TCL #45 – Autumn 2022


“Hey,” comes the Discord message popping into the corner of my screen.

My eyes flick towards it, shifting away from the bright colors of my game client. The username is unfamiliar to me, complete gibberish in white text.

I’m sure I never added this guy. But he must have heard a glimmer of my voice in an innocuous group call on a mutual server. That’s always how it begins.

“Hello,” I reluctantly reply, allowing myself to take the first step in the familiar dance.

“So, what rank are you?” he asks.

I’m taken aback. Who starts a conversation like that? Rank is an agonizingly sensitive subject to anyone who has ever stared at a screen until sunrise, chasing a win, attempting to muster that latest guide they watched to climb to a place where they could at least close their eyes satisfied. Most people have the couth to at least warm up with small talk.

“Gold four,” I answer anyway. If I wanted to, I could let myself get insecure of the recent loss streak that had dragged me down two tiers and ruined my weekend. But acknowledging insecurity is the first step towards doing something stupid.

“I could coach you, babe. We could reach platinum together at least,” he says.

“That’s nice of you,” I reply, “But I’m not looking for a coach.”

Predictably, he is not deterred. I could have responded with any possible combination of letters, and it wouldn’t have mattered. “This is my main account,” he says, posting a link.

I don’t bother clicking on it. It could be anyone’s account. Honesty is never a high priority on the internet.

“But I’ll need something in return,” he continues.

A grimace slides onto my face like tar. “Like what?” I type.

I click back to my game, hoping that I can make this guy stop existing if I ignore him. But his response is immediate.

“Do you have an insta?” he asks.

I sigh. “No,” I reply.

“That’s too bad,” he types, “Your voice is so cute.”

“Thanks?” I respond.

“Send me some pics?” he asks, “I bet you’re so pretty.”

“…” is all I reply. Anyone with tact would know that these weird compliments are far from flattering. I wonder if he thinks I’m blushing in my chair.

Predictably, my obvious discomfort is ignored. “Send me something sexy?” he asks.

A familiar disgust floods my stomach. “Not a chance,” I type as quickly as my fingers will move.

There is a microscopic chance of him actually accepting no for an answer. They never do.

Boxcar Witchcraft

On the morning after Prohibition went the way of the dodo, the Hobo Witch-king came to call. I stood in the narrow alley behind the brothel where I was raised, pissing away the sour mash demons that hadn’t quite let go. Only long johns and the carryover warmth from my bedroll protected me from the freezing Chicago air. I knew it must be something serious. King never called on anyone. He rode the rails from jungle to jungle, held court, and the hobos and road kids with the traveling craft called on him. I still had my pecker out when I heard his familiar voice behind me.

“Something wrong with the toilets in that fancy house o’ yours?” he asked.

I couldn’t stop a grin from spreading ear-to-ear as I tucked myself away and turned to face him. Before me stood a gaunt man who looked more like a downtown banker than a hobo. Three times my own twenty years, at least, he wore a fancy gentleman’s suit years out-of-date but showing little wear; his shoes had no holes and the fresh shine gleamed. Beneath his full head of bone white hair, coal black eyes twinkled with mischief. I grabbed the old man and pulled him in for a hug. When I caught a whiff of his cologne, I became all too aware of my own sweat and whiskey stench, but it didn’t matter. King was dear to me, and I wanted to hug him for as long as I could.

“I’ve missed you; it’s been too long,” I said.

“I’ve had to get my affairs in order,” he said with a bit less twinkle in his eye.

My heart cracked. “King, no!” Before I knew it, tears streaked my cheeks.

“Don’t weep for me, St. Valentine. I’ve outlived far too many younger hobos. It’s my time.”

“How can you be sure? Not a doctor, right?”

“It’s true, can’t trust no doctor’s opinion of my health, but I gave myself a reading and the cards of the Hobo ‘Ro don’t lie.”

As I stood there like an idiot, teeth chattering and knees knocking in between sniffs and sobs, the back door opened and Tildy, one of my witch mothers, leaned out.

“Robby Ray Johnson, why are you running around outside in your skivvies? You’ll freeze,” she said.

“The pots inside were full up with witches and sales ladies. Unless you wanted me in there with ‘em, it was head outside in my drawers. And you’re supposed to call me St. Valentine now.”

“Ain’t no way I’m calling you St. Anything,” she scoffed and pointed at my crotch. “That thing of yours finds warm and welcoming beds the way a dowsing rod finds water.”

She wasn’t judging me, just having some fun at my expense. No one who lived in the house cared a lick how someone got their kicks, but my ears burned anyway. Even as a grown man, the witches who raised me had a way of making me feel twelve again, and I got real embarrassed with her talking about my ding-dong like that. She gave me a sly wink that only made matters worse. King’s melodious chuckle followed.

“So true, Miss Tildy,” he said. “More than once, I’ve hoisted Valentine into a moving boxcar to escape the pursuit of angry fathers and brothers.”

“It’s not my fault,” I said with exaggerated indignation, my sadness and embarrassment giving way to the casual comfort of friends and family. “It’s usually their idea, and I’m always sure to do the right charms and cantrips to make sure I’m shooting blanks.” If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned men could often be assholes, and I had vowed long ago not to be an asshole.

“Come on inside, you two,” Tildy scolded. “I can’t feed you, King Robby’s eaten everything in sight, and no one’s been to the market yet, but there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed.”

“Thank you kindly” King said. Before he crossed the threshold behind me, I heard him pray to the Goddess, “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust.

Tildy grabbed the coffee and a couple of mugs. She indicated King and I should sit at the kitchen table, set the mugs on the table with a clank, and filled them. I rolled up the blankets still laid out on the kitchen floor. To give a boxcar witch like me a more permanent place in the house would spoil the energy of the hearth-and-home rituals. The home of my youth could now only serve as an occasional flop house.

“I need you to catch-out with me,” King said, “and bring some of your boys too. I gotta take the NP to Seattle.”

“Jesus, that’s a long way to ride the rails up north in winter. Especially if you’re sick.”

“I was born by Puget Sound, and I want to die by it, but I don’t have much time.”

I felt tears well up in my eyes again and batted them away harshly, angry that I couldn’t be stronger for King. More followed. “Booker T and Cool Papa are working the World’s Fair with me. I think Brother Mulligan is in town too.”

“I need a couple o’ weeks,” King said, “but I want to catch-out soon after that. Can you and the other boys be ready then?”

Tildy looked both sad and relieved. My witch mothers love me, but it drains them to keep me under their roof. When a couple of Capone’s men had hid with us after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the women turned me out claiming if the cops came, they’d assume I was in on it too. In truth, the growing strength and untamed nature of my traveling craft had begun putting the whole house at risk, even then.

“Of course,” I said. “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust,” I whispered to the Goddess and then got to work making plans.

Warehoming Supply Services Inc.

Cousin Marc gave me his best performance of a solemn nod. An exaggerated pout pulled at his jowls to sell the bit. “So sorry, again. So sorry, Twon” he said. He looked to Liro whom gripped the hem of my pants, but even he couldn’t make up something comforting to say to someone so young. He turned and made his way out into the searing late afternoon sun, with a go bag from the buffet tucked under his arm.

That meant only Uncle Terry remained. His family had already retreated to their car.

The stout man shuffled over and took a moment to pinch his lips at me to make sure I recognized the heavy weight of his gaze. “Twon,” he said. “I can’t imagine how you feel right now.”

I nodded. Uncle Terry had seemed pleasant the few times we’d met, but I’d run out of courtesy to give hours ago.

He cleared his throat and started again. “But you’re not alone, okay? Liro looks up to you, but he needs a lot of care and acting as his parent is a whole new ball game.”

Liro’s hand snaked into my own, and I looked down. Red rings circled the skin around his eyes and he wavered even as he held on to my leg. His flare up had started the day after the accident.

I snapped my tongue. “I’m not replacing our parents.”

Terry grunted and ran a hand over his hair. “Yeah, of course. I know that. All I’m saying is that we want to help if it gets hard. If you need anything. Really, even if you need a place to stay.”

My breath caught in my throat. What? Ma and Pa’s collection of vis panes flickered out back and caught my gaze. I’d powered it up before the reception. The cloudy panes stood in an uneven line, rigged in an approximation of a wall. The kaleidoscope of shifting colors danced across the face of each one, never quite matching with the image on the neighbor. Ma and Pa were part of the first wave of street artists who changed the game by hacking digital-marketing vis panes that covered buildings. My heart knew that if I watched that display a little longer, I’d see dad trudge out from the shed with a digipen. He’d pull at the hem of whichever light brown or leafy green tank top he wore and use it to mop the sweat from his brow.

My heart lied. No one would ever finish the tag out back. It was mine now. I looked down to Liro, his hand in mine. Ours.

“We’re not leaving,” I told Uncle Terry.

I tried to tally up the damage, but I lost my breath before I could finish. Water still dripped from the open window. It sloshed around my ankles as I maneuvered around shelves and stacks of boxes that hadn’t fallen. At least half of the boxes had darkened from the summer-sky blue of Warehoming Inc.’s brand colors to a deep navy blue at being sodden. I turned away from Ma and Pa’s vis pane display out back and chewed at my lip. A bead of sweat slid down my cheek. Our clothes were damp and sticky from more than just a little flooding. It was hot as a state officer’s glare, and air conditioning was as much a myth to Liro and me as the pursuit of happiness.

Liro scratched at his short-cropped hair. “How bad is it?” His voice cracked when he asked.

I found myself blinking stinging sweat from my eyes. “The window.” It was all I could say.

“The latch must have come loose,” he said. “I closed the damn thing. I swear I did.”

My untended bush of curly hair snagged my fingers as I pulled them through. I didn’t have the energy to admonish Liro for cussing again. Many of these boxes contained books or random consumer goods like dog food or hygiene products. We’d just received computer components from PC Parts Supply though, and some of those were big ticket items. I’d have to check the logs. The shipment contained sticks of RAM and keyboards, but we’d also received at least a handful of GPUs, processors and motherboards. The Warehoming loss department would notice.

“It’s okay.” I said it through gritted teeth to keep my voice from breaking. “We’ll need to clean up everything we can. We have enough spare cardboard to re-box everything that’s salvageable. We’ll need to save what we can, and then we’ll file a claim on the rest.”

His voice was as small as the day Ma and Pa died. “What will happen?”

I gulped down the tremor that threatened my voice. “An inspector will come. We’ll need to clean up everything.

Liro smacked a hand to his face dramatically. “Oh, Bondye.”

“It’s okay. We just need to get to work.”

“Will we lose the house?”

I knew his real question. Will we lose the memories?

I’d dropped out of University and got a job waiting tables the day after the funeral almost three years ago. Academic scholarships couldn’t pay for Liro’s medications after all. I got a second job working carts two months later. Then I lost the waiting job. I took Liro to urgent care twice in a week during a flare up, and that made me unreliable. I lost the cart job not long after when Liro’s appointments made my employment too cumbersome to continue. The laundry machine broke maybe six week later. With every storm, the stain on the ceiling of the sitting room grew just as the stain on my mood.

At one point, I’d skipped so many meals that my stomach twisted to heave dry coughs into an unimpressed toilet. I looked into Warehoming Supply Services Inc. as soon as Liro went to sleep that night. I refused to sell the house, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t leverage its value for a return. The house wasn’t in a condition to use as a BNB rental, but we could rent the space out for eCommerce logistics. I’d signed us up before he woke that day. As my own boss, I might be able to make enough money to support Liro. Companies like Warehoming promised next-hour delivery for ninety percent of their eCommerce partners’ deliveries. It was good for the consumer. It was good for the reputation of the company that sold the products, and it was good for Warehoming to take a cut. They also accepted new freelance storage vendors with markedly few hoops, so it was good for people desperate enough to leverage their home as an asset. Like Liro and me.

Inventory from countless eCommerce businesses using Warehoming as their distributor filled up the house by the end of the month. It took up the living room and the sitting room. Boxes filled the hallways, and all three bedrooms. Liro and I tucked ourselves into a tiny corner of the master bedroom on a mattress of pillows stacked atop each other. We gave the whole house to Warehoming except for that one corner and our parents’ vis tag out back. We weren’t losing that.

My lip curled when I answered him. “No way in hell.”


Crossing the barbed wire had been fun. Without a wand Dad could manage just a hint of cantrips, the barest spark of magic. But he had decades of experience in coaxing sorcery from his fingertips, and coated Kade’s hands with a gauzy glow. The rusty wires felt gentle under his palms.

“Presto,” Dad said, on the other side. And not with the half-twist of his lip, like usual. He was sweating and paused with his hands on his knees, but he had done real magic.

“Yeah,” Kade said, to show he was deeply impressed. “Alright.”

“Heyyyyy presto,” Dad said, wriggling his fingers. “With a wand—” he stopped himself. Kade had heard hundreds of “with a wand” stories, until even Dad had called a halt. With a wand Dad would’ve tossed the entire fencing into the upper atmosphere. With a wand they would’ve turned into water and sluiced through the metal. With a wand Kade would’ve been a wizard.

The bombed-out ruins of Snall Academy were not far.

“Oof,” Dad said. He stopped short again.

Just in the past year the government had stopped blocking the display on Google Earth. From overhead it was rubble with a hint of craters. Dad had spent long hours printing available aerials at the library – not the local library, a distant drive. Just in case the government was still looking. Kade had been put in charge of watching the printer, snatching the prints and keeping them close.

“The entire air force couldn’t do anything,” Dad said, walking again. “Turned their engines into rocks. Or put a small but tasteful bureau right in the path of the turbine. All sorts of options.”

“Yeah, Dad,” Kade had heard this, from the backseat, on many drives. But this was actually it, the husk, formerly an edifice in towering pewter stone. Famous for its pennants, flags, banners, each alive with residents.

“Artillery, though. Artillery… Yeah. Those damn howitzers.”

Although from the pictures the area seemed flattened and empty there were still plenty of stones. There was the remnant footprint of a building, including some blackened rocks. And a pillar in chalky marble by a wide open space. It was a surprise to Dad, who went right over to it.

“A memorial!” he said, surprised. “To all their dead! They actually put something up!”

It had no acknowledgement of conflict and was simply inscribed with names. Many, many names, in a small font.

“Dang, Dad,” Kade said, uncertain. “Lot of carving.”

“Oh, we didn’t go down easy,” Dad said. He seemed uncertain, himself, about how to feel. “Even after the shells broke through we zipped over there on brooms and lit a brigade on— anyway. Join me in a piss?”

“Uh,” Kade went to the other side of the pillar. “Yeah.” He could just see Dad’s knees, peeking out, from the sides of the monument. Kade decided not to unzip. He didn’t need to go. Dad had insisted he went before they left, and it was not a far drive. He just listened to the tinkle.

“Alright?” Dad said, when he went back around.

“Didn’t have much,” Kade said. “But I tried.” Dad ruffled his hair. He hadn’t washed his hands or anything.

“I wonder if…” Dad put his hands on the stone, puffed out his cheeks. Another brief glow from underneath his fingertips. With a wand – even Kade did it, to himself, in his head – with a wand the monument could be driven deepwards down into the earth itself. Atomized into sand. Dad mouthed the words. A flash, and then the scent of burnt hairs. “There.”

A trickle of black lines networked from name to name, adding lines and curlicues and accents to the alphabetical rows. Francisco became Eramcisco. “Do you want to try?” Dad said.

Kade shook his head. In the old days he was guaranteed the words, wand, the candle, the rook. The books of lineage were gone but counted Merlin as just another entry, although a lengthy one. He’d been taught the words. The candle and the rook were symbolic. There were no more wands.

The Dwelling of the Alchemist

Larkas finally saw it through the thinning trees. The dilapidated structure looked like a tall barn, sitting lonely and incongruous among the boulders and snow drifts of Mount Runkhorn. As he stepped out of the woods, his whole body felt suddenly pierced by the bitter wind that the pines had been blocking. He gasped reflexively. The fatigue of a four-day trek up the mountainside seemed to have been stored up in that blast of frigid air. But even more, Larkas felt the weight of his own rage upon that wind, his need to end a nightmare, his hope to set things right. He fell to his knees and remained motionless for a long time, his limbs aching and his head swimming from the thin air and a gust of conflicting emotions. Eventually, Larkas hauled himself up and stumbled to the dark building, closing the distance that separated him from his dangerous purpose.

His numbed fist felt nothing as it pounded on the desiccated wooden door. After a short pause, the door creaked open a hand’s width. He peered through the narrow opening at the gaunt face of a powerful-looking man with no hair. The bald man held a thick candle whose flame flickered and went out as the wind swept over it. His glazed eyes slowly looked Larkas over, then fixed their dead stare on his face.

“I am here to see the Alchemist,” said Larkas, shivering.

The bald man’s emotionless face did not change.

“How you find?” he said with a heavy Berellian accent.

“Janth Myronokor,” said Larkas. “Don’t worry, he’s dead now. He won’t be revealing any more secrets.”

The bald man made no immediate response, continuing to stare at Larkas.

“Proof?” he said.

Larkas opened the leather satchel he had slung over his shoulder and removed a ruby-studded ring. He handed it to the bald man who examined it for no longer than a heartbeat before dropping it as if it were a worthless stone. Larkas bent down, picked up the ring, and returned it to his satchel.

“Alone?” said the bald man.

“For now. My associate will be arriving tomorrow with a large amount of Ælliri white gold. Not in trinkets or coins. In demi-bars. The Alchemist might be interested in knowing more about my business proposal.”

Silence followed. The bald man cocked his head to one side and seemed to be listening to something.

“I check,” he said.

Icy hands frisked Larkas thoroughly and rummaged through his satchel. Larkas had brought no weapon, knowing in advance how futile it would have been. When he had finished, the bald man pulled open the groaning door just wide enough for Larkas to enter, and stepped backwards into the building, keeping the door open.

“Come,” he said brusquely. “Stay.”

Larkas entered and the door was slammed shut behind them. In an instant, the drone of the howling wind became a distant groan and the pallid sunlight vanished. Larkas could see nothing, but heard the bald man shuffling away into the lightless interior. The air inside felt barely less cold than outside, but at least it was still. Then the perfume enveloped him.

In space, Larkas had taken a mere step forward, but his sense of smell had been transported to an entirely new realm. He took a deep breath, inhaling the odors of a wild mélange, intermingling to create some hitherto unknown innovation. His nostrils flared at the sensation. The aromas seemed to undulate and vibrate, deepening almost to the point of becoming edible and then dissipating to a mere suggestion. Larkas knew immediately that he was in the presence of a skill that transcended the limits of mere science. The Alchemist was truly an artist.

Twenty paces across the darkened space, a vertical slice of light appeared as another creaking door opened, only to disappear again an instant later. The bald man was gone. Larkas sat on the ground, his weariness overcoming any sense of decorum, and waited for nearly half an hour in total darkness, all the while however, enchanted by the mosaic of fragrances.

Finally, the far door opened again and someone stepped into the doorframe. The figure’s enormous girth blocked the light behind it like the moon Creska eclipsing the sun. Even from across the room and in the dim lighting, Larkas saw that the newcomer was a head taller than him and twice as wide. The corpulent figure stepped back into the room, then returned holding an exquisite silver candelabra, its myriad branches thick as a full-grown tree’s and each topped with a burning candle.

The figure glided forward with unexpected litheness, its massive weight belying an almost dainty step. In the light of the candelabra, Larkas could clearly see the features of a man. His skin was pale and seemed delicate as if made of the finest porcelain. Although his wavy hair appeared wild and unkempt at first, Larkas saw that it had been styled into place by some grease or oil whose luscious scent emanated from him as strongly as the light from his candelabra. Fat lips jutted out of his almost spherical head and his beady eyes lay hidden in deep, fleshy recesses. The man wore a fortune in jewelry and Wallon silk clothing, most notably two chains of Ælliri white gold. Larkas’s wager on that point had been correct. He prayed that the rest of his conjectures and surmises about the Alchemist proved likewise.

But more than any other detail, Larkas noticed the Aura, a barely visible but unmistakable shimmer that swirled around the man like the waves of heat rising off a distant desert horizon. The Imperial interdiction against the Magician Guild’s use of the Aura spell had been one of the key provisions to establish an armistice between the Empire and the Guild seven years ago. The Alchemist’s flagrant and notorious refusal to present himself to Guild authorities and have his Aura spell revoked rendered him in violation of both Imperial law and Guild precept. In the criminal circles that had dealings with the man, such recalcitrance only enhanced his reputation.

Larkas had never before seen anyone imbued with the Aura spell. Descriptions of it had not prepared him for the electric sense of power that it radiated. It would indeed prove to be a difficulty, Larkas thought to himself. But if he knew one thing about the Magician’s Art, it was that no spell was invincible.

“You have killed Janth Myronokor,” said the Alchemist.

His voice was quiet and raspy, and his stare pierced through Larkas as if attempting to read his very soul. Larkas shook his head.

“I did not say that. I said that he was dead. I never claimed he was killed at all, and certainly not that I had killed him.”

The Alchemist considered this, his gaze not lessening its penetration, but altering in a subtle way that Larkas could not interpret.

“But you did kill him,” he said flatly.

“You can see that about me?”

Bulbous lips curved on one side to form a grin.

“You might say, I can smell it.”

The Gift That Keeps On Taking

My boyfriend is a ghost. He haunts my apartment on Avenue D in Alphabet City, what gentrifiers call the up-and-coming part of the East Village. Every morning he lingers in the kitchen and makes me coffee, whether I want it or not. On my way to the bathroom, I find my lucky tiger mug filled and steaming by the microwave, or he brings it to the bed, where I am drifting awake amid the rumpled sheets. Since I’ve been with him, sitting up takes all my will. Even after a full night’s sleep, my limbs are heavy, too weary to move.

He speaks and I imagine I can feel his warm breath. I move in closer, offering my lips to his, and when we touch, I drink, gulping at his heart. His kisses are deeply passionate. He crawls into my mouth; then he sinks into my body and I never know where I end and where he begins.

If I am honest, there is an aftertaste, a whiff of something sour, spoiled, leaking from his insides. I fold away that niggling thought like a Kleenex in a jacket pocket, forgotten but ready for a future moment. Instead, I choose to remind myself that his kisses are why I stay with him. But not even I know what is true anymore.

I first saw him while I was working at a trendy night spot called the Drowned Lotus, using the name Mystery. It was one of those ultra-private, themed hostess clubs with a discreet townhouse exterior, like a worm hidden inside the big fat apple. The best title to describe my job was “modern geisha.” The fact that none of the hostesses except Kimiko were Japanese didn’t much matter to the clientele.

Descending into the miasma of cigarette smoke and perfume, I was armed for social warfare in my stormy violet kimono, the one all the men admired. It was iridescent and shimmery like the wings of a dragonfly. My face, well hidden under a thick glaze of alabaster powder: smudged charcoal eyes, sticky glitter on my demon-red pout. I was there to charm, to serve, to entertain with my useless conversation as I coaxed egos by way of erections, accepting tips with my practiced, mysterious smile.

Twice a night, management made all us girls gather in a single-file line of platform geta and daddy issues. The tuxedoed band would blow its boozy horns and tickle the drums as we paraded across the stage for our moment in the spotlight. The emcee’s cloudy whispers brushed the microphone as he introduced us by false name after false name. We shuffled in a spectacular display, ready to be picked like juicy lemons in a market stall —all of us keenly aware that if we were the sweeter kind of fruit, we wouldn’t be working in a place like this.

Handsome, with a gentle smile, he pointed at me, my soon-to-be boyfriend. When I approached, he asked my name. I flirted by leaning forward hands resting coquettishly on my knees.

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

“Then it’s whatever you want it to be.” He opened his thighs giving me enough room to dance. My fake eyelashes brushed my cheeks as I waxed and waned behind my hand-painted silk fans. I must have looked odd, wiggling in front of an empty chair, but both girls and customers shrugged, since it was not the strangest request they’d seen fulfilled.

I went home with him that night to his tiny apartment around the corner, and we lay together on his mattress until the stars were washed away by the rainy morning. He caressed my cheek and, in a whisper, recited, “Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee, before I knew thy face or name.”

John Donne, I murmured, recalling the name from my uncompleted college days. Instead of sinking into slumber, I should have recollected the verse properly. Then I’d have remembered: the next few lines of the poem made me “some lovely glorious nothing.”

My grandmother said it is a gift to have enough empathy to see the dead. She never spoke of the difficulty in telling the difference. When we started dating, I wrongly believed he had a pulse. He fooled me with the easy throbbing beat as his firm chest clasped against my back. Addicted to his sweet honey sweat, our tongues intertwined and I imagine that for the first time I found a new home.

He talks about his past and I can see him get smaller, shrinking into a frightened little boy with dark hair and maudlin eyes of gold and green, a leprechaun’s dream. Reduced to a fetal state, he descends into an uneven sleep, rocked awake by discarded memories. I curl around his tiny form each steamy summer night as he makes a shallow, wrinkled depression in the icy sheets.

When morning breaks, he is again grown, a milky figure that my hand cannot quite pass through. I ask where his body is. He looks at me thoughtfully and with a half-smile that deepens the dimples in his cheeks, assures me it’s somewhere safe.

After about a month, he presented me with my own set of keys. The grumpy Albanian landlord found me living there, and I took over the lease. Rent for the apartment was turn-of-the-century low, since he couldn’t keep a tenant because of the opening and closing of the refrigerator door and the angry scrubbing whenever dirty dishes were abandoned in the sink.

I unpacked my clothes and my new boyfriend told me that they didn’t suit my body. The ones he did not throw away, I placed in the one closet we shared. I took the right side and he pushed his things to the left.

A locked chest shoved toward the back crowded most of the closet space. It was large enough to fit a small child inside. I knelt to examine it more closely. My fingers traced his name intricately carved on the side, T-R-I-S-T-A-N. My hands moved to the brass latch. He appeared, sitting on the top as if he had enough weight to keep it closed, the clothes on hangers a makeshift movie screen for the projection of his face. His eyes smiled though his mouth did not. I felt like a child caught with candy in my mouth.

He said his father made it for him when he was young, and he would rather I didn’t pry. Come on, I teased, no secrets. The lock frosted over instantly, sticking as I impatiently tried to free the contents. The cold was a shock to my tender skin, and a thin layer ripped free to leave my fingertips raw and exposed. Not once did the flat expression leave his eyes. Some things, he said, are not to be shared. To neatly avoid the prickly beginnings of our first disagreement, I wholeheartedly agreed.

The God In the Bottle

In my defense, I hated my job, but it’s not that I didn’t like the perks. I made my own hours, didn’t punch a clock, and didn’t have to answer to a boss. Yes, most of my clients were scary people, but there was no one I had to be scared of—which couldn’t be said for the guy sitting across from me.

Though Jerry Franck was pushing fifty, he had arms and shoulders like a piece of wrecking equipment. Nevertheless, there were sweat marks on his shirt, and he hadn’t taken a sip from the glass our waitress had set in front of him.

To my left, Aldous Finn was the model of a pencil-thin accountant, but that was only to those who didn’t know him. To me, he looked like a hatchet. Finn was the numbers man for the local syndicate, and Franck was just the owner of a nearby hardware store. There I was, the fulcrum between them, and I already knew which way it would tilt. In the silence, I bit into a slice of the house supreme.

“We don’t mean disrespect,” said Mr. Franck. “The other tenants and I would simply like to talk about our payment schedule.”

Finn’s question had been, “Are you fuckin’ unionizing on me?” I considered Franck’s response.

“Technically true,” I said. “He wants to be respectful, and payments are on his mind.”

“But?” said Finn.

“He didn’t answer the question.”

“We ain’t unionizing,” Franck said. “We had a meeting, that’s all. We’re not arguing about the protection, but we feel we ought to negotiate. In good faith.”

I nodded while chewing. “Also true.” But my scalp itched. “Except for that last part.”

“Really. Have you been talking to someone, Mr. Franck?”

He stiffened. “I’d rather not say.”

I took another bite, thinking, Don’t dig yourself deeper. Pleading the Fifth rarely worked with the Mob.

“Another family,” said Finn, “or the cops?”

Jerry froze. His eyes twitched my way. I shook my head and reminded myself that this moron had dug his own grave.

“Make it two questions,” I said.

“Another syndicate?” said Finn.

Jerry didn’t blink.

“The cops?”

Only an Inquisitor could have noticed the tiny flinch.

“Bingo,” I said, and reached for my beer.

“I see,” said Finn. “Mr. Franck, why don’t you tell your associates that I’ll bring this matter up with my employers, and to expect a resolution real soon.”

Franck shook, and I wondered if he’d brought a gun. I knew damn well that Finn’s partners at the next table were armed. That’s why I always held these Q&A sessions in crowded restaurants. I put down my drink, looked away from Mr. Franck, and waited for the moment to pass.

“You can go now,” said Finn. Once Mr. Franck had left the booth, Finn set an envelope next to my plate. “Y’know, Sid, I wish you’d come over full time. Be easier than this freelance shit.”

“Pass. But thanks for the pizza.”

“De nada.”

I took another bite instead of watching Finn leave. My teeth were still buried in the crust when the restaurant’s lights turned red. Looking back at the room, everyone had frozen, and the door to the street glowed green.


Not for the first time, I wished I could hold my breath and pretend to be human. Gangsters I could handle, but I fucking hated gods.

Between one moment and the next, a god stood in front of my table. He’d squeezed himself into the form of a man wearing a gray business suit.

“I am Wealth. Don’t pretend not to worship me. Your presence is commanded by the Highest.”

Always knowing when people were lying made life among humans a headache, but being around gods was even worse. Everything they said was true by definition. Even when they tried to lie, their words carried such force that the world would break to accommodate them. When a god as powerful as Wealth called, it was more than a half-breed like me could resist.

“Whatever you say, Chief,” I told him.

He pointed at the door, and I stepped outside to a world cloaked in haze. The only light was a glow across the street, where a demon dressed as a chauffeur stood next to a limo so wide that the alley had stretched to make room. When I slid into the back seat, the inside was utterly dark. Or rather, it felt like my eyes had been turned off.

“This is he.” The voice came from everywhere, including my bones. If spoken by a human, the words would have been a question. Gods didn’t ask questions.

“Yes, Lord,” said a woman whose words buzzed the air. “Sidney Mépris. The portents are clear.”

The darkness faded, revealing the limo’s interior to be the size of a small boardroom. On my right, Wealth radiated disdain. Across from him, a fox-haired goddess lounged in a loose, silver pantsuit.

The god in the middle inhabited his seat like a throne. Every inch of him gleamed as if sculpted from onyx. Rings shone like starlight on both of his hands. Without hesitation, I knelt and bowed my head.


“I Am,” said the god. “You are the misbegotten spawn of a lesser deity, but as with all things you have a purpose. Your moment of use has arrived.”

Yay, me. The weight of Lordship’s presence was so strong that it was all I could do not to prostrate myself.

“My sister will instruct you in the task you are to perform,” he said. “Once you discharge your duty, the meaning of your life will be fulfilled. After, you may live the remainder of your days howsoever you please. I care not.”

I waited, unmoving, my knees like cement. I didn’t think I’d be able to move without a direct command. It finally came from the goddess on my left.

“This is where you say, ‘Yes, Lordship. Thank you, Lordship.’”

“Yes, Lordship. Thank you, Lordship.”

I lifted my eyes. Lordship and Wealth were gone. Only the other remained.

“Have a seat,” she said. “You’ll want a drink.”

“Hell, yes,” I said, slumping into the seat. “Jack and Coke, hold the Coke.”

She grinned. A glass appeared in my hand as if it had always been there.

“My brother isn’t a people person. I’ll try to be less portentous.”

I sipped the whiskey. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Call me Insight. You’re Scorn’s boy. I know her, though I wouldn’t call us friends.”

“Few would.”

“Agreed.” She kept smiling. “This job is nothing you can’t handle, but it is important. An Epoch is ending and another is set to begin. When this happens, certain rites must be performed to ensure a smooth transition. This time there’s a problem. One god is refusing to take part in the ritual.”

“Why doesn’t Lordship command him?”

“Would that he could. No, our prodigal has sealed himself into a personal retreat that no other god may enter. A human might, but a human couldn’t convey Lordship’s orders. One of our blood, however…”

I laughed. “Jesus. You want me to break into a god’s hideout and serve a summons.”

Insight darkened. I’d learned to swear by imaginary deities mainly to piss off my mom. In this instance, I might have pushed my luck. The goddess went on.

“The signs indicate that of all our offspring, you have the best chance of overcoming the temptations our brother will place in your path. Once you reach him, you’ll deliver Lordship’s command that he attend the ceremony.” She handed me a seal of red wax. “This contains the power of Lordship’s Word. When you deliver his message, break the seal and our brother will obey.”

I turned it over in my hand. The seal bore an emblem that my mind refused to register. In its place, another question rose up.

“Temptations? Who are you sending me after?”

Insight smirked.

“Your uncle Revelry. I’m sure you’ll have loads of fun.”

Therapy is Now in Beta

As Lawrence Yu approached, a smiling face appeared on the door, and a cheery voice said, “By placing your palm to the pad, you consent to the recording of all communication both verbal and non-verbal.”

If he refused, the school would call his dad. Lawrence glanced at his watch: 11:15. Dad might still be undergoing pain-relief treatment or else he was trying to sleep through the post-treatment nausea. Lawrence would have to at least go in and pretend to listen to the thing inside.

He consented, and the door opened into a small room where two chairs faced each other. One was empty. The counsel-bot sat in the other, wearing a nondescript, gray tunic. A face as plain as the tunic stared at the ground between the chairs. On its hairless head, a faded, red-ink stamp read BETA UNIT.

The counsel-bot began speaking while raising its head. “Welcome to therapy, Lawrence.” It glanced at a pad in its hand—a choreographed motion to thwart the creep factor of too much eye contact. “You’re nearing the end of your time at East Lansing Middle School, and this is your first offense,” the bot said. “Can you tell me about what happened today?”

The tone was calm, inviting, fake. Principal Andrews insisted that the counsel-bot was under the direct remote control of a human counselor who could juggle multiple middle schools in a day, but none of the students believed that. It was only a bundle of elaborate chat scripting. Being forced to talk to a machine about his problems made Lawrence want to kick the bot off its chair.

Instead, he tightened his grip on his chair’s arms and stared the bot down.

The wan smile on its face relaxed. As it did, a micro-expression created dimples on its chin in the same way his mother’s did.

The bot tapped her pad. “It says here that you poured water on a teachers-aid-bot until it short-circuited.”

He had to say something to meet the minimum engagement threshold. “Accident,” Lawrence said.

“Might have been,” said the bot. “But on Monday you ‘accidentally’ kicked a janitor-bot down the stairs. And on Wednesday, the principal found a hall-monitor-bot in pieces on the steps, two stories below an open window.” The bot drummed her fingers on her leg. “I have limited access to your family records, so I can see that your dad recently lost his employment.”

Lawrence squeezed his thumbs inside his fists until they cracked.

She glanced at his hands. “When an adult loses their job, they often become sad or angry. They may say or do things that—”

Blood rushed to Lawrence’s face, and with it came panic, shock, and rage. “He’s a great dad! But I guess your records don’t tell you that, do they?”

The bot leaned back. “Tell me about him,” she said.

“When my sister turned 15, he took her on a suborbital to Shanghai, where he grew up. They ate soup dumplings and went to the Science and Technology Museum. Does that sound abusive to you?”

“No, it doesn’t. I see that your 15th birthday is next week. Do you have a similar trip planned?”

“My dad…” Lawrence closed his eyes and wished his voice wasn’t so shaky. “My dad was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He’s already missing his mouth with the dinner fork. In a few months, he won’t know who I am. There aren’t any trips to Shanghai in my future.” Lawrence pointed at the bot. “And before you load up a script on grief, I’m pretty sure this is all too complicated for your programming to handle so… we’re done.” He kicked the chair on his way out of the room.

The Man Who Borrowed My Clock

Of course, I can remember when it happened! I recall the whole thing like it were yesterday. And not a mere three hours previous.

It had been one minute to twelve. I recall pulling the beauty from its velvet-lined box, to check it tallied with the one hanging on the wrought iron pole standing proudly in the street. And of course, it did. It was a Mills IV. Hardly ever needed winding, just a little oil every fourth month of the year. Ran like a gazelle, so it did.

Then he came right up to me, brave as you like. “Excuse me, young man, do you have the time?” Even now, I recall every little detail, the excessive hair in his nose, the greying of his right eyebrow.

I proffered my clock forward on my palm. “One minute to twelve, sir. Do you not have the time yourself?” It was an innocent enough question, from a young man barely out of school. Everyone carried their personal timepiece, it was unthinkable not to do so. Unless…

No! I put that kind of thought out of my mind right away. He looked like a stand-up kind of fellow in his maroon knickerbockers, the type who would happily front his round at the bar, when it came to his turn to buy.

He smiled at me. “Is that a Mills/Watson, young lad?”

I shook my head. “No, sir. That’s a common mistake most people make, on account of the similarly styled carriage, it’s a Mills IV. The finest timepiece they made at that particular factory. Gifted to me on the day of my birth by my ailing grandfather, may the gods rest his eternal soul.”

He raised an admiring eyebrow, the greying one, as I recall. “I’ve heard tell that was the lightest movement they ever made. Is that true?”

I held the clock out at arm’s length. It barely weighed anything in my hand. “I could stand like this for an hour, sir, or more. Nothing built since has come close to the Mills IV. It’s an honor to own one.”

“A greater honor to even see one, young man. Might a fellow be so bold as to ask to try her weight, just the once?” Then he held out his hand. Such a simple request, from a well-dressed man. How could he possibly be one of—them? The clockless. Those without the time.

I placed the Mills on his palm, he lifted and dropped his hand a few times, clearly enjoying the sensation of its lightness. Then he did the unthinkable. He turned and fled without any notice or warning. He high-tailed it down the street, taking my beloved Mills IV with him.

I was shocked and devastated in equal measure. So shocked that I didn’t even think to give chase, or cry out for a Timekeeper. Then I heard the clanging of hand-bells approaching. “Time check! Have your clocks at the ready!”

I knew I couldn’t be found clockless, no matter how that situation had come about. So I quickly set off in the opposite direction, heading away from the Timekeepers.

Seven Days

Remaining: Five days

I don’t want this anymore. It was a dream, once, when I was young and stupid. Now I’m old and more informed.

“Stop,” I say to the wall.

“Adrien, please smile,” Ern replies through an iron panel, its annoying metallic voice clanging a decibel too loud.

“You first.”

Ern’s panel glows in white. “Processing,” it says. A flash. “I cannot smile as I do not have a face.” Another flash.

There’s a theory I read about, before all of this that proposed artificial general intelligence could learn to be funny. Humor is mathematical, the paper argued. It has a formula. Ergo, computers could master the art of personality, eventually. Thing is, Ern has had more than enough time to construct a joke, yet it’s still a soul-less, tepid blob of a machine that speaks a single sentence at a time. I think the scientists back on Earth got it wrong. I think they got a lot of things wrong when it comes down to it.

One more flash. I shield my eyes, but my hands come up a few seconds too late, like I’m swimming in syrup. My reflexes should be sharper. I flip my hand over, then back again. Looks fine. I peer into the corners—that’s normally where the glitches show, right on the edges where the cream wall meets the pink carpet. Sometimes I catch a squiggly line or a missing block of color, and I have to tell Ern to patch it up. But everything looks shiny new.

So why am I moving slow?

The large screen on the wall of my cage lights up with three images of me. They’re all horrible. In one picture, my eyes are closed, short brown hair plastered across my pale forehead like smeared marmite. In another, my eyes are open, bloodshot, and I look like I’m having a seizure. The last is the worst because it seems like I’m trying to form a pleasant expression, but not quite making it. There’s nothing sadder than trying when you fail.

“Pick one,” Ern screams at me through the panel’s speaker.

I point blindly at the screen. I don’t really care what picture Ern uses for my status check. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “That one,” I say. “Just fix your damn volume dial. It’s acting up again.”


I scratch my neck and look around the small room I’ve called home for the last five days. It’s a mess. I should tidy it up. But what’s the point? It’ll be a mess again tomorrow. And the next day. And after. And onwards.

And onwards.

And onwards.

And… I think I programmed it this way—to make it feel more homely. It was a long time ago. I can’t remember.

“Selection processed.” Ern’s voice is lower. Still bristly, but less like a punch in the face.

“Great,” I say, stretching. “If there’s nothing else, you need me to do, I might have another go in the simulator.”


I wade through a pile of discarded clothes and books and settle into the half open, human-sized, spherical ball positioned in the center of the room. The lights are off inside, but the smooth red surface is warm to the touch. When I close my eyes, I can feel a soft thudding against my fingertips. Thud. Thud. Thud. Beat. Beat. Beat. It’s always there that thudding. And it’s getting faster.

“The simulation is offline for maintenance. Please select an alternative activity.”

“Are you serious?” I rub at my forehead. This has never happened before. “I’m stuck in a 10 by 10 room with no furniture and no windows and no outside stimulation except for you. What alternate activity can I possibly select?”


I get out of the sphere and stalk over to the glowing panel.

“Suggested activity: standby.”

The wall is cool as I push my heated forehead against it. “Already doing that. Been doing that for a while. But thanks for the recommendation.”

The panel lets out a few twinkly sounds, and I realize this is the first time I’ve thanked Ern since we met.

“Hey Ern,” I say and turn around, my back against the wall, palms flat. A heat rumbles through my stomach and sloshes up my throat. I haven’t felt that sear for a while. Anticipation. Fear. Nervousness. I swallow it down. “Was it ok? The picture you took of me?”


I squeeze my eyes shut. This is embarrassing. I shouldn’t care. Not considering what I’m about to become. But it’s difficult to let go of these types of things. No matter how trivial.

The panel flashes in green. “Affirmative, Adrien. You are still alive.”