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The Furred Devil’s Apology

These chains are not necessary, sir. I admit, the opera house is in tatters. My claws never were a meet companion for chenille and gobelin tapestry. There are rows of cushioned seats that will want replacing. Yet no one was injured.

And I am myself again.

Much better. You are more than gracious. Ah, and tea served. One remarks the gentleman in you, Detective. Let us proceed to detail, that I might repay your kindness.

I will not soften off the matter. You will have perceived my antiquity. The bears with which you mingle in this vast city of ours are not so furred as I and their frame much diminished. Why that fit that came upon me? – it was the battle scene. The jabbing and parrying of those smooth-faced actors, so very choreographed, that bland depiction of slaughter. A groan, the actor sinks to his knees and the rapier through the middle is redrawn and flourished, clean and brilliant. War is not so, sir – I have seen – Forgive me.

I am perhaps the last living witness to that war between bears and humans now called the Only War, and be you willing I will tell you of it. Mayhap in the history you will find a morsel of our entwined past not known to you before and that will move you to forgive my rampage.

Grandma’s Shoes

Becca climbed out her bedroom window, grabbed a shovel, and ran to the graveyard. Becca’s mother had ordered her grandma buried in Becca’s favorite pair of shoes, and homecoming was approaching fast.

Becca figured she’d take the jewelry, too, while she was there. Her grandmother would have wanted her to have it. She didn’t let herself hope for anything more.

The full moon illuminated the graveyard well enough for her to dig without any other light. The soil was loose, but she still worked up a sweat in the heavy late-summer air. She’d never done much digging before. Her arms burned and her back ached. She wished she’d thought to borrow a backhoe. She wished she knew how to use a backhoe. She wished that her mother wasn’t so horrible, and that her grandmother was still alive.

After what felt like an eternity, her shovel thunked into the hardwood casket. She removed enough dirt to clear the top half of the lid, then she jerked it open. A thin stream of dirt cascaded down the side of her hole, onto her grandmother’s waxy face.

The stink hit Becca like a bag of hammers, and her stomach lurched. She managed to turn enough to throw up on her own shoes instead of on her dead grandmother’s carefully arranged gray curls.

She scowled down at her already-filthy canvas sneakers. They were going to be a total loss. But the shoes might have been a lost cause anyway, and it would have been wrong to throw up on her grandmother. Aside from the puffiness, she looked almost normal. And Becca had loved her grandmother.

That, more than homecoming, was why she wanted the shoes back.

She covered her mouth with her shirt and took a few slow breaths. She could do this. She reached in for the necklace, and her fingers brushed her grandmother’s neck. The flesh was the same cool temperature as the dirt and too soft–like a foam mattress.

Her grandmother’s eyes snapped open, she grabbed Becca’s wrist. Her swollen fingers felt like refrigerated sausages. Becca yelped and tried to step back, but her feet slipped, and she fell to her knees. “What are you doing, Rebecca?” Her grandmother’s voice was wet and distorted, but recognizable.

Becca’s terror eased. Her grandmother wasn’t mindless–she remembered who she was. The hope that Becca hadn’t let herself feel spread in her chest, and she grinned. Even dead, her grandmother wouldn’t hurt her.

“I’m here for the shoes,” Becca said. “It’s nice to hear your voice again, too.”

Her grandmother blinked at her. “Which shoes?”

“The red pumps.”

“I gave those to you,” her grandmother said. “Why would I be buried in them?”

Becca shrugged. “Mom decided. I don’t think she wanted me to have them. She always hates–hated it when you gave me things.”

Her grandmother sniffed. “I raised her better than that.” She released Becca’s wrist and started wriggling around. She placed one red pump, then a second, on top of the casket. “Since you’re here, you should take the jewelry, too.”

She tried to pull off her rings, but they were trapped on her swollen fingers. She couldn’t work the necklace clasp, either. “This whole dead thing is quite frustrating,” she said.

Becca reached in and unfastened the necklace. The smell hardly bothered her at all now. “I can imagine.” Becca put the necklace on and picked up the shoes. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.

Her grandmother shrugged. “I can’t think of anything. I don’t really need much. I’m dead, after all.”

Becca blinked back her tears. She’d already cried for her grandmother. “Okay. I love you.”

“I love you, too, dear. It would be nice if you’d come and visit.”

“I will.”

“And don’t worry too much about your mother. Things will get better. Eventually.”

“I–I’ll try not to let it get to me.”

Becca reached for the lid. “Grandma?”

“Yes, dear?”

“What’s it like?” Becca asked.

“What’s what like?”

“Being dead.”

“It’s not bad. But it’s not great either. It’s certainly not something you should rush into.”

“Right. Thanks Grandma. I’ll remember.”

“You do that.”

Becca closed the lid. It took less time to fill the hole back in. She left her vomit-covered shoes next to the headstone and walked home in the red pumps.

Her mother noticed when she wore the shoes to homecoming, but neither of them mentioned it.

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

The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa

The woman in the diner’s backroom sat in a chair–but no, she wasn’t just sitting. She had become the chair, or the chair was eating her, consuming her like a wicker tumor. Half her teeth were gone and white willow strands had forced through the empty spots in her gums. Wicker strips curved from her hands instead of fingernails. Beneath her faded peony-pattered skirt, curls of wicker cleaved to her legs instead of varicose veins.

“Girl.” The Wicker Woman reached out a veined hand, tried to stroke Maddy’s face, and her wicker fingernails clattered against Maddy’s cheek.

“How long have you been here? What are you–do you need to go to a hospital?” said Maddy.

“Not the hospital. The camp.”

“What camp?”

The woman nodded at a dusty book at her feet, a withered piece of newsprint sticking out the top. The book was called Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest. Maddy pulled the newsprint out of the water-warped pages.

A picture of a beaming man, his hair curled in a 1940s pompadour, his face superimposed over a palm tree. The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, Offering Electroshock, Hypnosis and the Occasional Healing Boat Ride. Exit 6 off I-15.

“You get healed there,” said the woman, lisping around the wicker protruding from her mouth. “I want to go.”

Maddy stared at the soft newsprint in her hand and imagined this spa, sand blowing through its deserted buildings, or a chain restaurant erected where it had once stood. But then she saw the Wicker Woman looking at her with brows knitted over cloudy eyes.

“I can take you,” said Maddy. “I’ll take you with me.”

Maddy dragged the chair through the gloaming of the diner, past the turquoise Formica counter and the tintype of a boy holding a glass Coke bottle. She banged out the broken screen door and pulled the chair over the sparse grass between the diner and the pitted road.

Maddy threw open her U-Haul truck, which overflowed with furniture, books, lamps and an old mannequin Maddy had bought at Goodwill freshman year.

“There’s no room,” said the Wicker Woman. “Are you going to leave me here?”

“No, I–”

“Leave some of these things, girlie. You don’t need them. What’re you going to do with that thing?” She gestured at the mannequin.

Maddy hesitated, but she shook her head, hauled out her aqua desk chair and plunked it by the side of the road. Dust eddys jumped around the chair wheels.

One less thing to move in when I get to Los Angeles, thought Maddy. And truly, she liked the look of her chair on the grass, about to pass from Maddy’s concern, about to be far behind her on the road.

China Island

I’d already saved Laurence Saunders a number of times over the years, small insignificant salvations. On December nineteenth, I managed to save him twice.

That last day, Laurence slipped unnoticed from his home sometime between noon and three p.m., the three hour space between the meals-on-wheels delivery by Mrs. Heflin and the arrival of the nurse’s aide. Despite the tragic circumstances, no blame was ever cast on either woman. After all, Mr. Saunders had been found wandering numerous times before.

No one considered my involvement, not even once: not the police officer who coordinated the search and rescue, not the other neighbors on our street, not even the dogs they eventually brought in from the mainland, though, perhaps, they would have if they’d bothered to check my boots.

Laurence was my closest neighbor, his front porch no more than forty feet from mine. Five years ago I’d watched his wife’s coffin carried down the steps of that front porch after the wake. Later I’d watched him sit on that same porch for hours, alone, day after day, only the fraying of his bathrobe marking the passage of time.

With his wife, Suzie, gone, I was his only companion. Laurence and I were separated by forty feet, two walls, and a growing silence that neither of us could shake. For me, the silence shouldn’t have felt any different from when Suzie was alive. But it did.

I had never been one of the Saunders’ flock of visitors. The August barbeques with the overflow of pick-up trucks and coolers full of beer had always seemed like just so much unnecessary noise. Since Suzie’s death, that kind of noise had gradually ceased. Laurence started losing people’s names about three years ago. Started losing other words about a year after that. Now that the silence had infected his house, few visited anymore.

I watched, I listened, and, at night when Laurence fell asleep in front of his flickering TV, I slipped in and turned out the lights. It felt good to be needed.

Ten years ago I’d left my husband, Peter and his three basset hounds back in Portland and moved across the bay to China Island and Aunt Eveline’s old clapboard house. The twin occurrences of Aunt Eveline’s death and the demise of my marriage felt somehow linked. My true path finally revealed.

“Good luck, Sarah,” My ex-husband had said on that last day, shaking my hand as we stood outside the courthouse. He seemed almost relieved to see me go.

Eveline’s death offered me a new beginning. Between the house and an old savings account, she’d left me enough to almost squeak by. And somehow or other the island always provided.

Then December nineteenth arrived and Laurence Saunders wandered into the woods.

Leavings and Remains

Homework Assignment #22: Write About Your Family
by Meoquanee Minawasinons (age 7) – April 28, 2079

My family is my two older half-brothers and my two older sisters and my dad and my mom and me.

Sansuka and Sasrutha are old old men, Dad says they would be 26 now. Sansuka is a geomancer and he works in the Deep Fishing Mine in Wattlesburg North. He writes us lots of letters that come in by carrier pigeon because he says they’re faster than the Internet. He calls me baby and gives me piggy-back rides when he visits. Dad says Sasrutha went to Toronto to be with his boyfriend and ended up being a travel writer. He has been everywhere except Mars and always sends us copies of his articles with his very own notes inked in. He writes under a fake name because he doesn’t want the places he’s visiting to know he was there. Except they do, they just don’t know that he talks about them after.

My oldest sister is Keezheekoni, I don’t remember much about her. Dad says she left right after the government had the airtrains put in and maybe she is travelling like Sasrutha, except liking it more and that’s why she doesn’t write to us. Sasrutha always ends up getting a mango worm in his head or needing money for bail, his articles are pretty funny.

Ominotago we call Minnow and she is only four years older than me but she calls me baby-baby, which I like when Sansuka calls me that but not her. Dad says she was used to being the baby and doesn’t like that I’m younger than her, which is silly. I’d rather be older, but not as old as the twins because Sansuka is losing his hair already. Also we call her Minnow because Ominotago means ‘nice voice’ and she sounds like a cat being stepped on. At least I think that’s why we call her Minnow. It’s why I call her Minnow. Sometimes I call her Fishbreath.

Dad says he used to be a no-good layabout before he met Mom, and then he became a good daddy BOOM like that. He grew up in the Tooth for a Tooth War, in the Wild Eagles tribe, but he wasn’t kidnapped like the other kids. He was actually born into the tribe, but he doesn’t remember who his parents are because none of the adults were very good at taking care of kids. That’s why the war ended so badly, because they were all hiding in the Northwest until the leaders finally said, “Oh wait we’re actually pretty stupid and we have no idea what we’re doing.” That’s what Dad says happened. He says they were just a bunch of angry kids and if they had just stayed in the North and been angry all by themselves instead of stealing people’s babies, nobody would have cared. Except they did and some people died and the government couldn’t always figure out which kids belonged to which parents and sometimes they thought the parents didn’t even want their kid back. That’s why I have an Aunt Ying even though she’s not really my aunt, but Dad says she didn’t have anyone else to be family with.

He was trained up to be their storyteller except I don’t think his tribe would like the stories he’s ended up telling about them. He also says Wild Eagles is a dumb name but they chose it because they got tired of news reporters mispronouncing their own language at them. Dad tells stories to the tourists who come up by airtrain now.

Mom’s from Sri Lanka and she married a bad man and she had Sansuka and Sasrutha there but she didn’t want to stay with her husband so she came to Canada instead. And the government found out she was a terramancer and told her to go north and make the hinterlands (where we are) better for tourists. Dad says she must have been a fertility goddess too because she kept popping out babies way after he thought they wouldn’t need protection. I don’t know what that means.

Mom’s a zombie now. She cut herself about a month ago when she was making dinner and we didn’t think it was bad but the next day it went all green and by nighttime she was dead. She and Minnow and Dad and I had all piled into the truck and drove to the hospital fast as we could but it’s really far and the doctors say she would have probably lost her arm anyway.

She had signed up to be an organ donor so we stayed at the hospital overnight while the doctors took out her eyeballs and heart and things. They sort of stitched her back up and we drove home. Minnow and I went to school like always in the school bus but when we got out Mom was waiting to take us home. Minnow started crying and got on the bus, but I let Mom pick me up and she ran all the way home with me on her shoulders. She’s a lot faster than the bus because she doesn’t have to stop at all the houses.

Tammy Gabriel saw Mom drop me off at school the next day and started yelling, “Your mom eats brains! Your mom eats brains!” over and over until I threw rocks at her. When I got home I told Dad about it and he said Tammy’s just upset because her dad died in a mining accident last year but he stayed dead. So the next day I told Tammy I was sorry for throwing rocks at her but if she ever said anything bad about Mom again then next time I would make her eat them. The end.

The Adverse Possession of Madeline Greene

There is a legal doctrine called adverse possession whereby one man – in absence of legal or moral claim – may come to own the property of another. In its simplest terms, it requires only that the trespasser take hold of the land and cling to it as long as possible. By sheer force of will and the passage of time, he can take the ground right from under your feet.

Perhaps this principle is a vestige of our flag-bearing forefathers, who declared themselves founders of a land that had already been found. As a child learning American history, this irony had troubled Madeline. She could not understand how something could be discovered that was already known, anymore than something that was seen could be unseen, heard be unheard, or any sensory phenomena be erased from memory.

It was only as she grew older that she began to appreciate the duplicitous nature of existence and even observe the dichotomy within herself. She was twenty-four, therefore above the age of majority but uncomfortable identifying herself as an adult. She was neither tall nor short, neither thick nor thin, and hair that was neither straight nor curly but rather overtaken by a slight wave and frizz. Even her eyes were unable to reach a definitive conclusion as they alternated between gray and blue depending on the light and time of day.

As physically unobtrusive as she was, Madeline was even more nondescript as a personality. At work she was an office automaton, her desk serving as a way station for memos and reports that passed under her purview without remark or notice. In the few social events that she attended, she invariably found herself standing at the edges of conversations, listening and nodding but utterly ambivalent about whether to participate herself.

In short, Madeline Greene was sure of nothing except that she existed and about even that she was beginning to have her doubts.

Eight of Swords – Part 2

Looking for Part 1? Click here to read Part 1 of Darja Malcolm-Clarke’s novella Eight of Swords.

After class, she gave Chris an excuse about studying for the next day’s chemistry test so she wouldn’t meet him in town. He peered at her as if trying to detect animosity in her. But she had sealed herself off from him, as she always did when they got this way; she wouldn’t let him know anything, despite his claim that he was able to read her.

She needed time to figure out what she was going to do about him.

It felt good to be distant, but she ended up going to their alleyway anyway, in part because she longed for his presence despite herself, and in part out of curiosity, to see if the tagger had replied to her Bentwater tag.

Chris wasn’t there, she was, after all, relieved to see. But the tagger had been.

Beware: the government shuttles aliens over Beckford in helicopters

        8 of Swords

RAF—Bentwater. 1980.



At first the lines of numbers and letters made no sense. Then she realized it was two sets of consecutive dates, the first being two days from then. But what about the numbers and letters that followed?

She had that feeling of being observed again. She looked around, half expecting to see Chris coming down the alley or a stranger watching her from the shadows, but she was alone. She opened her backpack and scribbled down the new message, then got out her Emerald Krylon and considered her reply.

She surprised herself.

5/10 8:45pm

A time to meet her fellow tagger.

Chris would have been proud at such bravado.

“I’ll have more mashed potatoes,” said Chris, and Emily’s grandmother fumbled with the dish for a moment before Emily’s mother, across from her, managed to rescue it from landing square on his plate.

“Glad you made it tonight,” said her mother, smiling at Chris. Emily stared down at her own plate; her mother’s invitation had come out of the blue and without Emily’s foreknowledge. Moreover, it was May 9 and she still didn’t understand the number and letter half of the tagger’s message.

“So when is prom, next weekend?” said her mom.

Emily glared at her. “Yes,” she said coolly. “A group of us are going—Lindsey, Ashley and me with Nick, Tyler, and Chris.”

Her mother was surprised. “You didn’t tell me that,” she said. She looked like she was trying to decide if that was good news or not. “You’re going as a group?”

“Yes,” said Emily, willing her mother to be quiet. Chris said nothing.

“Did you hear about the war protests in Virginia and Massachusetts?” said her dad, rescuing the conversation.

“I saw that in the paper this morning,” said Grandma.

“Damn shame people don’t understand what’s important anymore,” said Grandpa. “Back in my day, people believed in right and wrong.”

“With all due respect, sir,” said Chris, “some might argue that the human cost of these wars is the important thing—that it’s a great wrong.” Emily’s mother beamed at him.

For Emily, the conversation melted into a blur as something clicked. “‘Scuse me a minute,” she said, rising from the table. What her grandmother said made her realize—the newspaper—of course! In the living room, she wrestled the front page from the stack of Dailys beside the sofa: A1 on 5/9. She scanned the page once, then again—but there didn’t seem to be anything there along the same lines as before. The lead article was about the growing number of protests against the wars across the country. There was another about Senate and House races. There was one about an experimental weedicide being used in the area against an invasive nonindigenous ivy. And the final article was about new veterans coming back home to the state.

Confused, she found yesterday’s newspaper in a pile next to the side table. She dug out the first section and turned to A16 as the tag in the alley instructed.

And there it was: “After Two Years Strange Lights in Local Forest Still a Mystery.”

She laid it on the sofa next to today’s front page.

“These are a different kind of war,” she heard Chris asserting truculently. Her grandfather growled something in return. Her mother made sounds supporting Chris.

“Whatever,” cut in her dad. “We’re at war. That’s what happens between countries sometimes. ”

Her mother sputtered. “‘Whatever’?” she said. “‘Whatever’? Rich, do you have any idea….” Emily’s attention drifted; Dad’s response was odd, another odd thing along with the myriad others, but these articles…what did it mean? Here was one that fit the theme she and her informant had been working with. There was something here on today’s front page that she was missing; something her informant wanted her to know.

She put one hand on each of the two newspapers as if to keep them from blowing away. One thing she was sure of—the article about the RAF had preceded the helicopters going overhead and a visit from the intruder.

Today’s article had to herald the same. She would be ready.

She made her way back to the dinner table and slowed as she heard Chris’s voice.

“And then she told me the protest in Beckford didn’t really happen! She said it was a mass hallucination!” Everyone chuckled and looked at her as she slid into her seat, stricken.

“We have our very own conspiracy-theorist,” said her mother, beaming at her but bemused.

“Well, I wish she was right,” said her grandfather. “It would certainly bode better for the country.”

Emily glared at Chris in disbelief. She tightened like a drum in dry desert. She couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Haven’t you noticed there’s something weird around here? Haven’t you felt odd? Haven’t you felt like something was wrong?”

They stared at her, all their eyes hanging over the table, zeroed in on her like she was a target.

“Like what, honey?” said her dad.

“Like,” she started. She knew she couldn’t say, aliens have visited my room. “Like, the city is trashed. Like people going nuts at school and in town. There’s a monument to Twitter made of mannequins on Fifth Street. There is a lamppost with raw meat and road kill duct-taped to it near the courthouse.” She told them more; told them what she saw.

This time they didn’t laugh. They looked at her like you’d look at a sick baby animal. “Emmy, you’re confusing the war protest and…I don’t know what,” said her dad, shaking his head. “Sometimes the world can feel like a confusing place. I think this presentation did a bigger number on you than you or we realized, sweetie.”

They took her to her room and made her go to bed. “I’ll call you in sick tomorrow,” her mother said, stroking her forehead as if she were putting a five year old down for the night.

But Emily didn’t stay in bed for long.

Eight of Swords – Part 1

The sound of the approaching helicopter smacked into the side of the building like shot puts. Emily lowered her spray can from where she was anxiously tagging the face of the alley wall and gazed up to the narrow band of ragged sky between buildings. The military helicopter flashed into view—a CH-64 Chinook, gray with two rotors on top, enormous and unnerving.

“More and more of these things have been going over,” she said to Chris.

“There are a few wars on,” said Chris, settling with ease into a swanky red velvet couch that had appeared in the alley two days ago. His fedora already rested on the coat tree situated next to the couch. “You think you’d be used to them by now,” he said, “as long as the country’s been at it over there.” The helicopter had passed but, rather than quieter, the thrum grew louder. They both watched a second one pass high overhead, speeding into the west.

“See, but there’re more than there used to be,” Emily said and leaned against the wall, uneasy. Next to her, a stenciled unicorn smiled into nothingness. A rainbow had emerged from its backside and a bubble from its mouth contained the words Eat my sunshiny shit. “They’ve been going west and come back from that direction later. Before, it was more random.”

“You’re just paranoid,” Chris said, slinging his arm over the back of the couch. A breeze whisked down the alleyway, making the fedora nod on its coat-tree peg. “You make it sound like there’s something weird going on.”

Her arms tightened across her chest. “There’s always something weird going on. You just have to know how to look for it.” The graffiti around her zigzagged across the brick walls in brilliant colors, surrounded by tags: Jonezee 305, Richo Red, and TBC. Her eyes rested on these without seeing them. “Those helicopters are heading west. Wright-Patterson is in Ohio. Dugway Proving Ground is in Utah, Papoose is in Nevada. Area 51, of course…. They’re all west. Those helicopters look like the military just going about its business, but I think something’s happening.”

“Let me guess.” Chris shook his can of black Krylon. “You have a theory in the works.”

“Chinooks are used for transport,” she continued. “The wars are east, right?— Iran, Syria, Afghanistan. What are those choppers carrying in the opposite direction, would be my question. Maybe advanced technology or weapons. Maybe extraterrestrial life. Maybe both.”

“You’ve been watching the History Channel again, haven’t you?” Deadpan glare from Emily. He softened a little. “Em, you’re finding patterns where there aren’t any.” Discounting her theories, regardless of their content, was part of the ritual. As always, she couldn’t tell if he really didn’t believe or whether he was saying it to annoy her. It was a talent of his to hide his real thoughts from her. She was not so adept at hiding hers from him, or at least that’s what he liked to tell her.

“What I mean is, the war would be a convenient cover-up for either,” she said. She set down her can of Ocean Blue. “You may think you understand the world, but there are so many things going on you don’t know about.” She wanted the full picture—a full understanding of all the invisible and hidden things happening around her.

“Right, okay,” said Chris, getting up from the plush couch to return to his piece. The hat nodded.

She stared at his back. She had been working on something else lately, but she couldn’t tell him about it now. She’d been having a strange feeling about the city of late. Nothing concrete, just the sense something odd had been going on.

Trying to grasp what, though, was like trying to hold graffiti in your hand.

An Archivist of Leaves

Abigail and Del stomped on old leaves for fun.

They marched through the Light Forest each autumn and laughed as each leaf crunched beneath their feet into fragments.

One day in October, the sky grew dark as they walked. The trilling birds hushed. Smoke and dust clung in the air.

But Abigail didn’t notice any of these things until she’d slipped through the veil into the Dark Forest. She didn’t notice until the dense trees had swallowed her whole.

She targeted a large brownish leaf and leapt toward it. As her feet landed, that familiar crunching noise she and Del loved so much didn’t resound.

She whipped around to find the forest had closed in about her. The tree bark was blue-black, the air thick and stagnant. Sunlight no longer flickered through the trees. And most importantly, Del was gone.

“Del?” she said.

She took a cautious step forward, then another. Whatever path she’d been on was no longer visible in the dense overgrowth. Roots entangled the entire forest floor. Had they taken a wrong turn? Did they venture farther than before? She wasn’t sure. All she knew for certain was that she was alone.

“Del?” she said again. She took another step and the sound of a twig breaking cut the otherwise silent air.

The breath rushed out of her lungs. Something snapped and cinched around her ankle. The world pivoted on its axis. Her hair rose from her scalp. She blinked at the upside-down trees, her body dangling in midair at least twenty feet off the ground.

And in front of her were a pair of white eyes nestled within a clump of leaves.

“How dare you disturb my forest!” a voice boomed.

She squinted at it and quickly realized the leaves themselves were talking. Rather, they had taken on the shape of a face within the tree and moved in unison to accommodate words.

Abigail froze. She didn’t know what to say, and the sensation of all her blood rushing to her head was making her dizzy. She looked at her feet and could see a vine snaked around her ankles.

“You’ve come into my forest uninvited. What is my name? Answer before I kill you.” The mouth in the leaves moved smoothly.

“I—I,” she stammered, her voice impossibly small. “I don’t know.”

“That is the wrong answer.”

“No please! I was just walking. Jumping on leaves. I got lost. I’ll go back home and leave you alone.”

“You don’t get it. Leaving me alone won’t fix anything. You don’t know my name.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, the phrase tasting sour, “But I was only playing a game with my friend. He’s back out in the Light Forest waiting for me. Just put me down and I’ll leave you alone.”

The face in the leaves of the tree made a little huffing sound. It blew hot mud breath into her face. “A game. It’s so like your kind to revel in the ruining of the dead. You tromp on the leaves and don’t know their names. You show no respect for the ancestors.”

The leafy face tilted upward and shook, letting out a thunderous bellow that sent vibrations through the earth and cast twigs down on top of her. Two branches cracked and creaked until they rested on either side of her. Smaller branches and twigs reached out like fingers and grasped onto her middle.

“How about I squeeze you until you make a crunching sound?” it asked her, the leaves forming a heinous smile. “How would you like if I flung you to the ground once I was done and stomped on your dead brittle bones?”

“Please, I’ll do whatever you want, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears threatening to spill back up her forehead. “Please, tell me your name and I’ll never forget it—”

“Hush,” the tree beast said, releasing its grip on her slightly. “Begging will do you no good.”

“Who are you?” Abigail asked. At any moment, the tree would crush her. For now, all she could do was hope to lure the beast into conversation.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised you don’t remember me. No one does,” the leaves said, the voice taking on a much more feminine tone. “But I suppose I could tell you my story before I kill you. At least then someone would know of all I’ve done in the name of the forest.”

“Would you mind tilting me right side up?” Abigail asked, as politely as she could.

“What? Oh, yes. I suppose so. But I won’t loosen this vine. I am wary of clever little girls,” it said before righting her and placing a branch with a tuft of leaves beneath her. Abigail took a deep breath and tried to steady her vision from being held upside down for so long.

The 13th Prophet

They say Defiance is dead. Yeah right. Some kid on the street threw a bottle at my head.

Men with long black beards sit on the sidewalk huddled around a TV, like a fireplace, warming their hands. A man shouts in a deep poet-preacher’s voice, “The Prophets have spoken! Cross-cut shawls for women, high beam neck ties for men! All straight from the Temple! The new Control ‘Blue’ hits the shelves today, and it is to die for! The Prophets scoff at the styles of last season!”

A young man punches the speaker in the gut. “The Prophets mourn! Defiance is dead!”

Defiance is dead. What a joke.

“Need a tune up?” says a young thing with more makeup than skin. “What’re you running? I got twenty bucks with your name on it if I can’t guess what you’re runnin’.”

“And if you can?” This will be fun.

“You come in and see what we’re selling?”

“Sure” I say, and she starts guessing.

“Tell me your name and what you do. I nail it every time.”

“Burke,” I say. “Mulligan Burke.”

“What do you do, Mulligan?” she asks, and I tell her it’s Burke to people who like me and Burke to people who don’t and she says, “You’re very funny. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were running a Solitude model . . . ” She eyes me, checking for a tell. It’s obvious she’s running a Control Model 10 with some Bliss highlights. I can almost see the source code for this one. “So, tell me what you do, Burke.”

“I’m a PI, lady,” I say.

“Like in those old movies?” she says.

“An old job for an old dog,” I say. I’m not too hot these days. A little rounder and softer than I used to be.

“Okay, I got it,” she says. “You’re running a Courage model. But you’ve augmented it by overlaying a ‘Blue’ rising touch.” I ask for my twenty bucks and she scowls. She offers me a discount, but I’ve had enough of her patter so I beat it.

An old Chinese woman sits at a little stall. She’s selling Bliss knockoffs. She winks at me as if that’s enough. Hey, these days it is.

“The Prophets have spoken!” coming from another street hawker – god I hate 77th street on days like this. “If you’re still wearing the Model 15 Desire Personality you need an update. The long-awaited Desire Model 16 hits the shelves tomorrow! Be first in line! Be first in line!”

By the time I reach the door to the Mercer Building, I’m sweating. It’s a cold sweat. And there’s this crowd packed in around the doors, shouting. The TVs out front are running the daily fashion lineup and Defiance is missing. There isn’t a body, but so what? The city is his chalk outline. The vibrations on the train, like Morse code, tick tick ticking out the words: Defiance is dead.