The Last Man on Earth

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

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

“It’s quite a big part of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“God had his chance.”

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

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

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

“Of what?”

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

“No.”

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

“I thought you said it was for me.”

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

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

“Is learning a good thing to do?”

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

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

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

“Are you making fun of me?”

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

“You’re a difficult woman.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could fall in love, you know.”

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

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

“I’m not growing you a child.”

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t want to fight either.

“I don’t want a baby.”

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

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

“Mourn.”

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

The Witch of Sherman Oaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That means liberating,” I said.

She snorted. “I know what cabalistic means.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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


The Great Equalizer

Up The Road


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


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


“Boy!” she snarled.

“How are you doing?” she didn’t say.


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

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


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


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


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

“Throw it away,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Give me your left shoe,” she said.

Hold On Tight

1.

Jae didn’t mean to find the letter.

He had been putting away clothes in his son’s room when a pair of socks rolled by the bookshelf. As he bent down, he saw an envelope tucked behind a few paperbacks. Jae picked it up, pushed open the torn top of the envelope just enough to glance at the first few words, then put it back behind the lowest shelf carefully.

Perhaps his son was just waiting to talk about it, Jae reasoned, but days went by and it never came up.

On Friday afternoon, Jae waited at the dining table for the familiar sound of the front door opening and a backpack dropping on the floor. Connor came in, hunched, with his earphones in, barely stopping as he marched toward his room. “Hey, Dad.”

“Con,” Jae replied. “Don’t forget. Dinner with Mom and Chris soon.”

Connor pulled out one of his earphones. “That’s tonight?”

“It’s the first Friday, isn’t it?” Jae said.

“Oh…” Connor said. “I was going to–You know what? It’s fine.”

“Great.”

“You okay?” Connor paused.

Jae stared for a moment. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Cool.” Connor walked away.

Jae went to the kitchen sink, turned on the faucet, and watched the water run into the basin. He washed the vegetables under the rushing water, then put on music as he chopped up salad and boiled pasta, a pot of meat sauce already simmering beside it. Eventually he set two plates of spaghetti on the dining table, opposite an open laptop.

“Con! Dinner!” Jae called. He leaned over the laptop and opened up his video chat.

Esther appeared on the computer screen at her dining table. “Hey, there,” she said. “Chris is washing up.”

“No worries, Connor’s dragging his feet too.” Jae sat down. “What are you guys having?”

“Didn’t have time, so it’s just sushi from down the street.”

“Big city sushi. I’m jealous,” he said playfully. “It’s just simple spaghetti over here.”

“Always spaghetti with you.”

Connor emerged from his room and walked over to the dining table. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked over at the chat window on the laptop. “Hey, Mom.”

“Hey, buster. How’s last semester? You keeping busy?”

“Not really,” Connor shrugged. “Everyone’s just killing time before graduation and acting stupid. You know.”

“Oh, I see. Well, have you been killing time and acting stupid in that case?”

Connor smiled a little without answering and played with the spaghetti on his plate when his brother Chris appeared on the video screen next to Esther and sat down at her table. Jae squinted at the laptop and noted that Chris’s hair was tightly cropped on the sides and top. The twins had always had similar haircuts growing up, so it was a change that took Jae aback.

“Chris, you cut your—”

“Yeah, Dad,” Connor jumped in. “Chris cut it like a month ago. You already saw it.”

“I guess I didn’t realize it was that short…” Jae said.

Chris grinned on the screen and rubbed the sides of his head. “Thought I’d try out a new look before college. Maybe grow it back out before the fall or whatever.”

“Looks good.” Jae commented, mostly to himself, as he took a bite of spaghetti.

“So, Con,” Esther said, pouring a glass of wine. “What else is new with you?”

“Nothing.” Connor took a bite.

“Chris showed me some of your new paintings on Photon. They’re really good, honey. I mean it. Beautiful.”

“Proton?” Jae asked.

“Photon,” Chris said in the video chat window. “It’s a social media thing, Dad.”

“Oh.” Jae looked over at Connor. “I didn’t know you put your paintings online. I’d love to see them too.”

“You can just see them here, Dad,” he replied.

“Except you don’t show them to me here either, do you?” said Jae, more brusquely than he intended.

Connor furrowed his brow, and Chris had an identical expression on the screen.

“Never mind. Forget it,” Jae turned back to his meal.

For the rest of the dinner, Esther prodded the boys with questions while Jae ate quietly. Eventually, Chris excused himself and Connor did the same, heading off to their rooms and leaving Esther and Jae on the chat by themselves.

“You okay?” Esther asked.

“Sorry,” Jae frowned.

“It’s hard. I get it,” Esther said. “They’re only ours for a few more months and then…” She finished her glass of wine. “It gets worse. I think Chris is leaning toward UChicago.”

“But he hasn’t heard back from the California schools yet.”

“I know.”

“And what about NYU? I thought if he was staying out east, he’d be in the city with you?”

“I know.”

“Chicago is so cold and…cold.

“I know…” Esther groaned. “What about Connor? Still no word from Haller?”

Jae paused. “No.”

“Any day now, I’m sure.”

“Yeah.”

“It’ll be okay.” Esther finished her wine. “I should let you go. It’s a dark night, isn’t it?”

Jae was surprised that she remembered.

“Some habits die hard,” she said, as if she knew what he was thinking. “Goodnight, Jae.”

“Goodnight, Es.”


In the basement, next to his supplies, Jae kept the wooden frames of the twins’ childhood beds. As he did every time he went down there, he paused to look at them, remembering another time when he was a young man, thinner and with blacker hair, how those beds used to sit on either side of their room, covered in big, puffy blankets that were decorated with stars and planets.

And then, after he had shaken away thoughts of the little ghosts of his sons, he remembered why he came. He bent to pick up a roll of plastic sheeting, then carefully laid it out across the linoleum of the basement floor, making sure to cover all of the open space. Next he took a bucket from the corner and placed it in the middle of the room. Last, he undressed and folded his clothes, then wrapped a towel around his waist.

He knelt, and he waited.

Eventually, Jae felt a familiar pressure begin to build in his sinuses. Small trails of blood began to seep from his tear ducts. The pupils of his eyes began to expand, and the whites of his eyes retreated.

The basement door above him opened, and Connor stood at the entrance, looking down at Jae. “Sorry,” Connor said as he walked down the basement steps, carrying a towel. “Lost track of time.” He joined his father on the plastic, quickly changing out of his clothes and wrapping the towel around him. Connor wiped blood from his cheeks as he knelt, and his eyes quickly turned to glistening pools of black.

“When you’re living on your own next year, you can’t do that on dark nights,” Jae said. “I’m not going to be there to prepare this for you.” He stopped speaking when he felt the tightness in his mouth, and as always, his two front teeth squeezed their way out of his gums first, dropping onto his tongue. Jae swished them and sucked up some of the blood. Then he grabbed the bucket and spit out the teeth, which clattered lightly at the bottom like tiny pebbles.

“I said sorry,” Connor replied. He grunted as his teeth squeezed their way out of his mouth. One by one, Connor’s teeth fell, dripping with red into the bucket.

Jae looked at his son. “Remember, ‘Deep breath.’”

When the boys were young, Jae used to make up games for them, some of which weren’t really games. “Deep breath” came about when Connor was six, and he fell off of the jungle gym and broke his arm. The goal of the game was to hold your breath as long as possible and then let the air out slowly. It kept Connor calm all the way to the emergency room and pulled focus from the pain, and sometimes, it helped with the changes on nights like these.

“Hear anything from Haller?” Jae asked, spitting a few more of his teeth into the bucket.

Connor breathed in deeply, then spit. “No.”

“No?”

“No.”

Jae studied his son’s face.

“I’ve been thinking, maybe Haller isn’t right for me,” Connor said.

The bones underneath Jae’s skin started shifting. His cheek bones cracked and pushed forward, as did parts of his jaw. Everything leveled, bit by bit, until his face became a round, flat disc. Jae took a moment to catch himself before speaking. “You said their visual arts program was great for what you wanted to study, right?”

“Yeah, I know what I said, Dad.”

Jae winced. He felt the familiar crack of his nose breaking and curving closer to his mouth. The cartilage and bones reformed and hardened into a clicking beak.

Connor spit into the bucket and looked away from Jae. “I just don’t know if college makes a lot of sense with everything going on.”

Jae sat up.

“What?”

Connor’s face followed Jae’s, flattening, and then shaping his mouth and nose. He bent over and gripped his knees, fighting the urge to cry out until the movement in his bones stopped.

Jae opened and closed what used to be his mouth and clicked his beak a few times as he adjusted. “If you mean because of this…It’s just a condition like any other. You can manage it.”

“Condition. Right.” Connor held up his hands. His fingers stretched thinner as the skin on them turned gray and leathery. His fingernails split and sloughed off and longer, sharper bones pushed out from the tips of his fingers and extended into little scythes. Connor grew in height several inches as his feet lengthened and thickened into claws. There was a tapping sound as an extra toe bone broke through the skin at each of his heels and scraped onto the plastic.

“I mean it, Con. You’ll figure out ways like I did. You can still go to Haller or…you know…anywhere else.”

“That’s not it,” Connor grunted. “I’m not like you.”

“What does that mean?”

Connor avoided looking at him.

Jae let it rest for a moment since they were nearing the end of the change. He pulled his shoulders back, tensing. Two large bones broke through the skin from his shoulder blades, one on either side. To his left and his right, the two bones spread and grew into wet, skeletal wings, extending from Jae’s back.

Small ruffles of feathers sprouted through the pores of Jae’s face, pushing outward in flecks of white and gold. Thicker feathers began to grow on the bones on Jae’s upper back, draping down like curtains. A smaller skirt of white feathers extended from his lower back and lifted up and down slightly.

Connor’s wings and feathers formed as well, spreading across the span of the basement from his shoulder blades. The disc shape of his white, owl-like face and dark eyes turned at an extreme angle as he blinked at Jae and clicked his beak.

“Ready when you are,” Connor said softly.


They stepped out into the backyard, which was pitch black beneath the new moon. Their house was surrounded by tall fences that allowed them to walk the yard freely. Streetlights speckled the bottom of their hill, but the neighborhood and the sky were shrouded in a heavy, cloudy blanket. The conditions were just right.

Jae jumped first, beating his wings silently as he ascended into the dark.

Connor flew up after him.

They moved swiftly and quietly through the cloud cover, up into the cold air, which whipped around them. Connor glided ahead of his father through swirling wisps, and Jae pulled alongside him. His son moved faster, stretching his powerful wings, more smoothly and effortlessly than Jae.

As he watched his son float ahead of him through the grayness, Jae was reminded of the bike rides they would take at the park, how he would see Connor and Chris race ahead across grass while he sauntered leisurely behind, holding Esther’s hand. There was always a lump in his throat, wondering if one or both of them might crash to the ground, and he was always ready to call out to them if they went too far ahead.

In the midst of those memories, Jae realized that Connor had steered upward. The boy pulled out of the cloud cover and erupted out into the open air high above where someone might see them. Jae chased after him.

“Connor!”

Connor knew better, Jae thought. He burst above the clouds, the open sky spreading across his view, and he saw Connor waiting, hovering as his wings beat.

The boy stared at the silhouette of the mountain near their home. It loomed over the houses on their hill, a solitary colossus.

“We can’t stay up here!” Jae yelled.

Connor twisted his head to look back at his father, then nodded. The boy folded his wings and dropped, headfirst, cutting back into the wisps of the gray cloudy surface beneath.

Jae dived after him.

The wind buffeted Jae’s face. He could see the shape of Connor falling in front of him, and he reached forward with a clawed hand.

“Connor!” Jae screeched.

As if suddenly remembering where he was, Connor flattened his body and pulled upward with his wings outstretched. He curved gracefully through the clouds.

Jae stretched his wings a second later, which pulled them back too quickly and strained his joints painfully. He pulled up and glided alongside his son. “Stay in the cloud cover!” He yelled.

“Sorry,” Connor blinked as he floated. “Got carried away.”

“What’s going on with you?” Jae asked.

Connor didn’t reply.

They circled above the house for the next few hours, wordlessly. Eventually, as the night came to a close, they descended to their yard. Connor landed first, his clawed feet pressing and kicking onto the dirt, then Jae came down behind him.

The sounds and smell of the air were shifting with daylight coming.

“Come on,” Jae huffed and walked through the patio door back into the house, but he turned back when he realized that Connor was still standing in the yard, looking at the sky.

“Con, sun-up,” Jae muttered. They were already cutting it closer than usual.

Connor looked at the sky, his dark black eyes fixed on the horizon.

“The sun. Get inside now.

Connor looked down at his clawed hands. “You always said if we’re not back by sun-up, we stay this way always, in these bodies, right?” He looked back over his shoulder. “But what if…that isn’t a bad thing?”

Jae stepped forward warily, watching the horizon. “Connor,” he said sternly. “Get inside the house right now.” Jae spread his wings, extending out from his broad shoulders.

His son’s dark eyes flashed for just a second, a hint of fear, but also confidence.

They both stayed there for a moment.

Then Connor broke his gaze and looked down.


Father and son returned to the cover of the windowless basement, waiting until the sun emerged. Their bodies knew the moment morning broke and began to revert. Claws and wings and feathers reformed into hands and skin and hair. Nose and mouth reshaped and cut themselves from flesh, with new kernels of teeth pressing their way out of swollen gums.

When it was done, Jae and Connor rolled up the plastic sheets on the ground, just barely stained with streaks of their blood, and stuffed them in garbage bags. Jae picked up the bucket and walked up the basement steps behind Connor.

At the bottom of the bucket, the white and red pieces of bone shimmered like little shells, the last sign that anything had happened. Jae poured them into the kitchen sink and watched as the rush of water took them clattering down the drain where they disappeared.

He turned off the faucet and wiped the sink clean.

Beachy Head

The world is in limbo at 4am. I don’t know whether it’s late or early. The sun hasn’t started to rise, but the stars aren’t quite visible anymore. The crickets have stopped chirping, but no birds are awake to sing yet. Do you ever wonder whether you’re reaching the end of your life or the beginning? Can you pinpoint the moment when someone you are becomes someone you were? When do you start using past tense when talking about people you know (or knew)? What’s the difference, if there is one, between is and was and used to be? These are the questions that 4am asks me, and I have no answers for it. Maybe that’s why, in this bleakness in between light and dark, I get the most visits at this time. I’m usually on my third pot of coffee by then, so awake (and so tired) I go full minutes without blinking. I’m usually about to let out the breath I take in every day once the sun starts to set and think that, for today, everything must’ve been alright in the world. I’m usually right. But sometimes, maybe two or three times a month, I’m not. That’s when I’ll pull on my jacket, head outside to the edge of the windy cliffside, and invite whoever it is who was about to leave this world to stay awhile.

“You don’t have to do this,” I might say, grabbing their hand and gently pulling them back. They’ll turn to face me, both annoyed and relieved at the interruption, and I’ll notice something about them. Sometimes they look pretty young, sometimes they’re dressed very nicely, sometimes they have an engagement ring on, sometimes they have something in their hands–a necklace, a letter, a picture. Sometimes they’ll have taken off their shoes. I never really understood what that was about. Are they afraid of getting their shoes wet? Do they worry about trudging around the afterlife in damp socks? Do they hope someone will find them? They usually won’t say much, if anything. Most of the time, they aren’t even crying. But they’ll always come inside. Some will have a cup of coffee. I’ll have two. Usually, though, they’ll go for tea.

I won’t ask them why, but sometimes they’ll tell me. This is when they’ll start to cry, if they weren’t before. Once they get to the part about how lonely it is, no matter how many people are around you, that’s when they’ll start. I’ll tell them that it’s ok, that everyone has people who love and care about them and that I’m sure they are not as alone as they think they are. I don’t mind lying to keep people away from my home.

“Thank you,” they’ll say.

I’ll nod. Afterwards, I’ll find a place on my mantel and they’ll leave me their name. They’ll stay until the sun rises. I’ll hope they never visit me again. Usually, they don’t. Usually Beachy Head is a place they’d rather not remember.


The delivery boy comes on the first Monday of each month with my groceries. It’s the only package I ever get. The 24-hour Waitrose is a fifteen-minute drive from my cottage on Beachy Head. Fifteen minutes there, fifteen minutes back, half an hour getting groceries. It’s just too long to be gone. For over a year, the delivery boy hasn’t asked me why I can’t come to the store myself, and for over a year I haven’t asked him whether or not he should be in school. We have an understanding.

“She’s a beautiful day today, isn’t she, Miss Kayla?” he asks.

I like his accent. Something about British children (he must be about seventeen though, old enough to resent being called a child) is off-putting and charming at the same time, especially with the odd drawl people from Sussex seem to have. He’s got a ruddy complexion and a pleasant, customer service smile.

“It is,” I say. 64 degrees fahrenheit, a slight breeze, partial clouds. It’s very nice for November, but I’m sure by next week it’ll be bitter cold and gusty, especially up here. I tip him £10 and take my groceries.

“Thank you!” he says, always chipper. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” I say back, but I can tell it sounds weird coming out of my American mouth.

I return to my post. I spread smooth peanut butter on soft white bread while I keep watch. It’s only 5:43pm but maybe someone had a bad day at work. I never have bad days at work. Sitting solitary in the comfort of my own quiet home, I make calls and ask people if they’d like to spend money on something they’re not already spending money on. I’m thankful when they hang up on me. Most of them do, but some are too polite, or maybe too lonely, or maybe too bored to give up the brief company. I’m thankful I’m paid for hours and not commission. I’m thankful this job lets me focus on living here on the cliff.

The Sisyphus Code

Day of the fight. Wake up that morning with a temperature of 100.6. Sweating. Flushed cheeks. Anxious. Always am on these days. Feel the regulating coolant kick in as I get out of bed, blooming at the base of my skull and spreading through my body.

Manuela already in the kitchen doing dishes. Ignore her and do what I always do the day of a fight. Do what I always do no matter what—prepare. Strap on the goggles, run the simulations again. Run them so many times the images of that wiry Hispanic sneering at me with a black mouthpiece burns into my vision. Win them all again—just like I will the real thing.

Manuela heats a frozen TV dinner and turns on the television. Grab the remote and turn it back off. Close my eyes as I eat in silence, imagining the fight. Abraja ducking for the takedown, me raising my knee and slamming it into his cocky face. Him collapsing to the mat with a busted nose, me lunging on top of him raining down blows before the ref pulls me off.

Day moves slow. Fight day always does. Run the simulations more. Take a shit while sketching out Abraja’s punch combos. Skip rope in the living room for an hour staring at the wall of my living room imagining me bobbing and weaving his strikes, countering with a knockout blow.

Reason I’m going to win: no one else on this planet has my drive.


Transdimensional Jumps

“Where do you want to go now?”

“I don’t know.”

Drifting stars sparkle and dance and sway around her head, kissing her cheeks and bouncing off into oblivion. We’re standing on the tip top point of a glacier. Sorry, false. She’s standing. I’m slumping.

“I used to love this movie,” she says, drawing pictures of cats drinking from coffee cups with her fingers in the hydrogen and helium gases passing by. “This is the movie that really got me into space exploration.”

“We’re not in the movie,” I say, “we’re in the videogame.”

“I know that, but it’s based on the movie so that’s why I’m talking about the movie.”

“Fine. I’m just saying.”

“Hey, dingus. What’s your deal?”

“I don’t have a deal.”

“Bullshit. You’ve been moping around ever since we plugged in this morning. You’ve been fine all week, now you’re pulling your old Morrissey/Smiths I’m-alone-in-the-world-with-a-twinkle-in-my-eye sad-boy routine. Aren’t you happy you found your super fucking bad-ass best friend after all these years and now we get to spend all this time together again?”

“I was hoping that I’d find you, then I found you. And Heaven knows I’m miserable now,” I sing. I laugh and jump a few miles into the nearest black hole.

I wait and listen for the pop of her following me. Years ago, before she relocated to a galaxy far, far away, I would never have been so bold as to be the first to run. It was always her running, me chasing. Always. I mean, literally, every time. The last time she ran–to that galaxy far, far away–was the first time I didn’t run after her.

The pop comes as I’m halfway through the wormhole and into another dimension. I fly out, heading straight toward a version of Earth where the oceans are swamps and the land is desert. I land onto a coastal region in the middle of an indigo and silver hurricane. The winds howl like coyotes, picking me up and putting me down like a parent moving their infant child who got in the way of something.

She flies in and does the superhero land right in front of me.

“You’re slow,” I say.

She rolls her eyes.

“Is there less gravity over there or is it something else that’s made you move like sludge?”

“Why are you being mean?”

“I’m not being mean. I asked a question. You still haven’t told me much about where you’ve been or what it’s like there. I just wanted to know is all.”

“You’re being mean, and you know it.”

I am.

Voices rise from beneath the winds, meeting in a perfect harmony before singing the same line over and over again in a language I’ve never heard before. Drum machines and synthesizers follow close behind.

“I don’t remember this from the movie,” I say.

“Let’s go somewhere else. It’s too loud here,” she says.

“No, wait. I love this song.”

She knows I’m lying. Her eyebrows flicker between neon pink and a violent maroon. The bright blue of her eyes dims to a greyish hue. I smile uncomfortably at her. Her arm rises, forming a carriage and horses out of the white desert sand.

“Fine. Go,” I say. “Nothing ever changes, I guess.”

“And just what in red hell is that supposed to mean?”

Bits of swampland flies over our heads. Some moss strikes the side of my face and spins out to God knows where.

“Maybe I think you’re impatient is all,” I say, not wanting to ruin the fact that she’s standing in front of me for the first time in years. “Just wait until the song is over. I like it. You know I like songs.”

“Yes, I know you like songs. Everyone likes songs. That’s a dumb thing to say.”

“How is that dumb?”

“Never mind. Please, continue telling me how much you like ‘songs’.”

“Whatever, I like most songs. I’m not a music snob anymore. I know I was, but I’m not anymore. Because I’ve changed.”

A laugh comes out so loudly from her that it masks the thunderclap in the background.

“What’s so funny about that?”

The blue in her eyes light up, her eyebrows stay pink. Her lips part that way they do when she’s wanting to smile but fights it. “I’ve missed you,” she says.

Shit. I clutch the letter in my pocket that I’ve been writing and rewriting for the better part of a decade.

I open the door of her sand carriage and motion for her to step inside. “You win. Let’s get out of here.”

She places her hand on my shoulder before she gets in.

This City of Spilt Marrow and Silence

Lony found the wet, splintered bones with the soles of her feet, when some sound or silence had roused her from her bed. She had always slept barefoot, even in the cold of winter; after that night she never would again.

She screamed, before she really understood what it was she stood in. Then she did understand: that it was not a what, but a whom, and she could not scream any more for want of air. Lony fell amid the wreckage of her baby’s hollow bones and tried to count them, sought order and sense in this most senseless of things. Here in the breathless dark she could not remember how to cry; only the wind sobbed through the smashed door.

In this city of hope, a Wolf did not devour a child every day. But a Wolf might devour a child any day.


Friends and family came to the wake to comfort Lony, as if they didn’t understand that she was already dead.

On the kitchen table, clots of gelatin had formed about the rims of half-empty pans, and the remaining meat rolls wept brine onto their serving platter. Food went cold fast in the city in the winter. Lony focused on those remnants: how she would package them up, where in the icebox they would fit, as her sisters and their husbands and wives offered their condolences.

Lony was lucky, in a sense, the family told her, for sometimes a whole family was eaten up and here Lony still had her eldest, Nis. They pressed her cold hands and wept as they urged Lony to put it behind her, to be reassured. To leave the matter rest, for what good could come of it now? They knelt on the floor in front of her and reminded her: they needed the Wolves to keep the city safe, so all the other little children could sleep soundly in their beds. No other city in the world had such Wolves, and no other city yet survived. Yes, sometimes tragedy struck, for Wolves were still predators, and such things happened. Sometimes they ate the innocent, but mostly they ate the guilty. Surely Lony wouldn’t ask every other mother in the city to sacrifice their little ones’ well-being. Their blood would not bring little Grethe back to her.

Because of the Wolves, they said, there was still a future of hope and freedom from fear, here in the last bastion of light and goodness left to the dark wild world. But Lony did not want to turn her face toward that hopeful beacon, nor could she feel the warmth of goodness in the long cold night.

Attention peeled away from Lony then, toward an old aunt in the corner. To her audience, she recited a litany of poor choices made, of fateful missteps for which Grethe paid the price. If the child had been better taught to fetch her mother before answering the door at night, if Lony were not such a sound sleeper, oh. The family murmured to one another, that they would be wiser, better prepared; that their little ones would stay safe. Lony’s body had gone cold and numb, hardened and preserved in a shell of her own brine.

But while their aunt lectured on, Lony’s youngest sister Moya leaned in close to her ear, and whispered to her. “It was not right that Grethe was taken from you. Not a one of them should dare say otherwise.”

It was Moya, too, that finally ushered the rest of the family out to give Lony and Nis their privacy. They went, anxious and complaining, but they went, in twos and threes out into the quiet streets, and the ice-bitten air ghosted past them into Lony’s house.

As they passed through her freshly-repaired door she felt them leave their burdens behind. They had never plastered over streaks of blood and deep claw-grooves with paint that would never quite match the rest. They did not know the weight of a ruined carcass that had once been a child. Their little ones still woke, and laughed, and ate, and played. This freedom of theirs hung on Lony like rusty chains upon a coffin.

The blood of the city’s children would not bring back Grethe. But when Lony closed her eyes, the city was painted red with it, and the citizens packed the streets to scream and scourge themselves over the price they had gladly paid for false freedom.

Rivulets

There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day.

The rain awakens them, though nobody has been able to explain it physiologically. Once the rain stops, they lie back down, resuming their previous positions. It is probably safe to walk among them during a downpour, but nobody wants to be the first to test the supposition. That is, until today.

I stare across the field, then back to the shelter where I left Ensin and Elena.

Elena is old enough. She can watch Ensin until I return. Cool rags for fevers, soup for food. A fifteen-year-old can manage that.

We had been on the move, looking for the next abandoned store to resupply us, but Ensin went downhill fast and we had to stop in a makeshift shelter. Then the rains came. I thought he would make it until the storms passed, but we used up all our medications during his last infection and after two days of continuous downpour, I had to go or watch Ensin die. I recognize that if I don’t return, I may be dooming them both, but after Eva…

I have trained Elena for years. She can hunt, cook, and avoid the bodies without me.

I did my best to reassure without frightening. Coming right out and saying, “It’s not your fault if Ensin dies,” would not have gone over well with Elena. Or Ensin, if he could understand through the fevers.

One field between me and antibiotics. Ensin is prone to ear infections, but this is worse than usual. He wails at night and during lucid periods, signs that the bones behind his ear hurt. Mastoiditis. If it spreads into his brain, I lose him. Even if I get these antibiotics, I’m not sure I can bring him back.

But I have to try. Standing in my way are a tempest and a field full of emaciated “living” corpses.

Nobody believed until it happened. The past is no place to visit when it means digging up buried plagues. Some we knew. Smallpox in the upper layers of the tundra. There was a vaccine for that and we staved off extinction. But as the climate and thereby the layers warmed, other pestilence emerged. Epidemics so devastating in antiquity they left no survivors to record them. We thought we had it under control, but then it moved into the overpopulated areas. Entire slums a viral conflagration.

You thought the Terracotta Army was funerary art to protect the emperor in the afterlife? Qin Shi Huang was trying to warn us. Don’t gravedig, or a plague army awaits. And here I am among half-living Terracotta homologs. What would Qin Shi Huang say if he could see this? Probably, “I told you so.”

Up close, they look like mummies, recently excavated from a well-preserved dig. Or perhaps the human equivalent of a mammoth dug out of a glacier with a few hunks of meat and hair clinging stubbornly to bone. But in the rain, these dead wriggle like fifty-thousand-year-old worms thawed back to life.

Rain spatters their taut skin and they look almost peaceful, refreshed as they turn their heads skyward to the rejuvenating moisture.

Droplets splash off of parched skin remnants. My breath catches in my chest.

I should be okay with my goggles on and mouth closed. No mucous membrane exposure and I’ll make it.

My own platitudes provide only modest reassurance.

I weave through the undead chasm like a ballet dancer and suddenly, they are behind me, the pharmacy in front.

Inside, it is a standard-built corner drug shop. Checkout up front, aisles of toiletries, knick-knacks, now expired food, pharmacy in the back. Nobody bothered to draw the safety curtain once the virus broke out. I clamber over the counter and rummage through the aisles, finding unrefrigerated (i.e. expired) insulin, cough-suppressants, painkillers, anti-hypertensives, and… antibiotics.

I look through names, recognizing a few. Penicillin sometimes works, but not always. I grab several bottles, but continue searching. Ciprofloxacin? No, that was for my UTI. Cefdinir? Yes, that’s it. As I stuff bottles into the sack, a coughing paroxysm shakes me.

Fuck. I have to hurry.

I fill the bag until the zipper growls at the effort of closure. Anything that might have been antibiotics make- the cut, plus a few painkillers. On the way out, I grab a painting respirator and seal it to my face, hoping I don’t hyperventilate on the way.

The pitter-patter drizzle on the bodies brushes past me like somnambulant whispers. I’m not sure who is more alert. I bump into a few, but they don’t notice. I’ll have to tell Elena.

I hear Ensin before I see him. I’m glad I grabbed painkillers. I’ll give him half a dose, maybe a quarter? He is so little.

Elena startles when I push through the flap. Her alarm is not allayed by the mask.

There is no time to waste.

“Give him this one, once a day for fourteen days.”

Elena nods silently. She knows.

“He can occasionally have a dose of this,” I say, holding up the painkiller, “but don’t give it for more than a couple days or he’ll become dependent.”

Tears well up in her eyes.

She always was a smart girl.

“The rest of these,” I point to the other bottles, “are antibiotics you can try in the future. If you find a library, look them up and make sure.”

Elena looks at Ensin, then at me.

“Can I hug you?”

I shake my head, too choked up to speak. Instead, I sign “I love you.” We all learned sign language for Ensin.

Elena looks away, tears making mud of the dusty floor. I look back and forth between them and Ensin holds up his hand, signing “I love you too.”

Every second I stay puts them at risk, so I blow a kiss through the mask and walk outside. To the chasm. To my new home. Ironic that the water that sentenced me will now be my only respite from an apathetic, otherwise imperturbable fomite existence.

Will he remember me? I hope so.

On The Rails

Tam was just getting to the good part when, behind him, Kaeta said, “Don’t move.”

His eyes unfocused from the page. “What?” he said cautiously.

“You’ve got something…”

“What?”

“It looks like a bee.”

Something moved on his bare shoulder. Gentle insect feet. He could feel the brush of its fur, the weightless warmth of it.

“Maybe if I…” Kaeta flapped a timid swat of air at him.

“Don’t,” he said. “Let it be. It’s not doing any harm.”

He went back to his book and the blue ocean beyond, strangely pleased about the bee. The story began to gain momentum again, and when Kaeta said, “Ah, it’s gone,” he had to resurface into the physical world to understand what she meant. He hadn’t even felt it leave.


“I wouldn’t exactly call it a plague,” said Tam as the café boy put the glasses down on the table.

“It doesn’t matter what you’d call it,” replied Banur, nodding politely at the boy even as he sized up his cool glass of cider with dark-ringed, famished eyes. “It’s officially a plague.”

“There’s hardly been–cheers–hardly a noticeable increase in-”

“We’ve only caught the very edge of it,” said Banur, who’d obviously explained this many times. “The air pressure pulled it further inland than predicted. If you want to see it in all its glory, hop on the train to Lindolm.”

“Oh?” Tam sipped at his beer and licked the foam from his lips.

“Yes,” said Banur. “I haven’t seen it–they’ve cracked down on leafleters and postcard artists this time–but by all accounts the mountains have just made the whole city into a kind of…” He yawned and gestured vaguely with his long fingers. “Sorry. A kind of bowl.”

“A bowl… filled with bees?”

“That’s what they’re saying.”

Tam raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’s an image and a half.”

“Isn’t it.”

“At least it’s just bees,” said Tam hopefully. “They’re meant to be good, aren’t they? Good omens.”

Banur made a noncommittal sound.

“Not good?” ventured Tam.

“It’s not the bees part, it’s the plague part.” Banur drained half his glass in one. “It could be a plague of kittens and it would still be a problem.”

“All those little badly-socialised claws,” said Tam.

“Quite.” Banur’s smile was tired. “You know this, Tam. You weren’t that bad a student. It’s not the ‘of’. The imbalance is the problem. The, whatsit, the disharmony, if you like.” An ember of wickedness lit his face. “You know, the Ministry mooted changing the name once to avoid the confusion.”

Tam leaned in. “You know I love some Ministry gossip.”

“It was all before my time, so most of it’s been buried in shame, but someone came up with ‘muchness’.”

Tam snorted into his beer. “A muchness of frogs!”

“A muchness of boils, a muchness of twee, grisly death visited on all the second children… In the end they quietly killed the idea.”

“So we’re stuck with plagues then,” said Tam.

Banur grimaced.

“Oh no,” said Tam. “Banur, no. Don’t make that face. When? What will it be this time?”

“We don’t know yet,” said Banur. “And you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Please let it be a plague of rolling stock. Just this once.”

“It’s in the hands of the powers.”

They nibbled on hot spiced nuts for a while in silence, Banur yawning from time to time. They’d come a long way from the ambitious boys studying for the government exams at these tables. Their companionable silence was unbreachable too, Tam barricaded behind his stacks of scrolls and numbers, and Banur all but hidden in the shadows of his Ministry’s secrets.

“So,” said Banur at last. “Rolling stock, is it?”

“Ah,” said Tam. He cleared his throat. “Well, there have been some issues.”

He took a deep draught of beer in the hopes that it would cool the embarrassment in his cheeks. Hours of overtime and drafting statements, massaging numbers and leaking ambiguous words to pamphleteers in pubs paled and shrank from government glamour into something small and grubby.

“What kind of issues?” asked Banur, relentless.

“Well, the, um, the comet shower the other month, sort of…”

“Ah, I remember reading something. It, what was it, disrupted the supply line?”

“You could say that,” said Tam unhappily, and indeed he had written the words himself. “One of our warehouses got flattened.”

Banur made a sympathetic face. “Oof.”

“All brand new rolling stock, built to spec. We were going to send Minister Paro out to sit in one, get some commemorative postcards drawn up.”

“Oh, Tam.”

Tam sighed into his beer. “It was meant to make people forget how horribly over-budget the project is and get them excited for the new line.”

“Tam, stop. I’ll cry.”

“Yes, yes, very funny.”

“What’s funny about it?” protested Banur.

“I know the Transport Ministry is insignificant compared to Interpreting, but-”

Banur was fully indignant now. “Who said that? I never said that!”

“Well it is-”

“People need transport, and they want Ferthian Two.”

Banur held up two fingers to the café boy: same again. He directed a meaningful look at Tam. The café boy did his best but the corner of his mouth twitched in sympathy with Banur as he went to fetch the drinks. Banur loved making him look dramatic in front of the café boys.

Tam felt himself redden further. “Just, with everything at your place…”

“Screw my place,” said Banur. “I like hearing about your work. It’s nice to hear about something normal for once.” He leaned forward. “Have you decided what colour Ferthian Two will be on the maps yet?”

“Not yet.” Tam glanced up at Banur. “Look, all this plague stuff…”

Banur snorted.

“How… how bad is it going to get?”

Banur made that noncommittal sound again. “Oh, who knows?”

“You do,” said Tam flatly.

“And I’d rather not talk about it. Ah, good, here come the drinks. Now. Tell me about the logo designs. They’d better have vetoed Minister Marruth’s execrable idea with the ducks. I know Lady Brira will have had something to say about it, and I want to hear every mordant word of it.”