The house diminished every morning. Lately, it had been during sunrise, as if shrinking from the warmth, and not from the fearsome house echoes.
Clea woke when it was still dark out, and made herself a breakfast of toast and blueberry jam. There wasn’t much bread left. There’d once been a jar of strawberry jam, which Clea much preferred to blueberry, but it had been in the back of the fridge, and that had been part of the diminishing a few days earlier. When she’d relocated the supplies the day before, she’d placed a bag of dried apricots in what had once been the linen closet. Those would be tasty, but she felt compelled to eat things that needed the fridge while she still had them.
How much longer would she have to wait?
There were still four mugs in the cabinet. She remembered times when they’d all been in use at once, clustered on the table, a mirror of those who drank from them.
Today Clea chose the red mug with a floral pattern. Gaby’s. She filled it with coffee, but when she reached for the container of honey, her hand hit only solid wall. She frowned. Apparently the night had included its own small diminishing. That happened sometimes.
There was nothing else left to put in coffee, which meant it was too bitter for her, but she sipped it anyway.
A quick series of sounds interrupted her silence, and she started, spilling coffee onto the sleeve of her comfortable green sweater. She pulled the fabric away from her skin, hissing at the heat, and went to run cold water on the burn, only to find the sink half the size it had been the day before. The cool tap water, when it came, was thin and unwilling.
She wasn’t bothered about the stain. Who would see it but her?
The sound came again. Knocks on the door. It would just be one of the house echoes, hoping for new prey. Easy to ignore.
Clea’d been the only one left in the house since the end of the summer.
The heat had gotten less reliable lately. She had on two pairs of socks, and a scarf wrapped snug around her neck.
She hadn’t thought her friends would make her wait this long.
It had seemed the perfect solution for the four of them to rent the house together. They’d all been close for so long, and they’d all been looking for new living arrangements.
Clea had been relieved when it all came together. The four of them had moved everything in on their own, accompanied by a playlist of favorite songs from musicals they’d seen together and plates of the chocolate-ginger cookies Rae baked when she was stressed.
Living with her friends, Clea was convinced, would bridge those moments when she feared the spaces between them were too large. Moments when she missed a cue, or didn’t think to include herself, or worried her exclusion was deliberate on her friends’ part.
It was easier with these friends than it was with nearly anyone else, which was the result of time and risks and choices on both Clea’s part and theirs. She was so grateful for her friends but still, sometimes, she worried.
It helped, sharing the house. Their contrasting schedules meant Clea normally got enough time on her own to feel centered, and plenty of time with the others to feel connected.
No, it still helped. They were still close. This was temporary.
Their friendships were strong enough to make it through this.
The house echo knocked on the door a third time.
Clea sipped at the now half-empty coffee, its flat bitterness pushing weakly against her tongue, and started toward the door. She wouldn’t open it, but the echoes were kind of fascinating to watch. The remnants of houses long-diminished, reduced to nothing but thick air and sinuous, flashing images of the homes they’d once been.
The front hallway was nearly gone, reduced to a sliver. She winced as her already-bruised hips bumped against the walls. The ceiling was a little shorter, but unevenly sloped, so, as usual, she didn’t notice until it rubbed against the top of her head. She ran her fingers through her hair, wondering when she’d washed it last. She’d been rationing the last bottle of shampoo, which made her feel both silly and sensible. The remaining space of the hallway widened a little, directly in front of the door, and the window next to it was still there.
She paused, just before looking through the window. She hadn’t seen another person since Gaby was taken by the diminishing. When was that? There’d still been milk in the fridge.
The house echoes were always trying this kind of thing. All they needed was an open door or window. They craved the comfort of another being made of rafter and railing.
Clea missed being able to have the windows open.
The house across the street from them had opened the door to one of the echoes. Gaby’d been watching at the time and had sworn the house had opened the door all on its own, though none of the others had believed her.
In the eight months between moving in and the start of the diminishing, the house had always kept the four of them safe. Even when lightning struck the property next door, even when half the houses on the street needed their roofs repaired after a hailstorm, this house had been untouched, and they’d been grateful.
The worst part of the house was the heat. It worked, sometimes, though they were all convinced the temperature was never actually the number on the display.
There’d been a lot of nights of the four of them around the kitchen table, draped in sweaters and scarves as differently-scented steams rose from each of their mugs.
It was getting colder, and Clea was the only one left.
She still hadn’t looked out the window. Would the house echo knock again?
She was fine. The house was much condensed, but the plumbing still worked and the heat was no worse than it had ever been. The coat closet was still there, and she was relieved to find another scarf inside, rich purple and soft, which she wrapped around her shoulders.
Between the four of them they’d had six can openers, which had stopped being funny after the first diminishing took one. She’d scattered the remaining five around the house along with the food supplies. She’d placed pads and bandages in every room.
It couldn’t be much longer.
And she knew better than to open the door to the house echoes.
It hadn’t been a big fight.
It had just been… everyone’s jobs, and everyone’s exhaustion, and the noxious cocktail of the two. That could lull anyone into unwanted isolation, snappishness, not thinking through their own boundaries or those of their friends.
Rot, hidden too deep in the house for anyone to see. Like the fear that made the houses diminish.
Susan had been the first one to say something, and they’d all agreed to a Saturday morning spent together. For food and conversation and shoring up their connections.
They all put it above work and workouts and errands and the weird news stories about collapsing houses. All of them were conscious that something precious was at risk.
The night before had been the first time Clea had slept well in a while.
That morning, the house diminished for the first time.
Susan was gone. The outside wall of her bedroom had moved inwards, cutting off all but a few inches of her bed and all of her.
Clea, Gaby, and Rae clustered in the kitchen after seeing Susan’s room. Everything was out of true.
“I can’t do this.” Gaby muttered, storming outside. She’d then started taking measurements, tape measure shooting out in all directions like the strikes of a skilled swordswoman. Writing everything down in the small blue notebook that lived in her purse. Desperate to defend them not with steel, but with facts.
“The houses are terrified.” Gaby said the day after the diminishment took Rae.
Gaby’d been opening and closing the refrigerator for three minutes without taking anything out.
The house echoes were getting more frequent, pulsing silently against the outside of every house in view. In response, Gaby explained, the houses grew smaller, shrinking from the reminder of their already-lost kin.
“But I don’t think,” she squinted, again, at the solid wall where the bowl of leftover chicken soup had been, “the house is trying to hurt us.”
Gaby didn’t explain anymore. Said she needed time to think.
Three nights later, she was gone.
There’d been three nights between Susan and Rae. Another three between Rae and Gaby.
Three mornings later, Clea woke to find the wall near her bed had drawn closer, slicing off the bottom corner of her bed and one of the slippers she’d left on the floor. The remaining half of a slipper lay overturned, purple and fuzzy and looking lost.
“Is anyone in there?” Another flurry of knocks, and someone yelling.
Clea bit her lip, finished her coffee, and turned back toward the kitchen. Once the sun rose and the day’s diminishing was over, she needed to redistribute the remaining food around the house. She did this every day, to lessen the chance of a single diminishing taking all her supplies.
She’d realized Gaby was right. The house was still keeping them safe. Their house might be as scared as the others, but it wouldn’t abandon the four of them.
Besides, her friends had promised they’d never leave her behind.
Here she was safe. She only had to wait for the others to come and get her. They would, eventually. The house would enfold her.
Things would be easier soon.
She had so much to tell them all once they found her.
The knocking came again, fast, overlaid with a wary voice. “We figured out how to hold off the houses!”
The front door of the house burst inward, and Clea placed her hand against the nearest wall.
Devan Barlow’s fiction has appeared in the anthologies Upon a Thrice Time and 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Lackington’s, Abyss & Apex, Truancy, and Daily Science Fiction. Her fantasy novel An Uncommon Curse, a story of fairy tales and musical theatre, is forthcoming. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. She can be found at her website https://devanbarlow.com
Shanna’s father was psychic on paper. The first time she saw it, Shanna was eight and Dad sent her to the corner store with a list:
Wait ten extra seconds after the light changes at Canal Street and Vine.
cereal (no sugar!)
It wasn’t that Shanna thought anything would happen. She wasn’t sure she thought much about it at all. She didn’t understand why Dad ate tuna fish with mustard, either, but she mixed it when he asked. Shanna counted (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) as a young woman in squeaky shoes and an older man with a light ring of sweat at his collar jostled around her with twin glares. Even if she’d been crossing, she’d have been in their way: Dad always told her to walk, don’t run. Young Black people running made white folks nervous, and badges suspicious, and it was dangerous enough without that. At four Mississippi, Shanna noticed her left shoe was untied. At nine Mississippi she straightened up from tying a double knot.
At ten Mississippi, the red SUV ripped through the intersection. Squeaky Shoes and Sweaty Collar were on the other side; Sweaty Collar screamed out something Shanna wasn’t allowed to say and called the driver a maniac. Shanna crossed the third item off her list and debated whether Fruity Hoops were a sugar free cereal.
Shanna was twelve the first time she was out of school sick. She’d never missed a day before. It was hard to catch something when Dad packed her lunch with notes:
Avoid the water fountain outside gym class today kept her out of the line of fire when Felix Ditmier blew chunks. Switch seats with Carolyn Nettleford moved Shanna to the back of the class the day Mrs. Cho sneezed all over the front row.
“You’re lucky you only have a dad.” Nelson Parks came to walk to the bus with her the day Shanna cried stomach ache. “Moms always know when you’re faking.”
“Did she?” Shanna asked Dad when he checked her temperature.
“She who? And did she what?”
“Mom. Know when people were faking?”
“You need to drink water.”
Shanna let him leave because then she had time to hold the thermometer on her side lamp. When he came back, she worried she’d held it on too long, that Dad would scoop her up and run her to the hospital. She forgot to ask again.
The next day Dad wrote the note:
Please excuse Shanna’s absence yesterday. She was not feeling well, and I decided it best she stay home.
Her legs had the good kind of ache, the one that felt like stretching, when she held the note that had “s” in front of “he.” The one with the name she knew was hers but had never told anyone.
“How did you know?”
“Know what, kiddo?”
Shanna held the note up, paper crinkled in fingers that ached from clinging to it.
“Excuse notes were a thing even back in dinosaur days when I went to school.” Dad’s laugh had just that bit of rumble in it. He kissed her on the forehead. Shanna ran for the bus.
She shook when she handed the paper to Ms Garber in the school office, but Ms Garber glanced at it quick as she did anything, then shoved it in the file labeled with the name that wasn’t Shanna’s and issued the excused absence slip with the file’s name. Shanna had no trouble at all handing over that slip of paper. Because that one would wind up in the garbage, but Shanna was now part of her permanent record.
Shanna’s fourteenth birthday card came with a different bus number than she usually took. She had to leave for school early that day, but she didn’t mind after her regular bus broke down in rush hour traffic. Lunchbox notes avoided hallway spills. Valentine’s cards found Judy Edgarton’s pit bull. Whatever the notes said, though, Shanna learned just as much from them about the things people didn’t say.
Judy’s aunt, Ms Sanderson, sidled up to Dad at the bowling alley one league night. She giggled and played with her tawny hair and told Dad to call her Karen. He smiled, but his back locked up when she teased one glittery acrylic nail along his forearm.
Shanna had taken a break from the DDR in the alley’s small arcade and was so focused that Bento and Iria, laughing together on their way back from grabbing drinks, made her jump. They looked the most like twins when they were laughing. It put the same warm flush into their copper cheeks. Shanna didn’t usually like talking to grownups, but the Ramires twins were Dad’s best friends. Bento had even made Shanna flower girl when he married Paul.
“Doesn’t Dad think she’s pretty?” Shanna asked. Okay, they also twinned when that worry line showed up between their eyebrows, as they studied Dad and Ms Sanderson.
“I don’t have a note to give Karen. Did he give you one?” Bento asked Iria. She shook her head.
“What about you, Shanna?”
Shanna never forgot getting a note. “Only thing he wrote lately was the little bits for the homemade fortune cookies we brought.”
Bento and Iria knelt on either side of Shanna. She wasn’t sure if she liked the calla lily in Iria’s perfume more than the leathery musk of Bento’s, but they were both better than the nachos and old hot dogs that filled the rest of the alley.
“I know it’s not the last set, but I think maybe we do dessert early tonight. What do you say?” Bento whispered. Iria gave a wink. Shanna giggled at the conspiracy.
“Fortune cookies?” Shanna scooted up to Dad and Ms Sanderson with the basket. Ms Sanderson wrinkled up her button nose. Dad rubbed his forearm and gave the briefest shiver at the back of his neck.
“Homemade, Karen,” Bento said. “Even the fortunes.”
“Oooh!” Ms Sanderson snatched one from the basket, eyes locked on Dad. “You know what you’re always supposed to add to the end of a fortune?”
“What?” Shanna already knew the naughty version of that. Iria had told her. Which was probably why Iria giggled until Bento nudged her side.
“I … uh, well.” Ms Sanderson blushed and opened the cookie, then frowned. She gave Dad an entirely different kind of look before excusing herself to make a call. The next week Judy told Marianne Bixby how lucky her aunt was for making her mammogram appointment early.
Dad’s back locked up the same way later that year, at the science fair. Shanna had been wanting to introduce Dad to Mr. Gonzalez for months. He was her favorite teacher, and not for the reason Grace Hansen said—although it didn’t hurt that he had a lantern jaw and a beard trimmed just so and that lock of thick black hair that sometimes fell into his eyes so he had to blow it out of the way. He was smart and funny and nobody dared pick on anybody in Mr. Gonzalez’s class.
“Hell of a daughter you’ve raised.” Mr. Gonzalez shook Dad’s hand. “And all on your own.”
“Not all on my own.”
“Oh, you have a partner?”
“No he doesn’t.” Shanna put her hand on their still-held handshake. “And neither does Mr. Gonzalez, do you?”
There it was: the lock in Dad’s back and the shiver at his neck. No cookies this time, though, just the paper airplanes they’d folded for her presentation on aerodynamics. Shanna had made sure nothing was written on them. She’d even given the one with random numbers on it to Bento and Paul when they had been helping fold two nights ago.
“I … ” Mr. Gonzalez was even more adorable when he blushed. “My boyfriend and I did separate last year.”
Dad broke the handshake at Bento’s yell from the cafetorium doors. Bento ran in waving a piece of paper with geometric folds all over it. The airplane.
“I’m confused. And you are?” Mr. Gonzalez’s gaze ping-ponged from Dad to Bento to Shanna.
“Some of the help I was talking about,” Dad said. “With Shanna?”
“And if luck holds, the new school board president.”
“You said it cost too much to campaign?”
“16, 42, 8, 29, 63.” Bento waved the paper again, then hugged Dad so hard he lifted him in the air. “A five number lotto win, you beautiful man.”
“Congratulations.” Mr. Gonzalez had his own kind of locked-up look. “I should … I have to go get the kids lined up for their presentations.”
No one in the neighborhood knew Mr. Theodore was adopted, but it was a local postmark on the letter that pushed his long lost birth mother to call the day they all thought he’d be objecting to the bathroom policy the new school board enacted.
“I wonder what it’s like,” Shanna said. She and Dad were working on a jigsaw puzzle of Big Ben. Vanilla and brown sugar warmed the air from the cookies in the oven.
“Mr. Theodore. Getting to talk to his mom when he thought he never would.”
“Mr. Theodore got to talk to his mom every day growing up.” Dad kept studying the sides of his piece to check for a match in the black and white bits of clock face.
“I mean, his real m—”
“Real is where our hearts live,” Dad said. “Two people decide to raise a child together? They’re parents. Doesn’t matter what bits of goop got together to make the baby.”
Shanna clicked another piece onto the long border line she was building. “Did you and Mom always want a kid?”
The oven timer buzzed.
“Cookies!” Dad hopped up and scooted for the kitchen. “Don’t want to scorch another batch.”
When Shanna was seventeen, Mrs. Ditmier got a postcard with a picture of Hawaii on it. The address of her husband’s other wife was scrawled on the back. She handed off the prom committee to Mr. Sanderson, who was more than happy to sell Shanna her ticket, along with a free discount card to his sister’s dress shop.
“Any idea who you’re going to ask?” Dad folded towels on the kitchen table. The air swam with lavender.
Shanna squirmed. The ask was obvious. The answer wasn’t. They liked the same music and lent each other books. They agreed the tie-breaker between Ms Rosenfeld and Mr. Lau for cutest teacher depended on which blouse Ms R wore and if Mr. L had short sleeves that day. None of those were a dance. Shanna busied herself scratching at the little bit of leftover tape where the postcard from Hawaii used to hang on the fridge.
“Did you ask Mom, or did she ask you?” It was always better for Dad to squirm.
“She asked me,” he said.
Normally Shanna wouldn’t press. But somehow the prospect of sharing this moment with Dad bubbled up Shanna’s throat until it tumbled out in a frantic surge:
“And how did she do it? Were there flowers? Witnesses? How did you feel? What did you wear? Was that the first time you kissed? Did you fall in love right away?”
“Was that the mailbox clanking?” Dad said. “Do me a favor and fetch it? I need to get dinner started.”
The grocery store had a heavy fan that kept bugs out when you walked through the front door. It pushed down on Shanna whenever she walked in, though she couldn’t push back. The silence as Dad got up from the table felt the same.
There was never anything for Shanna in the mail except on her birthday, but she flipped through it all the same. Bill, bill, flyer.
A letter addressed to her. In Dad’s writing.
She opened her mouth to ask, but the clatter of pans and utensils cut her off. She looked back down at the envelope, then scuttled to her bedroom.
Shanna crossed her legs on the bed. Slid a finger under the flap and ripped open the letter. A small key fell out as she unfolded the notebook paper.
I’m making spaghetti for supper. I’ll need you to run to the store for grated parmesan in about half an hour. Until then, check out the lockbox under my bed?
She’d wondered about the lockbox, because she was a girl and not a goldfish. But she also wasn’t a locksmith, and there was only so curious to be about a metal cube. Besides, Dad hid the Christmas presents in his closet, not under the bed.
But notes changed things. Notes saved Shanna from sniffles and stomach bugs and locker room bullies and traffic. And notes lead to updated files, to tickets through a door, to treatment recommendations. To signatures on petitions and revised policy documents. Even when it wasn’t one of Dad’s notes, what got committed to paper shaped the world.
Shanna pinched her nose closed against the hoard of old sneakers Dad kept for yard work under the bed. Hooked the box with three fingers to half slide, half spin it across the bedroom shag into the light. Despite the note, she flinched at the squeak as she turned the key. Dad didn’t come to stop her, or Bento or Iria or Paul. She flipped the latches and lifted the lid.
The envelope said “Shanna” and had today’s date, though the number seven had a line through its middle, which Dad stopped using when Shanna was thirteen and told him it looked like he was punishing it by crossing it out.
Shanna slid her finger more delicately under the flap on this envelope than she had the first. The glue on the seal was old and dried. It didn’t so much rip open as strain and pop. There was a whiff of musty perfume that curled up and disappeared. The paper had curdled to cream over however long it had been inside, but the pen ink—in the same writing as on the envelope—was still dark enough to read.
Today you asked how your mother and I got together. I’m sorry I was cross with you. I don’t want to lie to you, but I’ve never been good at saying true things. I wrote it down, instead.
We knew each other, your mom and me, as long as I remember knowing anyone, and the world assumed we’d wind up together. We never felt it, but it was easy letting them write our story that way until we knew how we did feel. And for whom.
The problem with letting everyone else write your story is the way it teaches us to tell each new person’s story as if we know them, too. Mom did that when she met Riley. He had a bright smile and an easy laugh and strong hands. They kept it secret because he was up for an overseas appointment. His PR manager said he should be single or married, but dating would make him look like a gigolo. The secret made it more romantic for Leanne.
Shanna hovered fingers over her mother’s name. She licked her lips, a salty line along her tongue, and closed her eyes. She whispered the name and hugged the warmth of that inside her. She turned her eyes back to the note before she let herself imagine Leanne’s voice or what names she might whisper.
I helped her cover, even wound up riding along on a few of their dates. Saw the way he didn’t argue when she called it love and snuggled up to giggle plans about the future, her fingers laced in his, a knot both tender and fast. Maybe he was like us. Maybe it was easier to fall into the story Leanne spun. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, so it was quite a story to be told. Maybe she could even have been part of it. It was not, however, a story he could tell with an unwed pregnant woman on his arm.
Leanne and I, though. Everyone already thought we were together. Thought we would always be together. Would it be so bad, she asked (when she could talk again without hitching sobs stealing her voice), if we were?
I didn’t answer that night. Didn’t say I couldn’t be the man she wanted. That she didn’t know me all the way through, because I’d kept that from her the same as anyone else. My heart doesn’t live there, in a world that yearns for clasped hands and whispered devotions and the tender caress of another.
It was too important, now, to keep hiding from her. But my throat closed up and my tongue swelled shut too tight to make the very first A sounds, let alone say asexual and aromantic. I decided to write it down. People talked all the time, but they listened when it was down on paper. Only, when I sat down, what I wrote was “This is the last year you will have with Leanne, and you won’t regret anything as much as if you abandon this time to fear.”
I showed it to your mom, and that’s how I found out I wasn’t the only one holding a secret from the other. She swallowed, loud. Took my hands in her shaking own. Told me it was true. As was everything I wrote after. Lists and notes and cards, all of it told us the truth even if we didn’t want to read it.
She did, your mother, want to read it. Especially about you. I told her I couldn’t promise it would shine with hope and joy, that ever since that day I couldn’t write a thing that wasn’t true. I didn’t want her to despair in the end if it all came out wrong.
“When the baby is born,” she insisted. “When there’s no more going back, I want to see everything that’s ahead, good or bad. If I were here I’d see it all anyway, but I won’t be here. Least I can do is to leave knowing. Promise you’ll have it for me.”
When she finished feeding you the first time, when we signed the paperwork that claimed you ours, she asked for it. In between feedings and diapers and her own coughing fits, she read what I had written. Read giggles and first steps and tantrums. The story of scraped knees and fights and fears and heartache, but also victories and triumphs and a community which was sometimes confused but always had a heart. I had written until my wrist was sore and the side of my hand stained with ink. Written more than I even remember, but know it was true, because I wrote her the story of you, and you are the truest person I know.
We buried it with her. I wrote it about you, but for her. So she could leave knowing, and we could be left to live it instead.
Now it’s Mom’s turn.
Shanna turned the last page over, holding her breath, but there was nothing written there by her mother. Nothing else in the envelope.
In the lock box, a single, faded piece of paper remained: her birth certificate. There was Mom, and there was Dad, but she flipped it over to dismiss the third name, the one that wasn’t hers, which is when she saw the name that was: Shanna. The S ballooned on its top half and flattened on its lower. The A‘s had that fancy curlicue on top like when you were typing. Handwriting that wasn’t Dad’s from then or now.
Under it, in that same style, said I don’t have your father’s gift, but I promise this is true: knowing the future doesn’t make you brave. Or strong. Or safe. Facing it is the way to have that. —Mom.
Shanna let Dad drag himself out from a deep dive in the fridge. He gave a huff and slammed the door. He took in breath to call out, turning toward the door, when his eyes fell on the cracked cream letter dangling in Shanna’s hand. Whatever he was about to say lost steam before he voiced it. His lips thinned, the creases on the side of his mouth deepening. The plop of simmering sauce filled the space between them.
“Grated parmesan?” Shanna asked. He hadn’t let out his breath until it rushed from him now. He opened his mouth, closed it. Nodded.
“We might be out,” Dad said.
“Won’t take a second to run down the street.”
“Walk. We don’t run.” Dad turned back to the pot on the stove.
Shanna folded the letter from the lockbox, stuffed it in her back pocket. She stopped half a step outside the kitchen, spun on her heel, and leaned back in the doorway.
“I’m going to ask Trini Walters to the dance,” she said. Dad smiled into the bubbling sauce.
Jaxton Kimble is a bubble of anxiety who wafted from Michigan to Florida shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed. He’s still weirded out by the lack of basements. Luckily, his husband is the one in charge of decorating — thus their steampunk wedding. He has far too many 80’s-era cartoon / action figure franchises stored in his brain. His work has appeared previously or is forthcoming (as Jason and Jaxton) in Cast of Wonders,It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility, and previously in Diabolical Plots. You can find more about him at jaxtonkimble.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.
The interest in Thea Wells even outside of the circle of art lovers and connoisseurs remains strong, and conclusions about her work range from the normal, technical approach of art critics to the downright strange explanations of the ardent believers in the paranormal. To give a brief overview of her art, it does not do to linger too much on either end of this spectrum. Instead, a few key paintings of Wells may be seen as markers of her arc as an artist, of where she started, of where she ended. These paintings also show the overlap between the mundane and those who seek the supernatural in Wells’s work. Other pieces, such as Watercolor of an Ash Tree or Sketch of a Cityscape from the Ledge may have sold for five figures, but they never wove that aura of mystery around themselves.
The evolution of Thea Wells’s skill does not just lie in the brushstrokes and her increased mastery of light and shadow, but also in how she approaches her subject. Most art critics agree on this, and they will point to Shadows of Winged Insects Before a Flame or Breath, from the Inside. Her skill is best savored through select prints of her work, viewed in chronological order. The prints, while they allow paintings scattered in museums and hidden away in private collections all over the world to be seen next to one another, do not convey the vibrancy of the originals and the enchanting quality that makes people stand in front of a Wells and examine it, sometimes for hours.
Féli in Nightgown
This is the earliest painting that shows Wells’s lover Félicity M in the classic odalisque pose. Even to this day, no one was able to find out what this elusive muse’s real last name was, where she came from, how she and Wells met. She would usually introduce herself without giving any further details about herself, brushing off curiosities in a polite and joking manner.
In the painting, Féli looks away. She reclines on a lavender colored ottoman, and looks at the observer with her green eyes half closed. Her phone is on a cushion on the floor, her left hand just hovering over the screen.
The door to a balcony is open in the background, and light spills in on a gust of wind that stirs the curtains.
Wells took great care to let us know what we can’t see under the nightgown. Féli’s breasts are delicately outlined against the thin, silky fabric, and the strands of dark hair that run over them reveal more than they cover. Her waist lets the nightgown flow like cream, and the long legs, though they are covered, are tensed as if in pleasure.
Notably, this painting was Wells’s breakthrough. Ever since it went on display it has been targeted by thieves—though thankfully none have succeeded.
The Masque was painted perhaps a year after Féli in Nightgown at a time when Wells had made it big in the art world, when her paintings were fetching five or six figures (though only the works painted after Féli in Nightgown. Her paintings prior to this are a completely different style, and they lack the later works’ pull.)
The Masque not surprisingly shows a masquerade, but Féli is the only guest, repeated nine times in nine different costumes.
She is an emerald-feathered bird with beak mask, a golden shimmering queen, a harlequin in chequered dress that shows her smooth skin generously.
As a ballerina, her legs are elongated by pointe shoes, she captivates with khol-lined eyes as a mystic with a custard pale snake draped over her shoulders and scales held in on hand, and enchants as a fairy princess with a necklace of black beads coiled around her neck.
Dressed in a robe of stars, she is the night, and with a milky sunrise costume that begins to let Wells’s light and dark mastery show, she is the day.
The ninth costume is unusual. It is hidden in the back, near a curtain and the darkness at the edges of the painted room. Féli is wrapped in a dark robe, a dark hood, and a white mask covers her entire face. She holds a book in the crook of her left arm, and we cannot see much of the volume, except that it appears heavy and old. The mask seems to follow the onlooker. It is a haunting shape, and it could be someone else entirely watching the scene unfold and the observer alike but for the pale hand that reaches up as if to pull back the black hood. It is a woman’s hand, and it looks like that of Féli hovering over her phone in Féli in Nightgown.
The Masque was first owned by a museum, but not for long. A private collector acquired it, and some sources have come forward over the years to claim the museum sold the piece because the people handling it, the people working in the museum and walking past it every day, suffered nightmares in which a hooded shape wearing a white mask featured prominently. The veracity of these claims is doubtful, even if Internet forums are full of stories of people who say they saw The Masque on display and also had the dreams.
This is a captivating piece that attracts crowds, so much so that museum authorities decided to keep the painting in its own room and allow visitors in only in groups, each group being allowed just thirty minutes with the painting.
Sunbathing is, at first glance, quaint. It was painted probably less than a month after the completion of The Masque. Féli is the very center of this painting. She sits, cross-legged, on a green and white beach towel, sand and beach grasses around her, the ocean a distant haze of blues in the background. She smiles. It is a very subdued smile and has been likened more than once to that of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Féli is wearing a black bathing suit. The color is harsh against the pastels of the towel and the beach, but her green eyes are sharper still as they look outward, to the observer.
A bag by Féli’s left knee spills over with things people do not normally take to the beach. There are old-fashioned metal scales, beads bound on a string, a mechanical music box. The strangest thing entirely about this painting, however, is the tome that lies open on Féli’s lap, big and old, its pages possibly parchment, bound in leather. It pulls one back immediately to the book the dark figure cradles in her arm in The Masque. Experts have studied the open page. It is covered in the same script that has baffled scholars in the Voynich Manuscript for decades, and just like that enigma, what can be seen of Féli’s book remains untranslated and not understood. The book was not among Wells’s possessions, and it might be entirely a figment of the painter’s imagination.
This painting is seen as the first sign in Wells’s art that her relationship with Féli was coming undone. It is dated to almost two years after The Masque and Sunbathing, and experts have long speculated that there must have been other paintings of Féli between these two. Whether they remain in private collections, tucked away from the eyes of the world, or whether Wells herself destroyed them is uncertain but a matter of great debate.
In The Diners, Féli is seen having dinner with a stranger. The table is elaborately set, there are glasses one behind the other, and they twist and reflect the room, the table, the food; more than one enthusiast has found hidden symbolism here, like messages glimpsed in a crystal ball.
Red flowers spill their petals on the white tablecloth and the pinkish bloody meat served on a silver platter. Féli’s guest is a man of supreme beauty. He outshines Féli entirely. His hair is dark like hers, as are his eyes, but his lips are flushed with color. Between the two, on the white tablecloth and hidden behind the glasses and the wilting flowers, there is the book again, now closed, and Féli’s guest has his palm flat on the cover, fingers splayed. Neither Féli nor he spare the book any more attention than that; they are focused on each other.
They are leaning in close, caught in conversation. Underneath the table, Féli’s hand is resting high on the stranger’s thigh, and his free hand vanishes under her dress. There is much speculation as to whether this really happened, or whether it was some sort of vengeance, whether Wells put this scene on canvas for all eternity to see Féli as unfaithful. No one knows who the stranger is, and the painting was sold to an unknown buyer at an auction ten years ago.
This shows Wells’s mastery of light and dark. Féli has her back turned and stands in Wells’s kitchen over pots and pans bubbling on the stove. She is wearing a figure-hugging dress, long and black, and her shadow can be seen on the floor, stretching beyond where the canvas ends.
The light in the kitchen appears ephemeral, there is no source for it, no lamp, and no window. On Féli’s left, ingredients wait to be tossed into the pots, onions and carrots peeled and chopped, chunks of glistening, bloody meat in a dish, the legs and head of a rooster.
Féli has a dark teal vial in her left hand. It could be an oil or spice. She is about to pour it into a pot.
Her hair is coiled and piled on top of her head, and strands spill out like Medusa’s serpents.
After The Chef, Wells’s erstwhile prolific nature changed; she became even more of a recluse and produced only two paintings to sell, though it is speculated these were older works from her private collection. Several dozen unfinished paintings begun after The Chef all show Féli, though they fail to move beyond a mere sketch.
The Chef was loaned to a gala opening at one point, for a single evening. There are reliable sources saying that all the meat dishes served at that opening were spoilt and inedible. Yet, the food had been freshly prepared on that very day. While meat going bad can be more likely attributed to other factors such as temperature and improper handling, some blame the painting for it.
The Finale is the title given to this painting by curators. Some call it The Last or even The Omega. Wells herself never gave it a name.
This painting was discovered in Wells’s atelier along with her corpse, though the date of its completion is uncertain. The painting is large, ten by seven feet, and it seems to be a riddle inside a riddle inside a riddle.
It shows a circus ring, and many things are happening there at once.
One of the first things that we see is the book, the big tome Wells so often added when she painted Féli. It is once again being held by a figure in black, robed and hooded, wearing a white mask. This time, the hooded figure reminds us of The Masque, but appears decidedly male and is looking toward the center of the ring. In his arms, the book is open. He holds up one finger as if he were reading from it and commanding the listener’s attention. We also see Féli opposite the robed figure. She is dressed like a belly dancer. Most of her skin is visible. Snakes wreathe and slither around her body, her waist, her breasts and ankles, and the expression on her face is one of boundless joy and ecstasy.
A white tablecloth catches the light in the background. It is set on the ground almost as if for a picnic, though plates and silverware and glasses indicate something more elaborate. There is wine in one of the glasses and a pinkish shimmer on one of the plates. The teal vial from The Chef sits on the tablecloth, unstoppered, though whether it is full or empty, we cannot see. Apart from that, there is no food.
Seemingly random items are scattered on the ground. Black beads are spilled like breadcrumbs, and paper has been torn and strewn alongside them, old paper with traces of writing on it that has, unsurprisingly, prompted unsuccessful efforts to reassemble the torn pieces seen in the painting and decipher their meaning. Other things we are shown are the tools of Wells’s trade: brushes, paints, all strewn haphazardly, including one canvas that has fallen face down so that we cannot say what painting it is. Another item that has caused speculation is an envelope. On it there is once more the indecipherable writing from the Voynich Manuscript, and we are left to wonder what message it contains.
In the center of the ring, drawn in shadows, is Wells herself, dressed in red and gold as the ringmaster. She is facedown, and her pale brown hair scatters in the puddle of blood under her. All of the fingers in her right hand stand at odd angles, broken. Her costume bears traces of paint, and it is torn in places. The violence is tangible.
An urban legend surrounds this painting, which is now housed in the Thea Wells Museum after it spent long years in police evidence. The legend says, when you focus your gaze on the figure in black who is reading from the book, you will dream and the dream will have no color at all. You will find yourself in perfect blackness, and there will be music around you as if heard from a distance, carnival music that echoes strangely distant and metallic, as if it echoed from an old music box.
That last, untitled painting is disturbing. It becomes even more so when viewed side by side with the photographs taken by the police of the scene they found in Wells’s atelier, or at least those that were leaked following her death. While those crime scene photos say nothing about Wells as a painter, they bear mentioning because they seem to echo The Finale. Wells can be seen facedown in her own blood. In reality, Wells wore a simple red shirt and no costume, but the tears in the fabric, as far as visible in the photographs, match up with the tears we see on the ringmaster’s costume in the painting. Wells’s blood has dried to a dull maroon, not the scarlet seen on the canvas. She was cut and bruised, her right hand—the hand she painted with—revealed to have been broken extensively.
Wells had been attacked. In the police report, leaked shortly after the photographs, one officer said they had only ever seen wounds like that in the mountains, when a bear found a hiker and took them down with claws and teeth. No wild animals were reported in the area of Wells’s residence, and no other signs of them were found in Wells’s atelier.
One thing that is different in reality is the negative of a shape in the dried puddle of Wells’s blood. It appears as if something large and rectangular was there when Wells bled out. When she was found, it had been removed. Some claim it was the tome, that leatherbound strangeness, that kept the floor clean where it lay because it drank all the blood that touched it.
Thea Wells’s murder remains unsolved.
Féli has never been seen again, not even at Wells’s funeral. However, if you look closely at all the photographs taken of that event, you will see a figure among the celebrities and pedigreed royals who have come to say farewell to a genius artist who defined a generation. The figure is in only one or two photos, and they seem to be wearing a long, dark robe. While their face is shadow-wrapped, it appears pale, smooth, mask-like. It could just be one of the mourners, seen from an odd angle with unfavorable lighting. Or not.
The question of the dark man, Féli’s alleged lover, also remains. When The Diners first sold—minutes after it was hung in the gallery—people asked Wells about him. Wells refused to say anything about the painting or its subjects, having become eccentric and like a modern-day hermit by that time already.
To this day, Wells’s paintings attract not just art-lovers and historians but also believers in the supernatural. The police are regularly called to Wells’s grave to break up séances held by self-proclaimed mediums and their congregations.
Féli remains a mystery as well. Yet, one art historian has told this author, in confidence and on the condition that their name not appear in this article, that they have seen Féli, her face, her dark hair and green eyes, her uncannily pale skin and distinctive features. The historian found her on another canvas, which cannot be clearly attributed to an artist. Yet, that canvas was confidently dated to more than 300 years ago. It is the portrait of a seated woman who looks exactly like Wells’s Féli. Far in the background, one can just make out the sinking bulges of a circus tent, a harlequin in their chequered dress walking inside through the flap. This painting’s basis in reality, just like its creator, is not clear. How it managed to capture the woman that appears in Wells’s paintings 300 years later, is unknown.
Alexandra Seidel writes strange little stories while drinking a lot of coffee (too much, some say). Her writing has appeared in Future SF, Cossmass Infinities, and Fireside Magazine among others. You can follow her on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel or like her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AlexaSeidelWrites/), and find out what she’s up to at alexandraseidel.com. As Alexa Piper, she writes paranormal romance books which have been rumored to make people laugh out loud in public.
When the cars started driving themselves, we went back to the old ways. It wasn’t a slow change, the way the news made it out to be. One day we were in control, and the next we weren’t. Now they can strike anywhere, anytime, any make and any model, all with dead-eyed electronic smiles on their windshields.
The old ways help us stay safe. I teach my daughter to chalk runes around the house, double yellow lines that forbid the cars from crossing. We bring a baby stroller everywhere we go. It saved a friend of mine once, making him rank slightly higher in the car’s inscrutable calculus than the woman on the other side of the street.
Sometimes I wonder if he feels guilty.
I know I wouldn’t. I need to be there for Margot, so that I can protect her in this new world, and keep her childhood peaceful. She’s the only reason I keep going. No one else matters.
Today, Margot and I are going to the park. Margot is wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the pink stripes and the ice cream scoops, and I’ve done up her hair with matching bows. A bright rainbow of face paint covers her button nose. She skips along happily, clutching her chapter book to her chest as I push the stroller with its disguised doll.
“I’m going to see the bridge troll, Mama,” Margot tells me. I resist the urge to sigh.
“Bridges are on roads, sweetheart.They aren’t safe anymore, remember?”
“You never let me have any fun.” She pouts and stops skipping.
“We’re going to the park right now,” I point out. Margot huffs and buries her face in her book. I want to tell her not to read while walking, but that’s one battle I won’t ever win. I step to her left, between her and the road.
The book she’s reading has a troll on the cover. Its eyes glow yellow and its rocky body blends into the bridge behind it. Next to it stands a young girl with her hands on her hips. I make a mental note to skim it after she falls asleep tonight: I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.
It’s the way people thought before the cars. Some people still think it; try to take the cars down. I hear about them on the news, next to footage of their weeping parents. Margot is only curious about the cars now, but I can’t help worrying that she’ll grow up to be one of those radicals.
Margot tugs at my sleeve.
“Want to guess a riddle?” she asks.
“Sure, honey.” We’re almost at the park now. It’s isolated, deep enough in the maze of the suburbs that I can let my guard down a little.
“What has legs but no feet?” Margot asks, placing her finger halfway down the page.
“I don’t know, what?”
“I win,” she squeals, holding the book out to me. “It’s a chair, it says right here. Now you have to let me go to the bridge.”
“Not if I catch you first!” I chase her all the way to the park, roaring like a bridge troll.
There are other families at the park, and other children on the swings. Margot spots her best friend Nadia playing in the sand pit and runs off.
Across the sand, my friends Dave and Samir are chatting at a picnic bench. Samir spots me and waves me over, smiling wide. I scan the park for escape routes and hiding places before joining them.
“How have you been, Alicia?” Samir asks. His disguise of the day is all harsh lines and interlocking spirals, so dark they look like tattoos across his face. In the oldest days, it was unwise to share your true name. Now you can’t share your true face.
“We missed you at our baby shower,” Dave adds.
“Right.” I had been too afraid to leave the house that day. There had been a car victim in the news, a child Margot’s age, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “I’ll bring your gift to the next self-defense workshop.”
Samir rolls his eyes, but I know he’s more exasperated than annoyed. After all, Dave leads the workshops. He had been a designer on the cars long ago, back when people were still actually in charge of them, but his workshops tend toward the arcane.
“I’m working on a charm.” Dave holds up a spinning, blinking object that flashes pattern after pattern. “If we can overload a car’s sensors for even a millisecond, it might swerve.”
“Do you have to call it a charm?” Samir grumbles.
“If it works, it works,” says Dave. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the old ways.”
“They’re machines, not fairies. The way we get back to normal is by somebody figuring out who hacked into the AI, not by all of us pretending that they’re magic.”
“What about in the meantime?” I interject. “Things aren’t getting any better. Half the kids in Margot’s classroom haven’t come in since the attack by the high school; the district says we’re all moving to remote schooling.”
“Maybe it would be better.” Dave places a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll still have the backyard, and Nadia can come over for playdates.”
“I just want her to get a chance to live the way we lived, you know?”
Dave and Samir give me sympathetic nods, but they don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.
I turn back to watch Margot play, hoping some of her carefree joy will stick with me.
The sand pit is empty. A half-built bridge, a pinecone troll, and a trail of sand left like breadcrumbs are all that remains of Margot and Nadia.
I start running.
At least she’s with Nadia, I think to myself. At least she isn’t alone. It pains me to make the same cold decision as a car, but Nadia is older than Margot, and age is supposed to be one of the metrics.
I sprint across streets and swing around corners with wild abandon, following the sand. Margot is out there. Margot, who I still can’t convince of the dangers of the world. In another life, I would have wanted her to stay innocent.
The nearest bridge isn’t a bridge at all. It’s actually a freeway overpass that crosses a quiet road, but it’s close enough in the eyes of a child. Margot and Nadia stand there at the edge of the shadows, their arms linked.
“Margot, Nadia, come here,” I call as loudly as I dare. “We can play somewhere else.”
“But Mama, we found the troll,” Margot says.
I get closer and see yellow in the shadows. Not eyes. Headlights.
I’m in front of Margot in an instant, spreading my arms to block her as much as I can. Nadia whimpers and ducks behind my leg, but Margot just tries to slip under my arm.
“I want to tell it my riddle,” she says.
“Margot, honey, this is a car,” I say carefully. She knows the stories, the warnings, but she has never seen a feral car in the wild before. I’ve sheltered her too well. “We talked about how they’re different now. It’s not going to answer your riddle.”
The car’s windshield changes from the neutral face that means no danger to something new: a question mark. I have never seen an autonomous car without an indicator face before.
“Sweetheart, I want you and Nadia to get back.” I use my sternest tone. When they step back, though, the car revs its engine and inches forward.
The car’s windshield displays a stop sign. The children halt.
“Okay, Margot. Ask the riddle.” My voice shakes.
She places her hands on her hips, her little chin thrust high in the air.
“What,” she demands, “has legs but no feet?”
The car displays a chair on its screen. My heart skips a beat as it starts rolling forward, picking up speed. Margot turns to me with wide eyes.
“It won, mama.”
I scoop Margot into my arms and start to run, but Nadia grabs at my leg, and we all go tumbling down to the asphalt. Margot starts to cry and I have just enough time to notice the bright red smear on her scraped elbow before the car is upon us and I have to act, now.
“I have riddles, car,” I say, desperate. “Play with me.”
The car screeches to a halt and slowly reverses until all I can see are its eerie yellow headlights and the question mark on its windshield.
“If I win, you leave me and my daughter alone. Forever. All of you.”
The car displays a red frown. I’ve asked for too much.
“Just her, then.” I wipe the tear-smeared paint off Margot’s face and force her to look at the car. It will kill us anyway if I fail here.
A green smiling face. A question mark.
The problem is, I don’t have a riddle. I’ve never really been one for puzzles, and the only games I play are the ones Margot suggests. Besides, anything I’ve heard of before, the car will also know. It knows so much. More than I do. It knows the answer to unanswerable questions. Like “whose life is worth more?”
Nadia trembles behind me.
Margot would be heartbroken if anything happened to her. If it comes down to that choice again, I know what I will do, but for now there must be another way. Samir was right: they’re cars, not fairies. But Dave was right too. Both of those things play by the rules, and both of those things can be tricked.
“You can’t kill us until you answer my riddles,” I tell it. Again, the green smile. I step forward and walk so close I can feel the heat of its engine. I try the door handle.
“What are you doing, Mama?” Margot asks, grabbing my hand with her stubby fingers. “Don’t let it eat us!”
“Just trust me, honey.” I tug on the handle again. The car hums, like its air conditioning has been left on high. The first glimpses of a plan are forming in my head. “I need to get my books from home, so I can find the very best riddles.”
With a click, the car door unlocks. I think it’s curious. Kind of like a child in that way, if the child weighed several tons and could kill with ease. Margot clings to me as I open the car’s door and climb inside, with Nadia at my heels.
The children huddle in the passenger seat, clinging to each other as I snap their seatbelt in place. I eye the manual override, but I know better. I’ve heard of people who tried that and held on. Heard what happened the moment they let go.
If we can just get home, though, I might be able to pull this off. Maybe.
I key in my address and with a sound like a sigh, the car pulls out from under the overpass.
It’s been years since I’ve been inside a car. My knuckles are white as I grip the useless wheel. Outside the window, the trees and the streets and the houses blur together.
I can almost understand why the world chose this path. There’s no traffic, no mistakes, no rude gestures. But it only feels safe from inside the car. I’ve lived too long on the outside to be fooled.
Maybe I can beat the car at its own game, instead of resorting to one of the frantic, risky plans bubbling up in my mind. I can’t come up with any suitable riddles, though, and I know my own books won’t be any help. All I know are the childish riddles I’ve picked up through my time as a parent, from playgroups and picture books.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because it was running for its life.
My house comes into view. It’s a single story, just big enough for me and Margot. Yellow painted rune-lines circle the structure, and all of the blinds are drawn shut. Weeds have broken through the concrete of the driveway. The car crushes them as it pulls up.
I unbuckle the girls and step out on shaky legs. I can at least get Margot inside. Maybe she can barricade herself somewhere, and force the car to destroy itself getting to them. But that’s a temporary solution at best.
The car revs its engine as Margot and Nadia head for the porch. It rolls up behind them and they freeze. Nadia is crying now, globs of silent tears pooling on her cheeks. Margot’s face is tight and pale.
“Stay out here, girls,” I say as gently as I can. “I’m going to get some books. Everything will be okay. I’ll bring some chalk for you to play with. Don’t worry, alright?”
Margot grabs my sleeve as I pass her. The look in her eyes breaks my heart almost as much as the look in her eyes when I have to keep going. The chalk will work, though. It has to work.
The house is quiet and still. The car’s headlights follow me through the blinds as I hurry to the shelves. Margot’s books are usually scattered around her room, but there are still a few fairy tales left where they should be. I grab them and the chalk.
Back outside, the car looms over Margot and Nadia, their nightmares made real for the very first time. It’s a small car, but they’re small girls. Too small to be dealing with this right now and certainly too small for what I’m about to ask them to do, but there’s no one else that can do it.
“Here you go, girls. Don’t be afraid.” I hand them the bucket of chalk, then turn my back to the car and hide my hands as I gesture to them what to do.
I can only hope they understand. I turn back to the car.
“I’m going to ask you three riddles,” I say, stretching my words out to buy time as the children begin to draw. I can see Margot trembling as she nears the car, but she draws anyway. So brave, my girl. “It’s the traditional number.”
The green question mark stays on the car’s display, unwavering.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
The question mark winks out. Moments later, the car’s screen fills with text. Every inch of the windshield is covered in blog posts and thesis papers, giving me every possible answer to the unanswerable riddle. Then it shows me a green check mark.
It makes sense. The cars have always been judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t a contest I could ever win. The car starts rolling forward and a piece of pink chalk explodes into a cloud of dust and shards beneath its tire.
“I have two more.” My voice was supposed to be firm and strong, but instead it’s high and reedy. “You haven’t heard the best ones yet. Stay where you are until you answer.”
The car indulges me and stops. I open one of Margot’s books and read aloud.
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”
This riddle is one of Margot’s favorites. She likes the way the words sound; likes the lyricism and the puzzle combined. I try not to look at her, because I know I will cry. I hope she knows how hard I’m trying to save her.
The car, of course, has its answer the instant I’m done reading. The number one appears on its screen. This time, though, it’s an angry red.
“Very good,” I say, glancing at the girls and their chalk. “Just one more, and then we see who wins. One more riddle and the game is over.”
A red timer appears on the car’s screen, ticking down from thirty seconds. It wants me to stop stalling, but I just need a little more time. Thirty seconds will have to be enough.
I wait for the last five seconds before I speak. The silence is as solemn as the grave and is punctuated only by the scratch of chalk and the steady hum of the car’s engine.
“My last riddle for you, car,” I say, “is: how are you going to get out?”
For a long moment, longer than ever before, the screen is blank.
Then the car rears forward, headlights ablaze. I can’t help it—I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, then it’s all over, and I won’t watch my daughter die.
There is no scream. There is no crunch. There is only silence.
I crack open the eye and see the car frozen in place. It skidded to a halt just inches from poor Margot’s face, but—thank God—she is unscathed. Nadia is panting with effort. Her hand shakes as she grinds her piece of chalk into the last mark on the rune, a simple do-not-cross indicator that signals to the very core of the car’s programming.
Margot runs to me. I hold her tighter than tight, burying my face in her soft hair. I wish I could stay this way forever, but it’s not safe, even now.
I bundle the children into the house as the car revs its engine and spins its wheels uselessly within the circle. It flicks on its high beams and the light spills through the closed blinds.
Nadia stands by the door and stares at the ground.
“You left me,” she says. “You ran with Margot.”
“Honey, I’m sorry.” I crouch down to her eye level. Only then do I see the nail marks on her inner palms, where she clutched the chalk so hard she nearly bled. Without her help, my daughter would be a smear on the pavement.
I place my hands on her shoulders. She looks up, her eyes wide and tearful and, I realize for the first time, the same shade of brown as Margot’s.
“I won’t ever leave you again.”
Nadia takes one of my hands. Margot takes the other. I lead the girls deep into the house, where the thick walls will protect us, and pull out my phone.
Dave can help, and Samir, and they will know other former programmers who will know more and more. The cars are connected, but we can be too. Our solidarity gives us power. And now, if I have to, I will join the charge.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by James Bridle’s 2017 art piece “Autonomous Trap 001,” which features a self-driving car trapped by a salt circle. I saw his piece when I was in college researching the UX design of self-driving cars (such as windshield displays to communicate to pedestrians), so I immediately started thinking of all the other ways this technology could be connected to folklore. The story itself came from wondering why a car would need to be trapped in the first place.
Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature: Futures, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.
Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between November 2009-July 2010. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here.
As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. One of the teenagers, Sam Lesser, escaped from a mental institution and followed them to Lovecraft to try to kill them again, with the assistance of a powerful but mysterious supernatural entity that is connected with Key House, the family estate in Lovecraft.
Key House has a lot of secrets, many of them taking the form of magical keys with incredible powers. More and more of them have been turning up, both to the kids themselves and to the entity that opposes them. It’s a magical arms race with high stakes, where their enemy is more powerful and knows all the rules.
The series continues to be riveting, creepy, and fun. Highly recommended!
This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.
The film this week is the 2010 film Firework by Katy Perry, a fantasy story about people finding emotional acceptance of themselves and their life situations and harnessing that power in visible and fantastic and potentially hazardous ways.
The film starts with panning across a city-scape, and zooming into Katy Perry (as herself) on a rooftop singing: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?”
As she sings this, we see other people dealing with their own life situations:
A brother and sister trying to stay out of an angry, loud, and violent conflict between their parents.
A teenage girl at a pool party, afraid to show her body enough to get in the pool with the rest of them.
A child in a children’s hospital with no hair, presumably a cancer patient.
Katy Perry sings: “You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine, just own the night like the Fourth of July.” As she sings this self-affirming mantra, a visible and dangerous change overcomes her as she literally starts shooting fireworks from her chest as her voice swells in volume and intensity, starting with minor sparks like sparklers but with larger bursts like Roman candles. In some ways, her choice of location for unleashing this firestorm is probably safe, in that she is on a rooftop shooting the fireworks into the open air, so the chance of fire is perhaps not too high, though I would like to see firefighting equipment and support staff on the rooftop with her. It’s not clear if these fireworks are something that she calls at will whenever she feels like it, or if it’s something that swells up and happens on its own and she just does the best she can to mitigate the risk. It seems to be an emotional outlet to some degree, presumably cathartic, but to what degree it can be guided or controlled is unclear.
What becomes clear, though, is that her condition is either contagious to the general population, or there is a subset of the population that has the same latent ability that is awakened upon witnessing her rooftop display. So, even if she herself is trying to prevent fire risk, there are additional potentially exponential risks. Others in difficult emotional situations start showing their own fireworks–the boy trying to avoid his parents fighting gets between them to separate them as fireworks burst from his chest (as a threat/dominance display apparently?) , the girl at the pool party sheds her cover-up and joins in the fun, a teenage boy who has apparently been afraid to tell people he is gay approaches his crush and they kiss.
In the most confusing but perhaps helpful variation of this spreading ability, a teenage boy is mugged by a group of other teenage boys but when they try to rifle through his clothes they find only an endless chain of handkerchiefs and a pair of live doves. They stand transfixed at the sparklers bursting from his chest as the boy does a series of card tricks. It’s not clear if the effort at the act is necessary to maintain the frightening display or if he actually thinks that what they are transfixed by is the card tricks themselves.
The child in the hospital wanders down the hallway and finds a room where a woman is giving birth and manifesting her own fireworks. Considering the size of the city that was panned at the beginning, this is a bit confusing, as most hospitals in major metropolitan areas will have large departments physically separated from each other–and it’s confusing that a birthing suite is just a couple doors down from a child’s hospital room, doesn’t the shouting and other noise from the birthing suite keep the children awake who need to be resting? And wouldn’t the expectant mothers prefer to not have random kids walking into their room in the middle of delivery?
When the girl at the pool party surfaces after jumping into the pool, her chest is bursting with flame as well. Thankfully whatever energy it is doesn’t seem to be conducted by the water, as the others in the pool don’t appear to be electrocuted, but we don’t see further in this scene, so it’s entirely possible that her manifesting powers will raise the pool temperature–hopefully just to make it a hot tub rather than raising it to boiling.
Finally, Perry leads an excited throng of people into an open plaza by what appears to be a government building where they dance in formation as they all manifest their own fireworks. This seems to suggest that she is intending to not only unleash this intimidating power in the youths but to teach them to use it as responsibly as she has, favoring open spaces where fire hazard is minimized. And, hey, if these people can express themselves, can discover something new about themselves, and the rest of the city gets a free fireworks display, that could be a net benefit to most. Though, for the sake of any pets living in the area or any veterans with PTSD I hope they don’t do this every night and I hope they announce their intentions ahead of time so people aren’t surprised by it.
The next Music Video Drilldown will be for the film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters.
The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.
Muriel sat on her grandmother’s front porch each summer night, trying to spot when it happened. She never managed to see. She’d blink, or take a breath at the wrong time, or twitch her chin to flick hair at humming insects. And in that moment, the bones would appear on the cedar boards pocked with peeling white paint.
She tried every trick she knew. She propped her eyelids open with finger and thumb, held her breath, sat as still as a girl could in the heat of July and the buzz of mosquitoes hungry for a snack. Her eyes would tear-blur or a gnat would crash into her eyelashes or the porch would creak and startle her. And then the bones were there.
“But who brings them?” Muriel asked her grandma, frustrated.
“They bring themselves,” Grandma said with shrug. She’d scoop up the maze of tiny, brittle pieces that had once been alive, carry the bones inside, and Muriel didn’t see them again.
She had no more success finding out what Grandma did with the bones, either. It was like a dream: she would follow Grandma into the pine log cabin, across the faded welcome mat, through the hallway, and then…Muriel would find herself in the kitchen with a mug of hot cocoa, or up in her loft room with a glass of cold cider, or, sometimes, in the back yard on the tire swing with a juice box forgotten in one hand.
Muriel decided to be bad.
Grandma told her never to touch the bones. But everything else she tried failed. So Muriel waited, and when the bones appeared, she touched them.
The bones belonged to a chickadee, and there was a black feather tucked against the crown of its skull like a memento.
“You’re a patient one, ain’t you,” said the chickadee skull. Its polished beak clacked and its bones shivered in the muggy air.
Muriel gasped. Was this why Grandma told her not to touch? That was unfair! She could have made friends with all the bones if she’d known.
It was late August, and when September came, she would have to go back to the city. Back to her parents who argued and stinky buses clouding the sky and the downstairs apartment neighbors who broke glass and screamed all night. No bird bones ever showed up outside her window even once she learned how to remove the screen. She saw only pigeons vying for space on light posts, or sometimes seagulls before a storm.
“Hi,” Muriel said to the chickadee. “My name is Muriel.” It seemed polite to introduce herself first. “Who are you?”
The chickadee rustled, the scrape of bone against wood soft like dry maple leaves. “If I had a name, it’s been sucked like marrow from my memory. How about you call me Chip?”
Muriel nodded. She glanced over her shoulder, worried Grandma would come and scoop up Chip’s bones and she’d never get to talk to the chickadee again. She didn’t mind not having other people her age around to play with. She didn’t really like the way other kids did gestures and words and glances. It made her tired, and she just wanted to wander back into the woods behind the school yard until she reached a road and stop signs and loud trucks.
“Why are you just bones, Chip?”
The bird laughed—a whistling sound that wasn’t so high-pitched that it hurt her ears. “I died,” Chip said. “I think I was on an important quest. Delivering a message to the Queen.”
Muriel leaned forward, elbows jutting out as she clasped her knees and rocked back and forth on the step. “The Queen of where?”
“I wish I could remember,” Chip said. The skull sighed, sounding very sad. “But death takes odd things from us.”
“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.
She felt bad for Chip. Was being dead scary? Adults seemed to believe this. Her mom didn’t want her watching TV because there was too much violence. Not seeing bad things didn’t make them disappear, though. She’d seen animals die.
Once she’d spotted a falcon divebomb another bird, scoop it up in sun-sharp talons, and fly away. She wished she could be a falcon. Soaring over the skyscrapers, eating pigeons who were too slow, never having to go to school where she got laughed at because she couldn’t read at her grade level. Words danced like shivering bones, rearranging into the shapes that skittered about to evade her fingers and brain.
Here at Grandma’s, her grandmother read to her when she asked, and never sighed in exasperation if she couldn’t read the back of a cereal box at breakfast. Grandma’s cabin was a special place. Muriel was sure that was why the bones came here, and not other houses.
“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.
“It was a song,” Chip said. “Five bars with three grace notes in the final coda.”
“Just music?” Muriel loved music. She especially loved her soft headphones Grandma had given her, the ones that wrapped around her entire ears, and not the prickly buds that hurt.
“Well,” Chip said, “you’ve heard birdsong before, right? Human words get so…tangled up and spiky. Used against or for, to harm or to take. Sometimes to heal. But human words are not nearly as eloquent as birdsong.”
“I wish I was a bird,” Muriel said, sighing. Then she heard the creak of the floorboards behind her and knew Grandma was coming to scoop up Chip.
She flapped her hands, frustrated. She had been told never to touch the bones. They were brittle and delicate, and Grandma said they lingered of the Old Spaces, which were not meant for small girl-palms to hold.
“Where do you go now?” Muriel asked, afraid that Chip would stop talking to her as soon as the chickadee saw Grandma. “Can I come?”
“Hmmm,” Chip said. “Do you think you can remember a song?”
“That would be helpful,” Chip said. “Maybe you could take the song to someone who can fly it back to the Queen.”
“I’ll try,” Muriel said, eager to do bird-things like remember music.
“Take my feather,” Chip said, and Muriel plucked it from Chip’s skull.
It was soft and felt nice on her fingers. She rubbed it across her hands.
“Listen…” Chip said.
But then the screen door hinges squawked too loud, and Muriel spun around. She looked up at Grandma, hiding her hands behind her back.
With the feather in hand, Muriel saw a different Grandma. This Grandma wore a dark gown spun with peacock feathers and hawk feathers and swan feathers. Giant black wings hung down her back. A hood pulled over her hair was shaped like a bird skull of indeterminate species. Her hands, too, had changed: now the fingers were long and curved like talons, heavy and pale ivory. This Grandma’s eyes were round and gold like an owl’s. Bird-Grandma blinked at her, slow and serene, and in her arms, the ghostly outline of Chip’s body rested at the crook of her elbow.
Muriel gasped. She let go of Chip’s feather as she clapped her hands over her mouth.
Bird-Grandma disappeared, and there was only Muriel’s grandma again: human and old and smelling of lavender and garlic. Grandma held Chip’s bones in her hand.
“Did you touch the bones?” Grandma asked, but not in an angry-voice.
Muriel quickly scooped up the feather to show Grandma the truth, and then the bird-woman was there again. Muriel realized this was her grandmother. The way the birds saw her.
“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.
Grandma’s owl-eyes blinked again. “I’m a Reaper of Air,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. Warm and kind like fresh-baked brownies. “Kin come here when they pass, and I carry them to the Forever Skies.”
Muriel liked Bird-Grandma. She wasn’t scary now that Muriel knew she was a grandma to both girls and birds.
“Chip was delivering a message to the Queen, and I’m going to help,” Muriel said. “What’s the song, Grandma?”
Bird-Grandma’s wings rustled like bedsheets hung to dry in the summer breeze. “Listen.”
Muriel held Chip’s feather up to her ear. A melody filled her head: a song that had no words. Muriel gasped. It was the prettiest music she’d ever heard, better than the piano sonatas mixed with loon song she had on CD.
The song stopped and Muriel knew it was missing the last few notes. She shook the feather, but no more music fell out. “Oh no,” Muriel whispered. How was she supposed to give the Queen the message if she didn’t know all the music? “Grandma, the song isn’t fixed!”
Bird-Grandma’s eyelids half-closed, just like Grandma’s did when she was sleepy but pretending not to be asleep. “Death takes odd things from us. But they can be found again if you wish.”
Muriel wiped her face and put Chip’s feather in her pocket. She needed to find the rest of the song to take to the Queen. This is what Chip wanted, and Chip was her friend. Muriel helped her friends. She didn’t have many. They were all important.
“Where did the death take Chip’s song?”
Bird-Grandma sighed, a great flutter of feathers. “Come with me, child. You touched the bones when I told you not to do so, but that is past. I will help you.”
Muriel followed Bird-Grandma down the basement stairs into a great big room filled with windows. So many windows, Muriel couldn’t count them all. She didn’t know they were in Grandma’s basement. The windows didn’t have glass and they came in all shapes and sizes—some so small even a hummingbird would get stuck. And there was one, near the ground, that was girl-sized.
Muriel crouched and peered through the window. There was a forest outside, with multi-colored trees like crayons that had lots of arms. It made her eyes itch. She didn’t like the feel of crayon paper or wax.
“You touched the dead,” Bird-Grandma said. “Your aura pulled away the last of the music.”
Muriel wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t mean to!”
“I know, my child.” Bird-Grandma laid Chip’s bones down on a towel spread on the ground by the small window. “You are a powerful force. It is why I asked you not to touch the bones. You pull things into your orbit, a moon influencing tides.”
Muriel looked at the crayon forest and shivered. “Did I put Chip’s song in there?”
“Yes,” Bird-Grandma said. “These windows are portals to different fears. At times, the dead slip loose and must be retrieved. I carry our kin to the Forever Skies so the dead need not pass through these other lands.” She pointed up, up, up.
Muriel peered at the ceiling. There was a vault of black sky and peeking between the fluffy clouds streamed beams of sun and stars and moon: brilliant night lights so the bird bones wouldn’t get scared of the dark.
“Are you bringing Chip up there?” Muriel asked.
“Yes. But if you wish to find the song, child, you must hurry. Music fades quickly if not remembered.”
Muriel nodded fiercely. She was going to help Chip and bring the lost song to the Queen once she found the missing notes. Then Chip would be happy.
Bird-Grandma bent down and placed a long, smooth feather in Muriel’s hand. “This will bring you back to me as soon as you let it go,” she said.
Gripping the feather tight, Muriel crouched and shuffled into the window in search of Chip’s song.
Inside the crayon-forest, everything was loud and crunchy. Muriel gasped. Scratchy sounds flew around her head like bugs. The trees swayed and whooshed, paper leaves bumping together in awful crinkling waves.
“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.
Instead, the swoopy, itchy sounds popped and cracked and squealed like fireworks. Echoes bounced against her hair in big purple sparkles and stung her cheeks. She swatted at the air. The bad-sounds shrieked orange and whistled pink, swirling faster around her face. Muriel started crying. It hurt! There was so much interference she couldn’t think clearly. She clapped her hands over her ears and almost lost hold of Grandma’s feather. How could she find Chip’s song in this place?
The ground was full of sevens, sharp and pokey, and bitey threes that tried to eat her toes. She kicked the numbers away. The sevens made garlic farts when they melted. Her nose felt like Rudolph’s, shiny and round and made of mean bully-laughs.
She huddled down and banged her forehead against the softer sixes that puffed up like little flowers. These were minty and didn’t sting her nose. She should have brought her headphones. But then she might not hear the song through the squishy foam and soothing soft-static.
The feather whispered in her ear, Let go and come home.
“I can’t,” Muriel told the feather. Her palms were sticky, like when candy canes melted. She rubbed her free hand on her jeans. The fabric crinkled plasticky and so yellow it scraped her brain. She gripped the feather’s stem harder. “Chip needs the music.”
Before Grandma had given her the nice headphones, one of her favorite teachers, Ms. Eugene, let her wear a soft microplush headband when the sounds in class got too big and made her hit herself.
“The fabric will sing you a song just for you,” Ms. Eugene had said, and she guided Muriel’s hands gently so her palms pressed against the softness over her ears. “Can you hear it?”
The music was really coming from Ms. Eugene’s throat, but it felt nice on Muriel’s skin and she slowly calmed down. Ms. Eugene let her keep the headband, even though it was winter and she already had a hat. She wore the microplush under her beanie, humming Ms. Eugene’s song to herself on the bus. The headband memorized the music and played it back for her right in her ears, and the rumble of the bus and the outside-voices of the other kids weren’t so bad.
Muriel remembered Ms. Eugene’s headband’s music. She hummed it to herself until her throat felt too big for her skin, like it would pop out. The esophagus, she’d learned in school, was long and round and tube-like, so of course it would roll away if it escaped. She kept her lips together.
Slowly, the forest-sounds grew dimmer. Muriel peeked, still humming. The trees shuffled together, shiny with wax and dry paper, but the swooping sounds were further away. She got to her feet.
Suddenly, the ground went sideways—all the trees were on the ceiling, waving at her with confetti-leaves, and the sevens and threes danced like wiggly string cheese in front of her eyes.
Her stomach did a flip-flop, like when
she spun in circles so fast she threw up. The sky was filled with white radio
noise. It was raining polka dots that didn’t have any water.
Stop it stop it STOP IT! Muriel yelled at the world, silently, because she needed her
lips to hum the song. You’re being mean!
Grandma said she pulled things into her orbit. If she could attract bad sounds, why couldn’t she be a magnet for good things, like music? She shut her eyes so the crayon-trees didn’t scratch her, so the numbers would stop being green, so the sky would fold back and stop being under her feet, and began humming Chip’s song. Over and over, stopping just before the missing notes made it crash into silence.
Nothing but the crunch-whiiish of paper. The screeches kept popping against her hands and arms, sparkly fingers that made her want to scream DON’T TOUCH.
Had the ground gone back to normal? Her
hair still waved around like she was sideways, but her stomach didn’t hurt
Again, Muriel hummed Chip’s song, feeling the vibrations in her throat and up into her chin. She imagined herself to be a Muriel-shaped bird, covered in the softest of soft feathers, lighter than air. She would zoom around the sky and sing with the other birds and they would be her friends.
She opened her mouth and tried to sing Chip’s birdsong the way she’d heard it from Chip’s feather. The lost notes would want to come back to their song, where they belonged. Her voice was squawky and full of missteps. She wasn’t good at singing. Not like Ms. Eugene and Chip and all the birds.
Let go and come home, Grandma’s feather whispered.
“No,” Muriel said, and took a deep breath. She sat down so her knees didn’t wobble. The ground was a weird squishy sponge now, without numbers, but it was where it belonged. She thought of Chip’s bones and the sadness of missing the notes of the song. The Queen needed to hear the music.
She rocked back and forth and tried again. Her hair stopped floating.
For her friend Chip and for Grandma and for all the birds.
This time, her voice sounded more like birdsong and closer to the melody Chip sung for her.
A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!
Slowly, Muriel peeked her eyelids open and looked around. There, several big steps away in a waxy bush made from ugly taupe crayon-paper, trembled the music from Chip’s song. Giant twos and zeros loomed like cartoon skyscrapers over the bush.
A huge crash-boom of pea soup thunder swirled above the little notes. Muriel gasped. The enormous sound would smash the music and break it into shrill bits. She couldn’t let the lost notes get hurt.
Muriel leapt to her feet and raced like a peregrine falcon towards the bush. Air whipped against her face and she clutched her feather until her sticky hand ached. “Hold on!”
The crash-boom swooped down, thick as moldy oatmeal, but Muriel was fast—peregrine falcons could dive faster than racecars, and raptors weren’t painfully loud. She scooped the notes up in her free hand, humming the melody like her own birdsong, and jumped away.
The sound smacked into the ground, flattening the crayon-paper bush and throwing Muriel on her back from impact. She went rolling. Muriel screamed. Her ears pounded like drums and it hurt hurt HURT
All around her, the world wobbled like Jell-O
stars and it was going to squish her and she’d be stuck like a gummy bear and she
didn’t want to stay here, she wanted to go home and—
She clutched the lost notes against her shirt. They shivered, almost slipping through her fingers. “Hold on,” Muriel whispered, and before the huge sound could pounce on her, she let go of the feather.
Muriel sat on the floor of Grandma’s cabin, her ears still hurting from the loudness. But here by all the windows, it was quiet. Bird-Grandma draped her favorite blanket over her shoulders, and she curled up in the snuggly fabric. And there were her headphones! She put them on, but left her right ear open just a little.
The music notes wiggled in her hand. “Are you okay?” Muriel asked them, slowly uncurling her fingers.
The music trilled again, and suddenly they vanished. She sat up, grinning. “Grandma! I know Chip’s music!”
Bird-Grandma nodded solemnly. She still held the chickadee bones in her great palm.
“Sing for them,” Bird-Grandma said. “Let them take the music to the Queen of Air where they will be welcomed.”
Muriel clutched her blanket around herself and put her mouth close to Bird-Grandma’s hand. Then sang the whole song. Chip’s bones rustled.
“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.
“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.
Bird-Grandma lifted her arm and her hand stretched like a huge wing unfolding, carrying Chip up into the vaulted sky.
Grandma and Muriel sat on the front step, drinking hot cocoa with extra marshmallows, and watched the sky twinkle with summer stars. They were nice and quiet stars, and the trees around Grandma’s house were good trees, with non-yelling leaves and plain bark. Muriel sighed, happy to be home.
“Can I help you collect songs if they get lost again?” Muriel had her headphones on, but she could always hear her grandmother’s soft, soothing voice. She was still bouncy from her adventure and happy Chip was safe, and the song for the Queen of Air was whole.
Grandma smiled. “Yes. I will teach you how to care for the bones so your touch does not pull them away.”
Muriel beamed. She swallowed the sweetness of melty chocolate and marshmallows, then leaned her head on Grandma’s shoulder. She would have to go back when the summer was over, but she would know lots of new birdsongs and would always have her friends.
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: http://mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press.
The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.
It went like this. Rich folks live at the highest points in the city, up on the sea cliff and in these walled gardens that we only get let into to weed and harvest. As the city spirals downward, so does the wealth. The royals always say the gods will let the money trickle down like rainfall, but the only thing that slides down is their sewage.
The gangs have always been stealing to make meat, but usually the goods stayed in your alley. Everyone else, well, that’s the city for you. We’re not all touchy-feely neighborly like the hunters and farmers at the edge of the Woods. The boards changed that because you had to go to the Greyhoods for the best wood, the Gallows Hand for potions, and those two had to work together for the best wheels—part wood, part crystal. We made the bolts, the bearings, the mounts and the grips from thin metal shavings stuck on top.
We knew our secret wouldn’t last—playing peasant was in fash that year. A noble sees some street kid kicking flips and offers to buy the board for his son. Offers more gold than that kid ever going to have again. Then another noble’s son gets jealous, and we got servants scavenging our secrets or palace craftsman offering to purchase them.
But the three gangs said no, collectively, and began to bargain. That’s where the Bitches got the name, after the nonhuman blacksmiths’ union. A bard reported that the king called them the Blacksmith Bitches after the union appealed to him. Anyway, we bargained to be let inside. Our boardmakers would only be allowed to produce for the royal families—no stealing secrets.
But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t be stealing.
A request came next sunrise.
We entered the castle while each gangs’ best cartographer followed by rooftop and shadow-way. We felt their eyes even keener than the guards’. They’d chalk the best lines for escape. Then it was up to our master riders to make the escape happen. We would be seen, no doubt of that (the heads piked outside the wall mouthed yes), so it would come to speed and darkness.
The queen’s aide took us to the princess’s room. Us grubby gutter-gangs, standing in the towers that cast shadows over the sweaty backs of our parents, our siblings. We—the leftover kids of makers and farmers and prostitutes and cart-drivers and shit-shovelers—requested by the castle for something more than to chuck a spear or the noose.
When the aide knocked in a rappity-rap that anyone could tell was secret, the princess peeked through. A smile split that fey face. She swung open the door and stuck her fists on her hips.
Leather trousers stuck from her fluffy skirts, and she’d bound her feet (incorrectly) in peasant wraps with the double-thick saddle soles. A silk handkerchief wrapped her windless-weaving hair from her face.
The aide fidgeted. “Princess Sydney, these are—”
“I know who they are! Everyone does!” She pointed at each of us and rattled off our names and gangs: Cyclops riding for Greyhoods, Litch riding for Gallows, and Jett riding for the Blacksmith Bitches.
We glanced at each other, the guilt worse than the Devil’s Tavern shit-stalls. We’d cracked jokes over pipes and brews about the snotty princeling who’d scream “off with their heads” the first time he cracked his bum. This kid . . . seemed better than that.
Princess Sydney waltzed into her rooms the size of a whole slum street. The aide closed the door but stood beside it.
The princess looked around our slouched, fidgeting forms, then leaned in to whisper. “Call me Syd. Only they call me that.” She rolled up her sleeve and showed a mark traced over and over with black ink, the retraced design blurring at the edge where it seeped beneath her skin, a kid’s attempted tattoo. A cross with curled horns growing from the angles. A half-orc rebel, like us, had been burned at the stake. The king, this girl’s blood, claimed the half-orc had killed a guard during a robbery. Really, we were just illegal. All the halfers. Half-elf, half-human, half-scale, whatever. Anyway, the cross and horns had become the downunder’s symbol, whether you were one-drop or pure. Being poor meant you couldn’t be pure because the gods only cursed sinners to the slums. Ha.
But this princess had a symbol hand-drawn on her arm that would get her some sort of lash, even if it was just with the tongue. We glanced at each other, then motioned her to lower her sleeve. She looked at us with a pixie grin, then her eyes flickered to the boards. She caressed the nose of Sleepeater as if the board were a famous sword.
We nodded at each other. Let’s do this.
Some of us taught Syd while her watcher settled into a chair with a book. The rest of us perused the room of the little rebel. We wondered what this would mean, if the next ruler might help us. But she was so young, so impressionable. She hadn’t seen the downunder, seen what she might one day help. Heard of us, yes, but we were the brags told at the tavern beer-dippers and by the bards entertaining over trash fires. We were the parentless, the death-defying, the hungry-but-running, the riders of Sleepeater, Killcount, Bloodless, Firestorm, Dragonwing, famous in the downunder as the royal sword Bloodsoaked. Except that sword drank our blood, and all the other poors who sold broad shoulders for the army’s bread ration and the flour-oil money sent home once a month. Our boards, they gave something real, even if it was only hope.
Tonight would change what we could give.
Syd learned fast. Already, she could glide. Her board was sewage, but once we assembled a new one, she took to the quick turns. That pixie smile never left her face.
We wondered about it in whispers or looks when she laughed like gold coins spilling into a pool. Yeah, not cat-slit eyes, no pointed ears, no ghost-wings. But didn’t mean she would pass the one-drop test or the priests’ fervor exams. Being a princess would save her, but not the board bums that led her down such a path.
We named our boards to keep us and our friends safe. And, when we inevitably broke our necks riding the roofs (or the guards got us), someone else could pick up the board, or another just like it, and Dragonwing would still fly, Firestorm darting just ahead, grinding sparks. Sleepeater would wake the guards with silly jumps rattling their roofs and sometimes their helmets. Killcount would kill it on the biggest drops, so high all the downunder witnessed. Bloodless would never fall.
What would happen if we put a princess on a board?
Same thing that would happen to any twelve-year-old. She would fall.
She flipped her board into her hand like we always did. “I want to smoke a roof!”
We told her, not yet, little slick. She rolled her eyes when we said she needed to ollie first and hopped onto her board. One shove, and that princess proved she could get air. Still not tuned to the board, she stumbled on the landing, but rolled into her fall just like we would have taught her. Her watcher didn’t even look up from the book.
So, we made her a roof. Piling furniture against one wall, creating a few levels, a ramp. Any of us, burly street drippings that we were, would be too heavy so we couldn’t test it, but sometimes you didn’t get to test roof lines before you carved. We lined the ground with pillows and bedding. It felt good to tramp the silks and linen with our dirty grip-boots.
Syd climbed up two dressers. We’d created a drop to a long table (the legs balanced on chairs for height). The other end, a ramp went up to a bookcase. From there, she’d drop to a smaller bookcase, then another smaller one, then to another table. She’d have seconds to react. Most roofs were easier than this rickety thing.
She knew it, too, but we said if she could master this thing, then she could ride.
We helped her cast a sight line, plan each jump, catch, footstep, drop. She fell, of course. Didn’t land the first drop onto the table, the board skidding from her feet.
She climbed right back up. Again, again, again.
When king’s guard came to spear-nudge us out, she’d completed the first half but couldn’t quite figure the transition from off her board, run the ramp, then jump into the first drop.
With the guards nicking our heels, she winked. “See you soon!”
That pixie grin sent us wondering again.
We made the raid that night. Sleepeater and Dragonwing took the headline and we followed the leader, mirroring their jumps and drops. We scored big and didn’t lose a spark of gold or blood. Our favorite merchant waited on the other side of the waste grate back in the downunder, and we passed him the wares. Our stuff sold wild outside of town in the cities of living revolution. Here, found owning a piece of royalty, hands and heads went chopped.
Of course, our faces became the new guard graffiti, papering the taverns and community houses. Downunder, nobody turned us in, but we couldn’t go back to finish Syd’s lessons. Smart kid like that already knew she would get us for only a day.
For the next year, we kept it cool around the castle. The king outlawed boards, which made it popular as dragon scales among the nobles for a hot second. That royal score had fed plenty and the city had many other pockets of wealth. We emptied them.
Some of us fell. Dragonwing’s rider went to surf the stars with a split skull. Sleepeater landed in a net and never left the guard barracks. Killcount broke both legs dropping off a wall, but they came back even stronger with a young rider whose brother had been hanged for looking at a royal wife. Just the kind of burn Killcount needed to brave those gaps.
Once our faces had bone-bleached off the walls, we planned another castle hit: an anniversary celebration with no fear of revolution from blow because the King held a feast for the whole city. Can’t blame them—when you can eat, you eat. But we still had a chance to grind some tops.
We scored and went straight to the old sewers to cache it until the right merchant came looking for dictator-era jewels.
Except as we ramped into stink, we counted a thirteenth rider. Like us, she wore all black, a scarf around her face, a hammer-battered skull cap. She kept up on the roofs, but it was the ramp into the sewer-dark where she stuttered. Just the slightest hesitation before she pushed, like the first time skating a new roofline.
We circled up at the first turn, riding over her head on the slick stone walls. She braked and flicked her board into her hand. Jagged red spelled “Synner” on the belly.
The Y clued us, and when she tugged down her mask, that same pixie grin waited. The princess looked older. A scar curved over her jaw. Her legs had thickened with riding muscles.
You can’t be here! we told her. A princess gone missing would be assumed kidnapping and ransom, would mean the raising of the downunder, murdering the most capable to destroy another generation that maybe would have said no. She didn’t know what payment she required.
“No, no, it’s okay. I covered my tracks. My double is posing.”
She thumbed the scar along her jaw. “I’m not princess enough for the people, according to my father. She looks the part, even if she’s just my half-bastard-sister. She hates it as much as I do. She told me it was time.” She dropped her board and stepped onto it. No longer the wobbly girl we gave lessons to, she turned fluid, riding the board like driftwood on the river. “I can’t do much up there. You can make me something else.”
We looked at each other. Dragonwing and Sleepeater ollied their acceptance immediately. They spoke for their gangs, the Greyhoods and Gallows Hands, but the rest of us wondered what one more sinner downunder could do.
We explained that we didn’t need more bodies but leaders. If she showed her face right now—might as well break our boards.
She flashed the belly of her board. “Then make it a rumor. Make me something more. When they check on me, it will just be my sister Kess. They won’t know the difference. Never have.”
We huddled up. Dragonwing and Sleepeater hadn’t changed their stance, but we wondered at the choice to gamble another young life. We took the big air each night because what else did we have to live for—rat meat and cricket grain? But this kid, she might be something.
With us, she’d just be a criminal.
Some argued we’d run more dangerous lines than this at a younger age.
Others agreed and said who were we to stop her, a bunch of halfies with scarred-up knees.
The Blacksmith Bitches held the deciding vote. They held their turn.
Show us you’re serious, we said. Prove you’ve thought it through.
She turned that pixie grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” One shove and she parted us, clattering up the sewer ramp. Sleepeater followed, with a few Greyhood runners flanking, but the rest of us waited. We had loot to sell and mouths to feed.
The news came later, with sirens. Due to the king’s sizeable collection of mounts, his stables had been moved just outside the first level, and the shit was raked into a runoff that led straight downunder. With Sleepeater’s help, they’d carved up the barn roofs, panicking the guards and slave mounts, but Syd dropped to the gate, showed her face, sent the guard scrambling to give her the royal treatment, then vanished into the barns. Syd opened all the stalls, then Sleepeater clattered the roof, sending all the mounts rushing.
By the end of the night, the horses, griffons, dragons, wyverns, minotaurs, centaurs, and dire wolves had been absorbed into the downunder. The king’s men came with the royal pedigree papers, with lists of markings, but we did our job well. Only a handful were stolen again.
When Syd rolled into our park, still shit-stained and beast-smelling, we couldn’t help but welcome her.
Then we waited for it to get worse.
We stayed low, skated our traditional paths in the downunder, never crossed out of building’s shade or sewer’s shadow. Not until a little thing happened did we believe Syd, not until her double stood beside the king at an announcement about “schools for the children” shite. Not until we knew we had a secret on the king—his royal child had escaped.
Synner unleashed on the middle-castle dwellers and the nobles: breaking into a speciesist grocer, surfing through the upper-castle farmers’ market, thieving a child-beating blacksmith. We skated flank, let her face forward, let that board leave a trail. We tagged the hits with Synner, but one of the best paint-magickers turned out a stencil (her shadowy face bleeding into the top of her board, name on the belly), and princess propaganda went wall-to-wall.
Some worried the king would see, but some said, yes, that’s what we needed. If she wanted a true revolt, he’d know. All the downunder knew her masked face, and most suspected her heritage, so whispered the crows. Somebody would take it kingside.
So it happened. We were staying low, keeping the boards hidden, after a big hit on a shop selling slave-diamonds. The guards had chased us all the way to the sewer head before we lost them in the stench. Wild riding, we’d been drunk off it, but knew enough to relax. Breathe it all in. A week later, Synner went out with Killcount and Firestorm just to land a few tricks, grind a few gutters, so the downunderers saw us safe and laughing.
Maybe someone knifed us, maybe it was fate. The guards hit so hard the three boards were caught up in the wave. Riders went down, but the guards took Syd, of course. That’s how we knew their goal. A good rebel, she kicked her board into the fearful crowd.
A new Synner picked it up.
She held the board above her head. She screamed with half-scale metal: “To war!”
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my love of Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, and revolution. In epic fantasy, the tiered city is such a staple that it seemed a waste to only ride skateboards on the streets rather than the roof tops—what a perfect ramp! Because I knew revolution would be a key aspect of this story, the first person plural voice came with the characters.
Phoebe Wagner holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and currently pursues a PhD in literature at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the co-editor of two solarpunk anthologies: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation and Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures. When not writing, reading, or grading, you can find her kayaking the nearest river. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at phoebe-wagner.com.
This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.
The film this week is She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters, about an epic and violent battle between a couple at a restaurant. Fair warning: the film does depict quite a few acts of domestic abuse. As well as the title implying a stance about gender roles that some may prefer not to delve into.
And if I had to change one thing about this film it would be the title, intentionally misgendering a woman because she is aggressive. I think it’s done for a laugh, but I did not find that funny. If I didn’t enjoy other aspects of it greatly I might not have recommended it at all.
The film starts with a couple, a man and a woman, seated across from each other at a table at a restaurant, chatting (we can’t hear what they’re saying) and enjoying each other’s company. This mood does not last long as apparently he says something that offends her, and she responds in anger, visibly shouting “What?!” with a wave of her arms. I got the impression they are no strangers to sudden fights breaking out, apparently having been together for quite some time and having come to accept them as part of the relationship.
The film is a series of escalations in this fight. She escalates the fight by throwing her napkin at him, which they are soon sending back and forth as quick as a tennis match. Soon they both escalate the fight simultaneously by both reaching for the surprisingly large knives in their table settings and dueling over the table with them. He collects all of the plates and she dares him to throw them. He does, and she dodges the first few, and catches plates in both hands, her teeth, and between her feet and throws these back at him, hitting him with every one, and she breaks another thrown plate in mid-air with a karate chop.
Although she has shown incredible physical abilities, we start to see her more supernatural powers next as she doffs her jacket and sets it flying across the room to punch her man in the throat, leaving him gasping.
The waiter comes out with new plates and she throws one of them as well and the waiter makes a heroic dive to retrieve the plat before it impact. He manages to hit her for the first time with the remaining plate, and then she really flies into a rage. When the harried waiter arrives with a new covered platter he places it and retreats before she throws that, but the man launches the platter into the air, spilling the lobster out of the platter, and makes a super-human jump to catch it and launch it at her; the claws catch her long hair and sever it at the shoulders.
One of the restaurant staff picks this unfortunate time to deliver the check and she splits him half up his torso with her bare hand, and moments later cuts the chef clean in two. Finally she delivers the coup d’etat by using her magic to compel her jacket to hold him still while her severed locks of hair strangle him until he goes limp. Once he is lying on the floor she makes a show of regret and she picks him off and carries him out of the scene while they seem to chat cordially again.
Before I get into examining the plot and themes further, I would like to mention that what made this film remarkable to me was not the plot or the themes, but the practical special effects on display here. The legs of the two characters on the screen are clever puppetry performed by black-clad puppeteers who are often entirely visible against the black background of the scene. In addition, anything thrown or moving of its own volition in the scene is also operated by puppetry. The most impressive part, in my opinion, was the man’s jump to reach the lobster–the scene takes what looks like a 90 degree camera “bullet-time” style camera rotation from horizontal to looking directly down on the scene, but as far as I can tell the camera is stationary throughout the whole film and any apparent movement is actually the set and characters being moved instead. In this case that included all of the surrounding tables being lifted off the ground by more of the puppeteers and rotated 90 degrees while the actors did their best to hold the same facial expressions and upper-body position except for the rotation. It was really quite impressive! Many of the special effects, especially the stick-thing legs, look kindof weird, but I was really impressed by it and the surreal look of it was very appealing.
As for the subject matter of the piece, it depicts a very serious subject (domestic abuse) in a light that seems like it’s meant to be aiming at humor–if that’s the intent I think it misses most of the time. While I enjoyed the film, much of that had to do with the awesome special effects, although when she cuts the kitchen staff into pieces with her bare hands and they manage to get themselves off stage under their own power that was darkly humorous. But overall it is a very hard film to recommend to people because of the “domestic abuse as humor” angle.
Somewhat tied into that, I find the title of the film makes me wonder what the filmmakers were trying to convey: “She’s My Man”. I’m not sure if they’re trying to say that she is the more “manly” of the two because of her determination, physical prowess, and aggressiveness, asserting dominance in the relationship through her abuse, in the role that stereotypes dictate is the man’s to hold, a woman holding a role defined by its toxic masculinity?
I’m not sure. But, even if it’s hard to recommend without knowing if the person I’m talking to has a history that involves domestic abuse, the practical effects in this are really extraordinary!
(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be “Foil” by Weird Al Yankovic)
Star Vs. the Forces of Evil is an action comedy cartoon about an interdimensional mage-warrior princess visiting Earth. Season 1 aired on Disney XD between January and September 2015.
Star Butterfly (Eden Sher) is a princess of Mewni, a magical parallel dimension. On her 14th birthday, her parents the king and queen give her the family heirloom magical wand. When she accidentally sets fire to the castle, they send her away to Earth for training. She ends up enrolling at Echo Creek Academy where principal assigns her to pair up with Marco Diaz (Adam McArthur), who has a reputation for being very straight-laced and by-the-book. Soon after Star is attacked for the first time by the monster Ludo (Alan Tudyk) and his gang of henchmonsters who want to steal the wand and she discovers her magical abilities and finds out that it’s also fun kicking monster butt.
Star is fun-loving, impulsive, has a low tolerance for boredom, and gives her everything to everything she decides to do. Marco, in many ways, is very different very careful, nervous, risk-averse, and more likely to talk himself out of doing something than to just dive in as Star would. But they very quickly become best friends, complimenting each other as friends, each acting as a kind of balancing force on the others extreme tendencies. Ludo and his gang of monsters are a recurring element as he continues to try to attain the wand, and Marco and Star work together to fend him off.
Most of the episodes feel largely episodic, small standalone adventures, but many of them do add elements to build backstory for larger arcs, more about Star’s family and the history of Mewni.
A lot of the appeal of the show is the fun drawing style that goes along with Star’s unique and powerful spells like “narwhal blast” and “blueberry cupcake bazooka”, and the writing and voice acting is superb.
And if you like this season, there are three more! Highly recommended, one of my favorite shows.