Search Results for: always on my mind

Being Human

I can’t breathe, the simulation room is swimming so hard. Swirling shades of blue and green, so many shades! I don’t know how the humans stand it. Tears–the real thing–smear my cheeks as I clutch at the clothing covering my body. I’d do anything for the comfort of white walls right now, for the solidity of my pod-group pressing tight against my membranes–

“Stop,” I gasp, and curl atop the simulation room floor, feeling for it past the maelstrom of colors. “Stop the test! I cannot–”

The air flashes, and a moment later, the room settles, resolving into nothing more than blank walls.

Blessedly blank walls.

My panic slowly subsides, but the tight squeezing in my chest does not. I know already the disappointment of what is to come next…

From the nearby wall bud, the project leader’s voice buzzes in disapproval. “Candidate Jandoon,” the project leader says, “you have failed Assimilation Test 351x. Prepare for reincorporation into your pod-group.”


A chaotic array of emotions unfurls inside me, a mix of human neurochemicals and the remnants of my own. I’ve spent years training for the Earth system observation program. Years being coaxed into the unforgiving shape that is human, inoculated into the bizarreness that is sound and speech.

And worst of all, the colors. So many terrible, pointless colors, all of which refuse to settle to stillness in my brain-mass.

This project has been my entire life.

And now I have failed. I am to be reincorporated, so close to my final goal.

“Hey!” A familiar voice echoes down the undulating white passage behind me. “Jandoon, wait up!”

I bite back my cringe–one of the few human expressions I excel at–and turn to face my competitor. “Greetings, Candidate Neeome.”

Their face squints oddly, and I realize I’ve erred too formal.

Neeome would never make such a mistake in language. They have passed every test formulated by the project leader. Have become so human at this point, some question whether they will be able to fully reincorporate into their pod-group once the project is complete.

Their dedication is obviously stronger than my own, an observation which always causes me internal pain. If any of us are chosen to initiate first contact with the humans, it will surely be Neeome.

Neeome matches my pace, joining my disgraceful slouch down the passage toward reincorporation.

“I heard what happened,” they say. “In the color room.”

I say nothing. I do not wish to express myself in human sounds, and chemical clouds are not an option until I have been reincorporated.

“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” they continue. “Plenty of us fail the color tests. They’re tough!”

I stop. Neeome is being compassionate. Likely practicing for when they are sent planet-side. Even now, their dedication continues to shame me. Still, I cannot help but glance down at my near-white hands, veined with faint tones of yellow and blue.

Unlike the color room, my hands do not swim before my vision–but how many weeks of training did that take to overcome? And the colors are still so pale–so muted!–compared to what our final shapings will be and what we will face on the planet’s actual surface.

I grab futilely at the air with my limited human hands. If I were my true self, the air would be permeated with the chemical signature of my frustration. If I were my true self–

“Hey.” Neeome takes my hands, encasing them in their own. It reminds me of my birthing sac, of that brief period surrounded by the pod-group’s mass, touching but not yet joined.

My hands shake in theirs. Sending signals, signals that are so much harder to interpret than what I’ve always known. “I just…I just don’t understand how you can do it. How you can stand it, it’s all so bright. It makes me want to burst from this skin.”

“Hmm.” Neeome glances down the passage both ways, then leans in close. “You want to know the secret to all these tests?”

There is a secret? I was unaware there was a secret.

Cautiously, I nod.

“Well,” they continue, speaking quietly, “ninety-five percent of it is just faking. Pure performance. You know, pretending that everything is okay even though it’s really not.”

I startle. That cannot be right. The project leader would surely catch on. If we do not learn to adapt to being human in all ways, our observations will become compromised at the first moment of extreme stress. Everything we have worked for will be lost.

But the expression on Neeome’s face is one of intense seriousness. And expectation.

As for what they are expecting…?

Oh.

“So,” I ask, “what is the other five percent?”

She grins as though I have shared an amusing adage or called a large canine companion a “good boy.”

“Nightmares, mostly. Accepting you’re going to have them about everything you work so hard not to see. I spent a week waking up screaming after my first real tree. A week! And the things still give me the trembles when I see them. If the project leader decides to post me at a forested observation point, I am so screwed!”

I laugh at the euphemism. Then nearly jump because it is my first spontaneous laugh.

It sounds quite different from the practice rooms.

Neeome pats my back, then sets off down the passage. “You should ask to take the test again,” they say before exiting a side passage.

I consider.

“Yes,” I say to nobody in particular, “perhaps I should.”


“Candidate Jandoon,” the project leader states from the wall bud, “we have accepted your request of a second trial for Assimilation Test 351x. Proceed.”

Already sweating–why must these bodies shed so much moisture?–I step into the testing room. The walls are white and blank. Everything is void. Comforting.

But it will not last.

In fact, as soon as I begin to settle, the walls flash.

Blue and green assault my vision in a chaotic spray. Beneath me, an ominous mass of orange and silver tilts, nearly tipping me over.

I start to crumple, wishing I could suck my eyes inward and erase the horrors stabbing at me from every angle. The rocking, the roiling, the terrible colors!

But I catch myself.

Ninety-five percent of it is just faking.

Neeome who excels at everything has admitted even they are not so perfect. And if they can bear the pain of assault from all these newly embedded senses, then there is no reason I cannot do the same.

Right?

My eyes water excessively as I bite my lip and send a heavy dose of pain signals to my brain-mass, and my legs quiver beneath me. But I do my best to pretend at stillness. At calm.

And, in what I am certain is to be the greatest error in my life-cycle, I stare directly into the maelstrom.

It hurts.

Oh, how it hurts. Every movement is a stab into my brain-mass. A furious jab whose sole task is to undo me.

Instinct screams at me to shut my eyes. To curl on the floor that I know is there outside of the simulation until the roiling stops. Until my inputs are manageable once more. But though the thought of reincorporating to my pod-group feels urgent under this assault, I know the urge will not last.

Because there is one thing–just this one thing–that I want more.

I want to be a part of making history.

I want to observe.

Wave after wave of sheer terror, I fight off as the colors swoop in from every direction. As they peel away my carefully practiced preparations.

And then, just as I think I can bear no more…a shape resolves.

High up, a winged fluttering. White feathers cutting through the chaos, tipped in black.

“A gull,” I say, my breath sucking free. I remember the pictures, the grayed-out stills we studied in class for preparation.

And as I say the word, the rest of the simulation begins to resolve into shape. Into form and purpose.

“And the ocean,” I gasp. “And the beach! It is the beach!”

A mass of water expands as far as I can see, blue and green and every shade between, murmuring as it stretches calmly up and down the golden sands beneath me, oddly reminiscent of the chemical clouds of home. Overhead, the gull swings in a wide arc, eyeing the waves below.

And though the image fills me with a new kind of terror, the world no longer reels beneath me and my limbs no longer shake.

Indeed, I am laughing, though it takes me a moment to realize it.

I’m laughing because I know now, whatever the challenges, I will pass the tests before me. I will pass them and be as human as I can be no matter how frightening it is because some things are greater than fear.

And maybe, if I am brave enough, it will be me who gets to initiate first contact.

And then I will be the one who gets to teach a human how to be us.

Michelle Muenzler writes words both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Check out michellemuenzler.com for links to more of her work.

Witherwings

Nashira sat on the highest branch of Talltree, squinting into the dawn sky where specks shifted against glowing peach cloud. From such a vast distance the tiny blemishes looked like a flock of birds, but as they neared, details emerged. Silhouetted, slender figures. Hair shifting in the breeze. And of course, wide, fluttering wings.

Nashira never wearied of watching her fellow fairies return from night gatherings, their cluster rising then lowering in unison, saving energy by working with the wind. They travelled slowly thanks to bulging bags that hung from their shoulders. When Nashira had been a gatherer, she’d judged the success of a venture on how deeply her shoulder ached on return. It had been a long time since she’d felt that satisfying pain.

As the fairies’ silhouettes dissolved into glinting gold armour and brightly coloured wings, Nashira rose to her feet. It was time to go. If she could see the patterns on her brethren’s wings, then they’d be able to see her details just as easily. But the grey, flaking excuse for wings drooping from her back weren’t assets to display with pride.

It had been a year since Nashira had contracted Dust Disease. The illness had arrived after a fierce, hot wind that destroyed plants and coated the forest in a strange dust. The forest recovered when the rains arrived, and at first it seemed the dust had washed away. But it had only moved, choosing a new target. Fairy wings.

While Dust Disease picked victims randomly and wasn’t contagious, Nashira preferred to avoid healthy fairies. The sight of her withered wings made many folk uncomfortable, and each time she witnessed their unease it killed a little of her heart.

Concentrating, she managed to move her wings. A hindwing twitched. A forewing fluttered weakly. She tucked all four wings against her back then dashed along the branch in the direction of Talltree’s trunk. Each stride caused her wings to shift, and the movement sent pain stabbing down her spine. It was tempting to grow still and fear-frozen, but the breeze carried voices on it. The returning fairies were close. With teeth clenched, Nashira hurried on.

Then behind her came the patter of feet, fairies landing on the branch. With no time to scramble down the trunk, Nashira placed her back against the bark, hiding her wings from the other fairies’ sight. As they made their way towards her, Nashira stood in what she hoped would pass for a casual stance.

The gatherers were chatting as they walked the stretch of the branch, but when their eyes fell on Nashira, they fell silent and still. They stood bunched together, staring.

Nashira breathed through nerves. She was sure the gatherers couldn’t see her wings, but they were probably picturing them, flaking brown, ugly and useless. Even from a distance Nashira recognised the barely masked disgust on some faces, and horror and pity on others. Then she spotted a smile.

“Nashira, hello!” Miram, Talltree’s best armour maker jumped up and down and squealed. “It’s good to see you, Nashi.” She broke from the huddle and skipped along the branch, stopping in front of Nashira. “It’s been so long since I last saw you. How are you?”

How was she? Really? Her wings were dying. Still, Miram was at least willing to speak to her. That counted for something.

Nashira dragged a smile onto her face. “I’m well, thank you.” Dropping her eyes to hide the truth, her gaze fell on Miram’s bag. “What did you gather last night? Moon flowers? Owl eggs?” No. Night gathering at that time of year could only mean one thing. Her heart fluttered. “Dragon scales?”

Everyone who lived on Talltree prized dragon scales above all other items. They made the strongest, most light weight body armour and the sharpest swords. No brownie spear or hawk talon could penetrate dragon armour, and not even rock-monsters could withstand the edge of a dragon scale blade. And the best time for fairies to collect scales was during the dragon mating season.

Like everything a dragon did, the mating ritual was savage. A fairy bold enough to approach a recently mated dragon could salvage scales knocked loose during the ritual. Until the dust took her wings, Nashira had been a brilliant scale collector.

“We had a most successful night,” Miram said, patting her bag. “I found a collection of tail scales that had fallen from a dragon nest. Though small, they’re lovely colours. They’ll make wonderful wrist armour. But Wurren had the greatest find.”

Wurren. His name was enough to send nerves scooting through Nashira in a thousand directions. Spotting him amongst the watching fairies weakened her knees.

“Wurren,” Miram called over her shoulder. “Come show Nashi what you collected.”

Wurren didn’t move. With eyes shock-wide, he stared across the space dividing himself and Nashira. She had a feeling he would have remained that way but the fairy beside him gave him a rough nudge that made him stumble forward. With his bag clutched in front of him like a shield, Wurren moved slowly and rigidly along the branch. His obvious discomfort hurt Nashira worse than any pain her wings could inflict because she and Wurren had once been inseparable. But thanks to the Dust Disease, for almost a year they’d barely seen each other, let alone spoken.

As Wurren neared, he snapped his emerald wings closed. Maybe he thought the sight of their beauty might break Nashira to pieces. No wonder they’d once been such a perfect couple. They’d understood each other exactly.

He stopped in front of her. “Good morning, Nashira.” His stiff politeness stung. “What brings you all the way to the landing branch?”

Longing? Jealousy? A twisted need to torture herself?

“I roam Talltree every morning,” Nashira said with forced poise. “It was just coincidence that brought us here at the same time.” Then to shift the focus away from her, she jutted her chin at Wurren’s carry bag. “What wonderful treasure did you find last night?”

Wurren opened his bag, revealing a stack of large, scarlet scales.

Nashira whistled. Not only was red the rarest colour, it was unusual for such large scales to come away from a dragon’s hide. “What a find! What will you do with such beauties?”

Wurren shook his head as he stroked their glossy surface. “I have no idea. How am I supposed to decide the best way to use such a special collection?”

“They’d be perfect for body armour,” Miram said.

“Of course you’d say that,” Wurren replied. “You’re an armourer. But the scales are too colourful. If I wore red armour in a brownie battle, the brownies would die laughing.”

Nashira smirked. “Quite a powerful weapon then.”

“Except,” Wurren said, “my fellow fairies might also succumb to the joke.”

Miram pouted. “I didn’t say they’d make armour suitable for you, Wurren. But I’m sure there are many other fairies who’d love a scarlet breast plate.” She toed the bark beneath her feet. “Armour looks delightful when it matches a fairy’s wing colour, don’t you think?” With her face set in innocence, she opened her wings a little, revealing a hint of vivid crimson.

Nashira’s insides curdled, not from the beauty of Miram’s wings, but from the way Wurren smiled crookedly as his eyes roamed all over them. He used to save that look for her.

As if realising how see-through he’d become, Wurren hid his pleasure with a concerned frown that he planted on Nashira. “Should you be up here with your ill health?”

While his words were gentle, they still hurt. Did she really look so poorly?

His frown deepened. “How did you even get up here without the ability to fly?”

He stood on his toes, trying to peek at Nashira’s wings, but she pressed her back harder against the tree trunk. The pressure worsened the ache that was her constant companion, but she breathed through it. Better some pain than the shame of Wurren seeing her hideous, useless wings.

“I have arms,” she said, recapturing his gaze. “Strong arms. I could climb around this tree far longer than you could fly. Besides, I’m quite well and I’ll remain so. Healer Lich is making great progress on a cure for Dust Disease.”

“He is?” Miram gave a little clap. “That’s wonderful to hear, isn’t it, Wurren?”

“Of course, it is… if it’s true.” Wurren’s eyes narrowed and he searched Nashira’s face. She met his stare but feared he could see past her eyes to the grim truth that Lich was failing.

“We’re so glad you’re feeling better, Nashi,” Miram said. “You’ll be flying with us again in no time.”

“Yes.” Nashira clenched her teeth, forming a rigid smile. “Well, I mustn’t keep you.”

Wurren returned the smile but it looked strange mixed with his worried frown. “It’s been nice seeing you, Nashira. Really. I…”

“Yes? What is it, Wurren?” I miss you? I still want to be with you? She held her breath.

“Ah, nothing.” With the shake of his head, Wurren hefted his bag, moved to the edge of the branch and stepped into the air. Spreading his wings, he descended slowly between branches and disappeared.

Nashira’s spirits sank with him.

One at a time, the other gatherers followed until only Miram remained. “It really has been lovely to see you, Nashi. And I mean it, I really can’t wait to fly with you again.” She hid a chuckle behind a hand. “Gatherings are dull without you convincing us to take silly chances.” With a last smile, Miram stepped gracefully off the branch. She spread her perfect, scarlet wings and floated after Wurren.

Even after the gatherers disappeared from view, Nashira continued leaning on the tree. Every nerve ending in her back sizzled, but she refused to move. Given time, maybe the pain would hurt worse than the loss of Wurren’s love, her friendships and her freedom, but she doubted it.

Royals

Saturday moans and whimpers in his sleep. The noise is one of the things keeping Abbie awake. As he tosses and kicks, soaking the sheets with sweat, she’s torn between stroking his long greasy hair to calm him, or grabbing him by the neck and choking the life out of him. If she dared. But she doesn’t do anything. Unless watching him in the dark, desolate hours when she should be unconscious counts as something.

During the day, he has moments when Abbie swears he’s his old self: funny and energetic. The guy who engages and upsells their customers. It melts her fucking heart, despite herself, despite everything. Despite the fact that he’s high. Those moments let her pretend she’s still charmed by him. Still in love, even.

But as he relaxes into a semblance of normal sleep, a cold numbness settles into Abbie’s chest and brain, and it doesn’t seem to matter anymore how she feels about him. She can’t decide if it’s a relief or the saddest thing in the world. She’s wide awake. Her latest notebook is on the bedside table, the one she writes her lists in. She doesn’t remember when it started, but she’s filled a few. She takes it, slips from their bed, picks up a hoodie from the floor that reeks of sweat, his sweat, and slides it over her head. She shuts the door behind her, taking care not to wake him. He has no idea she’s going to leave him.

She pads down the hallway to her lab and stands in the dark listening to the hum of the machinery. She loves her lab. It’s clean, organized, and unlike the rest of the apartment, which has gone from shabby chic to something more like genuine squalor, it makes her hopeful. But she’s leaving this too.

She switches on the light and goes to the glass tanks lining the back wall from floor to ceiling. She gazes in at the delicate creatures covering most of the surfaces inside, some slowly crawling, others half-buried in moist dirt. Shimmer beetles. But these Shimmers are squat, ugly things, dark and unadorned, glorified cockroaches if not for the secretions they ooze from the tiny glands on the backs of their legs and the tops of their feet. She moves down the rows of tanks to the biggest tank with the fewest insects. The Royals. She pulls one out and places it on her notebook atop the stainless steel table.

It’s still, except for the twitching of velvety antennae. It’s walnut-sized, has a delicately tapered, triangular head, and a shiny black carapace covered in silvery whorls of delicate hairs, arching and spiraling in complex patterns. She bends to look closer, and the whorls stir under her breath, and lo and behold, seem to shimmer.

“Hello, beautiful girl,” she whispers.

She’s tempted to set it on her arm or neck, to let it do its work, but truth be told, she’s afraid. She’s only let a Royal crawl along her arm for a few seconds at a time, and even that? Damn. It was too much for her. And she made them, working month after month splicing genes, chopping and pasting sections of DNA until they were as perfect as they could be. Saturday says it’s the best work she’s ever done. Abbie’s not so sure. It’s only a matter of time before he wants to try one out.

She picks up the Shimmer beetle, gingerly, and puts it back in its tank.




List of Things You Don’t Do Anymore

1. Play guitar.
2.
3. Look at me.
4.
5. Touch me.
6.
7. Notice when I walk into the room.
8.
9. Bathe every day.
10.
11. Laugh.
12.
13. Try to make me laugh.
14.
15. Leave the house.
16.
17. Build things.
18.
19. Paint things.
20.
21. Have friends.
22.
23. Fuck.
24.
25. Be kind.
26.


Abbie wakes on the living room couch to Saturday shaking her arm. He’s gentle but it’s jarring, and she yanks her arm away and sits up, clutching her knees to her chest. Late morning sun sneaks through the gap between the two curtains, illuminating his pale, hairless chest. It’s covered in tattoos, tiny ones and zeros from neck to naval. Binary code. She used to ask him what it meant but he’d never say, acting cagy and mysterious. Now she suspects it doesn’t mean anything.

“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He frowns, and hugs his arms tight into his chest, like he’s mimicking her posture. “Why are you sleeping out here?”

“I didn’t sleep out here.” Abbie knows she sounds defensive. “I couldn’t sleep so I went to mess around in the lab. I was going to come back to bed but I must have drifted off.”

He’s nodding, biting his lip. There are Shimmer tracks along his neck and arms, the older ones pale and dull, and last night’s, pink and shiny. In their own way, she has to admit, they’re sort of beautiful.

“Okay,” he says. He shows her his palm. There’s a message there, red letters shining through from the device imbedded beneath his skin. He smiles. “Jota wants them. A big order. Sight unseen.”

“Jota wants what?” She’s still a little fuzzy, still half in the land of sleep. Then she stiffens. “Wait. The Royals?”

“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”

“No! I told you they aren’t ready yet. I haven’t even given them a full test run.”

His hands go up like she’s pointing a gun. “I know, I know, Abbie. But he wasn’t offering much for the usual. He tried to knock off 20%, mentioned Caputo, going to see what he’s got for sale. I had to do something.”

“Really? Did you?” She’s on her feet now, glaring at him, trying not to melt down. Not again.

“Yeah, I did. Because you’ve been working on those things forever, and it’s taking up all your time, and all our money. Sales are slow. We need to make the Royals pay off.”

He moves toward her, and she can’t help herself, she backs up. He’s a full head taller, all sharp angles and long, pale limbs like old tree branches, skinny but gnarled with muscle. His dark eyes are big, unblinking, and his teeth are bared in the grimace he uses to intimidate difficult clients. The look that made her quit going to drops, the look that makes her wonder if she actually knows anything about Saturday. Then he stops. He sighs and crosses his arms again, shrinking back into himself. It’s a relief. And yet, she wants to reach out and pull him to her.

“I think we need to do this, Abbie, ready or not. Or we’ll lose our biggest customer.”

I don’t care, she wants to shout. I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving. But she stays silent.

“Besides, if we need to give the Royals a test run, I can try one out this afternoon.” He says this quiet and casual, but she hears his desperation. “Better me than you, right?”

Abbie keeps her eyes on the ones and zeros covering his chest, on the message flashing in his palm, on the shabby couch. Anything but his face. She can’t stand the look in his eyes, the burning need that has nothing to do with her.


List of People I Miss

1. Lilah.
2.


The Alternate Appeal of a Jelly Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am very confused.”

He shrugged and motioned for the Visitors to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

I looked to the president for help.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“You want me to be a spy.”

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

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

“I refuse. Please leave me alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That I could not stand.

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

The Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.

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

The Trapezoid

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

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


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

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

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

The boy halts in front of one of them.

“It isn’t sunny,” he says.

The guard scowls.

“What?”

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

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

“What, milord?”

“Why are you wearing–”

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

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

The boy gives the guard one last look.

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

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

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

“Hello,” says the boy.

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

“Hello,” she says.

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

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

“I see,” he says.

The Butterfly Field

She calls her husband before dawn calls the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s been five years, Matt.”

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought it was forty-nine.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Jackal Boy

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

The Last Man on Earth

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

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

“It’s quite a big part of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“God had his chance.”

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

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

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

“Of what?”

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

“No.”

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

“I thought you said it was for me.”

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

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

“Is learning a good thing to do?”

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

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

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

“Are you making fun of me?”

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

“You’re a difficult woman.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could fall in love, you know.”

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

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

“I’m not growing you a child.”

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t want to fight either.

“I don’t want a baby.”

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

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

“Mourn.”

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

The Witch of Sherman Oaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That means liberating,” I said.

She snorted. “I know what cabalistic means.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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