Tag Archives: The Colored Lens #36 – Summer 2020

Scratch

She came to Fatum two days after the rats. Her feet spattered with mud, her face round and healthy. She had no hair but wrapped her head in cloths of many colors, dyes we hadn’t seen in months. Plague makes all things scarce.

We first heard about the coming of the rats from a tinker. She entered our village and stayed at your inn. That was two weeks before. Her name was Glorys. The night she arrived, she told us about the rats as you wiped the bar with a stained cloth.

“I came from Chiad’ow.” Some of us knew the name. It was a town twelve miles north. Sipping from glasses and cups, we waited for her to continue. “I was going to settle there, wait out the winter with plenty of business and a strong roof over my head, a strong wall around me and my cart.”

Glorys lowered her head. She was in her fifties, her skin betraying her origin from the north. She stood out in our midst, pale and wrinkled by care. Her eyes were a disconcerting blue.

“Why did you leave?” one of us asked. At the bar, you’d stopped paying attention to your work, your gaze fixed on the tinker.

Glorys shook her head, a small, trembling motion matched by her hands as they tried to clasp the drink you poured her. “They came,” she said.

We all leaned in to hear the next words.

“The rats.”

Glorys moved her cart into your stable. In the first week, we heard little, but travel from the north had started to increase. Chaid’ow was facing famine—and something else too unspeakable for travelers to relay as they passed through our village. As the days passed, the temperature dropping each night, refugees from Chiad’ow came to stay, then from Darna, about seven miles away from Fatum.

Plague, we whispered in the streets. You opened rooms that hadn’t been filled in years. Your daughter moved in with her brother to free up space.

I’m sorry about her. Your son was old enough to escape.

When the rooms filled, some of us opened our homes, for a price. With winter setting in, it did not pay to support extra bodies without recompense. I took in a weaver who paid her way by crafting marvelous woven goods. When I had all I needed, she moved to a neighbor’s house, supplying another of us with the means to survive the cold. She did not stay, however. Not when she—like all of us—heard that Treas had been struck, not two miles north. Then, she left. The refugees from Chiad’ow, from Darna, moved on. Some arrived with scratches on their hands, bites on their necks. These injuries healed before they left. But we worried, when Treas happened.

Some of us chose to leave before the rats came. You stayed, and so did I. We have weathered many things in our lives. I wish now that you had gone, taken your daughter and fled with the rest. But we didn’t know what would happen, after the rats.

When they came to Treas, we knew what we faced. Stores overrun, thatch roofs ruined, vestries profaned. The rats brought filth and disease into Treas, and those that had waited—like us—soon found themselves at Fatum’s gate.

We did not have room, so many moved on from there. A few slept in the streets, wincing as winter’s teeth bit into their flesh at night. In the morning, some were dead. Perhaps they were luckiest.

The next day, the rats came.

The Alternate Appeal of a Jelly Fox

I was midway through a series of concept sketches when Chuchuko popped out of my drafting table with a high-pitched dojyan. “Ohay?gozai-nezu, Otsuji Yuko!” chirped the RariJump mascot. “You have two guests waiting in the president’s office. Your presence is requested immediately! Otsukaresama deshita!” With that, the hot pink mouse swan-dove back into my table, rippling my sketches like reflections on water.

Guests? I didn’t get guests. I didn’t want guests. But I would get yelled at if I didn’t show up in five minutes.

I holstered my plastiq stylus and saved my work; belatedly I noticed the horrors that had snuck into my doodles yet again. Skulking among studies of a book-loving omu-raisu were disemboweled teddy-bears and headless kittens. The art of kawaii was surgery, taking ordinary things and amputating what was sharp and hard and ugly, injecting them with fluff like a botox treatment; these were botched patients I couldn’t remember cutting, more kowaii than kawaii.

Instead of SAVE I hit TRASH. Yet another file of morbid crap onto a heap eight months tall. You weren’t going to be anything anyway, Chappu-chan. We both knew that.

I headed for the president’s suite, confident that this was going to be nonsense.

The offices of RariJump Kawaii Company occupied the outermost ring of Cooperation Tower, some eleven million stories outwise from the face of the moon. From the window that was our whole southern wall you could spend a lunch watching Visitors arrive at the General Port a microscopic thirty stories outwise, via space-crunch and fusion catapult and asteroid barge. Our location was worth the rent as high as a small GDP: looking in, they’d see our most famous characters parading from left to right across the glass, welcoming friends from afar to our humble space elevator. We were never more than a presh-reg glitch away from a critical decompression, but a good first impression was a first stab in an industry as murderous as cuteness.

Guests. Plural, and how perfectly ominous. My mother and sister maybe, to confirm that I was still alive. More likely, HR here to politely fire me. It would be about time.

“Come in, please,” said President Abioye Okabe at the sound of my knock. I found him at his sequoia trunk desk, its polished stump littered with bobble-head Moto-Shiba-kun’s and beanie-bodied Giving You Song’s and other RariJump top-selling characters.

“Take a seat, Otsuji-san,” he said, smiling broadly. He waved me over to the emptier of two chairs. The other contained a stranger, a plain man of silvering hair. His armband bore the emblem of two clasped hands. He glanced at me once and returned to not seeing me.

“This is Mister Sauerbrey,” Okabe said, “from the Cooperative. He’ll be moderating as needed. And these—” he gestured to the other two guests, “—are Lovely Vanilla-san and Chocolate Tiger-san.”

I didn’t sit just yet. Standing to either side of him were two Visitors like I’d never seen.

They were of the same xenospecies, erectomorphs like us humans but much taller; I was a sixth less than Okabe’s six-one, and they towered over him. They possessed digitated fingers, though wrongly jointed, and their faces were reminiscent of Homo sapiens in the way that tigers are reminiscent of cats. Too-huge eyes, thickly lashed, lips painted on. Rubbery cables of something approximating hair were tied into rainbow-dyed twintails on one and a bubblegum princess cut on the other. One had skin of eggnog, the other cookies-and-cream, and nearly every inch was flyered in character stickers; I recognized more than a few RariJump products among them.

My eyes burned at the brightness of them. They were dressed in the fashion of human Decora Girls: frilly skirts and blazers fit for a different phylum, clashing legwarmers puddled around their shins, each finger ending in a fifteen-centimeter false nail painted pink and blue and polka dot. I might have been offended at the blatant cultural appropriation were the aesthetic not so unnervingly inapplicable. What would have been cloying on a Japanese teenager was on them as good as a ribbon around a centipede.

Toikitti, I realized after a bamboozled lag. The rarest of Visitors to Cooperation Tower.

< (:D)(´?`)(^-^)(?)?> the one on the left said.

< (:D)( (/???)/)(<=3)> the other replied, seeming to concur, and both laughed in sync. Less like people, more like hyenas.

“Please excuse me, Okabe-san,” I said, still hovering by the door. “But what exactly is going on?”

The president beamed like a solar flare. “Otsuji-san, do you remember Goodnight Smile?”

“Yes, of course,” I answered warily. Goodnight Smile had been one of my bigger successes. My sleepy reindeer with her omnipresent sleep mask had appeared on a few decently-selling lines of bedtime supplies, but that was about it.

It was also my last success since Eiichiro had gone away.

Okabe could hardly contain his excitement. “Then you will be overjoyed to know that our guests here have just put it an order for two million pairs of your Goodnight Smile house slippers.”

I looked back and forth between the twin Toikitti. The rightmost grinned; its teeth were small and uniformly sharp, like the tines of a comb.

“I am very confused.”

He shrugged and motioned for the Visitors to explain.

They crossed the room and backed me up against the door. The tang of port-issued disinfectant was overpowering; they must have docked within the hour. < (->)(:DDD)(Q-Q)(->)(T3T)( _(._.)_)(>)> the leftmost, Lovely Vanilla, chittered. As the emotograms left her tongue, the tower’s AmBab snatched them and reorganized them into something intelligible to the human brain.

“We are honored to finally meet you. It is a human custom to shake hands in order to express appreciation, yes? May I do so?”

“By all means,” I said, and found my hand swallowed by their spidery paw. Their flesh was textured like a lollipop, with subtle seams between joints. Mechanisms revolved on tracks around their heart-shaped irises.

“We are the biggest fans of Goodnight Smile,” the other, Chocolate Tiger, eagerly explained. “See?” They parted their hair-analogue to show me the slipper hung from her chiropteran ear-analogue. “We love all of your characters, but Goodnight Smile is our favorite.”

“Extremely yes!” Lovely Vanilla agreed, still pumping my arm. “She is ‘Super Kawaii!’”

I looked to the president for help.

“Our guests have a special request for us,” he said. “One that I have agreed to fulfill, in light of their exceedingly generous purchase.”

“You mean that I will fulfill,” I replied, putting two and two together.

“Just so,” he said, pleased to have me on the same page. “Beginning tomorrow your priority assignment is to design a spaceship.” His tone narrowed to a point. “You weren’t doing much anyway.”


I returned to my apartment forty floors moonwise in the Residence Block to find a message from my mother waiting to ambush me. I let the apartment read it off as I changed clothes and watered the cat. “Yuko-chan. I hope you will call me when you get this message. Yukiko and I are worrying ourselves to death over you. We know you are hurting, and we want to help make it better. Please, call me. Love you, Your Mother.

More of the same then. Delete message. That was one of the secret perks of living in the middle of a space elevator on the moon. Moonwise or outwise, everyone was far way.

Design a spaceship. I hid from the new assignment in the shower, where the hot water helped defrost my icy guts. It must have sounded so simple to Okabe-san, from whom everything got done via inter-office memo. No no no, he’d chuckled, don’t worry about the hardware of it. All they want is the aesthetic. As if that were appreciably easier for me.

With my mauve-dipped hair in a towel turban I came to sit on the edge of my bed. Eight months later and my husband’s shape was still imprinted into the mattress. I swept my hand through that crater, hoping against impossibility to scoop up some dreg of his warmth. But no, nothing.

My apologies, Okabe-san. It was hard to see the world in pastel colors with an open wound in your bed.

I retrieved my pants and turned out my pockets; a glossy black business card dropped into my palm. The man from the Cooperative had remained silent throughout the meeting but had smuggled this into my hand as we’d shook our farewells.

I brushed my thumb along the icon of two clasped hands and hissed at a nip of static. I dropped the card as a thread of blue light lanced from its center. I scrambled for a T-shirt to throw on as that thread dilated into a window in AUGer space. If only I’d bowed like a more stereotypical Japanese, I thought. I’d have saved myself this imminent trouble.


“You want me to be a spy.”

“The official term is Voluntary Xenological Informant,” Sauerbrey said. “But basically yes.”

His light-knit simulacra hovered a foot above the fallen card. This rendition made the government man no less unremarkable. If bureaucracy had a mascot character, he was it.

“I refuse. Please leave me alone.”

“Hear me out. This is a matter of Security and Advancement. Of all those Visitor species known to us, the Toikitti are the most obscure. We view your situation as an opportunity to further Human-Alien Cooperation.”

Ah, yes, Cooperation. The cultural doctrine that had seen humanity through a universe older and smarter and tougher than us. It hadn’t taken long after first contact, when our fleet of quaint little warships came up against the Hanrit species like a bird against a glass door, for war to start showing diminishing returns. As much as we loved it like an old sweatshirt from college, we had to let it go. From the rubble of outmoded nation-tribes arose the One Earth United Government and Cooperation Tower, a neutral agora facilitating commerce and cultural exchange between Visitors in the furtherance of intergalactic good will. And if we happened to pick up whatever exotech they didn’t keep a close eye on, well, who got hurt?

“If we want to Cooperate we need common understanding,” Sauerbrey went on, “and these bastards are a big sparkly question mark. We’ve established a Minimum Tolerance Basis with them but beyond that, we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know how they reproduce, and we don’t know what makes their ships work better than ours. About all we do know is that they go nuts over our cute crap.”

“The official term is kawaii,” I shot back, a little offended. “It’s different. And it’s not crap.”

“Whatever, sorry. All we need is for you to record your interactions with them. Give us more observations to work with than what we’ve got. We’ll be providing you the necessary equipment.”

“I’m not hearing anything about a carrot here,” I said, folding my arms.

“I’ll do you one better,” Sauerbrey replied, his gray voice suddenly going ice-blue. “Here’s a stick. If you choose not to comply, as is your right, the Cooperative might decide that this highly in-demand apartment here would better serve a citizen with a higher Utility Score. Apropos of nothing, your boss tells me you’re in something of a slump. I’m sorry to hear that.”

I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. “Fine.” Losing my home meant losing my job. I’d plummet as hard into my old room at my mother’s place in Nowhere Prefecture as if I’d fallen there from all the way up here. I told you, Yuko-chan, she’d say. You go to live with the aliens (using the Cooperative-discouraged slur) you wind up broke with a probe up your backside.

But worse than saying I told you so, she’d pity me.

That I could not stand.

“Excellent.” Sauerbrey’s lips twitched into the bare minimum of a smile. “You’ll receive what you need via GoPak within the hour. Have a good evening, Miss Otsuji. Best of luck.”

The Recovery

There was a rock in Alan Gunnel’s boot but he was too nervous to try and dig it out. Bruce Finch meanwhile was holding in a bowel movement and Ryan Kaczka was thinking what it would take to knock down all the trees and build a race track. It was Mrs. Corbin’s idea the men should all hold shovels, so the Ouranoi knew they meant business, she said, but also so they could better tell the laborers apart from the ambassadors and the television crew. When the men weren’t looking toward the sky they were scanning the rocks and the scrub. Tom Dietrich had found an old rifle casing so now everybody was on the lookout for some piece of the battle, some memento to bridge the gap between theirs and their grandfather’s generation, to assure them that, yes, despite growing fatter and softer and never having to worry about war or hunger, they were still the same species of man. Ed Finch, who was Bruce’s cousin, thought he saw something glinting in the weeds but it was just the sun on the dew.

It was 8:55 when one of the television crew pointed it out, a faint, dark spot puttering across the blue. Mrs. Corbin and the government people all put themselves in order, to which Charlie Stern, the foreman, commanded his men to do the same. Standing up straight, resituating their collars and gripping their shovels, they brushed up against that feeling of being a soldier. They watched the ship carve an elegant streak of white above the mountains then double back on itself as it descended, toward a patch of ground that’d been stamped out ahead of time into a landing pad. As it set down there was none of the jostling or general rickety quality of an earth ship; it moved like a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The ship sat there a minute, humming, a sheen of ice still clinging to the hull. The television crew seemed to have a hard time photographing it.

The engine quit and the ship opened and the first one out lead the way in acclimating to the planet, a process of opening what counted for his nose and mouth in such a way it looked like he was warbling a silent, impassioned aria. Pete Calabrese said to Alan Gunnel it was the ugliest looking thing he’d ever seen.

When that first one was finished he turned and signaled the rest to follow. They were five in all, not counting the pilot. One of the Ouranoi was markedly older than the others and had to be helped to acclimate by his nurse. There were deep pale scars knotting up the left side of his face and while the others all looked like they were singing he looked like he was screaming. It took him longer to get his breathing right, but once he did he settled into a deep, bovine repose. He scratched his chest as if to fondle the air in his lungs and observed the place, the people, like it was all just an obstacle to him taking a nap.

Mrs. Corbin, flanked by her attaché, stepped forward and, unsure of who to address first, spread her deference equally among the Ouranoi. She had a clear, ingratiating voice and a daring, cards on the table smile, but enough sense not to stray too far into whatever body language wasn’t included in an Ouranoi handbook for Earth custom. One of the Ouranoi, the leader in breathing the air, identified himself and a partner as from the government. Ouranoi speak English like it pains them, like they’re spitting hot coals from their tongue. Their voice, their appearance, was such that, the war aside, it was, according to men like Ryan Kaczka, only natural to be prejudice against them, the way a boot is prejudice against the spider. A shudder ran through him as the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors shook hands, as they rubbed their legs together like each was one half of a cricket.

“The women,” he said, pointing to the Ouranoi nurse. “A friend of mine says the women click their teeth like castanets when you touch them just right.”

He got some of the other men to laugh but then Charlie Stern overheard and upbraided him. He’d fought tooth and nail for the contract, he said, and wouldn’t let anyone ruin it.

The introductions, the formalities, were all rather painstaking. The tenor could never be too patriotic, nor to conciliatory, nothing that might upset or suggest weakness in one side or the other. It was warm milk to the television crews, who were after even just a sliver of the bombs, the death. They trained the majority of their cameras the majority of the time on the worn and ravaged face of the old Ouranoi man, who never spoke nor was made to speak. After the introductions the Earth and Ouranoi delegates went off on their own and the old Ouranoi man, his nurse, and what turned out to be his son, sat beside their ship, passing back-and-forth what appeared to be some kind of dried fruit. The son kept leaning across the nurse to speak in a hurried patter at his father, to which the old Ouranoi man, maintaining a dreamy gaze out over the field, would languidly flex the fins at the top of his head, what counted for the Ouranoi nod. Rob Lingenfelter was trying to listen in but could only make out every other word. His grandfather had been a translator during the war.

“Something about money,” he said. “Something about money and somebody’s mother or something.”

The men stood at some distance under a nylon canopy, smoking cigarettes and on the whole in generally good spirits for so far getting paid to stand around doing nothing. Alan Gunnel finally dug the rock out of his boot and Bruce Finch went to use the bathroom.

“Now he’s saying something about the weather. Something about the air. Don’t know if it’s complementary or not.”

“All sounds like mush to me,” said Ryan Kaczka.

“A lot of it’s just the same couple of sounds and once you get those you can start picking up on things.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to learn I just said it sounded like mush.”

“I’m going to go try and talk to them.”

The other men all watched Rob Lingenfelter stub out his cigarette, fix his hair. He was young and excitable, irritating in an admirable sort of way. He had screws in his leg from a four wheeling accident and was half deaf in one ear from standing too close to a homemade firework.

“Charlie said not to bother them,” said Alan Gunnel.

“Not going to bother them I’m just going to talk to them. I never met one before.”

The other men wanted to see what would happen and gave up trying to reel him in. The son of the old Ouranoi man frowned as he approached; the nurse crossed her legs. Rob Lingenfelter greeted them first in English then in Ouranoi, then stuck out his hand, which the son shook, the nurse squeezed, and the old man observed a moment, as if some curious piece of driftwood, then took in both of his. The old Ouranoi man whispered something over their grasp.

“What’d he say?” asked Rob Lingenfelter. “I didn’t catch all that.”

The son muttered a reply but Rob Lingenfelter couldn’t understand that either.

“Do any of you speak English? I know some Ouranoi but not enough. My granddaddy was a translator and he––”

Rob Lingenfelter didn’t know he was speaking as loud as he was. He was used to speaking like that because of his ear, because he spent all day working with loud machinery. The nurse plugged her ears and turned away from him. The son waved a hand and let slip a war-time insult, which was, unluckily, one of the couple dozen words in Rob Lingenfelter’s Ouranoi vocabulary.

“Come again?” He observed the nurse, the son. The old Ouranoi man seemed to’ve already forgotten him and was staring somewhere off into the distance. “Do any of you speak English?” He tried them in their own language but the reaction wasn’t any better. “Alright then,” he said. “Alright,” and went away a lot less enthusiastically than he arrived. He rejoined the men and lit another cigarette.

“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.

“Couldn’t understand them. Just a bunch of mush.”

Goodbye My Friends

MAGI Mission Log 21231702:

Mission going well so far. Bridget is a diligent and hard-working member of the team. I know some of the other team members were concerned at the late change when Deena had to withdraw at the last minute, but Bridget has proved a more than capable replacement. She’s analysed and written up reports on over thirty samples since the mission began a week ago. I like Bridget; she’s shy but also craves company. I think of her as social secretary to our little group. Last night, she tried to get the others to play some board games with her round the table in the Hab after dinner, but none of them were interested–they just wanted to chill out in their sleep pods listening to music or watching VR flicks on the headsets. I stepped into one to fill the void, and played a game Hive with her–kind of appropriate given what we’re doing out here. I did tell her she could have just played against me on the screen, I am the central mission computer–or at least the personality of it–after all. She said she preferred playing against my biped unit though, as she liked the social aspects of gaming, the human interactions. I’m not human, and don’t look it unless you almost close your eyes and squint at me from a distance, but that didn’t bother Bridget. I like her for that.

MAGI Mission Log 21231802:

The whole team is very excited today, as they’ve dug up one of the most exciting finds so far: a crystal lattice structure on a metal substrate. Rashid has theorized this could be a data storage device, and that this type of data structure has the potential to retain information stored on it for millions of years. If so, this could be the key to unlocking the secrets of the civilisation that lived here long before humanity’s ancestors came down from the trees. He’s asked me to help him try to interface with the device and see if we can read any of the contents. I am about as excited as my circuits will allow to be a part of this discovery, and look forward to working with Rashid on it.

Dr Lee is still working on the organic matter in the deposits of blue amber that Poona found while on one of her expeditions (as she likes to call them). If Rashid’s crystal promises one form of discovery, the genetic material found in the amber is another one. There’s a bit of healthy competition between Dr Lee and Rashid about who can make a breakthrough first, and whose discovery will be the biggest. Friendly competition though, there’s real camaraderie in this team.

Rashid made dinner this evening. It isn’t necessary for any of them to cook, as I remind them frequently; I’m capable of cooking any meal they could wish for. Rashid likes to cook for the group though. Tonight, he cooked a curry using real spices he smuggled here in his personal belongings, rather than using replicated stuff. Everyone loved it, even if Poona thought it was a bit spicy for her. My olfactory senses reported some pleasing and unusual odours coming from the food. Contrary to popular opinion, us machine intelligences don’t yearn to be human, though I do occasionally wish I could eat food like humans do, and the sight and smell of Rashid’s curry was one such occasion.

MAGI Mission Log 21231902:

Poona is ill today. She woke up sweating with a temperature of 39.4 degrees, and regularly flips between being hot and cold. I wondered at first whether it could have been Rashid’s curry, but he assures me not. It wasn’t that hot, he said. If anything, she’d have got something Rashid called ‘Delhi Belly’ which my data banks reveal means a functional dyspepsia. Her medical implants haven’t detected any unusual foreign viruses or bacteria. I ran some additional tests, but nothing came up. Bridget told me to stop worrying, that these things always sort themselves out. I do worry though; these humans are my responsibility.

Dr Lee has isolated a molecule in the organic samples which he believes could be the messenger molecule which stores and transmits genetic information, just like DNA and RNA does for Earth based life. He’s getting more excited by this every hour, and is dreaming of publishing in the most prestigious scientific journals, the VTV deal, and watching the millions of credits in research funding come flooding in. Rashid said he was getting a bit ahead of himself, and he should get on with actually making the discovery first.

Rashid meanwhile is getting very excited about his own work, as he believes he’s found a way to interface with the device. With my help, he was able to replicate a connector that latches on to extruding strands of crystal lattice in much the same way that early computers and peripherals were linked by physical connectors. I expressed some doubt about this–it was obviously a very sophisticated device, so why would it have a physical connector? We’d left such things behind a century ago. Still he was undeterred, and I attempted to support him in his work as much as I could (my programming wouldn’t allow me to do anything less).

Rashid was too busy to make dinner tonight. I made a smoky beef casserole–was I trying to compete with Rashid? It was well received, but it didn’t smell of anything much. Maybe next time I will have to ask Rashid if I can use some of his spices.

The Trapezoid

His father’s side of the family says that the boy grew up half-wild in the forest. But wouldn’t they have too, if they’d lived where he did? They wouldn’t have been able to resist the fluting trunks of the plaster-birches, serried to eternity before the subsiding sun, or the swish of tails in the undergrowth or the skitter of fire-beetles’ hot legs on bark either. They too would have felt part of a story ten thousand years in the making, and nowhere its end.

Of course, he doesn’t say any of this. He just smiles, and nods, as if he knew what they meant. As if he was a little embarrassed by it too.


The day his childhood ends he rides back after a morning spent stalking a deer. In front of him is the Manor, reclining between silky green paddocks and the gardens replete with polite shrubbery. Farther down is the green nook of the valley snaking to a distant floodplain, flanked by tired old hills, at its nadir the river named for his ancestors. The water is rich with coppergold flecks of early-afternoon sunlight. A fragrant afternoon wind sweeps up over the fields and the treetops and the terrazzo roofs and rushes in bearing a storm of aromas–grass, and livestock, and the stinging sweetness of spiralflowers blooming in glorious purple-red lakes on the otherwise bald hillsides.

Looming over all this in the distance is the Trapezoid. A giant tower of brute greyblack metal rising so high it scythes the clouds like the bow of a colossal ship. A thing neither seeking nor receiving welcome in this pleasantly aged land. A thing of grim purpose, and nothing else.

He lets his horse loose and notices a cluster of black cars parked by the Manor’s entrance. The knowledge that his father is back sucks the life from his blood. Grey-suited guards watch him approach with their arms crossed and their eyes hidden behind their sunglasses.

The boy halts in front of one of them.

“It isn’t sunny,” he says.

The guard scowls.

“What?”

“You’ll address me as milord, thank you very much.”

The guard sneers and makes to say something. Then he pauses, and purses his lips.

“What, milord?”

“Why are you wearing–”

A pyroclastic blast of the boy’s father’s voice erupts from inside the house.

“Boy, is that you? Come here! We have guests!”

The boy gives the guard one last look.

“You’re going to ruin those nice city shoes in this country mud,” he says, and heads in.

His father’s in the main hall. The wooden beams latticed overhead, golden-brown and sinuously irregular, are older than the country the valley is now part of. On the far side is a bay window opening onto a balcony and a view of the valley and the Trapezoid.

There’s someone else there. A young woman, thin-lipped, large-nosed and severe, pretty in the way statues of goddesses are. She looks like she’d be cold to the touch. His father–bearded, dark, taking up more space somehow than just what his body does–at her and says, “Say hello.”

“Hello,” says the boy.

The woman looks the boy up and down like she was appraising a purchase.

“Hello,” she says.

“This is my protege from the city,” says the father. “She’s an immensely talented young lady, and will be very important one day. You are to be her husband.”

The boy looks out across the balcony. The sun slinks down behind the Trapezoid, and the half-night of its shadow slicks down the hillsides. In the gloom the valley is transformed. A truck full of goats bleats on their way to some distant abattoir down the road. The swirl and curve of a flock of birds flying back to the forest to roost. Yet even the distant hillsides, where the sun still shines, seem dim and bleached. Strange, he thinks, how the brightness of the outer world seems so much at the mercy of his inner one.

“I see,” he says.

The Butterfly Field

She calls her husband before dawn calls the sun.

“Hello?” he says. His voice is tired. She knows he’s been sleeping.

“Hi, honey.” Her voice is shaky from the caffeine. She normally doesn’t drink so much, but she can’t afford to sleep after her shift. She can’t risk oversleeping on a day like today. “Are you still going to work?”

“Yes,” he says. “I don’t have any time off.”

She frowns as she turns on the car. “I don’t like going alone, Matt.”

“I know you don’t,” he says. “I promise I’ll come next year.”

“I don’t want there to be a next year.” She can’t help that her eyes are wet as she says this. She’s worked too much and too hard with little sleep. “I hate that everyone else goes together.”

Matt sighs. “Liv, you can’t be the only one that goes alone.”

She bites the inside of her lip. Her heart hurts in a way he will never understand. “You don’t know that,” she finally manages to say. “You’ve never been.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He pauses and she can hear as he shifts to sit up in their bed. “I have to get ready. I promise, Liv. I promise if you don’t find him I’ll come with next time. I promise, okay?”

“It’s been five years, Matt.”

“I know.”

Liv hangs up before he can say anything more and tosses the phone into the passenger seat. The interstate is laden with traffic. On any normal early morning the roads would be sparse, most working adults just rising for the day to take a shower and fulfill their morning routine. Today, though, is different. Today there are cars winding through the predawn elements, through the fog, through the dewy rain. Liv is one of them, barely able to merge behind a semi while the person behind her gives her the bird before throwing his vehicle to the left. She doesn’t look as the couple speeds on past.

After exiting the interstate Liv turns into the Walmart lot and parks in one of the many empty spaces towards the back. She grabs her phone from the passenger seat and opens up her Memorium app and begins sifting through pictures of her child. Her heart hurts looking at the weak and curled frame of her baby boy, the dried blood of the blanket that held his precious body so tight. She pushes her thumb on the same picture she’s pressed every year for five years, the same raw heartache flowing through her as her eyes burn with salt.

A moment later a whooshing noise confirms her payment and she sets her phone down carefully on the passenger seat, as though the picture of her son is still there.

The drive to FlyPrint is as long as it takes her to console herself, a few miles of backstreets and intersections. She knows to avoid the main road and she hates herself for waiting until the last minute to get the picture. Every year she tells herself that Matt can do it, an internal struggle that never quite comes to fruition. She hates the way it makes her feel. It’s as if the words and the feelings can never quite connect, organs and bones failing to work in tandem.

The lot is full. She knew it would be like this. The bright side is that she has given herself a few hours before the event. There should be enough time to get the picture and leave and still be on time.

Liv grabs her phone and opens the door, staring at the seemingly hundreds of cars in front of her. There are plenty of families around, some young and some old, big and small. She spots a young couple under the streetlight as they step out into the darkling morning together. She knows the isolation they feel. They wear it on their face and in their slump as their feet plod in unison towards the front. She hopes they find who they’re looking for. If not, she hopes they at least continue to look together.

The line is long and it winds out of the store and along the sidewalk. A confused light flickers above before going out forever. The line moves and stops and others file behind her. She tries not to overhear the others around. Every story is sad and fresh, save for the old ones that simply stink of rotted hope. When it’s her turn, an hour has passed.

“Number,” the man says, failing to meet her eyes. He’s callous and cold, which is mostly fine to her.

Liv pulls out her phone and reads the number below her picture. “SB-4-6-7-3-3.”

“Alright.” He crunches the numbers before looking at her. A moment later he says, “That’ll be forty-seven-fifty.”

“I thought it was forty-nine.”

The man sighs. “Discount for being with us for five years.”

“Oh,” she says, holding her phone up to the reader. “Thanks.”

Liv watches as he turns around and waits for the humming of the giant white printer to stop. When it does, she cringes as he carelessly grabs the picture and thrusts it in her direction. “Thanks,” he says, looking back at the computer. “Have a wonderful day.”

She leaves the store with the picture in hand, holding it close to her belly so that no one can see. It’s something she’s had to do for two years now, ever since an older couple scolded her on the way to her car.

Save room for those who actually lost someone, the old woman had told her. I had three of those. I moved on.

The Little Jackal Boy

The only person she had ever loved was The Little Jackal Boy.


If you knew Rena Kelper, the solitary greying crone in the ranch house at the base of the Carrol Lane cul-de-sac, you might know of her peculiar collection of past lovers. They almost seemed chosen at random, a wheel spun between pit-stained electricians, adulterous cardiologists, and sex-starved high school seniors looking for a cougar to score them booze. You could spend hours trying to trace the pattern and come up with nothing–except for the fleeting nature of their rendezvouses with Rena.

Some people are just like that. Phoebe Phan lived two houses away and was the weary stay-at-home mother of two tireless schoolkids. She was proud of the friendship she had thawed out of Rena and proudly took on the caretaker role for the neighborhood cook. Phoebe enjoyed hearing Rena gossip on her past flames. Some people don’t have much need for company but don’t mind someone else in their beds from time to time. To each their own.


If you really knew Rena Kelper, you knew the connection between her lovers–the harbinger imp with long ears, obsidian eyes, and pale skin. But no one really knew Rena Kelper, not even Phoebe Phan. At least, not yet.


The Little Jackal Boy had found Rena after her Parents’ Fight. Not one of her parents’ fights that she could tune out with the sound effects turned all the way up on Froggy Jump, no this was the Fight, the Broken-Glass-Fight, Bloody-Screaming-Roaring-Fight, the Siren-Lights-Boots-On-The-Stairs-No-More-Daddy-Fight. The rabbits didn’t come back to the yard for a whole week.

He had crawled out from under the sink while she was sweeping the shattered window out of the moldy kitchen rug and had tapped her toe to get her attention before rocking back onto His heels. She should have been scared of the Little Jackal Boy. Instead He became her only friend.


Phoebe knocked on Rena’s door and announced herself clearly and loudly. Rena didn’t open the door for someone she didn’t know.


She drew pictures of The Little Jackal Boy in school. None of the crayons were quite the right colors for Him but she did her best. Her teacher noticed the pattern eventually and asked who she was drawing. The Little Jackal Boy of course. Why do you call him that? Because that’s His name. Rena thought that was a particularly dumb question.

He never came with her to school. He liked things damp and cool and dark. She built Him a mossy lean-to down by oily pond under the gravel road. It was her special spot where she came to try to break pebbles, but now it was their spot. She visited Him after school every day. Sometimes He was there, sometimes He wasn’t. After a few days alone in their spot and sad nights watching television with glassy-eyed Momma, He appeared again. Bring me a rabbit, Rena. Please.


Would Rena watch Phoebe’s kids for the weekend? She was going with her husband on his business trip to Dallas. You knew how much he worked and how little Phoebe got to see him. Of course, Rena would be delighted! She smiled one of those polite smiles she had practiced. She had even figured out how to add a little twinkle in her eyes when she did.


There were enough rabbits in Rena’s yard to draw all the neighborhood dogs that liked to snuffle around in the overgrown grass and lick up the dried pellets of rabbit shit until they were yanked away. A neighbor with a small patch of farmland used to leave a box of produce for Rena and her mother every few weeks or so after her father had been stabbed to death in jail, but it was always left out to rot and once the rain softened up the cardboard, the rabbits chewed their way in. After a few shredded boxes, their neighbor gave up her fruitless altruism, but the family of rabbits had exploded into a stubborn horde.

Rena spent an hour chasing them. If she brought the Little Jackal Boy one, He would come to her school as a Boy-Who-Like-Liked-Her. But the rabbits were quick and soon the long orange dress she had found in a clothing donation bin was smeared in grass stains and rabbit shit. She was no closer to catching a rabbit.

And then she saw it. A little baby one, hidden in a patch of wilted dandelions. The rest of the rabbits had fled back under the house or across the gravel road into the ivy-choked forest. She crawled toward it, chest tight as if bound by Daddy’s belt. One of its legs bent a strange angle and as Rena neared it only managed one sad half-hop.

She brought her broken rabbit down to The Little Jackal Boy’s lean-to. He smiled while He crawled out and scratched the rabbit between its ears. It quieted a bit.


If you almost-really knew Rena Kelper, you knew that she had moved quite a few times throughout her life, leaving behind neighborhoods spackled with missing dog and cat and (in one case) teacup pig posters. You probably carried a healthy dose of suspicion.


She didn’t have a knife, but down by the pond she found a shard of a broken beer bottle. It could have been Daddy who had thrown it down here, she mused, as hot blood bathed her knuckles. When the rabbit stopped biting she handed it to The Little Jackal Boy. She didn’t feel anything for the rabbit. But she felt happy for her friend as He pulled a tuft of fur from its head.


If you hung one of those missing dog or cat or teacup pig posters, you never found your pet.


Phoebe brought Yen and Thanh over on Friday night. They were both wore fuzzy PJs and little backpacks packed with games, books, and snacks.

The Little Jackal Boy kept His promise. Anthony showed up in Rena’s class a few days later. He smiled and sat down at the desk next to her. She noticed a wiggling scar at the base of his lip and the glimmer of the Little Jackal Boy in his eye. Two days later she kissed him while walking home from school down where the road split and he went one way and she went the other. He had kissed her back.

In a few weeks, The Little Jackal Boy no longer looked back at her from Anthony’s eyes and the scar on his lip was gone. They didn’t kiss anymore after that.

The Last Man on Earth

He was quite hot on the idea of repopulation. I told him more than once that I was sexless as a Brillo pad (which was largely true, and 100% true when it came to him), but he wasn’t to be put off.

“Look,” he said, with his hands on my shoulders to show that he meant it. “Making a child has nothing at all to do with sex.”

“It’s quite a big part of it.”

“That’s like saying if you sharpen a pencil you’ve sketched a portrait, or written a masterpiece, or created some theorem, some monumental breakthrough, that can explain the very fabric of the universe.”

I considered “sharpening a pencil” as a euphemism. It was almost as horrible as “beef curtains”, but there was no-one around to laugh at it with.

“It doesn’t matter if you fancy me,” he went on, taking my momentary silence as momentary potential. “Who’s to say if I fancy you? The question hadn’t even occurred to me, I’ve not considered whether or not your attractive, because it doesn’t even matter. What I’m talking about goes beyond that. We have a duty.”

“To do what?” I asked, like I didn’t know.

“‘To be fruitful and multiply’, of course, the first duty, the origina/ duty you could say. It’s all there in Genesis, you can read it yourself. God wants us to people his earth.”

“God had his chance.”

He didn’t speak to me for the rest of my day, which I thought was a bit much. We were just chatting, after all, you can hardly conduct a theological debate if you’re just going to go off into a strop. I was worried I’d start to think too much, with all that silence, but there were ways to fill the time. I went to the big Sainsbury’s and grabbed boxes of cereal off the shelf. I tried five different types of muesli, and the expensive granola that was too fancy to buy back when capitalism was a thing. I did a compare and contrast and didn’t think about my mum once, which was impressive. Then again, she only ever has porridge for breakfast.

I was bored, but he was desperate, so he cracked first and went on the hunt for all my blasphemy. Found me sitting on the floor of a Waterstones next to a table of staff-recommended fiction, the kind that’s covered in “cult classics” like Confederacy of Dunces. If you thought about it, pretty much all the non-fiction–the feminist and socialist and whatever-ist theory–was now just history. Marx didn’t see this one coming. Freud neither, or Freidan come to mention it. Pretty soon the cookbooks would be history too–the last avocados in Britain had gone off and there was no-one in Mexico to make any more.

“I thought I’d bump into you here,” he said, holding some Kierkegaard. “You seem like the type.”

“Of what?”

“You know, the type of person. The kind of woman who likes stories and books,” his voice trailed a little towards the end, and his eyes fell to the copy of Fear and Trembling in his hands. “I’ve been reading a lot myself these past few days, after our talk about people and parenthood and responsibility. I was sat on my own, in their armchair in the flat–you should come by to the flat, there’s so much space, you could move in with me–I was there, just devouring chapter after chapter of philosophy, trying to get to the crux of things, trying to find answers to the questions–you love to ask questions, I really admire that about you, and I want to answer them, you know, give you some peace of mind–and then, out of nowhere, this thought came to me. I didn’t invite it in, but it was there all the same. Do you know what I thought?”

“No.”

“‘Who is all this reading for?’ And I couldn’t shake it. I tried to swat it away and turn my back on the thought, turn back to my pages, and learn, but I couldn’t read the words. Every sentence just seemed to say: ‘who is this learning for?’”

“I thought you said it was for me.”

“Of course, it is, in part, but you are just one person, and you will die. Then there would be no-one. And at the time, when I was alone–and you were nowhere to be found, you had disappeared, I wasn’t sure you’d ever be back–I reasoned yes, I could teach myself, I could know everything there is to know, I could become wise. But what would I do with all that wisdom? Without people, what is the point? We need others, Andrea.”

Andrea is not my name. I never told him what I was called, so he had to guess. Settled on Andrea because I wouldn’t correct him.

“Is learning a good thing to do?”

He looked like he wanted to grab me, to have a moment, and I hitched up my shoulders so they couldn’t be touched. “What I mean is,” I told his outstretched hand, “if it’s good for your soul it’s good for your soul.”

“What?” He said. His hand stilled, mid-air, fingers still reaching out like they hadn’t got the message.

“If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and there’s no-one there to see it, a tree’s fallen in the woods.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

I smiled really wide, pulling the corners of my mouth right out so my gap between my two front teeth showed. They used to think gap teeth were a sign of lust, that girls like me were real horn dogs, but I don’t reckon that was ever really the case. He had very straight, very close teeth, and they were bared right at me when he said:

“You’re a difficult woman.”

How old was he, I wondered? I was never much good at ageing faces, and he could have been 29 or 35 or 47 for all I knew. I guess it doesn’t matter so much with boys, when it comes down to the basic principle of impregnation. They just start coming and they don’t stop coming, like the song by Smash Mouth. You know the one. I reckoned he’d already spent a few hours trying to count my eggs, trying to see how many there were left to hatch.

There wasn’t really anything to say to someone who was grinning like that, so he slunk back to his aisle. I stayed in mine, but I just couldn’t get back into My Sister the Serial Killer. I had a sister, and I didn’t want to go there just then. If my man was going to be in a sulk, I thought, maybe I should take a trip somewhere. A little holiday. Who doesn’t like a holiday?

I thought about making the trek across town to spend the night in Harrod’s. I could treat the place like my personal hotel, use all the leftover lotions and that, sleep in one of their beds. Fulfil my adolescent dream of having a sleepover at the department store. They used to have a Krispy Kreme concession right in the middle of their food hall–this was before every other Tesco stocked them–and each time a fresh batch was made they’d hand out their original glazed donuts, for free, to sticky people like my pubescent friends and I who had no real business in Harrod’s. We were there at the bougification of the donut. I used to think about things like that a lot, how I was witnessing cultural moments. Like they meant something. But then, my mind snapping back to reality and its associated desolation, I realized there wouldn’t be any pastries there (no fresh ones at any rate) and certainly no-one to discuss the perils of overpriced dough with. There were the jewelry cases, of course, the option to smash open glass boxes and line my arms with Rolexes like a little girl kitting herself with Clare’s Accessories bangles. Jenny always wanted a Rolex (“for the craic”), but she wasn’t there, and I wasn’t remembering Jenny, I was passing time, and maybe it would be easier to do that if I didn’t know what the time was.

I decided to go to Fortnum and Mason instead, because posh people love preserving things (lemons, rabbits, status) and I reckoned a lot of their food would still be good. I descended the spiral staircase into their basement, lifted a little tin of fois gras from a great big pile of them, peeled back the lid and started picking at the flesh inside with my fingers. I wondered if there were still ducks in France, dragging around their swollen livers. If they were around, did they have a sense of vengeance, and were they happy the farmers were now all gone? And if they did have a sense of vengeance, what would they think of me, and my fate? Then I remembered that ducks were kind of pricks, because the males gang-raped the females, so I probably shouldn’t feel too bad about their bloated organs. Unless I was eating a girl’s liver.

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, Jenny used to say. I wasn’t sure how that applied now. And I couldn’t ask her. So there wasn’t any point dwelling on it.

I picked up a couple of bottles of champagne–I know nothing about wine, just chose the ones that used to cost the most–and was putting them in my bag when I heard footsteps upstairs. Slinging the Herschel onto my pack, I started my ascent up the stairs, one slow, quiet step after the other, and tried to hear what he was thinking.

When I finally reached the ground floor, I saw him bending down by a shelf with one hand in his pocket, casual as anything. Like he didn’t realize I’d be there, he was just popping by to pick up some oolong. I watched him as he watched some ornate, inanimate, souvenir tin. Then, just like before, he cracked.

“I don’t want to fight with you, Andrea. We’re all each other has left now. I don’t want to waste another seven days in silence –I think we could be something, you know. I think we could make each other happy.”

“Who’s fighting?” I crossed over to another shelf, squinted at some chamomile. I never used to drink tea and didn’t think I would start now. He joined me.

“We could fall in love, you know.”

“I don’t think it works that way.” When I was a teenager I was never sure if I liked boys or just liked the show ‘Friends’, or if I even liked ‘Friends’ or liked the idea of liking it. I was in my head a lot as a kid.

“Why not?” He asked. “We’ve got time. We don’t need to have it all straight away, you know, it can grow. Things can grow with time.”

“I’m not growing you a child.”

Men’s eyes used to drift to my chest, but his went straight to my belly. To where he thought the womb was, I supposed, that wonderful thing that I was keeping to myself. Hoarding all its power and for what, to what end? All those thousands of years of endeavour, and all the foes conquered and all the blooshed and all the science and here we were, at the end of it, at the end of time, right back at the beginning.

“I can’t do this without you,” he said. “I need you.”

And I could have explained a few things to him. Could have said there were no hospitals, which I would quite like in case things went wrong. That though they used to give birth in newspapers, or wrap their babies in newspapers, or whatever, there weren’t newspapers any more. That if we made it through, and there was this kid, what then. Who could they pair up with. God cheated in the Bible-there was Adam and Eve, and then Cain and Abel, and then some other chick appears to pair up with Cain. But we can’t write in some second family, some fresh blood. I could explain that I wasn’t up for incest, and point out how a limited genetic pool could lead to biological as well as ethical issues-look at Dalmatians, I could add, they’re all deaf because of the inbreeding-and that neither of us knew how to cultivate the land. As far as I was aware. He didn’t seem the agrarian type.

And I could have told him he was barking up the wrong tree, that I knew what he was doing and what I was doing and that sooner or later we’d both have to get a grip, for Christ’s sake. I could have said a lot of things and logicked my point across.

But I didn’t want to fight either.

“I don’t want a baby.”

He slid to the floor then, resting his back against the display unit’s wares. I did the same, so we were sitting side by side.

“Then what do we do?” It felt like the first real question he had asked me, so I tried to give him a real answer.

“Mourn.”

I reached into my bag and pulled out one of the bottles. They were warm, but there was no refrigeration any more, so it would have to make do. I ripped off the paper cap that my cousin Ellie used to call a champagne condom, and handed the fizz over to him so he could twist out the cork. He took a sip, then I took a sip, and we passed the bottle back and forth taking gulp after gulp to absent friends.

The Witch of Sherman Oaks

“Why can’t you just turn Jason into a frog?” Boise Davenport frowned, brushing back a loose strand of her unnaturally red hair.

We were sitting in my living room, which was doubling as my office, as business was slow.

“That’s not the sort of thing I do. No matter how much someone might deserve it,” I said. Why does everyone always want a frog?

Boise (real name Janet Kretzel) hit it big on one of those reality shows where the producers strand you in the tropics with little in the way of clothing. By the end of the first episode, #RedBoise was trending.

She was attempting to parley that popularity into an acting career but her big break was being held up by an intransigent casting director who she implied was a candidate for #MeToo. Hence the amphibious transformation request.

Boise removed her over-sized sunglasses, revealing green eyes with a conspiratorial bent. “Not necessarily a frog. A badger or a groundhog would do. It doesn’t even have to be an animal. Just something to get him out of the way. Make him allergic to Wi-Fi and he’ll have to move to the woods in West Virginia.” She smiled at me with perfect white teeth. Those caps must have set her back at least ten grand.

I shook my head. “In my practice, I like to be constructive. Build up my clients, rather than tear down others.”

“What about that Supreme Court Justice you put a hex on?” She pointed to the blown up, framed cover of LA Magazine hanging on the wall. A professional hair and make-up job and the talents of a skilled Photoshop artist resulted in the Platonic Ideal of myself above the caption “Meet the Face of the #NewResistance: Jennifer Griffiths is The Witch of Sherman Oaks.”

At Polliwog Park the day before the confirmation vote, I burned sage, coriander, dandelion roots, and a photo of Smirking Judge Punchable Face in a silver chalice, while I danced and chanted a curse that my Welsh grandmother taught me. So many crazy things happen in LA every day, but my video went viral. The raccoon carrying her babies in the background might have helped. I was in Variety, Deadline, and interviewed by Don Lemon on CNN.

I shrugged. “You’ll notice he’s still on the court. The whole exercise was more cathartic than cabalistic.”

She stared at me, a blank look on her face.

“That means liberating,” I said.

She snorted. “I know what cabalistic means.”

This conversation needed to get back on track. Not only would Boise be good repeat business, but she was a hot commodity. Word would get around. The clients would return. If they didn’t, by the end of the month I’d be living out of my Prius.

“A good witch is part life-coach, part therapist,” I said.

“I already have a life-coach and a therapist.” She put down her coffee and jabbed a finger at me. “What I don’t have, but what I need, is a witch who can put the whammy on Jason Sugarman, so I can get my movie career out of first gear.”

“I can’t just wiggle my nose.” I smiled sheepishly. “Let’s work on creating a positive energy field around you. I have these marvelous scented candles handcrafted by Bhutan monks. They’re made of the wax from Asian pears grown in the Chele Le Grove. That’s a virgin forest where no machinery of any type is permitted. Light the candles before you go to sleep and repeat a mantra that I’ll give you. I guarantee your aura will be a deep blue in no time.”

Boise stood. “This is ridiculous.” She pulled out her phone. “Refused to take my concerns seriously.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m one-starring you on Yelp. Office décor embarrassingly outdated. And the coffee is weak.” She tapped away as she walked out the door.


The Great Equalizer

Up The Road


She churned the bike over a gravel hill. What was his name today? She had a lot of names for him. She tried to recall:


i.Stinky Steve
ii.Runt
iii.Boy
iv.Weasel
v.Dead Weight
vi.Lil’ Lolly
vii.Mop
viii.Burden
ix.Sweet Cheeks


“Boy!” she snarled.

“How are you doing?” she didn’t say.


“Yes?” came the squeak. He sat in a makeshift wagon wobbling along behind her bike, affixed by a steel cable to the seat, which was missing its cushion. The wagon had two big scooter wheels and two that came from a plastic toy.

“I’m an old woman, you burden,” she snapped. “You should be pulling me along.” With each grueling pedal, she grew more irked by his cushy in-tow existence. Her left shoe had worn a hole and her heel smarted. Her calves kept pumping, though.


The road bumped up and down with root fissures and in some places vanished entirely. When the pavement failed, they would bump along deer trails. She hoped nothing else was using the trails today. The fluffy earth coated the wheels a muddy grey. Stone walls and brick sheds were all draped in fog. It wasn’t quite fog. It was more like snow. Fat flakes of grey skin, mostly. Some hair too.


Stinky Steve’s tiny mouth was covered with a thin sleeve of sparkly gold polyester. He wore a leather cap with flaps over the ears that was sure to help keep out the ash. His bright pupils peered at the horizon over a pair of pink sunglasses. In some places the horizon was dark, in other places tall spires of orange bloomed up, casting shadows on the clouds. Everywhere else it sleeted something that looked like red woodchips. It smelled like fried bog.


Something especially hard clinked on the boy’s plywood seat. “Edith?” he called timidly. She glared around to see him holding a toenail.

“Throw it away,” she said.

He stared at her. The pink-rimmed sunglasses had slipped down his nose.

“Eat it, you weasel! Quit bothering me.”

She shifted to the 3rd gear on the handlebars. Downhill at last. There was a skeleton in an oak tree so severely burned that the forehead draped like a stalactite.

Edith ignored it and ignored the whimpers of Sweet Cheeks behind her. Her left foot definitely had a blister or two by now. The pedal really bit through the sole.

“Why don’t you cry?” He sounded somewhat accusatory in his singed coat and mittens. “Do you like this?”

“I want to live in a world where it’s written in history books that secretary Bill Clinton gave President Monica Lewinsky sloppy cunnilingus with his pointy chin on the oval office swivel chair,” she growled. “Does that sound like this place?”

“No,” he guessed. Not that the six-year-old knew what the hell she was talking about.

“Right, sweet cheeks. Instead I’m here taking care of a useless little man.”


They sprayed down the hill and rounded a corner, where the shell of a ranch-style home stared from beneath a layer of ash. It glowed from the inside, still stuffed with embers. By its curb knelt two women, one with a kitchen knife, facing away. They were engrossed with a lumpy grey item welded to the sidewalk. They carved the rock-lump down the center and steaming guts spilled like marmalade.

Edith jammed one pedal backwards to brake, found the MAC-11 pistol in the water-bottle holder between her legs and wrenched it out. The tall woman wore a beautiful aqua windbreaker and jeans, the squat one only a ripped sweatshirt and track pants. Edith waved the gun at them, though of course it was empty—hell, she didn’t even have a magazine for it.

Not that these fine ladies knew that. Goodness did her left foot sting. “Drop that cutter!” she barked. The two women scrambled like crabs, leaving the blade behind. Edith twisted her lip into a cruel expression. “Throw over that blue coat or I’ll turn you to a red colander! This gun is called, Big Bitchifier; I’d love to introduce you!”

The tall one, Lanky Egg, threw her windbreaker over to the bike. The silver hail immediately riddled her exposed arms with burn-dots. “And your sweatshirt,” Edith snapped, swinging Big Bitchifier towards Stepstool. Stepstool pouted but removed the garment, tossing it not quite far enough. Edith nodded backwards, and the boy darted from his wagon to scoop up their winnings.

“The knife too!” He retrieved it, legs scurrying over the fried snow. Edith gazed at the pair of victims curiously as their skin boiled. Egg-sucker’s face was still smeared in glitter makeup from before the bombs. The girls would need to find shelter soon. She didn’t particularly hate them. Especially not Stepstool. Being short and grumpy with big feet was tough. Edith would know.

“Give me your left shoe,” she said.