the plate out to her and she takes it from him and folds the slice in half. The crunch of the stuff as she takes her first bite. The slow roll of her jaws as she chews luxuriously.


“Happy?”


“Happy.”


He throws a couple of rashers more into the spitting oil and leans back against his bed. “Must be weird living on a station. My skin always dries up on those things.”


The biologist takes another bite and looks up at him. “As if you’d know. You’ve never spent more than a week on one.”


“Wrong. I spent six months on Chandra.”


“When?”


“Last year. Filming cockroaches.”


“Cockroaches?”


“Yeah.”


“Someone paid you to film cockroaches on a space station?”


“Apparently it’s a problem.”


“Huh.”


“My parents still can’t get their head around it. I think it confirmed all their wildest concerns about what I do when I told them I was off to space to film bugs.”


The biologist chuckles and takes another huge bite and sighs. They sit in silence awhile, watching the bacon cook.


“How are they?” she asks.


“My parents?”


“Yeah.”


“They’re good. Retired now.”


“Both?”


“Yeah. Back on Earth. In Brazil, would you believe?”


“That was always the plan, right?”


He looks at her and frowns and she pauses halfway through a bite when she notices. A little smear of brown sauce at the corner of her mouth. Then she swallows and says “What?


“I’m just surprised you remembered.”


She doesn’t say anything.


“My brother got married.”


“Munira?”


“No. Abigail.”


“No!”


“Yes.”


He turns off the flame and puts the bacon on a slice of bread.


“He invited you, you know.”


“To his wedding?”


“Yes. He sent you an invitation.”


“He probably sent it to the wrong address.”


“That’s what I said.”


The biologist pops the last of the sandwich into her mouth and swallows and wipes her hands on her trousers and stands up. The little dab of sauce still at the corner of her lips. The documentarian points to the pan. “More?”


“No. Thank you, though.”


“You’ve got some sauce on your mouth.”


She wipes it away.


“Thank you very much.”


She walks to the exit and unzips it and for a moment the documentarian thinks that is all she will say before she leaves. But she pauses, halfway through, and turns to him and says, “Tell him I’m sorry, will you? I would love to have been there but…well.”


“You’d’ve been welcome,” says the documentarian.


She stares at him, still and inscrutable, and then for the briefest of moments her face softens.


“I know,” she says quietly. “That’s why I couldn’t have come.”


And with that, she is gone.



They walk in silence the next day as Big Blue stomps with massive dignity over the tributaries of the river. After a while the documentarian activates a drone and sends it off to the west, into the narrow valleys and crevasses that scar the hillsides where fleshy leaves droop in the gathering heat and insect analogues buzz and quarrel endlessly.


“Five days from the beach,” says the biologist after a while. “He won’t make it without feeding.”


“There’ll be something nearby.”


“I wonder why he’s so far inland.”


“Not a clue. He’s not the only one, though.”


“There’s more?”


“Two other males, at least. The drones caught them.”


“Strange.”


“Isn’t it?”


“I wonder if he remembers us.”


“I doubt it.”


“Why?”


“Do they even have memories? They don’t even have a central nervous system.”


“Doesn’t mean they don’t have memories.”


“We’re probably just a clutch of weird smelling chemicals to him.”


“So maybe he remembers that.”


“Yeah, but that’s not us.”


“People are just clutches of weird smelling chemicals.”


The documentarian sucks in air through his teeth and says, “Wow. That’s dark.”


They descend into the valley and carry on over the grey-black earth, water welling up around their boots, ink, black and glossy with alluvium.


“Whoa,” says the documentarian. “Look at this.”


He patches the feed from the drone through to the biologist. A shuddering chaos of a bare stone cliff face. Smears of lichen like emerald blood on the rock. And then suddenly an explosion of pink. There is a cluster of living things in a small fissure. Opalescent blobs clinging to the rock face. Tentacles as slim as leaves and moving against the wind.


“Wow,” says the biologist. “Never seen those before.”


She turns and heads up the hillside.


“Where’re you going?”


“To see.”


“What, you’re just going to climb up that cliff face?”


She is already halfway up, clambering on all fours, her drone alarmed and buzzing behind her, chattering.


“Yes. You don’t have to come.”


“I’m not going to.”


“Fine.”


“And what am I supposed to do when you fall off and break your legs?”


“Summon the pod. It’ll take me to safety.”


“Dammit.”


She stops and looks down at him. Her face obscured in her own shadow. Like the silhouette of some old prophet descending in rage from the mountaintop.


“Stop it,” she says, and continues on.



He is alone for the next few hours, trudging along behind Big Blue, slipping and cursing and avoiding the great circular puddles the creature has left in its wake. The sun rides high and bakes the ground solid. Every now and then the documentarian stops and looks back over his shoulder to see if the biologist is behind him, but she never is.


Then in the middle of the long afternoon Big Blue lumbers up to a patch of huge pitcher plants, amphora shaped and ten feet tall. The vague shapes of half-digested skyjackals inside, dark and inert. Big Blue comes to a halt and extends a giant proboscis and dips it into one of them. The documentarian can see the nectar as it enters the creature’s body and delicate tendrils of it osmosing greenly through its insides. He dispatches three drones and films intently and does not notice the biologist coming up behind him.


“Worth it?” he says.


She holds up a small tub with one of the anemone creatures inside, wobbling like a living blancmange.


“Worth it.” She looks at Big Blue. “He’s hungry.”


“Must be exhausting, all this walking around on land.”


“Tell me about it.”


They watch the spectacle a while. Then he says, “Do you think he’s going to make it?”


“I don’t know. He’s quite old.”


“Well, if there’s no other male there…”


“On a beach like that? There will be.”


“That’s what I thought.” And then, “Remember last time?”


“Of course.”


“Remember how we didn’t think he’d make it then?”


“Yeah.”


“Maybe he’ll make it this time too.”


“Probably not.”


The documentarian frowns. “God, you’re so negative.”


“It’s pronounced “realistic”.”


“Negative.”


The biologist shrugs. “If you say so.”


“This is just like last time.”


“You weren’t so whiny back then.”


“And you were just as obstinate.”


“So?”


The documentarian snorts and walks away.


The biologist chuckles. “Yep,” she says. “Just like last time.”


It is just before nightfall that they see the other male on the horizon. A shapeless silhouette lumbering slowly in their direction, glowing neon and fluorescent on a horizon slowly bleeding from blue to black. Big Blue stops dead in its tracks, membranes rigid, tentacles pointed at the interloper.


“Holy shit,” says the biologist, scrambling for her gear.


“On it,” says the documentarian.


Six drones buzz up and off into the gathering murk and as they do Big Blue begins to call. The sound so deep it seems to rise out of the earth like the drums of the underworld. The pebbles at their feet dancing against the vibrations. Then abruptly it ends and leaves the air shuddering and the biologist and the documentarian breathless.


The male on the horizon stops.


“He’s a big one,” says the documentarian.


“Let me see.”


The biologist leans into him and peers at the screen.


“Wow,” she says, and looks up at Big Blue. “You think he can handle it?”


“Yeah, he can handle it,” says the documentarian, grinning.


Already the response is upon them, the earthquake-low rumble, and Big Blue is enraged. He unfurls his membranes and sweeps them up and down, iridescing in the darkness like a fallen aurora.


“Here we go,” says the biologist.


Big Blue stomps the ground twice and begins to shake. The earth shaking with him. A rumble and boom erupting from beneath them louder than before and more forceful. The pebbles spring hither and thither. The sound rises until they can barely stand it and Big Blue whips the gossamer substance of his body with rising fervor until the world is illuminated with his rage and his call is so loud the biologist and the documentarian have to cover their ears.


When he is done, they cheer.


He finishes with four stamps on the ground and his body slowly subsides to limpness but the other male’s response is already thundering out of the east. Diminished by distance and perhaps not as strong to begin with. Yet the ground still shakes and on the horizon he blazes a while, redder and brighter than Big Blue. And then Big Blue starts up again and so the two behemoths go on backwards and forwards getting louder and brighter until the biologist and documentarian feel sure they are about to explode and scatter themselves bodily all over the valley. At last the male in the distance lets out a forlorn bellow and its light diminishes and it disappears into the far distant darkness without a trace.


Big Blue stomps the ground a few more times and launches into another display, but he too is exhausted and his colors less vibrant and he ends the show halfway through the cycle. The fizzing light of his flesh dissipating into the night. Naught now but the sound of his alien huffing and the hormones flooding in torrents from his skin.


“You gotta see this,” says the documentarian.


They watch the footage from the cameras, nestled at the bottom of a hill. Leaning in together conspiratorially and laughing and high-fiving in delight. The drones stand by in silence, undirected and unaware. It is not until the cold winds of the evening slip across the valley floor and onto them that they stir and begin to pitch the tents.



The biologist tries to sleep but she can’t. Scattered visions of the night crowding her head. The confines of her tent semidark and expansive and empty. When she realizes what she is going to do the tension rises in her and after a while wrestling with it she gets up and reaches into her bag. She pulls out a bottle of dark amber liquid and dons her breather and heads out into the frosty night.


The documentarian is sitting on the floor by his bed when she goes in. Reading something from an old book. Older, she thinks, and going to fat. The hair on his head receding, his forehead high and pitted. He looks up at her, eyebrows raised, and she remembers that this is what he does when he does not know how to react.


She smiles and holds up the bottle. “Drink?” she says.


“Now?”


“Suit yourself.”


She turns to leave.


“No, wait. I don’t have any glasses though.”


“Just wipe it when you hand it back.”


She sits opposite him, cross-legged, and opens the bottle with a crack. She takes a swig and it is deep and fiery and hot as sulphur in her throat. She hands the bottle to him gasping with the force of it and he takes it and sips a little.


“What happened to your finger?”


“My finger?”


She points at his hand. “That plaster.”


“Oh. I skinned it.”


They drink in silence but for the crackle of the tent cloth. She takes a good hard look at his face and he does not seem to mind. She does not remember his eyes being so small, or his lips being so full. She does not remember him having flecks of silver in his beard and in his hair, and then remembers that her memories are of long ago, and perhaps of a different person.


He takes another swig and hands her back the bottle and she takes a drink without wiping the mouth and puts the bottle down next to her. Then she lies down and looks up at the rippling tent cloth overhead. The creeping warmth of the booze on her skin and in her heart. She stretches and says, “Just like last time.”


“Not quite.”


“No?”


“We’re older now.”


“And wiser.”


“Maybe you.”


She shrugs. “We all get wiser.”


“Not so sure about that.”


She props herself up on one arm and looks over at him. He is gazing off into a dark corner of the tent, chewing his lip. Face half lost in shadow. He has not noticed her looking at him and for a moment she sees him unpoised and wonders if this is how he really is now. Old and melancholy and a little lost.


“How are you?” she asks.


He snaps his head around at her like a bird.


“I’m good! You?”


“No. I mean, how are you, really?”


He looks away. And then, “You want the real answer?”


“Sure.”


“Not bad.”


“Just not bad?”


“Just not bad.”


“You seem so busy.”


“How do you know?”


She shrugs. “I read the news.”


“Oh. For a moment there I thought you took an interest.”


She nearly tells him the truth but instead she holds the bottle out to him and he stares into its dark amber depths for a few moments before taking a swig and grimacing. And again they look at each other and open their mouths at the same time and get through half a syllable each before chuckling in unison.


The documentarian leans back and says, “Please.”


“No, you go.”


“I talk enough as it is.”


“I like listening to you talk.”


“That’s a lie.”


“No, it’s not. The only problem is you talk too much.”


The documentarian smiles and looks away and is silent for a good long time. The biologist begins to think he has got lost in a daydream and she is about to prod him when he says, quietly and barely audible over the crackling of the tent, “It’s good to see you.”


She reaches out and takes the bottle and takes another drink. The hearty glug of the liquid in her throat. She does not say anything but lies silently in that twilight, watching him with what could have been sadness for him, or else sadness for herself. She cannot be sure which.



She is only awake for a few moments before she realizes she is hung over. Her tongue fat in her mouth and a dry pain at the front of her skull. She opens her eyes and realizes she is not in her tent and in a panic looks to her side. But the documentarian is asleep on the floor a few feet away, fully dressed and mouth pressed to the ground and drooling slightly like a remora come loose.


She steps shoeless and silent across the tent floor and checks the time as she goes. It is already bright outside, and hot. She checks the time and whispers “Shit!” and prods the documentarian with her foot.


“Oh god,” he groans. “Oh sweet Jesus in the manger.”


“Wake up. We’re late.”


He rolls over onto his front, yes cherry red. The side of his face wrinkled like cloth. “What was that shit? You said it was whiskey. Not…demon semen. ’


“Stop whining. Get ready.”


She turns and zips open the tent. The heat and the light and the moistureless wind in an explosion as sudden and violent as a grenade. She steps blindly into the world and finds herself unexpectedly in shadow. She opens her eyes slowly and looks up at the sight before her and screams and then clamps her hands over her mouth. After a few seconds she reaches back into the tent with her foot and whips it around a bit. The frantic rustling of the material like static.


“Hey!” she hisses.


“What?”


“Get your camera and come out quietly.”


“What?”


“Get your…”


“Why?”


“Just get out here!”


The documentarian staggers out a few seconds later and gasps and falls backwards into the tent.


Big Blue is barely twenty meters away. His bulk towering overhead. The patter of his secretions on the floor like gentle rain. He sways gently and tastes the air. All of his tentacles pointed at the two, some rigid, some rippling slowly with eerie octopus flexibility.


The biologist stretches out her hand and steps forward. The documentarian hisses and grabs her shirt but she pinches his wrist and he whips his hand back. The tentacles draw near her. Flushing now, purple and blue and pink. The biologist reaches out and touches them. Smooth and warm under her fingertips and pulsating organically. They caress her skin and wrap slowly around her hand. A tingle on her skin like a gentle current.


Then suddenly she is young and long haired and clambering over Nafthalar’s topography in amazement because she had never seen rocks so big or creatures so strange. Silver clad and quick like she were a drop of starlight come to life. And behind her another figure. A slower presence and kinder perhaps. Both tiny together in this strange world.


The vision lasts just an instant.


When she opens her eyes she sees Big Blue’s huge tentacle rising up into the air and his column-legs bending with slow majesty as he begins to trundle away.


“He remembers us,” she whispers.


“He remembers you,” says the documentarian.


“No, us,” she says and wipes the tears from her eyes. “Us.”


“Those were the same colors it flashed last time, right?” asks the documentarian.


“Dunno,” she says. “Best get ready. He’ll be off soon.”


“You think he waited for us?”


“Who knows?”


The documentarian goes to say something else but the biologist strides straight into her tent, face averted, unzips it, and slips inside. The clutter of silver devices and notes on the floor. The winking lights of her drone lying motionless in the corner. It comes awake when she walks over to her bed but she waves it away and sits on the edge of her bed and buries her face in her hands and weeps. The documentarian taps on the tent door but when he opens she hisses and waves him away too.


When she emerges a little while later he is packed and fiddling with a console. He looks up at her, chewing on his lip. Like a little boy caught red handed in some mischief. He gets up when she approaches and she is about to say something when she notices a glimmer of gold on his right hand. He notices her notice an instant too late and goes to hide his hand behind his back but then gives up.


“What the hell is that?” she says.


“What?”


She raises her eyebrows and points at his hand. “That.”


He knows what she is pointing at but he lifts his hand to his face and takes a good hard look at the ring as if he had never seen it before.


“That’s not ours, is it?” she asks.


The documentarian nods.


“We should get going,” he says.


“Why are you here?” asks the biologist.


“What?”


“Why are you here?”


He points at Big Blue. “To film him. Why else?”


“Liar.”


“I’m not lying.”


“Then why are you here? You don’t have to film him. You could have sent some drones. Or someone else. Why are you here?”


“I thought it would be nice. To see you.”


“Why? Why the hell would you want to see me? Why?”


“Relax. Jesus.”


The biologist rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. Her brow furrowed over her breather. Her eyes narrowed and fierce.


“What do you want from me, man?”


“Jesus, Miriam, calm down. I don’t want anything from you.”


“Then why would you want to see me?”


The documentarian holds up his hands palm outwards and steps away as if she were coming at him blade drawn and murderous.


“Listen, I don’t want anything from you, I just thought it would be nice to see you again, that’s all.”


“Bullshit. Why haven’t you taken it off? Do you realize how weird that is?”


“It’s not weird. I just…needed some time.”


He cannot maintain eye contact and after a few second he turns away and stares across the valley. Golden blue and bereft of foliage. A landscape with nowhere to hide. The biologist stares at the back of his neck, mute with fury and grief. She draws her crossed arms tighter around her body and looks over at Big Blue’s figure disappearing down the valley. Then she turns and grabs her bag and starts marching up the hillside.


“Wait!” says the documentarian.


She wheels around and glares.


“Don’t follow me.”


“What?”


“I’m going on ahead. You follow Big Blue. Down in the valley.”


“You can’t…”


“Don’t.”


“Miriam…”


“Do. Not.”


“Jesus, why’re you so angry, anyway? I’m the one who got fucked.”


She freezes, her back to him, silhouetted against the blue grey hillside.


“Go to hell, Mazin,” she says, not looking back.


She storms up the hillside kicking pebbles down in little avalanches. The clouds now streaming in above her as if her temper were churning the skies themselves. And then she disappears over that elevated horizon and the documentarian is left alone to stare at his ring.



She walks, unflagging, through that long Nafthalian afternoon. The sunlight perforating a veil of cloud but no less oppressively hot for all the shade. Soon she is sweating. To her left, a thin sliver of grey beach, and beyond that the sea, wrinkled and static and endless. By mid-afternoon she is well past Big Blue. By the time the shadows begin to creep out to her right, elongating and black as tar, she has lost sight of him completely.


She finally arrives at the beach. Up above, a flock of cawing motes, and the tangy smell of sea creatures on the air. Here and there there are large holes in the sand, clustered in pairs, rimmed with detritus. Dead fish and glistening patches of some organic liquid. Occasionally a bird analogue settles in chattering cacophony and pokes about and takes flight again, pursued by its kin, something squirming in its beak.


She chooses a vantage spot halfway down the beach and settles about fifty meters up a hillside. It is cooler in the shade but not cool enough so she attaches a small packet of juice to her breather and lies down and closes her eyes for a moment. Then she feels a deep rumble in the ground and sitting up, sees something emerging from the sea. Something a lot like Big Blue but bigger still and tinged purple. Another male. Slowly rising out of the water like a nightmare from the depths. Great cataracts of water flooding off its body. It steps onto the sand and its feet sink deep.


Behind her, her drone clicks to life and starts filming.


The male approaches a pair of holes, dripping water and hormones. Its proboscis extends, pearly white and spasming in peristaltic rhythm. Another proboscis emerges from the hole, larger and wider, its tip flared like a trumpet and ringed with little feathery cilia. The male’s organ settles above it and contracts and empties a torrent of matter into it. A crimson and pink gush of liquid nutrients. She can smell it where she is, a rankness undiminished by the distance.


Then something emerges out of the other hole—another giant tube, but this one pink and purple and stinking of pheromones. The male swings another tentacle over it. Its anemone-arms rigid and quivering in anticipation. The two appendages fasten together and the instant the male has finished emptying his crop he shakes his whole body and empties his seed too. Thick ropes of slimy stuff coursing from one to the other and trickling in excess down their bodies and onto the sand.


Then another rumble, and the whole thing is over. The female’s organs slide back into the sand with the steady grace of a ship sinking in calm seas.


The biologist reaches up to her communicator and then stops. One of the male’s tentacles is extended towards her, crown flared and swaying gently. She can hear Big Blue’s footsteps, a distant thud thud thud barely audible above the swelling of the sea. The other male is still now, airsac dirigible, vast and rippling in the wind. It stomps its leg and calls.


A few seconds later, Big Blue responds.


The biologist’s communicator buzzes.


“What?”


“Did you hear that?” says the documentarian. “Where are you?”


“On the beach. There’s another male.”


“Oh.” Silence. And then, “Is it big?”


“Huge.”


“Huge huge?”


“Colossal.”


“Oh.”


She turns off the communicator and begins to take notes. After a few moments she gives up and tosses her console aside and just watches as the beachmaster walks along the beach, vast and oblivious and beautiful beyond reason.



It is nearly twilight by the time Big Blue arrives. The documentarian is not far behind, flustered and sweaty. He sits down beside her and fiddles silently with his console for a few minutes before looking up and saying, “Shit, that is huge.”


The biologist doesn’t say anything.


“Do you think they’ll go at it today?”


“I doubt it,” she says. “It’ll be night time soon and they’ll want to rest.”


“Right. Better set up camp then.”


But no sooner has he said that than the beachmaster stomps the ground twice and let’s rip a great bellowing cry. An instant later Big Blue steps out onto the beach, his body taut and flashing and tentacles flailing, and the ground rumbles with earthquake intensity under the clashing calls of the two males.


“Guess I was wrong,” says the biologist, clambering to her feet.


They ascend the hillside to a small ledge rimmed with fleshy black plants. The last light of the sun garish on the underside of the cloud cover.


“That thing’s huge,” says the documentarian. “Look at it.”


“Have faith,” says the biologist.


Big Blue is heading towards the beachmaster at full tilt, body flashing firework-bright. But the beachmaster is responding in kind and his light is brighter and his bellowing louder. The documentarian smiles.


“Look at him go,” he says.


The two creatures exchange challenges for a few minutes and then abruptly cease. The biologist gets to her feet and fixes a pair of goggles to her eyes and says, “They’re going to fight.”


“I’m getting it all.”


“Shit.”


The two great beasts collide with a crunch that sends the sand on the beach billowing off in sheets. A great cloud of fluids exploding from each. They flail at each other with their tentacles and the humans three hundred meters away can feel every blow in their bones. Across the beach females’ tentacles emerge from the sand with crowns of feelers extended.


Big Blue swings one giant appendage around and it crashes into the beachmaster’s leg and sends the creature down onto its side. The documentarian and the biologist cheer. But then the next instant the beachmaster has wrapped his own feelers around Big Blue’s leg and brought him crashing down to the sand too and with groaning effort brings himself back up onto all fours and extends his proboscis. Big Blue reaches for it but the beachmaster stomps on his flattening belly and sends his innards spilling out onto the beach, glimmering neon like celestial snakes released from long captivity. And then it plunges its proboscis deep into Big Blue’s body, and again, and again, and holds it there until his foe stops struggling and twitching and the wind pauses for an instant and there is nothing but silence and the female’s organs now perfectly still and the two humans on the hillside with their hands on their heads and their eyes full of tears.


For a few minutes they sit in silence and then the biologist leans over to the documentarian and puts her arms around him and sobs.


“I’m sorry,” she says.


The documentarian hugs her back and puts his chin on her head and does not ask her why.



They spend part of the long night together in silence, wrapped up in each other and watching Big Blue’s body turn dark. Then when the cold is too intense they part company for a while. But not long after she slips back into his tent and curls up next to him and says, “I just don’t want to be alone.”


“I know,” he says.


“Don’t try anything.”


“I won’t.”


“I’ll kill you.”


“You already did.”


After a few moments, she says “I never meant to, you know.”


“I know.”


“I thought you hated me.”


“I don’t hate you.”


“You did.”


“Never. Never ever.”


“That’s not normal.”


He takes a deep breath and rolls over onto his back and closes his eyes.


“Neither of us are normal.”


They wake late the next day and eat in silence punctuated only by a brief smiles. He expects her to cry when she takes samples but she pins her hair back and dons her gloves and sets about her work with professional precision and does not stop until she has filled all of her receptacles. He remembers the first time her saw her like this and thinks how magnificent it is to see someone so utterly at one with what they do. And soon afterwards other thoughts follow and he decides it is time to leave.


His pod arrives first. Settling like a great smoking spider soon after Nafthalar’s dazzling noon.


“I’d better get going,” he says.


She nods.


The documentarian walks over the great carcass, so dull now in death, and wrestles the ring off his finger and tosses it into the great membranes hanging off the creature’s side like layers of wet cloth. Then he comes up to her and she stiffens when he puts his arms on her shoulder and leans in. She moves away for an instant and then realizes what he is doing and lets him plant a single kiss on her cheek.


“Good bye,” he says. “Good luck.”


He turns to go.


“Hey,” she calls after him.


“What?”


“It was good to see you too.”


He frowns. “You don’t have to lie.”


“No really. It was.”


He nods. “Right.”


“Do you suppose…they’d, maybe, want to see me again?”


“They’d love to.”


“OK.” She smiles at him. “I’ll send them a message.”


“They’ll be very happy.”


He watches her for a few moments and then smiles and gives her a thumbs up.


After he is gone and the smoke from his pod has dissipated into an acrid miasma she orders her drone to start packing up and wanders down over to Big Blue’s body. The sand yielding and rough between her toes. The creature’s ozone aroma strong in her nostrils. She runs her fingers along one of its body flaps and leans in and presses her lips to its already cold hide.


“Goodbye, old friend,” she says.


And then, above, the sonic boom of her returning pod.




Wanted



By Madeline Olsen



At fifteen, her heart got tired of wanting things. At least if you asked her to pinpoint when it all went down, that’s what she’d say. That year, Tad Gardner, Chance Philmont, and James Adams had dumped her, launching her into a string of hours spent locking the bathroom door and turning the sink up full-blast—tricks she’d inherited from ballet class. She’d snapped the curdled-milk pearl necklace her mother gave her and thrown the rocks so hard they’d plunked against the pink pastoral wallpaper in her living room like firing bullets. She’d glued her lips together with Elmer’s No Mess before school each morning and painted them jet. She’d shaved the thinning hair patches from her head and declared juvenile emancipation and tattooed two crooked lines above each knuckle of her right hand. Why two? Why lines? Why the right hand? Well, why the hell not. She’d blab about them representing something—siblings, boyfriends, spiritual conversions—later in life, as all good citizens with tattoos do, but, really, a crooked line is a crooked line. They didn’t mean anything.


But to say three middle-school boys stopped a beating heart seems irrational. Impossible, even, considering only ten percent know how to zip their flies and the other ninety percent equate their waists with their knees—pull up your pants, kid, please. In reality though, hope and wanting had begun to feel as dirty as kitchen sink water after a meat spaghetti dinner long before age fifteen. When did hoping, wanting ever do any good, really? As a child she’d wanted a lot of little things—soft caramel-chocolate bars suited in purple foil; the silver unicorn stuffed animal at that carnival; a ride on the cheetah at the zoo carousel. As she grew up she’d wanted a lot of big things, abstract things like love and beauty and friendship and even book smarts from time to time. But she never got anything. Three boys dumped her in a year. Some brat in a beret cried until she gave up her seat on the cheetah.


So when the doctor offered to remove her heart at age sixteen for a wad of cash, she said yeah, go for it. They took the bloody mass out and replaced it with some sort of metal cog thing—she couldn’t remember what it was called. And she hadn’t wanted anything since. Until now, that is. Now, she wanted something. She wanted out of this damn shit-pot of a circular prison.


She looked at her pointer finger, bitten to chunks of skin and blood. She pressed it against the stone and slid down, almost missing the scrap of long French-tipped nails. Nine hundred slashes of red caked the wall. One hundred more remained to be drawn. Then she would leave this place.


A guard stalked past, and the slat in the glass door grated open. A bowl clambered toward her, bouncing when it smacked the cracks in the cement. She scrambled forward, scooped it into her lap, and dipped her finger into the grey puddle. The blood on her finger salted the mush, and for a minute she could almost force herself to think it tasted good, a kind of low-quality good, you know, like canned sardines or cheap dried kale. Her butterfly lungs beat and fluttered. She choked out a cough.


She stared out the windowed wall at the watchtower that grew from the center of the panopticon. They were watching; she was sure of it, even though she couldn’t see them. God, they were always watching. They had probably watched her draw her mark on the wall and written it down—silent notes kept in a little book of her behaviors. You couldn’t get away with anything here. Her eyes glazed, blurring black rock and brown and windowpane, and she shoveled the grainy goop into her mouth, letting the liquid dribbles sting her chapped lips. When she got out of here, she was jetting to Paris and going to that pastry shop, that one in Marais with the lemon madeleines, warm as sunset and honey-buttered, and the mille feuilles that exploded chocolate and custard with each forkful—if you had the patience and politeness to use a fork, that is. She couldn’t remember the name of the place, but she’d find it. And then she’d sit at some restaurant, the priciest one around, and she’d eat mutton so soaked in cream it melted at the touch of your tongue like a sixteen-year old school boy.


Her teeth sank down into a phantom mutton morsel, accidentally clamping onto her finger instead. She wrenched it out, coughed, and spat pink-tinted spit.


She shouldn’t have killed him, she supposed. Then she wouldn’t be trapped suffocating in a two by four half-glass box. But she’d spent her life suffocated. She’d gotten tired of that doctor stalking after her for the past ten years. He’d taken out her heart, sure, but that didn’t give him the right to monitor her every action. Lord, she couldn’t even eat a jam sandwich without him noting her heart palpitations down in that damn yellow, blue-lined notepad. Pity he didn’t note the speed of her heart when she imagined smashing his glasses into his face every night as he watched her sleeping. Maybe then that frown of surprise wouldn’t have flashed on his face when she’d finally lost it. And now, they—the other doctors, the government, someone—had thrown her in here as punishment. Because there’s no better way to monitor your pet project than by throwing it in jail.


They were watching her now; she could feel the eyes piercing from the watchtower into her cell, into her body. She shook her head, crusted hair scratching her cheeks, and crawled into the corner as far from the tower as she could get. It didn’t matter how she got into this place. It was just another mistake, just a mangled body. All that mattered was one hundred more days. She leaned her head back to rest against the wall as the dank air crept into her lungs. Her throat throttled out another cough.


Her eyes fell shut; her mind unleashed itself to indulge in imaginings. In one hundred days she’d have a washing machine and a dryer and a queen-sized mattress and a toaster. In one hundred days she’d lie in the sun and feel its heat bite into her translucent skin while she poured strawberry margaritas down her throat. In one hundred days she’d walk into a fluorescent white-lit supermarket at midnight and she’d buy a bag of cheese-coated corn chips and a bottle of diet cola. And some cough medicine. The thought tickled at the metal, machine-filled cavity in her chest. If she had a heart, it’d be bloated with rushing blood and heat—hope, if you’d like to assign a word to the feeling.


She didn’t have the strength to smash the feeling down, to wrap her fingers around it and squeeze until it smothered down into the usual dull emptiness, angst, and overall eye-rolling boredom. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling a leg span from her head, and she thought about calling to whatever deity sat around up there. Maybe if she said thanks for putting me in here, it’d find a way to reduce her sentence. Maybe it’d sweep down and gather her up and take her to the clouds. She laughed. She coughed.


A scream raked her ears, sending prickling hot shivers down her arms. She crawled to the door and pressed her ear against the glass. Booted feet slapped against the floor outside on level two, the level below her cell. She couldn’t see them. They could see her from their tower, but she couldn’t see them. She could never see them. But she heard the scratch of coarse, swishing fabric—guards, off to regulate the cause of the shout. The feet stopped.


“Oh my god.”


“Do you . . . do you think? No, that’s not possible. Nah. It couldn’t be.”


“I don’t know. Looks like it to me.”


The voices dropped to a murmur, low and deep as a heartbeat. She pushed her cheek against the door and closed her eyes as if cutting off that worthless sense would improve her hearing. It didn’t. But her ears snagged one word—doctor. And then the boots shuffled away to some other side of the circle. A door slammed.


She slunk back into the shadowed corner. She’d known her fair share of doctors. When she was ten, she jumped from the top of the school monkey bars and crushed the edge of her foot. A doctor gave her crutches. When she was twelve, she danced on the top of a counter, slipped, and slit her jaw a pinkie fingertip deep. A doctor gave her stitches. And when she was sixteen, of course, a doctor cut out her heart. They’d called it a miracle. Somebody could live with a machine for a heart, yet remain human in most of the other ways—blood, nerves, broken bones. And maybe it was a miracle, though she hadn’t done it to be called miraculous; she did it for the thousand-dollar cash reward advertised by a monotone-voiced man on the radio. They’d wanted to manufacture more like her. Apparently machines last—live—longer than regular humans, and what’s a successful society if not a close to immortal one? God was immortal. We should be too. They’d failed though. She’d heard that people had died seizuring during the operation—the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was about her metal heart that made it stick, that made it compatible with all the rest of her humanness.


A door slammed. Feet shuffled. A cough. She crawled to the window-door. A silence thick as rye bread flooded the air.


“Well, is it?” a voice, a guard, asked.


She waited for the response, but heard nothing. The doctor was nodding, perhaps, or shaking his head.


“Oh god.”


The doctor had nodded, then. But about what?


“Oh god, oh god. This, no, but, but, I thought? What’s going to happen to us? What can we do about it?”


“Nothing. We can’t do anything about it,” the doctor said.


She ripped her head from the door and punched her knuckles into its surface. “What the hell is going on out there? What can’t we do anything about?”


No response. So they didn’t think she deserved to know? Like hell was she going to accept silence. She kept punching, wrists crunching, popping with each hit. The glass shook, but held firm. The hall vibrated with echoes deep as tribal war drums as the other inmates, each trapped in their hovel windowed hells, joined her song.


A guard rounded the corner. She stood, meeting his heavy-lidded eyes.


“Shut the hell up,” he said, “You’re causing problems. They saw you start this from the watchtower.”


“You shut the hell up. I wouldn’t have yelled if I hadn’t heard the panic below us. What’s going on down there?”


“An inmate died, that’s all.”


“You seriously expect me to believe that shit? One of you guards was having a panic attack, and somebody went for a doctor. What was all that for?”


“I told you. An inmate died.” The guard coughed. “That’s all.”


“Died of what?”


“People die here, that’s the nature of the institution. I would’ve thought you’d been in that box long enough to figure that out by now.”


“Yeah, I have been in this box long enough to figure that out. And I’m getting out soon enough, too.”


His chin tipped up as he laughed. He laughed and laughed and then coughed.


“What?”


“I can tell you one thing: you’re not leaving.”


“What?”


“You’re not leaving.”


“But my sentence is up in one hundred days! You can’t keep me here. By law you can’t make me stay here.”


He shook his head. “You’re not leaving. I’m not leaving. And we’ll be long dried up dead by one hundred days.”


She coughed.


He nodded. “Long dried up dead, I tell you. You think you’re so invincible, so much better than the rest of us with that little machine heart, but in a few days that machine heart will be the only thing left of you. The cough’s the beginning.”


“I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. “Is this about the inmate that died downstairs?”


He nodded.


A pit knotted in her stomach, she tried coughing it out like a hairball, but nothing could dislodge the squeezing sensation. “What did he die of? Are you going to tell me?”


“Tuberculosis.”


“That blood coughing disease that all those artists died from? They have medicine for that these days.”


“Not for this strain. It broke out last week in a village thirty miles north of here, the one where we get our milk. It wiped away the place in three days. Drugs did nothing.”


“And now it’s here,” she said, her mouth dry as honey oat granola.


“They’re putting the whole prison under quarantine. Nobody leaves or more of the world gets infected.”


“So we’re all just going to die here? You can’t do that! You can’t make me stay longer than one hundred days!”


“I already told you that you’ll be dead by then. You’re infected already. I can hear it in your breath.”


She swallowed gulps of air, fighting the pulsing cough creeping into her lungs. “No. I’m getting out. I’m getting out and going to Paris and eating pastries.”


“How do you think you’re getting out?”


“I’ll kill myself.”


“And we’ll stop you. We’ll see you.” He pointed to the watchtower. “You never know when they’re watching you, and so they’re always watching you.”


She stared at his steel grey eyes. “Don’t you want to get out? Don’t you have a family to go home to? You’ll never see them again.”


He blinked. “Sometimes we must lose the weak to become strong.”


She’d never been the weak one before. Never. She’d cut her heart out so that she would never be the weak one. Yet, here she was, stuck in a glass jail box. She looked up. “At least we’ll die together, the jailed and the jailor. Sounds like karma to me. You’ve heard the phrase. What goes around comes around.”


“Maybe. But at least I get a bed and three bowls of soup for dinner.”


He turned and walked away, disappearing down the circle’s edge. She coughed, and her hand swept to cover her mouth. She pulled her fingers away, staring at the bloodstained skeins of mucus coating her palm. And she knew that no amount of hope and wanting Parisian pastries could save her.



Two men stepped over a body.


“God, it’s creepy in here. There are skeletons everywhere. Are you sure it’s safe? We’re not going to catch anything?”


“It’s safe, I’m sure.”


The man looked at the watchtower. “I feel like someone’s watching us.”


“They’re all dead.”


“Fine. But let’s get out of here as soon as we can. Where was her cell?”


“Listen.”


The two men stopped. The stale air stank of mold and death. They listened. And then they heard it, the tick clink of a cog, a beating mechanical heart.


“Up there.”


They walked up the stairs and entered one of the glass boxes. A skeleton rotted into the floor, a metal box wrapped in its ribcage. One of the men reached down and picked the contraption up.


“Here it is. It’s still good. We’ll try putting it in someone else.”




The Monk’s Grimoire



By A.P. Miller



The look on the Abbot’s face was telling. “Come in,” he said. “Hurry up Flint, I haven’t got all day.”


Flint lingered in the doorway for a moment. He was not ready for another tongue-lashing from the old man. “Is something the matter?”


“Close the door behind you.” The Abbot sat behind an ancient desk that gave the man a distinct aura of wisdom and authority.


Something unpleasant was coming, that much was certain. The Abbot rarely called the adjuncts into his office, and this was the third time Flint had been summoned inside a month. Flint pulled the door shut with trembling hands.


“I think you already know why you’re here,” the Abbot said. His impassive eyes studied Flint. “It’s the same problem we’ve had since you started.”


“The research,” Flint said, looking down.


“You need to produce something. I understand that you are busy teaching. But so are all of the monks. You need to find some balance between class and your research. We can’t keep you on as an adjunct if you don’t produce something original.”


The words did not register immediately. Flint shook his head. “Can’t keep me on? You mean you’re going to dismiss me?”


“I have no choice!” the Abbot said. “You’re a fine teacher, but this is a research monastery. How will it look if my monks are not broadening our knowledge of the occult?”


“But I’m buried in work! You have me teaching more classes than any other monk by half. It’s not that I don’t want to study. I just don’t have the time.”


“Are you telling me you can’t do the job?” The old man placed a heavy hand on his desk.


Flint’s mouth hung open, and he waited for words to come out.


“Look,” the Abbot said. “I’m not unreasonable.” He shifted in his seat, and his eyes filled with an uncharacteristic guile. “I’d be willing to give you some extra time, if you are willing to do me a favor. Brother Godfrey has been working on a side project for almost a year now.” The Abbot sighed. “A full year. And no one has any idea what he’s actually doing.”


“I’ve heard,” Flint said, shrugging.


“You and everyone else. But it’s my responsibility to know, and that’s the trouble. Brother Godfrey is brilliant, but he’s stubborn as an ass. And he’s tenured. He won’t say a word. He wouldn’t even tell me where he’s working.”


“That’s the favor? You want me to find out where he’s researching?”


“And what, if you can. Do that, and I’ll give you a pass on your work for the next few months.” The Abbot pointed a finger at Flint. “But listen. I don’t want to hear about you breaking any rules, or using the occult to manipulate him. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” The Abbot put his hand back on the desk. “Why don’t you see if he’ll take you on as his research assistant? That would put you right where you need to be.”


“I don’t know,” Flint said. “He’s so secretive. Do you really think he would consider it?”


“Go find out,” the Abbot said in a tone that told Flint the conversation was over.


Flint tried to hide his worry. He pulled open the door and stepped out into the empty corridor.


“And Flint,” the Abbot said. “This is the third time I’ve had you in my office. This is your last chance.”



Flint looked through the open door and into Godfrey’s lecture hall. Godfrey stood in front of a large body of students, where gray light filtered in through the windows and onto his brown robes.


Godfrey cleared his throat. “Now, there are some things that divine studies have yet to achieve. Some of these things have not been achieved because they are physically impossible to accomplish. Others have not been adequately studied because they are beyond the pale. They are considered too dark or too dangerous. Some, here at the university, are afraid to push past these boundaries. But I am not one of them. Our next lecture will touch on one of these topics. I think you will find it enlightening.”


Flint cocked his head to one side. Godfrey’s cavalier attitude sat well on him, despite his scholarly appearance.


A young student, hardly old enough to grow a beard, raised his hand. “Brother, aren’t there some subjects that are best left untouched?”


“Perhaps,” Godfrey said, resting a hard look on the apprentice. “But those studies are well beyond the capabilities of first-year students.” The school-bell’s low chime echoed overhead, and Godfrey looked up. “Looks like that will be all for today. Class dismissed.” The students poured into the corridor, leaving Godfrey alone.


Flint strode past the empty desks. “Brother Godfrey,” he said as he approached. “Good evening.”


Godfrey wiped at the blackboard with a rag. “Evening.”


“How goes the work?”


Godfrey answered automatically. “Fine. Just fine.”


The two stood in an uncomfortable silence.


“Godfrey, I have a favor to ask.”


Godfrey regarded Flint. “A favor?”


“You probably don’t know, but I’ve been struggling with my research lately.”


Godfrey scoffed. “Of course I know. Everyone knows.”


The comment caught Flint off-guard, and he recoiled behind a well-maintained facade. “Everyone… Well, it’s been difficult finding time to study when I’m pulled in so many directions.”


“Then make time. Late nights. Weekends. Whatever you have to do. No one is going to hold your hand. I do most of my best work when the moon is out.”


“Actually, that’s what I want to ask you. Would you be willing to let me work with you? I’ve been dying to know what your project is all about.”


Godfrey’s face fell. “Did the Abbot send you in here after me? I knew that fool would start prying sooner or later.”


“He said that you might be willing to take me on as a research assistant. Help me get a foothold in some meaningful work.”


“Take you on as an informant, you mean. He’s trying to find out what I’m onto, isn’t he?”


“Godfrey, please. I’m already up every night grading. The Abbot is going to fire me if I don’t deliver something soon.”


Godfrey scowled. “Sorry,” he said. “My work is too sensitive. You’ll have to make do on your own.”


Hope melted from Flint, and he left to wander the corridors.



“I’m not surprised,” Gloria said. She moved her leather schoolbag to the ground, and Flint set his plate in its place. “He’s never been particularly pleasant.” Gloria spooned up the last of her dinner. “And he’s always been strange, too. Especially when it comes to his work.”


Flint slammed a fist on the table. “He’s paranoid, that’s what he is! He was so preoccupied thinking about the Abbot that he didn’t even listen to what I was asking him.”


Gloria’s spoon stopped halfway to her mouth, and she glanced around the dining hall. The students at the table next to them looked startled. She nodded to appease them. “Take it easy,” she said. “You’ll figure something out.”


Flint shook his head. “You don’t understand. I have nothing outside of the Priory. Nothing. I’ll be on the streets if I lose my job here. Out on Beggars’ Row next to the drunks, shaking a cup at you when you walk to work in the mornings.”


Gloria’s quiet lasted too long.


“What?” Flint said.


She looked around and said, “Don’t be obtuse. You know you won’t be on the streets. But I wouldn’t be walking by you anyway. I’m leaving the Priory soon. That’s why I can’t help you. I’m going to tell the Abbot tomorrow.”


Flint’s face was placid, though a storm brewed behind his eyes. He looked at Gloria with the intensity of a brokenhearted man. “Leaving? But why? I thought you were happy here. You’ve only just earned your tenure.”


“It’s this place, Flint,” Gloria said. “These people. Every one of them is pretentious. They think they’re better than the rest of the world because of their studies. I need a real experience. Something outside of these walls.” She set her lovely hand on Flint’s.


The pace of Flint’s heart quickened. He looked down at her hand, then at her face.


“I want you to come with me,” she said.


Flint shook his head in dismay. “I… I can’t.”


Gloria withdrew.


“I can make something of myself here,” Flint said. “You can make something of yourself here. I know it’s not perfect, but there is so much to experience here. The longer I study, the more I realize that we know almost nothing about the occult. You and I can explore it all together.”


The summons bell rung for evening class. “I have to go,” Gloria said.


Flint watched the flow of her long hair as she walked away. He sat at the table, brooding, until his food was cold. After a time, he shook his head and pushed his chair back.


A familiar brown bag lay under the table.


Flint picked it up, and looked inside to confirm that it belonged to Gloria. Her lecture notes, her quills, and her small key ring hid inside.


He left the dining hall for his dormitory with the bag under his arm, winding through the eastern wing where a disused entryway let in the cold.


Godfrey stood in the half-open door. He carried a small pack full of travel supplies and was wrapped in a mass of heavy cloaks to ward off the cold. He tried to leave before Flint could interrupt him.


“Out for the night?” Flint said.


“Going to visit my daughter in town. I’ll be back before class tomorrow.” He pulled a hood over his head.


“Any chance you’d reconsider what we talked about earlier?”


Godfrey disappeared into the snowy night, leaving the door open behind him.


Flint ran his fingers over Gloria’s bag. A key to the tenured monks’ common room rested inside – the common room attached to Godfrey’s private chambers. Flint lingered at the door for a time, as if struggling with a decision, then reached in the bag and removed the key.



The key slid home, and Flint peeked around the edge of the common room door. The fireplace offered the only light, but it was enough to show that the room was empty. All of the senior monks had retired to their rooms. Flint crept in, keeping to the shadowy corners where he might be able to disappear should someone interrupt him.


Godfrey’s private chambers were on the far side of the common area, opposite a tidy circle of leather armchairs and writing desks.


Flint slunk past a closed door, wincing when the wood floor groaned under his weight.


Someone stirred behind the heavy oak. The handle rattled, and the door swung open, hiding Flint from whoever stood on the other side.


Flint’s breath caught in his throat, and he froze.


The fat, dark-skinned monk who lumbered out could only have been Brother Harken. Harken threw the door shut without a backward glance and strode across the room. He picked up a stack of parchment from one of the desks and sat at the fireplace with his back to Flint.


Flint waited until the man had shut out the world around him, dragging his round fingers across lines of scrawling text and murmuring to himself. Flint inched along the perimeter, stopping short every time the man moved to turn a page or tend to the fire.


His hand found Godfrey’s doorknob, but it hung against the lock. Flint squeezed the brass and narrowed his eyes, concentrating on something far away and unseen.


But nothing happened. Flint glanced down at his hands, puzzled, as if he had expected a reaction. He closed his eyes and tried again. A mass of black magic laced in wisps of purple smoke enclosed Flint’s hand. The lock’s tumblers fell into place with a terrifying click. Flint dared a glance over his shoulder to see if the sound caught Harken’s attention, but it was lost in the crack and pop of the fire.


Flint pulled the door open gingerly, but the hinges screamed. He slipped through the narrow aperture and passed out of sight behind it.


Godfrey’s room was lit only by a sliver of firelight and the moon behind the snow. “I thought you were going into town for the night,” Harken said from the other side of the door.


“Me?” The Abbot was in the common room, not twenty feet away from Flint.


“Good evening, Abbot. Gloria,” Harken said. “No, not you. I just heard Godfrey at his door. I think he’s in there, anyway.”


“Strange,” Gloria said. “I saw him leaving just a little while ago.” Her soft footsteps echoed across the common room, drawing nearer to Godfrey’s room. “Godfrey? Knock, knock.”


Flint could not find the mindfulness to hide, and he stood in the middle of the room like a fool when Gloria put her head inside. Their eyes met and Flint shook his head, putting a finger over his lips before she could speak.


“He in there?” the Abbot said.


Gloria hesitated. “No…No. He’s not here.”


“Well someone opened the door,” Harken said, and he heaved himself out of his chair to investigate.


“Hide!” Gloria mouthed.


Flint dropped to the ground and crawled like a spider under the bed. Cold air rose from the cracks between floorboards. His fingertips brushed over a small metal ring resting flush in the wood. When he lifted it, the square outline of an enchanted trapdoor cut into the floor, and a whisper of sawdust fell through to a hollow place beneath.


Flint pulled, and the hatch opened. The unfinished wood dug splinters into his back as he scraped through. Godfrey’s room brightened, and Flint saw feet shuffle inside. He lowered the hatch over the top of himself, taking refuge in the dark once more.



Flint sat at the top of a dust-covered stair, wedged between the trap door and steps that dropped out of sight into black emptiness an impossible distance below. The monks’ muffled voices quieted and eventually disappeared from Godfrey’s room.


Flint pushed on the trapdoor, but it would not budge. He groped at the wood above his head, searching for its edges, but he found only unbroken slats. The magic had faded, and the door was gone.


Apprentices spoke of the undercroft in whispers and the monks not at all. The disused basements were a remnant of the Priory’s earlier and more wicked days. It was a bad chance that Flint’s escape was through one of the fabled long-forgotten doors.


He held up a hand, trying to will forth a glow of ethereal light, but none would come. Flint looked at his palms. Down into the darkness was his only option. He descended thousands of steps, running a hand along the wall’s sharp masonry to keep his bearings until his feet found a packed earthen floor. He wandered aimlessly in the darkness for an age, languishing in the fear that time would kill him if he could not find his way.


The air cleared and grew colder in the depths. The dark lessened, and water lapped against a shore somewhere ahead. Flint’s breaths came in short white plumes as he emerged into a man-made cavern.


He gazed up at a vaulted ceiling rich with stalactites. Ahead, a saltwater canal disappeared into a winding crevasse of wet bedrock. Small waves broke against a pier that jutted from the embankment where he stood. A dingy grimoire bound in engraved leather rested between sheaves of heavily-inked parchment on a workbench further down, illuminated by a dying brazier.


Curiosity overcame his baser instincts, and Flint moved to examine it. He lifted a piece of parchment and began to read private research notes written in Godfrey’s untidy script. Flint lost all account of time as he poured through them, and the cold and damp crept under his clothes.


“What do you think you are doing?” Godfrey said from the darkness.


Flint jumped and dropped the parchment in the dirt. He spun around. A rowboat bobbed in the canal behind Godfrey. He glared at Flint. “I’m sorry,” Flint said. “I was just curious.”


“How did you get down here?”


“I accidentally found a way into the undercroft. I got lost. Wound up here.”


“Accidentally? And you came down here and thought you would just read my private notes.” Godfrey stepped forward. “Find anything interesting?”


“I see why you won’t let anybody know what you’re onto.”


Godfrey scowled. “They wouldn’t understand. Not a single one of them. Bunch of self-serving swine.”


“This grimoire affects the roots of the occult, doesn’t it?” Flint put his hand on its leather, feeling the power within. “The deepest parts of it. It can destroy our power altogether if you want it to. I’ve felt it already. I was lost just now because I couldn’t make light.”


“It’s a single incantation, but terribly long and complex,” Godfrey said. “I don’t believe anything like it has ever been attempted. But you’re wrong. I don’t mean destroy anything. Quite the contrary in fact. I just want to harness the foundations of the occult. Center it on this book.”


“Why?”


Godfrey’s laugh was edged with madness. “Because I need hope. I need the power to change things I can’t otherwise change.”


“Hope for what?” Flint said. “Godfrey, you have to stop. What if something goes wrong? The power you’re talking about is…dangerous.”


“My child is sick. My daughter. She’s, sick and no medicine can help. But I can save her, Flint. I can change the course of fate with this. It’s almost finished. Almost.”


Flint watched the man shrink from boldness to desperation. Godfrey’s secret was a heavy burden. He looked older than he had, sallower and more worn.


“Are you going to tell the Abbot?” Godfrey said.


Flint narrowed his eyes. “What will you do after you heal your daughter?”


Godfrey raised his hands. “Lock it away. Show the Priory what I’ve created and what miracles can be done with it.”


The decision was more difficult than any Flint had faced. He rubbed his black beard. “I can give you a week. But I have to be the one to tell the Abbot what you’ve been working on. And this is too dangerous for me to just walk away from. You need to take me on as your assistant.”


“Done,” Godfrey said.


The men moved to the workbench to discuss the course of things to come.



Arctic currents swirled in the ocean, carrying opaque-blue glaciers dusted in white.


Flint’s glazed eyes watched them through the glass of his dormitory window. Godfrey was still a hundred fathoms below where the water met the base of the Priory Cliffs, writing in the grimoire. It would be ready tonight.


Someone knocked on the door. “Flint? It’s me,” Gloria said through the wood.


Flint opened it.


“May I come in?”


Flint tried to smile and stepped aside. “Of course.”


Gloria took Flint’s place by the window. She turned, and her dark eyes cut through him. “What were you doing last night?”


“You already know,” Flint said. “I was trying to figure out what Godfrey is up to.”


“How did you get inside anyway?” Gloria chewed on her lip. “The common room door is hexed. It’s impossible to open without that key.”


“You left your bag in the dining hall last night.”


“You have it? I’ve been looking everywhere.” Gloria glared at Flint. “Wait, you mean you used my key to get in?”


“I’m sorry Gloria. I know it was wrong, but I was desperate.” Flint looked down at the woven carpet beneath his feet. It bore the image of a whaling ship being torn asunder by a leviathan. “Godfrey came around. He’s taking me on as his research assistant.”


Gloria’s brow furrowed. “He changed his mind just like that?”


“Sort of.”


Gloria turned back to the window and said nothing for a long while. “How did you get out of there anyway? I waited for you in the common room all night.”


Flint put his arms around Gloria, and her hands found his. He told her everything.


“But,” Gloria said. “Godfrey’s daughter died last year.”


Flint recoiled. “What?”


“Her boat overturned in a storm. They found her body under the ice the next morning.”


“He must have another daughter then.”


Gloria shook her head. “She was his only child. Flint, what Godfrey is trying to do can’t be done safely. He’s manipulating the fabric of the occult. We have to tell the Abbot.”


“Do you think he wants to… bring her back?”


“I don’t know. But this sort of thing has been tried before, and people have been killed.”


The worry on Gloria’s face convinced Flint in the end, and they walked hand-in-hand to find the Abbot.



The Abbot walked across the Priory’s courtyard, taking in the sharp late-afternoon air. A fresh crop of snow flurries lit upon the overgrown whiskers that pushed out from under his hood.


Flint watched the Abbot from the foyer. “Why don’t you stay here? I can tell him by myself.”


“Are you sure?” Gloria said.


“I don’t want you to get caught up in this if he doesn’t take it well.”


“All right. I’ll be here. Good luck.”


Flint buttoned his cloak and went out into the cold. “Abbot!” he said.


The Abbot scowled when Flint admitted to trespassing in Godfrey’s quarters, and the bitterness stayed on his face until the story was finished. “Flint,” the Abbot said. “I warned you not to break the rules. And now you’re telling me that you stole another professor’s key, then used a forbidden incantation to trespass in another’s private chambers?”


“Abbot, Godfrey…” Flint said.


“We are not talking about Godfrey. We are talking about you.” The Abbot brushed a pile of snow from his wiry beard. “That man has been an institution at the Priory for almost twenty years. You, on the other hand, can’t even keep yourself from breaking the law!”


“But I…“


“This is it for you Flint. You’re finished. I won’t keep you here any longer.”


“Fine.” Flint’s face flushed, and he raised his chin. “But you’re wrong. You have to listen to me.”


The Abbot’s eyes turned black. “I don’t have to do anything.” His voice grew not in volume but in presence, delivered with the power of his station. “I will not be ordered around. And certainly not by an outcast.”


Flint saw nothing but the void of the Abbot’s eyes. He shrunk from the glare and fell backwards into the snow. His voice trembled. “We have to do something. You have to do something.”


“Roderick, Isabelle.” The Abbot beckoned to a pair of monks crossing the courtyard. “I need your assistance. Please escort Flint to his dormitory so he can collect his belongings. Then show him off of the Priory grounds. He has been dismissed.”


“But…” Flint said, but the Abbot turned his back.


The monks looked at each other, then at Flint. “What happened?” Isabelle said after the Abbot had walked out of earshot.


He had to get to Godfrey. Flint climbed to his feet and began to walk toward the Priory, looking up at its time-worn spires and stained glass. “Nothing,” he said.


Gloria shot Flint a questioning look when the trio passed through the door.


“I’ve been dismissed,” he said to her. “The Abbot doesn’t believe me.”


Gloria considered Roderick and Isabelle. “What are you going to do?” she asked Flint.


“I’m going after Godfrey.” Flint took a breath and clapped his hands.


The sound shook the room, reverberating in his chest like a violent clap of thunder. Sooty black smoke poured into being and Flint was blinded. He staggered through the clouds, searching for an exit. Gloria coughed close by, but Flint ignored her. The smoke cleared near the edge of the room and Flint ran, pulling the common room key from his pocket.



Godfrey read the grimoire by the brazier’s smoldering light. He flipped through its pages with increasing speed, chanting the inscriptions without pause for breath. The fire ebbed and flowed with his words. Sparks spit forth in gouts of red and turned to ash in the cold water nearby. An endless torrent of occult energy flowed into the grimoire, black and hazy.


Flint saw it when he ran across the wharf. A coffin, black and still nailed shut, near the brazier. “Godfrey!” Flint said. “Stop! This is madness!”


But Godfrey turned the final page and snapped together the grimoire’s heavy covers. He hugged the book in his arms and raised his eyebrows. “Why? Why is it so mad to want to be with the one you love?” he said. “Doesn’t every man want the same? I’d wager you’d give much to keep Gloria at the Priory.”


Flint faltered. “But this is unnatural.” Flint’s face faded further with a profound realization. “At this moment, nobody in the world can manipulate the occult but you.” He lifted his hands, as if to prove himself incapable.


“A small cost. Perhaps things will return to the way they were. Perhaps not. At least I’ll have my girl.” Godfrey face was wet with tears. He turned to the painted box and raised a hand.


“Godfrey, I’m trying to help you,” Flint said.


The grimoire shook in Godfrey’s arm and the space between his hand and the coffin disappeared in black fog.


Flint lunged at Godfrey, clawing at the book, but Godfrey had already turned around. Something heavy flew from his hand collided with Flint’s chest.


Flint’s ribs cracked, and he flew backwards into the canal. Water flooded over him. Flint struggled to find the surface, beating at the water before his saturated cloak could pull him further down. His hand landed on the pier and he pulled himself to the embankment, coughing and retching from the pain in his side. He peered over the stony edge.


Godfrey stood over the coffin. Something inside it moved.


“Godfrey?” Gloria said from the far entryway. “Are you all right?”


“Of course,” Godfrey smiled.


Flint crept across the wharf, low and silent. He winced with each step. Splintered ribs grated against each other and he almost cried out.


“What are you doing?” Gloria said, locking eyes with Godfrey.


“Just finishing my project,” Godfrey said. “I’m think I’m….”


Flint pulled the grimoire from Godfrey’s grasp. Godfrey spun on his heels, his face shining bright with panic and rage. He raised his hand, poised to murder. But nothing happened.


The grimoire was heavy in Flint’s arms. Heavier than it should have been. Flint looked at Godfrey and pitched it into the brazier.


“No!” Godfrey said, scrambling for the hot coals. Flint used the last of his strength to shoulder him aside and they fell together to the ground.


The grimoire burned to ash before Godfrey found his feet.



The Abbot went to his office when he learned what had happened, and he barred the door. Days and weeks passed before anyone saw his face again.


Flint scratched a piece of gypsum across the blackboard. The classroom glowed from the sun on the snow outside. “As you know, the longer an incantation is, the more powerful. Or was, rather.”


A student raised her hand. “Why should we bother with this anymore? We can’t do anything with it.”


“No, at this moment we can’t. But we have to preserve our knowledge. What if the power of the occult returns in a hundred years?”


The bell chimed a somber tone in the towers far above.


“Right. Well, that’s it then. We’ll pick back up tomorrow.”


The students left the classroom, and Flint leaned to tidy the lectern. His hand shot to his side where the ribs had broken. When he was able to straighten himself out again, he found the Abbot standing in the doorway. “Abbot,” Flint said.


The Abbot looked his age, though more sorrowful than most old men. “I should have listened,” he said.


“You couldn’t have known,” Flint said.


“I’m glad you didn’t leave. I just wanted to tell you. And that I was wrong.” His head fell.


“Thank you. But Gloria left a few weeks ago and I’m going with her. I’ve already begun to pack my things.” Flint drew the sun-faded curtains, darkening the room. “I’ve found that… there is more to life than this.”


“The Priory will close. There is no hope for us here.” The Abbot slouched against the doorframe.


“There is always hope. Some things have funny ways of healing themselves. Just give it time.” A translucent wisp of light in Flint’s hand illuminated his smile.




Willingly and with Joy



By Lynn Rushlau



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


“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



Zeninna knew herself to be less rash than the Iridescent Court labeled her. She understood that Orientation would not be the time to even attempt her mission. Her duty might be at the back of her mind at all times, but today she pretended that she simply was another acolyte with dreams of becoming a librarian or curator or even director of the Library.


So she listened to the welcoming speeches, what was expected, where they’d live, what their days would be like. She introduced herself to her roommates–not one too thin from years of sickness or malnutrition–and gave them a vague location up the northwest coast as her home. That area of Cerulea was scarcely populated, which should keep anyone here from knowing enough to catch her in a lie and explain any lack of knowledge of custom on her part.


Plus the Iridescent Court was northwest of here.


Her five roommates seemed wholly enraptured in their acceptance into the Library. The human children shouldn’t cause Zeninna any problems, which was good because their junior advisor looked ready to.


The suspicious stare Adlai gave Zeninna when they met sent a shiver down Zeninna’s spine. Was Adlai Sighted? Few people in Cerulea were these days, but few meant few, not no one.


Cephalo of the Deep couldn’t be so cruel as to give Zeninna a Sighted junior advisor. She must want Zeninna’s mission to succeed. Hadn’t the Irides Nixies suffered enough? Didn’t that suffering affect their Goddess?


Zeninna’s entire point of being here was to fulfill a promise to Cephalo of the Deep. Over the last months, the Irides made significant offerings and their priestesses prayed nonstop. Such great displays of worship should have Cephalo inclined to help not hinder.


Zeninna closed her eyes briefly and offered a quick, silent prayer, a plea, that none of the humans would guess what she was. Most humans refused to accept any of the other peoples of the world as people. She’d be lucky to not end up in a zoo if they caught her. Though that imprisonment might be better than being hunted for sport. At least there’d be the possibility of escape. She opened her eyes to find Adlai staring at her with a raised eyebrow. Adlai looked away as she moved on to her next topic.


The instructions and expectations dragged on half the morning. Zeninna’s stomach growled long before Adlai escorted them to lunch. Not that hunger interfered with her ability to listen. She was used to being hungry.


Lunch amazed her. An oyster soup, ten times more delicious than any Zeninna had ever eaten at home. She couldn’t understand how this was possible. Wouldn’t all oysters come from the same sickened sea? Still she took hope from the soup, took it as an omen that she would succeed. That health for the sea would be found here on land.


After lunch, they entered the Hall of Enlightenment. Adlai swept them past the guards with their salamander-sniffers, past the check-in desks, straight to the rotunda where floors and floors of bookshelves encircled them. All the way up to the dome six stories overhead. Zeninna gaped with her classmates at the vivid painted story of how writing and stories were given to humans.


Special collections and archives filled the first floor. Staircases behind locked doors led to the stacks in the basement. New acolytes had no need of either.


Adlai led them to the map carved on a stone that squatted at the top of the stairs on the second floor. She walked them through the map, before leading them on a tour, pointing out the sections they’d need for most of their assignments at this stage in their learning.


By sunset, Zeninna’s feet screamed with pain. They’d wandered through countless wings and almost every floor of the Hall of Enlightenment. Seen many human treasures, sacred texts, rare books, even scrolls from the founding of the kingdom. And gone to no other buildings. Come nowhere near the one that held the Magnificence of the Sea exhibit.


Zeninna sat with her chattering, excited roommates, but ate her dinner in silence. She glanced at the windows set high in the walls of the hall. The world was dusky blue. She’d missed her rendezvous with Viridis, not that she’d ever planned to make it. She picked the fish out of the flatbread and smiled at Linden, her tallest roommate, who regaled them with a tale of her village school. Linden laughed, throwing back her head and putting Adlai in Zeninna’s line of sight.


From the next table, Adlai stared at Zeninna, a perplexed little frown wrinkling her brow.


Zeninna smiled. She couldn’t think what else to do. Turning her attention to her blond roommate Teddy, she stabbed a piece of fish with her fork. Teddy gushed about something they’d seen today. Zeninna missed what, but she swallowed and muttered her agreement. It didn’t matter what Teddy was thrilled about. The others thought everything here was wonderful, so Zeninna agreed.



A couple of hours before dawn, Zeninna woke. She crept to the washroom and back without anyone else waking. She’d planned to try this in a few days, but she was awake now. And no one else was.


She only knew the way through maps. A week, a month from now, that might still be the case. Nothing outlined yesterday included visiting the Magnificence of the Sea. Zeninna hovered in the doorway. She could feel where she needed to go. The Peral Dagger sang to her. Why waste another two or three days here if she could go now?


Why deprive her people of their most holy artifact for even two more hours? Decades had passed since the dagger was stolen by one of their own to impress a human she thought would keep her as a lover. The seas had sickened slowly as the nixies failed to offer the sacrifice to usher in the new year. The execution of the traitor’s lover had been a rejected by Cephalo of the Deep, as had every offering without the dagger since.


She slipped into the hall. The door closed without a sound. She tiptoed through the dark corridor of closed doors. At the staircase, a shiver ran down her spine. Zeninna spun. Adlai stared at her from three doors back.


She jumped–and regretted that immediately, but couldn’t have helped it. How did Adlai move without a sound?


Zeninna plastered her biggest smile on her face. “Adlai! Good morning.”


“It’s not really morning. It’s still dark.”


Zeninna faked a big sigh, rolled her eyes, and walked closer to Adlai. “I think it’s morning back at home though. I’ve woken way before everyone every morning since I got to Landis. I thought I’d go down to the social room. Didn’t want to wake anyone.”


She deliberately looked Adlai up and down, pretending to notice her junior advisor’s robe and nightshirt. Zeninna dropped a hand over mouth. “Did I wake you? I was trying to be so quiet!”


Adlai shook her head. “You should go back to your dorm room. If you can’t sleep, rest until it’s time to wake.”


“Oh. Okay.” Zeninna hoped her frustration remained hidden. Talk about boring. Why would she want to lay on her bed and stare at a ceiling she couldn’t see? She allowed herself to drag her feet on the way back to her room.


At her door, she looked back down the hall. Adlai remained outside hers. Zeninna gave her junior advisor a bright smile and entered the room. She’d obey thus far, but had no intention of wasting the next two hours doing nothing. Trying not to rustle a piece of paper, she collected all her handouts about the Library.


By the time her roommates stirred, Zeninna had a new plan.



An hour after lunch, the new acolytes gathered in study hall. They’d been given several short papers to write, a page each on topics related to their morning lectures.


Zeninna sat with her roommates and wrote her first paper. She slid the finished paper into the folder she’d been given for completed assignments and drew out a fresh page. A look around confirmed her study of the map correct. No washroom inside the study hall itself.


“What’s wrong?” Linden asked.


“I could use a washroom.” Zeninna strained to see the far corners of the room, where no washroom materialized to ruin her plan.


“Think there’s one just down the hall outside,” Teddy offered.


The hall supervisors let her leave without displaying any suspicion. Zeninna took an immediate left and trotted off down the hall, head swinging back and forth as if she searched for the sign for a washroom. At the corner, she took another left and zigzagged her way towards the stairs. She turned another corner and came face to face with a Scholar.


“Acolyte! What are you doing down here?”


Hoping her fury didn’t show on her face, Zeninna looked right and left. “They told me in study hall I could find a washroom around here. Somewhere? This way?”


The Scholar smiled. “Oh, you missed a turn. Come this way. I’ll show you.”


She escorted Zeninna to the washroom and remained outside waiting when Zeninna exited. Zeninna smiled and pointed back the way she’d come. “This way, no?”


The scholar nodded and smiled. Zeninna thanked her and headed back to the hall. She rounded the last corner.


“Where have you been?” Adlai hissed as she stormed down the hall.


“I needed the washroom.”


“You’ve been gone forever!”


“I got a little lost.”


“Lost?” Adlai raised an eyebrow.


Zeninna sighed dramatically. “I know those who work in the Library have to be able to navigate it without getting lost, but this is the first time I’ve been in this building. I didn’t study the maps for this area.”


Adlai rolled her eyes. “Go finish your work.”



For five days, Zeninna pretended to be an Acolyte. She read books, wrote short essays, and studied maps. Her roommates teased that her dedication made them look bad. But five days in their company was five days too long. Every last one of her roommates thought Zeninna odd. It would only get worse.


And then there was Adlai.


Zeninna caught the junior advisor staring at her at least ten times a day. Adlai watched her when she ate, when she studied. She couldn’t set foot outside her dorm room without Adlai popping out to see what she wanted.


Zeninna couldn’t slip out in the night. She couldn’t escape during the day. Even if she could, the mission would be completely impossible by daylight. She couldn’t do anything while the Library was open. Not with people everywhere. Docents, Curates, Librarians and Archivists all going about their jobs, not to mention the hundreds of visitors the Library saw on a daily basis. She blushed to remember her attempt to sneak out during study hall. What had she thought to do?


But none of that mattered. She’d worked out a solid plan over these last five days.


They had clam chowder for dinner. Zeninna picked at it, though the chowder was much better than the land animal dishes they’d served the past two nights–or any of the thin soups they’d have at home. She wished she didn’t have to pretend to be sick tonight, but food wasn’t incentive enough to change her plans.


Of course, Adlai noticed, but this time Zeninna meant her to. “Is something wrong with your dinner?”


“I don’t feel very well. I’m kind of queasy.” Zeninna listlessly twirled her spoon around the bowl.


Adlai frowned. “Do you need the nurse?”


“Maybe.” Zeninna frowned and set the spoon aside. “That might be a good idea.”


“Come on. I’ll escort you.”


They walked out of the dining hall, left the building and crossed a courtyard with a fountain of leaping dolphins to a building on the other side of the auditorium.


“Through here.” Adlai opened a green door into a lobby which contained an empty desk and a few scattered chairs. Zeninna offered a small prayer of thanks to Cephalo. Whether someone always staffed the check-in desk had been one of the uncontrollable, unknowable parts of her plan.


Adlai struck a bell on the desk. A nurse bustled into the room about half a minute later.


“What can I do for you?” She looked from Adlai to Zeninna.


“I…”


“She…”


Zeninna looked at Adlai, who flushed and gestured for Zeninna to go on.


“I’m feeling kind of nauseated.”


The nurse smiled sympathetically. “Come on back. I’ll take a look at you.”


“Thanks for escorting me, Adlai.” Zeninna gave her advisor a weary smile before turning to leave with the nurse.


She held her breath as they walked past the desk and entered a small room. The door banged shut behind Adlai leaving a few seconds later. Thank Cephalo. Zeninna had hoped that Adlai wouldn’t be able to abandon her roommates, however much she might want to stay and spy on Zeninna.


The nurse laid the back of her hand on Zeninna’s brow. “You don’t feel feverish. Do you have any other symptoms?”


“My head aches a bit, and I felt a little dizzy when I stood up to walk over here.”


“Hmm.” The nurse took her pulse and checked her eyes, ears and throat. “I’m not seeing anything. Perhaps it’s simply your headache making you feel ill? Let me get you a headache tonic and we’ll have you rest here tonight. See if that takes care of everything.”


Zeninna sniffed the cup. Hoping the contents wouldn’t kill her, she drank the potion down and curled up on her side on the bed. The nurse doused the lights and left the door slightly ajar. Her footsteps receded, moving deeper into the building. Zeninna smiled over that.


She closed her eyes and began to pray. The nurse came to check on her about half an hour later. Zeninna suppressed a smirk and continued with her silent chant.


Another thirty minutes and the nurse popped in, felt Zeninna’s forehead, and left. This time Zeninna snored slightly in hopes the nurse would not feel the need to check again tonight.


She counted off five minutes, not wanting to rush out and be caught by the nurse making notes on her chart just outside the door. The door squeaked a bit as Zeninna pushed it open. She flinched and froze. No sound of footsteps. No sign of anyone. She crossed the empty lobby and tiptoed out the door.


Her luck held. Adlai was not waiting outside.


Reciting the start of the ritual in her head, she turned left and hurried along the small alleyway between the buildings. The ritual should be performed in stillness and peace, but Zeninna couldn’t count on having time when she reached the Magnificence of the Sea. Someone might see her and follow. Security might chose the exact wrong time to walk by that wing.


The Pilgrim’s Garden was empty. Zeninna’s feet crunched softly as she walked the twisting paths, the second prayer of the ritual ringing in her head. At the gate, she ducked so as not to set any of the wind chimes singing. Twenty yards from the Pilgrim’s Garden’s exit stood the Orirs Building, home of The Magnificence of the Sea.


Slipping through shadows, Zeninna skirted the boundaries of the courtyard. She looped around the side of the building and stepped up to a staff entrance, where she stood silently until she finished the second prayer. Whispering a soft plea to Cephalo, she tried the handle. Locked.


Why? Zeninna cursed softly. Not an exterior door in any of the buildings where they lived or had classes bore locks. Nor had the Hall of Enlightenment. Why this one? The treasures it held would be esteemed no more than the rare and sacred books.


Of course, the stacks had been locked. Zeninna raised her head slowly. This was a staff entrance. It led to offices and workrooms and backways that likely were locked away from the public areas too.


Heart fluttering madly, she crept back to the front of the building and raced up the steps. Two steps from the top, an owl hooted. Zeninna jumped a good foot into the air, came down between steps and fell, bashing her shin. Tears filled her eyes. She hobbled to the door and yanked the handle, forgetting in her pain to pray first. The handle turned freely.


Limping inside, she forced herself to concentrate and recite the third prayer of the ritual. Only a few low lanterns in the entry hall and over the stairs provided light. They glittered off royal jewels and artifacts in the exhibits to either side.


Zeninna’s destination lay upstairs. Praying fervently, she dragged herself upwards. At the turn before the third floor, muffled voices shocked her into stillness.


“Do you realize how ludicrous this sounds?”


“Why do you think I didn’t go get a supervisor?” Adlai asked.


“I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why can’t we check at the nurse’s?”


“We won’t have time. She’ll come here.”


“I cannot believe you think one of the acolytes is a nymph of some sort. Or that I let you drag me out after curfew. Do you know how much trouble we’ll get in if we’re caught?”


Ignoring her throbbing shin, Zeninna broke into a run. She took the remaining stairs two at a time and raced across the third floor. Her pounding footsteps drowned out all other sounds. They might hear her, but she dared not waste time. She began the fourth prayer.


The sign for the Magnificence of the Sea was shrouded in darkness, but Zeninna didn’t need to read it to know she’d reached her goal. To the left of the entrance stood a statue that was supposed to be a mermaid. It wasn’t quite right, but still recognizable. Whoever carved the one on the left, though, they got a nixie perfect.


Zeninna reached out and traced the nixie’s face. Had someone modeled for this? History was strewn with tales of nixies befriending humans. Letting them know too much, see too much. The theft Zeninna sought to rectify tonight supported banning such friendships entirely. Her entire world was dying because an infatuated nixie allowed a human to run off with one of the Irides’ most sacred artifacts.


She slipped inside and hurried past displays of items from shipwrecks and of sharks’ and whales’ jawbones. The golden trident of some unknown merpeople made Zeninna shake her head in wonder, but she didn’t have time to pause and look at it. Oh, and there hung three enormous oceanscapes by Tersola, the greatest painter of seascapes the world had ever known. The stairs creaked. Voices murmured.


Regret filled Zeninna’s sigh. She hadn’t the time to stop and admire the paintings. Crossing into the next room, she hurried to the display in the corner on her left. To the Peral Dagger.


Her breath caught. Awe washed over her. Zeninna closed her eyes and took two deep breaths. She’d done her best to meditate the last three nights after her roommates fell asleep. She’d recited all prayers in her head getting here, all but the final one.


“Cephalo of the Deep, I come to you in open arms. I offer homage of your beauty. I offer praise of your wisdom. I am young, but I am strong. I am ignorant, but I am faithful. I seek you willingly and with joy.


“Accept this sacrifice on behalf of the Irides. We only wish to honor You. We ask your guidance. Your help. Your return. We would remake the oceans. Return the seas to their pure state in Your honor. In Your Name.


“I offer my life force. I offer all the centuries I have yet to live. Use my life to purify the seas. Bring back balance.


“I beg You. Accept this sacrifice which I offer freely in my abiding love of You. You are my will, my heart, my life. I return all to You. In love. In honor. In hope.”


Her words seem to ring off the walls. Her skin tingled. She could feel Cephalo. She’d never felt Her presence so intensely before. She was here. She waited for Zeninna.


Voices scratched the edges of Zeninna’s awareness. Irrelevant now. Zeninna belonged to Cephalo.


Zeninna reached out and lifted the Peral Dagger. She caressed the hilt and laid a kiss on its blade.


“For my people,” she whispered as she turned the blade so that its point hovered over her heart.


Time to return the dagger to the sea. Cephalo would bless them. The Irides Nixies would prosper once again.


The intruding noises grew closer. Grew louder.


No matter. If Cephalo rejected Zeninna as unworthy, they’d find a dead nixie with the Peral Dagger protruding from her heart. If Cephalo accepted this sacrifice, they’d find nothing but sea foam on the floor.


She plunged the dagger into her heart.




Crows and Galahs



By Jamie D. Munro



Jake rested in the passenger seat to the purr of the car’s engine, his head gently vibrating against the window. His father held the steering wheel in one hand and hung his other arm out the window, letting a warm breeze dishevel his greying hair. An endless row of barbed wire and wooden posts separated the highway from the fields of canola, blurring past like a yellow brushstroke on blue canvass.


A kangaroo leapt in front of them. The car skidded, launching them into their seat belts. The kangaroo crossed long before they stopped. The smell of burnt rubber drifted through the car.


Images flashed through Jake’s mind.


The premonition returned.


His mother followed the chain of taillights through the city in her pink hatchback. Piano music played on the radio while rain roared outside. With a half-smile and vacant stare, she was heading home after a long day at work.


Swerving across lanes, the four-wheel drive screeched with each turn. It sped through a red light and slammed into his mother’s car in an explosion of glass and twisting steel.


Slumped through her smashed window, across the blood-smeared white hood of the four-wheel drive, his mother’s sky-blue eyes looked forever to the dark clouds.


“Jake.”


His eyes snapped open. “Huh?”


“We missed it.” His father drove off. “It’s okay.”


Jake’s trembling fingers pulled at wisps of blonde hair on his chin. Nothing was okay anymore.


“You looked like you were lost in your own world again.”


“J—just th—thinking about Mum.” The sun flashed in his side mirror, reminding him how far their all-day drive had taken them from home – from the place they had all shared. Every day since, and every mile now driven, pulled him further from the family they once had.


“She’s always on my mind too.” His father wiped a tear from Jake’s eye. “Look at you. Ya know, your mother always said grey eyes were some special family secret.”


“Yeah, s—she always said nice things.”


“I’ve been real worried about you. Your schooling…at home…you’ve been distant.” His father reached over and rubbed his knee. “You’re meant to be upset. But…it’s like there’s more going on.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know what’s eating at ya.”


I wish I could stop these thoughts in my head coming true.


“Jake.” His father shook his leg. “I don’t know what more I can do.”


Jake clawed his seat to control his shaking. “There’s nothing.”


“You and me, we need to work through this together…ya know.”


Jake looked at his father and saw three months of worry written into his bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes. Eyes that once shined with happiness – when they were all together. He wished things had not changed. Guilt stung him inside. If only he had done something. “I just wish I could have been there.”


“I’m glad you weren’t.”


“To help her.”


“No one could have done anything.” His father sniffed. “It was over in a heartbeat for her.”


Jake shifted away. “To warn her.”


“Oh, Jake, they said she didn’t even see the other car coming.”


I saw it coming.


His father grimaced. “We’ve been over this. I love you, but this is killing me.” He sighed. “What could you have possibly done?”


He fixed his father a stare. “I kn—knew it was going to happen…b—beforehand.”


His father strangled the steering wheel. “Are you crazy?” He punched the roof. “I’m sorry…I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to help…and with our money situation on top of things…it’s all been too much.” He sighed. “I’m just hoping this trip to the country helps.”


A hot flush coursed through Jake’s cheeks. He folded his lanky arms and turned away. Darkness cast by trees in the setting sun blanketed their journey ahead. He wondered if his father would ever understand him. No one else did.



A storm of stones awoke Jake as they pulled into a gravel driveway. A farmhouse sat on a rise in the distance, surrounded by a sea of wheat. They parked in a work yard adjoining the home.


“Dad.”


His father turned and yawned.


“I’ll show you I’m not crazy.”


“I’m sure you will.” His father forced a thin smile and mussed Jake’s curls.


A red-orange glow on the horizon stretched across the fields, lighting up a face weathered by seventy seasons farming under the Australian sun. An old man sat perched on the veranda steps, stroking a lamb curled up by his work boots. A chorus of cicadas kept them company.


He stood with a groan and the lamb bleated. “Now shush, Lucky, you’ve ‘ad your pat,” he said in a drawn-out voice. He stroked the lamb and then extended a grease-etched hand to Jake’s father. “Karl.”


“Good to see you again, Crow.”


“Yep. It was a hell’ava time at Claire’s funeral, but it was great to see you guys.” Crow stroked his beard. “Ten years with nothin’. Now I see ya both again within a few months.”


“Coming out for harvest was a great idea.” Karl rested his hand on his son’s back. “Especially for Jake…ya know.”


“How was your drive, Jakey?” Crow asked.


Despite Jake being sixteen, he stood taller than most adults, yet Crow towered a foot higher than him. Jake dropped his face and fidgeted.


A callused hand lifted his chin, and Crow’s ash-grey eyes locked onto Jake’s. “I’m glad you didn’t hit that ‘roo.” Crow grinned.


Shadows leapt into his mind.


Darkness enveloped Crow. A shotgun exploded with a flash, lighting the night. He doubled-over and fell to the dirt.


The porch light shone off Crow’s white hair and his smile pulled at a cobweb of wrinkles. Fear surged through Jake, trembling his body. He did not want any more premonitions. His legs led him backwards. His father stepped forward, reaching out. Jake sprinted to the car, slapped his hands on the hood, and closed his eyes.


“What now?” his father shouted.


“Leave him be,” Crow said, still calm.


Jake burned inside with embarrassment at letting his father down again. “I d—don’t want to be here.” He glanced at his father. “I w—want to go.”


His father approached and whispered, “Pull yourself together. He’s a good man.”


That’s why I have to go.


A firm hand pressed on Jake’s back. “Don’t worry yerself,” said Crow, “this place will bring out the bes’ of ya. I’ll see to that. Just settle in and make a fresh start tomorra’.”



Jake crept outside at dawn to the screeching from a flock of galahs. An explosion of pink and grey wings filled the canopy of a giant gum tree in the backyard. His father sat in a tilted-back chair, gazing across the fields. A crisp breeze carried the aroma of coffee from a cup held in his lap.


“How’re you feeling today?” His father smiled, pulling out a chair between them.


“Ah…fine.” Jake scanned the empty work yard.


“Something’s on your mind.”


“Where’s Crow?”


“Getting the header ready. How ‘bout you help him today?”


Heat flushed through Jake. “No.”


A corrugated iron shed rattled in the work yard. A harvester rumbled out, leaving a cloud of red dust and exhaust glowing in the morning light.


Jake backed up.


His father raised his voice over the engine. “Well, I think his farmhand, Nick, is out somewhere in the ute. I’d like you to get involved somewhere…ya know.”


Crow opened the cab door and waved Jake in. Jake snapped his head away, leapt down the stairs, and dashed across the back yard.


Lucky stood in the far corner, chewing at withered plants clinging to a rusted fence. A four-wheel drive utility loaded with hay bales on the rear tray skidded to a stop on the other side. The lamb scurried away. The driver wound down his window and shouted, “Bro, Old Crow said you can help ‘im or come out wid me.” He laughed. “But I reckon you better come ‘long wid me.”


He looked from Nick to Crow like a rabbit caught between two foxes.


Nick pushed his sunglasses up onto the stubble on his head and revved the engine. “Oi, get the fuck in already.”


Jake ducked between the strands of fence, catching his shirt on the barbs as he went through. The rust-spotted door groaned as he opened it and climbed in.


“Shut the fuckin’ door, you’re lettin’ the air con out.” They skidded off.


Jake grappled with his seatbelt in the bouncing car.


“Bro, you don’t need to belt-up, you dumb arse.” He snickered, swerving along the road.


Jake clenched his door handle.


“Out ‘ere you can drive how you want ‘n shit. Cops can’t get you.” His tattooed arm wound down the window and he spat outside. “We’re headin’ out to a far paddock to feed some sheep.” He burped up the stench of stale beer. “I’ll let ya know when to get out and open the gates ‘n shit.”


A cry burst into Jake’s head. He threw his hands to his ears and clenched his eyes.


Hobbling in a frantic circle, a sheep struggled to walk. Crying out, its twisted back leg etched a trail of blood along the dirt.


“Oi, what the fuck, bro.” Nick screwed his acne-scarred face.


They sped along the edge of the fields until reaching a barren paddock. A distant mob of sheep marched across the sun-baked earth, chewing at scraps of dry stalk.


Jake looked back and forth between Nick and the sheep.


Nick accelerated.


“H—hey, s-slow down.”


Nick laughed. “H—h—h—hey.” He jerked the steering wheel side to side, throwing Jake around in his seat.


They skidded to a stop, and the mob surrounded them amongst a cloud of drifting dust. “Bro, get out and push the hay off.”


Jake forced his door open against the sheep, climbed into the back tray, pinching his nose at the stench of manure. The utility crept forward. He pushed the bales off one by one into a cacophony of bleats.


Speeding up, the car swayed from side to side. He gripped the bales and squatted. The sheep stampeded behind. Nick braked, launching Jake into the back windscreen. Laughter erupted inside.


Jake slapped the driver’s window. “S—stop it, y—you’re going to run them over.”


The car jolted into reverse. Wailing sheep competed with the roar of the engine. Nick slammed on the brakes, throwing Jake to the dirt.


Bleating frantically, an ewe lay on its side. Jake pushed himself up and wiped the taste of manure from his mouth. The sheep hobbled away, dragging a broken and bloody back leg, before collapsing.


The horn beeped. “Oi, get in.”


Jake knelt by the ewe, reached out to touch it, and hesitated, not knowing how to help. His hands shook. Crying out, the animal stared at him. Jake glared at Nick. “Help it.”


Nick sped off, coating Jake in a shower of stones.



The sun crawled through the clear sky to mid-point as the sheep’s bleats quietened to an occasional moan through bubbling saliva. Jake rested against the sheep’s sweat-soaked back, stroking its head. The sheep vision tormented him, reminding Jake he could not avoid his premonitions even when he tried.


The utility crested the horizon.


Jake sprung up, sending a cloud of flies buzzing around them. His heart thumped in his chest, beating faster as the engine grew louder.


Crow burst out before the car had stopped. “Why did ‘e leave ya ‘ere?” He ran over to them. “He said ya wanted to walk back.” He chuckled. “But I didn’t think you’d wanna trek five k’s in this heat.”


“He ran it over,” Jake rasped through a dry throat. “I knew he was going to.” He looked up at Crow. “But I couldn’t stop him.”


“Hmm.” Crow shook his head. “He’s some piece o’ work.” He went to the utility and took out a shotgun.


A blast of terror shot through Jake. His body locked in place, his mind racing with the vision of Crow.


Collapsed on the dirt and gasping, blood pooled around Crow.


Crow approached, casting a shadow over Jake. “I needa put ‘er down.”


“W—w—what?”


The ewe panted.


“Move back.”


Jake stood and dragged himself away. Decaying fences crisscrossed arid paddocks, stretching to the horizon in every direction.


An explosion blew through Jake.


“Jakey.” Crow raised his voice. “Come back with me.” Crow grunted and the utility’s tray banged as the dead sheep landed inside.


A scorching wind stirred up wisps of sand, stinging his bare legs. Crow drove alongside. “Come on, ya can’t ‘void me forever. An’ besides, too much sun is no good for ya.” He scratched a dark mole on his cheek. “Trus’ me.”


“I’m not avoiding you.” He walked on, scraping his boots with each step.


“Well, climb in.” Crow slapped the outside of his door.


Jake stopped and stroked his sunburnt neck. “I just want a ride back.” He climbed in, burning his legs on the vinyl seat.


“Let me take ya somewhere betta.” Crow wiped his forehead with a sweat-stained hat.


“I want to be alone.” He folded his arms and turned away.


“No, ya don’t. People like us are alone enough already…Trus’ me.”


They drove along a track lined with bush on both sides. A tapestry woven with every shade of green whirred past. Crow gently steered around the holes and corrugations in the track as a plume of dust trailed behind.


A crow stood on the road in the distance, diving its beak in and out of a squashed galah. It watched their approach between bites. Jake looked from the bird to Crow, his heart rate increasing. The crow stepped aside at the last moment, and then strolled back after they passed.


Crow raised his voice over the hot wind howling through the windows. “Do ya know where we get the saying ‘silly galah’ from?”


Jake turned further away.


“Well, in the country ya get an understandin’ of the birds. The galahs are the dumbest. They’re at the bottom of the peckin’ order far as intelligence is. You could be drivin’ along and a whole flock will take flight in front of ya, only to turn back and fly straight into ya.” He leaned over. “They’re stupid.” He focused ahead. “All other birds are just that little bit smarter as ya go ‘long. And then there’s the crow.” He grinned. “Nothin’ surprises the crow. They always see what’s comin’.”


They stopped by a granite rock, sitting like an island in an ocean of wheat. The sunburnt-red monolith blocked out half the sky, casting a cool shadow.


“You’re gonna need to learn ta shoot on the farm.” Crow took the shotgun and climbed out.


Jake’s pulse beat in his ears. He hesitated, before following.


Crow demonstrated how to load and work the action. He fired a succession of shots, interspersed with quick pumps. The blasts echoed off the rock and reverberated through Jake long after each discharge.


He pushed the gun into Jake’s hands. “Just aim at somethin’ and ‘ave a go. Just don’t shoot me.” He chuckled.


Jake clasped the gun and aimed at a tree. It swayed in the sights. The moment before pulling the trigger stretched for an eternity. His breaths grew louder and his eye glossed over. His sweaty finger slid off the trigger and he lowered the gun.


“You can do it, Jakey.” Crow steadied the gun. “Just point ‘n shoot. Ya can’t miss with this one.”


He touched the trigger. The butt exploded back into his shoulder. A pungent burning smell filled the air. He pumped the action, unable to contain his grin.


“Way to go.” Crow took the gun and returned it to the car. “Let’s check on the crop.”


He followed Crow into the wheat. Drooping seed-heads caressed his arms as they waded through a waist-high golden field. Crow broke off a seed-head, rubbed it between his hands, and handed it to Jake. “Eat it.” Jake ate the nutty tasting grain.


“Dry and crunchy? We’ll start harvest after the full moon.” He caught Jake’s eye. “Unless the storm comes.”


Crow turned to the rock. A breeze rustled the field, carrying the sweet smell of sun-baked grain. “That’s where I asked my dear Maggie to marry me.” He took a deep breath. “We came ‘ere every year ‘round this time to check the wheat.” He rubbed Jake’s back. “I know you’re suff’rin’ over your mother. I can see it, and I know how you feel.”


“Yeah?” he murmured. No one knew how he felt.


“I lost Maggie before last seedin’ to cancer. It’s a—” He choked. “It’s a hell’ava way to go. Trouble for me was I knew it was comin’ and there was nothin’ I could do to help ‘er.”


Jake knew that feeling. “I wish I had said something to Mum. It’s like I knew something was going to happen.” He quietened his voice. “But, I didn’t ‘cause Dad thinks I’m an idiot.”


Crow gripped Jake’s shoulder. “I wish I could turn back time too. I wish I had been there for Maggie. I was so torn up before she went that I ignored her. Worst part is I’m now havin’ my own medical dilemma…so I kinda know what she went through.”


Crow wiped his eyes. “Maggie and I had a good fifty seasons. I never…I never wanted to have a harvest without her.” His chin quivered. “I ‘aven’t told anyone this, Jakey, but after she died I came ‘ere and nearly ate a mouthful of lead.”


Jake paused. Finally someone knew how he felt. “I wish I had of done more.”


“Your father tells me you became close to yer mum before she passed on…That’s somethin’.”


“Yeah but—“


“Look at me.” Crow stood in front of Jake, looking him in the eyes. “I know ya feel real bad ‘bout your mum’s passin’. But you’re not responsible.”


“But—”


“Someone else is.” Crow grinned. “And that someone will get his in the end.” Crow nodded as the sun silhouetted behind, surrounding him in a brilliant glow.


Jake placed a palm on Crow’s chest and a burning sensation radiated along his arm. He closed his eyes and released all thoughts.


Grasping at his chest, Crow lay on the dirt. A shadow cast in the moonlight stood over him.


Sunlight filtered in. He clenched his eyes, turning his head back and forth.


The figure turned away, shotgun hung by its side, its footsteps crunching on the gravel.


He opened his eyes, mouth agape.


Crow smiled. “Come on, we betta check the others.”


The premonition haunted the return journey. Muzzled by doubt, he caged his concern for Crow. His father thought he was crazy, and so would everyone else. Crow seemed to understand him, and he would keep it that way.



They found Nick repairing a collapsed fence where the track bordered a salt lake. Skeletal trees punched through the parched landscape amongst waves of shimmering heat.


“Come ‘long, Jakey, I want ya to see somethin’.” He winked.


Crow approached Nick, with Jake trailing in his shadow. “Hey, ya clown,” said Crow.


Nick snapped upright, throwing down a pair of pliers. “What?”


Crow stopped an inch from Nick, leaning over him. “What’s with leavin’ the boy out there?”


Squeezing his fists and bobbing up and down, Nick shouted, “Bugger off, he wouldn’t fuckin’ get back in.”


Crow stood firm.


Jake stepped back.


“Well, I’m holdin’ off ya pay,” said Crow.


Glaring at Jake, Nick stepped over and jabbed him in the chest with a bony finger. “What did you say, ya little faggot?” Sweat dripped off Nick’s nose.


Jake held up his palms. “I—I—”


Darkness flickered into his mind.


Moonlight flared in Nick’s dilated pupils. With a twisted face, he thrust forward a shotgun, looming over Crow.


Sunlight fluttered Jake’s eyes. “I d—didn’t …”


Laughter burst through Nick’s rotten teeth.


Jake turned and tripped, grazing his hands on the salt-encrusted ground.


“What…the…fuck.” Nick strolled away. “You’ll pay me, Old Man.”


Crow leant down beside Jake’s quivering face. “Don’t worry ‘bout him. He’s jus’ a silly galah.” He lifted Jake with one hand.


Jake faced Crow, unblinking and heaving for air.


“It’s all right, Jakey.”


“N—N—Nick …” Pressure built in his head and the ground swayed. “He—“ His knees buckled and he fell into darkness.



A sizzling barbeque aroused Jake to the smell of cooked lamb. Nick raged in his head. The vision had opened his cage of self-doubt, and now with the final feather in place, his mind flew free on a path to help Crow. He dashed outside and found Crow on the veranda.


“Hiya, Jakey.”


Jake dived onto a chair next to him.


“How ya feelin’?” Crow asked.


He put his face in his hands, not knowing where to start. “Huh?”


“You passed out.”


He dropped his arms. “Where’s Nick?”


“Out fencin’ with your father.” Crow set down two plates of lamb chops and salad. “I was hopin’ you’d eat—“


He pushed his meal away. “Where’s your guns?”


“Locked in the shed.”


Jake scraped his chair back. “I hate Nick.”


Crow grinned. “Me too.”


“Well…why is he here?” He held his breath.


“He has a purpose ‘ere at the moment.” Crow chewed on a chop. “When he’s done his job, he’ll be on his way.” He slapped a fly on the table so hard the plates jumped. “You can be sure of that.”


“But he’s dangerous.”


Crow sipped a beer like time did not matter.


Jake sprang up. “I just know it.”


“Well, I know stuff too, Jakey, and I have a feelin’ we need his help ‘ere.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and leant back.


“I have a feeling too…and…and he’s got to go.”


“Listen.” Crow exhaled. “I was passin’ through town a couple of weeks back and I jus’ had an urge,” he picked up his beer, “and stopped at the pub. That’s where I found ‘im. Said he was tryin’ to get away from the city.” He took a long swig. “I hadn’t really been too focused on harvest this year, but I took one look at ‘im and knew he could help me out. Then I ran with the idea and got you and ya dad up too.”


Jake marched into the backyard, trying to contain his frustration, dry grass scratching his bare feet. The sun had just set. He took a deep breath and turned back. The iron roof of the home glowed under a full moon. A chill crawled up his back like a spider.


The rumble of a tractor approached.


He ran back. “The full moon’s tonight?”


“Sure is.”


He spun to the work yard. A tractor drove in, followed by the utility. He whipped his head back. “Nick’s back.”


Crow collected the plates. “Everything will be fine. Trus’ me. Why don’t you get yerself an early night? You’ll need it.”


Jake paused, defeated. “J—just be careful.” He went to his bedroom and peered through the curtains.


Walking like every muscle cramped, his father returned to the house. Nick strutted to his caravan in the work yard.


Jake paced the room.


His father staggered in and slumped onto his bed on the other side of the room. “How’s your day?”


“D—Dad.” Jake stood still.


“Yeah?” His father sat up and rubbed his beard stubble.


He struggled to swallow. “Remember I said I knew Mum’s crash was going to happen?” He dove his fidgeting hands into his pockets.


Karl let his face drop and exhaled. “Yeah.”


“And y—you said I w—was crazy?”


“I don’t think you’re crazy…ya know.” He cupped his hands on his face. “You’re just not well… Not well at all.”


“D—Dad.” His body trembled. “I knew Mum was going to die and I did nothing about it.” He wiped his sleeve across his nose. “Because people think I’m mad.” He threw his arms up. “I see things all the time…Bad things…Before they happen.”


His father shook his head. “Shit, Jake. I’m ready to go home.”


“Dad, Nick is going to shoot Crow…tonight.” He burned with rage.


“What?”


He stepped closer. “I want your help.”


“What the hell are you on about? We’re not doing anything.” He laid back down. “If I wasn’t so knackered I’d leave now. Go to sleep.”


Jake climbed into his blankets. His body shuddered. He knew he was on his own. He tossed and turned for hours at a loss for what to do.



A tapping at the window cut through the silence. Jake scurried to the bedhead. His hands trembled. He snatched the curtains aside. A crow perched on the windowsill, staring at him with its midnight-black eye. It cawed and flew away into the darkness. Jake jumped back.


Moonlight slipped through a gap in the curtains, lighting Jake’s father snoring in bed. Jake crept past and out of the room. Floorboards creaked and the back door groaned open.


A lightning storm danced on the horizon.


Gravel crunched underfoot across the work yard and into the shed. Jake tugged the cold steel handle on the safe and it held firm.


He crept back towards the house. Shadows cast in the moonlight stretched across the work yard like dark claws. Goosebumps crawled up his arms.


Nick’s caravan door screeched.


Jake froze. Sweat burst through every pore on his body.


Nick swayed in the doorway, the interior light throwing his shadow over Jake. Nick sucked on a glass pipe whilst holding a lighter to the end. He pulled the pipe out. “What ‘cha doing sneakin’ ‘round, you little pussy?” Nick fell back with a crash and laughed.


Jake sprinted inside and pulled the covers over his head, straining to slow his breaths.


Footsteps creaked on the veranda, each step shooting fear into him. He peered through the window. Nick snatched open the back door. Jake leapt off the bed and pressed himself against the bedroom door. Drawers and cupboards opened around the home. A set of keys rattled.


The footsteps disappeared outside. Jake sprang to the window and fogged it with his breath. A dark figure went into the shed.


Just be quiet, just be—


Crow walked outside.


He placed a shotgun by Jake’s window, and strolled into the shed.


Jake launched out of bed, crashing onto the floor in a tangle of blankets. He scrambled outside, picked up the gun, and scurried to the side of the shed. He leant back against the corrugated iron wall. Sweat trickled into his mouth.


The thunderstorm rumbled.


The gun safe clanked open.


“Nick,” said Crow with his calm voice.


“Oi, what the fuck?” yelled Nick.


Jake strained to stand, but his trembling legs collapsed and he slumped to the dirt. The gun barrel shook in front of his face. The smell of oiled metal churned his stomach.


“You’re nuthin’ but a thief…and a murd’rin’ coward.”


“What? Hey…hey, Old Man. There’s been no murder.” A shrill laugh erupted. “Not yet anyways.”


“I know who you are.”


“You know fuck all…Old Cunt. You should’a paid me…I need my fix. I just need it. Okay. Now I’m taking this shit and your ute too.”


“You’re goin’ all right,” said Crow, “but not where you think.”


Nick laughed.


“You killed my niece.”


Nick went silent.


Thunder clapped overhead.


“You killed ‘er in that crash and ran ‘way like the coward ya are.”


Images crashed into Jake’s mind.


Nick leapt from the four-wheel drive into the blood-stained shattered glass on the road and ran away.


“Wh—“ Nick’s voice quietened.


“And I aint lettin’ ya get away with it.”


“You aint doin’ shit, Old Man.”


Jake’s heart pounded.


“Nick, do it,” Crow screamed. “Do it, you murd’rin’—“


An explosion shook the shed.


Jake’s eyes snapped open. Lightning streaked across the sky. He leapt to his feet. He pulled the gun’s stock into his shoulder and steered the sights into the work yard.


Nick wandered between the sights, saw Jake, and stopped. He grinned and lowered his own gun. “Pussy.”


Jake held his aim firm.


The back door slammed open. “Jake,” yelled his father.


Nick looked to Karl.


“Nick,” shouted Jake.


Karl halted. “What happened?”


“Fuck off.” Nick raised his gun at Karl.


Jake snatched the trigger. Nick flew sideways. He yanked the action back and forth, clenched the trigger, and repeated the cycle until the last few pulls ended with empty clicks.


Nick’s twisted body lay face-down, gargling and choking.


Jake’s ears rung. Adrenaline surged through him. He dropped the gun and ran to Crow.


Crow lay on his back, caressing a wound on his chest. “Jakey.” He gasped.


Jake trembled a sob.


Blood trickled out the corner of Crow’s mouth. “You did it.”


“No, I didn’t. You’re shot. I did nothing.” Jake dropped to his knees and put a hand on Crow’s wound. “Yet again.”


“I have cancer and it was ‘bout to kill me.” Crow gasped. “I chose to go on my terms.”


Warm blood oozed through Jake’s fingers. “What?”


Crow’s hands slumped to his sides. “I have visions too, Jakey. Like the crow, you and I always see what’s comin’.” He chuckled.


Jake cried. “I can’t do anything about them.”


“You’re not meant to.” Crow coughed a spray of blood. “Jus’ make the most of the time ya have. You became close with your mum…before she passed. You did good.” He gasped and air sucked through a hole in his chest. “Now, don’t push your father away.” He reached up and caressed Jake’s cheek with a wet hand. Jake laid his hand over Crow’s. “Look after my farm.” His hand fell.


Crow went still.




The Colored Lens Interviews: Jarod K Anderson

The Colored Lens: What inspired the individual stories you’ve published with us?

Jarod: It’s often hard for me to pin down a single inspiration for my stories. I think my inspiration is usually more of a melding of several (often random) concepts that interest me at any given time. I’m a curious person, so I often get obsessed with new topics that catch my attention. For example, I recently went through a phase in which I was dedicated to learning how to pick locks. Will that end up in one of my stories? Probably, but I have no clue how.

Beyond a general love of mad scientists, I’m not sure what inspired “A Junker’s Kiss.” I guess it’s sort of a confluence of my interests in body modification and absurd science. As for “The Shallows,” that story was inspired more by a location. I spend a week or so in Florida every year and, as a lifelong resident of Ohio, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the open sea. I look at the sky reflected in an Ohio pond and I have some pretty good guesses about what might be beneath the surface. When I stare out into the ocean, I feel an immense amount of uncertainty about what might be swimming below. For me, nothing is as inspiring as a mystery.

The Colored Lens: Family relationships often seem to play a role in your stories.  Do you feel that’s a common theme in your writing?  Or what would you consider some of the common themes?

Jarod: I hope relationships are a common theme in my stories. I love fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but I’m not particularly interested in vivid descriptions of monsters or magical landscapes unless they are paired with empathetic characters struggling with fundamentally human problems. A monster alone in a vacuum is nowhere near as interesting as a monster hiding in the back of a loving family’s minivan. Believable human interaction is the real fuel that gives power to writers’ elements of the fantastical.

The Colored Lens: When you start writing a story, do you know how it’s going to end? If not, can you give us an example (ideally from a story you’ve published with us so our readers can make the connection) of a story you expected to go in one direction that went somewhere else?

Jarod: It depends. How’s that for an unhelpful answer? Sometimes I start a story because I’ve thought of a punchy ending. Sometimes I just have the broad outline of a conflict in mind. I think for “The Shallows” I just had a rough sketch when I started. A man in a small boat goes fishing and encounters merpeople. On its own, that premise probably isn’t interesting enough to carry a narrative, so I knew I needed to do more than simply make the protagonist a victim. Somewhere in the writing process I introduced some good ol’ vampire/werewolf transformation mechanics into the mix and found the unexpected complication I needed. 

The Colored Lens: What would you like to read more of & what are you tired of in general in speculative fiction?

Jarod: I could use more humor. I empathize more with characters who aren’t afraid to be the butt of the joke. Take Harry Dresden (of The Dresden Files) for example. Those books have plenty of real fear and struggle and tragedy, but Harry’s wisecracks do a lot to humanize magic and ground the fantastical elements in believable reality. The Expanse series does a good job of walking that line as well. I guess that leads me to what I’m tired of in fiction. If I’m starting a new fantasy book and the first twenty pages are setting, you’ve lost me. Once I’m invested in the characters, I’m willing to learn more about the geography of the dread Mountains of the Wailing Cheese and the Mystic Caverns of Gorp. Characters and tension needs to come first. The fantastical world should come second (or third).

The Colored Lens: What was the first speculative work that really captured your attention and got you interested in the genre?

Jarod: I had an audio version of The Hobbit that I probably listened to a few hundred times as a kid hiding under my blankets with my boombox (I’m old). That led to Lord of the Rings. That led to living with piles and piles of books.

The Colored Lens: You also mention an upcoming story in Pseudopod below.  How do you feel audiobooks relate or compare to paper books in terms of reader experience?  Do you write with either audio or written form in mind when you write a story?  Or do you think some of your stories are more suited to one or the other?

Jarod: On an average weekday I commute for over two hours, so I’m a big fan of audiobooks. They are a different experience from paper books, but I love both experiences equally. For example, I love the novel Moby Dick, but when I recommend it to someone I typically recommend the audio version. I find that dense and sometimes difficult works like Moby Dick benefit from audio because the reader isn’t allowed to get slowed or frustrated. The language rolls along and sweeps the listener along with it. I also recommend audio for works like Paradise Lost, works in which the musicality of the language adds to the experience. That said, there is a wonderful intimacy between the reader and a physical book. Audio has a bit more distance to it.

I have never written a story specifically for audio and I absolutely get squirmy when I hear my work read aloud. Squirmy feeling aside, I love publishing in audio formats. I love it partly because I’m such an avid consumer of audio fiction and partly because I feel like the act of performing a piece lends some extra weight to the thing.

The Colored Lens: What’s a typical day like for you, either including writing or not?

Jarod: I work at a university in marketing and fundraising during the day. I do most of my writing in the evening. I also spend time playing with my two, oddball, rescued mutts and hanging out with my lovely, oddball, writer wife.

The Colored Lens: Who’s the better writer, you or your wife?  🙂

Jarod: The short answer is “she is.” The longer answer is “it depends what genre/style/form you’re talking about.” Since you gave me an opening, I will say this: You need to read Leslie’s poetry. I know I’m married to her so my opinion is suspect, but she is my favorite poet and would be even if I’d never met her. Check out her collection An Inheritance of Stone and prepare to be surprised when poems about space exploration and science fiction make you cry.

The Colored Lens: How does your relationship as writers affect your relationship as a married couple, and vice versa?

Jarod: Well, we do peer pressure each other into writing more. For example, I might be sitting down to play a video game and look over to see Leslie tapping away on her laptop and think, “well, if she’s writing, I should probably be writing too.”

The Colored Lens: Have you ever/would you consider writing something together?

Jarod: You bet! We have very different processes, but we do like to collaborate. We’ve written a couple books of writing prompts together and right now we’re working on an epistolary horror novella together.

The Colored Lens: To what extent do your personal experiences (job, family, or odd things that have happened to you) influence your stories? 

Jarod: Well, I don’t really think I can separate my imagination from my experiences. I think if I were to say that my personal experiences don’t shape my writing, it would mean more about my lack of self reflection than give any real insight into my creative process.

The Colored Lens: What’s the most frustrating thing about the writing process and the publishing industry for you?

Jarod: Writing is hard. It was always hard and, while I’m enthusiastic about it, I don’t believe it ever gets any easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing. It’s just the kind of love that also makes me want to punch a wall sometimes. Occasionally, aspiring writers ask me for advice and I usually tell them some version of, “You often won’t feel like writing because it’s hard and lonely and usually involves very little reward. You also need to find ways to make yourself do it every day anyway if you want to be a writer.” On a positive note, I like to remind myself that nothing really creatively rewarding is ever easy. Plus, if it wasn’t so challenging it would get boring.

The Colored Lens: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should watch for?

Jarod: I have a flash fiction piece in the current episode of Pseudopod. Also, my middle grade novel is currently being considered by several agents (fingers crossed) and I have a poem in an upcoming issue of Asimov’s.

The Colored Lens: Congratulations on those, and good luck with the novel.  It seems you’re primarily a short story writer.  Do you think this is an accurate statement?  And how would you compare writing novels and short stories?

Jarod: I’ve written two novels and a third one is on the way. The thing is, I’m aiming for a pretty traditional publishing path, so you aren’t likely to see my novels unless I find a novel publisher with whom I’m excited to work. Yes, I think it’s accurate to say that I’m mostly a short story writer… for now. Novels and short stories are pretty night and day for me. Short stories are about economy of language and building a satisfying narrative in a compact space. A novel lets you stretch out and experiment and play around a lot more than short fiction.

The Colored Lens: Finally, unrelated to writing, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?  And what achievement are you most proud of?

Jarod: I once fought off a carjacker with a knife and I’m pretty proud of earning my MA in literature.

The Colored Lens: Wow, we’re glad you were successful.  Can you tell us a bit more of the story of the carjacking?  And do you think having an MA in literature affects the way you read or write speculative fiction?

Jarod: I was a college student and I gave a hitchhiker a ride. The guy asked me to pull over so that he could use his cell phone at one point. You know… because you can’t use a phone and ride in a car at the same time (this guy was not a master criminal). He pulled a knife on me and demanded that I get out of the car. I was young and on the boxing team at my school and I decided I’d rather fight him than give up my car. Thankfully, I won. In reality, I probably should have just given him the car. It was a piece of junk and not worth risking my life. I did get a pretty good little story out of it though.

I’m sure my MA has an effect on the way I write and read, but I don’t think it’s a massive difference from anybody who doesn’t have a MA in literature. I’ve just spent a lot of hours studying various ways to think about stories. I think that investment of time enhances my enjoyment of reading and occasionally provides me with a trick or two when I’m writing. It can also be a little distracting because I’m in the habit of looking for essay topics.

The Colored Lens: So you’ve published a couple books of writing prompts.  Do you often use writing prompts in your own writing?

Jarod: I don’t, actually. Coming up with the idea is never the hard part for me. I never run out of ideas. Putting in the hours to actually get the idea down on paper and polished into something a person might want to read is the hard part. For me, inspiration is cheap. Follow-through is the important part.

The Colored Lens: Finally, are you a dog person or a cat person?

Jarod: Definitely a dog person. I like cats, but I am very, very, very, very, very allergic to them.




Published by Light Spring LLC



Fort Worth, Texas



© Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved







www.TheColoredLens.com






The Colored Lens #30 – Winter 2019




The Colored Lens

Speculative Fiction Magazine

Winter 2019 – Issue #30

Featuring works by Christopher A. Jos, Robert Dawson, Dana Beehr, Andrew De La Pena, Kristen Brand, H.L. Fullerton, Lynn Rushlau, Jude-Marie Green, Rob Andwood, Camille Singer, Alexandra Grunberg and John Pederson.



Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Henry Fields, Associate Editor

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2019, All Rights Reserved

www.TheColoredLens.com



Table of Contents



The Stray

By Christopher A. Jos

Masura Kazamune rode untouched through the packed but silent street. The fingers of his right hand brushed against the scabbard of his sheathed sword, his left hand adjusting the position of two large sacks tied to his horse’s saddle. A soft drip accompanied the beast’s nimble steps. The bottoms of both bags were stained a dark red.

He ignored every stare, jaw set, focused instead upon the padding of his stallion’s hooves upon the parched earth. It seemed as if every man, woman, and child in that nameless backwater town had gathered to watch his return. Faces lined the building walls, the doorways, even peeked through the open windows. But none dared speak. Not in the presence of a man such as him.

His destination was a large structure at the end of the wide dirt street. The thatch on its sloped roof was new. Lean wooden columns supported the austere frame, built upon a foundation of assembled stones rather than stout stilts like the other nearby dwellings.

Masura squared his shoulders. In the old days, he had accompanied Lord Akano through many towns similar to this one, though the reception then had been far different. Inquisitive faces would’ve peered at him as now, but the women would’ve clasped their hands in gratitude, the children cheering, the men giving low bows. Lord Akano would’ve waved back, dismounted and walked among the gathered crowd on foot. A sign of deep respect for the peasantry. The lifeblood of the Hiratan Empire.

An aging male servant in a loose brown robe greeted Masura at the sliding entrance door of the elder’s residence. The old man didn’t bow, though he kept his eyes downcast while taking the reins of Masura’s black Kiyoso stallion. Masura ascended the shallow steps, a soaked cloth bag in each hand. A second male servant wearing an identical robe beckoned him forward.

Two figures waited for him at the far edge of the audience room. Horio Tamekage stood erect, feet shoulder-width apart, his receding hair tied in traditional topknot fashion. But Masura gave the man only a furtive glance, his gaze lingering instead upon the kneeling woman beside him. Suroda Tamekage was far older, her posture stooped, strands of long white hair pinned back around her shoulders. Unusual for a woman out here in the Marchlands to retain the role of elder rather than passing it onto a son, though such practices were becoming increasingly common throughout the Eight Provinces. No doubt a result of the Luminous Throne’s influence?and that of Hirata’s new Emperor.

Another twelve men stood along the walls in their black and gray robes. Daylight streamed through the windows to reflect off a dozen hands gripping the hilts of their sheathed single-edged swords. None of the scabbards or hilts bore the mark of the yejin, unlike Masura’s own sekari steel blade. The tart scent of bowstring oil was rampant. They likely had archers hidden behind the one-way partition at the back of the room.

Masura’s mouth twitched, though he stopped it from becoming a full-fledged frown. He gave a slight bow. “I dispatched the brigands, as requested.”

He tossed the two cloth bags onto the floor before either of the Tamekages could reply. The sacks rolled forward with a soft squish and left a pair of red smears along the wooden planks.

Horio Tamekage used a foot to prod the nearest sack. Strands of close-cropped black hair protruded through the open top, still attached to their scalps.

“Where are the rest?” Horio wiped the bottom of his blood-stained boot across the floor.

“They couldn’t be salvaged.” Masura had tried being careful this time, but when it came to properly cutting off a criminal’s head or staying alive?priority went to the latter.

“You had explicit instructions.” Horio kicked the sacks aside. A nearby servant was quick to gather them up. “Bring back every one of those brigands’ heads, or don’t bother returning at all.”

“Too many to carry.” Masura shrugged. “There were twenty of them.”

Eyes widened at that. Horio’s and those of the guards. Only Suroda Tamekage’s expression remained unreadable.

“Liar.” Horio jabbed a finger in Masura’s face. “No lone stray could take down twenty armed criminals. Not honorably.” Several nearby guards nodded. “Tell me, did you resort to using a coward’s poisons? Or perhaps you slit a few of those men’s throats while they were sleeping?”

Masura neither moved nor blinked. Horio wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. Masura had caught the brigands by surprise. Most had been too busy with other less honorable pursuits to even notice him. Captured farm girls for their pleasure, along with an open cask of distilled liquor seized during one of their recent raids.

Criminals and their victims?more casualties of the droughts ravaging Hirata’s rice crop in the Glimmering Terraces to the north, now well into its fifth year. Destitute men could be led to commit all sorts of heinous acts.

“Nothing to say in your defense?” Horio paced back and forth before Masura. He tapped his thumb against the hilt of his blade. “You present yourself with only six of these supposed twenty, and with no further evidence the other brigands are dead. How do we know you didn’t just raid a farmer’s field upon our lands and cut off the heads of six random peasants?”

Masura inhaled a breath, but not too deep. The wound at his side, hidden beneath the folds of his blue robe, still throbbed. The brigands’ leader had been neither drinking nor whoring, and had proved a worthy opponent, more skilled than his nineteen subordinates put together. Another yejin turned stray, just like Masura. Bandaging the wound from that man’s marked blade had been a hasty thing. It would need proper treatment and suturing to prevent infection, and soon.

“Ride into the hills and take a look for yourself. I’ll even draw you a map.” Masura kept his gaze level. He wouldn’t lower his eyes or bow to anyone who dared call him a liar. “And if you’re still unsure, question the husbands, parents, and siblings of the women I freed from the brigands’ bondage.”

All but one, anyway, whom two of the criminals had gutted during the chaos in a failed attempt to bargain for their lives. The other women had fled once they realized who Masura was. None had even bothered to thank him.

Horio’s mouth snapped shut, instead matching Masura’s glare. The man’s grip tightened on his sword hilt.

“It is of little concern to us.” Suroda Tamekage’s voice was quiet and frail, yet it cut through the ensuing silence. “We will pay you what you’re owed.”

She signaled behind her. A young female servant approached, head bowed, and knelt in front of Masura. The girl held out a leather coin pouch.

Masura seized the offering with one hand and counted the hollow-centered silver discs in the other. With each metallic clink, more whispers and mutters flared from every corner of the residence. The guards, the servants, the archers lurking behind the rear partition, even the elder and her son. Convention dictated Masura should wait until the meeting was concluded before verifying his payment. A gesture of respect and trust to the other party, though he had long since dispensed with such pointless courtesies.

Lord Akano certainly wouldn’t have approved. It was easy to picture his master’s heavy-lined face giving him a stern frown, seated in the manor study by lamplight, calligraphy brush frozen between fingers and paper. Lord Akano’s desk would’ve been piled high with letters to his many contacts throughout the empire?correspondence to secure labor agreements for desperate Hiratans eager for work.

But the dead couldn’t protest.

“This is only a third of what we agreed upon.” Masura tossed the pouch back at the Tamekages’ feet.

Horio sprang forward. “Be grateful we’re even giving you that, you oath breaking?”

“Enough.” Suroda raised a hand, and Horio fell silent. Her dark eyes settled on Masura. “What we’re offering is more than generous, considering you only brought us six heads. Do you think you deserve more, based on our prior agreement?”

The guards reached for their weapons?thumbs’ lengths of sharpened steel now visible. Masura’s gaze remained fixed upon the partition behind the Tamekages. The archers likely had their bows drawn, aimed at his heart and head.

He grasped the hilt of his own sword. Deflecting arrows was no small feat at such close range, even with the ethereal nimbleness of his sekari steel blade. But it could be done, as could taking on a room of twenty odd men, if necessary. It seemed to be his lucky sign.

He’d fought that same number when pursuing his master’s murderers. Twenty assassins from House Narisane led by the High Lord’s third son, dissatisfied with so many of those lucrative labor contracts given to Lord Akano in his father’s stead. Each of the twenty had fallen to a single swing from Masura’s sword?a wildfire tale that had spread throughout Hirata to become legend.

As had the rumor of Masura’s refusal to die after Lord Akano had been avenged, as yejin tradition demanded. A life of disgrace chosen over an honorable death. The life of an outcast. A stray.

Masura tensed, a sneer splitting his facade. These Tamekages had called him a coward and a liar. With their deaths?he would simply be defending whatever shreds of honor he still had left.

He exhaled his held breath. And be branded a murderer, hunted down like a common criminal. Like the assassins who’d killed Lord Akano. Like the brigands he himself had executed. And like their leader, the former yejin he’d dueled and defeated.

Masura released the grip on his sword. There had been far too much death in these hills already. Lord Akano would’ve been aghast if he knew his old gift was being used for such a purpose, especially if he was watching from the Other world. The last thing Masura needed right now was another name added to an ever-growing list. Masura the Quick. Masura the Oath Breaker. Masura the Stray.

Masura the Butcher.

“Well?” Horio said. “What’re you still standing there for? Take your payment and go?or you won’t be leaving at all.”

Masura gritted his teeth. Horio wasn’t the first to utter such a threat to him, nor would this elder’s overgrown whelp be the last. But he hadn’t come all the way out to this backwater town to answer their pleas for help, only to cause trouble after.

Time to move on.

It took Masura considerable effort not to press his hand to the crude bandage beneath his robe. Probably better to enlist the services of a healer elsewhere, though the next nearest town was more than a full day’s ride.

“I thank you for your generosity.” He left the coins on the floor and turned, perhaps a little too quick. Careless of him. He might take a blade in the back for his trouble, just like Lord Akano had. Horio Tamekage would be more than capable of giving that order, even if he wasn’t the type to swing the sword himself.

Masura breathed easier once his boots touched the compact earth outside the elder’s residence. That same elderly servant waited alongside his Kiyoso stallion. Masura mounted up and rode at a trot down the main street.

The crowd still lingered, pulling back at his approach. Women clutched children to their chests, men shook their heads, youngsters spat at his feet. Masura straightened himself in the saddle, one hand on the reins, the other hanging loose at his side, as far away from the hilt of his sword as possible. It wouldn’t do to show fear among the peasant folk. Not under the terms of this continued existence.

If he’d had his way, he would’ve killed himself upon avenging his master’s death. A short blade to the gut, in typical yejin fashion, to join Lord Akano’s remaining retainers in their sojourn to the Other world. But it hadn’t been up to him. All of Hirata didn’t understand, would never understand.

He was no coward.

A silent messenger had delivered a sealed letter the day after Lord Akano’s murder. Masura had memorized its contents, the characters scrawled in his master’s elegant but unmistakable hand.

Masura,

The fact you are reading this means I have met my end in a most unexpected way. I bear no ill feelings against whichever house was responsible. Seek vengeance if you must, but I do not wish you to follow me into the Other world. Not yet. Thus, my final order to you:

Live.

Should the droughts continue, you and your talents will be of far more use to the troubled people of Hirata, even broken and reviled as you will be. Pledge loyalty to no house. Speak of this to no one. Protect those who cannot do so themselves for as long as you are able.

Your services will always be needed.

Masura had burned the rest, kept only a small crinkled fragment tucked deep within the sleeve of his robe. It bore but a single smudged character.

Live.

The thatched roofs of that nameless town faded from the horizon into memory. He would be visiting many more like it in the days to come.



The Pregnancy Room

By Robert Dawson

The three-story stone house murmured discreetly of old money. Could this mansion really be her university residence? Lyra Fong checked the number once more, took a deep breath, adjusted her grip on the bulging cardboard box that held her old pre-med textbooks, and labored up the front stairs.

“Hey. Let me get the door for you!” Blonde ponytail lashing, a girl strode past Lyra, slapped her residence card against the lock, and thrust the door open. “You moving in here? I’m Karine.”

“Thanks!” Lyra walked carefully toward the doorway. The box felt as though it might give way at any moment. “I’m Lyra Fong.”

“Welcome to Bix House!” The girl looked at Lyra appraisingly. “You haven’t joined our Facebook group yet, have you? Amanda was supposed to invite you.”

“I only got accepted to med school last week when somebody cancelled. Since then I’ve been so busy I could have missed it.” She gazed at the dark-varnished oak doors, framed in wide antique molding, with ornate roundels at the upper corners. Houses back in Oklahoma just weren’t like this. Chris was going to love it.

“No shit!” Karine paused, mid-hallway. “Which room did you get? It’ll be 4, 8, or 9, they’re the only ones still empty.”

“Room 4,” Lyra said. “My grandfather will go totally apeshit when he hears.”

“Huh?”

“Dad’s folks are from China, and Yeh Yeh is superstitious. Feng shui, burning ghost money for our ancestors, all that stuff.” (There was the room, her room, right there at the bottom of the stairs!) “Sometimes I think he really believes it, sometimes I think it’s just a link to where he grew up. But number four is totally the worst luck. It’s pronounced ‘sei’ in Cantonese, which is like the word for ‘death.’ Can you hold this while I get my swipe card?” She passed the box to Karine.

Karine waddled in after her. “That’s hilarious – I’ve got room 13! Hey, we could swap if you want.” One corner of the box began to give way; Karine dropped it onto the bed with an audible sigh of relief.

“Thanks, but Yeh Yeh isn’t the one living here. And I’m totally not superstitious.”

“It’s got an awesome view,” Karine said. “You’ll like it.”

Lyra thought about the offer. In a house this size, Room 13 would probably be on the top floor, like her snug little attic room back home. It did sound appealing. And if it helped her make a friend… “Can I take a look first?”

“Sure! Then I’ll help you move your stuff in, and you could help me move mine down here. It’s still in boxes, mostly. And then we’ll go for pizza!”

Three hours later, over pizza and beer, Lyra had learned that she was now a “Bixie”; that it was the most awesome grad residence in Sutherland University; and that she should totally ignore the sorority girls, especially Beta Phi Phi, who were all stuck-up immature airheads. And that Karine was doing a MFA and was going to have to be a novelist, because her family were all too whitebread boring for her to be able to write a good memoir. And–after the third beer–that people said there was a ghost in Bix House, but Karine had never seen it, and would just die if she did.


Two days later, Lyra lay on her bed, in pajamas, listening to music and sipping hot chocolate. Room 13 was the fanciest room she had ever lived in: it clearly hadn’t needed much remodeling when they turned the old house into a residence. The floor was real hardwood, with a nice carpet, the desk was in a fantastic three-windowed dormer that looked out over a sea of green treetops, and the closet was huge. You could be Emily Dickinson in a room like this. Or whoever the medical equivalent was.

Two Dali prints and three photographs of Chris made it feel like home. Lyra had even made a calligraphic poster for her wall, three elegant Chinese ideographs in black ink saying “THE DOCTOR IS IN.” While the nights weren’t very cold yet, the heating system seemed adequate in its eccentric way, occasionally emitting puffs of hot air from a register she still couldn’t locate. She thought back to her shared cookie-cutter shoebox at the University of Oklahoma, and wondered how she had ever survived.

Her phone chirped with an incoming text: Sarah, another med student, whom she had met that afternoon at the rugby tryouts.

-Where you?

-My room at Bix

-Which room you got?

-13, top floor, it rocks!

-ZOMG!! The pregnancy room! O__o

-Huh?

-They say 17 girls in room 13 pregnant in 40 yrs 🙁 YOU BE CAREFUL!!!

-I’m in med, duh!

-Yeah right 🙂

So that was why Karine had been in such a hurry to swap? Well, if the dumb girl didn’t understand about birth control, maybe this awesome room should go to a medical student. No point feeling guilty about it. She stretched luxuriously and took another sip of hot chocolate. All this room needed to be perfect was a visit from Chris.


Over the next week, it seemed to Lyra that she’d met more people than she’d ever known before; and so many of them seemed to know the reputation of her room that she wondered if she should just wear a “Baby On Board” T-shirt and be done with it. Hah! That would be totally awesome for Halloween.

“Do I have to hide the pickles yet?” asked Sarah on Monday afternoon, as they waited for the Medical Ethics lecture to begin.

“You know, they should give whoever lives in my room a day’s extension on all their assignments,” Lyra said. “Just to make up for time wasted listening to lame jokes.”

“Sorry.” Sarah held her hands up in surrender.

“Hey, I’m kidding. But, look, I’m on the pill, okay? Everybody can just chill out and quit staring at my belly.”

“Yeah, for sure. But they say a lot of the girls who got pregnant were on the pill, too.”

“The failure rate’s one in three hundred woman-years, okay? Used right. Do the math. If they got pregnant it was because they weren’t taking the pills properly.” She hoped she’d remembered her own pill that morning. She could remember popping the little teal disc out of its blister… but was that today or yesterday?

She sat through Ethics, Genetics, Epidemiology, and Physical Diagnosis in an agony of uncertainty, then sprinted across the campus, scattering pedestrians and inline skaters as she went. By the time she reached her room, she was out of breath, and sweat plastered her T-shirt to her body.

Today’s pill was still in the package.

Her fingers were trembling as she pressed it free and took it, but maybe that was from the sprint. There had to be an app for this, some sort of med-reminder. Once her fingers were steady again, she picked up her phone: sure enough, there were dozens of choices. She found one that was free, with an interface that didn’t assume that she was senile, and downloaded it.

Maybe she should look into getting an IUD – or even an implant.


The Two Goats coffee shop was noisy, and Lyra was having difficulty paying attention to her Medical Ethics assignment. (What were horny small-town GPs meant to do, if they had the only practice in town? Date Christian Scientists? The textbook wasn’t clear.) She put the book face-down on the table, took a long sip of her chai latte and a bite of her pumpkinseed cookie, and looked up to see Karine hovering with a steaming mug.

The only empty chair in sight was at Lyra’s table.

“Hi, Karine,” she said. “Want to join me?”

“Thanks, Lyra!” Karine put her coffee on the table and plunked herself into the chair. “Is this where you usually study? Must cost you a fortune, the drinks here are so expensive. They’re a buck cheaper at the Student Union, did you know that?”

“I wanted a change. And I thought this might be a quiet place to work.”

“Hey, don’t mind me. Just keep reading. What’s the book?” She turned it around to see the title. “Sooner you than me! But, seriously, I haven’t seen you at Bix for days. Or on Facebook. Everything okay?”

“I’ve got a lot of classes. And rugby practice. And the rest of the time I’m mostly in my room studying.”

Karine sipped her coffee and put the mug down. She paused, took another slow sip, then another. “Uh, how’s the room?” she asked, cautiously.

“Oh, it’s totally cool! No monsters under the bed at all.”

Karine looked at her and laughed nervously.

“Sure you don’t what to swap back?” Lyra asked. “I feel kind of guilty, the view’s so much better than the ground floor.”

“No, we made a deal. And you wouldn’t want to have to fill out all those room change forms again, would you?” Karine took another sip, and stood up, leaving the half-full cup on the table. “Anyhow, I’ve got to go. Good luck with the rugby, okay?”

“Bye, Karine,” said Lyra. She took another bite of her cookie, washed it down with lukewarm latte, and turned back to her textbook.


-Guess what, Sarah?

-What? (Guessed it 🙂 )

-Chris called! He found a $60 flight for the weekend

-ZOMG 🙂 sweeeet! happy for you!!! Can he stay to watch us play sunday pm?

– 🙂 Has to fly back sunday noon.

-Sucks. But overnight 😉 you won’t have much sleep before the game.

– 😉

-You be careful, Room 13! 🙂

-FFS, I’m in med!!!

-Bye 🙂

-Byeee!


Lyra stood by the curb, waiting impatiently for the taxi. There was so much to tell Chris – and so much not to. Hey, Chris! I’m keeping a log of my birth control pills now! Obsessive much? And how last week, with only three of the white placebo pills left in her blister pack, she’d been so sure she was overdue that she’d hardly slept. Her period had started the next day, and it had been almost that late other times: but the whole thing was driving her crazy.

The taxi pulled up. Chris’s blond dreads were unchanged, and he had a new T-shirt with a white-on-blue architectural sketch of the Toronto CN Tower. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him slowly and thoroughly.

“Get a room, guys!” That was Karine’s voice, behind her.

She whispered in his ear “I do have one, remember? Wanna come up and see it?”

“Totally. But after that, let’s eat, okay? I missed breakfast to catch the plane.”

She took his hand and led him into the house. She glanced at the door of room 4. Should she tell him about the swap? He paused at the bottom of the stairs, ran a fingertip down the fluting on the elaborately carved baluster, and raised his eyebrows. “Wow. I think I’m moving in!”

“Hey, doofus, you’re here to see me, not the woodwork!” She began to climb the stairs, pulling him along. When they reached her room, she waved him in ahead of her, and wondered whether to tell him about all the pregnancies that had supposedly started there.

She took a deep breath, braced herself in the oak doorframe. “Karine, that’s the girl who was leaving, says the house has a ghost.”

Chris made woo-woo noises, then pulled her inside and closed the door. They began to kiss in earnest. Soon they were lying on the bed, rediscovering each other’s bodies after four weeks apart. His hand found her breast, and the thought flashed into her mind: We’re about to have sex in the Pregnancy Room. She pulled back, and gently moved his hand away. “Not now.”

“But I thought…”

“C’mon, Chris. You wanted me to show you around Sutherland, remember?” What’s happening to me? Is this dumb myth turning me into a prude? “You’re hungry. Let’s go check out the food court!” She pulled him to his feet, hugged him, and led him by the hand out of the room.

They wandered across campus, Lyra acting as tour guide. “Here’s the student union building. And over there is where the Engineers did their frosh week Godiva parade.”

“Do they really do that?”

“Yeah. It’s totally dumb. Just a bunch of engineering students marching behind a woman on horseback who’s waving a slide rule.”

“I’d have liked to see that.”

“She was wearing a body stocking, you perv.”

“No, silly, the slide rule. I haven’t seen one of those for years,” he said. She laughed and punched him in the ribs, then took his hand again.

They ate at the Two Goats. She told him about classes and rugby, filling in the cracks from a month of texts and phone calls. They wandered around the campus, and he told her about architecture school, and pointed out features of the buildings they passed: spandrels, Corinthian columns, architraves. They did both loops of the hike by the river, her loins hinting at every step that there were better ways to spend an afternoon. They watched the sun set, went out for dinner, and took in a Renaissance music concert at the Student Union building. It was getting late, but she insisted on going back to the Two Goats for hot chocolate. Around eleven thirty, having done everything else there was to do, they went back to her room, holding hands and saying nothing.

Chris spoke first. “Is there something wrong, Ly?”

“No.” She guided him over to the bed, sat next to him. “It’s just that I’ve been worrying about my birth control pills recently. With all the changes in routine, I’ve been a bit careless taking them this month, and I don’t feel safe.” It was the truth, if not the whole truth, and she felt better. “You don’t have a condom, do you?” Barrier methods weren’t the best, but surely the two together–and a little luck–would be enough?

“No, I don’t. I’m sorry.” He kissed her, guiding her gently down onto the mattress, his hands moving over her body. “But that’s okay. Remember that first night at my place, before you were on the pill?”

“Mmmm. Of course I do. We haven’t done that for a while, have we?”

“Let’s. Or we could just snuggle if you’d rather.”

“Right now I need a lot more than a snuggle.” She started to unbutton his shirt.


Lyra woke up slowly, luxuriating in the feeling of Chris’s naked body spooned around hers. The sun was already up, so she must have had a few hours’ sleep somewhere. It would have to do.

Behind her, Chris started to stir. His hand felt its way blindly to her breast, and she felt her nipple harden in response. His fingertip, featherlight, traced a winding path down her side, circumnavigated the globe of her buttock, and wandered forward to her belly. She rolled onto her back and spread her legs in anticipation. His hand moved downwards, touching her, making her ready. She closed her eyes, losing herself in the moment. He started to get on top of her.

Suddenly she remembered.

“No!” She pulled her legs together, rolled convulsively away from him, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and crossed her arms over her breasts.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t feel safe, I told you!”

“I’m sorry, I forgot. You’re not usually like this.”

“Oh?” She crossed the room in three strides and took her bathrobe from its hook. “Well, too fucking bad, but that’s how I am right now.” She knew she was being unfair, but it was easier than explaining. Birth control pills maybe don’t work in this room. Just another of those weird traditions that older universities have, ‘kay?

“Lyra!”

“I’m sorry, Chris. Maybe I’ll feel better after a shower.” She tied the sash of her bathrobe and stalked out of the room.


It was mid-October, and the green ocean outside her window had turned to a dragon’s hoard of gold, amber, and garnet. The sun was setting, and there would be frost tonight; but the room was warm, with its strange drafts of even warmer air.

Lyra had a quiz the next day, but her endocrinology textbook lay open and ignored beside her as she tried to put together a text that would tell Chris what she hadn’t been able to say in three increasingly awkward phone calls.

Dearest Chris, I’m sorry I was so cold…

She went back and corrected: that sounded as if she’d meant it.

Dearest Chris, I’m sorry if you thought I was cold to you when you were here. Your last text sounds as if you think I might be having second thoughts about us, and I can see why you’d think that. But when I got here they told me that there’s some sort of curse on this room and that girls who live here end up pregnant. I know it sounds silly, but so many people believe it that it’s starting to feel real to me. Maybe next time you’re here we can get a hotel room. Or I’ll be more sensible…

There was another warm gust. She paused, midsentence, and looked up. It was dark outside, and reflected in the window, standing behind her, was a short, stout woman. Her hair was scraped back into a bun, and by some trick of reflection in the windowpane, it seemed as if Lyra could see the door though her, as if the woman was translucent. Heart in her throat, she spun her chair around.

The woman, about as old as Lyra’s mother, wore a long dress that could have come out of a silent movie. It wasn’t a trick of reflection: the boundary between the door and the white-painted wall was clearly visible through her. Weirdest of all, her skin glowed with an eerie red-orange, like an ember.

Lyra drew in her breath with a harsh croak, felt the hairs lifting on her neck and arms. For a moment she felt faint, then made herself take deep slow breaths.

The woman did not go away, nor become opaque. Some sort of hologram? “You’ll pardon me, won’t you?” she said. “I was just having a peek at your textbook. So much has changed – fascinating! I don’t suppose you could turn the page for me?”

“What are you doing here? This is my room,” Lyra said, thinking as she said it that it sounded stupid.

“I’m sorry, dear. It used to be mine, long ago, and I can’t really leave it. Not properly. I can be here, or I can be… Nowhere. Those are my choices.”

“Why are you here, then?”

“Well, maybe you’ve heard that when women reach a certain age there’s a change?”

“Menopause.” Lyra pinched her thigh, hard, and did not wake up. Right. She was talking endocrinology with a ghost. At least till she thought of a more logical explanation.

“Exactly. It’s good to hear women use the right words for things.” She looked at Lyra’s face carefully. “Especially…” She let the sentence die, as if she had thought better of it.

“I’d better: I’m a medical student.”

“Hence the textbook. Of course. So you know that as well as no longer menstruating, a perimenopausal woman gets other symptoms?”

“Hot flashes?” Lyra thought of the unexplained gusts of hot air that she’d never been able to find a source for.

“Precisely. And, let me tell you, for some women it’s damned unpleasant. Nausea, headache, fever – like the influenza compressed into half an hour. Well, I was perimenopausal when I died, it’s been eighty years, and I still haven’t got over it. It doesn’t look as if I ever will.”

“That sounds totally dire. But why did you come here? I’m not a doctor yet, and they aren’t going to teach me how to treat ghosts even when I am.”

“I didn’t come here to be your patient, dear. Just being around you young women makes me feel better. So get on with your work and ignore me.” Was the glow fainter?

That was easier said than done. “I’m Lyra Fong. You’re?”

“Dr. Emilia Bix.”

“Why are you haunting my room?”

“I was murdered here.”

Lyra shuddered, surprised that she was taking this as calmly as she was. Well, a doctor needed objectivity. “How did that happen?”

“I was the only doctor in the state who provided safe, professional abortions. When a girl got into trouble, the grapevine would send her to ‘Doctor Emmie’ and if she wasn’t too far along I’d help her.” The glow was definitely fainter now.

“Providing abortions was dangerous back then, right?” Lyra’s medical ethics class had talked a lot about the history of contraception and abortion last week.

“Ten years in prison, if they’d ever charged me. After a few years I was fairly safe–enough influential men knew it was because of me that their daughters’ reputations were intact. They probably thought I’d name names on the witness stand, too. I wouldn’t have, of course: professional ethics. But it’s what they would have done in my place, so I was safe. Until Jeremiah Salter came along.”

“Who was he?”

“Oh, he was a piece of work, girl. Twenty-dollar gold piece on his watch chain, hundred-dollar suit, picked his teeth with the penis bone of a raccoon, and had advanced gangrene of the soul. He got a girl pregnant, and when she asked him to marry her, he gave her a black eye and told her to go to hell. She came to see me, saying she’d kill herself before she’d bear Jeremiah Salter’s child. I got her sorted out, but a week later, he came to my house with a shotgun, pushed his way past the maid, and shot me, right in this very room. And the jury set him free. So, yes, I reckon in the end it was dangerous.” She shook her head. “But it needed to be done. Women should be able to choose when they have babies.”

“The Supreme Court thinks so too now. Roe vs Wade.”

The ghost, now completely nonluminous, smiled. “That’s good to hear. Anyhow, Miss Fong, from what I remember of medical school, you’ve got plenty of work to do! I should disappear and let you get on with it.” She matched her action to her words.


-Sarah, you will NEVER EVER believe this

-Try me 🙂

-I just saw the ghost O_o

-You kidding me?

-No

-OMFG whats it like?

-Dr Emelia Bix. Google her she’s for real. Murdered in my room in 1933

-Eew! GROSS!

-She left the house to Sutherland U for a women’s rez. They didn’t want it because murder and other stuff but they were broke (1930s right?) so they took it

-What’s she like?

-Bitchin cool lady 🙂

-You get all the luck 🙂

-Lucks a big thing in Chinese culture MMMMMMMMM 🙂

(lion dance smiley)

– 😛

– <3


Lyra made her peace with Chris, but knew that there’d be more unhappiness unless she could get to the root of the problem. All those pregnancies couldn’t just be a fluke, could they? So what could the risk factor be?

The final piece fell into place as she was walking back from her Physical Diagnosis lecture. Professor Green, an energetic little man with a West Indian accent, had been explaining about syndromes and Occam’s Razor. “So, ladies and gentlemen: when you see two or three symptoms at once, then you just stop and you ask yourselves–what could they have in common? Because one condition is more likely than two.”

What did a string of pregnant students and a perimenopausal ghost have in common? There was something at the back of her mind, waiting to become clear to her, but what? She reached Bix House, climbed the stairs, entered her room, and sat at her desk, waiting for the next hot gust and trying to coax the idea into reality.

The sky outside slowly darkened from orange to blue to black. She turned the desk light on and continued to wait. Finally she felt the heat, like an invisible hair drier pointed at her cheek. She stood up, faced the direction it seemed to have come from, lifted her hands above her head, and intoned, in the most necromantic voice she could manage, “Doctor Bix, I summon you!”

The ghost materialized in front of her, flushed with that eerie glow. “Good evening, Miss Fong. No need to shout, I’m always nearby. And don’t start chalking pentacles on the floor, it doesn’t work and it’s bad for the carpet.”

“I’ve got a question for you, Dr. Bix. You may not think it’s my business, but I sort of think it is. Why does being in my room help with your hot flashes?”

The ghost was silent for a long time, biting her lower lip. Finally she said, quietly, “I don’t quite know how it works – but when I’m here with you, I can absorb your excess hormones. I hope you don’t mind too much.”

“Excess hormones? What excess hormones?”

“I think it must be good diet and all the exercise you young women get these days. Is that really a football over there?”

“Rugby football, yes.”

“So sensible. And not wearing corsets. Well, there was one young lady a few years ago who wore one, but her whole wardrobe was unusual. Brass goggles, and a top hat, and the strangest underwear.”

“I bet she didn’t dress that way for class.”

“I’m not so sure, she seemed rather eccentric. Anyhow, a lot of you modern girls have unusually high levels of estrogen and progesterone. I can sense it when I’m near you, like electricity in the air just before a thunderstorm. So you can easily spare a bit for an older lady who needs it.”

“Dr. Bix! In the last forty years, seventeen of the girls living in this room have got pregnant.”

“I knew about a few of them, and wondered about some others, but they left before I was sure. But seventeen? Really?”

“You died in 1933, right?” Lyra asked. If she didn’t get a straight answer right now, Dr. Bix’s tombstone was going to need a second death date added.

“Yes.”

“So the words ‘oral contraceptive’ don’t mean anything to you.”

“Well!” Doctor Bix put her fingertips to her lips. “As a doctor, I know that many couples do that, and that’s their business, even though it’s illegal in most states. And of course diseases can be spread that way too, so using a contraceptive sheath would be a good idea–but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words used like that, no.”

Lyra suppressed a snicker. “It’s a pill, Dr. Bix. It was introduced in the nineteen-sixties. For as long as a woman takes it, she won’t get pregnant. Then when she wants a baby she can stop. It’s about ten times more effective than condoms. At least when women remember to take them.”

“But that’s wonderful! If I’d been able to prescribe that to my patients-” Suddenly she fell silent.

Lyra said nothing, waiting for her to work it out.

When the ghost spoke again her voice was flat. “Oh, God. How does it work?”

“The pills contain female hormones, estrogen and progesterone. It’s a long story, but raising the levels of those hormones prevents ovulation.”

“And I’ve been sucking it out of them. Out of you. Like–like some kind of vampire.”

Lyra sighed. “Looks like it.” It was hard to stay mad at the woebegone ghost.

“They thought they were safe. They were in my house. And I was responsible for them getting pregnant.” The ghost began to cry, quietly at first, then putting her face in her hands and sobbing so loudly that Lyra wondered if the rest of the house could hear.

Lyra wondered how you could hug a ghost. “You didn’t mean to.”

The weeping slowly died away to sniffles. “But I didn’t keep up to date on my professional knowledge. Never let that happen, Miss Fong! Of course, I’ll stop immediately. Which means it’s back to the fire and brimstone for me, when the hot flashes hit. And I’m so, so sorry for what I’ve done.”

“We have treatments for menopausal symptoms now,” Lyra said, and immediately felt foolish.

“I don’t suppose the pharmacopoeia gives the dosage for ghosts,” Dr. Bix said.

An idea came to Lyra. “Not the Western pharmacopoeias, no,” she said. “But half my ancestors are Chinese. Did you ever hear of chi bo, ghost money?”

“No nickels in this gal’s pockets. Wish there were, I could buy myself a nice cold sarsaparilla and cool off a bit.”

“They’re like counterfeit bills that we burn for our ancestors so that they’ll have a prosperous afterlife. My grandfather does it regularly for our ancestors back in China.” She turned to her computer and googled “hormone replacement therapy, images.”

“So how does that help?”

“Well, it’s not just money. They make paper images of clothes, cars, furniture. They even make paper Viagra tablets, though my grandfather thinks that’s tacky.”

“Viagra?”

“It’s a drug that helps men get erections,” Lyra said. “Yeh Yeh says he’ll do a lot for his ancestors but he’s damned if he’ll organize their sex lives for them. Anyhow, it gave me an idea. Let’s see if it works.” She opened her desk, took out a sheet of her Chinese calligraphy paper, put it in her printer, and printed the image that she had found.

With a great feeling of occasion, she took out her best pen and wrote a prescription for “chi bo transdermal patches, estrogen-progesterone, one per day as needed. Unlimited refills.” Pausing occasionally to bite the end of her pen, and once to consult a well-thumbed dictionary, she wrote it out again in Chinese ideographs, and signed it with an illegible flourish that she had been practicing during dull lectures. She folded the picture and the prescription in the special way that Yeh Yeh had taught her.

Now Yeh Yeh would pray. What to say? She thought back to her Medical Ethics class, and the old Hippocratic Oath. “Whatever house I enter, may it always be for the benefit the sick,” she recited solemnly. She should have burned a joss stick, too, but she didn’t have one. She clasped her hands and bowed to the ghost. “Dr. Bix, you helped so many women during your life. I hope that this will help you.” She cleared a few paperclips and a highlighter out of a red-glazed earthenware bowl, put the papers in and set fire to them, sending them to the Spirit Kingdom in the proper manner.

“Heavens, I feel better already!” said the ghost, her glow dying like an extinguished light bulb. “You’re going to make one hell of a fine doctor! If I may, I’ll drop by now and then to keep you posted on the progress of the case.”

“Please do, Doctor Bix. It’s been an honor to meet you,” said Lyra. But she was speaking to an empty room. She sat for a few minutes, then picked up her phone and called Chris.

“Chris here,” said a familiar voice. “I’m not available right now. Leave a message, ‘kay?”

Should she tell him now? No, she wanted to hear his response. “Hi babe, this is Lyra. Call me! I have some very interesting news.” She turned off the phone, and realized that she was starving. She mentally inventoried her supplies in the Bix House kitchen. Unless she wanted to dine on dry cereal with marmalade and soy sauce, it was food court time. The Two Goats closed at eight: better hurry!

She grabbed her backpack and raced down the stairs two at a time. At the bottom she almost bumped into Karine coming out of Room 4. “Whoops! Sorry, Karine!”

“Hi Lyra! Uh, how’s it going?”

Lyra patted her stomach and grinned. “It’s going to be a girl.”

Karine stared at her, open-mouthed. “You’re kidding me? Right?” she finally said in a small voice.

“Well, duh!” Lyra said, and snickered. “You should have seen the look on your face.” Her phone chimed, muffled by her backpack: she had it in her hand by the second ring. “Hi Chris!”

Karine stepped into the doorway of her room, took out an emery board, and started to pay elaborate attention to her nails.

“Hi, Lyra,” Chris said. “Got your message. Everything okay?”

“Oh, it’s more than okay, babe,” Lyra said, her voice low and sultry. Let Karine wonder!

“Yeah? What’s up?” Chris asked.

“Remember that little problem with my room? Well, I’ve totally solved it. Think you could come and visit me real soon? I think we ought to test it out, y’know?” She snuck a glance at Karine, who had given up all presence of manicure and was staring openmouthed.

“You bet!” he said. “This weekend okay? I’ll look for tickets. I should be able to find something.”

“Awesome! And I’ve got the weirdest story to tell you.” She opened the front door and stepped out into the moonlight.



Travel Onward, Funani

By Alexandra Grunberg

The video was well-preserved, and when Commander Arie stared into the camera, it was like she was looking into your eyes, divining the desires of your heart.

“The stars are not the distant dreams they were in the past,” Arie said, and her voice cut like a sliver of diamond, and it made you tremble to hear her voice. “The stars are our neighbors, and I will not rest until I have met every neighbor, and seen their backyards, and sat in their homes, and welcomed them into mine.”

Arie dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again her normally stony glare twinkled with a light and warmth that made her look twenty instead of a formidable forty-five. Years had distinguished her, and maybe her beauty faded a little, but her presence had outgrown her slender frame.

“I pride myself on being the perfect hostess.”

The reporters laughed. They asked her questions about Star Cluster 9, and Alpha Zeta, and Satellite Planet 41-003, and she smoothed down her long hair, already silver, a respectable color on her, and she answered their questions with a steady stream of knowledge, glowing with the wonder she felt whenever she visited a planet, the wonder she wanted all of Earth to feel. And they did feel it. At least, Funani felt it, and even when she was six years old, watching this video in her little bedroom covered in posters of galaxies instead of from the inside of her small quarters on an exploratory space vessel, she knew that she would follow Arie into the darkest hole of space.

Funani turned off the video.

“Nolwazi, how much longer until we arrive?” she asked her vessel.

“In three point two hours, we will reach the destination,” answered Nolwazi.

When Funani travelled with other astronauts, they complained that Nolwazi’s voice was too cold, too stern, but Funani designed the AI to be like another woman she respected. She designed her voice to sound like the familiar cut of a diamond. Nolwazi did not share Arie’s passion, but she shared her vast knowledge of the mysteries of space.

Funani turned on another video.

Arie was smiling in this one, and she rarely smiled, possibly because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth, though Funani guessed she could afford the technology that would fix her smile instantaneously. Arie was not smiling at the camera, she was smiling at a creature nearly twice her size that seemed to be composed entirely of tar. The blob creature had a gaping hole near the top of its shapeless body that could have been a mouth, and several blobby appendages that could have been arms, but it was probably just Funani’s mind trying to understand a shape that was entirely foreign to her.

“Arie!” a reporter off-screen shouted. “How did you manage to decipher the language of the people of Sept Printemps?”

“Most of the deciphering was done by the Sept Printempians,” said Arie. “I am just honored that they chose to reach out to me for first contact.”

The Sept Printempian gurgled, spitting a tarry blob at Arie’s feet. Are smiled, and shook his hand, and did not cringe or gag as her hand was engulfed in the creature’s gelatinous exterior. She pulled away, her arm stained black, and reached into a large blue duffel. She always brought her large blue duffel when she was meeting a new alien. Funani thought of the duffel as a treasure chest when she was a little girl, and it was still hard to see it as anything else. Arie pulled out a small bag, presenting it to the Sept Printempian, and the reporters laughed.

“You think aliens like maple candy, Arie?”

Apparently they did, because the Sept Printempian ate the entire bag, including the plastic wrap.

Funani loved that video. She loved any video of Arie meeting aliens, because Arie enjoyed it so much. Arie inspired Funani to become an astronaut, then join the exploratory astronaut’s league led by Arie. Funani missed home, she missed Earth, she missed people that looked like people and planets that looked like civilization, but if Arie was leading her, she would continue to travel deeper and deeper into the unknown.

Though the league followed Arie from planet to planet, they were always a few planets behind her, then a few more, until their leader no longer responded to their efforts to reach out to her. The other ships gave her up as lost, for forty years they gave her up as lost. But Funani refused to give up. If they gave up, then she was just far from home, and terribly homesick, with nothing guiding her forward. If Arie was not pulling her forward, then Earth was pulling her back.

She turned on another video of Arie.

“We will reach our destination in one hour,” said Nolwazi.

The others had given up. They had programmed their vessels to search for Arie’s form, copied from thousands of videos, but there was nothing like Arie in the universe. Then they programmed their vessels to search for life forms in the deepest, most sterile parts of the neighboring galaxies, and they found life forms they would have never believed could exist, but they did not find Arie. They decided to keep her alive through their exploration, and leave the hopeless search to Funani. Funani instructed Nolwazi to search for a blue duffel, far from any other signs of human civilization, and Nolwazi found it.

In this video, Arie was pulling a long scarf out of her bag, and wrapping it around a wide-eyed, multi-eyed, slug. The duffel was a treasure chest. And Funani followed Nolwazi’s treasure map to her hero.


The planet was cold, but the trees with their umbrella-like collection of thorns almost reminded Funani of home. She tried not to think of how much she missed her little bedroom, rising from solid Earth, and let her handheld guide lead her forward.

“The entrance to the cave is fifteen feet to the west,” said Nolwazi. “Night falls in five minutes. Use caution.”

Funani would use caution, but if Arie was inside the cave, there was nothing to fear. Arie was the perfect hostess, and she would never be rude to a guest. If she even was in there. If she had not abandoned an empty duffel on a planet and kept hopping the stars. If she had not landed and finally met an alien who did not care for her nosiness and offer of interstellar friendship. As the sun went down, the planet became colder.

“Shall I turn on a light?”

Funani nodded, and the handheld guide glowed, leading the way. She put out a signal before she stepped onto the planet, letting the other vessels know that she had found, or might have found, their old leader. None of the vessels were even in the same galaxy, though the closet ones were on their way. They cautioned Funani to stay on her ship until help arrived, or send in a drone led by Nolwazi, and she promised she would before she strapped on her spacesuit and began exploring.

Funani watched Arie explore a cave on a video, a cave that was on a very different planet. The creatures in that cave were not quite like bats, but that was how her mind saw them. That was what helped her understand an entirely foreign little, winged alien. This cave was much larger and darker than the one in the film. Who knew what kind of aliens lived in this cave, or how Funani’s mind would try to comprehend them?

Nolwazi did not tell her that there was danger ahead, so Funani continued forward. She continued into the cave until she could not see the planet she left behind her. She might have been moving down, or up, she was disoriented, but Nolwazi told her she was getting closer.

“You will reach your destination in five seconds,” said Nolwazi.

Funani stumbled over something soft on the ground. She had a terrible feeling it was a small, slender body, that her leader had crawled into this cave and died. But Nolwazi shone her light at Funani’s feet, and Funani did not see a body, but a blue duffel bag.

“Hello, Funani.”

Funani turned, and there was something in the corner. It was a large lump, like a down pillow, or an undercooked loaf of bread. Its face was a mass of wrinkles, like a large shriveled apple with two slanted seeds for eyes. Thin strands of white hair trailed to the dirt of the cave floor, where two fat yarn lumps covered what were probably equally lumpy feet. The image was so unfamiliar to Funani, so foreign, so wrong. It did not match the voice that came out of the slit of its mouth.

It did not fit with Funani’s memories, or the videos, but somehow her mind managed to understand that this was Commander Arie.


“What are you doing here, Funani? Shouldn’t you be exploring?”

Her voice was quieter, but it still cut the air like a sharp diamond. It was still the same beautiful sound in a body that did not fit Funani’s memory of the commander.

“What happened to you?”

Arie chuckled, but she did not smile. Funani did not mind. She rarely smiled, and Funani did not want to see what her teeth looked like now. She thought that there may not be any teeth behind those sunken lips, and she realized that crooked teeth were not the worst thing in the world.

“Forty years happened,” said Arie. “Did you think I was immortal?”

She was immortal in the videos. If Funani turned on the tape right now, she would be as beautiful as she was in the past. That beautiful Arie made Funani want to explore the stars. This thing that Funani could barely see as Arie made her want to cry. If this was what waited at the end of the universe, she should have stayed home.

“I’m being a bad hostess,” said Arie, trying to rise to her feet, unable to rock her roundness to an upright positon. “Do you need anything?”

“I need you to go back to the way you were before,” said Funani. “Why do you look like this? Why aren’t you exploring?”

“When you’re older, see how easy it is to keep your figure,” said Arie. “And when you’re older, see how long you can keep running before you decide to rest. I’m tired, Funani. You have to explore without me.”

This cave seemed too small, smaller than her room on the vessel, smaller than her room back on Earth.

“I was following you,” said Funani. “If you’re not travelling, who do I follow?”

Arie did not say anything. This old woman could not explore the galaxy. She probably could not fit in the pilot’s seat, her girth would not allow the seatbelt to close. She would not be able to see the stars through her squinted apple seed eyes. She would not able to grasp the control with stubby fingers. Funani needed Arie to pull her forward, to new forms of life that she could never fully understand, to new worlds and neighbors that Arie loved, and in turn made Funani love, or else Funani would plummet back to Earth. Without the Arie she knew, how would she continue her journey?

“I will guide you to your destination.”

Nolwazi’s voice cut through the cave like a sliver of a diamond. She sounded like the woman who spoke through the aged lump. She sounded like the voice that guided Funani through the videos of the past. She would guide Funani forward. Funani was emotional, passionate, and Nolwazi could understand more than she could ever imagine.

“Before you leave,” said Arie. “Let me give you a gift.”

Funani did not want to watch Arie struggle to stand again, so she picked up the duffle and tossed it onto Arie’s lap. The old woman rummaged through the bag. Funani was surprised it was so full, but she probably did not meet many aliens these days. She tossed Funani a slick paper, folded so small, and Funani caught it in the air.

“I will lead you back to your vessel.”

Nolwazi’s voice guided her out of the cave, and she left Arie behind her. She would tell the others that there was nothing there, just a duffel, and she took a souvenir from the old treasure chest. She did not look back at Arie, because there was more of Arie in the voice of her guide than in the old woman swaddled in the cave, and she needed to move forward, or Earth would call her down. She did not look away from Nolwazi’s light until she was back on her ship, flying back into space.

“Where are we going, Funani?”

Arie was supposed to be the leader. How was Funani supposed to tell this diamond voice where to go?

Funani unfolded the paper in her hand. She unfolded it again, and again, until it was completely open, spilling over her lap, a large poster of a mysterious galaxy, so similar to the posters that hung in her bedroom when she was a little girl. It made her think of Earth. It made her miss home. But it did not make her want to go home. The posters always drew her heart to the stars. Funani stood up, and hung it by her pilot’s seat.

“Find me someplace new, Nolwazi,” said Funani. “Find me a neighbor we have not met yet. Find me someone who needs to be welcomed.”

Nolwazi lit a new map on her screen, leading Funani into space, and Funani followed her guide.



The Glittering World

By Andrew De La Pena

From far away they are coming, from far away they are coming.
From far away they are coming.

I am the child of Changing-Woman; they are coming
From the road below the East; they are coming,

Old age is coming for them; they are coming, from far away they are coming
From far away they are coming
From far away they are coming.



-The Old Age Spirits, Navajo Ceremonial Song


The Great Tree’s lethal foliage, blacker than jet, shades its dark inhabitants from the starlight. The branches merge and diverge above and below one another like the meeting of twisted highways. Small chittering beasts with angry red eyes, and smaller thorny insects sit amongst the leaves. The roots reach downward past layers of time, past Hell and the Underworld, and then farther down until the long black fingers dip into the deep wells of Earth’s molten core and feed upon it. The roots sip the liquid ores and convert them into fiery black magic that flows up through arteries. As it reaches the surface, it chars an obsidian gleam into the bark and wood. When lightning strikes the parched valley, it strikes this evil totem first, as if the gods of thunder and lightning hate the Great Tree and wish to watch it burn. But it never burns. And should any axe attempt to fell the Tree, that tool is shattered, its user cursed.

The land has travelled from Dark, to Blue, to Yellow, and then Man and Woman, guided by the black ants and climbing bamboo ladders, brought the Glittering World with them. The old spirits from the Dark World followed them. The Great Tree offered an oasis for Dark creatures in an ocean now drained, baked, and dried. Ancients lived in the sinister tree, primordial things that survived trapped by the change from ocean to land. Marooned from the early Dark World, they hated the Glittering World of Woman and Man. The English and Americans would call them Faerie; the Spanish, La Hada; the Diné call them Ch’indii. Once fair Yei spirits, they immolated their goodness and beauty in the pools of flames when Hashjeshjin, the Son of Fire and Comets, was young and creating the land. The Tree drinks from the calderas the Ch’indii once burned in when all was Dark and they were the only ones who could see. They were drawn to the sulfuric wooden heat; they couldn’t survive without it.

Once every century, always on the darkest moonless night of the year, the Ch’indii venture down the black trunk and creep spidery on all four of their lanky limbs towards the Diné sheltered in their circular fire-lit hogans. Their claws are hooked like fangs but leave no mark as they dig and scurry across the rocks and sand. Many stumble for they carry fruit plucked from the Great Tree, nightmares clutched tightly to their mangy chests. The terrors throw off their gait and make their snarls fierce and frenzied, while their hairy froglike faces cachinnate gleefully. Black beady studs rise on their bodies like warts on a Gila monster. Their wide flat teeth gnash and grin. They know the path to the Diné village by scent and only veer from it to play erotic games with the cactus needles and slap each other around on the succulents. They roam freely like in the Blue World, when they taught the animals how to kill. They rip the spines from lizards, eat newborn birds and mice from their nests, and repurpose many small unfortunates into bloody hoods to protect themselves from the blinding starlight.

They channel the speed of the Running-Pitch when the Jah-dokonth blasted all of the condensed saturation apart. The ritual must be completed, their hunger for fresh breath and new visions sprints them past the wind and down upon their prey.


Thankfully, the Diné, the Cultivators, friends of the well-mannered Peaceful Little Ones, sleep clustered together. The Ch’indii have dropped a few nightmares along the way, but still grip omens of Poverty, Old Age, Famine, Violence and Cold to their furry sunken ribs. They refuse to enter the hogan, as humans do- from the east where the sun rises. They hate the sun — the slayer of terror—Mother Dawn who dispatches Dark Creatures with her daggers of light. They trample the crops and scratch the animals, knocking them out. Their cackling awakens two people. As two men step out of the hogan, the Ch’indii’s pounce, ripping out the men’s eyes and stealing their voices. They suppress their happy grunting enough to form a straight line, and climb up the domicile to enter through the smoke vent exhaling from the center of the roof.

Their claws hook into the mud and pine ceiling, their drooling drips and collects on the floor. A few lose their grip and drop rolling themselves into furry shells, and bounce about unnoticed by the sleepers. Only embers remain of the communal fire. The slight firelight pains their eyes. The Ch’indii gravitate towards the lengthening shadows at the hogan’s inner circumference, circumambulating counterclockwise to stir up evil into the home. Couples, singles, children, and elders, no one sleeping more than an a few arm lengths apart from one another. They pull their blankets over their shoulders and chins, and drift closer together as the chill and effluvia spreads. The matriarchal sleeping arrangements assist in the spinning and casting of dreams and nightmares throughout the hogan.

The Ch’indii touch their nails gently to the temples of the youngest and oldest sleepers in the hogan and catch all the ages in between. They pull out the Great Tree’s fruit they had tucked away; microcosms of inevitabilities, small black eggs etched with molten constellations. The lumps are dropped into the mouths of the infants, toddlers and young children. The Ch’indii rub the children’s throats with their toe pads to encourage swallowing. They catch the human breath on their rotten lips and exhale it into the night; they steal more breath, again and again, and blow their own foul interior into the sleepers’ mouths. They inflate their neck pouches and a low rhythm hums from their voice boxes grating against their throats. Their chants lull the dreamers into a deeper sleep.

The fire has ended in a warm smoldering. The chanting shakes the air and quakes through the wooden beams. The Ch’indii’s former gill slits split open into ribboning crevices that ooze an oily tar, black sap hoarded from the Great Tree. They scrape the serrated inner edges with their claws and drip the foul nectar into the ears of the sleepers. They form a chain and swell their throat gratings so that the noise reverberates and swells. The dreamers swoon into a reverie as the Ch’indii wave their sinewy arms spinning Inevitable Truth by tight circles into the hypnotic web. Together, they could both see what is to come; the Diné could choose whether or not to believe.

Their chanting articulates into long drawn-out ghosts of words; “They are coming, from far away they are coming.”

The nightmare starts as a benign dream. The Men from Across the Water come at first starved, and then gleaming in impossible alloys and textiles. The Diné’s ears, eyes, noses and mouths fill with the pollen of precious things: magnificent crafts, jewelry, and trinkets, the inebriations that help them to forget. Consistent waves of people and things come from far away.

The Strange Men call them Apache, which means enemy to them.

“Navajo Diné.” They insist.

“Sí, Apache Navajo, pues.” The strange visitors answer.

Inevitability turns exciting new things nightmarish. Crossed pieces of wood and leather-bound sheets of pressed leaves hold a sacred power. The God provides Mercy, for His People need it. The Wet Death comes and wastes Navajo bodies. They survive. Friendly masks are removed so that demands can be made face-to-face. They fight. The God practices His famed benevolence by receiving, redeeming, and forgiving souls. They kill, and the Diné witness their grandchildren kill too, mastering the new weaponry and animals. Teaching dominates learning; the war pitting the Spirits against the God is lost.

“They are coming, from far away they are coming,” the Ch’indii whisper into the dreamers’ ears.

Steaming segmented metal worm-serpents charge through the northern mountains and into the desert valley. They breathe fire and belch smoke, they vomit out a chaotic civilization that nevertheless flourishes, or at least seems flourishing from the embellished style of dress, building, and living. There are more objects than people. The metal worm-snakes bring more and more so they lose the war of numbers, and the villages lose the war against the towns. The strangers dominate the valley and the Navajo lose the mountains.

“They are coming, from far away they are coming.”

The visions are terrible because they will be true. There will be mines that strip and degrade and create wastelands land with an ingenuity that kills magic. What the Diné have begun with their tools the Men from Across the Water will end with their machines. Machines that will swallow the world into White created from everything sparkling at once.

The Diné watch their heritage and future generations shepherded on the Long Walk as the world around them marches faster. The Navajo are taken to a Round Forest, neither a forest nor round; the Pale Riders expect them to grow one and live off it. They are reserved there, and then somewhere else. The metal worm-serpents segment further, divide and charge like angry buffalo flattening the land. The Navajo integrate carrying their ways and traditions like shadows. The night loses its darkness. They find each other in the white brightness through voice, movement and feeling. The Ch’indii rake their claws softly on the inner arms and thighs of the dreamers, and they lose each other to the shadows again.

“They are coming. From far away, they are coming.” The dread in their gravel grinds to a climactic pitch.


The chanting stops. The Ch’indii abandon the dreamscape and release the dreamers from the conduction. The monsters gather bewildered by the true nature of the Glittering World.

“They will leave nothing but White light!” The oldest goblin starts.

The others hiss. “It will overshadow the stars and sun!”

“Poison the rain!”

“Level the mountains!”

The Old One speaks again, “Lightening and thunder will be stolen and reshaped into unrelenting brightness. Even their God will lose His luster to the Glittering. There will be no Dark spaces left. No purpose, no power left for us, only White.” The White, The Last World, the final expansive bang before the universe contracts to start all over again in the Dark. Fresh breath will not be enough to restrain the forthcoming human tidal wave, they will need fresh life.

A sacrifice. The Diné will receive black magic, and in return, give up a son or daughter to follow the Coyote by walking in its skin. The effulgence towards White could be delayed by merging the powers of the Dark and the Glittering. The Ch’indii scurry about and find a boy a few years in age, just beyond toddling, with enough mettle to endure the liquid fires of the Great Tree. They pull themselves up to the shoulders of the mother cradling her son. The Ch’indii massage the temples of both to increase the weight of their dreaming.

“They are coming, they are coming. From far away, they are coming.” They whisper to each other.

The Old One hobbles forward, about the same height and width as the young human, although far more horrible and hairy. He explores the soft body with the tips of his nails as if drawing a map. He sniffs under the arms, neck, and legs, and uses his breath, nose and tongue to taste and smell the cavities and skin. He lifts the mother’s arm as his comrades pull the child away and settles into the vacancy. He is in the crook, just before the small feet are swept away, and lowers her arm upon his mangy shoulders.

The skinniest runt jumps forward, extends his long thin arm, and carefully, like a surgeon, reaches into the child’s mouth. Reaching deep, and, carefully, so as not to grace the sides of the gullet or mouth, the runt retrieves the fruit they had planted earlier, frees the nightmare from its host, and holds it up for the others to view. The tiny fruit had voluminous depth packed with stormy red seeds.

The runt holds high the shrunken universe of pain, as another opens the lips of the mother with a gentle pull on her chin.

“Fear makes delusion,” the runt whispers placing the nightmare on her tongue and caressing it down her throat.

The Ch’indii bring the human child, headfirst over to the changeling so that he and the wide sleuthing grin are face to face.

“Breathe.” The Old One says.

The child obeys and the monster’s cavity inflates like a ribbed bladder and deflates the inhalations back into child. He captures the young breath and it charges his power. He breathes it back into the newborn.

The tough hair and mange sheds to the ground and dissolves in cinders. The Changeling’s features become rounder and his skin smoothens into pliable softness. He grows a thick patch of feathery black hair on the top of his head and eyebrows to match. A perfect replicated likeness to the child. Only the rolling eyes and crooked grin, the impulses to impale grasshoppers could alarm the Diné family and tribe to his innate wickedness.

The Ch’indii bear the child, level as a casket, out the eastern entrance they despise. The blue hints in the night hurt their eyes.

“Yah-zheh-kih!”

“Dawn Light!”

They curse the Mother of Coyote and they quicken their pace; the two devilish critters at front can hardly keep the head balanced, their fingers petting the supple forehead so that the dreams remain unsettled.

They cry out as the color seeps back into the landscape and dark blue creeps into the sky. The unburdened wretches race past the others, charge up the Great Tree’s trunk, and hop on the branches like fat excited monkeys howling at their brothers and sisters to move faster.

The first crest of the sun peeks over the horizon and the air loses humidity as the temperature rises. The Ch’indii bearing the child grow tired. Their skin tightens and sinks into their bony skeletons. Horripilation, the fur bundles twist together and harden into barbed spines. The white streaks in the sky hit their backs searing them. They bite their tongues and scratch their bellies to distract themselves. They rush down the last slope and slow at the slight hill hosting the Tree. Their arms are unsteady and shaking the child, sometimes dragging an arm or leg.

The Ch’indii at the front lose their hold on the child’s head. It hits the ground with an eruption of throaty anger that scares away the carriers.

“Graahgyyye!” They scream and dash away; a few make it up the trunk of the Tree and are helped by their brethren.

Two of the most determined monsters turn around, they stumble and pull themselves forward flat to the ground, their hides cracking and steaming. They fail to reach the child and roll into scaly blistering balls screaming into the ground.

The Great Tree shakes with murderous, ravenous activity. They hug the trunk and stretch their tongues to collect the fiery sap between the bark, replenishing themselves.

The blue above them shoots quivers down their knees. They had seen all too clearly the full regalia of the Glittering World. The machines that would refine and sack the same raw energy the Ch’indii thrived on. It would not end in fighting or violence, just sucked dry and run over. Their ultimate defense lies on the ground writhing and crying: their Skin Walker, the warrior of both Dark and Glittering. Charged off the hatred in the Tree they bark and nudge each other off the branches.

A few courageous Ch’indii jump to the ground, scramble to the crying child and match its screaming. They maneuver their arms under his back and lift him. Their bodies steam and crackle, their eyes pool and boil. They drag the child by the arms, banging the soft head on the roots as it continues to bawl. Joints stiffen in their arms and lock their legs, but they still manage to drag the child until the base of the Great Tree and rest him against its trunk. Their muscles stick to their skeleton and harden against their shells. Their last wells of energy are spent climbing by the tips of their claws up into the Tree. There are still two Ch’indii laying exhausted at the roots, Daybreak has sent the Lady Rays of Sunlight, their nemesis, Mother of Women, and she strikes them down— blasts them into the ground as they gag on their melting organs.


The child’s howling reaches the Ch’indii’s in the Tree and tears through their earholes. They cover them and slough away from the great sun-daggers. The effort has claimed more than half the tribe.

The Ch’indii feel the Men from Across the Water crossing it, breaking through the unanimous blue. Eventually, they will destroy even that vastness. They will leave no mystery unrevealed; obliterate every unknown.

The child squelches his crying enough to turn over and begin crawling and walking away from his kidnappers.

The Ch’indii watch their last hope amble away. A sacrifice has never returned to the people. The child was too strong and willful. The Changeling will lose his magic if the son is reunited with his mother. The valley will lose both Witch Doctor and Skin Walker.

The ancient spirits huddle deeper into the leaves of the last Dark refuge shaking and quivering, too fearful and alert to sleep though their exhaustion demands it.

One of the last five remaining Ch’indii leans against the Tree’s rough trunk, stands and gestures at his brethren, their crooked arms and legs singed, slung and hanging from the branches. He licks his burnt lips with a dry tongue; the black iris in crystalline red is lazy, fixed upwards and to the right, as if betraying a lie. His voice is a high snare, a sustained death rattle. He speaks in words that predate language and linger in the air like smoke petroglyphs.

“They are coming, we will wait. We will hunger, we will shrink. Man and Woman are weak. They will doubt and they will die, we will hate and survive. We are older than Death, younger than the End. The Slayer of Monsters will die too, the Dawn Mother and Dusk Father will be eclipsed and forgotten. We will wait. Let us return to the Tree and sleep in the fire, for they are coming.”

He pulls apart the Great Tree’s black bark with his last remaining strength and breathes in the heat and hatred radiating from the core. The rest of the Ch’indii decrease to the size of upright pockmarked mice and trunkle into the red-orange glow. The last shrinks and steps through the bark curtains before they seal behind him.

The child loses his momentum halfway back to the tribe, and surrenders belly and cheek down to the ground. The vultures circle above him, swooping lower and lower to inspect the breathing carrion.


The Diné have awakened each feeling a bit disturbed, as if someone had rearranged them in their sleep. They find the men made blind and mute. Their looms, baskets, gourds and pottery are shattered and broken. The sand paintings are scratched away and their crops and food storage are ruined, trampled and fouled by excrement. The sheep are prematurely shorn by hacking strokes and shivering, and the goats are upturned with their legs waving in the air, their horns fast into the ground. They scout the surrounding area and follow a lizard-like trail of tracks to the wake of vultures pecking at some fallen life. They shoo away the raptors. The child is passed out, bloody and scraped but still alive. They wrap him in a blanket and carry him back to the village.

The tribe gathers around the mysterious child and they all recognize him and bring forth the mother carrying the Changeling. It cries, spits, writhes and slaps its face in her arms. She sees her son cradled by her brother and screams. The creature’s skin crackles and cooks, it dries, blackens and grows too hot to hold. The mother drops the feverish body and the tribe step back as the Old One bursts into flames and charges towards the bloodied sacrifice. The warrior holding his nephew stamps out the shrieking flames before it can pounce.

The mother takes her son and cleans away the dirt, grime and blood and feeds him. She kisses his bruises. As he takes mouthfuls of water, he rests his sniffling head on her breast— she can feel the nightmare that they had shared lodged deep within her chest. There is dread, a precariousness that hadn’t been there before; a fear they will carry with them as they weave mystery into story.

They hide the name Yehtso-lapai, the grey fish-eyed monsters, and call their visitors Ch’indii, Old Ghost Spirits. Cover the nightmares with dreams of better places and better things. They have no use for Dark magic, for they are the Diné of the Glittering World, and they had yet to meet anyone who could shine brighter.



The Monster with Many Eyes

By Kristen Brand

Mallory couldn’t pinpoint when she’d first noticed the monster. She supposed she’d heard it scuttling around in the walls for weeks before it had first attacked, but she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it. Though she knew it was stupid, a part of her hoped that if she ignored it, it would turn out to be a figment of her imagination.

It wasn’t.

When Mallory stumbled back to her apartment one evening after a long day of classes followed by a busy shift at work, it sprang out of nowhere and tackled her. Mallory’s back hit the floor, and she caught a glimpse of a shiny black exoskeleton and many, many eyes before it savaged her. Claws cut into her legs and sides, and teeth bit brutally into her shoulder. She screamed and flailed, but it made no difference. She could only close her eyes and cry until it ended.

Eventually, the monster crawled away, leaving Mallory a sobbing wreck on the floor. Nearly thirty minutes passed before she managed to pick herself up and limp to the shower. Once she was clean, she rifled through her cabinets and found the first-aid kit, every shadow and creak making her jump. But the monster didn’t attack again. She bandaged her wounds and went to bed, but the hours passed sleeplessly. She could hear the monster scuttling behind the walls.

If anyone noticed her limp or the dark circles under her eyes the next day, they didn’t say anything. When she finally got home, her hands shook so hard that she could barely unlock the front door. She slunk cautiously inside, the muscles of her back so tense they hurt. Whipping her head around, she looked for any sign of the monster. Nothing. Was it gone? She couldn’t be so lucky.

She sat on the couch, waiting for it to appear and attack, every second that passed making her feel more nauseous. But the minutes ticked by with no sign of it. Eventually, she opened her web design textbook and tried to read tonight’s assigned chapter, but she couldn’t concentrate. She kept glancing up and looking over her shoulder.

By the time she got ready for bed, she thought that maybe—just maybe—the monster had left. But then she opened the linen closet and saw its many eyes gleaming from the shadows behind a stack of towels. Mallory slammed the door shut and stumbled back, gasping for air. The monster didn’t burst out of the closet and attack, but it didn’t have to. Mallory knew it was there and barely slept all night.

It went on like that for weeks. Sometimes, the monster would attack; other times, it would just lurk. There was no pattern that Mallory could detect. It happened in the morning, afternoon, and even the middle of the night. An entire week went by once with barely any sign of it, but then it attacked three days in a row. It happened on good days, bad days, and every kind of day in between.

The constant fear and worry ate away at her like termites gradually gnawing down wood. Her grades slipped, and she appeared so lethargic and worn at work that her boss asked if she needed to cut back on her hours. Mallory couldn’t afford that. Falling behind on rent and getting kicked out of her apartment would be tempting if she didn’t know in her bones that the monster would follow her wherever she went.

She slept-walked through her days, exhausted from the anxious nights and constant attacks. After class, when she talked to Grace Cheung—the girl with vibrant blue hair who usually sat next to her—it wasn’t until the conversation ended that Mallory realized she’d agreed to have Grace over for a study session tomorrow.

Cue the panic. Mallory couldn’t let anyone else come into the apartment. Grace wasn’t in any danger—somehow, Mallory knew it was her own personal monster and would only attack her—but Mallory couldn’t bear to let anyone see the ugly, awful thing she’d let come into her life. Her face heated with shame just thinking about it.

Lying was her first instinct. She could text Grace and say something else had come up, but she’d only been going through the motions when she’d written down Grace’s number, and she couldn’t read the scrawl of her own shaky handwriting. All night, Mallory tossed and turned, debating every option from suggesting a coffee shop instead of her apartment to dropping the class and running away. Hearing the clicking of the monster’s pincers as it lurked in her bedroom corner, watching, didn’t help.

By the time Grace knocked on her door the next day, Mallory had thrown up in the toilet twice and was trembling from head to toe. She looked over her shoulder as she shuffled to the door. The monster was nowhere in sight, and she prayed it would stay that way. When she opened the door, it took her a moment to gather the courage to open her mouth and propose the coffee shop down the street, and by then, Grace had already come inside, complaining about their professor and whatever sadist had invented grading on a curve.

Feeling as if she’d lost all control, Mallory reluctantly settled on the couch next to her and opened her notebook. They reviewed their notes and flipped through the chapters of their textbooks, discussing concepts and what was likely to be on the exam. Mallory didn’t have much to say; she was too busy checking the doorway to the bathroom, the space behind the TV, and the cracks in the couch cushions for any sign of the monster. Luckily, Grace was one of those talkative people who could carry a conversation practically by themselves and didn’t notice Mallory’s silence.

They paused for Mallory to make coffee, the hot liquid sloshing out of the mugs and onto her quivering hands as she carried them to the couch. She handed one mug to Grace and sat down. They were just getting back to work when movement caught her eye.

The monster emerged from the coat closet, squeezing its glistening black body under the door like oozing slime. Fear lodged itself in Mallory’s throat, cutting off her air. The monster’s numerous eyes were focused on her, and drool dripped from its mandible in anticipation. Then it shot across the floor towards her on its spider-like legs, and Mallory could only whimper.

That’s when Grace chucked her textbook at it.

The heavy book struck the monster in two of its evil eyes, and it reared back and shrieked. Grace was already on her feet and charged it.

“Hey! Get outta here! Go on!” She kicked it with her red sneaker.

The monster shrieked again. Then its thick claw shot out and clamped around Grace’s ankle. She hopped on one foot, trying to keep her balance.

“A little help?” she called back at Mallory.

Mallory had been frozen on the couch, coffee mug clutched in a death grip between her hands. For a moment, everything seemed to slow, from the monster’s flickering eyes, to Grace’s waving arms, to the very molecules of air in the room. Mallory’s stomach twisted into a knot so tight that it threatened to pull her into ball. She took a deep breath, forcing her diaphragm to expand as the world sped back up.

The mug was the only thing Mallory had, so she flung it at the monster. The steaming hot liquid splashed into its eyes as the heavy ceramic mug smacked it. The monster screeched, its legs twitching, and it leg go of Grace. She immediately stomped on it, and before Mallory knew what she was doing, she ran to help. Kicking and stomping, the two of them drove the monster into the coat closet. Limping, it squeezed itself back under the door, where it let out a muffled, chittering whine.

Mallory stood there, panting, unable to believe what had just happened. She’d fought it off! It was possible to fight it—it was possible to win! She turned to Grace, who was flushed but smiling.

Mallory’s euphoria crashed like a torn kite. Grace had seen it. She knew Mallory’s repulsive, shameful secret—one that Mallory had been too weak and pathetic to handle herself. She’d seen everything. She wouldn’t sit next to Mallory, wouldn’t want anything to do with her. Oh, God, what if she told other people what had happened?

“I’m sorry.” Mallory was crying before she knew it. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean— You shouldn’t— I—”

“Whoa, whoa, it’s okay.” Grace put a hand on her shoulder and led her back to the couch. Mallory sniffed and wiped away tears, her face hot.

“Really, it’s cool,” Grace said. “I’ve got one of those things, too—and mine has tentacles. I know it’s rough.”

“What?” Mallory would have never imagined Grace, with her bright blue hair and effortless confidence, could have her own monster.

“Yeah. They’re easier to deal with when you have someone’s help.” Grace looked at her thoughtfully. “Have you talked to anyone about it?”

Mallory shook her head forcefully.

“Well, think about it. Talking about them makes them weaker. Do you want to…?” Grace waved her hand, indicating they could talk now.

Mallory’s throat tightened just thinking about it. Her body was shaky and weak, and her mind was still reeling from shock. “No. I don’t think I could. I—I need more time. Thanks, though.”

“No problem.” She shrugged. “I’m around if you change your mind, and you should check out some forums online if you don’t want to talk face to face.” She walked over to where her textbook lay on the floor and flipped through the pages. “Let’s answer these last few questions, and then I’ll get out of your hair.”

They finished studying, and Mallory thanked Grace profusely while walking her to the door. Grace waved the whole thing off, and when she was gone, Mallory grabbed a plastic bottle of carpet cleaner to deal with the coffee stain on the floor. Scrubbing with a rag, she thought about what Grace had said about talking to people online. She’d never tried that before. Part of her had been afraid someone would find her search history and discover her secret. The rest of her had feared what she’d find: that she’d confirm there was no getting rid of the monster, or that its attacks would eventually kill her.

Now, though…

Mallory put away the carpet cleaner and grabbed her laptop. She would just find a forum and look tonight. Then, once she’d built up her courage, maybe she would post something herself.

She heard a scuttling in the walls as the monster moved from the closet, probably still licking its wounds. Mallory froze in instinct, hunching over, but then she caught herself and determinedly straightened up. It hadn’t left. Maybe it never would. But it didn’t have to rule her life anymore.

Smiling to herself, she clicked on a link and started reading.



Darwinian Butterflies in My Stomach

By H.L. Fullerton

“I’ve made you an appointment at The Clinic,” her mother announced as they finished luncheon on their private terrace– the one that overlooked the south pond. “With Dr. Gabedian. He’ll see you this afternoon.”

Gabedian. Thayta’s hand nervously drifted to her stomach. Her mother saw and pointedly averted her eyes. Thayta pretended she meant to remove her napkin from her lap. “I have a doctor, Mother. The one who–”

“Gabedian has agreed. He says it can only help his reputation. Lord knows what it will do to ours.” Her mother rose, signaling that the conversation was over.

“Would you like to come?” Thayta called after her.

Regal as ever, her mother turned, hands lightly clasped under her bosom. “Why,” she said in glacial tones, “don’t you ask Finchly’s mother to join you?” She didn’t wait for an answer but disappeared into the house.

Thayta had known her mother was embarrassed by her, maybe even ashamed; still, she’d hoped the high-handed appointment-making meant a thaw in the permafrost. Her hand drifted back to rest on her belly. Oh, Finchly!


The Clinic was a charming antebellum mansion engulfed by a mirrored-glass skyscraper. It seemed incongruous yet apropos, considering what went on inside. Thayta watched a woman waddle like a penguin up the ramp and lean against a white Doric column before continuing through the pneumatic doors. Thayta herself wasn’t showing, but once she walked inside everyone would know she was pregnant. Worse, they would ask questions. About the father. About the baby. She wasn’t prepared for more censure.

The baby fluttered like a trio of dancing butterflies and resolve settled her. Finchly had been a fighter. She could be one, too. She hurried inside.

A white-clothed attendant escorted her to Dr. Gabedian’s waiting room. Thayta wished Finchly were here with her. She sat in the only available chair and pulled out a print-zine to hide in.

“Do you know what you’re having?” The lady seated next to her nudged Thayta’s womb with her eyes.

“A boy,” Thayta said.

“How nice!” Envy tinged the lady’s countenance. “A boy what?”

“Just a boy.” Thayta’s smile stretched tight.

“Oh! A human.” The lady’s smile faltered and her eyes scanned the waiting room for an empty seat next to a more suitable patient. Not finding one, she offered, “I’m hoping for a minotaur. Davinder, my husband, wants a cherub. We don’t care, really. As long as it’s healthy.”

Healthy. The word was bright and brittle. Enhancements were the done thing, but not so long ago recombinant gestation mishaps abounded and enhanced babies rarely made it past their fifth birthday. Still, everyone wanted one.

It had been the same with multiples, then clones and designer babies. Finchly had been a designer baby, called himself a New Darwinian. Survival of the richest, he joked even as his organs failed one by one.

In those early days, parents thought only of picking desirable physical attributes–gender, eye and hair color, bone structure–and avoiding genetic diseases. Finchly’s parents had chosen well; he was breathtaking. Unfortunately, his bodily processes weren’t as carefully planned and in human beings function did not follow form. Finchly hadn’t been expected to live past ten. He’d made twenty-two. A success story.

People told Thayta she was lucky–her parents had opted for gene expressionism. As her mother said, “Life is longevity. Cosmetic surgery can make anyone beautiful, but not everyone can choose to live past one hundred.” That meant Thayta now had eighty years without Finchly, give or take. But she’d have his child. If all went well.

Never, she recalled Finchly saying, let the parents chose. Genes aren’t light switches to be turned on and off at whim. Babies are like caterpillars, the womb a cocoon. To survive, a child should emerge on his or her own. Promise, Thayta, promise me, you won’t interfere.

“Promise, cross my heart. I’ll even make him chew through his own umbilical cord,” she teased and hit him with a pillow, lightly though, so nothing ruptured. “I won’t lift a hand to help.”

The memory seized her heart, clenched it tight. Blinking hard to forestall tears, Thayta told the woman, “My sister has a cherub. She’s learning to fly.” She and the lady chatted a bit more. Still, Thayta was relieved when the nurse called her name and led her to an exam room. She changed into a blue polka dotted hospital gown and matching slippers, then waited for the doctor.

She overheard low voices from the room next door.

“Do you want to know what it is? Or be surprised?” a man’s voice rumbled pleasantly.

“I want to know.” The woman’s voice shook. Thayta’s had done the same at her first ultrasound.

“Congratulations!” the doctor said. “You’re having a griffin.”

“A griffin. We were hoping for one.” Snuffling sounds and low murmuring. Louder, the doctor said, “Now. I’d like to see you back here in four weeks. Gotta keep an eye on those hooves.”

Thayta’s mother would be thrilled if she came home with griffin. Thayta imagined what Finchley would have said about a child with hooves, then wondered what he’d have said if he’d known it worked and she was pregnant. If only she’d–

A perfunctory knock on her door. “Thayta? I’m Dr. Gabedian.” The man with the rumbly voice entered, flipping through her chart. “No hooves, good.” He shook his head. “Everyone wants an ungulate. There isn’t anything worse for a uterus than hooves. Maybe beaks, and griffins have both. But that is why they come see me. To deal with such things. You are here for a different reason, yes?”

“Yes.”

He grinned widely. “My first natural in years. Don’t worry, everything will go like clockwork. Not to say humans can’t be as tricky as imps. So, what procedure did you use? Splice and dice?

In uteru implant? Embryonic transplant?”

Thayta blushed.

“Come,” Dr. Gabedian said. “I am a professional. I assure you I can’t be shocked.”

Sex, she whispered and he threw back his head, laughed. “This is the only designer I know that’s been fertile. Any enhancements I should know about?” he asked.

“No.” She took a steadying breath. “I thought I’d let the baby decide what to be.”

“I’m sure he’ll do splendid, but we’ll keep a close eye on him just to be sure. DNA can be very enterprising.” He scribbled on her, no, the baby’s, chart. “Have you picked his name?”

“Yes.” She smiled, the one that had captured Finchly’s broken heart. “Darwin Butterfly.”



Consequences

By Lynn Rushlau

Carriel felt like a cloud of gloom hovering over a parade. The morning sun cast the snow into piles of glitter. Excited, bubbly people swarmed around her sister, Lionye’s golden child, winner of the Emberithshire Skating Championship, Junior Division. Bree laughed and chatted with friends, rivals, and fans.

Even Garray looked excited. Well, of course he did. Their grasping brother had set up this race to give himself another reason to gamble. He’d be thrilled all day, unless their little sister lost.

A whisper, like a sudden gust of wind, ran through the crowd. She turned, following the ripple. The crowd shifted, allowing a woman and a girl about Bree’s size to cross the park to the pond. She shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun on the snow, but even standing on tiptoes, she couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of the competition’s knit cap through the press.

Whistles sounded. Cheers erupted. Her sister flashed an elated grin. The head of the Lionye’s Skating Commission stepped away from the judges’ table and raised a megaphone to his lips.

“Welcome to today’s special event race. We’re pitting our very own Bree, the Winter Wind, against Tayla of the Peolline district of Feballiase.”

The crowd roared. Bree waved to her cheering fans. Tayla turned at her name and gave a tentative smile. Carriel blinked. What?

“Ladies, please take your places at the starting line.”

Snapping out of her shock, she grabbed her sister’s arm before she could hobble more than a couple of steps towards the starting line.

“What?” A bemused smile on her face, Bree turned. She clearly expected wishes of luck or advice. The usual before a race.

“She’s not human.”

“Huh?” Her sister glanced at the starting line.

“She’s some sort of winter Fae. I think she’s an ice sprite.”

Wild excitement filled her sister’s face. “Really?”

She gritted her teeth. “I know what I see.”

“Bree of Lionye, please join us at the starting line.” The ice sprite already stood there. She smiled, too innocently to be believed, when they looked at her.

“I’ve got to go.”

“You can’t–”

“So she’s an ice sprite. It’s just a race.”

“Bree–”

“It’ll be a laugh. Tell Stacia.”

“You cannot hope to win.”

Her smirk turned mischievous. “Tell my coach. Let the word spread. Think about it. Racing an ice sprite? Sure I can’t win, but depending on how close I come? How fast and famous does that make me?”

The officials called for Bree again. Laughing, she spun and hobbled quickly to the ice sprite.

Carriel dashed over to her sister’s coach. Stacia cursed at the news and ran to the alert the head of Lionye’s Skating Commission. Blood drained from his face. Stacia continued to talk for a few minutes. The Commission Head turned and raised his whistle to his lips. One bleat.

Ice sprayed from their skates. The crowd roared. Neck and neck as they neared the first curve.

Carriel’s heart pounded. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t have allowed this.

The ice sprite pulled ahead on the first curve. On the opposite side of the pond, the ice sprite lengthened her lead. The crowd screamed for their Winter Wind to speed up.

A determined frown creased Bree’s face. Carriel had watched her sister skate enough times to pick up the minute increase in speed. She skated as fast as she could, perhaps faster than her fastest time. They wouldn’t know for sure on that until she crossed the finish line.

Which she did a good forty-five seconds after the ice sprite.

A crack echoed across the park.

Bree flashed out of existence.

The ice sprite pivoted. The glee on her face twisted into a good facsimile of shock.


The constable took the ice sprite and her coach into custody. Angry townsfolk followed them to the jailhouse and refused to go home. Bree had disappeared by magic and the ice sprite was magic. She–and likely her coach–must have done it.

The constable put both in a room for questioning and left them alone for no more than two minutes to send a fast messenger to Feballiase to request Winter Knight assistance. With their magic dedicated to protecting the kingdom, the Knights would be best suited to negotiate Bree’s return.

The constable left to inform Tayla and her coach about the wait. He returned, ashen and trembling. The room was empty. They were gone.

Numb, Carriel staggered back to the park. The two guards exchanged a look, but allowed her to enter. She fell to her knees beside the finish line and stared dumbly at the ice.

She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go home. Not without her sister. What could she tell their parents?


Hands lifted her. Her frozen legs refused to cooperate. Stacia and a guard carried her to a carriage. She understood nothing of what the coach tried to tell her on the way home. The only words that mattered, Stacia couldn’t offer. At the house, someone wrapped her in a blanket, shoved a hot mug of tea into her hands. An arm rested over her shoulders. The tea grew tepid. Her brain remained numb.

People chattered around her. None of the words cut through her fog, not until she heard the name “Garray.” She looked up sharply.

Her dad blinked at her. “Honey?”

“He arranged the race. Where is he?”

Dad turned and bellowed in the direction of the door to the living room, “GARRAY!”

She leapt to her feet. Her father on her heels, they ran up the stairs to her brother’s empty room. Sighing, her father went back downstairs. She searched the room. Tore apart his bed. She shook his books and papers, ignoring the drawings, looking for anything related to the race. Tossed everything not useful on the floor. Hidden in his dresser, she discovered a dozen betting tickets and pocketed those for leverage.

Downstairs their father stood at the door, bundling up.

“Where are you going?”

“To find him.” He slammed out before she could offer to go with him.

She paced the room. Dad would never locate him. He hadn’t the slightest idea where Garray went to drink. She strode to the door and shoved her boots back on.

“What are you doing?” Her mother looked up from the cold cup of tea she’d been staring at for at least the last hour.

“Going out to help find Garray.”

Her mother only slumped back over her tea. Sitting alone at the table. Though her heart ached at the sight, Carriel left anyway.


He wasn’t at either of the closest bookies, but she hadn’t expected to find him there. Not at this time of night. He thought the neighborhood pubs beneath his notice, but she swung through them before going to his hangouts. He wasn’t drinking at The Lost Hound, Lucky Star, or Flecks. Nor did she see any of his friends.

She ran into Dravitt drinking at The Checkered Past. Gods, she hated him. Why must he be the first of her brother’s friends she found? She strode to the table, jerked his drink out of his hand, and demanded to know where Garray was.

“Who?” Smirking, he reached for his drink.

Holding the beer out of reach, she growled. “You know damned well who my brother is.”

“Haven’t seen him, have I? He’s courting that fancy girl. Too good to drink in The Checkered Past these days.”

What fancy girl? “Where is he?”

“Give us a kiss and I’ll tell.”

“Tell me and I won’t upend this beer on your head.” She bared her teeth.

Dravitt snarled. “Try Pillars.”

She huffed and tilted the beer towards his head. “Bullshit.”

He held up both hands. “Swear it. I know, their beer is total swill, but that’s where his fancy girl’s brother and their friends drink. He’ll be there.”

Garray lacked the funds to drink there. She lowered the glass and set it on the table. Couldn’t afford the stakes at cards. No wonder he needed Bree to win for him again. His winnings from the championship must be gone.

But he would have won nothing on today’s race. Unless he bet against her? She clenched her fists. If he’d planned all this, she’d kill him.

Just as soon as he explained where their little sister was.


Pillars’ doorman was not inclined to let her inside. She’d dressed that morning to watch a race in the park, not visit an aristocrats’ pub. They argued for ten minutes before a group of young lordlings arrived, rolled over the doorman, and swept her inside with them.

Their compliments left her blushing and off-balance, and untangling herself from them wasted a good half hour. The longer the Fae had Bree the more harm they could do.

She stood alone in the center of the bar and turned slowly searching for her brother in the crowd of bright-colored silks and satins and smoky blacks. Garray dressed as flamboyantly as he could afford, which wasn’t much since he couldn’t hold down a job.

She found him at a booth in the corner with four extravagantly dressed young men. Beside them her brother looked like a valet. No, not quite well dressed enough for a servant. He looked like a charity case.

He wasn’t. She clenched her jaw. Their father was a barrister, who’d sent them all to the same good schools, provided a decent allowance, and offered all his offspring the chance to pursue their interests whether in sports or the arts or education. Garray neither appreciated nor took advantage of any of it.

She strode across the room and grabbed him by his aubergine ascot, pulling him out of the booth, choking him. “Where is Bree?”

“Are you crazy?” He easily broke her hold. “How did you get in here?”

“What did you do with our sister?”

He looked around with an expression of horror on his face. “I didn’t do anything with her. Something magical–”

She backhanded him. A couple of men seized her before she could decide her next action. Bouncers tossed the two into the street. She slipped and fell on the ice. He landed beside her.

“Banned for life. Both of you.”

“But I didn’t do anything,” her brother protested. Ignoring him, the bouncers strode back inside the pub.

She took advantage of his distraction and pinned him down. “Where is she? What did you do?”

He started to cry, of all things. “I thought she’d win.”

She slapped him again. “Against an ice sprite? How?”

“She’s the best–the fastest skater–”

“HUMAN.”

“But the other girl was–”

“An ice sprite.”

He shook his head. “No. I met them both. They were human.”

She raised her hand to smack him again, but he caught her arm. Pushing her away, he staggered to his feet.

Glaring against the burn of tears, she scrambled after him. “What did you bet? Why’d you set up that race?”

He winced. Tears continued to trickle down his cheeks. “They promised me a fortune if she won.”

“And. If. She. Lost?”

He mumbled something.

“WHAT?”

He sighed heavily. “She said if her skater won she would take Bree. I didn’t know what they meant, but figured we’d win.”

“You asshole. You sold our sister.”

“I thought she’d win.”

“WINNING WASN’T POSSIBLE!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know–”

This was her fault. She knew better than to trust him. Should have shut the idea of the race down the minute he proposed it. “Where are they?”

He shook his head. “I have no idea.”

She spluttered unable render her feelings into words. In the end, she settled on, “Don’t come home.”


He followed her home. She tried to bar him entry but their father let him in. Even after she explained that he’d sold Bree to the Fae. Dad made an excuse for the “boy” as always. Poor boy only meant to set up a race, never could have known fairy folk were involved. After all, of this generation Carriel was the only one in the family who could see through glamour.

“I’m heading to bed. Your mother needs to know you’re back okay.” Dad kissed them both on the head and left them alone together.

“I can find them again,” he said softly.

“Why? To sell me into slavery as well?”

He looked pained. She didn’t buy it. He cared for no one but himself. “I’ll get her back. I’ll find them and get her back.”

“No you won’t. There’s nothing in it for you.”

“You can believe me or not, but I’m going after them tomorrow morning. At dawn.”

She laughed. She couldn’t believe she could still make that sound on a day like today, but he was ludicrous. He never rose before midmorning, and only woke by then if someone forced him to. He preferred to sleep in until–Oh.

“Oh, I see. You found them at some gambling den. Of course you want to return–”

“Moonsliver Falls.”

That brought her up short. Moonsliver Falls stood more than half a day’s ride away. In the dead of winter. Her brother liked his comfort.

“What were you—never mind. Thank you for doing something right for once in your life. I’ll go after her at dawn. You can stay warm in your comfy bed.” She pivoted and stormed from the room.

“I’m going,” he called after her.


Before anyone could leave the next morning, a Winter Knight roused the house. Sir Drift wasted an hour in interrogations before setting out. He allowed both Carriel and Garray to escort him. The three remained silent until they’d ridden past the last farm on the outskirts of Lionye.

“What were you doing at Moonsliver Falls in the winter?” Drift asked Garray.

Her brother shot her an uneasy look. She pretended not to notice. He couldn’t possibly think she’d come to his aid. The Falls were a popular place for picnics, hikes, camping–summer sports all.

“There’s this story. Well, lots of stories about the most famous highwayman in these parts.”

“Tarvin of Vere?” Drift asked.

“Yes.” Garray squirmed uncomfortably. His horse shied to the side. “There’s this story I heard that his hideout was somewhere near Moonsliver. They said–the story included some key places to look for to find it. I thought maybe I could.”

Carriel snorted. Drift smiled.

“If it was ever there, I’m sure someone found it years ago,” he said. “Tarvin of Vere died nearly two centuries ago.”

“That’s not what the stories say.”

The Knight looked amused. “Would you tell everyone if you found it?”

“Hell, yeah.” Garray grinned.

“He’d want to be robbed blind,” she said. “My brother hasn’t the brains to keep his mouth shut and actually keep the treasure.”

He glared at her. “I am not stupid.”

“Of course, you’re not,” Drift said.

“Could have fooled me,” she muttered.

Drift shot her a warning look. “All of that treasure is stolen. Anyone who found it would not only confront other thieves coming after it, but the Winter Knights and other security forces pressing claim on the stolen goods on behalf of the original owners.”

“Original owners?” Garray scoffed. “They’re all dead.”

“Lord Yeterin is the currently Duke of Thistleflown. While Ladies Jioli and Johlyn have been fighting over the title of Countess of Gladevish for a decade now, they’re both much alive. Duchess Hashley rules Pommelith. The young Earl of Tawnloff might be underage, but he has regents running his territory who will press claims on his behalf. Jewels, silvers, golds, all of it on record–with drawings and descriptions–as lost at the hands of Tarvin of Verre. Any court in the Kingdom would uphold their claims.

“I would keep such possessions quiet should I have them.”

Garray’s jaw hung open.

“Then what would be the point of even finding them?” Carriel asked. “The coins are useful, but the rest of it is only good to sell.”

“Much of it could be melted down, or you’d need a fence, someone you already knew, someone you could trust–”

“Oh sweet gods,” she said. “Please do not give him any help on how to become a better criminal. He’s already sold his own sister to the Fae.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Yet you did.”

“Let’s focus on getting your sister back.” Drift held up a hand. “Tell me about the Fae. Were they there in a coach or on horseback?”

Garray frowned. “I don’t remember. They must have been.”

“You saw no horses? No carriages?”

“I didn’t pay any attention.”

“This is important.” Drift pointed at him. “Don’t just answer. Think about it. Remember. Picture the scene in your head. Look at that memory a few minutes. Then tell me what you saw.”

They rode along in silence for several minutes accompanied only by the clopping of their horses’ hooves. She cast skeptical looks her brother’s way.

“There were no horses. I was too stupid to notice.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. That’s great news,” Drift said.

“How?” she asked, glad of the chance to interrupt. Her brother deserved no sympathy. This was his fault.

And hers, a quiet voice in her head reminded. She was the responsible one. She was the one who knew better than to trust him or anything related to him. And still she’d not objected to the race.

She thought Bree would win too. Wanted another chance of riding on the glory of her little sister’s coattails. Basking in the sun that was Lionye’s champion.

She was almost as bad as Garray.

“No horses means they’re from there.” The Knight grinned grimly. “We’re heading to their home. How did they approach you?

“They sat–She walked–I turned–” He rubbed his forehead as if it pained him.

“It’s okay. What do you remember?”

“We picnicked. The girl skated on the frozen river. We talked about racing. Her coach and I. I bragged about Bree. She proposed a race.”

“Were she and the girl the only Fae present?”

“Yes. No. Wait. The girl was with a group, holding races. She wasn’t their fastest.”

He couldn’t provide any other information. Drift gave up after his following questions resulting in nothing but stammering. They rode the next few hours in silence after the Knight’s attempts at small talk fell flat.

Carriel was too worried about her sister to make polite conversation. Too upset with herself. She had seen what Tayla was, and still allowed the race to go on.

Her nose, toes and fingers ached and then went numb. She expected her brother to complain and insist on going back. To avow he’d done all he could in providing what little information he’d been able to recall for Sir Drift.

He didn’t. He fell back. Trailed behind her and the Knight. But he didn’t say a word, not the rest of the way to Moonsliver.

Her heart fell to see the frozen waterfall. As ridiculous as she realized it to be, she’d expected to find her sister here. To see her right away. Trapped amongst the Fae, but in plain sight.

Three crows perched on two trees in the field before the frozen waterfall. Regular crows, nothing eldritch. There was no sight or sound of any other living creature.

“She’s not here,” she pointed out the obvious as they dismounted.

“Give me a few minutes,” Sir Drift said with another grim smile.

He paced along the frozen bank, squatting a few times to touch the ice below his feet and whispering. She glanced at her brother before she could stop herself and found him looking back at her in puzzlement. Uneasy, she looked away. She didn’t want to share anything with him.

The Knight rose and turned to face them.

“I need you two to stay quiet and stay back. No matter what the Fae say, you must stay out of it. No bargaining, no accepting their offers. Let me do the talking. I’d like all four of us to leave here together. Promise me, you’ll stay still and quiet, no matter what is asked of you.”

“I promise,” Garray said.

She frowned. “What might be asked?”

“They like to bargain. They might propose something that sounds entirely reasonable, like the race did to your brother, but like that race, the proposition will be filled with hidden meaning and great cost. I aim to get your sister returned to us.”

She nodded. That was all she wanted.

“Promise me, Carriel.”

“I do. I promise.”

Drawing free the staff he’d worn strapped across his back, the knight pivoted on the spot and strode back to the frozen stream. He slammed the wooden staff down, it crashed through the ice. Flying shards glittered in the sunlight.

“Fae of Moonsliver Falls, I, Sir Drift of the Winter Knights, demand your presence as is my right under article four of the Treaty of Fallen Snow.”

He glared around the waterfall for several minutes. Nothing happened.

Carriel opened her mouth, remembered her promise, and snapped it close. Between one heartbeat and the next, Fae surrounded them.

Hulking abominable snowmen hovered on the tops of the cliffs. Creatures made of snow shaped like people and animals popped up along the opposite bank. Tiny snowflake fairies whirled and swooped around the falls. A dozen sprites twirled on the ice.

A whirlwind of snow spun on the far bank between two majestic snow griffins. The whirls of snow fell and a woman stood there.

Her skin and hair were the blinding white of snow in sunlight. Her dress glittered like ice as did the jeweled tiara on her brow. Carriel reeled. A snow queen, surely, but her face … her face was the same as the ice sprite’s coach.

How could she not have seen that before? Nothing magic had ever before been able to hide itself from her.

“Why do you trespass on our lands with your magics?” the Queen asked.

“You’ve broken the treaty. Stolen a human.”

The queen’s laugh was that of icicles shattering. “Does the boy lie to you? He traded a human child to us.”

“He traded someone not his to trade.”

The queen’s smile deepened. “He is her kin. The girl admitted as much.”

“No, he–”

Drift whipped around and gestured for Carriel to shut up. She winced. She’d promised. The Winter Knight would handle this. She must leave it to him. She’d apologize later. Once he rescued her sister.

“You know the law. The Treaty of Fallen Snow states that a human may trade themselves away to the Fae without consequences, but cannot trade another person away. Bree is a person. She did not trade herself.”

The Queen drew herself up haughtily. “The girl agreed to the race.”

“A race only. No one informed her of any consequences if she lost.”

“The bindings that created the event required her advocate to inform her of the terms.”

Fist clenched, Carriel stepped forward. “She only agreed to the race to see how fast–”

The Knight glared her into silence. “The girl was never informed. Would never have participated in the race had she been. The peoples of Lionye use magical protections. Perhaps those destroyed your coercion before this young man could pass on the message.”

The Queen glowered. She twirled and half the Fae, the Queen included, disappeared in a swirl of snow.

“What–?”

Face twisted in fury, long white braids flying, Drift rounded on her. “Anything you say gives the Fae leverage and could change the outcome of this conversation for the worst. They left to consult amongst themselves.

“They know they’ve lost, but will try to find a way to squirm out of this. As long as you remain quiet, I will be able to retrieve your sister. They cannot afford to break the Treaty. Whatever happens from here, you must remain silent or risk losing her forever. Need I gag you?”

Tears pricked her eyes. His ominous words left her shaking with fear. She whispered, “I can stay quiet.”

He relaxed and nodded. “She’ll be okay. Stay strong.”

Another swirl of snow. He walked forward, but the sight before him caused him to miss a step. Carriel clamped her hands over her mouth. An abominable stood beside the Queen. Her sister hung upside down, her legs trapped in his massive hand.

“There are consequences when one lies to the Fae.”

The abominable clenched his fists. The snaps of Bree’s bones dropped Carriel to her knees. She screamed with her sister.

Drift yelled protests that went unheard over the screams. The abominable tossed Bree to the ground. Blood spilled from too many wounds to count. Shards of bones poked through her legs.

Drift’s yells barely broke through her horror. “–COMPLETELY ILLEGAL. –ACT OF WAR. IF YOU DO NOT FIX–”

A high-pitched scream tore through the falls. Sharp enough to break eardrums. Carriel slammed her hands over her ears and turned.

Garray held an ice sprite tight in his arms. No, not an ice sprite, the ice sprite. The one who’d pretended to be a girl named Tayla. The tip of an iron knife pierced its throat. A thin trickle of electric blue blood dripped down its snow-white attire.

“Unleash her!” The Queen’s growl vibrated bones and internal organs.

Drift looked wildly from Garray to the Queen. “Fix the girl, set her free, and he’ll release your sprite.”

“This violates the Treaty of Fallen Snows. I will kill you all,” the Queen screamed.

“You’ve already violated the Treaty. Look at what you’ve done.” Drift pointed dramatically at Bree. “Undo your damage. The longer the contact with iron the more likely your sprite will suffer irreparable damage.”

“And how will you fix what you’ve reaped?”

“This is in your power,” Sir Drift growled. “Fix the girl. Set her free, whole and well, as she was before you took her, before too much time passes. Save your sprite that damage.”

The Queen’s hiss knocked Drift off his feet. She flung out a hand over Bree. A flurry of snow engulfed her. Screams sounded inside the small blizzard. The storm floated over the river and landed a few feet from Drift.

Carriel ran, but the Knight beat her to Bree’s side. He squatted down, ran his hand over her legs. She shuddered at his touch. “Are you okay?”

Carriel crashed to the ground beside her sister, pulling the nodding, crying Bree into her arms. She barely noticed the queen screaming orders and threats in the background.

But the Winter Knight paid her heed. Rising, Drift pivoted. “Let the sprite go.”

Not moving, Garray glared.

“Let. The. Sprite. Go!” Drift thundered.

Garray held the knife up. Stepping back, he released the sprite. Free of his hold, the ice sprite disappeared. Moments later, she popped back up beside the Queen, crooning and squeaking. The Queen gathered the bleeding sprite in her arms. The look she shot Drift promised retribution. The Fae winked out of existence.

Drift hollered after them. Carriel didn’t care. Hugging her sister, being hugged back that was all that mattered. She didn’t even care that Garray looked pleased with himself. That her useless brother was now her hero.



Cedar

By Jude-Marie Green

Cedar means love, never forget that. I made the rockers from cedar.

Aunt Suzie died before the fire, and Uncle Henry’s heart with her. I was glad of the burning, since it hid what I had done.

Black walnut boughs blown down in the forest with stripped bark and green moss, they did well for the arms.

The stomach cancer ate her up, the docs cut her open and stitched in a steel mesh for half her belly but that didn’t stop anything. Uncle Henry wasn’t gonna tell her but how could she not know? She faded from busy farm wife to bedridden frailty in the course of months, unable to keep down but a little this and a little that. Henry went from farmer to nurse, or rather both at once, out of his mind with worry over his wife and panic about his herd of milch cows and neglected fields of corn, not yet waist-high and still needing care. He called me in to help, which must have made him crazy after years of disparaging my living, wildcrafting the woods, harvesting the roots and herbs and berries, living in my own cozy place deeper in the hollow. Their house stood on a hill and I climbed it to sit by Suzie as she died.

Her weathered old rocking chair sat idle in a corner and her bed was stacked with a pile of quilts twice as thick or more than her own body. She’d never been a beauty, plain and tall and proud and with ivory colored hair that hung to her knees. Illness didn’t lend a deathbed glow, just carved her away from her own bones. I saw her with love and she was beautiful for being familiar, my aunt who’d sat me on her lap when she rocked in that rocker and read me Bible stories and sung me choir songs. No more songs, not even words through those ragged lips. I touched her hand so she knew she wasn’t alone.

She passed along a note. She must have written it long before, the writing was steady and measured. A recipe for soup. And a little something extra.

I pressed it back to her.

She didn’t have the strength of illness so often mentioned in stories but she had the persistence of a successful farm wife, used to running a house and a farm and hired help and a husband. Four or five times later I bowed my head and accepted the chore. “Tomorrow,” I said.

She couldn’t reply. She couldn’t nod. But she opened her eyes at me and I swear I saw relief.

The seat was a stone, flecked granite from the hill, carved deep with blue and gray lichen.

I poured the soup, herbs, marrow, mushroom, into a fat blue coffee cup sitting unused in the kitchen. I held the mug to her lips and she sipped, slow and steady, the first meal in ages. The last. I closed her eyes with a penny each and settled her hair and clothes and quilts then sat and rocked. Henry would return from the fields soon enough, no reason to bother him now.

The back was a tangle of morning glory vines. In time they’d take over if they got ahold.

Henry knew what I’d done, of course he did, why else ask me there? He beat me and drug me from the house. He followed a few minutes later, leaving behind flickers of flame. We stood and watched the house light up and burn down, the shingles smelling rich of cedar. Henry stood thin in his cotton shirt and overalls and boots and said, “Nothing left.” I think he went to sleep in the barn.

I waited the flames out. Morning dew damped the embers though the ruin was still hot. Heat never bothered me none. I found her room, her bed, her body under the quilts, and I gathered her up. I’m neither big nor strong but I was sufficient to the task. Henry had prepared the plot and I set her down in it. And got to work on that rocker.

A body needs a place to rest and so does a soul. Suzie’s rocker was her headstone, now.

He raged his way across the field yelling how dare I and too soon and leave her be and when he saw the rocker he stopped cold. He raced up the knock it over and stopped cold again.

“What are those?”

“Dunno.” He meant the crystals lighting up like fireflies but I meant the new-sprung flowers and herbs I’d never met before.

There was no breeze and yet the rocker rocked. No breeze yet the wind of its passage riffled my hair and dried the cold sweat on the nape of my neck. The scent of her perfume grew large, overflowing the rocker, engulfing me. I believe it was her silent voice that said thank you.



A Ghosted Story

By Rob Andwood

When Eliza returns from the bathroom, after fifteen minutes that saw me sliding from calm to fretful, she looks pale underneath the low lights produced by the restaurant’s chandeliers. Moving listlessly and a little awkwardly, she drifts along until she pauses in the empty stretch of hardwood floor between the kitchen and the dense puzzle of tables. A distracted waiter nearly runs her over, apologizes, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes roam through space like she’s forgotten why she’s there. They glaze over me, unseeing, and I raise a self-concious hand, give it a few limp waves. Eliza misses it but starts heading my way, the essence of noncommittal.

She sits down, but doesn’t pull her chair into the table. Her eyes fall on the candle flickering at its center, beside the bottle of wine, half of which has been distributed into our glasses.

“Are you okay?” I ask. I’m careful with the next sentence, lest I offend her. “You don’t look like you’re feeling so great.”

That’s an understatement. Eliza’s so pale I’m worried she’s about to fall out of her chair. She slumps back in it, half-dead in the face, and doesn’t answer my question.

“We can go if you want,” I say. “If you’re not well we don’t have to stay. I’ll pay for the wine and we’ll get out of here.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“Eliza.”

Still nothing. I lean back in my chair, brushing my cheek with my knuckles, aware that something’s gone terribly wrong.

The restaurant, which I selected, is a newish place surfing on a wave of delayed hype, the kind of place everyone talks about for a week but no one remembers to actually visit until a couple of months later. In response to rising demand, the powers that be have crammed in as many tables as possible, creating a maze through which the staff careens, running glasses and plates back and forth with manic intensity, near-misses happening all the time. It’s anxiety-inducing to watch, but beautiful in a way.

To the left and right of our table, couples dine so close I could reach out and touch their shoulders without locking my elbow. At a loss with Eliza, I shift my head to the man sitting on a diagonal from my right. Catching me, he raises his eyebrows.

“Are you really not going to say anything?” I return to Eliza to find she’s tilted her head back, to stare up at the distant ceiling. “If something’s wrong, you can tell me. I’m not going to mind.”

The woman at the table to my left is studying me, but when we meet eyes she drops hers, embarrassed.

Perhaps she’s wondering if she’s witnessing a first-date trainwreck. She’s not. Eliza and I have been seeing each other two or three times a week for a couple of months now, ever since our introduction at a brunch outing with mutual friends. It’s been going well, or so I’d thought until the moment she returned from the bathroom–well enough that I was inspired to hope for the first time since Mikayla and I broke up, plunging me into a morass of bad dates, poorly conceived Tinder messages, and too much drinking on weekday evenings. Eliza and I had similar views of life and relationships, our failures in each inspiring a healthy cynicism that still couldn’t break our natural tendencies toward optimism. She laughed at my bad jokes. I listened to stories about her narcissistic parents. We went to movies, to plays, to bars, to the planetarium. When we weren’t together, we texted regularly, sharing the little things that happened to us on average mornings and typical afternoons, things that didn’t usually leave our heads. I thought we were becoming something. When I rounded onto Congress Street and saw her waiting for me beneath the awning, in her black dress and denim jacket, the pulse in my neck started going faster, and sweat leaked out of my palms.

But now the speeding train has derailed. I observe the wreckage, which doesn’t amount to much–we were in the restaurant only fifteen minutes before she got up to find the restroom–and try to locate the fault, the crack where blame might fit. Our evening had been going well, at least as well as the others. Eliza referenced a joke from our text messages. I complained about my dentist’s appointment. She complimented my new shirt. I told her about the colors in the sky that morning, how I’d meant to send her a photograph like the one she’d sent me.

The waiter comes over. He introduced himself when he brought us glasses of water, but I’ve forgotten his name.

“How we doing over here?” he asks. “How’s the wine?”

“It’s good,” I say, taking a sip as if to prove it. When I ordered the bottle, Eliza giggled at my clumsy pronunciation. “I like it.”

“Excellent. Would you like to put in any appetizers, or should I give you a couple of minutes?”

Between my initial rapture with Eliza and my current state of confusion, I haven’t even glanced at the menu.

“A couple of minutes.”

“Certainly. I’ll be back.”

As he dashes off to tend to his other tables, I realize that he never once looked at Eliza. On the far side of the table, she’s sitting upright, with an expression of waiting-room boredom. Her roaming eyes never once land on me. And it might be a trick of the light, or of the wine, but I swear she looks less defined than she did, like she’s steadily fading from view.

“I should’ve slapped him,” says the woman to my left to the man across the table, who’s leaning on his elbows. “I would have, too, but my friend was, like, dragging me away.”

Determined to ignore Eliza as she’s ignoring me–an unsatisfying form of revenge, because I know she’s not going to care–I make a point of inspecting everything in the room with an expression of casual interest, as if that could make her reconsider how she’s treating me. Inside, meanwhile, I’m threatening to boil. In an abstract place behind my stomach, a box that doesn’t really exist contains all the worst parts of me–penchants for self-pity, revolting neediness, and narcissistic anger, all of which I can’t help but indulge, self-flagellation working as an excuse for emotional self-pleasure. These fragments of my narcissism, unleashed by whatever minor stimulus–a message gone ignored, another guy’s joke laughed at, an offhand comment interpreted as a slight–have spoiled every relationship I’ve ever managed to start. With Mikayla I became a seething, touchy, obsessive shell of a person; in the aftermath, I vowed to shut my bad parts away, to weigh them down and bury them somewhere from which they might never resurface. But as I don’t look at Eliza, with pressure mounting behind my eyes, the anchors fail and the box drifts free. Its flaps open and its contents release into my chest, where they merge into a storm. The closest point of egress is my mouth. For five seconds, I fight off words I know I’ll regret.

“Eliza, if it’s something I did, something I said, anything… Just tell me and I’ll fix it, I’ll do better, I’ll– Please, Eliza, don’t just sit there, please, I like you so much, I–”

I happen to glance over and see the man at the table to my right watching me. On his face is written an alphabet of pity and scorn that shuts me up.

“Jesus,” I say, placing a hand on my forehead. Then I bend forward, voice dropping to a hiss. “You’re being very rude. This is no way to treat a person.”

These sentences fail to provoke the hoped-for reaction. My neck itches, and sweat beads on my stomach, dampening the inside of my new shirt. I’m aware of eyes on me, but don’t dare to look. Eliza gazes into the empty space above my left shoulder.

The waiter returns.

“Any decisions?” he asks, again only addressing me.

I throw my eyes to the menu, picking the first item that resolves itself.

“We’ll split the calamari.”

“I’ll put that right in for you.”

When he goes, I’m seized by restlessness, the flight instinct taking over. I stand up too quickly, nearly knocking over my chair, and linger a moment. The man who’d given me the bad look is watching again.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I announce, though I don’t know to whom. I’m sure it won’t make a difference to Eliza whether I’m at the table, in the bathroom, or falling into an unknown dimension, as she appears to be. Before I turn, I observe that she’s become translucent. Shards of chandelier light pass through her paper skin and land on the hardwood floor.

Walking off carefully, lest my dizziness overcome me, I stop a passing busboy for directions to the bathroom. He points me to a lighted hallway branching off from the restaurant’s far corner. Just before I push through the swinging door to the men’s room, it opens the other way and I’m nearly toppled by someone exiting.

“Careful, now,” he says, before stuffing his hands into his pockets and strolling back the way I’ve come.

In a small, tiled space, with classical music emanating from the ceiling, I find to my relief that I’m alone. I go to the sink, and grip the countertop with both hands. My reflection is almost as pale as Eliza. Sips of cold water from the tap firm my gelatin legs, and a splash to the face clears my head. I’m staring into the porcelain basin and debating my options when I hear the door open behind me. I don’t raise my head until whoever it is steps up to the neighboring sink and clears his throat.

In the mirror I see the guy who’s taken special interest in my predicament; though his smile is friendly enough, I’m wary.

“Hey, man,” he says, “this isn’t any of my business, I know, but I feel like I should tell you to keep your chin up. It happens to everyone at some point; really, it does. Don’t take it as a reflection of yourself. That’s a nowhere road.”

So baffled am I by this string of words that I can’t put together a response. The man runs the tap, and starts washing his hands.

“My advice, unsolicited: don’t waste time moping. You’re already here, you got all dressed up. Might as well enjoy yourself, right? If I were you, I’d order myself a nice big steak, maybe a glass of single malt, whatever you’re into. Try your best not to think about her. Tomorrow’s a new day, yeah? All right. I’ve said more than my piece. I’ll see you out there, friend.”

He dries his hands under a stream of hot air and is gone, leaving me to watch the door swing back into its frame. After a few moments of aimless staring, I take another mouthful of water, scrub under my fingernails for no reason, and follow him.

Even at a distance of thirty feet, I see that Eliza is disintegrating, her matter making its way from the restaurant to somewhere else. The hard lines that composed her have softened and blurred, so that she resembles a loose collection of polygons, the infrastructure for a pencil drawing. Impossible, I know, but it’s happening, and I don’t question it. I cross the floor to the table and sit. Eliza is studying her vanishing fingernails, seemingly uninterested in whatever she’s undergoing.

And though I’m still angry, still self-hating, still jealous of wherever and whomever is receiving her, I manage to box it all up for the time being, though I wrestle to keep the flaps pinned.

The waiter comes over, a welcome distraction. This time he leans down toward me, so that I know whatever he’s going to say is intended to be private.

“I don’t want to embarrass you,” he says, one level above whispering, “but if you’d like I can take a card and charge you for the wine, and you can slip out. It’ll be very discreet. This may not make you feel better, but I’ve dealt with situations like this before.”

He waits. I try to speak, clear my throat, try again.

“That’s all right.”

He rises to professional height, beaming down at me like he’s just come over, like the last twenty seconds never happened. I make a fuller survey of the menu.

“I’ll have the grass-fed ribeye,” I say, “and an old fashioned.”

“Excellent choices. And still the calamari?”

“Still the calamari, yes.”

He jets off again, and I’m alone with Eliza, who’s hardly there anymore, just a silhouette. I know better than to try speaking to her. With no outlet for the bitterness in my throat, I pick up my glass of wine. I set it against my lips and, before tilting, happen to look to my right, where the man who gave me the pep talk is fully engaged with a story his date is telling. Still he catches my eye, gives me a subtle nod, and raises his own glass a few inches higher. I nod back, look away, and reduce mine to drops.

Once I swallow, the noise of a dozen surrounding conversations crashes back into my ears, threatening to overwhelm me. I close my eyes. When I open them, ten seconds later, the busboy who directed me to the bathroom is there, taking away Eliza’s unused dishes, stacking the small plate atop the large and the napkin-bound silverware atop that. He leaves the untouched glass of wine, so that, when he heads off, it might appear to any new observer that I’m still waiting for someone to join me.

Eliza’s chair is pushed slightly away from the table, just as she left it when she got up, smiled at me, and headed to the bathroom, or wherever the fuck she went.



The Labyrinth Disme

By Camille Singer

There’s a ghost in my bed. She’s crying. She is the first, and it has been three days since my Burning—a ritual of my people that resulted in an ashen wound down my back. It healed into the literal shape of a ship on a sea of smoke.

When Nylin saw the ship, she said she always knew I’d be a Ferrier. Nylin’s always right, of course, like most Watchers.

“Don’t take me,” pleads the ghost. “I can’t leave them. My family.”

“I have to,” I say.

The ghost stifles her tears and rubs at her cloudy face. “What’s your name?”

I tell her my name is Gavin, but it feels like a lie. I chose the name for myself two years ago and haven’t used it since. It feels foreign to my ears, in my own voice, but the ghost doesn’t seem to notice. The Disme people don’t need names before they turn eleven.

Her name is Sen. It feels soft, like the feathered edges of her soul.

Sen is maybe nine or ten. I don’t ask because I’ll know soon.

I pluck my dime off the stack of striped, folded tarp beside my bed. Nylin had given it to me, as well as the clothes on my back, the thin mattress beneath me, the lamp that burns only one simple shade of pulsing dim, like a heartbeat.

The dime fits perfectly in my palm, despite not being a perfect circle. It is more akin to a broken ten-piece than uniform currency. The cold metal weighs heavy in my palm and I try not to tremble with it.

I hold my palm flat between Sen and me, then I call my Disme Mark forth, the way Nylin taught me.

The burn comes off my naked back in a wave of chills, as if a cold finger is running a nail down my spine. I roll my shoulders, tense, and my spine pops. The sound echoes around my tent like canon fire. My Disme Mark coils and folds over my head in swirls of black smoke, like a hood being drawn.

It crawls down my face and creeps across my arm. The Mark plateaus on the dime displayed in my palm. It is an empty, silent ship, made of smoke and charred flesh. It is as real as I am.

My ship curls itself around Sen’s wispy, white frame, collecting her. With its first passenger, the Disme ship returns to me, pasting itself onto my back where it had been burned into me not three days before, on my thirteenth birthday.

Sen is no longer in my bed, but she isn’t gone. She is on my ship and for a time, I am ten.


I am thirteen, but I feel like I’m ten; the same age Sen was when she died.

I thrust my hands into the freezing river running around my ankles. Red dye is tugged off the linen canvas I’m scrubbing beneath the current. It stains the water, reflecting green trees and foliage, muddying it to a dense brown. The crisp air smells of pine and chemicals.

Nylin is working beside me, unfazed by the cold, dying canvas for a new tent in the Labyrinth. The hem of her white frock rests on the surface of the river and a strand of white hair brushes her wrinkled cheek.

“Where are we going next?” I ask, my teeth chattering around the words.

“Canada.” The thought makes me shiver. “There’s a portal there I haven’t been to in years.”

I nod to myself and continue working.

“Have you gotten any others? Besides the girl?”

I pause and glance at her. Nylin bunches the canvas and rubs it together. She doesn’t look at me. “Her name is Sen.”

“You spoke to her?” she asks.

“I did. Before.”

“Does she speak to you?”

I pause again and wait. I can feel Sen chuckling in my thoughts, lingering at the precipice between my Disme ship, where she now resides, and my mind. I welcome it and feel her age meld with mine. Ten. “Sometimes.”

Nylin makes a noncommittal grunt and dunks the canvas, sending up a splash. “And do you talk back?”

Don’t tell her. Sen’s voice in my mind startles me to stillness. She won’t like it.

I hear Sen’s words but ignore them. I clear my throat and dunk my own canvas. My feet are numb and my hands are stained a deep, terrible red. “Sometimes.”

Nylin turns and cuffs me on the side of the head with one, wet hand. “Hear me, boy. They are your charges, not your friends. They are on your ship long enough to be taken to their specific portals and that’s it. Don’t be getting close to them.”

“But, Sen…”

Nylin cuffs me again, sharp and startling. “She’s dead, boy. You aren’t.” Nylin hunches over and wrings the water from her linen canvas. “She’ll be gone soon enough. Once we find her portal.”

I hunch my shoulders, shaking all over from the cold and from Sen in my thoughts. Her sorrow is worked into me like a piece of twisted thread. “But, what if Sen wants to stay? What if she doesn’t want to enter her portal?”

Nylin keeps her head down and her voice flat. “She will.”


I am seventeen, but he is twenty-six; my newest passenger.

The Disme Labyrinth has set up in Southern Europe on the tip of a boot. Amongst the tall, striped tents and milling patrons, I see a blonde. He likes blondes.

I follow her into the maze.

The blonde stops at a fork in the Labyrinth. I stand in a shadow cast by a swaying tarp striped red and crystalline grey. She contemplates left into a shadowed passageway, or right towards a hidden chamber. Her friends had gone left, trailing ribbons and bitter coffee in painted cups, but the blonde chooses different, as I hoped she would.

Gavin, don’t. Sen’s words come to me but they’re distant, like a foreign breeze. She tries to insert herself between me and the urges of my newest passenger, but her efforts are for naught.

The blonde turns down a darkened corridor of the Labyrinth. I cannot see her, but I can smell her, fresh herbs and sweet cigar smoke. I reach for her.

A crawl creeps down my spine; someone else’s Mark, watching me. I cannot see the other’s Marks when they’ve been called, but I can feel them, sharp and intrusive.

I let the blonde get away and turn to see who is watching me.

In total darkness, I am cuffed on the side of the head. A yelp escapes my lips. I am seventeen, I tell myself. Seventeen.

“You know better, boy,” Nylin’s voice rasps, almost screeches. “The eyes on my back are always on yours. I’m always watching.” Where my Disme Mark is a ship, hers is an owl. And watch, she does.

“I was just…”

She cuffs me again with the flat of her hand. It startles me, rocking my already absent vision.

Despite the dark, I can picture her face, scrunched and wound tight like aged leather. Yellow eyes, sharp as the edge on newly pressed paper.

“You and they aren’t the hat and the rabbit. You are the magician, this,” she swats at my back, “is the card up your sleeve. They are the faces on the card. Not a dime more, you hear me?”

“Yes ma’am,” I say to the dark. Nylin reels back her Disme, taking my shudder and breath with her.

“Don’t give in to them,” she breathes. “It won’t end well for any of you.”


The Disme Labyrinth has ten passages, ten pathways, ten dead-ends, ten games, ten riddles, ten displays by ten Disme Marked, ten hidden chambers…and an eleventh.

The eleventh chamber is not for them.

It sits at the exact center of the maze, surrounded by the tents of the other Disme Marked.

I walk the outer perimeter of the eleventh chamber thrice. No opening.

A few patrons have made it this far. I pass them with my head low and continue my walk around the tent. Once the last patron has left with the fading daylight, I stop. I am alone.

I walk backward around the outer tarp wall of the eleventh chamber. The ocean-blue sky is bled through with black ink. The white flecks of stars glide forward as I walk back, as if they are stones being pushed in a river.

The way opens.

I step into the eleventh chamber. The portal here is as different as the one in Istanbul is from the one on the coast of Southwest Japan. They are each unique, all seven hundred, twenty-one of them. Different souls belong in different places.

I drop to my knees beside a vortex of wind and earth. Though violent and ground-splitting, the wind doesn’t even rustle my hair or fan the open collar of my gray shirt.

I place my dime face down in my open palm. I call the Disme Mark from my back and it obeys. The ship settles onto the dime, docking there.

Only one is disembarking this time, the oiled soul of a charred creature better left in tales of woe and warning. Tet had slain the creature in a dock-side alley before we left Singapore. Monster and man alike, I collect every soul. Even those I don’t want to. Even those that don’t want to be ferried.

The creature disembarks my ship and is collected into the wild chasm below. A weight comes off my back, my chest, but a stain remains. I am eighteen, but I had been three-thousand, sixty-one.

The eleventh chamber is for me.


When it’s quiet, Sen begs me to find her portal.

“I will soon,” I promise. She knows I don’t believe my words and I let her sorrow flood me. I deserve it.

Why the show? she asks. Why set up a full Labyrinth with games and customers and libations, just to open a portal?

I stretch out on the mattress in my tent and stare up into the point where stripes of red and grey converge. It’s peaceful, for my ship is once again empty, save for Sen. “Nylin says it’s safer this way. The Disme ritual for opening a portal takes hours, precise measurements, and the use of our Marks. Hiding inside our tents calls less attention.”

I guess that makes sense, Sen says. But, the customers…

I chuckle. “We can’t very well set up a traveling Labyrinth and take no customers. That would be suspicious.” I draw in a breath and sigh. “Besides, we need the money, to get from place to place.”

Has it always been this way?

I nod, though Sen can’t see it. “My people were once troubadours in France. Then players in Greece. In recent centuries, the other Disme groups have had circuses, bands, theatre acts. Anything that allows us to travel and set up where we need to.”

There are more of you out there?

“Yes.” I swallow. “There are a lot of dead, Sen. A lot that need to be captured and ferried.”

Captured? she says.

“The creatures….” I trail off and roll onto my side. I try to stifle the shudder threatening to work me over.

Are we going to sleep?

“Yes, Sen. I’m tired.” I close my eyes and latch onto the calm of her. I think she’s humming.

Goodnight, Gavin.

“Goodnight, Sen.”


I paint them, sometimes. I sit on the pallet in my train car, or the bed in my tent, pushing and pulling the ground corpses of insects or the dust of rocks, bound in linseed oil, over stretched canvas.

On a good day, they are each distinct. I paint the old man who went in his sleep, playing music for the dragon slain in Egypt. I paint the young lady who fell down a flight of stairs, dealing cards to a rabid wolf that was put down. I paint a girl picking mushrooms, with the Storm Weaver the triplets had trapped at the mouth of a Hawaiian volcano.

Today is not a good day.

I paint them all the way I see them on my ship. I call it “my ship,” pretending that these souls are not a piece of me. A tenth of me, to be precise.

I paint four heads and three faces. There are too many legs, not enough eyes. Tentacles, fangs instead of ears, claws instead of smiles. I paint them like this when I cannot tell the frantic child from the hungry beast, the breath of fire from the wail of tears.

On a good day, when my mind is clear, it’s almost worse.

On a good day, I know them. I know what they are and the pieces that make them. I paint them enjoying each other’s company and exchanging smiles. These paintings are like my ship, just smoke.

“Gavin?”

I wonder if it’s Sen who spoke, then reality dawns. I turn from my canvas, brush still poised with a glaze of red paint. Meadow is standing in the doorway of my tent. I can smell her, even over the pungent oil reeking of fish eggs. She smells like her name, warm, fresh, and subtly sweet, like honey. Her Disme Mark is a rope.

She is too tall and too thin, like her brothers. Her canary-yellow hair hangs limp around her narrow shoulders as she looks at the canvas on my easel. She usually smiles at me, but now she is wearing a tight frown on a long face. “There’s another.”

I follow Meadow to a river off the coast of Southeast Asia.

The corpse of a massive squid rests at Dell’s feet. He is holding his dime out to the creature, and I’m certain his Disme Mark has been called, keeping the creature’s soul still, powerless. I cannot see the Mark, but I can imagine the towering redwood, made of char and smoke like my ship, pinning the beast beneath it.

I get closer, my hand in my pocket, fingering my own dime. “Take him down yourself?” I ask.

“Her,” Dell corrects, pushing the copper hair from his brow. “Tet was here, but he had to get back to the Labyrinth for readings.”

I move closer to the squid. Her soul is so red it’s almost crimson, a struggling cloud of red haze.

I pinch the dime from my pocket and place it my palm. I tremble and offer Sen a silent apology. “Release her.”

The squid’s red soul squirms to get away but my Disme is faster. The ship crashes around my head, startling my hair. The black tendrils of smoke capture the red soul, encasing it in an ashen prison. Still the soul writhes and fights against the barrier of my Disme Mark.

The Mark returns to my back, stitching itself there in slow, painful pieces. The squid fights, ripping newly joined Mark to flesh. It feels like nothing but a sting from a bee or a shock from a door handle. The true pain is in my mind, where the squid is warring with the lad who overdosed in Ireland. I feel Sen scream.

I am one hundred, fifty-four.


The allure of Labyrinth Disme is mystery.

The people come to walk the maze of tarp and tent. They come to see the odd folk that work inside its passages and chambers, hosting games and besting impossible acts. They come to see the magic that any sane person would disregard as a trick of the light, smoke and mirrors.

We remain in one city long enough to hunt and harvest, then we disappear. Our arrival is never announced, and we leave nothing behind but dead souls in hidden portals.

When Count is healing from a bite, broken leg, or other injury, I work the ticket counter.

A father of three daughters steps to my window and tips his hat. “Say, do you offer a military discount?”

“No,” I say. “Our prices are fair.”

He leans an elbow on the counter. “How about this one time, son? I got my girls here, all wanting cocoa and churros. Stuff gets expensive.”

I flare. “Fuck off, you…”

I am clasped on the shoulders and jerked back into the booth. I stumble and fall on my ass, into a pile of tarp and ribbon.

Nylin moves to the window and apologizes to the man, handing him four tickets, free of charge. She closes the window and pulls in a long breath. The owl burn on her back stares into me with knowing eyes.

She won’t face me. “I know it’s hard, boy. I know it. But you got to keep them tied down. Can’t have you lashing out at the locals. Talk like that brings questions we can’t answer.” She glances at me over her shoulder. “Stop letting them in.”


I am nineteen, I remind myself. I am nineteen.

She is warm astride me, beneath me. She has dark hair and green eyes that are mute in the dim of night. Distant music meets my ear; the sawing of Glade’s cello.

My hand trails over her knee, and glides down the length of her thigh. Real. Flesh. Warmth. My own heart beats in my palm as I touch her, in my lips as I press them again her neck, her collar, her chest. She hooks her leg around my back.

She moans when I push into her, but it sounds like a scream. Her soft, warm hand tangles in my hair and cups my neck, but it feels cold. She digs her nails into my back, but they feel like claws. She rolls me over to straddle my hips, but I feel pinned. She breathes my name, but it sounds like a cry. Like battle.

When we finish she is so still that I expect to see her soul rise from her body. She takes a breath and rolls over to place a languid hand on my back. I know what she’s doing before the single finger begins tracing my skin. I let her.

“Is this a tattoo?” she asks. “Or…”

“A burn.”

Her intake of breath is as sharp as the minor cord Glade hits on his cello outside my tent. I watch the pulsing lamp breathe in tune to the melody. Warm. Real. I am nineteen.

“But, it’s so dark. How’d you get it?”

“I was taken into a clearing by an owl when I was thirteen. She, an elephant, a pentacle, and a tree strapped me hand and foot to four posts. An ocean poured oil down my back then a crow set it ablaze with a torch wrapped in sage.” I say it because it’s true; because it’s absurd.

She rolls away from me, onto her back in laughter. “You carnival folk are so strange.”

Carnival folk, not quite. Strange, she has no idea.

I would kiss her, but I can’t remember her name. My ship is brimming with passengers and they threaten to overtake me. Cold. False. “You should go.”

A fury radiates from her that’s almost as palpable as the frost within me, but she leaves my tent. I roll onto my back.

You were cruel to her.

It’s rare for Sen to surface these days. She’s always there, probing gently, curious but not wanting to intrude; no matter how often I tell her that I enjoy her company. She’s been with me the longest, after all, and the others pay no attention to living age when they are all dead. They see only the hierarchy, of which, Sen is at the top.

When she surfaces, the rest quiet, and it’s peaceful.

“No crueler than I usually am,” I say, rubbing my face.

She could die, you know, Sen says in my thoughts. On her way home from here. Before she even leaves the lot. And the last thought she’ll have will be about you tossing her away without a smile and a kiss.

“I kissed her plenty.”

Sen’s scoff is hollow. Cold. False.

“Leave it be.”

Her sigh is worse; piercing and deep. You don’t love them, do you?

“No.”

Then why…

“You wouldn’t understand.” The abrupt silence leaves me feeling empty and tight as I wait for the madness to rush in around Sen’s departure. But it doesn’t come, not yet.

At least you’re alive, she whispers. While I’m stuck here with dregs and beasts, waiting for you to find my portal and take me home.


There is a demon in this city.

I follow Tet, Glade, and Count into a small marsh of dirt roads and boarded windows. The wet air touches my skin and rolls down my face in beads. I can smell the life, the death, and the dying, all rolled into a reheated plate of left-over casserole surprise.

The demon is dealing with a five-tailed fox, its back to us.

Gavin. Please. Don’t.

I try to shut Sen out, but it’s no use. I feel her fear as authentically as I feel my own. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper.

Tet, Glade, and Count each glance at me, their tired faces scrutinizing, questioning. I draw away from them, just slightly. They are Disme hunters; officers to my prison guard. They wouldn’t understand.

Count nods to me then releases his Disme first, slowing time to a glacial pace. Glade releases his next and the marsh concaves around the demon. The fox sprints away.

Tet’s Disme is slight and swift. It cuts through the demon before it has time to turn and address its attackers.

Then, it’s my turn. My Disme ship glides through the resistant air. It absorbs the demon whole like a paper towel to water. My ship returns and the demon is in me. I am more than a million.

“There’s a griffin down South and a serpent out West,” Tet says, rubbing his hands. “Dealer’s choice.”

“Tin will pick the griffin,” Count mutters, pushing his dime into his pocket.

The demon in me flares like fire, running rampant around my ship. I try to follow Sen, to make sure she’s safe, but there are too many passengers. I twitch. “The serpent,” I say, hoping it could wrangle this monster. I am too much.


I am twenty-one.

Tin’s hidden chamber is third in the Labyrinth. He divulges hidden secrets, historical tales, truths of creation; but like everything else in Labyrinth Disme, it is a trick of burned abilities.

He has a following in every major city, from New York to Tel Aviv. They come with questions of love and longing, wellness, both physical and monetary, questions about their heritage, their god, their unborn children. Tin, the showman that he is, answers them.

We are in Australia, I think. I can never be sure.

The hour is so late that even the stragglers are departing the Labyrinth, finding exit routes far easier than they had found entrances. A tip to Penny’s Disme, no doubt.

I wander into Tin’s chamber and sit across from him. There are candles burning on a multitude of open surfaces. My face is flush in the cramped space, a perfect circle with not stripes on the tent walls but tall numerals. Ticking clocks sit on the floor, hang from strung wires, and sit perched on wooden stilts. An open homage to his Mark.

“You come with questions,” Tin says in his monotone voice.

I wave a hand in front of his tired face. “It’s me.”

It takes him a moment. “Oh, Gavin. What can I do you for?”

I tilt my head to one side. “Where were you just now?”

“The Garden of Eden,” he says. “I was enjoying the fruit.”

I wonder if he’s making a joke.

“And you? Who are you right now?”

“Me and myself.” I am twenty-one. I am twenty-one.

Tin smiles and nods, cording his face into wrinkles. He isn’t as old as he appears, though his eyes have been fogged over for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wondered if he’s blind, in the conventional sense, but I’ve never asked.

“You’ve come about a girl,” Tin mutters, standing just enough to bend at the waist and crack his back. He sinks onto his seat with a lanuginose sigh.

“The girl,” I say.

“Ah, Sen. I thought you two were still in a row.”

“A constant.” Not that we fight often, of course. I have a job to do; to get Sen safely to her portal. A job I haven’t succeeded at.

Tin chuckles. “Still not so hot with the ladies?”

My cheeks warm with the flickering candlelight. “Sen isn’t a lady…so to speak.”

“A girl is a girl is a girl.”

“Sure.”

Tin cracks his knuckles. “What do you want to know?”

“I was wondering if you could find her portal.”

To my surprise, Tin frowns at me. I watch his lip draw up and quiver slightly before he composes himself. “Sure, son. I’ll have a look.”


The elf has the boar by the tusks. I am ninety-four. I am eight.

The pixie is clenched around the throat by the hunter. I am two-hundred, seventeen. I am forty-three.

The Siren is singing to the black dog. I am. I am.

Their battles fade, falling away into the cavernous background and playing like a soft din of strings over rowdy dinner guests. This is familiar to me.

Gavin, Sen breathes.

“You’re back,” I exhale.

I never went anywhere.

I know that. I can feel her there, just on the edge, always.

But you. You want to send me away.

“I thought that’s what you wanted.” The demon is gone but the others on my ship are belligerent; warring with each other out of fear and rage. Sen is hiding below deck. She holds her knees to her chest and rests her head against the wall. She says nothing, and I feel her begin to drift. “Sen, don’t go, just…stay, awhile.”

All right.

She does, serving as a barrier between madness and me. It’s just a matter of time, I tell myself, until something truly awful happens to her…something worse than dying; but I don’t say this aloud. Sen already knows. She doesn’t speak into the silence for a long while. Not until I close my eyes.

If I were…out there…would you…with me?

Her pauses vibrate like little hums in my thoughts and it makes me laugh.

Don’t laugh. Not at me.

I bite my lip. “Would I what with you, Sen?” I try to picture her how she is now, older, and not the ten-year-old waif that had leveled on my bed in the guise of a white haze. I try to picture her real. Warm.

How you are with the other women?

“No,” I state, rolling my shoulders into the mattress. “I fuck other women, Sen. It wouldn’t be that way with you.” I regret the crassness in my words as soon as they leave my dry lips. The raw honesty pins Sen silent, fading.

“You are my only calm. My only reprieve. Sen…”

Yes?

I catch myself. “Nothing.”

Is it nice, to be in bed with someone?

She would be eighteen now. She would have suitors of her own, boyfriends and the like, taking her for dates and dances, meeting parents and family. If she wasn’t dead. “It is.”

I envy you that.

“Envy is a beautiful color on you.”

She scoffs. You wouldn’t know. You’ve never seen me before. Just…this.

“Then tell me. What did you look like?” Did. The ugliest of words. Worse even than why.

Sen tells me about her long, dark hair in curls and braids. She tells me about her freckles, her blue eyes. She tells me about the blush on her skin, the way her smile caught the light. She tells me everything until I fall asleep.


Tet spreads the cards across a low table in his chamber. The hour is late, and Penny is knitting in the corner.

The cards are always different and today is no exception. Tet uses the cards for patrons, a visual to fill the gap between his Disme and the customer’s ignorance. His Disme Mark is a well.

Tet rubs his chin. “It’s hard to tell with you. Reversals oppose the original meaning, but, in your case, a reversal could speak to…well…”

“The dead souls inside me?”

Tet nods once. “What are you carrying these days? Besides Sen.”

What, because they are things and not people.

“A man,” who died of a gunshot wound at the hands of his wife’s lover. “Three ladies,” who died in a car accident at the hands of a high, semi-truck driver. “A Chimera, a Hell Hound, a Minotaur, two Fauns, and a water Nymph.”

Tet scrunches his brow down at the cards, as well as the open air between us. “That doesn’t sound so bad. The cards look worse.”

“Yeah, well, the Nymph is trying to seduce the man, while the Chimera is torching one of the ladies. The Hell Hound is feasting on the Minotaur who has another lady pinned by her throat, and the two Fauns are chasing the third lady around with pan flute music that sounds like gravel grating, a high whistle, and nails on a chalkboard.”

Tet stares at me.

“Oh, and there’s a guy with some sexual disorder masturbating to the whole scene.” But Sen is safe.

I glance over at Penny whose hands have stilled. Her eyes are wide beneath the frame of her pixie cut. She stands abruptly, drops her knitting and announces, “Closing time,” before all but running from the tent.


I am twenty-four. I am ten.

Sen stays with me. She follows me to the eleventh chamber. She sees portal after portal from the bow of my Disme ship and every time she is left behind. With me.

“This portal is for the damned,” I tell her.

“This is for the purest of heart.”

“This for the children younger than you had been.”

“This for those who don’t belong.”

“For those that did but do no longer.”

“For the cursed.”

“The soldiers.”

“The weak.”

Not even this one? she asks.

“You aren’t weak,” I tell her.

I was ten when I died. Surely, I was.

The Disme Mark returns to my back. The Jin wrangling the clock maker. I am endless. I am time.


I ask Nylin who will ferry me when I die. I ask her if I will live forever.

She doesn’t know.


Tin finds me. He has been avoiding me lately.

I circle the eleventh chamber. The stripes of red and grey are dull in this smog-infested city. It clings to my skin, my hair, the inside of my nose, the roof of my mouth. It is thicker than my Mark and muddies the already frantic static in my head.

“You found it,” Tin says.

I glance up at him and stop pacing.

There are patrons here, pointing and smiling, exchanging chatter. I wait for them to disperse; for my heart to stop pattering like a damn machine gun. “Here?”

Tin’s face is sallow. He nods.

I look back at the eleventh chamber with no entrance and no door. I tilt my head to look at the sun, still up but not high enough.

I chew at my lip and my hands shake. I stuff them into my pockets and my feet begin to tap. “I’m not ready.”

Tin nods again, sullen. “Is she?”

I shake my head, though it’s a lie. Of course, she’s ready. She’s been ready for eleven years. But me…

“Call her up, son. You need to tell her.” Tin turns, leaving me alone at the eleventh chamber of the last portal, at the center of Labyrinth Disme.

“Sen,” I say, butchering her name around the collapse in my throat. I clear it. “Sen?”

Yes, Gavin?

The way my name rings in her voice makes me bite my lip. I want to lie. I want to tie her down and keep her there, just there, at the in-between. I need her there, to keep me safe, to keep me sane. To keep me.

What is it?

I swallow. “We’re here.”


I walk backward and the sun falls. I walk backward, and the way opens.

This portal is feather soft of powder blue and yellow dust. It is clean, warm, and blinding to my own eyes.

I kneel beside it, longing to smell the strawberry fields and roasted cherries I know must be inside. I long to see the sun-drenched landscape, lush and green, the skies dotted with air balloons and clouds no thicker than a ribbon. I long to hear Sen laugh, running in an open meadow. I long.

I tap at the dime in my pocket. I had hoped to find it lost or misplaced, but no, it’s there, like always.

“Are you ready?”

I think so.

My hands are sweating. I pull the dime from my pocket. My hands tremble. I place the dime just so. I grind my teeth. My Disme Mark comes free and I close my eyes.

Gavin. Come with me. Please.

As much as I want to, I cannot board my own ship or take a portal not meant for me.

But the strawberry fields. The blue skies. Sen.

She disembarks my ship, falling from me like a lurch in my stomach. I linger, waiting for her to come back, to simply return as sudden as she had left, but she doesn’t.

I am left alone with the raging beasts and monsters at the forefront of my mind, the ship returned.

I am left alone wondering who will ferry me when I die. Will I die? Or will I simply be this madness for all time? “They are your charges,” Nylin had said. “Not your friends.” I bury my face in my hands. What am I without Sen?

“Gavin?” The voice is soft and warm. Real.

I turn and there they are.

Meadow stands at the center, a true smile on her face. Nylin is there too, beside Tet and Tin, Glade and Count. All of them.

“Nylin made dinner,” Meadow says. “Are you coming?”

Even Penny is smiling at me.

My eyes wander over their faces; considerate, knowing. I tremble as I stare at them, burying this ache and longing for Sen. Their faces hold no fear as they look on me, no judgement, no sorrow; only compassion. I consider each of them and their lack of understanding. But still, they’re here.

“Come along now,” Nylin says. “It’ll be going cold soon.”

I look from her to Meadow and back again, then push to my feet. I turn my back on Sen’s portal and with an indrawn breath, I let it close. I close my eyes and a tear rolls down my cheek as I tell myself again and again that Sen is safe. Without me, she is safe.

I open my eyes and Nylin frowns. She closes the space between us and I brace for a cuff or chastisement, for I surely deserve it. She reaches up and cups my cheek in one, trembling hand. Her yellow eyes consider me, soft and gentle. “I’m so sorry, my boy.” Nylin wraps her arms around me and I let her. I hug her back and press my face against her shoulder, where I weep through my smile.



The Spider and the Rose

By Dana E. Beehr

I hadn’t liked Aultmar Artos much when I’d worked for him in the past, and studying his flickering image now reminded me why. Something about those deep-set, hooded eyes in that long, lugubrious face resembled a serpent; and what I knew of his cold, calculating personality did not help much. Rumor said the Chairman of the StellarCast combine rarely smiled and never, ever laughed. I was fully inclined to believe it.

However, our business together had been mutually profitable despite my dislike–a sentiment I suspected was returned. I also suspected he did not care for the position in which he now found himself: supplicant to the Pantheon. But I could only guess at that, for I could read nothing in his expressionless face.

“It’s been a while, Chairman,” I said.

“The same, Athena.”

“I received a message from the Pantheon informing me you had requested my services.” A loose network for those of us who did black work and had risen to the top–the best of the best, and proud of it–the Pantheon gave those clients who could afford us an easy way to find us while preserving our own secrecy.

Those steely gray eyes blinked–eyes as gray as mine, and supposedly as artificial as they looked. Rumor had it that his eyes–along with almost every other part of his body, including his heart–had been replaced, modified, amplified, so that there was very little of him that was human.

Almost as little as there is of me. I buried the thought.

“I have a contract for you. If you will accept it, of course.” It must have cost Aultmar to ask that; he was not a man accustomed to asking if his will would be carried out.

“Details?” While I spoke, my mind accessed the starnet, pulling up background information on Aultmar: partners, associates, colleagues–not friends, for he had none. Info feeds scrolled directly through my mind, characters flashing in fully-formed, three-dimensional images, then dissipating.

His lips compressed. “There is a woman.”

That narrows it down. A little. Even cut in half, Aultmar Artos’ enemies list was truly impressive.

“Her name is Arakhne. She lives on Arcadia.”

Arcadia. Hmmm. I’d heard of the planet–a recent acquisition of the StellarCast combine–and after a moment I was able to call up some information on Arakhne. “An artist, is she not? A light-weaver?”

“Yes.” Those lips compressed further. “Find her. And kill her.”

“For a simple killing of a simple weaver, you don’t need me. Or my fee. What else?”

Those eyes flickered down toward my fingertips. “I want her memories.”

Now it starts to make sense. Perimortem memory capture was a skill very few possessed, and among those few, I would vouch with no false modesty that I was the best.

“That might be tricky. I’ve told you before, the process is not always precise or accurate.”

“I understand. Your standard fee if you simply kill her, double if you bring her memories back.”

My curiosity rose. The only reason Aultmar might want her memories would be if he suspected they contained something damaging. But what could a weaver know that would trouble him? I would dearly have loved to ask, but that would have been unprofessional.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Usual conditions. I’ll inform you when it’s done.”

He nodded. “Thank you. And give my regards to the rest of the Pantheon.”

“I will. Zeus and Hera in particular have spoken of you with great regard.”

“That is pleasant to hear. Until next time.” He leaned forward and touched a control. Aultmar’s image winked out before me. And I was left with a mystery. Who is this Arakhne of Arcadia and why on earth does Altmar want her dead?


After the call ended, I set my research crawlers to gather and condense information on Arakhne, Arcadia, Aultmar Artos, and StellarCast, then booked transport under an alias for the next day. I had several aliases available at all times, never using the same one twice. This time I decided to be Mina Vantak, a clerical admin heading to Arcadia for a vacation in the wake of the StellarCast takeover.

There weren’t many transports to Arcadia; it wasn’t the kind of place too many people wanted to go. It would be at least a three-day journey from the central world Masque, so after boarding a battered old transport that looked as if it had once been a troop ship during the Expansion Phase over fifty years ago, I settled into my tiny cabin with my starnet interface and all the data my crawlers had collected.

At first glance, Arcadia seemed to be a quite ordinary habitable planet, much like any other save for the recent StellarCast takeover; yet after a moment, a name caught my eye: Seven Systems. The Seven Systems combine had been a precursor to StellarCast, broken up by the Astral Judiciary after losing a corporate war with IntraGalactic. Artos had been a minor officer in Seven Systems, and had through a series of lucky maneuvers and fortunate “accidents,” managed to secure headship of the rump corporation of StellarCast after the breakup. Yet, from what I knew about Artos, it was plain that he still carried a grudge for the loss of the former combine.

And Arcadia, I saw, had been a member of Seven Systems, briefly set free after the breakup until its recent reabsorption.

That explains a lot, I thought. For while Arcadia had by no means been the most important or the most vital of the worlds that Seven Systems had lost, Artos had never been one to let something go that had once been his.

The official reports on Arcadia’s takeover by Stellarcast had presented it as a stroke of good fortune, warmly welcomed by all Arcadians. My own sources, however, had it that the response to the takeover was less than enthusiastic, and that it had only come about after one or two of Arcadia’s ruling council suffered some very convenient accidents.

But what about Arakhne?

I turned to the report my crawlers had gathered on her and frowned.

At first glance, she seemed to be exactly what she appeared to be; an elderly artisan, born on Arcadia, who had never been off-world in her life. The crawlers had turned up no connection at all between her and Artos….

Except–wait.

A maincast story flickered before my eyes about an art exhibition at the United Masque Planetary Friendship Museum. Like most combined homeworlds, Masque was a wholly-owned subsidiary of StellarCast Corporation; everything on the planet came from the combine’s generosity, and the United Masque museum was no different.

The story was headed: “United Masque Museum to host Exhibition of Arcadian Art.” Doubtless intended to showcase the benefit of StellarCast rule for the Arcadians, the piece was larded with passages such as: “the chance for some of the best among the rustic peoples of Arcadia to gain interstellar renown, and to bring the treasures of a simpler, more decent life to the eyes of people across the galaxy.” And there, on the list of featured artists, was Arakhne’s name.

The flickering picture showed an older woman with faded blue eyes in a lined face and a mass of white hair knotted up on top of her head in a bun. There was a strange distance to those eyes that I couldn’t quite place. The text read: “She looks like an ordinary grandmother–but Arakhne of Arcadia is a very talented weaver in one of the most demanding of the New Arts. She works with the light-loom, weaving strands of holographic light to make wonderful images, a craft she must have taught herself. In her works, the observer can discern a fascinating juxtaposition between the intricacy and sophistication of the highly technological medium, and the simple freshness of her untutored art.”

Could this be what caught Aultmar’s eye? Yet a quick perusal of Arakhne’s work showed nothing unusual: a shaggy black dog with large brown eyes; a small house framed by an overarching tree; a sled with chipped paint; a rose-patterned teapot with steam curling from its spout; a brightly striped ball.

A code, perhaps? I cross-checked “ball,” “dog,” “house,” “sled” and “teapot” in several thousand different languages but found nothing. Cryptology had never been my forte anyway; that was Theseus’ specialty.

What is in these works that convinced Artos she had to die?

Not that it mattered. Artos’ reasons were no concern of mine. Too much information on the target was nothing but a distraction. I need concern myself with nothing other than making the kill… and that should not be difficult.

Yet the image of the aged woman’s eyes stayed with me as the transport forged onward through the spaces between the stars.


Main spaceports are the same the galaxy over: bland, featureless, generic locations of too many bright lights, too many people, too much luggage, too much congestion. Arcadia’s was no different. I stepped from the transport to a teleport square that flickered me to a gate where a small shuttle waited; an older SubLight Systems model, probably reconditioned from something that had been none too flashy to begin with. Still, it would be good enough to take me to the capital city of the backwater province–rural even for this rural planet–in which Arakhne lived.

I watched the ground scroll by outside the window during the flight. Arcadia was mostly ocean broken up by archipelagos; there were a few larger landmasses, one or two with sizable urban areas, but by and large the planet looked as backward as I had expected. I saw little sign of any industry and except for a few relay nodes, not much in the way of telcom either. From what I’d read, Arcadia would not have been capable of industrialization or space flight for at least a thousand years without Seven Systems’ influence.

The shuttle was heading straight into the sunrise; green islands sparkled like jewels on a chain. The peaceful seascape seemed as far from the hypermetropolis of Masque as it was possible to get. On the Central Worlds, greenery was only found in parks and a few careful nature areas. Supposedly Aultmar possessed a private moon somewhere in Masque’s system that had been terraformed into a wilderness, but that was only a rumor. I myself had a virtual nature preserve–most elites did; the most popular model was the SpectraSense Safari 3000, accessible by neural link–but it had been a very, very long time since I had walked the wilderness in the flesh.

The little shuttle touched down on the far side of the world after three or four hours. As its steps unfolded, I stepped out onto the tarmac along with a few others, facing a shuttle port barely worthy of the name: a single prefab plascrete brick of a building across a modest expanse of more plascrete. The air was warm and rather humid; I felt my hair sticking damply to my head. The sky above was a very pale bluish green; somehow the green seemed to accentuate the blue, making it look hyper-blue, like the pictures I had seen of the sky on the old Terra or Sol-1, depending on how you counted it. Arcadia’s sun was bright, but distant enough that its warmth felt like a gentle caress; my ocular implants revealed levels of UV radiation within normal limits. It was a gentle sun, a mild sun; perfectly appropriate for this gentle, mild world.

I passed through the plascrete shuttleport, its recirculated air pleasantly cool; then proceeded down the stairs to the port’s main entrance. In the center of the lobby was a bronze statue of a bird-headed woman holding a tall tubular flower; probably a local deity.

The lobby walls showed moving light pictures immediately recognizable as the work of Arakhne. I moved closer, studying them. The images seemed perfectly innocuous: clouds over a waterfall; a strange insect on a leaf; two trees, their trunks twisted together. I pulled myself away from the weavings with a thin trace of regret, questions still nagging at me.

I stepped out onto a dusty road lined with lush green foliage studded with flowers; greenish gold fields drowsing beyond. A light haze was in the air, and I could hear the humming of insects. Above, clouds drifted through the sky. The fields were dotted with distant forms of people and animals; here, out on the very fringes of civilized space, draft animals were still used for plowing.

Several conveyances of various kinds were waiting; I approached a woman with a tired face under a wide-brimmed hat perched on the front end of a recycled hoversled hitched to a bored-looking horse. It was low to the ground, as if its lifters were in need of replacement. After a brief discussion in which she revealed she wouldn’t take creds–“Can’t spend them around here, y’see; no good;” I managed to dig up a few coins that I had picked up in the main spaceport, and she agreed to take me to town. When I said I was interested in some sightseeing, she snorted.

“Not many sights to see around here, that’s the Lady’s own truth.”

As the carriage lurched into motion, I sat silent, trying to take in the world around me, to attune myself to its tempo and vibrations. Between the drowsy heat, the rocking of the cart, the sounds of the horse’s feet clopping on the hard packed dirt road, I felt myself slipping into a light, trancelike, dozing state.

I could live like this, I mused, not really thinking. I did live like this, once…. There was something seductive about the slow tempo of life that I could sense all around me, a peace I hadn’t known for a very long time. I had almost stopped believing such peace, such gentleness, could exist…

What could possibly have come out of a place like this to draw Artos’ attention? I had hoped that once I had actually reached Arcadia, something about the planet would instantly explain the mystery, yet if anything I found myself even further at sea.

As the carriage drew closer to Arakhne’s village, a strange tension crept over me. The fields and trees gave way to hedges, then to fences, then to stone walls. The road became cobbled, and buildings came into sight on either side: one or two stories in an updated version of mud brick, in gentle colors–sand, beige, tan, cream. Flowering vines twined around fences and balconies, lines of green brightly splashed with red and pink and deep blue. My hands knotted.

The driver dropped me off in the town’s center, a large, circular cobbled area with a fountain in the middle. As I pressed the coins into her hands, I made sure the tips of my fingers touched her skin. A simple neural impulse, but I saw the moment of shock dawn in the woman’s eyes, then fade into incomprehension.

“Thanks,” I said, and she nodded vaguely, then turned away.

I knew what she would remember: almost nothing. She would have a vague memory of giving a ride to a tourist, but it wouldn’t seem very significant. After a few days, even that memory would fade and in a month she would remember nothing at all. I had done this hundreds–maybe thousands–of times before, leaving a trail of absence in my wake across the galaxy. Even now, when there was no trouble, it was the way I preferred to operate–unknown and forgotten.

The driver pulled away and I was left standing alone, in the crowded town center, as life bustled all around me.

For the first time, I confessed to myself that I didn’t know what I would do when I found this Arakhne.

I wound my way through the dust-laden streets, staying on the fringes of crowded venues where I could be just another face. I passed through the market and saw the farmers and crafters and their stalls set out; I filed along the banks of a stream, seeing men and women, boys and girls fishing; I wound my way through twisting, backwards lanes where wives and husbands shouted, called and quarreled to each other out of open windows. Even as these dusty scenes of village life that could have been hundreds of years ancient passed before my eyes, another image overlaid itself in my mind–a map, with a flashing point of light indicating my target.

I was surprised to find my heart beating almost as powerfully as the light flickered. And still I did not know what I would do when I got there.

I could see my goal ahead of me. It matched perfectly with the internal image I had called up: a low, one-story building, perhaps two or three rooms, with a large central dome surrounded by several bays. The door in the center of the dome stood open, but it was impossible to make out anything in the darkened interior. Yet a quick infrared scan of the building with my optics revealed that she was in there.

My heart was in my throat. I was suddenly aware that my blood pressure was rising. This was not the usual anticipation before a kill; this was something different, something frightening. I was about to come face to face with the person whose innocent-seeming light-loom weavings had drawn the attention of perhaps the most powerful man in the galaxy, had brought me, Athena of the Pantheon, halfway across the stars for the sole purpose of killing her. I hadn’t felt tension like this in decades, maybe even centuries. Can I do it?

My fingertips prickled as I activated the nodes and synapses for the neural net; with my other hand, I gripped the device I would use to store her pattern for delivery to Artos. Another target. Just another target. I repeated the words in my head as I readied my weapon. For this kill, I had one of my favorites. I called it the distaff; a small, spindle-shaped device emitting a pulse that would disrupt cardiac rhythm, causing instant heart stoppage. It was only good at close range, but it would work–and without excessive disruption to her precious neural patterns. I thumbed the distaff on. Just the touch of the device in my hand was reassuring; it brought me back. Focus. I felt my breathing slow; my heart rate drop. The cold precision of the hunter seeped into my mind. Another target. Another kill….

Silently, fading into the shadows, I drew nearer to the open door, intently scanning within. My target was kneeling on the floor, in front of a tall, faintly glowing contraption. Her light loom. It was a vertical open rectangle of metal and crystal, criss-crossed with glowing strands of light forming a pattern. The pattern was–

I froze in my tracks.

The pattern forming from the strands on her light-loom was exactly what I saw in front of me at that moment. Exactly. In the frame of the light loom was an open door, leading into a darkened interior; in the interior was the form of an old woman working at a glowing frame; the frame itself held a smaller image of another open door, with another woman, sitting at another frame…. Every detail was what I saw before me at that moment, reproduced in light, down to the very angle of the image.

It’s not possible….

I must have made some sort of noise because the old woman stopped and looked up from the loom. She turned toward me.

“So you made it then. Come in, Athena of the Pantheon. I’ve been expecting you.”


My heart seemed to stop.

“How do you know who I am?” Wild thoughts raced through my mind–Artos’ intentions had been discovered, someone had warned her ahead of time–Maybe–bright shock flashed into wild anger–maybe Artos set me up. Maybe he intended for her to kill me–My grip on my distaff tightened and I started to raise it, half unconsciously.

“Oh, I know all sorts of things,” the old woman–Arakhne–said. Her face was pale and lined, her bright blue eyes faded under a fringe of white hair; she looked exactly like her holoimages. “I suppose you might say, it’s a gift. I’ve always been able to know things, since I was a very little girl, and that was quite long ago. Aultmar Artos sent you to kill me, didn’t he?”

A gift. My eyes narrowed. Yet her manner was non-threatening enough I felt myself relax a little, though my grip on my distaff did not weaken.

“Yes,” I admitted, aware as I did so that I had just broken a rule of my own: never reveal the source of a contract. Yet if Aultmar had set me up, I had no particular interest in keeping his secrets. And if I’m planning to kill her, what does it matter?

“So, are you?”

“Am I what?” I asked, caught off guard.

“Are you planning to kill me? And for heaven’s sake, come in, child,” she said. “You look terribly uncomfortable standing there in the doorway.”

I slowly stepped over the threshold. The inside of the hut took shape around me: a hearth, pots and pans, large clay vessels against the wall; battered shelves, trunks and chests of drawers. A low archway led to an alcove mostly filled with a platform bed. Bunches of dried flowers and leaves dangled from the ceiling, and a braided rug was on the floor; leaning by the doorway was an old broom of twigs. A scent of dust and herbs hung in the air. I felt as if I were stepping back in time.

“Well, are you?” Arakhne asked again. She said it as casually as if she were asking whether I planned to attend a social function.

“I was when I came here, but now I’m not so sure.” Surely something must be wrong for me to be speaking so freely with a target.

Arakhne raised one thin eyebrow and shifted, groaning slightly as her knees creaked. “Forgive me; not as young as I used to be and these old bones ache. Why not? Isn’t that what Artos hired you to do?”

“He did,” I said, “but I don’t understand why. None of this makes any sense.”

“And you would like an explanation?”

“It would help.”

Of course it was absurd; I was asking my target for a justification that would help me allow myself to kill her. This is ridiculous. She owes me nothing, least of all an explanation. She has no reason in the world to help me. And yet somehow I sensed she would.

Arakhne settled onto her heels, straightening her back with another groan; she reached out and took a small battered teapot from the hearth. Somehow, without knowing how or why, I found myself moving to sit opposite her; we knelt together on either side of the inground hearth as if we were acquaintances–even friends. The sensation was so unfamiliar to me I almost could not recognize it.

“Here, won’t you have some tea?” The old woman proffered me a cup. I had seen her drink from the same pot, but that was no guarantee it wasn’t poisoned; as I took the cup, I activated sensors in my fingertips, scanning for toxic compounds. I found nothing and took a sip. It was strong, hot and sweet.

“Do you like it?”

“It’s good,” I said, taking another sip from the cup, which was not porcelain but solid-force, its surface flickering in ever-changing patterns. Solid-force objects had become quite popular back in the Central Worlds. I was surprised to see such a thing out here–and even more surprised at the sophisticated patterns flickering on the surface. A quick look at Arakhne, and I guessed that she had made it.

“Now,” Arakhne said with a smile, “what did you want to ask me?”

“What I want to know, old woman, is what have you done to make such an enemy of Aultmar Artos, one of the most powerful men in the galaxy? I’ve been trying to find the answer to that all the way from Masque.”

She offered a shrug. “I wove something, that’s all.”

“Yes, but what?”

“What I always do. The truth. As you can see.” And she gestured toward her loom, where the image of the doorway still flickered. With a quick wave of her hand, she blanked the web; the light retreated to the edges.

“The truth?” I mulled what sort of truth there could be in pictures of teapots and sleds and dogs to make Artos turn on her so. “But what truth?”

Arakhne shifted position, stretching her legs briefly and then curling them under her; her old bones creaked. “The truth about who Aultmar Artos is and where he comes from.”

Her answer told me no more than before, and I began to feel frustration rise. “And what is that truth?”

Arakhne raised one finger in reproof. “Now that would be telling.”

I glowered at her. “It must be dramatic for him to send me halfway across the galaxy to your little village just to kill you.”

She shrugged again, smiling slightly: a smile that could have meant anything or nothing. “Aultmar Artos is a strange man.”

“I won’t argue that.” I pondered, feeling the synapses of my neural net flicker against my fingers. “Where did you learn this truth? Did you know him before?”

“Not at all. I only weave what I see.”

“What do you mean?”

Now she sighed. “I see things, child. Things that were, things that are, things that will be. It’s the gift I was talking about. It happens when I weave.” She gestured toward the loom. “I believe the word that they use in the Central Worlds is ‘clairvoyance,’ or some such, but I’ve always just called it my little gift.”

“That’s an incredibly rare talent. If you were bonded and went corp, you could get off this planet, make a fortune–”

“And why would I want to do that?” Arakhne raised one brow. “Arcadia is where I was born. Arcadia is where I will die. This planet is my home, and no amount of money could ever induce me to leave it.”

I’d heard that before. Usually from people who have no chance of ever gaining the money needed to do so. Aloud, I said, “Well, this gift of yours isn’t doing you much good now. After all, you weren’t able to foresee that Artos would send me to kill you.”

She gave a small laugh. “Why do you think I wove my little pictures?”

Somehow that rocked me back on my heels. “You’re telling me–you knew?”

“Oh yes,” she said. She had turned again to her loom, and her hands were working, weaving, tracing threads of light against the darkness.

“Why???”

“I am old.” She shrugged. “I’ve reached the end of my life. And I am sick and tired,” she said with sudden feeling, “of Aultmar Artos and what he and his StellarCast have done to Arcadia. If I’m going to die, I’d rather go quickly. And if at the same time I can spit in Artos’ eye, and show him someone out there knows the truth about him, even if it’s just a dying old woman on one of his subject worlds, then that’s even better. Then my death will mean something.”

Those hands continued to dance the glowing strands back and forth in the open frame of the loom while I grappled with what she had said. I’d had my alterations done so long ago I scarcely remembered them, including life extension; like most of the galactic elite, I was now functionally immortal. Death was something that I brought to others, not something I thought of for myself.

“I have to admit, that’s a first for me. I can’t remember a target ever wanting to be killed before.”

“There are many more things in this lifetime than even you might experience, Athena of the Pantheon.” Arakhne’s hands were still dancing on the light-loom, ceaselessly weaving, though I could not make out the picture forming there. “So finish the job, child. Slay me.”

Yet I stood silent. Somehow it felt as if she and I had unfinished business. Arakhne turned and looked over her shoulder with one faded blue eye.

“Well?”

“I’m not accustomed to working for free.” It was a lame thing to say, but I could find no other words for the strange emotions she called up in me.

“You aren’t,” she said with a laugh. “Artos will pay you.”

“Yes,” I said, “but you want this too. That means you also must pay.”

I was stalling and I knew it. But why? It had been centuries since I had shrunk from killing anyone.

“You do not get something for nothing in this world,” I said more firmly. It was–had always been–one of my first principles.

“I see,” Arakhne said, smiling a little. She did not glance up from her loom; her hands continued, weaving, weaving, warp through weft and back again. “And what’s your standard fee?”

“You couldn’t afford it.”

“What if I have something that is valuable to you?”

“You cannot possibly have anything that would be worth that much.” As we were talking, I realized–and this was a relief–that I seemed to have made up my mind to let her live. It felt as if I had been searching for reasons not to kill the old woman almost since I had first seen her–since earlier, since I had landed on the planet.

She looked over her shoulder again, her face illuminated dimly by the light from her light loom. “What if I could tell you exactly what it was I wove to make Artos want me dead?”

That caught my attention as nothing else could. For that was a mystery I had not been able to solve–what was in pictures of a teapot, a black dog, a tree, a brook, to draw Artos’ ire?

How badly did I want to know?

Badly enough to take this old woman’s life?

Yes, I realized–part of me did. I told myself that I wanted to know because such information would be tremendously valuable, and might even give me leverage over Artos, and that was half the truth–but I also felt a powerful, almost overwhelming curiosity.

I nodded at last. “All right. Tell me.”

Arakhne smiled. “Look here.”

She pushed back from the light loom. I frowned in confusion, and leaned forward to see what she had woven there–

And in that one moment, I understood everything.

I don’t remember slaying the old woman. I don’t remember much of anything until I stood over her, my manual implants crackling with stored neural energy, and saw her body lying before me. All I remember is that image that no one, no one in the world except a little girl who was ages gone, should have seen, and no one except that little girl would have understood. An image the woman who had once been that little girl had spent all the ages since then trying to repress. A single, perfect rosebud.

The light loom lay shattered on the floor before me, its pieces fizzing and popping gently, that luminous, horrible image gone. I tried to grasp myself, to come to terms with where I was.

The contract is completed. The target is dead. As if on autopilot, I took out the neural storage unit I had prepared: a golden spider with glowing red eyes. Artos asked for her neural patterns, I remembered, and now I understood why. Because whatever it was–whatever image he’d seen, whatever he’d recognized in the published displays of her weavings–it would have been something that nobody but he should know. A message, sent from a humble weaver to one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, and one powerful enough to evoke a lethal response.

I closed my hands around the spider, thinking, and thinking….


Artos’ image danced and flickered before me; this far out, the data relays were spotty. However, even through the static, I could tell he was upset.

“I had asked for the old woman’s neural pattern–“

“I’m sorry,” I said calmly. “Transmission failed. I’ve told you before that recording and transferring neural patterns is a tricky business. The only pattern I managed to pull off the old woman was too degraded to be of any use.”

Those hooded eyes narrowed; but there was nothing he could say. I had offered no guarantees. At last, he nodded.

“Very well, then you will receive your standard fee. The funds will be transferred by morning Masque time.”

His image flickered out without another word–a strong indicator of his displeasure. Well–too bad.

I gathered my things; my transport was leaving in an hour, and the young clerical admin Mina Vantak would be heading home after a nice relaxing vacation on Arcadia, ready to start work when she returned to her homeworld.

Behind me, in the dim, one-room hut where I had slain the old woman, a golden spider hung from the ceiling by a single thread of light. Its ruby eyes glimmered in the darkness with a look that might be satisfaction–or revenge.



Sourdough

By John Pederson

“This is disgusting.”

“You’re just being difficult.” He always accuses me of being difficult.

“No, it’s disgusting.”

“Would you just go with it? This is supposed to help you.” He shifted his weight to his other foot, that way he does when he’s trying to look like he’s not pouting.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at him, even granted him a little smirk. Partly because he’s still cute – the salt-and-pepper at his temples is probably my fault – and partly because the hip-shift caused a weird little disturbance in the hologram being shot up by a hundred little projectors embedded in the floor. “Fine.” I could survive this. I was promised pizza afterward.

“Thank god.” He turned and started a little at the projection he had interrupted. There was part of a woman there, jaw agape in surprise. When he stepped back, the rest of the image was unimpeded, and her arm materialized in front of her. This exhibit was supposed to be solemn. I giggled anyways.

“This isn’t funny.” His pout gone, he now had on his stern eyes.

“I’m sorry.” I hoped it sounded genuine.

“This isn’t going to work unless you at least try to be serious.”

“I know, I know.”

He considered the hologram woman for a moment, now that he wasn’t standing inside her. She was lit up from the front, and her line of sight indicated something horrifying behind us. I knew what it was. I didn’t want to look yet.

“Michael Whitmore.” He read the tag that hovered next to the woman frozen in fright, her hand covering her face.

“Her name was ‘Michael?’” I tried the smirk again.

“Stop.” He sounded real serious this time.

“You like this sort of thing. You brought me here.”

“Because your therapist thought it would be a good idea.”

Pepperoni. “Right.”

He looked down at the glossy pamphlet he held tight in both hands, then back up at me. “It’s a safe way – ”

“It’s a safe way to relive a traumatic event, allowing me to process it with higher-order thinking skills, to help the healing process.” She’d been feeding me that shit for weeks now, ever since the financing came through.

“It could help.”

“This has nothing to do with – ”

“Stop. We both know why she recommended this.”

“Yeah, but you secretly love it. It’s like the Hiroshima museum.” I wasn’t going to go down without saying my piece.

“You’re deflecting.”

“Fine.” I leaned my head way back, stretching my neck. He could have this one. Besides, he did love museums. Who was I to deny him this?

“Michael Whitmore.” He faced the woman again. “She was a zookeeper, meeting the Thai ambassador to discuss breeding a captive Asian Golden Cat.”

“Boring.” I could taste the crust, flaky on the outside, steamy on the inside.

“She was a mother of two. Over there was where the shooting started. At least in this building. She was the first victim.” A red line on the floor indicated her eyeline, just in case visitors were too dense to figure out what she’d be looking at.

A man in a light brown t-shirt very obviously pointed a rifle in her direction. Only, the rifle wasn’t displayed in the hologram. So he just stood there like an ass with one hand twisted up by his nipple and the other cradling the air in front of him. Something about trigger warnings. Triggers. We could have opted into the tour that showed everything, but the therapist had other thoughts about that. Baby steps.

A blue square resolved a few meters beyond the woman, a crowd of people appearing with it, all responding to the same empty-handed assailant. There was a fat man with an unoccupied holster at his belt. He was frozen for all eternity trying to retrieve nothing out of it. Or until they needed the building for something else. Nothing lasts forever.

“Whitman,” he read the security guard’s badge. “He’s the only one named in the group. These were the – ”

“Whitmore and Whitman. No relation.” I tried to get him to crack a smile. “Whitmore and Whitman, attourneys at law? Nothing?”

“Babe.” He tilted his head to the side. Tired now. Another reaction for the bingo card.

“Okay,” I sighed, a little more dramatically than I intended, and he turned away.

I’d been through worse. And there was cheese and tomato at the end of this rainbow.


“We can either go down here, or across the way.”

“What’s across the way?”

He scanned the flyer again. “Uh, downstairs follows this shooter as he made his way through the building. Across the way is the adjacent building, where the other gunmen were.”

“This is morbid.”

“It’s history.”

“How long is this gonna take?”

“If we only do the one tower, it’s a little over an hour for a walkthrough. According to the flyer.” He offered it to me like it was another testament of Jesus Christ.

“Can we just do the one tower? I’m hungry.”

“The other tower is where the first of the explosions went off.”

“Don’t sound too excited about this.” I again tried to be playful.

“The daycare is in the other building, too.”

“I really don’t want to see that.”

“I don’t either.”

One time, at that museum in Japan, he had been weirdly drawn to this one replica of a schoolboy’s uniform. The title card said they couldn’t find a complete one, so the display had been cobbled together from the bodies of three separate children. This place wasn’t trying to echo that one, though. It was trying to do its own thing. Experimental. Pushing some envelope.

“There were three gunmen in the other building,” he rattled on. “Documents found later said this guy wanted to go it alone.” He shuddered.

“Let’s just stick to this one then.” Shortest distance between two points. “We can look online later at what’s in the other one. Like a highlight reel.”

“Always with the jokes.”

I stopped. “You have to let me process this my own way.”

“I just want you to take it seriously. If you’re just gonna keep being snarky it’s not gonna help.”

“Baby steps.” I finally gave him the eyes I knew he was looking for. He always gets all mushy when I give him that look.

The next floor down sent us around a corner and we were standing behind the same shooter, a wall of people rising in front of the three of us. They were all scrambling, parted in the middle like the red sea, those to our left falling right and those to our right falling to the left. He was empty handed still, in Rambo-pose, one leg cocked out in front of him, so masculine.

I’ve shot my rifle plenty of times. I’ve never kicked my hip out quite like that. Motherfucker had been grandstanding.

Strapped to his back was an olive backpack. Some hovering text told us that was where he’d schlepped the bomb along with him. It had dangly straps.

I stepped right in the projection of him, my frame smaller than his in most places. I tried to kick my leg out in front of me the same way he was, but my bones never came back together right so it hurt to pop my hip out like that. I blocked most of the hologram, even sticking my arms out in front of me, not-holding the gun the same way he had been. I couldn’t cover the backpack, making it sort of look like I was wearing it, and the sides of his chest were bigger than mine, so my boobs jutted out in front. Something about the position of my head kept his from rendering though, so I mostly blocked him from existence.

I wondered how many other people had done this. I pictured teenagers coming here and mocking the tragedy. They wouldn’t have lived enough life to know better.

“What are you doing?”

My heart dropped, thinking he might be thinking that I was trying to make fun in the same way.

“You wonder if other people come here –” I lowered my arms, and the gunman’s flickered in front of me again. “Do they come here and pretend if they stand right here, they can stop this from happening? Like retroactively?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Not for real, dummy.” I stood up straight again, much more of the gunman revealed now. “Like, do they come here, and just for a minute, pretend like if they stood here, then he wouldn’t exist, and all of those poor bastards there would still be alive?” My gaze fell to an old guy in a janitor’s uniform. Probably had expected this to be a typical work day. Wonder who he’d left behind.

He continued reading, something about a French restaurant below us, bomb placement, the structural integrity of this building.

“Where was the bomb in the other building?” I’d only been half-listening.

“Uh, says the next floor down over there was an electrical room. The uh, the model of the blast over there is actually limited to the floor above the explosion, since the floor they detonated it on was unoccupied.”

“Not much drama there.” All these people are still dead. And yet you’re still here.

“You okay?” He asked, emotional roulette making it all the way to “concerned” now.

“What?”

“If this is too much –”

“No.” I on-purpose said this with what I hoped was resolve. “I want to see it.”

“If you’re sure.”

“You started this. ‘C’mon, let’s go to the memorial museum. It’ll be fun.’ Like I don’t know you’re in cahoots with her.”

“I’m in some of those sessions with you.”

I cherish the moments I get to deadpan him.

“Right. Kidding again. I just want to make sure you’re okay. I want to push you, but not too much.”

“I’m a big girl. I’ll tell you if you’re taking things too far. Besides, I know you’re eating this up.”

“You have to admit, it is interesting.”

“Maybe for you. You know I think ‘museum’ is spelled B-O-R-I-N-G.”

“You sure you’re okay?” Damn him.

“There are some things you just don’t want to see again.” He waited patiently for me to say it. “No, let’s go. I’m not going to let a display scare me away. Let’s at least have a look. That way you’ll get your money’s worth.”

The bottom floor of this wing of the museum had to have been where all the funding went. It was a twisty, turn-y corridor, and we followed our favorite tan-shirted mass murderer as he entered the foyer of said restaurant, did a teenage girl with a long, pretty ponytail, crouched to reload, and then moved in to the main dining room. There were people, frozen forever in a futile leap for safety, finding cover wherever they could. The whole thing was sick, but it was interesting to be able to view the incident from such a detached lens. I didn’t kid him again about how silly the censored gunman looked, but it made me think of a mime. A bald-headed, square-jawed murder-mime. Wish my sense of humor wasn’t so fucked up sometimes.

The next bend took us into a recreation of the kitchen. Our de-facto tour guide was menacing a waiter in a white shirt and black tie, and there was a chef, complete with the stupid hat, standing behind him, brandishing a frying pan.

“You have to admit, that’s a little funny.”

He finally gave a little, but it only showed at the corners of his eyes. There was my baby again, like he used to be. Always so worried ever since I got my deployment orders; always so serious now. I’m not going to break.

“So it says here the exhibit is designed this weird way, following him, you know?” He had the pamphlet open again, his nose stuck all the way into it. Geek. “They wanted to introduce him from Michael’s perspective, so you get the idea he was an invader, but then they wanted to depict the whole thing from his POV, I guess to try and humanize him? They didn’t want him to look larger-than-life the whole time.” He folded the paper closed and frowned.

“There’s no humanizing monsters like this.” I reached out and grasped at the projection of the frying pan. “I’m going to clobber you,” I growled.

“It kind of does lessen the impact,” he agreed. “But I guess it really happened. This chef’s name was – ”

“Let’s go.” I just wanted some pizza.

You know, Brooklyn Pie is right over by the museum. Eat shit.

We rounded the next bend and our man had his backpack on the floor, unzipped. The pamphlet said something about the cameras that day catching how violently the gunman ripped the bag open, and psychologists had pored over the footage in the years since, trying to deduce anything about his mindset via that jerky motion. Maybe the zipper had just been stuck. It happens. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The explosion room was just ahead, just around the next corner. He was still reading aloud, something about this being the first 3D model to be recreated with the projectors, but he sounded far away. My heart beat beneath my collarbone. I wondered how hot it would be in there, how thick the air would be, what it would smell like. There were no smells in this museum. Maybe I’ll get mushrooms too.

He must have caught me breathing hard, because he got quiet. How long had I been doing that? How long had he been quiet? I was sweaty, and that was gross.

“Let’s go,” he said. “Let’s get lunch.” He reached out towards me and I jerked my arm away, harder than I meant to.

“I’m fine. I want to go in.” The corner was just up ahead. I could see some of the ambient light around it. The website claimed this was the more “visually stunning” of the explosions. There’s no way some stupid hologram can capture the force, the impact, the forever ringing in the ears, the aftermath of something like that. Why even try? For remembrance? It’s not sacred, its sacrilege.

I could walk right in there and pretend like I was a giant monster stomping through an explosion in a city.

He touched my elbow. “Are you sure?” Those fucking sad-for-me eyes again. But he wasn’t trying to do something for me, or make me do anything. He was just waiting. Like he always did. Waiting for me.

“Let’s go.” I went around, leaving him behind.


I got my pepperoni. And mushrooms. Big, foldy slices, the kind where the paper plate gets all greasy and translucent and loses all structural integrity after you’ve been sawing at them with a plastic fork.

I kid. Who eats pizza with a fork? Terrorists, that’s who.

And I got to seem cooperative, which would get both of them off my back for a while. Progress! the psych would say, over her glasses. And then I’ll smirk and lie about how much better I feel, how the blast hadn’t taken away anything I couldn’t get back. Baby steps.

He sat there with his hand on my knee, fork in a salad, still buried in the brochures he’d snagged on the way out. He always goes for my prosthetic leg when he wants to caress me. He confessed once that he did it so I still felt like a whole woman.

I’ve never told him that I don’t like it, because I know it’s way more reassuring to him than it is to me.


Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2019, All Rights Reserved

www.TheColoredLens.com

The Colored Lens #29 – Autumn 2018




The Colored Lens

Speculative Fiction Magazine

Autumn 2018 – Issue #29

Featuring works by Zane Mankowski, Robert Del Mauro, Lindsey Duncan, Chris Dean, Stephanie Lane Gage, Griffin Ayaz Tyree, Amanda Hund, Matthew Harrison, Charlotte H. Lee, Stephen Taylor, George Lockett, and David Misialowski.



Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Henry Fields, Associate Editor

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved

www.TheColoredLens.com



Table of Contents



Silt and Shale

By Zane Mankowski

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

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

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

“It’s just the wine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sita held my hand and trembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sita spat but missed his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We scampered across the rooftops with slate shingles that creaked and wobbled and chimneys that puffed out warm clouds that blackened our gowns and smelt of sulfur and sweet sunleaf ash and roasted crayfish. The soot hung low in the sky and blotted out the stars. The Tomb Keep loomed above the city, one full quarter of the horizon, just as dark, not a damn window on all its surface, a hundred smokeless flues stuck out at insane angles. The buildings grew taller. In the streets below, the scant folks shrank to ants, their shrill chatter dimmed by distance, their suspicious gazes glazed over as we leapt from rooftop to rooftop, crept from balcony to balcony, swung from clothesline to clothesline.

The sky lightened. The spikeberry visions had swallowed night fast.

The city roofs grew apart. We dropped down to street level and reached Lyten Temple, ten stories tall, the only structure that dared rival the Tomb Keep in height. Angry orange torchlight spilled from the top and lit the trees and greenery that overflowed from the highest garden to the ground floor. ‘Tween the bamboo and the oversized pitcher plants, patterns swam and shifted in carved stone. I steadied myself on the wall and stared for many minutes at the chaos. Damn. Still drunk.

Sita held my shoulder while the world wavered. The priests with their naked bulbous bellies that bobbed with each step oft paid us no mind, but sometimes they gave us a quick smile or a quicker bow. The scent of sandalwood incense wafted by. I could smell the salt and sweetness and rain in the smoke. Or maybe that was just the wine, I don’t know. A woman with a four-man retinue and a parasol with black lace curtains that almost obscured her ghost-white face walked by. Her bodyguards with their square jaws and icy composure eyed me and Sita, then thumbed the chains and spike spinners on their belts. We averted our gazes ’til they passed, then we peeked in.

I hadn’t seen a pale princess leave the Tomb Keep in years. Not to pray, not to spout platitudes for the crowds to swallow, not for anything. I crept through the quiet temple, Sita but a breath behind. The princess came to the biggest shrine, the one with a six-headed elephant statue made of chilled goat butter and burned incense. We found a shrine ‘side the princess with a baby elephant statue and burned some too. In the collection plate, between browning bananas and wilted flowers and green sunleaves, several dozen fingers of brass and silver laid. One bodyguard approached and loomed behind us, so we crumpled and bowed our heads almost into the incense sand. The seconds hummed by. Smoke circled the room. The priests locked their eyes on the princess and the other worshippers watched and wandered as close as they dared. She finished her prayer and placed a finger carved from blue gemstone on the shrine. The priests stiffened and squeezed close.

I touched Sita’s hand and kept my voice low. “Don’t get greedy.”

The princess stood, then left in a flurry of rustling skirts, and the priests descended upon the blue finger like hyenas. They blocked off the shrine and bared their teeth at anyone that might come near. Some worshippers moseyed close, with faces of pure innocence, but the priests pushed them away and escorted the finger to the back of the temple.

I touched Sita’s arm. “Now.”

We scooped the silver and brass fingers out of our collection plate, stuffed them into our gowns, and scurried out. Not a soul shouted an alarm, everyone too fixated on the princess’ finger. We ran through a dozen streets before we stopped in an alleyway to count our winnings. The sun peeked over the city walls and the silver and brass fingers gleamed in our hands.

Sita’s eyes widened. “Heavens. We’ve never pinched this much.”

No we hadn’t. I didn’t stop to gloat, to raise a fist at the sky and laugh at all its attempts to squash us. We went to a little shop on the corner of Yellowcask and Sweetriver, a shop with all the silver and gold and glittering gems and jewelry and a watchman who leered at Sita. The shopkeep looked up from a bamboo desk. A lens made one eye look enormous and she held the daintiest brush. She scanned our soot-stained gowns and pointed to the exit. “Your kind’s not allowed here.”

I held out two hands of silver. “And now?”

The lens fell out of her eye and rattled on her desk. She took one of those fingers and pressed a straight edge to each hexagonal corner, an ivory ruler along each side, even weighed it on a scale.

I pointed to a necklace behind her, one with blue jade carved into a flower. “How much for that?”

She handed back the finger with a huff. “Where’d you steal this?”

I smirked. “From your father’s codpiece.”

She waved the watchman close. A broad blade appeared in his hand, a heavy butcher knife curved and shaped into a point, a blade which could cut me apart in a flash. Sita hid behind me and her heart thumped against my shoulder.

I set the fingers on the desk and forced a confident grin across my face and clapped Sita’s back. “She works the streets of Sava District. Streetwalkin’ ain’t a crime.”

The shopkeep squinted. “She don’t dress like a streetwalker.”

“Day off. But look.” I pressed Sita forward, even as she wormed in my grasp. “Ain’t that a face men spend their life savings on?”

The shopkeep harrumphed. She toyed with her lens. We stewed in silence while she scanned us from boot to crown. She traded a number of glances with the watchman, then sighed. “Sixteen silver fingers for the necklace.”

I paid her, took the necklace, and we fled the shop right quick. The watchman called back at us, “Where in Sava do you post up, miss?”

We left the shop far behind. The rising sun beamed red across the roads and people trickled out from the houses and shops and inns and soon the streets hummed with life.

Sita slapped my shoulder. “You ass.”

“You had a better cover story?”

She shook her head and murmured an apology. We hugged and for a moment I forgot all about Nurul and Tcha and their nasty faces and their nasty threats, and all I remembered was the way last night’s sunset outlined the Tomb Keep pink and flame yellow, the way all those cloud patterns glimmered across the sky when the spikeberry wine hit us, how Sita and I had laid on Pier Thirty-three and cried at the beauty, how the wine had made the world a little bit softer, a little bit kinder, the edges smoothed out, the day to day pains paved over. And then it’d made us sick.

We went home. Home was halfway down the old clay quarry, the sides stacked with brick shacks that reached for the sun with abandon. Home was bright yellow torchlight that peeked out of one small hut separate from the rest. Home was the way mama’s face lit up when I cracked open the door. Mama tried to stand from her cot but her legs shook like leaves in a storm so I rushed over and sat her back down and hugged her and smelled the cheap pine incense that she’d been burning in her little shrine all day. She sniffed my clothes and smelled the sandalwood incense of the Lyten Temple. Sita joined our hug.

“I got you something, mama.” I showed her the necklace, the blue jade carved to a flower, and mama smiled. A little sad, but mama’s smiles had been a little sad ever since her hip gave out at the Tomb Keep and the pale princesses had dismissed her. I put the necklace on her. Sita found the small safe-box under the cot and took out the silver earrings she’d gotten mama last month and put those on mama too.

I took the brass mirror off the wall and let mama look at herself. “One day I’ll buy you a big blue ballgown, mama, one of those dresses that only the pale princesses wear. I’ll buy you a tiara and gold bracelets and twelve golden rings. You’ll go to a ball in the Tomb Keep and you’ll be the only sunshine there.”

Mama’s smile lost some of its sorrow. “I’d need a lot of chalk dust. They wouldn’t dare let in someone with my skin.”

I frowned. “Your skin’s beautiful the way it is, mama.”

“Nonsense. I need skin like her to be beautiful.” She squeezed Sita’s cheek, and Sita winced and averted her gaze.

Mama took off the jewelry and hid it under the bed and we became three grimy women in a dirty shack again, a place nobody would ever think to rob. Sita boiled a pot of water in the fireplace and made us all tea and goat’s milk.

The steam from the tea made a veil over mama’s face. “Oh Kaani, if you can afford that necklace, it must mean the princesses are paying you more!”

The princesses had laughed in my face when I’d begged for a job washing their latrines. “Yeah.”

“I told you there’s a future serving them.”

After mama served them for sixteen years, the princesses had thrown her away like garbage. “Uh huh.”

“Sita dear, you should ask them for work too.”

“Maybe, mama.” Sita said ‘mama’ with unease. All this time, and she still hadn’t gotten used to saying that, no matter how much mama insisted it.

We all sat beside the window and drank our tea in silence and watched the sky become blue and beautiful, a sky full of possibility and promise.


Three days later, all that promise dribbled down to dirt.

Sita and I sat in Uncle Amit’s bar, the one on the far side of the quarry, glasses of cheap millet wine ‘tween their hands, while the hot, sticky night air made the other patrons snappy. They chatted in hushed tones about sightings of pale princes and princesses all ’round town and some insisted it was a harbinger of bad times, some that it foretold great fortune, some that it didn’t mean a damn thing. I finished my glass and waved a brass finger ’til Amit filled me up again.

Nurul sat ‘side me.

I jumped up and almost knocked my chair over. Sita clutched my arm. Nurul ordered a glass and Amit eyed him for a spell, but when Nurul didn’t wear the slightest aura of violence, Amit shrugged and served him. I spied Tcha outside the bar, leaning against a brick wall, a big bone-cutting blade on his belt, his eyes empty of anything but malice.

Nurul downed his millet wine. “The Gutterking cut off one of Tcha’s balls.”

I shivered and looked for an exit. Behind Amit lay a storeroom, and maybe a window too.

“The Gutterking paid us to guard his wine and we failed. Tcha lost half his manhood because of you. Was it worth it?”

I reseated.

“We don’t pay off the wine by week’s end, the Gutterking’ll have my throat. You see the bind I’m in?”

“The wine’s never coming back.”

Pain ran rivulets through Nurul’s voice. “And I’ll never raise that much money in time. What am I to do, young miss?”

“It’s none of my business.”

“It’s all of your business. You caused this mess. If I give the Gutterking your friend and he pimps her out on Sava District, I’m in the clear.” He leered at Sita ’til she all but curled into a ball. “I don’t see any other option, though. Do you?”

“Run.” No, not an option, not with the savages swarming the countryside beyond the walls, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

Sita peeked out from behind my shoulder. “Hide.” Also dubious, with the Gutterking’s spies everywhere from Brynn Bay to Lyten Temple to even the Tomb Keep.

Nurul shook his head and stroked his scruffy beard. “I have a wife and daughter. Tcha has six kids. You think he could hide them for long? Hell, you couldn’t even hide your own mother from me.”

I mouthed a curse and stood with the speed of an elephant. Sita too.

“Go on. Run to your mommy, kids. Hide her. See if it works.”

We stepped outside. Tcha loomed but didn’t advance, so Sita and I fled through the maze of shacks, up and down the hills of the old quarry, ’til we reached home. We stopped in the alley across the way and spied on mama through the window. She sat on her bed and sipped a cup of tea and knit a ball of flax and wore the same sad smile.

Sita’s eyes were a crucible. “Nurul’s right. Where would we hide mama?”

I had no answer. I’ve never had answers to nothin’, I just pinch fingers from the temples, or wine kegs and tea tins and goat butter bricks from bars and taverns, and Sita helps. We eat or drink what spoils we can, and the rest we sell to a grimy pawn shop owner on Sweetriver. It was inevitable I suppose. One day we’d pinch something too rich for us rags and this quaint living we make would flutter apart, ashes in the breeze. But I’ll be damned if I ever thought a wine keg would kill us. I put my hands atop my head and cursed.

Sita hugged herself. “You think they’ll hurt mama?”

“Of course. They’re men.”

We watched mama knit for a long while. Neither of us dared to leave the alley, as if Tcha would appear and strike us down. The buildings kept us in shadow and silence and there we agonized over our situation.

Sita slumped against a wall. “I could do as Nurul says. Give myself to the Gutterking.”

“No!” I caught my shout before it spilled into the street and stuffed it back down my throat. “No.”

Sita looked glad I said that. Sad too. I’m sure a part of her would do anything for mama, ‘specially after mama took her in after Sita saw her own mother bobbing in Brynn Bay years ago. I’d found Sita perched on the edge of Pier Seven, her face all tears, her eyes lost in twelve hells, her body a shivering lump of everything wrong with this world, and I’d taken her back to mama’s hut where she curled in the corner by the chimney for a couple days and cried and cried and cried. Many months later, she’d told us the pale princes had raised the taxes on her home and her mom had been foolish enough to take a loan from the Gutterking, the kind of loan that’s always just a little too impossible to pay off, and it’d spiraled from there.

I hugged Sita. “I’ll kill them before I let anyone pimp you.”

That was it. I’d kill them. The Gutterking didn’t know ’bout mama, didn’t care. But Nurul and Tcha did. I’d kill them with my own two hands that couldn’t cut chicken right and my own gut that flipped at a few flicks of blood. Damn. But I would I do it. “Sita. I’ll kill Nurul and Tcha.”

“They’re twice your size. By Brynn Bay, I’ve seen sailors their size take twelve blades to chest without a cry.”

“I’ve seen it too. Those same men topple the instant a blade nicks their neck or pricks their skull.”

Sita looked into my eyes. Those crucibles were aflame. “Don’t be stupid, Kaani. You could die. If we go my route, nobody dies.”

“That’s the future you want? Lying on a bed, letting in monstrous men with diseased dicks, while the Gutterking’s pimps peek through peepholes and later beat you for not moaning loud enough?”

Sita curled into a ball. “In that future, mama lives. You too. Me too.”

“No. In that future, you die. Not your body, but your soul will burn to cinders and your smile, the one that warms me when I wake like a summertime horizon, that smile slinks away, and me and my mama will watch you die just like you watched your mama die.”

Sita slapped me so hard I smashed into the gravel street. Needles danced on my cheek. She apologized and hugged me and massaged my face.

“I’ll kill them, Sita. If I’m not back by midnight, hide mama. I don’t know where, but try your best.” I pushed her off and strode away, away from mama, and left Sita shaking in the alley. I wove through the maze of shanties back towards Uncle Amit’s bar. I figured a plan would come together as I walked, but boy was I wrong. My mind stayed blank as a backwater, and all that came together were the puzzle pieces of panic.

A pitter patter of soft boots chased me down and Sita walked ‘side me. “When every last guild refused to give you an apprenticeship because you were a woman, I was there. We watched those futures fade together. When you nabbed your first fingers from a collection plate, I was there. We became thieves together. When you kill your first victim, I’ll be there. We’ll become murderers together. Blood on your hands will be blood on mine.”

Her voice quivered but her heart shone through her fear. For all her shyness, for all the times she’d hid behind me, she’d never left me to fend for myself. A shiver shook me, the thought of having to bury Sita, the thought of seeing Sita, limbs twisted in an awful pose, blood soaking the gravel road beneath her, and I almost shouted and pushed her away. But she’d never back down, never give up on me. I grasped her hand and she clutched me back. Her touch was the only torch in today’s night.

Sita steered me away from Uncle Amit’s bar ’til she found a shop carved into the quarry wall. Within, a hundred blades and clubs and picks and chains and spike spinners hung with abandon ’round a plump teapot of a woman, her arms posed like teapot handles, the shape of many blades pressed against the underside of her apron. She moved with the speed of someone used to violence. Her simmering smile made me shiver.

Sita picked out a big broad blade, the same blade butchers used, the same blade murderers used, heavy enough to cleave bone, long enough to dance with swords, and handed it to me. It felt like a bar of solid iron, so heavy I dropped it and trembled. All those instruments of killing, all that steel that promised futures of bloodshed and bitterness, they all glared at me when the sun hit them just right, like they knew I had the dainty hands of a thief and not the callused claws of cruelty, like they knew I had no business playing with them. It was too real. I ran out the shop and slumped into an old quarry pit and breathed in, breathed out. Breathed in, breathed out. The sun burned hot and the humid air turned my palms clammy and the sharp gravel was a needlegrass field under me.

The sun blocked out. Sita stood over me, a woodcarving knife in each hand, blade no longer than her foot, and gave me one. It felt lighter than a pebble so it seemed less real, less predictive of a terrible future than those butchery blades. It made murder easy.

I hid it in my gown. “Why not poison instead?”

“There’s a cutting edge and a sharp spike for sale on every corner, but we don’t know the first thing about poisons. We don’t know how they take, how fast they work, or where they’re sold. And we don’t have much time. We better act before they get mama.”

We did. We hurried back to the alley outside mama’s hut and spied on her through the window. She still knitted her flax bundle and sipped her tea, but now she chatted with someone. Sita and I crept closer ’til we saw them. Nurul. He sat ‘side mama and nibbled a biscuit and held his own teacup with two fingers. Big man, acting like a prissy preena. He saw us and a speck of smile flashed ‘cross his face, but he kept on talkin’ to mama. We stormed in.

Mama’s face lit up. “Kaani. Sita. This nice gentleman says he knows you.”

Sita and I sat on either side of mama like her bodyguards.

“Nurul has a daughter your age, Kaani. You and her would get along.”

I wanted so bad to ram my new murder tool into Nurul’s temple, all my hesitations gone when I stared down that sleazy scumbag, and I knew Sita felt the same. But mama was here.

“Nurul says he knows of a job where you could be servants to the pale princes! Oh, it sounds so wonderful.” Mama stroked Sita’s hair. “And it’s a lot of money. You girls should do it.”

Even heaven itself couldn’t have given Nurul a wider smirk. His smugness filled the air. I simmered, my fingers on my weapon, my legs shaking.

Sita slid her hand inside her gown, no doubt clenched on her knife too. “Where’s Tcha?”

“His youngest fell ill. He went home and took care of his boy.”

“It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t we talk outside?”

Nurul chuckled. He saw our hands inside our gowns and I bet he knew we held tiny knives, and he saw our quivering legs and heard our quivering voices and he’d have to be an idiot not to guess we had murder on our minds. But he set down his teacup and went outside anyways. I bet he knew we’d never harmed a rat in our lives, and he trusted his brawny arms to fend off any pathetic attacks we tried. We followed him.

We wended through the shanty maze of the old quarry, so far away that mama would never hear a word or cry. The gravel cracked underfoot and the blistering sun beat down hard on us ’til sweat danced down our pits and foreheads and the scent of woodsmoke from every rotting oak shack wafted by as we climbed the stone terraces. We came high above all the shacks, all the way to the quarry lip. Nurul put hands to hips. Sita’s face twisted and her knife came out, but the sight of that baby-sized spike only made Nurul guffaw.

Nobody moved for a long time. The sun stretched our shadows ‘cross the whole chasm.

I rubbed my wrist. “Nurul, your daughter’s my age. How would you feel if the Gutterking pimped her to pay your debts?”

I wanted an explanation, a long-winded, blubbering bundle of justifications. I wanted Nurul to squirm as he imagined what she would go through, and then I wanted him to squirm when he thought about it happening to Sita. I wanted the weight of empathy to hang heavy on his neck and shake his soul. But he, eyes empty, just shook his head. “No.”

And that was that. There was no reasoning with Nurul. He had his people he’d look out for, and we had ours, and there was no reconciliation, no future where we compromised, where we went our separate ways with a future for us, for him, for his daughter, for our mama. I swallowed my hopes and steeled myself.

I slammed into him. I tried to shove him off the quarry rim, but he was Pier Thirty-three and I was Brynn Bay. I crashed, he swayed but stayed solid, and I splashed off. Sita lunged too, her blade a glint of rage under the bright sun. He caught her wrist and twisted it ’til she screeched and wriggled and was useless. I unsheathed my knife. Nurul ignored me, too busy trying to get Sita to drop hers, so I jammed the blade into his leg, right near his crotch. He howled and kicked me and the sun blinked out.

I thought I tasted spikeberry wine.

Light blinked in. My head pounded, and a little lick of lightning crackled inside my skull with each heartbeat. The sky shone brighter than heaven. I heard rasping, choking sounds. I clawed the gravel and came to my feet. Halfway down the quarry, Nurul dragged Sita by her neck. He’d taken our knives and his pant leg was soaking red. All I had was two handfuls of broken pebbles and a bruise the shape of Nurul’s boot. Useless. But I gave chase anyways. I skidded down the stone walls and raced towards Nurul and peppered him with a shower of small rocks. He ignored me. I found chunks of shale and shattered them on his back ’til he cursed at me. I found a heavy brick and lobbed it at his neck, and it cracked and sent him reeling and Sita broke free.

She scurried into my arms. We hugged while Nurul groaned and climbed back up. All around us, people peeked out of their shacks and stared at the commotion, but not a soul intervened. Nobody ’round here risked a finger for anything or anyone else. They watched the scene from the comfort of their shadows.

Nurul stood tall and cleared his throat, his voice an ocean of rust. “I’ll kill your mama.”

Then he toppled over. I flinched. Sita clutched me. For many moments, we waited for him to move, but he never did. He never moved again. And only then did I notice the long, thin trail of dark red that ran from the quarry rim down to his leg. I’d killed him many minutes ago when he’d kicked me.

We fled.

We ran and ran and ran and ran, through empty street, through busy street, through plaza, through alley, through the entire city, and we somehow found ourselves on the banks of Brynn Bay, our legs dangling off the side of Pier Thirty-three once more.

Sita leaned against me. Our hearts hammered in unison. We stared at ourselves in the water. Not a blot of blood on either our hands. I had a bruise on my forehead and she had one on her neck, but we looked about the same as we always did. We’d graduated from thieves to murderers, and we looked the same. We looked the same.

Sita tucked her head to my chest. Sobs hung in her throat like dew. “It’s not over yet.”

I knew it. “Tcha.”


Sita and I stayed on the rooftops all day. We watched over mama, we watched over Uncle Amit’s bar where we last saw Tcha, we watched over Nurul’s corpse, which a pair of watchmen soon dragged off to the crematorium by Lyten Temple, where they turned it into black smoke and memories. We watched a woman our age come to the crematorium just too late to see her father’s body, we watched her cry and wail at the watchmen who, with contempt in their eyes, shoved her off. The woman took her tears to Lyten Temple and we followed.

We found a shrine near her and pretended to pray. She sat on her knees before the six-headed elephant statue and rocked back and forth and murmured as the sandalwood incense smoke spiraled ’round her in a comforting cocoon. Her grief touched the priests and the other patrons and they too gathered round and prayed and swayed with her. Sita welled but my heart was steel. I skimmed a few fingers from the collection plate.

In time, the sorrow dulled. The sun went down, the patrons filtered out, the priests wandered away, the cocoon dissolved, and Nurul was still ashes in the sky. His daughter, gait careless, eyes twelve oceans away, left, and we did too.

Sita went home to mama while I stayed on a nearby rooftop and watched over them all night. The next night we traded watches. Mama ran out of tea and biscuits and lamb shanks to cook, so I went to the market on Yellowcask and Sweetriver and bought some with the fingers I’d stolen. Mama seemed happy, and she never asked where I went all night, or where Sita went all night, or what became of Nurul and his job serving the pale princes. And Tcha never appeared again.

It bothered me. It bothered me enough that one warm night when the black smoke from all the chimneys had swallowed the stars, when the looming Tomb Keep seemed invisible in the sky, when Sita and mama had fallen asleep, the yellow glow of the hut faded to red embers, I left my post. I crept across the roofs back to Uncle Amit’s bar and slipped inside.

This late, there were few patrons, but one of them was Nurul’s daughter. I took a seat ‘side her and ordered a glass of millet wine. She didn’t recognize me. Her eyes brimmed no more and her poise was stone. For an silent minute, we drank our drinks, the only sound the clink of glass on the marble countertop and the murmur of the other patrons and the nervous scuffling of Uncle Amit behind the bar. He knew both of us, and his shifty eyes couldn’t help but clue me in that this woman and I together was bad, bad business.

I didn’t care. “It’s late for someone young as you.”

Nurul’s daughter barely looked at me. “And you.”

“I’m Kaani.”

“Yaela.”

“I’m looking for a man named Tcha. Ever heard of him?”

Yaela’s eyes widened and I leapt over her walls of disinterest. For a while, she looked me up and down, down and up. “Tcha’s dead.”

“What?”

“The Gutterking cut one of his balls off. The wound got infected. He was already in debt to the Gutterking so he couldn’t afford a doctor. The crematorium ate him last morn.”

So that was it. It seemed too easy, almost silly. This threatening monster that me and Sita feared had died of an infection. I wouldn’t have to murder anymore. We were free from this mess. The black sky loosened its grasp from my neck and I exhaled.

“T