Tag Archives: lost things

A Drop of Ink Preserved In Amber, by Marina J. Lostetter

Amber knew normal girls didn’t have drawers in their chests. Or in their stomachs, or backs, or thighs. She knew her parents had had her specially designed by a geneticist in Pakistan, where the international genome-manipulation laws were more difficult to enforce than in the U.S. In the history of the world, there had never been another human like her. And she was human, even if she didn’t look it on an X-ray.

ink1And her parents had made it quite clear that X-rays were to be avoided at all costs.

“You are too special,” they told Amber when she was little. “There are some things other people were simply never meant to know.”

At six, she rode her first airplane. She loved it — the roar of the engines, the rush as the aircraft took off and she was thrust back into her seat. It was her favorite part of their family trip.

Her least favorite part was airport security. That first time falling in love with flight was also the first time she was embarrassed about her body. Her parents asked for a private screening, and she didn’t understand why. The TSA agents ushered them behind an opaque barrier, still within earshot of the bustling and beeping of normal security. The area smelled strangely sterile, like a hospital, but the lady who approached Amber didn’t look anything like a doctor. The pat-down she received wasn’t especially intrusive — the woman was polite and explained everything she was doing and why. But it still made Amber feel terrible. Not because the lady was poking and prodding her, but because Amber lied when the TSA agent asked if she’d emptied all her pockets.

Mama had instructed her to say yes–had told her ahead of time that her drawers weren’t pockets and no one would ask her about her drawers.

After, they got on the plane. Amber rode the whole way with her hands over her heart, protecting the secret Mama had stashed there.

They flew from New York to LA. Mama called it a “test flight.” Daddy said her drawers were big enough to use now, but they had to be sure. Neither of those things made much sense to Amber, but, they were her parents, and she wanted to do them proud.

Six long hours later, they landed and retrieved their bags. Emerging from the terminal into the hot California sun, her parents gleefully loaded her into a rental car, laughing. Daddy drove, and Mama sat with her in the backseat.

“You can open them up now,” Mama said with a smile. “You did a very good job. You’re a very good girl.”

Amber didn’t feel like a good girl. She didn’t know why, but hiding her drawers from the lady in New York felt wrong.

She took off her shirt anyway — the one with the cartoon dinosaur with googly eyes — and pressed the center of what should have been her breast bone.

When closed, the drawers were invisible; she looked like any other pudgy child, with uninterrupted contours, a round belly, and tiny limbs. But when she pressed just right, large sphincters unfurled like flowers, letting the bony drawers slide out.

Supple skin covered in fine, velvety hair encased the calcium structures. The drawers were well-padded with cartilage and thick skin, protecting whatever she — or her parents — chose to hide in them.

Mama kissed her forehead and gently plucked a piece of cut amber from her daughter’s chest. It was set in a roughly worked bronze brooch, with small accent rubies encircling the main stone.

“Look,” Mama pointed to the center of the honey-colored gem. “There’s a spider in the amber, perfectly preserved.”

Breaking News: In light of the twelve genetically-modified babies born at UK Centurion Labs — all exhibiting signs of what some are calling transmorphic-posthumanism — members of Congress have pushed forward consideration of a bill that would regulate modifications and define what changes are acceptable here in the U.S. Modifications of intelligence and basic human anatomy are thought by many to be clear violations of ethical reproduction by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Amber’s parents told people they were archaeologists. It wasn’t until long after that first flight that she learned “archaeologist” did not mean “smuggler” or “black-market dealer.”

“Is it because of what we do?” Amber asked when she was eight. “I can’t tell them about my drawers or else they’ll find out about the pretty jewelry and stuff?” She sat at the kitchen table, swinging her little legs while munching on dry cereal.

“The average person doesn’t want to know that people like you exist,” her mama said. “It makes them angry that you’re different. It makes some of them violent.” She brought her tablet over to Amber and pulled up a news article.

“Six Dead at Mod Clinic, Suicide Bomber Suspected,” read the headline.

“So you can’t tell people, understand?” Mama said. “It’s to protect you, to keep you safe. Daddy and I don’t want anything to happen to you. There are people who would want to hurt you. People who would want to study you. The government might want to take you away from us because of how extensively we modified you. We just couldn’t take it if something…”

Her lip trembled and she took a deep breath — at which point she devolved into tears.

Even at eight, Amber had the wherewithal to think, If you wanted to protect me so much, why did you modify me?

Update: The federal government has now outlawed human genetic modification. A doctor caught modifying an embryo will have their license to practice permanently revoked, and may spend up to ten years in prison. If a woman is discovered carrying a genetically modified fetus in the first term, the overseeing medical professional is responsible for ensuring the pregnancy is terminated, under threat of similar penalties.

In grade school, Amber didn’t tell anyone about her drawers, but she used them to do magic tricks. Because her parents often took her to foreign countries for weeks at a time, Amber missed many of the social crucibles of youth. Birthday parties and sleepovers were held without her, as were dances and soccer games. She did her best to capture the attention of other children when she could.

When springtime came, she did a special trick. She would invite a handful of kids down to the river and show them how she could make birds and frogs disappear. First she had to catch them, which was a special trick on its own and led to many bruised knees and bum lips. But when she had her prize, her audience would watch, enrapt, as she moved her hands swiftly behind her back or under her shirt before revealing them to be empty.

ink2“You just dropped it,” a boy inevitably accused, and she always took it as her cue to bring the creature back again.

Once, when she caught a young songbird, it started singing inside her chest. The chirping had a hollow, far-away quality to it, ghostly and reverent. Amber opened her mouth to make a joke, and the song sprang past her lips as surely as if she’d sung it herself.

It took the trick too far. That particular set of classmates wouldn’t speak to her after that. One of the boys threw rocks at her every chance he got.

Play magic is one thing, he said. Real magic is another.

It was the first time she understood how the headline about the suicide bombings applied to her. In sharing some of her secret, she’d scared the other kids.

Mama hated it when Amber did tricks with animals. The frogs made her drawers slimy, and the birds left welts and scratches. “And, you smell like a pond,” she said. “Plus, it’s cruel to use a living thing like that. Now be a good girl and hide this ring for me. Your aunt is coming over and I don’t want her to realize I took it.”

Update: The United States is the fourteenth country to pass a federal law that not only prohibits the creation of genetically modified humans of any kind, but details the legal methods of post-delivery disposal. Should one of these, quote, ‘abominations,’ be discovered, the law describes the threshold for corrective surgery versus euthanization. Any modification of the brain is automatic grounds for extermination.

When Amber didn’t get her period like other girls, her mama explained that it was because she didn’t have a uterus. They’d had to shift a lot of her organs around to accommodate the drawers, and something had to go for them all to fit.

“It’s okay,” Mama assured her. “A uterus and company are nothing but problems anyway. Cramps, cancer, cysts. Be thankful we spared you all that.”

At thirteen, Amber was too young to really care that they’d also ‘spared’ her the problem of pregnancy. Well, at least I’ll never have to worry about ruining my jeans like Aki did.

When she reached high school, Amber realized secrets were currency. Gossip was good, sharing secrets with other girls was good. But, keeping secrets from adults was better.

When the head cheerleader offered her a cigarette behind the gym, she said no. Her dad smoked the occasional cigar and it turned her stomach every time. That stuff stank. But as she was waving the offer away, Coach Green came around the corner. The other girl looked so distraught, Amber had to do something. She took the smoldering cig and stuck it in her thigh drawer. It burned, but she did not cry out.

The blisters stung for days. She had the cheerleader’s admiration for months. She bore the scars for years.

It wasn’t just her parents’ gratitude and love she could earn with her drawers, she noted. If she let other people use them, perhaps they would grow to love her, too.

But, she had to be careful.

The boy who had thrown rocks at her in elementary school did his high-school senior project on “The Ethics and Morality of the Disposal of Human Experiments.” His thesis was not that such experiments were cruel to the subjects, but that they were cruel to the people who had to interact with those subjects. What might these man-made monsters do to “true” humans? How might they oppress them or violate them?

Throughout his presentation, Amber could have sworn that he was staring straight at her.

“In conclusion,” he said, “all modified ‘people’ should be institutionalized. For their own safety, and ours.”

Roaring applause followed.

If he’d known for sure about her drawers, what might he have done? Who might he have called?

In college, she majored in archaeology. Real archaeology. She built up enough courage to tell a few people about her drawers, but only her closest friends. She didn’t want to hide forever, but the recent abolishment of all mods made her wary. Sick-to-her-stomach wary. What if her friends rejected her? None of them had ever expressed anti-mod sentiment, but one never knew.

Maybe they would throw stones at her, too.

She cried when she told Aki. Amber had known her the longest, so it was only fitting she came first.

“It’s okay,” Aki said, hugging her close. “I know it’s not the same, but my eyes are mods. Near-sightedness runs in the family, so… I kind of get it.”

Yeah, she kind of did. But only kind of.

Afterward, they went out and got matching tattoos on their wrists. Two little gold keys each.

ink3Thankfully, all of Amber’s friends took it in stride. No one was horrified, no one threatened to turn her over to the law, and a lot of them seemed pleased. After that, her drawers were never empty. Charlotte hid her pregnancy test in Amber’s stomach when her dad barged in on them. Raj dropped his bag of weed in her shoulder when a cop pulled him over for speeding. Quinn wrote a long, angry letter to her step-mom and asked if Amber could keep it in her chest until she felt ready to confront the woman who had abused her.

Eventually, Amber allowed herself a lover. She’d always been afraid of being intimate with a boy — once, during a hasty make-out session in high school, one of her drawers had popped open, and she’d fled the scene before anyone had a chance to find out. But, in college, she let herself be seen. A few potential lovers left once she’d shown them her body. Enough of them stayed. One even hung around, and he hid secrets in her drawers as well.

Amber’s own secrets never went in her drawers. They couldn’t fit; they were big and balloon-like and made her head swell as though it were filled with steam.

Update: During her upcoming address this evening, the President will remark on the topic of genetic modification — specifically whether or not all adult cases have been corrected. Our White House correspondent believes the President will say the brief era of modification is over, and that we as a nation — and perhaps even the world–can forget about this terrible period of human experimentation and return to the unified forward-stride of mankind.

Even after earning her doctorate, Amber still traveled with her parents; to Turkey, to Belize, to anywhere with antiquities worth stealing. It was the only way she could spend time with them; her parents were only ever home long enough to offload their loot. They filled her up like a treasure chest, muttering as they went — talking to their plunder more than to her.

Unfortunately, Amber’s profession lent an air of legitimacy to their black-market comings and goings. An air they wallowed in.

“One of these days they’re going to start weighing passengers when they fly, and I’ll have a hell of a time explaining how I gained thirty-five pounds in a week,” Amber joked as her mother stuffed a small gold censer between her shoulder blades.

They were in a dingy hotel room in Greece, the walls sported peeling wallpaper. The carpet had a bug problem, and the torn curtains were drawn tightly over the small, open window so that no one could see what they were doing. The room had no air conditioning, though the Mediterranean humidity made the room feel like ninety degrees when it was seventy-five.

Soft snatches of Greek wafted in from the fruit stand on the street below. Amber understood little bits of it, and the swift glimpses into local lives made her smile to herself.

Amber stood in the center of the room, mostly naked, which made it easy for her mother to access whichever drawer she needed.

“It’s called tourism, dear,” her mom said absently. “People tend to eat themselves to death when they travel. But you’ll never have to worry about that. Weighing passengers is too insulting, however practical.”

After her mother finished, Amber pulled on her robe and belted it tight. All of her drawers were heavy with relics from a vandalized fifteenth-century Roman-Catholic cathedral. The metal pieces in her hips poked at her, and she clinked when she shifted. The section of split tapestry in her side was rough — sure to leave a carpet burn. The most gruesome treasure, a mummified tongue — supposedly that of a saint — jumped slightly with every beat of her heart.

Secrets bled out of the brain, through the tongue. Keeping it in the drawer in her chest, the drawer she considered the most important, felt…fitting.

Amber stood full of history. She could feel them — all of the human fingers that had touched all of the human things in such human ways.

History was beautiful, and terrible, and full of secrets that need not be forgotten. Secrets that were all the more important now that their creators were gone. Secrets she was tired of stealing.

“Mom,” she said.

“What, dear? You need to hurry up and get dressed if we’re going to be on time.”

“I think this is going to be my last trip. This kind of trip, I mean.”

“Why?”

Because stealing is wrong? Because my drawers sport enough scars as is? Because I’m tired of you seeing me as a pack animal instead of a person?

“Because history shouldn’t be hidden,” she said. Amber pressed on her breastbone and her chest opened. She plucked out the tissue-wrapped tongue. “This isn’t just a thing you can attach a price tag to. It belonged to someone, saint or not. Someone spoke with this, kissed with it, ate with it.”

“It’s a tongue,” her mother said flatly. “We all have them, but very few are worth a villa.”

“That’s not… What I mean is… What about my drawers? What if, centuries from now, someone digs me up and sells off my pieces? What if I’m all that’s left of modified humans, and someone sticks me in their personal vault, and the world never knows.”

“Most people stay in the ground, dear. The world never knows about them anyway.”

Amber pursed her lips. “I’m trying to say that one person doesn’t own history, and shouldn’t hide history. If people dig me up in the future, I don’t want to stay a secret.” I don’t want to be a secret now. I want people to accept that I’m part of this world, too.

“You’d rather be put on display, like a relic, is that what you’re saying? You think this man wanted his tongue set under glass for people to ogle?”

“If the ogling means they try to understand him, that they acknowledge him, acknowledge the part of history he represents…maybe. I don’t know. I can’t speak for him, I can only speak for me.”

“And speaking for yourself, you’re too good to help your father and me? You’re standing on awfully shaky moral high ground. Selling these treasures has kept you in good clothes, fed with good food — you’ve seen the world. And if you think ‘legitimate’ archaeologists like yourself don’t shove history away, you’re wrong. For every artifact you see in a museum, how many hundreds — thousands — are stuffed away in warehouses? We’re doing exactly what you want: this way, someone gets to appreciate the past. We save history from the dead-depths of university collections and government vaults.”

Amber waved the tongue pointedly. “This was in a damn church.”

Her mother shrugged. “A church where mods like yours are considered a deadly sin. Nobody’s perfect. Now, get dressed.” She slammed the door on her way out.

We save history,” Amber chuckled mirthlessly. She carefully placed the tongue back in her drawer. “Well, who’s going to save me?”

Her entire life, Amber had watched the news. They were always talking about her, even if they didn’t know it.

But in the last several years they’d stopped talking about her. No news updates, no new editorials or information spots. Nothing but the occasional rhetorical nod in a ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ spew-fest.

She knew she should be pleased. She’d gotten away with it–she still had her drawers, and no one was suggesting they euthanize modified humans anymore. She was safe.

But safety meant disappearing. Being forgotten — like a dead language or a small tribe.

Modification is important. It happened. Its destruction happened. Why is everyone so eager to forget?

She’d drafted several letters to news stations, a few to her department head at the university, and a handful of blog articles she could post anonymously. She was just waiting for the day she’d be brave enough to break her silence and submit one of them.

But the truth was, she wasn’t brave. She’d never been brave. She didn’t know how to stand up to her parents — she was a grown woman, a professional, and still she helped them smuggle. She didn’t know how to tell her friends that, just because she’d told them about her drawers, it didn’t mean they were free to use them. These days her drawers concealed proof of her friends’ affairs, secret credit cards, and past-due statements.

She knew now that sharing her drawers didn’t equate love, but it was a difficult habit to grow past. Just like she knew hiding her drawers from the general public didn’t equate with normalcy.

How could she stand up to the world if she couldn’t stand up to the people she loved? How could she be sure that she wasn’t expunged from history if history was intent on forgetting her?

When Amber turned thirty-five, she gave herself a present. It was a painful present, a permanent present.

She took all her secrets and poured them into her drawers: her desire to know another modified human; her fear of being forgotten; her perpetual grief over her sterilization; her anger at her parents and her friends; her anger at herself; her anger at the world.

ink4And her deep love of the ancient, of the past.

And her love for her parents. Her love for herself.

Her love for the world.

Amber covered every inch of her drawers with beautiful, broken secrets. Secrets that she would ensure could not remain hidden forever.

In the years that followed, she tracked down the brooch she’d first carried–the one with the spider suspended in amber. The man who owned it became a good friend, and never asked to put anything in her drawers.

Ten years after that, Amber began to make funeral plans. Not for her parents, but for herself. She knew she still had long years ahead of her, but there were a lot of pieces to put into place if she was going to get the postmortem treatment she wanted.

Her death was important because her life was important.

She told her elderly parents about her plan, and they didn’t hate it. She showed them what she’d done to her drawers, and they cried.

They cried because, for the first time, they understood what they’d done to their daughter.

“We defaced you, we…” Her mother couldn’t get the words out. She dabbed at her weak, watery eyes with thin, shaking hands. “We were selfish.”

Amber took her mother’s hand. “Selfishness is very human.”

She told her colleagues at the university about her drawers. They wanted to tell the news, to let the public know that mods were still around.

But Amber knew it would mean little. The people of today wanted to forget mods. It was the people of tomorrow Amber needed to tell.

No one was sure what they’d find when they opened the Tomb of the Unknown Doctor.

Three centuries previous, a Brown University professor had been buried underneath Rhode Island Hall, home to the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at the time. The individual’s name had been purposefully expunged from the record, though innumerable campus legends swirled around the possibilities. Instructions for the tomb’s opening were left at the university, carved in the stone of the tomb’s outermost wall. On the three-hundredth anniversary of its closing, the tomb was to be opened by three archaeology graduate students specializing in, of all things, ancient ink and tattooing.

One of the selected grad students went by Melissa, though Melissa wasn’t her real name. Her given name was attached to a rap sheet filled with ridiculous charges of self-mutilation, and she preferred to keep such absurdities to herself.

Ink was her life — was a part of her very soul–and though she was allowed to study it, her culture forbade her from using it to express herself the way she wanted. Tattooing was a nasty, backwards habit, they said. Only a barbarian would want to mark themselves for life.

Melissa wore long sleeves in public, even in the dead heat of mid-August. Whenever a cuff rode up she quickly tugged it back down, afraid the black spirals of her first self-applied tattoos might show. Friends and would-be-boyfriends who had accidentally seen her markings had all urged her to get help. They thought the artwork covering her body indicated mental illness.

What the ink represented was her lust for life, for memory. When Melissa looked in the mirror, all she saw was beauty. A beauty that connected her to thousands of years of history.

Now, Melissa sat in a darkened university lab over her lightbox — well after the building had officially closed for the evening — studying captures from the CT scan taken of the mummified body they’d found in the Tomb.

She and her team had expected tattoos, of course. Why else would the instructions call for such specific grad students? But this —

This was glorious.

The whole team had been present for the scanning, which had revealed rectangular, calcified structures within the corpse. That in itself was a major discovery. How could someone filled with compartments — moving compartments, like drawers — have survived? The organ displacement alone should have led to a stillbirth if the drawers were natural. The team suspected they weren’t, but until now, such extreme modifications were thought to have been a myth.

During the scan, Melissa had seen something unusual and kept it to herself. There were patterns on the inside of the drawers — the internal skin was almost black with it. The others thought the variations just the natural texture of the skin, but Melissa had her doubts.

Yes, the body had external tattoos, but nothing extensive or unusual for her time. Nothing that would have warranted the grad-student request.

So, what if the patterns weren’t natural?

Maybe she’d been selfish to keep the notion to herself. It didn’t matter now.

Holding a magnifying glass over the first cellulose slide, Melissa squinted. There — was that swooping line a letter? Could it be script?

She could have turned on a holo-table to take her notes digitally, but instead she grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil.

She sketched the lines without looking, hoping they’d appear more familiar in her own hand. Yes, yes — that was an S — not just an S, a whole word. Yes, yes!

Frantically, she transcribed all she could make out. Some of it appeared to be garbled nonsense; they’d need better images to decipher it. But some she could clearly read.

It’s a memoir, she realized. This woman, this unknown professor, had tattooed her life story on the inside of her drawers.

Melissa worked all night, giddy with the discovery.

“But, what’s your name?” Melissa asked the cellulose.

After a long while, the mummy divulged the secret.

As the sun’s rays slipped in through the lab windows, Melissa’s inhibitions dissolved away. This woman was as marked on the inside as Melissa was on the outside. They were two sides of the same skin; sisters-in-spirit separated by centuries.

Slowly, Melissa stood and strode away from the lightbox, toward the morning glow. With each step she shed an article of clothing, leaving fabric scattered across the floor like flower petals. When she reached the windowpane, she looked down at herself. A myriad of black marks — depicting everything from her mother’s smiling face, to a silhouetted flock of starlings, to the Chinese character for eternal — stared back.

This body is for all the people who have been used, then forgotten, stated a portion of the memoir she’d transcribed. For all of those history overlooks or chooses not to remember. It is a symbol of every inconvenient historical fact, every dirty secret and every ‘dangerous’ life.

“Thank you, Amber,” Melissa whispered.

It were as though the long-dead professor had given Melissa her blessing–as though somehow she’d known that the future would continue to forge secret-people who lived secret lives.

“Rest easy,” Melissa said. “We will not be forgotten.”

end-of-story-nov

marinaMarina J. Lostetter’s original short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Flash Fiction Online.  Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex.  Marina enjoys globetrotting, board games, and all things art-related.  She tweets as @MarinaLostetter, and her official website can be found at www.lostetter.net.  She’d like to give a special thank you to SB Divya for providing the prompt that became this story’s title.

 

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To 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.

“Jesus. We’ve only heard the story about a million times. Give it a rest.”

“I just think it’s sad is all. You don’t have to be such a bitch about it, Willa,” Lea said and flicked her butt into the grass.

There were rumors that the lot was haunted. Little kids would dare each other to sneak out there at night. Sit right where the front door should have gone and stay until morning. For the older kids, it was a place to do all of the things our parents said we shouldn’t. Even still, we hung at the periphery of the land, far from the heart of the house Harper would have built.

“You don’t feel something when we come out here? It’s so quiet. My hair gets all prickly,” Lea said.

“Like something big is about to happen. Like right before a door opens. When you don’t know who’s on the other side.” She looked somewhere just over my shoulder.

“Someone’s here,” she said and let out a deep groan. Her eyes fluttered into her skull, and she began to twitch, her fingers going rigid, and her back arching.

“Stop it,” I said, and she let out two more guttural grunts before dissolving into giggles.

“Seriously, Lea. It’s not fucking funny,” I said and pushed her. She tumbled backward, and then, for what couldn’t have been more than two maybe three seconds, I couldn’t see her. Dark hair and eyes caught in the act of falling suddenly vanished among grass grown tall.

Must have been a trick of the afternoon sunlight because there she was again, those legs in the dirt and a smile streaked across her face.

“You asked for it,” she said and brushed her hands over her thighs. “Shit. SHIT. Godammit, Willa,” she said, her fingers spread wide.

“Nope. Not falling for it again.”

“No. My ring. My mom’s aquamarine ring. It’s gone. She’ll kill me.”

“It must have fallen off when you fell. Hold on. We’ll find it.”

dust1Later, Lea and I would chew Klonopin and tell each other that there was nothing strange about the day Beth stumbled into our lives. We were just two girls kneeling in the grass, hands outstretched. We must have felt her. Positions of supplication. Must have noticed the moment the sky went darker and the birds fell silent. I don’t think we ever got up from that place. Not really. I think there will always be the two of us seeking something that will not be found.

“There’s a hole here,” Lea said, and I peered over her shoulder.

“Looks like an animal den or something.”

“I think I see it,” she said and poked her fingers into the entrance.

“Don’t just shove your hand in there! It could be a snake hole. Don’t you pay any attention in school?”

“Doesn’t matter any way. Hand’s too big. Help me find something to hook it. A long stick.”

We have different memories of the first time we heard Beth’s voice. For me, Beth sounded like someone trying very hard to not be heard. A quiet rush of words that she hoped would fall from her lips and into the dirt. Lea said that Beth’s voice sounded like water. Something that slipped into your head and sloshed around so that you couldn’t get it out no matter how hard you tried.

“I can get your ring for you.” Beth looked whitewashed. Skin the color of oatmeal. A beige jumper that brushed a pair of knobby knees over a white t-shirt and a pair of crummy, knock off Keds. The kind of girl you see but don’t spend too long looking at.

Lea turned to me and rolled her eyes. “I can’t deal with this weirdo right now. My mother is going to hit the fucking roof. I’m not even supposed to touch the damn thing.”

“I don’t think we need your help,” I said and turned my back to her. Message sent loud and clear.

“I’m Beth. I just moved here,” she said, and Lea muttered something under her breath about being a homing beacon for idiots.

“Really. I can,” Beth said and pushed her way between us.

“Is she fucking serious?” Lea said, but Beth only smiled and thrust her hand inside the hole.

“No way your hand is that small,” Lea said.

“Maybe she has baby hands or something,” I said.

Even now, I wonder if it was the lot acting on Beth. Leaking into her like venom into blood. Most of the time, I think that it was Beth all along. That the darkness we came to know was already a part of her. That she released herself into that place. Into us.

I think I’m still choking on her.

When Beth handed the ring to Lea, the gem cast glittering flecks across Lea’s cheeks. She stood before us, head bowed, while Lea stuck the ring in her mouth to suck off the grit.

“Thanks. Really. You have no idea the shit storm that was coming my way. Your hands must be fucking tiny,” Lea said once the ring was safely back on her finger.

“I’m Beth,” she said again.

We should have never told her our names. Sometimes, things are meant to be lost. There are things you aren’t supposed to go looking for.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

We were seventeen, full of a stolen box of Franzia White Zin, lungs heavy with smoke. Our lips and tongues and teeth pressed against the mouths of boys who told us they were students at GSU but were actually seniors at the other high school. It was almost funny how stupid they thought we were, but they were warm, and we were cold, and there were empty places in the world that were filled with the things we had lost.

Always, Beth was in the background. Hovering behind us while we tested the waters of adulthood. Always watching with her quiet, pale smile. For four years she’d been with us. We didn’t tell her to leave.

Even after all that time, we didn’t know much about her. She didn’t answer most of our questions when we asked them. There were the things that she told us: that her father moved the two of them here after her mother died; that he stood outside of her bedroom at night–to be sure she was breathing; that her favorite color was yellow. Sunshine yellow. The color of joy.

There were the things that she did not tell us: why we weren’t allowed to come into her house; why she never spoke of her father after the first time she told us about him; why we never saw him — not at school to pick her up, not at the grocery store, not at PTSA meetings or driving his car or the hundreds of other ways you’ll see someone’s father; why she had scratch marks on the inside of her thighs.

Eventually, we stopped asking questions, and Beth faded into the background of our lives until we needed her.

During those four years, Beth found all of the things we lost: my favorite lipstick that I thought was in the bottom of my purse; a safety pin earring Lea’s first boyfriend gave her before she let him feel her up for the first time; a pair of yellow sunglasses I bought with my babysitting money. Nothing important. Nothing that we couldn’t live without, but it was amusing. Lea and I had something that set us apart from everyone else. It made us different. Interesting.

We would end up at the empty lot, and Beth would sit next to the hole and presto, just like magic, whatever item we’d been searching for would emerge clutched in her fist.

“She’s stealing that shit. Trying to convince us she’s special,” Lea said after the second time.

“I don’t think so. She’s never excited when she finds something. Or proud of herself. If anything, she looks ashamed. Like she’s just done something dirty.”

dust2“Uh. Yeah. She stole our stuff.”

We hid random things in secret places: in shoe boxes in the backs of our closets, stuffed down garbage disposals, thrown into the woods on our way to school, eyes closed. We didn’t tell each other where they were, but when we told Beth about what we had lost, she would lead us to the lot, put her hand in the hole, and pull out each and every trinket.

I’m not sure if she knew that we were using her. If she understood that was the only reason we let her hang around. Because she could find lost things and bring them home again like our own personal magic trick.

We liked to think that we were doing her a favor. That without us, she’d languish in social hell. No friends. No one to talk to. We adopted her because it amused us. We curled her hair to see if we could, put coral lipstick and liquid eyeliner on her as if she were a doll, and then gave her the crumbs of our affection. Still, she smiled at us and took us down to the lot when we had something that needed finding.

“Don’t ask Beth to come. She gives me the creeps when we have boys with us. The way she sits there and stares. Like she’s never seen a pair of tits before,” Lea said.

“Maybe don’t pull your tits out then,” I said, and she flipped me the bird.

Lea and I were in love with the feel of warm hands against the small of our backs and the musty scent of Acqua Di Gio, and the boys who had lied to us could give us both. We were going to meet them down at the lot.

I can’t remember the boys’ names — they were generic, Chris or Mark or James. What I do remember is a swoop of strawberry blonde hair, freckles, green eyes. Hands in my hair and on my waist. Laughter. Someone brought a radio and Pearl Jam was singing in the background about last kisses. Everything moving in slow motion, like a dream. Beth somewhere in the background, humming along.

When the other boy, Lea’s boy, started screaming, I thought I had fallen asleep, slipped into the half shadow world of nightmare. Beth stood beside him, her arms cradling something I couldn’t see, and the boy screamed again.

“What the fuck? What the fuck?” He scrambled backwards.

“I’m sorry,” Beth said and extended her arms outward, offered him whatever she held.

“Please. I thought I could do it. I could feel him. Down there in the dark,” Beth said, and the boy recoiled.

“Get her the fuck away from me,” he said, but no one moved.

“Beth,” Lea said and reached out for her, but she turned away, clutched the thing in her arms to her chest.

“I’m sorry. I thought I could bring him back for you. You miss him so much. I can feel it,” she said, and I saw what she carried. The rotting body of a small, white dog rested in her arms. Eyes glassed over like two dark marbles.

If the boys ran, I don’t remember. There was only Beth, sobbing, her fingers tangled in the dog’s white fur. It took two hours to get her to let go of it, to convince her to bury it under a pile of dead leaves, and get her on her feet.

We took her home; walked under moonlight that turned Beth’s hair silver, the streaks of mud on her fingers into ink. I don’t ever remember her as beautiful, but that night, her beauty was a terrible thing.

“What did you do?” I said when we got to her porch. Her eyes were translucent. It was like looking through glass into something with no bottom.

“Father made me a door,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s there. Behind the door. But I can’t open it completely. Not yet,” Beth said and disappeared into the gloom of the house.

That night I dreamed of Beth. She crawled out from between my legs, her fingernails digging against my thighs.

I saw Beth’s father on my eighteenth birthday. There was a party. Champagne in plastic cups. Dancing with Lea while Shirley Manson screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Beth smiling and shaking her head when my mother offered her some champagne.

We never talked about the night with the dog. That year, when something went missing, Lea and I let it go. Didn’t wonder about where it had gone or tear apart our rooms searching. The lot and the things we did there faded into the myths of our childhood.

I was going to New Orleans for school that fall. Lea was headed to Atlanta to chase a bass player in a shitty rock band. “He’s really good, Willa. They’re going to make it. You’ll see.”

Beth was going to stay home. Take care of her father.

“He’s sick,” she said, but she never told us with what. Only that she had to help him. The idea of her in that house, alone with her father — a man I’d never seen — nauseated me.

“You need to be out. On your own. You know, live,” I told her. The way she smiled at me — lips chewed open and bleeding — made my skin itch.

In three weeks, I’d be far away from all of it: from Beth, from the lot, from all the lost things she had found. From the nightmares that were coming more and more frequently. From the new fear curling hard and sharp in my belly.

Lea went home early. Her rock and roll boy had told her that he might drop by later. She wanted to be sure she shaved her legs in case he did.

dust3One by one, the partygoers stumbled out into the night, followed the moon back to their beds, until there was only Beth and me.

“Walk me home?” she asked.

I don’t remember getting up to leave, my feet falling into the familiar path to Beth’s house. Right onto Lakeshire, left on Hope Circle, left again onto Cumberland Way. We were standing on her porch, when I realized that I had dropped out for a bit. I dismissed the lost time as being more than a little drunk.

Beth turned to me, took my hand, and opened her front door.

“Come inside,” she said, and I hesitated, my foot brushing against the threshold. Warm air pressed against my face, heavy with something that smelled like yeast, like bread baking.

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“It’s okay.” Her hand was hot over mine, and she pulled me inside.

“I want to show you something.”

The door closed.

“I want you to meet my father. He’ll be so happy to see you again. It’s been so long,” she said, and I wanted to tell her she was mistaken, that I had never met her father, but my tongue was heavy and her hand pulled me into the dark.

“This way.”

She led me into a hallway. Pictures lined the walls. A series of Beth at various ages, her hands and arms covered in dirt as she offered them to whomever stood behind the camera. In some she was smiling, her teeth long and wolfish. In others, she looked down, her hair covering her face.

“We’ll go through the door. And then everything will be fine. Like it was before. Before everything was lost.”

Beneath our feet, the carpet had given way to hard packed dirt, the walls covered with moss. A man stood at the end of the hallway facing a door, his back to us. Dark hair streaked with silver, clipped short. A white shirt tucked into jeans.

“This is my father,” she said, dropping my hand. The man turned, bending to place a kiss on his daughter’s lips. When she opened her mouth to him, I tried to turn away, tried not to hear Beth moan, but my arms felt heavy and would not move to cover my ears.

Beth paused before the door, her hand pressed against the wood.

“You always were my favorite, Willa. Will you help us? Will you help me find something that we lost?” Beth opened the door.

The doorway opened into Harper’s old lot. We were inside the hole, the one where Beth found lost things, looking out and up into the night sky. No moon. No stars. Only the sound of something vast moving just beyond the hole. Something dragging itself along dirt paths.

“He made me a door. And I went searching. Hands seeking in the dark. Looking for what we lost. It took a long time, but I found her. She was so small. So quiet. Curled up like a cat at the bottom of a well,” Beth said, and her father took her hand.

My mouth tasted of blood, sweet and hot and full of iron.

“Who did you find?” I asked, but she didn’t answer.

Beth went down on her belly with her father behind her. They crawled up, up, up and through the hole and into the night, leaving me behind.

Whatever crawled along in the dirt laughed.

“Mother. We found you,” she said, and I closed my eyes.

We bury our dead in the ground. We tend to the seeds and water them with our tears. We wait and watch. Sometimes, what we find is beautiful. Other times, all of the hope we put inside the seed rots and decays. Then, we mourn all we have lost. The things we can never find. What we have thrown into the woods with our eyes closed.

The next morning, I woke up in my bed with no memory of how I got there and the fuzzy leftovers of a champagne headache. My thighs burned, as if someone had clawed their way out of me, but there were no scratches. No blood.

Three weeks later, I boarded an airplane for New Orleans. Neither I nor Lea heard from Beth after the night of the party.

Over the next three years, Lea and I drifted apart and came together with the strange consistency of childhood friends. We called each other when the men next to us were sleeping, and we whispered the lies that we had rehearsed, the fabricated stories we’d adopted to keep ourselves sane. If Lea had her own secrets to keep, I didn’t ask, and she never asked me either.

“I dream about her,” Lea said.

“Me, too.”

“I called her house once. About a year ago. A woman answered. Said that she was Beth’s mother, but her mother died. Didn’t she? I think about her, but everything blurs together, and I can’t be sure if what I’m remembering is real,” Lea said. We didn’t have to say that we were afraid.

Neither of us went back home. Our mothers begged us to visit, but we came up with reasons to stay away. Finals to study for. A new job that wouldn’t give us the time off. A cold that I just couldn’t shake. If Beth even still lived there, we didn’t know. We didn’t ask our mothers, and they never mentioned it. It was like she had never existed — a ghost.

Eventually, I convinced myself I had dreamed that night, down in the hole, with the stars so clear, but every couple of months, I would wake to the taste of dirt in my teeth and Beth’s voice in my ear, her nails digging into my thighs.

It took twenty years for me to come home.

I was twenty-seven when I met Vasily and fell in love with his dark hair and hard tongue that cut straight through words rather than bending around them. I was thirty-two when Terrin was born and learned how the knowing of love is a little like drowning.

Terrin was four when we lost him. An accident. Sun in the eyes of the driver behind us. Didn’t see the brake lights. No one’s fault.

Five months went by, and I could not move. Could not speak. Vasily packed his things. In the story I tell myself, he kissed me when he left.

dust4“Come home, Willa,” my mother said over the phone. She sounded like an old woman, and I thought of what it would be like to bury her. It would feel right. Not like the world had just slipped inside out.

“Did Beth move away?” I asked her, but I knew the answer.

“Who? Oh, Beth. I see her every now and then at the store with her mother and father. She takes care of them I think. Always was a strange girl.”

I went home and slept in my mother’s house. It was no longer mine. There was a bed that she kept, but the girl who had slept there was not me.

Lea came. Took a red eye in from Charleston. My mother let her into the bedroom, and Lea sat on the edge of the mattress, picked at a loose thread. Neither of us spoke, and she went away when the sun began to set, told me that she loved me, that she would be back.

I slept, and I dreamed of a little boy with dark hair like his father, a small hand curled in mine, the sound of his laughter. I waited. I spoke his name and hers into the silence.

It took nine days for Beth to come to me. I woke up to her crouched on the bed. Her feet were dirty, and she’d left dark streaks on the white quilt.

“Can you still find lost things?” I said. She took my hand, and I followed her out the door, down the streets I memorized as a girl and then followed when I was a teenager.

The lot had not changed. Broken bottles, cigarette butts, and candy wrappers still tangled in the grass. The ghosts of two girls and a third who came to them, who brought them nightmares. And somewhere in all of that, a door.

“There’s more than death in the ground, Willa,” she said and knelt down.

“Yes,” I said, and watched as she reached beneath the earth and pulled.

end-of-story-nov

demeesterKristi DeMeester lives, loves, and writes spooky, pretty things in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Three-Lobe Burning Eyes, Xynobis 2, Nightscript, Black Static, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 1, and others. She is currently at work on her first novel. You can find her on the web at http://kristidemeester.wix.com/kristi-demeester

 

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Serein, by Cat Hellisen

IT’S ALWAYS about the ones who disappear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She drowned, people said after.

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

Fuck you, Claire.

It’s not hard to leave.

It’s hard to stay.

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

You have made me hate you.

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

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

This is not fear, or cowardice.

 

This is how to drown.

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

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

This is power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how to become water.

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

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

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

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

Day by day I learned to dissolve.

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

There was no Claire.

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

 

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

It had to stop.

It didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

 end_of_story

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

 

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The Last Dinosaur, by Lavie Tidhar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 end_of_story

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

 

Return to Shimmer #26 | Subscribe to Shimmer

In the Rustle of Pages, by Cassandra Khaw

“Auntie, are you ready to come home with us?”

pages-pull1Li Jing looks up from the knot of lavender yarn in her hands, knitting needles ceasing their silvery chatter. The old woman smiles, head cocked. There is something subtly cat-like about the motion, a smoothness that belies the lines time has combed into her round face, a light that burns where life has waned.

“I’m sorry?” Li Jing says, voice firmer than one would expect. She fumbles for her hearing aid, finds it in a graveyard of yellowed books and colored fabrics. “What did you say?”

“We want you to live with us, Auntie. So we can take care of you. Make sure you have everything you ever want.”

The guest is a woman, too young by Li Jing’s count, the planes of her cinnamon face virginal, unscarred by wrinkles. She speaks both too loudly and too slowly, Li Jing thinks as she counts the faults in her visitor’s diction. Where consonants should exist, there are clumsy substitutes, ‘d’s where ‘th’s should hold vigil. Li Jing does not correct her, even though the gracelessness appalls. The fugue of youth is trouble enough, she reasons.

“Live with you?” Li Jing says, abrupt, when her thoughts empty enough to allow space for the present. “But this is my home. And — “

“It’s the best solution. And we’ve discussed it for weeks already, talked it over with the whole family.”

The gentleness bites chunks from Li Jing’s patience. It’s a familiar softness, a delicacy of speech reserved only for the invalid or the very young, a lilt that declares its recipient incapable. Arrogance, Li Jing thinks, but again says nothing.

The younger woman, barely a larva of a thing, lowers to her knees, hands piled over Li Jing’s own. “Your husband–we don’t want you to be alone when he — you know.”

Li Jing looks to where her husband lies snoring, already more monument than man, a pleasing arrangement of dark oak and book titles, elegant calligraphy travelling his skin like a road map. Li Jing allows herself a melancholy smile. The ache of loss-to-come is immutable, enormous. But there is pride, too.

In the armoire beside the marital bed sleeps a chronology of her husband’s metamorphosis: scans inventorizing the tiling on the walls of his heart, the stairwells budding in his arteries. For all of the hurt it conjures, Li Jing thinks his metamorphosis beautiful, too.

Before the old woman can structure an answer, the younger unfolds in a waterfall rush of dark, gleaming hair and mournful noises, fist balled against her chest. “Zhang Wei! Where are you? I can’t. I can’t — it’s too much. You talk to her.”

A muscular silhouette obstructs through the doorway, sunlight-limned, statuesque. Shadow gives way to intelligent eyes, a jaw softened by prosperity, and shoulders mausoleum-broad.

“Ah Ma,” Zhang Wei declares as he cuts through the space between them with long strides. He ignores the younger woman. “How are you doing?”

Li Jing raps his arm with her knuckles, a blow too light to offend, but too sharp to ignore. “No need for such wasteful courtesy. I already told you that I’m not leaving your Ah Kong here alone.”

Zhang Wei does not flinch from the assault, only squeezes his features into a mask of repentance. “Sorry, Ah Ma. I know how you feel about this, but you have to trust us. We only have your best interests at heart. We want to move both of you somewhere else, somewhere you can be cared for. I—”

Li Jing interrupts, prim. “We’re fine here. A thaumatotect came last week to check on your grandfather. He says it’s natural for paintings to hurt a little, and the pain should clear once his ribs have adjusted to them. There’s no need for anyone to fuss over us.”

Her grandson and his companion exchange glances like rats in conspiracy. Li Jing’s mouth thickens into a moue. Zhang Wei is the first to slip into a language Li Jing does not recognize, a bubbling of vowels. His woman — girlfriend? Wife? Dalliance? Li Jing recalls only the flippancy of their relationship — responds in kind, her words accompanied by a flicker-dance of small, elegant hands.

It takes heartbeats for Li Jing’s presence to rot into the background, her presence collateral to their fevered conversation. But the old woman is unruffled. Relieved, even. Dialogue never held the same glitter for her as it did for others. She clambers free of her chair and the two do not notice.

Wordless, Li Jing pads to where her husband slumbers. She touches the back of her fingers to his forehead. His skin is cool, rough with a dewing of feldspar. Li Jing’s brows clump. She had expected timber, not stone.

“I don’t think you understand how much good this will do, or what this means for you both.” Zhang Wei’s voice sounds against her musings, deep as the church bell’s eulogy. “We’re not trying to separate you, if that’s what you’re worried about. You’ll be able to visit Ah Kong anytime you wish.”

“Yes, Auntie!” the girl supplies, her voice like glass bells, bright and brittle. “You’ll even be able to pick out his nurse, if you like. And his meals. You won’t have to worry about visiting hours. They’ll have a cot for you. And the rest of the time, you’ll be taken care of by your loving children.”

Li Jing loses her words in a thunder of exasperation. “You don’t understand. He doesn’t want that. I don’t want that. We promised we’ll take care of each other. Always.”

Zhang Wei smiles, cloyingly sympathetic, head dipped in apology. “How will you take care of each other like this? He’s so old, Ah Ma. And so are you. He doesn’t know what he wants. You both — “

The two swap knowing expressions, while Li Jing stares, lips taut with unhappiness.

“What I meant to say is that we’re worried that you might be a little confused,” Zhang Wei continues, spiderweb-soft. “I only want the best for you, Ah Ma.”

Li Jing thins her lips. “What’s best for me is staying with your grandfather.”

“I — All right. I understand. But, hear me out –“

She recognizes argument in the bend of their spines, the tilt of their mouths. Dissatisfaction kindles in her breast but Li Jing does not give voice to it. She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.

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pages-pull2Li Jing is unique. Even from infancy, it was clear her skin would never be mantled with marble, and that her eyes would never be replaced by glass, her bones wood. At fifteen, no signage inked itself on her flesh, as it did others’, no portent of architectural occupation.

It complicated her relationships, of course. By the time Li Jing was wise enough to court partnership, city-sickness had become pandemic, so widespread that humanity was forced to leaven it into normalcy. One by one, proponents mushroomed from the carcass of fear, oozing grand ideas: why was this disease so terrible? Did it not provide a concrete immortality?

Consequently, few became willing to stomach a lover whose lifespan could be measured in decades. Death was never easy, but it was infinitely harder when you knew you would never walk the halls of your beloved, would never laze on their moon-drenched balconies.

Li Jing consumed their prejudices without complaint and used the dearth of companionship to build herself other loves: literature, mathematics, the reading of stars, the sleek alley cats that haunted the shadows behind her home. Months became years. In that time, loneliness grew into so much of a cherished companion that Li Jing almost chose the quiet over her husband-to-be.

She was forty when she met round-faced Zhang Yong, who wore the names of her favorite books on his sandstone-pale arms. Forty, and almost too wise to risk her heart. But Zhang Yong had gentle hands, a gentle smile and when he laughed, his voice was like a rustle of pages. Li Jing did not love him immediately. Instead, she learned to do so in increments, brick by brick, until she built her heart a new home.

They married four years after their first encounter, with the discretion that Li Jing that was so enamored of. And for a small eternity, they were happy.

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“Li Jing?” Her husband’s voice is roughened by sleep and the creak of new hinges. “What time is it?”

“Late.” She glances up from her book and dog-ears the page, expression papered with concern. “You missed dinner.”

“I’m sorry.” His contrition makes her ache, its child-like earnestness evoking a pang for when they spoke without needing to keep one eye on caution. “It’s just –“

“I know,” says Li Jing, rising to secure an arm around his side, a hand around his wrist. Together, they lift him, a feat that scrapes their breath into tatters. In recent months, Zhang Yong has grown ponderous, his skeleton weighed with concrete.

But they persevere. Slowly, they migrate to Zhang Yong’s new dining space — a flip-table bolted to the wall beside an overstuffed red chair — and deposit him there. Before she moves to retrieve his meal, Li Jing presses her mouth against her husband’s cheek, impulse-quick, drinking in the skin’s faint warmth. She is possessive of his heat these days, knowing it’ll be gone soon, payment for cold glass and teak, passionless metals.

“So, Zhang Wei came over with his lady friend today –” Li Jing keeps the cadence of her voice breezy, syllables dancing between troubles, too light to be caught between teeth.

“Zhang Wei?”

“Wai Sing’s second son.” Li Jing says, patient. Personal experience has made her accustomed to the fashion with which age makes sieves out of a person’s mind, memory hissing from the gaps like stardust through the slats of dawn. “The one who peed in his pants until he was eight. He grew up very tall.”

She ladles stew into a bowl, ornaments it with sprig of parsley before picking out a quartet of soft, white buns. Feeling wicked, Li Jing appends chocolate pudding to the arrangement. Why not? she thinks savagely. He only has such a short time left.

“He was the one with stained glass eyes?”

Li Jing shakes her head. “No. That was his brother, Zhang Long.”

“Zhang Long.” Her husband repeats, cautious. “Do I — do we have — ?”

“I can check.” Gently, she deposits his dinner on the table, before molding fingers to the gaunt architecture of his face, skin to still-human skin. Li Jing breathes deep.

This is their secret. As though to compensate for the immeasurable emptiness that is to come, the thousand-strong ways her heart will break on routines denied a partner, serendipity provisioned Li Jing with a bizarre gift.

In the beginning, the gift manifested as mere instinct, an aptitude for predicting alterations in her husband’s biology. Over the months, it coalesced into a tool, an ability to edit the topography of his disease.

Though they had initially hoped otherwise, hers was an imperfect talent. Li Jing could not bleach the sickness from him, could only mold its trajectory. With the pragmatism of the old, the two decided they would not despair but would turn disaster into providence. Brick by brick, they would build Zhang Yong, until he could provide for Li Jing in death as he did in life.

“This will sting,” Li Jing warns, the words hatched from habit rather than intent.

Magic stirs in her lungs, motes of flame. She holds them till they become needle points, surgical-sharp, before exhaling. In her mind’s eye, Li Jing sees them perforate Zhang Yong’s skin, tunneling into vein and sinew.

Zhang Yong hisses.

“It’s there in your rib,” Li Jing confirms, walking her fingers from his chin to throat, throat to chest. Her sorcery follows like a puppy. Li Jing flattens a palm over his heart. “Are you sure you want chandeliers? It seems a bit tawdry for a book store.”

He nods, features contorted into a rictus. “It will bring you rich customers.”

“The rich don’t read.”

Zhang Yong mimed a scowl. “They do, if they know what’s good for them. The wise build their businesses on the spine of books.”

Li Jing’s mouth quirks and she cups the back of his neck with her other hand. Lips smooth against the creased flesh of his forehead. In the beginning, the two had considered divulging Li Jing’s new endowment to their children, but discarded the idea. She was too old, and it was too little to warrant the torrent of questions to follow. And who knew where gossip would drag the revelation, which scientist might come demanding access the contents of Li Jing’s flesh? “A poet to the end, aren’t we?”

“Can’t risk losing you to a young man yet.”

Yet. The word catches Li Jing off-guard, a noose that bites deep. Preparation is not panacea, only armor to help weather sorrow. Regardless of Li Jing’s efforts, reminders of her husband’s mortality still cut like razors, dividing reason from self, leaving only heart-flesh that is raw and red.

She averts her face but she is not quick enough. The humor in Zhang Yong’s gaze, innocent in its frankness, dies at the anguish that flits through hers.

“I’m so sorry, darling. I’m –“

“It’s okay.” Li Jing cannot endure his grief, not when she already has so much of her own to balance. “Eat your dinner. I will clean up.”

Their eyes do not meet for fear of what might have pooled them, salt in old wounds. Li Jing bows her head and stalks peace through a forest of unwashed dishes, through the fleeting rhythms of domesticity.

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“This is…slightly unexpected,” Li Jing tells the procession at her door, caution beating hummingbird wings in her chest.

They are all here, she thinks. The entire clan. Her eyes find relatives memory had previously transformed into vague blots of words and actions, grandnieces and grandchildren grown sapling-sleek. Li Jing’s gaze maps the bleakness of their attire, stark monochrome complemented by fisted hands and dour expressions. Wariness thickens into a weight.

“Everyone’s here to see Ah Kong.” Zhang Wei stands in the vanguard, comforting in his breadth. “And you, of course.”

“He’s not dead.” The statement is razored. A warning. Li Jing pushes on the door, only to locate Zhang Wei’s foot in the split. “You don’t have to come en masse just yet. One at a time. And today is not a good day. He’s tired and so am I.”

“Ah Ma. Please.”

Li Jing glances over the horizon of her shoulder, finds Zhang Yong’s silhouette in the antechamber to their bedroom. She sighs. Her husband had always been the disciplinarian, she the tender heart of their family. Zhang Wei’s desperation peels back her shell, leaves only grudging assent.

“Only if you promise to keep the children quiet.”

The stream of guests is endless, overwhelming, coiling through the house like snakes. Li Jing loses herself in the cadence of their arrivals, oscillating from kitchen to seating areas, moving cups of tea and day-old pastries. Eventually, she allows her children and her grandchildren to assist her. Under her supervision, they concoct cookies, mugs of hot chocolate, delicate things to nibble upon between anecdotes.

The hours pass.

Suspicion melts into an elegiac contentment, even as Li Jing watches Zhang Yong come alive under the constant attention. It has been months since his eyes glittered so brightly. Only once, at some indistinct point in the afternoon, does she feel a whine of irrational terror, a worry that they might be thieving from a diminishing supply. That when they leave, they leave her with only a husk of a husband, hollowed of humanity.

But her panic is fleeting, replaced by guilt. That’s not how people work, Li Jing tells herself, pushing aside the warning bells that clang and dance in the back of her head.

The hours continue their patient march.

“Where do you keep Ah Kong’s things?”

Li Jing jolts her head up.

Most of the guests have departed, leaving Zhang Wei and his woman, an older couple that Li Jing does not recognize and their brood of three, a niece she barely remembers. Faces without names, perambulating through a home suddenly two sizes too small.

“Why?” It is the only word that she can manage.

“They’re expecting him at the home.”

“The home?” Li Jing repeats, throat parched. “What home?”

“There’s a nursing home at the corner of the city,” Zhang Wei replies, his eyes roving the room, unwilling to meet Li Jing’s. “It’s a good place. Great, in fact. Highest-rated in the whole city. They even have a dedicated zoning area for patients. Beautiful, beautiful place. Well-attended. Grandpa will look splendid there.”

Li Jing’s voice is child-soft, child-meek. “But we decided he would stay here. Besides, our neighborhood needs a book store.”

“What if he becomes a library instead? You hardly have the space for that.”

He won’t, Li Jing thinks. I’ve seen the blueprints tattooed on his stomach. I’ve seen the cache of books in his liver, the oaken shelving of his ribs, the old-fashioned cash register nursed in his left lung.

“That’s not the point,” Li Jing tells her grandchild, hands convulsing.

“No,” Zhang Wei agrees, stepping forward to arrest her shoulders with broad palms. “The point is we’re trying to do what is best for you. I promise you. It will be fine. You need to believe me. Come, Ah Ma. We’ve even organized a rotation system. You’ll have rooms with all of us and live with each family a week at a time.”

“No,” Li Jing says, trying to wrestle away. But Zhang Wei’s grip is as inexorable as death’s advances. “No. I’m not going with you.”

“It’d be fine.” Zhang Wei sighs, voice now feathered with a twinge of frustration. “Besides. Look. Ah Kong agreed.”

He unfurls a cream-colored parchment, its tail branded with Zhang Yong’s jagged signature.

“You tricked him.”

“Be reasonable, Ah Ma. Why would I do that?”

“He’s old. You — I didn’t see him reading that. He didn’t talk to me about it and we always, always discuss contracts together. What did you do? What did you do?” Li Jing’s voice crests into a shout, red-stained with fury. She squeezes her eyes shut. Her veins feel stretched like power cords, crackling.

“I told him what he needed to know. Anyway, it’s all decided. Ah Ma, please. Don’t make this difficult.”

No.

Li Jing closes a fist, feels her fingers constrict around her dread, around the panic that clogs her lungs and her thoughts and her throat. Feels her grip choke earth and stone, walls and wood.

And something breaks.

You are not taking away my husband! Li Jing startles at the scream, for it is almost hers. It emanates from every dimension, avalanche-loud, incendiary. The old woman opens her eyes and marvels as the room curls around her like a loyal serpent, pillars and rafters curving liked the bowed backs of religious supplicants.

“Get out.” She snarls between sobs. “Get out and leave us. Get out and take away all of your presumptions, your rotations, your, your — get out.”

When her family hesitates, Li Jing answers with a ripple of the floor, spears of cherrywood coursing forward like hounds on the hunt. It takes a heartbeat for epiphany to strike, but the other occupants of her bloodline soon flee in a stampede of footsteps and wails.

“Dear.”

pages-pull3The house throbs in Li Jing’s blood. She can feel her husband’s heartbeat slackening, cooling to rock, to the ticking of a grandfather clock. In all the clamor, she had lost track of her husband’s condition.

“I’m here.” Li Jing stumbles to Zhang Yong’s side, sinks to her knees. Her embrace is ferocious. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m here.”

“I’m afraid.”

Too soon, too soon, too soon. The thought presses salt into the membrane of her eyes. She thought they had more time together, more weeks. This is too soon.

What she says instead is:

“I’m here.”

She will tell him that a thousand times if she has to. Until her words become a wall between him and the dark. “And it will be all right. And when I die, I’ll have them put my bones in your garden. We’ll be together always.”

Zhang Yong says nothing, only tenses his hold on her hand.

“I’m here. Don’t worry,” Li Jing repeats softly, as though the statement was an invocation against grief.

She is still whispering to him when the light bleeds from his eyes, when his skin grays to stone, when her heart disintegrates to ash.

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A day passes.

Li Jing’s family return. Instead of her cottage, they discover a gray cube twenty feet high, smooth and featureless as an egg. There are no windows, no exits. They wait for a time, believing Li Jing will eventually emerge. Even the unnatural must eat.

But she does not.

A week flits by.

Two weeks.

Three.

By the end of the twenty-first sunset, her family surrenders its pursuit. Li Jing and her husband are pronounced deceased, their epitaphs a flurry of tsking noises.

By the end of the year, Li Jing and her husband are consigned to myth and drunken discussion, legends without substance, ghosts to be studied without the frame of truth.

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If you promise not to be disruptive, you may visit the store.
— Li Jing

Li Jing signs the last letter and sighs. Her fingers are brocaded with ink, her smile with exhaustion. A part of her aches for the liberty of isolation. It would be simpler than explaining everything that had transpired. So much easier than instructing herself not to loathe Zhang Wei for his intent, to forgive his motivation if not his actions.

But that is not what Zhang Yong would have desired.

Li Jing sips tea from a cup made from her husband’s bones, its golden heat suffusing the ivory with something almost like life. Her eyes wander the ribs of her new domicile. The store is beautiful, lush with books and paintings like photographs, conjured flawless from history. When she closes her eyes, Li Jing can see her family exploring the space, investigating cabinet and bookshelf, stove and garden. Briefly, she wonders how Zhang Wei will take to the statuette of him, marble-skinned and pissing fresh water into a horse-shoe shaped pond.

Tomorrow, she decides, she will send out the letters and court her family’s questions.

Tonight, it is tea and reading and learning the patterns of this unfamiliar silence, which sit as awkwardly as new lovers. Nothing will ever replace the way Zhang Yong’s presence curled around hers, jigsaw-snug. There will never be a salve for the gasping loneliness she experiences each morning when she awakens and, in that purgatory between sleep and awareness, forgets why his side of the bed is unfilled.

But she will survive, will rebuild her existence, brick by brick, around the absence. Li Jing has a lifetime of memories in her foundations. It will never be perfect again, but it will be, someday, enough.

Li Jing splays her book, begins to read. And in the quiet, the rustle of pages sounds like the chuckle of love departed but never forgotten.

end_of_story

cassandra

 

Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for small Singaporean game micropublisher Ysbryd, and the writer for indie puzzle game Perlinoid. She’s also writing an Interactive Fiction novel for Choice of Games, freelancing for a variety of tech outlets, and blankly trying to figure out where to cram in more short story writing. Cassandra can be found at http://www.twitter.com/casskhaw where she tweets like a fiend.

 

 

 

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