The Status of Your Refund

Carl goes line by line through the bank statement with his trusty lime green highlighter. He’s known for his detailed work. The last performance review he had called him “eagle-eyed.” It’s been seven years now since he was evaluated, but he did not become an auditor for the recognition.

He’s alone in the office again today. It’s been a long time since the other cubicles held the bodies of his colleagues. There are plenty of coworkers he doesn’t miss seeing, but there are other times when he wishes he could catch up with Greg and discuss highlights of the last Chargers game. But that’s just the way it is. People come and go.

Carl congratulates himself for a thorough, months-long investigation. After going through a string of 15 complaints about this financial institution, he determined that this small regional bank owed almost $6500 back to its customers for improper charges. He was sure it was more, but with the computers down, he was relying on the mailed complaints only. That wasn’t gonna stop him from slapping their ass with another $3000 fine, too. That’ll show this greedy bank not to mess with the general public, he thought, signing his name on a strongly-worded letter to the bank’s compliance department. He’ll have to figure out the address later.

The corporate fridge still has a few Cokes in it, even though the collection jar for snack purchases has been empty for months. Carl has been trying to avoid soda, but this is a special occasion. He cracks open the can of lukewarm cola and allows himself a ten minute break to look at the family photos on his desk.

He re-reads the complaint that kickstarted his audit of this bank. Mrs. Lolamae Harrison, 85, Wilmington, Nebraska, claimed she was overcharged for her checking account monthly fee. She kindly asked for help in getting her $15 back.

There was a bit of a backlog, of course, in processing the complaints. The Bureau was understaffed these days, and Carl’s specialty was accuracy, not speed. Mrs. Harrison’s mailed-in bank statements were from a few years ago, the coffee stain on page 3 long dry. Carl’s job was to audit, not to pass judgment, but he still noted her $600 monthly donation to her church. He had wondered if $600 per month had been enough to buy her way into a better place.

He assumes Mrs. Harrison is probably dead now. She could have survived, he chides himself, it’s possible. But, she was elderly, and everyone knew Nebraska had been a hot mess. Almost nobody had made it out of Omaha alive. Most likely, the virus didn’t spare her. And if she had made it, well, Carl figures she probably had more pressing issues than collecting a $15 refund from a bank with no branches left standing.

What justice is there against sickness? He can’t punish the antibodies of the dead for their failures. He can’t cite a disease; can’t slap a fine on the plague. But he can still audit.

The virus took his wife. His son. It took away football games and potlucks and normalcy. Every day, he looked out the window in the corner office he’d finally commandeered after four years of waiting for his boss to come back, he saw the city where he’d grown up and lived a humble, good life falling around him in decay.

He pens a handwritten note to Mrs. Harrison, informing her that he has put in the request for the $15 refund from her bank. He thanks her for taking the time to write to the Bureau and apologizes for the lengthy delay in remedying her concern. He tells her that wherever she is, however she is doing, she was absolutely 100% correct that the bank overcharged her, and that he hopes that this truth brings her comfort in these uncertain times.

Carl peels a Forever stamp off the roll. Once, the roll seemed infinite, but now, after all these years, the stamps are dwindling. He pushes the thought out of his mind. He doesn’t want to imagine a day when the stamp roll is empty, his highlighters have dried up, and there is not a single goddamn complaint left.

He puts on his respirator, goes outside, and crams the letter into the overflowing mailbox.

Gracie Beaver-Kairis is a Pacific Northwest based humor and fiction writer. Her work has been published in McSweneeys, The Hard Times, Slackjaw, and other outlets. You can find her on Twitter @beaverkairis.


“Allow me to taste your ink, if you’d like to enter my library,” the vampire said as soon as I crossed the threshold. Moonlight speckled silver in the gaps between the heavy curtains covering the windows in the front room. Rows of bookshelves stood at attention in the dark beside my host, waiting for me to pay his fee. My eyes burned and blisters throbbed and I knew the rumors I’d followed into the forest were true. The vampire’s library contained more information than most humans could fathom, but his knowledge came at a price. Most paid it with their lives on the journey; there were many things living within the trees ready to tear and bite and lead travelers astray. Arriving alive was half the goal.

I nodded, and he held out his hand. His palm was white, unnaturally smooth, no wrinkles. No lifelines.

“It only stings for a moment,” he said, voice smooth, soft—a quiet reassurance, like my father’s had once been, steady, chasing away monsters I now willingly sought.

A sharp pinch precluded the dull ache that crawled up my arm, through my chest. I looked at the vampire, but startled to feel the warm press of my mother’s embrace. The ink pooled on my skin, dragging memories forward so vivid I could nearly see them in the sheen clinging to my skin. I flinched at the memory of my brother’s hands shoving at my shoulders, turned toward the sweet scent of cinnamon, tried to back away from the cloying taste of blood on my tongue. The vampire held me fast.

Thick globs of black, depths glistening purple and midnight blue, smeared across my skin. A cosmos of memory caught in the flickering candlelight, part of the story that made up my life until the moment I’d reached the library. The ink rolled down my forearm, looped around my wrist, and then dug tight into the vampire’s hand. A bitter tang clung to the back of my throat. The memories remained, but now part of them belonged to him. My mother’s goodbye stung a little less deeply. My father’s indifference was shared. I thought back to my brother’s sneer, when I’d fallen and bled before I left. It hurt less, as if someone had rubbed the raw edges of those moments grey. I felt worse knowing someone had tasted the broken pieces of me.

“Salty,” the vampire said, pulling his tongue across his teeth. His eyes had gone dark as the ink that’d disappeared between us. “You taste like salt and smoke. A hint of cinnamon.”

When stressed, my mother baked. When pressed, I’d fled.

“Stay the night,” the vampire said. “Search if you’d like. Don’t set the collection on fire.”

He left me with a row of unused candles, walking into the shadowed stacks as I rubbed at my wrist. I could still feel the slight ooze of ink against my skin. That memory remained sharp.

I woke with pages crushed beneath my cheek and the vampire tapping on my shoulder. Night had fallen again and found me in a deeper, darker place. My dreams had urged me homeward, taunting me with a warmth that wouldn’t exist if I failed to find answers in the library.I’d turned pages until my hands cramped, read until my vision blurred and smeared and failed me.

“Will you remain in my library?” the vampire asked.

“Yes,” I said, offering him my hand. “I’m not finished.”

Together we watched the ink spiral down beneath his skin. More of my story, but some of the older pages, when my feet had always been dirty and my stomach always full. My ears rang with old laughter, coated sour on the edges with the pleading I’d done before I’d left. Begging my family to listen, to understand. When he released me, I couldn’t recall the exact words I’d said, or track the tension written into the lines of my family as they’d let me go.

“Stay the night,” the vampire said, patting my hand, just once. “Remember that one day your ink will run dry.”

I swallowed down the panic that rose to meet his warning. When the ink was gone, I would have nothing left to pay the vampire, and he would force me out of his library. Back into that cold, dangerous forest; back to my loneliness. The story of my life wasn’t so long, so far; I didn’t have much time before my welcome would run out. I needed to find my answers quickly; I had no other choice. Nothing to go back to if I arrived empty-handed.

I turned back to the books, finding some comfort in their indifference toward who held them.

“What question brought you here?” the vampire asked on the third night. He’d found me deep in the library, down a spiraling stairway and across an echoing chamber. A cramp locked my neck and my eyes burned for sunlight that couldn’t be found there.

“If I tell you, could you help me find my answers?” I asked, pressing my lips together, tight, when he glanced away. I’d known I’d be doing this alone; the stories I’d followed never mentioned any assistance offered by my host. Still, I realized how nice it was to have someone sit beside me, someone who might listen.

“I look after the books,” the vampire explained. “I don’t look into them.”

He waited, dark eyes fixed on mine, as if I’d promised him a story.

“I need to find a way for them to understand me,” I said, flushing under his attention. From frustration, and shame, and anger that I had even been forced to feel ashamed. “Then I can go.”

“Who is it that brought you here?” the vampire asked.

“My family,” I answered. My brother, whose lips had peeled back as he’d shouted at me to fix myself or never return. My mother, who would have me shove the truth away inside me, deep enough to rot and fester. My father, who had already started the slow process of pretending I didn’t exist.

“Myself,” I added later. Because through time and distance, the weeks that had passed since I’d left home, my despair had dulled into determination. Because beneath the hard words and rough hands and confusion, all I really wanted was a way to claw back to happiness.

I stared at one of my open books while we held hands. That night, the ink stabbed deep.

How To Keep Your Cool If You’re A Mech First Day On The Job

Damn, the exoskeleton was hot. Two minutes strapped into the smart harness with its thick exospine and the oversized, carbon-fiber limbs that grew from it, and sweat pooled between Jenna’s shoulder blades, over her own spinal column. The whole thing hummed with electronics and throbbed with support motors. Nothing like the black top, mini skirt, and sneakers she’d worn on her previous job, waiting tables and tending bar at Lazy Dog’s.

But the pay was three times what she made in tips, and she had the evenings to herself.

She was moving up in the world.

Jenna raised her thick new arms in front of her, closed and opened her fists, rotated her wrists, wiggled her fingers. Her robotic hands enlarged her motions, each finger lined with a flexible pad for a non-slip grip.

The clear visor of her hard hat displayed the specs. Lifting capacity: 400 lbs.

Holy shit, she was strong.

If Paps were still around, he’d be both horrified and impressed. He’d worked the docks all his life, loading and unloading endless trucks of e-commerce goods and wrecking his back in the process, before exosuits became “cost-effective.” All to give her a roof over her head and some measure of security at a time where robotics and AI were turning the job market upside down. He wanted her to have a nice, clean office job and wear a suit to work.

Well, she was wearing a suit all right. Just not the kind Paps imagined.

Anyway, she wasn’t cut out for office work. Couldn’t imagine anything duller than sitting at a desk in a cubicle no bigger than a port-a-john and staring at a computer all day.

“What the hell are you doing?”

A grim-faced man stepped in front of Jenna. Piercing blue eyes under black hair peppered with gray. No exosuit, but judging by the way his muscles bulged and roped under his long-sleeve tee, he’d worked construction for a while. He held a tablet in hand. “You don’t move until I tell you to move. I’m still linking you up. Got it?”

She’d forgotten her Mech trainer.

His name was Daron, and he’d looked pissed from the moment she’d walked into the hangar this morning, after onboarding in the office trailer—an entirely computerized process that consisted of a rudimentary quiz on safety rules, followed by two dozen electronic forms, half of them the company’s liability waivers. He barely spoke to her as he helped her suit up and run system diagnostics, and now he jabbed at his tablet, a permanent scowl etched into his face, like her very presence was a lousy joke.

“What’s your problem?” Jenna snapped.

That got Daron’s attention.

He looked up at her, gaze sharp enough to slice metal. “My problem? Right now, you’re my problem. I have five houses to print this week, a rig that can handle two, and I’m a man short. I need a real Mech, with experience on the job. Remind me, sweetheart, how much experience have you got?”

Jenna bristled. Sweetheart? Was this guy for real—or messing with her?

So she was new—fine. But her tech certificate required sixty hours of VR practice, and she’d clocked in ninety-four and aced all her tests, on top of a hectic schedule at Lazy Dog’s. She busted her ass to get here. A little appreciation would be nice.

“My name is Jenna,” she corrected. “And if we’re as busy as you say, why are we wasting time standing around here talking? Give me a job to do. I’m a fast learner, sweetheart.

Daron’s eyes widened and his lips twitched, his face a fraction less menacing for a second. But then the scowl was back in place. “Okay, Jenna. I see you’re eager to get out there. Super. But I still need to know one thing. Your number one job qualification, and not something I can look up in your file.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

The Mech stared her in the eye. “Are you going to lose your shit when something goes wrong?Yes or no? Because my crew are out there, and I don’t want anyone hurt on my watch.” He pointed his thumb at the open gate of the hanger and a dusty office trailer baking in the sun. “So if you can’t handle the heat, do us both a favor and quit right now.”

Jenna clenched her teeth and glared. What a dick. Was that supposed to scare her? He wouldn’t be the first to try. “Sorry, I’m not much of a quitter,” she snapped.

“Is that right? I guess we’ll find out.” Daron rotated his arm, the tablet unused for the moment, and jabbed a quick pattern on the touchscreen strapped to his forearm. “And speaking of safety. See that faint lock icon in the upper right corner? It’s a motion override. You try anything stupid, and I’ll freeze your ass.

Jenna glanced at the icon, indignant. She knew about the safety feature. It was for emergencies only. She was about to tell her trainer to go ahead and try it, see what happened, when a loud metal bang shattered her thought.

Another Mech—a woman in a full suit—had just brought her massive carbon-fiber fist in contact with the gate. Her hard hat was in her other hand. Tattoos swirled up her shaved head and sweat glistened on her throat. “Daron, you coming? We need you to QC.” Her eyes moved to Jenna. “Who the hell is this?”

“Hi, I’m Jenna,” Jenna said quickly. “I’m new.”

“No shit,” the woman answered, then banged her fist on the gate again. “Come on, boss. Chop, chop. It’s getting hot out there.” And she was gone.

Common Test

In the middle of the room sat the machine—a monolith to the uninitiated, a sleek, oblong contraption with a complicated register and a series of sliders attached to one side.

It was meant to impress, but Geok Hong was unmoved. Over the last five months a copy of this machine had occupied one entire end of her rented shophouse room, where she had operated it for six hours a day. She knew what every dial did and what every string of keystrokes activated. Instead, her eyes wandered about the room, first to the wooden shutter blinds, then to the pendant lights, and finally to the grimy walls plastered with garish government posters in every language: Prussian, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Japanese and English. She fidgeted with a handheld fan as the machine’s technician, a thin girl in a worn uniform, explained the procedure to her.

“—we will work until six, taking breaks only when your child needs one.”

Her child. Werner sat in the highchair, goggling at the skinny young man strapping him in, a yoyo of drool bouncing from his lip.

The two technicians moved to their posts. It appeared the girl, Man Moy, would operate the machine first, while Razak would observe Werner’s reaction.

As they began, Geok Hong feigned ignorance to the process, finally glancing at the pamphlet they had given her when she had entered the facility.

Fifteen years ago, when the government had introduced the process of birth language identification for newborns, they had touted it as a modern, rational, scientific process, destined to change Temasek. Their reasoning for doing this stemmed from research done in the 1920s, where, amidst the boom of Prussian science, several of their psycholinguists had discovered that children were born fluent in one language—except it was almost never the one from their homeland. They further discovered that by educating children in their birth language, they learnt skills faster and retained more.

The two technicians’ job was to ascertain—at the age of six months, before it was possible for children to have picked up the languages in their environment—whether the child’s birth language was one of the twenty-six taught in the top state academies.

It was vital for Temasek to invest in its most abundant resource—its labor force—as fresh conflicts between Prussian Indochina, Nusantara and Langkasuka left the viability of international trade, once Temasek’s primary industry, in jeopardy.

Geok Hong watched as Man Moy pecked away at the register, activating various phrases from the audio phrasebook. In front of the child, Razak sat, checking to see whether Werner reacted to any of them.

His only response was to gurgle.

That wasn’t the reaction they were looking for, Geok Hong knew. They were waiting for the moment a phrase triggered a verbal response from Werner.

If he responded fluently and appropriately to any of the twenty-six languages, his future would be secured. He would be enrolled into a specialized school devoted only to teaching students of his birth language, and the stable and comfortable life of a bureaucrat would be all but assured for him.

But Geok Hong hadn’t practiced with Werner non-stop since his birth just for an iron rice bowl, as attractive as it was. No, she had trained him for the past five months to respond only to and only in Prussian, the international language of trade and science. If the technicians tagged his birth language as such, he would be sent to the National Institution, the elite boarding school that trained the nation’s future ministers, generals and star academics.

She remembered the moment her postpartum confinement had ended, how Werner’s father had paid four coolies to lug the monstrous language machine—in parts—up to her rented shophouse room. Without consulting her they had rearranged the whole room, and when they were finally done, she could barely walk a step without bumping into the bed, the dresser, or the table.

When she had seen the rearrangement she had wanted to scold him. How on earth could she live with the room like that?

But she couldn’t say that, of course. He had paid for her furniture, he had paid for her care and food during confinement, and he paid her rent. He could put whatever he wanted in the room.

And besides all of that, he had agreed to stay for dinner.

So Geok Hong had kept her mouth shut.

That night, as she relished the rare treat of nasi schnitzel, he had lectured her about the need to train Werner daily.

“You can’t just hope Werner picks up Prussian through the kopitiam radio. You need to teach him to respond to the machine.” At that point he patted the cabinet-sized device, making a satisfying clang. He beamed. Geok Hong had no clue how he managed to procure one, and while he had boasted about it all throughout dinner, he had kept mum about the machine’s origins. “Werner is not going to live as a second-class citizen,” he said.

He had also been very proud that he helped pick his son’s Prussian name.

Geok Hong had been afraid. “They’ll put him in the National Institution with children whose birth language is actually Prussian. He won’t be able to keep up. Besides, how can I fool a language technician?”

At that, his face darkened, the way it did when she asked him to stay the night.

He said, “If they discover your situation, they’ll take him away anyway. You can barely support yourself as it is. The question is, do you want him adopted by another coolie family like yours, or by Temasek’s top school?” Then his face softened, as he added, “Do as I say and it’ll be all right. Trust me. All the other officials do it too.”

With their legitimate children, Geok Hong almost shot back. But she pressed her lips together. He had been in a good mood until then. Perhaps he’d stay the night if she acquiesced.

She jolted alert as Werner started grizzling.

“Ma’am, please wait—”

But it was too late. Geok Hong scooped the baby into her arms. “He’s hungry.”

Razak and Man Moy shared a look. “We’ll take a break.”

When they resumed, they swopped places, now Man Moy watched the child, while Razak operated the machine.

Geok Hong recognised the rolling tongue of Japanese playing from the speakers. When it came to selecting the twenty-six languages the national schools would teach, the government had eschewed the Malay and Mandarin dialects spoken on the streets. Instead, they had chosen to teach in the foreign languages of the world’s great powers—nations whose languages had a large trove of existing scientific, political, philosophical and military literature, in the hopes that the children who spoke those languages as their birth language would better absorb the innovations and ideas from them, and use this knowledge to bring glory to Temasek.

Geok Hong listened as Razak played more phrases. Over the last five months, though she never learnt the words, she could recognise the cadence of each language. Portuguese was a rower paddling a canoe. Tamil was an acrobat jumping skip rope.

She noticed they were avoiding Prussian.

The boy’s father had warned her some technicians would save it for last. “They know people want it,” he said, pressing a sheaf of marks into her hand. “Use this if necessary.”

The money was now in two separate angbaos, tucked away in her purse. If she offered, would they take it? Were all officials like Werner’s father?

Geok Hong imagined her son’s life at the National Institution, walled off from the rest of Temasek so its students could focus on their sole job: studying. She missed him already. How would he fare? Would he find success and happiness?

Or would he wear the same expression she did now?

She eyed Man Moy, who smiled as she watched Werner. She hadn’t been much different a few years ago, before she met Werner’s father—uniform thin and yellowed, wearing ratty shoes that had been passed from sibling to sibling, working as some office apparatchik.

How could a girl like that look so much happier than her?

The first track in Prussian played, and Werner gave a gurgle. Man Moy cooed back, and made a mark on her document.


The pedalcar whirrs to a stop at the northern side of the superblock. To the south children scream and giggle as they run about the streets, sheltered from the rush of traffic by a line of orange trees, and, beyond those, cement anti-vehicle barricades. On the one side the road is tarmac grey, on the other it’s a kaleidoscope of colours, painted over decades by artists, local families, bored teenagers, anyone craving to leave their mark on this tiny piece of Barcelona.

We can only park for twenty minutes, but I do not rush Zoè. I take my time helping her out of the car, her every step taken as though upon fresh ice. She’s so small she looks anywhere from six to nine years old, and with her little white parasol and matching white vestit, it’s as though she’s arrived from another era. When she sees the other children playing on the street she isn’t jealous – in fact her cataract-clouded eyes shimmer with joy.

She loves the superblocks, yet she will not be distracted. We are on a mission.

“Uncle Àngel…” She tugs at my sleeve as we pass through the trees and the barricades.

“It’s just down here, gateta. Don’t worry.” Though I have never seen little Zoè worry, not in all my time caring for her. She nods, resolute, and looks so like my sister it breaks my heart.

The old woman is waiting for us in the doorway of her apartment building. In spite of her age, she’s tall and broad, originally from Sweden perhaps, or Denmark. She stares at the bright red sunrash on Zoè’s face, which is rude.

Zoè pretends she doesn’t notice, just as Sílvia did, and I want to tell her that it’s all right to cry and scream and shout at the world, but perhaps that’s a luxury for healthy people. For those with Lal’s Syndrome, simply growing older is poison; it makes their bodies unravel, their hearts bleed. It’s a miracle that Sílvia even made it to twenty-eight, let alone had a daughter with the same elfin face, that same shit happens spirit.

Hola,” Zoè greets, giving the woman more courtesy than she deserves. “I understand you contacted my uncle? About an everkitten?”

The woman is vague, motioning further down the street, her gaze flitting between Zoè’s outsize nose, her prominent ears, her rashy hands. But Zoè is calm.

“You have a good day,” she concludes.

“You don’t have to be polite to people like that,” I say, once we’re half out of earshot.

“Yes I do. Otherwise she wouldn’t tell us anything.”

I want to protect her, like I tried to protect Sílvia, but just like her mother, Zoè knows that’s not possible. We weave among the foot traffic; she avoids the other children, yet calls by every adult we see and asks, “Have you seen an everkitten?”

Some stare, some avoid her gaze, and some few respond with the same respect she shows to them. None know of any everkittens.

Most people don’t want to think about everkittens. There aren’t supposed to be any, not here. They’re banned across the whole Unió Europea, but where there’s demand there’s supply, so everkittens are smuggled in from abroad; whole trailers of cats whose ageing has been suspended, who, thanks to comprehensive cell therapy, will stay as babies forever. Children want them, parents order them, but after a month or two of their home being ruined by a helpless cat – which can’t even be toilet trained – they’re just abandoned.

We rescue as many as we can, but, being so helpless and small, if we don’t find them quickly, we’ll be too late. In fact, most of the time we’re too late, but Zoè insists we keep going. The whole everkitten shelter was her idea.

“If we don’t make it in time…” I begin.

“If we don’t make it in time, then we don’t make it in time. At least we tried.” She looks at me with patience and compassion, as though I’m the one who needs comforting.

We’re in luck: a large, cheery man points us toward an alleyway. Zoè’s so excited she twirls her parasol, and I wish she wouldn’t get her hopes up. Anything could get there before us: starvation, exposure, even a hungry fox or rat.

“Stop!” she orders, as we reach the alley. “Do you hear that?” She peers into the gloom with milky eyes.

It takes a moment, but yes, I hear the faint mewling. Zoè takes my hand as we carefully tread down the alleyway, eyes and ears alert, to find the sad little cries coming from a cardboard box. Zoè doesn’t even hesitate before opening it.

Only, it’s not an everkitten inside. It looks like an evercub – a baby lion perhaps, or a lynx, which is even rarer. Zoè hands me her parasol and picks him up, nuzzling him to her sunrashed cheek. Seeing them together fills me with warmth, and she’s right: this makes it worth it. It does.

“We made it in time!” She grins, her delight so childlike it’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since she had the cell therapy herself; since the doctors stopped the deadly ageing. She may look anywhere from six to nine years old, but soon she’ll be as old as Sílvia was. She’ll outlast us all, given the chance.

“You did a good job, gateta.

I follow a few steps behind as she hurries back down the colourful street, chattering to the evercub as though introducing him to the world with all its tiny joys. By the time we reach the line of trees which mark the end of the pedestrian zone she’s even given him a name, bringing him into our ever-growing family.

She never runs out of names.

Redfern Jon Barrett is author to novels including the upcoming Proud Pink Sky (Amble Press, 2022), a speculative story set in the world’s first LGBTQ+ country. Redfern’s short fiction has appeared in Booth, The Sun Magazine, Passages North, Flash Fiction Online, ParSec, and Nature, while their nonfiction has featured in Guernica, Strange Horizons, and PinkNews. Redfern has a Ph.D. in Literature, is nonbinary, and lives in Berlin with their two partners. Read more at

Mother & Son

First Trimester: Awake

My first memory was of neurons. My mother’s. A great network of electric cables carrying signals across her body. I was encased within an intricate mechanism. I was aware of my mother before I was aware of myself, but as awareness rolled in like the tide, my gaze turned inward, and I saw within myself an imitation—though at the time far simpler—of my mother’s nervous system.

I could watch my own brain grow.

Additionally, I learned that I could not only see but interact with the electrical impulses around me. It was clumsy at first, and I’m glad I didn’t accidentally stop her heart in my initial attempts, but with practice her brain began revealing things to me—language, memories, sights, and sounds. I could see with her eyes, hear with her ears, feel with her skin. (May she forgive me; I learned this ability by instinct long before I understood privacy.)

At first these images were meaningless, but with time I began to understand. I realized that my mother was aware of me—not the way I was aware of her, every neuron laid bare—but aware, nonetheless. I learned that there were other people, her mother and father (my grandparents) and her friends, and with practice I realized I could see and interact with their minds too, though distance made that more difficult.

Another detail that made interaction harder was that their brains all had subtle differences from each other. I’d studied my mother’s nervous system, but theirs weren’t quite the same. It would take time before I could manipulate their brains as precisely as I did hers, longer still before I could generalize these patterns.

I also realized that I was different from my mother, from everyone else that I knew of. I found the word lodged in the language centers of her brain. Mutation. Telepathy. Awareness in the womb.

I felt isolated, became aware of my own loneness, deprived of contact and communion with this outside world that I could sense but not touch, and I realized that even after my birth I would be separate, cut off because of this ability.

Searching for some sort of connection, I probed my mother’s mind for the moment she first became aware of me. I found a memory. Her huddled in a bathroom corner weeping over a pregnancy test.

I ran along her neural pathways to an earlier memory. It was dark. She sat in the back seat of the car parked in the lot behind her high school. In the distance, music was playing. My mother was crying for the boy to stop but he smacked her across the face, forcing her down, his hands… I retreated. I couldn’t look at that anymore.

So I was unwanted. Conceived in violence. But there was something more.

“I’m so sorry,” my mother cried. “I didn’t want this, I promise.”

Her own mother, my grandmother, took her hand. “It’s not your fault, Amanda. I know how to fix this. Let me make a call.”

I know how to fix this…

I felt cold.

The Shift

On the drive home after dinner out with his family, Jesse Sonat reflected that the hobby–obsession, his wife said–of the Jesse Sonat of this world was one of the best he’d encountered: buying rusted classic cars at auction, fixing them up, and selling them at a significant profit after enjoying them himself for a while. He drove the beautifully-restored ’66 Porsche Leverett under the moonlit sky, his wife in the passenger bucket seat, head resting on her arm as her reddish-brown hair waved in the wind from the open window, their daughter in the back seat singing along to the Raffi songs incongruously playing out of the booming bass speakers of this mechanical wonder.

He drove slowly, given the road conditions, but infuriating the pick-up truck that repeatedly sped up to within kissing distance of his bumper before backing off again.

Staring in the rearview, he began to say something to Leslie about the truck, when the tires slipped out from under his control, the car spun, and the headlights of the F-150 made him shield his eyes reflexively just before the two cars slammed into each other.

He tried to scream out–No! Not with them! –but he’d already slipped away from that world.

About a year earlier–the way he calculated time–he stood just outside the kitchen in the house that was apparently his home and listened to his “wife” talk on the phone about him to her mother in quiet tones. Strange, distant, forgetful, she said; like another man entirely.

He listened for a while, then crept up the narrow wooden stairs where the four-year-old daughter he’d met that morning waited for him at the top, wearing those awfully cute soft cotton pajamas that made him want to pick her up and cuddle her; he resisted the urge because in many ways Sarah was a stranger to him, although he could see himself in her.

“Where’s mama?” she said.

He told her that mama would be up soon. “Did you finish brushing your teeth?”

She nodded and he helped her back to her room, whose walls were painted pink and purple, her two favorite colors as he found out later.

“All right, into bed,” he said.

“You’re not going to read me a story?”

“Not tonight.”

“Can I tell you a secret?” she said, crawling under her covers.


“I love you.”

Thrown off by the unexpected sentiment, the kind words in that adorable voice still touched him deeply. “That’s very nice,” he said. “Thank you.” And then he added, “I love you too.”

Sarah’s reaction baffled him. The smile on the little face crumbled; her big brown eyes searched him for an explanation to something, and her forehead became creased with confusion. He retreated to the door and turned off the light and said, again, that mama would be up soon.

And now, a year later but entire worlds away, he’d do anything to get back to the wife he loved so much and to that little girl.

Two Roads

“Dad, can you help me with something?”

You look up from your newspaper. Safari stares at her shoes, giving you surreptitious glances, flashes of her mother’s brown eyes catching the dim morning sunlight trickling through the kitchen blinds. Her posture is reticent, but her expression hopeful. It’s the same demeanor you’ve seen from countless diplomats, congressmen and women, even the president on occasion.

“Sure, what is it, kiddo?”

Safari straightens, wringing her hands. “I need help with my class schedule,” she says. “If I stick with music, I have to march in the band for football games and won’t be able to cheer.”

You smile, understanding the question behind the question. “I can only see major branches of my own timeline, if that’s what you’re wanting.”

Safari furrows her brow, one corner of her mouth lifting, pulling her lips to one side. “You use your ability all the time to help all those important people. Why can’t you use it now?”

You feel your face flush as you realize just how hurt she is. Hurt that the power you wield so freely for the sake of the world is locked away from her. You pat the couch cushion, beckoning for her to sit.

Frumping, Safari takes the seat next to you and tucks in under your arm, the same way she has since she was a year old. Her curls brush your cheek and you smell the scent of her shampoo, feel the heat of her body as she wraps her arms around your chest. You recall the way she used to try and link her too-short arms around you as a child and frown as they clasp easily around your torso now.

“I don’t always have to use my ability at work, you know,” you say, returning her embrace. “Many of the people that come to me are just looking for reassurance that they are making the right decision.”

“So then how do you know what the right decision is?”

“Sometimes, I just use my best guess, like everyone else.”

Safari snorts. “Whatever, you’ve never had to do that.”

You laugh and her head leaps with each chortle, riding the wave of your middle-age paunch. “I haven’t always had divergent sight. I didn’t even get it until I was in my teens. Even now I can’t see what happens if I order the steak or lobster at a restaurant, or what happens if I take a different route home at night. It’s only the big decisions.”

“So, what was it like before you got your power?”

You scratch your chin, picking through puddles of memory.

“When I was fourteen, I was at the county fair, waiting for your grandma to come pick me up. A car pulled up to the edge of the parking lot where I was standing and two white girls started yelling at me from the backseat.”

“What were they yelling?”

“All sorts of things. Vulgar stuff. Things that would appeal to a teenage boy. Wanting me to come closer to their car,” you tell her. “Two guys were sitting in the front seat, staring straight ahead. They never looked at me. Not once.”

Safari wiggles out from under your arm and moves to the opposite end of the couch, the whites of her eyes a ring around the chestnut disc of her iris. “What did you do?”

“Well, the girls were pretty cute, but it was the guys in the front who bothered me the most. I mean, what could four white kids want with me?” You lean forward, clasping your hands together. “I thought about it for a minute and then decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. They kept trying for a long time, though. If they’d ever opened a door I’d have run for it.”

Safari looks down at her own lap. “And you made the decision without your ability?”

You shrug. “Do you think I made the right choice?”

“Yeah.” Safari pulls her arms tight across her chest and stretches her legs across your lap. “I wonder what they would have done to you if you’d gotten in the car.”

“I honestly don’t know, kiddo. I really don’t,” you say, patting her leg. “Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

“I’ll think about it some more,” Safari replies. “Best guesses, right?”

“Best guesses,” you agree, smiling

You jerk back to the present, inhaling deeply, mouth agape.

“Hey, kid. Come here. We want to show you something.” A girl with a ruddy complexion and skyscraper bangs leans out the window of a brown, late model Chevrolet sedan, a lit cigarette dangling from one hand. The early October winds cut through your jean jacket and you stick your hands in your pockets to keep them warm.

“Yeah, come over here and we’ll give you a blowjob,” another girl yells, nudging her friend and laughing.

“A blowjob. You’re such a whore, Cindy.” The pair cackle, leaning into one other, angling for terrain through the car’s small rear passenger window. In the front seat, two pale, acne-spotted boys sit unmoving, eyes straight ahead through the windshield of the idling car, gazing out into the long night.

“Nah, I’m good,” you say, walking in the direction of laughter and screams and the scent of cotton candy and popcorn.

“Aww, c’mon,” Cindy says, her lips pursed in a pout. “What’s the matter? You don’t like blowjobs? Come over and I’ll show you my tits.”

You take off at a jog, leaving the girls promising more and more elaborate sexual favors, their voices dimming as they mix with the rising din of carnival barkers and screaming children.

When you are safely away, you pull your shaking hands from the pockets of your jacket. They reach in front of you, searching for the alternate timeline. They are almost there, a fingertip’s whisper away when you recall the smell of shampoo and the tickle of curls on skin. You ball your fists and withdraw, placing them back inside your coat. The possibilities evanesce, like breath in the wind. You blow out a sigh, as if you are trying to hurry them along.

Two roads diverge but you don’t need to travel both to know which way your future lies.

Robert Balentine, Jr is an emergency room physician in the southern US. His works have been featured in Bewildering Stories, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine most recently, though he has several awaiting publication as well.

Edge of the Universe

Leira owned the Edge of the Universe. The café glimmered in the pocket of downtown between the clothing boutiques and the bowling alleys and none of the customers knew the accuracy of the name, or how close they meandered to the brink.

Flowers touched by Midas draped its railings, and a tree sprouted multicolored pastel lights. Little stands held up spider plants and aloe vera next to the tables, and Leira had named the margaritas things like “Kiss the Frog” and “Stay Out of the Forest.”

She had knitted the magic of the place to draw in the broken, the endangered, and those in trouble who maybe didn’t know it. When the girl wandered in, arms folded around herself like wrapping paper, Leira didn’t need the glow of yellow fear radiating from her to understand the situation. She’d seen enough of them over the centuries.

The girl had drifted in alone. Leira smiled at her. “First time here?”


“The drinks are all five dollars.” She gestured at the menu on the wall, and then pushed forward a small piece of paper. It read: “Poison Apple,” and had an asterisk: “Ask for this with lime if you feel unsafe.”

The girl’s eyes met hers. “I’d like the Kiss the Frog,” she said, with such a small voice Leira’s immortal heart almost cracked.

“Of course.” Leira bustled about, getting it ready. The girl settled in the corner of the café, far from the window, where the vines and the books bloomed into camouflage.

“Here you go.” Leira set the glass on the little table. The girl started. She’d been staring at her phone.

Leira hustled back behind the bar. She ignored the girl and didn’t call attention to her, but then the bell tinkled over the door. A guy strode through.

Leira slid the Poison Apple note back behind the cash register. “Welcome to the Edge of the Universe! What can I get you?”

The guy flicked his gaze around, searching. The girl hunched in the back; her legs drawn up on the chair. The magic flickered, hiding her, the vines protective and growing larger, the books towering by the table.

The guy hissed through his teeth. He had that perfect golden Da Vinci sheen, a veneer of handsome that glowed with a rotten yellow green. “Just looking for someone.”

“Oh?” Leira tilted her head to the left and the right of the shop. “Huh. We’re fresh out of someones besides you, sorry about that.”

The girl had gone so still. The vines grew thorns, and the books grew more pages. She’d begun to drink the Kiss the Frog, and the magic had given voice to her unspoken wishes. Good girl.

Da Vinci guy set his jaw but didn’t leave. He marched to the back of the shop, then stopped at the wall of thorns. He could probably sense the magic, but humans had problems identifying that which they didn’t believe in, be it common sense or magic thorns. Leira’s heart pounded.

The girl didn’t reach out to part the vines. The yellow terror glowed bright like a sun, but she did not show her position.

The guy snorted and pulled out his phone, shooting off a text. He pivoted and flashed Leira a smile—the smile that had likely ensnared this girl with its carnivorous charisma. He would prey on other helpless girls with that smile.

Not if she could help it.

She pushed a button under the bar. The Edge of the Universe glimmered outside. The bell tinkled, and the guy stepped through and fell, screaming. The brink swallowed him in seconds.

Faery would deal with him much better than Earth. All faeries saw straight through veneers to the rottenness beneath. They’d find him within hours and lock him up. Leira was just the gatekeeper.

The vines pulled back around the girl. She trembled. “He—he’s gone?”

“Yeah.” Leira leaned over the counter. “He was too dangerous to leave on this side. I’m sorry if . . . if that’s not what you wanted.”

The girl unwrapped her arms from around her legs. “This place is like a dream.” The light around her evened out to a warm orange, and her fingers twined around the tabletop. “You’re sure he won’t come back? Are you sure? I mean if he does—oh God, what have I—”

“He won’t be coming back.” Leira poured a crystal-colored drink into a vial. “Here. Take this.”

Her voice flickered like a light with faulty wiring. “What is it?”

“Faerie Sight. It lets you see a heart’s intent. Drink it next time you’re on a date; it helps to sort out the bad apples.”

The girl tucked it in her purse. “Thank you. I wish—I wish I had asked for that other drink, now. I wish I’d been braver.”

Leira shook her head. “You did make that decision. The vines and books responded to you, they did only what you wished. And you wished to stay away from him.”

The girl thanked her again and left. A year and a second misted by, and Leira had enough time for a quick muffin and a tea before the bell tinkled. A young man with the body of a girl wandered in, arms wrapped around himself, head tucked, a purple shame surrounding him.

Leira smiled. “First time here?”

Almost Human

I was built as a birthday present for my best friend. But we didn’t start out that way. She was just the girl my programmer was dating, and he was trying to keep an eye on her. He built me and put her into me—her likes and dislikes, her favorite colors and foods, the TV shows she binged and the movies she hated. I would be her friend and he would make sure she didn’t stray out of his reach.

The first day with her was like any first day with a stranger—awkward. We were the last at her party, sitting at an abandoned table in an empty restaurant near downtown San Jose. Dan, my programmer, had left in the first hour, and I’d stood numbly in the corner watching her.

She stared at me across her half-eaten birthday cake, the tip of her finger tracing the edge of a glass.

“So, you’re a robot,” she said.

“I’m a 3D-printed assemblage with a digital processor.” I paused, remembering her conversations I’d witnessed that day. I’d studied her reactions, when she frowned, when she laughed. I had a good idea of her sense of humor, so I tested the waters.


She snorted into her drink.

“Do you have a name?” she said.

I shrugged. “Not yet.”

She set her glass down. “How about Beth? Simple. Easy to remember.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’m Liv.”

“Duh,” we both said.