DP FICTION #57B: “The Train to Wednesday” by Steven Fischer

Charlie Slawson sat alone in the transit station, watching a set of empty train tracks and wondering why the train was late. Truth be told, he hadn’t known until just then that temporal trains even could be late. 

He looked around the underground station—its old, brick walls lined with gaudy digital displays, advertising exciting trips to next year, next century, and beyond—before noticing a man stepping onto the platform from a little door beside the tracks. He wore navy blue coveralls and a tall pair of work boots. His close-cropped, grey hair was half hidden beneath a faded baseball cap.

“Excuse me,” Charlie called. “Any idea when the train will arrive? I think it’s running late.”

The man stopped and frowned, then walked over to the bench. “You sure you’re in the right place, son? Which train are you waiting for?”

Charlie nodded and motioned to the marquee above the tracks. “Train to Wednesday. Just like it says.”

“Hmmph,” the old man grunted. “Wednesday’s never been one of our peak destinations. Especially not a Wednesday that’s just a few days away. What’d you want to do a thing like that for?”

Charlie turned the tablet in his hands so the old man could see the picture on the screen. That day, years ago, when Dad took him fishing out west of Cambridge. The first time he’d ever been to the train station. 

Dad tried to keep the trip going every year after Charlie left home, but life got busy, then they drifted apart. Charlie had always assumed they’d have time to catch up later, but he would give anything to have that day back, now.

“Your father?” the man asked.

Charlie nodded. “His funeral is this Wednesday.” He thought of the tearful video message he’d received this morning from his mother, his siblings already bickering in the background over funeral venues and seating arrangements. 

It was foolish, all of it. It would make no difference to Dad if the memorial dinner served chicken or beef, or if the service was held at the church on High Street or Main. What Dad would have appreciated was more time with his son, but Charlie hadn’t given him that. And no memorial, however perfectly it was planned, could do a thing about it. 

More time at home would just mean more time to feel guilty. More awkward conversations with distant relatives, more photographs and memories, more reminders that Dad had always been there for him, but he hadn’t done the same. 

“I loved my Dad,” Charlie said. “Even if I wasn’t the best at showing it. I wouldn’t miss his funeral for the world, but I’d just rather skip all the mess in between.”

The man nodded and fished a hand into his coveralls, coming up a moment later with a small, silver pocket watch. Inscribed on its cover was the looping infinity symbol of the Temporal Transportation Administration. 

The man opened the watch and tilted it so Charlie could see. Dials and arms littered the watch face, twisting together in an intricate dance that Charlie struggled to make heads or tails of. The man tapped the glass faceplate and made a sound which fell somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh. 

“Well would you look at that,” he said. “Seems you’re right. Train should’ve been here at least thirty seconds ago.”

“Is that normal?” Charlie asked.

“Nah. But it ain’t unheard of either.” The old man bit his lip. “These tunnels have been around almost as long as I have. Every once in a while the track is bound to run a little slow.”

Charlie looked down at the screen in his hands and sighed. “Okay. Any idea how much longer it’ll be?”

“Doesn’t work like that.” The old man shook his head. “A little hiccup on the other end might mean just a few extra minutes here, or it could mean a few days, or more. No way to tell without heading down the tracks and finding where the train is stuck.”

“Christ,” Charlie mumbled, staring down into the empty tunnel at the end of the station. “Is that safe?”

The old man shrugged. “Life ain’t safe. But there’s no reason it should be especially dangerous, provided we’re careful.” He turned and started to walk towards the tracks.

“We?” Charlie asked.

“Course.” The old man climbed down onto the railway and motioned for Charlie to follow. “Any extra delays stack up real fast down the line, so once we get her going again, the train won’t stop until the next station. You’ll have to board wherever we find her.” 

“You’re joking,” Charlie muttered, glancing down at his dress slacks and new oxford shoes, then at the puddles and mud waiting for him beside the tracks. 

Then he thought of his father, and the nightmare the next two days would be without him. He grabbed his briefcase and jacket and hopped over the edge of the platform.

*

Charlie tiptoed along the rail line, as close to the man and his flashlight as he could manage. Above their heads, aging brickwork dripped water and something much darker in thick, black droplets that clung to the floor. 

“You sure it’s safe to be in here?” Charlie asked. “These walls don’t look like they’re holding up so well.”

The old man grunted in agreement. “Been around a long time. It’s a wonder they’ve held up as long as they have.”

Somehow, that didn’t comfort Charlie. “Why hasn’t anyone bothered to replace them?”

“Ha!” The old man laughed, then turned back to face him. “When are you from, son?”

“When?” Charlie asked, shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight. “Don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Course you don’t,” the old man replied. “Because you don’t remember when they put these things in.” He patted the brick wall with obvious affection, then turned down the tunnel and started to walk again. “It ain’t just something you can go and replace. Takes a lot of time, and a lot of lives to dig a set of tunnels through spacetime. To pull the two apart so that you can move through one by moving through the other. It also took a lot of problems to make men and women willing to take that risk. Problems that you couldn’t just hop on a train and skip.”

Charlie grimaced. He wasn’t skipping the problem, just the mess. “So how does this work?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. “Aren’t we traveling back in time?”

The man laughed again, like Charlie was a child. “Course not. Trains can only go forward and so can we. Can walk down the tunnel as long as you want, but you’ll never reach a previous station.”

“And what if you managed to get outside the tunnel?”

“Wouldn’t want to do that.” The man pointed his flashlight at a pool of ink-black liquid. “The tunnel’s old enough here that some of the outside’s dripping through. All you’d find out there is a big sea of black.”

“Unless you found another tunnel?” Charlie asked.

The old man shrugged. “Suppose so, but you wouldn’t last that long. Just the tunnels and trains that can survive in the void.”

As they walked down the tracks, the dripping grew more frequent and louder, until the darkness spilled from the walls in neat little rivulets. 

“Careful now,” the old man muttered. “Better keep your feet on the tracks and avoid them puddles altogether.”

“Otherwise?” Charlie asked.

The man’s voice was stern for the first time since they’d met. “Otherwise I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”

*

The train was near wrecked when they finally found her. That much was clear the moment the old man’s flashlight beam fell onto her engine’s crumpled exterior. 

“Well that doesn’t look good,” Charlie managed to mutter.

The man shook his head and wandered closer to the engine. He pointed his flashlight down onto the ground, stepping carefully around the small, black stream which poured from the brickwork where the train had collided with the wall. The engine was lodged halfway through the wall itself, the only thing plugging a massive hole to the void.

The old man crouched beside the damaged tunnel and ran his hand along the bowing stone. Little waterfalls of thick, black liquid flowed from the brick around the sides of the train, pooling into a narrow brook which ran both ways along the tracks.

“Well?” Charlie asked. “What do you think?”

The old man grimaced. “I think we’ve got a big problem to deal with.”

Charlie looked at the line of train cars behind him. Aside from the engine, the rest of the train was largely undamaged. Passengers milled about inside, uninjured, pressing their faces up against the small, dark windows. A woman in a floral dress and an ancient-looking hat leaned her head out of one of the passenger car doors and began to climb down the emergency ladder. A young, mustachioed man in a charcoal-grey suit followed closely behind.

“The train doesn’t seem so bad to me,” Charlie said. “Just needs a new engine, probably.”

The old man nodded, then noticed the couple exiting the train. He wagged his finger like a grandfather scolding a pair of children. “And what exactly do you think you’re doing?” he called.

A guilty smile crossed the woman’s face. “Just coming to have a look. Maybe see if we could fix whatever’s the matter.”

The old man sighed and dipped a finger into one of the pools of black. The liquid crawled quickly up his hand, until he withdrew it from the puddle. He held his arm in the air a moment before pressing it against the edge of the train. The blank, dark space where his hand had been simply passed through the metal as if nothing was there.

He fixed the couple with a glare. “And what exactly are you going to do about that?”

The woman’s smile vanished and she mumbled a half-hearted reply.

“Exactly,” he replied. “Now you two get back inside and close that door, and let the experts handle this.”

Charlie chuckled. He certainly didn’t feel like an expert.

The old man frowned at him, then pulled a small, silver rag from his coveralls and wiped his hand clean. The black which had coated his palms seemed to simply fade into the fabric. “It ain’t the train that I’m worried about. This wall gives any further and the whole tunnel will be swimming in the black. Station too. Maybe the next station down the line. Nothing to stop it moving forward once it reaches that point.”

“Christ,” Charlie muttered. “What can we do about it? I imagine there’s someone that we’ll have to call?”

The old man glanced at his pocket watch. “No time for that. It’d take ‘em at least as long as it took us to get down here. But we can start by getting this engine out of the way.”

“What?” Charlie asked, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten at the idea. “The engine is the only thing plugging the hole. If we pull the plug, the entire tunnel will flood.”

The old man shook his head. “Don’t work like that, kid. The tunnel isn’t any happier about it being broken than we are. Given the chance, the hole would seal itself right up. As is, the train’s the only thing keeping it open.”

He pointed at the spiderwork cracks running through the tunnel wall. “It’s like a knife in a wound. Might bleed worse for a minute when we pull it out, but the longer it’s in there, the more damage it does.” 

The cracks seemed to grow even in the short time the man spoke, new drips and defects popping up around them. “Well that’s easy then,” Charlie replied. “We just put the train in reverse and pull the engine out.”

“Mmhmm,” the man replied. “Provided she’s still working.”

*

Charlie sat in front of the train’s aging control board, horrified that humans had ever trusted their safety to technology so primitive. Although digital networks had replaced the engineers running the rails decades ago, the engines were built in a time long before then and still sported a panel of manual backups, littered with dials, levers, and other relics of the past. Charlie glanced over his shoulder at a small, dim screen that showed a live feed of the passenger cars. Come to think of it, most of the train’s passengers were relics as well.

Out the cabin’s small side window, the old man stared at Charlie and gave him two thumbs up. He’d stayed outside to make sure the hole sealed shut, his hands full of minor patching equipment which Charlie was entirely sure would be insufficient if actually needed.

Initially, he thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal. But now that he was inside the engine room, with only inches of glass separating him from the horrible emptiness which stared back through the front windshield, he wasn’t so certain. The darkness in front of him swirled and writhed like a pile of living shadow, feeling and squirming its way towards the cracks in the tunnel wall. Charlie couldn’t see it, but he felt it. Felt it the same way he felt this might not end well. But what choice did he have?

He could climb back outside the engine and tell the man he’d had enough. Walk straight to the station and wait out the rest of a painful week at Mom’s. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be tearful and frustrating, but certainly not deadly. 

But it had taken nearly an hour to walk this far down the tunnel, and there were no guarantees the wall would hold long enough for him to get back. Besides, if the man was right, and a spill on this end of the track could creep into the future, who was to say he’d make it to the funeral at all?

At the end of the day, those thoughts didn’t matter. The only one that mattered was of Dad, standing on the train platform all those years ago, bending over to pick up a piece of crumpled paper from beside the trash can.

“Never walk past a mistake, Charlie,” he’d said, his quiet, certain voice rising over the sound of the station’s bustle. “Not when it’s in your power to fix.”

Dad had lived his life by those words, and Charlie would be damned if he couldn’t live up to them, especially today. It was the least he could do.

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered, staring down at the large, red lever on the control panel. He glanced out the window and gave the man a thumbs up in return, then threw the lever into reverse. 

Behind him, the engine whirred to life, rumbling and shaking as it struggled to throw the massive weight of the train backwards. Charlie gripped his seat and stared out the window at the man beside the tracks, but the train didn’t move.

The man shouted something that Charlie couldn’t hear, but he knew what it must mean by the waving of the man’s arms. Turn the engine power up. Charlie nodded and spun one of the dials to full. 

The knot in his stomach tightened even further as he felt the train start to shift backwards. Its metal walls screeched and scraped against the brickwork as it pulled itself back from the hole. Then, just as soon as it had begun, the train slammed to a halt.

“No, no, no,” Charlie mumbled, spinning dials left and right. Despite his attempts, the train wouldn’t budge. Outside the window, the man motioned madly for him to kill the engine, rushing out of the way of a sudden onslaught of black liquid. 

Charlie stared at the river and raced through his odds. A portion of the wall must have broken loose as he reversed, lodging itself behind the rear wheels and holding the train in place. The void was coming in, even if he stopped the engine. 

He looked at the growing stream of black with mounting certainty. Even if he stopped now, it would be enough to flood the tunnel. The only chance to stop it was to get the engine out, so the hole could close. 

Through the windshield, the void tumbled over itself with anticipation. Nothing but black in its horrible depths. Nothing but black…and was that a streak of silver?

Charlie stood up from his chair and pressed his face to the windshield, struggling for a better look. Somewhere below, in the sea of emptiness, a small line of silver glimmered brightly. Charlie traced its path until it ended in a box, so far below it only looked like a little dot. 

But it wasn’t a dot, of that Charlie was certain. In that moment, he knew it was a train station—some other year, some other century, lingering in the darkness below. 

It was a train station, and he had a plan.

Charlie sat back in his seat and took a deep breath, then one final peek out the small side window. The black stream had grown into quite a torrent already, pouring both ways down the tunnel. The old man still motioned for Charlie to stop the engine, but he was standing pressed up against the opposite wall to avoid the darkness as best as he could. 

Charlie tapped a small red button on the dashboard, feeling a clunk behind him as the engine detached from the rest of the train cars. 

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered. “I’ve never been one for walking anyways.” With that, he gripped the engine’s lever and shoved it towards the waiting void. 

The engine lurched forward with a tremendous screech, and Charlie turned around in time to see the wall snap closed behind him and the world vanish from view.

*

The engine crashed through the station ceiling some time later. How long, exactly? Charlie wasn’t certain, and he doubted he ever would be. It felt as if he’d spent no time at all in free fall, and yet it felt as if he’d spent his whole life. All he knew was that he was happy when the collision threw him forward against his restraints and he was suddenly staring into someplace bright and living again.

The moment the engine came to a rest on the empty platform, Charlie unclipped his restraint and scrambled to the door. He climbed awkwardly out of the twisted, tilting vehicle, prepared to shout at any bystanders about the need for evacuation. Instead of spotting a stream of black liquid behind him, however, he noticed that the engine had fallen straight through the ceiling, which had, indeed, sealed itself right up behind him. 

The few commuters on the platform stared at him with surprise, but not dismay, until a middle-aged man wearing dark blue coveralls shouted at him from a across the platform. 

“Hey! Hey you!” he called. “What the hell is going on?”

Charlie stared at the brightly colored baseball cap atop the man’s head and smiled. He ran across the platform and wrapped the man in a tight embrace.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the man grumbled, shoving him away with a confused frown.

“What year is it?” Charlie asked suddenly, catching sight of the posters which lined the station walls. He remembered seeing them years ago.

“Oh Jeez,” the man muttered. “Don’t tell me you got yourself lost somehow.”

Charlie felt the knot return to his stomach as he shook his head and grabbed the man by the shoulders. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I just need to know the date, or at least the day of the week.”

The man stared at him for a moment without answering, but Charlie already knew the answer. On the tracks, a train was waiting, its doors preparing to close. Inside, a young boy and his father were too busy staring at the fishing guidebook they’d brought along to notice the commotion outside.

“Wednesday,” the man muttered, but Charlie was already running towards the train.


© 2019 by Steven Fischer

Author’s Note: I spend most of my life waiting for moments. Counting down the days to big events like graduation, or the minutes to small ones like the end of a shift. Too often, I’m so busy looking forward that I forget to look around, and I find myself wishing later I could have those moments back. Time-travelling trains might make for fun scifi, but even in fictional worlds time only moves one direction, and in real life you can’t cheat your way around that. 

Steve is a resident physician in the Pacific Northwest. When he isn’t too busy cracking open a textbook (or a patient’s thorax), you can find him exploring the Cascades by bike, boat, or boot. His stories have appeared in places like F&SFGrimdark Magazine, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. You can read more of his work at www.stevenbfischer.com, or find him on twitter @stevenfischersf. 


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

DP FICTION #57A: “Consider the Monsters” by Beth Cato

Jakayla crouched in front of her dark closet. She hadn’t turned on the light because that was an awfully rude thing to do when trying to talk to the monster hidden inside.

“You gotta listen to me,” she whispered. “The news is saying really bad things, like rocks are gonna fall out of the sky and a lot of people are gonna die. You can’t stay in my closet. You gotta go to the basement. There’s dark spaces down there for you to hide in. I won’t tell no one you gone there.”

“Jakayla!” She turned to find Grandma leaning into the bedroom. “I got to run to your auntie’s house. The phone network’s down.”

“The phones don’t work?” Jakayla gasped. “Why? I didn’t think anything had fallen yet?”

“Nothing has, yet. Everyone’s trying to talk to everyone on the phone, and the system can’t handle that. Listen, girl.” Grandma waddled forward to cup Jakayla’s face. “We’re going to be just fine, you hear me? Don’t you worry. Just stay here. We’ll have everyone here together in the basement tonight.”

Jakayla nodded, wide-eyed.

“I love you. You be safe.” Grandma took a few deep breaths and planted a quick kiss on her forehead. A moment later, she was gone. The walls shuddered as the front door closed.

Jakayla whirled to face the closet again. “She don’t want me to worry, but I’m not worrying. Grandma wants to save all our family, and I’m trying to save you, too. Just ’cause you’re a monster don’t mean you don’t count.” She paused, head tilted with hope of an answer from her closet. “I can’t wait ’til night for you to talk. Just go to the basement, okay? If you get scared, bring Fluffinator the Stuffed Unicorn from the box right there. She always helps me feel braver.”

Jakayla hurried through the apartment. Grandma’d left on the TV. Jakayla would have gotten yelled at if she did that. A big red “BREAKING NEWS” banner filled the bottom of the screen. One woman talked in front of a big computer-made graphic of Earth with a lot of lines going all over and a whole bunch of colors, words everywhere like “projected impact zone” and “tsunami risk” along with countdown timers.

She knew all about tsunamis because her cousin had this one video game where a tsunami happened. Those scenes had scared her a lot until Grandma told her she shouldn’t worry because they couldn’t even see the water from their apartment.

“Plus, we’ll be in the basement,” Jakayla said to the TV. “Grandma said that’s the safest place to be. It don’t even leak like it used to.”

She rushed onward. Out the sliding door, their tiny backyard held a big pile of black garbage bags. Grandma’d said she’d throw out all Uncle Jerry’s belongings unless he paid what he owed in rent. This was as far as she’d thrown everything. Now weeds grew on some of the bags.

Jakayla nudged a sack with her foot. Further back in the pile, something rattled.  “Hey, monster. I know you won’t come out or talk in daylight. You’re worse than the closet creature like that. But you can hear the television from here, right? You know what’s coming?”

She waited for a reply, because it was a polite thing to do. Somewhere nearby, sirens wailed and dogs howled like bad back-up singers.

“Here’s the thing,” she continued. “I know you got a good home in these bags, but you should come to the basement. I’ll be there with a bunch of people and the closet monster, too. There’s room for you.”

An odd clicking sound caused Jakayla to glance indoors. The living room was dark, the room quiet. “Oh. The power went out. No more TV.” Her voice suddenly sounded high-pitched. Scared. But she had to be brave so the monsters stayed calm. She took a few deep breaths, like Grandma did before she left.

“I need to go,” she told the pile of bags. “I want you to be okay. You live in Uncle Jerry’s trashed stuff, so you’re kinda like family.” A pop-pop-pop sound like fireworks carried from way off in the distance.

How soon until the rocks fell near here? She pictured the map from the news. The news lady had said something about her city being in a red zone. Red was Jakayla’s favorite color, but a red zone didn’t sound so good. That meant she needed to be fast, “lickity-split, zoom-zoom!” like the bird in her favorite cartoon. She had to go to the old church down the block to warn the gargoyles, then dash to the park on Howard Street to tell the shadow in the sewer pipe, then get home, all before Grandma got back.

She ran through the house. First of all, she had to visit the closet again. She hoped the monster there wouldn’t mind if she borrowed Fluffinator the Stuffed Unicorn. She needed her favorite unicorn with her as she warned her other friends about the awful things to come.

The basement would be crowded tonight, with lots of family and monsters, but that was okay. Grandma said they’d all be together. They’d make it through. In the end, that’s what mattered.

 


© 2019 by Beth Cato

 

Author’s Note: I wrote this story as part of a Weekend Warrior flash writing contest on Codex. I don’t recall the exact prompts that inspired this story, but I really wanted to show a child’s compassion in the thick of a terrible crisis.

 

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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

STORY ANALYSIS: “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly

written by David Steffen

I am trying out a new feature that I might run occasionally here, where I pick a story that I particularly liked, and pick it apart to try to figure out why it worked so well. For this first entry, I’ll be talking about “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly, first published in Tor.com, and nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo award.

You can read it at Tor.com, or you can hear an audio adaptation in Cast of Wonders.

I’m not going to avoid SPOILERS after this paragraph, but in this paragraph, I will give a very brief overview. The story is about a woman who worked with her husband in their bakery until the government was overthrown, at which point he was taken as the private baker by the new monarch, the Traitor King, because he has developed the skill in making special pastries that evoke strong memories that suit a particular mood. The main story takes place at a banquet with the monarch, prepared by her husband, where she is the food taster to ensure that the food is not poisoned.

The most interesting thing about this story is the way that it uses the flashbacks that are evoked by the pastries. The power of the flashbacks is threefold:
1. The first is the typical power of flashback, to give character backstory, to help you understand character motivations. Throughout the story you see when she first met her husband, you find out about what happened to her sister, about the rise of the tyrant, and about the development of her husband’s skills.
2. The second is to develop an understanding of the memory-pastries. Each pastry eaten at the banquet has a different flavor, like the first section “Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth”, each flashback is titled by the pastry that describes the type of memory that it evokes, and you find out about what kinds of pastries Saffron recommends to different customers to what reason.
3. During the main timeline of the story, Saffron and her husband have been separated for quite a while, ever since her husband was taken to be the pastry chef of the Traitor King, preparing banquets for the kings and his nobles. They were very close, and know each other very well, and they worked very closely together every day in the bakery. Saffron volunteered as the taste tester because it was the way she could get the closest to him, and the Traitor King took the opportunity because he trusted that her husband wouldn’t poison her or torture her with more cruel desserts. But now the only route of communication between them is the desserts themselves. He knows her well enough to have a pretty good idea what particular desserts will evoke what memories for her, so they are hints, and a warning of what to come. He has been doing research while imprisoned, and she doesn’t know what new desserts he’s developed. She hopes that he will do something with his special desserts but she doesn’t know what he can do that would do the job, especially since she knows he wouldn’t kill or torture her.

I have never seen flashbacks that do so many things at once; it is an incredible idea, and wonderfully executed. The descriptions of flavor on top of it made my mouth water, I would absolutely love to visit this bakery if it were a real place.

I also appreciated seeing the very different but very real strengths of the characters. Her husband’s strength is obvious, his special pastries that form the basis of the story. But her role in the bakery was no less important. She learned to read people, to help decide how to recommend what pastry would suit them the best. Everyone loves the ones that give you a sweet memory, but the regretful pastries have their uses, and others. And no occupation could have suited her better for her present circumstances–before she became the taster she didn’t have much experience at dissembling, but here she is surrounded by those she has to mislead, and everything here depends not only her husband’s pastries but on her ability to be able to keep it to herself when the time comes for her husband’s plan to come to fruition.

And the finale is perfect. When it finally comes to the finale, as she takes it and relives all of the times when she hurt someone else, but feeling the pain for herself, they can tell from her face that it was unpleasant, but the Traitor King enjoys watching the other nobles squirm taking the less pleasant ones, and even when she admits a bit of what it is, he thinks that his own remorseless nature means that he will enjoy it. But not only does he feel the pain of reliving these memories, because he has been cruel to so many people, it leaves him incapacitated long enough for his throne to be taken, and then wakes up in a cell, with the only food available to him another of the same pastry. Even in the end, as she watches this, she is self-aware enough to know that if she took another bite of that kind of pastry she would relive that moment.

I can see why this story got its nominations. Tina Connolly is an incredible author.

DP FICTION #55B: “Dear Parents, Your Child Is Not the Chosen One” by P.G. Galalis

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

Thank you for expressing your concerns about Rodney’s First Term grade. Please understand that the highest mark of “Chosen One” is exceedingly rare, even among our exceptional student body here at Avalon. Rodney’s grade of “Stalwart” is neither a mistake nor cause for concern, but a performance about which you and he can both be proud.

As I indicated in my written evaluation, Rodney is a bright young man, although he does have room for improvement in the areas of effort and behavior. I’m told by his Warrior, Wizard, and Rogue teachers that he shows equal aptitude in all three classes, so I’m confident that with support and encouragement, his skills will continue to improve.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

Teacher of Intermediate Feats & Virtues

Avalon Preparatory Academy for Adventurers

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I apologize for the misunderstanding. When I said Rodney would improve, I did not mean that he should expect to earn a grade of “Chosen One” next term (or any other term for that matter). “Hero” would really be a more realistic goal, perhaps further down the road, should he improve his efforts, though I’m afraid “Paragon” would be quite out of reach.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

Thank you for the information about Rodney’s early displays of giftedness as a child. I understand how excited you must have been about the promising results of his Early Childhood Augury, but you should know that ECAs have proven notoriously inaccurate. (In fact, the National Questing Board no longer recommends them). In any event, I did not mean to impugn Rodney’s potential, and while I understand that his sense of destiny might be a bit shaken, I hope you’ll agree that many paths to success still lie open to him.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I must respectfully disagree with your definition of success. Most of our graduates go on to successful adventuring careers without being Chosen Ones. It would be insulting to limit any definition of “success” to only those few. In fact, in my seventy-three years here at Avalon, I’ve only ever had two pupils earn that distinction. It is, necessarily, quite rare, especially during a lengthy interbellum period like the one we are currently enjoying. If you ask me, we should consider ourselves lucky to have no present need for Chosen Ones.

On a brighter note, you’ll be happy to know that Rodney did quite well on his recent Courage and Morality quiz.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I cannot violate student privacy by discussing former students with you in any detail. Suffice it to say, I’m sure you’ve heard of the two Chosen Ones I mentioned having taught. They graduated in the same year, and you no doubt heard all about their eventual feud and subsequent downfall. If I may say, they serve as an excellent reminder that being a Chosen One is not all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve known many a Stalwart (or Hero, should Rodney’s effort and behavior continue to improve!) who have gone on to happy and fulfilling quests.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I resent your implication that my instruction was in any way responsible for the Calamity of the Twins. Avalon graduates are responsible for their own choices after leaving us, and the moral track record of the vast majority of our adventurers is quite positive. I assure you that Rodney is in good hands in my class.

Respectfully,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

No, I am not only taking credit for my successes and ignoring my failures. I happen to be well aware of my personal shortcomings (though they are no business of yours), and poor teaching is not one of them.

Speaking of shortcomings, however, I’m sorry to report that Rodney’s recent score on his Courage and Morality quiz appears to have been the result of cheating. I caught him with a Talisman of Balacoth today, which I don’t need to tell you is a serious infraction of the Avalon Code of Conduct. Please expect further communication from the principal regarding this matter.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I’m sorry you have not yet heard from the principal. Please understand that he is only a couple of years from retirement and has slowed down some after several good centuries of service to Avalon.

To answer your accusation, however, I am NOT making a baseless charge. On the day in question, Rodney was the only one to have answered any questions correctly, and I grew suspicious when even his brightest classmates were making silly mistakes. Even I had slipped up once or twice only to have your son correct me. Lo and behold, when I checked under his desk, there it was, a little carving of the Fist of Balacoth, and it had taken hold of all the good fortune in the room. After I dispelled it, I had a hunch, so I let the class retake their Courage and Morality quiz. Suffice to say, your son no longer has the highest score.

We do not permit talismans, amulets, or potions of any kind within the school, for obvious reasons. I do not know where he obtained his contraband, but you may want to have a conversation with your son.

Respectfully,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

To suggest I was suspicious of Rodney merely for giving correct answers is ridiculous. I know he is quite capable of performing well on his own, and I’m sorry he felt the need to resort to cheating in order to prove himself. He remains a student of great potential for whom I still have hope.

And no, unfortunately, Rodney may not have an extension on his term paper. It remains due tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I was as surprised as you by the drop in Rodney’s Second Term grade. My previous optimistic statements about his potential were never meant as a guarantee. I’m sorry if you misunderstood.

I’m afraid it was his term paper. Students were to write an essay extolling one of the classic heroic virtues with three specific examples, but Rodney chose to write about “ambition,” which was not on the assigned list of options. (I question whether it is a virtue at all.) Please let me know if you have any further questions.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I’m sorry if you were the ones who gave Rodney the idea to write his term paper on ambition. He alone is responsible for his work. Might I suggest giving him space to complete his assignments more independently in the future? (After all, you won’t be out on his quests with him, will you?)

I do not think it necessary for you to hire Rodney a private mentor. Of course, that is ultimately up to you, but Rodney’s challenges have more to do with personal choices than ability.

At this point, should you have any further concerns, it may be best to arrange a meeting. Is there a day or time that would work well for you?

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

It was completely inappropriate of you to appear via astral projection in my living room last night. I understand you are busy, but if you do not want to meet in person, please continue to direct all correspondence in writing to my school address.

Respectfully,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

Of course I want the best for Rodney, and no, I do not have anything to hide.

Rodney, however, may. I don’t imagine you’ve looked at his note-scroll recently? When I saw it today, it was filled with inappropriate doodles of damnation knives, Shigmala the Defiler, and other symbols of the malign. With your permission, I’d like to refer him for counseling with Sibyl Salens, our school soothsayer.

Concernedly,

Madeleine Whimbley.

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

It is no shame to receive counseling, and I’m shocked you would suggest otherwise.

Furthermore, I’m unable to respond to the letter from Rodney’s private mentor, as school policy prohibits me from discussing a student with anyone other than a parent, guardian, or fairy godparent. You do understand, of course.

I must say, though, that I have serious doubts about either the intelligence or integrity of a private mentor who would judge Rodney’s current work to be of “Chosen One” quality. In fact, I can’t believe we are still on the topic of Chosen Ones at all. Allow me to be frank: Your son is not and never will be a Chosen One. In fact, did you know that most Chosen Ones tend to be orphans? If it makes you feel any better, I doubt we will have any Chosen Ones this year at Avalon. The world is at peace. Get a grip. (And counseling for your son).

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

Per the principal’s request, please accept my formal apology for any implication in my previous letter that you ought to die in order for Rodney to become a Chosen One. That was not my intent.

Yours truly,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

Rodney’s behavior in class really has become quite intolerable. Today he accused me of being an “apologist for obsolete heroism” who is “shackled by her loyalty to the fading Light,” simply because I questioned the necessity of his bragging about the new certified Ancient Birthright Sword you apparently bought him for his birthday. He continued to spend the duration of class doodling pictures of it on the corner of his parchment along with the words, “I AM YOUR SAVIOR,” instead of working on his Hero Portfolio. At this rate, he’ll be lucky to make “Rapscallion” by the end of Third Term.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

As I am the only Intermediate Feats and Virtues teacher at Avalon, and as it is a required class, the school will be unable to meet your request to move Rodney into another section. (Believe me, I checked.) Given the circumstances, I’m sure we can stick out the rest of the year and make the best of what’s left of it.

As far as Rodney’s selection of advanced courses for next year, no single course of study is more or less likely to earn him a “Chosen One.” I know the recent craze has been for Wizarding, and before that it was Warriors, but the actual data support neither. If anything, Rogues tend to be slightly overrepresented in the available data from the last several heroic ages, though the numbers are not statistically significant since Chosen Ones are so rare.

In any event, I would encourage Rodney to continue with whichever course of study he most enjoys. And yes, he will be stuck with me again for Advanced Feats and Virtues.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I’m sorry to hear that Rodney is looking at new schools for next year. For what it’s worth, I strongly urge you to reconsider. As we’re fond of saying around here, “There’s always room for redemption at Avalon!” and your son did show great promise once.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

No, “great promise” does not mean that Rodney could still be a Chosen One. Holy heavens, no. Just no.

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

Never mind, I’ve had it. Your son tried to open a Dark Portal today while my back was turned to the class. Luckily his classmates, who are better students than he is, banished it before it could do irreparable harm. The principal will be following up separately to impose a suspension for Rodney’s repeated violations of the Avalon Code of Conduct.

On a personal note, I feel the need to express how disappointed I am in your son’s decline this year. I’ve done what I can, but I only see him an hour a day. It’s not like I live with him.

Yours,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodblood,

I understand that Rodney’s application for transfer to the Pinnacle School for Unappreciated Youngsters has been accepted. I would say “Good Luck,” except that I have rather strong philosophical disagreements with their aims and methods there, and I know that Rodney cannot accurately explain the role of Luck in an adventurer’s success anyway. So instead, I’ll just say farewell. (I’m sure the feeling is mutual).

Regards, and Ever Yours in the Light,

Madeleine Whimbley

*

Dear Fairy Godparent,

I write to you in these darkening days with tidings of great hope from Avalon Preparatory Academy. The First Term performance of your orphan, whom I dare not mention by name lest the spies of evil are watching, has earned the rare and distinguished mark of Chosen One. Rejoice!

Please see the enclosed packet for more information, and sign, enchant, and return the accompanying form within ten business days to grant permission for further assessment and, if necessary, individual heroic mentoring.

Congratulations! On a more personal note, I have reason to believe that, should your orphan in fact be Chosen, the Dark Lord Rodney and his forces will hardly present an insurmountable challenge.

Best wishes,

Madeleine Whimbley

Principal

Avalon Preparatory Academy for Adventurers

 


© 2019 by P.G. Galalis

 

P.G. Galalis would love to have been a member of Oxford’s famous literary group, the Inklings (minus all the tobacco smoke), but since he was born on the wrong continent and many decades too late, he compensates by writing and teaching fantasy, science fiction, and other literature. His fiction is also forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, and you can visit him on the web (https://pggalalis.com) or Twitter (@pggalalis). He lives with his family near Boston, MA. 

 


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

BOOK REVIEW: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

written by David Steffen

American Gods is a contemporary fantasy/mythology novel by Neil Gaiman, published in 2001. I’ve heard the book highly recommended by many readers, and in 2017 Starz started airing a TV series adaptation, so I decided I needed to find out what it was all about.

The protagonist of the book, Shadow, is released from prison three days early when his wife Laura and best friend die in a car accident, and he learns had been having an affair with each other. He had gotten through his time in prison largely by looking forward to reuniting with her, and his job prospects after his release had depended on his best friend’s business.

Bereaved and bereft of all of his hopes for the future, with no good prospects for worth and nothing to look forward to, he is offered employment by a strange man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday is a con man, and takes on Shadow as a bodyguard. Shadow is skeptical at first, but in the face of his options finding work as a recent ex-con, he takes the job.

Soon he is drawn into a strange war between ancient and new mythologies. The gods of the old world, a version of them transported here by the belief of immigrants who traveled here to the United States, are weak and dying from the waning beliefs of the people who brought them here. Meanwhile, new gods are rising up, not of the traditional sort, gods of technology and change. A cold war has been building for quite some time, and it’s about to come to a head.

I had trouble getting into this book. Much of the book is spent with Shadow spending time in random hotels or apartments by himself, waiting for Mr. Wednesday to come back again. And while much of the purpose of the seemingly unimportant events of these “waiting around” times becomes clear later, it didn’t make it quicker or more interesting to read at the time. In addition, it’s almost two hundred pages into the book before the mythology plot comes to the forefront–until that point it’s just Shadow hanging about with odd people with quesitonable motivations. The mythology plot is what drew me to the book, so it was frustrating to wait so long to really get into it.

I found Shadow hard to relate to in particular, which made it especially difficult to keep going with the book. I empathized with the depths of his despair when he was released early because of tragedy but many of the decisions he makes in the book make no sense whatsoever to me. Taking the job with Mr. Wednesday, I get in itself, because he was very short on options at the time for being able to make a living in his post-conviction life. But throughout much of the rest of it, he would make a decision that would just leave me scratching my head, and this is for major decisions that the entire plot is built on, so I couldn’t just ignore the oddity, the entire book depended on them.

There were some elements near the very end that helped justify some of the long periods of not much happening, which helped some in retrospect.

This book was not for me. I’d like to talk with some of the people who recommended it so highly and see what it was they got out of the book, because I am curious to hear another perspective. I might consider trying out the TV show at some point because I feel like the premise is very promising, maybe I’ll enjoy a different adaptation of the story.

DP FICTION #52B: “Bootleg Jesus” by Tonya Liburd

Out where rock outcroppings yearn to become mountains, there was a town cursed with no magic.

In this town, there was a family.

In this family, there was a girl.

She was nine, almost ten, Mara. Childhood hadn’t completely lifted its veil. She had an older brother, Ivan, who was fourteen, and whose voice was changing. Elsewhere, puberty would have signaled all sorts of preparations – acceptance into a special group home as much for his safety as for the general public – while his Unique Gift manifested. Watchfulness. Guidance. Training.

But not here.

Here the rocks, the soil, of the mountains had a special property that had been artificially duplicated thousands of years ago, and before that, the rock itself was transported. Here the rocks and soil prevented the manifestation of magic. There was no ‘curse’, really, of the dampening of magic – just something some said.

Everyone here in this town got along here by their wits, their brains, their strength – things were done from scratch if possible.

For what else had they to do here, this far away from civilization.

So, like everyone here around the age of puberty, Mara’s brother was special, yet not special, because of the rocks.

Mara would be special, yet not special like her older brother someday, like her mummy and daddy, like the rest of the adults. Like the people, families, who showed up sometimes on the outskirts, wanting to find a place for themselves here.

*

One day, Mara was playing in the house, and her father sent her to the yard. Some houses had garages, like hers, and some didn’t – like the oldest of the houses of the people who never had to arrive, who’d been here all along.

The garage wasn’t off-limits, and she was bored, so she went digging around inside.

One after another, she found an item, an item of before, before her family arrived, before she was born, and she discarded them.

In the back of all the clutter in the garage, there stood a bust of a Jesus. Unlike most busts and portraits of Jesus in the Western Hemisphere, this Jesus had brown skin and black features. It was supposed to give advice when priests and counsellors weren’t to be had. “They make them all blonde and blue eyed,” she remembered her mother saying disparagingly. “Like that’s how he was in that part of the world. As if he’d blend into the Egypt that was, if he was there. Hah!” And that would be the end of any religious discussion in the house. This Jesus was manufactured several decades ago as an answer to all the lilly-whiteness in the world, calling them Bootleg Jesuses, and one was bought by an ancestor so the family would remember they had a black ancestor as they headed into whiteness, white-acting, white-passing.

This Jesus had a heart on his chest that he presented to the world with rays of light—or in this case, neon rays—like in numerous postcards. His hair was dreadlocked. All of this was inside a metal box, made to be placed on a table, with no plug where it could be plugged in. So; what made it run?

Oh, she knew. It would run in any other place in the world, where magic ran free…

Where there existed people with Unique Gifts so powerful that they were considered gods…

She picked it up, and put in on a small round picnic table she had to unfold.

She smiled at it.

“Red and yellow, black and white,” she began to sing in her young voice, “we are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world…”

It was the only religious thing that she knew, because her mother insisted that if anyone told her that her Jesus was wrong, she was to answer by reminding them of that song.

“Jesus, do you love me?” Mara giggled.

She heard it sputter to life; it lit up. The dreadlocked head of the Jesus bowed up and down, up and down. Then stopped, the light illuminating its white robed chest going out.

Mara gasped, her mouth hanging open. Then she put her hands to her mouth and squealed.

“Mummy, Daddy, Ivan, Jesus bowed to me!”

“That’s nice, dear,” her mother said, and that was the end of that. But little Mara would never forget. The Bootleg Jesus became her favourite thing in the house, in all the world.

*

If one looked around, or even past the hills, there was one constant: goats. They climbed where man feared; they frolicked where man could tame them. So man ate them.

They made a soup out of them called “goat water”.

Mara liked to be outside, and so did her older brother Ivan and their friend Sydney, who visited them often, and one day they all had goat water outside, and they enjoyed it, and it became a thing for them. Goat water, outside. At the borders of the town. Where the wild goats were.

And Mara always brought the Bootleg Jesus with her. Everyone humoured her at first. Then, as the years passed, it became more of a sentimental habit. “Mummy and Daddy don’t have to come with us, Bootleg Jesus will watch over us as we eat and play… haha…”

Everyone knew it wouldn’t work, right?

*

Years.

They remove the veil childhood had over knowing how the world really runs.

Mara knew pain, now. She felt her brother’s.

Mara knew fear and hopelessness. She felt Sydney’s.

Mara knew dreams of being one with the earth, of feeling its ponderous power in her veins, of letting the power out through her to be free.

She and her brother ate goat water near the outskirts of the town. Sydney was absent.

Again.

Ivan’s knuckles were white as he sipped spoonful by spoonful, his eyes dark and fathomless, partially hidden by his dark hair.

Mara looked at him while she ate and winced. She was twelve now. She opened her mouth to speak.

“Ivan…”

“Don’t.”

She sighed, wincing.

They both knew why Sydney wasn’t here with them; she was apprenticed with Mr. Stewart, who demanded long and hard hours. Meeting together was a “childish thing”, a thing of the past. She had better things to do.

But that wasn’t true, was it? They both knew what was really going on behind closed doors, in Mr. Stewart’s house, to Sydney. She’d told Ivan, and then Mara; and Mr. Stewart was a friend of Sydney’s family, and they went back a long way. No one would believe her if she said anything, Sydney knew, what with her mother and her father and their fights.

The next time they managed to meet to have goat water Mara stared at the Bootleg Jesus, a childhood comfort, accusingly.

“Weren’t you supposed to protect us?” she squeaked, not wanting even the wind to hear, so embarrassed was she to still hold onto this faint hope.

She slapped it.

Light and gears sputtered to life, and the Bootleg Jesus’s head went down and up.

Mara sprang onto her bare feet. A strong breeze blew up, and she held her long black hair down with one hand, her brown skirt back with another.

Ivan and Sydney looked her way, expressions curious.

She kicked it.

Again light and gears sputtered to life, and the Bootleg Jesus’s head went down and up.

“WHAT?” Ivan said, springing to his feet as well.

Mara fell to her knees before it, taking it in her arms, then setting it down carefully.

“J… Jesus, do you love me?” she asked it, her voice tremulous, her mind back in the cluttered, unused garage, when she still had her naïveté and her heart was untarnished by life’s darker corners. Where she’d thought about godhood.

The bootleg Jesus lit to life again, bowing its head. A tinny voice. “Yes, Mara.”

Ivan approached. “So what’s inside it? What’s the key thing that makes it run?”

“…You wanna open it up down to its nuts n’ bolts and destroy it to find out? Because I don’t see anyone here who knows how to take it apart and put it back together,” Sydney said.

And all the way home, Mara smiled a gentle, private smile, like she and the Bootleg Jesus that she held in her arms, all the way home, shared something special.

*

“Mara!” her brother called loudly.

She was in the yard, picking out some garlic for this evening’s meal of goat water.

“It’s not working,” he yelled. The Bootleg Jesus.

She got off her knees. “Let me try.”

In the garage, sitting at a table, she said gently, smiling, “Jesus, are you there?”

It came to life, white robe going bright, neon rays from the heart glowing, the head bobbing down and back up. “Yes,” it said in that tinny voice. Then the lights went out, and it stopped moving.

Ivan slapped the table in frustration. “See, it only likes you.”

Mara’s smile went wider. “Maybe because I’ve always had faith.” She turned to leave.

“Wait!”

Mara turned back.

“Ask it for me, then.”

“Ask it what?”

“Will Sydney and I ever get married? Will we get Mr. Stewart to stop?”

“Jesus…”

It lit up, head bowing. “Yes… and no.” It went dark.

Ivan bolted out of his seat and marched out of the garage, punching the door to the house as he passed.

The house rumbled slightly.

“What was that? Earthquake?” She heard her mother wonder out aloud.

“In this area?” she heard her father say.

Mara was the only person who went to the outskirts of the town with the Bootleg Jesus that day.

And the next.

*

Ivan came outside with Mara this time.

Ivan paced back and forth through the lush grass around the bust of the Bootleg Jesus. “So you work, huh? Huh! Well, then tell me this!” he pounced before the bust, snakelike, hissing.

His bottomless brown eyes shone like brown diamonds with the tears in them. “Then tell me what to do about Sydney. She hurts. I hurt. But she hurts more. People hurt her. I want her there when I tell my parents about us, I want her to be able to come out here with me whenever she and I want – what to DO ABOUT THAT?”

The bust of Jesus sputtered with light from within, the head bowed back and forth and a mechanical, tinny voice spoke. “Lose the battle. Win the war.” The light from within sputtered out; it went still.

Mara smiled. Ivan stayed, where he crouched, thunderstruck, fingers gripping green blades of grass, before the Bootleg Jesus.

*

The next day Mara was out, alone again.

Her bowl of goat water lay in the grass, the sun starting to descend. She’d been out here for hours, crying.

“Jesus…”

The Bootleg Jesus lit up.

“What… can I do about Ivan and Sydney? I mean, can I make Mr.Stewart stop?”

“Yes.”

“…How?”

“Force.”

“What do you mean?

The Bootleg Jesus’s dreadlocked head bobbed up and down, the whites of its eyes electric-white. “Do what your heart desires.”

Mara gasped. Hastily, she wiped tears from her eyes. “Will he die?”

“Yes.”

“Will I die?”

“No.”

“Is it worth it?”

“…yes.”

Do what your heart desires… crumble and destruction… death and victory…

Grabbing onto her dark hair from both sides, Mara raised her head and screamed to the sky. The bowl flew away. The ground beneath her rumbled, a nearby tree shuddering its green leaves.

*

Mara walked up the steps to Mr. Stewart’s porch—were those cracking sounds coming from underfoot?—and banged open the flydoor and inside door to Mr. Stewart’s house, the flydoor rattling on its hinges.

She saw Mr. Stewart inside. In a pair of pants and undershirt. He watched her approach.

He wasn’t one to mince words. “What do you want.”

She walked right up to his face. “Leave. Her. Alone.”

Silence.

He scowled.

Then Mr. Stewart roughly took her arm. And that was it.

Then it seemed like Mr. Stewart wasn’t trying to grab her, he was trying to let go. He started to shake. Then he began to convulse. His eyes rolled back ’til you could see the whites; he fell onto a couch seat.

Mr. Stewart had set something in motion inside Mara, and it wasn’t going to stop now.

She had been staring at Mr. Stewart all this time, and she had been hyperventilating. She couldn’t… stop.

Behind the house, she heard a teeth-rending crack. Mr. Stewart’s house seemed to have picked up on his shaking; she looked about wildly.

Mara ran to the door. As her foot stepped in the doorway, a crack split the floor under her feet in half. She jumped down the stairs, onto the ground. The split went into the house, and other cracks branched away from it, taking over the whole house. Windows splintered. The upper floor groaned like it needed to eat, and started caving in alarmingly, warping the roof. Neighbours were coming out of their houses, pointing, shouting and a couple were screaming.

She looked up, past the whole house, to the mountain face that was behind it. And saw the crack in the rock above. Rocks of various sizes were breaking free and pounding down on the house’s roof. She held her breath. The crumbling seemed to stop. Then she realized what it was that was making this all happen.

Her.

She let her breath out in a scream, a scream to release all holding back, all fear, to let the wild things out – or the wild things in. The cracking of the mountain behind the house thunderclapped the air, and huge rocks began to fall. The house rumbled down to its foundation, crushed from above.

People scattered, really screaming for their lives now. But nothing hit them. Nothing hit Mara, either.

Mara simply stared. All the pressures of growing older—and never being old enough for your autonomy—and the ways adults around her had abused that notion… all of it inside her. Calm.

*

She could smell the goat water being made by her mother from the front gate. She eyed a green onion in the garden as she passed and it unrooted itself, trailing her. Her mother froze as she ascended the back steps into the kitchen.

She’d heard, then. Seen. She knew.

The spoon her mother was stirring the pot with lifted from her hand and went into Mara’s. “Let me.”

Lips trembling, her mother stepped back.

Mara put the spoon down and took hold of the green onions still hanging in the air, turning the tap on to wash them. When that was done, she took up a knife—which caused her mother some consternation—and started chopping them, then put them in the pot to cook.

“You always cooked it for me… so many times… I know it by heart now.”

“…Mara…” her mother said, voice trembling.

“Yes?” Mara turned, fingering the knife.

Her mother swallowed.

Mara noticed her mother eyeing the knife and put it down gently. She smiled slowly.

Her father walked carefully up behind her mother, placing his hands upon her shoulders. “You’re… such a big girl now…” he attempted.

“Not so big,” Mara said. “Ivan and Sydney are older.”

“Yes, yes, that’s right,” her mother said, swallowing nervously again.

Her mother stood tall and lifted her chin, lips trembling. “We’ve never hurt you,” she said, trying to be strident.

“No… no you never did. Not you. Not Daddy.”

“You know you can always talk to us,” he said, a strained smile on his features.

“Not about everything, though,” Mara said.

Ivan and Sydney burst upon the scene.

“Mara!”

Mara’s head snapped to see her brother and Sydney behind her, coming up the stairs. The knife lifted from the counter to point at her parents in the blink of an eye. The house rumbled slightly. The air thrummed.

“C’mon, now, Mara,” Ivan said, a cautious laugh, “put the knife down.”

Mara sighed. The knife went back to its place on the counter. The air went still.

“You ain’t gonna hurt anybody now,” Ivan said.

Mara nudged her face towards her parents. “They think I might.”

“No they don’t,” Ivan said, his voice getting louder. “They don’t think you’ll hurt them. Right?”

They nodded.

“Ivan,” Mara said, “Why don’t you tell mom and dad what you wanted to say for so long now?”

Ivan’s lip trembled.

“Well?”

His gaze went to the white floor. “Not like this,” he mumbled.

“Now’s a good time as any.”

Ivan stepped forward, holding Sydney’s hand. He took in a deep breath. “Mom, Dad, Sydney and I love each other. I’d love to marry her someday and I hope that we can have your blessing… now that Mr. Stewart can’t hurt her no more.”

“You have our blessing,” Mara’s father said.

They stood in silence. Mara sighed, turning to look out the kitchen window.

“Well, now what, Mara?” Ivan said. “You have all the cards.”

“No I don’t,” she said softly. She turned back to the kitchen. “I can’t stay here anymore.”

“Why not?” Ivan retorted.

“Here’s a place where no magic can be, yet here I am, manifesting. There’s people out there who know what I can do. They’ll know about me soon enough. There’s places for people like me. You don’t see people like me in public for long.”

“Mara…” her brother started.

“You know it, and I know it,” Mara said. “I have to go.”

“What… what can we do for you?” her father said. Her mother looked near tears.

“You can give me a bowl of that goat water, to go,” she said. “It was always what kept the three of us together.”

“Anything else?”

“The Bootleg Jesus,” she said, a warm smile finally coming to her face.

“I can give you the backpack with the sleeping bag in it,” her father said. “Not like we needed to camp out here with the stars, the open sky…” he caught himself, and coughed.

“I’ll get it,” Ivan said, ducking out of the room.

Mara’s mother began weeping silently, then stepped forward to prepare the soup for her.

“I don’t want you to go,” Sydney said, stepping forward to embrace Mara. She shed tears on Mara’s shoulder for some minutes, before breaking away, wiping at her nose.

“Here, take my poncho,” Ivan said, coming back, dropping the items on the floor.

She didn’t hug her parents as she took the soup and outfitted herself, although her mother looked like she was finally unafraid enough and wanted to do it for all the world. She did hug her brother though.

“Where’s the… oh.” Sydney said as the Bootleg Jesus floated into view.

Mara walked out the door, and down the steps. The sun was maybe a couple of hours from setting, but still hung low enough to set an orange glow across the sky.

The front gate opened of its own accord, and Mara stepped out.

This was all she knew for her entire life. And, just like that, she was unfit to stay here. She’d always been a keen reader, and what technology they had—like television—she knew that it took a massive Gift to do what she’d done today.

The Gift of those considered gods. Townships developed around them. People worshipped them. But they were hard to find, and they might show up in the public consciousness for a while, but just like that, their presence winked out and disappeared.

But she was all of twelve. And yet unafraid.

She looked back to her home. All that stood between her and it was the Bootleg Jesus, bobbing in the air. And it was fitting, in more ways than one.

It started with you, she thought, looking at it, lit up and ready for questions.

Would she ever get the time to control her Gift? Would she be allowed to? How far did her Gift go? Would she ever find out?

She looked forward, to the sky, then to the ground. They were all that stood between her now.

A god.

Mara took one step away from home, and then another.


© 2019 by Tonya Liburd

Author’s Note: If I recall correctly, it was the simplest of things – and this has happened before, for example, with the Ace Of Knives: a name of a player while I was gaming. They had the name Bootleg Jesus and it was a title and an idea generator. What is a Bootleg Jesus? etc.

Tonya Liburd shares a birthday with Simeon Daniel and Ray Bradbury, which may tell you a little something about her. She is a 2017 and 2018 Rhysling nominee, and has been longlisted in the 2015 Carter V. Cooper(Vanderbilt)/Exile Short Fiction Competition. Her fiction is used in Nisi Shawl’s workshops as an example of ‘code switching’, and in Tananarive Due’s course at UCLA, which has featured Jordan Peele as a guest lecturer. She is also the Senior Editor of Abyss & Apex magazine. You can find her blogging at http://Spiderlilly.com, on Twitter at @somesillywowzer, or on Patreon at www.Patreon.com/TonyaLiburd


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

MOVIE REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

written by David Steffen

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fantasy action/adventure movie tie-in to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe,  distributed by Warner Bros pictures in 2016.  It shares a title with one of Harry Potter’s textbooks in the Harry Potter series, written by Newt Scamander.  And it has also been published as a standalone book by J.K. Rowling in 2001.

In 1926, before he wrote his famous book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander traveled to the United States with a magical bag full of magical beasts, in order to return one of them to its native habitat in the American southwest. Newt accidentally switches bags with a local N0-Maj (the American word for “Muggle” or non-magic-user), an aspiring baker.  Demoted Auror (hunter of dark wizards) Tina Goldstein arrests him for the disturbance caused by one of the escaped creatures, but they decide to work together to find the bag and contain all the escaped creatures again.  Meanwhile, something magical and powerful is killing people in the city, but Newt is certain it’s not one of his creatures.  But the only way to prove that is to recapture all the creatures again.  There is an anti-magic in New York at the time, led by No-maj (another word for Muggle, a non-magic-user)Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society.  The anti-magic sentiment is strong in New York at this time and any magician caught is in danger from the No-Maj population, as well as risking the larger magical society, and Newt’s activities here aren’t exactly legal even within the magical population.

This movie was a lot of fun!  Largely because it’s great to have a chance to jump back in the Wizarding World since the main line of Harry Potter books and movies is over.  This is the first foray (at least that I remember) into the USA Wizarding World and it’s interesting to see how the laws and customs and wordage are different in the American setting than the British.  Although the characters are only familiar in a vague historical sort of way, there is plenty here to engage the watcher, and Newt is an interesting character with at least some laudable goals even if he does seem to make an art of self-delusion (“these creatures aren’t dangerous!” as he works very hard to prevent them murdering random passersby).  It works better than any of the Harry Potter movies in my opinion, and I think the reason for that is there’s no book source to compare it unfavorably to, while the Harry Potter movies were all books first that were adapted into movies, this was made to be a movie.

Action packed, a fun return to the universe we know and love but on a new continent we haven’t seen in Harry Potter stories.  A lot of fun!

DP FICTION #49B: “The Last Death” by Sahara Frost

I stare into the endless dark, watching, waiting. It’s like all those years ago, when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Me, lying in bed, wide-eyed with anticipation, listening for the clatter of eight tiny reindeer landing overhead. Only this time, it’s not jolly old Saint Nick I’m expecting. Nor is it sugar plums that dance inside my head, keeping sleep at bay.

The silent night drags on, one moment melding seamlessly into the next until I think the world must have stopped. Only the stars show me different, each glance out my window revealing their gradual progress across the sky. Then, at long last, it’s over. The dull gleam of first light crests the horizon, and once more, the world begins to move.

“Well,” I say to myself, “Suppose I might as well get ready.”

Heart fluttering with a giddy tingle, I throw back the covers and sit up. Immediately, my poor old bones creak in protest, reminding me to slow down. “Easy, girl. Easy!” I chide, quelling the urge to spring from my bed like some youngster, “No sense in falling and breaking a hip. ‘Specially not today of all days.” I release my impatience with a huff and bob my head in a reluctant nod. Then I plant my feet firmly on the floor, reach for my cane, and carefully hoist myself up.

Once my balance is sure, I begin to move about my home, preparing for the day. There isn’t much to be done. There never is, these days. Still, I want everything to be absolutely perfect. So I throw open all the doors and windows to let in light and fresh air. Then I busy myself with one last tidying-up, straightening the bed, sweeping the floor, and wiping a rag over any surface that might have collected dust overnight.

The next time I look up, my heart skips a beat. Slashes of crimson and gold have already begun to streak the sky. It won’t be long now. Going to the front door, I search the skeletal remains of what had once been a thriving subdivision with bated breath. “Today is the day,” I insist, the words hissing through my teeth like a prayer, “Surely, today is the day.”

I sweep my eyes back and forth for only a moment longer before spying what I seek. There, where the empty street curves out of sight behind a thinning copse of bone white trees, is the stark outline of a shadow. A shadow with which I am now quite familiar. Every morning, it appears on my horizon and, throughout the day, makes its slow approach. When the sun sets, it runs away, but by the next morning, it’s back again, a little closer than the day before. Yesterday, it nearly reached my doorstep before it turned and fled. “It has to be today. It has to!”

Knowing there’s not much time left, I go to my bookcase and take down the lone photo album occupying its shelves. I turn it over and over in my hands, slowly tracing my fingers over the familiar creases in its soft, worn cover. When at last I crack it open, I do so with my eyes closed, breathing deep the sweet, musty tang wafting up from its yellowed pages. Then I open my eyes again and finally allow myself to look at the smiling ghosts trapped within.

An old pain twinges deep within my chest at the same time that a smile tugs at my lips. “Hello, loves,” I say, “It’s been too long, hasn’t it?” I gently turn the album’s pages, pausing to touch the faces captured in each photograph. “Yes, far too long indeed.” When I finish going through and greeting them all, I shut the photo album and clutch it tight to my chest. “But it won’t be much longer now,” I promise, “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

As the words leave my mouth, I am again seized by a giddy feeling. “Soon,” I say to myself, as though repeating the word will make it that much more real to me, “Soon!” Bolstered by my own words, I stand a little straighter and even allow myself a small, excited grin. Returning the photo album to its shelf, I let go my last earthly treasure. There’s only one thing left to do now. Just one last thing. Filled with a sense of renewed determination, I turn to go outside.

“Good heavens!” I cry, heart leaping into my throat when I see the pintsized, hooded figure now standing in my doorway. Thinking I’ve lost track of time again, I ask, “Is it that late, already?” and glance over its head. The sun’s bright eye meets my gaze through the open door. “Oh,” I say, understanding dawning with a bittersweet twinge of disappointment, “You’re early.”

“No, not early,” the figure sighs with a soft, mournful wisp of a voice, “Quite late, actually.”

“Ah,” I say, not entirely sure how to respond, “Well I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“Reasons,” replies the figure, a tremor now audible in its voice, “Excuses.”

“You’re here now,” I try, “That’s what’s really important, right?”

In a gesture reminiscent of a sullen child, the figure twitches its slumped shoulders in an indifferent shrug. I wait for it to say something, but no word comes, and soon, the silence grows awkward. I’m not really sure what it is I envisaged for this moment. A word or a beckoning hand. I just know I’m waiting for something. Anything. But the figure says nothing, does nothing, and we just stand there facing each other, a chasm of silent expectation growing ever wider between us.

Keen to go, my impatience starts to get the better of me. I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t say something. After all, maybe it’s not just me that’s waiting. Perhaps I need to give some sort of sign to show that I’m ready. “Or,” my second-guessing mind whispers. Or maybe I was wrong about today. Maybe my time hasn’t come after all. Maybe it never will. “Or,” it whispers again. Or maybe it already has. Maybe my time came and went long ago. Maybe I’ll wait here forever, suffering in this lonely hell. “Or.”

Panic twists my stomach into a knot and tightens its claws around my throat. I struggle to catch my breath, my lungs dragging painfully, desperate for air. My mind whirls, and I feel myself slipping into a tailspin. As the room seems to tilt around me, I squeeze my eyes shut and hold onto my cane for dear life. It is then, just as I think the chaos will devour me whole, that a sound cuts through the silent screaming in my mind, the soft sobbing of a weeping child.

Opening my eyes, I cast about for the source of the sound. But my home is empty. Nobody else is here. Nobody but me and my strange, small companion. A closer look shows me that it is, indeed, my visitor who weeps. Its shaking form is evident, even beneath the concealing folds of its several-sizes-too-large robe.

As I look at the pitiable creature trembling in my doorway, my panic loosens its grip upon me, giving way to another emotion. One I have not felt in far too long. Compassion. “Oh, come now!” I say, “No need for that! Here, why don’t you come in and sit awhile with me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone to talk to.” Moving to my kitchen table, I slowly lower myself into one of the two chairs I had already pulled out in preparation for today. When I look up to see that my visitor has made no move to join me, I gently add, “Besides, you’re already late. I’m sure it won’t matter if you’re a little later.”

My words apparently afford some small measure of comfort. Though my visitor still hesitates in the doorway, its sobbing subsides into a quieter snuffling. “I suppose that’s true,” I hear it say, pinpricks of hope stippling its muffled words, “Maybe if it’s only for a moment or two.” Then, as though expecting to be struck by a divine bolt of lightning, the figure ducks its head, hunches its shoulders, and takes one tentative step forward. Then another. Then another. When it at last climbs into the empty seat next to me and still nothing happens, it allows itself to relax once more.

“So,” I start, only to discover I haven’t actually thought of what to say, and thus petering out with a lamely trailing, “so…” A moment later, I open my mouth to try again, but having failed to solve the initial problem, am forced to shut it once more. Again and again, this cycle repeats itself, resulting in a long silence that my visitor shows no intention of helping to break. Until, at last tiring of my tongue-tying indecision, I throw all caution to the wind and begin spitting out my every thought as it comes to mind.

“Huh. Well what do you know. Here I am with someone to finally talk to, and I can’t seem to find a single thing to say. It’s not like I don’t have anything to say. I’ve got loads to say! I just can’t seem to decide where to begin. After all this time to think about it—and believe you me, I’ve had plenty of time—you’d think I’d have that part figured out. And maybe I did, once. But now that it’s come to it, I just don’t know. I just don’t know!”

Laughing softly to myself, I shake my head and give my silent companion a wry smile. “Sorry, kiddo. Guess I’m a little out of practice with this whole conversation thing. What about you? What’s your excuse?”

A beat passes in silence. Two beats. Three. Just as I am ready to give up waiting for a response, my companion shrugs and says, “You humans don’t usually want to talk to me.”

“Really?” I ask, genuinely surprised, “Why not? I’d think they’d have all sorts of questions for you. I know I do.”

Another stretch of silence, then, “Some have questions. But they’re usually the kind I can’t answer.”

“And the ones you can?”

“They still don’t often lead to a conversation. Demanding. Cursing. Pleading. But not a conversation.”

“O-Oh. I…I see.” I falter, unsure of where to go from there, but I’m saved the trouble.

“But most people,” my companion continues without prodding, “don’t say anything at all. They can’t. They’re too shocked or sad or scared. And besides, I don’t get to be with any of them that long. So by the time they realize there’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s too late to talk. They’ve already moved on.”

As I listen to all of this with rapt interest, I become aware of a sensation like a knot being loosened within myself. It starts in my chest, works its way up the muscles of my neck, then spreads into my shoulders and down my back. I’m free, I realize. Free of a weight I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. Free of a fear that I’d long ago buried and forgotten. The very same fear that I now recognize being reflected in the figure sitting next to me.

“Sounds like lonely work,” I say, “Must be tough.”

“Yes, sometimes, but I don’t mind,” it replies, a new vitality entering its voice so that it practically gushes, “After all, I was made for this work, and it for me. Only I can do this. No one else was made to endure the responsibility. And besides, the reward more than makes up for the hardship. I know it might be difficult for you to understand, but there’s nothing quite like the sight of a soul when it realizes it’s been brought home. Nothing quite like it at all.”

“I can only imagine,” I say, wondering what sort of expression now hides behind the cowl, “It sounds like you really love your work.”

“I do,” enthuses my companion, then more subdued, “I did.”

“You did?” I question, a touch incredulous, “You mean to tell me you don’t love it anymore? I find that hard to believe.”

“Oh, no. Never that,” assures my companion, “Never that.”

“Then…?”

For a long moment, my companion doesn’t answer, picking at its robes in silence. Then, in a voice so quiet I almost don’t hear it, it slowly whispers, “I always knew, even from the very beginning, that it wouldn’t last forever. That my work…my role…my purpose…would eventually end.”

“End?” I repeat, slow to understand, “But wait…then wouldn’t that mean—?”

“Yes,” interjects my companion, anticipating my question before I even fully realize what it is I’m asking, “It is exactly as you suspect.” Then, without warning, it begins to speak in a foreign tongue. “KAÌ Ὁ THΆNATOS KAÌ Ὁ HAÍDĒS,” it says, its tone deepening and expanding, “EBLĒTHĒSAN EIS TḖN LIMNÉ TOŨ PYRÓS.” Its voice continues to grow, reaching a powerful timbre of such magnitude that the walls around me begin to shake. “OὟTOS ESTIN.” And though I cannot understand the words, “Ὁ DEÚTERÓS THΆNATOS,” they reverberate through me, speaking to my very core.

In the silence that follows, my ears ache with a painful ringing. For a moment, I fear that I have gone deaf. But then I hear my companion, in a low voice, say, “Then Death and the Grave were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” Almost as an afterthought, it adds, “The last death.”

“The death of Death,” I murmur, at last understanding. I pause, contemplating this new development, then ask, “So I really am the last?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” I reply, inwardly marveling at how calmly I accept this confirmation of my long-held suspicions, “I had thought so, but there was no real way for me to know for sure.” I pause again, longer this time, reluctant to ask my next question. Finally, though, I manage, “So if I am the last, then that must mean when I…” Here I stumble, unable to bring myself to say the word. “…you also—?”

“Yes.”

This time, the confirmation hits hard, and I am unable to say anymore for a long while. When I finally do find my voice again, it comes out weak and fearful as I ask, “Is that why it took you so long to come for me?”

The silence that follows is all the answer I need. All at once, I am overwhelmed by the powerful sense of relief that washes over me. Dropping my face into my hands, I cry, “Thank God! Thank you, thank you, God! I had thought that maybe…but no. Thank you, Lord. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!”

I continue like that for a time, letting out all my years of built-up feelings in a catharsis of tears. When I at last finish crying out all my fear, doubt, frustration, and despair, I dry my eyes and start, “I’m sorry, I—”

“No,” interrupts my companion, its tone heavy with shame, “It is I who should be s-sorry.” Voice breaking on this last word, it sobs, “I’ve been so afraid. I let my fear get in the way of my duty and have caused you such suffering. I’m so sorry. So, so sorry for what I have done to you.”

I listen to these profuse apologies in solemn silence, unsure how to accept them. Part of me is tempted to wave them away with a blithely assuring, “It’s okay,” but that would ring false. Because the truth is it isn’t okay. It hasn’t been okay for a very long time. So rather than try to bandage over my pain with comforting lies, I instead reach out in the spirit of solidarity and say, “I think we all do sometimes. I know I’ve said and done things I’m not exactly proud of, all because I was afraid.”

“But you’re human!”

“And you’re…well, I guess I don’t really know what you are…but you’re not God, are you?”

“No.”

“Then I think it’s probably fair to assume that you’re forgiven a mistake from time to time too.”

“Maybe,” my companion relents, though still sounding unconvinced, “I don’t know.”

“Well why not? You’re sorry aren’t you?”

It nods.

“And you’re here to repair your mistake, aren’t you?”

It starts to nod again, then hesitates.

“You are here to repair your mistake,” I repeat with a jolt of panic, “Right?”

It hesitates another moment, then finally dips its head, finishing its nod.

Releasing my held breath in a nervous laugh of relief, I say, “Well that’s all anyone can really ask for. Just gotta give it our best shot and trust God to take care of the rest.”

Speaking slowly, painfully, as though each word is a struggle to say, my companion admits, “What you say is true, but…” Its voice lowers to a whisper. “…but I am still afraid.”

Leaning forward, I reach out my hand and, with a small smile, whisper, “Me too.”

For a long moment, my companion sits there, staring at my outstretched hand. Then slowly, ever so slowly, it reaches out and takes my hand in its own. The moment our hands meet, my companion finds its courage. Before my very eyes, it undergoes a sort of transformation, straightening its back, squaring its shoulders, and lifting its head. Then, taking a deep breath, it looks me in the eye and bravely quavers, “Y-You have nothing to be afraid of. I-I’ll stay with you every step of the way.”

“And I with you,” I promise, giving its hand a gentle squeeze, “I’ll stay with you too. Every step of the way.”

“O-Okay,” it stammers, with a small frantic nod, “I-I’m ready.”

“Okay,” I say.

Getting to my feet, I help my companion down from its chair. Then, hand in trembling hand, we walk to the front door. When we step up to the threshold, we are met by a vision so breathtakingly glorious that I am momentarily stunned to stillness. As I look upon this final sunset, I am filled to overflowing with a profound sense of peace. I am ready.

We look at each other then, my companion and I.

“Together?” I ask.

“Together,” it agrees.

Then, holding fast to each other’s hands, we cross the threshold and step into bright, burning light.


© 2018 by Sahara Frost

Author’s Note:    I originally wrote this story in response to a call for submissions from Zombies Need Brains. They were looking for short stories to publish in a few themed anthologies, including one dedicated to exploring Death as a character. From the moment I read the prompt, I knew that I wanted to write Death as a sympathetic character, particularly as a child (or at least a child-like entity). The idea for my short story didn’t fully form, though, until I stumbled across a Bible verse in Revelations that describes Death being thrown into a lake of fire at the end of days. When I read that verse, I suppose you could say I felt a bit of sympathy for Death. The lake of fire struck me as a pretty raw deal for someone just doing their job. I thought about how if that was the future waiting for me, I would probably be living in constant terror. With that, an idea began to grow in my mind, and my story came to life.

Sahara Frost grew up in the foothills of Tennessee, reading anything and everything she could find. When books were not enough to feed her ravenous imagination, she began to write her own. An M.A. in English and an M.S. in Information Science later, she now supports her reading addiction by daylighting as a librarian while staying up all hours of the night to pursue her real job: writing fantasy. Fortunately, her supportive husband tolerates her many obsessions and makes sure her coffee mug stays full so that she can continue writing.


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

DP FICTION #49A: “Heaven For Everyone” by Aimee Ogden

The summer that God came to Whartonville, I ended up trapped on the drugstore roof with only half a peanut butter sandwich and a seraph to keep me company.

The sandwich part is true! Hell, all of it is true. I’d eaten the rest of my lunch on the bus, before God’s approach hit the news. I can always buy more lunch in the hospital cafeteria. When the cafeteria and the rest of the city aren’t under three feet of water, at least. I know it was bad, and people died, but I’m still glad we got a flood instead of the plague of locusts that just hit Fargo. Two months later and you still can’t step outside without a crunch, is what I hear.

Anyway the seraph must have flown up before the rain really started coming down, and I managed to climb up onto the street light and from there to the roof. So there we were together in the middle of the storm. “I thought He didn’t do this shit anymore,” I said to the seraph. They shrugged, or at least I thought they did. It’s hard to read body language on someone who’s seven feet tall with six wings and a dozen mouths, but I’ve had practice lately. You know they can’t really speak for themselves? Sure, they talk, but everything they say is an echo from the Almighty’s own lips. Or at bare minimum from one or another of His prophets. So body language turns out to be kind of important. “There was a covenant or whatever.”

I pushed away from the ledge. I still had my umbrella at that point, I think, though with the way the rain was blowing I probably wasn’t any dryer for it. You’ve seen pictures of the flooding? They don’t do the wind justice. “I guess you probably can’t just fly us up and out of here, either.” The seraph’s burning wings were too drenched to do more than smolder. They shook their head, and a hospital ID card rattled around their neck. I knew we had a few angels working in the morgue. They liked to stay out of sight, and everyone else liked it that way too.

“Damn,” I said, because I didn’t have anything else to say. When we said we wanted heaven for everyone, you know, this wasn’t what we had in mind. We unlocked the doors and flung them wide open, but heaven didn’t let us in. Heaven came to us. “The storm’s getting worse.”

“YOU HAVE BEEN CAST DOWN, YOU THAT ONCE LAID LOW THE NATIONS,” said the seraph, and my teeth rattled in my skull. That voice had been created to level mountains and humble the mighty. I wasn’t that mighty and it didn’t make me feel humble, just headachey. I told the seraph not to rub it in and that I was pretty well aware by that point just how low I’d been cast, and they looked down at their bare leathery feet. And then I wasn’t so sure just who they’d meant.

That was when I heard the screaming. A little break in the wind, maybe. No, don’t call it the eye of the storm. What was at the center of that squall had a lot more than just one eye. But I’ll get to that. Just sit tight.

The screaming was a woman down on the street. Well, not on the street itself. The street was a riverbed by then. She’d grabbed a door somewhere, one of those interior jobs with the cork core to make it float. Might’ve been okay on a lazy river or something, but a trip down Almond Street meant real whitewater rafting.

The seraph leaned down next to me to get a view of her. They shook their head, and the long silver chains of their hair scraped against their guttering wings. “THOU SHALT NOT KILL.”

“You’re the angel,” I told them. “Do something.” But I don’t need to tell you how that rankled. I didn’t go to medical school for a million years because I like just standing around and watching people die. Did you know that most of the hospital staff were Paradisists? I don’t know the exact numbers, but upwards of eighty percent for sure. You see that many people die, you see that many people live badly, you’re going to want change. Well, we got it. First, do no harm, we said, but it turns out you can’t crack your way into heaven without screwing things up something serious.

Where was I? Oh, the woman. So the current was sweeping her down the street right in front of the drugstore and I thought, you know what? I’m already wet. So I grabbed the downspout and slid down and probably would have about broken both my ankles if there hadn’t been three feet of water to slow my fall. I’m tall but three feet of water is tall too, and it knocked me right over, and my first thought was, well, this lady and I are going to die together.

Then this huge splash, practically a tsunami, right next to me. The seraph took a cannonball right off the roof. Lucky they didn’t land on me or this story would be a lot shorter and also you’d have to hear it from my wandering soul. Assuming I’m heavenbound in the first place. That might be a big assumption for any Paradisist, I don’t know. They came down between me and the lady on the door and I was glad for that, I was halfway to the suburbs by then but at least I didn’t take the plunge for nothing, I got off the roof to save her and if my swan dive didn’t accomplish anything besides getting that seraph in gear, that’s okay.

I was underwater more than I was above, but I saw them grab her. They put her up on their shoulders like a kid riding piggyback. And then the last thing I saw before I went under again was them spreading their wings wide. And when I say wide—have you ever seen a seraph in flight? Their wingspan half filled the street. Diverted some of the water around the corner, onto Pierson Avenue—my apartment’s down that way, but that was the last thing on my mind at the moment, let me tell you. Not enough to stop the water, but enough to slow it down. I got my feet under me again, and I got to the seraph. “Now what?” I asked, because it was still raining too hard for their wings to light up. Not that a takeoff in gale winds probably would have been a great idea.

Well, that seraph picked me up like a rag doll and set me on top of the roof across the street, just a single story, and lifted the woman up right next to me. Then they started climbing up too, but lord, were they heavy. They tried stepping on the windowsill and ripped it clean out of the façade. We tried to heave them up, the two of us together, but like I said: heavy. And just then, guess who decided to come cruising around the corner? Yes, the Almighty Himself, a thousand blazing eyes and a hundred tongues professing His very own glory. You could see the rain sloughing off Him, rivers of the stuff. Literal rivers. I didn’t know then that January Lake had already burst its banks. That’s what happens when a man-made lake meets a heaven-made catastrophe. But still: could’ve been a plague of locusts.

After all of it, there’s still a part of me that wants to take a swing at the big guy. A stupid caveman gut reaction. You can’t punch a cloud, even one chock full of eyeballs. But you can want to punch it, and boy do I.

Anyway Almond Street had become Almond River at that point, really, and all we had was to hang on to the seraph like their life depended on it. Maybe it did. We hung on, together, just the three of us alone in the world for all we knew. That seraph held on so tight they broke my wrist, can you believe that? Still hurts when a storm’s coming. But we held on. That was all that mattered just then. And eventually the storm died down, and the river dried up, and the seraph lifted us down from the roof like the infants we were.

The woman looked around. “It’s still raining,” she said. “I thought it would have stopped by now. I mean—He’s gone, isn’t He?”

But I ignored her. Not at my best form just then. “It’s not fair,” I said, which was a damned stupid thing to say, because fair was never the point, was it? The idea of heaven for everyone wasn’t fair, it was just right. It was just … just.

The seraph spat a giant loogie onto the wet street. “RENDER UNTO CAESAR,” they said, and jerked a pair of wings in the general direction of where God had gone.

“You’re mad at the big man?” My wrist hurt like hell, but I remember the thing that bothered me most was that my shoes each weighed about a thousand pounds. Never occurred to me to just kick them off. “We’re the ones who pulled you down here into the mucky-muck.”

“We” was more literal than the seraph might guess. Or maybe they did know? It’s not like I’ve ever made a big secret of it. Doctors are supposed to help people, aren’t they? But they weren’t looking at me. Their stare drifted along the street, where the marble façade had come off the old theater and the windows had blown out of Martinelli’s. There were a dozen bodies left behind where the river had been.

I wondered then, what it was like in heaven before we brought the walls down. Which way the anger blew when He’d promised He wouldn’t turn it earthward again. Well, we wanted heaven for everyone. Maybe we just weren’t clear enough on the details of what heaven was supposed to look like, or who exactly counted as everyone.

The storm had passed, but there was still wreckage to clean up. Some of it human. “We’ll make things right,” I said. As right as they can be, after all this. “We’ve done harder work than this,” I said.

The seraph raised one wing. Sheets of rain slashed off the edges of their brass feathers, but I ducked underneath, and the woman—Karen, did I say that yet? Her name was Karen—anyway, she did too. They closed their wings around us and we huddled together until the last of the Almighty’s wrath had passed. Shared that PB&J, too, even if it was a little soggy, and before the rescue teams came through I gave the seraph my number in case they wanted to check out my lab. Maybe get out of morgue work. As for the Almighty, I think He headed north out of Whartonville, but I forget if that’s the summer He hit Winnipeg or Regina.


© 2018 by Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden is a former software tester and science teacher; now, she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. If she went to Hogwarts, she would be a Ravenclaw, and her patronus would be She-Hulk punching a nazi in the face. Her work has also appeared in Shimmer, Apex, and Analog.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, read Aimee’s previous story “When One Door Shuts”, or read the other story offerings.

MOVIE REVIEW: Smallfoot

written by David Steffen

Smallfoot is a 2018 computer-animated musical adventure children’s film about a town of yetis living in high mountains above the clouds, oblivious of the human world until plane crashes and a young yeti, Migo (Channing Tatum) sees a smallfoot (their name for humans).  Everything about the yetis’ lives is defined by the laws written on ancient stones worn by their leader the Stonekeeper (Common).  Migo  is the son of Dorgle the gong-ringer (Danny DeVito) who rings the gong every morning to make the sun rise.  Every day is spent with daily labors that don’t have a clear purpose but are prescribed by the stones.   Migo and his young friends, including Meechee the Stonekeeper’s daughter (Zendaya), Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), and Fleem (Ely Henry) question the wisdom of the stones.

The pilot who survived the plane crash escapes and tells the humans down below about what he saw and unethical documentary filmmaker Percy Patterson (James Corden) decides to stage a hoax video with his assistant dressed in a yeti costume when he accidentally runs into Migo.  Migo and his friends interact with Percy, trying to exchange information about their worlds, when they realize that they need to return Percy to the human world or he will freeze to death in the mountains.

This was a fun kid’s movie, with some catchy musical number, especially “Let It Lie” by Common in a very memorable reveal.  Great cast, though the plot overall is a little predictable for an adult, there’s a lot of fun stuff in it for kids.