Tag Archives: longing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers (@AdriftPM), and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (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 Rachael Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

SWOOP


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”
SWOOP

rachaelRachael Acks (now Alex 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.rachaelacks.com.

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.

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Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t believe it, Pilar said.

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

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

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

Exo endo is symbiont. Exo need endo need endo.

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

Love is symbiont. Exo need endo need exo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 march-endof

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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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jan-thumbThe Fifth Gable
, by Kay Chronister. The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar. When they came to term, she broke them open on the floorboards. Her heartiest son weighed half an ounce at birth. His face, curved to the shape of the Mason jar womb where he developed, stayed pink for an hour before he died in a puddle of formaldehyde and afterbirth.

28-thumbnailTo Sleep in the Dust of the Earth, by Kristi DeMeester.  Lea and I met Beth when we were thirteen. That was the year Lea had legs that wouldn’t fill out her shorts. The year I started sneaking Marlboro Lights from my mother’s purse to share with Lea in the back corner of Benjamin Harper’s abandoned lot. “He was going to build on it. A house for his wife. But she died, and he just…” Lea made a fluttering motion with her fingers, scattered the smoke streaming from her lips.

website_sept15thumbBlack Planet, by Stephen Case. Em did not dream the world. When the lights went out and the absence of her brother in the room across the hall became palpable, it was simply there, hanging in the space above her bed. She would stare at its invisible form, spinning silent and unseen, until she slept. Her dreams were not always of the black planet. There were dreams of hospital rooms as well, and of the faces of her parents. Of the house that now was too large for the three of them to fill.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 march-endof

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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Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg

palingenesis-title

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.”

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.

Still.

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.

palin03

end-of-story-nov

megan

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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28-thumbnailIn the Pines, by K.M. Carmien “You stink like city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago. 

Shimmer-19-ThumbnailThe Earth & Everything Under, by K.M. Ferebee Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

Shimmer-21-ThumbnailWe Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka The snow crunches under our boots as us-in-Devora and us-in-Mel trace our way through the Forest-That-Thinks. We pause, waiting for directions. That way. Sunlight pierces through the low-slung clouds. The Forest speaks again and there’s a picture in our minds of the Very-Big-Wrong and the image of a landing site appears in our head. We have not thought of landing sites for a very long time.

Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

skin1“How are you doing?”

“Same old.” Jamie offers a lopsided almost-smile, lifting one shoulder to match.

Shadows tuck beneath his skin. His gaze cuts right, a pointed look to the empty seat beside Mar; neither of them are surprised, but it still hurts.

“Did you bring me the shiv I asked for? Or the cake with the file baked inside?” Jamie looks pointedly away from the empty chair, smile broadening into a grin, but one without real feeling.

The joke falls as flat, same as the last three times. Mar places a pack of cigarettes on the table.

“Mom did ask about you at least. She wanted to know if you’re eating okay.”

“Nice of her to call you to check.”

“It was an email.”

“Three squares a day, since she asked.” Jamie pats his stomach.

It’s flatter than hers; his jumpsuit hangs loose around an already narrow frame. His hair is buzzed short, and there’s a new mark above his ear, dark ink beneath the shadow of stubble.

At fourteen, with Jamie sixteen, Mar had come down the basement stairs to find Jamie’s friend Val giving him a homemade tattoo on the inside of his left forearm with a broken pen. Most of the tattoo had washed away, not deep enough to last, just deep enough to leave a faint scar from infected skin Jamie couldn’t stop scratching. This is how they’ll know you’re one of us, Val had said.

She doesn’t look away quick enough, but Jamie seems unfazed. “You like?”

He turns to show the stars marching crookedly up the back of his skull. At least none of them look infected.

“Jamie.”

Her hand is already halfway across the table between them, wanting to touch the stars. She pulls her hand back, and Jamie’s smile falters.

“They look great,” Mar says.

Hurt flickers in his eyes, but he schools his expression, the smile coming back at half force.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jamie says. “Promise. I’m done with that shit. Really. They’re just stars.”

“I know.” Mar answers as quick as she can, but it’s not fast enough.

At sixteen, with Jamie eighteen, the flat crack of a gun -a sound like a branch breaking, like a fracture dividing their lives into then and now and no way to build a bridge between them – is indelibly imprinted on Mar’s mind. She ran, feet thudding on the pavement, trying to be as swift as she’d been when they were young and running through the woods, but she was too late to tell who fired the shot. Val and Rico and Tommy and Jamie all stood around the boy on the ground, and Jamie looked at her with stricken eyes, I didn’t do it, Mar, I swear.

Jamie pulls the cigarettes across the table.

skin4“Don’t spend them all in one place.” It’s her turn for a joke that falls flat, smile feeling tender and bruised.

She plows on and they talk about nothing as the time ticks down. Then chairs scrape back from tables.

“Same time next week?”

“I’ll be here.”

Mar’s heart turns over, wanting to escape; only the comforting press of the binder keeps her heart in place. She leans in for a quick hug, tight and hard, because it’s easier than looking Jamie in the eye.

“Be good.” She brushes lips against his cheek.

At the door, Mar looks back. The angle of sunlight slanting through the barred windows washes out Jamie’s face. She steps outside, leaving her brother and the other faceless men in the prison behind.

A ghost dogs her footsteps across the parking lot, the echo of a gunshot. I didn’t do it, Mar. She’s never doubted him, but he still chose. He put the gun in his hand at some point; his fingerprints were on it. Val and Rico and Tommy’s fingerprints were on it, too, and none of them were fast enough when it came time to run. Mar hurries her footsteps, doing her best to outrun the ghosts, though she knows she’ll never be fast enough either.

At six and eight, Mar and Jamie are in the woods behind their house, running. Even this young, they understand their mother doesn’t care if or when they come home. They are hungry, not just because the groceries haven’t been bought for the week, and their mother forgot to leave money for a pizza before she went out. It’s a different kind of hunger, tied to the one in their bellies, but separate. They fill it with wild motion, the sleek burn of their muscles and the relentless pulse-beat of their footsteps in the dark.

In their future, Jamie will try cutting. Mar will be the one to find him, flimsy disposable razor in hand, blood plinking against the white curve of the sink. Later still, Mar will try starving, something she can control even though food is scarce. But with no one to see, and no one to care but each other, they will give up these things. They will revert to the knowledge they have now – that their hunger is deeper than skin or food, and they will learn different ways to cope.

But for now, at six and eight, they run. Tucked beneath the leaves and roots closest to the cul-de-sac where they live, there are rotting tires, broken bottles, worn-out porno magazines. Mar vaults over a fallen log, crossing a boundary where, if she looks back, she won’t be able to see the softly-glowing crescent of houses anymore.

Between one heartbeat and the next, the night shifts. The space between the trees thickens to blue-black, then the purple of a bruise. The trunks stretch taller, slender and silver smooth. Footsteps drum around her, a steady rain of shifting, fleet shadows.

Hooves and horns, wings and claws. Skin. Hybrid, impossible creatures. All running toward something Mar doesn’t understand, but wants so badly she can taste it, a salted sweetness on her tongue.

Then a flat crack, the sound of a branch breaking, draws her up short. Mar stumbles, knees barking leaf-rot and hands catching her fall. The shadows slipping past her fall to silence, leaving only the drum of her pulse in her ears. A shape moves ahead of her in the dark.

“Jamie?”

No answer. Light spills between tree trunks, outlining a tall, slender figure. Not Jamie. Not human? Mar doesn’t know how she knows this; the truth of it is simply down in her bones. A catch of breath and Mar realizes the figure is animal and human, bound in one flesh.

For a moment, her heart refuses to beat, and when it starts again, the tempo is strange. There are two hearts inside her skin, and for once, the hunger in her belly is still.

Mar stretches out a hand. Another crack, a bone-snapping sound of more branches breaking as Jamie blunders through the woods, calling her name.

“Mar?”

She can’t see her brother, only hear him wading through undergrowth, clumsy feet tangling in low branches, roots, and dead leaves. The impulse to shout go away rockets through her. The shadows seep back, retreating. She wants to beg them to stay, but Jamie is ruining everything. Her pulse rabbits, and a terrible thought strikes her. If Mar curls herself small, if she holds very still, Jamie won’t see her; she can stay and hide forever in this magical version of the woods that aren’t the woods she left behind.

“Mar?” Panic edges Jamie’s voice.

“I’m here.” Guilt twists and she jumps up, heart slamming back into its normal rhythm.

Jamie rushes toward her. The tall, thin figure is gone. All the shadows with their horns and hooves and feathers vanish. Cold seeps in around the edges of the night. Mar shivers, and Jamie throws an arm around her shoulders. He’s limping, and there’s a long gash on his shin.

“A branch. I tripped,” he says.

Mar lets him lean on her, despite being younger and shorter, taking his weight.

“Come on, let’s go home.”

She looks back one more time, but the light between the trees is only gray now; dishwater-dirty, touched orange by the city’s glow burning through pollution. Headlights sweep by beyond the trees, and the woods are finite again, bounded by the neighborhood on three sides. No mystical shadows pace them in the dark, no two-hearted creature waits for Mar to take its hand.

With her arm around Jamie’s waist, and the weight of his body against hers, they walk slowly home.

The line outside the club inches forward. Mar jams her hands into her armpits, trying not to shiver. The men around her – and it is mostly men – are under-dressed. They breathe steam in the cold night air. She imagines them stamping hooves. Bulls. Minotaurs. Ready to run.

skin2

She’s packing tonight, but the strut isn’t there. She keeps thinking of Jamie, lost and falling behind, his face washed out by the sun in the prison visitation room. She fingers the outline of her phone in her jacket pocket. There’s an unanswered message from her boss, trying to change Mar’s mind. Before she left work on Friday, he offered her a new position, a transfer, with a higher salary and relocation costs paid.

Mar turned it down, hunger gnawing in her belly as she did. A new city, a new life, but it would mean leaving Jamie behind. A half a dozen times tonight, she’s pulled out her phone to erase the message. A half dozen times she’s been poised to call her boss and turn in her resignation. She’s been sick, her mind running around it in circles. Tonight, she doesn’t want to think about anything at all.

A fug of cigarette smoke and pot hangs in the air. Light from the club’s neon sign tints the bodies around her cool blue. It highlights the bulk of shoulders, the line of jaws. Looking at them stamps an ache into Mar’s skin. At the same time, she can’t stop herself from scanning the crowd for someone she recognizes, but doesn’t know. Someone like her who isn’t just one thing, but everything. Someone who will understand.

Mar reaches the front of the line, fumbling bills into the bouncer’s hand with chilled fingers. Inside, lights strobe, shocking her blind. Then everything kicks loose all at once. Bodies pack tight, sweat-sheened and writhing. Heat pulses from Mar’s groin to her throat; the bass thumps inside her ribs, replacing her breath and heartbeat. She’s un-fleshed, her whole body a raw nerve, open to the night.

She doesn’t bother with a drink. She flings herself into the fray. It’s as good as running. The only important parts of her body are the muscle and sinew moving her limbs, her feet pounding hard against the floor. She doesn’t have to care about moving forward, or turning back, making a choice. There’s only here and now.

The bass-thump moves her blood to mirror her feet flying over the forest floor, over fallen logs, dodging roots, showing her teeth to the night. She’s not looking behind to see Jamie’s eyes, wide in the mirror, blood plinking against white porcelain. There’s no ink on his skin, and she doesn’t have to ask how he suddenly has extra cash to buy a car that isn’t a piece of shit, get her new clothes – tight layers, sports bras doubled up, one backward one forward, bandages, and finally the binder, anything to change the curve of her body. There’s only running, and if she’s fast enough, the gunshot sound will never come. She’ll outrun it this time. Outrun the stricken look in her brother’s eyes, wordlessly saying I need you, help me, please don’t leave me behind.

A hand touches Mar’s arm. She whirls, lips peeled back from feral teeth. The man flashes teeth in turn, mistaking her expression for a smile.

“Buy you a drink?”

She has to lip-read the words for the ear-shattering music. Mar crashes back into her own too-human skin, dizzy. The hand on her arm becomes a steadying one, holding her up.

“You look like you really need one.” He screams the words next to her ear.

Without waiting for her answer, the man guides her to the bar. Mar sips the blue-sugar sweetness pressed into her hand. It steadies her long enough to take in a square jaw, frosted hair, eyes that would still be blue even out from beneath the flashing lights.

Mar forces herself to smile. It’s only slightly quieter away from the dance floor. They shout an exchange of names. Chad – at least she can put a word to her regret, if it comes to that. A second drink, one she doesn’t remember asking for, and more, continually finding their way into her hand. Alcohol blurs the edges of the night; she forgets to be afraid.

The reassuring bulge between her legs makes her widen her stance, broaden and square her shoulders. In the flickering light, she can believe she is the wild, changeable thing she wants to be. Narrow hips, sharp cheekbones, a creature straddling two worlds. Chad’s hand strays to the small of her back. His lips find her ear.

“Wanna get out of here?” His breath raises hairs on the back of her neck.

The music steals her words, but she follows him, sweaty fingers tangled in his. They stumble into the alley behind the club. It’ll be okay, Mar promises herself, directing Chad’s hands carefully, her hips, her shoulders, her ass. Keeping him away from her shirt, the binder wrapped tight around her chest. Keeping him away from the front of her pants for any touch longer than the faintest, teasing brush of fingers against denim. Then she’s on her knees, his fingers in her hair as he groans, thrusting into her mouth. This is good, it’s safe, she can do this.

Then he says, “Wait.”

Mar’s stomach flips, sick with excitement. Chad’s eyes are liquid, unfocused. “I don’t want to come yet.”

The husk in his voice suggests otherwise, but with remarkable self-restraint, he pulls her up.

skin5“I want to feel you.”

His fingers go for her fly, surer than hers, despite the drink. Mar’s whole body is a string, taut. She almost lets him. Because, oh god, she fucking wants this. Just bodies. Contact. Flesh against flesh. Pleasure the only definition between them, and no need for Mar to be this or that, to choose.

Her mouth crushes his – the taste an echo of too-sweet drinks and the memory of ash from a cigarette hours old. Mar wants to melt into him as his hands slide lower on her body, but panic slams adrenaline through her brain. The bulge in her pants feels wrong, not because it isn’t her, but because it is still a solid choice. It defines her and pins her when she wants to be liquid, quicksilver, wild and strange.

“No.” She slaps Chad’s hands away, shoves him hard.

His eyes widen in confusion. Mar wraps her arms around her body, holding herself in. Her jaw clenches tight, tensed for a strike. Whatever he thought he would find when he unwrapped her, she won’t give him the chance. If the disappointment of not knowing is too much for him, maybe she can define herself by pain instead. Bruised flesh is still flesh. Bones cracked in rage are only bones. Everyone is red on the inside, no matter their shape otherwise.

Chad shakes his head in disbelief, stuffing himself back into his jeans.

“Fuck you, then.” He slams her with his shoulder as he moves back into the club, but nothing more.

Mar sags against the wall, letting the bricks take her weight. The trembling starts at her feet, making its way up her body until she’s clenching her teeth against the enormity of it. As much as she wills them not to, tears come, and she’s a mess of salt, wiping at her face.

It’s a moment before she registers the scent of cigarette smoke. Not soon enough to brace herself against the soft voice that comes in its wake.

“What if you could have everything you wanted?”

Mar jumps, scrubbing her eyes until black spots burst behind them. The owner of the cigarette melts out of the shadows – tall, sharp-featured, and with gold eyes that must be a trick of the light.

“What?”

“Everything you want.” Two slender fingers, holding the cigarette and trailing smoke, point at Mar’s chest.

Mar’s breath stalls. Even though the club’s blue neon still shines on them, the stranger’s hair is shockingly red.

The ghost that has been dogging her since leaving the prison crashes into her. Mar is back in the woods, looking through blue twilight at an impossible figure, tall and thin, a flickering creature refusing to hold its shape. She blinks, shaking her head. Too much alcohol.

“Where did you come from?” Mar looks around, pulse skittering; was she being watched the whole time she was on her knees, the whole time she cried?

“I smelled your tears.”

The stranger closes the distance so smoothly, Mar doesn’t have time to step back. A tongue sweeps over the wetness of her cheeks like a dog licking her pain away. But the hands framing Mar’s face and holding it still are human.

“Honey,” the stranger says. “Your tears taste like honey.”

Mar shakes her head again, huffs a sound that isn’t quite a word. A hollow ache presses against the back of her eyes.

skin3“I’m Fox.”

“Okay,” Mar says, voice squeezing up from the depths of her.

For the first time since she started wearing it, her binder crushes her. Or maybe it’s only her heart beating too hard in her chest, her lungs going haywire. It occurs to her, over the frantic drum of her body that she doesn’t know whether the stranger said ‘Fox’ or ‘a fox.’

“Okay,” she says again.

The drinks catch up with her and Mar turns away, dropping to her knees to be sick this time. A hand touches her back, comforting, or merely keeping her in place. After a moment, a napkin is offered. Mar wipes her face, cleans herself up as best she can, and climbs shakily to her feet.

“What do you want?” Mar asks.

“It’s what you want that’s the question. Do you know?”

She’s about the say she wants to be left alone. The words are like her boss’s, still saved on her phone. What do you want, Mar? You need to think about your future, and what’s best for you. The world won’t wait for forever. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. Before Mar can say anything, Fox steps close again.

Lips graze Mar’s jaw, sharp teeth behind them. Fox’s cigarette vanishes, leaving hands free to roam. Mar braces for the panic, but it doesn’t come this time. Fox’s touch is gentle, a question Mar’s flesh shivers to answer. There’s a scent like fallen leaves, like earth, tucked just under the cigarette smoke. Beneath her clothes, Mar’s skin pulls taut, her bones shifting, her body hollowing and swelling in accordance with each movement Fox makes.

Mar catches her breath, an audible sound. Fox draws back, amusement shining in gold eyes, a half-smile resting upon lips. The shivery buzz recedes in the absence of Fox’s touch. A cigarette flicks back into place between long fingers, conjured from thin air.

“Shall we find out?” Fox asks.

Mar doesn’t trust herself with words, not yet. Instead, she follows; Fox leads. The streets twist away, the city becoming unfamiliar. In Mar’s peripheral vision, houses and buildings stretch tall into the sky, thinning into smooth trunks with branches and leaves lost deep among the stars. She stumbles over a tangle of roots, or her own feet. Streetlights blur in the afterglow of rain, making everything shine.

Through a door, up stairs, and through another door into a messy, close space smelling faintly of animal musk and juniper berries. Mar allows Fox to lay her down on a bed, push her into a nest of covers. She’s dizzy, but in a pleasant, dream-like way – past sickness and back to buzzed. The edges of everything are rounded and vague. Safe.

She lets Fox undress her. Fox sets the prosthetic aside. At least Mar thinks so; a ghost weight lingers beneath her legs, stirring to heat and proximity. Fox leaves the binder in place – even when everything else is stripped away – with a preternatural understanding that it is essential to Mar. It was her first act of defiance against the shape she was born into, her last line of defense against the world. This simple act leaves Mar shaking with gratitude. Gratitude and desire. The shaking doesn’t stop as Fox’s hands trace over her again. Tremors wrack her body, tiny earthquakes smoothed or awoken by Fox’s hands.

The world blurs further; not just the edges, but reality itself loses cohesion. Mar’s skin and bones are liquid honey, made soft by Fox’s touch. Malleable. Her flesh changes, solid one moment, rising to Fox’s hand, hard flesh to be grasped; concave the next, so Fox’s fingers sink into her and Mar answers with a shuddering gasp.

The only thing Mar is certain of is that Fox’s eyes are indeed gold; it wasn’t a trick of the light. Then Mar surrenders, ceases thinking at all. Nothing matters but muscle and blood. Like dancing. Like running. Pure motion. She lets her body talk, scream, and arch into Fox’s touch.

When the shuddering is done, Fox reaches for a pack of cigarettes, showing shocks of red hair sprouting from beneath armpits. Gold eyes assess Mar; Mar gazes back, blinks. Fox’s chest is smooth, but swelling slightly where breasts might be. Or not. Fox’s nipples are small, hard, dark like winter berries. Mar cups a hand over one, then runs her palm downward. Her breath snags, thrilling to find a whole line of equally hard bumps beneath her touch. Fox pushes her away, not unkind, but business-like.

“Now,” Fox says, breathing a stream of smoke. “Do you know what you want?”

“I…”

She wants to melt under hands that touch her the way Fox does. Always. She wants to feel her bones stretched like taffy, her whole being infinitely malleable and capable of remaking itself from one moment to the next. She wants to flicker and run and never have to choose.

“The world doesn’t work that way. Not quite.” Fox places a finger against Mar’s forehead, between her eyes, smiles sly.

Mar squeezes her eyes closed, lashes rimmed with tears harder than the ones she shed before. These are like frost, unfalling.

“Not choosing is still a choice, but every body has to take a path, sooner or later. Every choice comes with a cost, but if you don’t step onto the path, you run the risk of being dragged along it.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, but Mar knows that isn’t what Fox means. In the woods, she chose; she turned toward the city and a wild, strange thing slipped away from her. Jamie chose to put ink on his skin, a gun in his hand. It’s not as simple as trading the name of a child for straw spun into gold.

Jamie sits behind her eyelids, small in his prison jumpsuit, shoulders curled inward and ink marking his skin – the image printed there like a bruise. It isn’t fair. Any choice she makes seems to leave Jamie behind. But if she doesn’t choose, if she stays here forever, then she’ll curl inward too. She will grow smaller and fainter every day until finally, she disappears.

“I don’t know.” Mar breathes out, opens her eyes.

Fox rolls slightly to face her, propped on one elbow.

“I could eat your heart.” The words are matter-of-fact. Mar stares as if the words will show in the curls of smoke circling Fox’s red, red hair, waiting for them to make sense.

“Think how much easier it would be to go through the world heartless.” Fingers trace the edges of Mar’s binder, but do nothing to pull it away.

Gold eyes watch Mar, unblinking. If any tears should taste like honey, they should be from those eyes, not Mar’s, but she can’t imagine Fox crying.

Is that what it means to be heartless? Never in danger of tears, but never in danger of love either? Mar studies Fox’s narrow face, the impossibly sharp cheekbones. A wild animal, a myth. Both. Neither.

The suddenness of Fox’s body over hers startles Mar. Fox’s teeth rest against the edge of her binder; gold eyes pin her in place.

“I could bite through,” Fox says, “and you wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Before, or after?” Mar says.

She means the words as a joke, but they don’t sound like one.

A shadow flickers beneath the surface of Fox’s gaze. Hunger. Wanting. A space that can’t be filled devouring by hearts; an emptiness too big and complicated to name.

skin6“Yes,” Fox says.

Mar’s pulse trips, insistent at her wrists, between her legs, in her throat. Fear, real, sweeter than any she’s felt before.

Her body responds. Heartless. Yes, she wants this. But she needs time to think, and right now, with Fox’s lips grazing her belly, and moving lower still, she doesn’t want to think at all.

“You look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time,” Jamie says.

The hard plastic seat cups her uncomfortably. A hum of voices surrounds them, a susurrus of conversations half-held, everyone saying too little and too much in the short window of time they’re allowed. Her cheeks warm.

“You finally meet someone?” Jamie’s grin is sly.

But there’s an edge to it; the corner of his mouth quivers. Guilt needles her. She hasn’t made a choice, but sitting here feels like a lie, like she’s hiding something good and secret when Jamie has nothing at all. Jamie runs a hand over the stubble field of his scalp. One leg bounces, restless, under the table.

“Are you okay?” Mar leans forward.

“You know me, I’m always okay.” The lines of Jamie’s smile dig deeper, determined, like he’s got something to prove. The stretch of his skin shows his skull. Mar’s heart cracks, her binder too tight again.

She reaches across the table, catching Jamie’s fidgeting hands.

“Jamie…”

Her voice fails. She can’t look him in the eye, not just because she’s afraid he’ll see the shadow of her leaving, the possibility that she’ll choose something that will pull their worlds apart. She’s afraid she’ll see a shadow in his eyes, too. Doubt. Guilt. And some sick part of her wants to see it there. She wants to know he chose, that some action led him here and not random chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Would it make it easier if Jamie confessed? Could she walk away with a clean conscience? No. Jamie would still be written on her heart, her brother, no matter what he did or didn’t do. If she lets Fox devour her heart, what happens to Jamie?

“Don’t,” Jamie says before she can even try to go further. “One of us should be happy, Mar.”

At the pressure of his fingers on hers, Mar can’t breathe. She closes her eyes. They’re running together in the dark. The smell of churned-up leaves, the trees lengthening around her, the light bruising to a new color. His legs are longer than hers, but hers carry her ahead. A branch cracks under his weight; Mar’s heart cracks. Jamie trips, tangles, and Mar is alone. At six and eight, a shadow comes for her, and Mar turns away, back toward home. And now? Her heart cracks again, fracturing beneath the binder, drawing a line through Jamie’s name.

“Just keep running,” Jamie says. “And don’t look back.”

The fact that he knows her so well, can read her thoughts even as Mar hides her eyes makes it hurt all the worse. She forces herself to look at him, she owes him that much.

The smile sliding across his face is almost real this time, shadow-touched, sorrowing, like he understands. Jamie releases her hands, and it’s a moment before the world rights itself.

“Jamie.” Tears thicken the name in her throat. She doesn’t try to go further this time.

When the time is up, Mar hugs Jamie as hard as she can, feeling the bones move under his skin, letting the pressure of her touch say goodbye for her where the word itself refuses to form.

Mar doesn’t know where to find Fox, but she knows where to be in order for Fox to find her. The woods behind the house are a little more unkempt, the trees a little more ragged, a few more years of secrets and discarded things lodged among the roots. Empty bottles, cigarette packs, used condoms. The woods are where people come to test personalities, passions, and vices before they let the world see them.

“You’ve made a decision,” Fox says.

There’s no cigarette to herald the appearance this time. Fox is simply there in the space between two trunks, hands in the pocket of a long coat that nearly brushes the ground.

“What are you?” is what comes out of Mar’s mouth, a question instead of an answer.

“You already know.” Fox’s head tilts to one side.

Fox presses a hand against Mar’s chest. Mar’s pulse thumps beneath her binder and her skin. She imagines sharp teeth, biting through muscle, through bone. Fox promised she wouldn’t feel a thing.

“Are you ready?” Fox asks.

Mar nods. Fox takes her hand, leading her deeper, where the trees grow straighter, less ragged, where stranger secrets than sex and addiction are hidden between their roots and their leaves. There’s a hollow where the earth has been tamped down by the shape of a body curled nose to tail.

The sky is flat white above trees whose branches have been stripped for winter, but shadows still dapple Fox’s cheeks. Broken sunlight filters between the non-existent leaves and a wind warmer than the one Mar left behind stirs over them. The shadows in between the patches of light on Fox’s skin are the color of a bruise.

“Will you let me eat your heart?” Fox asks. “All your wanting, all your pain?”

Dark lashes lower over eyes the color of amber with insects trapped inside. Beneath those lowered lids, something shifts and flickers in the gold crescent of Fox’s eyes. Fragility, hope, love, fear. None of the words sit easy on Fox’s shoulders. They slide around, come back to Mar like a flutter in her belly. Not one thing, but all of them. Old and young, terrible and lovely. Human and not.

What would it mean to let Fox eat her heart? And what kind of creature would want such a thing? A dangerous one? Or simply a tired one, wanting to be hollow instead of full, soft instead of hard? Mar catches her breath. There’s another choice she can make, with a different cost attached to it.

She could eat Fox’s heart instead of offering up her own. It’s what she’s always wanted. Two hearts in one skin. Animal and human. Male and female. Both and neither. Melting and changing, swift and quicksilver and remaking herself at will.

But with the swiftness come the shadows. If she keeps running, she leaves Jamie behind. If he picks up the gun, there’s a flat crack, the world sundered and they can never go back again.

There is infinite patience in Fox’s honey-colored eyes. And impatience as well, jaws snapping at Mar’s heels.

Hunger. Wanting. Mar knows about hollow spaces that cutting and starving can’t fill. She knows that some desires go beyond skin.

She closes her eyes, breathes out. She conjures Jamie’s face, his voice calling to her through the dark of the forest, his eyes fixed on hers saying I didn’t do it, Mar. Lying curled small in the forest, wishing for the shadows to stay, it wasn’t only guilt that needled her to turn back home. It was love. Jamie is her brother, and he’s always known her. He will know her still, even in this skin. Her heart, beating strong and true beside a second heart, wild and strange. Together, they will be enough to fill her. She wants this. She is sure.

Mar opens her eyes.

She presses her lips against Fox’s mouth. She tastes salt and honey. Liquid gold, Fox’s heart melting on her tongue.

Far distant in the woods, there’s a flat sound – a gunshot, a branch breaking, Mar cracking wide. Breathless, she leans back, licking clean the last drops of salty sweetness with her tongue.

“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”

end-of-story-nov

A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s short fiction can be found scattered around publications such as Uncanny, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2015, among other places. In addition to her fiction writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a regular Women to Read: Where to Start column to SF Signal. Her debut collection, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, was published by Lethe Press in 2015. Find her at www.acwise.net or on twitter as @ac_wise

 

Black Planet, by Stephen Case

Em did not dream the world. When the lights went out and the absence of her brother in the room across the hall became palpable, it was simply there, hanging in the space above her bed. She would stare at its invisible form, spinning silent and unseen, until she slept.

Her dreams were not always of the black planet. There were dreams of hospital rooms as well, and of the faces of her parents. Of the house that now was too large for the three of them to fill.

When the planet came and stole her from those dreams, it was almost a relief. The silence on the black world was a silence less oppressive. The darkness was welcome and warm. Em, in those nights, wandered its pitchy forests and walked the shores of surging, inky seas. There were mountains like rows of broken teeth, as though she had fallen into the weathered jawbone of a huge beast dead a million years, but it was only the world, immense and black under stars.

She did not speak of the planet to her parents. Everyone handled loss in different ways, she had been told. Besides, she could not be sure that the black planet had not always hung above her bed in the darkness. Maybe she had never noticed it before.

The only person she talked to about it was Jena, whose desk was beside her own in four of the six periods of the school day. Jena had come up through the science magnet, and she still either did not know or did not care that high school frowned upon certain enthusiasms.

“Everyone gets at least two,” Jena said when Em told her about the dark world. She wore the half-smile that indicated she expected questions. “Statistically, that is.”

“Two what?”

“Two planets. Earth-like planets, specifically.” Astronomy class was a joke, but Jena had convinced her to take it. “Twenty billion in our galaxy alone.”

“Right. But I only have one.”

“And you see it when you go to sleep.”

planet01“It is a planet.” Em paused. “Not much like Earth.”

Jena’s shirt had a picture of two robed figures in some kind of hover-car. It said, These aren’t the druids you’re looking for.

“But you could walk around and stuff on it, right?” Jena asked.

Em loved that she took her words for what they were. Jena didn’t look for hidden meanings, didn’t see a dead brother staring from every emotional nuance.

“Yeah,” Em answered. “But it was completely dark. No sun.”

That started Jena in on something called second-generation planets. It was difficult to follow. Lots of things Jena said were difficult to follow, but it was sometimes nice just to listen. She was saying something about planets forming after their suns died, planets orbiting pulsars or black holes.

“Of course there wouldn’t be life,” Jena concluded, chewing the end of a bright green pencil. “Unless it was based on thermal heat or chemical reactions.”

Em decided not to say anything about the forests. They made her nervous, with their tangled roots and restless limbs.

“Maybe everyone has one,” Em ventured. “If there are so many. Maybe everyone has a world, and they just don’t see them.”

Jena watched her.

“You said there are supposed to be enough in our galaxy for everyone to have two. Maybe we all do—one for the night and one for the day. Only we don’t always see them.”

They were both quiet for a moment.

“I wonder what happens to them when we die,” Em said softly. “A bunch of empty planets.”

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When Em fell asleep, she felt she was falling. She fell down to the black planet, even as it spun above her as she lay on her bed. She fell to its surface if she did not snag on memories of her brother along the way, memories of the way he steepled his fingers when he spoke or angled his head at her when she came around behind him while he was reading. If she did not slip into memories and dreams, she fell to the planet.

On the surface, starlight gave little illumination to the landscape. The stars were tight and clustered above her.

If there were paths, she could not see them. She knew the forests were crowded with eyes, though she never heard movement among the trees, or the things that were the equivalent of trees here. After a time she realized the eyes belonged to the trees themselves. They had no leaves but millions of fingers, and they all bent away and let her pass as she walked.

She paused at the edge of a sea. The mountains were outlines against the golden blur Jena said must be the Milky Way. Jena said it must be the galaxy seen from much deeper within than they saw it in their own nights on the planet where Em’s brother was dead.

Em remembered a day when her brother had explained—a book with a picture of a prism on the cover propped carefully against the gauze on his chest—that things in a dark room did not have colors that could not be seen but that they had no color at all. He said darkness did not hide color but actually erased it.

Now she stood in the shadow of the forest and felt the world spin beneath her. The stars changed their position against the silhouette of trees.

After a time, she thought she heard someone calling.

story_bullet

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier.” Today Jena’s shirt bore a logo of a goblin riding a killer whale. The stylized caption beneath read Orc-Orca Alliance.

Em rubbed sleep from her eyes. She had been in the forest for weeks last night, it seemed. Now, in the passing period between classes, it was hard to concentrate.

“Tidal lock. It doesn’t have to be circling a black hole or wandering without a tether through space. Maybe you’re just always on the side facing away from the sun.”

“What do you mean?”

planet02“Like the Earth’s moon.” Jena held a hand in front of her face, palm facing inward. “It’s locked with one side toward the Earth, so we never see the other.” She spun slowly in the hallway, keeping her palm facing toward her face. A few students stopped to watch. “Rotates at the same speed it revolves.”

“I saw the stars moving last night.”

It helped that Jena was good-looking. She could stand in the hallway between periods pirouetting like a lunatic and still earn approving glances from the junior and senior boys.

“They would still move, if it orbited fast enough. But it means maybe you’ve just always been on the dark side of it. Maybe you haven’t seen the day side yet.”

She shook her head. “It’s not like that, Jena. I’ve been all over it. It’s black all the way around.”

Jena shrugged. “I wish I could see it. If everyone has one, I should too. But maybe something has to happen to make you see yours.” She broke off, glancing at Em.

“There is no sun,” Em said again, to herself, as she shut the door to her locker.

story_bullet

There was nothing for Jena to see. That was the point. There was nothing to see at all. It was black. Em was in the forest again.

It was trying to tell her something. That was clear. It was not speaking with a voice; she had heard no words the evening before. It was speaking with its presence. It was trying to explain.

Why was there a black planet hanging in her sky?

Em found a stone. She had been wandering along the shore of the black sea, listening to the sound the waves made—a sound heavier and more hollow than the seashore she recalled on Earth. She kneeled on the shoreline, trying to work up courage to put her hand into the unseen surf and feel if the liquid was water or something heavy and alien, when she found among the thousands of black stones she moved over one that struck her knee.

It was almost perfectly spherical, the size of a large softball. There were indentations on one side and circular grooves on the other. She held it for a long time, wondering whether it was natural or artificial, trying to remember what she recalled about rocks on Earth and how they formed. There might be a million other stones like this one on beaches all over the black world. They might be artifacts. They might be eggs.

She ran her hands over its surface again and heaved it into the sea.

story_bullet

“Do you remember my brother?” Em asked Jena the next day. It was after school, and they were sitting behind the gym, against the wall’s cold bricks. Jena was experimenting with cigarettes. Em couldn’t see the shirt she wore today, as it was covered by a windbreaker.

They hadn’t spoken of her brother directly before. Jena’s eyes widened slightly.

“I don’t remember your brother,” Jena answered.

“We weren’t friends then. And we were still in middle school. When he died.”

Jena was cautious. “It was last year?”

“Eight months.”

“Do you think it’s his planet?” she asked.

Em shook her head. “No. It’s just a planet. That’s the point.” She thought about telling her about the stone but decided against it.

“Was it cancer?” Jena eyed her cigarette suspiciously.

“No. EB. I can’t remember what it stands for. It’s a genetic thing. They call them butterfly kids, because the layers of their skin don’t adhere correctly. They’re fragile. He always had sores. He was always in pain. And then he developed an aggressive mycosis and died.”

“Mycosis. That means . . .”

“A fungus. A fungal infection. Yes.”

“Why are you telling me?” Jena asked.

“Because it’s a thing.” Em took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Smoke made breath visible, showed you how quickly it dispersed. But Em wasn’t smoking. Her breath remained invisible. “Having skin that doesn’t work. Being killed by a fungus.”

“I’m sorry.” Jena was blinking, and Em realized with a flicker of surprise that there were tears in her eyes. “I mean, what do you do with that? What does that mean?”

“You told me something once,” Em said.

It had been a long time since Em cried. For a while, that had been the only thing that helped. But then, after a while, she couldn’t do it anymore. She would think about crying, but it was as though she was watching herself from the outside, and the feeling would pass. She felt the same way watching Jena now.

planet03“You told me about how they measure wind speeds on a planet’s surface.”

Jena stared at her and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “What?”

“How they can measure winds on planets so far away we can never reach them. You explained it, but I can’t remember.”

“Jesus Christ, Em.” Jena blinked again. “I’m crying about your brother, and I didn’t even know him.”

Em waited.

Jena pushed her cigarette out against the bricks. “It’s about temperature. If you know how close a planet is to its star and how fast it’s rotating, you can calculate temperature difference between its hot side and its cooler side. And you can use that to calculate wind speed. Because wind is caused, you know, by temperature differences,” she finished weakly.

“We can calculate the wind speeds on worlds trillions of miles away,” Em said. She touched Jena’s shoulder. “What do you do with that? What does it mean?”

“Nothing,” Jena said. “I mean, I don’t know. It just is. It’s just a fact that’s there.”

“Right.” She kissed Jena’s forehead. “Like my planet. Like you. That’s the point.”

story_bullet

That night, when Em fell to her black planet, she understood. If she had talked to her parents, they would have made her talk to a counselor, and maybe a counselor would have had a theory about why and how she saw a black planet spinning silently above her bed each night. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that the planet was sending a message: somewhere, in the empty night of space, I am here.

Em stepped out from under dark trees and looked at the mountains outlined against stars. The planet was there, and one day someone might measure its surface temperatures and wind speeds and maybe even—one day—set foot on its surface. But for every planet known, there will be a billion more never touched or seen.

Em had a vision of a world where the inky seas pitched up over the shoreline and beat at the stones.

It was the same with her brother’s death. A fact like that hangs there, in your sky, like an absolute black planet, like a planet without a sun.

She crouched in the shadows of the mountains and felt the cold stones beneath her.

Em knew, for a time, a black planet, absolutely alien and unique under foreign stars. She knew, for a time, her brother.

Em slept.

The black planet spun in silence above her.

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stephen-case

Stephen Case gets paid for teaching people about space, which is pretty much the coolest thing ever. He also occasionally gets paid for writing stories about space (and other things) that have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show,​ and several other publications. His novel, First Fleet​ , is being serialized by Retrofit Publishing and is available on Kindle. Stephen holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and will talk for inordinate amounts of time about nineteenth-century British astronomy. He lives with his wife, four children, and three chickens in an undisclosed suburb of Chicago that has not yet legalized backyard chickens.