Category Archives: Issue 26

States of Emergency, by Erica L. Satifka



IN A NO-TELL MOTEL just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone.

“Hello? Hello?”

Jack swallows down the bile rising in his stomach. Nowhere is safe. He sets the phone back in its receiver and walks out to the motel lobby.

“I’d like another room.”

The bored receptionist snaps her gum. “Is there something wrong?”

He gazes around at the tourist guides littering the cramped lobby. The eyes are everywhere. He closes his own. “The moonlight’s keeping me up.”erice-pull1

She rolls her eyes—normal human eyes, for now at least—and flips him another set of keys. Jack doesn’t find the new digs any more comfortable. He blocks his ears as a begging man is whipped with chains, or perhaps alien tentacles topped with metal, in the room next door. It sounds like it hurts.

Jack’s been driving all over Big Eye Country for weeks, warning of the coming infiltration of the Greatest Nation on Earth by the Alien Brotherhood League, but nobody listens to him. He goes to the parking lot where his truck, painted with a tableau of poked-out eyes, waits for him.

A hawk perches on the hood.

Paranoid Jack throws a rock at the bird, missing by a foot. He swipes another stone from the ground and prepares to aim again when the hawk turns its head. Within its beak is one bloody eye that stares right at Jack. It throbs, slightly.

Time to jet, Jack thinks.


Atlantis rises in Tampa Bay, on a baking hot Thursday without a cloud in the sky. Neptune, the King of the Sea, parades through the palm-lined streets of Tampa on a chariot drawn by oversized seahorses floating through the air. The people on the street might have been more curious about how the seahorses performed their locomotion had they not been distracted by the death toll wrought by the royal procession’s swinging tridents. Though some of the onlookers have fled to temporarily safe locations, most are petrified to the spot, wide-eyed terror engulfing their gore-flicked faces.

Neptune frowns as his own trident comes back with a beating heart speared at the end of it. He sighs and shakes it away, then wipes the tines with his silken robe. Just another day, he thinks.

He’s not the original Neptune. His parents, a triad of desiccated desert spirits, gave him the name ironically. They were disappointed when he took this job.

“I’ll be back for the holidays,” he’d said, and he’d really tried. But life under the sea had changed poor Neptune’s physiology in such a way that he can never go home without suffering extreme physical distress. His parents asked him not to return after he’d run up their water bill by taking eight showers a day.

“I am the mighty water god!” he bellows, though he can’t really claim the title. Another disappointment for his folks. If he’d stayed in the Painted Desert like they wanted him to, he’d have been at least a minor household deity by now, if not yet a true god.

Neptune bids his lackeys to set up his throne on the set of a Girls Gone Wild production, after flattening the director with a blast of his aqua-ray. He wonders if he’ll ever be satisfied with his life, or if he’ll just keep on running the same patterns over and over again.

He just wants to be happy. Is that too much to ask?


The citizens of the Amalgamated Corporate State of Delaware are shrinking. It’s the only way to fit all fifty million of them in a plot of land as large as some billionaires’ backyards.

They’ve been hiding these extra people for decades, those crafty Delawareans. Each normal-sized resident of the First State keeps several dozen of the small people around his or her house: in the breadbox, in the closet, in the dryer. God help you if you forget to remove the small people before you run a load.

The small people are engaged in the creation of tiny tracking chips, which are installed in credit cards issued by the state to each and every red-blooded debt source in the nation. Day and night, they toil with their machines, creating chips no wider than a human hair.

Nona’s getting sick of the small people who live in her sock drawer. The buzzing of the machinery depresses her. Once, they started a fire.

She wonders what the chips are tracking. She’s asked the Grand Elders of the credit card company she works for about it, but she’s just a lowly data entry clerk and these things are not for her to know. Nona’s stopped using her own cards entirely, risking the wrath of the Corp Corps when she skips by them in her wallet on her way to the cash.

The small people are having a party. She can tell by their raucous voices. She taps on the sock drawer like it’s an aquarium.erica-pull2

“Go away.”

“But this is my house.”

“And shut the drawer behind you.”

Nona slams the drawer. She knows the small people’s work is important, vital really, in some way she can’t understand yet. She knows that someday soon, the small people of the Amalgamated Corporate State of Delaware will rise up and over the East Coast like an overflowing popcorn machine. As someone who’s shielded and nurtured them, she will survive the coming revolution.

She doesn’t know what to make of the fist-sized eyes she now sees in every reflective surface.


I am the switchboard, the awake man thinks.

He’s got ten thousand people jammed into his brain, this awake man, representing three hulking towers on a formerly-bustling Brooklyn block. Riding the thoughts like a cresting wave, he patrols the park with a truncheon in his hand, slapping it into his palm. The sound rings off the silent streets.

Behind a Dumpster waits an awake woman.

They fight, of course. With snarling teeth and clash of limbs, each awake warrior fights with the combined power of their burden behind them, guiding them in their maneuvers. Clumps of hair flecked with blood drift to the pavement. An ear bounces off a sewer grate. They fight for what seems like hours, the twenty thousand and two.

When it’s all over, both the warriors are dead. Soft rain falls over their mushed bodies, cleansing and cool. Pungent steam rises from the offal.

In a building in South Brooklyn, someone wakes up.

In another building, somebody else does.


From this point on, nobody will die in Vermont, but they continue aging.


The desert stinks of creosote, and it is full of voices.

In the ghost town of Phoenix, a lonely widow turns on the generator-powered air conditioning to get her through another desert day. Heat hangs around her like a too-thick blanket. Her leathery skin, dried by the sun’s beating rays, is the same even brown as the foraged canned beans she uses in her stews.

Every night she inhabits a different apartment. A different bed to sleep in, a different kitchen to raid, a different closet to pick through. Tonight she wears a men’s double breasted suit and a tie with birds on it.

Come out, says the voice of the desert. Won’t you please come out and play?

The widow picks up her shotgun and cocks it, aiming it toward a cactus growing out of the barren garden of the complex across the road. This ain’t her first day at the rodeo.

Everyone’s here. We’re all waiting for you.

She’s far past reckoning how long it’s been since the day she woke up to find Phoenix deserted. She opened her eyes, and everyone was gone: people, pets, power. The voices had started soon after.

You’re the only one left.

“I know that,” she growls deep in her throat. She sticks the shotgun out the window and fires on the solitary cactus. A rain of green flesh and pink flowers spatters on the asphalt.

erica-pull3The dead city sometimes shows her pictures in her dreams. It shows her friends and family, her husband, out frolicking in some oasis. Water flowing down their bodies, their mouths filled with breadfruit.

Are you scared?

“Yes,” she says, aiming the shotgun at a graffito of an eye chalked on the bank kitty-corner from her borrowed apartment. She doesn’t fire. She’s already running out of shells.

Within the hour the air conditioning gives out. The widow tentatively steps through the front door onto the wide streets. The atmosphere wavers with heat like an oil painting splashed with turpentine.

The voices grow louder, speaking with the combined sound of everyone she’s ever loved, competing for air time with their pitiable screeches.

She’s been to the edge of the dead city, and she knows there’s nothing out there. Not just empty space, not just blackness. There’s nothing out there. Just a void.

We miss you.

“I miss you too,” the widow says, as she looks for another dead building, another live generator. She lives in the city center now, far away from the void. But it’s not enough distance for the voices.

We love you. Don’t you like us anymore? Come back to us. What’s wrong with you?


This isn’t Paranoid Jack’s first visit to the line that circumscribes and contains the rapidly decaying American heartland, but it may be the one involving the most shoes.

They drop their shoes when they leave, these faithless emigrants. Just slide right out of them. Rows of penny loafers, Mary Janes, high-tops, and cowboy boots line the border from Washington to Maine, toes to the north.

(On the southern border they leave small bundles of hair lovingly tied up with string, which seems somehow much worse.)

Jack picks his way along the mound of shoes, which comes up to his knees. He’s never left America before. Never wanted to. Everything he knows and loves is here. He’s even grown to love the Alien Brotherhood League, for all that he’s condemned them in his broadsheets.

But it’s time. Jack unlaces his threadbare sneakers and places them atop the pile, pointing them in the correct cardinal direction. Then he shucks off his socks and sinks his feet into the mushy loam.

“What are you waiting for, asshole?” says the little man who lives in his hair. He told Jack he was from Delaware, but Jack’s pretty sure he’s just a random misfiring of brain chemicals.

“Shut up,” Jack replies through gritted teeth. “This isn’t easy for me, you know.”

So much of his life spent to chronicling the manifestations. So many of his warnings gone unheeded. Perhaps up there, people will understand. Out there. What was the name of that country again?

He steps across the river of shoes and immediately collapses.


Professor Melody Zhang slides her camera into her satchel and calls it a day. She’s been out at the site for the past two weeks, and her team is no closer to discovering the origin of the ziggurat that appeared out of nowhere forty miles due north of Little Rock.

“Hey Doc, wanna hit the town?”

Melody rolls her eyes. She’s never been much for partying, and the closest town to the encampment is a little hayseed dump where Asians were almost as alien a sight as ancient Mesopotamian structures. “Pass.”

“Well, if you have some free time tonight, take a look at these rubbings.”

She took the paper from her assistant. The cuneiform wasn’t the same as that used by the ancient Babylonians, not even close. They still hadn’t worked out the phraseology, despite the presence of linguists from all over the world. “Okay.”

“And try not to work too hard. We’re all worried about you.”

“I’ll be fine.” She slips the paper into her satchel with the camera and walks to her scooter. Not for the first time, she wonders at how calmly the people here have taken this. When the ziggurat appeared, everyone had freaked out…except the locals, who regarded it as a sight no more interesting than the opening of a new discount store. They’d been more disturbed by the scientists sent here to study their structure, and agreed to outside interference only under duress.

Weirdos. Melody sticks her key into the ignition and turns it.

Then a warrior clad in bronze armor steps up behind her and slices her head off with his sword.


In a bunker buried underneath Chimney Rock, a man tortures another man until he dies. The first of these people strikes a fearsome pose, seeing as how he is nine feet tall, and his face has been replaced with a metal grate.

In fact, the first man is two people sewn into one body. The two men sealed up within the skin used to fight all the time, but now realize they must work together if they’re ever going to find a way out of this mess.

Each one taking control of a trunk-like leg, the grate-faced torturer lumbers over to the phone bolted into the wall of the bunker. He/they place a call.

“The sparrow flies at daybreak.”

A wet thick sound like spaghetti being dragged over a linoleum floor echoes from the other side. “Show me.”

The grate-faced man angles the receiver toward the ex-human. An eye extends from the mouthpiece on a thin stalk.

“This is acceptable.”

The grate-faced man knows there’s no release from this place. Even if he/they were to escape from the bunker, where was there to go? Back to the streets of Omaha, to be stared at and taunted by young children? The reconstructed being can feel the utter wrongness of the fused body beneath the skin and the grate. Even if the grate-faced man separates, life will never be simple again.

The eye blinks, snapping the grate-faced man back to attention. “There is another.”

There is always another.


The house always wins. So does the Autonomic SmarTrak DwellingUnit 3.0.

Step inside. Allow the polished servo-mechanisms to lift you up, float you through the air like a luck-kissed cherub. Spin the wheel. Roll the dice. Make merry. Have another scotch. Ante. Raise. Call.

Later, when the lights go dark and the thrill of winning is gone, sink into the luxurious honeycomb of the fully furnished basement. Order some room service. It’s on the house.

In the middle of the night, you wake to find the meat of your legs stuck to the Egyptian cotton sheets. You pull, and there’s a sick tearing sound.

You free yourself and head to the bathroom, but your steps are labored, as if you’re stepping in tar. You pull the light cord and find small bits of sheet nestled in and among the raw muscles on the back of your legs, products of a fusion, a melding

Above you is the unmistakable sound of digestive processes at work. You didn’t notice it before. But now it’s all you can hear.


erica-pull4Revival night. The line of sinners snakes like a broken ant trail into the tents pitched on the outskirts of Lexington. Unlike most revival meetings, there is no mention of Christ or God, no complicated hosannas. What there is, is the shredder.

Pastor Dan doesn’t know where the shredder came from. He woke one day in his double-wide trailer to find it sitting at the end of his fold-out cot, one corner of his bed sheet in its gaping maw. Dan leapt from the cot, grabbed a yardstick, poked the shredder, all in one fluid motion.

It continued to chew the sheet, unabated.

Experiments were conducted. Through a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences, Dan discovered that one’s sins could be erased from existence by feeding them into the shredder, allowing one’s deepest shames to scatter at one’s feet like confetti.

He doesn’t charge for use of the shredder. Wouldn’t feel right. The index cards and ballpoint pens to write down the sins, though, they’ll cost you.

A young woman approaches the podium with her infant son in a sling. When the shredder pukes out the remnants of the index card, both sling and child dissolve into thin air. Pastor Dan has to concentrate to remember what was there before, and by the time the next parishioner comes up to the podium, it’s already gone from his mind.

After the services are over, Pastor Dan sits in the green room with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Across from him sits the shredder.

“What are you?”

Of course, there’s no reply. The sin-eating shredder is an inanimate object: it does not feel, it does not love, it does not care about its small amount of regional fame. It doesn’t even acknowledge its frustrated owner. Dan has fed six hundred and twenty-nine scrawled index cards through the shredder’s gold-plated teeth. He’s become a rich man, all thanks to the shredder. It’s not enough. He needs to know.

He places a fingertip into the shredder. The pain is staggering, immense. The white walls of the green room spatter with blood. He bites his tongue to keep from screaming.

“I’ll figure you out,” he says, focusing on the pale yellow light that sits square in the shredder’s control panel. It looks almost like an eye.

He shoves the arm in up to the elbow, then the other one. The shredder almost seems to expand to accept him. There is so much pain that he has forgotten to even register it as such. He has been inside this moment forever, it seems, in the pain of the sin-eater there is no beginning and no end.

Pastor Dan inserts a foot.

Now you see, the shredder says, now you see inside.

When Dan’s agent jimmies open the door two hours later, she finds a foot on the ground and a star-shaped hole in the windowpane. She packs her bag that afternoon and moves to Germany, where things make at least a sliver of sense.


From his lair in the furthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula, the mighty Elf Lord defends his realm.

“Come on, Dad. Gimme my Nerf gun back.”

The Elf Lord has no such time for such trivialities. He slings his weapon across his back and, listening to the voices so many people across this nation can hear now, strides down the gravel road to stake his claim of the Lower Regions.

“Mom? I think there’s something wrong with Dad.”

All across the Upper Peninsula, war rages. The Elf Lord, once a lowly insurance salesman named David Wright, hops the fence of his neighbor, the Cleric Prince. When they’d first started this divine mission, there’d been snickers from behind the fists of everyone who roamed the cubicle kingdom of Northeast Insurance, Incorporated. They’d thought the men in the office were playing a new sort of game. A nerd game.

It was not a game.

“Hark!” the Elf Lord bellows, rattling the screen door of the Cleric Prince’s keep. “Dost thou wish to ride thy trusty steeds into yonder village? There is plunder there, and treasure.”

The Cleric Prince’s concubine answers the door. She sighs audibly, breath pluming in the crisp breeze. “Those are the same thing.”

“Vile woman, let me through.”

“Sorry, Gary can’t come out to play today.” She starts to close the door, but the Elf Lord shoves his fist in the jamb.

“Play? This is not a game, wench.”

“He’s not here. I sent him away.” She’d been begging him to get help for years, even before the game started. The Cleric Prince had never been a fully sane man. He’d filled his days with useless projects: resurfacing the blacktop on the driveway until it was perfectly level, organizing his books by smell, optimizing his health by taking all his sleep in the form of catnaps. He had seen no problem with any of this.

Honestly, when he’d started playing the game, the Cleric Prince’s concubine had been glad. At least he was out of the house, with other people. But enough was enough. Better to kick him out than to allow the crazy to rub off on her.

She wonders if she should do something to help the Elf Lord. Even now he stomps and whines, certain that the Cleric Prince is within the walls of the keep, hidden from view.

“Hey,” she says. “You want me to call your wife for you?”

“Temptress, do not vex me.” He spins around suddenly, smacking her in the face with his Styrofoam broadsword.

She grunts, pushing the neon weapon away. “You’re not even using those words right, David.”

By that time, he’s already halfway down the street. She rubs her belly, thick with life, and sheds a tear.


erica-pull5Paranoid Jack’s had quite an adventure, but now it’s nearly over.

He could have lived quite comfortably here in a land called Canada, a place where the Alien Brotherhood League has made only minor inroads on their quest for global domination. Hardly any strangeness here, aside from the occasional sound of crying babies emanating from prairie snowbanks.

As the months pass, the dispatches from home grow more crazed and urgent. Jack can’t stop collecting the American newspaper clippings, pasting them up on the dashboard and windows of his new ride, a fuel-efficient sedan bought at below market cost from a desperate Saskatchewan salesman.

He has to get back. He has to warn people. It’s just his nature. He peels the taped-up report of a man-eating shredder from his rear-view mirror and lights out for the most distant region of his shattered place of origin.

Jack might miss the Delawarean most of all. The little man couldn’t take the cold. Or the sanity.

That makes two of us, he thinks sadly as he guns the sedan’s practical motor as hard as he can.

In Whitehorse, he stops at a diner where the waitress takes pity on him and nestles a few extra strips of grease-flecked bacon onto his plate. She stares blankly when he talks of the aliens, the eyes, all of it.

“Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you heard what’s going on down there?”

“All Americans are crazy,” she says as she fills his mug with Bible-black joe.

Kilometers flip to miles, and now he’s in Alaska. Denali National Park. In the shadow of the great mountain he brings out the clippings and spreads them across his lap.

No link between events, and no reason to believe that the aliens who have been on his tail for the past twenty years of his life are behind it, but he knows they are. He can feel them tear across the entire blighted nation, sparking chaos and seeding madness.

He sleeps fitfully and wakes with the sun. He kills a squirrel and eats it, roasting it over the charred remains of the last of the clippings. As he sucks the marrow from each and every tiny bone, he looks over at the great mountain that towers above him. It’s already beginning to explode, long tendrils of liquid fire reaching toward his grizzled face.

Above him, the great eye winks.


Erica Satifka
Erica Satifka

Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletQueers Destroy SF!Daily Science Fiction, and Clarkesworld. When not writing, she works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on SF/F writing at Portland Community College. She lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and three needy cats. Visit her online at

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Serein, by Cat Hellisen

IT’S ALWAYS about the ones who disappear.

I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

This is my sheet ripe with me, this is my mirror, this is my reflection.

I close my sister’s room. I don’t know what she was thinking when she left.

serein-pull1I can pretend, for a while, that I felt her fear of life, her hurt. She said, always, it will be better under water. She would stay in the shower, drain the cylinder cold.

She took my mum’s car when she left, though I suppose she gave it back. The police found it parked under a flyover near the airport, like she’d driven up onto the verge and got out and walked on bleeding feet over broken glass to a pair of wings, to freedom. Other people in my town whispered that of course we’d love to think she got on a plane. There’s no record of her from there. She took her passport, but didn’t buy a ticket.

I married three years after Claire disappeared. And here’s the thing. I have these pictures I hate to look at because no matter how much I smile in them, or how much money Mum and Dad pulled together to help me have the best wedding—the best wedding for their only daughter, their only child—no one can ignore that the photos are ruined. There are empty spaces where my sister should be, strange gaps where elbows don’t meet, where heads cant, where shadows fall in the wrong direction. There are water stains that bubble like a strange mold between the layers of film.

He was a terrible photographer, our Uncle Jay. He’s dead now, but he’s still real. He has a plot, and a nice headstone. Mum goes to visit him now and again.

Cancer is a fucking destroyer, it took my mum’s baby brother away from her, like a slice of her soul was excised.

I know how she feels about that. There are still photos of my sister in my mum’s lounge. I’m here to help her clean. She’s getting on in years, her and dad, but they won’t hire a char, not even to come in one day a week to help. Mum says she’s never needed to hire anyone to do her cleaning for her and it won’t start now.

So I come in, and do it for free while my daughter’s in school.

My face twists. Mum is sleeping, lulled into childlike nap-time by the whine of the vacuum. I’ve stashed it away, and now I’m just faffing really, dusting knickknacks and photos that don’t need dusting. I look at the ostrich feather duster held out like a wand, and wonder if I could summon my sister back. She’s not dead. There’s no proof of that.

The water in the vase of flowers sitting on the mantelpiece is rank, eddies stirring the greening muck, the flower heads sagging, spilling petals. Next to the curling pale fingers of a dead iris, my sister smiles uncertainly from a school portrait. She was wearing glasses, before she got her contact lenses and re-invented herself.

She would have hated this picture, hated knowing our mum kept it, right where visitors could have seen it, and gone, “Is that your Claire, I never, she looks so different now!” which of course no one ever says because visitors never Talk About Claire. They talk about the rain, or who’s doing what with whom. Claire’s name has gone missing from people’s minds.

I only remember it because every night before bed and after I’ve brushed my teeth, I lean in close to the bathroom mirror, until my breath fogs the silver, and write her name with my fingernail. Little scratches through water.

She drowned, people said after.

Where they think she managed that, I’d love to know. Did she walk barefoot (her shoes were left in the car, along with all her luggage—she certainly looked as if she’d packed to travel) for miles along the gray heels of the road, staggering through dusk and dawn, past the city houses, until she found a river wide enough to take her soul.

Fuck you, Claire.

It’s not hard to leave.

It’s hard to stay.

I spit on her photo, and the bubble of saliva slides tragically down her face. Not like a delicate tear, but an unwiped sneeze.

You have made me hate you.

No, no, not hate. I love, I always love, come back, Claire. I didn’t mean it, we won’t be angry, come back. Come back before Mum and Dad join Uncle Jay in the quiet plot, before I am too old to remember your name and write it in water.

When my sister Alison leaves, she closes the door on our mother, asleep, spittle hanging from her half-open mouth. She snores softly, sweetly as a baby. I saw Alison’s baby born. Was there, drifting from water droplet to water droplet, I folded around her when she was still forming bridges between nerve and muscle, growing a liver, learning a heart. I was the sweat on my sister’s forehead, I slid down her back, I pooled in her eyes. I know my sister more intimately than she knows herself.

This is not fear, or cowardice.


This is how to drown.

Take one brain bowed under the weight of its own unstoppable thoughts.

Take lungs that cannot stretch wide enough to fill with air. Because water is hard to come back from, because air is difficult, breathe smoke instead. It will give you wrinkles but make you beautiful. You will be a siren in a black-and-white film, your eyes filled with sex and knowledge.

This is power.

You will pack your bags with the things you cannot leave behind.

You will leave them behind at the end anyway, it doesn’t matter.

You will drive in your mother’s car; a fusty dry womb that smells of air-freshener and, faintly, of vomit. It is familiar. You will stick to the seats and roll the window down so you can smoke faster. You will play the same song on repeat and wish you were a child again.

Claire was always disappearing. Mum would give us some instruction on chores and as soon as her back was turned I’d be alone, having to clean our shared room all by myself. I’ll give her this much, at least, she didn’t make much mess if you ignored the bed-wetting.

She liked to be clean, Claire. Not just the endless showers, but she liked to have her world ordered. Her bed straight, her records alphabetized. Her books were packed as neatly as she could get them. She wasn’t all about obsessively vacuuming or folding clothes, though, she could be filthy about some things, our Claire. I think she wanted the world to have a semblance of control, because she knew it was actually chaos.

It still annoyed me; the disappearing. When we were kids, she threw the biggest tantrum ever when Mum paid for us to have lessons at the local pool, so we wouldn’t drown (in the middle of the city, far from water.)

Claire wet her bed, and the room smelled of urine, hot and sweet, even after Mum washed all the bedding; the rumbleslush of the machine, the spurt of soap water spiraling down midnight drains.

In the end Dad made her go to swim lessons. When we went to the pool, she did this trick the moment I blinked. She’d slide under the water and I’d lose her between the wobbly white legs and the rubber heads and the alien goggles.

Later, she would pop up at the far end of the pool like a fat mermaid, and scowl.

Funny joke, right. After all that, she could swim better than any of us. A Natural.

When I was ten I told my mother I would no longer take baths. It was dirty, I told her. I had to shower. She thought I was being a brat again, and I had to throw one of my epic screaming fits, piss myself so that I knew I had control, until Dad told her that letting me shower was better than letting me scream.

It wasn’t that I hated bathing because of the filth, though that was part of it. Lying in warm water filled with flakes of skin and dirt and tiny fallen hairs and all the microscopic misery that attaches itself to human beings.

It was being lost in there, alone, disintegrating with my own debris. I was scared that one day I’d forget how to pull all my million selves back into one me, solid and real. It was better to lose myself in invisible pieces, sluiced away down the shower drain. I could hold my shape there, and just let the water wash out the parts of me I hated.

This is how to become water.

Take one sack of flesh bowed under the weight of its own unstoppable decay.

I learned how to become water before I was born. In Amnio. In water we are made, in water we will trust. I could dissolve and reform my bones, pull them together like sharpening splinters, stitch my molecules together and unpick them. I drifted between shapes. Growing.

When my mother’s water broke, I had to claim my own space before there was nothing left of me.

I spent months curled into my new form, learning solidity. Vernix oiled away, sponged clean, skin revealed, hair black and flat, eyes puffed and swollen. I’d had a fight with the birth canal, that channel shaping my malleable flesh into form, squeezing my head firm, pounding out the air and the water, like a potter molding clay. I only learned to become water again when my mother stopped sitting on the edge of the bath, watching me to make sure I wouldn’t drown. I could lie under the warmth, listening to the boom and rattle of the pipes, the slow drip from the faulty tap and I could remember how to breathe water instead of air, and fill my lungs with a familiar warm salt. I could let go my bladder, and float in that familiar world of Amnio. It wasn’t running away. It was running back.

Day by day I learned to dissolve.

Once, I walked into the bathroom while Claire was supposed to be having a bath. She was ten, I think, and I was sixteen and meant to be going out, tired of waiting and knocking and getting no response. She was a brat, a wild haired, sullen-eyed, bed-wetting, disappearing brat. And I was angry all over again with everything she was. So I shoved the door open, expecting to find Claire lolling in cooling water, her expression mulish.

There was no Claire.

There was only water, dark and strange and smoky with blood and hair.


serein-pull2I grew myself back after that, as quickly as I could I knitted myself together.

It had to stop.

It didn’t.

Each slip was harder to come back from. My skin itched to disappear, to fly away spark by spark to join the clouds and rivers, the sea and sweat and tears.

I know where my sister has gone. I can’t say it, but I know it and it is why. Why I write her name in breathmist, and open my mouth to swallow the rain. Why I take long baths until the water around me is icy and my fingers and toes have shriveled and pruned themselves numb. Why I don’t change the stagnant water in my mother’s flowers.

It’s all right, Claire. We love you. Come back.

I fold my soul around Alison’s daughter as she jumps in mud puddles under a sky dry from weeping. I settle in my mother’s weakening bladder, run down her legs, I rinse the sadness from my sister’s skin. From a cloudless sky I pull my molecules from mist so fine no man could see them.

I fall with the dusk on the waiting graves, and try to remember how to put myself together.


CatCat Hellisen is a South African-born writer of fantasy for adults and children. Her work includes the novel When the Sea is Rising Red and short stories in Apex, F & SF, Something Wicked, and Her latest novel is a fairy tale for the loveless, Beastkeeper.


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The Last Dinosaur, by Lavie Tidhar

AS MINA DROVE, a hush fell over the city, gradually, in tiers, and the white fluffy clouds in the sky above London parted gently to open up a riverful of blue. It was a beautiful day for a ride. She hummed to herself, an old song, and her fingers tapped rhythm on the steering wheel.

People lined the streets, silently, and watched her as she passed. A group of children on the corner of the road held balloons and flags, their faces smeared with chocolate and the spiderweb remnants of candy-floss. They watched her politely, without comprehension, not knowing they were witnesses to something magical. Mina pressed on the accelerator and felt the car thrum around her, an exoskeleton. She was part-woman and part-machine. She swooped down the empty road with the Thames on her right sparkling in the sun. It was a beautiful summer day and a beautiful day for a car ride. The old Shard shone in the distance behind her, visible in the rear-view mirror.

lavie-pull1She thought of nothing in particular, her mind skipping like a stone. She’d used to do that, going with her gran to the wildlife reservation at Thamesmead, when the wild horses had come back to London. One could spot grey herons circling in the sky, and flocks of black piratical gulls, great colonies of coots and starlings, swallows and wagtails. She remembered the white of swans against the greenness of the wide Thames, and the beavers busy in their dams. Gran and Mina would collect smooth pebblestones and toss them on the placid surface of the river, counting skips. The car had been her grandmother’s, though they never took the car then, but went by train. Gran had bought it back when cars were plentiful; it was a Beetle, like the band. In old photos you could see Mina and Gran smiling for the camera, holding rags, posing with the car at their back, slick with water.

It made her sad to think of Gran again, and all the memories crowded together, fighting for standing space in her head. She hadn’t consciously thought of this car ride this morning. She had woken up as usual, and had breakfast, leisurely, with nothing but silence for company. The sun played against the dust motes floating in the room. Then she washed her face and dressed and, without any plan to do so, went outside and opened the garage where the old car sat patiently waiting. It was such a nice day, and a wild desire flowered in her—to be on the road, to be free. There was just enough petrol for one more trip.

The road was empty. Ferns had crept along the side of the road and waved to her as she passed. The roots of elms and ash and wild cherry, walnut and acacia had taken hold of the ancient asphalt, breaking out of the ground defiantly, and Mina had to swerve and navigate carefully across various natural and human obstacles. Kids monopolised the ancient roads on their bicycles and pedestrians moved aside and stared at her, wonderingly.

She remembered travelling with her gran in the car, leaving the city, the sun setting over the Thames Barrier and the high rise office buildings of Canary Wharf, where the seals had made their home in the canals and multiplied. They had driven with no fixed destination in mind, but leaving the city behind them—sometimes in sunshine, more often in rain or sleet or snow, water streaking the windows of the car, black leaves rising in a flurry around them. But the countryside had crept into the city year by year. With each trip they took, the number of vehicles on the roads had declined. At first it was Gran driving, Mina by her side—then, as the years went by, it was Mina who took the wheel, Gran who sat next to her, adjusting the old radio button or winding down the window to inhale the scent of earth and rain. They could not afford many such trips. Their last had been the year before Gran’s passing. With each journey Gran had shrunk and faded, and with each journey the vegetation grew brighter and more vibrant: it was as though the landscape consumed Gran by degrees.

It was always just the two of them. Never Mina’s parents, who had grown up with the modern urbanite’s instinctive loathing to cars, “That smell!” Mina’s mum would say, and wave her hand in the air as though it were cigarettes—a thing Mina saw in old films but never experienced. The trips were a bond between them, a shared peace. When Mina ran away, when she had relationship problems, school or later job anxieties, then she would go see Gran and Gran would take out the old Beetle and they would drive; just drive.

Now the road was empty. Mina had not seen a single driver anywhere, no other vehicle. The last time she had taken the old car out the M25 was still navigable, as long as she went slowly, but the vegetation had spread and taken it over. But there had been other cars then, in ones and twos, passing almost shyly alongside or in the opposite direction, and a banner proclaimed an enthusiasts’ club gathering the second Saturday of every month, but of course she never went. When Gran died the car passed on to her, and the garage. Such a strange space, a garage, a place for storing something as alien as a car.

“It gets better,” Gran said, one ride, a long time ago, her hands confident on the steering wheel, the motorway passing outside, bright green hills and a petrol station in the distance, shrouded by fog. Mina had run to her—she barely remembered why now. A relationship gone sour, or worries about exams. Something anyway that had seemed momentous at the time but then faded mostly from memory, like a crumpled page pressed smooth again. Mina had slumped in the passenger seat as Gran drove. They pulled into the petrol station and filled up, and Mina remembered standing there in the parking lot (even then it was all but empty), hot tea in their hands, and their breaths fogged in the air before them. Gran had said something, Mina couldn’t remember what it was now, but suddenly she had felt better, and she smiled. There was the smell of rain and fuel and wet jeans and hot milk: she had wanted to cup it in her hands forever.

“I heard petrol comes from dinosaurs,” Mina had said. “When they all died, they decomposed, and over millions of years what was left became oil.”

Gran had smiled and said she didn’t think that was true, dear, and wasn’t it bacteria? But that, anyway, one day soon it would all be gone. Mina had probably shrugged. It was just something to say. But now she thought about it again, all those dinosaurs, ambling down the M25 and into London, pterodactyls flying over Canary Wharf, their wings casting jagged shadows over the canals, and stegosaurus herds gathering all around the Shard, baying plaintively at the rising moon.

She rolled down the window. A woman across the street smiled at her and Mina smiled back instinctively, and stuck her hand out of the window. The air was warm and the wind played between her splayed fingers. She checked the meter. The petrol gauge was very low. She drove ahead towards the old City Airport. It had been converted into a water park a long time before, after the last plane departed, and now kids played on the slides and parents milled by the water with alternately proud and worried expressions.

There was one petrol station ahead, and she pulled in with a sense of something coming to an end. They must have known she was coming, had been alerted, for the sole attendant was waiting with the nozzle of the pipe, wearing a uniform pressed clean, and a band made up of local residents struck up a spirited if mismatched rendering of a popular tune. A few news reporters were already gathered when she stepped out of the car.

The attendant filled the tank and Mina watched the pump’s meter dial turn round slowly until it hit zero and stopped. This was it. The attendant accepted her money ceremoniously, everyone burst into cheer, the band struck a new song, and a reporter asked her what it felt like, to be the last.

Mina shrugged. For a moment she pictured her gran in the passenger seat, looking up at her, grinning. “The last what?” she said.

She got back in the car as behind her the attendant put up a ‘Closed’ notice and walked away. Nobody seemed to notice, or mind. Mina drove on, past City Airport and over the old bridge to Woolwich, and she kept going, towards Thamesmead, when the car finally stopped. She looked at the meter and there was no more fuel. Through the open window came the smell of the Thames and looking out she could see a herd of wild horses thundering through the marshlands, and a heron flying high against the clear sky. She smiled and got out of the car and left it there with the door open as she walked away.


lavieLavie Tidhar is the author of A Man Lies Dreaming, The Violent Century and the World Fantasy Award winning Osama. His other works include the Bookman Histories trilogy, several novellas, two collections and a forthcoming comics mini-series, Adler. He currently lives in London.


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The Star Maiden, by Roshani Chokshi


A star maiden is not an actual star.
If you split her open, you will find neither crumbled moons nor milky pearls.
A star maiden is a sliver of heaven made flesh.
She is an orphaned moonbeam clinging to one possession only:
A dress.

AT NIGHT my Lola liked to stand beside me and look out the window. Her hands—snarled with veins and rose-scented—would grip my shoulders tightly, as if I were the only thing anchoring her to ground.

“Do you see that empty space, anak?” she would say, pointing to a sky dusted with pinpricks of light. I could never quite see where she was pointing, but I would nod anyway. “That space is mine. That is my home.”

I used to laugh. “No it isn’t. This is your home, Lola.”

maiden1Always, she would turn and stare at the apartment that she had lived in for as long as I could remember. I could trace her gaze as it fell on the bowed heads of wooden statuettes—a Madonna wreathed in a fluorescent rosary, a Santo Niño with golden robes staring frank-eyed from its porcelain face, a kneeling Francis of Assisi beside a dusty candle. I could see her lips purse when she looked at the bright parol lantern with its oyster shells polished to translucence and strung with lights. I could see her eyes gleam at the sight of my late grandfather’s portrait in his military uniform, her husband unsmiling and handsome, age and sunlight now dulling the hair that had once been black as jet. Then, she would look beyond the photo, to her refrigerator, and a crayon drawing I had made in kindergarten. In the drawing, Lola and I both had wings and the night sky was a scrawl of indigo. I had run out of colors and left her dress a blank and pristine paper-white, outlined only in thick black marker.

When I gave the drawing to her, she wept.

But no matter how long my grandmother stared at the apartment, she would always turn back to me and say, “Even so. This is not my home. Not really.”

And then she would lead me inside, the balcony door swinging behind her like a sigh.

A fallen star maiden dies two deaths before she returns to her celestial haunt.
First, when the dress that she had laid by the banks disappears.
Second, when the hope of reclaiming it vanishes.

Whenever I think about home, the first memory that jumps to mind is neither my bedroom, lined with the portraits of broody boy bands, nor the warmth of our family couch, where my dog once brought me a dead vole. I picture my grandmother’s kitchen in the small apartment where she lived alone. I can feel the crocheted seat covers against my skin like a second flesh. I can smell the worn incense of that memory—old potpourri in a glass lotus-shaped bowl, bananas with brown peels, rice frothing on the stove. And I remember Lola.

Lola was meticulous.

Each night, she pressed her clothes for the next day and zipped them in protective plastic skins lined with lavender sprigs and rose petals. Everything in her cabinets—from a saltshaker shaped like a rabbit mid-spring and an ancient bottle of Jufran banana sauce, to crystal phials of eucalyptus oil and a jade box for the pearls Lolo had given her on their fiftieth wedding anniversary—was pristine. If it could be labeled, it was. If it could be compacted, it was. Our family joked that Lola’s first language was Tagalog and her second was Tupperware.

“Why are you so organized?” I had once asked.

I had not inherited any such trait and I was jealous. I remembered leaning against the countertop, my sunburned cheek cool against the granite. Lola had just finished pouring the puto rice cake batter into cupcake molds and had set them on the stove to cook. Tendrils of steam uncurled in the air, perfuming the kitchen with the soft-sweetness of cut banana leaves.

Lola was polishing silverware, and her hair—white as sea foam—had begun to frizz out from the steam, forming a cottony aureole around her head.

“I do not want to lose anything,” she said. “Not again.”

“What did you lose?”

I already knew what she would say. To anyone who would listen, she would tell them the tale of how she had floated down from the heavens to a secluded forest pool and how, there, my grandfather had fallen in love, captured her, and wedded her shortly thereafter.

“Your Lolo stole my dress when I was bathing,” she said matter-of-factly. “I could never fly back home. Without her dress, it is the star maiden’s curse to live out a mortal life.”

She crooned a little song before looking at my grandfather’s picture on the wall. “Salbahe,” she said, scolding the picture affectionately. “Your grandfather was very mischievous.”

When I was younger, I believed everything she said. I believed that a tikbalang slunk through coastal shantytowns, its ghost hooves crusted with sea-salt, its body twitching and hungry for virgins. I believed that a shadow in a tree meant a wakwak was preening and that its smooth-skinned witch familiar was nearby. I believed my Lola was a star-maiden who once wore a constellation in her hair and yearned to press her feet in the warm loam of the Philippines. Later, my parents would tell me that Lola had lived through the war and had lost everyone. If she chose to mask slain family members with a myth, then that was her business.

At the time, however, the one thing I couldn’t believe about my grandmother was why she stayed on Earth.

“He stole from you! Why did you stay?”

Lola shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps I was curious. I was a foreigner, after all. The first day he saw me, he gave me a mango. I had never had a mango…it was masarap. Like eating a sun. He was a good man. And he had the most beautiful singing voice.”

Later, I would discover that things less powerful than sweet mangoes and lovely voices could grasp your heart. But at the time, I was quietly outraged. How could my grandmother—who knew a thousand ways to lull someone to sleep, who knew that the moon wore a coronet of solar flares, who knew what a star looked liked without its husk—fall for a song? Then again, perhaps I could understand. I remembered Lolo’s voice. He sang to me once when I was eight and had fallen off a bike. My head against his chest, his voice—exquisite and velvety—wrapped around us like gauze, soothing my bruised knee and scuffed elbow until I was bobbing my head with the rhythm, garbling the lyrics and trying to sing with him.

“Did you ever find it?” I pressed. “The dress?”

“Oh yes,” she said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “He was so messy. He could not find his own nose without my help.”

“But you stayed.”

“I loved him. I still do. Mahal ko siya.”

“But he cursed you by taking your dress,” I pointed out.

“Oh anak, that is not the curse,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “The curse is to love, to be loved in return, and still have to leave.”


The heavens have a weakness for music.
The empyrean cities of heaven are cold, cleaved pearls, lined with thuribles of moonstone.
There, music is a myth and its secret language of cadence and rhythm weigh on star souls.
Desire—for sound, for water, for skin—are a powerful pull.
A star maiden can spend her whole life staring at Earth.

Lola told stories the way people breathed—naturally.

She said trees and plants withered at the touch of a pregnant woman because the enkanto within the blossoms and limbs would sour with jealousy. She said paying a debt at night attracted bad luck because a multos stalked in the shadows. She said green objects summoned the sarimanok bird, whose shadow brought gold and whose feathers left rainbows in their wake.

But her favorite story was the one where I would dance with her in the sky. We would skip over planets, our feet glowing in the echoes of things that had burned for eons. We would dine in a kingdom carved out by the waters of impossible oceans and feast on translucent sea creatures with flesh as clear as glass. She would introduce me to her sisters like some souvenir from her brief, mortal sojourn. It was something she talked about as casually as other people discussed trips to the dentist.

Sometimes, when afternoon visits stretched into nighttime, Lola liked to clear the space in the living room and play an old record.

“Come here, Tala,” she would say, summoning me with an imperious flick of her fingers. She was a princess in another world, after all. “I am going to teach you to dance.”

I could not dance. My feet always slipped out from under me, as if they would rather be tentacles or fins. At seventy-nine, Lola was more graceful than most ballerinas. Her neck was slender, her fingers long and expressive. When she danced, light clung to her. Lola’s dance hummed with magic and the precision of her grace—not practiced, but perfect; not taught, but transcendent—infected me with envy. I tried to follow her. But I was no star maiden. My movements were labored with earth. Where her blood ran silver and glass, mine was ruddy with roots and red.

“This is how we shall dance when you visit me in the sky,” she would say. “Side by side. Two star souls going home.”

The star maiden can gift—just once—the secrets of flight to another.
It will never be her dress, for that is her soul’s extension and cannot be remade.
A harrowing task lies before her,
Like dancing iron shoes into silk slippers, like kissing nettles into cotton, like dying.
But for one she loves, one who can follow, one who is a star herself,
She will accept any trial.

I was almost fifteen. My body had bulges and dips. Things seemed to smell different. Look different. Sometimes I couldn’t recognize myself and would have to look twice. Who was that lost girl in the mirror? Did she even belong in this world? On the cusp of fifteen, my world tilted. Boys smiled at me. I lent out other students’ secrets in exchange for a place to sit during lunch. Around me, homes cracked like teeth. And the only constant—Lola with her ridiculous stories—began to grate.

Lola wasn’t brilliant. She was batty.

She wasn’t magical. She was manic.

When I got my period for the first time, she didn’t tell me I was now a woman. She didn’t tell me about her first time or tell me how to soothe my cramps. Instead, she started gathering materials. If I asked her what she was making, she would hush me with a simple “Hoy!” and bat me away. “It is a surprise,” she would mutter every time I asked about the zipped up, opaque plastic bag that held a prized place in her closet.

She started collecting strange things. Uncut hulks of milky quartz, creamy aventurine pendants, heavy spheres of moonstone. There were boxes filled with plastic pearls, metallic thread, and garish sequins that caught the light and refracted it into ghastly splotches across the walls. More often than not, Lola looked tired. Bothered. Her hair, once smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck, began to thin. Her words sounded cottony. Whatever otherworldly grace had once limned her movements began to wear and tear. She shuffled across the floors, gnarled hands filled with pearls. Her back bowed under the impossible weight of a mysterious task.

“She’s getting old,” my parents would whisper and tap their temples. There were more and more brochures in the house for facilities with sunny names and flat exteriors. I began to hate going there, and yet I wasn’t allowed to stay home by myself.

“Your grandmother would be so lonely without you. She loves you, Tala,” was my parents’ go-to response. “What are you going to do at home anyway? What if she fell? Just wait until we find a place for her.”

I hated being cooped up there. I hated how her apartment always smelled like fish and rice. I hated how forgetfulness and loss sleeved the rooms. Mementos of the dead, the pearls from my grandfather, island tribal knives. But more than anything, I hated its familiarity. I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror, or consistently pronounce my own name to people, or decide whether I wanted to be “American attractive” or “Asian attractive,” and yet in Lola’s apartment—in that demesne of stories that couldn’t be true—I was unequivocally at home.

Sometimes, Lola would begin to tell me about the sirenas beneath the ocean, how they yearned to dance and would cleave their fins bloody in their desperation for legs, but then she would see my face—taut and bored—and lapse into silence.

Sometimes, Lola would tell me about the first time she felt ground beneath her feet. How the support of something bolstering her upright was the first time she felt safe. How Lolo had guessed what she was and instead of frightening her, instead of claiming her, had first tried to make her smile. But I had stopped listening and my response was always the same: “You’ve told me this before, Lola. I don’t need to hear it again.” And always she would nod tightly, pat my head and say, “Of course, anak. You are so smart and lovely. You do not need to hear the same tales over and over again. They are in your blood.”

Sometimes, Lola would coax me to dance with her. And maybe I was bored, or maybe I just wanted her to stop talking, and so I would.

“We will dance like this in the heavens,” she said for the thousandth time.

“How?” I groaned after one of our practices.

She grinned widely at me and her skin—like light seen through topaz—folded in hopeful wrinkles about her face. “Do not worry about that.”

In the tales of the Igorot people, the star-maiden always leaves.
Even when she wants to stay, she has no choice. It is a soul-tug to return home.
And Earth, despite its music, is forever a foreign city with which she is at odds.
It takes great effort to remember solidity, to forsake keening novas and wintry nebulas.
It takes great pain to age, to force oneself to surrender a body it has come to love.
It takes great love to abandon the ghosts of a life now shrouded in “once upon a time.”

When I turned eighteen, I didn’t have to go to Lola’s apartment after school. I could go home or to a friend’s house. Sometimes I found myself walking toward her street even when I didn’t want to go there or didn’t need to be there. It was habit by then. And each time I stopped and wrenched myself from the path to her home, a thousand needle-sharp bites snagged into my skin. Eventually, I grew used to it, that constant gnaw of wrongness, like something that fit too tightly. I grew used to wearing a second skin and pretending that I had won the right to wear it, like a victorious pelt.

Then, one day, Lola fell. Her hip broke in two places and she was considered too risky a candidate for surgery. I remembered her face in the hospital when they told her. She didn’t cry. She just raised her chin and stared straight at the physician:

“So, I cannot dance anymore?” she asked.

The physician looked taken aback. “No. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Do not be sorry,” she said, with all the imperious benevolence a queen who had found her living quarters not to her liking.

After that, my parents didn’t think it was safe for her to live by herself. We didn’t have enough room for her to stay with us. Even if we had, there would be no way we could afford a live-in nurse to take care of her. Mom told her she would have to move into a home nearby where they could visit her every week. Where she would be safe. Lola didn’t fight. But she had one request before she left the apartment.

maiden3A party, for her eightieth birthday.

“Tala will be my guest of honor,” she said. “She is my prinsesa after all.”

We bought a tiered cake laced in white frosting and ornamented with stars of spun sugar. We rented out the gymnasium at my high school and decorated with blue streamers, fake pearls and the flags of the Philippines. My parents spared no expense. Hundreds of cards went out, pale cream and bordered with blue, Lola’s favorite color. Dad ordered an entire lechon, its skin crisp and glistening from the roast. Tiers of steaming puto, violet sapin-sapin and pan de sal adorned the tables. On the main stage, our local cultural organization performed tinikling with great bamboo sticks. Outside, Mom had set up a table for guests to sign their names and express half-hearted endearments to see Lola again soon. Music filled the air, jovial rondalla music and old love songs. And at the head of the room was Lola’s seat of honor—a great wooden chair strung with bells and ribbons stole the spotlight. Like a throne.

In the days leading up to the party, Lola could not stop smiling. She would stroke the plastic leaves of the plants on our dining table and pat the television set like it was a friend. She told my Dad that he was a fussy baby, but a good boy. She told my Mom that she was welcome to anything of hers and that she was as good as any daughter she could have had. But she had a special message for me. “Soon, we shall dance and I will give you a constellation for your hair,” she would croon to me any time she thought no one was listening. Sometimes I would catch her bent over the suitcase she had brought containing all the things she would take with her to the retirement home. Each time she looked inside, her face seemed transfixed with light and I could see—for the first time—what she might have looked like when Lolo met her. Astral and incandescent.

On the day of the party she called me to her room. She had brushed her hair back and into an elegant twist. She wore a maria clara gown with stiffly starched pearl sleeves. At her throat lay Lolo’s necklace and when she saw me, her hands fluttered to its strands. She was sitting by the window, a white dressmaker’s bag slung across her lap.

“I finished it,” she said quietly.

“Finished what?”

“Your dress, anak.”

I looked down at my outfit. A simple black dress with a choker I borrowed from my friend. “I already have one, Lola.”

She tsked, “Not that. A real dress, for a bituin, a girl from the stars.” Grinning, she held the bag to me. “Open it. It is for you.”

The dress was long and white, with a high neckline and mismatched sleeves. A haphazard array of sequins covered the neckline and the hems were glitter-dipped and frayed with metallic threads. A crazed white stitching covered the back of the dress in the outline of wings drawn in a shaky hand. A second layer of cloth wrapped around the waist, small stones—nephrite, quartz and moonstone—glue-spattered to the material.

It was hideous.

“I want you to wear it for the party,” said Lola. Her voice was so pleased, so full of pride with her work. “It has taken me years. It has taken its toll. But I do not mind.”

“What—” I steadied my voice, trying to hide my disdain, “—what exactly is this, Lola?”

“It is your dress, of course! It is what you will wear when we dance in the heavens.” She looked at me as though I was some wild animal that had wandered, unwelcome, into her room. “Tonight, we go. Together. After the party. I have my dress too, I have been saving it for today. And now you have your dress, and we will fly up into the night and—”

“Can’t you just let it be?”

“Let what be?”

I waved my arms, as if it could encompass every story she told. But the words wouldn’t follow. “You want me to show up to the party in this?”

“Afterward, you will come with me,” continued Lola, unfazed. “You will love it, I know it. I know you.”

I know you.

I lost my calm. I thought about the people who would be there. The friends we’d invited. I thought about them laughing at my stupid dress and eccentric grandmother. I had escaped everyone’s attention so far. I moved so quickly from friend to friend, class to class, hobby to hobby, that no one could ever get a good look at me. No one could ever catch that I had stitched a second skin across my alien self and spent every minute wondering if any part of me was showing. But if I wore that dress, that invisibility would be gone. Too many eyes.

“No. I won’t do it.”

“Trust me, anak. It is lovely. Like you. And after—”

“What, we’ll just rise up in the sky?” I said, my voice shaking.

“Yes,” she said, her eyes shining. “Just try it on. Please. For me.”

And so I did.

I tore the dress from her and yanked it over my head.

“Tala, be gentle!” she warned.

I would not be gentle. I pushed my arms so forcefully through the sleeve that I heard stitches scream, gemstones moaning as they hit the ground in handfuls.

“What are you doing?” cried Lola.

The chair scraped against the wood as she rose to a stand. I could hear the edge in her voice. But I couldn’t stop. I dug my fingers into the cloth, into the veil…and I pulled with the weight of years and stories steeling my nails. The dress gave way like water. And when I had wrestled it limp and useless and slung it around my body, it hung off my shoulders like ripped flesh. My other dress—shiny and glittering and black—peered through the tears like wounds.

“There,” I said, my head turned from her, my voice so cold I felt icicles blooming across my neck. “I tried it on.”

When she returns, the heavens rejoice and the Earth licks its wounds in solitude.
She receives her sisters’ embraces and dusts off her throne of crystal.
Star maidens are never the same after a long absence.
The solidity of Earth clings to them in thick shadows.
They recount their travels, their lovers, their children.
And sometimes they lean out, silver hair brushing against the ether of other worlds,
Searching for their bloodline. Lulling their loneliness to sleep.

Lola died a week after the party. I tried to bury my apology with her, but by now it was a ghost trailing a broken hem and always I heard it softly moving over the floor where I walked, pinning itself to the mirror when I tried on clothes or settling on my shoulders like a pall. Sometimes I thought I saw quartz and sequins swinging from white silk out of the corner of my eye.

When I got to university, it was easier to shrug off the skin of high school. It was easier to breathe. After years of refusing to speak in Tagalog, I started taking courses in school. I discovered I was pretty good at languages. To me, they felt like sheathed daggers on my tongue—strange and powerful, able to knife through pain or confusion in a matter of seconds. When that second skin finally shriveled to a husk and fell off, nobody knew the difference. But even though it felt good to be myself, I carried the ghost of Lola’s dress and the worn weight of her stories.

One day I met a man by a pool, and even though it was at the local gym and not a forest, it felt magical. When he asked me to marry him, he hadn’t hidden a dress in a bamboo flute or a loose board in the ceiling. I loved him, even though he couldn’t sing worth a damn, and I wished I could tell Lola about him.

The week before my wedding, Dad sent me a package in the mail. It was light, the edges softly rounded with age. The scent—lavender sprigs and rose petals—diffused in my room. I sat cross-legged with the half-opened box. Dad’s terse note said it was Lola’s wish that I receive this before my wedding. At first, I thought it would be the strange mementos of her apartment. The set of knives inscribed with tribal names. A salt and peppershaker with the chipped, wary faces of ceramic rabbits. What I didn’t expect was a letter in Lola’s shaky handwriting—


Beneath her letter, wrapped in thin sheaves of paper, was a dress the nacreous white of a cleaved oyster. The silk shone iridescent beneath the weak lights of my apartment, and its color—the pristine glow of a star’s pith—crept under my skin and stayed. I lifted it reverently, my hands trembling and my breath coiled tight and hot in my throat. The dress was so cold, as though it held the memory of the star-spangled skies. I pressed it to me and my soul fluttered against the fabric. There were no wings on the fabric. No magic shimmering in the air. But for the first time in years, I believed Lola. What would happen if I wore the dress?

I thought back to our last conversation, my chest tightening. Since that night, I’d kept a useless apology in my heart. Now, my apology had gathered moss in its edges. It had collected dust and stains and fissures. Even if the dress didn’t catapult me to the heavens, even if the cold silk was just cold silk, the hope…of what it could be… was precious.

At night, I listened for the sounds of the city. My moving boxes were stacked against the walls. My pictures were wrapped, my silverware cocooned in towels and stuffed in containers. Next week would be the start of a whole new future, but I still had tonight to say goodbye, to make amends, to kindle the oldest of dreams.

I washed my hair and curled it so that it hung across my shoulders. I wore a simple necklace with a single pearl. I cleaned my engagement ring until it was sparkling. I considered wearing a pair of shoes, but thought better of it.

I moved like a ghost knee-deep in memory.

That night, I slipped on the dress and it clung to me like water.

I walked to the balcony, seeking some newly filled space in the night sky where I thought she would be. I don’t know what I wanted in that moment. Did I want to be proven wrong and end up laughing at myself? Or did I just want to tell her that I loved her and that I was sorry I had not visited sooner?

Eventually, I saw a cradle of stars tucked into a square of night. I thought I heard music. The ghost of a song rilled across my skin. Lola.

Slowly, my feet lifted off the ground…

In the empyrean skies of heaven, a world-weary star rejoices.
There are gifts exchanged—silver constellations and sea-glass flowers—
And words lingered over—of love and light, woes and weddings—
And when all is said and done, they prepare their farewells in dance.
Their feet light, fingers touching, two star souls at home.

unnamedRoshani Chokshi is the author of the upcoming Young-Adult Indian fantasy, The Bride of Dusk and Glass, from St. Martin’s Griffin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Book Smugglers (“The Vishakanya’s Choice”), The Feminist Wire (“Antyesti”) and Fiction Vortex (“The Moira Sisters’ Inn”). She grew up in a pocket of the south and quickly discovered that boiled peanuts are the next best thing to ambrosia. Although her mother speaks Tagalog and her father speaks Gujarati, she knows only a smattering of curse words. But what she lacks in her family’s language, she makes up in stories. Twitter: @NotRashKnee. Web:


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Shimmer #26

Shimmer 26 July 2015-1000The one constant of our world is change, whether it be climates, bodies, or viewpoints. Hot goes cold, light goes dark, what was unseen and bypassed can no longer be. These four stories will take you on four such journeys — the transformations of loved ones, the transformations of a world we barely knew and may never understand, and the world yet to come looming in the near distance.


The Star Maiden, Roshani Chokshi
A star maiden is not an actual star. If you split her open, you will find neither crumbled moons nor milky pearls. A star maiden is a sliver of heaven made flesh. She is an orphaned moonbeam clinging to one possession only: A dress.

The Last Dinosaur, Lavie Tidhar
As Mina drove, a hush fell over the city, gradually, in tiers, and the white fluffy clouds in the sky above London parted gently to open up a riverful of blue. It was a beautiful day for a ride. She hummed to herself, an old song, and her fingers tapped rhythm on the steering wheel.

Serein, Cat Hellisen
I’ve imagined it endlessly:  what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

States of Emergency, Erica L. Satifka
In a no-tell motel just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone.


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