Today, we’re delighted to share our final story with you, “Ghosts of Bari,” by Wren Wallis.
When I put the final issue of Shimmer together, I did it as deliberately as I’d done every other issue of Shimmer, considering where each story should fall in the issue. It was something Beth taught me how to do when I edited my first issue—because the story you open with is not necessarily the story you want to close with.
I gave Wren a heads-up the moment I realized I wanted to close out Shimmer with her story. Having your story appear last may not seem like a great thing; if I’d held to the original release schedule, it would have had Wren’s story appearing after Hugo balloting had closed. I didn’t want that for the story, or Wren, because the story is gorgeous and should be read by as many Hugo voters as possible.
Putting a story last doesn’t mean it should be overlooked, it doesn’t mean it’s being hidden away. In fact, in the case of “Ghosts of Bari,” I put it last because it ends on a very specific note. It ends with a directive, a directive Shimmer wants you to undertake. Wren’s story encompasses so much of what Shimmer hoped to do, what we wanted to be. And by placing it as our final story in our final issue, I hope that is evident.
Relatedly, thinking about how we made issues (stories fitted together like puzzle pieces), I got curious as to how many stories Shimmer published in its thirteen years. Near as I can tell, it’s 288 stories, from 224 authors—but I suspect that author count is off, because I’m not convinced every single Shimmer author is on the website list yet. #goals
In my searching and looking through
old issues, I was genuinely amazed at all we accomplished over the course of
those 288 stories, so here are some notes from along the way.
Issues 1-4 had nine stories each. Our biggest issue, with twenty stories, was eleven which was our Clockwork Jungle Book—stories about steampunk animals. Genevieve Valentine appeared in that one, and so did Alethea Kontis. Aliette de Bodard made her first appearance in issue three, as did Angela Slatter. We got Amal el-Mohtar in issue four, and our first translations in issue five (Lavie Tidar translating Nir Yaniv). Silvia Moreno-Garcia also made her first appearance in issue five. Silvia’s story, “King of Sand and Stormy Seas,” stands out brightly in my memory; it was one of the first stories I remember falling for when I came across it in slush—the first story I really advocated for and wanted to see published.
Issue six contained Cat
Rambo—another story I remember being deeply affected by (“Eagle-haunted
Lake Sammamish”). Also “Sparrow and Egg,” again from Amal
el-Mohtar—made me burst into tears. This issue also contained “Tom
Cofferwillow Comes Undone,” by Stephen L. Moss—possibly the first story
that made Beth realize what weird taste I can have in fiction. This story plays
with language in ways that still delight me.
John Joseph Adams guest-edited issue seven, which was packed with pirate stories! Issue eight brought us “Monologue With Birds & Burin” by Daniel A. Rabuzzi. Another story that stands out in my memory. Both the place and the character get me here, hard in the heart.
Monica Byrne’s “5 Letters From New Laverne” showed up in issue twelve; this story made me bawl the first time I read it. We got our first K.M. Ferebee story in issue thirteen (pulled from slush by Keffy Kehrli), and our first Stephen Case, who would also join us in our final issue. Issue fourteen blew me away when I was thumbing through it: our first Sunny Moraine, our first A.C. Wise, and our first Karin Tidbeck! I mean…talk about all-stars.
Issue fifteen was my first to pick
stories for; it brought us Megan Arkenberg, Mari Ness, and Milo James Fowler.
It also taught me that it’s okay to really fight for a story you want—I bought
a story I’d previously rejected, so never say die people. You never know.
K.M. Szpara came to us in issue sixteen, and Damien Angelica Walters and Carmen Maria Machado in issue seventeen. Issue seventeen has seventeen stories, did you know? More than half of the authors moved in the course of publishing that issue… Nightmare level unlocked.
The great Ann VanderMeer guest-edited issue eighteen, which would become our final print issue, containing an Area X story from Jeff VanderMeer. Issue nineteen is when we leapt online—with another K.M. Ferebee story (with a heroine named Elyse, hmm!).
We published 28 issues online over
the course of five years, finding yet more wonderful authors. We got an Alix
Harrow, a Sam Miller, an Eden Robins, a Tara Isabella Burton, an Alex Acks, a
Malon Edwards, a Maria Dahvana Headley, an Isabel Yap, a Helena Bell, an Erika
Satifka, a Kristi DeMeester, an Arkady Martine, a Natalia Theodoridou, a Fran
Wilde, a Charlie Bookout, and so many other authors who made editing an
Shimmer ended each digital year with a beautiful print anthology featuring artwork by Sandro Castelli, as did almost each and every issue once we found him (issue six was his first cover, I believe, but with issue fifteen, he was our regular cover artist). Beth and I still talk about an anthology called The Best of Shimmer, and we’ll see how far I can twist her arm, eh? We published such an array of wonderful things, and when I think of every nugget hidden in these issues…ah, I want you to read each and every one of them, because they are each dear and special and yeah, shimmery. WHAT IS SHIMMERY? the masses cried. Go read everything we published. You’ll see.
Salvage is the only long-term game in the universe.
No tyrant of the star-nets or titan of trade ever admired a salvage crew; we’re the crows on their trash-heaps, the rats in their walls. But I don’t think any of them’s ever considered, either, that when their names have long gone airless and their works are rust and shadow, it’s junkers who write their elegies.
Every empire ever raised eventually falls. And sooner or later, the crows always come for the corpses.
Most crews won’t scavenge off the Bari Arm, despite the graveyard of scrap that’s been collecting in slow orbit there for a few human ages now. Junkers are a superstitious lot and there’s something wrong, they say, with Bari.
Which has always been fine with me, because it means more scrap for us.
On lucky runs we’ve found whole ships and sometimes stations, mining or monitoring, in the junk field. Most of them abandoned, nothing sinister, though once we ran across an E-class Isan transport ghost-floating with quarantine glyphs still burning phosphor-green on her hull. We left that one alone.
This time it was, of all things, a light combat cruiser. Entire and, to all external scans, intact.
We’d scrapped warships before, so I didn’t doubt we could manage it, and if we could salvage working weaponry it would be a legend on the Winged Market. But the warships we’d scrapped before were always by hire; we’d never just found one ghosting. Most consortia tend to keep track of that particular species of their shit.
But— “I don’t know it,” Kin said in comm. She sounded puzzled, and Eli paused only half-suited up. When your Oracle doesn’t know a thing, it’s occasion to pause.
“How do you mean?” I asked. “Is it an off-reg? Can’t you trace it?”
“I can’t read it, Mati,” she said. “The only hull-mark I parse as a might-be tag is in a glyph I can’t read. And it’s not a hullform I know.”
Which was occasion to bigtime pause.
In the silence, Eli started to strip his suit, his damaged face expressionless. Old soldiers are superstitious, too.
“No chance,” I warned him. “That’s a floating fortune out there, wherever it came from.” A one-of-a-kind Market legend.
He would’ve argued with me—Eli’s never stepped back willingly from an argument, it’s his special pastime—but Kin herself intervened. “Dushamaya,” she coaxed. “It’s worth a look, ai?”
No cat’s got anything on an Oracle when it comes to curiosity, bless their voracious souls.
Eli hesitated, cast an exasperated look upward, and grudgingly began pulling his suit back on.
“You know I’m the captain of this crew?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, and crouched to strap his rag-knife to his boot. “But I like her better.”
The first peculiarity was the ship’s seals. I was still securing our wing tethers when Eli said, low and puzzled in comm, “These are live. Seals are still live.”
I made my way hand over hand across the stained and pitted hull to where he hung—upside-down from my vantage—considering the entry hatch with his head canted, ocular implant focused on the corroded keypanel. “So?” I asked. “Easier, nah? Just rat the code and key in. Saves us cutting.”
“But why are they still live, Esmat? This thing’s so old it doesn’t exist.”
“No offense to Her Sapience,” I said, “but just because Kin doesn’t know a thing doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” I rapped on the hull: soundless in the black, but real enough that I felt the vibration in my bones. “Unless you’re not sure you can rat it?”
He muttered under his breath in Rukhani and shifted to work.
“We’ll go slow and look sharp,” I consoled him, and double-checked my gear. Eli didn’t grace me with a reply.
The hatch yielded readily enough to his persuasions, yawning smoothly open. I went in first, stunner at the ready.
The entry bay was vacant, dark and breathless. I was about to summon Eli after me when the back of my neck prickled and the words shriveled like rice paper on my tongue. For an instant I couldn’t breathe, felt something cold and stifling settle heavy on my chest.
And then it passed, like the shadow of some great winged thing. I dialed up my light and swept the bay, breathing like I’d just run a klick.
There was nothing to see. Bari superstition rubbing off on me. I felt clammy inside my suit.
“Clear,” I reported, and Eli came swinging through the hatch. He dragged it closed behind him and then turned to look at me, but if he’d heard anything in my voice or gotten any spike readings off my suit, he didn’t say; after a moment, he turned back to the wall and made his way along to the master panel. I dialed my light up some more and drifted, scanning the place again.
Most of the entry bay looked standard op, if clunky and outdated. There’s only so much variation you can work on the theme of airlocks. But black-marked on the wall beside the inner hatch, it wore an emblem that I didn’t know. The mark looked partly like a bird rising into flight, neck up and wings spread behind, and partly like the Iskaari kah for telling. It had been—smeared? inked? in haste, trailing streaks like tears.
“Kin?” I asked. “You getting this?”
“I’m downlinking to the Arkhive,” she said, which I’d never heard her say but guessed was Kin-speak for I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at either.
“Wait,” said Eli. He was still hanging at the panel. The chilly centipede of nerves ran across the back of my neck again and I twitched it off irritably.
When he didn’t say anything else, I said, “Wait what?” maybe a little snappish.
“It’s all still live. Systems. Not just airlocks, ai? Stasis mode, but live. Power, stabilizers. Air systems are up and atmo reads good.”
We looked at the inner hatch. It looked back at us, a blank black eye.
That was the moment, right there, when I could have called the salvage off. I could have said, No, fuck it, something’s off, leave it, and we could’ve picked up something else: a dead satellite, a junked drill, pieces of a broken-up transport. But I didn’t.
It was that sign: that black bird caught reaching for flight. Telling. It didn’t mean either of those things for all I knew, but some deeper-shadowed recess of my brain had heard it whisper and wanted to listen. It felt like a thing I ought to know.
Besides, I had a renegade Oracle and a half-mod resurrection soldier on my team, which put me two up against pretty much anything.
“Kin, you’re hailing her?”
“Thirty-six times so far,” she said. “Broadlink, at intervals. She’s a stone.”
“All right,” I said, and then to Eli, “Crack her.”
Eli’s pointed response was to holster his stunner and unsling his rifle instead, but having offered that opinion, he turned back to the master panel. “Hold onto yourself,” he said.
A moment later, light blazed and gravity seized me with a stomach-surging lurch.
The inner hatch opened onto darkness. Eli shouldered past me to go first, and this time I let him. He leaned through, holding the rifle level before him, and looked one way and then the other before stepping out. “Clear,” he said curtly a moment later. I followed, making the same cautious hesitation in the opening that he had, to take my bearings.
It was a bare industrial corridor, the hatch set flush in its wall, and there was nothing to see, either up or down. Night-bars set into the floor at intervals shed a dim and tranquil ruddy light. I stepped in and turned a slow circle. Glyphs had been painted on the wall; unlike the bird in the bay, these were flaked and faded. I couldn’t read the bones of whatever had been written there.
The hatch sighed shut behind me; a moment later, it sounded a chime, and a ring of blue light woke to life around it. We were in and she was tight.
I toggled my comm to open. “Two aboard,” I called in Pinghe, and then again in Sarahatbaan. My voice echoed tinnily. “Crew Ahuja, Three Pearls System, salvage reg Kinship of Ash. Any injured or distressed?”
Eli’s visor disengaged with a hiss, and he tugged the hood of his suit back one-handed. He turned a wary circle, like expecting the atmo might mug him unawares, and then nodded at me. “Clean.”
I was reaching for my own hood when Kin said dreamily, “It’s called Ihe.”
“The language, the script. Of the hull-glyphs and that sigil in the bay, and consistent with the letter-forms in the corridor. It’s an antique dialect out of the Swarm. Predates the Iskaar-Vethani Campaign and the Su-Sun Dynasty.”
For a long moment, the silence was absolute as vacuum.
Eli shouldered his rifle and asked mildly, “Who speaks it recently?”
“No one,” Kin said.
“Not possible, Fox,” he told her.
“Clearly it is. I don’t yet know how, but you are standing among the incontrovertible facts.”
Eli was already shaking his head. “That’s not junk, that’s artifact. That’s the wrong end of the galaxy and a few thousand solar years out of time.”
“The Bari field is anomalous,” Kin said blandly, which is as superstitious as AI gets.
“Claim her,” I urged Kin. “Now. Now.” I didn’t know whether the strange warship was anomaly or artifact or what just yet, but even the chance—it was like staring into sun-dazzle. A relic like Kin was talking about—we could sell the dead ship entire to the Vo-erja to use as a temple, and they’d pay us half their order’s fortune for the privilege. We could sell Free Swarm-era weaponry to the Khaiden for twice that again. We could start a galactic holy war and become the richest junkers in history in the bargain; we could make ourselves a three-person consortium to rival the Tradeways.
Not that I would.
I mean, probably I wouldn’t.
Eli was looking levelly at me. His expression was always hard to read on account of the scars and the false eye, but I could feel the preemptive disappointment washing off him.
“In case,” I told him. “If she’s that major a find, imagine what some unscrupulous firm might do with her, ai?”
“Imagine,” he agreed dryly.
“I’ve netted and tagged her,” Kin said. “No reg number; if she’s actually Ihe, she’d predate the current system. Her hull-name, though, translates to something like Singer-at-Dusk.”
“And the glyph in the entry bay?”
“Means listen. Or—more formal, more imperative than that. Hearken, maybe.”
I felt the shiver of nerves again, a brief flush like icy water beneath the skin. Listen, the black bird whispered in memory. “Listen to what?” I asked, and pulled my own hood back.
Kin had no answer. Eli and I stood staring at each other. The corridor was silent: a faint, felt thrum underfoot, the slow pulse of a drowsing ship, but no sound.
Eli was first to finally shake his head, like twitching off cobweb. “Nothing here.”
“Maybe deeper,” I suggested.
We found the first three bodies—or the last three, as it proved—in what might have been a rec room.
We’d ventured down a narrow branchway walled on either side with tanks. They were scaled and occluded by whatever long-dry liquid they’d once held, and a film of clotted filth ringed their bases. That path opened two ways at the end: a room, and another corridor. I picked the room.
Eli had fiddled with the ship’s day/night cycle and brought the lights up so that it felt less like we were sneaking. Even so, even with everything cleanly awash in cheerful synthetic sunlight, it took me a moment to process what I was seeing when I stepped through that door.
Two of them were sitting cross-legged on the floor at a low table against the far wall. They’d been playing a game that looked like Fives, but one of them had keeled onto the grid and scattered the stones; the other slumped against the wall, head tipped up, as though contemplating an anomaly on the ceiling. I looked up too, in spite of myself. There was nothing wrong with the ceiling.
The third was seated on a bench at a big mess table in the center of the room. They’d tipped sideways to lay head and one outstretched arm on the table. A bowl before them held only dusty residue now.
Eli bumped me gently from behind. “Esmat?”
I shifted aside. He stepped in to survey the scene.
“Name of God,” he said mildly. Eli was never surprised by death; he was tolerant but resigned, as if it were a thoughtless relative who’d insisted on dropping in at a bad time. Bossy Auntie Death.
Of course, he’d known her a lot longer and better than I had.
I found my own voice. “What happened?”
He kept the rifle at the ready before him, full-charged, as he moved to investigate, which was as absurd as the way I held my stunner like a ward. These people were long past posing any sort of threat.
There was no indication of anything gone awry in here, apart from the fact the trio was dead. No signs of alarm, no wounds or broken bones, no weapons even present. All three of them sat as though they’d simply fallen asleep, passed out where they were sitting.
Time and exposure had mummified them: they were desiccated, shriveled to dark leather and lacquered bone, gaping mouths and sunken eye-pits. Whatever they’d worn in life, it was now a uniform of colorless rags and dust.
Eli crouched by the one on the bench. “Not violence,” he said. “And not plague.”
“Why not plague?”
He glanced back, showing me only the undamaged side of his face, faintly sardonic. “Not many plagues could kill three people simultaneously, and if not simultaneous, once the first one died, you’d think the other two might’ve caught on.”
“Right.” The moment’s shock had made me stupid. “Systems failure?”
He rose to his feet and shouldered the gun again. “Only they’re working now.”
“Ai, but—” I indicated the atrophied bodies with my chin. “In that state? They went deep-cold or airless or both for at least a while.”
He weighed this and conceded it with a one-shouldered shrug.
“Kin,” I said. “Can you pull systems history?”
“Not from here,” she said. “It’s a sealed stasis. I’m not sure Singer’s mind is intact at all. You’ll need to get to a core console and call her up again for me to link with what’s left.”
It was a slow progress through the mostly-empty, silent ship. We found more bodies in the crew berths. They were as peaceful as the trio in the galley, sleeping like the—well, you know. Withered husks, curled like chrysalids in their bunks. The beds themselves had gone to nests of dust and brittle fragments around them.
Eli paced the row of beds, murmuring in his own language. I moved slower, from berth to berth. I didn’t love looking at them, but it felt—disrespectful, maybe?—not to pause at each one.
Listen, the black bird said.
What was I listening for?
“Too few,” Eli said at last from the other end of the room.
“What?” I glanced up from the one I’d been staring at.
“Too few,” he repeated. “For a cruiser. This isn’t a fighting force. They’re barely enough to crew a modern ship this size.”
“So we’re in for a heap more of them somewhere?” We’d been working our way gradually toward the heart of her; I had an unpleasant picture of a hill of grisly bodies waiting in the core.
There was something nagging me about the way the body beside me was curled on its side.
“Deserters, maybe,” Eli suggested. “Who would they have been at war with?”
“The Iskaari,” Kin’s voice replied.
I paused and Eli canted his head.
“The Iskaari?” I asked. “You said they predated —”
“The Vethani campaign, yes. The Ihe shared the Iskaari homeworld and moons in the Swarm, and were the first Iskaari conquest before they got really ambitious. They were completely subsumed. A dark footnote in Iskaari history, as the Arkhive puts it.”
Eli muttered something in Rukhani that even I knew was extremely rude.
“That bother you, Exemplar?” I asked him, maybe a little more sharply than needful.
Genocide had been his people’s game, a long time back and a lifetime ago, and Eli had been pretty good at it, and sometimes it still stuck between us, what with my folk being the ones genocided and all. It had turned out—I mean, there’s no good word for how a thing like that turns out, even when conquerors fail. It’s hard to say we won over the silence of all the lost.
He turned his head to look at me straight on, both mismatched halves of his face, one natural eye and one milk-white implant. The scars he’d taken in our old, long war. “Yes,” he said.
I turned away, went to the corpse I’d been studying and knelt down.
It cradled something in both arms, had curled around it like a lover in sleep. I stood up fast and stepped back, swallowing a hard and bitter knot.
Eli was there, somehow. “Esmat?”
“It’s got—” I took a deep breath. “It’s holding something. Small. I can’t tell—”
He had already stepped between me and the body. “I’ll have a look.” He crouched down and I turned my back.
“Kin,” I said. “Tell us about the Ihe.”
“Not much else to tell,” she said. “Technologically peers of the Old Iskaari, but fewer in number, and then either extinct or assimilated. The language is phonetically dissimilar from Iskaari, but the alphabets are distantly related. The Arkhive only knows of it because the Iskaari administered their Ihe territories in that language for a century or so, and some of those records were preserved.”
The Arkhive didn’t pay. The Arkhive wouldn’t pay us, not even for a relic this spectacular. I wondered if Pham could turn up a philanthropist rich and eccentric enough to pay us for it and then make the donation themself.
“Mati,” Eli said. He’d risen back to his feet and was holding something cupped in his hands. He held it out to me wordlessly.
It was some kind of idol, and my knees went so loose with relief that I had to beckon him closer because I briefly didn’t trust myself to move.
It was stone of a deep blue-green hue, striated with darker lines, and it had been carved in the shape of a two-headed tortoise. I took it carefully from Eli. There were tiny stars etched on the broad vault of the shell; the eyes of each head were holes drilled straight through, so that you could see light through them when you held it up.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Eli nodded at me. As I stood studying it, he moved away down the row of beds again. I turned the heavy carved figure in my hands. “But who sleeps with a stone idol?”
“This one has—I don’t know. A document?” He tugged something from beneath another body and held it up. It was a tile of some pale, glassy material, faded lines inked on it. “And this one has” —he turned and crouched again— “jewelry?” He slipped it free. “A memory-pendant.” He raised a badly-tarnished locket.
“Mother of stars,” I said, and then couldn’t speak for a moment at all.
I had seen aftermaths; I had seen graveyards. I’d cracked tombs before this one, and counted the things the dead had treasured.
But I’d known, breaking into those others, that they were tombs. I’d known what I would find. This time, I hadn’t.
These people had.
I hugged the stone tortoise to my chest. “They’re not—they’re mementos. Each of them has— Eli, they knew they were going to die here? They took their precious things, things that would last, and they lay down in their beds and—”
He turned politely away when I couldn’t finish, to resume his gentle grave-robbery.
We found the core console what felt like a very long time later. It was an entire room, layered in dust and silence. Some sort of fungus had spread in patches across the ceiling, leaving only a sort of brittle fur behind, some of which sifted down like snow as soon as we troubled the room by entering.
There were no corpses. The console panels were blank and mute, gray-frosted with age. I couldn’t read any of the controls.
“Fox,” Eli said, and unslung the pack he was carrying now to set it softly in the dust. “We’re in core.”
“Introduce me,” she said, and Eli unsealed a pocket to take out the black phial.
The console woke to Kin’s ministrations very loudly and all at once. There was an ungainly rattle-and-clunk, and the light in the room flared almost unbearably before adjusting. I threw up a hand to shield my eyes.
When I lowered it, the panels were live. On every single one of them burned the glyph of the bird: Listen.
Eli and I both stood for a moment. The repeating glyph brightened gradually, insistently around us: Listen.
“Fox?” Eli asked, puzzled. “Is she there? Singer?”
“No,” said Kin. “This is— I’m not sure what I’m looking at. She was here, but she’s been largely overwritten by something. She overwrote herself? It’s encoded. There’s a fragment here I think is the last of her, but she’s not responding to me. Maybe just some kind of echo?”
The glyphs were nearly blinding now. The bird rustled at the back of my brain.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the middle of the room. “We’re listening,” I said aloud in Pinghe.
The glyphs blinked out.
And then, all at once, every panel filled with light. Alien glyphs flowed across them in dazzling, endless gibberish strings, an unstoppable, unreadable panorama.
I turned a slow circle, transfixed. There was no way for a human eye to take the river of it all in, even if I could read the language.
A few paces away, Eli was making the same wondering circle.
“God’s Name,” Kin said reverently. She sounded—if she were human, I’d have said she sounded choked up, which is a state I’d never seen her in, not even when she wore her human body. “Mother of God.”
“What? Kin, what is it?”
“It’s a poem,” she said. “Singer-at-Dusk is gone. The last fragment of her I found—I think she was waiting? And now she’s gone out. But this is a poem. Composed by her.”
“A poem?” Eli asked, like the word didn’t parse.
“It goes on and on and on.” She was silent for a moment and then said, in a soft, strange voice, “Listen: These we sing at last into darkness. These last, these few, these valiant. Take these— I can’t tell, this could be words or souls, it’s ambiguous— and remember.” She was quiet.
We were all quiet. I held my breath.
At length Kin said, “She composed—it’s an elegy for her crew, but also for—there’s so much here. A history of the Ihe, the whole saga of the war. It’s—” Silence again.
Eli had been staring at me, but now he turned his head so that I could only see expressionless scars and tech, his real eye hidden.
“Kin,” I said very carefully, and leaned against the nearest panel, because my knees were weird again. “What happened? Just—here. To them, and her. What happened?”
For a moment I thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then she said roughly, “They knew it was finished. The war. The rest of the fleet had surrendered. But these—they wouldn’t. They wanted the system, the Swarm, to know; they wanted to warn them. About the Iskaari. The crew agreed that all her resources had to go to that end, over Singer’s objections. The ones in their berths took poison, to minimize system load. The three in the room were the—the Captain was called Shaeh Toh, and those were her two officers. They remained to crew Singer as long as they could, and to manually override her life-system mandates in the end. They would have—it would have been like slipping into sleep, I suppose. She–when she realized she wasn’t going to be able to maintain herself indefinitely even without their resource load, she began to write the poem, to carry it with the last of herself.”
“How did they get here?” My voice sounded odd.
“I don’t know,” Kin said. “I don’t know. They’ve been adrift — God knows.”
I was still looking at Eli.
Why don’t you ever get your fucking face fixed? I used to ask him, maybe once a cycle. Rest of us don’t love looking at that shit.
Neither do I, he’d finally said back to me one day. But some things should be remembered. And some people shouldn’t get to hide.
“Are you still linked to the Arkhive?” I asked Kin.
“I am,” she said.
“Uplink it,” I said. “Give them the whole thing. Hell, outlink it—send it to Pham, tell them to broadcast it on the Tradeways. Send it to Nansi Station and the Commonwealth Terract. Give it to the Vo, they’ll carry it even farther.”
“Mati,” Eli said.
“Shut up,” I told him. To Kin I said, “Any open link you can hit right now, anyone who can handle the load.”
“Mati,” Eli repeated patiently. “And Iskaar?”
“Yes. Yes to Iskaar. To them and to every one of the Swarm-states.”
“That might,” Kin said, “make things diplomatically awkward in certain zones. For us, at least.”
“They started it,” I said. “Besides, we’re just a crew of crows. What’s diplomacy?”
Eli laughed abruptly.
The ship that had been Singer’s husk and memorial didn’t make it. Eli and I had barely cleared her, winging back toward Kinship, when her systems went dark behind us. By the time we were home aboard, she’d begun to break up.
Eli and I stood together before one of Kin’s monitors, watching a priceless artifact disintegrate in the black.
“Sorry about your fortune,” he told me. We still had a stone tortoise and a locket and some other pieces stowed away, but he knew without my saying that those weren’t ours to keep.
“S’all right,” I said, and leaned against him. He put an arm around my shoulders. “We’ll find another, someday, ai? Anyway, she wasn’t an artifact. She was a ghost.”
“Superstitious,” he chided me.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Maybe a little.”
All across knownspace, a black bird was instructing: Listen.
Wallis lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and an odd
number of chickens. Her short fiction has appeared previously in Beneath
Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Lackington’s,
and various anthologies. She can be found online at wrenwallis.com,
and on Twitter @invisibleinkie.
They pilot ships named after our rivers: Indus, Euphrates, Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, Tigris, Nile. My daughter’s is the Potomac, which she says is ironic and self-referential. It will be the eighth American ship, but only the third that has been piloted through our nation’s gate.
I have not seen my daughter since the day she became a ghost, though my wife and I speak to her face in the screens of our empty Midwestern home each week.
“Did you get any coffee?” my wife asks when I walk in the door. I like to bike the town near sunset. Our daughter calls at any time, cycles in orbit having little correspondence to diurnal patterns below, but in the evenings my wife watches the screens. If she’s not chatting with our daughter, she is watching the progress of the gates.
“Yes. But all they carry now is ground. No whole bean.”
She makes a small sound of disappointment.
Our daughter was ghosted four years ago. There was no reason for her to stay, all of the jobs in orbit now or beyond the gates (if there is anything beyond the gates). The last legislation limiting ghosting among American citizens was repealed when the Indo-Russian gate came online and the Chinese threatened even higher tolls for theirs.
I went with my daughter to the ghosting station, a vertical city rising out of the Illinois prairie. Its massive components had all been ghosted, particles disentangled from the gravitational embrace of the Higgs field so they floated at various altitudes, a weightless stairway into orbit. There were thousands of citizens passing through each day.
When my daughter came out of the station, we had a few minutes together before she left. We were told the ghosting process had no lasting effect on the delicate play of particles we called human consciousness. She was still my daughter. All that had changed was gravity.
All that had changed was everything.
Her movements were different. Weights at her waist held her to the ground, and when she walked it was as though she barely touched the surface. She stood straighter, like her bones were itching to be in the sky.
My wife had not come with us. She regrets it now, but some felt felt ghosting was a betrayal, that ghosts had forsaken the covenant of mass, the sanctity of gravity. Our children were not only leaving us: They were rejecting communion with Earth itself. They were prodigals, taking their inheritance and drifting into the universe.
It felt, in a way, like a death.
It felt like being left behind.
I get a beer from the basement and walk onto the back patio. Agriculture has moved into orbit along with the jobs; they harvest crops from agricultural platforms in the sky now. It means the cornfield that used to begin a few steps from our back door remained fallow this year. Daniel Whitebone’s children are running through it, picking the heads of dandelions and other red and purple weeds I don’t recognize.
From the moment she was ghosted, our daughter began training for placement on one of the slingships. She was thrilled when she called to tell us she had gotten a placement on the Potomac.
My wife cried for days.
I sip my beer, an IPA with undertones of pine and grapefruit. Daniel Whitebone is in his backyard. For a moment I think he has a lawnmower overturned and is working on the blade. But it is only another one of his sculptures. They look like conglomerations of bone and industrial debris. Half a dozen line his driveway.
Our daughter could still come home. A few have already; they return to the surface and after spending several months eating surface-grown food, their bodies start to regain gravitational mass as ghosted particles are replaced through normal metabolism. They can feel the tug of gravity, over the years, if they choose.
Our daughter does not.
For Father’s Day this year, she sent us the information and credits to print a high-resolution model of the Potomac in ebony plasteel.
“She might as well have sent us a picture of her coffin,” my wife said, when she found the words to say anything at all.
It is a beautiful model. The Potomac started as an asteroid, as did all the slingships. It is maybe two miles across at its narrowest, but the border between stone and city is flawless, a cluster of skyscrapers and agricultural domes blooming out of broken rock like crystals. Without the pull of gravity, architecture runs riot.
I showed it to Daniel Whitebone, who turned it over in his hands and whistled slowly.
“A gift from the sky?”
“From my daughter.”
The model sits on the railing of the patio. The Potomac is next in line to pass through the gate, scheduled to go out in a matter of days.
Though hundreds of thousands have passed through the slinggates, no one is sure they work. In theory, gates make near-instantaneous travel beyond the solar system possible. You align the gate with an exoplanet, sling a ship through, and a fraction of a second later the ship has covered the distance and begins a few years of deceleration toward the target. Our children are catapulting themselves out into the Big Empty.
It is a one-way trip; it would take at least a generation to build a slinggate on the other side of the journey to sling themselves home. It had taken us the manpower and resources of an entire planet to just build the handful of gates we had. It would take a few centuries for the travelers’ signals to reach us, if they survived.
The problem is that the gates have a minimum range. You have to pass ships through at a certain speed unless you want them to tear themselves apart.
I explained it to Daniel Whitebone once, using his daughter’s hula-hoop and the Potomac model.
“Here’s the ship,” I said, “and here’s the gate. As the ship passes through, it gets accelerated.” I pushed the ship through the hoop. “But if you don’t want to travel too far, you’ve got to go through slowly. But if you go through that slowly, portions of the ship are accelerated at different rates and the whole thing tears itself apart.”
“A catch-22,” Daniel Whitebone said.
I nodded. “You’re either several trillion miles away or you’re nowhere. No in-between.”
We could have been more patient. We could have built our gates and waited a few centuries to make sure the first ships actually arrived at their new planets before sending more. But in an international race to claim new worlds, no one was going to wait that long. Certainly not our children.
And certainly not our daughter.
“Cultural suicide” was what some called it. Others used the term “voluntary genocide.”
I just called it death.
“There’s no other way to look at it,” I tell Daniel Whitebone. It is two beers later. His kids are still in the prairie, accompanied by crowns of fireflies. Whitebone has left his sculpture for the night and joined me on the patio. “I watched my father die. It was peaceful. He left, and I tried to believe he was still living on somewhere else. That’s what death is. An unknowable transition. You have hope there’s something on the other side.”
Daniel Whitebone nods.
“So it doesn’t matter whether the gates actually rip you apart at a subatomic level or whether they sling you to another star. Either way, from my perspective she’s gone. Forever. And either way, all I do is hope she’s still out there.”
“A horizon,” Daniel Whitebone offers. The horizon in front of us is wide with clouds and the syrupy light of sunset. “Do you know her destination?”
“Not the exact designation. My wife does. It’s someone’s name and a string of numbers.” I shrug. “Nothing you can see in the night. A spot on a survey, but it has a system of four planets. Two in the habitable zone. Water vapor and oxygen in the atmosphere of the innermost of the two. And seasonal variations they think indicate vegetation. A good target.”
“They are all good targets,” Daniel Whitebone says, taking a long drink of his beer. “The sky is rich.”
I nod. The sky is studded with wonders, from the clouds above our heads to the cities our children are building and onward to the varied worlds beyond them, those planets we may or may not reach through the slinggates.
“But none of you are going,” I say, tipping the top of my bottle toward his kids in the field. “Not a single American Indian ghosted.”
“Not true,” Daniel Whitebone says. “Many of our young people from White Earth have ghosted. A few from other nations are already stationed on slingships. Beware generalizations.”
“But your kids are the only children in town now. And I know there are more families moving off the reservation and into empty houses. Most of your young people are staying.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because the Earth is rich,” he says softly, “and because we are part of it.”
“You’ll be left behind. You won’t get any of the new planets.”
He grins, and there is no malice in it. “We already have one.”
When I walk into the house that evening for another beer, the gate is on every screen. It is a ring, flattened and simplified with distance so that its network of lights and hundreds of miles of coiled metallic lattice looks solid. It is an artifact, a torus hung in space and picked out by beacons like jewels along its perimeter.
It seems like something discovered, like a leftover of another civilization, not something our children, the ones who left these empty houses, have created.
My wife stands before the largest screen, the one mounted on the wall above the fireplace. “They’ve moved the departure time up,” she says in a tight and tired voice. “It’s tonight. She’s going now.”
“Did she call?”
My wife shakes her head. “Messaged. Apologized. Said there wasn’t time. A last-minute adjustment.” She takes a long shuddering breath that is almost a sob.
There is nothing to see when a ship slips through the gate that I have not seen before. A ship, looking like little more than a stone in the view of the camera feeds watching at a distance, passes through a ring. There is a play of St. Elmo’s fire as it goes, disappearing like a rock into a pond, without ripple or wake.
It is just gone.
I touch her shoulder, but she pulls away.
I walk back onto the patio.
The sky is crowded with ghosts.
Some of them are disappearing forever.
In the growing twilight Daniel Whitebone’s daughter plucks a dandelion and blows, the thistledown seeds invisible in the darkness. The reality of those seeds is a hope alone. They will land and grow, or they will not exist at all. In the dimness, I cannot be sure.
When it is completely dark, Daniel Whitebone’s children go inside, laughing and singing words I don’t understand.
I wait alone on the deck, staring at the first stars and at the dark spaces between, until I make myself believe I see seeds drifting among them.
Grandmother’s rocking chair is made of iron. It is rust and death and blood. Grandmother’s rocking chair sits in the middle of the porch so that she can watch me and pet her turtle. Tortoise, really. It is as old as Grandmother and waits patiently by the chair like an end-table of shell.
I play with a toy soldier and his tin horse under the shadow of the tortoise in the summer heat, careful not to let my fingers pass under the cutting blades of Grandmother’s rocking chair. She rocks back and forth, slicing grooves in the hard oak of the porch.
The rocking stops. Grandmother reaches a hand down and taps my calf where I’m sprawled on the porch. “Child—” We are all “child” to her. “Child. Go see if the mail has come.”
Still holding my tin horse, I push back out from under the tortoise, and it turns its slow eye toward me. I scratch the leather head and frown at the road. “Did you see the mailman?”
“Go on now. No sass.” She smacks my rump, and the rocking begins again.
There is not a mailman. There is no mail. There has never been either on any day that I have ever gone to check the box. But I go because Grandmother’s chair is made of iron. It is rust and death and blood, and she is my Grandmother.
I don’t want to make her ask thrice.
On bare feet, I hop across the ruts in the wood of the porch that her chair has sliced. You have to be careful not to slide your feet on Grandmother’s porch, or splinters drive deep into the soles. All of us have left bloody footprints on that porch.
Bounding down the stairs, with my dungarees rolled up nearly to my knees, I squint as I come out into the sun. Grandmother’s yard is made of stone.
It is dust and grit and the long, long dead. The dust blows in little spirals that follow the shapes of ammonites buried in the stone. A sidewalk cuts through the stone in a straight line dead-ending at the street.
The sun has baked the sidewalk hot, and it scorches my feet as I run on tiptoes to the mailbox. I said the sidewalk is straight and that is true until it passes under the shade of the only tree. The massive oak there has lifted the sidewalk up into a hill, tilting the pavement to the side as if it is going to tip you down into the stone yard.
I slow as I pass under the tree. I clamber over the sidewalk hill and out to the street.
The street is made of dirt. Red clay. Gravel. From the porch, in her rocking chair of iron, Grandma calls out. “Don’t go into the street. You hear?”
I stand on my toes at the end of the sidewalk and lean out, to open the mailbox.
“I said, did you hear me?”
“Yes’m.” I will not make her ask thrice.
The box is hot, even in the shade of the only tree. A layer of grit roughs against my fingers. I tuck my tin horse into the pocket of my dungarees. With one hand, I hold onto the iron post at the back of the mailbox and lean out to reach inside without putting a foot on the dirt road.
There is something inside.
I jerk my hand out. An envelope falls from the mailbox. The envelope is made of skin and tattooed with an address that I have never known. It lands in the road, and the red clay dust brushes over it.
My heart kicks like a goat in a cage. There’s a letter. The mail came. “Gra— Grandmother?”
“What is it?”
I crouch at the end of the sidewalk, my arms resting on my knees and squint at the envelope. It is pale cream, and about the size of Grandmother’s palm. Red dust brushes over the surface.
“I said, what is it?”
“It’s a letter.” Never make Grandmother ask thrice. “There ain’t no stamp.”
“Bring it here.”
I reach for the envelope, because I want to know what’s in it and because Grandmother has asked me to.
A breeze snatches the letter and hustles it farther into the street, and without thinking I step forward. Off the sidewalk. I step into the street.
Behind me, Grandmother screams. The sound of the rocking chair stops. Dust and grit coat my feet and scratch my skin. I snatch the letter up and turn.
Grandmother’s house is gone.
The road is made of rust. The rough red dust blows over my bare feet, hissing up the legs of my dungarees and chafing the skin at the backs of my knees. I clutch the letter in both hands and hold it over my head for the little bit of shade it offers. The sun scorches the road and the bare earth on either side, differentiated from the red of the road only by parallel lines of smooth round stones, all alike.
The stones have wiggly cracks along the domes, almost like the tortoise, but they are bone white.
I have not opened the letter yet.
I turn in a circle, but the horizon is unbroken. Wetting my lips, I walk back to the edge of the road where I think I stepped off Grandmother’s sidewalk, and crouch down, peering over the line of stones. The dust hisses over their bone-smooth surface. I’m scared to step across them.
Biting the inside of my lip, I bring the envelope down and look at it. The envelope is made of skin, and the address tattooed on it says:
Mother Restless Track Nowhere
The stamp is a shilling buried under a blob of blood-red sealing wax. On the back flap is another blob of sealing wax, gone glossy with the heat. It would open easily under my hands. I tell myself that maybe it was meant for me to open or that maybe if I don’t break the seal, no one will know if I open it.
I know better than that.
But I also have nothing else to mark my spot with, so I peel off the edges of the wax around the shilling and press it against the stone. Except when my fingers touch it, I can’t keep pretending that it’s stone.
It is a skull. All of them are skulls, stretching out in parallel lines as far as I can see in both directions.
Careful as I can, I tuck the envelope into the front pocket of my coveralls and bump into something hard and uneven. I reach into my pocket and pull out my tin horse. My tin horse is made of tin and black flaking paint. I turn her over in my hands and wish I had brought the captain with his gold feather and his canteen or the leftenant with his rifle, even though the bayonet is snapped off.
I want a grown-up with me to make decisions about which way to go. A road goes between two places, and I have to choose which way to go. Do I go to where the wind is coming from, or where it’s going to?
I look at the red road again. Either way, I cannot see the end of the road, and I tell myself that Grandma would not want me to be alone, but I know that’s not a real reason. A tin horse is just a tin horse, no matter how big.
I bite down on the side of my cheek until I taste blood and spit a red globule on the tin horse. Once, twice, thrice, the spit coats the horse. Then she is too heavy in my hand and then in three breaths, she is standing beside me on the rust-red road, with three red stains on her black coat, like bullet wounds.
She tosses her head, mane blowing in the wind. Her saddle is made of tin and the stirrups jangle, waiting for me.
I show her the envelope. It has what must be my grandmother’s address. “Do you know where this is?”
The horse rolls her eyes and snorts. Now I wish that I had pretended she was a talking horse, but it is too late for that. I tuck the envelope back into my dungarees pocket and clamber up into the tin saddle. The reins are molded to the saddle, but at least they are leather. Mostly. I gather them up and turn my tin horse to look at where the wind comes from.
It whispers, spitting sand into my eyes when I look along the road. Maybe it’s nonsense, but the letter had to come from somewhere and so does the wind, so I squint my eyes and kick my tin horse in the sides. With a dull clang, she moves and we walk into the wind.
My horse is made of tin. She has a coat as black as paint and the sun makes her as warm as a living thing, but when I kick her sides with my heels, she clangs. We have been riding under an unmoving sun. The only things that change in this landscape are us and the rust-red dust borne by the wind. My head sags against my chest, but my tin horse never tires.
The heat makes my head ache from the glare and the heat. My eyes drift closed.
I jerk awake as I am falling. Too late to catch myself, I see the black and tin side of my horse, and then the red-rust ground slams against me. I cough. My entire side feels afire with pain.
My tin horse stops. She looks back and waits as the breeze stirs her stiff mane and tail into windchimes.
For a minute or an hour, I lie there in the dust and wait for the burning pain to subside. It is tempting to let my vision fuzz out and stare past the line of skulls at the horizon. Grandmother would scold me if she were here.
Spitting oxide dirt out of my mouth, I sit up and wipe a hand rough with grit across my face. I stare across the line of skulls, and a spot of red catches me.
The dome of the skull closest to me has a blob of soft red wax stuck to it. I scramble on my knees and hands to the skull. A thumbprint dimples the red wax, and you can just make out the impression of a shilling’s ridged edge. The wax I left.
I look back the way we have come from, and the road is empty of tracks. The only ones are in this little stretch here and the few that my tin horse made after I fell.
We have gone nowhere. The wind steals my breath. I ball my fists into the cloth of my dungarees. It isn’t fair. There ought to be somewhere to go or to come from. What’s the purpose of a road that doesn’t go anywhere?
I reach into my front pocket and pull out the envelope. It came from somewhere. I know where it was going to, but not where it was from or who, and there’s a way to know that.
So I open the envelope.
The wind stops. And then it changes directions.
The wind is made of memories. Some of them are mine, like the memory of building a kite with Grandmother and flying it over the hog pen in the backyard as that wind blew the stink of them away from us. Some of them are not mine, like the memory of flight that comes skidding over the rust-red road as a flurry of bright blue feathers.
They swirl through the air, flashing blue, black, iridescent. For a moment, the red rust vanishes, and all I see are feathers and blue and black and the memory of stars. They flurry away, and the road is unchanged.
“Child.” The voice is behind me, where the wind had come from. A woman, her voice low and purring, asks, “Have you brought me a present?”
Something small and metal smacks against flesh. I swallow and turn. A woman with wings of iridescent blue stands on the road. Her wings stir the dust, sending a different wind skidding across the road. She tosses a tiny tin horse in the air.
“That’s mine.” My voice is small against the wind of her wings.
“Is that so?” The tin horse flies in an arc, tumbling back down to land in her palm. “I found it lying in the road.”
“My grandmother gave her to me.” I hold out my hand, palm up, and stick my lower lip out to keep it from trembling. It does anyway. I lift my chin. “Give her back.”
My horse spins through the air again to land in the woman’s hand. “Where is your grandmother?”
She might still be on the front porch of the house she never leaves or she might have gone inside or maybe, maybe, maybe she has left the house and the yard and is looking for me. ‘I dunno.”
“Oh good. Then why not come home with me?” She steps to the side and fans her wings back. Behind her, the road has changed. It ends someplace now. On the horizon is a spot of green so vivid that it aches. I’ve seen the deep green-brown of the tortoise’s shell and the pale, soft green of the aloe plant in Grandmother’s kitchen window. This is a green as bright as blood is red.
If I know anything from the plants in Grandmother’s kitchen window, it’s that you have to feed green. In a place like this, with the wind and the dirt of rust red, what would make something be so green?
I take a step back. “Who are you?”
“You have my letter.” She stops tossing my tin horse and closes her away inside her fist. Her eyes glitter with a black as dense as the blue of her wings. “Why not read it?”
I don’t mean to. I opened it because I was frustrated and tired and now, reading it seems like the last foolish thing before death, but my eyes glance down of their own will, and the words tattooed across the inside of the skin envelope claw their way out.
Give me back my child. I’ve waited the seven years you demanded. Give my child back or I will cut the heart out of the tortoise and use its shell for a boat to send you to hell in. Give me back my child.
“Don’t you hurt the tortoise!”
She pouts, tilting her head to the side and her wings stir the dust of the road. “I don’t want to.” Then she smiles as if the pout had never been. “And now that you’re here, I don’t have to.”
My mother is made of feathers. My mother is made of feathers and hate and love. I can see the hate in the letter and the love in her eyes. She takes a step toward me, still clutching my tin horse in her hand. “Child… Come home with me.”
“No!” I turn my back on her and scream along with the wind escaping from her wings. “Grandmother!”
The wind kicks up, snatching my voice from the air and mixing it into the rust-red dust. I look for the skull with the wax on it and start towards it. I think I might jump the skull and take my chances in the endless land, because Grandmother might be on the other side. I know better, but I am too frightened and angry to stay still.
My mother’s hand lands on my arm. Her grip is made of iron. She yanks me back and jerks me around to face her. Wings block out the sky and her face leans close. Fine, smooth, white feathers cover her face and her hands and do nothing to soften her. Her blood-blue wings flex, filling the air with cinnamon.
“Child. Come home with me.”
“No!” I tug at her unyielding hand. “I want my grandmother!”
“She’s a monster.” Her grip tightens, and the feathers on her face fluff. “Just say you’ll come with me.”
The way she says that, my thoughts jump into place like a tin horse coming to life. She needs me to agree to come with her. She can stop me and frustrate me and steal my tin horse, but she needs my permission to take me home with her.
I ball my fists and stomp my feet. “No! I want my grandmother. I want my grandmother! I WANT MY GRANDMOTHER!”
The wind stops.
Grandmother’s rocking chair is made of iron. Her steed is made of shell and bone and leather. She holds the rocker rails in her hands, and they are long, curved swords. She sits astride the tortoise, and blood drips from between her fingers, where she grips hilts as curved and sharp as the tips.
“Let go of the child.”
“I did once and that was a mistake.” My mother draws me back toward her.
“I asked you thrice if you were sure.” Grandmother’s head is low and forward. Her blood drips onto the rust-red road and vanishes into the dust. “It may have been a mistake, but it was also a choice. Choices aren’t so easily undone.”
“As if the child had a choice of where to live.”
“I was called, wasn’t I? Thrice. And that was enough to follow.” She flexes her fingers on the hilt made of blood. “Child. Do you want to go home?”
My mother pulls me closer. “Home is with me.” She grabs me with her other hand, and my tin horse falls to the ground beside us.
I bite the inside of my cheek and spit blood on the tin horse. Once. The spray blends with the sand. Twice. Blood dribbles on my chin. Thrice. The black paint coat is as red as the dirt. My tin horse swells and rears with a snort and a whinny that sounds just the way I had imagined it would under the tortoise on Grandmother’s front porch.
As her hooves arc through the air, she comes down on my mother’s hand. Her tin shoe just barely brushes my arm, but cracks into my mother’s hand. I twist away, grabbing the tin horse’s reins with my free hand. When she rears again, I go with her, dangling like a toy soldier on a kite string.
Grandmother and the tortoise lumber forward. I see her pull her swords up and back, sweeping like wings into the air. My tin horse’s hooves touch the ground and I press my face into the metallic sweat so that I cannot see. But I can hear. I can feel. I can taste.
The wind hisses. The sand spits and swirls and becomes wet spray. The tang of copper and iron sneak past my clenched lips.
And the wind stops.
“Child, don’t look.” Grandmother’s voice is rough and made of sorrow. She puts her hand on my shoulder. “Home. We’re going home. I’m taking you home.”
I sit in grandmother’s lap on her porch and my tin horse stands in the yard of ammonites, pretending to eat grass. We watch her, as grandmother holds me close and we rock in her chair made of iron.
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Ghost Talkers, The
Glamourist Histories series, and the Lady Astronaut duology. She is a
cast member of the award-wining podcast Writing Excuses and also a three-time
Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Tor.com,
and Asimov’s. Mary Robinette, a professional puppeteer, lives in
Chicago. Visit her online at maryrobinettekowal.com.
The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise. It started in my belly, and every day, it spreads further across my solar plexus. If it had bloomed across my skin, I would sink my thumb into the center of it, press until the venous blue deepened into black. I would watch the color change with satisfaction, knowing that it would fade with time.
I do not have enough time for it to fade.
I take shallow breaths, trying not to feed the ache, trying not to cough. I breathe as little as I can, but it’s never enough. There is no escape for me. Esther’s bunk is as empty as every other berth in the ship.
I should hurt for all of those lost souls. But it is Esther’s bunk that is emptiest.
No one thought to rouse me from stasis until half of the crew was already gone. I woke in my pod, seized tight by overwhelming terror, thrashing hard against the soft webbing that restrained me. I was in a coffin of thick metal and fogged glass, and stopped thrashing only when the recording started. My own voice, reminding me of where I was, guiding me through breath and prayer. It’s the recording that plays in every stasis pod prior to unlocking and release; the engineers thought that waking to a high priest’s intonation would help with the transition from deep stasis to consciousness.
“It’s normal to panic,” the recorded me said, the pitch of my voice higher than it sounds inside my head. “This feeling is normal. The Infinite Void contains space for every piece of you, including your fear. Trust in the Infinite Void.”
The cue worked. My lips started to form the familiar shapes of prayer. Trust in the Infinite Void, as the Infinite Void has trusted in you. From the Void were you created, and to the Void you shall return. I whispered the creed as the needles that had taken root in my arms and spine retracted into the walls of the pod. The webbing over my hips and shoulders loosened and dropped to a pool around my ankles, and the door to my pod opened with a crack and a hiss of incoming air. I remained inside with the door open until I had finished the prayer: For all is the Void, and the Void is All. Amen.
I wake in the night with the phantom of an itch on the flat of my tongue. I swallow hard, again and again, until it’s gone. I kneel at the edge of my bed and pray until the desire to cough has passed.
It will be hours before I can sleep again, and there’s so much to do. When I pull my robes on, they’re still warm from the autoclave. I walk to the airlock chapel and go through the motions of a morning service, even though there is no one to drink the unreclaimed water I consecrate to the void. There are barrels and barrels of it in the hold, water from real springs on the planet we left behind, water that came from an unending cycle of atmosphere and earth, water that was not distilled from shower drainage or urine. Enough barrels for nine rotating high priests to anoint and baptize and bless four thousand souls over the course of two hundred years of spaceflight—but, of course, things didn’t work out that way. So there are at least a hundred barrels of holy water, just for me.
I drink a mouthful every morning in the empty chapel as I perform a service to the barren pews. I flick an aspergillum into the chapel’s vacuum chamber, and I pray as I unseal the chamber to release the vapor into space. I dip my fingertips into a glazed clay bowl, and I brush holy water over the throats and temples of the dead, over and over again until my fingers wrinkle and the faces run together and the prayers of release begin to feel like nonsense syllables, animal noises emerging from someone else’s throat.
There are too many barrels of water in the hold, and not nearly enough time for me to use them all.
When my predecessor coughed up his first feather, it was Esther who demanded they wake me. She had been out of stasis for a month, woken earlier than scheduled so that she could attend her wife’s funeral. Her wife, who had been the last doctor on the ship. After the funeral service, the captain had asked Esther if she thought her bioengineering degree made her close enough to medical staff. If she could fill in.
A month after the funeral, the high priest who came before me walked into the sickbay with a squat white feather in his palm, and Esther didn’t bother waiting for his condition to progress. She ordered me awake, and when I emerged from my pod, she was waiting with a glass of water and a set of robes.
I smiled when I saw her. It took her a few seconds to smile back, as if she had to remember how to perform the maneuver.
“Things are moving fast around here, Judith,” she said, walking me to my berth. My legs felt far from my body. “You’re going to be the only high priest on board within a week.”
“The only one out of stasis? But we’re supposed to work in teams of three…?” My voice was creaky from disuse. I drank some water, felt it work down my throat until it settled, cold in my belly.
Esther shook her head. “No, not the only one out of stasis.” She wouldn’t meet my eyes. “The only one left alive.”
I hear my own voice every time I open another stasis pod, cycling through that soothing script, trying to help guide people who can’t hear a word of it: It’s normal to panic.
The pods were the only sensible place to store the bodies, once the deaths started coming too fast for the high priest that came before me. He didn’t have time to perform funerary rites; they were dropping too quickly. It was last rites only, a blessing before their last hard-won breaths ran out, enough to commend them to the Void. By the time I was awake, there were a thousand corpses in the stasis pods—I was the only living soul in my quadrant. By the time I was alone, there were more than three thousand waiting to be released to the Void.
Every morning after service, I unlock eight pods. I eat breakfast as they cycle through the thirty-minute unlocking and decompression routine, watching the glass front of each pod slowly transition from frosted to clear. I load eight corpses onto a chain of medicarts that I’ve linked together with zip ties. The lead medicart is programmed to follow me, and we file slow and stately down the long series of hallways that run between the stasis chamber and the chapel. My parishioners follow me, and we take the journey silent as a vow.
Eight is the most I can do in a day. Each one takes an hour in all, if I don’t stop to cry: anointing, prayers, more anointing, more prayers. Then, finally, release into the Void. I tried to do ten in a day, once, but I got too tired and the skin started to peel from my fingertips from the anointing.
So I only made it to nine. Pyotr—a fifteen-year-old, apprenticed in life to the ships’ chief of engineering. He was the one I couldn’t release that day. I left his corpse on his medicart in the chapel overnight. When I returned in the morning to finish my work, he had changed: A crest of white feathers had erupted from his gaping mouth, spilled down over his chest and bloomed wide enough to cover his face. They were as soft as vapor and as white as a dying star.
I don’t leave anyone out of stasis anymore. Eight a day, that’s all I can do. Eight stasis pods, eight souls. Eight airlock cycles. I do not skip days.
There is no time for me to skip days.
I eat my breakfast in front of the stasis pods every morning. I eat, and I wait, and I do not cough.
Esther was exhausted, but she wouldn’t admit it. We were in her berth, drinking bootleg gin one of the engineers had brewed under his bunk, and I told her that she looked tired, and she laughed at me.
“Tired? Who has time to be tired anymore?” She shook her head and tapped the rim of her cup against mine twice before drinking, a habit from planetside all-nighters. Drinking to get her through finals, drinking to get me through ordination exams. Her smile was different now than it had been then. It was wry and bitter, a smile that she put on as a joke—imagine if someone could smile, it said. Imagine a person like that.
Of course her smile had changed. We were drinking to get her through watching all of her patients die. We were drinking to get me through hearing all of their confessions, blessing them, and sending them into the arms of the Void. It was all we ever did anymore: We watched people die, and we put them into stasis to be dealt with later.
I tapped my cup against hers twice in return and drank. The moonshine was potent and terrible. It went down hot and I choked on it before I was able to swallow. When I looked up at Esther, her eyes were wide and furious.
“It was just the gin,” I rasped. “I was just choking on the gin.”
“Have you been coughing?” she whispered, her jaw clenched tight around a panic that she wouldn’t let herself feel. “Tell me the truth.”
“No,” I said. “Not at all. I would tell you. I promise.” I reached out and rested my hand on her wrist, and tried not to notice how she flinched when my skin touched hers. “Hey, really. I promise. We tell each other everything, right? No secrets.”
She stared at me hard for a long time before answering. “No secrets.”
The ship felt claustrophobic when it was full of people, but with everyone in stasis pods—save for me and my eight daily charges—it echoes with emptiness. I wear footpaths between my berth and the chapel and the canteen and the stasis chambers. On the first day that I was alone, I visited other parts of the ship. The engine room, the research lab, the escape pod bay, the nursery. But the emptiness is much too harrowing. I should be comfortable with it, but this isn’t the emptiness of the Void. It isn’t an emptiness that stretches wide with boundless space for infinite compassion.
It’s an emptiness that crowds too close.
Not with the ghosts of the dead—those souls belong to the Void, even before I release them. No, that would be easy. Instead, the halls are crowded with memories of Esther. The way she’d stare into the nursery, watching the babies sleep with a half-smile on her face, and the way she smashed half the lab when her hundredth ham-fisted attempt at a cure failed. The places we used to sit together, watching people walk by. The places she’s supposed to be.
So I don’t go to those places anymore. I breathe shallow, and I try not to look at all the places where she’s not. I miss her, pure and whole, and I don’t want to let that sour into an angry thing. I don’t want to let it rot. Not yet.
I have not opened Esther’s stasis pod. I know that when I do, the anger will rise up in me like a wing, and I won’t be able to contain it anymore. It won’t be righteous fury at injustice; it will be childish petulance at unfairness, a foot-stomping tantrum about the things that have been taken from me.
I am saving Esther’s pod for last. On the last day, her pod will be the only one I open.
On that day, I will finally have time for anger.
It started in the children and the elderly. Of course it did. That’s what Esther told me when she finally told me what had happened: Of course it took them first. She had been in stasis for the first month, so she didn’t see the beginning. By the time she woke up, most of the children were in the Void with stunted wings where their lungs were supposed to be. Most of the older residents of the ship, too—people who had started the journey young, who had opted out of stasis for the middle leg of the journey, who had wanted to end their days in the Void anyway. They were gone, too.
Esther had missed the beginning of things, but she read the logs of every dead medical officer, their accounts of the sudden sweep of disease through the ship. The last one—Esther’s wife—recorded her own symptoms in earnest detail, all the way up until her death. She described the way the cough started as a tickle and built to a heaving, retching, uncontrolled thing. She described the sensation of feeling a feather float from the back of her throat, of feeling the quill tap against the back of her front teeth.
That was the worst part, Esther told me one night over more of that awful gin, one of the nights after we’d stopped bothering to pour it into cups. She had patients in the medbay, coughing, coughing, coughing, and then—she paused at this part and closed her eyes, her fist tight around the neck of the repurposed machine-oil bottle. “They stop coughing,” she whispered. “They stop coughing and their eyes get all big and confused, and they reach into their mouth, and they pull it out. Like a magic trick.”
I nodded and held out my hand for the bottle, because I’d seen the magic trick, too. She knew I’d seen it. She just needed to say it out loud. She needed to put words to how awful it was to watch someone draw a full, lush plume of white from between their lips, the first of what would certainly be dozens. No one had coughed up fewer than forty feathers before finally suffocating on their own down. The feathers should have been wet, covered in mucus, crumpled—but no. They were gorgeous, wafting things, light as spun sugar. They were beautiful.
“I wish we could leave,” Esther had mumbled that night, her head pillowed on her arms, one hand still clutching the half-empty bottle. Her words were slurred with drink and sleep, and she sounded as small as the girl I’d met back when I’d never had a best friend before. Back before I knew how a best friend could change the entire shape of my life, of my dreams. Back before we’d decided to visit the Void together. “I wish we could break the fugging quarantine and just… go.”
“I know,” I’d said, tucking a blanket around her shoulders. “But we can’t. You know we can’t. The risk is too high.”
“But,” she murmured, and she trailed off into the deep quiet of sleep without finishing her objection.
I slept in her bed that night, slept with my boots on. She didn’t need me there, but I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to walk back to my own silent berth. I listened to her steady, clear breathing as I lay awake, my head on her pillow, and I prayed to the Void. An impossible prayer—but then, the Void has infinite room for impossibility. Let her live, I prayed, my fingers crooked into the shape of a new-formed nebula. I could not make myself pray for my own life, but praying for Esther was as easy as breathing. Let her survive this. Let her make it out of here alive.
The quarantine is never going to be over, of course. The captain made sure of that, before he feathered. He told me that he was going to do it—that he was going to contact our destination planet and tell them about the disease, tell them that our ship wasn’t safe. He told me with a stun-baton on his hip, his hands braced on the table. He was ready for me to react poorly. He was ready to subdue me if I did.
Things were happening faster every day; we had gone from fifty to twenty to five in a matter of days, and everyone, save Esther and I, had started to cough. The ship was cashed, the captain said, his eyes exhausted. He coughed, hard and long and brutal, into a handkerchief. We couldn’t risk bringing this thing planetside, he told me. We needed to make a decision.
“Would you like me to pray with you about it?” I asked. He shook his head, paused, and nodded.
“I don’t need a prayer for guidance,” he rasped. “I need a prayer for forgiveness.”
So I prayed with him. We bowed our heads and closed our eyes, and I asked the Void to grant us peace as we accepted the infinite embrace of eternal drift. I asked for rest, and for a gentle passing for those of us who remained. I asked for enough time to release every soul into the Void. I asked for forgiveness for the ways in which we had failed each other.
By the time I said amen, the captain had a feather between his fingers.
He tucked it into his handkerchief. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice hoarse from the work of coughing up his first feather. “You’re the first I’ve told.”
“Who’s next?” I asked, standing. I wished I could give him more guidance, more prayer, a blessing—but he only had so much time to talk to the remaining crew, to file his last captain’s log, to set up the Safe Distance broadcast that the ship would emit until the day it disintegrated and became dust in the Void. He could not afford to waste any of that time on worry or guilt, not when there was so much to do.
“Will you send Esther in?” he asked. I nodded. As I left, I heard him clear his throat once, then twice. I closed the door on the sound of him beginning to cough again in earnest. When I rounded the corner, Esther was there, waiting. I took her hands and closed my eyes. She squeezed my fingers tight and leaned her forehead against mine.
“He’s doing it, right?” she whispered, her breath sweet with the candy lozenges she’d taken to tucking under her tongue. “He’s locking us into drift?”
I squeezed her fingers back. I didn’t need to answer. She already knew.
I must not cough. I have so much work to do—still at least four hundred souls left to release into the void, at least fifty days before I can let it begin. I can feel the weight in my chest, growing every day. I keep thinking of the old riddle. Which weighs more: a kilo of carbon or a kilo of feathers? I inhale around the heaviness, little sips of air, as small as I can. The impossible part, of course, is sleep, when my breath gets deep and even. Twice now I’ve woken in the night with the beginning of a cough in my throat. The compulsion to let my itching lungs scratch themselves raw is a powerful, animal thing, roaring and urgent, and it takes everything I have to resist it.
Mouthfuls of water. Slow, cautious breathing. I can’t bring myself to use Esther’s lozenges.
Missing her is the only thing harder than breathing.
At first, I thought she’d killed herself. I had half-expected it. The captain had lasted for five days after his first feather; I’d found him on the floor of the engine room, his mouth full of pinion feathers. The other two survivors were a couple, both teachers—they sealed themselves airtight into their berth and died in each other’s arms, gone together. Esther had helped me drag them into their stasis pods. With them gone, she and I were the last two left, neither of us infected as far as we could tell.
That night, with all the corpses locked away, Esther and I drank all the gin we could swallow and made horrible, maudlin, crass jokes about the isolated years to come. We planned a half-dozen mass-funerals, a week of working together to load corpses into the airlock and mist them with holy water before sending them into the void en masse. We planned the life we’d have, on a ship with more supplies than we could possibly use before we, too, became one with the Void.
“It’s just us now,” she said. “Roommates again after all these years. Who would have guessed?”
“Me and you, kid,” I slurred, tapping the bottom of my bottle twice against hers. “Me and you and the Infinite Void.”
“Does the Void ever answer you?” she asked, dropping suddenly into a state of drunken gravity. “Have you asked it why we haven’t gotten sick yet?”
“The Void answers, uh. In its time and in its way,” I replied, struggling to remember the answer. I knew that was the right answer, but was it really? I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the spasm of doubt. This wasn’t the time for fear. That time had passed.
That night, it was Esther who tucked a blanket around me. I slept deeper and harder than I had in the two months since stasis, my spine bent into a deep arch over the table, my cheek pressed to the empty gin bottle.
When I woke, sweating and heavy-skulled, there was a message written on the surface of the table in black permanent marker. Esther’s handwriting, looping and even.
I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore, it said. I’ve decided to trust in the Void. Please don’t forgive me.
At first I thought she’d killed herself. I searched the ship for her body, increasingly frantic, wondering how long ago she’d written that note. She’d written it while I slept, written it right next to me, how long had I been asleep? I ran through the berths and into the engine room. I checked her stasis pod. I tore open cupboards, peered into vents. Anywhere she might have hidden herself away to die.
The answer was, of course, in the last place I looked.
The escape pod bay.
I thought to check there, to see if she’d tucked herself into a pod. Someplace that would seal shut, so I wouldn’t have to deal with her body if I didn’t want to. That was the kind of thing Esther would have thought to do, I figured, and I looked in the escape pod bay. And in a way, I was right.
One pod was gone. Just one.
An empty gin bottle rested on the floor in front of the panel where she would have punched in the activation code. Her logbook was there, too, square in the middle of the panel. A parting gift, I suppose.
The shame rose up in me, sudden and hot and thick. She left without me. Not a word of warning, not so much as a halfhearted invitation to join her. She’d climbed into an escape pod, activated the homing beacon, and left me.
What had I done wrong? I thought back over the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that. I thought back over the decades of our friendship, the friendship that had led us to seek postings on the same ship together. I sat on the pod bay floor and buried my burning face in my hands and tried to remember. What did I do, what did I say? Why would she leave me here? Why would she leave me alone?
Why was she so desperate to escape me?
I sat there for a long time, too long. I sobbed and I tore at my hair and I threw her logbook across the pod bay, regretted it, fetched it back again. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t unravel it. She was gone.
And I was left alone to wonder why.
I have not read the book yet. I see her handwriting every day, on the table in my berth, and it’s already almost more than I can bear.
I’ve been saving the book for the last day. I’ve been telling myself that on the last day, I’ll open that book and see an explanation. I’ve been telling myself that I have to release eight people every day. Eight every day, until my work is done. My penance for whatever sin drove my best friend away: I must complete my work, a full burial for every feather-drowned soul on my ship.
Eight every day. Water at their throats, water at their temples. From the Void you were created, and to the Void shall you return. Amen.
I have been telling myself that I will wait. But then there is a day when I release eight children in a row, and the prayers don’t blend together. There is no respite. There isn’t a single moment when I don’t feel the full weight of the work that remains, and I can’t take it, I can’t take the waiting, I can’t.
So I break.
I sit at my little table with Esther’s logbook. I center it, so it’s resting where my head was the night she left. So that none of her handwriting on the table’s surface is covered. I open it, telling myself I’ll only read a little. Just a little, to get me through the night.
Her handwriting covers the first page, as neat and even as field notes. The date, and her name.
We are dying. Amanda is already gone, and soon, everyone else will be gone, too. I have to wake Judith. It isn’t fair to her, but I can’t face this alone.
I blink at the words. My throat is dry, too dry, and I should take a sip of water before I cough, but—
I can’t face this alone.
I hear the logbook hit the wall before I realize I’ve thrown it. I’m on my feet, my hands gripping the edge of the table, my thumbs digging into the words I’m and forgive. My vision slides in and out of focus.
I want to destroy something.
I’m too angry, I need to calm down. This isn’t right, what I’m feeling, what I want to do. I need to calm down. Rage is not a gift of the Void. It’s destructive. I need to calm down.
I give in to an old reflex, rooted in memories from the time before I climbed into my pod and closed my eyes and prayed to the Void that my journey would be safe. For one second—just one—I am so afraid of my own anger that I forget the habit that’s kept me alive all this time.
I’m too angry, and I need to calm down. So I take a deep breath.
I feel my mistake immediately. It’s like the brush of eyelashes against my throat, like tall grass shivering in the first whisper of autumn wind. It’s like the turning of a wheel.
I can’t cough. I must not cough. There is too much left to do, and I am the only one who can do it. I take small sips of air through my nose, trying not to panic. My chest spasms. I swallow hard, trying to keep the cough down, but my mouth is dry.
My eyes land on the logbook, on the floor across the room. I remember the shame I felt when I saw it on the floor of the escape pod bay, the hot flush of questions, wondering what I did wrong and how I could possibly ever fix it.
I can’t face this alone, she said.
I grip the table harder and let it happen. Not a cough, but a sob—a choking, painful sob that grips my throat hard and won’t let go until I let it turn into a scream. I cross the room in two quick steps, grab the logbook off the floor, and before I can think about what I’m doing, the pages are in my hands. I scream hard enough to scratch the itch that’s been nesting in my lungs since Esther woke me up and dragged me out of my sealed pod, into this world of suffocation.
I scream and I fill the air with shreds of her handwriting. Paper fibers cover the floor of my berth, floating down around me like snow, like dandelion fluff, like down. My throat aches and my chest burns and I sink to the floor with fistfuls of Esther’s memories.
The scream dies in my mouth, and I try to find it again, but it won’t come. My throat is aching and dry. I sit in the flurried white remains of the thing I’ve destroyed, and I slump, exhausted. Spent. Still alone, but satisfied.
I rub my palms across my face. There is so much to do, and I should clean all of this up unless I want to spend the night in someone else’s berth. I should sleep, so I can release eight more souls tomorrow.
I allow myself the indulgence of a sigh. Just one. A final sigh—and when I sigh, that’s when I feel it. Sudden and yet so long due, against the back of my front teeth.
The click of a quill.
Hugo award winner Sarah Gailey is an internationally published author of
fiction and nonfiction, and a regular contributor for Tor.com and
Barnes & Noble. They tweet @gaileyfrey. Learn more at www.sarahgailey.com.
Pursuit of her conjures a centripetal force that sculpts the seething ball of superheated wrongness inside my chest. Otherwise it would shatter my honeycombed ribs and blow a hole in the side of this cherry soda-smelling derby palace.
I am all about her thick red braid and the backwards sweep of her skates, her ass assuming all manner of exquisite shape in the crossing and uncrossing of her thighs. Those fucking pink knee socks, the lucky number seven on her back.
I can predict the future. I see number seven smashing into the padded side rails, groaning, and me pressing close against her, one hand slinking my tapered fingers into her silky braid. Our limbs entangle, fucking each other up good.
We’ve been here before. She kinda likes it.
The impact will be glorious. Stars and moons and shimmering dust. And our helmets will keep her safe in the event that I feel the overwhelming urge to get close to her face, which I always do. Always.
“Cora, your mother’s dying,” the father says, sounding like he might be just outside the locker room, not impossibly far away in both space and time. “If you feel anything, come home and say your farewells.”
I pull the company phone off my ear and brush the temporal compass with my thumb, bleeding his LoChron onto the screen: Hell Creek, Laramidia. 2075.
I look back to the tiny locker mirror, wincing and gingerly patting the ripped flesh of my lip back over the upper left incisor and a welter of blood and saliva. I wonder if I’m going to have to sew myself shut again.
Goddamn it, I am.
The pain feels not good, but right. Would have been better if it had been number seven’s teeth rather than a corner of exposed metal rail.
Would have been even better if it had been me and number seven in a dark equipment closet pounding each other, licking, panting, smearing blood.
Then going out for beers afterward.
But here I am on the phone with the father instead. I press the device, humming with its long-range exertion, to my ear again and hunch closer into the open locker as though to prevent my teammates from somehow seeing what’s on the other end of this phone call from the future.
“…bought you a bus ticket, Cora. It’ll be waiting at the Greyhound ticket office. Bus is…”
In his pause I hear a faint classical recording rising up over a buzzing and pulsing thickness, an oppressive racket of insect music. I close my eyes and see coiled vines. Feel the murky air. See his pale fingers wrapping his evening gin and tonic.
“Four forty-five, tomorrow. Should get you to the crater well before the first boat… And, Cora?” Another long pause. “The king is dead. She killed him just minutes after he mortally wounded her. I need you to reason with your siblings… Are you coming, Cora?”
On the island I was just M13, the thirteenth egg of female M, the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. This human name, Cora, is a precious thing I extracted from hard ground, cleaned, and polished myself. I regret divulging it in a misguided attempt to invoke a relationship with the father. Whenever he says it, I cringe.
My teammates are heading to the lobby and meeting up with the other team to go get beers. I’ll just wait until they’re gone, thanks very much. I tried once, awkwardly, to hit on number seven, and got pretty bruised.
“Maybe you should think about getting rid of some of those mods,” my friend Patty had offered. “They might be a little hardcore for number seven, you know?”
Yeah, easy for you to say, Patty. The iridescent scales arming my cheekbones transition to tiny white feathers at my temples. But down at my lips I’m all human. I finger the edge of soft, ripped flesh and inhale sharply.
“Cora? I’d like an answer. Are you still there?”
I tongue blood from my teeth and slam the locker. It rings in the empty room. “Sure,” I say and hang up on him.
I pound my bike up through the parking lot to the crest of a hill and then streak down through rainy city streets, hunkered down, my lip tight against the canvas of my coat.
I fly. My backpack slams me as I try to hit every damn pothole. Occasionally the needle-sharp tip of my incisor catches the ragged edge of flesh and my mind goes white hot.
Red taillights spark through rain drops, and in the distance Portland’s geology plunges into silver knives of water gashed by the shadowy hulks of bridges.
At home I unscrew a bottle of whiskey and commence fucking myself up. The deconstructed cardboard box I use as a rug is still fecal-smelling from the last rain. I drip blood on it and all across the tile floor. I fire up my cheap Starbucks Employee-of-the-Month coffee maker. I take gulps of whiskey and dump half the bag in a filter.
The shitty whiskey’s working. My face is getting tingly and tight, flushed. I peel off clothes and stand under a freezing cold shower until I feel like I’ve receded into a block of ice.
Time to stitch. A careful gulp of strong coffee to sharpen my vision. Hot liquid seeps through the gash, tearing my mind to shreds. Swearing like a crazed ventriloquist, I gather the supplies I pinched from the team medic and fill a bowl with ice.
Aside from the cardboard, the only furniture in my apartment is an old sleeping bag I found in the equipment room at the rink. I figure it’s mine because I bothered to wash the mold down. I sit on it in front of the long bathroom mirror. I take an ice cube and press it on the wound.
The thread catches on the ragged edge of butchered skin. Mother. Fucker. I glare at myself, and there she is. Bony brow bowed with rage, flecked reptilian eyes, pupils cinching up into a slit, long hawk-nose and flaring nostrils.
“Fuck you, bitch.”
I make as though to stab myself, but reconsider and slide the needle in smooth and quick instead. I’m a fucking plastic surgeon. A pinch and a deep ache spreads to my teeth and the bones of my nose. I apply the ice again. Another sip of coffee. Blood cascades down my chin and into my mouth. More coffee. More stitches. More ice, more whiskey, more blood.
Finally, the thing is done.
I screech and pitch the glass bowl at the tile, and pass out on the bathroom floor to dream of her terrible face amidst melting ice and shards of glass.
Hell Creek, Laramidia Island. 2065
She doesn’t like me.
I understand. I wouldn’t like hatchlings that don’t look at all like me. That resemble in too many respects the pale, blond wisp of a man who sedated her and, because her DNA had been redesigned, knocked her up.
M11 looks the most like her, comfortably cantilevered forward from her massive back haunches. The rest of us confuse her, though somewhere within the dark sulci of her late Cretaceous brain, I’m sure she’s figured it out.
She likes to chase us as though to say, “Learn how to run, you wretched misfits.”
This time, I stop cold within a dense forest of ferns and turn to confront her. She gets still and tilts her gigantic head, seeming to consider me as an individual. But then she stomps one enormous hind leg, shaking the ground, and unleashes a noxious gust of a screech, stretching to within inches of my face.
One day I will think perhaps she was just trying to figure out how to tell me about a life of violence and longing for something you cannot have.
But in that moment I run for my life.
Portland, Oregon, 2057
I crawl out of the bathroom in the morning, face tight and swollen, pain pulsing like a motherfucker, clothes still wet. I reach into my backpack for Tylenol and swallow half of what’s there with some whiskey. I can barely fit the mouth of the bottle between my lips, and amber piss dribbles down my chest.
I sit back against the bare wall on the cold tile floor, staring at the muddle of spitting rain outside the sliding glass doors. Who the hell thought to put a tile floor in a place like Portland? But it’s cheap.
And the tile is a piece of home, I guess, the feel on my bare feet reminiscent of the father’s house at the edge of Hell Creek on the island of Laramidia, open on two sides, choked with vines. His books and bottles of gin, his jars of insect specimens, coolers filled with ice and autopsied parts–an immense heart of some herbivore comes particularly to mind. His hammock, mosquito net, and desk piled with notebooks full of unspeakable things. I can picture him at it now, pen raised, staring out into a rain shower and speculating about his position in court.
Of all the father’s many cracks, the deepest is this belief that he is one of them, somehow. That, having bred with his own seed a flock of cunning mixed-breeds off the biggest, meanest female, he will somehow assume a position of power among the island’s apex predators.
With the king dead and her dying, only one thing’s for certain in my mind. The father will no longer be forced to flee through the floor hatch and hide in the abandoned Corporation tunnels for fear of his bones being crushed to splinters or finding himself sliding into a massive gullet like a bludgeoned chicken carcass.
My pain is suddenly blunted, like someone turned the volume down on some hardcore punk, and I remember he said there’s a ticket waiting for me. A bus to Crater Lake. To come and pay my respects. And, what was it? Reason with my siblings.
He’s got to be kidding.
Yet. The ticket means freedom of sorts. I’ve never been anywhere but this wet city. Maybe I’ll get off the bus in a small town and make a new start. Starbucks is everywhere.
Or maybe I should go see her one last time, get a good look at that piece of me in all its undeniable wrongness.
Maybe I should kill the father for what he did.
I have a few hours before my bus. I put on a not-too-dirty pair of jeans, some dry sneakers, and a t-shirt with my roller derby name, Tyrannocora–a joke that goes with my face.
I pack a few more items of clothing into my backpack and jump on my bike, flying to the place where I’ve always been able to find clarity. The place where I found my name and began to puzzle myself back together six years ago like a pile of broken fossil shards.
“Why do you always go there?” Patty asked once. “You treat it like church or something.”
“Dunno,” I said. “I like science, I guess.”
But the more honest answer is that I come to the museum for a woman.
I usually wander around for a little while through the gems and the ice age mammals and early humans. Sometimes I make myself read every inch of text in the insect room so that I’ll run out of time before closing and be forced to leave without the exquisite torment of seeing her.
But this time I go straight to the demonstration fossil lab. Catherine is seated on a rolling metal chair, a skull in her gloved hands.
I have always been careful to keep a deep hood over my head and to sit in a dark corner. But for the first time in these six years, I come in close, peering at her through a thicket of tourists.
Looks like she’s working on some sort of ice age cat, a puma maybe. She picks at a cranny in its intact jaw, removing waste rock with a pneumatic air pen. My lip throbs, and the rapid vibration of the tungsten carbide tip ghosts my gums.
Hell Creek, Laramidia Island. 2068
I’m sixteen. I’ve been out in the outer wilderness for days with my brothers and sisters. I’m muddy, I stink. My uncut blonde hair is matted and green with sweat. I’m naked, my cheeks smeared with blood. I’ve been living mostly on bugs and small snakes.
But my siblings and I also recently teamed up to hunt a juvenile herbivore, slender neck, tiny brain, a walking feast. We chased it down and surrounded it. M11 went in for the kill with her powerful jaws.
It’s this thing the father lets us do to “be in touch with your theropod side.”
But I’ve had enough for now. Maybe forever. I creep back home to his shelter at the edge of the creek, thinking to stand beneath the hot water of his outdoor shower and to eat his food–I alone among the children have started to prefer it to raw meat. I want to curl up in my hammock, clean and protected, and dream of civilized things like math and music.
I steal into the clearing, the click of my taloned middle-three toes my only sound, and see a woman in her thirties showering. She too is naked. Her short hair is dark, eyes closed. Water sluices over her body like a waterfall over smooth, white stone.
I stand and stare, and when she opens her eyes, she jumps to see me. Her fear is replaced with a polite smile, then a puzzled tilt to her lovely head as she takes me in–my scales, patches of feathers, the strange color of my eyes, the not-quite-right ratios of limb length and torso.
At dinner, we three sit and eat grilled fish and salad to celebrate the arrival of the father’s new lab assistant. We drink gin and wine. I am scrubbed and wearing one of the bright white cotton smocks the father sewed for us.
After a long period of awkward silence, the father announces, “M13 is the smartest of the children. Give us the four nucleotides.”
I rattle off the words.
Then he has me recite other facts and processes, culminating in an explanation of lateral gene transfer, followed swiftly by a recitation of all of Mozart’s works. Then he goes silent for a time, chewing and sipping as though he’s alone.
Catherine and I steal glances at each other. Me in lust, she in disapproval. But maybe, maybe something more, I think. There is something there of hunger. I regard her over a sip of wine.
“But this is preposterous,” she whispers, putting down her fork. “How can you-”
But she is all alone with her ethics. It is just us. The others from the Corporation fled years ago. Sixteen, to be exact.
I know from reading the father’s diaries that our birth hit Laramidia like a massive meteorite, causing scientists to flee back through the shrouded portal, wrestling with their consciences, peeling off for home, or applying to work on the Corporation’s projects in other dimensions and timelines. Anything but stay and be associated with this crime.
Only the father remains, still sending requests for research assistants to top universities.
“The alcohol won’t hurt her,” he responds and goes on clicking his silverware on fine china and sliding dainty bites of white fish between his flat square teeth.
Portland, Oregon. 2057
When I first found it six years ago, I’d linger in this hall for hours. Yes, it was disturbing to look up at them. Back then it had also been profoundly disorienting to read the text. “Majestic creatures of the past.”
But… no, I remember thinking. They–we–are creatures of the present. It was just 2051, after all, and I had yet to hatch on Laramidia. My mother and her siblings, and the children of so many others, were juveniles. Her parents, somehow I knew, had been the first of us, engineered in 2017 out of the laboratories hidden beneath the mists.
It took me a while to understand that we were in fact descended from scientifically resurrected individuals, clones based on DNA found in the bone marrow of individuals who had become extinct sixty-six million years ago. Like these figures towering over me.
But then tampered with, made even smarter. And able to be crossed like fruit trees.
Over time, unwilling to contemplate the meaning of this, I turned my attention to the humans during my visits. They would enter the museum hall like it was a lair. Juveniles were prompted to rattle off our names and predilections. Parents threatened nightmares haunted by bloodthirsty monsters and laughed at their children’s horror.
Once, I watched a little girl look up into the massive eye socket of a crouching monster and growl, “I’m not afraid of you.” Then her parents had called, “Cora! Time for lunch. Let’s go!”
I scavenged her name. I hoped somehow it would give me her life. Or the one I supposed she had, of weekend field trips with a family, bedtime stories, birthday parties. Later, high school and dating and going down on girls in the backs of cars.
Hell Creek, Laramidia Island. 2069
Surprisingly, Catherine is still here. She dutifully attends to the lab work and cleaning. She organizes the father’s papers. She sits in shocked silence reading his diaries when he’s not there, her hands shaking.
I follow her everywhere, slipping through the jungle at a distance. I have finally pinpointed the reason for my fascination, and I know that we are on a collision course.
One day, from the edge of Hell Creek where she is bathing, I call to her. “I’m just like you, see?” and I gesture between my legs and to my breasts.
I am the only one, as far as I can tell, to have developed anything resembling human genitals. Of course, I can’t be sure. There are siblings I cannot get close to. But the ones I’ve been able to inspect in their wild, naked roaming have multi-purpose cloacae instead of my complex array of openings and pleasurable morphology.
I approach her slowly, my taloned toes sliding into the soft, silty creek bed. She lets me touch her low on her stomach and slide a hand down between her legs. I rub my cheek against hers and my fingers find her folds of soft wetness, and she moans.
But she splashes back through the water suddenly, saying, “No. This kind of thing… It’s profoundly… deeply wrong. I won’t take advantage. I won’t.” And she hurries away.
The next day, she hefts her pack and hikes back out to the crater to return to the outer world, to choose some other spur of time and place.
I can’t bear the thought. So, as I am wont to do, I track her out along the trail, into the mists of the island crater and its whirlpool, where we fall and fall. First she, then I in pursuit.
I wake in the shallows of Wizard Island, pick up her scent, and follow the sound of crunching leaves.
In a day or so I will come out of my daze and realize I have pursued the object of my desire eighteen years into her past. To a place I’ve never heard of.
Portland, Oregon. 2057
When Catherine sees me, she nearly drops the puma skull on the cement floor. The crowd of museum-goers gasps as she reaches out, as she fumbles it like a football, as it bounces back into her palms.
She stands, shaking, and gestures me into a laboratory behind closed doors.
She rests a palm flat behind her on a counter and leans back slightly, her other hand on her chest. The stance has the look of something I’ve seen before in movies, a recoiling in ambivalent horror, as though at the sight of a vampire.
“M13?” she whispers.
“I go by Cora.”
“Oh god, it didn’t- I thought…”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been here for six years. I followed you.”
I think of saying something like “Don’t worry.” But I’m hesitant to impose a frame on our interaction. Who knows what she’s thought of me in the years since she abandoned the future. Has she thought of me? And, if so, how? With pity? With desire?
“I see you’re working on the late Pleistocene now,” I say conversationally. She doesn’t respond.
Physically, she’s in her twenties now, like me. She’s thinner, even more lovely. Her skin is tight and plump, juicy.
My hunger flares, pounding through me such that I’m certain it’s visible, like a red-tinged column of mist rising out of my belly. Or a scent of sugar, more likely. I bare teeth, which could be interpreted as a smile.
“What happened to your face?”
“Just a roller-skating accident.”
She peels off her gloves and comes to stand close to me. She puts a light fingertip on my cheek and inspects the stitching. “Looks painful.”
“It’s not too bad,” I lie.
“Have you been back?” she whispers, her hot breath making my scales tingle.
“No.” I reach up and touch her cheek, run my thumb along her lips.
She jerks back and turns, begins to tidy the counter, gathering brushes and sinking their tips in a jar of water. “You know, what your father did… is very bad. You understand that, don’t you?” She tumbles a line of dental picks into a drawer and rolls it shut.
“The father called me to tell me my- Female M is dying. He bought me a bus ticket, back to the crater.”
She sinks into one of the ubiquitous gray metal chairs and rests her head in her palms. She’s silent.
“I’m thinking of- of killing him,” I offer. Moved perhaps by the violence of what I’ve said, I back up into a low table strewn with tiny fossil pieces and await her judgement.
Without a word, she rolls her chair over to a drawer under the counter, unlocks it, and pulls it open. She takes something heavy and ungainly from it. She turns and I see a handgun hanging limp between her legs.
I can’t see her mouth, but fine droplets of spittle fall on the floor as she speaks, “I already did… I went back to Hell Creek of 2051 and shot him before he could…” Her voice takes on a pleading tone, as though she’s been backed into a corner in a nightmare, as though she’s not the one holding the gun. “Why are you here? Why do you exist?” Then, in a faint, faint whisper, “You abhorrent freak of nature.” And then the muscles of her thin white hands tense as she just begins to lift the gun.
There are footsteps in the corridor, the one that leads away on the other side of the lab. She turns and quietly places the gun back in the drawer and rolls it shut.
I have burrowed into an armchair in the Crater Lake Lodge. A fire roars before me. I have a book from the bookcase, a cup of complimentary coffee. Guests mill around having after-dinner drinks or reading novels. I bury my face in the book, something about the flora and fauna of the lake. I’m only pretending to read.
I revisit what I’ve learned. I always learn something at the science museum.
She had hoped to erase me from history when all I’d wanted was for her to teach me how to feel pleasure.
But she failed. The father still lives, and so do I. At least, I believe we do. Why? Have I somehow anchored him by stepping into a different time and place, by continuing to thrive? By giving him my name?
Or maybe I have nothing to do with it. Catherine’s gun simply started a different timeline.
Does this mean, however, that there is also a universe where I do not exist? Nor the father? Where my forebears have been reengineered without ethical compromise? Without scientific grotesquerie, thanks to Catherine?
Am I grotesque?
But now another eventuality flashes into my mind. Knowing what she knows, Catherine surely won’t answer the call for lab assistants and go to Laramidia in 2068. Is there then also an M13 who will never be tempted away from home by a woman? Who will stay and become involved in the father’s strange world?
Time is obviously something terribly fractured. Different temporal cracks depart from the exact same points of impact, and reach out to a thousand distinct possibilities, wrapping up places in a thousand different versions of themselves. There are a thousand Coras in a thousand Portlands. A thousand M13s in a thousand Laramidias. And equally, a thousand absences of me.
On the bus ride I dreamt that the parts of my body were gnawed and scattered, then gently lapped and buried in silt. I dreamt my skull had been unearthed many years hence and that slender fingers in latex gloves were prying fossilized silt out of my pneumatized bone with dental instruments. I’d awakened from the pain of a pick rummaging around the edges of my left incisor, only to find that it was only my skating injury flaring.
It still hurts. I need more Tylenol. It’s one of many problems to solve. If I doze before this lobby fire, will staff come and inquire about my room number?
Someone sits down in the armchair next to mine, and I can sense they’re looking at me. This is it, I think. I’m going to have to go down the trail and find some pile of leaves or a log to sleep under.
I remain frozen.
“Hey, I’ve been trying to catch your eye all night,” someone whispers with a conspiratorial tone.
I lower the book and turn. The young woman is resting her chin in her palm and smiling at me. I recognize her as one of the waitstaff in the cafeteria, where I was able to afford a bagel and a cup of coffee. I do recall that she gave me several refills and smiled whenever I looked up. I smile back now, to the extent that I can.
“Those are some sick mods,” she whispers.
She’s a redhead. She doesn’t have the murderous look of number seven, but she’s still hot, if a bit skinnier. My mind tangles up with wet, thick vines and the sickly sweet flowers of home. I don’t know what to do. Pretending has not been working for me, so for once I tell the truth.
“They aren’t mods. I’m half theropod,” I say.
A couple sipping brandy nearby look over.
“You mean like… tyrannosaurus rex or something?”
“Yeah, exactly,” I say, preparing to raise the book again and be written off as a freak.
But she says, “Cool. My name’s Jenny.”
I stare into her gray eyes for a bit too long. “Cora,” I say.
Her voice gets real low then and my hunger sparks at the sound of it. “My shift’s over. Wanna come back to my place? You can be my queen for a night… Get it?”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“Come,” she says.
And then it’s just typical me, catching a scent and, in a daze, following her out across the vast parking lot with its Subaru Foresters and tour buses, back behind a stand of pines to a modest two-story building.
She unlocks her apartment, shuts the door, and pulls me immediately to the bed. My stitches stretch and sting, but I push up her uniform and take her in my mouth anyway. Jenny is vastly knowledgeable. She rubs her cheekbones against my scales and finishes me off with her fingers and tongue. She doesn’t even seem to mind that my moans occasionally shade into snarls. There are several seconds when I feel as though I’m levitating above her bright sun-yellow sheets.
“You’re so light,” she whispers.
“It’s my bones.”
Early in the morning I whisper in her ear, “I gotta go. I have some family business to tend to.”
She pulls me close and says, “Come back after?”
“Yeah,” I answer, before I really think it through. But surely some version of me will.
She watches me pull on clothes. Kissing hurts, but she nibbles on my ear and licks my neck. She rubs my scales with her warm cheek. I stumble out the door, flushed, newborn, heading to the trailhead and smelling the icy Crater Lake spring.
After the boat ride to Wizard Island, I hike over the cone and go down to a spot in the shallows. Seeing no tourists, I simply wade in and shut my eyes, not knowing quite what to do, hoping the complex powers of the company portal will recognize me as a traveler.
Following Catherine to Portland was like falling, fingers slipping, a feeling infused with panic. This time, my memories are my very own passport. They crowd around me, connecting me to my original timeline. Fine strands of other times, other places are also visible to me, but they don’t have the bright persuasive pulsing of the paths that lead me to my siblings.
This time, the sensation is of rising, progressing, belonging somewhere. It is tinged also with knowing I have someone and somewhen to come back to.
I open my eyes on the rim of the Laramidia crater. The hot, moist air shoves into my throat and nostrils. Fingers of rich dark green puncture through pools of mist in the distance. I hesitate before the trail, wondering which version of this place and time I will find.
Hell Creek, Laramidia. 2075 V. 1
The hunting must be good. Graceful arcs of herbivore necks poke through the canopy. The ground shakes with herds of them in all shapes and sizes. The air concusses with their wings and sounds with screeches.
When I finally find it, Hell Creek is just an empty clearing on a long, lazy, burbling path of water with no true name.
There is no sign of him. No sign of my siblings. No sign of any human, or anything a human might have fashioned.
Except: A large wooden box with a locking mechanism for primate hands.
I lift the top quietly, carefully. I don’t want to attract attention. Inside, far down with plenty of room to spare, are two neat piles. One of laboratory notebooks, the other of diaries. The cover of the top diary has the date: 12-30-2074.
I hang down over the rim and take a diary at random from the middle of the pile. Sitting with my back against the box I open the cover and read for a while, taking in descriptions of work, but also comments about the weather, the sunsets, the daily trials of ordering scientific supplies and getting along with colleagues. Whoever this is seems a good person. There is nothing of breeding experiments or strange children, or plotting violent coups within royal theropod courts.
This person’s last entry:
Tomorrow at dawn, we will hike back to the portal. We are all very proud of our work. We take leave of this island, confident that these incredible creatures will have another chance at life. A team will return in twenty-five years for a period of analysis after the eco-system has been left to itself for a generation.
I rummage down through and pick out more diaries, reading. Once, I climb in the box when I hear something coming through. It snuffles at the latch, smelling me. It wanders off.
Finally, I find reference to it in a diary marked 2051: Someone writes of a strange incident. A woman coming through the portal, down into the laboratory, and shooting a scientist in the head. The entry is short, clinical, as though to give it more space would mar the overwhelmingly happy and successful work of the team.
Or perhaps the father had already tipped his hand, and the others were relieved to see him dead.
Hell Creek, Laramidia. 2075 V. 2
As I get closer to the shelter, I can hear my siblings. They’re speaking the language we invented together, a pidgin of the father’s words and the mother’s signals. They’re excited about something. A classical recording–Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor–spirals up into the fronds and vines, wet with a recent rain.
In the clearing by the creek, and half in it as well, the body of Female M lies. I walk around to her open eye. “Hello, mother,” I say. For the first time ever, I touch her. I place my unbelievably insignificant little hand on the ridge of her brow, reaching up on tip toes. There is a ring of flowers on her head.
Behind me, there’s a disturbance in the pebbles and leaves, and I turn and see my siblings.
“M13, you’ve returned,” says M7.
“Yes,” I say. “The father called me.”
“You’re too late, she’s dead,” says M10, glancing behind me at Female M. M10 looks at the others, hesitating. “And so is he,” she says.
“Come,” says M3. I follow them to the shelter.
At first, I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing. There’s a peculiar collection of human bones on the ground just outside the structure. They’re small, glistening, mostly bare but with bits of meat still clinging here and there.
“He tried to mate with M11,” says M7. “We held a trial and determined his guilt. He is–was–unfit to live among us.”
My breath is caught in my chest, the pain of my swollen lip flaring. I go in close to the pile, though in fact it’s not a pile. All the parts have been arranged very carefully according to their anatomical locations.
Beyond this, inside the shelter, shadows of vines twine over fine gold-rimmed, porcelain plates bearing smudges of grease and strips of human skin that show evidence of having been carefully removed with silverware.
Hell Creek, Laramidia. 2075 V. 3
I hang back in the ferns next to the fallen body of Female M and watch them. M7, his muscular, smooth chest and too-short arms. M11, her haunches so big now as to force her to remain outside. M10, her face kind despite the brow line. And all the others. They stand or sit just outside the room, attention focused on its center.
I see myself there, seated at the father’s table. It’s breakfast. The father and I drink tea from an elaborate tea service bearing a blue springtime pattern.
I can see the past.
Catherine never came, of course. I was made laboratory assistant to the father instead. I wear a shiny key on a piece of rough twine around my neck, and there is a lab notebook next to my plate on the table.
The eyes of my siblings are on me. I wear the white cotton smock, brighter than ever, and a kind of crown of vines and sickly sweet flowers.
I have been here all along.
Leonie Skye is a writer, linguistic anthropologist, and
occasional instructor of radical economics. She has a short story in Entropy
Magazine, and linguistics articles in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
and Mind, Culture, and Activity. She is the editor of small press Elm
Books’ science fiction anthologies, Dark Space and Light Space.
She lives in northeast L.A. with her partner, daughter, and a chihuahua-corgi
named Karl Marx. You can also find her on Twitter @leonie_skye or her website:
The time traveler’s husband leaves cups of tea throughout the too-empty apartment, waiting for his wife to come home. Sometimes — hours or days later — he finds the mugs drained, bearing the ghost imprint of lips, dregs staining the ceramic in dark, overlapping rings. Other times, the mugs are untouched, smelling of jasmine, bergamot, and orange pekoe gone cold.
He carries them to the kitchen and washes each one by hand. Along the way, he searches for traces of her. A hint of her scent, like wild honeysuckle and summer storms; a sweater missing from her side of the closet; a stray hair curled on the floor. The apartment echoes with his footsteps, with the absence of her, and he’s never sure which of them is the ghost. Whether he’s haunting her life, or the other way around.
Perhaps it’s both. While she’s out there, running through the ages, his life doesn’t stop. He has a job — city planning, modeling road usage and traffic flow. Evenings and weekends he takes long walks with their dog, a Pomeranian named Chia Pet. At night he lies stretched on the couch with his laptop, surfing the news, Chia Pet at his feet. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, a building collapse, a miraculous escape, he wonders: Did events always unfold that way?
Every Sunday, he calls his father, listening as in the background machines hiss and murmur, keeping the old man alive.
“So, where is she off to this time?” his father asks, despite the rattling cough between his words.
The time traveler’s husband pictures his father’s tobacco-stained teeth, the wrinkles creasing all around his nasty, thin-lipped smile. Confined to a bed with metal side-rails, these jabs are all the old man has left.
His father used to travel the world — roughnecking on oil rigs, driving the ice roads in Alaska, fighting fires and capping wells in Kuwait, cutting lumber. If it was dangerous, his father had done it. When they were young, he and his siblings would gather around while their father regaled them with tales of his adventures, illustrated by a catalogue of scars.
There are other stories, too. Ones his father never told, but the time traveler’s husband gleaned from his mother’s silences. A trail of women left in his father’s wake, a trail of bruises on his mother’s skin. Still, every Sunday, he calls.
“Don’t you want to make something of yourself?” his father used to ask. “You should be out there, protecting her, keeping her safe, saving the world.”
Now, his father relegates himself to subtler needling, questions about what he’s making for dinner, and whether he’ll have it waiting when his wife finally comes home.
“That’s not important, Dad,” he says, shutting down the parts of him that want to reach through the phone and hurt the old man. “What about you. How are you feeling?”
And inevitably, the conversation turns, though neither of them forget the opening salvo. Despite himself, his father’s words still get under his skin.
In the early years of their marriage, the time traveler’s husband would hole himself up in one of the ghost-haunted rooms of their apartment every time his wife left, determined to build a time machine of his own.
“Time travel isn’t what you think it is,” his wife had said.
He’d walked into their bedroom and found her there after days in the apartment alone. His plans lay spread across the rumpled bedcovers, and the look in her eyes was heartbreak, disappointment, but not surprise.
Blue light filtered through the windows, divided into slats by the Venetian blinds.
“Tell me, then,” he’d begged, desperate to understand. He’d wanted something from her, anything, so he’d know that it was more than just time travel isn’t for you; it’s mine alone.
“It works both ways,” she’d said, breathing out through gritted teeth, and it had seemed as though she was talking to herself more than him.
When he’d asked her to explain, she’d threatened to burn his plans. It was their first big fight, and it ended with her vanishing again, angry tears in her eyes, the air percussing like a thunderclap around them, the scent of lightning in her wake.
The next morning, he’d found a half-empty bottle of whiskey by her side of the bed. His plans lay curled on the floor, unburned. Had she come and gone again? Changed everything while he lay sleeping? Her absence left a strange, prickling feeling at the base of his spine, but instead of throwing the plans away, he tucked them carefully in a drawer.
Once, with his wife gone for weeks, the barista at his local coffee shop had smiled at the time traveler’s husband. The way she’d done it made his stomach turn over. Streaks of turquoise ran through her black hair, a constellation of piercings from eyebrow, to nose, to lip. Her nails were rinded with coffee grounds, her scent dark roast and cloves.
For a moment, he’d allowed himself to think what it would it be like to fall asleep to the rhythm of her breathing, to know she would still be there when he woke in the morning. He imagined croissants in a sunlit kitchen, fingers sticky with jam. He imagined lying amidst rumpled covers on a lazy Sunday morning, whole days spent without talking, the comfort of shared space, two bodies orbiting each other, familiar and safe.
And when he returned home, he pulled the plans for his time machine from their drawer and burned them himself.
The struck-match scent in the bathroom as he stood over the sink left him dizzy. Déjà vu, just on the edge of conscious knowing. All at once, he could feel days piled against his skin like torn pages, the words from those underneath bleeding through and rewriting things he’d always known to be true: Time moves in only one direction. He’s never been here before.
He watched ash drift into the drain, let the water run to wash it away, and breathed until the tide of panic ebbed. Then, he went online and ordered an expensive espresso maker so he could brew his own fancy coffee at home while he waited for his wife to return.
The time traveler’s husband wakes in the middle of the night, and his wife is beside him. Her eyes are wide in the dark, her breathing rough and on the edge of panic. Before he can speak, she takes his face between her hands, and presses her forehead against his.
“It’s important,” she says. “It’s very, very important. You won’t remember this, you won’t remember why, but you have to trust me. I’m going back to fix it. That’s what I’m doing right now. I let something terrible happen, and I won’t let it happen again. Everything will be okay, I promise. You just have to trust me.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”
She barely seems to hear him. Her eyes are galaxies, blown wide and spiraling. They frighten him. Even though he can feel her hands on his face, it’s as though he can see right through her, as though she’s falling away from him.
“I’m living in the spaces in-between, but I swear I’ll get it right this time. It’s not your fault,” she says. “I should have told you. I should have trusted you. It works both ways.”
And then she’s gone. The imprint of her head remains on her pillow, but there’s no other trace of her. He lays his hand in the down-and-linen crater to convince himself it wasn’t a dream, and finds it wet with tears. He promises himself he’ll stay awake, he’ll remember, but in the morning the only thing sharing the bed with him is a slant of sunlight. He rises, his body aching, and goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Chia Pet stands hopefully at his feet. The time traveler’s husband leaves the mug on the counter—her favorite orange pekoe – wondering when his wife will come home.
Marriage is work; the time traveler’s husband knows this. Not just some days, but every day. He chose her, his wife who has saved the world more times than anyone will ever know, who has been to the beginning of the world and the end and so many points in-between. If he had it all to do over again, he would choose her still. And she would choose him, has chosen him, will choose him, is choosing him every moment of every day. Being a time traveler, it is one thing of which he can be sure.
And the times when she is home can be glorious. She lands in their apartment — a wild bird come to roost — and regales him with stories of drinking with Joan of Arc, of cheating at cards against Billy the Kid, and a misunderstanding on a far-flung world that nearly resulted in an intergalactic war. There are other stories too, of everyday people whose names never made it into the history books, forgotten by time, but not by his wife. When she speaks of them, her eyes shine. He loves watching her hands when she talks, the way her body fully relaxes and her face lights up. Paradoxically, it is when she tells these tales of long ago or days to come that she seems most present. It’s when she’s quiet, contemplative, that he sees leaving in her eyes.
He knows there have been other men, other women, other people, other beings. Like his father, his wife has left a trail of one-night stands throughout the time stream. He agreed to this when they married, and if he’d taken the barista home, nobody would object, but that isn’t what he wants, another person here and then gone. He wants someone who will stay. He wants his wife to stay, and he’s waiting for that day to come.
He knows it will, because some nights he wakes to a weight on the bed, and fingers laced in his. A hand on his chest, and a mouth full of hunger. There’s a terrible loss she’s running to or from, and when she finally catches up and sets it right, she will be able to rest.
On those nights, his wife’s hair spills around him, carrying scents he cannot name, and her eyes burn like unspiraling galaxies. That’s when he almost remembers her ghost weight on the bed and turning to find her smelling of smoke and ash and the end of all things. When he almost remembers her asking him to trust her, and the bad thing that happened and didn’t happen before.
In those moments, she doesn’t speak, just clings to him, her cheeks wet and her body a furnace. Her hunger has a different quality on those nights, full of sharp edges and goodbye. They make love silently, because no words could ever be enough, and when she comes, he sees the world shatter into a million pieces in her eyes.
The night his father dies, the time traveler comes home with a mouth tasting of wine and laughter. There is no horror in her eyes, and maybe the her that’s with him now hasn’t come to the terrible, world-breaking thing yet, or maybe it’s far in her past, fixed long ago.
Maybe, here and now, it’s only his world that’s broken. He’s thinking ahead to funeral arrangements, to awkward conversations with his siblings. He’s wondering if unknown children from other mothers will show up, and picturing endless paperwork, and the inevitable empty space beside him where his wife should be, because by then, she’ll be gone again.
For one brief moment—bright as a sun going supernova—he hates her. She’s been places he’ll never go. She’s seen wonders. But all the little details that happen while she’s gone—does she even have any idea how normal people live day to day? He’s seen her eyes shine talking of small, average lives in the past, people who never did anything important, but what about him? Can she only love that kind of a life at a distance? When he needs her beside him, strength and comfort, someone to lean on, when will she be?
She tries to take his hand, and he pushes her away.
“Just let me be alone right now,” he says.
He doesn’t wait to see if she leaves; he is the one to go. Everything inside him is raw as broken glass still caught in a wound. He didn’t like his father, but he loved him. The star he steered his life by—the man he never wanted to become, the man he admired and feared and desperately wanted to change by one day finally being good enough to earn a smile, a nod, a pat on the back instead of a scowl—is gone, and the time traveler’s husband is only human in the void left behind. He is petty and small and done waiting. For once, he wants to be the one to run, and leave all the tedious days behind.
So the time traveler’s husband drives to the open-twenty-four-hours-a-day superstore. He isn’t thinking straight, and he doesn’t care. He wants to do something stupid and irresponsible, something big and world-changing enough that his wife will finally look at him and see he can be as important as all of time, and finally stay.
Fluorescent lights wash the color from the store’s aisles. He breathes recycled air, walking up and down in a world where time doesn’t exist at all. He fills a blue plastic shopping cart with electronics and two-by-fours, nails and duct tape, automotive supplies, copper pipe, and copper wiring. He burned his plans for a time machine, but he still remembers what he needs. The cashier looks at him with one eyebrow raised as each item scans through, but he doesn’t change his mind.
When he returns to the apartment, he is alone. Over the years, he’s learned the varying qualities of silence – which silences mean a pause in the conversation when his wife has stepped out of the room, and which mean she’s gone. He pushes the coffee table aside, and spreads his materials across the floor. Outside, a storm gathers, heat lightning flickering across the sky, thunder grumbling to itself about better days. His father’s voice is the in the back of his head as he builds. When are you going to make something of yourself? When are you going to grab life by the horns? When are you going to stand up and be a man?
Just before dawn, the storm finally breaks. He pushes open the window and breathes in cooling asphalt and ozone. His wife’s voice is in the back of his mind too, murmuring warnings never fully explained. He hears her, but she’s falling away from him, and he shuts her out, tired of trying to understand.
Looking out over the city, the time traveler’s husband stands on a precipice. He smells the snuffed-sulfur of a burning match, watches plans curl to ash and wash down the drain. Has he been here before? No. It’s impossible. He’s the one stuck living neat and tidy hours, all his days moving in the right direction, and that’s the whole problem.
The sun creeps up between buildings, gilding the city’s canyons and refracting through the dampening rain. He flips the switch on his machine, and turns it on for the first time. The last time. The one-hundred-millionth time.
The wall where the neighboring apartment should be turns blue, a vortex swirl like a tooth-filled mouth. His wife shouts, falling toward him, falling away.
In the past-present-future everything is delicately balanced on the width of a thread. He lies in his wife’s arms, his body convulsing, tasting blood on his lips. He lies in bed beside her, her forehead against his, and she begs him to trust her. He sees her surrounded by tendrils of lightning in black and crimson, and he tastes it in the back of his own throat when she screams at the order of the universe, at time itself, and refuses to let it swallow him whole.
He falls. The building falls. The world rushes backward.
The sky cracks. Something like electricity, and even more like a purple eel, and most of all like a ribbon of burnt caramel, worms across the space where the ceiling used to be.
Everything smells of fire and ash and the world ending. His wife’s mouth is against his, and galaxies spiral in her eyes. From very far away, he hears his own voice, sobbing.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please fix it. Please.”
It might be him here and now. He can’t tell which way time is moving, and he tries to synch his lips with the words.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says.
Everything is happening all over at every moment, all the time.
He is falling. His wife’s arms are around him. She’s holding him, and he’s shaking, and she’s whispering into his hair.
“It’s okay. I have you. I’m here. I should have told you, but I’m going to fix it. I’ll set things right, I promise. But you have to trust me. I just need a little time.”
She smells of nothing he can name. The space between worlds. Ripping the universe apart and stitching it back together again.
“What happened?” he asks.
“I did something very stupid, and very dangerous, to fix something that went wrong, but it’s over now.”
She strokes the back of his head. He thinks she’s crying, but he can’t tell. He closes his eyes. After a while, he sleeps for a very long time.
When he wakes, he’s lying under a heaped pile of covers, more blankets and quilts than he knew they owned. The room is filled with apricot light, cut into long strips by the blinds. He thinks about how he and his wife met, right before graduation. He didn’t know she was a time traveler then. She was a biology major, with a minor in statistics. He was graduating with a degree in urban planning. They ran into each other, literally, on the library steps, both trying to return books before the semester’s end.
On their first date, they ate ice cream and walked along the river, laughing at seagulls fighting over scraps of food. He tries to think—was she melancholy even then? At the time, he didn’t notice. He liked what the sunlight did to her hair, and the way their hands fit together perfectly. He was entranced by the tiny freckle, dark enough to be a mole, on the bottom of her left earlobe.
They slept together almost immediately. She told him she liked to get that part out of the way, and know whether it was worth it before investing too much time in someone. Maybe it was her idea of a joke. If she’d wanted to, she could have skipped ahead to see how it all turned out, but the way she chose instead was much more fun.
Lying on his back, he traces the path of a hairline crack in the ceiling. Was it always there, or has something changed? He thinks of a chalkboard, written over and erased so many times that the ghost of past words build up, forming a haze around the new words, making them impossible to read. His wife could have looped over their days and years endlessly, perfecting, trimming, polishing. Fixing minor problems, undoing some huge catastrophe, one he can almost see, like someone standing just out of sight. And he would never know.
There are nights — at least he thinks there are — when he’s woken without her weight beside him, to a bedroom full of shadows in dust-blue, brown, and plum, and he remembers dying in her arms. Her face hovers over him, her voice pleading for him to stay, just stay with her, hold on. How many times has their world broken and been stitched back together again?
This is what it means to be a time traveler’s husband. This is the life he chose.
He pushes the covers away. In the bathroom, there’s a scent like a struck match, but he finds no evidence of ash or anything burned. In the kitchen, he’s surprised to find his wife holding a mug of tea. He could swear the silence in the apartment was the kind he’s grown used to, the one that means he’s alone.
She nudges a second mug in his direction. Steam curls from the top, still perfectly hot, but not too much so, as if she knew exactly when he would wake. Chia Pet dances around her feet, looking up adoringly.
Her smile is almost shy, as if she’s just meeting him for the first time, as if everything is wonderfully new and everything is waiting for them.
He looks for loss in her eyes, a terrible thing coming for him, a shadow, like an aura clinging to his skin. Her eyes are full of leaving and staying intertwined, but beyond that, he cannot tell. All he knows is that her smile, in this moment, is a beautiful thing.
“I thought you’d be gone by now,” he says.
“I wanted to…” She falters, doesn’t finish the sentence. He wonders if she even knows what she meant to say.
“Will you…” And now he’s the one to stop. His tongue is tied.
“Will you stay for a while?” he asks finally. “I could run down to the corner bakery and pick up croissants.”
He’s afraid to look at her, but when he finally gathers his courage, there’s something like wonder in her eyes, like she’s amazed by him, the very fact of him, as if she’s the one who expected to wake and find him gone.
“Yes,” she says. “Croissants.”
All the way there and back, even though the bakery is not even a block away, his heart hammers. Chia Pet strains at the leash, darting this way and that, smelling everything as though wanting to drink in the world. The time traveler’s husband is terrified, and he doesn’t know why.
But when he returns, his wife is waiting. Chia Pet runs delighted figure-eights between them. His wife has laid out placemats, deep buttercup yellow, with little pots of honey and jam, and she’s made more tea.
“I thought you’d be gone,” he says again, unable to help himself.
“I wanted to stay. To see you. To stay.” Her words are halting, broken. “Maybe this time for a while.”
“Why?” There should be more to the sentence, but he can’t get it out. Why does she ever leave? Why is she always running? What is she afraid of?
She takes his hand. Their fingers still fit together perfectly. She sets the pastry bag from his other hand on the table, and looks him in the eye. There are stars in hers, fractals unwinding, galaxies dying and being born. But there’s also sunlight on a Sunday morning, and crumbs strewn across the table, their fingers sticky with jam.
“I’m never running away from you.” The words come in a rush, a breathless truth more raw and honest than her words have ever been. “You’re the thing I’m running for, always, to keep you safe. Without you, I’d never find my way home.”
He stares at his wife as if he’s never seen her before, and maybe he hasn’t. The hurting in her eyes, the sorrow, it’s beyond anything he can understand. He’s falling away from her, and she’s catching him and pulling him back again. And in this moment, he knows he is loved. He is protected. He is safer with her than he could ever be with anyone else in the world.
And he knows, in this moment, that she is safer with him than she will ever be at any other time. Sometimes, being strong is holding still even when everything in you tells you to run. Sometimes, strong is being big and safe enough to be a home, holding things together through all the slow days moving in the right direction. So he will be strong. He will stay still while she runs, the universe unraveling behind her, and make sure she remembers to slow down long enough to breathe.
He leans in until their foreheads are touching, the tips of their noses, their lips almost, but not quite.
“Yes,” he whispers. To all of it, the question she hasn’t asked, everything.
In this moment, there is nothing about their lives he would change. He breathes her in with all her scents of stardust and ancient storms, and it is enough. He steps back and looks into her far-seeing eyes.
“Tell me,” he says, “when have you been?”
A.C. Wise’s short stories have appeared in five previous issues of the always delicious Shimmer Magazine, which she will miss very much, along with places like Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and the Year’s Best Horror Volume 10. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella forthcoming from Broken Eye Books. In addition to her fiction, she contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine, and the Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read series to The Book Smugglers. Find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise.
As you enter the doors of this school for the last time, the girl who your brother slept with last night brightens for just a moment before she realizes you’re not Jesse. She deflates.
You and your brother should be identical—technically you are—but no one has ever mistaken you for each other.
Jesse comes out the door just behind you, and the girl’s gaze ignites once more. You lean against the lockers, your backpack lumpy against your shoulders, and listen patiently, painfully, as she stutters her way through nonchalance she obviously practiced in front of the mirror this morning.
Jesse shares a mirror with you, and all he talked about was what your next house will be like, your next school.
You had nothing to say about the next school because you like this one. It’s nothing special—it’s a rural school, smaller than your last. Everything is the color of Reese’s Pieces, except the vomit-green floor. You stare at it, at your and Jesse’s white-capped sneakers and Dani’s—Dina’s?—weird purple bowling shoes, stationary pylons in the sea of other feet pattering by.
Work boots shedding dirt, more skate shoes, shiny running shoes, spiked Doc Martens—and a pair of ghostly pale bare feet, the toes so long they could curl around a pencil, the talons stained a dark rust-red.
Your head snaps up, but you see only two bulky boys laden in plaid, ones you named Fox Buckle and Fox Hat in your head. In the second it takes them to pass, whoever—whatever—walked beyond them has vanished.
“Jasper, you okay?” Jesse asks.
“Yeah, I just—” You look around for an excuse, so you don’t sound crazy in front of this D-named girl who might tell everyone, which you shouldn’t even care about since you’re moving again.
Jesse is sharp enough to spot Freddy.
Freddy wears those spikey Docs, a septum ring, and a halo of dark curls. Even though you’ve never said a word about thinking Freddy is cute, Jesse knows the photos you heart on Instagram.
He elbows you just a little too hard. “Last chance,” he whispers, before he turns his attention back to D-name Girl.
He’s right. You think about it, about asking Freddy if he wants to come over tonight and play videogames or watch a movie or something. But you can’t do it. Somehow it’s easy to just put on headphones and a blindfold and pretend Jesse isn’t having sex in the bed next to yours, but you don’t think you could lose your virginity with him playing air guitar across the room, which is the only way Jesse wears headphones. Not even your kissing virginity.
The bell rings.
Your family prays before every meal, and you wish you didn’t have to hold your mother’s hand, because she squeezes like you have a secret, like she knows you.
“How was your last day?”
She asks this for the second time this year, and it’s only May. She pushes back the sleeves of her comfy sweater as she pours herself a glass of orange juice.
“I got everyone to sign my guitar case,” Jesse says. He shovels pancakes-for-dinner into his mouth as if they were his favorite, but they’re actually yours, and that’s why you eat slowly, cutting the pancakes into fluffy squares and savoring every bite as you listen to him talk about a day that won’t matter by tomorrow.
Eventually, there is a lull as he drinks his juice.
“Jasper?” your father asks.
When you don’t respond, he prods, “You okay?”
“You know exactly how I am.”
You leave the table and go outside. You don’t slam the front door, but you think you would, if you were a different person.
Jesse will be your only real friend until you go to college, and even though you love him, you cannot help but hate this truth, hate hate hate. Your social media accounts are ripe with followers, but it’s just the wretched evidence of how many times you bonded long enough for them to feel bad deleting you. Thousands of ghosts of the friendships that never were.
You’re afraid if you stay on the porch someone will come out to Talk to you, so you shuffle down the weed-dappled sidewalk.
At your last house, the neighbors had carefully coiffed shrubbery and plants that weren’t allowed to touch one another, stranded in clinical strips of shredded bark. You saw only one car that looked over ten years old—a restored classic that had a crank engine, sleeping in someone’s garage. Everyone was retired and they kept inviting you to church, pointedly, especially when you wore pink.
The place before that was an apartment complex where the neighbors smoked on the stairs and “forgot” to empty their ashcans, and everyone had cats but no one gave them flea meds, and it stunk like piss and despair any time you opened your tiny window.
This house is Goldilocks perfect, even if there aren’t enough bedrooms. You feel like you belong in this quirky cottage, nestled in a neighborhood quilted together by gradual changes in zoning laws, with a multitude of toys lying on the sidewalk and happy, stupid dogs snuffling at dilapidated fences. Everyone has an ugly vegetable garden, and sometimes there are signs that say “Take some!”
You almost walk to Freddy’s house—you know where his family’s mobile home is, resplendent in year-round Halloween decorations. But even if Jesse thinks it’s a good idea, even if Freddy miraculously feels the same, you know what your parents would think.
When you return, you overhear Mom and Dad whispering as you slink past their window. Even though you know you shouldn’t, you pause.
Mom: “…Keep this up, we just can’t.”
Dad: “But if we don’t, they’ll catch…”
Some indistinct words and then Mom again: “We never should have stolen…”
These words are abstract poetry, pretend-intrigue from a life you know your parents can’t possibly have, but these words are also the sharpest of their kind, and they stab deep into your thoughts.
You’re still wondering what it means, if they’re secretly on the run from the Mafia or if they’re Russian spies or maybe just playing a sex game (unhear, UNHEAR) when you clamber through the window into the room you share with Jesse.
There’s a plate of soggy pancakes sitting on the desk and a wet ring where there used to be a bottle of lemonade beside it.
Jesse sits on your bed, not his, sipping the bottle. “I got sick of waiting for you,” he says, as if that’s an apology, so you sit beside him while you eat, his arm and leg warm against yours.
“You know Mom and Dad love their jobs,” Jesse says in a low voice. “All these kids we’ve met, their parents hate their jobs. They argue all the time.”
You shake your head. “They could keep doing it,” you say, even as you wonder again if they really are travel writers, if they used to be bank robbers or if they’re still hackers, assassins, recruiting for a cult. “They could travel, and write about it, and just come home in between.”
“We might be old enough to drive, but someone would still call CPS,” he says. To change the subject, he hands you a sack from under your pillow, and you already know what’s in it, because you can feel the cool cylinders through the paper.
“This town will remember us. Blue or yellow?” he says, and for a moment, you stare at the spray paint and think about explaining yourself to the deputies or getting hit by a train or just not being good at tagging.
Screw it. “Yellow.”
Jesse pulls on a black hoodie — your black hoodie, but you keep a spare because you’ve known him for sixteen years — and you follow him out the window.
Jesse climbs down first, unafraid of the dozens of spiders with tangled webs that have beaten you to decorating the train trestle. Even at dusk, the metal beams are warm from hours of sun. Your palms sweat, but the river is only twenty feet below—if you fall you’ll get wet, and it’ll ruin your phone, but you’ll survive.
Jesse paints two dragons 69ing, borrowing your yellow for the flames that cover the genitalia. You concentrate on writing your initials in bubble letters. They’re the same as Jesse’s, so it’ll double as a signature for his piece.
The secret is, you don’t mind being you. You used to casually mention that you’re not as popular, not as fun, not as adventurous, but people acted like you might be suicidal. Now you know: They don’t want to be a shadow, so they think you don’t, either.
You’re still painting when Jesse invites you to jump in with him. The water below is slow and an unappetizing brown, and you’re about to offer to hold his clothes for him when he’s already leaping off, can in hand. He sprays it in the air as he goes down with a whoop.
He splashes in, bobs back up—and a few feet behind him, something else rises. A discarded foam Halloween skull, with skeleton hands? No, a live thing, like a human but paler, with bulbous, dark eyes and rust-colored nails on the tips of its too-long fingers. It reaches toward the trestle. Toward Jesse.
Its thin fingers are only a couple feet away, and you know if you yell at Jesse he will turn and look instead of just swimming away, so you throw the can of paint as hard as you can. It spins through the air and crashes into the thing’s face, which dents like a boiled egg before spewing black bubbles.
It sinks immediately, but you imagine it under the surface, reaching for Jesse with those bony fingers…
You yell at Jesse to get out of the water with more authority in your voice than you’ve ever used. He complies and nimbly jumps up the bank, then runs along the rails straight toward you, as if he thinks you’re the one who needs help.
You clamber up onto the top of the trestle before he can reach you, leaving only a JR without the Z, because you need to get Jesse home.
You grab his hand, his wet sleeve partially covering his palm and squelching under your grip, and run.
He doesn’t ask questions-he probably assumes you’re just chickening out—and you let him.
When the two of you reach the end of your street, you slow. Red and blue lights blink with lazy regularity in front of the quirky cottage, and there are shadows on the lawn.
Everyone is furious until they see that Jesse is wet, and he uses it to smooth things over. “We went for a walk and I fell off the park bridge,” he says, and even though that’s a whole mile from where you were, and the water there is much shallower, they buy it because Jesse exhales white lies as easily as he inhales air.
“Please, let’s all just go to bed,” Mom says, and you let yourself be shepherded into the house, but you don’t let go of Jesse’s hand, and even though he gives you a curious Look, he allows it.
The deputy shakes your parents’ hands, and they’re all smiles until they shut the door.
Mom catches sight of a strand of weed draped over Jesse’s shoulders, and as she draws it away, you see it’s actually many strands of waterweeds that have been woven into a necklace. There’s a white stone in the center, the size of a pea.
“Where were you?” Mom’s voice is thick and wrong.
Jesse smiles placatingly. “I told you—”
“Did someone who looked like a model lure you away?” Mom demands. “The devil never looks like the devil—”
“Did you follow music?” Dad interrupts. “Or a beautiful light?”
The Look you and Jesse exchange this time is mutual, because Mom balances her checkbook nightly before she goes to bed while Dad falls asleep playing the uncool kinds of videogames, and they both shop at Sears and are afraid to eat sushi because it’s raw. They’re painfully ordinary, until this very moment, when they are insane.
Mom looks down and notices that you and Jesse are still holding hands. Her face crumples and she joins Dad, who is already crying. “We’ll talk about this later. Don’t leave this goddamned house again, do you understand?”
Jesse inhales, as if he’s about to ask questions or argue, but you tighten your grip and lead him to your room.
“What the hell is wrong with them?” Jesse asks, and you almost tell him what you heard, that maybe your parents are on the run.
That you’re not sure what they stole, but you’re starting to think you might know who wants it back. You open up your laptop and type in a few things, things you never thought you’d be saying to Google, but it’s “lady in water with teeth” that gets convincing results.
Before you can tell Jesse, he whispers your name and points at the window sill. Someone has nailed the window shut, not neat, but messy, with so many roofing nails crammed together that they are splitting the wood.
“Maybe they’re on drugs,” Jesse says. “Like a mid-life crisis kind of thing.”
“I don’t think so,” you say. You share the fruits of your eavesdropping, the feet glimpsed in the hallway, and the true story of what happened at the trestle.
“I think it was a… a jenny greenteeth,” you say, and your lips feel like a chicken must feel when it shits out an egg. The words are so foreign, they stretch your ability to say them to the person you love most. “It’s… a faery. Mom and Dad must have stolen from them.”
Jesse shrugs, but you can see everything in the way he avoids your eyes. Your stomach clenches in a ball, and you are about to cry like Mom and Dad.
Maybe you are going crazy. Jesse’s never been perfect, but he’s always been right. No regrets, extraordinarily confident in his momentary cruelties and sudden gifts, strangely innocent and canny all at once.
“We’re not twins,” you whisper. You don’t mean to say it aloud, but it spills out, because you’re so used to telling him everything.
“I’m going to shower,” Jesse says, and you beg him to leave the door open, so you can be sure he’s still there, that they haven’t managed to take him.
But when he shuts the door, for the first time ever, the lock clicks.
You drift off in spite of yourself, because for over an hour you have been using every available neurochemical to process this day, and now you feel like a papery exoskeleton.
When you wake again, you aren’t sure why. It’s not dark, but when you pass your hand over the screen, your phone swears it’s 12:01 a.m.
After a moment, you realize the light isn’t coming in through the window—the light is standing just inside the window, a slender figure in robes made of moonlight. Their—her?—hair is the same ghostly pallor as her skin, and her eyes are the glossy, wet red-black of movie blood.
“How’d you get past the iron nails?” you ask, because in your groggy state, this is the first question you have.
“I have ways,” the figure responds, and her voice is seed pods rattling in an autumn wind.
“You can’t have him,” you say, and you glance toward Jesse, who is predictably sound asleep, one hand still curled around Mimmussy, the tiger he’s had since he was a baby.
The faery pulls the moonlight around her shoulders, as if it were a blanket, and settles onto the edge of your bed. The springs barely compress, as if she weighs no more than a stack of towels.
“Because he’s my brother and I love him.”
“Even though everyone likes him better?”
You snatch the salt shaker from the bedstand and flick it toward the folds of light and the wet eyes.
The faery’s horrible shriek is muted, as if it’s happening under a blanket. The light folds in on itself and blinks out.
Now you can’t sleep. You lie in bed and stare at Jesse drooling on his pillow, his dark lashes stark against his cheeks.
You imagine life without him, without lying to cover up his antics, without being able to coast on his social skills, without someone who knows sixteen years’ worth of your feelings, failures, triumphs, and in-jokes.
It smells like sausage in the morning, and when you and Jesse sit down at this dining room table for the last time, you find a breakfast banquet.
Jesse, who inconveniently slept through your guest last night, stuffs his face with sausages and omelet and begins talking about the new house’s lake access and how he’d like to learn to kayak.
“A person in glowing robes came into our room last night and threatened us,” you say calmly, as you slice into the single sausage on your plate. “I salted them.”
The air is heavy, and it feels like you’re stealing silence with every quiet breath.
“Good job,” Mom finally says.
“Stop me if I get anything wrong.” You cut into your sausage again: perfectly even slices that fall into a line like collapsed dominoes. “Sixteen years ago, you had a baby. The faeries stole him and replaced him with a facsimile. The moment you saw him, you knew he wasn’t yours.”
You and your brother are supposedly identical, but no one has ever mistaken one of you for the other.
“The new one—it didn’t cry,” Mom whispers.
Your fork pins the omelet down like a dead butterfly, and your knife cleaves it, again and again, until there is a grid. “You never went on an expedition to the Andes. When you tell your hiking stories, they’re about a trek to Underhill, where you stole back your son—but you’d already fallen in love with the magic baby, the one that’s too perfect to possibly be real.”
Mom and Dad stare at you, and for the first time, you realize how exhausted they must be, running from mythical creatures for so many years. Had your parents ever thrown salt that smoked on a faery’s eyes or swung iron to leave bubbling welts against its flesh? Are they freelancers, or are they warriors?
“They are both perfect,” Dad says, and he closes his eyes, his voice croaking as if he’s never used it before.
Jesse drops his silverware. “Why are you all doing this? Do you hear yourselves? Please tell me this is a joke.”
“It’s not a joke, Jesse. Your parents are thieves.”
The new voice fills the kitchen, and you all turn to see a tall, pale person with a crust of enormous sparkling gems glued to her skull. Last night she wore robes of moonlight, and today she wears a red dress embellished with cicada husks. A cloak of shadow coils about her shoulders, rippling like water, wisps snaking off and disintegrating in the sunlight.
She wiggles her long, many-jointed fingers, and the cloak flows from her shoulders and pours across the floor, sprouting up into indistinct grey golems of many shapes and sizes. Each is translucent, but you can tell by the way the floor creaks under their weight that they are real.
Three of you reach for the salt shaker, but you are too slow; fingers of shadow grip all of your wrists and bind you to your chairs.
“At least we gave you something in return,” the faery goes on. “At least we were fair.”
Mom’s face purples, and you almost don’t recognize her as she snarls, “When I stepped inside your bone hut, you were smearing bird blood on his penis! Directly out of the bird!”
“You know nothing of our ways, mortal,” the faery snaps.
“You’re savages!” Dad roars. “Monsters.”
“Witches,” Mom adds. “We raised two good Christian boys, healthy Christian boys.”
“But what is good? Has my boy been given the leisure to learn a place down to its very roots? To fall in love?”
“Shut your filthy animal mouth, he’s ours, HE’S OURS!” your father shrieks.
You feel like you’re in a car wreck, where you can see the other vehicle spinning towards yours, and there’s nowhere to go, just an impact to brace for. Some vehicular damage is permanent, can never be hammered out and painted smooth, just the way that you can never unhear your parents’ sick words.
You and Jesse share one mutual glance before his eyes wander up to the person who really made him. You wonder if he’s going to go, if he’s going to leave you.
Light refracts from the faery’s cap of gems, sending rainbow rays across your soggy cereal. Her gaze finds yours, not Jesse’s.
“Come with me, my child. You don’t belong here, and you never have.”
The words hang in the air, their meaning so colossal you have a hard time bending your perception into this new paradigm, one in which you are special and otherworldly.
How much would you have to love someone to become a fugitive for them, and what of the hollow-eyed parents whose children end up on milk cartons?
“Am I made of sticks and mud?” you ask.
“You will never again be what you once were,” the faery says. She might as well have said yes. She gestures toward you with pianist fingers. “Nothing binds you, child, for you are one of us. Make your choice.”
You ponder the alchemy that makes a live creature from organic detritus. About what must lie dormant inside you, like turtles sleeping under winter mud.
You wish away the cool grey fog-snakes, but not just from your own hands. You wish Jesse free.
“Thank you, Jasper,” the woman who pretended to be your mother says, but you don’t unbind her, and her face pinches when she realizes this.
“Don’t be ungrateful, Jasper. You have no idea what we saved you from. We Saved you.”
Jesse meets your eyes again, and everything is familiar and right for a tiny, iridescent moment in the sucking swamp of nonsense that has swallowed both of your lives. You know your brother, and your brother knows you.
“You guys kidnapped him,” Jesse says to your parents. “You literally stole a baby.”
Jesse grabs your hand in his, and it’s dry and firm. Yours is sweaty, but you squeeze back as you turn to face the faery.
“You made me as nothing more than an escape plan, so you could get away with a crime. How could you think I’d want to go with you?”
Jesse grabs your hand, and you squeeze back.
“Go ahead and keep our bank account full,” he says to your parents.
You meet the faery’s eyes. “You go ahead and leave us care packages on our porch.”
“We don’t want to see you, any of you. We need some time,” Jesse says, and it’s just what you wanted him to say.
As you walk out of the room, all of your parents begin arguing behind you. You slam and lock the door and pour salt over the carpet.
“Lake house?” Jesse asks, his eyes pleading. You loved this place, but you already knew Jesse would be your best friend until college, and you can hate hate hate it all you want, but you love love love your brother.
“Lake house,” you agree.
He throws a chair through the window, and even though you roll your eyes when he yells, “Dude, I’ve always wanted to do that!” you dutifully cover the jagged shards with a pile of bedclothes so neither of you cuts yourself on your way out.
Cory Skerry divides his workday between writing the
impossible, illustrating the outrageous, and assisting individual authors and
small presses who want their manuscripts to exceed reader expectations. When
his current meatshell begins to decay, he’d like science to put his brain
inside a giant killer octopus body, with which he’ll be very responsible and
not even slightly shipwrecky. Pinky swear. For more, visit inkshark.net.
My mother walks up dizzy from the pier with her mouth open and her arms out and dripping. The lizards on the boardwalk drop their blue tails to get out of her way.
I’m on the patio swing saying it’s a tough living dyeing my own wool and spinning it into fancy yarn. Peggy tells me to shut up and worry about my mother. My mother vomits algae on the patio, and I get worried.
My mother says, “Don’t you kids look. It’s just my vertigo.”
The kids are me and a few old women in shorts. The old women push me inside the lake house and block the sliding door with their clotted bodies. I sit on the floor and trace the black veins from leg to leg through the glass. The veins are black because they’re full of ants. If the old women get cut, the ants will escape, and the old women won’t have anything to carry their granulated blood to their hearts.
My mother married into this family. She doesn’t have the right blood for the lake. Linda told my mother how a ghost would swim up in her if she went out on that raft, but my mother comes from country people. They learn by doing. My mother is learning right now. A ghost from the lake is caught in my mother’s stomach, and it’s teaching her what it means to be a stubborn individual.
A cloud of mosquitoes blacks out my mother’s hair. Sandra looks at her phone.
She says, “I’m calling it.”
Linda says, “This whole situation makes me want to spit. Get those mosquitoes out of her hair. Those mosquitoes don’t get to be part of this.”
I knock on the glass. It hurts. My knuckles are sharp, and my skin is thin. It’s something about my parents’ combined genetics. I’m hardy and fragile at the same time. I bleed at the joints when I make a fist. My blood isn’t ants. It’s just blood. Before my father died, he taught me to squeeze that blood into jars and keep it the right temperature for if I need it later.
He said, “You can do more with blood than it says on the box.”
He’s right. I’ve used my blood to dye wool the perfect shade of brown.
Peggy hugs open a Christmas tin and eats a cookie.
She says, “Your poor mother.”
Peggy was made to stay behind the glass with me. Her sisters are out there telling my mother how not all dizziness is vertigo. My mother’s screaming a story about the first lake people.
Sandra says, “Someone should record this. I don’t think we have this one.”
Linda says, “I’m not going to be involved in that. This woman has her rights to privacy.”
Peggy gives me a cookie and says, “Your mother will be fine. Eat this cookie, then we’ll go out front and play a game.”
I eat the cookie. It has raisins. I can’t digest raisins at the lake. My stomach turns them to gravel. I puke the cookie into a red plastic cup.
Peggy says, “I know. The lake takes getting used to. My first time here, I found out I couldn’t whistle. We lost a puppy that way. He started running toward the lake, and I tried to whistle for him, but nothing came out. He ran right across the water on a bridge of snakes.”
The lake is a man-made finger of blood-black water on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a culture shock like when I was in Australia and used the toilet paper to the last square. The last square was glued to the roll. I cried because that’s not how it is in America. In America, the last square comes clean.
On the other side of the glass, my mother says, “Brother Bill Agnes dressed as an old woman and secured a place on a lifeboat. That was in April of 1912. Grandmother Will was born a year later to Sister Viv, a lapsed nun who made pies out of sawdust. All Sister Viv’s children were allergic to trees.”
Peggy reaches behind my ear and pulls back two lit cigarettes.
She says, “Let’s go play that game.”
Peggy and I go out on the front porch and sigh into rocking chairs. A noiseless fighter jet goes over the trees and unzips a formation of geese. There’s an Air Force base nearby. The geese crash in the yard and shit the sand to mayonnaise. Peggy says when she and Linda and Sandra were kids they would grab the geese by their necks and swing them over the house and into the lake. I think that’s a feat misremembered.
I tried grabbing a goose once, but the goose grabbed me instead. I had to climb a tree to get away. My hands got cut up on the bark. Sap fell into the deepest splits. My hands healed up bumpy, so now I have hard beads in my palms like a pearl necklace held and absorbed.
I thought the sap might have poisoned me because my fingernails started growing faster than normal, and I had this urge to scratch people. My mother would hug me, and I would pull up divots of skin from her back. One of those times, I pulled up a mole and its network of cancer. My mother let out a sound like a motorcycle.
I told her I was a poisonous monster because of the sap in my hands.
She said, “No, honey, look. I’ve got pencil lead in my neck from a thing that happened on accident, and your father says I’m good ’til I die.”
The boom of the fighter jet catches up to us a minute after the jet’s out of sight.
Peggy says, “That’s what ghosts sound like when they’re not sitting in your stomach. If you put your head down in the lake, you can hear the ghosts screaming like a really big shell put to your ear.”
I say, “I know what ghosts sound like. My father had a bad ghost take him over a few years ago.”
Peggy says, “I didn’t forget.”
I say, “You said something about a game.”
Peggy says, “Yeah, the game where we smoke these cigarettes and just shut up because there will be enough talking in the morning, and the geese want to talk now.”
The geese start honking. I yawn. Peggy looks at me like I’m ruining the moment. I yawn again but in my closed mouth. My eyes water like I might cry.
I’m the oldest of the younger cousins this year because Ashley, the real oldest cousin, had a baby, and the baby’s already doing that thing where he looks over Ashley’s shoulder at things that aren’t there.
“He sees spirits,” Ashley says when she calls to make sure we’re all still alive.
I tell Ashley my mother’s been hit by a long-winded ghost. Ashley says that’s a shame and a tradition. She says to give everyone her love. I tell her blood is love at the lake.
She says, “You know what I mean.”
Ashley didn’t tell me being the oldest cousin came with responsibilities. I have to get the younger cousins drunk but not too drunk. One of the old women gives me 50 bucks to buy her some cheap bourbon. She tells me to keep the change. I spend the change on vodka for the younger cousins. Peggy helps me pour the glasses.
I say, “This is weird.”
Peggy says, “They’ll need it to sleep in a house that’s always talking.”
Peggy and I decide to split the rest of the bottle. This would be a good time to cry and ask about my mother, but I know ghosts don’t give up easy. I look out the window. There’s too much fog to see the lake anymore.
Peggy says, “That’s the body of the ghost. If you go out tonight, try not to breathe it in.”
Peggy coughs some ants into the bottle.
I say, “My mother won’t talk again, will she?”
Peggy says, “Well, your mother’s staunch, so she’ll probably try.”
I call the younger cousins into the kitchen, and they get their drinks and head to the basement. Peggy says I should go with them.
She hands me the bottle and says, “Don’t you leave this shit vodka with me.”
The stairs to the basement are covered in carpet that’s always a little wet. I run down the stairs, and it feels like I’m running on rum cake. The younger cousins are sitting around a card table and flicking poker chips at each other.
Matt says, “You know what you do with these?”
I say, “They stand for money.”
Matt says, “No. They stand for America. This one’s red, this one’s white, and this one’s blue.”
Matt takes a drink and starts coughing.
Lee says, “I know. This one’s really strong.”
Katie says, “Yeah, this one too.”
All the younger cousins take cat sips and talk about how they can’t wait to get out of wherever they are. Lee’s the only one who isn’t a blood cousin. He’s the neighbor. His teeth cross like swords. Katie has a thing for messed-up teeth. She’s been all over Lee since we got here. She texts me and asks if I think it’s OK for her to keep going. I tell her it would be fine if Lee weren’t gay.
Peggy yells down for me to move her car closer to the house so it’ll be easier for her to pack tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow. She laughs and shakes a pill bottle. The other old women come running.
Lee says, “I’ll go with you.”
Katie stands up and pulls down on the legs of her shorts.
Lee says, “Just me and your cousin on this one.”
I say, “Yeah, there might be snakes out,” which is stupid because we all know snakes take to the water at night. They float on top of the lake in loose sex balls, roaring like a gas leak in a small town. Every morning, there are clusters of fresh eggs knocking the pier legs. Linda and Sandra cut the eggs open and use the undeveloped snake babies for fishing bait.
Katie says, “OK, guys. What. Ever.”
Lee and I hit the gravel. I try not to breathe the ghost fog. Lee trips over himself like he got drunk off three sips of vodka. I tell him to keep his mouth shut and his nose shut and just breathe with his mind.
He says, “No can do, but I’ll race you to the car.”
Lee grabs my hand, and we run through the fog to Peggy’s car where we suck in the clean air and pass it between our mouths. My tongue counts Lee’s crooked teeth. I want to ask if his teeth hurt arranged like that, but my mouth and his mouth are the same for a while. I can taste where I smoked a cigarette earlier, and so can Lee. He sucks on my lips to get it all out.
Lee tells me he’s moving to California to sit in a chair on the beach and talk about what he believes. He doesn’t know what he believes yet. He thinks if he starts talking, he’ll know.
Lee asks me what I believe.
I say, “I believe my mother still has a lot to say.”
Lee says we don’t believe the same things.
I ask Lee if he’s met any of the ghosts from the lake. He says no. I take his shirt off and say, “I’ll show you a ghost in the morning.”
The fog is lifting. Lee swallows all the spit in his mouth.
“No,” he says, “you won’t.”
My mother is sitting on the pier in the morning, and the ghost has left her. I can see her skull through her skin. She says it’ll pass when she eats, but she’s not hungry.
The water under us is black and iridescent as motor oil. I tell my mother I’m not hungry either. She says I smell like I ate all night. She coughs, and no algae comes out, but her breath is still green.
Lee comes down the boardwalk, and I say, “Mom, this is my special friend.”
My mother grabs a post to stand. I see all her veins at once like purple lightning.
She says, “Don’t do this to me right now.”
Peggy yells that breakfast is ready. My mother says she needs to try to eat. I say we’ll be up soon.
Lee and I get on our bellies on the pier. We look in the water for ghosts.
I spit in the lake, and the lake spits back.
Casey Hannan was born in West Virginia, raised in central Kentucky, and has lived and worked in Kansas City since 2003. He graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2007 and has continued to develop his literary and visual art practices in tandem. He is the author of two books, Mother Ghost (Tiny Hardcore Press) and The Three Woes (Spork Press) and can be found at caseyhannan.com.
Kate’s been out on the roof again. She’s drawn her finger through salt the color of wood ash, the sigils barely holding together on the terracotta slope of the tiles. The gutters are clogged with yellow fat, and dead hares whose eyes are gilded in gold leaf. Across the valley a field of barley whitens with mold and blight.
I coax her back through the casement and hold her while she whispers curse words into the damp cotton of my shoulder. Her breath smells of bonfire smoke. She does not sleep.
I know where the artist’s bones are. Deep in the clay below the Gravenstein apple trees. Root-wrapped and smeared with grease. The fruit tastes slightly of marrow and damp cloth. It is not an unpleasant flavor.
Something has been killing the hoopoe, leaving their plucked bodies in the orchard’s long grass. Their scorched beaks have been torn free and sealed tight with honey. Kate does not come down here often, though she can see the trees from the house. I pick up the corpses, the loose feathers, and drop them into a burlap sack, the one I normally use for harvested fruit. Later, I bury their small bodies in shallow graves.
“I didn’t mean to,” Kate says, and I know she’s telling the truth. “He scrubbed out the salt. I don’t know why he scrubbed out the salt.”
I look at the line going around the house. A single footprint has worn through the white powder, tread still visible. He lies on the corner of the porch, eyes wide and blinded with mold erupting through his jaw and across his tongue. Even though the cartilage in his throat has turned to dust, he still tries to speak.
“You need to finish what you’ve started. It’s not right to leave him like this. To leave him for me to deal with,” I say, but even as I finish speaking, I know she can’t. She never can. We keep two large apple presses behind the house. I use the second one, and later burn his uniform down at the far end of the orchard. The wind will carry the char of smoke down the valley, away from us and the town.
Kate sits, her back against the pollard’s bark while she knits. I watch bees flit from blossom to blossom. The day is calm and bright, her needles clattering against each other. I’m glad she’s come down amongst the trees. The air is full of the scent of fresh grass, crushed by our footsteps. I force the scions into the cleft cut in the rootstock, take out the chisel and seal the graft with wax from a single red candle.
Afterwards, I’m not sure how she distracted me to get at the tree, but she managed to. The glyphs are small and precise, carved with the tip of her knitting needles. I know she has good intentions. She sees the gaps in the world, and needs to close them. I’m grateful. How can I not be, but I wish she would tell me. Speak to me. I dig up the tree and the surrounding soil. There are still unburnt scraps of uniform on the warm embers. I push them deep into the flames as the dirt-covered roots start to smolder.
We are low on food, so I take some of last year’s crop to the village to sell.
“Had a bonfire?” Carmen in the grocers asks. I know what she wants to know. I stay silent. I’ve hidden most of the scrying ingredients in the house, but Kate is inventive. Instinctive. I can feel her watching even when she isn’t.
“Burning old scrub,” I say, putting the basket on the counter. There will be extra cash, too, but I will stash that away for the winter.
“We’ve seen the hut again, Rachel. Glowing between the trees,” Bill says. He stands by the window and does not turn as he speaks to me. I have not seen the hunting lodge appear, but it does not surprise me.
I notice the clattering first. Hundreds of barbed fishhooks fall from the sky onto the road outside. This is not Fortean, but a threat. I step outside, and the downfall pauses long enough for me to get to the car before intensifying once again to trap Carmen and Bill inside the store. I see their faces pressed against the lettered glass.
The sky glitters. Kate has done it for me. Setting the clouds on fire and letting them fall like forgotten fireworks.
“This won’t last, you know,” she says, slipping her arms around my waist. “We just need to make the best of it.”
The streamers of light twitch as they hit mist rising from the river.
“Already fading,” I say, and she sighs, unhooking her fingers and walking away.
I arrive back from the orchard and cannot get into the house. The porch is covered in wax bees, their wings fluttering against the rotting wood. The day is warm, and the wax soon melts. The insects inside fall to the ground, suffocated. I try not to step on them, but there are too many, and they rasp as I make my way inside. The hives will be empty now, and many of the trees will not fruit.
The artist only ever gave Kate one piece of art. An old installation never taken by a gallery. She keeps it in the cellar, no other room big enough to display it. On the day he delivered it, he pulled up the lane in a battered white van. With our help he dragged out the hospital gurney, ants and beetles already suffocating in the thick smear of honey across the metal.
After he left, Kate would eat the sweetened insects, dedicating each death to a goddess whose name only she knew.
In the morning I scour the river bank, collecting torn shrapnel from a plane’s fuselage. The registration number is scorched beyond reading. There is no one to tell.
I take Kate by the hand and she leads me down to the orchard, though I am the one who asked if we could go. Paperweights of dew slide from the grass, glisten on the skin of her bare feet, and for a moment I am transfixed. We reach the orchard, and it is worse. Even Kate gasps. The elm trees are no longer seedlings, their granite branches resting on the crowns of the apple trees, crushing the Berlepsch and Weirouge to pulp.
“There are two thousand,” she says. She reaches up and plucks a leaf, lets it fall. Silica in the rock glistens like dying stars.
“There need to be zero. They are killing the apple trees.”
I do not ask where the stone has come from. Whether she grifted it from some family quarry in a nearby village, or erupted and cooled a volcano far through the earth. I think I can smell bone in the rock. I do not ask.
Someone has been to the house. Aftershave lingers around the porch, a light reek of citrus and alcohol. I let my hand rest on the door handle, peering through the frosted glass for any bundles in the hallway that do not look like they belong. Kate is sitting on the stairs.
“The visitors went away,” she says. Her knuckles are red-raw where she’s torn skin to lace. I nod. It was lucky they did. I know what she was planning to do. I’m glad she didn’t feel she had to.
She has found the artist’s cap and is wearing it, long hair bunched up inside. Sat in the dark. The room is heavy with the reek of sweat-stained wool and all his lies.
When he was alive, he never took it off. The thing with lies is they have power. He knew that and wore them like ribbons.
Kate uses them to create other things. These falsehoods smell of mildew. I glance at her arm in the little light coming from the window. She is sprouting jackal fur in the crook of her elbow. I reach into my pocket for the tweezers, ready to pluck it out hair by hair. Root by bloodstained root. It’s the only way, or it will spread and she will be his by morning.
Later that night I take the hat down to the meadow and try to burn it to ash. The flames dance across the weave. I wedge it into the crook of a pear tree. I know it will be back in the attic by morning.
They’re not taking our apples in town anymore. They say that the crop is tainted. Kate wants to come to the town, to support me. I can’t let her. The way they’ll react to her. The way she’ll react to them.
I wake up in the middle of the night and go to her room. She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, window open. I can hear flies buzzing across the fruit as their offspring burrow through apple skin. The scent is sweet and warm and collapsing. I walk across to shut the window and she says nothing.
“You need to stop,” I say.
“What will happen, will happen,” she replies. Her face is turned toward the floor, shadowed and hidden. I cannot tell her reaction. There is a scent of burning willow and pine. Sap bubbles out of her fingertips and drips to the floor.
I tell Kate that after enough blossoms have fallen in the meadow, the artist will find his own way back through the soil to knock on the door. She asks about all the wasps that drink themselves to death on apple-rot cider, slipping between worm castings and mole burrows. I do not have an answer for her that is not a lie, so instead I tell her a truth: Wasps never stay under the earth for long, dead or not, before they steal skeletal leaves for wings and return.
We drive into the town. It’s the first time Kate has left home in five years. She sits in the back, the window closed even though the day is one of the hottest of the year. I can smell myself on the recycled air inside the car.
I turn us down the main street. People are sitting under parasols, drinking ice-crowded drinks and eating chemical- flavored ice cream.
“They’re staring,” Kate says, shrinking down in her seat.
“They’re not,” I lie. “It’s far too warm to pay attention to anyone else.”
But she does not believe me. My lies are brittle children, and they do not live long around her.
The beetles are small and black and crawl out from inside the doors, up over the car’s windows, scratching the glass with their feet. Soon they obscure the view outside, the temperature inside climbing as the sunlight bakes their carapaces.
I put on the wipers to clear the windscreen, but there are too many, and they smear as they are crushed. I slow down. I can hear them crawling along the petrol pipes, drowning in the fuel and filling the tank. Their dying bodies clog the air vents, sealing us from the world.
I could explain that this spectacle of death is draping us in attention. That people who had not noticed our progress through the town center are now leaving their houses to watch. To stare. I do not. Cars are not the only things that can be suffocated with dying insects. We abandon it beside the road and walk home through the orchard.
“We need to make the circle bigger,” she says. I am too distracted by looking after the fruit to pay any attention. To give her any attention.
The salt crosses the track up to the house, crystals fresh. Along the ditch are two rows of salt pans, evaporating in the sun, stone tacky with clots.
There are two people on the back porch. She has slit their throats with sharpened oak leaves. Wrapped them in blankets that do not cover their injuries. Through the fabric I see bones like larch poles snapped and splintered. The last of their blood, the little she did not harvest for crystals, has seeped across the floor. Flies from the rotten apples sip their fill.
“What was I supposed to do?” she says, I take her arm and lead her back in. Her hands are stained with yellow pollen. I do not know which flower it comes from, but I wash it down the sink.
“It was very quick,” she says as I scrub her hands with the nail brush. She winces as the bristles catch her knuckle scabs. I say nothing.
I did not want to leave her for the night, but accountants don’t come where we live. Carmen and the others must have seen my car go. Took their chance to try and stop Kate. They did not succeed. From a distance it looks like the visitors got together to help manage the orchard, but Carmen and the others aren’t pruning the tree. Accelerated branch growth has woven its way through their veins, splitting their muscles from their bones. Their teeth will be the fruit harvested in autumn. I find Kate amongst the windfall, arms around her knees.
“We need to make the circle bigger. All the way around the fields,” she says, but I know that no salt circle will ever be big enough to keep the world out. Maybe we’re two faces of the same monster, me and her. I hold her close and ignore the sound of shattering jaws from the canopy above. I lace my fingers through hers and lead her back to the house.
Kate has covered all the furniture in calico, thick and muffled. Mice tug the fibers loose and hoard them behind the wooden slats in the walls. I stand in the middle of the room and look around at the chairs, the sofa, the cupboards. The piano. She brushes past me and sits down on the stool. Her hair is curled with honey that drips down the back of her dress. I try not to gag at the sweetness. She rests her hands on the covered keys and underneath, hammers strike taut, muffled strings.
“When he made the original one, he meant it to be silent.”
I’ve barely finished speaking before I know I’ve made a mistake. She stands and walks over, placing each foot with grace. Running a finger through her hair, she coats my lips with honey. The sugar turns to skin and I have no mouth. She returns to the piano stool and continues to play.
Later that night she wakes me and runs a fingernail across my face. The mouth is not mine, her memory is not that precise, but I am glad to be able to speak.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and I want to answer, but even with my speech returned I cannot bring myself to reassure her.
Wilted blossoms fall around us as we stand in the middle of the orchard.
“They’re dying,” I say, and she nods. The trees can take only so much grief. Absorb so much death before their roots wither in the ground.
“I can make them come back,” she says, and I appreciate her offer, because it is truly given, and comes from sadness, which is her most powerful ingredient, but I shake my head.
“Even if they do, there are no bees,” I say, and before she offers to fix them too, I hug her, and we sag against each other like two trees planted too close.
There are routes she does not know. Routes I have masked from her with honeysuckle and knots of uncarded wool buried in old lemonade bottles, the necks sealed with glass marbles and apple pips. I buried them long ago, pressing them down into the dirt of the path, below stiles and between hawthorn trees. The fog of them gets lost in the fog of her thoughts.
The basket is heavy, and split-willow rods rub away the skin of my forearms. Kate is having a good day.
“I can come and help, Rachel,” she says. She never uses my name. There are only two of us. It sounds crystallised on her tongue.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll be back for dinner. I have my lunch in here.”
She smiles, and I do not notice at the time how brittle it is.
I should not have drawn her attention to the basket. There is food in there, but not for lunch. Enough to get me beyond the hills.
The route is blocked with brass rods running from thorned branch to thorned branch. She is sitting on the fence, wrapped in calico. The trees reach out and entangle me before I can move. Blood beads along my arms and hardens to ladybirds that scratch far more than the thorns.
“I couldn’t carry on,” I say.
She nods and strokes my arm between the wounds to give me ease.
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
I wake up in the fruit cellar, lying on a metal gurney. It is dented beneath my spine, and I cannot get comfortable. Across the room she has arranged the artist’s bones, a pile of wet soil on the concrete where she has sifted for his fingertips. Without moving, she drags the gurney toward her. The hare is nestled in her lap, blank-eyed, gold-leaf crumpled against its lashes.
“I won’t be him, you know,” I say.
“I know,” she says, smiling. “I will have the best of both of you.”
This is a lie she speaks with the full knowledge of its nature.
His skeleton doesn’t quite fit in my skin. Splinters of bone embroider my muscles, which are too short to stretch across the new femurs. My own are a fine powder coating my diaphragm and lungs. Already, infections are spreading from the clay she did not clean from the time-pitted surface of his spine. Vertebrae are in the wrong place. I do not know if this is intentional or carelessness. There is pain, but I cannot scream. She has stitched my mouth shut to stop my face slipping from his skull. She has kept my hands free to make the new artworks he never finished. The fingerbones are too long for me to hold the tools she has prepared. Soon she will strip me back to her artist’s bones, and I will be little more than fat clogging the drains.
Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Lackington’s, Aurealis, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine among others. In 2014, “Call Out,” first published in Innsmouth Magazine, was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year vol. 6. You can keep up to date with his work via tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com and on Twitter @stevetoase.