DP FICTION #46A: “The Hammer’s Prayer” by Benjamin C. Kinney

I showed up early for work, as always. The airport’s underbelly was the ugliest place in Boston, but I would’ve spent every hour there if I could get away with it. Among the hurried machines and distant reek-sweet jet fuel, I had everything I needed. A purpose, a paycheck, a place to hide; and most of all, a land of function without beauty, where nothing would tempt me to invest it with holiness and life.

The other officers grunted hellos as they arrived, and we split up into pairs for our little contributions to the safety of mankind. My supervisor Darrell beckoned me to him once again, and I took my place by the conveyor belt, pleased for the company of his press-perfect uniform blues. I had never let him know me, as I could let no human know me, but he had come to appreciate me despite the dull mask of my restraint.

I brushed clay dust from my uniform, tugged on my gloves, and watched humanity’s obsessions trundle toward the scanner. The belt hummed with the comfort of purposeful movement, content with suitcases and backpacks and baby strollers. A hard-shelled bicycle box wedged against a chute, and a light blinked amber as the conveyor belt clunked to a halt.

I leaned over the belt, and hauled the box into my arms. I’d hoped for something truly heavy, but it weighed no more than it looked. I pretended to exert myself as I carried the box to the scuffed steel examination table, and set it down beneath fluorescent lights and Darell’s sampling wand.

He chatted in his rhythm-quick voice as he jiggled the latch and drew out his ring of master keys. On the third try, the lid swung open. He whistled. “Wow. Ever see something like that, Jakob?”

A glossy bronze shape lay nestled in a bird’s nest of packing paper. The sculpture had the shape of a stylized motorcycle, sleek and long and stubby-piped, like the dream from a Hell’s Angels Science Fiction Club. Its metal engine gleamed in the harsh white light, as if it had just emerged from the workshop of some loving hobbyist, awaiting my word to roar down the open road.

A word I could never permit myself to give, despite the longing that beat through my chest like blood.

Darrell tapped his wand against my wrist. “Slow down, big guy.” I yanked back my hand, and he said “Can’t imagine a bomb hidden under this much work, but we still gotta check.”

I laced my fingers together as Darrell swept his wand over its surface. I had spent so long avoiding anything built and beautiful. I’d almost forgotten the sensation of their call, the gravity of their appeal.

This was no airplane, vomiting exhaust into the atmosphere; no luggage cart on the journey of a materialistic ant. Nor was it a golden calf, stealing hearts from the Creator. The sculpture existed, and made the world a better place for it, like a brother you never knew was alive.

Darrell levered the sculpture upright, one wheel toward the ceiling. “Yeah? What do you think? You like it, big guy?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He laughed. “That’s why I like you on my crew. You’re a great conversationalist. But yeah, it’s nice. Wouldn’t mind one of these hanging over the TV or something. Hold it for a minute?”

I balanced the sculpture in one hand, and let it tilt a few degrees until its surface rippled with white bars of reflected light. Darrell probed the box’s packing-paper corners with his wand, and then turned away and inserted it into the reader.

I had spent most of my life avoiding this temptation. Months upon months of dull repetition, back and forth between empty apartment and empty work, shaping myself into a useful cog of civilization. I’d survived undiscovered for so long, surely I deserved a few moments of fulfillment. One risk today, averaged over three years, left me comfortably safe.

I lay my hand on the sculpture’s headlight, let my fingers sketch the shape of letters, and laid the motorcycle back into its nest.

Some legends said the mark should read truth, others spirit, or a full Adonai Elohim emet, the Lord God is truth. But for me, anything will work. My fingernail left no impression on the bronze, but the clear cool presence of my gift flowed from hand to metal, like the release of a long-held breath.

I slammed down the lid.

“Jakob? What was that?” Darrell’s voice had lost its rhythm. He studied me not with wide-eyed surprise, but the narrow gaze of skepticism.

I froze. What had he seen? What had I done, in my moment of temptation? I shifted position, my body between him and the box. “You said all clear, right?”

He cradled his radio. “Yeah. All clear, Jakob.”

I hauled the box onto the outgoing conveyor belt, toward the rubber-strip curtain between our screening area and the automated paths beyond. Maybe nothing would happen. Maybe my power had faded in the years since I last gave life. I might’ve imagined that flow of power. Maybe I’d always imagined it, in hallucinations bubbling up from the lack of some medicine or construction in my mind.

The motorcycle would vanish into a cargo hold, a simple sculpture, able only to move by the gift of an airplane’s engine and fuel.

The box swiveled, jostled by  a sudden motion within. Black plastic clipped the curtain’s steel frame, and the box passed through the curtain and vanished from sight.

Darrell’s gaze bored into my back. No, my imagination, my fear. Warranted, though. I’d stayed far too long, in the lure of a steady job and my self-control. My mistake.

“Taking a break,” I said, and hustled toward the exit.

***

The late-October wind cut through my uniform jacket as I knelt by the ocean’s rocky shore, a false coast constructed by bulldozer and dredge. A stone’s throw from the runways, and the only place where the airport would allow me a sliver of comfort.

My cellphone buzzed in my pocket, but I couldn’t bear a glimpse of modern design. I wanted to hurl it into the waves, to awaken it to life, anything. I focused on the salt-sodden chill of water in my socks, the splash of waves over my boots. Water full of jellyfish, barnacles, and seaweed. Every plant and animal already true in form and function, alive by the Creator’s breath.

Beautiful but quiet. Nature laid no demands on me. My one chance to touch grace without it begging for my aid.

My pocket buzzed again. I had thought the airport would shelter me behind its utility and ugliness, but temptation had found me nonetheless. Darrell had seen me. I imagined hurling my phone into the water, fleeing from my job. I could disappear into some wilderness, far from any man-made creation that could tempt power from my fingertips.

Behind me, something zipped along the runways. Too low for an airplane, too swift for a maintenance truck. Maybe it was the sculpture, broken free of its box, enjoying the animate life I had given it. The sound faded, and I could not tell how far it’d gone.

I drew my phone with a wet-fingered tug. The cracked and blocky device settled in my hand, its shabby exterior muting the whispers from within. The buzz had been my weekly reminder to make a deposit into Saba Haskel’s fund. Once, the money had paid for his nursing home. Now, half of it went for his burial plot, and the rest to his chosen charities.

My thumb hesitated over the screen. Saba Haskel’s commands had faded in the seventeen months since his passing. If I unyoked myself from his debts and generosity, I could make my escape, and discover the shape of a life molded around my own needs.

I huffed a quiet half-laugh. As if I doubted what I might do, despite all the free will breathed into my soul. Saba Haskel had built himself a dutiful son.

I tapped my way to a banking app, and transferred over my last few hundred dollars.

No job meant no paycheck. I might keep them both, if I could talk Darrell down, if I could just walk back into the inspection line. I would have to try. I dipped my fingers through a receding wave, and then turned back toward the terminal’s lights.

***

My badge opened door after door, back from tarmac to fluorescent lights and then the cavernous rumbling space of the inspection room. I reached the conveyor belt, snapped nitrile gloves over my hand, and then halted. One of the other inspectors waved me over, and pointed her thumb at a video camera watching from the corner. “Boss wants to talk to you.”

So much for a return to the inspection line. I peeled off my gloves, and cradled them in my hands as I stepped away from the belt’s welcoming hum. I eyed the poor nitrile, wasted before it could do its work, and then tossed the crumpled gloves into the trash.

I passed through the garage where rectangular luggage carts slept in their peeling orange paint, waiting for a tug to drag them onward to a luggage-laden airplane. I swiped into the back corridor, and then again to access the control room.

A wall of monitors blinked at me, filling the room with their grainy light. Darrell paced behind the desk, and his phone rested on the surface with a satisfied glow.

I put on a dull expression. “What’s this about?”

Darrell shook his head. “Two years ago, couple months after you started here, I was told to keep an eye on you. I started to think it was nothing, you know that? But now, Jakob. That statue. What the hell did you do?”

I sat down in front of the desk, slid my hands along the frail plastic of the chair’s armrests, and tried to imagine who might’ve asked Darrell for such a favor. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He halted, crossed his arms. “Thirty million passengers come through here every year, counting on us. Don’t you bullshit me.”

His uniform clung to his body, armpits dampened by sweat. Whether he feared for our passengers, or himself, I had no idea how to protect him. Every word faltered in my throat, inadequate and profane.

Darrell tightened his lips. “You know the real Jakob Haskel died before his first birthday? I just learned. But I bet you always knew.”

I forced my head to shake as slowly as ever. “Don’t know what you’re–”

He tugged open the desk drawer, and heaved a tangle of bronze onto the desk. It had once held the shape of a motorcycle’s front end. Its wheel had gone flat, the struts accordion-crushed like hollow aluminum after a crash.

The axle spun once, then shuddered to a stop. It turned in the opposite direction, skipped once, and stuck.

He said, “I don’t know what’s up with this, so we’re even.” His phone chirped, and he glanced at the screen. “Sit tight, Jakob. If you don’t wanna come clean to me, maybe I don’t know you so well after all. But the lady from the NSA will get answers out of you, one way or another.”

Plastic buckled beneath my fingers. Even if the National Security Agency fought for a worthy cause, they were who they were. No weaponsmith ever made the world more peaceful.

I leapt to my feet, but Darrell was already past me. He opened the door, and admitted a woman wearing a black suit so rumpled and careworn it wanted to slide off on its own in search of a sewing machine.

She ignored Darrell. She stared at me, and her bittersweet smile gripped me with the certainty of prayer.

She said, “I’ve always wondered whether Doctor Haskel made you in his own image.”

“You knew Saba?”

“I was his last graduate student.” She drew out a pair of business cards, one for Darrell and one for me. “And I know exactly what he was working on before he retired. Praxis derived from 16th century Praguer variants of the Sefer Yetzirah.”

Darrell squinted at the card. “Hold on. Doctor Menkin? You said you were from the NSA.”

“No, sir. Dr. Rebecah Menkin. I was at the NSF, at least when we spoke a couple years ago. The National Science Foundation.” She circled the desk, a hawk untroubled by the errant gust of Darrell’s question. She rested one hand on the motorcycle’s cowl and met my eyes. “I’ve spent the last six years trying to track down Saba’s final project. I chased every link I could find. Including the name.”

Six years. Since long before Saba awoke me from clay. “What do you want from me?”

“Come with me. We’ll recreate Dr. Haskel’s work, and finally get it published. The world deserves to know he was right.”

In the depths of my bereavement I might’ve leapt into her hands. But Saba had returned to dust, and his pride with him. If his work spread, the world could see more creations like me. Half souls, cursed by the temptation of life and beauty.

I said, “No.”

“Let’s not make this adversarial, Jakob.” She smiled, but her eyes resisted, as sharp as a dream’s leading edge. “Your boss told me about your talent. Let me help you understand it.”

A wise man hears one word and understands two, Saba used to say. If I left with this doctor, I’d spend the rest of my days in a lab, under microscope or scalpel or drill. I’d become one more metal to smelt from its ore, in the humans’ endless hunger for new methods of creation.

I said, “Darrell. I’ll talk to you, but not this woman. Get her out of here.”

Darrell pushed past Dr. Menkin, jammed a key into a desk drawer, and yanked out a taser. He swung the black-and-yellow barrel back and forth, between the woman and me.

He said, “Doc, you need to leave. I may not understand what Jakob can do, but whatever it is, it needs to serve our country. Not some scientist’s career.” He unclipped his radio. “You both stay right here while I find a number for the real NSA.”

Menkin raised her hands, palms out, her voice calm through gritted teeth. “I understand your concern. But let me put you through to the NSF’s director instead. Appointed by the President.”

Darrell said, “You said you don’t work for them anymore.”

“It doesn’t matter where I get my paycheck. The Director knows my work, and how important it is.”

Darrell hesitated. Menkin drew out a phone with a glass-and-aluminum case, sleek and alluring. The taser faltered in his hand.

I could let Darrell make his phone call, or I could crush the weapon in his hand and leave with the doctor. Either outcome would mean the same. I’d spent all these years suppressing the temptation of life. I had never created for my own gain, and neither reason nor logic would make me kneel before a worldly master.

As they argued, I smashed the door out of its frame, and fled into the echoing airport.

***

I ran into the garage, and wove through double-decked luggage carts as shouts mixed and rose behind me. Two voices, man and woman both. My pursuers fell further behind with every stride, unable to match me with mere muscle and bone. I aimed for the fire exit’s red-lit words. A one-way door, impossible to lock, to the tarmac and the respite beyond. Darrell and all his brethren could not catch me.

I glanced over my shoulder. He held his taser in one hand, radio in the other. Dr. Menkin unrolled a piece of parchment and shouted Hebrew syllables into the echoing air.

My joints stiffened. I lurched, almost tripped, my clay thickened and dried by the power of her words.

A roar of frustration escaped my throat. I grabbed a cart’s aluminum frame, and yanked myself around to face my pursuers. Menkin and Darrell converged on me, ready with taser and scroll, with lost faith and innocent greed.

Saba had taught me restraint, but if these two wanted so badly to know me, I’d show them my potential. I bent down by the luggage cart, dug my fingers into a tire’s stiff squeaking rubber, and exerted my full strength at last.

I lifted the luggage cart over my head. Dr. Menkin fumbled in her jacket, her face pale. Darrell stepped back, his taser leveled in shaking hands. “Jakob, calm down. You don’t want to do this.”

Those two poor creatures, merely trying to fulfill their purposes handed down by job and school and Creator.

My rage crumbled. I lowered the cart onto the ground, gripped one of its roof’s steel struts, and traced my finger against metal and dusty orange paint. My gift seeped into the metal like water into thirsty earth.

The engineless cart set its wheels against concrete, and whipped into a three-point-turn. It nosed back and forth, an animal uncaged and sniffing for something to carry. It aimed itself toward Darrell and Menkin, and its wheels spun with an acrid burnt-rubber spark.

Dr. Menkin fell, a yelp of pain as the cart bumped over her leg. Darrell leapt onto the cart’s onrushing edge, but it caught him on the upper corner. He clung, legs kicking, as it swiveled around its parked and waiting brethren. His taser clattered onto the cart.

My muscles loosened. Darrell tumbled to the floor and crawled away. The animated cart slowed, and then spun and braked, a skidding turn that slid the taser into a stable position at the center of its bed. Its first morsel of cargo, the first joy of its waking life.

I wiped the dust from my fingertip. What had I done? Brought something unbeautiful to life. Not for temptation, not for its own sake, but for the menial demands of my own utility.

And yet, the act of creation echoed through my body with the music of a psalm’s first notes.

The cart approached the garage door and nuzzled its metal slats, a newborn curious to learn the world. How much time had I wasted, levying judgment upon the ugly and functional? I had fled from temptation, as if my desires bent always toward evil. But I’d only ever wanted to continue the work of my father, and awaken the world to life.

I ran, not to the fire exit, but to the garage door. I struck my hand against the steel, fingers curled to add a new pattern of dents. The gate rolled upward, opening itself. The baggage cart zipped out beneath it, as if to share its bounty with all its still-sleeping kin.

Engine-roar struck me, a churning blast of air. Aircraft spread out all around me, sleek white hulks dotted with red and green running lights. The planes strained toward the wide-open heavens, but I had no need to flee. Soon I would feel the grasp of scroll or taser, or the sure and frightened hands of my coworkers. They could carry me to any prison they chose, and I would write life upon my chains.

I drew my phone from my pocket, traced a blessing against its weathered case, and nestled it against the airport wall. Its screen awoke, data and light, singing unto its makers a new song.

I strode out onto the tarmac, toward fuel pumps and skybridges and airplanes. Among the unbeautiful machineries of security and knowledge, of flight and creation. All of us yearning for, and deserving, our chance at holiness and life.

 


© 2018 by Benjamin C. Kinney

 

Author’s Note: The speculative fiction literature is full of golem stories, but they tend to touch on a limited range of themes. I wanted to use the golem to explore the relationship between work and life, purpose and self-determination, art and function. I had this story’s themes and final image rattling around in my head for many months before a writing group challenged me to write a story with two images: a baggage carousel, and jellyfish. The jellyfish mostly got cut in revision, but in Jakob’s quiet moment on the shore, he’s encountering the same bioluminescent jellyfish I once touched on a Martha’s Vineyard beach.

 

Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and Assistant Editor of the Hugo-nominated science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod. His short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, PodCastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many more fine magazines and anthologies. He lives in St. Louis with two cats and a spacefaring wife, but can be more easily found online at www.benjaminckinney.com or on Twitter as @BenCKinney.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #45B: “The Coal Remembers What It Was” by Paul R. Hardy

Oh, I remember my mam. She’s been gone nigh on forty years, but I still think of the mornings when I were little and she’d show me the demons. She’d be up at the crack of dawn, kneeling down afore the stove to shove kindling in the firebox with one hand because she were cradling my baby brother in the other. And then I’d come along and pick a bit of coal out of the scuttle and ask: is there a demon in this one? And she’d say no, and I’d put it back and pick up another and ask: is there a demon in this one? And she’d say no again and I’d take another and like as not she’d clip me round the ear before I said owt else. “It’s not demons, Elsie,” she’d say. “The coal remembers what it was, that’s all. But it’s still only a lump of coal and I need to get the fire lit for your dad’s bath so get away with you and stop bothering me with your nonsense!”

Dad were on the night shift, you see. I hardly ever saw him with the hours he worked. He’d get home in the morning so covered in coal dust I thought he were a piece of coal himself. And then he’d have his bath and go straight to bed, and he were out again before I were back from school. People are always asking me about him. I get sick of all the questions. They’re only asking because he died in the disaster, but that were seventy years ago and it’s not like I were down there in the mine with him when it happened. I were back home, with Mam. Course I was. I were only little. I were up early to look at the demons.

Mam knew how much I liked to see them, so she’d call me back in once she’d got the kindling lit. She’d throw a few coals on top and have me stare into the firebox until they were glowing bright red. And then, if you were lucky, one of them would come to life. It’d crack, like there were a chick inside breaking out of an egg. Only it were never a chick–it were always something else, like a scorpion or a millipede, or a little newt sometimes. It were coal through and through, but it looked just like the real thing. I liked the beetles best. They’d be shining bright orange with blue flames across their backs, crawling through the fire to the edge of the grate where Mam had closed the door so they couldn’t get out and burn the house down. They’d flutter their wings, but they’d be too heavy to take off and go up the flue. Poor things.

Mam would throw the rest of the scuttle in, then she’d put the kettle on and braid my hair while she waited for the water to boil. And she’d say: “It’s not demons, Elsie. People used to think that, but the coal remembers, that’s all. Set it alight and the coal remembers what it used to be when the world was young.” She were right. I’ve heard all those clever folk try and explain it with their long words, but they don’t know any more than she did. ‘Pyrozoic’, that’s what they call them. Pyrozoic fossils from the Carboniferous Period, millions of years ago when it were only insects and salamanders and the like. Well, Mam knew that much but she didn’t care. Far as she were concerned, seeing beetles and all else come out of the coal just meant the fire were hot enough to put the rest of the scuttle in.

She taught me this one thing about them, though. If you looked close, if you looked right into their eyes, you could see what they remembered. All of a sudden you’d be chasing centipedes in leaf litter, or laying a hundred sticky eggs on a fern leaf, or standing stock still on a dead branch and hoping a horrible great salamander wouldn’t gobble you up. That’s what she’d show me, those mornings when she were getting the bath ready. I suppose it kept me quiet. Didn’t have telly then, you see. Nothing else to watch, like the little ones have nowadays. I showed my granddaughter a bit of burning coal once and she were bored of it after five minutes. No one’s interested in coal these days.

No one’s interested in my mam, neither. But I get questions about my dad all the bloody time. That silly woman from the mining museum were on the phone again last week, going “Ooh, Elsie, tell us about how your father died down the pit, all them years ago in the Heatherley disaster, let me come over and we’ll do an interview for the new memorial.” But it were a lifetime ago. I don’t remember my dad at all. She only wants to know because he were in the union and spoke up about the conditions down the mine, the long hours and shoddy gear—he said there’d be an accident one day, and he were right. But he didn’t talk to me about it. Why would he? I were only a little girl. I never saw him, except those mornings when he came home from the pit. He were never there to say good night, never there when I came home from school, and then on his days off he were at a meeting or down the pub most times. I don’t have any memories, not of him I don’t.

No, wait, there’s one thing. I asked Mam once if he were a piece of coal, because he always came home so filthy from the pit. And then if he’d crack open like the coal did if he were set on fire, and what he’d remember if he did. She gave me such a look! And then she laughed. She told me he’d never go like coal, I mean remembering what he was. He were too busy with the union to remember anything. Never remembered to wipe his feet, or to bring back milk from the dairy, or anything she ever told him. And that’s all I know about him, really. Why should I bother trying to remember him? That’s all they ask about. That and the disaster. But they never ask about Mam, and what she did.

She were the one got us out of Heatherley, me and my little brother Bill. Got us on the road to the next village. Pouring with rain, it was. We stopped at the church hall with all the others what made it. We’d lost everything except the clothes on our backs. Then we went on to Leeds and stayed with my aunt. Them was hard times. Mam never said owt about what happened back at Heatherley. She was like one of them soldiers come back from the war with all the stuffing knocked out of them. She carried on, though. Had to. Compensation didn’t come for years and it were a pittance when it did. She couldn’t wait for that. She had two little ones to look after, so she went to work in a mill, and then I did the same once I were old enough to get out of school.

And now they want to put up a memorial for the ones what died, that’s what the woman from the museum keeps saying. Some bloody great block of stone with their names on it. Supposed to last forever. They had one of them back in Heatherley for the Great War, what they call the First World War these days. Well, that’s one block of stone didn’t last forever. It were lost with the village. Don’t suppose the others will last, neither. Bill’s on the one in Leeds, the one with the angel on top. He were in the navy, got torpedoed out in the Atlantic, so they put him on the side of the stone with all the others what died in the second war. You know, the part they weren’t supposed to use because there weren’t supposed to be another war. Not that anyone cares. There were spray paint all over it, last I looked, and the council haven’t bothered cleaning it off, not for two years they haven’t.

And anyway, they’d never put my mam’s name on the bloody memorial, would they? She didn’t die in Heatherley. She lived. And after that she worked like a dog to keep me and my brother out of the orphanage, and when she did die, it were cancer what took her. They don’t carve your name in stone for that, do they? No, they bloody don’t. Nobody remembers my mother, except me. They don’t even ask her name. It was Maureen. Maureen Machin. Put that on your block of stone, go on. But you won’t, and you know why? Because she knew when to run. She got us out of Heatherley and then she told me to get out of Leeds before the blitz started in the war and I should have listened—I were almost killed when the house two doors down were hit. Then she told Bill not to join the navy, and he didn’t listen so now he’s at the bottom of the ocean. Told Dad he should get out of the pit as well and do you think he listened? Did he heck! We could have gone to Leeds, but he wanted to stay and fight. It were only a year after the big strike, the General Strike, and the bosses were punishing us for it. They were cutting everything back, wages and safety and everything. All the folk in Heatherley knew there was going to be an accident sooner or later, but Dad wouldn’t go. So Mam kept her eye out. Kept plates on the dresser right close to each other, so they’d go clink if the ground shook. Old trick, that were.

Clink, they went. Just a little noise. I was still yawning and I hardly noticed. And then they went clink again. And that time I did notice because Mam jumped back from the stove! I asked her if she’d burned her hand on a hot coal, but she told me to shush and listen. I couldn’t hear a thing. Except then the plates went clink again, and that were enough for Mam. She bundled up my brother in one arm, grabbed my hand with the other and pulled me out the front door and into the middle of the road. We were the only ones out there. I expect she were wondering if she’d gone mad.

And then the ground really shook.

It were like hearing a noise with your feet to begin with, and then the cobbles were shaking and slates were coming down off the roof. That got people out their front doors. All of them coming out in their nightshirts and dressing gowns. Some went down the hill toward the mine to see what were happening. Our neighbour did that. She were worried about her son what was down there and ran off to get him. Never saw her again. It were already too late.

The ground shook harder then, and a shower of slate came down off the tops of all the houses. I saw one poor man hit on the shoulder, right in front of me. Everyone ran for the middle of the road.

But it were worse down the pit. We was halfway up the hill with the colliery below us and we could see the pit-head winding gear and it were falling down, great big wheels crashing into the offices and flames coming up from the mine itself.

Then there were this bloody great groaning noise, like the earth were waking up and stretching, until this massive crack broke open across the village. I never saw the like, not even in the war when they were bombing Leeds. A dozen houses fell into the crack and billows of smoke and fire came back up. Then a leg—this huge great insect leg—came reaching up out of the hole, feeling around, smashing more houses as it went. It were thirty yards long or more, that leg. And it were on fire.

It were the coal seam, what ran under the village. Sparks from the machines had set fire to it and woke the damn thing up and made it remember what it were like to walk above ground. And the fire had spread so fast it hadn’t had time to break up into little coals, so it all came up as one great big creature, the one with the strongest memory. It dragged itself out of the ground until the head came clear and I could see it were a dragonfly, huge eyes burning bright yellow with blue flame all over. Oh, those eyes. You couldn’t look into those eyes and not see it. Hot swamps and fern-trees rising up in forests full of steam. Snapping jaws of ten foot salamanders coming up at you from under the water. Dancing in the air with your love and laying eggs in a pond, and then… then a shaking, and fire in the sky, and ash drifting down from above, weighing on your wings as you tried to get clear but the ashfall went on further than anything could fly and then you fell from the sky, tumbling through fern leaves as the cinders buried you alive along with all the world you ever knew…

The whole village saw it. They couldn’t see nothing else. They were all staring up at the thing, gaping like fools when they should have run. A few walked toward it, to see better. I was one of them.

But Mam were stronger than me. Or maybe she felt me pulling on her hand, and that woke her up to it. Either way, she wouldn’t let me go. She clamped her eyes shut and stepped back past all the others while I pulled against her and made her fight for every step. So she stopped, hauled me close and tried to scoop me up, and still I squirmed against her, turning so I could see the beast. It were flapping its wings and trying to jump in the air like it did when it were alive, as though it didn’t know its wings were coal and not the gossamer they once were. I felt a hot wind blow on my face as it flapped its wings and struck the church steeple. It smashed into pieces, ringing the bell and sending it clanging to the ground. The wing broke too, shattered and fell in a shower of burning coal. There were people down there, just stick figures in the distance but I saw them crushed where they stood and some of them burst into flames among the coals…

And then I didn’t want to look any more. I stopped fighting my mam and she hefted me onto her shoulder with my face buried in her hair. She headed up the hill past all the ones that couldn’t stop staring, the ones what were caught up in all those memories, no matter that they were memories of a world that were dead and gone.

Just like they are now. All of them back in Heatherley, dead where they stood or dead where they fell. The whole village, dead.

But not us. Mam got us on the road and over the hill and out of sight of the thing and we never went back. Mam would never talk of it. But some of the other survivors did. Years later, when they thought I were old enough. Or when they were drunk. They’d say the whole village were knocked down. The mine and the church and the school as well. All gone. And the dragonfly, that died too. The rain came and doused the fires above ground and froze it where it was, until it collapsed under its own weight.

But the fire was still burning underground. Things was still moving down there. You couldn’t go back. It were hot enough that the coal kept on waking up in little bits and pieces, and things crawled up out of the earth for years after. Still do, last I heard. They’ve tried to put it out but it never worked. I expect it’ll go on as long as there’s coal left to burn.

And somewhere down there is my dad. He never had his bath so he died all covered in coal dust, like he were a piece of coal himself. And maybe Mam was wrong about him turning to coal for real. All it’ll take is a few million years under the ground. And then perhaps he’ll be dug up and burnt for someone else’s bath, and he’ll wake and remember what he was, and someone’ll look in his eyes and see us, me and my mam and my brother.

But I doubt it. He hardly ever noticed us when he were alive. I never knew him. I don’t know why people keep asking me about him. It weren’t him that saved my life that day. It weren’t him that brought me and my brother up. Mam did that. People want to remember my dad because of how he died. But I remember my mam instead, and I leave the remembering of my dad to the coal. That’s all there is to it.

 


© 2018 by Paul R. Hardy

 

Author’s Note: This tale comes out of one of those legendary Codex story contests you keep hearing about. The prompt was the following three words: “Melancholy Anthracite Arthropod”.  I had to rewrite them a bit.

 

Paul R. Hardy lives in the UK with a coffee habit, a laptop and various health problems. He also fulfils a minor administrative function in an NHS hospital, which is handy for the health problems. In a former life, he was a penniless filmmaker who won a BBC drama award and wrote a book on how to make short films; in this current incarnation, he writes speculative fiction that has appeared (or will appear) in venues such as Unidentified Funny Objects, Escape Pod and Deep Magic.

 


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DP FICTION #43B: “The Fisher in the Yellow Afternoon” by Michael Anthony Ashley

You feel an explosion and wake up face down on a rocky patch of dirt. A spurt of blood fills your mouth with iron and salt, and you push to your knees, gagging, but all that drools off of your lips is soil and leaves and a few bitter-tasting pine needles. You breathe and spit, but the blood taste is gone. It never was. You exhale relief as the panic fades with the dream.

You raise your face to a clear yellow sky and chilly air, the white sound of water rushing over you with a comfortable, misty breeze. It’s the smell of the park when the elk are bugling and camping means nights in flannel over canned spaghetti, and no problem with the cold because it makes the heat of the fire so incredibly perfect.

And you hear an enormous voice. “Is that a memory?”

You end your moment with the sky and lurch to your feet, backing away from the rocks and slick bracken along the river bank, which you realize is very close. And straddling the river with its hind-claws—its left fore-claw gripping the soil on the far bank and its right fore-claw stirring down in the white rush—is the bear.

“Hello,” he says through the wet of his muzzle.

He is huge. Impossibly. The river tumbles down a falls and through the bear’s legs and off into mist down the second falls, where the woods and the rocks and the world seem to end. The river is too wide for the rotted trunks to reach across where they’ve fallen, and yet the bear stands across. And you watch as his right fore-claw snaps up from the river, trailing silver droplets, and flicks the strong, twisting, desperate body of a fish into his jaws. He eats it whole.

“Don’t be a cliché,” he says, and you know he means the question you’d taken a breath to ask. You feel embarrassed, and then immature for the embarrassment, but you can’t help it. Bait or no, you take the challenge. And instead of “where am” or “how did,” you decide on “what the.”

“Are you really a bear?” you ask.

He takes another fish, this time lopping it in half with a bite and flinging it aside so that its back half flies into the woods streaming entrails and a rain of blood. “There are no bears here,” he says.

The river is crowded with fish. You can see them just below the surface where the rushing white foam occasionally separates to give clarity, all swimming against the current. Even as the bear says “here” a fish leaps out of the river, thrashing and aimless. The bear rakes it in mid-air and the fish lands near you in a skid of dirt, split by three gashes along its body.

You step close and see that it’s a big fish, and the mess of its organs is very still, and there is no gasping like you expect. Something is very wrong. You pinch the tail. It feels like suffocating in a hot adobe hospital from a throat closed by snake venom and being too young to go this way, mierda, too young. You let go of the fish and leap back. God damn. God damn, what is that? Who is that?

“That’s not a fish,” you say.

“There are no fish here,” he says with three fish squirming in his mouth. He grumbles pleasure around the tearing of their scales by his teeth.

You run. With the roar of the river at your back you dodge the rocks and fungus-ridden trunks that the erosion has brought down. You scramble over a big rock with its inch-thick moss and jump off to land in the shadow of the trees of the heavy green wood with your slippers thudding wet in a cluster of mushrooms. (You’re wearing pink slippers.) The low leaves are wet on your face as you push far away from the bear. (Slippers. Isn’t that strange?) Fish bones lie among the roots, their rot feeding the trees, which are old and soon to fall to add to the rot, the fungus and mushrooms the only brightness.

Eventually you overcome the panic and you start to think again. And you slow down. You stop. You think about the bear and the river and the fish and the falls while you pace tree to tree, while you watch that yellow sky and taste the air full of moldy years, and soon you turn around and follow the sound of the rushing water.

You find the bear straddling the river eating fish, snatching fish from deep in the stream, snatching fish from near the surface, swatting or biting the ones that leap. Two at a time. Four at a time. Some are small and bright and young. Some are old with milky eyes. The one from the bank is gone. In his belly, you know.

You’re afraid to ask. But you ask.

“Those,” you say of the fish being slaughtered, “are they people?”

“Sort of,” says the bear.

“Souls?” you ask.

“That’s closer.”

You try to remember the dream that woke you here. It was terrible, and more important than anything. And you can’t remember any real part of it. Just the feelings, and they’re fading.

“This is all you do?” you ask. “You eat them?”

“They’re delicious,” he says with a simple black madness in his eyes. “The fast ones are delicious. The slow are delicious. Big, small. I love the taste.”

“Are you Death?”

The enormous and magnificent bear, with his perfection of fur and hugeness of musk and multitude of teeth, who feeds from this river and all of its millions of fish as they thrash ceaseless against the current, the being and master of this place, he nods.

“But not God,” he adds.

“No,” you say. And he seems offended, though you’ve only agreed with him.

“Am I dead?”

“Absolutely.”

You sob. It’s what you expected to hear and still it hits you with horrible sharp stabs in your chest, and you bend with your hands on your knees and sob with a grief you don’t understand.

“There are no tears here,” says the bear.

But you’re crying. You kneel down by the water and look past the foam to the fish swimming with every bit of muscle in their bodies, some thumping against the river rocks, some dodging. Their wild silvery mass is in one place rhythmic, the long shapes in sinuous concert like a dance, and in another place chaotically brutal with each swimmer thrashing against the other. You want to jump in. You need to jump in. You need it more than you can stand.

You never see the bear’s claw. You only tip yourself forward to drop into the water and the claw swipes you, knocking every sense into blackness, and you land hard on the bank. And slowly, in the brown drooping ferns, you come back to yourself.

You force yourself to stand straight, hands atop your head to ease the ache in your chest, and you pace along the bank while the bear devours fish. The pacing helps you ignore the queasy sound of his meals and the need for the river and your rage at the bear. Pacing helps you think. And you know this is a habit you have, though there are no memories attached to it. No memories at all.

“How did I get here?”

The bear chuffs. “The cliché.”

“Whatever. Just answer.”

The bear yanks out a fish. “I yanked you out.” He crushes it so it bursts, and he licks the meat from his claw.

“But you didn’t eat me.”

Silence.

“Why didn’t you eat me?”

More silence. Even the river seems hushed.

“You don’t want to say,” you tell him. “Why not?”

The bear says nothing. He catches fish and eats them, but all the relish is gone, all the flair gone flat and mechanical, claw to mouth to water to mouth, until finally he nods and the moment passes. The river sound roars back to life. The bear knocks a huge fish high into the air and snaps it on the way down.

“I don’t want to tell you,” he admits. “But I will because you’re interesting. You jumped out.”

“Out of the water?”

“There’s no water h–”

“Just tell me!”

“No. I already said, I yanked you out of there.”

“If not there, then what–” And you realize it. “I jumped out of your mouth!”

The bear chuffs.

And you make a choice in that instant, all at once. You’re going back into that river. Fuck this bear. Fuck death. You’re going back. And you know he knows what you’re thinking and you don’t care because the need in you is big enough and mean enough to crush him alive.

“Not likely.”

“I jumped out of your mouth,” you declare to him. “I had my way. I’ll have it again.”

The bear swings his massive head toward the near bank and fixes you with eyes of emptiness, and he roars. The river roars. The rocks roar. The fever-bright mushrooms flare to mad color. The trees and the ferns, the soil under your feet, every molecule around you whips with the explosion of his voice, throws you down hard. You cover your ears and press your face to muck, the old leaves dancing to the vibration, but the roar grinds through you no matter how you brace. And all you can do is take it.

When he’s finished, you’re covered with bits of gnawed fish, you’ve learned you can feel pain in this place, and you have a plan.

You lie where you’ve fallen for a long time in the cold mud, watching him. You watch the bear massacre the fish like a two-year-old ravaging the boxes and wrapping paper on the floor of the living room, high on cake and ice cream and attention. The river mist is a sporadic touch on your cheeks. Your heart aches so sharply you wince.

When the bear knocks a leaping fish to the far bank and turns to devour it, you jump to your feet, dash to his rear, and leap from a rock headlong for the water. The hind leg this time, it kicks you so hard you come to your senses back in the trees, the river out of sight. You brush yourself off and limp back to the bank to sit, and wait, and try again.

You don’t count your tries. You can’t track the time. There’s no time here, he says needlessly. You only know that he swats you every time.

“What’s down there?” you ask of the edge where the river disappears.

The bear shrugs a shoulder.

“Do any of them go over?”

“A few,” he says.

“What about up there?” you ask of the cliff from which the river seems to originate, the fish fighting madly for that goal.

The bear shrugs both shoulders. “Fewer,” he says, spraying guts from his mouth.

“Do you know them, the ones you eat?”

“I know them all.”

“How many have there been?”

“There are no limits–“

“Fine, fine, just— You must like some more than others. Which are your favorites? And why?”

The river’s noise hushes. The bear says nothing as he catches fish and eats them, returning to the mechanical rhythm once more. Finally he nods and the moment passes. The river noise climbs back to its height.

“Jemet, no fear in her, none at all. Bad Foot for the very wild dreams. Wei Wei and Li Jing, brother and sister, nearly psychic. G!au, two lions killed with his bare hands, proudest one ever.” And on he goes. He likes to talk, to brag, even when you’re not listening.

You leap for the river and he smacks you back. You walk the woods and study. Most important, you ask him more whys.

What you learn:
A. You know you’re real. You remember your Descartes. Cogito ergo sum. So you want what you want. No room for doubt.
B. Everything comes here to die. The trees and other plants are wilted and brown, and you find an incredible number of bones. You dig. The bones go deep.
C. He’s a creature of habit.

The pain inside is a constant ache and you weep now at odd moments with a disturbing lack of control, but you know what you need. You’re ready. You position yourself at the best place on the bank where the leap to the river is brief and the water swirls in fast eddies. When you hit the water you’ll fight for the deep among the other fighters, so long as you can keep your mind. And that’s a thought that nags you: you don’t know what will happen when you re-enter. You don’t know how you’ll be.

“It’s odd that you think this will work,” says the bear.

“You have your nature, and I have mine. Don’t you want me to leave?”

“No,” says the bear.

And here’s the moment. Here it is, you know, and the stabs in your chest make you squeeze yourself to keep from screaming. “Why not?” you ask.

Silence. The river’s sound falls to a gurgle. The bear says nothing as he moves mechanically. Rhythmically. Predictably. You wait for his claw to shove a fish into his mouth, those eyes staring off, vacant, and you leap. You leap right under that massive arm, your face passing through the river water dripping from its fur, the stink of fish blood thick all around you. You know his speed from his countless smacks. You know the timing when he’s lost in thought. You’ve studied. And yet passing beneath jaws as long as cliffs and teeth as wide as crags and a head so large it blots the yellow sky, you feel those eyes come back to focus and that claw jerk to snap you up. Too soon. Too quick.

Too late. You hit the water in a shock of pain and cold as behind you the voice of Death admits, “Because you can’t be friends with food.”

You swim. You fight. You pull against the current with the other fish smacking against you. Death’s claws spear the water and you twist away. Down. Down. And down until the yellow light fades and the thumps of striving tails become distant. And you are simply you. Only you. Beating against the current.

You hear crying. You hear the babies calling for you. “Mommee! Mommeeee!”

You wake up with a start. A spurt of blood fills your mouth with iron and salt. You try to spit and something in your chest rips. You try to gasp and the pain rockets into your skull.

“Mommeeeee! Mommy help!”

Think. Oh, Jesus. Think. Focus. You force your eyes to make sense of the light and you realize right away that the car is tilted wrong and the windshield is shattered. Red darkness comes pushing at the edge of your vision, but you can count the lengths of iron rebar jutting from the back of the truck through your windshield and into your chest, three of them, low, center, and high, your ribs scraping when you lift your head to look. And you’re weeping, no breath to sob, and your hand is reaching for the glove compartment because you smell gasoline. And the babies are in the back.

“Mommy, I’m stuck. Mommy! Mommy please!”

You wrench open the glove compartment. Something rips where your heart should be, and you want so badly for the breath to scream. There isn’t any.

You die.

The claw grabs you, squeezing, as you fight against the current, and it snatches you upward and into a wash of old yellow light. The bear’s jaws come closing but you twist against the fucker and you’re free, falling. You hit the water, pulling hard.

“Again!” he calls as you go under.

This time you come back remembering–six days in a row on-call and now sweatpants and pink slippers on your day off, rear ended at the red light and the explosion of your car slammed against the work truck ahead–and your hand is already rummaging through the glove box when your eyes snap open. Your hand is wet and sticky with black ooze, and you know the colorblindness is a sign of head trauma, and the speed of the blood spurting from the wound above your breast means catastrophic damage to the subclavian artery, and your sticky hand closes on the multi-tool. You fling your arm and throw the multi-tool into the back where it lands in the middle, between Olive strapped in her car seat and Weaver struggling with the tangle of his seatbelt. Escape hammer and seatbelt cutter in one. You’ve taught him how to use it. Always teaching. Immune to the rolled eyes. Not a cool mom. But that’s fine now. That’s fine.

“CUT!” you scream with all the breath you have, and you die.

The bear claw pierces you this time, and it’s not the same as the hot animal pain of the rebar in your heart. It’s a slash of nothing. A tatter of you gone.

Instead of pulling away you twist into the claw, feeling it rip deeply. But you’re free.

“Three times!” calls the bear, delighted.

You’re turned in your seat, cold air seeping into your broken cavity, the horrific, greasy smell of fire signaling panic even as your thoughts twitch in jagged fits. The car is burning, and it’s over. You know it’s over. You have nothing left.

And all at once, it’s fine. Your boy. Beautiful boy. He’s free, and he has his sister free, and long arms are reaching through the shattered window and pulling them out, the multi-tool falling to the white litter of glass beside the cut, gray, frayed piece of seatbelt.

“I can’t get to her!” shouts a fish. “Leave her!” screams another. “Get out! It’s going up! Get out of there!” The claw ignores them and snatches you out.

It’s not hard to fight him anymore. You simply give everything you have. You twist and thrash, and this final time you land back on the bank. When you stand, you’re in your slippers.

“I nearly ate you,” he says, his tongue rolling fish meat behind his teeth.

“It’s what you do,” you say.

The bear chuffs. “Getting away is what you do. Four times. That’s impressive,” he says, and means it.

“Is that a record?”

“Not even close. But it’s still very impressive.” He splashes with both of his front claws and shoves a mass of writhing bodies into his mouth. The first bite makes a wet burst, loud even over the river. “What do you want to do now?” he asks.

You think about it, and point. “I may go up there,” you say of the cliff from which the river originates. “Or down there,” you say of the falls into which it disappears. “Or I may just ask you questions. Why do you care?” you ask him.

Silence. The river becomes hushed. The bear says nothing. He catches fish and eats them, but all the relish is gone, all the flair gone flat and mechanical, claw to mouth to water to mouth. You watch one writhe in his grip, fighting for life.

You leap from the bank and knock it loose.


© 2018 by Michael Anthony Ashley

 

Author’s note: “The Fisher in the Yellow Afternoon” was a round 2 contest submission for WYRM’s Gauntlet 2016.  The prompt was to write the story of a character who has recently died, telling what led to the disappearance and what may be coming next.  The catch was that it must be written in second person POV.  The Gauntleteers, as we were named, were given one week.  Aside from proofing edits and a change to the last line, the story you see here is unchanged from the competition.

 

Michael Anthony Ashley is a 2004 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a longsuffering ghostwriter of nonfiction.  He has published short stories with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, flashquake, and the Czech publication Pevnost.  In his daylight hours he works in public health, helping to broker the peace between bacteria and humankind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #43A: “Glass in Frozen Time” by M.K. Hutchins

I freeze time. The frothing soap suds in the sink become glaciers. Dust motes hang in the air like stars. And I move.

I catch Sadie’s plate of mac n’ cheese before it splatters to the floor. While I’m there, I wipe down the table, fix Sadie’s pigtails, then — what the heck — I run downstairs and start a load of laundry.

Then I’m at the kitchen sink, water streaming, motes spinning, and Sadie’s three-year-old voice bubbling merrily on. “— I so happy to go to my Nana’s house!”

“Me too, sweet pea.”

She tells me about her grand plans for the day, including raiding the freezer for cookies. In the middle of it, a wild gesture knocks her juice cup. I freeze time and catch that, too, before any damage is done.

A warm thrill spreads over me as I finish the dishes. Tiny catastrophes make other parents late, but not me. We’ll arrive on time and spotless.

At least in my own home, I can control all the variables.

***

Eli comes home late. I can stop time, but I can’t stop his limp. My throat tightens, just hearing the uneven thud-thump of his real and his prosthetic foot. How can he be safe in the field now? He can still turn invisible, but he’s not exactly stealthy anymore.

Eli doesn’t glare at me. He folds me against his chest and kisses my cheek. Like always. “Did Sadie have a good time at your mom’s?”

“Of course.”

Eli glances around the house. My immaculate house. I alphabetized the spice rack today and organized the picture books by word count, starting with Moo, Baa, La La La! and ending with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.

But a frown creases Eli’s face. “I don’t think this is what the League had in mind when they gave you vacation time.”

“Mandatory leave time,” I correct, my breath twisting in my chest like an over-tightened screw. “Don’t lecture me again, Eli. I’m just…I’m just a little perfectionist. That’s all.”

Eli holds my gaze and speaks in his calm, rational voice — the one I’m used to hearing during mission planning meetings, not at home. “That isn’t all and it’s not a little. It’s not good for you or Sadie.”

Now he wants to bring our daughter into this? “Sadie’s safe. Of course that’s good for her.”

I slow time to watch his reaction: a tiny shift of his head, the tightening of the corners of his mouth. He disagrees, and he’s not ready to drop this yet. I wish he would. I let time flow.

“She’ll never learn to be careful or clean up after herself if you’re always making things perfect,” he says. “You can’t actually control everything.”

“I know.” But I can control my home. I have to be able to control something.

Eli lays a hand on my shoulder. “That card’s still on your nightstand, Allison.”

The card our League general gave me right before he kicked me out on mandatory leave. My throat constricts. “I don’t need it.”

“You ought to call,” Eli persists. “Go in.”

Eli should be the one having a hard time adjusting, not me. “You know,” I try to joke with him, “most people would be thrilled to have a spouse who never nags them to do the dishes. I can’t believe you’re complaining about a clean house.”

Eli doesn’t laugh. He holds me closer and strokes my hair.

***

I set down my water glass and get back to scrubbing the window track with a Q-tip. Soon, it will be as shiny as League Headquarters. No dead flies. No spots of grime.

“Thirsty,” Sadie declares, hopping down from the table and her crayons. Her feet patter across our spotless tile floor.

“Water, milk, or juice?” I ask, still bent over the window. It’s almost finished. Almost perfect.

The tinkle of broken glass and a sharp little “Ow!” cut through my ears and stab down at my heart.

Reflexively, I freeze time. I turn. My water glass is nothing but shards now between Sadie’s feet. A drop of scarlet blood wells up on her heel.

I am too late.

I freeze, too. My lungs refuse to work. Air becomes concrete in my lungs. My stomach tightens and tightens into a black hole. My tongue is a boulder, clogging my throat.

This isn’t a mission. There are no villains here. I should be able to control it.

But I can’t even hold onto time. It slips away. The glass skitters across the floor, Sadie turns her head, the motes spin.

But I am still frozen as panic crushes my throat.

Sadie turns her foot to look at the small gash. “Mommy!” she wails.

I can’t answer.

“Mommy!” she demands.

I couldn’t stop her from getting hurt.

Sadie plants two fists on her hips. “Mommy! You pick me up now!”

A thread of breath cracks through my throat, into my lungs. I can’t think straight, but I can obey her simple order. I pick up my child.

“To the sink!”

I step carefully around the glass.

“Wash it, Mommy.”

I wash.

“Now dry.”

I dry.

“Band-aid!”

I set her on the counter and pull the first-aid kit down from the cupboard. Sadie holds still while I smooth the bandage over the tiny, angry wound.

“Kiss it better.”

I give her a tiny kiss. She smells like soap and cotton.

Sadie pats my cheek, smiling. “Mommy, you are silly. Nana knows how to do all that without being tolded.”

“Tolded?”

“Yup. And she has kitty band-aids.” Sadie glances at the floor. “Do you need help cleaning up your messes? Nana helps me.”

“You make messes at Nana’s?”

She giggles. “When you go on your last mission with Daddy, I open all the paints! I paint me, I paint the walls, I paint the carpet!”

My mother didn’t tell me that. Maybe she knew I had other things to worry about, after that mission.

I grab a broom. I sweep up the mess. I make cookies with Sadie and then build towers of blocks for her to crash. I ignore the window track. As soon as I get her nestled down for quiet time with a few books, I pick up the card on my nightstand.

Emily Perez, LPC. The League’s recommended counselor for traumatic stress. My throat squeezes tight, but I imagine Sadie’s voice giving me instructions.

Pick up your phone.

Dial the number.

Wait.

Say hello.


© 2018 by M.K. Hutchins

 

Author’s Note: As a mom and as someone who daydreams about magic and super powers, this story came easily.

 

M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, Strange Horizons, IGMS, and elsewhereA long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #41B: “Jesus and Dave” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

It had been just over a year since the second coming of Jesus and, like most atheists, I couldn’t say it had been a particularly good year for me.

Sure, the Lord’s first bit of business had included clearing up some of the more vague parts of the Bible, including some mistranslations and things his father had, in his words, “gotten wrong.” That put an end to a lot of bigotry.  The lack of world hunger and the new commandments about littering were incredible, of course, more positive change than I’d hoped to see in my lifetime.

But it’s just… having proof that my entire belief system (or lack thereof) was absolutely backwards, and having every holier-than-thou relative constantly sending passive-aggressive emails filled with selfies of them and His Holiness…

My fellow non-believers converted, and one even became a priest. I think I’m one of the few who refused to do so.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I believed. I’d seen too many miracles – some firsthand, like the time the East River parted to let the family of kittens cross safely. So I believed. I just didn’t let it change my life.

I didn’t pray, didn’t give any more to charity than I normally did, and I sure didn’t stop drinking (one of his newer, less popular commandments). I lived as a godless heathen, as my Auntie Ruth would say.

So imagine my surprise when the lord and savior himself knocked on my door and asked for my help. You wouldn’t think he’d have to knock, what with all his magic and ability to walk through walls. But he was nothing if not courteous.

He stood on my stoop, all beard and white robe and smiles, a stained glass window come to life.

“My child,” he said in a warm, booming voice. If the whole son of God thing didn’t work out, he could make a killing as a game show announcer.

“It’s pronounced ‘Dave,'” I told him politely, averting my eyes from the angels standing on either side of him. I’d never read the Bible, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t describe angels as horrifying, winged humanoids with tentacles on their faces.

“Of course. After David, the Biblical king.”

“No, after my mother’s brother Dave, the mattress salesman.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the angels snatch a pigeon off the railing and eat it.

“I think Nazareth is that way,” I said, pointing.

He pointed in the other direction. “Actually, it’s that way.”

Well, I guess he would know.

“I come to ask your assistance,” he said, clasping his hands.

I opened my mouth to make a sarcastic comment, but stopped when I saw the look of fear in his eye. What on Earth was Jesus afraid of? And what did he think I could possibly do about it?

“What is it?” I asked, nervously hoping he wanted me to come over to his place and kill a spider. As they had been mentioned in an addendum to “thou shalt not kill,” maybe he couldn’t bear to ask anyone else to sully their immortal soul.

Even before he spoke, I knew that couldn’t be it. Jesus had probably invented the whole “catching a spider in a cup and sliding a piece of paper underneath it” trick.

“There’s a reason I came back now, David.” He smiled apologetically. “Dave. The world is in danger. Will you help me save it?”

I thought about it for a minute, then nodded. I rather liked the world, even if there were a lot of religious people in it.

*

The museum was only a short walk from my apartment, but it took forever because somebody had to stop every five seconds and sign autographs. I wondered if his pen ever ran out of ink, or if it worked like the loaves and fishes.

When we finally found a moment of peace – JC made a blind beggar see, and everyone left us and crowded around the guy to, I dunno, absorb the miraculous juju or something – I asked him what exactly he expected me to do.

“Despite what my more… excitable followers would have you believe,” he said, spreading his hands in vague gestures as he spoke, “the Devil has not actually been corrupting the American media or making toasters explode.”

“What about making politicians cheat on their wives?”

“No, not even that. Gabriel!” He snapped his fingers at one of the angels, who was holding a squirrel inches from its mouth. “What did we talk about? If you’re going to come to the Earthly plane, you have to follow the rules. Do you want to go home and stay with Dad, or do you want to put down that squirrel and come with us to save the world from Satan?”

It reluctantly returned the squirrel to the tree.

“That’s what I thought.” He turned back to me. “No, the Devil has been imprisoned for the last two thousand years, as was I. Our destinies were entwined, which is why I let myself be crucified. If I died, so would he.”

Well, that was a part of the Easter story they left out.

We came to the steps of the museum and stopped while Jesus posed for a picture with a group of tourists. The angels tried to use the camera but succeeded only in taking a series of close-ups of their own faces, and I had to step in.

“Thank you, Dave,” Jesus said when the crowd had dispersed.

“Shouldn’t you be the one getting thanked?”

“Probably, but there’s no one here but an atheist, so I can wait until someone better comes along.” He smiled and elbowed me in the ribs. Of course he had to be funny. “Anyway.” He pointed to the museum. “Around a year ago, archeologists found something mankind was never meant to find. A jar that was his prison. And they opened it. I need you to close it.”

I stared at him blankly. So it wasn’t “come over and kill this spider,” but a variant on “hey, could you help me open these pickles?” He was Jesus. Couldn’t he handle closing a jar on his own?

“Not this jar.”

My heart skipped a beat.

“Oh, didn’t I mention that I can read minds?” He grinned, like this was all some enormous joke on my behalf. “I’ll overlook the scandalous thoughts about that blonde tourist a couple blocks back if you’ll start thinking of me as He with a capital H. It’s kind of polite.”

Kind of presumptuous, I thought. Very loudly, so he could definitely hear it.

This was the part of religion I hated most. I could get behind the idea of some conscious force controlling the universe, and accepted that, if an afterlife existed, that force probably wouldn’t let you in if you killed people or stole from little old ladies.

But all the stupid rules. Don’t eat this kind of meat, even though it’s not really that different from this other meat. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife or oxen, even though sitting around and thinking “gee, my neighbor sure has a nice wife and/or oxen” is literally the least harmful way to spend the afternoon. Always be extremely thankful to the magical sky dude who gives out cancer like the dentist gives out toothbrushes.

“I don’t claim it’s a perfect system,” he said quietly. “Far from it, even with the alterations to the Brand New Testament. But the worshipping of us – and all the various ways to do it – was invented by humans, and despite what my father says, you are some of the most flawed things He ever made. We’d love it if you followed all the arbitrary rules – although they really aren’t arbitrary and you’ll see why when you’re at the Gates – but we know you aren’t groundhogs and we can’t expect you to be.”

I must have drifted off somewhere. “I’m sorry, groundhogs?”

“The most perfectly devout creature on Earth,” Jesus said.

Boy, did I feel like a fool for not knowing that.

He looked at me with the kindest eyes I have ever seen. They physically radiated light and warmth, and a feeling of wellbeing and acceptance filled my chest.

“We don’t care how you worship us, or even if you believe in us. We know this is kind of a one-sided relationship. All we want is a little respect. And for you to help me save the souls of the entire human race.”

It was a moving speech that had me ready to run up those steps and take Satan head-on. And then he had to go and ruin it.

“Trust me, I’d rather have a groundhog here, but they’ve all been raptured. But I know you can do this. I believe in you, Dave.”

Oh yay. Jesus believed in me. And considered me an adequate replacement for a fat rodent that’s only useful as speedbumps and on fake weather holidays. Lucky me.

I almost walked away. I almost let the world fall into the clutches of evil incarnate. But I didn’t.

“I’m not doing this for you,” I informed Jesus as we walked up the steps to the museum. “I’m doing it for the world. It’s my favorite planet now that Pluto’s gone.”

*

Our breaths and footsteps echoed through the expansive halls of the museum, which had been evacuated in anticipation of our visit. I was hesitant to ask why he thought I, surely the least groundhog of all people, could possibly help him defeat the devil. I figured it probably involved something like the face melting at the end of Raiders, and he just didn’t want to waste one of the good people.

“We aren’t defeating him,” Jesus said quietly, but even in a whisper his voice reverberated like thunder. “And you are one of the good people. Goodness has very little to do with piety, my ch — Dave.”

He turned sharply to look at the two angels, who were lagging behind to lick display cases containing taxidermied birds. Their wings slumped under the power of his gaze and they caught up to us.

“Between you and me,” he confided as we rounded a corner and entered the hall of antiquities, “if anyone is going to get their faces melted, I’m volunteering those two knuckleheads. Dad thinks they add a certain majesty to my miracles, but most of my miracles lately have been turning wine into water to combat drought and making pandas go forth and multiply. Which is gross, by the way. Ever seen a newborn panda?”

I shook my head. He had to know I hadn’t, but it was nice of him to ask.

“Imagine the ugliest rat you’ve ever seen, then make it pink and hairless and only able to move by random wobbling movements. The point is, the angels do nothing but make people nervous.”

He flashed me a smile straight out of a toothpaste commercial, complete with little sparkly bits.

“How do you do that? That smile?”

He shrugged. “Same scientific principle used to make halos and sunbeams.”

Oh. Obviously.

We came to a display bathed in spotlights and cordoned off with red velvet ropes. On a low table in the center sat an earthen jar, cracked and weathered by the sands of time but remarkably intact. Its lid sat beside it, and large signs posted everywhere told the story of its discovery, calling it the Holy Grail.

“It’s the real one,” Jesus said, preempting my question as the temperature of the air dropped noticeably. “The Last Supper was really more of an enchantment ritual we kind of stole from the story of Pandora, taking an ordinary jar and making capable of holding the incarnation of evil. And it worked, until some fool had to go and open it.”

The lights in the rest of the museum suddenly cut out, leaving us and the jar in a bright pool amid an artificial night. I peered nervously into the thick and impenetrable wall of darkness, hugging myself to relax the goosebumps.

“Is he… here?”

“He’s everywhere, silent and invisible. Like carbon monoxide. You don’t know he’s there until he has you in his grasp.”

The possessions of the early days came to mind. Just before the second coming, the news was full of images, horrible images of people in the clutches of some kind of insanity. Flailing and contorting, attacking one another and speaking in tongues. It stopped as soon as it had started, and once the Lord hath returneth’ed, no one really talked about the possessions anymore.

“It started the day the jar was opened. My return quelled him for a time, but tomorrow the Grail goes public and every set of pious eyes upon it give him power.”

“And my eyes are godless heathen eyes.” I nodded in understanding and slowly stepped up to the display.

The ropes fell away as I approached, parting like the East River, and my hands trembled as I reached for the jar.

Its ancient clay felt warm to the touch. Hot, even. I held it firmly in one hand and took the lid in the other, making a point not to look inside just in case it would melt my face.

I heard footsteps and a soft cackling.

“Not funny, Jesus.”

“Not me, Dave.”

He sounded scared.

A frantic squawking and the rustle of feathers made me turn, just in time to witness the blackest shadow I’d ever seen taking the angels in its grasp.

In my surprise, the jar slipped from my hand.

I watched it tumble to the ground in excruciating slow motion, too paralyzed to do anything but pray it wouldn’t break.

It hit my shoe, bounced slightly, and skittered onto the floor with a scraping sound. But it remained in one piece.

I dove for it, and met the desperate eyes of the shadow, which released the angels unharmed and swooped towards me. I clapped the lid onto the jar and held it to my chest as the icy tendrils of the devil brushed across me.

The jar grew heavier as the lights came on and the temperature returned to normal, until I could no longer bear its weight and had to set it on the floor. The tiles began to crack.

I looked up to see Jesus smiling at me. And not a good smile, but a smug one.

“What?”

“You prayed.”

Crap. I did, didn’t I?

“Dave the atheist prayed.”

I scrambled to my feet. “Did not.”

“Don’t lie to me,” he teased, picking up the jar without effort. “That’s like the worst sin ever. Straight to Hell, no stopover in Purgatory.”

I stared at him for a long time as the angels groomed each other with their tentacles. It wasn’t like it was a real prayer, just kind of a way to say I wished really hard that the jar wouldn’t break. Like when you’re waiting for a check and you say, “Please let it come today.” Not a religious prayer. Not really.

“Fine,” I said as we walked out of the museum. “But I never mentioned you or your dad by name. For all you know, I was praying to the Mesoamerican serpent god Quetzalcoatl.”

“Which would be a waste of time, since he never checks his messages.”

I couldn’t tell if He was kidding.

“So am I still going straight to Hell?” I asked out of curiosity. “I think my uncle Randall is probably there, and if I have to go, I was wondering if I could get an apartment near him.”

“I guess that depends on how you live the rest of your life. Rescue some dogs, donate to charity, and I’ll see what I can do. But do me a favor and don’t pray anymore.”

“Why?”

He smiled, the big one with all the sparkles. “Because there’s rumors that the four horsemen are coming next year, and I just might need an atheist again.” He pointed behind me. “Hey, isn’t that the pretty blonde tourist?”

It wasn’t. When I turned back, He and the jar were gone. The words “Take care of the knuckleheads for me” had been etched in the sidewalk.

The angels wagged their tentacles at me. One of them offered me a pigeon.

 


© 2018 by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

Author’s Note: This story came about when I wondered how people would react to incontrovertible proof that their beliefs are wrong. Would they believe something else, or stick to their old ways? Is there a middle ground? Believing in a god but choosing not to worship him? And what if that god was perfectly fine with you choosing not to worship him?

 

Jennifer Lee Rossman is a science fiction geek from Oneonta, New York, who cross stitches, watches Doctor Who, and threatens to run over people with her wheelchair. Her work has been featured in several anthologies and her novella Anachronism is now available from Kristell Ink, an imprint of Grimbold Books. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, will be published by World Weaver Press in 2019. You can find her blog at http://jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com/ and Twitter at https://twitter.com/JenLRossman

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #41A: “Crimson Hour” by Jesse Sprague

Don’t think. Don’t feel. Concentrate on the work. Berend sliced under the unicorn’s scarlet hide. He worked swiftly to skin the beast while the pelt remained a vivid red. For a short time at dawn and dusk, a unicorn glowed red, and only during those few minutes could a blade pierce the animal’s hide. Normally, animals came to his butcher shop gutted, but with a unicorn that was impossible.

As he pulled the pelt back, he pondered the cuts that would come next. He’d have to remove the heart first—for the Hero.

Lined up on the stone table beside the unicorn, an array of tools waited. For now, the bone knife was all the job required. Berend’s hand paused under the unicorn’s jaw. The village shaman had already removed the horn, leaving a jagged circle of white bone. Around this circle and coating the muzzle was a thick splatter of human blood.

The blood of my only son.

Forcing thoughts of Ulfric from his mind, Berend focused on his work. He finished removing the precious hide, already darkening to the onyx black a unicorn took on at day’s end.

“Rhea!” Berend shouted before recalling that his daughter, along with his wife, were with the healer preparing Ulfric’s body.

His eyes filled with tears, obscuring the room. In front of him, the carcass wavered. And the rest of the stone-walled chamber blurred like a half-forgotten dream. He barely made out the faded paint on the wooden door or the unshuttered windows.

Stop! Keep working.

A few squares of butcher’s cloth lay over the display counter across the room, waiting for the flesh of the beast. And behind the counter was the cold-room’s door. He’d have to lug the carcass in there before the evening ended.

This was no way to mourn. He shouldn’t touch dead flesh for half a moon out of respect for Ulfric’s death. But no one in this village would understand a two-week break from the butcher.

If only I were home. Not this land forgotten by the ocean.

The constant ache in his right leg rarely let him forget why he’d relocated inland. With a gimp limb, he’d have been useless to his warfaring people and had wanted to find a new purpose. Here, far from the sea, he’d met a butcher’s daughter. And with her by his side, being an outsider hadn’t seemed too great a burden.

Berend turned back to the carcass. From amid his knives, he selected a bone saw.

With the full force of his weight, Berend sawed through the animal’s sternum. A scent of summer pollen and iron wafted from the cavity. Then, shunning tools, he trusted to his bare hands and cracked open the chest cavity.

Outside his shop, a burst of cheering filled the town square. Cheers for the man who’d slain the beast that had been terrorizing nearby towns for months. Cheers for Chariton, the Hero of the Mid-Kingdoms.

Berend gritted his teeth.

“Hero,” he sneered, and drove his thick-muscled arm between the unicorn’s ribs. His hand sank into the beast’s slick innards.

He carefully extracted and trimmed the heart. After crossing the room to the counter, he set the organ onto a square of butcher’s cloth.

A sob broke from the prison of his chest. His body hunched, shaking as loss washed over him.

Ulfric had been a good son. Uninterested in the family business, but strong-spirited.

Of late, his son had spent more and more time in the forest. Yet despite hunting so much more, he brought less and less game home. Had a sense of debt to the family driven him out there? They’d never needed the meat. Ulfric hadn’t needed to go into the woods.

“Papa?” Rhea’s soft voice preceded her young arms around him by mere seconds.

How did I miss them returning? Berend wiped his face with the back of his sleeve and straightened. His wife, Naiyah, stood in the doorway, looking gaunt. Her olive skin appeared waxy, and a leaf hung in the wild coils of her hair.

He wrapped his arm around Rhea. She leaned closer to him as he stroked her hair, black like her mother’s—like all the locals—rather than his own oaken brown. His daughter didn’t flinch at the dark blood coating his hands. At ten, half her brother’s age, she was already better with blood than Ulfric ever had been.

“As you asked, his body has been prepared to your custom.” Naiyah’s brown eyes stared past her husband and daughter at empty space.

“Thank you.” The words ground from Berend, bitter and cold. He didn’t feel thankful. It didn’t matter that Naiyah had agreed to anoint the body with salt and paste, or that she’d shaved him clean.

Ulfric’s bones would never make it to the distant ocean. He’d never board the White Ship and travel with his ancestors.

“We take him to the Wall tomorrow night,” Naiyah said. “Since tonight is reserved for the Hero’s Feast.”

Berend cringed. Of course, Ulfric’s not as important to those damned villagers as celebrating Chariton. Why should the butcher boy’s death matter to them?

Naiyah looked so frail and empty. Despite the riot of emotion in him, Berend held his tongue.

“I’ll prepare the heart for Chariton,” Rhea said, looking alternately at her parents’ grim faces.

“No,” Naiyah and Berend said together.

He would not burden his only daughter with butchering the beast that had skewered and eaten hunks of flesh from her brother. Nor would he ask her to serve a dish of conquest to the cowardly Hero who’d watched Ulfric die, used him as bait.

Even if Ulfric had volunteered to lure the unicorn out and keep it revealed until dawn, which Berend doubted, no Hero should have taken such a sacrifice. Not from a man so young.

“Come.” Naiyah motioned to her daughter. “We’ll prepare an evening meal. I will not attend the feast.”

The two retreated to a stairway at the back of the room and descended into their living quarters.

He glanced out a window.

The square seethed with villagers. At the center, on the raised platform used for announcements and performances stood the five village leaders and of course, Chariton.

The shaman addressed the crowd with an arm slung around Chariton, but Berend couldn’t hear the speech. None of the man’s words mattered. Still, he watched.

Chariton stood there, his blond locks and golden skin contrasted with the locals’ darker coloring. He stuck out like one dipped in starshine.

Berend could imagine the praise being heaped on this paragon of an adventuring Hero. He’d slain the unslayable unicorn. He’d lured it out at the precise moment of dawn when the unicorn’s hide was penetrable, before it turned the blazing white of the Summer sun.

But, he’d used Ulfric as bait to tempt the beast. Had Chariton met Ulfric in the woods and tricked him? Or had he fooled Ulfric in town and led him away to the dawn which would be his doom?

My son gave his life. Where’s the recognition of that?

Berend smashed a fist into the counter. And worse than giving his life, now his soul will be barred from the White Ship because I can’t find a way to bring his bones to the ocean.

Before he could do more, Rhea emerged from the family quarters, holding a wooden bowl and a white plate. She crossed the room. Her hands held out the food like a religious offering.

“Here, Papa. Eat this.” She placed the bowl of berries and nuts on the counter. The plate held squares of fresh cheese. No meat. “Momma’s planning to make liver for us, but I knew you wouldn’t eat it.”

Berend wiped his wet eyes, refusing to cry in front of the girl again.

Rhea paused, her face scrunching with unspent tears. “Nothing helps. It hurts, but none of the rituals help. How do I go on?”

“Only time eases the pain. We can’t bring him back, and helplessness would drive us insane if we didn’t do something.”

“But it isn’t enough.”

“We do what we can.” Outside, the last of dusk’s angry light faded.

***

Berend took a long swig from his bottle—Barenfang from his homeland. The sharp, honeyed taste coated his tongue and his throat.

The evening air stank of charred flesh and a cloying incense. Smoke choked him and stung his eyes. Yet the warmth provided by the bottle built a barrier, brick by brick, between him and the ceremony.

Naiyah wept beside him. The light from their son’s pyre flicked over her features. Leaning against her mother, Rhea trembled, red-eyed but expressionless.

His hand instinctively grasped the hunting knife at his side. But death was not a beast he could defend her from.

Behind the fire stood a pale silver wall that spanned the entire clearing. The locals called it The Wall of the Gods. The stone was uncarvable and yet markings of unknown symbols covered it—leaving no dents in the stone. At the foot of this wall lay piles of blackened bones from previous funerals.

Berend took another deep drink. His son would rest for eternity in this foreign place. But what option was there? There was no ocean within a moon’s ride. Even if he could ride so far with his leg, he couldn’t leave his shop.

I can’t watch this.

Berend turned from the stinging flame and began walking. He had no desire to return home. Instead, he hiked off the path to a stream. It was a place he’d taken Ulfric when the boy was young. Where Berend had first taught Ulfric to hunt—the one interest the two had ever shared.

He sat on a rock until darkness fell. Then he remained, listening to the stream gurgle and sigh as the night air fed his guilt and regret.

Near dawn, his body stiff and chilled, he fought his way through the heavy brush toward the path. His leg ached as he moved, and by the time he reached the trail, it took effort not to limp.

Despite the darkness surrounding him, the impending sunrise sent out its first pink haze. His family was bound to wake and worry. But, the thought of returning home—returning to Naiyah, returning to Rhea who floundered under the weight of her grief—offered his fevered mind no relief.

He headed toward where Ulfric’s pyre had been. Maybe there was comfort there.

Berend limped along until he glimpsed the Wall through the trees. An uneven gold light danced over pale stone.

But why? The town’s custom was to leave around nightfall once the pyre finished burning.

He stepped into the clearing. A steep hillside dropped off on the opposite side of the Wall. From this angle, it appeared to rise from the edge of the world.

In front of both wall and abyss, a golden-haired man tended a small fire, a pile of sticks at his side.

Chariton, the Hero of the Mid-Kingdoms.

A bitter taste filled Berend’s mouth. Him! The coward who watched Ulfric breathe his last breath dares to linger here by his bones. Berend drew the hunting knife at his side.

Without a sound, he crept toward the light. The tactics of war, not used since his youth, were not forgotten.

The advice he’d given Rhea returned to his mind. Helplessness will drive us insane if we do nothing. Gutting Chariton would be doing something.

He lifted the blade as he slunk behind the seated figure of the Hero.

Chariton’s shoulders shook, and he leaned into his hands. Berend paused.

The fire cracked.

“If you wish to slay me,” Chariton said, his voice heavy with tears, “do it.”

The butcher lowered his arm.

“Do you know the legend of this wall?” Chariton asked.

Berend didn’t answer. Rage fought with doubt inside him.

“They say, if a man can damage it—make a mark on the surface beside the sacred markings of the gods—he can bring one he loves back from the dead.” Chariton motioned toward the pile of bones. Something shone in their midst.

The blade of a sword.

Chariton lifted his right hand where he held an empty hilt.

Fragments of thought moved in Berend’s mind, but they fit nowhere. The Hero’s presence here—his concern over Ulfric’s death—made no sense.

Berend grabbed the Barenfang from his coat, took a swig, and sat beside Chariton.

“Why do you care?” Berend asked. “Do you feel guilty?”

“The story circulating isn’t true.” Chariton gave a dry laugh. “What could I say that would improve Ulfric’s legacy? Not the truth. As a willing sacrifice, he’ll be remembered as a heroic spirit.”

Berend gazed at the broken sword. He remembered Ulfric’s recent absences from the family home. And hadn’t Chariton been around more than usual? Typically, the Hero disappeared to look after other towns or sought distant foes.

“You loved him,” Berend said, each syllable dropping grudgingly.

“Heroes don’t live long. Villagers throw virgins at me, but none would offer me someone to wed. I travel and follow the will of the gods. This life offers much, but not a family, not love.” Chariton threw a stick into the flames. “I got greedy. I neglected my duties and stayed here. This is my punishment. The gods don’t speak, they yell.”

Berend sighed and offered the Barenfang.

Chariton waved the bottle away. “I don’t drink spirits.”

“It’s from my homeland—meant for Ulfric’s wedding.”

Chariton took the offering and drank. A soft predawn glow whispered near the top of the wall.

“How did it happen?” Berend asked.

“Ulfric and I had made camp. As dawn came, I left to get water from a nearby stream. By the time I heard him scream, it was too late.”

Berend understood. Even if no one else knew, killing the unicorn was retribution for Ulfric’s death—the cry of a heart shattered, now avenged. But he felt no better.

He stared at the fire, then, at the Hero’s golden hair. Chariton is an outsider too.

“The fire, it’s your tradition?”

Chariton nodded. “The flame must stay lit all night. The spirit fire will guide his soul to the afterlife. Who knows what tradition, if any, is true, but I feel better knowing I’ve done all I can to aid him.”

Berend looked at the Hero. Here was someone who might understand, someone who might be able to help him.

“Can you do something for me?” Berend asked. “On your travels, when you come to the ocean, can you lay one of Ulfric’s bones on the shore for the tide to consume? Only a single bone and the White ship will find him.”

Chariton’s shoulders hunched, and he took another drink of the honeyed liquor. “I can do that.”

Berend reached out and wrapped an arm around the Hero. The crimson light of dawn made its own writing on the Wall of the Gods.

 


© 2018 by Jesse Sprague

 

Jesse Sprague has previously published several speculative short stories, including the Once Upon Now anthology by Gallery books, two short stories published in Seattle Crypticon’s Decompositions 2017 and stories in both the Nemesis and Undeath by Chocolate anthologies. Her book Spider’s Game, the first in a three book series, won a Watty award and can be read on Wattpad. Jesse can be found on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JesseSpragueauthor/  her websitejessesprague.comand on both Wattpad as @jessesprague and Radish Fiction.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #40A: “Tank!” by John Wiswell

The tank hates revolving doors. They’re petrified watching the doors whoosh by, trying to imagine anyone getting into the convention center through these things. The curb crumbles beneath the tank’s treads, and commuters honk for them to get their back-end out of the road. Two tweens sneak around the tank’s chassis, carrying a rack of brightly colored cosplay wigs, and slip into one of the revolving glass chambers.

“Be brave,” the tank tells themself.

The tank nudges their barrel inside, getting barely halfway in before the door clanks against their barrel. Instinctively they try to back up, rending steel frames and shattering glass everywhere.

Sighing, they tell themself it’ll get better. They’re going to make friends this time.

The Pre-Registration Line is so long that they miss the morning programming. Once they reach Registration, the lady frowns up at them like she was a landmine in a previous life. She says, “You didn’t fill in a gender.”

The tank rumbles. “I don’t associate Male or Female.”

She points at the tank’s cannon. “With that thing?”

“Are you calling my turret genitalia?”  It wasn’t, and even if it was, they had the equivalent of a vasectomy and filled it with cement years ago.  They lower their cannon, showing the orange safety cap protruding from the muzzle.

“I don’t care what you call it.  Guns aren’t allowed, and you have to pick a gender.”

A Marceline from Adventure Time leans around the tank’s treads, squinting at the registrar. “They’ve got the peace bonding cap on there.  And the gender crap on the form was optional.”

The registrar says, “Since when?”

“You want me to complain to Con-Ops?”

The registrar grouses and forks over the badge, while the tank turns to Marceline. Her badge reads ‘XIAO.’ They want to tell her that they love Adventure Time, but they can’t word it right. A moment later Xiao whisks away with a plastic-fanged smile and a, “Have a good con!”

Small-talk is hard for tanks.

They get in line for the Cowboy Bebop Cast Reunion, and the hallway is too narrow. Human con-goers have to climb over them to get by. Even though they have no eyes, the lack of eye contact stings. They scooch over, and accidentally cave in the wall to a Men’s Room.

A minute later, gofers come out of the panel room and wave everyone off. “We’re full! Sorry!”

The show’s opening theme blares as the gofers shut the doors. Ironic, but the tank loves that song.

They sulk over to the food court, feeling at least a little companionship with all the other disappointed con-goers. The crowd dissipates to watch an inter-fandom mock battle. MCU Avengers cosplayers desperately fend off assorted Crystal Gems.

A couple of Iron Mans ask for a picture, but they just want to pose like they’re blowing up the tank. The tank revs up to leave.

That’s when they see a Princess Bubblegum with a plastic pink wig, her shoulders hunched, looking around for someone who plainly isn’t there. But someone plainly is: a tall guy in a Red Hood graphic tee.

“The show went off the rails when she didn’t get together with Finn,” Red Hood Fan says in the tone of someone who might never have enjoyed anything in his life. “I don’t see why people ship her with Marcy.”

Her badge just reads ‘PB.’ PB cranes her neck around Red Hood Fan, still avoiding eye contact with him. “Uhm…”

“Wouldn’t it be weird to have gay characters on a kids’ cartoon?”

The tank rolls up behind Red Hood Fan, brushing his shoulder with their cannon. Red Hood Fan cringes away, looking as uncomfortable as PB has this whole time. “Hey, thanks for waiting for me,” the tank lies. “Ready for lunch?”

PB arches a brow, then says, “Yeah!” and sidesteps around the guy.

PB and the tank get out of there quickly, heading south along the titanic line for George R.R. Martin’s autograph. The tank asks, “Were you looking for someone?”

“My girlfriend. We got separated at registration.”

The tank lets PB ride on their turret so she’ll be more visible. This earns thousands of photos from strangers, and halfway down the endless pilgrimage of Game of Thrones fans, they spy a familiar Marceline. PB hops to the floor and kisses Xiao in front of everybody. The tank could blush.

Xiao gives the tank a plastic-fanged smile. “You get around.”

The tank tries to be funny. “Anywhere without revolving doors.”

Both PB and Xiao tilt their heads. Small-talk is hard for tanks.

They chatter, and Xiao balls up her fists at the story of Red Hood Fan. “Why do we even come to these things?”

PB raspberries at her. “You know why.”

The panel doors fly open behind them, and the theme from Cowboy Bebop rings forth. They pivot to get out of the way of the exiting crowd. Missing the panel wasn’t so bad since they made these friends.

Except when the tank looks again, Xiao and PB are gone in the flood of people headed to their next panel. People promptly complain that the tank is obstructing the hall, and they roll along, alone, wondering why they came here at all.

Exiting the building is the only way to avoid people, but the first one they find is another revolving door. The tank heaves a sigh through their chassis. Are they going to have to smash through this one, too?

“We almost lost you!” someone calls, and tugs on their mudguard. It’s Xiao, gesturing toward the adjacent corridor, where PB is waving for them both. “We’re going to the dance party. Want to come?”

The tank is so happy they almost commit several hundred cases of vehicular manslaughter. They roll very carefully to BALLROOM B, where PB and Xiao drag chairs aside to make more room. That lets the tank spin some doughnuts without fearing crushing any dancers.

Xiao whispers something to the band. As houselights dim and glowsticks crack, the band plays the theme from Cowboy Bebop.

PB says, “You know what the song is called, right?”

The tank can only muster a, “Thank you.”

PB laughs. “This is why we go to cons.”

 


© 2018 by John Wiswell

 

Author’s Note: At a convention one year, Max Gladstone and I were joking about the problems a tank might have at such an event. That’s what you do when you’re like us. For the same reason, I couldn’t help writing about the poor non-binary tank trying to overcome their social awkwardness.

 

John (@wiswell) lives where New York keeps all its trees. His fiction has appeared at Fireside Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and Daily Science Fiction. He has never had a cosplayer ride him across a convention center, but he does try to help where he can.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #39A: “The Efficacy of Tyromancy Over Reflective Scrying Methods in Prediction of Upcoming Misfortunes of Divination Colleagues, A Study by Cresivar Ibraxson, Associate Magus, Wintervale University” by Amanda Helms

MAGUS’S NOTE

My colleagues will note that in writing this paper I have not attempted to divide the research from myself, as can be noted here with my use of “I” and “my.” Unlike some individuals whom I will not name, I have never attempted to pass blame; I take full responsibility whenever it is deserved. Therefore, and because the use of the third person and passive speech loses the vibrancy and verve the subject of tyromancy deserves, I have elected to forgo the more pedantic and tedious tone such works more frequently employ.

 

CONSPECTUS

This report discusses whether tyromancy, divination using cheese, might be more effective and accurate in its predictions than the more popular methods of scrying through reflective surfaces, such as mirrors or bodies of water. Specifically, the report considers whether tyromancy is more effective at divining colleagues’ misfortunes. While the literature on tyromancy must be greatly expanded, this study’s results indicate that indeed, cheese might tell us more than the average crystal ball, mirror, or pool of water.

 

PREAMBLE

Much has been written about cheese: how to make it, including the specifics necessary to produce particular varietals; its healthfulness (or lack thereof, depending upon whom one consults); with which drink or other foods it pairs best.

Much has also been written about divination: which method might provide the most accurate predictions; the meditative state in which one must be to “see the clearest skies”; and whether particular persons might be better suited toward one method than another.

This author feels that scrying though a reflective surface–the divination method favored particularly at Wintervale University–has been given excessive favor over the noble art of tyromancy, or divination through the study of cheese curds. This is exemplified by tyromancy’s sublimation into the Animalistic Magic Department at Wintervale, a structure re-ratified by certain personages whose names have no bearing on this study. Yes, cheese does come from milk, which comes from animals, but tyromancy is too easily lost among the reading of paw prints and entrails. The budget won’t keep us in milk and rennet, let alone replace the fifty-year-old churns!

This should not be. Not only is tyromancy more functional than reflective scrying–one can eat the cheese previously used to predict the future, but one may not do so with mirrors or crystal balls, unless one likes the idea of shards of glass cutting up one’s intestines–but this author believes it is more effective, with more consistent and more-often correct predictions. In this paper, I will elucidate the trials I undertook order to give tyromancy its just due, and report on my findings.

 

PRACTICE

Materials
• 3 lbs Roquefort cheese
• 3 listen-in bugs
• Magus Minerva Hiddleton’s heirloom mirror
• Magus Theodore Linwood’s crystal ball
• Wintervale University’s general-use scrying pool
• A small sample of Magus Septima Wolfe’s skin scrapings

Participants

I myself acted as the tyromancer.

Magi Minerva Hiddleton, Theodore Linwood, and Septima Wolfe of Wintervale University participated in my study, although due to the nature of my experiment, it was necessary to hide their participation from them.*

I also enlisted the help of two of my co-magi in the Animalistic Magic Department at Wintervale, Associate Magus Beatrice Myne and Undermagus Leopold Mixon.

*Some may think I selected Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe due to their loudly aired ill-opinions regarding tyromancy, or that I harbored an unscholarly personal vendetta against them. In fact, I selected them because they are exemplary practitioners of their chosen scrying methods. It would have been unfair to match my own immense tyromantic powers against lesser magi.

 

Conduct

One potential issue with attempting to prove the efficacy of any divination method is the potential timeline involved; I could not afford to wait years to discover if my tyromantic predictions were true. Therefore, I required relatively immediate results, and ones that I could not know myself, so as to avoid skewing the outcome. Thus I engaged the aid of my friends Beatrice and Leopold to prank Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe.* I emphasized strongly that since I, the practicing tyromancer, could not be biased into predicting the exact pranks, they were not even to hint what they might plan for Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe. Nor could they tell me exactly when they planned to enact their pranks, albeit–again due to the time constraints–I told them the pranks could not occur more than two months out.

However, since this paper is on the efficacy of tyromancy over reflective scrying, I needed a means of tracking the latter efforts. I am no great scryer; my strengths lie with coagulated milk. Plus, I could not risk an unconscious desire to “fail” at these other scrying methods and therefore invalidate the results. I could not act as a scryer, and nor would it have been proper for Beatrice or Leopold to do so.

Thus, I set about employing a means of monitoring the scrying methods employed by Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe, viewing respectively: a crystal ball, an heirloom mirror, and the general-use scrying pool on the grounds of Wintervale University. To maintain the blind nature of my study, Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe could not know of their participation. Naturally, I checked out three listen-in bugs from Wintervale’s Security Department, with the intent of placing one nearby each Magus’s chosen scrying surface.

Considering that Magi Hiddleton and Linwood keep their crystal ball and mirror in their respective rooms, this was initially somewhat challenging. However, I tracked the schedule of each and knew when he or she was to be out of his or her tower room for a suitable length of time. After feeding the two listen-in bugs a bit of my own choice Roquefort, I planted them where they’d be able to listen-in on the Magi’s scrying sessions.

The general-use scrying pool proved more difficult. I am sure that Magus Wolfe would prefer her own private pool, but that is a decision for administration. It has therefore become widely known that in addition to her regular teaching duties, she scries at the general-use pool for her own private matters, usually at odd hours when she can expect the students to be abed. I did not want the listen-in bug tracking all scrying sessions; that would have overwhelmed me with students’ amateur attempts. It became necessary to sneak into Magus Wolfe’s rooms, whereupon I was able to collect some skin scrapings off her pumice foot stone and feed them to the last listen-in bug, along with some Roquefort. This meant I still captured Magus Wolfe’s demonstration scrying, but at least weeded out the students’ feeble attempts.

I experienced momentary discomfort that my subterfuge would be discovered, ruining my experiment, but happily Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe are self-involved. That they never suspected what I had done came clear in the trial of The Province of Wintervale vs. Cresivar Ibaxson, in which I was legally bound to divulge my methods.

With all listen-in bugs in place, I set about my own plan: Each morning at dawn, I would take my morning Roquefort and engage in tyromancy, directing my attention toward Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe, and seek to determine what ill fates might befall them, and whether I could do so in a manner more expedient and accurate than their various methods of reflective divination.

* Accusers have made much of Beatrice’s and Leopold’s so-called “motivation” in helping me. Though it has no bearing on my paper, I understand that some readers may also consider this matter of some import. I therefore write now what I stated at trial: There is no greater motivation than that of human curiosity and inquiry.

 

OUTCOME

Over the course of the two-month period, I foresaw seven fates.

For Magus Hiddleton: a most ignoble defeat at Wintervale University’s annual mirror toss; a poisoning of her morning crumpet with a laxative in advance of her keynote speech on Weasels as Familiars at the annual Witches’ Compendium, resulting in a rather embarrassing moment on-stage;

For Magus Wolfe: falling through a rotted stair as she descended into the University’s dungeon; a case of head lice after her hair powder was infested with their eggs;

For Magus Linwood: plague rats in his chambers; flubbing his courtship of Magus Hiddleton when his rat poison nearly killed her weasel familiar*; and the extreme misfortune of contracting bubonic plague.

My review of the listen-in bugs showed that Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe foresaw three and one half of these fates.**

Magus Hiddleton foresaw the poisoning of her crumpet. She skipped eating her crumpet the morning of her keynote speech and thereby avoided that particular ill fate. She did not foresee her defeat at the mirror toss, but I learned later that she prefers her performance to be a surprise to herself. Henceforth, I hear, she will check for “tampered equipment,” but for the purposes of my study, I must consider this instance inconclusive.

Magus Wolfe foresaw the head lice. Feeling rather irked by the splint she was forced to wear following her accident with the rotted stair, she took the extreme precaution of throwing out her hair powder, along with that of all the other magi whose chambers share her floor.

Magus Linwood foresaw his misstep in his courtship of Magus Hiddleton and took adequate precautions to clear his chambers of rat poison. While he did foresee the rat infestation, it left him with too little time to enact preventative, vs. corrective, measures, and he missed the unfortunate detail that the rats were infected with plague.*** This meant he didn’t take adequate precautionary measures in handling the specimens. I must consider his foreseeing only partially effective.

I will allow that Linwood might have also foreseen his contracting the plague and his eventual demise; however, he located my listen-in bug while clearing his chambers of the rat poison, so results here are also inconclusive.

*I’ll note that I was unaware of Linwood’s courtship prior to my tyromancy. Though having no direct bearing on my planned research, this additional prediction further proves tyromancy’s efficacy.

**Among the three of them, Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe foresaw fourteen other fates besides, but as those had nothing to do with their misfortune, they are irrelevant here. Nonetheless, let it be known that I saw six additional irrelevant fates, which is higher than the average of the fourteen fates divided among Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe.

***Accusers have also questioned me as to whether Leopold, as Wintervale University’s rat expert, may have deliberately infected the rats with plague. While some people may find “contagion vectors” and “disease epidemics” interesting or even important, how the rats contracted plague has no bearing on my paper.

 

PREFACE TO THE PALAVER
To those critics who have stated in person to me and who might believe, after reading this paper, that I should have warned Linwood of the future I foresaw, and that I should have warned the University of imminent plague outbreak, I remind you of the importance of research. The pursuit of knowledge will at times have consequences. We must be willing to bear them if we are to progress in our understanding of tyromantic, and other, arts.

 

PALAVER

I hope my paper makes clear just how crucial it is to allocate increased funds toward the field of tyromancy in general and at Wintervale University in particular. Though I, Beatrice, and Leopold are now under investigation for willful misconduct leading to death*, I believe the importance of our research speaks for itself. The results clearly show that tyromancy is a viable option of divination, and may in fact be more reliable and accurate than scrying through a reflective surface. For the visually inclined, I have created a chart summarizing this point:

Note how the bars representing the use of tyromancy are higher than all the others.

Yet literature on the efficacy of tyromancy remains sparse, and my study cannot stand alone. Clearly, more research remains to be done on the efficacy of tyromancy over reflective scrying methods, and indeed, the field of study must be expanded past the imminent misfortunes of colleagues, and performed over longer periods of time. Tyromancy must be attempted with the variety of cheeses available to us. With suitable funding for cheese-making and subsequent trials, we might decipher which cheeses best lend themselves to tyromancy; what effect individual ingredients have upon the resultant visions; or if certain cheeses may make up for the deficits of tyromancers weaker than myself. Further, double-blind studies incorporating bean curd may also weed out charlatans and false tyromancers.

In addition, we, as magi and researchers, must turn our eyes toward the long-term: Might tyromancy be more effective than reflective scrying when searching for the latest Chosen One? Could it not reveal to us forthcoming war tyrants, enabling us to take action against them before they rise to power? And, since so many people keep harping on the matter, could it not be effective in warning us of widespread disease?**

I leave such discoveries to other discerning tyromancers.

*Posthumously, in the case of Leopold.

**Of course, my experiences have already proved tryomancy’s effectiveness in predicting disease outbreak, but reporting of such findings–whether at time of publication or as a kindly warning to the general populace–are more appropriate in a study devoted to that matter.

 

RECOGNITION

I thank my friends, Beatrice Myne and Leopold Mixon, for their willingness to help facilitate my study.

Beatrice, I plan to visit you soon. Indeed, the curds indicate I will have before this paper sees publication! Condolences again on your continued difficulty in procuring bail.

Leopold, you will not be forgotten. I promise to one day retrieve your bones from the mass pyre. They will have a proper burial, and I will honor your grave yearly with cheese platters. My fondest regards to the plague-free survivors of your family.

 

MAGUS’S FINAL NOTE

This paper in no way constitutes any admission of guilt on my part or on that of Associate Magus Beatrice Myne and Undermagus Leopold Mixon in the matter of Magus Theodore Linwood’s untimely demise. Nor does it constitute guilt in the resultant epidemic that took the lives of nearly one-tenth of Wintervale University’s student body and staff, or of their infected families. Pending the findings of The Province of Wintervale vs. Cresivar Ibaxson, I remain innocent within the eyes of the law, just as I remain confident that tyromancy is indeed the best whey to divine, understand, and prepare for the future–thanks to the power of those sweet, tangy curds.

 


© 2018 by Amanda Helms

 

Author’s Note: This story came out of a seed from the Codex Writer’s Group that read simply “tyromancy: divination via the coagulation of cheese.” I didn’t use it for the particular contest it was associated with, because I wanted to write Something Serious. The idea of tyromancy stuck with me, though, and I wondered about the type of person who would attempt to use it, and how they would feel if people constantly belittled their chosen profession. The bungled scientific paper and even worse approach to the scientific method developed as I considered how this person might struggle to make clear that their work is not pointless, dammit. And thus was Cresivar’s “scientific study” born unto the world.

 

Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science FictionCast of Wonders, and the Cackle of Cthulhu anthology. She tends to be funnier in her writing than in person, but don’t hold that against her. She lives in Colorado with her dog, and new husband. She blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #38B: “Her February Face” by Christie Yant

In her youth the doors to the shrine of Elena’s heart were wide open for all to see. Some kept their hearts in private spaces, secret and hidden, but not Elena. She kept hers in the front room, because what good is a bright heart if it can’t be shared?

Every morning she polished the shrine, and dressed her heart with fresh flowers that filled the air with the scent of jasmine and violet. She hung small crystals that caught her heart’s light and refracted it into every color, filling the room with rainbows.

On the wall above her heart Elena kept her collection of smiles. Smiles for celebrations, for sunrises and sunsets, for soft sheets and warm limbs, for surprise and wonder at her extraordinary good fortune. It was an impractical placement; it would make more sense to store them near her vanity, but she liked having them out where visitors could appreciate them and where she could select exactly the right one at the last minute, before she walked out the door.

As the years passed, jasmine was replaced by roses; sparkling crystals made way for quiet pearls. Her collection grew to include the shy but elated smile of her wedding day, the contented smile that she wore on waking beside her love every morning, and the proud smile she wore for their silver anniversary.

But all things end, even when we don’t believe they possibly can.

Elena smashed them all, crushed them beneath her feet and then sat on the cold floor among the shards as the day’s light crept across the room and disappeared, and the light in her heart went with it.

The flowers died and were cleared away. The doors of the shrine remained shut tight, opened only on the first Sunday of every month, to dust and keep it tidy, for the sake of good housekeeping. In the right light the outlines of smiling faces could still be seen on the walls, faded scars of old wounds that time would never fully erase.

One cannot go naked into the world, and so Elena eventually settled on a new face, one with a slight furrow in the brow and a subtle downturn at the corners of the mouth–an expression not so deep as to give offense, she felt, but one that conveyed a necessary distance between herself and the world.

After some consideration she also bought a new smile, thin and pale, to wear if the occasion should call for it. None ever had.

Behind painted black shutters her heart beat out the years in the dark, a slow and measured rhythm, unchanging and unnoticed.

*

Until she met Ivy, on a February day that threatened rain: a day for a practical coat, shoes with a good grip, and an umbrella, all absent from the woman who shrieked and laughed as the sky let go. Her silver hair hung in wet twists that matched her silver shoes, in which she splashed through the puddles with the abandon of a child, or a fool. The hibiscus-bright smile she wore was altogether too forward, a face meant for a younger woman and a different season–not a proper February face at all.

Elena’s route to the bakery was fixed, the same every day, rain or shine, her feet grinding out a prayer for stasis, for safety from change and the pain that comes with it. To reach the walking path that circumscribed the park she would have to walk directly past the madwoman making a spectacle of herself. The sky began to drizzle, and then to pour. She opened her sturdy black umbrella, kept her gaze straight ahead, her chin up, and strode with purpose toward her goal.

Isn’t it wonderful? the woman said as she approached, startling Elena to a halt.

Elena could think of nothing to say except, You’ll catch your death, and held the umbrella in such a way as to shelter them both, for all the good it would do.

Nonsense! the dripping woman laughed. Rain washes away the dust. It waters the flowers, and makes things grow. They watched the sky fall until the cloudburst had spent itself and the clouds parted, spilling a few golden rays of afternoon light down through the gloom.

Elena folded her umbrella and walked on.

I’ve seen you, the woman called after her, and moments later she was at Elena’s side. I see you walking at the same time every day. I’m Ivy, the woman said, tilting her too-bright smile toward Elena and wringing rainwater from her hair with brown hands as wizened as her own.

Elena, she replied. My name is Elena.

I’m so happy to meet you. We should walk together sometime, and take tea.

All right, she agreed through her frown without fully understanding why.

Back in her rooms, Elena’s shuttered heart grew warm.

*

Wednesdays now went like this:

Elena walked the mile to Ivy’s apartment in her sensible shoes, her porcelain frown freshly polished and her coat brushed down. She stiffly climbed the narrow stairs, pausing half-way up to catch her breath and rest her aching hip. Ivy greeted her at the door, almost always with a new smile–she never seemed to wear the same one twice–and would not rest until she saw to it that Elena was seated in the most comfortable chair with an aromatic cup of something hot in her hands.

Ivy’s rooms were warm, and smelled of citrus; her tea cups were chipped and no two of them matched; her walls were covered in art of all kinds, from black ink doodles on butcher paper held up with thumb tacks to still-life paintings painstakingly rendered in oils and hung in carved and gilded frames. Ivy’s rooms were a refuge from order, from silence.

Barefoot Ivy would move around the room, telling stories, or listening rapt when she could persuade Elena to tell her own. She played her favorite pieces on the upright piano, thick with dust but in perfect tune, and sang in a voice that was charmingly off-key. Elena only realized the time by the fading light through the window, and then her offers to help with the dishes were rebuffed; Ivy sent her off with a small bag of sweets and a cheerful admonition to be careful walking home.

Once home, Elena would put away her coat, hang her face by the door, and sit in a straight-backed chair by the window—looking out at nothing in particular, counting the days—until Wednesday would come again.

*

On this particular Wednesday Elena left her face on the wall while she dressed in front of the mirror, and she thought of Ivy.

Brilliant Ivy, shining Ivy, Ivy who wore a dozen smiles, each more beautiful than the last. Smiles that lit her eyes, smiles that showed her teeth. Ivy whose slender fingers could still play a concerto like a woman half her age, and made her tea so strong that Elena had to cut it with extra milk.

Ivy, whose heart shrine’s doors hung half-open in the corner, their chipped paint a faded rusty orange that might once have been red. Secretly Elena hoped for a gust of wind through the open window, or an accidental bump that might cause them to swing open. Sometimes when Ivy was out of the room to put the kettle on or find the jam (which never seemed to be in the same place twice) Elena was tempted to sneak a look inside, but to do so would be hopelessly rude. She was embarrassed and ashamed of her curiosity, this desire to invade her friend’s privacy. The temptation was strong, though, and driven at least partly by concern: for all her smiles and songs and stories, behind the doors of Ivy’s half-open heart shrine, Elena could see no light.

Perhaps there was a polite way to bring it up, she thought, as she pulled her slip over her head. She imagined the conversation:

Dear, she would say, your shutters are ajar.

Oh! I meant to leave them open. You know me, Ivy would say, and they would both laugh because yes, yes Elena did know her, and then she would open them wide and Elena would see–

See what?

She found the periwinkle suit at the back of the closet, mercifully free of moth holes. She could not recall the last time she’d worn it, or anything else that wasn’t a sober neutral. But today called for something brighter, something softer, because spring had come. Elena studied the suit, wondering if it was hopelessly out of fashion and she would look a fool for wearing it, but reassured herself that certain lines were timeless, and it was appropriate to the season. It still fit, she was relieved (and not a little proud) to find, though she struggled to reach the zipper in the back, and it hurt her fingers to grasp it.

On a whim she opened a long-neglected drawer and rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for: a brooch of deep green enamel leaves and tiny seed pearls that hung in a cluster, crafted to mimic the droop and drape of wisteria blossoms. She thought that Ivy might like it. She wondered what her favorite flower was, and her favorite color–why had she never thought to ask?

In the front room she lingered and considered her smile, dusty from disuse. She could not recall ever wearing it. It would surely feel unnatural, ostentatious; in fact, what was she thinking, all dolled up and glittering like a girl? It was embarrassing. It was much too late to change her clothes—Ivy would be waiting—but at least she would not walk about covered in ornaments like a holiday tree. She unhooked the brooch and set it on the table by the door.

The black shutters over her heart caught her eye, severe and unwelcoming. She would have to give it a good dusting, and perhaps a coat of paint soon. And it wouldn’t do her any harm to let some light in there. Plenty of women her age left their hearts open.

Satisfied with this decision and now running terribly late, she pulled her frown from the wall—her February face, as Ivy had once called it—and put it on, smoothed her hair, and left the house.

Moments later she returned and retrieved the brooch. She felt certain that Ivy would like it.

*

The walk to Ivy’s apartment seemed particularly long that day, despite the sunshine and new blooms. It was a Wednesday like any other, but something had changed, something that welled up inside her and threatened to choke her if she didn’t let it out, something that needed to be said or done. As Elena climbed the stairs she was seized by the irrational fear that when the door opened she would be unable to speak, that she had left her voice among the shards of her smiles all those years ago. She felt overdressed, affected, abashed. She fingered the brooch nervously at her chest, toying with the clasp, ready to pluck it from her coat and secret it away.

Ivy answered the door wearing her joie de vive smile and laughed in delight, her fingers grazing Elena’s own. Look at you! You look lovely, she said. You’ve brought Spring with you today.

I have something for you, Elena said, her fingers fumbling with the pin before she managed to unhook the clasp.

For me? She took Elena by the hand and pulled her into the front hall, stopping in front of a round mirror. Come pin it on me here, so I can see it. Elena could feel the warmth of Ivy’s skin through her soft yellow blouse, could smell her perfume like rose water. Her hands shook and her face flushed hot beneath her frown, and when it was done Ivy’s bright eyes were on Elena, not on the mirror at all–

Pain like a knife shot through her jaw and ran up along her hairline, where the edges of her frown met delicate skin. She gasped in surprise, and brought her hand to her face, trying to find the source as it stabbed through her again.

What’s the matter? Are you all right? Ivy asked as she reached out to steady her, but Elena backed away in fear and confusion, her vision blurry with tears. You’re bleeding!

Elena’s fingertips came away red with blood, and the pain came again, and then pressure, so much pressure she felt as if she were being crushed beneath the porcelain of her face.

It’s nothing, I’m sure, she said. But I don’t feel well. I should go. She found the door and waved Ivy off, insisting that she would be fine. She left in haste, Ivy protesting behind her.

*

It was tight, so tight. The face she’d worn all these years now gripped her cruelly. By the time she reached her door she was out of breath and half-blind from pain.

Alone in her bedroom she sat in front of her mirror and ran her fingertips gingerly around the edges of her frown, near the hairline where the porcelain brow furrowed just a little; behind the severe angle of the cheekbones; under her chin, where the painted mouth drew down at the corners. She could see now where it cut into her flesh, rivulets of blood tracing a line down her jaw.

It came away with difficulty, and beneath it the blood was drying to a sticky brown; her smooth, featureless flesh was pinched and bruised, the area around her lipless mouth mottled and red. It smarted still. The natural lines and folds that came with age were temporarily filled by the swelling, a grotesque reversal of time. Her reflection was that of another woman, the victim of some tragic accident, unrecognizable.

But she was surely still the same Elena who had earlier put on the dress that she now struggled out of—the same Elena who had donned the ivory slip that now pooled around her feet; still the same Elena who had so carefully arranged the hair that now fell in thin, loose waves as she pulled the pins from it.

She stood before the full-length mirror in which she had earlier checked the straightness of her stockings, her body as naked as her poor bruised face, and wondered what Ivy would say if she could see her now.

*

The east wall was empty, the ill-fitting frown discarded. She sat in the straight-backed chair again, wrapped in a soft blanket which she hugged tight around herself. Her face was bare of all but the ointment she had applied to her injuries. She watched the moon rise through the parlor window, moonlight tracing its way across the floor, over the scratches still visible in the wood, where the shards had bit so long ago. She remembered the woman she was a lifetime ago, a woman of smiles and refracted light.

When the knock at the door came, she did not move to answer; she did not turn when the door opened and footsteps could be heard on the floor.

And then Ivy’s soft arms were around her, her porcelain cheek resting on Elena’s shoulder.

I was worried, Ivy said.

It didn’t fit anymore, Elena explained, embarrassed for reasons she couldn’t identify.

Ivy said only, I know.

Elena turned in her chair to face her. Ivy kneeled before her, oblivious to the cold, hard floor. She ran her fingertips over Elena’s bare face, dancing around her eyes, stroking her cheek, carefully avoiding her injuries. Elena was surprised at her own boldness as she reached out as well, her fingers tracing the hard edge of Ivy’s smile, following the lines, and though Ivy’s breath grew short she did not pull away.

It came off easily, the sweet, satisfied smile that she wore. Beneath it Ivy’s tender flesh was bruised and abraded, her skin mottled and lined with scars—some were fresh and bright, barely healed, while others had faded away, leaving only the ghosts of past pain. Elena thought of the darkness inside those half-opened doors in Ivy’s rooms.

They don’t fit, Ivy said. They never have. But it’s what people want to see. So what if it chafes a little? She shrugged. I have always envied you. You’ve never worn a false face.

Until today.

Elena studied the face in her hands, the deftly sculpted dimples and flawless strokes of rose, the slight crinkle around the eyes that made a person believe that this smile was for them and them alone. She lifted it to her own face, and was unsurprised to discover that it fit perfectly, almost as if it weren’t even there. But Ivy pulled it from her, tossing it aside, and then she stood, her hands outstretched and beckoning.

Elena rose too, the blanket falling from her shoulders. The room grew brighter with their embrace, as light streamed out between the slats of her shrine’s closed shutters.

Elsewhere, in warm rooms that smelled of citrus, the doors of a neglected heart stood wide open, and February faces began to gather dust.

 


© 2018 by Christie Yant

 

Christie Yant writes and edits science fiction and fantasy on the central coast of California, where she lives with a dancer, an editor, two dogs, two cats, and a very small manticore. Her stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines including Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 (Horton), Armored, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9, Wired.com, and Science Fiction World. She is presently hard at work on a historical fantasy novel set in 19th century Paris, and is learning more about architecture and urban planning than she ever thought she would need to know. 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #37B: “Soft Clay” by Seth Chambers

I wander the Chicago streets unseen. I’m plain, drab, faceless. I’m a shadow drifting through the world of form. It isn’t all bad, being this way. I ghost into theaters and museums and concerts without paying. Guards see me bypass the lines and slip through the doors, but somehow I never quite register.

Being nobody has its perks but now I hunger to be somebody once again, to have a name again. To do this I must find the right man to follow. I wander the Chicago Loop looking for certain telltale signs of pain, longing, emptiness.

We live in a world of grief and so it doesn’t take long to find him. He carries himself with an undefined heaviness and peers through a fog of yesterdays. His emptiness drags me along.

I follow him into a coffee shop and stand behind him in line. He doesn’t notice me because there is nothing to notice. I am nobody. I am soft clay in search of a potter. I won’t know who I am until he shows me. I touch his hand. He glances back but I still don’t register on his radar.

And yet, in that brief touch I feel his longing. I loop my finger around one of his and this time he finally fixes his gaze on me. I peer up at him, only now I have a freckled face with a cute nose, framed with auburn hair. He gasps. They usually do. I smile, just the way she used to smile.

My God, he says.

Then we’re at a table, my small hands enveloped in his large ones, coffee all but forgotten, our eyes locked. I become more her by the second. Elsa is her name. His memories of Elsa blaze to life. I become a little shorter and plumper. I grow to like strawberry ice cream and mystery novels with cats in them. I fell off a horse when I was a little girl.

I hear it like a rolling echo in my head, the same words, said to me by a hundred men: Is it really you? It can’t be!

You’re right. It isn’t.

I pull my hands away and return to being plain, drab, soft clay.

No. I’m not her. But I can become her.

He glances about, like they all do, and I know what he’s thinking: Are there hidden cameras? Is this some reality TV show? A prank? A sick joke? 

I take his hands and become her once again, even more so this time, and his doubts vanish. He is hooked. We talk. We make a deal. Money is passed from him to me. I don’t tell him the truth: that I need to become Elsa as much as he needs me to be her.

We go to his Michigan Avenue hotel room and sit on the queen-size bed. We hold hands and I swim in his memories.

I say: Tell me about her.

We were in love but never got married. Then she died. It was so sudden. I married somebody else but—

He stops.

But your wife can never know how much you miss her.

God no.

We’re quiet for a long time. Then he speaks again, only this time he isn’t talking about her but to her. To me. To Elsa.

I’ve missed you so fucking much! All the stupid, silly little things you did. You would piss me off sometimes because there was that crazy energy between us. And the way you laughed! You know what I used to say about you? That you were one half sweetheart and one half lunatic.

I laugh, just like Elsa. Because I am her, more and more and more with each passing minute.

Why the fuck did you have to go and die like that? I didn’t even know you were sick. I married somebody else, you never knew her. I go away on business, like now. I never cheat. Not because of her, though. My God! It’s because of you, Elsa. Because of you.

His cell phone rings.

I tell him to answer the phone, that I’ll be quiet as a mouse. Something Elsa used to say all the time. She had lots of cute sayings like that. I let go of his hand and scootch away from him.

He answers and talks to his wife for a few minutes. I don’t really listen. I feel Elsa slipping from me. I try to hold on. Elsa had parents and went to school and held down jobs, but those memories wisp away like dandelion seeds in the wind. I search my mind for my own past, as I have so often before, and come up empty.

He hangs up the phone and looks at me, a drab and pale thing sitting on the bed of his fancy hotel room. I need to become somebody, need to be molded and directed, but it’s a strain. It takes a lot of energy.

I reach for him again. He pulls away. He’s wondering, What is this creature beside me? I’m floating away. I need to become Elsa again.

He demands, How did you do that? Did you drug me? What the hell is going on?

I have no idea how I do it. I only know this hunger to become somebody, to feel, to live. For a short time I felt his love for Elsa, poor dead Elsa, and could almost believe that love belonged to me. I ache to be her again.

I reach for him, quicker this time. I latch onto his hands, my small fingers clamping so tight he shouts. I don’t let go until I’m Elsa again, sitting on the bed. He still has questions but they don’t matter. Elsa is with him. I look like her, smell like her. My skin is soft and warm, just as Elsa’s was. He throws his arms around me and says my name: Elsa, oh Elsa!

We talk, we embrace, we order room service, we make love. We talk deep into the night and fall asleep in each other’s arms, with him still murmuring my name over and over.

Elsa, Elsa, Elsa.

***

I awake, no longer Elsa, and slip away while he sleeps. I have money now. I leave this fancy hotel and check into a cheap dive, one of those TRANSIENTS WELCOME places, where I don’t have to show ID. I get my key and go upstairs.

I enjoyed being Elsa but the strain has been great. I sleep for a long time.

*

Sometimes I’m the One Who Got Away.

Other times I’m the Childhood Sweetheart.

Or the Dearly Departed.

I sift through the remnants of other peoples’ memories. I think about the names I had. The memories and the names fade because they don’t belong to me. They are merely heirlooms I borrow. I have no name of my own, not that anybody ever asks.

After some time in the cheap hotel, I emerge and walk through the Loop once again. I’m merely wandering, not yet looking for somebody new to follow. Being Elsa was nice. The warm glow of her energy has stayed with me.

But now, as I wander through the Loop, I’m back to being nobody. It seems like it has always been this way: me spotting the right man, following after, dipping into his mind, and becoming the love of his life for one glorious night. It feels like I was made for this.

I go to a bagel shop. It always surprises people when I talk to them. The young lady behind the counter punches my order into her machine. She looks so confused, wondering why this drab, formless shape is talking to her. She seems like a nice person, though, and I want to hug her. She asks my name, so they can call it when my order is ready. I tell her Elsa. I feel like a thief, stealing Elsa’s name like this. But it’s so delicious! I have a name.

When my order is ready, the girl calls my stolen name: Elsa? I get my food and say awesomesauce! Because that’s another cute thing Elsa used to say. But Elsa is a faded memory.

When I sit down, a man looks my way. He’s somebody I’ve seen before. Something stirs inside me. Nobody ever looks at me when I wander alone, but he does. Tall, sharply-dressed, distinguished gray hair that lends him a quiet authority.

He has a laptop open but keeps stealing glances my way. Does he need me to become somebody? No, I don’t think so. Why does he look familiar?

It comes to me: He’s been following me. Just as I’ve followed so many people. How could that be? Nobody ever sees me, let alone follows. I’m not used to this. My heart pounds and I don’t know what to feel.

I pick up my bagel and step over to his table. He looks up and sees me. He doesn’t see some Lost Love. He doesn’t see the One Who Got Away. He sees me, I can tell. Plain, drab me, with no past and no name to call my own.

I have other memories of him but they’re locked away and I can’t get to them. I hear them like voices from a further room.

He reaches for my plain, drab hand. I snatch it away and drop the bagel. I’m aware that he’s standing, calling to me, but something drives me off. I bolt through the revolving door, run headlong into the crowd on LaSalle, people shouting.

Without warning, the need to be somebody descends and claws me like a ravenous bird. I follow first one man then another and another. I can’t concentrate. Borrowed memories swirl and slam through my head. It’s dizzying. I run and stumble for hours.

***

I’m on the south side and it’s dark before I finally latch onto somebody. I find him in a bar. Or he finds me. His name is Dale. He glares at me through a haze of hatred. He sees me: haggard, worn, angry. My face is drawn up in sharp angles and dry skin.

You bitch. You goddam filthy bitch, what are you doing here?

I try to tell him: I’m not who you think I am, I only look like her. As I try to explain, his memories of her seep through me like dirty oil. His only name for me is Bitch.

I told you what I’d do if I ever saw you again. I told you never show your face round here. Then, loudly to another man: Hey, Bubba, look who’s here.

Bubba looks up from where he was about to sink the eight ball. He eyes me and frowns. He’s huge and looks like a confused gorilla. He doesn’t see Bitch. He sees plain, drab me.

Dale latches onto my arm. He is very strong and it hurts. His foul energy slams into me. Other men have a grab bag of mixed feelings but Dale’s hatred is undiluted. I throw up walls inside myself but his rage invades, relentless and without mercy. Against my will, I become Bitch, more and more.

Now Bubba’s eyes blaze with recognition and he sneers: Tiffany! He throws down the cue stick and lumbers over. He slides one fat, puffy hand over my face. His memories of Tiffany crawl inside my head like spiders. I cry out and both men laugh. Somebody chucks quarters in the jukebox. Music blares. I scream for help but nobody gives a shit.

This has never happened before: two men seeing me as the same woman at the same time. I become an amalgam of their memories of this woman. My name is Bitch. My name is Tiffany. I have a thing for Vicodin and alcohol and rough sex and any other distraction the world can throw at me. When I was a kid my mother got so mad she ripped out a lock of my hair and it never grew back. I had a back alley abortion when I was thirteen.

Dale hauls me across the bar. I am Bitch. I am Tiffany. Was I always her? I can’t tell. But I’m Bitch now and she damn sure knows how to fight. I snatch a bottle from somebody’s table and let Dale have it upside the head. It shatters and Dale goes down. Bubba comes at me but I lay into him good with the broken end of the bottle.

Bitch screams. Tiffany runs.

I plow through the front door into the street and a car screeches to a stop. The driver curses. I stumble. Dale and Bubba can’t be far behind. I spot a nice car, a fancy SUV that’s out of place in this neighborhood. Tiffany knows how to hotwire cars. Do I have time?

The door of the SUV swings open and he gets out: the distinguished-looking man who was following me earlier. He opens the back door of the SUV. I dive in and he slams the door. He gets in and cranks the engine just in time because Dale and Bubba are hot on our ass.

He peels out just as the two men begin pounding the shit out of the SUV. He drives off and very soon pulls onto Lake Shore Drive. I weep in the back seat. I’m still Bitch and I hate this man and hate all men and hate myself.

Only slowly does Bitch drain away and I go back to being nobody. I weep some more. I don’t know which is worse: being Bitch or being nobody.

He drives for a long time, not saying a word. He lets me cry it out. Eventually, he pulls into a lot and parks. He turns and looks over the front seat. He sees me. I can tell. He doesn’t see Elsa or Bitch or Tiffany or anyone else. He sees me.

I ask: Who are you?

I look at him. He gazes back, a sad smile spreading across his face.

My name is Wolfgang Bollinger. I’m your father.

I tell him I have no father or mother. I had no childhood. I never fell off a horse when I was a little girl. I never had a job. I don’t like strawberry ice cream or mystery novels with cats in them. I don’t know how to fight or hotwire cars.

There is sadness about him but it’s different from the pain I look for in a man. I don’t understand. I grab his hand. He doesn’t pull away. I slip into his memories and become confused because they’re mixed in with my own. The memories that I kept locked away.

We both remember: a vast cavern of a place with all the latest high-tech equipment. I float in a warm vat of amber fluid. A younger version of this man comes by and talks to me. It’s a laboratory but he doesn’t treat me as a test subject or a guinea pig. He presses his hand against the clear side of the vat. I open my eyes, somehow knowing he is there. I press my hand against the clear wall and we smile at each other.

But I still don’t understand.

Why, oh why, would he do such a thing?

I created you to become my lovely Lisa. We were together eighteen years and I missed her more than life itself.

Lisa?

You became her and we got to say all the things we never got around to saying when she was alive. I had always been so busy with work, but then I got another chance. It was a brief but magical time.

We sit quiet. The windows fog up. Eventually, he speaks again.

I still love her and miss her and think about her. But after that night, the deep and horrible pain was gone. My heart was able to heal.

Yes, I remember now!

And then I slipped away. Into the night.

You did.

So I was your daughter because you created me. Then I became your wife for a night, because that’s what I was made for. But who am I now?

Tears flow from his eyes. He crumples in upon himself like a paper sack and pulls his hand away. He has no answer to give.

I crawl from the back to the front passenger seat. He won’t look at me. His gaze is fixed on his lap. His shoulders shake with quiet sobs. I reach over and take one of his hands in both of mine.

I say: Look at me.

It takes him a long time but he looks. I begin to change. This time I become somebody he has never seen before, but our minds are joined and so he knows who it is.

Isabelle? My God. This can’t be. It’s you. Isabelle!

His wife lost her in the first trimester. That was nine years ago. I feel myself shrinking down to child size. I giggle, my voice airy and carefree.

Hi, Daddy.

What I’ve done! What I made of you! It was a sin. I created you for my own selfish ends.

I pull his head onto my tiny shoulders and let him weep. I tell him everything is okay. I don’t need to know who I am. I don’t need a horse or strawberry ice cream or mystery novels with cats in them. I have everything I need.

I have a father who loves me.

I have a name.

My name is Isabelle.


© 2018 by Seth Chambers

 

Author’s Note: This story, along with my other changeling tales, is a way of exploring the experience of being adrift, socially invisible, and without personal identity.

 

sethSeth Chambers was born with a Pentel Rolling Writer in hand and has been pathologically addicted to writing ever since. In his quest for life experience, he has worked as an army medic, mental health counselor, farm hand, wilderness guide, bike messenger and ESL teacher. His writings have appeared in F&SF, Daily SF, Fantasy Scroll, Isotropic Fiction, and Perihelion SF. His novella, “In Her Eyes,” was a nominee for the Theodore Sturgeon Award and included in Prime Book’s, The 2015 Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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