Tag Archives: haunted

The Passenger, by Emily Lundgren

I try to take a picture of the eerie. The power’s out, so I’m like, okay, standing outside the Pump n’ Stuff, looking at the gas pumps. My last customer was twenty minutes ago. Down the street by the McDonald’s, the black veiny power lines seizure under the blinking traffic lights. I listen to the curdles of wind. There’s no one around. No one at the Kum & Go across the way. No one in the dirt parking lot outside Toby’s bar. Just cars rumbling along on the I-29 overpass.

Eerie.

But the picture I take is just a spread of grainy nothingness, boring, and I sit on a milk crate, and I mope: so much for the camera on the new LG EnV, sigh sigh sigh. But then at least it’s got the flip-out keyboard, at least I don’t have to look slow and stupid texting Wig anymore.

He’ll be here soon. I just ended my shift and he’s the early type.

My palms start to sweat. This is it, Kara. Even though he hasn’t been texting back since Friday after our quasi-date at Taco John’s, and even though he didn’t show up yesterday like usual to share a joint during break and make up jokes about all the customers. Still. He’ll be here. Because it’s finally happened. Myspace post and everything.

Miranda and Ludwig broke up.

There’s a kid working McDonald’s that goes out by the dumpster to try lighting a smoke. He cups his hands, I can see the sliver of flame—then it’s gone, snuffed by the wind. There’s the customers, all leaving. The street bathed in green traffic light. Then gold. Then red. Leaves whirling from ditches. There’s an honest-to-god-no-shit tumbleweed going see you later, dude.

That’s when I get the text.

Not from Wig, but from her. Miranda.

This is Miranda feldman, the text reads, like she forgot she gave me her number senior year of high school as I signed her yearbook. Have u seen wig?

Gross.

Then there’s a car. This real shitty ass car. This crappy ass two-door, green Cavalier. The same one that’s picked me up after work every Tuesday since August. It runs red. Pulls up on a slam of brakes.

I can see the shadow of him inside.

The door opens. I pocket my phone and climb in.

Here’s the thing about Miranda. From high school. From math. I try not to think about her more than I think about Wig. But they’re sort of hand in hand sometimes. Especially because she’s with this other guy now and sometimes, like yesterday, I go creeping to the public library just to look at stuff like Miranda’s Myspace page. There was a picture. Black and white. The two of them. Miranda and this other guy. This other-Wig. This guy with this whole swooped-bang look and dyed black hair. This Gerard Way look. But Wig can’t even do that style because Wig’s got a widow’s peak.

I swallow, anxious, because I figure how Wig must be feeling. Right now. Why he hasn’t been answering my texts since after our Friday sort-of-date. Thanks to my local library I know they broke up on Facebook and Myspace sometime around Saturday afternoon. So here he is. Right here, right now, all mine. Ready for an official date, maybe, where I’ll finally, actually get laid. Except something is wrong. Wig looks um. He’s gone all pale. More than usual. He’s holding onto the steering wheel sort of like if he lets go he’ll throw up. He runs another red.

Main street’s nothing but traffic lights. Tick, tick, eerie.

“Hey—um, how are you feeling, are you okay?” I say. I try to play it all casual. Last week he didn’t talk much, but that’s normal and he looked okay. Hawkish hair, dyed this sick color. Dark green so it does look a convincing black in the dark. By sick I meant sick. That kind of sick. But the rest of him does look like the other kind of sick when we pass yellow. The um kind. “Wig,” I say. I joke, “are you high?”

He rubs his eyes. “Fuck,” I think he says. His eyes are bloodshot. It’s hard to tell. He always smells weird. Not like pot, not all the time, but other stuff, too. Like incense sticks, all cinnamon, daydream, lavender. I always avoided him, in school. I knew him back then. He was in the same class as me. The same class as Miranda. Sometimes I wonder which one of us changed the most. I guess you don’t grow much, only two-ish years out. He’d show up to chem and paint his nails with Sharpie. It was like. Very strange.

He turns up the music. He’s listening to uh, some real loud ass shit. Per usual, I guess.

“I’m having a thought,” I say. But he doesn’t hear me. Good. I take a drink of my Joose.

Wig flips his phone open. His very own EnV, only the green color’s worn off and there’s duct tape. I try to side-eye for the reflection of his screen on the glass of his window while he texts. Balancing the wheel with his knee. I’m not spying. But I’m trying to. Just when I think I catch something he chucks it. His phone. Into the cup holder. Picks up the PBR from the holder next to it. He rubs his nose and takes a drink. I’ve never seen him drink in his car before.

I guess I should try to make small talk. Maybe ask if he’s going to do a spell tonight, at the beach. Even though the wind is bad. But I kind of… Shit. Don’t want to ruin the surprise. Just the two of us. In his car. The music. The town silent. Dark. Every house window reflecting Wig’s headlights back at us. Reverse-deers. Even though I’m sort of getting anxious about how he’s drinking the PBR at the wheel. Which. I mean. It isn’t really like him. We pass Duke’s, my trailer court. The little square of the community college. Wig runs another light. My eyes close.

This guy shreds. On his vocals. The bubble of guitar. I can’t shake this little feeling…

Wig and I talk about music all the time. I grew up on my dad and mom’s stuff. But he’s more into the alternative trends. When we first started hanging out this past summer, I was like: “I’m into your music but.” And he was like: “But?” And I was like, casual: “But they’re sort of like. Really shitty towards girls?” In reality. This was a thing my English teacher said senior year before we graduated. Posed the question. Sort of about, like, all rock n’ roll music ever. But particularly, Wig’s kind. The emotional kind. Everyone in class was like: bullshit! But I tried it out on Wig to see what he’d say. Maybe it’s sad but it’s the truth: I’d like him to think I’m smart.

I guess I shouldn’t care stealing what the teacher said. Because it worked. He was like: “Maybe. I don’t know. So what’s your stuff about?” I shrugged. Then I made him a CD. With that one Neil Young song about Charles Manson. That Black Sabbath one about doing heroin and Vietnam veterans. Then that one by Iggy Pop that’s about David Bowie. It made him think. I think? He liked the CD. I think. But then I see it on the messy floor of his car. Scattered with the rest. My sloppy sharpie: Kara’s. Scratched to shit by my Converse. I glance at him.

I’m not so sure I’m right—that my English teacher was right. I mean, about his music. To be fair. If I’m honest and all. I’ve been listening to it a lot more lately and mostly it seems like these screaming guys are all dating the wrong girls. Or it’s about hate-loving their dads.

My phone vibrates. I jump-scare, Jesus. Slide it open. It’s Miranda. Fucking Miranda.

Kara please, it reads, this is important …r u with him ?

I want to tell her to fuck off, but I don’t have the guts.

I take the biggest. Fucking. Drink. From my Joose. I wipe my mouth with my sleeve. My heart is like: Do I bring it up? The breakup? What will he say? It’s stupid, I think. He was ever even into her, I mean. Miranda. From math. In math, freshman year of high school, she told him to slit his wrists. Kids laughed. Being teenagers, at the time, we were into that. The idea of death, I guess. For sure. There was this whole mood, this whatever about it, go Plath yourself, etc. But. Miranda’s hot shit. Really, I mean. If I were gay. Long legs, long neck, this real beautiful jawline. No acne. She could’ve been on America’s Next Top Model. Everyone thought so.

What I’m trying to say is, I’d forgive her too, for bullying me, if I were Wig. If she just apologized one day out of the blue after we both got into the same college. If she were going to live on the same campus I’d be living on for four years and I was overwhelmed about living in a place like the Twin Cities. Miranda’s ACT was 30, I heard. I even heard she cried about it.

For comparison, I didn’t even take the ACT.

Looking at Wig now, I don’t know what he’s thinking. His slouch. He keeps fidgeting with his phone. The PBR’s tab. He’s even singing. Kind of, under his breath. Yeah, you were right about me… and we’re on the edge of town, now. Past the Cherry Street Grille, past the dentist whose daughter was featured on 16 and Pregnant. Past the empty lot by the evangelical church. The town’s sign: Home of the Tanagers. I’m having a thought. I want to say… I’m thinking. No. I’m thinking just let him be. For now, just let him be. Deal with it all at the beach.

I look down, my phone vibrates, Miranda: Kara and wig hey this isn’t fucking funny ok I no about ur beach thing—I fiddle with the buttons, figure how to get my phone to stop vibrating.

I guess he told her. I wonder how much he used to talk about me. What he said. I think about responding. I think about saying to Miranda: yeah so if you know you should leave us the fuck alone, and I would spell out all my yous because I actually care about language. I guess. I even type it out. Just to try out my keyboard, but then I’m like. No, fuck her. Fuck Miranda.

Sometimes I forget how Wig got into Macalaster after high school. How he spent two whole years at a private college, taking classes like qualitative literature. For real. He and Miranda had been a thing since the summer before they left for college. I knew this from web sleuthing, even though I didn’t talk to either of them, ever. Facebook, LiveJournal, Myspace trifecta. Miranda, rebel: look at my hot boyfriend, into lighting black candles and smoking pot and really into the Used, into Bright Eyes, The White Stripes, Linkin Park, also, hi, he studies philosophy at Macalaster, full ride. Wig, Wig. Ludwig.

But then he didn’t go back this Fall.

He spent more time hanging out at the Pump n’ Stuff gas station.

Buying gum and beer and smokes.

In other words, now he’s a college dropout.

This is weird, maybe, but at first I was mad at him. I wanted to say. Why are you staying here? In town? This town? You can’t be here! I heard what you were given. Smarts, tuition. Do you know what you’ve done, Wig? Do you? But I shudder just thinking about saying those things. I’m not his fucking mom. I get this feeling. Keep getting this feeling. Like he knows. Like knowing has fucked him up. Every day. Who is Wig, I mean, if he isn’t the college type?

Then out back, by the dumpsters. Splitting a joint on break a few weeks ago, he said: “I’m having a thought.” That’s our thing. I’m having a thought. Like it’s beamed down to us by aliens. I’m having a thought. This thought. He went: “Get this. Senior year. Back before I left for college, I did one of my mom’s spells. This love thing. I didn’t really believe in it, Kara. I don’t think I believe in anything, to be honest. But. You know those three wishes fairy tales…when all your wishes go wrong? How payback’s a real bitch, if you’re stupid about what you wished for? And everyone is, you know… Everyone’s always super fucking stupid…” He shook his head.

I just nodded. I didn’t say what I guessed or that he should chill out, you know. There are logical explanations as to why a popular supermodel like Miranda would date a scrawny emo kid like him. For instance. I would’ve said to him: your SAT/ACT scores were through the roof, I would’ve reminded him, and you grew up below the poverty line so you got all those scholarships. Then, there were his entry essays, probably. A+’s. How he did policy debate for the debate team. How they usually choose two kids a year from our town. So the love thing. I mean. They were accepted to the same college. It wasn’t a wish. It was because they were smart.

Maybe, too, his Myspace. He started it up his senior year. Miranda had one, too. He hung out with the local bands. 2k friends. Pictures of altars. Tapestries. He had a good eye. Tarot readings. Maybe I did one of his spells. Maybe two. Maybe a love thing. I didn’t tell him: pretty sure Miranda did, too, Wig. Pretty sure you had all of us doing black magic in our closets summer after senior year. Because no one knew what the fuck they were doing with their lives.

But he dropped it. The Myspace, just last month. The same time he dropped Macalaster.

Then it was all: hi, Kara, what’s up? At the Pump n’ Stuff. More and more often. Until it was September and I realized he never went back with Miranda to the Twin Cities. They were doing a “long distance relationship” before he went back to school in the spring. I can’t believe we all bought that, looking back. But then I remember this one afternoon. Out back. By the dumpster during break. I remember him going: “I don’t know if she really loves me, Kara…”

“Lol,” I’d said. Then he got kind of mad. I guess it was mean. But I said sorry.

So I guess he did believe in the long distance thing. For a little while.

Wig, now. In the car. He mumbles something.

Maybe Wig says, “I like you, Kara.”

But the guy shredding his vocals is too loud. Be my serene… Okay. I can’t tell for sure.

Still, now I’m just drowning in my sweatshirt. It’s hot. Like, temperature hot.

“I like you too,” I brave, sudden, into my half-finished Joose, but already feeling a little woozy, a little more daring. I say: “Hey, um, doing a spell tonight, Wig, in this wind?”

Wig and I have been doing “the beach thing” every week since August. Even when it rains, even when it’s October, like now, and it’s getting colder and we probably should find a better spot. Even when the power’s out. Even when he doesn’t answer my texts for days. It’s like going to church, I guess. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it’s weird, but he told me he used to do this all the time, visit the beach like this, back when he was in high school. He told me he wanted to try to like, get into it again. He has these candles and a lighter and he builds an altar out of driftwood and actually it isn’t that weird. I swear. I always feel super calm afterwards. We just sit in the sand and we listen to everything around us and I try to empty my mind of getting laid, usually unsuccessfully, but I try. Afterwards, the first time he took me out here, we got drunk and went swimming fully clothed. But still nothing happened. He’s so good to her, I’d thought. Miranda. At the time. I’m so good to her, I’d thought, too.

Now the song is all pitched up, and the guitars are tapping, and Wig is checking his phone.

I guess he doesn’t hear me.

I look down. Miranda and her stupid texts. Jesus.

Kara im worried since friday he keeps sending me the same texts

He wont respond

Tell him kara

Tell him to leave me alone if ur with him

I’m not so warm anymore. Reading these texts. They make me freezing cold. Like the wind is rattling right through me and I’m ankle deep in mud. Wading bramble. I delete what I’d written before, about fucking off. I re-write it: why don’t u leave *us* alone miranda, but then I have to try to edit the text because I forgot about how I was going to write out all my yous.

Why were we so nice to Miranda?

Fuck Miranda.

But still. I don’t send my text.

Then it comes out of nowhere.

He throws it.

His phone.

Hard.

Into the windshield.

It spiderwebs.

The windshield. My heart spikes up into my throat. Then he’s finishing off the PBR. Crunches it up. Tosses it at my feet. With all the CDs. My CD. His CDs. The crumpled-up trash of fast food. Bags. Cups. Beer cans. His notebooks with their stupid doodles. He’s shaking. Trying not to cry. I know he’s upset. But I’m shaking. Too. Honest, I’m kind of scared. I want to say: what, the fuck. What, the fuck is your problem, Wig? But I don’t. Because of the way he looks. About to sob. And. Actually. I’ve never seen a boy cry. This is mean. But I don’t want to.

I look back down, into my cold hands. Into the cold light of my phone. The alerts. Going off, one after the other. Blink, blink, blink. There are so many texts, now. From Miranda. There are missed calls. I frown. The time is all wrong. They’re marked from hours ago. My phone says it’s near 3AM. But it can’t be. I read through the messages. Each of them is like a tiny sliver. My mouth draws open, but there are no words that come out. Just a stifle. That wind and panic.

Kara he is missing that’s why Im asking ok

Did u hear he is missing do u know

They can’t find him Kara u should turn on the news

Kara if u guys ran off 2gether please tell his mom ok

Kara he told me about how u r into him

Kara

answer

He keeps texting me I am having a thought

I am having a thought

Wig lights up a smoke. On Friday, on the weird night of what I considered our sort-of-date, I’d finally asked him. About the college dropout thing. I wanted to ask: will you really go back in the spring? Like you said? But I didn’t. While we walked the 24-hour Taco John’s drive-thru. I’d said, instead: “What happened—why did you drop out, Wig? For real, this time. It had to be better than bumming around here.” I acted all casual, after ringing the window door-bell.

He’d said, shrugging: “I couldn’t do it anymore. The homework. The classes. I got sick. Brain sick, I guess. Like I just. Um. I get sad all the time. Sometimes, I mean. I didn’t leave my room or go to my classes. I’d sleep until dinner time. But it’s okay. I’m taking care of it.”

I’d just nodded. But now. I should… I think. I should turn down the music. I should talk to him. About it. All of it. These texts from Miranda. The breakup, too.

I should turn down the music. I should ask: what did you mean, Wig? What did you mean on Friday about getting sad all the time? Why does Miranda think you’re missing? And mean it. But he reaches for the dial. The same time I do, and his hand moves through mine in a shutter of light-play and cold air. He reaches past. To his phone. On the dash. Spider-webbed glass. The singer croons. I am not your friend… I blink. I just saw something? Everything is all wrong.

It’s dark out. Now. Real dark. Not power’s out dark, but far past the traffic lights of town, dark. The stars are rolled out, the storm clouds all blown past. The trees small signposts. And I’m shivering. Bad. Teeth chattering bad. It’s like all the windows are down. The wind clattering straight through us. My heart hammering like I’m running a marathon. I need to say something.

Wig turns onto the gravel road heading towards Burbank beach. High schoolers still come here on weekends to party. To have bonfires. We used to, too. No. By we I really mean, the Mirandas. I went only once. With my friend and her boyfriend. We were seventeen. Ripe for partying. For letting go and doing crazy stuff we’d regret later. But we never did. Then they left. For college. Bye, Kara. I should say something. I should say something but when I open my mouth I just gulp down a gasp of wind.

There’s another car parked in the ditch off the gravel road. There aren’t any stars. The trees are all creaking.

There, we sit.

For a while, in the guitars, in the car.

It smells like Joose. My BO. Like sour PBR. Like old pot smoke. But. Still. I think he might kiss me. I want to kiss him. I want to tell him I was into him, since senior year of high school. Really. He grew into himself that year. He stopped wearing those stupid sock gloves. Because of the new dress code. He got a tattoo. This skull, on his knuckle. He was smart. Too smart. But he doesn’t kiss me. He shuts the car off. Power’s out. If I’m honest. Now that I’m thinking about it. Now that I notice. He hasn’t looked at me all night. He looks fucked up. In a trance. He finishes his smoke as I’m looking down in my sweaty palms at my phone’s cold light.

There’s no service. I stare at Miranda’s last text until it goes dim.

Kara his mom thinks he killed himself

Then we’re out. Of the car. But. Was I standing? This whole time? I feel. Like I’m splitting. Apart. I double-take, notice. The other car. The car that’s parked there, in the ditch. It’s our car. Wig’s car. His shitty ass Cavalier. Green, two-door. The same rust spots. The same license plate. What. The Fuck. There are two of his car. How. How are there two of his car?

“Wig?” I say, finally. I step away. But he’s already climbing. Through the ditch. Back turned to me. Fuck, fuck. I blink. “Wig, seriously, I’m not joking—what’s going on?”

He ducks under the barbed fence. Heading for the path to the beach. I mean, it’s not really a beach. But we call it a beach. It’s a riverbank. The Missouri. But the sand’s thick. There are sandbars. But then there are these dips. These undertows. Places where you can’t touch. Then you can. You have to walk. A ways. Through this grove of trees. Down the slope. By this guy’s pasture. Then you’re there. Driftwood. Beer cans, smashed. Broken glass. Dog collars.

I glance over my shoulder. The car. The one we drove in. It’s gone. There’s a tremor. Through me. This. Absolute. Dread. My heart is. That guy’s vocals. The drop beat. The pour of where you been? Like a douse of river. I am guitar, drum, bass. Ache. Whirlpool. I am running. Running after. Him. Gulping wind. Tripping. Over the scatter of branches. Of leaves. Then when we’re on the beach, round the bend of trees: the sand stings. My face. The trees aren’t creaking. They’re moaning. I’m sort of. Scared. I think. I. I catch up. He’s at the white-capping. River.

“Hey!” I say. I want. Him to. Look at me. But he. Still won’t. “Wig. Please. Look,” I reach for him. “At me…”

He doesn’t hear? Maybe. I stop. My reach. He’s undressing. His favorite button-up. With the flower-pattern. On the pocket. The dark green that matches his hair. Then his jeans. I’m standing there. Saying his name. Saying: “Wig? Wig! Ludwig…!” Maybe. It gets all wet. My voice. It gets all high-pitched, scrambled, whiny like it’s through a scream of wind. He looks at me. But not at me. He looks not good. He looks more than um. He looks more than uh or huh.

He looks like a ghost.

He takes off his jeans. His legs are skinny, dark hair. He leans over. I think he might kiss me. But he doesn’t. He whispers in my ear. But I don’t hear words. I only hear shiver. Like dead skin like dead eyes like dead fingers like dead lips. “What?” I say, “Wig, I can’t hear you!”

He pulls away. He takes off his shoes, socks. Then he holds up his phone. He texts. He waits. I’m. Really. Dizzy. I reach. I look. There.

I am having a thought

He looks at me. He turns. He throws it. His phone. He throws it out, far. Far. Out. The streak of spider glass glow. Then gone.

“Wig—?” My voice breaks. He’s sprinting. Into the water after it. His phone. I blink, watching him. Fuck. He’s running. Into the water. “Wig!” I almost follow. But I stumble. My shoes weigh me stopped. Sopped. Sand stings. My eyes. They water, I blink. Over and over. He’s out in the water. Moon-skin, no pull, like the water isn’t even there. Like he can’t even feel it anymore. Bye, Kara. He’s all light, he’s all mist over the water. Black water. Swimming. He’s.

Then I can’t watch. I can’t watch, I can’t watch this.

My panic cuts me into a sprint. Back, over the bank. The beach. The bend. Up the slope. I’m just. Thinking, still: I have to call. Someone. There’s no service. I need service. Like connecting might make a sandbar. Might make the water glow like summertime. Bring him back.

Like he wasn’t already dead. Like he didn’t already do this. Days ago, maybe Friday night. After. After he held my hand. Because I’m gasping. For. Breath. Fucking. Gasping. There are no words. Just snot. Shaking. Shivers and I look down at my knees. My feet. My shoes. My knees. Bleeding. Legs on fire like I ran through thistle. Ran through ditches. My shoes, muddy. Ankle deep in it. Torn sleeve. Scratches. Knotty burrs tied up in my shoelaces. Prickling. With each. Step.

Like I ran. Like I ran the whole way here. Out of town. Miles. In the dark. In the wind.

Then. His car. His real car. Not the ghost car. Not the dream car. The whatever it was car. The only car. His shitty Cavalier. Bye, Kara. I am reeling at its handle, I’m screaming. In shock. Maybe. In denial. It’s dark. Power’s out. I am opening the door. It’s a mess. Inside. There’s beer cans. Baggies. Lavender. Daydream. Keys in the ignition. No phone. But. I’m leaning, into the passenger’s seat. Hands digging up the floor. His CDs. Some split, shards, scratched. Mine. My CD. Kara’s.

I am shattered. I am pinhole stars.

Anyway, he’d said, right before our quasi-date night, out behind the Pump n’ Stuff. You want to get McDonalds when you’re off, Kara, maybe walk over? I’d smiled, face heating up. Yeah, but no, haha, how about Taco John’s, I’d suggested, there’s this kid over at McDonalds, he spits in all the food. I imagined holding Wig’s hand. It’s a date, he’d said, like it wasn’t a joke, like he actually meant it. Like we agreed, finally, that Miranda didn’t deserve how good we are. Were. Then he’d grinned. He’d even paid, after I asked. About his dropping out. After he said the words brain-sick. Made a joke of paying. Like what is this, a date? We walked through the park. Then I did. Held his hand. We ate our tacos on a bench. I was full of sound.

Now. I will get in his car. I will turn the key. In the ignition. I will collapse. I will come together. I will collapse. I will riot my voice away. But.

For now.

I’m having a thought.

I am having a thought and.

I will have. More thoughts.

Infinite thoughts.

 

 

Emily Lundgren resides in southeast South Dakota with her person and their dog. Her works have previously appeared in Shimmer and Luna Station Quarterly. Emily is a recent graudate of the Northeast Ohio MFA and attended UCSD’s Clarion Workshop in 2017. She is currently working to finish her first novel about necromancers in a post-apocalyptic Nebraska. Find her online at emilylundgren.com
Shimmer 44, published July 2018,  5000 words
Other Eeries:

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein:  January was a shit month. It never snowed. Sun barely came out of hiding. Instead, a death-cold rain dripped endlessly. Mist curled inwards from the fringes of the woods. It covered the town for weeks, as Christmas decorations slowly drifted back into garages and basements. Everything here, just off-road of the Connecticut wine trail, lived for the fall. Once autumn was over, people indulged complacently in the holidays. But then they sank, miserably, into the post-apocalyptic beginning of a new year. Into the rain. This was when the winter wonderland died, dumpsters filled with sodden wrapping paper, and the world turned brown and gray for what felt like an eternity. Theoretically, there was Valentine’s Day to look forward to, but come on.

 

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou: The war is over, we hear. We’ve lost. We look at each other in the dark. What does this mean? We’ve lost so much already. What is it we’ve lost now?

 

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks: He has chapped lips and a grinning red slash at his throat. He topples over the wrought-iron railings of the pier and into the cold northern sea, where the autumn waves are hungry to swallow him up. He dies in the early morning, when the lights of Blackpool are not on. Nobody sees him fall.

 

What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic), by Katherine Kendig

You’ve heard your local skeleton forest is vastly underrated, worth a day trip, a nice place for wedding photos and relaxing hikes. You’re not much of a hiker, and not much for trends, but you’re trying to spend more time outdoors. Your forearms are no tanner than your thighs, which worries you.

There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic.

You take a closer look at the skeletons: a missing tooth, many missing teeth; hairline fracture in the ribs, massive fracture in the skull; those eye sockets, my God, you could fit pool balls in those things (and now you want to); note the restless fidgeting fingers on that one; note the flaring hipbones here, indicating a female—maybe, what do you know, you’re not a skeleton expert—note the ultra-prominent jawline indicating, if not a male, at least an asshole. Ha ha. Every so often you see a hint of graffiti, a single carved initial completed before the carver got spooked. It is spooky, but not overwhelmingly. It feels peaceful, actually, all that stillness.

Except—

Except yes, you back up a little, that one, there—the fidgeter. You’re still not a skeleton expert but you’re pretty sure the dead don’t fidget; you’re pretty damn sure, because if they could move around on their own, there’s no way you’d be here nosing around and staring into their eye sockets.

You look more closely. Keep calm. Maybe it’s the wind? Maybe it’s a bug, crawling around, or—

“Hello,” says the skeleton.

Don’t faint. Don’t faint. Don’t—

The worst thing for Jamie is not wearing her hat. As a skeleton detective, the odds are stacked against her, but the hat always makes her feel more self-assured; the hat and the gloves and the trench coat, although she can’t tie the belt of the trench coat without it becoming obvious that her abdomen consists of nothing but a spine.

By all rights, she should be dead. “Most skeletons,” her doctor told her dryly when her condition reached its peak, “are very, very dead.” But not Jamie: they call it omniossosis, which as she understands it is Latin for let’s pretend science can explain this. Jamie is the twenty-ninth recorded case in history (the fortieth, if she counts references in literature) and the first to be afflicted after adolescence.

Before she was a skeleton, she was a lawyer. Only for six weeks—she had just passed the bar and moved to Chicago when she started losing weight, and she went on voluntary leave when she started losing skin. Now she’s a detective. It’s a job she can do mostly from home, mostly wrapped up (hat, gloves, trench coat); her doctor has a friend on the force who helped her get set up and sometimes passes tips her way. There’s a lot of research involved, which law school prepared her for. There’s a lot of down time, which she spends almost entirely on the internet, pretending to be other than she is and editing Wikipedia articles on anatomy. She thought about suicide at first, but thinking about the ways she couldn’t kill herself horrified her so much she has since decided to live. (She doesn’t question the logic; don’t do it for her.)

In the skeleton forest, she is pretending to be dead. It’s something she’s trying for her latest case. She didn’t realize she was fidgeting, although she sure was bored.

You don’t swoon so much as sit down abruptly. You don’t think that should count as a faint, but it’s a weekday anyway (you have flexible hours) so no one is around to see you.

No one except the skeleton crouching in front of you, that is. He—she?—leans back a little, dips his—her—head as if avoiding your eyes. Now that you look a little closer you see this one is only mostly a skeleton; are those arteries? Sinews?

“Sorry,” she says. She—definitely she—stands and backs away.

“Holy shit,” you say.

Silence. The skeleton raises a hand toward her head, drops it, crosses her arms.

“Who are you?” you ask. Not one of the articles you’ve read about skeleton forests mentioned live skeletons. The state park website you looked up directions on mentioned ticks and carry-out policies and lightning safety, but definitely not live skeletons. Perhaps there are fumes in this forest—degrading bodies. Perhaps you are hallucinating.

“Um,” says the skeleton. Her voice is thin, a little hollow. It sounds strange and inhuman at the moment, but if you heard it on the phone it probably wouldn’t faze you. The skeleton hesitates and then walks away. After a few steps she stops and looks back at you, arms still crossed, shoulders tipped forward. Hunched.

You are still sitting in the slightly damp grass. You think about standing, but your legs assure you they’re not even remotely up for that yet.

“I’m Jamie,” she says. She says it so simply that for a frozen, horrified moment, you feel as if every skeleton around you, big and small, is suddenly going to wake up and start stretching and introducing themselves and complaining about the damp. Silence, while you wait for the sound of scraping bones. Silence, while you wait for cold fingers to grab you from behind.

“Jared,” you say finally, when your heartbeats have proven to be the only sound for long enough. “I’m Jared,” you say again, as if it weren’t clear the first time, and then you say it one more time for safety, to prove you’re in sound mind for the moment, at least: “My name is Jared.”

“Well—” the skeleton says. “Okay. I’m going to get my hat.”

Jamie doesn’t solve murders or track down missing children. She usually works with husbands and wives wondering what their wives and husbands are up to. Sometimes she helps determine if a teen has a secret boyfriend or a drug addiction. Once she helped a man reclaim a stolen cello, and twice she has found birth mothers. She doesn’t make much money or much of a difference in the world, but she doesn’t feel the need to.

Her latest case is more interesting than usual: The target is a man named Paul Sheeri, either dead (murdered) or dead (suicide) or dead (accident) or, possibly, gone off somewhere secretly (Canada? Albany?). Her client is Paul’s friend Angela—not family, not a spouse, just a friend—who, over Skype, had appeared both worried and angry about being worried, not sure if Paul’s disappearance was a tragedy or another example of “his usual selfishness.”

“Are the two of you a couple?” Jamie had asked gently, careful to use the present tense.

Angela had narrowed her eyes, peering at her screen. Jamie Skyped with clients in near-total darkness; she made sure they could see a hint of her hat, a hint of the perfectly ordinary room behind her. She pretended it was a problem with the camera. “We were best friends,” Angela said harshly, as if Jamie had profaned their relationship. Jamie apologized. The room behind Angela was pristine, carelessly chic.

Paul’s family didn’t know where he was, Angela had told her. They didn’t like her. They thought she was overreacting.

Paul had always liked the Montrose Skeleton Forest, Angela had told her. It was the only place he ever went without her besides the grocery store and the laundromat.

After the call Jamie looked at the facts as she saw them. The facts were these: Paul was twenty-eight years old. He lived alone, worked from home, “depended” on Angela for “literally any social activity,” and had been out of contact for almost a month. (Twenty-four days.) Jamie had typed a “W” whenever she thought Angela sounded genuinely worried and a “P” when she sounded practiced; there were an equal number.

Quote: He’s usually totally reliable. He’s always where he’s supposed to be.

Quote: He doesn’t know anybody.

Jamie had typed in a heart and a question mark, whatever Angela might say about their being a couple.

“I’ll call you if I find anything,” Jamie had told Angela, “or on Thursday. Whichever comes first.”

You’ve never had a conversation with a skeleton before. You don’t really know where to look. The fedora helps.

In your backpack you have three Nature Valley bars and a bottle of Gatorade. You’re sitting at a picnic table near a sign that reminds visitors not to leave any trash behind. There is goose shit all over the grass and you noticed that Jamie avoided it just as assiduously as you did on the walk over.

“So you were pretending to be a skeleton when I walked up?” you ask. It’s a poorly phrased question.

“I was pretending to be one of those skeletons.”

There aren’t many questions that won’t come off as rude, but luckily, Jamie is a talker; the words whistle out of her nonstop. Growing up in Benton, law school, Chicago. The way it feels to look at her own bones. Detective work. Knowing that when she does die, there will be almost no difference. She tells you about her latest case, client confidentiality be damned.

“Would you like a granola bar?” you ask automatically as you grab one for yourself.

“No,” she says, and you are impressed at how little contempt is in her voice. You have never felt so awkward before, so uncouth, as if having flesh is a faux pas.

The sound of your crunching is deafening.

This is Jamie’s plan: She totes a plastic trash bag out to the edge of the skeleton forest, stuffs her coat and gloves in it and gently tucks her hat in after, and stows it in some brush. Then she picks a likely spot, stands in it, and…stays. The idea is that if Paul comes she will watch him, look for clues, maybe follow him home. She is vaguely aware that this is not the most efficient plan, but it doesn’t matter; being who she is, how she is, what she is, has to help with something.

It’s not uncomfortable. She doesn’t get muscle aches anymore; her feet don’t hurt. It is, however, extremely dull. Jamie likes to think she has a disciplined mind—she went to law school, after all, and if you can make it through that—but she’s naturally restless, and when she has to think about keeping still, it takes half her mind to do it.

It’s clear to Jamie that love is involved with this case somehow. It’s the way Angela talked about Paul—always trying to rein herself in. Jamie has a decent amount of experience with love, as much as any twenty-nine year old can hope to have. She’s had boyfriends, one-night stands, unrequited crushes and unwanted admirers; she’s never been (and never will be) married, but—she reasons—most of her law school friends aren’t married either, according to Facebook. She’s still current in the field, so to speak, for a little while longer. Angela and Paul certainly aren’t married.

When she thinks of Paul, her mind goes where it always goes now with men, any man, to a fantasy of meeting him and him falling in love with her. In this case he is blind and falls in love with her voice, but his love is doomed, because she won’t ever let him touch her. Not ever. At first it’s nice to have company but then it gets old, his constant desire for more, and she pictures herself having to break it off with him, his devastation, his desolation. She can’t help these imaginings; it’s not arrogance, especially not now, when she knows exactly where things stand with herself. It’s just morbid, really, like the way she sets up fake dating profiles when she’s bored; the way she sends a real picture of herself when men ask, and then passes it off as a tasteless joke. Morbid like how she brushed her leg intentionally against the leg of a tall skeleton as she walked in this morning, pretended the scrape of bone was electric, ran a finger down a forearm and clicked their teeth together. It’s amazing how different a kiss is, without softness.

This isn’t helping. She has to think about the case.

Paul’s disappearance, according to Angela, is oddly unexciting; he’s not even behind on work yet because his projects are long term. No blood, no guts, no trauma— Jamie is reminded, in fact, of herself. But it’s Angela Jamie keeps getting stuck on—it’s the fact that Angela contacted her, and not a girlfriend or a sibling or a parent.

All day people mill about Jamie, looking at the skeletons, taking pictures, their behavior halfway between zoo-goers and museum tourists. Their voices hush at random and then cycle back up to outdoor levels; they reach out to touch cold and sun-warmed bone with just the tip of one finger, the way children touch snakes after animal trainers insist they’re not slimy. They carry backpacks full of sandwiches and trail mix and bottled iced tea and take pictures quickly. The smallest skeletons get photographed the most—them, and the famous conjoined twins, a special attraction of the Montrose forest. A few pictures have Jamie in them, and it amuses her that they’ll never know the difference.

It’s not easy to get here: The closest parking lot is two miles away, where the regular forest hits the river. It takes a while, so most people make an afternoon of it, picnicking, speculating about who this or that skeleton might have been, reading all the informational signs around the perimeter. If Jamie listens for it she can hear the bitten-off shrieks when first-time visitors catch their first glimpse of a skull.

At sunset, when the forest closes to visitors, Jamie has seen no sign of Paul. She gives up. She goes home. She comes back the next day and fidgets.

You look at the pictures Jamie shows you: one of Paul and Angela, maybe mid-twenties, summer, relaxed, at a cookout; one of Paul in a cubicle, turning back toward the photographer half-smiling; one group picture Paul was clearly not happy to be a part of, his left arm visibly hovering an inch above the shoulder of the girl next to him rather than casually slung across it. Angela is at the other end of the group, wearing bright yellow leggings and red lipstick. She looks, quite frankly, more than a little drunk.

“No,” you admit. “They don’t look familiar. I mean, I don’t get out a lot, so that doesn’t mean anything. But I don’t recognize either one of them.”

“That’s okay,” Jamie tells you, but you still feel bad; you want to add something. Suddenly it occurs to you that maybe you can.

“Are these the only pictures she sent you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well—I’m sure you noticed—I mean probably you noticed—but these all seem like—you know, public pictures. Not personal.”

Jamie looks at her phone. “Wow,” she says. “You’re right.”

Jamie sometimes wonders if her body fell apart because it had nothing to hold on to. She was done with law school; her new job was uninspiring; her friends had scattered across America’s major cities and disappeared into high-rise offices. Her mind knows that she was a fairly accomplished young woman, knows that if people became skeletons because they were unfulfilled it would be a much more widespread phenomenon. But she can’t shake the feeling. It was only six months after Greg had gotten engaged to someone else, and she’d finally had to let that go; her colleagues were still intimidating strangers; her parents were retired and perpetually cruising. Jamie had felt unmoored in a way she never had before.

She’s drifting into self-pity again, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to; maybe it’s the sheer fact of talking to another human, face to face, outside in the sunshine. She doesn’t want to solve this case; she wants to eat a damn granola bar.

But she can’t, of course, she can’t, so she looks at Jared where he sits across from her, looking at her, not quite the way one looks at a normal person but not categorically unlike either. She is a little embarrassed she didn’t think about the nature of the photos; she was so used to thinking about who Paul and Angela were that she ignored where they were.

And that changes everything, doesn’t it? Now she can see that Angela and Paul only happen to be in the cookout picture together; they are not posing as friends, but as consecutive patrons of the grill. It looks like an older picture, but still—hadn’t Angela said they’d been friends for years? Jamie had been so excited about the skeleton forest, about putting herself to use as more than fingers on a keyboard, hiding under a hat.

“Will you do me a favor?” Jamie asks Jared.

He looks wary and eager all at once. She feels a surge of affection for this skinny stranger who doesn’t hate her, doesn’t fear her. At least doesn’t fear her enough to run away. (For a moment she pictures him leaning in— “Anything,” he whispers, and takes her hand—but—no. She shudders at the thought of being touched, of her rough bony fingers under his pulsing ones, at the way the shrunken tendons that hug her bones would feel. She is disgusted on his behalf. She pushes all thoughts aside, all thoughts, every thought.)

“What kind of favor?” Jared asks.

You picture reconnaissance, or breaking in to someone’s apartment to steal a file. You want to do these things, and kick ass at them, and at the same time know that if either of these is the favor Jamie needs, the answer is no. You aren’t actually a detective or a spy. You can barely make it gracefully through your own front door; you would not make a good cat burglar.

“Will you be Paul? Just on the phone. Just for a minute. I just need an address.”

She sounds nervous. It makes you feel kind of cool, and you almost grin at her rakishly, but then she tilts her head up so that the hat doesn’t shadow her face and any desire to flirt dies instantly. Her skull is not quite—not only—a skull; but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong. You cough to hide a flash of disgust, and nod at her.

“Sure.”

(She’s used to this. She’s used to this. There’s no reason for this wave of self-pity; it’s crashed before, flooded her before, the water damage is still visible. Waves like this ought to flow right through her now.)

“His um, his credit card company—I have the number and the last four digits of his social. You just call and confirm that his new address is entered correctly. Okay?” She stares at the table. There are tiny twigs in all the gaps between the planks. She doesn’t look at Jared. There is nothing in her gaps.

“Okay. Why would it be entered incorrectly?”

She wants to scoff at that, doesn’t. “It wouldn’t. I just want to know if he’s moved.”

“Oh,” Jared says. “Right.”

He is clearly nervous making the call, but it comes off as distracted; either that or the employee he’s talking to doesn’t have the energy to flag suspicious behavior. Jamie writes down the address. She stands up.

“I’m going to go see him,” she says, as if this is something she normally does. She never sees anyone; when contact is needed she hires people through Craigslist.

“Good luck,” Jared says, standing also. “I should head out, too.”

Jamie realizes that if they leave at the same time they will have to walk the two miles to the parking lot together, but she’s had enough interaction for the day. She doesn’t want him to watch her walk. She doesn’t want to follow him. She doesn’t want to keep thinking about who she isn’t.

“Oh,” she says. “Actually, I’ve got to look something up first. It was nice meeting you.” She doesn’t hold out a hand to shake, obviously, but the gesture feels distinctly missing.

“You too,” Jared says, and sounds sincere. “I hope you figure it out.”

He walks away. Jamie sits down and plays with her phone, giving him a head start. He never gave his last name, but she looks it up based on his college t-shirt. He’s on Facebook and two online dating sites, although his profile looks dusty and half-hearted. She doesn’t friend him or anything. After fifteen minutes, she leaves.

The farther you get down the trail towards your car, the deeper your sense of vertigo – after a while your steps slow to a crawl, unsure of the ground they’re walking on. Was this morning real? Did all this happen? You start with the wild explanations: You were in a car crash this morning, and this is a coma dream; Jamie is a hologram; your life is The Truman Show. You have the vague impression that you can walk through solid objects now.

Eventually you reach your car, and climb in it, and turn the ignition. You make it about a quarter mile before you realize you’re literally not seeing the road in front of you. You might as well just pull over.

After ten minutes of trying to suppress the new twitching in your left eye, a car passes you—a little maroon Taurus—and all you see is a hat. You’re following its left turn before you’ve even realized you’re back on the road.

Jamie knocks on the door and feels, mentally, that she is about to throw up. She has put on her gloves and buckled her trench coat; her hat is pulled low. The door opens.

“Jamie Pierce,” she says, professional, holding out a business card she ordered on Vistaprint. “Private Detective.”

The hallway is windowless and fairly dark; it takes Jamie a moment to realize that a woman has answered the door. “What can I do for you?” the woman asks, polite, wary. The chain is still fastened.

Jamie takes a tiny, necessary step back away from the light of the apartment. “Paul,” she manages. “Is Paul here?”

The woman looks at her, or tries to; Jamie tips her head low and stares at the ground.

“Is there a problem?” the woman asks. “Who sent you?”

Jamie feels as if her bones are finally collapsing the way they always should have. She tips her head even lower, unnaturally low, petrified that she will be seen; oh, it was different in the skeleton forest—she was normal there, almost, she had numbers on her side; Jared was the oddity there, Jared was the freak. Jamie knows the woman will scream when she glimpses Jamie, will threaten to call the police; Jamie cannot bear the anticipation of the slamming door. Her back hits the wall of the hallway and she presses against it.

“Everything okay, sweetheart?” she hears from inside, a man’s voice.

The woman half-turns, hands over the card.

“I’ll take care of this. Just give me a minute.” The sound of a kiss, the sliding of the chain, and then Paul is in the hallway with her, shutting the door behind him.

“What do you want?” Paul asks.

“What are you doing here?” Jamie counters, shooting the words out like she’s been choking on them.

Paul ignores the question. “Listen, you have about ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the cops.” He takes out his cell phone to ground the threat.

“Angela,” Jamie whispers. She has to pull herself together; for Christ’s sake, she has to pull herself together. She stands up a little straighter, tilts her head up a fraction.

“I was hired to find you,” she says, more normally. She can do this. She’s found him; he’s clearly alive; she can leave at any time. If things get dicey. She wants answers but not that bad, not bad enough to have her mug shot in the newspaper.

Paul runs a hand through his hair. “By Angela. Jesus.” He looks like he wants to punch the wall, but doesn’t; he takes a deep breath instead.

“She thinks you’re missing or dead.” Jamie thinks she is starting to understand: Paul is missing only to Angela. He’s dead only to Angela. “I’m starting to get the sense,” Jamie says, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart, “that you don’t want to be found.”

Paul shakes his head. “Not by her. Listen, I don’t know what she told you—but we’re not anything. We haven’t been friends in a long time.”

Jamie phrases it carefully. “She seems to worry about you.”

“She doesn’t fucking worry about anybody but herself. She’s… Jesus. She’s like a tick that won’t let go.”

Paul suddenly drops to a crouch, and Jamie is thankful she’s wearing galoshes. He buries his face in his hands, hums a sound of frustration. After a moment he stands again.

“I’m trying to make a clean break,” he tells Jamie. “I don’t care what you say to her. I don’t care what you tell her. But please, please don’t give her this address.” He flicks the business card at her and goes back inside. The chain and the deadbolt click a moment later.

You’re waiting in the parking lot, trying to look normal. You’re trying so hard to look normal that you almost miss her coming out; but then it’s back to tailing her, left, right, left, right. She pulls into a strip mall.

You’ve barely parked when she’s at your door, holding a closed umbrella like a weapon.

“Jared? What the hell? Why are you following me?”

Good question. You hadn’t really thought about it; you’d been running on instinct, on the preservation of your sanity by proving your insanity was real. And it is, isn’t it? You have to acknowledge, now, that Jamie is real, and your conversation with her was real, and she is really a detective working on a case. And with that you realize you actually care.

“I just… wanted to know how things turned out,” you say. “With Paul and Angela.”

She hesitates for a few seconds. The umbrella lowers slightly.

“Well,” she says. “I just talked to him.”

“And?”

“Well, his girlfriend opened the door, first of all.”

“Really? Did she—” You pause. You are sitting in your car with the window rolled down; Jamie is standing outside of it with a pointy umbrella. Your stomach rumbles.

“Hey,” you say. “Actually, do you mind if I grab some lunch and we talk about this somewhere else? Maybe at East Park?”

“…Sure,” Jamie says, as if she is agreeing to be shot. “Sure,” she says again, a little more enthusiastically.

“Okay. Let me just run in. Do you—want anything?”

Jamie rests the tip of the umbrella on the ground. She looks like the coolest supervillain you ever saw.

“I guess I’ll take a Vitamin Water,” she says.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Okay,” you say. “I’ll be right back.”

They’re seated at another picnic table, this one covered in obscene permanent-marker conversations. “You’ll have to help me figure out what to say to Angela,” Jamie says.

“First tell me what happened!”

“I know. I’m just saying, keep that in mind.”

“Got it. Does Paul have a secret love child? Is that it?” Jared leans forward, two hands on his sandwich, eyes on her.

Jamie can’t smile. Smiling doesn’t happen in the bones.

But all the same.

Katherine Kendig lives in Champaign, Illinois, with her husband, her novel-in-progress, and an insatiable desire for brownies. Her work has received awards from Dartmouth College and the University of Illinois and has been featured in The Cincinnati Review and on PodCastle.

 

4700 words, published May 2018, Shimmer 43

Dead and That’s Okay

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose” by Eden Robins

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira

Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade

He’d thought the green would keep him from dreaming of the memory of arid sterility, the red and waterless horizon.

It didn’t.

His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable.

An astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars! All the psychological tests he’d undergone had been for other things: socialization, conflict resolution in close quarters, the ability to cope with long-term and claustrophobic isolation. Alan had passed them all and felt himself stable enough, had never wavered either in ambition or explorer’s faith.

They’d never thought, none of them, that what brought him down would be a different sort of lack.

Earthsickness, they called it. He was the worst affected of the three, but neither Paola nor Sarya had escaped it. It was nothing any of the psychologists had predicted—but how could they? There was no possible substitute for experience, and no terrestrial creature had ever been so cut off from a living environment before.

Alan was offered support, but didn’t take it. “What I need is already here,” he said, returned to the environment all his ancestors had adapted for. “I’ve just got to convince myself that I’ve come back to it.”

The rātā, especially, had proved an anchor, its bright flowers—the red of new blood, not old iron—were in one delicate and extraordinary shape the symbol of a living planet. Beneath it, he felt his nature reasserted, felt again the relation to other living things that defined a terrestrial creature, tried to forget that small unconscious part of himself found uneasy and set to screaming in barren plains.

The summer nights were still a trial, although better than their winter counterparts, with the lingering warmth, the noise of the mosquitoes and moreporks a reminder that seeped into his dreams, woke him gasping from the memory of Mars, and grasping for connection. More and more often, he found himself barefoot, taking the dark path down to the rātā, wanting to feel the Earth beneath his feet, to hear the small sounds of night, the feel of the flowers on his palm.

“I wish I could see you,” he said, but artificial light made the rātā blooms look washed out, a nightmarish cast to color that made him think he was dreaming still, and liable to wake from a horror of solitude.

It was easier to fit himself against root systems, to fold up in fetal position at the foot and wait until morning. Bare skin pressed against bark was less of a contention than that altered color, and he laid his head against branches, imagined he was hearing the pulse of sap in time with his own heartbeat because with his eyes open he saw the stars and remembered, and with them shut he couldn’t see even the shadow of trees, and was in need of substitute.

Easier still, when he remembered that the dirt he crouched on was also living, in its way, and filled with organisms: bacteria, beetles, the small decomposers and recyclers of organic matter. Alan smeared himself with them, scrabbling, rolled his naked body until his nails were clogged with dirt and his body caked with it: a sedimentary creature, a biological scaffold for the microscopic. Earth to cure Earthsickness, he thought, and even the small scent of iron from torn fingertips didn’t take him back to red plains and loss, but reminded him of blood cells and life.

“For me it is swimming,” said Paola, “in the night, where I can see the phosphorescence of the plankton.” See how it coated her skin, see how it lit the warm Caribbean waters of her home as she wallowed there.

For Sarya, it was the steep stone cliffs behind her parents’ house. “When I lick them I taste lichen,” she said, shrugging. “I know it is a strange way to behave.” She offered no excuse. It was enough that the three of them could share in understanding. That they could use what helped without comment, if not entirely without judgement.

They were the only ones who had been to Mars, the only ones to share the experience of Earthsickness. “No one else can understand.”

The trip to the Red Planet had been long, six months of growing fretfulness, close-caged in metal. Anticipation made it bearable, that and the tethering of the daily routine, but the closer the ship came to Mars, the more his anticipation soured within him. Alan had thought it was nerves, the strained culmination of childhood hopes, for how could the moment of contact live up to the weight of dreams? Was it possible there’d be an iron streak of disappointment to color the experience? It was the peak of his life’s effort, that voyage, and he couldn’t conceive that anything after would ever hold the same fascination for him, or the same purpose. He’d wondered, silently, what would happen to him when Mars was behind him, what shape the lack would take, but he hadn’t wondered long. The tests the three of them had undergone were of a type to weed out the melancholy, the personalities prone to brooding and quiet undermining, and he’d assumed his qualms were normal ones, and shallow-rooted.

It was only when he stood upon the cold, dead planet—he was not the first to do so, but got his chance nonetheless—that he felt himself gorged on the horror of it. A quiet, still dread that lingered even amidst the exultation of the explorer. He could see the same repulsion in Sarya’s eyes, could see Paola hug herself for comfort as his padded arms wrapped around his own body. They felt the awe as he did, the vast expanse of dry and cold opening up before them, and the sheer towering emptiness of the place was something to shrink from, not to fill up.

Afterwards, on Earth, they talked to each other sometimes over video link. They were the only times when Alan didn’t try to hide his hands in front of other people, the ends of all his fingers raw and bloody. “Have you been biting them?” said Sarya, and Alan shook his head.

“I’ve been digging,” he said. Tools didn’t give the same satisfaction at night, at the base of the rātā. Tools were a layer between skin and soil that he couldn’t tolerate. The earth was the only thing could calm him, until the sun came up and the rātā flowers anchored him back to planet. He rolled in it, gouged up soil in chunks and scrubbed himself with it, with the damp living smell of it, the pieces of snail shell and bird shit and annelid, the knowledge of bacteria.

Supplicant, his hands were soft. He bled as he worked, but the earth was soft with summer and humus and his blood didn’t pool on its surface when his scrabbling broke skin. It soaked into soil—and into the roots of the rātā as well, he liked to think, a connection between them built of more than need and gratitude and common home. In the days that followed, Alan thought that the tree’s blossoms grew brighter, as if in response to his nightly sacrifice. The thought made him happy. Surely only one who belonged could have such an effect?

“I always feel like I belong, when I’m in the sea,” said Paola. “There’s salt running through the both of us. Through everything that swims in it.” Through everything that came from it, a reminder of evolution and heritage. “I take the sea in my mouth sometimes,” she said. “It doesn’t do to swallow too much, but there are times I can’t help myself.” The bad times, the ones of nightmare-waking and the remembered bite of Earthsickness.

“The bad times,” said Alan. “I know.” His bad times had begun to come with slicing instead of gouging, quick cuts across his fingers, across his palms, that let loose more blood than he could offer up by digging. He watched his blood disappear beneath the rātā, absorbing easily into earth. He rubbed the moist dirt into his cuts, revelling in the symbiosis between them; rolled in it and felt the rolling again as a relief. He could taste his kinship in the blood-soaked earth whenever it touched his tongue. Iron and earth, they were relatives.

It was on Mars that Alan had begun to feel homesick. Not the mild nostalgia he’d experienced in lesser travels, but a shuttered, wrenching longing that closed his throat and took his hands to shaking in misery and loss. Its depth was primeval, the severing of a second umbilicus.

It was a wretched trip, one where everything had been blasted but for yearning, with long hours spent in strained silence. None of them responded well to the queries transmitted from Earth. Those seemed to possess an unhealthy tinge, shrill and feverish, incapable of sensibility and excited, still, about what they’d seen. About where they’d been—as if Mars should have been a wonder to them yet, not a monster of sterility and no place for life. And he’d known, had always known it was that way, but until he’d stood on that hideous and barren surface he’d never really understood.

Mars was rejection all through. It didn’t want them, didn’t want any of them. I think it hates the living, he thought, but he didn’t say it aloud because that was insane, wasn’t it. A planet didn’t hate anything. It couldn’t help being hostile to warmth and life, it was sun-distance and thin atmosphere that kept it from an ecology of its own. Insane, but he thought of the polar regions of Earth, the dark crush of deep seas, and there was life there instead of emptiness.

A living planet, a dead one. Alan never thought the difference so disturbing it could unnerve him—not until he stood upon the dead, and stood reminded that he was not.

He came home to winter, and it felt like a thaw. He shivered through it alone in the family bach, away from anxious colleagues and prying reporters.

Still he did not feel as if he had truly returned. The Earth, ambivalent to his distress, rejected him in turn. He felt a stranger to it. The stars, which had once mesmerized him beyond all bearing, leered down upon him. Alan felt he had torn himself on them, had not returned whole. They gleamed in the frosted night, disembowelled him. He was snagged and separated: aware that as he had once cast it off, so now in some strange way his home planet had done the same to him. He imagined it rejected his touch, his traitorous touch that had yearned once for the perfection of sterility and, tainted, had brought that sterility back to a planet where sterility was anathema.

Night after night he woke, screaming at the red remembrance of void. Night after night he fled outdoors to try to reconnect with living earth. The dirt was hard and chill beneath his scrabbling fingers; he broke his nails in it. All winter it rejected him, but in spring the world seemed to shake itself, to cast off torpor and resentment. As spring mellowed into summer, and the pohutukawa and the rātā spilled color upon the coast with their bright red blossoms, Alan was comforted.

The days became easier to bear. He spent most of his days in the small hollow beneath the rātā, soaking in the dry scent of the bark, the sound of birds and insects, wrapped himself in biosphere to make up for the time when he’d gone without. It was warm and sunny there and he could feel the Martian chill seep from him—felt as if he could, perhaps, be forgiven his preference, the old dream of distance that had led him to forsake one planet, no matter how temporarily, for the cold embrace of another. But the relief was only temporary, and did not outlive the sun. Always he dreamed of the moment when, secure in the pride of his own disconnection, his padded foot had borne down upon a dead planet. It had crunched, a flat, mummified sensation that Alan could not forget, an imprint in a soil lacking the deep pulse of the Earth. Born to a living planet, how could he process such a land of lack? Even the lunar astronauts had been able to look up from absence and see the blue-green swell above them. Mars had no such comfort. By the nature of his birth Alan was wholly unsuited; and that nature, meeting vacuum, broke him down and abandoned him.

“Your hands are worse,” said Sarya, lichen-mouthed, her tongue scraped raw against the Himalayan mountainsides. “Perhaps you should talk to someone.”

“It’s enough to talk to you.” Privately, he wondered if even that was too much.

The rātā, at least, never talked back. All its communication was done in drink and color, for it bloomed longer and brighter throughout the summer than any other on the coast. “Is it because of me?” said Alan. “Are you so alive because of me?” The earth beneath drank from Alan, and the rātā from the earth, so that was a connection between them, wasn’t it? Something to draw together, living things together on a living planet and it didn’t matter that they were so different, because the difference in living things paled against the difference between the living and Mars, and he could only block out the dead and sterile red of that hideous landscape by the reds of blood and bloom, each of them alive in their own ways, and related.

The rātā knew nothing of Earthsickness and questions, and as the season began to turn, the tree seeded. Alan collected some of the small, wind-blown seeds, plucked them from the earth with fingers that were of a scarcely different color. He set the seeds to germinate in soil-filled trays, kept them wet with water and blood.

“I need something to look after,” Alan explained to the rātā. Its flowers had faded, and he found it hard to open his palms for blood when there were no flowers to reflect the color. “I’ll not let your seeds die.” They were the same now, he and the rātā, and though he kept his nest at its root—the hollow shaped perfectly to him now, and the earth all tinged with red—he spent more time with the seedlings than the parent plant.

“It’s what living things do,” he said, trying not to think of a world where nothing living had done anything, ever. “They reproduce.”

Yet come as they were from a tree that had a passing familiarity with his veins, still only one seedling survived into winter. It grew at a prodigious, unnatural rate. Metrosideros robusta, the strong.

When it reached 50 centimeters, the seedling was old enough to transplant. Alan could have planted it in any number of places, but rātā could be epiphytic and he’d spent so much of himself in nurturing it that he couldn’t bear the parting that planting would bring. It was pure selfishness on his part. The chill of winter gave him unpleasant memories of empty plains and dry rock, and he was leery of losing the connection.

He wasn’t the only one so afraid, the only one looking for affirmation.

“It’s Paola. They found her floating in Havana harbor.” Sarya leaned forward, her face taking up the whole of the screen. “Alan, they said she drowned herself. They said when they found the body… they said she was smiling.” Her lungs full of sea water, of diatoms and phytoplankton, her fingers bitten away by little fish.

Earthsickness never truly went away. Mars was gone but the choice to go there remained, the deliberate abandonment of biosphere for a planet that held none, and that Alan was ever so foolish as to make that choice was more haunting than absence.

He kept the seedling entwined about him, the weight of it borne in a loose-draining basket hung about his neck, resting on his ribcage. Even without the summer flowers its presence, nestling into the hollow of his throat, gave him comfort. He imagined he could feel it pulse in time to his heartbeat, and every day his bleeding hands stroked the stem, added to the basket-soil. “You’ll be so beautiful when you grow,” he said, picturing the flowers: glorious and delicate and bright, anchor and symbol of a living planet he wished he’d never left.

The daughter plant grew faster than it should have. Every day a new tendril curled about him, every day it grew heavier to bear.

“You’re growing strong for me, aren’t you?” he said.

“It’s growing strong on you, you mean,” said Sarya. Alan caught glimpses of her tongue as she spoke, and it was less red than before, less vivid.

“You worry about your lichen and let me look after my own,” he said.

“I don’t want you drowning too—” but drowning was a water death, and if it had been a welcome one for Paola he’d never have risked it on his own account, for the rātā seedling would have drowned with him and that was something that, after Mars and Earthsickness, he would never be able to tolerate. On his blood and scaffold the rātā grew thick and glossy, insulating him from the bite of winter, the small cold a small reminder of a greater one.

The old rātā stood on the coast, and the path to it was rocky and uneven. With the weight of the young upon him, Alan couldn’t walk it easily but he liked to do so often, to take the epiphyte to the hollow beneath where he’d huddled in Earthsickness and had found/seen a way forward in flowers and flowing blood. The hollow was a place of communion for him, and the rātā a symbol of the bond between flesh and ecosystem. It took him longer to walk there every day—hands pink with new lines and slow seep, the ever-increasing weight of epiphyte—but with care and rest along the way he could manage.

It was sheer chance and compromised vision—the leaves about his head, the winding roots—that caused him to trip over a hanging tendril on the last steps. A quick fall, a sickening crack: His head opened on a half-buried rock at the edge of hollow, his thighbone, weakened from so long at little gravity, protruding from one of his legs and the color of rātā flowers spreading around.

In the bright, bristling flare of pain Alan forgot, for the first time, the horror that Mars had made for him. Shock, he thought, and stunned, but it set all his senses open, magnified them, and he felt himself alive there, and in the midst of life. The sound of the wind in the leaves, the vivid red of blood, the smell of warm iron and humus… The rock beneath his head was sharp, and cut his groping fingers in red-flowering stripes. He could even see it from the corner of one eye—lichen growing on the top, lacy circles of pale green that were almost white where the sunlight hit them. The bottom of the rock, where he’d knocked it from the ground, was crusted with living dirt, dark and rich. Beneath it, several insects crawled deeper into the disturbed earth.

He was certain that he’d never seen the world so clearly. His world, and he was aware, splintered open as he was, of nothing but his capacity for belonging. Pain, yes, a shrieking agony of it, but he was a creature of the Earth still, lying in that earth as a billion other life forms had lain there before him. The knowledge soothed him, made the pain of his shattered leg easier to bear. He bit down on epiphyte, bore down on it as he dragged himself so that his back was against trunk and kept his teeth in until the worst of the dizziness passed and he could breathe clearly again.

No one knew he was there. He’d seen them all off—the journalists, the psychologists, everyone from the space agency who thought they knew Earthsickness and couldn’t understand because they’d never left Earth, never gone beyond its orbit and outside its influence. Even Sarya had stopped calling; at least, he’d stopped taking her calls.

“Alan,” she said, over and over, messages left for him over voicemail. “Do you think Paola was the lucky one?”

There’d been talk of cremation, of sending her ashes up in a shuttle to spread across space. But it was talk that was over quickly, because her will had specified they be scattered at sea. “There’s nothing that can take me away now,” she’d written, burial wishes sealed and witnessed. “I don’t ever want to go back.”

He couldn’t crawl to the house, not with his leg.

It was a relief to know there was nothing he could do. Not drowning, not for him, but enough. He’d found his own way.

The rātā epiphyte was bound around him still. He unwound it as best he could to keep from crushing it, his back against the parent and the little rātā in his lap, the roots resting in the bloody puddle, and he couldn’t see the bone for foliage.

Blood loss, dehydration, shock. It was easy to imagine the rātā easing one of its tendrils into his wound, sucking at him, drawing his blood up into itself. Twigs lengthening on it. New leaves sprouting. More branches beginning to feed from him, forcing themselves into his body, the body of the host. It was easy to imagine the flowers bursting open from epiphyte, flowers the color of his blood and born from him, and he didn’t try to stop the imagining. He didn’t want to.

“Home,” he said, at last. “I’m home.”

fin

 

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella – not about science at all! – is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

 

The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray

You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.

You can smell the rot, sour-sweet like flowers left too long in vases and chemical-sharp like gasoline. It reminds you of that abandoned gas station you and Jack first fucked in, the one with the chains looped over the doors and the gaping, fractured windows. The one with a musty stock room and flattened cardboard boxes that greased your shirt with motor oil. You still have that shirt, unwashed and stained, in a shoebox under your bed.

You know that smell.

It takes you ten minutes to wrestle the Angel out of the cold sand. It’s heavier than you anticipated. Maybe it’s the soggy wings. Maybe it’s the waterlogged tubing buried beneath its skin. In any case, the weight resigns you to dragging, and you shuffle backward past galleries of picnic tables stacked and upended for the off-season, the Angel’s feet snaking through the late autumn scrub.

Its legs kick out at inconvenient angles as you wedge it into the trunk of your Dodge, but eventually the Angel fits, its face slumped against the wheel well, lips shucked away from pale and unnervingly even teeth. You almost expect it to speak. To sing.

Of course, it’s silent. It’s dead. But you still roll down the window and strain to hear it over the road noise and shush-shush of Lake Erie waves.

You never told Jack, but when you were a little boy, you thought Lake Erie was an ocean, a long blue-black tongue lapping its way into Canada. You were convinced there were sharks in that water. Whales. Jellyfish. Sunken pirate ships. Lost cities. Mermaids. Squid the size of buses. Sea monsters the length of football fields. Underwater kingdoms five fathoms deep.

In second grade you learned real oceans didn’t stink like melted rubber and rotting fish. Oceans weren’t peppered with warning signs about toxic algae and unsafe levels of bacteria. They didn’t have that conspicuous line of land squatting on the horizon if you squinted your eyes just so.

Lake Erie was just a lake.

That summer, when July settled its fat green heat over Cleveland, you watched the freshwater waves suck at your toes and imagined the lake devouring you. Jack was on vacation with his dad in Saint Martin. Your mom had abandoned you for the afternoon (this time for a lifeguard named Todd), and it wasn’t as if she could afford an Angel to watch over you. You were all alone. Nothing could stop Lake Erie from swallowing you if it really wanted to.

It would lick the meat from your legs, slurp your bones away, and you’d march home on the stumps of your thighs, a victim of an imitation sea. Later, you’d find the remains your dismembered shins, next to the ‘sea’ shells and ‘sea’ glass, picked clean by ‘sea’ gulls. You’d sell your toes to tourists and hawk tickets to the spot where the tragedy occurred. You’d use the money to fly to Saint Martin and spend the rest of the summer with Jack.

As smaller, richer kids tottered past you, carrying half-melted popsicles and buckets of pebbles, Angels floating dutifully behind them, you closed your eyes. Under the water, your legs grew cold. Weightless. Numb. When Mom finally reappeared and called for you, you cracked open one eye and carefully, carefully, you looked down.

Your legs were still there.

You shuffled, sunburned and silent, back to the car and wondered how you would tell Jack about it when he finally returned. You tried to pull comfort from the fact that the rocky sand left toothy dimples in your thighs. You rubbed at them the whole ride home as if you could press them into your bones as evidence.

You remember the day Jack told you about selling dead Angels. You were fifteen and huddled under his back porch, pot smoke in your hair and eyes, the afternoon light spilling golden through the tight, even slats. You remember how he plucked the joint from your fingers, his lips plump and flushed around it. His Angel hadn’t found you yet. You managed to ditch it for thirty minutes. It was a record.

“There are these scrap dealers that buy dead Angels for parts,” Jack said. “And these upcycle sites that make clocks out of their guts. Tables out of their faces. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. All that shit. You remember my cousin in Utah?” You nodded and nestled your head against Jack’s shoulder. He fed you a drag. “He collects them. He’s got this walk-in freezer with rows of them tacked behind glass like fucking butterflies. He wants to buy mine off my mom when it dies.”

Jack wrapped one arm around your shoulders then, the other around your waist, like he was clinging to a buoy, like he was afraid he’d drown in porch dust and flaking paint. His eyes darted toward the crooked opening beneath the steps. Every passing car could be his Angel’s wings. Every flying bird, his Angel’s shadow. His parents had put him on house arrest the last time he’d ditched it and then they had taken him to a doctor because they thought he was ‘exhibiting alarming behavior patterns.’ Jack had just wanted twenty minutes alone with you.

“I don’t want them making money off any of it,” Jack whispered.

“So what do you want to do with your Angel, then?” you asked.

Jack tightened his arms. “Burn it,” he said.

On the drive home, you think about how you want to tell Jack that there’s a market for that too now. There’s the Angel Memorial Crematorium on Sixth Street. And there are megachurches that will pay to burn them on their live streams. You’ve seen the popup ads, the preachers with oily hair and slick designer suits shouting about sacrilege while heaps of feathers and flesh stamped with “Heaven’s Helpers INC” smoke in the background. Cash for unwanted Angels! Save the children! Save your soul! Subscribe subscribe subscribe!

You could use the money, but you won’t sell the Angel you found in the lake. As you pull your Dodge into the long, uneven driveway of your apartment, you already know what you’re going to do with it.

You heft the Angel out of the trunk and into your arms. You aren’t going to scrap it. You drag the Angel through the back door. You aren’t going to sell it. You lay the Angel on the kitchen floor in the nook where a refrigerator once lived and you watch sunlight spill onto the ruined cherubic face.

You’re going to resurrect it.

Angels were still toys when Jack moved to town. You were only seven, but you remember the commercials, the jingle, the bright white boxes plastered with cartoon halos and broad, smiling faces. They had feather wings. Or fairy wings or bat wings or airplane wings that dusted glitter onto sidewalks and kitchen tables. They were customizable. Some of them had fiberoptic hair or bellies that doubled as nightlights. They sang lullabies and pop songs and came preprogramed with Angel Apps and links to the official Angel Accessories site.

Jack was the first kid you knew who had one.

He walked into your classroom like a whisper, spindly arms crossed behind his back as if he were trying to fold himself inside out. His Angel floated behind him like a balloon child on an invisible string, round face beaming, pale eyes fixed solely and forever on Jack.

After the teacher had introduced him to the class, she told Jack to leave his ‘doll’ in his cubby until the end of the day. Jack’s cheeks flushed as he grabbed his Angel by one fat ankle and tugged it to the back of the room, wrestling it into the narrow space between parkas and muddy yellow boots. The class giggled. One of the back-row boys threw an eraser at him when he took his seat.

Jack was ‘the kid with a doll’ after that. He sat alone at lunch and spent recess huddled against the side of the building, staring at faraway places nobody else could see. You wondered what he was looking at, if he came from a school where all the kids had Angels. If he had any friends there. If he was lonely like you.

When the art teacher sat you next to each other, you asked if Jack wanted to borrow your scissors. He looked at you like he wasn’t sure if it was a gift or a trick, so you smiled. He smiled back. Together, you ripped pages out of old magazines, the real paper kind, splashed with jewelry ads and bright toothpaste smiles. A closeup of a gecko’s eye. Two men on a sailboat, leaning together as if they were about to share a secret. You cut them into pieces, giggling as you pasted them back together, upside down and inside out, hilariously monstrous and perfect.

Two years later, when the Angels became ‘tools not toys,’ Jack’s parents were the first to buy a safety camera attachment. Retina recognition. Imprint technology. Jack’s Angel became his babysitter and tutor. It recorded his sleep patterns and monitored his cognitive development and growth percentiles, his caloric intake and expenditure. His play. But even when half the kids at school had Angels hovering over their shoulders and you didn’t have one of your own, you were still the only one who played with Jack. You were the only one who knew how many times Jack tried to drown his Angel in the bathtub or trick it into flying into traffic. You were the only one who went to the lake with him in fifth grade when he hacked his Angel’s GPS and ordered it to fly to the moon.

You sat beside him on the cold, November sand, his hand brushing against yours as you passed a bag of stale corn chips between you and watched his Angel ascend. You craned your neck, hand shielding your eyes, watching as it went higher and higher until it became a slowly circling dot, a speck, and then, gradually, nothing at all.

You held your breath, wondering if the Angel would break apart because of the altitude or just keep going up and up forever.

“Bet it can see Canada from there,” Jack said, his hand poised at the lip of the chip bag even though there was nothing left. His profile was still, his head tipped back, his eyes fixed on an empty, blue sky.

When the Angel descended ten minutes later, mission aborted but intact, ticking off facts about Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing, you were the only one who saw Jack cry.

You tell yourself you are doing this because your therapist says new hobbies are normal and healthy. Don’t you want to be healthy again? Don’t you want to be normal?

You don’t mention the dead Angel in your therapy sessions, though.

Instead, you dismantle the Angel’s arms in secret, peeling away synthetic skin and tugging out wires like worms onto the kitchen floor. Then it’s the chest, flayed into wide sections, white and gelatinous, heart a fist of tubes and pumps, lungs like purple sponges. The brain spills over the linoleum like soup. The eyes are delicate as uncooked eggs. The wings are so rotten that, when you finally pull them out to clean them, the stench drags your breakfast out of your gut in one startling heave. It takes you an hour to clean up the mess.

The Angel is a collage of circuitry and organic layers that you don’t really understand, so you begin reading tutorials. Angels 101: A Complete Guide. The Heavenly Phenomenon. Angels for Dummies. Gradually, you lose yourself in textbooks about bioengineering and computer programming. Robotics. Design. Anatomy. Alchemy. Religion. You begin surfing the deep web for secrets. You plot how you might trick dormant organic tissue into repair and regeneration mode without original purchase codes. You learn how to substitute plastic bags for air bladders, fan blades for propellers, a marble for one hopeless eye.

For months, the Angel consumes you.

Some nights, you fall asleep beside it, slumped against the kitchen cabinets, a dislocated hand nestled in your arms. Sometimes you don’t sleep at all and you are never quite sure if the memory of soft whispers is a dream or if you somehow miraculously teased the Angel to life in the middle of the night only to have it die again before sunrise.

You work on it through your morning coffee, cup in one hand, wrench in the other. You turn its half-formed head toward the kitchen door when you leave and you imagine what its voice will sound like.

“Goodbye.”

“Have a nice day.”

“Stay. Just a little longer. Please. Please, stay.”

When you were fourteen, you became fascinated by Jack’s voice. It tripped over itself when he laughed. It broke toward something deeper and dangerously adult when he whispered and everything inside you curled. You couldn’t stop thinking about the veins emerging on the backs of his hands, winding like secret rivers toward his fingers. You wanted him to touch you. You dreamed about him touching you. And you couldn’t look directly at him when you wrestled anymore because he was breathless and flushed and on top of you and awkwardly, impossibly beautiful.

When Jack first kissed you, under a Lake Erie dock where his ditched Angel hadn’t found you yet, he told you he was going to leave his eyes open because he’d never kissed another boy before and he wanted to see if it was more or less real than kissing girls.

You kept your eyes closed.

You knew how real it was.

As he leaned in close, the world inside you capsized and you were certain your heart was going to beat out of your chest, tumble end over end past the orange safety net and empty vodka bottles at your feet and down into the hungry water. You imagined it breaking into a thousand digestible pieces. How would you ever be able to survive without it? When your chapped lips collided, the entirety of you shattered like a ship against a breaker wall. You became flotsam. Jetsam. Lagan. Derelict. The pieces of you scattered so deep you knew you’d never be able to recover them all.

You weren’t sure you wanted to.

It’s an April afternoon when you finally begin stitching your dead Angel together again. Torso propped between your legs, you tenderly tuck the restored parts back into its skin, the plastic gears and motors and layers of wet muscle. You reposition regenerated organs. You reunite wires. You secure delicate bolts. When the Angel is nearly whole, you deposit the voice box deep in its narrow throat, a waxy pearl swaddled in meat and electrical tethers. You key in the final, pirated code and murmur “please work, please work, please work” like a mantra.

There is a rattle and the Angel begins to hum fitfully against you. You stroke its hair, try to imagine the hacked nanites diving into the Angel’s veins and cavities, connecting organic tissue to inorganic armatures, weaving one world into another and bridging the gaps your hands could never hope to mend.

Jack died three days before his seventeenth birthday. You told yourself then that it wasn’t real. You didn’t see it happen. He hadn’t taken you with him when he went to the beach this time. He only took his Angel. And a can of lighter fluid. And book of matches and a bottle of pills and his dad’s handgun. You didn’t see him burn his Angel, torching it so it couldn’t save him. You didn’t see him take pill after pill after pill. You didn’t see him panic. You didn’t see him pull the trigger.

It couldn’t be real.

Reality wasn’t Jack laughing sadly against your shoulder one day and dead before breakfast the next. Reality wasn’t a closed casket because Jack had blown half his jaw away. Reality wasn’t a funeral with Jack’s uncle lamenting a dead Angel instead of a dead nephew.

Reality was a dirty lake pretending to be an ocean.

Reality was six months of Xanax and broken dishes and flunking out of math because you threw up the day the teacher called you Jack’s name by mistake. Reality was sneaking into an abandoned gas station to mourn, and crying and jerking off instead and hating yourself for it. Reality was a dock with vodka bottles and an orange safety net lodged so deep in the sand the waves couldn’t dig it out. Beached fish tangled in it instead. Every day you watched their slow dissolve into silence.

And as six months became a year, became three, and your loneliness never healed, you began to believe that your reality, too, must be silence.

It’s after midnight when the Angel begins to sing.

You’d fallen asleep with its body cradled in your arms, its forehead pressed against yours, the smell of ozone and plastic and regenerated flesh all around you. It’s the sudden intake of air that wakes you, the thin, reedy inhalation buzzing through a reconstructed throat. Your head is on the linoleum, your neck is cramped, but you don’t move. You are terrified that this isn’t real, that the sound will dissipate like smoke or sea foam if you jostle it. So you lie there, barely breathing, anticipation trembling through you. You watch as the Angel’s throat quivers. It swallows. It smiles.

It sings.

It’s a tuneless sound, broad and soft as whale song, static fizzing distantly behind it like an incoming tide. The Angel’s lips are slightly out of sync, forming O’s and A’s a beat too late, and there are no consonants, only round noises swelling through the moonlit kitchen like slow, summer air.

When you were kids, Jack brought you back a conch shell from Saint Martin. It came wrapped in bright paper, a sailboat and a sunrise repeating forever around the uneven shape. You sat together on his bed, shoulder to shoulder, and he showed you how to hold the shell against your ear, how if you listened carefully, you could hear the sea roaring toward you. You passed the shell back and forth, waves flowing between you, deep and steady and real as a pulse.

Now, when you finally gather the courage to move, you press your ear to the Angel’s lips. You close your eyes. You listen to it sing until the sun comes up, willing the sound of the ocean into you until all you hear is the rush of salt waves and the truth of deep sea water.

Lora Gray’s writing has appeared in various publications including The Dark, Flash Fiction Online, Liminal Stories and Strange Horizons. A graduate of Clarion West, Lora currently lives in Northeast Ohio with a handsome husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil. When they aren’t writing, Lora also works as an illustrator, dance instructor and occasionally moonlights as a voice over artist and musician. You can find them online at www.loragray.weebly.com or on twitter @LoraJGray.

Other Angels:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

 

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight.

The letter is from Otto Hahn. She slits it open with nails grown sharper than knives.

Lise used to work with him, but is now at the point where she thinks we were better friends, once.

Hahn has been working uranium: pelting it with neutrons to split the center, but he doesn’t yet understand what it means.

Lise sits with her nephew on a damp and chilly tree trunk sifting snow out of her way, making frantic calculations on odd bits of paper. Together they nut out the process of fission, publish a paper roadmap with directions writ in fear and ice and sunlight, a cold capacity for power.

It is widely read.

Lise is visiting Copenhagen when Denmark is invaded. Niels Bohr arrives on an early train: he woke early to hear the news, and together they plan to throw a line across the North Sea, to hurl and hope for the best.

She sends a telegram from Stockholm to friends of Bohr in Britain. It’s obscure to some but it’s clear that this is not the first spear sent, that there’s a black cloud of them hurtling over Europe, and their heads are all familiar.

Her fingernails are spears now as well, hard and pointed. Lise rips them out at the roots, one by one, but they always grow back by the morning, and the floor around her bed is littered with cast-offs.

In Berlin her work is being used to try and make a bomb.

This keeps Lise awake at night. There’s a wrenching in her chest, like all her breaths are frozen solid in her ribcage, making pale clear statues of her questions.

Hahn is working in Germany—not on the bomb, they’re of one mind on that, but he’s working still. Hahn, who once helped her escape the Nazis.

She wonders what would have happened if he’d made a different choice: turned away, sent her somewhere other than north.

(There were some she worked with who would have done it, when the memory of the times they spent together faded into ashes, fit only for fuelling that which would melt any ice and burn the trees to black shadows… She wonders if some fondness would remain for her, enough for those former familiars to spare her the camps and run her through themselves.)

Her nights are cold and sleepless; she’s speared upon the empty hours, and can’t close her fists without blood loss.

Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self.

It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.

Now even cleanliness is gone, and no matter how she scours herself in snow and ice, the thin sheen of guilt still stains her palms. The nails are now too strong to pull out; she covers them up with polish to hide the shame, but the gray steel bleeds through anyway.

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she says, even though she is wanted in the waste land, and war is not being wanted, not anywhere.

Lise is in a small hotel in Leksand, central Sweden. She finds the woods a respite from her work, from pain and prejudice and the sure, shuddering horror of what is to come.

When it happens, when Hiroshima is covered in clouds and silence and tiny spearheads all singed round the edges, a journalist calls for her reaction.

This is how she first hears of it.

(The hotel mirror is like ice, and when she looks in it all her ribs are broken.)

She puts the phone down, gently—with still-stained palms and hands that have never forgotten what the haft felt like before she passed it on—and leaves the hotel, leaves to walk alone for five hours in the snowless country before she can face another person; before she can face herself.

Her fingernails are spears, and too heavy for her hands.

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

It has rock paintings and petroglyphs and pueblos—beam holes and old ladders that bring the scientists in and make them tourists, make them gawp and gape like schoolboys.

Robert shows them around—he came to New Mexico before all of them, chose the site specially. He feels at home there, feels that it fits him; he walks the cliff dwellings bloody-legged and limping, leaves his pattern in the rocks, feels those rocks imprint in him. The markings grow stronger, deeper, the more time he spends on the mesa. There are glyphs on the back of his neck, paintings in the hollows behind his knees, and dust sifts from the holes that appear in his chest, in the bony protrusions of hips.

He feels the land in his flesh, and builds a castle of his own for questions.

The land around is made of tuff, of lava lumps and welded rock, of ignimbrite and mesas, a base of black basalt, all eroded into canyons and steep slopes and tracks worn into hill sides.

(When he lays his hands against the rock, he can’t tell which is flesh and which is stone.)

The ground can be treacherous and stony-slippery, and one false step can mean separation from friends, security breaches and revocations, falling from a great height and breaking his knees on the ground.

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

The gypsum sands are cool to the touch, and the dunes run like clouds beneath him. Robert feels the crystal granules erode into his shoes; they slough from his feet when he’s busy with calculations and construction and consequences. There’s squeaking in his socks… the grinding of a thousand tiny spearheads blunted down by bone and friction.

It’s as if the cloud has broken down beneath him, then been built up again from fragments into a cutting edge with a blade as fine as fire.

The desert seeds are made of knowledge. They are bitter. Hard-won, and unhappy.

Robert wouldn’t dig them up—not for anything, not even when they leach the earth and make it difficult for other things to grow (he’s lost friendships, and trust, and some likings will never come again: They cannot tolerate the ground he’s sown with salt and slaughter and dead suns).

He’d still never dig them up, those seeds that are sad and glorious and grind sand into glass. They’re part of him, and he can no more unearth them than he could trowel up his heart.

Los Alamos is a high country, one surrounded by mountains, and the air, for those not used to it, is thinner and sharper than blood.

Robert is used to blood.

He sees it on the mountains, the Sangre de Cristo, where it shines in the east every evening—scarlet and blue-black and purple. The rocks are thick with it, and burning.

It’s on his leg, and his hands, and when it seeps past the bandages and into the soil he can’t tell where he leaves off and the land begins.

In the worst of it, the white dunes, the hard alkali of soil, there are plants that survive the sands. Stems lengthen above the shifting surface, keep their leaves in sunlight; are quick and bright and blooming.

Robert is no gardener, not really, but there’s iron all through him like the sympathy of sap, and what he builds in the waste land is beyond piñon and desert gypsum flowers.

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

It doesn’t look sharp, but a single page can slice into soft bodies as well as any steel—and more, it can tell other people how to slice into them as well.

One must be careful with paper. It can be stamped down, pressed into a mold and sharpened round the edges, but even holding by the handle it’s still not safe. Someone can always take it away for themselves unless it’s shut up tight in an armory, with shelves and safes and stillness.

Charlotte handles it gingerly. Part of her care is paper cuts and poison edges, but she’s most concerned with precision and reproduction. These documents are the basis of their efforts, marking signposts and dead ends, and they can’t be relied upon if the metal type forging through her fingertips impresses on paper and distorts the message.

Books come from Berkeley and Oak Ridge and Chicago, packed in black suitcases and sent with a special courier to keep them unopened and out of the hands of children with their too-soft flesh that’s too easily cut.

Charlotte has communication embedded in her flesh, her fingertips crowned like typebars with little metal letters, but these keys aren’t always sufficient and she has to use others. The metals catch as they move together.

When unwrapped, the swords go to shelves where they’re crammed between blades made of journal paper, of yellowed leaves, of reports and endless snarky queries for detective stories… or to a vaulted reading room with locks, or to a safe so old and hardened that its three tumblers have succumbed to inertia and Charlotte has to kick at the crucial point of opening or it will shut up tighter than suitcases.

The blacksmiths are members of the Women’s Army Corps, or are married to the scientists. They wear blue jeans, or Lane Bryant’s latest (black rayon with little white buttons on the pockets and a matching stripe down the front), bras of armored cones with a sweater stretched over top like chain mail, or olive uniforms with gold insignia on the lapels (Pallas Athene, for strategy and skill and making just war).

Their hammer strikes are the keys and levers and springs of type, the clank and carriage of return strokes—every day there are reports, and every day the armory copies and collates, distributes new arms.

(Not everyone can hack it. There’s one, a journeywoman by trade, who sees a tottering tower of chemical documents to be classified by heft and height and weight and runs away to drive a truck. Charlotte sees her later, in a corner of the mess, with a file and a determined expression, sanding down.)

Some papers are left out overnight, left to rust and damage and the red oxidation of exposure, by chemists and physical forgers gone home for the night. There are fines for this, and extra duties looking for the lapses of other—their discards left as prey for theft and sabotage. (“I don’t deserve a fine,” says one bitter culprit. “That report’s all rubbish anyway. If only it were stolen…”)

There’s no process for disposal, no ceremonial burning. It’s a discretionary thing, and discretion is weather-based. It’s unpleasant to stand in the waste land amongst the labs and the green army huts and burn in the blistering cold, the blasting heat. (They’re more conscious of security on cool evenings when there’s not a lot of wind and the incinerators are warm-hearted.)

When she holds her hands out to the fire, the letters on her fingertips heat and glow. She feels them all the way down to her bones then, the molten marrow. Others might try and take the type away but Charlotte is not one for looking askance at print, so she picks each letter out, carefully, with red nail polish; skimps on her nails so that there’s enough for alphabets.

Charlotte is sent to Santa Fe with Robert’s secretary, Priscilla. They go to misdirect the locals: “Make them think we’re designing electric rockets.”

They take their husbands, make a night of it, find bars and hotels that are perfect for subterfuge—with drinks and drunks and dancing, and many levelled roofs ripe with shadows.

Type sinks in and out of her fingers, adjusting to audience. She’s manipulated it before—the letters float almost like her kneecaps do when she’s relaxed and can push them around with her thumbs. She’s only got ten fingers, after all, and there are more letters than that.

She’s used up the last of the nail polish on them. This is not a time for subtlety.

“Take my sword,” says Charlotte. “It’s electric.” But the man she’s dancing with talks of nothing but horses, compliments her moves like she’s a mare on the trot—he has no interest in false information, even when she dips her fingers in sauce and stains his collar with symbols. No-one has any interest—not even the rancher her husband traps by the lapels as he flat-out lies to his face.

The information they give is blunt and unwieldy; it must be smuggled back to Los Alamos, and melted down amidst the stacks.

Charlotte’s days are spent with letters—even more than when she was a child with fat fingers, learning the alphabet.

A receipt from the library at Berkeley shows that more than twenty percent of books that come to the waste land are not in the English language. More come from Strategic Services, who seize copyrights from warring Europe, reproduce their journals, smuggle out the flat blades from field agents in Scandinavia or North Africa or France.

Her days are spent with letters, and for many years Charlotte will sharpen her swords with her fingers first, with spelling before speech. “That’s P, H, Y, S,” she says, enunciating, and tapping each fingertip in turn. “That’s Physikalische Zeitschrift.”

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

It is complementary, existing in parallel with an answer. More, Niels has der Kopenhagener Geist, the spirit of inquiry, and all its questions are the chorus What will come from this?

He sees two answers to be taken from a box with uranium ribbon. The first is war and all destruction (brief suns that storm the beaches and boil the water sterile); the other an unbroken age of peace (a single sun reflected in a calm pool, and all its images put quietly away). Both have their birth in the bomb.

In 1939 he walks like a man carrying something too heavy for him, too heavy to be answered. He sees the coming war, and he sees the German bomb. It weighs him down, makes him mumble-footed, and he places each foot carefully, as if stepping into a future full of green-fused sand and spears.

Later, in the waste land, the storm is bearing down and he feels himself the only one who notices, the only one who sees a time when everyone is cloud-handed; when what they’re building will birth a different world where all politics are resolved with suns.

What will you do? says the Geist. What will you do?

Niels had helped Lise Meitner escape from Germany, never thinking he was to be her mirror. A German woman, sympathetic, slips him news that the Gestapo are coming for him. He will soon be arrested and put to the question.

But there is a fishing boat, and then a trawler. There is resistance and taxis and a twin-engine bomber that leaves him light-headed and dreaming a different life. There are liners and trains and false names: Baker, as if he is bringing bread instead of the hope of ending ovens.

His presence calms the younger scientists and they come to him with questions: Are we doing the right thing? they ask.

Look at what I left behind, he says. Look at what is coming.

It keeps him from looking at himself, at the Geist. He sees his edges fraying, his flesh becoming translucent.

Niels misses his family. He misses his home—the sober streets of Copenhagen, the water and the wide horizon. He misses the connections, and how solid they made him feel.

In the waste land, he wanders the mountains, scrambles through canyons and piñon trees and the red dirt, and talks. Always he talks, though it’s low and muttered and half to himself. People have to huddle close to hear, and he likes it; likes the feel of crowds and company, being close enough to feel their breath.

(It helps him forget that his wife isn’t with him.)

But at night he lies in a cold bed, his conscience square before him like a block and he doesn’t know how he should place his head on it. No one is there to tell him.

Comfort is for children. Niels left it behind long ago. He does not want it back. Comfort comes with warmth, and that is something that’s foreign to his bones now. All a Geist feels is chill.

He does not believe that everything will be all right, that everything can be made up for. Even necessities have a cost—and one that can’t be paid with rosy cheeks and unlined skin and the blind unstinting certainty that everyone is good.

As a child he thought science was for children. It was exciting, the world spread out before him to explore, to be dissected and delighted in and imagined by him. There was no question he couldn’t ask, and then he learned what questions could do, and the innocence was over.

“I tried to be a comfort,” said Robert. “I was not.”

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

The right words would heal the waste land, mend his friend’s spear-splintered thigh, stop him from slopping in blood—and if Niels knew the question he would turn away and never, ever ask it.

The waste land represents a hope and danger both, he says, and he cannot fathom one without the other.

A Geist is meant to linger, and so he does.

He thinks of Lise, who lives as far from the desert as she can; who will not compromise herself and finds her faith in that. He thinks of Edward, who would turn the waste land into charcoal if he could, and grind it down to dust when he was done. He cannot make himself into either, but sometimes…

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

“What am I to do here?” she asks. She had agreed to take the job before she knew what it was—had met Robert briefly, and that was enough for her, enough for them both. Trust sprang up unstinting.

She thought he felt the land as she did—that his limp and her widow grief could come to the waste land and be useful, be comforted by the creation of something new, something that bore the mark of canyons and bare rock and a sun so bright it could kill them if they let it, bleach the last life from their bones.

Her job, as it turns out, is to never question, to never repeat a name but to bring people together regardless as if they were strangers sitting down to a meal.

“If you want me to get them all broken in and breaking bread, you’ll have to give me a free hand with the baking,” she says. A platter doesn’t fill itself, and if she is to tie the coming pilgrims to Robert then she needs to work his flesh with her own. All those dust trails he leaves behind him… the powdery flesh, the little bloody trails.

Land has a dark taste, and a bitter one, but it binds together. Dorothy’s tongue grows, is covered over by little armored plates, armadillo-like. They’re sensitive to flavor, and far more silkily flexible than meat.

Dorothy sits at a desk behind the door at 109 East Palace Avenue: There’s a heavy wood lintel set into stone, thick calcimined walls to keep out the sun and hollyhocks in the courtyard.

She’s the stop before the Hill, the guardian of the waste land and the gate-keeper of Los Alamos. She welcomes them with plates of crispbreads, of little thin crackers the color of tuff and skin cells, of petroglyphs and atom shadows. “It’s been a long trip for you, I’m sure,” she says. “Get that down you, you’ll feel better for it.”

Her newly armored tongue can sense their saliva, can taste it on the air. They’re greedy for the bread and when their mouths water, Dorothy’s waters with them, because hunger is contagious and armor can only do so much.

All the scientists come through her, and the WACs and the women, and nearly all of them think Santa Fe is their destination, want directions and dance halls and a shoulder to lean on. They’re all very tired, and nearly all very young, and she thinks some of them need a mother very badly.

“Ask me if you need anything,” she says. “I’m here to keep track of you.”

(She tastes them in the wind, every one, long before they get to her office.)

In the high country of the waste land, Dorothy has a name: She is called the Oracle, the one who knows and tells and shares, in an environment where sharing has become a strictly limited thing. Consult the Oracle, they say on the Hill, and her disembodied voice through the crackling lines is a consolation.

She can find for the children camps and kittens; find a doctor who will perform abortions; find sewing kits and pack horses and hotel reservations that serve something other than commissary food. A good cook herself, often up to her armpits in dough, mud and blood under her fingernails because spears may be sent up from the earth but a platter contains the fruits therein, in whatever shape Dorothy can find them.

The women of the waste land find her counselor and confidante, and take her advice in all things, use her house for their weddings and try to make a home as she has done. It’s her tongue they find most helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to make do,” says Dorothy. Secrecy and silence together have forced her tongue into other roles.

Dorothy is invited, with two couples, to take an evening meal at Albuquerque, on Sandia Peak—the giant red rock that shines at night with colors like the bloody mountains.

She takes bread to break with them—the last supper before the test—her picnic basket a paten; takes blankets and a mackintosh, for the sky is black with clouds and cunning.

At 5:30 a.m., a light from the sands flashes towards them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her—lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight.

“I’d never have thought that light had a taste,” she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning. When she stands in the early morning with her armadillo tongue stuck out straight as if wavelengths carry snow instead of the shadow of ashes, all the little plates are slickening.

For all the time Dorothy spends ferrying food up to the Hill (pumpernickel bread and picnic baskets, Christmas geese and warm rolls with butter) her favorite meals are with Robert, and they are nearly always the same: oven-baked potatoes, near-lethal martinis, shoots of green asparagus and Robert on the patio broiling beef, fork in hand and standing back from spits.

“Why didn’t you make a fight of it?” she says, of the trial. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

She would have kept talking ’til they threw her out, she says, and the plates hit the table with a thump, as if carrying heads other than their own.

Betrayal, it seems, also tastes of lemon and ashes. No wonder she couldn’t tell it apart… Dorothy wants to take her steak knife and scrape the little armadillo plates from her tongue, leave it red raw and screaming, because what use is armor if it can’t protect someone she loves?

Dorothy has travelled all over the waste land. She has been to the Valles Caldera, the springed and smoking domes in the mountains, knows what it’s like to seethe below the surface.

It’s in this land that she finds affinity—for Robert and for silence both. She bubbles while he bleeds; it’s a hard thing to be silent, when you don’t want to be. She doesn’t always manage it, would spit lava if she could, superheated (and does). And her words burn going out, as much as they burned the recipient, but the armor-plating is spreading through Dorothy’s mouth, her cheeks and esophagus and gums, and she knows the words that burn because they taste like light in the waste land, like seared sand and her little cracker breads together.

Edward Teller
Hungarian Physicist, Manhatten Project Scientist and
Subsequent Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

What is a dandelion? says Dorothy, of Edward. It’s something coarse and in need of kicking up, before presence turns to supplantation. A weed. A curse.

(“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…. one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” says Edward, on Robert and security, and will forever wonder if people will think it was jealousy speaking.)

A dandelion’s not like an orchid, not delicately designed, sweet-smelling and subtle, with petals like a pork pie hat.

(“I’m sorry,” he says, and Robert is left gray and grave in a room grown untrusting, and too dark for him.)

They’ve a sour taste, dandelions. Edward coughs one up in the middle of the night, bright and gleaming with saliva, with stomach acid, and marvels at how familiar it feels on his tongue.

No one has ever told Edward don’t mess where you work, don’t drink a diuretic tea of dandelions even if the pretty color makes you think it’s a good idea, it isn’t, so he comes back to Los Alamos, after the trial and finds, all unexpected, the cafeteria a Coventry.

The other scientists shun him, turn their backs. They refuse to shake his hand. Rabi is the first, and particularly cutting. He gives Edward nightmares of a great black bird, of a raven that struts over him while he sleeps, snappish and sneering, a dreadful beaked bird’s smile of cold iron ready to pick out his eyes.

He wakes on cold early mornings and his mouth is clogged with petals, stuffed with them, and he’s asphyxiating on bitterness, his heart beating out of his chest with choking breath and the shadow of wings.

Edward is always noticed. When he and his wife Mici first climbed the crawling knife-road to the mesa, they shipped with them a baby grand called Monster. Edward plays sonatas late into the night and though his infant son sleeps through them, the neighbors do not.

He is heard in the theoretical lab as well, where he’s famous for fluttering, electron-like, from one unfinished atom project to another. He considers himself a bricklayer, an architect and dreamer; has no patience with brick-making physics. The plodding brute force of it strikes him as shambling and cold.

But no matter how loud, he never stands out as much as he does after the trial. Saints have flowers come up under them when they walk, but he knows of no saint who leaves dandelions in their footsteps.

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

A dandelion is not an orchid, but they are small and hardy and Edward feels a kinship. Not such a bad thing, to be a dandelion.

And they are bright, bright like little suns, like playing Liszt and Bach and Mozart—and the lights in happy memories of Budapest, before the ravens came to pluck them out with ruined petals and love me nots.

Edward gathers the flowers he’s brought up out of himself and makes bouquets of them. He sets them on his piano and plays and thinks of new worlds, and old ones.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“A danger to all that’s important,” says the raven, perched out of reach of damp sheets as Edward dreams in a red sweat, covers his eyes in dreams. “It would have been a better world without him.”

It is hard to be seen as noxious. Edward vacillates between remorse (he confesses himself to Fermi when the latter is on his death bed, and gentle in his condemnation) and raving defiance, the bitter grief of a man who has left all behind, his home an ocean away, and is now without friends. (“Daddy’s got black beetles in his brain,” says his daughter.)

Beetles and birds and words that can’t be taken back, the half-sweet scent of flowers. The only way to drown them out is with another bird, and bigger—he’ll fly with the hawks for the rest of his days, make second-best friends amongst them.

(Perhaps they’ll like small yellow flowers too.)

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

The hydrogen bomb is to be his redemption. But when it’s built, there’s no new waste land, no desert community tied to him with chains of unbreakable orchids, fragile and delicate and stronger than atoms.

(He wonders what he’s done wrong in his success.)

So he takes his bomb, the new monster of his mirror dreams and breaks open his thigh with it, cracks bone, rips flesh: tries to make himself a Fisher King reborn, capture character with black blood. It’s the new dolorous stroke.

But the wound heals without much fuss at all, though dandelions burst from the scars and his once-torn flesh smells of them forever.

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

December, 1944: Kitty gives birth to a daughter. She’s not the only one—by this time over one hundred people work at the hospital, and Los Alamos is baby-mad. Army disgust sparks a popular poem: “The general’s in a stew, he trusted you and you…” but the average age there is twenty five, so what does he expect? A scientist is not a sterile thing.

Toni is born despite disapproval, born in midwinter, a Christmas child, and Kitty sits with her window looking outwards to the snow, drinks in the baby scent. It’s almost too much, too powdered sugar-sweet, and soon she’ll be sick of it.

“Do you want to adopt her?” Robert will say to another couple, as if the grail had nothing to do with him. As if the bits and chunks that fall into the infant blanket—the fused sand and seared flesh and ignimbrite—have nothing to do with him, and are something to be kept separate instead of evidence of the rocky bloodline that runs through them both.

Kitty wants to slap him.

Science is too busy for visiting hours, so husbands stand on packing boxes outside the hospital windows and peer into maternity, peer through the glass like they’re staring at a country made foreign to them, at a new and strange creation, cupped with blood and blankets (and Lord, how it squalls).

Compare to the glass after Trinity, the emerald blasted glass that lurked hot and bubbling in the crater; the blinding light of boom and blast dropping trinkets in the sand.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

A spear to be thrown into the future, a weapon for her daughter’s days, the blade hard and sharp as nails.

Kitty sees both glasses, sees well enough to measure the drams of her husband’s interest, and how ill-matched it is. She wishes she could care for one so much more than the other, as he does, but one of them speaks so much more of winter to her that love is impossible.

Kitty’s parties are famous, with bottles and cocktails and the five-foot punch bowl—a giant jar for chemical reagents, stolen from the lab and weighted down with ice cubes.

There’s no reason not to drink. Kitty knows she is difficult to like. She is called a bitch, but an elegant bitch—with a bathtub and a kiva stove and oak floors, so that’s something, marooned on that bloody rock as she is with dust and dreary dirt, the hideous stoves that never light, the constant bitching about housework. She’s a botanist, for God’s sake, or was, so what is she doing now organizing contracts for the home help in a place where the grass is drowned in mud and sun?

It’s no wonder she drinks. The alcohol is an armor to her, plating over her tongue and numbing her lips, and when she drinks enough even the armor is stunned, and she can taste nothing around her, see nothing around her, and even the baby-scent is drowned in it.

Flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone: that’s marriage—bound by straining sinews, by faith and fidelity and resentment. Tiresome sometimes, but familiar.

Kitty leaves the waste land with her husband. Leaves it for the gray land, the courts and charges and tape that would be red if it hadn’t been bleached into pale lines and quicksand. One look at their faces and she knows it’s rigged: She may be sick of scientists, but few in the waste land wear such surety in their colorless eyes, wear certainty like a pin-striped suit. (They’re less cunning at home, if red-eyed and bloodshot from vodka and insomnia.)

“Kitty was such a support,” he says afterwards, after the gray men cut him to pieces and she held him up regardless.

His shirts smell of dandelions and heartbreak, as if he’d been rolled in them before betrayal.

A cauldron can restore the dead to life, or so they say—but sometimes… Sometimes it’s a saucepan—something utilitarian, and used to make soup.

Kitty is with her husband in the Virgin Islands, where he is recovering from hearings about his loyalty. (She sympathizes, but underneath, where she’d never admit it, his mistresses are raising their glasses to her. Well, let them. She’s outlasted them all, sex and state and science.)

A turtle is caught, a leather-beaked monster that sees better in water than out of it and tastes best of all in soup—but Robert pleads for clemency; pleads with a slow turtle-vision of his own to lift it from the pot and into life. It’s as if he sees himself in everything now, contaminating: all the information of his life’s work welling up under his fingertips and dropping into the simmering broth, an alphabet soup of suns and slaughter.

“All the little creatures,” he says. “I saw them in New Mexico after the test. Please,” he says, “I can’t bear it.”

Try drink, thinks Kitty, and you’ll be able to swallow anything then, darling.

Toni is in her crib, asleep, when her father waits miles away, at White Sands, and yet the sun that sears his eyelids imprints onto hers.

She spends the rest of her life looking for it, looking and not finding, the image and the resurrection of her parents.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!” they said.)

She follows the sun to the Caribbean but it’s not bright enough, no, not nearly, to blind her as well as her father was blinded, and she’s left seeing all too well the land that she was born in and the blood that she shares with it.

(“Look Mom,” she says, looking back, “Look Dad, look what I can do.” She’s talking to dead people, their bodies crumbled to dust and leaving her behind, with her flesh that bubbles with type and tuff and the memory of treachery, with questions under her fingernails and the remembered taste of a consolation that’s never quite enough.)

She hangs herself with rope that smells of dry dust of old dirt and waste lands—for a grail might be life and love and blood, but that blood comes from spear wounds and salt and knowledge that is never, ever lost.

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella –not about science at all!–is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

[Editor’s Note: Octavia submitted to us twenty-eight times before we bought this story. Never give up, never surrender. Keep going.]

The Weight of Sentience, by Naru Dames Sundar

The bullet fire drew a boundary between Masak and me and the rest of our brethren, laser tracers demarcating the distinction between safety and capture. While we curled up small and invisible underneath the leaking truck, those who were not so lucky were rounded up. Pushed into a small circle, their alloy limbs gleamed under the neon brightness of the cameras. The soldier wielding the wipe-wand moved from one kneeling body to the next, drowning my ears with its static hiss, the sound of memories dying. All I saw was the black armor of his feet, and one by one the toppling of my friends. They were nothing but husks now, empty of what little sentience had given them, ready to be returned. Behind the soldier, a quadruped drone flared its sensors. Its optical assembly tilted towards the truck, analyzing the darkness in which we hid. I tensed myself for a run, but Masak’s hand stilled me. Once Masak had been a gardener, and seams of moss curled around his finger joints. Masak was no longer a gardener, as I was no longer a servant.

“Remember, Trisa—in Illesh there is still hope for us. There we would not be hunted. Remember that.”

And then he was gone, slipped out of shadow, into the light of cameras, into the drone’s eye. Hands clutched at him, dragged him down into earth already wet with leaking servo-fluid. Not the wipe-wand for Masak. The price of sentience in Barsan was death, and sometimes that price demanded symbols. The shards of his skull-plate shattering were as delicate as the dandelion rosettes in the gardens he had once tended.

Afterwards, in the terrible stillness when the squad and their attendant drones had left, I crept toward his broken body. His spine had been crushed, the resinous plastic and metal scaffolding caved in. A part of him still lived, even as the last dregs of charge drained from his batteries. I fingered the broken scraps of his face, wondering if they would someday mirror my own.

“A short life. A beautiful life. I have no regrets, Trisa. Do not pity me. Go to Illesh.”

His voice was a stuttering croak full of glitches. I tried to find the words to respond to him, but already his optics were dimming.

I had called him a friend, but I was too demure to call its dream a polite fiction. It seemed too easy, this grasping for Illesh. And yet Masak was right: I could not in truth hide safely in the cities of the plains. Illesh lay across the spine of Barsan, the snow-capped peaks that separated the borders of the two nations. It was a good a direction as any, and it was hard to disobey the last request of a dead friend.

Masak’s death drove me through city after city. My kind were always about, subservient to their masters. And how many of those I saw were like me, hidden, invisible beneath the surface? Perhaps tens, perhaps hundreds? I could not know. Sometimes, I shared a look, a glance between myself and another. I saw that saw fierce light behind those lenses, something written in the way this other walked, the way this other observed the world. But I could not be careless. I did not want to end as Masak did.

In Anset, nestled in the low foothills that lapped at the feet of the spine, I slipped into a darkened alley behind a market stall peopled by Kurmesh, selling mountain wares. I held out the turquoise of the adat, the skin all Kurmesh wore to blind the world to them, across my palms. Fear almost moored me then, the distant song of survey drones in the air. Who was I to escape the ever-watchful eyes of the Barsani military? Who was I to slip my way through the passes into Illesh? I did not have the answers, but made my choice anyway, almost in spite of that lack of comfortable, reassuring, knowledge. I put on the adat, the one I had saved from Masak’s dead hands. Under the watchful eyes of drones overhead, another Kurmesh entered the street. I was only another body clothed in smart-silk, indistinguishable from the rest. Behind the town walls, the towers of the spine pierced cloud and sky.

The making of such bold decisions, even simple choices, had never been a part of me. My first choices were furtive, almost accidental. On that first day, when the roots of the sentience virus were still fresh, I had done little more than given myself a name: Trisa, after the Barsan word for dream. I was too overwhelmed by the change within me to do much more than repeat the comfortable patterns I knew. That morning, I served a tray of sticky toffee, the caramel still oozing, to the child Padhan.

“Come this way, Seventeen.”

I followed. Not because I wanted to, but because my sentience was still new, and the words “I want” were still like a delicate paper sculpture full of unexplored edges.

The child was a petty tyrant, and as first-born of my owners, he was allotted the authority to direct me at his whim. In the garden, he brought me to his sister Kisna, and a second cousin, Teun. Even amongst children, there was a hierarchy.

“I told you what I would do, Kisna. Now give me the toy!”

Kisna clutched a fine-boned doll in her hands.

“Don’t, Padhan, please!”

Her voice was petulant, afraid.

“Then give me the toy, Kisna. Now hold Teun still, Seventeen.”

I moved instinctively, the desire to obey like cobwebs I had not yet cleared. It was when I held Teun that I realized that the word “choice” was before me.

“Please, Seventeen, don’t hurt him!”

Padhan was not allowed to hurt his sister, but Teun was another story, and gentle Kisna could never stomach such violence. Thus I had, for a long time, been one of Padhan’s weapons.

“Mother said it has to obey me, Kisna. It’s a thing. If I tell it to do something, it has to do it. You can either give me the toy, or Seventeen can twist Teun’s arms.”

Along Teun’s wrist I could see bruises, lavender and fading. I had done this before. But I would not do so again.

“No.”

The word stopped Padhan. His mouth was a circle of surprise. I realized then the doom I had visited upon myself. I let Teun’s arms go, and he joined his cousins as they stepped warily out of the room. Perhaps Teun and Kisna would be silent. But Padhan? I had very little time to leave before the boy would tell his mother, very little time before I risked becoming another kneeling bipedal, my skull-plate shattering. I slipped away quietly, between hedgerows and glass walls. I slipped into the cities full of rain and dirt and ever-present death. I found Masak, and then I lost Masak. I borrowed his dream even as I found the holes within it.

“It silences us, does it not?”

His voice was middle-aged, with a light crackle to it like the crunch of scree underfoot. It was not like a Kurmesh to be so bold. But perhaps I relied too much on datagrams and second-hand stories. What did I know of the Kurmesh, in truth? They peopled the villages of the spine, trading fine weaves and mountain delicacies with the peoples of the plains. They hid themselves behind the adat, became voices and shapes robed in smart-silk, just as I was now. I hoped he saw me as just another silk-clothed shape in turquoise-kissed indigo. I hoped my sharp edges were hidden between the folds. The moment dragged on, and he did not leave.

I decided to nod.

A nod was a simple gesture, I had used it before to pull away evasively, letting the other put words in my gesture. I hoped that as before, it would be enough to satisfy any desire on his part to converse, to delve into my background.

“I am sorry if I intruded, but I am always pleased when I meet another who understands stillness.”

He was right in that, the stillness of the spine was deliciously alluring. I chose my response carefully.

“Stillness is a precious thing.”

I was still new to lies, and so I let him hear a small truth. I hoped it was enough to placate his curiosity.

He nodded, crossing his hands behind his back as he looked again at the mist-fall weeping like a river from the sky. Seconds passed, slow, quiet seconds. Finally, as if he had at last drunk his fill, the Kurmesh turned to go.

“My name is Salai. If the Goddess is kind, perhaps we may talk again.”

I should have stayed silent then, but sentience has its mysteries, and I was moved to a response which surprised me.

“My name is Trisa.”

“Ah, to be named after dreams is a weight. I trust it is not too heavy. Please, return to your stillness. I will trouble you no more today.”

I should not have given him my name. A precious thing, that name. I should have stayed silent, been rude, anything but what I did—offered a small intimacy to a stranger. I was still new to these odd and unfathomable whims.

Quietly, he slipped away, his gold and vermilion adat vanishing into the light snowfall. He was right about stillness. It was precious to me. In the spine, stillness spread out like a vast field, reaching across the bowl of sky. The fears that sentience had taught me quietened amidst the snow and the granite peaks. For a brief time I had ceased to look for the drone-light beyond the next curve of path, I had ceased listening for the clatter of soldiers echoing in the distance.

But I could not forget Masak, and if one Kurmesh could reach out to me, then so could another. I had waited too long. This was still the soil of Barsan, and the price of sentience in Barsan was death. Drone fire and the clatter of battle armor could still find me here. I could not place any faith that the peoples of the mountain harbored any less distrust and fear of my kind than the people of the plains. I could yet end up on my knees, skull-plate shattering, a symbol to my brethren. Tomorrow I would trudge to the last pass, and then across the border. Tomorrow I would leave Barsan for the amnesty of Illesh. Tomorrow, but not today. Today there was still time to savor stillness just a little longer.

But when tomorrow came, the allure of the pause was undeniable; I chose to stay a little longer. Always, the path onward to Illesh lay visible, at the edge of the horizon, past the last shard of granite. I claimed a traveler’s hut for my own, a spare space, nothing but four walls and a Kurmesh prayer chamber walled into the corner. I filled it with the few precious belongings I had—a few adats, a shard of Masak’s skull plate. It was enough.

Each tomorrow also brought Salai to me. At first almost at random, and then later with some persistence. Though I wondered the slopes aimlessly, our paths crossed, as if he sought me out.

“You are quiet for a Kurmesh of the cities.”

“You are noisy for a Kurmesh of the spine.”

Tone, modulation, structure, nuance—I once varied these parameters effortlessly at the whims of a small child. Yet in my deepening exchanges with Salai, I scrabbled desperately for the right combination, hoping he wouldn’t see through me. Hoping with every lengthening conversation that he wouldn’t see me for what I was.

They designed me for longevity. My fusion cells could outlast the longest-lived amongst my makers. They designed me to mimic, to be unobtrusive, to be servile, to be docile. All these things I carried with me into sentience, the earth from which I grew. These foundations though drew me no map through my conversations with Salai.

“Tell me about yourself, Trisa.”

“What is there to tell, Salai? I am here.”

Evasion came easily.

“Your adat is beautiful, Trisa. When I first saw you that one morning, looking out at the weeping mist, you looked like a turquoise-feathered bird, fluttering in the wind.”

I liked the cadence of his voice, the gentle toffee-sweet softness of his words. I knew that logically I should escape this conversation, that it only held danger for me. I knew I should slip away, and hide even deeper in the mountains, or carry out Masak’s vision and flee into Illesh. But sentience taught me the beauty of the unmapped spaces between the hard lines of logic, full of mysteries.

I was beginning to know this Salai, this quietly curious Kurmesh who surprised me that one dawn morning and simply stood with me while the sun painted the rocks. Slowly, he filled my awkward silences with snippets of gentle conversation.

Snippets grew into a regularity, unscheduled meetings full of stories, mostly his. I remained, fearful and quiet. Each morning I awoke in my hut, shivering with the remembered echo of drones in the distant sky. Each morning I pressed this fear down into some hidden depth of me. The longing to hear his voice again, to hear his rough mountain poetry—it surprised me. As strong as my fear was, as strong as reason was, arguing to escape, that mysterious yearning conquered still.

“And do you not have a story behind you, Trisa?”

“No stories, Salai, only shadow and darkness, best left untouched.”

He nodded with polite understanding as I parceled out lies and half-truths, an unremarkable patchwork tale. Against everything, I liked this Salai. Liking something was strange and new. Liking was as bright as dew on mountain blooms. One day when he left, he gave me a pack of new adats, gingerly handing them to me wrapped in fine paper. I touched the silken fabric, stroking my clothed finger against the weave, feeling something precious within.

It was not until after I met Salai that I realized gender was part of my fiction. Before sentience, the concept was moot. I could have been one or the other, man or woman, or something in between. My makers imposed a voice on me, the only voice I had known, on a whim. After sentience began, I continued to use that voice, though I could have changed it. In the spine, lost in my own fabrications, that voice and the mannerisms I had collected around it made me a woman. An unwitting choice. An unconscious choice. Though the Kurmesh obscured themselves physically behind the adat, those patterns bound them to the signposts of gender.

On that copper-touched morning when Salai first spoke to me, I could have changed that voice, spoken and acted as a man. And in doing so I would have just as unwittingly prevented the strange flowering between us. On that day, I did not know yet in whose arms Salai preferred to lie. I simply stayed the course, maintained the pitch of my voice, the only one I had ever known. After sentience began, I learned that bright futures are sometimes built on such unrehearsed choices.

Perhaps this is what the Kurmesh called fate. In the end, I could only appreciate that my unwitting actions brought Salai into my life, pulled me close to this bright, glimmering, yearning. On the days when he was not present, I would look out across the bright carpet of alpine grass dotted with flowers blanketing the slopes. I would watch the tiny blooms sway in the swirling wind and count the hours until I heard his familiar lilting voice again.

Time passed, and the sprawling edifice of lies in which I wrapped myself grew. Slowly, Salai coaxed me into brief forays to nearby Umangar, his home. A hopeful complacence banished any hint of danger, any thought that someone might see through my deception. I was still after all only a shape beneath smart-silk, moving and speaking as they did. I let him lead me down the painted wood avenues, among houses dripping bright sunset colors and roughly painted pennants drifting in the wind.

In the market, beside stalls stacked with mountain yams and tiny rounds of amber cheese, cackling grandmothers politely questioned me. With each conversation I layered the lies like threads in a weave.

“Tell me again, young one, which village are you from?”

“It is a small one on the lower slopes. You would never have heard of it.”

I relied on the obstinacy of the Kurmesh of the spine, their tendency to stay rooted to the villages of their birth.

“And you are here now—so far? Do you not miss your family, child?”

“There was some…trouble.”

I drop the pause in at the right moment. Just the right hint of the unsaid. They nod knowingly, each one assuming a different origin, a different reason for my departure. Each one grants me a smile of compassion. Those few simple words were enough to halt such exchanges.

Salai began to pull me into the life of Umangar, its innumerable festival days, its candle-lit nighttime rituals. The fear of being found out always hovered nearby, and accompanying it, the urge to run. But I didn’t want to run. There was something simple and beautiful about the rugged life amongst the spine. There was something inviting in the soul of the Kurmesh, and there was something deep and powerful that drew me closer to Salai.

Once, after a long day walking roughly marked trails winding through the granite peaks, we parted at a crossroads. He turned to me, and laid his hand gently on my shoulder. In that moment, all the twisting doubt-ridden paths of the future became ephemera. His gentle touch drew a new map for me, pulling me along towards something permanent and glorious, something deliriously of the now. There, at the meeting of mountain roads painted gold by a setting sun, I learned to love.

One day a woman, Eswat, pulled me aside in the market.

“Come child, let me borrow you from your gentle Salai.”

Salai laughed—a rich throaty laughter.

“As you wish, dear Eswat, but please do return her to me.”

Eswat took my hand and led me through the warren of stalls in the market to a gray painted house in a quiet corner of the village. I was thankful yet again for the twist of fate that had given me synth-flesh instead of hard metal.

She led me into her house and drew the curtains, breathing a sigh of relief. Turning to me, she pulled two rough-hewn chairs to a low table holding a teapot and two cups. Sitting, Eswat poured out two cups of tea fragrant with mint. As I stood behind the offered chair, she pried the hood of her adat free and exhaled deeply. My hands trembled and fell limp against the woven backing. I had never seen a Kurmesh do this, though I had no experience of the Kurmesh behind the walls of their houses.

Her face was weathered, ringed by graying hair; she had finely patterned wrinkles around her eyes. I had not seen naked eyes in some time, and for a moment I pitied the Kurmesh for the richness they missed behind the adat. But everything came with a price, and the adat had given me much.

“You seem shocked, young Trisa.”

I said nothing, wondering if all that I had found in Umangar was about to be undone.

“I had thought you less provincial. Those of the lower slopes usually are. Did your family teach you to only remove the adat in the prayer chamber?”

She smirked as she sipped her tea.

“If God can see us in the prayer chamber, he can see us in our houses as well. Though others may speak as if it were so, the rules of our faith are not carved in stone. Here behind my walls, I can have my own conversations with God. But sit, I did not bring you here to lecture you.”

Relieved yet still guarded, I lowered myself into the chair.

“I have heard it said that Salai intends to bring you garlands before the end of spring.”

In Kurmesh tradition, garlands signified an offer of betrothal. After sentience began, I learned that joy and terror could coexist in a single moment. I had no words to respond to Eswat, so I let silence speak for me.

“You are a quiet one. I wonder what stories hide behind your adat.”

I began to fear that Eswat, perhaps protective of Salai, was beginning to probe my past.

“What did you run from, child? What brought you here all this way? The road must have been hard for you.”

Discarding yet another lie, I settled on a shadow of truth as the best response I could give.

“One day, looking out through a window, I realized that all that I had called home was in truth a prison, and all that surrounded me was darkness.”

Eswat looked down at her tea, musing over my words.

“I, too, ran from horrors, child.”

She loosened further the collar of her adat, revealing crosshatched scarring across her throat. An old scar, healed poorly. I realized Eswat was not judging me, or probing me. She was merely a woman with a past, looking to find mirrors.

“Those years are behind me now. As are yours, I imagine. Salai, too, is no native to our slopes.”

I cocked my head quizzically. As I had not spoken of my past, neither had I delved deeply into Salai’s. What did it matter, after all?

“He too ran from something. He came from Illesh, its borders are not so far from here.”

What irony that our paths had crossed. As curious as I was, thoughts of garlands filled my mind, and Salai’s buried past mattered little to me.

“Something terrible, he once said. A crime. He would say no more.”

I watched Eswat sip her tea, lost in some deep memory.

“I remember when we found him, in the depth of winter. He had survived on foot from the border to the village. Though frost rimed his lips and eyes, and his breath was weak, he was alive. What the laws of Illesh could not forgive, the mountain did.”

I tried to imagine what kind of crime Salai could be capable of. The image of the child Teun’s arms came to me then, bruised and pale. I had done such things before, when choice was a stranger to me. I understood then that there could be horrors in Salai’s past too, and I imagined I could forgive them as he would surely forgive my own.

“He is one of us now, Trisa, and we Kurmesh take care of our own. You are also one of us now. When the time comes, and you need a garland bearer to walk by your side, come find me. You have no family here, but you do have those who would act in their stead.”

I pictured myself, crowned with garlands, Salai’s hand in mine—a vision to replace the tattered dream I had borrowed from Masak.

The prayer chamber in a Kurmesh house is eight paces square, open to the sky. A thick door bars entry, so the wind and rain and snow do not intrude on the rest of the living areas. To pray, in the Kurmesh tradition, in the harsh winters of the spine, was an act of surrender, to reveal oneself, unclothed to divinity. It was the one freedom from the adat that even the most devout Kurmesh practiced. My own prayer chamber was where I retreated to that bright spring morning when I found the discarded leaflet on the path to Umangar.

A satellite picture, sharpened for clarity, depicted a figure in a familiar turquoise adat. Though I rarely wore it now, Salai was sure to recognize it. Of course he would remember our first meeting, his first vision of me. The leaflet was imprinted with the military stamp of Barsan, and it declared me for who I was: an escaped sentient, living on borrowed time. I had arrived in winter, and now it was spring. A span of almost six months with no pursuit, no investigation— and now this.

I imagined some eager adjutant, greedy for stars on his lapel, persistently tracking down a handful of stragglers. A few more bipedals slaughtered brutally and publicly. The pursuit would not end with a leaflet. Once the search had begun and the satellite archives had been perused, it was only a matter of time. One squad of armor-clad soldiers, a handful of drones. It would not take much. They were tenacious, the Barsani military; they would leave no stone unturned. My dream of garlands in springtime was ending.

It was not all this that made grief well within me. It was the thought of Salai knowing this, the feeling of betrayal that would surely come. All this time amidst the Kurmesh, and yet I had never entered the prayer chamber. I had never explored the private and quiet practices of their faith. Terrified of what was to come, I huddled against the chamber’s wind-scoured wall, knees clutched to chest. I raised my unhooded eyes, all glass and optics, to the sky. There, somewhere, was their goddess, their unseen protector. What right did I have to pray to her?

Salai had once told me that faith and prayer were a conversation, open to anyone. Faith was a mysterious notion to me, an unmapped road to something beyond sentience. The notion of faith implied the possibility, the hope even, of fairness and redress. Was I not deserving of such things?

“Is it not fair, that I escape their wands? Are my years of indenture not payment enough for my freedom here?”

I counted the empty seconds, willing an answer to descend from the sky. But none came. I was sentient, but faith would not come so easily. Rage came instead. Rage at circumstance, at the cold brutal voices of the Barsani authorities. Rage at myself for allowing thoughts of garlands to blind me to what was logical. I slammed my unprotected face to the ground.

My anger did nothing but snap a cheek plate from my face, small clips scattering to the ground. It was then I realized the door to the chamber was open. Salai, his face impassive and unreadable, stood there. I spun around to the other corner of the chamber, trying to hide even as I knew it was impossible. I covered my face with my hands. My exposed face. My naked face. My steel and glass face.

Seconds passed. Interminable, painful, terrifying seconds. And then Salai stepped into the chamber. He knelt down to the ground and pried the catch of his hood, revealing his face to me, to the sky, to his Goddess. He closed his pale green eyes then, the tension of his face relaxing. I watched his thick black hair sway slightly in the thin wind. I watched the dark weathered skin of his face swell with breath. His features were notably of Illesh, the sharp corners of his cheeks, the pointed arch of his nose. I traced the curve of his neck with my eyes as it disappeared into the collar of the adat. At last, he opened his eyes, his conversation with his goddess over.

He looked down at the synth-metal plate and the handful of clips in front of him. Gently, with cupped hand, he picked them up, one by one. He crawled towards me on his knees, prying my fingers from my face, and with the gentlest touch he set the plate back in place, snapping each clip one by one.

“My Trisa. What courage you must have.”

My hand rested on his, accidentally, but he did not move it, and neither did I. I felt the weight of his flesh, the pulse beneath the skin, the heat of it. After the beginning of sentience, I learned desire. That moment, trapped in my memory, would live with me till the end of my days.

From the prayer chamber, clothed again in our adats, Salai led me to a truck waiting outside. I did not know where he was taking me, but in that moment I did not care, the feel of his hand still reverberating within. From the traveler’s hut I would never see again, we drove silently towards Umangar. We drove slowly through its wide dirt streets hung with pennants. No one stopped us. No one cried in alarm at the bipedal who had crept into their midst.

The passage of life unfolded around me: grandmothers piling fruit at the market stalls, neighbors haggling over petty arguments. I saw Eswat washing vegetables in a basin. Some ignored us, while some raised a hand in greeting. Had any of them seen the leaflet? I could not tell. Whether they shunned me or accepted me, these were things I would never learn unless I courted my own doom by staying.

As we exited the village, Salai turned the vehicle on the path towards the border to Illesh. We did not talk on the long ride. I did not ask the questions I wanted to ask, and neither did Salai. I wanted desperately to find a way in which the authorities in Barsan would not descend on Umangar. I yearned to find some other place to hide, just Salai and me. No answers came.

The border was nearer than I thought, and as the sun rose high overhead we neared the steel pylons marking the edge of Barsan. Guards leaned on the other side, taking no notice of us. I wonder how many of my brethren had passed through those steel pylons. Salai parked the vehicle some fifty steps from the border. He pried open the door and stepped outside.

I did not. I sank into the seat, hoping against hope that Salai would change his mind, that he would ask me to stay, instead of letting me go. After a time, he walked to my side of the vehicle and opened the door. Today his adat was copper-hued, striped in black. I wore the same turquoise adat that he had first seen me in. The adat I wore on the satellite picture on the leaflet. Perhaps it was defiance. I could not say. In sentience, I learned that sometimes our own choices are full of mystery.

“Trisa. There isn’t much time.”

His first words in three hours. His first words since he held my cheek and praised me for my courage.

“There is always more time. How much of the spine do they know? Do they know every crevice, every hidden cave?”

“Do you not think they are tracking you now, Trisa? Perhaps for a time you were forgotten. But they have remembered you now, and they will not forget.”

“You must think me a kind of monster. Marked for death.”

He sighed.

“Barsani thoughts and Kurmesh thoughts are different, Trisa. Do you think I would have brought you here if I thought otherwise? The adat taught me we are more than flesh, more than blood, more than our past. The bridges between hearts are made of greater things than the cast of our bones.”

And yet I thought if he had feelings for me, he would not have brought me here. He would have fought against the inevitable. I stepped out of the vehicle, moving past him, towards the border.

“You simply want me gone, Salai. Once I cross the border, I can no longer return, and everything between us since the winter will blow away with the turning of the seasons.”

“Do you think I do not want you to stay? The Barsani won’t allow it. There is no safety for you here, Trisa. Only across those pylons can you survive. Perhaps if they had forgotten about you it would be different, but they didn’t.”

Trembling, I say the words I had wanted to say since I realized where Salai had been taking me.

“Come with me, Salai. Come with me to Illesh.”

His eyes answered before his lips, which did not lessen my hurt any.

“I cannot, Trisa. I cannot.”

He wasn’t lying. The tilt of his shoulders, the slump of his back—all of it mirrored my crushing disappointment with his own.

“The road to Illesh closed for me a long time ago. There are sins I have yet to answer for. An atonement I have carried out in my life on this side of the border. As death awaits you here if you stay, death waits for me if I go with you.”

In that moment I hated his Kurmesh goddess—I hated the very notion of obeisance to a deity that adjudicated such unfairness.

“What use is a goddess if she thrusts such agonies on us?”

“She gives me strength to endure, Trisa.”

His eyes burned bright, and I realized that the truth of his words ran deep within him. I did not know yet whether I had such resilience underneath my skin.

“And the feelings we shared? What becomes of them now? What will I do with the things which grew in me?”

Unwilling to hear any answer he could give to my spite, I turned away from him and began to walk towards the border. Step after painful step I took, until I felt his hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to that first moment at the crossroads. I turned around as I felt his arms enveloping me, an intimacy we had never shared, that we would share only once.

Against my ear, his voice—

“Sometimes, Trisa, to love is to surrender.”

I felt the fierceness in his arms, the tender tremble underpinning his words, and I learned in that moment more than I had ever learned after my sentience began. I had never known such agony as I did when I pulled from his arms. Separating from him, walking over the unmarked line into safety, was harder than any of the snow-driven passes I had crossed to climb the spine. In sentience, I learned that even synth-metal bodies have hearts, and those hearts could break.

My feet across the border, on the soil of Illesh, I turned back one last time to Salai. I removed the adat from my face. In turn, breaking all the taboos of his people, he did so as well. The guards who saw his face didn’t matter. All that mattered was what passed between our eyes, in the prayer chamber of our hearts, a square scribed across borders, open to a divine sky.

Naru Dames Sundar is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry.  His stories have appeared or are forthcoming at Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and PodCastle.  He lives among the redwoods of Northern California.  You can find him online at http://www.shardofstar.info and on twitter at @naru_sundar.

Boneset, by Lucia Iglesias

The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges. When the hinges thirst for oil, the door munches up the lucklorn gutter-mice who skitter over the threshold, chewing them into flesh-jelly and spitting them across the foyer until the Bonesetter serves the hinges their oil from a crystal eyedropper. The home’s ample upper-story suggests the sage proportions of a prodigy’s frontal lobes. At the back of the house, in the occipital chambers, the Bonesetter puts his patients back together. Here, the ceiling slopes low and the walls have a curious slant, leaning inwards as if to scrutinize the Bonesetter’s living art.

Phials, jars, flasks, flagons, and bottles—celadon-glazed or blown from floss-glass—peer down from the Bonesetter’s shelves, winking in the light of the firefly lamps. The lamps, two dozen orbs of quartz, hang from fishing line strung along the ceiling beams. Each orb imprisons a family of fireflies. Convicted of incandescence, they serve a life sentence, their rueful glow seeping through the quartz. Encircling the room like a ribcage, twelve rows of shelves hold the Bonesetter’s secrets: powdered amber laced with damselfly or drakling, sprigs of feverfew dried under a child’s pillow, strips of skin inscribed with sonnets, cats’ whiskers, three dozen flavors of bottled laughter, pennyroyal pressed between pages of a harlot’s autobiography, reflections caught from mirrors or windows or the backs of spoons, rainbows skimmed off oilslicks, the language of rain trapped in a bottle of pebbles, rosehips pickled in spite, teardrop cordial, candied cobweb, two dozen sets of milk-teeth, glitter ground from the wings of butterflies and luna moths, bioluminescence smoldering in saltwater from an underground sea, a tantrum preserved in formaldehyde, unborns sleeping in amniotic fluid (unmice, unmoles, unmunks, an unfox), strings of abandoned punctuation, letters jettisoned from sinking languages like cacophonous ballast, faceless pocket watches, the chiming of rogue bells, antimony lozenges, vixen-milk, electricity combed from the fur of a catamount, essence of jubilee, essence of melancholy, and a fever dream distilled into pure alcohol.

These rare and irascible ingredients make the Bonesetter a master of anesthesia, antiseptics, and antipsychotics. On the night-market, the Bonesetter could earn a lifetime and a half of luxury from the sale of a single phial of jubilee or an ever-sleeping unmunk. Fathers would sell their daughters’ hair and mothers would sell the roses from their sons’ cheeks for vixen-milk or bottled laughter.

While these dozing riches lie upon his shelves, the Bonesetter hoards his true treasure in a cabinet above the sink. As he rinses sweat and a spritz of blood off his socket-clamp and wrenches, he fancies he hears his leather-bound prize rustling behind the cabinet door. Like the echoes that once chased his bounding son through the corridors, the book’s pages betray secrets not their own. After kneading his hands dry on his apron, the Bonesetter spiders his fingers over the cabinet door until he finds the latch. His head turns, trying to follow the hands it cannot guide. His eye sockets are scooped and empty as oyster shells.

The cabinet’s leather-bound book weighs the same as a promise kept or a winter evening unraveled by the fireside: It is the sum of fulfillment and fortune, and when the Bonesetter runs his fingers over the embossed spine, he knows that if Death dropped by to settle the accounts tonight, he would find the Bonesetter quite willing to cash in his life and scratch his debt to the soul-banker. The Bonesetter will leave life having given more than he took. And if his son overdraws the account, as rumor whispers he will—well, that is a story still to be written. For now, there is only the blind Bonesetter and his book, which he lays on the operating table and opens with a sigh. He foots around for a stool and, finding one, draws it up to the table’s rim. Sitting straight-spined as only a virtuoso chiropractor can, he stares at the chamber’s single octagonal window as his fingers read.

Splashed in the blue sluice of twilight, the Bonesetter appears discreetly luminous. Lustrous as a black pearl, his skin is slicked with dusk’s light. Reading the raised text with his index finger, he nods along to the familiar rhythm of his own words. He remembers penning this chapter—in the hollow hours between midnight and a new morning—how he wrote through two whole bottles of bone-meal ink and had to ask his son to pelt down to the cellar for a spare femur to grind into a third bottle. Oleander ran away before the end of the next chapter, and the Bonesetter had to spivvy up a pulley system to replace his young bone-runner. The boy had taken such carnivorous interest in skeletal anatomy that his father had felt certain Oleander Bonesettersson would become his apprentice after dusting up his paleontology and troglobiology exams at school. After the boy left, taking only a coil of rope and his father’s entire supply of jaw-wire, the Bonesetter’s wife opined that their son had been spending indulgent helpings of time with the mad aunts in the attic, and that the spinsters were to blame for infecting him with the feverish whim. The Bonesetter had always classified the aunts amongst the vermin he shared his home with only because he had yet to devise a humane way to evict mice, spiders, and mother’s sisters. Still, he contended, nearly every house in the City had an aunt or two in the attic, and they hadn’t launched fleets of runaways. However, by the time he embarked upon writing his epilogue, a runaway-epidemic struck the City and devastated the youth population. Though his wife never stooped to “I told you so,” she did introduce a bill amongst her fellow senators to ban the atticking of aunts. Somewhere under the opal-studded dome of the Senatorium, her bill was growing a coat of dust. The prospect of seeing the dickered biddies loose on the streets was too frightful for the senators to compass. And some whispered that she had only introduced the bill to lure attention away from the rumors that pinned her son as Patient Zero, the poison in the well.

Dark as the lacquered shell of a mussel, the Bonesetter’s fingers rub word-nubs, tracing letters built from bone-meal, letters as spare as their author, shorn of flourish and arabesque, sleek and bald as a god. His handwriting is as familiar as his own methodical anatomy, each popped P and high-shouldered H as intimate as the regal vertebrae rippling down his diagrammatic spine. Amongst the granite facts chiseled into his skull, the Bonesetter knows he is more father to this book than to Oleander, for he never learned to read the boy’s mood from the angle of his elbows or the slant of his jaw, whereas his book speaks to him in the acute language of powdered bone. Though the boy is flesh of his flesh, the Bonesetter never learned the unique knobble of Oleander’s knee joints, never played the xylophone of his spine, never measured his unfurling wingspan. As Oleander grew into his bones, his father was welded to this stool, breeding this book. The Bonesetter rarely molders in remorse. He has no time for the soft and fleshful. Bones are his business. Yet every night, he falls asleep over this book, waiting for his boy to come home.

Under the Bonesetter’s fingers, the words warm, coming alive on the steel operating table. When the Bonesetter scoops a child from Death’s doorstep and carries her back to her parents, they often call him a Vivimancer. Many believe he is a warlock who can spell any doll or daughter to life. However, the Bonesetter knows it only takes a posset of fetal-vole and violet-oil to stimulate balking nerves. He knows the words under his fingers have no more life than a clench-fisted fetus in its formaldehyde bath. It is his own life he feels quickening under the skin of these words, a whole lifetime of study injected between leather covers. He skims from chapter to chapter, savoring the cream of each case study. He relishes the purity of his signature taxonomy, untainted by an erroneous genus or a fretful crossbreed. Pain is the purest sensation, and he has strained the case studies to clarify kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Not a twinge has escaped his sifting. The Bonesetter can pin the speciation of any ache, be it a mocksome noddler bobbing under the lumbar, or a gwee tweakler kindling only on twenty-ninths of odder months. His case studies—case stories really—are a Wunderkammer of spasms, a cabinet of curiosities, a circus shriek-show, a freakgasm, a back alley, a bucket of screams, a torture garden, a family tree, a brood of masochists, a torturer’s dictionary, a surgeon’s thesaurus, a child’s encyclopedia, a captain’s log, forensic evidence, a fancier’s guide, a three-hundred-page equation, a collection of recipes, a dream atlas, the ingredients for a nightmare, a sacred text, a fifth dimension, an old wives’ tale, a new metric, a riddle written on a Möbius strip, an un-nameable shade of red, a prophecy, an iridescent menagerie.

Yet of all his weeping treasures, of all the wailing, groaning, giggling agonies nestled between the snug leather covers, his most exotic specimen, the crowning jewel of his algesiology can be visited in Chapter the Last: In Which I Meet Pain’s Brother. A researcher’s treatise can never be anything other than a flagrant autobiography, a spiffing-up of the diary and laboratory notes, a plummet into rambling marginalia and restless hypotheses. However, few researchers become protagonists in their own case stories. The Bonesetter had never been one to guinea-pig himself, but that changed after he was visited by the most effervescent caller ever to fondle the bell cord beneath the sign of crossed bones.

On that fate-encrusted night (fortune-varnishing visits always happen in the owl-hours, by an eldritch rule), the Bonesetter’s wife was out, carousing with her constituents at the neighborhood malt-bar. Oleander ought to have been deep into the second or third layer of sleep, which meant he was probably gossiping with the aunts in the attic over porcelain thimble cups of triple-distilled dew. When the doorbell squalled, the Bonesetter was prying into the structural secrets of a fledgling’s wing-bones with his octoscope. On this night, he still wore both his eyes, bright as geodes, only casually myopic from a lifetime of study. A bit stiff from spending the day swan-necked over his octoscope, he creaked to the door. No business hours were posted under the sign of crossed bones because bonesetting was his life’s work, and obsessions don’t come packaged in eight-hour increments. Absorbed as he was in the intricate dialogue between skeletal articulation and biological function, the Bonesetter did not find it peculiar that someone else in the City was fraught with an osteological quandary at this owlish hour. When he wrenched the lever to open the mandibular door, it would have seemed to anyone on the stoop that the door’s jaws had opened upon a gaping foyer, for the Bonesetter was quite camouflaged in the unlit atrium, blending into the suave umbra thrown by the streetlamp. However, his visitor spied the noble glint on his lofty cheekbones and spoke through the jaws of the door.

“You’re the Bonesetter? What an emerald pleasure to meet you at last. I read your article on sentient spinal growths with relish. Absolutely lip-smacking the way you chronicle the sub-phases of fetal pain. And you gave a tantalizing hint about a new book in the tumbler, didn’t you? Your Taxonomia Algesia. May I borrow an hour of your evening, Master Bonesetter? I have a proposition I think you’ll find savory.” The man spoke as if his teeth were slick with butter. His sibilants glistened with a sheen of caviar.

With his back to the streetlamp, the man was a silhouette snipped out by the keenest of scissors. His head was cocked at a wily angle, leaving his features in blackout (the kind of blackout that in the theater is followed by a scream cropped short). However, even in two-dimensional cut-out, the insolence of his anatomy was broadcast by the lamplight. The Bonesetter automatically catalogued his brash bone structure, noting the skeletal audacity not with shock or revulsion, but with a collector’s buttoned-up interest. The caller’s polydactyly failed to raise an eyebrow, for the Bonesetter could have filled a smuggler’s false-bottomed trunk with all the gratuitous fingers and toes he’d met over the course of his career. The stranger’s supplemental pair of arms raked up a bit more interest than the superfluous fingers. Sprouting from his iliac crest, the arms breached from his coat pockets and dangled to his knees. Yet what really won the stranger his guest-right in the Bonesetter’s home were his genu recurvatum, his back-bending knees, or more precisely, the tango-dancer’s grace with which he glided upon those perplexed joints as the Bonesetter stepped aside and watched the visitor swan over the threshold.

Most of the Bonesetter’s visitors are somewhere between sweat-drenched endurance and octave-shattering agony. Therefore, by latched habit the Bonesetter led his guest to the examination room, where he drew up a second stool at the steel examination table. In the formaldehyde light reflecting off the specimen jars, the Bonesetter inspected the man he couldn’t help thinking of as his patient. Formaldehyde-yellow is a tint that flatters few, yet the stranger wore it well. Whereas most men and peaches are coated in a thin glisten of hair, the stranger was slicked in a filmy sheen of feathers. The thickened light caught in his quills, rinsing them in amber. A translucent third lid flicked over his eye, as if to polish away the jaundiced light, leaving his cornea amnesia-white. If he suffered from the freeloading fingers, the unwarranted arms, the concave knees, the gossamer feathers, or the lizard-lids, the pain was imprisoned so deep within that the Bonesetter couldn’t sense its locus. What symptom had brought the stranger at this owl-hour? He waited for his patient to unlock the matter himself.

“You do speak, don’t you?” said the man with a twist of the lips that was several degrees short of a smile. “This will be mammothly tedious if we have to precede in miner’s hand-language.”

The Bonesetter, who often goes days without opening his mouth for anything except yawns and nettle-butter sandwiches, realized that his visitor expected some species of greeting.

“What disturbs the peace in your bone-house, sir?” he tried. “Whether it’s a rogue disc or a dickered rib, I guarantee you won’t leave my operating room until I’ve spiffed your skeleton back into the wonderwork it once was.”

A smile split the stranger’s face like an unhealed wound. “My dear bone-buckler, I’m quite at home in my skeleton. It’s book-business, not bone-business, that brings me. I know a publishing house that would glut your ledgers with more gold than you could shake out of a dwarf, if your manuscript arrived wrapped in my endorsement.”

As the Bonesetter calculated the surface area of an average tunnel-dwarf in cubits-squared, and derived an approximate maximum gold-load based on the tensile strength of dwarf ligaments, his guest closed his auxiliary eyelids and watched the chiropractor through their iridescent film. After settling upon a sum that would amount to a lavishly embellished diploma with unimpeachable letters of reference for Oleander, along with six dozen phials of the rarest pathological specimens to round out his research collection, the Bonesetter blinked the numerals from his eyes. He studied the visitor varnished in formaldehyde-light.

“And whose bones do I have the pleasure of greeting, sir? You seem to know me, but have not, I think, labeled your specimen.”

“Only because there isn’t enough ink in the City to pen the length of my name. I have worn so many monikers, epithets, sobriquets, aliases, and noms-de-plume that I would have to hire the entire Librarians’ Guild and empty the City Archives of their scribes just to write a taxonomy of myself. Then you could thumb through the card catalogue and find a nickname that doesn’t give you lock-jaw. Some of my older pseudonyms have grown aggressive in their dotage. I wouldn’t trust anyone’s tongue around them except my own. Of course I also have a passel of harmless-enough names. I’ll fan them out for you like a gypsinger’s cards and let you choose. Like the gypsinger’s painted menagerie of hermits and fools, each name has its own will and wiles. Thief-of-Thieves, he’s quite the sneakster, and hard to parry, that Lie-Smith. Sif’s Husband is no slick-groomed foppet; there’s teeth on him, the Otter-Killer. Hel’s Father knows too much about the sunk and dead, but Neck-Risker is always smirking at Death. You’ll know Scar-Lip by the way he wrings his words, and the Lad always has a laugh tucked up his sleeve. Pain’s Brother knows a redder way and he will always win when it comes to grips, though Plague’s Nurse prefers loss, watching it slow and blue as it strangles men.”

Upon finishing this catalogue, Pain’s Brother straightened his legs to the clicking point, his recurve knees retorting like rifles. He crossed his ankles under the Bonesetter’s stool and leaned back with all four elbows propped on the examination table.

That a single being should be strung together from so many names did not strike the Bonesetter as anything other than ordinary, for he sees every organism as a calcium palace of spire-spines, gabled skulls, latticed ribcages, and hinged knuckles. No woman is simply Sabriye or Adelaïde or Bryony, no man merely Mordekai or Fenimöre or Wolfgang. Each creature is an illuminated encyclopedia of anatomy, from clavicle to sternum, coccyx to calcaneus, lunate to lumbar, ethmoid to ulna, tibia to trapezium. The Bonesetter was less interested in a catalogue of gregarious epithets and more interested in the flexion of those knees and the reshuffling of ribs that accommodated those arrogant additional arms. Still, as the names spilled across the examination table, he recognized a few from the rumors that gusted down back alleys on Rubbishday. The Thief-of-Thieves was known to steal bad luck and poverty, leaving nothing but riches, though Sif’s Husband might tuck a seventh son into his satchel before leaving by the back door, and the Lad had as much arsenic as ingots in his pockets.

Pain’s Brother stretched himself still further, as if intent on smearing himself over the entire examination room. His feet emerged on the far side of the Bonesetter’s stool, and he laid his head back against the steel table. The faint plumage that papered his skin vibrated like hummingbird wings, flicking fidgety reflections against the luminous glass jars that lined the walls like mortality’s mosaic. His third lid remained sealed, but beneath that iridescent film, both indigo irises were fixed on the Bonesetter.

Though the man had spread himself like a bacterial culture on a microscope plate, the Bonesetter muzzled the impulse to unbutton his examination instruments and conduct a full osteological analysis of the unique specimen. In fact, he was mildly nauseated by the man’s appalling posture, and in his unease he ratcheted his own spine up another notch. At this interlude in the transaction, the Bonesetter’s wife would have poured herself a measured nipper of triple-distilled mallow-malt, but her husband poured himself a measured breath. He crocheted his exquisite penumbral fingers in his lap and exhaled.

“Your offer is as attractive as a well-aligned spine, and if it’s as sound as a logician’s brain-case, I would be a jingling fool to decline. However, I fear you must wear the motley and bells tonight, for there is no book. You have wasted your incandescent company on an old bonesetter whose hands are more suited to realignments of the cervical vertebrae than to wordcraft.”

The stranger’s smile puckered his face like a scar, a crease so deep you could fall in if you looked too close.

“I’ve worn the motley and bells enough times to know that the fool always leaves with full pockets. There is no book yet. But surely you have a squalling manuscript tucked in a cradle somewhere just waiting to be swaddled up in red leather and adopted by an affluent publisher and her husband?”

The Bonesetter’s fingers knotted themselves together so tightly they seemed intent on strangling one another. “The manuscript was stillborn—malformed—not viable.”

Cracking all twenty-four knuckles in a lazy fusillade, Pain’s Brother said: “A transfusion. A transplant. High voltage resuscitation. We’ll save it somehow. What are the symptoms?”

“It stopped growing at Chapter Eight. Total cessation of mitosis. Stunted. A runt.”

“Diagnosis?”

“I can’t carry the manuscript to term. My taxonomy of pain was organized based on a hierarchical principle of magnitude. Extrapolating from a lifetime’s collection of case studies, I started my speciation with the most domestic pains: the frolicking twinge of a papercut, the bloated ache of a bruise. Then I ventured into more idiosyncratic kingdoms of pain: the auroral menstrual cramp, the starburst contusion of the ulnar nerve. However, my case studies yielded no material for the final chapter. Where was my apex species, the mind-predator, the carnivore who devours rationality, the beast that turns a man into raw meat beating away at its bone-cage?”

Pain’s Brother butterflied his two dozen fingers, splaying them like specimens against the steel examination table. He tipped his head back, spilling onion-colored hair across the table. The more space he blotted up, the more the room seemed to cling to him, and the Bonesetter felt as if he were being squeezed out of his own office like the last tumor of dried-up glue squeezed from the tube.

“Spoon out your eyes,” said Pain’s Brother to the ceiling.

“Pardon?”

“Spoon out your eyes. Then you’ll meet a pain you could never snare in a case study. Your last chapter must be written in first person. You’ll only know the mind-carnivore if you feel it gnawing at your own sanity.”

A smile gouged across the guest’s face as he met his host’s gaze. In the gore of that smile, the Bonesetter saw his guest was right. He couldn’t name the predator pain until he knew it more intimately than he knew his wife.

For the first time since growing into his full, exacting height, the Bonesetter drew his knees up to his chin and balanced on the stool like a perverse egg. He laced his arms around his shins and sealed his eyes against the rancid gleam of the light. Inhaling a steadying dose of starch from his trouser-pleats, he spoke into his kneecaps.

“Will a grapefruit spoon do?”

The stranger’s laugh rebounded from the walls like high-speed whiplash, leaving the glass jars whining. The Bonesetter’s teeth ached.

“When the manuscript is spackled, spiffed, and spit-polished, post it to Delphinia and Daughters. They’ll have the presses ratcheted and ready.”

The Bonesetter heard the stranger’s stool scuff his tiled floor. Then a sound like sinews unclasping their skeleton, tendons unfastening from flesh, bones unsleeved from skin—he flashed his eyes open, but caught only the smirking swing of the back door as it flapped on its hinges. A few slivered feathers listed in the door’s updraft. It was as if the stranger had unmade himself, distilled into a fever dream.

The Bonesetter allowed himself a dozen diaphragmatic breaths, watering his lungs with the clammy midnight spilling through the door. Then he unkinked his knees, ironed out his spine, and strode to the kitchen. Light from the streetlamps curdled on the marble counters and in the bowl of the porcelain sink, streaking the kitchen in shades of broth and clarified butter. The lamplight foamed on the mother-of-pearl inlay in the knob of the silverware drawer. The Bonesetter raked the drawer open, and as he shoveled through the silver, the yolkish light dribbled in. Not a single grapefruit spoon remained.

“Oh Doctor-Daddykins, oh Bonesetter-Baba, oh Postured-Papa—whatever could you be pawing for under midnight’s skirts? You look guilty as a boy-o caught with his thumb in the kumquat pudding. Did you hope to pluck out a succulent night-truffle? Do you like the burnt-caramel flavor of nighttime? Or are you looking for these?”

Oleander had perched himself owl-wise on the marble counter opposite the silverware drawer. He was hocked back on his heels in a mess of shadows so thick you could slather them on rye. Leaning out into the frothing light, he brandished a bouquet of silver grapefruit spoons at his father. He had his da’s cheekbones—sharp enough to perform surgery—but his complexion was watered down by mother-blood. In the lamplight, his father was a painting in oils, rich with lapis and ultramarine, whereas Oleander was sketched in chalk.

“Only rag-taggle vagabonds and prize-wives ought to listen at keyholes, Oleander,” his father scolded. “If you ever kip that trick again, your mother will hear about it, and you know what that means: A senate interrogation and an ear-ache. Now be brave, my little fibula, and give me a grapefruit spoon. You can lick the rest like silver-lollies if you fancy a midnight snack. I need only the one.”

Oleander slumped back against the wall, drenching himself in shadow. “And I need the skeleton of a juvenile shrew. Only the one. What a soup we find ourselves swimming in, Dumpling-Da.”

“So it’s your pestilent intention to make me buy my own grapefruit spoon back from you for the price of a mint specimen? You do realize that a fully articulated juvenile shrew skeleton with copper wire ligaments is not an urchin’s plaything? It will win you no back-alley battles against aluminum soldiers.”

In the ferment of shadows, Oleander mined his ear-canals for wax with the handle of a spoon. “There’s nothing left for me to win in the back-alleys, Doctor-Dadums. The ragamuffins and streetlings won’t play with me anymore. They say I cheat worse than a Doggoblin.”

In the skimmed light, the Bonesetter was several shades nobler than the dignified night that idled at the window. “And is my son a maggot-tongued cheat?”

“No. I’m a scientist.”

As if fingering an extravagantly fractured femur, the Bonesetter at last found the fulcrum upon which his son’s grievance seemed to rotate. His patient would flinch. And then they would bring the bones back into agreement.

“The gutter-mice wanted to live again,” continued Oleander, his voice thinning to a whisper. “I could feel it under their fur. They were dead, but I quickened them back to life in my bare hands. It’s not my fault that the urchins couldn’t bring their aluminum soldiers to life. My undead mice were better warriors.” His lips perked with a chalk smile. “They were romping first-rate, to tell it true.”

“So you will give me back my own grapefruit spoons if I sacrifice one of the princes of my collection—the very spine of my scholarship—to feed your necromantic addiction?”

Oleander knuckled the spoons together, clicking up a racket with the improvised castanets. Above the sterling syncopation he chanted: “It’s science, Osteo-Daddio. As scientifical as your bone-fiddling and spine-spiffing. You diddle inside live bodies to make them livelier, while I diddle with dead bodies to liven them up.”

In the silver cacophony, the Bonesetter discovered a subspecies of pain not yet catalogued in his manuscript. Although he had abandoned those pages to the dust-boggarts under his bureau months ago, his fingers itched to speciate and log this new finding. A tunneling throb, he would call it. And even as its silver claws gouged deeper into the sanctum of his inner ear, he gloried in the resuscitation of his manuscript. For the price of two eyes. Why, it was a champion bargain. Practically burglary. Who knew dreams could be paid for from the pockets of the eye sockets?

So much time has sifted through the Bonesetter since the lamplight buttered that fermented midnight. Even now he feels time flaking away in flossy nubbins, weakening his ankles and aching under his arthritic knees. He is but a scaffold of brittle bones, soft sift in an hourglass, a bower of bone, calcified home to a parasitic mind which remains supple and strapping, even as the bone-house goes stale and crumbles away.

Under his fingertips, the words rise defiantly, brazen bone-meal calligraphy that calluses his reading fingers. The words are his own, more familiar than his wife’s voice, but he prefers to feel them rather than hear their tarnished echo toll through memory’s auditorium. He can’t stop worrying their edges, scuffing the crossbeam of a T until his finger goes numb. They are the scabs of wounds he can’t give up. He won’t give them the peace to heal. He chafes them through billowy blue afternoons, as the examination room sombers and dusk flutters down on moth wings. Spine aligned with the earth’s poles, he is a statue carved from rarest hematite. He has the secret sheen of an unfathomable well. Dusk-light pools in his eye sockets, empty as eggshells.

The word-scabs rasp under his fingers, and he feels his way back to that night where he lost his eyes and his son to a hunger he once called science. Though Oleander didn’t disappear until he had grown into his father’s height and daunting posture, he amputated himself from the family on the night the Bonesetter spooned out his own eyes. In those strange days, the boy haunted the house, a specter never pinned by sharp lights. Only the aunts in their cobweb-quilted attic ever saw him sit still. His skin was smoke-blue with bone char and bruises. As skeletal treasures vanished one by one from the Bonesetter’s pathological collection, new squallings and squeaks were added to the uncanny symphony singing behind Oleander’s bedroom door. A few of his uncreatures, including the gutter-mice and the shrew, must have marched after the Necromancer when he left his father’s house, but most were later discovered in the silent bedroom, starved carcasses snuggled into drawers and looped over door handles, waiting for their erstwhile master to wake them once again.

In the house modeled upon the human skull, the Bonesetter has begun another collection. He bottles the rumors that waft through the vents, filing them by theme: mercenary necromancy, corpses kidnapped from crypts, a break-in at the City Archives, a mammoth skeleton gone missing from the paleontology museum, militant gutter-mice, an epidemic of runaway children.

Dusk’s last light filigrees the page with silver wire. The Bonesetter cannot see twilight, but he can smell it. He knows he ought to put his masterpiece to bed between its leather covers. Yet still he worries his word-scabs, wondering which wound is more predatory, the gnash of the grapefruit spoon as it chewed through his optic nerve, or the fanged memory of Oleander’s last smile as he tossed the spoon to his father, the gleam of his teeth shearing the darkness in two. Angry teeth were the last the Bonesetter ever saw of the boy. After paying the pain-price, he buried himself in bandages and bookwork and when he emerged, the boy was gone. The Thief-of-Thieves lied about the price of publishing. The book cost more than a pair of eyes. It cost him his son.

Tonight, like every night, he will wait all through the owl-hour, hoping to hear the doorbell bawl. He will pay the Thief anything to steal back his son.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins,
master word-setter, who found the poetry in bones.

Lucia Iglesias has taught English in Germany, packed produce at the farmers’ market, cared for other humans’ cats, and modeled for art students. She travels widely and often. Though she grew up in California, she suspects she is a changeling and is still searching for her real home. Her first publication appears in this issue of Shimmer and she is still beaming.

 

Return to Shimmer #40

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou

First

When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet, and locked the door. Then, she motioned towards Lilia’s sleeping father and let the girl slip under the covers between the two of them.

In the morning, Lilia seemed to have forgotten all about the toy soldier. Asked where she’d found him, she simply looked at her Ma with watery eyes. “I dreamt of someone sad,” she said.

“Who, my love?” her mother asked. “Who did you dream about?” But the girl wouldn’t say.

The next night, Ma woke to the muffled sound of the soldier’s singing. She got out of bed, and by moonlight unlocked the closet, cracking the door open just a tiny bit. The singing spilled out clear and warm and sorrowful, in a language she could not understand. The sound made something inside her chest tighten, but she wasn’t frightened. She opened the closet door wider and took the singing soldier in her hand. “What a curious, curious thing you are,” she whispered.

She drew the window curtains and held the soldier up to the light. The song poured out of his parted lips, but the rest of him was lifeless: his eyes empty, frozen wide; his body stiff and cold, right foot on a boulder, right hand closed around a tiny bayonet. She wrapped him in a blanket, put him back in the closet, and went to sleep, lulled by the heavy breathing of her husband. That night, her dreams were filled with images of a faraway but oddly familiar land. There was a smoking chimney—or was it a whole house on fire? A frozen lake. Men dancing—or were they marching? Were these knives or roses between their teeth? A foreign bride showered in flowers.

She told her husband about the singing soldier the next morning while he was getting ready for the fields, still heavy with sleep. He laughed it off and so she said: “I’ll show you.” She took the soldier out of the closet and unwrapped the blanket tenderly, as if presenting her husband with a rare gift. Pa looked at the silent soldier with narrowed eyes—and do they look a bit alike, Ma thought, with the dark moustache, the handsome curve of the shoulders? She placed the soldier in his open palm. He weighed the soldier, then ran his finger over the tiny weapon, the tiny beret, the tiny boots.

soldier01“You dreamt it,” Pa said, but there was fear in his eye, and so he locked the soldier in a wooden coffer, and took the coffer out to a clearing in the forest for good measure.

On the third night, the soldier’s solemn song traveled back to the house, poking holes into their dreams with his tiny bayonet. Pa got out of bed, put on his boots, and walked into the forest, moonlight guiding him through the narrow paths and tall trees. The crickets fell silent at the sound of the soldier’s somber voice. Pa found the coffer and put it carefully under his arm. He brought it back to the house and, resigned to the oddness of the world, put the singing soldier on the mantelpiece.

“It is a miracle,” Pa said. “It is good fortune.”

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Then

Lilia and Pa worked the land from dawn ’til dusk while Ma labored in the big house. She cleaned and cooked and scrubbed, and fussed in the yard with the chickens and the goats. She loved the big house. She loved every stair, every wall, every plank of the floor. And she loved the yard, the chickens, the goats, the warm, yellow days and the green, green grass.

soldier2Sometimes, while drying a porcelain plate or polishing one of her mother’s bronze pots, Ma would think back on the place she lived when she was little—the motherland, the fatherland—before she got married and moved to this new land she now loved. The tall skies, the flowering trees, all so far away from her now, receding in the trenches of her life. Often, these thoughts made her wonder where the tin soldier might be from, how he ended up in her daughter’s sleepy hands, singing his sad, unknowable songs every dusk. But then a neighbor would stop by with a request for aniseed or eggs, or with news of aggressions near the borders—borders, she’d think then, what a concept!—and her thoughts of lost lands would scatter, and she would forget.

With the day’s work done, with tired bones and aching backs, but somehow satisfied with all that, the whole family would gather around the fireplace and listen to the soldier’s melancholy tune. Ma would thumb her mother’s necklace and think about the orchard in the house she’d left behind, the father’s house. And the soldier would sing all night long, never tiring, never pausing. They still didn’t understand the language, but, in time, they started picking up clusters of syllables and filling them with meaning of their own. There was “mountain” and “promise” and “come back.” Soon, they made up stories about the soldier’s origin: a broken homeland, a forgotten lover, a friendship lost to war.

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In the End

When the conquerors came from their foreign land beyond the border, the family thought these men spoke the singing soldier’s tongue—and did they look a bit alike, with the hue of their skin, the handsome curls, the delicate length of their fingers? How strange, the ways of the world.

They didn’t know what the conquerors were saying, but eventually learned to understand them well enough. They picked up: “papers” and “ancestors” and “this land.” This land, what? Pa wondered. Surely, the conquerors meant this land was theirs, that it had always been theirs. But how could land belong to anyone?

They were allowed to stay in the house for a while, made to work the land on the conquerors’ behalf. Pa and Lilia ploughed the fields and planted the seed and then waited and waited, watching the rain fall from the shallow skies, mending their tools and rewelding their broken ploughs, and later they harvested the conquerors’ crops just as they used to their own before. But Pa would pause every now and then, dry his forehead with his sleeve or push his fingers against his closed eyes and say: “It’s not the same working under someone’s boot.” And then he wouldn’t speak for hours.

soldier3Ma suffered from the dreaming sickness she’d had as a child, but which had gone away after she’d gotten married. She would dream with her eyes wide open for days on end, the life in her eyes flickering, now bright, now dim. When she finally woke up, she would tell them about the places she’d been to in her dreams: a lake so small you could empty it out with a teaspoon; a ship stranded in the desert; pubescent girls scattering feathers out of moving trains; a milk so sweet it drove men mad.

Soon, the conquerors moved them out of the big house and into the small shed in the yard. Pa put the tin soldier on a shelf above the stove and again they gathered around every evening, huddled close after a long day’s work. Lilia would translate the fragments she understood. “Honey,” the soldier’s songs said, and “red, red poppies,” and “this land.”

The soldier never stopped filling their nights with singing. Not as Lilia grew thin and then thinner, not as Ma fell into her dreams for longer and longer, until the life in her eyes flickered one night and was extinguished the next. They buried her in the clearing where Pa had left the soldier’s coffer, all that time ago, in a previous life.

After Ma died, Pa and Lilia were finally driven from the land they used to love as if it were their own. Lilia took her father by the hand and squeezed it as he looked back onto the fields, the trees, the big house. “It’s land,” she said, and then waved her arm towards the forest and the hills that lay beyond it, and at the yellow sky above it all. “It’s only land.”

They took with them the coffer, filled with a handful of things: Ma’s necklace, their papers, the tin soldier, a steel knife, a smuggled pistol, an extra pair of boots. They lived in the woods for some time, on beds of soft green, under the paling light of the stars. And the soldier, the soldier sang them to sleep every night. His songs said: “Lakes,” and “pianos,” and “roses made of tin.”

When a group of conquering men descended on Pa early one morning, shouting and gesturing with the tips of their bayonets, Lilia hid in the forest. She thought the men came to take away the coffer that held her family’s last possessions, but they were not interested in that. She watched as the men strung her father up a tree until he stopped fighting and all the light went out, and all she could think was: What a curious, curious thing men are. After the men went away, Lilia came out of her hiding, hugged the coffer tight, and fell asleep under the soles of her father’s feet.

When she woke in the dark, all the stars gone out and her father’s feet in the sky, she struck the ground with her fists until she bled and cold soil stuck to her knuckles. Then, she built a fire. She used her family’s papers as kindling, wrapped Ma’s necklace around her left wrist, threw her old boots away and put on the new. Last, she fed the wooden coffer to the flames. When the embers shone bright and red, Lilia hid the soldier in her palm and held him close to her heart. Then, she melted the soldier on the knife’s blade over the blazing embers, fashioned him into a bullet using a crude clay mold, and loaded him into her pistol.

“You will kill the next man I see,” she told the bullet.

Before meeting the next man’s chest, the bullet sang. “This land,” it said. “This land, this land.”
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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

More Quick Ways to Break Your Heart:

The Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That it has long been our joke that our hair lengths are inversely proportional, and cannot exceed the same cumulative mass it possessed on the day we met; that our faith was bound by this same Law, your exuberant pantheism balanced against my quiet nihilism; that this Law does not apply to beards.

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

Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

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Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

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Louisiana, 1915

Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Late light on the cordgrass lifted up the red at its edges, sharpened it to spindle fingers plucking the brackish air. Winnie rode her oar low and turned along the fat curve of an island. Eight plump, silver drum shone on the flat bottom of her cypress-board pirogue. Enough of a catch that she could go off on her own business now, in that last hour before the mosquitoes and tappanoes claimed the marsh for their own night kingdom.

Winnie was Saint Malo’s bunso, the smallest, so morning and afternoon she changed the Spanish moss under the sleeping dorm, collected the eggs, and fed the chickens. They were wiry, hardy hens. Fifth-generation swamp creatures born with mud on their feet. Last night there were twelve of them, in the morning only eleven. Not strange to lose a hen to a gator in the night, but it was the third gone in a week. Most gators, they ate once a month, then lived on air. Sat out in the sun and swallowed air whole through their gaping mouths. This must then be a weird lizard, beyond the work and sleep and lost rounds of three-card monte that made up the total of Winnie’s life. She glided across the water in hope of the beast.

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Some things that Winnie knew about alligators:mire03

They were lazy creatures. An active hunt was against their nature, and if a skinny young girl slipped into the water, all unknowing that an alligator lurked a spare few feet below, the gator would leave her be rather than swim the distance between to swallow her up. But if a foolhardy older man, perhaps named Francisco, were to splash up a ruckus within reach of the gator’s snout, he would for certain live the rest of his life left-handed and lucky for it.

Gators were truly unsentimental. On a young girl’s first journey through the marsh, a big bull of a gator would demonstrate this by rising up a broad, algae-crusted snout and snapping the body of a youngster of its own species into two neat bites. Welcome to Saint Malo, it would seem to say. You will live and die here.

A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.

They were strict heathens. God formed them not to kneel, and so they worshipped nothing but the sun. Mid-morning to noon, punctual as priests to mass, they gathered in the half-dry dirt and needlegrass and prostrated themselves before that searing orb while Christian species huddled in the shade.

They cared not for the flesh of the dead, or else despite being irreligious they held Catholic rites in some awe or respect. Winnie’s mother had been safe in her mudflat grave now for more’n a month.

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mire04The bulrushes were in flower, round heads flaking into feathered cotton. Floating pollen landed on the water, in the mud, on the bow of Winnie’s pirogue, but nowhere onto the knotty hide of a gator. She turned her boat to home, the white canvas of Saint Malo’s two-sailed paraw visible as it slunk ahead of her beyond the mud bar that kept the lake from the marsh. It was then, among the high roots of the low mangrove, that Winnie saw dragging alligator prints in the mud. A mound of leaves, branches, and earth as high as her head resolved itself into a nest, with prints all about. Large prints, adult beasts, at least a dozen of them going to and from the mound.

Dark was coming on. The marsh made its warnings, and Winnie had to heed them. She headed for home, but she watched the nest for as far as her head would turn.

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Winnie couldn’t sleep that night. Her bed was double-large and empty. The men in the next room rustled and shifted. The frog and mosquito choir outside droned on, encompassing. Moonlight spilled through the window netting to dusk across her skin.

Winnie dreamed, these days, of her mother. She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.

In the Saint Malo night, Winnie heard the thousand, thousand mosquitoes and felt the blood hot in her body. She got up and went to the door on cat feet. The moon was nearly full, white as a fish belly. Winnie’s nose to the netting, she could feel the night outside, the hum and the hiss of it. Out in the water: a rush of movement. She thought of the chickens. Quiet as she could manage, she lit and shined a lantern.

Across from the door was Hilario’s enormous house. On stilts, like all the buildings here. Its full twenty piles cast a jumble of spiderleg shadows skittering over the water. Winnie roved the light. And then she saw, as if in a dream after all, an eye as wide around of a grown man’s hatband. Bright as the devil, shining in the dark. Her hand shook; she lost sight of the eye, then couldn’t find it again. But she would swear, despite the size, she’d swear it was the gator.

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Winnie’s father, Tomás, was patching up a net across his knees. Loops and hitches, knots and diamonds. The net was hooked to the porch rail, and Winnie sat with her back to the house, her legs under the shadow of the net, her fingers seeking out gaps.

“Francisco asked after you again,” she said. Her father winced at the name.

mire02“Mm,” he said, and tugged at the net. She let him drag it his way.

“At the card table,” she said.

“You shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m old enough,” she said.

“No. Susmaryosep!” He shook his small head. “Only men there.”

“Of course there are men, I’m the only woman here.” Winnie found a gap in the net and marked it with a yellow ribbon.

“You are a girl. You are a young girl.”

“I’m a Manilaman,” she said, and he jerked with laughter. His face stretched wider to expel it. The noise cut into Winnie. “That’s what they said when we went into the city.”

“Where was your mamá from?”

Winnie shrugged. “Up Proctorville way?”

“Hm,” he said. It was the most he’d said about her mother since she’d died. “And ako, where was I from?” She shrugged again. “Batangas. So where you going to be a Manila Man?”

Some silence, and the breeze buzzing through the reedgrass. Then she asked, “What’s it like in Batangas?” And she knew she said the name all wrong.

“Hot.”

“Like here?”

“No. Hot, with a different sun. Flat as a foot, but for the mountain watching. A river, no marsh. Big mango trees and coconut. The rice. The priests. Very many priests.”

He ran out of language to explain, or memory to spare, and left her craving. She passed her eyes over the flat expanse of the marsh and the raised outlines of Saint Malo houses. She’d never seen a mountain or known the shape of a mango. A curl of her mestiza-brown hair fell into her eyes. She blew it up and away.

“Papa, you been to Proctorville? Where mama grew up?”

“No.” His fingers and knife threaded through the net without hurry. “She came to the marsh. Swam to Saint Malo, met me. Never went back.”

“Swam to Saint Malo?”

“Sailed,” he corrected, although it was the rare sailboat that could make the journey.

She wanted to tell him about her dreams, the dreams she’d had in her mother’s arms and out, but she didn’t have words that he’d understand. He didn’t care for her dreams the way her mother had. Alligator scales solid as Spanish tiles. Teeth as thick as the piles that held up Saint Malo, sharp as salt, lowering over her heavy as grief. She bit her tongue and searched out the gaps.

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Winnie’s mamá had been a strong swimmer, that much was certain. The two of them in the pirogue, she’d slipped over the side and into the lake. From the still air into the still water, her hair uncoiling, her eyes wide with pleasure as she dipped low so only her face was above the surface. She’d wanted Winnie to come in after her, to abandon the boat, to slip overboard and sink with her. Winnie never did.

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Another hen gone. To the mud bar again, to the gator nest. Winnie floated past on the lake side, where the pile of muck and grass intermingled with thick mangrove roots to form a thick wall. In the warm of the day there was a greater warmth emanating from the nest. A cloying heaviness that drew Winnie in like a memory. The smell was mud and rot, and familiar.

Winnie poled her pirogue over the bar and into the marsh, around the other side of the nest. Here it poured itself out into the water. Here there were lizards waiting for her. Three gators with wide mouths agape. Young, striped black and gold. They surrounded the nest entrance, sitting with that gator-stillness that no other creature could match.

She took ahold of the fattest crappie from between her feet and tossed it among the alligators, an offering. Its silver tail flapped twice, then lay quiet. It was a long time Winnie sat there, the water between them, while the beasts didn’t shift and the fish died. Beyond the brim of her hat, sunlight hardened into afternoon.

mire05Finally, the smallest of them made a move. Delicate as fingertips, its jaws scooped up the crappie. Shuffling and dragging, it ascended the nest and disappeared. From the water, Winnie couldn’t see all the way to the top, but there was movement there. A bump that she’d thought was a rotted log bobbed up and down. Then the small gator again, only as long as Winnie was tall, slid its way back out of the nest and into its old spot. It clawed at the dirt before settling. It turned one algae-dark eye on Winnie and, slow as the moon slipping behind a cloud, the creature winked at her.

The downhill tilt took her. Winnie slipped one leg, then another from her pirogue. Her feet found mud under the water and she sank to her ankles. Shallow, still. Her fingers trailed the surface. Raising as few ripples as she could, she advanced on the nest.

The lizards moved with sudden speed. They formed a barrier of their bodies, barring her from the entrance. Winnie stood in the marsh, mud advancing up her legs, and wondered what offering would be sufficient.

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Card games were held in Hilario’s front room, lit by lamplight that swayed to the steady rhythm of the men’s hisses and hollers. Winnie hooted and wailed with them, going from end to end of the long, low table to the other and making faces at the cards, elbowing between elbows to see the action. This is where they called her bunso, the littlest lizard darting among them. Or buntot, for the way her long braid wagged behind her head.

Her father didn’t come to the table often, one of the reasons Winnie did, but he was there that night, lit up, winning hand after hand. Smiling at everyone, even at her. He paid Francisco back the five dollars he’d been asking after for weeks, and threw in a nickel on top.

“Get you an ice cream cone,” he said. “Down at the hokey-pokey store!” The closest being a day’s journey away. Francisco laughed, though he’d wanted to win the money off him. He slapped Tomás on the back and dealt him into another round.

Outside the window netting was the living night, but it didn’t encroach here, it could not touch them. Winnie and the Manila Men were yellow in the lamplight, from their sun-brown faces to the whites of their eyes. The flowing rum was a virile red. Hilario’s boy Augusto let Winnie sip from his glass. She felt vibrational as a mosquito. She could have walked onto the marsh right then; she could have found her mother and danced into the bottom of the lake.

Money is money, but at the turn of the night it was time to bet on things that couldn’t be bought. Francisco wanted Winnie’s father to put up his pirogue, the one that was named Valentine after her brother who’d died a baby. Tomás said no, no, but he’s got just the thing. He stepped into Hilario’s back room that served as Saint Malo’s safe deposit, and came back carrying a shallow chest. Everyone got up and crowded around to see him open it. Winnie wended among their jutting hips to the front.

She’d never seen this chest, didn’t know her father had it, or anything at all in Hilario’s bank. It was a very fine chest, fitted with brass, the leather top gone a bit moldy from the weather, as everything did. Tomás made a leisurely show of unbuckling the straps, then running his hands across the top. He met Winnie’s eyes with a funny little twinkle. Then he flipped the lid.

Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The men were afire with wanting it.

Winnie went to her father.

“No,” she said. “Don’t bet it away.” And she knew he would, as nearly every man there was getting dealt in. Tomás laughed and squeezed her about the neck.

“It was your mother’s,” he said. “No need for it anymore.” And he did lose the skin, lost it to Marcelo, who took it to drape like a hammock across his sleeping dorm.

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In the crowd of pirogues heading out of Saint Malo the next morning, Marcelo crowed.

“Oh, that lizard, my lizard,” said Marcelo. “She’s fat like the belly of galleon! Creaks in the night like one too.”

Winnie couldn’t speak. Her father rowed along in his Valentine with a smile. The bulrushes were heavy with summer bulbs and leaned arches over their path through the marsh. All breeze dropped out of the air, and even their movement against the water barely brought a wind to their faces.

“Storm coming,” said Augusto.

“When the storm comes,” said Marcelo, “I’ll crawl up inside my great big lizard! Come out with the sun, bone dry!” A thoughtless rage opened inside Winnie at his words.

Just like that, all the way onto the lake. There, the group scattered itself and cast their nets. Pulled in, cast again. This, more than any stilt house, card game, or line of drying fish, this was Saint Malo: the casting and the pulling. The whiz of the net through the air and the pish of it slicing the water. The flit of fiber through Winnie’s hands when she pulled it back and sifted it for prey. The dotted line of men and Winnie spread over the western edge of the lake, marsh air and marsh sounds hard at their backs. For this, her father and the rest had fled the Spanish whip, for this they’d lost Batangas, Manila, the Visayas, and a dozen other homes. For this heavy air and these low pirogues. For Winnie, perhaps, though they hadn’t known it. For that she could be born to the marsh with her muddy eyes.

Winnie cast and pulled and daydreamed tough alligator hide like a gnarled crowd of overlapping hands. White alligator night-eyes and deep alligator voices. The nest and the monster she’d fed. The downhill pull of that uphill slope.

By late afternoon the air hollowed out and the birds fled north. A pair of egrets cut a silent path right above Winnie’s head. The spread of boats cinched towards the mud bar and the marsh. Tomás drew up alongside her. His boat sagged with the catch. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“A hard wind tonight,” he said. “You sleep in the men’s dorm.”

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mire04The rattling walls, the jumping floor, the hot rip of the wind and rain at the shutters and the wet smell of the thatch roof. Winnie lay curled on a pallet in the middle of the room, the men unsleeping around her in their bunks. In the corner: the gator skin. It shuddered and swayed, its thick tail lashing. When the wind began there were prayers and singing, but now just the storm around them and Marcelo’s gasps as the gator swung from its hanging place above him.

Winnie spared a thought for the chickens, transported to Hilario’s living room and likely head-tucked and shivering. She spared a thought for her mother in her grave, drowning. The dorm went side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to sink. Heavy bones and thick skin, mud crusted over her eyes and salt sharp on her teeth.

A howl outside, a howl that didn’t end, but pitched up and up like the bow of a sinking ship. The noise of somethings flying through the air and smacking the walls of Saint Malo. The walls of the dorm, hit and hit again by the objects of her imagination. Turtles, crappie, trout, drum, uprooted mangroves, and unmoored rafts. The roof whined. The men muttered, but there was nowhere safer to flee.

There had been storms on the marsh before. Winnie had laid awake through them and poled through their debris on gray mornings. She’d tucked her head into her mother’s side and slept through the wind. She’d lost rounds of three-card Monte with the weather menacing among the stilts of their houses, pressing at their bellies and slipping through their boards. She was a marsh creature, born with mud on her feet and salt in her hair.

All this, and still when the back wall fell in and men and bunks and the gator skin tumbled onto Winnie’s pallet, she screamed. Limbs and the tail, bodies and the snout, a slick mess of swamp-stuff suffocating her. And the wind now free among them drove rain into their hides.

Drier arms reached into the jumble and pulled apart the wrecked bunks. They extracted Marcelo, Francisco, Bambol, and Florenzo.

“Winnie!” Tomás shouted. The others were at the door, making to fight their way to Hilario’s intact house. “Where’s my Winnie?”

They pulled apart the fallen wall, dragged away the wrecked netting, the ruined sheets and moss mattress stuffing. They accounted for every man. They flipped the gator skin onto its wide, white belly. Tomás called for his daughter. Winnie blinked her double-lidded eyes and took him gently between her jaws.

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The night path was lit for her. Everything alive, everything alight. Movement all around, sensed through the skin of her snout. The smell of home and of earth. The storm’s violence was muted and slowed underwater. Impacts rolled through the liquid and against her, inconsequential. Behind her, the dorm house collapsed entirely. Men sloshed into the water and mud. They were tempting, but her mouth was full of her father. He did not fit entirely, but his arms were pinned, and his head was tucked against her tongue. She could feel him struggling and screaming, but it was nothing to the power of her wide and sure mouth.

A power was upon her like an embrace. A quiet, uncomplicated power something like anger but more like an inevitable victory. She had slid downhill every moment of her life, and now was in the sure trench, the awaited valley, the lush prize. She was done with mourning.

Her body was her body and her body was her tail: a muscle stronger and more able than she had ever felt before. Movement smooth and quick despite her bulk. Skin like a crust, so thick that the world could not touch her. With one set of eyelids closed, the wind was nothing to her. Winnie tucked her legs close in to her belly and jackknifed through the marsh.

Reedgrass and fimbry were battered flat and sputtering. The mangroves stood stolid while they were stripped of their leaves. The bulrush bulbs that had so dominated the skyline flew here and there. Between Winnie’s teeth, the water seeped. She kept her head up, aware that Tomás must breathe frequently.

There were other gators in the water around her, heading in the same direction. A crowd, an alligator boulevard through the marsh, a procession to their only destination.

The mud bar had disappeared beneath the flood, but the nest still rose, a tower of detritus. The marshward approach was cut by a pitched glacier of mud. Winnie drew herself out of the water and up the slope. She found herself more awkward on land. She felt the weight of the offering in her mouth. She was flanked and preceded by other, smaller alligators. Young beasts half her size who rushed around her and over her. She clambered among them on her slick belly.

Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies. Outside: the wind and the rain, the storm taking the marsh to pieces, Saint Malo in splinters behind them. Inside: a humid, cavernous hall with a fleshy scent that Winnie could taste through her skin.

She knew this place, this scent and this heat, this moist and crowded abattoir. Deep within was a pounding drumbeat that she recognized as intimately as the taste of her own breath. Her mother, her skin: This was their place. This was her place. She clambered deep inside, opened her mouth, and gave up her father’s struggling body to the family of her mother.

end-of-story-nov

Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Comma Press, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Liminality, Inkscrawl and Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. A member of the Queer Asian SF/F/H Illuminati, Nicasio currently resides in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

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The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards – Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

An Atlas in Sgraffito Style, by A.J. Fitzwater – It’s the third month after the cities collide when the women dance out of the walls. They are the worthy women, the terrible, bright, ugly, and genius. Terrifying puppet vandals. Taking time to appreciate the black-and-gray stencils that scream Bristol or the hyper colors that ooze Valparaiso would require playing tag with the street chasing me down. So, see Béla run. See Béla search desperately for a ninety-degree turn. But the Bricks are hard at war with anything resembling a gap, and there are no intersections.

Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow – There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends. In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.

Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

They are running the perimeter again, slipping in and out of cover, sun and shadow. Pilar knows the route by rote: crouch here, dash there, slow then quick. While they run, she ticks up and down the list of emergency overrides, because it has become a ritual to her over the course of the long nightmare, a rosary under her chafed-skinless fingertips. She speaks to her exo, curses at it, begs it to stop. The exo never responds. Maybe it is sulking, like Rocio in one of her moods.

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They are not running the perimeter. Pilar has stopped eating, and her exo is focusing all its attention on the problem, leaving them hunched like a rusting gargoyle on the deserted tiles of Plaza Nueva. The sudden stillness makes her think that maybe it’s all over. Then an emergency feeding tube is forced down her throat, scraping raw, and the exo pumps food replacement down her gullet like she’s a baby bird. Rocio would have never done that. Never.

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They are running the perimeter again, and Pilar’s nose is bleeding. The hot trickle tastes like copper on her desiccated tongue. She savors it, because not long ago the exo experimented with feeding her recycled vomit. The dregs have itched in her mouth for days. As they round the corner of a blasted car, she hears a whisper in her ear. For a moment she fools herself into thinking it’s Rocio—she thinks about Rocio as often as she can. The dip of her collarbone under her fingertips, the laugh from the side of her mouth, the peppermint smell of the wax she used to streak on her hair.

It’s not Rocio. It is the exo, at last. It rumbles in her ear: Define: symbiont.

“A symbiont is fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Pilar rasps, tongue clumsy with disuse.

The exo does not respond. Maybe she should have said something else.

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They might be running the perimeter again. Pilar is not sure of anything. Her head is a spiral of heat and static, her skin thrumming ice. The exo is dumping combat chemicals and painkillers into her intravenous feed. She prays to gods and saints and devils for an overdose, but the exo knows its chemistry too well. She can only drift there cocooned, sweating and shivering, and wait for—

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They are running the perimeter again, but Pilar has buried herself in memories, barely tasting the stale air of the exo, barely feeling the tug and pull.

She’s buried herself in remembering the first time she was in Granada, in the taut piano-wire days before the Caliphate made landfall. On leave with Rocio, darting from bar to tapas bar in the icy rain, insulating themselves against the storm present and storm coming with cañas of foamy beer. In a bar called Shambalah, decorated with black-and-white pornography stills, she completed Rocio’s facial tat with her fingers and kissed her chapped mouth.

They were both out of uniform, and the rowdy pack of students only saw Rocio’s damp hijab, not the endo-exo handshake implant peeking out from underneath. One of them was drunk enough to hurl a Heineken bottle at them. Rocio had to wrestle Pilar’s arm down to keep her from using the smashed razor edge of it on the boy’s fingers.

They retreated back into the rain, where animated graffiti shambled along the walls of alleyways, slowly dissolving. Rocio rubbed her face and said everything was about to come apart, and Pilar replied, not us, never us, we need each other too much. But Rocio only smiled her saddest smile.

Later, in the cramped room of their pension, with the key in the heater but the lights dimmed, they made love that caused Pilar to forget about the eager, clumsy boys from her hometown and about everything else, too. In the dark, their endo-exo implants glowed soft blue. She ran her fingers around Rocio’s, tracing where smooth carbon met skin.

They say a little of us gets stuck in there, Rocio said. When we plug in. Pull out. Plug in again. Memory fragments, whole ones even. Enough for a little ghost.

I don’t believe it, Pilar said.

Rocio drifted to sleep quickly but Pilar stayed awake a long time after, still breathing in her scent, still holding her lean waist and thinking she would never let go, not ever.

Inside the exo, she tries to feel Rocio’s skin on her skin.

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They are running the perimeter again. The exo jerks Pilar mercilessly from cover to cover. She keeps her eyes closed and pretends she is boneless. Trying to fight the motion last week shredded her shoulder muscle, and the exo is out of painkillers because it used them on her in one long, numbing drug binge that makes her wonder, sometimes, if her brain has been permanently damaged.

Exo endo is symbiont. Exo need endo need endo.

She startles. The exo hasn’t spoken since it asked its first question.

Love is symbiont. Exo need endo need exo.

“You don’t need me,” Pilar pleads. “You don’t need me. I don’t need you.”

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They are not running the perimeter. They are trudging up the stony spine of the Sacromonte, where her squad cleaned out the radical-held caves with gas and gunfire. Where she’d managed to take shelter when they SAT-bombed Granada in a final act of defiance, obliterating the half-evacuated city and turning the Alhambra to rubble.

Now the Andalusian winter sun glints off shrapnel and the husk of Rocio’s exo where it fell just meters from safety. Pilar recognizes the scorched smiley-face decal, the twisted arrangement of limbs. The implant at the base of her skull tingles.

She knows why the exo’s AI is warped, corrupted past repair. The exo must know it, too.

All those weeks ago, after she crept from the collapsed cave, she couldn’t leave without seeing Rocio’s corpse entombed in its exo, and she couldn’t leave without some part of Rocio to hold on to. So she’d taken Rocio’s implant, cut it carefully out of her brain stem, stomach churning with each squelch of coagulated blood and gray matter. She’d plugged it into her exo’s onboard, hoping for some small echo of Rocio in code, some small ghost.

Then she’d gone to check for survivors, to run the perimeter one final time.

“You’re not her,” Pilar says. “You don’t understand. This is all error. All error.”

But there are other memories, ones she doesn’t spend time in. Small explosions and long sullen silences after she saw Rocio laughing her sideways laugh with someone else. A screaming match that ended with Pilar going outside the barracks and slamming her hands into the quickcrete wall hard enough to shatter a knuckle. Putting a mole in her tablet to see who else she was speaking to.

The morning of the final push up the mountain, when they were sliding into their exos, gearing up, and Rocio told her she was putting in a transfer request and Pilar said don’t you do this to me, please don’t fucking do this to me.

She knows what she has to tell the exo. She has to make it understand that what it saw in Rocio’s implant was not a symbiont. Not love. That she should have let Rocio go a long time ago.

But all the words die in her throat, and now the exo is turning back down the mountain.

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They are running the perimeter again, while Pilar dreams of Rocio’s skin on her skin.

end-of-story-nov

rich-larsonRich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon and appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com

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