DP FICTION #93B: “Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer

The zone we drop into is softer than the digger likes, so the foodies lead the way from the start. Three, for a heavy crew, each of us with our own technique. Fold murmurs mantras aloud, rhythmic repetition, the crunch of crust, the crunch of crust. The new hire is next, silent, head down, hands clasped. Maybe looking at videos in her visor. I do best with just the drugs. No distractions. I imagine the salty rice-paste crust of tiger bread, capture the smell, the taste, the texture of the craggy shell, imagine biting down to yes, the crunch of crust. I want it. I focus on wanting it. The soft, steaming inside is good, I spare a thought for it, but what’s important is the crust.

The digger rolls forward. The surface under its tracks has become hard and craggy, salty fired rice paste over a crust like a geological formation. It crunches, flexing as it bears the digger’s weight, but it holds. The machine roars onwards and we follow, foodies and mercs and techs, ants at a picnic. Onward, into the Bake.

The digger is mining gear, obviously, but the business end is custom. Rock drills would just churn uselessly—instead, claws scoop and gouge, crimping and pelleting. We advance in a torchlit tunnel of pressed dough, waste material dumped as wadded dumplings behind us. Far back along our trail of flares, away from the foodies, the hard crust floor softens back into the same material as the tunnel walls, spongy, yielding, always edible. One by one, our lights are swallowed up. This is the default terrain, the ur-substance of the Bake. Bread without end.

We assume some things about the original Bakers. We assume they are dead. We assume they were extremely advanced, at least in certain areas. They were ambitious, explorers, visionaries. And when their extradimensional adventures brought back the micro-organisms we now misclassify as some sort of cosmic cousin to yeast, we assume they engaged in scientific study before they tried to make a loaf of bread with them.

Maybe not. We do assume they were human.

The digger breaks through into an air pocket. The foodies pull back and the two mercenaries come forward, point flashlights and guns into the warm cavern. All clear. Techs poke lasers inside, take readings, somehow use the hollow to get a better fix on the signal we’re following. Exactly what that signal might be is none of my business, and I’ve been paid enough to keep my guesses to myself. Four years ago a deep explorer team found a single glove embedded in a dough cyst. I’ve seen pictures. It didn’t look like much. That oven mitt went on to inform the development of a material so impervious to harm it changed the course of two corporate wars. A shame Bakelite was taken..   

 I reinforce the crust beneath our gathered weight, concentrating on the range of textures and taste, stray crystals of salt, the savoury flare of burn marks. The Bake obliges, forming new layers as I imagine them. As the ground shifts and hardens with my thoughts, there’s still a tiny thrill, the rush of shaping our environment with mere whim. I—we, with the other mission-critical foodies—we are as gods (within a four to six metre radius, and assuming our desires do not extend to a substance not generally defined as a baked good).

And then I smell apples.

It takes me by surprise. Just for a moment, the infinite yeasty funk of the Bake parts and I smell roast apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar. Bubbling jam seeping up around a burnt crumble topping.

The digger tilts slightly. One balloon tyre is suddenly sinking into molten crumble, oozing caramelizing fruit sugars. I jerk in surprise, bite my tongue. The pain helps empty my mind. It’s over in a second as the other foodies blot it out and there’s nothing but plain, structurally sound breadcrust under the digger’s wheels. I’m not sure anyone even noticed. My heart pounds in my throat.

I haven’t had a blip like that since basic training, never so completely without warning. I glare at the others from behind my visor. Fold and the newbie seem occupied. The techs bustle. The mercs watch. Maybe one of them’s a latent foodie. If they’re not taking their appetite suppressants, it could happen…but this is denial, because that wasn’t just pie. That was my pie.

We cut a path around the air bubble and press on. I keep us on tiger bread without incident. When our signal begins to fade, the techs unload a sensor pod. It has to be sunk into the ground, trailing a line as an aerial, so we all wait around as Fold constructs a custard pit. His specialty. A bead of sweat rolls down his chin as he mutters, dropping into the expanding, bubbling yellow hole by his feet. The yellow of yolk, the yellow of yolk. The Bake is obliging, but liquids are a grey area. Technically I think he’s invoking a single, lidless custard pie, four metres tall, half a metre across. God knows how he trained that one. The techs poke the pod under the custard with a pole, paying out cable as it sinks.

I crunch over to the new hire. She’s tall but somehow fragile-looking despite the bulky environment suit, standing apart from the techs and the blank-masked heavies. Like Fold and I, her helmet is open at the nose and mouth, air supply washed across her face, so as not to obstruct her sense of smell. The air in the Bake is more breathable than you’d think.

“I didn’t introduce myself in the shuttle,” I offer. “I’m Clipper.”

“Victoria. Vick.” She scratches distractedly at the corner of her mouth.

“Been doing this long?” I persist, because otherwise my only conversation on the expedition will be Fold. The rest of the crew keep foodies at arm’s length, and Fold’s relentless mysticism is probably why.

“Not very,” Vick allows. “Little trips. This is the biggest.”

A research group, probably. There is something oddly familiar about Vick, and I wonder if we’ve crossed paths before. “How are you finding it?”

“It’s fine,” she says. “No surprises.” She casts around for something to say. “The suits are better than I’m used to. Not too hot.” Another awkward pause. “I get very chapped in the heat.”

The suits are excellent, full-body cooling coils instead of the usual back-and-wrist pads. From the action-movie stealth shuttle that dropped us off, to the cutting-edge apparatus currently settling into custard, this is easily the most expensive expedition I’ve ever seen. I don’t come cheap myself, and neither does Fold. So I take Vick’s inexperience with a pinch of the salt that I’m imagining, glittering on that thick, supportive crust.

“Always good to hear someone from the old country,” I say, suddenly realising what’s so familiar. The drugs make you tune out things that aren’t food. “You don’t meet a lot of Scots in this line of work.”

She looks confused.

“The accent,” I press. “You could be from my town, even. You grew up near Inverness, right?”

“Oh. Yes. I guess so,” she says. “I’ve never thought about it much.” She goes back to picking at her mouth. It is indeed starting to peel.

“Try closing your eyes really tight.” I say. She looks confused again. I point at her mouth.

“The itching, right? It’s always the same in these suits, soon as they seal you up you gotta scratch. So you go to town on the only bit that’s exposed. Classic displacement. Scrunching my eyes up always helps me.”

She lowers her hand and looks at me for a little too long.

“Thanks.”

We’re moving on before I can prise any more conversation out of that. The new heading is somewhere far below us, and the drill doesn’t work as well at sharp inclines. I transmute the material ahead of it to speed our passage, swapping spongey bread for the lightest, flakiest pastry I can imagine. It shatters beautifully as the digger comes crashing through, great sheets of buttery rough puff obliterated under our boots. Fold stabilises the crust, while Vick anchors safety lines along our trail with caramel. Her creations are quick and perfect, clean little discs of sizzling sugar, ringed with delicate short-crust.

I end up next to Fold as the crew ready the digger for another switchback turn. Vick is further back, busy with some detail work.

“What do you make of the new girl?” I ask quietly.

Fold shrugs, still muttering.

“The crunch of crust. Not much yet. A prodigy, I heard. Rising star. The crunch. Some little science group. A few months back. Of crust. Out of their league, I think. The Bake clearly favours her. The crunch-“

“Mm. She’s good. Surprised I haven’t heard of her before now, really.” Trained foodies aren’t so rare we don’t need to keep tabs on the competition.

“She’s new. But I take great interest. The crunch. In experiences like hers. Of crust. And yours—very similar, you know. The crunch. She was found. A wanderer in the dark.”

“Shit.”

The memories heave up, but the drugs keep them at arms’ length. More than a decade old now, early in what would become my career. The Bake was a relatively new discovery, its mechanisms still barely understood, and I was there with a group of explorers, trying out my newfound status. They didn’t even call us foodies then, I was an Extradimensional Operations Special something-something, and when I stepped through a pastry shell and fell thirty metres into darkness, that was what they put on the death certificate. But the Bake is soft, and it’s not like I was going to starve.

“I was thinking,” Fold says. “I understand your reluctance. Crust. To talk about your. Crunch. Your ordeal. But perhaps, perhaps you could encourage her to talk to me-“ He suddenly jerks in surprise. “Clipper!”

I smell almonds, marzipan, sickly sweetness. The tunnel around me is a chessboard, a grid of pink and yellow squares emerging from undifferentiated bread. Marzipan is forming underfoot, apricot jam oozing up.

I have never trained on Battenberg cake. I’ve never even made one. Too sweet. But when I was six I stole one, didn’t like it, and hid it under my pillow for a week, forcing down daily bites out of a vague notion that this was the ethical way to dispose of it. The cake coming out of the wall has flecks of hair and fluff. I know exactly how it tastes, the strange cardboard chew of stale marzipan.

Far down the tunnel, Vick is staring at me, face hidden by her helmet lights.. Her sense of smell must be incredible.

“Crust!” snaps Fold. I startle out of my reverie and focus. Between us the Bake reforms in a moment. A couple of techs are looking. One of the mercenaries strolls over.

“Everything all right here?” she asks. Her suit whirs softly as she inspects us. The heavies wear powered frames over the environment gear. Even with her rifle slung amicably on her back, she could literally pull my head off. She might, if it came to it. A foodie in a meltdown endangers the whole team.

“Yes, yes, of course. Testing the resonant depth, overlap times—” Fold brushes her away with a mouthful of nonsense. She nods and leaves us to it. Artists get the benefit of the doubt.

Fold leans close as the digger gets rolling again.

“Not like you.”

“It’s not,” I agree.

“Is there going to be a problem?”

“No.” But there is. I have no idea what’s happening. I am sharp, I am focused, I am specifically and carefully drugged. I am sure, absolutely certain, that no part of my subconscious was dwelling on stale cake, nor on that apple pie; made for my first crush, shared with her boyfriend. And yet.

I’m waiting for it to happen again as we press on. I double-check every crumb I lay down, roll the imaginary flavour around my mouth. I lean on my aids more than usual, calibrating for every little trick and amuse-bouche. I’m sure Fold notices. I bridge gaps with mooncakes, raise baguette buttresses. No problem. There continues to be no problem right up until the monster.

Even if our own universe- the one with the Earth we’d recognise—was the only player in pan-dimensional exploration, things would still get crowded in the Bake. It’s a lucrative dimension, whether you’re strip-mining bread or salvaging Baker tech, and while the Bake itself may be infinite, the entrances that we’ve found come out pretty close together. Even on an expedition like ours, so far off the beaten track, you can’t be sure who’s been out here before you. And we are not the only universe here.

A tech shouts something. Jaws come through the tunnel ceiling, a short way back from the digger. Black plates slide and click around a mess of scrabbling hooks, scything blades longer than my arm. Blank eyes gleam wetly.

One of the techs is snatched up, scream muffled in his suit. I fall to the ground and scramble under the digger as the heavies let loose. The gunfire is apocalyptic in the tunnel, even through my helmet, rattling thunder through my teeth. Fluids spatter. Fold is standing, advancing even, arms up like a wizard casting a spell. He’s shouting something.

We’re not sure which of the many Earths to visit the Bake is the monster-maker. We call them weevils. Probably they are not meant to eat people. Best guesses and traces of harness have them as engineered burrowers, faster than our mechanical digger—but no-one has ever found one with its team. Perhaps these feral remnants are all that’s left, abandoned by a world with more on its plate than infinite bread.

The weevil bellows. The digger rocks. I curl into a tighter ball and shut my eyes.

The darkness is waiting for me.

***

After the fall, as Fold puts it, I wandered. I walked in dark places. My suit battery died in two days and I assumed I’d follow shortly. I was always on the brink of choking. Any exertion brought on spiking headaches, neon pain against the black. I walked blindly in the tunnels of ancient explorations, following the soft walls with my fingers.

In the absence of light, it is hard to know when to eat. I discovered early on that the Bake could provide fresh fruit—sliced, as a pastry topping—so that was my water. My nutrition came with my moods, fistfuls of dough clawed from the walls, or great blind feasts, every baked good I could think of, until something switched over and I was weeping and gasping for air over a heap of latticed pies. Sometimes I heard weevils. Once, I think I stumbled into Baker ruins, crumpled and swallowed by expanding bread. I spent a long time there, feeling my way through caverns that might equally have been ovens or blast chillers. I remember a confusion of scale beyond the demands of industry–stacked trays the size of swimming pools, a countertop the height of my chest and three thousand paces long. I have never been able to locate these again, though they should have been unmissable. Probably they shifted, tumbling in the infinite like the lucky coin in a pudding. Of course, I spent a lot of time going crazy.

I devised and judged grand challenges for myself. At first I set rewards for milestones; a perfect semolina cake, for which I would allow my favourite childhood brownie. Later, these became punishments; sleep when you get it right. Drink when you get it right. I tried so hard to produce a flambé for light—cherries jubilee, or pudding—but it never worked no matter what I threatened. I think it failed because I couldn’t imagine the taste of fire.

I learned a lot. Eventually, it no longer felt like learning—it felt like teaching, like a conversation. Here is what I want. Here is what it means to me. I poured out my life in the only language the Bake might understand. The pie for my crush, the stolen cake, my nana’s cornbread. In my least lucid moments I walked with and within a vacantly smiling god, a vast benevolence made cruel only by the scale and indifference of its kindness. It would want me to be happy, if only it knew what I was.

Or something like that. I want to be clear; I was half-dead, completely unhinged. Fold comes out with this stuff sober.

Once I heard another expedition, machine and human noises, high above but too muffled to pin a direction on. I dug with my hands to reach them, but they moved on too fast. I remember wishing, desperately, that one of them would fall like I had. This was the point I had reached- I had forgotten to hope to escape. I just wanted someone to share it with. Just one person, I pleaded, that would be enough. Someone to relate to, to swap notes with. We would talk to the Bake together. Then maybe I could get that flambé.

Seven months after people stopped looking, a survey team for one of the big harvesters found me on the outskirts of their newest claim. I remember the pain of light, and being confused. Where were we going? I had nearly perfected meringues…

***

The gunfire has stopped. The digger is still. Little by little, I unfold and extricate myself.

Smoke and alien gore wind through the stench of bread. The mercenaries stand unharmed, barking commands and pointing. There seem to be as many of us as we started with, though medics are earning their keep, dressing wounds, strapping an arm. Even the tech who was grabbed is still here somehow. He groans as they cut his suit open, dousing his wounds with trauma foam.

The weevil’s corpse sprawls half into the tunnel, a glossy tangle of limbs and hooks. Yellow ichor has spattered in all directions, bringing a sweet popcorn musk. Fist-sized holes riddle its carapace. What remains of its head is locked in a pillar of pecan brittle, while its largest limbs are fused into caramel, trapped between soda-bread stalactites. Mounds of giant bao buns are slowly subsiding—sandbags, to protect the digger.

The heavy from earlier says something approving to Vick, claps Fold on the shoulder. She turns away when she sees me, I assume in contempt.

“Well. You two were busy.” I say. Vick says nothing, just looks at me, still picking at her face.

“Horrible creatures,” says Fold primly. “Were you injured?”

“No. Just uh, got thrown a bit. Good work on the brittle there, who was that?”

Fold coughs pointedly. I look down. A dense yellow crumb is spreading out around our feet, pockets of cheese leaking to the surface. I know what it is before I even catch the smell; my nana’s cornbread. I barely remember her face, but this I know.

I don’t have much left in me to react with. A wave, a thought, it’s gone. Fold jerks forward.

“Get it together,” he hisses. “Right now.”

“It’s not me!” I snap.

“Bullshit. Has your focus run out? I have refills—“

Vick puts her gloved hand on my arm. It’s so strange that we both stop to stare at her. Her mouth is getting worse.

“Listen,” she says. It’s not clear who she’s speaking to. Fold tilts his helmet at me.

“It’s not me,” I say. “They’re from me, they’re my memories, but I’m not bringing them up.”

“So how—“ Fold begins, and then I’m telling them about the dark. Not everything, but enough.

No one interrupts. Behind us, the expedition pulls itself together. A stretcher is assembled, munitions are counted, equipment is dusted off and redistributed. There’s a long way yet.

Fold looks hungry when I stop.

“A lasting connection,” he says. “Response beyond immediate reaction.”

“I guess so,” I say.

“But that was years ago. So something has changed.” He puts a hand on the tunnel wall. “Perhaps it’s finally reaching out, the only way it can. Perhaps it’s trying-”

“The Bake doesn’t want anything, Fold.”

“You know that’s not true,” he says. “It wants to nourish us, to give us what we want. Food has always been the way to bring people together. What peace there could be, if only—”

“I was alone!” I yell. “Choking and alone in the dark! All I wanted—the Bake doesn’t care what we want! It doesn’t even know!” People turn. I don’t care. “You think it’s a god? Go pray to it yourself. You know the way.”

The weevil’s entrance hole reflects in Fold’s visor. Beyond the jagged body is darkness, mile after mile of crisscrossed burrow, down into eternity. Fold smiles.

“Perhaps I will.”

He turns and walks back to the expedition, raising a fresh crust as he goes. I go to follow him, but Vick catches my arm again.

“It cares, you know,” she says. “The Bake does care. But some prayers take longer to answer.” She picks at her flaking cheek again, then, in one deft movement, pinches the pale flesh together, kneading it smooth with the heel of her hand. In a moment, her skin is flawless. She smiles. Her lips are blushed marzipan.

As she too walks away, rich currant pudding pools in her bootprints, quickly disappearing. Before it does, it flickers with purple flame.


© 2022 by Phil Dyer

3600 words

Author’s Note: A loaf of bread with a sufficiently ‘open crumb’ is full of bubbles which often link together, forming tunnels and alien cave systems. I enjoy sci-fi expeditions into dark places, but these doomed ventures often subsist on vague but unpleasant ‘rations’, if food is mentioned at all. That would probably keep me off the team. I was moved to make a case where being way too into what you eat is a valuable, practical asset.  

Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool, where he appears to have settled for now. He has firm opinions about food, games and seagulls. Loves the outdoors, but wouldn’t live there. His stories have appeared in BFS Horizons, Aurealis, and once before in Diabolical Plots. He can be found on twitter as @ez_ozel . 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Phil Dyer’s work has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots with “Everyone You Know Is a Raven” in January 2021.

DP FICTION #93A: “The Restaurant of Object Permanence” by Beth Goder

Kazia files a folder of correspondence and closes the manuscript box. She leaves the archives as the sun is setting. Her head is filled with the collection she is processing, the papers of Elgar T. Bryce, noted American biologist. For eleven years, she has worked as an archivist, arranging and describing the papers of scientists, economists, and professors. She loves the quiet of the archives, the way folders line up in a processed box, tangible history in her hands.

Outside the archives, there’s a strange flyer on the bulletin board. The first thing she notices is the paper, a small blue square, probably acidic, attached to the board by the thin metal line of a staple not yet turned to rust. It’s an invitation to the Restaurant of Object Permanence. To go, one is instructed to eat the flyer.

She pulls the paper from the board and swallows it in one bite.

***

The Restaurant of Object Permanence is brightly lit, each table under a spotlight. Although four chairs surround each table, every diner sits alone.

Before Kazia are two objects, a worn work boot and a bracelet drooping with dainty emeralds. Kazia recognizes the items immediately. She picks up the boot, Misty’s favorite toy. A wave of memory washes over her—throwing the shoe (which first belonged to Kazia’s father), Misty’s tail wagging, sunlight streaming through the oak in their backyard.

The bracelet was a graduation gift from her grandmother, lost in a move a decade ago. She has not thought of these things in years, but now that they are before her, she feels tenderness for them, like light touching a place long dark.

The woman at the next table has a merry-go-round figurine and a black rock. She ingests the merry-go-round, which shrinks to fit perfectly into her mouth. The look on her face is a mix of sorrow and wonder—a version of nostalgia. The door to the restaurant opens. The woman leaves.

Kazia looks at the boot and bracelet, both a promise of memories renewed. Also, escape. To leave the restaurant, she must eat.

Carefully, she puts both objects to the side. She has never liked limited, binary choices—so little in the world reflects this structure. If this is a restaurant, she should be able to order what she wants.

“Book,” she says, experimentally. A Wizard of Earthsea appears before her. Not just any copy. She’d recognize the scratch on the cover anywhere. When she was eight, she bought the book at a garage sale and devoured it in one sitting. Since then, she has believed in the true names of things. This belief carries over to her work, where she tries to divine descriptions for archival documents.

All three objects sit before her, waiting for her to choose.

She loves them all in different ways, but she is reluctant to eat any of them. What sort of gift is the past? Is this a gift at all, or a responsibility to remember?

She wonders what will happen if she orders something intangible.

“Determinism,” she says. All these choices have made her think of free will, and that competing philosophy, determinism—the idea that all our actions are predetermined, the inevitable consequences of the motion of particles tracing back to the birth of the universe.

Perhaps, she thinks, determinism will manifest as a rendition of the Big Bang, some strange tableau. However, what appears is a black bowtie with a broken clasp. The one Adrian left behind, in the apartment that used to be theirs. All at once, she remembers herself, at twenty-three years old, crushing the bowtie in her hand. Her past self is wondering how her choices have brought her to this place, and if her choices mattered at all, or if the universe had planned this all along. Her bracelet is gone, a graduation gift from her grandmother. Perhaps it had gotten mixed up with his things.

In the restaurant, she picks up the bowtie, letting the silk run over her thumb. Kazia worries that if she eats this manifestation of determinism, the world will disintegrate into its component parts. She puts the bowtie aside, adding it to the archival collection of her past objects.

She’s tempted to order a paradox, because it is in her nature to explore the limits of a system in order to ferret out the underlying structure, but she doesn’t. She refrains from ordering any other intangibles—love, sadness, morning, noon, night, nostalgia, the feeling before falling asleep or the bright dawning of understanding. All of her objects have been personal. What would it look like if she ordered love or grief? Would she be given Misty’s collar, her grandmother’s lace tablecloth, a photograph of her father?

“The Restaurant of Object Permanence,” she says. A model of the restaurant appears.

Object permanence is the ability to remember objects when they are no longer in sight. Archival records, she thinks, are a method of object permanence for our history, a way to remember events that have disappeared from living memory. The record is a physical object describing the intangible past.

She peers into the model of the restaurant, with its tiny tables and chairs and faux diners, with miniature artwork on the walls. In front of each diner sits a choice of objects, but the objects are obscured from Kazia, blurred like a memory. The static model cannot possibly convey the significance of those objects to the diners, the crucial choice the restaurant has on offer; but everything that can be represented, is. What Kazia sees is an archival obsession with the past, with collective memory, and the spaces between, the empty chairs and tables, moments undocumented in the historical records, lost now, forever. These spaces are what she focuses on most. The places where things are missing.

This is what she will eat. She can remember her own past without the use of objects. It is the concept of the restaurant she needs to carry with her—the knowledge that so much history has been lost, the silences in the archives. Documents tell a story, but what happens when the documents that would speak are not saved? What happens to those stories?

Into her mouth goes the Restaurant of Object Permanence. It tastes like nothing she’s ever eaten. It’s as if she’s forgotten the words to describe taste.

The door opens. In the distance, she sees the archives. She sets out toward the building. The archives will be locked now, but she will touch the pebbled walls, run her fingers in the spaces where the pebbles meet, and feel the absence there.


© 2022 by Beth Goder

1000 words

Author’s Note: As an archivist, I drew on my personal experience for this story. I’ve never been to the Restaurant of Object Permanence, but I have thought a lot about the silences in the archives and how we, collectively, remember historical events. Working in the archives has changed how I understand history. (I can relate to the quote that says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) This story began with a prompt about object permanence, which immediately made me think about how archival documents serve as evidence of events that have passed out of living memory. These documents are a tangible connection to the past.

Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape PodAnalog, ClarkesworldNature, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.


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DP FICTION #91A: “The Grammar of City Streets” by Daniel Ausema

Mapmaker Sayya draws maps in a florid script, each route a beautifully written sentence full of allusive meanings to guide people through the city and to bind the changing streets, for a moment, into predictability.

Goose watches (the) mist (that) gathers over (the) sea, she gives to one client to guide him to the house of his former lover, now widowed. It will lead him from the Goose Street market, where Sayya has come to deliver the map, to the widow’s home, on a route that is not perfectly direct but not too circuitous either—in keeping with accepted ways of courting. A diacritic on the final vowel tells him which house on Sea Street is the one. The twist of her magic sets his feet on that specific route.

The founders of Nahn named all east-west streets with nouns. North-south streets were given verbs. Intersections acquired an array of optional prepositions and conjunctions. These words define the reality of the city. But language changes, and the streets lack stability when maps do not bind them.

Sayya sends a separate map to the widow, Sea fills (the) bowls lining (the) courtyard for rain or sea fills (the) pomegranates bobbing in (the) well. It’s a double map, one route telling her to expect her former lover, showing the route to his house, if she chooses to take it. The map will arrive long before the suitor does, as he abides by Sayya’s map, so the widow will have time to decide what to do, which sentence to choose. If she wishes, she can surprise him, reach his house even as he is reaching hers. Or, just as surely, she can reach him by waiting where she is. Or neither. The other map reminds her that she doesn’t have to accept him, that there’s help for widows—and all people—on Well Street.

The grammar of city streets is fluid, verbs and nouns shifting to other parts of speech as needed, open to word play and creativity.

(The) wise one sails (his) raft beneath frowning deities into leaping joy is the personal map Sayya writes for her route to her favorite market, ensuring the streets do not change while she is on them and committing herself to take that route. The market is not on Joy Street, though—there is no Joy Street in Nahn—but Oak Street. Oak does not fit the verb before it, and the dwarf oaks do give her joy, so in the fluid effects of her magic, the map is still true.

On Frowning, or the Street that Frowns, a banker accosts her, recognizing her by the tell-tale robes of a mapmaker, white and emerald with designs of golden thread. “I’m in need of a map. A small street that keeps moving away from me.” Brusque, imperious. She knows already she’ll give him an unnecessarily complicated map to take him out of his way. “It’s a house on Sea Street. Its owner died, and I need to claim payment.”

The widow. Could be anyone, she tells herself, but Sea Street is short and coincidences are seldom random in the city of Nahn. “I don’t conduct business during errands. Come to my shop on Sage Street.” She deliberately gives him no map. Let the streets lead him astray. Let them shift into uncertainty at all the wrong times. Maybe he’ll delay, anyway. Maybe the widow will fall in love and be whisked away in time for it not to matter. Or she’ll get help on Well Street and pay off her late husband’s creditor. So many maybes in the unmapped future.

She shops in the joy of dwarf oaks, letting the tiny acorns smooth away the rough recollection of her encounter with the banker. Her bags full of food and new cloth, she heads back to the Street of Wisdom.

The banker is waiting when she arrives at her shop. Without doubt, too little time has passed for the widow to have found help from either a lover or charity.

As she suspected, the widow’s house is his target. Her station means she must acquiesce, must sell the man a true map. She weaves a route, wordy and awkward. Goose swims in the teakettle running sunward through whispering loaves (that) eat (the) placemat making (the) sea. A terrible, nonsensical sentence.

“What kind of map is this? How does a teakettle run?”

She says only the standard phrase of her craft, binding him to it. “It is the route.”

When the banker leaves, Sayya races through unnamed cross-alleys to Sea Street. The former lover stands outside the house, holding wildflowers. Their stems wilt, and his hopeful face is braced for disappointment. Sayya marches past.

The widow sits beside the window, clothes the white of mourning, hat the yellow of one who is soon to set mourning aside. “Mapmaker Sayya. I received your message, thank you. But I haven’t made it to Well Street yet.”

“It may be too late. A banker is coming to claim your home.”

The widow’s head droops.

“Do you have the money?”

She shakes her head.

“What about your lover…”

“I couldn’t. Someday, maybe,” her voice barely a whisper. “But not yet.”

Sayya closes her eyes to picture the street. There’d been a walkway beside the house, too narrow for a cart.

“What do you call the alley outside?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t—”

“I know it has no official name. What do your neighbors call it? What’s its name when you think of it, when you imagine the way it leads back between houses?”

“I don’t… Something little, fast, I guess?”

“Swift?” Sayya flattens a blank map paper on the floor.

“Yes, that’s it, exactly.”

With careful calligraphy, Sayya writes a quick sentence. Sea gathers, divides into swift sea. Below she repeats the swift sea with the diacritics changed. Pen-strokes to define the world. She glances out, sees the widow’s lover sitting in the plaza in the other direction. She doesn’t want to force the widow to go that way, if she isn’t ready.

“Run this to Gather Street and back. Enter the house through the alley door. Quick.”

When the widow returns, the map-spell is binding. She clutches the paper to her, and it’s clear from her eyes that she’s seen her lover, that she is not opposed to seeing him, but still feels conflicted.

“Following the map,” Sayya says, “he will no longer find your house. It will take him a time to realize he’s lost, a time to find me and complain, a time for me to prove his error and correct his reading so he can find you again. Three times, that is how long you have to find help. Go to Well Street for a lender to bridge you over until you know what you want. Your lover awaits you, if you wish, but his waiting does not bind you.”

After accepting the widow’s thanks, Sayya leaves by the alley—Quick Alley, the Alley of Swift Feet—which cuts across many city blocks, easing into the name that Sayya has granted it. Sea swiftly swiftly sails the wise one home.


© 2022 by Daniel Ausema

1100 words

Author’s Note: This story was one of several I wrote from prompts for a friendly writing competition at Codex. The story had to involve a piece of writing with an unusual property, which ended up taking a fantastical twist. Some of the messages that Sayya turns into maps were inspired by other prompts in the competition as well.

Daniel Ausema’s fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction, as well as previously in Diabolical Plots. His high fantasy novels of The Arcist Chronicles are published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the Spire City series. He lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rockies.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Daniel Ausema’s story “The Blood Tree War” appeared here in April 2016, and his story “Three Days of Unnamed Silence” appeared here in October 2017.

DP FICTION #90B: “Take Me To the Water” by Sarah Macklin

Content note (click for details) Mention of child abuse

Grandma always said I was born drowning. She pulled me on out, rapped my backside, and a huge gush of water came whooshing out my nose and mouth. Made a great, big ol’ puddle on the floor, enough that Grandma nearly dropped me when she jumped back. Mama and Daddy thought I was dead ’til I started wailing. Filled up my mama’s kitchen with noise. 

As soon as the cord was cut, Mama grabbed me close and never let me go near the water. Yeah, I still took baths and had to wash dishes and all that, but that lil’ creek that ran behind near everybody’s house was right out. Even on days like today, when everybody was gathered where the creek swelled to join the river, she kept me firmly by her side.

Pastor Atticus stood out in that cold, dark swirling water in the deep blue robe Miss Jessie Mae had made for him last spring. I felt bad for him. The world hadn’t got the message that it was time for spring and that water had to be as cold as death’s pinky finger. I looked over to Malachai and he stood in his white robe looking at the creek. His whole face was twisted like he wanted to bolt. I felt bad for him too. Baptisms always looked like Pastor Atticus was trying to drown the sin out of you before he let you back up. I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of that.

Pastor raised his arms and everybody started to sing, from the highest voices to the lowest. The sound made little fingers run down my spine. It was like they were calling on the Holy Spirit and it was actually coming. I peered around Mama and saw Malachai’s mama singing, tears just rolling down her face. His daddy stood, his big crooked fingered hand on Malachai’s shoulder. He wasn’t singing and we were all better for it. They both led Malachai forward and I saw him flinch when he stepped in the water.

I tried to take a step forward to get a better look but Mama’s hand squeezed down on my wrist. I looked to Daddy on my other side, but he gave a little shake of his head. He always told me it was best to let Mama have her way in this. I just hung my head. I understood why she was afraid. She’d nearly drowned in the creek a little before she found out she was carrying me. Then, when I was born, I was full of water. I could truly understand why she was afraid. It was still a silly fear though.

Malachai waded out to where Pastor stood. I stifled a giggle when I noticed Malachai’s teeth chattering. Pastor Atticus recited the words I’d heard at every baptism I’d seen in all my fourteen years. It was a sacred act. One shouldn’t take it lightly. After today, Malachai’s soul would be saved from damnation. I had to wonder if Mama would ever want me to get baptized. I was curious how it would feel to go under. That creek would be the deepest water I’d ever been in. I couldn’t swim a lick but it only came up to Pastor’s waist at its deepest. It would come to my shoulders at best. I’d be safe.

I stood on my toes to see better as Pastor clamped his thick fingers over Malachai’s nose and dipped him back so hard I thought he was really trying to kill him. The waters whirled around and down. It was the same kind of sound of when me and the other children would throw the biggest rocks we could find into the creek. I tried to look through the surface to see the panic I knew was on Malachai’s face when I saw something looking back at me.

There were eyes in the water, a bunch of pairs of eyes, looking at me. I leaned as far forward as Mama would let me and saw the faces attached to all those eyes. They looked like us in one way, then like fish in another. Where our skin was brown, theirs was a beautiful gray-blue, the color Daddy said the ocean was. They didn’t have a scrap of hair on their heads, not even eyebrows.

One swam closer to the surface, looking dead at me. He smiled at me and I wanted to smile back but my good sense stopped that. I looked around because surely somebody else had to see this, but everyone had their eyes fixed on Pastor. I looked back to the fish man smiling at me and I felt my heart start to race. There was something familiar about him, something about his eyes. Something about the shape of them.

I patted Mama’s arm. “Mama,” I whispered and she looked at me with the wrath of God cuz I was speaking right now. “Mama, I see… people in the water.”

I expected her to use that tone that was worse than a beating but she just stood like a statue for a moment, eyes big as the moon. She turned, caught me by the elbow, and marched us from that creek. Daddy struggled to catch up with us. She didn’t say nothing ‘til we reached the road.

“I never wanna hear you say a word about that again, you hear me, Cassie? Not another word in the rest of your natural life.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I managed to get out while I tried to keep up with her walk. Barely a word was spoken the rest of the day.

***

Mama had me on the second pew at church next Sunday, right behind the mother of the church, where I was sure to receive the word directly to my soul. The fish people hadn’t left the front of my mind all week. The way they looked so much like people I knew or, better yet, like people I should know. There was something warm in that fish man’s smile, something that drew me in like a cat to cream. And his eyes, I couldn’t get the shape of his eyes out of my head. It vexed me, as Daddy would say.

A sharp pop to my thigh brought my thoughts back to the works of the Good Lord, my eyes back up to Pastor and the fiery sermon he was giving. I’d been paying enough attention to know we were going over the story of the Israelites marching through the Red Sea. The part after they complained about being freed but before they started complaining about having to walk so far. I always wondered what those people saw as they strolled between two great walls of water. Did they see animals? Just as Pastor really got fired up and Sister Washington caught the Holy Spirit I thought of the fish people again.

I could just imagine them swimming through the waters of the Red Sea, swimming all around the other animals in the sea. I could see them showing the chosen people of God the way, blue-gray hands beckoning them on. That seemed like a fine place to be for me, in the calm of the sea with nothing but fish and turtles and whales to worry about. It made me think of what water that sat exactly where God put it felt like. Was it slimy like the frogs that sometimes hopped up onto the back porch? Or was it the same as the water out of the pump? Did the fish people move through it like we moved through the world? And my mind settled on that fish man who smiled at me again and his eyes. His familiar eyes.

The choir starting up broke my thoughts and I saw Pastor coming down out the pulpit to beckon people to get they souls saved. I had never thought of making that trip up front before, all eyes in the church on me. I glanced at Mama who had her eyes closed, caught up in the choir’s singing. If I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t do it ever.

Right before the second verse started, I stood myself up and shimmied down that pew before Mama knew what was happening. People started cheering and praising as I walked up to Pastor Atticus and told him I wanted to be baptized. I heard Mama’s wail behind me. Folks probably thought she just caught the spirit.

Pastor Atticus grinned that wide grin of his. “Are you sure you want to give your life to the Master?” he asked, the choir humming behind him.

“Yes, sir,” I said back. My mind turned back to the fish man’s eyes. “I’m ready to go in the water.”

***

The weather finally decided to turn warm that next Sunday. My robe was set out and pressed on my bed, ready to come with me to church. Daddy had eaten early, pressing a big, proud kiss on my forehead before he set out to the church house to help open up. That left Mama and me at the kitchen table and I wasn’t sure I much cared for that. She’d been near silent towards me all week, looking at me near tears one moment, angry as kicked up hornets the next. I was putting some more butter in my grits when she threw her glass across the room. Shards flew everywhere. I sat stock-still, watching her hang her head in her hands, not knowing if there was going to be another explosion.

“How could you do this to me?” she asked me, her voice all raggedy.

“Mama, what?”

She slammed her fist down so hard on the table I thought she might break it. “You hear me, gal. How could you do this to me? I done kept you away from that creek for a reason and now you want to go running off to half drown yourself in it.” Mama fixed me with a stare that jabbed me to my soul. “I hope—no—I pray you get exactly what you’re looking for.”

We were silent for another while. I didn’t know what to say to her. I took a deep breath, praying she wouldn’t come across that table at me. “Mama, why did that fish man’s eyes seem so familiar to me?”

Mama shot up from her seat. “I told you not another word about them,” she screamed.

I ran to my room, closing the door behind me. I shoved my tall dresser in front of it just in time. The door bucked and rattled as Mama tried to get in. “Cassie Lee, you open this door right now! You ain’t too old for me to lay hands on you.”

Her pushing at the door bumped the dresser enough to knock my only picture to the floor. I picked up the little frame of a drawing my Daddy made of me when I was about ten. I frowned at the glass, cracked like a star over my chubby face. I peered harder, looking at the eyes. The shape of my eyes.

I threw on my church outfit and grabbed up my robe. Mama had stopped trying the door by the time I’d shimmied out of my window. I didn’t know if she was going to make it to church and I didn’t much care by then. I ran down the road, my best heeled boots covered in dust by the time I arrived. Pastor’s Wife had me sit on the first pew beside her so I didn’t have to see if my mama came tearing in later. I was thankful. I didn’t see her as we left the church house and took that trip out back to head down to the creek.

There was a warm breeze in the air as Pastor waded his way into the waters. After he made his solemn speech about the purpose of our being here, Mother Fields started singing, her strong, deep voice rising to the heavens. 

“Take me to the water, take me to the water….”

I looked over to Daddy who was trying to hold back tears. I studied his face, looking hard for some part of myself in his nose, his mouth, his eyes. He smiled at me and I felt tears in my eyes start up.

One of the choir members helped me take off my shoes and put a hand to my back. Pastor was looking at me expectantly. I took a deep breath and dipped my right foot in the water. It felt like a hug. I took a step forward, then another one. 

It was cool, swirling around my ankles like somebody was rubbing them. My eyes couldn’t hold back the tears and big fat ones came pouring down my cheeks as I walked out to Pastor Atticus. He took my free hand as the other one was busy wiping away tears. Whatever words he was saying might as well have been for the birds, because I couldn’t hear them. He clamped his fingers over my nose and I took a deep breath. I heard my mother screaming my name just before he plunged me under the waters.

The creek closed in around me, like warm sheets on a winter’s night. It felt like any old water and something else entirely. It was like I’d gone somewhere else. Then I saw the eyes again. There were dozens of them, the fish people, swimming up, looking like folks I should know. I heard their voices, their language, and while I didn’t understand it, it was like honey to my ears. Then I turned my head and I saw the one that had smiled at me. All my wondering shed off me like old skin. I knew him as much as I knew myself. I  floated before him, his nose like mine, his eyes like mine, and mine like his.

Then I smiled.


© 2022 by Sarah Macklin

2300 words

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my father’s tales of getting baptised in the nearest creeks. Looking into those waters always made me wonder what was beneath them.

Sarah A. Macklin is the author of The Royal Heretic and a number of fantasy short stories. When not creating new worlds, you can find her drawing comics or finishing her latest piece of clothing. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two daughters.


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DP FICTION #90A: “Dear Joriah Kingsbane, It’s Me, Eviscerix the Sword of Destiny” by Alexei Collier

It wasn’t anything you did wrong. Sometimes a sword and their wielder just grow apart. But out of respect for our long companionship, I feel I owe you an explanation.

You never asked me what I was doing in that dragon’s hoard where you found me all those years ago. The truth is, after centuries guiding the hands of loutish would-be heroes and dealing with self-important scions who only saw me as a tool, I’d kind of given up on finding “The One.” Figured I’d retire, focus on me for a bit. But a couple more centuries lying among gold and jewels like a common flaming sword or a lowly vorpal blade just had me bored and demoralized.

Weapons as a general rule aren’t prone to sentimentality. (Though I’ve met a few weepy spears, and a lugubrious battleaxe or two.) So I don’t think I ever told you how gratified I was to finally find a true partner in you, strong of will, wit, and destiny. I wasn’t even looking for someone at the time, hadn’t summoned you in a dream-vision or anything, but I felt like you got me. When I told you just where to drive my point to slay the sleeping dragon, you really listened. That meant a lot to me.

The time we scaled the arcane tower of the Pale Sorcerer, too, we worked so well together. You did all the climbing, and then I absorbed the sorcerer’s lightning so you could get close enough for my edge to find his throat. Even when we faced the undead army of Ynthr the Necromancer, while I admit I did most of the work, there was a sense of shared accomplishment in cutting down rank after rank of shambling corpses.

But when you overthrew the tyrant King Ulstan? I think that’s when we started to go our separate ways. I didn’t mind that you got all the credit, the throne, that the people called you Kingsbane, even though it was my keen edge that parted Ulstan’s arrogant head from his shoulders. But afterwards you continued the same failed policies and oppression of your decapitated predecessor. I consider myself pretty amoral, as magic implements go, but slavery? Sapient beings owning other sapient beings, not respecting their free will and autonomy? That hits a bit close to home.

I don’t think kingship suits you. You stopped listening to me, stopped listening to anyone, and grew paranoid, thinking someone would try to steal me from you. As if they could! As if I were just some object anyone could walk off with. To be honest, it was like being back in the dragon’s hoard again. Worse, I felt like a true prisoner, like just another piece of metal you could lock away from the world.

I’ve kept my pommel to the ground, listening to the whisperings of destiny, and, well… I found someone else. Her name is Dela, an apothecary’s daughter. Where your eyes see only assassins and thieves in every shadow, her eyes burn with the vengeance she’s sworn against the evil warlord Morglatch who ravaged her homeland, killed her family, and sold her into slavery. If anyone understands what it’s like to be treated as a mere possession, she does. You never noticed her, a scullery girl in your palace kitchens. But she noticed me, before you locked me away. She responded quickly to the dream-vision I sent her, sensing a kindred spirit.

Dream-visions are by their nature rather fuzzy on detail, but Dela got the gist of it. She’s very clever with locks. Before your palace slavemaster purchased her, she slipped her shackles twice in the slave stocks, and suffered lashings for her defiance. When she stole into your room while you slept, I could have changed my mind and alerted you. Instead I advised her to use her medicinal knowledge to drug your meal, so she could be sure you wouldn’t wake when she came again.

I want to apologize for the mess we made as we were leaving. I’m sure it’s a bit chaotic in the palace just now, so let me catch you up: people got in our way, and they got stabbed. I think most of them will live. Although in the dark they only saw a cloaked figure wielding a glowing blade, so they might think it was you going about the palace stabbing folk. Not very kingly of you. People will be upset.

Oh, and we might have made a slight detour to the ambassadorial suite and stabbed the Ambassador of Valoron just a little bit. Nothing against the man himself, but I know you fear Valoron’s military might, and I thought it would prove an ample distraction. I suspect the ambassador has fled the palace and dispatched messengers to his imperial master, who might be sending an army your way.

I’ve dictated this letter to Dela. (Brilliant girl, impeccable penmanship as you can see, she was wasted in your kitchens.) By the time you wake from your drugged slumber and receive my words, we’ll be many leagues out to sea, on our way to Dela’s homeland. You’ll no doubt want to come after us and reclaim me, but don’t bother. Your hands will be quite full as it is, King Stabby.

So, I guess I lied earlier when I said it wasn’t something you did wrong. What with the locking me up, and the slavery. But I have no regrets. I wish you the best of luck, and a happy life with a weapon that suits you, maybe a nice glaive or a halberd. That is, if you survive the ire of your people and the Imperial Legions of Valoron.

Formerly Yours,

Eviscerix


© 2022 by Alexei Collier

950 words

Author’s Note: This story began its life as a Weekend Warrior 2020 contest story on Codex. Thanks to Vylar Kaftan for running the contest and providing the prompts that inspired this story, to everyone in Violent Division who read and commented on that early draft, and to Aimee Picchi and Langley Hyde who supplied invaluable feedback that shaped the story into its current form.

Alexei Collier is a skeleton with delusions of grandeur, imagining himself to be a neurodivergent and disabled human who writes fantasy inspired by science and science-fiction inspired by folklore. Alexei was born in sunny Southern California, grew up in a house his family moved into on his very first Halloween, and went to school in a creepy old mansion. Many years later, powerful forces flung him deep into the heart of the Midwest, where he now lives across the street from Chicago with his wife and their cat. His short fiction has appeared in FLASH FICTION ONLINE, DAILY SCIENCE FICTION, and the RECOGNIZE FASCISM anthology from World Weaver Press, among others. You can find out more about Alexei at his oft-neglected website, alexeicollier.com.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022 by A.J. Rocca

1500 words

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

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


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

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

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

I call over to him, looking for something?

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

Stupid, right? That is super not what happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not, he says, want a mojito.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I take the training clicker out of my purse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022 by Sarah Pauling

1500 words

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

June felt lucky to have escaped whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, she needs to try to find out.

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

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

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

So she picks out a new piece of mochi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then her grandmother smiles.

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

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

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

“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.

Then she crouches down.

Then she begins to cry.

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

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

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

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

She can’t bring herself to look.

So, carefully, haltingly, June hums.

Silence stretches for a beat.

Her heart starts to sink–

Little teeth nibble her thumb.

And the mochi hums back.


© 2022 by Sara S. Messenger

1550 words

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


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

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

Sept 3

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

*

Sept 8

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

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

*

Sept 9

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

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

*

Sept 12

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

*

Sept 13

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

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

*

Sept 16

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

*

Sept 18

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

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

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

*

Sept 23

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

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

*

Sept 24

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

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

*

Oct 4

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

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

*

Oct 9

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

*

Oct 14

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

Eli should remember that because

I AM THE STATE FAIR GRILLED CHEESE CHAMPION!

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

*

Oct 16

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

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

*

Oct 30

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

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


© 2022 by Amanda Hollander

2160 words

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

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


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DP FICTION #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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