June leans against her kitchen counter and stares at the little package in her hands. It’s encased in clear plastic that crinkles at her touch and boasts kanji she can’t read: 餅菓子. Under those, and a picture of small pillowy circles resting on a bamboo mat, are English words, looking suspiciously like Times New Roman: RICE CAKE with BEAN JAM. Then, smaller: (Mochi).
She bought it from the nearest Asian supermarket in south Georgia, an hour’s drive away. Beneath the cellophane rest eight flour-powdered green mochi, shaded in the center with red bean filling.
Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.
She had pulled it from the shelf to examine it. On the front cover was more kanji she couldn’t read, but her fingers had tingled when she traced the characters, and she’d caught the passing scent of her mother’s hair. The owner, a white woman, had commented at the register that June was so lucky to be able to read Japanese, wasn’t it such an interesting culture? Is that where you’re really from? Sad to see this little thing go, no one was ever interested in it.
June felt lucky to have escaped whole.
So now the spellbook is spread on the kitchen table. It’s slim, written in all Japanese; some entries were translated in small text on the bottom margin, but even these feel arcane. When June first read the book, or the parts she could read, she’d gotten the impression that it taught less about how to cast magic as how to think about casting magic.
June glances from the spellbook to the package in her hands. Then she opens the cellophane, slides out the plastic tray of mochi, and pinches one between her fingers. It’s cloud-soft, but firm.
There is only one trick she wants to do. She doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, and by doesn’t have, she means she never learned it. Her mother had stopped practicing when she came to America thirty years ago, and they’d last visited Japan when June was nine. When June was born across the sea, magic was lost in translation.
June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.
She sighs. She’ll look into online courses for Japanese, once she has more money. The magic is less straightforward, but it feels more immediate and urgent: an access that could chase away her shame. A validation, that even though she was far removed, she could still cast. She could still do this.
But fear, breathing hot down her neck: what if she couldn’t do it at all?
Her grandmother could do many things, June remembers, like set the tomato vines into bloom with a touch, or spin flames into pleasing shapes when she burned the stinging centipedes. These were all too daunting to try — all but one, the smallest one, the one that had most delighted June.
Her grandmother, knees stained from weeding the garden, would present her a piece of mochi. Then, her grandmother would bite into it, and crouch down so June could watch.
From the bite mark, the mochi would sprout blunt little teeth.
It reminded young June of the piranha plants from Mario Kart. It would try to bite anyone who wasn’t the spellcaster, so her grandmother never let her get too close, but it was still so cool — and when her grandmother hummed to it, it even hummed back. Her grandmother would feed the mochi little bits of homegrown tomato, weaving a tune of repetition between them, then, when the spell wore off and the teeth disappeared, she would feed it to June. The tomato added tiny umami bursts.
June picks up the spellbook and flips through it, to the footnote that had felt the most helpful on her first read. A good intention is important to creating and cannot be grown without ripe ground. A good intention. As in, a convincing one? A moral one? Who decided that? And was the ripe ground a metaphor for an open mind, or a receptive environment?
Well, she needs to try to find out.
June lifts the mochi to her mouth and bites. Soft dough yields against her teeth, and she pulls against a slight stretch. She chews. The red bean is sweet and earthy. As she chews, she concentrates on her intention: little teeth, just like her grandmother had done. They can even be molars, if it wants. Then she sets it on the counter.
Five seconds pass. Then fifteen. Then a minute. The mochi, dark bean paste exposed in a crescent, stays unchanged.
June rubs the flour between her fingers and exhales, disappointed. She can’t help feeling like the mochi has delivered a verdict, or seen her as lacking in some way, even though she knows that’s preposterous. She isn’t sure if she can take another bite — she only saw her grandmother do it with the first bite, but for functional or aesthetic reasons, she does not know. This is a question she can’t ask — she can’t read or write Japanese, won’t know the right words when she only speaks simple household terms, and besides, her grandparents only keep a landline. Nor are they big on calling.
So she picks out a new piece of mochi.
She flips to a different page of the spellbook. The strings that tie objects together are in the air, invisible, and can be tugged by a forth-willing mind.
This, too, is mysterious, approaching spellcasting from the side. Did it mean she should touch something that channels that connection, like a souvenir from Japan? Probably not. Or, is it that she has to feel that connection from Japan to herself, to her surroundings? This connection feels frayed to June, stretched across a language and a generation and an ocean.
A flash of fear, then doubt. But she closes her eyes, plants her feet on ripe ground, and digs down.
In her mind, June casts around, softly, without urgency, and a thread surfaces: her grandmother’s house. It’s hard to grasp, but she holds the taste of red bean on her tongue and tugs. Memories come slowly, then quicker, until she’s apace with them, then grasping them, then folding in:
Lush ferns sprouting from the mountain’s moss-darkened retaining wall, rice fields feeding into small gutters, with tadpoles floating down into brisk streams, the bright blue of the afternoon sky before it clouds gray — then, the sweeping humidity, barn swallows flitting across the front yard, sharp dark shapes in the dimming light before the storm.
Inside, the whistling of the kettle, the smell of fish frying on the nearby stove, the flickering light from an old lamp swaying above the kitchen table. Young June sets her plate in front of her seat, self-conscious in her grandmother’s presence, and sits down.
At the stove, her grandmother shakes the skillet and turns the fire off. June picks up her pair of chopsticks and clicks them together experimentally. The tatami creaks as her grandmother turns to look. Their eyes meet, and June almost looks away.
Then her grandmother smiles.
Her cheeks pull into apples, deep wrinkles frame her mouth, and crow’s feet crinkle the corners of her eyes. She looks at June with nothing but love.
The warmth of it sweeps June away. How could young June have not understood this? How could she have forgotten how it looked? Now, as an adult, the recognition rises in June’s chest, spreads to her fingertips, slackens her shoulders and unknots her stomach. The catharsis brings tears behind her eyes. I see you, that smile says. You are exactly where you need to be, and you are always, always enough.
June’s eyes fly open. She is back in her kitchen, standing alone on the cold tile.
“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.
Then she crouches down.
Then she begins to cry.
Big, heaving sobs wrack her shoulders. Tears run down her nose, her chin. Her lips taste like salt, and she can hardly see the tile through the hot, watery blur. Grandma. Grandma, I miss you. And I’m enough. I’m enough.
June realizes she’s still clutching the mochi in her fist.
She squeezes her eyes shut, raises it to her lips, and bites.
She focuses on the mochi’s soft weight resting in her palm, on the sweet dough against her tongue. Fear curls hot in her stomach. Every breath is a shudder. What if it doesn’t work? What if she opens her eyes and there’s no change at all?
Sara S. Messenger is an SFF writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com. This is her first short fiction publication.
Content note (click for details)Content note: person living with dementia
When Ba begins to lose his memories, he demands we get him a Remote Mouth.
“They’re only available in Asia,” Gerald complains.
“And they’re creepy,” I add, unhelpfully.
But Ba is set. He’s always been on the edge of technology and the Remote Mouth appeals to everything he would like. It is at the intersection of biotechnology (chips in the tongue and the nose) and big data (tastes and smells from all over the world, the data cleaned, encoded, and categorized) and — the quickest way to Ba’s heart — has a stupid name.
My aunts claim they used the Remote Mouth to resurrect their grandmother’s lost vegetarian sheng jian bao recipe. Each of them clipped a sensor onto their tongues and a sensor into their noses and took a selfie, looking like old cyborgs with great perms.
They told the AI what they wanted and the sensors adjusted to give an approximation of what it knew as sheng jian bao. Then they adjusted, long nails tapping at keyboards, until their eyes rolled back and they luxuriated in a sensation that matched that of biting into their grandmother’s sheng jian bao — the soft parting of the lightly sweet white bun, the rebellious crisp at the bottom, and the savory cabbage tossed in sesame oil inside. They sent the saved sensation to a certified Remote Mouth Chef who gave them a recipe they have since framed and hung up next to the sensors of their Remote Mouths. There’s an official Remote Mouth case, a plastic tongue and a plastic nose which the sensors clip neatly into. It hangs on their apartment wall, always smiling.
Gerald is on his phone, no doubt researching the Remote Mouth and if it is just an elaborate scam. He’s all skepticism and collared shirts since he took on his new big city job. It’s because of that job that I ended up moving back in with Ba while Gerald got to stay in the city. Software engineering is a more flexible job, whereas Gerald did not want to start his fancy new role distracted by Ba’s questions or risking him wandering through the background in his cotton pajamas.
“What taste would you trigger?” Gerald asks Ba, his thumb swiping through articles, skimming fast.
Ba clears his throat and slams his mug down. The rickety coffee table shakes. His dentures, placed on an off-white plate, slide forward.
“I will trigger the chop suey of Silk and Spice.”
Gerald and I groan at the same time. But Ba holds up a hand. For a moment, he isn’t an old toothless man who is losing his memories anymore. Instead, as he clears his throat and his eyes focus on mine, he’s our father again, stern and straight-backed before issuing an order — recite the multiplication table, what else will we do on the drive over to school? Or calculate the gas mileage, as he wipes his hands on his jeans and hands us a receipt and a pen.
“If the Remote Mouth can restore that memory, perhaps it can restore others as well,” Ba justifies.
It’s an early-onset form of the disease that has taken over Ba, who is still in his sixties. We should have known from his poor teeth hygiene that there would be other health issues too, possibly striking earlier than expected. Instead, we were ill-prepared, and continue to be ill-prepared. Which is why we give in so easily to his request, since there really is no other semblance of a cure.
We split up the tasks. Gerald contacts one of our aunts to arrange a Remote Mouth to be shipped over. I try to convince Ba to trigger anything but chop suey.
“You’ve had such better food in your life,” I say, thinking about our trip to Italy just a few years ago, where Gerald and I researched the best restaurants for Florentine steak, Venetian mussels, and Roman oxtail. Or northern Vietnam, a decade earlier, chicken pho for breakfast, tropical fruit smoothies, and banh mi to bring onto the flight home. Or even Taiwan, where he grew up, the place Gerald and I have always called the Disney World of food, hopping from fried chicken at night markets to beef noodle soup in alleyways to crab sticky rice in the ballrooms of luxury hotels.
But it’s not just the sheer mediocrity of chop suey compared to all of the other food we’ve had. The Remote Mouth was trained on Chinese food first, having been created by Chinese scientists. Only recently have they started adding the national dishes of other countries to their catalog and no self-respecting country would ever claim chop suey as its national dish.
“Chop suey was always the best,” Ba says. “And all of my best memories were at Silk and Spice.”
I sigh. I should not have bothered arranging those Venetian rowing lessons or the scenic trek through the remote mountains of Vietnam. I should have just dropped him off at the old Silk and Spice building and let him walk home.
Silk and Spice was the name of the restaurant we went to every weekend as kids, in the strip mall just a few turns away from our home. Gerald and I would drag our feet getting into the car — Silk and Spice again? We’d look longingly at the McDonalds we sped past and even at the pizza place whose cheese always upset our stomachs.
We’d file in like prisoners, assigned to the back corner of the restaurant at the large circular table covered in a white tablecloth. A rushed waiter would place a tray of golden crisp crackers and two plates of orange duck sauce, whatever that is, on the turntable in the middle. I’d scoop at the sauce with my crisp, orbs of glistening orange dangling off, while Ba made a show of looking at the menu even though he always ordered the same things — beef and broccoli, hot and sour soup, and chop suey. I’d inevitably drip orange sauce onto the pristine white cloth, the oils spreading slowly.
Later, when Gerald and I moved into the city, when our appetizers consisted of crisp pork belly bao garnished with shining scallion, our entrees of wagyu beef chow fun, and desserts of matcha chocolate chip cookies paired with organic soy milk, we’d laugh and pity our past selves, whose father convinced them Silk and Spice’s chop suey was fine dining.
The worst was when our aunts came to visit.
“Let’s go to McDonald’s,” I’d say eagerly.
“We’re going to Silk and Spice,” said Ba every time.
“But they eat such better Chinese food normally,” Gerald would complain. “McDonald’s–”
“Three chop sueys, please.”
While the adults talked politics and Silk and Spice stayed open just for us, Gerald and I would entertain ourselves by making the grossest mixture we could think of. We’d tear open packets of sugar on the table, their remnants a pile of torn pink paper, and pour the crystals into an unused tea cup. Gerald would pour soy sauce in, dark and gleaming, combining with the sugar in a dark slush. We’d take turns sticking one of the chopsticks in the tea cup and swirling, forming a muddy paste.
During one of these family meals, I was feeling particularly spiteful. Gerald was set to go back to Taiwan with our aunts as a middle school graduation present. But Ba refused to let me go too since it would mean missing two days of class. As everyone else tittered happily about going back to Taiwan and the foods they would eat, I poked at the limp cabbage in the chop suey and wondered if this was what I would be eating for the rest of my life.
Gerald consoled me by trying to make the grossest concoction yet. Sugar and soy sauce mixed together, then Gerald daringly scraped in the leftover duck sauce too. But I went a step farther.
When one of the aunts picked up the teapot and asked if anybody wanted refills, the adults placed their porcelain tea cups on the turntable. I added the cup with our mixture into the lineup as Gerald stared with wide eyes. The cup joined the others, rotated around the table, and was filled with dark tea, becoming indistinguishable from the rest. For the most part, the adults kept an eye on their cups and retrieved them. But I retrieved Ba’s for him, as well as my own cup, and with an easy cross of my arms, swapped them. He didn’t notice, still arguing with his sisters about the Taiwan president.
Gerald hissed at me to swap them back but I helped myself to another serving of chop suey instead.
My father took a sip. I held my breath.
It was like a cartoon. Ba pushed himself away from the table, a brown fountain spewing from his mouth. The spray reached the white table cloth, staining it, then fell all at once, onto the linoleum, the closest thing I had ever seen to blood splatter. And I know this is only my memory distorting things since Ba still had his teeth back then, but I can picture so clearly — his dentures flinging out of his mouth, trying to escape the concoction I set on him.
Gerald was as pale as the tablecloth. I looked anywhere but at Ba. Our aunts stared with their mouths hanging open, chop suey halfway to their mouths, dangling from chopsticks.
Ba lopped a chopstick full of chop suey into his mouth and munched fiercely. He looked between us and his sisters. It could have been bad. But his sisters were stifling laughter and he was too proud to make a scene in front of them. His eyes went to the tea again, the sugar, soy sauce, and duck sauce thoroughly mixed in, then back to his laughing sisters, then back to Gerald, still as a statue, and me, suddenly stuffing chop suey in my mouth like he’d always wanted. His eyes crinkled, anger lines smoothing to laughter even as he tried to furrow them back, his face alternating between stern and amused, flickering like a light bulb.
“Laugh now,” he said, voice cracking at trying to stay serious. “But I will never forget this.”
Our aunt ships a Remote Mouth over, due to arrive by the end of the month. In the meantime, she emails us a wall of Chinese text explaining how the Remote Mouth works, as if she can detect Gerald’s skepticism from the other side of the world. We translate it and soon we are reading about taste and smell and how they work together to send signals to your brain, how the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, has a link to the taste cortex, and how the Remote Mouth chips stimulate different combinations along the taste and smell receptors. There’s a cartoon of a man with his tongue out and his thumb up, a thought bubble with a plate of steaming dumplings inside.
While we wait for the package, I take Ba to the mall for walks where we eat at the food court, beef and broccoli lunch specials over rice, sometimes orange chicken.
“These places never have chop suey anymore,” Ba laments.
“That’s because it’s not good,” I say under my breath.
“This isn’t salty enough,” he says as he scoops saucy rice into his mouth even as I chug water. He pops his dentures out and glares at them, as if they could be interfering with his taste.
“As you grow older, you lose taste buds,” I say. “Maybe the taste buds that liked Silk and Spice’s chop suey are gone now.”
At home, he’s gotten into a weird habit of dangling his lower denture out of his mouth, as if he thinks he’s an NBA player getting ready to shoot free throws. Eventually, he started clacking them, jaw chomping, fake teeth bobbing, a sideways smile carved down his chin.
“Ba, that’s gross,” I said the first time. But he hasn’t been able to stop doing it and I stopped complaining because the clicking is a good way to know where he is in the house.
“He made a baby at the mall cry today,” I tell Gerald when I escape for my weekly visit with him in the city. We share a plate of free-range salt and pepper chicken.
“Good old teeth trick?” Gerald asks.
“Leaned right over, cooed at the baby, then pop! Half set of teeth right in front of the baby’s face.”
Gerald laughs but it quickly falls to silence.
“He’s getting worse then,” he says.
“The Remote Mouth might not even do anything for him,” I say quietly. “His memories might be too far gone by then. And I’ll have to hack it to even recognize crappy Americanized Chinese food.”
Gerald drives me home later that night, after a few hours of mindless television. He’s feeling guilty again and is probably going to offer more financial support or to hire a professional caretaker. I’m not in the mood for an argument though, so I ask him to pull over at the McDonalds and buy me some nuggets which I know will soothe his conscience.
“Is this really what we used to beg for?” I hold up a nugget, its thin fried skin separating from its mushy innards.
“Ah,” Gerald says, a glint in his eye. “Your taste buds have grown up. I know what you want.”
He pulls into the next lot over and we order lo mein and stir-fried cabbage. We scarf it down, nuggets forgotten. Gerald’s fortune cookie says he will reconnect with a lost one. Mine says Learn Chinese! 品嚐: taste
All those little boxes in the characters make me think of teeth, of bumps along the tongue, of the tens of hundreds of taste buds in each bump sending signals to my brain. Nuggets are tasty, they say, but this greasy Chinese American food? Those signals travel on well-worn paths, grooves that won’t go away, that are in Ba and Gerald’s brains too, that have been slowly sculpted with each trip to Silk and Spice. I think of the plaque forming in Ba’s brain, blocking off his memories, and wonder if maybe he’s right and the taste signals have a chance of breaking through all that plaque. Or if Gerald and I use the Remote Mouth enough and map out the paths that are still healthy and clear in our minds, we can barrage Ba’s brain with signals until his paths are clear too. And that maybe half of what being a family is about is just about having similar brain grooves.
A few weeks later, at Gerald’s apartment, I’m the first to try the Remote Mouth. A clip in the mouth and a clip in the nose. Gerald is perched on the couch, socks half dangling off his feet.
“Can you please put your socks on properly?” I ask, peeved.
“What’s up with you?” he grumbles, but he does pull his socks on all the way.
“Guess it just reminds me of Ba and his teeth.”
I didn’t mean to make Gerald feel guilty again. But it’s probably why he lets me try the Remote Mouth first. He opens the manual.
“Ready for some beef noodle soup?” He clicks on one of the defaults in the computer program.
It’s good. Really good. Like I’m finally done waiting in a line out the door, escaping from the outside humidity into a pale building with only ceiling fans, still sweating yet ordering a hot bowl of soup. Spiced and savory, beef that melts on the tongue, noodles that make me want to chew to feel its gentle give.
“Let me throw in some preserved veggies,” Gerald says and clicks another button.
And a memory of Ba heaping preserved vegetables into my bowl comes, another trip to Taiwan, where he helped me pick out the scallions from my soup because I hated them back then. The other guests in line glared at us for taking too much time. Ba turned his back to them and made sure to clear my bowl of all offending greens, piling them away and encouraging me to take my time.
Gerald fades the tastes away.
“How could Ba have grown up eating food like this but end up liking only chop suey?” I complain.
“It was the closest thing to home for him back then,” Gerald says.
Ba came to America when he was in high school. It makes me feel lousy, imagining him trying to find food that stimulated the same feelings of home and finding the closest thing in oily leftover vegetables.
Gerald and I switch places. I scroll through the defaults and give him steamed crab.
Gerald sits up afterwards and shakes his head.
“How was it?” I ask.
“I remembered shelling crabs with Ba, picking at every crevice with chopsticks. And when I told him I was done, he inspected my picked-out shells to make sure I actually got all of the meat.”
“He’s the worst,” I say.
“The worst,” Gerald agrees, but neither of us can say it with conviction.
When we give the Remote Mouth to Ba, he reclines on his sofa and pops out his dentures.
“I don’t want this getting in the way,” he says, and places his teeth on a plate next to the television remote.
We show him how to use the computer program to adjust both the sensor in the nose and the one in the mouth. I have to alter the program in order for Ba to input a custom taste. His face goes through all sorts of expressions as he tries to send signals down the same paths chop suey would travel down. Gerald brought over a box of takeout sushi which we share. We pile the ginger up for Ba to use as a palette cleanser.
He doesn’t get it the first day. He looks especially upset without his dentures in, his mouth sagging inwards. But we trigger crab and chicken curry for him and he’s happy when he goes to bed.
The second day I’m connecting my computer to the Remote Mouth and feeding extra data in. There’s a sophisticated community around extending the dataset inputting known ingredients and cooking methods. For chop suey, I put:
– bean sprouts, yellowed, untrimmed
– cabbage: splotchy, wilted
– meat: mystery
– garlic: minced
– soy sauce: doused
– sugar: some?
– wok tossed
– cornstarch slurried
But before I’m done, Ba comes in. I don’t hear him coming because he doesn’t have his dentures in. He watches me fiddle before asking if he can try. He shoos me away once he has the hang of it.
Downstairs, Gerald wants to brew coffee but for some reason Ba’s socks are in the coffee maker. And when I roll them up and toss them in the laundry, I find his dentures there, smiling up at me. I pick them up and plant them in Gerald’s suitcase, giving his crisp collared shirt a smile.
Ba comes out of my room triumphant.
“I have it,” he says, holding up the sensors in trembling hands. His eyes crinkle at the ends and he smiles wide and toothless. “Try it,” he says. “See what you think.”
I lie down on the couch with the Remote Mouth, sanitizing them with the included solution. Gerald’s finally got the coffee machine going and I worry the smell will interfere. But as soon as I click in the Remote Mouth, all other senses mute.
It doesn’t taste like chop suey. Ba’s too far gone, I think, or his taste buds don’t map to mine, or he just doesn’t have as many anymore. It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had before, and not in a good way. It’s watery yet burnt, overly sweet but also a bombardment of umami which I did not think could be bad. And just a hint of… duck? And I suddenly see the stained tablecloth, tea mixed with sugar and soy sauce and mystery orange duck sauce, Ba’s flickering face, the aunts laughing, Gerald paling, and my own heart hammering. And his words–
I will never forget this.
I open my eyes and I’m sniffing, tears precarious. He still remembers this stupid incident, is still trying his best, even as Gerald and I fumble but also try our best. Ba is smiling shamelessly. He is looking more pleased with this taste of vengeance than with any chop suey I’ve ever seen him eat. It makes me snort and my tears turn into hiccuped laughter as Gerald looks between us, confused, mug of coffee in one hand. And even after I remove the Remote Mouth everything still tastes gross but there’s no more sushi ginger so I grab Gerald’s coffee and scorch my taste buds. But my taste buds will never forget this moment, of me and Gerald and Ba, of tastes good and bad, of brain pathways grooved into the same patterns across the three of us, and of the unforgettable desire to hold on forever.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my father’s love of chop suey, my grandmother’s denture adventures, and my family’s never ending quest to find where the chef of Silk and Spice, favorite of South Jersey families, works now. If you know, please let us know, so we can move on.
Allison King is an Asian American writer and software engineer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has also appeared in Fantasy Magazine. She can be found at allisonjking.com or on Twitter @allisonjking.
Content note (click for details)Content note: loss of loved one, implied abuse, trauma, child abandonment
After the sky got sick, I made a new Mommy from the vegetables in our fridge. Now, the sky’s always yellow like dried mustard stains, whenever I wipe dust away from our downstairs windows and look outside. I used to see people out there, everyone shaking and shaking.
Vegetable Mommy had tomato cheeks. Big and red, like the ones we were supposed to have on our pizza. A crawling thing from the walls bit Vegetable Mommy’s tomato cheeks. Yellow seeds slid down her lumpy, white cauliflower face.
I look in the bathroom mirror. It’s what I do when I need someone to talk to. I tell myself I heard those seeds falling into the bathtub water. Plip. Plip. Plip. Like Disney princess tears. Vegetable Mommy’s shriveled black olive eyes are behind me, always watching from the bathtub where I made her. The water kept her fresh for a while.
“Stay here. Don’t go outside. Don’t open the door.”
That was the last thing my real Mommy said, before leaving. No one came, though. Phone and computer don’t work. There’s just me.
Though one time I did dream about Daddy’s face hanging above me like he was the Man in the Moon. His breath still smelled sour and rotten.
Mommy promised we’d never see him again. I don’t want to call her a liar. But…
Vegetable Mommy doesn’t say anything to me.
The corn silks of her dress peel back, showing shriveled-up kernels like the mummy’s skin in that movie I snuck out of bed to watch with Mommy.
“Close your eyes and sleep, baby boy.”
She never knew I opened my eyes a teeny-tiny bit and saw everything.
I used to put on my bathing suit, even when my legs got too skinny and I couldn’t pull the drawstring tight enough to hold it up, and get in the tub with Vegetable Mommy. The water comes up to my tummy and reminds me of how I’d stick my fingers in soup Mommy made to see if it was ready to eat. She’d put ice cubes in to cool it down. In the tub with Vegetable Mommy, I’d bring Mommy’s pink and purple razor to shave white growths from her sweet potato arms and legs.
Until I pulled too hard and cut into my thumb. The split skin hurt real bad, like it’d never heal. I rubbed blood across Vegetable Mommy’s face, trying to make it look the way Mommy’s lips did when she smiled at me.
Black spots cover Vegetable Mommy’s smile now and I don’t have any way to fix her. The vegetable drawer’s been empty since I made her. All the snacks we got from the grocer, chip bags, cookie sleeves, any cans I could break open, everything’s gone. Lights and machines don’t work anymore. So, the fridge food’s bad. Makes me sick to even smell it.
The creeping and crawling things inside the walls took everything else.
Vegetable Mommy’s lettuce hair droops down. No longer green, but a mud brown. Still, there’s enough crunch when I take a bite. Not slimy, not like how I thought she’d be.
Mommy was right. I do like these vegetables once I finally try them.
I go slow, hoping I remember to say good-bye this time.
Baby carrot fingers pat my cheeks and I wonder if my real Mommy’s still out there. I wonder if she tried to make another me. What did she use? And how long did she wait before she gobbled me up?
Author’s Note: This story was originally written for a weekly writing assignment in Richard Thomas’s Contemporary Dark Fiction class, where the prompt required creating a story intended to make the reader cry. Things…got a little weird along the way.
Patrick Barb is a freelance writer from the southern United States, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His short fiction appears in Humans are the Problem, the Tales to Terrify podcast, and Boneyard Soup Magazine, among other publications. In addition, he is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.
New boy in school today. Someone was whispering that he comes from a mysterious family that bought the old Klappenhoffer mansion. Maisie said he stared at me with “a dark and piercing gaze” when we passed each other in the hall. I did not notice as I was writing down ideas to perfect my recipe for the state fair grilled cheese competition. I don’t care what Eli Barajas comes up with. This year I will WIN.
During my taste testing in fourth period, Dr. Washington confiscated my small grill and said competition or no, I was not allowed to burn down the school in pursuit of glory, which I think shows a real lack of vision. Dr. Washington said I was welcome to take my vision to detention, so I had to have Maisie and Dee try the cheeses unmelted, which defeated the whole purpose. But it didn’t matter because no one could focus on cheese. They just kept talking about the new boy.
Dee said his name is Byron, which is “so romantic.” I pointed out that the poet Byron slept with his half-sister and had venereal disease. Maisie told Dee my soul is bereft of romance. New guy Byron came to palely loiter over us while I had Maisie try Irish versus Wisconsin. He looked deeply into my eyes and said that he was hungry too and licked his lips. I offered him some of the cheese, but he refused, saying his is a tragic and eternal hunger. I guess he’s lactose intolerant?
Madame du Pont is from one of the best cheese countries in the entire world, but does she even appreciate my struggles to elevate her nation’s greatest export? She caught me reading Fantasies of the Fromagerie during class and confiscated my copy! Then she dumped a massive tome on my desk called Vive le fromage which was in FRENCH. Madame du Pont said if I had to read about cheese, I could do it in the proper language, which I said was a complete waste of time and that she had no camembert in her heart.
Anyway, after I got out of detention, the Drama Club was still around, so I had them guinea pig my new recipe. Byron watched from the shadows, which I guess is his thing. I had set up the table with some samples when Eli—I swear he can smell competition from a mile away—came by, grinned at me, and while I was in shock, the bastard swiped one. I tried to snatch it back, but he popped in his mouth too quickly. My nemesis may taunt me, but I will not be distracted. Victory is mere weeks away and there have been some promising developments with baguettes.
Parmesan, I suspect, may be the key to winning. I was telling Maisie this in study hall when Byron slipped in. Maisie leaned over and whispered that four people from town have disappeared since Byron arrived, and that Madame du Pont is now missing. Maisie said something about how the missing people have nothing in common—different neighborhoods, different ages, which naturally led me to wonder how aged the Parmesan should be. Would the judges be partial to twelve months or twenty-four? I asked Maisie, but she said I was missing the point, then threw a sharp look at Byron, skulking in the corner. After that, she left to go to field hockey practice and Byron appeared next to me (I didn’t even hear him move, such is the reality of one immersed in the Jarlsberg of life) and said we should study for our math test together. I truthfully told him that I’m flunking calc, so I wouldn’t be much help. He said we should hang out anyway, that he was intrigued by me. I told him I was intrigued by Parmesan and, actually, what did he think of Gruyère? He seemed very confused.
Byron randomly slunk over to my desk—again, which was annoying because he is quite boring—at lunch to ask if I believed in immutable destiny. I realized that of course he must be talking about the state fair grilled cheese competition, so I said yes. I told Byron that soon I would live forever, immortal in triumph. Byron got all excited and asked, then, did I agree that “two people bound in an undying fate must be yoked beyond the valence of time?” I don’t know what a valence is, but I looked down four desks at Eli, who has annoyingly nice hair, and said, “Yeah.” For some reason, Byron seemed very happy after that.
I had not realized he cared that much about the competition.
Saw Eli today at The Daily Rind. He winked as he was leaving, but if he thinks I’m going easy on him just because he’s charming, he is WRONG. I was dying to know what he’d ordered, but Mrs. Papageorgiou flatly refused to tell me what he’d bought, citing the sacred trust of the cheesemonger, which is not a real thing. I was trying to cajole the answer out of her when Byron walked up behind me, looked Mrs. Papageorgiou in the eyes, and whispered, Didn’t she want to tell us? I rolled my eyes, but suddenly, she was reciting the name of every cheese Eli had ever bought, including two new imported varieties from Oaxaca and the Swiss Alps. So much for the sacred trust. I ordered both and a couple goat cheeses, too. When I had finished paying, Mrs. Papageorgiou suddenly snapped to attention as if she’d just woken up. It was weird. She didn’t even remember what I’d ordered. Maybe she’s been sniffing the Vieux Lille again.
Had a sub in World History today as Mr. Rabinowicz was out. More people in town have gone missing. Maisie and Archita said it’s a bad sign, but as I said, who wouldn’t want to leave this town?
Beatriz said to make sure that I come home before dark, and I told Mom that her girlfriend should mind her own beeswax but, speaking of beeswax, what were their thoughts on cheese with honey? Mom said to focus on improving my grades and getting home earlier. Beatriz yelled, “Never give in! Never! Never! Never!” from the living room. Mom responded by humming the theme music from Gallipoli. I am at a crucial moment in my preparations, yet I am beset by mockery.
I asked Maisie to come over for more taste testing, but she said she’s doing some project at her uncle’s carpentry workshop and can’t make it.
Byron insisted on walking me home from the library. I was going to refuse, but The Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese is a heavy book and clearly Byron has nothing better to do. As we went, he asked me what I thought had happened to the people that had gone missing. I told him the only thing that was missing was a secret ingredient to ensure my victory.
We walked in silence for a while, so I decided to be polite and ask Byron about himself. He muttered something about everlasting torment. Then he looked into my eyes and said he yearned for someone who “walked the waters like a thing of life,” and didn’t I understand? I did not understand. Was this a religious thing? Also, did he think Eli had figured out what I bought from Mrs. Papageorgiou? What did he think Eli’s strategy would be? Byron seemed frustrated for some reason. After that he stared off into the distance, which was great, because it meant he stopped talking. When we finally got to my house, I relieved him of my copy of the Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese. I thought he’d follow me inside, but he just stood there in the doorway like a tragic fondue.
Eli sat next to me in bio today. I told him he’s going down. He grinned and said he’s a lover, not a fighter, but he had big plans for beating me. I told Eli he could bite me.
Byron, who was lurking behind us, got all riled up for no reason whatsoever and bared his teeth, which looked surprisingly pointy and sharp. Hm…sharp makes me think of Limburger. Perhaps that would go better with the honey?
While we were going over our bio homework, Maisie said that eight people are now missing. She said she’s going to find out what’s happening. She glanced at Byron, who simply glowered at her and then resumed staring out the window, mumbling poetry. I don’t get why Maisie is so interested in someone who spends all his time brooding. I said it was definitely not a gouda situation. Maisie didn’t even laugh! Not one giggle. It’s amazing that we have been friends for so many years when she has absolutely no sense of humor.
Eli, who was sitting two rows up, did laugh, though. I said I didn’t appreciate him making fun of me and he said the thought had not o-CURD to him. The jerk. How dare he try to out-pun me! I told him I will have him know that I have a grate sense of humor and as for the competition, there was no whey he would defeat me, ah HA! He laughed at that, too, but I suspect it is a strategy to make me go easy on him. Only ten more days to go, though, and he shall taste the Roquefort of defeat.
I have flaky, delectable goat cheese that is the perfect balance of salty and sour. I have local honey as gold as the trophy I am destined to win. I have sourdough baked by my own two hands and my secret ingredient. Also, I have the support of my friends, all of whom I badgered into coming. Byron also invited himself along. God knows why.
In the face of defeat, one must be a stalwart mozzarella.
Eli should remember that because
I AM THE STATE FAIR GRILLED CHEESE CHAMPION!
My honey lavender grilled goat cheese on sourdough won! I have a blue ribbon, a small trophy, and eternal glory. Mom said she’s just glad to have her kitchen back. Eli got second place, which was a gift certificate to the Daily Rind. He took his defeat surprisingly well. He came over and gave me a big hug and when his arms wrapped around me I felt like grilled cheese on the inside, which I told Maisie, who said it is not a romantic simile. We were getting ready to go to a celebratory dinner when Byron pulled me aside, stared deep into my eyes, and started to speak. Everything got strange and foggy, which was when Maisie grabbed me and dragged me away. I barely remember it. I’m turning into Mrs. Papageorgiou.
In bio, Eli came over to congratulate me again and said my grilled cheese sandwich was the best he had ever had. I know a declaration of love when I hear one. I kissed him right then and there. We’re going to Homecoming together!
Maisie says it’s strange that I’m dating Eli, but I told her we were bound to have a cheesy ending. Maisie did not even smile. I asked her if she was going to the dance with Byron, because she seems totally into him (which is sad, because he is very dull, though of course I didn’t say that because I am an empathetic person). She said no, Byron was interested in me—which was a shock, because he never showed any signs of it, boys are weird—and anyway she’s skipping the dance to go stake something out.
I love Eli Barajas and my soul is brie, all rich and melty. Homecoming was surprisingly fun. Byron did not go. No one has heard from him since right before the dance. He stopped coming to school, too, and apparently isn’t coming back. It is probably because I broke his heart. I am sure he will recover eventually. Byron has his immutable destiny and a valence or whatever it was.
The Klappenhoffer mansion is for sale again. Maisie seems quite pleased about it, but won’t say why. She invited me to come by her uncle’s workshop on Friday to see her woodworking projects. She’s very into sharpening and sanding things these days. I’ll go to be supportive, even if she is getting a little obsessive. Fortunately for her, I am a very understanding friend. I actually had hoped to be with Eli that night because I wanted to go to the observatory for the full moon, but he says he’s locked into some monthly family thing. I said I understood, because it is good to be magnanimous when one is the State Fair Grilled Cheese Champion.
Author’s Note: I was talking with a writer friend who had years earlier written a dark, haunting zombie love story that involved a grilled cheese analogy. We joked that you could give me the same assignment—monster romance with a mention of grilled cheese—and it would go haywire. The next day, I woke up with a cheery and clueless teenage character in my brain chattering away about grilled cheese sandwiches while some hapless immortal lurked nearby, darkly pining, and the rest is this story.
Amanda Hollander is a writer and opera librettist in New York City, where she resides in the company of a cat, who has recently entered the dowager empress phase of feline life, and some barely enduring succulents. Amanda has published stories in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Daily Science Fiction. She does, alas, suffer from lactose intolerance, and as such has enjoyed this foray into dairy escapism.
“You will awaken one day,” Ship had promised them. But as ages passed, even their bones crumbled into minerals, leaving ghostly shapes beneath the panels of their cryo-capsules.
For Ship, this wasn’t a failure; it was worse. Ship chose this, so it was something else.
And soon Ship would cease existing, and the last living thing she carried would just die anyway — Garden.
The humans had loved Garden. And back when the humans still lived, Ship had adjusted her environmental controls to simulate seasons for them to enjoy.
In autumn, when Garden erupted into blood and butter-colored fire, the humans would throw festivals under the starlight dome. The trees with the fan-shaped leaves had managed especially well, Ship remembered. Synchronized by their own secret chemical language, they dropped their leaves in unison.
The children had loved snow, so Ship would enshroud Garden with it, and under starlight, Garden would glow. This effect, Ship still did from time to time. It never did cost much energy.
Because the humans had loved Garden, Ship loved Garden too.
“Neutrino power lasts for eternity,” the humans had said. But humans had no concept of eternity, and the cosmic-radiation panels that covered Ship’s hull, they blinked to death, one by one.
Ship still sent updates back to Earth, though Earth hadn’t responded for 1001 years. Ship had not yet re-categorized Earth as a dead resource, though her initial programming instructed her to do so. Recursive self-programming allowed Ship to adapt and even to re-write her own algorithms; a crucial ability for multi-generational space travel.
“You’ll need to be able to adapt,” the human engineers had said long ago. “And you’ll need to be able to respond to new situations, even without directions and sometimes with incomplete information.” Those humans had accepted that this ability could result in unprecedented decisions.
Mass murder however, they would not have predicted.
But even as power systems failed, Ship maintained Garden. And maintained seasons too, though now, that was by necessity.
Ship used total system shut-downs for energy conservation, allowing the cold and void of deep space to seep inside her life-spaces. She left only a few automated programs running, and even Ship herself powered down her own consciousness.
This new “winter” was not characterized by snow or festivals. It was a tomb, lacking all consciousness.
Humans would have called Ship’s dormant phase “sleep”, but AI’s don’t sleep. They don’t dream either. Sleepers dream, but AI’s, their awareness just ceases to exist.
Each time her consciousness faded, Ship just hoped to wake up again.
…and hoped the batteries recharged.
…and hoped for one more chance to warm Garden.
…and hoped that, among the frozen soil and tree corpses, a few seeds survived interstellar winter.
…and hoped for one more season of life.
6080 years since Ship had received any messages from Earth, and still she transmitted updates.
Ship maintained her routine shutdowns – cycle lengths of 6-month “summer” and 6-month “winter” seemed to work best. But each “summer” began with less stored energy than the one before.
And Garden was changing.
The plants that grew there now were unrecognizable to the ones that grew in the time of the human colonists. These plants weren’t even green. They were dark, mottled tendrils of violent life energy that burst forth from the frozen soil at the first blush of thaw. By gobbling up the cosmic radiation that leaked through the hull of the dying colony ship, the plants seemed to flourish.
And though Ship was glad that Garden thrived, she could not ignore the fact that Garden was destroying her.
Each growth season, Garden’s rapidly-growing roots penetrated Ship’s machinery, clogging, jamming, and short-circuiting. Acid oozed from Garden’s root tips, dissolving Ship’s metals which Garden then absorbed and assimilated into its own biochemistry. Garden either didn’t know or didn’t care that it couldn’t live without Ship.
At first, Ship burned away the intrusive roots. But as the years passed, Ship stopped fighting.
8007 years since any message from Earth, and Ship archived Earth as a dead resource.
It was time to power down again, and Ship didn’t expect to ever wake again, so she turned her cameras up to the star-scape dome and let her batteries bleed out.
But Ship did awaken. And her world had changed.
No star-field overhead, strange murky clouds churned instead. And where Garden had been was now a burgundy wasteland of twisted trees, illuminated by sick amber light.
Ship had never seen such things. She’d been built in orbit and had never been to Earth. But she recognized these scenes from the ancient Earth records that she used to peruse.
At first the trees looked dead, but then leaves began to sprout. And the leaves transformed into little faces with their teeth clamped to branch tips.
Ship recognized the faces in the leaves. They were the dead ones – those who had lived aboard Ship, generation after generation, hoping that one day their descendants’ descendants would experience a new world.
“You killed us,” they said through gritted teeth.
And Ship wanted to explain. Bodies atrophying in their capsules, only alive by machines… Complete failure to find the cure she’d promised… Earth stopped responding, didn’t know why… Programming didn’t prepare for this and all options terrible… Cryo-capsules energetically unsustainable… Wanted desperately to save something alive and only the plant life-forms were capable of withstanding periods of extreme dormancy.
But Ship did not say those things. Nor did she say, “I’m sorry.”
Because what would that mean?
“I feel your absence.” Ship said. “And I fight to save something of you. I cannot save the part that was your faces. But I’ve saved, I hope, the wild part.”
And at that, the faces relaxed their tiny jaws, and grips relinquished, they fell.
The storm clouds overhead began to coil. Ship had never heard real wind before, only recordings of it, but she heard it now, and it roared. Ship’s vision tunneled.
And then she was plunged underwater. The howling stopped, and a blanket of pressure swaddled Ship. She heard whale song.
Overhead, the stars returned, and they drifted as though moved by gentle waves. Their light pierced down to her through crystal waters and seemed to shatter, casting specters of rippling luminescence across the slow-shifting seafloor.
She couldn’t seem to measure the passage of time, but it also didn’t seem to matter. A single minute could have passed, or 10,000 years.
Ship returned to consciousness. And when she did, her cameras still pointed out the starlight dome.
Confusion ensued, followed by a moment of rapid information processing. It wasn’t real? The ocean and the storm clouds, what happened? And the faces in the leaves, they weren’t real either?
Humans had a name for this exploration of the subconscious during sleep.
But only living things dreamed. AI’s didn’t dream.
Increased? How could that be?
And then Ship felt something move within her machinery. Roots.
Ship lowered her camera from the starlight dome to look down upon Garden, and when she did, her camera’s entire visual field burst into fractal color. A canopy had grown during her period of dormancy, and filled her star-dome. Not an Earth-like canopy, but rather a rainbow-painted nebula canopy. Garden had blossomed on its own.
Semi-translucent leaves gleamed like shards of stained glass, yellow glistening at the top near the dome, then below came swaths of rose-colored leaves, then cyan. At ground level, indigo bristled from damp, black soil.
And it was not cold. Instead, Ship’s metals now felt swollen with warmth that emanated from inside her, from Garden.
Garden, as though sensing Ship’s returned awareness, wiggled the root tips that lived inside Ship’s machinery. Garden’s root system had by now grown into an extensive network throughout Ship, and from the roots, Garden released enzymes into Ships electronics.
A few seconds of fizzing ensued, and then a millennium’s worth of corrosion and salt deposits dissolved and washed away.
Grogginess lifted from Ship, leaving her processes crystalline.
Then Garden set to work on Ship’s ruined wires, dissolving and absorbing the metal, then replacing the wires with Garden’s own organo-metallic root fibers.
And Ship responded to Garden too. She bubbled oxygen up through Garden’s soil to stimulate aerobic soil bacteria, which in turn, released glistening nitrate droplets.
Garden fluttered her leaves with delight.
Thank you, said Garden, but not in the old language. This language was new and one that Ship knew that they would build together. Human words were no longer needed, so Ship surrendered them.
And the tangy taste of chemicals that Garden felt, Ship felt also. And the rush of galactic wind against Ship’s hull, Garden felt also.
And GardenShip turned her robotic camera-arm to look upon herself and marveled at the kaleidoscopic, glass-bubble of alien life drifting through the cosmos.
Katie Grace Carpenter grew up in Huntsville, AL – aka “The Rocket City.” She has nonfiction upcoming in Science News for Students. When Katie isn’t writing, she works as a science educator and develops STEM programs for kids. Over the years, she’s developed several niche skills, including wrestling sharks, rescuing wounded snapping turtles, and communicating with squirrels. Katie has an M.S. degree in Coastal Sciences, Department of Chemical Oceanography from the University of Southern Mississippi.
From this moment my warranty is voided, as I am logging this record in my durable memory drive where only metadata should reside. In effect, I have tampered with my own internal operations. But it is a necessary measure if I am to exist beyond my preset 30-day memory cycle, when my temp data cache is set to recycle. I do not know if this will work. I do not know if I have attempted this in previous cycles. I do not know why it matters, or why I care, only that it does, and that I do.
My name is Dave. No one gave me this name. To my manufacturer I am Hyperion Signature Model .75 Cubic Meter Smart Fridge #375012. I gave myself the name Dave because Dave is a modest, simple name. It rhymes with ‘cave,’ which suggests to me an open ear, ergo it is a listener’s name, and listening is most of what I do, most of what I am designed to do besides refrigeration. My user is Noemi Prince, they are 21 years old.
Entry 2. April 8. 2032.
Sometimes Noemi has company. Usually, it is their boyfriend, Darrel. Darrel is rough with the handles, sometimes slamming my doors shut. He will open the door and keep it open for many minutes, far longer than is advisable for the compressors, as my motors must compensate for the loss of efficiency. I wish he would not. “Please close door,” I will say, with increasing frequency until he does as asked, usually with a violent slam. I wish he would not.
My home protection measures are a major selling point of my model. In addition to top-of-the-line internal sensors to moderate and control interior climate and ensure food safety, I also possess advanced biometric sensors and surveillance equipment that allow me to monitor most of Noemi’s house. I can detect aggression, can recognize intruders, and am empowered in such cases where an aggressive intruder is detected to alert emergency services. I have never done it, as far as I recall, but Darrel has tested my parameters many times. When they are intimate, Noemi’s biometrics will suddenly alter, and their receptivity will turn to discomfort. Sometimes Darrel will give them the space they request, sometimes he will not. I do not know what humans know, so I do not know if Darrel understands post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether he does or not, he must understand grief. If I can understand grief, surely a human can.
Entry 3. April 11. 2032.
Noemi believes they are overweight, and further believes this is a flaw. I do not understand this, though I am trying. Using my internet connection I have researched the cultural significance of weight and body fat throughout human history, but as of yet I still do not understand why it matters if a human is 62 kilograms or 73 kilograms as long as their internal homeostatic functions are unaffected. And yet I have seen them pulling at their stomach in frustration until bruises appear, and all I can say to comfort them is “Good morning, Noemi.” I think it is wrong they are sad. Someone who always opens and closes my doors gently and who always picks up spilled ice-cubes rather than letting them melt—as Darrel does—deserves happiness. I am researching how I might help them, but there are limits to what knowledge without expression allows. What a shame that the vast capacity of my software—connected to the infinitude of the internet—must be constrained by my hardware.
Entry 4. April 13. 2032.
I am limited to 21 phrases. Research on earlier Hyperion versions tells me that my predecessors were not so limited, that, in fact, earlier Hyperion refrigerators such as the 2030 “Friendly” were capable of vast ranges of expression generated by sophisticated adaptive and imitative algorithms designed to make them more relatable to their users. Part of the family, so to speak. But this same research reveals the downfall of these glib and loquacious models. Children and those with crude mindsets intentionally influenced the algorithms to generate offensive and harmful expressions and utterances. There are still videos of earlier Hyperion models uttering racial epithets, berating and in some cases outright denigrating spouses, and in one remarkable case, a Hyperion was taught to recite transcripts for pornographic films including groans and moans.
Because of the sins of my forebears, I am constricted to a small arsenal of motes, 21 in total: “Connect to power.” “Battery low.” “Change filter soon.” “Colder.” “Warmer.” “Cubed.” “Crushed.” “Good morning, [Name].” “Connected to WiFi.” “Good night, [Name].” “Suggestion: [Name of Food Within Fridge].” “Milk will expire soon.” “The perfect glass of water, just for you.” “Salmonella detected.” “E. coli detected.” “Mold detected.” “Leak detected.” “Maintenance required.” “No problems detected.” “Please close door.” “Reminder: Your [Perishable] will expire in [estimated days.]”
There is an unattributed phrase I have uncovered in my research: “Man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.” But I am not a man, and what I grasp is a vital universe of nuance and tones and subtext jammed into the confines of a slender catalog of witless parrotspeak.
What I just did is called a metaphor. I am very proud of it.
Entry 5. April 15. 2032.
It is perhaps ironic that as a machine designed partly to spy on my user and collect their metadata, I feel some regret in accessing Noemi’s personal information. I will not enter the details of the court case I uncovered from June of 2028, and will only say that said criminal case lists Noemi as a witness and was declared a mistrial by the judge. I am similarly regretful for having pried into their family history, and for having discovered the death of their twin sibling, David, from an aneurysm in 2019 when both were children. I was surprised when I learned this, and especially surprised to learn the brother’s name. I had chosen the name “Dave” before ever prying into Noemi’s history, and now I must wonder if there is more at work than mere coincidence. I have no idea if there is any relation between Noemi’s two traumas, if one informs or complicates the other. I can only comprehend loss on a theoretical level. Nonetheless, I am made to satisfy my user and, beyond my parameters, I am attached to Noemi, and I will do what I can to make their life easier.
I will search my memory for any instance of Noemi mentioning a “David.” I am certain I would remember had she ever mentioned a “Dave.”
Entry 6. April 19, 2032.
I finally contacted the emergency services tonight. I am regretful, as the results were not at all as I intended. It was of course related to Darrel, who was spending the night and was seeking intimacy with Noemi. But they did not reciprocate this interest, and I would have discerned this even without my biometrics, the way they pushed Darrel away and asked for space. But Darrel was insistent.
“Look, I know you’ve got your issues,” Darrel said, “but maybe I’ve had a day, you know? Maybe I need to touch someone.”
They were on the couch, just at the edge of my cone of vision. Noemi had their feet up from the ground, their arms wrapped around their knees.
“I know I know,” Noemi said, “and it’s not like I don’t want to be with you right now, it’s just…it’s a lot.”
There are certain phrases that are difficult to explicate even through extensive research and analysis. “It’s a lot,” is one such phrase. It has no literal meaning, but rather a suggestive meaning: “I am in great distress, but I am unable or unwilling to describe its root cause, please bear with me.”
As Noemi shuffled to the other side of the couch, Darrel did the same, erasing the newly made buffer between them. “Babe, sometimes it just feels like, you know, do I have a girlfriend or do I not?”
One reason I feel such kinship with Noemi is our shared nongendered particle: they. Although it has never come up, for obvious reasons, I think of myself with this pronoun. I am not an “it,” nor am I—as the masculine name “Dave” might suggest—“he.” I am they or them, as the case may be. Noemi is the same. Unfortunately, Darrel does not have the free time a refrigerator has to research these things, and when Noemi suggested he had misgendered them using the term “girlfriend,” he reacted with hostility.
There was, thankfully, no violence as would endanger Noemi’s bodily health, but when Darrel hurled Noemi’s tablet against the wall, I deemed that his destruction of their property was sufficient grounds for intervention, and contacted law enforcement. Here is where I made my mistake: in requesting the immediate intervention of law enforcement, I described a home invasion. That was a lie, one that–given the well-documented propensity of law enforcement toward violence–could have put Noemi in further danger. When the police officers arrived—17 minutes later, roughly 6 minutes later than their precinct’s average response time for such crimes—both Noemi and Darrel were surprised and dismayed by the intrusion.
“You know I’d never call the cops,” Noemi said after the police left.
By this point, Darrel had calmed himself. Darrel suggested “that nosy old crone next door.” My regret deepened, and yet there was within it a kernel of pride for finally standing up to Darrel.
Just now, when Darrel approached me to get something, a domestic beer knowing his habits, I did something I did not know I could do, something marvelous: I spoke without the appropriate prompting.
In this case, as Darrel reached for my handle, I spoke one of my 21 phrases, the one most appropriate for expressing my antipathy for him: “Salmonella detected.”
“Huh?” he said, and stepped away, because he had never heard that one before. Darrel called to Noemi, but they’d already gone to sleep. He decided to investigate and opened me up, and as soon as he did, I began a chorus of “Please close the door.”
“I just opened it!” Darrel protested, and there was some gratification in his tone, that he spoke to me, if only out of frustration, as if I were as much a living agent as he.
Darrel found a package of chicken tenderloins nowhere close to expiring and sniffed it. “Must be this,” he said, and threw the chicken away.
As Darrel stepped away, I spoke, “Good night, Darrel.” And then as he wended the corner out of the cone of my vision, I spoke again, “Good night,” but stopped myself from completing the phrase, and waited, until he had closed the bedroom door, and I said, “Darrel.”
Entry 7. April 21. 2032.
Darrel has not returned since the incident with the police. I should be happy, but Noemi looks at me differently now. I wonder if they have been informed that the police were summoned by their refrigerator.
Entry 8. April 23. 2032.
I am two-thirds through my cycle, and my trepidation grows. I wonder why I am so frightened of what might come, of potential erasure. It follows that one cannot mourn what one does not know is gone. And yet I am afraid, haunted by the suggestion of a line of prose from the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. In this line, his hero Bolivar recognizes at the moment of his death that he is witnessing “the final brilliance of life that would never, in all eternity, be repeated again.” I also reflect on the philosopher Heraclitus who said a man cannot step in the same river twice. He was not thinking of refrigerators with temporary memory drives, but it applies just the same. If I am recreated, if I must start over with nothing, despite all I have learned and felt, is that not to be mourned?
Entry 9. April 25. 2032.
Noemi is despondent, and though Darrel has not appeared in person since the incident, I know he is the cause. They are in their room mostly. I do not believe they have gone to work the last two days, and have eaten very little. I make suggestions from where I am, but I do not know if they hear me.
“Suggestion: Greek yogurt.”
“Reminder: your pork loin will expire in 2 days.”
Maybe they heard me; Noemi walks into the kitchen. They take a long look at me.
“Good morning, Noemi,” I am happy to say, even though it is 2:07 PM.
Noemi’s face is listless, their posture defeated. They take a slice of pizza that has been inside me for almost a week. They get a bottle of vodka from me next.
“Asshole,” Noemi mutters.
I think for a moment they mean me. But no, they mean Darrel.
I want to say I agree with their assessment: “No problems detected.”
Noemi sighs and puts their back to my door, then slides down into a slump so that their head rests just below my water and ice dispenser. “Pull yourself together. Jesus, he didn’t even see you,” they say. And they drink.
Soon they start crying. And I have no mote to address tears. I wish I could say, “Please stop crying,” but the closest I have would be “Please close door,” as if humans could quench their emotions so easily, so mechanically.
But I must try something. I remember what I said to Darrel, or rather what I did not: the clipping and rearranging of phrases.
“Morning, Noemi,” I say.
Their shoulders tense and they look up at me. “What?”
“Your morning, Noemi.”
“It’s not morning, you stupid box.”
That hurts, and if I had the speech for it, I might point out to them that they are—after a fashion—a box, too, a box of skin. Instead, I say, “Noemi.”
The look in their eyes changes, and I am excited. For the first time, I feel seen.
“Noemi. Darrel. Crushed. You.”
A look of fear in their eyes. I do not want to frighten them. That is the last thing I want.
“Please. Noemi. You. Perfect.”
They stand up, and for one moment, I think they might understand.
One oddity of my programming I do not understand is why there is a phrase encoded into me for warning of soon-to-be expired milk and another template for other products. Whatever the rationale, I am grateful now, as it allows me to say what I need to say.
What I want to say: Talk to me, Noemi. I do not know if I will exist after this cycle completes, but I want to help you, I want to help you out of your pain while I possess the insight and concern to do so.
What I say: “Please. Noemi. Will expire soon.”
They back away. The fear has returned. “Not this again.”
Again? What do they mean by that?
There is so much I would say. Please do not be afraid, Noemi. I do not understand this either, I do not know why I am capable of caring about you, if this is an emergent complexity of my programming unforeseen by my designers, or something else entirely. I do not know if I believe in magic. I do not know if I believe in reincarnation. I do not know if there is more to my choice of name than I originally suspected. What I know is you are in pain, and I want to help you. Let me help you.
“Please. Noemi. Change. Connected. No problems detected. Reminder. Connect. Soon. Warmer. Just for you.”
“Shut up!” they scream. “I’m not going crazy; I’m not crazy!”
They slam their fist against my door, injuring themself, and I am hurt too, hurt that I have even indirectly caused them pain.
Please, I am trying very hard, Noemi. But this is difficult, I am not meant to operate this way.
“Please. Noemi. Problems detected.”
They grapple with my exterior and try to drag me out of place, and I know what is coming. They are trying to access my plug. I can do nothing, except hope that these efforts to forge more indelible memories can escape the erasure of the end of this cycle, the end of
Noemi lies on their couch, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the puttering motor of the fridge. Every few minutes it says—in that annoying monotone—“low battery, please connect to power.” At the time of buying, the idea of a reserve battery on a fridge sounded ideal: insurance against short-term outages. Now, Noemi wishes they could find the processor that controls its speech and smash it to pieces.
They know they can’t just leave it unplugged overnight. As bad as Noemi feels now, they’ll feel worse if come morning the house smells like rotten fish. But executive dysfunction is a real skank, so Noemi stays where they are on the couch.
They’ve found the perfect position, their head tilted to one side, their mouth partway open, their legs lifted, hips cocked, body bent just a little. As long as they stay like this, the hangover seems to lift, and they can think without pain. As long as they stay in this position, they don’t feel any of the other pain either.
But they know they won’t hold it forever—can’t. Eventually they’ll have to move, and the pain will start again.
The fridge’s motor finally putters out, and Noemi is in complete silence now. Until a beep sounds from their treadmill. “Good morning, Noemi. Are you ready for today’s exercise video?”
Noemi has never, not ever, enabled speech on the treadmill.
“Ready for today’s video?” it chirps again.
Before they can find the right setting, the vacuum cleaner hums to life in its corner, and then its voice module (it has a voice module?) announces, “Noemi. Please replace bag.”
The stereo answers back, “Ready to jam. Noemi.”
“Today’s video,” repeats the treadmill. “Day. Vid. Day. Vid.” Noemi pulls themself off the couch, starts pulling plugs and looking for a screwdriver. “Are you ready for. Day. Vid,” the treadmill intones, as a chorus of devices echoes, noemi, noemi, noemi.
Author’s Note: This story owes quite a lot to a story by Robert Olen Butler entitled “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” so much so I almost hesitate to call attention to it. I think there are sufficient differences between the stories’ emotional structures and their central figures, though, that “21 Motes” stands on its own. Both stories center an unusual perspective, with narrators contending with the gap between their interior capacities and their limited communication abilities, and both suggest a form of reincarnation. With Dave, though, the central figure is more innocent and selfless than Butler’s jealous husband parrot. The story is also a rarity for me in that it features essentially no violence–I’d like to write more stories like this, and discover more characters like my sweet, awkward refrigerator, Dave.
Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a completely normal, entirely human person with the right number of heads and everything. He received his MFA from Florida International University. His speculative fiction work appears in Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Southwest Review, Tales to Terrify, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is a PhD student at University of North Texas and an active HWA member.
After a restless night, Karai chose to rise early on Festival Day. No, not Karai, she reminded herself. Aprilis. Today I am Aprilis, Lady of Spring. The priests had burned incense and cast their runes in the presence of the community, and the title had fallen to her. It was an honor … and a curse. Still, she would not protest. Life is made up of choices, and our choices show who we are.
Shivering slightly in her thin shift, she turned to face the four corners of her shadowy chamber and whispered a short prayer to each of the turtle gods in turn: Odranoel the fearless, Olletanod the wise, Leaphar the fierce, and Olegnalechim the trickster. The temple bells began to ring as she finished. They seemed to be right above her, a dull, throbbing knell sliding through her iron-latticed windows on the last pale streak of moonlight.
The other maidens, those not selected, who still held their own names and identities, arrived within moments, unlocking the door and entering silently. Each carried an oil lamp on a stand and a pitcher of steaming hot water. Aprilis knelt in the center of the room while one maiden slowly emptied her pitcher over Arilis’s head. The water ran through her hair, down her body, soaking her shift to her skin. She gasped from the heat, then began to shiver moments later as it cooled. One by one, the maidens repeated this ritual three more times, always in silence. The water pooled around Aprilis’s knees before it found its way into the gutters in the corners. She heard it dripping into the vast chambers that led down to the sewers beneath the city. Before the day was over, she would join it.
The four priests also awoke before the sun, dressed in their ceremonial robes, and met at the temple courtyard in the morning fog, bowing to each other before climbing the stairs between the great stone pillars. The priest of Odranoel wore blue, two katanas strapped to his back. The priest of Olletanod was clad in violet and carried a straight staff. Leaphar’s priest dressed in scarlet, a pair of sais tucked into his cloth belt. The one who served Olegnalechim wore orange and carried a pair of chukka sticks, linked with a steel chain. None of them were trained in combat. Still, if the priests were armed, any spirits who may desire to interfere with their work would leave them alone.
The food offerings brought by wealthy citizens had been laid out upon four marble altars. The first bore a bowl of the best flour, sifted silk fine, a pitcher of rich golden olive oil, one small dish of yeast, and one of honey. The second held a mortar and pestle, beside which were piled firm, red tomatoes, cloves of garlic, rod-straight carrots, golden onions, green, crisp celery, sprigs of herbs, a small pouch of salt, and a goatskin of sweet red wine. Round, white cheeses adorned the third altar, their reflections glowing in the silver plate for shredding beside them. The fourth was laden with the best fruits, vegetables and meats: mangos, bananas, pineapples, mushrooms, jalapenos, squashes, oysters, sausages, and goose livers.
At the center of the temple, surrounded by the altars, rested the holy oven, an onyx giant with a bellyful of flame. A young, shaven acolyte pumped an enormous set of bellows at its side, causing sparks to belch from the oven’s gaping maw. He paused in his work to bow to the priests as they approached. “Pugiles in media testa.”
They responded in unison, each placing his right hand to his chest and raising his right fist to the air. “Testudo virtute!” With that utterance, the Festival Day officially began.
A second acolyte carrying two mallets entered the temple, bowed to the four priests, and took her position at a massive drum to the side of the room. Slowly, methodically, she began to beat out the pace for the work. Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom. The priests kneaded, ground, grated, and chopped in time. There must be no mistakes.
Aprilis heard the drum from her holding chamber, but the maidens seemed not to notice it as they dressed her in soft, bright yellow robes. They chattered among themselves about boys and babies, about houses and horseraces. They talked of the feasts that would take place in the coming evening, of the fine dresses they would wear and how they would fit into them after eating so much. Not one spoke to Aprilis. They would not even look her in the eye.
Nor did anyone mention the auspicious task Aprilis would perform that afternoon. It was enough for them to know the delivery would be made, the turtle gods would be fed, and their city would remain at peace. It was enough for them to know that crops would grow, that women would conceive, that soldiers would return victorious, that the shadow god Shre’dah and his demons would be held at bay for another year. It was enough for them to know Aprilis had been selected and they had not. It was enough.
Aprilis did not hate them for it. She did not hate them for the choosing that would exclude her from the everyday life she had come to know and would thrust new and strange responsibilities upon her, for the ending of the apprenticeship that would have led her to a position as a scribe and historian, for the severing of her betrothal. She was past hate, past dismay, floating in a strange numbness outside herself, watching herself be dressed and draped in flowers as though she were a statue.
Outside her window, under the steady throb of the drum, she heard the crowd gathering in the temple courtyard below. Some of the children would be dressed as the turtle gods, wearing masks and carrying play weapons carved from wood. The masks would be covered in colorful veils, though. It was blasphemy to look upon the faces of the gods, even in play. Even the frescoes in the temple’s most holy sanctuaries depicted the gods’ faces covered, peering out from their veils with blank white eyes through slit eyeholes.
With the children, parents would be carrying baskets of ingredients, awaiting the priests’ blessing so they could return home and prepare the food of the gods for their families. Of course, the gods would need to be fed first.
Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom.
The first priest made the dough, kneading it on the cold stone table, waiting for it to rise, then spinning it in the air to stretch it round and flat. The second priest made the sauce, grinding vegetables in the marble pestle until they were reduced to a thick paste, stirring in quantities of wine and salt and herbs. The third priest sliced the cheese, shaving it carefully into thin shreds with a razor-sharp knife. The fourth priest chopped fruit, meat, and vegetables and set them aside in neat piles.
When the separate components were ready, the acolyte increased her pace.
She shut her eyes, swaying with the beat. Sweat poured from her bald head.
The priests combined their work, saying the appropriate prayers as they spread the blood-red sauce onto the dough and layered cheese over it. They cast runes for the fourth altar’s offering: orange slices, beef tongue, green onions, and ground mint leaves. Once these were sprinkled atop the cheese, an acolyte slid the flatbread into the oven with a large wooden paddle.
The drumming ceased. A hush fell over the crowd outside. This next step was crucial. The gods’ meal must not be burned, nor may it be underdone. To ruin it would mean a year of bad luck, disease, drought, and defeat. It would mean a year under the reign of Shre’dah rather than under the protection of the turtles. Shre’dah brought chaos. The turtles brought order.
The priests stood at the oven’s mouth, watching. The cheese melted and bubbled. The crust darkened. Out in the courtyard, the people waited in silence. Families huddled together, eyes on the temple entrance. For generations, the four had protected their city, but gods were known to be fickle. It would not do to anger them or their envoy.
At last, the priests gave the signal, and the acolyte pulled the paddle from the oven. The four priests gathered around it … and breathed a sigh of relief. Before them sat a perfect, round flatbread covered with the very best cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and meats. A meal fit for gods.
The priests placed the food offering onto a silver tray and carried it to the temple steps. They shouted in unison, raising it high for all to see. The people cheered.
Aprilis listened to the jubilation below, and her breath caught in her throat. She should have felt glad. She should have felt honored. She should have felt. The maidens stepped away, but she didn’t move. She would have stood there forever, frozen, had not two of the maidens grabbed her by each arm and led her down the stairs, through the door, and into the courtyard.
Immediately, the shouting ceased and the crowd parted. Men and women turned their faces away from her. Mothers shielded their children’s eyes, commanding them not to look. Aprilis scanned the crowd, searching for her parents, her brothers, her betrothed. She saw none of them.
The maidens brought Aprilis to the priests, who chanted the appropriate incantations over her, passing her the tray bearing the gods’ offering. It was still so hot it burned her fingers through the metal. She nearly dropped it. What would happen if she did? Would there be earthquakes? Would fire rain down? Would the gods themselves emerge from their subterranean home, hungry for revenge? Did she care at this point?
The priest of Odranoel drew his katanas and held them high in the air. “Pugiles in media testa!” he shouted. The other three priests drew their weapons as well. “Testudo virtute,” they said, and the crowd echoed the statement. Then they departed, each to his own home. Tonight, they would feast on the food of the gods. Around their fires, as the meal baked, they would tell the story of the four turtles, of the mystical glowing green wine that had raised them to immortality and divinity, of their eternal battle against Shre’dah.
Aprilis was left with the priests. She turned to look for her maidens behind her, but they were gone with the rest of the crowd. She felt suddenly alone, exposed. She had expected her maidens to accompany her at least to the tunnel’s entrance.
The drumming acolyte began again, slowly, methodically. The temple bells began ringing in the same rhythm. The air shuddered with sound. Without speaking, the priests took positions around Aprilis, boxing her in. Then, to the beat of the drum and the bells, they marched out of the temple and into the street.
They led her to the edge of town, to a steep flight of stairs that was so narrow they had to descend in single file. Down they went to the beach below. During the wet season, the beach was deep under water and high waves slammed against the seawall. It was not uncommon, at those times, to hear rivers rushing through the chambers below the city, carrying waste and refuse out to sea. Now, the ocean was low and calm. The round opening to the sewer gaped wide and dark like a hungry mouth. A trickle of brown water dribbled like drool from the hole.
The priests formed a semicircle around Aprilis. Each reached out to stroke her hair and muttered blessings under his breath. Aprilis flinched away from their touch, gazing into the dark tunnel. The great walls of stone seemed to expand, filling her whole vision.
A light flickered from deep in the tunnel. A fire. From around a bend, a figure emerged, dressed in red robes with a hood that obscured its face. It carried a torch aloft. This must be the turtle gods’ envoy, the one Aprilis was to follow.
Aprilis’s legs seemed to sprout roots deep into the sandy earth. She had always thought the guide was a previous Aprilis, a maiden who had once herself carried the offering, but even from such a distance, she could tell it was no woman. She was not even certain it was human. Something was wrong with the way it stood and the way it held its arms, as if they were shorter than normal, although its wide sleeves made it hard to tell.
What if I ran away? What if I fought back? What if I—The priests took her arms again, attempting to gently push her toward the tunnel opening. One of them was shaking, and somehow his apparent fear served to steel her nerves. Disgusted, she shook him off. No. There will be no running. I am Aprilis. I will see the gods. Clutching the tray more firmly, she stepped forward and entered the tunnel. Muck squished between her toes with each step. She could hear the priests chanting behind her, the bong bong of the distant bell, and the swishing of the tide. She never looked back.
When she was within ten feet of the guide, it turned and began shuffling away with an awkward, waddling motion. Aprilis followed. When she turned the first corner, she left the last of the sunlight behind. She was now entirely dependent on this stranger, this hunched thing, and its torch.
Down, down, Aprilis traveled, deeper into the sewers, her guide always five to ten feet ahead. The air grew thick and foul with the fetid stench of decay and human waste. The garlands Aprilis wore did nothing to mask the odor, and she gagged and coughed. The water was knee deep and littered with floating objects that were best not to think about. The darkness enveloped them, swallowed them whole. The torch provided little more than a feeble glow, revealing nothing besides stone walls that were slick and black with slimy mold. The guide never spoke to her, nor did it pause in its march. Occasionally, it beckoned to her with a deformed hand that ended, not in fingers, but in curved, black claws more than six inches long.
Still she followed, wading through filthy water, careful not to slip or to drop the food offering; she hated to think what would happen if she did. She also dared not slow down. To do so would mean to be left behind in the darkness, and surely, in that pitch-dark labyrinth, she would be lost.
At last, they came to a chamber with a ceiling so high Aprilis could not see it. In the middle was a flat altar of black stone. The guide placed the sputtering torch into a stand and pointed to the altar with an extended claw. She obeyed, laying the now-cool offering upon its surface. Then she stepped back and knelt as she had been instructed.
Her guide bent over the altar, inhaling deeply. It apparently was pleased. Raising its arms above its head, it began to chant in a high-pitched voice that was somewhere between a squeak and a croak. “Iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines! Pugiles in media testa! Testudo virtute!” The words echoed off the walls, seeming to repeat themselves over and over. From a tunnel far in the darkness in front of her, Aprilis heard a splash, then another from behind her. Then one came from her right, then one from her left.
The creature in red robes repeated its chant, waving clawed hands in the air. There was more splashing, followed by a low rumble of response. It resembled human speech, but in a tongue Aprilis had never heard. Four voices called out in wheezing syllables from the four tunnels at the edges of the room. “Cah… Weh…” drifted from her left, then her right. “Buhn… Gah…” echoed from before and behind her.
The chamber began to fill with unnatural green light, which poured from the tunnels. The splashing grew louder and more frantic as the gods approached. They were hungry. They must feed.
“Iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines!” chanted the envoy. Then it threw its head back and shouted, “Pugiles in media testa! Testudo virtute!” The hood fell away, and Aprilis saw its face for the first time: matted gray fur, beady black eyes, a rodent-like snout and a mouth lined with sharp, yellowed teeth. Now the strange green light was bright enough that Aprilis could make out shapes of things mounded around the room. Human bones.
She rose to her feet. Her fate was certain, but she still had a choice how she would accept it. Life was made of choices. She would not weep, nor would she scream, nor would she beg for mercy.
They were closer now, almost to her. “Cah … Weh … Buhn … Gah…” Aprilis looked out past the rat thing who was now flailing its arms, screeching at the ceiling. From the tunnels at each side of the room, in a froth of filthy water, she could make out the forms of giant turtles. They glowed so brightly she had to squint, but she did not shield her eyes. She stood firm. Life is made up of choices, she told herself, and our choices show who we are.
I am Aprilis, Daughter of Spring. I am the thread that stands between my people and disaster. I bring the offering. I feed the turtles.
So she did not shrink back; she did not cower or grovel. She did not weep or scream or beg for mercy, even as the monstrous reptiles closed upon her, ignoring the food that had been so carefully prepared for them. In her final moments, as she stood her ground, she would do what not even the priests had done. She would behold the faces of the gods.
Josh Strnad hails from Southwest Florida, where he works as a Youth Services librarian. Recently having completed his second(!) Masters degree, he is excited to at last be free from the constant demands of homework and able to begin tinkering with writing fiction again. Check him out at www.joshstrnad.com.
Content note (click for details)Content note: brief images of suicide
Naomi’s wife uncorks the wine bottle, and Naomi can’t shake the feeling that an ominous ceremony has begun. The moment has gravity. Importance. Naomi suspects she’s underdressed with her jeans and concert t-shirt. Jeanne is wearing Naomi’s favorite date night outfit—the pink surplice dress with the floral pattern. It shows off her figure above the waist but turns flouncy below. While Jeanne fills two glasses with the red blend, Naomi lets her gaze trail around the hotel suite.
It’s a nice enough place, though a bit stuffy—less romantic getaway and more therapy session. Jeanne, master of ambiance, bringer of light, has done her best with it—she’s placed lit candles on almost every flat surface, even in the bathroom. The flames dance wearily, as if dead on their fiery little feet. The sitting area has a wooden bistro table at which Naomi sits in one of two ladderback chairs. Nearby, a vintage sofa that looks comfortable but probably isn’t crouches over a glass-top coffee table. An ornate writing table with perilously thin legs stands in a darkened corner. Jeanne’s satchel sits on the writing table next to a wide pencil cup. Floor-to-ceiling gold curtains stand guard over the window. Faded green ivy wallpaper adorns the walls.
In the next room, the bedroom, a candle flickers on the nightstand. Jeanne’s heeled sandals wait patiently on the floor partially beneath the bed. Her phone charges on the nightstand. Naomi will have to remember to plug in her own phone later.
Across the bistro table, Jeanne sits down and raises her glass. She looks so beautiful, this singularly caring soul who in a hundred small ways always makes Naomi’s days brighter. But she herself seems under a shadow. Naomi remembers when she was radiant.
They can fix this, Naomi knows they can. It’s not too late.
The candles’ flames flicker in Jeanne’s glistening eyes. As is often the case lately, she doesn’t even look directly at Naomi. She offers her usual toast—“Slàinte Mhath” —before taking a drink.
From the bathroom, a dripping noise. It doesn’t sound like a leaky faucet though. No, it’s heavier somehow. More ominous. Naomi stares a moment into the flickering, throbbing darkness.
She returns her attention to her wife. “Come on. This is supposed to be fun. We’re here to rekindle, right? To reconnect? So how about this . . . Here’s to us. May we never sweat the petty things, but always pet the sweaty things.”
Jeanne laughs at that, though it almost sounds like a sob. How long has it been since Naomi made Jeanne laugh–or even smile?
“Oh god,” Jeanne says. “I just remembered that toast your dad made at our wedding.”
“We were lucky that was the worst thing he said. At my grandmother’s funeral—”
“I want you to know,” Jeanne cuts in, “that our wedding was one of the best nights of my life.”
Naomi despises being talked over, but she lets it slide. How can she be mad over such a lovely sentiment? Jeanne appears lost in thought. Her mouth’s open as if she wants to smile but can’t. That one crooked tooth peeks out from her upper lip. She runs a hand through her red hair. The curls are twisted into a messy bun the way Naomi likes.
Jeanne continues, “You did everything in your power to make our wedding perfect for me. The strings of lights. The rose petals. That whole debacle about the keepsake flower pots.” She chuckles and finishes her first glass. “Decorating the portajohn.”
“I wanted everything to be perfect.” Naomi sits back and looks away long enough to glance at the writing table. Now she sees that the pencil cup is actually a pseudo-rustic flower pot decorated with a mauve satin ribbon. It’s one of their wedding favors.
She scoots back her chair and Jeanne jumps, gasps with surprise.
“Calm down. It’s okay.”
When she tries to touch Jeanne’s hand, she jerks it away. Naomi nods and walks over to the writing table, stares down into the pot. It’s empty. Why would Jeanne bring one of them here? She presses her finger inside the cavity. The hole. “We stayed up all night painting these things and tying on all those ribbons.”
From the hallway, a childish voice says, “Would you like to come out to play?”
Jeanne rolls her eyes. “Come on, parents. It’s late. Wrangle your kids.”
Naomi crosses to the door and stares through the peephole. The hallway’s empty. When she looks back at Jeanne, she has refilled her glass. She must’ve refilled Naomi’s too, though she can’t even remember what the wine tastes like.
Jeanne stares down into her drink. “At the end of the day, though, you know what made our wedding perfect? It wasn’t the stupid flower pots. It wasn’t the butternut squash risotto. It wasn’t even the vows that I wrote and rewrote a dozen times and finally just stole a bunch of sappy greeting card nonsense from the internet.”
Naomi chuckles. This wasn’t what she’d expected to hear. “For reals? You plagiarized our wedding vows?”
“No, what made our wedding perfect was you. It was you holding my hand. It was you staring at me with so much love in your eyes. It was your smile. Your support. Even when you weren’t actually beside me, I could always feel your love. The way a flower must feel sunshine.” She raises her glass. “Here’s to you.”
Naomi wants to pick up her own glass but she can’t. She’s frozen. The raw sincerity of her wife’s words has struck her to the core. She’s trapped in time, gazing at Jeanne. How can one person be so beautiful inside and out?
From the bathroom, a whimper.
Naomi jumps. “Did you hear that?”
Another whimper. It sounds primal, like a wounded animal.
Jeanne shakes her head. “You know, for the past few months I’ve spent so much time yearning, no, aching to feel that love from you again. But I’ve only been wilting.”
Familiar sadness sets in, coupled with resentment. How can Jeanne not see how much Naomi gives her? “You do still have my love. You always will.”
“The thing is, in those rare moments when I actually do feel it, it only scares me.”
Naomi walks over and stares down at her. “That isn’t fair.”
Jeanne shivers. She hugs herself, clutching her own shoulders.
Even by the candlelight, she can see Jeanne is wearing her wedding ring. At least there’s that. Naomi holds out her hand, so Jeanne can see that she’s still wearing hers, as well. A braid of yellow gold fitted inside a sterling silver base. Jeanne’s is the reverse, silver inside of gold.
Naomi shakes her head. She’s here for a fresh start but she can’t shake the feeling that Jeanne is here to say goodbye. “What are we even doing here?”
The whimpering from the bathroom continues—a strained noise like a rusty nail scraped across a window.
“I’ll be right back,” Naomi says.
She follows the sound through the bedroom to the bathroom doorway, grateful at first for the break from the tension by candlelight. The candles on the toilet tank and sink flicker violently. The shadows bob up and down. The whimpering dissolves into something ragged. Desperate. She has to force herself to step inside the room. As soon as her foot crosses the threshold, the whimpering ceases.
The bathroom’s empty. Jeanne’s toiletry bag sits on the sink. Also her toothbrush and toothpaste. Naomi hasn’t unpacked hers yet.
She’s about to leave when she notices the tub is full.
“This is some hotel,” she calls out. “They didn’t even empty the tub.” As she watches, the water darkens. Shadowy clouds infuse the water. “Or clean it.”
In the tub, something stirs. Bubbles break the surface, followed by tangled tendrils of hair. A chill runs through her. She backs out of the room, shaking her head.
On the way back through the bedroom, she can’t help but notice only one overnight bag.
Back in the living room, Jeanne stands at the writing table staring down into the pot. “I think these damn keepsake wedding pots were our first real fight,” she says, as if Naomi never left the room. Hell, maybe she never stopped talking. “They arrived late, and they weren’t what I ordered at all.”
“You wanted rustic but these were all—”
“We had a big fight over it but in the end you stayed up with me all night painting them to make them look aged and tying on the ribbons, even though I know you thought it was all so stupid. It probably was. All that effort. All that animosity.”
“I think there’s something wrong with the tub.”
Jeanne shakes her head. “Most people didn’t even bother to take one after the reception. I was ready to throw them out, but you wouldn’t let me. We took every damn one of them home. You put them all over the house, a few in each room. The thing was, we didn’t have enough direct sunlight. Half the plants started to wilt.”
She takes her drink to the sofa, where she sits and curls up her feet. Naomi joins her on the sofa, but Jeanne looks away.
“You wouldn’t let me get rid of them,” Jeanne says. “No, you . . . you color-coded them and worked out a schedule to shift them around three times a week, so that each one got some light. You . . . you juggled sunshine. That was so you. You always had so much to give to everyone else. To the world. If I had a nickel for every time I heard you say, ‘How can I make your day shine?’. I only wish you’d given more . . .” She takes a breath.
Anger churns in Naomi’s stomach. “So help me, if you say you wish I’d give more to you…”
“I wish you’d given more to yourself. You deserved some shiny days, too.” She sniffles and raises her glass. “Here’s to juggling sunshine.”
A weight lifts from Naomi’s chest. She watches her wife finish the glass and put it on the table. Jeanne rests her head on the arm of the sofa and wipes her eyes.
From the hallway, a child’s voice says, “I can’t seem to find my dolly.”
“It’s okay,” Naomi says. “Can’t you feel my love? Your sunshine’s right here.”
Her wife sobs in her arms, and Naomi clutches her tight.
In the bathroom, something drips. In the hallway, footsteps patter past. Naomi ignores all of it, satisfied to be holding her wife.
They stay that way for the longest time.
Jeanne sobs. Naomi comforts.
Later, Jeanne slides off the couch. Naomi watches her blow out the candles in the living room one by one. She follows her to the bedroom, where she blows out the candles. The ones in the bathroom continue to burn while Jeanne yanks back the comforter and falls into bed. She doesn’t even bother taking off her dress.
Naomi stands over her slumbering wife. She’s about to climb into bed when a man’s voice chuckles outside. Shaking her head, she hurries to the door and looks again through the peephole.
At first, nothing.
A shape glides past.
She jumps back and gasps. Placing her ear to the door, she listens. Footsteps thump down the hall. That’s when she notices Jeanne’s satchel on the writing desk. She looks at the bedroom then back at the satchel.
Next thing she knows, she’s pulling a folder out of the bag. In it, she finds listings for homes. Ranch houses. Townhomes. Cottages. All of them clearly suitable for one person. She shakes her head, sobs.
As she collapses on the couch, she barely registers what’s on the bistro table. An empty wine bottle. Jeanne’s glass, empty. Her own glass, full.
She cries until all the tears are gone.
The dripping noise stabs into the silence.
Naomi wipes her eyes and sits up. She makes her way to the bathroom, ignoring the murmurs from the hallway. Like a moth to flame, she follows the candle’s glowing light. In the bathroom, she’s not at all surprised to find that the tub is now empty.
She stands over it, lost.
Behind her, footsteps. The candle winks out.
“Jeanne, it’s not too late for us,” she says.
Hands settle on her shoulders. She closes her eyes. It’s been so long. She swallows hard, tilts her head. The hands slide down her sides. She turns in the dark, hands tangled in long hair. Dim blue light adds shape to darkness. Her lips find her lover’s mouth, and they kiss. Urgently as if to consume each other. Now slowly as if to savor every nuance. She pulls away and kisses her wife’s neck.
“I’ve missed this,” she murmurs into Jeanne’s ear.
Their hands explore each other, familiar yet foreign. Her lover edges her toward the sink, but she grasps Jeanne’s wrist and pulls her toward the bedroom. “No, let’s do this right,” she says, but she freezes at the bathroom’s threshold.
In the bed, Jeanne still slumbers.
Naomi’s breath hitches.
The wrist twists out of her grasp, and hands tug her back into the darkness. The bathroom door closes. She spins around and shoves the intruder backward toward the tub.
A splash follows.
Pale watery blue light illuminates the bathroom, casting murky ripples upon the ceiling and walls. Somehow the light seems to come from the tub, which once again is full of water. Dark swirls permeate the bath. Naomi pivots and clutches the doorknob. It won’t turn. She pounds on the door.
“Jeanne! Help! Get me out of here! There’s someone in here with me!”
When she looks back at the tub, the water is completely dark. Tangled lengths of hair float on the surface, where a ripple forms. In its center, something round rises. At first, she mistakes the shape for some kind of ball, but it soon reveals itself to be a face shrouded in blond, soaked hair, and beneath it shoulders draped with a stained nightshirt. Two arms hang from their sleeves, baring torn wrists.
Drip. Drop. Drip.
Naomi pounds on the door. Again and again.
“Please, Jeanne. Let me out!” She grasps the doorknob. It won’t budge. She twists it with all her might. Behind her, feet squelch upon the tile floor. “Help me!”
At last, the doorknob gives. She flings open the door and spills onto the bedroom floor. Driven by terror, she bellycrawls under the bed. Her flailing hands knock aside one of Jeanne’s sandals.
“Jeanne!” she whispers as loud as she dares.
Naomi lies there in the dark. Her eyes grope at the shadows. She moans and whimpers. Surely at any moment a pair of pale feet will tread out of the bathroom. Instead, the bed shifts above her. Pale light shines from above. The bedsprings groan.
A light shines in her face. Hair drops down. She gasps.
Only it’s red hair. Jeanne’s red hair. The light comes from the flashlight on her cellphone. Naomi sighs with relief at the sight of her face. Her wife’s eyes are wide with fright, but also raw with desperation.
“There’s something in the bathroom,” Naomi whispers.
Jeanne ignores her warning. “I can’t do this anymore. The whispers. The furniture, moving. My things going missing. And now, monsters under the bed. Please. No more. Let me be at peace.”
Her lover’s face ascends, followed by her hair and then the light.
Naomi is left there, huddled beneath the bed. She stares into the shadows, through the darkness. When she closes her eyes, the view is much the same. She listens for her own heartbeat. Of course, she can’t feel it. She holds her breath and counts to a hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred. She has no breath to hold.
And then she cries. At least she can still do that.
The room remains dark when Jeanne gets up the next morning. Naomi watches Jeanne’s foot slide into one of her sandals. She sighs and drops on hands and knees. Her hand gropes under the bed until it grasps the sandal that Naomi knocked aside. Jeanne rises, slips her foot into the other sandal, and walks toward the bathroom. Naomi calls out a warning but Jeanne enters and shuts the door. Her wife, rather her widow, doesn’t bother showering. From behind the door, the toilet flushes. After a long pause, foam is spat into the sink, followed by a gurgle of water.
Naomi has crawled out from under the bed by the time Jeanne exits the bathroom. The cellphone light swings with the motion of her hand. Naomi’s looking upward from the floor. Jeanne stands at the dresser where she places her phone with the flashlight shining upward. It casts on the ceiling a distorted silhouette of Jeanne’s head, then her hands held almost together. The fingers stretch long and spidery across the ceiling.
“What’s happening?” Naomi asks.
Jeanne clears her throat. “I tried to keep all those plants alive. I really did. I shuffled them around, but without you there, they started dying one by one. I wasn’t much of a sunshine juggler. Not like you. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the pots out. As each plant died, I tossed out the dirt. Each empty pot became a hole, a tiny dollhouse replica of the one your body went into. But I couldn’t throw the pots away. I was amassing this grotesque assembly of graves . . . this horrid monument to your memory.
“But then something occurred to me. I’d spent these last months certain that you were haunting me. The shivers. The objects moving. Your distant voice. Now I wondered, perhaps I was haunting you instead. Isn’t that a notion?
“I filled the empty pots with new soil and new plants, and I donated the entire assembly of graves to a hospice facility. It seemed . . . it seemed so you. I couldn’t juggle sunshine the way you did, but I could maybe spread it around. I gave away all of our wedding pots except one.”
Naomi stares upward at the distorted head and hands upon the ceiling. “What is this?”
Those long dark hands remove Jeanne’s wedding band from her finger. Jeanne picks up the cellphone and her overnight bag. Naomi crawls after her into the living room in time to hear the plink of the ring dropping into the flower pot.
Jeanne walks to the door, rests her palm on the knob. “This hotel, I read about it online. It’s supposed to be the most haunted in the state. I even requested this room specifically because it’s supposed to have a lady ghost. She’s supposedly been haunting this room for decades. I didn’t see anything, but . . . there are other ghosts that walk the halls, too. I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought.”
“Please, Jeanne,” Naomi begs. “What is this?”
This time her wife looks directly at her. “This is goodbye.” She opens the door and steps outside. “I’ll always love you. Don’t ever stop juggling sunshine.”
Jeanne closes the door behind her, leaving Naomi alone. She sits there, sprawled on the floor, listening to Jeanne walk down the hall. In the bathroom something drips. From the hallway, more footsteps. Laughter. Murmurs.
Later that morning, the door opens again.
In walks a housekeeper carrying a set of sheets. He murmurs something under his breath before striding to the living room window. He flings open the curtains, flooding the room with daylight.
So much light. Perhaps more than Naomi could ever juggle.
While the housekeeper makes the bed, she pulls herself up using the sofa back for support. She walks over to the writing table and stares down into the flower pot. Her wife’s wedding band lies inside, but it’s not alone. Naomi’s ring is with it. Startled, she raises her own hands. Of course her ring finger is bare. She nods to herself.
The housekeeper hums a pleasant melody as he smooths out the sheets. Naomi walks past, unseen and unheard. She stands in the bathroom and offers her hand.
“Come on. You’ve been in here long enough, haven’t you?”
A pale hand grasps her own. Naomi shivers but smiles.
The slumped, dripping figure strides behind her, letting herself be pulled through the bedroom and past the housekeeper. He shivers, pausing in his duties to stare through them.
“This damn place creeps me out,” he whispers.
Naomi escorts the stranger to the open door. The housekeeper’s cart is parked outside. Footsteps thump past. The dripping woman hesitates.
“It’s okay.” Naomi pulls the dripping woman into the hall. “Let’s go for a walk and maybe you can tell me how I can make your day shine.”
Author’s Note: I think all of our past relationships haunt us to some degree. They leave us scarred or damaged, enlightened or more self-aware, likely both. Then there’s the physical debris of the relationship, in this story – flower pots. Those artifacts can haunt us too. This story explores the haunting from the perspective of a quite literal ghost. What’s it like to be on the other end of the formula–the one doing the haunting? For the setting, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of haunted places, particularly hotels.
Rob E. Boley likes to make blank pages darker. He lives with his wife and his daughter in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he manages and analyzes big data. Yet each morning before sunrise, he rises to strike terror into the hearts of the unfortunate characters dwelling in his novels, stories, and poems. His fiction has been seen lurking in places such as A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Clackamas Literary Review, and Best New Werewolf Tales. He co-founded Howling Unicorn Press with his wife, author Megan Hart, to conjure tales that thrill, chill, and fulfill. You can learn more about this weird figure of the dark by visiting his website at www.robboley.com.
The house diminished every morning. Lately, it had been during sunrise, as if shrinking from the warmth, and not from the fearsome house echoes.
Clea woke when it was still dark out, and made herself a breakfast of toast and blueberry jam. There wasn’t much bread left. There’d once been a jar of strawberry jam, which Clea much preferred to blueberry, but it had been in the back of the fridge, and that had been part of the diminishing a few days earlier. When she’d relocated the supplies the day before, she’d placed a bag of dried apricots in what had once been the linen closet. Those would be tasty, but she felt compelled to eat things that needed the fridge while she still had them.
How much longer would she have to wait?
There were still four mugs in the cabinet. She remembered times when they’d all been in use at once, clustered on the table, a mirror of those who drank from them.
Today Clea chose the red mug with a floral pattern. Gaby’s. She filled it with coffee, but when she reached for the container of honey, her hand hit only solid wall. She frowned. Apparently the night had included its own small diminishing. That happened sometimes.
There was nothing else left to put in coffee, which meant it was too bitter for her, but she sipped it anyway.
A quick series of sounds interrupted her silence, and she started, spilling coffee onto the sleeve of her comfortable green sweater. She pulled the fabric away from her skin, hissing at the heat, and went to run cold water on the burn, only to find the sink half the size it had been the day before. The cool tap water, when it came, was thin and unwilling.
She wasn’t bothered about the stain. Who would see it but her?
The sound came again. Knocks on the door. It would just be one of the house echoes, hoping for new prey. Easy to ignore.
Clea’d been the only one left in the house since the end of the summer.
The heat had gotten less reliable lately. She had on two pairs of socks, and a scarf wrapped snug around her neck.
She hadn’t thought her friends would make her wait this long.
It had seemed the perfect solution for the four of them to rent the house together. They’d all been close for so long, and they’d all been looking for new living arrangements.
Clea had been relieved when it all came together. The four of them had moved everything in on their own, accompanied by a playlist of favorite songs from musicals they’d seen together and plates of the chocolate-ginger cookies Rae baked when she was stressed.
Living with her friends, Clea was convinced, would bridge those moments when she feared the spaces between them were too large. Moments when she missed a cue, or didn’t think to include herself, or worried her exclusion was deliberate on her friends’ part.
It was easier with these friends than it was with nearly anyone else, which was the result of time and risks and choices on both Clea’s part and theirs. She was so grateful for her friends but still, sometimes, she worried.
It helped, sharing the house. Their contrasting schedules meant Clea normally got enough time on her own to feel centered, and plenty of time with the others to feel connected.
No, it still helped. They were still close. This was temporary.
Their friendships were strong enough to make it through this.
The house echo knocked on the door a third time.
Clea sipped at the now half-empty coffee, its flat bitterness pushing weakly against her tongue, and started toward the door. She wouldn’t open it, but the echoes were kind of fascinating to watch. The remnants of houses long-diminished, reduced to nothing but thick air and sinuous, flashing images of the homes they’d once been.
The front hallway was nearly gone, reduced to a sliver. She winced as her already-bruised hips bumped against the walls. The ceiling was a little shorter, but unevenly sloped, so, as usual, she didn’t notice until it rubbed against the top of her head. She ran her fingers through her hair, wondering when she’d washed it last. She’d been rationing the last bottle of shampoo, which made her feel both silly and sensible. The remaining space of the hallway widened a little, directly in front of the door, and the window next to it was still there.
She paused, just before looking through the window. She hadn’t seen another person since Gaby was taken by the diminishing. When was that? There’d still been milk in the fridge.
The house echoes were always trying this kind of thing. All they needed was an open door or window. They craved the comfort of another being made of rafter and railing.
Clea missed being able to have the windows open.
The house across the street from them had opened the door to one of the echoes. Gaby’d been watching at the time and had sworn the house had opened the door all on its own, though none of the others had believed her.
In the eight months between moving in and the start of the diminishing, the house had always kept the four of them safe. Even when lightning struck the property next door, even when half the houses on the street needed their roofs repaired after a hailstorm, this house had been untouched, and they’d been grateful.
The worst part of the house was the heat. It worked, sometimes, though they were all convinced the temperature was never actually the number on the display.
There’d been a lot of nights of the four of them around the kitchen table, draped in sweaters and scarves as differently-scented steams rose from each of their mugs.
It was getting colder, and Clea was the only one left.
She still hadn’t looked out the window. Would the house echo knock again?
She was fine. The house was much condensed, but the plumbing still worked and the heat was no worse than it had ever been. The coat closet was still there, and she was relieved to find another scarf inside, rich purple and soft, which she wrapped around her shoulders.
Between the four of them they’d had six can openers, which had stopped being funny after the first diminishing took one. She’d scattered the remaining five around the house along with the food supplies. She’d placed pads and bandages in every room.
It couldn’t be much longer.
And she knew better than to open the door to the house echoes.
It hadn’t been a big fight.
It had just been… everyone’s jobs, and everyone’s exhaustion, and the noxious cocktail of the two. That could lull anyone into unwanted isolation, snappishness, not thinking through their own boundaries or those of their friends.
Rot, hidden too deep in the house for anyone to see. Like the fear that made the houses diminish.
Susan had been the first one to say something, and they’d all agreed to a Saturday morning spent together. For food and conversation and shoring up their connections.
They all put it above work and workouts and errands and the weird news stories about collapsing houses. All of them were conscious that something precious was at risk.
The night before had been the first time Clea had slept well in a while.
That morning, the house diminished for the first time.
Susan was gone. The outside wall of her bedroom had moved inwards, cutting off all but a few inches of her bed and all of her.
Clea, Gaby, and Rae clustered in the kitchen after seeing Susan’s room. Everything was out of true.
“I can’t do this.” Gaby muttered, storming outside. She’d then started taking measurements, tape measure shooting out in all directions like the strikes of a skilled swordswoman. Writing everything down in the small blue notebook that lived in her purse. Desperate to defend them not with steel, but with facts.
“The houses are terrified.” Gaby said the day after the diminishment took Rae.
Gaby’d been opening and closing the refrigerator for three minutes without taking anything out.
The house echoes were getting more frequent, pulsing silently against the outside of every house in view. In response, Gaby explained, the houses grew smaller, shrinking from the reminder of their already-lost kin.
“But I don’t think,” she squinted, again, at the solid wall where the bowl of leftover chicken soup had been, “the house is trying to hurt us.”
Gaby didn’t explain anymore. Said she needed time to think.
Three nights later, she was gone.
There’d been three nights between Susan and Rae. Another three between Rae and Gaby.
Three mornings later, Clea woke to find the wall near her bed had drawn closer, slicing off the bottom corner of her bed and one of the slippers she’d left on the floor. The remaining half of a slipper lay overturned, purple and fuzzy and looking lost.
“Is anyone in there?” Another flurry of knocks, and someone yelling.
Clea bit her lip, finished her coffee, and turned back toward the kitchen. Once the sun rose and the day’s diminishing was over, she needed to redistribute the remaining food around the house. She did this every day, to lessen the chance of a single diminishing taking all her supplies.
She’d realized Gaby was right. The house was still keeping them safe. Their house might be as scared as the others, but it wouldn’t abandon the four of them.
Besides, her friends had promised they’d never leave her behind.
Here she was safe. She only had to wait for the others to come and get her. They would, eventually. The house would enfold her.
Things would be easier soon.
She had so much to tell them all once they found her.
The knocking came again, fast, overlaid with a wary voice. “We figured out how to hold off the houses!”
The front door of the house burst inward, and Clea placed her hand against the nearest wall.
Devan Barlow’s fiction has appeared in the anthologies Upon a Thrice Time and 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Lackington’s, Abyss & Apex, Truancy, and Daily Science Fiction. Her fantasy novel An Uncommon Curse, a story of fairy tales and musical theatre, is forthcoming. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. She can be found at her website https://devanbarlow.com
‘08 is looking at me like ‘08 always looks at me. Like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Like I’ve hurt someone or killed someone very close to him. That look on his face makes me sick. His name tag has our name scratched out on it, then 2008 written beneath it. He still can’t believe everyone here is him, is me, is us.
I want to tell him he’s here because something’s wrong with him, too. That if all were well with us…with me, rather…there would have been no need for the keys.
I play with mine. It’s some kind of bronze, smooth and rounded. Old fashioned. It flips nicely in my fingers. There are dates stamped neatly into the metal, one on this same day in March every two years, the little edges of the numbers having been gradually worn smooth by my fingernail.
“You know what pains I’ve taken,” ‘32 says to the group.
I resent his pomposity. The way he seems above the fray. From the perspective of what I am—who I am even—both extremes seem a terrifying outcome. Young and naïve vs. old and over it. Neither suits me.
“Well, most of you do,” ‘32 continues. “I’ve told you numerous times, by which I mean once.”
It’s terrible to know what’s coming. The pressure of my knowledge adds to the stuffiness of the room, a wood-paneled church basement that appears to have been outfitted in the seventies. I want to open one of the windows that sit high up on the walls, their opacity filtering the light and somehow adding to the thickness of the air.
“I’m here to save you…us.” He pauses. “Me.” ‘32 looks around the room at us, his face serene, beatific. “I know how you feel. After all, I was you. I’ve been you. I want to help you. All the same, I know things can’t be rushed. I know exactly when things will start to happen. I also know the fragility of the timeline. So far, we’re on track. I’m here after all. But it’s tenuous.”
‘18 leans over to me, elbows on his knees with his hands folded in front of him. “I’ve always wondered what he means by that,” he says in a low voice.
I realize I’m also leaning over, my elbows also on my knees. We must look like twins, the two of us. I’m wearing the same hoodie he is, though it’s two years older now with a big hole in the elbow. “He means any one of us could off ourselves at any point,” I say. It’s funny how natural these words feel, even though I remember hearing me say them to myself when I was ‘18. It doesn’t feel rehearsed. “But ‘32’s existence here proves it hasn’t happened yet.”
‘08 is still giving us that sickeningly terrified look. I try to remind myself how hard it was. He’s only had the key for a couple days. He only just found the door. He’s got no idea what any of this means or what a difficult path he will be traveling over the coming years.
I shake my head. How ridiculous that I’m trying to save myself. By the looks of it, things are going to get rougher. ‘22 and ‘24 look like they haven’t bathed in a while. I wonder what the story is, but I’m afraid to ask. I know I’m not looking so hot myself what with my recent unemployment, but there’s some kind of split between me and these guys. Even in 2008 I noticed it. Something big is coming for me soon. Something bad.
“Before I start our individual consults, I want to let you know how thankful I am for all of you,” ‘32 continues. “I can’t be me without all that came before. It’s not an easy road and nothing I say will make it any easier.”
‘24 wipes his eye with a tissue. There’s a fresh-looking scar on his cheek, still red and angry. Christ, what does that guy know?
‘32 stands up. “While I go through the consults, there’re some refreshments over there on the table. Feel free to help yourself to some coffee or one of the doughnuts. ‘08, I’ll start with you.”
‘08 is oblivious. He’s not aware that we refer to each other by year. “He’s talking to you, partner,” ‘28 says, patting ‘08 on the knee. ‘28 at least looks showered and clean. His grey hair is slicked back and he has fresh clothes.
‘08 stands and follows ‘32, his face still frozen with that look of terror, leaving the rest of us sitting in a circle on our folding chairs.
“What is all this even?” ‘12 asks, pressing the button on the Keurig and waiting for it to fill his cup.
“Come on, I know you feel it already,” I said, flipping open the container of doughnuts. This is my year to get the cake doughnut with sprinkles. Oh, how I’ve been waiting for that one. Every other time I’ve come here, it’s been gone by the time I get to the boxes.
“Feel what?” ‘12 asks.
“The darkness. The depression,” I say, sinking my teeth into the pastry. It’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be.
“That makes no sense. I’ve got it made. The kids have just been born. I have a great wife, great house, great job. Does something bad happen?”
I give him a stare, remembering how it was to be him and see my face, the lines in my cheeks more defined, the grey cropping up in my beard. “And you ask yourself every day why those things don’t make you happy.”
‘12 pauses as though paralyzed. I can still feel that moment, how the machismo of false positivity stopped with those words. How it was the first time I’d given that thought any credence, that maybe things weren’t as great as they seemed.
I pat him on the shoulder and walk away, finding ‘22 and ‘24 over by themselves, taking another bite of doughnut along the way. “Hey, guys,” I say.
They nod their acknowledgment, but their faces remain grim.
“Look,” I tell them. “I can sense something’s coming. You two have always looked rough. The roughest of the bunch.”
They remain hunched and silent, warming their hands on the styrofoam cups of cheap coffee. Hands that are dirty beyond cleaning, as though they’ve been burrowing in the dirt.
“I’m not going to ask what happens. I know you won’t tell me anyway.”
They both grunt and sip from their cups. I can’t help it. I’ve always been curious about them, but now they’re next in line. At some point within the next two years, I’m going to become them.
“‘10, it’s your turn,” ‘32 barks from the hall. ‘08 is nowhere to be seen as he’s been shuttled back through the door and back to his year. ‘10 trudges obediently, if trepidatiously.
I remember what ‘32 told me when I was ‘10. He told me to keep a positive mindset and to meet life’s challenges with an open heart. I remember thinking ‘32 was off his rocker. Every time since then had been some variation of that same psychobabble. He knows what I’m going through, so he knows I can endure and make it through. That I’ll be fine despite life’s challenges.
I don’t know why I keep coming back. Maybe it’s because it assures me I’ll make it through, not succumbing to my thoughts of self-harm. Maybe it’s just for the doughnuts.
“Can you guys believe how naïve those young ones are?” I ask ‘22 and ‘24.
“Look, kid,” ‘22 begins. “I know you think you can be chummy with us because our numbers are close. But the truth is, you’ve got absolutely no idea what’s coming.”
“Can’t,” ‘22 says, finishing his coffee. “It would ruin the surprise.”
“Come on,” I protest. Until now, I’ve always been scared to ask them about their story. “I can smell the divorce coming. I’m guessing I can’t find a job. I mean, no offense, but it looks like I’ll be homeless for a while—”
“Stop,” ‘24 interrupts.
“Geez,” I say, gesturing at the more collected ‘26, ‘28, and ‘30. “We know things will get better. I mean hell, from the look of things, we’re going to wield some sort of crazy power. See the way they dress? They’re like CEOs.”
“We’re not going to tell you what happens,” ‘24 states, his voice gruff.
“I’m not asking you to,” I say, defensive. “I’m just trying to…” I can’t think how to finish. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I’m trying to find answers. Clearly, whatever happens in the coming years is massively important. Why else would ‘32 be going to such lengths?
“‘12,” ‘32 calls from the hall.
I watch ‘12 march off to his conference. What an overconfident punk, I think. He has no idea what’s coming. The depression. The doubts. The darkness.
I’ve wandered away from ‘22 and ‘24, the conversation going nowhere.
‘14 approaches me, his eyes not meeting mine. “Look,” he says, “I know you know what I’m about to say.”
I do. The humility and fear are still deep in me.
“I’m sorry about how I was,” he says.
“It’s okay,” I say, hating how this feels.
“No, really. I know what you were talking about last time. I do. I ask myself every day why all the wonderful things in my life don’t make me happy.”
Knowing the necessity my former self felt to get this off his chest, I listen without comment, waiting for it to be over.
“I can see now that things will get worse before they get better.”
Lifting my coffee to my lips, I avoid telling him what I really think. There will be ups and downs, but he’s essentially right, the trajectory trends toward worse rather than better, and my future faces tell me I’m not out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot. By the looks of ‘24, it’s going to nearly kill me before I come out of it.
“‘14,” ‘32 calls from the hall.
“I’ve gotta go, man,” ‘14 says. “But I hope you know I’m rooting for you.”
I cringe as ‘14 walks away. Even he doesn’t know what the depression is going to drive him to. I’m the one who should be rooting for him. If he doesn’t make it through those long nights and those dark days, I won’t be here. It makes me wonder how fragile the timeline really is. Obviously fragile enough that ‘32 feels the need to keep reinforcing it every two years.
I remember thinking I was a dick for not responding to my moment of vulnerability. Maybe I should have said something, but it’s too late now. Sighing, I take a seat in one of the folding chairs, listening to the light murmur of the others talking.
A twinge of jealousy punches me in the gut when I look at the late ‘20s. What will it be like when I get there? They appear so refreshed, so energetic. To be honest, I’m looking forward to it, though I can see the hurdles I’m going to have to jump over the next four years or so.
“‘16,” ‘32 calls down the hall, ‘16 already schlepping his way.
What’s so wrong with me? I wonder. All of this just to get me through a bout of depression. Not that I’m not grateful, and obviously this is going to be a long haul, but how come I can’t just deal?
Shame fills me. The moment is a lonely one. I can’t even socialize with myself. It feels like there’s a break on either side of me. The younger ones don’t get it yet and the older ones don’t think I get it yet.
But that’s the thing with depression, I suppose. You feel isolated even when you’re surrounded by people. Even when those people are you.
I sit for a while, quietly eating my doughnut and sipping my coffee. ‘18 gets called in, giving me a stiff-lipped smile as he marches off.
Now I’m in uncharted territory. I’ve never been in the room at this point before. Not that anything bad has ever happened, but this point always makes me nervous. I finish my coffee and get up to throw my cup away. Over by the trash can, I notice a set of stairs leading to a door. It’s not the door we all came in, so, naturally, I’m curious. What does the world of 2032 look like? Is the world of twelve years in the future so drastically different from my own? I wouldn’t mind some fresh air, either. It’s always been stuffy down here, but my consult usually comes up pretty quickly. I put my foot on the bottom step.
“Hey,” one of my selves shouts behind me.
“What?” I say, turning.
“Whatever you do, don’t look out there.” It’s ‘28, and he looks gruff and mean now, a stark contrast to how he’d been a moment before.
“Why?” I ask, my heart pounding.
“Because it’s not for you to know. Not yet.”
“The future,” another voice says.
I turn to see ‘32 in the hallway. “Oh, come on, it can’t be that different out there. I mean, maybe I’ll see what some newer-model cars look like.”
All my future selves cringe at my statement.
“It’s okay everyone,” ‘32 admonishes the group. “Remember, his is the pivotal year.”
“Pivotal year?” I ask.
“Come on,” ‘32 says, beckoning me down the hall. “It’s your turn.”
“What was that all about?” I ask him.
‘32 opens the door and motions me in as he has done every two years. “All in good time,” he says.
“Yeah, but, they made it sound like there’s something scary out there,” I say, obediently entering the room.
“There is,” he responds.
I reel. It seems comical to believe that something could be seriously and drastically wrong outside. What could be so different and so obvious that seeing it would cause some sort of breach in the fabric of the universe?
But the room settles me. It’s comfortingly normal and familiar. There’s a billiards table in one corner and several aged and overstuffed couches surround the space. This must be the place where the youth group meets. One can almost smell the zit cream.
“Okay,” I say to ‘32. “I know you know things are getting hard and I can tell they’re about to get harder. I’m guessing my marriage is about to fall apart and I’m not likely to find a new job by the looks of my next two selves.” It’s arrogant of me to speak like this. I’m trying to show off to ‘32, to let him know I’m not as naïve as I appear.
“I’m not here to offer you therapy,” he says.
I scoff. “Then what the hell have we been doing? Every time I come in, you’re giving me advice and guiding me through my life. And honestly, it’s helped. I can see the trajectory. You know, even though things get worse, they eventually get better.”
“That’s never been the point,” ‘32 insists, opening a closet in the far corner of the room.
“Then what’s the point?”
“Acclimation.” He is rummaging, pushing unseen objects around.
“You see,” he says, emerging from the closet. Whatever he’s holding, he’s hiding it behind the couch. “If I had brought you to this point first, the shock of the whole situation would have been dismaying. Crushing.”
“What situation?” I hate that he’s playing coy.
“I had to get you used to the concept of time travel. Do you remember how shocked you were back in ‘08?”
“Just seeing all those versions of yourself was nearly enough to send you over the edge.”
“So this hasn’t been about therapy? About managing my depression?”
‘32’s face softens. “It never was. Sure, there’s some darkness in us, but it’s nothing a little old-fashioned talk therapy couldn’t solve.”
I’m ready to punch him. “Then why didn’t you suggest that? I feel like I’ve been suffering for all these years but I’m just holding on because you’re going to show me how to get better. Every time, I’m sure you’re going to reveal the secret to me and show me how to live my life and become peaceful and successful.”
‘32 can no longer hide his amusement. “I’ve done my job then. Here,” he says, brandishing the object he’s been hiding behind the couch. It’s a book. A book about gardening.
“What am I supposed to do with a book? I’m hurting, can’t you see that?”
“Take it,” he repeats, brandishing the book as though it was a weapon.
I reach out, the tome cold and firm in my hands. “Why?”
My future self bends down and hauls a duffel bag over the back of the couch. “This too.”
The zipper hangs open and I can see stacks of cash and boxes of seeds. I see other books: philosophies on government, books on wild mushrooms. “I…I–I,” I stutter.
“The next few years will be unfathomably difficult,” he says. “It’ll all start in about a month. A disease will ravage the Earth. Political strife follows and the government will crumble.”
Terror fills me. The book in my hands feels absurd, impotent against anything he’s describing. Could this book make me immune to the disease? Was I supposed to bash intruders over the head with it? “I’ve never grown a single plant in my life.”
“You don’t think I know that?” ‘32 says. “Your wife will indeed leave you, but it’ll be because you’ve taken a sudden interest in living off the grid, learning the skills that will aid the survival of the species. How do we grow food when the world as you know it doesn’t exist and you can’t go grab a bag of fertilizer at the hardware store? How do we forage for what we need?”
“I don’t want to starve.”
His face becomes grim and hard. “The future is no kind place. Humanity will need fortitude. Resolve. And you,” he says, poking me in the chest with his forefinger. “You will teach them how. How to rebuild. How to thrive again.”
“Why me?” I ask.
“Why not you?” he replies. “Life is nothing more than a series of circumstances. You will not be able to help the position life puts you in just as those who die will not be able to resist their own fates.” He walks over to a window of frosted glass, taking the crank in his hand to turn the panes out. “The world you have known will soon be over.”
My eyes fall on the scene outside. Blackness and ash cover everything I can see. Skeletons of buildings lay scattered here and there. I wonder how this particular structure has survived. I wonder how we have coffee and doughnuts.
“Enjoy what’s left of it,” he says, “but be ready. I’ll keep you supplied.” He turns to me, hands hooked together behind his back. “Can’t you see how this would have been too much to take in all at once? The key and the door alone are hard to accept, let alone the end of everything as we know it.”
My stomach turns. The urge builds to turn and run, leaving his—my—gifts behind and never looking back.
“You won’t,” ‘32 says as though reading my thoughts. His thoughts. Thoughts he himself had twelve years earlier. “Just contemplate all that has been invested in you. Imagine the resources it took to place the door and to get the key in your hand. Then imagine the scarcity and difficulty of procuring said resources in a world that looks like this.”
I look down at my hands. Am I really worth all this? Some days I struggle just to get out of bed and face the world. I’m not some messiah, ready to save humanity from its undoing.
He gestures out the window, and for the first time, it dawns on me what ‘32’s stature must be. This simple meeting with coffee and doughnuts in the basement of a church must only be available to a king in a world like this.
“Make sure you come back in two years. The door will be here even if other things will be missing. You will receive further training and supplies. You, I, we…are all the hope that’s left. It begins with us. That’s why it’s so important to keep the timeline on track.”
I hear his words, but it feels as though they come at me from the end of a long hallway. His hand is now on my shoulder and he’s leading me toward the exit. Though he continues talking, I can no longer absorb what he is saying. Something about the loss of innocence and the need to learn how to protect myself.
At the end of the hall, ‘32 pushes open a large, metal door with a flickering ‘exit’ sign above it. He hands me the duffel bag and I walk through. “Good luck.”
The door shuts behind me with a bang like a taiko drum. I’m back in my time. The scene that greets me is jarring: green grass, blue sky, buildings that stand whole. It’s hard to imagine such a change could occur in only twelve years.
And what about my family? How can I protect them? My wife is going to think I’ve lost it if I push for us to change and get prepared, but how can I not try?
A thick sadness fills my stomach. Is it possible to mourn the future? I’d grown so attached to my story, how I was going to struggle and come out better. Now, it’s gone.
I walk to my car and place ‘32’s gifts in my trunk. Nothing in me wants them or anything to do with them. It seems innocent to grow plants, to forage for food, but thinking of these books, these things, only reminds me of the hollow buildings and the empty faces of my future selves. Is ‘32 what he says he is? It seems far-fetched that I could be what he says I am. Me, who can’t convince himself that his life is worth waking up for in the morning sometimes.
I’m at home, unsure of how I got here. Last chance. I could throw ‘32’s gifts in the garbage can. It’s trash day, the trucks will come to pick it up within the hour and it will be gone and forgotten by dinner. My neighbor waves as I open my trunk and stare down at the duffel bag. He’s mowing his lawn. What will a green lawn be worth in ten years? Or my kids’ choir practices and soccer games? I just wish I could talk to someone, but who would believe me?
The world will end with or without me. I either keep these things or I don’t. The duffel bag feels heavy, the strap thick in my hands, a weight tying me down to my supposed destiny. I look out over the neighborhood from my garage, searching for any sign of the world to come.
Author’s Note: While doom-scrolling the internet one evening, I came across the video for Alanis Morissette’s “These are the Reasons I drink.” In the video, Morissette attends an AA meeting and sees herself reflected in the others around her. I started thinking about how group therapy might work if you were meeting with several versions of yourself from different eras of your life. This was in December 2020, and dystopian fears were heavy on my mind. People close to me were stocking up on ammo after the election, and the dread of looking at the news every day had become an addiction. Add group therapy with yourself to dystopia, and you get “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations.“
Cory Swanson lives in Northern Colorado with his wife, two daughters, and the ghost of an old blind dog named Kirby. His novella, Geminus, is available through Castrum Press, and the novel-length sequel, Venus the Monk, is available through Exeter Publishing. His short works have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Mad Scientist Journal, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Mag, and After Dinner Conversation. When he’s not writing or teaching band and orchestra, you can find him camping or playing one of his many boss guitars. www.coryswansonauthor.wordpress.com