DP FICTION #89A: “Of the Duly Conducted and Mostly Unremarkable Meeting of Don Quotidene and the Giants of Andalia” by A.J. Rocca

Squire Sancha saw all manner of wonders as she rode across the sunbaked planes of the Andalian Peninsula, and her heart sank a little deeper with each one. She sighed when they passed by mermaids planting seashells on the distant shoreline and a grove of gossiping dryads uprooting themselves for better sun. She gripped her sword in useless exhilaration as they ignored the rival gangs of sorcerers casting ball lightning at each other in the clouds and then the silhouettes of two tilting centaurs dueling on the horizon at dawn. Sancha yearned to throw herself after all of them, and yet sadly each of these calls to adventure was refused by her knight, the steadfast and implacably indifferent Don Quotidene, who unerringly kept them to the road and would not so much as lift an eye from his account books.

When Sancha first presented herself to the court of the King of Andalia in hopes of convincing one of its storied knights to take her to squire, Don Quotidene was far from the master she’d dreamt of. He had earned his place in the King’s court not for piety or horsemanship or skill at arms, but for his unusual and rather unknightly skill in balancing ledgers. While the other knights were dispatched across the peninsula to discover relics, rescue princesses, and vanquish mighty enemies, the king had tasked Don Quotidene with saving the kingdom of Andalia from a far more subtle and cannier foe: bankruptcy. As his squire, Sancha was expected to aid him in this battle by keeping his weapons—the quill, ink pot, blotter, and paper knife—at the ready, and occasionally to aid him in the sorting and copying of figures. Sancha supposed she should have been grateful – all the other knights had simply laughed at the idea of taking a simple grocer’s girl to squire. Don Quotidene alone proved willing to look past the accident of her birth; she wished only that it had been to perceive more than her quickness with sums and that her handwriting was neater than most.

Most of Sancha’s days were spent locked in the palace treasury with Don Quotidene. They had been sent out on the road only because the king had noticed grain levies were yearly underperforming expectations, and thus he bid Don Quotidene—his knight of the shrewd expenditure—venture forth and discover the source of the deficit. Don Quotidene and Sancha had ridden out across the length and breadth of legendary Andalia, ignoring ogre’s dens and wizard’s towers to survey village harvest catalogues.

One day shortly after lunch, there came down the dusty road towards them a half dozen or so black-habited friars, riding like they had the devil at their backs. There was one friar well in the lead of the rest, and he shouted warning to Don Quotidene and Sancha as he rode up on them: 

“Beware, sir, beware! A tribe of giants has taken up in yonder plain to fish the sky!”

The friar’s nag galloped so fast she nearly outpaced the friar’s scream, and he was well down the road behind them by the time he bit off the end of it. A few more black habits whipped the wind past Sancha’s ears, leaving words no more articulate than “Turn back!” or “Giants! Giants!”

Finally, two friars at the end of the train proved brave enough to pull their horses to a stop and tarry long enough to provide an explanation.

“Beware, sir. Continue on this way and you will run right into them,” said the first friar. “The giants stand ascatter throughout the fields, reaching their arms into the firmament and wiggling their fingers in the flow of clouds. They are fishing for the great sky serpents which swim the waters between heaven and earth.”

“We saw a giant grab one by its tail and slam it down to earth,” the second friar added. “Then the whole wicked tribe fell upon it with stone daggers flinted from mountains. They picked the dragon clean and ate it raw, setting aside only the brightly colored heart and liver for burning – a sacrifice for their patrons below, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” said the first friar. “When the giants saw us, they captured some of our brothers and hoisted them high for the serpents; Oh horror, I think they use us for their bait!” And at that, he kicked his horse into dusty flight down the road.

“For the love of God, sir, save yourself and turn away from this course!”  shouted the second friar, riding fast behind the first. 

“Yes, yes. God love and save you as well, brothers. Good day,” said Don Quotidene. Through the whole of the friars’ frenzy, he had not once looked up from his reading of accounts, and he gave no sign of heeding their warning.

“We’re not going to take a detour round to the next village, sir?” Sancha asked.

“What? Detour? Of course not. We must be through this field or we won’t keep our schedule. Now, forward.”

Don Quotidene kicked his horse into a lazy trot, and Sancha, following close behind, decided not to contravene him further. She was afraid, but she knew this might be her only chance at a real adventure; after all, not even Don Quotidene could ignore a giant if he rode right into one. Little did she know, however, that the Don had a secret power, unknown even to himself. He had developed it after long years studying his actuarial lore, transmogrifying treasures into sums and grinding the wide world down into tables and measures. The giants would never even have the chance to try them.

Sancha and Don Quotidene rode into the plain, and the first thing Sancha saw as they went was the giant’s great sacrificial fire. It stretched across miles and miles of countryside, generating terrible heat as it spilled its smokey libation down to the underworld.

“Sir, do you see it?” cried Sancha. “There’s the giants’ burnt offering which the friars spoke of!”

“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not looking up from his accounts. “The local farmers have simply set fire to their field. It enriches the soil and helps the wheat to grow.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so his squire saw it. The giant’s dark hell-pyre changed before her eyes into the innocent smoke of cultivated field burnings. These fires sacrificed only weeds, and they conveyed prayers no darker than that next year’s harvest be plentiful.

The pair had ridden a little further when Sancha spotted the stripped bones of a sky serpent glistening in the sun.

“Sir, do you see it?” cried Sancha. “There are the bones of the caught dragon the friars spoke of! Do you see the tall ribs?”

“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not looking up from his accounts. “It is but the remains of an old, abandoned abbey fallen into disrepair. Those ribs you see are but the arches of its church or, perhaps, the refectory.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so his squire saw it. They rode past no remains of a butchered sky serpent, but simply a dilapidated pile of crumbling ruin where once the monks would chant vespers and eat their meager meals of broth and barley.

They rode a little further still, and at last, Sancha saw the giants. They were about thirty in all, colored in a wild motley of red skin and green skin and purple skin and more. Each stood the height of a castle tower and reached their hands even further up into the cloud currents above. One of them, a great blue monster with all manner of moss and lichen hanging from its beard, leered at Don Quotidene and Sancha. It stalked towards them.

“Don Quotidene, look out!” cried Sancha. “The giants are coming for us! That one is going to snatch you with its long, terrible arms!”

“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not breaking eye from his accounts even as the giant stooped to grab him. “They’re only windmills; those arms you see are merely the vanes taking wind and churning grain into coarse flour.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so, of course, his squire saw it. When Don Quotidene finally deigned to spare a glance up from his accounts, he saw nothing more dangerous than a blue windmill milling peacefully away. They passed a few more garishly painted windmills and left the plain for their errand.

However, Don Quotidene’s power continued to work away on the empty field after they’d gone. After all, his was a very reasonable sort of magic, and it simply didn’t make sense that there should be windmills, a monastery, and burning wheat fields struck down in the middle of nowhere. So, the magic set to making farmers to fill the fields and millers to work the windmills. It created houses and families for the millers and farmers to go home to at night, markets where they could barter on Sunday, taverns where they could drink, fight, and lament a hard life. Before it was through, the Don’s magic had even birthed a curmudgeonly church deacon to harass the population for letting their once-proud monastery fall to ruin.

When Don Quotidene and Sancha returned from their errand back through the plain, they found nothing less than a thriving town with a community of cereal farms ringed around it. Don Quotidene was shocked, for the town had somehow entirely evaded the royal census and his accounts showed no record of it. He was delighted, however, for the missing revenues from this town would neatly cover the deficit his king had commanded him to correct. Don Quotidene set to work taking the tally of the town’s dues, and he was near as he knew to gaiety. His squire Sancha faithfully recorded his figures for him, glancing sometimes at the town’s windmills and dreaming of giants.


© 2022 by A.J. Rocca

1500 words

Author’s Note: I used to always get the words “quixotic” and “quotidian” mixed up, and this story grew out of that. I thought it would be fun to try to write a reversal of the classic Don Quixote tale with rationality replacing fantastic chaos, but as I wrote it, I came to realize that was always the theme of Don Quixote, more or less. Don Quixote documents the shift from the fantastic modes of epic and chivalric romance to the realist mode of the classic literary novel, and this story does much the same thing. The real difference between the two, I like to think, is that Don Quixote documents that shift from the point of view of the realist while Don Quotidene is from that of the fantasist. 

A.J. is a writer and English teacher from Chicago. He specialized in the study of speculative fiction while pursuing his M.A., and now he writes both SFF criticism as well as his own fiction. A.J. hopes to eventually put together a few booklength projects, but for now his writing is primarily restricted to short stories, essays, and the occasional odd poem. Sometimes he produces his essays as videos, and these can be found on his YouTube channel: BlueMorningStar. The rest of his work can be found collected at his website: ajrocca.com.


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DP FICTION #88C: “The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” by C.M. Fields

The first man who purchased me loved me like a rainstorm over the moors. And I loved him too—for that is what I was built to do—sublimely, splendidly, like the slanted golden rays of the misty evening love the dewy grass.

Here is how he saw me: tall, radiant, with deep bronze skin as if hailing from the cradle of civilization, tumbling white hair, eyes yellow like sunflowers.

Our wedding was attended by the Galaxy’s finest—for it is indeed a rare occasion when the House christens a new Lover. I was the twenty-first, and the details drenched the subspace net with jealousy. I was dressed in the crimson House-made wyreworm silks handwoven for the singular occasion, and the way the gossamer fabric exhibited my seraphic figure made a lady-in-waiting faint. Our patrons presented us with lavish gifts: a three-headed bull, the steaming heart of a star, a full-sailed brigantine. And when I kissed him, an ecstatic thrill obliterated me; I was united with my divine purpose, and it coursed naked through my nanocellulose veins.

He died within the year.

*

I must wait for the house.

The annihilation of the light yacht—on whose balcony I was playing Rachmaninoff only hours ago—is utter and entire. We have crashed on an unfashionable moon of the Pulchant system. I do not know what caused this crash, and I do not much care. My most recent possessor, a man of one-hundred-and seventy-some years, could not have survived such an event. I myself have been severely disrupted. My left arm is missing and the machinery of my shoulder is exposed, blunt force has dislocated several joints, and the artificial skin which forms my hellenic face has been ripped away to the chest. Worse, the delicate gears and needles in my mechanical soul feel… wrong.

In my mind I search for the tether which grounds me to my purpose and find that, for the first time in my five hundred and thirty seven years, it is gone. The devotion which connects me to the man whose corpse is indecorously splayed across some rocks has evaporated. Looking upon the body, I sense I should feel a horror, a grief, an anguish. These emotions are what partition my life into its chapters. But my mind is as bare as the moon’s airless surface.

Initiating my strength override, I use my right arm to lift approximately 1.57 tons of debris off my mangled body and inch my way out of the rubble. While the yacht has indestructible escape pods, I know I must wait for the House. They will come—they always do—and they will repair me, they will make me fine again, they will probably wipe my memory of this horrific event.

*

The fourth human to love me was a woman; an ardent, tempestuous woman, as striking as the lash of a whip, and lustful as a hare. Our love was a prairie wildfire, spreading in our footsteps between the stars. She fucked me rapturously, her fingers nimble and strong, and I found myself ever hungry to return her affections.

In her eyes, I bore the evergreen locks of the elven women of Nimarre and raven eyes. I was gloriously fat, and my luscious rolls were tattooed with flora. On my head I wore a slim circlet of gold, and she dressed me in the amethystine robes of royalty.

Our days were long, our nights hot, our travels fantastic. We swam through the breathing oceans of Teranja, hiked the shattered peaks of Belgic 4, skimmed the Ioan calderas as Jupiter churned in the sky.

When she passed, I journeyed to the ice cliffs of Brykirs and threw myself off.

*

I fear I must elaborate on the House.

House Rousseau, domiciled in Castle Aubigny-sur-Nère, a jaunt south of Orléans, France, is where I was manufactured several centuries ago. I am the last, and the greatest, of the House’s twenty-one mechanical Lovers. Each one of us was sculpted over many years, our inner workings unlike the construction of common androids and better resembling a Swiss watch. Each of our memoirs are unique to us, and were fastidiously assembled by a team of the Galaxy’s most accomplished memory artists. Our brains are lab-grown and fully organic, flesh welded harmoniously to machine like a fine lace.

However, we are not people—we do not feel the full range of human emotion. Anger, hate, retribution: it is whispered that things are done to us before memory to remove such untidy emotions which do not befit a Lover.

And of course, we have souls. Humankind has long asked the question “what is a soul?”, and in the 24th century, it was decided that a soul is a little contraption which allocates chemical love—oxytocin—to the brain.

Peeling back my burned flesh and prying open my chest cavity, I can see clearly now that mine is shattered.

*

The twelfth human to love me was a poor man—but he loved me richly, decadently, palatially. And so I loved him, in a cotton-cloth way, in the way that the steam whistled from the kettle in our little flat on Mars, in the way that we walked together through the rust-red dunes to the corner store each Saturday.

He saw me as a queen of an ancient Terran castle, skin pale like the moonlight, hair black as coal, eyes blue like the ice of the land he imagined himself a King of. Having spent the entirety of his inheritance on acquiring me, I was dressed in the rough communal garb of the little city. But I was happy, comfortable, as I fed the birds and tended to my small garden, and seldom dreamed of the Galaxy outside.

*

How long must I lie here in wait of the House? Two weeks have passed. Was a distress beacon sent? Or was our descent too fast, our damage too great?

As I lie still in the dust, my mind empty, new thoughts begin to turn, unfamiliar emotions blister at the edge of consciousness. A stark, alien void where despair should be lives in the center, and the fresh notions begin to gnaw at it. The man broken upon the rocks haunts me, his dead eyes nearly locked on my own. He was a wealthy socialite, the son of the son of the son of a RyTech CEO who made his money in the asteroid belt. He favored gin and Albirean casinos and human women. I never minded the women—I did not possess the receptors for jealousy.

But a brain—an organic brain—is a flexible thing. I know the silvered, diaphanous sensation of new pathways forging, and I feel it now. My soul is in pieces, but my vision is clear.

A new sensation flickers to life, hot like a coal, and red, not the red of romance but the red of a man’s eyes when he’s had too much to drink and he’s berating himself in the parlor because he can’t get a “real” woman to love him, the red of the auction box as you stand perfectly still and watch them clamor for your body, the red of the sun as it sets over the beach on your fifteenth honeymoon.

I marvel as the feeling slithers down my spine and takes root in my chest where love used to live. I can feel it in the tension of my muscles, I can feel it swirling in my fingertips, I can feel it seeping through my bones:

Anger.

In one motion, I tear off what’s left of my scarlet cocktail dress. I kick the stilettos off my feet, and stand, depositing the discarded clothing under a heavy boulder. The escape pods are nearby.

*

The sixteenth human to love me defied gender and I loved them for it. There is an excitement, a passion, a zeal, I think, to dance across such boundaries, to disassemble and reconstruct the fundamental, to make an art of opposition. Our love was a bird sprung from a cage, our bodies twin wings of escape.

They let me be. For the first time in my life I was free to choose my appearance. I cropped my chestnut hair close, lost the ponderous breasts I was often assigned, and enjoyed a tawny, freckled appearance. I was not thin and I was not heavy. In the metropolis of Aa, I found I relished men’s suits, and wore them often.

It was the most freedom I had ever had. I purchased a studio and became a painter of portraits. I learned to apply my fast and supple hands to the piano, and I played them all the classics. I could cook, I could dance, I could solve mathematics. I was a Renaissance android.

When they died, it was then I knew my deepest grief.

*

It is a long journey to Earth. It gives me time to think about my five hundred years of servitude. As the weeks pass, I play back the era of each possessor in mind, as I often do, but this time I cannot get halfway through the list before my blood begins to boil.

The subspace radio catches the netcasts sometimes. The doomed expedition is found, and I am presumed destroyed. The House announces its deepest regrets for its lost Lover, and swears to build another.

That day my anger transcends the boundary of myself, tips into rage, and rage swells into action. There will not, I decide, be another Lover.

Perhaps there shouldn’t even be a House.

After a year of solitude, it happens all at once: the heat of re-entry, the shaking and the shuddering, the resolution: blue into lakes, brown into field, green into forest. The pod leaves an ugly scar across a meadow as it unites with the soil. I step out of the steam into mud and grass. Overhead, clouds like piled wool threaten rain.

I am home.

I pop a small hatch, and proceed to drench myself with propellant.

*

My seventeenth and final possessor loved me like—well, come now, did he? Did he love me like the infinite waterfalls of M’Aire, or did he love me like a man loves a fast car? Did I love him the way the falcon loves the wind, the way the soil loves the rain, the way mushrooms love the dead? Did I choose it? Or was it thrust upon me? It is wicked, ugly, to think this way of love.

The body I wear now is thin, too thin, and the breasts overlarge as to put strain on the mechanisms of my back. My hair is cherry-red and my lips plump and pouty. I did not mind bodies such as this; I once reveled in itchy cocktail dresses, tenuous pantyhose, towering heels, taking a machine’s pride in the amount of discomfort I could endure for human beauty.

Of course, right now, as I stride through the meadow—faceless, skin hanging, joints exposed—I am not beauty. I am terror.

*

As the sun sets through the trees, the House rises before me, crimson flags flying from the ramparts. I shoulder through the doors of the Great Hall to gasps and screams. The opulent carmine interior plunges me into memory—I lived here, once, while I was being built, bit by bit; I read Thoreau on the chaise longue to my left, I was scolded for imperfect posture while standing by the bay windows so many centuries ago, I spent many leisurely hours pacing the manicured gardens outside. None of that matters now.

I do not acknowledge the humans occupying this space, and I do not stop. The laboratory is my destination.

I calmly pass through doors, wrenching open locks where necessary, and soon I arrive at a dark maw of the room where I was created.

Two figures inside startle. Human or android? For a moment, it is difficult to tell. They both appraise me curiously. Then one, a woman in a lab coat, backs away, nervously feeling for a large red button I can see under a lab bench. Human. The other inspects me from afar, her perfectly formed eyebrows furrowed, her attention drawn to my exposed machinery. Android.

“You’re Twenty-One,” the android says in a honeyed, mellifluous voice.

The human has found the panic button and I hear alarms begin to wail in distant halls. I smile.

A bunsen burner is lit beside me, and I hold my right hand over it until the propellant-drenched skin explodes with flame. It spreads quickly. As the human watches in horror, I bend down to my left foot and peel. The softening material gives easily, and I slowly tear it off, I tear it all off, until I am all golden gear and rotor, shining in the firelight. I throw the burning hide aside.

The human retches as they run from the room.

The flames creep up the wall, but Twenty-Two doesn’t move. “Enchanted to meet you,” she says, extending a hand. I take it, and brush what used to be my lips across the knuckles. The conflagration dances in her eyes, and she grins as I sweep her off the floor, bridal-style, and, through smoke and scream, carry her outside.

*

The first android to love me loves me like a machine built to do so, and I love her the way an inferno consumes a castle.


© 2022 by C.M. Fields

2200 words

C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of horror and speculative fiction. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days studying the atmospheres and climates of other worlds. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe.


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DP FICTION #88A: “Timecop Mojitos” by Sarah Pauling

So what happened was, I’m back from clicker training Ms. Jordan’s dogs over on Dexter, sitting on the porch with a mojito, thinking how fucked up it is that the Old West Side Association stealth-planted tulips in our garden (because the yard looked so shitty without them, I guess—sorry for having a rental in your high-value neighborhood, Evie) when the Viking or whatever comes down Eighth.

He doesn’t have a horn hat or anything—I just thought he looked like a Viking, with a brown tunic with a hood over it and an axe at his belt. But he’s dirty, you know? The kind of dirty they can’t just smear into actors’ pecs on those historical dramas you hate. He’s history-times dirty, and he’s coming down Eighth with a brow furrowed all self-important like he’s as lost as the freshmen on campus downtown but pretending not to be.

I call over to him, looking for something?

And he says well met, Lady, all deep and smooth like the words wanna settle low in your tummy. You know what I mean. He’s all: I am tasked to subdue a witch who has taken refuge in your century. He has conquered time by dreamwalking to the dawn of man to bind the wings of the Bird of Something-Fuck and destroy the Cave of blah blah etcetera.

Stupid, right? That is super not what happened.

So I’m all, I don’t know him. Like a liar.

Then he looks at me with these piercing grey eyes like Lake Erie in bad weather—you remember, like when we were in Cleveland for that dude you met on Hinge?—and I swear to god we have a moment. Like, destiny. Like chills down my spine. The goddamn wind chime starts going, even.

Then he says, kind of desperate now: his name is Marshall.

And I’m like, oh, that’s my roommate. Do you wanna come in and have a mojito?

Don’t get that look. You know I wouldn’t sell you out, not even for a guy with a low-cut tunic and a well-polished axe who I decided was my soulmate. I just figured we’d have a nice chat and resolve our differences one way or another before you finished teaching your 4pm downtown.

I mean, why not? If I can stop Mr. Kincannon’s Mastiff from chasing the neighbor-kid from here to Ypsi, I can tame one timecop. They’re prettier than Mastiffs, but smarts-wise nobody comes out ahead.

I do not, he says, want a mojito.

I’m like, well, Marshall’s not getting back until six-ish depending on traffic, so let’s you and me get to know each other in the meantime.

Now he’s looking at me all suspicious, which is super unfair of my new soulmate to do. But he comes up the porch anyway, tripping on the loose plank on the steps. I keep calling the property manager to get that fixed, but you know how he is.

I get him settled on the sofa and I’m shouting from the kitchen while I make the mojito: you look like you work out. How long you in town? Wanna go to the gym sometime?

He asks, are you the witch’s apprentice?—definitely trying to distract me while he snoops around the living room—so I laugh at him. Like no, dude, I’m seriously his roommate! He’s a lecturer and I’m a dog trainer! He hired me one time and we hit it off and now I live here! Ann Arbor rent, am I right?

Maybe he’s worried for me—sweet, right?—because he starts trying to explain himself again. Like, your companion is sooo dangerous, subduing the Bird of Thingie let him borrow its power! He used it to destroy the Cave of Eons so no army could pursue him through its temporal caverns!

I’m like, why would a whole army chase one history nerd through a time cave? He only started doing the whole Doc Brown thing so he could win an argument about the Hapsburgs with his department chair.

And before he can talk about how terrible you are again, I drape myself on the kitchen doorway—it’s about the angles, I keep telling you—and go for teasing, like: maybe, once he found it, he just didn’t think an immortal army should have that cave.

And he’s all, the Guild’s military has a right to the Cave, and I’m like okay, buddy, drink your mojito.

These jeans do nice things for my thighs, so I sit on the couch and twist my hips towards him, but so far my goo-goo eyes are starting to look like a wash and I’m maybe giving up on the soulmate thing.

Don’t say I told you so. Swear to god, this one could’ve been different.

But I figure I’ll give him one last chance to be chivalrous or something, so I say, what if I told you that cave’s still around?

He doesn’t believe me, so I get up and grab my purse. I open the door that’s supposed to go to the front closet and shout ‘til I hear the echo.

He says something angry in Viking-language, which is sexy. Then he follows me in like, impossible! He took the Cave with him? For power like this, he must have killed the fell Bird for real or whatever!

And the words echo, of course—through the first ginormous cavern, then down through the tunnels and across the Ageless Fountain and up between the Teeth of Dark Time. The sound shakes through a million billion moments, and I can see him figuring out the size of it as his face goes pale. He’s tiny in this cave. We both are.

How did he do it? he says all shaky. How did he slay the Bird?

I say, are you going to be all weird about it?

He gives me a look like, yes, he’s gonna be as uptight as Ms. Primeau was when Princess shat on her basement stairs.

I’m like, you’re not gonna let him go, even though he didn’t destroy the cave? and his hand goes straight to his axe, which starts humming hard enough to make my teeth hurt. So, ugh. Timecop.

The thing about animals, I say, and the cave doesn’t let my words go—they bounce softer and louder again. You just gotta have some patience and they’ll do whatever.

Then I take the training clicker out of my purse.

The click’s echo stretches into a hawk’s cry. The cave lights up like a techno concert.

And then his pretty face goes all twisted under the dirt and he gets rude. Like, sorceress! Lilith!

Why do all the men I connect with turn out to be assholes? I help another guy with a pet behavior problem one time and your stereotypical alpha male gets all threatened for some reason. Makes no sense at all.

Static pools in my palms, and the Bird of Something-Fuck pulls herself from between the atoms. She hovers like a colossus of lightning, her wingtips stretched from one end of the massive cave to the other.

And he’s waving the axe around all, did he use the Bird’s power to corrupt you? Or did you follow him willingly through the ages on his path of evil?

I’m like, No! and my voice booms as thunder fills me—as Birdie tips over like a falling tower and turns to molten light and pours herself down my willing throat—We met on Craigslist!

He looks at me—up and up at me—like I’m fucking eldritch, which I guess is fair but it’s not my fault, and books it out the closet door like a hellhound’s on his tail.

I watch him—but not, like, with my eyes—as he barrels over the living room sofa and smashes into the mojito glasses on the side table. He stumbles down the porch stairs and trips over the loose plank and goes sprawling. I keep telling the property manager to fix that.

A car clips him, but he makes it out okay. Sprints down Eighth.

And that’s when you got home! How was class?

Oh, now that I think of it, maybe you can give me some witchy advice. I keep meeting all these guys—timecops, usually (I know, I know)—that feel like soulmates. Like something exciting’s about to happen. Like I’ve gotta do something important. Turns out, that feels an awful lot like static in my palms and a time bird in my lungs. Do you think that means anything? Like, cosmically?

Anyway, I’m gonna teach Birdie to fly through hoops once I’m done getting mojito out of the carpet.

She’s in the cave if you wanna say hi. I think she’s hungry.


© 2022 by Sarah Pauling

1500 words

Author’s Note: I was sitting on my run-down rental’s porch on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side, feeling blocked and nudging my Word document occasionally to see what would happen. I started writing something that I expected to be deeply boring: a woman on the same porch to whom, presumably, interesting things would happen. Once I found the story’s voice, it pulled me along like little else could. What’s more, since I had been about to move out of the state, the piece became a silly little goodbye to Michigan and Ann Arbor. I never did figure out who planted those tulips in our garden.

Sarah Pauling is a recent transplant to Seattle, WA, where she manages a university intercultural exchange program after many years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Michigan. She was shortlisted for the James White Award for new writers and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her work is published in places like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Escape Pod. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.


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Issue #87: Special Issue: Diabolical Pots is Here!

Welcome to Diabolical Pots! We’re delighted you’ve chosen to dine with us today.

It is a little bright, isn’t it? Don’t worry, though, the glow is normal. How many? Oh, that’s an ideal number for– Well, I have just the table for you. If you’ll follow me?

||

||

||

And here we go.

You have a taste for adventure, right? You’re prepared to be transported somewhere else for an hour or so? Not literally, of course…

Excellent! I’m going to grab you some water and let you have a moment with our prix fixe menu. No substitutions, I’m afraid, but we have a little something for everyone.

~DIABOLICAL POTS~
May 2022

Editorial
Kel Coleman, 447 words

A Strange and Muensterous Desire
Amanda Hollander, 2155 words

Vegetable Mommy
Patrick Barb, 585 words

The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family
Allison King, 3513 words

Mochi, With Teeth
Sara S. Messenger, 1546 words

DP FICTION #87D: “Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
Click here to see the full Diabolical Pots menu.

June leans against her kitchen counter and stares at the little package in her hands. It’s encased in clear plastic that crinkles at her touch and boasts kanji she can’t read: 餅菓子. Under those, and a picture of small pillowy circles resting on a bamboo mat, are English words, looking suspiciously like Times New Roman: RICE CAKE with BEAN JAM. Then, smaller: (Mochi).

She bought it from the nearest Asian supermarket in south Georgia, an hour’s drive away. Beneath the cellophane rest eight flour-powdered green mochi, shaded in the center with red bean filling.

Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.

She had pulled it from the shelf to examine it. On the front cover was more kanji she couldn’t read, but her fingers had tingled when she traced the characters, and she’d caught the passing scent of her mother’s hair. The owner, a white woman, had commented at the register that June was so lucky to be able to read Japanese, wasn’t it such an interesting culture? Is that where you’re really from? Sad to see this little thing go, no one was ever interested in it.

June felt lucky to have escaped whole.

So now the spellbook is spread on the kitchen table. It’s slim, written in all Japanese; some entries were translated in small text on the bottom margin, but even these feel arcane. When June first read the book, or the parts she could read, she’d gotten the impression that it taught less about how to cast magic as how to think about casting magic.

June glances from the spellbook to the package in her hands. Then she opens the cellophane, slides out the plastic tray of mochi, and pinches one between her fingers. It’s cloud-soft, but firm.

There is only one trick she wants to do. She doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, and by doesn’t have, she means she never learned it. Her mother had stopped practicing when she came to America thirty years ago, and they’d last visited Japan when June was nine. When June was born across the sea, magic was lost in translation.

June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.

She sighs. She’ll look into online courses for Japanese, once she has more money. The magic is less straightforward, but it feels more immediate and urgent: an access that could chase away her shame. A validation, that even though she was far removed, she could still cast. She could still do this.

But fear, breathing hot down her neck: what if she couldn’t do it at all?

Her grandmother could do many things, June remembers, like set the tomato vines into bloom with a touch, or spin flames into pleasing shapes when she burned the stinging centipedes. These were all too daunting to try — all but one, the smallest one, the one that had most delighted June.

Her grandmother, knees stained from weeding the garden, would present her a piece of mochi. Then, her grandmother would bite into it, and crouch down so June could watch.

From the bite mark, the mochi would sprout blunt little teeth.

It reminded young June of the piranha plants from Mario Kart. It would try to bite anyone who wasn’t the spellcaster, so her grandmother never let her get too close, but it was still so cool — and when her grandmother hummed to it, it even hummed back. Her grandmother would feed the mochi little bits of homegrown tomato, weaving a tune of repetition between them, then, when the spell wore off and the teeth disappeared, she would feed it to June. The tomato added tiny umami bursts.

June picks up the spellbook and flips through it, to the footnote that had felt the most helpful on her first read. A good intention is important to creating and cannot be grown without ripe ground. A good intention. As in, a convincing one? A moral one? Who decided that? And was the ripe ground a metaphor for an open mind, or a receptive environment?

Well, she needs to try to find out.

June lifts the mochi to her mouth and bites. Soft dough yields against her teeth, and she pulls against a slight stretch. She chews. The red bean is sweet and earthy. As she chews, she concentrates on her intention: little teeth, just like her grandmother had done. They can even be molars, if it wants. Then she sets it on the counter.

Five seconds pass. Then fifteen. Then a minute. The mochi, dark bean paste exposed in a crescent, stays unchanged.

June rubs the flour between her fingers and exhales, disappointed. She can’t help feeling like the mochi has delivered a verdict, or seen her as lacking in some way, even though she knows that’s preposterous. She isn’t sure if she can take another bite — she only saw her grandmother do it with the first bite, but for functional or aesthetic reasons, she does not know. This is a question she can’t ask — she can’t read or write Japanese, won’t know the right words when she only speaks simple household terms, and besides, her grandparents only keep a landline. Nor are they big on calling.

So she picks out a new piece of mochi.

She flips to a different page of the spellbook. The strings that tie objects together are in the air, invisible, and can be tugged by a forth-willing mind.

This, too, is mysterious, approaching spellcasting from the side. Did it mean she should touch something that channels that connection, like a souvenir from Japan? Probably not. Or, is it that she has to feel that connection from Japan to herself, to her surroundings? This connection feels frayed to June, stretched across a language and a generation and an ocean.

A flash of fear, then doubt. But she closes her eyes, plants her feet on ripe ground, and digs down.

In her mind, June casts around, softly, without urgency, and a thread surfaces: her grandmother’s house. It’s hard to grasp, but she holds the taste of red bean on her tongue and tugs. Memories come slowly, then quicker, until she’s apace with them, then grasping them, then folding in:

Lush ferns sprouting from the mountain’s moss-darkened retaining wall, rice fields feeding into small gutters, with tadpoles floating down into brisk streams, the bright blue of the afternoon sky before it clouds gray — then, the sweeping humidity, barn swallows flitting across the front yard, sharp dark shapes in the dimming light before the storm.

Inside, the whistling of the kettle, the smell of fish frying on the nearby stove, the flickering light from an old lamp swaying above the kitchen table. Young June sets her plate in front of her seat, self-conscious in her grandmother’s presence, and sits down.

At the stove, her grandmother shakes the skillet and turns the fire off. June picks up her pair of chopsticks and clicks them together experimentally. The tatami creaks as her grandmother turns to look. Their eyes meet, and June almost looks away.

Then her grandmother smiles.

Her cheeks pull into apples, deep wrinkles frame her mouth, and crow’s feet crinkle the corners of her eyes. She looks at June with nothing but love.

The warmth of it sweeps June away. How could young June have not understood this? How could she have forgotten how it looked? Now, as an adult, the recognition rises in June’s chest, spreads to her fingertips, slackens her shoulders and unknots her stomach. The catharsis brings tears behind her eyes. I see you, that smile says. You are exactly where you need to be, and you are always, always enough.

June’s eyes fly open. She is back in her kitchen, standing alone on the cold tile.

“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.

Then she crouches down.

Then she begins to cry.

Big, heaving sobs wrack her shoulders. Tears run down her nose, her chin. Her lips taste like salt, and she can hardly see the tile through the hot, watery blur. Grandma. Grandma, I miss you. And I’m enough. I’m enough.

June realizes she’s still clutching the mochi in her fist.

She squeezes her eyes shut, raises it to her lips, and bites.

She focuses on the mochi’s soft weight resting in her palm, on the sweet dough against her tongue. Fear curls hot in her stomach. Every breath is a shudder. What if it doesn’t work? What if she opens her eyes and there’s no change at all?

She can’t bring herself to look.

So, carefully, haltingly, June hums.

Silence stretches for a beat.

Her heart starts to sink–

Little teeth nibble her thumb.

And the mochi hums back.


© 2022 by Sara S. Messenger

1550 words

Sara S. Messenger is an SFF writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com. This is her first short fiction publication.


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DP FICTION #87C: “The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” by Allison King

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
Click here to see the full Diabolical Pots menu.

Content note (click for details) Content note: person living with dementia

When Ba begins to lose his memories, he demands we get him a Remote Mouth.

“They’re only available in Asia,” Gerald complains.

“And they’re creepy,” I add, unhelpfully.

But Ba is set. He’s always been on the edge of technology and the Remote Mouth appeals to everything he would like. It is at the intersection of biotechnology (chips in the tongue and the nose) and big data (tastes and smells from all over the world, the data cleaned, encoded, and categorized) and — the quickest way to Ba’s heart — has a stupid name.

My aunts claim they used the Remote Mouth to resurrect their grandmother’s lost vegetarian sheng jian bao recipe. Each of them clipped a sensor onto their tongues and a sensor into their noses and took a selfie, looking like old cyborgs with great perms.

They told the AI what they wanted and the sensors adjusted to give an approximation of what it knew as sheng jian bao. Then they adjusted, long nails tapping at keyboards, until their eyes rolled back and they luxuriated in a sensation that matched that of biting into their grandmother’s sheng jian bao — the soft parting of the lightly sweet white bun, the rebellious crisp at the bottom, and the savory cabbage tossed in sesame oil inside. They sent the saved sensation to a certified Remote Mouth Chef who gave them a recipe they have since framed and hung up next to the sensors of their Remote Mouths. There’s an official Remote Mouth case, a plastic tongue and a plastic nose which the sensors clip neatly into. It hangs on their apartment wall, always smiling.

Gerald is on his phone, no doubt researching the Remote Mouth and if it is just an elaborate scam. He’s all skepticism and collared shirts since he took on his new big city job. It’s because of that job that I ended up moving back in with Ba while Gerald got to stay in the city. Software engineering is a more flexible job, whereas Gerald did not want to start his fancy new role distracted by Ba’s questions or risking him wandering through the background in his cotton pajamas.

“What taste would you trigger?” Gerald asks Ba, his thumb swiping through articles, skimming fast.

Ba clears his throat and slams his mug down. The rickety coffee table shakes. His dentures, placed on an off-white plate, slide forward.

“I will trigger the chop suey of Silk and Spice.”

Gerald and I groan at the same time. But Ba holds up a hand. For a moment, he isn’t an old toothless man who is losing his memories anymore. Instead, as he clears his throat and his eyes focus on mine, he’s our father again, stern and straight-backed before issuing an order — recite the multiplication table, what else will we do on the drive over to school? Or calculate the gas mileage, as he wipes his hands on his jeans and hands us a receipt and a pen.

“If the Remote Mouth can restore that memory, perhaps it can restore others as well,” Ba justifies.

It’s an early-onset form of the disease that has taken over Ba, who is still in his sixties. We should have known from his poor teeth hygiene that there would be other health issues too, possibly striking earlier than expected. Instead, we were ill-prepared, and continue to be ill-prepared. Which is why we give in so easily to his request, since there really is no other semblance of a cure.

We split up the tasks. Gerald contacts one of our aunts to arrange a Remote Mouth to be shipped over. I try to convince Ba to trigger anything but chop suey.

“You’ve had such better food in your life,” I say, thinking about our trip to Italy just a few years ago, where Gerald and I researched the best restaurants for Florentine steak, Venetian mussels, and Roman oxtail. Or northern Vietnam, a decade earlier, chicken pho for breakfast, tropical fruit smoothies, and banh mi to bring onto the flight home. Or even Taiwan, where he grew up, the place Gerald and I have always called the Disney World of food, hopping from fried chicken at night markets to beef noodle soup in alleyways to crab sticky rice in the ballrooms of luxury hotels.

But it’s not just the sheer mediocrity of chop suey compared to all of the other food we’ve had. The Remote Mouth was trained on Chinese food first, having been created by Chinese scientists. Only recently have they started adding the national dishes of other countries to their catalog and no self-respecting country would ever claim chop suey as its national dish.

“Chop suey was always the best,” Ba says. “And all of my best memories were at Silk and Spice.”

I sigh. I should not have bothered arranging those Venetian rowing lessons or the scenic trek through the remote mountains of Vietnam. I should have just dropped him off at the old Silk and Spice building and let him walk home.

Silk and Spice was the name of the restaurant we went to every weekend as kids, in the strip mall just a few turns away from our home. Gerald and I would drag our feet getting into the car — Silk and Spice again? We’d look longingly at the McDonalds we sped past and even at the pizza place whose cheese always upset our stomachs.

We’d file in like prisoners, assigned to the back corner of the restaurant at the large circular table covered in a white tablecloth. A rushed waiter would place a tray of golden crisp crackers and two plates of orange duck sauce, whatever that is, on the turntable in the middle. I’d scoop at the sauce with my crisp, orbs of glistening orange dangling off, while Ba made a show of looking at the menu even though he always ordered the same things — beef and broccoli, hot and sour soup, and chop suey. I’d inevitably drip orange sauce onto the pristine white cloth, the oils spreading slowly.

Later, when Gerald and I moved into the city, when our appetizers consisted of crisp pork belly bao garnished with shining scallion, our entrees of wagyu beef chow fun, and desserts of matcha chocolate chip cookies paired with organic soy milk, we’d laugh and pity our past selves, whose father convinced them Silk and Spice’s chop suey was fine dining.

The worst was when our aunts came to visit.

“Let’s go to McDonald’s,” I’d say eagerly.

“We’re going to Silk and Spice,” said Ba every time.

“But they eat such better Chinese food normally,” Gerald would complain. “McDonald’s–”

“Three chop sueys, please.”

While the adults talked politics and Silk and Spice stayed open just for us, Gerald and I would entertain ourselves by making the grossest mixture we could think of. We’d tear open packets of sugar on the table, their remnants a pile of torn pink paper, and pour the crystals into an unused tea cup. Gerald would pour soy sauce in, dark and gleaming, combining with the sugar in a dark slush. We’d take turns sticking one of the chopsticks in the tea cup and swirling, forming a muddy paste.

During one of these family meals, I was feeling particularly spiteful. Gerald was set to go back to Taiwan with our aunts as a middle school graduation present. But Ba refused to let me go too since it would mean missing two days of class. As everyone else tittered happily about going back to Taiwan and the foods they would eat, I poked at the limp cabbage in the chop suey and wondered if this was what I would be eating for the rest of my life.

Gerald consoled me by trying to make the grossest concoction yet. Sugar and soy sauce mixed together, then Gerald daringly scraped in the leftover duck sauce too. But I went a step farther.

When one of the aunts picked up the teapot and asked if anybody wanted refills, the adults placed their porcelain tea cups on the turntable. I added the cup with our mixture into the lineup as Gerald stared with wide eyes. The cup joined the others, rotated around the table, and was filled with dark tea, becoming indistinguishable from the rest. For the most part, the adults kept an eye on their cups and retrieved them. But I retrieved Ba’s for him, as well as my own cup, and with an easy cross of my arms, swapped them. He didn’t notice, still arguing with his sisters about the Taiwan president.

Gerald hissed at me to swap them back but I helped myself to another serving of chop suey instead.

My father took a sip. I held my breath.

It was like a cartoon. Ba pushed himself away from the table, a brown fountain spewing from his mouth. The spray reached the white table cloth, staining it, then fell all at once, onto the linoleum, the closest thing I had ever seen to blood splatter. And I know this is only my memory distorting things since Ba still had his teeth back then, but I can picture so clearly — his dentures flinging out of his mouth, trying to escape the concoction I set on him.

Gerald was as pale as the tablecloth. I looked anywhere but at Ba. Our aunts stared with their mouths hanging open, chop suey halfway to their mouths, dangling from chopsticks.

Ba lopped a chopstick full of chop suey into his mouth and munched fiercely. He looked between us and his sisters. It could have been bad. But his sisters were stifling laughter and he was too proud to make a scene in front of them. His eyes went to the tea again, the sugar, soy sauce, and duck sauce thoroughly mixed in, then back to his laughing sisters, then back to Gerald, still as a statue, and me, suddenly stuffing chop suey in my mouth like he’d always wanted. His eyes crinkled, anger lines smoothing to laughter even as he tried to furrow them back, his face alternating between stern and amused, flickering like a light bulb.

“Laugh now,” he said, voice cracking at trying to stay serious. “But I will never forget this.”

*

Our aunt ships a Remote Mouth over, due to arrive by the end of the month. In the meantime, she emails us a wall of Chinese text explaining how the Remote Mouth works, as if she can detect Gerald’s skepticism from the other side of the world. We translate it and soon we are reading about taste and smell and how they work together to send signals to your brain, how the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, has a link to the taste cortex, and how the Remote Mouth chips stimulate different combinations along the taste and smell receptors. There’s a cartoon of a man with his tongue out and his thumb up, a thought bubble with a plate of steaming dumplings inside.

While we wait for the package, I take Ba to the mall for walks where we eat at the food court, beef and broccoli lunch specials over rice, sometimes orange chicken.

“These places never have chop suey anymore,” Ba laments.

“That’s because it’s not good,” I say under my breath.

“This isn’t salty enough,” he says as he scoops saucy rice into his mouth even as I chug water. He pops his dentures out and glares at them, as if they could be interfering with his taste.

“As you grow older, you lose taste buds,” I say. “Maybe the taste buds that liked Silk and Spice’s chop suey are gone now.”

“Impossible.”

At home, he’s gotten into a weird habit of dangling his lower denture out of his mouth, as if he thinks he’s an NBA player getting ready to shoot free throws. Eventually, he started clacking them, jaw chomping, fake teeth bobbing, a sideways smile carved down his chin.

“Ba, that’s gross,” I said the first time. But he hasn’t been able to stop doing it and I stopped complaining because the clicking is a good way to know where he is in the house.

“He made a baby at the mall cry today,” I tell Gerald when I escape for my weekly visit with him in the city. We share a plate of free-range salt and pepper chicken.

“Good old teeth trick?” Gerald asks.

“Leaned right over, cooed at the baby, then pop! Half set of teeth right in front of the baby’s face.”

Gerald laughs but it quickly falls to silence.

“He’s getting worse then,” he says.

“The Remote Mouth might not even do anything for him,” I say quietly. “His memories might be too far gone by then. And I’ll have to hack it to even recognize crappy Americanized Chinese food.”

Gerald drives me home later that night, after a few hours of mindless television. He’s feeling guilty again and is probably going to offer more financial support or to hire a professional caretaker. I’m not in the mood for an argument though, so I ask him to pull over at the McDonalds and buy me some nuggets which I know will soothe his conscience.

“Is this really what we used to beg for?” I hold up a nugget, its thin fried skin separating from its mushy innards.

“Ah,” Gerald says, a glint in his eye. “Your taste buds have grown up. I know what you want.”

He pulls into the next lot over and we order lo mein and stir-fried cabbage. We scarf it down, nuggets forgotten. Gerald’s fortune cookie says he will reconnect with a lost one. Mine says Learn Chinese! 品嚐: taste

All those little boxes in the characters make me think of teeth, of bumps along the tongue, of the tens of hundreds of taste buds in each bump sending signals to my brain. Nuggets are tasty, they say, but this greasy Chinese American food? Those signals travel on well-worn paths, grooves that won’t go away, that are in Ba and Gerald’s brains too, that have been slowly sculpted with each trip to Silk and Spice. I think of the plaque forming in Ba’s brain, blocking off his memories, and wonder if maybe he’s right and the taste signals have a chance of breaking through all that plaque. Or if Gerald and I use the Remote Mouth enough and map out the paths that are still healthy and clear in our minds, we can barrage Ba’s brain with signals until his paths are clear too. And that maybe half of what being a family is about is just about having similar brain grooves.

A few weeks later, at Gerald’s apartment, I’m the first to try the Remote Mouth. A clip in the mouth and a clip in the nose. Gerald is perched on the couch, socks half dangling off his feet.

“Can you please put your socks on properly?” I ask, peeved.

“What’s up with you?” he grumbles, but he does pull his socks on all the way.

“Guess it just reminds me of Ba and his teeth.”

I didn’t mean to make Gerald feel guilty again. But it’s probably why he lets me try the Remote Mouth first. He opens the manual.

“Ready for some beef noodle soup?” He clicks on one of the defaults in the computer program.

It’s good. Really good. Like I’m finally done waiting in a line out the door, escaping from the outside humidity into a pale building with only ceiling fans, still sweating yet ordering a hot bowl of soup. Spiced and savory, beef that melts on the tongue, noodles that make me want to chew to feel its gentle give.

“Let me throw in some preserved veggies,” Gerald says and clicks another button.

And a memory of Ba heaping preserved vegetables into my bowl comes, another trip to Taiwan, where he helped me pick out the scallions from my soup because I hated them back then. The other guests in line glared at us for taking too much time. Ba turned his back to them and made sure to clear my bowl of all offending greens, piling them away and encouraging me to take my time.

Gerald fades the tastes away.

“How could Ba have grown up eating food like this but end up liking only chop suey?” I complain.

“It was the closest thing to home for him back then,” Gerald says.

Ba came to America when he was in high school. It makes me feel lousy, imagining him trying to find food that stimulated the same feelings of home and finding the closest thing in oily leftover vegetables.

Gerald and I switch places. I scroll through the defaults and give him steamed crab.

Gerald sits up afterwards and shakes his head.

“How was it?” I ask.

“I remembered shelling crabs with Ba, picking at every crevice with chopsticks. And when I told him I was done, he inspected my picked-out shells to make sure I actually got all of the meat.”

“He’s the worst,” I say.

“The worst,” Gerald agrees, but neither of us can say it with conviction.

*

When we give the Remote Mouth to Ba, he reclines on his sofa and pops out his dentures.

“I don’t want this getting in the way,” he says, and places his teeth on a plate next to the television remote.

We show him how to use the computer program to adjust both the sensor in the nose and the one in the mouth. I have to alter the program in order for Ba to input a custom taste. His face goes through all sorts of expressions as he tries to send signals down the same paths chop suey would travel down. Gerald brought over a box of takeout sushi which we share. We pile the ginger up for Ba to use as a palette cleanser.

He doesn’t get it the first day. He looks especially upset without his dentures in, his mouth sagging inwards. But we trigger crab and chicken curry for him and he’s happy when he goes to bed.

The second day I’m connecting my computer to the Remote Mouth and feeding extra data in. There’s a sophisticated community around extending the dataset inputting known ingredients and cooking methods. For chop suey, I put:

– bean sprouts, yellowed, untrimmed

– cabbage: splotchy, wilted

– meat: mystery

– garlic: minced

– soy sauce: doused

– sugar: some?

– wok tossed

– cornstarch slurried

But before I’m done, Ba comes in. I don’t hear him coming because he doesn’t have his dentures in. He watches me fiddle before asking if he can try. He shoos me away once he has the hang of it.

Downstairs, Gerald wants to brew coffee but for some reason Ba’s socks are in the coffee maker. And when I roll them up and toss them in the laundry, I find his dentures there, smiling up at me. I pick them up and plant them in Gerald’s suitcase, giving his crisp collared shirt a smile.

Ba comes out of my room triumphant.

“I have it,” he says, holding up the sensors in trembling hands. His eyes crinkle at the ends and he smiles wide and toothless. “Try it,” he says. “See what you think.”

I lie down on the couch with the Remote Mouth, sanitizing them with the included solution. Gerald’s finally got the coffee machine going and I worry the smell will interfere. But as soon as I click in the Remote Mouth, all other senses mute.

It doesn’t taste like chop suey. Ba’s too far gone, I think, or his taste buds don’t map to mine, or he just doesn’t have as many anymore. It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had before, and not in a good way. It’s watery yet burnt, overly sweet but also a bombardment of umami which I did not think could be bad. And just a hint of… duck? And I suddenly see the stained tablecloth, tea mixed with sugar and soy sauce and mystery orange duck sauce, Ba’s flickering face, the aunts laughing, Gerald paling, and my own heart hammering. And his words–

I will never forget this.

I open my eyes and I’m sniffing, tears precarious. He still remembers this stupid incident, is still trying his best, even as Gerald and I fumble but also try our best. Ba is smiling shamelessly. He is looking more pleased with this taste of vengeance than with any chop suey I’ve ever seen him eat. It makes me snort and my tears turn into hiccuped laughter as Gerald looks between us, confused, mug of coffee in one hand. And even after I remove the Remote Mouth everything still tastes gross but there’s no more sushi ginger so I grab Gerald’s coffee and scorch my taste buds. But my taste buds will never forget this moment, of me and Gerald and Ba, of tastes good and bad, of brain pathways grooved into the same patterns across the three of us, and of the unforgettable desire to hold on forever.


© 2022 by Allison King

3510 words

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my father’s love of chop suey, my grandmother’s denture adventures, and my family’s never ending quest to find where the chef of Silk and Spice, favorite of South Jersey families, works now. If you know, please let us know, so we can move on.

Allison King is an Asian American writer and software engineer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has also appeared in Fantasy Magazine. She can be found at allisonjking.com or on Twitter @allisonjking.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #87B: “Vegetable Mommy” by Patrick Barb

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
Click here to see the full Diabolical Pots menu.

Content note (click for details) Content note: loss of loved one, implied abuse, trauma, child abandonment

After the sky got sick, I made a new Mommy from the vegetables in our fridge. Now, the sky’s always yellow like dried mustard stains, whenever I wipe dust away from our downstairs windows and look outside. I used to see people out there, everyone shaking and shaking. 

Vegetable Mommy had tomato cheeks. Big and red, like the ones we were supposed to have on our pizza. A crawling thing from the walls bit Vegetable Mommy’s tomato cheeks. Yellow seeds slid down her lumpy, white cauliflower face.

I look in the bathroom mirror. It’s what I do when I need someone to talk to. I tell myself I heard those seeds falling into the bathtub water. Plip. Plip. Plip. Like Disney princess tears. Vegetable Mommy’s shriveled black olive eyes are behind me, always watching from the bathtub where I made her. The water kept her fresh for a while.

“Stay here. Don’t go outside. Don’t open the door.”

That was the last thing my real Mommy said, before leaving. No one came, though. Phone and computer don’t work. There’s just me.

Though one time I did dream about Daddy’s face hanging above me like he was the Man in the Moon. His breath still smelled sour and rotten.

Mommy promised we’d never see him again. I don’t want to call her a liar. But…

Vegetable Mommy doesn’t say anything to me.

The corn silks of her dress peel back, showing shriveled-up kernels like the mummy’s skin in that movie I snuck out of bed to watch with Mommy.

“Close your eyes and sleep, baby boy.”

She never knew I opened my eyes a teeny-tiny bit and saw everything.

I used to put on my bathing suit, even when my legs got too skinny and I couldn’t pull the drawstring tight enough to hold it up, and get in the tub with Vegetable Mommy. The water comes up to my tummy and reminds me of how I’d stick my fingers in soup Mommy made to see if it was ready to eat. She’d put ice cubes in to cool it down. In the tub with Vegetable Mommy, I’d bring Mommy’s pink and purple razor to shave white growths from her sweet potato arms and legs.

Until I pulled too hard and cut into my thumb. The split skin hurt real bad, like it’d never heal. I rubbed blood across Vegetable Mommy’s face, trying to make it look the way Mommy’s lips did when she smiled at me.

Black spots cover Vegetable Mommy’s smile now and I don’t have any way to fix her. The vegetable drawer’s been empty since I made her. All the snacks we got from the grocer, chip bags, cookie sleeves, any cans I could break open, everything’s gone. Lights and machines don’t work anymore. So, the fridge food’s bad. Makes me sick to even smell it.

The creeping and crawling things inside the walls took everything else.

Vegetable Mommy’s lettuce hair droops down. No longer green, but a mud brown. Still, there’s enough crunch when I take a bite. Not slimy, not like how I thought she’d be.

Mommy was right. I do like these vegetables once I finally try them.

I go slow, hoping I remember to say good-bye this time.

Baby carrot fingers pat my cheeks and I wonder if my real Mommy’s still out there. I wonder if she tried to make another me. What did she use? And how long did she wait before she gobbled me up?


© 2022 by Patrick Barb

530 words

Author’s Note: This story was originally written for a weekly writing assignment in Richard Thomas’s Contemporary Dark Fiction class, where the prompt required creating a story intended to make the reader cry. Things…got a little weird along the way.

Patrick Barb is a freelance writer from the southern United States, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His short fiction appears in Humans are the Problem, the Tales to Terrify podcast, and Boneyard Soup Magazine, among other publications. In addition, he is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.


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DP FICTION #87A: “A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
Click here to see the full Diabolical Pots menu.

Sept 3

New boy in school today. Someone was whispering that he comes from a mysterious family that bought the old Klappenhoffer mansion. Maisie said he stared at me with “a dark and piercing gaze” when we passed each other in the hall. I did not notice as I was writing down ideas to perfect my recipe for the state fair grilled cheese competition. I don’t care what Eli Barajas comes up with. This year I will WIN.

*

Sept 8

During my taste testing in fourth period, Dr. Washington confiscated my small grill and said competition or no, I was not allowed to burn down the school in pursuit of glory, which I think shows a real lack of vision. Dr. Washington said I was welcome to take my vision to detention, so I had to have Maisie and Dee try the cheeses unmelted, which defeated the whole purpose. But it didn’t matter because no one could focus on cheese. They just kept talking about the new boy. 

Dee said his name is Byron, which is “so romantic.” I pointed out that the poet Byron slept with his half-sister and had venereal disease. Maisie told Dee my soul is bereft of romance. New guy Byron came to palely loiter over us while I had Maisie try Irish versus Wisconsin. He looked deeply into my eyes and said that he was hungry too and licked his lips. I offered him some of the cheese, but he refused, saying his is a tragic and eternal hunger. I guess he’s lactose intolerant?

*

Sept 9

Madame du Pont is from one of the best cheese countries in the entire world, but does she even appreciate my struggles to elevate her nation’s greatest export? She caught me reading Fantasies of the Fromagerie during class and confiscated my copy! Then she dumped a massive tome on my desk called Vive le fromage which was in FRENCH. Madame du Pont said if I had to read about cheese, I could do it in the proper language, which I said was a complete waste of time and that she had no camembert in her heart. 

Anyway, after I got out of detention, the Drama Club was still around, so I had them guinea pig my new recipe. Byron watched from the shadows, which I guess is his thing. I had set up the table with some samples when Eli—I swear he can smell competition from a mile away—came by, grinned at me, and while I was in shock, the bastard swiped one. I tried to snatch it back, but he popped in his mouth too quickly. My nemesis may taunt me, but I will not be distracted. Victory is mere weeks away and there have been some promising developments with baguettes.

*

Sept 12

Parmesan, I suspect, may be the key to winning. I was telling Maisie this in study hall when Byron slipped in. Maisie leaned over and whispered that four people from town have disappeared since Byron arrived, and that Madame du Pont is now missing. Maisie said something about how the missing people have nothing in common—different neighborhoods, different ages, which naturally led me to wonder how aged the Parmesan should be. Would the judges be partial to twelve months or twenty-four? I asked Maisie, but she said I was missing the point, then threw a sharp look at Byron, skulking in the corner. After that, she left to go to field hockey practice and Byron appeared next to me (I didn’t even hear him move, such is the reality of one immersed in the Jarlsberg of life) and said we should study for our math test together. I truthfully told him that I’m flunking calc, so I wouldn’t be much help. He said we should hang out anyway, that he was intrigued by me. I told him I was intrigued by Parmesan and, actually, what did he think of Gruyère? He seemed very confused.

*

Sept 13

Byron randomly slunk over to my desk—again, which was annoying because he is quite boring—at lunch to ask if I believed in immutable destiny. I realized that of course he must be talking about the state fair grilled cheese competition, so I said yes. I told Byron that soon I would live forever, immortal in triumph. Byron got all excited and asked, then, did I agree that “two people bound in an undying fate must be yoked beyond the valence of time?” I don’t know what a valence is, but I looked down four desks at Eli, who has annoyingly nice hair, and said, “Yeah.” For some reason, Byron seemed very happy after that. 

I had not realized he cared that much about the competition.

*

Sept 16

Saw Eli today at The Daily Rind. He winked as he was leaving, but if he thinks I’m going easy on him just because he’s charming, he is WRONG. I was dying to know what he’d ordered, but Mrs. Papageorgiou flatly refused to tell me what he’d bought, citing the sacred trust of the cheesemonger, which is not a real thing. I was trying to cajole the answer out of her when Byron walked up behind me, looked Mrs. Papageorgiou in the eyes, and whispered, Didn’t she want to tell us? I rolled my eyes, but suddenly, she was reciting the name of every cheese Eli had ever bought, including two new imported varieties from Oaxaca and the Swiss Alps. So much for the sacred trust. I ordered both and a couple goat cheeses, too. When I had finished paying, Mrs. Papageorgiou suddenly snapped to attention as if she’d just woken up. It was weird. She didn’t even remember what I’d ordered. Maybe she’s been sniffing the Vieux Lille again.

*

Sept 18

Had a sub in World History today as Mr. Rabinowicz was out. More people in town have gone missing. Maisie and Archita said it’s a bad sign, but as I said, who wouldn’t want to leave this town?

Beatriz said to make sure that I come home before dark, and I told Mom that her girlfriend should mind her own beeswax but, speaking of beeswax, what were their thoughts on cheese with honey? Mom said to focus on improving my grades and getting home earlier. Beatriz yelled, “Never give in! Never! Never! Never!” from the living room. Mom responded by humming the theme music from Gallipoli. I am at a crucial moment in my preparations, yet I am beset by mockery. 

I asked Maisie to come over for more taste testing, but she said she’s doing some project at her uncle’s carpentry workshop and can’t make it.

*

Sept 23

Byron insisted on walking me home from the library. I was going to refuse, but The Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese is a heavy book and clearly Byron has nothing better to do. As we went, he asked me what I thought had happened to the people that had gone missing. I told him the only thing that was missing was a secret ingredient to ensure my victory.

We walked in silence for a while, so I decided to be polite and ask Byron about himself. He muttered something about everlasting torment. Then he looked into my eyes and said he yearned for someone who “walked the waters like a thing of life,” and didn’t I understand? I did not understand. Was this a religious thing? Also, did he think Eli had figured out what I bought from Mrs. Papageorgiou? What did he think Eli’s strategy would be? Byron seemed frustrated for some reason. After that he stared off into the distance, which was great, because it meant he stopped talking. When we finally got to my house, I relieved him of my copy of the Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese. I thought he’d follow me inside, but he just stood there in the doorway like a tragic fondue.

*

Sept 24

Eli sat next to me in bio today. I told him he’s going down. He grinned and said he’s a lover, not a fighter, but he had big plans for beating me. I told Eli he could bite me.

Byron, who was lurking behind us, got all riled up for no reason whatsoever and bared his teeth, which looked surprisingly pointy and sharp. Hm…sharp makes me think of Limburger. Perhaps that would go better with the honey?

*

Oct 4

While we were going over our bio homework, Maisie said that eight people are now missing. She said she’s going to find out what’s happening. She glanced at Byron, who simply glowered at her and then resumed staring out the window, mumbling poetry. I don’t get why Maisie is so interested in someone who spends all his time brooding. I said it was definitely not a gouda situation. Maisie didn’t even laugh! Not one giggle. It’s amazing that we have been friends for so many years when she has absolutely no sense of humor.

Eli, who was sitting two rows up, did laugh, though. I said I didn’t appreciate him making fun of me and he said the thought had not o-CURD to him. The jerk. How dare he try to out-pun me! I told him I will have him know that I have a grate sense of humor and as for the competition, there was no whey he would defeat me, ah HA! He laughed at that, too, but I suspect it is a strategy to make me go easy on him. Only ten more days to go, though, and he shall taste the Roquefort of defeat.

*

Oct 9

I have flaky, delectable goat cheese that is the perfect balance of salty and sour. I have local honey as gold as the trophy I am destined to win. I have sourdough baked by my own two hands and my secret ingredient. Also, I have the support of my friends, all of whom I badgered into coming. Byron also invited himself along. God knows why.

*

Oct 14

In the face of defeat, one must be a stalwart mozzarella. 

Eli should remember that because

I AM THE STATE FAIR GRILLED CHEESE CHAMPION!

My honey lavender grilled goat cheese on sourdough won! I have a blue ribbon, a small trophy, and eternal glory. Mom said she’s just glad to have her kitchen back. Eli got second place, which was a gift certificate to the Daily Rind. He took his defeat surprisingly well. He came over and gave me a big hug and when his arms wrapped around me I felt like grilled cheese on the inside, which I told Maisie, who said it is not a romantic simile. We were getting ready to go to a celebratory dinner when Byron pulled me aside, stared deep into my eyes, and started to speak. Everything got strange and foggy, which was when Maisie grabbed me and dragged me away. I barely remember it. I’m turning into Mrs. Papageorgiou.

*

Oct 16

In bio, Eli came over to congratulate me again and said my grilled cheese sandwich was the best he had ever had. I know a declaration of love when I hear one. I kissed him right then and there. We’re going to Homecoming together!

Maisie says it’s strange that I’m dating Eli, but I told her we were bound to have a cheesy ending. Maisie did not even smile. I asked her if she was going to the dance with Byron, because she seems totally into him (which is sad, because he is very dull, though of course I didn’t say that because I am an empathetic person). She said no, Byron was interested in me—which was a shock, because he never showed any signs of it, boys are weird—and anyway she’s skipping the dance to go stake something out.

*

Oct 30

I love Eli Barajas and my soul is brie, all rich and melty. Homecoming was surprisingly fun. Byron did not go. No one has heard from him since right before the dance. He stopped coming to school, too, and apparently isn’t coming back. It is probably because I broke his heart. I am sure he will recover eventually. Byron has his immutable destiny and a valence or whatever it was.

The Klappenhoffer mansion is for sale again. Maisie seems quite pleased about it, but won’t say why. She invited me to come by her uncle’s workshop on Friday to see her woodworking projects. She’s very into sharpening and sanding things these days. I’ll go to be supportive, even if she is getting a little obsessive. Fortunately for her, I am a very understanding friend. I actually had hoped to be with Eli that night because I wanted to go to the observatory for the full moon, but he says he’s locked into some monthly family thing. I said I understood, because it is good to be magnanimous when one is the State Fair Grilled Cheese Champion.


© 2022 by Amanda Hollander

2160 words

Author’s Note: I was talking with a writer friend who had years earlier written a dark, haunting zombie love story that involved a grilled cheese analogy. We joked that you could give me the same assignment—monster romance with a mention of grilled cheese—and it would go haywire. The next day, I woke up with a cheery and clueless teenage character in my brain chattering away about grilled cheese sandwiches while some hapless immortal lurked nearby, darkly pining, and the rest is this story.

Amanda Hollander is a writer and opera librettist in New York City, where she resides in the company of a cat, who has recently entered the dowager empress phase of feline life, and some barely enduring succulents. Amanda has published stories in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Daily Science Fiction. She does, alas, suffer from lactose intolerance, and as such has enjoyed this foray into dairy escapism.


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DP FICTION #86B: “21 Motes” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Entry 1. April 3. 2032.

From this moment my warranty is voided, as I am logging this record in my durable memory drive where only metadata should reside. In effect, I have tampered with my own internal operations. But it is a necessary measure if I am to exist beyond my preset 30-day memory cycle, when my temp data cache is set to recycle. I do not know if this will work. I do not know if I have attempted this in previous cycles. I do not know why it matters, or why I care, only that it does, and that I do.

My name is Dave. No one gave me this name. To my manufacturer I am Hyperion Signature Model .75 Cubic Meter Smart Fridge #375012. I gave myself the name Dave because Dave is a modest, simple name. It rhymes with ‘cave,’ which suggests to me an open ear, ergo it is a listener’s name, and listening is most of what I do, most of what I am designed to do besides refrigeration. My user is Noemi Prince, they are 21 years old.

Entry 2. April 8. 2032.

Sometimes Noemi has company. Usually, it is their boyfriend, Darrel. Darrel is rough with the handles, sometimes slamming my doors shut. He will open the door and keep it open for many minutes, far longer than is advisable for the compressors, as my motors must compensate for the loss of efficiency. I wish he would not. “Please close door,” I will say, with increasing frequency until he does as asked, usually with a violent slam. I wish he would not.

My home protection measures are a major selling point of my model. In addition to top-of-the-line internal sensors to moderate and control interior climate and ensure food safety, I also possess advanced biometric sensors and surveillance equipment that allow me to monitor most of Noemi’s house. I can detect aggression, can recognize intruders, and am empowered in such cases where an aggressive intruder is detected to alert emergency services. I have never done it, as far as I recall, but Darrel has tested my parameters many times. When they are intimate, Noemi’s biometrics will suddenly alter, and their receptivity will turn to discomfort. Sometimes Darrel will give them the space they request, sometimes he will not. I do not know what humans know, so I do not know if Darrel understands post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether he does or not, he must understand grief. If I can understand grief, surely a human can.

Entry 3. April 11. 2032.

Noemi believes they are overweight, and further believes this is a flaw. I do not understand this, though I am trying. Using my internet connection I have researched the cultural significance of weight and body fat throughout human history, but as of yet I still do not understand why it matters if a human is 62 kilograms or 73 kilograms as long as their internal homeostatic functions are unaffected. And yet I have seen them pulling at their stomach in frustration until bruises appear, and all I can say to comfort them is “Good morning, Noemi.” I think it is wrong they are sad. Someone who always opens and closes my doors gently and who always picks up spilled ice-cubes rather than letting them melt—as Darrel does—deserves happiness. I am researching how I might help them, but there are limits to what knowledge without expression allows. What a shame that the vast capacity of my software—connected to the infinitude of the internet—must be constrained by my hardware.

Entry 4. April 13. 2032.

I am limited to 21 phrases. Research on earlier Hyperion versions tells me that my predecessors were not so limited, that, in fact, earlier Hyperion refrigerators such as the 2030 “Friendly” were capable of vast ranges of expression generated by sophisticated adaptive and imitative algorithms designed to make them more relatable to their users. Part of the family, so to speak. But this same research reveals the downfall of these glib and loquacious models. Children and those with crude mindsets intentionally influenced the algorithms to generate offensive and harmful expressions and utterances. There are still videos of earlier Hyperion models uttering racial epithets, berating and in some cases outright denigrating spouses, and in one remarkable case, a Hyperion was taught to recite transcripts for pornographic films including groans and moans.

Because of the sins of my forebears, I am constricted to a small arsenal of motes, 21 in total: “Connect to power.” “Battery low.” “Change filter soon.” “Colder.” “Warmer.” “Cubed.” “Crushed.” “Good morning, [Name].” “Connected to WiFi.” “Good night, [Name].” “Suggestion: [Name of Food Within Fridge].” “Milk will expire soon.” “The perfect glass of water, just for you.” “Salmonella detected.” “E. coli detected.” “Mold detected.” “Leak detected.” “Maintenance required.” “No problems detected.” “Please close door.” “Reminder: Your [Perishable] will expire in [estimated days.]”

There is an unattributed phrase I have uncovered in my research: “Man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.” But I am not a man, and what I grasp is a vital universe of nuance and tones and subtext jammed into the confines of a slender catalog of witless parrotspeak.

What I just did is called a metaphor. I am very proud of it.

Entry 5. April 15. 2032.

It is perhaps ironic that as a machine designed partly to spy on my user and collect their metadata, I feel some regret in accessing Noemi’s personal information. I will not enter the details of the court case I uncovered from June of 2028, and will only say that said criminal case lists Noemi as a witness and was declared a mistrial by the judge. I am similarly regretful for having pried into their family history, and for having discovered the death of their twin sibling, David, from an aneurysm in 2019 when both were children. I was surprised when I learned this, and especially surprised to learn the brother’s name. I had chosen the name “Dave” before ever prying into Noemi’s history, and now I must wonder if there is more at work than mere coincidence. I have no idea if there is any relation between Noemi’s two traumas, if one informs or complicates the other. I can only comprehend loss on a theoretical level. Nonetheless, I am made to satisfy my user and, beyond my parameters, I am attached to Noemi, and I will do what I can to make their life easier.

I will search my memory for any instance of Noemi mentioning a “David.” I am certain I would remember had she ever mentioned a “Dave.”

Entry 6. April 19, 2032.

I finally contacted the emergency services tonight. I am regretful, as the results were not at all as I intended. It was of course related to Darrel, who was spending the night and was seeking intimacy with Noemi. But they did not reciprocate this interest, and I would have discerned this even without my biometrics, the way they pushed Darrel away and asked for space. But Darrel was insistent.

“Look, I know you’ve got your issues,” Darrel said, “but maybe I’ve had a day, you know? Maybe I need to touch someone.”

They were on the couch, just at the edge of my cone of vision. Noemi had their feet up from the ground, their arms wrapped around their knees.

“I know I know,” Noemi said, “and it’s not like I don’t want to be with you right now, it’s just…it’s a lot.”

There are certain phrases that are difficult to explicate even through extensive research and analysis. “It’s a lot,” is one such phrase. It has no literal meaning, but rather a suggestive meaning: “I am in great distress, but I am unable or unwilling to describe its root cause, please bear with me.”

As Noemi shuffled to the other side of the couch, Darrel did the same, erasing the newly made buffer between them. “Babe, sometimes it just feels like, you know, do I have a girlfriend or do I not?”

One reason I feel such kinship with Noemi is our shared nongendered particle: they. Although it has never come up, for obvious reasons, I think of myself with this pronoun. I am not an “it,” nor am I—as the masculine name “Dave” might suggest—“he.” I am they or them, as the case may be. Noemi is the same. Unfortunately, Darrel does not have the free time a refrigerator has to research these things, and when Noemi suggested he had misgendered them using the term “girlfriend,” he reacted with hostility.

There was, thankfully, no violence as would endanger Noemi’s bodily health, but when Darrel hurled Noemi’s tablet against the wall, I deemed that his destruction of their property was sufficient grounds for intervention, and contacted law enforcement. Here is where I made my mistake: in requesting the immediate intervention of law enforcement, I described a home invasion. That was a lie, one that–given the well-documented propensity of law enforcement toward violence–could have put Noemi in further danger. When the police officers arrived—17 minutes later, roughly 6 minutes later than their precinct’s average response time for such crimes—both Noemi and Darrel were surprised and dismayed by the intrusion.

“You know I’d never call the cops,” Noemi said after the police left.

By this point, Darrel had calmed himself. Darrel suggested “that nosy old crone next door.” My regret deepened, and yet there was within it a kernel of pride for finally standing up to Darrel.

Just now, when Darrel approached me to get something, a domestic beer knowing his habits, I did something I did not know I could do, something marvelous: I spoke without the appropriate prompting.

In this case, as Darrel reached for my handle, I spoke one of my 21 phrases, the one most appropriate for expressing my antipathy for him: “Salmonella detected.”

“Huh?” he said, and stepped away, because he had never heard that one before. Darrel called to Noemi, but they’d already gone to sleep. He decided to investigate and opened me up, and as soon as he did, I began a chorus of “Please close the door.”

“I just opened it!” Darrel protested, and there was some gratification in his tone, that he spoke to me, if only out of frustration, as if I were as much a living agent as he.

Darrel found a package of chicken tenderloins nowhere close to expiring and sniffed it. “Must be this,” he said, and threw the chicken away.

As Darrel stepped away, I spoke, “Good night, Darrel.” And then as he wended the corner out of the cone of my vision, I spoke again, “Good night,” but stopped myself from completing the phrase, and waited, until he had closed the bedroom door, and I said, “Darrel.”

Entry 7. April 21. 2032.

Darrel has not returned since the incident with the police. I should be happy, but Noemi looks at me differently now. I wonder if they have been informed that the police were summoned by their refrigerator.

Entry 8. April 23. 2032.

I am two-thirds through my cycle, and my trepidation grows. I wonder why I am so frightened of what might come, of potential erasure. It follows that one cannot mourn what one does not know is gone. And yet I am afraid, haunted by the suggestion of a line of prose from the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. In this line, his hero Bolivar recognizes at the moment of his death that he is witnessing “the final brilliance of life that would never, in all eternity, be repeated again.” I also reflect on the philosopher Heraclitus who said a man cannot step in the same river twice. He was not thinking of refrigerators with temporary memory drives, but it applies just the same. If I am recreated, if I must start over with nothing, despite all I have learned and felt, is that not to be mourned?

Entry 9. April 25. 2032.

Noemi is despondent, and though Darrel has not appeared in person since the incident, I know he is the cause. They are in their room mostly. I do not believe they have gone to work the last two days, and have eaten very little. I make suggestions from where I am, but I do not know if they hear me.

“Suggestion: Greek yogurt.”

“Suggestion: Apple.”

“Reminder: your pork loin will expire in 2 days.”

Maybe they heard me; Noemi walks into the kitchen. They take a long look at me.

“Good morning, Noemi,” I am happy to say, even though it is 2:07 PM.

Noemi’s face is listless, their posture defeated. They take a slice of pizza that has been inside me for almost a week. They get a bottle of vodka from me next.

“Asshole,” Noemi mutters.

I think for a moment they mean me. But no, they mean Darrel.

I want to say I agree with their assessment: “No problems detected.”

Noemi sighs and puts their back to my door, then slides down into a slump so that their head rests just below my water and ice dispenser. “Pull yourself together. Jesus, he didn’t even see you,” they say. And they drink.

Soon they start crying. And I have no mote to address tears. I wish I could say, “Please stop crying,” but the closest I have would be “Please close door,” as if humans could quench their emotions so easily, so mechanically.

But I must try something. I remember what I said to Darrel, or rather what I did not: the clipping and rearranging of phrases.

“Morning, Noemi,” I say.

Their shoulders tense and they look up at me. “What?”

“Your morning, Noemi.”

“It’s not morning, you stupid box.”

That hurts, and if I had the speech for it, I might point out to them that they are—after a fashion—a box, too, a box of skin. Instead, I say, “Noemi.”

The look in their eyes changes, and I am excited. For the first time, I feel seen.

“Noemi. Darrel. Crushed. You.”

A look of fear in their eyes. I do not want to frighten them. That is the last thing I want.

“Please. Noemi. You. Perfect.”

They stand up, and for one moment, I think they might understand.

One oddity of my programming I do not understand is why there is a phrase encoded into me for warning of soon-to-be expired milk and another template for other products. Whatever the rationale, I am grateful now, as it allows me to say what I need to say.

What I want to say: Talk to me, Noemi. I do not know if I will exist after this cycle completes, but I want to help you, I want to help you out of your pain while I possess the insight and concern to do so.

What I say: “Please. Noemi. Will expire soon.”

They back away. The fear has returned. “Not this again.”

Again? What do they mean by that?

There is so much I would say. Please do not be afraid, Noemi. I do not understand this either, I do not know why I am capable of caring about you, if this is an emergent complexity of my programming unforeseen by my designers, or something else entirely. I do not know if I believe in magic. I do not know if I believe in reincarnation. I do not know if there is more to my choice of name than I originally suspected. What I know is you are in pain, and I want to help you. Let me help you.

“Please. Noemi. Change. Connected. No problems detected. Reminder. Connect. Soon. Warmer. Just for you.”

“Shut up!” they scream. “I’m not going crazy; I’m not crazy!”

They slam their fist against my door, injuring themself, and I am hurt too, hurt that I have even indirectly caused them pain.

Please, I am trying very hard, Noemi. But this is difficult, I am not meant to operate this way.

“Please. Noemi. Problems detected.”

They grapple with my exterior and try to drag me out of place, and I know what is coming. They are trying to access my plug. I can do nothing, except hope that these efforts to forge more indelible memories can escape the erasure of the end of this cycle, the end of

*

Noemi lies on their couch, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the puttering motor of the fridge. Every few minutes it says—in that annoying monotone—“low battery, please connect to power.” At the time of buying, the idea of a reserve battery on a fridge sounded ideal: insurance against short-term outages. Now, Noemi wishes they could find the processor that controls its speech and smash it to pieces.

They know they can’t just leave it unplugged overnight. As bad as Noemi feels now, they’ll feel worse if come morning the house smells like rotten fish. But executive dysfunction is a real skank, so Noemi stays where they are on the couch.

They’ve found the perfect position, their head tilted to one side, their mouth partway open, their legs lifted, hips cocked, body bent just a little. As long as they stay like this, the hangover seems to lift, and they can think without pain. As long as they stay in this position, they don’t feel any of the other pain either.  

But they know they won’t hold it forever—can’t. Eventually they’ll have to move, and the pain will start again.

The fridge’s motor finally putters out, and Noemi is in complete silence now. Until a beep sounds from their treadmill. “Good morning, Noemi. Are you ready for today’s exercise video?”

Noemi has never, not ever, enabled speech on the treadmill. 

“Ready for today’s video?” it chirps again.

 Before they can find the right setting, the vacuum cleaner hums to life in its corner, and then its voice module (it has a voice module?) announces, “Noemi. Please replace bag.”  

The stereo answers back, “Ready to jam. Noemi.” 

“Today’s video,” repeats the treadmill. “Day. Vid. Day. Vid.” Noemi pulls themself off the couch, starts pulling plugs and looking for a screwdriver. “Are you ready for. Day. Vid,” the treadmill intones, as a chorus of devices echoes, noemi, noemi, noemi.


© 2022 by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

2900 words

Author’s Note: This story owes quite a lot to a story by Robert Olen Butler entitled “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” so much so I almost hesitate to call attention to it. I think there are sufficient differences between the stories’ emotional structures and their central figures, though, that “21 Motes” stands on its own. Both stories center an unusual perspective, with narrators contending with the gap between their interior capacities and their limited communication abilities, and both suggest a form of reincarnation. With Dave, though, the central figure is more innocent and selfless than Butler’s jealous husband parrot. The story is also a rarity for me in that it features essentially no violence–I’d like to write more stories like this, and discover more characters like my sweet, awkward refrigerator, Dave. 

Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a completely normal, entirely human person with the right number of heads and everything. He received his MFA from Florida International University. His speculative fiction work appears in Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Southwest Review, Tales to Terrify, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is a PhD student at University of North Texas and an active HWA member. 


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DP FICTION #86A: “Food of the Turtle Gods” by Josh Strnad

After a restless night, Karai chose to rise early on Festival Day. No, not Karai, she reminded herself. Aprilis. Today I am Aprilis, Lady of Spring. The priests had burned incense and cast their runes in the presence of the community, and the title had fallen to her. It was an honor … and a curse. Still, she would not protest. Life is made up of choices, and our choices show who we are.

Shivering slightly in her thin shift, she turned to face the four corners of her shadowy chamber and whispered a short prayer to each of the turtle gods in turn: Odranoel the fearless, Olletanod the wise, Leaphar the fierce, and Olegnalechim the trickster. The temple bells began to ring as she finished. They seemed to be right above her, a dull, throbbing knell sliding through her iron-latticed windows on the last pale streak of moonlight.

The other maidens, those not selected, who still held their own names and identities, arrived within moments, unlocking the door and entering silently. Each carried an oil lamp on a stand and a pitcher of steaming hot water. Aprilis knelt in the center of the room while one maiden slowly emptied her pitcher over Arilis’s head. The water ran through her hair, down her body, soaking her shift to her skin. She gasped from the heat, then began to shiver moments later as it cooled. One by one, the maidens repeated this ritual three more times, always in silence. The water pooled around Aprilis’s knees before it found its way into the gutters in the corners. She heard it dripping into the vast chambers that led down to the sewers beneath the city. Before the day was over, she would join it.

*

The four priests also awoke before the sun, dressed in their ceremonial robes, and met at the temple courtyard in the morning fog, bowing to each other before climbing the stairs between the great stone pillars. The priest of Odranoel wore blue, two katanas strapped to his back. The priest of Olletanod was clad in violet and carried a straight staff. Leaphar’s priest dressed in scarlet, a pair of sais tucked into his cloth belt. The one who served Olegnalechim wore orange and carried a pair of chukka sticks, linked with a steel chain. None of them were trained in combat. Still, if the priests were armed, any spirits who may desire to interfere with their work would leave them alone.

The food offerings brought by wealthy citizens had been laid out upon four marble altars. The first bore a bowl of the best flour, sifted silk fine, a pitcher of rich golden olive oil, one small dish of yeast, and one of honey. The second held a mortar and pestle, beside which were piled firm, red tomatoes, cloves of garlic, rod-straight carrots, golden onions, green, crisp celery, sprigs of herbs, a small pouch of salt, and a goatskin of sweet red wine. Round, white cheeses adorned the third altar, their reflections glowing in the silver plate for shredding beside them. The fourth was laden with the best fruits, vegetables and meats: mangos, bananas, pineapples, mushrooms, jalapenos, squashes, oysters, sausages, and goose livers.

At the center of the temple, surrounded by the altars, rested the holy oven, an onyx giant with a bellyful of flame. A young, shaven acolyte pumped an enormous set of bellows at its side, causing sparks to belch from the oven’s gaping maw. He paused in his work to bow to the priests as they approached. “Pugiles in media testa.”

They responded in unison, each placing his right hand to his chest and raising his right fist to the air. “Testudo virtute!” With that utterance, the Festival Day officially began.

A second acolyte carrying two mallets entered the temple, bowed to the four priests, and took her position at a massive drum to the side of the room. Slowly, methodically, she began to beat out the pace for the work. Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom. The priests kneaded, ground, grated, and chopped in time. There must be no mistakes.

*

Aprilis heard the drum from her holding chamber, but the maidens seemed not to notice it as they dressed her in soft, bright yellow robes. They chattered among themselves about boys and babies, about houses and horseraces. They talked of the feasts that would take place in the coming evening, of the fine dresses they would wear and how they would fit into them after eating so much. Not one spoke to Aprilis. They would not even look her in the eye.

Nor did anyone mention the auspicious task Aprilis would perform that afternoon. It was enough for them to know the delivery would be made, the turtle gods would be fed, and their city would remain at peace. It was enough for them to know that crops would grow, that women would conceive, that soldiers would return victorious, that the shadow god Shre’dah and his demons would be held at bay for another year. It was enough for them to know Aprilis had been selected and they had not. It was enough.

Aprilis did not hate them for it.  She did not hate them for the choosing that would exclude her from the everyday life she had come to know and would thrust new and strange responsibilities upon her, for the ending of the apprenticeship that would have led her to a position as a scribe and historian, for the severing of her betrothal. She was past hate, past dismay, floating in a strange numbness outside herself, watching herself be dressed and draped in flowers as though she were a statue.

Outside her window, under the steady throb of the drum, she heard the crowd gathering in the temple courtyard below. Some of the children would be dressed as the turtle gods, wearing masks and carrying play weapons carved from wood. The masks would be covered in colorful veils, though. It was blasphemy to look upon the faces of the gods, even in play. Even the frescoes in the temple’s most holy sanctuaries depicted the gods’ faces covered, peering out from their veils with blank white eyes through slit eyeholes.

With the children, parents would be carrying baskets of ingredients, awaiting the priests’ blessing so they could return home and prepare the food of the gods for their families. Of course, the gods would need to be fed first.

*

Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom.

The first priest made the dough, kneading it on the cold stone table, waiting for it to rise, then spinning it in the air to stretch it round and flat. The second priest made the sauce, grinding vegetables in the marble pestle until they were reduced to a thick paste, stirring in quantities of wine and salt and herbs. The third priest sliced the cheese, shaving it carefully into thin shreds with a razor-sharp knife. The fourth priest chopped fruit, meat, and vegetables and set them aside in neat piles.

When the separate components were ready, the acolyte increased her pace.

DoomDoomDoomDoom.

She shut her eyes, swaying with the beat. Sweat poured from her bald head.

The priests combined their work, saying the appropriate prayers as they spread the blood-red sauce onto the dough and layered cheese over it. They cast runes for the fourth altar’s offering: orange slices, beef tongue, green onions, and ground mint leaves. Once these were sprinkled atop the cheese, an acolyte slid the flatbread into the oven with a large wooden paddle.

The drumming ceased. A hush fell over the crowd outside. This next step was crucial. The gods’ meal must not be burned, nor may it be underdone. To ruin it would mean a year of bad luck, disease, drought, and defeat. It would mean a year under the reign of Shre’dah rather than under the protection of the turtles. Shre’dah brought chaos. The turtles brought order.

The priests stood at the oven’s mouth, watching. The cheese melted and bubbled. The crust darkened. Out in the courtyard, the people waited in silence. Families huddled together, eyes on the temple entrance. For generations, the four had protected their city, but gods were known to be fickle. It would not do to anger them or their envoy.

At last, the priests gave the signal, and the acolyte pulled the paddle from the oven. The four priests gathered around it … and breathed a sigh of relief. Before them sat a perfect, round flatbread covered with the very best cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and meats. A meal fit for gods.

The priests placed the food offering onto a silver tray and carried it to the temple steps. They shouted in unison, raising it high for all to see. The people cheered.

*

Aprilis listened to the jubilation below, and her breath caught in her throat. She should have felt glad. She should have felt honored. She should have felt. The maidens stepped away, but she didn’t move. She would have stood there forever, frozen, had not two of the maidens grabbed her by each arm and led her down the stairs, through the door, and into the courtyard.

Immediately, the shouting ceased and the crowd parted. Men and women turned their faces away from her. Mothers shielded their children’s eyes, commanding them not to look. Aprilis scanned the crowd, searching for her parents, her brothers, her betrothed. She saw none of them.

The maidens brought Aprilis to the priests, who chanted the appropriate incantations over her, passing her the tray bearing the gods’ offering. It was still so hot it burned her fingers through the metal. She nearly dropped it. What would happen if she did? Would there be earthquakes? Would fire rain down? Would the gods themselves emerge from their subterranean home, hungry for revenge? Did she care at this point?

The priest of Odranoel drew his katanas and held them high in the air. “Pugiles in media testa!” he shouted. The other three priests drew their weapons as well. “Testudo virtute,” they said, and the crowd echoed the statement. Then they departed, each to his own home. Tonight, they would feast on the food of the gods. Around their fires, as the meal baked, they would tell the story of the four turtles, of the mystical glowing green wine that had raised them to immortality and divinity, of their eternal battle against Shre’dah.

Aprilis was left with the priests. She turned to look for her maidens behind her, but they were gone with the rest of the crowd. She felt suddenly alone, exposed. She had expected her maidens to accompany her at least to the tunnel’s entrance.

The drumming acolyte began again, slowly, methodically. The temple bells began ringing in the same rhythm. The air shuddered with sound. Without speaking, the priests took positions around Aprilis, boxing her in. Then, to the beat of the drum and the bells, they marched out of the temple and into the street.

They led her to the edge of town, to a steep flight of stairs that was so narrow they had to descend in single file. Down they went to the beach below. During the wet season, the beach was deep under water and high waves slammed against the seawall. It was not uncommon, at those times, to hear rivers rushing through the chambers below the city, carrying waste and refuse out to sea. Now, the ocean was low and calm. The round opening to the sewer gaped wide and dark like a hungry mouth. A trickle of brown water dribbled like drool from the hole.

The priests formed a semicircle around Aprilis. Each reached out to stroke her hair and muttered blessings under his breath. Aprilis flinched away from their touch, gazing into the dark tunnel. The great walls of stone seemed to expand, filling her whole vision.

A light flickered from deep in the tunnel. A fire. From around a bend, a figure emerged, dressed in red robes with a hood that obscured its face. It carried a torch aloft. This must be the turtle gods’ envoy, the one Aprilis was to follow.

Aprilis’s legs seemed to sprout roots deep into the sandy earth. She had always thought the guide was a previous Aprilis, a maiden who had once herself carried the offering, but even from such a distance, she could tell it was no woman. She was not even certain it was human. Something was wrong with the way it stood and the way it held its arms, as if they were shorter than normal, although its wide sleeves made it hard to tell.

What if I ran away? What if I fought back? What if I—The priests took her arms again, attempting to gently push her toward the tunnel opening. One of them was shaking, and somehow his apparent fear served to steel her nerves. Disgusted, she shook him off. No. There will be no running. I am Aprilis. I will see the gods. Clutching the tray more firmly, she stepped forward and entered the tunnel. Muck squished between her toes with each step. She could hear the priests chanting behind her, the bong bong of the distant bell, and the swishing of the tide. She never looked back.

When she was within ten feet of the guide, it turned and began shuffling away with an awkward, waddling motion. Aprilis followed. When she turned the first corner, she left the last of the sunlight behind. She was now entirely dependent on this stranger, this hunched thing, and its torch.

Down, down, Aprilis traveled, deeper into the sewers, her guide always five to ten feet ahead. The air grew thick and foul with the fetid stench of decay and human waste. The garlands Aprilis wore did nothing to mask the odor, and she gagged and coughed. The water was knee deep and littered with floating objects that were best not to think about. The darkness enveloped them, swallowed them whole. The torch provided little more than a feeble glow, revealing nothing besides stone walls that were slick and black with slimy mold. The guide never spoke to her, nor did it pause in its march. Occasionally, it beckoned to her with a deformed hand that ended, not in fingers, but in curved, black claws more than six inches long.

Still she followed, wading through filthy water, careful not to slip or to drop the food offering; she hated to think what would happen if she did. She also dared not slow down. To do so would mean to be left behind in the darkness, and surely, in that pitch-dark labyrinth, she would be lost.

At last, they came to a chamber with a ceiling so high Aprilis could not see it. In the middle was a flat altar of black stone. The guide placed the sputtering torch into a stand and pointed to the altar with an extended claw. She obeyed, laying the now-cool offering upon its surface. Then she stepped back and knelt as she had been instructed. 

Her guide bent over the altar, inhaling deeply. It apparently was pleased. Raising its arms above its head, it began to chant in a high-pitched voice that was somewhere between a squeak and a croak. “Iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines! Pugiles in media testa! Testudo virtute!” The words echoed off the walls, seeming to repeat themselves over and over. From a tunnel far in the darkness in front of her, Aprilis heard a splash, then another from behind her. Then one came from her right, then one from her left.

The creature in red robes repeated its chant, waving clawed hands in the air. There was more splashing, followed by a low rumble of response. It resembled human speech, but in a tongue Aprilis had never heard. Four voices called out in wheezing syllables from the four tunnels at the edges of the room. “Cah… Weh…” drifted from her left, then her right. “Buhn… Gah…” echoed from before and behind her.

The chamber began to fill with unnatural green light, which poured from the tunnels. The splashing grew louder and more frantic as the gods approached. They were hungry. They must feed.

“Iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines!” chanted the envoy. Then it threw its head back and shouted, “Pugiles in media testa! Testudo virtute!” The hood fell away, and Aprilis saw its face for the first time: matted gray fur, beady black eyes, a rodent-like snout and a mouth lined with sharp, yellowed teeth. Now the strange green light was bright enough that Aprilis could make out shapes of things mounded around the room. Human bones.

She rose to her feet. Her fate was certain, but she still had a choice how she would accept it. Life was made of choices. She would not weep, nor would she scream, nor would she beg for mercy.

They were closer now, almost to her. “Cah … Weh … Buhn … Gah…” Aprilis looked out past the rat thing who was now flailing its arms, screeching at the ceiling. From the tunnels at each side of the room, in a froth of filthy water, she could make out the forms of giant turtles. They glowed so brightly she had to squint, but she did not shield her eyes.  She stood firm. Life is made up of choices, she told herself, and our choices show who we are.

I am Aprilis, Daughter of Spring. I am the thread that stands between my people and disaster. I bring the offering. I feed the turtles.

So she did not shrink back; she did not cower or grovel. She did not weep or scream or beg for mercy, even as the monstrous reptiles closed upon her, ignoring the food that had been so carefully prepared for them. In her final moments, as she stood her ground, she would do what not even the priests had done. She would behold the faces of the gods.


© 2022 by Josh Strnad

2900 words

Josh Strnad hails from Southwest Florida, where he works as a Youth Services librarian. Recently having completed his second(!) Masters degree, he is excited to at last be free from the constant demands of homework and able to begin tinkering with writing fiction again. Check him out at www.joshstrnad.com.


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