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An Accounting of the Sky

Before they called me witch, they called me healer.

The elders find me in my garden at sunrise, three hale and healthy old men with bright fear burning in their eyes. The Inquisitor motions to his guards, but I wave them off. “I can walk,” I snap, taking a firm grip on my cane and shuffling past my slouching hut. My dignity, and stiff joints, require a stately pace. I will not endorse their plans for me with argument or struggle. Out on the road to the village, pride keeps me from looking back at the garden where a small congregation of sparrows still chatter over the seeds I’d just thrown them.

Over the years, desperate young mothers and fathers arrived at my door holding fevered infants too weak to cry. Breathless children were sent to fetch me, bouncing on the balls of their feet while I made a show of selecting herbs from the garden before following them to the house of an ailing relative. The road blurs and I blink the tears from my eyes. My garden. It was for show. A ruse. Of course, I can brew teas with an analgesic or soporific effect, make a poultice to draw out infection, but this is not my gift.
It is my touch.

When my fingers were tangled in the damp hair of a fevered woman’s head as I helped her drink some concoction, or by laying my hand on a child’s burning brow, this is the means by which I draw their affliction into me. For years I have done this and more. Village boys, returning from the Crusades as haunted soldiers, came to me tormented by memories of the unspeakable things they’d witnessed, or committed. I would lay my hands on them and take those memories.

After each visit, I would crawl into my bed thrashing in the damp sheets, bound by nightmares, battling all the maladies of their bodies and their souls. As soon as I was strong enough, I would limp out to my weedy garden, sit in the sun and smell the green aroma of the leaves, watch the insects’ busy industry – but most of all I would listen to the birds. The sparrows, the starlings and the hawks who, each in their own tongue, would give an accounting of the sky. I have come to prefer the company of these creatures who care not at all for pains and worries of those of us bound to the earth.

The road turns toward the center of the village, and there they all are gathering wood for my bonfire. I straighten up as much as my back will allow and try to swallow the hard feelings that sit like a stone my throat. The Inquisitor’s guards move to flank me.

I’ve claimed the suffering and bad memories they could not bear, carrying all of it with me like a pack animal. For what I take, I must keep. I was a beauty once, now I am a crone with pitted skin, a twisted back, and hairs sprouting from my wobbling chin. What do they see when they look at me? Shadows of the dark and frightening things that were once inside them. Did they realize they wanted me gone before the Inquisitor arrived? Or am I simply an expedient offering? A bribe so that the Inquisitor will leave this village in peace.

A cure that may not last, I’m afraid.

The village has prospered. There are so many of them, straight and strong and healthy. Beautiful, even now. They’ve flourished under my touch. They crowd in as I pass, hushed. None of them will look at me – except for one. Mary. The baker’s daughter, she would come to my door with her mortar and pestle and a thousand questions about how to use the herbs in my garden to heal people. I taught her what I knew, which wasn’t much. I cannot give her the touch. She will be able to provide only what relief the plants can offer. That will have to be enough. Her eyes are wide with grief and terror and locked on mine. I glare back at her. If the Inquisitor sees her cry, he might raise his price. Despite her fear, she reaches out under the cover of the jostling crowd and clasps my hand. A misguided gesture of solidarity? Of Love? Thanks? She is so very frightened.

Quick as a flash, I pull the terror from her, but I cannot hold all of my heartbreak in. She lets out a howl as I pass. The Inquisitor will think it is meant to shame me, but I know it is the articulation of my own betrayal. The other villagers join in, screaming abuse. I stumble then. The fear and despair I took from her bats around inside my rib cage like a trapped bird.

The guards drag me over the wood and lash me to the stake. Below me, the villagers busy themselves with flint and tinder. Smoke stings my eyes, but the fire is already burning away the miasma of disease and hopelessness that I’ve carried across these many years. The heat cauterizes my fear.

I look up as a flock of starlings soar across the clear blue sky.

By day, Rebecca Schwarz is a mild-mannered editorial assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Interzone, PodCastle, Bourbon Penn, and Daily Science Fiction. She is currently writing her first novel. You can read about her writing life at

The Colored Lens #13 – Autumn 2014

The Colored Lens

Speculative Fiction Magazine

Autumn 2014 – Issue #13

Featuring works by David Kernot, Natalia Theodoridou, Steve Simpson, Robert Dawson, E. Lillith McDermott, Lynn Rushlau, Juliana Rew, Robert Steele, Bria Burton, Sean Monaghan, and Carl Grafe.

Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved

Table of Contents

The Sycamore Tree

By David Kernot

When I first heard the legend that a sycamore tree stood at the eastern gates of heaven and rewarded those who lived within its shadow, I didn’t realize they meant my tree—the one on the hilltop at Two Rivers. I didn’t believe in the magic until I turned seven and dreamed I’d died.

I stepped outside into the morning shade of the three-hundred-year-old tree. Legend said that if the goddess allowed, anyone born within its shadow could be reborn there. But rebirth was the last thing on my mind, and I rubbed my chest, fresh from the death dream memory of car exhaust fumes, hot engine oil, and grease.

I ran to school because Games Day was the school’s big event of the year, and I was late. I kept to the edges of the oval, away from teachers and sports jocks.

Hugh Wintergreen ran past with a stupid grin plastered over his face. He tugged at my shirt. He said, “Catch me!” and headed toward the main gate.

I gave chase. I caught him and we ran onto the road, into the traffic, where he dared me to follow and play chicken.

I recognized the car and a feeling to stop tore at me. With the death dream fresh in my mind, I froze mid stride, and tried to grab Hugh.

He kept running and dodging cars until the car I’d seen screeched to a stop. Hugh disappeared underneath it.

I screamed and felt every one of his ribs snap.

The smell of hot rubber, car oil, and engine grease, tore at my nostrils. My stomach churned and I threw up into the gutter.

People came running.

Mariana Blackburn, a girl from my class, arrived first. She screamed. “Stu McBane pushed him.”

Her family didn’t approve of my single mum and her birthing clinic. I looked up, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, ready to deny I’d pushed Hugh, but I recognized her voice as the girl who yelled in my dream. The dream had come true, and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been me who’d died.

The taxi driver was Hugh Stevens’ father, another boy in my class, and he vouched for me, but still, a seed of doubt grew from Mariana’s claim.

Games Day was cancelled, and I trudged home. Mum waited in the kitchen. She’d heard. Two Rivers was a small town.

She checked me over. “You’re fine.” She ruffled my hair. “Go and thank the goddess in the sycamore tree.”

I frowned. “Now?”

She put her hands on her hips.

I nodded and put my boots back on and stepped outside. The door slammed shut on its sprung hinges and I heard her again.

“Take a bag of compost with you and sprinkle it around the tree when you’re there.”

Mum ran a birthing clinic by the tree when the moon was full, and didn’t care what the rest of the town thought. I always thought her a bit crazy, but I loved her all the same.

The day I turned eight, Two Rivers Elementary School hosted another Games Day. They dedicated it to Hugh Wintergreen, and the local protestant minister came to say a few words.

We stood on the oval, and when the minister commenced his sermon, we faced the school gates. He mentioned the accident and paused, glanced over at me in the second row and nodded.

My ears burned. I blamed my mum’s non-protestant beliefs in the sycamore tree, but whatever the reason, he knew I’d been with Hugh when he died.

After prayers, everyone dispersed to the running tracks, the high jump, triple jump, and the areas set up for shot put and discus. I ambled over to the start of the 200-meter sprint. I had never won a race and wanted to see how I’d go now that one of god’s ministers had his eye on me.

I lined up and waited. The starter pistol fired, and I ran to lead place and stayed there. I pushed on and powered ahead until my legs grew heavy. At that point, Hugh Stevens leveled with me. I grit my teeth, pushed harder, determined to beat the boy whose dad had killed Hugh Wintergreen. Ahead by a pace, I approached the finish, but Hugh leveled with me. He took the lead and crossed the line half a step ahead.

I doubled over, hands on knees and gulped in air. Hugh approached, as puffed as me. I smiled.

“Well run.” He grinned and raised his hand in the air, palm toward me.

“Congratulations,” I said and slapped his hand in hi-five style.

He waved Mariana Blackburn over, the girl who, the year before, had accused me of pushing Hugh under the taxi. Inside, I groaned.

That feeling returned, and an urge to distance myself from Hugh.

I took three steps backward and air whooshed past me.

A stray javelin struck Hugh and pierced the center of his chest. He never flinched. A breath later blood swelled over his shirt and Hugh’s eyes bulged. He fell to the ground.

Mariana screamed, and pushed me.

Had the javelin been for me? Now death had passed me over twice on my birthday.

Some of the town said it was a strange coincidence. After all, Hugh Stevens’ dad had driven the taxi that killed Hugh Wintergreen.

Mariana said it had to do with me, but she was always a mean girl.

At school I mentally projected the same message. It was an accident. I hadn’t pushed Hugh Wintergreen or touched the javelin that killed Hugh Stevens.

After school, I spent that month at the sycamore tree and made the area around it weed free.

Perhaps the tree goddess watched out for me, I couldn’t be sure, but Two Rivers was a small town with only one school and memories ran deep. Nobody forgot I had twice been death’s companion. Nobody wanted to stand near me after that and my small circle of friends dwindled. I hoped people would forget soon.

I first noticed Joanie the day of my twelfth birthday. She and her twin sister, Fran, were the hottest girls in school, and they were two years older than me.

Whenever I crossed paths with Joanie, I’d smile at her, but Joanie never noticed. I didn’t exist. I’d grown accustomed to that.

At the end of last period, Joanie dropped her notebook at her locker and walked off. I picked it up and followed her outside to return it.

“You dropped this.” I handed her the notebook.

She took it and smiled. “Thanks—”

That feeling returned, a desire to move away, to flee.

“No worries.” I hurried away, lost in thought and stumbled into a group of boys outside the school.

“McBane,” one of them yelled.

I recognized Wolfgang and smiled. He was older, trouble for some, but we got along well enough.

“Hey, Wolf.”

His troublesome grin vanished and with it my smile fell. “What?” I asked.

He leaned in and poked me in the chest. “Leave. Joanie. Alone.”

I didn’t understand but stepped back until I found myself trapped in a tight circle of older boys.

His fist landed in my face before I could dodge it.

“Don’t,” I yelled. My vision blurred and tears streaked my face.

I raised my arms but a fist hit me from behind. Somebody kicked me in the ribs. I doubled over and a foot smashed into my face.

Warm fluid ran down my chin. I tasted blood. They picked me up and threw me into an industrial rubbish container. I smelled a match flare, and the contents in the container caught alight.

I choked on smoke and climbed out to their laughter, and I pushed through them and ran toward home, angry I hadn’t thrown a punch. I didn’t want anyone to see my blood-covered face, convinced my nose had been broken. I skirted the town and out of impulse I climbed the hill to the sycamore tree.

I was out of breath by the time I reached the top, and as always, I stopped to admire the glorious view of the town and distant hills.

“Hello,” a girl said.

I faced the voice, and Joanie stepped into the sun from behind the sycamore tree, a book in her hand. She smiled. “Fancy seeing you here.”

I shrugged.

“Why’d you run off today?”

“I had a feeling it was for the best.”

“Ah. That feeling. Did anyone die?”

I wasn’t surprised by the comment, but I didn’t want to talk about it. “What’s with you and Wolf?” I asked.

She shrugged. “He thinks he owns me.”

“Does he?” I grinned.

Our eyes locked, and something like electricity passed between us. I shuddered and a tingle climbed up my spine.

“Nobody owns me,” she said. “Wolf’s an idiot. He’s going to be sentenced to Juvie for breaking into old man Steven’s home.”

I nodded. There was that mention of old man Stevens, one of the dead Hugh boys. Perhaps that was why I had the urge earlier.

“He won’t bother you again.” She walked over to the tree, spread her arms, and swayed about its base to music I couldn’t hear.

She looked beautiful. Enchanting.

I followed.

Joanie squeezed my hand, and a warm flush filled my cheeks. “So you know about the magic of the sycamore tree?” She raised her eyebrows.

I remember mum’s stories and nodded.

“I come up here all the time, to pull out the weeds, keep it tidy for her.”

“Her?” I said unsure.

“The tree goddess. Don’t you know anything? She’s what’s takes care of us down there.”

I thought about my near misses with both Hughes and the fact that I stood alone with the hottest girl in Two Rivers. Perhaps she was right.

Joanie became my new friend. She called me Stuart, and I liked that. I became interested in school again, and my grades improved. But Joanie had a wild side too, and we were always in trouble for swinging from the rope under Patterson’s bridge, or standing underneath the live cables from the town’s power station. Life was fun around her. I spent all my weekends with Joanie, and time before and after school. I carried her books. I read teen-girl magazines. I talked about hair removal. By the end of our second year we were in love and inseparable.

At fifteen, too young to know any better, I proposed underneath the sycamore tree. We planned our lives together, where we would get married, who we’d invite, when to announce the news to our folks. We confirmed our feelings to each other on the sycamore tree, the place we first kissed, and carved our names inside a heart shape, deep into its bark.

One summer afternoon after school, I stood at the sycamore tree with Joanie and felt the wind blow over me. Joanie walked over to me. I loved the way the sun lit her hair so it glowed. “We’ll die old together.” She put a finger to my lips, and her eyes dilated and took on a faraway look. It gave me goose bumps. “You’re not the only one with psychic powers, Stuart.”

“I’m not psychic.”

“It’s true,” she said. “I’ve seen it. Never forget. I’m coming back to this tree. This is a magic place where events unfold. No matter where I am, when I turn twenty, I’ll come back and say something clever. We can plan our wedding.”

A trickle of dread ran over my scalp. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Perhaps nowhere?”

It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. How could she leave? She refused to take her eyes from me, so I kissed her, long and hard. “You’re crazy,” I said, and my voice caught in my throat. “What’s so clever that you’ll say it when you come back?”

“Burghers. The town is full of Burghers!”

“What?” I frowned. “You mean like take out?”

“Not burgers. Burghers—town managers, leaders of society.” She laughed. “It’s just a way to say something weird and drive the olds crazy.”

“You’re weird,” I said, and I kissed her again.

She stood and twirled her hair between her fingers. She did it often, and her blue eyes sparkled like jewels.

The next day she had gone. She’d said her goodbye. Her family moved. I didn’t know where or why. I tried to find her but I couldn’t. She didn’t contact me, and I withdrew. I became a loner and dreamed of death all over again.

I never forgot about Joanie, but I never talked about her either. It hurt too much.

At the end of my final year of school, I rode down the main street on a bicycle I’d outgrown. It was just after Two Rivers’ had shut up for Saturday afternoon.

A taxi drove by.

I stopped and stared at the driver. I recognized Hugh Stevens’ dad. I had never forgotten him since the day he ran down Hugh Wintergreen. He drove slow and smiled at me, adjusted his black suit and tie.

That compulsion, the odd feeling, returned, and I shivered. I wondered if Hugh’s dad was going to die.

He looked odd all dressed up, and I followed him out to Church Hill, just to the north of town, where he pulled up his car and entered the church.

I sat on my bike a safe distance away and waited.

Another car arrived, an antique one from up on East Downs, all decked out with wedding ribbons. I smiled. Old man Stevens was getting hitched again. I wanted to step closer, but that feeling returned, and I waited. Hugh Wintergreen’s mum climbed out, and I shook my head in disbelief. How could she marry old man Stevens? He killed her son. Both their children had died near me. I pulled at my hair. People called me Stu McDeath. They never let me forget I had been at both Hughs’ deaths. I didn’t understand, so I waited near the church.

The newlyweds stepped from the church together, had their photos taken and made their way to the reception. They looked happy.

The feeling left me and nobody had died. Perhaps my life had improved.

I stood outside of their reception for a long while. I think I lost sense of the time until hunger called. I decided to go home, but one of the town councilors stepped out, and I smiled. “Who got hitched?” I asked as if I didn’t know.

“Archie Stevens and Winsome Wintergreen.”

“How was that possible?” I frowned and didn’t hide my surprise. “Didn’t he kill—”

The man held up his hand, and he lowered his voice. “Yes. But that be distant water under a very old bridge.”


“Yep. Seems that it brought them together.” He leaned closer, and I could smell wine on his breath. “Now that their other kids be old enough, they’re doing the right thing. I heard there’s a child on the way.”

“Really?” I was shocked. “Aren’t they a bit old to be starting another family?”

He shrugged. “They’re in love. Who can argue? Anyways, it’s happening everywhere. All manner of folk are hitchin’ up again and populating the world over.”

I left him. Good luck to them I decided.

I joined the state force as a police officer and heard the Hughs’ parents had twins. They named them Joanne and Hugh. It was the same time I suggested that mum should come and live with me, but she wouldn’t entertain the idea.

“The tree needs me,” she said.

I had to agree with her, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Over several visits back to Two Rivers, I stated the tree had been around hundreds of years longer than her, and it would survive.

Two years late mum moved. Perhaps she had an inkling of those moments when she forgot, and bit-by-bit, the slabs of her life’s memory disappeared. I made the arrangements to have her things shifted to my home and arranged for Harry, the local bookseller, and his wife, Alice, to keep an eye on the tree.

When you’ve had a taste of wonderful it’s hard to settle for second best. Joanie was like that for me. There wasn’t another woman alive to live up to my memory of her. Nobody I met could match her humour, her beauty, the way she rolled her eyes. She made me feel right. Perhaps it was that she was my first love. Whatever the reason, Joanie had spoiled me, and I had little interest in other women.

On the day Joanie turned twenty, I drove back to Two Rivers and had a picnic lunch at the sycamore tree. I waited, still caught in the dream of my Joanie. I even pinned a note to the tree, but I never heard from her. I wondered why I had those feelings. What was it that made me special enough to deserve them? Without them I might have died at the hands of a taxi, or a javelin.

As a police officer those feelings saved me from being shot by armed robbers. Another time, an overzealous cache of stolen dynamite exploded, and I had wandered away to answer the radio just before the house I’d been inside disintegrated. It helped me find a wayward blind girl in the Badlands after she wandered off at night. I found a use for it within the department, and I racked up quite a collection of successful case closures, even a murder. I thought that perhaps, in my own way, I had found a way to serve the goddess and the sycamore tree.

Still convinced I’d see Joanie again, I always returned to the sycamore tree each year. It was like it had a hold on me. I visited the majestic tree for twenty–eight years and each time I wondered where Joanie was. I wondered what the mother tree goddess could tell me if she spoke.

Mum got sick with cancer. She was as light as the wind the final time I took her up to the sycamore tree. She sat there in her wheelchair and basked in the tree’s shadow. Half lit up by sunlight, she smiled but didn’t say a word. Her memory had gone by then, although every so often the light behind her eyes came to life and the skin in the corners of her eyelids crinkled.

I expect she remembered the high points of her life with the tree. Perhaps she thanked the goddess for her protection. Perhaps she thought about the children she had brought into the world on that windy hilltop. I couldn’t be sure. All I knew was I would miss her when she was gone.

She passed away a few weeks later, and I became even more lost and empty. I knew it had been coming but you can never be prepared enough. I kept her ashes after the cremation service and quite my job. I’d had this idea to move back to East Rock for some time, perhaps even to Two Rivers and find work.

I drove back to Two Rivers to sprinkle her ashes around the sycamore tree. The town had changed. It had lost some of its vibrancy, but mum would have been pleased to know East Rock, her birth town, shone.

I checked into my room, and I found a park at the mall. Long shadows from the sycamore tree kissed the ground where I stood. It’s funny how all these years on I would still look for her shadow. I walked into the shopping complex in a hurry to buy flowers for tomorrow’s dawn ceremony before the shop shut.

A woman with two screaming kids crashed her shopper cart into me and pulled me from my daydream. I stepped away, backed into a man and turned and apologized.

Joanie’s dad stared at me. I stood, mouth open, speechless.

He shuffled past. He hadn’t recognized me.

I stood silent. I never asked after Joanie, and he walked away.

I walked toward the flower shop, torn between chasing after him and buying flowers. My heart pounded until I turned and ran after him and searched the car park.

I found him as he reversed out of the parking space, and I threw myself in his way.

His knuckles whitened on the car steering wheel. I half expected him to drive away, but he waved me closer and wound his window down.

My heart raced. What would I say? Did I have the courage to ask what had been on my mind for almost 30 years?

“I was Joanie’s friend at school.” The words tumbled out.

His eyes clouded. “Sorry. My memories aren’t what they should be.”

He stared at me for a moment and half smiled. “Stuart!”

“Yes.” I felt warm tears slide down my face. “How is she?” Pent up emotions churned and sought release.

He looked at me and I saw his pain.

“She’s dead, Stuart.”

My heart almost stopped. Pain racked my insides. It tore at me with daggers.

“Both my girls are dead. They died in a car crash just after they turned eighteen.”

I didn’t know what to say. I nodded, drained, and I stepped away from the car. I had no right to revive those painful memories.

“She always talked about you, Stuart.” He forced a smile. “Even after I took her away.”

I nodded. “She made a difference in my life.”

He reached out through the window and grabbed my hand. “I’m sorry I took her from you, but we had to leave. Her mum, my beautiful wife, had cancer.” He let go of my hand. “I tried to save my Alice, but all I did was lose them all.”

I was dumbfounded.

That was why they moved? I was lost for words.

“She made a difference in my life too, son, they all did.”

I nodded and wiped away tears.

“It would have been their birthday tomorrow. I’ll send them your wishes in my prayers.” He smiled at me.

Numb, I stood and watched him drive off. I think he left happier, perhaps because he shared a memory with someone who cared. Perhaps I was the son–in–law he never had.

I looked up at the clear view of the sycamore tree and noticed I stood in her shadow. It was too late to ask the tree goddess for help, but I knew what I could do.

The next day, when the sun just cleared the hill above Two Rivers, and the goddess cast her longest shadow from the sycamore tree, I sprinkled mum’s ashes around the tree. I laid flowers on the ground at her base, for mum, for Joanie, for her sister Fran, and for their mother, Alice. I wondered if it might be my last visit.

I had closure in the sense. Joanie had passed from this world.

I stood at the tree for a long time and remembered Joanie. I put my hand on that heart we’d carved and said goodbye.

The feeling returned, so strong it almost bowled me over. I knelt down, giddy.

“What are you doing?”

The young woman’s musical voice made me stand, and I faced her and rubbed my tear-stained face. “Who’s there?”

My vision cleared and I watched a woman size me up. Her eyes danced over me. She put a hand on her hip. “I’m—”

“Joanie?” I had a crazy sense it was her; that somehow she’d found her way back to me.

“Close.” She laughed and tilted her head. She brushed the long golden strands from her face. “I’m Joanne,” she said. “I’m thinking about setting up a birthing clinic here.”


“I’m a midwife.”

I remembered the way the town had treated my mum, and I smiled. “Good luck with that.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Joanne Stevens.”

I took her hand and my arm tingled. “Joanne Stevens? Does your dad still drive the local taxi?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“It’s complicated…” I wiped my face free of tears. I daren’t say I’d been at both her stepbrothers’ deaths. I recalled the compulsion to avoid the church the day Hugh Stevens’ dad married Winsome Wintergreen. Her folk. She was their Joanne, a twin like my Joanie. I opened and closed my mouth, tried to form words.

“Don’t die on me, Stuart. You look much younger than I had imagined.”

I frowned. She knew my name.

“How do I know you?”

“Well burgher me if I didn’t have a dream.”

Time stood still.

I was back with my Joanie. Her words echoed loud inside me, and I heard her say it again as if she was there now: I’m coming back to this tree, no matter where I am, and I’m going to say something odd that will pull at your memory.

My knees buckled, and I sat down. “What did you just say?”

“I said burgher me!” She laughed. “It drives my old mum crazy. She thinks I’m swearing every time.”

“What are you doing here?” She could have been my Joanie.

“I had a dream about you, Stuart. I’ve been dreaming about you and this tree all my life. There’s magic here.”

I could feel my face crease when I frowned. “It’s the tree goddess,” I said.

“Of course it is,” she said. “Otherwise, how odd would it be to dream about the man responsible for my folks meeting?”

My frown couldn’t deepen any further. I didn’t know what was the strangest, that she dreamed about someone she’d never met, or that she was like the ghost of my Joanie.

“My twin, Hugh, was named after them both, and you were there when they died.”

I closed my eyes and nodded, struggled to push away the powerful memories.

“You’ve come back to live here,” she said it like it was decided.

“I have no idea,” I said, although I had decided to stay. There was a lot to like about Two Rivers.

“You will.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the tree. “Come, and I’ll show you where I want to build a birthing unit.”

We stopped and stood away from the tree. She pointed and described what she wanted to build. “I can’t do it alone, Stuart. What do you think?”

I was speechless. I squeezed her warm hand.

“No, on second thought, don’t say anything.”

I faced the tree. This was where I’d grown up, and I was convinced it was where I would also died one day.

“Come on, I want you to meet someone.” She tugged at my hand, and I allowed myself to be led away.

Joanne marched me down the Two Rivers’ Main Street. She stopped outside the second hand furniture shop, the one with the front windows filled with antiques, and she led me though the wide double front doors.

“She’s upstairs.”

“Who is?”

“You’ll see.”

We climbed the stairs, and I slowed at the top to admire the stained glass windowpanes over the table tops. A woman stood at one, soldering. She could have been sixty or seventy.

“Mum, there’s someone I want you to meet.” Joanne stopped in front of the woman.

The woman put the soldering iron down and looked up, startled. She removed some earphone buds and music chattered through them. This was Mrs Stevens. The last time I had seen her was her wedding day at Church Hill years before.

She squinted at us. “Sorry, Jo, I was miles away.”

Joanne glanced at me and grinned. “Mum, this is Stuart.”

Mrs Stevens’ eyes widened, and her smoky-blue eyes sparkled when she smiled. I had a sense of what Joanne would look like once she grew older. “So he was there.”

“Everything. Just like my dream.” She laughed.

It was beautiful to hear, and I realized I couldn’t remember the last time somebody laughed so much in my presence.

“Stuart,” said Mrs Stevens and offered her hand. “I remember you growing up here.”

I shook it. “Lovely to meet you again, Mrs Stevens,” I said. Her grip surprised me, strong and determined.

“Call me Winsome.”

I smiled at her. “Okay.”

“We’ve talked about you often,” said Mrs Stevens.

“Seriously?” I couldn’t help it and laughed.

“The virtues of a small town,” said Joanne.

“Have you told him the rest? Joanne’s mum threw her daughter a mischievous smile.

“That I’m going to marry him?” She put her hands on her hips in mock anger. “I was going to give him a couple of days to find out.”

I laughed again, this time with disbelief, unsure if I’d been teased.

“Did Joanne tell you she cancelled a trip away with friends to visit the sycamore today?”

Caught in the love these two women held for each other, their warmth was contagious, and my cheeks flushed. “She’s very determined, isn’t she?” I said to Winsome.

“You’ll find that it’s not a bad attitude to have in a daughter.”

It was as if Joanne had grown in stature when I faced her. “I had a dream we are having a boy first.” Her face colored as red as my cheeks felt.

I chewed my lip and wondered what else I didn’t know about Joanne’s dream.

I stepped up from the sycamore tree and breathed in over the sharp pain in my arthritic knees. I stared at the compost on my worn sandals, and the dizzy twenty-five-year-old memories faded.


Young Winsome ran ahead of Joanne toward me. I smiled at our granddaughter, and at our daughter, Joanie, who followed. She looked fresh out of college, arm in arm with her husband, Mark.

I never doubted I’d been blessed. Why else would Joanne and I marry a month after we’d met by the sycamore tree? And like Joanne had seen in her dream, we’d had a son first, and it seemed right to call him Hugh. When Joanne suggested we call our daughter Joanie, I had cried.

We bought the land around the sycamore tree, built our house in its shadow, and Joanne started up her birthing clinic that year. I was thrilled not to have to traipse up the hill and sprinkle manure anymore.

I gestured to Winsome, “Come over here, little poppet. Stand with me in the shade.”

I put my arm around Joanne, and I ruffled young Winsome’s mop of long, golden hair and stared up at the tree.

I smiled. In my heart I understood there was magic here. Only family, the blessing of a goddess, and a sycamore tree mattered.

I knew if I looked hard enough, the heart and the initials Joanie and I carved out would still be visible.

I squatted down and groaned as my knees gave way. “Winsome,” I said and pointed to where Joanie and I had carved out our initials on the tree’s bark all those years ago. “I wrote my name up there once. Maybe one day, you can do the same.”

“It’s healed, Grandpa,” she said with a smile older than her years.

A frown creased my smile and I forced a laugh. “Why would you say that?”

“The lady in the tree said so after I had a dream.”

A shiver tickled the back of my spine. I turned and leaned closer. “Lady?”

“You know. The one that makes us sprinkle stuff around her base. She looks after the babies.”

Joanne laughed and put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me and I knew what she was thinking.

“I think the tree goddess has chosen wisely,” I said.

Lady Bird

By Natalia Theodoridou

She leaned forward, bringing herself closer to the edge of the cliff. She often wondered whether everyone could see the way she saw. Especially when she was on the rope with her head between her legs, or hanging from the trapeze, her heels underarm. She thought then, can they see these lights? These shapes on top of the spectators’ heads, their most secret secrets untangled against my tangled body, and these darknesses in their palms, and the birds in their mouths, can everyone see them?

She peeked over the edge. A steep fall, then jagged rocks. Then water.

These birds, crammed between their teeth, are they swallows?

The man pulled her back. “Be careful,” he said. “You’ll fall.”

She pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t say things like that to an acrobat. It’s bad luck.”

“Does Lady Bird care about such things? Born on the rope. Isn’t that what the ring master says every night?”

“You think you know so much about me, don’t you?” Her eyes fixed on the ocean, she caressed the wooden box that lay between them. She tapped the crudely carved spade on the lid. “But I know nothing about you.”

“You know everything. Why do you talk like that?”

“What’s in the box, then?”

A gush of wind ruffled his hair. The girl shuddered in her transparent costume.

“You could have at least changed before dragging us up here,” he said.

“What’s in the box?”

“Why is this so important?”

She looked around. A wasteland. Can everyone see this? she wondered. The beach beneath them almost beaten by the tide. The pleasure wheel fading in the distance, its lights dim and pale. And the circus tent, off-white specked with desolation.

“Why are you so scared?” He reached out, his fingers brushing her cheek. “You know my life before the circus means nothing.”

The girl pulled her leg over her shoulder, pushing his hand away. She peered at him behind her thigh. No secrets over your head, no lights. Who are you? Why are you hiding?

“You say that, and yet you hold onto that box,” she said.

“Let it go. It’s just a box.”

“Throw it in the sea then, why don’t you?”

“Can’t you leave me this one thing? Everything else is yours,” he said. It wasn’t a complaint. Merely a statement.

“Everything?” she asked. “Even your lions?”

“Yes, even them. Say the word and I’ll bring you their heads.”

She put her leg down and glared at him.

“I would never do something like that.” Her eyes softened. “Bring me their heads… Silly.”

He chuckled. “I always had a flare for the dramatic.”

“True.” She rested her forearms and chin at the edge of the cliff and thrust her pelvis towards her head. She then bent her knees and hung her feet over her face. She looked at him behind her soles. Nothing. How are you hiding? You are the only one who can. “What’s in the box?”

“Oh, come on. Milk. It’s just milk.”


“Yes, snake’s milk.”

She frowned. “Very funny.”

“All right,” he said. “A watch.”



She sat up and put her ear to the lid. “I can’t hear anything,” she said. “Be quiet.”

“I’m not making any noise. It’s the wind. The waves.”

“Hush them, then. What kind of a useless tamer are you?”

“Do you enjoy hurting me?”

“There is no watch in there. Tell the truth.”

“It’s dirt from my birthplace.”

“You were born on a ship.”

“You forget nothing.”

She remembered the first time he entered the circus tent, his lions on a leash, the box tucked under his arm. She was hanging upside down above the ring, yet she saw no shapes. No darknesses, no birds. Most people hide their secrets in their hearts, at the back of their heads, or under their tongues. Where are his? she had wondered. “Tell me.”

His face grew serious. He studied her small feet, dangling over the edge. “Fine,” he said, “I will. But you won’t ask for anything ever again.”


“It’s two pieces of paper. One holds my name.”

She laughed. “Your name? Aren’t you the Desert Lion?”

“Aren’t you Lady Bird?”

“All right. And the other?”


“You said you’d tell me.”

“I did.”

She stared at him counting three breaths, an old balancing habit; one, earth, two, sky, three, my body in between. “Show me,” she said with the fourth.

“You promised not to ask for anything else.”

“I lied. Will you open it?”

“Why are you doing this? You know I can’t refuse you anything.”

“That is why I do it.”

“I’ll have nothing left.”

She shrugged.

“What if I don’t?”

“I’ll fall.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Am I?” She put her weight on her palms and lifted her waist from the ridge.

“All right. All right. Sit straight.”

She obeyed. She sat cross-legged by the box and waited.

He fished for the small key hanging from the chain around his neck. He opened the box, pulled out two yellowed sheets and handed them over.

“Is that your name?” she asked.

He nodded.

“It doesn’t suit you.” She glanced at the second page, then looked at him.

He gazed at the horizon, silent.

“Was that all?” she asked.

He nodded again.

“Why keep it for so long, then?”

“I just wanted to have something that was mine,” he said. He retrieved the pages and put them back in the box. He locked it and tossed the key in the water. “Are you happy now?” he asked.

“Very.” She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Is that a birdie between your teeth?

They sat side by side, shoulders touching. He stared at the sharp rocks underneath.

She suddenly turned to him as if she’d just remembered something.

“I’m working on a new number. Want to see?”


“It’s not perfect yet,” she said, and threw herself over the edge.

A swallow soared by, almost brushing his cheek.

The Rising

By Steve Simpson

Iracema didn’t sleep well, she tossed and turned, sweating and sore, and in the early hours she crept out of bed and dressed, wincing when she pulled her top over the bruises on her breasts.

He was on his back, a snoring drunken mouth with a wasp’s nest inside. They didn’t sting him, but they were going to chase her. She was certain of that.

She searched, but there were only a few coins. He’d flushed the rest at the bar the night before. She took her backpack out of its hiding place and left.

The magnetometer signals were strong. The ore body was close enough to the surface for open cut, a no-brainer, but Doctor Ana Fliess was puzzled. She’d read the report on the area west of Marimbondo from the year before, and there was no mention of it.

Still, there it was, and she’d have to do a full survey. She looked out across the low ridges, the scrub and baked red clay, and her geologist’s eyes saw contours and grid lines. She unloaded more equipment from the back of the truck, electromagnetic transmitters and receivers, and set to work.

She was olive skinned with the widely spaced eyes of the Guaranis, and sunburnt, with her clothes and backpack covered in dust from walking all day. She asked for a bottle of water, and counted out the coins as if they were made of gold.

Ana had already paid, but she waited outside by the gas pumps.

“Would you like a lift, senhorinha? Which way are you going?”

The woman was startled, like a sparrow, as if nobody ever called her senhorinha, at least no-one like Ana.

“I’m traveling east to São Paulo, senhora.”

“I’ll be staying overnight in Marimbondo then going on to São Paulo tomorrow. You’re welcome to come with me. I’m Ana.”

“Thank you, Senhora Ana.” She almost smiled. “I am called Iracema.”

As they pulled out of the gas station, a loud continuous noise began, the sound of bending, tearing metal, and in the rear vision mirror Ana saw the green and yellow roofing over the gas pumps peeling back. It twisted around its last attachment to a support column, ripped it from the ground and flew upward like an enormous origami bird.

Iracema’s scream brought Ana back from frozen astonishment, and she rammed her foot down on the accelerator. The motor raced but the truck didn’t move forward. Its wheels had already left the ground.

It was late, and the straight run into Marimbondo was a monotony of scrub and patched bitumen. The tanker routes in the north of Paraná were long hauls, and that meant time away from family and friends. A lot of the Petrobras drivers weren’t interested, but Carlos didn’t mind. There were compensations.

His thoughts drifted to back to the prostitute he’d negotiated in Pinhal the day before–Iracema, at least that’s what she’d said. She was a little the worse for wear, and there wasn’t a moment’s pretense. She’d gazed at the wooden walls without moving, except for the motion he’d impressed on her when he climaxed.

Now there was change in the monotony, and it took Carlos a moment to realize what it was. The road noise had disappeared, as if he was travelling on smooth concrete and not tired asphalt. The tanker was slowing–he pressed the accelerator–and drifting to the verge–he tried to correct–but nothing made any difference.

As the tanker rose into the night, Carlos forgot Iracema and remembered his wife and son, framed on the dash. He touched the Saint Christopher medal beside them, opened the cabin door, and jumped out, but he was far too late and far too high.

Through the night, Iracema and Ana prayed and comforted each other. They wondered whether they were destined for the vacuum of space or to plummet back to earth, and tried to understand what had befallen them.

“It’s no use dwelling on the unknown. We must do what we can with the here and now, and the Holy Mother will take care of the rest,” Iracema said.

Ana looked out the window, “I think we might have stopped going up. The lights of Marimbondo aren’t getting any smaller.”

They decided that the best in the here and now was to get some rest, and they slept clinging to each other, with the truck rocking gently in the breeze.

At first light they woke to find themselves floating in a Sargasso Sea of metal, surrounded by water tanks and guttering, corrugated roofing, and rusted cans and scraps. In the distance, they saw another vehicle, and they called out, waved through open doors, but there was no response.

“They’ll come for us, won’t they, Ana?”

“I’m not sure they even know we’re here.”

“Then we have to send messages.”

They tore up Ana’s maps and wrote on them, rolled them in pieces of floor mat tied with wire ripped from under the dashboard, and threw them out the windows. There was activity below, trucks crawling along the roads like tiny insects, and they hoped for the best.

In the afternoon, they found a screwdriver under the seat. Ana popped the hood, and Iracema, tethered with wire, clambered to the front of the truck and retrieved the plastic container that fed the windscreen washers. The water tasted a little soapy.

At sunset they saw a helicopter.

It was from the Globo TV network, labelled ‘Globocop’ along its tail, and there was a cameraman filming out one window. They waved and shouted, and the pilot banked to come in closer. But when the helicopter had almost reached the iron sea, its nose bucked violently upward and it began to precess like a top, spinning wildly out of control.

Ana and Iracema watched it fall and explode on the ground, a distant flare.

Iracema crossed herself. “Those poor men. What happened to their helicopter?”

“The helicopter was lifted by its blades. It must have been thrown out of balance when its metal nose came into the upward force that holds us. Helicopters aren’t designed to handle anything like that.”

Iracema nodded, and thought for a moment. “Whatever the force on the metal is, it’s just at this altitude that it exactly balances gravity. The force must decrease with height. It must be stronger below us.”

“Yes, I guess it has to be.”

Ana didn’t see what use the information was, but to know there was logic even in the incomprehensible was a candle, a comfort.

The stars came out, and made sisters by fate, Ana and Iracema told each other their secrets.

Ana talked about geology, her profession, her career. “The rock strata, the secret patterns hidden in the ground. That’s all my life has ever been. I told myself I’d take a break, go on a holiday. Volcanoes. I wanted to see the volcanoes in the south of Chile.”

She sighed. “But there was always a reason to put it off. And now… and now it might be too late.”

Iracema took her hand. “It’s not over yet, Ana. We have to have faith. Our messages are down there, someone will find one.”

Ana nodded, but in her heart she knew there would be no rescue.

Iracema talked about the man she’d escaped from.

“I was so young, so naïve, still in school in Paraguay, and he was a Brazilian, a man of the world. He took me to the cinema and the amusement park, bought me chocolates and silver balloons shaped like hearts. I ran away with him and we came to live in Brazil.”

Iracema hesitated and Ana said nothing, just waited.

“I was completely dependent on him. I had no money and no documents, and that’s when it all changed. He said I had to earn my keep.”

Ana held her as she sobbed.

“I’ve been studying. I can type. I want to get an office job in São Paulo.”

The next morning was windy, the truck rocked from side to side and there was movement in the metal sea.

Iracema saw it first. “Look, over there.”

It was a floating Petrobras tanker, side on to the wind off the Andes and driving towards them like a sailboat.

“I think it’s going to hit us.” Ana tried to imagine a traffic accident in the sky.

As it approached, the tanker gathered metal driftwood before it like a plough. Eventually it tipped onto its side and stopped moving.

“I think I can hear something. Do you hear that, Ana?”

Ana listened and heard the sound too. There was a deep thrumming beneath the whistle of the wind through the floating metal. “A motor. Its motor is still running. I don’t like that, it might–”

The tanker exploded in a massive fireball, and there was roar of sound, shrapnel slamming into the truck and shattering glass.

She felt a stinging blow to the side of her head and lost consciousness.

Ana looked around at the rides, the Ferris wheel, the Russian mountain, the funhouses. Where will we go next?

Iracema was holding a cluster of heart shaped balloons. I’m going to fly, she said, and took a ball of string out of her pocket. Here, tie this to my leg.

Ana knotted one end around her ankle, and Iracema and the balloons rose into the air.

Hold on tight, she called down.

How can you float like that?

It’s easy, this is all upside down.

Come back, Iracema, I don’t think I can hold you. The string was pulling hard and her fingers were slippery.

It’s fine. You have to let go. And wake up.

“Ana, wake up, you have to wake up now.”

When she opened her eyes, she saw blood on her hands and glass diamonds, in her lap and all over the seat. She touched the side of her head with her fingertips. It felt sticky. Chunks of torn metal floated in the cabin and outside, and the windscreen was gone.

“Iracema, darling, are you alright?” Iracema was turned away from her, looking out the window. Ana touched her shoulder and she fell back against the seat. Her clothes were soaked in blood, and a metal shard protruded from her chest.

Ana was silent for a time, until the dry sobs melted into tears and screaming.

It was a violation, the last violation. She stripped the clothes from Iracema’s body and tore up the outfit she’d saved in her backpack, cleaned and pressed for job interviews in São Paulo, and wet everything with tears.

The military had closed off an area the size of a football field outside Marimbondo, and only certified scientists and connected politicians were permitted to enter the rising, the zone where iron had no interest in the current laws of physics.

Following the principle of monkeys with typewriters, the scientists collected data from a wide range of instrumentation, hoping that something would turn out to be useful even if it wasn’t a line of Shakespeare.

Unrestrained iron was strictly forbidden in the rising, and the politicians discretely played with ball bearings they’d hidden in their pockets.

On the fringes of the rising, a fair had appeared overnight. Holy men urged the crowds to accept that god had come to Paraná, the media chased stories, and locals swore that their discarded beer cans had risen off their back porches and floated for five famous minutes. When they were bored, the curiosity tourists wandered down rows of hastily erected stalls and purchased coffee, snacks, and mementoes.

One visitor from São Paulo noticed a piece of trampled matting and wire on the ground, and was vaguely curious about it. But his wife called to him, “Darling, come and look at these ‘I rose at Marimbondo’ tee shirts,” and that was that.

At midday, someone looked up at the sky and pointed, as if superman had flown out of a comic book, and a contagious buzz ran through the crowd.

Ana was close to the ground now, but the upward force on the metal in the knotted cloth bags tied to her ragtag harness was still increasing. She pulled a wire cord towards her, grabbed another piece of shrapnel from the exploded tanker and let it fly upwards.

Iracema had told her how. It’s easy, this is all upside down.

Her hands were cut and bleeding from the sharp edges on the metal shards, but really, it was easy. Ana was the upside-down balloon and the metal was her upside-down ballast. She’d discarded enough pieces to start falling and then released more along the way to keep descending.

She touched down like a feather and untied the last of her ballast, let it return to the sky, and the crowd around her clapped and cheered.

With the media held at bay by the military, Ana was given food and water, and her wounds were sterilized and bandaged. Colonel Lima, who accompanied her, politely didn’t ask too many questions.

“I think it would be best to have the doctors at Londrina Hospital check you out, senhora. I’ve arranged an airlift.”

The bottles on the shelves in the first aid tent rattled and shook, and Ana was startled.

“A minor earthquake. It’s the third one today. The scientists are looking into it.”

Earthquakes in Paraná were rare, but not unheard of, and the impossibility of the rising overshadowed anything that was just a little out of the ordinary, like a small tremor. Or like the ore body that Ana had discovered, even though there was nothing in the survey from the year before.

She tried to focus her thoughts. Most people’s thinking stopped at ground level, but that was where Ana’s began. The force of the rising was higher at lower altitudes, and it didn’t stop at ground level either.

“Colonel, I think something is going to come out of the ground, something big,” and she told him about the iron ore deposit she’d mapped out two days before, and what it meant.

“You’re saying the rising is coming from this … thing, underground.”

“Yes. It’s a mile long. You’ll have to evacuate the whole area.”

He was making his way counter flow through the crowds that were leaving, holding a dog-eared photograph and accosting disinterested strangers. He was unshaven and his eyes were bloodshot.

“My wife. She came through here. Have you seen her?” He sounded desperate.

Waving the photo towards Ana was a mistake. She kneed him hard in the groin and he doubled over, choking, unable to breathe.

Colonel Lima seemed slightly bemused. “Do you need any … assistance, senhora?”

The man with the photograph began vomiting and Ana shrugged. “It’s not important, Colonel. I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”

The ground heaved and split, erupted, and the battered craft rose upward on glaring tails of flame. The crowds watching at a distance saw the unbelievable, the certainty of extra-terrestrial life.

Ana had to stay overnight at Londrina hospital, and she joined an audience of patients and nurses in front of a television set. The camera followed the great vessel skyward until it scattered the terrestrial metalwork that had floated for two days, and then it tracked the objects themselves as they fell back to earth in a dark meteor shower.

Ana thought of Iracema’s dream, her flight, her hours of freedom.

“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” someone said, “How insignificant humanity is in the universe, how meaningless and trivial our day-to-day struggles really are.”

Ana wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She didn’t know much about the universe, but she knew that was horseshit.

Dust and Blue Smoke

By Robert Dawson

Kennit Martin charged into the playground like a tumbleweed on a mission. “Hey Jeff!” he yelled, still thirty feet away from me. “Steenrud’s bought a whole gallon of gasoline!” He gulped air. “I was at the post office when the creeper came! He said he’s already put the wheels on!”

I threw my boomerang down by the climbing frame. Across the playground, kids dropped bats and balls, put VR glasses and dolls into backpacks. Our lazy summer afternoon had just come into focus.

Old Mr. Steenrud had the only car in town. Sure, there were some biodiesel tractors and electric carts, and the big cargo creepers that crawled slowly along the rough roads. But those weren’t exciting, not like a real old-fashioned car.

It was a Chevrolet, red as blood, and about fifty years old. It lived inside his barn, up on blocks, wheels stacked beside it like giant checkers, and every kid in town was in awe of it. Its speedometer went up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, ten times as fast as a tractor. Twenty-four hours… I did the multiplication. Why, in one day, it could go anywhere! Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg… maybe even Alaska or Oz!

In ones and twos, kids left the playground, all heading past the drugstore toward the Steenrud place. Soon there was nobody left but me and Luther Petersen. “Come on, Luther!” I said. “Bet he gives us all rides!”

He scuffed a shoe in the dust. “Can’t.”

“C’mon, it’s not far!”

“My mom’d kill me, Jeff. She hates cars. She says they’re why the climate’s in such a mess today.”

“You could come and just watch.”

“Better not.” He turned and walked off towards his home. I felt sorry and relieved and guilty all at the same time: I’d been wondering if being a real friend might mean staying and watching with Luther instead of riding in the car myself, and I didn’t think I could do that.

Outside Steenrud’s barn, it was almost like the county fair had come early. Not just kids, grownups too. Horses tethered everywhere. People had brought plates of cookies and pitchers of lemonade. Oranges and lemons were big crops around there in those days; now they grow most of them up in Canada. I got a gingersnap and a glass of lemonade, and joined the long line. I thought of putting my VR glasses on while I waited, but didn’t. This was better than any of my games.

Mr. Steenrud was already giving people rides, circling the dirt track around the edge of his big field. I stood there, sipped the thin tart lemonade, and watched. There was no wind. Dust and blue smoke hung in the air, harsh and exciting.

Behind me, Ms. Steenrud was talking to somebody. “Never thought I’d see it again, Angie. Six years back he bought some gasoline from somebody, and next day he was swearing fit to bust. Crap wasn’t gasoline at all, it was some kind of cleaning solvent. Gummed her up so bad it took him three months to fix. He swore, if he couldn’t get proper gasoline anymore, he’d just leave her on the blocks. ‘Let the old girl rust in peace,’ he said. But looks like he’s found some. Still won’t tell me what he paid for it.” She laughed, but she didn’t sound quite happy.

Finally it was my turn, with the very last group. The car rolled up and stopped where we were waiting, the red paint gleaming in the warm March sun. Up close, you could see where it had been touched up with paint that wasn’t so shiny, and the front window was cracked. The doors creaked open, and the other passengers lingered for one last moment, then climbed carefully out. They were a few yards away from the car before they started chattering again.

And then we scrambled in. I’d imagined sitting in front, but Amie Telford got to do that. Paul Hartshorne’s dad got in back, in the middle, one foot straddled on each side of a big bump in the floor; I got one window and Paul had the other. Inside, it smelled of straw and horse manure, like the barn. We closed the doors. Mr. Steenrud turned around with a grin.

“Seatbelts all done up? It’s the law!” We fiddled with the awkward metal buckles. He nodded approval. “That’s right, that’s how you do it.”

I reached out to touch a little silver switch on the door. He shook his head.

“Better leave those windows down, the air conditioner hasn’t worked for years.” He grinned and faced forward again.

He pushed on the black steering wheel, and there was a loud honk, just like in the videos. He did something, water squirted onto the front window and two skinny black arms wiped it off again, leaving clean semicircles on the dusty window. The car coughed, and started to make a long, low purr, like a giant cat. And then we started to move.

It felt cooler almost immediately. We went faster and faster. I strained forward to look through the gap between the front seats. The red needle of the speedometer pointed to twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t imagine what a hundred and fifty would be like. We rattled over the bumps in the dirt track, and I was James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger or somebody, in an old action video. And we hung out the windows, and pointed our fingers like guns, and felt the wind in our faces, and tried to forget what we’d heard about cars making you sick to your stomach.

We went all round the field twice, and partway round again. Then the engine started to hesitate and stutter and went quiet. The car slowed and stopped.

“Sorry, kids!” said Mr. Steenrud. “Think the gas just ran out.” He tried the starter again, but it just coughed. He bent down and did something else, and the red metal lid ahead of the front window jumped a bit. He got out, walked around to the front, and opened it.

We couldn’t see anything with it up, so we climbed out too, and came around to look. Inside, the front of the car was full of strange shapes in shiny metal and black plastic. What he was looking at was a metal gallon can, with a hose rigged to it with a pipe clamp.

He shook the can; there was no sound but the dry whack of the hose against one of the metal parts. “Yep, that’s it. She’s out. Nothing left. Ride’s over.” His voice was quiet, as if we weren’t there and he was talking to himself.

Back by the barn, a bunch of the others had noticed that the car had stopped. A straggle of grownups and kids were on their way across the field to help.

“Something wrong, Bill?” one of the men asked, when they got there.

“No, she’s fine. Just out of gas,” Mr. Steenrud said. He was still smiling, but he looked tired from all the driving, and his eyes were red from the dust.

Gently, he lowered the lid down. It clunked softly into place. Then he climbed back behind the black steering wheel, and closed his door, and we all pushed the car back to the barn, like a parade.

A Case of the Blues

By E. Lillith McDermott

Subway platforms always make me claustrophobic. Don’t know if it’s the being underground, the heat, or the people. Maybe all three.

Clint’s glaring at me. “Martin, stop it! You’re gonna pop a button.”

I look down, confused. My fingers have a mind of their own, twitching up and down my lapel. Damn starch. Years it’s been in my closet and this suit’s still stiff. Clint’s right, a lost button’s just one more thing to worry about. I push my hands into my pockets. Look up at Clint. He nods, approval. Patronizing.

“So Yolanda said you had to interview today, huh?” He knows this of course, just trying to make me talk. Get out of my own head. Probably not a bad idea.

I answer. “Just to keep up my disability.”

Again Clint nods, like he understands. He doesn’t. He’s one of the few of us not getting Federal Aid. Stop – Clint’s the only friend you’ve got. Quit being a dick. After all, the rules and regs of G.O.D. welfare aren’t his fault.

I need to talk. “I don’t know why these case workers insist on making us run this gauntlet of humiliation.” I let my eyes drift across the empty tracks, land on the graffitied-over station sign. I like the new name better – Blue Barrio. Better fit. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hired.”

“I did.” Clint’s voice is small. This is well-worn territory.

“Sort of.” I gesture toward his coveralls and I.D. badge. “But you’re a teacher, not a… Recycling Technician.” Glorified garbage man.

“And I’ll teach again.” As always Clint’s nothing but confident.

“You really believe they’ll open schools for us.” Not a question. Not any more. Clint’s a true believer–his face hardens. He believes, I don’t.

“Of course they will. Every day more kids are born with the Blues. They’re gonna need some schools, and soon. Special schools, just for us. Like the housing.” He nods across the tracks – toward the name of our state sanctioned ghetto. He’s right, of course. Got to keep the infected out of the general population. Schools, hospitals–a whole separate world is slowly materializing.

The 9 train rattles to a stop and the doors swoosh open. A clean-cut young man, maybe about my age, in green scrubs pushes past. He smells strongly of hospital and disinfectant. The smell overwhelms me, and suddenly it’s 6 years ago, in Dr. Polson’s office.

I was back in my clothes, sitting on the crinkly white paper–waiting. My mom was in a chair by the door and my dad couldn’t stop pacing. Dr. Polson had given the diagnosis with about as much feeling as if he’d been
reading a weather report. Glaucous Otteric Deficiency syndrome.

“What happens now?” I asked his shoes.

My mother sobbed.

Polson cleared his throat. “Well, the disease is still new. We’re learning things every day. For now, what you need to know is we don’t believe it’s fatal. This isn’t AIDS2, no matter what the Internet is saying. You’ll probably suffer some hearing loss, which seems to be pretty universal. But other than that, well, the obvious is the pigment change.”

“How long?” I was shocked numb, no feeling, just questions.

“Depends.” The doctor focused on me, ignoring my mom’s increased hysterics. “But given how pale your coloring is, my best guess is you’ll see it pretty fast.”

“What about law school? I just started.” I needed answers.

“No reason you can’t finish, but in all honesty Martin, you should be prepared, you’ll have a full blown case before you graduate.” My mom sobbed, bolted from the room. After a long glare, my dad followed. That glare still burns, even all these years later.

Clint moves forward, stepping onto the train first. I let him. My heart races and my stomach threatens revolt. I’d like to say the first reactions are the worst, but that’d be a lie. They’re all just various degrees of horrible. Clint never gets quite the reactions I do. Not with his ebony skin. He’d probably have been able to go right along in the outside world if the whites of his eyes hadn’t finally given him away. They always do. The last to go. The final straw. But at least he’d had a few more years. Not like me. All Nordic paleness. No more healthy melanin left in my cells.

I take a deep breath. I have a right to get on this train. One foot in front of the next. The reaction is instant. Audible intakes of breath. Nervous movements. The old lady next to the door tries to make her shifting look natural – but I know. They can’t take their eyes off of me. They barely notice Clint. He blends. Not me. If I meet their eyes, they look away. But they can’t look away for long. Curiosity – morbid curiosity. Like driving by wreckage on the interstate. That’s me–road kill blues.

I pretend to look out the window. Let them stare. I watch them in the reflected glass. Try not to see myself. But I can’t help it. I’d stare too, if I were them. My once blond hair is now a dull gray. The disease has eaten up my ivory skin and replaced it with the pale blue seen throughout the Barrio. But it’s my eyes that really freak people out. Once I had the most perfect crystal eyes, little oceans. Only now, the ocean fills my entire socket. Like some possessed sea monster.

The man next to me shifts and re-shifts. Folds and unfolds his paper. But he won’t move. That would be discriminatory – and he’s not that sort of man. I bet if I started coughing he’d run.

I bet they’d all run.

How many times a month did I read new rumors about G.O.D. turning airborn? Clint smiles, finishes winding his watch. That’s his thing, says it gives folks a chance to take him in, calm down. He nods at the uncomfortable man to my right. Just like Clint to appreciate even the most half-assed efforts. The train pulls into the next station. Uncomfortable Man is already on his feet. Wonder if this is actually his stop?

He steps out the door and is immediately replaced by a 20-something woman with dirty blond dreadlocks. She scans the car, sees us – lights up. She pushes her way into our little demilitarized zone and drops into a seat, enveloping me in a cloud of patchouli. “You from the Blue Barrio?” she asks way too loudly. She wants to be noticed. She keeps looking around, demanding attention.

“That’s right.” Clint answers. Calm, you’d think he had conversations with uninfected women all the time.

She nods, smiles encouragingly. “I’m a member of the Glaucous Defense league at my university.” Am I supposed to be proud of her? Clint smiles. “We’ve staged a bunch of protests to make people realize that you’re people too!” Once again, she looks around. Bile stings the back of my throat. “Your human rights are being violated!” She just keeps talking. “We’re pushing for legislation. We’re gonna get you protected status.” Protected status. Like a spotted owl? A manatee?

“So what’s it like in the Barrio?” She leans forward, curious. No pause for an answer – not that curious. “I’ve heard conditions are pretty bad. We’re gonna change all that, you know.” She shifts and her backpack knocks Uncomfortable Man’s discarded newspaper to the ground. She grabs at it. “Oh!” She disappears behind the gray pages. A pause. “Look at this!” she commands, pointing to a page. My eyes follow.

Splashed across the front page is an oversized photo of a nondescript ranch-style house surrounded by emergency vehicles. 15 Dead in Blue Cult Mass Suicide. Again, bile. “I know.” The Good Samaritan commiserates, shaking her head. The dreds shake out another cloud of patchouli. My nose tickles. If I sneeze, will she leave? She scans the article. “So disgusting.” Is she still talking to us? I try to ignore her.

“These cults just keep popping up. I mean, come on. The Chosen People? Do you feel like the chosen ones?” She glances between Clint and me. I stay still. Clint shakes his head. I want to kick him. “It’s all because of the name you know.” She turns back to the paper. “Blue bug chasers – too sick.” New term: Blue bug chasers. Haven’t heard that one yet. “Totally muddies the issue.” I wish she’d be quiet. “Accidents happen, but come on! The first thing anyone in the Defense League does is swear to practice the safest sex possible and to get tested after every encounter. I mean the last thing any of us want is to be an example of irresponsibility and get infected.”

She looks up, conversationally. I raise my eyebrows – can’t resist. Red begins to color her cheeks. I hold my face still – but I want to laugh. “Uh…not to say you were acting irresponsibly…I mean…accidents happen…right?” Her blush grows. The train comes to a stop. She looks around, her eyes wild. “Oh, this is… I gotta go.” She bolts. We rattle on. The next stop is fast approaching, my stomach tightens.

“You gonna be okay?” Clint’s worried. I nod. I smile. I lie.

“Uh, thanks. For coming this far. I know the work bus would’ve been easier.” He doesn’t pretend – I’m glad. Just nods and takes off toward his transfer. I slide across the empty seats, putting the mechanic’s closet against my shoulder. I become tiny – inconspicuous. Commuters pile into the car, but not around me. I have my own little pocket of space. I catch a man stealing a glance. We lurch to another stop. One…two…three…four…not many more stops left.

A young mother drags her son onto the car. Her head is bent over her huge purse and she’s fiddling with a cell. She looks up, scans the crowd and pushes her boy toward my open seats. She gestures her son into a seat and then returns to her bag and phone. I push up against the metal of the wall; feel the cold through my blazer.

The boy looks at me. “What’s wrong with you?” I’m not sure what to say, how to respond. I glance over at his mom. She’s still busy – distracted. How will she react? Should I answer? “Well?” The boy presses. He’s young, no more than 7 or 8, maybe younger. Mixed race, adopted? I can’t tell. Definitely darker than his mother, by about 10 shades.

“I caught a virus,” I whisper, try not to be overheard.

“A virus?”

“Like a cold, only instead of making me sneeze, it made me blue.” Again I glance at his mother. Still busy.

“Cool!” The boy smiles and nods.

“You think this is cool?”

“Totally. You look like an alien…or…oh!” His face lights up and he begins to dig in the backpack at this feet. I look past his bent head, but his mom is busy pushing buttons on her phone. The boy pops back up. He holds up a comic book – well worn. He taps the cover. I look. A bright blue man is frozen in a mid-karate kick.

“Who’s that?” I whisper. I can feel more and more eyes turning to our conversation. My stomach tightens and my pulse quickens.

“Only the best crime fighter ever!” Apparently that was supposed to be obvious. “He’s part of this group of mutants that work together to fight evil. They have all sorts of cool powers.” He pauses, his eyes narrow. “Do you have any powers?”

I want to laugh. But his face is so hopeful. I shake my head. His face droops. “At least, not that I know of.” I feel myself smile. Foreign. I shouldn’t be talking to this kid – his mom’s gonna freak.

The boy looks thoughtful, eyes me up and down. “Maybe you’ll get powers. Or maybe,” his eyes sparkle. “Maybe you’re actually an alien.”

I shake my head. “Sorry, no.”

“Maybe you don’t know it. Like a sleeper agent. And then, when the ships land, you’ll wake up or something.” His smile is contagious.

“Maybe.” I shrug.

He keeps talking; his words rush out tripping over each other. “Or what if you’ve been secretly infected by another race of aliens who are trying to protect earth and when the invasion happens, you’ll like turn into some sort of super man and–”

“Joshua, stop bother–” His mother’s mouth hangs opens, her words dead on her lips. She stares at me.

My heart thumps…



Her face contorts. Panic wars with decorum. She glances around the car. Those nearest go quiet. The train stops. In a flurry of movement she collects their belongings. “Come on Joshua, this is our stop.”

He pulls at her arm. “But Mom–”

“Josh, quiet,” she hisses – teeth clenched. I meet his eyes, nod – one small head bob. They are gone. I wish I was Joshua’s superhero. Then I’d have the power to…

The next stop comes up fast. The ride gets worse. Two punks slip through the doors at the last second. And they’re…blue. Not blue like me, Clint. But really blue. Blue and proud.

The girl’s – amazing. I can’t stop looking. I barely notice him. She’s not remarkable in height or beauty, but she’s so…out. Her hair, it should be gray, but its not. She’d dyed it neon blue. So bright it makes my eyes water. Her clothes- blue, black and purple. Purple lips and midnight eyelids. Even her nails are blue. No shame – she looks around the car meeting eyes and making them look away.

Only now do I even look at him. What she lacks in height he makes up. Sweat beads on my neck. He’s shaved his hair into a Mohawk, bleached white. Torn jeans, lug-soled boots. Metal clinks on his worn leather jacket.

They see me. His face doesn’t move, but she lights up. She walks like she wants people to watch – they do. She drops into the seat next to me, lithe. She leans toward me, too close. My breath catches. She smells like vanilla, and cinnamon. Her companion turns his back on me, scanning the commuters. Like a recon scout. I can’t believe my eyes. The back of his jacket has been spray painted “Beware the GODs”

Blue Girl reaches up and runs a finger through my hair, over my ear. A trail of goose bumps follow her touch. My stomach turns inside out. “Where you going?” she whispers – still too close.

“Yeah.” Her companion turns back, leans over me. “That’s a nice suit.” He smiles. Still scary. Are they being friendly, or making fun?

“Yes.” She runs her finger under my collar. “It is a nice suit, but it doesn’t suit you, does it?” A smile plays around her lips. Full, perfectly painted lips.

She smiles.

I sweat.

I’ve never looked at a blue girl like this before. I want to know more. Her name. Her life. Blue Guy clears his throat. A business-sized card has materialized in his hand. On autopilot, I reach up, take it. “In case you’re curious.” He winks.

“You should call us,” she whispers, her fingers once again play with my hair. “You have questions.”

Blue Guy leans closer, whispering. The car’s completely still, no way he won’t be heard. “We have answers. The world’s changing.”

The train lurches to a stop. My bubble pops. “Excuse me.” I push away. Stand. “This is my stop.” They both smirk. My heart’s beating too hard. I’m surprised it doesn’t echo down the train. I walk to the doors.

“Call me!” Blue Girl yells and the doors hiss shut.

I see the sidelong glances. The double takes, the sudden shifts in movements – but I can ignore them. I can’t get the blue punks out of my head. The card in my pocket is insistent – demanding.

I reach my address. A shiny monument to man’s conquest over nature. I enter the lobby. More looks. Walk toward the elevators. Blue girl walked like she owned the world. I don’t. I need the 7th floor, no sense in walking. The elevator dings open. I enter. Not surprisingly I have a private ride. First floor…second…third. It stops.

The doors open. An overweight man with a pink face does a double take. Glances up and down the hall. No one comes to save him. Steps deliberately onto the elevator. He doesn’t look at me. Later, will he tell his friends of his close encounter and how he barely survived?

Sweat is beading up on his forehead. I feel wicked. I’d like to shout, “Boo!” He’d have a heart attack. I feel a laugh erupting. I squeeze my lips tight. The door opens, floor 6. He gets off. I let go. He hears my laugh. I can tell. The doors close between us.

Floor 7. Showtime. I open the firm’s big glass doors and march purposefully toward the receptionist. She looks up. Drops her plastic smile. “I have a 9 am with Ms. Peterson.”


The smile returns – forced. “Of course, and your name?”

“Martin Dover.”

“Just have a seat and I’ll let her know you’re here.” Wonder how long I’ll have to wait? How long should I wait? Yolanda should be more specific in her requirements. I pick a seat directly facing the large glass doors. Perhaps that will hurry this along.

“Martin Dover?” Crisp, direct. I stand. The severe woman doesn’t flinch. Did the receptionist warn her?

“Ms. Peterson?” I step forward.

She spins on one sharp heel. “Let’s head over to my office, why don’t we?” She gestures me forward. I follow her down a hall into a room full of cubicles and chatter. I walk past the first row of cubicles and slowly the noise dies. Like ripples echoing from a stone in a pond. I focus my eyes on Ms. Peterson’s slate gray jacket.

Her glass-walled office sits on the far side of the cubicle bay. I have no doubt her mere presence behind that glass goes a long way to keep behavior in check. “Please shut the door behind you, Mr. Dover.” I do as ordered. She sits with admirable posture. My chair is stiff, almost painful. Her tiny brown eyes inspect me, top to bottom. She flips open a file on her desk, but never takes her eyes off me. “Interesting resume Mr. Dover. Impressive school credentials, but then absolutely no job experience. Nothing at all. Not just in Law, nothing. Should I assume you’ve been spending your time doing…” She gestures toward all of me.

No beating around the bush for Ms. Peterson. Honesty. I tell the truth. “Pretty much. That’s why I’m applying for the internship program. I wouldn’t be qualified for anything else.”

She raises an eyebrow but skips no beats. “True. Of course our internship program usually applies to more recent law school graduates.”

“Once again, my extenuating circumstances.”

“Yes, that.” Her eyebrows crease. “You failed to mention your infection status on your application.”

Shock. No one’s ever been this direct. My brain buzzes. Blank. Yolanda’s voice from far off coaching sessions fills my mouth with words. “I wasn’t aware that I was required to disclose my health status.”

Her face is a mask of calm. But I’ve touched a nerve. Her fingers twitch on the desk and her eyes flash. “That’s in some debate, now isn’t it?” Her voice is ice.

My chest tightens. I sit up straighter. “You do advertise as an equal opportunity employer.” Are these my words? From my mouth? We sit across the table, our own little standoff.


We both jump. Ms. Peterson hits a button on her phone. The receptionist’s perky voice fills the room. “Ms. Peterson, Mr. Singh would like to have a word with you in his office.”

“Excuse me.” She stands. Back ramrod straight. Alone. In a fishbowl of an office. My back is to the door. She must have left it open; I can hear little snippets of conversation.

“–give him a job?”

“Not possible…”

“…environmental safety?”

Deep breath. Tune it out. Turn it into just so much chicken coop chatter. Singh. Might be the managing partner. Wonder if it’s about me?

The wall clock ticks. My hands are sweaty. I rub them along the side of my hip. Feel the business card stashed in my pocket. I pull it out. On one side; a number. On the other, “Got a bad case of the blues?” I swear I can still smell that sugary cinnamon.

My heart begins to speed.

Why am I here?

What am I doing?

I can hear my pulse in my ears. It’s not like they’re gonna give me a job anyway. I stand up. I’m halfway through the cubicles before they notice me. Words die on their lips. They look sick, shocked. But I don’t care. I’m gone.

Out the door.

Into the elevator – empty. I smile.

I press the card in my pocket. Think. My apartment. Quiet. I have a lot to decide. My phone.

The lobby has become crowded. Too crowded. I’ve spent enough time on the periphery of the barrio to recognize concern. The low drone of chatter is growing in volume and tenor. They cluster around the plate glass walls, too agitated at first to notice me pushing through. Some of them step aside, but most only glance in my direction, caught up in the chaos. I am not the biggest threat.

Too curious to hold back, I shove my way to the doors. I cannot believe my eyes. Outside it’s raining. Obese droplets coat the now deserted street. Covering cars, sidewalk, and street in a steady sheen of blue. Not the blue of water, the ocean.

The blue of me.

I push through the doors. The rain soaks my hair, runs down my face, drips off my nose. The city has gone still. The murmur of the rain is parted by a familiar voice. “Do you like it?” Blue Girl stands alone on the pavement, palms upturned to the blue droplets. I nod.

“Come.” She holds out a hand. “The revolution’s just beginning.”

I take her hand, lift my face to the rain, lick my lips. I taste sugar and cinnamon.

Coming Home

By Lynn Rushlau

Trembling, Brettel touched the iron gate. It didn’t burn. She huffed. Foolish woman, why would it? She gripped a bar tightly and held onto the solidness of home.

Reaching through the bars, she raised the latch and pushed the gate open. Silently. Before it had made god-awful noises. Her breath caught. No. Oh, no. Holding the gate open, she studied the house before her.

She knew the sage bushes and willows that lined the path to the door. The swing hanging on the left side of the porch was an old friend. To the right stood the same rocking chairs that had stood there since time immemorial. Brettel smiled. This was home. This was where she belonged.

Someone had oiled the gate. In all these years, someone should have. It was a small change. Things would have. She had. But this was still home. Still where she belonged.

Wasn’t it?

She hurried up the path, took a deep breath, and knocked. She’d been gone too long to just walk in.

An adolescent girl yanked the door open a few heartbeats later. She looked Brettel up and down, raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”

Who–? Brettel frowned and shook her head. It didn’t matter. “Is this still the carpenter’s residence?”

“He takes orders at his shop.” The girl pointed to adjacent building.

Brettel sighed with relief. “Is his wife home?”

The girl turned away and hollered, “Mom! Someone here for you.”

Leaving the door hanging open, she disappeared into the house.

Brettel heard footsteps and braced herself. An older woman, auburn hair streaked with grey, came around the corner and walked to the door. “Can I–?” Her brow furrowed momentarily. Her jaw dropped open. She whispered, “Brettel?”

Brettel bit her lip. “Mom?”

“Oh sweet lords! Brettel!” Her mother threw her arms around Brettel and pulled her into the house in a bone-crushing hug. Through eyes swimming with tears, Brettel saw the adolescent girl creep up to the parlor door. Brettel pulled back a little. Her mother let go and saw the direction of Brettel’s gaze.

“Delial, run to your father’s workshop. Tell him Brettel’s returned!”

The girl raised her eyebrows and disappeared back around the corner.

Brettel’s eyebrows shot up. That sulky almost grown girl was little Delial? Her sister who’d been in pigtails when Brettel left?

Their mother’s eyes raked across Brettel’s face. “Are you home? Are you home to stay?”

“If you’ll allow me–”

“Of course, of course.” Her gaze dropped lower and the frown returned between her eyes as she took in the well-cut dress of expensive linen and the finely tooled leather bag hanging at Brettel’s hip.

“Are you married?” she asked.

Brettel shook her head. Her mother paled and briefly closed her eyes. “You’ve become as a courtesan.”

“Mother! No!”

Her mother waved a hand at her clothes.

“I’ll tell you both when Dad gets here, but I promise I’ve never sold my body for money. I had a job. My employer wished us to dress well and provided the clothes. The bag was a parting gift.”

Her mother still looked worried, but she closed the door and escorted Brettel to the kitchen. Her father burst in mere seconds later. “Brettel!”

His hug knocked breath from her lungs. As soon as he let her go, a young man pulled her into his arms. Brettel froze for a second and pulled away. He grinned. Oh, wow, how could she have not recognized him no matter how old her little brother had grown. “Garnan!”

Delial had returned as well, but she hung back. Arms crossed, she leaned against the wall.

“Where have you been all this time?” Garnan demanded.

Brettel looked at her parents. “You said if I wasn’t going to help out in Dad’s shop that I’d have to find work.”

Her parents exchanged a look full of pain and recrimination.

Brettel smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. I know I was an utter brat over the idea. For years I’ve wished I could do them over, and that wasn’t how you remembered me.”

“Ah, you were young,” her father said. He clasped her hand. “Only sixteen.”

“Sixteen is old enough to know when you’re acting like a brat.”

Delial frowned. So did Brettel. Delial couldn’t be that old yet.

“Anyway, I knew work was inevitable so I left that morning to attend the hiring fair.”

Her parents exchanged a look.

“Releigh had offered you work in her bakery,” her mother said.

“I remember, but I hated the idea. So I went to the hiring fair instead. There was a woman there, dressed much as I am today, looking for people to work at a huge estate. She said very little of the estate, only enough to give clue to its size and that it was on one of the islands, not here in Dwankey. When she offered me a seven-year position as an upstairs maid, I couldn’t say no. It sounded so elegant!

“A young man from a farmstead well north of us wanted work in the gardens, and a girl from the fishing huts took a position in the estate’s kitchens. We all followed the woman to the docks, where a beautiful white ship awaited us. It wasn’t any larger than the fishing vessels, but so dainty and well-kept.” Brettel shook her head.

“The woman ushered us aboard, but didn’t get on herself. She had served her time and finished her final task in hiring us and now could go home. She’d introduced herself at the fair as Trudy, now she told us she was related to the Millers.”

“Trudy Miller!” her mother shrieked. Her parents exchanged a stunned look. Garnan’s jaw dropped. Delial stepped away from the wall, her arms falling to her side and eyes wide.

“That woman claims she spent the seven–” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “Seven years she was gone on the White Isle.”

Brettel nodded. “That’s where the white ship took us. We had to restrain the fishmonger’s girl from jumping over as we drew near and it became obvious the White Isle was our destination.”

“I remember,” Garnan said dreamily. “I remember the Isle was visible that day. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time that morning watching the glitter of the sun on the white towers, discussing what it might really be like. Did you see the Fae? Did you see magic?”

Brettel shuddered. “Yes to both. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do with either. I was just an upstairs maid. I made their beds and cleaned their rooms and avoided them as best I could. My life wasn’t much different than a maid at any grand estate, I have to believe.”

“But what of the Fae? Who is the lord there? What is he like?” Delial took a seat at the table. Her mouth hung open.

“He–His name–” The name hovered on the tip of her tongue, but dissolved before she could form it. His image stayed behind her eyes. Tawny hair, chilly gold eyes. The image blurred. Brettel shook her head. “I’m sorry. They said it would all fade the further we got from the White Isle. I don’t seem to remember much of them. ”

“You were there for seven years. You must remember!”

Brettel’s brow furrowed. “I remember cleaning. I remember my friends among the human staff. The boy who came from the farm fell in love with one of them. He chose to stay on permanently.”

“One of the Fae?” Delial’s eyes were huge.


“That’s so romantic!” Delial squealed. “What was she like? Is she beautiful beyond words? Will they marry?”

Startled, Brettel laughed. “No, I don’t think they marry. She was–she was beautiful. All raven blue locks and deep…dark eyes.” The image dissipated as Brettel tried to describe her. She shook her head. “I–I do recall she was beautiful.

“I served the seven years of my contract and came home. They did pay me well. I have money for the household.” Brettel started to dig through her bag.

Her father caught her arm and said, “Are you telling us that Trudy Miller knew exactly where you were all this time? She let our hearts break with worry for seven years and never did us the kindness of passing on your location?”

Brettel blushed. “She probably didn’t know whose child I was.”

“We asked all over town for months and months!” her mother exclaimed. “Had anyone seen you? Did anyone remember you leaving Dwankey on any of the carts from the fair? A couple of people have always insisted they saw you at the fair, but since no one could say and we never heard from you, we feared the worst.”

“I’m sorry. If I’d had any way of getting word to you, I would have. I didn’t understand when I accepted the contract where I was going. Not until we were halfway across the bay to the White Isle and even then I didn’t believe we were really going to the White Isle until we actually docked there. No one’s ever reached it before. How was I to know we’d stepped onto a Fae boat with Fae sailors?”

“But she knew,” her father said. “That bitch knew all along how distraught we were and that you were safe and–I’m going to kill her.”

“Dad, no.” Brettel shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment. She didn’t want to say this, but knew she must. “It was her final duty to find new servants. Few choose to stay on beyond their seven years. The estate is immense. You would not believe from the glimpses we see from shore, how truly big the island and the estate is. They need servants.”

“What are you saying?” her mother asked.

“It is the final duty for departing servants. To find replacements.”

“Today was the hiring fair,” Garnan said. “Sol and Nerles were planning to look for better work.”

“Brettel?” Her father frowned. “Did you go first to the fair this morning?”

Brettel nodded. “I had that duty, yes.”

“Who? Who did you send off to them?” her father demanded. Brettel shook her head.

“No, you can’t do this, Brettel,” her mother said. “You must tell their families. You cannot allow another family to go through the grief we’ve suffered. Who did you send to them?”

“I can’t remember.”

Garnan insisted he could finish the current job alone, but their father returned to the workshop with him. Delial disappeared. After several miserable attempts to question Brettel about her life on the White Isle, her mother focused on catching Brettel up on seven years worth of gossip.

Mother made them tea, but wouldn’t let Brettel help. The teacups rested in the same cabinet as ever. The sugar, milk, spoons, all were where they should be. Brettel would have made the tea for them, but her mother brushed away all offers of assistance and served Brettel as if she were a guest.

Delial must have run to tell friends and family, for both showed up in droves that evening. An impromptu party replaced dinner. By its end, Brettel felt more exhausted than spring cleaning ever left her.

Everyone grilled her about the Fae. Many seemed frustrated that she could tell them nothing. More than one older relative took her to task over the pain she’d caused her parents–as if she could go back in time and fix that at this point.

Brettel’s bed had never been such a refuge, not even when the White Isle was at its scariest. She frowned. Memories of terror increased her heartbeat, but what had happened? The question drew a shiver down her spine. Better to not remember.

Her room remained her room. No one else needed the tiny space with the tattered patchwork quilt. Her old, dusty clothes filled the miniscule wardrobe. Faded drawings hung on the walls.

“I couldn’t bear to pack it up.” Her mother twisted her hands as she stood in the hall.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m back now.” Brettel hugged her.

She shut the door and breathed in the silence.

Home was not what she expected. She thought she’d feel safe here. She thought it would be familiar, but she missed her friends in service. She missed the camaraderie. She missed the singing and the gardens and the beauty and peace. The White Isle felt more like home than this tiny dark house filled with inquisitive people, who stared at her like she was a spook!

Brettel climbed into bed and curled up under the strange blankets that had covered her for most nights of her life.

It would be better tomorrow. Today had been a shock for them all. Tomorrow life would start getting back to normal.

A thud drew her upright. Glass shattered. Another thud hit the wall. Brettel shrieked.

Lantern in hand, Garnan burst through the door. “What–?” He saw the rock lying in the pool of shattered glass. “Bastards.”

Their parents crowded in the door. “What’s happened? What’s wrong? What does that say?”

Garnan knelt in the glass and cut the note from the rock. He read aloud, “You’ll bring back them you’ve stolen, bit–” He shot a frantic glance at his mother. “You bring them back now.”

Brettel didn’t sleep well. The board her father hammered over the shattered window left the room too dark. She woke sandy-eyed and tired. Morning made nothing better.

Breakfast was well underway when she got downstairs.

“I’m sorry. I never sleep in this late. What can I do to help?”

“You have a seat. We’ll have the food ready in a jiffy,” Mom said.

Delial scowled.

“Let me set the table.”

“It’s your first morning back. Delial will do it.”

Delial shot Mom an outraged glare, slammed down the breadknife, and stalked out of the room.

“Delial! Get back here!”

“It’s okay. I’ll get it.” Brettel finished slicing the bread and set the table. It was her first and last triumph.

Offers to help were met with protests that it was her first morning back, her first lunch, her first afternoon, her first week. Her mother allowed her to do nothing. Her father needed her not at all. Delial scowled at every rebuffed offer.

Brettel attempted to ignore her mother’s refusal the first night at dinner and assist Delial, but Delial grabbed the flatware from Brettel’s hands and insisted she could handle her own chores.

Brettel needed to find work. Leaving the White Isle, she’d known she’d need to, would want to, but she hadn’t expected to be dying to escape her home again. Nothing like several years in Faerie to demonstrate beyond question what it means to be an outsider. She expected to fit right in at home.

The constant rebuffs had her ready to flee again.

She needed work, something to make proper use of her time. If her parents couldn’t provide, she’d find it in town.

Brettel dressed in her best dress, coat and gloves and went down to breakfast a week to the day she’d come home. Her mother looked up to greet her and dropped her knife with a clatter.

“Are you leaving?” Mom’s face paled.

“I thought I’d seek work in town after breakfast.”

“Oh.” Her mother dropped her hand over her heart. “I need to pick up a few things at the market. I’ll walk down with you.”

Delial huffed and stormed out of the room.

“Delial! The porridge!”

“It’s okay. I can get it.” Before her mother could protest, Brettel plucked the spoon from the pot and planted herself before the stove.

Her mother sighed, but didn’t say anything as Brettel finished the rest of Delial’s breakfast tasks. Delial’s obvious discontent killed any satisfaction Brettel might have gained from actually being able to help.

Brettel found the walk into town more perplexing than the walk home had been. Surely that house had blue shutters before, not dingy brown. And hadn’t that one been yellow? Was this a different route? What happened to Miss Oliandra’s roses? The sheared yard left Brettel unsure if she identified the right house. Vastly overgrown hedges no longer hid the house at the end of the lane.

An old man approached them from town. He doffed his battered straw hat and said hello. Brettel echoed her mother’s response.

“Good to see you.” He nodded to Brettel as he passed.

Brow furrowed in confusion, Brettel leaned close to her mother to whisper. “Who was that?”

“Donnod. You remember him.”

Brettel gave her a blank look.

“He owns a fleet of fishing boats.” Her mother smiled. “Well, he has seven sons and son-in-laws and owns all their boats. You must remember Methew. He courted you.”

The name pricked at her memories. “Reddish blond hair, brown eyes? Really skinny?”

“That’s the one. He’s still single.”

Startled, Brettel blushed. How had her mother known she was wondering about that?

They turned a corner and started down main street. The roofs of the homes of Dwankey’s rich could be seen over the shops.

“Do you want me to meet you back somewhere here in town or just see you at home?” Brettel asked.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Her mother bit her lip.

“Seeking employment? How could it not be?”

Brettel visited seven houses before exhaustion led her back to main street. No one needed anyone right now. Those who’d been shorthanded hired at the fair last week. Of course. Brettel felt foolish to have not thought of that.

But her efforts might yet bear fruit. Several housekeepers took her information and seemed to think their mistresses would be interested to have a maid who’d worked on the White Isle.

She would keep her fingers crossed, but the day’s search had done nothing to solve her immediate problem of uselessness.

Wondering if she’d need to leave Dwankey to find employment, Brettel headed back to Releigh’s Bakery to meet her mother. Mere feet from the door, bruising hands grabbed her arms and whipped her around.

“What have you done with my wife?” Spittle landed on her face as the man bellowed. He shook her. “You had no right to take her away from me! Harlot! Demon!”

Brettel flopped helplessly in his arms. She could hear people shrieking, but couldn’t catch her breath to add to their cries.

“Thief! You had no right! How do I get her back? Tell me!” He shook her so hard she nearly lost balance. “How do I get her—oomph.”

Garnan socked the man in the side. He pried Brettel free of the man’s hold and pulled her away. “Are you okay?”

Her mother and a flurry of older women surrounded her all asking the same question. Brettel’s head spun.

“You leave my sister alone, Coffard! Everyone knows why your wife left you!”

Coffard swung a punch, but Garnan ducked out of the way. Guards bustled through, breaking up the fight before it went further and dispelling the crowd.

Brettel couldn’t sleep that night. She truly missed the White Isle. The housekeeper would have had a salve and a cool drink that would have soothed her throat in no time. Back on the Isle, she wouldn’t be lying here with a burning throat throbbing too much to allow sleep.

The witch hazel-infused cloth around her neck felt good when first applied, but its comfort dissipated in minutes. Brettel refused to consider dipping into the funds she’d provided to the household for the apothecary and a better painkiller.

She rolled over and took another sip of lukewarm honey-filled tea. The honey helped, but again, its succor disappeared too quickly to allow escape into sleep.

The White Isle would be visible somewhere tonight. On it, one forgot to look across the waters, but once in a rare moon, she would remember the world outside its shore and steal a glimpse of the mainland.

Some nights the moon illuminated forested rocky shores without a sign of human habitation to be found. Other times, she caught glimpses of immense, formidable cities that stretched as far as the eye could see.

She never saw Dwankey. Not once until this week when she climbed back into the faerie boat to come home.


Why had she wanted to return so badly? Her family had missed her; she must acknowledge that. But she wasn’t needed here. No one knew what to do with her.

Her parents wouldn’t accept the money she’d hoarded all these years to give them. They kept returning it to her room. She moved it back to the house coffer every morning. Her father even refused to let her pay for the glazier to give her this new window. She rolled over and glared at it.

The night sky looked paler than usual. Brettel frowned and climbed out of bed. Maybe she was remembering wrong. Everything was weird on the White Isle. The sky often seemed darker, the stars brighter and closer there.

The world outside looked eerily orange. The connection took only a moment. “Fire!”

She pivoted and flew out of her room. Still shouting “Fire!” she clattered down the stairs. Doors slammed open. She burst outside and gasped. Her father’s carpentry shop was aflame.

She needed to raise the town.

Brettel ran for the gate. She heard her father yell to her brother not to go inside the shop. She flung open the gate and, glancing back to make sure Garnan wasn’t risking his life, slammed into someone solid.

“Oh, sorry! Can you help? I’ve got to get to the emergency bell.” Brettel tried to pull free of the hands that caught her.

“No. What you’ve got to do is take me to my wife.”

Brettel screamed.

The man caught both her wrists in his left hand and shoved a rag in her mouth. He pulled her away from the house. She dragged her heels. She couldn’t stop him, but they weren’t moving very fast.

The emergency bell clanged. Running footsteps drew closer to them and filled Brettel with relief. But Coffard heard them as well. He threw her over his shoulder and took off at a stumbling lope.

Hands free, Brettel yanked out the gag. She screamed, kicked, and beat his back with her fists as he ran. No one stopped him. His distraction had been too good. The entire town was awake, oh yes, but they hurried to help her parents. No one heard her screams over the uproar about the fire. Coffard cut through yards and dragged her down back ways where they passed no one.

At the docks, he threw her to the ground, knocking the wind out of her. “Shut up! No one’s going to help you. You don’t deserve help, thieving demon-tainted bitch like you. Leading good women astray. You’re going to fetch back what you stole.”

Brettel scooted away, but he caught her arm and yanked her to her feet–about pulling her shoulder out of socket.

“Your wife chose to go! I didn’t lead her anywhere. She was at the hiring fair!”


“I can’t get you to the White Isle. I’m human like you. The Isle’s not there. Can’t you see that?” She gestured towards the harbor. Dark outlines of islands were barely visible. Coonie, Sperko, Laseey, and the tiny mounds of Little Fess and Upper Fess, but not the glowing, glittering shore of the White Isle.

He slapped her across the face. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth.

“Let her go!”

They spun to face Delial. Arms akimbo, she glared at Coffard. “Your wife left because you beat her. All of Dwankey knows that, and no one would ever help you get her back! She’ll have taken a lifetime contract. You’ll never get to the White Isle, and she’ll never leave it.”

“You shut your face! You’re a stupid child. What do you know of anything?”

“I’m not a child,” her father huffed up behind Delial. “You know Delial’s words are true. You let my Brettel go. She rescued your wife. Something all of us should have done long ago.”

“You want your daughter, you help get my wife!”

“How?” Garnan demanded. Startled, Brettel watched Garnan shove past their father, their mother on his heels.

“She came from there! She can get back.”

“She came from here,” her mother growled. “That’s my daughter. Our family! She was born and raised in Dwankey. This is her home. She worked there. That doesn’t make her from there any more than it makes your wife from there now that she works there.”

“She cannot go taking good people off to that decadent land! It’s wrong!”

“And beating your wife senseless on a weekly basis, isn’t?” Garnan asked.

Coffard flung Brettel aside and advanced on him. “I did not beat my wife.”

Her mother pulled Brettel into her arms.

“Yeah? Where’d those bruises come from?”

Coffard threw a punch. Garnan ducked. His return hit caught Coffard in the stomach. He didn’t wait for the man to recover, but served a quick uppercut to the chin and knocked him out cold.

“I can’t do anything about his wife,” Brettel said as she stared down at him.

“And you shouldn’t. Adara deserves her life free of him.”

“Yeah, but is he going to leave Brettel alone?” Delial kicked Coffard’s foot.

“Stop that,” their father ordered.

“He set fire to the shop and tried to abduct my sister! Are we going to just ignore that?”

“Of course not, we’ll press charges—”

“The shop!” Brettel exclaimed. “What are you doing here? The shop is on fire!”

“The fire was about under control, but we better get back.” Her father bit his lip.

“I’m sorry.” Tears filled Brettel’s eyes.

“This isn’t your fault,” her father said.

Brettel shook her head. “It is. I ran off to the White Isle. I got involved with the Fae. And then I came back and brought this all down on you—”

“You stop right there!” Her mother dropped her hands to her hips. In her anger, she looked just like Delial. “You belong here. You should have come back and you should stay. Everyone else will just have to accept that. You’re here to stay, you hear me? This is where you belong.”

Encircled by her family, Brettel climbed the hill back to where she belonged.

Sluicing the Acqua

By Juliana Rew

Even at a distance in the hazy daylight, Sylvana could see Captain Ruggero Barsetti frowning at her as she walked down the dock carrying her diving suit. It was easy to read his thoughts: Her belly was growing, and it wasn’t seemly for her to be working so hard.

“What are you doing here, little one?” he said gruffly. It wasn’t his usual custom to be tender.

“I’m going out to Gate 38. Giorgio reported that something was causing it to snag. He could see it on his sonar on the big boat, but he didn’t have a diver. If it turns out to be a building, we are going to have our work cut out for us. Another big incursion is coming.”

“I appreciate your dedication, but I am aware of the gate problem,” the Captain retorted. “We are working on it. You should just go on home and take it easy until the baby arrives.”

Sylvana looked down at her calloused hands. “You know I can’t do that, cugino,” she said to her older cousin. “If I quit my job, I’ll never get back on. I’ll soon have another mouth to feed now, you know.”

“You’re a member of the clan. We’ll take care of you,” Ruggero said. He added, “Have you thought of joining the farming initiative after the baby comes?”

“And what will we use for fresh acqua? The only measurable rainfall is out over the sea. No, I don’t think the farming is going to happen soon.”

The Amborgettis were building freshwater collection platforms several miles offshore, but it was a risky venture in her view. The storms could be ferocious, and it was still too dangerous to subsist out on the exposed ocean. She’d stick with diving salvage from old buildings.

Sylvana felt a little guilty about playing the baby card, but she was the chief diver for the Barsetti clan. Maybe someday she could take it easy if the new farming project got off the ground. Or on the ground. There would be plenty of easy work then dusting off solar panels, to funnel back energy and provide additional light for the crops. But for now she had to keep her independence with Franco gone.

Sylvana and her relatives lived, barely, in one of the few coastal cities on Earth to survive the Gemini, the twin extinctions. The first disaster was widespread starvation initiated by runaway global warming. People moved from drought-stricken areas to the continental shores, only to fall victim to flooding and tsunamis. Then, as if humanity were not facing trials enough, an untracked extra-solar system ice ball struck Mexico in nearly the same spot as an asteroid had 66 million years ago. Any species unable to live on sludge, worms, and detritus had a difficult time in the aftermath.

Fortunately, humans are omnivores, and Sylvana’s scavenger ancestors had been fairly clever about turning dead plant and animal material into foodstuffs for people. Also luckily, there were a lot fewer people who needed to be fed. Those living in what remained of southern Europe clustered around Tristezza, or Trieste, as the Italians used to call it half a millennium ago. Now the name simply meant “sadness.”

Since the Gemini, Tristezza had watched its sister city across the Adriatic slowly succumb to the rising sea levels. Venezia had battled encroaching waters from the surrounding blue Adriatic Sea for centuries, and spent multiple fortunes hiring Dutch engineers to remove river silt and hold back the tides that threatened to overwhelm its lagoons. Venezia’s MOSE, with its series of gigantic steel sluice gates anchored below the surface, was a wonder of the world. When high tides threatened, the gates would float to the surface to protect the city. But after the Gemini, Venezia’s population dwindled, and, sensing a bargain, Tristezza negotiated to buy, dismantle, and move Venice’s gates to its own waterfront. Then the ocean erased any other signs of the great city.

Sylvana’s clan all worked to preserve the coastline and maintain the gates of Tristezza. Another clan, the Amborgettis, was responsible for running the pumps that constantly filtered the Adriatic waters for food and potable acqua. Although the climate had cooled considerably, the Adriatic Sea’s low salinity and moderate temperatures provided a climatic refuge for the remaining human population.

Sylvana’s scientist husband, Franco, had spent most of his life aboard sailing ships that Tristezza sent out each year, traveling around the boot of Italy and up the Ligurian Sea, looking for pockets of surviving species that might be suitable for refilling ecological niches or providing sustenance for humans. Franco had died five months earlier when his ship Santo Antonio tragically sank on the rugged Cinque Terre coast. Everyone thought it must have been in one of the aftershocks that continued to radiate across the ocean bed. Icelandic volcanoes regularly spewed ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling and darkening the hemisphere.

The argument over for the moment, Sylvana donned her suit, while the captain waved to Giorgio to bring the rowboat closer to the dock. The Barsettis owned 16 boats of varying sizes, all created from digital models and constructed of liquid plastic.

Giorgio rowed with one of the plastic oars and nosed the boat up, holding it steady so that Sylvana could step in.

Sylvana flashed a smile and clambered aboard. She sat near the prow to monitor the echo locator, perching her helmet in her lap. To save fuel, Giorgio made the two-mile row out to the gates. Sylvana silently counted his strokes to estimate when they were close to the 38th sluice. The sea was a touch choppy today, making it a bumpy ride.

As the water slapped against the sides of the boat, she unsnapped a long telescoping pole from the interior wall and unfolded it over the water. Giorgio rowed in a tightening circle, while Sylvana poked into the murky water. The tide was not yet officially an incursion, so it should be low enough that she could find the gate without having to try to inflate it with compressed air.

Ah, luck was with her. Her pole hit something solid.

“Let’s stop here, Giorgio,” she said. Her red-bearded oarsman tossed over a heavy anchor, which would slow them down, although the rope wasn’t always long enough to reach the sea bottom. The rope would be her lifeline if she was unable to see the surface, which was most of the time.

Sylvana tucked in her long braid, as Giorgio helped her don the helmet and twist the air hose onto the valve. She slipped into the chilly water and began descending the anchor rope. As the surface closed over her, she could see only a bit of pale sun overhead. It was a short journey to the obstruction they had located. She could barely make it out with her torch, but it appeared to be part of an old wooden dock from the original Trieste marina that had slipped under water about 80 years ago. It should have floated out to sea, but part of it was stuck about 50 feet below the surface, maybe on one of the gate pylons. Chunks of plastic and other trash were accumulating on the obstruction. She pried a piece loose and tucked it into her catch bag.

She tugged on one of the timbers, but it didn’t budge. She would have to surface and get more rope. And more help. Maybe with two or three boats they could dislodge it and pull it inland. Wood was a valuable commodity, even if waterlogged.

Sylvana’s efforts to move the dock kicked up a dark green slow-motion cloud, probably dead algae that would have been useful as food, except that now she couldn’t see anything. She swam around for a while without finding the boat. She reminded herself not to panic and hyperventilate. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard Giorgio pounding on the rowboat hull. She swam in what she hoped was the right direction and with relief grabbed the anchor rope.

Giorgio pulled her in, and said, “What took so long? What did you find?”

Exhausted, Sylvana began shedding her suit. She noticed that Giorgio stared a little, and was a little embarrassed that he probably was looking at her expanding stomach. She started to tell him about the submerged find, but suddenly she felt queasy, and spots swam before her eyes. She sank toward unconsciousness, and the last thing she remembered was Giorgio shouting soundlessly as he struggled to pull up the anchor.

Sylvana sat up and looked around. She was in a strange bed, but the room was familiar. Whitewashed plaster walls with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the bureau. She was at Ruggero and Anna’s. Her salt-flaked diving suit lay across a bench.

“I’ve got to get back home,” she muttered, throwing the blanket aside and clambering out.

“Oh, no you don’t,” her cousin Anna said, appearing from nowhere and insisting she get back in bed.

“Here, I’ve brought you some soup. You need to gain your strength. Ruggero said he doesn’t want you going out again until after the baby is born. Eat up; this might be the last for a few days. Someone vandalized my slug sterilizer in the backyard, and some greedy gulls got most of this week’s harvest. They’re worse than rats.”

Reluctantly, Sylvana took the bowl and spoon. Maybe she was a bit hungry after all. Sniffing the warm garlicky broth appreciatively, she could see what Rugerro saw in the little Anna. She was a great cook and handy with tools. As Sylvana drank the liquid in the soup in a single draught, Anna announced, “The queen said she wants to see you.”

Oh great, Sylvana thought, nearly choking on a rubbery but tasty slug. I’m totally broke, and now I’m probably going to get banished.

Sylvana sat on the bed wearing her best dress, as Cristina swept into the room. Tristezza’s queen held a lion cub in her arms, which she nuzzled and then sat gently on the floor next to her. The kit was on a leash, but Sylvana had never seen a lion up close and was a bit nervous. Among all the animals saved from the old Trieste Zoo, the lions were Tristezza’s pride and joy. So, of course, Cristina had to have one as her mascot.

“How are you doing, darling?” the queen said. Officially there was no such thing as royalty, but everyone called Cristina the queen, because she handled all the administrative duties for the clan and served as a liaison with the Amborgettis.

“I’m fine, thank you, Queen Cristina. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I’m anxious to get back to work.”

“Well, we’d like to talk with you about that,” Cristina said. “We don’t think you’ll be going back to that job. . . You see–”

“What? Why not? I’m a certified diver, and my troubleshooting record speaks for itself.”

“That’s not it at all, dear,” Cristina said. “Please don’t interrupt me. We just think you’re the right person to take over for Franco.”

Now Sylvana felt confused. I’m no explorer, she thought, and Franco died in a freak accident. Didn’t he?

“What can I possibly do?” Sylvana asked.

“Franco was on a mission for the crown,” Cristina said. “Er, we mean, we were working with him on a special project.”

The queen held out a red leather-bound book. “This was Franco’s journal. It explains everything. You know, after Franco, you are our best technically trained citizen. I think only you will be able to figure out what he was onto, before he was so sadly taken from us.

“Rest and read the journal, and after the baby’s born, we want you to go to Cinque Terre to investigate.” Sylvana knew what that meant. It was royalty-speak for: You do what we want, or we’ll take one of your loved ones hostage.

“But what about the baby? I need to be here for him–or her,” she protested.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the little one, no matter what happens,” Cristina said.

“You can’t keep my baby from me,” Sylvana repeated, her voice rising.

“Just think of it as extra motivation, dear,” Cristina said. “The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back.” The cub at her feet let out a yowl, and she glanced at the orologio on her wrist.

“We’ve got to be going. We’ve got another meeting about the farm initiative with the Amborgettis. You know, if you play your cards right on this thing, you might get a position on the farm board, and perhaps a share of the sea farm. If we find the fresh water we need, that is.” She scooped up the lion and hurried out the door. Sylvana jumped to her feet to bow as Cristina left.

Sylvana disgustedly pulled off the lace scarf Anna had lent her to cover the gap in the back of her now-too-tight dress and paced back and forth. The heavy kohl eyeliner she had applied so carefully had run down her cheeks. She wiped a hand across her eyes and sat down again on the bed. Her eyes fell on Franco’s journal.

He’d often told her the history of the Gemini disasters. The Earth had always been an ocean planet, but recently sea level had risen another 200 feet, and a good deal of the remaining inland was high plains deserts and mountains. Freshwater lakes had vanished long ago. It was said that when the ice sheets melted, Greenland would spring upward, but that only been a few feet, and the continent was under water.

Though familiar with Franco’s scientific work, Sylvana had never violated his privacy by looking in his private journal. How had Cristina gotten it anyway? She opened the cover and began to page through the book. It seemed to mostly be painstaking entries about species and quantities of resources he was cataloging for his work. Not really a private journal, after all.

Ah, here was an entry that mentioned Cristina:

Pressure from queen. No choice, with S.

Did the “S.” refer to Sylvana? Had Cristina threatened to do something to her if Franco didn’t do her bidding? She determined to get to the bottom of this, and started reading more carefully, diving until she was totally immersed. She reached the bottom without finding anything.

Franco had traveled to the rugged coastline of Cinque Terre on two occasions, but Sylvana didn’t see anything unusual in the entries, except the reference to Cristina near the end of the journal.

She had to get home and look for Franco’s private journal, if there was one. She told Anna she was returning to her own cottage, over her cousin’s objections.

“I’d be more comfortable at home,” she said, thanking Anna and gently shooing her out of the way to slip out.

When she got home, she was not too surprised to see that all of her and Franco’s belongings had been ransacked. Obviously Cristina’s people were looking for the same thing she was. She surveyed the damage and began putting chairs right side up and dishes back on the shelves. Dejectedly, she surmised that she was not going to find anything either.

She felt a kicking in her stomach, and said, “All right, all right, I’ll sit down, bambino.” She lay on her mattress, which she had left bare since hearing of Franco’s death five months ago. She hadn’t even had the chance to tell him he was going to be a father. . .

She dozed fitfully, dreaming that Franco had returned to her. “I thought you were gone,” she said to him. “Never, my beautiful one,” he replied, stroking her hair and embracing her. They kissed and made love until the chill air awoke her. Another dark dawn. Franco was dead, and the baby was jumping, telling her to eat some breakfast.

The next night she dreamed of Franco again. He bent over his journal, writing in the small yellowish pool of light thrown by the solar lamp. The lamp took days to charge up on the porch outside, so he always used it sparingly. He smiled when he saw Sylvana and held the book out to her. “I’ve found something wonderful, cara.” Then she woke up.

This was getting to be an obsession, she thought to herself, making up a cup of bitter espresso substitute. Although it was still breakfast time, she wished she could have a mug of alcool. She missed the sting in her throat and the radiating warmth afterward. But that was a pleasure to be saved for after the baby…

She could even see the color of the journal in her dream. It was dark blue, not like the one Cristina had given her. Sylvana walked over to Franco’s chair, with the solar lamp sitting on the table beside it. She had picked it up from where the searchers had tossed it and put it back in its place. Luckily, the panel hadn’t been damaged. The panel. It was dark blue.

She ran her finger over the glass surface, feeling the bumps over the diamond shaped separators holding the pieces in the casing. To her surprise, the glass slid aside, revealing a slim book inside.

She read the first entry:

Funny, isn’t it? “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”

She recognized the line from the famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Franco detailed how he had come across some articles in the Tristezza database on early attempts at seasteading. It seemed that the technical challenges on the high seas were too difficult, with the sea expected to demolish or capsize even the most solidly built floating domiciles. And floating residences built near the shores would inevitably be subject to political disputes and water shortages. Critics called them “paradises for fools.”

Franco had laid the idea aside for a while, reporting that he had made an encouraging discovery. He had encountered some large swaths of chlorophyll-rich plankton in the Mediterranean a dozen miles off the Cinque Terre coast. And equally surprising, he saw dolphins and fin whales. The ecosystem was making a comeback! He felt this held great promise, and was eager to report it to the queen. The increase in chlorophyll signaled an increase in solar radiation, which could be harnessed to start to grow crops on land again. Although there was still the limiting factor of the scarcity of fresh water, some could be distilled using solar energy and solar stills, now that there was more sunshine available.

Still, Sylvana had not seen anything too startling in Franco’s journal. Everyone knew solar radiation was increasing as the atmospheric dust settled out; that was why the queen had proudly announced the new farming initiative, in cooperation with the Amborgettis. She didn’t see why the queen would be after Franco–and her–from what she read. Sylvana felt the baby kick again, and closed the journal, replacing it in the solar lamp. She would read more tomorrow.

Sylvana didn’t get back to the journal the next day, or the next. The baby had decided to make an appearance. She walked slowly down to Anna and Ruggero’s place, wincing as the pains came closer together.

Anna called for the midwife, who appeared quickly, accompanied by two goons from the queen’s retinue.

“You can’t come in here. Wait outside,” Anna ordered them. They settled at the front door, prepared for a long wait. First children often took their time. Anna closed the door, as Sylvana began her work. “The queen’s men have arrived before the baby even comes. It’s disgraceful.”

The birth was a difficult one, and Sylvana got to spend time with little Mario while she recovered. Guards remained in front of Ruggero and Anna’s house to make sure she didn’t leave without warning.

Sylvana agonized over whether to tell her cousins about the journal. She felt it was key to resolving the mystery of Franco’s discovery, but she didn’t want to involve them if it might endanger the family. Finally, she decided to talk with them as soon as Ruggero got back from the gates. He had been overseeing the effort to free Gate 38 from the obstruction she had identified, and it looked like all the sluices were now lifting and sinking properly.

“Why would Franco hide a journal from the queen?” Ruggero asked quietly as they sat around the dinner table that night. “He was her pet scientist, and she was always parading him around at public events.” Sylvana said she wasn’t sure yet, but she pointed to the guards outside his door as evidence that something hadn’t been right between them.

“That might help explain the piece of rudder I found in the junk hung up in the gate,” Ruggero said. “Now I’m sure it was from the Santo Antonio. I built that ship from scratch. I think the rudder was intentionally damaged and probably failed completely by the time Franco got to Cinque Terre. Very dangerous on that rocky shore.”

Anna shivered and crossed herself.

Finally they agreed that Anna would go to Sylvana’s house and retrieve the diary, telling the guards that she needed to pick up some clothes and supplies for Sylvana and the baby.

Anna returned an hour later with a basket of diapers and a container of seaweed flour.

“They actually had the nerve to search me and the basket,” she said. “But I put Franco’s idea of a false bottom to good use. I’ll bet those men were the ones who tore up my drying rack. Here you go.” She handed the slim blue volume to Sylvana.

Sylvana retreated to the bedroom and opened the book to the page where she had left off. She spotted something that drew her interest. Franco wrote:

Apparently the Israelis were onto the idea of seasteading. Living in a country with enemies on three sides, they sought to build a structure that would support a thousand settlers in the Mediterranean and move on the open ocean. They would operate floating farms using stocks from seed banks all over the world and design a fresh water generating system that used solar stills. If solar energy was lacking, electricity would be generated using heat exchangers that captured energy from ocean waves or even radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) like those used on satellites. This is interesting, since radioactive material from old nuclear power plants along the coasts is plentiful. But the problem is how to get to it, because those plants are now submerged.

Sylvana wondered what became of the project, which was certainly ahead of its time. Israel had ceased to be a country about 200 years ago, and its former citizens were forced into another diaspora. “So much for being the chosen of God,” she said under her breath.

Sylvana read several more entries about Franco’s preparations for his next voyage and his interactions with queen Cristina.

Serious error in judgment. Shared the story of the Israeli seastead with the queen, and she latched onto it with a vengeance. Pressing me to find this legendary sea city for Tristezza. The problem is, it isn’t even legendary–no one knows if it ever existed, or where. Probably at the bottom of the ocean, rotting away, like Atlantis.

An entry dated a week later:

Pouring through some of the records regarding the disbanding of Israel. Now have a clue where the floating city went. It was indeed being built in the Mediterranean, possibly off the southern coast of Italy near Sicily. It was real!

Sylvana’s heart quickened, and she began to read faster. Franco’s investigation led to the plans for the city, code-named Simcha.

Initially skeptical about this plan. Pontoons not sufficient for long-term. Thought the ocean would almost certainly eat up the little city, just like others before it. Then saw the additional plans for sluice gates similar to those in Venice to be built near Palermo. In case of extreme weather, the city would float to a position centered on the gates, which would rise to protect it from flooding. But this can’t be right, can it? The Venice gates are much too fragile to work on the open seas. . . But Palermo still exists; it’s on high ground. . .

It appeared Franco hadn’t told Cristina what he’d found. Sylvana sat down to write a letter and called to Anna to ask her to deliver it personally. Anna tucked it into her bosom and headed out the back door.

Sylvana inhaled deeply and then held her breath as she tore out the page, stared at it one last time, and threw it in the fire. The flickering fire was one of the few colorful things left in the world. Mesmerized, Sylvana watched as the page caught, blue flames licking the edges and curling it until only black ash remained. Only then did she exhale.

Equipping for another voyage around the horn of Italy. Told the queen it is another trip to the Cinque Terre. Wish I could take S. with me. She is the best deep sea diver in Tristezza, but C. denied my request. I’ll bet S. would give her eye teeth to see such gates, with their feet sunk deep in bedrock. Truly a godsend.

That was the last entry. Sylvana tore out the page and crumpled it before adding it to the fire.

Suddenly she heard a pounding on the door. Anna burst into the room.

“The guards! They found the lamp. I must have left it open in my hurry to bring the book.”

Two burly men pushed Anna aside and pounced on Sylvana, tearing the book from her grasp.

“That’s private property,” she yelled, struggling against the iron grip binding her.

“You’re under arrest,” the guard said. As they dragged her to the hallway, Sylvana saw a hooded woman slip out the front door carrying something she treasured even more than the book. She screamed.

Cristina’s masque of joviality was slipping rather badly.

Sylvana stood before a curved table of clan elders, with the queen at the center. Rubbing her wrists, Sylvana tried to get feeling to return. Off to the side, a nursemaid held Mario. Sylvana was charged with treason.

“By God, you’ll tell me what Franco’s journal said, or you’ll never see your child again,” Cristina warned. Sylvana’s stomach felt like it was filled with broken glass. She noted that several Barsettis had managed to barge their way into the hearing, as well as a few Amborghettis wondering what all the excitement was about.

She had spent two nights in the cells below the Tristezza city hall. Although she was used to being in cold, dark places from her years of diving, she couldn’t help thinking this might be the end and that she’d really blown it. She agonized over the trouble she’d caused for Franco’s cousins Ruggero and Anna. The queen held Ruggero responsible as head of the family and had confiscated his boats. Sylvana was terrified that the queen held Mario captive–what could she do when they had taken everything?

But now that she could see the baby, Sylvana felt better. They seemed to be taking good care of him, at least. She thanked the stars that Franco had kept his theories to himself, or she would have no leverage at all. Sylvana straightened her shoulders and spoke.

“I demand a public trial.”

“Are you insane? You have no rights, here, you traitor,” the queen said.

“Perhaps not, but unless you release me, my baby, and my family’s property, everyone will know that you murdered my husband.”

“That’s preposterous,” Cristina said. “I had nothing to do with his death.”

“You wanted his discovery all for yourself and sabotaged his ship. You thought you had Franco’s journal–the red book you originally threatened me with–but you were disappointed to find it held nothing about the whereabouts of Simcha.”

“Simcha? What is that?”

“It means ‘joy’ in Hebrew. I believe it is the seagoing city we’ve all been looking for. I’ve sent word to Palermo with Giorgio offering my services in recovering it.”

“But I took your family’s boats!”

“You must have missed one,” Sylvana countered, her confidence growing. She grinned inwardly at the thought of red-haired Giorgio rowing the little boat out beyond the sluices under cover of night until he could turn on the pulse engine. She fervently hoped her vision was a reality.

“But– Palermo? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Franco thought it was too important for you to keep all to yourself, Cristina. We’re going to share it with everyone. We all thought the ocean had taken our cities away, but we’re going to learn to live in the new ocean world, you know.”

“You foolish girl. You burned all of the evidence in Franco’s journal. No one will know you even existed, once we execute you.”

Sylvana took a moment to savor her impending escape from the trap Cristina had laid for her.

“Not everything has been burned. I already mentioned Giorgio, didn’t I? One thing I didn’t mention is that Franco sent all the plans and locations to Palermo before he went on his last trip. They know everything, and they are waiting for me there. You may as well release me. And you may as well resign, because otherwise Palermo will only negotiate with the Amborgettis.”

The room erupted as the Barsetti clan mobbed their heroine and made to carry her out on their shoulders. But she resisted the tide for a moment before joining the flow, her arms outstretched to snare the prize the nursemaid held out to her. In the confusion, Cristina slipped out a side door.

Sylvana gazed out over the flotilla of ships from Tristezza gathered to start a new life as seasteaders in the archipelago. A small pod of dolphins skipped alongside the boats in greeting.

Ruggero shouted, “Sonar’s showing something big below!” A cheer rose from the crowd. Anna stood beside him at the prow, clasping a cross on a chain around her neck as she prayed for blessings on her husband and the new citizens of Acqua Simcha.

She shifted the sling holding three-month-old Mario and pointed toward the “island” of Palermo and its submerged sluices, where the floating city of Simcha would harbor.

“Look, Mario. That’s where we’re going,” Sylvana said. “Mama’s going to help bring up Papa’s city.” The sky glowed a light silver along the horizon, and Mario was the first baby to feel the warmth of the sunrise in a long time.

Perfect Arm

By Robert Steele

We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.

He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.

Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.

From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.

I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.

And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.

“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.

“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”

“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”

“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”

“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”

The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”

“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”

The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”

“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”

“I do. It’s just all I have really.”

”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.

“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”

“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”

“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”

“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”

The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.

I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.

“This bet still going?” I asked.

“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”

“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.

The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.

“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.

With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.

The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.

That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.

When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.

I closed the door and rested my head on it so that I could hear their conversation. In all honesty I was worried Ted was going to kill him right then, and I felt anxiety about the thought of a bloody crime scene to clean up.

“How’d you know that guy would pitch a perfect game?”

“I didn’t. I only said a no hitter.”

“Let’s not get cute with the answers. I don’t know if anyone’s told you who I am—”

“They haven’t, but I’m well aware.”

“Very good. So I will be direct with you, and as a courtesy, I ask that you do the same.”

“Very well.”

“So how did you know the kid would pitch like that?”

“Wasn’t certain he’d pitch a perfect game, but I know he’s a good pitcher.”

“Bullshit,” said Ted. “That college kid said the guy was a no good bum.”

“His opinion.”

“I see you make a lot of bets in here, and I don’t recall you ever losing one.”

“I just do it for the fun of it.”

“Well, I don’t do anything for the fun of it without getting paid. You’d be wise to do the same.” There was a long pause in their conversation, and I was tempted for a moment to peak in through the doorway, but I didn’t.

“We got numbers,” continued Ted. “Did you already know that?”

“I did.”

“You could make a lot of money. You could either work for us or against us. I wouldn’t recommend working against us.”

“Like I said, I just like having a little fun.”

“If it’s for fun,” said Ted, “then you keep it for pennies like they do the poker games in here.”

The door opened behind me and I stumbled back into Kenny as he shuffled his feet out of the room. I looked back and Ted put an unlit cigar to his mouth, looking down at the ground as if it would give him some answers.

It was a Sunday afternoon and there was no one in the bar except for a few of those bikers playing pool. Ted walked in with a dark-skinned, tall kid who looked no older than about twenty-two.

I walked to the table as they sat. “Any drinks or food I can get you guys?”

“Get the chef to do up some of those fish and chips for my friend here,” said Ted.

“Certainly. And a drink?”

“Agua,” said the young man.

“That’ll be water,” said Ted. “Get me a Cutty.”

I put in their orders to the chef and returned to watch as Ted and a couple of his pals spoke to the kid.

The kid seemed able to understand English, just not as comfortable with speaking it.

“We just want to know how,” I heard Ted say. “It was impressive is all.”

I could have smacked my head off the brass bar rail for being stupid, not realizing that it was Luis Pichardo, in my bar, just days after he threw a perfect game for the Indians.

Kenny shuffled in the front door, but he stopped when he saw Pichardo. I thought maybe he was dumbfounded, star struck, something like that, but then he raised a flabby arm at the table. “Luis. Don’t bother with these guys. Don’t listen to any of their bullshit.”

He went to the table, and Ted and his entourage stood. He took Pichardo by the arm trying to pull him out of the seat, but Pichardo didn’t budge. “You don’t listen to anything from these guys. Bad guys. Malo.”

“And how the fuck do you happen to know him, Kenny?” asked Ted.

“Not important. He needs to come with me.”

“Like hell he does. He wants to enjoy the Lion’s Paw’s finest foods.”

“Luis, I’m going to be just over there,” said Kenny, and he pointed over to the bar.

“What are your chances on winning another game?” asked Ted.

Luis held up a thumb.

“You’re not tired or anything?”

Pichardo shook his head dismissively.

Fifteen minutes later I brought over the fish and chips, and Pichardo ate in silence. Ted didn’t say much to him, he just flashed a few smiles, which was weird to see coming from him.

After Pichardo finished eating, Ted shook hands with him, and had one of his pals drive him home.

Ted scrambled toward the bar as Pichardo left. I don’t think I’ve ever saw him so angry. His face was tense as he yelled into the back of Kenny’s head. “Just how the hell do you know Luis so well?”

“He’s an old friend of mine.”

“You have an obvious inside edge you never told me about. I asked you a few days ago and you were all mum.”

“He’s an old friend is all.”

When Kenny up and left, saying he had to go to work, Ted asked me to do him a favor. I’d never done a favor for him before, and I never had the inclination to do so. But I obliged with him being him, me being me.

Since his pals were gone, he asked that we get in my car and follow Kenny to his work. Ted sat in the passenger seat real low so that his eyes could peer just above the dash. I tailed Kenny by letting a couple cars move up ahead of me. It was only a ten minute drive, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed behind a wheel, that includes those snow storms so white where you can’t see the lines in the road.

Kenny pulled into some warehouse, passing the security at the front gate with a wave out of his window. I pulled up and parked across the street as Ted leaned over my shoulder, watching Kenny walk up the stairs. As he opened the door, we noticed the small, rusted sign that said, Tumbler Robotics.

“He ever tell you what he does for a living?” Ted asked me.

“Not that I can remember. He might have told me he was an engineer, but I can’t quite remember if that’s right.”

“Your girl, the buxom brunette, Jen, she told me he worked in sales.”

I started remembering. “Yeah, I did hear that once. He went to school for engineering, but he’s a salesmen.

I guess you need to know what you’re selling for those robotics.”

“Pull on up there.”

“Through the gate?” I asked. “I’m thinking you need to work here.”

“Pull on up. I’ll do the talking for you.”

I drove up and stopped before the candy striped stick. A guard in a blue shirt leaned out of his little box. “Are you here to see someone?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Ted. “Kenny.”


Ted poked me in the arm. “Kenny Heachem.”

“Hmm, I’ll call on in.”

“No need to do that,” said Ted. “We’d like to surprise him. We’re old friends of his.”

“We always need auth’.”


“Authorization. It’s a secure area.”

“Why so secure?” asked Ted.

“With the robotics and all. They worry about people seeing what they’re not supposed to.”

“Well,” said Ted, “I don’t think we need to bug him. We’ll just catch up with him later.”

Ted had us all dressed up in black — me, him, and four of his pals. He gave us balaclavas, trench coats, and crowbars. I told Ted real plain that I’d never done such a thing before, but he said not to worry, that it was easy work. He said I was already in part way, and once you’re in part way, you need to go all the way.

To be honest I just wanted to get it done and over with, because Jen was texting me on my cell phone about how she wanted to duck out from her shift to meet up with her boyfriend. I said I’d be quick. I figured a break and enter was meant to be quick.

Ted told us that he paid a drunk to harass and distract the night security, and that put my mind at ease a bit.

I held the crowbar, but never used it. Ted and his boys did all the prying to get that door open. An alarm tripped, but it beeped only once and the tallest of Ted’s guys put a stop to it by pinching something along the door frame.

“Keep moving,” said Ted.

We walked through the corridors, through the confusing layout of the building, and it looked like they were renovating. Someone had ripped up all the floors, and tore down all the walls. It was nothing but concrete and a wooden frame.

We saw blueprints lying about all over. Ted picked it up and unrolled it, looking like some pirate searching for gold treasure.

“Do you know what it is?” I asked.

“Some lines,” he said. “I don’t know what they mean. All these calculations.” He looked at the man who silenced the alarm. “Can you make sense of this? Is it electrical shit?”

The man looked at it and sort of sniffed, but maybe only because of the dust. “I can’t say what.”

We continued on, finding the end of the corridor until it opened to a large room.

Ted was up ahead, and when he reached the room I saw him open up his arms and look to the roof.

“Sonofabitch,” he said. “Look at all this shit.”

There were stacks of metal, wires, all kinds of tools. They were messy, like kids playing with toys but never bothering to put them away.

I walked over to a pile of them and took a knee. They were made of solid material on the inside, and real spongy, wire pieces over top. They were all different colors and some were stacked together like a pallet of rainbows. The metal bent in to v-shapes when I picked them up. There had to be near a thousand of those things.

“What are they?” asked Ted.

“Nothing I can tell,” I said.

Ted picked one up and looked at it with his eyebrows kept low. He put one up on top of the sleeve of his coat, letting the bend in it align with his elbow. I don’t know a hell of a lot about anatomy, but those pieces sure seemed to look like bone and muscle fibres. “What do you think? Maybe arms?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Explains how Kenny knows Pichardo. You think that guy has one of those under his skin? Is it throwing his pitches for him?”

“Could be. Would make sense, wouldn’t it? How that kid, that dreadful pitcher, threw a game like he did.”

“Shit. That’s too much.”

Ted shut it down for the night. He took the blueprint, but made sure we left everything else as is. And we did, finding our way back out through the winding corridors.

Business at the Lion’s Paw had been slow all week for some reason. People seem to go away with their kids in the summer once they get out of school. Ted was there all day, every day, which I didn’t mind so much, he kept me company, but I was nervous about why he was there.

He was waiting for Kenny to show his face and that made me nervous. My back stiffened every time the door made a little creek like it did whenever it took a strong gust of wind, or if someone entered from the street. When it opened it was nobody in particular, just the other regulars, out to have a few beers or whiskeys after work.

Ted seemed bored of my place, and he paced around the joint, hands in pockets, looking at those brown dress shoes of his.

“Why don’t you just let me give you a call if he comes here?” I asked. “Or we could take a run down by his work again.”

“I want to see his face as soon as he walks through that door. And I want him in here, in a nice private setting, in that back room of yours. It’s not ideal for us to start lurking around his workplace again.”

Maybe Ted didn’t trust me, I’m not too sure. Or maybe he was just a guy who thought it was best to do a job right by doing it himself. I know I’m not too different in that respect.

Kenny showed up about a week and a half later, only fifteen minutes before close. There were about a half-dozen people in the place, and Jen, thankfully, was with me, needing to pick up a shift for some extra money to cover her rent.

I thought Ted would be in Kenny’s face as soon as he stepped to the bar, but Ted hung back at his table, watching Kenny as if he wasn’t all that interested.

Jen poured Kenny a drink and I walked up and talked with him. “Any bets for tonight?”

“No, no,” he said. “I’m a bit burned out from work, just looking at getting a drink and relaxing.”

I saw Ted nod at me and walk to the back room. “I think Ted wants to speak to you,” I said.

“I figured as much,” Kenny said. “Just let me finish my drink. Tell him I’ll be a moment.”

I stood by the door again, waiting for Kenny, who seemed to be taking his time. I could see he gave Jen a nice tip since she batted her eyes at him. He shuffled over toward the back room. “I won’t make you wait long,” he said to me as he passed.

I leaned my head on the door again to listen.

“How much do you know?” asked Kenny.

“I have this,” said Ted, and I imagine he showed Kenny the blueprint. “I’ve had people in the know give it a look.”


“And you have two choices. You cut us in on the operation you’re running, and we protect it, or you let us know who else you’ve given this treatment to. You let us know when we should be making some heavy bets in our favor.”

“I can’t do that,” said Kenny.


“Correct. I can’t do it. I know what you’re all about Ted, but you don’t know what my people are all about.”

“Which people?”

“Secret government agencies.”

“What kind? CIA and all that? Don’t think I don’t know a few.”

“They’re ones you’ve never heard of. Getting major leaguers to use it is just the trial run. They want military, soldiers with super strength, unlimited endurance, stuff beyond the human body’s normal capabilities. They want an army of these guys. The ability to win any ground battle. Absolute accuracy with weaponry.”

“Yeah, but I know one guy who’s using it now. I can out him. Then your whole technology is out there. I could sell it to the Chinese if I needed to.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Kenny. “I’ll overlook that and forget that you said it, but you need to let this one go.”

Kenny was true to his word and he kept the conversation brief. I had a feeling I wouldn’t see much of Kenny around the bar a whole lot after that.

Ted wouldn’t let it go. I’m not sure if he ever had a time where he didn’t get his way. Before he left for the night, Ted scrawled his number onto a napkin. “He comes in here again, you give me a call.”

But I was right, I never saw Kenny again. And I never saw Ted again either.

In the fall, Pichardo was all over the news. The Indians were in the World Series, and there was discussion about him having a chance to win a CY Young award, although he had competition from the other pitchers on his team. The rotation had set all kinds of historical records for earned run average and strikeouts.

A man came in to the Lion’s Paw the night of the first game in the series. The man wore a dark coat and had a face that drooped down into his beer. He watched Pichardo take the mound while he sipped his drink.

“Did you hear the story about that guy?” he asked keeping his eyes fixed on the game.

“Pichardo?” I asked. “What about him?”

“He’s supposed to have an arm made by a machine.”

“Yeah? Go on then.”

“Well, the story goes, his Tommy Johns surgery didn’t replace no ligament like it’s supposed to. They replaced his whole damn arm. They peeled the skin up like a banana peel, took out all his bones, all his muscles, and they threw in a fake prosthetic. But not no ordinary prosthetic, one that he had lots of control over. One that the medical reports can’t detect.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“Some guy I work for over on Euclid. Forget performance enhancing drugs. That’s a thing of the past. Cyborgs like him are the future.”

“Well,” I said, “explains how he pitches like he does, I guess.”

“Damn right it does. But that’s not all.” He stuck his elbow against the bar and pointed his finger at the T.V. screen.

“What else then?”

“This Mafioso looking guy — he’s been around the city — he comes looking for Pichardo with a bunch of goons. He starts asking him all kinds of questions, about his arm, about how he needs someone to protect him. But Pichardo gets all defensive, saying he knows nothing about it.”

“What did this guy look like?”

“I dunno, typical. They start getting into a fight right in the street. The Mafioso guy hauls him into this back alley, but my boss, he keeps an eye on them. The Mafioso guy reaches for his gun, so Pichardo puts his arm up, his pitching arm, and he put his hand on the guy’s neck. He uses all of that strength from his arm and pushes the guy up against the wall.”


“Yeah, shit is right. He chokes him right there with his cyborg arm. He squeezes the life right out of him, as they say. And he drops the guy and leaves him for dead, clipping them goons with some heavy punches that knock them silly. He books it around the corner hoping no one saw it. Except my boss, Kenny, did. Imagine that, mafia kingpin,” the man snapped his fingers, “dead like that. Killed by a pitcher with a robotic arm. Can you believe it?”

“Quite a tale,” I said.

He looked me in the eye, solid, the way Ted used to look when he meant to get his point across. “It’s no tale.”

Before I could answer — not that I knew what to say, and maybe it was better that I didn’t say anything — Jenny leaned over, lifted up the man’s drink, and wiped the ring from under it. “I’ve heard bigger nonsense in this place.”

I looked at the other customers toward the back of the bar. They didn’t seem like baseball fans. They were all dressed in dark clothing. I realized that the Lion’s Paw had a new clientele.

The Darkness Below

By Bria Burton

Three lasers streamed into the blackness ahead. Captain Erin Waite aimed her executer and led her squad deeper into the cave. They were more than a mile in. Her unit moved in formation behind her surrounding a scientist, Sandra Moore, and a waste-of-space journalist, Thyme Bransford.

“It’s coming,” Thyme whispered, her voice trembling.

“Where?” Erin kept moving, scanning the narrowing rock walls with the executer tight to her shoulder.

Thyme didn’t respond.

The semi-automatic weapon, a rare commodity, fired tiny proton explosives encased in a bullet that reduced objects to dust while leaving the surrounding matter untouched. Ford Reams, the Southerner to Erin’s right, claimed he blasted a Russian terra-tank the size of a house to ashes back when the Army could afford to supply executers to a small portion of infantry. The bullet waiting to be fired held the laser. A dimmer red light fanned out from the barrel, penetrating the dark, showing a narrow, empty cave. Erin was losing patience with this girl.

“Thyme, answer me.”

“I don’t know. But it’s coming!” she screeched.

“What is that condiment saying?” Brody Halverson left his position at the rear to approach Erin. He wasn’t the type to coddle anyone.

Probably why Erin loved him. And why she would never tell him. He would’ve broken her heart after one night together. She met him years ago, but only worked directly with him once before. “Anything?”

“Nothing. I’ll keep walking backward to make sure.” He returned to his position.

“Tom?” Erin glanced over her left shoulder at Tom Eagle, her second-in-command.

“Clear,” he replied.

She groaned, tempted to order a spit-shine to clean the goggles. “Only report a sighting if you actually see something, got it?”

The group, including Thyme, echoed understanding.

They pressed on, and Erin determined to ignore Thyme. If she cracked up, Erin could send her back to base.

“Here I thought alien-huntin’ bored a woman like you, Thyme,” Ford said. “Back in the canyon, we’re saddlin’ up and you yawn like this is some cake walk.”

She said nothing.

Ford sniggered. “Not so confident now, huh, twig?”

First day back at base camp, he had made cracks about Erin in front of the other soldiers, too. “What Xdream-injectin’ politician voted some chick as team leader?” he asked, unaware she stood a few feet behind him.

“You don’t know Erin Waite,” said Tom. The one person on the planet Erin genuinely trusted always backed her up. She knew Tom from several Russian tours in the 20’s. He saved her life during an incident the higher ups claimed never happened.

“You heard about the slaughter, didn’t you?” he asked.

Ford spat. “Myth far as I know, bro.”

Tom folded his arms, his dark biceps bulging. “I’m not your bro, and I was there.”

“You sayin’ it’s true?”

“I found her outside Treehouse, our outermost post, five bullets in her. A sniper shot had grazed her head, but I still saw fight in her eyes.”

Brody cleaned his executer beside Tom, but neither gave Erin’s position away as she stood behind Ford. She waited to see what else Tom would say.

“You implyin’ she took down those Russians alone?” asked Ford.

“It’s a fact. Colonel made her replace thirty of our guys at Treehouse. I found out, grabbed weapons and anybody who’d come. She only had her knives, but someone left a flack shield. That’s probably what saved her in the end. By the time I got there, sixty Russians were splattered across the tundra. Sliced and diced. When I dropped a rifle beside her, she helped me hold off the rest till our company caught up.”

Ford backed up, arms raised, stopping just before he would’ve knocked into her. “Still, who says she killed ’em all? I’d take her on.”

He looked down. Erin’s knife caressed his inner thigh.

Brody whistled and Tom grinned.

By the time she face planted Ford, knife at his throat, she knew he’d never question her again.

In the cave, the red lights skimmed along the ceiling, the walls, the floor. If Erin didn’t know better, she would’ve thought the cave had been there for thousands of years. Rock shelves jutted out, but nothing else.

“I hear running water,” Sandra said.

The distant noise was faint, but Erin heard it too.

“If the AA is searching for water, we may be close to encountering it,” continued the scientist.

“What’s AA again?” asked Ford.

“My name for it. Animalia Abnormalis,” Sandra repeated for the fifth time.

They walked on in silence for another mile or so. No major changes in the surroundings. The cave walls remained about twelve feet in diameter. The trickling water sounds grew louder. In another mile, the cave narrowed into what looked like a dead end where clay mixed in with the dirt.

Erin pressed her hand against the wall. She checked her GPS. Four miles in and already blocked.

Sandra picked up loose rocks from the ground, observing them in her flashlight. “I’ve never seen this before.”

“You a geologist now?” asked Ford.

Sandra glared at him. “Didn’t you once headline the ‘Wal-World member of the day’ site?”

Brody crowed, “That shirt was tight and tiny! Made your biceps look huge.” He tarried in the back, still facing away.

Ford scoffed, but didn’t reply.

“I’m familiar with every rock known to exist in this canyon, including the meteorite,” Sandra said. “This is not native.”

“Do we dig?” asked Tom. “Try the breathing equipment?”

“I don’t think we’ll need it,” said Thyme.

Erin turned to her. Thyme didn’t seem right. Her goggles gave her eyes a glazed look. “Why?”

“We’re not going lower, just deeper.” Whatever Erin saw, Thyme seemed to snap out of it. “Suits me,” she continued. “Easier to record my notes if I’m not blocked by a mask.”

“You ain’t recorded nothin’,” said Ford.

“Nothing worth mentioning yet.”

“What about, ‘it’s coming’?” Brody mimicked her nasally voice well.

Erin didn’t laugh, but wanted to.

“The monster? How should I know?”

Erin stepped toward Thyme raising a flashlight. “You don’t remember making that comment?”

Thyme shielded her eyes. “What?”

“You clearly said, ‘it’s coming.'” Tom moved in behind Erin. “Twice.”

“Like a scared lil’ girl,” added Ford.

“Please.” She brushed dust off her jumpsuit.

Erin lowered the flashlight. If Thyme proved a liability, she was returning to base. One more “it’s coming” and that would be it.

“Ford, keep an eye on her.”

“What’d I do?”

Brody patted his back. “You earned it, poster boy.”

Ford elbowed him off. “Whatever. That skinny butt belongs to me now if Waite says so.”

“I say so.” Erin scanned the space behind them and then faced the wall ahead. Turn back or try to dig through? No one knew AA’s capabilities yet, except burrowing tunnels and killing animals. Even she didn’t know what to expect. For her, that was unusual.

When Special Agent Daniel Newsome had Erin brought in, she anticipated a repeat of the Area 51 Insurgency of 2199. The first real proof that aliens existed, and they were wiped out in a millisecond. Although she preferred not to exterminate extraterrestrials like her forefathers, Newsome said the president asked her to head up the team pursuing the AA into the earth. The military had been depleted to minimal levels back in 2301. She figured she was chosen as one of the few officers available for a mission on American soil. Currently, President Maria Gonzalez was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy for the U.S. while the top military personnel waged the Great Eastern War against Russia.

On November 11, 2331, a green cloud had descended over the Greater Grand Canyon. No one knew what to make of the cabbage cumulus that never dissipated. A meteor struck the state of Wyoming centuries ago, creating a pit bigger than the Grand Canyon. As the green cloud stalled over the southeastern portion of the pit, the president ordered a quarantine. Scientists worked for months researching the cloud when something black oozed out of the center, disappearing into the depths of the meteorite debris.

Since then, AA had been spotted only twice. Some comparison was made to the old fake photo of the Loch Ness monster; a vague, misshapen behemoth rather than a sea creature.

In May 2332, Newsome shipped Erin to the camp stationed at the edge of the site. He’d introduced Erin to Sandra, who explained what they knew, which wasn’t much.

“We’ve been monitoring from the moment the cloud descended. Every animal killed has been sucked dry. Not of blood, but of water. The men who claimed to have seen it described it with a range of traits, but nothing concrete. At the very least, to our human eyes, AA is a monster.”

“So it needs water. Why wouldn’t this cloud move over the Great Lakes, then? Or the Pacific if it doesn’t mind the salt? Plenty there,” Newsome suggested.

“We don’t know. This so-called cloud contains no water, so it could be a hologram or a trick of lighting from the mother ship.”

“All this talk about dehydrated aliens and mother ships, and you want only four soldiers down there, Dan?” Erin asked.

“We don’t have many resources,” Newsome said. “The equipment we got for this team is ancient besides the executers. The thing has apparently managed to burrow several caverns. You’ll be searching one. We have no idea how deep it is because the scientific equipment here is no better. But Sandra will be coming as well.” He continued before she could object. “We don’t know if there’s a threat to humanity or not. However, the number of animal carcasses found indicates a possible confrontation. Though the president doesn’t want a repeat of history, either.”

Erin expected a vague directive in terms of dealing with the AA. “Give me something concrete.”

“The president wants this done however it needs to be done. If you have to take this thing down, so be it. She trusts you.”

Her team, with a citizen, prepared for the descent. Then Newsome sprung Thyme on them.

“The president wants journalistic eyes down there. Someone who can report something positive for the American people to hear.”

“This can’t be airing on the nightly news.”

“Nothing like that. We’ll have her prepare a special report after it’s all over.”

The revulsion Erin felt contorted her face as Thyme stepped up to the men, shaking each of their hands. The slender woman looked ready to tip over at the first sign of wind.

Erin had no idea why President Gonzalez trusted Thyme. She must be sleeping with a senator. From the little time Erin had to research her before the mission, she appeared to be a flake who wrote articles about why the military should be disbanded for good.

If the government commanded that two citizens tag along, it was on them if one got herself killed. Now Erin welcomed Sandra. She had a vague idea of what they might be dealing with, impressing Erin with her no-nonsense approach. The tall, muscular blond handled a pistol like she owned one.

Still, Erin debated her next move in the cave. Brody slid around her to the dead end. “Permission to try something.” He held up his weapon.


He jabbed the butt of his executer into the wall.

Like chalk, the wall crumbled where he struck.

“Aim!” Erin shouted.

All four beams shot through the hole. The red dots struck a smooth, striped surface. Polished rock walls. The falling water sound was louder, but beyond their sight.

“Eyes.” Erin stepped through the hole and felt just how smoothly the rock had been polished. As her slip-proof sole hit the ground, she slid like she’d walked onto a frozen pond. Her feet went up, and her back went down, hard. She slid to the right where the cave sloped before hitting the side. She grunted, more pride than injury.

“Erin!” Tom dove through the hole, sliding on his stomach. “You okay?”

“Fine.” He helped her up. They skated along the floor, holding each other’s arms. A clicking sound drew her head up.

A red light blinked near Thyme’s ear. “June 27th, 2332. Fourteen hundred hours. We’re four miles in, nothing unusual until this. At a dead end, one of the soldiers smashed through the wall. It’s as if someone spent thousands of years hand-polishing every inch of the cave from here onward. I can only see about twenty meters in, and then the cave appears to turn left.”

The red light stopped blinking as soon as Thyme stopped speaking.

“You really don’t remember sayin’ it, do ya?” Ford smirked.

Click, click. “The team members are professional and dedicated to this mission. The only questionable member is a soldier named Ford Reams.”


“He appears the most volatile of the group. I’ll be sure to keep a close watch on him.”

“I’m watchin’ you. Make note of that.”

The red light vanished. “No more notes needed at the moment.”

“Are we coming in there?” Brody asked.

Tom panted. “You notice the air in here?”

Erin’s breathing, now labored, matched Tom’s. “It’s thinner.” She wondered how the change felt so sudden.

“The pressure in this area is fluctuating.”

When Erin glanced back, Sandra held a metal stick in the air with a gauge at the top.

“Masks on and take off your shoes,” Erin ordered.

The men slung their weapons over their shoulders, obeying.

When the oxygen flowed, Erin’s head cleared and her breathing steadied. The minimal, clear bubble covered her lips and nose just below the goggles, locking in place with suction around the edges. A tube at the bottom led to a small tank on her back. Tom held her shoulders as she unstrapped her boots. When she placed a bare foot on the stone, she had some grip.

“Nothing like our day in Russia.” The bubble muffled Tom’s voice.

Erin glanced up. He grinned in the dark. The guns gave off minimal red light aimed toward the floor. “Not yet, at least.”

The memory struck Erin, and she was there. She saw Beck, the man who tried to rape her, approaching as if he were a present threat. She had just gotten warm under a thermal blanket. He pulled her off the bunk down to the cold floor. While she was trapped in the folds of the blanket, he had an advantage. But as soon as he ripped it off, she elbowed him in the jaw. He stumbled back into the bunk, but recovered quicker than she anticipated. He smashed his fist into her temple, disorienting her. He pulled her onto the lower bunk, face down. When the room stopped spinning, she felt his breathing on her neck. He smelled like sauerkraut. He yanked on her belt. She jerked her head back, smacking his skull hard. He slumped and cursed. She flipped to face him, wrapping her legs around his torso. He held his forehead. She hurled him off the bed. Now on top of him, she crushed her thighs against his ribs. His hand moved, but she reached the knife on his waist before he did.

Colonel walked in. “Lieutenant Waite! On your feet!”

“I know why the president trusts you.” Tom’s voice, quieter in the bubble, snapped Erin out of the trance. He took her hand to help her stand. “The Russian terminator.”

Her arms had goose bumps. She rubbed them, wondering how the memory felt so real. “Plural.” She smacked his arm while the others poured through the hole, gingerly stepping toward them. They helped each other keep balanced.

“If we find the water, we’ll likely find the creature,” Sandra said.

“Eyes open. Watch your step.” Erin’s boots hung at her waist, off-balancing her. As they rounded the curve, she slipped more than once. Each time, Tom caught her arm before she could fall.

“This monster is no match for you,” he whispered. “Even when you’re on the ground.”

Erin turned her head sideways, wishing he’d stop putting her on a pedestal. “Not if you’re with me. Our day in Russia, remember? Not just mine.”

Another memory flashed in front of Erin, pulling her in. The blistering cold tundra winds swept over her. As punishment, the colonel sent her to defend Treehouse, the outer post, alone with only her knives. She stood bloodied, full of lead and adrenaline looking over the Russian bodies. No one else rushed. She was alone again. The blood and guts reeked. She tasted iron. She heard the shot the same moment it hit her head, crashing back onto the flack shield. The lightweight, body-length, impenetrable material had saved her life until now.

Blood trickled into her ear. A whooping noise. She didn’t understand. How could she hear anything? How could she see clouds overhead? She was dead.

The yelling closed in. The enemy would take over Treehouse. Why would colonel give up the post just to have her killed? He could’ve let Beck shoot her in the bunker.

Tom Eagle. He sounded far away, but she recognized his voice. He leaped over her, looking like a bird of prey. He dropped a rifle.

The sniper bullet had grazed her skull, shaving off bone. The other bullets didn’t hit anything vital. Tom’s presence shot fresh adrenaline through her. She sat upright and grabbed the gun, grimacing as pain seared throughout her body. She clamored to her feet, lifted the rifle, and aimed. They held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived.

Both colonel and Beck were dishonorably discharged. Both had been Russian spies all along, and when that came out, they were executed.

Erin slipped again, and Tom’s chuckle jerked her into the present. They traveled until the curve dipped down. Erin motioned for the squad to hold weapons at the ready during the descent. They had to slide on their butts, and her feet hit dusty, unpolished ground at the bottom.

The tunnel opened into a cavern with a musty smell. Light poured in. Erin searched, aiming her executer, but couldn’t find the source of it. At different levels, several waterfalls drained through the walls, creating pools that went nowhere.

Across the cavern, she saw a pair of shoes. Someone hid behind a partial wall.

“Show me hands!”

The squad reacted and moved into formation.

“Please don’t shoot.” The voice sounded female and rickety, as if an old woman’s. “I’m unarmed.” She stepped out from behind the wall into the laser beams, arms raised. She looked clean and wore street clothes.

“Who are you?” Erin asked.

She stepped toward them.

“Halt or I shoot!”

She stopped.

Click, click. “We’ve entered a larger cavern with an unknown light source and waterfalls. Here, we’ve encountered an elderly woman, maybe in her seventies. She speaks English.”

“Not now, Thyme.” Erin wanted to smack her. “Actually, keep the recorder on, but don’t speak into it.” She kept a laser on the old woman’s chest. “Identify yourself.”

“Sandra Moore. I’m a scientist.”

Erin twisted her head to look at Sandra.

Her eyebrows shot up behind her goggles. “How do you know my name?”

“It’s my name,” the old woman said.

“That seems unlikely,” said Brody.

However, Erin saw a resemblance. Same facial structure, tan skin, her arms and legs still muscular, but the white-haired woman must be lying. “What are you doing down here?”

“I came to find the AA, long ago…” She trailed off, glancing at a pool beside her. Water splashing from the falls hit her shoes.

Sandra’s term. “Why don’t you have a mask?” Erin asked.

“Don’t need it anymore thanks to whatever the monster did to us.”


“If you’ll just let me show you. Then again, you always do.”

Erin couldn’t grasp what she meant, but the woman turned and walked behind the wall.

“Wait!” Erin jogged forward, the rest close behind.

An electrified hum, then an explosion blasted the rock wall to the right. Erin stumbled, turned. Ash floated out of a hole between the stalactites and stalagmites. Behind her, Ford aimed his weapon toward the spot where the old woman fled. “Warnin’ shot!” he cried. “Don’t try nothin’ funny.”

Erin marched to the Wal-World trash and tore the executer from his grasp. “How dare you fire without direct orders?”

“She was–”

“Erin!” Tom aimed his laser at the old woman’s chest again. Her hands were still up.

“Do it again and I’ll see you court marshaled.” Erin slammed his weapon against his chest.

Ford bowed his head. “Yes, cap’n.”

The old lady waved a hand. “We’re all coming out, unarmed.”

Four others trailed behind her, two old women and two old men, dressed in similar clothes.

The lasers targeted each person. When Erin looked closer at their faces, she gawked. They all looked too familiar. When the last woman stepped into line with the rest, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “What is this?”

“I’m Sandra, like I said. This is Ford, Thyme, Tom, and this is Erin.”

The woman named Erin had wrinkled lines around her eyes and mouth. She was the spitting image of Grandma Margarita from Mexico. She cropped her white hair short. A scar above her right ear left an unnatural part. Erin’s shoulder length, brunette hair was tied back in a ponytail, covering up most of her scar. Her tattoo, a thin vine trail, was on the old woman’s wrist.

Everyone gaped, speechless as they stared at their aged counterparts. But this couldn’t be real. As much as they looked like older versions of themselves, Erin didn’t want to trust her eyes. Sandra warned the monster might be capable of creating hallucinations.

“You’re supposed to be me?” Erin asked, sounding as snide as possible.

Old Erin nodded.

She wanted to fire and watch her dissolve from ash into thin air like the illusion she must be. “Prove it.”

“You’re in love with Brody.”

And she went there.

It felt like minutes passed in silence. Besides Erin’s breathing in the mask, no sound but the waterfalls rushing into the pools broke it. She wanted to dive into one of them and disappear. She couldn’t turn to look at him, though she was sure he watched her in horror.

Yet it proved nothing if the monster could get into their thoughts. “What’s going on?” Erin demanded. “Are you the AA?”

“No,” Old Sandra said. “But we have a lot to tell you about him. Like the fact that he’s telepathic. He can make one thing appear to be something else. He also makes matter disappear, like a vacuum or a vortex. And he’s not here now. We feel the pressure in the room change when he leaves, but it doesn’t affect our breathing. When he’s far enough away, you’ll be able to take off your masks.”

“Why are you… olders here?” asked Brody.

Erin still couldn’t look at him, but noticed he had no aged counterpart.

“We can tell them. AA is far enough away.” Old Thyme, thin as a rail, had clear blue eyes like her younger self, and the chin-length strawberry hair was streaked with gray. “He can’t hear us now.”

The group of “olders” collectively sighed. “You can take off your masks.”

Though none of this made sense, Erin decided to hear these people out. They presented no immediate threat. She motioned for the team to lower their weapons. They removed the masks and breathed normally.

“After fifty years down here, with a lot of trial and error,” Old Sandra said, “we may have discovered a way to destroy the AA. Before you try to stop him, we need you to help us get out without the monster knowing. And you need to hear what happened to Brody.”

“But why are we meeting you?” Sandra asked. “If you are really us?”

“Listen here.” Old Tom spoke. “Your bullets won’t affect him. That’s why we haven’t been able to kill it. He can make anything coming at him disappear: fire, ice, weapons, including proton and nuclear ones. AA told us he dug too many tunnels in the Earth’s core. To fix it, he created a time loop. We don’t know how, but the year 2332 starts over every January to prevent the eventual destruction of the planet where he intends to live forever. You coming here every year proves it still works.” The smooth and deep voice Erin knew so well crackled. He seemed different than his younger self, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. More…peaceful.

“That’s why you’re meetin’ us. We’ve relived this scene every year for the past forty-nine. Been tryin’ to figure out what can be done differently to keep y’all from bein’ killed. But it happens every time.” Old Ford, the oldest looking with the whitest hair, shook his head. His legs wobbled like he was tired from standing. He reached for Old Thyme’s hand.

The younger pair stared at their counterparts, then at each other.

“Your time loop theory is flawed,” said Sandra. “Wouldn’t you all return to wherever you were celebrating New Year’s on the first? You wouldn’t still be down here, and you wouldn’t age.”

“AA made us immune to the time loop like he is,” Old Sandra explained.

“Why didn’t you come out and find us at the base?” Erin asked.

“He said he’d kill us if we left.” Old Thyme leaned her head on Old Ford’s shoulder. “He brings us food and supplies.”

The animal carcasses? Maybe there were many more they hadn’t found because AA brought them to these people. Erin couldn’t help but grin at the odd couple. Fake or not, after fifty years together, she supposed Thyme and Ford might have succumbed to the “opposites attract” rule.

“The green cloud is an illusion like we thought,” Old Sandra said to the younger. “It’s really his spacecraft. AA chose to come to Earth because he only survives on water. He burrowed tunnels into the Greater Grand Canyon to create this lair. All look identical. Same length and width, blocked at four miles deep with a thin wall, easily crushed. But the wall, including the polished rock, is another illusion. As is the light in this room.”

“Non-native rock.” Ford shook his head. “What’s with the tunnel?”

“When someone enters one of the caves, it somehow alerts the AA,” said Old Sandra. “When the wall is broken, he comes close enough to draw out the memories of those inside, especially their greatest achievement. Of course, it’s always been us, but he seems to enjoy replaying the memories.”

Tom jerked his head back. “Erin, did you have a moment back there where you thought you were fighting at Treehouse?”


“Me too.”

“We share our greatest achievement,” said Old Tom.

Brody raised his hand. “I had a memory pop up as well.” He met Erin’s gaze, gave a half-grin, and looked away. Like she thought. No return of the feelings. At least now she knew.

Ford, Thyme, and Sandra raised their hands.

If anyone could convince Erin that their eyes didn’t deceive them, Sandra could. Yet she hesitated to trust what she didn’t understand. “How do we know you’re not an illusion?”

“Because we want to destroy him.” Old Sandra lifted her arms, waving her hands as she spoke. Erin had seen younger Sandra do the same thing. “When we first came into this cavern, AA was waiting. I saw the abominable snowman. Thyme saw a dragon. Ford saw the Mothman. Tom saw Anubis, the jackal-headed god. Erin saw a chupacabre.”

She cringed. As a kid, she got scared watching movies with that blood-sucking creature in it.

Old Erin grinned knowingly. “He scared us, but when we fired, he was unscathed. Then he changed into a small, fluffy-looking thing. He convinced us we were safe, and asked about our world. We told him some well-known events. He seemed indifferent when we mentioned the Area 51 Insurgency. Then he told us about himself, how he’s the only one of his kind. After living 10,000 years, he traveled to Earth hoping to live forever with the abundant water resource. He stole his spaceship, which travels faster than light speed, from another alien race.”

“Not very nice. So what about me?” Brody’s voice had a hint of fear.

Old Erin’s face fell into a deep frown.

“It happened suddenly,” said Old Tom. “AA transformed into a black, gaping hole. I don’t know what else to call it. There was no real form to it. He was coming for Erin, but Brody stepped between her and the monster. He made Brody disappear, but not until he sucked the water from his body. We’ve never seen that Brody again.”

Erin felt a jolt in her chest, like a nerve ending came loose and struck her heart.

“I’m sorry, man,” said Old Tom.

“Okay.” Brody took the news as Erin expected, with a nod and his half-grin. “Now I know. Thanks for that.” He pulled the weapon off his shoulder. “So let’s kill this thing before it kills me.”

“You should know,” Old Erin said, “AA let us live down here unaffected by the time loop because of what you did. He said you were a brave person who had thoughts of sacrificing yourself so that all of us could live. He respected that.”

Brody gripped his executer. “Good to know I’m not a coward.”

Erin debated whether to trust these people or find the monster on their own and risk being sucked into some sort of darkness. “Is this possible?” she asked Sandra.

She shrugged. “We’re chasing an alien that came out of a green cloud. Anything’s possible.”

Erin took the risk. “What do we do now?”

Old Tom rubbed his hands together. “Tell them your idea, Erin.” He was looking at the older one.

“Last year,” she said, “we froze a section of the polished tunnel and it turned into regular cave rock. I believe freezing the ship, exposing it for what it is, will draw the AA inside, causing his true appearance to be revealed. Then maybe we can figure out how to destroy him. Except he obviously stopped you last year. You left to freeze the green cloud with liquid nitrogen. But you never came back. We want to come this time to see what went wrong.”

“This sounds crazy,” Thyme said.

“You were here while we did all the work?” asked Ford.

“We have made progress eliminating what can’t kill the monster,” Old Sandra said. “You would never know if you didn’t meet us every time. Now we’re willing to risk leaving.”

If they were telling the truth, the youngers were expendable, not the olders. “We’ll go, but you should stay until the AA is frozen. Then you can help us destroy him.” Erin looked over the team. “My first instinct is to bring only military. That’s probably what I did last year. This year, Sandra and Thyme will come along. If we don’t make it, I’ll tell Newsome to send another team down here to explain what went wrong.”

“Last year, no one came to tell us what happened to you,” said Old Sandra. “We think AA sucked them up.”

“Then failure isn’t an option,” said Erin.

“But y’all already tried ice,” Ford pointed out.

“We don’t think he’ll vacuum up parts of the spaceship just to make the liquid nitrogen disappear,” said Old Sandra. “He may talk about living here forever, but it’s another thing if he’s trapped.”

“Sounds like way too many ifs in this scenario,” said Thyme.

“We may disappear, but we’ll come back and try again next year,” said Tom. Erin appreciated that he always agreed with her.

Ford pointed to the hole he had blasted. “Did you know I would do that?”

“You fire every three years on average,” said Old Sandra. “Some of the holes, the AA tunnels toward water sources. That’s where the waterfalls come in.”

A cavern behind the wall linked several tunnels and caves where the AA had helped the olders make a home. They had beds, tables, even kitchen appliances that worked. They brought out a long rope from their storage room.

Brody spread the goop he used in his hair along his hands and feet. The stuff gave him traction as he climbed up the tunnel with the rope tied to his pack. He hollered when he stood on the other side of the dead end.

The rest of them wiped their feet and strapped their boots back on.

Erin used Brody’s product on the bottom of her boots, handing it off to Tom. “See you soon.” She glanced back at the olders, wondering if she would. With the rope, she pulled herself up the tunnel. It didn’t take long for all of them to reach the main cave.

“We’re running. It’s four miles, so I don’t want to hear any complaints.” They jogged slowly. She figured the lack of meat on Thyme’s bones meant her energy level would be low. Erin heard her panting, but the journalist didn’t say a word.

The red lights led them through the narrow tunnel. Soon, a circle of sunlight appeared in the distance. They stepped out of the cave and onto the floor of the canyon. The tar-like smell of the meteorite debris singed Erin’s nostrils.

“Hydration time.” They pulled out waters. Erin gulped down the cool fluid until the canteen was empty.

“I’m on the walkie.” Tom reached for the two-way radio. It wouldn’t work inside the cave, so they’d left it at the entrance. “Caveman to base, over.”

The device crackled. In less than a minute, Dan’s voice answered. “Base here, over.”

“Caveman and crew requesting the bird, over.”


Erin dropped her pack. “We’ll eat while we wait.” She tossed sandwiches to each team member.

“Pardon me.” Brody stepped toward the nearest meteorite chunk and disappeared behind it.

The rest of them sat on the ground, munching on PB and J’s.

Ford wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Thyme, what’d your older say? I saw her whisperin’ to ya.”

Thyme swallowed. “She said the AA can speak through a mind weak from fear. That’s why I don’t remember saying it. Because he has killed our group every year, he likes to foreshadow our deaths using me.”

“Your mind ain’t weak.”

“I guess it’s the weakest in our group, and that’s enough for the monster to infiltrate. She told me to stay strong and not be afraid so I don’t let him in when he’s nearby.”

“I’ll protect ya. Remember, I own you.”

Brody appeared from behind the meteorite and sat by Ford. “Looks like you two are ready for your own cavern.”

Ford smacked Brody in the head.

“Hey! We all know what’s gonna happen. I think it’s helpful, seeing you get along so well. Makes us trust them even more.”

Tom crumpled the sandwich wrapper’s recycled paper. “How do we convince the base to freeze the ship?”

“I think I have a way.” A humming noise drew Erin’s head up. The sound of spinning helicopter blades grew louder. The bird landed in a flat, open space.

They climbed aboard. Erin stared into the mouth of the Greater Grand Canyon as they rose, counting fifty cave openings the AA had vacuumed out. Soon, they crested the canyon’s edge where rows of white tents and one building stood. Special Agent Newsome greeted them at the base camp’s landing pad.

“That didn’t take long. You have a meet and greet?”

Erin waited for everyone else before leading Newsome to the communications tent. “Thyme, give him your headset.”

The tech played back the recording, beginning to end.

Newsome listened, and his eyes widened when the olders introduced themselves. When it was over, he asked, “Is this for real?”

Erin said, “I believe them.”

Newsome glanced at the team. He folded his arms. “All right. I’ll get the president’s approval.”

“How much LN will they need?” Erin asked Sandra.

One of the scientists calculated the number and handed it to her. “We estimate ten million gallons. Though the cloud may be bigger than the actual ship.”

“This may take some time.” Dan scratched his head. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The team took the opportunity to rest in their tents. Erin expected to sleep a few hours. When she awoke, it was dark. The day played in her mind like a vivid dream, but she knew it had been real. She’d be ready, whatever happened. If it was her time to disappear, so be it. If things finally worked out, then she was lucky to be a part of it.

She swung her feet off the cot and onto the ground, clicking on a lamp. Brody sat in the corner.

Though her body didn’t jump, her heart did.

“I wanted to talk to you.” He clasped his hands together. “I’m not bothered by anything that was said back there.”

Erin held her breath, unsure how to respond.

“You’re my superior, and I respect that. If what your older said was true, I’m sorry that I don’t feel the same way. You and me, we wouldn’t…” He clapped his hands together. “You know what? You don’t need to hear any more from me.” He saluted and left the tent.

She exhaled. Though she had figured it out, she felt a fresh pang of rejection. Part of her wanted to hit something, but another part wanted to cry. She went with the former and headed for the lodge where a punching bag waited.

By the time Newsome found her, Erin’s fists throbbed, a bloody mess.

“Whoa. Save your strength. We’re on.”

She wrapped her hands as he talked.

“Stetson University had the amount we needed. Some past research project or something. It’s all president-approved. We’re getting updated equipment, even. You ready to board an alien spaceship?”

“More than ever.”

The next day, one hundred aircraft carrying 100,000 gallons each passed over a specified area of the green cloud before releasing their load.

The team watched from the rim of the canyon. The rest of the base stood behind them. Erin shielded her eyes from the sun. As the smoky liquid sprayed the cloud, a silver color bled through the green. In less than an hour, a long, cylindrical-shaped spacecraft hovered above the canyon, frozen.

She turned to the team. “Our bird is waiting.”

One by one, they entered a tent where some of the scientists dressed them. They placed a clear-bubbled helmet over Erin’s head. She breathed and the oxygen flowed. The first clothes layer, like a leotard, suctioned to every inch of her body. The neck snapped inside the helmet. The top layer looked like a biohazard suit and smelled rubbery.

“This will control the temperature inside your suit.” One of the scientists tapped a control panel on her arm. “Right now, it’s room temperature. Before you exit the helicopter, tell your team to press this button.”

It read, TEMP ADJ.

“Your suit will adjust to keep each individual’s temperature at 98.6.”

On the chopper, Erin glanced at the five of them. The soldiers and Sandra looked eager behind the clear helmets. Thyme looked afraid.

“No sign of the AA. We’ll keep you posted,” Dan said into the headsets. “No expense spared this time.”

When they neared the vessel, it reminded Erin of spaceships in sci-fi flicks. Even frozen, the thing had blinking lights, panels, and round attachments. They looked like escape pods, if she had to guess. The liquid nitrogen created a smoky haze around everything. They rose above its rear where three circular thrusters stared at them like full moons behind wisps of clouds. The chopper hovered inside one of them.

“Push the button. Stay close!” Erin touched her control panel. Increasing TEMP flashed in red. She dropped the ladder and climbed down with an LN canister on her shoulder. She stepped onto a frosted metal of some kind, moving aside as each team member followed. The chopper backed away. They walked toward the hull. From what she could tell, it would take about twenty minutes to get inside from where they were now.

“Can everyone hear me?”

Every team member gave an affirmative. Everyone except Thyme.

“I need verbal confirmation.” Erin glanced back over her shoulder. The smoke surrounded everyone. Thyme had that glazed look Erin remembered from the cave. “Can you hear me on your com?” She stopped in front of her and tapped her own helmet at the ear.

The rest of the team stopped and stared. “Something’s not right with her,” said Sandra.

“I’m coming.” Thyme frowned and her eyes squinted. Then her hands shuddered. The movement traveled until her entire body shook.

Ford wrapped his arms around her. “Steady! I gotcha.”

The chopper. Erin looked up just as a blackness rose beneath it, swallowing it whole. The bird disappeared. After that, the blackness shifted and stretched, growing larger.

“Line up!”

The team turned to see it coming for them. Tom and Sandra moved into position with their canisters in hand. Ford dragged Thyme into the line. “Snap out of it!” he yelled.

“I’m okay.” Thyme sounded like herself again.

Brody turned and faced the monster approaching with incredible speed.

“Get into position!” Erin feared they weren’t deep enough into the ship for the AA to begin freezing. The canisters were supposed to be a last resort. “That’s an order!”

Brody stepped forward, not back, toward the thing flying at them. “All of you, run! Get farther in to make sure it freezes.”

He was right, and there was no time. “Run!” Erin turned and they followed. With the suit, she didn’t have much speed, but she gave it all she had.

“You know me!” Brody cried. “I’m ready to die so that you’ll let them live.”

A voice, deep and hollow, echoed in Erin’s head. “I know you all.”

She couldn’t help it. She glanced back over her shoulder.

The black, gaping hole hovered over Brody, lowering itself.

She tripped and fell. Her helmet hit the icy ship. She heard a crack. When she opened her eyes, a starburst in her helmet stared back at her.

Hands gripped her arms. Tom and Sandra lifted her to her feet.

“Your helmet.” Tom had panic in his eyes.

“It’s okay. As long as it doesn’t spread.”

AA was getting closer to Brody.

“This is the end,” he said. “I’m not afraid to die. What about you?”

“I’m not afraid of any of you,” the voice said.

“So take me! It’s what you want to do. Make me disappear.” Brody squatted, and then lay flat on his back.

AA moved closer to the ship. His fringe began to ice. The edges grew starbursts like the one on Erin’s helmet.

She sprinted toward them. Fifty meters. She could save Brody. Keep him from disappearing.

The blackness shuddered as it neared the icy ground. The starbursts on him spread, splintering toward his center.

“Come on. I’m ready. Do it!” Brody cried.

AA lowered onto him, the blackness that was left wrapping over his body like a dark blanket.

“No!” Erin pumped her arms and legs harder.

“No,” the voice echoed. AA skated along the ground, moving toward her. A hole in the ship appeared where Brody had been.

Erin skidded to a halt, choking back tears while unscrewing the cap on the canister. AA was ten feet away.

Where the monster’s form had frozen around the fringe, it looked see-through like an ice cube. But the starbursts stopped and now retreated toward his edges, allowing him to lift off the ground.

As he rose toward her, she knelt, swinging the canister back and heaving it into the air with a firm grip on the metal. The liquid nitrogen splattered the blackness above. The starbursts that had retreated splintered again, moving quickly toward his center until they covered him.

“Not…” The voice weakened. “…my…intention.”

The smoke surrounded AA until no blackness could be seen through it. Erin scooted back and stood. Four other streams of LN splashed onto the frozen monster.

“For good measure,” Tom said.

The team panted, holding their empty canisters.

When the smoke cleared, a block of ice hovered in the air. Erin stepped toward the floating cube and stared into it. “I can’t see anything.”

“You brave woman,” Tom said. “That thing saw what making Brody disappear did to his ship, but he still could’ve tried to suck up the LN coming at him. And you.”

She exhaled. “He didn’t want to risk making more holes.”

“That was an assumption.”

“Brody took the greater risk.” She turned to the hole where he had been. “He paid the greatest price.”

“You bein’ here made the difference,” Ford said to Thyme. “You warned us it was comin’.”

“I did?” Thyme’s eyes widened. “Why can’t we see it?”

“It’s possible the AA is…nothing in its truest form.” Sandra touched Erin’s helmet. “We’ve got to get you back.”

The starburst had spread, creating a line down the center that almost reached the neck.

Tom punched the control panel on his arm. “Newsome, we have the AA. It’s frozen in a two-foot square cube. Waite’s helmet is cracked. Send us another bird ASAP.”

When the replacement chopper came, one of the scientists climbed down the ladder. He jogged over holding a metal container the same size as the ice block. “This it?” he asked.

Erin nodded.

“I’ll keep it frozen in transport.” He pressed the buttons on a keypad, and the container split apart. Sandra helped him close it over the floating cube. When it locked, a red light on the keypad switched to green.

Everyone walked to the ladder and boarded the bird with the cargo.

Back at base, after a hot shower, Erin collapsed onto her cot. She awoke in a sweat, her dreams dark and foreboding. She had been hanging onto the edge of the spaceship, but her hands slipped as something sucked her up like a vacuum. She had glimpsed a giant face that opened its mouth and swallowed her. Brody cried, “Take me instead!”

She woke up, dressed, and left the tent to discover that she’d slept through the night and into the next afternoon.

“Erin?” Sandra came up behind her. “You’ll want to see this.”

She followed her to one of the stations where it seemed every scientist at the base hovered like pigeons.

“Excuse us!” Sandra pushed her way to a table where the metal container holding the AA sat in the center. Newsome stood behind one of the scientists who, strangely enough, peered into a microscope that aimed at the container.

“There’s a small glass window.” Sandra moved the microscope so Erin could see what she meant. “We can look inside without having to open it and risk the AA melting.”

Erin hadn’t noticed the tiny glass circle when they had closed up the cube.

“Take a look.”

She peered into the microscope. The image was difficult to describe, but she knew the words to say. “A neon blue-colored life form that resembles no organisms found on this planet. Structured in a manner suggesting that it is self-sustaining.” She lifted her eyes from the microbe. “Except we know it survives on water.”

The buzz from the murmuring scientists sounded like a swarm of bees.

“Do you know what this means?” Newsome cried. “This is the same type of extraterrestrial the U.S. military destroyed in the Area 51 Insurgency!”

“Looks that way,” Erin said, having seen the pictures in history books. Those microbes looked identical to this one.

“I can’t figure this out!” Dan pulled up chunks of his hair. “If this thing is telepathic, makes matter disappear, and creates illusions out of existing matter, why didn’t those aliens back in 2199 do the same things? They were placed in a sealed room and exposed to radiation. And that was it! They didn’t show up on the microscope anymore.”

“At least now we know how to destroy this one,” Sandra said. “AA obviously can’t wield his power now that he’s frozen. Perhaps those other aliens didn’t show us their abilities because they had no desire to.”

A humming sound drew Erin’s gaze upward. The chopper approached. “Who’s coming in?”

Sandra grabbed her hand, grinning. “Come on.”

Her giddiness surprised Erin, but she let Sandra drag her toward the helicopter pad.

Thyme was already there.

When the bird landed, an older version of Erin stepped out, along with Old Sandra, Tom, Ford, and Thyme. All unharmed though they had left the monster’s lair. They ducked as they walked out from under the spinning blades.

Erin shook each of their hands. It was strange shaking hands with herself, but she smiled at her older. “Good to see you.”

Old Erin shouted over the bird. “I’m glad you’re safe this time!”

Behind them, younger Tom and Ford exited the chopper. When Tom saw Erin, he ran over and saluted. “We went while you were asleep. I hope it’s okay. Newsome–”

“Mission accomplished, Tom.” She patted his back.

They brought the olders over to the microscope.

“How is it possible?” They turned to each other, looking confused. “He was one of a kind, he said.”

“Perhaps something about him was different,” Sandra replied. “The things he could do were never demonstrated by the first aliens. Theoretically, the time loop should end when we destroy him.”

The olders whispered amongst themselves. Old Sandra stepped forward. “We think you should do it. But someone should investigate his burrowing activity. This far into the year, he may have damaged the earth’s core. Without the time loop, the Earth won’t fix itself.”

Sandra and Newsome nodded to one another.

“The transport arrives in an hour to take the AA to the Area 51 facility,” Dan said. “The research on him and his activity will likely last until the end of the year. It’s the president’s call, but she’ll listen to me. Before January, he’ll be exposed to the radiation level that destroyed the others.”

“What if he came for revenge?”

Everyone turned to the journalist, who had that glazed look again.

“Thyme…” Erin stepped toward the girl who looked anxious, but not AA-guided. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe he lied. He could’ve gotten some kind of signal when we killed his fellow aliens, who likely possessed the same abilities whether they demonstrated them or not. So AA got angry and flew here on the ship.” She waved up at the frozen spacecraft. “He planned to destroy us by burrowing endless tunnels, but then he saw our water source.”

“I don’t know if I’m followin’…”

She cut Ford off. “The time loop wasn’t to fix anything, it was to punish us while he potentially lives forever on our water. His kind can obviously die, so burrowing tunnels became his failsafe if we ever figured out how to kill him. Meaning if he died, we died. Eventually.”

Erin glanced at the scientists, whose mouths hung open. Many shook their heads.

“That’s speculation,” Sandra said. “But it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. We’ll have to deal with whatever problems AA has left behind whether he lied or not.” She glanced at Newsome. “We need to figure out a way to seal up the ship and blast some radiation in. Just in case AA has a friend.”

Thyme grabbed Erin’s arm. “You were right! He didn’t want holes in his ship because he planned to go home and bring back more of his own kind.”

She looked ready to implode with this unconfirmed knowledge. The nightly news wouldn’t be prepared for the special report she was about to create. “I’m sorry to admit I thought you were a waste of an oxygen tank, but I’m really glad you were with us. I think Ford’s right, you are the reason we didn’t disappear.”

Thyme’s lip trembled, which surprised Erin. “Thanks.”

She patted Thyme’s shoulder. “Let’s hope AA hasn’t done enough damage to destroy us after we destroy him.”

New Year’s Eve, 2332

The group of ten olders and youngers chanted in unison. “Ten, nine, eight…”


“Yes, Tom?”

“Seven, six, five…”

“I’ve wanted to say this for a long time.”

“Four, three, two, one…”

“Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year, Tom.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

They kissed.

Erin stared at them, shocked.

Their faces faded, their bodies dissolving into air. Empty space remained where Old Tom and Old Erin had been.

Erin’s hand, holding a champagne glass, opened. The glass shattered on the floor.

The rest of the olders dissolved into nothing as well. The five of them gaped at each other in Thyme’s living room.

“What’s going on?” Thyme stepped away from Ford, whom she had been kissing.

“The time loop is over.” Sandra pointed at the television where New York City erupted in fireworks and confetti. The camera scanned the street level in Times Square where people bobbed with “2333” banners.

“Did they…?” When Erin looked up, Tom moved in closer.

“Erin, there’s something I want to tell you.”

Her hands felt sweaty. She rubbed them on the designer suit as subtly as she could.

He took them in his. “I have loved you for a long time.”

Somehow, watching her older kiss Old Tom connected all the dots Erin had never joined. When Brody died, she didn’t want to love again. But Tom was the best friend she’d ever had. Somewhere along the way, her feelings changed without her realizing it until now.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, gazing into the face she knew so well. This tall, dark, and handsome man loved her.

“Me, too.”

Erin felt the passion behind his eyes transfer to his mouth. His lips caressed hers, and she vaguely heard the rest of the group debating the moment of change for the world.

“How are they kissing? Our olders just disappeared in front of us!” Thyme cried.

“The AA is finally destroyed,” Sandra said. “That’s reason enough to celebrate.”

“What if I’m right about the aliens sending a signal to their home planet when they are killed?” she asked. “What if the research team determines that AA set the Earth on a course for destruction? Are these things to celebrate?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Ford said.

Tom pulled away from Erin, but still held her hand. “We’ll fight for this world again if we have to.”

Erin faced her team. “We can die trying.”

The Whale Fall

By Sean Monaghan

With a stutter the little black Hyundai’s engine gave out. Gemma fought the wheel as the traveler dropped back over loose rock on the steep driveway. Gemma cursed. Why did her grandmother have to live all the way out here anyway? Without even a decent spotline or phone.

Gemma had been up here so many times with her father at the wheel. He’d never liked her driving, had told her never to attempt the hill on her own. But here she was. Instead of being able to say to him “Take that, you” it looked like he’d been right.

Gemma ratcheted on the brake and got out of the traveler.

To her right, across the dark ocean, gray-black clouds rose in rows like a set of gravestones. She saw a squawk of lightning, didn’t need to count the seconds. The storm would arrive before nightfall anyway. The normally rich blue, almost transparent sea became an oily deep green, like dying moss, under the storm front.

The stormy sea reminded her that it might have been an accident. There might not have been anyone else involved. She wanted to believe that, wanted to think it had all been innocent, but part of her hung on, imagining skullduggery. Was that the word?

The wind rolled in and from the trunk Gemma retrieved her sou’wester, the yellow fabric smelling of new polyethylene. The jacket’s inner was soft pelted fabric and it slipped on easily over her old tee-shirt.

Abandoning the uncooperative vehicle, Gemma started walking up the rocky drive.

By the time Gemma reached Grandma Masie’s place the storm’s leading edge was already sending its tendrils high overhead. She wondered if she might have to stay the night. Perhaps, given circumstances, she should stay the night anyway.

A plane buzzed low–lower even than her grandmother’s house–out over the bay, crossing the headland: racing the storm. Gemma watched, guessing it was Mack, who ran three of the six planes out of Cedar Bay, and owned shares in the other three. He always seemed to be taking someone up sightseeing, or training. Gemma waved, knowing she would be too tiny to see from this far off. The plane continued on in the direction of Cedar Falls, engine thrumming.

“Hi Gran,” Gemma said, coming around the side of the house, seeing Masie sitting on the verandah. She had a webtrace loom in her gnarled hands, weaving something conical. A lampshade? How antiquely cute.

“Gemma,” Masie said, setting the loom aside and standing. The loom slipped off the polished wooden table and fell to the decking. “Oh, clumsy!” Masie said. She bent and retrieved it as Gemma stepped up.

“Grandma? Are you all right?”

Masie laughed. “Eyesight and fingers,” she said, putting the loom firmly in the middle of the table and wriggling her fingers at Gemma. “Hips, knees. And hair. At least this thing’s still nimble.” She tapped her temple.

Gemma smiled and hugged her grandmother, taking in her scent of roses and linen and skin cream.

There were flowers in the garden along the front of the porch. Among roses and glenbrooks from Earth, there were tall Vega lilies that beaded with crystals along their petal rims, and puffy deep crimson and skin-pink haritoshan pansies. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble with all these off-world imports, Grandma.”

Masie nodded. “The constabulary has far better things to do than chase up an old woman with a few illegal plants.”

It was almost a tradition between them, for Gemma to point that out. She’d been doing it since she was six, learning to be a good girl.

Now it felt more like another way of avoiding the topic.

“Coffee?” Masie said. “Almost black, one malitol, right?”

“Grandma, I’ve got something to tell you. You should sit down.”

Masie blinked, her dark eyes glistening. She glanced down at the loom, then back at Gemma. “I’ll flick the machine,” Masie said. “You can tell me over coffee. And cookies.” It was almost as if the old woman knew it was bad news coming.

“Grandma.” Gemma didn’t want to wait, it was hard enough dealing with it herself. Grandma, your son is dead. My father. Dead.

Gemma had a flash of memory. Turning thirteen, just five years until adulthood, thrilled that on Earth kids had to wait until twenty-one, only to have that anticipation of adulthood diminished by her father’s explanation: “The Earth year is shorter. They’re still basically the same age.”

She’d known that all along, but hadn’t put it together in her head until that moment. The realization that for every seven birthdays she had, other kids had eight seemed, to her teenaged mind, so unfair. He’d been sympathetic, but still shrugged.

She bit her lip, missing him.

“Chocolate chip,” Masie said. “You love those. Come in.”

Gemma glanced out over the garden. There were divots in the lawn as if someone had removed some heavy garden furniture. Beyond, the clouds continued to roll.

She followed Masie into the kitchen. “I’m not six anymore, Grandma.”

“Really? Didn’t you just have your sixth birthday?” She stopped in the doorway. With a grin she said, “It seems like yesterday.”

“I know.”

The kitchen had changed itself to a lavender hue, almost violet. The ceiling had gone a pastel blue. Masie tapped the coffee maker and it leapt into action, molding a cup right away and plugging its tube into the side of the refrigerator.

“Two,” Masie said. “Two coffees. Black but for one drop of milk. And double sweet.”

“Roger that,” the coffee maker said. Steam hissed from its slim chimney as it molded another cup and closed its doors.

Gemma raised her eyebrows. The little machine had a new vocabulary. “You redecorated?” she said.

“Good grief,” Masie said. “The whole house is on the fritz. I want a white kitchen.” She looked at the ceiling and yelled, “WHITE KITCHEN!”

The walls flickered, went white for a moment and changed back to lavender.

“See,” Masie said. “I’d get someone up here, but everyone complains about the trek. Your father keeps telling me I need to move into town to see out my twilight years. It’s become something of a mantra for him.”

The coffee machine spluttered, specks of hot water spitting from the seals and alighting on its chrome facing.

“I’ll get you a new coffee maker,” Gemma said, finding the words coming far more easily than those she really needed to say.

“Well, I like this old Wego.” Masie turned. “What I could use is one of those utility spinner things. One of the robots that can repair things like this.”

The machine bleeped, and a door on the front panel opened revealing the two steaming cups. Masie put them on the breakfast bar. “Usually I like watching the sunset from the verandah, but it’s getting cool and stormy out so I hope you don’t mind sitting here.”

Gemma got onto a stool and sipped. She winced. Far too bitter.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Masie said, and for the briefest flash Gemma thought she meant the news she was bringing.

“I’m definitely getting you a new machine.”

Masie smiled. She asked how Gemma had come, and Gemma explained about the breakdown on the drive. “I didn’t dare drive on.”

“You have to stay the night,” Masie said. “We can get Jim O’Connor up here in the morning to tow you out.”

“It’s fine, Grandma. I can just back around. It’s all downhill from there.”

Masie nodded, unconvinced.

Gemma stared at her grandmother’s lined face. She seemed older than her seventy years, some of the lines around her mouth and eyes like old worn trenches. Her hair was as white as a book’s screen, but her hazel eyes could have been those of any of Gemma’s friends. Inquisitive, bright.

Masie licked her lips. “But you’re not here to just pass the time of day, are you?”

Gemma gave her head the faintest of shakes.

“Is it Theo?” Masie never called her son Theodore, or Ted, always Theo.

Gemma sniffed and burst into tears.

The guest room smelled of linoleum and glue, as if Masie had actually had someone out to lay a new floor. The room was filled with things Gemma remembered from growing up. Mobiles, porcelain figures from a dozen worlds, building bricks.

They’d visited every few weeks, usually with a sleepover. Her father would stay in his old room and she would sleep in here.

She imagined his ghost, walking the hallway.

Later she was woken by the storm charging across the house like a million unleashed beasts. The rain clattered on the old roof, the thunder made the windows rattle. Gemma crept downstairs for a glass of water and found her grandmother sitting in an armchair, pulled right up to the front window, watching the jagged lightning strikes out over the bay.

Gemma stood for a moment before going back up to bed.

She remembered the first time he’d taken her out on a boat away from the shallows or the reef. She’d probably only been eight or nine. A fun day out.

The ocean so big, the strip of land like a model of an island, dangling on the horizon. The water had been so different. At first she’d hung over the side, watching, but as the water darkened from its welcoming, cool transparency to a full and impenetrable dark, she’d crept back away into the middle of the boat, almost huddling against his side as he watched ahead.

Her stomach had clenched as if it was twisting like an old dishrag. He’d slowed to let her throw up over the side, given her a flask of water to rinse out.

When he’d finally stopped the boat and put on his gear, she’d refused to get in.

“Come on,” he’d said. “It’s safe.”

But she’d shaken her head and clung to the seat. Her father had paddled around for a while, vanished under the surface for a panicky ten minutes before coming back aboard with some plastic vials filled with seawater. He’d sat, labeled them with a black marker and stowed them in an aluminum case.

Without speaking to her, he’d started the boat, turned around and they’d driven back in silence except for the hum of the engine and the smacking of the waves.

The ocean was just not her thing.

Masie made pancakes.

“Maple syrup?” she said, pushing a thick-walled glass flask across the table. “Canadian maples. They’re growing them on the northern peninsula now. Cablehope or Glisten, one of those towns.”

“Grandma. They haven’t found his body yet.” Gemma poured the silky amber liquid, making spirals around the top of her pancake stack.

“That doesn’t surprise me. How deep was he?”

“A hundred and fifty meters. On a whale fall.”

“Isn’t there a record? Don’t they record everything?” Masie cut pieces from her own stack and ate. In the background the coffee maker spluttered, a slightly higher-pitched sound than the evening before.

“Yes. He had on-board recorders, with a shore-based backup, which he linked, but the link got broken. There’s data on the…” Gemma broke off with a sniff. She had to look away. Through the dining room window she was faced with the rising hill behind the house, covered in bright yellow gorse and myriad invasive clovers, throwing their three-leafed tips through the other plants’ spines. They all glistened with drops from the previous night’s rain.

Masie put her hand on Gemma’s. “It’s all right.”

Gemma looked around, almost angry. “Why aren’t you sad? Your son! He’s dead.”

Masie nodded. “Gemma, please.”

Gemma stood up. “Parents are supposed to die first. Not the children. You’re not supposed to lose a child. But you’re not even upset.” Even as she spoke, Gemma remembered seeing Masie watching the storm.

“So now you feel abandoned,” Masie said. “Your mother left, and now your father.”

“She walked out. She had a choice.”

Masie nodded. “I bet you’re thinking he had a choice too.”

Gemma considered this. Nothing could have kept him from going into the water. It was his life. She remembered as a kid finding out that most of her friends’ parents hated their jobs. Her father was the opposite, loved everything about his work, but mostly the opportunity to become submerged.

Was that a choice? Could he have done anything else? If she’d asked would he have stopped? And then, how would she have felt? To be the one who took him out of the water.

“No,” Gemma said. “He didn’t have a choice. But he could have been more careful.”

Masie smiled. “Perhaps it’s better to die doing something you love?”

Taking a breath, Gemma sat. She wiped her eyes and pushed some pancake through the sea of syrup.

Masie put her hand out again. “Gemma. I’m heartbroken. How could I be otherwise?”

“You don’t show it.”

“Not in the way you expect, I suppose.”

The coffee maker bleeped and the doors opened. Masie stood, retrieved the cups

Gemma took another spoon of malitol from the table and sprinkled it in. Masie was right. She wasn’t showing any sign of sadness the way Gemma would expect.

“You’re angry,” Masie said. “Surprisingly so, though perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I always knew what he was doing was risky. Deep sea diving, figuring out those creatures. Very risky. Especially with a child to raise.”

“He was doing what he loved.”

“I’ve got something for you,” Masie said. “Let me go find it.”

Gemma smiled as her grandmother went up the stairs, remembering being a child and losing her doll, giving up on ever finding it. “I’ve looked everywhere,” she’d told Grandma Masie, tearful. Jemima was lost forever.

“Apparently not,” Masie had said. “If you’d looked everywhere, then you would have found it. Don’t just look. That’s what men do. You should find. Look behind things and under things. When you look in a drawer, don’t just root around, take everything out and put it all back. That way you know the thing’s not in there. Trace your steps, remember where you went. Don’t just look: find.”

And of course they had found Jemima, tucked in behind a sofa cushion under a rug. Young Gemma had clutched the doll, tearful again.

Masie came back down with a photo of her father. “Learning to swim,” Masie said, passing it over.

Gemma looked, swiping through the series of images and movers. Theo thin and white-chested in his trunks, standing at the edge of the pool. Jumping in. Clutching the side, shivering. Scrambling out.

“At first he was scared of the water,” Masie said. “But he got used to it. More than that. I think he decided he had something to prove.”

Sitting on the side kicking his legs. Staring angrily at the picture-taker. Lying on his back in the water, gasping.

“I guess he sure did prove it,” Gemma said, thinking that ultimately he was right to be scared of the water.

“Yes he did.” Masie took the photo back.

“We used to fight about it,” Masie said. “Back when he was young, before you were going to school. I told him he could do it all with remotes anyway. I mean, he’d shown me robot submersibles. When I was publishing, everything was done by remotes.”

Masie looked over Gemma’s shoulder. Gemma knew she was looking at the shelf of awards and certificates, and the kernels that held her publications. Dr. Masie Abrique had been a meteorologist, working to shape the understanding of Stinngaser’s weather. Gemma remembered her grandmother talking about how it was one of the last real sciences. “Every planet is different. So many variables.” She’d always said it half-jokingly. Her papers were published on a dozen worlds. Places like Mason and Clock and Yellow One Yellow. Her ideas applied to local weather prediction.

“I went on flights,” she said now. “It is simply extraordinary. Pillars of clouds rising up from broad streaky plains, vast thunderheads expanding as the jetstreams swipe their tops into dagger blades. Chasing the sunset as fast as we could, watching the golds and salmons as they chandeliered through a billion high-altitude specks of ice for an hour or more.”

Gemma said nothing.

“But it didn’t come back to the science. Back on the ground I just worked with the data from the balloons and kites and things. Turned that into something useful.”

Gemma couldn’t imagine that. Even the way her grandmother spoke of the clouds belied her intrigue. No wonder her papers engaged her peers. She opened her mouth to say as much, but Masie spoke first.

“I guess we ought to have a funeral,” Masie said. “Or some kind of service.”

Gemma closed her eyes. She wished Masie felt like she did, wished she would at least show it. “I’m going to find him,” Gemma said. “I’m going to find him and find out what happened.”

Masie blinked. “Oh, are you now?”

At the institute Gladys, the administrator, gave her access to her father’s files. The building was an old herring shed and it still stank of the canning process. Despite calling itself The Cedar Bay Institute of Oceanography, Stinngaser, the outfit was really little more than some secondhand equipment from the fisheries industry, two underpaid and over-taxed grad-students and Gladys.

“What do you think of the building, huh?” Gladys said, leading her along the short, damp hallway to her father’s office. There were old pictures on the wall, some of them with busted optics, of flying fish soaring and the Stinngaser dolphins fighting off predators.

Gemma tapped the corner of one of the pictures and the jam freed up; the tail-dancing whale turned and fell into the ocean with a mighty splash.

As she’d driven in she’d seen the new building nearby. Going up fast, covering an acre or two, robots clambering all over, exuding mesh and surfaces. Noisy and smelling of oil and cordite.

“A new gym?” she asked. “Basketball stadium?”

“Fisheries,” Gladys said. “The Daily Quota Responsible Company. Putting up a new processing plant.”

“After abandoning this place?”

“Well, that’s ten times bigger. Modern. Some contract to supply fish oil and scales off-world. Clock? Somewhere with one of those strange names.”

“Always something like that,” Gemma said. Despite calming down since seeing her grandmother, this made her wonder again about foul play. The industry and her father had butted heads more than once, chucking each other down in the media. One man against the bullying corporate. The sites loved it.

Gladys tapped the office door and it shushed aside. Right away Gemma was back in her father’s world. They’d only had this building a few years, but it was filled with his shambolic collections. Piles of old printouts and paper books, stacked on dusty, dead readers, with rib bones and skulls dangling on top like cranes or teeter-totters. The shelves held murky jars with dead creatures preserved inside: a striated pentapus; a fluffy nudibranch; Kaller’s baby shark with its two mouths, one on top and one below; a dozen others she didn’t know the names of.

On his workbench her father’s practically antique fancalc pointed straight up at the ceiling like a miniature tower. The old-style computer came alive, the fan spreading, as Gladys tapped the open surface. “I don’t think it matters now,” she said as she hacked the fancalc’s password. Gladys chewed cherry gum as she spoke, tossing the wad side to side in her mouth. “I think this place is closing. I’m looking for another job. Probably in Cedar Falls.”

The two communities were separated by a steep hill–part of the same geography that created Masie’s overlook–and a swampy plateau. Cedar Falls had a population of close to fifty-thousand, Cedar Bay less than a thousand. Gemma always thought it was weird that cedars grew in neither place.

“Someone else will take over,” Gemma said. “Dale or April.” Both studying for their doctorate under her father. “They’ll find another supervisor at CFU.”

“But they’ll move to CFU. We always had a stringbean budget, so without your father we’re done. No disrespect.” Gladys stopped chewing, put her hand over her mouth.

“It’s all right.” Out the window she could see the foaming sea washing up around the stone jetty. It wasn’t stormy now, but still overcast. Just at the side of the window she could see the edge of the new building.

“I mean,” Gladys said. “I loved him in a… you know, fatherly kind of way. Brotherly. Oh my, I’m just making it worse.”

“Gladys. It’s okay.”

The administrator took a breath. The fanned out display flickered with data. “There,” she said. “We got in.” Moving quickly she tapped parts of the fan, the images responding. The word “Forget?” came up on the screen and Gladys tapped it. “All done,” she said. “You won’t need a password now, it’s all open access.” Gladys gave up her seat.

Gemma thanked her and sat. As she reached to the display, Gladys touched her shoulder. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks.” The seat felt hard, awkward. Worn to her father’s shape.

Gladys slipped out to the door and Gemma could sense her still watching. Gemma turned.

“Why are you here?” Gladys said.

“I want to find him.”

“I know that much. But you think it was something else, don’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t think they murdered him.” Gladys nodded her head towards the window. “It would be too much trouble. He was a thorn, but that’s all. They’re a multi-million Yuan operation, he was a struggling researcher. They buy politicians like they buy breakfast. The sparring was just that, it never was going to have an impact on their business.”

Gemma turned back to the fancalc. “Maybe,” she said, “they didn’t know that.”

Gladys didn’t say anything else, but it was a few minutes before Gemma heard her leave.

Working on the machine she dug up his last dive, collated it with the currents and all his telemetry.

It took hours, but eventually she narrowed it down to a hundred square miles of ocean that gyred around a bay. Sitting back in her father’s seat she sighed. Far too big of a job.

She was going to need some help.

“Tell me again this idea you’ve got?” Dale Williams blinked up at her from his disheveled sofa. He was clearly hung-over, clearly short on sleep.

“Is this what you’ve been doing since my father died?” she said from his doorway. She couldn’t even step into his room, it stank so much of beer, sweat socks and yesterday’s fried food.

“This is what I’ve been doing since I left home,” he said. “We going surfing?”

“You’re a funny man. You’re still on that stipend, so get out of bed and come along.”

“What about April?”

“Tried her. She left for CFU.”

“Yeah. Well, I don’t work for you.” Dale’s voice had gone up an octave.

“Do you think they killed him?”

“Who? The fisheries? Tallon-Davis? Or Daily Quota?”

Gemma almost gasped. “You do.”

“I don’t,” Dale said. “Not a bit.”

“But when I asked you didn’t hesitate. Right away you knew who might have done it.”

“Well, who else? They’re not in that kind of business. Can you imagine the lawsuits?”

“No. Because there won’t be any. There’s no body. It’s as if he just washed away on the tide.”

“Not really. You know where he is.” Dale’s eyes widened and he stared at her, daring her to challenge him. His eyes were hazel, like Masie’s.

“I have a vague idea of where he might have gone. I’m no expert. You could help.”

Dale shook his head. “I’m hung-over, I’m tired. My girlfriend left me and I owe my best friend three hundred Yuan. Since last year, so now he’s not talking to me. My housemate, she’s… well, she’s not polite about my personal habits.”

“No surprise there.”

“And now there’s you.”

“I’m going to find him.”

“Good luck, then.” Dale flumped back down onto the bed.

“What is it?” she said. “What makes you all want to go down into it?” Down to get lost, to drown.

“You should see these things,” Dale said. “The whales. They’re not cetaceans, strictly, but they fill a similar niche. The oceans here have about twice the water volume of Earth.”

Earth, she thought. They were generations removed from the homeworld, but still talked about it as such a definitive point of reference.

“I know all that,” she said. “School. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“But you still want to go find him.”

“I want you to find him.” She sucked air through her teeth, aware of the whistling. “I’ll be in the boat. Support.”

Dale smiled. “Sure. I heard about you in boats.”

“I was a kid!”

“And you live and work fifty miles inland. Not exactly following in papa’s footsteps.” Dale grinned. “Or flipperwake.”

Gemma opened her mouth to reply.

“Do you want something to eat?” he said. “I’m going to make breakfast. Oats or toast? I think we’ve got some jam or something. Marmalade?”

“It’s the middle of the afternoon.”

Dale rubbed his chin, and his impish grin widened. “These animals, they breathe air, but they can stay down for a couple of days. You swim with them and they’re the size of an ocean liner. Three hundred meters long, fifty across. Fins and flukes the size of football fields. And you look into their eyes and they’re looking right back.”

“My father was more interested in the dead ones.”

Dale nodded. “That you have to see for yourself.”

“Where’s your scuba gear? I’m coming in there to get you and I need to breathe.” She went along the condo’s hallway to the next door. As she pulled it open blankets and a couple of balls spilled out. The baseball rumbled off along the worn carpet. She picked up the football and hurled it through his door at him.

“All right.” He stumbled from his room. He was wearing just briefs, his chest the broad and strong chest of a diver and swimmer. Funny how she’d never thought of him that way any other time. “Have you ever dived before?” he said.

“Little bit,” she said. “Dad took me snorkeling.”

“Oh boy.” Dale sighed. He stared at her for a moment, turned around and closed the bedroom door behind him.

By the time Gemma had his gear in the back of the Hyundai, Dale had dressed and come out to the condo’s verandah. He had a torn surfie t-shirt and Sharkskins board shorts. “That my stuff?” he said.

“Your housemate said to help myself.” She hadn’t even met the housemate.

“What are you doing, Gemma? You used to be such a nice kid. Polite, friendly.”

“I’m not a kid.” Gemma opened the driver’s door. Dale was maybe two years older than her.

“Are you going looking for him?”

Another vehicle drove by, a panel van, its shimmering spheres crackling along the pavement. Gemma caught a glimpse of a schoolgirl looking out the window at her.

“I’ve got a fix on his location,” Gemma said. A tangy waft of ozone drifted, trailing the vehicle. Poor maintenance, she thought.

Dale stared and lowered his head.

“I need your help,” Gemma said.

With a glance back through his front door, Dale came down the steps to her. He rubbed his stubble, shaking his head. “What kind of a fix. That’s a big ocean.”

“What ocean isn’t?”

“Good point. Doesn’t make it any smaller.”

“Are you going to come help me? He had a transponder. I’ve got a map, I can get trackers.”

“And my scuba gear, I see.”

Gemma ran her fingers through her hair, conscious immediately that it kind of mimicked his chin-rub. “It’s not like you’re going to need it anyway.” She opened the back door and pulled out the tank and mask. “You’ve given it up, haven’t you?”

Dale didn’t say anything. He watched her as she unloaded, without making any move to help. With his equipment on the cracked sidewalk, she closed the trunk and got back into the driver’s seat.

“Hey,” he said as she shut the door.

Gemma wound down the window. “Yes.” Glad he was going to relent. Sometimes she knew how to play people.

“You know he was going deep, don’t you? That’s not snorkeling stuff. It’s special gear, with support AI on your boat. Robot subs in the water. You’re down for hours. It takes years of training.”

“So train me.”

He blinked, nodded. “I could do that.”


“But it would take years. Like I said. His body will be gone from wherever it is now.”

“We’ll keep tracking it.”

Dale shook his head. “Can’t do it.” He picked up his tank, slinging it over his shoulder. Gathering up more of his gear, he looked in the trunk. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in a minute for the rest.” He went back inside without looking over at her.

Gemma watched the dark open doorway for a second. “Home,” she told the traveler and it pulled out from the sidewalk, heading back through the town.

What had she been thinking anyway? Maybe Masie was right. Maybe she should just accept that he was gone.

The next day she hired a boat. A glassy fifteen meter arrow of a craft, with big internal jets that roared as the AI nosed into the open sea, bounding across the plane. There were moments Gemma felt like she was flying. The onboard systems kept the passage smooth, almost as if she was riding a laser.

As the boat rushed out, she felt herself trembling, remembering that first time with her father. That ocean like a vast inkwell, black and bottomless. The smell of salt and guano.

She made herself go on.

When the boat reached the middle of the area Gemma had plotted, she eased back the throttle and let the craft wallow. Around her the ocean churned, filled with cross-chop and momentary foaming crests. The water slapped against the hull. The stabilizers kept it steady.

High above, streaky, icy clouds looked like scratches in the sky. A lone orange gull glided close to the water, making occasional hooting calls.

Gemma leaned over the stern, peering into the water. It was clear and black and aquamarine and jade and black-blue all at once. She could see fish below, a school of spiny sprats darting around. Further below, just as the water became too dim to see through, there were some jellyfish. Their bulbous transparent bodies pulsed, black and green tendrils wafting.

And somewhere down there, her father’s body.

Gemma gasped, pulled herself back into the boat’s cockpit. The salty rush of air, the depth of ocean, the plain everyday continuation of the wilds all felt too much.

Later, it might have been twenty minutes, when she was done weeping, she wiped her face and instructed the boat to return to the port.

“You still have five hours rental remaining,” the AI told her. “I can show you the fjords. Beautiful waterfalls. Seals, ocean swans, the walking snapper.”

“Just take me home,” she said.

“Very good.”

Gemma stood up at wheel, the cool air racing through her hair, occasional bursts of spray pelting her face. She couldn’t bear to look back.

Sitting in the traveler she sipped a fruity mangolion. Stimulating, but slightly too hot. She blew across it. She thought about Dale’s gear in her car. A moment there she’d lost her mind. She was never going to be able to put the gear on and go into the water.

She finished the drink, put the cup into the mangler. It bleeped a ‘thank you’ and quickly ground it up.

The traveler took her back through the small town to Dale’s place. He wasn’t home, but his housemate answered the door. Young, pretty, elegantly dressed in a kind of cross between gym wear and casual. No wonder she didn’t like Dale’s personal habits.

“He’s gone out,” she told Gemma. “I’m Sal.”

Gemma shook the proffered hand. “Do you know when he’s coming back?”

Sal shrugged. “I’ve got his fanhash if you want to give him a call.”

“Maybe I can just leave his things. I kind of stole them.”

“Yeah, he mentioned that,” Sal said with a smile. “He might have a caboose of irritating qualities, but he was surprisingly relaxed about that. I don’t know if he’s worried about getting… oh! You’re the professor’s daughter. I’m sorry about your father, huh? That’s terrible.”

“Thanks.” Gemma glanced at the traveler, the trunk open. “Really I don’t want to keep his stuff. I feel guilty. I kind of made a fool of myself, getting all het up.”

Sal smiled again. “I think he liked that about you.”

“What?” Gemma said, then realized. “Oh? Like that?”

“Yeah, like that. You can be flattered, but, you know, he gets crushes as often as I have breakfast.”


“Yeah. He had a crush on me for all of three minutes. I extinguished that pretty quick. Look, let’s get that stuff hauled inside.”

“Thanks,” Gemma said, “I appreciate it.” She was stunned to think that Dale had thought about her like that. It would be easy to let herself get distracted by something, by an affair, something to bury the emotions inside.

After they’d unloaded, exchanged fanhashes and agreed to meet for coffee sometime, Gemma drove back to Cedar Falls.

Dale. With a crush on her.

Far too distracting. She needed to concentrate, and that was just plain silly.

Still, it might be fun.

There was a message on her fan when she got home. Shinako, her work buddy. They went for coffee and tea, for meals, talked about men, about design, about fathers and family. There weren’t that many people Gemma knew who she could just talk and talk with like that. Too introverted.

“Hey, Gems,” the message said. “How’re you doing? I’m thinking of you, but we’ve got to do tea soon. Can’t leave you moping.” The fan flashed a white on green transcript, a couple of words wrong. The iware struggled with Shinako’s accent.

Gemma called right away.

“Now?” Shinako said. “Rick’s here, so I’m, well… you know. How about lunch at work tomorrow? Anyway, I don’t want to rush you.”

“I won’t be at work tomorrow.”

“Ellison thinks you will be. You should call him. I mean, I get it, but it’s been a week. Bereavement’s only three days, which is kind of crass if you ask me, but that’s in the contract. There’s that job on for Sunseekers. Big portfolio.”

Gemma hesitated. Joe Ellison had been almost fatherly in the way he ran things. Checking on her work, her social life, staying out of the way and letting her get on with designs and proposals, being a good listener when she needed to vent about some colleague or client. But he did like his rules, and did run the business with a sharp eye on the profit statements.

“Still there?” Shinako said.

“I can’t. I can’t face it.” Gemma imagined her father out there in the ocean, lost, drifting.

She would have to get back to work sometime, but not yet.

“He’ll fire you,” Shinako said when Gemma told her.

“Yeah, but he’ll hire me back when I’m ready to come back.”

“Don’t count on it. He’s getting really cutthroat now that we’ve lost Kimanner’s.”

“We lost Kimanner’s?” Gemma felt her throat clench. The big tour company was one of Ellison’s core customers. The summer promotion always carried them through. Gemma did the line work and layouts. And especially the colors.

Ships taking thousands of off-world passengers up to see the glaciers. Stinngaser was cooler than Earth, whose polar ice was long-since gone anyway, but people, apparently, romanticized the old days when ‘eco-tourists’ would watch huge icebergs calve from the sheets.

It was her job to promote the vessels as if everyone got a first-class cabin, and stress the lowest of the share-quadruple prices.

Ellison was always happy. The way she could use sunset colors across a middle-aged couple on a private balcony, the blue-white ice face almost within touching distance was beyond anything anyone else in the agency could do.

She was always happy with painting water, so long as she was never immersed over her head.

“He hardly needs you,” Shinako said, her voice seeming distant. “You need to get back here tomorrow.”

Gemma swallowed. “We’ll see.”

Shinako said something Gemma didn’t catch. Rick spoke, right near the pickup.

“Rick?” Gemma said.

“Hey Gem. Shinako can’t talk now. Otherwise occupied.”

Shinako gave a squealing giggle.

“Bye now,” Rick said and broke the connection.

Gemma sat back in the armchair and sniffed. The chair picked up her tension and rolled a massage burr up against her back.

“Stop that,” she growled, standing. She went upstairs and took a long shower.

Job or not, she thought, she was going to find him.

The datanet gave her pages about whale falls, but it was all from Earth research. No one had investigated them elsewhere, except for her father, and he hadn’t published anything yet.

He did have dozens of credits, from principle to co-writer, but all on migration patterns, physiology, even mollusks.

Journals had sent the papers on whale falls back with lengthy revisions. He’d deleted them in disgust.

Even the research from Earth was scant.

The bodies could take years to decay, in the right situations. They were huge. The size of small houses, and sometimes became almost whole ecosystems. They caught up nets and other jetsam. A lab in Earth’s Atlantic Ocean had monitored one for a hundred years, until it had broken down almost entirely, leaving patches of anemones and worms surviving on, creating their own micro-environment.

Here on Stinngaser they occured at far shallower depths than back on Earth. That alone should have piqued interest.

Facts ran by her. The deeper they were, the longer they lasted. Bones dissolved. A new kind of barnacle was found, one that had adapted from living on the whale’s skin to living in the detritus.

Gemma struggled to stay awake. She knew she’d disappointed her father by being less academic. Her grandmother and her uncle both had doctorates too, even though they were in diverse disciplines. All she had were some technical papers in drafting and design.

“Follow your passions,” he’d told her. “Always.”

“Is that what you do?”


Despite that, she still felt like she’d let him down somehow.

She read about currents, about scuba diving, about the remote submersibles he’d been using.

Facts, facts, facts.

At midnight she jerked awake, the fan display dimmed. “Too much study,” she whispered, and went upstairs to bed.

She lay a while, feeling foolish. Her job, her grandmother, Dale, even Gladys. They all accepted he was gone. Why couldn’t she?

It was still dark when her grandmother called. The bedside fan blurred up Masie’s face. The clock below read 5:30.

“Grandma?” Gemma said. “You don’t have anything to call me from.”

“Borrowed Mack’s. He’s portable.”

“Mack?” Gemma still felt blurry herself, roused from deep sleep.

“I told him to keep an eye out for Theo. While he’s flying around. I mean, while Mack’s flying around.”

“I get it. Why are you calling? It’s early.”

“You don’t want to hear from me?”

“Always, Grandma.” Gemma took a swig of water from the side table, getting a mint leaf caught in her teeth.

“Mack says he’s never going to see anything.”

“Well not in this light,” Gemma said. She pulled her curtain back, looking into the glinting lights of the city. The golds and streaky reds of sunrise were beginning to paint the sky.

The thought reminded her of her father again.

“See, that?” he would say. “Someone’s gotten a giant paintbrush from somewhere. This is our lucky day.”

He’d swing her around and around while she squealed, half-terrified he would let her go.

“Funny,” Masie said. “Good to see you’ve got a sense of humor still.”

Gemma stayed silent.

“All right. The real reason I’m calling.”

“Grandma? What?” Gemma sat up, swung her legs off the bed. The air felt cool and she pulled her robe over her knees.

“I hear you’re about to lose your job.”

“How did you hear that?”

“Small town.”

Cedar Falls had never seemed small to Gemma. “Shinako told you?”

“She told Mack. He’s known her since his commercial days. Used to fly her father out to Chichibu Island when Shinako was a kid. Mack flew up here as soon as he could.”

“Mack flew… are you…” Gemma didn’t quite know how to ask. “Are you dating him?”

“Of course I am.”

Gemma remembered the hollows in the lawn: indents from one of Mack’s aircraft. “I should have guessed.”

Masie was moving on, Gemma thought. A new boyfriend. At her age. She must have been seeing Mack since before, but it was still uncanny.

“It’s none of your business really. You’d just try to give me advice.”

“Huh,” Gemma said. “I figure that’s why you called me, right? To give me advice?”

“Just…” Masie hesitated. “Just take care, honey.”

Gemma didn’t know how to respond.

Gemma drove right to the ocean. The sun was high by the time she got there. No sign of storms, not even any sign of clouds.

She was so angry. She couldn’t find the words to express it. Everything felt tangled up.

It had been days. Why was she feeling worse?

She walked out on the stone pier, her shoes clacking on the smooth surface. A small local trawler rocked as it came in around the breakwater, nets hanging along the transom drying, masts raised high. Gulls followed, squawking and swooping.

Gemma sat on the end of the pier. She took off her shoes and dangled her feet, the water still meters below. The trawler blew its whistle at her as it passed by. The captain waved. She didn’t know him, but she waved back. The stink of fish wafted over her.

She wondered why she couldn’t let it go.


She turned. Dale, walking along the pier. He waved. Gemma looked back out at the breakwater. Further around, at the main jetty, the trawler was tying up, a woman on the jetty shouting down at the crew. Gemma couldn’t make out the words in the distance.

“I saw your car.” Dale came to a stop beside her. “Mind if I sit?”

“It’s a public pier.”

“Yes it is.”

The woman up on the jetty rolled a big yellow mechanical arm that reached over and began pulling up dripping crates. The crew on the deck rushed around loading.

“If you want to find him,” Dale said, “and you want my help, you’re going to have to get into the water.”

“I can’t. I just…” Gemma shivered.

“Your choice. You know where to find me.”

She expected him to get up, but he stayed sitting. The gulls continued to circle the trawler. Gemma could see another boat further out, just heading in, the sunlight glinting from the waves all around it.

“Sal told me she told you I had a crush on you.”

Gemma didn’t say anything. She felt uncomfortable, wished he had just gone, left it alone.

“I did have a crush on you,” he said just as the silence was becoming unbearable.

Great, she thought, now he’s going to tell me he’s over it and that he’ll teach me how to dive so I can find Dad.

“Years ago. When I was first studying under your father. I saw you sometimes, thought you were cute.”

“Really?” She remembered when she’d first started in with her design training, seeing her father on weekends, sometimes his young students doing filing or data-runs to earn some cash.

“You don’t remember me, of course.”

Gemma shrugged.

“If you want to find him, you need to learn to dive. I can teach you, but I couldn’t leave that hanging.”

“Because telling me makes it so much better.” Shut up, she told herself. The poor guy probably feels embarrassed enough just bringing it up.

Now he stood. “I can get you that deep in six weeks. It’s a rush, but with the robots we can still do it safely. If you want to do it, we start tomorrow. Sunrise. Down at the research station. Bring your bathing costume.” He turned and walked back along the pier.

Gemma stood, opened her mouth to call him back, but his slumped shoulders and lowered head made him seem bruised and beaten. By the time she figured what she would say–“it’s all right, I’m flattered”–Dale was already stepping from the pier, heading for his own beat-up traveler.

She ran late.

The sun was already up as the little Hyundai screamed through Cedar Bay township. She’d blown it, she knew, and now he’d never teach her.

But there he was as she slammed the traveler into a park and leapt out.

“I’m here,” she shouted.

He stood from bending over the side of the tiny insubstantial boat pulled up into the shingle and gave a curt wave.

Stepping from the grassy strip Gemma felt like she’d crossed a barrier. The stones scraped and chinked audibly under her feet.

“Thought you’d make it,” Dale said as she came up.

Boxes like the trawler’s fish crates made a stack alongside. The boat was constructed from a series of reedy white strips. It seemed as frail as a child’s stick model.

“I didn’t know if you’d wait.”

Dale nodded.

“Seems kind of small.” Gemma put her hand on the bow, almost certain that the little boat would fall apart under her touch. It felt cold, sucking heat from her fingers. The boat’s stern seemed almost within reach. It couldn’t be more than three meters long. A boat like the one she’d hired would cut this in half without slowing.

“We’re not going far,” he said, lifting in a crate.

Gemma swallowed. She’d forgotten. They weren’t searching now. It was just lessons.

“Help me here,” he said.

When they had the boat loaded he took her back into the institute’s shed. The smell felt welcoming now, like safety. He spent an hour on principles. How the masks worked–breathe normally–how to unclip the weights, how to ride a robot to the surface, what to do if she got tangled in something, what to do if she lost her mask, how to switch to the rebreather if the extractor broke, how to switch to the ten-minute tank if the rebreather broke after the extractor broke.

“You’re trying to put me off, right?” she said with a nervous laugh.

“I’m trying to keep you alive.”

How to read the pressure gauge. How to read time–apparently it was easy to lose track with little outside light. How to stay pointing in the same direction. How to surface at the correct rate. It was like being back in the worst classes at school. The ones with the laziest teachers, more interested in imparting facts than genuine learning.

“You’ll be surprised when you get into the water,” Dale said, “by how much you’ll remember.”

She shook her head. “The opposite, I’m thinking.”

In the bay they snorkeled and she began learning how to use a rebreather snorkel to go down longer and deeper.

Within a week she was able to stay down for close to fifteen minutes.

“Progress,” Dale said. “Soon we’ll try the ocean.”

Mack put his plane into a cliff. Fifteen miles south of Masie’s house and doing three hundred and eighty knots. There was little left of the plane, and basically only DNA left of the pilot.

Masie stood stoic at the service. Exactly as Gemma remembered her when they’d formally farewelled Theo. Some of his pilot friends did a fly-past, their little planes whistling and low. There was finger food, savories and triangular pink and orange cakes. Gemma had a glass of wine, and a second, wishing she’d had neither as she put the empty glass down. She felt light-headed and she still had to get home.

“I think I’ll move to town,” Masie told her.

“You aren’t going to stay on the hill?” She felt sad for Masie, but wished that her grandmother would show more emotion. How much loss could one person take?

“Well. I realize how much I was coming to rely on him bringing me into town, bringing groceries out to me. I don’t like my own driveway.”

“I can cart your things,” Gemma said. She remembered the driveway, wondering if that was a good idea.

“No. I’ll move.”

Gemma nodded. “It will be nice to have you closer.”

Masie’s eyebrows rose. “Well. I still have to decide where to live. I don’t even know if I’ll stay here. Some of those tropical islands are very nice. Frontierre, The Keys, Dry Narumi. Good property deals too.”

Gemma was about to argue, but held back. If she hadn’t drunk too much she might have been able to order her thoughts better.

“And thank you for coming today.” Masie put her hand on Gemma’s arm. “It means a lot to me.” Masie smiled and faded away into the gathering.

Gemma went home, falling asleep on the way, waking only when the traveler bleeped at her that they’d arrived.

A week later Dale took Gemma out to a sheltered reef in his reedy boat. The sky was clear, the sea as transparent as she’d ever seen it.

They’d already practiced off the beach, but today she was going to try the full scuba set with robots. They went down to nine meters, the sea darkening.

She breathed too fast, she kicked too hard.

When she moved she dislodged the mask and it flooded. The internal rebreather tube reached for her mouth, slipping in so she could breathe.

Dale’s hand touched her shoulder and pulled her around. She couldn’t see a thing. He guided her to the surface.

“Not bad,” he said, back on the boat.

“I’m crap.”

“First day.” Dale started the engine and guided them to the beach.

Gemma sat shivering. All this was beyond her. She was never going to find him, and if she ever did, what would she find? Bones?

What was she looking for really?

Gemma visited Masie. The Hyundai struggled, but made it all the way up this time. Someone had regraded the driveway.

Dale had worked her hard every day, getting her deeper, getting her to trust the robots. She still didn’t quite, but the little swimmers stuck close, monitored her, made sure she rose at the right rate. Sometimes their lensed faces seemed to be almost intelligent. Friendly.

Not friendly enough to remove her terror.

At least she hadn’t knocked her mask off again, or anything else too bad.

Her grandmother had half her own possessions boxed up, and was working on one of the boxes when Gemma came in.

“You look tanned,” Masie said.

“Spending more time outside. You’re really leaving?”

Masie took a porcelain horse from the mantelpiece and put the statue on a sheet of bubble wrap on the table. The wrap curled up, crackling as it worked, and sealed the horse in a vaguely horse-shaped package. Masie picked up the package. “I can’t really believe I’m ever coming back for these, but you never know.” She put the horse into an open box. The box made scuffling sounds as it rearranged things inside.

“I’ll miss you,” Gemma said.

“Likewise. When you’re done with your project, you should come and join me.”

“My job Grandma, I can’t just go.”

“Job? I mean your diving thing. Oh, I was going to ask if you needed some money.”


Masie sighed. “I know you didn’t keep your job. I know you’re looking for Theo.”

“How can you… all right. And you didn’t try to stop me?”

With a gesture Masie beckoned her towards the kitchen. “I’ll make coffee.”

The kitchen was white now, with a stylish black trim and occasional strips of glowing amber. The old coffee maker was gone, replaced with a simple mechanical plunger. Masie filled it with boiling water from the spigot.

“How is the training going, anyway?” Masie said.

“Slowly. I am not a creature of the water.”

“It’s an old adage, but we all are. In many ways. It will come to you.” Masie got cups. “It’s in your genes, of course.”

“I’m thinking of giving up.”

Masie was about to pour and she put the plunger back down on the counter.

“It doesn’t bother you,” Gemma said. “I mean, that there’s no body? Why am I doing it?”

Masie stared at her. “Are you talking about Mack? Maybe you want to be sure, maybe that’s all it is. The courts have enough information to declare him dead. With Mack it was different. There was…” Masie took a breath. “There were enough remains to test and prove it was him. No one’s seen your father.”

“I just freeze up. I hate it.”

“You could go inland again. Find a good job. Maybe somewhere like Carterton or Agnes. They’re as far from the sea as you can get. But how will you feel? Let me tell you: don’t leave things undone. I don’t need to see his body. He’s my son and I know what he was capable of. You, my dear, might be his daughter, but you don’t. You’ve put him in the same box with your mother.”

“No I haven’t.”

“Well, whatever.” Masie turned back to the bench and poured the coffees. “I’ve already transferred money to your account. You’ll be able to stay out of work and keep looking for a while on that.”


“I won’t let you give it back.”

Gemma smiled. “There was money from Dad, anyway. Not a lot, but I’m not going to starve.”

Masie handed her the cup. “Then use my money to pay Dale. Poor kid.”

“All right.” Gemma sipped and the coffee was good.

“Money?” Dale said. “Well that’s very cool. How much? No, that’s rude. Pay me what you think.”

“What were you doing for money anyway?”

Dale hung his head. “Well just some tutoring and spearfishing, actually.”

“So if I paid you, we could accelerate my training?”

Dale shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”

Six weeks later, a van called at her new apartment. Gemma was on the small balcony doing crunches and heard the vehicle whine along. Three men got out, two clearly the driver and muscle, the other in an unusual, exotic suit. He looked up at her, but didn’t call out. He walked across the road and after a moment she heard the buzzer ring.

Standing, she looked over the rail. “You rang my bell,” she called.

“Gemma Abrique?” He stepped back from the entry, craning his head over. Blonde, thinning hair. He looked maybe forty years old. Corporate.

“That’s me.” Now she saw the van’s livery: Tallon-Equate, Fisheries. Fresher Catch!

“I’m Diego Cutler. I’d like to talk with you.”

“You could have been more subtle. Fanmessage me.”

“We did.”

“Oh. That was you.” She’d blocked every message.

“Can I come up?”

Gemma considered for a moment. She knew what they were going to ask, but she had some questions of her own. “Are you armed?”

“What?” He looked genuinely perplexed.

“Are they armed?” She pointed at the other two men standing by the van. They both shook their heads.

“No,” Cutler said. “We-”

“Did you kill my father?”

Cutler waved and both the men by the van moved, stepping around behind the vehicle.

“Tell them to come out,” Gemma said. “Hey. Come out of there.” She stepped back from the balcony railing, wary.

The van drove away. Gemma watched for a moment and looked back at Cutler. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Cutler nodded. “I didn’t kill your father. We need you to stop looking for him.”

“I didn’t mean you personally,” Gemma said. She waited.

“Will you let me come up?”


Cutler pulled out a minifan and spoke at it. Gemma didn’t hear. When he was done, he looked up at her. “I’ll ask again. Please stop what you’re doing.”

The van had turned around and it whined off along the narrow road. It stopped by Cutler and the back door opened.

“Please,” he said.

“We’ll see,” she said.

“Not good enough.” He closed the door and the van drove off.

Gemma went inside and called Dale. “We have to go now,” she told him and broke the connection before he could argue.

“So they really did kill him?” Dale said as the boat motored out. Behind them came the barge covered with the robots and all their gear.

Gemma clung to the ropes. Salt sprayed her face. The water was choppier than she’d ever experienced. The continuous thwack of waves against the side jarred her. The sea was black. She threw up over the side.

“Nice,” Dale said.

“I don’t know if they killed him,” Gemma said. “But the threat was implicit.”

“They’ll know we’re out here,” Dale said. “They can track everything.”

Gemma didn’t reply.

A half hour later Dale stopped the boat and put out the motorized anchor. The machine circled, antennae shivering. Happy with its location it dived out of view, leaving a trail of bubbles.

They were out of sight of land. Dale flipped a switch on the console and half of the robots flipped themselves from the barge. They splashed and paddled over, forming up in two lines of six, bobbing near the boat.

Dale and Gemma got into their neoprene and scuba. Gemma shivered.

“You’ll be fine,” Dale said.

Gemma pointed to a trawler on the horizon. “We’ve got company.”

“Not coming towards us.”

Gemma watched the boat and pulled on her flippers. They tickled as they welded themselves to her feet and the neoprene at her ankles.

She felt bleak. This was the first real dive of the search. It seemed impossible. After all this time he could be anywhere. Nippon, or The Sandastries, or just a couple of hundred yards in the wrong direction, entirely out of sight.

A gull landed on the boat’s bowsprit. The bird flared its grey feathers at her, revealing orange and pink under the wings. It squawked. Even though it was a few meters away, she could smell its fishy stink. “Go catch dinner,” she told it and waved. The gull flew off with another squawk.

Dale jumped into the water. He ducked under and came back up. The robots gurgled in anticipation. Two of them dove.

“One thing I need to tell you,” Dale said.

“Okay.” Gemma settled her mask on her forehead, feeling the strap pinch her ear.

“We’re outside your search grid.”

Gemma swallowed. “Where are we?” She felt beaten. Even Dale, who’d been reluctantly forthcoming was now sabotaging it.

“Something I need to show you.”

“Take me to the–”

“No. If you want to go there, you have to do this dive first. We’re going down a hundred and fifty meters.”

“Nowhere in the grid is that deep.” Mostly it was no more than thirty, with a few small trenches reaching eighty.

“That’s right. Get in the water.”

Cursing him, she complied. He checked her mask and gave her a thumbs up. He plugged in the monofilament and spoke.

“Good sound?”

“I hear you,” she said.

“Great.” Tipping himself up, he vanished under the surface.

Gemma looked over at the trawler. It seemed no closer, but she was lower in the water now. Distances were deceptive.

“Come on,” Dale said. The monofilament would be unspooling, keeping them in contact.

Gemma followed. She kicked, seeing his light ahead. The robots swirled around him, leaving a double-helix of bubbles as they sped down. She knew hers were doing the same, though the bubbles would quickly run out and they would be in near darkness with only the fading cone glows of their lights.

“Why are we here?” she said.

“Something you need to see.”


“It’s better if you just see it.”

Gemma sighed, checked the readings on the mask’s visor. Pressure rising, of course. Air flow normal. Temperature eight degrees Celsius. It always got cold fast. Another ten or fifteen meters it might be as low as three degrees. The suit’s miniature heaters came on.

One of the robots swam in front of her, its oblong body curling around as it sent out a lens. She gave it a thumbs-up and it drifted out of view.

Descents were boring. Just down and down into the darkness. She couldn’t imagine the appeal to her father at all.

They passed fifty meters. She saw some glistening tendrils as a jellyfish swam by, yellows and crimsons glowed back at her. Two of the robots moved in close to the tendrils, making sure she didn’t get snared.

At seventy-five meters Dale checked in with her, asking if she was doing all right.

“Aren’t you getting my telemetry feeds?” She knew he was.

“Did the beads fix your ears?”

“Yes.” She hadn’t been this deep before. She had to trust the equipment. Had to trust Dale.

“Good.” He fell silent.

Gemma had to give herself an imaginary pinch. She, Gemma Abrique, was below the surface of the water. So far below that even if she kicked right now, as hard as she could, there was no way she could hold her breath all the way to the surface. She was entirely dependent on the equipment. She trembled.

It was cold and despite the efficiency of the suit, she was aware of how chilly it was becoming.

Ahead something loomed up. At first it was like some white disturbance in the water, perhaps a concentration of jellyfish or smaller creatures. Plankton or atomites. Another few meters and she saw there was a solidity to the thing, even as the edges seemed fuzzy. White and massive, like the tip of a curved finger, pointing to the surface. Coated with a whisper of furry tendrils and hairs.

A bone.

It was thick. As wide as she was tall. Bigger than the boat they’d come out in. And this, she thought, was just the very end. Further down it must widen.

“A rib,” Dale said. He’d come to a stop and hovered in the water nearby. His robots held with him, their little propeller flippers turning slowly. “At least what passes for a rib. Their physiology is very different from ours. The bones have their own systems, almost separate from the rest of the body. Such massive bulk.”

“I read some,” she said. “Organs and circulation.”

“Good, yes. Such big creatures require simplicity and complexity at once.”

“This is one of the whales?”

Dale laughed. “Whales. It hardly does them justice. Leviathans? Behemoths? We struggled with a good name. Technically we labeled them Odonceti praegrandis, but that’s just holding, until there’s full publication.”

Gemma reached out to touch the end. She’d already dropped almost a meter below the very tip and could see the other end dropping into the darkness below. As she reached one of her robots came in close, winding one of its thin arms out.

Her gloved finger made contact. At first the bone felt squishy and she ran her finger along, leaving a trail of lighter green through it. “Algae?”

“Algae, seaweed. Worms. This is the whale fall your father was researching. We’re still a long way from the bottom.” Dale ducked and kicked on down.

Gemma tried to dig through the algae, but it was rubbery and cohesive under her finger. She kind of wanted to take the glove off and chip at the algae coating with her nails, but imagined her hand freezing immediately. She kicked on after Dale.

The bone thickened as they dropped. It became like some giant pylon. A tower on which they could mount a massive wind-turbine. The algae and weed thickened too. She saw small anemones, shimmering through blue and indigo. Tiny white and gold fish darted around, feeding on the algae. Something that looked like a barracuda swept by, arrowing through the tiny fish. Some of them disappeared into a netlike bowl that spread from the long fish’s mouth. The net closed and the fish disappeared into the gloom.

“See that?” she said. The surviving white and gold fish began to reappear.

“Predator fish,” Dale said from a few meters below. He was dropping slowly facing up, watching her. “How’s your air? You feeling comfortable?”

The depth read one hundred and ten meters. Far too deep for any reasonable rational person.

On the bone a five-limbed blob swirled along. Each of its legs curled like a snake, narrowing to hair-width whips. It crept through a miniature vertical forest of anemones and algae branches. “Pentapus,” she said.

“What’s that?” Dale said. He kicked up and touched the camera on his mask. The little instrument flickered. “I haven’t seen one of those before.” He moved close. “Not like that. Mottled body, small.”

“I guess there’s still a lot to catalogue down here.”

“Yep. We just discovered Gemma’s Pentapus.”

She smiled, reached out to touch it. The small creature seemed to burst in a cloud of red. “Oh!” She’d killed it. “I didn’t mean to.” How could it be so fragile?

“Relax,” Dale said. “Defence mechanism.” He waved his hand and the bloom dissipated. He pointed. Gemma saw the pentapus scuttling on up the bone.

“Why would the fisheries try to stop you? Surely you can discover more ways for them to make money.”

“Huh,” Dale said. “Never picked you as a capitalist.”

“Try losing your job.”

As they descended, the growths on the bone thickened and expanded. Soon it was more like a rock face with a garden than a bone at all. There was still a general cylindrical shape, but it became craggy and irregular.

“They would have us stop because we might discover something that means they have to stop.”

“Like what?”

“Maybe we find out that they’re killing too much. Or that there’s some toxicity. Or maybe that they’re irresponsible. I can show you some of that.”

“All right.”

The robots’ lights played over the expanding garden of tree-like branches and bright wafting flowers. There were hundreds of fish now, darting around in loops, flocking like birds and spinning off on their own. Some of them had legs and arms with wide paddles on the end, some had long beaks. There were eyes on stalks, fish like donuts with a hole from side-to-side big enough for her to put her hand through, animals like her pentapus, but with stubby legs each tipped with double-bladed flukes.

Some of the creatures were partly luminous, with bright spots along their flanks. Likewise some of the plants, glowing and phosphorescent. It was subtle and she only noticed it in the shadow cast from the robots’ lights.

And they came in a plethora of colors; rainbows from head to tail, stripes both vertical and horizontal, some pleasing combinations of white and black or blue and orange, but others showed warnings of crimson against yellow and amber or sharp jags of icy blue against rusty reds. Chameleon fish changed colors, others had tails that were made up of clusters of green tendrils, waving in the current.

“This is what we did,” Dale said. “We’re nearly at the bottom, then you’ll see something.”

The bone–though she had to remind herself that there was a bone under all that growth–angled now, leading them inwards. Soon the whole thing flattened out. Broad leafed seaweed wafted at them, holding out long translucent pods through which she saw movement.

“Eggs?” she said.

“Sharkweed,” Dale said. “Symbiosis. I was going to write a paper on them. Still figuring that all out. I could go on for hours. This way.”

Gemma thought that it couldn’t get any more fascinating, but as they kicked along horizontally she saw more and more. The barracuda’s cousin, fat and bright, anemones the size of a dining chair, tendrils like ears of corn, schools of fish that swam in patterns like ballet troupes.

“So much color,” she said. “So deep.” She looked up into the darkness, the fish and other creatures like dust above her before the darkness closed in.

She shuddered. So deep.

She was dead, now, if something went wrong. No wonder this ocean had taken her father.

“Gemma?” Dale said. “Breathe easy.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

Dale kicked over and looked into her mask. “We’re about at the skull. Is that okay?”

She nodded. “Yes. Show me.”

“I want to show you something else first. Hold here and let me talk to the robots.”


“Attention,” he said. “Give me the star pattern, with lights, focused out.”

Gemma heard the robots give him a series of confirmation bleeps. She saw their lights fading as they swam away.

“Attention number five,” Dale said. “Bring yourself in line.”

The light pattern adjusted. The lead two had all but vanished. Gemma could hear her own breathing. It was scary watching the robots go off like that. They were supposed to help in an emergency and down here that could happen in a second.

But she trusted Dale, she realized. Not because of anything he’d done before, but on this very descent.

“You’re all right, you know,” she told him.

He gave a little acknowledging grunt. “Attention. Come lower, bring on lights. Slow dial.”

The faint glow began to increase. Soon the lights were at their greatest brightness. It wasn’t like daylight, but the illuminated area expanded. No longer did she feel like she was trapped in a tiny bubble in darkness. That darkness receded away at least fifty meters.

It reminded her of Masie’s garden. At its most overgrown, blooming and out-of-control spring burst.

All around, across the seabed, there were young corals and lanky seaweeds. Fish, big and small, darted, alone and in schools. Some moved like clownfish in among the long fronds of anemones. Violet brittlestars the size of goats crept along the green and orange puffs of algae. Triple-shelled mollusks pumped open and closed, sluicing water through their fangs, slim filaments rippling as they drew sustenance from the tiniest particles. The barrage of colors on the urchins and shells and creeping creatures seemed like the results of an unsupervised grade-school paint war.

The thick whale ribs rose up like the arching pillars on a vast underwater cathedral, offering protection to the flock within the new light.

“Teeming,” she said. “That’s the word. Teeming with life.” She remembered her father using it once, in one of his curt conversations.

“Exactly,” Dale said. “And you have to realize that outside the body, it’s almost barren. Crabs burrowing into the mud, worms, some shellfish. Nothing like this.”

“Dad told me. One big ecosystem.”

“The question is,” Dale said, “does it last after the last of the whale has been devoured? There’s little soft tissue left. The bones still hold it together, but they won’t last forever.”

“How old?” she said. In the light she saw some kind of net caught up in one of the farthest of the ribs. The net waved in the slight current, smaller bones and flesh caught in its weave.

She wondered if the fisheries had prevented the publication of her father’s work. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened.

“We think about thirty years since the animal died. We estimate five years before enough of the skin and tissue had gone before higher life forms took hold. We probably won’t be around long enough to see what happens when the bones finally go.”

“My father.” His research was all over now.

“Yes. You should come and see the skull.” Dale called the robots back and kicked away.

Gemma watched as the light faded. The dark rolled in, hiding the magnificent garden away. She hung in the water for a moment longer, the robots paddling by her.

Seeing this, she wondered how important it was to find him. She felt like she might be closer to understanding him.

The skull was the size of her condo block. It lay on its side, twisted from the main body. Dale explained how it must have fallen. Like the base of the ribs, it was covered in myriad different kinds of life, all packed in and jostling for position.

“There must be others,” she said as they swam around. She saw something that looked like a plastic basket, wedged in against a cluster of limpets. At first she thought it was another kind of plant or animal, but she saw the metal clasp and broken braided line tied to it. A crab pot.

“Hundreds,” Dale said. “If not thousands. But it’s a big ocean. This is the only one we’ve found so far.”

He still spoke of her father in the present tense, she thought. Still includes him in part of his routine.

She wished she had that.

“I need to show you this last thing,” he said. “It might be scary.”

“I’m fifty stories under the ocean’s surface. I’m already terrified out of my wits.”

“You’re doing great.”

He was right, she realized. This felt so calming. This amazing animal here, giving life so long after death.

“I guess I am,” she said. “I understand why you brought me here.” After this, the search for her father was going to be mundane, depressing. Swimming grids across that bland wormy and crabby mud.

No, she decided. She was definitely going to find him. Not just look, but find. Masie would tell her there was a difference.

“You don’t yet.” Dale swam in front of her. “We’re going inside the skull. This is different to open water diving, all right? You’ll be in a confined space.”

Right away she felt her heart rate increase, her breathing speed up. “Maybe another time.”

“We should do it now.”

“I haven’t trained.”

“Nothing can train you for this.”

“If it’s so dangerous…” she trailed off.

“Trust me,” Dale said.

She swallowed. She felt hot. The suit felt constricting. She wanted to be back with the robots’ lights throwing the garden into its brilliant Monet of color and radiance.

“Attention,” Dale said. “Cavity swim, regular lights, optimum care.”

The robots swam around them, forming into a line like ants and descending along the side of the skull. Dale took her hand.

“Just follow along. We’ll get out the moment you feel uncomfortable.”

“I feel uncomfortable.”

Dale didn’t let go, though she knew she could pull her hand away anytime. Below a huge hole became visible, a black notch in the skull’s side. The robots trailed into it, lights blazing. Dale brought her around to the hole, only a couple of meters wide. It curved away from them.

“Like the cetaceans back on Earth,” Dale said, “these guys breathe air and have blowholes at the top of their skulls. Nostrils.”

“Some nostril.” When you’re the size of a football stadium, you’re going to need massive pipes, she thought.

“We’ll swim through. It’s about four meters and then we’re in the big cavity.”

Gemma trembled. “The brain.”

“That’s right. Not usually connected, but it broke through at some point. If you panic, just relax, the robots will know what to do.”

“All right.” It was far from all right, but she followed him in.

“Attention, minimum propulsion. Drift. Steady only.”

The robots bleeped their acknowledgment.

The tunnel felt claustrophobic. She felt like she was swimming into a narrowing storm water drain. There was still growth on the walls, strong and as vibrant as out in the main part of the whale fall.

“Attention,” Dale said. “Dim. Quadrants.”

The light faded. With her own lights–still as bright–she saw how the tube opened up to other narrow side tubes. Didn’t the animals sing complex tunes to each other all around the planet? It would take a powerful, complex system create those deep sounds and send them half a world away. She imagined the ear canal being even more complex.

“Here,” Dale said.

The tube broadened and came to an end, letting into a bigger cavity. Dale shifted in, turned so he was hanging upright. He held his hand out to guide her in.

The robots hung in a circle, their lights low.

“The braincase?” she said. She trembled. If only she could have told her father how many fears she had dealt with today.

“Yes,” Dale said. “Go easy with your movements. The water is very clear here, but it’s still easy to stir it up.”

She could see that. Inside the volume it seemed like the robots were weightless in clear air. They might be in orbit, drifting over the nightside in the dark. Inside she imagined the hole could swallow Masie’s house. It might be five hundred cubic meters.

The walls were festooned with gray-green streamers of algae. From the roof hung broad stalactites the color of eggshell. “The skull is thick?” she said. “These are some kind of animal that devours the bone?”

“Exactly.” Dale’s voice sounded distant, reserved.

Careful not to move too fast and stir things up, she turned to face him. His face seemed sad.

“What?” she said.

“Look.” He lifted his arm and pointed downward.

Again slowly she turned and looked.

“Attention,” Dale said. “Gradual lights half.”

The robots wound up the brightness and she saw it right away.

The central bowl at the bottom of the cavity bloomed with as great a variety of animal and plant life as outside in the main area. But there was something else.

Black and tubular. An abandoned dive suit.

Gemma gasped. She pulled with her arms, drawing herself down. “My father’s?” She could see a line spiraling along the suit’s arm, from wrist to shoulder, spaced with big vicious barbed hooks.

“They did kill him?”

“An accident, I think. Come closer.” Dale swam with her, coming right down to the bottom.

One of the pentapusses shot out, tentacles spinning. It vanished through a hole.

Gemma saw the bones.



“You need to breathe easy,” Dale said. “If you get off-scale I’m going to take you back to the surface.”

She kicked closer, aware that she would be roiling detritus, spoiling the perfect clarity.

It was a ribcage, and a clavicle and shoulder blade. Part of the spine. Flesh still clung to parts. A small stalked barnacle had rooted itself in the sternum, shell turning slowly, a series of tongues rippling out from the narrow opening. She saw others, a worm, some fish swimming through the gaps. A big red anemone where her father’s heart would have been.

She couldn’t repress a whimper.

“All right?” Dale said.

“You knew,” she whispered. “You knew all along, and you led me to believe that I still had to search.”

Dale didn’t reply.

Gemma turned on him. “You could have brought me straight in here. Actually, no. You could have brought him to the surface. We could have had a proper burial.”

“Yes,” he said. “All of those things. You’re right.”

She wanted to hit him. She wanted to cry, to curl up in a ball on her bed with the door locked and never come out. Instead here she was stuck at the bottom of the ocean. Stuck inside the skull of some giant cadaver.

Right next to her father.

Right where he’d died.

Right where, she realized, he should be.

“Can we turn the lights down again?” she said. “I think I need a moment.”

Dale gave the order and the light dimmed. She sensed him moving back.

For a moment, she looked at where her father lay. Despite everything, this was, she knew, the perfect resting place.

A school of white tiny-bodied fish with big tails swam through. Each one had a circular black spot right in the middle of their side.

Some glistening bubbles rose up from the algae where her father’s skull lay hidden. A starfish crawled slowly down one of the stalactites. Each limb was as thick as her father’s fingers had been, and each was a different color.

It took almost fifteen minutes before she felt ready to leave.

“I need a photograph,” she said.

“Of course. Just tell your mask.”

She’d forgotten. “All right,” she said when it was done. “Take me back to the boat.”

The dents in her grandmother’s lawn from Mack’s landings had been filled. Gemma watched the bright horizon. Tall white thunderheads lined the wall of the world. Not ready to rain, just holding and swirling. A fresh off-shore breeze tousled her hair.

“It does seem odd,” Masie said beside her, “to have a second service.”

“But this time we know.”

Masie nodded. She had the photograph, a single still image of the barnacle. It was enough, after Gemma had told her grandmother the story. To take a photograph of Theo’s bones seemed too morbid.

“It seems a good symmetry,” Masie said. “Study them, lie with them.”

“I’m glad Dale didn’t bring him up,” Gemma said.

“Dale’s a smart guy. Single?”

Gemma laughed. “Yes. Keep your distance.”

Masie laughed with her and put her thin hand on Gemma’s arm. “Time to let him go.”

Gemma took the other side of tissue-paper print of the barnacle and together they lifted their hands.

“Bye Dad,” Gemma said.

Masie didn’t say anything and together they let go.

The breeze grabbed the translucent page, lifting it up swirling and twisting, carrying it out over the ocean.

The Right Decision

By Carl Grafe

This had better be worth it.

The thin plastic chip feels weightless in the palm of my hand–almost cheap. I clutch it tightly to keep it from blowing away in the light breeze outside the outlet store. It definitely wasn’t cheap. When Tess finds out about the payday loan I took out to pay for it, she’ll be hysterical. I can almost hear her:

Timothy Alan Dunway, you’ve ruined us! Absolutely ruined us! And for what? A piece of plastic?”

But she’ll be wrong. This chip will rescue us from ruin.

I walk down the street towards the high speed rail platform. As I wait for the train, I look down at the chip. But what if I’m wrong? After all, I’ve been wrong before. I was wrong about the house, wrong about the cars, wrong about the credit cards. I was wrong about the investment company that disappeared, taking with it what remained of our savings.

But this is different. This chip will make all those wrong decisions right. Instead of having to rely on my own intuitions, I’ll be able to rely on the chip. It’ll fix things.

The chip is the absolute cutting edge–the latest in tech sophistication. It implants right into your brain behind your ear, where your phone usually goes. Based on sensory inputs, it perpetually runs scenarios to determine which possible outcomes are most likely to be favorable. Every decision I make– caffeinated or decaf? Solar or nuclear? Should I wear that sweater? should I make that purchase?–I’ll have this chip in my brain, running millions of simulations, and determining, based on real data, which decisions have the highest probability of success.

It will fix everything.

The train rounds the corner and slows to a stop. I press the button for the door with one hand, the chip still held firmly in the other. I find a secluded seat and open my hand.

I frown. Why haven’t I put it in yet? This isn’t like those other decisions. This was a good decision! But I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Sure, it’s not technically on the market yet. And the guy at the shop acted a lot like those guys at the car lots. But that’s part of why this is so smart–I got cutting edge technology, and I got it at a fraction of the retail price!

My frown deepens. Well, at least what the retail price will be once it’s legal to sell.

The train starts pulling away from the station. I turn the chip over in my hands, and then turn it over again. I take a deep breath and hurriedly insert the chip into the flesh behind my left ear.

I sit there, staring blankly, trying to detect the difference, searching for some evidence of my new reasoning power. But there’s nothing. A minute passes, and my eyes flutter, blinking away the developing mist. I try to control my heart rate and breathing, but I can’t help it. I bury my face in my hands, and the tears come. I think of the money spent, the promises made, and gradually my anguish contorts into rage. I raise my face from my hands, eyes burning, and reach up behind my ear to rip out the sham chip.

And then I stop. That is not the correct course of action. There’s no warning bell, no flash of data, just a feeling. An intuition. A certainty that I’ve never felt before.

I put my hand back down. It works. I know it, deep within me, more confidently than I’ve known anything in my life. It really works. I grin, sheepishly at first, but then proudly–defiantly. And why not? I was right, wasn’t I? I was right! I start asking myself questions. Should I get off the train now and go celebrate? No, of course not, I’ve got to go home and tell Tess! Should I wait to tell her until tomorrow and make it a big surprise? No, better to tell her right away. Maybe I should have others on the train ask me questions, and see if I can answer correctly. I could bet them money. Should I go to a casino?

My thoughts are interrupted by the overhead speakers announcing that my stop is next. I’m still smiling. I stand and get ready to disembark. I reach for the orangutan bar.

I freeze. I reached for the what? The train slows. I look out the window as the talk show homogenizes. I shake my head again. What was that? The telekinesis canned headstone appurtenance blurs past the analgesia emus brain. Something curtain crying wrong with gullet brain phlebitis chip? Peppery larval train dessert stops usher thick door muslin opens inaugural walk vole down coltish steps. Can’t sporty think miserable doorbell stumble spyglass out despotism onto flashy train gastronomic tracks. Respite conductive lights storefront oncoming librarian train graduate oh–

I open my eyes and see the sky. I turn my head a little to the right and feel the chip, knocked loose, drop from behind my ear. I see my train. I see people from the train coming towards me. They speak to me, but I can’t hear them. I look down at my crumpled body. I look past it to the other train, looming above me. People are coming from it as well. I feel my organs struggling.

I was wrong. About the chip, about everything. I’m always wrong. I think about Tess. She’ll be hysterical. She’ll blame me for everything, for leaving her penniless, ruined. For leaving her widowed. She’ll be angry, and bitter. She’ll be lonely.

But at least she’ll be right.

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved

Dust and Blue Smoke

Kennit Martin charged into the playground like a tumbleweed on a mission. “Hey Jeff!” he yelled, still thirty feet away from me. “Steenrud’s bought a whole gallon of gasoline!” He gulped air. “I was at the post office when the creeper came! He said he’s already put the wheels on!”

I threw my boomerang down by the climbing frame. Across the playground, kids dropped bats and balls, put VR glasses and dolls into backpacks. Our lazy summer afternoon had just come into focus.
Old Mr. Steenrud had the only car in town. Sure, there were some biodiesel tractors and electric carts, and the big cargo creepers that crawled slowly along the rough roads. But those weren’t exciting, not like a real old-fashioned car.

It was a Chevrolet, red as blood, and about fifty years old. It lived inside his barn, up on blocks, wheels stacked beside it like giant checkers, and every kid in town was in awe of it. Its speedometer went up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, ten times as fast as a tractor. Twenty-four hours… I did the multiplication. Why, in one day, it could go anywhere! Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg… maybe even Alaska or Oz!

In ones and twos, kids left the playground, all heading past the drugstore toward the Steenrud place. Soon there was nobody left but me and Luther Petersen. “Come on, Luther!” I said. “Bet he gives us all rides!”

He scuffed a shoe in the dust. “Can’t.”

“C’mon, it’s not far!”

“My mom’d kill me, Jeff. She hates cars. She says they’re why the climate’s in such a mess today.”

“You could come and just watch.”

“Better not.” He turned and walked off towards his home. I felt sorry and relieved and guilty all at the same time: I’d been wondering if being a real friend might mean staying and watching with Luther instead of riding in the car myself, and I didn’t think I could do that.

Outside Steenrud’s barn, it was almost like the county fair had come early. Not just kids, grownups too. Horses tethered everywhere. People had brought plates of cookies and pitchers of lemonade. Oranges and lemons were big crops around there in those days; now they grow most of them up in Canada. I got a gingersnap and a glass of lemonade, and joined the long line. I thought of putting my VR glasses on while I waited, but didn’t. This was better than any of my games.

Mr. Steenrud was already giving people rides, circling the dirt track around the edge of his big field. I stood there, sipped the thin tart lemonade, and watched. There was no wind. Dust and blue smoke hung in the air, harsh and exciting.

Behind me, Ms. Steenrud was talking to somebody. “Never thought I’d see it again, Angie. Six years back he bought some gasoline from somebody, and next day he was swearing fit to bust. Crap wasn’t gasoline at all, it was some kind of cleaning solvent. Gummed her up so bad it took him three months to fix. He swore, if he couldn’t get proper gasoline anymore, he’d just leave her on the blocks. ‘Let the old girl rust in peace,’ he said. But looks like he’s found some. Still won’t tell me what he paid for it.” She laughed, but she didn’t sound quite happy.

Finally it was my turn, with the very last group. The car rolled up and stopped where we were waiting, the red paint gleaming in the warm March sun. Up close, you could see where it had been touched up with paint that wasn’t so shiny, and the front window was cracked. The doors creaked open, and the other passengers lingered for one last moment, then climbed carefully out. They were a few yards away from the car before they started chattering again.

And then we scrambled in. I’d imagined sitting in front, but Amie Telford got to do that. Paul Hartshorne’s dad got in back, in the middle, one foot straddled on each side of a big bump in the floor; I got one window and Paul had the other. Inside, it smelled of straw and horse manure, like the barn. We closed the doors. Mr. Steenrud turned around with a grin.
“Seatbelts all done up? It’s the law!” We fiddled with the awkward metal buckles. He nodded approval. “That’s right, that’s how you do it.”

I reached out to touch a little silver switch on the door. He shook his head.

“Better leave those windows down, the air conditioner hasn’t worked for years.” He grinned and faced forward again.

He pushed on the black steering wheel, and there was a loud honk, just like in the videos. He did something, water squirted onto the front window and two skinny black arms wiped it off again, leaving clean semicircles on the dusty window. The car coughed, and started to make a long, low purr, like a giant cat. And then we started to move.

It felt cooler almost immediately. We went faster and faster. I strained forward to look through the gap between the front seats. The red needle of the speedometer pointed to twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t imagine what a hundred and fifty would be like. We rattled over the bumps in the dirt track, and I was James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger or somebody, in an old action video. And we hung out the windows, and pointed our fingers like guns, and felt the wind in our faces, and tried to forget what we’d heard about cars making you sick to your stomach.

We went all round the field twice, and partway round again. Then the engine started to hesitate and stutter and went quiet. The car slowed and stopped.

“Sorry, kids!” said Mr. Steenrud. “Think the gas just ran out.” He tried the starter again, but it just coughed. He bent down and did something else, and the red metal lid ahead of the front window jumped a bit. He got out, walked around to the front, and opened it.

We couldn’t see anything with it up, so we climbed out too, and came around to look. Inside, the front of the car was full of strange shapes in shiny metal and black plastic. What he was looking at was a metal gallon can, with a hose rigged to it with a pipe clamp.

He shook the can; there was no sound but the dry whack of the hose against one of the metal parts. “Yep, that’s it. She’s out. Nothing left. Ride’s over.” His voice was quiet, as if we weren’t there and he was talking to himself.

Back by the barn, a bunch of the others had noticed that the car had stopped. A straggle of grownups and kids were on their way across the field to help.

“Something wrong, Bill?” one of the men asked, when they got there.

“No, she’s fine. Just out of gas,” Mr. Steenrud said. He was still smiling, but he looked tired from all the driving, and his eyes were red from the dust.

Gently, he lowered the lid down. It clunked softly into place. Then he climbed back behind the black steering wheel, and closed his door, and we all pushed the car back to the barn, like a parade.

Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. Apart from math and writing, he enjoys hiking, cycling,
music and fencing. His stories have appeared in Nature, AE, and other publications.

The Gyre

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean the Gyre turns in a great lazy whorl. The current carries with it the trinkets of civilization: bottle tops, cigarette lighters, barnacled gym shoes, and Ziploc bags clear as jellyfish. Lost fishing buoys trail tangled nets, which in turn haul their unintended catch of dead fish, shredded Mylar balloons and schools of water bottles.

She spent her days collecting the most unusual items as they drifted past. Her hair, dark as kelp, brushed against her powerful cetacean tail as she moved through the water. She carried the things she found in a little flock of plastic bags. Plastic was all around her in various states of degradation. Their original shapes transformed under the agitation of the waves into a confetti that caressed her with its tendrils as she passed, decorating her hair, sliding past her shoulders and breasts, her hips and tail.

She hung the bags off her elbows and moved through the crystalline sunlight. Adrift, they looked ephemeral but inflated with seawater they felt heavy, solid. Her favorites were the ones with the big red letters. The words on the bags said:

Thank You.
Thank You.
Thank You.

Earlier that day she found a plastic doll, naked and missing an arm. She’d seen dolls and parts of dolls before, but this one was different – a miniature man. He rode in the bottom of a bag along with a pink, plastic flip-flop and a round container top decorated with the face of a pig-tailed girl.

She stopped, fished the tiny man out of the bag and looked into his still perfect face. Biceps stood out on his remaining arm. Bifurcated legs grew from his hips like the arms of a starfish, except bulgy and muscled like the rest of him. His limbs were jointed like a crustacean. She tried to put his legs through what she imagined was a walking motion and giggled. They must look ridiculous, these creatures, stomping around on land.

She hadn’t noticed the boat above, as a pod of whales had recently passed overhead, but its shadow lingered. Rising she saw a long pole with a small net at the end reach into the water and scoop up a glinting potato chip bag. The pole receded into the sunlight and disappeared beyond the edge of the boat.

She drifted closer. The pole returned, trolling through the water for another item. She searched her bags and pulled out a toothbrush with bristles so curled it looked as if it were facing into a strong current. She pushed it toward the seeking net, which scooped it up. As the pole retreated, the silhouette of a head and broad shoulders leaned out and over the boat’s edge. A second head appeared, and together they examined her gift.

She lurked in the shadow of the hull and watched them collect more items from the Gyre. She could just hear their voices, wavering and garbled, punctuated by staccato laughter.

Day faded to evening, but the ship did not leave. Only after the first small points of starlight appeared did she break the surface to get a better look. Lights twinkled along the mast. The bags drifted around the crooks of her elbows. She held the man-doll in her hand, not wanting to lose him. The ship’s engine gargled quietly as it had throughout the afternoon. The slick taste of diesel lingered in her mouth.

Three people moved about the deck talking and laughing. The man with the broad shoulders poured a dark liquid from a bottle into plastic cups the others held. She swam closer, keeping her head low in the water. He picked up a curved container made of fine wood and began moving his hands across the strings stretched along its length. She drifted along with them, enthralled. The sounds were both complicated and soothing. The notes progressed forward, then circled back to as if to find something that had been left behind.

The Colored Lens #7 – Spring 2013

The Colored Lens #7 Spring 2013

The Colored Lens


Speculative Fiction Magazine


Spring 2013 – Issue #7



Featuring works by Zachary Tringali, Amy Holt, Maigen Turner, Rebecca Schwarz, Jamie Killen, S. R. Algernon, Sadie Bruce, Kate O’Connor, J. J. Roth, Kevin Kekic, John Zaharick, and Michael Shone.


Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott



Published by Light Spring LLC


Fort Worth, Texas


© Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved


Table of Contents

The Wolf who Howls at the Hollow Moon

By Zachary Tringali

These are our lands—the hills and the valleys, the corn fields and streams. We know these paths as a man knows his own body. People think they kick us out of their towns with their ugly stares, but honestly there’s no place we feel more at home. There’s dust in our throats, grass at our backs, and a warm fire always within reach. I’ve never been happier than with the caravan, watching alongside my family as the stars come out.

But there has always been one thing in Skadi that has drawn me away.

I sit on the edge of the carriage as it trundles up the hill, reaching along the familiar paths into the air and plucking a blossoming star out of the dimming sky. Once it’s milled down, I pinch a bit of stardust from the bowl of my mortar and rub it between my fingers. The dust is cool and soft, but beneath that there’s an energy like liquid lightning as it turns my skin from the heather of my people to the pale white of the mud walkers. I hate having to do this, but I know that it’s worth it.

By the time I finish, the hillside is alive with music. The wagons have been pulled into a circle, the cook fires glow in the center while the people sit and play their lutes and tell their stories. Each old story is fresh, never the same from one telling to the next, and it fills my heart with a secret thrum. The old, weathered voices travel a familiar road into my being where they will live in my bones until I’m little more than dust in the sky, long gone.

Two of my family are sitting by the bridge that crosses into Skadi. One of them has tied a string to a stick and is trying to fish in the river while the other picks at a lute that he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of.

“Orri!” the fisher says, turning so the pale moonlight washes over his face, flashing his eyes both green and gold when he laughs. He runs a thumb across his cheek. “Almost didn’t recognize you like that. Sneaking into town again? You know what will happen if the mud walkers find you.”

“Hakon! Ah, let them throw their stones, it’s worth it.” I clap him on the shoulder and lean across the gorge, peering down into the water below. The night sky twinkles in the slow waters. “No luck today?”

“’Fraid not, the fish don’t want to come out.” Hakon frowns, furrowing his brow and twitching the stick. He thumbs back across his shoulder to the lute player. “I brought Petur out to help me call to them, but…”

“Say no more. I think your lute needs an adjustment is all.” I squint up at the sky, counting the stars that halo the moon.

“It’s not the lute, I just need more—” Petur begins but soon stops, gasping.

“Here, try this.” I fish my hand through the black sky and call down two stars. They alight on the tips of my fingers, sending shrill and cold rushes across my skin and making my hair prickle. My breath is held in my chest when I touch my fingers to the lute and only releases when I feel their power leave, humming sweetly through the maple wood and fine strings. “The fish will come to your call now, surely.”

“Orri, you can’t use magic to solve all of your problems,” Hakon says but he’s laughing and I can see him licking his lips already as he adjusts his fishing pole.

“At least for tonight it won’t hurt.” I wink at Petur, who is already testing his fingers on the new strings. The sound is as quick as lightning and as sweet as a flower. The fish jump in the water below, adding a tinkling melody just beneath.

I’m already halfway across the bridge before they notice I’m gone and start shouting their thanks. I look back to see the glistening shape of a fish on the line. Hearing the laughter trill across the way is enough to make me smile.

I wouldn’t leave the caravan for anything in the world if it weren’t for her. It’s the way she smiles that makes going into Skadi seem worth it at all. The dirty streets and cramped roads are enough to make my stomach cinch, to say nothing of the men who would as soon kill my kind as say hello, but the memory of her keeps me moving. We only come through once or twice in a year. It’s never enough, but it’s always welcome.

All of the familiar paths lead back to her and I scale the trellis soundlessly. I have, after all, been doing this for years. I know every nook and cranny, my fingers find where the wood is weak and nimbly move away.

She’s working a thick brush through her brown hair, sitting on her bed and looking off into the distance—where, I do not know. I would like to imagine that she is thinking of me, the way I think of her. Perhaps there’s still some part of her that remembers the last time we touched, where a hand may have brushed, or where our lips met.

“You can brush it a thousand times, but the stars are already jealous of you.” I tease as I slip down from the balcony and into her rooms.

She sits up a little straighter; her hand flies to her chest to calm her heart. She doesn’t smile. Her eyes, once like shining amethyst, are broken by tears. She curls her fingers around the locket she wears and looks away from me.

“Remei…” I go to her, I fall on my knees before her. When I try to touch her she recoils. She covers her face with her hands but it doesn’t stop the sobbing. “What’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”

“Orri.” She gives in at last and falls into me, coiling her arms around my neck. Her tears are hot on my skin, burning paths down the pale stardust. “The stars must have heard me, they knew that I needed you here.”

“They must have.” I smoothed a hand across her cheek, tucking her hair back behind her ear. “Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

“It’s my mother,” she blurts out all at once, the words running past her lips as freely as her tears. She mops at her face and stands, pacing while she wrings her hands. “She got sick last night. She had a little cut, a tiny thing. She called me over to look at it and I gave her a salve even though I thought it was nothing. She was worried, I thought I just had to put her at ease…”

“Where is she now?”

“In her chambers, still. It was only just this morning that she—“ She bites her lip and shakes her head, her hair goes spilling down across her shoulders. She looks to the ceiling and swallows a cry, the chamber of her throat quivering. I want nothing more than to take her into my arms and hold her, but she is already moving past me. “I didn’t know what to do, Orri. It was such a little thing. How could this happen?”

“It’s going to be all right, Remei. I’m here with you now.” I follow her down the hall, knowing my words are useless—pointless. Among the Seers we have stories for this, but it means little in this place. These people build walls to reflect how closed they are, and Remei is more open than most, but not now.

I follow her into her mother’s chambers. Sticks of cinnamon have been tied to the canopy of the bed, but it does little to keep the scent of death away. Already the body has begun to stiffen and I can see a darkening of the skin where it has laid. Remei freezes in the door but I rush in.

“Her eyes are closed,” I say.

“Out of respect—”

“If her eyes are closed how will the stars see her to take her spirit?” I can hear the frantic edge on my own voice, I’m already worrying if it has been too late, too long. I touch her forehead, her skin is cool. I open her eyes, they stare back at me already milky and white but I think there might still be enough there, it may not be too late to let her go peacefully to the stars.

“Orri!” Her voice is shrill and wounded as she flies to me, pulling me backwards.

“I…” I began, but there was no explanation. I should respect her wishes, her ways, but how could she keep her mother from seeing the stars? For the first time, I fumbled for words.

And then I watched her fall to her knees by her mother’s bedside. Nothing has ever hurt me as much as watching her cry does now.

“This never should have happened, Orri.” Her anger with me has passed, fleeting as a bird. “It must be my fault, such a little thing and now…” She shakes and even holding tight to herself she cannot contain it.

“What if I told you I could change it?” I say the words before I think them through.

“Orri, that’s not possible.” She bites her lip. She practices medicine, she heals people using salves and tonics. She knows these things, or she thinks she does.

“Do you know what the name Orri means to my people?” I sit beside her, carefully taking her hands. I wait until her sobbing has quieted enough for her to hear me. I make her look at me so she won’t have to look at her mother. “It means he who fixes things. Remei, I can fix this.”

“How?” Her voice brooks between anger, pain and hope.

“Rekki comes and collects the souls of the dead after they last see the stars. Rekki, the wolf who howls at the hollow moon. She takes them to the hillside to sing to the stars one last time before she takes them from this world. This is what my people say, this is the truth. I have seen Rekki when she came for my mother, and her mother before.”

“But if you can turn Rekki away then why didn’t you then?” She did not want to give way to hope, she was too afraid of being hope.

“There is a time for everything, Remei. My people do not mourn the dead, we celebrate that they will be among the stars.” I touch her lips, quivering. “It’s not that way for you… You shouldn’t be sad.”


“There’s no more time for questions. I need your help if you want this.” I’m standing and already know that she’ll listen, her tears have stopped and I can almost hear her heart fluttering in her chest. I pull back the curtains and push the doors open onto the balcony. “Go to the farms and bring me back a goat. I’ll need a knife as well.” I look back at her and if she hesitates, it’s only for a moment. By the time I blink she’s gone.

By the time Remei comes back—the goat bleating and clomping its hooves from down the hall—I’ve covered the balcony in blankets, lined the parapet with candles, and taken her mother out to lay beneath the stars. As it should be. Remei pauses for only a moment in the doorway, her breath caught in her throat while she tries to wrestle the goat to be still.

“Orri, I’m not sure about this…” she says, but there’s a hitch in her voice she can’t deny.

“Everything will be fine, Remei. Did you bring the knife?” I take it from her before she can even answer. Her eyes are red, her cheeks are pink where the rest of her has gone pale, but there’s something else now. There’s a light just behind her eyes.

She doesn’t look away as I take the goat down into my lap. I haven’t the time to be soothing to the goat, but I haven’t the heart to kill it in its confusion. I smooth my hand back across its head until its bleating quiets and when it stills I use the knife. A quick, clean cut across the neck. Its body jerks but my arms are tight around its neck and I hold it as its blood warms me in the cool night air. Remei makes a sound but says nothing. She touches her hand to her lips and I wonder if she’ll be sick.

“What will you do?” she asks instead, swallowing her nausea and fear.

“Fool Rekki.” I cannot fight the smile from the corners of my lips. I have always had a cleverness for stars and magic, but fooling the wolf god is something the Seers only ever spoke of. No one had done it in ages, but the thought lived on in our stories and now I was living them. “The light is passing from your mother’s eyes and even now Rekki is on the prowl, scenting what is left of her. But if we present her with something better she might leave your mother be. In time her spirit will return.”

“Orri, can you really—“

She was speaking still, but the words became a distant thrum in the back of my head as I reached for the sky.

I spoke the words, sweet and clear as water and lured two stars down from their cradle beside the moon. I breathed my life into them before I lay the goat down and put the twin stars into his eyes.

His heart beats again, if only for a moment.

It is enough. I can feel Rekki now, as close as if she possessed a body and paced across the balcony, breathing on my neck. Remei’s lips are twisted as she watches, her fingers are curled in the draperies and her mouth works wordlessly.

Remei’s mother breathes, a sick and stuttering thing that rattles in her chest and snakes into the air. The goat twists once and moves no more as the light of the stars dwindle in his eyes.

Rekki’s teeth sink into the mangy flesh, worrying at the goat, and I feel the stars leave. I feel at once at peace and then as though I’m tipping into something more, as a child falling from the shallow waters into the deep. A moment of freedom tempered by shrill fear as my stomach floats in my body and my feet feel as though they’ve left the ground.

“Orri, what’s happening?” Remei’s voice came, but I cannot see her any longer. My eyes have been blinded to all but the beast that stands before me, as sleek as a willow branch and as dark as night. She moves like a shadow slipping into my eye, consuming me from the inside.

I want to cry because Rekki is looking at me with those eyes like burning coals—I can see them so clearly now—and I know then that I have never fooled her. Steam comes from her muzzle with every panting breath. The wolf has come for me as payment for my foolishness and no goat or star will satisfy her. Somewhere, I can hear Remei crying out for me, shaking me, but it’s all muddled and I fall back from her. I reach for something and my hands catch upon the curtains, I can hear the fabric as it rips and I’m sent tumbling back into the rooms again.

Her mother is breathing again, the color is coming back to her cheeks. There is a joy in all of the madness, but there’s no room for my mind to focus on it because I need to move. I need to leave Remei, even as every part of my body yearns to stay with her until the bitter end.

Rekki scents me and her teeth make the first tentative pulls upon my flesh. I flee the room, flee even the sound of Remei’s voice and I am running down the halls, knocking over tapestries and vases that spill and break in my wake. Rekki is following on my heels and I can hear her paws now as real as any wolf, padding and playing at the great game of chase that all beasts love.

I tumble out into the streets and my magic has faded, the people see me for who I am and even though it is late they are all shouting at me in a sound that is so consuming I can think of nothing but their hatred. They have all grown old and fat on the stories of the Seers, they say we steal their children and poison their wells and now they see me here but they do not matter. The hate in their eyes is nothing compared to the nipping of teeth at my heels.

Only Rekki matters.

The vague noise of their shouting follows me out into the streets and towards home. Home where the caravan is, where the fires glow and there is no wolf. Home where there is mulled cider and familiar stories that I can slip into as a babe in a blanket.

But I leave the walls of Skadi and there is no bridge and there are no hills, only darkness. The familiar paths have worn away as if by a strong storm and even my memory cannot hold their shape anymore. One road looks as much like any other and any or none of them may lead me back home. I look to the sky for answers but there is only the sickle of the hollow moon, there are no stars that I can see, nothing left to guide me.

For the first time in my life I am lost. There are no paths and my feet do not tread familiar ground. Every step seems to unearth a stone underfoot, every corner seems to reveal a new bend in the world that I have never known. Lost without a star to lead me, I know only one thing: Rekki is following me, her growl as thick as thunder in the air and her breath as hot as fire on the back of my neck. She yearns for what was stolen from her.

I run blind into the night and I know a fleeting—perhaps foolish—thought, that if I could go back I would do it all again. For her. Somewhere in the darkness of the world she is crying, now, but her mother is back and one day she’ll be happy again. I can run for as long as my legs will carry me and when I lay down in the dark and my legs stop moving, I will shut my eyes and pretend that she still thinks of me and that she can still feel the spot where my hand last touched her, where our lips last met.

Rekki howls at the hollow moon and I run until the darkness swallows me.

Four Leaf Clovers

By Amy Holt

First inning.

Her name was Polly, or Brandy, Savannah maybe. The name didn’t matter as long as she did what she was supposed to do. They had warned: do it or we’ll make you.

The field lights were on, illuminating her feigned search. She fished through green stalks and petals. Her eyelids were red, her nose pink from torrents of furious tears. Even if she saw one, she wasn’t going to pick it.

Popcorn steam and grill smoke perfumed the humid summer air. Children with blue popsicle mustaches giggled in step with their running legs as they darted under bleacher beams and up and down sloping hills. One of them tripped. A man dressed in a pressed polo and fine posture helped the child up with his free hand.

Old Lady Joe spotted him first. His simple dress didn’t fool her; he was a reporter, one of dozens at the game who came to write some witty four-paragraph chain about a small town with big town clovers that would launch his career from one made of local featurettes to one of national features.

This one had a good eye, however, as he spotted Old Lady Joe at the same time she spotted him. She was about the right age, he judged. Subtracting the years, she would have been a teenager when the field of clovers became infamous Clover Field. That and she was town royalty, complete with secret guard eyeing her every move—a man and a woman at the top of the stands, an older lady three seats down, and two men standing at the fences. The old woman might as well have been wearing a crown, wielding a scepter.

“Excuse me,” he said, sitting beside her. He tried to sound casual, but his voice said formal, and there was always that posture, one that only big-city animals had. “I’m from a couple towns over. I was wondering about the story of this field, and you look like the one to ask. Were you here when the phenomena first began, Miss—”

“Call me Mrs. Joe.” She was a stickly thing with whole landscapes of wrinkles and a voice rough and phlegmy from chain smoking. She raised her voice half an octave to speak to this man, and opened her eyes a bit wider, smiling with greater frequency, folding her hands as if she wasn’t dangerous.

“Mrs. Joe,” the reporter complied.

“Which paper are you with?”

He hesitated. “How’d you know?”

“Burg has had almost a hundred newspapers profile Clover Field over the years. Considering I’ve been here for all of those years, I think I know what a reporter looks like. Now, which paper?”

“The Chicago Sun-Times. My name is Tyler Feld.” Old Joe forgot his name, but giddied at the rest—the kind of publicity that could counteract, just a bit, the damage the girl had done to the field’s prestige.

“Nice to meet you. So, where shall I begin? With that first day so many years ago? Or are you interested in my theories as to why the luck stopped two games ago?”

“The former, if you don’t mind, Mrs. Joe.”

Old Joe liked the reporter because of his hungry eyes. They were like hers, long before, when she and Willa had stepped on the field and first imagined what was to come. Her skin was smooth then, and voice not so gravelly. She’d held up the lucked clover that kept her niece from choking and asked, “Are there others, Willa? Are there others?” And Willa said yes, that she could help one see them. For a price. “If you pay enough, you can get enough.”

“You got it,” Joe told the reporter.

She dulled her eyes and smiled sweeter, hiding her cunning and craft, and weaved yet another story of the night luck became pluckable. Just the night and nothing more, and even then Old Joe stripped down the tale to the truest lie it could be, altering small details to suit her mood.

Tonight she was twenty, not eighteen, and she sat on the knoll when the first one was plucked, not the wooden bleachers by third base. Her hair was up not down, her skirt deep green not violet. She ate a hot dog during the second inning, when the man two blankets over started speculating on the girl, the girl of that time. He was balding, his wife wore a polka dot skirt. Their two children worked at a puzzle. The boy cried for juice.

But the rest was the same. Her soon-to-be husband, Gerald, spilled soda on her ankle. Before she had a chance to level her eyes and curse at him, she felt the aftershock. Luck had been claimed.

The crowd couldn’t have been more silent. Only their shallow breaths dared, their beating hearts and rising goosebumps. Those visiting could not feel it, but knew: a weight had shifted. The verdant magic zipped across the field from the plucker’s feet, hitting the home team first and strongest and then the locals who’d touched field soil as youngsters, breathed in field air as teens. It tingled from their feet to their foreheads. Young Joe exhaled swiftly then. The baby in her belly stretched and kicked. She had won; her plan would work.

Second inning. Home team down, 1-3

Principal Menning looked from Old Joe to the scoreboard with red numbers already laughing at their efforts. Another looked too. He exchanged a gaze of meaning with the woman—Nancy Olsen. She had four light and thin scratch marks across her right cheek. He had a matching set across his forearm. They’d just tried to make the girl understand: the luck was for the town, for the team, not for random strangers having a rough time.

Menning shook his head just thinking about it. Kids these days: when did rebellion for the sake of rebellion become a thing? Picking the right girl every four years had been getting harder and harder—

Someone pointed in his direction. It was Old Lady Joe and her young reporter. Menning took a swig of soda and waved. What now? The reporter came up to meet him.

“Principal Menning? I’m Tyler Feld. I work for the Chicago Sun-Times.”

“What can I do for you Mr. Feld?”

“Mrs. Joe down there said you could quick show me the framed clovers inside the school. Do you think that’d be alright?”

“Of course,” Menning smiled, gesturing forward. He eyed Joe. She nodded her approval. Always manipulating, always arranging she was.

They walked over the tiny gravel mouth of the parking lot, crunching stones instead of speaking, and into the side entrance of the high school.

For over fifty years the clover collection had been contained in the principal’s office. Mr. Menning presently, before him, Mrs. Blomme, and before her a Mr. Lindeman. For the sake of mystique, rarely did a reporter get to photograph the collection, but Old Joe allowed it because of Tyler’s high caliber, because the town was in trouble after losing two Field games after a fifty year winning streak, because green-filled images would draw a reader’s eye more than plain blocks of typeface.

Dots of jade hung in twelve-inch square frames, one frame per year since the luck had become pluckable. Over six hundred clovers in all, dates and opposing teams listed below each one. They weren’t all green. Some were more brown, others even blackish. But the more recent the year, the better preserved the clovers.

Tyler began to examine them, pulling out his prosumer camera and snapping as much as he could without seeming desperate. “Wow,” he marveled, “so they’re not all four leaf.”

“No. Luck comes in all hues and shapes on this field.” Menning stepped back and admired the collection as he did every day. He liked to think that some of the excess luck, decades of it, leaked into his tissues as he sat at his desk.

“So if it’s not because of a clover commonality, is it because of the pickers?”

“No. The pickers are unrelated, otherwise we could win a game in any town. It’s because of the field, plain and simple. The field says one clover and not another. The field chooses the picker. And the picker merely sees them. There’s nothing to be theorized beyond that.”

Menning was halfly lying. Old Joe, he, and the others were the key, not the field. Sure, the field had offered real luck, randomly takable luck. But it had been Joe that made the discovery and thought up the idea of turning it into money to keep the town from fading into one of those ghostly remnants haunting county roads. It was Polly who connected Joe to Willa. It was Isaac who handled the mayor’s meddling, Kevin who knew how to drug the girls, Nancy and Menning who painstakingly sought out the right student every four years, and Rob who helped with whatever was needed.

Tyler nodded politely.

“Wasn’t your final home game last summer against Wapsie?” Tyler asked, research fresh in his mind.

“Yes,” Menning answered.

“The clover’s missing for that game.” Tyler pointed at the spot where it should have been posing.

“Yes,” Menning smiled, “the athletic director and I and some of the volunteers get together after the last home game each summer and blend the final clover into a heaping batch of margaritas to celebrate. It’s a bit of a tradition now. Off the record.”

This story wasn’t true either. Tyler laughed, not knowing the difference.

Third inning. Home team down, 3-6

Nancy eyed the score board again, those looming stats. She looked over to where Menning should have been—they all sat in the same places every game—but he was absent, still showing that reporter around. She slid past her neighbors’ knees and picked up his half-full coke bottle. He would find her later to get it back.

Nancy sauntered to the fence beside third base. The girl hadn’t found one yet. Nancy doubted she would. There were probably three lucky clovers dotting that field, and from what Nancy remembered from when she was picker twelve years prior, they were all buzzing conspicuously with the magic of fortune. The girl avoided them on purpose.

The scratch marks on Nancy’s cheek itched. At least that meant they were healing.

Menning always wondered how Nancy could support the cause after knowing what had been done to her. And Nancy always shrugged—it didn’t matter that they’d drugged her, fed her some liquid spell, and buried her in Clover Field for three days so she’d become in tune with its ways. Because she understood the purpose. If you pay enough, you can get enough.

She had two kids now, loving school, enjoying the fruits of small town life, quiet streets, large backyards. Without the picker, without these rough magics, the income would dry up and the town would die. The town couldn’t die. Someone had to be faceless and nameless so the town could have a face and a name, a life regardless of new interstate or super mall—

The crowd skidded into silence. The girl leaned. Her hand ruffled the grass to better see among the blades. A deep breath.

Liar, Nancy thought. If it’s there, it’s there. No need to muss around.

A sigh from the masses. No, the girl shook her head at them, playing a part, she hadn’t found one after all.

Nancy scoffed.

“You weren’t at your spot,” a voice called. Menning.

“Here’s your soda,” she said.


Menning leaned against the fence beside her, six dots of light reflecting in his eyes. He loosened his tie, loosened the principal ensemble momentarily because they were alone.

Eight years before, Nancy had paid Willa twenty thousand dollars for a never-shrinking candle that, when burned once a day, kept her husband from leaving her for his mistress. But after meeting Menning, Nancy daily thought of neglecting to light the wick. She would finger the match, swipe it along red phosphorus so it would flame to life with a hiss. But her hand would hover, she’d pause to think. She would draw in breath to blow it out, candle unlit. But then the what ifs came. Courage went. And the candle flickered once more.

“Still nothing, eh?” he asked.

Nancy shook her head. “She’s not going to, Joel.”

“Maybe not. But the next girl we choose will, and the reporters and the out-of-towners and the money will keep on coming.”

“No. Not after losing three games. The magic is over. We’ll be downgraded from Wonder to Kitsch.”

Menning reached out a hand. “Nancy—”

“Hey you two.” This voice was Rob’s. He was a slightly balding man, arms and chest bandaged in layers of muscle, and every pair of jeans he owned were so worn they were almost white in color and holing in dangerous places.

“Hey Rob,” Menning said, sipping his soda again and inching away from Nancy just enough. Rob knew Nancy’s husband.

“I was just checking up on our backup plan,” he said, “making sure my car hasn’t been stolen or set on fire or something. Old Joe doesn’t want it out until the last inning, if it gets that far. Hopefully it won’t.”

“It will,” Nancy told.

“But we’ll get our way even so.”

Menning loosened his tie a little more, thinking, seeing more of Nancy’s point of view. “The girl remembered, Rob. She could cause us trouble long after this game is over. Threats didn’t work—verbal or otherwise. She’s a fiery thing.”

“What’s her name again?” Nancy asked.

“Jolene? Jessica?”

“I thought it was Frankie,” Rob said. “Whatever. We’ll figure out how to handle the girl later. I’m just looking forward to when this is all over, a good night’s sleep, and a morning at Willa’s Cafe that’s back to how it used to be with all of us a little more relaxed, none of this spying and kidnapping crap.”

“So the doll is fine?” Nancy asked. “Looks good and everything?”

Rob stretched and rubbed his gut to see how much room was inside. He liked to eat when he was nervous. “Sure does,” he answered.

“Willa’s here, ya know. She’s sitting a couple rows behind Joe. I guess she was curious, hearing us scheming every morning. Came out to see the finale.”

“We’ll I’ll be damned,” Rob chuckled. “I’m going to grab some popcorn. You two want anything?”

“No,” they chorused. The other team scored.

Forth inning. Home team down, 3-7.

The mayor occupied the center of the stands behind the catcher. He frowned. Everywhere he looked, he saw flaws. The trashes were overflowing, holding much more than a night’s worth of waste. Weeds lined the fences. The visitors’ stands needed painting. The concession stand menu board needed to be reprinted, a few prices upped and a couple items removed. Where was the money going? Abbott may not have been on the school board, but he knew the softball program was getting loads of money. Yet none of it was showing on the field apart from consistent mowing. It reflected poorly on his town.

The answer was Willa, the woman sitting right beside him. Most of the budget went to her from the people of the town as payment for their luck-seer spell once in a quadrennial.

Willa looked like a simple woman of fifty, though a fellow sorceress would have been able to judge her as two hundred and fifty. She had a head of tomato curls kept at bay by a white and navy kerchief, and her hands were scarred by cauldron sprays and griddle burns. She could have wiped the scars away with three words, but appreciated them as she appreciated the life and spells that gave them. She was an old fashioned sorceress with an old repertoire of spells—nothing like mind-reading, divining, or such fancy—and in that, she was well-suited to an old town that could just as well have wasted away some fifty years ago.

Willa’s eyes swept over to Menning, Nancy, and Rob. Menning ordered breakfast special #2 whenever he came in, Nancy an english muffin with a side of peanut butter and a diet coke, and Rob ordered special #3 with extra bacon. Always the same things. Their group sat among the rest: the grumpy farmers with John Deere hats, little old ladies unable to turn their necks anymore, and lone wanderers in town on a construction job or part-time field work.
From Willa’s secret menu, the farmers and wanderers wanted personal prosperity, and the old ladies wanted the strangest and darkest things you’d imagine.

So Old Joe’s group was strange in that along with caring for themselves, they cared for the good of the town, the grand and valuable other. They realized that if the other died, they would whither, this late in their lives with no firm way out. They and the town were bound. Most small town folk didn’t realize that.

The athletic director, another of Old Joe’s allies, Isaac, took a spot behind Willa. Abbott began to pester him about the condition of the field. Willa listened absently, wondering if Old Joe would ever get up to smoke a cigarette.

She hadn’t moved much since the game started—still that hunched posture, those sewn lips and a crumpled brow. She didn’t palm the doll yet, but when she did, the girl would be sorry. Most were sorry when they messed with Joe, be it step-sibling, fresh faced copywriter, a mayor from a rival town, and now an eighteen year old girl.

When Old Joe was eighteen, she was with child, living in the trailer park north of down, and working at Willa’s Cafe. Oh, and then she was stealing, digging up graves for supplies, running strange errands in the dead of night with her baby sleeping in a car seat, attending nursing school to be Willa’s on-call aid for those townspeople who paid in tiny limbs or bags of blood. All to repay Willa for the picker spells.

When the younger ones started helping, Joe stopped all that to make sure her daughter grew up right and landed in some stable suburb with a kind husband. She’d put in her time. Until last night, that is. For the doll she’d given like the old days—a pint of blood, two nursing jobs, and the oldest silver-based coin in Gerald’s coin collection. Others had given other things, but that’s what Old Lady Joe gave.

Willa had the coin in her pocket now. She’d spelled it to act as a white-hot omen if danger were near. Since Willa didn’t know many of the skills others of her kind knew, she had to resort to these simple methods to keep herself in Fate’s loop of knowledge.

Willa stared at the girl who rebelled.

She was pretty. She had a bruised rib no one knew about, and a black eye the crowd couldn’t see from this far away. Her fingernails contained traces of Nancy and Menning’s skins. They’d provoked her in trying to frighten her. Now she wouldn’t give in without a fight, and even then—Willa shuddered. She had an impulse to stand up and leave, as if the coin had turned hot, but it hadn’t just yet, and she calmed back down.

The girl regarded Willa. She didn’t know the redhead was the one who sold magic with pancakes, but she had her suspicions. And seeing Willa there in the stands when she’d never come previously moved suspicion to full theory.

She added the name to her list: Rob, Kevin, Nancy, Principal Menning, Old Joe, now Willa. One of them was the witch and whoever it was would die.

Fifth inning. Home team down, still 3-7.

Isaac joined the concession stand line. Rob was in front of him, getting a hot dog now; his stomach needed filling again. In front of Rob was Kevin.

Kevin craved a walking taco—a bag of crunched Doritos with taco meat and cheddar cheese poured inside eaten with a fork as you walk around. He used to eat them with his pinky in the air as he mixed and picked through the bag, but he had no pinky now. He sold it to Willa in exchange for the deeds to the land his two hog farms sat on top of. Willa used the pinky in making Nancy’s keep-candle. Neither knew.

Kevin ordered and walked away.

Rob ordered, chomping down on his dog the second he set two one-dollar bills on the counter. “Oh, hey Isaac,” he said, mouth full, when he saw the next-in-line.

“Hey, Rob.” Isaac didn’t know Rob as well as some of the others because Rob didn’t work at the school. Menning, Nancy, and Polly worked at the school. He also didn’t have to go on the gritty errands as much, being so busy with Clover Field politics and PR it often kept him away, even from morning meetings at Willa’s.

“You want to come with me to the outfield fences?” he asked after ordering. “Abbott’s been pestering me for the last half hour about the grounds. He says there are exposed wires on the field light behind second.”

“Yah, sure,” Rob said, hot dog inhaled.

The two passed Kevin on their way. He was lingering between where the teens hung out and where the bleachers ended. “I’m going to ask Kev along too,” Isaac said.

“Why?” Rob whined, after which he burped into his fist, an attempt at being polite around someone he didn’t know as well. A dull pain growled through his wrist where a mass had been removed, a deadly thing from the curse of an old friend. Willa got paid for curse and cure that time. She never took sides in the matters of the town, probably because she stood to gain the most from a principle like that.

The one that cursed Rob was now dead, buried on John Grint’s land the next county over.

“Because he’s one of us,” Isaac went on. “Just because he didn’t properly sedate the girl all those years ago doesn’t mean he did it on purpose, and it doesn’t mean he deserves to be shunned. Come on.”

Rob pouted for all of two seconds and then let it go.

“Hey, Kev,” Isaac called.

Kevin flinched at his name. He looked skitzy, guilty even. And maybe he was. Maybe he’d started feeling guilty the last time they did the burial, botched the anesthesia sort of on purpose, knowing it’d cause trouble down the line and end the whole thing. They still had the spring fair to bring in money, and the reputable football program. Those could keep the town going until something replaced magicked softball summers. He just couldn’t help but think that being buried alive for three days, suffocating, pissing on yourself, drifting in and out of consciousness was damaging to a person, even if she was drugged. And the black sludge and bullying—what if they didn’t like softball in high school even if they did in junior high?

It just didn’t seem right.

Isaac invited him along and he went.

“How have you been lately, Kevin?” Isaac asked.

“Good.” He swallowed nervously. His adam’s apple swung from the center of his thin throat to the base of his double chin. “One of our ventilation fans broke down today. Took all afternoon to fix. And I went to Willa’s this morning. Old Joe was there and we talked for a while.”

“What’d she say?” Rob asked, craving a frozen orange juice.

“She said she understands. Mistakes happen. She wants me to teach Nancy how I do the drugging so two of us know and we can check each other’s work. She also said we need to start wearing masks when we grab them, so even if something goes wrong again, at least the sight of one of us won’t trigger their memories like it did this time… with me.”

“Sure, sure. That’s a good idea.”

They walked on in silence. Kevin put his four-fingered right hand against the fence and it bobbed against the links. Isaac noticed the weeds; Abbott was right. Maybe he could funnel over some baseball budget money to hire the mower for an hour extra each week to trim and fix things up. The boys’ team didn’t make much money anyhow. They used to because they used to be the team playing on Clover Field. But young kids, not believing in supernatural luck, thought they were winning because of talent and moved their games to a fancy field at the edge of town. The girls took over and wouldn’t give the field back when the boys started losing.

“You think these young ones will ever believe in magic?” Isaac mused. “I mean, when we’re all gone, will some of them believe and keep it going?”

Kevin didn’t answer. He just looked at the girl.

“I think about that too sometimes,” Rob said. “These kids enjoy the magic of wizards in secret schools and paranormal creatures made good because of love or some crap like that. But our magic—what magic really is—they don’t believe in that. They wouldn’t like it. It would disappoint them I think.”

“Would it have disappointed us when we were young?”


Isaac found the exposed wires. He stuck his plastic fork into the ground to mark it against a mower or misstep.

The gold band around his thumb glinted against the lights. It was ring of fortune, simple enough. He wouldn’t get sick or die early. He would move up the ladders of career and love at all the right times. Isaac Tusston would never want for anything. In exchange, he did anything Willa asked and always would. He was happy. If you pay enough, you can get enough.

A bat smacked against a ball. A home run for the home team with two players on base, not a leap towards a win, but at least it evened the score.

Sixth inning. Home team still losing, but not as much, 6-7.

“What’s that girl doing with her head down? Doesn’t she know someone’s up to bat?” a man asked without particular aim at a particular body.

He was an out-of-towner.

One inevitably appeared at each game, a man or woman in the area visiting relatives with a hankering for some local fare, or one who’d heard about the field in the news and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Roaming in boredom till dusk, seeing the blazing field lights, the creature would stroll on down to Clover Field and sit on the cold metal behind the catcher. He or she would scan the crowd. Looks normal, even picturesque. But then he would see the girl in the outfield, the only one with her head down while the rest had their heads up for, you know, spying balls and catching them.

“Oh, she knows,” one of the town answered. Menning. “She’s looking for the luck. Always does. When the bat cracks, she’ll look up. But what you want to see is that blonde ponytail fall forward and her hand ruffle the grass. Because that, sir, means she’s found one.”

“Found one what?”

“A lucky clover.”

Menning and Nancy exchanged one of their looks. Menning hadn’t retightened his tie. Nancy tried not to smile too big.

The town didn’t mind the out-of-towners. They bought popcorns and sodas, expertly charred hot dogs and more sodas, then rooms at the Motel 6, return-trip gas and snacks at the local convenience store. Money, the town craved, quarters, dollars, credit cards. And out-of-towners were beasts to milk.

“What happens when she finds a clover?” the man asked next.

“Why, the home team wins,” Menning announced. Listeners hollared and clapped. Nancy giggled.

Every game.

Seventh inning. Home team down, 6-10.

Isaac and Rob sat down between Menning and Nancy, forgoing the usual routine. Rob had gotten his frozen orange juice. Kevin was back to haunting a random patch of fence. The polo-shirt reporter—they forgot his name—tried to get a quick interview, but Kevin said no. The man had tried to get interviews from each of them throughout the night. He had a good sense, that one, gravitating toward juicy stories even if he didn’t know what they were.

Presently, he was interviewing a kid whose sister played first base. Next he would interview the kid’s mother. The longer the game rambled without a clover presented to the air, the more his questions bent toward fitting an article about Clover Field’s final defeat. Lucky Clover Field Loses its Luck, the reporter would title his story.

But home team wouldn’t lose this night, all willed. And even if they did, there would always be some obscure newspaper from Whositwhatsit, Indiana that would want to do a feature on the field and its used-to-be supernatural clovers. Reporters would still come, they would. The following summer at least, maybe the next too. But no, no, the group told themselves even after these admissions, the game would turn out alright this night.

“I wish I’d been here when it first happened,” Rob said just below the din.

“It was bad,” Nancy said. “I’ve never seen Old Joe so…”

“Defeated,” Menning finished.

“The crowd filed out around us. She didn’t speak for almost an hour. She just stared straight ahead, arms crossed like usual, lips pursed.”

Rob poured the last of the orange ice into his mouth. “What did Willa say about the whole thing the next morning?”

“You know Willa,” Nancy shrugged. “She told us to bother her when we had a specific spell in mind to handle the problem. ‘If you pay enough, you can get enough.'”

Menning scoffed. That line had become their motto. He was the only one that hadn’t used Willa for personal gain, for some ring or spot of land, and he had no plans to. Pinkies and graveyard thefts were out of his price range.

“Man, how did the girl come across it?” Rob moaned. “After all our tests when she was younger, the spying, the research, she was the last one I expected to become curious.”

“Me too.”

“Me too,” they echoed.

Isaac shrugged. “So people can change.”

“Or, you can never truly know someone,” Menning said. They all nodded in agreement, thinking of themselves, thinking of the girl.

She had been a quiet child and quiet adolescent, never causing trouble, never stepping outside the many lines of rules and expectations. When other students snuck out of the house to meet up with boys, the girl stayed inside reading books. When other students started having parties with scary movies and a little stolen alcohol, the girl took long walks to the town parks and back, and her mother knew where she was at every moment. She obeyed. She followed the rules. She didn’t smart off to adults or insult her classmates. So she should have stayed compliant; she should have followed the norms.

It must have been the books, and all that time spent thinking, two things that reared their vicious heads and made the obedient, revolutionaries. They would have to be wary of that next time, if there was a next time.

Rob slapped his knee just thinking about it, getting popcorn butter on the white patches of his jeans. He’d gotten another bag of popcorn too.

Eighth inning. Home team down, 6-11. Home team on the field.

Old Joe and Polly had migrated to the announcer’s box. The announcer was a man named Harry Plattsmith. Polly grew huffy about revealing the doll in front of him, but Old Joe dismissed her protests. Harry was one of them in the end; Willa’s magics had helped him lose eighty pounds after all.

Harry eyed the doll then pretended it was invisible.

It was a remarkable little wonder. About as long as Joe’s forearm, the doll was made from the black cloth of one of the girl’s shirts. The insides were bags of grass, flowers, earth, and leaves from the girl’s yard, boiled and dried until they formed a dust as heavy as sand. On the doll’s head were three locks of the girl’s hair. Black dots and lines marked the places of possible harm—heart, brain, ribs, knees.

All of this was the reason the doll cost them pints of blood, two hogs, six errands, three weekend trips, one ball of hair from the shower drain, an eighth teaspoon of tears, a coin.

Willa made the doll all on her own, which included sneaking around the girl’s house, gathering bags of ingredients, breaking in, cutting hair with a silence equaling that of the bedroom walls, and growing the hair back before the girl could notice. Not to mention staying up all night to treat the earthen materials. Polly was surprised Willa was awake enough to come out for the game. Then again, she wasn’t quite human.

Polly eyed the door and stairs for anyone unwelcome.

She was ten years older than Old Joe, and the one who knew Willa first. The position of town queen could have belonged to Polly, but she didn’t want it. She hadn’t the stamina for protecting the town’s life year after year. Part-time teaching was enough. Instead, she crept in and out of the group’s activities according to humor.

Polly shooed away the reporter with the polo. He was desperate for an interview from one of Joe’s secret guard. Refused again. Polly shooed kindly, though; he looked some like her son Daniel.

Polly’s first encounter with Willa was to save Daniel from a bad case of the fever when he was eight. All she had to do in return was grow a tomato plant in her garden and water it with the boys’ urine until his fever was gone, after which she was to use water. Spells were so cheap back then.

The crowd hushed at another of the girl’s faked attempts. Polly held her breath. Old Joe scoffed; she’d had enough. She took the silver pin in her fingers.

The girl’s neck was getting tired from playing at this lie. Two more outs and it would be over. The coach would try to make her Courtesy Runner for the pitcher when the team took their turn at bat, but she wouldn’t look then. And the team would lose.

A clover glistened to her right. There was another at the back of the field by the pole with exposed wires marked by a white plastic fork.

They sparkled three shades of green in darkening sequence, blinking slowly in the plucker’s direction. Sometimes the girl thought she heard tinkling bells call her name. Whenever she picked one from the ground, electricity fizzed through her fingertips, down her arm to quake her heart then rattle her ribcage and buzz the rest of the way to her feet and shoes where the luck would dissipate into the rest of the team and then, the town.

The luck began with the touch, her touch, she’d mused once, which had led to the idea of saving the clovers for other moments, other people.

It wasn’t long before she was visiting the field in the early mornings, fog and dew early, when not even the old folk were awake and she could pluck in peace. But she would pluck with tweezers in the morning, slipping the glittering clovers into a ziploc, and touch them with her spelled fingers later on.

The first stolen clover she used on a first date that she desperately wanted to go perfectly. The second was for a day of writing scholarship applications—two funds had already replied in her favor. The third on a random night just to see what happened—that first date guy told her he loved her. After that, the girl felt guilty for using luck on herself. She hung around the library and listened to the librarian gossip, at Russ’ to hear the barkeep whispers, then the Hallmark store for the best juice of all.

The girl took the tidbits—soon to be foreclosed homes, kids with sick parents, parents with late bills, failing businesses—and visited the gossiped ones to say, in the most delicate way possible, “I can give you a clover’s luck on the day of your choosing. Do you want it?”

The girl was unexpectedly sly. The girl was getting away with it.

Until the softball game when she realized she’d not left a lucky clover in the field to win the game. That was when two guys, Rob and Kevin, started following her around in a rusty red truck that smelled of hogs. They followed her to gossip scouts and victim meetings. They hung around the field at odd hours, hours she needed. What did they want?

The girl finally marched right up to the truck one humid afternoon. She wanted to know what she’d done wrong. Had she broken some rule? If so, she would have believed them and stopped the misbehavior immediately. But then she saw Kevin.

One night years ago, she remembered, a kidnapping, black tar down her throat, being buried alive, screaming until her throat was raw, clawing at the boards. Her fingernails peeled off. She painted the boards in red. She kicked the red, punched and kneed. One of them broke. Earth, roots, and wriggling worms piled onto her feet—

The bruise on the girl’s side ached. She pressed her hand against it and began to act again. Look left, look right, lean a foot forward.

Kevin was alone by the outfield fences. Rob was in the stands between Mrs. Olsen and Principal Menning. Oh how far the evil had spread. The girl smothered a hiss.

The pain again, this time at her sternum. Strange, Nancy and Menning hadn’t kicked her there. She cleared her throat, which irritated the pain, sent it frothing and bubbling into new places. Her ungloved hand pressed, as if to hold the pain down. She winced.

It traveled to her heart now, a rip and a tear. She couldn’t breathe. The pain made it impossible. Breathing in would set her guts exploding out her chest, burst the tear open further. The girl turned to a teammate and mouthed, “Help.” But the teammate was confused.

The girl collapsed. A deep navy sky and sharp field lights faded in and out of the black sea that seemed to be washing over her body.

Then a hand touched the girl’s shoulder. She opened her eyes to see one of her teachers, the athletic director, Mr. Tusston. Isaac. His head blotted out three of the suns above. Not suns, field lights. His eyes were kind, his voice full of coos.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Not so good,” the girl said. “Where’s coach?”

“Not yet,” he whispered. “First, we need you to pick one of the clovers.”

Her heart almost stopped, and not because of the pin hovering in Old Joe’s hand above the heart dot on the doll’s cloth body. He was one of them, she realized.

“You too?” she asked, she choked.

Isaac sighed, glancing over to the group, to the vague souls here and there who would also help if asked. “Me,” he admitted, “and many others. You’re going to help the town now.”

The girl shook her head. Tears slipped from her eyes with each turn.

In the stands, the crowd had their theories: The girl was telling Mr. Tusston that she was out. She was playing sick. She couldn’t take the pressure of being a picker on this last game with all the reporters and photographers. The reporter whose name they forgot weighed the theories, brainstorming sentences, titles, and tag lines for each as he snapped photo after photo of the girl crying to the athletic director. Maybe the man would give him an interview later, tell him what she said.

Menning and Nancy exchanged a look across Rob, who was munching on a roll of Sweettarts now. Willa was inscrutable. Her eyes were red and tired, but unemotional, her curls waved softly in light breezes.

Isaac looked up and nodded to the announcer’s box. The crowd thought it meant she would pull through and started clapping wildly. But the group from Willa’s knew the nod was for Old Lady Joe, to halt her pins, matches, and wrench.

The girl stood up and the crowd clapped louder. Isaac said a few parting words and left her on the field. The ref conferred that all was okay, blew the whistle, and the game returned to play. The town was ready.

She offered no pretense.

She didn’t wait for a batter or two to step up to the plate so it wouldn’t seem so obvious. No, as soon as the whistle sounded, she turned a specific number of degrees, walked a specific number of steps, knelt down, and plucked the sparkling thing.

It happened as it used to: green-colored luck burst through four clover petals into the girl’s fingers, flaring up and down her limbs, along the strands of her flaxen hair, into her bones, to her toes, through her shoes and into the earth. Chills ran up the home team’s spines, raising little goosebumps and straightening little hairs. Then the electric magic slammed into the crowd, those on stands, hills, and fences, and onward into oblivion. The luck had been plucked. The girl left the field. The crowd cheered the stride of a nameless girl once buried in the earth to give them their joy.

From here it would be quick—three strikes, the switch, a home run for two runs, another for three, and two final plays before the clock runs out making the final score 13-11. Home team for the win. The screams would be deafening, the flashes blinding.

Nancy, Rob, and Menning climbed down from their places. Polly and Old Lady Joe too. Isaac completed their little circle behind the bleachers as the inning finished. They smiled at each other, even Old Joe. They could see the article titles now: Clover Field Gets Lucky Again, Lady Luck Returns to Clover Field, Leprechaun Sighted on Clover Field. And then the following summer: Clover Field Strikes Again – Eight Game Streak. Old Joe and Isaac were already dreaming up reasons to give reporters for the three losses. Something about a passing comet maybe, or a black cat living in the concession stand. Whatever it was, it would be okay. Give it five years and the money would be flowing the same.

The black box with the doll sat on the ground beside Old Joe. Ten fingers wrapped around it—

“Hey,” Old Joe called, seeing the theft from the corner of her eye. But her voice caught, out of surprise and not fear. It was the girl.

The girl pulled the doll from its felt bag and box and examined its details. She recognized the shirt. She saw the hair and fished around her own.

“Give that back,” Rob said. He was top heavy, but the girl could outrun him.

“No,” she bit back.

“Oh, I don’t care,” Old Joe growled. “We’re done with her. The magic will fade from her fingers in two months or so. Your time has passed, young thing.”

“My name is Dawn,” the girl said. Her features sharpened at that, as if her name was a magic word. Isaac noticed she had grey-blue eyes like a cold sunrise sky. Nancy noticed she had a scar along her left eyebrow—possibly another source of her unpredictability, a detail they had missed in selecting her.

“So?” Rob asked.

“So, I promise you won’t forget my name this time.”

The girl ran.

The group stared after, unsure and maybe two bones shaken. Nancy’s hand slipped into Menning’s. That reporter approached Old Joe for a post-pluck interview. Polly sent him away again. Children with blue mustaches laughed, teens kissed under the field lights.

10:07 pm

Kevin idled in his beat-up truck. The seats and floor mats smelled like his farms. His hair did too. He always wondered if other people smelled the hogs on him. That’s what first got him going to Willa’s; the odor of fresh brewed coffee every fifteen minutes, the pork grease, smells of sizzling beef for lunch always managed to overwhelm his own.

A country song strummed of melancholy wafted from the speakers.

Once the doll was brought out and Old Joe in the announcer’s box, Kevin had left his spot at the fences. He planned on judging the outcome by the home team’s reactions as they filed into the parking lot. He would leave with the first of them once he knew.

To his surprise, it was Willa who was first across the gravel, pulling out her car keys. He never knew she had a car, having imagined she traveled by teleportation instead, or at least one of the brooms from her cafe, the vacuum even—he saw that in a movie once.

The sorceress looked a bit spooky in the dark, Kevin thought. He was used to veils that made her seem like them—the cafe air, the metal spatula in her hand whenever she came from the kitchen the waitresses weren’t allowed in, the island in front of her grill covered in mixing bowls, spice jars, buckets of flour and sugars that were really cauldrons and spell ingredients. Sometimes Willa would heat up a spell when the cafe was still open and a strange smell would lay over the bacon and eggs. He always liked that.

Willa started her car. Kevin didn’t know, but her coin had turned molten.

The first of the fans spilled through. The ones he recognized were suited in giant smiles and giddy arms. The ones he didn’t wore slouches and furrowed brows. Home team won after all. The doll had worked.

Kevin started his car in turn, ready to follow Willa onto Johnson Street—

A car smashed into Willa’s. The sound was an explosion; the metal and glass wandered far. Kevin flinched when three shards hit his windshield.

The girl wanted revenge and she got it. She figured the final piece when she saw them celebrating. Only two people would have been absent: the coward who made the mistake and the witch who sold the magic. Willa was the latter, the way to bring them down.

She clutched the recent clover in her hand as she sped off—she took that from them too so even if they found another sorceress, they wouldn’t have the freshest clover with which to brew a new spell. She had three suitcases in the back of her car and two still-lucked clovers in a ziploc to employ when needed. Also five friends in various states ready to house her, one who happened to know about magic.

She was a sly girl, that one. All those books and thoughts did her well. Blood, fingernails, tears, sanity. If you pay enough, you get enough.

Kevin didn’t stick around to see the others come running, to see that reporter sneak photos and brainstorm the phrase Clover Field Wins, Patron Loses, to see the ambulance and the rescue attempt, then be part of a scavenger hunt through Willa’s house to find the address of another sorceress. They would clutch each other, try to figure out who’d done the worse thing. But it would be no use.

The crutches of the town had been snapped in two. Kevin was glad he lived in the country, relied on his farm instead of Main Street shops and high school press.

He turned out of the lot. He switched the radio station to something of cheer. He should have been sad, maybe. But he felt rather happy as he drove down unsuspecting streets to the highway where he passed by the girl as she tried to look normal. Kevin waved with a smile.

He remembered now: Dawn was her name.

In Glamourglass Court

By Maigen Turner

Detective Inspector Mordan leaned back in his chair and frowned at the tidy stack of paper before him. The Lacey investigation had grown into a distinctly untidy mass of accusations, counter-accusations, and contradictory evidence, punctuated by a thorough lack of respect for the laws against murder and littering. The problem with humanity, Mordan had long ago decided, was its lack of respect for law. The world would be a far more orderly place if people stopped putting personal concerns ahead of duty and justice.

Quick footsteps crossed the hall outside. Mordan straightened, aware of dawn’s grey light seeping through his window. Good news rarely arrived so early.

“Sir.” A stout-boned woman halted in the doorway. She tucked her helmet under one arm, her blue tunic rain-spotted in the gaslights’ glow. Mordan gave her the nod to speak. “I’m Constable Kerr, sir, from Isleton Street. Commander Brant sent for you. We’ve a body in Safton Circle.”

Mordan let his eyes narrow. Safton Circle lay halfway across the city, and the local patrols were quite capable of handling fresh corpses. Indeed, in that section of the capital, it was an unusual morning when they failed to encounter any. There were only two sorts for which they would summon Mordan.

“Do you have a dead wizard,” he said, “or someone killed by a wizard?”

The constable’s upper lip twitched, wanting to curl, but her voice remained even. “A wizard, sir. The commander thinks he’s from Clan VanMere. Shot to death, so far as we can tell, sometime last night.”

Mordan rose and lifted his leather case of tools from its shelf. VanMere? Interesting. Usually they were more courteous than to end their disputes in the public squares. Cavenaugh would have scathing things to say. If internal Clan politics had led to the death, though, at least Mordan’s unofficial partner would be a reliable source of information on them.

“Has anyone summoned VanMere Richard Cavenaugh?” Mordan asked.

Constable Kerr shifted her weight back, not quite bracing herself. “It’s his gun they found at the scene, sir.”

Mordan stiffened, sharp questions caught on his breath. The constable stared at the oak paneling behind him.

“Commander Brant says the dead man looks to be someone else, sir, and there’s a gun in his own holster, but no one can be sure of anything and they want you to look it over as soon as possible.” She cleared her throat. “There’s a hansom cab waiting, sir.”

Mordan snatched up his hat and strode past the constable with a haste just shy of indecent.

Mordan ducked under the ropes strung across the street. The constables guarding them gave him harassed nods; the traffic around Safton Circle was both snarled and snarling, as trapped wagoneers expressed their opinion of the route closure. Mordan regretted the necessity, but they dared not open the area until it had been cleansed of magic. Though wizards infected others primarily through sexual contact, objects might be contaminated by simple exposure.

Especially to something like, say, a wizard’s spattered lifeblood.

Mordan tightened his jaw and scanned Safton Circle. He spotted Commander Brant, a man whose figure bore unmistakeable resemblance to a wine barrel, flanked by two others in dark police coats. They stood beside one of the narrow brick buildings that ringed Safton Circle. Those had been old and fine houses, a century ago; now smoke from the nearby factories stained their walls, and they served as shabby but sturdy warehouses. The area must be deserted at night, Mordan judged, which rendered it convenient for any number of illegal activities.

He crossed the cobbles toward Brant, soot crunching underfoot. Also from the factories, Mordan was inclined to suspect. VanMere magic rarely involved fire or its side effects.

“Detective Inspector,” Brant said as soon as Mordan entered earshot. “Welcome. I had officers go about, but no witnesses made themselves known. All evidence of the crime seems confined to the immediate area.”

Brant saw no point to idle chatter, one of the qualities Mordan appreciated about the man.

“I thought you’d want to see this first,” Brant added, and extended a hand. Over his palm stretched a linen handkerchief, and atop it lay an ivory-handled pistol.

Mordan leaned closer, not touching it. Likely enough people had already handled it to destroy any useful residue, but he need not add to the mix. “This was found near the body?”

“Two strides away.” Brant’s voice slowed. “I recognized VanMere Cavenaugh’s sigil from the Lastninth Bridge case you and he worked, do you recall?”

“Quite.” Four years ago, Mordan noted; Brant’s memory matched his sharp eye. Mordan studied the sigil inked into the pistol’s hilt. The crossed knife and half-mask marked every VanMere enforcer, but only one ringed them with V.M.R.C. in flourishing copperplate style.

Mordan straightened. “And the corpse in question?”

Brant led him around the building’s corner. A streetlamp burned there, not yet extinguished, and beside it a man’s shape lay curled. The cobbles around him sparkled silver with broken glass.

Mordan caught himself trying to make out the wizard’s face. He scowled; appearance was guarantor of nothing, among VanMere, and he ought to focus on the task at hand.

He pulled out a notebook and recorded observations of the scene. The constables who’d discovered the body had scuffed trails through the glass, destroying any hint of its original pattern. They had, fortunately, failed to step into the pooled blood; Mordan disliked having to confiscate boots for burning. He might need to anyway, though, depending on the glass shards’ nature.

Mordan pulled on his boot covers, canvas sheathes dipped in seawater and dried, then picked his way forward. The broken glass neither whispered nor slithered after his feet: a good sign. He crouched beside the dead wizard.

The man lay sideways, his face turned to the grey sky. Half that face was blood and ruin; the other half showed sharp, bony features. Curls of blond hair strayed over his remaining temple. Mordan inhaled and drew a vial of salt from his pocket.

He sprinkled a pinch over the wizard’s face, watching for the shimmer of a disturbed illusion, a shift of mis-reflected light.

A second pinch of salt followed the first. The wizard’s cheeks did not broaden; his hair did not darken to gold-brown. The crossed leaf and half-mask on his coat lapels did not alter to knife and half-mask.

Mordan pressed his elbows to his knees, head bowed. It was not Cavenaugh, lying here dead in the drizzle.

He capped the vial of salt, his knuckles only a little white, and in his notebook carefully wrote unknown wizard of Clan VanMere. The metallic scent of blood and rain weighted the air.

Given that Cavenaugh was alive, or at least that his corpse was not presently decorating Mordan’s crime scene, the question grew more pressing: why was his pistol here?

“Please send a messenger for VanMere Cavenaugh, if you would,” Mordan said over his shoulder. Brant, watching from the corner, nodded and stepped away.

Mordan donned his gloves, cotton stiff with seawater, before touching the dead wizard. His predecessor had neglected such niceties, which resulted in a remarkable demise involving suffocation by shadow. Mordan turned the stiff corpse onto its back and began going through its pockets.

Those revealed nothing of interest, only the usual supplies a VanMere might carry–coins, twigs, scraps of silk. Mordan logged them in his notebook. The wizard’s hands were covered in small cuts, damage consistent with a mirror-based defensive spell. His pistol contained the full six rounds; no blood smeared its oak handle. He’d had no time to draw it after his spell’s destruction, or had been otherwise constrained from doing so. If he knew his killer, perhaps he’d expected a chance to plead for his life.

“There’s a bloody lot of traffic out there,” a deep voice said. “I ought to have known you were responsible, Mordan.”

Mordan packed up his tools and stood. “Cavenaugh.” The tall enforcer ambled toward him, flanked by a pair of Brant’s constables. “I apologize for summoning you from your bed, Richard.”

Cavenaugh slowed, brows drawing in. They never called one another by given name, which–Mordan tracked the comprehension in Cavenaugh’s face–made it a test of identity.

“Well,” the wizard said. “Among VanMere, as you say, appearance is guarantor of nothing. Good morning, Mordan.”

Mordan released a breath. An imposter might have replied with Mordan’s first name, Mordecai, or let the remark pass unchallenged; few but the true Cavenaugh would navigate the exchange correctly. Even Brant, head bent as he lit a cigarette, frowned at his matches in puzzlement.

“Welcome,” Mordan said. “Would you care to identify your comrade?”

Cavenaugh stepped to Mordan’s side, leather duster swinging, and studied the tableau of blood and glass.

“Cyril Gillivray,” he said. “Someone finally shot him, then. Can’t say I’ll weep over it.”

Behind the wizard Brant lifted his head, eyes narrowed, and exhaled a drift of smoke.

Mordan kept his expression neutral. “He was your enemy?”

Cavenaugh shrugged. “Mine and half the Clan’s. I’d not be surprised if he earned enemies in every other Clan, too. Cyril had a knack that way.”

“Do you know his business here last night?”

“No.” Cavenaugh frowned at the body. “His patron was Charles Gillivray. That one might have a notion.”

“And where were you last night?” Mordan asked.

Cavenaugh slid the frown sidelong to him. “On private Clan business.”

“Really,” Mordan said. “Would that Clan business explain why we found your pistol beside VanMere Cyril Gillivray’s body?”

Cavenaugh stared, an instant of blank stillness, before alarm jolted his expression. His hands dropped to the gunbelt slung around his hips. When both palms found ivory hilts, he blinked and scowled. “Beg pardon?”

Brant stepped forward, his prize displayed in one outstretched hand. Mordan darkly suspected the commander of latent theatrical tendencies. He restrained a glower, while Cavenaugh squinted at the pistol bearing his sigil.

“Look at the fang scars there,” the wizard said at last. “I know this gun. I lost it years ago.” His frown deepened; he glanced once at the dead man, and his eyes narrowed further. “I lost it up north, before you ask. A pack of us were hunting a rogue. I don’t know who got hold of the gun afterward.”

Mordan stared at him in silence. Cavenaugh tried to match the gaze, but after a moment tilted his face away. Mordan took icy satisfaction that it at least discomfited Cavenaugh to lie to him.

“You might have lost that gun,” he said, “but Cyril Gillivray will wake up and demand tea before I believe you suspect nothing about its path here.”

Cavenaugh pressed his lips thin. “I didn’t shoot Gillivray.”

“No,” Mordan said. “You simply identify the dead man as your enemy, acknowledge the gun as your own, and give your whereabouts last night as ‘on private Clan business.'”

Cavenaugh glared. “Private is private, Mordan. I didn’t shoot Gillivray.”

“And procedure is procedure,” Mordan snapped. With effort he moderated his tone. “I have no choice but to order you taken to the central station house. Commander Brant, please send to Clan VanZharsa for a pair of wizards to escort VanMere Cavenaugh.” Brant outranked him, Mordan remembered, and added, “If you would.”

Brant gave him a dry smile. “And the body?”

“The VanZharsa can also escort it.” VanDrake’s hall was closer, but that Clan needed no encouragement to involve itself in smaller Clans’ affairs. They were the most effective at decontamination, however, given their preference for fire. Mordan surveyed the darkening sky. He’d face a larger mess if rain washed so much wizard blood into the sewers. “Once the scene is cleared, request aid from VanDrake in cleansing it.”

Brant nodded. “You’re departing?”

Cavenaugh, sunk in angry silence, looked over at that. Mordan lifted his leather case of tools. “I go to Clan VanMere’s headquarters,” he said coolly. “Someone must give Charles Gillivray news of his subordinate’s death.”

The Clan hall, formally Glamourglass Court, lay in a neighborhood lined with ancient trees. Cavenaugh maintained that they were ordinary trees; Mordan distrusted any greenery so unnatural as to thrive in the city air.

“Detective Inspector Mordan to speak with VanMere Charles Gillivray,” he told the door guard, an enforcer with Cavenaugh’s height and pale eyes. She waved him into the entry hall. A boy of perhaps ten waited there, equally pale-eyed. Clan VanMere was notorious for drawing its apprentices only from a certain nest of bloodlines. As Mordan understood, the associated families gave their firstborn to be wizards the way others might send a second son to sea, or a third son to the Church. Other Clans mostly drew apprentices from among the street children, those desperate enough to risk magic’s infection and young enough to usually survive.

At the enforcer’s word, the apprentice darted off. He returned shortly and led Mordan to an office of polished wood and marble.

Mordan scanned the room before he crossed its threshold. A man in shirt and waistcoat stood behind the desk; a woman sat in the window alcove, her lap spread with strips of leather. Grey hair marked the man’s temples and lines marked his hands, a multitude of thin scars that matched Cyril Gillivray’s wounds. This VanMere had survived his fights, however.

Mordan stepped forward. “Charles Gillivray?”

“I am,” the man said, and nodded to his companion. “My wife, Sabine Fairfield.”

Mordan removed his hat politely. The woman smiled at him and returned to her tangle of leather–a horse’s bridle, Mordan realized, that she was knotting with rook’s feathers and iron nails. A spell to prevent a rider from going astray, he would guess, although there were less innocuous possibilities.

“Mr. Gillivray,” Mordan said. “You are Cyril Gillivray’s patron?”

Charles Gillivray inclined his head. “I am.”

“I am sorry to inform you that we found him dead this morning,” Mordan said.

Sabine barely glanced up, wisps of golden hair falling about her face. Charles frowned at the air. “Found Cyril dead?” he said eventually. “Found him killed, I presume you mean. He would hardly permit it otherwise.”

“The matter is under investigation,” Mordan said. “What might–”

“Is this why Richard Cavenaugh was called out earlier?” Gillivray said.

Mordan restrained a disapproving stare. Police ought to be the questioners, not the questioned. “VanMere Cavenaugh is assisting us, yes. Which of Cyril’s enemies would you consider most likely to kill him?”

Charles tapped the desk edge, then cast a contemplative look at his wife.

Sabine spat a ribbon into her palm. “It was none of my people.”

Charles shrugged, a cat’s irritated twitch of motion–there, at last, the anger of a Clan lord with a dead subordinate and thus a provocation to his power. He returned his gaze to Mordan. “In that case, Inspector, I advise you to ask Cavenaugh. He and Cyril had a shouting match halfway to knives the other day.”

“In the front hall,” Sabine said, frowning at a cheekpiece. “Eminently tasteless. Though if Richard Cavenaugh chose to commit murder, I’d expect a crime too clever to be identified as such.”

Mordan, caught between offense and agreement, occupied his hands pulling out a notebook. A fight between Cyril and Cavenaugh–an unwelcome fact, if true. Did Gillivray know about Cavenaugh’s gun at the scene? Perhaps he had ordered his own subordinate’s death and was using it to incriminate an enemy enforcer.

It was a comforting theory, which meant it was most likely false.

“What did they fight about?” Mordan said.

“Clan business.” Charles narrowed his eyes. “As is this entire matter, Inspector. We apologize for the inconvenience to which you’ve been put. The Clan will deal with this issue further.”

“Convenience is irrelevant to pursuit of the law,” Mordan said sharply. “Despite your opinion, Mr. Gillivray, wizard Clans are in fact subject to the legal code. This matter will be fully investigated and the appropriate actions taken.”

“You may certainly attempt to do so.” Charles Gillivray consulted a pocket watch on a plain silver chain. “I wish you good day, Inspector.”

There were many responses Mordan might have made, and several he was tempted to. Instead he bid the pair a polite farewell–Sabine looked up from her spellwork long enough to nod in return–and made his way out to the central staircase.

Another wizard leaned against the banister. Mordan slowed warily. The man watched the coin he was flipping, a piece that flashed gold. He caught it in his palm, displayed a bronze penny, and slid it into his coat.

“So,” he said. “I hear Cyril Gillivray is dead.”

“Thomas Cavenaugh.” Mordan halted, appreciative: the Cavenaugh faction head had recalled the signal to prove his identity. “You are informed correctly. I was about to send for you.”

The wizard slanted a glance at Mordan, any expression hidden by a face as weather-creased as a sailor’s. “Oh?”

“What did Richard Cavenaugh and Cyril Gillivray argue about the other day?”

“Clan business,” Thomas said.

There had been a fight, then. “What was the nature of that business?”

Thomas sighed and folded his arms. “The Gillivrays are involved in the sort of enterprises that earn our Clan an unsavory name, Inspector. If you want further detail than that”–malice touched his voice–“isn’t your own Cavenaugh answering?”

The VanMere facility with appearance lent itself to illegal yet lucrative activities, for those so inclined: smuggling, sabotage, untraceable assassination. Mordan considered it in grim silence. Richard Cavenaugh felt strongly enough about magical wrongdoing to consistently aid officers of the law, despite his allies’ disapproval and every wizard Clan’s opinion on siding with outsiders. Now a man deeply involved in such crimes was dead after a personal clash with him.

“A last item.” Mordan kept his voice neutral. “Where was Richard last night?”

Thomas Cavenaugh, old VanMere, paused hardly a moment before giving Mordan a pleasant smile. “A fair question. I’ll ask around, Inspector.”

The rawest constable could translate that: Cavenaugh’s own kin didn’t know if he’d shot Cyril Gillivray, but by sunset there’d be five wizards willing to swear to his innocent whereabouts.

Mordan made a rather chilly farewell and went back to the station house.

Cavenaugh’s guard was a lean woman as dark as the VanMere were fair. The two-headed firebird of VanZharsa emblazoned her black coat, its scarlet vivid against the cell block’s grey stone.

“Your partner?” Mordan asked.

“Helping examine the corpse,” she said dispassionately, and unbolted the cell door.

Cavenaugh sat at a scarred wooden table, arms folded. They’d confiscated his coat and weapons, but had not inflicted the indignity of manacles. Mordan crossed to the chair facing him and sat.

“Where were you last night?”

Cavenaugh gazed past him. “On Clan business.”

Another lie, Mordan now knew. He drew out his notebook and laid it on the table, and aligned their edges with stricter care than necessary. “I spoke with Thomas.” His voice came out almost even. “Clan business of which your own faction-head is unaware, Cavenaugh?”

The enforcer glanced at him and away, a flick of guilty apology. “My whereabouts have nothing to do with your murder investigation, Mordan. I swear it.”

Cavenaugh had already lied to him at least twice, Mordan did not point out. “According to others, you recently had a notable fight with Cyril Gillivray.”

Cavenaugh scowled. “That. Yes. I’d almost gathered sufficient testimony to have him up on charges before the Clan. Then I lost my witnesses.”

“Lost?” Mordan said, lifting his head sharply.

“Cyril did nothing physically or magically to them.” Cavenaugh narrowed his eyes. “But all mysteriously decided they had been mistaken about crucial events.”

Mordan grimaced in commiseration, before he remembered he was still angry with Cavenaugh. “That instigated the fight?”

“The fight, yes. But I didn’t shoot the man.” Cavenaugh glowered at the air, or perhaps the memory of Gillivray. “A lot of people would’ve liked to. Cyril was ambitious enough even Charles Gillivray might have seen the advantage.”

“An easy explanation,” Mordan agreed. One that did nothing to account for Cavenaugh’s reticence about his whereabouts. He tapped his pencil on the page, staccato irritation. “You suspect something about your gun’s path there. Who had it?”

“I don’t know,” Cavenaugh said, and at Mordan’s glare shook his head. “I don’t. There were six of us up north, when I lost it, and most answered to different kin-heads. My pistol could have made its way to any of them.” He folded his arms tighter. “I can’t tell if this incident was specific or general–if it was intended toward me, or if my gun and the argument with Cyril merely provided a convenient means to stir trouble between the Cavenaughs and Gillivrays.”

“Hm.” Mordan scrutinized his partner. “Who would gain from that?”

Cavenaugh frowned. “Charles Gillivray, possibly. In the Clan’s eyes he’d have the right to retaliate.”

And likely not by a legal method. Mordan sniffed and noted the reply, then listed the other VanMere Clan heads. “What about Thomas Cavenaugh?”

“Picking a fight against himself?” Cavenaugh squinted. “If he wanted to provoke a war with Charles Gillivray, I can think of more useful attacks.”

Mordan consulted his list. “Charles Gillivray, Thomas Cavenaugh. What of Sabine Fairfield? Would she gain from conflict?”

Cavenaugh’s brows twitched. “Maybe so,” he said, after a moment. He shrugged and uncrossed his arms. “Maybe so.”

Mordan, mouth already open to ask about Robert Kelling, another VanMere power, halted his question. That easing of Cavenaugh’s posture, the defensive stance unfolded, seemed more relief than should greet merely a new line of inquiry.

“Sabine,” Mordan said again, more slowly.

The skin around Cavenaugh’s eyes tightened. He’d wanted her passed over, included among the guilty–and why should he be glad she was suspected, unless it prevented suspicion of something else. Mordan considered Sabine Fairfield’s bright gaze and elegant hands, and reasons Cavenaugh might hide his whereabouts of a night.

“Really, Cavenaugh,” he said. “Another man’s wife?”

Cavenaugh set his jaw. Mordan sighed. He enforced temporal law, not spiritual, but there were standards of decency.
He tapped his notebook. “You may as well speak. I’ll have the facts out eventually.”

Cavenaugh glared at Mordan, the wall, the profile of the VanZharsa wizard. Voices filtered from the cell block down the hall. “I confess,” he said.

Mordan stared. “I beg your pardon?”

Cavenaugh folded his arms. “Cyril and I argued over private Clan matters. We decided to settle it with an unregistered duel. I won.”

Mordan continued to stare, disbelief pinning his voice. Cavenaugh not only lied to Mordan, he now sought to mislead justice itself? A false confession was an affront to all, a betrayal of truth that worked to divert the law’s rightful course. It protected the guilty; it punished the innocent. It contravened every principle under which he and Cavenaugh served.

“Write it down, Mordan.” Cavenaugh stared past him, jaw tense. “Please.”

“I will not participate in your willful perversion of this inquiry.” Mordan gripped his pencil. “What possible reason–”

Cavenaugh canted forward, chair scraping, fast enough to draw a warning hiss from the VanZharsa. He pressed his palms flat to the table. “Mordan, the Clan cannot learn that Sabine and a Cavenaugh enforcer were consorting.”

Over petty deceits, he betrayed the law. “Why?” Mordan said bitterly. “You fear for Sabine’s reputation?”

Cavenaugh glared at the wall. “The Cavenaughs and the Fairfields are blood enemies, Mordan. As soon as they discover this, our kin will start killing each other over the dishonor.”

“How splendidly barbaric.”

Cavenaugh shrugged, a tight jerk of his shoulders. “The feud’s a century old. Someone broke a deal, someone else got shot, and the retaliation involved an associated-family’s massacre. VanMere don’t forgive that. There’s been plenty of blood since.”

Mordan gave him a withering look. Under such circumstances, his and Sabine’s decision constituted a remarkable piece of folly. Mordan could not bring himself to comment on Cavenaugh’s choices, much less his moral integrity, and so only said, “This has nothing to do with Cyril Gillivray. Once I establish the gun was out of your possession–”

“How, Mordan?” Cavenaugh clenched his fists on the table. “You may seek evidence, but any discussion of the scene elicits the very question I dare not answer.” He looked away, voice low. “I cannot risk my cousins over this.”

“And so you ask me to abandon the truth,” Mordan said, “and accept a confession I know for false?”

“Yes,” Cavenaugh said.

Mordan stared at him, words strangling in his throat. “A man is dead,” he managed at last. “His murder deserves an honest and impartial inquiry, the same as any other. The law requires no less.”

Cavenaugh shook his head, shoulders an unhappy hunch, but kept his silence.

“The law is the law.” Mordan rose, his spine so stiff it ached. “My investigation proceeds as it must.”

Cavenaugh watched the wall. Mordan gathered his notebook and dignity, straightened his coat, and crossed to the cell door. The VanZharsa extended her hand.

Mordan offered his own. She pricked his fingertip with a silver needle, her face professionally distant, and tapped the drop of blood into her palm. The blood ignited, a candle’s brief flame. Whatever secrets of identity it revealed to the wizard remained obscure to Mordan, but she nodded and stepped aside.

Mordan tipped his hat and went to see what knowledge her partner had gleaned from the corpse.

“Not much, I’m afraid.” The other VanZharsa rubbed his chin and frowned at Cyril Gillivray’s body. It lay seemingly untouched on the stone slab, though the cellar reeked of cinnamon and burnt feathers. “I can tell you someone intended that outcome, though. There was salt all over the man.”

Mordan tensed. “I sprinkled a little on his face, to ascertain his identity.” Had he destroyed his own evidence?

The VanZharsa tapped callused fingers on the slab. “Unless you flung a double handful over the corpse, the damage was already present. Rain touched it all as well. I could hardly tell the dead man cast the mirror-spell, much less who broke it.”

Mordan scowled at the ivory-handled pistol beside Gillivray’s body. “What of the gun?”

The VanZharsa grimaced. “Too much rainwater and handling destroyed any hint of its wielder. It was indisputably used to kill this wizard, though. There was a strong taste-correspondence between it and the bullet I called from his skull.”

Against the far wall, the coroner’s deputy shifted and looked slightly pale around the lips. Mordan cast a grim look at Cavenaugh’s gun. So ended the hope that it had simply been planted at the scene, not used in the crime.

“I thank you for your assistance,” Mordan told the VanZharsa. “Please write up your tests and findings in a thorough report, then dispatch the corpse to Clan VanDrake for burning.” He turned toward the stairwell. “And I expect a receipt for its arrival there,” he added.

The wizard gave a faint, regretful sigh. Trafficking and use of wizard body parts was strictly illegal, but no VanZharsa would voluntarily let such a trove pass from his hands.

Mordan returned to the upper hall, pondering his options in frustration. Perhaps he could determine the wizards present on that long-ago mission, and thereby trace their patrons–

A man with a soldier’s bearing stepped from the side passage. Mordan glimpsed silver shoulder insignia, an instant of warning, and smoothed his expression.

“Detective Inspector,” said Lord Pryor, high commander of the watch and Mordan’s immediate superior. “Just the man I hoped to find. I am informed that you have a dead wizard in the cellar, and not one but three live wizards wandering my station house.”

“Sir,” Mordan said. “Technically one of those wizards is confined.”

“Any damages are coming out of your department budget, Inspector.”

“Of course, sir.”

Pryor tamped down the tobacco in his pipe, then gave Mordan a flat stare. “I want this resolved as soon as possible.”

“Sir.” Mordan swallowed and stared back. Pryor would take acute interest in Cavenaugh’s confession, should he learn of it. “My inquiries are proceeding, sir.”

Pryor’s clerk approached and murmured in his ear. The commander grunted. “A correction, Inspector. It seems there are now four live wizards in my station house.”

Mordan tensed. “Sir?”

“One is visiting your prisoner, it seems. Gave the name of Thomas Cavenaugh.” Pryor stepped aside. “Do carry on, Inspector.”

Mordan hastened down to Cavenaugh’s cell. The two VanMere stood within it, facing each other stiff as angry cats, while the VanZharsa looked on. Mordan slowed, his pulse still fast.

“–a fool, Richard,” Thomas Cavenaugh said, before he spotted Mordan and fell silent. He turned a last glare on his kinsman and stalked out, halting just long enough to let the VanZharsa burn a drop of blood.

The VanZharsa watched him go, then waved Mordan into the cell. Richard Cavenaugh leaned against its stone wall and folded his arms.

Mordan resisted the urge to fold his own. “Thomas doesn’t approve of your plan to enjoy Westmoor Prison?”

Cavenaugh’s jaw worked. “Seven years isn’t so long.”

“That is irrelevant,” Mordan said sharply. “It does not matter whether you are sentenced for illegal dueling or executed for murder. You did not commit the killing in question, and so punishment is unjust.”

Cavenaugh blinked, his scowl losing definition. He eyed Mordan sidelong. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m executed?”

“If you committed murder, I would escort you to the gallows myself,” Mordan snapped. “And if I committed murder, I hope you would do the same.”

Cavenaugh smiled. “Fair enough.” The smile faded, and he bent his head. After a long breath he said, “Thomas and the others would provide an alibi. So long as I told them my true whereabouts last night.”

And thus caused the very outcome he feared. Mordan considered him, tight-lipped. Cavenaugh was stubborn as a bulldog, he well knew. Even if Mordan turned up evidence indicating the actual killer, Cavenaugh would maintain his confession to safeguard his kin. What jury could be asked to disregard a man who claimed guilt and convict one who claimed innocence? Mordan needed to debunk Cavenaugh’s story entirely.

There was, he realized, a wizard quite capable of doing so.

Mordan crossed to the cell door, not looking at Cavenaugh. “If you will not remove yourself, there remains one person who may.” The VanZharsa pricked his finger and performed her test.

“Mordan?” Cavenaugh said warily.

Mordan stepped past the VanZharsa, then forced himself to look back. “Perhaps Sabine Fairfield will care to render assistance.”

Cavenaugh shoved away from the wall, eyes wide. “Mordan, don’t!” The cell door slammed shut, a harsh clang as Mordan turned away, and Cavenaugh’s voice mingled with the echoes. “Mordan. Mordan!”

Mordan set his jaw and strode onward.

The halls of Glamourglass Court remained tranquil, even at midday. An apprentice fetched Mordan upstairs to a door painted pale green.

VanMere Sabine Fairfield answered it at the first knock. Or at least, Mordan corrected, someone wearing her face and blue walking dress did. “Good day, Inspector. May I ask your purpose?”

He removed his hat. “Merely some further questions on the death of Cyril Gillivray, Mistress Fairfield.”

She tilted her head, unsmiling. “I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time. As you heard this morning, I know nothing about the matter.”

Mordan held her gaze. “I find that unlikely, given your associates.”

Only the true Sabine would know he referred to Cavenaugh, not the Gillivrays. She regarded him a long moment, then opened the door wide.

Mordan concealed relief. The first hedge cleared: he’d had no promise she would not claim Clan business and leave Cavenaugh to his own fate.

He stepped past Sabine into her office, or perhaps workroom, given the assortment of objects on shelves. She latched the door and gestured him to the room’s center.

Mordan obeyed, matching her silence. She lifted an item from her desk–a scarlet object that appeared variously a knife, a stone, and a cord–and circled the chamber once. Upon completing the circuit, she turned the mirror above her desk so its glass faced the wall.

Sabine tucked the red item, now a feather, into her chignon. “Speak freely, Inspector.”

Mordan folded his hands behind his back, throat dry. He might speak freely, but if he spoke wrongly he would never gain her cooperation. “An old gun of Richard Cavenaugh’s was used to kill Cyril Gillivray,” he said. “Under questioning, Cavenaugh confessed to an unlawful duel rather than reveal he spent the time with you.”

Sabine’s face remained still. “I see.”

“I do not know what attachment lies between you and Cavenaugh,” Mordan said carefully, “but–”

Sabine turned such a venomous stare on him that he froze, afraid she would order him out. “What is your request, Inspector?”

“I have no evidence to disprove Cavenaugh’s claim.” Mordan realized he was clutching his hat brim, and forced his fingers to loosen before he crushed it. “Another wizard murdered Gillivray, Mistress Fairfield, but as it stands Cavenaugh will absorb the guilt. Illegal dueling earns seven years in prison.”

Sabine studied him, her lips thin. Considering seven years, Mordan hoped, spent far away and cold.

“That is not a request,” she said.

“I ask you to offer your own statement,” Mordan said. “You know Cavenaugh did not kill Cyril Gillivray. Who did?”

She puffed air through her nostrils, a faint scornful snort. “My wager would be Robert Kelling. He’s ambitious, and he would gain from tension between the Gillivrays and Cavenaughs.” Her gaze sharpened. “But I have no evidence, Inspector. My statement could not help trap the guilty.”

“No,” Mordan said, and swallowed. “But it could free an innocent man.” He gripped his hat tighter. “Cavenaugh told me of the blood feud. I understand what you risk, Mistress Fairfield, and I do not discount it.” Cousins that were close as siblings, parents, children: the nearest family a wizard ever had. Their actions were their own, but Cavenaugh would never forgive him the bloodshed. “I still ask you to speak the truth.”

Sabine turned her face aside. She did not dismiss him, however, and long moments slid past. Serpent hope stirred in Mordan’s chest. Sabine cast him a sidelong glance, once, twice, before she lifted her chin in sudden decision.

“This choice is not mine only.” She turned a clear-eyed stare on Mordan. “Richard has spoken of you, Inspector. Tell me: what does he wish?”

Mordan went still. Cavenaugh wished none of this; Mordan remembered the shouts after him, the desperate cry. That mattered nothing to justice. He ought to tell Sabine that Cavenaugh wished freedom, that he required only Sabine’s permission and aid. It was not illegal for police to lie to civilians.

Sabine would speak, if Mordan pressed her. He ought to do so, in pursuit of the law; he ought to leave Glamourglass Court with her statement written and signed and irrevocable. It would serve justice. It would destroy Cavenaugh’s wrongful sacrifice.

Sabine watched him, her gaze steady with expectation of truth. Richard has spoken of you, she had said. She expected truth only due to Cavenaugh’s reflected faith in Mordan.

He ought to lie to her.

“Cavenaugh stands by his confession,” Mordan said, and looked away.

Sabine drew a swift breath. She sat on her desk edge, a rustle of skirts, and stared downward. Seven years, her tight-clasped hands said; when she lifted her head she wore a smile that was almost steady. “Thank you, Inspector. Unfortunately I am afraid I can be of no help to you.”

“I had thought not.” Mordan’s voice scraped at the edges; he coughed it clear and donned his hat. “Good day, Mistress Fairfield.”

Cavenaugh sat alone in his cell, head leaned against hands. He straightened warily as Mordan approached.

Mordan halted across the table. He met Cavenaugh’s waiting gaze, but could summon neither glare nor smile. “Sabine will not gainsay you.”

Cavenaugh shut his eyes an instant, then slid over a pen and sheet of parchment. “It’s all written. You need only sign and the case will be sent to the court.”

Mordan stared bitterly at the confession, at the tidy lies in beautiful copperplate hand. So simple, to certify their truth and finish sundering every oath he held. He took up the pen.

“Thank you,” Cavenaugh said softly.

Mordan signed the sheet and went to file it with the magistrate.

The next morning, when Mordan was certain Cavenaugh had been safely ensconced on a train to the moors, he went to Pryor’s office.

“Sir.” He laid his badge on the desk. “I must offer my resignation.”

Pryor gave the badge a quizzical look, as if it might wish to explain; when the object remained mute he turned his gaze on Mordan. “Inspector?”

“I wrote a full report, sir.” He offered the sheaf of paper. Pryor took it, but continued watching expectantly. Mordan cleared his throat, cheeks cold with shame, and launched into a complete account of the Gillivray investigation.

“In conclusion, sir, I have broken the oaths I swore to uphold the law. I have engaged in unethical and illegal conduct, betrayed my duty to seek justice, and disgraced the profession in which I serve.” Mordan inhaled. “I must step down from my post.”

Pryor leaned back, surrounded by pipe smoke, and studied Mordan through the haze.

“No,” he said.

Mordan stared. “What?”

“I refuse to accept your resignation,” Pryor said. “You’re the only wizard hunter we have, Mordan. I don’t care to draft an unwilling replacement.”

Mordan drew himself up. “I actively connived against law and order,” he said stiffly. “In point of fact, I should be arrested for assistance to perjury and intentionally certifying false documents.”

Pryor inspected his pipe bowl. “A wizard killed someone, and a wizard went to prison for it. It’s close enough to even, isn’t it?”

“It is not.” Mordan choked on outrage that anyone, much less a senior officer, could make such a statement. “The rule of law requires its honest application to every citizen, regardless of station or status. To act otherwise is a mockery of the very concept we serve, and”–in for a penny, in for a pound; he glared coldly at Pryor–“I find it both shameful and dishonorable that you would suggest so.”

“And that is why you’re keeping your job, Inspector.” Pryor lifted the report. “I will place this in your file, along with a reprimand so severe it will blister the eyes of anyone reading it. Now.” He leaned his elbows on the desk. “This Robert Kelling. You believe he had your victim murdered?”

Mordan blinked. “I have no case beyond hearsay and logic. Sir, my resignation–”

“Is irrelevant,” Pryor said. “With that reprimand you’ll never rise above your current rank, which is precisely where you do the most good. Consider it your sentence.” He puffed on his pipe. “If Robert Kelling is having fellow wizards shot in the street, he’s up to other things. I want a thorough report on his associates and activities, criminal and otherwise, and I want it as soon as possible.”

Mordan looked at his badge, feeling adrift. He had failed his duty; the cleanest answer was to surrender it. “Sir–”

“Investigating is your job, Mordan.” Pryor took another puff. “Get out of my office and go do it.”

Mordan looked again at the badge, sturdy polished brass. He had failed his duty once; would he also abandon it?

“Out, Inspector.”

“Sir,” said Detective Inspector Mordan, and tucked his badge safely into his coat before he went.

The Gyre

By Rebecca Schwarz

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean the Gyre turns in a great lazy whorl. The current carries with it the trinkets of civilization: bottle tops, cigarette lighters, barnacled gym shoes, and Ziploc bags clear as jellyfish. Lost fishing buoys trail tangled nets, which in turn haul their unintended catch of dead fish, shredded Mylar balloons and schools of water bottles.

She spent her days collecting the most unusual items as they drifted past. Her hair, dark as kelp, brushed against her powerful cetacean tail as she moved through the water. She carried the things she found in a little flock of plastic bags. Plastic was all around her in various states of degradation. Their original shapes transformed under the agitation of the waves into a confetti that caressed her with its tendrils as she passed, decorating her hair, sliding past her shoulders and breasts, her hips and tail.

She hung the bags off her elbows and moved through the crystalline sunlight. Adrift, they looked ephemeral but inflated with seawater they felt heavy, solid. Her favorites were the ones with the big red letters. The words on the bags said:

Thank You.
Thank You.
Thank You.

Earlier that day she found a plastic doll, naked and missing an arm. She’d seen dolls and parts of dolls before, but this one was different – a miniature man. He rode in the bottom of a bag along with a pink, plastic flip-flop and a round container top decorated with the face of a pig-tailed girl.

She stopped, fished the tiny man out of the bag and looked into his still perfect face. Biceps stood out on his remaining arm. Bifurcated legs grew from his hips like the arms of a starfish, except bulgy and muscled like the rest of him. His limbs were jointed like a crustacean. She tried to put his legs through what she imagined was a walking motion and giggled. They must look ridiculous, these creatures, stomping around on land.

She hadn’t noticed the boat above, as a pod of whales had recently passed overhead, but its shadow lingered. Rising she saw a long pole with a small net at the end reach into the water and scoop up a glinting potato chip bag. The pole receded into the sunlight and disappeared beyond the edge of the boat.

She drifted closer. The pole returned, trolling through the water for another item. She searched her bags and pulled out a toothbrush with bristles so curled it looked as if it were facing into a strong current. She pushed it toward the seeking net, which scooped it up. As the pole retreated, the silhouette of a head and broad shoulders leaned out and over the boat’s edge. A second head appeared, and together they examined her gift.

She lurked in the shadow of the hull and watched them collect more items from the Gyre. She could just hear their voices, wavering and garbled, punctuated by staccato laughter.

Day faded to evening, but the ship did not leave. Only after the first small points of starlight appeared did she break the surface to get a better look. Lights twinkled along the mast. The bags drifted around the crooks of her elbows. She held the man-doll in her hand, not wanting to lose him. The ship’s engine gargled quietly as it had throughout the afternoon. The slick taste of diesel lingered in her mouth.

Three people moved about the deck talking and laughing. The man with the broad shoulders poured a dark liquid from a bottle into plastic cups the others held. She swam closer, keeping her head low in the water. He picked up a curved container made of fine wood and began moving his hands across the strings stretched along its length. She drifted along with them, enthralled. The sounds were both complicated and soothing. The notes progressed forward, then circled back to as if to find something that had been left behind.

When she was a child, living among the vast estates of junk the merfolk collected in the bioluminescent twilight of the deep, an old aunt would put her to bed in a broken Plexiglas yacht that rocked on the sea floor. She told stories of the people who walked on the land: how their lives were comically short but, in exchange, they possessed a soul hidden away inside them. Instead of turning to sea foam when they died, their souls would live on forever.

She asked her aunt how she knew this, and her aunt replied that long ago one of them had fallen into the sea and that her sister, the girl’s very own mother, had eaten it.

“The human?” she asked, incredulous.

“No,” her aunt laughed. “Just his soul. The rest of him she left for the fishes.”

At the time she believed this explained her mother’s absence, which none of her relatives would discuss. She remembered being immediately jealous; thinking her mother now possessed an eternal soul. But the old woman explained that, no, she didn’t have it — because she had eaten it.

She wanted to know where these souls went when they were through with the bodies they’d inhabited, but her aunt was impatient by then and claimed neither to know nor care, and that, in any case, she’d heard that men’s souls weren’t very filling.

Before leaving her alone in the sunken boat, her aunt softened and told her that, according to legend: a wish you make after eating a person’s soul will come true for as long as the soul survives within you. She lay awake for hours that night, thinking of all the wishes her mother might have made.

The people battened down the boat, tittering and unsteady on their feet. She watched their silhouettes, trying to imagine the souls confined within them like the fish swimming obliviously inside a net before it’s hauled up. When the people disappeared below deck, she sank beneath the surface and slept, drifting and dreamless, trailing her bags of treasures, which she’d tied around one wrist.

The next morning the ship was out of sight. She swam in concentric circles hunting for it. Clouds covered the sun, and it took some time to pick out the outline of the boat against the gray sky. She started for it, but stopped when she saw him below her. He’d attached large fins to his feet and a tank to his back. Wobbly bubbles trailed up behind him. Curly, golden hair floated freely around his facemask. She watched his legs kicking languidly, separately. He too collected the objects that floated all around them, choosing a plastic bottle and a shredded vinyl purse. Her aunt had told her that people only took living things from the ocean.

She descended and crossed his line of sight. He stopped what he was doing and stared at her with an intensity that made her skin flush. She continued sinking into the dim cool below. She knew that her kind could attract people. Had her mother attracted her sailor so? Her heart pounded as he turned and followed with a kick. Then he pulled something from his belt and trained a powerful light on her. She threw her arms up too late; the beam left a purple smear across her vision. Frightened, she turned away, powering her dive with strong strokes of her tail. The light made a halo around her as she swam through the dark, wavering tunnel of her shadow.

The light faded and she turned, hoping he hadn’t broken off the chase despite her fear. He floated above, the light now pointed away from her face. She swam closer. Without taking her eyes off him, she reached into her bag and found the little man holding it up for him to see. He moved the light to it and with a kick of one foot drifted closer. His eyes, through the mask, moved from the doll to her face.

He pointed to it then to his own chest. She nodded, as the current drew them together. He reached out and let some of her long hair flow through his fingers. When he exhaled, bubbles danced between them. They drifted along together for some time. He handed her the light and kicked his legs out in front of him so that she could inspect them. She reached out and touched the end of one of the flippers. He bent his knee and took it off, revealing a pale foot decorated with five little appendages, like fingers only stubbier. She laughed with delight. Replacing the flipper, he smiled releasing more bubbles.

Tentatively, he ran his hand past her hip, feeling the thick muscle of her tail. His eyes filled with disbelief and delight. She reached up and traced the line of his jaw with her fingers. She held his gaze until he took the thing he used to breath out of his mouth and kissed her. His mouth was warm and tasted of rubber and salt. She dropped the light then and pulled him to her. She thought of the soul hidden inside and thrust her tongue deep into his mouth. He responded, caressing her neck and breasts before wrapping his strong arms around her waist. When he broke away his eyes were unfocused, but he didn’t take them off her.

Below them she could just see the light’s beam slowly careening away, but he didn’t seem concerned with that. Putting his breathing device back in his mouth, he pointed at a gauge on his wrist, then toward the surface. He held out his hand. She took it and they started up. It was a fair distance, and they moved quickly.

She watched him as they swam up into the light and thought of her mother and the sailor, gone so long now she was hardly more than a fairy tale herself.

This man was so strong and fine. She couldn’t imagine he could possess something so delicate it would not survive inside her. She decided that she didn’t want a wish; especially a wish that wouldn’t last any longer than it took to digest a meal.

He stopped swimming. His hand clenched hers painfully then he began thrashing. She grabbed the straps that held his tank and hauled him up, kicking with all her strength. They ascended, slowly at first then gained speed, racing to the surface.

They breached in a spray of foam. White-capped waves collided with each other, and rain pelted them. He spit the thing out of his mouth with a wheezing gasp. She pulled his mask off and dropped it into the sea. After some fumbling, she unhooked his tank and let it fall away too. Now she could pull him easily, his head resting against her shoulder.

With each swell they rode, she scanned the sea for his ship. At last she spotted it bobbing in the waves. She pulled him along while he labored to breathe, his eyes bloodshot and unfocused. He tried to kick but could no longer control his legs; instead they bounced stiffly against her tail in a motion not unlike that of the articulated doll.

By the time they reached the boat he was groaning softly. The other two were on deck scanning the water. When one pointed at them, she ducked under and pushed him closer, falling away as his friends hauled him aboard.

They told him he’d been in the hyperbaric chamber for three weeks, but it felt like he’d been on this narrow bed his entire life. Every time he looked through the double-paned window he was surprised to see a generic hospital room on the other side. The only difference between the room he was in and the one he looked out on, was the pressure and the concentration of oxygen. The other room had a chair, usually empty, his, a gurney.

He slept as much as possible to dodge the suffocating claustrophobia that pursued him when awake. It wasn’t the confinement of the chamber; it was that he still couldn’t feel anything below his waist. Propped up on an elbow, he looked down at the soft sheet, and the topography of his legs under it. With every day that went by, the sight of the still firm muscles of his legs felt more and more like an empty promise. The doctors couldn’t say, in such a severe case of the bends, when, or if, his legs would come back.

Because they never turned the fluorescent lights off in the room on the other side of the chamber, the time he spent awake and the time he spent dreaming fused together. His dreams of the Pacific Garbage Patch were always the same. A blueprint for how things should have gone. He collected samples and took pictures for Planet Neptune’s Clean-Up Campaign. He never dove too deep, never rose too fast. But also, he never discovered her.

The campaign was just a tax shelter for the amusement park. When the narwhals he’d captured died and the animal rights people got involved, the park’s management exiled him to the swirling garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific. Just until things cooled down they promised.

He’d spent two months in the North Sea hunting the small whales. They were going to be a real moneymaker for the park. No aquarium had ever kept a narwhal alive in captivity and Planet Neptune spared no expense building a large, beautiful tank. Still, the mammals stubbornly refused to survive. After languishing only a few weeks, they died within twenty-four hours of each other. He’d begged management to let him hunt down another pair, but they sent him to the Gyre instead.

In other dreams she would join him in the chamber, long green hair flowing over full breasts. Her narrow waist widening into the sinuous tail, its flukes trailing off into a gossamer membrane. He would float free of the bed and swim around the small room with her through twisted fishing nets, mateless shoes, and drifting medical equipment. Barnacles attached themselves to the walls. Millions of plastic nurdles filled the seawater like a bloom of plankton, the little, round beads tickling his ears and drifting into his nose. He pursued her until he caught her up in his arms, then held her and kissed her, his tail twined around hers.

She was more real to him than the nurses and specialists who appeared randomly to draw blood or check his vitals, who told him they were scraping something sharp across his feet, or that they were wiggling his toes.

They could do nothing for him, but that didn’t mean he was useless. He would find her and put her in the gorgeous narwhal tank at Planet Neptune. The park had many ways to acquire specimens, but when they wanted something from the sea, he had always been their man. He couldn’t imagine a more sensational exhibit. With her in the park, no one would doubt his ability.

The next doctor who arrived to check on him found him sitting up with his legs dangling over the side of the bed. He told her he was ready to begin rehab.

She cleared him to leave the chamber, fitted him with a streamlined wheelchair, and moved him to a room with a window that looked out on a pristine lawn punctuated by an ellipsis of three scrawny ginkgo trees. He spent his days strapped into various weight machines working on his arms and core. In the evenings he swam laps in the hospital’s clear pool that stank of chlorine, grabbing great handfuls of water, pulling himself forward, towing his legs behind him.

Back at work, he pulled on his old wetsuit and proved that he didn’t need the use of his legs to scrub algae off the tanks. He took the swing shift, rolling in at sunset, maneuvering around the last sunburned, cranky families as they left Planet Neptune. He crushed popcorn containers and plastic cotton candy bags under his wheels. Grackles quarreled over french fries strewn across the paved paths. Every trashcan vomited crumpled food bags, sticky cups, straws, and diapers. A child’s swim goggles hung from one can. Swarms of bees hovered, feasting on hidden pools of warm soda.

In his spare time, he quietly prepared the abandoned narwhal tank. When it had become clear the whales were dying, management cordoned off the path to the exhibit. Now, the only evidence that they ever existed were their spiral tusks displayed in the gift shop over a basket of narwhal plush toys.

The tank was beautiful, with a coral reef painted on the back wall and a faux-rock outcropping rising out of the water in the middle. From there the mermaid would be able to look across the park, down past the suburban rooftops, all the way to the shimmering Pacific.

While he worked on the tank he imagined hunting for her among all the things people threw away. He would take her from the sea, lifting her into the boat in the narrow canvas sling. On the trip home, he would smear lanolin on her tail and spray her with seawater.

Management knew of his extracurricular activities, but for now his chair bought him a lot of leeway. He intended to use every bit of it. One evening, just as he was pulling himself out of the water his friends appeared, climbing through the small door that opened onto the molded plastic beach of the exhibit.

They had spoken a couple times since the accident, but never about what had happened to him out in the heart of the Garbage Patch. He scooted himself up to his chair, pulled himself into it and told them both everything. He could see they thought he was crazy, but it didn’t matter as long as they agreed to his plan. He’d said, “humor me,” and let them believe that it would help him accept his new condition. He assured them he just wanted to go back for a look, so that he could put it all away.

They took Planet Neptune’s other boat, the one with the sling for transporting marine mammals, and set off for the Gyre. The trip went just as he imagined. He didn’t dive alone this time. His friends had promised him three days, but the mermaid turned up on the second, a dozen grocery bags hooked on each slender arm.

She swam right to him and pulled out the same one-armed G.I. Joe doll she’d shown him when they first met. He moved to her slowly, carefully concealing the hypo until he was close enough to inject the tranquilizer somewhere around what would have been a thigh. She jerked back, her eyes wide with surprise for just an instant before she began to drift. He caught her in his arms, and they hauled her to the surface.

As they got underway, he busied himself making her comfortable, keeping her tail moist and picking bits of plastic and nylon fibers out of her long, wet hair. The others buzzed around behind him, taking pictures and oohing and ahhing in disbelief. When her bags fell away in the water, he managed to grab the doll. Thinking it might comfort the creature; he laid it in the sling next to her.

They docked in the middle of the night, covered her with blankets, and paid off a couple longshoremen to help haul the sling to their pickup, then paid them a little more not to ask any questions. He sat in the truck bed between her and his folded chair turned the blanket down and tucked it under her chin as they drove up the hill to the aquarium.

The man’s head hovered over her, silhouetted against the night sky. He combed his fingers through her hair and spoke to her soothingly in his language. An engine roared in her ear. Her body, dry and sluggish, was wrapped in something scratchy. Whenever they rolled over a bump the ridged floor jolted against her back.

When they finally came to a stop, most of the stars had faded into pale morning light. The man pulled the blanket off her and scooted away. Someone she couldn’t see pulled her by the tail, out of the truck bed and through a small doorway.

She twisted, clutching at the smooth slope to slow her decent. The little doll skittered down after her. Two people disappeared through the doorway, closing the door behind them; then the relief of the water rushed over her. The doll floated overhead. She grabbed it and looked around the small enclosure.

The crude image of a coral reef decorated the smooth wall behind her, but most of the tank consisted of thick glass. She looked out at a gray path that followed the curve of the glass. Beyond that two low slabs of wood flanked a large round container. The water smelled stale and dead.

The other two from the boat walked along the path stopping at the center of the window to look in at her. One sat on one of the wood planks. Then the man joined them in a curious chair with wheels. He gripped the rims with his hands, turning them to roll the chair along the path. His legs didn’t move at all. She clutched her doll and looked around, her bags, all the things she’d collected, were gone. Except for a tower of rocks in the middle, the tank was empty.

In the beginning, the man appeared in his wheeled chair with small groups of men and women who all wore complicated, formal clothes, the men in dour colors, the women in tight skirts that made their bottoms look like tails until the fabric ended at the knee and revealed their dual legs.

Soon, more and more people crowded the path, fat and thin, old and young, some carried babies or rolled them along in little canvas seats. All day they passed by, talking, laughing, and arguing. She had no idea the world contained so many people. They wore hats to shade their faces and held small, metal boxes up to the glass, which released bright, white flashes of light. One boy turned the thing around and, leaning over the railing, held it up to the window. The box held a tiny image of her floating alone in the empty tank.

She and her one-armed doll looked out on them. They drank from bottles filled with dark or bright liquid, used plastic spoons to shovel shiny blue sludge into their mouths, and dug pink fluff out of clear bags with sticky fingers. Others munched on greasy, brown sticks or loops that they carried on paper saucers. They ate and drank all the time, stuffing the empty wrappers and bottles in the round container until it flowed over. They put other things in the container too. Things she recognized. Had he brought her here to show her their origin? The things she collected in the Gyre, they were just the worn out shells of what people consumed with such abandon.

She missed sleeping in the little Plexiglas boat. Since most plastic liked to float the things she brought home would rest against the ceiling over her bunk, twinkling as they jostled each other in the gentle, constant motion. If only she could climb the out of the tank and choose a few items, for company, but the high walls of her enclosure were impossible to scale. When she could bear to look no longer, she swam in endless circles around the tank grazing the glass with her shoulder and fin until the sun set and the crowds thinned then disappeared. Tonight, a child’s shiny plastic sandal lay on the path, bright yellow and tipped on its side, the shape of a flower imprinted on the sole. She wished he would bring it to her.

He pulled himself through the little door every night with a bucket of mackerel and slid down the slope to join her in the water. The fish were already dead and a little stale but edible. Every night after she ate, they struggled awkwardly up onto the rock in the center of the tank, her with her tail and him with his useless legs. Once settled, she would lean against his broad chest and listen to the melody of his voice, looking out over the trees and housetops all the way to the sea, waiting blackly, the stars above unable to touch its surface.

He avoided her tank during operating hours, didn’t want to try to plow through the crowds that clogged the path, didn’t want to see her looking out at him from the other side of the glass. In the evenings, when he wheeled past the last stragglers leaving the park, almost every kid clutched a plush toy mermaid. Management had ordered thousands in three sizes with dark green hair and shiny fabric for her tail.

Still, he could see she was not happy, alone in her tank, nice as it was. The exhibit would be better with a pair. His return to the Gyre, to find a companion for her, had already been approved. If there was one, there had to be more he reasoned. Management would give him everything he needed, boats, equipment and a crew. In the meeting, the suits went on to discuss timelines and schedules, brainstorm events for the park, but he’d stopped paying attention. The hunt was the hunt. It would end when he captured another of her kind and no sooner.

He picked one of the plush mermaids off a spin rack on his way to her tank. It rode along in his lap next to the bucket of fish as he rolled up the path to her exhibit. In the water she held the G.I. Joe and the stuffed mermaid together in one hand while she ate. She looked almost human, the way she always chewed with her mouth closed, but he didn’t think it was manners. It just made sense underwater.

She took longer than usual, eating a couple fish then swimming around with the toys before returning for more food. She wrung all the air out of the mermaid’s stuffing so that it would travel underwater with her.

His arms got tired sculling so he swam over to the rock and hung on, legs dangling below. Finally, when she finished her meal she swam up to him, smiled and held the mermaid toy up squeezing the water out with a wheezing hiss. He reached for it but she pulled back, her smile vanishing.

He climbed up on the rock and waited. Eventually she joined him, her narrow back warming his chest. A nearly full moon rose to preside over the sky, its light bouncing off the ocean below. He ran his fingers through her now clean hair, and explained that he would be going away. He told her he wouldn’t come back until he’d captured a companion for her, maybe even a mate. He knew that was a long shot and he’d told them so at the meeting, but everyone agreed that acquiring a breed pair for the park would make Planet Neptune the hottest ticket in the country.

She sat, petting the little mermaid where it lay limp and sodden in her lap. Finally, she seemed to lose interest in the toy and tossed it in the water where it disappeared into the darkness. She slid in next and swam around. With only her head above the surface, she could be just a woman. She turned to him and lifted her arm out of the water, delicate fingers splayed, beckoning. He rolled off the rock and splashed into the water. She drifted away arm still outstretched. He swam to her.

When she pressed herself against him a jolt from his lifeless bottom half surged up through his chest. He flushed. He hadn’t kissed her since that first time in the Gyre. He’d wanted to, but it hadn’t seemed right now that she belonged to the park. And she hadn’t shown an interest, until now. What the hell, he thought. He’d be on his way to the Garbage Patch tomorrow. He dipped his head brushing her cheek with his lips until he found her mouth. She responded like she had before: deeply, searchingly. She swung her arms around his neck and they sank together, tumbling gently through the black water.

Eyes closed against the darkness, he kissed her as long as he could. Only when the air in his lungs was spent did he try to pull back. She responded by wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He tried to get a hand up to push her away. She locked her hands behind his back. Arching back, he could just make out her eyes in the dimness, unfathomable and predatory. He coughed and inhaled, stars burst in his field of vision. She held him patiently. Her mouth found his one last time and she pushed more water from her lungs into his.

She drifted down with him until they came to rest on the bottom. After the struggle, his soul rushed into her filling her like the bright balloons bouncing on the strings tied to the wrists of the children who walked by the window.

She bobbed up to the surface remembering her aunt’s fairy tales and made her wish. She couldn’t imagine her mother wishing for a pair of legs, but she wanted to go home and couldn’t think of any other way out of the park.

She lost track of time then, the pain was so great, but it was still dark when she swam to the landing area using the curious scissor kick she’d seen him use in the Gyre before his legs failed him.

She stumbled out of the water, clambered up the slick plastic beach and found the little secret door in the wall unlocked. She climbed down and began to walk toward the sea. Each foot swung out in turn and slammed into the ground, every impact reverberated up her spine jarring her head. The landscape bounced sickeningly.

She cut across the park’s maze of paths, tracking downhill straight toward the sea. The pavement scraped against the tender bottoms of her feet, in the grass sticks and gravel stabbed them. Gasping in the cold predawn air, she lumbered ahead one foot at a time as fast as she could, her progress excruciatingly slow.

She fell to her knees at the gates and crawled under a turnstile. Even as the sky grew bright in the east, her eyes were failing. His soul dissipated, already tenuous inside her. Taking it had been easier than she thought, but she could not keep it. Still she didn’t think her body would consume it so quickly. She understood now that there would not be enough time.

She thought of her aunt, who raised her, shooing her every night into the little boat that rocked at the bottom of the sea. Who complained and pretended she did not have time for her, but always stayed to tell her one more story. Her aunt, down under the Gyre, who wanted nothing to do with the people of the air.

Hands and feet numb now, she stood and limped across the empty parking lot. A row of dusty oaks blocked her view of the sea. The last thing she felt was the warmth of the salty tears that ran down her cheeks as she dissolved into a puddle of foam at the edge of the lot.

Later that morning, as the sun reflected off the cars in their ordered spaces, a plastic bag tumbled across the pavement and over the little puddle of foam, which clung to it for as long as it could, until it dried, releasing it to the breeze. Plumped with air, the bag floated up and continued its inexorable journey to the sea and to the Gyre forever turning inside it.

And the words on the bag said:

Thank You.
Thank You.
Thank You.


By Jamie Killen

“You have a way. I know you have a way.” To Aiden’s shame, his voice broke on the last word.

Magda glared at him. “No. Can’t be done, not without God’s help anyway. And I don’t believe divine intervention is real, either, so let’s just say it can’t be done, period.”

“Don’t lie to me. I saw Missy Engle talking to you, alive, after she died. After Tara came to see you.”

For a moment, he feared that Magda would stand up and slap him. After a few seconds of staring at him in icy rage, she looked away and bit a thumbnail. “Don’t know where people get these stupid ideas, like I’m a witch or something.”

Aiden drew a shaking breath. “I don’t think you’re a witch, but I know you’re hiding something. And if it’s something that can bring him back, then. . . I’m sorry, but I won’t leave you alone until you tell me.”

She stood, then, and brushed some speck of lint off her denim work-shirt. “I’m sorry that you lost Milo. I truly am, and if I had a secret laboratory that could resurrect him, I’d do it. But what you’re asking, I can’t do.”

Aiden didn’t move. “What about Tara Engle’s daughter?”

She looked at the floor. “That’s a sad story, and not one that’ll help you. Please leave, now.”

Aiden sat in his car, and watched Magda’s house, and thought about Milo. He thought about that day over a year ago, when he had almost finished closing up the café. The bell over the door, which he thought was annoying but the tourists found quaint, had jingled to announce an arrival. He turned, mouth open to shoo away a would-be customer, when he saw that it was Milo.

“Help you close up?” Milo asked. He smiled as he said it, but Aiden saw the exhaustion in his eyes. Milo had been going grey for years now but had never looked old, not until that moment.
Aiden wiped his hands on his jeans and crossed the room. “God, Lo, I’m sorry. Come here.”

Milo leaned into the hug, and they stood like that for a while. Finally, he pulled back. “It was Missy. You know, Tara and Chase’s oldest.”

Aiden swallowed. “Christ. What happened?”

“Oh, her fucking boyfriend hit a tree with his car. He’s fine, but she went through the windshield.” He shuddered and looked away. “She was alive when they brought her in, but. . . I mean, those head injuries. . . Well. I couldn’t get her stabilized.”

Aiden rested his hands on Milo’s elbows. “Lo, did you do everything you could?”


“Then you don’t have anything to feel guilty about.”

Milo nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose. Aiden could see the lines he got between his eyebrows when his head hurt. “Yeah, I know. It was just hard, seeing Tara there. She was in shock, babbling, not making any sense. After I told her, she just kept saying ‘I have to find Magda, I have to talk to Magda.’ Wouldn’t even acknowledge it.”

“Magda?” Aiden frowned. “Did she mean Magda Warren? The one who sells cheese and stuff at the market?”

“Maybe. That’s the only Magda I know.” Milo retrieved the dishcloth and tossed it to the sink behind the counter. “Maybe they’re good friends or something.”

“Hm.” Aiden tried to recall ever seeing Magda Warren in their neighborhood. Tara’s house was visible from the front porch, and he and Milo usually went outside to sit there several times a week. They watched the neighbors come and go, and saw when strangers arrived. He doubted Magda could be a frequent visitor without him noticing, and she lived well outside of the town. Aiden talked to her occasionally at the market, and found her likable in a brusque sort of way. He couldn’t quite picture her being close to Tara, who was friendly but also loud and a gossip.

Milo noticed Aiden’s thoughtful expression. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Tara might have a sister named Magda, right, I mean, we’re not her best friends or anything. And anyway, in her mental state, God knows what she was thinking. You ready to go? I need to go home and relax and have a beer.”

“Beer and a backrub?” Aiden offered, grabbing his keys.

Milo smiled, and it was tired but genuine. “How’d you know?”

Aiden waited three days before walking over to the Engle house. He wondered if he was supposed to bring something, and then wondered if he should be going at all. It was always like this when someone died, he thought. Nobody knows the rules for grieving or giving comfort. Milo refused to go. “The last thing they’re gonna want to see right now is the doctor who couldn’t save their kid.”

“That’s not how they’ll think of you,” Aiden had protested, but Milo got that stony look and he knew it would be a mistake to push harder.

So Aiden crossed the street by himself and knocked on the door before he could think better of it. As he heard footsteps from inside the house, he looked down and realized he still had on the stained T-shirt and jeans he’d worn to do yardwork earlier in the morning. He’d washed his hands, but there were still traces of dried mud on his pants. Cursing himself, he wondered how much of a breach of protocol it was to pay your respects in the same clothes you use to pull weeds. He’d never heard it discussed, but it certainly sounded like the sort of thing that would earn him a disgusted sigh and a smack upside the head from one of his sisters.

As soon as Chase opened the door, Aiden saw that he needn’t have worried. A grenade could probably go off and Chase wouldn’t spare it a glance. “Hi, Aiden,” he said, mechanically and without making eye contact.

Aiden took a hesitant step forward. “Chase, hi. Look, I don’t want to intrude, but I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Missy. If there’s anything we can do–”

“Not unless you know a good hitman.” When Aiden didn’t respond, Chase added, “You know, for her boyfriend.” His mouth formed a hard slash in his doughy face. Aiden had always found Chase nice enough, if a little dull, prone to staring off into space and drifting in and out of conversations. This was the first time he’d ever heard the man say a harsh word about anything.

Aiden glanced down at the porch. His eyes fixed on a Super Soaker one of the kids had left leaning against the railing. “Well,” he said at last, “Can’t help you there, but if you need us to watch the other kids or something, just let us know.”

Chase nodded. “I appreciate it. Might take you up on it, actually. It’s just been me here for the last two days, and without Tara, it’s getting. . .”

“Where’s Tara?” Aiden asked before thinking.

Chase took off his smudged glasses and wiped his red eyes. “She’s at Magda Warren’s. Don’t ask me why, they’re not even friends. I think she’s just lost it. So, yeah, I might bring the kids over tonight and see if I can go get her to come home.”

“Yeah, of course, any time. Whatever you need.”

“Thanks, man.” Chase reached out and shook Aiden’s hand. His grip was limp and cold. “And thanks for not bringing a fucking casserole. Got so much casserole in this house, I’m gonna have to start feeding it to the dogs.”

Aiden slowly walked home, picking over the conversation in his head. Milo was waiting at the kitchen table. “How are they?” he asked.

“Hm? Oh. Chase is pretty much a zombie.” He pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured himself some water.

“What about Tara?”

Aiden thought about repeating what Chase had told him. But it would lead to speculation about what Tara was doing, and he knew Milo wanted to think about that as little as possible. He settled for, “I don’t know. She wasn’t there. But we might be watching Jaden and Mackenzie tonight while they take care of some stuff.”

Milo blinked, and some of the tension drained out of his shoulders. Aiden knew what he was thinking: Tara and Chase would never let him babysit their children if they blamed him for Missy. Milo exhaled quickly and stood. “Great. I’ll see if we have any movies they’d like.”

The doorbell rang at 7:00 the next morning. Aiden, pouring more orange juice for Mackenzie, exchanged a glance with Milo. Milo stood at the stove with a spatula, pausing in the act of flipping a half-cooked pancake. Both of the kids sat in silence, still wearing their rumpled clothes from the previous day. Setting down the cup of juice, Aiden went to see who it was.

The kids had been quiet and morose when Chase dropped them off the previous evening. They’d never really acted normally, of course, but they’d been somewhat cheered by Aiden’s spaghetti and Milo’s enthusiasm for drawing. They’d eaten dinner, watched a movie, and played a few rounds of Jenga without any problems. The kids even giggled a little at Aiden’s exaggerated reaction to knocking over the column of blocks. There was no mention of Missy, and both Mackenzie and Jaden seemed grateful for the distraction.

Around 10:00, though, Aiden started to worry. The kids were young, five and eight, and he felt pretty sure they were supposed to be asleep by now.

“When did Chase say he’d be back?” Milo murmured as Aiden checked his phone for messages.

“Two hours. It’s been almost five.”

Aiden tried calling several times, always going straight to voicemail. He even, after a moment of hesitation, tried Tara’s number.

By 11:00, both of the kids were asleep on the couch and Milo went to make up the bed in the guest room. They carried the kids to the bed, tucked them in, and returned to the living room to wait. “Where was he going again?” Milo asked.

Aiden rubbed one of his eyes. “Tara hasn’t been staying at the house since Missy died. He was going to try to get her to come home.”

Milo raised his eyebrows but said nothing. At 1:00 am, they both gave up waiting and went to bed, only to be roused at 6:00 by Mackenzie knocking on the door and demanding to know where Mommy and Daddy were. “They’re just taking care of some things, pumpkin,” Aiden replied, trying to sound more awake than he really was. “They’ll be back soon. Come on, let’s go get some breakfast.”

Aiden opened the front door and froze, mouth open. Chase had been dead-eyed and lost the previous day, but now his grief seemed raw and new. His face was swollen and eyes bloodshot with crying. He leaned against the door frame with one hand, as if unable to support his weight. “I’m here for the, for the kids,” he said, breath hitching between words.

Aiden finally got his voice to work. “I’ll get them. Do you want to come in?”

“No. . . No, I’ll wait.” And he covered his face in both hands and turned away, shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.

As Aiden turned, he saw Tara. She stood on the sidewalk, one hand on the open door of Chase’s car. Her head was bowed, blonde hair covering her face. Deep crimson scratches covered her arms. As he watched, she turned to look at him. Unlike Chase, she hadn’t been crying. There was grief in her expression, but also shock and deep, powerful guilt. She met his eyes without a word for several seconds. Then she turned away and wandered down the middle of the street, vaguely in the direction of the Engle house. She wore no shoes.

Aiden went back in the house, almost fleeing from the sight. He quickly bundled the kids into their coats and shoes. Milo started to protest, started to say they could take them home after they’d finished their breakfast, but Aiden silenced him with one hard shake of his head.

“What the hell was that?” Milo asked as Aiden closed the door. Chase had taken the kids’ hands and turned away without making eye contact. “Thank you, Aiden. Tell Milo goodbye for me,” he’d muttered, barely audible.

Aiden returned to the kitchen and sank into the nearest chair. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, and if asked he knew he wouldn’t be able to say why. Milo stared at him with wide eyes. “What is it?”

“Just. . . I don’t know. Something must have happened.”

Milo sat down across from him. Aiden thought about taking his hand, but didn’t want him to know he was trembling.

“Well, I mean, they’re in mourning. That’s how it is in these situations, for a while they’re ok, and then suddenly they’re hysterical. It’s hard to see, but it’s normal,” Milo said soothingly.

No, you idiot, something happened, Aiden wanted to shout, then felt ashamed of himself. He forced a nod of agreement and stood to clean up the mess from breakfast.

Two days later, Aiden heard that the Engles had disappeared.

“What do you mean?” he asked, paused in the act of assembling a chicken sandwich.

Elsa Belicek raised her palms in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know. I tried to call, because both of the kids have been out of school since Missy died. Parents usually think it’s best to keep them at home when this kind of thing happens, but I try to encourage them to send kids back to school as soon as possible. You know, get them back to a normal routine. Anyway, when they didn’t call back I went to the house, and it’s empty. I mean, not completely, there’s stuff strewn around, but there’s no furniture in the living room. I was hoping they said something to you, since they’re your neighbors.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Aiden noted that one of the part-time waitresses, Tanya, was taking a very long time making espresso. The customer, a tourist by the look of her, sighed and gave her watch an ostentatious glance. “Need a hand, Tanya?” Aiden asked.

She jumped and scurried into action. “No, sorry, I got it.”

He turned back to Elsa. “No, sorry, I had no idea. Didn’t even see any moving vans or anything. I can ask around the neighborhood, though.”

She sighed in relief. “Thanks, Aiden. It’s just, I worry about those kids.”

“Yeah. I’ll check into it.”

Once he and Tanya had served the remaining customers, she pulled him aside. “Sorry about that earlier. She was my principal when I was a kid. I was just curious. Because I kinda knew Missy, you know?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Aiden started to turn away and stopped. “Hey, Tanya, did Missy spend any time with Magda Warren?”

Tanya frowned. “No. In fact, her mom told her to stay away from Magda.”

Aiden avoided eye contact, busied himself with emptying a coffee filter. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I just remember when we were at the summer fair once, and Magda was selling stuff there. Missy didn’t want to try any of Magda’s samples, because she said that Mrs. Engle had said Magda was into creepy stuff, but I don’t know what she meant by that. But, you know, Missy and I weren’t that close, so she might not have told me even if she knew anything else.” The bell over the café door chimed and a couple of regulars wandered in. Tanya moved to the register with a bright smile and started taking orders, leaving Aiden to his thoughts.

The drive to Magda Warren’s little ranch took Aiden out of town and along several miles of winding highway surrounded by thick Oregon forest. When he rolled down the windows, he could almost smell the salt air coming in from the coast. Bruise-colored clouds gathered on the horizon, but overhead was just a thin layer of grey, enough to soften but not completely block out the sun. Usually, drives on this road meant a hike with Milo, or maybe a longer journey to Portland for the weekend. Now, though, Aiden found himself ignoring the scenery and gripping the wheel a little too hard.

He’d never been to Magda’s, but a sign for the Warren Creamery marked the drive to her house. Aiden parked in the gravel driveway between the simple ranch house and the barn, adjacent to Magda’s beat-up Bronco. He could see two other buildings farther back on the property, ones not visible from the road. As he stepped out of the truck, Aiden smelled goats and heard their bleating from the fenced pasture next to the barn. He turned a full circle, scanning for signs of Magda or anyone else. Maybe the Engles, although he couldn’t think of any reason for them to be here.

Failing to see anyone, Aiden trudged up to the house and knocked on the front door. The sound of a barking dog came from inside, but no one answered.

After a few minutes of knocking and calling Magda’s name, Aiden went to check on the barn and the other buildings. He found no one there, and nothing more interesting than livestock feed and some gardening tools.

Just as he gave up and started back to the truck, Aiden heard a voice over the crunch of gravel under his shoes. He paused, wondering if it was just one of the goats. But, no, he heard it again, the sharp tones of a raised female voice too far away to be heard clearly. He turned around and made his way past the barn and the small outbuildings. The voice faded for a bit, starting up once more as he passed the tool shed. This time, it was close enough for him to determine that it came from the woods at the back of the property, where the goat pasture ended at a wall of mossy tree trunks and brush.

Aiden found a rabbit trail and picked his way through the trees. He wondered why Magda hadn’t cleared some of the dead limbs and brush; with a little maintenance, these woods would be a perfect place to hike or picnic. As it was, though, it was a nuisance to navigate and maybe even a fire hazard. Cursing slightly, Aiden hopped over a tangle of brambles and kicked a branch out of the way. Looking up as he came over a small rise, he saw Magda less than fifteen feet ahead. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with deeply lined skin and rough hands. Her braided hair, though, remained a bright, youthful red. She stood next to a fallen log, talking to Missy.

Aiden froze. He stared, hoping the sight would resolve into something comprehensible. The longer he looked, though, the more certain he became that it was Missy. She had a distinctive cloud of black, curly hair, so unlike either of her parents. Like Tara, she had paper-white skin with a smattering of freckles; she’d also inherited Chase’s only beautiful feature, a pair of large green eyes. She said nothing, and she stood wrapped in a blanket that trailed the ground, so that Aiden couldn’t see what clothes she wore underneath.

Magda was speaking, hands on Missy’s shoulders. “Look, I’ve told you, you can’t come around here. If you wait, I’ll bring–” She stopped and turned quickly, responding to some sound Aiden didn’t know he made. Her mouth dropped open, and panic flitted across her features.

Missy stared at him, too, but her expression was more confused than frightened. She had always waved to him when they passed on the street, but now there was only vacant incomprehension in her eyes.

“This is private property. You need to leave,” Magda snapped, a slight tremor in her voice.

“That’s. . .” Aiden began.

Magda turned back to Missy and placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Listen. Go now.”

Missy glanced at Aiden, then back at Magda. She made a convulsive bobbing gesture with her head, one that made Aiden feel a little sick to see. She muttered something that sounded like, “Yesyes. Yesyes, waterwetlakepuddle.” And then she sprinted into the woods, bounding elegantly between the trees.

Magda turned and made shooing motions at Aiden. “Go. I said, go now, I can call the police if you don’t leave now, go–”

Aiden took an involuntary step back, eyes still glued to the spot where Missy had vanished into the forest. “What the fuck. . .”

“I said, get lost.”

Aiden finally got himself to focus on Magda. She stood with hands on hips, face set in a stony glare. “That was Missy Engle.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Magda, that was her.”

Magda took two steps forward and jabbed him in the chest with her index finger. “Now you listen. That was not Missy, I swear to you. What you think you saw wasn’t what you saw. And that’s the last I’ll say about it, because it’s got nothing to do with you.”

Aiden tried to think of a response. I should refuse, he thought. I should demand an answer. But every muscle in his body screamed at him to run, to get away from this place. In the end, he nodded and mumbled something, and let Magda nudge him back toward the barn and his truck. Before he climbed inside, he forced himself to turn to her. “Just answer me one question, ok, and I’ll leave you alone. I just came here to ask one thing. Do you know where the Engles are? Tara and Chase and the kids?”

Magda’s jaw tightened. “They left. They went to a relative’s place, somewhere in California. They’re ok, but they won’t be back.”

Aiden nodded. “Thank you.” He climbed in the truck, slammed the door, and sped all the way back to town.

Milo sat in silence after Aiden finished his story. He perched on the edge of the sofa, elbows resting on his knees, hands folded. Aiden stood, had been unable to stop pacing while he spoke. A glass of whiskey sat untouched on the mantelpiece; it had sounded like a great idea, just the thing to steady the trembling in his hands, but his stomach clenched every time he thought about taking a sip.

“Come here,” Milo said at last. Aiden sat next to him, and Milo took his still-shaking hand. “You know that this puts me in a weird position, right? I know you wouldn’t lie to me, but I also can’t believe you.”

Aiden nodded and swallowed the instinctive, angry retort. “Ok.”

“Aiden, I declared Missy myself. I was there when she died.” He held up a hand to cut off Aiden’s response. “And, let’s say I made a mistake and she wasn’t really dead. Even then, Aiden, her skull wasn’t just fractured, ok, it was crushed. Even if she wasn’t dead, and she’d somehow lived, which I don’t think was possible, she would have been persistent vegetative for the rest of her life. There’s no medical way she could have gotten up and wandered off. Not to mention the body would have to have gone missing. So I know it wasn’t her you saw.”

Aiden said nothing; the tightness in his chest told him his voice would break if he tried to speak.

Milo squeezed his hand and continued. “But I can tell you saw something that scared you. I mean, I’ve never seen you this scared. So I’m willing to concede that you saw something you can’t explain. I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts–”

“I never fucking said it was a ghost. I’m not stupid.”

Milo bit his lip and took a deep breath. “Ok. I’m not saying you did. I’m saying, you had a weird experience. And I’m willing to accept that and say that unexplainable shit happens sometimes. But I also need you to let it go, and not try to convince me it was her. Because if you keep telling me that a dead girl is walking around in Magda Warren’s woods, how would you expect me to look at that?”

Aiden let out a shaky sigh and held his head in his free hand. “That I’m losing it. That’s probably what I’d think if it was you.”

He sensed Milo nodding. “I don’t think you’re crazy, I really don’t. But please don’t make me worry about you.”

Aiden let Milo pull him into an embrace. He leaned his head against Milo’s chest, and breathed in his scent, and held on tight. “Ok. I won’t talk about it anymore. I won’t,” he promised after a while.

And he didn’t. They stopped talking about Missy, and a new family bought the Engle house, and Aiden was almost able to convince himself that it hadn’t happened. Still, he avoided Magda’s stall at the market, and when driving chose routes that didn’t take him near her place. Milo may have noticed these behaviors, but if so he said nothing.

Eighteen months after Missy Engle’s death, the phone at the café rang. It was Beth, one of the physician’s assistants who worked with Milo. “Aiden? You better get down here. Milo collapsed, it looks like a heart attack.”

Aiden’s knees threatened to buckle. “Is he ok?”

Beth hesitated just a little too long. “They’re working on him.”

Later, Aiden would be unable to remember the drive to the hospital. He would only remember stepping through the ER’s automated door, and seeing Beth waiting for him. The mascara-stained tears streaking her face. His lungs seemed to forget how to draw in air, and he found himself sitting in a molded plastic chair with Beth’s hands grasping his shoulders. “It’s ok, just breathe, just breathe. . .” she kept saying.

“Let me see him.”

She didn’t argue. Taking him by the elbow, she led him into a cold room where Milo’s body lay under a sheet. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t look like he was sleeping. Aiden stared, and tried to see Milo, but could only see a corpse with vaguely similar features.

He stumbled out into the corridor. Beth had wiped the mascara off her face. “I’m so sorry, Aiden,” she whispered.

“I have to go,” Aiden heard himself say. He already had the keys to the truck in his hand.

Beth laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Aiden, I’m sorry, but there’s paperwork to be filled out. I know it’s the last thing you want to think about, and I feel terrible about it, but. . .”

“No. Later. Just don’t. . . Just keep him here.”

Beth tried to step in front of him. “Aiden, you shouldn’t be alone. At least let us call someone.”

“I have to go,” he repeated. “I have to find Magda.”

Seven hours after Magda had told Aiden to leave, she came out to his truck. “You aren’t gonna go home, are you?” she asked with a resigned look in her eyes.


She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose as if to ward off a headache. “Ok. I’m going to show you something, so you can understand why I can’t help you. Because I’m scared of what you’ll do if you just go poking around here yourself, and don’t understand what you’re looking at.” She met his eyes. “But this isn’t going to help. I need you to accept that.”

Aiden said nothing. Magda shook her head and turned away. “Come on. Just follow me and do whatever I say. You’ll be safe, as long as you don’t do something stupid.”

Aiden followed her into the woods. On their way to the path, Magda stopped in one of the outbuildings to pick up a bucket containing apples and carrots. She gestured at a plastic bag. “Carry that for me.” Aiden obeyed, peeking inside and finding only a package of rock candy.

As they left the driveway behind, it occurred to Aiden that Magda could be carrying a gun. She could be taking him somewhere where his body would never be found. She could be insane. He considered the idea, and found it held no fear for him.

They walked for over half an hour, so far that he couldn’t hear the cars on the highway anymore. Aiden saw none of the usual signs of human passage he usually found on hikes. No cans, no cigarette butts, none of those things that made Milo grumble about a lack of consideration for fellow backpackers.

Magda stopped at the top of a small slope. She gestured for Aiden to stand next to her. “Look down there,” she said. “But be careful. Don’t get close to it.”

At the bottom of the slope was a clearing, an empty space that the forest seemed to lean away from. At the center lay something that Aiden at first mistook for a large mud puddle, until he saw it bubbling. It took him a moment to recognize it as a tar pit, roughly six feet across and bordered by a tiny ring of barren sand and scrub.

Aiden turned back to Magda. She squatted on the ground, taking the fruit out of the bucket and arranging it in several small piles. “I didn’t know we had tar pits around here,” Aiden said after a moment.

“It’s not a tar pit. Put the candy next to that bush and come stand behind me.”

Aiden did as he was told. They stood in silence for several minutes, watching the scattered clusters of food. As they waited, Aiden listed to a bird whose call he didn’t recognize. It sounded a bit like a mourning dove, but with some odd little clicks interspersed in its song. It grew distracting enough that he scanned the forest for it, finally spotting it on the underside of a branch almost directly overhead. Wait, no, he thought, frowning. It can’t be hanging upside down like that. But it was definitely a mourning dove, with dappled grey feathers and a pudgy body. As he watched, though, it swung up and gripped the branch with two legs that extended out from under its wings. It crawled along the bark, lizardlike, undersized wings occasionally flapping as if for balance. Aiden let out a curse and took several hasty steps backward.

Magda followed his gaze up to the branch. “Oh. Yeah. Don’t worry about those.”

“What the hell is it?” he asked in a low voice.

“Just shut up and watch.”

The first of them showed up about five minutes later.

Twigs cracked in the underbrush, and Aiden nervously glanced around to see if there was a bear. The shrubs straight ahead of them shifted with the weight of an animal, something moving low to the ground. When it came out of the ferns and headed for the food, Aiden’s stomach twisted in revulsion and he had to fight the urge to turn away. Everything about the creature screamed wrong, even before Aiden saw exactly what it was.

Its hairless skin was a light pink, like a baby’s. It crawled on all fours, limbs short and stocky like a badger. The stump of a tail swung in the air over its hindquarters. The small head had blue eyes set into the sides of the face.

But it was the mouth that finally made Aiden see it for what it was. Beautiful cupid’s bow lips, and behind those a set of straight white teeth. The lips parted, and the teeth crunched down into a bite of apple, licked up drops of the juice with a human tongue.

The second one walked upright. From a distance, it might have passed for a naked man. Up close, things were missing: hair, fingernails, nipples, navel. The eyes had no iris, just tiny pinpoint pupils amid the white of the eyeball. It made it nearly impossible to tell if the thing was looking at Aiden or not. The rest of the face was flat save for a thin slit where the mouth should be.

The third was Missy, or at least the thing that wore her face. Now, though, she didn’t have a blanket wrapped around her; instead she carried it under one arm, just like a toddler with its blankie. As soon as he saw her, Aiden wondered how he could possibly have ever mistaken her for human. Below the neck, her body consisted of an undersized torso and four long, boneless limbs. Both legs and both arms extended at least five feet from her body, tapering down to points rather than fingers or toes. They flexed and swayed in the air like tentacles. The limbs looked weak and fragile, yet Missy easily balanced on the ones where her legs should be, curving the lower ends into something resembling feet. The legs bent in too many directions as she walked, sometimes forward like a human knee and sometimes to the sides like nothing Aiden had ever seen.

Missy moved toward the one with no features. “Wine Easter swimming,” she said, shaping the words slowly and with apparent care.

It reached down for a piece of fruit, bending awkwardly at the waist. “Calcalcalcaldera. Streetstreetstreet.”

Aiden realized that Magda had his arm gripped tightly in one hand. He managed to tear his eyes away from the things long enough to glance at her. “Just stay quiet,” she muttered.

Missy undulated towards Magda. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out. “Hello,” Magda said quietly. “Eat your food.”

Missy frowned. “Your. . . Your food fad eat at. . . Halo. . .” Her whole body spasmed and she snapped her teeth together three times in quick succession. Aiden backed up two steps, unable to go farther without breaking Magda’s grip.

“Sh,” Magda said. She reached out and covered the girl’s mouth with her free hand. “Sh. Go eat.”

Missy drifted away, mouth still forming silent words.

The fourth one made Magda cry, just silent tears on her stony face.

It had blonde hair and a handsome young man’s face. The body was insectile, thin and jointed with six limbs. Instead of chitin, though, it had pale human skin covered in a downy layer of golden fur. It walked on its lower four legs, top two folded against the thorax. When it saw the food, it smiled like a child and opened its all-too-human mouth; pincers emerged, and it scooped up the rock candy with wet sucking sounds. All the while, Missy and the tall male one chattered incomprehensibly to each other.

Magda began to speak, voice flat and monotone. “They came out of the pool. Those two–” she indicated the one with no features and the one that moved low to the ground, “—those two were here before I found this. God knows how long. The one with the blonde hair was my son.” She paused to glare at Aiden. “And you know where Missy came from.”

“How?” The word came out like a gasp.

“I can’t tell you how. I can only tell you what happens. Things go in the pool. Dead things, live things, anything with DNA. The pool recombines it and creates something new. Squirrels and lizards. Birds and mice. People and insects, or cats, or fish, or snakes.” She pointed at Missy. “That isn’t Missy Engle. It doesn’t have her memories, her personality, nothing. It just has some of her genes.”

The one on all fours left his food and snuffled around Magda’s feet. She ignored it. “I found this eighteen years ago, doing research. I saw it in action, just dumb luck. An injured deer died on the edge, half in the mud, and it got sucked under. A few hours later, I watched it jump back out and run away. Or I thought I did.” She stared into the trees. “Probably I would have seen that it wasn’t just a deer anymore, if I’d gotten a better look.”

“How did your son. . .” Aiden murmured, eyes locked on the thing sucking down lumps of crystallized sugar.

“I didn’t understand. I thought I knew what the pool did, and he died, and I acted without thinking.” She stepped in front of him, stared right into his eyes. “Can you even fucking imagine what it feels like to see the face of the person you loved the most on one of those things? Think about what that would be like. That’s why I’m showing you this, so you don’t ever have to go through that.”

Aiden staggered backwards until he bumped into a tree. “He’s gone.” He closed his eyes and tried to picture Milo exactly as he’d looked this morning, drinking coffee and reading the news. There’d been nothing special about this morning. No great romantic gestures, nothing different except that it was the last. He tried to recall if he’d even kissed Milo goodbye before driving to work. He couldn’t remember.

Something rustled in front of him. He opened his eyes and saw the thing with Missy’s face standing before him. She watched him for a moment, then slowly extended one of her limbs. It held an apple. “Mid. Flash. Mid.”

Aiden gingerly accepted the apple, and she smiled. “What does that mean?” he asked.

Magda stooped to pick up the bucket and plastic bag they’d carried the food in. “Nothing. They can mimic the sounds of words, but they can’t attach meaning to them. Believe me, I’ve tried to teach them. I think there’s enough human genes in there that they know they’re supposed to be verbal, but they can’t quite do it. Doesn’t stop them from trying, though.”

Aiden took a clumsy step forward. Tears felt a long way off. Right now he just felt too heavy to move. Magda took him by the elbow; this time, though, it felt like support instead of restraint. As they moved out of the clearing, Missy and the blonde boy tried to follow them. “No,” Magda said sternly. “Stay.”

Missy reached out with both limbs and the boy let out a whimper, but both stayed and watched them walk away.

Aiden found himself in Magda’s living room without quite remembering how he got there. She wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and started arranging kindling in the old fireplace. “I should go,” he murmured.

“It would be criminally irresponsible to let you drive right now.”

“Tell me. . . Tell me what happened with Tara.” Aiden heard himself say the words, and realized that he didn’t particularly care. He just didn’t want silence.

Magda sat in her armchair and stared into the fire. Her dog, a black border collie, nuzzled her hand and she absently stroked his head. “She found out years ago. Before Missy was even born. I was still experimenting back then, with dead animals and things, trying to see if I could control it. I thought if I could figure out how it worked, I could reverse. . .”

She cleared her throat. “Anyway. Tara came to me one day and said she knew. She’d been in the woods and saw me put something in the pool, a dog or something. I didn’t show her anything, but I managed to convince her that it was something that needed to be kept secret. I kept expecting her to blab about it, but I guess even she realized that it was important. Then a year and a half ago she shows up crying on my doorstep, saying I need to bring Missy back. Saying she can handle if the girl has deformities, as long as she gets her back.” Magda let out a dry, humorless laugh. “Deformities. That’s what she thought she’d get. I told her I wouldn’t do it, and she threatened to tell everyone, so I told her we’d talk about it. I assumed if I let her stay here and waited until she calmed down, she’d see reason.”

“And then Chase came to find her,” Aiden murmured.

“Yeah. They went out in the driveway to talk, and next thing I know they’re both gone. Up in the woods. By the time I got there, they’d already dropped some of Missy’s hair into the pool, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it from happening.” Magda pressed her lips together and shook her head. “They thought she’d be Missy, just a little different. And then that thing came out, and they saw what they’d done. No wonder they left town.”

“So now it’s just you taking care of them.”

Magda looked at the floor. “If you can call it that. That thing, that pool up there, it’s a fucking miracle. Hell, for all I know it could even be the primordial soup, you know, the stuff that started everything. There’s a chance that pool might be able to explain life on Earth, but, Jesus, I hate it. I can’t even stand to look at it. And I can’t stand to look at them, any more than I have to.”

They fell silent. Aiden stared at the fireplace and thought of Milo. The next thing he knew, he was waking up to morning light streaming through the kitchen window. The fire had burned down to ashes. He took a deep breath, stood, and walked outside without a word.

Aiden turned off the truck’s ignition and gazed through the windshield at Magda’s house. Reaching over to the passenger seat, he grabbed a bulky paper grocery bag and opened the truck door.

Magda came outside before Aiden reached the house. He saw the wariness in her eyes, saw her preparing for an argument. He held up a hand. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to ask you for anything.”

Magda folded her arms and waited.

“I had him cremated,” Aiden said after a moment. He looked down at the gravel of the drive. “We scattered his ashes off the coast. So even if I wanted. . .”

Magda’s features softened. “Well. That’s good. I won’t ask how you’re doing. That was one of the worst things about when Cole died, people asking that all the time.”

Aiden nodded. There had been the week of drinking, and the week spent in bed, and the week snarling at anyone who spoke to him. There’d been moments of quiet and warm memories, and moments so lonely he’d thought his chest would cave in. There’d been too much food from the well-meaning neighbors, and a visit from his sister than left him wanting to be anywhere except in the house with her. Underlying all of it was the ache that he would never have the words for, but that he recognized when he looked at Magda.

“I feel like I’m ready to do something,” he said.

“Like what?”

The idea had come to him the day before, standing at the kitchen sink. He’d looked out the window and seen a stray cat darting across the yard, and had been struck with the memory of when Milo had found an abandoned kitten several years earlier. Even though he hated cats, he’d still fed it with an eyedropper and kept it alive and healthy until they found a home for it. Aiden had let out a little laugh at the memory of Milo getting out of bed at 2:00 am and grumbling about feeding the damn kitten. With sudden clarity, Aiden realized what Milo would be doing right now if he was alive, what he would have done long ago if he’d been the one to see what hid in the woods behind Magda Warren’s house.

Aiden held up the grocery bag he’d brought from the truck. “I brought some things for them. You know. . .” He gestured toward the woods.

Magda stepped warily toward him. “What things?”

“Just. . .” he rummaged through the bag, “paper and crayons and some other art stuff. And a little CD player, for music.”

Magda looked at him silently for a moment. “What do you think they’ll get out of that?”

Aiden shrugged. “I dunno. I think they’re lonely, and they don’t know how to communicate, and you’ve been dealing with them alone. I don’t know if I can get them to talk, but maybe there’s a way to get through to them. Maybe it’ll be easier for me, since. . .”

She shifted on her feet and stared at the woods. “I don’t know how much you’ll be able to do,” she said at last, “but if you want to, go ahead and try.” She turned back toward the house. “I’ll have coffee waiting for when you get done with them.”


Finding his way to the pool was easy. There was a smell, he realized, something that got stronger as he went farther along the path. Something like earth and blood.

The thing with Missy’s face followed him there. He caught sight of her halfway to the pool, peeking from around a tree, but she darted away until he started walking again. She appeared and reappeared, getting a little closer each time. Aiden’s heart hammered whenever he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, and he wondered how long it would take for the fear these things triggered to leave him.

Aiden stopped on the slope above the bubbling pool. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, he arranged the contents of the bag in front of him. Brush rustled off to his right. “It’s ok,” he said in a low voice. “It’s ok, you can come out.”

After a few minutes, the thing with Missy’s face edged into the clearing. “Hi,” Aiden said. When it didn’t bolt, he picked up a crayon and a sheet of drawing paper. “My name’s Aiden. I don’t really think you can understand me, but we’ll see if we can work on that. You’re alone out here, aren’t you? Why don’t you sit down with me for a little while?” As he spoke, he moved the crayon across the paper to create a swath of green hillside. To the hill he added the outlines for a little house, one similar to Magda’s. When he glanced up, he saw the thing watching the movement of the crayon, openmouthed. Aiden slowly reached over and tore off another sheet of paper. “Here,” he said, “you try.”

The thing hesitated, glancing between the sheet of paper and his face. She frowned, as if trying to work something out. Extending one of her limbs, she picked up one of the scattered crayons and lowered herself to the ground. Slowly, carefully, she pressed the tip of the crayon to the paper and began to draw.

Once More, onto the Beach

By S. R. Algernon

Iniala… Iniala… Iniala…

The sound ebbed and flowed through the water, cutting through the darkness. With each repetition, a patch of the ocean glowed and shimmered. It reminded her of times, back on the beach, when moonlight had glinted off the water’s surface and the icy water had stung the soles of her three-toed feet.

Iniala… Iniala… Iniala…

She gravitated toward the sound, certain it led to safety. As she swam, the undulating glow revealed a shape ahead of her– a bulbous yet streamlined form with trunk-like legs swept backward and pressed against its blubbery underbelly. She recoiled, feeling a rush of water flow through her gills and letting a few bubbles escape from the blowhole at the top of her head. The sight of the beast triggered a rush of hunger and adrenaline.

The beach. The thought came to her as an image and a comforting memory of sand underfoot. She retreated toward sunlight, away from the strange creature, until she broke the surface and flopped down against the water. The sky was there, as it had always been, but the beach was gone.

She looked down at her reflection, expecting intuitively to see scales, a slender jaw and nostril slits. Instead, a hulk of smooth, gray skin, a bulbous snout and two deep-set eyes looked back at her.

If her mind could form words, the terror and revulsion would have asked the question: What am I?

The water’s surface broke once more. The beast she had seen before appeared beside her.

“Iniala,” it said, as if in reply to her unspoken question.

In the open air, the voice sounded rough and stale, but to Iniala it sounded real. It connected to visceral feelings of belonging and trust. This time, Iniala understood that the beast was calling to her, and that the sound–Iniala–belonged to her somehow.

Iniala studied the black splotches on the behemoth’s face. Another image formed in her mind. She had seen those splotches before….

An orange lizard stood on the sand and turned its face toward me. Its forelimbs, drenched in blood up to the knees, tore into the abdominal wall of a fresh kill. I saw the brown splotches on its face, and my heart slowed. I knew I would not have to fight for my meal tonight. My tongue flicked eagerly at the scales around my mouth. I dug my claws into the sand and sprinted toward the feast.


Having roused Iniala from her daydream, the beast performed a quick swimming stroke, starting with a flick of the shoulder blades and ending with a swish of the tail.

“Kelem,” said the beast.

“Kelem,” said Iniala, in a flash of recognition. The sound tied sight to memory. The wordless, inchoate beginnings of sentences stirred in her mind. The beast is Kelem. The orange lizard is Kelem. Kelem is her name.

In the months that Iniala spent with Kelem in the bright surface waters, she embraced this sound game. Each new association cut through the sensory chaos of her new world and built rough swaths of past from the half-buried visions in her dreams. Words joined into sentences. Sentences formed thoughts that the lizard mind of her memories would never have grasped.

For months, Iniala drifted along, picking up words the way her baleen picked up food, until Kelem’s next lesson set Iniala’s hunter mind on the trail of a new sort of prey.

“Follow me into the dark water,” said Kelem. “I want you to see something.” She led Iniala to a calm patch of ocean, and then turned to face her.

“Look,” said Kelem, “but with your ears, not with your eyes.”

Iniala had learned all of those words, but together they had no meaning. Looking is what you do with your eyes, she thought. Had she learned the word wrong?

“Iniala,” said Kelem. As she spoke, the water in front of her glowed as if the sun were shining on it. Within the brightness, a spiral twisted in the water, quivered, and faded into darkness.


“There are some sounds you can hear, and there are other sounds you can see, if you look with your ears. The scholars call it ‘ultrasound.’ The poets call it ‘Podsong.’ With Podsong, we can create the impression of shapes and movement. It is true speech, the gift that separates Podswomen from the animals. Iniala, say your name but keep the muscles in your face taut. Move the air back and forth between your nasal passages and let sound go out through the bones, right past your eyes.”


The sound came out fine, but when Iniala looked with her ears, a misshapen blob of Podsong flickered into being. It disappeared an instant later, as if it were ashamed of its own existence. Iniala shook with laughter from snout to tail. A few bubbles escaped from her blowhole.

“Watch your air,” said Kelem. “We can’t have you going back to the surface for a refill a half-dozen times just to have a simple conversation.”

“Sorry,” said Iniala.

Kelem smiled at her.

“It takes time,” said Kelem. “Your own song never looks the same in your own head as it does to everyone else, but it comes naturally. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, just like I did and all the others.”

“The others?”

“You’ll see. When you’re ready, I’ll take you to the Pod and introduce you to some new friends.”

“The Pod…” said Iniala. “Is that like the… the place where we were before?” Iniala searched her mind for the right words, but found none.

“Before? When I met you?”

“No. Before that. When we were… somewhere else, outside the water. Your skin was orange and you… we… were smaller.”

Kelem’s body stiffened. She turned to face Iniala and watched her for several awkward seconds. Instinctively, the tug-of-war between fear and anger reminded her of a lizard sizing up a rival during a hunt. Iniala’s jaws tightened, and the absence of teeth between them worsened the sense of wrongness in her gut.

“The beach? You remember the beach?” The words “beach” and “remember” meant nothing to her, but the tension in Kelem’s voice came through.

“Yes,” ventured Iniala.

“Promise me something,” said Kelem. “When we get to the Pod, tell no one that you remember the beach. Don’t even say it to me when other people might hear. Can you do that?”


“Are you sure?”

“Kelem, I’m sorry.”

Kelem brushed the side of Iniala’s face with the tip of her snout.

“It’s all right. Let’s get back to your lessons. You have a lot to learn before we return to the Pod.”

The Pod… Iniala could only imagine a throng of Kelems. That night, Iniala drifted into a half-sleep while she swam.

The shore teemed with lizards of every color. Hundreds of them clung to the sides and back of an immense gray beast as it lay on the sand. I paid no attention to my rivals or to the rasps of the stricken beast. I saw the orange lizard at the base of the beast’s neck, with its head buried shoulder-deep into the blubber. I knew where I belonged. Together with two other lizards, a fearsome grey one and a pallid runt, I raced to Orange’s side, eager to guard its flank and then to eat my fill.

“We’re getting close now,” said Kelem. “Can you see it?”

Iniala heard a hum with her ears and felt a vague glow ahead. As she and Kelem approached, the glow coalesced into a point of Podsong.

“It looks as if a star had fallen in the water,” said Iniala. Iniala thought she understood why Kelem had been so ready to put her memories of the beach behind her.

Kelem chuckled, sending a ripple of Podsong in her direction.

“Maybe,” said Iniala, dropping out of Podsong and speaking with her mouth in her excitement, “the stars are just faraway pods for people who live in the sky.”

“People who live in the sky?” said Kelem. “Podsong does not travel through air the way it does through water, but it is remarkable for you to ask such questions at such a young age.”

Kelem paused.

“But remember, Podsong is the language of the Pod. Once we reach the Pod, use child-speech only with me and only in a whisper. Your words are reflections of your mind, and they will determine your place in the Pod.”

“Y-yes,” said Iniala.

The Pod was not a solid surface, as she had thought, but a mosaic of overlapping plates of Podsong. As Iniala and Kelem approached the Pod, a circular ripple appeared in the Pod’s surface, and one of the Podsong plates vanished. A guard hovered in the gap.

“I am Kelem, and I speak for Iniala.”

The guard sang an arrow pointing inward. Iniala followed Kelem into a cacophony of Podsong that made her memories of the beach seem serene by comparison. Hundreds of people glided through the water in all directions. Some filled the water with spectral conversations, while others silently ferried cargo on their backs. Others swam in place and sang the walls and signs that gave the Pod a semblance of structure. Iniala swam close to Kelem’s side.

“Don’t worry,” said Kelem. “The Podsingers point the way. We’ll be someplace quiet soon. From what you said before about star people, I’m sure Nili will be glad to meet you.”

The Archive was an oasis of calm within the Pod. Podsingers patrolled its edges, filling the room with ambient Podsong. Aside from the singers, the room held about forty others. Most swam in place to mark its boundaries. Others hovered in columns off to one side of the room. One swam toward Kelem and Iniala when they arrived.

“Welcome back,” said the Podswoman, whose skin sagged slightly around the edges of her face. “It seems like only yesterday that you left to stand watch. And this is…?”

“Iniala,” said Kelem.

Iniala nodded.

“Of course.” She turned to Iniala and spoke in slow, enunciated Podsong. “I am Nili. I am an old friend of Kelem’s.”

“Pod Archivist Nili,” added Kelem. “A mentor to all of us. Even the Elders would be lost without her.”

“Your flattery could use a shade of subtlety,” said Nili, with a chuckle. “Are you sure she is ready?”

“We are of the same clutch,” said Kelem, “and Iniala crossed the shoreline alone.”

“If only we all could be blessed with such omens. Come, let me show you our latest find. Lagi! Bring the table with the stone on it.”


Lagi, a slender Podswoman, swam to Nili with another, larger individual in tow. The large one was stocky and bore deep scars on its neck and shoulders. It did not speak or look up as it approached.

“Welcome back, Kelem,” said Lagi. Her face fell when she saw Iniala. “Why have you brought her in here? Are we running a nursery now?”

“Iniala shows promise,” said Kelem, “She should see our work.”

“If Nili wishes it,” said Lagi, “but try to keep her out of the way.”

“Enough,” said Nili. “Lagi may have an odd way of showing it, but we have all missed you deeply. Now let me show you our most recent discovery. The scouts found this on the continental shelf. They say it fell from the sky.”

Kelem, Nili and Lagi surrounded the silent individual, positioning themselves for a good view of her back. Iniala joined them and saw a flat square of stone resting on the silent one’s skin.

“We have examined the stone thoroughly,” said Nili, “visually and in Podsong reflection. It might be a purified form of rock, but we can’t be sure.”

“The stars represent a purer existence,” said Kelem. “If rock exists in their realm, it is natural that it should be purer than anything we know.”

“I don’t see the point of all this,” said Lagi. “It’s clearly not a star, so what does it matter? We are archivists, not trash collectors.”

Iniala shook with excitement. On the beach, she had never seen such things. She leaned forward to examine the object with her snout.

“Keep her away from that,” said Lagi. “She’ll knock it off the table.”

“I thought the star-stone didn’t matter to you,” said Kelem.

“It does if it sinks to the ocean floor and Nili makes me chase after it.”

“Quiet,” said Nili. “Iniala, now that you’ve examined it, what do you think?”

“It has scratches on it.”

“Behold, the prodigy speaks,” said Lagi, in delicate, over-enunciated Podsong. “Does our learned colleague have any other revelations?”

“What if,” asked Iniala, “an animal made them?” Iniala remembered that animals made tracks in the sand. She remembered following the tracks of prey and leaving marks of her own on the base of tree trunks, although she had never considered the meaning of those actions before. “What if it is a message?”

“Talking animals in the sky?” said Lagi. “Can’t you find something for this child to do?”

“A message…?” said Nili. She craned her neck toward the stone relic.

“Table,” said Iniala. “Why don’t you move closer to Nili so she can see better?”

“This is how you talk to furniture,” said Lagi. She nudged the mute beast with her shoulder, and it slid forward toward Nili.

“The podbeasts do not speak,” said Kelem. “They serve the Pod with their muscles, not their minds.”

“Why can’t they speak?” asked Iniala. “What happened to her back?”

“Let Nili concentrate, Ini,” said Kelem.

“The scratches are regularly spaced,” said Nili, “and some of them repeat. These might have meaning.”

“Words?” offered Iniala.

Lagi grunted and said something in Podsong that Iniala did not understand.

“Ini…” said Kelem, in a scolding tone.

“No, not words, child,” said Nili. “Words are the signature of a true mind, which can only be achieved in the Pod. These scratches could be territorial markings, or even something like child-speech, but it would be a grave mistake to think of them as words.”

“If you really believe that,” asked Lagi, “then why are we wasting our time staring at them?”

Lagi stormed off toward the stacks, where other podbeasts swam in place, bearing the archive’s collections on their backs. As Lagi left, a cocoon of Podsong enveloped her. The song rippled and drifted from her body, fading mournfully as it trailed off. The words flowed into one another and built off one another with such speed and depth that Iniala could not hold them in her mind.

“Lagi, come back,” said Nili.

Bewildered, Iniala turned to Kelem.

“Those,” said Kelem, “are words. Words do not merely refer to things. Words bring things to life. They are a tangible extension of the mind beyond the body. I know you meant well in your discussion of the star-stone, but to compare those markings with genuine song… Lagi is right to be offended. You’ll understand when you’ve learned more.”

Lagi was already mad at me before that, thought Iniala, but she decided not to ask why. Over the next few weeks, Iniala spent more time in a study cubicle along with a Podsinger chaperone and the six podbeasts that comprised the walls. She felt like a prisoner and felt sure Kelem had done it in order to make peace with Lagi. It isn’t fair, thought Iniala. How am I supposed to know what offends her?

When Iniala’s head hurt too much from worry and the strain of sculpting Podsong, she escaped into dreams, letting her memories take the reins for a while…

I scurried into the underbrush in pursuit of a palatable creature with tufts of green fur. Furry-Green’s scent and the sound of its footfalls urged me on, yet I restrained my appetite, waiting for long minutes until Furry-Green strayed far enough from its hiding place to give me a clear line of attack. At the right moment, I kicked off against the soil and lunged. My claws grazed Furry-Green’s back, and…

Impact, from my right side. As I tumbled, a hated odor filled my nostrils. Gray jaws snapped shut just short of my neck. The sight of Gray’s face flooded my mind with memories of hunger, humiliation and pain.

I kicked the hated gray lizard in the midsection, forcing it to retreat, but I had already lost. Its companion, a pallid, scrawny lizard, dragged Furry-Green out of view while Gray stood guard. Too tired to give chase, I faced another night of bitter toads and stringy, tasteless grubs.

“Not good enough,” said Kelem. “You may think I’m strict, but the Elders will be harder on you. Do the drills until you can do them without thinking. Your muscles should know what to do.”

“What happens if I fail?”

“Then you won’t become a Podswoman,” said Kelem, “but there isn’t time to think about that right now. All this worry is affecting your song. Just relax and practice and you’ll never have to worry about all those what-ifs.”

“But what happens? Do I go back out into the open ocean?”

“Look at me, Ini,” said Kelem. “When I first crossed over, I was just as anxious as you are. I had to put those worries aside. So take all the energy you were going to spend on worry and planning for failure and pour it into your lessons. You’ll feel better, and you’ll do better too. I have to go. Nili and I are presenting our analysis of the star-stone to the Elders. I’ll be back afterward to see how you’re doing.”

Right, thought Iniala, all I have to do is focus. Despite her efforts, after a few hours she had slipped into reverie once more.

I seethed with anger and lashed out at the nearest lizards, biting at their eyes and throats until they scattered. Now in the clear, I sprinted ahead toward the beast, launching myself at its knee and climbing over my rivals’ bodies onto the beast’s back. Nearby lizards swiped at me, defending their patches of hide, but I shook off their attacks.

Now on the beast’s back, I studied it as I would a prey animal. Its head drooped with fatigue, allowing the sunlight to catch the fresh blood on its tattered skin. An intoxicating scent filled the air, compelling me to tear into flesh, root out the source of the odor and consume it. The splut-splut of the beast’s footfalls continued, now muffled by the water and slower in pace. Soon, it would collapse, and I would have all the time I needed to feed.

The beast’s head swiveled, bending impossibly at the neck in order to face upward and look me in the eye.

“Show me Verun’s Elementary Motion Series,” it said.

I tried to shape the dry air into moving waves and ripples. A dispirited croak rattled in my throat.

“Unsatisfactory,” said the beast.

A swarm of lizards converged on Iniala, and she awoke just before their claws struck.

Focus, thought Iniala. She tried Verun’s Rotating Cube, but it wobbled when stationary and dissolved into a swirling glob when she tried to set it spinning. She tried turning the glob into Kelem’s face but the distorted result only horrified and depressed her.

Iniala floated quietly in despair, giving her gills and heart a chance to calm down. She longed to feel something other than water beneath her. For the first time, she thought of leaving the Pod and going back to the beach one last time, even if it meant letting the lizards tear her apart.

As if in answer to Iniala’s restless thoughts, a melody pierced the veil of Podsong. The aching dirge drew Iniala out into the chaos of the Pod. At first, the visceral connection with the song startled Iniala, but as she listened, she heard the familiar rhythms of the sea against the shore, of claws against the sand in the moment before a predatory lunge, and of the fluttering beats of a miniscule heart. Whoever composed this song, Iniala decided, remembered the beach.

Iniala followed the sound back to the Archive and found Lagi amid the stacks. The Podbeasts that carried the Archives collection on their backs offered no comment on her performance.

“I hope I can sing like that someday,” said Iniala.

“Go away,” said Lagi. “Go back to your playroom.”

“There’s only one more day,” said Iniala. “If I fail, I won’t have another chance to ask. What have I done to make you angry with me?”

Lagi sighed. Even the sigh drifted in a delicate ring of Podsong.

“I’m not going to explain such things to a child.”

“Fine,” said Iniala. “Tell me about those songs you sing. Did you make them yourself or did someone teach them to you?”

“What difference does that make to you?”

“Not much, I guess,” said Iniala, feigning indifference as best she could.

“I learned at the feet of Xerfala. She wrote them, and she was the greatest poet of her generation. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

“I don’t know the name,” said Iniala, “but I know what she was singing about. She remembered the beach, didn’t she?”

“Shut up!”

Lagi’s toothless mouth crinkled into a scowl, and her stubby legs shook as if she were running in place. Her eyes narrowed with rage as she swam forward in a burst of motion and released a focused shriek of Podsong. The flash left Iniala dazed and her head ringing.

“You have no right to say such things about Xerfala. You are nothing compared to her. You deserve a fate worse than the podbeasts for what you’ve done.”

“What could I have done?” asked Iniala. She dropped into child-speech because her head swam and her snout throbbed. At that moment, Podsong was the furthest thing from her mind. “I’ve never met her. I haven’t met anybody here except you, Kelem and Nili. Well, and the podbeasts.” As she spoke those words, she realized that they weren’t quite true. She remembered one beast–the one Orange had killed–and maybe one more as well, unless it was just a dream.

“This is like talking to an imbecile,” said Lagi. “I’m not going to spell it out for you.”

“You don’t have to,” said Iniala, speaking in excited gasps. “Not anymore. Xerfala went to the beach to lay eggs. She went across the sand to the hatching pools, like all the others. We waited for them. Hundreds of us waited for our chance for the kill of a lifetime, but only a few get to stand on the behemoth’s back and bathe our jaws in its blood. It happened to Kelem long ago, and then it happened to me. That’s why we crossed over. That’s what happens when a lizard eats–”

Lagi spun and slapped Iniala on the side of her head with her tail, but Iniala stood her ground.

“How did you fill such a little head with such filth,” said Lagi, in barbed, jagged Podsong. “Maybe you are growing up after all. Xerfala was above animal passion. When the beach called her, she ordered a dozen podbeasts to weigh her down with their bodies, no matter how she thrashed and cursed, until the desire passed. In a few years, she would have reached the age where the desire would have faded forever. She would have taken her place among the Elders.”

“But she didn’t?” said Iniala.

“Last year she went to the beach,” said Lagi. “‘There must be someone to carry on after me,’ she said, as if her students and admirers didn’t matter. Only her bulging egg sac mattered, and that filthy little gland at the base of her neck, the one that makes the lizards tear us apart. Don’t you see? The lure of the beach clouded her thinking. We did all we could to stop her, but she left us. The world has been silent since then.”

“If you taught me to sing like that,” said Iniala, “I could tell you…” Iniala stopped. Every word filled her head with bolts of pain. She tasted her own blood in the water. Once, she knew, she had tasted Xerfala’s blood on her tongue, and the taste was familiar even though it had lost its allure.

“Shut up, you stupid child,” said Lagi. The rage had faded from her voice, but resentment lingered. “Don’t tell anyone about any of this.”

Loud Podsong lit up the room. Lagi shrank away from it like a Furry-Green caught in a thunderstorm.

“Ini,” said Kelem. “I’ve been looking all over for you, and… what happened here?”

“I… know why Lagi… hates me,” said Iniala. She forced the words out through aching, swollen nasal air sacs.

“Lagi,” said Nili, “What have you done?”

“Xerfala’s song could make even the Elders weep,” said Lagi. “If this child is even half as good as you say she is, a bloody snout isn’t going to keep her from getting through the basic drills.”

“You’d better hope so,” said Kelem, “or so help me, you’ll answer for it.”

“Just leave her be,” said Nili. “I’ll find a doctor.”

“Can we postpone the judgment somehow?” asked Kelem.

“Only the Elders can delay a judgment,” said Nili. “We will have our chance to ask them tomorrow.”

That night, Iniala strained to remember. I will dream of crossing over, she told herself, and whatever my fate might be, at least I will face it knowing who I am.

I launched myself at the beast’s knee and climbed over my rivals’ bodies until I reached its back. Nearby lizards swiped at me, defending their patches of hide, but I shook off their attacks. An intoxicating scent filled the air, compelling me to tear into flesh, root out the source of the odor and consume it. The splut-splut of the beast’s footfalls continued, now muffled by the water. The sight of my enemies, their facial patterns still clear through the blood, extinguished the last of its fear.

I lunged at Pallid and felt the satisfying snap of a knee joint within my jaws. I twisted my neck with all the force I could manage, wrenching Pallid off of the beast and sending it tumbling into the water. I turned to Gray, who was now bloody from shoulder to snout. My instincts were clear–follow the scent, fill your belly with the flesh–but vengeance was a higher calling. I vaulted over the others, clamped my jaws around Gray’s neck and squeezed until Gray’s body stilled.

As I caught my breath, I stood on an island of flesh, with many body lengths of water between me and the shore. As I braced myself for the chill of the water, a strip of flesh with a cluster of tiny blue nodules slipped from Gray’s jaws and landed on the beast’s back. The scent of the nodules, muted before, now struck me with its full force. I released Gray and swallowed them. In ecstasy, I lost my footing on the slick hide and fell into the sea.

The water numbed my skin and sent my muscles into spasms. My pinwheeling legs propelled me further from shore. My lungs cried out for oxygen, but their pleas went unanswered as I yielded to the water, even as my body continued to swim.

An eternity passed until a voice broke through the darkness.

Iniala… Iniala… Iniala…

“Iniala! Iniala! Wake up!”

Kelem’s blaring Podsong jolted Iniala out of the dream. “Hurry to the Archive! You have a visitor.”

A dour husk of a Podswoman waited by the entrance. Iniala noticed that the Podbeasts that formed the doorway edged away from her as much as they could without leaving their posts.

“Iniala, child of Xerfala, ward of Kelem,” she said. “The Elders are ready for you.” She swam off without waiting for a reply.

Iniala kept close to Kelem’s flank as they traveled the winding paths through the Pod’s interior. Podsingers radiated Podsong at regular intervals, straining to overcome the chatter. Podbeasts swam in place on all sides, their bodies marking the boundary of chamber after mysterious chamber.

“The podbeasts here all have scars on their backs,” said Iniala, “just like the tables at the Archive.”

“Shh!” said Kelem.

The path widened into a vast spherical chamber bounded by more mute sentinels arranged in formation, stacked side by side, back to belly. The Elders, three giants, stood in the center of the chamber. Four podbeasts swam underneath each of the Elders, supporting each of the Elders’ knobby feet.

“Approach,” said the Elders, speaking in unison. Their song was shot through with ornaments and flourishes down to the limits of Iniala’s hearing.

As Iniala swam toward them, a veil of white noise rose up behind her, cutting her off from Kelem and forcing Iniala to strain her ears to follow the Elders’ subtle song.

“Show us Verun’s Five Foundational Shapes.”

Iniala swallowed, sucked in a mouthful of water, spit it out and set her jaw. The first shape, a sphere, was suitably spherical. The second, a pyramid, wobbled at the top, with one corner blurry and longer than the others. The cube started out looking almost cubic, but it sploshed into a meaningless puddle after three seconds. Verun herself would not have recognized Iniala’s attempts at the torus and the twin-sphere. Iniala could only watch helplessly as the Elders muttered in Podsong amongst themselves.

“Show us Verun’s Pyramid once more,” the Elders commanded. The new rendition did resemble a pyramid, but the sides rippled slightly and it was off-center about ten degrees to the left.

“Now rotate it ninety degrees to your right.”

Iniala froze. In desperation, she imagined herself singing a pyramid on its side and wrenched her song toward the image. The pyramid exploded like an egg dropped from a great height. Eventually, the chaos coalesced into a pyramid on its side, but by then Iniala’s swim bladder and nasal air sacs fluttered too hard for her to keep anything in focus. Abruptly, the veil of sound parted so the Elders could publicly proclaim their judgment.

“This is not satisfactory,” said the Elders. “Iniala, child of Xerfala, has yet to master even the rudiments of Podsong. She is no Podswoman, and even Podsinger status may be beyond her. We cannot permit her ascension to the Pod.”

“I hope you’re satisfied, Lagi,” said Kelem.

“If we had more time, and in consideration of her recent injury–” said Nili.

“We have taken too much time with this already,” said the Elders. “There is no need to compound the loss of Xerfala with yet another failure. Iniala shall be taken to the Place of the Sharp Stones and there without delay–”

“Wait,” said Iniala. “There is something I need to tell Lagi first. I didn’t kill Xerfala. I know because I remember.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Lagi, “You crossed over just after she came ashore.”

“But it wasn’t me,” said Iniala. She was dimly conscious of her Podsong becoming fluid as her memories took hold of it. She sang with a sprinter’s cadence. Her words had teeth now. “The gray lizard attacked her, not me. The creature that deserves your hate is the same one I had hated for so long, and it died on the shore a lifetime ago.”

“You are dreaming,” said Lagi. “You stupid, stupid child.”

“I crushed the life out of it myself. I felt its blood run from my jaws. I remember.”

“This is gibberish,” said Lagi.

“That’s not all I remember. I saw Xerfala step out onto the shore willingly. She lasted long enough to reach the pools where the lizards hatch, and she was on her return trip when I reached her. That means her children are out there somewhere. Maybe you’ll meet them one day, when you make the trip for yourself.”

“Shut up! I can’t bear this!” cried Lagi.

“Please, Ini,” said Kelem. “Don’t say anything more. The Elders…”

“Silence,” said the Elders, “Iniala, come to the center of the chamber. We wish to speak with you alone.” The acoustic veil reformed, leaving Iniala to swim into the churning haze.

Once Iniala had done as they commanded, the Elders left their podbeast pedestals and encircled her. They spoke with tightly focused Podsong.

“Repeat what you just said, and we will know if you lie.”

“I remember the beach,” said Iniala. “And so do you.”

The lines in the Elders’ faces smoothed out as the muscles tightened behind them. The Elders must have come from the same clutch, thought Iniala. They remembered how to hunt in a pack. Did they believe the poetry about the nobility of Podsong, or were their judgments just an excuse for them to relive their greatest triumph when they, alone among the multitudes, triumphed over the great beast?

The Elders kept up their acoustic smokescreen, but they said nothing. Iniala remembered the times when she hunted alongside Kelem. She stood alert, waiting for prey, waiting for the command to kill. I was a follower once, her posture said. I can be again.

“You believe,” said one Elder, “that Xerfala’s offspring prowl the beach as we speak?”

“It was an idle thought,” said Iniala. “I said it to put things right with Lagi.”

The Elders circled Iniala once more, but this time they examined the skin above her spine at the base of her neck.

“If they do cross over,” said another Elder, “they will need a mentor who shares their bloodline.”

“Or better still,” said the third, eying the base of Iniala’s neck, “we could recombine the halves of Xerfala’s bloodline. Imagine who might cross over if one of Xerfala’s children were to consume this whelp.”

Iniala knew that she had escaped a death sentence, but that her sculpted Podsong and careful words had counted for nothing. Breeding, after all, had carried the day.

“Your idle thoughts may have saved you for the moment,” said the Elders, “but they have consequences. A price must be paid, to send a message to the others. Learn from this, whelp, while you can.”

The Elders let the veil drop, released Iniala, and addressed the others.

“Iniala’s recent outburst reveals an adequate mastery of Podsong, and even some echoes of Xerfala. However, the word is the mirror of the mind, and here we find a deviant mind still driven by animal instincts. We cannot allow such a mind to speak with Xerfala’s voice. We stand by our judgment. She is unfit for admission.”

“Wait,” said Kelem. “The fault was mine, Honored Elders. I was consumed with my work and failed to educate Iniala properly in our cultural tradition. Iniala spoke out of ignorance, not malice. So that my mistake does not dishonor Xerfala’s sacrifice, I ask you to appoint a surrogate mentor for Iniala, one who might succeed where I have failed.”

The Elders trained their eyes on Kelem. Iniala recognized their predatory gleam, but, just as in her dream, fear reduced her voice to a harsh, animal croak.

“Our tradition allows this,” said the Elders, “and we are mindful of Xerfala’s sacrifice, but you would take on Iniala’s transgression as your own, and the judgment as well. Do you accept this?”

“Kelem,” said Iniala and Lagi in unison. “You can’t!”

“Honored Elders,” said Nili, “for the sake of mercy…”

Iniala had seen enough to know that mercy had slipped from their bloodline long ago. Who crosses over, after all, without first shedding the blood of her neighbor?

Kelem turned to Nili.

“If I went to the beach a hundred times, I could not produce one such as Iniala. If I lived to become an Elder myself I could not achieve the greatness she is destined for. Nili, I ask you to take Iniala under your care until the Elders decide she is ready.”

“Is there no other way?”


Nili approached Kelem and softly brushed her snout against the side of Kelem’s jaw. As she pulled back, she whispered to Kelem so the Elders could not see.

“Whatever happens,” said Nili, “you will always have a place with us. I will see to it.” Turning to the Elders, she asked, “Will the Honored Elders allow this?”

“This is acceptable, so long as Iniala displays no further deviant tendencies. From this time forward, Kelem, child of Lexi, will no longer take her place among Podswomen. From this moment forward, the vessel that bore that name shall be known only as podbeast.”

The Elders summoned a dozen large Podswomen as guards. They flanked Kelem and escorted her from the Pod. Lagi and Iniala jostled past the guards when they could, swimming close enough so their forelegs touched hers.

From the Pod, they traveled toward the beach, where the sea floor was shallow. They reached a point where rocks had fallen from an undersea cliff and landed in a pile at the base. The cliff’s edge was ragged and unnaturally sharp in places, as if someone had chiseled spines into the rock.

“Stand aside,” said one of the guards. Iniala and Lagi hesitated until two of the larger guards pushed them out of the way. Two more guards pressed themselves against Kelem’s flanks, and two others pressed against her from above and below. Lastly, a hulking Podswoman approached Kelem from the front and studied her, feeling the contours of her face in a mockery of Nili’s earlier gesture. The Podswoman drew back and screamed. In the lower frequencies, Iniala heard a sound like splintering wood, while the higher frequencies tore into Kelem. The sound struck again and again until the sides of Kelem’s face bulged out. Her eyes swelled shut as fluid collected in the surrounding flesh.

The four guards lifted Kelem into a vertical position, with the sharpened tip of the rocks against the base of her neck. In a practiced and precise move, two of them pinned her while two other guards reared back and hammered her downward with as much force as they could manage. A cloud of blood spilled out behind Kelem. As the guards released her, Iniala, Nili and Lagi swam underneath her to carry her weight.

“What can we do?” asked Iniala.

”I will take care of her,” said Nili. “You two need to keep quiet until the Elders forget about what you both have said.” Iniala allowed Nili to take her place beneath Kelem.

“No,” said Iniala. “I am not going back to those monsters. Not after this.”

“But Kelem is your true sister,” said Nili. “You are of the same clutch. She sacrificed herself for you.”

“I have not forgotten Kelem. I know what I have to do. The Elders can say what they like, but I know there are some voices that speak louder than Podsong.”

Iniala turned away from Nili and swam through the spreading cloud of blood. She returned and faced Nili with the gland clenched in her jaws. She felt her bond with Kelem strengthen in a way she had never expected and the Elders could never have imagined.

“Just promise me you’ll wait for them,” said Iniala. “Promise me you’ll tell them what the Elders have done. Perhaps they will learn to read the words on the star-stone. When the Star People return, perhaps they will be able to speak for us.”

“Wait for who?” asked Nili. “Tell who?”

“Kelem’s children.”

“You really are dangerous,” said Nili, in quiet, subtle Podsong that showed she was no longer speaking to a child. “You have my word. I will stand watch for them, as Kelem did for you.”

Iniala swam to the ocean floor, felt for some sharp slivers of rock and took them in her mouth. By pressing them against the gland, she separated the nodules and split each one into pieces. That task done, she swam to the beach and charged onto the sand. Though her thin hide offered little protection, she moved quickly, and her speed confounded the lizards’ initial attacks. The lizards dug into her flesh until the blood ran down the sides of her legs and colored her footprints in the sand.

Iniala reached the edge of the woods and dove for a deep, familiar pool. The creatures waited; their ancestral knowledge told them Iniala would lay her eggs and leave, but Iniala, still young, had none to lay. Instead, she arose and spat the contents of her mouth in a wide arc onto the mud, within reach of the horde.

How many pieces? A dozen? A hundred? More? Kelem had said Iniala had crossed alone, so she was Xerfala’s only child. She was sure it was because she had swallowed the gland whole rather than letting the other lizards tear pieces off for themselves. How small could a piece be and still trigger the transformation?

Iniala hoped dozens, even hundreds, of lizards might cross over, enough to form a new generation conceived in mercy instead of bloodlust. Amid the chaos, a familiar sight made her forget her pain for a moment. A pale lizard with a scarred and misshapen leg limped to the pond’s edge and lapped at the water.

The Elders had words for what Iniala saw when she thought of the future. They called it anarchy, disaster, ill-omen. Iniala, though no poet of Xerfala’s stature, had a word for it too.


Illuminate: A History and a Future

By Sadie Bruce

Voice Over – Hannah Skerritt

“My life is a lesson about the things people refuse to accept. And about what they choose to accept. And maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a lovely life. Or maybe you’re thinking it’s a horrible life. And while you’re thinking it’s a horrible life, the person next to you is thinking it sounds pretty great. That’s the problem with everything, you never know what the other person is thinking. So, ok, you take a drug to try and connect. Or you sing a song or paint a picture. And suddenly you get it, you can tap into the perception of the person next to you. That’s the point of creation, right? I never intended to hurt anyone.”

Illuminate: A History and a Future
Alexa Norton

This is the only shot I’m going to be in. It’s me against the wide blue sky of Idaho, standing along a strip of highway outside Boise. I spent two days waiting for the right weather and the right light. The road bends behind me, the yellow stripes recently painted and bright on the asphalt. Every few feet a stubby pine tree pokes up out of the long grass.

I’ve got a microphone, mostly for looks. I wear a pants suit and kitten heels. My hair is dyed a honey blonde because I think the highlights will look good in the sun. I’ve come to Idaho to visit the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center and finish my documentary. It has been four years since I started and the stretching road seems like a bad metaphor. I hope it doesn’t come across that way on screen. I snort, thinking of the thing ever making it to a screen, small or otherwise.

Lucus pans his camera across the backdrop. I met him two weeks ago at a local bar. He told me his name was Dermot but everyone called him Lucus. I replied that my name was Alexa and that’s what people called me, whether I wanted them to or not. He asked if it was all right if he called me Alexa too. After a few drinks, he took me to his apartment and showed me pictures he’d taken of his niece after she’d broken her arm. Even in black and white I could tell the girl was shaken. Her eyes round as melons and her bottom lip curled in like little kids do when they are dead afraid, as opposed to pouted out when they are merely frightened. I couldn’t tell how the photograph made me feel or if it made me feel anything at all.

“Did you take Illuminate to get that photo?” I asked him.

He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, saying, “I don’t do drugs.”

I laughed and hired him on the spot.

It’s important to have good, creative people working alongside me and they must have a sense of humor. He frames me in the shot. He waits for my cue and I give it. Start rolling.

“This stretch of road is a main conduit for transporting phenoluxamine. Or Illuminate, as it is commonly referred. Developed at a small medical lab in a Boise research park, Illuminate has been steadily making its way across the country. The path dips down into the southwest and along the northern states and, lately, crosses up Canada. Following the drug is an undeniable surge of creativity. Here in Boise, five wooden statutes were carved, overnight, out of trees in the downtown park. The statues, which we’ll visit later, were seemingly created with no hesitation. There is no suggestion that the artist or artists ever paused to make changes. The result is a flawless and strange depiction of a Bacchanalian orgy.

Down south, a farmer in Nebraska reported finding a Mandelbrot set etched into his field. In Wyoming, a full novel was dropped off at a bar, reportedly by a long standing patron who was, as far as anyone knew, illiterate. The incidents may be unrelated. After all, there are plenty of people who ingest Illuminate and do not manage to produce Van Gogh levels of art. However, as the addiction rate rises so does the creative impulse of the users.

I’m going to Pocatello to meet the woman who claims to have created the drug. Her name is Hannah Skerritt. She’s twenty eight years old. She’s white. Upper middle class. And one of the biggest dealers the Idaho Highway Patrol have ever arrested.”

I put the mike down and give the camera one last look.

A truck speeds past. The sunlight reflects off the side mirrors and blinds me momentarily. Lucus tucks the camera into the case. I turn and watch the truck drive into the distance, my director’s mind wondering where the car is going, who’s driving and what it is they want. I watch the day’s footage, standing on the side of the road. It isn’t right. It’s not quite the way I envision it.

“What do you think?” I ask Lucus.

He shrugs.

“No, really, I value your opinion,” I tell him. I’m sincere.

“It’s good,” he says.

“Let’s do one more take.”

He nods and pulls out the camera again. “One more take might be wise.”

I fight the familiar urge to be insulted and we do another take.

Hannah Skerritt
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center

“So, I met Rory when we were working in a call center at Bellflower Mall. Have you been there?”

Hannah Skerritt sits in a plain wooden chair. Her hands are free but her feet are shackled. The table is polished wood and the setting sun causes a terrible glare that I can’t seem to work around. I try several angles and Lucus shrugs. He’s doing the best he can. It’s not good enough. I try to angle my shadow to cover the glare.

This is the time she insisted we meet. And she purposefully scooted the chair to let the obnoxious ray in. Two inches to the right and she could block it but, she won’t. I set the shot as a close up and I’m doubting that choice now, watching her pores and her vicious mouth. She runs her hands through her hair and the sides stick out.

“I was in college. I was poor, right? Why not? Why not answer customer complaints for a drug company who, it turns out, has a very decent research department and very poor public relations. They hired me and across the cubicle with his spiky hair and his nose-to-ear ring was Rory. I told you he was lovely, didn’t I? Because he was. For the first week, I just sat there and drank him in, like had these crazy fantasies where I would stride over there and rip off his phone and bury my nails in his spikes and he would kiss like a boxer. Even though I have no idea how a boxer kisses, that’s just the kind of stupid shit I was thinking at the time.

“Two weeks later, I said hello.

“Three weeks after that, I switched my major to chemistry.

A year later, there was a chance to go deep in Rory Wellington and an opportunity to be a research assistant. I took them both and maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a lovely life,” she notices my expression, “Or, whatever, maybe you’re thinking it’s a horrible life and while you’re thinking it’s a horrible life, the person next to you is thinking it sounds pretty great.”

She winks at Lucus, biting her pinky nail, tugging at it with her stained teeth and raising her eyebrows. He asks her questions about her youth. I’m much more worried about how I’m going to wrap this into my narrative than any kind of philosophical discussion to be had with a drug dealer.

Hannah asks for a bathroom break and Lucus turns the camera on me.

“What do you think about Hannah Skerrit, director?” he asks, grinning and turning his cap backward.

“I think she’s a complete waste of air,” I say.

He laughs. “So angry.”


“This is supposed to be fun,” he says.

“Are you fucking serious?”

Greta Luntz
Old Mom’s Diner, Boise

Greta Luntz shows me her driver’s license. I hold it up for the camera. In the picture, Greta is a cherubic twenty something with a spattering of freckles and a ring of kohl eyeliner. She is smiling, looking both amused and tired and it is the expression of a hundred girls, on their own for the first time, standing in line at the DMV. It is the face of new responsibility and freedom. I lay the photo down and Greta herself fills the screen. Or half of it.

Her face has collapsed. Cheekbones and the ridge of her eyebrow jut out at sharp angles and cast a shadow over the rest of her features. Her eyelashes have been plucked out. She grinds the palm of her hand into her eyes.

“Haven’t slept in days,” she tells us. “My eyes hurt. Didn’t ever know your eyes could hurt like this.”

She smiles weakly and drops her hand in her lap. Along the edge of her thigh, the entire time she’s talking to us, she plays an invisible keyboard. She’s composing a song that will never be played, may not even be remembered by its composer, but there is no doubt it is beautiful. Unlike Greta, the silent music is robust and full of life.

“What kinds of things do you like to write about? What do you try and convey in your music?” I ask her.

She twitches involuntarily and I think she might slide off the chair. I reach out to steady her, trying to keep out of the shot.

“Sorry. Been taking Lily so long that I’m one of those lucky people. I get a jolt every now and then, a free shot,” she’s grinning like a child at the ice cream truck. The thigh music speeds up, her fingers moving so fast they begin to blur. The fabled creative rush is happening. I sit up straighter and realize my own heart is racing. I need to get her a keyboard, something so we can hear what’s being made.

“What are you composing?” I ask.

A fleck of spit gathers at the corners of her mouth. Her right eye rolls inward.

“My eyes hurt,” she says again.

I can’t use that. It doesn’t make any sense.

“Do you want to sing something for us?”

Her head lays back. She presses her legs together and the skin piano is wider. The silent song gets more involved. She moans, a guttural sound. Her collarbone pokes through the top of her t-shirt. I reach out and touch her wrist. She’s colder than I expected. Her skin is waxy.

“She smells like the dark room,” Lucus says. I put my finger to my lips, telling him to hush. Lucus and his photography.

Greta slips off the chair, cracking her head on the edge of the seat. She lands on the floor in a pile of bones and exhaustion.

“Shit,” Lucus says, setting the camera down. Sighing, I pick it up and adjust the lens. Lucus gathers her in his arms, stroking back her hair, slicked with sweat. He shakes her and she opens her eyes. I’m trembling, wishing he would move out of the shot and, at the same time, wondering if perhaps him being there is a good connection point for the audience.

“Thought I was sleeping,” she mumbles.

“Sorry, sweetheart. You all right?” he asks.

“They should just stick all of us in a building and blow the fucking thing up,” she says.

She shoves Lucus off and looks at the camera. I pull back to capture her wild appearance.

“That’s what they should do. Kill us all. Burn the Lily factories to the ground. Yes, yes, yes,” she lays down on the ground.

She doesn’t fall asleep. Her open eyes stare at the ceiling but I know she’s done talking. She is still. Almost peaceful. Then her arm floats above her, as if by its own motivations, and begins playing a new song on the chair.

Hannah Skerritt
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center

After her break, Hannah shuffles to her seat and collapses. She doesn’t appear to like using her hands, preferring to let them hang by her sides or rest on the table. I reach over and pick a stray hair away from her uniform. I tell Lucus to focus in tight. Her looks have faded drastically. She’s aged twenty years and a day. I find myself wondering what her mother makes of things and maybe I should ask, except Hannah has made it clear she will pull her cooperation if I approach her family.

“How did you first create Illuminate?”

She rolls her head on her twig neck and when she’s facing us again, her mouth is a hard line. “I had this theory, right, not really a theory, just a hunch. About serotonin. You know what serotonin is?”

I don’t answer.

“Serotonin is basically happiness,” she speaks slowly, as if addressing a child. Her attitude is grating. “You get flooded with serotonin and you’re going to feel pretty damn good for a decent amount of time. Serotonin can be found in two places, the central nervous system, in other words, the brain, or the cells of your gut. You’ve got your garden variety drugs that releases serotonin in your brain, right? It’s nothing new. However, there’s this limited supply there and it gets worn out fast. You build up a tolerance and you can’t access the same level of your first high unless you do more drugs. I wanted something long lasting and something that could be accessed, even after the drugs main affects wore off. Like a jolt or an extra hit.

So, I’m thinking, where are all the great untapped serotonin wells? Like I’m looking for oil. And it comes to me one night, while I’m watching Rory on stage. Did you ever see him? There would be a point in a song when he would lean back and his body would stretch out and I was watching and I thought, there it is, in his belly, untapped happiness potential. I just had to figure out how to get it out of those cells and into the brain. It wasn’t as hard as it sounds.

There has been endless research about keeping seratonin sitting on the brain. MAOI inhibitors block seratonin absorption. I used that and added a transport component. The transporters take the seratonin to the brain. Not all of it, or even half. I think only like 40% actually makes it but man, that’s enough.”

Her face softens and her mouth eases up into a slight smile, “And I was so fucking happy in that moment. You know what it’s like when you realize that you can solve everyone’s problems. Like, not just your own but the person you care most for in the world? I could make Rory Wellington so goddamn happy. I thought, maybe, if he was high enough for long enough he could tap into some musical talent he was resisting but, mainly, I just wanted to impress him. I wanted him to see himself the way I saw him and, yeah, ok, see me the way I wanted him to see me too. That’s the problem with everything, you never know what the other person is thinking. I was after making Rory happy because the poor guy was so damn sad all the time. And the only thing that made him happy was drugs. And music,” she pauses, her eyes running down the length of the table and back, her thumb picking at a nail, “and me.”

I can tell she doesn’t believe the last part.

“It never occurred to me that I could make him a rockstar.”

Hannah gets quiet. She chews her bottom lip. Lucus glances over to me and I twirl my finger, keep rolling. He shakes his head.

“She looks sick,” he mouths.

I wave him off.

Come on, give me what I need, I lean forward, hoping to coax it out of her.

“In hindsight,” she says, “I should have seen it coming.”

Dr. Jack Chapman
Boise Medical Examiner’s Office

“Uh, huh. I autopsied Rory Wellington on July 7, 2012. His body was, hm, extremely emaciated. He was discovered by his, well, I guess she was his girlfriend. Though I never spoke to her. I just spoke to his parents.”

The medical examiner stops there. He’s a terrible interview subject. He keeps glancing down and, on screen, that’s going to look like he’s fallen asleep. I ask him to describe the body. He blushes and taps his fingers together. That’s going to make him look maniacal. I motion for the Lucus to center on the report. I try my best to keep the man talking. I’m fumbling. I want this segment to be powerful, to be a big reveal.

“Ok, well, he technically died of heart failure,” Dr. Chapman says, “Though starvation and sleep deprivation were contributing factors.”

I flash a picture of Rory Wellington four weeks before his death. He’s a healthy, handsome young musician.

Dr. Chapman nods, “I know. It’s amazing how quickly phenoluxamine addicts deteriorate.”

“You believe Rory Wellington was an addict?’

He nods again.

I open and shut my fingers like a duck beak, to indicate he needs to speak.

He coughs.

Hannah Skerritt
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center

Hannah swings her head back and forth in an arc, her hair dragging across the table. When the camera is turned on and I say her name, she stops, lifts her head, and stares into the lens, slack jawed.

I’m not amused. I will play Hannah Skerritt any way I want. I fight the urge to lean across the table and whisper, “Editing, bitch.”

Instead I wait. Lucus shifts. I put my hand on his hip to steady the camera. He’s so jumpy, lately. The night before, in the hotel, I caught him snapping pictures of a family pulling luggage out of their car.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Trying to find some warmth,” he said, turning his camera on me.

The resulting picture is a woman frowning.

“You’re very beautiful,” he said, snapping another shot.

The next picture is a woman, smiling in spite of herself.

“Look, I’m not giving you the recipe for Illuminate,” Hannah says, “That’s just fucking nuts. I cooked it. It took a while to get it right.”

She opens her mouth to say something else but I stop her. I consult with Lucus about the shot. I want something different, something softer, a way to shoot Hannah so she’s not the seen as the hopeless, strung out prison junkie she is. He has no opinion and I’m annoyed.

Hannah groans, “You’re just like fucking Rory. You want to express something and you think to yourself, hey, I know how to do this. Only you don’t know, do you? You can only dream about the day you wake up and suddenly, you get it, you can tap into the perception of the person next to you. ”

Lucus sets the camera down. He touches my arm and I pull away.

“Pick the camera back up,” I tell him.

“I’m sorry,” Hannah says, “I’m sure your documentary is piece of shit but I’m also sure people will want to see it.”

I shove my chair back and walk out of the room. I lean against the wall, closing my eyes.

“She’s a whore,” Lucus says.

I hadn’t realized he followed me. I’m touched, I guess. I can’t open my eyes to look at him or he’ll see I’m about to cry. Over a stupid girl in prison who’s never done one worthwhile pursuit in her whole life.

“I just want this to be good, you know?” I say, “It doesn’t feel right. Do you ever get that? When you’re taking a picture? Like you’re missing the point?”

“Totally,” he says. “I take it anyway. Come on, let’s go back inside.”

Genevieve Bennet
Gunster Medical Research

“Is that what she told you? She was a research assistant?”

Genevieve won’t stand still. Lucus scampers behind her and I try to keep up along side. We hurry down a bare beige hallway that smells of antiseptic. It reminds me of a hospital. Wide gray doors line the hallway and room numbers on black plaques fly by. We aren’t filming. We should be but we’re not because Genevieve won’t be seen on camera. She told me last minute and I heard her trepidation over phone. She was willing to talk but not on camera, she’s sorry, no she won’t do a behind a screen.

Instead, I record her voice on a phone in my pocket. I’ll add her picture, drop her vocal range an octave, and ask for her permission after she sees how well her story plays. That’s the plan anyway.

Genevieve has been at Gunster for ten years. She started when she was twenty but she looks older than thirty. She’s a wunkerkind of sorts. Gunster is known for hiring young kids straight out of or in college. I ask her about this. She rounds a corner and the carpet turns to faded lime-speckled linoleum.

“Yeah, right, it’s true they do hire young people. But, I’m telling you, they didn’t hire Hannah Skerritt I would have been here, what, two years at that point. So I was down the totem pole and I would have remembered someone like her. I heard people mention her name, that she was trying to get a job here. And maybe she got even lower level grunt work than research assistant, I’m not saying she’s lying about getting a job. I’m saying she’s lying about which one.”

“What about the creativity?” I ask.

Her coat swings around her legs as she walks, billowing out when she picks up the pace. “What about it? It’s a side effect, a relatively common one,” she pauses, “What I mean to say is, it can’t be predicted, at least, not that any of us can tell.”

“Why would you try and tell? Are you interested in selling a creative enhancement drug?”

Her heels stop clacking and she stops at a door labeled Lab. She sighs, her hand resting on the handle. She chews the inside of her cheek, glancing down the hall. I resist the urge to tell her it’s still empty, just like it was the last fifty times she checked.

She pushes into the room. I catch my breath. It’s not like I expected. The lab is empty, devoid of the mad scramble I always see in movies. It’s quiet and the tables are slightly dusty. Genevieve crosses to a bank of tall cabinets and opens one. Pill bottles line each shelf. She selects a bottle and hands it to me. I don’t recognize the label.

“It’s an inhibitor. For depression. Basically you’re always releasing seratonin and then reabsorbing it. The inhibitor blocks part of the absorption. Phenoluxamine is made up of some of that inhibitor’s compounds except what Hannah managed to do was discover the holy grail of inhibitors. She figured out a way to pull the seratonin out of the blood cells in the gut, get them to the brain and then keep them there. For a long time.” Genevieve’s shakes her head, “I mean, yes, it’s impressive. But, clearly dangerous. And irresponsible.”

“Why’s it dangerous?” I ask.

“Because we don’t know what effects seratonin has when it sits on your brain like that. Obviously, I’m simplifying things for you here,” she lowers her voice and I strain to hear her, “I mean, it doesn’t literally flood your brain but the transport component works differently in some users. It takes the seratonin to the part of the brain responsible for creativity and leaves it there. Forever. You’ve seen the affects.”

“Incredible bursts of creative impulse and execution,” I say.

“Massive amounts of brain damage,” she replies.

“What if you could get the seratonin off of the area in time?” I probe.

“I don’t know. This lab has been trying to figure it out for months,” Genevieve takes the pill bottle and goes to put it back on the shelf. She stops, turns and tosses it to Lucus. “Take it. You look like you could use them.”

He grins and pockets the bottle. I won’t be getting any steady camera work out of him tomorrow. I glare at him but he doesn’t notice. The shots have been off lately. They can’t have been set the way I set them. He must be tweaking the light exposure or something.

Hannah Skerritt
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center

“I wasn’t the one who found him,” Hannah coughs and stretches. I scoot back in time to avoid getting hit with her spit. The last few weeks have been rough. She’s up for appeal and a whole room full of dead teens were found in a basement, the first confirmed cases of overdosing on the new batch of Illuminate. The new batch is stronger, longer lasting, and lethal in relatively small doses. I wonder if Hannah is taking anything inside. Her eyes are dull and she’s lethargic.

I interrupt her rambling memory to ask about Illuminate’s potency. She leans back in the chair, back far enough the two front legs lift off the ground.

“Fuck, yeah, the potency. Well, I mean, that’s what drug cooks do isn’t it? Make bigger, better, badder stuff? Isn’t that the general idea of drugs in the first place? Drugs and movies, right?” she slams the chair down, her body coming forward and I think she might hit her face on the table when she catches herself. She lifts her head and gives the camera a glare. “This documentary, it’s so pat. It’s made up of everything I would think it would be. Interviews. A running theme maybe. Am I the theme? Am I the thing you keep coming back to? How original, Jesus Christ. Aren’t you supposed to reach for something when you do this?” she dismisses the camera with a flick of her wrist.

I’m tempted to break my enforced silence. To defend my work.

Alfie Wanson, P.I.O. Boise Police

The body is covered with a tarp. I hurry over, covering my nose. The smell is disgusting. Lucus keeps gagging and I hope the noise isn’t picked up. The section of street is blocked off with police tape, even though no one in their right mind would be down by this part of town. On the wall behind the body, I can see the mural.

The Boise Police Department public information officer frames himself over the wall and in the center line. He’s a man named Douglas Wanson who goes by Alfie. His title card will say Alfie Wanson. Alfie is a trim man with a trim mustache and light eyelashes. He looks awful on camera, like part of him will blend into the background. I motion for him to take a step to the right so he won’t block the mural.

A set of men sit in a canoe on a calm river. At the bank, tall trees arch over the water and the artist has managed to paint wind without a single brush stroke. By that I mean, the trees are swaying and leaves are twisting. The men in the boat are terrified. There is something lurking on the edges of the forest. I can sense it. Lucus can feel it, I can tell by the way he zooms the camera in and out, trying to find something in the underbrush.

“What you’re looking at is a symptom of an Illuminate addiction,” Alfie says, “This mural is over ten feet tall and was painted by the deceased in about four hours,” he clears his throat, “We found five more like it along the highway. I assume they are from the same artist – ‘scuse me.”

He blushes and waves at the camera, “Can I start over, I screwed up. I meant to say addict.”

I nod. Lucus pans over the mural. I hope he gets a decent shot. He’s been sullen and slow the last day or so, saying I’m taking him away form his real passion. Perhaps, I have been harsh. Yelling at him every time he steps away from the documentary to take a picture. I’m tempted to tell him what his photography lacks but I need him to finish. It’s almost done, I tell him, over and over, almost done. Hang in there. You’re doing a good job.

“We assume they are from the same addict. Eventually he dropped dead from exhaustion. I have to wait for the final coroner’s report, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this young man hadn’t slept or eaten for days,” Artie waves a hand dismissively at the tarp on the ground.

“What will you do with the mural?” I ask.

He blinks. He looks over his shoulder at the men in the boat and back to the camera.

“Paint over it, I guess.”

Hannah Skerritt
Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center

“Right, so, the basic way it works is you ingest the Illuminate. I know down south there’s some discussion of shooting it but I’m telling you, ingesting is the most effective way. Either by snorting or taking a pill. When I made the first batch it was a dusty, yellow powder that tasted like complete shit and worked pretty much the same way meth does, except with a slightly longer effect and that right there would have been good enough. Except, I don’t know, I just had this feeling I could do better. You know?”

I do know.

Hannah’s leg jiggles and her knee occasionally bumps the table. When it does, she emits a small mew, like a kitten and resumes her bouncing.

“I went back to the drawing board, with this idea of serotonin in the gut. Rory wanted to be the first to try it,” Hannah says. “I knew he would be.”

I want to press her on the issue of Rory and why she would take such a risk with the man she claimed to love. Instead, she reaches into her orange jumpsuit pocket and pulls out a piece of notebook paper,

“I made this list one time, of all the reasons I thought I loved him.”

She flattens the paper on the table and Lucus places the camera directly over it. I didn’t direct him to do that. I hesitate, not sure if I should interrupt the flow of the interview to correct him or if I should let it go, maybe the shot is effective. I’m stunned to find I don’t know the answer.

Hannah pushes the list towards me.

1. You are so thin that when you stand with your head back against the brick wall of the call center, you look painted on. Like you could just blend into Bellflower and be a part of it until the end of time, mistaken for a street taggers art.
2. You hardly say anything at all.
3. You are good at doing drugs.
4. You have so much passion and zero ambition which makes you all dreams and no failure.
This is the reason I know I love you and can’t make sense of:
When we play Jenga and there’s no other moves to make and our whole tower is swaying and your hand reaches out to take the block that will inevitably send it crashing to the table, it takes all of my concentration not to stop you. But you let it fall fearlessly and that’s how I feel when I’m around you – like a shaky stack of blocks ready for one last touch.

“Loving him was wonderful,” Hannah says.

She pulls a picture of Rory out of her other pocket and lays it beside the list. It was taken sometime before he hit big with his first single. He reminds me a little bit of Sid Vicious in that way all punk singers do. His hair is spiked, his body is graceful and thin but he hasn’t quite reached the last stage of Illuminate addiction. He looks relatively healthy even though his hip bones push at his jeans.

“He read that list and didn’t get it,” I say and her falling face is satisfying to me, like torching a wasp’s nest. “You wrote every sweet word you could and he still didn’t get it. So you gave him your drug instead and he took it and left and not once did he understand how you felt.”

I glance at Rory’s image. Even through the glossy paper, I can sense his magnetism. I wonder if it will come through on camera. I wonder if I’ll ever see the shots in my head the exact way they show up on the film or if it will always be this constant guessing game.

Hannah runs a hand down her face, stretching her features into some kind of macabre, melting girl. “My life is a lesson in the all things people refuse to accept. Limitations. Mediocrity. Rejection. So, ok, you take a drug. Or you sing a song or paint a picture. Make a movie, whatever. I wrote the list because I refused to accept – because, I knew, I knew he loved me. I knew it.”

Hannah is framed in the view finder like a portrait. A parting shot of a demon, a woman, a biological mess of cells and psychology. At home, viewers will feel something. They will feel whatever part they identify with – her devotion, her regret, her pessimism at how it’s all going to turn out. She sighs and looks directly into the lens.

“I’m not sure, you know, I couldn’t have imagined it would go this far. I thought it would just…I never intended to hurt anyone.”

She trails off.

I’m praying for a tear at this point. Or actually, lots of them.

She tilts her head, looking at me, “You’re a filmmaker. Would you ever try it?”

I resist answering. I’m not a part of the story.

“I mean, this – “ she waves at the camera and her voice takes on a harder edge, “this thing that you’re making. It’s crap, right? I mean, you know it is. It will play like every other goddamn documentary or interview I’ve ever done. Are you calling it Chemist Zero? Because that’s already taken by some film student from Nevada. So, would you? If you knew, and you do know, it will make you better, make this better. Would you take it?”

She’s glaring at me now. Lucus shifts next to me.

I think of a final shot, me in my bathroom, sitting on my old floormat and shooting Lily.

“Of course not,” I turn to Lucus. “ Would you?”

He shrugs.

“Lucus’s a photographer,” I explain. “He takes these halfway decent pictures of kids with injuries. But he’s never sold a single one.”

“I would maybe try it,” Lucus says, and through the microphone his voice takes on a strange, alien quality, “But not for my art. Just, because.”

I think of another shot, Lucus in the old Motel Six, on the same faded comforter we’ve been sleeping on, sharing a bed and a few awkward leg brushes before rolling over to our own edges. Lucus fiddling with his lenses, snorting row after yellow row.

Across from us, Hannah lays her head on the table, peeking out at me from under her elbow. We understand each other. I will leave. I will find Lucus some Illuminate and I will film him as he tries it. As he descends into his addiction, as his photography takes flight, and his pictures of shocked children turn into something worthwhile. That is the documentary I was supposed to make. That’s what the four years of struggle was for. It will be more than I could ever imagine. Thanking Hannah for her time and, silently, her drug, I reach over and turn the camera off.

The Land of Dreams

By Kate O’Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop opened the barn door just enough to for them to slip inside. The scent of sweet hay and musky-clean animal made Cass sneeze. Twelve pens made a ring around the barn’s open center. Eight were occupied with dream pigs munching on their morning meal. They ranged in color from deep navy to pale rose. Across the way, Cass saw Jimmy kneeling in the bedding of the open birthing pen.

She’d seen him birth hundreds of dream pigs. Even as a scrawny kid just starting working as a farmhand, he’d had a gift for getting piglets to take their first breaths. He’d been good enough that Pop had forgiven him for talking too much about his schooling in crop rotation and animal psych. Jimmy wasn’t nearly so scrawny now and he thought longer before he talked, but his hands were still the best at gently starting piglets in the world.

“Heya, nerd,” she greeted him, shyly bumping his shoulder with her knee before hurrying to wash her hands. He nodded a greeting, eyes on the pen monitor.

Tika’s heart-rate and temperature were above normal, even for a sow in labor. She lay on her side, ribs rising and falling rapidly. Cass chewed her lower lip, not liking what she saw one bit. They usually gave birth standing.

Tika’s belly rippled and she groaned. When the contraction had passed, she raised her wedge-shaped head, whistling a breathy greeting. Cass whistled back, settling into the fresh bedding and twining her fingers into the dream pig’s indigo curls. Tika looked up into her eyes for long moment before the sow’s gaze turned inwards and her muscles tensed again.

“How’s it look?” Pop’s voice said he already knew the answer.

“Not good. If she’s got one stuck, we’re gonna need the vet here,” Jimmy answered.

Pop frowned. “Doc Taylor’s transport threw a tread yesterday. Doubt it’s fixed yet. I might have to go collect him.”

“Miss Cassie and I can manage. We’ll keep her steady ‘til you get back.” Cass felt her face flush. Even as worried as she was about Tika, Jimmy’s trust in her ability made her cheeks color. He wasn’t exactly an intergalactic celebrity-quality beauty, but his eyes crinkled in a way that made her turn a bit silly. Cass wouldn’t say she hadn’t been noticing that he listened intently to her opinions, not to mention how his muscles rippled when he hauled hay around.

Pop thought a minute then gave a nod and headed for the barn door. It shut behind him with an echoing click. Cass sat stroking Tika’s curls and glancing up at Jimmy every so often. Usually they chatted their way through work, but the silence between them stretched. They both knew they were getting past the point where a good outcome was likely. Cass dug her hands more deeply into Tika’s fur. There had to be something they could do.

“Have you tried walking her?” Cass blurted out. She was sure he had. It would have been one of the first things he tried.

“Yeah. She won’t get up and your old man didn’t want to shove her around much more.” Jimmy gave her a worried looked that clearly said he didn’t like this any more than she did.

“Let’s try again. It can’t hurt any more than leaving her laying until Pop gets back with Doc Taylor.” She tried to keep her expression firm as he glanced over at her, but her insides were twisting. It would be all too easy to hurt Tika or the unborn piglets. He didn’t look at all convinced. “Please, Jimmy. She might do it for me.”

Unexpectedly, Jimmy chuckled. “All right, Missy. I ain’t gonna tell you ‘no’ with that look on your face. We’ll give it another go.” She smiled back at him. Pop never would’ve given her the chance, but Jimmy slipped Tika’s halter over her nose and tossed Cass the lead line. “Your show, Boss. How do you want to do this?”

Cass grabbed a spare towel from the birthing kit. Heaving up on Tika’s shoulder, she wedged it underneath the dream pig’s bulky body. “Grab it from the other side, will you?” With Jimmy holding the other end, Cass pulled the towel snug around Tika’s barrel-like ribcage, making sure it was clear of the sow’s straining belly. “We’ll use it like a sling. If we can get her front up, she might be able to do the rest. Ready?”

Jimmy nodded. “One. Two. Three.” Cass pulled, straining to lift several hundred pounds of animal off the ground. She gasped as her shoulder muscles began to burn. Tika groaned, writhing briefly before settling back on her side.

“It ain’t working.” Jimmy grunted from the other side. “We have to let her down. We’ll hurt her.”

“No!” Cass pulled harder, rocking her weight into the sow’s shoulder. She felt the dream pig shift. “C’mon Tika. Move!”

All at once, Tika thrashed, forelegs windmilling and finally catching ground. Jimmy jumped out of the way, narrowly avoiding the sow’s cloven hooves. The three of them stood staring at each other for a moment, panting and surprised, before Tika began to kneel again. Cass grabbed the lead line and tugged her forward. With a sigh, the sow took a few slow steps. Cass kept her going, walking in a steady circle at the barn’s center.

“I’ll be damned.” Jimmy leaned back against the pen gate, grinning at her. “I think you just saved that pig’s life, Cassie.”

Cass beamed back, taking Tika on another circuit of the barn. Halfway around, the sow stopped, a quizzical expression on her long face. Cass started to pull on the lead again, but paused when she realized Tika wasn’t trying to lie down again. “Jimmy! It worked! Jimmy! I see a nose!”

He was already coming with a fresh towel.

Five hours and six piglets later, the barn was dim and still. Dr. Taylor had looked over the new arrivals and Pop and Jimmy had gone to see him out. Cass sat with Tika’s head in her lap, watching the new litter nurse. Six was a good number. Not so many that Tika would need help feeding them, but enough to pay the bills when the time came to sell them off-world.

Cass’ eyelids were getting heavy. She knew she should go back inside. Sleeping in the barn wasn’t a good idea. Jimmy was always on about the pheromone that dream pigs secreted, but for as long as she could remember, she’d known that people sleeping near them experienced deep, intensely realistic dreams.

Both of her parents had made sure she knew how risky it was to sleep in the barn. The longer a person was exposed to the dream pigs, the stronger the reaction was. Every now and then they got the story back about a person who’d actually gone and believed what they dreamed. Jimmy said that was also why people were willing to cough up so much hard-earned cash for them. Pop was crystal-clear when he said he’d give anyone he found dozing in the barn a talking-to.

Talking-to or not, it didn’t seem right to disturb Tika after she had worked so hard. Besides, Pop didn’t know everything. She’d close her eyes a bit and then get up and get back to work. A minute or two couldn’t hurt.

Her hair fell in elaborately arranged curls down her back. The diamond flakes artfully dusted over her designer dress glittered in the candlelight. Music played softly as a few couples moved in time on the dance floor. One of the up-and-coming entertainment celebrities waved to her. She nodded politely back before turning the other way. It had been a long day. She wasn’t up for another inane conversation with someone who was after her sponsorship.

Cass smiled as Jimmy returned with drinks and a sparkle in his eye. “I made us a new connection.” He handed her the drink and settled into the chair next to her. His back was straight and his suit perfect. He had come a long way from muddy boots and shoveling manure. “Those men over there are from Silta. More than that, they practically own Silta. The whole damned planet, Cassandra. And they want to meet you to talk about starting a dream pig farming complex. We can charge them anything we want and they’ll pay it happily.”

“Put it on my calendar.” Cass waved her hand, feigning casualness that she didn’t feel. A contract with Silta would solidify her position in this part of the galaxy. It might even give her a base to start shipping dream pigs out to more distant systems. The old family farm would keep growing, keep making money.

Jimmy looked taken-aback for a moment before he burst out laughing, eyes crinkling. “You almost had me there. As if you aren’t dying to run over and work out all the details right this minute!”
“Of course I am! Just don’t tell them that. Better they think we’re taking our time with it.” Cass laughed with him. She never would have guessed that she had a head for business. It was a shame her father hadn’t lived to see his little farm become a galactic phenomenon. He might have realized how much a little bit of risk could do – how much she could do.

“Up you get, Missy,” Jimmy was leaning over the side of Tika’s pen. He looked so different from his dream-self that she barely recognized him. Cass blinked, trying to get her bearings. The dream had been so vivid. Not a surprise given where she’d fallen asleep, but disconcerting just the same.

Jimmy held out his hand. Cass eased out from under Tika and took it. She tried to picture him in the three-piece suit from her dream. In the light of day, she couldn’t imagine him all fancied up. Jimmy heaved her to her feet and she stepped out of the pen. He was watching her with a worry-line between his eyebrows.

“What?” Cass brushed a tuft of fur off the front of her coveralls and picked some bedding out of her braid.

“You know better than to fall asleep out here. You’re not a kid anymore, Cass.” She glared at him. She knew that. Hadn’t she just proved it with Tika?

“You looking to try to escape school work by going a bit crazy?”

“I didn’t mean to.” Cass frowned. He wasn’t even ten years older than she was. Old enough to be different from the boys at school, which occasionally made her a bit too nervous and giggly, but why was he suddenly treating her like a kid? “Relax, Jimmy. A nap or two won’t drive me loopy. We sell the pigs as pets all the time. None of our clients are any crazier than they started out.”

“They’ve got only one pig each, like the law says, not a whole herd of them. Before you know it, you’ll start thinking they’re telling you the future. Just look at old Benji down the other side of the spaceport. The other day he was down at the bar sayin’ that harmony lilies will fly in space and bloom all over the galaxy. And he’s only got a small herd.”

Cass snorted in amused disbelief, as Jimmy had no-doubt planned. Harmony lilies were a pretty sort of weed. Mum had talked about growing them in the garden but the insects they attracted drove the pigs to distraction. “All right, all right. It won’t happen again. Now move. I’ve got to get the yearlings under shelter before this storm breaks.” She could feel Jimmy watching her as she went.

Cass put the littlest piglet on the scale. Yet again, the diagnostics couldn’t find anything in particular wrong with him besides mild dehydration and somewhat delayed development. He hadn’t put on weight like his siblings and was growing increasingly listless. She knew the feeling. For the last few weeks, she’d been so busy taking care of the litter that she’d had no time to think about her dream.

The piglet shivered again. Cass couldn’t resist. She picked him up, wrapping the little violet ball of fuzz in a thick towel and cradling him to her chest. She had been on the farm her whole life – more than long enough to know that not every baby animal made it to adulthood, even with the costly high tech gadgets. Cass hated it every time.

Pop already had given up on him, but she wasn’t ready to let it go. Pop might be one of the most respected farmers in the area, but she was tired of him having the only say on how things were. Sometimes a little extra was all it took. It couldn’t be that dangerous if she brought the piglet in. A strong dream was nothing compared to a piglet’s life. One handed, she pulled a bottle of nutrient formula out of the warming tray.

Cass checked her watch. It was late. Her parents had been asleep for hours. She could sneak him into the house. She’d be in trouble if they found out. She could almost hear Jimmy’s voice, telling her that Pop would be mad as a stuck boar and no one in their right mind would want that. But then he might also say that a life was worth it.

She paused outside the door, re-tucking the towel around her small charge. “Okay, buddy, now’s the part where you have to hush. You give us away and it’ll be right back out to the barn for you and talking-to for me.” He cooed and wiggled. Not exactly reassuring. Cass waited a moment for him to settle and then tiptoed as quick as she could to her room. Her father’s snores echoed down the hallway even after she shut the door carefully behind her.

Cass settled the piglet on her narrow bed, mounding up the blankets so he wouldn’t fall off the edge. “Stage One complete, pal. One night in and then I’ll sneak you out early enough to keep us from getting caught.”

The piglet nosed his way out of the towel, but didn’t explore further. Her heart sank. Usually they were crawling everywhere at this age. Clad in clean pajamas, she climbed onto the bed. She propped herself up on the pillow and tucked him into the crook of her arm. She offered him a bottle, feeling an untoward surge of hope when he latched onto the nipple.

“You need a name.” Naming him was a bad idea. It would just make it worse. But he was hers. Maybe if he lived, Pop would be willing to trust her like Jimmy did. “How about Lios? It’ll give you something to aspire to anyway.” She grinned. Jamie Lios, superstar singer/songwriter extraordinaire, knew all about taking risks and living the glitzy life. He was tall, gorgeous, and had a voice that turned her heart over… The idea of naming a sickly, squeaking, dream piglet after him was ridiculous enough to tickle her fancy.

Lios smacked his lips and burped. He had finished most of the bottle. Cass set her alarm to wake her in an hour and tucked it under her pillow. “Night, Lios. Get better, huh? That’s an order, midget.” She tucked the blanket around them both, threading her fingers gently into his violet curls and enjoying the hope that disobeying the rules gave her. She fell asleep to the feel of his tiny heartbeat trembling against her fingertips.

Cass stumbled back into her tiny cubicle of an apartment exhausted and smelling strongly of alcohol. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. If one more drunken spacer spilled his drink on her… she didn’t know what she would do. Quitting wasn’t an option. The bills weren’t exactly going to pay themselves.

She had given up looking for a better job. It was the same thing over and over again – she just didn’t have the qualifications for anything other than slinging drinks at the spaceport bar, picking up trash, or heaving baggage for cut-rate cargo liners. She’d tried them all. At least serving drinks there wasn’t as much possibility of being crushed under a pallet or catching some weird trans-galactic disease.

Her old monitor beeped with an incoming message. Cass sat down on the bed and ran a hand through her short hair to straighten it. She’d stopped wearing it long years ago. It was too much trouble. She pressed to button to accept the call without looking at the ID. This late there was only one person it could be.

“Heya, Jimmy!” She put on the sunny smile she used to get good tips as the video feed popped up. Her stomach did a little flip-flop that she worked hard to ignore. He looked tan and tired, but under it he seemed content. He had almost totally taken over running the farm as her parents had gotten older. Since she had left. It suited him.

“Evenin’.” He frowned and Cass smiled harder. She knew he would run straight back to her father as soon as the conversation was over and tell him all about how she had seemed.

“Mum and Pop okay?” She didn’t know why he paid for intergalactic calls, but he phoned every other month or so. The conversation was always pretty much the same. Abruptly, Cass didn’t want to deal with it. She was beat and work started again early.

“Yeah. The folks are fine.” His slow drawl annoyed her. It sounded so… backwater.

“What do you want, Jimmy?” Cass cut through whatever he had been about to add.

He blinked, strong face crumbling a little. “Was just gonna ask if you’re coming home soon. Your parents miss you.” The hurt in his eyes ate at her. All he had ever wanted to do was work on the damn farm, make the pigs happy and the crops grow. He probably even wanted a wife like Mum who puttered around with gardens and sewing and raising kids. It pissed her off that he didn’t want more. Well, he could have the farm and all of its rules. At least here she wasn’t stuck doing the same thing every day, seeing the same faces, never being allowed to have an opinion.

“No.” Cass felt the smile slide off of her face. She didn’t want to have this argument again.

“Just a visit. You wouldn’t have to stay. Just let us see that you’re okay. In person.” Jimmy’s voice was pleading.

“I’m fine.” Cass shook her head. She had snuck away from Tulandra seven years ago. She hadn’t been able to take it anymore – the insecurity, the unending, backbreaking labor, the isolation, the rules about who she could be and what she could do. She had taken her meager savings and hopped the first outgoing ship without telling anyone she was leaving. It had taken Jimmy months to track her down. She hadn’t been back to Tulandra since leaving and had no intention of doing so now. Not that she had any way to scrape together enough money in the first place. That life was a long, long way away. “Drop it, Jimmy.”

“Why are you so damned stubborn? You got no life there. Whatever you thought you were gonna do out in the big, wide universe didn’t work. You look like hell and keep getting less and less like you. Give it up, Cassie. Come home to the people who love you. There’s good stuff for you to do here. We need y—”

She hit the disconnect button hard enough to shake the monitor. He didn’t understand. She couldn’t go back. She was nothing there. Cass threw herself back on the bed and buried her face in the single, flat pillow. Tears soaked into the thin fabric as his words sank in. There was too much truth in them for her to stomach. How was it that after trying so hard for so long she was nothing here too?

Cass startled awake with her alarm buzzing in her ear. Her cheeks were damp and her nose clogged. She didn’t want to go and be nothing. She didn’t want to stay and be nothing. Were those really the only choices for her?

Something tickled at her toes and she almost kicked out at it before her sleep-fogged brain caught up. Lios blinked up at her from the bottom of the bed. He trilled happily when she moved, smacking his lips and toddling over her knees toward the empty formula bottle.

Cass set him on the floor as she hurried to get dressed. The dream lingered heavily in the pit of her stomach. She told herself it was no more real than any other dream. There was nothing that said it would end like that if she left home. She wouldn’t go without telling her parents anyway. They would worry. Jimmy would worry. But if she did decide to go, there was a good chance they would try to stop her.

A noise from the floor distracted her. Lios had spied her bedroom slipper and was giving a threatening series of hoots, his curls bristling. Cass laughed, clapping a hand over her mouth to stifle the noise. She shook her head, grinning as his antics chased away the hopelessness the dream had brought. Her parents would be up soon. Time to get him back to his mother.

The green and purple mountains were barely visible in the pre-dawn light as Cass crept across the yard with Lios under her jacket. The domed barn was a dim, hulking shape in the gloom. She pulled open the door and ducked inside, breathing a sigh of relief as she shut it behind her.

“Cassandra.” She jumped at the sound of Pop’s voice. Her stomach plummeted from where it had been just starting to recover from the dream. Pop was standing by Tika’s pen, flashlight in hand.

“I couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d get started on the chores.” She stammered the words too quickly. It sounded way too much like an excuse.

She heard him sigh in the dark, as if he was too tired to be angry at her. “All my life on this farm and you think I don’t know pig-dreams when I have them, girl?”

“He’s sickly. I thought it would help. And it has. He’s better today. We can’t afford to lose the money.” She already knew this was going to end with her in trouble.

“Put him back in the pen, Cass.” Pop’s voice rumbled. “Losing one piglet won’t break us, but spend too much time with them and they might just break you. As long as you live here, they’re livestock, not pets. You’ve been warned more than once. You’re nineteen. I shouldn’t be telling you again.”

Cass hit the light switch with more force than necessary. Her eyes stung in the sudden bright glow. She stalked towards the pen, pulling the fussing piglet out from under her coat. His curls were ruffled, but he did look a lot more active. Her jaw clenched and she shot her father a defiant look. If he was going to be like this, maybe she didn’t want to live here anymore.

“You’re done with this litter. Jimmy will take over caring for them.” His voice was matter-of-fact, but she could hear the steel in it.

“But, Pop!” It was unfair. She’d taken great care of them. Not that Jimmy wouldn’t, but they were hers.

“No.” He pointed towards the door.

“I know what I’m doing. I’m not a kid anymore!” Cass kept her voice down, but the nearest dream pigs stirred anyway.

“Then get your head out of the clouds. This ain’t a game, Cassandra.”

“I know it’s not. I saved Tika and the litter, didn’t I?” Her voice shook. “You’re not the only one who has ideas.”

“A few lucky chances don’t make you an expert.” Pop folded his arms across his chest. “Now get back to the house. We’re done talking about this.”

There was nothing left to say. Feeling defeated, Cass left the barn. He never listened and he never would.

Cass stowed her bag next to her in the hayloft. Dream or no dream, she was leaving the farm. It wasn’t just the fight with her father. She felt like she’d been trying to get away for years. She couldn’t imagine herself as a farmer’s wife, chasing stock, birthing piglets, and programming the household machinery – keeping things going and wondering if ends could be made to meet each month. Always wondering when the next disaster was coming to ruin them.

Her father was up in the top field, mending fences. He’d made it clear he didn’t want her help. Jimmy was down at the spaceport getting a part for the tractor. Pop had made sure she didn’t go along on that errand either. Was he trying to keep her away from Jimmy now too?

She rolled over onto her stomach, pieces of hay poking here and there. She would leave tonight. She couldn’t ask Jimmy to take her to the spaceport – he still had to work for Pop. All three moons would be in the sky before midnight. They would provide enough light and, if she took her bike, she could be there before dawn. After that, a cheap ship to anywhere would do. She’d figure it out, even if the dream of what might happen had scared her a bit. Cass set her jaw firmly. That just wasn’t her.

The late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows. Most of the dream pigs were outside, but Tika and her litter were still in their pen. Lios was tussling whole-heartedly with his siblings. The night in the house had made all the difference. She would miss them terribly when she went, Lios in particular. Him being alive let her know that she could do things right, even if she felt sick when she thought about her plans. Cass shut her eyes, the warmth and quiet making her drowsy.

The shuttle docked with barely a bump. Annie squealed with delight, clapping her chubby hands and bouncing as much as the straps holding her in her seat would allow. Cass smiled at her daughter, packing away snacks and toys as the flight attendant relayed the usual information about disembarking and gate changes.

Jimmy unhooked Annie, settling her expertly on his hip. “C’mon, little miss. Your grandparents are waiting to meet you.” Cass’s smile became a grin as Annie grabbed two big handfuls of her father’s hair and pulled.

“Easy there!” Jimmy leaned back, trying to escape her reach.

“Hold still.” Cass stood on tiptoe and laughingly disentangled Annie’s fingers. “She’s going to be stronger than you in no time.” Annie had spent most of her short life on shuttles. The trip back to Tulandra had been a long one. Cass was glad the lower gravity didn’t seem to have affected her development. The doctor had assured them it was safe, but she had worried a bit anyway.

They walked down the aisle and out into the spaceport. It had grown almost unbelievably in the time Cass had been gone. It was hard to believe it had been ten years. College had gone by in a blur and she had jumped straight into the job with the Farm Research Bureau afterwards.

Reconnecting with Jimmy had been a surprise. They had spent years talking across the galaxy, but after so long he had seemed more like an imaginary friend than a real person. At least until he had come for an extended visit to see about getting a patent for their strain of dream pig. She grinned. Turned out a nine year age gap wasn’t such a big deal after all. Her parents had been at the wedding via webcam. To her relief, Jimmy had never once mentioned returning to the farm he loved.

She had been the one to bring it up once they’d known Annie was on the way. After a few bureaucratic tussles, Cass had gotten the FRB to let her relocate her work to Tulandra. She wanted Annie to grow up without the constant bustle and pressure of the larger worlds. There would be time enough in her daughter’s life for that and Cass wouldn’t keep her from it when the time came.

The doors opened and Cass breathed deeply. The air was rich with the end-of-summer smells of cut hay and damp earth. Across the road, her parents were waving. Cass wrapped her free arm around Jimmy’s waist and hugged him tightly. They were finally home.

The barn door opened, bringing Cass out of her dream. She peeked over the edge. Relief flooded through her as she watched her father cross the room. She wasn’t ready to face Jimmy after all of that. It was just plain awkward that it was so easy to think of him as ideal husband material. She got up and climbed down from the loft. Pop had his back to her, washing his hands in the deep sink.

“Pop.” She was surprised at how calm her voice sounded. Her hands were trembling. “I want to leave the farm.” Her dream gave her last minute inspiration. She knew what she wanted. “I want to go study at a university. One of the ones on Pollin.”

He finished washing his hands in silence. Cass waited, knowing he must have heard her. At long last, he turned around. She met his eyes, squaring her shoulders and fighting the tears that were welling up. As they stared at each other, his shoulders slumped. The tears got away from her, running down her cheeks of their own accord. She crossed the distance between them and threw her arms around him. “Not forever. I promise. I just have to go for a bit and see other things.”

“Okay, Cassie. Okay.” His strong arms came up around her. “But you get to tell your Mum.”

At that, the tears came on even stronger. He was going to let her go and the he’d let her come back.

The transport was packed and her ticket bought. “Pop, c’mon! I’m gonna miss the shuttle!” Cass’s stomach was fluttering with nervous excitement. Her mother was already in the driver’s seat, having wasted no time telling all of the neighbors that her girl had gotten accepted at a fancy university. Cass leaned out the window, searching the yard for her father.

“Calm down, Cassie. There’s plenty of time. He’s just got to go get something.” She caught Mum’s smile in the rearview mirror. “Now don’t forget, Jimmy’s cousin, Anna, will be meeting you when you get to Pollin Station. She says you can stay with her as long as you need.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. I have her picture and her number.” She and Jimmy had already said goodbye. It hadn’t exactly been the stuff of romance vids. He’d pulled her ponytail and told her to punch any guy who looked cross-eyed at her. She’d hit him for practice’s sake, though not too hard.

Pop finally came out of the barn with a travel crate. Cass rolled her eyes in exasperation. She should have known he would take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Tika’s litter was ready to go to their new homes. Obviously he had scheduled one to leave today too.

He put the crate in the back and settled into the passenger seat. They started off down the road. Cass twisted in her seat and peeked into the crate. Lios whistled at her. Her heart sank. Even though she was leaving, she had hoped he would stay at the farm. “Where’s he going?” she asked quietly.

“With you.” Pop answered in a gruff voice. “You’ll need company out there. Already called the university. They let you have one pet.”

“Oh.” Cass settled back into the seat, her grin threatening to split her cheeks. She reached back and stuck her fingers through the slats. Warm breath huffed against her skin and Lios trilled softly. Her special midget was going with her. In the distance the spaceport was visible, growing clearer by the mile. She shivered in excitement. All of her dreams began there.

Bottle This

By J. J. Roth

“I didn’t want oyster sauce,” Simco said. “I wanted miso.”

Above the sneeze guard streaked with mustardy residue, the cafeteria jock’s brown face tilted down to her, pulpy as pudding, without edges. Simco leaned against the tray rails and peered through the acrylic panel, her breath misting a circle on the acrylic that overlapped someone else’s nose print.

Stir fry bubbled in a line of industrial pans that gave off clouds of oily-smelling steam. The jock’s plastic-wrapped hand dropped grey tofu lumps into the first pan and greenish chicken cubes into the next three. His other hand, ungloved and permanently dingy, sloshed a ladle of grainy, tan liquid across all the pans.

Simco looked up at the spongy face. Beads of sweat collected at a hairline receding under a navy bandana worn pirate-style. Simco could not picture the jock’s life outside the Bottle This Laboratories, Ltd. company cafeteria. He seemed a creature born into a steam table habitat; an organism adapted to a job not even androids wanted. He wiped his moist cheek on the shoulder of his shirt, dumped the to-go container that held Simco’s screwed up order into the recycling chute, and rubbed the mustard streak with a grey rag.

“Been a while.” He seemed surprised Simco still worked at Bottle This.

“Big project,” she said. “Lots of meetings. They usually bring lunch in.”

He raised a coarse eyebrow and squirted water from a squeeze bottle, the kind used for ketchup, into a pan of gurgling vegetables and bean curd. Steam hissed and billowed. “What do you do here?”

“I’m a lawyer,” Simco said.

“No fooling,” he said. The bloated lips wormed a smile, exposing a darkened tooth outlined in gold. “My uncle’s a lawyer in East Palo Alto. Personal injury? Emotional distress?”

“No,” Simco said, unsure for a moment whether he was asking about her life or her legal practice. “Commercial transactions.”

“Nice,” he said. “Big project, huh? Important deal?” The stir fry slithered into the Neo-foam clamshell box. He set the open box on the sneeze guard.

“I can’t talk about it,” she said. “I’m sure you understand.” She wrested a pair of wooden chopsticks wrapped in red paper from the plastic basket next to her lunch, eyed the stir fry, nodded, and closed the container.

Back in her beige-walled cubicle, Simco sat in front of her data screen and un-wrapped the chopsticks. Her tiny desk barely gave her enough room to open her lunch. It seemed like forever since Simco could stretch her arms out without hitting something, but she’d only been in this new, smaller cubicle for a few months. The Bottle This bean counters had redrawn the floor plans again to save real estate.

Cost-cutting had been a way of life in Pharma Row since the last century, when Pharma Row was known as Silicon Valley; before the IT industry moved wholesale to China, leaving bio-tech companies poking up like vertebrae along the San Francisco peninsula’s thin commercial backbone.

Through the low wall close behind her, Simco heard a voice murmuring and a muffled chuckle. Her neighbor, a junior lawyer, was gossiping and trying not to be heard, perhaps, or data screen chatting with his wife.

Simco had first learned about Bottle This almost 20 years ago when her psychiatrist, Dr. Nimmer, prescribed Energy. Colorless, tasteless, and without texture, the medication smelled of salt and musk and hummed like an electro-magnetic field. Simco had tried to read the scientific product information, but the letters crawled like bugs along the bottle’s info-screen and her weary, ailing mind refused to make sense of it.

She’d tapped the info-screen until she came to the customer brochure, written at an eighth-grade reading level and illustrated in garish color. This she could handle, even from the depths of depression. “In the 21st century, our great-grandparents had a saying — ‘If only we could bottle this and sell it!’ Now, thanks to Bottle This Laboratories, Ltd., their dreams are your reality.”

A video clip played, boys chasing a ball down a soccer field. More words scrolled. “Feeling unmotivated? Run down? Depressed? Derived from the activity, growth, and metabolic levels of primary school-aged boys, Energy may be just what you need. Use only as directed: full strength for extreme sports or diluted with Bottle This Calm for daily use. All natural. Prescription only. No boys were harmed in the creation of Energy — they have more than enough to go around!” She’d felt too tired to wonder why Dr. Nimmer hadn’t prescribed Calm as well.

Simco titrated to a therapeutic dose of Energy over several days. Before her next session with Dr. Nimmer, she’d been alone in his waiting room, listening to the shushshush of the white noise machine in front of his door and the elevator’s plaintive dinging in the hall outside. She noticed, for the first time, the orchid in the waiting room’s far corner.

On a white marble pedestal table, in a China blue glass pot, the flower’s beauty had made her heart swell to the point of pain. Dainty clips kept the plant erect against a stick wrapped with floral tape. Above the last clip, a graceful parabolic bend of green stem held white, purple-veined blossoms that shone under a soft, recessed spotlight. It looked like love. Perfect, but fragile and out of reach.

A miso-saturated tofu cube dropped from Simco’s chopsticks onto her lap. She cursed and reached into the bottom drawer of her small, grey-enameled steel credenza for an Eradi-towel, just as her data screen woke from hibernation and Cunningham’s face appeared with that fish-eye look that data screen cameras gave to even otherwise handsome men.

Cunningham was a smart, even visionary, R&D VP, and Simco’s favorite client at Bottle This. He respected her legal skill, business judgment, and career potential, while her own senior management saw her as a solid worker, but too old and too introverted to promote.

Simco couldn’t say exactly when her career had gone off the rails. It started well: a law degree from Harvard, a few years as an associate at a big firm. But she’d never found a mentor at the firm, or in the two legal jobs she’d had since. Maybe her career had faltered while she struggled with her grief over her mother’s death, or during her divorce – both in 2135, 15 years ago, leaving her an adult orphan as well as an only child. Or while longing for children and despairing of ever having them, or while adjusting to motherhood.

However it happened, one day she woke up feeling vulnerable instead of valued, worried about keeping the job at Bottle This that fed her kids, Cal, eight and Miles, six — a feeling more acute now that her live-in boyfriend, Steven Barrow, had been laid off. Every school kid knew the economy had never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. With androids now entering the medical, dental and legal professions, the situation was grim, especially for older humans in these professions.

“Jessica, you there?” Cunningham was English, of African descent, and about ten years younger than Simco. His shaved head and penetrating golden eyes made him look younger still. Simco found the quieter tones of his British-accented speech especially appealing. Once — only once — she’d allowed herself to wonder what might have happened had she been younger, and had he not been married with two daughters older than Simco’s sons.

Behind Cunningham, a nursery school room full of two- and three-year-olds of various colors and ethnic origins sat at low tables, finger painting. All the children wore aluminum helmets with spidery tubes winding from them to steel collection vats that droned a metallic engine noise.

Simco gave her lap a once over and decided the Eradi-towel had cleaned her up enough to avoid embarrassment. She tapped her data screen. “Go ahead, Roger.” A spot on Simco’s screen made it look as though something was hanging from Cunningham’s left nostril. She reached for a screen wipe and rubbed it away.

“Has the government deal been inked yet?”

“Not yet. We’re on track for month-end.”

The big deal Simco had mentioned to the cafeteria jock was a government contract for a newly-released Bottle This product, Anti-Bigotry. Under the contract, Bottle This would supply enough Anti-Bigotry to enable all US Federal employees — from the armed forces to members of Congress — to take daily doses as a condition of employment. Washington watchers geared for the inevitable free speech challenge over the “right to hate,” but pundits agreed that the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, a former white-supremacist turned civil rights champion, would swing the Court to uphold the policy.

Ordinarily, Simco negotiated transactions with private hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and sometimes individual medical practices. This government contract was unprecedented. Bottle This would exceed expectations with Wall Street for its next quarterly numbers on the strength of this deal alone, just when the market had taken another downturn. Simco’s top priority was to close the deal, and the end was finally in sight.

Cunningham pulled his chair closer to his screen and lowered his voice. “Can you delay?”

“What?” Simco felt her blood pressure spike. If Bottle This couldn’t report revenue from the government deal this quarter, someone would take the blame. An image flitted through her mind of a target blossoming on her back, like a time-lapsed video of a rose blooming.

Cunningham’s soft-spoken, patient voice launched into a technical explanation. Simco heard the soothing tones, but only absorbed one word in three. “Young kids generally don’t discriminate on racial, gender, religious or other grounds, and with no understanding of sex they can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation. But we’re finding, quite unexpectedly, that some kids pick up on parental biases before age two.”

A daydream floated on the current of Cunningham’s voice. Simco sitting in a sandbox, her vibrant red plastic shovel swooshing through pristine sand. Her mother watching, her smile warmer than the sun on Simco’s bare arms. “We’re focusing on San Francisco and Seattle, where the problem is less severe. And we’re looking into using younger donors. But the parallel play ability must be established to collect the right material, and it doesn’t show up much earlier than two in most kids.” A little black boy with a shaved head crawled into the sandbox next to Simco. He pushed a toy earth-mover while Simco shoveled.

Simco became aware that Cunningham had stopped talking. She forced her mind to pick through the words she’d heard and make sense of them. “It’s a supply problem?”

“Potentially.” If Cunningham, ever the optimist as the best executives were, was admitting to a potential problem, this was huge. “We think we can extract the contaminating attitudes, rather than having to re-collect the raw material we’ve been stockpiling these last few months. Going forward, we’ll filter the contaminants out at the source. It’s just a question of when the filter will be ready, and when we can confirm extraction works. If we can do that in the next two weeks, we can still fill the initial orders.”

“You want to put off signing for two weeks?” Simco brought up her calendar. Bottle This’s quarter ended in three weeks. Even if nothing went wrong, they’d be cutting it close.

“By then we’ll know whether we can make the first ship date or have to go back to the table.”

“What do you need from me?” At the bottom of Simco’s data screen, an appointment reminder popped up. Couples therapy with Dr. Nimmer’s colleague, Dr. Tribe started in thirty minutes.

Cunningham ran his hand over his smooth, brown scalp. “I’ve got it managed. I’ve put some other projects on hold and redeployed two teams. I’ll keep you posted.” Cunningham signed off, leaving a ghost silhouette dissipating slowly on Simco’s data screen. She wiped the screen again where Cunningham’s face had been.

Simco reached into her credenza’s bottom drawer for her handbag. At the edge of her vision, in the lockless drawer’s back corner, was the miniscule vial of Bottle This’s highly controversial and long discontinued product, Eternal Peace.

She’d found it in one of the less used R&D labs a few years back when she’d gone to meet with a client, slipped the vial under her suit jacket and hid it in a dented tea canister under stale Dragon Well leaves.

Simco wasn’t sure what made her filch the death-in-a-bottle, and even less sure what made her keep it. Her symptoms had improved with Energy and other bottles Dr. Nimmer prescribed, particularly Self-Esteem and Optimism. She’d even applied for a job at Bottle This out of gratitude.

But there were still those moments when even Cal and Miles, her islands of joy — the kids she expected to be smart, but not beautiful and who surprised her by being both — could not fill that empty space she felt, sometimes less, sometimes more.

In those moments, she tried not to dwell on the thought that neither her ex-husband nor Barrow loved her enough to father her children. She’d inhale Self-Esteem and fantasize about the anonymous sperm donor she’d chosen as a 42nd birthday present to herself after Barrow told her he still wasn’t ready to be a father.

When Simco thought of destroying the Eternal Peace, her empty space dilated to cavernous proportions, making her reach for her bottle of Relax.

Barrow sat across from Simco in Dr. Tribe’s office, an ocean of blue-green industrial carpeting between them. Barrow had been going on at length, and at high volume, about the many ways in which Simco made him furious.

Most sessions, Simco defended herself. Today, she couldn’t even hear Barrow, let alone listen to him. Her mind drifted into a blank space, a deep, dark pit. She felt pressure behind her eyes that might be the beginnings of tears.

Simco was trying to think of her mother when, from the corner of her eye, she registered Dr. Tribe’s shoes, moving. He wore soft leather moccasins when his gout flared. Today he wore new mocs in a lurid shade of clearance rack orange-brown that made even expensive leather look like cheap synthetic.

Dr. Tribe extended his long, thin legs between Simco and Barrow and crossed them at the ankle; a dividing line, like a tennis court’s net. Barrow immediately lobbed an emotional nerve-gas grenade over it. “I fell in love with you because you made me feel more like myself than I did alone. Now, being with you, I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

An image of the androids that ran across-court snagging net balls at tennis matches flashed through Simco’s mind, a memory of herself at Cal’s age on its heels. Her mother, five feet of unselfish kindness, opening her arms to a sobbing Simco whose best friend had just said, “I hate you. You’re not my friend anymore.”

Simco remembered the steady heartbeat, the quiet voice resonating in her ear, pressed against her mother’s chest. Her mother repeating a little nonsense rhyme she said when she tucked Simco into bed: “I love you better than stars or water, better than the King’s fat daughter.”

Dr. Tribe had turned his attention to her. “You went somewhere while Steve was talking just now. Where did you go?”

She shrugged, fixating on a faint miso spot the Eradi-towel had missed as she blinked back tears. Her tongue went heavy in her mouth.

She and Barrow had been together 14 years, starting after Simco’s divorce. For four of those years they’d been in couples therapy. Simco had begged Barrow to go, hoping to reclaim their initial happiness. Now she just hoped the constant yelling would stop. Once, Dr. Tribe had asked why she didn’t leave Barrow, an easy-sounding question with no easy answer. Dr. Tribe had not pressed her when she said, “Love. Hope. I left my marriage rather than work on it. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again.”

Dr. Tribe said Barrow’s anger, a “typical male expression of depression and fear,” had been “modeled in his family of origin.” He urged Simco to see the scared little boy inside Barrow, uncertain when his raging father would hit him next. Barrow had also agreed to see Dr. Nimmer and had started using Calm. Things seemed to get better for a while, but Barrow was still so angry all the time. Dr. Nimmer said he might be one of the .0004 percent for whom Calm provided no relief.

The room had gone quiet. A siren wailed outside the building, Doppler shifting as an ambulance passed. “Where did you go, Jessica?” Dr. Tribe asked again.

She sighed, her breath shuddering like a death rattle. “I was thinking that I haven’t felt loved — really loved — since my mother died. My kids love me, but it’s not the same. I can’t put a name on it.”

A well of loneliness pooled in Simco’s heart, pulling like a cold, iron weight. Moisture seeped from her eyes and nose, and she heard her own shaking voice ask Dr. Tribe, “Can you?”

Dr. Tribe tucked his legs under his chair and leaned toward Simco. “Unconditional love.” He handed her a tissue and smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

When Simco got back to her cubicle, a woman she didn’t recognize was in her chair. Late 20s, with blue-black hair that hung in a curve around her face, the woman wore a spotless, white linen shirt and a short, black gabardine jacket. “I’m sorry,” she said. “They told me you were in meetings all day. I’m Janet Wu. From the Princeton office.”

“I’ve heard your name,” Simco said, conscious of her facial muscles as they formed polite words. Wu, it was rumored, was being groomed for promotion.

“I’ll pack up.” Wu started to gather her things, and Simco noticed, with an odd sensation of relief, that the tomato-red polish on Wu’s manicured nails had chipped off at the right index finger and the left thumb.

“No worries,” Simco said. “I’m not feeling well. I’ll work from home for the rest of the day.”

“Hey, thanks,” Wu said, as Simco hurried away.

Barrow was out when Simco got home. She tossed her hover car remote and handbag onto the kitchen counter and kicked off her shoes in the hallway as she raced to her home office.

She unrolled her data screen and navigated to the Bottle This product bible, the group of databases listing all Bottle This products: current, former and in development. She ran searches in all the databases, even those requiring security clearance (which she’d received while working on a deal for Mental Acuity a while back and no one had bothered to revoke).

After an hour, she was sure. Bottle This had never had an Unconditional Love product, nor was the company developing one.

As she sipped a cup of malty, motor oil-colored Assam, a form message blinked on her data screen reminding all employees that the annual competition for best new product idea started next month. The person or team that could show proof of concept on the most promising new product would win a bonus, an automatic highest rating at next year’s review, and lifetime job security.

Simco almost deleted the message reflexively, as she’d done every year for the 14 years she’d worked at Bottle This. Instead, she contacted Cunningham.

He didn’t laugh at her idea as she’d feared, and the more they talked it through, the more his entrepreneurial instincts took over. He even started mentally staffing the development effort, ticking off which engineers they could trust with the proof of concept and which might steal the idea.

Cunningham said he found the idea so compelling, he’d ask his best engineer from the Anti-Bigotry project to lead the team, which he’d cobble together by killing some of his own skunk works projects. “I’ll look after that myself,” Cunningham said, when Simco expressed concern about the two-week window for solving the Anti-Bigotry contamination problem.

“What’s your take on the key question, Jessica? What donors produce enough unconditional love to spare?”

Simco thought of Miles, ignoring her warning against running at the community center swimming pool, slipping on the slick tile, and banging his head. Of Cal disobeying Barrow, taking the cash chip with all of his savings — allowance, gifts, Tooth Fairy leavings — to school and losing it. How she felt their pain, rather than dwelling on how their limitations produced it.

She’d held the crying boys, felt the tickle of Miles’ brown curls, Cal’s soft blond waves on her cheek, and inhaled the salty warmth of their skin. She’d recognize them from that smell alone, even if she lost all her other senses. She remembered saying something about better choices next time. She didn’t have the heart to berate them for disobedience and poor judgment.

“Mothers,” she said. “I’d start at playgrounds.”

Two weeks later, Simco arrived at work to find a young man she’d never seen before, golden-skinned and wearing a turban, sitting at her desk. A display screen reading “Reserved for Pradeep Singh, April 18-20” had been pinned to the exterior wall of Simco’s cubicle next to her name plaque.

“You’re here,” he said, flustered. “I’m a new intern.” He shook her hand. “They told me I could sit here while they set up my cube. I can move somewhere else.” Singh looked all of 25, gangly as a fawn and as likely to freeze if a bright light hit his pupils.

Simco had become used to finding strangers in her seat. She’d spoken to her android assistant, Joel 5, about it. Joel apologized for the error. The android department manager had gone in for maintenance the day Joel told her Simco’s meetings were over, and the data had been lost during servicing.

“It’s okay, Pradeep,” Simco said. “I owe a client a visit.” Singh let out the breath he’d been holding. He seemed to shrink two inches before her eyes. A smile tweaked at Simco’s mouth as she headed to the south campus.

Cunningham, back from his Anti-Bigotry-associated travel, was in full headset mode on a data screen conference. He motioned her into a project room and joined her ten minutes later.

He set coffee in front of her. Fancy coffee, from the gourmet kiosk near the cafeteria. “Milk, no sugar. I know how you feel about sweetened coffee.” If she’d still been young and lean, his attention to how she took her coffee would have sent her stomach a-flutter. As it was, she took the kindness as something he’d do for anyone.

“Softening me up for bad news?” she said. The coffee scalded the roof of her mouth and she winced. A brown drip and a lipstick smear stained the cardboard under the cup’s lip.

“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “Though we’ve run into a hitch with Project Mum.”

Anxiety trickled down Simco’s neural pathways. She rummaged in her bag for her inhaler, shook it more vigorously than necessary, and breathed a whiff of Relax. “Go on.”

He sipped his coffee, black with a sprinkle of cinnamon. “Surprisingly, some mothers do not love their children unconditionally. We had to add a screening process to the donor sample on the front end to sift those out.”

“That doesn’t sound fatal,” she said. Her fingers drummed on the table like the galloping hoof-beats of tiny horses.

He opened a small tin of mints and pushed it toward Simco. “They go well with Relax. Synergistic effect.” When she waved them away he asked, “When was the last time you took a day off? Gave yourself a treat?”

Simco stared at a greasy black scuff on the cream-colored wall. If she looked at Cunningham, she’d cry or spill her guts about her personal life, both things she’d regret. “There’s more to the hitch?”

“Unconditional love is specific to a mother’s children. It doesn’t scale to strangers. We tried birth mothers and adoptive mothers. Same results.”

“That can’t be right,” Simco said. “There’s got to be a way.” She snatched a mint from the tin and bit down on it. Volatile oil burst from the mint, rushed through her soft palate and burned her sinuses. Her eyes watered.

“I’m not giving up yet,” he said. He dropped another mint into her hand, his finger brushing against her palm, and smiled. “It works better if you let it melt in your mouth.”

If she didn’t sob, he’d think the mint caused her tears. She let herself look at him; let the tears come. How absurd that simple civility and the mere ghost of a touch could move her so. How had she come to this? She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and cleared her throat.

“And Anti-Bigotry? Are we ready to sign?”

Cunningham went to an electronic white board on the wall and began drawing diagrams with a stylus, leaving lines the color of sour apples. He narrated a detailed description as he drew, the refuge of scientists who want to avoid getting to the point. Simco wished he’d just look her in the eye and tell her they were screwed.

He stood by the finished diagram, fingering the stylus. “We’re going to come up short. We need to negotiate the first two deliveries down, or slip the start date a month. That’s the bottom line.”

Simco pushed her knuckles into her temples, but the pressure didn’t relieve her pounding head. “Don’t worry,” Cunningham said. “I’ll run interference with the sales team and the executive committee, and I’ll put in a word with your management as well.” He cocked his head and winked. “After Unconditional Love wins the contest, they won’t be able to sack you.”

She folded her arms on the table and laid her forehead on them. She knew she had felt unconditional love not directed to Cal or Miles. But when? Why didn’t it scale? Cunningham patted her shoulder. “Jessica. How else can I help?”

And then it clicked. Simco lifted her head, and for the first time in months, smiled. “Pregnant women. Before they’ve seen their babies. Before they think of them as individuals, or even know whether the fetus is male or female. That’s our donor pool.”

The meeting invitation had winked onto Simco’s data screen a few days after the conference with her manager, her manager’s manager, and Cunningham, in which she and Cunningham had walked them through the events leading to the Anti-Bigotry contract’s delay.

She hadn’t thought much about it until the day before the meeting, when another participant — Roberta 3, the human resources android that supported the Bottle This legal department — was added to the meeting invitation. This was not an irony unique to Bottle This, Simco knew. For the past 50 years, most large companies had outsourced the human resources function to androids. Incapable of emotional investment, pity, or concern over death threats, androids had proved uniquely well-suited to handling terminations.

Simco would not have noticed the change if she hadn’t overheard a manager in the cubicle across from her talking about an upcoming layoff. She strained her ears but didn’t hear her name. When she passed that manager in the hallway later and he avoided meeting her eyes, she immediately checked her calendar.

Roberta 3’s name had been added to the meeting without a flag to announce the change. Simco inhaled a double dose of Optimism and went outside, waiting for it to kick in. She found herself walking toward the R&D building, to Cunningham’s cubicle.

“Project Mum is looking up,” he said, opening a tin of heart-shaped sugar cookies his wife and daughters had baked. The unevenly shaped cookies, scorched black on their bottoms, had been decorated with red, pink, and white sugar crystals that bled color onto their beige surfaces.

Simco declined a cookie. Cunningham smiled at a large red heart before he bit into it.

“I’m expecting a working prototype in a few days.”

“How many is a few?”

“Anywhere from one to four, depending on how much testing my blokes can jam in after their day jobs,” he said. “The deadline isn’t for another week. We’ll make it.”

Sugary crumbs clung to the corner of Cunningham’s mouth. Simco reached out to rub them away out of habit, as she would with Cal or Miles. When she realized her mistake, she made an awkward transition to rubbing her own mouth. “You have something there.”

He smoothed a finger against his lips. “Now?” he asked.

“Gone,” she said.

She wanted to tell him about the meeting with Roberta 3, but he’d already done what he could to absolve her of fault. Telling him would just make him feel sorry for her, the last thing she wanted.

When Cunningham appeared on her data screen three days later to say he’d submitted the prototype, Simco didn’t answer.

She couldn’t face him, knowing, as Roberta 3 had told her that morning, her job was being eliminated. Knowing, as she did from watching this happen to others, that her job in another guise would open up to younger, less experienced, and more “hail fellow well met” applicants as soon as her termination went through. Knowing, as she wished she could tell him, that those applicants would lack both the judgment and expertise she’d developed over a 30-year career and the knowledge of his group’s business she’d gained over the six years she’d supported it.

And knowing that when she finally told him she’d been let go, he’d wish her well and say they’d keep in touch, but that in the fickle, superficial social environment of Northern California, they never would.

Simco put off going into the office to turn in her data screen and gather her personal belongings until the day before her termination became effective. She spent most of the intervening time in bed, staring at the wall, wondering whether Eternal Peace smelled like mint. Barrow, to his credit, took up the slack and made sure Cal and Miles got their homework done and to school on time.

With no more run way, Simco made herself shower and dress that morning for the first time in a week, which was fortunate because Roberta 3 contacted Simco at home while Barrow was taking the kids to school.

Roberta 3 was a short, stocky android with features modeled to suggest a mixed-race human. Simco took the communication in the family room.

“I’ll be in today to get my stuff,” Simco said. At least Roberta 3 would report to Simco’s management that she had presented a professional image after being fired.

“There’s been a change in your status,” Roberta 3 said. Simco could learn nothing from Roberta 3’s eyes, but she stared into them anyway. “Your invention with Roger Cunningham placed first in this year’s competition. Because you’re an active employee until tomorrow, the award supersedes your termination. Take the rest of the day, but please report for work tomorrow.”

Simco clapped her hands, jumped up and let out a scream. Roberta 3 had no reaction, not even a blink. Simco thanked the android and signed off just as Cunningham appeared.

“And get this,” he said. “I’ve never seen a prototype need so few improvements. We start ramping production next week.”

“You have no idea how great this news is, Roger.” Her eyes drifted from Cunningham’s beaming face to the framed image on the red brick family room mantle. Simco standing with her mother, arm in arm, next to a purple-veined orchid in a China blue pot.

Dr. Nimmer sat in his usual boxy, grey upholstered armchair, but Simco had risen from the couch. Someone had moved the orchid from the waiting room corner into Dr. Nimmer’s office, in front of the picture window. Simco ran her finger over a petal, tracing the purple vein. Its softness, perfect and delicate, finally within her grasp.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I hope by now I’ve earned your trust, Jessica.”

“But Dr. Tribe said it’s what’s missing.” Simco let her hand drop from the petal to her side. “The only reason Bottle This even has an Unconditional Love product is because of me. I took responsibility. I went after what I needed, just like you’ve always said I should. Why are you doing this?”

A drop of blood beaded on a hang nail Simco had tried to tear off with her teeth. Dr. Nimmer’s watery, blue eyes peered up at her, sad and dog-like. When had he become so ancient? She felt a surge of panic that he might reach 115 in the next year and retire. Or was 115 now the new 105? She hoped so, and if not, that she’d be able to find another human shrink who was still taking on new patients. She couldn’t face the idea of telling her problems to an android. She longed for someone with body heat and a pulse to listen to her.

“I’ve read the literature, and I’m concerned,” he said. “You’re putting all your hopes for a good life into this product. I find no indication that it will do what you think it will. It won’t replace your mother, Jessica. It won’t even make you feel loved, as she loved you.” Dr. Nimmer walked to Simco and put a warm hand on each of her shoulders. “Science can’t solve everything, Jessica, even in the 22nd century. It can’t solve feeling alone, feeling unloved. That’s one reason some people still turn to religion. Still believe in God. Come. Finish your session.”

Simco brushed past Dr. Nimmer, sat with a violence that caused the couch’s spindly legs to screech and carve a two-inch gouge in the wood floor, and crossed her arms and legs. She felt the muscles and veins in her neck bulging, her skin burning red.

She knew she looked the picture of hysteria, a picture that two centuries of feminism hadn’t eradicated from the collective consciousness of men. But she was too angry to worry how Dr. Nimmer saw her and what he’d write in his notes. She jabbed her bloody finger at him. “How many times have you told me not to be afraid to ask for help? That I settle for less than I deserve? This is me asking for help. If you won’t prescribe it, I’ll go to someone who will. That will be me not settling.”

Dr. Nimmer sighed and shook his head. “Do you honestly think this will solve everything?”

Yes, she said to herself. Oh yes, yes. That pit, that hole, I’ve had for so long. Filled. Gone. The missing part, found. Once it is, how can everything else not click into place?

She looked over her shoulder at the orchid, remembering its feel.

“Of course not,” she said, her gaze hanging on the orchid as she said what he wanted to hear. “It won’t bring back my mother.”

She thanked Dr. Nimmer and left his office, while a prescription for Unconditional Love pulsed its way from his data screen to the pharmacy across from the Bottle This offices.

When she imagined the moment she would first hold Unconditional Love in her hand, Simco saw herself savoring every millisecond. Taking in the shape and color of the bottle, how heavy it felt in her palm, the size and shape of the product information’s font, how the promo video had been shot and cut. She imagined taking notes with every sense like a wine connoisseur, likening the color within the bottle to mahogany or tangerine, the aroma to stone fruit or leather, the sound to distant tides or the flutter of wings, the taste to citrus or rose, and the feel to a perfect orchid petal.

But as soon as she was in her hover car, she tore open the packaging with trembling hands, without so much as a glance at the bottle or what was in it. Instead, she closed her eyes and attacked, gulping the substance into her lungs like a woman too long under water, starved for air.

When she opened her eyes, Simco was lying in the back seat of her hover car, a puddle of drool sticky between her cheek and the ivory leather seat. The burl walnut dashboard’s data screen said 11:30 a.m., two hours since she’d arrived in her office parking lot. She had no memory of those two hours and braced herself for a rush of panic. But none came.

She climbed into the front seat to look in the mirror. Except for her tousled hair, she looked fresh and rested. She peered into her middle aged face and felt the sensation of looking at a child -– a child who needed, and deserved, her love. Her heart went out to that child, full of silent promises.

Inside her office, Simco opened her credenza to stow her handbag. The Dragon Well tin, shinier than she remembered, caught her attention. Hadn’t there been a dent on the front? She picked it up. Yes, the dent was right where it should be, in the slick, silver finish under the last, graceful Chinese character. No more than a slight bend in the tin’s surface, really. It had seemed so much larger before.

Her aisle was empty. She suspected everyone was at lunch or in meetings, but just in case, she held the tin under her desk where no one could see her open it. The tea leaves’ scent wafted to her nose, fresher that she remembered, sweet, green and vegetal, though the long-expired date on the tin hadn’t changed. She took a stylus from her desk drawer and poked among the leaves, intending to dig out the vial and, finally, destroy it.

It was gone.

Simco closed the tin and set it on her credenza next to the images of Cal and Miles. She thought of Janet Wu, Pradeep Singh, and all the others who’d sat in her cubicle over the past months. How many had found her credenza drawer unlocked when looking for a place to park a gym bag or a lunch box? How many, curious and unwatched, had given in to the impulse to go through her belongings, even so far as to open her tea? One of them, with his or her own secrets and hurts, had found the Eternal Peace she’d stolen and pilfered the vial.

And Simco, who hours before would have begun to sweat and hyperventilate upon finding the vial gone, sat with a steady pulse of 60 beats per minute and felt her heart overflow with love and concern for Janet, Pradeep, and the others, the children they’d been, and the mothers who loved them.

“Miso, right?”

“You remembered.” She smiled at the cafeteria jock.

He smiled back. He must have whitened his teeth, she thought. His brown skin, firm across his cheekbones, glowed with a healthy sheen, as though he’d just taken steam after a brisk swim. Simco watched through the spotless acrylic as he ladled the miso over pink-white chicken cubes sizzling among crisp, bright broccoli, carrots and mushrooms. He moved deftly, cooking by feel, with confidence and pride.

Simco imagined him as a boy, playing with pots on his mother’s kitchen floor, presenting her with pretend crab ceviche and mushroom flan. She imagined him this evening, going home to his wife and baby, cooking real mushroom flan with cilantro fresh from their small garden.

“How’s your big deal going?”

“It’s done,” she said. “Hey, I don’t think I know your name?”

He stopped mid-stir, shifted uneasily on his feet, and then smiled again, like a shy child. How many of the hundreds who ate here daily took the meals he prepared without asking his name? How many saw him as a creature of the steam table habitat, or worse, didn’t see him at all? “I’m Emilio.”

“I’m Jessica,” she said.

He poured her stir fry into her to-go container with an artful flourish. Why had she thought his hands were dirty? Even his nails were even and clean.

“Looks delicious,” she said, as he placed her open container on the sparkling acrylic. “You could be a chef at La Montagne.”

“Nah,” he said. “All the top restaurants have android chefs now. The owners prefer it that way. No food-borne illness, no sick days, no prima donnas. If you’re a human who wants to cook for other humans, this is where the action is.”

A tide of love and pride washed over Jessica. For Emilio, and for the mother who encouraged him to follow his star. When the tide receded, it left forgiveness for Steven, the beaten boy whose mother failed to protect him. Forgiveness, like a perfect, gleaming shell on a beach washed clean.

She thanked Emilio and went back to her cubicle to prepare for her one o’clock with Roger. She thought she might bring him fancy coffee from the kiosk, black with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Garden of Little Angels

By Kevin Kekic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Other people have been here!” Gregory shouted.

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

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

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

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

I sprung to my feet.

“What w-was that?” Arabella asked in-between a harsh bout of hacking coughs.

“Someone’s over there,” I whispered. “Come.” We stayed close, continuing down the slim pathway. The trees were tall above, their branches gripping one another other like the outstretched hands of old, dear friends.

A shadow rushed between the trees.

“I’m scared,” Gregory said, clutching my hand tight.

“Hush now,” I scolded. We did not move. Waiting in silence, the wind howled, making my eyes water. I pulled the hood of my deerskin tight against my ears, stifling the chill. As I was about to step forward another figure appeared. “Weeeeeee…” it called forth, its shadow slipping between the trees, although much higher than the last, as if floating in the air.

More laughter.

“It’s a ghost,” Gregory said.

I told him he was being foolish, yet my thoughts had been the same as his words. After all, the laughter of children was known to be heard in distant areas of the Whispering Forest. Mother had called them ghosts of the young dead, forgotten not just by their families, but also the Gods, and left to roam the forest until the end times.

With my brother and sister each gripping one of my arms, I stepped from the tall oaks and into a clearing. To my left a shadow approached quickly with a glow of light at its center. I pulled my little ones close and watched the shining pink orb grow near. It rose above the ground, and from this closer distance I could see what made these people float. A rope was tied to an overhead branch, high up on a maple tree. The figure swung from it, sailed into the air, and landed nimbly on the ground before us.

It was a young girl, perhaps a year older than Arabella. She stood and stared with big blue eyes. I nodded to her and she giggled. She wore a long cloak, dyed pink, which matched the glowing light around her neck. Her shoes were pointed sandals shaped to the grooves of her feet.

“Hello,” she said with a smile.

“Hello,” I replied. I was about to say more, but the girl pulled the glowing necklace free and placed it around Arabella’s neck.

“Keep it,” she said quickly, “I have more.”

“Thanks,” my sister replied, but the girl was already on the move, skirting past a fallen tree, over a shallow creek, and out of sight.

We all stared at the glowing necklace. “What is it?” Arabella asked. I touched it gently with a fingertip. It was round, warm to the touch, with five narrowing points jutting out of it, each of which pointed in a different direction. The pink aura it encased us in seemed magical. “I believe it grows from ancient everling trees,” I said. “Most call them star apples.”

Arabella held it up to her eye. “It’s beautiful.”

“Come, we must hurry,” I said, pulling the sleeve of Arabella’s deerskin.

Gregory’s dark eyes held me in suspicion. “Why?” he asked.

“Because I want to see what lies beyond that creek.” We reached it just as the sun set. Darkness clung to everything outside the glow of the star apple. The creek waters were low lying, and we easily hopped across flat stones to the other side. As I was about to climb back up to the forest floor when I noticed something strange. Just in front of my eye the rock wall lightened from dark gray to a light silver. I put a finger to the darker stone and it came back moist. I helped Arabella and Gregory out of the creek, wondering how the water line had dropped so far, so soon. There hadn’t been a rainstorm in over a fortnight, and the weather had been quite dry.

So why had the creek waters been full?

With the night fully upon us we pushed forward to the chatter of crickets and the crunch of dead leaves. An orange glow appeared in the distance. I heard crackling and chattering and laughter.

“Fire!” Gregory yelled. I couldn’t stop him—he was running to the flames before I could say a word. Arabella followed, the hood of her deerskin slipping to her shoulders as she tried to keep Gregory in the glow of the star apple. I followed, and within moments we were engulfed in the glow of a massive bonfire. Its logs were stacked against each other in the shape of a cone, crackling and popping. Nearby children quickly surrounded us. Girls in pink cloaks and boys in blue ushered us closer to the fire. Soon I was seated beside my brother and sister as a wave of heat melted away three days of cold and fear. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, comfortable. My nose was runny and my eyes watered, but I did not care. For I was warm…we were warm.

The children offered hot cider and watched us drink. I took a small sip, enjoying the delightful heat spreading inside my belly. Gregory took quick sips, not taking the time to smile or speak. Arabella meanwhile, was quite the contrary, chatting with the little girl who had given her the star apple as if they had known one another for ages. The hoarseness in her voice lessened with every word. The usual sparkle in her eye was returning as well. Even her cough had slowed. “Where are we?” Arabella asked her new friend with the big blue eyes.

She smiled and said, “You are in a special place. A place for lost children to play!”

“Our garden of little angels,” a pleasant, yet older sounding voice spoke out just behind me. I turned to see an elderly woman smiling at us. She wore a plain tunic and a snug fitting cap tied under her chin. Many of the children ran to her. “Mother Dyana!” they exclaimed. She embraced them, yet never lost my eye. “A place where children can grow,” she said. “A place of hope.”

“Wonderful,” I said, and took another sip of hot cider. “But what is this doing out here? And why have I never—”

“Come with me for a moment, child,” she interrupted as kindly as possible. “I will explain.” She directed the other children back to the fire. They huddled around my brother and sister, as I was ushered along a dirt pathway. I glanced at Gregory and Arabella. They were laughing and joking with the others. Gregory had a tart in his hand, as did several of the other boys. He took a big bite, smiling as he wiped custard from the tip of his nose. Beside him, Arabella clapped hands with her new friend, reciting an old song I remembered singing when I was her age.

Here lays Thorus, snoring in the forest

By first light he will whisper death’s chorus

I left them there, at ease in their safety, and followed Mother Dyana down a curved trail, brightened by the light of torches staked into the nearby ground. They glowed in different shades and colors—reds and blues, violets and greens—creating the illusion of walking, not on a dirt pathway, but on the edges of a rainbow.

We approached two cabins, each with a wooden sign near its roof. As I looked closely, I saw pictures of dolls and soft bears had been painted on one, and on the other, a silver sword and shield. As I closed in on the cabin with the painted sword and shield I noticed something so spectacular I almost shouted out in surprise.

Windows! The cabin had glass windows!

“It’s beautiful,” I said, placing a gentle finger against the glass. It had been years since I had seen a window, and never before had I seen one so large. Beyond its invisible wall, under the glow of candlelight, toy swords and wooden shields lay on a table of white cloth, surrounded by painted carvings of famous knights. One of them was dressed in black armor with an insignia of an iguana on its breastplate.

The mark of the Talum.

I let my finger play along the edge of the glass where the Talum Knight stood with his sword pointed outward and ready to strike. I thought of Father.

“You can have that Talum Knight come the morn,” she said.

“No thank you, Mother Dyana,” I said with dryness. I stepped away from the glass, sadness gripping my chest. My father was a Talum Knight, and the finest swordsman I had ever seen. He knew both glory and honor. But after our Kingdom fell to the barbarian tribes, and the good King Rhaedon butchered in his own king’s chair, Father had taken us south, away from the promise of death and torture, and to the free cities, where a peaceful life could never be found. For father was a Knight of the Talum—and no matter how much we tried to hide, tried to blend—in the end he would always be recognized. And then we would run again. And it wasn’t until after many seasons of running that we finally escaped to the Whispering Forest. For only a fool would follow us any further. And there were no fools to be seen this far south of the compass—just ghosts and death.

Mother Dyana patted my shoulder. “Just wait until dawn,” she said near my ear. “The smell of the bakery will have your mouth watering before you take your first step from bed.”

“You have a bakery?” I asked, forgetting both the Talum Knight beyond the glass wall and the injured one, or perhaps dead one, I had escaped from back home. The bakery should not have surprised me, not after seeing Gregory eat the tart by the bonfire, but it did nonetheless.

“Yes, child.”

“But wheat cannot grow in the forest.”

She put her hands together as if in prayer, and said, “In this forest, in our village, everything grows.” She smiled, making the folds of skin on her neck and cheeks wrinkle. “The children feed our garden with their love, their innocence, and from this sustenance we will always eat, we will always survive. It is the way it has always been. This is the forest’s gift to us.”

I nodded, wondering how that could be. As we continued down the path I indeed saw a bakery, larger than the toy shops I had just passed. It had two round chimneys of stone. They were unused at the moment, but I could only imagine the smells they would create come the morn. Further along stood a butchery. Mother Dyana pointed to the nearby pits. “We are roasting a boar for tomorrow’s feast, in celebration of your arrival.”

My stomach grumbled like a hungry bear. “A feast? You are too kind to us, Mother Dyana.” She smiled and we pressed on. “Do you always feast for the arrival of lost children?”

“Not always, my dear.” She placed a hand upon my arm and led me toward a grand looking homestead. “But young Angelet seems to have taken to your sister. And it has been long since I have seen her smile the way she had been by the fire.”

As we neared the front door I told Mother Dyana our names and explained that we had become lost in the Whispering Forest. I left my family’s story untold, although I did explain to her that both my mother and father were dead. She remained silent throughout, and at the end patted me softly on my back. She then pointed at the large structure before me. “This is the girls’ quarters,” she said. “On the other pathway of the forked road is the boys dwelling. But not to worry, Gregory will sleep with you tonight. I’m sure he will want your comfort for several nights, until he becomes settled.” I smiled, thankful that she understood my feelings.

Inside I was told to take off my leather boots and hung my deerskin on a large rack beside the door. The soft wool rug felt wonderful under my feet. I took in the comforts of the room. Toys and dolls lay on white tables, brightened by nearby oil lanterns. Vibrant paintings hung from the walls. A fireplace sent strong heat on my arms and face. Just beside it a door was propped open, and from the door a strapping boy entered carrying an armload of wood. He was perhaps my age or slightly older, with long dark hair, and handsome green eyes. He set the wood down, pitched in two logs.

“Boy, bring Katelyn a cup of cider, and some bread and honey.”

The boy turned, bowed, and walked out of sight.

I followed Mother Dyana up a twisting set of stairs. The lodging seemed much larger from the inside. Once on the third floor she showed me to my bed. “Your sister will sleep here,” she said, pointing to the bed beside me. “And Gregory on the next. You can bathe come the morn.”

I smiled and said, “Thank you Mother Dyana. Thank you so much.”

“You are quite welcome, child.”

“Do you—” I said, and then stopped, hesitating.

“Do I what, child?”

“Nothing, I just…have a question.”

“And what is your question, Lady Katelyn?”

“Do the children ever leave?” I asked quicker than I would have liked.

I watched her smile twitch, just once. “Now why would anyone want to leave our garden?” she asked, before standing up and smiling once again. “This is more than a passing stopover for these children. This is home.”

“I see.”

“Good. Now have a bite to eat and get some rest. I’m sure it’s much needed.”

“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been so kind.” I sat upon the mattress. It was soft, so soft, and the blanket heavy and warm.

“Not to worry child, I have spent almost a lifetime here, and I have helped countless children find their way.”

A moment of silence crept by as the young man brought me the bread and cider. I took a bite of the deliciously sweet bread. Mother Dyana had not yet left, she was primping the pillow on a bed across the way, so I questioned her one last time. “Do other elders live here?”

She turned to me. “Yes child,” she said. “Damerus the butcher, and Espan our watch guard. They have served our children for many seasons.” Downstairs I heard the rush of happy children. My brother and sister soon found me, filling my arms with a warm embrace. It was so joyous to see them looking healthy and without fear. But then my eyes found the bruises on Gregory’s neck, and a cold chill rooted deep in my bones, as Father’s mad words continued to echo in my ears, in my head. “Don’t you shut that door!” he screamed, clutching Gregory’s throat until his eyes seemed about to pop from their sockets. “Don’t you shut that damn door, boy!”

I watched them wander off. Arabella played with her new friend, Angelet. They clapped hands on the mattress beside me.

Sleep forever, always together, holding each head that we dismember

The old song brought gooseflesh on my arms and neck. Arabella’s smile, however, was like magic.

I placed the empty dishes from the cider and bread on the bare floor just before the lanterns were put out. The girls had quieted, and even the blue-eyed Angelet had retreated to her bed. Gregory was still awake, beside the only lantern which still held flame. He sat on Mother Dyana’s lap, as she told him an old bedtime story. I did not like the way he looked at her, with those wide eyes, and that big grin. And the way he called her mommy—not mother, or Mother Dyana—but mommy. It made me quite angry, yet the comforts of bed soon pushed such emotions away. I struggled to hold open my eyes, but they were much too heavy. I pulled the thick blanket over my shoulders. The warmth was immediate.

The sound of heavy footsteps and the scent of musk told me the handsome boy had returned to take away my empty plate. I felt hair brush along the side of my cheek, felt warm breath as he leaned much closer than needed. As Mother Dyana spun tales of knights and kings to little Gregory, I heard him whisper beside my ear.

“You never should’ve come here.”

The early morning was filled with the bustle and excitement of the coming feast. The girls seemed in high spirits, dressing quickly into their linens and robes, chattering all the while. Angelet had already found my sister’s bed. She was lively, chirping like a robin. “It will be so much fun! We haven’t enjoyed a feast in ages!” Beside her, Arabella smiled from ear to ear. Her eye found mine, and she jumped from the mattress and into my arms. “I love it here,” she told me. I struggled to hold back tears. She looked so healthy. And her smile so genuine. “I know little princess,” I told her.

Soon after, Mother Dyana appeared with little Gregory at her side. I wondered where he had been, but was not surprised to see who he was with. “Mother Dyana has clean garments for us,” Gregory said. He wore a blue robe and newly crafted leather boots. He hugged me and I could smell the perfume of soap on his skin. “You bathed him?” I asked sharply.

“Why, yes,” Mother Dyana said. “Little Gregory was quite untidy. Such a mess young boys can make.”

“Yes, such a mess they can make. A mess suitable for his sister to clean.”

“Now, now, Katelyn,” she said sternly. “There is no need to be haughty. Not here.”

I forced a smile. “Yes, and no need for my brother to be undressed by strangers,” I answered, my voice holding sternness as well. “Even here.”

Mother Dyana seemed about to speak, but then paused and took a deep breath. She exhaled, appearing to lighten some as kindness returned to her eye. “My apologies, Lady Katelyn. I’ll be sure to tell you of the on goings of your family from now onward.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Although soon you will see just how much larger your family has truly grown.”

I nodded. “I look forward to it,” I said with a smile.

Gregory squeezed me tighter. “There’s a hot bath for you and Arabella. Mommy said—”

“Mommy is dead, Gregory,” I said, trying to hold on to that same smile.

“Not her,” Gregory replied, “new Mommy.”

I felt my stomach spike with anger, yet said no more. I allowed Mother Dyana to lead us outside, where several large wooden barrels sat beneath a large canopy. One of them was filled with bubbles of warm water. Gregory played in the nearby dirt while Arabella and I scrubbed off three days of dirt and grit in the soothing bathwaters. We then dried off, changed into clean linens and pink robes, and followed the sounds of laughing children. We walked the same path from the previous night, although no rainbow fires lit our way, just the golden rays of the morning sun. Outside the butchery Damerus swung a cleaver, chopping meat. He was thick and burly, with a balding head and eyes black as coal. His apron was stained red with blood. As we passed by him he did not look our way. I was thankful for that.

Near the bakery children ate steaming hot cereal and drank wild cider. Arabella explained how apple trees grew in abundance in the garden beyond our sleeping quarters, so cider was plentiful. She also was pleased to tell me the name of the berries we had eaten last night—sunberries. They only grew in the garden and other close, surrounding lands. I assumed Angelet had told her this, but did not ask.

We ate at a small table. Even though the porridge was made with plain water instead of milk I couldn’t deny its sweetness.

Once finished we crossed the path and made way to an area of flat land where the children played. It was a wondrous sight to behold. Rope swings hung from the branches of tall oaks and maples. Children swung, cheering and screaming, some letting go high in the air and crashing down into giant piles of leaves. Further down, old amber trees had been hollowed out and scattered along the grounds, creating a series of lengthy, joining tunnels. Some dipped underground, before reappearing elsewhere along the grassland. The boys seemed to mostly play in those.

The grandest sight, however, was a massive wooden horse as tall as the trees, which it surely was fashioned from. It was a remarkable work of craftsmanship, and, judging from the amount of children playing upon it, was also the most beloved. The horse reared on hind legs, muzzle pointed skyward, as if a grand knight should be mounted on its saddle, inspiring the beginnings of some great battle. From a distance it seemed as if the children could easily fall, but as we walked closer to the structure, I could see small steps carved into the wood. There were also shafts fastened for the hand to grip. Some of the boys played high atop the horse, fighting with wooden longswords. The muzzle, at least what I could see of it, was empty of children and seemed much too high for the boys to dare try and conquer.

I let Arabella and Gregory play while I watched from a table near the bakery. Emotions pulled me in opposing directions. I was glad to be away from Father and his vicious cruelty. I could not forget the way he glared at Gregory as he grabbed him, strangled him. If I hadn’t struck my father with his own sword, plunged it deep into his side, Gregory surely would have died.

Yet even in the comforts of this newfound land I still felt a cold sense of dread. I did not know who to trust in this garden of angels. I did not know who to believe. The boy from last night could have just been toying with me, trying to frighten me because, well, he was a boy. And Mother always said I was hardheaded. Trust did not come easily.

Dusk approached, the sun fell behind the trees. Angelet had gathered another star apple and placed it around Arabella’s neck. The star apple from last night had lost its glow before sunrise, so my sister was quite thankful for another. I heard a bell ring near the butchery. The children ran to it, cheering “Feast! Feast!” Gregory scurried away to Mother Dyana, who scooped him up and carried him toward the pleasant scents of roasting boar.

I was about to follow, for I did not like the way Mother Dyana embellished him. But a passing glance at the giant horse made me stop and change direction. The boy from the previous night, the handsome one who said I never should have come here, was sitting atop the horse’s muzzle, as high as the tips of the surrounding trees.

And he was watching me.

A strain of great effort took me just below the horse’s muzzle. The muscular young man sat above me, looking to the feast, where the children ate and played. “Hello, young man, can you hear me?” I yelled as loudly as I could, yet was answered only by the whispering winds. I yelled again, louder.

“I hear you, girl,” he said, shortly. “But you must meet me up here if you are to see the truth.”

A frightful moment of nerves left me unmoving. I dared not look down. I closed my eyes, took a long breath, and started to climb. It took great effort, and once I had almost lost my grip, but I made it. Scraped, bleeding and sore, but I made it. I sat next to him. “You could have helped me.”

“I could’ve pushed you.”

I had no answer for that. “So where is this truth, boy?”


“So where is this truth, William?”

He pointed out into the distance. “Beside the tower, Katelyn.”

A man stood on the high tower, looking off into the surrounding lands. “That must be Espan the watch guard,” I said. “Mother Dyana informed me—”

“Never mind him,” William said. His head snapped my way, long hair flapping like the wings of a crow. “Look below, at the base of the tower.”

“I see the creek.”

“Look carefully.”

So I did. The waters rushed fiercely. “Is it the same I passed over last night?”


“It seems more like a river.”

He studied me. His green eyes almost glowed in the setting sun. “And why do you think that is?”

I had an answer, but was afraid to say it. “Because Espan controls the water…”

“Very good,” he said, nodding. “How did you know?”

I shrugged. “The water mark was high on the creek’s wall when we crossed it last night, yet the water itself was much lower.”

“But do you understand why?”

I thought this over.

“Because it’s a trap,” he said, answering the question for me. “Look around and see—how close together the trees grow to the east, how jagged the land grows to the north. There is no escape.”

Far below, the children ate and drank. No one seemed to notice I was gone. “Have you ever tried?” I asked.

He grimaced, spat to the ground far below. “Yes.”

“And what happened?”

“My little brother was taken to the garden,” he said, pointing east to an open area my eyes could not quite see. “I never saw him again.”

A jolt of anger struck me. “If that is true, then why are you still here? Why do you not fight?” I spit to the ground, just as William had a moment before. “Unless you are a coward.”

He considered me for a moment, perhaps deciding whether to push me to a crushing death or leave me be. “I have a sister,” he finally said. “Dyana said she would not call her here as long as I tended to the chores of the garden.”

“Call her?” I questioned. “Where is she?”

“She lives with Mother, near the edges of the forest. My brother Jon and I went hunting last summer. We lost our way, ended up here.” Down below, the torches that burned rainbow fire the previous night had returned, although now the fires burned purple and pink, Arabella’s favorites. As I watched below for my brother and sister, William continued, “My sister comes looking for us from time to time. She knows we—knows I—live somewhere in these parts. She hears some of the secrets these trees whisper.” Near William’s feet a sliver of wood had splintered off from its smooth mast. He snapped it off, dropped it over the side, and watched it fall. “Once, my sister grew so close I could hear her calling for me, for Jon.” He looked to me. “I feared more than a thousand deaths that she would cross over that stream and become trapped. You see, it is not just the high waters that cage you in—there are things, deadly things, with razors for teeth and a taste for young flesh—that swim in the creek waters when its level ris
es. And I will do what must be done to see that my sister does not become caged, like you, like me…” A moment of silence passed between us. I thought to question him further, yet his mind seemed farther away than the setting sun. Eventually he questioned me. “How did you come to be here?”

I gave him a simple story, much like I had to Mother Dyana. Although I did tell him truly of Mother’s passing. How a short walk to pick mushrooms turned deadly with a simple slip in the rain. And although William had begun to earn my trust, I did not tell anymore. I did not mention Father, and how he found her—for he finds everything. And how he carried mother home to our small cabin he had built the summer before and burned her on a slab of stone. “I will not bury her,” he said simply, his eyes sunken, as they would be from that day onward. “For the roots grow deep here. And I will not let them whisper her name.” I did not mention how he had changed after her death. How he no longer smiled, no longer put us to bed. How his days were spent sharpening his sword until it cut through the meat and bone of a skinned deer in one smooth stroke. He liked the sound of steel scraping the water stone. It was pleasing to him, he said. It silenced the whispers.

Once finished I asked him, “So what of us? What will become of my family?”

“You can stay here, enjoy the garden’s pleasures. Until it takes you.” He paused and let his legs hang over the side of the wooden post, rocking them back and forth. “Most everyone gets taken.”

“And what of this feast? Who will be taken tonight?” I asked, as a cold dread spread throughout my belly.

“Don’t you know this already?”

“I do not,” I snapped at him, “So tell me, boy!”

“New children do not get taken unless they are of such pure spirit the forest need not whisper in their ear.”

I felt a sudden dizziness.

“Bad children are not wanted here. Joy must be grown inside. So those torches become fake sunshine,” he said, pointing down below. “That bread becomes cursed soil. The cider wicked rain.”


William paused, as if deciding what to say next. “A pure soul, is she not? She’s always believed in you hasn’t she? No falsities needed to lighten her spirits?” I felt helpless. Hot tears burnt away the bitter wind stinging at my cheeks. The boy continued. “I believe Angelet sees this clearly. The other children are unaware of the happenings here, the diversions of this garden are many, but Angelet is different. She seems young, yes, yet she has been here longer than I, and her eyes see deep. Was it she that placed the star apple over your sister’s neck?”


“Then I am sorry, Katelyn. For once Angelet placed the star apple upon your sister’s neck, her fate was decided.”


“The child who wears Angelet’s star apple is the one whom the garden has chosen.”


“That is the way it has always been,” he said, and tried to squeeze my hand.

“No,” I screamed into the growing darkness, pulling away from him as if he was diseased.

“Where are you going?” William called forth, but I was already on the move. The moonlight was slim, and I hardly could see. William called out again, but I paid him no mind.

I was no coward. I would not let them take my Arabella.

My hands were numb from the bite of the cold and I feared losing my grip. As I climbed lower the wind relented, and I was able to reach the flatland safely, crunching over dry leaves as I ran to the butchery.

The children sat spread out in the grass. Some sat near the tables, stuffing boar meat into their mouths under the wash of purple and pink torches. Several children greeted me warmly, yet Arabella was nowhere to be seen, nor was Gregory. And as I looked around I could not find Mother Dyana as well. I asked a few of the children and they just shrugged their shoulders. The door to the butchery swung open and Damerus stepped out carrying a large wooden plate. “Where are they?” I asked, but he passed by without a word, went to the boar, and began pulling meat straight off the bone. I followed him. “Where are my brother and sister?” I asked again, and he turned, his fingers dropping a hunk of steaming meat on the plate. He smiled. The purple glow of torchlight and the orange flames roasting the boar made him appear mad, a vision from an old nightmare. He nodded to the pathway. “A feast is always a good day to see the garden, m’lady.”

I started to run, rushing along the pathway, a sickness growing in my stomach as I stormed past the girls’ lodgings. Running in the direction William had pointed out from atop the horse, I soon came to a clearing. Up ahead a torch burned. As it grew closer I saw a cabin. The torch was staked into the outside wall beside a door. I pushed and the door opened with a groan. Inside was a quiet stillness. Oil lamps burned, revealing a tidy room. Cupboards held items both strange and unfamiliar. I saw bones and spices, dried snakeskins, and a plate holding a tall mound of salt. The floor was hard wood. I stepped beside an old table where a black cat sat, watching me with emerald slits.

I entered a hallway. Up ahead a door rested half open.

This cabin is where Mother Dyana sleeps, I thought. This is her home. I went to the door and opened it fully, revealing a room flooded with light. Candles surrounded all four sides, neatly so, their flames flickering as one from the gust of air caused by the doors open thrust. On an old, worn bed Mother Dyana and Angelet sat together. Their eyes were closed, and they seemed to be in some kind of prayer. Gregory sat at the foot of the bed, leafing through the pages of a weathered book.

“Where is she,” I yelled with a fury. Angelet opened her eyes, calmly. “She is in the garden, Katelyn,” she said. Her eyes were icy diamonds in the firelight. “Down the hall. Go see, go see.”

Gregory hummed an unfamiliar song. He never took his eye from the book.

I left them there and stepped out into the hallway. I felt cold air on my lips, as if kissed by something long since dead. At the end of the hall was another door. I opened it and went outside, listening. Just the quiet of the night, the soft murmur of wind.

“Arabella?” I called out softly.

Star apples glowed from their branches, revealing rows of sunberry bushes. Beyond those a field of wheat stretched onward. Yet Arabella was nowhere to be found.

“Arabella?” I called out, moving forward. I approached the sunberry, praying for the sound of her voice. “Arabella…” A gale of wind pushed at my back. It chilled my ears and tossed my hair over my eyes, making me wish for my deerskin. I shivered, rubbed at my arms.


I stopped, glanced to the ground at my feet. A star apple lay in the grass, just before the first row of sunberry. A rope hung from it.

Tears welled in my eyes. I picked up the apple and stared into its glow.

Maybe she is just picking berries, I told myself. She does love them so…

A slow moan cut through the wind ahead of me. It was feeble, but I heard it well enough. Even in the cold my heart raced, and as I neared the source of the sound, I found her.

I dropped the star apple and stared for a moment, confused. My mind could not quite understand what my eyes were seeing, and when it finally did, the beginnings of a smile turned quickly and cruelly into a scream. Tears filled my eyes. It was as if the garden was consuming her. Everything below her waist was under the soil’s surface. And the rest of her, the parts that I could see, had changed. Branches had burst from her skin. Some were needle thin, while others were thicker and already sprouting young buds. They were everywhere—her neck, her face, from the arm that reached for me. I grabbed her hand yet quickly let go when I felt rigid, spindly wood instead of fingertips. “Oh, my little one,” I said, reaching for her face instead. “What have they done to you?” I dropped on my knees, close to my little sister. The brown had been taken from her eye, leaving a white film in its place. A single, small sunberry had formed in this whiteness and when I caressed her face it popped, sending a streak of red down her
cheek as if she cried blood.

“What have they done?!” There were other berries growing from her skin, and the beginnings of a small clusters forming on the twigs pushing through. “My little one, my little princess, what have they done.”

Arabella opened her mouth to speak but just a low exhale of steam came from her lips, followed by a low moan. From where her mouth hung open I saw earthy green. Where here tongue should be, rounded leaves were twisting, moving.

I gripped Arabella’s arm tight and pulled, trying to free her from the earth. She did not move, only made a sickening sound—not quite a scream—and I released her, cursing the cold night. I stood up, crying, wishing for a large rock between my hands so I could bring it down upon Arabella and end her suffering. As I glanced around for such a thing I heard the door creek behind me. My eyes found Gregory. A smile was on his lips and his skin was ghostly pale. Behind him, Mother Dyana stood with a hand upon his shoulder.

“What have you done to her?” I screamed, and ran towards the door. “What did you do to my sister?” But neither said a word. The only answer I was given was little Gregory’s grin as he backed away and closed the door before me.

As I raced to the door I could see my father clearly in my mind—the mad anger in his eyes, the purple vein swelling in his neck like a fat worm. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” he had yelled, and as the door snapped shut in front of me, just before my fingers could jam inside the opening, I wondered if he had known, if he had somehow seen this wicked cruelty.

The door was barred shut from the inside, and I heard Gregory speak just beyond it, “Mommy, can you tell me a bedtime story?”

“Gregory,” I shouted, “Gregory, open this door!” I pounded on it with a balled up fist until the side of my hand was raw and bleeding. He would not answer me, although I had not expected him to. Not when Mother Dyana was telling him a story. I could feel her words slithering through my mind, through my bones.

Our garden will smile on us tonight, little Gregory. The leaves whisper to the birds and the soil.

I took a step back, struggling with my footing. Looking down, I saw grass creeping over my boot. I pulled away as hard as I could. My foot broke free.

What do they whisper Mommy?

The ground moved below me. I stepped away from the door.

Arabella, I thought. I must go to Arabella. So I went to her, pushing forward. Yet my feet seemed heavy. Each step harder than the last.

They whisper of hope. Hope for all lost children.

Something crawled up my leg. It scratched through my linens, cutting into my skin.

I love it here Mommy. Can I stay forever?

I ripped it free. It was a root, slithering like a snake.

Why of course. All children stay forever in our garden. Our little angels will always have a place to grow.

A torch burned beside the locked door.

Perhaps I could pull it free and burn this cursed garden to the ground? But my footing would not allow it, and as I lost my balance and fell backward my body struck one of the star apple trees. I gasped from its impact. Surely I would have fallen to the ground if not for the branches tight on my skin. I screamed, struggling, but the embrace of the whispering forest was too strong to break.

On the second floor of the cabin was a small, wooden window. And from this window Angelet watched me. It was not made of glass, just simple wood, and she had swung it open like a door. As the tree crept along my skin, swallowing me inward, she spoke to me. “She doesn’t like your taste very much,” she said with a giggle.

I tried to yell up to her, but things were inside me, crawling in my throat, scraping it raw. “She will take you anyways,” Angelet continued, “though it will take much longer than Arabella. She was what the forest needed, not you.” From the tips of my fingers I felt pointy twigs sprout from the skin and under my nails. The tree’s bark seemed to be crawling up my spine, attaching itself to me. It itched and burned as it changed me. “Although your star apples will grow bright, I am sure of this. Just as I am sure to place the brightest around the neck of the next child the forest brings us.” She closed the window. From the side of my neck came a pink glow. I could feel it, not warm, but cold as ice. It bubbled just on the edges of my skin. Surely more would follow.

I wished to scream. But the Whispering Forest would not allow it. It was already twisting deep in my throat, in my mouth.

Soon I just wished to die.

The morning hour came. The sun did not warm the flesh of my body, for it was no longer flesh. It had hardened, darkened. Leaves twisted into my hair. My feet were rooted deep into the soil. Everything was cold.

Eventually children came out to pick sunberries. They talked of how wonderful they appeared, how red and plump and delicious they would surely be. “Never have they been finer!” one young boy said, plucking berries right from the bush that was once my Arabella, his face smeared red with crimson juice. It was Gregory. He rubbed his belly and walked past me. I reached for him, yet my brother would not look my way. Although I was sure there was a hint of a smile playing on the edges of his lips.

As the children left the garden my thoughts became thick and confused. I thought of Mother, and how different everything would have been had she not slipped in the creek bed. I also thought of what Father said to us after her freakish death. “The roots grow deep here. And I will not let them whisper her name.”

Back then, I had thought the act of burning Mother to ash to be an act both cruel and cowardice. She should have been buried—such is the way of our people.

Although now I knew the truth.

The roots did grow deep here. Of that my father was honest. And while the forest will never whisper Mother’s name, it already whispers Arabella’s. I could hear it deep in my mind, in the cold place where my heart once beat.

She must feel so alone, my sweet Sister.

But she won’t for long.

Because soon, very soon, the forest will whisper my name as well.

Fossil Fire

By John Zaharick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you going to do about it?”

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

Justin took another drink. “That sucks.”

“Yeah. Thanks for listening to me.”

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

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

We had been in our house for three years by that point. It was just a row home with a porch and a small yard, but better for Sarah than the apartments Melissa and I had been living in. A real home is what we were supposed to have at this point in our lives. I thought about my parents’ house as I ran my hand along the railing and then opened the screen door. I grew up in a house like this and now I owned one. That’s how things were supposed to go.

Melissa came into the living room with a small grin as I took off my shoes. “You’re back. How’s Justin doing?” she asked. Her blonde curls bounced as she moved.

“Same old. We had a few beers and talked about work and stuff.” I put my arm around her back, pulled her close, and kissed her on the forehead.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, wrapping her freckled arms around me. Her grin became curiosity. “You have that sense about you.”

“Nothing. I just have to ask people for money tomorrow. The last guy I laid brick for still hasn’t paid me. It’s annoying.”

She slid away from me. “People are such jerks. Anyway, dinner is pretty much finished. Can you get Sarah upstairs while I set the plates out?”

“Sure.” I watched her leave the room. If she was a stranger on the street I would call her pretty, but I wouldn’t bother to talk to her, even though I once did.

A few months passed and I forgot about the conversation with Justin. So I wasn’t expecting it when I saw it. I walked through the square to the coffee shop for lunch, feeling the summer heat. An electric sign announced the town fireworks display. I glanced at it and then looked up. I don’t know why. I never look at the sky. I should have jerked away from the harsh light, but I saw it, next to the real sun, like Justin said–a second star, a green sun, dimmer, hidden in the glare of the original, but there. Two eyes burning down on me. My eyelids squeezed shut and I turned my head away, spots dancing in my vision.

People walked down the street, jogged, led children along. Did they see it? I looked up again, but it was gone.

Maybe it was a trick. The glare on my eye, a double image from the brightness. Was the idea still lurking in my mind, ready to jump out when I stopped paying attention to it?

I felt dizzy in the heat. I kept going to the coffee shop, to sit in the air conditioning. I looked at the sun again. Only one. But everything felt odd, like when the tint is wrong on a television.

I wanted to tell Melissa, but I didn’t know how. She folded Sarah’s laundry in the living room when I came home. I needed to say something, so I blurted out, “How are you doing?”

“Sarah gave me trouble all day. She took a crying fit in the supermarket and I left before I could finish getting everything we need.” She spoke without looking at me, her eyelids sinking.

“Do you need me to look after her right now?”

“No, she’s taking a nap.” She gave me a weary smile. “How was your day?”

A pressure built in my chest. I wanted to tell her what I had seen. “Fine. I’m almost done the chimney for the Platts.”

She put the clothing back in the basket. “Do you mind if we just order a pizza or something tonight? I’m really tired and it’s too hot to cook.”

“Actually I kind of wanted to see Justin, so that’s fine.”

She stood and shoved the basket into her hip. “You can go over there. I’ll take care of Sarah.”

“Don’t you want to eat first?”

“If he doesn’t feed you I’ll have something saved for you. You worked all day. Go have a good time.” She took the basket upstairs. Reliving the moment I could tell she was mad at me, but at the time I simply took her advice.

Justin’s black lab lifted its head on the porch as I approached. It barked twice and then jumped up, claws scraping the wood as it got to its feet and ran toward me.

“Down, Muddy, down!” I yelled as the dog put his front paws on my stomach and tried to lick me. I scratched the back of his head and then pushed him to the ground. The screen door creaked and Justin came out with a dish rag in his hand.

“Muddy, come here!” The dog turned and ran to him. “I told you no jumping.” Justin swatted the dog on the nose. “Hey, Mike. How’s it going?” he asked. Inside the house I could hear his children screaming and his wife giving warnings about how long to play videogames.

“Good.” I hesitated. Dark blue stained the wisps of clouds in the sky as the last light crept over the horizon. “I saw it. The green sun.”

Justin lost the smile on his face. “Let’s go downstairs.”

A box of marsh grass and cattails sat next to the washing machine under a window. Justin filtered his wash water through the plants, and then used the gray water to flush his toilet. He didn’t do it to save the Earth so much as he enjoyed having projects to build and obsessing over things. He once told me he never used the remote key on his car because he didn’t want to drain the tiny battery.

Past the washing machine and dryer was his workshop filled with wood, plastic and metal pipes, and racks of tools.

“I never told you what color it was,” Justin said. He pulled a wooden crate out from under a table. Mason jars containing the fossilized flames clinked inside.

“I wasn’t looking for it. I just glanced up and it was there. I saw it this afternoon, but only once. It disappeared when I looked again.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll come back.” The jars rattled as he set the crate on the table. He removed one. The smell of river weed filled the cold room.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s frozen, like all of these. It doesn’t change like the regular sun. And it doesn’t give off its own light. It just reflects, like the moon.” He removed a piece of fire. “Calling them fossils works well at the flea market.”

“Why can’t anyone else see it?” Looking close, I could see flecks of green lodged behind the red and orange.

“I don’t know. You’re the only person I’ve told. Maybe that’s why you noticed it.” He put the flame on the table. “A little bit after my father died I was out at the Grape Hole, remembering when we used to swim there. There was a splash of something hitting the water. I looked around, but no one was there, not even on the ridge top. Under the ripples, I saw one of these. There was another splash farther out. I looked at the sky and that’s the first time I saw the green sun.

“I go out there once a month and collect the fossils from the shallows. There must be a mountain of them in the deeper water, but I don’t feel like swimming.”

“Kids still go there,” I said. “How come no one else has found them?”

“Hell if I know. It’s like they can’t be seen until I touch them. I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me they’ve found them too or they can see the sun, but I spend every weekend sitting at the market, seeing two suns in the sky, and no one else notices.” Justin turned from the flame to me and relaxed a little. “Do you want to go out there this weekend? Maybe you’ll notice something I didn’t.”

“Yeah, let’s see where these things come from.” I looked at the still flame, waiting for it to waver and continue burning.

The flooded coal quarry was on private land, but it was easy enough to sneak on and go swimming. We parked in a supermarket’s lot and walked into the nearby forest. A trail led to the water. When we were kids, the owner would come around sometimes and tell us to leave, but that was it. I’m sure as adults we were more likely to be identified and arrested later, but no one had noticed Justin here yet.

Sheer cliffs formed a wall against half the water filled pit. A shoreline of coal refuse and random weeds bordered the other side. Sycamores grew everywhere. In the Fall their leaves covered the water. They looked like grape leaves, and everyone called it the Grape Hole.

We used to climb a trail to the top of the cliff and dive off at various points. Our parents warned us about coming here, claiming we could drown. Along with the No Trespassing signs on trees, a large wooden sign warned against swimming.

This is where Ryan Dulin died when we were seniors. A bunch of rocks at the jumping off point had collapsed and he fell with them. Me and Justin never really talked to him, but he was Melissa’s boyfriend at the time. We never swam here after the accident either. But people forget.

Remains of a campfire and beer cans littered the shoreline. Cigarettes, gun shells, and a condom were scattered over the rocks. I saw a red sliver in the shallows, and then looked at the sky. The green fossil had returned.

I picked the flame out of the water.

Damn it!” Justin yelled. He was a few yards away flailing his hand about. He sucked on his finger as I walked over. A flame was in his other hand. Blood trickled from the wound when he took his finger out of his mouth. “I cut myself.”

“Maybe we should wear gloves,” I said.

Justin closed his eyes and squeezed his face together, like my uncle would do whenever he had a migraine. His eyes popped open.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Yeah. I just…I remembered when I cut myself as a kid, while using an X-ACTO knife.”

“It was that traumatic?”

“No.” He looked at the cut. “It just came on really strong, like I was there again, slicing my finger for the first time.”

“We better get your hand cleaned. We don’t know if these things are poisonous.”

“I’ve cut myself on them before. I’ll be fine.” He looked at me like he didn’t understand why I should be worried, and then took the flame to the cardboard box of jars on the shore. I put my flame in one too.

Insects hissed in the trees. It was sunny and hot, the perfect summer day, but a day that felt empty. I wanted there to be kids here, laughing and swimming. I wanted them to be the people I knew, many who have moved away. The day Ryan died, he stayed here by himself. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have left with Melissa when all of us packed up. I remember Justin trying to skip stones and failing. Now he was sucking blood from his finger.

We found five pieces before leaving.

I sat on the couch in the living room, dolls and coloring books all over the floor. Melissa had taken Sarah to the park. I looked at the flame in a jar and scratched at the glue from the spaghetti sauce label stuck to the glass. I was afraid. I didn’t understand how this thing could exist. If something as ordinary as the sun could go wrong, then how could I trust anything? Even the air in my house felt different. I had the sense that things were going to keep changing until I didn’t know where I was anymore. Wanting a distraction, I put the jar in the crack between two cushions and began picking up Sarah’s toys.

The front door opened. Melissa led Sarah in by the hand.

“How was the park?” I asked.

“Good. Tell Daddy what you did, sweetie.”

“I made a castle for Susan.” She held up her doll and her green eyes beamed with joy. Those were Melissa’s eyes, but Sarah had my brown hair.

I forgot about the sun for a moment as I lifted her in the air and she giggled. “Does she live in a high tower like this?”

“Justin gave you some of his glasswork?” Melissa asked, noticing the jar.

“Yeah, I was helping him this morning with one of his projects.”

“You’re not going to start hanging out at the flea market every weekend, are you?” she asked with a tired smile.

I laughed and put Sarah down. “No, I’d get bored too quickly. Justin’s the one who loves talking to strangers.” She walked to the stack of toys I made and scattered them.

“Did you pick up the stuff?” Melissa asked.


“You forgot.” She frowned. “I knew I should have stopped by the store on the way back from the park.”

“You never asked me to get anything,” I said.

Melissa was already walking down the hallway to the bathroom. She turned around at the door. “I told you I couldn’t finish because Sarah threw a fit in the store. I need pasta, eggs, mayonnaise, and celery to make macaroni salad for the picnic on Tuesday. It’s the Fourth of July, Mike.”

“I know.”

“God. Never mind, don’t worry. I’ll go back out.”

I got in bed that night while Melissa changed her clothes. I was thinking about the quarry when she asked, “When was the last time we went out for dinner?”

I paused. “I don’t know. A month ago?”

“I’m glad there’s the daycare for Sarah, but I’m still so stressed out.” Melissa rubbed her fingers on her forehead, illustrating her weariness, but found a pimple as a result. She moved to the vanity to pick at it. “I hate the office. I hate dealing with emails from idiots. Janice annoys the hell out of me. Proper etiquette says don’t discuss politics at work.” Melissa smeared a white cream on the blemish and rubbed it until it vanished. “Instead I have to listen to people whine all day about the government.” She got in bed with me.

“Now your face is red.” I poked her with my index finger. She faintly smiled. I could still go through the motions.

“We need to go on a date,” Melissa said. “Sarah is just too much for me after a full day at work. I was older than she is now when my father left us for Cheryl, but still, I’m amazed my mother was able to raise me by herself.”

“We’ll get a babysitter this Saturday,” I said. She lay next to me and I rubbed her leg, feeling day’s old hair growth.

“We need to get through the holiday first,” she said.

I kissed her, my hand on her leg, thinking about how nothing stays how you leave it, especially not smooth skin.

“Did you notice anything when you examined the fire?” Justin asked. Sunlight leaked in through the small windows near the basement ceiling.

“I can see green now,” I said. “There’s an emerald core under the red and orange. I never saw that before, but now it’s blatant.”

“What do you think it feels like?” he asked.

“I didn’t take it out of the jar. I’m afraid of cutting myself.”

Justin sighed. “I was hoping you would.”


He took a margarine container from a shelf and opened it. It was filled with red-green powder. “It breaks into dust if you grind it.” He touched it and got a dab on his finger. “The first time I cut myself I was suddenly lying on the ground, my knee bleeding from the rocks I fell off my bike onto. And I was ten.” Dust drifted about the window. “Then I was back here in the basement. So I nicked myself on purpose and there I was again, trying not to cry, scraping the dirt from my wound. It was the first hot day of summer, so I had shorts on. I wouldn’t have ripped my skin off if I was wearing jeans.”

He waited for a response, but I didn’t know what to say. Justin licked the powder from his finger.

“What are you doing?” My face twisted in disgust. He stood there, eyes closed, not moving. I grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “Justin!”

His eyes opened and I stepped back. “That was only a little bit, so it didn’t last long.”

“You’re eating it?”

“Well I guess you could smoke it or something, but that seems like too much work.”

“What just happened to you?”

“I was playing basketball with you in gym class.”

“You’re messing with me and I don’t like it.” My heart sped up. The world was changing again.

“Try it,” Justin said. He pointed to the tub on the table.

“No. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“It’s memories, Mike. The fire is memories. When you get it inside of you, you go back to whatever you’re thinking of at the moment. You relive it.” His eyebrows rose and a hushed tone barely kept back his excitement.

“You’re hallucinating?” I asked.

“No. Not at all. This is real.” He jabbed a finger at the powder. “When you remember a conversation, you remember the meaning of it, but not every word. You remember in general what someone did, but not every movement. Our minds aren’t VCRs. But this is. Any little detail you’d like to see again, everything you can’t remember, is right here. This is frozen experience, stored forever up in the sky.”

Justin had always been my closest friend, ever since we were boys, but now, for the first time in my life, he made me uncomfortable. “You don’t know what the hell this stuff is. How do you know it isn’t poisonous?”

“It hasn’t hurt me yet,” he said.

“How long have you been eating this?”

He raised his shoulders and turned his palm up. “About a year and a half, I guess.”

I looked at the powder, my throat tightening. “I need to leave. This is too much.”

“It’s safe Mike. You’re my friend and I’ve wanted to talk about this since I found it. You can see it too. You know I’m not crazy.”

Maybe he saw the fear on my face and was disappointed at how badly his revelation had gone because he didn’t chase after me when I left.

I remember watching fireworks as a kid. We sat as close to the shooting ground at the football field as we could, where it was loudest. They whistled from their tubes in a flash of light and the explosions made me feel like I was in the war movies my father watched. My ears rang all night.

When we were teenagers we moved to the hilltops along the forest so we could have privacy. In eleventh grade me and Justin were with girls who aren’t around anymore. Despite that, I wanted Melissa. We were in homeroom together and I would steal looks at her whenever I could without making it obvious. She was with Ryan though.

He came to drinking parties and swimming at the Grape Hole, but I never spoke to him. When I heard him talking, I knew he wanted everyone to know how smart he was. He was always going on about something only he knew about, usually religion, talking about people who said they saw the Virgin Mary.

Some people become teenagers and want to chase girls. Others develop strong opinions and need to tell everyone about them. Ryan did both. I don’t know what Melissa saw in him, but I was jealous. In the summer before our senior year, I had broken up with my girlfriend, so I sat alone on the hilltop, watching the fireworks. Justin was with his girlfriend. Melissa and Ryan were there too, and a bunch of others. I left halfway through the show, drunk, miserable.

Fifteen years later I sat far from the fireworks again, not for privacy, but to keep my daughter safe from the noise. And Melissa was finally mine, only now I didn’t want her. Justin wasn’t there. I’m not sure if he was watching them with his family, but I didn’t want to see him. At least until I could understand what was happening.

I was glad for the night. I didn’t want Melissa, I didn’t want Justin, and I didn’t want to see the green rock, its twisted veins like a marble, always overhead.

I looked at Sarah, her small face in awe at the lights.

It was hot in the garage. We had an air conditioner, but I kept coming here. Even with Melissa’s car, there was enough space to allow a workbench at the rear.

I took the jar from behind a box, the flame rattling inside. One of the tips had cracked off. I wanted to throw it in the garbage or crush it in my hand. I wanted to pull the false sun out of the sky and sink it in the quarry. I wanted to get drunk with Justin. I wanted to kiss Melissa and feel good again. But now we were fighting.

“When are you going to mow the lawn?” she had asked.

“When I get time to. I work late every day. Can it wait until Saturday?”

“You said you were going to have it done this week.”

“I never said that.”

“Don’t lie to me, Mike. I asked you to do it on Monday. Now it’s Thursday. Why can’t you be here when I need you?”

“I don’t remember you asking me about it at all.”

“Fine, maybe I should just do it myself.” She left the room.

I had been in the garage a lot the past month. This wasn’t the first time she accused me of not doing something she asked me to do. Other times it had been about making dinner or staying home to watch Sarah when the daycare wasn’t available. She had to know what was missing between us. She could tell something was wrong and was acting on it.

I hadn’t spoken to Justin in a month. At the time I couldn’t take my life getting any weirder, but now I didn’t care that he was eating it. If this is how things were, I accepted that. But I was afraid to show my face after how I reacted to him. I shouldn’t have been such a coward.

Why not try it? Melissa accused me of forgetting things. According to Justin, I could find out.

I laid a rag on my work bench, unscrewed the jar, and removed the flame, resting it on the cloth. I then wondered why I had gone through the trouble of being gentle with it when I intended to break it. I found a hardware store receipt on the table, put a tip of the flame over it, and began to sand the fossil. A reddish-green powder collected on the paper. After a few seconds of rubbing, I stained the tip of my finger with the powder and licked it off while thinking of Melissa.

We ate dinner. The lasagna she had cooked Monday night, steam rising off the top, a bit too hot for August, but still good. The seasoning was the best part, a recipe from her aunt. I didn’t remember this. I relived it, tasted the food again, felt my tongue burn when I couldn’t wait to eat.

Melissa complained about her job. I tried to offer support, but nothing I said felt meaningful. Finished eating, she left the kitchen to give Sarah a bath. If she had asked me, it wasn’t during dinner.

Then I was in the garage again, staring at her car. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes had passed. I must have stood there, zoned out for as long as it took to relive the meal.

I took another taste, less this time, and thought of the chimney I was building at the historical society. I was there again, in the cool room, brick in my hand over the dirt while the rest of the floor was covered in wood. Elizabeth, the society president, gabbed in the background. I thought she had been saying something about her granddaughter being in the newspaper, but now she was talking about some magazine, her granddaughter writing for it.

Justin said our memories weren’t perfect, and that the fire was. But why should I doubt my own mind and trust this?

I took some more and thought of Melissa. Whatever I remembered is where I found myself again. I began noticing details that seemed new, like what she was wearing or snippets of conversation I hadn’t recalled. Didn’t I pay attention the first time around? I listened to our conversations from the week again. She never asked me to mow the lawn. Did she think she did though? Intend to do so and not? I thought of the last time I could remember her asking me and found myself in July. I told her I would have it done before the end of the week.

The powder was used up. I put the rest of the flame back in the jar, and then tried to think of somewhere else I could be alone.

I was actually in her house. Yellow stucco walls, the brown carpet frayed where it ended at the stairs. Ceramic animals and glass candle holders on the book case above an encyclopedia set. The dents in the old furniture where people had sat for years.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” Melissa’s mother asked.

“No, I’m good right now,” I said. “Thanks.”

“Have a seat. I’ll go see if she’s ready yet.” She leaned close and whispered to me. “Thank you for doing this, Mike. She needs to be around her friends again. She’s been depressed ever since the accident.”

“It’s no problem,” I said. My left shoe was uncomfortable, just as I remembered. The color of Melissa’s corsage wasn’t what I thought though. More little details different.

“Hey.” I looked up from the flower to the voice. Melissa wore a teal dress that fell to her ankles. She smiled shyly. Seeing her in make-up with her hair pulled back and still eighteen, I realized how pretty she was. Was that it? Were we just getting older and Melissa the overworked mother was no longer the beautiful teenager?

She blushed when I put the blue flower on her. I noticed her reaction at the time, but didn’t trust that it was real, that she felt attracted to me too. On the second viewing, watching her lips bend into a smile, her eyes widen, I knew she was pleased to have me paying attention to her.

Coffee. That memory wasn’t wrong. A month after prom I asked her out. We went to Maggie’s Diner. Afterwards, we kissed. In the movies the girls taste like strawberries. Melissa tasted like coffee. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but as soon as I was reminded the memory came back. I knew which details would happen seconds before I relived them.

Three years later and I’m on the phone with Justin. “How the hell are you?”

“Good. I’m good,” he said. “Cleveland is interesting. Not as noisy as other places I’ve been to. I drive cars all day, moving them from where they get unloaded to dealerships. It’s tiring, but it’s decent.” He left after high school, didn’t want to live in the area anymore. He had no plans. He just wanted to go, wandering from place to place, working wherever he could. He eventually found whatever he was looking for because he came back, met a saleswoman from the newspaper, and settled down.

“Do you think you could take a break for a weekend and come visit?”

“Yeah, I can plan a trip. It’ll be great to see you again.”

“Well you don’t have to rush back right away. We don’t have a date yet but…look, can you be my best man?”

Fireworks opened the sky and I wandered away, arms itching from touching the dry grass. I saw Ryan holding Melissa as the hill lit up.

Both my shoes fit this time. Suit was nicer too. I watched her uncle lead her down the aisle. During the prom she kept looking down. Now she held her head high. Thin white straps went over her shoulders and embroidery wrapped around the top of her dress. At her waist it spread out into a smooth cone, like a snow drift.

The flowers tied to the pews were different. I was thinking of the poinsettias we had at home every Christmas and imagining them at the wedding too. But these looked like lilies. What an odd thing to confuse. My cousin Charlie wore jeans. At least his shirt had buttons. I hadn’t realized that. I know I spoke with him at the reception, but I had no memory of him being underdressed.

Melissa was in focus. The details I remembered about her were true in the fire, but the further things were from her, the less I knew them.

Dan and Mosley tried to light the campfire, but couldn’t. The wood was wet and they had burned half a notebook in the process. It would flare up, people would cheer, then the kindling would burn through and we’d be left with nothing again.

Justin mumbled about them, annoyed, but offered no help.

“How do you know it’s not like when people see shapes in the clouds?” Steve Kinnet asked. I wanted to turn to look at them, but couldn’t. That’s not what I had done in the past, and my body kept facing the campfire and quarry.

“There’s pictures of her, man,” Ryan said. “I’ll show you the book next time.”

“I don’t know. You can fake pictures.”

“Thousands saw her, even the Muslims.”

“You said it was just some light reflecting off a church at first.”

“God, not this again,” Jennie Petrowski moaned. “No one fucking cares.”

My body finally turned. Melissa sat next to Jennie on a beach towel. She wore a tube top. I could see the freckles on the tops of her breasts.

We lay in the hot darkness of our first apartment, no air conditioning, and she told me about her parents fighting and her father leaving, about dating Ryan because he made her feel better. Until he left too. Naked with her, I don’t think I was jealous.

I played with toy trucks in the backyard, scooping dirt with a front end loader and putting it in a dump truck. The neighbor’s big yellow cat lay in the grass, watching me. My mother and aunt sat on lawn chairs, smoking. Aunt Ruth had started to turn gray that young?

Chlorine from the school pool burned my nose. I climbed out of the shallow end, followed a trail of classmates to the deep side, and jumped in for another lap.

My mother shook me awake. The clock said 11:17, but I could barely open my eyes.

“Do you know Ryan Dulin?” she asked.

“Yeah, why?” I groaned. I fell back onto the pillow.

“They found his body in that quarry you all go swimming at. I’ve told you hundreds of times not to go there. They put the warning signs up for a reason. What if that was you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I whined with closed eyes.

“A kid from your high school drowned in the rock quarry.”

Melissa tried to hide her smile, but couldn’t. My boots were still covered in mortar as I stood in the living room. But she didn’t care about the carpet. Instead, “I’m pregnant.” I couldn’t breathe for a second.

“How many of these have you sold?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Dozens. A hundred. I never kept track.” Justin shrugged.

When I had called, he said he was afraid I was mad at him. I told him it was me who was afraid, afraid of the fire, but I had been using it.

“If you cut yourself so easily, other people have to know.” We were in the workshop, the crate of jars on the table.

“If they do, they never told me. I sell them as art. Maybe everyone’s afraid to take them out of the jars and risk breaking them.” The dryer rumbled, hiding our conversation.

“How often are you using this?” I asked.

“At least once a week, when I feel like reminiscing.”

“You need to relive things that much?”

“Yeah, why not?” he said defensively. Next to him, the jars looked like pictures, refusing to flicker. He lowered his voice. “If you think too much about your memories, you lose confidence in them. They’re vague, untouchable. The past may as well have been a dream. That’s how alike my memories of dreams and reality are. And our memories change every time we recall them. What good are memories when they’re lies?” He looked at the jar in his hand. “This is different. This is pure experience, preserved forever.”

“How do you know that?” I asked. “You’re right, the details in the fire are different than the way I remember them, but what makes you think the fire is true?”

“I tested it.” He waved his hand as if it was obvious. “I thought about James as a baby, moments I know we videotaped. I wrote down everything I could remember. Then I did the fire and relived them. And then I watched the videotapes. My memories didn’t match the tape, but the fire did. It’s recordings, but of everything and in so much more detail.”

I looked at the jar in his hand. “I’ve spent hours in it. It seems too easy to get lost.”

“I’m not using it for entertainment,” Justin said. “When I decided to see my father again, I chose a fishing trip. A black snake swam across the creek. It was the first time I saw a snake in the wild. Back there again, I could see the joy in my father’s face. I was excited to see the snake, and my reaction made him so happy. He was happy to simply have a son.”

“So are you going to take James fishing or hang out down here getting stoned?”

“Don’t say that, Mike.”

“I know what this does now, and I’m worried about what you’re telling me.”

“I was living in another state for three years when my father died. I lost that time to spend with him. This is a blessing. I’m not remembering. I’m not forgetting on pot. I’m going back. If you’re telling me there’s something wrong with that, you can leave.” The tumbling of the dryer filled his pause. “Everything’s always becoming the past. My life can’t have meaning when everything’s always disappearing.”

I thought of Melissa in her wedding dress. “Don’t get lost in it.”

“I won’t.”

The house was dark. I wondered where Melissa and Sarah were, but I was also relieved to have time alone that didn’t involve hiding. I thought about this as I opened the door. At first there was something missing when I looked at her. Now I was wishing to be alone.

A silhouette sat on the couch.

“Why are you in the dark?” I asked. “Is everything OK?”

“I’m fine. I’m just sitting here. Where were you?”

I turned the lamp on. “With Justin.”

Her eyes were red. “Oh.”

“What’s going on?”

She kept her head straight, only moving her eyes to me. Her mouth opened to speak, but she closed it, eyes drifting away.

“What did I forget to do?” I asked.

“How’s Justin?”

“He’s fine.” I stepped towards her. “You’ve been crying. What is–”

“You’re cheating on me.”

“What? No. Why did you say that?”

“You’re always busy,” Melissa said. “Saying you’re off with Justin or taking walks.”

I looked down while touching my forehead. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. I’ve had a lot of work lately. I guess I do spend too much time elsewhere when I should be here.”

“Don’t lie to me!” She flung her hands to her sides. “Even when you are here you’re distant. You don’t seem like you care about me anymore.”

The air stopped in my throat. “Where’s Sarah?”

“With Caitlin.”

“Why do you think I don’t care about you?”

“Stop pretending, Mike.” Her words snapped the air. “I can see it in your expressions, in how you treat me. You’ve been disappearing since summer began and missing all week. When I do see you, you act like you want to help me with things. But you’re still not there. I’m raising our daughter and working and I have so much to do…and you can only think about yourself.”

I stared at the hair on my hands. Confronted with my feelings, I could only be practical. “I know where Justin gets his fire.”

“I don’t give a fuck about Justin! We need to talk about us.”

“No, this can help. There’s something very strange going on and I don’t understand it.”

“What? What is so important between you and Justin?”

I hesitated. “He doesn’t make the fire. He finds it…at the Grape Hole. They fall into the water. There’s this green sun in the sky and I can see it and I don’t know why.”

As I spoke the words I knew I was making things worse, sounding like an idiot, like I was joking during a serious situation. Instead, Melissa’s scowl turned to shock.


“I know. I sound insane. I’m sorry. But Justin’s been eating this stuff, and it lets him relive his past. I’ve tried it too. I’ve gone on our dates again.” I couldn’t say the right things to make her feel better. I just had to say what was happening.

Melissa looked like I had informed her of a death. “You were never friends with him. He said he never told anyone else.”

Not the reaction I had expected. “I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“Ryan. You’re bringing up my relationship with Ryan to fuck with me.”

We were having different conversations and it took me a second to understand her. “Why did you think of Ryan just now?”

“You know why. Why else would you bring up the Grape Hole and the sun?”

My body became weak. “Ryan saw the green sun?” I asked, my voice barely making it out of my mouth.

Melissa looked at me and then away. “Who told you this?”

“Justin. He saw it over the quarry. And then I did.”

Her face trembled. “Ryan told me something very strange once. He told me that sometimes he saw two suns in the sunset. I thought he was just staring at it for too long, trying to see the Virgin Mary or something. Now you’re telling me the same thing, all these years later.”

“Did he ever mention the fire?”

She hesitated. “No. What is going on here? I barely see you anymore and now you’re going on about Justin’s sculptures and Ryan. I don’t want to remember what happened to him.”

“I’ll show you,” I said. I went to the garage and retrieved the flame. As I unscrewed the jar lid in the living room, I realized I forgot the sandpaper.

“I don’t understand what you’re doing, Mike.”

“What else did Ryan say about the sun?”

“I…I don’t know. He was always telling weird stories. He didn’t believe in God because of his parents or church, but because of stories about miracles, like these people in Spain who saw the sun dance in the sky because the Virgin Mary predicted it to some children.”

I put the jar on the coffee table. “I need to break this up. I’ll be back again.”

“I’ve never actually touched one of these,” she said, reaching out.

“This is going to sound even weirder but–”

Melissa hissed as the flame cut her finger. She flung her hand away, and then froze for a few seconds. The effect wore off and she realized she was in the house again.

“What was that?” she asked.

“What did you see?”

“I…I was at the quarry, on top of that cliff where the flat rock juts out from the bushes. Ryan wanted me to jump, but I was too afraid. It’s so high, everyone below so small.”

“You go back to whatever you’re thinking about.”

She looked at the flame in the jar, mouth hanging open, and then exhaled, “What?”

“Justin grinds it into a powder and eats it. You have to get it inside of you somehow. Like the cut.”

Red seeped out of her finger. She held it to her mouth and then reached out to touch the flame again. Her finger ran along the crystal, and when the cut touched an edge, her eyelids pulled open wide. The trance broke with another breath.


“I don’t know.”

“You’ve been doing this? With Justin?”

“Not with him. He found it first though. I know I haven’t been around lately. I’m sorry. But I’ve been reliving our life together, all the things we’ve done.”

“This is terrible.”

Her reaction cut short my confession. “You think this is wrong?”

“Why would I want to relive all that? I’ve been trying to get away from my past. Ryan’s death, my parent’s fighting, my father abandoning us. Do you know how scared I am that the same thing’s going to happen to Sarah?”

“It’s not. I know we’ve been having problems lately, but I’m not leaving.”

“Ryan jumped in that water with no one around, no one to see him in danger. I don’t know what he saw, but it killed him. And now you’re seeing it too?”

“You’re not going to lose me. I love you.” I said it as a reaction. But even seeing the moment again, I don’t know what I actually felt besides panic.

She sucked the blood from her finger, wide eyes on the flame, before leaping from the couch and running to the bedroom. The door slammed shut.

“Melissa!” I yelled, my voice losing strength on the last syllable. I sat on the floor, covering my face with my hand.

Ryan dove from the cliff. When he struck the blue water, it turned white. The splash settled and he was gone. A second passed. His head broke the surface.

“Look out below!” Dan Shenecker screamed as he leapt off next and crashed into the water feet first.

Several lawn chairs were set up on the shoreline around the cooler. Four of us lounged around while three others swam in the water. I sat on the hot rocks and dirt sipping a can of beer.

Dan, Steve, and Ryan came out of the water.

“You should give it a go,” Ryan said to Jennie, who lay in a chair tanning. She wore a bathing suit, but was still dry.

“I’m fine with walking in, thank you very much.” Large sunglasses covered her eyes.

“It is scary the first time, but there’s such a sense of tranquility when you’re in the air. For a second you’re weightless and there’s nothing else in the world.”

“Dude, I’m not hitting my head off those fucking rocks.”

“We’re all still here,” Dan said, waving his hands about. Jennie stuck her tongue out at him.

Ryan sat on the ground near me. He wore a crucifix and yellow and black swim trunks. His hair was matted to his head.

“How are you doing, Mike?”

“Oh I’m good,” I said, looking at the water. It was deep blue and the sky was cloudless. I took a drink.

“Where’s Justin at? You two are always together.”

“He’s coming later. I’m just waiting until then.” I didn’t have to remember how I felt. I could hear the annoyance in my voice. “Where’s your girlfriend?” I asked.

“Ah, she’s busy with her mom today.” He tilted his head straight up for a few seconds before bringing it back down. I could feel the heat on my arms and the back of my neck. He was looking at the suns. I wanted to look too, wanted to tell him I knew. Tell him not to dive for the flames.

“Beautiful day today, man.”

“Yep,” I responded.

“You know, they say one day the sun is going to expand and burn up the whole Earth.”

“Do they? Well I hope I’m not around for that.”

He laughed. “Nah, it’s not for a long time.”

I got up to piss. Walking to the trees, I heard something plop into the water. I couldn’t turn to look. Standing against a tree though, I had a clear view of the hole. Several more rocks fell into it. The splashes weren’t large enough to be heard from our campsite, but I could see the cliff coming apart, falling into the water. Beyond that, Ryan entered the path that led to the top.

Back at the lawn chairs, moisture clung to the outside of my beer can. The buzz was finally starting to come on. I could feel even that sensation again, but never my emotions.

“Time to clear out,” Steve yelled. A blue Toyota pickup truck pulled into the clearing. The group folded up the lawn chairs and ran off with them over their heads. Steve and Dan closed the lid of the cooler and hurried away, stumbling once in flip flops on the rocky ground as the ice chest swung about. I just watched. We never got in any real trouble. I think they ran to make it more exciting, to feel like they were actually being chased off instead of begrudgingly leaving.

Doug Altland got out of the truck. He was sixty-something, but still probably stronger than most of the teenagers who hung out at his quarry. He wore dirty jeans, work boots, and a faded lime green t-shirt with a construction company logo on it. The scowl on his face was meant to be threatening, but all I did was stand up

“What are you doing here?” he yelled.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Then you got no reason to be here. This is private property. You kids want to drink, go find somewhere else.”

I rolled my eyes and walked away.

“Is there anyone else out here?” he asked.

“No, they all ran off when you pulled in.” The temperature dropped as I entered the shade of the trees.

This was new to me. I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten of that day. I knew I was at the quarry, but I had no memory of seeing those rocks falling. I didn’t know Altland had chased us that particular time, or that I had spoken to him. All my memories of the quarry seemed to have blended together. Melissa and Justin weren’t even there, but I thought they had been. I never talked to anyone about Ryan afterwards.

He probably thought he was seeing God, a miracle in the sky. Justin called the fire a blessing. I didn’t feel that way. I wanted life to be simple, but this thing wouldn’t let it. My marriage was failing, I was empty, and I couldn’t even trust my memory. Justin was right. Everything goes away given enough time.

Light from the hallway outlined Melissa lying on top of the blankets. I lay down and held her. She fidgeted.

Memories of fighting last week came to me, of not talking the month before, of getting by before that. A year ago this month we were at the movies. So much had happened between then and now. I thought of last fall, winter, Christmas, all the Christmases in this house; of our parents visiting us; us visiting Melissa’s mother a few months after the wedding; seeing my parents; the time we spent here before Sarah was born; after; memories of Melissa pregnant; Melissa flat stomached before that; high school; graduating; working. The more I thought of the past, the heavier it became. So much time, so many days, all of it overwhelming, but there was no point. Even this moment would become the past, everything slipping away.

“I’m afraid,” she said. I held her tighter.

The suns were setting over Shenecker’s farm. We sat under the trees, the tall grass having taken our spot on the hillside.

“It’s my fault Ryan died.”

“You didn’t kill him,” Justin said.

“If I had been paying attention–if I didn’t hate him–I would have realized he was going swimming. I should have noticed the rock breaking. I should have told Altland one more kid was there. He would have waited for Ryan to appear at the top of the cliff. Either yelled at him so Ryan never would have walked onto the ledge, or seen him fall.”

“The past is done. We can only see it again, not change it.”

The farm was dark. Dan was supposedly selling his parent’s land to developers. They were going to put a Walmart on it.

“When you left after high school and went travelling, what did you find?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just more of the world. It may look a little different, but it’s all the same, no matter where you go.”

“Why did you go? I always figured you were trying to find something.”

“I guess so. I wanted to see what was so great out there. People expect you to move away, so I did. I lived in cities and the middle of nowhere. It’s all nice, but there’s nothing that’s not already here.”

Car lights drifted around the farmland as daylight faded. I held up two fingers to block the light from each star. “I don’t think I’ve been paying attention to Sarah either. I’m only taking care of her because I’m supposed to.” Something ominous drifted into the landscape. I remember the feeling well, the sensation of something bad about to happen.

Justin laughed. “And you want to tell me how to raise my children.”

It broke inside of me, like a bridge collapsing, and even though I was sitting, I felt like I was falling away from the hill, concrete dust filling my lungs.

“She only exists because he died. Everything I have exists because I made a mistake, and I’m going to lose it because I’m making the same mistake again.”

“We can’t lose anything anymore,” Justin said. “We have the fire.”

“I don’t want to see Melissa in the fire. I want to see her now. I don’t remember the way things really happened because I haven’t been paying attention to anything in my life. Everything will wear away with time, even passion. But it’ll wear away faster if I let it.”

Justin didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look at me.

The fire was on the coffee table and powder on a napkin when I came back.

“You’ve used it,” I said.

Melissa sat hunched over, palms on her cheeks. “I wanted to see my parents together again.”