Tag Archives: longing

Thistledown Sky, by Stephen Case


I. Ghost

The sky is crowded with ghosts.

They pilot ships named after our rivers: Indus, Euphrates, Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, Tigris, Nile. My daughter’s is the Potomac, which she says is ironic and self-referential. It will be the eighth American ship, but only the third that has been piloted through our nation’s gate.

I have not seen my daughter since the day she became a ghost, though my wife and I speak to her face in the screens of our empty Midwestern home each week.

“Did you get any coffee?” my wife asks when I walk in the door. I like to bike the town near sunset. Our daughter calls at any time, cycles in orbit having little correspondence to diurnal patterns below, but in the evenings my wife watches the screens. If she’s not chatting with our daughter, she is watching the progress of the gates.

“Yes. But all they carry now is ground. No whole bean.”

She makes a small sound of disappointment.

Our daughter was ghosted four years ago. There was no reason for her to stay, all of the jobs in orbit now or beyond the gates (if there is anything beyond the gates). The last legislation limiting ghosting among American citizens was repealed when the Indo-Russian gate came online and the Chinese threatened even higher tolls for theirs.

I went with my daughter to the ghosting station, a vertical city rising out of the Illinois prairie. Its massive components had all been ghosted, particles disentangled from the gravitational embrace of the Higgs field so they floated at various altitudes, a weightless stairway into orbit. There were thousands of citizens passing through each day.

When my daughter came out of the station, we had a few minutes together before she left. We were told the ghosting process had no lasting effect on the delicate play of particles we called human consciousness. She was still my daughter. All that had changed was gravity.

All that had changed was everything.

Her movements were different. Weights at her waist held her to the ground, and when she walked it was as though she barely touched the surface. She stood straighter, like her bones were itching to be in the sky.

My wife had not come with us. She regrets it now, but some felt felt ghosting was a betrayal, that ghosts had forsaken the covenant of mass, the sanctity of gravity. Our children were not only leaving us: They were rejecting communion with Earth itself. They were prodigals, taking their inheritance and drifting into the universe.

It felt, in a way, like a death.

It felt like being left behind.

II. Slingship

I get a beer from the basement and walk onto the back patio. Agriculture has moved into orbit along with the jobs; they harvest crops from agricultural platforms in the sky now. It means the cornfield that used to begin a few steps from our back door remained fallow this year. Daniel Whitebone’s children are running through it, picking the heads of dandelions and other red and purple weeds I don’t recognize.

From the moment she was ghosted, our daughter began training for placement on one of the slingships. She was thrilled when she called to tell us she had gotten a placement on the Potomac.

My wife cried for days.

I sip my beer, an IPA with undertones of pine and grapefruit. Daniel Whitebone is in his backyard. For a moment I think he has a lawnmower overturned and is working on the blade. But it is only another one of his sculptures. They look like conglomerations of bone and industrial debris. Half a dozen line his driveway.

Our daughter could still come home. A few have already; they return to the surface and after spending several months eating surface-grown food, their bodies start to regain gravitational mass as ghosted particles are replaced through normal metabolism. They can feel the tug of gravity, over the years, if they choose.

Our daughter does not.

For Father’s Day this year, she sent us the information and credits to print a high-resolution model of the Potomac in ebony plasteel.

“She might as well have sent us a picture of her coffin,” my wife said, when she found the words to say anything at all.

It is a beautiful model. The Potomac started as an asteroid, as did all the slingships. It is maybe two miles across at its narrowest, but the border between stone and city is flawless, a cluster of skyscrapers and agricultural domes blooming out of broken rock like crystals. Without the pull of gravity, architecture runs riot.

I showed it to Daniel Whitebone, who turned it over in his hands and whistled slowly.

“A gift from the sky?”

“From my daughter.”

The model sits on the railing of the patio. The Potomac is next in line to pass through the gate, scheduled to go out in a matter of days.

Though hundreds of thousands have passed through the slinggates, no one is sure they work. In theory, gates make near-instantaneous travel beyond the solar system possible. You align the gate with an exoplanet, sling a ship through, and a fraction of a second later the ship has covered the distance and begins a few years of deceleration toward the target. Our children are catapulting themselves out into the Big Empty.

It is a one-way trip; it would take at least a generation to build a slinggate on the other side of the journey to sling themselves home. It had taken us the manpower and resources of an entire planet to just build the handful of gates we had. It would take a few centuries for the travelers’ signals to reach us, if they survived.

The problem is that the gates have a minimum range. You have to pass ships through at a certain speed unless you want them to tear themselves apart.

I explained it to Daniel Whitebone once, using his daughter’s hula-hoop and the Potomac model.

“Here’s the ship,” I said, “and here’s the gate. As the ship passes through, it gets accelerated.” I pushed the ship through the hoop. “But if you don’t want to travel too far, you’ve got to go through slowly. But if you go through that slowly, portions of the ship are accelerated at different rates and the whole thing tears itself apart.”

“A catch-22,” Daniel Whitebone said.

I nodded. “You’re either several trillion miles away or you’re nowhere. No in-between.”

We could have been more patient. We could have built our gates and waited a few centuries to make sure the first ships actually arrived at their new planets before sending more. But in an international race to claim new worlds, no one was going to wait that long. Certainly not our children.

And certainly not our daughter.

III. Whitebone

“Cultural suicide” was what some called it. Others used the term “voluntary genocide.”

I just called it death.

“There’s no other way to look at it,” I tell Daniel Whitebone. It is two beers later. His kids are still in the prairie, accompanied by crowns of fireflies. Whitebone has left his sculpture for the night and joined me on the patio. “I watched my father die. It was peaceful. He left, and I tried to believe he was still living on somewhere else. That’s what death is. An unknowable transition. You have hope there’s something on the other side.”

Daniel Whitebone nods.

“So it doesn’t matter whether the gates actually rip you apart at a subatomic level or whether they sling you to another star. Either way, from my perspective she’s gone. Forever. And either way, all I do is hope she’s still out there.”

“A horizon,” Daniel Whitebone offers. The horizon in front of us is wide with clouds and the syrupy light of sunset. “Do you know her destination?”

“Not the exact designation. My wife does. It’s someone’s name and a string of numbers.” I shrug. “Nothing you can see in the night. A spot on a survey, but it has a system of four planets. Two in the habitable zone. Water vapor and oxygen in the atmosphere of the innermost of the two. And seasonal variations they think indicate vegetation. A good target.”

“They are all good targets,” Daniel Whitebone says, taking a long drink of his beer. “The sky is rich.”

I nod. The sky is studded with wonders, from the clouds above our heads to the cities our children are building and onward to the varied worlds beyond them, those planets we may or may not reach through the slinggates.

“But none of you are going,” I say, tipping the top of my bottle toward his kids in the field. “Not a single American Indian ghosted.”

“Not true,” Daniel Whitebone says. “Many of our young people from White Earth have ghosted. A few from other nations are already stationed on slingships. Beware generalizations.”

“But your kids are the only children in town now. And I know there are more families moving off the reservation and into empty houses. Most of your young people are staying.”

He shrugs.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because the Earth is rich,” he says softly, “and because we are part of it.”

“You’ll be left behind. You won’t get any of the new planets.”

He grins, and there is no malice in it. “We already have one.”

IV. Slinggate

When I walk into the house that evening for another beer, the gate is on every screen. It is a ring, flattened and simplified with distance so that its network of lights and hundreds of miles of coiled metallic lattice looks solid. It is an artifact, a torus hung in space and picked out by beacons like jewels along its perimeter.

It seems like something discovered, like a leftover of another civilization, not something our children, the ones who left these empty houses, have created.

My wife stands before the largest screen, the one mounted on the wall above the fireplace. “They’ve moved the departure time up,” she says in a tight and tired voice. “It’s tonight. She’s going now.”

“Did she call?”

My wife shakes her head. “Messaged. Apologized. Said there wasn’t time. A last-minute adjustment.” She takes a long shuddering breath that is almost a sob.

There is nothing to see when a ship slips through the gate that I have not seen before. A ship, looking like little more than a stone in the view of the camera feeds watching at a distance, passes through a ring. There is a play of St. Elmo’s fire as it goes, disappearing like a rock into a pond, without ripple or wake.

It is just gone.

“How long?”

“Seven minutes.”

I touch her shoulder, but she pulls away.

I walk back onto the patio.

V. Ghosts

The sky is crowded with ghosts.

Some of them are disappearing forever.

In the growing twilight Daniel Whitebone’s daughter plucks a dandelion and blows, the thistledown seeds invisible in the darkness. The reality of those seeds is a hope alone. They will land and grow, or they will not exist at all. In the dimness, I cannot be sure.

When it is completely dark, Daniel Whitebone’s children go inside, laughing and singing words I don’t understand.

I wait alone on the deck, staring at the first stars and at the dark spaces between, until I make myself believe I see seeds drifting among them.

Stephen Case teaches at a liberal arts college in Illinois. His short stories have appeared in places like Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine ShowHis book reviews appear with some regularly on Strange Horizons. He has published a science fiction novel, First Fleet, with Axiomatic Publishing, and his first work of non-fiction, Making Stars Physical: the Astronomy of Sir John Herschel, was released this spring from University of Pittsburgh Press. You can find him on Twitter @StephenRCase.

Published Shimmer #46, November 2018, 1900 words

Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare

I am alone now. The gates mostly stand dark against the starscape; you are the first to come this way in some time. I hold myself together, hold myself out, and after so much practice I can do it almost without thinking. I sing my warning song made of radio waves and light. This, too, is reflexive. Before you, there was no one here to sing to.

But I won’t have to wait much longer. Guilhermo is coming back to me.

I am one hundred and forty-three stations arrayed elliptically around the rift. The rift was meant to be a gate, but the construction failed and now it is a ship-eater, what Guilhermo calls a death-trap. I asked him to define death, but his explanation confused me. In any case, if a ship enters the rift it does not come back, and this is a bad thing, or so I understand. Which is why I am here: to keep the ships out.

Hot and bright, I sing my warning call across the electromagnetic spectrum, flinging endless waves of energy through the frigid silent void. Once my signals fell upon a dozen ships an hour, repelling them toward the safest route—near gate to far gate and far gate to near gate, a trip of six standard days. I haven’t had much work lately, not since the war began, but if you like I’ll tell you of the ships I’ve seen while you travel.

The day Guilhermo left, a whole armada emerged from the near gate, moving in perfect glittering synchrony. There were battleships and cruisers and carriers and raiders. They looked quite beautiful and refined to my young sensors, nothing like the old dust-scratched white hulls of the trade ships I’d seen before.

Also unlike any trade ship, one of the carriers taxied close to Station 23—where Guilhermo lives—and matched orbit with me. It made me nervous to have a ship so close by. After all, it was my responsibility to keep them away from the rift. Nothing had approached me since my original deployment except a few erroneously named “airdrops” bringing supplies to Guilhermo. Just a little cube with thrusters and a rudimentary nav system, not a whole ship with a landing bay large enough to swallow one of my stations.

Thank the stars I had Guilhermo to handle the situation. He traded several rounds of communications with them. I hoped he was going to send them away, but instead, he began to pack a bag.

Guilhermo told me there was an uprising in the Chaian Sector, beyond the far gate. Guilhermo said they needed him to program evasion algorithms for fighter drones, and he would have to go with them for a while.

I was scared at the thought of being without him. He had never left communication range, not since he made me. He always says he likes retiring somewhere quiet—a joke, you know, since sound waves can’t travel in space? But I think he means it. They made him leave me even though he said he didn’t want to.

Guilhermo promised he would be back as soon as he could.

Next came the deserters, three ships with engines burning hot as they burst out of the far gate. I asked them if they had heard of an engineer named Guilhermo Vaz, or perhaps he would be called a strategist, now? They told me the Chaian War was going badly, that they had mutinied and run, and they wouldn’t have known someone important like a strategist anyway.

Even at high thrust they still had four and a half standard days’ travel between the gates, so I offered to display for them a light ballad I’d been composing in Guilhermo’s absence. They couldn’t see it properly—the human visual spectrum is too narrow—so I shifted the wavelengths up for the ultraviolet tones, and shifted them down for the infrareds, and did my best to cobble together a pleasing composition.

It was good practice, I thought, for when Guilhermo returns. By then I’ll have the ballad perfected for human eyes to appreciate. He’ll be so pleased at my creativity.

“Won’t you stay to see another?” I asked the deserters. I wasn’t accustomed to being alone, yet, and feeling rather desperate for the company.

The deserters declined to slow their thruster burn, and soon I was alone again. I wasn’t worried, though, not really. Guilhermo had promised.

Would you like to watch the light ballad? I’ve refined it through two hundred and thirty-seven revisions since then, so it’s even prettier now.

Shortly after the deserters left, the near gate opened again and produced some new company for me to chat with. It was a single ship, a fierce sleek black design I’d never laid sensors on before. I inquired about their purpose, and they confirmed they were reinforcements headed to the Chaian sector.

That made me feel better. I asked them to return Guilhermo to me when they could. They agreed to pass along a message for me if they saw him. Everything would work out okay.

I played the opening stanzas of a new light sonata for them, and their feedback was quite complimentary. They seemed so nice; everyone I’d met so far in my existence seemed so nice. I had a vague impression of what war entailed, and it strained the imagination that all these nice people would participate in violence. Probably they were all conscripted into service, as Guilhermo had been.

I asked them for details of their crew, curious about their motivations, but they declined my request. Theirs was a classified operation, they explained. I had to content myself with suppositions only.

When they reached the far gate, I wished them luck and good velocity.

I was alone for a while then. I improvised light compositions and played with new orbital trajectories for my stations. I imagined whole conversations I might have with Guilhermo when he came home.

Finally a ship arrived through the near gate. It was a dinged-up, patchily repaired older model. What Guilhermo would call a “rust-bucket,” though of course there could be no oxidation damage in space. (This is something called metaphor, he once explained.)

In any case, they did not look much like a warship. I asked them what enterprise they were engaged in.

They marveled that I did not have access to a police database with which to identify the ships passing through my region of space. No, I did not, I assured them.

They called themselves a salvage team. Then they politely inquired about whether or not I have anything of value to steal.

I told them yes, I am a unique and sophisticated lighthouse with many expensive components, including short- and long-range defense systems, and would they care for a demonstration? I spun my railgun turrets and flashed my targeting eyes, hoping to impress, but they declined my offer. I was disappointed, never having had an opportunity to try out my defense systems before.

I asked them if they were certain. They assured me that, yes, they now had sufficient data upon which to formulate their course of action, even without a demonstration.

I wished them well, and they departed.

Time passed uneventfully, until my sensors detected an object approaching through realspace. It was a chunk of debris, mostly ice and rock from the spectral analysis.

The space debris swung close to Station 65, attracted by the steady pull of the rift. I warmed up the nearest railgun and aimed the turret, tracking the object’s trajectory. It was not a difficult shot, but I was nevertheless very excited to finally get an excuse to use my defensive systems. How thrilling! How eventful!

I blew up the debris.

The pulverized remains rained down upon Station 65, too small and too diffused to cause any direct damage. However, a few tiny particles lodged in the station’s attitude jets—a circumstance I had not foreseen.

My self-repair modules were not designed to compensate for such a situation. Guilhermo would have invented a solution, but I did not have his help, so I spent many hours considering the dilemma.

The station’s orbit began to degrade. I attempted to dislodge the particles using centrifugal force generated by firing the unaffected attitude jets. It did not work, and I grew desperate. I fired the affected jets, hoping to force the offending particles out, but one of the jets broke instead.

There was nothing more to do. I could only watch as Station 65 lost altitude and gradually gave in to the unrelenting pull of the rift. I lost contact and it vanished, gone forever.

Before that, I was a hundred and forty-four stations; now I am a hundred and forty-three.

The universe offered me no comfort. I was alone, and facing the realization that what happened to a single station could theoretically happen to more. Is this what Guilhermo meant when he tried to explain death? A slow attrition of the self, losing piece after piece until I no longer possess the processing power necessary for higher-order cognitive functions. Until my last station falls into the rift and I cease to exist. I am still not certain I understand.

It was a very sad time. Not even light ballads could cheer me.

I dwelled in persistent melancholy until the next ship arrived. Strange, how a period of sadness can brighten the joy that comes after; greeting that vessel was the happiest I’ve ever been.

I was so excited I forgot myself and sent them an accidental onslaught of over-eager hails, which I imagine must have been rather shocking to receive. I had to calm down and gather my wits and remember to communicate at a rate slow enough for humans to process. Once they got over their initial surprise, they seemed quite eager to speak with me.

I asked them if they had heard of Guilhermo Vaz, a strategist in the war.

They said, what war?

The war in the Chaian sector, I explained.

They told me “Chaian sector” was an unfamiliar designation, and they knew of no major conflicts in occupied space. Privately, I thought they must be very ill-informed, but I was too polite to say so.

They also said they were explorers and sounded quite pleased to have “rediscovered” me. Those people were confusing. How could I be rediscovered when I was never lost to begin with? I’ve always been right here where I’m supposed to be, right here where Guilhermo left me waiting.

They requested permission to dock with one of my stations, for what purpose I could not imagine. I declined.

Persistent, they asked again, claiming they wished to study my systems architecture. I had to explain that unauthorized personnel were not permitted aboard my stations, which they should have known since it was a standard security protocol. But as I’d already observed, they did not seem to know much of anything. Confusing people.

I felt bad about refusing their request to board me, so I sent them a file of my design specifications and improvised a new light ballad just for them. My stations flashed with syncopated blues and glowed with a slow rising crescendo of reds. A quiet pulse of yellow, steady as a heartbeat, helped me keep time.

That was the hardest part. I’ve never been good at keeping time.

The next ship to arrive carried a crew who spoke an unfamiliar dialect. I spent most of their six-day journey learning to accurately communicate in their language of preference. They called my dialogue archaic, and marveled at my overall functionality.

This confused me. Why would I be anything less than functional? I am a highly sophisticated integrated system. I am a pinnacle of technological achievement. I am Guilhermo’s proudest, finest creation. Of course I keep myself functional to the best of my ability. My mission here at the rift is an important one.

Guilhermo would not like it if I failed to perform my function, and I could not bear to disappoint him. After all, he is my creator. He is the only one who matters.

The ship’s crew seemed perfectly nice, of course. I don’t wish to be rude and imply otherwise. It’s simply that, in your heart, no one can replace your creator. The person who gave life to you. Wouldn’t you agree?

The ship of the strange-dialect speakers passed into the gate and vanished from my corner of the universe. Then I was alone again.

And now, you.

Why thank you, yes—I have been practicing my dialectical variations in anticipation of another vessel such as yours. It is thoughtful of you to remark upon my linguistic abilities.

Tell me, what is this archaeology of which you speak? I’m afraid I don’t understand why you wish to study old things. Can’t you simply remember history? I remember every ship passing through the gates. I remember every word that left Guilhermo’s tongue.

It must make you very sad, this forgetting of which you speak. The concept frightens me, if I may be honest. I do not understand how you can function when the past runs from you, when your own memories hide away in the cracks of your imperfect minds. It seems a difficult way to exist.

Before, I did not know to be grateful for the flawless memory storage Guilhermo gave to me. Thank you for this revelation. Even if I still can’t comprehend what you do.

History is your occupation, so I suppose that is justification enough. It is good to fulfill one’s purpose. And in any case you seem very nice, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Have you heard of the Chaian War? Have you heard any news of the brilliant engineer Guilhermo Vaz? No, don’t apologize. You are too kind, worrying over my welfare, but there is no need to linger here on my account—Guilhermo will surely be here soon to keep me company.

He promised.

Gwendolyn Clare’s novels include the young-adult steampunk duology INK, IRON, AND GLASS (2018) and MIST, METAL, AND ASH (2019). Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She teaches college biology in central Pennsylvania, where she lives with too many cats and never enough books. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com or on Twitter @gwendoclare.

Other Lonelys:

Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

Rapture, by Meg Elison

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wakes up again. It’s the third time today. She thinks awakenings are far more common in springtime, but all year long she is called this way. She sighs and tucks her dark hair back under her cap. She will not refuse the call.

The afterlife is not as she imagined it. The throne of the Almighty is nowhere to be found, and no creature great or small has asked her to account for her good works or confess her sins. She simply arrived one day and met a woman with dark eyes and excellent manners, who showed her to this restful place, sometimes like a nice rooming house, other times like a torchlit catacomb, and told to sleep. The rooms are small but pleasant. It is always warm and smells of lavender or apples. And it always seems to be twilight, or perhaps just before dawn.

So she must light a candle. There is no pain here; it does not concern her much that she cannot see her way. If she stubs her toe or barks her shins, it would scarcely matter. But she hates to awaken anyone who has not been called. Some of the people who sleep around her—men, mostly—are terribly vexed when awakened and not fed. Horace Walpole—poor fellow—hasn’t had a bite in years. Anytime someone makes a sound near him, he jumps right up, excited as a child at Christmas. Then he lies back down, as disappointed as if that same child had received no gifts at all, whilst everyone else is merrily opening theirs.

As Elizabeth walks down the hallway, she can feel herself smiling automatically as Virginia Woolf comes into view. Virginia is always popular, and she has such a sprightly way about her for a suicide.

“Good morning, Virginia,” Elizabeth says. For it is always morning when you awaken, no matter the hour. And there are no hours here.

Virginia smiles back, reaches out and takes Elizabeth’s hand. “I’ve not seen you up in days!”

Elizabeth inclines her head, looking up knowingly. It seems to her that they are beneath the world rather than above it. They have no view; it is impossible to tell. “It’s springtime up there. I think it is easier for them to find me at this time of year. And who called for you?”

Virginia sighs. “A lovely girl. Scarce fifteen. She’s in love for the first time and only just knows it.”

Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth says, not really asking. She is being polite. This is always the answer.

Orlando,” Virginia says, her smile widening. Elizabeth could swear she is glowing. “More and more, the calls are coming because of Orlando.”

Elizabeth smiles back. She does not know how long she has been in the catacomb, nor how the library here works. She only knows that she has read every book ever written. When she meets an author in the hall, she has perfect recall of their entire oeuvre, and they of hers. They know one another in the most comfortably intimate way. The woman who welcomes everyone on the day they die designed it this way. She is Murasaki Shikibu, and Elizabeth sees her always with an inked brush in her mouth, working, working. Shikibu knows everyone this intimately. She knows what every writer wants when they die.

Elizabeth thinks that some of the writers know each other better still. She has seen Anaïs Nin in Sappho’s doorway more than once. She has heard that such things are only possible for authors whose works touch in the world above. Perhaps that is true. Enough poets have come to her door that she imagines they must touch her words often, but she always sends them away. Robert has never once shown his face, and she does not care to know if he’s in these halls somewhere. She sleeps best when she sleeps alone.

She reaches her window, which is only hers. It is near a few others, and she does look around a bit and see who else is awake. There’s Christina Rossetti, reclining at the glass, winding a lock of her hair around her finger, enchanted by whatever she sees there. Elizabeth can see through no one else’s window, and no one may see through hers. That suits her. There’s Amiri Baraka, who always seems to be moving in time, as if he dances to music that no other may hear. There’s Juana Inés de la Cruz, free at last of her habit and sweeping around in crimson robes and a crown as she stands hungrily at her own window and takes and takes from whatever is given her. Elizabeth thinks of it as eating or drinking, but she knows that it not how it is for everyone. Some of them say it is like music, and others describe it as the act of love. Watching each at their glass, she can only guess at how they feel what they feel.

When she reaches her own window, she sees a familiar sight. It is always one of two things: a youth with a schoolbook or a grown person standing in the British Library before a glass case. In the case, they keep a foolscap original of Elizabeth’s poem that asks “How do I love thee?” And then offers to count the ways.

It is perhaps the most parodied and mocked love poem of all time, but such things do not call Elizabeth from her sleep. There is only one thing that wakes the writers who roam these halls, and that is rapture.

There is a young man peering through the glass. He can’t make out the words at first, and even now Elizabeth cringes at the thought of her penmanship. I was only drafting, she thinks. How could I know that centuries of onlookers would see my strikethrough lines, my shaking hand? How can I tell them it was the laudanum as much as the pangs of love which made me quake so?

But he is reading it, or she wouldn’t be here. He is reading it and his heart is swelling beyond its bounds. He is reading it and it is filling him with a longing so sharp that he resents it for puncturing the evenness of his day playing tourist. He came to this place expecting to be moved by Beowulf, and he wouldn’t be the first. That author, that hulking fellow, had breezed past Elizabeth more times than she liked to count. He had the look of an angry bear about him.

The young man is unmoved by the bear-man’s poem. He has come here with a terrible emptiness in his heart. It bleeds out of him now, and into Elizabeth. She feels no pain of her own, but when it is the precursor of the rapture of a reader, she feels it most sharply. It is the hunger before she is fed. (Pangs are only felt in hunger, guilt, and love.)

He is moved, instead, by a poem he knew first as a joke. As a litany recited by cartoon rabbits and snide antagonists who mock anyone who dares to show their heart. It comes over him the way a man is taken by sickness and he must step out of the gallery, into the corridor, to try and compose himself. He is weeping as though his heart is broken.

But it is not, or Elizabeth would not be here.

His love is not with him, but she is not gone from him. Not completely. He takes his own small, rectangular glass from his pocket and writes to his lady.

Ah, Elizabeth sighs. Would that they had such when I was young. When I think of how I pined for months for a letter. But no matter. Here it comes.

He finds it. Not her skiff of scribble, but a clear and even printing from which he may copy.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

He hits send.

Somewhere, in another part of the world, his love awakens. Her life is still in the world where pain is real and the sun still rises and sets. The stab of longing is shared between the two of them, and then between the three. It lands in Elizabeth’s chest, beating her heart once more. The lady above copies as well, and Elizabeth says the words along with her, lips moving as one as when the congregation is joined in prayer.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And doesn’t she? Doesn’t she love them better than she ever could, seeing them crying for one another, split across oceans and without hope of anything beyond these words— her words!— that they share? Is not her love now a thing that could encompass all the world? She cries with them. She always does. She never loved anything so well in life. Of course she awakens for this. A thousand times, across a thousand centuries. If anything lasts so long.

When the rapture has faded and she is well-fed, Elizabeth rises from her place. It seems to her she has been sitting before a fire in a very comfortable chair, or else taking a sunlit stroll on a spring day that was warm but never taxing. When the bees could be heard but not felt. She stretches lightly, ready for bed again. For as long as she may rest. Until she is called once more.

Through the hall of glasses, she makes her way, only a little curious now about who is awake at this hour (for it seems very late indeed). But she comes to one corner that she knows is never empty, and she smiles, for he is not alone this night.

Disheveled and devilishly handsome, William Shakespeare sits with his chin in his hand, sighing at the glass before him. It never tires him and he is never tired. His bed hasn’t been touched in years. No matter how frequently Elizabeth rises, she sees him always here. He is happier than any of them, radiating contentment like a hot brick tucked between quilts, his reflection always smiling to his fellows over his shoulder.

And his free hand reaches out to his left, where Walt Whitman sits. He clasps William’s hand in his and grins broadly at his glass. His rapture is as pure as a child’s; if his hands were free he would clap them with delight. But he does not take his hand from William’s.

Elizabeth tucks her body closer to the wall, silent as the grave, and watches them just a little longer. It isn’t rapture, but it makes her smile as Virginia did. As any awoken author will.

William pulls Walt’s hand nearer to him and kisses it tenderly. He pulls him closer, wrapping an arm around his waist.

“I hope they never let us sleep,” William says. “I always knew I would be immortal.”

Whitman nods. “I always knew I was a god.”

Elizabeth turns to leave them without saying a word and nearly runs into Oscar Wilde. He smiles at her as he passes. “Well, if it isn’t one of my lost saints. Good morning, Elizabeth.”

She smiles back. “Goodnight, Oscar.”

Wilde slips in beside Whitman, wrapping a long arm around the two men. The three of them glow like embers in a fire that never goes out.

Elizabeth does not know if they are immortals, and she cannot believe they are gods. She does not think herself a saint, lost or otherwise. No one promised her the lifespan of her ink, and now that she is called by people carrying ink that never fades, she does not know if even that matters anymore.

She sneaks past the sleepers in rooms around her and does not envy them their unbroken rest. She cannot wait until she is awoken again by lovers who find her and bring rapture to her words. She loves them so much better after death. She cannot count the ways.

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. Her second novel was up for the Philip K. Dick, and both were longlisted for the James A. Tiptree award. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Catapult, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Find her online, where she writes like she’s running out of time.

2100 words, Shimmer #44, July 2018

Other Poets:

Held, by Ian O’Reilly

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins

Itself at the Heart of Things, by Andrea Corbin

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

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.


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?


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.


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



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.


Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

war01The 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?

One after the other, we go outside. The sky is draped like a shroud over the town. The sun behind ash and smoke. From our houses. From our fields. Our gardens. A bird hangs in the air, undecided. Can birds still fly now we’ve lost the war?

The foreign boys who are stationed outside have heard they won the war. They drink wine. They fire their guns. They laugh, the victors. Horsed, they circle us. They hoot and jeer. The victors. The stallions. Last night they were weeping at our feet in the dark.


The boys are gone. It’s just us now. Women. Girls. Every morning, we step out of what remains of our houses and collect the rubble in piles on the street. I used to grow chrysanthemums in my garden. Now it’s sown with cigarettes and shards of glass. The victors’ seeds. I wonder what will grow.

At night we retreat inside. I check on the little mummy that lives in the dark room in the back. Will it stop breathing now we’ve lost the war? I kneel by its side and watch its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, until I’m lost to sleep.

I dream of wedding rings. They come out of my belly button, dozens war02and dozens of wedding rings. I spread them out on the floor and search for my own, but I can’t find it. Then, I remember; it was one of the foreign boys, long ago. After he was finished, he took the ring off my finger. As payment, he said.


We’ve piled the rubble high, gathered everything we can use: bricks and stones, cement, window frames and planks and metal rods. We stand by our piles and wait for someone to come and build everything back up. Not because we can’t do it ourselves, no. But if no one comes back, what would be the point?

The glass in my yard is still gleaming beneath the soil. It’s yet to bloom.


The man comes early one morning. His khakis are worn and dusty. They hang off him, too large for his frame, or his frame diminished from wearing them for too long. We don’t know him. Is he a victor? Is he one of our own? He seems our age. His hair is black and sleek like a crow’s feathers. His features slender, his fingers long and thin.

war03He starts picking my pile of rubble apart. He loads the stones on his back, the planks, the rods. He kneels by my house’s crumbling wall while I look on. He nods at me. We don’t exchange any words. Do we even speak the same language? He mixes dirt with water for my wall. My glass garden catches the dim light of the sun.

At night, I pull him inside. He’s cut his hands on the glass. I clean them with water and soap. His skin is soft. I want to kiss it. Do we still kiss now we’ve lost the war? He cups my face in his palms. I trace the gentle outline of his chin, the beautiful angle of his cheekbones.

I take him to the back room, show him the mummy in its bed. Its breathing forever the same. “It’s been here a long time,” I say. “Ever since they took my son.” He looks at me, but I don’t know if he understands. “If you don’t mind it, you can stay,” I add.

When he slips under the covers with me, khakis shed and grime washed off, his body is warm and smooth and supple. His body like mine. We don’t make a sound. All I can hear is the mummy’s breath in the dark.

Later, I dream of crow’s feathers and silk.


Months pass, but no others come to our town. We finish fixing my house, and together with the other women we rebuild the rest. The women ply him with gifts of whatever they can spare, but he accepts none. I fear they’ll find out how unlike other men he is when they touch his slender arms, when they stand too close to him, peering at his long neck, his beardless, stubbleless chin. But nobody says anything. They smile when they see him coming home to me every night. Are they bitter? Are they lonely? Do we get to feel lonely now we’ve lost the war?


war04Soon, we marry. There’s no priest. No rings either. The women stand us one next to the other, shoulder to shoulder, same frame, same height. They rain flowers on our heads and wash our feet with cool milk. “You’re wife and husband now,” they say. “Kiss.” We still kiss, after all. The women cheer. They hug each other. Bitter. Happy. There are blades of grass sprouting amidst the glass in my yard. My man smiles, but he doesn’t speak.

Nobody wishes us children. “For all we’ve lost, there’s true joy here,” they say.

Back at the house, the mummy is still breathing. Despite all the joy.


My man, he lets his hair grow out. He ties it into a ponytail when he goes outside to chop wood. I watch him from the door, how he swings his axe up and down. My man. He grunts every time he brings the axe down on a log. He hasn’t spoken a word in all the time we’ve been together. I wonder what his voice would sound like. He sees me and dries his brow, a solemn look on his face.

Later, I find him standing over the mummy, trying to smother it with a pillow. He’s crying. I touch his shoulder and slowly take the pillow from his hands. His hair cascades down his back, darker than ever.

“It doesn’t work that way, love,” I tell him.

At night, I offer to braid his hair like I do mine. He lets me.

“Speak to me,” I plead.

We lie in the dark, the mummy’s soft breathing droning on, lulling us to sleep.


My man’s voice is deep, it turns out, like a river.

He never speaks to me, but he starts singing one night when we press our bodies together in bed. He sings all night long. Melodies I’ve never heard before, in a language I don’t understand. It makes me think of the boys, the victors, how they cheered and laughed all those years ago.

In the morning, I lay my head on the mummy’s bed, check if its chest is still moving. When he sees me, my man answers with a song of drawn-out vowels and sharp turns that cut like glass.

The mummy breathes in slowly, then exhales before the song ends.


Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is the World Fantasy Award-winning and Nebula-nominated author of over a hundred stories published in Nightmare, Uncanny, ClarkesworldStrange Horizons, F&SF, and elsewhere. Find him at www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

Lost & Found:

Red Mask, by Jessica Lin May – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves.

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.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.


Welcome, honored guest,
to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.

This menu will address the spirits in recommended tasting order for maximum piquancy, though our guests are of course welcome to explore the experience however they might like.


The manifestation may be found over the lightly stained floorboards where the house’s pianoforte once rested. Warm flavors of charred wood and cloves harmonize over a dark mineral undertone that hints at a long history of violence perpetrated upon others. Sharp spiciness bursts upon the tongue, representing the surprise at the moment of death, a grace note of the unexpected. Note the floral scent that lingers after you’ve enjoyed your taste, the way it changes and enhances the preceding flavor.

Our historian believes this manifestation to be Martha Ridley, matriarch of the family, who was murdered in 1919 by a burglar, according to police records. A cane belonging to her has been brought down from the house’s attic, the smooth polish on the handle and the multitude of microscopic cracks throughout the shaft indicating vigorous use.


Open the antique ice box to find our next manifestation in the darkened interior, which is far too small to contain the full body of an adult man. To the discerning nose, the metallic hints of blood and salt linger even to this day, contained in the scraps of stained rope that sit at the bottom of the box. This spirit is redolent of leather, woodsmoke, and high-grade tobacco, decadently masculine. An acrid taste lingers, as of burnt leaves in the autumn, an echo of more drawn-out agonies, overlaid with a sweetness of hothouse flowers, familiar from the first taste.

This ice box is believed to be the last resting place of handyman Edward Smith, thought to have left the employ of the Ridleys in April of 1917 after the declaration of war on Germany, intent on joining the army. Records show that he never made it to the recruitment office. A picture recovered from a trunk in the attic shows him to be an uncommonly attractive young man, posing unselfconsciously with an ax before the trees.


Outside the kitchen stands one of the manor’s larger trees. Under its strongest branch you will find a manifestation redolent with gunpowder, gin, and orange peel, the strong relic of a man cut down in his prime. The flavor is, sadly, somewhat muddled with a cacophony of metallics unthinkingly inculcated at time of death. If you hold your glass to the moon, you’ll catch a hint of the olive drab color that had become the staple of army uniforms during World War I.

A few steps away the second manifestation waits, a much more subtle mix of greenery, ocean salt, and the delightfully domestic sweetness of bread. Fascinatingly, the orange peel of taste #3 carries over to #4, linking the two inextricably together. This subtlety is almost overwhelmed by a contrasting burst of bright mint and dark truffle, clarity and despair that make for a decadent, almost chocolatey finish—violence turned inward.

Taste #3 has been identified as Corporal Jeremiah Green, from archived picture postcards of his lynching on May 12, 1921. He had returned home for leave and was accused of assault by Elizabeth Ridley (daughter of Martha), despite having never before been on the Ridley House grounds. Taste #4 is thought to be where her brother Nathaniel Ridley committed suicide three days later, by means of Corporal Green’s service pistol. Rumor has it he had been planning to leave Ridley House within the week, departing for New York City—with Corporal Green.


On your way to the final taste, we encourage you to stop by the vegetable garden, study, and nursery. The manifestations in these areas are not well-defined enough to offer the sort of experience we prefer for our guests, but will whet the appetite and sharpen the senses. In the nursery, see how many distinct presences you might find; our most experienced sommeliers have caught between seven and nine, not quite overwhelmed by the sweetness of hothouse flowers.


A fitting end to the evening, this manifestation is the reason for our limited run at the Ridley house; not anchored by the dark chords of abrupt or violent death, we expect it to be fully consumed within the month. Strongly sweet and floral with satisfaction to the point of being almost cloying; seek below the surface to find the bitterness of quinine, the spicy heat of foxglove, and lingering almond.

This is the known manifestation of Elizabeth Ridley, deceased due to heart failure in 1992 at the age of 90. She was born in Ridley House and is never known to have left the grounds, though she found local fame by cultivating hothouse orchids. Drink deeply and you may hear her reported final words whispered in an incongruously young voice: “We are the same, you and I, but I enjoyed my feast while you have only the dregs.”

rachaelAlex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’re a proud Angry Robot with their novel Hunger Makes the Wolf forthcoming in March 2017. They’ve written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bicycle. For more information, see http://www.katsudon.net.

Other Tastes:

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou – 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.

The Law of the Conservation of Hair, by Rachael K. Jones – That we passed the time on the shuttle to the asteroid belt reading aloud from Carl Sagan; that we agreed the aliens were surely made of star stuff too, in their flat black triangular fleet falling toward Earth like a cloud of loosed arrows.

Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, by 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.


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.


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.


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.


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—


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.


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.”


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.


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


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

Do Also Read:

website_sept15thumbThe Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation; that for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot.

26-thumbnailSerein, 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.

Shimmer-24-ThumbnailCome 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.

All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray, by Gwendolyn Kiste

One bite is all it takes. That is — and always has been — the rule.


We discover the first girl in autumn. She’s tucked beneath the tallest tree in our orchard, dozing there like a ripened apple toppled to earth.

I’m five years old, and the world is still gossamer and strange, my fragile memories like a soft cake that’s not yet risen, so part of me is almost certain that finding a girl one morning, sleeping where she doesn’t belong, must be the most ordinary thing for those who have lived long enough.

I plod behind my father as he carries her to the barn. “What happened?”

“A witch, no doubt,” he says, but I don’t believe him, because he blames witches for everything. A thunderstorm on the day of harvest, dark spots on the flesh of Cortlands and Braeburns, a splinter in his palm from an apple crate—always the work of a spell, according to him. Yet this blighted land, faded and cruel, seems more like magic has forgotten us entirely. Of the whole village, only our orchard retains a speck of color, and with the crop waning, bushel by bushel, each year, even that won’t last.

My father places the girl in a pile of wilted straw, away from the wind and the sun, and she curls up, crumpled and lifeless, like an origami swan crushed beneath a heavy boot. In her knotted hand, she cradles a tiny red apple. There’s barely a blemish on the skin. A single taste bewitched her.

“I’ll go into the village.” My father shrugs on his seam-split jacket. “Whoever she is, her family’s probably looking for her.”

He hesitates, then adds, “You stay here.”

He says it as though I long to be near him, as though we’re a proper father and daughter, good and whole, not the broken pieces of something ugly and aching.

I stare at the straw and say nothing. Without so much as a nod goodbye, my father vanishes through the barn doors, and I watch his figure become smaller and smaller on the horizon, folding in on itself until he’s gone.

There’s one path to the village, and he never ventures off it. It’s safest that way. On the border to the north, the shadows of the forest murmur nonsense and stretch taut fingers toward the orchard. There are the trees here populated with blooms and apples, and the trees there that yield only gloom, and a line in between, our property line, that divides one from the other, shelter from the unknown.

“Ignore the forest,” my father always says. “Only decay lives there.”

As if decay doesn’t live here with us too, our conjoined twin that never rests.

When I’m sure my father won’t double back, I breathe deep and edge closer to the girl. She smells of lilacs and lilies, bouquets that no longer blossom on this land. For hours, I sit with her in silence, because I’ve got nothing to talk about, at least nothing this girl is probably eager to hear. She has plenty of problems of her own. She doesn’t need mine.

Though she has one problem I can help with. I ease the apple from her fingers and drop it in the pocket of my gingham apron. If it was indeed poisoned, there’s no reason for her to embrace it. I’ll keep it for her. I’ll protect her, the best I can. Too late is better than not at all.

A sliver of moon crests above us, and its meager light brings my father home. It brings someone else too. A young man arrayed in handsome silks and fine jewels, clearly a stranger to our province, since no one here can afford bread, much less such glittery baubles.

He kneels to the straw and inspects the girl’s face.

“She’s beautiful,” he says, and my flesh prickles as he forces his mouth over hers.

I part my lips to ask if he even knows her, if he ever saw her before this night, but I exhale instead and my words dissolve like a plume of smoke in the chilled air. It would do no good to speak. Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.

Eyes open, the girl gags, and I wonder whether it’s residual poison on her tongue or the taste of his kiss that nauseates her.

He drapes her, still groggy, over his shoulders and declares her his bride. The next day, they make it official at the sagging chapel in the town square.

We never learn where this prince came from. Even after the wedding, the girl’s family can’t pinpoint his kingdom on a map.

“It’s somewhere to the East,” they say, and that’s precise enough to satisfy them.

The villagers don’t search for the witch who soured the apple. They’re busy cooing over satin and white stallions, and tethering rusted tin to the tail-board of the royal carriage.

The young ladies cry because it’s all so romantic.

“I want an apple and a prince,” they say, and cool themselves with folded fans made of lace, torn and yellowed.

My father’s chest expands with feverish zeal like a hot air balloon inflating for exhibition, and I divine the thought turning over in his mind.

This will be wonderful for business.

After the ceremony’s over and the villagers scatter like dried rice, I remain on the road, my stomach cramping as though I’m the one who consumed poison.

The apple’s still in my apron. I take it home and hide it away.


One by one, the girls find their way to the orchard, and once they start arriving, they never stop, like the tide breaking over the shore.

My father makes quiet deals with the families.

“I’ll keep them safe,” he says, and the mothers and fathers agree, because they have nothing else. Their faces, all soiled and sunken, are hungry, a hunger that even a month of hearty meals wouldn’t satiate. This land has been barren so long that the desperation’s in their marrow, deeper than the salt beneath the earth, and they look to us and this orchard and our apples as if their daughters might earn a fate here that doesn’t mean starvation.

“How do you know the prince will come?” they ask.

My father flashes them a serpent’s smile. “Have faith,” he says. “Faith always discerns the believers.”

They pay their gold coins, often a lifelong savings, and in our cottage by candlelight, my father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.

By now, it’s been five years since the first girl, the one who went east and never returned. We never did find her kingdom, but her family claims they receive a letter each spring.

“She delivered an heir in December,” they say, but if you ask them, they can’t tell you the child’s name or whether it’s a boy or girl. They can’t tell you if the daughter’s happy in matrimony either, but that seems unimportant somehow. She married a prince. What more could a poor village girl desire?

Before the families leave their daughters to our care, they make special requests. They ask for glass coffins where the girls can slumber, but they forget there is no glassmaker in this town, no artisan of any kind. All we can offer is a pile of straw in our barn. A hideous option, but my father’s clever. He can spin even an unseemly truth into a gold-plated lie.

“It must be straw,” he says. “A prince won’t come otherwise.”

He never asks if they have hay fever. After they’re nestled in beds of fodder, the girls sniffle through hollow dreams, eyes swollen and red welts blossoming like rosebuds on their skin.

“No one will want to kiss them now,” I say, and my father hushes me.

Such talk is bad for business. And business is what keeps us alive, keeps porridge in our bowls, keeps the orchard thriving for the young ladies who wear their best dresses and lace tattered ribbons in their hair.

But a few don’t skip so merrily to the gallows.

“She’s nervous,” one mother says, dragging her heart-faced daughter behind her. “That won’t affect the magic, will it?”

My father regards the girl, who stares at her threadbare shoes. “Not in the case of such a deserving young princess,” he says.

At this, the mother brightens as though she always believed her progeny was royalty-in-waiting, and at last, someone outside the family has confirmed it.

The girl, however, does not brighten. Her skin blanches the color of bone, and when I peer into her face, it’s as though I’m looking through the muscle and sinew to see what’s beneath. She’s no more than fifteen. Some families hold on to their daughters longer, clutching them with gaunt hands, delaying the inevitable, always hoping a better option might materialize. But in this place where the land is stained gray and the wheat won’t flower again, there is nothing better, and the longer you wait, the more the girl loses that freshness in the cheeks.

My father makes a deal, a fair one he calls it, and the mother bids farewell to her child.

Except for this ritual, daughters are rarely allowed to be alone. “It’s unsafe,” the villagers say and keep them under brass lock and key. Not until after the price of their future is paid like a macabre dowry are they turned loose to pick the perfect apple.

Their first taste of freedom is their last.

Along the manicured trails of the orchard, I tread solemnly behind the girl. This is against the rules, and if my father catches me, my backside will meet a belt. I don’t care. Like a ghost, I always follow.

It’s only May, a time made for fragile blossoms, not fully bloomed fruit, but that doesn’t matter. The magic here grows stronger each season, and even in the biting cold of winter, these trees now flourish with ready apples in all varieties, including ones that never used to grow on this land. There’s no blush elsewhere in the village—our property has more than enough for everyone.

After the first girl, we were sure the nearby forest cursed our land, but we need no witchcraft to cast this spell. The apples do the work for us, the poison readymade and choosy. The men can eat any of the varieties—Jonagolds, Golden Delicious, Galas—no problem. It’s the girls who take one bite and slumber. They don’t get to savor the whole thing. What if the second taste is sweeter than the first? They’ll never know.

Sobbing, the reluctant girl closes her eyes, and fumbles blindly for a branch. She chooses her apple—her fate—and succumbs to the dirt. I collapse cross-legged beside her, and the tears streak down my face like wax from a flame. Though she can’t hear me, I tell her I’m sorry.

The apple, plump and rosy, droops from her fingers, and I pry it free and preserve it in my pocket.

When my father comes to claim her, his temporary property, I hide behind green leaves the shape of giant hands, always reaching to the sky. This is the edge of the world, and the dark forest unfurls beyond, calling in a voice sweet and clear as a cathedral bell. With fingers buried in both ears, I do my best not to listen. The forest is known for its tricks. That’s what the men from the village say. It devours the living like a blackened sea. It devoured my mother—or maybe my mother let herself be devoured, that honeyed evening the summer before the first girl came to us.

I never asked my father why she left. I didn’t have to. Her sobs like endless lullabies sang me to sleep in the cradle, and the constellation of bruises on the soft flesh of her arms told me what he did to her. What all men who spin golden lies are capable of doing.

Before dawn, a prince from the south arrives, wearing a black velvet cape and a string of blood-red garnets around his neck. He kisses the girl hard on the mouth, and I’m sure she’ll suffocate beneath his weight, but no, she struggles awake, her gaze fixed on the one who owns her now.

“My bride,” he says.

This is what they always call the girls. Not beloved or partner or lover, but bride. A word that implies something fleeting and young. How many days must be marked on a calendar for a girl to shift from bride to wife? What is the passage of time that transforms her from gleaming and new like a magpie’s treasure into old and frayed, a burden to be borne? There must be a moment in which this happens, a moment that cleaves the world in two. Does she feel the change stirring within her, a pregnant storm ready to unleash its havoc? Or does it happen without her knowledge, and she only sees it one morning in the way her prince no longer looks lovingly at the ripe features of her face?

This girl of fifteen does not smile at the altar or wave goodbye from the golden carriage. She simply stares at her shoes, no longer threadbare, but polished and silken, the footwear of royalty. She should be happy. That’s what the village believes. Even her family doesn’t see the shadow that falls over her eyes like a valance of wayward curls. They let her depart for a castle—a mirage in the distance—and they celebrate when she’s gone.

“Spring weddings are so lovely, don’t you think?” her mother says, red-faced and laughing, as she drinks the last goblet of mead from a dust-caked bottle the family kept for just this occasion.

All the villagers are here, the chortling fools, and because the enchantment my father sells like bone china is responsible for the marriage, he’s guest of honor. That makes me guest of honor too. Every boy asks me to dance, and every boy stomps off cursing when I shake my head, folding and unfolding my ragged hem. I have special clothes, an old dress of my mother’s, I’m supposed to wear on days like these, but I cling close to my gingham apron, and when I walk home after the revelry ends, alone since my father’s too drunk to stand, the apple feels a little heavier in my pocket.


The men who come to the orchard aren’t always princes. Some are dukes or counts or barons. The girls and their families rarely know the difference, so long as the groom has a title and a castle and land.

But sometimes he doesn’t have any of those things. There’s nothing to stop a pauper from waltzing through the door and kissing the first ruby lips he sees. Because who’s going to check his credentials? We can’t locate whole kingdoms, let alone account for exact wealth.

“It’s your orchard,” an angry family says to my father after the daughter is married off to an unemployed blacksmith from the village. “You shouldn’t have let that roustabout in here.”

“No refunds,” my father says.

Every morning, I visit the girls, their wilted bodies resting in neat rows. Not all of them are chosen. We now house a decade’s worth of would-be princesses. My father has to build a second, then a third barn to accommodate them. Arms crossed over their chests, they doze here, ageless—no laugh lines where they’ve smiled too long or stitches in their brow where they’ve frowned too deep. On their faces, there’s no roadmap of their lives, because their lives sputtered out too soon.

I say their names as I walk by. It’s the only way I can help the world remember. My father doesn’t care. He brushes the grime from the curves on their skin and calls it a job well done.

“It’s their own fault,” he says to me. “They had no faith a prince would appear, so none came for them. Silly girls.”

I suddenly wish for a glass coffin, so that I might shatter it and use the jagged shards to open my father’s chest and see if he does indeed have anything beating in the cavity where a heart should be. I bet he sports a hollow chasm, and if I screamed into it, my words would echo back to me. That’s all he can offer—emptiness. There’s certainly no love between us. My devotion, from daughter to father, dried up years ago like the wells in the village that surrender only sand and sorrow. I want to tell him so, tell him how much I hate him, but it’s fear that makes me reticent. All I’ve ever known is fear. Terror of the babbling forest. Dread of what my father would do to me if he could see inside my own heart, how he’d bruise my body like he did my mother’s.

I recite the girls’ names a little louder to steady myself.

When the day is over and my father retires to the cottage to count and recount his money, I check on the forsaken apples. They live in a splintered crate at the far rim of the property, no more than a yard from the mouth of the forest. It’s a good hiding place. Because of his superstitions, my father never ventures that far, always sending me to pull the weeds there.

The crate overflows with rinds and seeds and stems, and while mold should have long ago turned the pieces to dust, the apples are like the girls—decay never touches them.

On the eve of the year’s first snowfall, another daughter arrives. Her parents pay with their last silver coins, and my father releases her into the orchard. Stealthy as a mouse, I tag along a few steps behind, but she’s not like the others. She searches for no apple. Her eyes looking north, this girl wanders past the trees, past my crate, to the boundary of the here and there.

Faltering for a moment, she glances back at me, and I’m caught under the weight of her stare.

“Are you the one who collects the bodies?”

I fidget in the dirt and shake my head.

“Then why are you here?” she asks.

I have no reason to follow the girls. I can’t stop them, can’t help them, can’t do anything except watch like a strange voyeur as they wither and fall.

“I want to keep them safe,” I whisper. “I want them to find true love.”

“Love?” The girl tosses her head back and scoffs. “There’s none of that here. True love breaks the spell, remember? But look around. The spell is stronger than ever.”

She takes a step closer to the forest.

“Please don’t.” I drift toward her, my arm outstretched, frantic to catch her before she’s lost. “You can’t be sure what waits in there.”

“Sometimes that’s better,” she says. “It can be freeing.”

“It can mean death.”

“Maybe.” She smiles. “Maybe not.”

Like my mother before her, she marches into the trees and does not return. Breathless, I lean against the lowest bough and pray she’ll look back again. She never does. Her body dissolves like mist into the darkness.

But she’s not gone. I hear giggling just beyond our property line, and her final words stay with me, sinking into my skin like the sweet scent of rose oil.

For the first and only time, the family receives a refund, and I wonder if at last the wind is changing.


On my twentieth birthday, my father buys me a new dress for my walk in the orchard.

Though the apples have made us the richest family in the province, he’s a stingy man, and it’s the first gift he’s ever given me. While I’m not grateful, not really, it seems rude to disregard the gesture, so I thank him and don the billows of pink chiffon.

“Good luck,” he says before retiring to bed. “No doubt your prince will come soon.”

My prince. The man who will assume my father’s duties once my father is too old to tend the apples himself.

Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky, and I take my father’s candle to guide me. In the playful shadows, I choose my apple—an Empire, sharp and sweet. I thread it between my fingers, turning it over and over, as though I’ll be able to decipher its secrets if only I can see it from the proper angle. Yet there are no secrets here, none worth learning, so I tell myself it’s time. My lips move toward the skin. One bite would be enough to sleep deep and cold, like an infant dipped and drowning in black water. My eyes would close, and I could rest.

But it wouldn’t last. For once, I believe my father. I’m not the same as the girls left behind. I’ve seen how the village boys watch me, ravenous wolves sniffing for blood. There is only this orchard, and I am the one to inherit it. I’m already a princess here. And all the boys, licking the sharp points of their glistening teeth, are desperate to become my prince.

The apple sags in my grasp, and doubt, as old as childhood, creeps inside me like a scarab beetle burrowed beneath the flesh. This isn’t the only way. This can’t be the only way.

The bordering forest calls to me in a voice I recognize, the voice of my mother. My fear melts away, ice in a boiling pot, and the candle as my chaperon, I walk to the edge, a circus performer on a tightrope.

The apple crate lingers still at the border of the forest. With a careful hand, I lower the wick, and the remains of fortunes lost catch in an instant. Though the fire sears my flesh, I clasp the bitten apples and pitch them, one by one, into the treetops of the orchard. These trees are healthy and shouldn’t burn, but on this evening, that makes no difference. Every branch is aglow, burning my nose with an acrid scent, the smell of make-believe hope turning to ash.

All around me, my mother’s laughing, and the gentle lilt in her voice makes me laugh too, makes me scream out with joy, until my muscles quiver and knees buckle beneath me.

The flames graze the indigo sky, and the light must reach to the heavens, or at least to the village, because I can hear the boys, the greedy ones who were waiting for me to crumble, call out to their families and announce the orchard is burning. I can hear my father too. From the cottage door, he shrieks my name, the only name he remembers, and time slips away from me like grains of sand in an open palm. I must finish now, or I won’t finish at all.

This magic is strange. It wasn’t wrought by witches, not the kind with cauldrons and capes anyhow. This magic was ours. We longed to escape the colorless land, and the girls bore the weight of that longing. It was easy to shuck it off on them. Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.

In this way, those entombed in straw are my kin. Though not by blood, they are my sisters, and I love them. From the first to the last, I’ve always loved them. I might be the only one, but one is all it takes to break the spell.

I kiss my fingertips and hold my hand to the sky. The wind carries my love to them, their lips pursed like pale hourglasses. They rouse from heavy dreams, not just the girls here, but those from faraway and forgotten kingdoms too, the princesses and baronesses and countesses who no longer look down in silence and shame. They gaze now to the north, to the unknown, to the trees that cast shadows that aren’t so grim anymore.

My mother whispers my name, and smiling, I turn to the waiting forest.

One bite, and the darkness swallows me whole.



Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye Magazine as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).


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Indigo Blue, by Rachael K. Jones

Above the shuttleport ticket line, migrating orison-birds roosted in twos and tens and hundreds on the skylight before lifting and wheeling east, toward the distant winter nesting grounds. Lucy thought glowfall on Indigo must look something like those flashing blue wings refracting the sunlight, but she might never find out, because far up in the shuttleport line, someone else had bought the last ticket to the planet. The last glowing sales-counter sign winked out.

It was one thing to sell out a concert or a handball game, but Indigo orbited close enough to Violet for travel only once every twelve years. Miss it, and you might never get there. Job offers expired. People expired. Over that kind of time, ellipses became periods.

If you were smart, you bought a ticket early, long before the pass. Nobody knew anticipation like those with tickets to Indigo. It was a bet you made with yourself that you would still want to go when the next pass happened, that you wouldn’t be in love or pregnant or dead from alcohol poisoning. It was self-predestination. Buying a ticket early was also the only way to get there, for most people.

Lucy couldn’t afford to miss the pass, so she unlocked her cycle and caught the ferry to the next shuttleport. Through her headphones, a baritone saxophone unwound the bluesy opening bars of the song Justin loved. She had a promise to keep to an old friend she’d never met, a man whose small kindnesses had made every last one of her four hundred and sixty-two remaining days alive worth paying gladly.

Her handheld’s alarm buzzed. Lucy opened the tin in her pocket and took today’s stay-alive.

Four hundred and sixty-one.


Lucy and Justin went back ten years, long before the stay-alives and her illness, to the time she thought she would hit it big on the indie music scene. One summer she rounded up her poetry notebook and scraps of chords and recorded her own album in her capsule apartment in Port Darwin, borrowing pillows and blankets from all the neighbors to soundproof the closet.

The album flopped on Violet. Lucy junked her recording gear and forgot about her music until three years later, when far away, her single “Indigo Blue” hit the Leonor Top 500 list on Indigo. She put half the royalties toward a bottle of fine brandy that tasted like smoke, which she drank one night with the help of her boyfriend Derek and his two roommates. In the morning, hung over and smelling of sex and sweat like a real rockstar, she spent the rest on the ticket to Indigo. It was cheap, relatively speaking, because they were only two years out from the last pass, and demand was low. If you wanted to make the hop, you had to plan years ahead, or else tickets would sell out, or get too expensive. Still, it cost her the difference between a capsule apartment and a spacious flat on the docks. At 33, she was the only one in her graduating class still living in a dump like that.

Her next album didn’t sell, not on Indigo or anywhere, and her mic gathered dust bunnies under the bed. One morning, after plucking three grey hairs from her scalp, Lucy called the courier service and asked to go full time. Her mother and Derek badgered her about the cheap capsule apartment. Lucy explained she liked her neighbors, the way all the kitchen smells converged through their open windows in the evening. When Lucy thought about her future on Violet, all roads ran straight and smooth and relentlessly unbending, a dull march through all the usual stops on the way to death, wonderless and savorless.

Then three years after “Indigo Blue,” Justin’s letter hit her email, bounced around the sun via relay satellites, timestamped 2:35AM. Lucy didn’t know what that meant in Indigo time. Days passed faster there, just like years did. The planet ran on hummingbird time, making a whole orbit in twelve Old Earth years to Violet’s fourteen.

Justin confessed he didn’t usually write to foreign musicians like this. I don’t even know if this will reach you, but I had to tell you your music got me through some tough times this year. He’d driven klicks and klicks after work each day to tend to a mother with dementia. Everything was so far-flung on Indigo, he had only music for company, and got home too late to see his young daughters. It was lonely and relentless, and he was grateful for the company her voice brought. Lucy seized Justin’s letter like a rope in a storm. No one had ever reflected her weariness so precisely.

He attached a picture of his backyard in the rain. A great droopy tree dripped shining water into puddles in the dark. Where the droplets touched ground, they shone blue. The ripples stood out like stacked halos. You sing like you grew up here, he said. It takes me back to childhood, to glowfall games in the rain. When he spoke of his home, it sounded like a fairytale. Lake Radiance. Fiddler’s Leap. Iridescent rain falling slantways down the mountainside, glittering like broken glass.

They began writing back and forth almost daily.

I drive the harvester on the biofuel colony, wrote Justin. The hours are long, especially in the cold and wet, but it’s necessary work, it pays well, and the views are incredible.

I’m a courier. I cycle to all the islands, rain or shine, Lucy answered. Mostly shine. I can listen to music, and sing, and I get lots of fresh air. I might be the only courier on Violet with all the ferry schedules memorized.

The emails came at all hours, always syncopated, good mornings and goodnights shuffled and dealt out randomly. Justin loved her pictures of sunrise. On Indigo, it always rained. Sometimes during winter, the clouds would break up a little, and they’d glimpse scattershot stars, a moon or two, and sometimes the red, faraway sun. But it was rare.

Not that it’s dark here, Justin added. It’s not at all. There’s the glowfall, and the symbiotes, and I think anyway it’s better than you get with just stars.

How would you know? asked Lucy, and he didn’t answer, but the next day she got a photo of the great threaded net strung street to street over his hometown, glow vapor condensed to starry blue droplets, lighting up the winding alien street, the incomprehensible signs, the faces grinning beneath clear umbrellas.


Businesses closed early on Violet due to the electricity ration, and Lucy just missed her last drop-off at the end of the workday thanks to a late ferry. Lucy’s molars pulsed — somewhere far away, another shuttle launched from the island. Its white smoke drew a line up the sky, Violet swinging on a thread in space. For three months, the ships would come and go, ferrying people between two worlds, exchanging goods that couldn’t endure the low-energy transfer orbit pipeline. For a couple months after that, shuttle travel would taper off as the trip grew riskier, more fuel-consumptive, harder on life support, until the pass ended, and Indigo’s orbit pulled too far ahead to catch anymore. Then the 12-year counter would start over. Thirty-three became forty-five. Justin’s kids would be adults, maybe married. His sickly old cat would be dead. Lucy would probably still be a courier, skirting the edge of poverty to pay for her stay-alives.

In the morning, Lucy called in to apologize to her boss. Arn was a kind man, patient with her. Lucy had worked for him since before she got sick. The customers had come to trust her discretion, and some requested her by name, so Arn cut her a lot of slack. “Lucy, you know I like you, but you can’t be late like this. You’ve been slipping lately. This is the third time this month you’ve gone off-grid while on duty. What’s going on?”

Lucy swallowed back the truth, because hunting for tickets was her private business, and it didn’t matter because she couldn’t get another ticket to Indigo anyway, not after she’d lost the one she’d bought with her royalties, so why bother? “I just lost track of time. It won’t happen again. I’m sorry.”

Arn sighed and the handheld made it sound like typhoon winds tearing at water. “I mean it, Lucy. It costs me whenever you’re late. You know I like you, but next time, you’re out.”

Lucy thanked him and hung up. A message from Justin came through on the handheld. Let’s dump our whole schedule. When I see you next week, let’s just spend the whole trip getting drunk and then drunk-singing around the firepit in my backyard. It was an old joke. Truth was, they’d planned her itinerary to Indigo over and over for years now. They’d filled it past the point of practicality, but it didn’t matter, because half the fun was the dreaming, the planning, the imaginary road trips that only ever played out in their minds. You could do that with a friend you might never meet. You had to.

Let’s go to Lake Radiance and dive for fungus blooms, if they’re in season, Lucy answered. And remember I’ve promised to watch your daughters dance.

On her apartment wall, Lucy had a huge street map of the Greater Darcy island chain, all fourteen islands linked by ferries and bridges, her best routes traced in blue pencil. She knew those streets very, very well. Anything their customers wanted, she could deliver. And if you had the money, there was always someone selling.

This is really happening, isn’t it? said Justin. Fair warning: I might cry.

It’s okay if you do, Lucy answered. We’ll just cry together. They’d cried together before. Something made possible by distance, that you could cry without shame and know that far away, somebody understood.


Most people didn’t know Lucy was sick, thanks to the stay-alives. There had been a few weeks of fatigue, a nasty green bruise on her shin that wouldn’t heal, and a trip to the doctor for some blood work. Lucy was scrolling through pictures from Justin’s biofuel colony on Indigo when the doctor gave her the diagnosis. He explained mitochondria to her, how her body was built on an ancient partnership between some single-celled organisms, but there had been a quarrel, a divorce, and now it would kill her.

She nodded, eyes fixed on the handheld like a guiding star, a thread stretched all the way to Indigo. The doctor scribbled the prescription for the stay-alives. “I’m starting you on replacement therapy. These are expensive, but you need to take one every day.”

“For how long?”

“The rest of your life.” He tore off the sheet and handed it to her. “It’s very important you don’t skip them or reduce the dosage. If you’re going to skip, you might as well not take any at all. The disease will come back, and we might not be able to stop it. You’re lucky we caught it so early.”

And that was that. Or it would have been, except for the price of the medicine. It came from Indigo, a byproduct of the symbiotes, and like all things imported on the 12-year cycle, it only got more expensive between passes. Just one of the pills cost more than Lucy made in a day. People held bake sales and cycle races for you when you lost your hair and puked your guts out in a bucket. But if you didn’t look sick at all? If you got on your cycle the day of your diagnosis, rode 20 klicks to the pharmacy, emptied your savings for a three-month supply of stay-alives, and rode home, young and strong and whole of body? Well, no one had any pity for a woman like that. People didn’t really donate to the sick. They paid you to perform your sickness.

Justin texted her furiously in the weeks following her diagnosis, although she hadn’t told him anything. Are you okay? he asked, and asked again. Lucy demurred. She didn’t want to cry with him over this. On Indigo at least, she wasn’t sick. Whatever it is, I’m here for you, okay? he said, and somehow, that eased the thick, sticky pressure in her throat.

In the end, she only told her boyfriend Derek. When he finally left two years later, broke from the price of keeping her alive, it was because of her ticket to Indigo. “Just sell the damn thing,” he said near the end. “It’s like you don’t want to live.”

Lucy tried to say why mere survival wasn’t enough. That she needed to write those impossible itineraries and believe in a perfect day. Justin’s favorite tea shop, smelling every single blend on the shelf, the smoked teas and the dried teas and the fresh teas wet in their wrappers. Picking one to have on the porch with Renza, Justin’s wife, while the mycoblossoms opened and sang in the evening gloom.

“But you can’t do those things if you’re dead,” Derek pointed out, and for that, Lucy had no answer except the wordless, struggling rage of orison-birds pinned in the snare while the flock flew west without them.

Lucy counted pills, and Derek stopped speaking to her. Justin sent her a video clip of his youngest daughter asleep with their cat, their drool iridescent against the pillow.

I haven’t heard from you in a while, said Lucy, and the time-lapse stretched out so long, she knew he’d paused and considered it before answering.

It’s been hard here lately, he said. Renza miscarried last week.

She typed and deleted a bunch of replies, and finally sent, Damn. It occurred to her that he curated his life too, that the Justin in her head was a mosaic fitted from the pieces he gave her, and what she decoded from the length of his pauses.

By the time Derek left, Lucy’s music had shuffled into the corners of her life, to lyrics scribbled from smoke-shaped dreams right after the alarm went off, measures hummed between the ringing of the ferry bells. On weekends, she dusted off her old mic and synthesizer and tapped rhythms in 9/8 time. It was easier with Derek gone. She tried out “Indigo Blue” again. She made a remix for Justin.

I really like this version, said Justin. The space between measures, how the pauses carry weight. Like a good conversation. Tell me you’ll sing this when you visit during the pass.

Okay, Lucy told him. I promise.

That was the day she rode her cycle to visit Sage the first time.


After Arn chewed her out, Lucy took the ferry to Traverse Island to see Sage again. Lucy could’ve married Sage, if not for his Doz addiction. He had a voice like a foghorn, strong and melancholy. When he sang, you could feel it in your bones and teeth and behind your eyes. She’d couriered Doz for Sage’s dealer a few years back, and she’d taken a shine to Sage. One day she’d stayed late to fix his broken handheld. They’d ordered pink radish noodles, shared some rice wine, watched a documentary on orison-birds on the history channel. He fell asleep on her arm, soaking her sleeve in drool, but she didn’t mind.

Sage made his living scalping tickets to Indigo every twelve years, buying them cheap and spending the profits on enough Doz to stay high until the next pass. When Lucy sold her ticket to Sage after Derek left, Sage gave her the friend rate, because he liked her and because she told him about the stay-alives. He’d nodded, understanding what it was like to live for your next dose.

Now Lucy sat on empty banana chip wrappers on his couch and worked up the nerve to ask for her tickets back. Sage rubbed his shaking hands one over the other, wavelike. He looked twelve years older when he came down, like he’d gone to Indigo and back.

“C’mon, Luce. I can’t just give away tickets, not now.” His Doz supply was running dangerously low so close to the pass.

She held within her ten years of pining for the friend who sustained her with mutual daydreams and photos of his backyard. Hope glowed beneath her breastbone, fragile and terrible. “Sage, if you do this for me, I swear on the bones of dead Old Earth I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Got a deal going down on Indigo?”

Lucy shook her head. “No. Just seeing an old friend.”

Sage nudged her thigh with his socked foot. “Long way to go for a friend.”

She swatted at him. “You don’t get it. It’s like…Ever gotten homesick for a place you’ve never been? Distance is what you make of it.”

He unrolled a flat canvas bag from his pocket and pinched out some Doz. The grains oxidized green to black on his fingers. He rolled it under his gumline, tongue creasing the spot thoughtfully. “The best I can do is one-way. You’re on your own getting home before the pass ends. And it’s going to cost you. It’ll be unfair after what I bought your round-trip for, but that’s the best I can do. It’s still going to piss off the lady I’m holding it for.”

Lucy knocked Sage over with a hug. “Thanks, Sage. I owe you big time.”

He returned the hug awkwardly, because she’d never hugged him before. “Where are you going to get the money?”

She was going to lie. She meant to lie, but something in her face must’ve given it away, because suddenly Sage sobbed into his elbow. “Damn you, Lucy. You’re as broke as me. You only have one thing worth any money.”

She forced a smile because she hated to see him cry like that. “I’ll make it work somehow.”

“You’ll die without your meds.”

“It’s not like I have much life left anyway,” said Lucy, and her voice broke because saying it aloud made it feel real. “Another year, and then what? What can I really do on Violet with that kind of time? At least I can see Indigo once. At least I can say that much.”

“Are you even coming home?” Sage’s chin was wet and snotty.

For the second time, Lucy chose the truth. “I don’t know, Sage. I really don’t.”


When she sold her ticket after Derek left, Lucy turned most of the money into meds and rent and sacks of rice, her half-hearted nod to responsibility. But for the price of one day’s dose, she splurged on an Indigo clock that mounted on her cycle. It converted orbits and planetary rotations and let her select between local time zones. On long trips between the islands, she liked to wonder what Justin and his family were doing. Sleeping while Lucy peeled her sunburned shoulders beneath her sarong. Having glowtea for breakfast while she ate spiced curd for dinner.

The best times were when their days synced, and they emailed back and forth as quickly as the distance would allow, minutes-long gaps that shrank as the pass drew near, until it was almost like talking in real time.

Lucy told him about the vast sandbars on Violet stretching out into the ocean, and how it was sunny almost year-round, except when the tides brought in lashing storms that reshaped the beaches, sucking sand from one place and carrying it to others. And there were the ferries, and everyone rode cycles, and it took forever to get anywhere because you had to use your own two legs. The cities were extremely dense. You could make a living hauling goods from island to island. At night, everyone lit candles and lamps to drive back the dark, because biofuel came from Indigo via the transfer orbit pipeline, and electricity was expensive, and you wanted to keep your monthly ration for charging your handheld and for your refrigerator. Sometimes a fire broke out, and people died in their sleep because it spread so fast in the close, dry quarters. Lucy’s uncle died like that, from smoke inhalation, and ever since she slept with the window open, even on stormy nights when the rain came in.

Justin told her about how on Indigo, it was always wet, and the sun rarely broke the clouds, and whenever it did, they’d declare a holiday, and schools closed early and neighbors cooked together over an open fire that sizzled and hissed in the lingering drizzle. Violet had been terraformed by the seedships of Ancient Earth, but Indigo life was hybrid, indigenous glowfall symbiotic with the imports. Old Earth trees grew huge in the continuous rain, colonized by glow to photosynthesize even in dim daylight. Those who grew up in glowfall never caught the flu. In his pictures, the whites of Justin’s eyes shimmered iridescent when the light was dim. The glow even entered their saliva. On Indigo, you could spit stars on the pavement.

Once, Lucy raided her market’s tiny imports section for Indigo food: dried algaes and fungi and powdered glowtea stocked for homesick immigrants. She cooked them at home with recipes found online, with too many substitutions. The resulting stew smelled like mildew. The glowtea Justin raved about was tepid greyish lumps bobbing around in souring milk. She snapped a picture for him. You actually eat this stuff?

Well. I think you have to taste it on Indigo firsthand, he said. You can’t eat dead glow and expect to like it. See for yourself when you get here.


To pay Sage, Lucy sold all but three weeks of pills, just enough to get her there. And after that? Well, she’d have only a few days planetside to find a ticket home. If she missed the window, she’d make her way on Indigo with the cash saved from the return ticket, at least until her days ran out. Maybe her drugs would be cheaper at their place of manufacture. Or perhaps meds were a luxury in a place where people didn’t even get the flu. Lucy figured nobody’s mitochondria rebelled on Indigo.

The morning of the shuttle launch to Indigo, she snapped a picture of sunrise for Justin. She bought savory yogurt with pineapple from a street vendor at Port Jekyll, and iced coffee at the shuttleport on Traverse. For good measure, she picked up some fresh coffee beans for Renza and some rice candy for Justin’s daughters. The morning air clung hot and sticky, but Lucy wore long sleeves because it was spring on Indigo. She took her stay-alive with the dregs of the coffee and locked up her cycle. The clock on the handlebar said it was morning in Indigo.

Lucy snapped a photo of her locked cycle and sent it to Sage. If I’m not back before the pass ends in three weeks, my cycle’s yours. And help yourself to anything in my capsule apartment. It’s a load of junk, except for the synthesizer. Key’s inside the clock. She snapped off the Indigo clock’s plastic cover and left her key there, wondering if she would ever touch it again.

On the shuttle, as she watched the planet fall away, Lucy thought this was the closest she would ever come to time travel.


She was vibrating when they landed, long after the shuttle’s engine coughed its last and died. All the tiredness and aches of the trip fell away. He was near, somewhere out beyond the tinted windows, waiting to pick her up. Lucy skipped down the runway, stretched the kinks out of her limbs, and breathed in Indigo, thick and heavy as a damp towel. The walk from the airstrip took them under the open sky. It was evening, and the sky was all roiling clouds, gold where the sun touched it, blue at the edges. A huge bronze plate piled with eddies and cloud banks. She felt light on her toes. Then they were in the airport itself, and she saw him, the real him, Justin in the flesh for the first time.

His pictures resembled him the way a brother might — close, but not the same. Real-him had physics. He held his arms just so and stood like this, his own way and not another.

“Justin?” After all this time it didn’t do to assume that she was anything but a stranger to him. But he grinned so huge that he couldn’t possibly be anyone else, and when he said her name, suddenly it was okay, and she ducked beneath the rope to get to him.

They fell into one of those long, awkward hugs that are really a thousand hugs never given at all. Hugs don’t expire, she thought. He smelled like unfamiliar soap. It had a spicy edge, like chai. In all those years, she’d never thought to imagine what he smelled like.

“Are you tired? Hungry? How was the trip?” Justin grabbed for her bag, and she let him. Suddenly she was bone-weary.

“I feel like I could sleep for days.” Lucy followed him through the shuttleport to a walkway leading outdoors. Justin twitched his waterproof hood up, and she imitated him, trying hard not to gawk at all the cars in the parking lot. She’d never seen so many at once. “I could really use a shower.” The shuttle had less comfort than a submarine, although the views were better.

“Well, let’s go straight home then. You can meet Renza, and I know the girls are dying to see you.”

Justin’s car looked like a beetle: six wheels, six doors, painted in green and white stripes. He placed her bag in the back and waved her in. Lucy watched him sidelong to figure out the complicated straps and buckles interlacing over her chest. She’d never ridden in a car before. The vehicle thrummed like the shuttle, and traveled almost as smoothly. When they hit the road, Lucy dropped all pretense and gawked. Land rolled in all directions like stormy swells sculpted from earth. So much of it! Every inch overgrown and blooming, trees she almost recognized, and giant scalloped mushrooms and leafy purple fronds big enough to wear.

They zipped down an elevated road with a meter-long dropoff on either side. Lucy flinched, gripped the seat.

“We’re on the outskirts of Iaaku, the capital city of this province. It’s about two hours south to get to my house. Not the most scenic drive, I’m afraid, but it’s the middle of nowhere, and you’re catching the tail end of winter.”

“It’s spectacular,” she said in a low voice. Moths as big as her hand flittered from treetop to treetop. Brooks crisscrossed the jungle, running beneath channels under the road. Occasionally, another car passed them from the other direction, and the windows trembled from velocity. Over it all came the drip and patter of ever-falling rain, sometimes thunderous on the windshield, sometimes gentle like kisses. “Where’s the glowfall?”

“You won’t really see it until evening. It’s too bright at midday.”

Lucy’s handheld buzzed in her pocket, reminding her to take her meds, but she was all out of stay-alives. She’d thought it would be easier to tell Justin when she got there, but now that he sat beside her, close enough to touch, all her scripts dissolved.

Justin lived in a tall house with a pointed roof. Houses on Indigo reminded her of women at a costume ball, bright and many-layered and painted in scrolling curls. The asymmetrical roof sloped steeply, channeling the runoff down gutters into a creek that ran down the street past the other houses. They parked in the driveway and immediately the front door flung open. Out came Renza and Justin’s two teenaged daughters, Nell and Ziana, each with a huge umbrella. Somehow they herded her inside without getting anything wet except Lucy’s thin canvas shoes. Her teeth chattered anyway.

“It’s colder than I’m used to,” Lucy explained. Nell passed Lucy a round red blanket.

“How about I make us all some glowtea?” Justin asked.

Lucy remembered the grey lumps curdling in milk. “I’m not sure I care for it, honestly.”

“But you’re supposed to make glowtea for company,” Nell insisted, pulling Lucy to her feet again. “We’ll do it properly, with new glowfall.”

Ziana and Nell brought her to the backyard. In the falling dark, the rain had become blue meteors. Ziana pressed a shallow ceramic bowl into her hands. “Go collect some.”

Lucy held out the bowl and caught the storm. Glow beaded her bare arms in little constellations, cold and bright. She willed it through her pores to her war-torn cells, imagined a mitochondrial truce, an exile of flus and viruses to the dark countries where no glow dwelled. It clung to the skin more than regular water. The bowl glowed like a lamp. Lucy and the two girls bent over it, and their reflections shone back.

When the glow-infused water bobbled to the bowl’s brim, Nell led them inside with tiny shuffling steps. Justin stirred a boiling pot in the kitchen—something spicy and fragrant, like oranges and rose petals and anise. He strained it into five mugs, and Ziana topped them off with glow ladled straight from the bowl. Lucy swirled her drink. The glow clung to itself like oil, and felt soft and slippery on her tongue. The taste bit like raw chocolate, but the warmth filled her stomach. She shivered hard, curled her toes until chill passed. The second sip tasted sweeter.

“It’s the glow enzymes,” Renza explained. “They digest the tea compounds, and it changes the flavor. When you’ve been here long enough, the symbiotes transform your palate.”

She wondered if she could carry glow home in her own saliva. If it would hold back all sickness on Violet too. She stepped around the wild hope carefully because she knew it was more deadly than any storm. Better not to imagine it at all. “How long does the glow stay in your body?” Lucy asked.

Justin shrugged. “You’ll have to tell us when you get home.”

Lucy rolled around that word, and came up with nothing. You were supposed to know in which direction your home lay. Even an orison-bird in a squall knew that. The lack made her feel weightless, unmoored. In the absence of gravitational pull, there was no difference between flying and falling.


In the following days, everything went wrong. Lucy overslept, so they missed their scheduled trip to the biofuel plant. Sage asked how her trip was going, and she sent him a picture of the fields from afar. Lake Radiance flooded, and Justin’s favorite tea shop closed for renovations. Sage asked how she was feeling, and she ignored him because she didn’t want to think about sickness, not on her trip to Indigo.

The itinerary dwindled line by line. It was too much for just a week. It was too little time. Lucy and her hosts stayed up late at night talking about their lives, and the books they’d read, and Lucy’s music. She danced around some of Justin’s questions: what happened when Derek left, or why she’d given up her music, or how she could be a courier forever when it was a job for the young.

After Justin and Renza went to bed, Lucy lay awake in the dark with her handheld, watching the glowfall pelt the windows while she searched for tickets back to Violet. Exhaustion pressed down hard. Perhaps normal fatigue, or perhaps the first signs of her mitochondrial death approaching. In the dark, she banged her arm hard against the bed frame and waited for the bruise.

Just before she went to sleep, Sage emailed her a photo of a Violet sunrise, and she flushed, realizing his emails had been piling up. Are you coming home? he asked, and the word prickled. Instead she told him about the food, and how he was right that Indigo was an acquired taste, but once you had it, it stayed for life.

I was afraid something happened when you didn’t answer me the other day, Sage said after a pause so long she thought he’d left for the day. I’m glad you’re okay.

Lucy recalled her own texts to Justin, the days his crazy itineraries had been her reason to go to work. She hadn’t known Sage relied on her like that too, another stay-alive.

Sorry. They’ve been keeping me busy. But I’ll bring you something back, she promised, and part of her wished she could take it back. Promises could save, or they could snare.


In the morning, Justin noticed the blue-black blotch on Lucy’s arm. “What happened there?” His eyebrows crinkled over his glowtea. Renza had gone to work. The girls tromped around upstairs, getting ready for the day.

Lucy tugged down her sleeve to hide the bruise. “I just hit a corner, is all. Got disoriented when I woke up.”

His gaze pinned her. She met his eyes with great effort, and found kindness. “Lucy. I already know. About your ticket home, I mean,” Justin said gently.

She swallowed against the lump in her throat. “How?”

“After all these years, don’t you think I know you pretty well? I put it together a long time ago. You don’t have a ticket home, not anymore. It happened around the time Derek left, and ever since you’ve been trying to make up for it.”

Lucy’s ears burned. He’d known all along. She shivered, suddenly vulnerable, humiliated, exposed in this cold and foreign land. He reached out a hand, but she leaned away.

“I’m not going to burden you and Renza. If I can’t find a ticket, I’ve got enough money to make it for as long—” She stuttered to a stop. “For as long as I’m going to be here.”

He arched an eyebrow. “You don’t have money for a twelve-year stay.”

Lucy crisscrossed her arms, cupping the bruise in her hand. She tried on the words home and Indigo, but the pull in her heart remembered sunrise and Violet. She’d longed for Indigo for years, but now that she’d arrived, it was like when the seasons changed and the orison-birds flew the same course in reverse, called out and back and out again by more than one home. The pause drew out like an interlude between stanzas, music for those with the skill to read it.

Justin touched her arm across the table, and the warmth of him diffused like glowtea. It was pictures of sunrise, and flashing blue wings, and falling stars, jokes and punchlines: time and space impossibly bridged at long last in a dear friend’s kitchen.

“You don’t have to explain. You’ve never had to, because it doesn’t matter. The truth is I bought a ticket too, years ago, because we promised we’d see each other, and that promise was half mine. It’s yours now, if you want it.”


Her last night on Indigo, Lucy cooked a Violet meal for her hosts, cobbled together with many substitutions from what they found at the market. It tasted awful, but her friends were gracious about it, and anyway sometimes you had to travel a long ways in order to try things properly. Or perhaps it was less about the meal, and more about the company.

The bruise on Lucy’s arm was healing rapidly, like it had no time to waste.

She cried the night before she left, privately. She emailed Sage about her travel plans, and he said he’d meet her when she got home. The drive to the shuttleport with Justin crawled, oppressed by a bored silence that masked deep dread, like planets about to part ways until their orbits crossed again. What could she possibly say to him? What could fill the years and distance and sustain them until they met again?

Next time they saw each other, they’d be older. They would meet again for the first time. They’d wasted so much time being afraid of each other, getting used to the physicality of it all, the body language, the mannerisms. Maybe they would change too much in twelve years. Maybe the bruise would come back, or she would be dead after all. You couldn’t always count on things to last when even your mitochondria could betray you. But you had to make plans anyway, and trust yourself to keep them.

When they reached the outskirts of Iaaku, panic collapsed Lucy’s façade. Maybe she should stay, make her home on Indigo among these wonderful, funny people with their umbrellas and their fascination with the sun. Maybe if she stayed, their world would heal her—except healing never came that easily, not when even the good memories left you scarred with a longing for home. She would always need tickets or stay-alives. Anything else meant death.

“I never sang you ‘Indigo Blue’,” Lucy said suddenly. “I promised you, and I never did it.” What she really meant was, I don’t know how to say goodbye.

Justin wove the car through traffic. The windows whooshed whenever someone passed them. “Sing it now, a cappella. And promise me the full version next time you visit.”

And so she did. Lucy sang the stanzas, and Justin sang the pauses.


The day gathered in her throat, and she ached from the weight of distance and time. Why did it hurt so bad to leave? Lucy tasted bitter glowtea on the back of her tongue. She swallowed it down. The day settled under her breastbone, and the bitterness became a warm, fragile glow.

The glow lasted all the way home. It lasted when she debarked the shuttle, light again on Violet, beneath the purple sky where hung Justin’s star. The shuttleport was nearly empty, except for Sage, who met her with a long hug, this time unhesitating.

“These are for you,” he said, pressing a tin of pills into her hand. “I ripped you off. Please, take them.”

Lucy didn’t argue, or try to explain how the glow stayed inside her, and her secret hope she might live now. She took one of the stay-alives, because he needed to see her do it.

“Good to be missed,” she said, and meant it. “There’s an errand I need to run, though. Meet you for coffee in half an hour?”

After Sage took off for the cafe, she circled back into the shuttleport. The ticket lines were deserted. Now that the pass had ended, they kept only one window open. The glow became a burn.

Whatever her doctor might say next week, symbiosis had a cost. Homesickness could also be chronic. To endure it, you didn’t need stay-alives. You needed tickets.

Lucy swapped Sage’s gift of pills at the ticket counter for a round-trip ticket to a future she couldn’t picture yet. But Indigo would wait its turn. This was a season for Violet. For the first time since she got sick, she craved its promise.

Lucy found her cycle undisturbed, chained safely to its rack, and then the tears flowed, phosphorescent in the coming night. By their light she tucked the new ticket into her pocket, twelve years and no time at all away.


rachael-jonesRachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, an addiction to running, and a couple degrees. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of venues, including Lightspeed, Accessing the Future, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, and  Daily Science Fiction. She is an editor, a SFWA member, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

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Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
~Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I

Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings. One of the bridges goes nowhere, ending four feet above the ground behind a solitary Chinese restaurant, and no one has ever been able to tell me what it used to reach. On the east bank, sitting mostly by itself between the paved river walk and the ties of an abandoned stretch of railroad, you’ll find the county art museum, a sliver of white concrete and glass.

palin06Most people are wrong, as it happens. I’ve lived in this city all my life, and the real explanation has nothing to do with the river. In the early 1840s, a pair of hearty Dutchmen were surveying for the highway that would link the port and railroads of the urban south to the farmland and sawmills of the north woods. Here, nestled among the ridges and kettles that the glaciers’ icy fingertips carved out eons and eons ago, they planted the sign that marked the halfway point along that road. A resting place for weary travelers. A city born of exhaustion.

I am so fucking tired.

The thing is — and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself — I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.

The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.

Both the printed and electronic maps call the painting White Moose, but the name on the museum placard is Katabolism. The word has something to do with digestion, with the extraction of energy from chemical compounds. The first time I saw that title, I thought the artist was a pretentious fuck. Now I’m not so sure.

In any case, the title on the map is an accurate description. The oil painting shows a white bull moose, lumbering through a landscape that looks not unlike the glacial moraine that gnaws perpetually at the city limits. He’s no local fauna, though, and he’s bigger than life-size on the canvas: seven or eight feet high at the shoulder, his antlers spread off the edges. The antlers are thin and asymmetrical, with six points on his right and seven on his left. His eyes are the same color as his coat, slightly filmed.

Every time I see him, I think how much better I would feel if he were an albino, a lovely red-eyed creature like the rabbits and sometimes deer that I find stumbling in my backyard in winter, when the snow-reflected sun is too bright for them—something natural, fragile, and not-at-all sinister. But the white of the moose is not an absence of pigment. His color is something creeping over him, coating the duller, natural life underneath. Every time I see him, the white has spread a little farther.

The placard gives only three initials and a year: Y. L. H. 2012.

If you’re one of the people who believes that Blair is dead, then near as I can tell, this is the painting that killed them.

I’m not certain, yet, if I’m one of those people. But then, I’m certain of very little where Blair is concerned.

palin02They were not my son, and they were not my daughter; but what they were remains unfathomable and changeling. I’m not talking about sex, those hundreds of quiet and not-so-quiet confusions that stalked my child for the seventeen years of their life in this city. I am talking about how hard it is to even think of Blair as my child — to claim Blair as mine, when they seemed so determined to be anything but.

(Speaking of Blair in the past tense has started to come naturally, and maybe that’s the most fucked-up thing about this whole mess.)

When I get home from my shift at the library, I stand in the laundry room at the back of our little bungalow, take their t-shirt from the hamper, and smell the cinnamon smell of their shampoo. I can’t remember their face, not really: only pale skin, dark eyes, red hair that was always too long and always faintly damp. White as daisy and red as sorrel, or however that fairytale goes. I don’t even have a photograph.

I stand in their bedroom beneath the pitched roof of the eastern gable and smell the stinking richness of their favorite myrrh candle, which is still cemented to the window ledge with its own gray wax. The desk beneath the window is littered with sheets of the cheap, yellowish paper that the secretary at the Catholic church on Kilbourne let me rescue from the recycling. I can’t see any words or lines of ink, perhaps because whatever was there has faded after so many months of sunrises. Or maybe there was nothing there to begin with.

Alone in Blair’s bedroom, I cover my mouth with both hands and say things that a mother should never say to her child. The words tear their way out of my throat like knives. I beg them to come home, you little bastard, come back and stop all this bullshit about the paintings, about Y. L. H. and the things we see in the forest. Please, come home. You’re killing me.

Finally, when I am too tired to beg, I tell them to go fuck themself.

But to begin at the beginning.

January, grey and dreary, and school was back in session after a tempestuous winter break. I found out from the newspaper that a membership card for the art museum cost twenty-five dollars, fifteen with student identification. I got a letter from Blair’s art teacher and that was good enough for the woman at the ticket counter. Unlike me, Blair never had a talent for words. They pulled Ds and Fs in one English class after another, losing books, failing to turn in essays. I thought art might give them whatever we try to get from stories.

Once upon a time there was a forest, ‘savage, rough, and stern…’

From that first afternoon, all they could talk about was the White Moose.

“I think he’s one of them,” they said.

We were walking home along the east bank of the river, where shards of brown ice ground against the shoreline. On either side of the path, the Rotary Club’s rosebushes slept under cones of yellowed Styrofoam. I was cold and only half-listening.

“One of what?” I asked.

“You know. One of them from the forest.”

And in the savage forest there lived a mother, and her child…

I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye. Their hood was pushed back despite the cold, and their hair glinted like copper. Hair like a lost penny, my mother always said. She was a woman to whom anything beautiful looked lost.

“In the painting, I saw ripples on the leaves at the bottom,” Blair said. “The light’s distorted, almost like they’re underwater. But it’s just him. He fills the whole kettle — the whole canvas. It’s just that he’s denser in the shape of the moose.”

No, I thought then, it’s impossible. In the January daylight, I wasn’t even disturbed.

“That’s only the style,” I said. “Don’t make something out of nothing.”

On our left, a brick staircase ran from the river walk up to the Fourth Street Bridge. I began to take the steps two at a time.

“It isn’t nothing,” Blair said stubbornly. “Whoever painted that picture must know about them.”

“No one else knows about them, Blair.”

Blair wasn’t following. I looked back over my shoulder and saw them staring, not at me on the stairs, but at the glimmer of black water threading through the ice.

“Who do you think the artist is?” they asked. “Y. L. H.?”

… a mother, and her child, and a witch.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said, and kept walking. I meant: I don’t want to know. Let’s not find out.

Or maybe it began before that.

Maybe it began the day Blair told me that they were not a boy, and the only thing I felt was relief. Does that sound terrible? Does admitting that make me an awful mother? I don’t know. But I know that I had never wanted a son. I didn’t grow up with brothers or cousins, only with the faces on the news, and the broad and smirking faces in the bars south of the depot, the hungry faces trailing tired women in convenience stores, the post office, the high school gymnasium. Savage, rough, and stern. When I imagined having a son, I imagined him growing up like that. I’d never wanted to deal with that kind of man, and I can’t help but feel, guiltily, like I was granted an unspoken wish.

palin01Blair’s father had that particularly male helplessness, sucking and draining, pressuring and pleading, and both the best and the worst you can say is that it doesn’t leave bruises. I can remember all those nights in supermarket parking lots or under movie theatre marquees, when he had followed me somewhere on the bus because he just had to be sure. “I’m such an idiot, Joan,” he would cry. “I always knew I’d do something stupid like this and make you leave me.” And because he was pitiful, because he needed saving, I had to tell him I’m not going anywhere, baby, and hold him while he sobbed.

In the end, he was the one to leave. He found the energy somewhere, and followed the freeway south. Maybe this all started the day he left, and I stayed. The day the forest pulled me stronger than he had pushed, in the way of every fairytale without a happy ending.

One evening in February, a week or two after that first visit to the museum, Blair was late coming home from school. Not late enough for me to really worry; merely a dress rehearsal for everything yet to come. I sat by the kitchen door, watching the sky darken and considering whether to call, when I heard the front door snap against the siding, and Blair swept in with a slushy gasp of twilight. They were looking at something on their phone as they stepped into the kitchen and flipped the light switch.

I closed the book whose pages I hadn’t turned in half an hour.

“Where have you been?”

They shrugged. The shoulders of their thrift-store jacket were fuzzy with dust. “Downtown,” they said.

“Anywhere specifically?”

It was a chance laugh, to break the tension that wasn’t quite thick enough to acknowledge. They looked at me without smiling.


Victor’s was a café on Rhodes Avenue, the very edge of downtown. I don’t know what the cavernous pile of red brick had been originally, with its alcoves and square turrets like the growths of some rhomboid crystal, but the interior space glowed with recent renovation, all waxy yellow wood and bare Edison bulbs. The coffee was mediocre, the pastries gluey and flavorless, but they housed a spectacular collection of shit: knock-off Tiffany chandeliers, assorted sporting equipment signed by virtual unknowns, and musical instruments missing strings or vital knobs. The café was a garage sale written by H. P. Lovecraft and illustrated by Virgil Finlay.

“What’s that on your phone?” I asked.

Their fingers tightened around the pale blue case, an almost undetectable moment of hesitance. But they passed me the phone without a word of complaint.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see. Dim and indistinct, with the hallmark shallowness of a cheap cellphone camera, the photo showed a woman sitting at a high table at Victor’s pastry counter. The first thing I noticed was her scarlet leather boots, the black heels hooked over the rung of her chair. The second was her hair, white as milk and hanging down to her thighs.

I felt a creeping chill up my spine, like the sensation you get when you swim into water that is suddenly deeper than you expected.

“It’s her,” Blair said. “Yelena Linden Hersh.”

I handed the phone back. “How do you know her name?”

“I asked, after I took the picture.”

“How did you know who she was?”

Instead of answering, Blair swiped their screen and passed me the phone again. It was still Victor’s — I recognized the pounded tin on the wall. Blair had tried to photograph a painting, but the phone camera wasn’t up to the task. The texture of the canvas stood out prominently. So did the globs and ridges of paint caked along the bottom. It looked like a painting of a bog, some vast surface of black water, and the thick knobs of paint bobbed along it like something alive.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Look at that one towards the front.” Blair tapped a red-enameled fingernail against the screen, on a pale blur in the foreground. “It looks like a frog, doesn’t it? But there’s a woman just under the water. That white thing rising to the surface is her breast.”

The sick feeling had traveled to the pit of my stomach. “Blair,” I began, but I couldn’t finish. The painting was at once too strange and too dreadfully familiar.

Blair slid the phone into their jacket pocket without another word. They tucked a lock of flame-orange hair behind their ear and stepped into the living room. I heard the static click of the analog television turning on, and took a slow, shuddering breath.

What do you call the opposite of déjà vu? Not the sense of a recurrence, but its inverse: The feeling that this is a moment to which you will return. That was what I felt, envisioning that painting by Yelena Linden Hersh. That small breast in the water, beckoning like a ghost.

The things in the forest are still there: still filling the kettles like mist and twisting the light like water, still pulling at my heart like every hunger in hell. They haven’t gone away just because Blair did. It’s not that I thought they would leave — just that it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had. I don’t know the shape of this puzzle, remember. I can’t begin to imagine how all of it does or doesn’t fit together.

palin07But they are still here, as much as they have ever been. Vaporous and vast, they seem as much air as flesh, although sometimes I can make out a shape — a deer or elk, or else some long-snouted, carnivorous thing. Soft black eyes emerge from the places where they are densest, and nearly human mouths shape words I can almost understand. Sometimes I think they are drawn to me, although this might be abhorrent self-flattery.


Some mornings, just after sunrise, I walk down to the woods behind the bungalow. For an hour or two, I sit very still on the remains of a farmer’s fieldstone fence, holding out my empty hand. They come to me out of the water, out of the air, and they kiss my palm as though tasting for sweets.

Some of these mornings, I have seen Yelena Hersh in the forest, walking in her scarlet boots. Her black jacket is buckled to her chin and she walks briskly without looking down. I called to her, once, but she didn’t even look my way.

There is nothing strange about her being there, I try to tell myself. It’s a small city, and the trails through the forest are popular. I have seen a lot of people walking. But she’s the only one I’ve ever seen when they are around.

In March, the art museum hosted a show of local women artists. It was mostly watercolors of cats and pencil sketches of tractors: also a quilt, a ceramic beehive, a few mercury-glass sculptures that I couldn’t figure out. The latest offspring of Yelena Linden Hersh’s brush hung just outside the gift shop, between a pastel sketch of sleeping kittens and a rack of dusty scarves.

It was called Anabolism. Which is the opposite and compliment to katabolism; it’s a kind of reassembling, the re-linking of molecules after the body grinds them up for energy. Anabolism is how the body lengthens bones and grows muscles. How it makes more of itself, I guess, out of everything it takes in.

The painting showed Blair emerging from a pond in one of the larger kettles. The water came up only to their knees, but there was a weirdness about the ripples that made me think Blair was floating rather than standing on the ground underneath. There’s no telling how deep that water is out there in the moraine; geologists say it can be as little as two or as many as two hundred feet.

In the painting, Blair was naked. Each skinny muscle tensed in the cold, layering blue shadow on pale skin. The slight tuck of the waist looked like a teenage girl’s. The flat thighs, even larger than life on the canvas, seemed small enough for you to cup your hands around—to snap with a flick of your wrist. I don’t remember the face.

“What if people recognize you, Blair? What if kids from school go to the museum?” Arms folded across my stomach, I sat on the sea chest in the corner of their bedroom. Despite the asthmatic chug of the heater, everything felt cool and damp to the touch. The candle on the window ledge burned greasily, leaving a myrrh-scented streak on the ceiling.

“Blair?” I repeated softly.

They looked up from the spread of paper on their desk.

“What do you think people will say?”

“Fuck people,” Blair said. The thing that lurked in their eyes was tense and coiled, too ravenous to be fear.

Here is the damned thing, or one of the many damned things in this whole hellish business: I can’t prove that Yelena Hersh had anything to do with Blair’s disappearance. I can’t even prove that Blair began meeting her. Those fucking paintings might have been proof once. They aren’t any more. They still exist, but they aren’t Blair any more. And maybe I’m mad for thinking that they ever were.

People in this city, they have all the answers they feel like looking for. Blair was a sad kid, a confused kid: it’s all there, wrapped up in whatever was or wasn’t behind the zipper of those weathered black jeans. “Kids like him disappear all the time, Joan,” the secretary at the station said to me. “They just do. Don’t go dragging a woman’s name through the mud over it.”

So where do they go, the kids like Blair? Do they evaporate into thin air? Wash down the river, get carried out to the lake, like all the other flotsam and jetsam from exhausted cities like this? Sometimes I imagine Blair has gone to find their father; other times, while walking over one of the bridges downtown, I think I see their face in the river, floating between mats of leaves. Sometimes the fantasies comfort me, and sometimes they don’t.

Maybe the kids like Blair start spending their evenings with strange women twice their age — women who wear scarlet boots and black wool, who dream of ghosts and monsters, whose hair is white as milk. Maybe they spend too much time wandering in the forest, snooping in the ruins of barns and sugar houses that the maples are slowly reclaiming: maybe they get lost in the woods. Or maybe they get eaten by witches.

Maybe you’re getting frustrated with me now, with my increasingly evident disregard for the facts. What really happened? you may well ask. What’s the true course of events? But the only truth I know for certain is that I am fucking exhausted. You cannot begin to understand how tired I am. And I don’t think that having the answers will let me sleep any more soundly.

Palingenesis. In its simplest translation, it means rebirth. Sometime in the nineteenth century, it got picked up to describe the now-discarded hypothesis that ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny — the development of the fetus proceeds along the same lines as the evolution of the species. Or, in another version, that children become educated by passing through the earlier stages of human society. From barbarity to civilization. Another discredited, Victorian idea.

palin05In the painting, Blair could almost be sleeping. Their eyes are closed, the lids wet and purple. Their limbs are folded up, almost fetal, the dry pink of knees and elbows picked out with the medical detail of anatomy plates. The setting sun is at their back, and the blowing leaves have started to mound up around their feet. You can feel the wind gusting from that direction: a bitter, northern wind.

Why is this the image burned into the back of my eyelids? Why do I remember this, and not their face? I’m afraid that’s a question to which I already know the answer.

(Another riddle: If Katabolism is the painting that killed Blair, what does that make Palingenesis?)

I don’t know if there are other things in that painting, or if the bending of the light along the forest floor is just an accident of style. I must admit that I haven’t brought myself to look too closely. The one unforgivable piece of strangeness — the part that would tell you the name of the artist, even if you didn’t see the stark initials in the corner — is the sapling that sprouts from Blair’s genitals. It is slender, leafless, and almost the same color as their skin: a sickly, peeling white with scabs of pink. Where the bark pulls away, the pulp that shows beneath is black as rot.

In the second week of April, at Yelena Hersh’s request, the directors hung Palingenesis at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. They put the White Moose back before the end of the week, after unspecified complaints.

By then, of course, it was too late. By then, Blair was gone.

In our last conversation, the day before they failed to show up for school, Blair told me a secret about Yelena Hersh.

“She has a son,” Blair said. It was Sunday evening, and we were loading groceries into the trunk of the Nissan: cans of beans, boxes of macaroni, and a half-gallon of skim. Everything teetered on the edge of the mundane, precariously normal, until Yelena intruded like a ghost.

“A son?” I repeated, and Blair tipped their head in a nod.

“When she was younger than me, she got pregnant. She gave him up for adoption.”

I frowned, at a loss for the proper response. Blair slammed the trunk, disturbing a layer of late, powdery snow.

“She says the news terrifies her now. It’s all men with guns, men with knives. Men who run over women with trucks and strangle children by playgrounds.” Blair watched me wheel the cart to the side of the car, sliding their hands into the pockets of their jeans. “She’s afraid she’ll see him on the news one day. Or she’s already seen him, just didn’t recognize him as hers.”

The next day, Blair was gone. And I wonder, now, if the news is something that terrifies every mother with sons. Or if we were just the strange ones, Yelena Hersh and I — the Pasiphaes of our century, afraid that we would give birth to monsters.

To early-twentieth-century sexologists, anabolic and katabolic were gendered terms. The female was anabolic, conservative and preserving. She consolidated the evolutionary adaptations of her species, passing them to her offspring. The katabolic male, creative and destructive, was responsible for the mutations, for everything novel or monstrous — two sides of the same coin.

All of that is bullshit, of course. If Blair has taught me nothing else, it’s this — the creative and the destructive chase each other perpetually, like blood and bathwater swirling around a drain. But preservation, that’s the most ridiculous fantasy of all.

palin04Sometimes, I imagine that Blair’s father saw those paintings. That he recognized his child and came to find them, that he offered Blair a better life than I could give them here. This is improbable. As if Blair’s father could be in this city without me knowing. As if he had any interest in art. It’s easier to believe that they left with their father, though, than what the school counselors try to tell me about suicide and statistics and ‘kids like him.’

It is easier, also, than imagining that the forest had something to do with it.

There is a new tree, now, where the dead farmer’s fence runs to a halt some fifteen yards from my property line. A skim of peaty water pools over the fallen leaves, and the tree grows from it, white as milk. I’ve gone so far as to step into the water, reaching for the bark, which looks so warm and soft. But the mud beneath my boot gave way, and my foot sank far enough that I knew the water was something more than snowmelt.

Maybe if I hadn’t stepped back onto solid ground, I would have something closer to an answer.

Or maybe Blair ran away. Maybe you ran, sweetheart, all on your own, without your father, without ghosts or monsters or Yelena Linden Hersh. You were never good with words, and you wouldn’t have left a note. You left me paintings instead, and maybe all the explanation I’m searching for is there. If only I could bring myself to look.

“I know why you don’t like her,” Blair said to me once. It was a morning in late March, before they left for school. We stood on the back deck in our jackets, and with cold, bare hands, they held the birdfeeder steady while I poured in the mix of seed.

“You want to be special, don’t you?” Blair said. “That’s why you won’t believe that she can see them, too. You want them all to yourself.”

On a sudden impulse, I pressed a kiss to their forehead. Some of the seed missed the feeder, pouring out into the slush, but they didn’t turn away.

“Yes,” I whispered, mouthing the words against their skin. Maybe they heard me, and maybe they didn’t. “I always have.”

Katabolism should not be confused with katabasis, which means a journey into the underworld. Katabasis is Dante and Aeneas, Orpheus and Psyche. It’s revelation and love and disaster. Anabasis would be the return, if a return from the underworld is possible—a suggestion for which I haven’t seen much evidence. The words can also mean, respectively, a retreat down to the water, and the journey back inland or uphill.

Some of the reviews in the papers and the online magazines misprinted the titles of Yelena Hersh’s paintings. Anabolism and Katabasis, digestion and descent. The pieces from two different puzzles pushed inelegantly together, and that makes as good a metaphor for me and Blair and Yelena Linden Hersh as any other I could come up with.

The word palingenesia appears once in the New Testament. It describes the new creation, in which the order of the old will be utterly overturned. I’m not holding my breath. But I guess every city has an explanation, even the divine ones. And I guess creation requires destruction—revelation, uncovering, apocalypsis — before everything else.

If you were here, sweetheart, I’d tell you to run.

This city is not for you. You are not tired yet.

Today, by the white tree in the brown water, Yelena Hersh is sitting on the remains of the fieldstone fence. Her scarlet boots are speckled with mud, and a vast white creature like a moose leans down to nuzzle her shoulder. She does not seem to see him. She sees me on the trail and raises one hand, a trembling salute, and her white hair falls around her face like a curtain.

The things in the forest — I don’t think that they are older than us. Not exactly. I’ve begun to think they are us, or us as we will be. That is why the painting called Anabolism has started to look like something else: not Blair anymore, but a white canine thing, a carnivorous thing rearing on its hind legs. Another stage in our evolution. Perhaps the things in the forest are nothing better or worse than our children.

That’s all the Minotaur was, in the end.

I worry, sometimes, that I will wander into the woods one morning and they will no longer be there. It will only be the trees and water and dead leaves, and the unrelenting anabasis and katabasis of a landscape birthed by ice. I think the reason they frighten me is not because they are so strange, but because they are fragile. I am afraid that they will disappear.

Or that one day I will look, and look, and will have forgotten how to see.




Megan Arkenberg lives in Northern California, where she is pursing a Ph.D. in English literature. Her work has appeared in  Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and dozens of other places. She was recently the nonfiction editor for Nightmare‘s Queers Destroy Horror! special issue; she also procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance. Megan tweets @meganarkenberg and blogs sporadically at blog.meganarkenberg.com.


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