TCL #39 – Spring 2021

Wind Chime Memories

Gary had put quite a bit of thought into his last meal. He considered steak and lobster or some fancy four course feast. In the end, he requested blueberry waffles.

A tiny old woman came in with a covered tray. She was dressed in a ragged gray cloak, with a hood that shadowed her face. She placed the tray on the table in front of him.

“I told them I didn’t want a priest,” he said. He wasn’t sorry for his crimes. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. He just wanted to eat his waffles and be done.

The woman made a low, crackling sound that he thought might be a laugh. “I’m no priest.”

“What are you doing here, then?”

“I’m here to make you an offer.”

Gary took the lid off of his tray and the smell of blueberry waffles filled the tiny room. “I’m not interested.”

“As things stand, when you are gone, you will leave nothing good behind.”

He shrugged. “That’s not really my problem.”

“I understand that you are tired,” she said. “I understand that you want your suffering to end. But no one wants to fade from history without a ripple.”

Gary took a bite of his waffle. “I’m sure I’ll be on a list somewhere. Maybe be a cautionary tale.”

“That is not a legacy.”

“And what legacy do you suggest in the hour I have left?”

“There is good in you, as there is in all people. I could take it from you and share it with the world.”

They’d also given him orange juice and milk and coffee. He poured himself a glass of each. “If I just ignore you, will you go away?”

She reached out and touched his wrist. Her fingers were long and bone-thin, but warm against his skin. He looked up at her. Her eyes were deep summer green in her shadowed face, and her body looked like a thorn bush forced into rough human form.

She drew her fingers away, and pulled a clear crystal prism out of his flesh.

Its facets reflected pieces of an almost-forgotten memory. A fishing trip with his grandfather. The smell of the water, the feel of worms wriggling between his fingers. The silver flash of scales in the cloudy water. His grandfather’s calloused hand, showing him how to hold the pole.

Gary dropped his fork. “What are you?”

“There are a thousand tiny happy memories lost in the darkness of your soul. If you are willing, I will take them from you so that they do not end here.”

“They’re my memories. How could they exist without me?”

The woman shrugged. “I have made my offer. Now, if you want to refuse, I will go. If you accept, I will get to work.”

“What will you do with them?”

She shrugged again. “Do you have any requests? Anyone you’d like to benefit?”

“I have a sister, Lisa. I think she has a son.”

“Give me your hand.”

Gary wondered if he was dreaming. It was the only thing that made sense.

He held out his hand.

She drew the memories out, one by one. His first kiss, under the slide at the local park. Watching a falling star on a hike in the desert. His father teaching him how to swim. His mother making blueberry waffles on Sunday morning. The time he skipped a rock and it bounced ten times.

“There are more than I expected,” Gary said, his voice sounding distant and thin in his ears.

The woman smiled at him, and pulled memory after memory after memory.

Finally she released his hand. She reached down and picked up his forgotten fork. “I will take good care of these. You enjoy your waffles.”

And then she was gone.

The waffles were still hot, and steam rose from his coffee.

Gary ate slowly, savoring each bite.

Lisa walked her son to the bus stop, where they stood beneath a lamppost and waited, hand in hand. She heard a sound like crystals chiming in the faint breeze, and a tiny rainbow danced across the pavement.

It was beautiful, in a tiny, everyday way, and reminded her of a morning she’d spent with her mother and her brother, when she was very young and things had been good. She squeezed her son’s hand. “How do you feel about waffles for dinner tonight?”

Like Shattered Glass

The first time they killed Jim Steele, they fed him a cocktail, light on the gin, heavy on the bleach. Now, I’m not sentimental, don’t misunderstand. Jim had it coming. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a friend, but I knew who he was well enough. Big sonofabitch. Mean. Still, it’s a lousy way to go. What I heard, he got on the wrong side of one too many people. That’s never good if you’re trying to stay on the upside of the grass. Me? I wasn’t there. I was what you would say, otherwise indisposed. But my brother, he was there. He told me later how it all went down:

“It- it was aw-w-wful. Real aw-awful.” Jackie smiled; his grin full of half-chewed hamburger. He always stuttered. If I think back, I don’t think I have a memory of him where he didn’t. Wasn’t his fault. Some cats are cool. Others are born with their tail caught in a doorjamb. Jackie just happened to be one of those. He caught a world of grief for it. When we lived in Southie, our pops would pop him in the mouth every time he did it, which was a lot. “Do it again, Jack. How many times I gotta tell you? You never learn does you? If your mother was still alive, she’d’ve reconsidered having you. Dumb bastahd.” They did that sort of thing for years. Both of them. Until the day my pops swung for him one more time, only instead of him connecting with my brother, I reached out and caught my father’s fist in mine.

“Whaddaya gonna do Bobby? Hha? Ya gonna hurt me?”

I love my brother. He’s all I have.

“You should have seen it. Bobby, you should have. N-n-ever seen nothin’ like it. His lips were like,” Jackie squeezed his face with his hands, contorted his mouth into a caricature of a fish, “you know? Like this. I didn’t- I didn’ think he needed a full gallon, but he did. I swear. A full gallon. Put up one H-h-ell of a fight too. I held him d-d-d-d-own, you know?”

“You what?”

“Wasn’t no big deal. J-ust his han—”

“Just his hands? Jackie. How many times I gotta tell you?”

My brother shoved a handful of fries into his mouth. How he didn’t choke was beyond me.

“They asked, okay? I’m n-n-no kid. What was I su-p-p- to do? Stand around?”

The Hell he wasn’t a kid. What was he? Twenty-one? He may as well have been twelve. It was bad enough that he was even there. A thousand times I told him: You tell them to talk to Bobby, you understand? Talk to Bobby. I’ll take care of it. Talk to Bobby.

I tossed him a napkin. “Wipe.” I watched as he did so.

“So, what happened to him?”

“To who?”

“What do you mean, to who? To Steele, Jackie. What, you forget already?”

Jackie smiled at me, the way he used to when it was Halloween and he had somehow ended up with the biggest haul of candy. “He foamed. Foamed like a kitchen s-sp-sp-sp—”

“Like a sponge?” I asked.

“Yeah. Like one of those. It was awful.”

It wasn’t but two days after my little brother spent an hour vacuuming up lunch on my dime that he called me at home.


Last time I heard him this upset, our father had died.

“I-t-tt-ts m-mee-J-J—”

“What’s wrong?”

“H-he’s a-a-a-a-a-a-a—.”


“H-he’s al-al-al-a—ive.”

“Who’s alive?”


“Say that again?”

Death Fox

The massive search helicopter started to look small, no more distinct than the boulders at the far end of the canyon where it sat.

“Don’t worry about that,” Burke said. “You should hope our guy tries to hijack it. If the shock traps kill him, we won’t have to.”

Ludington stopped checking behind him and stared ahead while he walked. He left out the Yes sir, Deputy Warden. Even Burke’s name became redundant. On manhunt duty, no one else on the barren planet ever heard him. Their boots clacked too loudly anyway from the weight of their advanced riot armor, like thousands of yes sirs.

“The scat scans from satellite show nothing,” Burke said, “which means the escapee carries his wastes in a container. It makes him harder to track. It also brings him here for disposal.”

Ludington looked over the shallow river they followed. It cut through the center of the canyon floor like a rippling rug. Today, it took away an escapee’s old thirst and gave him a new one, a thirst for the river’s flowing freedom. It lured prisoners further down the foxhole, as though to simply see where the water went.

Burke stopped and nodded to the narrow passage ahead of them. “Whenever they carry enough rations from the prison, like van Vulpen does, they like to head in there. They can hide their food and themselves. The heavy metal deposits in the river take a month to really hurt them–not bad when everyone dies in two weeks.”

Ludington peered through the passage. The planet’s solid gray overcast looked barely lighter than the granite everywhere below it. He saw the same two grays every day on his four-month work placement. Here, however, the barren world funneled men closer. The cliff faces rose 16 meters, taller and infinitely thicker than any wall of the prison a few kilometers away.

“Out of the whole planet,” Burke said, “they like to run here first…and last. Ready your gun at all times, soldier.”

Ludington unshouldered his tranquilizer-39mm hybrid rifle. Burke had one too, but it stayed slung over his back for ease. Ludington followed him and could already feel the rugged ground throwing off his balance. He clambered over the boulders, his legs straining twice as hard now with both his hands full. His face strained even harder to stay composed, like on every other performance test. He fell behind Burke on purpose and hoped the wind would muffle some of his panting.

The canyon wended ahead of them, its floor a mess of endless outcrops. Sometimes it showed long patches of bare and tempting terrain–the same trail that lured in dozens of inmates annually with whatever jailhouse jelly packets they could scrounge. The river widened but still couldn’t hide its dark, wet rocks. They had a third, more miserable tier of gray. The bigger ones looked either too embedded to pry from the silt or too heavy to throw. Burke reached into his helmet and wiped the sweat off his cropped silver hair. He had the same somber expression as the inmates taking meds for seasonal affective disorder. Ludington wondered if the sky drove men to their suicidal escapes here rather than the tease of the untouched lands.

Mostly, however, he wondered why he had his rifle out. It would only scare van Vulpen further down the foxhole.

An hour into the hunt, Ludington and Burke found the first of van Vulpen’s structures. The little pile of rocks tried to resemble a man. It looked like a bent and dying man, though, and the wind hadn’t even disturbed it yet. The canyon spanned only four meters here, and the cairn stood in the middle by the river.

“He wants to lower our guard,” Burke said. “He’ll use whatever the world swept down here to get an edge. A death fox knows he can’t escape the planet. But he can still get a death match in the wild. He’ll do it just to hurt the penal system, to encourage more escape attempts.”

Burke looked like he waited for a response.

“Like a martyr,” Ludington said.

“Yes,” Burke replied.

Ludington glared at the rocks, but they still looked like toys to him. Another pile stood near the bluff, like children’s blocks stacked by a man overawed with nature.

He and Burke walked on, eyeing the riverbed and the natural alcoves in the canyon slot ahead of them. When the passage narrowed to just two meters, Ludington took the lead. Burke still hadn’t taken up his rifle. Ludington’s boot, then, found the welcoming flat rock first. It collapsed into a foot-deep pit, pitching him into a stagger.

“Go!” Burke hollered.

The Ghost Rain

Lila had found where her husband died near the hayshed, and now she wanted to go outside for the annual Ghost Rain. She was going to find him again, she said. She was going to feel the remaining pieces of her husband pepper her cheeks and run wet fingers down her neck.

We tried to warn her, to remind her that the droplets of ghosts splashing from the heavens didn’t necessarily fall where their owners had died. She couldn’t just don her raincoat, march to the hayshed, and collect Jack’s ghost fragments in a tin can. The Ghost Rain was sporadic; other people’s ghost pieces would fall upon her too, and that would be dangerous.

But when had Lila ever listened to us? She’d never believed that Jack had died of an overdose. She’d thought he was poisoned, that his death was unnatural, unwarranted, undoable.

Thus, on the day of the Ghost Rain, as everyone else took cover—slamming windows, patching up holes in Grandma’s ceiling, wrapping our kids in protective waterproof ponchos—Lila bundled herself up in a gray windbreaker and marched out Grandma’s back door.

We pressed our faces to the various windowpanes, watching in horror. The kids quit crying. Grandma sucked in a gasp. The sound of rain pounding against her roof swelled.

“She’s really doing it, then?” Aunt Jane said, clutching the windowsill with whitened fingertips. On every Ghost Rain, the whole family got together to stay safe. Now it seemed we had gotten together to watch Lila stride halfway across the flooded yard, stop suddenly in her tracks, and throw her face toward the sky. She hadn’t made it to the hayshed yet, but she still let the drops of the dead from overhead splatter onto her outstretched tongue.

Her face changed. Where before it had been flushed with rebellious determination, now her eyes widened. Her chin dropped. Her arms dangled limply by her sides.

“She got a taste of the other ghosts,” Aunt Jane murmured. “Why couldn’t she have just left them alone? Let them water the dirt like we told her to? Why can’t she ever just listen?”

Aunt Jane was right, of course. Meteorologists warned that if a ghost droplet made contact with your skin, it would absorb into your being, merge with your blood, and surge through your heart until you died too. You’d never feel fully alive again, the meteorologists said. It was essential to avoid the droplets, which weren’t fully ghosts—just fragments of a dead person’s memory. These fragments were supposed to soak into the ground to continue their endless cycle: accumulation in the veins of the earth, where the caskets lay; evaporation, where the spirits of the newly dead journeyed; condensation, where heaven loomed; and the Ghost Rain again, a redundant fall that connected here with there.

As we watched, Lila shook her head like a wet dog, her strings of dripping hair whipping this way and that. She marched on toward Grandma’s hayshed, hands balled into fists. Her feet slogged through puddles, and the water that splashed onto her ankles melted into her skin.

She stood near the hayshed, on the patch of ground her husband had died, for a long time, unmoving even when the winds shrieked and thunder rumbled in the distance.

“She’s fading,” Aunt Jane whispered morosely. “She’s going to die out there.”

Indeed, Lila’s body was growing more and more transparent, until we could nearly see the horse corrals through her abdomen. Yet she stayed, waiting for a piece of Jack to find her.

At long last, the Ghost Rain slowed. The kids started whimpering again, squirming in their ponchos. Grandma collapsed into her rocking chair and Aunt Jane withdrew from the window, but the rest of us watched Lila shake excess water from her hair. She tramped back to the house, her body gray and wispy like rainclouds.

When she opened the back door and climbed the carpeted stairs to the living room, her footsteps didn’t make a sound. She saw us gaping. Her ghostly mouth stretched into a smile.

“I got a drop of ‘im,” she said. Her voice was nothing more than a draught whistling between tree branches. “Just a drop, but it’s the drop that says he loves me.” She patted herself on the chest with a palm the color of smudged glass.

“And what about the other drops you got, Lila?” Aunt Jane said. “Are you even Lila anymore, or are you just one big conglomeration of ghost bits trying to haunt us?”

“I am Lila,” Lila said, “and I am pieces of others too. If taking in the other ghosts meant I could feel Jack again, then so be it. We’re all going to join the rain sooner or later. We might as well embrace the memories of the dead if we want to be remembered too.” She paused, glassy eyes roving blankly over the kids. “I have a lot of people to go say ‘I love you’ to now.”

So later, after the Ghost Rain had completely trickled away and we had warmed Lila’s immaterial figure by the fire, she left to go water the people her other ghosts had left behind.

We couldn’t stifle our reluctant smiles, knowing the most important bit of Jack was with her: imbedded in her sweat glands, sparkling on her tongue, seeping from the corner of her eye.

The Change

I lie beside you, in the pre-dawn light, listening to your breath, listening for the change which I know is coming. We’ve argued, the last few months, past the autumn festival at the town hall, into the first frosty nights. Yesterday, you told me you’d decided, held my gaze as you slipped the hypodermic under your skin and injected the alien serum. How will you change? Become taller, stronger, with scales on your skin and goat-like eyes, yes, but will you still be ‘you?’

At first the aliens—the Ekru—kept their distance. We allowed them to build a base on the moon; in return, they employed their technology to our benefit. There were sceptics, but over the years, the Ekru earned our trust. What we saw of their behavior was calm, pacifist, just. A decade after their first arrival, they announced that anyone who wished it could become an Ekru and leave this world forever. Years of exploitation, unemployment, pollution meant that there was no shortage of volunteers, injecting themselves with the alien serum which would transform them.

In the morning, you don’t mention the injection, and neither do I. I scrutinize your breakfast choices: peaches, yoghurt, and a little slice of toast with ham. For a long time, you were vegetarian, and I realize now that I don’t know whether the Ekru eat meat.

You put the dog on a leash and head out to the forest to work on another oil painting. You have an exhibition coming up in a month. I wonder if it will go ahead.



Will I turn into someone different when I put on the hooded robe of a Collector?

I shivered under my blanket, tired of staying awake, tired of my mind running in endless circles like a water wheel, tired of being cold.

The hall clock bonged six times. Finally. I dropped the blanket. My fingertips were dead-blue despite covering them with the thin wool all night. I reached for my shoes, and just like everything else at this hour, their broken-in leather was frozen. A minute under my arm-pits softened them while the ice in my brain cracked, too. Of course I wouldn’t turn into any-body different. No Collector in history had changed one iota, I was sure. Ihs saw to that.

I opened my bedroom door just wide enough to squeeze through. The bottom hinge liked to screech on cold mornings and I couldn’t get caught—not today. The rowdiest apprentices in ten years had a reputation to maintain. Besides, every Collector from Big Water to Kirkwood was packed into Refuge for Homecoming. Ihs had enough voices fortifying Him this morning. He’d make it through this year’s Redemption without power from three apprentices.

I tiptoed to the next narrow door along the hallway and tapped once. Joel slid out with-out a sound.

“I’m impressed,” I whispered.

“Think I’d sleep in today?” Joel grinned, his flawless white teeth barely visible in the dim hall. “It’s the perfect day to break a rule.”

We crept to the end of the hall. Low voices trickled out every door we passed. At last I saw Clare’s blonde head poke around the corner.

“They’re all chanting on our side,” she whispered.

“Ours too.”

She melted into that goofy smile. “Good morning.” Her deep, sweet voice washed over me.

I knew my own smile was just as silly. “Good morning.” I kissed her. That first kiss of the day was like water after a penance fast.

Joel sighed. “Rein it in, you two. Let’s go.”

I led them downstairs, a model head apprentice. “These stones are so cold my feet ache.”

“My left sock has a hole in it,” Joel said.

“Because you’re too lazy to keep ’em mended,” Clare said.

“Just because you fix Amos’s for him…”

“Shh.” I stopped them at the third floor as a babel of voices hit us from another long hallway of closed bedroom doors. “Everyone’s chanting here too. Perfect.”

When we passed the door to the second-floor arena gallery, Clare reached for the door.. “I want to peek.”


Wham. The noise reverberated in the complete silence. We all jumped. Clare leapt backwards into my arms.

“What was that?” No footsteps came toward the door from the gallery. Maybe we were still safe.

“I don’t know.” Clare squeezed my hands and stood up.

We ran on tiptoes down the rest of the hall and into the stairwell. When I put my ear against the main arena doors on the first floor, I heard footsteps and another thump. “Let’s go.”

We careened around the corner onto the basement stairs and took them two at a time. Nobody followed. No more thumps.

“I’ll get the lights,” Joel said from the black, windowless basement. A scritch and a whiff of sulfur, and one lamp beside the doorway glowed, then another. A third, and the desk, bookshelves, floor, and stone ceiling appeared.

I plopped into a chair and wiped sweat from my forehead. “Your fearless leader expects thanks for getting us down here. Unless you’d rather sneak back to your rooms and lose your mind in chants with the rest of them.”

“Amos, we bow before you.” Joel tossed the matches onto the desk. “You are our private Matthew. You, not that old, freaky-eyed blond, are the greatest Collector since the Last War.” He went down on one knee at my feet.

“Shh,” Clare said. “Close the door, idiot.” She did it herself, pushed Joel aside, and sprang onto my lap. “We’re free! No more beautiful summer days wasted down here learning pre-War history.”

“No more lectures from boring old Collectors on the reasons for the fixed monetary sys-tem,” I said.

“No more slaving over long division.” Joel attempted a backflip and landed flat on his back. “Ow.”

I nudged Clare off my lap and jumped up. We danced around the classroom between the rows of tables. “Real life begins today!” I twirled her in the center aisle.

The door opened. Joel leapt to his feet. We stopped in mid-twirl.

“Uh…Good morning, Patrick.”

Our teacher set a pile of folded brown robes on the desk. “You seem to have finished your chants in record time.”

“We… got up extra early.” I watched the color of Patrick’s mostly bald head. If it turned red, I’d have to do some fast talking.

“I see. Since you’re so eager to start today’s instruction, solve this problem: All three of you are sixteen at last and it’s Tuesday, November twenty-eighth. What does that mean?”

Patrick’s scalp stayed pale and I breathed again. “It means you truly are a wise teacher, Patrick, because you remembered it’s initiation day.” I bowed so low my hair swept the stone floor.

Our tableau thawed. Joel whooped and drummed his feet on the large flagstone in front of the door. Clare fanned herself with a sheet of paper.

“Obnoxious brats,” Patrick said. “It means I’m free of you. If this weren’t Homecoming, I’d pitch all your homework into the breakfast fires and run through the halls cheering.”

He tossed the box of matches at Joel and sat on the edge of the desk. “Joel, make your-self useful and light the rest of the lamps, please. It doesn’t require deep thought.”

“C’mon, Patrick,” I said. “We may not have been the best at math or history or neat handwriting—”

Patrick groaned and buried his head in his hands.

“But you haven’t had a boring day since we turned thirteen,” Joel said.

“Boring,” Patrick said. He placed one hand over his heart and raised his eyes to the ceil-ing. “May lightning strike me if I ever complain about quiet, studious, obedient apprentices again.”

“I’m going to paint you like that, Patrick,” Clare said. “It’ll be an—” she snickered— “in-spiration to your next group.”

“They might be innocent enough to believe it,” I said, “until we tell them about the morn-ing we dumped snow in your bed and you squealed like a girl hitting a high G.”

We collapsed into chairs, laughing, even though the joke wasn’t that funny. Initiation jit-ters, maybe. Patrick shook his head and circled the room, aligning textbooks on the built-in shelves and straightening stray pieces of blank paper.

I grabbed the moment to kiss Clare again. Joel moaned.

“It will be a relief to all of us when you two get married,” Patrick said.

Clare blushed to the roots of her hair and I stopped laughing to watch her. I loved it when her ears turned pink and their curves peeked through her golden waves. “Only six more months to Carnival and our wedding.”

“Enough time for you to plant a garden for me,” Clare said.

“It’ll be your present.”

“You’re my sweetie.”

Joel rolled his eyes. “Will you please keep the sappy stuff for when you’re alone?”

“Yes,” Patrick said. “Cut the comedy and the romance, you three, and get up. It’s time for your last lesson.”

I rubbed the tip of my nose—stupid nervous habit. Clare caught my eye and wrinkled her own nose at me.

We moved to our usual places in front of the lecture stand. I expected Patrick to open The Collection of Matthew like every other morning. Instead, he stood in front of us and smoothed his brown robe, pulled the hood over his head, and tucked his hands in his sleeves.

For a second I could’ve sworn the lamps dimmed, but that was stupid. Get a grip, dummy. It was stupid of me, but sometimes when a Collector wore the robe the proper way, I got the creeps. Maybe it was because the hood concealed their faces, or the way their walk changed: They became strangers. If I admitted it to myself, those were the only times I didn’t think being a Collector was the greatest way of life ever, hands-down.

Will I still be me when I put on that innocent-looking folded robe?

After a long minute, Patrick said, “Who am I?”

“Uh… you’re Patrick.” Joel said.


Clare gasped as his mellow voice lashed at us. Joel hung his head, but I knew what Pat-rick meant. I ignored the shiver in my spine.

“You are a Collector.” Right, I was just being stupid. There was nothing sinister about Collectors. I’d wanted it more than anything ever since I turned twelve and we got a hint of what Collectors did for the world. I’d spent night after night pacing my room, pounding the stone walls and begging Ihs to make time go faster. I’d lost count of how many nights I spent like that. But no more. After today, all the mysteries would be open to me—to us.

“Yes,” Patrick said. “What have I done?”

“You saved the world.” Joel raised his head and sat straighter.


“After the Last War, um…” Clare closed her eyes. “I know this…2196 minus 2022…one hundred seventy-four years ago. Matthew and the other Collectors left their refuge in the Rocky Mountains and found the ruins of Colorado Springs.”

“What did they do?”

“They gathered the survivors,” I said. “People back then didn’t know how to plant or harvest, or how to rebuild either, because they had things called machines to provide everything. The Collectors taught them, and they begged the Collectors to rule them.”

“Correct. We have guided them since that day and there is peace and plenty in every town. The people honor us every year on that date with Carnival.” His voice smiled. “Which is the perfect day for your wedding.” The smile vanished. He stepped forward and faced his hood toward each of us in turn.

Goosebumps prickled my neck. I wished I could see Patrick’s familiar, washed-out blue eyes. Why was he staring at us like that?

“Now you will learn the rest.” Patrick walked to the back of the room and opened the double doors. His footsteps echoed through the next two rooms.

Clare whispered, “Any idea what he’s talking about?”

“Not a clue.”

“Shh. Here he comes,” Joel said.

Patrick laid a tall, thin book on the lecture stand.

“He’s got Matthew’s Book.” Joel’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his shaggy bangs.

“Come here,” Patrick said.

We looked at each other.

“We’re not allowed.” Clare’s voice was breathless.

“Come here, all of you. Now.”

We stood on either side of Patrick and gaped. Clare reached out to touch the gold letter-ing on the cover, but snatched her hand away.

“Let us see it, Patrick.” My voice trembled, but I didn’t care. “Please.”

Patrick’s familiar, wide fingers opened the book and the room seemed brighter. That was still our favorite teacher inside the dark hood, no matter how strange he looked or acted.

“Listen,” Patrick said. “Matthew dictated to his first followers: ‘I was alone in a cave high on the mountain when the war started. I saw a vision of Ihs just as a bomb exploded. The light enveloped Ihs, even Ihs, the god who created all, and impenetrable night covered the world.’”

None of us moved.

“‘My companions did not find me for two days. I feared all were dead from the war. In that interval, I heard the voice of Ihs cry out to me. Ihs, the creator of all things, cried out to me, his servant, for redemption.’” Patrick turned the fragile page, keeping his fingers away from the crumbling edges. “‘When at last the others came to my cave, Ihs had entrusted me with the secret and only way to Collect him from the darkness.’”

“How?” I leaned forward, careful not to breathe on the ancient paper.

“‘I sent them into the city at the foot of the mountain. They braved fire and madness for the sake of Ihs, returning with three of the many evil people responsible for the war.’” Patrick looked up, with his ‘answer my question’ expression.

“Military,” Joel said.

“Show off,” Clare whispered.

Patrick nodded. “‘I instructed my companions to build three spoked wheels, ten times the size of the ones on a wheelbarrow. If we did not Collect Ihs before three days passed, Ihs would be imprisoned in darkness forever.’”

Clare said, “I don’t believe it.”

Patrick gave her a small smile. “So we all said the first time we heard this story.”

Clare shook her head. “It’s impossible. We’re talking about Ihs here. Matthew can’t have meant that.”

Patrick continued to read: “‘At sunrise on the third day, we bound the three evil ones to the wheels and performed all Ihs required of us. When Redemption was complete, as Ihs had promised me, the darkness lifted and the sun shone upon us again.’”

He closed the book, making the Sign of Ihs over it.

“Now, you three who think you are the cleverest apprentices in ten years, explain that.”

I glanced at Clare. Joel glanced at me. Clare stared at her feet, the most perfect blush on her cheeks. Patrick laughed and put a hand on Joel’s and my shoulder, then on Clare’s.

“Don’t look so embarrassed. Every single one of us had the same reaction. This is why we wait till now to open the truth to you. When you are assigned a town to inhabit, one of your du-ties will be to search out the world-destroyers.”

“Now?” Clare’s voice squeaked. “They can’t be alive now.”

Joel poked her. “He means anybody who still thinks like that. Right?”

“Yes. Matthew Collected Ihs, and through Ihs, the world. But evil is stronger than stone and more tenacious than weeds. Those who think like the world-destroyers still exist even after one hundred seventy-four years of Matthew’s Peace. You will find them.” He picked up the folded robes from his desk. “Kneel.”

This time I didn’t notice the temperature of the floor.

“Amos, Clare, Joel, this is more than your initiation day. You have learned the truth and grown in wisdom and power. You have earned the privilege of being called one of Matthew’s descendants—Collectors. Hold out your hands.”

Patrick stood in front of me first. “Ihs brought light from darkness.”

I continued the ritual. “Yet darkness consumed Ihs.”

Patrick placed the robe in my arms and I bowed my head. “Today you Collect Ihs from eternal darkness.”

I ran my hands over the wool. It was softer than any of my other clothes and its deep brown was warm and welcoming in the lamplight. I shook it out, slipped my arms into the sleeves, and wiggled it over my trousers. Next to me, Clare finished reciting and unfolded her robe. Her hair glowed against it. On her other side, Joel—for the first time I could remember—looked humble.

Patrick traced the Sign with his thumb on my forehead, lips, and heart. “You are sealed with the mark of Ihs.”

When he had done the same to Clare and Joel, we all put the hoods over our heads. For a second my heart froze like the iced-over window in my room. Was I still me? Had I changed? But nothing felt any different. In fact, I felt just like I was in bed under the covers, protected against the cold.

Patrick said, “You’re used to Homecoming as a family reunion because that’s the only part you’ve been allowed to join. Today you enter into its true purpose.”

“In the arena,” Clare said.

“Yes. Ihs instructed Matthew to reenact the Redemption every year on that day.” He picked up Matthew’s Book. “This year I’ll watch with you from the second-floor gallery. That way if you have questions afterward, we won’t disturb anyone. I’ll be right back.”

Patrick returned the Book to the far room and I touched my hood to Clare’s. “You’re beautiful.”

Patrick returned too soon for me because I wanted to see her familiar face inside that hood. When he extended his hands over our heads we all knelt again.

“Ihs has done great things for me,” Patrick began and we joined in. “His power extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

My gut flip-flopped. Fear? No. I was being stupid again. It was just a reverent way of talking.

“And now my head shall be raised above the evil ones who surround me.” Good. My voice didn’t shake. I finished: “And I shall Collect Ihs and his people with joy.”

Patrick pushed his own hood back just enough for us to see the huge grin on his face. “Welcome to the family, my obnoxious brats.”


“So, you’re a prodigy?” asked Marilyn.

“What’s that?” asked Lori.

Marilyn shrugged as she lazily pushed herself forward and backward on the swing set. Lori sat next to her on the tire-swing that hung crooked where one of its chains had been broken by the older boys during their recess time. She still managed to push herself in small circles that were starting to upset her stomach.

“It’s like a genius,” said Marilyn. “But not just with math stuff. With like, art, and music stuff, too. Gifted. You know?”

Lori tilted her head back and forth as she considered. She remembered hearing the word “genius” when she was very young, stacking the blocks in a way that just made sense to her, finding stories in the letters that her parents read too slowly. She remembered some psychologist who had used the word “gifted” when her worried parents began to suspect something was wrong. By the time she had begun to sing, and dance, and paint, they stopped using the word genius, and they stopped taking her to the psychiatrist. They never used the word “prodigy.”

“I guess,” said Lori. “I’ve just got a knack for things.”

That was what her mother told her to say, if she slipped up. When she forgot to make mistakes during art class, her mother told the teacher she traced the picture from their coffee table art book. When she sang with abandon at a karaoke birthday party, her father answered calls from concerned parents the next day and claimed the mic was accidentally autotuned. She was supposed to play dumb.

“That’s really cool,” said Marilyn.

Dumb was not cool. The way she composed a rhythm with her tapping pencil during class was cool, making Marilyn’s head nod in the same beat.

Everyone noticed how cool Marilyn was, with the pierced ears she had since she was a baby, and the black eyeliner her mom let her wear, and the rings she shoplifted from the supermarket. But only Marilyn noticed that Lori was cool. No one was supposed to notice her. Lori’s parents lectured her about how dangerous it would be if someone noticed her. But being noticed felt so good.

“I can do it again,” said Lori.

Marilyn stopped swinging and waited with a smile.

Lori’s fingers hovered over the hot rubber of the tire swing. She knew she could do it again because she had done it before. When she was very little, when her parents still threw around the word “genius.” She had tapped her markers against a blank sheet of paper and saw that the cat was nodding its head with the same beat. She kept tapping, and the cat kept nodding. She tapped for hours, and then she stopped, but the cat kept nodding. And nodding. And nodding. But she was little more than a baby then. And it was just nodding.

It was not like the mistake she made when she painted her watercolors off the page, or when she sang every morning until none of the birds outside sang anymore, or when she drew circles with her feet in the sand until all the ants were swirling in circles before turning on their backs with their little legs twitching in the air. But the memory of those little ant legs that twitched so pathetically before they did not move at all stopped her fingers before they started. Her knuckles thrummed painfully, wanting release, but Lori clutched her fists.

“Maybe later,” she said.

Marilyn looked disappointed, but she could not have been more disappointed than Lori felt. She wanted to sing without sucking in the world’s music. She wanted to paint without staining her entire home, including her parents, blue. She wanted to make a rhythm that people could dance to and then stop whenever they wanted. But she could not.

The bell signaling the end of recess rang and Marilyn hopped off her swing, running towards the door.




It did not feel like a gift.

She remembered her parents using the word “curse.”

Lori continued to push herself in gentle circles on the tire-swing, only stopping when she noticed the other children who sprinted for the line were starting to swerve as they ran, turning gentle circles of their own before falling dizzy into the grass. They did not notice that they made circles when she made circles, or that they stopped when she stopped. They did not even look at her when she got up and joined the line at the door. Lori could have made them notice. Instead, she smiled at Marilyn when she rested her arm on her shoulder.

“She’s so cool,” whispered one of the other students.

If Lori closed her eyes, she could pretend they were talking about her.

A Strange History with Cats

October 2012

The first cat was crushed, guts splashed across the driveway, mouth a frozen hiss. Its milky eyes seemed to track Ling as she hefted herself out of the car and waddled over.


That was the word that came to her. In Chinese, a word of raindrop suddenness, a reflex.

“What is it, honey?” Raymond said, rounding from the trunk and surveying the mess. “Oh man. You go on inside. I’ll take care of it.”

In the kitchen, Ling prepared a glass of raspberry leaf tea. By the time it was steeped and aromatic, she heard Raymond entering through the garage, taking the back stairs up to the guest shower.

Lovely, discrete man.

She gazed out the kitchen window into the rolling, wooded yard of their home in Maryland. Deep autumn fire, a sparkling brook—

A kick.

Ling gasped with relief. Sophie had lain still ever since the cat incident.

She blew on her tea, sipped it, supporting her considerable weight against the counter. Sophie turned and kicked again. Ling held her belly, feeling her child’s movements.

I can’t wait to meet you.

Soon she heard the shower, felt a slight tremble from the pipes, and remembered that there had been another cat—with the realization came a wave of panic, and Sophie grew still once more.

Stone Fruit

Most would come into my home only in the summer, when my crooked hands held untold bounty of cherries and apricots and peaches, ripe and dripping with succor, and they would pull at the fruits as if they weren’t parts of my body, as if each pluck didn’t send fire down my nerves. They would stand there and take bites, big sloppy bites, laughing and talking, juice leaking down their hands and chins, and they would reach out and smear the red and orange and yellow liquid with bits of my flesh on the faces of others. There would be laughter and joy, and I would remind myself that every time they carried the stone with them there would be more of me somewhere else, and that, someday, the more of me might meet the flesh of the one I had lost so long ago, the one whom I still crave.

I can feel them again, laughing and kissing and rolling around in the grass, among my bark-covered arms, and every giggle and every sigh reminds me of what I used to be, ages ago, of why I live the way I do, destined to offer and wait and seek and move only by creating multitudes of myself, spreading far and wide, in the hope that somehow, somewhere, there would be peace, or an end, or a point to it all.

Nobody remembers my name, but everyone remembers Johnny Appleseed. When I knew him he was just Johnny, a barefoot kid with crooked teeth and freckles, while I was just a girl with ginger braids, who got in trouble for getting dirty while hunting frogs and climbing trees.

Growing up, the two of us hung out in orchard crowns, him stealing old man Wilkerson’s apples, me gorging on cherries and apricots and peaches. We often fled one of Wilkerson’s large, mean sons, who chased us with a shotgun, yelling and cursing.

“They know it’s you because your shirt is always stained,” said Johnny one day, as we hid in a wild blueberry bush off the road, a Wilkerson running past us.

“So? Yours is, too.” I suddenly felt filthy and small, and would’ve given anything to have the cherry-red fruit chunks magically disappear from my white-and-blue checkered shirt.

“Apples don’t stain.” He nodded toward my shirt. “Not like your stupid drippy stone fruits with all the color.”

“Your apples are stupid!” I jumped to my feet. “Just like you, Johnny Chapman!” I marched away with my chin up, hands balled into fists. My face was on fire.

That night, Johnny threw rocks at my window until I showed up.

“Stop it! You’ll break it,” I said, groggy and annoyed. “What do you want?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry. I was mean. And cherries aren’t stupid.”

“Well, I still think apples are. Good night.” I shut the window with indignation, but, as my head hit the pillow, I was smiling.

After that night, we spent more time in each other’s trees, tasting each other’s fruits, getting the bits and pieces and all the juices mixed up… Until my belly started to swell and it was my father holding the shotgun, chasing Johnny away.

I never left the house, and I remember pain, so much pain, blood everywhere, the screams, and I remember hearing that the child was stillborn, and I remember the sweetness and the joy and the texture and the fear, and I remember wondering where Johnny was, and if he knew, and if he’d have liked the baby to be called Apple or Cherry or Peaches, and I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl, and I remember, oh so clearly remember, the feeling of that very last breath leaving my body…

Then I awoke, and had many more arms and many more hands, and I could feel the dirt and the air, and I could see the sun through the many, so many eyes, and I rejoiced at the rain, but felt confused, until I realized they had buried me in the orchard, for as much shame as I had brought upon the family, they knew who I was and what I liked, and they wanted me to rest where I was happiest…

Only I missed them all and I missed Johnny, but most of all I missed my baby, and I felt devastated because I did not know where they had buried it.

But I will find them both, my Johnny, my baby. Every time I bear fruit, when the juicy flesh gives others joy and they carry the stone seed with them, when they drop it in the grass and a new part of me grows, I get to see more and feel more and learn more, and I have known countless deaths amid my roots, but none of them are my child, and I have known countless loves amid my trees, but none of them Johnny and me, and I have touched and intertwined with countless roots of apple trees, but they were all mute, none of them were Johnny, and I keep searching, keep spreading, because I cannot fathom that I would be living on, all these winters and summers, seasons of barren branches and those so heavy with fruits they almost break, but that he would not, that he was only ever just a man, who lived a man’s life and died a man’s death, and maybe never knew what had become of me, or worse yet, that he knew but didn’t care, and went on eating the boring stupid apples, and lived a boring stupid life, leaving only those tiny seeds behind him, and that he forgot all about the mixing of the juices and colors and textures, and that he forgot all about me.