TCL #32 – Summer 2019

Zombies Can’t Take the Train

Autobiographical Case Histories from the Abridged 2055 Multimedia History Project on the Plague Year: Documenting the Rapid Sclerosis Pandemic. Society for Research and Education of the Global Open Forum Recovery Group.

Case Contents: Selections from the subject’s journal and an interview with a surviving member of the fire and rescue squad that quarantined the subject.

Subject: Steven Smith. North American (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion) male Caucasian. Age 41 at time of infection in the city of New Haven on May 14, 2027.

Document Status: Except for bloodstains, the journal was unaltered when recovered. Society members have added footnotes. This document is a primary source for post-peak studies. A full copy of the journal and the interview auditory file are available at qqq.ccss.GOF.aubiohist for a small contribution to your community labor pool.

May 16, 2027

Two days ago, I woke up so numb that it was as if I floated over my bed. The morning sun highlighted Cindy’s slender figure and auburn hair as she looked down at me and her lips curled into an I’ve-been-naughty smile. Noticing her blood-speckled cheeks and the chewed-off stump where my left hand used to be, I rolled out of the bed. She laughed as I struggled to stand, unable to feel where my ass ended and the hard floor began. Freakazoiding, I fumbled into my super-sized safari suit and stumbled around the room searching for my boots, unsure when she’d get the Hunger again. I should’ve put her down, but I’d never killed anyone, just written about it. As I edged forward to grab my boots, located just under the bed, her emerald eyes twinkled and she picked up my index finger to suck the gristle off it in a provocative manner. The parasites that had begun to burrow along my neural pathways must have done more than cauterize my injury and numb my body. Although I was terrified, I was not angry. Instead of righteous rage, I felt that considering everything, it was nice of Cindy to remember that I was right-handed.

Pausing by the bedroom door, I stuffed the boots into the survival pack I’d placed there and turned back towards Cindy. As my eyes roamed over her perfections the last time, I blamed myself. Someone so beautiful and sweet wouldn’t throw themselves at an obese oddball who writes appliance manuals for a living. She tensed for a leap. I wriggled into my pack’s straps, breathed deep, and decided that I didn’t care why she’d given me the two best weeks of my life. It was okay if it wasn’t all the secrets and hopes we’d shared, that it was because parasites had transformed her from a reserved sociology graduate student into an insatiable seeker of sexual delights. Until the hunger for human flesh overcomes you, the disease monorails your desires, creating one maniacal need. For Cindy, I now knew that need was sex; for me, well, I missed my mom.

Cindy made her move. I slammed the door and yanked a couch in front of it. My asthma kicked in as I leapt down the stairs. While the couch scraped my hardwood floor, I unlocked my security gate and fumbled open the front door. I scurried outside as she pounded down the stairs. The gate clanged shut and the lock clicked into place behind me. Shouted pleas of, “Don’t desert me!” and “I’ll make everything right again,” issued through the gate. From one of my safari suit’s many pockets, I pulled an inhaler and puffed twice. Breathing again and relieved that Cindy was stuck behind security gates and window grills that I had the sole keys for, I rested against an elm tree. I was trying to ignore her pleas and assess my situation when a Golden Doodle dragged a human femur into the condo parking lot and began to bark at me. Afraid the noise would draw more feral frou-frou dogs or worse, I fled. My bare feet found every sharp pebble as I ran across the too-sunny lot and through the Guptas’ open backdoor. I said, “Oh…Oh no,” as I shut the door behind me. A bloody smear began on the kitchen floor, where little Sabita’s Cookie Monster doll lay abandoned, and ended at the backdoor.

Shaking my head, I walked through their glass and chrome living room and went upstairs to Ms. Gupta’s office. Her built-in shelves were stuffed with accounting books and Ganesh statues. I shook my pack off my shoulders, letting it fall onto the red shag carpet, and dropped into her swivel chair. My thoughts starting to race and my heart to pound — over Sabita and everything else — I pulled a Valium bottle from a shirt pocket and popped several. As I zoned out, I stared at a dancing Ganesh and wondered what he was so happy about.

An hour later, full consciousness came upon me like a slow-motion landslide. Hoping to avoid being buried by anxiety and despair, I decided to focus on the little things that I could control. My first decision was to stay the night. The numbness would soon wear off and I’d be at my most vulnerable. Anyway, before I traveled, I had to figure out how to lace my boots. Curious about what I would face later, I stood to look out the window. To do so, I leaned on the edge of the desktop with my bad arm. The desktop, a sheet of glass that sat on two chrome sawhorses, tilted. Not at my brightest, I watched everything on it slide onto the floor. As the sheet of glass began to move towards my mid-section, I came to my senses and removed my weight from it. The desktop slammed back down. I stared at it for a moment before blurting, “What the what,” as I stood to jerk the blinds open.

My guilt for messing up Ms. Gupta’s office evaporated upon looking outside. Shattered storefront windows lined State Street and a telephone pole topped with ax heads leaned against the wall of Inner Peace and Extreme Survival Studio. It was as if a giant had sucked up mailboxes, trees, signs, cars, and human beings, chewed them up, and spit them back out. Drums, saxophones, and guitars strewn near Dr. Katz’s Animal Clinic stirred memories of the early plague days: endless awful singing by Western civilization’s worst creation, the pop-star wannabe, that was intermittently interrupted by elderly country bands and cheerleader squads. It was like living on the American Idol1 set. Too scared to go out, I kept my crank radio blaring. Intrepid reporters, or Compulsives trying to be reporters, described all-night baseball and midnight gardening, acts of altruism and awfulness, impossible scientific and artistic projects, and entrepreneurs catering to desperate Compulsives. Those Compulsives included computer gamers seeking electricity, shoppers frantic to discover bargains, foodies searching for five-star meals, and what should have been a warning to me, lovers hoping to find their last love. The radio reports all noted the Compulsives’ perseverance, no matter their injuries. However, when enough time passed the parasites changed all the Compulsives into Eaters, just as they had transformed Cindy.

A salty taste filled my mouth as I sat back down and pressed my eyes shut. Still numb, I’d bitten my lip to try to block memories of what came next, when the Eaters finished off most of the remaining Compulsives and yet-to-be-infected Cleans. No matter my efforts, memories of those horrific days swarmed into my mind, days in which I’d shut off the radio and tried to imagine that my condo was a pocket universe. It had been impossible. The end of the world made it through the walls of the basement safe-room I huddled in: the sirens, shots, and horrific screams. Later, it smelled like I was stuck in a busted freezer filled with sour milk and rotten meat. A shameful combination of cowardice and selfishness prevented me from helping anyone. The terror and guilt were worse than the discomforts: eating raw pasta and potatoes to save Sterno; creeping around the condo to maintain my rainwater collection system and chemical toilet; being unable to phone, text, or Facebook; not bathing or shaving; wearing dirty clothes; and missing therapist appointments.

I opened my eyes and spewed bloody spit on Ms. Gupta’s desk. To address my ever-multiplying psychological needs all I could do was to scribble in this journal. Writing fiction was no longer an option since the only thing I’d ever written were stories of post-apocalyptic heroes and I wasn’t being one. Nothing had happened like my survivalist stories, which consisted of macho cleverness and a lack of gun-control laws. Even my self-published masterpieces, Tales of the Rescue of a Techno Maiden and The Parking Garage Pirates of Putnam Street, didn’t hint at the traumas and tedious drudgery of actual survival. I thought I wrote the stories because they immersed me in a world in which no one told you what to do and where you were special just because you had survived. Remembering that Cindy had broken through that thin explanation, I used my hand to wipe the blood off my chin and stood to check on her.

With my binoculars, I left the office and walked across the landing and into the master bedroom. Dr. Gupta’s shriveled remains were on an oak four-poster bed; an empty hypodermic needle dangled from his withered arm. While I examined him, I thought about the big Texan “howdy” he always greeted me with and how he loved to grill shitake mushrooms or Tandoori chicken on summer Sunday afternoons. Now I’d never be able to pay him back for the time he drove me to the hospital after diagnosing my hernia. I yanked the blanket, to try to roll him up in it. He fell with an unpleasant thump onto the floor. After several deep breaths, I threw the blanket over him and went to the window, unsure of what I’d do when my sense of smell returned.

I peered through the Venetian blinds and saw that Cindy had opened all my drapes. But why? With my binoculars, I saw why, and shouted, “Shit soup!” Still undressed, she was emptying my cupboards of their delicacies. Done, she lopped the tops off Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops, and Cap’n Crunch boxes2 with my samurai knife and leaned back to empty one box after another into her mouth. My eyes teared up as Cindy’s curvy figure was outlined in a candy-colored shower of sugary treasure; beautiful blissful bits of sweetness bounced off her and onto the ungrateful kitchen tiles. My stomach lurched each time she slammed an eight pound can of chocolate syrup against a counter edge, only stopping when the priceless chocolate sprayed the kitchen and herself. In silent shock, sweat dripping from under my arms, I watched her lift the huge sharp-edged container to her delicate lips. Her small mouth filled with the life-giving liquid; it flowed down her cheeks and cascaded like a slow-motion velvety waterfall down her neck, chest, and legs, to pool at her feet. The food-massacre went on for what seemed forever — a bottle of peppermint schnapps tasted and spilled, Slim Jims bitten and discarded, Hostess Cup Cakes sampled, a bag of pork rinds scattered after one bite, a gallon jar of maraschino cherries smashed, creating a blood-red tide that flowed across the kitchen floor. With each wasted calorie, primordial pain flowed through my veins and the temptation to save my darlings increased. She attacked my favorites, yanking the tops off a row of small, colorful boxes and ripping open the shiny packages within to stuff their contents into her face. Prefab pastries of every flavor fragmented and fell, surrounding her with what looked like the remnants of a bombed paint factory. I cried out in disbelief, “The bitch is eating my Pop-Tarts!” However, I knew she wasn’t enjoying her last lucid moments, that she wanted me to end her suffering. Cindy was past the Compulsive stage, during which one has some normal desires, and was experiencing a hyper-aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to retrieve the Glock in my pack. But how do you shoot someone, especially Cindy? When she collapsed to the kitchen floor — now a sweet swamp with islands of cans, boxes, and bottles — and sobbed, I decided to do it. I loved her too much to let her suffer and I’d promised her I’d do it.

I need to stop writing, even though the sun is up and I haven’t finished telling you about the two worst days of my life. I bet you also want to know how I’ll reach Mom. Don’t worry, I have a plan. But I can’t tell you now. I need to eat my last two packets of freeze-dried ice cream and cry a little. Writing about everything helps, but, can only do so much.

Walking the Line

Eleanora was in trouble again, though “again” did not seem like the right word. It was more that she was constantly in trouble, and her mother’s familiar lecture chased her from her home. She had hoped to be alone, but despite the darkness and the unseasonable chilliness, she was not the only one out on Poetto Beach.

“Would you like some company?”

The boy was blond, and Eleanora preferred brown or black hair, but she was really not supposed to prefer any boy at all. If her mother saw her smile at him it would set off another lecture, but her mother was not here, so she smiled.

“I would love some company,” said Eleanora.

The light of the moon reflected on the water, the only light out tonight. Eleanora still sat on her hands, just in case, though there was nothing she could do about her hair. It probably looked wet.

It probably looked like she had taken a midnight swim. She probably looked very romantic, and the thought put a damper on her almost rising mood.

“You speak English very well,” said the boy.

“I speak many languages very well,” said Eleanora. “Italian, Sardinian, and some much older.”

“Latin?” asked the boy.

“Not Latin,” said Eleanora.

Even the name of the language left her mouth feeling singed. Which meant her mother was right.

If she kept slipping, there may be no coming back. Her mother said she had to stop kissing the boys, no matter how much she wanted them. Why did the boy have to initiate the kiss? Would it really make so much of a difference? Eleanora could not imagine that it would feel any different, that it would stop the changes taking place.

“It’s so beautiful here,” said the boy. “I wish I could stay.”

Eleanor wished that her smile was sharp spikes instead of these domesticated stubs that filled her mouth and demanded she abstain from raw flesh.

Her sisters, her mother, her grandmothers, they used to be feared, even worshipped. They still had happiness in the past, they still had their men, but they also had freedom, and power, and blood and the night. They did not have to go to school, what was school to the Gianes? There was no education that could not be learned from dancing along the salt lakes, that could not be tasted in a young man’s blood, or absorbed in his embrace. What was the world of mortals to a child who was neither fairy nor demon, a creature that walked the line between life and death, love and murder? Why did the generations that had gone before her deny Eleanora that pleasure?

“You could stay here a little longer,” said Eleanora. “Sometimes just a little longer is enough to make everything feel okay.”

The boy smiled and sat down on the sand next to her, and his body was warm, and she tried to want it, want it for her own selfish pleasure and her own feast, and not want it for company, for love, for family.

They were upsetting, intrusive thoughts.

If she were a true Giane, she would straddle him on this beach, she would tear out his heart, she would let his blood spray across her cheeks and breasts, and taste a salt like the ocean but richer. If she was a true Giane, she would push this boy away when he rested against her shoulder, like he did now, and flay him, expose him, devour him.

Eleanora told herself it was her mother’s lecture still ringing in her ears that stopped her. She told herself it was not her own will, but a decision that had been made long before she was born; to be weak, to be companions, to be loved. She told herself that if she ran the wild hills, if she saw the boats of men intent on tearing her island upside down, she would not have given in to their charms. She would not have given up her wildness for their children.

She had nearly broken through, so many times, so close that her nails were already curving into claws, her hair was already matting into scales that hung in rough curls down her back, and maybe if she kissed another boy so deeply again, her teeth would break the skin of her lips and she could run on the sand as more creature than girl. A part of her, bred so deep, so long ago, held off, did not want that abandon, did not want that wildness, and Eleanora could not will it to quiet its appeal for love, for comfort, for domesticity.

But it did not matter what she wanted, because the boy’s lips were her on hers, and his tongue was in her mouth. She did not initiate the kiss, but she could have pulled away. She could have, and she chose not to. Eleanora felt her mind filling with darkness and her mouth filling with spikes that did not break her own lips, but they did break the boy’s tongue.

Traveling by Starlight: A Journey of Two Ways

When the otherworldly visitors arrived, I had my hands full with their unusual needs: no salt, everything baked or boiled until it was pure–what did that mean?–and only cream to drink. While the rest of the castle whispered about their motives and admired every nuance of their behavior, I rushed about the kitchen, commander of an army of cooks and cutlery. I was as curious as the next person, but I had a job to do.

After a welcome feast of venison curry and roast peacock, I slumped in my chair by the servant’s courtyard and wished I could make myself move. Sticky summer air pressed down on my body, settling into the same places the heat of cook fires had blasted earlier. I thought about stripping, but it was too much effort to reach the ties.

“Are you all right, Verel?” a raspy baritone asked. “I heard bloodcurdling screams from the direction of the kitchen.”

I sat up sharply, feeling hot in a third, not entirely unpleasant way. Delin stood in the stone archway, outlined by the moonlight–lean, perfectly proportioned, a face like rock. We had been friends for years, and when I first realized I was attracted to him, I had stared at that face, hoping to remind myself of our friendship in the familiarity of hazel eyes. Then I discovered I enjoyed staring too much.

“If you wish to know if there was blood in the red velvet cake,” I said, “the answer is yes. How else do you think I achieved that color?”

Delin laughed. “That will put me off my dinner.”

“Tell me about the feast,” I said.

He dropped on the well-trod dirt of the courtyard, absently fingering a hoof print. “The best of the known world–especially from the kitchen,” he added with a nod to me. “But all the guests were tense, trying to be better than their natures.”

“And…?” I prodded.

“Our visitors are beautiful, but not in the way of anything human,” he said. The excitement came off him in waves. I basked in it as I listened. “Their speech is–sometimes I cannot be sure it is words at all, and we choose to hear the familiar. The king tried to get them to agree to an alliance,” he continued. “But they said we were primitive and crude, with our iron weapons and our deafness to the natural world.”

“That was rude of them,” I said.

“No–they’re right.” Delin sighed. “But there’s hope. They want to take a few people with them, to live in their cities, learn their ways, and bring that wisdom back.” He fidgeted as if he could hardly hold the thought in. “I want to be one of them.”

My heart took a step off the castle parapet. “But people abducted in the past were gone for decades,” I said. “They left and returned only when their friends had become old and grey-” when I was old and grey, I wanted to shout, “-and the world they knew had crumbled to dust.”

“But young,” Delin countered. “And still with all the possibilities in the world to pursue. And the chance to see their home realm!”

“You’re needed here,” I said. I wasn’t sure who perturbed me more: Delin or these mysterious visitors. The question of the unknown and the imagined–cities of glass, places where everyone flew on gossamer wings; powers that could cure any sickness–was as heady as the king’s anniversary wine… but I was sobered by the idea of how much one would leave behind. Delin, apparently, had no such concerns.

“Needed?” He shook his head. “I’m the junior healer, and there are plenty of young faces waiting to replace me. Anyhow, it’s not assured. They want to pick from a group of candidates.” He slid forward, catching my hands. “I want you to come stand with me, Verel. For support, and maybe…” He hesitated.

It was foolish, but the little catch in his voice turned everything the other way around. He wanted me with him, and a journey into the unknown with a good friend–never mind more–was less daunting, even conceivable. As long as they let me cook, and who knew what arcane ingredients and obscure techniques the visitors might use for their food?

“Of course I will,” I said. Meanwhile, a portion of my brain wondered how long I could hold onto him before he noticed. I waited until the last to free my hands.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll feel better with someone I can trust at my side. Not so inclined to run away, maybe.” His smile was sheepish.

He was trying to make a joke, but he was anxious. “I will be there for you,” I said firmly. “Even if you run.”

He laughed. “With a show of confidence like that, Verel,” he said. “What could go wrong?”

The Water Dragon

It was never the monsters hiding under the bed. Neither was it the dark of her bedroom when the lights went out. It was never the zombies that could clamber out of the packed earth and find and eat the little girls who played hide-and-seek in the graveyard. It wasn’t any of the things her best friend Clara had divulged to her once as they’d perched on the cobblestone wall that ran around the village. For Evangeline, it was the pitter-patter of raindrops on her head that caused her heart to seize.

Her mother, June, would be waiting by the back door, of course, wringing her hands until her daughter arrived, flushed and out of breath from running.

“Praise, God,” she would whisper, before crossing herself. Bustling Evangeline inside, the two of them would then huddle together by the kitchen window, uttering prayers for the clouds to part and sunny skies to bless them once more.

Sometimes, her mother would berate her for taking the rainless days for granted.

“You haven’t been praying hard enough,” she told Evangeline at the table, their hands still clasped from saying grace. “You’re not even trying.”

So Evangeline was always careful, after crossing all her fingers and toes, that her last thought before sleep overcame her was that she would awake to the pleasant heat of the sun on her face and the sight of a brilliant blue sky peeking through her curtains.

Yet although Evangeline deemed herself old enough now to know that zombies and ghosts could never hurt her, as long as she was home before dark, of course, for the life of her she could not explain why they should be so afraid of rain. Indeed, Evangeline had been sodden before when she had once ventured too far from the cottage and the storm had taken her by surprise. All she had felt whilst her mother had bundled her in towels were as if she’d just stepped out of a very cold bath.

“It doesn’t look so scary from in here,” she’d observed, cross-legged by the fire; not even while it had lashed against the window panes in droves and lightning had crackled across the sky.

“Well, you would be a fool not to be afraid,” said her mother.

Sometimes their garden would be ruined, reduced to a mushy, mulchy mess of sodden foliage. When Evangeline was younger, she used to believe that there were such things as giants that would use the cover of thunder to enter the garden and destroy all the pretty flowers. Her mother never used to tell her otherwise, and so Evangeline still had to scold herself whenever she could’ve sworn she’d seen a footprint the size of a dustbin lid left in the soil.

It was Monday morning, and Evangeline was peering at one of these very such indentations by the churchyard wall when someone called out to her and Clara. Glancing up, she caught sight of Mr. Reed striding past them on his way to the fields.

“I would start making my way home now, girls. You’re too close to the boundary wall when the sky’s looking this murky. That means you, too, sweetheart.”

“Yes, father,” her best friend mumbled.

Evangeline jumped to her feet, wiping her hands on her skirt.

“I don’t know why you try and run off so fast, Eve,” Clara told her as they began making their way back towards the centre of the village, deciding that they would stop by at Mr. Graham’s shop to buy toffee if they hurried. “We’ve both got caught in the rain so many times now and it’s never hurt us.”

Evangeline hushed her, peering up and down the lane. Old Mrs. Simmons was pruning her roses, but everyone knew that her ears were shot. They passed by her garden and she raised a gnarled hand at them in greeting, lips pulling to reveal a toothless crevasse.

“It’s just when you’re out in it for too long,” whispered Evangeline, “or when you go out on purpose. I don’t know what happens to you but all I know is that I don’t want to find out.”

Clara giggled, and they stopped in the middle of the path.

“See?” she said. “What’s so bad about rain, Eve? It makes everything damp and sometimes it makes the grass really slippery. And you can throw stones in the puddles! Why should we be afraid?”

Huffing, Evangeline readied her best grown-up voice. “Because that’s what we’ve been told. It’s all we’ve ever known. To run home as soon as the rain starts.”

“Eve. We both know zombies can eat you. Ghosts can scare you to death. What does rain do?”

They walked in thoughtful silence until they arrived at the shop. Clara went in first, as always, and they went up to the counter, contemplating the shelves of sweet jars behind Mr. Graham in his red-and-white stripy apron. He was already bagging up some liquorice for old Mr. Partridge, the same corduroy trousers flapping about his bow legs. The two of them were conversing quietly, and Evangeline’s ears pricked at some of the words. She felt a gentle nudge at her side, and she turned to see Clara slipping into one of the nearby aisles. She followed, and together, they listened.

“So what are they saying happened to the poor child?” murmured Mr. Partridge.

“That perhaps she tried to go swimming in the river. My Daisy asked if she could once when we were on a walk near the marshlands, and of course I told her that it was forbidden. It was beautiful weather and I know it’s tempting, especially when it’s as nice as it was on Friday.”

“Oh, it was beautiful weather Friday,” Mr. Partridge agreed in a rasp.

“Anyway, as you make your way further out, the current gets stronger. The girl was probably caught unawares some time Friday afternoon and got swept away.”

Mr. Partridge made a noise of anguish.

“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Graham. “I heard a child calling it The River Fury. Some kind of water dragon that is forever angry and tempts children to try and ride it. If they can do it, only then will the waters calm. Something like that.”

In her pocket, Evangeline clenched her palm around the pound coin her mother had given her for toffee. She remembered it had rained that Friday afternoon.

“I thought we’d seen the last of this ten years ago,” said Mr. Partridge sadly, before shuffling out of the shop. Exchanging looks, Evangeline and Clara stepped out from the aisle and approached the counter once more, though Evangeline wasn’t sure either of them were now in the mood for sweets.

“You must never try and ride the water dragon,” said Mr. Graham, and they blinked up at him in surprise. His eyes were hard. “Understand?”

Evangeline nodded. Besides, neither of them would ever be able to tame a dragon.

The Barber and the Black Canary

I’ve always known that the hotel was haunted, though not necessarily the neighborhood. Nevertheless, there it was, all laid out nice and neat in the snow, a very pretty death. We were two blocks from the hotel. At the long empty stretch where the dry goods store would be built in spring. Nothing in the lot but dead trees covered in vines, and beyond it, a marsh that spread out dark and bumpy all the way to Lake Michigan.

The doctor spotted it after me. “Hold up,” he said.

I shoved my fists deeper into my coat pockets and obeyed. Spirits in my place of employment didn’t bother me any (some are the spirits of my ancestors, and as such, they protect me). And just before dawn in Chicago, like anyone, I would rather be indoors than out in the bone-cracking cold.

“Intentional.” The doctor stooped closer, careful to stay on the boardwalk. “Look at the way it’s arranged symmetrically. No animal did that.” He waved a hand without looking up. “Light a match.”

Orders. I told myself, he’s a doctor, he treats everyone like this.

I stepped off the boardwalk and crunched two steps through snow-crusted grass to the edge of the street’s gaslight. I struck a match and held it so we could see every detail: a plucked and charred bird, wings evenly outstretched, throat slashed. Its dark eyes stared up at the fading full moon. Blue-gray feathers surrounded it, projecting outward. The icy blood sparkled.

“A pigeon,” I said. The match flickered out.

“A bad egg was messing about here.” The doctor wrenched his black hat down against the wind. “Someone all-possessed, like.”

I shrugged. Perhaps he was right, a human did it. There were some bad ones.

“What do the tracks mean?” The doctor gestured at boot prints in the frozen mud.

“Don’t know.”

“No, you can say.” A nicer tone. Maybe like I was his friend, not his barber.

“Don’t know.” I said it more firmly. The mud marks were impenetrable to me. The doctor had no way of knowing that, of course. I just trimmed his white sideburns once a week, after the doctor had checked on the slow death of Edgar Mulgrave, the hotel’s owner.

An eagle screamed. We jerked our heads up at the sound. The eagle flew low, as if it wanted us to see it, made a circle, and disappeared into a cloud.

That sign I understood. So, a man did this after all. And the spirits were angry.

The doctor glanced at me and chopped a hand at the dead pigeon. “Do something about it.”

That I would not do. I stepped back to the boardwalk.

The doctor clicked his tongue. Without a care or a prayer, he stepped onto the hard ground himself and mashed the bird under his boot. The breastbone snapped and I tried not to gag. The rest squished and blood leaked out like syrup. He messed up the feathers. He scraped the slime off his boot using the edge of the boardwalk. He did it all very slowly and casually, like he was teaching something to me.

“A dog’ll get it now,” I said. “Would’ve scared people.” Now I felt concerned. Maybe it would help if the spirits knew why the doctor had just done this.

“Maybe people should be scared.” The doctor rubbed his chin. “A hotel guest did it, perhaps. Someone from out East. Off his head, to do that to a bird.”

I frowned, first at the doctor and then at the hotel. The Royal Chicago loomed taller than any building on the avenue, a flesh and blood colored stone palace that Mulgrave’s almost-widow had opened last year. The wind kicked up stronger, into the kind that aches ears and spits rain. That is not what worried me. I took off toward the hotel with quick strides.

“Get back here,” the doctor called out. “You’re my windbreak, Nate.”

Employees weren’t supposed to use the front entrance but I ignored the rule. I could explain the situation to Mrs. Mulgrave, if need be. I took the hotel’s grand steps two at a time and strode through the lobby and main promenade. I pulled out a key and opened the door to the hotel’s barbershop.

My boots squeaked on the tile floor. The crystal chandeliers were dark and the red leather chairs stood empty. I went to a domed cage sitting on a pedestal and whisked off the cage’s black felt cover.

A single yellow canary sat inside on a carved wooden bar. It blinked, stretched its wings, and tweeted.

Peaches

Her name is not known in our history. We only know her as Peaches because she sold peaches at a roadside stand. It was here the great duke found her. According to legend she was extraordinarily beautiful and this is why he so greatly desired her, but in truth, she was not extraordinary, at least not in beauty. She was fair and plump. Her eyes a bit too wide set and her mouth a bit too small. There were at least three other girls in town with better teeth and brighter eyes. But these girls were not left alone on the roadside selling peaches as the duke cantered past each day. And so he desired her, probably not for her great beauty but because she was there and demure and shy as a common girl, a common girl who sold peaches her family grew at the road stand and used the money to buy radishes and parsley and bread, would naturally be. Quite possibly he only desired her because he knew that he could have her and nothing would be done. He was a duke and she was as juicy as the peaches she sold, and who can resist a ripe peach?

So there is no surprise that one bright day he got off of his stallion, pulled her behind her cart of peaches, and had his thrusting and grunting way with her. When he had finished and jumped back on his stallion, he flipped a few coins on the ground for the pleasure, raised his hat to her, and trotted off.

She was undone. She felt sore and damp and there was such a hurting in her chest from tears that were now stuck there and fear that had dried inside of her instead of on her cheeks. She looked at the coins and they worried her. When she came back home with her unsold peaches and her father took accounting of the money and the peaches sold he would ask her, where did these coins come from, and she would have no answer because the truth would make her father angry with her.

And so, she counted out the money and counted out the peaches it would buy. She carried those peaches in her apron, held like a cradle with five fuzzy little heads. She dug a hole for each little peach all in a row by the road and into each hole she dropped a fruit.

That night her father counted the money and the peaches and all matched and was well and she sighed in relief that no one noticed the lump of tears that was now on her chest or the salty fear that was on her skin.

The next day she went to the roadside to sell her wares and the duke had his stallion saddled to go for a ride. As he passed her on the road he tipped his hat to her for the pleasure and rode on. But there was something odd. Five little saplings, tall and thin, were by the side of the road, all in a row. They weren’t there yesterday, but they were there today, and everyone knows that saplings don’t just appear, they grow. But perhaps he just hadn’t noticed them before.

She dropped a curtsey as he rode past and dropped her eyes to the ground, unable to look at him. She kept her eyes closed until she couldn’t hear the sound of his horse’s hooves anymore and then she opened her eyes and saw five little saplings standing where yesterday she had buried the peaches. She saw them and understood, and so she got a bucket and went to the river and she watered and tended the trees, pulling grass and giving them room to grow.

The sun set and the sun rose and once again she went to the roadside with her fruits and once again the duke cantered past, but he did not tip his hat to the girl. He didn’t even see her or her cart because the five little saplings were now five bright young trees with leaves so green they made his eyes hurt, and hard green fruits that hung, not ready to be picked yet, but promising later days that would be full of delicious flesh to bite and juice to suck. But for the duke the promise of later fruit was not an attraction. He was afraid of the young trees and their hard fruit and his horse slowed as he passed the trees, keeping quiet as if they were riding through a graveyard, trying not to wake the ghosts. She saw his fright and understood and again she tended the trees and gave them water.

The next day it all happened again, the peaches, the roadside stand, the stallion and the saddle. But this time he did not ride past her nor did he tip his hat. Instead he stopped and stared at five full grown peach trees with ripened fruit hanging off of each branch, each peach large and a perfect shade of sunset gold. And though the leaves were green, the same as any other tree, and the bark was brown, the same as any other tree, and the fruit was tempting, same as any other tree, the duke was afraid of the trees and could not ride past them. He could not bring himself to spur his stallion forward, but turned him and galloped off, back to his castle, where he jumped out of the saddle before the horse had stopped and called for his man.

Cut the trees down! he ordered. His man bowed and said he would gather some men to go out in the morning. But the morning wasn’t soon enough for the duke. The trees must be chopped down now. The duke’s man bowed again and set off to collect men and axes.

When the men reached the trees the sun was setting behind them and cast the men in a deep green light. It was beautiful and the men wondered why the duke would want these trees cut down. It seemed a shame to do it, seeing them filled with fruit and greenery. But one did not defy the duke and so they lifted their axes and brought them down into those trees. But it seemed a shame to let such perfect fruit go to waste.

And so the men left their axes to pick the ripe peaches, but not one of them took a bite. Instead they took off their shirts and laid the peaches carefully bundled in the cloth, far from where the trees would come down, as if trying to keep each small load of peaches as safe and warm as a child. Only when each peach from the trees was safe and sound did they pick up their axes and begin to heave. As each tree shuddered under the blows the men cried tears they could not understand, some ashamed and hiding the grief and others openly weeping as one by one, each tree came down. The men stood by and wept and wailed as if each had killed his own children.

Party’s End

The party was over. I was tired.

The rambling, mazelike loft apartment I shared with Cassie was now truly housewarmed, and the wine I’d sipped all evening lent a hazy gold warmth to the strings of tiny lights we’d looped from the curtain rods. Their cheery glow against the black expanse of the enormous industrial windows brought to mind a tiny vessel moving through an expanse of dark sea, the only bright spot in leagues. My ears hummed with hours of laughter and conversation, my muscles warm and languid from dancing in Cassie’s too-big dress, a sleeveless red vintage number in ruched velvet that hugged her curves. On my tiny body, with no curves to hug, it gapped and skimmed. Its hem, which graced Cassie’s ankles, tripped up my bare feet.

The last few stragglers were arranged in twos and threes, half in and out of their coat sleeves, pledging their devotion to future get-togethers, brunches, matinees, this-was-just-so-greats and we’ve-got-to-see-each-other-more-oftens. Little snatches of laughter swirled in my ears with the tinkling of all our new wine glasses being collected and carefully stood on the polished cement counter and in the gleaming steel sink. I spotted Cassie lounged with friends, leveled by drink and the relief of a party gone well on the broad sweep of hand-knotted silk and wool we’d chosen for the main living area. Her emerald dress and black hair shone like spilled inks across the lustrous blues and earthy plums of the rug, which still fairly vibrated with the effort of many hands and ten times as many fingers knotting it into existence. Cassie’s laughter rang like dropped bells as she rolled onto her back, helpless with it, her eyes soft and wet, her voice roughened with happy talk and drink. Beautiful Cassie. I would keep her happy, just like this, forever. I would–

“I’ve found you.”

I flinched and nearly fell, caught by strong hands.

“I’m so sorry. Did I startle you? It’s just that this place is so big. It’s wonderful, but I just can’t seem to find my coat.”

I’m smaller than all of Cassie’s friends, so I always look up to speak to them, but this man was monolithic. His voice rang something in me like a plucked cello string, and I took a deep breath before answering. His eyes seemed so far above me I couldn’t quite manage a bridge of reassuring contact.

“Of course,” I said. “It’s just over this way, on the other side of the kitchen. Through Cassie’s studio and down the back corridor. Follow me.”

The sounds of happy late night chatter and clinking glasses faded behind us, with one last wisp of Cassie’s laughter tickling my ear before dissipating in the darkness. I glanced back to see the tall guest a step behind me, and I startled to realize that one of his large hands still held me just above the elbow. His fingers easily enclosed my entire upper arm, and the heat of his palm pulsed into my bare skin. I regretted the playful impulse that earlier allowed Cassie to zip me into this bright, foolish splash of cloth. The enormous open space of Cassie’s studio enveloped us, the air rich with pigments and the easels peopled with gigantic canvases, landscapes teeming with impossible creatures, like walking through Cassie’s dreams. As we passed the bank of dark windows lining the corridor that would lead to the spare bed and its mountain of coats, I craned my head back to search the night sky for a light. Any light. I saw only my own reflection, shadowed by the guest’s enormous shape.

“You’re really way out here, aren’t you,” said the deep voice above me. “Not another residential building in sight. I suppose in a few years this whole warehouse district will be completely gentrified, filled up with luxury apartments like this one, all huge windows and acres of newly finished floors, cathedral ceilings and polished surfaces. Strange, just this one out here all by itself, isn’t it?”

“Well, it… Yes, well, we… Cassie and I…”

“Cassie waits tables at a coffee shop three days a week, doesn’t she? And focuses on her art, especially now that she has this place with an enormous studio. I don’t think Cassie comes from money. And you, what do you do exactly, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh, me? Well, I do a little of this and a little of that,” I stammered. I stepped into the spare bedroom and snapped on the light. The bed was empty of coats.

I turned to face the guest, and was about to state the obvious, that his coat was clearly not here and must be somewhere else in the apartment, when he took my shoulders in his massive hands, and simply lifted me from the floor. It wasn’t pain that flooded my form, as I don’t feel pain, exactly, but the swimming feeling when my shape begins to lose integrity.

“This will do just fine,” the guest said in his booming voice. He lifted me higher and snapped my entire form in the air as one might snap the wrinkles out of a freshly washed garment. He lifted me to one side, took me in one hand and pushed the fingers of the other hand into the assembled energy of my shape, through my carefully created surface, sliding one arm inside the length of my own arm as if he were slipping into a jacket. With one arm in, he shifted and slipped his other hand and entire arm into my other arm-sleeve. Then he shrugged into me and tugged me tight around his massive shoulders and muscled back, effectively merging my energy with his own and engulfing me with his body. The soft impact I heard was the red velvet dress tumbling to the floor behind him.

He raised the energy of his voice to that of our native tongue and spoke a name I hadn’t heard in lifetimes. “It’s time to come home and make amends for what you’ve done.”

He stepped in front of an ornate freestanding mirror and turned to one side and then the other, straightening his clothing and admiring his handiwork. I could barely detect my pale shape behind the buttons of his shirt, my two eyes and mouth like three round, black holes of disappointment and surprise in the vague roundness of my face. Home. The thought of returning to that bleak place with its rules and strictures made my heart darken and cough out a mist of weak sparks. Already the mirror shimmered in the air, its solidity starting to shift.

“You really shouldn’t do this to people, you know,” he said. “Poor Cassie. She seems like a nice enough kid. She’s going to find herself and her drunk friends lying in an abandoned warehouse in a few minutes, you realize. There’ll be nothing left but a few wine glasses and an empty dress.”

But it was so lovely while it lasted, I thought as we walked as one out of the flickering, shimmering apartment and into the solidity of the night.

It’s always so lovely while it lasts.

Lifesong

In a rowdy Arab bar orbiting Betelgeuse, the blue-lipped, blue-haired jacky tapped his forehead, and a red monochrome hologram projected from his eyes. Sitting in the booth across from him, Freja watched it carefully.

This hologram was a security camera feed of an operating room. Must be a far-arm colony somewhere, Freja thought. There was a very pregnant woman on the table. The surgeon dipped scissors in an old-style steam autoclave. There were two men, dressed in samurai regalia, watching.

The jacky—rather Colonel Peters, the jacker—pulled a cord embedded in the flesh behind his ear and slid it across the table. Freja took the headset and put it in her ear.

“Hey sweetie, can I get a smoke?” Peters shouted to the waitress above the mesh of country and traditional sitar music that rattled the cups on the table.

Freja instinctively watched the doctor’s hands. Must be an unlicensed implant job, camera planted in the kid’s ear or eye for nutjob voyeurs. Or a drug-dosing, where they’d hold the baby’s health hostage for the dosage. That’s the only crime far-arm colonies ever had the tech for.

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

“There’s the rub, Freja,” Peter’s said in an electro-tinged voice. “It’s what we don’t see.”

The woman grunted and screamed. The surgeon was waiting for the baby, and then he wasn’t. There was the afterbirth, the blood, and no baby.

“Video manipulation?” Freja said, but already doubted that. Only one person could work with low-tech footage like this, but the Grey Ghost wouldn’t be caught dead on a backwater planet like Dawn.

Peters frowned. “Don’t know. We only get what was uploaded to the comsat. They’re blocking that baby’s ID for one reason or another. Unless of course…” Peters leaned in. “The kid’s invisible, and what we’re looking at is the goddamn invisible man.”

He laughed at his own joke.

“We don’t even know who these people in the video are,” Peters continued. “Facial scan doesn’t work with tech this old.”

“Slavery then,” Freja said. “Not enough AI’s to do the work there…which is?”

“Dawn’s still settling. Two generations in, but there’s a lot of forest to comb through. Still a Class-3 life-potential planet. They’re moving slower than Rigellian treacle. Gotta be careful not to disturb all that potential sentient life down there, right?” Peters chuckled. “Makes you wonder when Eden will give up the hunt and realize we’re alone out here.”

“Another thing,” Peters said, sliding a small box across the table.

It was labeled with Freja’s full name, the Old-Earth one she had tried to forget.

“Can’t believe you’d trust a jacky with a package,” she said.

“Astral Corp has good insurance. Guy that looks like this,” Peters pointed at his face, smiled. “He’s all show, no substance.”

Freja opened the box. There were plant seeds in it.

“They’re specific to Dawn’s environment. Engineered on Old Earth. Where she died.”

“Quite a coincidence,” Freja said.

“Chambers, down in the Rez Division is good about this sort of thing. Must have checked your itinerary.”

“But—”

Then Peters was gone from the jacky. The red light faded from the man’s eyes, and a cough burst from his throat as his own biology came back online.

Freja slammed the box shut. What did it matter how she got the seeds?

“Hey, Baldy, where you going?” the jacky said, watching Freja slide out of the booth. “Don’t you want to get to know the man behind the jacker? We’re good for more than flesh you know.”

He looked down at the ashtray and burning cigar on the table. “Christ, told them I don’t want no smokers. Lady, was he smoking?”

The waitress’s skates shrieked on the glass floor as she stopped in front of the booth. “All done here?” She slapped down a bill.

“Fucking Eden cheapskates,” the man shouted. “Was he smoking?”

Lavender Footsteps

Em’s missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood. Screams. Disjointed recollections of a broken mind.

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

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

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

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

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


Death and Two Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long?” the Lady asked.

“An hour. Two perhaps, but no more.”

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

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

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