Tag Archives: lost things

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin

The air was muggy, a heatwave burning through the spring, on the night that we met to conjure two people out of almost nothing at all. None of us could’ve done it without the others, and none of us would’ve dared, except Mason said please and I said maybe and Jun said we could, and so we did. You need a few materials first, then follow a sort of recipe. Call it Raise-the-Dead Cobbler.


  • Three tired so-called witches, of flesh, of time, of dreams.
  • Bone fragments, stolen reverently.
  • A lock of hair, kept for years and years.
  • An old book, passed down from mother to son to daughter to niece, and so on.
  • A dark night, with a new moon, and as many clouds as feels right.
  • A secluded room, in a lakeside cabin far from the city’s bustle and traffic’s roar, where owls hoot plaintively and a cool wind rustles the leaves. (A cramped attic in an apartment on the edge of the city, with shouty neighbors, will work in a pinch.)
  • Flint, not matches.
  • A stone bowl, low and wide.
  • Dry kindling.
  • Floor space, as much as you expect you’ll need. You know who you’re looking for. You can measure, move furniture, sweep, mark out the space. Lay out a pillow, in anticipation. The floor is hard, after all.


  1. “Is your roommate home?” Mason asks, braiding his hair back, lightning fast. It gets warm in the attic. Mason wears none of his usual jewelry, only a locket on a thin chain, which dangles outside of his shirt. You say no, of course not. Your roommate is out of town for the next six days. That’s why this is the perfect new moon, even though Jun has a deadline at work tomorrow and shouldn’t be pulling an all-nighter.
  2. In a flurry of motion, Jun arrives, drops her bag on the floor and her iced coffee on the table, then says, “I can’t do anything in this skirt” as she kicks her heels off. She shimmies out of the skirt and changes into red leggings, pulled from her bag. “Do you really have it?” she asks, pulling pins out of her hair and letting it fall loose. You steal a long drink of her coffee.
  3. On the way up to the attic, you worry. Mason worries. What will they think of you? Will they be happy to wake up? Will they be scared? What if they hate you? How long will it last? Jun said it would last, but what if they decide to leave you? After all you did? Would that be okay? When they wake up in the dark room surrounded by three witches, if they scream, will you be able to comfort them, or make it worse? Will it work? Will they come back wrong? Different? Can you really do this? Should you? God, what if everything does work, and they want to stay, and be with you? What then? Can they get a job? Should they? How will you support them if they can’t? Shit, is this a terrible idea? Is it selfish? What if coming back gives them health problems? What if they had health problems before that you didn’t know about, and coming back is nothing but suffering? Will they hate you? Will they love you? Will you love them?
  4. Jun strikes the flint and lights the fire.
  5. Chant words after Jun, with Jun, words that can’t be spelled or written down, and yet she reads them from a book in her lap. Her book is filled with drawings and paintings, and you can never find the same one twice. Once you saw a page and read the drawing; there was a burst of light, and a small creature appeared, like an oviraptor, feathered and colorful but the size of a hummingbird. That was the day Jun said it looked like you were a witch of time. You’re still learning what that means. The oviraptor is named Magda and lives on your porch for most of the year. You take her for walks. You should take her for more walks. No one would notice.
  6. The shards of bone rattle. The lock of hair dances in no wind. You close your eyes.
  7. Nothing changes, except the room feels smaller. You haven’t opened your eyes. Your eyes are closed, and the attic room has shrunk, and if you reach out you don’t know what you might touch.
  8. Open your eyes.
  9. To your left is Jun, then Mason. They open their eyes too, breathing timidly. You’ve been holding hands for a while, grip tight, tight on Jun’s stiff prosthetic. Next to Mason, in the space laid out on his side of the attic, is—
  10. There is someone to your right.

Once I explain what happened, he decides to go by Joseph. Why? Well, it is his name. No, but why? Because this isn’t his life, now is it? It’s something different. He’s something different.

Because of his movies, I’ve always thought of him in a particular way, kinetic and silent. He rubs the back of his head, an overwhelmed look of concern furrowing his brow. But I can’t read his face. The problem is he puts on that face so easily, so often on film, that I don’t know if it’s just a face or how he really feels. Sweat drips down my back, makes my shirt cling. He sits very still.

“Why is this happening?” he asks, voice so much deeper than I always imagine.

“I—” don’t have a good answer.

“What are you?” Joseph asks, and again I stutter and don’t answer. In my head I hear all the times Jun told me you’re a witch, you jag, but I can’t say it.

We all go downstairs because the attic room is boiling; Joseph trails after me, and I trail after Jun. Behind Joseph is Mason and his mom. Angela, I think.

“Well, that’s that.” Jun picks up her discarded skirt.

“You’re leaving?” I ask.

“Do you need me to stay?”

“Yes!” Mason sounds desperate. He’s not quite looking at his mom ever. Eyes skidding around the edges.

Jun takes a long swig of her watered-down iced coffee. “‘Kay.”

“So this is the year 2016?” Joseph asks. That was part of what I told him upstairs. It was real, it was his far, far future, and it was okay. He took it in stride. Now he looks around the kitchen, which is a mess. I should’ve cleaned up. Why didn’t I clean up? It’s fine. Why would he care? But I care. I care that the first thing he sees are my dirty dishes and moldy fruit, the mail covering the counter, and the oh my god, the bra hanging over the back of the chair.

I slide in front of it.

Angela pulls out a chair and sits down, pressing her hands flat on the table.

Mason hovers. “It’s okay. It’s me. I’m your—I’m your kid. You have a kid and that’s me.”

“You said that,” Angela says slowly. “I don’t get what’s happening.”

Mason looks helplessly at Jun, who exhales through her nose before speaking. “You know photocopies? We found a moment and made a photocopy of you, then brought that you to our present. Call it magic, call it time travel, call it a great big lie and a weird dream you’re having. I don’t care. It’s happening. Mason is your kid. Congratulations.”

Angela is quiet a long time, staring at Mason. It’s got to be a lot to take in, skipping twenty-odd years of society and tech and life and then bam, your grown-up kid, Mason, not much younger than Angela is probably, Mason with his long black braid, big worried eyes lined with black, tattoos crawling over his bony shoulders and under his shirt. Mid-nineties life versus grown-up Mason now must be battling it out in Angela’s brain, but during the silence I realize we pulled Angela from before she got pregnant. Maybe before she met Mason’s dad. And Angela’s working out what all that means.

“Okay,” she says, shaky. “Well, don’t tell me how I died, and I think we’ll be okay.”

Pretty soon, Jun drives Mason and Angela away, leaving Mason’s car on my street where I promise to make sure it isn’t towed.

I make coffee. Start tidying, washing dishes. Joseph wanders my rooms, looking at the shared mess my roommate and I live in, coming back to check my progress. Hands clasped behind his back, leaning forward to inspect a poster or a bookshelf. Always with that stone face.

A plate slips from my hands, hits the counter, crashes onto the floor. “Shit!”

Joseph pops his head into the room, eyebrows raised in question.

“It’s fine. Plastic.” I pick up the plate and spin it in my hands. “I don’t have to do this right now. I should’ve done it earlier. I could leave it. It’s not important. Are you hungry? I don’t think, it’s not—” When words start crashing and failing before they reach my mouth, I turn back to the dishes.

“Isabel. Are we related?”


Joseph paws through some of my mail. Pages through an Anthropologie catalog. He looks at me, barely moving his eyebrows. “The other one brought his mother.”

When I squirt soap onto the sponge a little too forcefully without a word, he goes back to the catalog. Even with the astringent lemon suds, Joseph’s close enough that I can practically smell the years on him, this weird ozone scent of a hundred years. It’s soaked into his clothes, permeating his skin, this invisible sense of time.

Fuck the dishes. That ozone smell is making me dizzy. There are clean mugs. That’s enough. I sort out my coffee, then gesture weakly at the milk and sugar for Joseph to figure out.

The living room is more like a nest and less a rat’s nest, and comes pre-loaded with snacks I forgot to put away, so by the time Joseph joins me I’m gnawing on a hard gingersnap. He sits on the other end of the couch.

“We’re not related,” I say.

Joseph gives me a look, one eyebrow barely raised, eyes glancing down and back up, and I laugh, this nervous snuffle into my cookie—and he laughs too. It’s kind of stunning. This side of him almost no one gets to see. Except me, I’m seeing it.

“Then why?” Joseph asks.

“It’s hard to explain. We can undo it.”

He digs into the box for a cookie, dips it in his coffee. “Why?”

“If you don’t want to be here. It was maybe stupid of me. Selfish. Or hubris. I don’t know. I’m a little, you know, it was a rough spell.” My chest is tight, and I’m starving but can’t imagine doing any more than reach for another cookie, and there are little sparks of a spell migraine flecking in my vision, so I can’t really, I can’t think of what to say to explain myself.

“We’ll see how it goes, I guess. So far you have good coffee and bad cookies, and other than that I don’t know.”

“You hungry?” I ask again, though I’m not completely sure I get the words out.

At some point I take a long blink and when I open my eyes, Joseph’s setting my coffee down on the table next to the cookies. He says my name once, I think, quietly, “Isabel,” hand on my shoulder.

“What is this?”

I wake up on the couch and not on my bed, as happens way more often than it should. I’m an adult. Why can’t I make it to my bed?

“What is this?”

My eyes won’t open until I rub them hard with my fingers, and my mouth tastes like trash and my phone is being thrust in my face while my shoulder is shaken. I had a plan for this. I should’ve planned for the spell migraine to take me out, but I didn’t, and now my plan to introduce Joseph to the modern world is ruined because he’s already poking around while I was dead to the world.

“It’s my phone,” I say, and as the words come out I can’t bear the taste in my mouth. After I brush my teeth and wash my face, I join him back on the couch. Joseph presses the button on my phone, screen going bright and dark. Like this is all perfectly normal. Magda, my oviraptor, is sitting on his head.

“This is a phone?”

“Gimme,” I say, and unlock it. Magda chirps. Without looking, Joseph puts a hand up for her to jump on, and I wait for the inevitable question—

“How’s it work?”

Not the inevitable question. I shrug. My coffee is stone cold but it’s right there and caffeinated, so I gulp it and make a face of pure regret.

I was going to show him how the phone works, but there are messages from Mason and Jun, not to mention family and one of my few non-witch friends and some guy I’ve been meaning to ghost.

  • Mason: I can’t believe this is happening
  • Jun: Congrats. Mother’s day is in two weeks

While reheating my coffee I ignore the rest of my messages. Joseph sets Magda on the table, where she nests in a pile of mail.

“About a hundred years to catch up on.” I yawn.

With Joseph around, time tumbles past so quickly I almost forget the sensation of it, until a moment catches against my skin, lingers like an echo.

In the park, Joseph listens to me explain things poorly, strides over a bench because it’s in his path, steals my phone out of my hands. He unlocks it, swipes the screen. Walks backwards in front of me.

“This,” Joseph says, pointing my phone at me, his eyes on the screen, “takes pictures?”

“And videos. Movies.”

He turns it around and around in his hand. “This?”

“People shoot whole feature films on it.”

He laughs like a kid at Christmas, pure delight spread across his features.

Another day my ancient laptop is spread out in pieces on the coffee table, and Joseph prods at the soldered base. I tell him a probably inaccurate version of how it works, then tell him to look it up on the internet if he’s interested. “But don’t take apart anything else, please.”

He pieces the laptop back together and turns it on. “How do I look up the internet?”

When I tell him how easy it is to watch movies, Joseph gets a wild look in his eyes. “On the computer?” he says, and “Well, it’s a disappointing screen to watch on, but—” and he finds a list from the AFI, then says with determined joy in his eyes that he’s going to work his way through the whole thing. While he studies the list, I catch up on more texts.

  • Mason: I don’t know what to do! She’s like our age.
  • Jun: What did you expect?
  • Mason: IDK!!! I just wanted to meet her
  • Mason: She’s nice though
  • Mason: Funny too she’s funny like my aunt
  • Jun: aunt like your mom’s sister
  • Mason: …yes
  • Jun: what a SURPRISE Mason
  • Jun: Well just be a person and stop expecting a mom and let me know if anything weird happens
  • Mason: Weird??
  • Mason: Is sleeping alot weird
  • Me: Jun if there are side effects you didn’t tell us about I’m going to send you back to the twelfth century.

“Isabel,” Joseph says, his voice low. My phone lights up.

  • Jun: You don’t know enough to do that
  • Me: Not yet.

“Isabel,” more insistent. I put my phone aside. “You said I’m a second me. I didn’t think about it before, that I’m still… I’m a part of history.”

He scratches his jaw. Stares at the screen. Pushes the laptop to me, points.

One of his movies is on the list.

“Would you watch it if you were me?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t want to know too much about that other life, you know?”

“You do know about it.”

His eyes fix on mine, which seals it in my heart: I can’t tell him, either the good parts or bad, because this him will never have them. All those things aren’t Joseph, they’re him. And that’s the point. But, God, I want to assure him and I can’t. I can’t tell him you’re a genius and deserved better or I brought you here because a hundred years later you’re still impossible or I’m awful and chose you because I’ve always had a crush on you.

So I just nod.

After that, Joseph always refers to the life we split him away from in the third person. Someone else.

My roommate comes back. I tell her Joseph is a friend from out of town. She doesn’t recognize him. Out of context, I guess, or more likely not everyone would recognize him like me. Not without the suit and the soundtrack, the house falling down around him.

I tell Jun I’m too busy helping Joseph adjust to meet. She texts back, Don’t you think J&A mean it’s esp important to meet and get yr ass over here tomorrow.

I don’t reply.

I don’t go.

“The future is disappointing,” Joseph says after I tell him about space. We’re both in pajamas on the couch, the night’s movie long since over. We’ve settled in, he and I, uncertainly into whatever this new life of his is. When I got home last week he had scrapes on his palms and a bottle of wine on the table. Something about street performing, which made me want to quit my job to go watch, but I have to make money somehow and tech writing pays better than anything else I’m capable of.

“We went to the moon!” I protest.

“Not recently.” He looks tired. He says the couch is fine, but I don’t think he’s been sleeping much. “You can bring me out of the past, but no one’s living on the moon?”

“Our spells aren’t exactly public knowledge.”

“Then what do you do? I haven’t seen you do any magic. What good is it?”

I gear up for a furious defense because we have rules, the three of us, but my phone trills, lighting up with Jun’s photo. “Shit,” I say, because Jun hates calling. It can’t be good.

Jun says, “We have to meet, right now. Leave him at home.”

“What is it?”

“Mason and Angela. My place. And be ready for…” Jun exhales loudly. “Mason says we’re just talking, but stuff a protein bar and some coffee in your face on the way over. Might be work to do tonight. Another new moon.”

“Shit,” I say, hanging up. “I have to go.”

“That other person,” Joseph says. “It’s not going well, is it?”

The look in his eyes is so tired that my heart plummets, and I don’t think twice about my rules or anything else before I kiss his forehead and tell him to try and sleep. “Mason is… they’ve been having issues. It’s probably nothing. Try and sleep. It’s gonna be okay. I’ll be back by morning.”

Lying and not knowing are indistinguishable sometimes, even to the person talking.

Mason is a mess.

“I keep having these dreams,” he says, like he doesn’t always have these dreams that hound him. His hair is in a high bun, no make-up, ashy tired skin, hunched over in an old sweatshirt I don’t think I’ve seen him leave the house in before, though it’s summer and we’re out on Jun’s porch. “When I wake up, my mom, she’s always gone. But then I wake up again. I’ve never had that happen before. I’ve never woken up and still been dreaming. What does that mean?”

“Did you really get me out of my house for dreams?”

“Have you been listening for the last month? Let him talk,” Jun says. Leaning against the railing, she doesn’t look at me, only Mason. It’s a scolding without the scolding; we all know that I haven’t seen either of them for a month.

And Mason talks. Tells me how they’ve been fighting, Mason and his mom. How Angela left for days. How she came back and apologized but never—she never quite looks at Mason fully. Won’t see him. Oh, she’s talked to him and been kind enough and civil and in some ways it seemed like Angela was trying to live, trying to be in the world, but ultimately she won’t talk, she just won’t talk to Mason. Mason yells and cries, Mason makes dinner and tries to connect, Mason asks questions, Mason tries not to expect her to be a mother, but still, he wants a person there.

There’s a reason we discuss every act of magic. There’s a reason we meet every week. There’s a reason we have rules.

“Isabel?” Jun lobs my name into the silence.

“Oh, Mason.”

“I wanted her to be happy,” Mason says.

“Where is she now?” I ask.


“You asked her?”

Mason looks at his fingers. Jun shakes her head.

“You gotta ask her. If she wants to stop—”

Mason jumps up, chair legs scraping across the wood porch. “I know.” He goes inside, door clattering shut after him.

“Can he do it?” I ask.

Instead of answering, Jun adjusts the straps on her prosthetic hand. It’s a good way to shut me up, since I always watch and say nothing and try not to think about how she got it, try not to think about that spell. The way we looked at the image in the book, how the sun seemed to go red. How we talked for weeks, but kept coming back, hungry for it—if we prepped, if we studied, we could do so much more. Why shouldn’t we try to summon familiars?

Somewhere is a lion-headed dog with a small portion of Jun’s flesh, a small portion of her power. They’re still connected. I don’t ask Jun if she can feel it.

I try not to think about it. The things we’ve done. Maybe I should. This is the worst yet, or the best. Too early to tell. Even if I strain, I can’t hear anything from inside, and time ticks by. I can feel it, every second. I can always feel it.

The seconds feel heavier tonight.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if we never met each other,” Jun says. “We’re a potent combination. This won’t be the last wild idea one of us has, the last time we manage to break something.”

“What’s broken?” Like I don’t know. I listen harder for any sounds inside.

“After this, maybe we should go our separate ways.”

“You could never let go of Mason,” I say.

“No,” she agrees, “not now.”

“We can’t do this again. We have to stop each other sometimes.”

Jun stops fiddling, folds her arms. “Mason wanted this so bad,” she says. Her voice strains, directed more toward her bare feet than to me, none of the matter-of-fact confidence she usually wears. All that’s worn away tonight.

Mason deserved this spell to go right. I didn’t need it at all. I desecrated a grave for it, for my own damn childish fixation.

“You’ll make him stay here tonight? He shouldn’t be alone,” I say.


A siren carries through the air, invisible. Cars roll by, and somewhere nearby, a party blares music, muted by walls and distance. There’s no such thing as silence, except inside the house.

“If Joseph stays, if he’s happy…do you think Mason will hate us for it?”

Jun looks up. “Is he happy?”

The door opens.

Inside the house is dark, and Mason has been crying. So has Angela. According to Jun, this part doesn’t have the same requirements. She and I push furniture out of the way in the living room, roll up the area rug, wipe away old chalk streaks, and get to work.

There’s the slightest hint of dawn in the sky when I get back to my apartment. At the sound of the door, Joseph blinks awake, looking at me from the couch, and he sits up. The clouding dots of the spell migraine have already come and gone, and now it’s settled in as a tight nausea in my stomach, all of it less than last time, but I stop with keys in my hand, looking at Joseph and not really looking at him. What has he done with his days? Why can’t he sleep? Is he happy? I’m not sure what matters and what doesn’t. Intention is garbage, hope is garbage, love is garbage. All of us are. It doesn’t matter when it leaves someone you love clutching a lock of hair and sobbing in the dark, until you cast sleep over them like a blanket, and hope that maybe when it wears off they might be okay. Or be able to find their way to okay.

If I keep my hand on the wall, I can keep my balance. Small steps to keep moving, small breaths to contain my nausea.

We uncreated her, and it was terrible. It felt like murder. Angela asked us to, and all we had to do was light the fire, speak, and she was gone, but it was—there was a lock of hair, threatening to disperse in the wind of our breath, where she had been. Mason dove for it, gathering the black hair up into his fist, clenching it until sleep fell on him, and Jun tucked the hair back in his locket.

It wasn’t just hitting undo. We split her off and made her new, and then we ended her. A month’s worth of a new life, and now oblivion. The old her, Mason’s mom, all that story unfolds like always, but this month, it’s going to shadow Mason forever. We’ll all remember Angela, but Mason most of all.

Once Mason was asleep, Jun told me she cast an extra spell at the end to move the body. She didn’t want Mason to see it. By midnight, Angela was gone and Mason was asleep, but Jun and I stayed up a while, spinning complicated spells, because a body is no easy thing to deal with, even when it’s only a shell, even for a witch. It has to go somewhere. It has to be dispersed.

I sat shaking in Jun’s kitchen for an hour, her and I taking medicinal sips of whiskey until we could speak again, and all I could say was, “I can’t do that again.”

I had to take a cab home.

Pressing my forehead to the wall and squeezing tears from my eyes, that doesn’t help anything, but that’s where I’ve ended up, halfway to my room, shivering.

Joseph slings my arm over his shoulders and grabs my waist.

“Please be happy,” I mumble.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he says, and we shuffle toward my bed. I realize, fuzzy as I feel, that even this close to him, I can’t catch the smell of years anymore. He smells like smoke and dryer sheets and some faint aftershave. Quietly, he helps me into bed, and before I’m fully in, I drag him in after me.

“Go t’sleep,” I say, curling into his chest. His fingers find their way to my temple and brush gently.

Here’s another recipe. It takes longer than the other. I don’t know what to call it. I’m not sure about the last step yet.


  • One witch of time.
  • One man who shouldn’t exist.


  1. After you undo what you did, after you uncreate who you created, call in sick to work again. Your roommate asks if Joseph is staying much longer. Say, “Well, he’s helping me now that I’m sick, so I don’t know.” You look bad enough that she accepts this, but not for long, you’re sure. Maybe, you think, Joseph can get a job, and you can find your own place. You feel a little better in the mornings, if you wake up in his arms, and you think he sleeps better too. It’s just sleeping. You don’t talk about it.
  2. Mason stays at Jun’s house. You help him move his stuff. Joseph helps too, setting up a system of rolling carts that nearly works, except for the laws of physics and the existence of porch steps. Mason swears he’s never doing magic again, but at least he’s sleeping without help, and the bags under all your eyes are fading.
  3. The three of you, Mason and Jun and you, meet a lot. More often than before. You only talk.
  4. Joseph disappears some evenings, goes out and comes home with dessert, a bottle of wine, leftover food.
  5. “Where were you?” you ask, eating baklava. It’s not that you’re mad, or want him to stay home, or begrudge him the fact of his own life. You’re curious. He says, “I’ve made some friends. A theater troupe.” You say, “Oh, good! I’m sorry I—” though you don’t know quite what you’re apologizing for. That you haven’t taken him out on the town? While he’s been learning about a changed world, and while you were knocked down by a spell again? You didn’t know if he was ready. You figure apologies are in order somehow, in case he thinks you’re assuming he owes you an explanation.
  6. “Look,” Joseph says, sitting next to you on the couch, pressed arm to arm, starting a video on your laptop. A straight shot of him in the park down the street, performing a routine not quite like any of his you’ve seen, with a tall broad man who makes Joseph look smaller than he is. Someone else is holding the camera, and you see it shake a little when they must be laughing, but the only sound is music. While you watch, an audience ebbs and flows and grows; some of them hold cell phones up to grab a snippet of him, or come forward to drop money in a hat on the ground.
  7. He counts his earnings from street performing, and then counts his earnings from the theater, and then comes home with a cell phone, a camera, a flexible tripod, and a new hat, which he reshapes with water until it’s stiff and familiar. Then he leaves it on the table unworn.
  8. You start to do magic. Little spells. You still have a line drawn, but it’s not as solid anymore. “If we’re a little more flexible,” you tell Jun, “maybe we won’t be so tempted.” But really you think, who’s stopping us? Mason watches you wrap a time bubble around the oven, because all of you are starving, and Jun’s casserole is taking too long. Mason watches you very carefully.
  9. You find a new apartment, one that has a dishwasher and no roommate, and you buy some furniture new for the first time instead of finding it on the curb and hoping it isn’t infested. Sure, you don’t have frames for the posters, but you have a coat rack and you vacuum once a week.
  10. While Joseph makes small movies to post online, and Jun and Mason start being a proper them, you work and read and practice with time, and wonder what you could do with the right fourth witch. Wonder if that look that Joseph gives you sometimes means he wants to kiss you, or if that’s you being hopeful. Watch one of his movies—not Joseph’s, the other him. One where he’s still young and beautiful and vibrant but a little older than Joseph, then you watch another, and another, until you feel glutted on that face, absolutely full to the brim and not sated. When you see Joseph the next morning, it does nothing for the sensation, hits a completely different spot, so you kiss him, unbrushed coffee teeth and all.
  11. After that, while you’re avoiding each other, spend a lot of time with Jun trying to read her book. She says you’re doing really well, considering you’re not a blood relation.
  12. Fight with Joseph. Little fights. Everyday fights. Then a big one, when Joseph’s asking what you think of his next idea and it spins out into something about debt and freedom and desire; you say, he doesn’t owe you this; he asks, do you think that’s why he’s still here? He leaves and doesn’t come back that night, and you figure, that’s it. At least you had this much. At least you didn’t have to undo him.
  13. Alone with Magda, make a token. Use grains of salt, the last drops of the wine you had shared during the argument, a scrap of paper that you very carefully draw on. Seal it all up in a locket, then fuse the clasp together.
  14. If he comes back, give it to him. Tell him that it’ll keep him safe when he’s away. Tell him you’re sorry. Tell him you hated every second he was gone. Tell him you made some of them last twice as long, and then sped up others, because you couldn’t decide whether you deserved more pain or not. Tell him Magda missed him and built a nest in a hat he left behind. Tell him you think he’s a jerk for staying away so long. Tell him he better come back again and again. Tell him that you love him.

Mason says he had a dream that I could tell the future. Coming from him, that makes me choke on my wine, but then he says it wasn’t that kind of dream. “Maybe start with that,” I say.

“You could tell the future because you found a spell that let you turn time backward. You could do it, you know. It wasn’t that kind of dream, but if anyone could do it, you could.”

“Would you want to know?” I ask.

Mason shakes his head. “No way.”

“Me either.” Lies. Everyone does. I desperately want to, and don’t, because it’s been a month that Joseph’s been gone and I’m carrying around this token. I’ve resisted looking at his feeds—if there were new clips, I’d watch, but how could I bear his face?—and I haven’t called him. But I’ve still got this token in my bag.

“I’m glad you had us over,” Jun says at the end of the night. We’d planned tonight before the fight. One year since the big spell, as some sort of commemoration. Not exactly a celebration, but Mason wanted it. We barely talked about Joseph or Angela, but it was good to be together, all of us thinking about them and thinking about what we did. We talked about other spells we might want to try some day, about Magda’s penchant for stealing food from unattended plates, and about a boy that Jun met who she was certain was a witch and did we want to meet him.

Before they leave, Mason asks if I want to try a charm he’s been working on. There’s one for dreamless sleep, and one for positive creativity, and one that he’s not sure what to call, but it helped him after… After. It was the first charm he made after.

I take dreamless sleep, because I keep dreaming in black and white, and wake up unsure of what I’ve done and haven’t done; did we bring them? Did we end her? Did he leave? I’d like to sleep and wake up sure of myself.

“Isabel,” Mason says, “How are you doing? Really?”

His face is so concerned it’s almost funny, after all we put each other through, and how uncertain I was that he’d ever sleep or eat or do magic again last year. This last year, none of us would have gotten through it without the others, and none of us would’ve had to without the others; most of the time I don’t regret any of it, not my part. Not even his leaving. And if Mason’s okay, I don’t regret that either.

Besides, we’re terribly powerful witches. If I really want to, I can make anything happen.

Andrea Corbin lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, Sub-Q, The Sockdolager, and Recompose. Her interactive fiction, design work, and the occasional blog post can be found on her website. She talks a lot of nonsense on Twitter as @rosencrantz. She’s working on her magic powers, mostly so she doesn’t have to wait for a delayed train ever again.

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

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

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

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

She thinks she might be worried.

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

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

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

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

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

It is widely read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how she first hears of it.

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

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

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

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert is used to blood.

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” he says.

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

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

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

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

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

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

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

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

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

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

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

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

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

Kitty wants to slap him.

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

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

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weight of Sentience, by Naru Dames Sundar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come this way, Seventeen.”

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

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

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

Kisna clutched a fine-boned doll in her hands.

“Don’t, Padhan, please!”

Her voice was petulant, afraid.

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

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

“Please, Seventeen, don’t hurt him!”

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

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

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


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

“It silences us, does it not?”

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

I decided to nod.

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

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

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

“Stillness is a precious thing.”

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

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

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

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

“My name is Trisa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me about yourself, Trisa.”

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

Evasion came easily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There was some…trouble.”

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

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

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

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

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

Salai laughed—a rich throaty laughter.

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

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

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

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

“You seem shocked, young Trisa.”

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

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

She smirked as she sipped her tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I, too, ran from horrors, child.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Trisa. What courage you must have.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trisa. There isn’t much time.”

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

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

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

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

He sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I cannot, Trisa. I cannot.”

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

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

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

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

“She gives me strength to endure, Trisa.”

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

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

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

Against my ear, his voice—

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

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

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

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

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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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.


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.


“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.


“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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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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