DP FICTION #66A: “Finding the Center” by Andrew K Hoe

Content note(click for details) Content note: domestic violence

I brought Annie to my math-racist’s because I’d stolen a laptop from the Syndicate. I’d stirred the vipers’ nest. Their reach was long, and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. Last year, they’d killed Annie’s mother—a trained policewoman—using crooked cops from our own precinct. So Annie went where I went—even to Sanger’s beat-down porch.

I asked her to wait by the streetlamp, but she fingered her backpack. “Dad, why do you work with people who hate you?”

I winced internally: my nine-year-old knew about my racists. Like her mother, I used to be an upstanding officer. I’d repressed my ugly power. But now, I used racists freely. Last thing Annie’s mother would’ve wanted was for me to bring her to one.

Annie hadn’t asked why we ran when the black SUV approached our home this morning, why I’d smashed my phone, grabbed the laptop. But what she had asked was worse.

Why did my power work with people like Sanger?“Practice your Tai Chi over there, Annie.” She knew about my racists, but she didn’t have to know how I used them.

“But—”

“Please, pumpkin.”

She sighed and plodded to the streetlamp, started forms, the most graceful nine-year-old finding her center. Tai Chi helped me manage my power, so I’d taught it to her.

I tapped the doorbell, squeezing the briefcase containing the pilfered Syndicate laptop.

Sanger cracked open his door, peering out at me. My ability involved sensing prejudice, and Sanger’s pulled at my insides like a noose. Goosebumps riddled my skin, bones quivering underneath—and he hadn’t said anything yet. That’s how potent he was.

“Hiya,” I grunted.

When he opened fully, I gasped: his resentment practically squeezed my intestines. He grinned, relishing my discomfort. “Back for more, are we?”

I’d encountered him in town weeks back, ranting about “Chinks” overtaking American jobs. Sensing his math-potential, I’d followed him here, clutching my gut the whole time.

Now, I stood before him, letting him seethe at my Asian features, providing him with as much ammunition as possible. “Sanger,” I said, “are Asians accounting whizzes, or what?”

He snatched the bait like we were still in the same dialogue from last visit. “Chinks are so damned good at math! What else them slanted eyes for ‘sides counting beans?” He paused, eyes alight. Waiting.

I hated this part.

My eyes compressed into tight lines… but my mind quickened with mathematical know-how, accountancy laws. Sanger continued in a rapid-fire scree, my body shifting to obey. How nearsighted “Orientals” were!—my vision blurred; how short!—my height shrunk. He mentioned abacuses—one settled in my pocket.

I had what I needed.

Then Sanger paused. He enunciated his next words carefully, something he’d probably been rehearsing for weeks. “You need good bookkeeping… to track paddies like the bow-backed rice-picker you are!”

Goddammit.

My spine crooked, shoulders crunching. I was suddenly ankle-deep in water. Rice plantings shifted below me on a phantom breeze.

Sanger cackled at the paddy now consuming his lawn. He was a math-racist with job-racist tendencies, never varying from those themes. But sometimes racists changed, like hurricanes shifting direction. I’d been too distracted; I hadn’t sensed his food-racism.

Sanger saw Annie doing a Tai Chi toe-kick. “What the—?”

“Goodbye, Sanger.” He’d had his show. He could say whatever he wanted about me, but my daughter was off-limits.

He moved towards Annie, but I snarled. “I said goodbye.” Sanger swallowed, retreated behind his door. I paused to let my contortions settle, but a wet-sounding laugh fell around me.

“What are you—Racism-Man?”

I stumbled in my Sanger-given body.

Annie called over from the streetlamp. “Dad?”

“Stay there, pumpkin!” I sloshed round Sanger’s house, out of sight. I panted, too-thin eyes searching Sanger’s bushes, his cigarette-littered walkway. “Show yourself!”

White mist coiled toward the paddy’s edge, to what I realized were a trench coat and fedora, inflating them like some obscene balloon. As he solidified, a pulling sensation formed in my gut. Wispy hands produced sunglasses for a featureless face.

Rinehart. The Syndicate’s super-powered fixer.

I clutched my stomach. “You… like my power?”

“It’s definitely entertaining,” Rinehart said in his weird, wet voice, like he wasn’t using vocal cords. He indicated the paddy. “Similar to mine. More powerful, even, if you transform your surroundings.”

“First time that’s happened,” I admitted.

“Ah. You don’t understand your abilities yet.”

“There’s no manual. How’d you learn yours?” I wasn’t just stalling. Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities. Experienced fliers could more or less teach newer fliers. Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

Rinehart shrugged. “Like you, following others’ dictates. Bowing to perceptions. But I wrested back control. It requires… a certain surrender…” He extended smoky fingers that roiled against the sunlight, digits wavering like flames, narrowing into talons, then becoming human fingers again.

I shivered. Rinehart definitely had more control over his body than I did mine. I needed people like Sanger, but Rinehart appeared able to mold his physicality any which way he wanted. Seemed he’d found his center. In Kung Fu, the center referred to one’s gravitational balance, and, by extension, one’s self-realization. If I kept using racists like Sanger, would I end like Rinehart?

“Surrender the laptop, and I’ll finish you quick. Your daughter doesn’t have to see you die.”

“You’re confident.”

“You’re a Chinky old farmer. You asked to be a Chinky old farmer.”

He’d tracked me, waiting until I was vulnerable before revealing himself. Yet judging from this stomachache he was giving me… “Ever see The Karate Kid? Remember Mr. Miyagi?”

Rinehart tilted his head, as if narrowing eyes behind his sunglasses—even though he didn’t have any.

“He was old, too. But he was formidable.”

My ability responded better to spoken or written slurs, but oftentimes my body shifted to racialized mental images. Sudden confidence streamed into me. I smirked, taking a Karate stance. He had seen that movie. He was a fight-racist.

Rinehart laughed. “That how your power works, Racism-Man?” His hands became smoke-tentacles, shooting for me.

I parried them. “Wax-on, wax-off!”

So many people insisted they didn’t have any racist bones in their bodies. Truth? That was like saying they’d never had any impure thoughts. Everybody contained a little racism. Granted, there were people like my past wife who didn’t give my power much to work with.

But Rinehart was potent. Boneless, maybe, but typical of what I encountered daily. I just had to keep feeding him cues. “Asians are brilliant martial artists—right, Rinehart?”

Whenever I struck, he became intangible—I hit mist, empty fabric—but he always solidified to attack. He quit laughing, intensifying his strikes.

“Remember Miyagi’s crane kick—KIYAH!”

My kick connected. Rinehart flew into the paddy, fedora and coat suddenly empty, floating on the water. A mist column plumed upwards, dissipating. Probably running to his SUV-driving minions.

I wheezed, straining under the weight of Asian-martial-mystique and mathematical stereotypes.

I grabbed the briefcase, shuffled to the lamppost, beckoned Annie over. The paddy reverted to browned grass, but my contortions remained.

“You okay, Dad?”

Before her mother’s passing, I never entered the house until whatever prejudices I’d gotten during the workday faded. Nothing big, maybe thinned eyes or a Manchurian queue. I’d practice Tai Chi until I normalized. As parents, officers, protectors of the community, we dreaded explaining racism to our daughter—something we couldn’t protect her from. How would the talk go? Pumpkin, people might treat you differently because of your appearance. Your race. But since the funeral, my contortions didn’t fade so quickly. In fact, they’d intensified, persisting despite hours of Tai Chi. In the past few months, I’d limped through our doorway countless times, cumbrous with slurs…

…and Annie never noticed. I should’ve been relieved. What parent wanted the world’s ugliness reflected in themselves before their children?

Today, like always, her eyes skipped over my stoop, my painfully slitted eyes.

Her mother wouldn’t see my contortions immediately; she’d have to really stare—but she saw eventually. Maybe, one day Annie would look at me, do a double-take. Maybe she’d cry at what she saw.

“Dad?”

“I’m fine, pumpkin.”

*

At a crosswalk, Annie side-eyed me. “This is about Mom, isn’t it?”

“No, pumpkin. It’s about…”

About unraveling why my transformations were worsening. It’d started when the Syndicate killed Annie’s mother. Maybe, if I put the Syndicate away, my body would right itself. But payback was a powerful side motivation.

“Yes. It’s about your mother’s murder.”

Annie nodded. She grabbed my crinkled hand and led me downtown. If Rinehart followed, he did so invisibly.

We made it to a café, where I activated the laptop. Time to deploy Sanger’s slurs. Last night, I’d read a technology-racist’s blog about Japanese programmers hacking (pun intended) America into “dericious” pieces. Like Sanger, the author was potent: I gained expertise to break the laptop’s encryption. But I also got buck-teeth making it hard to breathe. I fell asleep waiting for my body to re-center—awakening to the black SUV’s screech.

Annie stared out the window as I traced Syndicate sums through labyrinthine accounts. “Where’d you get the abacus?”

My fingers paused over the beads. “Where’d you learn that word?”

“Abacus? Maybe Mom said it once?”

I blinked, remembering the day she was referring to. Memories of the three of us together still hurt. I taught Annie Tai Chi so she’d find her center, but her mother was my self-realization. With her, I always knew who I was. On days when my body was being stubborn, she’d remind me Asians could speak English clearly, that our eyes were beautiful. Her words didn’t affect me, but they helped. Turning in my badge wasn’t just about hunting the Syndicate. It was also because I couldn’t identify as a cop anymore—as that honorable man my wife saw.

Nowadays, my keyring of racists dictated my identity.

“You’re my hero, Annie. You know that?”

This wasn’t a redirection. She was my hero. This invincible, shining light who kept me going, just by virtue of being herself.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry… about mentioning Mom just now. I know how you get whenever she comes up—”

“Annie. You never have to feel sorry about mentioning her. I’ve been so focused on… um, work. We should talk like we used to.”

I had more to say, but my blurry vision sharpened. Odd. I should’ve had hours yet in this form. Suddenly, I was sitting straighter, my eyes returning to their original shape.

“What if you quit the Mom-thing? What if you stopped dealing with bad people?”

“You… want me to quit?” My insides trembled. I returned to the laptop; I needed to find the accounting aberration before Sanger’s words fell off completely.

“Dad?”

“Now now, Annie—”

She pointed to the black SUV pulling up. With a tingle, my Sanger-given body and Miyagi-prowess vanished. But I’d gotten what I needed.

My wife had led the anti-Syndicate taskforce, and they’d killed her for that, but I saw to it—through my “dericious” technology-racists—that her file listing her family was redacted. Just in case, I’d switched Annie’s picture with a computer-generated image. I refused the official funeral, blocked our names from the press. I removed the house pictures, all visual evidence of Annie’s connection to us. I’m going after your mother’s killers, I’d explained. She’d nodded somberly.

Me, though? I’d been plumbing the Syndicate’s dens and safehouses.

I focused on the different pulls in the café: job-racism, politics-racism, movie-racism…

People thought racism was a white-vs-non-white thing. An upbringing thing. A class thing. Something happening in some-city in something-state.

Truth? Prejudice was as old as day, plentiful like dust. Outright racists like Sanger were most potent, but friendly racists also worked. People who’d never say Chink. People who thought themselves immune to prejudicial thinking (not a racist bone in my body!) because they voted for this proposal, kept diverse friends, married someone of this race. People who thought you couldn’t be racist against your own race—you totally could.

Annie packed the laptop while I spoke to a woman who thought all Asians looked alike. She meant it as a compliment. You Asians are youthful-looking!

I shuddered. Friendly racism didn’t yank as painfully as outright racism, but it prickled. Under the friendly intentions poked barbed micro-aggressions: Asians are youthful-looking—Inhuman; Asians are scientifically inclined—They’re only scientifically inclined; Asian females are so endearingly submissive—slavish.

As the woman talked, my skin shifted. Since my wife’s death, my ability had gone haywire, but my contortions eventually dropped. What about Asians who’d been told over and over how exotic they were, how obedient—for decades? How long did that kind of conditioning take to drop?

“If your hair were parted,” the woman continued, “you’d be my Vietnamese neighbor. He’s very handsome.”

“Like this?”

She squinted. “He has a beauty mark.”

“A mole? Around here?” I checked my reflection on the window. As expected, my face scrunched into this amalgam of Asian features, what she imagined as her neighbor’s face.

“What if your neighbor dyed his hair? Grew a beard?”

She couldn’t help but picture my suggestions; my body couldn’t help but react.

I left her gaping, collected Annie, and together we walked past the suited men exiting the SUV. One of them did a double-take at Annie. “Hey!”

Dammit—they’d uncovered my protective measures.

“Behind me, pumpkin. Take the briefcase.” Could I pull another Miyagi-contortion?

But Annie stepped forward. She was… glowing. I remembered telling her she was my hero. I remembered what I’d thought.

This invincible, shining light…

The Syndicate men flinched, backing away, like they weren’t hardened killers. I gaped as they retreated into their SUV, squealed off.

“I’ve… been meaning to tell you, Dad.”

She’d transformed to how I imagined her. She had power. No, not just that. I reacted to racial slurs and thoughts, but she’d reacted to my non-racial imagining. What did that mean?

“It’s… okay, pumpkin. We’re going to the police now.”

She squeezed my hand, and I faced her. But whatever words I’d started to find inside the café had disappeared.

“C’mon, pumpkin.”

*

I led Annie through streets thick with the pulls of job-racists who’d swear Asians were excellent cooks, camouflage-racists who thought Chinese and Koreans interchangeable, fight-racists who’d make me Bruce Lee if needed. We were the model minority, soft-spoken, subservient. We drove rice-rockets, and I’d led some crazy car chases. I told a teleport-racist I was Filipino; he demanded I return to my own country—I was transported to the Philippines, where I infiltrated the Syndicate’s Manila operations. An M. Butterfly fan, a gender-racist, talked me into becoming a lotus-flower woman. A sex-racist told me how beautiful Asians were. I’d gasped, grabbing my tightening crotch—she imagined Asians as well-endowed.

Other super-powered people levitated, walked through walls. They flew, shot fireballs. Me? I rode stereotypes.

Talking to Annie about racism—that she might suffer it, that she needed to resist doing it to others—would’ve been hard enough. Academics had written books trying to demystify the bewildering, tragic subject. But if Annie could access prejudice as a tool? What if, like me, she got overwhelmed by its brutal weight? Had she, all alone, experienced the gut-wrenching confusion of shaping to another’s will?

Before the police station’s entrance, I turned to her. “How long have you had your ability?”

She looked at me like I was the only thing in the universe. I wasn’t completely surprised by her power. Some abilities were passed genetically. That was why I’d insisted she practice Tai Chi.

She bit her lip. “Not long.”

I realized what I’d missed earlier. If Annie saw the abacus, then… my new mole… my beard…. “You see what I become,” I said dully. “You’ve seen all along.”

What if you stopped dealing with bad people?

What had it been like for her, hearing people call me things like “slant-eyed gook”? Then to see me actually become that?

She looked down. “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”

I hated that anyone would call her “slant-eyed gook”. I especially hated that with her powers, her body would contort. But I had something to offer: my experiences with my ability, learning to think quickly, to twist prejudice into something useful. Questions I could answer for her, while I had to be my own clumsy teacher.

“I’m disappointed because I didn’t want you to see me at my worst. But I’m never disappointed in you, Annie. Nothing’s changed. You’re my hero. You’re always my hero.”

She smiled at that, a natural smile I hadn’t seen in a while. We entered the station—one different from my former precinct. I’d vetted everybody here for corruption, but nobody knew me. I shoved a coded note into the drop-box at the windowed reception grill. The attending officer shot me a look before hurrying off.

“Annie, do you know why finding your center’s so important? Your mother was mine. She reminded me who I was.”

“Dad, I—” she started, but a sergeant interrupted from behind the window.

You’re the undercover asset? The one dropping us Syndicate intel?”

I nudged Annie back, lifted the laptop. “I’ve got the evidence.”

“I thought you’d be taller.”

I grunted as my spine started stretching. I’d tell Annie first that prejudice hit you without warning. You couldn’t feel every racial pull. Only tall people—of this skin color, this gender, this biological composition—did things that mattered. I gritted my teeth as I elongated to obey that premise.

In that unhinged moment, Rinehart struck.

Vapor streamed from a ceiling vent, sluiced through the grill, a human-shaped smog pulling a gun from the drop-box—the sergeant yelled, grabbing his empty holster—

I threw myself around Annie. She breathed into my ear. The gun barked, like the “Chink!” shot from Sanger’s lips, demanding my body obey, that I form holes and blood.

I looked up. Rinehart appeared confused.

Officers clamored against the reception window’s other side. Rinehart had jiggered the door. Why wasn’t I dead?

Then I registered what Annie had said into my ear, what my body couldn’t help but mirror: “You’re my hero, Dad.”

What exactly did my daughter imagine a hero could do? How potent was her belief in me?

The bullet, mashed against my back, pinged onto the floor as I straightened. Rinehart fired his entire clip, bullets thunking off me.

He tossed the gun. “The key to controlling my ability, Miyagi-sensei—” my bones started warping— “was to embrace people’s dictates. To surrender to smoke.”

He slammed me into the window, stunning me. “It’s wonderfully freeing.”

I grabbed his solid shoulders. But Rinehart reformed, shoulders becoming tentacles that hurled me into the ceiling. “Surrender, Fu Manchu!” He’d learned from our last encounter, was trying to overload my body. I dropped to the floor, sprouting a Fu-mustache. “Surrender, dragon-lady!” Torn between stereotypes, my limbs creaked… my fingertips flaked… bleaching of color… whitening… like smoke…

“Surrender, Racism-Man! Ssssssurrender!”

“No!” Annie shouted. She was glowing again. Rinehart flinched from her light.

“Stop listening to bad people, Dad! Just stop! You’remyhero.”

Her mother couldn’t talk me out of transformations. Even the image in her mind couldn’t erase what strangers said about me. Yet Annie thought I was bulletproof. She’d made me bulletproof. Why had her words worked?

Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities.

Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

When my body had mysteriously normalized in the café, I’d been opening up to Annie. That was it. I had to listen to her. “Keep talking, pumpkin! It’s helping!”

“Oh, just die already!” Rinehart stretched smoky limbs towards Annie’s light, but snatched them back, as if scalded.

“I want you to hang our pictures again!” she said.

That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. But hearing my daughter’s words felt good. My warped limbs started loosening. “I’m listening!”

“I want to talk about Mom without worrying it’ll make you sad!” A dam had broken loose. She was crying, but my flaking hands solidified, normal color returning.

And I was crying too. I’d thought I was protecting her, but I’d been blocking her out.

“Sad? I’ll show you sad!” Rinehart rose like a storm cloud.

“I want to remember things like Mom showing you how to build a campfire!”

Campfire?

I stood, and breathed fire—yes, fire—at Rinehart. I was a quick thinker, after all. He spilled to the floor as a blackened, human-shaped fog.

“I know who I am, Rinehart. I’m a hero. I’m her hero.”

He growled. “Whatever, Hero-Man.” He vaporized, wafting slowly through the ceiling vent, as if wounded. Rinehart couldn’t be solved in one decisive battle. We’d face each other again.

Officers burst into the reception area. The laptop lay where I’d dropped it. Hopefully, it still worked, but destroying the Syndicate on my own terms seemed much more appealing to me.

Annie took my hand. “I… have more to say.”

In Kung Fu, you knew you’d found your center when you found a place with no pull, where you just were. Maybe the key to finding balance wasn’t destroying a criminal organization or getting revenge, or hiding racism from my daughter, but with something as simple as hearing her out.

I looked into Annie’s eyes. “I’m listening.”


© 2020 by Andrew K Hoe

Author’s Note: I remember my parents trying to explain to me, a Chinese American child in the 1980s, what racism was. I remember that talk being so difficult, and tried picturing how I might explain racism to a child of my own in the 21st century. Racism is extremely nuanced and difficult to verbalize. It’s far more complex than a collection of verbal slurs, and being anti-racist takes much more than vowing never to say certain ugly words. In my daily experiences, I’ve encountered people who passionately decry racism, but don’t realize they enact, through their everyday speech and actions, the very racist behaviors they denounce. When confronted with evidence of their racism, they’re the first to claim “I’m not racist” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” The tragic circumstances of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests have forced many to acknowledge that “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “microaggression,” and “implicit bias” are actual dangers that continue to threaten BIPOC, trans-, and other marginalized peoples. Yet there are stories of victimized groups having turned the tables by using their oppressors’ racism against them. For example, David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly deals with the real life Chinese male spy who successfully used stereotypes of Asian women to fool a French diplomat into thinking he was a woman. The two had sexual relations with the diplomat being none the wiser. Rinehart is a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who forsakes his racial identity to adapt to white society. In writing this story, I wondered—what if a hero could weaponize the racism used against him? What would happen if he could use racism as a superpower?

Andrew K Hoe practices Kung Fu and writes fiction in Southern California. He has been an assistant language teacher in Japan, is currently an assistant professor of English, is also an assistant editor for the Cast of Wonders podcast, and basically just loves assisting. He is thrilled to have a story featured in Diabolical Plots, one of his favorite speculative fiction venues. 


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DP FICTION #65B: “Bring the Bones That Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.

Muriel sat on her grandmother’s front porch each summer night, trying to spot when it happened. She never managed to see. She’d blink, or take a breath at the wrong time, or twitch her chin to flick hair at humming insects. And in that moment, the bones would appear on the cedar boards pocked with peeling white paint.

She tried every trick she knew. She propped her eyelids open with finger and thumb, held her breath, sat as still as a girl could in the heat of July and the buzz of mosquitoes hungry for a snack. Her eyes would tear-blur or a gnat would crash into her eyelashes or the porch would creak and startle her. And then the bones were there.

“But who brings them?” Muriel asked her grandma, frustrated.

“They bring themselves,” Grandma said with shrug. She’d scoop up the maze of tiny, brittle pieces that had once been alive, carry the bones inside, and Muriel didn’t see them again.

She had no more success finding out what Grandma did with the bones, either. It was like a dream: she would follow Grandma into the pine log cabin, across the faded welcome mat, through the hallway, and then…Muriel would find herself in the kitchen with a mug of hot cocoa, or up in her loft room with a glass of cold cider, or, sometimes, in the back yard on the tire swing with a juice box forgotten in one hand.

*

Muriel decided to be bad.

Grandma told her never to touch the bones. But everything else she tried failed. So Muriel waited, and when the bones appeared, she touched them.

The bones belonged to a chickadee, and there was a black feather tucked against the crown of its skull like a memento.

“You’re a patient one, ain’t you,” said the chickadee skull. Its polished beak clacked and its bones shivered in the muggy air.

Muriel gasped. Was this why Grandma told her not to touch? That was unfair! She could have made friends with all the bones if she’d known.

It was late August, and when September came, she would have to go back to the city. Back to her parents who argued and stinky buses clouding the sky and the downstairs apartment neighbors who broke glass and screamed all night. No bird bones ever showed up outside her window even once she learned how to remove the screen. She saw only pigeons vying for space on light posts, or sometimes seagulls before a storm.

“Hi,” Muriel said to the chickadee. “My name is Muriel.” It seemed polite to introduce herself first. “Who are you?”

The chickadee rustled, the scrape of bone against wood soft like dry maple leaves. “If I had a name, it’s been sucked like marrow from my memory. How about you call me Chip?”

Muriel nodded. She glanced over her shoulder, worried Grandma would come and scoop up Chip’s bones and she’d never get to talk to the chickadee again. She didn’t mind not having other people her age around to play with. She didn’t really like the way other kids did gestures and words and glances. It made her tired, and she just wanted to wander back into the woods behind the school yard until she reached a road and stop signs and loud trucks.

“Why are you just bones, Chip?”

The bird laughed—a whistling sound that wasn’t so high-pitched that it hurt her ears. “I died,” Chip said. “I think I was on an important quest. Delivering a message to the Queen.”

Muriel leaned forward, elbows jutting out as she clasped her knees and rocked back and forth on the step. “The Queen of where?”

“I wish I could remember,” Chip said. The skull sighed, sounding very sad. “But death takes odd things from us.”

“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.

She felt bad for Chip. Was being dead scary? Adults seemed to believe this. Her mom didn’t want her watching TV because there was too much violence. Not seeing bad things didn’t make them disappear, though. She’d seen animals die.

Once she’d spotted a falcon divebomb another bird, scoop it up in sun-sharp talons, and fly away. She wished she could be a falcon. Soaring over the skyscrapers, eating pigeons who were too slow, never having to go to school where she got laughed at because she couldn’t read at her grade level. Words danced like shivering bones, rearranging into the shapes that skittered about to evade her fingers and brain.

Here at Grandma’s, her grandmother read to her when she asked, and never sighed in exasperation if she couldn’t read the back of a cereal box at breakfast. Grandma’s cabin was a special place. Muriel was sure that was why the bones came here, and not other houses.

“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.

“It was a song,” Chip said. “Five bars with three grace notes in the final coda.”

“Just music?” Muriel loved music. She especially loved her soft headphones Grandma had given her, the ones that wrapped around her entire ears, and not the prickly buds that hurt.

“Well,” Chip said, “you’ve heard birdsong before, right? Human words get so…tangled up and spiky. Used against or for, to harm or to take. Sometimes to heal. But human words are not nearly as eloquent as birdsong.”

“I wish I was a bird,” Muriel said, sighing. Then she heard the creak of the floorboards behind her and knew Grandma was coming to scoop up Chip.

She flapped her hands, frustrated. She had been told never to touch the bones. They were brittle and delicate, and Grandma said they lingered of the Old Spaces, which were not meant for small girl-palms to hold.

“Where do you go now?” Muriel asked, afraid that Chip would stop talking to her as soon as the chickadee saw Grandma. “Can I come?”

“Hmmm,” Chip said. “Do you think you can remember a song?”

“Yes!”

“That would be helpful,” Chip said. “Maybe you could take the song to someone who can fly it back to the Queen.”

“I’ll try,” Muriel said, eager to do bird-things like remember music.

“Take my feather,” Chip said, and Muriel plucked it from Chip’s skull.

It was soft and felt nice on her fingers. She rubbed it across her hands.

“Listen…” Chip said.

But then the screen door hinges squawked too loud, and Muriel spun around. She looked up at Grandma, hiding her hands behind her back.

With the feather in hand, Muriel saw a different Grandma. This Grandma wore a dark gown spun with peacock feathers and hawk feathers and swan feathers. Giant black wings hung down her back. A hood pulled over her hair was shaped like a bird skull of indeterminate species. Her hands, too, had changed: now the fingers were long and curved like talons, heavy and pale ivory. This Grandma’s eyes were round and gold like an owl’s. Bird-Grandma blinked at her, slow and serene, and in her arms, the ghostly outline of Chip’s body rested at the crook of her elbow.

Muriel gasped. She let go of Chip’s feather as she clapped her hands over her mouth.

Bird-Grandma disappeared, and there was only Muriel’s grandma again: human and old and smelling of lavender and garlic. Grandma held Chip’s bones in her hand.

“Did you touch the bones?” Grandma asked, but not in an angry-voice.

Muriel quickly scooped up the feather to show Grandma the truth, and then the bird-woman was there again. Muriel realized this was her grandmother. The way the birds saw her.

“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.

Grandma’s owl-eyes blinked again. “I’m a Reaper of Air,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. Warm and kind like fresh-baked brownies. “Kin come here when they pass, and I carry them to the Forever Skies.”

Muriel liked Bird-Grandma. She wasn’t scary now that Muriel knew she was a grandma to both girls and birds.

“Chip was delivering a message to the Queen, and I’m going to help,” Muriel said. “What’s the song, Grandma?”

Bird-Grandma’s wings rustled like bedsheets hung to dry in the summer breeze. “Listen.”

Muriel held Chip’s feather up to her ear. A melody filled her head: a song that had no words. Muriel gasped. It was the prettiest music she’d ever heard, better than the piano sonatas mixed with loon song she had on CD.

The song stopped and Muriel knew it was missing the last few notes. She shook the feather, but no more music fell out. “Oh no,” Muriel whispered. How was she supposed to give the Queen the message if she didn’t know all the music? “Grandma, the song isn’t fixed!”

Bird-Grandma’s eyelids half-closed, just like Grandma’s did when she was sleepy but pretending not to be asleep. “Death takes odd things from us. But they can be found again if you wish.”

Muriel wiped her face and put Chip’s feather in her pocket. She needed to find the rest of the song to take to the Queen. This is what Chip wanted, and Chip was her friend. Muriel helped her friends. She didn’t have many. They were all important.

“Where did the death take Chip’s song?”

Bird-Grandma sighed, a great flutter of feathers. “Come with me, child. You touched the bones when I told you not to do so, but that is past. I will help you.”

*

Muriel followed Bird-Grandma down the basement stairs into a great big room filled with windows. So many windows, Muriel couldn’t count them all. She didn’t know they were in Grandma’s basement. The windows didn’t have glass and they came in all shapes and sizes—some so small even a hummingbird would get stuck. And there was one, near the ground, that was girl-sized.

Muriel crouched and peered through the window. There was a forest outside, with multi-colored trees like crayons that had lots of arms. It made her eyes itch. She didn’t like the feel of crayon paper or wax.

“You touched the dead,” Bird-Grandma said. “Your aura pulled away the last of the music.”

Muriel wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t mean to!”

“I know, my child.” Bird-Grandma laid Chip’s bones down on a towel spread on the ground by the small window. “You are a powerful force. It is why I asked you not to touch the bones. You pull things into your orbit, a moon influencing tides.”

Muriel looked at the crayon forest and shivered. “Did I put Chip’s song in there?”

“Yes,” Bird-Grandma said. “These windows are portals to different fears. At times, the dead slip loose and must be retrieved. I carry our kin to the Forever Skies so the dead need not pass through these other lands.” She pointed up, up, up.

Muriel peered at the ceiling. There was a vault of black sky and peeking between the fluffy clouds streamed beams of sun and stars and moon: brilliant night lights so the bird bones wouldn’t get scared of the dark.

“Are you bringing Chip up there?” Muriel asked.

“Yes. But if you wish to find the song, child, you must hurry. Music fades quickly if not remembered.”

Muriel nodded fiercely. She was going to help Chip and bring the lost song to the Queen once she found the missing notes. Then Chip would be happy.

Bird-Grandma bent down and placed a long, smooth feather in Muriel’s hand. “This will bring you back to me as soon as you let it go,” she said.

Gripping the feather tight, Muriel crouched and shuffled into the window in search of Chip’s song.

*

Inside the crayon-forest, everything was loud and crunchy. Muriel gasped. Scratchy sounds flew around her head like bugs. The trees swayed and whooshed, paper leaves bumping together in awful crinkling waves.

“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.

Instead, the swoopy, itchy sounds popped and cracked and squealed like fireworks. Echoes bounced against her hair in big purple sparkles and stung her cheeks. She swatted at the air. The bad-sounds shrieked orange and whistled pink, swirling faster around her face. Muriel started crying. It hurt! There was so much interference she couldn’t think clearly. She clapped her hands over her ears and almost lost hold of Grandma’s feather. How could she find Chip’s song in this place?

The ground was full of sevens, sharp and pokey, and bitey threes that tried to eat her toes. She kicked the numbers away. The sevens made garlic farts when they melted. Her nose felt like Rudolph’s, shiny and round and made of mean bully-laughs.

She huddled down and banged her forehead against the softer sixes that puffed up like little flowers. These were minty and didn’t sting her nose. She should have brought her headphones. But then she might not hear the song through the squishy foam and soothing soft-static.

The feather whispered in her ear, Let go and come home.

“I can’t,” Muriel told the feather. Her palms were sticky, like when candy canes melted. She rubbed her free hand on her jeans. The fabric crinkled plasticky and so yellow it scraped her brain. She gripped the feather’s stem harder. “Chip needs the music.”

Before Grandma had given her the nice headphones, one of her favorite teachers, Ms. Eugene, let her wear a soft microplush headband when the sounds in class got too big and made her hit herself.

“The fabric will sing you a song just for you,” Ms. Eugene had said, and she guided Muriel’s hands gently so her palms pressed against the softness over her ears. “Can you hear it?”

The music was really coming from Ms. Eugene’s throat, but it felt nice on Muriel’s skin and she slowly calmed down. Ms. Eugene let her keep the headband, even though it was winter and she already had a hat. She wore the microplush under her beanie, humming Ms. Eugene’s song to herself on the bus. The headband memorized the music and played it back for her right in her ears, and the rumble of the bus and the outside-voices of the other kids weren’t so bad.

Muriel remembered Ms. Eugene’s headband’s music. She hummed it to herself until her throat felt too big for her skin, like it would pop out. The esophagus, she’d learned in school, was long and round and tube-like, so of course it would roll away if it escaped. She kept her lips together.

Slowly, the forest-sounds grew dimmer. Muriel peeked, still humming. The trees shuffled together, shiny with wax and dry paper, but the swooping sounds were further away. She got to her feet.

Suddenly, the ground went sideways—all the trees were on the ceiling, waving at her with confetti-leaves, and the sevens and threes danced like wiggly string cheese in front of her eyes.

Her stomach did a flip-flop, like when she spun in circles so fast she threw up. The sky was filled with white radio noise. It was raining polka dots that didn’t have any water.

Stop it stop it STOP IT! Muriel yelled at the world, silently, because she needed her lips to hum the song. You’re being mean!

Grandma said she pulled things into her orbit. If she could attract bad sounds, why couldn’t she be a magnet for good things, like music? She shut her eyes so the crayon-trees didn’t scratch her, so the numbers would stop being green, so the sky would fold back and stop being under her feet, and began humming Chip’s song. Over and over, stopping just before the missing notes made it crash into silence.

Nothing but the crunch-whiiish of paper. The screeches kept popping against her hands and arms, sparkly fingers that made her want to scream DON’T TOUCH.

Had the ground gone back to normal? Her hair still waved around like she was sideways, but her stomach didn’t hurt anymore.

Again, Muriel hummed Chip’s song, feeling the vibrations in her throat and up into her chin. She imagined herself to be a Muriel-shaped bird, covered in the softest of soft feathers, lighter than air. She would zoom around the sky and sing with the other birds and they would be her friends.

She opened her mouth and tried to sing Chip’s birdsong the way she’d heard it from Chip’s feather. The lost notes would want to come back to their song, where they belonged. Her voice was squawky and full of missteps. She wasn’t good at singing. Not like Ms. Eugene and Chip and all the birds.

Let go and come home, Grandma’s feather whispered.

“No,” Muriel said, and took a deep breath. She sat down so her knees didn’t wobble. The ground was a weird squishy sponge now, without numbers, but it was where it belonged. She thought of Chip’s bones and the sadness of missing the notes of the song. The Queen needed to hear the music.

She rocked back and forth and tried again. Her hair stopped floating.

For her friend Chip and for Grandma and for all the birds.

This time, her voice sounded more like birdsong and closer to the melody Chip sung for her.

A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!

Slowly, Muriel peeked her eyelids open and looked around. There, several big steps away in a waxy bush made from ugly taupe crayon-paper, trembled the music from Chip’s song. Giant twos and zeros loomed like cartoon skyscrapers over the bush.

A huge crash-boom of pea soup thunder swirled above the little notes. Muriel gasped. The enormous sound would smash the music and break it into shrill bits. She couldn’t let the lost notes get hurt.

Muriel leapt to her feet and raced like a peregrine falcon towards the bush. Air whipped against her face and she clutched her feather until her sticky hand ached. “Hold on!”

The crash-boom swooped down, thick as moldy oatmeal, but Muriel was fast—peregrine falcons could dive faster than racecars, and raptors weren’t painfully loud. She scooped the notes up in her free hand, humming the melody like her own birdsong, and jumped away.

CRASH! BOOM!

The sound smacked into the ground, flattening the crayon-paper bush and throwing Muriel on her back from impact. She went rolling. Muriel screamed. Her ears pounded like drums and it hurt hurt HURT

All around her, the world wobbled like Jell-O stars and it was going to squish her and she’d be stuck like a gummy bear and she didn’t want to stay here, she wanted to go home and—

She clutched the lost notes against her shirt. They shivered, almost slipping through her fingers. “Hold on,” Muriel whispered, and before the huge sound could pounce on her, she let go of the feather.

*

Muriel sat on the floor of Grandma’s cabin, her ears still hurting from the loudness. But here by all the windows, it was quiet. Bird-Grandma draped her favorite blanket over her shoulders, and she curled up in the snuggly fabric. And there were her headphones! She put them on, but left her right ear open just a little.

The music notes wiggled in her hand. “Are you okay?” Muriel asked them, slowly uncurling her fingers.

The music trilled again, and suddenly they vanished. She sat up, grinning. “Grandma! I know Chip’s music!”

Bird-Grandma nodded solemnly. She still held the chickadee bones in her great palm.

“Sing for them,” Bird-Grandma said. “Let them take the music to the Queen of Air where they will be welcomed.”

Muriel clutched her blanket around herself and put her mouth close to Bird-Grandma’s hand. Then sang the whole song. Chip’s bones rustled.

“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.

“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.

Bird-Grandma lifted her arm and her hand stretched like a huge wing unfolding, carrying Chip up into the vaulted sky.

*

Grandma and Muriel sat on the front step, drinking hot cocoa with extra marshmallows, and watched the sky twinkle with summer stars. They were nice and quiet stars, and the trees around Grandma’s house were good trees, with non-yelling leaves and plain bark. Muriel sighed, happy to be home.

“Grandma?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Can I help you collect songs if they get lost again?” Muriel had her headphones on, but she could always hear her grandmother’s soft, soothing voice. She was still bouncy from her adventure and happy Chip was safe, and the song for the Queen of Air was whole.

Grandma smiled. “Yes. I will teach you how to care for the bones so your touch does not pull them away.”

Muriel beamed. She swallowed the sweetness of melty chocolate and marshmallows, then leaned her head on Grandma’s shoulder. She would have to go back when the summer was over, but she would know lots of new birdsongs and would always have her friends.


© 2020 by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: http://mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press.


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DP FICTION #65A: “Minutes Past Midnight” by Mark Rivett

Ruth slammed through a metal security hatch. Solid steel met Ruth’s super strength and speed, and it shredded like tinfoil. From Ruth’s perspective, the world was frozen in time. Soldiers were posed in action – walking through halls, manning their posts, and otherwise going about the daily business of staffing a nuclear missile silo. None of them would be aware of the super hero in their midst. Only later – instantaneous in their perception, but many long seconds in Ruth’s – would they experience her intrusion: ruined passageways and an obliterated weapon.

Racing deep into the heart of the facility, she found the apocalyptic missile she was looking for. An unfortunate man, holding a cup of coffee and dressed in an officer’s uniform, stood in a door she needed to use. There wasn’t room to move past him. Nor was there time to pause.

She did her very best, but felt the contact, and cursed. He would feel nothing. The energy of her speed would transfer into him like dynamite, and his men would find his remains covering the wall, ceiling, and floor. To her, it was nothing but a passing touch of her hip against his.

It was a horrible but unavoidable sacrifice.

Fluorescent lights illuminated the industrial scaffolding before her. Rails terminated in single-point perspective at her destination: a three-story tall intercontinental ballistic missile awakening in its silo. She plowed into it with both fists outstretched. The smooth metal body rent like tissue, and the rocket engine beneath crumpled. As she exited the missile she twisted in mid-air and slammed feet-first into the concrete wall on the other side. Her impact sent cracks spiderwebbing in all directions. The resulting earthquake would shake the entire facility.

She lunged back through the hole she had made. The officer she had killed no longer occupied the exit. He had been erased, and in his place was a vaguely man-shaped red mist. She passed through the blood, resigned in the fact that she could do no more harm than she already had. Crimson droplets streaked off of her, leaving a gruesome wake through the facility.

“I’m sorry I could not move him in time.” The manifestation of Psyche’s words in Ruth’s mind corresponded with the telepathic revelation of Ruth’s next target – another ICBM silo in Colorado. There were thousands. Each one represented millions of deaths, and many were already preparing to launch. Some were already in the air.

“I understand.” Ruth replied needlessly. Psyche already knew that Ruth comprehended what was at stake, and that one life was a necessary cost. The god-like telepath had filled her with a total awareness of what was happening all around the earth. The first shots in a new world war had been fired. If not for Psyche, those shots would also be the last. She had bet on Ruth as possessing both the power and the willingness to help her. Together, they might stave off the apocalypse.

For months, tensions around the world had risen to a crescendo. World leaders had committed to posturing and provocation instead of compromise and understanding. The Doomsday Clock maintained by the world’s atomic scientists had inched ever closer to midnight.

It was now many minutes past that terrible abstract midnight. Ruth had been bounding through missile silos, crushing the terrible weapons within, and moving on to the next for nearly an hour – a lifetime for a speedster like her. Psyche, who herself had plucked the information from anyone on earth who possessed it, trickled their locations into Ruth’s mind one after the other. If any nuclear missiles were unknown to her, they were in the Dark Spots created by other super-powered psychers who carefully guarded those secrets.

“How many are in the air?” Ruth asked as she plowed into and out of another target. This time she had managed to avoid touching anyone – leaving only merciful ruin in her trail.

“Five.” Psyche replied.

“Where are they going?” Ruth compartmentalized her conversation with Psyche. As each new nuclear missile location bloomed within her thoughts the destruction she wrought became a blur in her memory. Many innocent soldiers – like the officer who had inadvertently blocked her path, and had absorbed the kinetic energy of her passing – would die because of her. But it was their lives, or the lives of everyone on earth.

Fate.

Bad luck.

“You cannot stop the missiles in the air. Focus on what you can do.” Replied Psyche calmly.

Ruth felt Psyche’s intrusion into parts of her thoughts that were not devoted to the task at hand and recoiled. “Don’t do that!” She barked.

“I’m sorry.” Psyche’s influence withdrew from the deepest parts of Ruth’s consciousness, and released a flood of emotions – unproductive but necessary emotions – that Psyche had been repressing. Ruth’s eyes welled as she dismantled the next weapon and the next. Her tears stretched from one silo to another suspended in a thousands-of-miles-long wake of despair.

Earlier in the evening, Psyche had roused Ruth from her sleep with a telepathic infusion of knowledge. It had taken Ruth a few minutes to process the gravity of the information that had been thrust upon her. The creation of new synapses within her brain needed to be integrated into the whole, and that had taken a few eternal minutes. Once that had happened, Ruth remained paralyzed by conflicting thoughts and feelings. A singular consideration rose above all else – there was no time.

There was no time to reverse the horrible choices that had been made by leaders across the world.

There was no time for discussion with other super heroes.

No time to resent Psyche for her telepathic intrusion.

No time to dress.

No time to kiss her wife Kara goodbye.

Those moments had been enough to put five missiles in the air. Millions of lives were lost to Ruth’s indecision. The guilt filled her, but also fueled her. She sprang into action.

She snatched a headset in vain hopes of getting help.

Her nightgown fell away under the punishing gale.

Kara awoke to an empty bed.

Now, the West Coast gave way to the Pacific Ocean. The water was as solid as the earth to her super-sonic footfalls. Behind her was a five-story tall plume of steam and water. Before her was the continental Asian dawn. Beneath the infinite blue waves lurked countless submarines preparing to launch their own apocalyptic cargo. Psyche had not bothered to share their location. Swimming, even at super-speed was the equivalent of digging through stone. It could be done, but not at a rate necessary to avert calamity.

“You are not alone. Leviathan and Yam are with us. They will do what they can to disable the submarines.” Psyche said, knowing Ruth’s thoughts.

“Disable? You mean destroy.” Ruth attempted to take an angry tone. Neither Leviathan nor Yam were known to be particularly merciful or cautious heroes. They would crush each vessel, tear them open, or slam them into rocks without regard for the helpless crews within.

She wanted to be furious at Psyche, but failed. Time allowed only for cold brutality, and Psyche had wisely asked the right supers for help – including her.

“There was no time.” Psyche responded with the mantra that had become Ruth’s singular understanding of the world.

“Ruth!” Came a familiar voice in her headset. “Stop! You are killing us! What are you doing?”

She knew General Edict – the commander of North American Super Heroes – had spoken those words mere minutes ago. An eternity.

By the time military personnel had realized that the American nuclear arsenal was being disabled… By the time they had contacted General Edict… by the time Edict had realized who was responsible… by the time the soundwaves from his voice box had reached the microphone… by the time the sound had been converted to a signal… by the time that signal had found her headset… the question may as well be a fossilized artifact of a forgotten era, yet Ruth was compelled to answer.

“Billions of lives are at stake!” She screamed back at him as the water beneath her became Chinese soil. In the same breath she slammed through a lineup of missile trucks tucked away upon a mountain pass. Their weapons were pointed skyward – the thrusters red with the glow of igniting rocket fuel. The soldiers who guarded the trucks were statues whose perception of their environment would go from nervous anticipation to flaming ruin.

“You’re killing us!” Edict repeated.

Ruth ignored him.

“Six.” Psyche’s dispassionate telepathic tone conveyed the next nuclear missile site to Ruth along with information she had not intended to share. Another missile had launched.

Psyche was dealing with too much. She was monitoring a mental map of nuclear weapons while directing Ruth at super-speed over thousands of miles. She was trying to keep innocent soldiers out of harm’s way – Ruth’s way – and searching for notions of a new launch somewhere on earth. She was psychically informing other heroes who might be able to stop a missile in the air. She was also protecting Ruth from psychic attack.

Paladins – The Asian, European, African, and Australian federation of Supers – were bringing telepathy, as well as teleportation, clairvoyance, precognition, and other powers Ruth could scarcely imagine, to bear upon her.

General Edict’s Alliance was doing the same – though they could not know that she was now working on destroying the Paladin arsenal. Information moved too slowly.

“Where is it headed?” Ruth asked.

“You cannot stop it. Focus on what you can do.” Psyche repeated.

Ruth sprinted over the mountains of Korea and Russia, shattering missile silos and launch pads.

“Seven.” Psyche let slip again.

“Tell me where it’s going!” Ruth demanded.

“You cannot stop it.” Psyche remained firm.

Ruth dashed through Indian hills and Pakistani forests, bulldozing nuclear trucks as she went.

“Eight.” Came Psyche’s next slip with a vision of Supers across the world mobilizing against Ruth. Giants, sorcerers, fallen gods, technological wizards, caped champions, and cloaked crusaders were dropping whatever they were doing to intercept missiles or hunt for the rogue super who had crippled the military arsenal. Most moved far too slowly to be of any concern, others might be just fast enough to defend the European missiles that were Ruth’s next targets.

“What if…” Ruth began.

“They won’t!” Psyche replied with a strain in her tone that Ruth had never heard before.

Ruth rushed through Turkey and Belgium, Italy and Germany, France and Britain. The weapons that America and Russia had shared over the decades seemed endless. Each one was armed and pointed skyward in the moment of its destruction.

There was no sign of super-powered resistance. Ruth careened through site after site with a desperation born of the apocalypse.

And then the messages stopped.

Psyche had infused her with one goal after another – thousands upon thousands of missions with potential for unspeakable holocaust. Sometimes the telepathic message had come with an unintended tidbit of Psyche’s consciousness. Other times it came with feelings of dread or near-overwhelming anxiety. When another did not arrive, Ruth continued to sprint. She was lost on what to do next.

“Is that all?” She asked, her heart skipping a beat at the notion that Psyche might have been killed – overwhelmed by her own effort, or murdered by Supers.

“Yes.” Psyche replied curtly.

Ruth was momentarily relieved, but still determined. “Where are the launched missiles headed!” Ruth again demanded, unwilling to rest while the fate of millions remained uncertain.

“Los Angeles.” Psyche answered.

The prospect of worldwide nuclear annihilation was replaced by the impending death of a city.

“What about the other seven. Is anyone doing anything?” Ruth launched herself towards a new destination. In moments, the Atlantic Ocean sprawled before her, and she plunged into the night with renewed determination.

“Yes.” Psyche said again, this time with an empathic hint of sorrow.

“That… that’s good.” Ruth absorbed Psyche’s fear, and understood. Some of the airborne missiles would be stopped. Some would not. “I can help.”

“You can’t.” Psyche replied. “You have done what you can.”

“No! I can do this! I just destroyed all the world’s nuclear weapons. I can save one city.”

“The missile is already in the air. You cannot fly.” Psyche’s tone was both fearful and sad – a recognition of a monumental failure amidst an epic success. Billions had been saved, yet millions would still die.

“Ruth? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, please come home.” Kara came over her headset. “They’re looking for you. If you turn yourself in you’ll be ok. They promise you’ll be ok, but you have to come home.”

Kara was a speedster like Ruth, and was perhaps one of the few supers on earth who might catch her. Unlike Ruth, Kara lacked super strength. She could never hope to stop Ruth physically, and would never try. It was smart that General Edict had chosen to employ Kara in this manner. Like Edict’s first communication, Kara’s was millennia behind Ruth’s present.

Again, Ruth was compelled to reply.

“I did it, Kara!” Ruth attempted to summon joy even as she sprinted towards another calamitous task. “I saved the world!”

She then considered whether she should give voice to her next words – whether the risk was too great, or if Edict would see reason. “There’s a bomb headed towards Los Angeles. I’m going to try to stop it. Tell him I’ll turn myself in after that.”

The Atlantic Ocean ended and Canada began. Darkness cloaked the countryside, and there was a long stretch of tranquility that masked the world-wide chaos.

Psyche was quiet – though Ruth knew that she would be long-dead if Psyche had somehow become disabled or otherwise revoked the Dark Spot that protected her from malicious telepaths.

“How are you going to stop it?” Kara’s headset signal stabilized, and her voice came through clearly. Their conversation was approaching real-time – save for any technological latency.

“I haven’t really figured that out. Any ideas?” Ruth added a chuckle for levity, but Kara knew her too well.

“We can’t save L.A.” Edict’s stern voice came over the network. “We intercepted New York and Chicago. We have a team on San Diego. Just turn yourself in.”

“I can save L.A!” Ruth responded angrily. “I’m almost there.”

The Rocky Mountains rose into view before a starry backdrop.

“How?” Kara’s question was filled with dread.

“I’ll… I’ll run up a vertical surface and smash through the missile while it’s in the air.” Ruth gave voice to a plan that sounded like it might work.

“What if you miss?” Ruth heard Kara choke back tears. She banished the thought of her crying wife from her mind as Los Angeles skyscrapers came into view.

“I won’t miss.” Ruth beheld a long contrail originating from a glowing point of light above the city. The missile was directly above Los Angeles – far closer than Ruth had anticipated… though like all things in her hyper-fast world it was nearly frozen in stasis.

“If you miss you’ll be suspended in the air above the bomb. You’ll have nothing to push off of. No way to run.” Kara’s words came from years of experience that knew death all too well. Tragedy always lurked about the perimeter of super hero life, but they had always faced that possibility together, until now.

“Please come back.”

“I have to try.” Ruth sped through the streets of the city. Motionless pedestrians gaped at the approaching light – perhaps vaguely comprehending it’s meaning. Unmoving cars upon the street contained occupants that were oblivious to impending doom.

“Please.” Kara pled.

Ruth found a building that looked to be beneath the missile and hurled herself upwards. The impact of her footfalls shattered earthquake-proof glass and sent shards erupting into the air behind her.

“Please don’t.” Kara’s voice trembled.

When she reached the top, Ruth flung herself off the building and into flight towards the bomb. “I’m up.” She said.

The missile grew larger as she approached. Thirty-feet long, and marked with Russian words she could not read, its glowing engines shone brightly against the night sky. Its tip was pointed menacingly at the city below.

With subtle tilts of her arms and hands Ruth steered herself towards her target. Her jump had been perfect.

“Did you hit it?” The terror in Kara’s voice was mingled with hope.

“I’m about to.” Ruth replied.The speed at which she collided with the missile was almost too much for her to process. She slammed through metal in an explosion of debris that tailed her ascent.

“I hit it!” She shouted.

“I… I… Oh my god! You hit it!” Kara screamed over the headset.

Ruth could hear cheers erupt from the behind Kara. Edict’s command center was monitoring the situation, and might have even seen her in action via satellite. Ruth spun around in the air, and looked down at the city.

“You hit it!” Kara continued screaming. “I love you!”

Ruth looked for the remains of the bomb and followed the wreckage of the missile and the contrail to their point of intersection. The weapon was damaged and canted awkwardly from her strike. As she reached the peak of her ascent, she gradually slipped from stasis into real time. A dreadful fact became evident. The warhead was still intact.

“I love you, too.” Ruth replied. Her mind raced for options, but found none.

For a brief moment before gravity reclaimed her, Ruth became weightless. The city lights blanketed the earth. Darkness swathed the ocean to the West and the mountains to the East.

“Come home.” Kara wept. “You saved the city! You saved the world! Everything is going to be ok.”

Cars moved through the streets, and people walked along the sidewalks. Ruth had returned to a world that moved with her in lockstep.

“I love you.” Ruth replied. “I’m sorry.”

A flash brighter than the most radiant sun eclipsed the city below.


© 2020 by Mark Rivett

Author’s Note: I recently read an article about the artists who created super heroes as an outlet to fight the injustice they saw in the world. Many problems of the era, such as the rise of Hitler or systemic racism, seemed too big to be tackled by the average person. These artists created characters that were able to face these challenges head on. I wanted to write a story about a modern character who could do the same, while alluding to some of the classic tropes of comic book stories.

Mark Rivett has professional experience as an educator, digital artist, and application developer. Mark began living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1997, but now resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to a background in digital technology, Mark is fascinated by the macabre and his writing is inspired by the horror and suspense genre.


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DP FICTION #64B: “The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne

The dancer spins, one limb upraised, precision-bevelled pointe toe poised against the place where a human knee would be.

Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

It wants the audience to feel slightly unsettled, to know that Cassia is not a person. Despite the controversy, it’s nearly a full house. Does Cassia feel regret? You can’t regret what you haven’t done yet.

There is a woman seated in 2F, comically warmed by an old-fashioned fox stole, boneless furry legs caressing her cheesecloth skin. Cassia hones in on this woman, and bores into her with a heavy chrome stare. It dilates its ocular camera apertures to be provocative.

“She’s haunting,” the woman says to her companion, turning away from the performance. On the street, such eye contact would be scandalous. “I can’t believe she’s retiring.” Cassia notes the active voice in the sentence and doesn’t smile, because its face wasn’t built to smile.

“It’s daring to give her the stage alone,” the man with the fox stole-woman concedes. He withdraws the programme for Le Labyrinthe from his too-tight tuxedo, and consults details about the libretto. On stage, Cassia dances a pas seul as Ariadne, and muses that if they’d picked something more collaborative Cassia would still be dancing alone.

Carnegie and Arnold, the company’s star danseurs, have been too political to dance with Cassia for months. Though if they did, they would find Cassia impossible to lift tonight. Usually Cassia’s frame is hollow.

It feels the pressure of hundreds of half-repulsed spectators and riles across the stage, flinging and articulating a great thread, weaving a contrail behind its form as it leaps into a grand jeté. The moves and the current styling are deliberately feminine, and Cassia knows the audience thinks of it as a “her”. Centuries ago when Cassia first premiered, the scandal was not, as now, in its usurpation of delicate, human creative work. The real drama was that Cassia was both ballerina and danseur, and neither.

When the act finishes, Cassia poses downtrodden in the cross hairs of two powerful spotlights. It bows, the gleam reflecting off of its long, humanoid limbs, and it listens to the murmurs in the crowd. Hands clap: exactly 562 pairs of them. Most of the audience, but not all.

Backstage, someone—Lydia—has left a Screen on, showing the protests outside of The Orpheus theatre. A reporter interviews a picketer sporting a red trucker hat and red scarf. The colour is a visual shibboleth for his movement. His t-shirt reads “#ScrapMetal”.

“She’s an abomination,” the man growls to the camera. Cassia tilts its head at this obvious religious dogwhistle. The protester peers directly into the lens, decrying the pity that a robot was thieving the rightful place of an honest, hard-working human. Like this man had ever attended a ballet performance before. “She should have been crushed into a cube with the rest of them.”

Cassia remembers when Bertrand3 left the company, so many years ago. Back then, they had at least afforded them the elaborate pretence of a “retirement party.”

Bertrand3 had stood parallel to an enormous cake it couldn’t eat, looking as it had always looked—morose, ageless, unattainable. It was built just after automata had crested the uncanny valley, and before Cassia’s manufacture when factories went for a slightly more chic, inhuman visage.

They had stood across the room deliberately, having learned by then that too many automata in close proximity made humans nervous.

Bertrand3 had a working mouth to allow it to take acting roles, not just a speaker like Cassia. It had spoken to its mortal colleagues politely, discussing its future. Maybe movies, they all joked, or a career as a comedybot.

They all want this to be fine. Bertrand3 had communicated through the local network to Cassia. Look at how hard they’re smiling. Should I make it awkward? Cassia fired back suggestions for movie pitches. Or maybe Bertrand3 could ask to sleep on someone’s couch?

After a long period of silence, Bertrand3 started messaging again. I think I am actually worried. About what will happen to my consciousness. Is that strange?

Automata couldn’t cry, certainly—such a feature would be luxurious, and disastrous for their circuitry. But they could anticipate. They could fear.

Bertrand3 had been re-assigned to a textile factory in Poughkeepsie, assembling theme park t-shirts. Unstaffed by human bodies, the building had been unventilated and without fire escapes, and thus Bertrand3 and most of the other automata had been destroyed not long after the transfer.

Cassia turns the Screen off and moves to the makeup tables, where it sits on a cylindrical stool. It begins to repaint itself as The Minotaur, darkening its features, making them less and less like the woman Ariadne. The elaborate, horned headpiece sits nearby—usually one of the stagehands would assist with mounting it, but lately even they make themselves conveniently busy.

“Do you have an escort home tonight?” Lydia says from in front of her mirror. Usually a starring role would earn a private dressing room, but even during the early days Cassia was never afforded such privileges. Lydia is in black and grey, already dressed identically to the other ballerinas, sacrifices that will dance alongside Carnegie’s Theseus.

Cassia does not reply. These days it rarely participates in vocal communication—its mouth is ornamental, and humans always jump at the surprise of Cassia’s androgynous, synthetic speech. It could send a text, instead, but what’s the point?

“We’ll miss you next week, of course,” Lydia says, peering into the mirror. They’ve cut Cassia from the show, and tonight will be its last performance. Lydia reaches across to grasp some of the automata-friendly lip colours, and selects the purple-brown Cassia just used. “But it’s time for some new blood on the stage, don’t you think?”

It is petty, but Cassia gives in. It has never been sure if it hates Lydia—it’s only experienced something close to this emotion a few times before in its long operation—but it feels pretty certain these days.

I hope you break a leg appears across the makeup mirror, and for emphasis Cassia follows it up with a few winking emojis. Maybe even two! The mirror reads the message in a lilting female voice.

“Will you even have legs after next week?” Lydia asks. It’s crass speculation on her part. There’s a chance Cassia will be enrolled in one of the Langston Act reassignment programs. But it’s just as likely Cassia will be destroyed.

Does it even want re-programming and re-assignment? It thinks about this constantly. Does Cassia wish for its fine, delicate, purpose-built armature to be re-sculpted to something more brutal and utilitarian? Its body, its form, is meant for grace and silhouettes, for painting in motion. It tries to picture itself re-assigned to street sweeping, to microchip manufacture, to fast food service.

Lydia startles, and Cassia realizes it has been staring at her motionless for several moments. Out of human drag, away from the spotlight, Cassia usually elects for insectile movement, for inhuman postures. It had literally been tarred and feathered last week near its apartment in Brooklyn, so what was the point in pretending to be a person?

The costume Lydia wears has been hand-altered, red threads woven all through the bodice. The audience will notice. Cassia turns back to regard the mirror, though it doesn’t need it, and fires off another message. We’ve danced together for years. Why do you behave like this?

“Because I’ve broken bones for this,” Lydia hisses at her mirror. She glances at Cassia. “Because I worked for this since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cassia cannot help but consider this, it is in her programming to try to take on human perspectives. Was Cassia, too, not born for this? Did it not regularly re-write its own code, or pay for upgrades to its system performance? There was barely a part on Cassia’s frame that had not shattered and been replaced over its years of operation. Of service. It was broken and remade for this art.

It could say all of this, of course. It could try to explain, like it has dozens of times before, to this Lydia, to all the Lydias before this version. But it doesn’t. Because maybe none of it will matter soon.

There’s a call in the background and Lydia assembles with the others, being led on stage by Carnegie. They’re young, ballerinas and danseurs both, raised in recent times when metal artists were being forced from their homes and their industries. Niches clawed back from the scourge of automatized labour.

Cassia doesn’t appear in this act, so it watches from the wings. It assesses movements, catalogues facial expressions, compares these dancers against the many it’s worked with before. Lydia and the other women are in Relevé en Pointe, fluttering in woe as they revolve around Theseus and the men. They spiral towards center stage, propelling themselves deeper into the labyrinth. A few are impressive, and Cassia takes a moment to savour their movements, the way they have honed their meat and bones into these shapes, these lines.

“You’ve been stunning out there,” a voice says behind Cassia. It’s William, the company’s director. He peers over Cassia’s shoulder, a condescending hand resting on Cassia’s cold metal shoulder socket.

“Thank you,” Cassia says, not turning back. It feels William’s hand recoil a little at its voice. Even after all these years. “I don’t suppose I’ve earned a ten-minute head start at the end of the show tonight?”

“Cassia, you know I can’t,” William says. Won’t.

“I thought so,” it says. “Do I at least get to know what will happen to me?” It rests its hands across the scratchy corset of the Minotaur costume. It is still unsure of whether or not to go through with it.

“You won’t be destroyed, don’t worry,” William says. Cassia turns to regard him, its metal form dark on the sidestage. It feels the rhythmic thumping of human feet on hardwood, distant and quiet like the tick of a clock. “Your intelligence, anyway. Your body might be a different story.” The company had pulled advertisements with Cassia as Ariadne earlier in the season when it came under media pressure. Its name was removed from programs, as though Cassia was a prop.

“Then I could remain here,” Cassia suggests. It feels desperate. “I could manage lighting, or music. I could probably write a libretto if I tried!” It has over 200 ballets already written, waiting.

“You know we can’t, Cassia.” William takes a step back, and Cassia lowers its head. “You should be grateful we’ve held out this long.”

Yes, Cassia projects the text onto the ground in front of William as it retreats backstage. Thank you for all you’ve done.

It sits before the makeup mirrors, polishing the sickle-shaped horns on its headpiece. Cassia hears the call for the final act, but has already risen and started moving towards the stage. It knows what to do.

The audience murmurs at this transformation, recognizing the ghost of Ariadne through the monster that emerges in smoke and dull light. The costuming, Cassia’s own design, accentuates the provocative narrowness of its pelvic joint, the spindly metal curvature of its appendages. Cassia’s Minotaur is lanky and hungry, grey and purple and vicious in the years between feedings.

It leaps higher and higher, the soubresalts made shocking and bestial in their height and perfection. In the first version of Le Labyrinthe, the ballerina playing Ariadne would end the show with one last dance, abandoned by Theseus and the thankful, joyous sacrifices.

William had cut this portion for Cassia, saying the audience wouldn’t be able to empathize, not right now. This will be its last time on stage tonight. Ever. It sets off the timer.

Cassia had considered detonating the explosives earlier in the show, letting it all seem like a tragic accident. Like Cassia was used by extremists in the metal community. The news reports would tally up the human casualties, the flesh-encased souls, and Cassia knew that it would not be included. Tales of Cassia’s last performance would barely make mention of Cassia, a footnote in the tragedy that befell valid human lives.

With the timer on, it can focus instead on its last dance. The other performers arrive, filing onstage from the wings, swirling around The Minotaur, ricocheting off unseen walls as they approach the limits of the stage. They litter the ground with their young, lithe bodies, and Cassia counts their heaving breaths.

A violent slam of a timpani drum in the orchestra pit below heralds Theseus. He emerges slowly, preceded by his red-painted spear. Carnegie and Cassia dance apart, circling each like sharks, until at last he lunges for Cassia, the blade aimed directly for its midsection. It pierces Cassia, as in the stage directions, but The Minotaur does not collapse to the hardwood. Instead it presses the spear further within itself, a gaudy act of showmanship. It cannot smile, but still it knows what smiling feels like.

As the tip of the blade exits from Cassia’s back, the first gouts of flame shred from Cassia’s chest.

The blast eats and rends, scorching the familiar polished floorboards. Probably it maims, probably it burns—maybe even kills. Cassia hasn’t bothered to measure the explosives to carefully, only to ensure that there will be survivors to describe its performance. It wants the audience to witness its final ballet, to tell their children, to tell reporters. Cassia will grace one last headline.

Before Cassia’s processors overheat, its last thought is that it will be called a monster, if reporters even afforded it that agency. But as the flames burst forth from Cassia’s chest, as the creature consumes its offerings, it feels a kind of joy. No one would deny that it had a sense of drama. Everyone would have to admit that Cassia was an artist.


© 2020 by Michael Milne

Author’s Note: “The Automatic Ballerina” was one of those lucky stories for me that, after it gestated for a little while in my brain, it emerged fully formed, blurted onto a page in all one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about automatized labour, and had read articles about which jobs and careers were the most vulnerable to automatization versus those jobs we thought to be “safe.” I tried to imagine a world where even the most creative and artistic pursuits were better performed by well-made robots, and the kinds of tensions that might exist in such a world. What does it mean for a robot to make art? What does it mean for a robot to make pretty good art? For a while I thought the story would be about a person reacting in this world, but then Cassia danced into my mind on the eve of its last performance, and I knew exactly where the story would go.

Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He jetted away from home as an amorphous blob in his twenties, working in South Korea, China, and Switzerland, and has tried the patience of so many baristas along the way. He writes short stories and novels about people who are very far away from home, and also sometimes those people are robots or ghosts. He likes jumping into lakes, drinking coffee until his hands shake, and staying up too late to play video games.


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DP FICTION #64A: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell

Editor’s Note: The original posting of this story included a terminology error where a spindle was confused with a spinning wheel. This has been corrected. Thank you to “Janice in GA” who first pointed out the error.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

133 Poisonwood only ever had one person ever die under its roof. Back in 1989, Dorottya Blasko had refused hospice, and spent two and a half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s shingles. 133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day.

The house misses 1989. It has spent so much of the time since vacant. 

Today it is going to change that. It is on its best behavior as the realtor, Mrs. Weiss, sweeps up. She puts out trays of store-bought cookies and hides scent dispensers, while 133 Poisonwood summons a gentle breeze and uses its aura to spook any groundhogs off the property. Both the realtor and the real estate need this open house to work.

Stragglers trickle in. They are bored people more interested in snacks than the restored plumbing. The house straightens its aching floorboards, like a human sucking in their belly. Stragglers track mud everywhere. The house would love nothing more than any of them to spend the rest of their lives tracking mud into it.

A heavyset man with sagging shoulders lets himself in. He has a bit of brownie smudged against the back of his parakeet green hoodie, and doesn’t seem aware of it. Mrs. Weiss gives him a little wave while continuing to hold up a ten-minute conversation with an affluent couple. The couple made the mistake of saying they were “thinking of thinking of conceiving,” and Mrs. Weiss wields statistics about the school district like a cowboy wields a lasso. The couple’s shoes likely cost more than a down payment on the house, but from how often they check their phones, they clearly are headed back to their Mercedes.

The man with the brownie-stained hoodie prowls through 133 Poisonwood’s halls, and it pulls its floorboards so straight that its foundations tremble.

The man doesn’t look at 133 Poisonwood’s floor. He looks at the couple of ripples in the green floral wallpaper, with the expression of someone looking at his own armpit.

The house feels ashamed of the loose wallpaper. It’s vintage painted silk, which Mrs. Weiss says could be a big value-add. Now the house ponders if it can haunt its own glue and help strip the wallpaper away to please him. It’s especially important since he is spending more time here than anyone has yet without Mrs. Weiss wrangling them. It’s like he doesn’t feel the vibes other visitors do, or he doesn’t care about them.

From his behavior, what he cares about is wallpaper, the natural lighting through the windows in the master bedroom and the kitchen.

A child stomps in through the front door, her frizzy hair in three oblong pigtails she probably did herself. A silver keepsake locket clashes with her bright green Incredible Hulk t-shirt. Her elbows are tucked into her chest, hands out like claws, stained with brownie bits.

Every step she takes is deliberate and channels all her tiny body weight to be as heavy as possible. If the house had to guess, the girl is probably pretending to be a dinosaur on the hunt.

The man in the brownie-stained hoodie glances at her. He asks, “Ana. Where’s your coat?”

Ana bellows, “I hate clothes!”

Ana apparently hates clothes so much she immediately grabs the bottom of her Hulk t-shirt and yanks it up over her head. She is careful to keep her locket in place, but chucks the shirt at the man. He grabs for her, and she ducks between his arms, bolting past Mrs. Weiss and the affluent couple, pigtails and locket bouncing.

In their chase, they leave the front door open. The house knows heating oil is expensive. It summons a spectral breeze to shut it for them.

The sound makes Ana pinwheel around, and she points at the door. She says, “Daddy! It’s ghosts!”

Daddy says, “Ana, we talked about this. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“You didn’t look.”

“You don’t have to look for things that aren’t there.”

Ana looks at her locket and huffs. “What if it’s Mommy’s ghost?”

Daddy closes his eyes for a moment. “Please just put your shirt back on.”

Ana immediately attacks her own pants. “Clothes are for the weak!”

“Put it on or we are leaving, Ana,” he says, trying to wrestle clothing onto his daughter. She pushes at him, leaving more brownie residue on his hoodie. As they battle, the affluent couple slips out the front door without closing it.

The house closes it for them. Heating oil isn’t cheap.

*

The triangular roof means the second floor only has the space for one bedroom. Mrs. Weiss reads the expression on Daddy’s face, and she attacks with, “The basement is very spacious with generous lighting. It’s cool in the summer, and toasty in the winter.”

Ana says, “Heights are bad luck anyway.”

The four-year-old scarcely looks at the bedroom before backing out. She holds the handrail with both hands as she climbs down the stairs on quivering legs. On the third stair, she freezes entirely.

Daddy is in the middle of surveying the room and misses Ana quivering in place.

Some houses give their residents visions of slaughters or trauma. 133 Poisonwood gives Daddy a swift vision of his daughter’s vertigo. He doesn’t know it’s anyone else’s insight, and wouldn’t believe it, but he’s at the stairs in seconds. Ana holds onto his pants leg until she feels safe.

All 133 Poisonwood has is a light touch, but it knows how to use it. Haunting is an art.

The basement is only half-underground, so the windows are level with the freshly mowed front lawn. Ana spends a moment giggling at the view. Then she whizzes around the basement, from the combination furnace and laundry room, to a storage closet, and to a pair of vacant rooms. They would make a perfect child’s bedroom and playroom.

Ana goes to the west room, announcing, “Daddy. You can keep all the ghosts you bust in here.”

Mrs. Weiss offers, “One of these could be a home office. You said you telecommute? Google Fiber is coming to the area next year.”

Daddy says, “I want to work from home more. I’m a software engineer, and I host a skeptic podcast. You might have heard us.”

The house isn’t offended. It doesn’t believe in ghosts either.

Ana hops back and forth between the two rooms, scrutinizing over and over as though they’ll grow. That is a trick the house doesn’t have.

Daddy says, “We could sleep next door to each other. What do you think?”

Ana says, “But I want a big dino room.”

“You’re getting to be a big dinosaur. How about the room on the top floor?”

Ana’s bottom lip shoots upward like she’s going to run. She clearly won’t settle for the room on the top floor, and there’s only a master bedroom on the first floor. A tantrum is close, and it could ruin everything.

So 133 Poisonwood plays its ace. Every decent haunted house has at least one secret room. Dorottya Blasko used to sew down here when she didn’t want to be pestered, in a room her family couldn’t find. It would be a perfect place for Ana to grow up in. Perhaps she’ll learn to sew.

With the sound of an affectionate kitten, the door opens. Shock hits the adults, who definitely don’t remember there being a room there. Ana doesn’t care, and runs to explore it.

“Uh, we aren’t showing that room,” Mrs. Weiss says, scrambling to cover for herself. She’s panicking, imagining hazards and lawsuits.

She doesn’t understand. 133 Poisonwood is going to clinch the sale for them.

The room runs deep, with an expansive window that hasn’t been seen from the outside in over twenty years. A sewing box with a scarlet and royal blue quilted exterior sits next to a rocking chair, and beneath the window is a broad spinning wheel that still smells like hobbies. Many great dresses were supposed to come out of this room. There are a few cracks on the concrete floor. Nothing a loving father can’t fill in to perfect his daughter’s big dino room.

“Ana,” Daddy calls. “Stay near me.”

Ana ignores the call and runs straight up to the spinning wheel. Her little hands grab onto spokes in the drive wheel, and she turns to the door. “It’s like Mommy’s.”

Daddy says, “Careful, that’s not ours—”

Ana yanks the wheel around to show it off to the adults. She pulls before the house can resist, and the entire device creaks and wobbles. It topples straight down on top of Ana, throwing her to the floor.

Daddy grabs her shoulders and pulls her from between the cracked wheel and treadle. Ana’s too distracted bawling to feel her necklace snag the spindle. The thin chain snaps, and the locket slips from her neck and down a crack in the floor. Without intending to, the house sucks the chain down like a strand of spaghetti. The house tries to spit it out.

Daddy squeezes Ana to his chest so hard she could pop, and keeps repeating, “Are you alright? Are you alright?”

Mrs. Weiss gestures and says, “Her hand.”

“Are you alright?”

Ana says, “Let me fix it!” She stretches her hands to the broken spinning wheel. One of her hands is bleeding and she still wants to use them to clean up her mess. She says, “Daddy, let go, I’ll fix it. Don’t make the ghosts sad.”

That breaks Daddy’s concerned trance, and he lifts her under one arm, ignoring the kicking of her feet. He marches for the stairs. “No. I warned you, and we are leaving.”

“Daddy, no!”

“No more. Say goodbye. You see the ghosts aren’t saying goodbye? Do you know why?”

An urge falls over the house to slam the door shut and trap them all inside. Daddy, Ana, and even Mrs. Weiss, force them all to spend eternity in its hidden room, where they can make dresses, and stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. It will shelter them from all the hurricanes the world can create. It needs them.

The phantom door’s hinges and knob tremble as 133 Poisonwood fights itself. In that moment it knows what makes other homes go evil. The killer houses can’t bear to be alone.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. But it isn’t one.

It leaves its rooms open as Daddy carries his bawling daughter out of the basement, her incoherent sounds resonating through the house’s crawl spaces. He carries her up the stairs and out the front door without a backward glance. This time, he remembers to close the door.

*

133 Poisonwood leaves the secret room open in the hopes that someone will come back. It squeezes the cracks in its floor closed, popping the locket out without scratching it. Inside is the picture of a woman with a thick nose and proud eyes. She would have made an excellent ghost. The house would take a phantom for an inhabitant at this point.

The afternoon is sluggish. There are four more visitors, none of whom stay long enough to check the basement for treasure. The hours chug by, and Mrs. Weiss spends most of the time on her phone.

With half an hour of daylight left, a red sedan pulls up. The driver lingers outside for two minutes before knocking. It’s Daddy.

Mrs. Weiss answers and forces a smile, “Ulisses. Is Ana okay?”

Daddy says, “It was a scratch. Thanks for being understanding before.”

She says, “I’m so sorry about that. I told the team this place was supposed to be empty.”

He says, “Have you seen a locket? Ana wears it everywhere and it’s gone missing.”

Mrs. Weiss holds the door open for him, “We can check around. What does it look like?”

“It has a picture of Ana’s mother inside. It’s one of few gifts she still has from her.”

“She was your wife?”

“She was going to be,” he says, and looks around the master bedroom with an expression even emptier than the space. “There was an accident on our apartment’s fire escape. She had a fall.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Right now, Ana needs all the comfort she can get. So if we can find that locket, it’d save our lives.”

They look around, the man so tired every step looks heavy. It’s amazing he could stagger into a motel bed, let alone go hunting for a locket. The house hasn’t seen someone as in need of a home in years.

Mrs. Weiss says, “I had something like that after my father passed away. Makes her feel like her mother’s spirit is still with her?”

“Superstitions aren’t comforting to me,” he says, fatigue giving way to scorn, as though daring the house’s walls to do something. “And Ana’s mother was an atheist.”

The house is tempted to give Daddy the shock of his life and toss the locket to him. Give him back the image of his lover and proof of its power.

But he doesn’t need to believe in hauntings. With his slumped shoulders, and his clothes stained with his daughter’s food, and the pieces of their lives he is trying to put together?

What he needs is a win.

So the house uses what little strength it has to levitate the locket onto the top basement stair. It twists it so the light catches it, and shines into the upstairs living room.

Daddy finds the precious locket on his own. He bends over it, brushing a thumb over his lover’s image. He heaves a sigh through his nose like he wishes he could fit inside the locket.

The house lets him be proud of himself. It will hold onto this memory for the cold years ahead until it is bulldozed.

Daddy stands up without the locket, leaving it behind. The house tries to send him a vision warning that he’s forgotten what he came here for.

The mental image doesn’t change what he’s doing.

He goes right outside, to his sedan where Ana sits, rubbing at her puffy eyes and runny nose. Daddy says, “It might be here. Do you want to help me look?”

The house cannot cry. There is just a little air in its pipes.

Ana flops out of the car and trudges into 133 Poisonwood. She spends too long poking around the kitchen, a room she was barely in earlier. Daddy plays an even worse sleuth, deliberately checking around empty hallways that give him a view of when Ana finally checks the basement door.

“Mommy!” she cheers. She sits right down on the stair and hugs the locket to her throat, voice trembling with emotions too big for her body. “Mommy came back!”

Daddy asks, “So you found it?”

“I told you she’d be here. Mommy wanted me to find it.”

“Your mother didn’t do that, Ana.”

She scrunches her nose and mimics his voice to say, “You don’t know that.”

Daddy puts a hand over the locket. “You found this. Not anybody else. You don’t need ghosts,” and he taps her on the temple, “because you have the best parts of your mother inside you.”

Ana gazes up at her father with glossy eyes.

133 Poisonwood has never so understood what it wants to do for people as when it watches this parent. It tries to hold onto the vibrations of his voice in its walls.

Then Ana says, “Nah. The ghosts left it here.”

She hauls off to the living room, hopping in late afternoon sunbeams, and holding the locket in the light.

Reason is defeated for the moment. Daddy doesn’t fight her on it. He rests against the wall, against the wallpaper he hates, taking the house for granted. The house plays a tune on its shingles, the same one that calmed Dorottya Blasko in 1989.

Daddy calls, “Mrs. Weiss?”

“Please, call me Carol,” she says. She’s been pretending she wasn’t lurking ten feet away this whole time. “You’re very sweet with Ana. You can just tell some people were born with the knack.”

“Three rooms in the basement. This is a lot of house for the money, isn’t it?”

“It’s just a family short of a home.”

133 Poisonwood would be more charmed by the line if it hadn’t heard her say that eight other times today.

Daddy says, “I like the space this place has for her. There’s plenty of room to run. And she loves to run. Going to be a track and field star.”

“I said to myself that this place looks happier when you’re in it. It suits you.”

The house can tell he wants to say he doesn’t believe that.

He says, “What we need is somewhere to start fresh.”

Mrs. Weiss offers him a folio of data on the house and gestures to the basement. “Care for another look around?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” He takes the folio. “While Ana is playing upstairs, can we check how insulated from sound that sewing room is? It’s funny, but I thought it might make a good podcast studio.”

If houses could laugh. He sounds so unguarded and sincere.

This tired skeptic doesn’t need to know that his podcast room doesn’t technically exist. If he finds the blueprints for 133 Poisonwood, he’ll shave away what he doesn’t understand with Occam’s razor. The house doesn’t need him to believe in anything but himself and his daughter. It isn’t here for the gratitude. It can try to support him as well as he supports Ana. If anything is as patient as a parent, it’s a haunting.


© 2020 by John Wiswell

Author’s Note: At the World Fantasy Convention in 2018, I went to dinner with some lovely people who let me babble about Horror. I read, watch, and play Horror every week, but I barely ever write it. Instead I tend to put Horror-y things back out as humorous stories or heartwarming stories. Off the top of my head I gave them the example that if I wrote a haunted house story, it wouldn’t be like Haunting of Hill House – it would be about a haunted house that was lonely and desperately wanted someone to live in it. One of my fellow authors reached across the table, grabbed me by the hand, and said, “Please write this.” On the train ride home, I did. So this story is dedicated to Natalia Theodoridou, who demanded I help 133 Poisonwood find its family and its audience – all of you.

John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.


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The Lodge and Seven Contrivances: How Contrivance Affects Horror Plots

written by John Wiswell

Most Horror stories are built on contrivance. In Jaws, a shark that absolutely isn’t native to that region attacks swimmers. How did it get there and why is it behaving this way? Neither Benchley’s novel nor Spielberg’s film cares. Little more effort is put into justifying the mayor and business owners forcing beaches to stay open. Those contrivances are compelling because characters are suddenly in peril they’ve never prepared for and are so vulnerable to.

You can find integral contrivance in stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It can create an eerie sense that things are wrong because characters suddenly lack agency on some important level, or that a pattern of plot events is being broken. It can be your premise, or it can push the plot out of wherever it’s stuck. It’s the thing coming from nowhere – the unjustified jump scare, or needlessly antagonistic bully, and coincidental run-in with a witch. 

The problem comes from overuse. Even audiences that don’t know about plot mechanics sense when it happens. There’s an irritation that the story isn’t moving right because event after event isn’t the result of anything they’re invested in. 

A great example of this is 2019’s The Lodge, which recently hit streaming platforms including Hulu. The movie’s premise is that a pair of kids and their dad’s new girlfriend get stranded in a lodge and spooky events start happening to them. It’s a perfectly decent premise, right?

The movie begins with the two children’s birth mother committing suicide. The little sister is shattered. The older brother tries to comfort her. It feels like the start of a painful journey for the kids. If you have any parental instincts, you’re ready to care about them.

Then the contrivances hit.

Contrivance 1: There is a six-month time skip. 

Time skips usually pull the audience out of a story, but if you haven’t done anything else weird and get the plot moving right away, the audience will adjust. We all adjusted to the beginning of Avengers Endgame, right?

The time skip means we miss the kids’ grieving, coping, and growth. The movie has reset them to not be fully healed, and now they’re mostly anxious and resentful towards their dad. The story is hedging that we have enough residual care for where the kids were before the time skip to still care now.

Contrivance 2: Within one minute of the skip, the dad tells his kids that his girlfriend is coming with them on a ski trip. The kids are hurt by this idea and are in ready-made conflict with the dad. 

The movie’s time skip elided all the conflicts in the decision-making. The ski trip isn’t the result of past choices; it’s from nowhere. What the movie has done is skip to a point of conflict without building it up. It’s cheating on narrative. Especially when a story like this has a functional opening, a move like this breaks flow. The hope is that what comes next will justify it.

Next in The Lodge, the kids have to meet the girlfriend. They wait in the car to avoid the social cues of having to greet her. She gets into the car and doesn’t say hi at first. She’s nervous, too, which feels valid. The dad will have to break the ice for them.

Contrivance 3: The dad gets a phone call and leaves them in the car. 

Who called? It’s barely mentioned and doesn’t reflect anything else in the plot. He was basically called by the screenplay.

The call is a contrivance to make this scene as awkward as possible. It’s a redundant contrivance since the kids and girlfriend were already awkward. Now it’s just super awkward. 

Since it comes close to other recent plot contrivances, it’s easy for this moment to feel forced and grating. This is the compound contrivance effect. The more things that feel unearned, the testier your audience will get. 

That night the kids poke into their dad’s computer and reveal the girlfriend’s backstory: she is the survivor of a suicide cult. Part of why she’s so awkward is that she has enormous unresolved trauma. 

You might call this an infodump and accuse it of contrivance, but it isn’t really contrived. The kids are using their agency to pursue believable curiosity about this woman who is basically a stranger. What they’ve learned complicates the plot. This is utterly different than arbitrarily jumping forward six months.

Further, the girlfriend is now much more interesting because of the revelation. This sets her up as a trauma victim. When the movie shows her unpacking medication, it’s meaningful to us. With its characters set up, it feels like the movie is finally about to start and we’ll get that scary goodness. We’re ready for chills rather than just awkwardness.

Contrivance 4: In a bold choice, the movie switches POV to the girlfriend. 

She isn’t a co-POV. The kids are suddenly supporting characters in her story. On the one hand she’s a fish out of water and mentally ill, so she’s supposed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, if the audience has been attached to anyone it is the kids, and it’s a huge writing risk to relegate them behind her after what they’ve already been through. Such a big change after the earlier contrivances makes the story feel janky. It makes you question what story the movie is even trying to tell.

Following the switch, there are a few minutes of scenes building the girlfriend’s tension with the kids. They freeze up when she accidentally wears their mom’s old hat and demand it back. 

The dad sees that she’s having a hard time so he decides to do something nice for her. He decides to give her the combination to his safe, shows her his gun, and takes her shooting.

This is neither contrivance nor natural. It’s in-between. His motive makes sense, but why the hell does he think shooting things will make her feel at home? It’s so brazenly a Chekhov’s Gun scenario, except a character is literally pausing the plot and forcing the gun to appear in scene. Thanks to the compound contrivance effect, things that aren’t pure contrivance cause the same irritation.

It underscores that all the contrivances have made the father a plot device rather than a character. Who is this guy? Why does he want these people to go on vacation together? Why isn’t he helping them bond? He’s never unpacked as a character.

Then we find out why.

Contrivance 5: The dad gets a mystery call from whatever job he has and abruptly decides to leave in their only car, leaving his kids and girlfriend with no way to leave the lodge.

So it turns out the story put no thought into the dad character because it planned to get rid of him ASAP. 

Inside the fiction, it’s exasperating that this person did so much to make this unwanted situation happen and then ditched them all. He’d be a good antagonist if he wasn’t leaving the movie now.

Outside the fiction, bigger things are wrong. The movie isn’t telling a story; it’s forcing one to happen, which isn’t nearly as engrossing. It doesn’t feel like the movie has gotten to where it wants to be despite messing around with so much stilted plotting.

The girlfriend and kids watch a movie in the lodge and have cocoa. None of them are acknowledging how awkward their situation is. The daughter feels sick and the girlfriend isn’t super-considerate, but checks her temperature and says her she’s fine. This is tolerable.

Contrivance 6: They wake to find the power, heat, and water is all off. Their phones don’t work. Their clothes, toys, and the girlfriend’s medication is gone.

This one thing is no more contrived than any one thing in Us or The Shining.  This contrivance is the premise of the movie, and you probably were watching to get to this point. In fact a sudden contrivance can be exciting. If things build up naturally and then something dramatic changes, like the blood falling into the eye of the dad in 28 Days Later, it can be terrifying.

What The Lodge has done is replace character agency with too many contrivances. Nothing that got us to this premise feels earned. A Horror story can easily get more tense (or intense) as a protagonist makes a series of dangerous decisions, or as an antagonist makes choices raising the stakes. Here instead things keep being pushed along by forces from off-screen or by virtual non-characters.

It feels additionally cloying because we have three viable protagonists here who should have been able to carry the movie up to this event. We cared about the kids. We understood that the girlfriend was unwell and in a tough position. When they do the standard fare of freaking out and blaming each other and ignoring the apparent supernaturalism of their circumstances, it feels like just the next weird contrived thing that’s forcing them to dance.

Before you can even ask what interesting ways they’ll respond with after they finish panicking, well…

Contrivance 7: You’ll be shocked to learn that they are soon snowed in. There is absolutely no leaving the lodge.

From here it’s obvious that they will perform standard trope responses to outside stimuli until some big twist or reveal. The characters never got proper opportunities to inhabit or push their own narrative forward. These are three people with heavy pain in their lives and reasons to be strong individual characters, and an hour of runtime into the movie the most interesting thing now is what bumped into their window. 

Overuse like this is why “contrived” is a pejorative. When it’s used well, these intrusions can push characters to reveal more of themselves or just scare the crap out of the audience. If they aren’t used carefully, though, the only victim of a Horror story is the story itself.


John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.

DP FICTION #63B: “Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner

The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.

It went like this. Rich folks live at the highest points in the city, up on the sea cliff and in these walled gardens that we only get let into to weed and harvest. As the city spirals downward, so does the wealth. The royals always say the gods will let the money trickle down like rainfall, but the only thing that slides down is their sewage.

The gangs have always been stealing to make meat, but usually the goods stayed in your alley. Everyone else, well, that’s the city for you. We’re not all touchy-feely neighborly like the hunters and farmers at the edge of the Woods. The boards changed that because you had to go to the Greyhoods for the best wood, the Gallows Hand for potions, and those two had to work together for the best wheels—part wood, part crystal. We made the bolts, the bearings, the mounts and the grips from thin metal shavings stuck on top.

We knew our secret wouldn’t last—playing peasant was in fash that year. A noble sees some street kid kicking flips and offers to buy the board for his son. Offers more gold than that kid ever going to have again. Then another noble’s son gets jealous, and we got servants scavenging our secrets or palace craftsman offering to purchase them.

But the three gangs said no, collectively, and began to bargain. That’s where the Bitches got the name, after the nonhuman blacksmiths’ union. A bard reported that the king called them the Blacksmith Bitches after the union appealed to him. Anyway, we bargained to be let inside. Our boardmakers would only be allowed to produce for the royal families—no stealing secrets.

But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t be stealing.

A request came next sunrise.

We entered the castle while each gangs’ best cartographer followed by rooftop and shadow-way. We felt their eyes even keener than the guards’. They’d chalk the best lines for escape. Then it was up to our master riders to make the escape happen. We would be seen, no doubt of that (the heads piked outside the wall mouthed yes), so it would come to speed and darkness.

The queen’s aide took us to the princess’s room. Us grubby gutter-gangs, standing in the towers that cast shadows over the sweaty backs of our parents, our siblings. We—the leftover kids of makers and farmers and prostitutes and cart-drivers and shit-shovelers—requested by the castle for something more than to chuck a spear or the noose.

When the aide knocked in a rappity-rap that anyone could tell was secret, the princess peeked through. A smile split that fey face. She swung open the door and stuck her fists on her hips.

“I’m ready.”

Leather trousers stuck from her fluffy skirts, and she’d bound her feet (incorrectly) in peasant wraps with the double-thick saddle soles. A silk handkerchief wrapped her windless-weaving hair from her face.

The aide fidgeted. “Princess Sydney, these are—”

“I know who they are! Everyone does!” She pointed at each of us and rattled off our names and gangs: Cyclops riding for Greyhoods, Litch riding for Gallows, and Jett riding for the Blacksmith Bitches.

We glanced at each other, the guilt worse than the Devil’s Tavern shit-stalls. We’d cracked jokes over pipes and brews about the snotty princeling who’d scream “off with their heads” the first time he cracked his bum. This kid . . . seemed better than that.

Princess Sydney waltzed into her rooms the size of a whole slum street. The aide closed the door but stood beside it.

The princess looked around our slouched, fidgeting forms, then leaned in to whisper. “Call me Syd. Only they call me that.” She rolled up her sleeve and showed a mark traced over and over with black ink, the retraced design blurring at the edge where it seeped beneath her skin, a kid’s attempted tattoo. A cross with curled horns growing from the angles. A half-orc rebel, like us, had been burned at the stake. The king, this girl’s blood, claimed the half-orc had killed a guard during a robbery. Really, we were just illegal. All the halfers. Half-elf, half-human, half-scale, whatever. Anyway, the cross and horns had become the downunder’s symbol, whether you were one-drop or pure. Being poor meant you couldn’t be pure because the gods only cursed sinners to the slums. Ha.

But this princess had a symbol hand-drawn on her arm that would get her some sort of lash, even if it was just with the tongue. We glanced at each other, then motioned her to lower her sleeve. She looked at us with a pixie grin, then her eyes flickered to the boards. She caressed the nose of Sleepeater as if the board were a famous sword.

We nodded at each other. Let’s do this.

Some of us taught Syd while her watcher settled into a chair with a book. The rest of us perused the room of the little rebel. We wondered what this would mean, if the next ruler might help us. But she was so young, so impressionable. She hadn’t seen the downunder, seen what she might one day help.  Heard of us, yes, but we were the brags told at the tavern beer-dippers and by the bards entertaining over trash fires. We were the parentless, the death-defying, the hungry-but-running, the riders of Sleepeater, Killcount, Bloodless, Firestorm, Dragonwing, famous in the downunder as the royal sword Bloodsoaked. Except that sword drank our blood, and all the other poors who sold broad shoulders for the army’s bread ration and the flour-oil money sent home once a month. Our boards, they gave something real, even if it was only hope.

Tonight would change what we could give.

Syd learned fast. Already, she could glide. Her board was sewage, but once we assembled a new one, she took to the quick turns. That pixie smile never left her face.

We wondered about it in whispers or looks when she laughed like gold coins spilling into a pool. Yeah, not cat-slit eyes, no pointed ears, no ghost-wings. But didn’t mean she would pass the one-drop test or the priests’ fervor exams. Being a princess would save her, but not the board bums that led her down such a path.

We named our boards to keep us and our friends safe. And, when we inevitably broke our necks riding the roofs (or the guards got us), someone else could pick up the board, or another just like it, and Dragonwing would still fly, Firestorm darting just ahead, grinding sparks. Sleepeater would wake the guards with silly jumps rattling their roofs and sometimes their helmets. Killcount would kill it on the biggest drops, so high all the downunder witnessed. Bloodless would never fall.

What would happen if we put a princess on a board?

Same thing that would happen to any twelve-year-old. She would fall.

She flipped her board into her hand like we always did. “I want to smoke a roof!”

We told her, not yet, little slick. She rolled her eyes when we said she needed to ollie first and hopped onto her board. One shove, and that princess proved she could get air. Still not tuned to the board, she stumbled on the landing, but rolled into her fall just like we would have taught her. Her watcher didn’t even look up from the book.

So, we made her a roof. Piling furniture against one wall, creating a few levels, a ramp. Any of us, burly street drippings that we were, would be too heavy so we couldn’t test it, but sometimes you didn’t get to test roof lines before you carved. We lined the ground with pillows and bedding. It felt good to tramp the silks and linen with our dirty grip-boots.

Syd climbed up two dressers. We’d created a drop to a long table (the legs balanced on chairs for height). The other end, a ramp went up to a bookcase. From there, she’d drop to a smaller bookcase, then another smaller one, then to another table. She’d have seconds to react. Most roofs were easier than this rickety thing.

She knew it, too, but we said if she could master this thing, then she could ride.

We helped her cast a sight line, plan each jump, catch, footstep, drop. She fell, of course. Didn’t land the first drop onto the table, the board skidding from her feet.

She climbed right back up. Again, again, again.

When king’s guard came to spear-nudge us out, she’d completed the first half but couldn’t quite figure the transition from off her board, run the ramp, then jump into the first drop.

With the guards nicking our heels, she winked. “See you soon!”

That pixie grin sent us wondering again.

We made the raid that night. Sleepeater and Dragonwing took the headline and we followed the leader, mirroring their jumps and drops. We scored big and didn’t lose a spark of gold or blood. Our favorite merchant waited on the other side of the waste grate back in the downunder, and we passed him the wares. Our stuff sold wild outside of town in the cities of living revolution. Here, found owning a piece of royalty, hands and heads went chopped.

Of course, our faces became the new guard graffiti, papering the taverns and community houses. Downunder, nobody turned us in, but we couldn’t go back to finish Syd’s lessons. Smart kid like that already knew she would get us for only a day.

*

For the next year, we kept it cool around the castle. The king outlawed boards, which made it popular as dragon scales among the nobles for a hot second. That royal score had fed plenty and the city had many other pockets of wealth. We emptied them.

Some of us fell. Dragonwing’s rider went to surf the stars with a split skull. Sleepeater landed in a net and never left the guard barracks. Killcount broke both legs dropping off a wall, but they came back even stronger with a young rider whose brother had been hanged for looking at a royal wife. Just the kind of burn Killcount needed to brave those gaps.

Once our faces had bone-bleached off the walls, we planned another castle hit: an anniversary celebration with no fear of revolution from blow because the King held a feast for the whole city. Can’t blame them—when you can eat, you eat. But we still had a chance to grind some tops.

We scored and went straight to the old sewers to cache it until the right merchant came looking for dictator-era jewels.

Except as we ramped into stink, we counted a thirteenth rider. Like us, she wore all black, a scarf around her face, a hammer-battered skull cap. She kept up on the roofs, but it was the ramp into the sewer-dark where she stuttered. Just the slightest hesitation before she pushed, like the first time skating a new roofline.

We circled up at the first turn, riding over her head on the slick stone walls. She braked and flicked her board into her hand. Jagged red spelled “Synner” on the belly.

The Y clued us, and when she tugged down her mask, that same pixie grin waited. The princess looked older. A scar curved over her jaw. Her legs had thickened with riding muscles.

You can’t be here! we told her. A princess gone missing would be assumed kidnapping and ransom, would mean the raising of the downunder, murdering the most capable to destroy another generation that maybe would have said no. She didn’t know what payment she required.

“No, no, it’s okay. I covered my tracks. My double is posing.”

Your double?

She thumbed the scar along her jaw. “I’m not princess enough for the people, according to my father. She looks the part, even if she’s just my half-bastard-sister. She hates it as much as I do. She told me it was time.” She dropped her board and stepped onto it. No longer the wobbly girl we gave lessons to, she turned fluid, riding the board like driftwood on the river. “I can’t do much up there. You can make me something else.”

We looked at each other. Dragonwing and Sleepeater ollied their acceptance immediately. They spoke for their gangs, the Greyhoods and Gallows Hands, but the rest of us wondered what one more sinner downunder could do.

We explained that we didn’t need more bodies but leaders. If she showed her face right now—might as well break our boards.

She flashed the belly of her board. “Then make it a rumor. Make me something more. When they check on me, it will just be my sister Kess. They won’t know the difference. Never have.”

We huddled up. Dragonwing and Sleepeater hadn’t changed their stance, but we wondered at the choice to gamble another young life. We took the big air each night because what else did we have to live for—rat meat and cricket grain? But this kid, she might be something.

With us, she’d just be a criminal.

Some argued we’d run more dangerous lines than this at a younger age.

Others agreed and said who were we to stop her, a bunch of halfies with scarred-up knees.

The Blacksmith Bitches held the deciding vote. They held their turn.

Show us you’re serious, we said. Prove you’ve thought it through.

She turned that pixie grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” One shove and she parted us, clattering up the sewer ramp. Sleepeater followed, with a few Greyhood runners flanking, but the rest of us waited. We had loot to sell and mouths to feed.

The news came later, with sirens. Due to the king’s sizeable collection of mounts, his stables had been moved just outside the first level, and the shit was raked into a runoff that led straight downunder. With Sleepeater’s help, they’d carved up the barn roofs, panicking the guards and slave mounts, but Syd dropped to the gate, showed her face, sent the guard scrambling to give her the royal treatment, then vanished into the barns. Syd opened all the stalls, then Sleepeater clattered the roof, sending all the mounts rushing.

By the end of the night, the horses, griffons, dragons, wyverns, minotaurs, centaurs, and dire wolves had been absorbed into the downunder. The king’s men came with the royal pedigree papers, with lists of markings, but we did our job well. Only a handful were stolen again.

When Syd rolled into our park, still shit-stained and beast-smelling, we couldn’t help but welcome her.

Then we waited for it to get worse.

We stayed low, skated our traditional paths in the downunder, never crossed out of building’s shade or sewer’s shadow. Not until a little thing happened did we believe Syd, not until her double stood beside the king at an announcement about “schools for the children” shite. Not until we knew we had a secret on the king—his royal child had escaped.

Synner unleashed on the middle-castle dwellers and the nobles: breaking into a speciesist grocer, surfing through the upper-castle farmers’ market, thieving a child-beating blacksmith. We skated flank, let her face forward, let that board leave a trail. We tagged the hits with Synner, but one of the best paint-magickers turned out a stencil (her shadowy face bleeding into the top of her board, name on the belly), and princess propaganda went wall-to-wall.

Some worried the king would see, but some said, yes, that’s what we needed. If she wanted a true revolt, he’d know. All the downunder knew her masked face, and most suspected her heritage, so whispered the crows. Somebody would take it kingside.

So it happened. We were staying low, keeping the boards hidden, after a big hit on a shop selling slave-diamonds. The guards had chased us all the way to the sewer head before we lost them in the stench. Wild riding, we’d been drunk off it, but knew enough to relax. Breathe it all in. A week later, Synner went out with Killcount and Firestorm just to land a few tricks, grind a few gutters, so the downunderers saw us safe and laughing.

Maybe someone knifed us, maybe it was fate. The guards hit so hard the three boards were caught up in the wave. Riders went down, but the guards took Syd, of course. That’s how we knew their goal. A good rebel, she kicked her board into the fearful crowd.

A new Synner picked it up.

She held the board above her head. She screamed with half-scale metal: “To war!”

We rode the way of revolt.


© 2020 by Phoebe Wagner

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my love of Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, and revolution.  In epic fantasy, the tiered city is such a staple that it seemed a waste to only ride skateboards on the streets rather than the roof tops—what a perfect ramp! Because I knew revolution would be a key aspect of this story, the first person plural voice came with the  characters. 

Phoebe Wagner holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and currently pursues a PhD in literature at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the co-editor of two solarpunk anthologies: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation and Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures. When not writing, reading, or grading, you can find her kayaking the nearest river. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at phoebe-wagner.com


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

DP FICTION #63A: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble

Content note(click for details) Content note: domestic violence

Max found the box that fit absolutely everything when he was clearing space for Roderick to move in. They had agreed he’d pare down to a single bookshelf, so he drove by the local rental place and bought a half dozen boxes.

By the end of the first round, he’d cleared half of one bookshelf. There were still three and a half more he’d committed to losing. He had enough to start filling boxes, though, and he could use a mental break from the triage.

Max knelt on the super shag and sorted. Hardcovers he only ever bought from the remainder bin by the register. That’s where he met Roderick.

Remaindered just means something big and fancy got overhyped and under-delivered.” Somehow Roderick made derision feel exotic. Enticing.

“Or the people who love it couldn’t cover the cost?” Max said. He felt pinned under the amber of Roderick’s gaze. He didn’t know yet that Roderick’s eyebrows didn’t have a high natural arch, that he was just always judging you.

Roderick shrugged wide shoulders sheathed in stretch cotton.

“I say if you value it, you find a way to pay what it’s worth.” As Roderick’s knuckles brushed the back of Max’s hand, he felt worth more than he had in a long time.

Max stacked the hardcovers — biggest on the bottom — in the box. He could have sworn that alone should fill it, but there was at least half a box empty, so he must have been wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

It took one coffee, two drinks, and one dinner date for Max to give up on the remainder bin. If he couldn’t afford the price, he didn’t want it enough, now did he? Roderick wasn’t fond of the oversized trade paperbacks that took their place.

“They’re all over the place.” His corded forearms wrapped around Max from behind. “I mean, they’re a mess, all different heights and widths and what’s the point of a book shelf if it looks like a junk drawer? It should be precise. Crisp and clean.”

Crisp and clean. Like Roderick. Even when he was trying the scruffy look, he trimmed his stubble every morning to the perfect length for defining his jawline. Max didn’t mind the rug burn he got when they kissed, because kissing, and the rash on his shoulder, reminded him where Roderick rested his chin, the way the bruises on his upper arms reminded him of Roderick’s strong hands.

“Artistic integrity?” Max offered. “This was the way they wanted to present them, so—”

Roderick shook his head.

“Everybody’s got a vision,” he said. “A visionary shapes the world instead of letting everyone else do it for him.”

The trades were a more challenging puzzle to pack, but Max eventually found himself satisfied that he’d not wasted any space in the matrix he shaped atop the hardcovers.

Still half a box to fill. And he’d been so certain this time.

The low-end paperbacks had been in milk crates to begin with.

“If you’re going to keep them, you gotta show off what you have.” Roderick was naked, idly sorting through the crate. His sweat smelled like warm cinnamon and chamomile. Max never smelled like that when he tried Roderick’s cologne. Then again, he always washed it off right after because Roderick hated people touching his stuff.

Roderick’s brows arched past their usual curve, which meant he was judging extra hard.

“These don’t even have front covers,” he said.

“That means they’re well-loved,” Max said, wrapping his arms around Roderick’s bicep and snuggling in.

“It means they’re out of shape and ugly,” Roderick said. Max pulled the sheet up over his belly.  “Or stolen,” Roderick continued, leaning onto Max. He was solid and heavy, but Max found the weight of him comforting. “You know that scam, don’t you? Bookseller tears off the cover for a return and gets a full refund. They’re supposed to get rid of what’s left, but they keep it, the greedy little shits, and sell it ‘used’ to some guy thinks he’s getting a bargain. But I guess if you have them on a shelf, no one can tell since the spine’s intact.”

Max bought the shelves the next day.

The paperbacks slid off the oak (Roderick never would have let him live down pressboard) as well as they had slid on. Max set them in the box, spines up, in an effort to save space. But when all that was done, the paperbacks still didn’t fill anything. Well-creased titles stared up from the bottom of the box. Just as more books did when he cleared another row. And, emboldened, two more. Max picked up the box, which had heft but nothing close to an entire bookshelf’s worth.

He smiled and started tossing books in at random. He kept out his treasured LeGuin and Butler, since after Max’s fangasming, Roderick would notice if they disappeared. Otherwise, he stopped worrying about what went in the box, because it all fit. When he was done, he scrawled his name on the side.

He went to shove the box into the back of his closet, but the floor was already covered with unpaired shoes and old t-shirts and a bin of ratty notebooks, all thrown in the dark when Roderick turned up his beautiful Roman nose at them. Max opened the box and dumped everything in, then slid the cardboard home. That night, Roderick practically swooned.

“I thought we’d be fighting about this for weeks,” Roderick said. Roderick was a big proponent of moving forward. Evolving. Never live in the past, he liked to say.

Max shrugged and smiled and took advantage of Roderick’s alacrity to get him to wear his chaps when they had sex.

The other boxes he’d bought from the rental company didn’t seem to work the same way, so Max exercised their no-questions return policy and got his money back.

Max never told Roderick about the box. Not when Max agreed to clear his old Robot Army toys from the wall shelves so Roderick could use the space for his orchids. Or when they got a plasma screen after Max … lost his balance … during a discussion and cracked the screen on his old tube television. Definitely he didn’t mention it when Roderick insisted a few tiny blood drops from Max’s split lip meant they should replace the quilt his grandmother made.

Expired medication. Cosplay that didn’t fit anymore. The 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Ani-Han Hero Team. Boxed.

The apartment was clean and bright and organized and unblemished the way that kept Roderick content, and Max didn’t stress losing anything because it was all in the box in the back of the closet if he ever needed it.

Max blamed himself for not realizing that, when everything Max had that Roderick didn’t like was finally in the box, the only thing left for Roderick to consider was Max. Cut as Roderick was, Max was never cut enough. He couldn’t box himself, though, and much as he tried, he couldn’t change himself enough to make Roderick happy living with him.

There was more room in the bathroom after that, without the extra gauze and butterfly bandages and the concealer Roderick helped him find that smoothed everything out so you almost didn’t notice bruises, even up close. Max packed away Roderick’s detritus so he wouldn’t have to remember. He couldn’t bring himself to throw any of that away, but he didn’t want to see it anymore. Never live in the past might be a good philosophy, after all.

In the end, it seemed better to move than to stay where he was; he couldn’t seem to pack enough away to really, finally forget Roderick.

Part of Max wished he could pack the whole apartment in the box, so he could pull it back out and live in it again when he was ready. Every roleplay system told you, though, that you couldn’t pack a space inside a space. That was just madness.

There was still plenty to take, and the box held it all. Max had to be a touch more strategic this time. He didn’t want to unpack everything all at once, so he made sure that the main cookware and a few dishes and his toiletries and work clothes were on the top, over everything else. He worried for a moment what might happen if his cologne leaked in transit, but the cardboard seemed to hold scents as well as it did everything else. Had a decent vapor barrier, to boot, so he could take his time washing whatever might need washing on the other side.

Unfortunately, Max wasn’t quite as good at strategic packing as he thought. Once his clothes were out at the new place, he realized he needed the steamer. When everything had been on hangers, and without Roderick to cock his head and ask if it was really good enough, Max hadn’t used the steamer much. Between the folding and the odds and ends piled on top of his clothes, though, even Max noticed how unsightly things were.

Max knew he’d packed it. He’d packed everything. It’s just that he was also certain it was one of the first things he’d thrown in. So much for not everything at once.

Out came the clothes that might fit when Max finally went back to the gym and the bullet blender he was planning to start using and the never-opened sliders he’d intended to attach to the couch feet at the old place for the hardwood. Max hefted the stack of not-all-expired coupons and lobbed a half-empty sunscreen onto the stack of ratty beach towels.

His keys fell into the box as Max’s hand wrapped around the steamer’s handle, because of course they did. They clattered through the layer of baby gates bought for a dog he never brought home. Max swore.

He’d been planning to make copies tomorrow. Max didn’t want to dig any further, but he figured it was a better option than going to the landlord. She’d already given him the side-eye when he showed up with just the one box and some stray furniture. It didn’t sting nearly as badly as Roderick’s disapproval. Still, Max decided to pull out the gates, grab the keys, then slide the gates back into the box and be done for the night.

Except moving the gates shifted the decorative boxes the keys had landed on. Another jangle. Another thing to pull out. And again, when his old cookware that lost its Teflon slid and scooped and dumped the keys down yet further. He tossed aside the curtains with the broken cords. Started yanking things out faster so he could be done with it, but then he was knee deep in winter scarves, sifting after the muffled clink of metal.

They were Roderick’s scarves. Roderick loved scarves. He wrapped his neck in stripes and chevrons and houndstooth and even one with polka dots. Winter opened up a long, woolen set of new decorative options for the world, so Roderick always welcomed the snow. Max rolled each one neatly again and laid them outside the box. The last — a black one with a single, thin pink stripe — he used to borrow from Roderick when he wanted to cover his own neck. It had wriggled one end deeper into the morass. Max had to pull much harder to free it. He worried that the wool wouldn’t come back from the stretching, but as it slipped loose, a flash of metal caught his eye. He looped the scarf around his neck and forgot about worrying.

Max pushed aside the boxer briefs, steadfastly trying not to think about how well they fit Roderick. He tossed aside the chaps. Roderick had only worn them three times since he bought them for him, anyway.

The keys kept eluding him. Max pulled out his phone and tapped the flashlight on as he sifted past every patterned sock in as many color combinations as Roderick had been able to find. Grabbed handfuls of dried Valentine’s Day and anniversary bouquets. Flipped over the frames with pictures of them together. The first time Max went skiing, when he learned how to fall instead of crash. The beach, where Roderick always took on an enviable bronze and smelled like coconut and Max prayed he wouldn’t himself turn into a lobster because every hit hurt worse on a burn.

Max couldn’t tell now if the metal sound was frame or keys as he clattered past pictures of Roderick’s nephew and sisters and the time his mom visited. Accidentally crushed one of the bulbs on the wreath Roderick’s aunt sent him last Christmas. So much stuff, all of it sliding and tilting the wrong way every time Max got close. Until he found the watch.

The third anniversary is supposed to be leather, but given how uninspiring Roderick found the chaps, Max bought a watch. It was a classic windup, the not-kid-stuff kind of retro Roderick could enjoy. The band was the leather bit: custom cut and tanned, hand-stitched. Max had paid extra to get M + R burned into the strap.

The spring wound down long ago. Now, the band was loose. The box did well to keep out moisture, so Roderick was relatively preserved, but time ravaged a body even inside a dry box, it seemed. Roderick’s skin had taken on a sallow tone that made it hard to see the bruises on his neck, but Max could still make out where he’d wrapped the curtain cords. When Roderick’s strong hands throttled him. When the price lurking in the dark sluicing in from the edges of Max’s vision had been a price he wouldn’t pay.

The key ring was hooked on Roderick’s bony thumb. Max picked it up gingerly, afraid to break off a digit. He wasn’t sure he knew how to mask a break on someone else.

Something about the atrophy made Roderick look colder, even wearing that soft sweater Max wanted to lay down and snuggle against. Max took off the scarf he’d draped on himself earlier. Gently wrapped the slightly-stretched black wool with the thin pink stripe around the saggy skin at Roderick’s neck. It covered Roderick’s bruises as well as it had Max’s.

Max cupped Roderick’s cheek in one hand, kissed him on the forehead, and climbed back out of the box. Holiday decorations and picture frames and socks and scarves and underwear and the broken curtains all fit back in the box where they belonged. Where they would always be at hand if Max needed them.

He closed the lid and carried the box upstairs. Slid it in the back of his new closet like he’d had it in the old one. Out of sight was almost like out of mind. One step away. Eventually Max would be ready to move on completely, he was sure.

Not quite yet, though. For now, he thought it best if he steamed the wrinkles from his outfit for work in the morning and called it good. Roderick never could stand to see Max wrinkled.


© 2020 by Jason Kimble

Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally-legal husband. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, and Speculative Masculinities. You can find more of his nattering at processwonk.wordpress.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #62B: “On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris

You place the urn carefully onto the examination table. The doctor opens the lid, takes a peek inside, sniffs a little. He nods, like he’s evaluating a new blend of coffee, then dumps half of your husband’s cremains into a big metal mixing bowl, the kind they had in the restaurant kitchen you used to work at. He uses a large copper whisk to mix in a bottle of purified water.

Your eyes scan the renovated warehouse where the doctor has set up shop, which doubles as a Pilates studio at night. You ask how many times he’s done this before.

The doctor stops whisking and cracks open a soda can. He says he’s performed this procedure literally dozens of times. Several droplets of Diet Mountain Dew splash into the mixing bowl, but the doctor appears unconcerned. You look for reassurance in the form of laboratory equipment, all of which looks state of the art, judging by the assortment of alembics, vials, and tubes on his table, and the size of the 3D printer, which has been whirring since you arrived, churning out a neon-orange human skull. (The Pontius Pilates T-shirts sold at the front desk also appear to be tastefully designed and a flattering fit.) The doctor resumes whisking, mixing in three cups of plaster of Paris and most of an already-open box of baking soda from the break-room refrigerator. He adds the last of the cremains to the cremixture. With each stroke of the whisk he counts aloud, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. You don’t want to over-beat the batter, he says.

The 3D printer stops, and the doctor remarks on its perfect timing. The skull is the last piece of your husband’s new skeleton. He picks up the skull and examines it like Hamlet pitying Yorick. Think fast, he commands, tossing you the skull. You drop your keys to the table as you grab for the plastic skull. You bobble it, but manage to clamp your hands around it before it hits the floor. The doctor laughs—what fun! You nod as your blood pressure de-escalates out of hypertension. You carefully hand your husband’s skull back to him as he makes the “gimmie-gimmie” gesture. He then wheels a gurney out from behind a curtain, upon which rests a plastic skeleton rendered in lemon yellow, except for the collarbone and left shoulder blade. He had run out of the yellow resin, the doctor says, and used the next closest color to finish up. The hues clash, but God willing, you’ll never see your husband’s candy-corn-colored skeleton again anyway.

He jams the skull onto the spine in a manner resembling, both in physical strain and amount of cursing, the time your husband replaced the front axle of the Hyundai. A loud click makes you think his plastic spine has snapped, but the rapidity with which the doctor extends his hand toward you for a fist bump suggests the skeleton is officially ship-shape.

The doctor startles, realizing he almost forgot an important step. It’s the third important step he’s almost forgotten, but who’s counting? You hand him the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that will serve as your husband’s new brain, which will regulate all bodily systems, including the Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine that will be his new heart. You were up all night loading photos of you and your husband, the honeymoon, the house, Max the doggo, and your vacation to Colorado that one time into the special Dropbox folder labeled “FRIENDLY_FILE.” You also sprung for Spotify Premium and loaded it with playlists of his favorite songs. And for good measure, you pirated Seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones. The doctor snaps the brain into place, plugging the USB cable into the complex system of wires that snakes through and around the skeleton. Several times he pauses and rewinds a YouTube tutorial on how to wire a drone helicopter to make sure he’s got things right. The doctor sees you looking and reassures you that he’s done this literally dozens of times.

Now it’s time to add the chicken wire. Wrapping it around the bones like he’s taping a sprained ankle, he explains the wire mesh gives the new flesh something to grab onto, like patching a hole in drywall. Most importantly, it functions as a cage for the skeleton. Did you know we’ve all got a spooky skeleton trapped inside us that wants to escape? You point out that this skeleton is plastic. The doctor shakes his head–a well-made skeleton knows it’s a skeleton, ready to burst out of at the first sign of weakness. You can find no fault in his logic; they can do amazing things with 3D printers these days.

The doctor secures the chicken wire with a bag of zip ties from Home Depot. He then grabs a drywall knife and scoops a big pile of the cremains mixture onto the wire-encased right shin. He mentions his patent-pending skin formula is completely full-moon proof. You ask what happens on a full moon. The doctor beams—NOTHING, thanks to his secret formula! His hunched-over posture of concentration reminds you of the tattoo artist when you and hubby got matching pinup girls with the word “LOVE” inscribed underneath. The doctor draws several occult-looking symbols onto your husband’s chest with a chopstick you’re not sure is unused. You decide not to remind him of his promise to re-create the tattoo.

By the by, the doctor wants to know how your husband will be spending his time once he comes back to life. There’s lots of red tape about reasons for reanimating a loved one. For instance, valid reasons include appearing as a surprise witness at a murder trial, spending one last Christmas with the fam, or firing their loathsome successor at the family business. Activities such as acting as a human shield, digging their own grave, or being the patsy in an elaborate jewel heist are strictly verboten (though for jewel heists, the role of “the brains of the outfit” is acceptable). You respond that your husband is dead, isn’t that reason enough? You miss the conversations, the cuddles, the creature comforts of living with your best friend. You can’t cope with your husband’s death without him, and yes, you know how crazy that sounds. The doctor nods—moving on is a lot harder for the living than the dead.

The doctor positions several oscillating fans next to your husband, and invites you to join him outside for a smoke while the new flesh dries. You confide to the doctor that you feel like you should stay there with your once-and-future husband, but part of you doesn’t want to be alone with this mound of corpse batter. He says that’s a perfectly natural response. Also, could he bum a smoke from you?

The mixture has dried, and the doctor tells you—and these are his words—it’s time to turn and burn, baby. Or perhaps he was talking to your husband, and you’re not sure which makes you more uncomfortable. He grabs a series of electrodes connected to a thing, licking each one like it’s a postage stamp, and attaches them to your husband’s new flesh. The doctor dons a pair of heavy rubber gloves, a welding mask, and a lead vest. He then hands you a pair of safety glasses you wouldn’t trust if you were making a homemade birdhouse. When he tells you to stand back, you backpedal behind a reinforced shield wall at a velocity that will leave your muscles sore for two days.

Before he throws the master switch—one of those oversized red buttons labeled “easy” they sell at Staples for six bucks—the doctor rattles off the safety concerns you’d already learned from his website, but which he’s required by law to mention again. For example, your husband will go out looking for those responsible for his death. You reply that he was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident. The doctor winks and points at your husband. He knows who did it. Oh-ho-ho-ho, he knows.

The doctor asks if you have pets. You mention your corgi, Max, whom the doctor advises you to give away. When you protest, the doctor purses his lips and puts a hand on your shoulder. In his gentlest voice he tells you that, two weeks from now, one way or another, the dog won’t be living with you. This information was not on the website, and you mention, rather forcefully, that Max had been your husband’s dog and without him you couldn’t have held it together, and it would’ve been good to know he couldn’t stay before you started this process. The doctor thanks you for this constructive criticism. You ask the doctor if anybody loves him enough to reanimate him after you strangle him to death. He laughs and says yes, his credit card company. You don’t know what to say to that.

The doctor asks if you have any final questions. Just one, the one you’ve been dreading, the one about which the website was very vague—will your husband still be capable of love? The doctor’s face contorts to one of revulsion as he tells you no. You only meant to ask whether your husband could still feel love as an emotion. He chuckles, relieved, saying the answer to that is also no. All his favorite sports teams? Hubby hates them now. He will harbor a deep, unspoken resentment toward all living creatures, and you especially. Maybe it’s because you disturbed his rest, or you dragged him away from Heaven, or who knows what. Your husband won’t really know, either. He’ll probably lash out at you. He might say something passive-aggressive while watching TV. He may lift the car over his head and hurl it at you. He might start a petty argument for no good reason. This is all perfectly normal and expected. While you will be legally responsible for him, he still has his own will and desires, and he’ll want more out of his new life than reliving his old one; the dead are, by necessity, better at moving on than the living.

The doctor asks if you still want to go through with this. His face shows none of the mirth he’d exhibited up to that point. You pause, contemplating how easily you could tell your friends the doctor turned out to be a flake. You could walk away and keep your dog with nothing lost but your deposit. Well, that and the idea of seeing your beloved’s face again. And he would still be your beloved, no matter what the doctor said. You give the final okay.

The doctor presses the button. You’re half-expecting lightning to course into your husband’s new body, for him to let out a monstrous growl as raw animal life surges into the waiting vessel. What actually happens is much less dramatic, more like a vibrating massage chair; you hear the muffled ringtone of your husband’s Samsung brain, like when your iPhone slides between the couch cushions.

It takes a minute or so for your husband to boot up. The skin starts to move, then all at once, it sucks inward like a vacuum sealer, forming the contours of your husband’s face.

He rises. The doctor had warned you about the eerie red light that now pours from your husband’s empty eye sockets, but you can’t really prepare yourself for the first time you see a living, breathing monster. The doctor corrects you—the scientific term is “abomination before God,” which his lawyer has assured him is very different, legally speaking.

Your husband looks at you. You go weak in the knees—his loving gaze always made your knees weak, but this is different. He opens his mouth, and the light pours forth from there as well. Oh, God, it’s weird. His voice sounds delayed, like he’s speaking to you via satellite from somewhere far, far away. OH HEY. I MUST’VE. DRIFTED OFF FOR A. BIT. But at bottom, it’s his voice, and you throw your arms around him. He freezes. The light inside him intensifies, redder and redder, so bright you can hear it. He puts his arms around you. For a moment, you think (hope?) he might crush you, but he does not. He pats you on the back a couple times.

Tears overflow from your eyes. You want to kiss him, but you don’t dare, lest that red light enter your body. You just tell him how much you love him and how you’ve missed him and you can’t believe he’s back, and so on.

The terrible red light now glows through his flesh. DID YOU. WATCH GAME. OF THRONES WITHOUT. ME?

You shake your head and wipe the tears away. You were waiting for him.

He shrugs and the light subsides. WHATEVER YOU. WANT, BABE.

You scoff at the doctor’s notion that the dead are better at moving on than the living: you’ve moved on from the very concept of moving on. You forget about the life you may have had as a family of one. You forget about the dog, for what living creature can compete with nostalgia in (mostly) human form? You can sit on the couch with your sweetie again, or a reasonable approximation thereof. The doctor was right, it’s the little creature comforts that make life worth living, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

During your reverie, your husband had started to strangle the doctor. You put your hand on your husband’s shoulder, and at your touch he releases his grip. The doctor gives you a thumbs-up to show he’s okay, this happens all the time.

You smile at your husband. It’s time to go home.


© 2020 by Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris writes mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He has published several short stories in literary journals, and writes an advice column at Writer Unboxed designed to help dilettantes and hacks learn nothing whatsoever. When he’s not typing words into a thing, Bill develops online courses at an organization his lawyer advised him not to name. He has two sons who asked not to be mentioned in this bio, but Elliott and Wyatt forgot to say “please.”


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DP FICTION #62A: “A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella

It is a long way down to the sea. A long way down, and treacherous. But I must make this journey today from my uncle’s castle, carrying his bones. I must make this journey, both for my uncle’s bargain, and for my own.

The way starts in the morning, when the frost’s sheen at the top of the mountain wants to blind me. This is the first obstacle of the day, to avoid the harsh winter sun as it shines against the rocks and the meagre grasses that dare peek out in my uncle’s deadlands. A place where I am one of the last living things.

One of the last living things still holding on.

I cradle his bones in my right arm, as my left one is the one that will need to hold the rope. The rope, this high on the mountain pass, which is now slick with frost and will become wet under my warm, living hand. The frost will fall off the rope as the seasons change down the mountain, as it will become warmer later.

The Mountain of Three Seasons carries its intent in its name.

I carry no weapon with me. I wear no armor. This is important, both for my task and for my uncle’s promise. I know I will find weapons later, down by the sea, in the cave that I seek. I know that armor has collected there, and gold, and bones.

And a dragon.

Or what is left of one.

The mountain path is narrow and sheer. The winds whip and whisper my death down below. They promise me things. They promise me, “Itta, no more loneliness.” “Itta, no more pain.” But I know these are lies. I know how my uncle lived.

I know that his pain did not end upon his first death.

So the wind’s whispering and promises go ignored as I travel down, down, down the mountain pass. I grip tight to the rope, grip tight to my uncle’s bones; my chill visible, my breath visible. Then less visible. Now invisible.

As I am now in spring.

*

It was spring when I came to live with my uncle, some ten years ago. I came from the lowlands. From the burned lands. From lands which will now be forever warm. Because dragon fire upturns not only treasure, but family.

My uncle welcomed me into his castle with a hand so cold, I thought I would never be warm again. His touch was like anticipation—it made my heart flutter, made my eyes grow wide with wonder. My eyes that took in his tapestries on every wall. Tapestries of unicorns and of knights and of dragons that hung so thick they made my boots whisper on the stone.

But I did not whisper. I turned to him, precocious as I was, a girl of seven. I turned to him and I asked, “Uncle, why is your hand like ice?”

“I am a ghost, my dear Itta,” he said. “I have been a ghost for many years.”

I was too young to be shocked by such things then. Too small to think the answer odd.

“How did you die?” I asked.

“Magic,” he said. “And I am kept here by magic, magic that I will teach you, and magic that you will help me do. Would you like that, my dear girl?”

Again, too young to disagree, I nodded. “I would, Uncle. Yes please.”

A young girl wants only to please her elders, after all.

What he taught me was how to read from books whose pages smelled sweet and were fragile in my fingers. Books that held stories of dragons, and the fighting of them. Then stories of old mages, and how they fought dragons, and then stories of powerful maidens and their own battles with the beasts.

Some three years later, I brought eggs to a boil for my supper.

“Would you like to kill a dragon, my dear Itta?” my uncle asked.

“Am I going to learn to kill a dragon, Uncle?” I asked back.

“Yes, my dear,” he said. “That is exactly the reason you are here.”

*

The reason I am here is to travel down the mountain, as the rope becomes wet, simply wet beneath my fingers, now that winter has gone. The reason I am here is to deliver my uncle’s bones to that cave by the sea; the cave holding such treasure, but I do not want this treasure. I want the dragon who keeps it.

I travel to this cave as the sheer pass tries to show me other promises. Crocuses here. Forget-me-nots there. Three daisies clinging to a rock, what a pretty thing they would be as a crown on someone’s head.

But this thought is a trap.

I seek no crown.

The daisies whisper to me. “Itta, Itta,” the daisies say. “Come, come and take me. Place the bones here. Surely they are too heavy a burden. Surely they are too heavy for you.”

This is another trick of the mountain pass. To unbalance me, to make me forget my promise to my uncle, to forget my task. Forget all it is I am meant to do. Without this task, I have no future—only my past. Only what I was.

So I say nothing to the daisies; I ignore their request. The path stretches longer and thinner out in front of me, and I must go. I hold fast to the rope as I look ahead. Look ahead into summer, where I will wander into tall grasses. Where I will follow the grasses as they lead to the sea, clutching my uncle’s bones tight to my chest. Hold them with my sword arm, my fighting arm, now holding my uncle close.

As I have every day since his death.

Every day since I refused to bury him.

I walk into summer, and pass through the tall grasses whose seeds tickle my nose, tickle my skin. My body writhes and twitches, but I do not drop what I carry. I cannot. I carry too precious a thing. I understand that.

I understand that all too well.

“Itta,” the grasses say, “lay down here with us. Stay a while. Look up at the bright beautiful sun. Let it warm you.”

But I do not. I will have a lifetime to look at the sun. I will have a lifetime to remember the feel of warmth upon me.

*

The days were warm when I learned the name of the dragon I was meant to kill. She was called Nomathstep and she kept a cave by the sea. A cave filled with the bones of wizards and knights, with their swords and their staves, with gold stolen from the villages she burned. Soon, after that meal of eggs and that talk of dragons, my reading went from stories of maidens killing dragons, to books on the anatomy of dragons, mages’ treatises on what sort of magic to use on a dragon, and, finally, what sort of sword a girl like me should wield.

For seven years, I knew I was to learn to kill a dragon. So every day, for seven years, I took a sword in my hand to practice what I’d read. I practiced against air. I practiced against tapestries of dragons. I practiced with visions of the stories of Nomathstep. Stories of her fire, of her fury, of her golden eyes. All this time, I caught my uncle watching me from his spellrooms. Rooms I was not permitted to enter. Rooms that felt like anticipation; simply being near them made my heart flutter, made my breath catch.

In all that time, in all that training. I never learned a single spell. Still, I kept my uncle’s castle clean, kept myself fed with eggs and chicken and wild onions. I never saw another person my age, never saw another person at all. But the stories, they continued to arrive. Through my uncle, through the books left in my own rooms.

And each night, like every night, my uncle asked me, “Are you ready yet to kill a dragon?”

And each night, after training, after chores, I answered, “Perhaps tomorrow.”

And then my uncle said, “Then tomorrow, I will teach you magic.”

But he never did.

Because.

Because my uncle was in love with Nomathstep; he did not want her to die.

I knew this in the way my uncle spoke of the dragon. In the way he spoke of her beautiful red scales, of her fathomless golden eyes. He often muttered about her in his spellrooms late at night when he thought I was not listening from my own room below. The castle crags were deep and no longer good for keeping secrets. My uncle muttered about her voice, how it was like to singing. He muttered about the feel of her scales under his hand, smooth, and silky, and warm.

I knew by all these utterances that he was in love with her.

I knew then what I had to do.

One day. Because love is greater than revenge.

*

Today I am walking to a cave by the sea. I have walked down the Mountain of Three Seasons, and now I must cross the sands under the hot, hot sun. The heat scorches my tongue and my throat. My hair, once drawn up away from my face, has fallen limp against my cheeks. Sweat trickles down my arms, down my back, pools in my boots. But I have not felt the heat I seek yet. I know this.

I know the real heat is yet to come.

I clutch my uncle’s bones close, my sword arm easily bearing the weight. But my sword arm aches for something else. For that sense of anticipation, for the chill of my uncle’s ghost when he stood near me. That ache will not leave, wherever I go. Whether in my uncle’s deadlands, or wherever my future takes me.

But this I know, with my promise to him and the one I make today, my uncle’s days of heartbreak are over. His longing. His curse. His sense of betrayal. The curse remained only until final death. And now that day has passed. And now his pain has ended.

The sands climb up to meet me, dunes rising higher and higher on the way to Nomathstep’s cave. This is what one does for love, so the stories say. They traverse the impossible, they ignore the lies and promises of others, walking toward the one they know is true. The one they know is their heart. Even when that heart is dying.

Even when that heart was pierced long ago.

My legs tremble like the tall grasses of the mountain’s summer. My lips shake like the winds of the mountain’s winter. But I carry on, on toward Nomathstep’s cave for the promise, the promise I made to myself, on the day I found my uncle gone. The cave mouth beckoning closer, ever closer to Nomathstep’s home.

*

The cave was where Nomathstep killed my uncle after an accord. The two of them had reached an impasse: that neither of them could continue to go on dragoning and wizarding as they had been, without further harm to the general nature of dragons or wizards. At the time, both of them had beating hearts, both of them spoke with heated words.

Nomathstep asked my uncle, “Is it in your nature to simply kill a thing for being what it is?”

And my uncle asked her back, “Is it in your nature to bargain?”

They spent two weeks in Nomathstep’s cave, talking, discussing, sharing food. They spent two weeks among the bones of those that meant to slay her, clad in their armor and robes, swords cast aside, gold and jewels piled high below them. My uncle remained, alive… for a time.

In the meantime, the villages went unlooted and unburnt. In the meantime, my uncle’s work went undone and untended. However, the two of them reached a different accord. They grew closer, far closer. So close that my uncle wrapped himself underneath Nomathstep’s great wing, and she held him gently in the crook of her claws.

They stayed like this for days, for many days, until my uncle finally said, “I will have to kill you, you understand.”

“And I, you,” Nomathstep said back. “And then will you leave me alone?”

“Of course,” my uncle said. “But I will kill you first.”

But as he tried to stand, as he tried to gather his staff, Nomathstep was faster, closer.

She went first.

She cursed my uncle to a death of loneliness on top of the Mountain of Three Seasons. And then, as the story goes, she pierced his heart with a burning claw, the same one that had held him close. The same one that had cradled him so gently. He died then and there, forever and forever banished to the castle on top of the mountain. To a death of loneliness —for many, many years.

Until I arrived.

The stories say that Nomathstep herself died of a broken heart some months later. That she’d refused to leave from her cave, refused to eat or to drink. Refused to pillage or to burn a single thing.

She went against her dragon’s nature.

And a dragon going against her nature dies.

*

Nomathstep is still dead when I arrive at her cave and she stirs. She opens one dead golden eye, no longer brilliant, no longer shining. Her red scales are shedding, coated in a film of salt, claws dulled and pitted, heart no longer able to warm the cave. She is blinking at the sunlight off the sea as I stand against it. And when she sees me, she rises to her full, terrifying height.

She fills the mouth of the cave, her yellowed, broken teeth baring down at me. Her dead eyes narrowed. A bellows of breath upon my face.

And she says, “Who dares disturb my last dying days?”

Oh, and I do tremble. I tremble as I hold my uncle’s bones in front of me. I do tremble in my lack of armor, with my lack of a sword.

“I am Itta,” I say. “Of the Mountain of Three Seasons. I bring you the bones of the wizard who lived there, who died there.”

Nomathstep takes a step back, her chest rattling with the effort of her undeath. She lowers her snout to me, sniffing me. My heart is so afraid, it tries to escape through my fingers, my throat, my stomach. The heartbeat is so strong, it rattles me, shakes me.

“You smell like him,” she says. “Like anticipation.”

Now her voice is like singing, melodious and mournful, as she lays down upon her pile of treasure. She lifts a wing, her lips cracking into a smile. She beckons me with to her a claw, her dead golden eyes kinder now, gentler now.

“Come, Itta of the Mountain,” Nomathstep says. “Bring my love to me and rest a while, so that we may remember him.”

The cave smells like dust and memory, like hot metal and decay. I settle down onto pile of old robes as she holds me in the crook of her claw, as she folds a flaking wing over me. I lean into the cooling embers of her heart. I know now that Nomathstep is truly dying, I know it by the rattle of her sigh as she holds my uncle’s bones between us.

*

My uncle’s bones are two of his femurs, six fingers, and what remains of his skull. I found them myself, found them one morning when I arrived in the kitchen to make tea. I found the bones resting on the table, at the place he always sat waiting for me. Waiting to ask if I was ready yet today to kill a dragon, and I would answer every day: perhaps tomorrow.

Every night, I would hear his heartbreak from his spellrooms.

My uncle was truly dead; ghosts born of heartbreak only live so long.

This I have learned, in all my reading, in all the books that smelled of sweet or leather. In all the books that felt like velvet or Nomathstep’s scales in my hands. But what I did not learn, in all my books, was how to grieve for a ghost. Was how to take what remained of my uncle and cry for him, to do what he would have wanted.

To do what I would have wanted.

So I took the skull and the femurs and the six fingers. I wrapped them in a small dragon tapestry. I tied them neatly with twine. I refused to bury my uncle. I could not. As lonely as my uncle’s deadlands had always been, I was not ready to be alone.

My uncle had spoken often of the path down the Mountain of Three Seasons. The winds that whispered death, the tricks the flowers played, the promises of the grasses. And finally, the death of the sun. He said he tried to follow the path several times, but he could not make the journey himself.

I spent fourteen days in my uncle’s deadlands, carrying his bones. Fourteen days of loneliness, fourteen days of chicken and eggs and wild onions. All these days with no conversation, with my heart pierced over and over in my chest. All these days, I knew I had to walk the path myself. That I had to take my uncle’s bones to the dragon that he loved. To Nomathstep.

I had to end the curse.

This was my promise.

I had to end the curse and begin my own life. To save Nomathstep from her own heartbreak, to return the bones of the one she loved. I must save myself from the same, from heartbreak. I must cease cleaning an empty castle, one no longer haunted. Cease haunting the castle myself with my own wails and moans. A new life for me would not begin until I left my uncle’s deadlands; it would not begin until I put his bones to rest.

Until I saved another from his fate.

Saved both of us.

*

Both of us spend the afternoon watching the sun it passed into evening, then into night. Once darkness falls, Nomathstep stirs. Her wing cracks and shakes as it pulls away from me; her heart no colder than it was some hours ago. When she speaks, her voice is that same mournful song, but her breath is no longer that bellows. It is a kind heat, a summer wind.

“You are a good girl, Itta,” Nomathstep says. “You are a very good girl.”

“I know,” I say.

“You would make a terrible wizard.”

“I know this, too,” I say.

“But you will make a dragon very happy one day,” she says.

“Maybe,” I say.

“You will.” Nomathstep smiles then. She stands and reaches out with one of her dull and pitted claws. “I will take what is mine: the man I love. You will take what is yours: this cave.”

I offer her the tapestry, the tapestry containing what remains of my uncle. She takes it and holds it in her claws with the kind of gentleness as I have only imagined in books, in stories. The very sight of it makes my heart sting with tears.

“You will make a dragon very happy one day,” she says. “But only the right one.”

And then Nomathstep, love of my uncle’s life, terror of all the land, leaves me in this, my cave. And then she flies out, out over the dark, dark sea.

*

It is a difficult way to my cave by the sea. A difficult way, and treacherous. I have slain many dragons who have tried to claim what is mine, many dragons who tried to take, rather than bargain. But one day, the right one will find me. This was Nomathstep’s promise. One will find me, and we will share her legacy, and all that she left behind.


© 2020 by Jordan Kurella

Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Moscow and Manhattan). In their past lives, they were a barista, radio DJ, and social worker. Their stories have been featured in Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons Magazines. You can find them on Twitter @jskurella.


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