DP FICTION #76B: “We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten

When Benj comes home, I swear his hands are smaller than before, and thinned out in the spaces between the knuckles, the points of contact if someone were to lace their fingers with his. It’s a millimeter’s difference, maybe less, maybe half. But then, I’ve gotten used to these reduced units of measurement.

When I find the dust in the cuffs of his jacket, I’m sure.

Benj is thirty-four years old, has been in my life for two. He is reliable and even-tempered, a good listener, easy to love. Lots of people call him their rock. I called him that too, before I knew.

He says he can’t pinpoint when it started, his erosion. Of course, I know—watched the videos in grade-school earth science same as everyone—that it’s one of those things that happens gradually over a long period of time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing, nothing. Then one day, in the foreign angle of a changing-room mirror, a deep gully down the center of his back from where the shower water hit for ten straight minutes every day since he was a boy.

I let my fingers hover over the gully, a flock of birds caught in the wind, but I don’t touch down. He is limestone, vulnerable. Soft sedimentary. I dare not contribute.

Meanwhile, Benj takes his eroding as a fact of life. Hereditary, his dad. When he shows me old family photos, I recognize it immediately. Limbs narrow around the bone from continuous exposure.

“The fuck is this?” is how I found out, turning to look over my shoulder at his bathroom mirror, wiping long streaks of gray-pink dust from the back of my dress. A little drunk, both of us. Hiccups. Laughter. We had been out dancing, still new then, and I had been showing off.

He told me. Answered my questions, met my incredulity with patience. Gradually, yes, like buttes and canyons and river valleys. But much faster than those. Proportional to his size. Wait, parabolically proportional. No, it doesn’t hurt.

Later, lying there next to him, I didn’t know what to believe—finding all parts of him just as they should be, warm and present and braced so sturdily, I thought, by blood like mine. I remember hooking my hand onto the ledge of his collar bone, my legs draped over his so irresponsibly.

I asked about his dimples.

“Au naturel,” he replied.

The words “naturally occurring” mean something different to Benj. So do the words “worn out.”

One thing that wears Benj out, the way most people mean: phone calls from his mother, who’s back in Kansas, tornado-proofing her now-too-big house and putting fresh flowers on Benj’s dad’s grave. She sprung for a granite headstone. Erosion resistant. Made to last.

I hear one end of their conversations:

“Ma, please. We’ve been over this a thousand times.”


“I am.”

“I am.” His face screws up and he turns away, his voice dropping to a near-whisper.

“A suit of armor, Ma? Jesus. What year is it? Where would you even get something like that?”

“It’s limited for everyone. Everybody’s on their way out. What did Dad used to say? ‘As soon as a story starts, it’s already ending’?”

A long pause. He shakes his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“Okay, but I’m not wearing the armor.”



He keeps the phone to his ear, waiting for her to hang up before he turns around.

I look up from whatever book I haven’t been reading and smile brightly, try to be easy, pretend I heard nothing, that me and his mom, we’re nothing alike.

I’m no geologist, but I’ve always had a head for formulas. There’s a logic to them. Follow the rules and you know things will come out all right. And sometimes I think I could sit down and do the math. Figure out, based on the progression to date, give or take, how much time we have left.

If I had more courage. And a good calculator.

If I wasn’t so afraid.

If I didn’t find myself, on windy days, positioning my body in front of his at the bus stop, a head shorter than him and in more ways than that an ineffective shield.

If he didn’t tickle the spot on my ankle that only he knows about. If I didn’t have to remind myself not to tickle him back. If he didn’t joke-not-joke that he’s made of weaker stuff.

The most common causes of erosion are: water, wind, glaciers, people.

Benj is social for someone who’d be better off if he wasn’t. We go to what feels like the same party every weekend—same people, same half-empty bowl of party mix on a fold-out table, combed through for the good stuff.

I chew the inside of my cheeks as he greets everyone individually: enthusiastic slaps on shoulders, special handshakes with intricate steps.

The ones who hug him bear-hug hard, and over time, this has left shallow depressions hidden by T-shirts, in the middle of his chest, the tops of his arms.

The ones who kiss him do it the French way, one cheek, then the other, and they are supposed to be air kisses, but now his face tapers above the jawline as if shaved away.

I’m the only one who observes the dust falling off Benj onto the discolored carpet, sucked up by a vacuum in the morning and no one the wiser. Of course they don’t see it. They aren’t the ones who bring him home.

Home, our apartment. Our shoes all mixed up together in the caddy by the front door, both our last names on the small laminated label on the mailbox downstairs. When we moved in, Benj insisted on a plus sign between our names, not a slash. Said that we should be an “and,” not an “or.”

Living with Benj is like living inside an hourglass, one of those two-minute timers you used to get at the dentist. The fine dust of him collects all around us, proof that he is, cell by cell, sloughing away. A sick gray tinged with pink: ground-down skin, muscle, bone.

Though he has learned to shower more carefully, with most of his body out of the stream, though he has trained himself not to roll around in his sleep, he still leaves it behind when he walks his most-traveled paths, from bed to fridge to computer chair and back again.

I wonder which room he’ll be in when the world, after shaping him for so long, decides he has had enough.

He thinks it’s morbid that I won’t get rid of it, that I sweep the dust into loose mounds in the corners of rooms. But what else am I supposed to do with something that’s part of him?

“You don’t throw out your loved ones’ ashes,” I argue.

“Sometimes you do. Actually, a lot of times you do.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“You would if the will said to.”

I roll my eyes. This is the thing I worry about most lately: wasting dwindling time on conversations we’ve already had.

“Doesn’t matter if I would or not. You’d be gone and who would check up on it anyway?”

He looks down. His eyelashes are crusted with dust and the beginnings of crying.

“I’m not dead yet, you know.”

My mind jumps to flat prairies transformed into basins, hiking passes carved into mountains by ice.

When Benj isn’t around, I go to the piles and make a bowl with my hands and scoop up the dust. I pretend I’m a gymnast reaching into a tub of chalk at a big meet. Pretend my team is counting on me, and the dust, it helps me with my grip.

Benj erodes fastest in the places touched most often, so I try not to touch the parts of him I’d like to stick around. The way the tip of his nose turns up at the very last second as if it’s been waiting to surprise you. The spot on his right earlobe where I swore I saw a freckle once, only Benj is no good at keeping freckles. As soon as he gets the right amount of sun, a rush of wind polishes them down.

Loving Benj is an exercise in restraint. He hates that I kiss him so gently, says what good will holding back do in the long run? I say it’s all about the long run. He says he doesn’t like this side of me, this just-like-everyone-elseness, this being more concerned with longevity than depth.

When he says “depth,” he presses his thumb against the gates of my teeth, daring me to open, let him in—and I’m a goner. I forget myself, grab hold of him desperately. There’s the all-too-real sensation of him slipping through my fingers.

The next morning, I slide my arms out of the fresh rills that cross his stomach. Notice the crumbling around the teeth marks on his neck.

But Benj hasn’t had fingerprints as long as I’ve known him. I can’t pretend the pads were worn down by me.

He tells me that we are more solid than ever, and not to conflate things. We are not what is deteriorating.

He tells me that he is grateful. That whatever time we have, for him, it is enough.

But I am greedy, greedy, greedy.

I want to put him in a glass box like they do in cemeteries with the stone busts of children, when the families do not want the likenesses to ever decay. At these times, when I am at my most selfish and delusional, I know I am the weak one between us.

Which is why, when the worst comes, I’m the one to crack.

Benj goes grocery shopping and tries to carry all the bags from the car in one go. The plastic handles sink inches into his forearms, cut through him like wire, almost clear through to the other side.

Afterwards, we stop going to the parties that are all the same. By now, his legs are so eroded and his back so concave, he finds it difficult to walk.

Then we develop bad coughs, as the piles of dust in the apartment grow steadily taller. We ignore the coughing for a while, blame it on something going around the building, until eventually Benj orders a reusable particle mask for me. Just the one, I notice. Not a pair.

Then Benj declares he’s going to the Archways.

The Archways is a national preserve a couple of states over in which Benj has previously expressed no interest. For one thing, it’s a full day’s drive. For another, it’s known for its sandstorms.

Now, Benj leaves the tourism website up on his computer all the time. The photographs show striated rock the color of sweet dried oranges. Hard-packed earth is punctuated by otherworldly formations: a natural bridge between two cliffs, spindly pedestals rising hundreds of feet like a giant’s game of Jenga. And the namesake arches, chiseled away over millennia and toothpick-delicate, forming open-mouthed O’s in the landscape, frames for whatever lies beyond.

“Do you know how many people die every day just commuting to work?”

This again. The particle mask hides my expression. “No. Do you?”

“All I’m saying is that the same people who refuse to get on airplanes, they’re the ones who’ll step out into the crosswalk one day at the wrong time and just—”

“I get it.”

“Do you?”

I recite so he doesn’t have to: “We’re all dying, one hundred percent of us, one hundred percent of the time. We’re dying from the day we’re born.”

He nods. “Listen. I need to have a say. With my dad, we assumed he had more time. He was still doing work on the house, picking up shifts at the yard. Freak dust devil got him. Little, unremarkable one too.”

I feel like I’m suffocating. Not sure if the mask’s too tight or it’s something else.

He grabs my hands firmly, and instinctively I shoot him a look of warning.

“I want you to come with me,” he says.

He told me it doesn’t hurt.

He was wrong.

I try to be tough, strong, metamorphic. The granite of a headstone, the diamond of a promise ring. As I drive, I stare at a fixed point on the horizon, certain that if I turn my gaze toward him, it will bore a hole right through. A frame for everything that lies beyond him—which, as far as I can tell, is nothing at all.

The car’s stuffy and too quiet as I try to figure what would do less harm: roll the windows down and let the air blow against him, or leave them up and risk the sweat dissolving wavy lines into his skin.

Doesn’t matter. Neither of us expects him to be in that passenger seat on the way back.

Even in the stillness, the dust of him swirls lightly, landing on my hair, his jeans, the lids of our sodas, empty chip bags in the footwell, the red buckle of his latched seatbelt.

I ask why he bothered with the seatbelt.

He takes his chance: “Hey, you think I have a death wish?” And though it’s not funny, it feels better on the other side of silence.

When we pull in, the view from the visitors’ lot is depressing. Back home, we have coverage, densely packed trees, important for minimizing erosion. Here, the vegetation is sparse and the way it doesn’t touch fills me with regret. Low shrubs spaced so far apart, you get the feeling they want nothing to do with each other.

The rock formations, though, are beautiful in person, in the way of things that were not made all at once with a singular vision but by many invisible hands unhurriedly over time.

Already, the wind is howling.

Then these things in quick succession: I put the car in park. The wind shakes it violently. Panic strikes me, knocks something loose.

“Stay,” I blurt out. I hate the beg in my voice, say it anyway: “Please. Stay.”

Through eyes blurring with tears, I think I can see his body responding. He is filling out at the edges, widening where he was narrow. Coming back to sense, to me.

When I blink, my vision clears and the brief burst of hope is gone.

In its place is Benj, looking sad but resolute. He pulls his shoes and socks off slowly, left then right foot, then tugs his T-shirt over his head. He’s not being careful now. As he pushes his jeans down, the denim drags and I watch the dust fall.

He folds his clothes methodically on the center console. When he’s done, he turns and finally looks me in the eye.

Benj leans over and kisses me so hard I have to reach up and check my lips, I’m so sure it’s a piece of me that’s broken away.

He takes a series of fast breaths: in, out, in, out, in—

Then he throws the door open and goes.

Immediately, the wind begins the vicious work of whittling him down. One gust, three fingers off his left hand. The next, a chunk of his thigh. Fragments of him strike the windshield like hail while I sit, frozen. A crack forms down the middle of the glass, the space between his seat and mine.

Has he always been this decisive, this stupid, this brave?

People change, of course. Imperceptibly, then plain as day.

I can’t watch, but can’t not watch either, am here to be here. So I force myself out of the car and race to Benj, as far as he has managed to get, running on thin limbs and his own conviction.

How quickly he dissolves as we walk together, sideways in the wind, to one of the larger arches. He points forward, onward, with the index finger of his good hand. The sandstorm comes from everywhere, stinging, and I don’t try to shelter him from its blows.

When we reach the base of the arch, a thought burrows into me, painful and invasive. It makes me think of some wedding backdrops I’ve seen: clean-smelling, flower-wrapped pagodas; a place for ceremony.

At first, Benj’s gray-pink dust stands out, pale against the surrounding red rock. Once the wind hits blood, though, I can’t tell the difference.

“It doesn’t hurt?” I ask-yell over the storm.

Close up, I can’t see the whole of him. Only brown eyes, a little less domed than mine, looking back at me without fear.

“Not the way you think!”

When the next gust shears off his smile, I think, finally, I know what he means.

How does it hurt? It hurts like wishing hard won’t help you. Like being good won’t help you. Like there is no formula: you could’ve behaved completely differently and still.

We are insignificant and seen mostly at the surface.

If we’re lucky, seen deeper by some.

The dust of Benj hits me sharp and sudden, mixed with sand, and quickly I am bleeding. I squeeze my eyes shut against it. I shout into the unfairness, though I knew it was coming, and I swear I can hear Benj shouting back, though the air is thick enough to blind and I’m sure he is mostly bodiless now. In my useless mouth I try to catch him, hold him there, an urn for my beloved. Try not to let him dissolve on my tongue. Something like safekeeping.

When I open my eyes again, unsure of how much time has passed, the air is unnervingly still. Would it really have been easier not to have known?

I am red-raw and pinpricked. Dust sticks in ornate patterns atop the wetness of my tears or sweat or blood, like glitter to glue on art projects when I was a kid, and it’s true: I feel decorated. I remember glitter being impossible to get rid of. I walk back to the car, thinking that later, I’ll have to pick out the particles with tweezers one by one.

Or maybe not.

Maybe let it get infected.

Maybe stay evidence, of how great an impact one person can have. How much of them you can then carry with you, embedded, a burial under the skin.

© 2021 by Kristina Ten

3000 words

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in LightspeedBlack StaticWeird HorrorAE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.

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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #6: She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

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)

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #5: Genghis Khan by Miike Snow

written by David Steffen

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 identiy the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Genghis Khan by Miike Snow, an action/spy movie turned romance.

The film starts with a line of men in military uniforms standing at attention as their commanding officer (who is dressed in military garb also and has a very distinctive metal prosthetic nose) walks past them to the center of the room large concrete room where a man in a bowtie and a tuxedo shirt is strapped to a table with a giant laser mounted on the ceiling pointed directly at him. The scenario calls to mind the third act of a James Bond film where the villain has captured bond and it is just about time for Bond to make his escape, but this time the villain is our protagonist.

And, of course, next is the monologuing, which the villain does to the music, seeming to be in a happily vindictive mood, taking little dancing steps in celebration at the imminent devise of his rival. Only knowing what we have seen so far in the film, the choice of monologuing topic is a bit odd, saying that he “gets a little bit Genghis Khan” and doesn’t want him to “get it on with nobody else but me”. Is there a romantic, or at least sexual, history between these characters? James Bond has certainly had trysts with women villains before in his films, but this could be an interesting new angle to it.

A scientist in a white coat delivers a remote control to our villain, and with great relish from him and great fear from his captive he poises his finger to press the button but is interrupted with a buzzer that announces that it is 5pm, and apparently the supervillain bunker workday is over and it’s time to go home. This is a particularly interesting moment in the film, because clearly he has been looking forward to this moment for a long time, it’s surprising that he would go home just because the clock struck. Perhaps he has felt strongly about work-life balance and it’s important to him that he leave on time and leave his work at the office. Perhaps he gets paid for supervillainy only during his work hours and killing the spy when he’s not getting paid for it would make him a chump in his own reckoning. Perhaps it’s an insurance/worker’s comp thing where he could get in trouble for working outside of working hours. Perhaps his family expects him home at a particular time. In any case, with a roll of his eyes, he heads home, leaving the spy strapped to the table overnight.

At home he is greeted by his lovely wife and his children: a young boy and girl. He smiles when his daughter waves to him, but the manufactured smile quickly slips. As they eat dinner together he stares blankly and his wife seems to notice something is amiss, but doesn’t say anything, and later in bed she is sleeping soundly while he sits up in bed (stilling wearing his uniform) and continues to mull.

The next day, back at the supervillain office, he continues his monologue to the spy again, if anything with more vigor, and his energy seems to be contagious as well, even soldiers passing through the scene say “ooh” along with the song. The laser is powered up again and there seems to be nothing keeping the spy from his doom. But he hesitates, and monologues about wanting to make up his mind but not knowing himself, and instead of pushing the big red “KILL” button he pushes the big green “RELEASE” button.

The spy leaps up from the table and within seconds a squad of soldiers faces him down with automatic weapons, but the villain orders them to let the spy go, and the villain turns away to let the spy make his escape. But, instead of leaving, the spy carries on with the same monologue about not knowing himself, and he turns back, and sees out loud the main monologue again about getting a little bit Genghis Khan. The two join hands, and perform a series of cute pair dance moves together.

Flash forward to a scene at the villain’s home again. This time he has a more genuine smile as the kids come to greet him, and the spy (now in more casual clothes) is just putting dinner on the table. They have happy conversation and they share a romantic look over the table between themselves, and later they are both reading in bed in a quiet and pleasant moment as the villain smiles to himself and everything seems to have ended happily…

Until we see that this bedroom is being surveilled by none other than the villain’s ex-wife, who repeats the mantra about being a little bit Genghis Khan and not wanting him to get it on with “nobody else but me”, and ominous music plays as the film ends.

This one is really interesting and fun in its subversion of the superspy-and-villain nemeses trope. Even if someone hasn’t seen many James Bond films, there are so many parodies and homages that you can’t help to have absorbed some of it, and so it is a clever way to set up a short film. “I know what this is” you say as you see the giant laser, and just a little bit of set-dressing sets up your expectations, before dashing them and going a different direction. Spy movies rarely (if ever) show a villain having a stereotypical family life at home, so that in itself is a new angle on it, and the reversal at the end with a new villain promises potential for a sequel–apparently living with him all these years has taught her some tricks. What role will our erstwhile villain play in the next story? Will he continue his previous villainous ways even though he is happier at home? Or was his happiness at home inextricably tied with his villainy? Has the spy turned his allegiance’s as well, is he exiled from his home country for fraternizing with the enemy, or is this development still a secret from them. I look forward to seeing the sequel to find out!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters)

DP FICTION #58B: “The Problem From Jamaica Plain” by Marie L. Vibbert

I was waiting for the teakettle to boil, and the office wasn’t due to open for, oh let’s say three minutes. The phone blinked and I considered not answering, what with those three minutes of leisure ahead of me, but I needed every client I could get. I put on my phone voice and chirped, “Jasmine Alexa, Attorney at law.”

The voice on the other end trembled with fear and flat, Bostonian vowels. “I’m not shuh, but Ah think I might have killed someone.”

That was as good as a shot of straight caffeine. “Excuse me? Wait… right now?”

There was an unsettling long pause. “No?” It was a woman’s voice, rough and deep, but definitely feminine.

You are no doubt thinking exactly what I was thinking at this point: This person is a murderer. After years of handling divorces and wills, I was suddenly transported into an episode of Law and Order: Special Weird Calls Unit.

Before my brain could decide if murderers paid well, my mouth said, “I’m sorry, this is a civil law office. I don’t do criminal cases.”

“Crap. Wrong number.” She hung up.

I stared at my phone. Should I call the police? Report the call? The number? The time? I was still writing down the digits when my phone lit up again. The same number. I let it ring once, but oh, I was too curious to let it go to voicemail.

“Jasmine Alexa.”

“Yeah, you said you were a lawyah?”

I propped the phone on my shoulder and wrote down the rest of the phone number, and the times for both calls. “Civil law,” I said.

“I wanna ask you about a custody problem.”

I set my pencil down. “What about the person you might have killed?”

A pause. “Aw, I don’t need a lawyer for that. So, uh… lemme ask you, and does it cost money just to ask? What happens if someone leaves a baby on your doorstep, say like in the movies, in a basket with a note and all that? Is that your baby?”

“Uh… no. You’re under no legal obligation, but you should call the authorities. The police will try to find whoever abandoned it. If the baby ends up a ward of the state, you’ll have to apply for adoption the same as anyone.”

“Thanks,” she said, and hung up.

What the hell?

This time I called her. She answered the phone with, “This is Elle.”

“This is Alexa. Did someone leave a baby on your doorstep?”

Elle sighed, long and heavy. “I guess ya better come over.”

The teakettle whistled. I looked at my note for the police. I picked up my car keys. You don’t go into business for yourself as a lawyer unless you’re more curious than smart.


Elle’s apartment was a walkup above a consignment shop, so the story about doorsteps was probably fabrication.

From her accent on the phone I expected a husky white woman with a cigarette permanently attached to her lip. Elle was skinny and very, very black. Almost blue. Never assume. Elle had a short afro pushed back by a yellow daisy headband, bright pink lipstick and a yellow shift dress. Glam.

Her deep voice sounded warmer than on the phone. “My girlfriend Veronica and I were arguing. Nothing serious! It got maybe a little heated, and she fell.” Elle backed into the apartment, twisting the hem of her dress between nervous fingers. “I mean… I pushed her,” she said, like a caught-out child. “But it wasn’t that hahd, I didn’t even expect her to fall but… anyway, that’s what’s left.” She lifted her chin to the right.

This was the moment when I could turn around, head back down the rickety steps, and forget the whole thing. I closed my eyes as I turned, picturing splattered blood and gore. I opened my eyes.

An adorable baby, about six months old with Asian eyes and drool-wet lips, looked up at me from a pile of rumpled laundry.

Before I could censor myself, my mouth blurted out, “But where’s the body?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Elle groaned. She stomped over to just to the left of the baby. “I was here. Veronica was there.” She gestured at the air over the baby. “I pushed, she fell. She didn’t move or nothing. I got scared. You were the first lawyer in the phone book. Then while we were talking, she just…” Elle waggled her fingers in the air. “Melted or something. So I’m looking at this pile of her clothes, and that – that kid crawls out!” Fat tears spilled down her cheeks. “Did I kill Veronica? Did I make her a baby? Gawd, I never even step on bugs. She just… I just…”

“This is not the sort of problem I’m trained to deal with,” I said. Understatement of the Month.

Elle walked around the baby, reaching out like she was afraid to touch it or to let it crawl away. “So what do I… do I call the cops? What if that’s not a baby?” She bit her lower lip. “What if this is Veronica?”

“I’m not following.”

Elle squatted down, peering at the baby, who stared back with an adorable “oo” expression. “It… it kinda looks like Veronica. I’m afraid to pick it up and check its parts to see if it’s a girl.”

“However it got here,” I said, “you are now the proud finder of a lost infant.”

“I should just treat it like that?” She looked at me like I was her mom and could solve all this for her.

I get that look a lot from potential clients. “Want me to call for you?”

Her skinny, anxious face bloomed into this relieved smile. “I’ll get ya some cake,” she said.

I didn’t believe Veronica was from Mars or whatever. I believed there was a logical, if odd, explanation. Elle produced a slice of cinnamon pound cake and a mug of Red Rose tea for me. She didn’t act like she’d recently had a head injury. The baby picked at Veronica’s discarded clothing with baby-like intense scrutiny. We made awkward small talk until the police came.

Elle paid me for my time, which was nice of her, and I wrote it all off as an unexplained mystery I’d enjoy telling at parties.

Not so lucky. Two days later, Child Protective Services called.

“Yeah, we got you as a witness to a foundling recovery in JP two nights ago?”

I knew right then it wasn’t going to be good. “What about it?”

“There’s a problem.”

“Did you find the birth mother?”

“Lady, you have got to be kidding me.”

“I… really am not kidding you. What’s the problem?”

“Your ‘foundling’ is a teen and asking for her lawyer.”

“I’m not…”

“Yeah, well, her much older girlfriend says you’re their lawyer, so you better come down here and talk to your client because she ain’t in the system and we aren’t in the habit of letting kids walk out of here without a legal guardian.”

I took one longing look at my lunch – fresh pesto on shells from the market up the street – and sighed. “I’m on my way.”


Veronica Wong, if you believed that was her name, was a coltish teen with shaggy, short hair. She wore oversized sweats and sprawled on the sofa in the front parlor of the Forbes Home for Wayward Youth.

In my briefcase I had a Xerox of Veronica Wong’s Massachusetts driver’s license proclaiming her to be twenty-five and a resident of Jamaica Plain. The photo was uncannily similar, but older, with longer hair.

“You’re sure this is the kid you brought in?” I asked the social worker.

She was a thickset black woman and she looked about one second away from flipping out. The whites showed all the way around her irises. “We get a lot of kids in and out,” she said, “but we tend to notice if one grows five years every night.”

Veronica blew a tuft of hair out of her face. “I want my lawyer,” she said.

The social worker asked, “You want to back out?” She asked it like she was asking if I wanted to stab her in the back.

I stepped forward, hand out. “Veronica? I’m Jasmine Alexa. We… may have met at your apartment, when you were…?” I stopped myself short of saying “destroyed and reformed as a baby.” It’s bad to assume things.

Veronica gave me a quick once-over. “Elle trusts you,” she said. “Is she still mad?”

I retracted my hand. “I don’t know what you were fighting about.”

Veronica rolled her eyes. “She thinks I’ve changed. Like I’m not the same person. She’s the one who changed! I’m me. I’ll always be me.”

“Well, right now that’s not as important as the question of your custody. You are… you appear to be a minor.”

“I know that. I’m adolescent, not stupid.” Veronica sank deeper into the couch, her legs spread wide. “They wouldn’t even let me see Elle until an hour ago. Tell Elle to stop freaking out and I’ll come home. And tell her I’m not going to replace her in her sleep! Jeeeeez. Why do people always think that about us, huh? We don’t go replacing any old person just to do it.”

I looked to the social worker for some help. She held her hands up and backed out of the room.

I sat down. “Right, so if you agree to have me represent you, I can hold anything we talk about in confidence. If your legal guardian—”

“I’m not an orphan. I told them, my parents live on Long Island.”

“Yes,” I said. I opened the file CPS had given me. “And those parents are a little confused how their college graduate daughter ended up in a home for minors.”

Veronica examined the ceiling through her bangs. “This sucks,” she said.

“Well, what do you expect me to do about it?” It wasn’t the tone I usually take with my clients, but this was getting unreal.

“Can’t you get them to release me into Elle’s custody? What if my folks wrote a note?”

“You can’t get Herbert and Julia Wong to come fetch you, why would they write you a note?”

Veronica flicked a hand dismissively. “They just hate taking the expressway.”

“I don’t think you understand: your claimed parents are officially denying you.”

She looked wrecked. After a long minute staring at her own sneaker digging holes in the carpet, she said, “Yeah, I guess they would.”

“Veronica, are Mr. and Mrs. Wong really your parents?”

Morosely, to her feet, she said, “I’ll be twenty-five in a couple more days and it’ll all smooth out. Guess I just gotta wait.”

“I’m not sure this will smooth itself out. I think we’re about five minutes away from black helicopters coming in to take you away.”

She half-grinned. “Guess I really need a lawyer, then.”

“My first question, as your lawyer, is: are you going to persist in being Veronica Wong? Even if everyone who knows Veronica Wong denies you?”

Hands clasped between her knees, every inch a vulnerable teen, she said, “I don’t know how to be anyone else.”

“Okay. Okay, so, Veronica, um… was there an original, other Veronica I should be concerned about?”

She rolled her eyes, and in almost exactly the inflection of Elle, but with a distinct Long Island lockjaw, said, “I don’t need a lawyer for that.”


The social worker stopped me with a hand on my chest as I tried to leave the building. “Look, we processed her as an infant two days ago. We got the paperwork all in place – we had adoption people breathing down our necks – but suddenly she was too old to be a newborn. Had to re-process as a toddler. The hospital bracelet had to come off. Three times. That’s a re-admit, full paperwork. Then there were the vaccination questions at each age landmark. You want to explain to the state why you can’t vaccinate a five year old because it hasn’t been twenty-four hours since their two-year-old vaccinations? I’m losing my marbles and no one is helping. District, City won’t touch her with a forty-foot pole. We don’t have procedures for this. The fourth time they asked me to re-do the paperwork, I put her in as school-age, which incidentally is loads worse with extra considerations, but I figured if we jumped a few years ahead we’d be in the clear. We are NOT in the clear.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that, regardless of what CPS is saying right now, she’s going to look eighteen soon enough and I’d really like to release an eighteen year-old into her lawyer’s custody. We’ll say she aged out of the system. It won’t be a lie.”

I didn’t think adults could get their eyes that round and puppy-like. “This is asking a lot.”

“You’re a civil lawyer. I’ll owe you a favor and I’m sure you’ll be back to collect before too long. You do divorces? Custody disputes?”

“Wouldn’t I love to,” I said.


Elle stood at the base of the stairs up to her apartment, arms crossed tight across her chest. “I don’t want her in here.”

“She lives here,” I said.

“That isn’t Veronica. I don’t know what that is, but it is not my girlfriend!”

Veronica groaned. “I’ve been Veronica as long as you’ve known me.”

“And how do I know that?”

It was drizzling – that soft, fuzzy drizzle that you hardly notice but that soaks you through after a while. “Look,” I said, “I got her out of official custody, but I’m not taking her home like an abandoned kitten. My landlord would kill me. Veronica has to live somewhere.”

“Veronica does,” Elle said, lifting her chin.

I said, “You’re accusing your girlfriend of being an illegal alien and identity thief. That involves contacting Immigration. That involves criminal charges. I’d be required to report that to the police. If they arrest her and can’t find a record of her citizenship, what do you think will happen?”

Elle took a step back, into the shelter of the covered stair. “I don’t want anybody deported, but come on – she’s a damned pod person! Or, or that thing from that movie in the Artic with the dogs and whatshisname. That… what was that thing called?”

“The Thing,” I provided. “Veronica, you can weigh in on this at any time.”

Veronica stepped forward, chin down, hands clasped before her. “I’m the same girl you met on the red line, Elle.”

“Your folks don’t say that. Your folks are more pissed than I am.”

Veronica’s contrite posture evaporated. She balled her fists on her hips. “You’ve been talking to my folks behind my back again?”

I said, “Can we please have this argument indoors?”

Elle gave in. She kept shooting glares at Veronica, but she let us follow her up into the apartment.

“Have a seat,” she gestured at the couch.

“I’m not a guest. I live here,” Veronica said. “I bought that couch.”

“A pod person bought my couch,” Elle said, disgusted.

Veronica started crying, helpless, wracking sobs, standing there in the middle of the room.

It was an ugly couch: tomato-soup red tweed. I charitably assigned the disgust and the tears to it. I said, “Veronica, she’s not trying to hurt you; she really wants to know who you are. Elle, she’s trying to tell you who she is. Be patient and listen. If she was going to melt your brain and use it to destroy the Earth, I think maybe she’d have done it by now.”

Elle frowned hard, but she turned to look at Veronica. “Who are you?”

Veronica sat down on the couch. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’m not the original Veronica Wong, but it’s not like I killed her. My parents – my real parents, my pod parents – put an ad on Craigslist, looking for someone who would want to trade identities, get away. Veronica answered, and they sent her my pod.” Veronica shrugged. “That’s the way we do it. The real Veronica put my pod on her bed and slept next to it for a week, until I formed. Like I’m re-forming now. We grow to adulthood fast, then we age normal. So I… I will look a few years younger now. Because I kinda got re-set. It’s my stem, see… we’re like plants?” Turning to me, she said, “The real Veronica is in Nevada, driving a truck. We keep in touch on Instagram. You never met her. I mean… she’s not me. She’s straight, and she likes pro wrestling.” Veronica wrinkled her nose.

“I’m relieved I won’t have to recommend you a criminal lawyer for her murder.” I reconsidered my Understatement of the Month.

There was an awkward pause. I found myself listening for black ops helicopters. Perhaps, in the real world, there’s no funding for Mulder and Scully.

Elle squinted. “Wait. But how old was Veronica when you took her place? If she, like, consented and all? She can’t have been younger than… how old are you?”

“It was seven years ago, but…”

“Holy crap!”

“…but that’s like thirty in human years! Come on! I’m a pod person, remember? You see how fast I grow back. Oh, and thanks for killing me, by the way.”

Elle’s lips trembled, her eyebrows canted high. “I… I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Well, you did. And now you know what happens when you break my plant stem. It gets weak in the winter and I don’t move backwards so good, and then you stepped on my toe and SNAP. Do you know how much it sucks being a baby again?”

“But… seven? V, I can’t date some child!”

“In pod years. Jeez, it’s not like I had to spend a whole year growing up! Figure year one is actually eighteen years, development-wise.”

I raised my hand and held it in the air until they remembered they had an audience. “So,” I said, “to recap: Veronica is a pod person who replaced another girl who was over the age of consent. None of us have ever met Veronica the First, and she is not a party in this dispute. Elle did not know of Veronica’s non-human nature, a fight broke out, and, if I’m hearing this correctly – Elle, you actually did kill someone that morning when you called me?”

“Aw gawd,” Elle said, and fell down on the couch next to Veronica, twisting her fingers together.

“Not, like, permanently,” Veronica said. She reached out like she wanted to put her arm around Elle but wasn’t sure it would be accepted. “Didn’t even hurt all that much. I was just… startled. And a baby.”

“I didn’t… I don’t wanna be that kind of girlfriend,” Elle sniffled. Now they were both wet-faced.

I said, “Do we need to do something about this? We’re talking about deadly assault.”

Veronica gestured wide. “I’m not pressing charges or anything. Elle didn’t know I’m more fragile than a normal human.”

“I’m so sorry!” Elle threw her arms around Veronica. They hugged each other tight, sobbing together. “I’ll never walk again if it means not stepping on your adorable little toes. Oh gawd!”

“No, Elle. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, about your mother.”

“She is a bitch. Oh, honey. I shouldn’t have let her pressure you.”

“No, no, she’s right. I mean… it’s been four years. Maybe we are taking things too slow.”

I was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel, but I still had some things to clear up. “So, if you don’t mind, I’ll charge this as a one-hour consult?”

They looked up like they were shocked to remember I was still there.

Elle sniffled, and grasped my hand. “Thank you, Ms. Alexa. Really. I don’t know how we’ll ever pay you back.”

I said, “Consider getting a prenuptial agreement and filing power of attorney writs. You never know what will happen.”

Elle quickly said, “Oh, no… I mean, I asked, but she…”

Veronica pulled her girlfriend back and looked her in the eyes. “Yes,” Veronica said.

Elle said, “Oh sweetie, no, you’re all emotional and with all this…”

“Shut up, Elle. I’m saying ‘yes,’ and you can’t take it back now.” She glared sternly at her girlfriend, who melted – in the normal, romantic sense.

They kissed, and I saw myself out. When I got back to the office, I sent them my standard prenup packet and a note to pass my name along to anyone who needed special legal attention as a pod-American. There were identity theft issues, legal status, citizenship – gallons of delicious, charge-by-the-hour paperwork.

I think those two crazy kids – and my business – are going to make it.

© 2019 by Marie L. Vibbert

Author’s Note: My friend Alexandra, a lawyer, related to me a puzzling wrong number she’d received.  The first phone call is verbatim from her memory.  I found myself trying to come up with an interested reason why this person wasn’t sure if they’d killed someone.  Then I decided to set it in Boston because, well, I hadn’t set anything in Boston yet, and two of my Clarionmates were living there at the time.  Shout out to Christian and Thom!

Marie Vibbert’s writing has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF, among other places.  She is a computer programmer and played tackle football for the Cleveland Fusion for five years.

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TV REVIEW: Pushing Daisies Season 2

written by David Steffen

Pushing Daisies was a fantastical and whimsical murder mystery romance show that aired for 2 (both very short, the first one cut short by the writer’s strike) seasons between 2007 and 2009.

Ned (Lee Pace) is a piemaker, who lives a mostly quiet life, but who has a secret ability to reanimate the dead with a touch. If he touches any dead thing (plants, animals, humans, included), then it will come alive again no matter what condition it’s in. If he touches them again, they will be dead forever with no way to raise them again. If he leaves something alive for more than one minute, then some other alive thing in the near vicinity will die, something of a similar level of order of complexity (i.e. a small animal for a small animal, or a human for a human).

Ned didn’t know about this ability until his mother suddenly died when he was a child and he brought her back with a touch, and dead again when she touched him again. And he learned the other part of the rule that same day because his mother stayed alive again long enough to pay the consequence and the father of his best friend and neighbor Charlotte Charles (aka Chuck) (Anna Friel) died as a result, and she moved away to love with her aunts.

Ned has been working on the side to help private detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) solve murder cases. Ned’s abilities are very convenient for such a venture, because he can raise the murder victim and ask them some very quick questions before making them dead again, before there are consequences. But one such case (at the beginning of the series) is murdered tourist Charlotte Charles, and Ned doesn’t have the heart to lose her again, so he keeps her alive. They develop a romance, albeit an untraditional one since they can’t touch again on penalty of her death. She feels that she can’t tell her aunts Vivian and Lily (Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz) that she’s alive. Ned feels he must keep his own secret from everyone except Emerson and Chuck, including his only employee, Olive (Kristin Chenoweth).

Despite the extremely dark premise, the show as a whole is relatively lighthearted in tone with odd and whimsical set and costume designs and clever dialog, and much of the show being centered around the awkward romance, and around the banter between Cod and the others. The premise is contrived, but if you overlook that and just look at how it’s used to structure the show, it’s a fun mystery to watch.

The second season, you could tell that the writers were working under threat of cancellation because the arcs are kindof muddied, longer arcs building and then suddenly resolving without much fanfare, and then shorter arcs without much sign of new larger arcs until the end when there’s a hasty wrapup. All in all, I think they did a pretty good job wrapping everything up with how this sort of thing all goes. The whole two seasons is only about the length of a normal season of a show, so it’s not a huge time commitment, but it is a lot of fun to watch.

BOOK REVIEW: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

written by David Steffen

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a 2003 time travel romance book written by Audrey Neffenegger, about a man afflicted with a condition that causes him to time-travel more-or-less randomly and the woman he marries. The book was very popular and inspired a 2009 movie adaptation of the same name, previously reviewed here.

Henry has experienced the time-traveling condition since he was a child. When he travels, only his body is transported, so he does not take along his clothes, wallet, or any other possessions. He learned from a very early age to be ruthlessly pragmatic as a way to survive, because if you get dumped with no clothes and no resources into random locations you’re always against steep odds of getting arrested or starving or whatever else. He has a more or less central timeline that is the trunk from which all of his time travel branches, so he has some normal continuity, but at seemingly random intervals he will travel for seemingly random amounts of time to seemingly random places.

He spends much of his life just trying to survive and get by, until he runs into Clare in his main timeline (when he is in his 30s and she in her 20s) and she tells him that she’s known him since she was a grade schooler and that they’re going to get married in the future. He hasn’t experienced this yet, but early in her life he gave her a list of the times when he would appear in the grove outside her family’s house so that she could remember to bring food and clothes out to him.

Their romance after that is very complicated, as at any given point they are in different parts of their relationship, just as with this initial meeting where she has known him for most of her life and he’s just met her. He then proceeds to meet her as a child and eventually meet her when it was the first time for her. It’s a story of marriage, the obstacles to finding happiness together and what we do to fight for it, and in many ways is about being in different parts of a relationship at the same time, which I think can be true of real relationships that have no time travel involved.

As with the best speculative stories, this one explores real territory with a speculative lens for emphasis. The characters are very different but compelling (with a plus that I didn’t have to watch Eric Bana’s acting for the book, but the minus that I didn’t get to watch Rachel McAdams’s acting). I thought the book as a whole was reasonably well done.

One of the big hangups I had about the book, not being able to tell where in the timeline this fit in, was resolved in the book by section headings that gave the date and the age of both characters. Time is always somewhat confusing at the best of times, but this made it a lot easier to just go with it than I found the book to be.

I also thought it was interesting how Neffenegger chose to follow the continuity thematically rather than necessarily chronologically for either character in particular. For a series of chapters it may follow Clare chronologically through a particular set of years to explore themes of her childhood, then follow him chronologically from his point of a view for a while to show how he ended up there, then switch to something else. Because of the caption headings this was reasonably seamless and I probably only really thought about it because I was thinking about the writing process.

The big thing that makes the book harder to recommend is that for much of the first quarter or so of the book, 30-something Henry is interacting with grade-schooler Clare and I found that whole section of the book deeply creepy and troubling. By that time, he already knows that he will marry her someday when she’s older, and he depends on her for food and clothing on these visits where he would otherwise have to steal and forage like his other time travel jumps. So, it makes sense from a character motivation perspective. But at the same time, it’s hard to avoid the interpretation that he is grooming her during this period. If you removed the time travel element and you had a thirty-something man hanging around a grade-schooler without her parent’s knowledge while mentally preparing himself to marry her, that would be a story about a predator. There are reasons to think that’s not where this was going, but I found it really hard to shake myself off of that interpretation, so throughout this whole section I really just wanted it to be over and get to the part where they’re both consenting adults (even thought that was also somewhat colored by her having been groomed by him for so long that she’s bound to have feelings for him). I’m not sure that was supposed to be creepy or disturbing, but for me it absolutely was, and it makes the book hard to recommend as a result, though overall I thought it was pretty good.

DP FICTION #47B: “The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

Thomas Fitzpatrick McAllister’s life was the very essence of boring and uneventful, to the extent that even his goldfish, who up until recently had always been a veritable fountain of excitement, had taken up the hobby of listening to dial tones while staring listlessly at the wall. It wasn’t even a particularly interesting wall, though it must be noted that it was painted a rather vibrant shade of ecru, and was quite possibly the most vibrant shade of anything in the entire apartment. Though Tom never entertained guests, whenever a plumber or handyman happened to complement the ecru wall, Tom was quick to point out that it had been that color when he moved in, and that the previous residents had probably been wild, uninhibited hippies who had bought the paint in the middle of a psychedelic trip.

Though his life had consisted of undressed salads, unscented deodorant, and a vast variety of other un-things for as long as he could remember (which was nearly everything since his traumatic fourth birthday, when some well-meaning but ill-informed aunt had attempted to give him a box of crayons), his comfortably dull, quiet life would soon be violently thrust into a world of excitement. And not a moment too soon, or this might have been an incredibly uninteresting story.

The morning began with a sunrise, as mornings tend to do, though Tom remained sound asleep in his matching gray pajamas and his soft (but not too soft) beige comforter, unaware of the beautiful swaths of colors that existed just beyond his window. He awoke at precisely seven o’clock to the unmelodic beeping of his alarm clock. He showered, dressed in a gray suit and grayer tie, and ate a balanced breakfast of plain yogurt and off-brand oat rings, milk on the side.

After thoroughly washing his dishes with unscented dish detergent and taking a plethora of unexciting vitamins, Tom left his apartment at seven forty-five and arrived in the lobby of his building at just the right time to casually bump into a woman who perplexed and intrigued him in equal amounts.

Her name, if her mailbox was to be trusted, was “Wendiie,” spelled with two I’s and an E in place of the traditional, far less ridiculous Y. A peculiar name with a nonstandard spelling that made Tom wonder about the mental state of her parents. And yet the name fit her so impeccably well that he didn’t particularly mind.

The woman must have been a rainbow in a former life, for that was the only explanation for the vivid, haphazard colors she wore with such abandon. Her flowing clothes were so loud that they competed for attention with her jangling bracelets and off-key humming. She never wore the same outfit twice, and often completed the ensemble with a hat embellished with the face of a cartoon character. A different hat with a different character every day. He wondered where she stored them all.

Tom found her enchanting, and he choreographed his day around her schedule in the hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of the variegated specter. He wasn’t attracted to her so much as flummoxed by her very existence. It wasn’t very often that one met a person so completely one’s opposite, and he sought to know everything about her. What did she eat for breakfast, and was it as intriguing as her knitted shawl with the multicolored pom-poms?

She said nothing as she hurried out the lobby door, carrying a large sequined bag filled with endless mystery. Where was she going? Why was she going there? Did she sort her books by title or by author’s name? She probably didn’t sort them at all, the wild rebel, and left them scattered about in piles on the floor while her bookshelves were filled with… with what? Tom tried to think of the most outrageous, non-book item that one could put on a bookshelf, and decided upon whimsical sculptures of dolphins wearing hats.

Why they wore hats and how they kept the hats secured on their heads while swimming through the ocean, he did not know. For a moment he entertained the possibility that they might use chin straps, until he came to his senses and remembered that dolphins did not have chins.

His mind full of unsolvable mysteries that would fuel him for the day, Tom left for his uneventful job as a lawn growth analyst, where he would sit for eight hours in a small room lit by ultraviolet lights, not only to watch grass grow but to take exhaustive notes in minute detail about the speed at which it did so. It was a menial job which he thoroughly enjoyed, and on any other day he would have boarded bus number four at precisely seven fifty, sat in his regular aisle seat three rows back on the left, and arrived at the large, brown building exactly sixteen minutes before nine o’clock.

This day was different, and Tom knew this the instant he saw a man with a very large tortoise. Surely tortoises were not allowed on public transportation, and it did not wear an orange vest signifying it as an emotional support tortoise. Tom almost walked right back off the bus again at this cavalier lack of rule following, but then he saw the seat beside his. Instead of the quiet, older gentleman with the large glasses, beside whom Tom had ridden wordlessly for five years and seven months, the window seat three rows back on the left was occupied by a refreshing ray of prismatic light.

Tom sat down and secured his seatbelt as the bus lurched into motion. Wendiie glanced at him with a sort of impersonal pleasantness, and he realized that someone as gray and precise as he would be of little interest to someone as colorful and whimsical as she. He wanted to talk to her, to speak of philosophy and poetry and ask her why she had that purple streak in her hair, but his mouth went dry and his mind went blank, and he could only manage a weak “Hello.”

Wendiie smiled, a spark of recognition lighting up her eyes that were the color of something very, incredibly blue that Tom had seen before but could not name at the moment. Possibly a poisonous frog or the sky over a tropical island. “You live in my building, don’t you?”

Tom nodded, and anything he was about to say left his mind as Wendiie’s oversized bag began to stir. After a moment, a furry little face peeked out and gave an irritated meow. He stared at it for a moment, the looked back to Wendiie. “You have a cat in your bag,” he informed her, in case she wasn’t aware.

“I do.” She put a finger to her painted lips as a laugh escaped them. “She isn’t allowed on the bus, but I won’t tell it you won’t.”

In general, Tom felt about cats the way he felt about most animals. That is to say, it was nice that they existed but he wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about having them in his home (he made an exception for the goldfish, as it had been his mother’s and the dog pound had refused to take it). That being said, for an animal that did its business in a sandbox and probably had a penchant for leaving disemboweled rodents around the house, he supposed this cat looked like a respectable enough cat. It was gray, and Tom liked that.

On a whim, Tom reached out to pet the cat, thus marking both the first time he had pet a cat and the first time he had done anything on a whim. He found it was not an unpleasant experience, and considered the possibility of doing it again at some point in the future.

The irony of planning to do something on a whim was lost on Tom, but it would soon become irrelevant. Neither Tom nor any of the other passengers on the bus—not the mother and child, the peculiar man carrying the rather large tortoise, nor Wendiie herself—had even the slightest hint of a clue that, at that very moment, bus number four was carrying both a bomb and an amoral scientist in need of test subjects.

It all happened incredibly quickly. One moment, Tom was complimenting Wendiie on the uniformity of her cat’s toenails, and the very next thing he knew, he was laying in bed and staring up at a fluorescent lighting fixture that he did not recall owning.

He had been dreaming, he decided, though this didn’t explain why he had tubes in his nose and arm. What an efficient way to live, he marveled. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier?

A woman appeared in Tom’s field of vision, her sour face as unreadable as his mother’s handwriting. She seemed to be pleased that he was alive and awake—a sentiment with which Tom wholeheartedly agreed—yet apprehension played in her big, brown eyes. She began to speak several times, but seemed to have forgotten how. Finally, after quite a bit of hemming and hawing and tugging at her left earring, she said in a quiet voice, “I’ll get Dr. Polk.”

She walked away, leaving Tom alone with his thoughts, the fluorescent light, and a rather irritating itch on his left temple. He raised his hand to scratch it, and discovered that his arm was immobile. Removing the sheet with his other hand, he subsequently discovered a cat lying on his left forearm.

He supposed it was Wendiie’s cat, though all cats looked the same to him and he based this supposition purely on its color and the uniform length of its toenails. It wore a rainbow collar bearing a tag that read “Linda”, which confirmed his suspicion. Wendiie was most definitely the type of person who would name a cat Linda.

The cat, which had been sleeping soundly draped across Tom’s arm and chest, now yawned and opened her eyes, looking at Tom with very much the same confused expression of unrecognition that he had given the fluorescent light a moment earlier. She tried to stand but fell, as if her rear legs had given out. Wondering if her legs had been injured in the accident, Tom further pulled the sheet back and made a most curious discovery.

The cat, he found, had not been laying on his arm at all. In fact, this would have been an impossible feat, as his arm existed to only just below the elbow, having been, he could only assume, dismembered in the accident.

Ordinarily, Tom would have reacted to such a discovery with shock and disgust and an outpouring of words which his mother had instructed him to never say in polite company. Instead, owed no doubt to the calming liquid pumping into his arm, he merely examined the remains of his arm with a curiosity he normally reserved for such intriguing articles as the nutrition facts on his off-brand cereal.

It had been a good arm, and he would miss it dearly, especially when trying to open jars and wash beneath his remaining arm, but in the grand scheme of things it was no great loss and the surgeon had done a remarkable job of attaching the cat.

Tom paused a moment. That certainly didn’t sound right. He looked again to be sure, and found that there was, indeed, a cat attached to his forearm. Specifically, the front two-thirds of a cat, sewn onto his arm in such a natural way that made him wonder, if only for a second, if perhaps he had been born with a cat on his arm, though surely he would have noticed such an abnormality before now.

He raised his arm, straining to lift Linda with what remained of his arm muscles, and tried to use her toenails of uniform length to finally scratch the itch on his left temple. The cat declined to cooperate, and he was forced to use his right hand. He then positioned the cat, feeling rather like a fantastic puppeteer, so he could look her in the eyes. They were a bright shade of blue, big and round and innocent like those of her owner, and Tom wondered if Linda felt as confused as he did.

A white-haired man wearing a pristine lab coat and mismatched shoes entered the room, laughing jovially to someone in the hall. His demeanor changed abruptly upon setting his eyes on Tom and Linda. “Ah,” he said. “I see you have discovered my handiwork.”

Tom knew he should have felt angry. If waking up to find a cat surgically attached to his body didn’t make a man want to flip over tables and throw lamps, then what would? After a moment of thought, Tom decided that he was angry. Incredibly, furiously angry. However, much like discovering that one wall in his otherwise ideal apartment had been painted a scandalous shade of ecru, there was nothing he could do about it now. (He had considered painting the wall, of course, but shuddered at the thought of visiting a paint store and all its colors.)

Doctor Polk, as the man in the lab coat introduced himself, launched into a grand speech about how Tom had been in an accident, how his arm had been beyond repair, and how the poor little cat had been so near death. He told of his own research into forbidden medical experiments, of his hobbies of making taxidermy jackalopes and, and of the angels who told him to try the unspeakable.

In all honesty, the part about the angels may have been a hallucination on Tom’s part. For all the good it did, the calming liquid pumping through his body did make sounds rather garbled and unintelligible, as well as briefly giving him the ability to taste numbers, but he understood the general idea of what the doctor was saying, and was allowed to go home after several days. The logic of sending home the subjects of an unsanctioned medical experiment confounded Tom, but Dr. Polk was clearly not in his right mind. No one in their right mind would wear mismatched shoes.

Tom discovered rather quickly that living with a left arm which had a mind of its own—and the mind of a cat, no less—was not nearly as enjoyable as he thought it would be, a fact worth mentioning as he had never been under the impression that it would be enjoyable at all.

His left arm would bat pens out of reach and scratch his sofa. She would lick herself and Tom, and later make the most nauseating hacking sounds while regurgitating the hair she had ingested. Showering—any activity in which water was involved—required quite a bit of effort, and his left arm was absolutely terrified of the toilet. He had never had a cat before, but assumed it would be infinitely less unpleasant if he had the ability to be more than eighteen inches from the cat at any point in the day.

As weeks turned to months, however, Tom grew oddly accustomed to his situation. He worked from home, monitoring lawn growth via webcam, and left his apartment once a week to check his mail, wearing an oversized coat and pulling down the sleeve to conceal the cat.

His days were no longer orchestrated around brief Wendiie sightings, though he did see her on rare occasions. She did not hum or dance but walked slowly and with a slight limp. She wore heavy black dresses that skimmed the ground, and could often be found gazing forlornly at the “Missing Cat” posters with which she had wallpapered the lobby.

Tom often wondered whether it would be beneficial for her to know that Linda had survived the accident, or if the knowledge that someone had surgically attached the cat to the forearm of her uninteresting neighbor would only upset her. This debate soon dominated his thoughts, and he could think of nothing but.

He could never come to a conclusion either way, but decided that it wouldn’t matter. Someone like Wendiie, intriguing and perplexing and simply lovely, would never give someone as bland and dull as Tom the time it would take to explain how he had come to have her cat affixed to his arm.

Tom languished in these thoughts until the evening came that he happened to serendipitously enter the elevator at precisely the same time as Wendiie. “Sixth floor,” he mumbled, pulling the sleeve over Linda and desperately hoping she wouldn’t meow. And that was when something, a very wonderful something, occurred to him.

His left arm was a cat. He couldn’t be uninteresting if he tried, with a cat for an arm. Even if she thought him being absurd, Wendiie couldn’t possibly deny the fact that “My left arm is a Siamese cat named Linda” was quite possibly the most interesting phrase a person could ever hope to assemble in English or any other language.

As the elevator slowly inched upwards, Tom gathered every shred of courage and finally spoke a phrase which, though admittedly not the one he had intended, was assuredly the most interesting sentence he had ever said in his entire life. “One of my walls is painted ecru.”

Wendiie looked out in confusion from behind a curtain of black hair which lacked a purple streak. “What?”

“My walls are mostly eggshell, but I have one that’s a horribly gaudy shade of ecru, and I wanted to know what color your walls are. Because you fascinate me.”

She stared at him curiously and, when the elevator reached her floor, she took him by the hand—the right one, thankfully—and led him to her apartment. She opened the door into a living room flooded with color and wind chimes and, as Tom had suspected, bookshelves that did not contain books but rather statues of dolphins (though they were not wearing hats, and he could never have predicted the little platypi riding the dolphins). The walls were painted with surreal murals of unicorns, the tables ornamented with antique clocks and scented candles, the window treatments opened wide to welcome the sunset.

Perhaps recognizing the familiar surroundings, Linda poked her head out of the sleeve and meowed. Wendiie looked at the cat, and then at Tom, in a mysteriously understanding way, as if she had suspected this all along. She reached out to pet the cat, and her hands trailed upwards and found the seam where cat became arm. After a brief pause, Wendiie rolled up his sleeve and wordlessly examined the sight before her.

She laughed and lifted the hem of her heavy black skirt off the floor. Tom was pleasantly surprised to discover that, from the ankle down, Wendiie’s right leg was a tortoise. He knew then that his life would never be unexciting or uneventful again, and that night, in a decision he made on the whimsiest of whims, he and Wendiie and the cat and the tortoise painted every single one of his walls a most scandalous shade of ecru.


© 2018 by Jennifer Lee Rossman


Author’s Note: Years ago, I saw a commercial for the animated movie “Barbie and the Three Musketeers.” At one point I think the characters were putting their swords together and saying “all for one and one for all,” and one of the musketeers had a cat sitting on her arm. To me, it looked like she’d had her arm replaced by a live cat, and that seemed like a much more interesting story.


Jennifer Lee Rossman is a disabled writer, editor, and nerd whose work has been featured in several anthologies. Her time travel novella Anachronism is available from Grimbold Books, and she would like to apologize in advance for the twist ending. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, was published by World Weaver Press in December. She blogs at jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com and tweets @JenLRossman






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BOOK REVIEW: Dead Ever After

written by David Steffen

Dead Ever After is a romance/mystery/horror novel from 2013, the thirteenth and final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris (which is the basis of the HBO show True Blood).  The previous books are all reviewed here earlier on the Diabolical Plots feed.

At the end of the previous book, Sookie Stackhouse used the cluviel dor, her one-use magical fairy item (which grants one and only one wish) to revive her dying boss and friend Sam Merlotte.  Meanwhile, Sookie’s relationship with Eric has grown rocky.  Among other reasons, Eric’s maker had arranged for him to be married to another vampire, despite Sookie’s marriage to him, and vampire custom strongly demands that he go along for the marriage.  He had hoped that she would use the cluviel dor to help him dodge the responsibility without consequences.

Meanwhile, Sookie’s longtime-friend-become-enemy Arlene has been freed from prison by a mysterious group with a vendetta against Sookie, urging her to visit Sookie at Merlotte’s and open their relationship again.  The meeting (unsurprisingly) does not go well, and Sookie is still trying to figure out why the visit when Arlene’s corpse is found in the dumpster behind the bar.

This was easily one of my favorite books in the series, which was a relief after the last couple of books in the series became rather a slog to read through.  The mystery behind who is plotting against Sookie was certainly interesting, and for the first time in the series you get to see the story from points of view besides Sookie’s as we get some dramatic irony by seeing them plotting their moves and then we see the consequences of those actions in Sookie’s sections.  And early on in the book you get a glimpse of someone who has apparently sold their soul to a devil, which lends a new element to the series that we haven’t seen before.

The one thing that did get on my nerves a bit was that since it was the last book it seemed like they had to get every character back in the book again to wrap things up–some of them felt like more than a bit of a stretch.  But, really, that was a pretty minor thing.

I have enjoyed reading enough of the series that I was quite relieved to see that the final book of the series went out with a bang!

BOOK REVIEW: Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

written by David Steffen

Deadlocked is a romance/mystery/horror novel from 2012, the twelfth in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris (which is the basis of the HBO show True Blood).  The previous books are all reviewed here earlier on the Diabolical Plots feed.

In the last book, Eric, Pam, and Sookie succeeded in killing the vampire Victor, the representative of the king of this vampire district.  As the book starts, Felipe de Castro, the aforementioned king, visits the area to investigate the disappearance.  Eric hosts a party in his honor, and during the party, a dead woman is found on the lawn of Eric’s house.  Meanwhile, Sookie is struggling with the quesiton of what to do with the magical fairy artifact left to her by her grandmother which will grant her one wish.

This one was definitely a pickup from the last book (which was in my opinion probably the weakest in the series), and there was lots of tension built in from the beginning which definitely kept my interest throughout.  The mystery involving the dead woman was… a little hard to follow, seemed like it was built backwards from the resolution, if that made sense?  Like one of those locked-room mysteries that is interesting to unravel but is also kind of absurd in retrospect.

One book left in the series!

BOOK REVIEW: Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

written by David Steffen

Dead Reckoning is a romance/mystery/horror novel from 2011, the eleventh in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris (which is the basis of the HBO show True Blood).  The previous books are all reviewed here earlier on the Diabolical Plots feed.

Sookie witnesses the firebombing of Merlotte’s (the bar where she works).  Before Sookie gets to the bottom of that, she finds out that her vampire boyfriend Eric is plotting to kill the oppressive representative of his vampire district, and she is drawn into the plot.  She has also been chafing at the blood-bond between her and Eric that makes a telepathic feedback loop between the two of them.

I thought this was one of the weaker books in the series.  Most of the books have a lot of subplots but it still feels tied together around some central conceit or main plotline.  This one… just felt scattered.  And, Eric feels very different in this one.  Eric has always been a bit opaque and frustrating (not in a bad way, I mean) but in this book he just struck me as being purposefully obtuse on every damned thing, that I just wanted him to go away and stop being the current love interest.  If the series hadn’t already ended by the time I read this book, I probably would’ve stopped reading in the midst one and not kept going.  (But since I knew there were only 2 more books I did keep reading).