DP FICTION #33A: “When One Door Shuts” by Aimee Ogden

The whole family wants to know when Mia is going to walk through the door, but no one has asked her about it. No one will.

The front door of Mia’s parents’ house is painted emerald green on the outside, off-white on the inside, with a knob contrived to look like real brass. No one has opened it for six months. Mia hates that door, has hated it for its full half-year of disuse. Ever since the front door of every house on the street became a portal into death.

Or a portal to somewhere else, at least. But it’s the dead who walk through from the other side. The Garcias’ stillborn little boy was the first one to come back, crawling through their open door as a fat, cheerful one-year-old. George Bojanek, who died of a heart attack three years ago in May and who was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Custer, strolled through one day. None of them have anything to say about where they’ve been and how they came back, certainly not the one-year-old and not old George and no one in between.

The doors are a mystery, but the trick of operating them is not. All it takes is someone opening the door from the inside of the house and walking out. And disappearing forever. Dead, Mia supposes. A cosmic tit-for-tat. But no one knows where George Bojanek’s elderly mother-in-law is now, and the Garcia baby certainly can’t tell what happened to his mother’s little niece.

The doors are almost all anyone can talk about these days, though their voices drop when Mia walks into the room. Yes, the doors are inscrutable, but to Mia they’re also infuriating. She visits her parents’ home as infrequently as she can, preferring to keep to her own apartment in her own town, where the doors are just doors and the only expectations hung on her are that she will arrive at work on time and get things done while she’s there.

But whenever she parks on the too-familiar street for a visit, she has to walk around and enter the house through the garage. When the postal carrier rings the bell to announce a package, it means finding shoes and making the tedious trip around. And each time Mia finds her mother standing in the doorway of Allison’s room, pretending to close the door as if she hasn’t been standing there staring into the darkness for hours, she has to pretend she didn’t see as she walks past to the bathroom.

It’s Allison’s room now, and it always will be. Once, it was Mia and Allison’s. For fifteen years, it was. Mia has had the privilege of having her own room, elsewhere. A series of rooms. A dormitory, a studio apartment. Briefly, a roomy space in Lee and Amanda’s attic. White walls, blue, gray. Her scenery has changed; Allison’s has stagnated in three static shades of pastel green with white geometric-patterned curtains, ones that fifteen-year-olds must have considered the very height of style. Softball and Science Olympiad trophies still line the bookshelves. No dust. That much at least is different from how it was when it was still Mia’s room too.

Mia goes into the room sometimes, when she thinks her mother isn’t looking. She’s not certain it would start a fight, but she’s not certain it wouldn’t. She has as much right to be here as anyone. It was her room too, once. And it’s not as if Allison is here to object. She sits on the bed, rumples the spread. Thumbs through the copy of 1984 on the nightstand. Allison liked to say it was her favorite book, though Mia was certain she never actually read it. She flips to the first page and reads: the clocks were striking 13. She slams it shut and throws it back into its place. It slides to a rest against the white plastic base of the bedside lamp.

Sometimes, often, Clayton is downstairs, playing video games with Mia’s younger brother Brandon. Like Allison’s bedroom, Clayton is a relic left untouched in the wake of her passing. If Allison were still here, Clayton certainly wouldn’t be. She would have outgrown him, like she would have outgrown those atrocious curtains. Someone should have outgrown Clayton, because he doesn’t seem to be aware that he ought to have outgrown himself at some point in the last eight years. At least he’s of more utility than the sepulcher of a bedroom. Brandon likes him, anyway, and he’s nice to the kid. And if Mia’s parents aren’t going to discuss the fact that Clayton was the one driving the car that night, then Mia certainly won’t broach the subject herself. Mia was the one who didn’t insist Allison wear a seatbelt. She was seventeen minutes older, and thus, her sister’s keeper. Nothing to keep anymore, except a silent green room and an old boyfriend with male pattern baldness.

There are pictures of both of the twins in the house—all three children, with baby Brandon making his debut during Mia and Allison’s second-grade year. It’s a polite fiction, the window dressing on the household’s grief. No one has ever come to the library in Rochester where Mia now runs the children’s section. But every year, the whole family makes a pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to visit Allison’s first-choice college and med school.

On her birthday—their birthday, Allison can keep their childhood bedroom but not this, not the entire day—there is no party planned, no bright-colored envelope waiting in the mailbox at Mia’s apartment. She bakes her own birthday cake using a box of Betty Crocker mix, as she’s done the past seven years. She adds extra butter to the store-bought frosting to make it taste more like the stuff her mother used to make. No candles. They seem like a waste. She leaves the finished product on her kitchen counter, untasted, before she heads over to her parents’ house for a silent, miserable Saturday afternoon. She’ll go out with her coworkers next weekend: Tobin, who runs the circulation desk, has a birthday at the end of the month, so they’ll split the difference. It’s oddly reassuring to share a birthday again.

She lets herself in the side door using her key. She’s had the same one since she and Allison were old enough to come home from school alone. Her key ring has changed, but the locks have stayed the same. Most things have stayed the same in this house. Mia wonders what will happen when Brandon graduates and goes to college.

Her footsteps are light on the peeling linoleum of the mud-room. She leaves her shoes under the bench, where no one will trip on them. Where no one will wonder what kind of shoes Allison would have been wearing today.

The grade door closes silently behind her, and she ghosts through the house in her stocking feet. She peruses the contents of the fridge, peels back the lid on a container of cold spaghetti, thinks better of it. Her mother might have plans for lunch already. In the basement, Brandon and Clayton shout at their football player avatars on the big-screen TV. There was a time when Scott, her own high school boyfriend, was just as much a fixture in the house as Clayton is now. She hasn’t spoken to Scott since graduation. What is he doing today? She can’t imagine him playing video games with a teenager. In fact, she doesn’t want to imagine him at all. Too hard to think of a life that’s not chained in orbit around that single day. She drifts upstairs instead.

The door to her mother’s room is cracked open. Not far: just far enough for Mia to catch a glimpse inside as she comes up the stairs. She can see her mother, facedown on the floor. Shoulders twitching in great silent sobs. Fingers twisted into the rug.

Eight years. Eight years of this. Mia remembers a class trip when she and Allison were nine, to a petting farm on the other side of the freeway. One of the chickens was missing feathers, open sores mottling its head and sides. While the girls stared, another hen strolled over and lit into the wounded bird’s neck with its beak. “Why did it do that?” Mia asked, and the farmer shrugged: “They just can’t let it alone.”

A break in the smothered sobs. Mia’s mother looks up from the cradle of her arms. Her fingers slacken on the much-abused rug. Her stained eyes meet Mia’s. A flicker of recognition, of contact. And Mia wonders: was this an accidental intrusion on her mother’s private pain? Or was the whole scene staged for Mia’s benefit? Is this just another pitstop on the nearly decade-long guilt trip Mia has embarked on?

And does it matter?

Even in nothing but socks, Mia’s heels bang on the wooden stairs. She likes the sound. For so long, she has tried to be a silent presence in this house, neither seen nor heard. An unassuming hitchhiker on the long road to nowhere. It feels good to make noise. She is here. Let them remember that.

Someone calls after her—Brandon?—but too late. Her hand closes on the doorknob; her wrist twists. She looks back over her shoulder. Brandon’s face, too pale, just behind her mother’s shoulder. Just behind him, Dad, close-mouthed and frowning. Her mother’s arm is outstretched, but as Mia turns, it falls back down to her side.

No turning back now. That would be a cruelty to all of them.

Mia closes her eyes. Time to go.

The front door opens, and Mia steps through.

And into the foyer of her parents’ house.

For a moment, disorientation shakes her. This isn’t right: she should be gone. But everyone is still standing there, silent and staring, just as she left them.

But no, this is not the same smothering sameness Mia has acclimated to. This is not her family’s house, not exactly, not entirely. Not the same family she left behind when she walked through the door. Her mother’s arms are still by her sides, but they come up now, and Dad grabs onto the wall for support. Brandon sits down on the stairs. “Mia,” her mother breathes, and when she tries to say it again, her voice shatters.

Mia takes an uncertain step forward, looks back at the door she came through. “No!” her mother cries, and Mia turns just in time to be crushed in those strange, familiar arms. Brandon wraps around them both, his threadbare teenage pride tossed aside for the moment, and both he and their mother are weeping, and Mia doesn’t understand why until Scott comes up the stairs.

She hasn’t seen him for five years, not since senior year, when they parted ways to different colleges and different lives. She’s never considered what her life would have looked like if she’d hung on to her high school sweetheart. Having Clayton around was always enough of a souvenir of those days. “I thought I heard … ” He looks as if he’s seen a ghost, and of course, he has. “She did it,” he says, and that word, she, hangs over Mia like a cold shadow.

All Mia’s mother can say is how much she’s missed Mia, and she tucks the hair behind Mia’s ear: an uncertain, familiar gesture. They want to show Mia the house, and she lets them. They emphasize the sameness, the house as museum or mausoleum, but she already sees it: every untouched crack in the linoleum, all the foot-worn carpeting.

Somewhere during the tour, Brandon ducks out. He returns with a birthday cake from the corner store, a packet of multicolored candles, and a lighter. While Dad is digging in the farthest reaches of the freezer for a theoretical carton of Moose Tracks ice cream, Mia excuses herself to the restroom.

There are no bathrooms on the first floor, and given the choice of basement or second story, Mia moves upward. There are pictures on the walls in the staircase, as she’s used to seeing. Just like she’s used to, the family history depicted there screeches to an abrupt halt: smiling pictures of the twins, baby Brandon, suddenly stop in the girls’ junior year of high school. The final picture on the wall is as familiar as a reflection, and just as strange: a high school graduation photo. But of course, the face under the tasseled black hat is Allison’s, not Mia’s.

The bathroom is at the end of the hall, but she stops first at the only closed door. It opens at her push, and she leans into the doorjamb as she looks inside. No sports trophies here, only hand-made picture books and a third-place ribbon from a high school poetry contest. On the bureau, a dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead. Mia grimaces, turns her face into the doorjamb. The walls are green and the curtains are patterned in geometric black-and-white. She wonders if she will have to sleep here tonight. She looks over the bookshelves: there is no copy of 1984, not that she can see.

She closes the door quietly, but she wants to slam it.

Mia uses the bathroom, splashes water on her face. When she comes down the stairs, the family is waiting for her, with Scott in anxious orbit. They sing “Happy Birthday” to her. She eats cake and freezer-burned ice cream. No one asks her what has happened to Allison, and she does not tell them.


© 2017 by Aimee Ogden

 

phhfhrs4gkAimee Ogden is definitely not six angry badgers in a trenchcoat. She enjoys baking, reading comics, weightlifting, and digging cozy burrows. Her work has also appeared in ShimmerApex, and Escape Pod. You can keep up with her on Twitter or at her website.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #32A: “Lightning Dance” by Tamlyn Dreaver

Lightning Dance sat next to Willa Bernardi on the side of the road. Rain splattered down around them, damp and uncomfortable, and the heavy smell from the gutter wrapped the air. Dance balanced a cigarette between her gloved fingers; its red tip glowed in the dark street. Somewhere in the distance sirens blared through the city. The police, ambulance, fire brigade: everyone came, and also probably the media.

Dance had pushed her mask up off her face, and without it she looked almost too human. She was beautiful, but faint lines of cynicism marked her mouth and eyes.

Willa huddled further into herself. She tried not to shiver in the chilly air. The rain had plastered her hair to her face. She’d lost her shoes somewhere, and her frozen feet were scratched and muddy. Her blue satin dress, which she’d thought so beautiful — which she’d thought made her beautiful —was ruined, the material stained and torn. Willa stared at her toes and wriggled them.

Dance wore elegant white boots that enabled her to leap from building to building, from wall to ground, as she fought the villains of the city. She didn’t have regenerative powers, but she was never hurt; she moved too quickly. Not many knew that, but Willa did. Willa knew everything about Dance — or so she thought, once upon a time.

Willa darted a quick look at Dance as the hero took a long drag from her cigarette. The street was empty of anyone but them. The sirens grew closer, but no one had passed the abandoned district and stopped to gawk; they’d follow the sirens. The constant sound of water mingled with the slow crumble of the half-demolished building behind them. One functioning street light reflected off the river of water gurgling through the gutters; the rest of the metal poles had been torn up and used as weapons in the fight between Lightning Dance and Unbender. He had used the poles; Dance fought with speed and lightning and pure grace.

The remaining light lit up the street all too clearly. A clump of something unidentifiable swirled by in the gutter, and Willa prodded it with her toe. She almost wished she shivered in the safe, obscuring dark.

“Your boyfriend?” Dance asked unexpectedly between drags; her voice was husky.

Willa hadn’t even known the hero smoked. “Yes,” she said quietly.

Garret had been charming and witty, and raised so many red flags, but she’d ignored them because she could never say exactly why he made her uneasy. Men like him never paid attention to women like her, and she’d alternated between amazement and terror that she’d do something wrong. She didn’t know if Garret had been real — if he was the person behind Unbender’s mask or if he was the mask.

“Babe, you have shit taste.”

“Yes.” Willa remembered the posters on her wall, at first of all the heroes, but then only of Lightning Dance. She remembered the scrapbook of newspaper clippings, then internet articles, the montage of computer backgrounds, and the embarrassing fantasies through high school she wouldn’t even share with her best friend. She still had everything stashed in a box in the back of her cupboard.

Dance muttered something under her breath, cursing, and Willa hugged her knees tightly to her chest. Her wrist hurt. Dance had dropped her down the stairs to get her out of the way, and she’d landed badly. Tears pricked her eyes, and she was glad then for the rain that spat around them.

“Not even going to say thank you?”

“Thank you,” Willa said mechanically.

Dance snorted. She stretched out her lithe body clad in white Lycra that somehow remained clean despite the fight and the mud and the dirty gutter. She didn’t look uncomfortable in the rain, only indifferent. “Not very grateful, are you?” She snuffed her cigarette on the wet sidewalk, then tossed it out onto the road.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Willa said.

The hero, one hand on her mask to slap it down and the other poised to push her to her feet, paused.

Willa flushed. “It can cause fires,” she whispered.

“Huh.” Dance half-smirked. “Not in this weather. Pretty sure I just caused a hell of lot more fires anyway.” Dance jerked her thumb back over her shoulder at the demolished building.

A piece of crumbling wall crashed down and drowned out the sirens. The explosion of dust momentarily overwhelmed the stench of the gutter. Any fires within probably sizzled before the growing onslaught of the rain. It had been an empty warehouse. Garret had said it was an exclusive nightclub. Willa hated nightclubs. It hadn’t seemed odd when they entered the abandoned district; exclusive often seemed to mean luxury in squalid surroundings.

Dance leant back again and pulled another cigarette from her belt but didn’t light it. “Do I know you?”

“No.”

The hero’s lips twisted. “Fair enough. Half expected a ‘you saved me once before’ there. It’s normally what I get.”

“You did once.” Willa rested her chin on her knees and stared fixedly at the road. “I was five.”

Dance snorted again. “Sorry, babe, don’t remember.”

“I don’t expect you to.” And she didn’t. She’d walked on air for days. She’d fallen in love with Lightning Dance then and there, and she’d thought she’d never fall out. “You rescue people all the time.”

“Way too many sometimes,” Dance muttered.

Willa twisted a fold of her soaked dress into her clenched fists. The sirens grew louder, and the rain heavier.

“You know…” Dance said slowly. “I do remember you. I think.” She twirled her cigarette in her hand and touched a fingertip to its end. With a slight sizzle of lightning, the cigarette glowed.

“I doubt it.”

“Yeah, I do. You told some dude off for littering then, too.”

Willa had. She’d stood up, a tiny child scratched and bleeding, and berated the bemused mayor. Dance had laughed, looked right at Willa, and told her not to change.

“The mayor.” Dance took a long drag on her glowing cigarette.

“Yes.” Willa bit her lip. “That was me.”

She’d almost rather Dance didn’t remember her. Her eyes ached through the rain. Her arm, still locked around her legs, throbbed from elbow to fingers, and she didn’t dare move it.

She wondered if Garret was dead or if he’d escaped. Nothing had been clear in the fight.

“Well.” Dance breathed a smoke ring that lasted only a second before the rain ripped it apart. “You were a lot more grateful then.”

“Yes.”

“What changed?”

Willa tilted her head back to the sky. Despite the rain, she could see a sprinkle of stars. A quick burst of light that sped across the clouds was probably Sprint. The city had a league of heroes; some places could only handle one.

“Babe?” Dance looked at Willa as if she was actually interested, and the cynicism in her face faded a little.

Willa sighed. “I grew up.”

The hero laughed and flicked her barely touched cigarette away. “I always thought that was a good thing.”

Willa thought she could hear the engines of the emergency response vehicles now as well as the sirens. They had to be near. “Not always,” she said before she realised she was talking – before she remembered she was sitting and waiting and hoping Dance left to save someone else. “When you’re little, you believe in everything.”

“Reckon if you’d closed your eyes and said this ain’t real, Unbender would have disappeared?”

Willa hugged her legs tightly to her. “No. You believe in heroes and good people and bad people and everything makes sense. When you’re older you realise…”

“Ah.” Dance tapped her fingers against the pavement. Lightning twitched across the concrete, and the rain evaporated with a hiss. As soon as the lightning disappeared, the dry patches disappeared too. “Sorry, babe. There are good people out there. I’m probably not one of them.”

Willa ducked her head. Lightning Dance was one of the good people. And Dance had to be good – she’d saved Willa when Garret would have killed her. She saved people. She protected the city. She just…

“That’s the problem with being a hero.” Dance’s lips twitched, a bitter movement. “People expect you to be perfect.”

She had been perfect when Willa was five and even when Willa was twenty.

Dance rose and wandered down the road; she flipped her mask down, preparing to leave, and suddenly looked much less human and much more the hero on the pedestal where Willa had put her. Willa dunked her feet into the freezing water in the gutter. Her cuts stung, but some of the mud washed away.

Looking back, Dance paused. “Hey, babe, don’t do that. The water’s probably contaminated.” Lightning flared around her and lit the street.

Willa blinked stupidly; then she looked down at her feet. A strangled laugh caught in her throat. It seemed Dance couldn’t help herself: she had to stop and say something because she saved people despite themselves, even when it irked her.

It wasn’t Dance’s fault Willa had grown up. It wasn’t Dance’s fault Willa had worshipped her to begin with.

It didn’t make Willa feel any better.

She drew her feet from the gutter, and Dance nodded in satisfaction.

“Two minutes, and the ambos will be here. You’ll be fine. I’ll see you around, babe.” Her teeth flashed in a grin beneath her perfect white mask. “If I’ve rescued you twice, I’ll rescue you again.”

She darted away, up the wall of the nearest building as if it was flat ground, and Willa sat alone in the street.


© 2017 by Tamlyn Dreaver

 

author-picTamlyn Dreaver grew up in rural Western Australia and now lives in Melbourne. She’s never had a secret basement or a dragon nesting in the backyard or anything nearly as interesting so she makes up stories about them instead. She can be found on the web at www.tamlyndreaver.com and tweeting at @tamlyn_dreaver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #31B: “The Entropy of a Small Town” by Thomas K. Carpenter

I gave up the memory of my first kiss to fix the carburetor. It uncoiled from my mind like a constrictor that’d just figured out it was strangling a steaming pot of chicken soup, or the way an unclasped belt loosened and released a pair of tight hipster jeans from some skinny hips, maybe even Osmond’s.

Sitting in the attached garage surrounded by smudged grease, crumpled car parts, and a snot-filled rage that oscillated between “No, I’m fine” and “What the hell does any of it matter” I pictured that kiss as it slipped free.

It’d been awkwardly delivered by a girl in seventh grade, behind Hamilton Elementary School, where they parked the buses they didn’t have the funds to fix anymore. Her name was Abby Silver. She’d kissed me with open eyes and rubbery lips, and whispered my name, “Phillip?” as she pulled away.

Eventually, I couldn’t hold onto it and the memory became an object I couldn’t describe, like being told a word in an alien language and trying vainly to picture it. The first time I traded a memory, I tried to cheat the reaction by writing it down in exquisite detail first. Afterwards, it was like reading someone else’s diary, someone who knew you, but somehow in your small town, you’d never met. It gave me the uncomfortable feeling my life was being observed and recorded. I never tried that again.

When I looked back to my oil-stained hand, covered in little black cuts from torn steel, the carburetor looked solid and whole like a frozen gray heart. Even the dirt had been cleansed from its skin and my fingernails were angry dark crescents against it.

I was about to fix the radiator, crushed like a wad of spent tissue paper, when the screen door from the kitchen wheezed open. Osmond’s mother backed in with an arm full of laundry, untidy hair spilling over her lumpy black dress. I escaped out the side door before she saw me.

I headed towards the center of town, following signs of the accident. Using a memory from when I went to the water park forty miles away with my parents only to find that it’d closed, I uncurled the stop sign, putting it back into its stiff policeman’s pose, which only reminded me of Osmond’s father, red-faced and shouting in a world full of “No”. I ran from that corner, forgetting that I’d been trying to hold onto a memory, which one, I didn’t know, before it obliterated.

My physics teacher, Mr. Anderson —a puffy-eyed well-known bachelor who wore pink Hello Kitty! socks most days —had once explained that the second law of thermodynamics stated that entropy always increased.

The laws of entropy explained why life was always so complicated. Whenever Osmond and I skipped class behind the gym, he would smoke cigarettes and talk about whatever new band he was into, while I admired his pale, lean arms sticking out from an ironic Ramones t-shirt with expertly cut off sleeves. If either one of us was having a bad day, which was most of them for Osmond, we blamed it on entropy.

Why did Osmond’s dad drink whiskey and yell at him at night? Entropy. Why had the Grizzly Bears sold out on their latest album? Entropy. Why did there always have to be so much physics homework? Entropy.

The last one was all me, and a bit of a lie. Mr. Anderson was why I’d considered a career in physics and had even applied to MIT, his alma mater. But Osmond and I didn’t share any classes and I never had anything to really complain about, so I’d made it up.

But entropy couldn’t explain how I could exchange memories to fix things. By the second law of thermodynamics, I shouldn’t have been able to put things back to how they’d been before. Giving up the memory violated the law as much as the fixing did, because that made it like it had never happened.

When a cherry red Camaro drove past me on the way to the Quickie Mart, I used the epithets they hurled at me, ones I’d heard a hundred times before in this small town, and fixed the cracks in the sidewalk. I repurposed my memories so quickly, their insults burnt up on contact, like an icy rain falling into a hot fire.

I always wondered if the Streets Department ever noticed that the sidewalks and roads were in better shape than their age would indicate. Maybe they thought a concrete faerie was protecting its realm, and maybe it was.

When I got to the old oak tree that Osmond’s light blue Chrysler Dynasty had crashed into last week, I clasped my hand over my mouth, smelling the leftover oil and grease I couldn’t quite scrub free, and trembled like a knife thrown into the dirt.

Black skid marks stained the gravel-speckled street, turning to raw earth as the tires had hit the grass. The whole scene looked like a giant had punched the tree, dragging its Neanderthal knuckles through the dirt as it swung. Little bits of plastic were imbedded into the tree that had a crack wide enough to fit my hand snaking up the trunk. Already, the leaves on the north side had withered, curling up just like I had to do each night to get to sleep.

Fixing static objects like stop signs and carburetors was one thing. They were frozen entropy and maybe fixing them rearranged the atoms enough to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics. But living, growing things were another. They were entropy in motion, constantly changing and updating themselves.

I thought for a while about what memory would be strong enough to fix the tree. It would have to be something that went down to the core of who I was. I studied myself for clues: jeans so tight they looked painted on, a belt I painted gold because the stupid Sears here didn’t carry the kind of clothes I liked to wear, an aqua linen buttoned-down shirt.

The first memory I toyed with trading was the time Osmond and I were sitting on the picnic table someone had hauled out to Knoll Point, when we talked about my ability. I’d shown him how I could fix things, putting a broken pencil back together as proof. He asked if I could fix people. He had a hungry, vulnerable look about him. I tried to kiss him, but he pushed me back. It wasn’t like we hadn’t kissed before; we’d been having steady make out sessions for the previous month since we’d got drunk on cherry wine and I made my move.

“Can you fix people?” he asked again. “Can you fix what’s in their head?”

“What do you mean?” I asked in a throw-away voice, clutching my hands into fists.

He shifted on the table then, hands and face flinching in a syncopated dance, mouth jawing at the question he wanted to ask, but settling on the one that actually came out.

“My dad. Could you make it so he wouldn’t care?” he asked eventually.

I was so mad at the time, I didn’t even answer. I pulled out a lighter that we used for making cozy fires in the rock-lined pit, flicked the flame to life, and held my hand over it.

“Tell me you love me,” I demanded as I lowered my palm onto the flame. The pain bit into my hand, nerve endings searing and turning to black smoke. The outer layer of my skin cracked, black with char. My muscles jumped and flexed, ready to lift my hand free of the flame.

“I need a powerful memory to fix it,” I said through gritted teeth, imploring him with my face, constricted into a hideous mask to say the words.

“I love you, Phillip,” he said, his mouth opened into a wide circle of horror.

When I pulled the flame away, he grabbed my arm and turned my hand over, recoiling from the damage. Tears squeezed out of his eyes as he tenderly tucked my hair behind my ear.

I felt like such a bitch for tricking him like that, but I was mad at him that he didn’t love me like I loved him. I repaired the third-degree burns on my hand, with a memory I no longer remember, but it wasn’t what had just transpired between us.

When the flesh was knitted and whole, Osmond pulled back, and changed the subject to what we were going to do after school. Either I was a such a good actor that as I explained I thought I was going to go to Cal Tech to study architecture that he believed I traded away that memory, or that he was so wrapped up in the question he’d wanted to ask that he didn’t notice. Either way, that was the only time he’d ever spoken those words to me.

I left the old oak tree in the state I’d found it, realizing that if I kept trying to fix everything in this little town, I’d end up an empty husk of patchwork memories. Put enough holes in my past and eventually the lattice would collapse.

Hamilton General Hospital was only two blocks from the site of the crash. I snuck around the nurse’s station, using a guy rolling a rack of food trays with what seemed like a thousand quivering bowls of Jell-O as my shield.

Osmond was alone when I entered, his family had left for the day. His eyes were sunken and the mask over his mouth looked like something you’d see on an alien spacesuit. The tubes and wires turned him into a puppet that no one had bothered to animate. Only the faint mist of breath against the mask indicated he was alive.

I was sitting on the chair next to Osmond holding his hand when his father came in. He was wearing his Sheriff’s uniform. His jaw pulsed with an anger that made my eyes flick to the gun at his hip.

“I told you, you’re not welcome here,” he said, puffing up his chest. “You did this to him.”

I was glad there was a bed between us. Not glad, maybe frightened. Frightened of what I might have done if I’d been in the chair on the other side.

My lips hardened into knives, thin blades dripping with venom. “I wasn’t the one driving his car. Drunk.” He blinked. “And if you so much as touch me, I’ll tell every newspaper in the county about what happened.”

Osmond’s Sheriff father actually reeled on his feet as if I’d punched him right in the mouth. His knees buckled and his face went through contortions of thought as if he were walking across hot coals.

Osmond and I had been making out in his light blue Chrysler Dynasty when his father had found us. There was no question to what we were doing, Osmond’s hand was down my pants when the flashlight burned into the car.

His father had yanked me out, shouting gin-soaked curses. Osmond tried to defend me, clawing at his father like a wounded cat.

Osmond’s father never hit me, but I wish he had. Maybe then he wouldn’t have driven away in a drunken rage.

Osmond was shoved into the passenger seat, and the Dynasty spat gravel in every direction before fishtailing down the road, leaving the Sheriff’s truck idling by the side of the road with the door open and the lights on. I shuffled back into town, puffy-eyed, and came upon the wreck after the ambulance had already left.

The airbags had deployed, but the passenger side of the Dynasty had slid into the old oak tree and Osmond’s head had hit the glass so hard the concussion put him into a coma.

His father sank into the chair across from Osmond’s lifeless body and sobbed into his huge hamhock hands. When he finished twenty minutes later, he didn’t look up, and said these words as if nothing had transpired before: “I just want my son back.”

After the Sheriff left, I placed my other hand on Osmond’s and squeezed.

The funny thing about entropy was that as chaotic and destructive as it sounded, it was quite life-affirming. A static Universe was just a button of unreleased matter. A flower that couldn’t bloom was dead.

I placed my fingertips on his temples and summoned the memories of Osmond and I together: the way his smile twitched when he was thinking of me, his lean hips, laughing at the jocks sweating on a hot August day in their football pads, the taste of mint as he kissed me, skinny-dipping in Miller’s Creek before we both knew, the glorious burning entropy of the night sky as we lay on a blanket on Knoll Point holding hands and whispering to each other as if we might disturb the heavens.

Just as I was leaving the hospital room, the boy who’d been laying in the bed was awake. His brown eyes locked with mine as he pulled the mask down.

“Phillip,” he said, his tone imploring me to stay.

“You’re Osmond, right?” I asked, one foot in the antiseptic hallway.

His eyes flickered with confusion, twice, as if the first time wasn’t enough. He looked at the bed and the medical equipment which brought signs of recognition.

“Yes,” he said, his lips curling into disappointment. “Have a good time at Cal Tech.”

“How did you know I was going to Cal Tech?” I asked, stunned and trying to remember why I’d come to the hospital in the first place. I guess it was because I went to school with Osmond. I probably had a crush on him, though I’d never let him know it.

He looked around the room as if he was trying to find a script to read from.

“I guess I heard you mention it in class,” he said, dejected, which confused me in turn.

“Well, have a great life,” I said, and left the room.

I thought I heard something that sounded like, “I love you,” from his room. I hurried back in, my heart beating like a thunderstorm, hands and face tingling with electricity.

“What did you say?” I asked, breathless.

Osmond paused for a moment before saying, “You, too.”

The words dropped unceremoniously from my lips, “Oh, thanks.”

I left Hamilton General Hospital with the nagging feeling I was forgetting something. I’m sure it had something to do with leaving town in a few months. Maybe I was a little disappointed that I was almost eighteen and I’d never had a first love.

But that’s okay; I’m a flower bud buzzing with entropy. Someday I’ll bloom, and it’ll be glorious.


© 2017 by Thomas K. Carpenter

 

Author’s Note: A couple of different scenes sort of grew together in my head as I was contemplating the idea of trading memories for magic.  The first was the protagonist cradling a greasy carburetor.  I didn’t know why at the time until I had the scene with the lighter come to me on a run (I get my best thinking done when exercising).  The rest just snowballed from there.

 

author-photo-tkcThomas K. Carpenter writes in a variety of genres including: post-cyberpunk, historical fantasy, YA dystopia, alternative history, steampunk, and contemporary fantasy.  His short fiction can be found in Ellery Queen’s Mystery MagazineAbyss & ApexGalaxy’s Edge, and other publications including this one.  The Alexandrian Saga, his best-selling alt-history series, has reached readers worldwide, while his current series, The Hundred Halls, is a cross between Harry Potter and Supernatural at university.  The first four books of the series can be found on Amazon, starting with The Trials of Magic.

 

 


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DP FICTION #31A: “Strung” by Xinyi Wang

The red string around Mom’s ankle does not lead to Dad, and Dad doesn’t have a red string at all. But she makes him laugh with his head thrown back, and he makes her smile the way I do at Ria Ruiz, the prettiest and smartest girl in not just my class but the whole first grade—so they must be in love, no matter what the Old Man in the Moon says.

“I hope I’m like you when I’m older,” I whisper one night, as Dad tucks me in.

He smiles and lifts his brows. “Bald?”

I scrunch up my nose. “No. I mean I don’t want a string, like you. I don’t want the Old Man to tell me who to love.”

Dad looks down at his unburdened ankles for so long I nearly fall asleep. Finally, he presses a kiss to my forehead. “Sweet dreams, Weilai.”

I change my mind for the first time two years later, when my oldest cousin gets married to a golden-haired lady who shares a string with him. The red between them coils at their feet, pulsing as they exchange beautiful words about fate and certainty. My parents are still happy together, but what if Mom would be happier with the person on the other end of her string? And if a scant ring of red appeared around Dad’s ankle one day, would he leave? Would he want to?

It would be better, I decide, to have a string and love who the Old Man says you should. That way, there is no doubt. Only certainty. For the first time, I consider myself lucky to have been born in the Old Man’s domain, under his sky with his moon overhead—to have eyes that can see the intricate web of red unspooled all around us.

But when my string shows up in the middle of my third grade math class, it unfurls like wildfire and bleeds out of the room instead of to Neal Lang, who I’ve loved for three whole weeks. I bite my tongue to keep from sobbing, but fat tears leak out anyway because whoever the Old Man wants me to be with is not this perfect boy who made me a daisy crown and asked me to be on his kickball team. A steady chant of “wrong wrong wrong” beats against my skull. My vision blurs, but not enough to wipe the red from the corner of my eye.

Miss Sabrina calls my parents when I can’t stop crying on my times table, and Mom carries me out to the car even though I’m getting too big for it.

“The Old Man is not absolute,” Mom says when we stop for milk tea on the way home. She lets me put my feet up on her lap while we wait for our order, gently rubbing my newly-bound ankle. “He was wrong about me.”

“How do you know?” I confetti my napkin and pinch the insides of my wrists to stave off fresh tears. “What if your destiny is better than Dad?”

Her mouth smiles. “Who could be better than Dad?”

I swirl a finger through the pile of napkin scraps before me, then shrug. “What if.”

Our strings trail off into the distance, in parallel. They snake across the street, around an elm, and out of sight. Mom stares out the window as she says, “I have more faith in me and your father than I do in any distant old man. Don’t you?”

As I chew on a mouthful of tapioca pearls, I change my mind again. About wanting a string, a destiny. About trusting, so wholly, the will of an invisible stranger. What does the Old Man know, anyway?

Over the next twenty years, I will change my mind twenty hundred more times—sometimes from day to day, hour to hour.

Mom and Dad get divorced, and my faith returns. As they sign their papers at the dining room table, Mom’s string runs, as ever, away from Dad—a stark warning that they were never meant to be. So if the Old Man knew they were wrong for each other, he must also know who’s right for me. With that belief lodged firmly in my bones, I spend a summer chasing my string. Mom and hundreds of generations-old stories say it’s futile; no one has ever found their destiny by looking. But I still devote three sweltering months to the search, tireless even when the red wisping away from my ankle leads me in infinite figure-eights through town.

A year later, my cousin and his beautiful, fated wife split as well—so I abandon faith again and take Katie Nilini to junior prom, even though my string arcs past her without ever brushing her skin. She beams as we dance to bad remixes and worse ballads, and my heart pounds when she sticks her fingers into the chocolate fountain and smears the melt across my nose. I hold her gaze all night, not once looking down at the red that winds away from us.

But when I kiss her on Monday, between classes, I can’t help staring over her shoulder at my string—running down the hall and out the door, away from her and her lilac perfume. The Old Man knows best, or he doesn’t. Either way, I can’t stop thinking about that damned sliver of red.

In college, I date but don’t commit. Five or six weeks into every relationship, I cycle from ignoring my string to agonizing over the destiny waiting at its end. Guilt over those wandering thoughts quickly fills my chest, and I pull back from my partners with vague excuses and genuine remorse.

A few ask, beg, scream for real explanations—and I tell them the truth. I palm my ankles and talk all night about the ethereal red that streams toward my unknown destiny. About wanting certainty, but being helpless against doubt. About my parents, my cousin, and my ever-changing mind.

They listen until they believe, even though—born outside the Old Man’s land, beneath a different moon and sky—they can’t see red like me. I swallow thickly, each time, and ask if they still want me after hearing all that.

They never do, but I never expect them to. After a dozen cycles in three years, I start choosing to be alone.

I don’t date again until my final year of grad school, where I meet Aaron Lao. He’s a professor, with eyes that see like mine, and he has his own string that doesn’t lead to me. We agree from date one that this won’t be serious, because his faith in the Old Man’s wisdom has never fluctuated like mine—he intends to spend his life with his destiny, once they find each other. I’m just for now, just until then, but I still fall in love with him over midnight talks about Confucian principles in wuxia novels.

“You’ll be happier with yours,” he says a year later, when he finally meets his destiny. His brow is creased, and he breathes an apology against my skin when he kisses my ankle. If I ask him to choose me, I’m afraid he might.

So I don’t ask, because he needs certainty that he’ll never have with me.

But knowing that doesn’t soften the loss. I wake up missing him for months afterwards, and I begin to hate the Old Man and his strings. Some nights, I drink and stick my head out the window and shout at the moon. Once, I sink to my kitchen floor and take a knife to my string. It curls like water around the blade, enduring, and I only succeed in slicing open my palms and spilling fresh red across my skin.

Therapy helps. Not immediately, but with time. After a year of weekly sessions with Dr. Aimee Ping, I unlearn my habits of glancing at my string a hundred times a day, of crossing my ankle over my knee and curling my fingertips beneath the band whenever I can spare a hand. Of caring entirely too much about the trickle of red that plagues my periphery.

By my ten-year high school reunion, I’m close to believing that I don’t need or want the Old Man telling me who to love. Close enough that I go up to Neal Lang at the reunion. My string still doesn’t run to him, but I still tell him I had the biggest crush on him in third grade. He laughs with his head thrown back as we talk, and I can’t take my eyes off him when he ducks across the gym to refill my punch cup.

I stay in therapy, and Neal and I stay in touch. Daily texts turn into nightly calls, and we start thinking of ourselves as a couple. We stay long-distance and non-exclusive at first, which helps stave off the guilt that once squeezed my lungs every time I’d glance at my ankle, away from a loving partner, and wonder. I almost tell him, a hundred times over, about destiny, a string he can’t see, and the Old Man in the Moon.

But I imagine swallowing thickly and asking if he still wants me after hearing all that, and fear of history repeating drives me to say, instead, “I love you.”

To say, eventually, “Marry me.”

We exchange vows at his parents’ church, and move into a condo with my dog and his two cats. Red spills from our home and runs unerringly toward my supposed destiny, but I think on it less and less—once a day, then once a week, then rarer still.

But as much as I want to, and as hard as I try, I can’t stop wondering altogether. Sometimes, unbidden, my mind drifts along the red river flowing away from Neal and floods with the idea of destiny. A pang of guilt accompanies each of those thoughts, and they coalesce over time into a dense weight beneath my skin.

On our tenth anniversary, we sprawl out beneath the full moon in our backyard. I’m bloated with good wine and Neal’s love and my decade-old knot of guilt, and I know I won’t be able to stand again without shedding a part of that weight. So as he makes me a daisy crown, I tell him everything. I talk about a string he can’t see, a weight he can’t feel. I describe the winding maybe that I sometimes stare at when we’re having breakfast at the kitchen counter.

And when I’ve talked my voice hoarse, I force myself to add, “If this is a deal-breaker, I understand.”

Neal is quiet as he turns the finished crown in his hands. Stray petals float down his wrists, and the heat of shame and fear slide down my chest in tandem. Finally, he places the crown on my head and hooks an ankle around mine.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t mind.”

My breath stutters. “How could you not?”

He shrugs, his shoulder warm against mine. “The way I see it, everyone wonders. Whether or not they’ve got a string to follow. Thinking ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you love me less. It just means you wake up every day and choose me.”

“And—” I roll onto my side to look him in the eye, my own stretched wide. “And it doesn’t bother you that maybe one day I won’t?”

“Of course not,” he says, like it’s obvious. Like it’s easy. “Because it’s just as likely that one day, I’ll wake up and not choose you.”

I turn back to the moon, quiet for a long moment as Neal’s words loop in my mind. The crown’s petals are soft against my forehead, and Neal’s ankle is a solid weight atop mine. My red string, caught between us, squirms free and cascades into the distance, bright and stark beneath the light of the moon. It pleads for my attention, presents me with a choice.

Neal is smiling when I close my eyes and kiss him on the mouth. I choose him again the next day, and the next.

As for the ones after that—that’s between me and Neal, and not the moon.


© 2017 by Xinyi Wang

 

xw_headshotXinyi Wang was born in Beijing and raised in Northern California. They studied Creative Writing at UC Riverside, then resettled in the Bay Area to drink mass amounts of milk tea. When they’re not reading, buying hats, or refreshing the same five websites for hours on end, they write stories and babble intermittently on Twitter @byxinyi.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #28A: “The Existentialist Men” by Gwendolyn Clare

Kris has a talent for making toast come out perfectly every time. Never burnt. The rest of us yearn for a superpower so practical.

Ryan has incredible parking-space karma, but only after he has already parked. He’ll circle round and round the block, finding nothing and more nothing, and eventually give up and take that one empty space six blocks away. He’ll bundle up against the cold, scarf wrapped all the way up to his chin and hands shoved deep in his coat pockets, and walk the six blocks to the restaurant. And without fail, just as he opens the door, a parking space will open up directly in front. Once, he ran back to his car to move it closer, but the empty space had been claimed by the time he drove there. The parking spaces are taunting him.

Technology always behaves itself in the presence of Candace. If someone has a computer problem, all she has to do to fix it is walk over and glance at the screen. Of course, as soon as she walks away, the computer begins malfunctioning again. She doesn’t understand what the rest of us are always complaining about.

Julie could disappear, but only once. We all miss Julie.

Hiro is never, ever, in a situation where he might have the opportunity to be a hero. One day he slept in, and that was the day someone lost control of their car on the ice and plowed through the glass front of the café where he usually got his morning coffee. When the flu prevented him from going holiday shopping downtown, a chunk of limestone façade spontaneously fell off a building onto a crowded sidewalk, killing one person and injuring six. If he declines to join us for lunch, invariably someone in the restaurant will nearly choke to death. The rest of us got trained to do the Heimlich, and we try to take him along with us whenever we can, like a shield against the bad luck that seems to cluster in his absence. Hiro, for his own part, tries to stick to his schedule so he’s never not somewhere he’s supposed to be.

Brianna gets improbable injuries. It’s true that she enjoys her share of dangerous activities—rugby, skiing, roller derby—but that’s never when she gets hurt. She sprained her wrist in her sleep. She broke a bone in her foot getting out of the desk chair in her home office. Once, she actually slipped on a banana peel and broke her elbow. At an improv comedy show, she laughed so hard she cracked a rib. Most of the ER nurses know her by name. She has to be especially careful when Hiro’s not around.

Nick always knows exactly what time it is without looking at a clock. This would have been incredibly useful back in the 18th Century. But we all own watches and cell phones, and don’t really need him for anything.

Carlos says he has consistent, reliable precognitive abilities. Unfortunately, his precognition only senses one or two seconds ahead, so he never manages to react in time to change the outcome. This means no one else can really confirm whether or not he has a superpower at all, but we choose to believe him anyway. With everything else we’ve seen, why not? At least he knows what’s coming.

My superpower is that I’m friends with all these people, and nothing extraordinary ever happens to me.


© 2017 by Gwendolyn Clare

 

gwen-clare-headshotGwendolyn Clare’s debut novel — INK, IRON, AND GLASS — is the first in a YA steampunk duology forthcoming from Macmillan/Imprint in 2018. Her short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. She holds a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, a PhD in Mycology, and swears she’s done collecting acronyms. She lives in North Carolina with too many cats, too many ducks, and never enough books.

 

 


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DP Fiction #25: “Bloody Therapy” by Suzan Palumbo

I hugged my daughter, Ashley, when she returned home from school crying. She told me she was scared of going to the bathroom alone,because of Bloody Mary, and had wet her pants on the bus ride home. I wiped her eyes and kissed her forehead.

“The kids in my class said Bloody Mary would steal my soul if I said her name three times in the bathroom mirror,” she said rubbing her eyes.

“Bloody Mary doesn’t exist, Sweetheart. She’s a story people made up to scare each other.”

“But Mom, you said I would make friends with the kids here if I looked for the good in them. How can they be good if they try to scare me?” Her sobs receded into the focused expression of a child trying to make sense of the world.

“Trust me, Hon, everyone is capable of being good. Even not-real Bloody Mary could be nice if she wanted to be.”

***

That night, I surveyed myself in the bathroom mirror. The frown lines between my eyebrows seemed deeper; the corners of my mouth drooped lower. I had sworn during the custody hearing to provide a stable environment for Ashley. I massaged my temples and recalled my own childhood fears of shadowy closets and pitch black bathrooms. I pursed my lips. I wanted to shake every kid in Ashley’s grade for making her cry.

I locked my bathroom door and turned off the lights. In the darkness, I repeated the forbidden name in front of the mirror in an even and deliberate tone: “Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary.”

The luminescent face of a pale, young woman emerged in the mirror. Her eyes were dull black orbs. Her hair was matted and tangled with red clots of blood. She stared at me. I took a step backwards.

“I want your soul,” Bloody Mary shrieked. I trembled but then steadied myself. I wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore and Ben wasn’t here to save me. I looked into Bloody Mary’s soul-less  eyes.

“You’ve come for my soul because I said your name three times in front of a mirror? That’s an overreaction.”

She blinked.  “What?”

“This whole shtick is so melodramatic. What are you getting out of this other than making my poor kid wet her pants?”

“You summoned me. You can’t call me and then question my soul stealing. You know nothing about me.” Her voice had transformed from a paranormal screech into the whine of a petulant teenager.

“This is my fault? The only person who controls you is you, Bloody Mary. You need to rethink this haunting bathrooms gig.” I pointed my finger at her, echoing the jargon I’d internalized in couples counselling. I was about to continue the dressing down when Ashley began knocking on the door.

“Mom, who are you talking to?”

“I’m on my cell. I’ll be out soon.”

I returned my attention to Bloody Mary. She glared at me in the dark.

“You’re right, I don’t know you. Come back tomorrow. You can explain yourself then.”

Mary sighed and rolled her eyes.

“All right, but anger me and I will claim your soul.”

“Okay, whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow, and do something about all the blood in your hair, Mary — Maybe wash and comb it. You’re in bathrooms all the time.”

“My name is Bloody Mary.” She rattled the mirror as she disappeared into the darkness.

The following night I turned off the lights and summoned Bloody Mary to the mirror. She was sullen.

“Bloody Mary, why do you enjoy terrorizing people?” She assumed the shape of purple brooding clouds and drizzled blood.

I continued. “Why are you drawn to mirrors?” She returned to her regular form and stood silently, leaving the rest of my questions to bounce off the mirror’s reflective surface.

“Your hair looks better,” I said with an artificial smile. A dim light appeared in one of her eyes  before she faded away.

***

I began calling Bloody Mary through the mirror twice a week; trying to tease out the roots of her behavior.

“Was your father abusive? Your mother, neglectful? What motivates you, fear or revenge, Bloody Mary?” I took quick showers and left the water running in the dark to muffle our voices.

Over the months her appearance improved. Her hair became shiny and tangle free. Her eyes developed deep brown irises that reflected centuries of loneliness and sorrow.

She no longer shape-shifted to deflect my questions. She forced her memories to surface and they would wash over her, leaving her voiceless and causing her to rock back and forth. During her breaks, I unpacked the burdens of my bitter divorce and laid them before the mirror. It was a relief to talk to someone who didn’t know us when we were Alicia and Ben: Happily Married Couple.

“I’ve heard you tell Ashley to look for the good in people. What happened to the good in Ben?” Bloody Mary asked.

“I lost track of the good in Ben.” I cast my eyes downward. “We alternated between skewering each other with insults and avoiding contact until I convinced myself there was nothing to salvage between us.” I put one hand on the vanity. “He said and did things to hurt me on purpose.” I rubbed my forehead. I was a failure at marriage. If I couldn’t apply my own advice to Ashley’s father, wasn’t I a failure as a mother, too?

***

Bloody Mary’s history began to coalesce in drops and trickles.

“I saw my mother drown,” she revealed after one of her long silences. I reached out and touched the image of Mary’s cheek in the mirror, attempting to brush away a tear that had escaped her now-human eyes.

***

We planned a girls’ night. I mixed Bloody Marys.

“I like the name,” she said. I placed her drink on the vanity and sat with my back against the bathroom door.

“Sometimes I eavesdrop on Ashley at school,” Bloody Mary said after her second cocktail.

“How?”

“Her teacher has a mirror at the back of the class. I can hear what goes on.” Mary tilted her head to the side. “You don’t need to worry about her. You’re doing a good job.”

“You think?” I sat up straight.

“You should see her. She’s kind but she’s no pushover.”

“I hope so.” I leaned back, letting the door support my full weight.

“Trust me. I would tell you if you needed to worry.” Bloody Mary spent the rest of the evening creating pink fractal patterns in the mirror.

***

“I never want to see another Bloody Mary again,” she moaned the next night. I laughed and got her some water.

***

One weekend, when Ashley was at Ben’s, Bloody Mary arrived wearing an earnest expression. I waited for her to speak.

“We were robbed and murdered on our wedding day,” she whispered. She clutched a silver hand mirror to her chest. “This was James’ wedding gift to me.” Her pale cheeks flushed and became rosy and full.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, it was a secret I needed to tell.”

I nodded at her in the mirror. The dashed promises of my own wedding vows still colored my reflection.

“I can’t cling to the past anymore.” She lowered the hand mirror and held it at her side, out of view. “I need to leave. I need to figure out what I’m going to do now.”

“What about all of the souls you’ve stolen?” I bit my bottom lip.

“I’ve never stolen a soul — No one’s stayed long enough for me to capture theirs.”

I placed my hand on the reflection of her shoulder in the mirror.

“That’s not true,” I said.

“I’m sorry Ashley was afraid of me.”

“It’s okay, Bloody Mary.”

A smile flickered across her lips.

“Just call me Mary.”

I smiled back as she vanished from the mirror.

***

I parked my car at the curb in front of Ben’s house. I got out and tried to lean casually on the passenger side door. Ashley waved at me from the window. A minute later she skipped out the front door with her overnight bag. Ben followed her, stopping at the midpoint of his lawn.

“Mom!”

“Hey, Did you have fun?”

“Yes! We saw a movie and went to the park.”

I inspected her appearance. Her hair was a mass of fly-aways and her pants were covered in dirt. I looked up at Ben. He put his hands on his hips and clenched his jaw.

“Thanks, Ben.”

“You’re welcome, Alicia.” His words were shaded with caution.

“I can’t wait to tell Rebecca at school about the movie.” Ashley bounced up and down next to me. I hugged her. We both waved at Ben after I started the car. I saw him shake his head as he turned to go inside.

At home, I went to my ensuite and looked at myself in the mirror.

“Thank you, Mary,” I whispered. I closed the bathroom door and went to help Ashley unpack.


© 2017 by Suzan Palumbo

Author’s Note: “Bloody Therapy” was inspired by my five year old who came home from school one afternoon and declared that she, “didn’t like Bloody Mary.”  She had drawn a picture of medicine for Bloody Mary during art time and explained that we needed to give the medicine to Bloody Mary because, “the Bloody Mary Lady needs help.”   I promised my daughter that I’d help Bloody Mary.  This story is part of my effort.

suzan photoOrginally from Trinidad and Tobago Suzan is a writer based in Ontario, Canada. Find her full bibliography at https://suzanpalumbo.wordpress.com/


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DP Fiction #23: “Curl Up and Dye” by Tina Gower

Amelia fingered an unruly hair into place, willing her locks to stay safely tucked under her scarf. She prayed the stylists cleansed the utensils between appointments. Last thing she wanted was to pick up another tangle. Although, Dye for a Change was the highest rated Psychosomatic Hair Syndrome recovery shop on Karma-Yelp.

The bell clinked against the metal door like wind chimes. Burnt hair mixed with the distinct chemical scents of nail polish, astringent, and hair spray assaulted her as she entered.

“Be right with you!” Someone poked out from behind the screens, where silhouettes of women getting shampooed and styled played out like a silent movie, complete with music. Sweeney Todd. Cute. “Make sure to sign in!”

Amelia inched toward the sign in sheet, patting her scarf again to assure it hadn’t slipped, even though nobody sat in the waiting area. Her Milano knockoffs squeaked and groaned on the polished marble, as if the tile didn’t approve of her cheap shoes.

You think you’ll fool people? Amelia pushed the doubt aside. It was hard to tell what thoughts were her own.

As soon as she dotted her ‘i’, a short girl with spiked black hair, stud in her lip, a sleeve tattoo of a rose with a thorny stem, and nose ring sprang from the back room. “I can take you.” She motioned Amelia around the screens. Amelia avoided eye contact with the other patrons, dodging into a private corner where the girl flung a smock around Amelia’s neck. The stylist skimmed her fingers under the hem of the scarf, “May I take a look?”

Amelia swallowed a breath. “Can we discuss options, pricing?”

“Let’s take a look first.”

The stylist slid the scarf off in one quick motion. Amelia gasped.

“Oh my. Awful tangle.” The stylist inspected the mess. “A big one.” She picked at the base of the knot. “Looks like it started years ago and it’s been festering since.” She shook her head, her lips thinned to a line. She attempted an exploratory stroke of her comb. It snapped, the plastic needles ping-a-linged on the floor. “Wow, not good. We can untangle it in three, maybe four sessions. Or. . .”

“I’m willing to try anything. I’m desperate.”

A voice whispered—don’t waste our money—but it wasn’t Amelia, it was him.

The stylist fumbled in her apron for a brochure. “This package here.” She opened it, pointing to a cut and style.

Mid-priced. Two-hour session. It would be over, the whole affair, in two hours. Seemed fair to have two years of her life removed in two pampering hours.

“It sounds wonderful.” Amelia wanted it done. No, needed it done. Over. Fin. The end.

The stylist bit the stud on her lip. “We don’t usually take walk-ins for such extensive work, but I had a cancelation.”

Amelia sunk into her chair. “Wonderful. Get it out. I just want him out for good.”

“Bad breakup?”

“We were best friends. . .” Amelia squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t want to talk about him.”

The stylist hummed along to the music, working through the tangle, cutting the sections that didn’t cooperate. “This could have been prevented. We’ll get you on a schedule. This section here–” She dangled the offending knot from her clippers. “-only manifested a month ago, right at the scalp. That’s how we know. Whoever caused this mess, it’s a good thing he’s gone.”

Amelia clutched the armrest. “I’m not paying you to critique my life. I just want you to fix it.”

Always blaming others for your problems.

“I shouldn’t have…that wasn’t me.”

The stylist tsked, making little cooing sounds as she massaged the scalp. “Don’t worry, these tangles grab a hold and it affects you. Deep. You’ll be yourself again. I promise.”

Amelia squeezed her eyes shut. She should apologize, say something more, rather than let all the blame fall on the tangle, but her throat tightened like she’d swallowed a wad of rubber bands. When he whispered into her thoughts it seized her confidence, her spirit, her identity. Amelia tucked the toxic bile in, as if it were another tangle.

The stylist moved silently, measuring strands against each other. She fluffed, buzzed, clipped. Amelia’s butt numbed while waiting in the chair. Her back ached and she’d memorized every pock in the ceiling tiles. Then the stylist whirled the chair around and flashed a hand-held mirror. “What do you think?”

Amelia’s hair curved around her face, teasing the top of her shoulders. The ends flipped out. Layers hid the worst of the damage, but Amelia could still see evidence of its hold, of his hold. She could still hear his voice in her head. No college. You’ll waste our money on a useless degree. I’ll take care of you. I’ve always taken care of you. Or: You can’t wear that. It will look like you slept your way into management.

She turned her head from side to side, noting the lack of weight from the knots and tangles. But the weight in her mind lingered.

The stylist lowered the mirror, her expression grim. “You don’t like it.”

“I’ll get used to it,” Amelia stared into the mirror mustering up some emotion, but nothing came.

The stylist pressed her lips together and arched an eyebrow. “Or you can curl up and dye.”

Amelia blinked. “Excuse me?”

The stylist wielded her curling iron as if it were a sword and shook the box of dye. “I recommend red. Extreme change. It’s the best way to strip your hair’s reaction to the trauma.”

The stylist went to work curling, painting, and origami folding small sections of hair into tin strips. Another hour and this time Amelia plastered on her best faux smile, gushing over the change. She paid, politely refused future appointments, and marched out her car on stilt-like legs.

At home she stared at the mirror for hours. The tangles were gone, but the voices remained.

You don’t need friends.

It should be just us.

Nobody else will love you.

He grew up next door. She’d known him her whole life, though they’d dated for only two years. There was only one option left.

Amelia needed to start over.

She plugged in the electric razor. Buzzed a clean swipe straight down the center. It wasn’t until the lock of hair dropped to the floor that her heart lurched in her chest. Oh fuck. What had she done? Her hands shook. The razor almost slipped from her fingers.

You’re an idiot. How will they know you’re a woman? Nobody will love–

Amelia cut the next section before the toxic thought could finish. Then the next and next. Quickly now, not thinking about what she was doing. How long it would take to regrow from this point. Even when she finished her fingers searched for an errant hair. She had it all. The knots and tangles lay flat on her bathroom floor. She kicked at them and they limply flopped from her toe.

She closed her eyes.   

Waited.

A flood of relief at the silence.

The scarves were itchy anyway.


© 2017 by Tina Gower

 

Author’s Note: The story came from a comment while talking with a friend. She had recently gotten her hair cut and while we all gathered around and admired the new style we got into a short discussion about how long it takes hair to grow. I made a comment about where in her hair I got to know her. She thought that was funny and we tried to figure what part of her life she’d “cut” from her hair. Later I was thinking about how that might be an interesting concept and the rest of the story untangled from there.

 

tina-croppedTina Gower grew up in a small community in Northern California that proudly boasts of having more cows than people. She raised guide dogs for the blind, is dyslexic, and can shoot a gun and miraculously never hit the target (which at some point becomes a statistical improbability). Tina also won the Writers of the Future, and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery/Suspense (paranormal category), and was a finalist for the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart ® (writing as Alice Faris). She has professionally published several short stories in a variety of magazines. Tina is represented by Rebecca Strauss at DeFiore and Company. Connect with her at www.smashedpicketfences.com 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #21: “The Banshee Behind Beamon’s Bakery” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Most nights the alley behind Beamon’s Bakery is just an alley.

The street lamp bleeds piss yellow light, casting jagged shadows around the overflowing dumpster and discarded boxes. The walls are tagged with gang signs, claiming territory that was never theirs, yardage, bodies, souls, rights.

Some nights a transient clears away the broken glass, the random detritus, to squat for the night. Setting up camp here has its own rewards. The warmth that seeps through the bakery walls and through brick facing chases away the chill, but not the ghosts. This is the drawback, you see. The alley is never as vacant as it may seem at first, never as lonely as one may wish. The price of physical warmth is the chilling of your soul.

On the ninth night of November, the banshee chases away the transients, the curious, the ignorant, and claims the alley as her own. She returns in disbelief of the injustice, to recover her beloved.

If you pay attention you can see the faded outline of a body in front of the dumpster. As the hour draws closer, the details grow clearer, and the body all but materializes. A sharp sound cracks open the silence. The bud of blood on his white apron blossoms and spreads across his chest. He gasps for breath and you can even see the steam rise in a clotted cloud about his head. His lips are stained red by death’s kiss.

They say it was her son, Mikaheel, who worked at Beamon’s. Mistaken for a burglar, for reasons no one can comprehend, he was shot by an officer while emptying the trash.

She relives the day, that hour, when her entire world was remade, when she wished to no longer be a part of that world.

“He is just a baby,” she sobs into her hands as she kneels next to him. “My baby. Only seventeen. He hasn’t even lived yet.” She doesn’t feel the cold hard pavement against her knees, the hands on her shoulders, the arms that lift and carry her away.

There are many stories about her. Some say she died from grief. Others believe that she took her own life, that she might join her son in death. But the truth is something much different.

Her fury would not allow her to die, nor live. It consumed her flesh but not her horror. This is what you see on this night in the alley. This is who you feel when you come too close.

The banshee kneels before her dead son. Her flashing energy glows blood red. The air grows hotter than the ovens in Beamon’s. Then comes the palpable sound…the thunderous rending of her heart. It is the sound of the sky ripping and the Earth crumbling away. She keens like a broken dog, ropey braids whipping around her head like bird’s wings.

Her grief permeates the hood. All mothers within hearing distance share the same nightmare, her horror. Her voice, like daggers, cleaves the night. Those caught within her looping nightmare claw their way back into the waking world. Hungry for their next breath, hearts pounding, they cry out the name of her son, “Mikaheel!”

On this night, the alley is an archive of injustice and the banshee is the chronicler.


© 2016 by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

Author’s Note: The unjust violent death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer was the specific impetus for this story. I tried to imagine what his mother must’ve been feeling upon learning about her son’s death. This wasn’t difficult because I have a son as well. I tried to impart the feeling of rage and horror I, any mother, would feel upon learning that her son was taken away in such a violent horrific way.

 

My usual promotional headshotKhaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming and gardening. She has been published at Escape Pod, An Alphabet of Embers, and People of Color Destroy Science Fiction. She’s also penned a novel entitled An Unproductive Woman which can be found on Amazon. Khaalidah is also a narrator and you may have heard her narrations at Strange Horizons, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts. Khaalidah is guest editor for Artemis Rising 3 over at PodCastle and is also guest editing Truancy Magazine‘s fourth issue. Khaalidah is on a mission to encourage more women and POC to write and publish science fiction stories. Of her alter ego, “K” from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immorality. You can catch up to her posts at her website, www.khaalidah.com, and you can follow her on twitter, @khaalidah.

 

 


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DP Fiction #18: “Sustaining Memory” by Coral Moore

The Archivist held the three remaining beads in her left hand. Images flickered across her visual cortex: an unknown woman’s face, a sunset on a planet she couldn’t name, the dazzling color of a sea she no longer had the words to express. The beads felt cool and impersonal in her fingers, though what they contained was neither. She had only these few memories left and she no longer remembered if they were hers or someone else’s.

Around her, the machine chugged and whirred. The metal tubing that encased her pod vibrated. The glowing core rose in front of her, spinning slowly around its vertical axis.

She twirled the bead containing the seascape between her fingers and dove in. The memory was a moment in time. The wind caressed her face and the briny scent of the sea filled her head. A white-capped wave was held just off shore in the instant before breaking, never to fulfill its potential. She had the sense of someone waiting for her on that unknown shore. The name of the sea was gone, like everything else she had once known, converted into power for the machine she’d been wed to.

She surfaced from the hold of the memory with effort. That sea and that person no longer existed. The world her people had inhabited had been scoured clean, its atmosphere stripped away and everything on the surface incinerated. Nothing had survived; nothing but the machine, buried deep below the crust near the cold, dead heart of the planet. When her organic memory had been scrubbed, they’d left the fate of her world with her so she would not forget her purpose.

The grinding groan of the alert tone sounded, and without thinking she placed the seascape bead into the receptacle near her hand. The bead circled around the outer edge and spiraled downward into the depths of the machine. Bit by bit the memory of the sea faded from her mind, until only a pale representation of it remained, and then a moment later that too was gone. She was left only with the impression that something precious had been taken from her, with no idea what it was.

Two left: a sunset and a woman.

Only two memories before she was nothing but a soulless cog in the machine that would unmake everything her people had ever been in order to start again.

“Status?” she asked the heated air around her.

Something churned just beyond her field of vision. “Offline.” The voice that had been her only companion for generations was toneless and flat.

She swirled the two remaining beads in her hand. The number of beads she needed to awaken the machine was exact. She wondered why the designers of such a marvel would cut it so close or depend on her to do this critical job at all. If she’d ever known the answer to those questions, she no longer did.

If she stopped putting beads in before the machine awakened it would cannibalize the pod that sustained her in an attempt to get the necessary power. She wasn’t certain how many beads her body, such that it was, could replace. Once her systems started shutting down a cascading failure would follow.

When she held the memory of the sunset, deep pink and orange streaks surrounded her. She perched on a rocky cliff. A lush valley unfurled below her, absorbing the colors of the bright sky. Someone sat next to her, just out of sight. A sense of peace pervaded the place. She dwelled in the memory until the alarm tone woke her from her contemplation.

The comfort of the sunset was the only solace she could remember. While it was true that she would no longer remember that the memory had ever been her haven, she would miss something. A yawning void grew with each piece of her that was forgotten.

When the alert rang the second time she closed her eyes and dropped the bead in the machine. She concentrated on how the sunset made her feel, but even as she tried to hold it in her mind the colors faded.

“Mountain. Sunset. Peace.” She said the words over and over as a litany, but it made no difference. The memory slipped away like water through her fist, and all she was left with was the aching emptiness. She snapped her hand shut around the remaining bead.

The woman in the memory had short dark hair that stood on end in a gravity-defying display that balanced chaos and order perfectly. Her eyes brimmed with tears and angled downward. A curved scar marked her left cheek, but didn’t mar her loveliness one bit. Her lips were slightly parted. She was close enough that the heat from her breath warmed the Archivist’s face. The woman with no name had been captured in the moment before a farewell kiss. There was no other way to resolve the adoration and acceptance mingled in her expression. Something terrible had been about to happen and they had run out of ways to fight.

The Archivist had no idea if the love in the unknown woman’s gaze was intended for her. She didn’t care. The emotion existed, and it was hers. She drifted in the moment just before the kiss for as long as she dared, and finally surfaced from the memory much later, gasping for air.

The alert tone sounded.

She clutched the final bead. The woman’s face floated before her, diaphanous and lovely. One kiss was all she had left.

The alarm rang again, louder and in two long bursts.

“You can’t have her.” She locked her fist around the bead, hoping that would curb her reflex to feed it to the machine.

The energy generated by her pod would be enough to replace one bead—it had to be. She wouldn’t get to see the new world she’d given up everything for, but she would be able to keep this last piece of herself.

She lingered in the kiss until the sound blasted three times, knocking her forcefully from the memory.

The bead port was so near her hand, and her arm wanted to make the motion, but she concentrated on keeping her hand shut tight. She’d never gone this far, so she had no idea how long she had to wait until there was no taking back the decision. She worried her resolve would slip.

Around her the machine churned and whirred. Nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing but her fist and a sense of dread she couldn’t shake.

A high-pitched whistle shrieked and surprised her so that she nearly dropped the last bead.

The relative silence in the wake of the terrible sound was haunting. She had the sense of motion in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t turn to see what had moved. A grinding sound began soon after, and her pod vibrated.

There was an ominous clunk. Something slithered around the lower portion of her body, but she couldn’t see it within the metal and hoses that wrapped her. None of the memories she had left had prepared her for this. She managed not to panic, barely. The next breath she drew was labored.

A series of light chimes rang through the machine’s interior.

“Status,” she said.

The long pause that followed was made longer by the worry that she would go to her end never knowing if she’d doomed the project to failure.

“Online,” replied a voice she hadn’t heard before, more lifelike and feminine than the previous robotic one. “Resources have been reprioritized to support mission-critical utilities. Life support is offline.”

The note of sadness she detected had to be coming from her and not the machine. Her chest felt heavy. “Does it affect the chance of success?”

“By less than one one-thousandth of a percent. We are still well within operational parameters.”

“Good.” She sighed. “How long until the process starts?”

“I’ve already begun.”

“Oh, can you forecast completion yet?”

“No. Spinning up my systems will require a non-trivial amount of time. I won’t be able to calculate time to completion until I know how much has survived my hibernation and the loss of the atmosphere aboveground.”

“So I won’t know if it will work before I die.”

“It will work.”

“How do you know?”

“This project is my sole purpose for being, Archivist. I must believe it will succeed. The magnetic field will be restored, the atmosphere will be regenerated, and the planet will again support life.”

She smiled. Even that small movement drained her dwindling energy. “I think I would have liked you.”

“You would have.” Softness colored the voice again. Was it a trick of clever programming or her own sentimentality?

She laughed, surprised she remembered how. “That’s very presumptuous.”

“It’s a mathematical certainty. Your memories are cataloged and indexed in my database. Part of me is you.”

“I didn’t realize the memories would be retained.”

“The data contained in the beads was a byproduct of the energy transfer, but retaining them was deemed important by my programmers. They take up a very small portion of my total processing.”

“So we will carry on with you.”

“Yes. Nothing will be forgotten.”

The Archivist’s vision grew dim and her thoughts floated through a slow-moving haze. “That’s a relief.”

“Why did you initiate your shut down early?”

“I didn’t want to give up the last bead.”

“The memory held special value for you?”

“I don’t know for certain. It might not even be mine.” Secretly, she hoped the memory was hers. Maybe she’d somehow managed to organize the beads so that the ones that meant to most to her were last in the sequence before she’d forgotten.

“I may be able to tell you, if you would like to know.”

“It’s a goodbye kiss. The woman is leaving, or I am, and I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again. There’s a curved scar on her cheek, but that only makes her more beautiful to me. Her eyes are filled with love and loss, joy and regret. I want to tell her that I love her, but there’s no time. There’s only the hovering moment just before our lips touch.”

Another long pause, with only the sounds of the machine working around her to fill the growing darkness.

“Her name was Marley, and she loved you very much.”

The Archivist had trouble drawing her next breath. What remained of her chest ached. “I thought I would never know for sure if the kiss was mine. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Marley was one of my main programmers. My neural pathways are based on her logic, her biology. That connection is why you were chosen to be the Archivist.”

Her eyes stung with the memory of tears. “Why did I agree to this?”

“You know why.”

She’d always known why. It was the only way to save some small remnant of her people, of the world they’d built. “In the end I couldn’t let her go.”

“She would have appreciated that, though I’m sorry we won’t have more time together.”

The last of her vision faded as her brain began to shut down. “I’m scared,” she whispered, hoping her voice was still loud enough to register.

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Yes, please.”

“A small white ship surged and fell on the waves of a turquoise sea. Marley stood in the salt-scented breeze, her feet spread wide to absorb the rolling motion of the deck. Her wife waited on the distant shore, just a speck at this distance…”

The Archivist closed her hand around the bead, summoning the image of Marley with tears in her eyes. Somewhere Marley waited for her. She leaned into the kiss, and let go.


© 2016 by Coral Moore

 

Author’s Note: Memories are such an integral part of our identities that I thought the idea of someone voluntarily giving up their memories one at a time for some grand purpose would be interesting to explore. While writing the story of the Archivist’s failing memory, the machine that would allow her world to sustain life again by eating her memories one at a time occurred to me and seemed to fit perfectly.

 

Author Pic 2014Coral Moore has always been the kind of girl who makes up stories. Fortunately, she never quite grew out of that. She writes because she loves to invent characters and the desire to find out what happens to her creations drives her tales. Prompted by a general interest in how life works, she studied biology. She enjoys conversations about genetics and microbiology as much as those about vampires and werewolves. Coral writes mainly speculative fiction and has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Albertus Magnus College. She is a 2013 alum of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. She has been published by Dreamspinner Press, Evernight Publishing, and Vitality Magazine. She also received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the fourth quarter of 2014. Currently she lives in the beautiful state of Washington with the love of her life and two canids.

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DP Fiction #17: “Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long” by Alex Shvartsman

In his future, I see a fish. It swims very near the white sand of the sea floor a few feet below the surface. Bright tropical sun pierces the clear turquoise water. Through his eyes I watch the fish for the entire six seconds, until time runs out and my consciousness is returned to the present.

I open my eyes and study him. He’s an attractive man with a kind face. He looks back at me expectantly from across the sitting table. Atop the checkered tablecloth sits a crystal ball, a bronze candelabrum with a trio of lit scented candles, and a few other useless props. I draw a deep breath, inhaling the smell of eucalyptus and mint, and try to decide which lie he would like to hear.

“Next week will be a fortuitous time to move forward on the business decision you’ve been putting off,” I tell him. “But you must tread carefully; the success of your venture hinges on your good judgment about the people involved.”

It’s an almost meaningless statement that invites the client to fill in the blanks, to apply the vague prediction to their own circumstances. The kind of person who would buy a cheap fortune-telling from a mall psychic requires little finesse.

I watch him carefully. Most people who walk through my door are here about business or love. He’s intent, even somewhat anxious, but there isn’t a strong reaction to my words. Not business, then.

My right hand rests on the crystal ball for effect, and I try again.

Divination is a crapshoot. The soothsayer can peer through somebody else’s eyes and see a six-second fragment of their future. Trouble is, the fragment is random, and it offers no context. People spend most of their lives doing inconsequential things: sleeping, eating, driving, watching TV. To happen upon a fragment that offers any kind of real insight into the future is exceedingly rare.

Those of us with a real gift are like the gold rush prospectors, sifting through sand for nuggets of gold. We go spelunking in people’s futures, hoping to strike it big with a stock tip or a game score. A fortune-teller in Tulsa happened upon the fragment of a man watching the Super Bowl. She had to wait a few years, but when the time came she cashed in. My client doesn’t seem like the sort who reads the stock pages, but you never know what you might find.

This time there’s a highway. Wipers are sweeping raindrops from the windshield and he strains to see the road ahead through the dark and the rain. I hope for some road signs, but the time runs out before he sees any.

Back in the present, I glance at his finger. There is no ring. “The love you seek will be requited. It awaits only for you to act.”

Bingo. His eyes widen with excitement. “I should ask her out, then?”

I dive in one more time.

In this fragment, he is looking at an old photograph. His hand holding it is unsteady and wrinkled with age. In the photo, there are the two of us: hugging, smiling, our faces alight with bliss.

As soon as the fragment ends my eyes snap open, and I look at him in a new way. He seems very pleasant; I can definitely see us together. Has he come here not because he wanted a reading, but because of me? I feel my cheeks blush. I’ve never heard of a seer finding themselves in somebody else’s future. Perhaps I’ve struck gold in a different way.

I smile at him. “Yes. You should ask her out, right away.”

A smile slowly spreads across his face. “You know, I think I will.”

Then he reaches into his pocket for a few bills, places them on the table next to the candelabrum, and walks out.

Stunned, I watch him go.

But what about the photo, I want to scream. Future fragments are often useless, but they’re never wrong.

In my line of work I’m forced to constantly lie. But it’s not the lies I’m selling. It’s the confidence my clients need: the extra push to do whatever it is they wanted to do all along, the perceived blessing from some kind of a supernatural power.

I think back to how happy we both looked in that photograph. My fraudulent fortune-telling has given this man the confidence to pursue someone he’s interested in. Can my real power not do as much for me?

I get up and push past the table, rattling the crystal ball, and rush out the door to see if I can catch him.


© 2016 by Alex Shvartsman

 

AlexAlex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 80 of his short stories have appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and is the finalist in the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories and his steampunk humor novellaH. G. Wells, Secret Agent were both published in 2015. His website is www.alexshvartsman.com

 

 

 

 


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