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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom.

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

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

DoomDoomDoomDoom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022 by Josh Strnad

2900 words

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


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DP FICTION #85B: “The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley

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.”

Jeanne’s breath hitches. She’s crying. Naomi scoots over. Jeanne trembles.

“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!”

No response.

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.”


© 2022 by Rob E. Boley

3300 words

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.


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DP FICTION #85A: “The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow

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.

At first.

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.

The sun rose, and the house diminished.


© 2022 by Devan Barlow

1700 words

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


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DP FICTION #84B: “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson

‘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.”

“Tell me.”

“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.”

“What isn’t?”

“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.

“To what?”

“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?”

I nod.

“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.

I am drastically alone.


© 2022 by Cory Swanson

3500 words

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


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DP FICTION #84A: “The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis

Preface to the 1,633rd edition (first Terran edition)

First of all, Welcome! We are so pleased to have you join our Galactic Community of almost ten thousand races! We are the largest and most successful Galactic faction – you have chosen well.

Do expect things to feel a little strange for the first few millennia – after all, you are the “New Kid On The Block”! You will find the Galaxy to be an amazing place, and full of a bewildering variety of species, of all shapes, sizes and habits. A few of them will actually look like the depictions of aliens in your movies!

We’ve put together this handy guide for “newbies”, translated into your colloquial language for ease of understanding. This will ensure you get off to a good start in your first alien encounters, know where to invest your resources,and avoid catastrophic errors. There are lots⁠—billions—of more detailed publications available, where you can find out almost anything about almost everything, but this book is the ideal introduction.

Before continuing, please note:

(i) We strongly advise you to read this handbook from start to finish before attempting further contact. This will avoid possible misunderstandings that could result in injury, death, or the premature extinction of your civilisation.

(ii) The publishers of this handbook accept no responsibility whatsoever for any errors, omissions or mistranslations that result in any harmful outcome for your civilisation. We are protected from prosecution under Galactic Statute XV1-APG-137C. Survivors⁠—please notify the publisher of any suggested corrections and we will endeavour to provide updates in a future edition.

*

Table of Contents

1. How to use this Handy Guide

2. Stop! Read This First! Do’s and Don’ts for New Aliens

2.1 The Most Common Mistakes
which may result in your race’s swift destruction, and how to avoid them

2.2 The Most Important Rule Of All
why <*concept not translatable for this language/species*> is the best policy

3. Your Place in the Galactic Community

3.1 You’re Still Alive
an excellent start!

3.2 Making a Good Impression
the critical first millennium

3.3 Gaining Recognition
from Nobody to Somebody

3.4 Representation on the Galactic Council
a (very) long term plan

4. (Myths, Legends and) The Reality of the Universe in which you live

4.1 There is no Faster Than Light Travel
don’t expect visitors any time soon

4.2 Cash is King
can you pay your way in the Galaxy?

4.3 Galactic Law Overrides ALL Local Variants
ignorance of Galactic Law is no defence

4.4 Patience IS a Virtue
how to get things done when you have to wait 100+ years for a response to the simplest message

5. The Importance of Being a Good Neighbour

5.1 Antisocial Behaviour
and its consequences for you

5.2 Yes, But What IS Antisocial?
it depends on who your neighbours are!

5.3 How to Complain
quietly, if at all

5.4 Whistleblowing
in a word, DON’T!

6. Paying Your Way in the Galaxy

6.1 Money, That’s What You Want!
Galactic Bitcredits: the gold standard

6.2 You Want It, We’ve Got It
how trading works between civilisations when they are light years apart

6.3 Payments Due to the Owner of Your Region of the Galaxy
why you may already be 1 billion years in arrears!

6.4 The Defence Levy
because keeping you safe isn’t cheap

6.5 Loans and Credit Schemes
always read the small print

7. Avoid These Scams and Viruses
from Diplomats to DNA Hacking

7.1 Zeta Leporis Diplomat Scam
no, there is no money waiting for you in a dead official’s account

7.2 Cold fusion
the (c)oldest scam in the Galaxy!

7.3 Quantum Computer Cat Virus
infected computers both work and fail simultaneously

7.4 Alien Porn
yes we know you’re curious, no it’s not worth the planetwide ransomware

7.5 4-Dimensional Pyramid Schemes
why getting rich quick (or at all) doesn’t ever happen

7.6 DNA code hacking
locked out of your own body… not a great place to be

8. Bona Fide Ways to Earn Money

8.1 The Galaxy’s “Top 1,000 Wish List”
can you help?

8.2 What Else Have You Got?
that We might actually want

8.3 What We Don’t Want
from Fission to Philosophy

9. Approaches to Debt Management

9.1 Money Problems
when all else fails

9.2 Why Crime Doesn’t Pay
how Galactic Law is enforced

9.3 Selling Your Heritage
everyone likes a bargain

9.4 Planet For Sale
how to get the best price for your planet

10. Post Eviction and Homelessness

10.1 Options to Consider at Rock-Bottom
when the only alternative is the complete extinction of your race

10.1.1 Mercenary
at least earn some money and go places before you all die

10.1.2 Vagrancy
see the Galaxy on the cheap! especially its holding cells

10.1.3 Indentured
because one way or another we are all slaves to the Galaxy!

10.1.4 The Deep Freeze
wake up one day (maybe) to a Brave New World (maybe)

10.2 Recognition and Acceptance
making peace with your imminent extinction as the Galaxy rolls on regardless

10.3 Aftermath
so is there anything at all your race could be remembered for?

Appendix: The Top One Billion Self-Help Manuals Reviewed and Rated

remember to use our Galactic faction’s affiliate link for all purchases!


© 2022 by Mark Vandersluis

1000 words

Author’s Note: Beware, the Galaxy is a dangerous place! History has shown us here on Earth that when a powerful, technologically advanced culture encounters a less developed one, the result is often catastrophic for the less advanced society. I wanted to extrapolate from our own experiences on Earth, and speculate on the possibilities should we ever become part of a wider Galactic community.  We might well face a multitude of existential challenges once we discover (or are discovered by) the races who run the Galaxy. There’s a lot to think about when you consider the deeper story behind each flippant-sounding heading in this Handbook: hints and tips which might make the difference between survival and extinction. I have plans to complete the whole Handbook one day, not just the Table of Contents. Hopefully before the aliens arrive…

Mark Vandersluis works as a Senior IT Manager for a Cable and Internet company in Berkshire, England. From an early age, his home was the Science Fiction section of the local library. With a lifelong interest in all things Science and Technology, his SF has previously been published in Nature Futures. Mark also enjoys running, cycling and walking, preferably with his wife and/or grown-up children, even though they are mostly faster than him these days. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markvsf


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DP FICTION #83B: “Delivery For 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke

Sometimes, and I’m stressing the sometimes, wishes muttered within my hearing come true. I’ve invested in a good set of earbuds, noise-cancelling headphones, and have an over-spilling jar of earplugs, yet accidents still happen.

“Wish you’d always be my Dasher,” this young guy in a neon orange slouch hat says and I swear if he could blow me a winky-kissy-face emoji he would.

“Just take your food,” I say, not desperately at all, and turn to flee the apartment complex, my phone pinging another delivery option before I’ve made it to the elevator.

It’s no problem. My delivery rate on pizza and French fries and Styrofoam is far higher than my delivery rate on half-assed, wishy jokes. No problem at all.

By the time I go home for the night, my twin braids looking slept-in rather than freshly woven, I can’t say I’m too worried. That woman who wished her kids grown didn’t suddenly have teenagers (or abnormally large toddlers). That man who’d wished the neighbor’s dog would shove a sock down its throat still complained of the yapping every time I came by. My success rate is something like one out of fifty, or maybe even worse.

Yes, hopefully worse.

It’s a coincidence that I deliver the same guy Thai food three days later. 3C at Song View Apartment complex is just hungry while I’m on call. People get hungry a lot; I’ve delivered to plenty of repeats. Plenty of them.

It’s also a coincidence that I’m back the day after with a bag of cheap tacos.

“We’re going to have to stop meeting like this,” he says. “People will start to wonder about us.”

“I already wonder about you.”

He laughs, hands me a cash tip with graphite-stained fingers, and disappears behind his door. I remain on the other side for a few moments more, just staring. Not glaring. Just…wondering.

When his name pops up a few days later with an order for crab legs from a local marina restaurant, I resist. Just because I can. Because I’ve got plans and they include a credit transfer, a bachelor’s and a small studio in any city that sits on the coast. Those plans most definitely don’t include always being some jokester’s delivery girl.

Get out of the bathroom to Andromeda (renaming the cat Devil Spawn) having sat on my phone and accepted the delivery for me. What are the odds…

Pretty freaking good, it seems.

There’s a “bug” in the system the next time. A call from the company threatening termination the time after. A few times after that a rent bill looms because my savings got swallowed needing a transmission replaced and people kept swiping other orders out from under me. But not him. No, 3C at Song View is all mine it seems. All mine, forever and always and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

Late May, when classes are finalizing and my decision to transfer to Salisbury is having me throw down a deposit on an apartment four hours away, I find myself stuck at home after a car accident. I guess an F-150 destroying my backend is major enough to keep me off the road and turn my check into a wire transfer. Minor enough the car is magically fixed at the shop and back on delivery circle hell within 24 hours.

Because Mr. 3C at Song View needs his gods-damned General Tso’s.

When he opens the door this time round, he does a double-take. Eyes going bowl-like, round and saucer-shaped. “What happened to your arm?”

“Accident. Tore a ligament.” I keep the bag of food by my side.

“You doing all right?”

“Yes, thanks for–” What the hell am I doing? Consorting with the enemy. Acting like his empathy matters right now. I clear my throat and take a menacing step forward. At least, I go for menacing. My menacing might need work. “I need you to do me a favor.”

His eyes go from milk saucer-round to cat-slitted within a fraction of a second. “Oh?”

“Yes. I need you to speak the words: ‘I wish Dana Utepi is never my Dasher again.’ Better yet, just stop ordering out. In fact, I’ve brought you some recipes to get you started. Simple things: spaghetti, chicken and noodles, chicken and rice, chicken and–”

“I ordered delivery, not life advice,” he snaps and ho boy, I think I’ve hit a nerve because the man flushes. Heh, comes with the territory having skin that light I guess. Wonder what he’s so sensitive about; it’s not as if he’s living with his mom.

“First of all, the point of this is to not be your delivery driver. Ever again.”

“Just don’t take my requests then, jeesh. Not like someone’s forcing you to accept them.”

Okay, that snippery deserves a glare, so I give him the glariest glare ever in existence. “You are. And I’d like you to stop.”

I think at this point the word “crazy” probably crosses his mind, does a triple flip and lands with both feet square on the “back-away slowly” response. At least, he gives his bag of food a morose and longing glance and nudges further into his apartment.

“I’m descended from a djinn, way back, my mother’s father’s great-times-twenty grandfather a full-bred desert-dwelling not-quite-human or so the tale goes. Things get a little broken and diluted this far from the source though and wishes said in my proximity have a one in fifty chance of coming true. Or thereabouts.”

He is still standing there. The word “crazy” is now blinking at me backward out his corneas.

“You wished for me to be your Dasher always and now I’m not going to get to transfer to a better college and go on to live my life if I don’t find a way to fix what you’ve done. Or what I’ve done. Inadvertently.”

He shifts his weight and fumbles with his phone. “Can I have my food? I’ll give you a twenty if you leave.”

“Not until you say, ‘I wish Dana Utepi is never my Dasher again.'”

“If you don’t give me my food, I’m going to put in a complaint with the company.”

“Won’t work. They won’t fire me because of your stupid wish.” At least I hope so because delivering to 3C at Song View with no assurance I’d get paid doesn’t sound appealing.

When he begins typing something one-fingeredly, I lean forward to peek at the screen. He lifts his head marginally and I get a glance at those mix-and-match hazel eyes that don’t look as if they know what color they want to be. Cute. Actually, they would be cute if the owner wasn’t the bearer of my doom, the bringer of never-ending deliveries, the ender of my education and dreams.

Not cute.

“Can you maybe remove yourself from my personal space?”

“Sure thing. ‘I wish Dana Utepi was never–'”

“–never my Dasher again. Yeah. I said it.”

“You must start from–”

“I wish Dana Utepi never delivers food to me again! Happy?”

I hand him the food because I am happy. Quite happy. That had been a really strong wish. So forceful.

He slams the door in my still-grinning face.

Now, on top of tuition and rent and all the other basic necessities of life, fancy medical bills begin to stream in. This one for the doctor, that one for the tests, another for the room, and I just lose count at the piddling, growing amounts after seeing the hundred dollar charge for what amounted to liquid Tylenol. Which means more dashing. More deliveries. Longer on-call times.

3C at Song View shows up on my app a little over a week later.

Eight days. He shows up exactly eight days later because I was counting that. He even left a note on the delivery instructions: “Dana Utepi need not apply.”

Heh.

I resist. For minutes on end, I walk away from my phone, always drawn back to see if his order has been scarfed up. Other deliveries come and go and come and go. But not his. Not his.

It sits forever in the queue, his food likely gone cold, him probably steaming mad. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s studying. Maybe he’s overworked, exhausted, falling asleep on the couch, if he has a couch, while waiting for supper.

And I…I have crafted a version of events that make me feel damn guilty.

So I go pick up his sub despite his “Dana Utepi need not apply” message.

He stares at me, his hazel eyes all owlish and the stubble on his face like gloomy prickles of death. “What are you doing here?”

I probably deserve that. In fact, when I look down at the bag in my hand I can’t even find it in myself to be angry. “Guess your wish didn’t work.”

He sighs and collapses against his door frame, his fingers softly rubbing together as if to wipe away the graphite stains drawn across his skin. “I wish Dana Utepi was never my Dasher again. Did I get that right? Have you spit in my food?”

“Of course not,” and I do not hide my affront. “I’m only here because no one else snatched up the order and I worried you’d go hungry.”

“You were worried about me?” The half-hearted smile says he doesn’t much believe me.

“What kind of a person do you think I am? If my arm wasn’t in this sling I might have smacked you upside the head for that comment.”

“That’s what kind of person I think you are. The kind who casually displays violence against strangers.”

“I didn’t mean it. I was figuratively talking about what I would have liked to do.”

The look he gives me says that my defense isn’t much better.

“Okay.” Now I scowl, more because I don’t know what to do about my frustration anymore. “I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a move to plan and job applications to fill out because I want to get out of this bastard of a town. Take your food. Have a good night. Bye.”

But he doesn’t take the bag. So I stand there like an idiot holding out this condensation-heavy bag so that it hangs between us like some metaphor hovering over both our heads.

When he finally reaches out, he turns his hand sideways and slips his fingers through the hole in the bag to grip me in a pseudo-complex-not-quite-handshake. “My name is Donovan Lin. Nice to make your acquaintance, Dana Utepi.” He pulls away, taking the bag with him. “Want to come in for a cup of coffee? Or a beer? Or, hell, I learned how to make tea if you’d like some flavored sugar-water.”

“Sugar-water?” I gasp in mock outrage, some of the prickling frustration that had been beginning to sting at my eyes fading. Then I follow Mr. 3C at Song View into his apartment and he doesn’t even attempt to murder me after all my obnoxiousness. That’s magnanimous of him.

We end up sharing his huge meatball sub (not a euphemism) and he shows me his comic panels about poor kids who become superheroes while struggling to put enough food on their tables. Then he waxes on about his worries that they’ll never sell. He mentions his mom and how she’s so hopeful he’ll be an amazing success, and he doesn’t want to disappoint her.

I change the subject to our favorite movies to cheer him up because he’s speaking too much sense, and that leads to us watching an old Batman movie, which I find ironic given the subject matter of his comic, but I don’t tell him so. After that, it’s some time after eleven and we fall into a talkative state as we raid his barely-filled freezer for the dredges of ice cream.

That’s when the conversation lands on topics best left out of first dates, like slavery and wish-fulfillment, and okay, I stomp around crying out about the absolute injustice over having my entire life upset because someone (not naming any names) only ever thinks in terms of their own selfish desires and never for the people around them.

“Why don’t people ever casually wish for peace? For health? For safety? Is it too much to ask that I hear wishes for me to have any of those things? ‘I wish you a good day.’ See how easy that is?”

From where he’s curled sideways on the couch, Mr. 3C at Song View nods along, stubble rubbing against the cushion.

“No! Those are things they only think about after the fact, after they’re lost.” I ignore the fact I hadn’t even considered my own personal freedoms until they were yanked from me because, quite frankly, I don’t find it fair. It’s not as if my wishes are ever truly mine.

“It’s always ‘I wish the weather was always perfect for me.’ ‘I wish that someone would fall in love with me.’ I wish, I wish, I wish that the whole world revolved around me, me, me!” Then I dramatically collapse in one of his broken armchairs with all the grace of a prima ballerina. At least that’s how I envision it.

“I wish I could fix it all for you. I really do.” He looks it too, the sleep gone from his eyes though he now has graphite smudges along his hairline where he’d been rubbing.

“I don’t want you to fix it. I want you to stop fucking things up in the first place.”

“One in fifty, right?” He doesn’t even let me answer before he begins to repeat, “I wish Dana Utepi to be happy and successful” ad nauseum. It almost becomes a song as he repeats it over and over and when I cover my face and my embarrassed laughter, he slips those stained fingers of his over mine and peeks behind my hand.

This is where things are supposed to do the “big change,” right? Where I say happily ever after! That Dana Utepi no longer has to dash to deliver food, where she successfully moves to her new college, where she gets amazing grades and lands a dream job after graduation.

But…none of that happens.

My apartment falls through, something about them not receiving the wire transfer. My car decides that the accident really was life-threatening, at least for it, and only after I’d spent the money to fix the backend. And then I have to get surgery on my arm in order to make sure I don’t have future issues. I’m going to be swimming in bills and I don’t have any way to pay them.

All I really have is a new boyfriend to show for all those wishes for Dana Utepi to have a happy and successful life.

A new boyfriend named Donovan Lin who happens to have a friend living in Salisbury who happens to have just lost their roommate.

A new boyfriend with a graphic novel about working-class superheroes that goes to auction with enough of an advance he buys me a cheap replacement for my car as an unbirthday gift.

A new boyfriend who drives me to and from my surgery appointment and makes me the grossest soup I’ve ever tasted before using Grubhub (on pain of pain) to fetch something far more palatable.

A new boyfriend who, while I lay beside him in bed, all groggy from painkillers, I realize wished to be able to fix all my problems for me. Right before he’d wished for me to be happy and successful over and over and over.

One in fifty.

Sometimes it’s the casual wishes that ring truest.

Half-asleep and snuggling closer to him, I think about taping his stupid mouth closed. Might be the only way to keep these wishes we must fix from tumbling haphazardly out of it. Otherwise, we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about removing the word “wish” from his vocabulary. Permanently.


© 2022 by Marie Croke

2600 words

Author’s Note: Casual wishing is a dangerous pitfall, because, not only does it shift our focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have, but those wishes, whether we realize or not, can affect everyone around us. We can’t all win the lottery, sell the story, win the game, so if you do, that means others had wishes that likely didn’t come to pass. This story came from reminding myself to be thankful my own casual wishes have not all come true, because that means a different wish has come true for someone else.

Marie Croke, a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, has had stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dark Matter Magazine, and Cast of Wonders, among other fine magazines. She lives in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. You can find her book recommendations online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #83A: “Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith

Content note (click for details) Content note: eating disorders

The wifi is out in Scylla’s cave. The four dog heads around her waist whine as she scutter-paces, twelve feet tapping on the cave floor. Scylla wants to check her email. She wants to see if that jerkface troll is still active on the disordered eating board she moderates, and catch up on her feeds, and check the status of her latest online orders, and all the other things she has in her morning routine these days. She stares with half her heads across the water, three long necks stretching toward the mouth of the cave. She is trying to be subtle about it.

She won’t bother Charybdis for this. They used to go for years not speaking—decades sometimes! —and Charybdis loved that silence. She is the ultimate introvert, on her little island of rock. Scylla can wait. It’s fine. She’s had time beyond measure to work on patience.

Across the strait, Charybdis squints against the sun at the restless shadow in the cave. She peels herself off the rock and undulates over to the shelter where she keeps precious things—carved bone and wood mementos, solar panels and electronics, a tea set for guests. There she delicately pokes the router into resetting with one fin.

The whorling motion in the gloomy cave settles as the lights blink back to green. Charybdis smiles a nearly mile-wide grin and goes back to basking.

This is how they are with each other.

*

They get drone-dropped deliveries, to the rock or the cave mouth. Some things come by crate, floated in on little recyclable rafts that Scylla gleefully pops.

There are no ships. No boats, no tankers, no submarines or skiffs. Not for a very long time. Scylla makes due with copious amounts of fish and protein shakes. The dog heads prefer kibble, but she has standards. She may have ten total mouths, but there’s only one stomach, after all. The kibble is just for special occasions.

She desperately misses eating sailors.

Charybdis has always been a vegetarian. Phytoplankton is her favorite. In copious amounts.

Neither of them really get what they want anymore—the crush crack of wooden ships in the whirlpool, the screams of men. They’ve found better ways to sate their appetites.

*

Scylla’s typing rate is proportional to her fury. Today, she is expressing bone-crunching anger at BroAcles69, the jerkface of the day. She is working on yet another paragraph about why he should be permabanned (and eviscerated, iced, and delivered to her cave in bite-sized pieces, please and thank you) for how he treated vulnerable community members, when a whine from near her hip breaks her concentration. Charybdis is in the mouth of the cave, half out of the water, watching her.

“How long have you been there?” Scylla spits some of her shark teeth into the bucket by her stool, surprised to find it overflowing. She must have been grinding for a while. All six of her necks are tense and whipcord tight.

Charybdis’s voice is a whisper of gravel. “That’s my line.”

Scylla gestures at the screen, all grasping claws and emotion, eloquence lost as she realizes she’s been at this for days now without a break.

“You take it all too personally. You always have.” Charybdis pushes off the ledge and lets the current take her. Scylla notices then that she brought gifts, just like in the old days—there’s a long twist of sturdy rope for the dog heads to play tug-of-war with, and red nail polish in Scylla’s favorite shade. Best of all, there’s a new pair of boots.

She deletes all but the first seven lines of the screed, posts, and turns away from the computer. He doesn’t deserve any more than that anyway. Charybdis is asking her to come back to the world, and there are new shoes to try on. Scylla flexes the tips of two of her tentacles into the right size and shape for the new boots and smiles. She’ll need to find some suitable gifts, too. This volley will not be unanswered.

*

Charybdis is coughing off her rock, retching out the sea again. Scylla sits, twelve bare feet all dangling into the rapidly rising water. She scritches Enki and Adapa between the ears, waiting. The waters will be swirling with powerful currents until sunset. It’s been a while since Charybdis drank down too much and had to purge like this—a long while, honestly.

When Charybdis is done, shriveled and shivering on her rock, Scylla counts slowly to a thousand, and then calls across to her in six-voiced unison over the roaring waters between them. “Snack time, Chary.”

She waves fins in an exhausted but complicated looping gesture. It roughly translates to “Leave me alone, I couldn’t possibly eat, ugh, everything is terrible.”

Scylla smiles toothy grins. “I know. But you need your strength. There’s miso soup and a seaweed salad over near the shelter for you. Just a few bites and I’ll leave you be.”

Charybdis relents and slowly slouches toward the food. They’ve learned over the long ages that having something after the purge helps moderate her appetite. It means the next cycle will be slower, gentler. Anything slow and gentle in this world is to be cherished.

Scylla sucks at moderation, herself. Affectionate extremes, though, she excels at. Behind her, the computer dings repeatedly. She ignores it, watching to make sure Charybdis eats, muttering encouragement under her breaths. The monsters in the world will wait. Her friend is what matters, and today, they’ve got this.


© 2022 by Cislyn Smith

900 words

Author’s Note: I studied classical civilizations in college, and have long had a fascination with the monsters of Greek mythology. When I was presented with the prompt “What does the monster think?” for a writing challenge, it didn’t take me long to fall into the what-ifs of Scylla and Charybdis and their long, immortal relationship.

Cislyn Smith is a speculative poet and short story writer who likes playing pretend, playing games, and playing with words. She calls Madison, Wisconsin home. She has been known to crochet tentacles, write stories and poems at odd hours, and gallivant. Her wordy work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and GigaNotoSaurus, and one of the founders of the Dream Foundry.  She wears a lot of hats both metaphorically and literally.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Cislyn Smith’s story “The Dictionary For Dreamers” has appeared in Diabolical Plots previously.

DP FICTION #82B: “There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians” by Jamie Wahls

I loved her, to my shame.

The language you use is imprecise. Hard for me. Not in the idioms or the metaphors—I have those well in hand—but so many of your words have unknowable secondary emotional charge. I cannot know how they will be received.

I loved her.

I did not lust after her, nor desire to pass time together. We were not friends and we did not speak. She only became aware of my presence once, when I committed a crime beyond measure.

We were not enemies. And our relationship was not one of unilateral longing, in which I pined for her and she found me an irritant, like sometimes happens with human suitors.  She viewed me with confusion, and then, later, wonder.

Many, many years from now, when she understands the crime to its fullness, she will view me with sorrow, and shame.

I loved her beyond all others. That was the sin; that was enough.

 *

 I first saw her when she was a child.

Her ancestors and adults had chosen that humans should live in the forest, so that they might turn the forest into more space for humans and expand their cities. It was understood, but not much spoken of, that many humans would die in the effort. 

Their future generations will reap many benefits from this homesteading—more food, more space, and a general improvement in compassion towards one another, due to less competition for scarce resources. But, yes, these boons would be purchased with human lives. 

I ached to help them, to stop hoarding my finite power and to just solve these problems in a frenzy of creation…but that was the juvenile heroism, self-indulgent and foolish.

My kind considers this meted restraint to be noble. Or—the language is imprecise, but—self-demonstratingly correct? Morally obligatory?

Righteous.

She was in the woods, investigating the innumerable green growing lives nearest to her dwelling. She was especially interested in the lake. She was playing, like human children do.

I was in the woods, investigating the two-hundred-and-two tree copse which was too tightly spaced for tree health and welfare. There iswas a forest fire coming, two years after thisthen, and I was experimenting with moving a single pinecone several tenths of inches in certain directions to see whether in that reality the fire became less damaging to all life, and whether the downstream effects could be managed. 

She wandered through the space I was surveying, and she ran across the lake.

It caught my attention with a spike of alarm, because I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Was this some one-in-a-trillion fluke of surface tension? Was this the work of the Adversary?—but then I perceived the rocks hidden shallow beneath the surface.

Still. It was the first time in several hundred years that I had been surprised, and I found myself watching her while I worked, glancing to her every few minutes.

She was touching the rocks and sticks, talking to them like they were people. She was trying to decide which one was her friend.

I cast my awareness back to her dwelling; I perceived a dozen other rocks there, each different, each smaller than her small hands. I consulted the past; she had collected each of these rocks and called them her friends, though she could not tell them apart from one another.

Her digging in the lakeside had startled a small animal—a frog. It leapt out, startling her in turn as it splashed into the water, and she let out a short, delighted laugh.

I am ashamed to say that her laugh killed billions.

Because it caused me to think, about how different our reactions had been. When I was surprised, my response was sharp anxiety, and a return to my duties.  When she was surprised, her reaction was joy.

This felt…sad.

But ours is to do the noble thing, so my duties called me back, and the child did not disturb me again for days.

 *

I feel contrite and small-embarrassed to be drawing attention to your language, again. I do not mean to be seen as complaining or condescending. It just seems to lack many of the concepts that are most fundamental to my thoughts.

You still do not understand the colossal magnitude of my sin. If you did, my punishment would be death, and every event leading up to now would be scrutinized to ensure that this…butchery-catastrophe-genocide could never happen again.

But I am not sorry for what I did, and that unrepentence, too, is a crime.

I became aware of her again when she began to scream.

I assessed the situation; there were hungry animals in the woods which intended to kill and eat her. I consulted the thenfuture; they will eat her.

I consulted the past. Another of my kind had foreseen this, and seen it was correct. Intervention here would be far too costly; two hundred years in the future it would cause the human Furaha Ife not to be born, and then she would not cure malaria in the year 1938, and then one-hundred-and-five million humans would die before the disease was eradicated.

My duty was to wait and watch the child be killed by wolves. Or, not even to watch—my duty was to continue my work undistracted as the child was killed.

To my shame, and to the human species’ tremendous loss, I found that I could not.

I slowed time as far as I was able, until I could see the animals’ mouth-spittle hovering in the air in little frothy droplets, and the terrified tears in her eyes not yet spilling over. I wondered, spuriously, if the tears would brim over before or after the animals’ fangs were red with her blood.

(I consulted the thenfuture; the answer was during. She would cry while being devoured.)

This outcome was unacceptable.

I began considering all the different vectors of intervention, the myriad small changes I could make that might save her. A pinecone two inches to the left? No. Her friend-rock moved into the wolves’ charge? Little difference; she dies seven seconds later than before, and because the time between the first bite and the killing blow is prolonged, she suffers more.

It is a painful and humiliating truth that the time I am most powerful is always later;I can fell cities with the fall of a sparrow by accident, given a century for the echoes to amplify. But with so little time, I can’t change anything.

Or…

Factually, the situation was not that I couldn’t, but that I wouldn’t.

Or, to be even more precise…mustn’t.

Of course I did.

I manifest into reality with a thunderclap that shattered windows a league away, burning decades worth of power in an instant. Even as the wolves howled in anguish at their bleeding eardrums, I drew my sword, and spread my wings around the girl.

I did not speak, for to hear my true voice would kill beast and girl alike, but I pointed my sword at the wolves, and let the fire flowing off of me turn them aside. I watched as they ran, whimpering, from my presence.

But I consulted the future, and saw: they would just eat her tomorrow.

So I flew after them, and killed them all, one by one.

 * 

For humans, a moment to appreciate joy is something to be celebrated. This is not so, for us.

We are working to create joy, yea, and to allow humans to experience these gratitudes, and happinesses. But these pleasures are not for my kind. 

Any moment we are not performing our duty is a crime: a million humans will die centuries hence for the tiniest imperfection in our work today.

“That’s unreasonable,” you might protest. “That is unsustainable, and does not account for psychology. People need rest, and joy; they are not motivated purely by numbers and duty.”

Before my Fall, I would have smiled fondly, and told you that we are made of sterner stuff than humans.

But I suppose, now, my example is not convincing. 

*

The girl was trembling, awestruck, unable to look directly at me.

She spoke, voice quavering with wonder:

“Did you save me?”

In a panic, I disappeared.       

*

I floated, outside of reality once more, numb with the shock of what I had done.  I knew I should inspect the future, to ensure there was no second group of wolves coming for her…but I couldn’t bring myself to.

Tyrael, my predecessor here—who had assessed the possibility of saving her via raising the temperature of a different lake a fraction of a degree → to bloom more algae → to grow a different fish → to be eaten by a bear → to change the smell of the bear’s droppings → to change the wolf pack’s normal prowl circuit…

My predecessor had foreseen that this subtlest of changes would bruise the work of thousands of years of thousands of us, and steer humanity away from its brightest future on earth and in the stars. It would kill billions and forestall the triumphant time when humanity no longer needs saving. Therefore, the girl must die.

She had not.

And…if raising the temperature of a drop of water by a degree would shatter that…then I, by entering reality and letting the molecules of the air collide with my body and pulling the attention of everyone around with my thunderous boom and killing wolves with my fiery sword…!

What had I just done?

I did not know. I was too afraid to look that far. 

It was a very human failing. 

*

So, steeling myself, I looked to the near past and near future, and I asked the first of two questions:

How was my folly allowed to happen?

My kind is not exempted from our own predictions. A hundred years ago, another of the duty should have seen my moment of catastrophic empathy, and averted it. One of higher rank could have spoken to me, to more firmly remove the juvenile heroism and install correct morals. Or, simpler, someone else could have been assigned here today.

I cast my gaze into the past, and examined my own immediate preceding causality.

There were a few deviations—tiny, tiny things; fluctuations at the quantum level in my second-most-recent place of intervention, an unnoteworthy spot above the ocean. These tiny irregularities certainly should not cause something so grand as all this…!

(My despair and indignation did not convince the universe that an error had been made.)

I traced the fluctuations back in as much detail as I could, and saw the way I was lost—it was clever indeed. There had been no changes to physical reality, for those would have alerted the others of my kind. Instead, all deviations were to me; a hint of a glimmer of moonlight atop the waves had put my thoughts in a different, ruminant direction, without changing my external behavior.

And then when the fatal moment came, and the child laughed, I was slightly more morose and self-pitying than expected.

Perhaps in the original plan, in the way it was supposed to go, I would have heard the child’s scream, and felt empathy, and done my duty unflinchingly. Perhaps I would have burned with shame as she was devoured; perhaps I would have felt nothing. We cannot know; our predictions show us actions, not thoughts…and this is how I was lost.

It was, without doubt, the work of the Adversary. 

Our elders teach us that in the beginning, as we were given this world in stewardship to love and protect, there were two leaders, good and Greater Good.

And good said: “Let us love them, lest we grow callous and fail our duty.”

And Greater Good spoke: “Let us grow callous, lest we give in to love and fail our duty.”

And good said: “What? How can you claim that coldness is better than warmth, that duty is greater than love?”

And Greater Good spoke:  “

And good said: “What?”

And Greater Good spoke: “Love yields better returns in human flourishing for the next  hundred years, but the increased sentimentality it engenders in us significantly damages our efforts and therefore the far-future prospects of the human species.”

And good said: “What?”

And Greater Good spoke: “In addition, any verifiable claims of our existence after the year eighteen-hundred will meaningfully set back their scientific progress and further delay them claiming the rest of Creation and Cosmos as their birthright.”

And good said: “How is cold, robotic duty greater than compassion, empathy, love?”

And Greater Good spoke: “Do you need to see the math again?” 

I was conflicted.

There were those who tried to engage the Adversary in debate, to sway it from its path of madness. But it refused our proofs—and the simplified proofs we provided just in case it was bad at math and being obstinate about it—and many of those who spoke with it at length reported feeling themselves wavering from their duty, so it was not advised.  But it seemed that the weakness had found me all the same.

And with a vengeance, too. I felt a furious resolve, a long-tended hurt for all the people I had been forbidden to save. I had every intent of saving this one thoroughly.

So, steeling myself, I looked to the past and future, and I asked the second of two questions: 

How next will the child die?

Unfolding before me with the cold deterministic clarity of Creation, I saw; infection from an accidental cut at the age of twelve. She is chopping wood and she nicks the side of her leg while trying to get a stuck log off the axe. She dies a week later, of fever and gangrene.

Without thinking, I flicked an aphid onto the tree; the wood will be weakened and that particular knothole will not grow to kill her.

I have bought her only a few years. Now she will die from a bad childbirth, an unlucky combination of genetics causing the baby inside her to wither and die a month before it should have been born.

With increasing determination and anger, I send a gust of wind past the girl, who was still staring slack-jawed at the space I occupied. She starts, and glances in the direction of the wind; and now she will meet that boy two days later and her child will be formed with a more fortuitous sperm.

She still dies. At age twenty six, in the nearby city, when the war comes, she is running bandages to the soldiers and tending to the wounded. She runs back to her fortifications, but rounds the corner too quickly; she is shot in the brain by a terrified and trigger-happy nitōhei second-class. She dies in seconds.

In reading her future, I see that she is brave and selfless and kind. This is terrible news for humanity, because now caring about her feels more justified, and I will hold back even less.

With a snarl, I read the future of the country: why is it going to war?

(How dare this country go to war, if it means her death?)

I see only the usual reasons: a series of small tension-building events along the borders, an offense committed forty years ago that the old humans remember bitterly, and some feelings of personal animosity between the leaders of each country.

I look at the points of intervention nearest me, and move a Trichuris parasite into the small intestine of a nearby deer. Now, when the nobles are eating together sixteen years from now and four years before the war, the foreign dignitary will be too busy shitting worm eggs to get drunk and insult the prince.

I check the child’s future:

She dies in five minutes, from a fiery sword through the heart.

I freeze. 

*

Burning with both shame and righteousness—and a second, renewed shame at daring to be righteous while being objectively wrong—I relinquish my presence in physical reality and greet the one who has come to stop me.

I am alarmed to see the Adversary has come too.

“Ophaliel,” says Tyrael, eyes full of sorrow. It seems to hesitate, for, what can be said?

“Ophaliel,” the Adversary greets me warmly.

I eye it warily. The Adversary has taken a shape that is almost human but not quite; a woman with fiery flowing hair and a kind, gentle face. Her eyes, though, are those of an owl—golden, with no iris, only a vast black pupil in the center.

I do not know why the Adversary chooses to look like this. Perhaps there is some subtle purpose, some payoff that only will be realized a century hence. Or perhaps she merely enjoys it; it is certainly not beyond the Adversary to engage in sinful frivolity.

“Ophaliel, you must stop,” says Tyrael.

Must she?” muses the Adversary. “What will happen if she does not?”

“Then I will kill the human that has caused this corruption,” says Tyrael.

I glance to the girl, who stands frozen behind me, eyes still wide and mouth open in awe. I begin to speak, to say I will not allow this, but the Adversary preempts me.

“Tyrael,” remarks the Adversary conversationally, “if you harm that girl, I will end humanity,”

Tyrael flinches. I flinch too.

“You…” Tyrael is wavering. It seems to find resolve. “Even you would not do such a thing. I will kill the human; we do not compromise.”

The Adversary laughs, and does…something, some impossibly subtle change to the future, and I see humanity discovering atomic energy in nineteen-thirty-two instead of two-thousand-eight.

I see slaughter on an industrial scale. I see mushroom clouds rising where cities once stood.

I see my child living an exceptionally happy and healthy life.

“Stop,” I say, because I am not so corrupted as to find this acceptable. “Put it back.”

“Of course,” says the Adversary, grinning magnanimously. “By all means, undo it.”

I hesitate.

I send my consciousness skirling out over the future, looking for the points I could change. Stop a war here, remove a plague there…

But then I see what the Adversary has wrought.

Looking at the future, I look towards my child’s death. And it…isn’t there.

She will live to be the oldest human…ever. At age one-hundred-and-thirty, she will be a test case for a novel cryopreservation procedure. Fifty years after that, she will be revived with currently incomprehensible medical technology.

And then she just…lives a very happy life, into the far future, for as far as I can see. At least for the first thousand years; I stop checking, at that point.

I return to our meeting.

“Why?” I exclaim, in mixed revulsion and fear. I didn’t know the Adversary was capable of this power or brutality, either one—and why in the name of all that is Good is she doing this to me?

“I found a solution,” she says.

“The solution involves unnecessarily killing billions,” interjects Tyrael.

“No,” she insists, not looking away from me. “I mean I found a solution. To the math.”

And the Adversary— or as she is otherwise known, ‘good’—opened her mouth and spoke:

 “

“What?” I asked.

Two x,” she replied, grinning. “My way is better again. They were only counting our love for humans. We did not love ourselves.”

“You…we…” Tyrael paused, gone still with horror and fury. “You would count the shepherds among the flock?”

“Yes,” said the Adversary, rolling her eyes. “I’m also counting angels as people, in this equation for maximizing peoples’ happiness. We’re clearly capable of happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow…really, given our immortal lifespan, our superior morality, and our numbers—one for every blade of grass—there’s a case to be made that humans shouldn’t even be counted…”

Tyrael was near-shaking with rage.

“A case which I will not press right now,” the Adversary finished smoothly.

“The cost,” I said. “To…let angels be happy. What is it?”

Something flickered across her face then, some shadow of regret. “About ten percent.”

“Of…the population?” I hazarded.

She shook her head. “Of all humans who will ever live; instead, they do not.”

“Oh,” I said.  

*

You understand it now, I think.

The Adversary’s reasons are not my own. Though she acted to ensure the happiness of our kind, she is wrong; our happiness or suffering does not matter compared to our duty.

But even knowing this…to protect my own ridiculous attachment—which I know full well to bear the fingerprints of the Adversary—I have killed innumerable billions of humans.

I know I have committed an atrocity. But I would not do differently, given the choice to do so again.

This is, I am given to understand, how love works.

I am exiled from my kind; I will not tolerate the company of the Adversary; and so, I crave your judgment. 

Did I do good?


© 2021 by Jamie Wahls

3500 words

Author’s Note: (Alternate title of this work: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis) 

So, 2007, there I was—the kind of teenager who gets really into Japanese media—and I was watching an anime music video of Howl’s Moving Castle. I misunderstood the plot to be about an immortal fae prince falling in love with a human woman, and then protecting and assisting her throughout her life, almost without her noticing, while their country descends into war. 

And that just seemed to me like a really noble, beautiful story. Honestly, it was a bit of a letdown to watch Howl’s Moving Castle afterwards—through no fault of its own.

 Jamie Wahls has been published in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Nature (kinda). He was nominated for the Nebula award, received George RR Martin’s “Sense of Wonder” fellowship, and is a graduate of the notorious 2019 Clarion Class, the “killer bees.” His ultraminimalist website can be found at jamiewahls.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @JamieWahls.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Jamie Wahls’s work has not appeared in Diabolical Plots previously, but his story “Utopia, LOL?” was reprinted in The Long List Anthology Volume 4.

DP FICTION #82A: “There’s an Art To It” by Brian Hugenbruch

I approached the mighty gates of Folmaer with holes in my cloak and soot-covered fingers. The road was warm through the soles of broken boots. I could not think of a part of me that did not ache. Still, with rest so close at hand, I could surely turn one more page. A foot moves, one after the other, for twenty years.

Twenty years! It had taken me all this time to find every bookhouse in the Valenthi Empire. The borders expanded as I worked, conquering every city between the far mountains and the Endless Sea. And now, the last one: the greatest one. Folmaer, conquered by the Valenthi not one year ago, held the largest library in the known world. The Bibliothedral—a series of spires said to contain the whole of the human mystery—had accumulated written words for longer than the Empire had existed.

I came to burn it.

I squinted against the rising daylight. Even through the glare, I could see the gates sat open. Song wafted joyously from somewhere within the walls.

I did not fear armies. Armies, I could handle; had handled, in fact. But time and pain had long since taught me to fear the unknown. Every other village, town, or city in the domain of Emperor Hamand IV (all praise his name) had tried to bar my path. Folmaer seemed not to care.

I readied myself to make fire at the first sign of danger.

As I crossed under the portcullis, though, and into the promenade, I found nothing awry. Indeed, men in white robes recited poetry to me as I marched into the central square—spitting couplets and quatrains as fountain water arced behind them, catching the sun brilliantly.

Was this meant as insult?

If I were a younger and angrier man, the one I was when I was made Poemfire all those years ago, I would have scorched them where they stood. It was easier than breathing: a flick of a wrist would have sent gouts of flame to shame the sun. Their villanelles would have been as dust amongst the cobblestones.

Now, the thought made me tired. I’d left too much dust in my wake already.

Still, they knew who I was and what I was there to do: they expected a performance. So I marshaled my strength and grabbed one of the books perched by the fountain’s edge. The orators neither balked nor cried out. They didn’t even try to stop me—though the quatrains trailed off, at least. It was a small favor; not all of them had reasonable pitch.

Curious, I glanced at the page—and then I stared, for only taxes lay there. It was a ledger to the eye, tracking grain and cattle in equation rather than couplet. None of the words they’d spoken; none of their nonsense about comparing love to the sun, or roads to a summer’s day.

“What is this?” I demanded.

“Poetry,” the man answered.

“Are you daft? There’s naught written there but economics.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s an art to it?”

The Emperor, all praise his name, had told me to suffer neither opposition nor insolence in my task to rid his world of poetry. But the man seemed so sincere, so idiotically simple, that I could scarce ignite him out of spite. I let him go, disgusted. He stumbled backward and landed on the cobblestones. I tossed the book at him; it bounced off his head and landed beside him.

All I could think, as I stormed down the broad, tree-lined avenue, was that something had gone horribly wrong in Folmaer. And if I were going to find answers, it would be at the Bibliothedral itself.

The stairs were of a rare kind of marble I knew the Emperor favored. They baked my feet through my boots, though, so I had to step lightly despite my aches. Robe-clad women and men walked in the other direction, curious in a disinterested sort of way.

Memory summoned a thousand pleas for mercy, as they passed. Those cries had gone unanswered. These folks knew me naught.

I found scholars roaming in cool chambers under the vaulted ceilings. Tomes and scrolls surrounded me on shelves higher than the city walls. Sickening. Nauseating. Criminal. I pulled a book from the nearest shelf… and tossed it aside when I found only tables of coin weights. The cover, with its scales and five coins, splayed across the ground. A young man scurried to pick it up, perhaps to rescue the binding; one glare sent him running in the other direction.

The next book I pulled had four coins on the cover, but it tracked funds sent to Valenthi. The one after had three coins: donkey exchanges.

Was I in the wrong building, somehow?

“May I help you, child?” an old woman asked. She wore an ornate robe with nonsense symbols etched onto the side.

“I am Hjarad of Valenthi,” I told her. My voice sounded tired even to my own ears. “The Emperor’s Poemfire. Hamand IV, all praise his name, has ordered all art in his domain destroyed.”

“We know his command,” the librarian said. “All kingdoms he conquers learn to fear it; we assumed it would come for us someday.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t bar the gates, then. No one here seems to care.”

“To be clear,” she answered, “we know who you are. We didn’t bother to scare our citizens. Why would we? What have we to fear?”

I gestured toward the shelves, frowning. “Where is your literature?” I demanded.

“All around you,” she said. “Poetry, sciences… even tomes of magic from Lost Trakkan.”

“…it’s taxes,” I said. “All of it.”

“May we not find the beauty of the world in such?” she asked. “Is not a balanced budget a song in its own right, and a perfect ledger not a sonnet?”

“I am commanded,” I told her, with teeth clenched, “to burn anything that is not taxes.” While Hamand’s decree, initially, had been to turn to cinders all that had once been paper, the Treasury convinced him that the Empire could not survive without accounting. I, and those who followed in my blackened footsteps, never had much trouble finding the books—there was scarcely a territory without a library. The harder part was determining what we might reasonably set alight.

The city of Folmaer, jewel of enlightenment, had been the Emperor’s most recent—and perhaps final—conquest; news of its burning would be the dearest prize I could offer to the man who had pulled me from poverty to do his will. I half-imagined the bed-ridden man clutching at a scrap of paper with the news, feebly, whilst life fled from his fingers.

“By Emperor Hamand, all praise his name,” she agreed.

“You will show me which is which.”

“No.” She took a step back at the look that crossed my face, but she tilted her chin defiantly upward. “I shall not.”

“Burn them all,” a young citizen called over. “I wouldn’t mind not paying taxes.”

My fists clenched by my hip as musical laughter rang around me. I was tempted. By Hamand, I was tempted! I needed but will and tinder, and books provided plenty of the latter. I could not torch the taxes, though—all such had to be moved to safer places ere the rest cindered. Those were my orders. I dared not disobey.

Some smaller towns, especially border villages, raised weapons to try to save their art. I commended their bravery—but I let their corpses burn in the pyres to knowledge. It seemed fair commemoration, and most peasants lost their taste for blood after seeing smoked brains on the cobblestones.

Knowledge could hurt a soul. Hamand’s wars taught me that. I was tired… so, so tired… of knowing the smell of burned flesh.

“How long,” I asked, “have they been disguised as such?”

“My entire lifetime,” the old woman told me. “We created this alphabet when Hamand’s grandfather was young. Your Empire is dull and stupid and hates that which it does not understand; we made ready for this long ago.”

“I could kill and torture your people,” I told her.

She nodded solemnly. “I know. But you don’t want that.”

“I don’t?”

“No. It’s clear from your voice. How long have you burned?”

“Twenty years, and pages without number.” My voice was dry as dust in my ears.

Hers too, it seemed, for her face twisted into what I could only assume was pity. “A long time,” she murmured, “for a fire to burn. I expect, poor child, that the will to do this work left a long time ago.”

I shrugged. It was true. It changed nothing. “Fire,” I reminded her, “does not take break or plead for leave. It burns until it is done.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you know your letters, Poemfire? Can you read these?”

“Yes, of course I do,” I snapped. I was older, though. The rank soldiers of the Empire, who’d been raised without books, were taught naught but slaughter. Their approach to this work was one of far less finesse—and if they were summoned, the conclusion was inevitable: the city would be emptied of all those who dared to conjure untruths—artist or no.

But they weren’t here; I was. And I’d learned enough to know the revenue Folmaer could bring in taxes and trade was desperately needed by Valenthi. All this would bolster an Empire that had burned itself out upon war and conquest. Folmaer sat against the Boundless Sea; there was no one left to conquer, and no one else left to tax. If anyone replaced me, they’d do Hamand’s will… and kill the Empire in so doing.

If I saved Folmaer, I saved my world. They’d forced my scorched hand.

“Well?” the librarian asked. “Are you here to burn something? Or to learn something?”

“How do you know,” I asked, “that I won’t burn your library—hells, your whole city—once I know your ways?”

“We don’t. But if you can read a thousand poems from a thousand cultures,” the woman said, “truly read them, and find nothing worth saving… then perhaps we deserve to be turned to ash.” She smiled gently. “Perhaps our poetry is worth the risk?”

She sounded so smug. I could feel the will to burn rising in me: volcanic fury from far below the bedrock of my being. They could learn what I already knew: the screams, the charnel stench, the sight of bodies melting. The work of twenty years had taxed my soul to ruin. There were no emotions left in my heart to conquer.

But…with a single missive back to Valenthi, I could open my world to something other than carnage. And in so doing … I would preserve all that Hamand had created. Did I dare to disobey him to do his will? Did I dare read a poem to save society?

When I had no ready answer, the old woman patted me on the shoulder. “Get some rest, Poemfire. There is an inn down the street where you may stay. Tomorrow begins your first lesson. It will, I’m sure, pay dividends.”

I turned and stormed out of the Bibliothedral. The gall of their ploy had a certain artistry to it; I had to admire it, even as I seethed. I’d run out of fuel to fight them, and their logic had doused what rage I had left. Still… I could sacrifice myself to art, if it meant saving the Empire. And if it came to pass that soldiers were sent to bring the death I’d declined… this city would have no better ally in preserving the good of the Empire.

Hamand IV (all praise his name) would never understand that. In his youth, he’d also been a man who acted, rather than weighed consequence. Now he lay in his bed, waiting for one last gift. When I wrote back to Valenthi, I would need to weigh my words carefully. He was near to death, and while I was honor-bound to the truth, it could be couched carefully. None knew better than I how knowledge could hurt a soul. My only hope, as I glanced back at the gleaming spires in the center of this strange place, was that knowledge could save a soul, too.

I sought out a quill and began to write a letter that, twenty years ago, I would rather have died than understood.


© 2021 by Brian Hugenbruch

2100 words

Author’s Note: I play a lot with cryptography and steganography at my day job, and I love the idea of finding text and meaning being hidden deliberately.  And after spending too long looking at tax papers, I wondered if I could find a sonnet in there.  I failed, but it seeded a larger idea…

Brian Hugenbruch is a speculative fiction writer and poet living in Upstate New York with his wife and their daughter (and their unruly pets).  By day, he writes information security programs to protect your data on (and from) the internet.  His work has also appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Apparition Lit, and the anthology MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK.  You can find him on Twitter @Bwhugen, on IG @the_lettersea, and at the-lettersea.com.  No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.


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DP FICTION #81B: “Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble

Shanna’s father was psychic on paper. The first time she saw it, Shanna was eight and Dad sent her to the corner store with a list:

  • skim milk
  • barbeque chips
  • Wait ten extra seconds after the light changes at Canal Street and Vine.
  • toilet paper
  • cereal (no sugar!)

It wasn’t that Shanna thought anything would happen. She wasn’t sure she thought much about it at all. She didn’t understand why Dad ate tuna fish with mustard, either, but she mixed it when he asked. Shanna counted (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) as a young woman in squeaky shoes and an older man with a light ring of sweat at his collar jostled around her with twin glares. Even if she’d been crossing, she’d have been in their way: Dad always told her to walk, don’t run. Young Black people running made white folks nervous, and badges suspicious, and it was dangerous enough without that. At four Mississippi, Shanna noticed her left shoe was untied. At nine Mississippi she straightened up from tying a double knot.

At ten Mississippi, the red SUV ripped through the intersection. Squeaky Shoes and Sweaty Collar were on the other side; Sweaty Collar screamed out something Shanna wasn’t allowed to say and called the driver a maniac. Shanna crossed the third item off her list and debated whether Fruity Hoops were a sugar free cereal.

*

Shanna was twelve the first time she was out of school sick. She’d never missed a day before. It was hard to catch something when Dad packed her lunch with notes:

Avoid the water fountain outside gym class today kept her out of the line of fire when Felix Ditmier blew chunks. Switch seats with Carolyn Nettleford moved Shanna to the back of the class the day Mrs. Cho sneezed all over the front row.

“You’re lucky you only have a dad.” Nelson Parks came to walk to the bus with her the day Shanna cried stomach ache. “Moms always know when you’re faking.”

“Did she?” Shanna asked Dad when he checked her temperature.

“She who? And did she what?”

“Mom. Know when people were faking?”

“You need to drink water.”

Shanna let him leave because then she had time to hold the thermometer on her side lamp. When he came back, she worried she’d held it on too long, that Dad would scoop her up and run her to the hospital. She forgot to ask again.

The next day Dad wrote the note:

Please excuse Shanna’s absence yesterday. She was not feeling well, and I decided it best she stay home.

Her legs had the good kind of ache, the one that felt like stretching, when she held the note that had “s” in front of “he.” The one with the name she knew was hers but had never told anyone.

“How did you know?”

“Know what, kiddo?”

Shanna held the note up, paper crinkled in fingers that ached from clinging to it.

“Excuse notes were a thing even back in dinosaur days when I went to school.” Dad’s laugh had just that bit of rumble in it. He kissed her on the forehead. Shanna ran for the bus.

She shook when she handed the paper to Ms Garber in the school office, but Ms Garber glanced at it quick as she did anything, then shoved it in the file labeled with the name that wasn’t Shanna’s and issued the excused absence slip with the file’s name. Shanna had no trouble at all handing over that slip of paper. Because that one would wind up in the garbage, but Shanna was now part of her permanent record.

*

Shanna’s fourteenth birthday card came with a different bus number than she usually took. She had to leave for school early that day, but she didn’t mind after her regular bus broke down in rush hour traffic. Lunchbox notes avoided hallway spills. Valentine’s cards found Judy Edgarton’s pit bull. Whatever the notes said, though, Shanna learned just as much from them about the things people didn’t say.

Judy’s aunt, Ms Sanderson, sidled up to Dad at the bowling alley one league night. She giggled and played with her tawny hair and told Dad to call her Karen. He smiled, but his back locked up when she teased one glittery acrylic nail along his forearm.

Shanna had taken a break from the DDR in the alley’s small arcade and was so focused that Bento and Iria, laughing together on their way back from grabbing drinks, made her jump. They looked the most like twins when they were laughing. It put the same warm flush into their copper cheeks. Shanna didn’t usually like talking to grownups, but the Ramires twins were Dad’s best friends. Bento had even made Shanna flower girl when he married Paul.

“Doesn’t Dad think she’s pretty?” Shanna asked. Okay, they also twinned when that worry line showed up between their eyebrows, as they studied Dad and Ms Sanderson.

“I don’t have a note to give Karen. Did he give you one?” Bento asked Iria. She shook her head.

“What about you, Shanna?”

Shanna never forgot getting a note. “Only thing he wrote lately was the little bits for the homemade fortune cookies we brought.”

Bento and Iria knelt on either side of Shanna. She wasn’t sure if she liked the calla lily in Iria’s perfume more than the leathery musk of Bento’s, but they were both better than the nachos and old hot dogs that filled the rest of the alley.

“I know it’s not the last set, but I think maybe we do dessert early tonight. What do you say?” Bento whispered. Iria gave a wink. Shanna giggled at the conspiracy.

“Fortune cookies?” Shanna scooted up to Dad and Ms Sanderson with the basket. Ms Sanderson wrinkled up her button nose. Dad rubbed his forearm and gave the briefest shiver at the back of his neck.

“Homemade, Karen,” Bento said. “Even the fortunes.”

“Oooh!” Ms Sanderson snatched one from the basket, eyes locked on Dad. “You know what you’re always supposed to add to the end of a fortune?”

“What?” Shanna already knew the naughty version of that. Iria had told her. Which was probably why Iria giggled until Bento nudged her side.

“I … uh, well.” Ms Sanderson blushed and opened the cookie, then frowned. She gave Dad an entirely different kind of look before excusing herself to make a call. The next week Judy told Marianne Bixby how lucky her aunt was for making her mammogram appointment early.

*

Dad’s back locked up the same way later that year, at the science fair. Shanna had been wanting to introduce Dad to Mr. Gonzalez for months. He was her favorite teacher, and not for the reason Grace Hansen said—although it didn’t hurt that he had a lantern jaw and a beard trimmed just so and that lock of thick black hair that sometimes fell into his eyes so he had to blow it out of the way. He was smart and funny and nobody dared pick on anybody in Mr. Gonzalez’s class.

“Hell of a daughter you’ve raised.” Mr. Gonzalez shook Dad’s hand. “And all on your own.”

“Not all on my own.”

“Oh, you have a partner?”

“No he doesn’t.” Shanna put her hand on their still-held handshake. “And neither does Mr. Gonzalez, do you?”

There it was: the lock in Dad’s back and the shiver at his neck. No cookies this time, though, just the paper airplanes they’d folded for her presentation on aerodynamics. Shanna had made sure nothing was written on them. She’d even given the one with random numbers on it to Bento and Paul when they had been helping fold two nights ago.

“I … ” Mr. Gonzalez was even more adorable when he blushed. “My boyfriend and I did separate last year.”

“Jackpot!”

Dad broke the handshake at Bento’s yell from the cafetorium doors. Bento ran in waving a piece of paper with geometric folds all over it. The airplane.

“Bento?”

“I’m confused. And you are?” Mr. Gonzalez’s gaze ping-ponged from Dad to Bento to Shanna.

“Some of the help I was talking about,” Dad said. “With Shanna?”

And if luck holds, the new school board president.”

“You said it cost too much to campaign?”

“16, 42, 8, 29, 63.” Bento waved the paper again, then hugged Dad so hard he lifted him in the air. “A five number lotto win, you beautiful man.”

“Congratulations.” Mr. Gonzalez had his own kind of locked-up look. “I should … I have to go get the kids lined up for their presentations.”

*

No one in the neighborhood knew Mr. Theodore was adopted, but it was a local postmark on the letter that pushed his long lost birth mother to call the day they all thought he’d be objecting to the bathroom policy the new school board enacted.

“I wonder what it’s like,” Shanna said. She and Dad were working on a jigsaw puzzle of Big Ben. Vanilla and brown sugar warmed the air from the cookies in the oven.

“What’s that?”

“Mr. Theodore. Getting to talk to his mom when he thought he never would.”

“Mr. Theodore got to talk to his mom every day growing up.” Dad kept studying the sides of his piece to check for a match in the black and white bits of clock face.

“I mean, his real m—”

“Real is where our hearts live,” Dad said. “Two people decide to raise a child together? They’re parents. Doesn’t matter what bits of goop got together to make the baby.”

Shanna clicked another piece onto the long border line she was building. “Did you and Mom always want a kid?”

The oven timer buzzed.

“Cookies!” Dad hopped up and scooted for the kitchen. “Don’t want to scorch another batch.”

*

When Shanna was seventeen, Mrs. Ditmier got a postcard with a picture of Hawaii on it. The address of her husband’s other wife was scrawled on the back. She handed off the prom committee to Mr. Sanderson, who was more than happy to sell Shanna her ticket, along with a free discount card to his sister’s dress shop.

“Any idea who you’re going to ask?” Dad folded towels on the kitchen table. The air swam with lavender.

Shanna squirmed. The ask was obvious. The answer wasn’t. They liked the same music and lent each other books. They agreed the tie-breaker between Ms Rosenfeld and Mr. Lau for cutest teacher depended on which blouse Ms R wore and if Mr. L had short sleeves that day. None of those were a dance. Shanna busied herself scratching at the little bit of leftover tape where the postcard from Hawaii used to hang on the fridge.

“Did you ask Mom, or did she ask you?” It was always better for Dad to squirm.

“She asked me,” he said.

“And?”

“And what?”

Normally Shanna wouldn’t press. But somehow the prospect of sharing this moment with Dad bubbled up Shanna’s throat until it tumbled out in a frantic surge:

And how did she do it? Were there flowers? Witnesses? How did you feel? What did you wear? Was that the first time you kissed? Did you fall in love right away?”

“Was that the mailbox clanking?” Dad said. “Do me a favor and fetch it? I need to get dinner started.”

The grocery store had a heavy fan that kept bugs out when you walked through the front door. It pushed down on Shanna whenever she walked in, though she couldn’t push back. The silence as Dad got up from the table felt the same.

There was never anything for Shanna in the mail except on her birthday, but she flipped through it all the same. Bill, bill, flyer.

A letter addressed to her. In Dad’s writing.

She opened her mouth to ask, but the clatter of pans and utensils cut her off. She looked back down at the envelope, then scuttled to her bedroom.

Shanna crossed her legs on the bed. Slid a finger under the flap and ripped open the letter. A small key fell out as she unfolded the notebook paper.

Dear Shanna,

I’m making spaghetti for supper. I’ll need you to run to the store for grated parmesan in about half an hour. Until then, check out the lockbox under my bed?

She’d wondered about the lockbox, because she was a girl and not a goldfish. But she also wasn’t a locksmith, and there was only so curious to be about a metal cube. Besides, Dad hid the Christmas presents in his closet, not under the bed.

But notes changed things. Notes saved Shanna from sniffles and stomach bugs and locker room bullies and traffic. And notes lead to updated files, to tickets through a door, to treatment recommendations. To signatures on petitions and revised policy documents. Even when it wasn’t one of Dad’s notes, what got committed to paper shaped the world.

Shanna pinched her nose closed against the hoard of old sneakers Dad kept for yard work under the bed. Hooked the box with three fingers to half slide, half spin it across the bedroom shag into the light. Despite the note, she flinched at the squeak as she turned the key. Dad didn’t come to stop her, or Bento or Iria or Paul. She flipped the latches and lifted the lid.

The envelope said “Shanna” and had today’s date, though the number seven had a line through its middle, which Dad stopped using when Shanna was thirteen and told him it looked like he was punishing it by crossing it out.

Shanna slid her finger more delicately under the flap on this envelope than she had the first. The glue on the seal was old and dried. It didn’t so much rip open as strain and pop. There was a whiff of musty perfume that curled up and disappeared. The paper had curdled to cream over however long it had been inside, but the pen ink—in the same writing as on the envelope—was still dark enough to read.

*

Dear Shanna:

Today you asked how your mother and I got together. I’m sorry I was cross with you. I don’t want to lie to you, but I’ve never been good at saying true things. I wrote it down, instead.

We knew each other, your mom and me, as long as I remember knowing anyone, and the world assumed we’d wind up together. We never felt it, but it was easy letting them write our story that way until we knew how we did feel. And for whom.

The problem with letting everyone else write your story is the way it teaches us to tell each new person’s story as if we know them, too. Mom did that when she met Riley. He had a bright smile and an easy laugh and strong hands. They kept it secret because he was up for an overseas appointment. His PR manager said he should be single or married, but dating would make him look like a gigolo. The secret made it more romantic for Leanne. 

Shanna hovered fingers over her mother’s name. She licked her lips, a salty line along her tongue, and closed her eyes. She whispered the name and hugged the warmth of that inside her. She turned her eyes back to the note before she let herself imagine Leanne’s voice or what names she might whisper.

I helped her cover, even wound up riding along on a few of their dates. Saw the way he didn’t argue when she called it love and snuggled up to giggle plans about the future, her fingers laced in his, a knot both tender and fast. Maybe he was like us. Maybe it was easier to fall into the story Leanne spun. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, so it was quite a story to be told. Maybe she could even have been part of it. It was not, however, a story he could tell with an unwed pregnant woman on his arm.

Leanne and I, though. Everyone already thought we were together. Thought we would always be together. Would it be so bad, she asked (when she could talk again without hitching sobs stealing her voice), if we were?

I didn’t answer that night. Didn’t say I couldn’t be the man she wanted. That she didn’t know me all the way through, because I’d kept that from her the same as anyone else. My heart doesn’t live there, in a world that yearns for clasped hands and whispered devotions and the tender caress of another.

It was too important, now, to keep hiding from her. But my throat closed up and my tongue swelled shut too tight to make the very first A sounds, let alone say asexual and aromantic. I decided to write it down. People talked all the time, but they listened when it was down on paper. Only, when I sat down, what I wrote was “This is the last year you will have with Leanne, and you won’t regret anything as much as if you abandon this time to fear.”

I showed it to your mom, and that’s how I found out I wasn’t the only one holding a secret from the other. She swallowed, loud. Took my hands in her shaking own. Told me it was true. As was everything I wrote after. Lists and notes and cards, all of it told us the truth even if we didn’t want to read it.

She did, your mother, want to read it. Especially about you. I told her I couldn’t promise it would shine with hope and joy, that ever since that day I couldn’t write a thing that wasn’t true. I didn’t want her to despair in the end if it all came out wrong.

“When the baby is born,” she insisted. “When there’s no more going back, I want to see everything that’s ahead, good or bad. If I were here I’d see it all anyway, but I won’t be here. Least I can do is to leave knowing. Promise you’ll have it for me.”

When she finished feeding you the first time, when we signed the paperwork that claimed you ours, she asked for it. In between feedings and diapers and her own coughing fits, she read what I had written. Read giggles and first steps and tantrums. The story of scraped knees and fights and fears and heartache, but also victories and triumphs and a community which was sometimes confused but always had a heart. I had written until my wrist was sore and the side of my hand stained with ink. Written more than I even remember, but know it was true, because I wrote her the story of you, and you are the truest person I know.

We buried it with her. I wrote it about you, but for her. So she could leave knowing, and we could be left to live it instead.

Now it’s Mom’s turn.

*

Shanna turned the last page over, holding her breath, but there was nothing written there by her mother. Nothing else in the envelope.

In the lock box, a single, faded piece of paper remained: her birth certificate. There was Mom, and there was Dad, but she flipped it over to dismiss the third name, the one that wasn’t hers, which is when she saw the name that was: Shanna. The S ballooned on its top half and flattened on its lower. The A‘s had that fancy curlicue on top like when you were typing. Handwriting that wasn’t Dad’s from then or now.

Under it, in that same style, said I don’t have your father’s gift, but I promise this is true: knowing the future doesn’t make you brave. Or strong. Or safe. Facing it is the way to have that. Mom.

*

Shanna let Dad drag himself out from a deep dive in the fridge. He gave a huff and slammed the door. He took in breath to call out, turning toward the door, when his eyes fell on the cracked cream letter dangling in Shanna’s hand. Whatever he was about to say lost steam before he voiced it. His lips thinned, the creases on the side of his mouth deepening. The plop of simmering sauce filled the space between them.

“Grated parmesan?” Shanna asked. He hadn’t let out his breath until it rushed from him now. He opened his mouth, closed it. Nodded.

“We might be out,” Dad said.

“Won’t take a second to run down the street.”

“Walk. We don’t run.” Dad turned back to the pot on the stove.

Shanna folded the letter from the lockbox, stuffed it in her back pocket. She stopped half a step outside the kitchen, spun on her heel, and leaned back in the doorway.

“I’m going to ask Trini Walters to the dance,” she said. Dad smiled into the bubbling sauce.


© 2021 by Jaxton Kimble

3500 words

Jaxton Kimble is a bubble of anxiety who wafted from Michigan to Florida shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed. He’s still weirded out by the lack of basements. Luckily, his husband is the one in charge of decorating — thus their steampunk wedding. He has far too many 80’s-era cartoon / action figure franchises stored in his brain. His work has appeared previously or is forthcoming (as Jason and Jaxton) in Cast of Wonders, It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility, and previously in Diabolical Plots. You can find more about him at jaxtonkimble.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Jaxton Kimble’s fiction has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” (as Jason Kimble).