Hello everyone!

My name is LaShawn M. Wanak, and I would like to introduce myself as the new editor of GigaNotoSaurus.

For those who don’t know me, I review books for LightspeedI served as an associate editor of PodCastle from 2013 through 2015.  I also write science fiction and fantasy stories, which you can find links to on my blog, The Cafe in the Woods. On the personal side, I enjoy knitting, anime, and lots of pie.

I know it’s been a while since GigaNotoSaurus has published a new story. Therefore, I’ll be closing submissions this Friday, August 9, 2019, so I can settle into my new role and catch up on our backlog. If you have sent in a story, please be patient. There are a lot of stories to go through. We also moved our submission process to Submittable, so we’re also adjusting to that.

I’m excited to be working with Ann Leckie and joining the GigaNotoSaurus family. Thank you for reading our stories, and stay tuned!

Hunger’s Truth

by

AJ Fitzwater

Content Warning:
Transphobia, Racism Against First Nations People, Implied Prison Violence, Blood, Cannibalism, Sexual Harassment

  

1.

“Hey sexy! Give us a smile!”

Danyor had a handful of seconds to decide: a close-mouthed smile, and feel dirty all day; flash pearly white, hope against citizen arrest, and feel dirty all day; ignore, and feel dirty all day.

She tongued her broken eye tooth, pressed her lips together, set eyes forward, and ploughed through the crowd.

“Bitch! You’re too ugly to fuck anyway!”

A white-robed leader of a gaggle of Sisters of the Silence flinched as Danyor stormed by. As Daddy had taught her, she tried not to stare at the evenly spaced stitches around their lips. There must’ve been a big public blasphemy trial recently for the SoS to be out in force.

Danyor pressed the nubby tongue callus into the spike of her tooth again. Where was that dentist’s office? She needed her tooth fixed now, or it could be her at the centre of one of those vicious blasphemy trials.

A rattle. A homeless woman collapsed on the footpath, blood caked in the pained creases around her mouth. Gums black. Danyor shuddered, waited for the Silent Mother to steer her flock to the other side of the street, and dropped a coin in the woman’s cup. The woman’s moan might have been of thanks or pain.

The crowd changed the closer to the glass and steel blocks of uptown Danyor walked. Fancy white coats and expensive smiles in the coffee shops. So many men she felt breathless and bruised. Most of the well-dressed women allowed here ignored her.

Darn it all! Look at her! Walking down the street her smile so wide, black suit, white shirt, scarf fresh as blood against her throat. And those heels! Sharp and white as ivory.

“Slut!” yelled a men. “Close your mouth or we’ll give you something to put in it.”

Give us your best smile. Daddy, droning in the back of her mind.

The woman grinned. Teeth blunt, smooth, and white. Her heels cracking hard against the pavement. Danyor scuttled into the marble foyer of the building marked on her card, her stomach boiling

The top floor. Muted sunshine and white leather couches behind artistically engraved glass. No receptionist to stare her down with the advertisement of her smile. No noise from the surgery. Must be well soundproofed. This procedure was going to cost, but the dental plan Danyor had inherited from Daddy for her twenty-sixth would cover it.

Perched on the edge of a couch, Danyor decided to risk it and pulled out that month’s burner phone. No dot-cam signals blipped on the illegal Srchr app.

She thumbed open her stash. Juicy boys paraded across her screen.

Body builders. Pro-wrestlers. Buff movie stars. Boy racer gangsta douche-bags with their Adam’s Straps and pubes showing above thumb-in-waistband. Work-out selfies. Lean muscled rock stars wearing nothing but a guitar.

Danyor bit her lip and tasted salt and iron. She was so hungry.

The bloody drool had disappeared into a lace handkerchief and a Daddy-approved smart-screen was in her hand when the dentist stepped out.

“Danyor Sorenson.” The woman’s smile was the perfect width, with perfect pink-painted lips. Danyor would have dismissed the woman for the receptionist if it wasn’t for the achingly white coat.

Danyor kept her own smile demure and slight. “Yes.”

“I’m Doctor Bridget Bishop. Do come in.” Danyor edged past. Too tall in her black heels, it put the dentist on the edge of obscene. How did she manage to stand in them all day?

Silver tea service and plush wingback chairs awaited them in the surgery lounge. No food. White orchids nodded on a corner table. The room smelled like pink sugar.

“I could serve you something a little stronger if you like?” Doctor Bishop said as she poured, but Danyor shook her head. Daddy would disapprove.

Green Jasmine tea, just how she liked it. The liquid rippled gently, like from an earthquake or the footsteps of a large beast. When she looked up, Doctor Bishop still had on that perfect smile.

“So tell me,” Doctor Bishop said in a motherly tone, pulling out a thin work screen and crossing her legs. Danyor averted her eyes from the perfect knees. “How did you hear about this practise?”

“I had it recommended to me.” Danyor sipped her tea. “By a friend.”

Doctor Bishop tapped the screen. “Mm-hmm.”

Calling the strange woman at the club a ‘friend’ was a stretch, but she had seen her there often enough, all short skirts and laughing smiles.

And teeth. Once, down in the dimmest of lounges where bitebois draped across velvet couches, she thought she had seen filed teeth.

Danyor pulled out a business card, a simple piece of cream heavy-stock with oily black print. “She gave me this.”

“Ah.” Doctor Bishop leaned forward, revealing just enough bosom that Danyor blushed. She plucked the card from Danyor’s cold fingers, glanced it over both sides and all edges, then passed it back. “Good, good.”

Danyor sat very still, like when Daddy used to read aloud all the reports of girls biting boys at school.

Doctor Bishop gently tapped her screen and smiled. Smile, smile, smile! “Well then, we can get started. I have your public dental records here and everything looks up to date. Your first set of babies out at eighteen months.” She clucked her tongue. “Your Young Adults at fifteen.”

Swallowing a spot of blood, Danyor prepared to argue her rapid progression was not that uncommon.

“You look like the perfect candidate to join my surgery.”

Doctor Bishop put aside her screen and raised her hands to her lips. With a deft tug, the dentist’s upper and lower veneer bridges came away.

Doctor Bishop’s smile became a hideous, razor-sharp, hungry gash. All teeth perfectly pointed, white-white against pink tongue. Ready to rend man-flesh.

Danyor couldn’t even scream. It had been numbed out of her in countless dental surgeries, and that moment twenty years ago when mummy…

Her tea disgraced itself over the lovely white carpet.

Shoving a fist in her mouth, Danyor bolted out of the office. No wasting time waiting for the elevator, she took the stairs down to the real world, all twenty-two floors.

2.

As the bookcase slid back to reveal flashing darkness, music pumped the walls like a heartbeat and the heat-stench of male sweat swept up the stairs to greet Danyor. Saliva instantly sprang into her mouth. The emergency veneer vanished into the hidden pocket in her purse. It had taken her a month to find a new bite club on the fleshnet; a quiet wine bar nestled on the edge of the hipster district, deep black leather couches disguising the debauchery humping below, rosé no respectable alpha cisgender male would touch.

Settling near the cheapest couches she could afford, Danyor ordered a martini from a booty-short clad waiter. The rear view as he sashayed away brought bloody drool to her lip.

Ovulation made the hunger worse: her home diet had quickly devolved into dishes of bloody beef which she nibbled at in clean tears, sucking the bones and knife clean. Lunchtime salads were liberally sprinkled with Portobello mushrooms, which weren’t as satisfying as the fleshnet suggested.

Women draped over the bitebois lounging on the velvet couches. Hickies purpled on nearly every part of their bodies; crotches were strictly out of bounds. For an extra tip, the returning waiter let her tentatively nibble on his forearm. She lapped up his sweat, and he pinched her chin, smiling gently. The kind ones always made her wet.

A male customer passed by. Trans people were welcome in the bite clubs because they suffered from the cruel trick of hypocrisy. Sometimes trans women were used as examples of Not All Women, but when they inherited the hunger it suited men they were Not Real Women. Trans men were accepted as Part of The Team, then reviled as gender traitors. Non-binary and genderqueer people simply confused the men, and barely escaped prison colonies by code shifting as the need arose. Even the rare cis man suffered from the hunger, but Danyor had never met one.

Danyor trusted good taste. She took her drink and followed the man.

The biteboi he led Danyor to brought tears to her eyes. Golden skin rippling across great pecs, shoulders, and biceps, thick black hair, wine coloured bruises. For a few dollars more, said the colour of his booty shorts, she could even pierce his skin a little.

She and the man negotiated shares in thirty minutes. The boi tasted like champagne on a hot day. She savoured the piercing with her broken tooth until the last few minutes, and the wound oozed the flavour of duck liver pate with a hint of oranges and cinnamon.

Danyor ordered a second martini. The bitterness of the alcohol helped cut the sweetness of flesh. A very weak cosmo was the most Daddy would allow her on their Sunday brunch Daddy Dates. She hated cosmopolitans.

Her shoulders softened. She practised mouthing the word “no.” The lights and belly-deep hum of the music lulled Danyor into a semi-meditation.

A polite cough from the waiter brought her round.

“Compliments of a patron.”

Chills swept through Danyor. The fresh martini sat on a card inscribed with oily black script. An impossibly rare invitation one did not refuse.

The rainbow pixels of the privacy shimmer dusted apart as she approached the room overlooking the dance floor.

A bite boi of slim agony and long fingers reclined on a velvet chaise. Not really her type, but no one passed up the opportunity to taste the unique flesh of a regen boi. Her salary wouldn’t afford even a slice of one.

Bending over the boi, scalpel in hand, was Doctor Bishop.

The boi artfully parted his lips and beckoned. He didn’t even wince when the dentist slid the scalpel along his bicep and whicked off a sliver of flesh.

Danyor winced for him and wiped drool from the corner of her mouth.

“Try some, Danyor,” Doctor Bishop said, turning to offer a sliver on the knife’s edge. “It’s the most divine thing you’ll ever taste in your life.”

“I can’t go back to my old dentist now, you know.” Danyor clapped her hands over her mouth immediately. The alcohol and environment had loosened her tongue.

“I know. And I’m sorry for frightening you.” The flesh scrap jiggled on the edge of the scalpel.

How did one take such communion? To nibble, suck, or swallow whole like an oyster?

“Hold it on your tongue as long as you can,” Doctor Bishop instructed with a slight, pointed smile. “You’ll want to find all the grace notes.”

Danyor fought the swoon, but the lingering pheromones had her grasping for a velvet armchair by the time the middle notes hit her palate.

“Follow with this.”

A glass of real champagne chilled her hand. Black and silver sparkles joined the rainbow shimmer in her vision as she took a sip. She shuddered. She might have moaned.

When she came to, the regen boi gave her a lazy close-lipped smile. Doctor Bishop was dabbing a gel that smelled of Turkish Delight around the new wound. The edges were puckering into a gentle scar that would probably be nothing but a keloid by morning. He was one of those genetically reorganized monsters whose original purpose in the war theatre had been easily absorbed into the need of a different war. How did her awful little city afford one of these gods made flesh?

“Thank you.” Doctor Bishop patted the boi’s knee and he set to pouring more champagne.

As Doctor Bishop sipped her drink, Danyor did as her Daddy had taught her and waited, hands folded on her knees.

“You’re very brave for coming,” Doctor Bishop said. The boi placed his head in her lap.

Bravery had nothing to do with it. “I am but a slave to my instincts,” Danyor sighed dramatically.

Doctor Bishop frowned, fingers twining in the boi’s hair. “Don’t use that word. What we are is natural. Evolution. What’s not natural is how we have to hide underground, like this.”

“This isn’t so bad.” Danyor gestured at the pretty boi, the sexy lighting, the hor d’oeuvres dusted with skin flakes.

“I would like to talk more on what constitutes the definition of ‘bad.'”

Here it comes. Danyor been well educated about these women. The picture of a well-practised recruiter, ready to sink her fangs into a hapless young woman at the mercies of her hunger. Which resistance movement was posturing for what little control remained this time? Daughters of Lilith? The Kellies? Lamia Mafia? Terrible women, Daddy would say, endlessly feasting on men until they ruined the world with their hunger.

“What do you want?” Danyor snapped. Her glass struck the glass table with a harsh ring.

“It’s not about what I want,” Doctor Bishop glanced at an expensive, paper-thin palm screen. “It’s about what you need. What this world needs. Honesty about our true nature.”

Danyor rolled her eyes. Definitely the words of a self-styled prophet.

“I thank you for the singular opportunity to taste—” Danyor gestured at the boi who was watching the exchange with worried eyes. “—this, but I’m not interested in whatever revolution you think you’re trying to sell.”

Doctor Bishop sighed and rubbed her eyes. “We don’t do revolution. We do change. Do you want your teeth to stop hurting or not?”

“That’s not going to change—”

“One step at a time. Teeth, yes or no?”

Danyor tongued her sharp eye tooth and the loose veneers around it. She was used to the pain and random bleeding. That was life since her baby teeth fell out and her first fangs grew in. If she did this, Daddy would never forgive her, she’d lose her job, couldn’t even walk down the street without fear.

“What’s in it for you?” Danyor demanded.

Doctor Bishop glanced at her screen and shook her head. “No. We’re out of time. There is going to be a raid on this club in thirty minutes. If you want to learn something about your choices and an end to the pain, come back to my surgery in three days. 7:00 p.m. Bring a plate. It’s potluck night.”

These concepts crashed against each other. The boi calmly wiped DNA traces off the glasses and surfaces.

“A…a raid?” Danyor leapt up and palmed at the shimmer panel, but it wouldn’t let her out.

A woman caught in a bite club meant serious colony time unless…you had someone like Daddy…but not even mummy had…

“Take a breath. There are more ways out than the front door.” There was a smirk in the dentist’s voice. “It’s under control. No one who doesn’t want to will get hurt.”

Fall girls. Good lord, who would be so foolish as to provide cover for another’s useless hunger?

The boi pushed a velvet upholstered panel open. He gestured and Doctor Bishop was swallowed by the darkness. Danyor laughed. Dramatic! The endorphins mixed with the easy high from tasting flesh and drunkenness. Daddy she would deal with tomorrow. She’d been offered an out and damned if she wasn’t going to take it. She pushed the boi ahead of her.

The cramped hallway connected other rooms, which tossed giggling, crying, shaking women and bois into an abandoned sewer tunnel. Very monstrous, Danyor thought as she stumbled along the river’s edge.

Sirens distorted by distance. The crowd dispersed, bois huddled under shawls slipping into the shadows that were forever their home. The man she’d shared a feast with earlier brushed past. At least he was safe.

Heart pounding at the near miss. Head swirling. She hadn’t felt this fearless since…since the day mummy had been taken away.

A zigzag through side streets. Replace the emergency veneer. Wipe her pink kitten heals clean best she could.

Danyor pretended to happen upon the chaos. Feigning shock and disgust at her own species came too easy. She hated herself too well.

A large crowd had gathered to watch women and staff being cuffed face down in the gutter and shoved into vans. A waiter screamed as police took batons to his knees and neck. A cop grunted “traitor” and “cuck” between strikes. When the perpetrator’s blood and tears were displayed to the baying hoard, Danyor nearly shrieked. It was her waiter, the kind one. She swallowed the noise into a jeer of disgust, mimicking the rest of the crowd. The waiter’s eyes brushed over her, but there was only forgiveness and respect.

Why? He was a man. What made him any different?

Ambulance chasers argued for access to clients or the best scoop. Danyor watched it all for as long as she could stomach. She needed to vomit, but not here, not in disgrace, not where the contents of her stomach could easily be tested for DNA.

A black car with tinted windows oozed to a crawl. Danyor wanted to believe it was the dentist, raising her metaphorical middle finger, making sure the pageant was unfolding as intended.

3.

“Hey, baby doll. How about a smile for Daddy? There we go, much better. Hmm, you’re looking a little pale. Your period early? Should I be afraid? Ha ha!”

The corners of Danyor’s mouth ached. “I’m fine, Daddy. Thank you for asking. How did the negotiations with the Smiths contract go? Did the climate credits come through?”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.” Colin Sorenson patted his daughter atop her coiffed black hair. “It’s hard enough for you to figure out all those machines in your office. You leave the hard stuff to the big boys.”

She actually grimaced. The previous night had buried deeper in Danyor’s bones than she realized.

“Something wrong, baby doll?” Daddy was very good at narrowing his eyes without narrowing his eyes. He held her chair out from the café table just far enough that she couldn’t sit gracefully.

“Oh, it’s nothing.” Flippant voice, flippant hand. “Just a broken tooth.”

Daddy took her face between his meaty hands, twisting her head this way and that, his rough thumbs lifting her upper lip. “How long has it been like this?”

“Only a few days.” Every lie hurt less every day since her mother had been gone.

Daddy squinted at her red, weepy eye she had done her best to cover with make-up. Another side effect of tricky veneers; the constant sinus and jaw infections. “Ah. The emergency veneer. You poor darling. Want me to put in a good word for a quick-see?”

“No, no. Just waiting for the insurance to clear. I have to learn to do this myself sometime, Daddy.”

Danyor knew that men couldn’t read women’s minds, no matter what the evo-psyche’s said about the hunger mutation gene. Thoughts sometimes make it to faces, was one of the few pieces of advice mummy had secreted to Danyor. Advice coated with a thin layer of blood.

“Well, if you’re sure.” Daddy didn’t look sure. He kept watch on her lips as they sat down.

A waitress hovered. Daddy assessed her ass, stomach, breasts, then let his gaze settle on her lips. She gave him a practised smile Danyor envied.

“Can I start you off with some drinks?” She asked, hands clasped just so.

“I’ll have a pinot, something French of course, and she’ll have a cosmopolitan, light on the vodka.”

“Is there any possibility, a maybe, of getting something a little stronger, Daddy? I just thought, since my wisdom stage has come and gone—”

“Yes, yes. Of course, baby doll. You’re old enough, I suppose. Waitress, a glass of your best rosé for the pretty girl!”

He took the liberty of ordering food: well done steak for him, vegetarian omelette easy on the cheese for her.

Danyor gave Daddy her best close-lipped smile and he eased back ever so slightly into his chair.

All at once, the weight of some many things overloaded her senses: the sun pounding her hungover skull; the throb in her gums and sinuses; a woman in white at another table; a white wimple like dove’s wings bobbing along beyond the high fence; a nice specimen of man walking by, all buttocks and straight lines; much older men leering at her, confident since blasphemy trials had been on the up lately.

Her hunger returned in a rush, a slap in the face. She covered the shock with a sip at her drink, the terrible sweetness cut with soda water. Barely alcohol at all.

Daddy eyebrows raced towards his immaculately threaded hairline. “Are you sure the tooth is not bothering you?” That was not the question Daddy was asking.

“Oh no.” She found her laugh. “It doesn’t bother me at all!”

He quick-checked the gender ratio in the café. She remembered that look, had it seared on her brain since that day she was seven. The way he squinted at all that blood, the gore under mummy’s fingernails, her red-painted lips.

She needed to convince him. The decision occurred with barely a thought, like she’d wanted it all along. “Actually, I have an appointment. On Tuesday. At a new dentist. Highly recommended.”

A smile ached across his face, and he deigned to take a sip of his wine.

“Make sure her matches the shade of the new veneer to the rest of your teeth. White makes right!” Daddy laughed.

“I promise, Daddy.”

The last promise she had kept had been to her mother.

From behind Daddy’s back, the woman in white gave her a tiny smile hidden by the rim of her glass. Danyor envied her perfect tan, the elegance of her straight smile. White made her own skin look so sallow.

God, was this how it was to be from now on? Seeing the cracks in the faces everywhere?

“Now, tell me about the date with that nice young man I set up for you last week…”

Danyor sipped her watery wine, and planned her outfit for Tuesday.

4.

Porcelain cups replaced by plastic, tea with blood red punch, sterility with laughter.

It took Danyor a moment to figure out why the laughter felt so out of place. Devoid of the trappings of cat calls or a man explaining or a man simply breathing nearby, the laughter was relaxed and genuine.

A woman in blood red held out a shield box and Danyor gave up both her phones with a performed look; a woman working security.

Then she was there. Doctor Bridget Bishop. Danyor loved and hated how the dentist peeled herself away from a wall, large warm smile with a hint of those vicious fangs behind pink lips. She ushered Danyor inside the womb of her surgery.

Stop. Catch breath. Look down. Look up.

Doctor Bishop’s words buzzed as she shouldered through the mass of women. Quiet danger palpated the air. No one else wore white. The woman were splashes of bright colour, mouths daringly wide or stuffed with food. Obscenity and blasphemy laws broken in plain sight.

Danyor hadn’t been around this many women since her the Sisters of Silence had paid a visit after her mother had been taken away. Even the bite clubs made her a little uncomfortable with their gender ratio, but at least that was in the dark.

Look. There. A man. Danyor’s chest let out a notch. They must be trans to be welcome here. So they’re not Daughters of Lilith. That’s a start.

“…nith is a partner at Lest, Crowne, and Crow,” Doctor Bishop was saying about a very tall woman in a black suit with hair pulled back from her smooth ebony face. Her smile was the best of the crowd, even, white, the perfect width. Envy sunk claws into Danyor’s stomach.

“Your face is familiar,” the woman said, her voice as warm as her smile. Danyor couldn’t remember the last time she’d experienced such overlap. “I’ve seen you at Sorenson, Sheldon, Miller, and Associates.”

“Danyor Sorenson.”

“A real live Sorenson?” The woman gave a firm handshake. “I’m very sorry.”

A laugh fell out before she could stop it. Danyor clapped out her hands over her mouth and glanced around.

Doctor Bishop grinned. “It’s all right, Danyor. I promise you’re safe here.”

“I wish I could say I got the job on my own merits.” The admission tumbled out after the laughter.

Tanith gestured around the party. “A lot of us had to start somewhere, do things we’re not proud of, to infiltrate the patriarchy.”

Danyor nodded, the strange word sticking, semantic satiation following her around the room to each introduction. Looking so many women in the eye was exhausting, but not as humiliating as being introduced like some trophy to a group of men and potential suitors in a room reeking of cigar smoke.

There were two trans men looking more relaxed than at a bite club, and a person who introduced themself as non-binary. From one angle, Crix looked like a very handsome woman, and from another a very pretty man. Danyor enjoyed the idea of such flexibility, liked Crix’s tired smile immediately.

Doctor Bishop was good at this. Danyor tried to judge her age, but recent advances in circumventing the Hayflick limit had seen certain higher production unit women allowed access to lengthened life spans under strict licensing.

Men had no such legal limits.

Danyor flushed at the memory of her recent first attempt at acquiring a production unit score. It had been depressingly low as she was still unmarried.

After the rounds, Doctor Bishop called the room to order. None of that uncomfortable office furniture designed to keep you on edge; soft seats, quiet giggles, deep cushions.

Stop. Breathe. Listen. Prep. Her mother’s old words.

The dull thud of Doctor Bishop’s words told her the inner surgery was sound proofed. Was the building bugged? Were any of these people a deep government plant?

“..anks to the land which we stand upon—” Doctor Bishop said something in a strange tongue, making an unusual, formal gesture to a woman with olive-tone skin. Danyor stared. An indigenous, in the city? I thought they kept to their camps?

When her name was invoked, reality rushed in like a catcall.

“Danyor Sorenson is new to our journey. Please respect that she hasn’t shed her patriarchal assigned name, chosen her gender, or the pronoun that suits her.”

Doctor Bishop loomed large in the spacious room. There would be no escaping these wide smiles if they decided she was threat enough, was Sorenson’s daughter enough. Women didn’t eat woman-flesh, but there were always myths kept alight about the very hungry in the prison colonies.

“Danyor has decided to join our us.”

I have?

Yes. She was here. There was no turning back now. She didn’t want to. She was twenty years too late.

Danyor stared at Doctor Bishop as everyone performed a hand gesture, like prayer but in reverse, setting a soul free.

Locked in her head, Mummy smiled wide. Lots of teeth.

“Danyor is here for the first procedure. We will come together and show her the way through the pain.”

The crowd murmured. Sympathy? Danyor’s whole body buzzed. She thought she would faint before she got in the dentist’s chair.

“There doesn’t have to be any pain if you don’t want,” a woman leaned in to whisper. “Bishop uses anaesthetic.”

Anaesthetic, for women…?

“Unfortunately and fortunately, Danyor joins us at a time when Change is fast upon us.” The crowd murmured and nodded. “We must teach her well, but soon.”

“Teach me what?” The words sounded childish. Don’t whine, Daddy would say.

“Soon we will show the world our truths, and bring about Change.”

That word again. Danyor heard the capitalization, but it was just a small word, an idea.

The room shivered to a stillness Danyor had only experienced once before, in that one beautiful moment before mother had been discovered covered in bloody gore.

The reward from turning in this many women would mean Danyor wouldn’t ever have to work again. Or rely on Daddy.

Doctor Bishop opened to the door to the surgery proper, the inner sanctum. Padded chair. Tool table. A wide spotlight turning sharp edges to cut glass. “You may choose people to come in with you.”

Daddy’s voice sizzled in her head: I’ve got nothing against lesbians, but you do have to wonder how clean their uteri are.

Doctor Bishop’s green eyes were so bright and large, a thick stirred ocean. Danyor squirmed. She couldn’t take that first-last step.

Doctor Bishop nodded, offering a gentle smile for Danyor’s hesitation. “We honour our sibling Ruth by bringing her daughter back into the fold.”

That did it. Oh yes, clever Doctor Bishop. She’d held on to the best till last. That name. Struck from the record. Forbidden.

“You knew my mother?” Danyor whispered.

“She was one of us.”

“One of who?”

“We prefer to go nameless. Names give power. Right now, anonymity is a strength. We will choose a name when the time is right. As will you. Like we all have.”

Her own name. Her own mouth. Her own hunger.

Danyor’s legs moved before she could put taste to feeling.

As she passed each person, they removed fake veneers to reveal wicked smiles or honourable grimaces.

Danyor’s eyes and gums burned. She nodded at Crix and Tanith, the two who had been kindest. They looked tough enough.

The vacuum seal door closed behind the four with a sucking sound, like an indrawn breath. Danyor slid easily across the soft plastic. The chair hummed, tilting her back, hair spreading like a dark halo. The women donned paper masks. Tanith handled the tool table like a professional.

Crix took her hand. “How many sets of teeth you had come through, honey?”

“Seven. I’m on my wisdoms.”

Crix winced. “You poor love. So early. You must be starving.”

The spicy-sweat perfume of the dentist washed over her and Danyor knew she should be afraid, but for the first time in her life she could not stop herself. Didn’t want to.

Doctor Bishop held up a tube and a syringe. “This is special numbing gel, and this one will knock you out. Not going to lie. It will hurt, and it will sound bad.”

“I’ve been through worse,” Danyor said.

Doctor Bishop weighted the choices in her hands. “You’re safe here, Danyor.”

No, worse was a lie, and the truth. She didn’t have to go through that, not here.

“The numbing gel,” Danyor said quickly. She trusted these people enough, but she wanted to be sure. There were no straps on this dentist chair.

Doctor Bishop slathered it on with a latex finger.

A glorious quiet hole of freedom opened in Danyor’s face as the gel took effect.

Doctor Bishop binned the emergency veneer, only meant to be worn for more than a day or two, in the hazardous waste receptacle. “That’s the easiest part.”

Then the tiny chisel and hammer came out. A drill whined.

5.

Everything had a new layer. Filmy. Easily lifted to see the sharpness of reality underneath. Women. The streets. Daddy. Her smile.

Even her date. Danyor hadn’t recognized Tomm with his clothes on.

The bite boi from the club occupied two-thirds of the train seat, as was his right. He patted her hand from time to time as if to apologize for forcing her to huddle against the window. His gentle touch didn’t make the hunger flare, his lean lines covered by dour sleeves and long sexless pants.

At the station, Tomm took her elbow and Danyor measured her pace through the faceless rows of aspirational housing. They spoke cheerful, practised phrases as shimmer-draped windows out stared above tongues of perfect lawns. Miniature versions of the house she grew up in, Daddy’s sanctuary.

Pam, the security woman in red, met them at the door. She shooed Tomm off to the games room to join the other men, then proceeded to break down and put back together Danyor’s burner phone in swift, easy motions. A new sim was installed.

Air kisses. Smiles. Hand squeezes. The house thrived with women’s voices. Crix was there too, which brought Danyor’s shoulders down a notch; they’d been clubbing together.

You’re not like other girls, baby doll, Daddy whispered in her head. Always at each other’s throats.

In the dining room swept free of dotcams and shielded from bee-drones, dinner was served with the freedom of real laughter. It had taken Danyor weeks to relax with men in earshot, but they had all proven worthy allies.

“What have you got for us today, Crix?” Doctor Bishop asked as the biologist carried in a large tray.

“Something quite special,” Crix said. “A first taste of next-generation tank flesh.”

The gaggle applauded. Danyor joined them belatedly. Tank flesh had been deemed illegal under genetic modification laws. This hadn’t stopped experiments within the war theatre. Crix was deeper in the cogs of government than Danyor had surmised.

Bare teeth nibbled and opinions given. Nothing could be written down, but Crix had a superbly trained memory. More envy Danyor tamped down.

To Danyor, the tank flesh tasted like boiled chicken and overripe, floury apples. She didn’t want to hurt Crix’s feelings. The underground worked so hard on solutions it was difficult to face failure.

Other women were less reserved. Soon Crix stabbed a butter knife into the remains of the fleshy snacks and gave an ugly little chuckle. “On a design and molecular level, the flesh is perfect. But there are so many variables I’m not allowed to introduce I feel would add subtlety.”

“You can’t grow a soul in the lab,” Pam muttered into her wine glass. Danyor blinked at her. To avoid Danyor’s stare, Pam flicked a window’s privacy shimmer. “Sweep,” she called.

The women fell into inane chatter about the quilt project that gave their potluck cover. After a tense few minutes, Pam called the all clear. The neighbourhood watch had passed out of range.

Mind firing, Danyor wanted to return to the debate about soul versus flesh. The revelation flushed her with excitement. However, Doctor Bishop ignored her advance and swept Crix aside for an intense, whispered debate. Pip, the group’s onomatologist, saved her from floundering in the middle of the room.

“Do you have something for me?” Danyor asked as Pip handed her a matching glass of blood red wine. It even smelled of blood. But like the tank flesh it didn’t taste quite right.

“I think so.” Pip sat her down in a quieter corner. Doctor Bishop kept ignoring them. “There’s nothing on the official registries. Even the fleshnet has patchy history on some mother-lines.” She grimaced. “Some of the earlier Changers brought in to eugenics.”

A swallow of the bittersweet wine kept words down. The more Danyor learned from her new friends, the harder it was becoming to keep her tongue in check. She didn’t like this new side of her. Perhaps what Daddy said was true. Freedom was a cage.

Pip continued. “After checking through some dead languages, I found something in the mentions of the prison camps. Your name is Romani, and it’s actually, um, a boy’s name. It means ‘born with teeth.'”

“What does that mean?”

“Men like to pretend that names don’t mean anything. But I’ve learned in my time working for Change that women have harnessed this power to pass down coded history.”

Thoughts swirled. Her mother had chosen the name of one of the original Changers, one reborn and struck from history many times. Why had Ruth chosen this name for her? Were they of a hidden Romani line? Spite against Daddy? To empower Danyor towards a different fate?

Perhaps Daddy had approved. Daddy had always wanted a boy. They were so much easier to handle, he said.

Most people on the underground had chosen a True Name, and some like Doctor Bishop had been using openly since they were young. But no other name held Danyor in her proper shape. She couldn’t step through a Danyor shaped hole in the world either.

Danyor attempted to approach Doctor Bishop again, but she couldn’t edge her way into the tight circle held around the good dentist. She sucked at her lip, scowling at obscenely colourful pieces of pottery. It had been like this for the last few meetings. Doctor Bishop was a busy person, lots of people to oversee.

Someone coughed for her attention. Robin, the group’s geneticist.

“I thought you might like to know the results from your chromosome markers test,” Robin said, standing at military ease, a slight smile brightening his broad brown face. Tall, muscular, handsome, pert bottom. One of her types. Saliva started up again even though she had just eaten.

“Oh, good, thank you. Go ahead.”

“We’ve confirmed you are Double X.”

Matches the official public paperwork. Why did she think it would be any different? “And that means?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

Danyor made a sound between a grunt and a moan, the kind Daddy would have whisked her off to the evo-psyche in a moment for. “I don’t get it.”

Robin chuckled. “The hunger mutation travels on the X chromosome but that means nothing when every human has it. Sure, it’s much stronger in certain chromosome combinations, but you’ve met men and intersex people where it’s weak to medium, right. It’s not the gene, but a genetic error. But then, who’s to say what’s an error, what’s normal? There are many cascade effects within development, within a person’s lived body, and it could take years, decades, to unravel it all. If we had the right funding.” Robin grimaced. In the military, he had the right funding, but not the right funding.

Danyor blinked as she tried to process the jargon and ideas. The words fell out of her mouth before she could stop them. “What are you?” Stupid, stupid!

“I’m XX too.” He shrugged. “You’re going to have to unlearn everything you’ve been taught about sex chromosomes. I mean, that’s not even the right term anymore…”

Danyor’s eyes glazed over again as Robin carried on. She couldn’t help but assess which parts of the scientist would make good nibbling. Doctor Bishop saved her from further embarrassment by calling the meeting to order.

“We only have an hour before the next sweep. Neighbourhood Watch are particularly busy tonight,” Doctor Bishop said.

Even with her true smile exposed, the dentist’s voice had a way of soothing Danyor. Danyor zoned out further, having heard the stock standard rallying speech many times. There were always new recruits at the meetings these days.

“Evolution is always evolving. We evolved this way, and fast, for a reason,” she was saying, tones as gentle as her dentist’s hand, magic and pain all wrapped up in one woman. “Gaia requires our survival. This may be just a start point of our genetic history, or somewhere in the middle. But this certainly isn’t the end game men would have us believe. They won’t break us or hide us all away. Those sort of numbers leave a mark on history, even if it is birth records, census numbers. It’s a signpost for other generations.”

Doctor Bishop’s eyes grabbed on to Danyor. Something warmer and deeper than even a feed of flesh leeched into Danyor’s belly. Danyor looked away. Women weren’t supposed to hold someone’s attention that strongly. Only a father or husband had that right. Doctor Bishop had so many good things to say but sometimes she could be too intense.

“Change is coming.”

This phrase was usually how she ended her rally speech. Impermanent permanence. Hold on. We’ve got you.

“Change is coming.”

Her tone changed, slithering from a warm embrace into tight expectancy.

“Salem Day.” Doctor Bishop’s gaze slid across the room. “Salem Day is coming.”

Something shifted within the room. A storm brewing; of ideas, knowledge, truths.

“Our sibling schools agree the time is ripe. There is heightened awareness around the dissolution of the Daughters of Lilith—” Dissolution was too kind a word. “—and feelings are running high with the passing of the Preservation of Life Act.”

Every child is sacred, Daddy had said. Our bodies, our voice, Doctor Bishop had said. Danyor laid a hand on her flat stomach. There roiled a repulsion she’d never interrogated. Parasites, under her flesh…

“You will each be assigned a job for the day. It is your choice whether you are involved, no one will think any less of you if you choose not to.” Somehow Doctor Bishop made it sound like an assurance and a threat at the same time. But all the other women were making eager noises. “We go masked until it is time not to be. This time will be different.”

Grinning faces, flush with light of the good Doctor’s praise. A dozen people couldn’t take down a system. But a dozen here, a dozen there, a dozen dozen coming together with another dozen dozen, emerging from the confines of the fleshnet, seizing the means of information. But the sheer logistics, the size of what was proposed? Would there be enough of them?

Daddy’s voice crowded in against Doctor Bishop’s words. We do this for your own good, to keep you safe from yourselves.

It all seemed a dream. Or a nightmare. Or both.

Danyor tongued her smooth new veneers; nothing hurt. Took a breath. Let it out slow. In out. That’s it, baby doll.

Finally, the prayer to Gaia. Danyor found it odd ascribing gender to a non-sentient entity, but with her eyes and mouth newly opened, everything, even the gods, had a strange mutability.

A banging at the front door. Pam swore. Danyor flinched. Like Daddy banging down the hallway outside her bedroom door…banging through the big attic when they had come to take mother—Ruth—away…she was seven…she was twenty-seven…she was dead….

Everyone assumed positions. Forgetting hers, Danyor huddled in a corner behind the big wall of Robin.

Pam answered the door.

“…quilting party…”

“…ten minutes until the maximum allowed…group of women…disperse…check papers…”

“…our permit states…”

“…ten minutes…”

“Yessir.”

As everyone said their goodbyes, collected totes, and shrugged into their coats—don’t rush, make it look good—someone tapped Danyor on her shoulder.

The good dentist towered over her. Danyor kept forgetting how big she was, even though Doctor Bishop only had a couple extra inches on Danyor.

“I need you to do something for me.”

Danyor’s breath sped up. She nodded, eager.

“Carry your burner phone with you everywhere.” Bishop lowered her voice. “Everywhere.

Such a simple thing. Such a betrayal.

Danyor found just enough power for her voice. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“A little. But we’ll make sure you’re protected.”

“How? Why?”

Doctor Bishop folded her arms and shifted her weight to her other leg. “It’s safer you don’t know.”

So Danyor won’t betray them if caught.

“You won’t call—”

“No.”

“Is it bugged?”

Doctor Bishop tilted her perfectly coiffed head, said nothing.

Tomm melted out of the shadows, and took Danyor’s elbow. “Say goodbye, Danyor.”

“Goodbye, Danyor,” she whispered as they joined the party leaving two by two down the freshly swept paths bordered by sharp box hedging.

6.

“Show us yer tits!”

“Slut! Put some white clothes on!”

Jane Ohlan was a professional; a popstar who chose to risk public performance. She mixed calm with coquettish ecstasy as she pranced around the open-air stage, flipping her long pony-tail and purring about how much she enjoyed chivalry.

Secure behind the crash mask of her stolen uniform, Danyor allowed her gaze free range. Salem Day. Salem Square. It might have been named for a place, or a woman, or one of those strange cults, no one was completely sure. Such things had been lost in one of the earliest purges. The men regretted such losses of history. They did.

The kettling architecture invoked unease in women and assurance in men. The abstract statues were today draped in white, advertisements for dental products were projected against the old stone buildings, and Sisters of Silence prayed in their assigned, cramped area.

In the concert pit, sweaty men squirmed around giggling young women. A small but significant extra quota of women had been allowed in via a ticketing hack, and the crowd underestimated security lining the steps.

Danyor ground her teeth, but no pain shocked her. The last of Doctor Bishop’s treatments had settled, and she had eaten well the night before.

What was she doing? How had she got from the good little girl who drank cosmos with Daddy on Sunday to someone inciting change? All she had wanted was her teeth fixed.

No. She hadn’t known what she wanted until Doctor Bishop found her. She wouldn’t let anything happen to Danyor. Not like mummy.

No. Mummy couldn’t help it. Some women just can’t help themselves, baby doll.

Danyor twitched her shoulders as she went over all the moves in her mind Pam had taught her. She wouldn’t need them. People would listen—Daddy would understand— once they understood the size of the change, the size of the lies before them. The Change would be simple, quiet, gentle, to show people the hunger’s wasn’t what they’d been led to believe. Strategic speeches at Salem Day celebrations across the world. No takeover, Doctor Bishop had insisted. An integration back into society. Security was only to make sure people were kept safe.

And where was Doctor Bishop?

Jane Ohlan finished her set to cheers and jeers. Suddenly, the weight of the day made Danyor feel so tired. Doctor Bishop called it all those old, almost eradicated terms for mental illnesses which meant nothing to her. Still, she woke up tired every day. Perhaps she needed a better diet. More exercise. Something.

You have a good job, a good life, baby doll. A comfortable life.

Stage crew reset. Lewd shouts. A sweat-soaked woman squealed as she was body surfed out to security.

Expecting an all-male rock band, the crowd jeered louder as a black-haired woman in a long tasselled robe strode out on the stage. A Native American in full regalia. Not the same one who sometimes came to meetings.

She looked dangerous as in the war histories. The red beads on the calf-skin dress gleamed and clacked. Women in the audience shifted from foot to foot, looking away. Men shouted insinuations to the easiness of her race. Danyor’s fingers tightened on the haft of her bolt stick.

“My name is Sharee Vulture Feather. And I am here to tell you the truth.”

People shuffled, voices were raised. Perhaps the woman was a joke, a fake-out, shock value the band had added to their set. Any moment now she would break into a scream and do some crazy, old-time war dance.

Screens either side of the stage flickered. People stared at and shook their dead phones. There it was, the jacking of government and informational channels had kicked in.

The lines of security around the square linked arms.

Sharee Vulture Feather took out her false veneer.

The crowd dissolved into chaos.

The Change had begun.

The woman sharp teeth flashed in the spotlight as she recited some poem in a rolling, swallowed tongue. The words were lost in the furore. Bolt sticks discharged into the rush of men trying to escape.

Wedged tight between Pam and Crix, Danyor went rigid and lifted her riot shield. Bodies battered the tough plastic but the line held tight.

Used to bruises, most women and others remained calm and in place. A few women joined the rush, but upon seeing the rest holding ground, they paused. Waiting.

Yes. There it was. The calm. The control. The terrible power just behind the lips.

“Are you hungry, my siblings?” Sharee Vulture Feather raised her arms, revealing olive-skinned arms ringed with forbidden tattoos. Somehow she maintained her presence on stage. Ah, there: collaborators forming a human shield in the wings, shocking anyone who dared come near. The sticks must be set to maximum charge if men were dropping so easily.

Another figure walked on stage. Flowed really. Like blood. She wore red pants, red blouse, red shoes. Hair dyed red. A shock of colour against the whiteness of the day.

Doctor Bridget Bishop.

Her mouth spoke truth with a smile matched that of Sharee Vulture Feather, but the words faded into a buzz again. The same words about Change.

Men shoved up against Danyor, spitting and clawing. Pam shocked them, and they fell twitching.

“How many sets of teeth have you gone through, comrades?” The microphone still worked. There was an attempted rush at the mixing desk, pushed back by diligent fake security. “One? Three? Seven? It doesn’t matter! Still in your baby teeth or with complete wisdoms, your hunger is ENOUGH!”

Men shrieked. Lies! Fake! Slut! You’re dead, bitch!

A ripple through the crowd. Women, others, testing out their tongues. It pulsed and receded, a tide of questions.

“Salem’s lot. Your time has come. Open your mouths, show us your teeth, speak to your hunger, your truth, and be heard! You don’t have to hide behind false ivory gods. Your satiation is at hand. Regen flesh, tank flesh, donors! Enough for all to never go hungry! No one has to die! You want to turn down the hunger? We’re looking ways to do that too! Knowledge. It’s not. Just. Women! We are so many glorious genders! There may never be a cure, but we won’t stop looking if that’s what you want! Choices! This is what you deserve! And we can do it together!

A rising ululation. Probably a plant, but it did the trick. The wail spread from mouth to mouth like a hungry kiss.

This was good. So far, nothing terrible had befallen them. Everything was well planned this time. Problem factions softened, compromise found.

A scuffle in the wings.

Armoured people dragged bound and hooded men on to the stage. A violent image, stolen from the annals of history when women’s executions for publicly expressed hunger were simply performance.

Except these hoods were black instead of white.

That was not in the plan.

Danyor wanted to hiss a demand at Pam or Crix, but neither her crash mask or fear of discovery would let her. She glanced up and down the lines. No other change-maker was stepping out of formation. She’d just have to go with it. Trust the good dentist knew what she was doing. Doctor Bishop had promised no one would be hurt.

Doctor Bishop stepped behind one of the wriggling men with an artfully placed wound on his bared arm. A moan wandered through the crowd; hunger and pain and relief. Men shoved and yelled, but they were shocked down by security or simply ignored.

Ignored. Dear Gaia. That was Change in itself.

Near Danyor, an older woman took out a false veneer. Her friend shrieked, then stared.

Captors stepped behind the other men, holding them in place with one hand, raising a scalpel with the other.

With performed swiftness, each captor removed the hood and swiped their scalpel across exposed flesh; pectoral, bicep, thigh, calf.

Thin wounds, really, but blood flowed and the men shrieked like they were dying.

Another great moan flowed across the crowd.

Within a blink, Danyor’s view turned from hazy to crystalline. Colours and lines snapped into painful focus. Iron oxidized red. Tongue pink. Rolling eye white.

People in the audience screeched in recognition. Someone’s father, brother, uncle, boss, husband. Women shoved to the front and they were lifted up to confront their assigned man. They knelt as if praying, or stood over them as if confused by their options. Only one woman moved to unbind one of the men; the captors did not prevent her, and they were escorted off stage without fuss.

The crowd applauded. Except for the men. Some cried out “Pussy!” or “Gender Traitor!” or “Take it like a man!”

Danyor breathed out. Yes. We’re not like that.

Danyor saw it coming in slow motion, lightning fast. Doctor Bishop bunched her fist bunched in the hood of the remaining captive, and pulled.

She hadn’t known. She knew.

Of course.

Daddy.

This was why she’d taken the burner phone to work, into Daddy’s house, to places she never should, as instructed. Like a good girl. A Trojan Horse.

Like any other day, Daddy would have been locked behind walls concrete and digital, working to “make life better, baby doll”.

Better for who?

Doctor Bishop had used her.

Danyor bit down so hard her new veneers creaked.

How COULD she? She treated me like her own…

No.

She was Ruth’s daughter.

Doctor Bishop wasn’t even looking for her, but Danyor knew she was waiting.

No. I won’t.

On stage, Sharee Vulture Feather recited forgotten histories along with matching visuals on screen. The women hovered around their men, stroking hair and faces, nibbling fingers gently, licking the blood off their wounds. Putting themselves into the performance. A farce. They wouldn’t really. They’d been trained too well.

Then the hunger lust kicked in.

The man’s scream was animal-like as a middle-aged woman bit his shoulder. A younger woman, possibly her daughter, hesitated, then chowed down on some thigh. The wounds are ugly and shallow as the two women couldn’t remove their permanent veneers.

Zap. Crack. The crowd surged again, screams of fear and delight mirroring the cries on stage.

Even across hundreds of people and through her mask, the stench of fear sweat and salty iron and meat smacked Danyor in the face.

Her stomach rumbled and saliva dribbled down her chin.

NO. I WON’T.

Monster. Gash. Witch. Cunt. Danyor couldn’t hear the words, but she was well versed in the way Daddy’s lips formed words.

Just like that day over twenty years ago.

“Don’t call her that,” Danyor whispered through gritted teeth.

But still. Ruth. The base of truth.

A satiated sigh ripped back to front of the crowd. The man currently under digestion had been reduced to the odd animal-like cough. Women crowd surfed forward for a taste, stuffing gobbets of flesh into their mouths. Sharing. Together.

Somewhere in the city, a series of whumphs. Explosions. Sirens crying out. The military on their way but the fleshnet and allies shoved into the chinks of the war theatre would slow them down.

Shouts from high windows. Encouragement, threats, or pleas for help? Danyor couldn’t get past the buzzing in her ears, the clench in her guts. Her teeth chittered.

I won’t.

Memory: of blood on chin; of panic deep in green eyes; of a set of beautiful canines tipped with gore; of fingers licked clean.

I love you, baby girl. Don’t let them change you.

I won’t, mummy.

A blink of blackness.

Swimming across benison hands. A chant, soft, alluring.

The crowd deposited Danyor on the stage. Somewhere she’d lost her crash helmet and bolt stick. Doctor Bishop and Daddy loomed close far away close in her vision, their heads monstrous then a pin head. The overwhelming stench of meaty blood.

The other two men were in the process of being stripped down. People huddled over them. The men’s feet and hands twitched feebly.

Danyor slipped in blood.

Doctor Bishop helped her up. Like mother had helped her up that day. Run, Dani. Wipe your chin. Don’t let him catch you here.

Colin Sorenson sneered, all veneer of respectability gone. “I should have known,” he growled. “Like mother, like daughter.”

Doctor Bishop smacked Daddy in the back of the head, and he yelped. “Mind your tongue, or that will be the first part she eats.”

“I won’t,” Danyor whispered.

Daddy ignored her, glaring up at Doctor Bishop. “We’ll put you down like the bitches you are.” His growl broke like a pubescent boy.

Another explosion, closer.

Doctor Bishop held out the scalpel to Danyor, an echo, this time tainted with Daddy’s blood. “Go ahead. You’ve deserved it.”

Danyor licked her lips. “No.”

More explosions. Sounds of fighting, bolt-fire at the edge of the square. Restlessness through the crowd. They were almost ready. Almost on their side. A few women trying to fight their way out, but their struggles were half-hearted.

Be true to your hunger, baby girl.

No,” Danyor said again.

The scalpel glinted in the hard stagelight. People seethed across the flayed corpses, made equal by the sheen of blood and gore across their faces.

“You can fight this baby doll,” Daddy crooned. “I’ll make sure you’re safe.” A hopeful smile splashed across his face as he tried on pity for size. A little dribble of blood at the corner of his mouth.

“No.” Why me?

The women on stage. They were much older than her. Even the youngest seemed to have a good ten years on her. The hungry people in the crowd pressing to the front of the stage, eager for a whiff, a lick of it, looked young. Confusion twisted their faces. Some of them watched Danyor intently. Some egged her on.

Why, mummy?

Change needs a martyr.

Doctor Bishop was still holding out the scalpel, patient, like the memorial statues. She asked: “What’s your name?”

Danyor removed her glove. Five o’clock shadow scraped her palm. She snatched her hand away as Daddy snapped his teeth.

Her stomach rumbled.

Danyor removed her veneer. Daddy shrieked, the noise amplified by the microphone.

With a quick slash, Doctor Bishop sliced open his shirt, exposing him neck to Adam Strap. Danyor grimaced and looked away. Not something a daughter needs to see.

Doctor Bishop’s hand came up again. “You are surrounded by love. What is your name?”

“Love?” choked Daddy. “What do cunts know about love?”

“Don’t. Call. Her. That.” Danyor said through gritted teeth, and Daddy shrank back at the sight. The light bouncing off the scalpel was giving her a headache. Sharp. Hard. It’s lines could be softened just by pressing it into flesh…what would that flesh taste like after so many years cooking on the bone…he smelled musky and dense with woody notes like truffle slivers in oil…

Fire raced up her gullet. The ringing in her ears had become a full peel from the cathedral of her hunger.

Danyor dropped her fake veneer on the bloody floor and stomped it to little porcelain pieces. She carried so much guilt what was one more stone into the pit of her always empty stomach.

“My name,” she said through gasps. “is Ruth.”

Daddy made some wordless curse while the crowd cheered. Some people knew that forbidden name. Maybe not her mother’s name, but another Ruth—truth—like it.

Danyor grabbed the scalpel hilt, squeezing Doctor Bishop’s hand hard. Bishop didn’t let go, pulling her forward to grasp her other arm in solidarity. A battle of truth.

They made a tight fist together around the scalpel.

____

Copyright 2019 AJ Fitzwater

AJ Fitzwater is a meat-suit wearing dragon (cousin of the unicorn), living in the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their work can be found in such venues of repute as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Glittership, and Shimmer Magazine. They survived the trial-by-wordfire of Clarion in 2014. They Twitter at @AJFitzwater.

 

Due to unforeseen circumstances, our next story will be posted in April. We sincerely apologize for the interruption.

See you then,

Elora Gatts, editor

Hand Me Downs

by

Maria Haskins

  

Most days, I love being a troll. Most days I love dancing. Most days I love being me.

Today is not one of those days.

Having to wear a troll costume for the spring ballet recital when you actually are a troll is pretty bad, but that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that the costume my dance instructor Marie gives me has a tail.

A tail.

Whatever you think you know, whatever you’ve seen or read in movies or books, trolls do not have tails. Yet, there it is–two feet of brown velvet rope finished with a black tassel, dangling from the hem of the costume. Even without the tail, the outfit would be hideous: a patchwork dress, its rough fabric dyed a muddy, mixed shade of beige and dark green.

“Not even fit for a bridge troll.” That’s what Grandma would say if she saw it, and she’d be right.

“I thought we were getting rid of the tail,” I say, unwilling to take the garment from Marie’s outstretched hand.

“I know we talked about that, but the tail adds a bit of playful, trollish fun, don’t you think?”

She smiles. I feel like snarling, but what can I do? I have nothing else to wear, and Marie pulled some strings with the ballet people she knows to get me this costume. She even got a seamstress to adjust it for me (not all dancers are troll-sized, after all). The recital is in just over a week, and if I do well, my performance could help me get into the high school dance academy program next semester.

It’s what I’ve worked so hard for these last few years, enduring aching muscles, sore feet, bruised toes. Lately, I’ve also had to endure Marie’s choreography for this performance, tailormade to showcase my “particular talents,” as she puts it, meaning it requires a lot of strength and stamina, but not much finesse. I’ve even endured her choice of music, Edward Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt.” I didn’t say no, though I’d rather drop a boulder on my toe than dance to that fake troll music.

I’ve endured it all, but I don’t know if I can endure that tail.

I stare at the costume, at Marie, at her smile and then I do what I always do: I try to make the best of it. I take the costume. I say thank you. I put the hideous thing away in my backpack. But even as I do these things, a hot swirl of anger kindles inside me, and I know a troll-rage is brewing in my gut. The fierce magic crackles through my bones, from the top of my very large head and the tip of my very long nose, all the way down to my extra large, extra wide feet. I try not to let it show, but it’s no easy thing to keep contained.

Normally, we don’t look like monsters. We’re just tall and heavy and strong, with mottled grey skin, but in the grip of a troll-rage…that’s a different story. Most troll-magic changes how and what people see, and a troll-rage changes how others see us. It makes a troll’s mouth and eyes look terrifyingly huge, makes our teeth look like fangs, and turns our voices into a roar.

Dad says trolls shouldn’t use their magic around humans at all—it’s too frightening for them, too dangerous for us, which is why, here at dance class, I do what mom and dad have taught me to do ever since I was a toddler. I breathe deep and do my best to gather up the fraying shreds of rage-magic inside me, balling it all up so it won’t show on the outside.

“Are you OK, Tilda?” Marie asks, concerned, probably because I haven’t moved, even though my music is already playing.

I nod, even though I’m not OK at all, and I begin to dance. With every step and turn I remember the last time I danced to this awful music by Grieg. That time, I was five years old and my dance group at the rec-center danced with tails of paper pinned to our behinds. Seven years later, I still remember it vividly: how everyone else happily stomped around on stage, wagging their tails, pretending to be trolls, while I, the only real troll there, made the best of it the only way I knew how: dancing my heart out, while mom and dad watched, mortified, from the audience.

I dance my heart out today, too, spinning, leaping, turning, through the routine. Nothing can stop me, not even a troll-rage. Marie taps her foot in time with the music, calling out, “Make it more trollish!” I wonder how it can be more “trollish” if I’m not enough as I am: a big-boned, long-limbed, amber-eyed, sweaty troll, sizzling with suppressed troll-rage.

Finally, the music stops. I look at myself in the mirrored wall. I see my perfect posture, my perfectly positioned arms and feet, the frizzy blonde hair escaping the ponytail. Marie nods approvingly, meaning I did OK. I should hope so. By now, I know this routine backwards and forwards, but all I can think about is how much I despise that tail and Grieg’s music.

I wish I had another costume to wear. I wish Marie had picked some other music for me, but it’s too late for that.

Later, I think, because that’s what I always tell myself. When I’m older. When I’m a real dancer. When I get into the Academy. Then, I’ll be able to dance the way I want.

Right now, that dream seems faraway and futile.

“Did you invite your parents to the recital yet?” Marie asks. “I didn’t see them on the list.”

I clear my throat.

“You know…they’re really busy. Mom’s a doctor and she works nights and stuff, and dad works all sorts of strange hours on his TV-shows. They might not be able to come.”

Marie smiles.

“Surely they’ll take time off for this?”

Marie smiles a lot, and it’s the kind of smile that wills you to smile in return, and makes you feel guilty if you don’t.

“I’ll ask again.” I say, stretching my lips into what I hope is a smile before I sit down on the floor with the other kids.

“You OK, Tilda?” someone asks, and I nod, feeling the last of my troll-rage escape like a puff of hot steam when I exhale.

* * *

I ride my bike home afterward, pedaling hard all the way, trying to forget the tail, but I can’t.

Maybe I should skip the recital

I try to imagine it: not doing the recital, not trying out for the dance academy, and it’s like watching my entire future as I’ve imagined it swirling into a black hole.

No. I have to make the best of this, tail or no tail.

* * *

Mom is on her way out when I get home. She works at an emergency room in downtown Vancouver, and as always, she’s in a hurry; peering down at me through the gold-rimmed glasses perched on her bulbous nose.

“Watch out for daddy,” she whispers, kissing the top of my head, and I breathe in the comforting scent of moss and leaves and grass that always seems to cling to her. “He’s in a mood.”

Mom has a fondness for understatements, so I’m guessing a full-fledged troll-rage is imminent.

“Why?”

“That ballet lady, Marie, called.” Mom gives me a look–kind, but piercing. “You might have warned us you’d be dancing to that music… I know it can’t have been your choice, but a heads-up would’ve been nice.”

“I was hoping to change her mind, but…she picked it special for me, mom, and she’s worked with everyone, even Baryshnikov!”

“I’m guessing she’s never worked with a troll before, though.”

Drooping, I think about the tail, while mom grabs her bag and heads outside. I barely have time to get into the kitchen before I hear dad, stomping up the stairs from his basement office, every step reverberating through the house.

“Tilda!”

I brace for impact, knowing he’s been on the set of that new TV-show he’s directing all day, drinking too many coffees, and dealing with too many TV-people since well before dawn.

Trying to act casual, I grab a bowl and fill it with snail-stew from the pot on the stove. Snail-stew is dad’s specialty, and the smell of cooked snails and grated pine bark fills me with a bit of fleeting happiness before dad looms in the doorway.

Marie called,” he huffs, angrily stuffing his massive hands into the pockets of his cable-knit cardigan. I can almost see steam puffing out of his large ears, the gold rings threaded through each meaty earlobe trembling.

“Dad…”

He probably can’t hear me, because he’s already angry enough that his mouth looks twice as wide as usual, and his eyes are the size of my bowl.

Marie invited us to come to the recital. Said you’re dancing to a famous piece of music by… Grieg.” He almost hollers the name. “Why would you humiliate yourself, and us, like this?”

I swallow a spoonful of stew. I don’t want to argue. I just want to get away – away from dad, away from Grieg and Ibsen, away from anything that reminds me of that tail.

“Come on, dad. Marie picked it for me. She says this dance presents my skills in a way that the Dance Academy will…”

“I don’t care what Marie says. I will not let my daughter dance to Grieg. ‘Hall of the Mountain King’, indeed! As if that man ever saw a real troll in his life! I won’t let you do it, and that’s final!”

“I don’t need your permission,” I say, snarling, but dad just keeps talking.

“It’s a waste of your time. You should focus on your studies. Not this dancing nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense! I’m a good dancer, and you’re the one who always told me to do what I love and to do my best.”

Dad gives me a long look, almost softening, but unfortunately, another thought occurs to him.

“You’re not wearing a tail for the performance, are you?”

Something in my expression must have given me away because his eyes and mouth widen with a new flush of anger.

“That’s it, Tilda. No more dancing!”

“I’m only doing this so I can get into the Dance Academy. It’s the same as when you played big stupid, scary trolls in all those Hollywood monster movies when you started out. You took those jobs and made the best of it, that’s what you told me.”

Dad hates being reminded of his early acting days, and no surprise, his mouth turns into a cavern of sharp teeth.

“That was different! In those days…” He stops, the golden earrings shaking fiercely now. “Anyway, that’s no excuse for you!” His voice is so loud it makes the snail-stew wobble in my bowl. “I didn’t move my family halfway across the world, away from our caves and forests in Sweden to see you act the fool on the dance floor. No more dancing!”

“You can’t stop me!” I shout, slamming the bowl down on the counter and storming out of the kitchen.

* * *

I run through the house, into the backyard, looking for shelter, looking for Grandma. Usually, she’s in the garden this time of day, watering the pile of leaves where she farms worms and grubs, but today, the yard is empty. Outside, I stop and let myself be still for a moment, just listening and breathing. I can still hear the sounds of the world outside, cars passing in the street, trucks barreling down the highway further off, the distant chug of a freight train, the neighbour’s old dog barking at some cat or squirrel, but even so, there’s a comforting stillness here, a stillness that belongs to Grandma’s garden, a stillness that smells of fresh-turned dirt and rain-damp grass. The grass grows tall and tufty here in our yard, like a meadow rather than a lawn, and the plants—hair-grass and timothy and mead wort (which Grandma insists on calling moose-grass)—sway and rustle around my legs when I walk through them.

“Grandma?”

There’s no answer, except the voices of the trees, whispering to each other across the fence.

I hurry down the garden path, cheeks still flushed from arguing with dad, but even on a day like today I feel better, here among the trees.

The trees in the forest outside the fence speak with voices that belong to the Pacific northwest—western hemlock and maple, Sitka spruce, red and yellow cedar. The trees inside the yard whisper back, but none of them are natives here. They were brought from Scandinavia as seedlings, planted by Grandma when my family moved into this house forty years ago. Since then, the pine and spruce, the rowans and the birches have all grown tall, shading the yard and house with their boles and branches.

Grandma and my parents chose this house because it’s close enough to the city for work, close enough to the woods for a forest troll to stay healthy, and because the backyard is big enough that Grandma can have her own place.

“My old-fashioned cave,” Grandma calls it, though it’s more like a root cellar, dug into the ground.

She doesn’t think trolls should live in houses, and she’s not just old-fashioned, she’s old. No one really knows how old, and she’s certainly not telling.

Grandma’s door is made of grey, warped wood, and it’s even older than she is. It’s the door from our family’s cave in northern Sweden, and Grandma brought it with her, wrenching it off its hinges, when she left the old country.

A short ramp leads from the garden path to the door and judging by the muddy wheel-tracks on the plywood, my best friend Irene is already inside. There’s a door-knocker too, made from an old badger skull, but I don’t bother knocking, I just burst inside, hoping dad won’t come looking for me here.

Inside, the only light comes from Grandma’s beeswax candles and the fireplace. In that soft glow, I see Irene and Grandma hunched together at the small table in the sparsely furnished room. Irene is in her wheelchair, and Grandma seated on her favourite boulder, leaning so close to Irene that at first I think she’s about to sink her teeth into her arm.

They both look up together, and Irene tries to cover something on the table with her sleeve, but I’ve already seen the gleam of sharpened flint: Grandma’s favourite knife, its edge as sharp as any razor.

“What are you doing?” I ask, feeling as though I’ve walked in on two plotting criminals.

They exchange a look that makes me even more suspicious.

“Nothing,” Grandma says quickly and turns toward me, amber eyes glinting beneath her thick white hair.

“Your grandma is teaching me troll stuff!” Irene exclaims just as quickly, wheeling herself away from the table, stray locks of black hair peeking out beneath the blue hood of her sweater.

On the table I see Grandma’s treasure box, lid flipped open, the dark wood filled with gold nuggets, shards of mountain crystal, raw garnets—all the gems and gold Grandma has gathered beneath the ground and elsewhere since she was born, each one a memory of a certain time and place, each one a treasured piece of her life.

When Grandma sees me looking, she snaps the lid shut.

“She’s teaching me all sorts about troll history and culture, for our Socials project,” Irene says, fiddling with a remaining gold nugget, bouncing it by flexing her leg stumps underneath the plaid blanket covering her lap.

“Like what?” I ask, suspicious.

“For example,” Irene says in her best classroom voice, “that trolls see gold as keepsakes, rather than something you use for money. And, that in the olden days, trolls would sometimes keep people locked up underground for years before they released them! How cool is that?”

“Grandma!” I exclaim, horrified. “Next you’re going to tell her you used to cook and eat people at your feasts.”

“Did you really?” Irene asks eagerly.

“Don’t be silly!” Grandma huffs. “Nobody cooked them!”

Irene bursts out laughing, and Grandma gives me a look, pleased and cunning at the same time.

“Your dad found out about the dance and Grieg, then?” she says and scoots over so I can sit beside her on the boulder.

“How’d you know?”

“After your dance instructor called he screamed so loud we heard it all the way out here,” she chuckles, caressing the flint knife, and again I wonder what they’ve been up to.

Grandma mostly uses her flint knife for spells and magic, but she’s not supposed to be doing that kind of stuff when Irene’s around. Not that Irene would mind.

Irene has been my best friend since Kindergarten, and she loves listening to Grandma, loves all the old jokes and stories I’ve grown tired of over the years, but when Grandma talks about eating people and keeping them captive and using magic, it’s sometimes hard to tell if she’s joking, or if she’s being serious and laughing at the same time.

“Your dad’s right,” Grandma says. “You shouldn’t dance to Grieg. That man knew nothing about trolls or dancing. And that costume you told me this Marie wants you to wear…” She looks up, teeth gleaming in a tight grimace. “Did she at least get rid of the tail?”

“No. Marie thinks the tail is playful and fun and trollish.”

Grandma mutters something in Swedish, and I’m glad Irene can’t understand her.

“Tell her what you wore when you danced,” Irene prods, and Grandma grins, a wide and wicked smile full of sharp teeth.

“I wore a dress made of spider-silk and gold. Magicked, too, of course. We used our magic freely back then. No one thought anything of enchanting things or even people.”

“Sounds a whole lot better than your costume,” Irene remarks and I roll my eyes.

“I don’t like it either, but I have to make the best of it. And now dad wants me to stop dancing. I’ve worked so hard for this, and now it’s all just falling apart.”

“What’s that music you wanted to dance to?” Irene asks. “Something by…Stradivarius?”

I blush.

Stravinsky. ‘Rite of Spring.’ Marie thought it was too avant-garde. Meaning she thinks I can’t do it.”

“She’s wrong,” Grandma mutters.

“I even have a whole routine worked out.” I sigh, nibbling on some of pickled earthworms from a bowl on the table. “But I’ll save it for another time.”

Irene pounds the table with her fists.

“Come on, Tilda. Show me!”

“What? I can’t dance in here.”

“Please?”

Finally, I give in. I dance just a few steps while I hum the music, and even with nothing more than that, my body stirs with an effervescent joy I know I’ll never feel dancing to Grieg and wearing a tail.

“It’s a shame,” Grandma says holding the door open when we leave, and Irene is rolling down the ramp, “that you won’t get a chance to show them some real troll-magic.”

* * *

“Irene,” I ask as I walk beside her up the path toward our house. “Grandma… she hasn’t tried to…you know, eat you or anything?”

Irene guffaws.

“Of course not!”

“And she’s not doing anything… magic with you, is she? That’s not why you’re spending so much time with her lately? I mean, trolls aren’t supposed to use their magic on people, but Grandma is getting old and…”

“No!”

“Then why are you cooped up with her so much? I thought you had basketball practice this afternoon.”

“I did. I was sent home for telling some little kid a bear tore off my legs.” I give her a look. She grins. “OK, maybe I added some unnecessarily graphic details. But I didn’t want to go home, so I told the lady who drove me to bring me here.”

I sigh. Irene always makes up stories about how she lost her legs. Gruesome stories, usually. Once, she even told a gawking first-grader that I ate her legs. She never tells anyone what really happened, though, not even me. She claims the stories she makes up are way more interesting than the truth, and it doesn’t even bother me anymore, not knowing.

“Don’t worry, Tilda,” Irene grins. “I hang out with your Grandma because I like her. And she’s right. You shouldn’t dance to that stupid fake troll music.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Sure, tell the legless girl she’s got it easy,” Irene says, winking at me before she motors down the street to her house on the corner.

* * *

That night, I dance in my room. I clear a space in front of the mirror and play ‘Rite of Spring’ on my tablet, so quiet it’s barely audible, and just like in Grandma’s cave, I feel the trollish thrill of Stravinsky, of this music, this dance, these steps.

When I finally go to bed it’s after midnight and I hear Grandma shuffling around outside in the garden, humming an old lullaby while the trees whisper all around us.

I fall asleep with Grandma’s voice, and the voices of the trees, singing in my ears.

* * *

At school the next day, I finally realize what Grandma was doing with the flint knife, and why Irene kept her hood up the night before. Irene’s long, glossy black hair is gone, and the jagged ends of what remains stick out around her ears. I’m horrified.

“Why would you let her do that?”

Irene shrugs.

“It always got in the way. This is better.”

“Did she keep the hair?” I ask, heart sinking.

“She might have.”

“What’s she doing with it? Something magic?”

Irene looks suddenly serious.

“Magic isn’t bad, you know. I realize you can do bad things with it, but it isn’t automatically evil or wrong.”

“You sound like Grandma. What is she doing with it?”

But no matter how I try, Irene won’t tell me.

* * *

My next dance practice is worse than the last one. I sneak out of the house before dad gets home, and I have this idea that I should talk to Marie about the tail and the music, but once I’m there, I can’t get a word out.

The house is empty when I get back, and Grandma’s door is locked. There are fresh wheel-tracks along the path and down the ramp, and I bang on the door, calling for Grandma and Irene. I even use the badger skull knocker, but the door won’t budge.

“You better not be eating my friend!” I shout before giving the door a kick.

All evening and into the night, I keep a watch from my window, but no one goes in or out of Grandma’s place, at least not while I’m awake.

* * *

Irene is not at school the next day, or the day after that, and no one answers when I text or call. Her dad works shifts at the docks, and her mom is a teacher-on-call, so you never really know when they’ll be home, but Irene usually answers even if she’s sick.

At school, I walk around in a daze, so out of it that I don’t even snap at the kids making fun of my big feet in the gym. That afternoon, Grandma’s door still won’t open. She’s even magicked it to look like a boulder, as if that would fool me. I kick and bang on it some more, but nothing happens.

“Irene! Are you in there?”

No reply.

“Did you see Grandma today?” I ask mom when she wakes up from her afternoon nap.

“No. But you know how Grandma is, sometimes she just sleeps for a couple of days or goes off into the woods, wandering.”

“Did you see Irene today, or yesterday?”

“No.”

I think of Irene, of her hair cut short, of Grandma spinning that knife of flint on the table between them.

“Grandma wouldn’t hurt Irene, would she?”

“Of course not! Whatever are you thinking?”

“I don’t mean that she’d do it on purpose, but she’s really old and sometimes… I mean, if she was really hungry…”

“Tilda! I know Grandma likes to pretend she’s a scary old troll-madam, but you know she’s not like that. Besides, I’m sure Irene is just at basketball practice or something. “

I nod, but I know better. I know a lot of troll magic involves using someone’s hair, and Grandma has a whole braid of Irene’s locks.

I know everything is wrong, and I know I can’t fix it.

It’s mom’s day off, and she’s giving me a ride to the last practice before the recital. On my way out, I run into dad. He takes one look at me, dressed in my dance gear, and glowers.

“We talked about this. No more dancing.”

I fumble with my backpack, fumble with my words, finding none that are fit to say out loud.

Dad sighs, or maybe he growls, it’s hard to tell the difference.

“Tilda… Those people in the dance business, this Marie and the dance academy… they’ll never see you as anything other than a big troll, fit only for clumsy footwork and maybe a laugh. I know what it’s like to be around people like that, and I don’t want that for you.”

I know dad’s trying to be sensible, kind, even, but each word stabs through my tough, grey skin, sharper than Grandma’s blade of flint, more painful than anything else he’s ever said to me. And maybe it’s because of the pain, or maybe it’s because of Grandma and Irene and the tail I’ve carried around in my backpack all week, but a sudden troll-rage overwhelms me, flaring up like an all-consuming, grease-fed flame. It burns through me, more powerful than ever before. I don’t know what I look like, but dad’s jaw goes slack, and I feel twice as big and ten times as strong, and when I open my mouth, not a word comes out, just a deafening roar. It’s so loud it sets off the neighbour’s car alarm.

I don’t wait around to see what dad will do, I just run outside, the magic fading as quickly as it flared up. By the time mom sits down in the driver’s seat, I’ve doused the last embers inside me.

Mom drives the whole way in silence.

“Dad’s just worried about you,” she says when we arrive. “You know that, right?”

“I’m a good dancer, mom. I’m not a joke.”

“I know. I’ve seen you dance, and you have a gift. You probably get that from Grandma, because it certainly doesn’t come from me or your dad.”

Right now it’s hard to think I’m anything at all like Grandma.

“Was she really good?”

“Sweetums, she was the best. When she danced, she could spellbind a mountain-full of trolls.”

I get out of the car, and mom leans over, giving me a wink.

“Go do your thing. Make the best of it.”

* * *

For a few minutes, I almost think it’ll be OK. I almost think I can do it, that it won’t be so bad after all. Until I get inside.

Two people, a man and a woman I’ve never seen before, are talking to Marie, and everyone else is in a tizzy.

They’re from the dance academy. That’s what Marie tells us. And they’re here, unofficially, to watch us practice.

“I love Grieg,” the man says, shaking my hand enthusiastically. He’s trying not to stare, but I guess he’s never seen a troll in tights before. “Can’t wait to see what real troll will do with that wonderful music and Marie’s famous choreography!”

“I didn’t even think trolls really existed,” the lady confides to me, smiling at me as if that’s supposed to be a compliment.

Maybe I smile too. I’m not sure. I only know I cannot speak, because all my words have shriveled into nothing. There’s only one thing I know for certain: I’m trapped, wearing a tail in the hall of the Mountain King.

Make the best of it, I think, but tonight, those words seem like a bad joke.

Marie wants us to dance in costume. Of course. I put mine on in the bathroom. It fits. The tail dangles behind me and I try to see it as playful, fun, and trollish, but I can’t.

I dance last. Before me there’s a swan, a princess, a prince, a tin soldier, a fairy with wings. And then there’s me. A troll dressed in a troll costume.

I dance, I play the troll, I wag my tail, I do everything as trollishly as possible, and everyone loves it. The two visitors even clap when I’m done.

I bow, and walk out. I don’t even bother taking off the costume, I just put on my jacket and go. Maybe Marie calls my name, but I don’t stop. I keep walking until I’m in the parking lot where mom is waiting for me.

“Tilda?”

I just shake my head, unable to speak, staring through the windshield at the lights inside the building, the lights where everybody else is, while I’m out here in the dark. Mom drives away, and I grab hold of the top of my costume, digging my fingers into the coarse, ugly fabric and with one tug I rip the whole thing in half.

* * *

That night I head into the woods. Mom and dad both tried to talk to me, but what I feel has no words, it’s like a troll-rage roar, but silent: it only reverberates inside me where no one else can hear.

It’s dark, and I’m barefoot, dressed only in my flannel pajamas. I haven’t run into the woods like this since I was five or six, back when Grandma would come and collect me by suppertime if I’d given her the slip. Of course, I’m not really running away; I just don’t know what to do.

I head into forest beyond our house, in between the trees, until the sounds of the backyards and the streets fade away.

I know the trees here are not the same as in the Swedish forests where Grandma and my parents lived for centuries before coming here. Grandma says everything about the trees here is different, their bark and roots, their sap and smell, even the way they speak in the wind. She says the rocks are different too, that they hum a different song than she’s used to. But these are the only trees and rocks I’ve ever known. They are my trees, my rocks, and this is my forest: red cedars and red alders towering above me, branches shaggy with moss; swaying western hemlocks with waxy, scaly needles whispering in the canopy; maples with splayed-fingered leaves waving in welcome; soft ferns tickling my legs.

I sit down in a hollow between the roots of a storm-felled tree, leaning back in the soft dirt, thinking I might never move again.

If a troll sits still enough for long enough, they turn into rock. That’s how most trolls die, according to Grandma. They get old and tired, they sit down in the woods and they don’t bother getting up again.

I sit. I’m not cold. I’m not even angry anymore. I just sit, and I imagine that I’m turning heavy and solid and grey, inside and out. I’m not sure how long I sit like that before Grandma finds me.

“It takes quite a while to turn to stone, you know. Especially when you’re still so young and soft.”

She sits down next to me, knees pulled up until they creak, arms linked around them, and her white hair a frizzy halo in the moonlight.

“Can’t say as I’ll ever get used to these woods,” she sniffs. “Where I grew up everything grew slow and deliberate, and in winter, it all froze and slept till spring. Almost makes me tired, just feeling all these trees, so busy growing all the time.”

We sit together for a while after that, neither of us speaking.

“Your performance is tomorrow, I guess,” Grandma remarks finally.

I dig my fingers into the dirt, curling them like roots.

“I can’t do it. I can’t dance with a tail. I can’t dance to Grieg. And I can’t give up dancing, no matter what dad thinks. It’s all wrong and it’s too late to fix any of it now. I’ve been trying to make the best of it,” I whisper, feeling small, “but I don’t know how.”

“Can’t you just dance what you want to dance?”

“No. I want to get into the Dance Academy, and Marie says…”

Grandma blows a raspberry.

“No doubt you’d get applause for dancing to that rubbish by Grieg. Might even get you into that Academy. But no matter how good this Marie is, it doesn’t mean she knows how you should dance. And this Dance Academy, why wouldn’t they let you in if you dance as good as you can do?”

“Because…” I start, before I realize I don’t know what to answer.

Grandma nudges me with a calloused elbow.

“Bet they’ve never seen a troll dance, really dance. Have they?”

“Maybe not, but…”

“But nothing. There’s magic in the right dance. And yes, I know your parents think trolls shouldn’t wield magic around humans.” She peers at me underneath her bushy eyebrows. “Truth is, humans have magic too, and they wield it all the time.”

“No, they don’t.”

“They do. Take your friend Irene, she’s got a strong magic in her. My, my. That girl can spellbind even me when she starts talking about science and space and basketball and what-not!”

“That’s not the same. Troll magic is scary. That’s why we don’t use it anymore.”

“Not all troll magic is scary. A troll-rage is frightful, for sure. But trolls have other kinds of magic, and a troll dance is the best kind of magic. I’ll tell you this, if that Grieg had ever seen me dance, he’d have written another kind of music entirely.”

I think of the flutter beneath my skin when I dance, the zing and zap of something fizzy-light and sparkling inside my bones.

“We’re not supposed to use our magic around humans,” I repeat, stubbornly.

“Pish posh. The magic is a part of you and I don’t see why you should withhold it from the world.”

“Marie says all great artists have to sacrifice for their art.” I dig my fingers even deeper into the soil.

“Maybe that’s true, but is it really worth it if what you have to sacrifice is yourself?”

I sit quiet for a bit, listening to the trees and rocks whispering around us, their voices clearer than they’ve ever been before. It’s almost as if they’re murmuring my name, telling me I’m as tough as they are, as strong as stone and wood

I think of a mountain full of trolls, spellbound by Grandma dancing..

“Using magic is cheating, though, isn’t it?” I say, looking at Grandma, her lustrous eyes glimmering in the moonlight.

“No. You cannot cheat by being what you are.”

“But I don’t even have anything to wear,” I say, voice trembling now, thinking about the ripped costume.

Grandma laughs, her biggest, loudest guffaw.

“Well, now…I happen to have something you can wear instead.” She gets up and offers me a hand. “You’ve been looking for Irene, haven’t you?”

“What did you do to her?” I ask as I stand up, brushing the dirt off my pajamas.

Grandma looks offended.

Do to her? What do you think I did? Nibbled on her? Turned her into soup? I didn’t do anything to her at all. But she has done something for you, and now she wants to show it to you.”

* * *

“Tilda, you’re up next.”

It’s the night of the recital, and I’m staring at myself in the mirror backstage, still trying to convince myself that what I see is real. The dress I’m wearing reaches halfway down my thighs and it’s heavy, but somehow, it’s heavy in a way that doesn’t weigh me down, and when I move, it chimes.

It’s a garment that seems part dress, part armor, part enchantment, and I feel the power of it stir against my skin.

Irene and Grandma made this dress for me, together. They worked almost without sleep or rest these last few days, locked inside Grandma’s cave. They used Grandma’s gold nuggets, each one pierced to make a bead, then sewn onto the soft silk underneath with thread spun from Irene’s black hair, each strand magicked by Grandma to be as soft as cotton, yet as strong as steel wire.

Some of the nuggets are smaller than a sunflower seed, some are as big as a dime, and the entire dress is covered with them – each one jingling softly when I move. When Marie sees me, or rather, when sees the dress for the first time, her expression is so comical it almost makes me laugh out loud. Instead, my words tumble out in a rush:

“Marie, thank you so much for all your help and the costume and the choreography, but I can’t…I can’t dance to Grieg and I can’t wear a tail either. I am doing a different dance and I brought the music and I’m doing it and if you want to kick me out of the class afterward, it’s fine, just let me do it first, OK?”

I take a breath after all that, and Marie says…nothing. She’s staring at the golden dress, reaching out to touch it, befuddled and incredulous. Finally, she nods.

* * *

When the curtain rises, and I stand in the middle of the stage, my body and my limbs perfectly positioned. I see mom and dad in the audience, seated next to Grandma and Irene. Grandma’s hair is like a white cloud around her head, while Irene’s new, short hairdo is styled to look like a spiky hedgehog. Dad is scowling, but he still waves at me, making the best of it, I guess.

Don’t worry, dad, I think, and try to smile reassuringly.

Grandma and Irene, they sort of know what’s coming, but no one else has seen this dress, and no one at all has seen this dance before.

On stage, the gold dress shivers to life, sparkling, flashing, gleaming. And when the music starts – those first raw, shivering notes of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ – I begin to dance.

I dance, and just like when I danced by myself in my room, I feel the trembling power lurking beneath the surface of that dance I dance while the gold spins and flows and ripples around me, tethered to me, to my movements, by the silky strength of Irene’s magicked hair. I dance, and as the music moves within me, as I move within it, the room changes. It’s not an ordinary room in an ordinary building anymore. It’s a huge hall, carved out of a mountain, and the rounded walls glow with veins of mountain crystal, lit by magic from within. The hall falls quiet around me. There is no other sound than the music and my feet. I twirl and spin, I leap and turn, and I am gold and light and movement, but most of all I am me, utterly and completely.

There’s no tail. There’s no Grieg. There’s just me, the magic of my dance, and the magic Grandma and Irene made for me.

When the music stops, I hear only my own breath and heartbeat, and for a dizzying moment I almost think no one saw, that they all left, that I might have dreamed it. Then, the clapping starts, and does not stop. The applause thunder around me, echoing, as if we really are in a hall beneath a mountain. Grandma is on her feet; Irene is grinning, and everyone else smiling: Mom, dad, even Marie.

I take a bow, and in that moment, I feel as strong and powerful as all the rocks and roots in the forest.

Most days, I love to dance. Most days, I love being a troll. Most days, I love being me.

Today is definitely one of those days.

____

Copyright 2018  Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer of speculative fiction. She was born and grew up in Sweden and debuted as a writer there in the mythical era known as “the 1980s”. Currently, she lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog.

Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Pseudopod, Mythic Delirium, Cast of Wonders, several anthologies, and elsewhere. Her latest self-published release is the flash-fiction collection “Dark Flash 3”. Find out more on her website, or follow her on Twitter.

For six years, opening the GigaNotoSaurus submissions inbox and beginning the hunt for the next gem has been a highlight of my week. But it’s time to start a new adventure.

I’m so grateful to Ann Leckie for the opportunity to take the helm. It’s impossible to quantify how much I’ve learned in my time as editor. It’s been a pleasure working with such tremendous writers, and I look forward to seeing more of their stories in the future.  I’m also astounded by our wonderful readers, and will always be grateful for the recognition we received as a Hugo finalist. That was truly a highlight of my run.

I have the distinct joy to hand off the role of editor to Elora Gatts, recently of PodCastle. She is a keen and insightful reader and I can’t wait to read the stories she picks for the zine.

All the best,

Rashida J. Smith

Compost Traumatic Stress

by

Brian Koukol

Blistering tongues of immolated fuel spewed from the dropship, sculpting the sterile mudscape into a smear of ragged sumps and ridges as it touched down. Seconds later, the rear hatch fell open and shat 2nd Platoon into the mire.

Mort Louka stumbled into his first taste of the war, then sank straight to his knees with an audible slurp. As he struggled to unfuck himself, an enormous hand grabbed him by the back of his cammies.

“Step to, Private,” a stone-faced Corporal Pataba grumbled, liberating him from his predicament and his boots in the same motion.

Now in his socks, Mort glanced over his shoulder in search of his waylaid shitkickers, but his view was blocked by the jostling queue of determined Marines on his soggy heels. Unwilling to be the cause of Platoon’s delay, Mort abandoned his boots and crawled out of the way on his hands and knees.

A few arduous body-lengths later, he tried standing again. His right foot immediately plunged back into the muck and he grimaced in pain as a rock sliced open the side of his sole, spilling its sanguine contents. He managed to wrench himself free and limped after the rest of his fire team, trailing blood and mud and confidence.

“What’s the name of this planet again?” he asked Pataba when he’d caught up, trying to cover for his rookie clumsiness. “Meemaw?”

PFC Krev, tasked as force multiplier and somehow walking on top of the sludge at his left flank with the M440, snickered. “That’s right, Boot,” he said, his deep-set eyes slinking in the shadows of contiguous eyebrows. “They named this place after your grandma. It’s wet and dirty, just like she is.”

“Limos,” Corporal Pataba said. “Named for the Greek goddess of famine.” His dark, weathered face wrinkled to a bitter smile. “Only thing that grows here is the casualty list.”

“Should’ve named it after the goddess of mud,” Private Redmond muttered from ready position up front.

Mort nodded in agreement. Other than the deploying fire teams of 2nd platoon and an occasional glimpse of the rest of Charlie Company or their emptying dropships, mud was the only thing on the menu.

On the human one, at least.

As it turned out, the Chokes had a menu of their own, and it featured 7th Marines as the soup du jour.

* * *

Mort snapped out of the memory, uncertain how long he’d been lost in it. His mind did that now, dropping him without warning into a past he’d just as soon forget as punishment for the smallest of rests. It couldn’t be trusted. Neither could he. That’s why the Corps had sent him back.

He gazed across the patchwork sward that undulated all around him, captivated by its tidal rhythms. Limos looked different now. Death had brought it to life.

A crimson stalk pushed up from an inky patch of chokegrass at his bare feet, betraying the final resting place of an alien soldier. And a pretty good one, too, based on the enveloping sprays of wild garlic—the Choke bastard must’ve taken an entire squad of Marines with it.

Careful to get the roots as well, Mort ripped the crimson stalk from the vivid, carmine soil and stuffed it into the incinerator-bound bag he carried over his shoulder. The offending weed, which the xeno-taxonomy binder called blood thyme, featured hair-like projections that injected a nasty toxin into anything unlucky enough to brush against it. Without his bionic arms and their self-sterilization abilities, Mort would’ve been in for a world of hurt.

The chokegrass surrounding the uprooted blood thyme was still too short from his last mow to cut again, but Mort noticed aphids climbing on it, so he sprinkled some powdered tilapia fertilizer over top in the name of terrestrial progress. Another month and the dead Choke’s stain on the land would be forgotten, blotted out by the inexorable march of the human race.

Satisfied with his work, Mort moved on to the next skirmish in the war for Limos, now called Demeter thanks to some forward-thinking brainiac up the chain of command.

The soldiers here had long since stopped hemorrhaging their blood and guts and tears into the soil, but the land remembered. Only Mort, and those like him, could make it forget.

If only he could do the same for himself.

Against regulations, Mort wore no boots. Such a choice was inherently dangerous, but the hyperawareness it demanded both soothed his mind and helped him spot any diminutive Choke plants that he may have otherwise missed.

He walked on—never looking more than a yard ahead and making sure to keep the flamboyant hillock of earthly wildflowers and absurd tendrils of manwort that loomed in the hazy distance ever at his back—until he spotted something metallic in the foliage at his feet.

Seven spent cartridges of 5.56. Primitive, yes, but also better than beam weapons at penetrating Choke armor.

He scooped up the archaic brass from the base of an eight foot ellipse of false oat-grass and inspected it. The original shine of the cartridges had been scoured toward matte by ubiquitous Choke microbes with a taste for metal, but their shape was unmistakable.

After stuffing the brass into his empty hip pack, Mort stretched his aching back and raised his face to Demeter’s dropping sun, allowing a rare breeze of tranquility to wash over him. It had been several weeks since he’d found any metal on the forty acre parcel he’d been tasked with cleansing; this discovery was a godsend.

The absence of new finds of metal and bone and a general reduction in the Choke plant population had raised big questions of what would happen when his task was complete. Would they move him to a new parcel? Perhaps closer to the flowery hillock that he couldn’t possibly face? Perhaps to the place itself?

But the cluster of brass had given him a reprieve. Seven cartridges. Seven! A find like that had to mean that much more work remained before he needed to worry about a change.

As per his routine, he worked until the sun sank below the horizon and the sky darkened to a deep bruise before forcing his bare feet toward his lonely CHU—a repurposed dropship dragged into place for his exclusive use and called containerized housing. Before crossing the threshold to the misery within, he headed around back to dump the day’s finds.

The 5.56 echoed as it struck the bottom of the empty scrap can, and the Choke flora—his third bag of the stuff for the day—barely filled the incinerator halfway up, rounding out a pitiful haul for the week. He wondered if Mejia would have anything to say to him when she made her pickup the next day. The work was getting thinner, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise. At some point, somebody up the chain was going to notice.

If he were smart, he’d take the next few days off and let the weeds grow into something formidable, but he couldn’t do that to himself. To stand still was to be bombarded by horrors of both thought and memory. The forced idleness of night was bad enough—he refused to give the past room to creep in during the daylight hours as well.

Reaching back into the scrap can, he retrieved two of the spent brass jackets. He rolled them around the palm of one of his replacement hands—a pallid, pristine facsimile that moved and looked almost normal, if one didn’t notice the tanned, weathered flesh that abutted it.

He squeezed his fingers into a fist, feeling the movement and the pressure, yet also the falsity. His new hands were imposters, consolations, memorials. They belonged to the Corps—he was but a conditional caretaker. Dischargees didn’t get replacement arms—they got stumps and a work deferment waiting for them back in protected space. He’d pass.

With a dismissive grunt, Mort threw the brass into the deepening darkness of the parcel. As long as there was something to find out there, they couldn’t move him. They couldn’t force him any closer to the terrifying nosegay on the hillock. They just couldn’t.

* * *

Inside his CHU, Mort hit the switch that illuminated the end of the hollowed-out dropship that contained the kitchen and multipurpose table. There were other lights, but he liked to keep them off. They made everything too visible. Without them, he could almost forget the previous life of his home. He could almost forget the sour stench of vomit and the nervous anticipation of the condemned as they descended to their fate, and he with them.

Mort threw himself into his tableside chair and sighed. He snatched up one of Smudge’s weathered books from the small shelf of poetry and culinary tomes behind his head and glanced at the cover. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.

He leafed through the rough paper pages, disgusted by the paradoxical scent of sweet vanilla and musty decay, until he came at last to a spot of broken spine. Handwritten text crowded the margins and squeezed its way beneath underlined print. This one must’ve been a favorite of his predecessor.

Mort zeroed in on a circled section near the top and read it aloud:

“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?

How can you be alive you growths of spring?

How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?

Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?

Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?”

Mort peeked over his shoulder at the rusty brown stain sullying the worn mattress of his stripped bunk.

“Damn, Smudge,” he said to it. “You had a darkness in you. No wonder you offed yourself.”

He read a little more:

“Now I am terrified at the earth! it is that calm and patient,

It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,”

Mort massaged his furrowed brow with thumb and forefinger. Why was he doing this gardening work? Why hadn’t he gone AWOL after his rehab? For hands? For purpose? For revenge? He wouldn’t see any of the fruits of his efforts. By the time the Choke residue had been cleansed and fecund human settlements took hold on Demeter, he would be long gone. Or long dead. What was the point of working toward the future? He had no future. He was damaged, broken, rudderless. The best he could hope for was to pass time and keep one step ahead of his demons.

“Now I am terrified at the earth!”

He lived five minutes at a time. Where was the future in that? Once, he had lived for something more than himself. He couldn’t remember what it was, but it was something. He wanted that sense of purpose back, but he knew he couldn’t have it.

“Now I am terrified…”

He squeezed his hands into fists. He should be able to get over this. He should be able to concentrate. And sleep. And smile. But he couldn’t.

“Now I am—“

* * *

Mort stood knee-deep in sludge. He’d lost his rifle. Redmond had already split.

A triad formation of Choke air cover screamed overhead. Seconds later, their payloads broke through the guttural tenor of pitched battle in a series of concussive detonations. Warm, comforting piss streamed down his leg.

With his bladder empty, Mort located his weapon and turned toward Krev’s overwatch position as ordered.

The mud fought him every step of the protracted bound up the hillock, sucking at his socks and then bare toes as the muck did its best to undress him. Even at its worst, however, it could do no more than had been done to the lone figure of PFC Krev, skylining Mort’s destination and flinging out all the covering fire he could muster.

When he reached his side, Mort saw that the PFC had been stripped of his cammies and issued a new uniform of weeping wounds and cauterized scabs shellacked in drying mud.

“About time you showed up,” Krev shouted between bursts of the M440, oblivious to his injuries. “I’m about black on ammo. Thought it was gonna end up being my big, swinging cock against the whole Choke army down there.” He fired off another burst. “And that wouldn’t be fair for the Chokes.”

Mort swallowed hard. The ammo!

Fearing he’d lost it in the same blast that had waylaid his rifle and discombobulated the team, his hands leapt to his chest.

He breathed a sigh of relief. Two ammo belts crisscrossed his torso.

As Krev’s M440 went dry, Mort passed him one of the belts and then surveyed the battlefield spread out before them.

Several ranks of Choke infantry—immediately catalogued by his brain as three-legged, headless Minotaurs wrapped in obsidian shells—clustered behind an imposing line of polygonal armored skiffs gliding across the sloppy plain below as if on ice. The majority of Bravo Company engaged them. Mortar squads lobbed ineffective ordinance shoulder to shoulder with machine gunners desperately scratching the shallowest of depressions into the flat, open terrain. Under the pathetic protection of Krev and his light machine gun, Alpha Company maneuvered toward the makeshift defense, ready to fill in the flanks and support Bravo’s anti-armor capability. Most of Charlie held back in reserve.

A fresh burst from Krev’s weapon drew Mort’s attention back to the PFC. Nude, caked in mud, and spewing vengeance, he looked every bit the golem, born from mud to destroy man’s enemies.

Mort dropped to his belly and scratched at the muck beneath him—not to create his own golem, but to get as far away from the carnage and danger as possible. If he could only dig deep enough, perhaps there was still time to save himself.

“That’s right,” Krev said to him. “Get low. They’re about to take a run at us.”

Mort glanced up from his pathetic scrape just in time to witness the entire line of Choke armor vomit a simultaneous barrage of explosive shells. He drove his face straight back down into the wet muck. It seeped up his nose and into his mouth, forming a thick and suffocating seal. Only after the concussive wrath of the Choke volley had been met by return fire from PFC Krev did he raise his head.

He should’ve kept his face in the mud.

* * *

Mort threw the book across the room and leapt to his feet. He needed to get his mind on something else. But it was pitch dark outside, and would stay that way for the next ten hours.

His stomach grumbled. Was he hungry? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.

Hungry or not, cooking was the exact sort of busy work he needed. Over the course of his second stint planetside, he’d julienned and braised his way through all of Smudge’s culinary books several times over. Kitchen work turned out to be a reliable path through the interminable night.

From the icebox, he dug out some mutton and rabbit reared on one of Demeter’s few cleansed parcels and supplemented it with vegetables grown on another. Then he started in on some hot-water pastry—banging and kneading and working the dough, relying on the repetition of movement to center his thoughts on task over tangent.

When the meat pie he envisioned was finally ready for baking, he burned through some more time cutting intricate shapes of leaf and game out of the dough for adornment. Then he crushed them into a giant ball, which he rolled out and shaped again. Anything to bring the dawn closer.

At last, he could delay no longer and shoved the pie into the countertop oven he’d inherited from Smudge.

He walked the inside perimeter of the CHU ten times, loosening the iron grip of anxiety on his throat, then checked his hanging sheets on the line outside. Last night’s panicked sweats were nearly dry, so he made his bed before finally returning to his chair.

His foot tapped. His fingers drummed. He cracked his neck. Then he was back up, ready to bake a cake. Or pickles! He could make pickles! No—bread!

He’d caught some wild yeast and had been propagating it in a jar. There was no telling whether it was human or Choke yeast, but he figured it didn’t really matter. Despite the best efforts of his fellow gardeners, the ewes and hares in his pie had probably snacked on a bit of chokegrass or bittervetch at some point and the veggies must’ve grown in soil tainted by at least a ribbon of carmine. If he stayed here long enough, he just might start turning into one of the bastards himself.

The pie came out of the oven before the bread had finished its first proof. It needed to rest for a few minutes before he dug in, so he spent the time biting at the craggy, broken skin of his chapped lips, you can take care of your skin in a healthy way just use under eye masks.

When the pie was ready, he cut a thick slice and sat with it at the table. The pungent essences of marjoram and rosemary rode into his nostrils on an updraft of hot steam, complemented by the lean gaminess of the proteins and a fortifying undercurrent of grassy, pastured butter and pork fat.

Mort broke through the crust, collecting a heaping forkful of the moist and fragrant filling and shoving it into his mouth. According to his nose, it should’ve been delicious.

It wasn’t.

To be fair, it wasn’t bad either—it simply didn’t taste like anything. Nothing did anymore. It wasn’t the food’s fault. It was his.

He chewed and chewed, but the bolus of gluten and animal protein in his mouth never seemed ready for a swallow. After finally forcing it down with a drink of water, his stomach growled, pleading for more calories and faster, but his gag reflex wouldn’t cooperate. He took another bite anyway, then stood up and paced around the decommissioned dropship, chewing. Maybe the movement would make things easier.

It didn’t.

After putting the mouthful down with another drink, he returned his barely disturbed plate to the kitchen, disgusted. Inside a cabinet sat the blender he’d acquired a few months earlier. He pulled it out and tossed the rest of his meal inside with a few cups of water, then processed it into a dun puree. It wasn’t very appealing, but, then again, no food was anymore.

After drinking his tepid, glutinous meal, he packed up the rest of his pie in the icebox and rolled out the leavened bread for its second rise.

To keep his brain occupied until the bread was ready for baking, he ripped two pages from the back of Smudge’s depressing book of poems and tried forming them into animals like the head shrinker at the sanatorium had taught him. Despite a valiant effort, his creations resolved as they always did, becoming polygonal Choke armor and its accompanying air cover.

Finally, his loaf of bread was good to go. He opened the oven door, ready to insert the twice-risen dough, when the alarm on his wrist went off. Time for bed.

Mort closed the oven door, turned it off, and dumped the fetal bread into the waste receptacle. He could’ve stuck it in the icebox and cooked it off in the morning, but he knew better than to expect anything of the future. Better to end each day with a period, just in case the next sentence never came.

After executing his nightly hygiene routine, Mort slipped into bed. And there he lay, swaddled in blankets and mostly dry sheets as tight as he could manage. The light was out. It was almost comfortable. He closed his eyes.

* * *

“I don’t get this place,” PFC Krev said, struggling along beside Mort as Charlie 1/7 advanced on their target. “We’re knee deep in mud and I don’t smell a damn thing. Shouldn’t it stink? You know, like a swamp?”

Redmond sniffed the air. “Reminds me of the wet saw I used before the war. Like cut stone.”

“Geosmin,” Mort said, still limping from his wounded foot.

“What?”

“Geosmin. That’s the stuff that makes mud smell like mud. It comes from bacteria in the soil. If this planet’s really dead, the aroma wouldn’t be what you’d expect.”

The team slowed to a halt. All eyes swiveled toward Mort.

“Where’d you learn all that?” Corporal Pataba asked at last.

Mort shrugged. “School.” They seemed to want something more personal, but he wasn’t willing to give it. Not on his first mission. That was just asking for it. “And the smell of rain on dry ground? That’s called petrichor,” he said instead.

Krev scoffed. “Well, all your fancy schooling ain’t worth shit against the Chokes. Unless you plan on boring them to death…”

A shriek in the air.

Incoming.

Before he could shout, Mort was airborne, twisting and flailing and breathless.

And then he was on his feet, staggering in the mud toward a recumbent and bloody Redmond.

“Troops in contact!” A chorus of voices shrieked in his ear. He tore out his comms and cast them aside as he slid into place beside the Private.

She cleared her throat, blinking rapidly in his arms. “What?” she said, blood filling her eyes from a pulsing head wound. “What?”

Things weren’t great, but they could’ve been worse. The blast shredded Redmond’s cammies, but, other than her head, she leaked more mud than blood.

“Nothing bleeds like a head,” Mort muttered, recalling his brief medic training as he searched his pack for a pressure bandage. Once he found one, he propped the Private’s head on his knee and wiped away the blood.

“Cold.” Her smile evolved toward dumb curiosity. “You really do…”

The shallow, three-inch gash leaked like a sieve through her matted hair. Certainly not a fatal wound, Mort decided, despite her suddenly fixed and dilated eyes. Must’ve been shock.

As he tried to apply the bandage, Redmond’s head slipped from his knee on a slick of blood. He grabbed her by the armpits and jerked her onto his lap to better access the wound.

Her torso came easy, but the lower half of her body stayed put. Mort stared at her legs for a moment, unable to reconcile them or the coil of glistening, pink ropes that tied them to her heaving chest.

Firm hands seized his collar and jerked him to his feet.

“She’s gone,” Pataba shouted as he shoved Mort toward a nearby rise. “Get on overwatch with Krev.”

Mort stumbled forward, but, once again, the Corporal grabbed him.

“Retrieve your rifle, Private,” Pataba said, manhandling him in line with the weapon and starting him off again with a push.

* * *

Mort convulsed back into reality. His blankets were off, crumpled on the floor. The bottom sheet clung to his back, stinking of cold sweat.

He peeled himself free and stood up, clad in nothing but his undershorts and the sebum of terror.

His rifle slept in bed beside him. He grabbed it and bounded out the front door.

A suffocating, nocturnal mist clung to the faint running lights that enveloped the CHU at its corners. Mort scrambled into the darkness beyond it, unconcerned with the dangers lurking underfoot.

As the light of the CHU dwindled behind him, he stumbled and collapsed into a shallow depression. A hastily scratched foxhole, most likely. His parcel teemed with them.

He lay in the furrow, listening. The night was alive with terrestrial insects—as far as he knew, there were no Choke bugs of visible size on Demeter any more, pesticides working where herbicides had not. He held his rifle in front of him, aiming it into the nebulous darkness. Collected moisture at the bottom of the little sink slapped against his naked belly as he wiggled for a comfortable position. He pressed his face into the bristly grass, then harder, hoping to reach the mud that once protected him.

In a past life, he would’ve basked in the reaffirming perfume of earthy geosmin, but those memories had been overwritten by the great palimpsest of war. Now, the fertile terroir stank of dreams deferred and promise broken. These were his fellow Marines—reduced from human to humus and fed to the future.

He longed for the sterile days of Limos, the innocence of cut stone, when the price of land had not been loss. But the Chokes had chosen war and humanity was only too willing to oblige them. When the fighting was over and the star systems were counted, perhaps the only true winner would be Demeter, brought into being by the compost of war. That is, unless it had preferred to stay Limos. No one had asked it, after all.

A quick movement a few meters in front of him drew Mort’s attention and two rounds from his rifle. The action was instinctual and euphoric.

With the thunderous reports still ringing in his ears, he scrambled to his feet and tracked down his prey.

A rat. Fat and mangled.

Mort returned to the foxhole with his prize and flopped onto his belly, rifle at the ready. The rat smelled of mud and shit and blood, overpowering the stench of the surrounding humus. It was nice, familiar—reminiscent of the wish-pennies he used to fish from his grandparents’ pond as a youth. Most of all, it reminded him of Redmond.

Without much thought, he smeared the ruptured neck of the carcass across his cheeks. Basking in its perfume, he pointed his rifle into the darkness, waiting. He was alert. He was ready.

He fell asleep.

* * *

Mort had his eyes on Redmond up front when the Private stopped and scooped up a fistful of mud.

“What’s she doing?” Mort asked PFC Krev.

Krev grinned. “She’s a quarter Haida Indian. Probably going to turn around and tell us exactly where that Choke gun is in a second.”

Redmond turned around, holding the mud aloft. “I found it!” she shouted.

“See?” Krev said, nudging Mort as they headed over with Pataba.

“What exactly did you find?” the Corporal asked when they reached her.

Redmond held out her fistful of mud. “The POO we’re looking for…”

Krev bent in half, laughing, and Pataba shook his head with a rare smirk. “Better check your Marine Corps manual,” he said. “We’re looking for a Point of Origin site—not whatever that is in your hand.”

“Then what am I supposed to do with this?” Redmond asked, feigning a frown as the sterile mud slipped through her fingers.

Krev slapped Mort on the back. “Give it to Boot here. He’s used to eating shit.”

The team broke into raucous laughter at Mort’s expense, but the joke vanished just as quickly into a stuttering staccato of distant Choke artillery fire.

“Sounds like the gun we’re after,” Pataba said.

Redmond picked up two more handfuls of mud. “I’m gonna make one of those golems you’re always talking about, Krev,” she said. “We can use all the help we can get, I think.”

As she shaped the muck in her hands to something nearing a homunculus, Mort turned to PFC Krev.

“What’s a golem?” he asked.

“Padow!” Krev replied, brandishing his fists. Tattooed onto three fingers of one hand and two on the other were several strange symbols.

Mort squinted at them. “Is that Thai?” he asked.

“No it’s not Thai,” Krev said, frowning. “It’s Hebrew.”

“What does it say?”

“Right hand says ’emet,’ which means truth. Left hand drops one letter, aleph, and says ‘met,’ which means death.”

“And what does that have to do with Redmond’s mud doll?”

Pataba groaned, but Krev smiled. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. “In Jewish mysticism, a mud warrior called a golem can be brought to life to destroy your enemies. All you gotta do is carve the right letters on its forehead and shazam, you got an angry pet. You start off by writing ‘met.’ Death. When you add aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and indicative of the oneness of God, it spells ’emet,’ truth, and the thing comes to life. When you’re done with it, you remove the oneness of God and it becomes death, a pile of ordinary mud.”

“So you fancy yourself a golem?” Mort asked, nodding at the tattooed knuckles. “That you’re tasked by God to destroy the Chokes?”

“No. Not God. This golem serves a higher power—the United States Marine Corps!” He swung his right fist—“where truth of purpose”—then his left—“means the death of our enemies. Oorah!”

The Choke gun thundered in the distance again and Mort scooped up his own handful of mud.

“What are you doing? Krev asked.

“Making my own golem,” Mort replied with a smile. “Redmond’s right. Another hundred just like you and we can’t lose.”

* * *

When Mort woke up, hours later, the parcel was still dark and he still smelled like a dying Redmond. Unwilling to spend the entire night outside like a madman, he returned to his bed—without washing off the rat. It was an aromatherapeutic salve, a spell of protection, a tonic against despair.

The rest of the night passed like any other. He slept, or didn’t. Dozed, or didn’t. Whatever the meat, the bread of his shit sandwich of a life was going to bed and getting up when his alarm told him to. When it finally, mercifully rang, he headed straight for the shower.

After twelve minutes of hygiene—the longest he could stretch the task without his mind wandering—it was time for breakfast. Unfortunately, he’d burned through the last of his supplies while trying to distract himself over the past week, so he broke his fast with a leftover meat pie smoothie. Four minutes. Then there was nothing left to do but kit up and get to work.

Outside, the enduring nocturnal mist clung to the ground in a typical morning fog that painted the landscape in dew and brought the rest of the world in close. Mort enjoyed mornings most—there was a whole day’s work between him and the torture of his idle nights, sure, but also because the hillock was obscured by the blanketing haze. For a few hours, it may as well have not existed.

Mort walked into the comforting swaddle of his parcel, basking in the prickly moisture of the shaggy grasses beneath his calloused feet. A deep breath brought the humidity into his lungs, filling the broken cracks of his insides with its thickness.

Then he froze, realizing he’d been walking without paying attention to where he was stepping again. He glanced down, beneath his descending sole, and spotted a spiky patch of breatherfew. A smile creased his face. If he’d finished that step, he would’ve finished himself too—breatherfew’s hobbies included the complete paralysis of the human diaphragm.

He backtracked a step or two and then knelt down to scuff up the deadly plant with the invulnerable fingers of his bionic arms. As he did so, one of the spent cartridges he’d tossed out the night before rolled out from between the bristles. He pocketed it, sprinkled some fish powder, and moved on.

After an hour of continuous work, the wind shifted to reveal the heralding bells of a pair of oxen extemporizing a ditty with two creaking wheels and a diatribe of muffled human expletives. It was Sergeant Mejia, headed down the rough, denuded road for her weekly exchange and inspection.

Mort stopped what he was doing and ambled over to the waste cans behind his CHU to wait for the Sergeant and her cart.

“How’s it going, Louka?” Mejia asked when she finally pulled up. Though she’d opted for cammies over a full-on bunny suit, she also wore a disposable respirator. Beneath it was the large and lumpy face of an aberrant potato. Her ears looked more like cauliflower.

“Fine, Sarge. Just getting my work on.”

“Yeah, well, I wish you’d wear a respirator to do it. I can get you a real nice one—not that standard issue crap—for the right price. There’s no telling what kind of junk all those Choke weeds are spewing into the air.”

Mort took a deep, dramatic breath. “Seems all right to me. Been doing this for a full season and I’m none the worse for wear.”

“Just be careful,” she said.

As if to punctuate her words, one of the oxen dropped a hot mess of steaming shit onto the bare patch of lifeless dirt below it. The pile drew Mort’s eyes. Six months and it would be a respectable tuft of alfalfa.

“What you got for me today?” the Sergeant asked, getting back to business. “Another half load?”

Mort shrugged. “More or less.”

“Guess you’re about done here then.”

“Not necessarily,” Mort said, scrambling for the scrap can. He snatched out the empty jackets from inside and held them out for Mejia. “I found these yesterday afternoon.”

The Sergeant glanced at the jackets in his bionic palm, then her own naked fingers. “These things clean?” she asked.

Mort nodded and Mejia accepted the brass.

“5.56,” she said, stating the obvious. “Don’t see how this’ll change anything though. Your parcel’s played out.”

Mort remembered the cartridge in his pocket. The one covered in breatherfew oil. It would shut the Sergeant up real quick.

“I’ve got one more,” he said, producing the jacket.

Mejia reached for it, completely trusting.

“I found it in a breatherfew patch…”

She jerked her hand back. “Jesus Christ, Louka. You trying to frag my ass? Stick it in the back with the biohazard.”

Mort trudged over to the bed of the cart and play-acted dropping the round into the requisite container. He’d dump it somewhere in the parcel later instead as proof of work still needing to be done. Someone higher up than Mejia might buy it.

Pocketing the tainted brass, he turned to empty the incinerator ash trap and spotted something impossible behind the wagon out of the corner of his eye.

“What the hell is that?” he asked, nearly tripping on his own bare feet.

Mejia dropped to the ground from her seat and walked back to Mort with a grin.

“That’s your new best friend,” she said, tugging at the rope that connected it to the back of the cart.

It was roughly the size of a lamb, but otherwise looked absolutely nothing like a sheep. Its main body, which sat flat to the ground, reminded Mort of a slug, but was scaled and articulated like a snake. Attached to the front of it was some sort of head, chitinous and insectoid, with two symmetrical horns and an improbable chin trimmed in quivering strands of mucus.

“Again. What the hell is that?”

“We call him Artie. Artie the Choke goat. And he’s all yours.”

“What? Why?”

“You know. Like an artichoke.”

“No. Not that. Why is it all mine?”

“These Choke goats only eat Choke plants. Command wants you out and reconning a virgin parcel to move to, but they don’t want yours reverting while you’re gone. That’s where Artie comes in. Let him loose in your parcel and he’ll do all your work for you, freeing you up for your new orders.”

Mort reached into his pocket and squeezed the deadly breatherfew cartridge. Was it too late to murder Mejia?

“Where did it come from?” he asked instead.

“Echo 2/6 liberated five of these fuckers from a Choke stronghold on Dido. Command’s keeping four to breed or something, but they gave us one to utilize and observe.”

“How long has it been on Limos?”

“Demeter, you mean. Got here yesterday. Threw up twice and then started operating as advertised, so the Colonel ordered it dispatched to you.”

Mejia handed Mort the end of Artie’s tether, the other side of which was wrapped around the little guy’s horns.

“Wait,” Mort said. “What’s to stop it from running off?”

Mejia pointed to a thick, metal band on the thing’s left horn. “If he strays over the boundary of your parcel, he’ll get a nasty shock.”

“And what about its droppings? Won’t it fertilize the whole parcel in carmine?”

The Sergeant deployed Mort’s weekly supplies to the ground with the tug of a lever and then hopped back up into her seat. “They pick out a spot they like and stick with it. Scoop it and stow it, Louka.”

As Mort opened his mouth to reply, a warm and rough wetness enveloped one of his hands. Realizing that it was inside Artie’s mouth, he ripped the hand free and glared at Mejia, his face wrinkled in disgust.

“You didn’t tell me this thing bites!”

“He’s not biting you. He’s just saying hello. Think of him like a dog. He even likes belly rubs.”

Mort glanced down at the the scaly snake body and pondered how it might expose its belly for a rub.

When he looked up again, Mejia was rolling away. The Sergeant shouted over her shoulder, “If you run into any problems with Artie, call direct to HQ.”

Mort stared after her for a moment, then tugged on the goat’s tether. “Come on, you Choke bastard,” he said. “Let’s see what you can do.”

The hideous little thing undulated along at Mort’s side on a slack tether as he led it deeper into the parcel. Curious, he dropped the rope. Artie stuck with him. It wasn’t until Mort released the tether from its horns that Artie finally wandered off on its own into the dwindling Choke foliage.

As the little alien goat quietly and efficiently went about its task, Mort popped a squat and watched in rapt attention. Ignoring the earthly plants as a source of sustenance, the thing pushed through them and zeroed in on solely Choke flora, which it gobbled up roots and all.

Mort shook his head. The little bugger would have the whole job done in a matter of days, if that long. He considered grabbing his rifle from the CHU and sending the upstart straight to Choke heaven there and then, but decided it would be a one-way ticket to a summary court-martial and the subsequent confiscation of his hands.

Disgusted, he tossed the shell casing from his pocket into a nearby strip of chokegrass—still determined that, to the right person, it could provide a reason for him to stay.

After that, all he could do was stare at Artie while the little bastard ate him out of his routine and into an uncertain future. Stare, and allow his mind to wander.

* * *

Mort drew a bead on a target breaking toward their fortified hillock on all three legs and squeezed his trigger. A miss. And another. The bastard was too quick. Pataba fired a cluster of grenade rounds, but at a different target. There were too many of them. Thousands, teeming like angry wasps. They were going to get through.

At the last second, PFC Krev spotted the Choke soldier gunning for them and swung his M440 in line, but too late. Mort managed one final, wild shot that wasn’t even close and watched in surprise as the alien ran right past them.

He and Krev didn’t even have time to share a look of surprise before the rest of the onrushing Choke horde swung their hind legs forward in unison and unleashed a torrent of reaction bolts from the weapons strapped to them.

Mort dropped flat to his scrape with his head turned toward PFC Krev, who promptly folded in half and shattered like a toppled ceramic.

An instant later, the Chokes overran them. Mort shoved his face in the mud. From there, all he could do was listen as the unsettling gurgle that gave the enemy their name washed over him. He squealed in pain as he took a crushing Choke foot to his shoulder and another to his calf. Finally, after a punishing few moments of relentless stampede, the gurgle rolled on, diminishing behind him amid a hail of gunfire.

* * *

Something warm and rough and wet closed around his hand and Mort slipped back into the present. It was Artie’s slimy mouth again, but this time Mort was in no hurry to escape it. It felt good, calming. His hand began to tingle.

Artie was the first to break the connection. It released Mort and then slithered in a tight circle to put a foot or so of space between them. Mort watched as the little guy’s scales stretched to reveal an opaque membrane beneath and its whole body bloated toward round. When the bulging stopped, Artie rocked back and forth a few times and then tumbled onto its back to expose its pale underbody.

“Do you want a belly rub?” Mort asked.

Something inside Artie’s chitinous head squeaked and a series of bubbles emerged from its mouthparts, rolling down the mucilaginous strands beneath its chin and popping into nothingness.

Mort took that as a yes.

Artie’s undercarriage was sleek and smooth and quite unlike the distended armor covering the rest of the little guy’s body. It felt good to Mort as he caressed it, but also inauthentic, owing to the electronic nervous system of his imitation arms. Struck by a sudden inspiration, Mort withdrew his bionic hand and replaced it with the top of his bare foot.

The second the naked skin of his foot brushed across the silky underscales, a deep relaxation washed over Mort. He collapsed onto his back in a patch of prickly sedge.

For the first time since basic, he wept.

He could go back home, back to school. He could start a family. He could make a difference.

Ten minutes later, it was all over.

The weight clutched at his neck, dragging him to the dirt. Artie munched on a spray of earthsbane in the distance, oblivious.

Mort wiped the snot from his nose and scratched the drying tears from his cheeks.

He saw Krev bend in half and shatter. He felt the Choke infantry stomping him into the mud, Pataba’s thunderous demise, Redmond sunder in his hands.

What if his aim had been better? Would Krev have survived? If he hadn’t been distracting Redmond, would she have made it? Surely, there must’ve been something he could have done differently to bring the rest of his team home alive.

Mort tightened his guts and squeezed his jaw, trying to force more of the cathartic tears, but nothing came. His body shook and flushed, but the attempt only made him feel worse. He glanced up and spotted Artie slithering toward him. When it arrived, the Choke goat puffed up and rolled onto its back, offering Mort another hit of relief.

Mort stared at the soft, inviting underbelly and felt the pull of need. He remembered the sample bottle of homebrew ethyl that Mejia had given him a while back, along with the reason he’d never cracked its seal. The path it opened. That’s what got Smudge, they say.

“No, Artie,” he said. “It’ll only make things worse.”

In truth, he wasn’t so much afraid of the slippery slope of addiction as the optimistic vision of a possible future that the little bastard had shown him. It was cruel. It was impossible.

Artie rolled upright and deflated with a series of squeaks and farts, then chowed down on a nearby patch of chokegrass as if he hadn’t even been rebuffed. Mort wished he could get over things as quickly as the little guy. He wished his life were as simple as eating, shitting, and getting belly rubs.

Mort watched Artie nibble away, content of purpose and free of worry, edging closer to a glint in the black grass that he quickly recognized as danger.

“Don’t eat that!” Mort shrieked, diving for the shell casing and scooping it up before Artie’s slobbery mouthparts could get near it.

The Choke goat puffed up in panic at the outburst and rolled onto its back as Mort looked for a safer spot to dump the brass. Removing it from the parcel outright was out of the question, so he settled on a solitary clump of jewelweed, the only specimen of its kind on his acreage. The blushing orange flowers made it easily discernible from afar and the earthly origin of the plant would keep Artie away from it.

Mort watched Artie a bit closer after that, making sure that his intel was correct and the little guy really did only have a taste for its native foodstuffs. Mejia’s word held up—Artie consumed solely Choke flora, avoiding even the smallest trace of earthly vegetation.

Its movements were almost balletic as it skirted and slithered and grazed.

* * *

The stench of drifting ammonia sullied the air, borne from the fresh craters that riddled the partially-fortified Marines of Alpha and Bravo Companies and swept up the small hillock to Mort and beyond.

Taking the opportunity offered by their side’s barrage, the bunching Choke infantry broke from behind their armored skiffs and charged the stunned defensive line before them. The bastards were quick, crossing the muddy field at an inhuman clip and reaching the hasty human scrapes before the occupying Marines could reorganize for a proper defense.

“They’re so fast,” Mort shouted, firing off a few token shots from his rifle. “How are they that fast? Why didn’t anybody tell me they were that fast?”

But the Chokes, shooting on the run and seemingly at random, were much less coherent in their tactics than the rapidly-reorganizing Marines. They had speed and numbers, true, but apparently no idea what to do after overrunning their enemy.

“Watch,” PFC Krev said.

When the tip of the Choke charge reached the last line of defenders, the bastards halted their advance and scattered, breaking off to tackle the surviving Marines with the serrated fists of their prehensile hind legs in overwhelming numbers. Moments later—between increasingly sporadic reports of conventional arms—the wind shifted, bringing with it a new sound. Cracking, like a forest of old trees toppling all at once. The Chokes had stopped moving, sheltering in place among the scrapes and human casualties.

“What are they doing?” Mort asked, unable to see any more detail over the distance.

“They’re eating them.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Fuckers burn so much energy in turbo mode that they have to keep eating throughout or they’ll drop dead.”

“You mean they really are maneaters? I thought that was just talk…”

Krev shrugged.

Mort tried and failed to find the words, eventually settling on a whispered, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”

* * *

He was back in the parcel. Artie held its head in the air nearby, its attention trained on Mort, but quickly returned to a budding scatter of deathistle when it determined that everything was okay.

It was clear to Mort that watching Artie go about its business was too close to idleness, and all the terrors that came along with it. He could help the little goat do its job, but that would only cleanse the parcel that much faster, so he dismissed the idea. Also out was the consideration of trying to stay busy inside the CHU. Nights were bad enough without them encroaching on the days. No, Mort realized, he would have to follow his orders and sniff out a new parcel. At least it would keep his mind busy.

And so, after wrapping a piece of meat pie in a tattered rag for the road and leaving Artie to its fun, he headed for the line of overgrowth that indicated the start of his neighbor’s parcel. He could’ve chosen the safe, denuded road for his travels like Mejia, but the boredom would’ve been an invitation to past horrors.

After he’d carefully marked his first few steps into a swaying ribbon of cocksfoot, Mort heard a heavy gust of wind whipping up at his back. In appreciation of the sensation of Demeter’s planetary breath on his cheeks, he turned to face it. But the wind was dead. The sound, he quickly discovered, came from the little Choke goat that slithered toward him at Choke speed.

Mort shook at the sight, reminded of the sprinting abilities of Choke infantry. He wondered if Artie would need to eat immediately afterwards. And if it had a taste for human limbs.

* * *

PFC Krev’s next burst of fire, which tore through human corpse and hungry Choke alike, was joined by like-minded fire to either side as what Mort assumed was the rest of Charlie Company took up position on their flanks.

The line of armored skiffs countered with another volley, this one aimed squarely at the bump of ridge that included Mort and Krev’s diminutive rise.

Though spared the worst, the concussions thundered in Mort’s throat and guts until he blew acrid chunks into the saturated muck beneath his chin. He wiped the hanging strings of saliva and sick from his mouth and returned to scanning the sector in front of him.

As if summoned by the exploding ordinance, the Choke infantry abandoned their grisly meal amongst the scrapes and scrambled for the hillock, ignoring the surviving handful of soldiers free to pick at them from their midst.

At the same time, Corporal Pataba reappeared, sliding into the mud at Mort’s side and scaring the shit out of him. The Corporal fired two successive grenade rounds at the approaching horde and then shouted, “How we doing, boys?”

“Stuck in a Charlie Foxtrot,” Krev replied, firing off a string of rounds.

Pataba’s hand flew to his earpiece. “Looks like this clusterfuck’s about to get unfucked,” he said. “Creeping barrage inbound, boys! Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine!

Before Mort could ask what a creeping barrage was, a cat’s cradle of friendly artillery screamed over their heads, past the charging Choke infantry, and straight into the skiffs, which promptly disappeared into a wall of fire and smoke.

Two more barrages followed the first, but the onrushing Choke infantry paid no attention to the devastation behind them, instead dedicating all their energy to impossible speed. Mort fired two rounds, dropping one of the bastards at a hundred yards, but there was no cause for celebration. Even with Krev and Pataba and all the riflemen of Charlie Company burning through them, the tide of Choke soldiers, though thinning, was certain to reach them.

* * *

When Artie reached the start of the overgrowth, it squealed and recoiled as the device on its horn activated. An instant later, it puffed up and rolled onto its back, terrified.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Mort said, remaining on his side of the invisible fence. “You gotta stay here, but I’ll be back.”

Artie deflated with the usual farts and squeals and proceeded to slide up and down the perimeter line, bubbling from its mouthparts as it searched in vain for a way through.

The sight of it made Mort feel uncomfortable, so he turned his back on the little guy and waded deeper into the unruly geoxenic heath of the neighboring parcel. After skirting a nasty spray of blood thyme a few minutes later, he glanced over his shoulder at Artie and was relieved to see the little guy back at work eating its fill.

Mort made his careful way through the heath, focusing all his energy and a resurgent concentration on the avoidance of any fatal missteps. After a while, he spotted the neighboring parcel’s CHU in the distance.

Someone in a full bunny suit leaned against its metal wall in the shade, taking a midmorning rest. Fresh meat, no doubt. Even at range, Mort could see that the sleeves on the suit were rolled up and taped in place at the elbow. The Corps had an absolute fetish for assigning amputees to gardening duty—the imitation limbs afforded full sensation without the dangers of skin contact.

Mort didn’t head over. He didn’t talk to any of his neighbors anymore. Not since he’d discovered the previous occupant of the parcel opposite, PFC Mata, dead in a spray of manwort. There was no point in meeting anyone new if they were just going to die.

The scent memory of cut stone and wish-pennies flashed to mind and Mort bent in half, gagging. The intestinal ropes that held Private Redmond together were so pink. So wet. So shiny.

He forced himself vertical and spat the lubricating drool from his mouth. Then he moved on, rededicating himself to the task at hand.

After a dozen or so parcels of chaotic, competitive heath, Mort reached a swath of cultivated land and decided to take a break. He was exhausted, but content. He’d been concentrating for two hours straight, and without any unpleasant memories cropping up. All he needed to do, it seemed, was put his life on the line, and he could be a functional human being again.

As he sat in a soft patch of darnel, gazing at the swaying veldt of safe, cleansed land before him, Mort’s stomach rumbled. He carefully unfolded the tattered rag he carried and produced the slice of meat pie. Even unwarmed, it smelled as good as it looked—its meaty richness emboldened by the fertile breeze rising from the veldt.

He took a bite and raised his face to the sky in appreciation. It was delicious. Three bites later, it was gone.

Flush with calories, Mort brushed off his lap wit the rag and headed into the cleansed grassland, now planted in rye. At first, he continued paying careful attention to his foot placement, but it soon became evident that this parcel was completely devoid of Choke flora.

A whisper of wind played by, rocking the crops surrounding him. Quickly, a gust whipped up, raising the whisper to a shouted lament of the million dead interred underfoot.

His stomach grumbled again, but now not from hunger. From distaste. The pie he’d inhaled a few minutes earlier sat in his gut like a rock.

Every square inch of arable land on Demeter grew from a compost of human death and disfigurement. The wheat for the flour, the meat from the pasture, all begotten from it. He was a cannibal, living off their flesh, their sacrifice.

And yet, there was something else to the flavor—a subtle trace of ammonia. A taste of Choke. For they too were in the land, despoiling all through their defeat.

Mort once again saw Krev at the top of the hillock, naked and covered in mud. He was a golem, human vengeance incarnate, sent by God to vanquish man’s enemies.

Then he was in pieces. Broken.

God had lost.

Bile stirred in Mort’s stomach, rose to the back of his tongue. With a heave, he puked all over his feet.

His throat burned and his mouth tasted terrible, but he was suddenly empty. It felt good to be empty. Now his stomach matched the rest of him.

But he had a new problem. He was alone in the middle of nowhere with no danger to distract him from his thoughts. He could head back to the heath and wander his way to the late afternoon, but, on some level, he still followed orders. Even if he hated the idea, he needed to find a new parcel. At least it gave him a goal.

And so he ran.

Beyond the rye, prickly cleansed grasses poked into his soles as he sprinted, grounding him through the pain. Then came the burning in his legs. And lungs. Yet still he ran. Sweat beaded on his forehead, streamed down his back, but he ran. He ran until the world melted and he staggered. Until he collapsed.

Into mud.

In an instant, Mort was back beside Pataba, face down in the muck while the Chokes trampled him. The golem was in pieces. Redmond was two sacks of meat sewn together by an elaborate stitchwork of perfectly pink sausages.

Mort sat up. His pants were wet, warm, and stank of piss. There were no Chokes around. No bodies. No friends but the children of friends, growing as false oats and solitary sedges at his flanks.

He dug up a handful of mud and held it to his nose. Geosmin. Earthly bacteria. The legacy of sacrifice.

The horrifying stench tethered him to place through time. He was on Demeter, not Limos. Not anymore. They’d won the battle. The Chokes were on the run, banished from the system as Limos had been banished and replaced by Demeter.

He glanced at his surroundings. The plants were patchy, but they were here—his fellow Marines, reborn. Beyond them stood a barren landscape, pure and unspoiled by death and decay. He stood up and scrambled headlong into its sterility.

The mud squeezed between his toes as he ran, ensconcing them in desolation. He ran until he spotted something in the distance that didn’t belong. Something mortal. He approached it and then collapsed onto his knees as recognition and exhaustion seized him.

He’d found a pair of boots.

On closer inspection, it was a single boot, constructed of full grain leather and half-buried in the narrow rain shadow of a cluster of anomalous knolls. Mort scratched through the fuzzy lichen that clung to it, born from the residue of bacteria and sebum and skin cells that lingered within. He clawed at the ground, digging, inviting desolate Limos beneath his fingernails to feed.

The boot was mostly uncovered by the time he discovered its mate, fully entombed in the soil beside it. Mort dug them both up, cleared them of dirt inside and out, tucked them under his arm. He knew better than to wear them.

Mort inspected the lining of the boots, found a name tag for the unfortunate bastard who had become uncoupled from his soles.

“Mort Louka,” he mumbled, decoding the faded lettering.

It took him a moment to realize he’d spoken his own name.

He studied the surrounding terrain, looking for any other sign of life. He found it not far away. Purslane. A small, scattered line of it, leading more or less back the way he’d come.

If they were his boots, then that meant the purslane had fed on his blood. Limos had stolen his ichor.

He wanted it back.

Mort dropped to his knees and ripped the closest clump of purslane from its roots. He tore the succulent leaves from their red stems with his teeth and chewed them. Tart, peppery liquid exploded against his tongue, dripping from the corners of his mouth. He picked the stems clean, denying Demeter his body, taking it back. But it still held some of him in the stems. So he ate them too, forcing down the herbaceous, astringent stalks.

Then he moved on to the next clump. And the next. Until his stomach was rigid and distended. But still there was more.

Tears streamed down his face. He had to eat it all. He glanced at his bionic arms. He was incomplete, broken. If only he could track down what was missing he could make himself whole again.

Mort forced down more of the slimy leaves, more bitter stems. His stomach gurgled, then lurched. He vomited all over himself, all over the ground, returning himself to the hungry planet.

But that wouldn’t do.

He scooped up a handful and brought it to his lips, then hesitated.

What was wrong with him? Had he gone mad? About to eat his own vomit, and for what? To regrow his arms? To regain a holistic sanity? That was crazy.

Mort wiped his hand on the ground beside his puddle of spew. In a few months, it might be a spray of peony or nasturtium. He was fertilizer, nothing more. One big sack of shit.

It was time for him to go home, he realized. Back to his parcel. He needed grounding, and this was not the place for it.

With the old boots of his old, complete self tucked under a damp armpit, he turned around and trudged back toward heath and home.

* * *

After navigating the minefield of safe, cleansed grassland and finding himself once more before the deadly geoxenic heath, Mort breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over. Now, with his life on the line, he could concentrate again.

Despite the peace it provided, the meticulousness required for traversing the heath was exhausting. Still, the second Mort spotted his CHU in the distance, thoughts of rest and recuperation were furthest from his mind. More than anything, and to his great surprise, he couldn’t wait to be reunited with Artie.

The sun was setting as he stepped out of the neighboring rough and into his familiar, well-maintained landscape. He spotted the area that Artie had been chewing on that morning, now delineated by vibrant tufts of earthly vegetation and carmine ruts that had lately nurtured Choke weeds. Artie, however, was nowhere to be seen.

After a short, frantic search, Mort found the little guy snoozing in the deepening shadows of the makeshift porch, flopped on its side.

“What are you doing, you lazy lump?” Mort asked it.

Artie deflated a bit with a gurgle and a fart and rolled onto its other side.

Mort sat beside it and caressed its splayed scales with his imitation hands.

“I missed you,” he said.

Bubbles escaped from Artie’s mouth, along with a tentative whine.

“Yeah, it was a tough day for me too,” Mort said. He held out his boots. “But I found these again, at least.”

Recalling the recovery of his shitkickers, he also recalled the trail of purslane begotten from his blood. But it wasn’t his legacy, he realized. At least not that of the broken him. No, it was the legacy of the old Mort Louka. The whole Mort Louka, with dreams and arms and friends.

And he’d tried to eat it.

Guilt grabbed Mort by the throat. He looked up from Artie, into the dwindling chiaroscuro of the neighboring heath. He should run to it, embrace it, end his suffering in its toxic embrace.

Instead, he brushed off his foot and brought the naked skin to Artie’s belly. He took a deep breath as they touched, ready for the flood of euphoria.

But none came. Artie’s belly was dry and cold.

Disappointed, Mort stormed into his CHU, slamming the door behind him.

He paced around the tight quarters, trying in vain to hold back the insistent memories. Artie’s medicinal narcotic had proved itself nothing but snake oil.

He needed something to do, so he inventoried the supplies that Mejia had dropped off earlier. There was enough to make a strawberry galette.

After banging together a dough and sticking it in the icebox to chill, Mort realized it was time to eat something. There were a few slices of game pie left, so he tossed one in the blender with some thinning water and engaged the squealing motor. The liquid sloshed into turbidity, then slowly incorporated into the solids, creating a utilitarian union of foodstuffs.

When it was ready, Mort shut down the motor, then cocked his head. The machine was no longer running, but the whining of its efforts lingered in his ears. It took him a confused moment to realize that the noise was coming from outside.

Mort threw open the door to the CHU and scrambled onto the porch. As he emerged, he heard the sound again and followed it to its source.

Artie.

The poor little guy was right where Mort had left it, bubbling from the mouth and teetering from side to side on its bloated body beneath the glaring lights.

He nudged it with the tip of a toe. The Choke goat whined again, so he knelt at its side.

“You feeling sick, buddy?” he asked, caressing Artie’s scales. “Did you eat something that didn’t agree with you?”

It was too dark to go scouring the parcel for possible poisons, but from what he’d seen earlier, Artie had left the human plants alone in favor of the Choke stuff, and it should know which of that was safe to eat. Mort dropped his hand to the little guy’s belly. It was still cold, still bloated. Mort’s thoughts drifted back to the last pet he’d owned, a hamster named Leroy. Two weeks into their cohabitation, Leroy had given birth to five squirming babies and been promptly renamed Lorraine.

Mort palpated the goat’s abdomen. Was Artie really an Arlene? Was this whimpering pain simply xenic childbirth?

Whatever was happening to Artie, Mort decided, was worth sending up the chain of command.

He headed back into the CHU and called HQ on the handset, but he may as well not have bothered. Nobody there knew what to do, or even if Artie’s behavior indicated a problem. The only thing they could agree on was that the veterinarian, the only person who might be able to help, was currently drunk off his ass and inoperative. They urged Mort to call back in the morning.

After disconnecting, Mort wandered back to the porch to see about making Artie a bit more comfortable. The goat was cold. Like Redmond had been.

He shook away the unwanted memories and headed back inside for some supplies. When Mejia had first dropped Artie off, the little guy had been warm and moist, so Mort decided to try to reproduce that state. He found a few extra blankets and stuffed them against Artie’s sides, then filled a mug with warm water.

The goat looked uncomfortable, so Mort propped its head on his lap while he sponged the water onto the little guy’s abdomen. For a few minutes, Mort found this good, fulfilling work, but boredom soon set in. With it came the dark thoughts.

He saw Artie in two halves, held together by glistening strings of pink sausages, babbling about the cold.

He’d treated the wound on her head. She was going to get better. He’d saved her. But he hadn’t. The head wound was a lie; the sausages, truth. Limos knew it. Limos was already absorbing her ichor, composting it to present a future blossom, its floral sweetness the stench of death, of loss, of waste.

Mort jumped to his feet, letting Artie’s head loll to one side. He ran into the CHU, to the distracting kitchen. He couldn’t look at Artie. He couldn’t help Artie. He couldn’t help anyone, least of all himself.

He pulled the dough from the icebox, rolled it into a crust, sliced the strawberries with a shaking hand. He had to stay busy.

While the galette baked, he paced the inside walls. One foot in front of the other. Focus on the steps. Ignore the whimpering outside.

When the dessert was done, Mort forced himself to bed without eating any of it. More than anything, he needed to sleep. He needed the morning to come so he could get back to work.

But he didn’t sleep. He lay there, listening to Artie’s whimpers. Listening to Redmond’s whimpers. Seeing Krev, the golem, break into pieces. Watching Pataba’s disappearing act. Damning the drunk veterinarian.

That gave Mort an idea: Mejia’s homebrew ethyl. Mort had made it a point to stay away from the stuff. Addiction preyed on ex-soldiers, he knew. He wasn’t going to give that demon a way in.

But drunk and inoperative sounded like just what he needed. He walked to the sink, opened the cabinet at his knee. The bottle was there, sealed. The fluid within appeared clear and innocuous.

He popped the top and took a drink. It burned. He relished the pain, took another swig. Then another. When it caught up to him, it caught hard. He staggered to bed, flopped on his face. And slept. For the first time in forever, he slept.

* * *

Something seized the back of Mort’s collar and jerked him to his feet. Away from the mud. Away from the bloody shards of Krev’s ruined golem.

He turned his rifle onto the culprit, which turned out to be Pataba.

“On me!” the Corporal shouted, then scrambled down the hillock toward the remnants of Alpha and Bravo Companies.

Mort stared at him, dumbfounded, until he noticed the surviving reserves of Charlie Company stumbling down the hill with him. His eyes darted to the wall of amorphous armor, now finally visible again. What he saw brightened his spirits considerably. Along the entire line, any skiff not pummeled into oblivion by the artillery was currently engaged by a surprising number of surviving anti-armor troops from Bravo Company, who were handily picking them apart.

With a whoop, Mort chased after Pataba. Beyond that line of broken armor, through gyrating wisps of smoke and steam, he could pick out hints of Choke fortifications. The POO site, no doubt, but also something more. Something big.

Fresh friendly artillery screamed over his head, hitting the distant redoubt and reporting its rage back to them a few seconds later. Gunfire echoed behind them as the engagement between Choke and human infantry wore on.

Mort forgot about Krev and Redmond and the horrors of war and licked his lips, ready to draw more Choke blood.

“Get some!” somebody screamed.

“Oorah!” he offered in return, running down from the hillock in his bare, bleeding feet.

A triad of Choke air cover shrieked from its fortress, no doubt to punish the Marine artillery. Before they were even overhead, two of the fast movers vaporized at the pointy end of friendly missiles and the third took a hit and dropped out of the sky.

Right toward Mort.

There was no time to react. It was in the air and then it wasn’t, smashing into Corporal Pataba and throwing Mort backwards into blackness and quiet.

* * *

Mort woke to a headache and an insufferable squeal outside. He glanced at the clock. Five hours until daybreak.

He pulled the blanket over his head with a groan, but the thin material was no match for Artie’s incessant cries. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing sleep to return, willing the planet to rotate away from idleness. But the damn thing kept whining.

He staggered out to the porch, his head still swirling from the ethyl. The little bastard was just where he’d left it, bloated and cold and dry. And loud as hell.

Mort knelt at Artie’s side and covered the thing’s bubbling mouth with his fake hand.

“You’ve got to quiet down,” he said. “I need to sleep.”

But Artie didn’t quiet down. If anything, its cries grew louder. After a moment, Mort noticed that the plaintive whimpers were coming from the gaps in its splayed scales rather than its bubbling mouth.

Mort clamped down on a few of the scales with his hands, muffling the sound a bit, but they popped back into place as soon as he let go. He glanced through the open door of the CHU, at the bed. He’d finally managed to get some decent sleep, after all this time, and the little bastard had fucked it up.

“Shut the hell up!” he shouted at Artie.

He scowled at the pathetic thing. It didn’t belong here. It was Choke, and everything Choke deserved extermination. They’d killed his kind, his friends. They’d taken his arms. They’d ruined him. Their very corpses corrupted the land. They were a pox on the universe, and Artie was a collaborator.

Mort scooped up the pathetic creature and walked it into the parcel. The simpering goat was surprisingly light for its size, which only added to its pitifulness.

When Mort reached the small depression where he’d spent the night before, he dumped Artie into it.

“Scream all you want now,” he said, then walked back to the CHU.

It was cruel, he knew, but he didn’t care. The safest thing for the little guy was for Mort and his anger to find some way to sleep until morning.

Back inside, Mort took a few more swigs of ethyl and sat on the side of his bed. He rubbed his hands across his overgrown face and listened. To silence. He sighed and fell onto his back, the mattress breaking his fall. He felt drained, exhausted even. He relaxed his body, determined to drift off.

And then there it was, on the extreme edge of his senses. A peep. A call. A plea.

That fucking goat.

Mort leapt out of bed, grabbed his rifle and a blanket for the body, and was out the door.

He stomped through the yard, unaffected by the chance of a wayward weed ending him. It would be a blessing. Eternal sleep.

As he pushed through the brush, Mort heard Artie louder and louder. The little bastard should’ve known better than to antagonize him. It should’ve known when to shut the hell up.

Mort arrived at the depression and threw the blanket to the ground. Then he leveled his weapon right in Artie’s stupid, needy face.

Fury frothed at the corners of his mouth. His lips curled. The rifle shook in his imitation hands.

Artie screamed. Mort slipped his finger over the trigger.

And stopped.

He relaxed his quivering muscles, lowered the rifle, and took a deep breath. The rage escaped with a protracted exhalation.

Mort took one hand off of his weapon and reached out for the little guy. Artie quieted and stretched for the hand, then took it in its sloppy, viscous mouth.

Tears moistened Mort’s cheeks. He didn’t know if Artie was simply trying to save itself or to make him feel better, but he didn’t care. He threw his rifle into a nearby clump of orchard grass, rearming the ghost of an unknown soldier, and hunkered down beside Artie, who curled in against him with a murmur.

Mort dragged the blanket over them both. He wrapped an arm around the goat, felt the rising vibration of sound coming from between the splayed scales. This time, however, the noise didn’t antagonize him. It calmed him.

He let out a whimper of his own and promptly fell asleep.

* * *

The morning was warm and humidan insulating ward between heaven and dirt.

Mort peeled back a blanket resplendent in dew, exposing Artie and him to Demeter’s breath. The goat had deflated overnight and no longer whimpered. Mort caressed its back, pleased. The scales were warm and wet, just what he’d been shooting for.

He stood up and Artie followed suit. Together, they ambled out of the depression and into a sprawling patch of fescue.

“Feeling better, buddy?” Mort asked, forgetting the emotions of the previous night.

Artie bubbled from its mouth while Mort directed it toward a tender regrowth of chokegrass. The little guy undulated over and dragged its mucilaginous whiskers across the inky groundcover, but balked at eating it.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Mort asked.

Scarcely had he the words out of his mouth when Artie puffed back into rotundity and pitched onto his side.

“Guess not,” Mort said, picking up the alien goat and trundling it toward the CHU.

He set Artie—now whimpering again—down on the porch and retrieved the handheld comm from inside. By the time he returned to Artie, the veterinarian was already on the line, sounding chipper and unimpeded from last night’s binge.

“This is Sook,” he said. “What have you done to my goat?”

Mort laid out the symptoms and the timeline.

Sook sighed. “Warm and wet is just as bad as cold and dry. Maybe worse. Warm and dry is the goal.” A pause, then, “How are its droppings?”

“I don’t know,” Mort said.

“You don’t know because you don’t know what you’re looking for or you don’t know because it hasn’t been pooping?”

“I don’t know.”

“Right. Take a look at its backside. You may have to manually disimpact it.”

“What? I’m not sticking my hand up that thing’s ass…”

“Just look.”

Mort rolled the bloated goat until he could see the target area.

“I don’t see a blockage,” he said. “Just more bubbles.”

The vet sighed again. “Sounds like a poisoning to me,” he said. “Has it eaten anything of earthly origin?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, you need to check.”

Mort stepped into the parcel. As he made his way toward the area where Artie had been munching the day before, he remembered his other hypothesis. “Is it possible that Artie… that this thing… is pregnant and in labor right now? I had this hamster, Leroy—“

“No.”

“But how do you—“

“It’s sterile. That’s why they sent it out here in the first place. It was useless for their breeding program, so they shipped it to Demeter.”

Mort shook his head. Is that what this planet was? A dumping ground for the infirm and undesirable?

“So what am I looking for?” he asked.

“Anything earthly that looks trampled or chewed on…”

Mort noted the carmine ruts Artie had opened up the day before, but such disturbances precisely skirted any earthly plants. He walked along the track, checking and double checking any potential toxins on the way. And then he stopped.

At the end of the tilled path, he spotted a familiar plant. Jewelweed. Trampled.

He shuffled over to it, taking his time, hoping his eyes had deceived him. When he reached it, however, there was no doubt. He probed the slimed and matted remains with his imitation fingertips, unable to find the spent brass he’d dumped there as an insurance policy against eviction.

Reluctantly, he keyed the comm.

“I think I found something,” he told Sook.

“What?” the vet asked.

“Looks like it ate a cartridge casing in with some jewelweed.”

“Impossible. Why would it eat metal? And why would it have anything to do with a plant like jewelweed?”

“The casing had breatherfew smeared all over it. Maybe that confused the poor little guy.”

“Breatherfew? I thought you said it was in with jewelweed…”

“It was. But I found it the first time in with the breatherfew. Then I dumped it in with the jewelweed.”

“Why in the hell would you—“

“Just drop it, all right? Would eating metal do this to Artie… err, to the goat?”

“Sure.”

Mort scratched at some earthly soil with a toe. “So how do we fix it?”

“We don’t.”

“What?”

“Or, rather, we can’t. You said it’s bubbling from both ends, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then it’s already too far through the digestive process to extract through the mouth. Surgery would be the only way.”

“Then let’s do that.”

“Can’t. These buggers don’t survive anesthesia. You killed it, Louka. I’ll send Mejia out for the body tomorrow. That should be enough time. Sook out.”

Mort sank to the ground. A ripple drove down his spine and wrapped itself around his ribs.

He thought he’d saved the little guy from a death by rifle the night before, but he hadn’t saved anything.

A rustle behind him grabbed his attention. Pushing through a tuft of xenic foliage, deflated and trying its best, was Artie, making its pathetic way toward Mort. Toward its unstable friend.

Mort stared at the little guy, trying to visualize the spent cylinder poisoning it from within, and took a shuddering, involuntary breath. Even empty, the brass could still kill. Reincarnated as toxic plants, the dead Chokes could do the same. Was there no end to this war?

He gazed at a nearby patch of carmine soil that Artie had exposed the day before. The color came from the high metal content of composted Choke bodies, he knew. Choke plants loved metal. They thrived on it. Even their microbes did. That’s why the brasses on Demeter weren’t shiny, but matte. They were being eaten, transmuted into soil amendments by invisible teeth. The same thing would be happening to the cartridge in Artie’s guts, but the process was way too slow to help the little guy. It had hours, not decades. If Mort wanted to help Artie, he’d need an entire field of the stuff.

He froze—paralyzed by a thought, a hope.

In addition to microbes, certain Choke plants could fix metals, enriching the carmine soil. He didn’t know of any species that could consume a spent round in a matter of hours, but he knew where to look.

Spurred on by the power of possibility, Mort leapt to his feet and sprinted for the CHU. Once inside, he tore open the xeno-taxonomy book and flipped to the requisite table.

Choler peas, earthsbane, retchvetch—they all ranked as “low” for metal-fixation, along with the majority of entries. There were a handful of “medium” as well, but only one “high.”

Carnage rose.

Mort had never heard of it, so he leafed to the noted page. After a ravenous skim, he learned that it only grew where excessive amounts of both metal and nutrients mixed. Hence, the carnage. The appearance of manwort indicated a location of suitable growth habitat.

Of course.

He closed the book and shuffled to the open doorway of the CHU. Leaning against the jamb, he stared into the hazy distance.

At a hillock, sprinkled in the telltale turquoise of manwort. A hillock, smothered in terror and death and hate. A hillock, the last place he wanted to go. Artie’s last hope.

* * *

The air stank of pungent alkalinity and agony. Thunderous paroxysms of spent rage pummeled the muddy desolation. Mort lay on his back, staring up into a slate sky scratched white by trails of tracer and scramjet.

“Pataba!” he shouted, listening for a lull in the chaos and the Corporal’s response.

But when the scream of battle finally paused for a breath, the only sound he heard above the growl of tinnitus was that of his childhood hamster lapping at its water bottle. Such an observation didn’t strike him as particularly odd or notable. More pressing was just how thirsty the memory of that water bottle made him feel. He licked his cracked lips and probed for a handful of water in the mucky dents surrounding him.

His left arm, however, refused to cooperate. As he thought about it, he realized that he couldn’t feel it at all. Panicked, he twisted to one side.

Directly into a Choke soldier.

The bastard balanced between its two front legs and prehensile club tail in a squat, chowing down on Mort’s arm with its dirty undermouth. Several blue-black tongues studded in serrated crystals flashed beneath the crimson lips of its irised vent, flaying his deadened arm before his eyes.

Blessed with an autonomic burst of adrenaline, Mort snapped into a sitting position and threw his right fist at a soft spot of articulation in the Choke’s obsidian shell as hard as he could.

Unfortunately, as hard as he could was not at all.

Before he could even turn to verify what he knew to be true, that his right arm was no longer attached, he collapsed onto his back in a swirl of vertigo. The sound of his hamster at the water bottle returned, but he now knew it for what it was: the rending tongues of a dirty Choke.

His heart hammered in his chest, but not from fear. He felt nothing on an emotional level, instead retreating to his brief medic training. Taken together, he knew what the combination of dizziness, tachycardia, and thirst meant.

He was bleeding to death.

* * *

Mort jerked back to the present and closed his open mouth. He was still against the jamb of his CHU, still staring at the distant hillock. He shook his head. There was no telling if he’d find any carnage roses up there, and even less that they would do any good if he did. Why should he risk going up there, facing those traumas, on a fool’s errand for a dying head of Choke livestock?

Artie whined—a pathetic, bleating sound that drew Mort’s ire. He should just end the bastard. That’s what the Chokes would’ve done to a dog or a cow or a Marine. Mort imagined his rifle back in his hands, pointed at Artie the night before. He had spared the little guy, but why?

He thought back to his childhood hamster, Leroy/Lorraine. Shortly after it had given birth, Leroy/Lorraine had grown weird hair and stopped eating. Mort had begged and bargained, but his stepdad had popped the hamster’s neck anyway, just like that. As if Mort’s little friend had meant nothing.

Mort had laid his hamster to rest in a hole in the front yard, wrapped in a paper towel. A year later, dandelions sprouted on the spot. His stepdad snuffed them out with herbicide.

Blood rushed to Mort’s head. His mom’s husband had prepared him for war, the Corps had taught him the rules, and the Chokes had reinforced it all. Life was fragile and meaningless and cold—and if he left Artie to die, he would be complicit in that reality. But, if he did the ridiculous and stormed the hillock for the sake of an insignificant alien, perhaps he could begin rewriting what had once seemed indelible into a palimpsest of mercy over rage.

His mind made up, Mort returned the portable comm to its recharging station in the CHU and headed for the wardrobe. Inside were several pristine bunny suits, still in their plastic. He tore one open and slipped it on. The hillock lay beyond the geoxenic heath, in an untamed thicket of supersized vegetation at the heart of the battle. The sporadic, immature Choke flowers of his and the adjoining parcels, and even the pioneering sprays of the heath, were safe enough to breathe around naturally, but the highly fertilized bramble he was about to face might not be. He needed to be prepared.

He shoved his feet into his old boots, still caked in dried soil and a film of pioneering lichen, then sealed them to the suit with an expeditious layering of tape. He peeled back the sleeves, drawing them two-thirds of the way up his bionic arms, and then taped them in place as well. Next up, he donned the soft helmet and engaged the respiratory filters. Then, insulated against the outside world, he headed out, with Artie tucked under one arm and the binder on Choke plant taxonomy clutched in the other.

He abhorred returning to the hillock, to the last resting place of his arms and Krev and Pataba and Choke and Marine alike. If it had to be done—and, for Artie’s sake, it did—he was glad he could do it with the distance the suit provided. He wouldn’t have been able to face the place naked.

As he stomped through the heath, unconcerned by the defanged villains at his feet, his mind found room to wander. At first, the dread of the fast approaching hillock tempered this tendency, but the distraction didn’t last.

Suddenly, he lay on his back, armless and bleeding out. The Choke squatted beside him, munching, refueling for another charge. Then gunshots, reinforcements, the Army bringing up the rear as usual. Ammonia. Rescue. Rehab. Redeployment.

Mort shook his head, returning to the present. Such reminiscences would only get worse as his looming target drew nearer, he knew. He needed something else to occupy his attention. A game, perhaps.

His eyes, protected and reassured beneath the soft helmet, drifted over the nearby terrain and he found that he could read it as a sort of battle map. Here, the scattered, parallel lines of a failed retrograde peel written in bachelor’s button and New Jersey tea. There, a last stand of willow saplings defying a funneling channel of well-fed deathistle.

Mort kept at the game for a while, until the euphemism finally ruptured and he sat down with Artie amongst the graves. For that’s what they were. This whole planet was a cemetery. So eager was the military to press its advantage after winning Limos that they abandoned the raw materials of that victory.

Oh, the strategic metals of wreckage and fallen arms were recovered, but the spent skins of lost Marines were left to succor barren Limos, to nurse it into Demeter.

During his rehab, the shrinks had told Mort that his fallen squad mates were the lucky ones. They were at peace. Their war was over. Only he and the rest of the survivors continued to suffer. But it was a lie.

Demeter lived on the blood of Marines. And, in a sense, the murdered Marines lived on in Demeter. Borne again into battle with the Chokes, an eternal conflict between the resurrected. Demeter was a Marine now, their union baptized in blood and pain. That Marine was under fire by the invasive Choke plants—ever at war, with only Mort and his fellow ruined golems to protect it.

Mort closed his eyes and raised his arms, allowing the breath of vital Demeter to play against them. Someday he too would die. Maybe being buried here wouldn’t be so bad.

When he opened his eyes, he spotted several shooting flower clusters of summersweet nearby—particolored in pinks and creams. Though his sealed suit blocked the aroma, his nose remembered days of youth and unburdened glee, when the sweet scent filled his lungs on trips down to his grandparents’ pond. But above that, a new, heavier memory—so heavy that it crushed the lightness of his halcyon days to a forgotten whisper. The party had become a wake.

The sweetness cloyed in his mind, choking him. It was no longer the perfume of happier days, but the stench of Redmond dead in his arms. Of crying, broken families who would wait forever for their loved ones to never return.

The Chokes had ruined flowers for him. A link to the cradle, severed for him forever.

Though even on Earth, the cost of life had been death. The cost of beauty, horror. For the humus of birth relied on the ashes of death. Who had died for Mort to be born? His great-grandparents? Presidents and emperors? Vagrants and cobblers? He’d have refused to pay the cost, but no one had ever asked him.

Mort wandered over to the plant and fingered one of its complicated flower clusters.

“Who were you, summersweet?” he mumbled inside his suit. “Did you die for kind or credit? Easy or hard?”

Mort glanced up. The hillock loomed above him. He froze at the sight.

Krev’s golem skylined its apex, firing the M440 into certain defeat. Pataba stood at Mort’s side, reminding him to retrieve his rifle. That would put Redmond…

His eyes dropped to the summersweet plant. To two summersweet plants, actually—linked by the pink, sausage-like flowers of a diminutive foxtail amaranth.

Recognition seized him and Mort collapsed at Redmond’s grave. Tears streamed down his face, fogging up the inside of his mask. Nausea shuddered in his throat.

He rolled his hands into fists and looked for something to pummel. He found Artie, whimpering and inflated, so he crawled after the bastard. Artie didn’t belong here. It was Choke. It had killed Redmond.

His stepdad and the Corps were right. Death to the weak and nonhuman.

Mort searched the ground for a weapon. It didn’t take long to find an unspent BMG cartridge that the scavenge sweep had missed. Mort gripped it in a fist and raised it above Artie’s helpless body, primed for murder.

Artie deflated in a thunderous, belching fart. Mort started at the sound, then bolted, spurred on by a conspiracy of place and mindset. Krev needed him at the hillock.

As he ran, bile burned in the back of his throat. A few more steps and it erupted, overflowing down his chin and soiling the inside of his suit. Yet still he stumbled forward, wading through the mud, struggling to reach the golem with the machine gun.

When he crested the summit, the whole of the battlefield opened before him. Scores of entrenched Marines engaged in futile combat against an unending tide of bloodthirsty Chokes. The teeming masses broke against, then inundated the hasty foxholes. An impervious line of adamantine armor blanketed the sky with ordnance beneath the screaming teeth of hungry air cover.

Mort vomited again, spewing his terror across the inside of his face shield, obfuscating the world behind wriggling streams of acid and chunk. The stench was febrile and noxious, suffocating. He dropped to his knees. The Chokes were coming. Krev needed him for a few minutes before he broke into bloody pieces. Pataba too.

But he couldn’t help them if he couldn’t see them. He clawed at the tape sealing his helmet to his suit, breathless, terrified. He had to get out.

His fingertips found an edge and he exploited it, unwinding his way toward freedom. When he’d run out of raw material to unwind, he tore off the soft helmet, plunging out of sour hypoxia and into the cool, quenching breath of Demeter.

Three thirsty inhalations of the endemic perfume and the raging battle vanished before his eyes. Gone were the formations and maneuvers and bottlenecks of mass death, replaced by a kaleidoscope of blossoming meadowland that swept down the declivity in front of him, ending in a wispy haze of transpired vapor.

He expected a tortured pall in the air at the very least, but there was nothing–as if he were not standing atop the open-skied deathbed of scores of thousands. As if the battle had never happened.

But it had happened. For without that gift of death, Limos would never have become Demeter. He should never forget that precious donation, leached from the recent past as a present to a thriving future of play and plenty.

For the first time, Mort noticed that he stood up to his armpits in a herbaceous melange of geoxenic foison. The rustling bramble of the hillock, whipped into motion around him at the behest of another roiling gust of wind, blew its sweet bouquet across his nostrils. Not the cloying, charnel sweet of composted human suffering, nor the fetid, acrid perfume of the Choke efflorescence, but a new aroma. The true breath of a waxing Demeter.

He inhaled deeply, absorbing hearty alien pollens and unstudied compounds that in turn triggered synapses and chemical releases in novel ways among his tissues.

Suddenly, Mort saw the sprawling paradise before him for what it was—Choke and human, forever fused down to the bedrock of an infant ecosystem consecrated in a pool of ichor and abbreviated lives on both sides.

Demeter was as much a reborn Choke soldier as a Marine—indeed, some inexorably linked hybrid of the two. Whether Chokes had mothers or not, he didn’t know, but they certainly had dreams, or why else this war? Those dreams, like their human counterparts, now rested in the soil, birthing a union of opposites.

The only way to properly honor the sacrifice of the dead of both species was to let their cost be worth the return. The world after needed to be forged into a world worthy of all the death that created it. Mort would cultivate it—on his own if need be. That would be his gift to Redmond, to Krev, to Pataba, to the Choke soldier who had eaten his arms. Were they alive, they likely wouldn’t understand his present, but he’d give it nonetheless.

But first, the carnage rose.

Mort slinked through the bramble, parting curtains of swaying needlegrass and brittle manwort, climbing over tangles of barberry and under briars of blood thyme. He knew where Krev had fallen to pieces, where his own arms had abandoned him, but he could find nothing in the undergrowth to denote those sacrifices. There was too much death on the hillock to differentiate side or individual.

Finally, beyond a thicket of benign chokewillow, he found his target.

He found the carnage rose.

Several of them, in fact.

The taxonomy binder had warned against expecting something in diabolical black or sanguine crimson, teeming with inhospitable thorns and deadly toxins. Instead, he spotted a clumping mound of smooth and solitary gray stems capped in nondescript ivory blossoms kissed by a fine rim of faintest rust.

A rustling in the nearby vegetation garnered Mort’s eye. It was Artie, deflated and pushing its awkward way through a spray of cocksfoot.

Mort motioned the little guy toward the carnage rose.

“Come on,” he said. “This’ll make you all better, I hope.”

But Artie wouldn’t move. He only bubbled and shook in place.

Mort snapped off one of the stems and brought it over to the goat. Artie dragged his mucus whiskers across the bloom, then took a tentative bite.

“Good job,” Mort said. “Now a little more.”

Artie bubbled and turned its head away. Mort followed the movement with the stem, pushing it at the goat’s slimy mouth, but Artie whined and threatened inflation with a sharp fart, so he desisted.

“Still no appetite?” Mort asked, petting Artie’s warm, moist back.

He knew what the little guy was going through. He thought back to the game pie he’d been eating over the last few days. Sometimes, no matter how appealing food smelled, the only way to get it down was to liquefy and drink.

Mort didn’t know which part of the carnage rose plant would prove most medicinal for Artie, if it did at all, so he uprooted the whole thing, revealing the vibrant carmine of Choke soil beneath.

He scratched up a handful of the red soil. It was moist, and conformed to the topography of his fist.

Taken by an idea, he scuffed up a nearby patch of heather with the tip of his boot. The humus he exposed was dark brown and still moist from the overnight rains. Earthly. He took a scoop.

Then, holding the ideal soils of the two rival species in either hand, Mort pressed his palms together, fusing them into one. When he released the pressure, they crumbled apart, so he called Artie over. The little goat undulated to his side and Mort ran the dirt under its mucilaginous whiskers, saturating the soil in its viscous wetness.

When the amalgam in his hands finally held together, Mort shaped a pair of rough arms and legs for it. Then a head. After he’d finished, he held a piebald homunculus in his hands. All that remained was the finishing touch.

For the first time in as long as he could remember, he delved into the past on purpose, recalling the exact lines of Krev’s tattoos. And that was it. He didn’t see the PFC falling to pieces, or Redmond’s guts, or an endless army of maneaters—just the tattoos. Exactly what he wanted to and nothing more.

With the lines of the Hebrew letters fresh in his mind, Mort scratched the word “met” onto the doll’s chest with a nearby stalk of marjoram. Death. Then, with the gift of aleph, life, “met” became “emet,” death became truth, and the invocation was completed.

Demeter now had a proper protector. A defender of this new union, galvanized by the life of disparates become equal.

Satisfied, Mort left the fledgling golem behind at the hillock. He stuffed the binder and as much carnage rose as would fit into his upturned helmet, then, with it under one arm and Artie under the other, descended from the lush rise.

As he passed by Redmond’s final resting place on the way back to the CHU, he let his fingertips brush across the flower clusters of her summersweet. Several of the blossoms fell off at his touch. He picked a few of them up and slipped them into his helmet for posterity, but left the rest where they lay. They were just that much more food for the next generation of life spawned from Redmond’s reorganized molecules.

* * *

The walk back down to the parcel was one of joy and communion for Mort. Echoes of human and Choke alike stood shoulder to shoulder in this brave new world. Thyme to blood thyme. Feverfew to breatherfew. Thistle to deathistle. Their pollens mingled in the air, their soils at ground, perfuming the bastard, Demeter, with the breath of legitimacy. A scent of its own. A scent of hope.

A hope obliterated at the perimeter of Mort’s impeccable homestead.

As soon as he saw his parcel—deprived of a unified parity, defined by thriving oat and fleeting, ragged chokegrass, by brown over red, by geosmin over xenosmin—he wept, salting the fruits of his ignorant labors with dripping tears.

But there was no time to waste. Artie whimpered under his arm.

Mort brought the Choke goat straight into the CHU and nestled him onto the bed, then pulled out the blender from its spot in the kitchen. He stuffed the glass jar with as much of the carnage rose as would fit, added some water, and hit the button.

The blades spun, slapping at the root ball and foaming up the liquid, but stubbornly refused to incorporate. He added a bit more water, then urged it back into action. This time, the rose disappeared into the water with a ululating growl and was quickly chewed into a murky gray purée.

Mort carried the blender jar to Artie and held it in front of the little guy’s bubbling mouth. The goat dropped its mucilaginous whiskers inside, tasting the carnage rose purée. It even took a little in its mouth, but quickly spat it back out.

“Come on, Artie,” Mort said. “You can do it.”

Mort scooped up a handful of the stuff and held it in front of Artie’s mouth. The goat refused it.

A despondent rage bubbled up inside Mort. The scent memory of the unified perfume on the hillock was fading, and the effects on his physiology with it. He remembered the feeling of communion, of epiphany, on an intellectual level, but no longer experienced it as a visceral truth. Had it only been pharmacological happenstance? Was the unity of human and Choke nothing but a narcotic delusion, a drug-addled gestalt? Just another lie?

He scowled at Artie. “Take your goddamn medicine!” he shouted.

Artie recoiled at the sound.

“Don’t you know what’s good for you?”

Mort shoved the slop, now dripping between his fingers, into the goat’s idiotic, alien face. Artie turned away, whining.

“Just eat it, you piece of shit! Eat it or I’ll shove it down your fucking throat, you ungrateful bastard! I hiked all the way to the top of that hillock. I faced my demons. For you. And you won’t even save your own miserable life? I ought to beat you to death with my bare hands, you goddamn Choke!”

Mort’s fingers curled into fists, squishing the purée through their gaps. He glanced at the last quarter of ethyl beckoning from the nearby bottle, then the rusty residue of Smudge peeking out from beneath a disheveled bedsheet. Perhaps his predecessor had been right. Perhaps blowing one’s head off was the sanest reaction to this place. Mort tried to recall where he’d left his rifle.

As his thoughts turned toward nihilism, something slimy enveloped one of Mort’s hands. He peered down. It was Artie, stretching to the edge of the bed in an effort to make him feel better.

Mort smiled, the gesture shattering his negative feedback loop. He loosened his fist, then chuckled as the goat probed its topography. Suddenly, he realized that Artie wasn’t just trying to salve his mental pains, but was actually slurping up the purée.

When it had cleaned the mashed up carnage rose from his hand, Mort slipped free of the little guy’s mouth and dug a fresh scoop from the blender jar. Without so much as dragging its whiskers across the medicine, Artie slurped Mort’s palm clean. They repeated this maneuver several times, until the purée was half gone and Artie finally groaned in contentment, curling into a crescent.

Mort hopped onto the bed beside it. He pulled Artie close, spooning the serpentine goat and caressing the warm, moist surface of its scaly side. And there he lay, content, until Artie twisted to nuzzle his hand.

Mort took the gesture as a sign of resurgent hunger and collected another scoop from the blender jar, which Artie promptly scarfed down. Only when the jar had been emptied did Artie finally settle down, this time for the night.

Again Mort spooned the little guy, who was feeling drier by the moment. The medicine was working.

And then, something even more miraculous happened. Mort fell asleep.

* * *

The next morning—for Mort and Artie had slept through day and night and on past the subsequent sunrise—Mort stretched his static muscles and stumbled into the kitchen. He snapped off an intact stem of carnage rose and brought it to the Choke goat, interested to see if it were healthy enough to eat solid food now.

When Artie refused it, Mort patted its head, which was now completely dry.

“That’s okay,” he said, heading for the blender. “We can do a liquid diet until you’re back on your feet. Or whatever you have.”

Mort heard a clunk behind him and pivoted to see Artie on the ground, slithering for the closed CHU door. When the little guy reached it, it turned its head toward Mort and whimpered.

“You want to go out?” he asked, walking over.

The second the door swung open, Artie shot through it, undulating across the porch and into the parcel proper. When Mort finally caught up to it, the little goat had stopped in a patch of young chokegrass. It dragged its tasting whiskers across the fresh growth, then turned its head both ways, as if scanning the air. It gurgled, and, for a moment, Mort half-expected it to explosively inflate. Instead, it raised its hind end and excreted a curling, split trail of vibrant carmine manure.

After it was finished, Artie made three prideful loops around its creation, then took a bite of chokegrass, ready to fill itself back up.

A sound in the distance drew Mort’s gaze and he spotted Mejia’s wagon drawing near, so he ambled over to meet up with the Sergeant in the usual spot. There was a second figure in the wagon, he soon discovered, clad in full bunny suit and helmet. Mejia, as usual, wore drab cammies and a basic respirator.

When they arrived, the figure in the full suit looked Mort up and down and then alighted from the wagon.

“PFC Louka?” the man inside asked.

Mort nodded.

“I’m Lieutenant Sook. I’m here for the carcass.”

Mort pointed into the parcel, unable to suppress a grin. “The carcass is having breakfast right now. You’re gonna have to wait a few minutes.”

The eyes on the other side of the helmet’s viewport widened. “You mean it’s still alive? What… how… but that’s impossible. You said it was bubbling out of both ends…”

Mort again gestured into the yard. “See for yourself,” he said.

Sook scrambled past him, stopping when he picked out the shape of Artie, still munching on the chokegrass.

“How’d you do it, Louka?”

“I knew that certain Choke plants digested metal, and the carnage rose most of all. So I collected some specimens and fed them to the little bugger.” Mort shrugged. “It worked.”

Sook shook his head in disbelief. For the next few minutes, the three of them watched the Choke goat eat in silence.

Finally, Sook said, “I’d still like to take it back to the clinic for a few days.”

“Probably a good idea,” Mort said. He motioned across the parcel. “Artie!”

The little guy broke from the tail end of its breakfast and slithered straight over to Mort.

“It comes when called?” Sook asked, incredulous.

“Seems that way,” Mort replied.

“And what about its stool?”

“Red as red can be.”

“Do you have a specimen? I only need a teaspoon…”

Mort nodded and pointed out its location. “Knock yourself out.”

The lieutenant retrieved a sample bag from the wagon and practically skipped straight for the carmine poo.

Mort glanced up at a frowning Mejia.

“Command says you’re done here, Louka,” she said. “That little goat was a prime piece of tech and you damn near killed it in a day. They’re moving you out.”

Mort stared at the ground. “Off planet?” he asked.

Mejia laughed. “It’s punishment they’re after, so you’re staying here. No place worse than Demeter at the moment if you ask me. Well, maybe the Front, but you’re combat ineffective. They don’t let looney birds like you at the tip of the spear.”

“So where am I headed?”

“Mud city,” Mejia replied. “There’s a parcel back in the mustering zone, where you lot first made planetfall to liberate this armpit. Not much there. A couple little plants, some lichen. Less than a day’s bushwhack from here, but somehow still the ass end of nowhere. Or as you’ll call it, home.”

Mort grinned. “No place I’d rather be,” he said.

* * *

Mort lay on his cot, studying the pinpricks of light that punctured the roof of his tent. After a stretch that quickly became a grimace, he sat up and coughed, banishing the unfamiliar sluggishness that accompanied unbroken sleep.

His eyes locked on the single-burner camp stove propped atop a dwindling case of canned beans and wheat protein in the corner.

“The breakfast of champions,” he mumbled to himself.

After powering down a hot can of calories, he slipped through the tent’s entry flap and debouched into the relative desolation of his exile.

The morning was cool and wet from another night of gentle rain. Mort’s toes sank into the top inch of drying mud as he made his way to the freshly replenished cistern. He rinsed himself off and then peeled back the enormous tarp that protected his drying mud bricks from the nocturnal rains.

He scanned the company of bricks, 192 in all, lain in perfect rows, subdivided into platoons and squads and fire teams and individuals. Facing them were another 192 bricks under a second tarp, but of a slightly different hue. Redder.

Though mothered by the same loamy rise, the brown bricks had been amended with rye and straw and earthly grasses, while those in the red ranks had been reinforced by wild Choke grasses from the adjacent heath. Mort planned to alternate them in the construction of his new hovel.

Command wasn’t about to drag a CHU through the unbroken country surrounding his new parcel, so the construction of his new quarters was up to him. The bricks had been five days in the making. One more day and they would be dry enough to seal and lay. In the meantime, he could begin his real project.

Mort headed down the slope, one of many low hills created by the landing of their dropships on Limos a lifetime ago. He skirted the hole that had once held his abandoned boots and knelt down amongst the purslane that had gained purchase on the land thanks to the blood of his younger self.

He scraped a wide rectangle around the feeble plants, clearing the top layer of mud and exposing the unscented, barren soil below. From there, he dug down another six inches with his hands, disturbing the soil in preparation for the next step.

A whispering scrape drew his attention over a shoulder and he smiled. Slithering along the thin layer of mud, straight toward him, was Artie.

“Hey, buddy,” Mort said as the little goat sidled up to him.

He petted its head—now free of the band which confined it to a single parcel—and then let his hand trail down its scaly back. Artie gurgled and then inflated, rolling over to expose its belly. Mort caressed it with his replacement hands. After a moment, Artie scooted itself toward his bare foot.

“No thanks,” Mort said, remembering the tranquilizing effect of the little guy’s belly. “Don’t need it.”

Artie deflated with an extended fart and made its way over to the boot hole. When it reached it, it raised up its hindquarters and dropped its daily poo right into the hole.

“Much appreciated,” Mort said.

Artie slithered in two circles and then returned for more love.

Mort had brought Artie’s carmine manure with him from the old parcel and deposited it in the hole for future use. Somehow Artie, freshly reassigned to a nearby spot, had caught wind of this occurrence and registered Mort’s boot hole as its new toilet. Every morning since then, the alien goat had appeared to do its business and say hello to Mort.

After they’d visited for a while, Mort gave Artie a final pat and sent him on his way. Artie’s new handler didn’t like the little guy to be gone too long. She didn’t like it to be gone at all, but Artie wouldn’t poop anywhere else, so Command let it slide.

After Artie had gone, Mort collected the nutritious contents of the little guy’s toilet and sprinkled them across the disturbed soil of the rectangle, then did the same with his tilapia powder and the few pieces of spent brass he’d smuggled over from his old parcel. After all three amendments were in place, he tilled them into the soil.

It was ready.

Mort washed his hands at the cistern and then headed back to the tent. After a quick search of his duffel, he found Smudge’s old paper book of depressing poems and brought it out to the nascent garden.

Standing above the freshly tilled soil, he let the tome fall open. There, between a pair of random pages, he’d pressed two blossoms—one of carnage rose and the other, Redmond’s summersweet. He shook the seeds free from the flowers, then let them cascade along the binding of the book into his bionic palm. As he held the seeds of Demeter’s unified future in his hand, he hesitated.

A gentle breeze tickled the coarse hairs of his unkempt beard, its scent registering as neither the lifeless powdered rock of his initial deployment nor the festering halitosis of its aftermath, but rather a paradoxically pleasant combination of the two. It was Demeter’s own breath, casting seed and spore and the offerings of its dead as it alone saw fit.

Mort glanced at the contents of his hand and shook his head. Who was he to dictate a design to a planetary god?

He returned the seeds to the book, then snapped it shut and glanced at the fertile patch between his bare feet. He’d cultivate this place, create a foundation, but the rest was up to Demeter.

Mort dropped to his knees and extended his index finger to the ground. Remembering the few characters of Hebrew with which he was familiar, he added life to death and created truth.

____

Copyright 2018  Brian Koukol

Brian Koukol, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, now makes his home among the salt breezes and open spaces of California’s Central Coast. A lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy has informed the majority of his work, which is written with the aid of voice recognition software. His words have appeared in The Delmarva Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Phantaxis Magazine, amongst other places. Visit his author website: www.briankoukol.com

Still Life

by Victoria Feistner

“And I’m tellin’ you, leave him alone.” The gun pointed at the gang was from a different world: an antique, short-barrelled shotgun, the stock worked in bronze. The bearer of the gun didn’t match the delicate filigree either—a short, stocky woman, hair tied back under a wide-brimmed fishing hat of dubious age, and a filthy camping poncho. The mud-splattered all-terrain vehicle she sat astride had also seen better days.

A curiosity and an annoyance. The leader of the local gang swung Oliver by the arm lock around his neck so that he could peer, scowling, at the interloper. “He your boyfriend or something?”

The American’s dark eyes narrowed, regarding each gang member in turn. “I know what you’re thinkin’. You’re thinkin’ I look like an easy target, all on my lonesome like this, standin’ up for god-knows-who on the edge of town. But you gotta ask yourself: would a lone woman do what I’m doin’? Or would I be distractin’ you while my partner—the one with the long-range rifle—sets up on a near-by roof?” The gun made an ominous click. “Let him go.”

The local gang, it had to be said, was not at the top because of inherent brains. Squinting along with her bizarre accent, at the mention of a partner with a rifle they all drew back to scan the nearby rooftops. Too many burned-out windows, ledges, and chimneys along the high street for someone to be hiding.

The dirt and gravel at the leader’s feet exploded outwards in a burst of shot and dust. The thugs shouted and leapt back, releasing Oliver, who scurried out of arm’s reach with a white-knuckled grip on his weathered camping pack.

The stranger withdrew her other arm from inside the green plastic poncho to reveal a second shotgun. “Get on the mule,” she growled to Oliver.

When he frowned, shaking his head against the ringing in his ears, she gave a swift jerk of the head to the back of the ATV. He scrambled into the rear seat only to be handed the second shotgun. He stared at it in bafflement for a moment before pointing it at the twitching gang, their eyes still searching the ruined rooftops, knives uselessly drawn.

“Hold on.”

“Hold on to what—” The ATV lurched forward with a roar over the broken and pitted street.

As the first chuck of asphalt whizzed past his head, Oliver flinched, scrambling to figure out how to hold on to his backpack, the gun, and the handholds of the passenger seat simultaneously while the ATV bucked and bounced at speeds both prudent and terrifying. “They’re throwing stones!”

“I know. Hold on!”

The stranger veered off the road into the scrub while the local gang hurled rocks and chunks of their old life as the remains of the tiny Highland town dwindled in the rear-view mirror.

* * *

Ten minutes of ball-bruising jostling later, his mysterious rescuer stopped the ATV in a clearing. “Get off.”

Oliver slid on jelly legs to the ground, still holding the gun by the barrel like an explosive banana, pointed away from him. One arm through a strap of the overloaded pack kept it tucked against his side. He swallowed, as it finally occurred to him that he might have been rescued from the gang only to be robbed and murdered somewhere quieter.

“Give me that.” She held out her hand, fluttering fingers impatiently.

A moment of decision. “No.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s not loaded.” Her accent had changed, the drawl gone, though her voice remained flatly North American. “Give it to me before you break it.”

He swallowed. “I don’t have anything valuable.”

“Sweetheart, everything’s valuable these days if you have half a brain.” She gestured again with her fingers, amused but not angry, the other hand on her hips, still waiting for the return of the gun. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you.”

There was something about her relaxed demeanour that made him want to trust her. That, and she was a head shorter than he was. He flipped the gun around to hand it back handle-first.

She gave it a cursory glance and then slid it into a holster mounted on the side of the mule. “You heading south?”

“Isn’t everyone?”

“True.” She sized him up with a frank stare and he tried to straighten his shoulders even while adjusting the straps on his backpack. “How far south?”

“Back home to York,” he answered. “And then, depending what’s there… I suppose on to London.”

“London’s rubble,” she replied with a quick shake of the head. “York? Don’t know about York. Not even sure where that is.”

Oliver’s face lit up. “You’ve had news? You’ve—internet?”

“No internet. News—” She scratched under the brim of her flopping hat. “News is different to everyone.” She glanced in the direction of the village, considering, then up at the overhead sun. “Maybe we should find a better place to talk. Further away from angry rednecks.”

“Rednecks?” he repeated. In his mind this referred to a specific set of traits associated with a segment of the population in the deep South of the United States, the ones who had all the nukes and guns and a deep abiding mistrust of everyone not themselves.

She shrugged. “How about ‘shitkickers’?”

“Haven’t heard that one, but I like it, and I agree to put space between us and them.” He paused, considering, and then he slid his pack around, rummaging one-handed, before holding out a tin of mandarin oranges.

She stared at his proffered hand, frozen, longing written on her face.

“As a thank you,” he explained. “For saving me from those—shitkickers. For you and your partner.”

“Partner?” she repeated, eyes still fixed on the tin. He gestured and she gingerly reached out and then snatched it, holding it up to her nose, as though she could smell the oranges through the metal. She pulled it away from her face. “What partner?”

“The one on the roof. The one with the long-range rifle.”

Her lips twitched over the curve of the tin. “Sweetheart,” she said, the exaggerated drawl making a re-appearance, “if I had a partner with a ‘long-range rifle’, do you think I’d be this excited over a single can of fruit snack?”

He stared. “No partner. No long-range rifle?”

“Nothing but me, Betsy, two shotguns, and my good nature.”

“Betsy… oh. The—of course.”

“Speaking of,” she said, climbing back on board, “it’s more comfortable if you sit looking behind us, letting your legs hang down.”

It was indeed more comfortable, to his surprise; and with his pack worn on the front in his lap he could hold on to handrails mounted on the side, further cutting down the jostling. “You haven’t told me your name,” he shouted.

“You don’t have to shout, I’m right here,” she replied, the drawl once again stowed away until next time she needed to make a threat or a retort.

“Oh.” He had expected the engine to make more noise, but the only sound was the crunch of dirt as they rejoined the broken thoroughfare. “It’s electric? But before—”

“Before I needed to make it sound like I’m richer and stronger than I am,” she replied, laughing. “Betsy’s a hybrid. She can make good mileage but sometimes—” Suddenly the engine roared and spluttered, nearly startling Oliver off the back. “—sometimes it’s better to make a little noise.”

* * *

“You still haven’t told me your name,” he reminded her. They had travelled through the better part of the daylight, but evening came swiftly to northern Scotland, and they’d pulled off the road to camp in a clearing. Oliver gathered brush; the stranger busied herself examining the mule with mutterings about scratches. From where he stood he wasn’t sure how she could tell which scratches were new. From the wear-and-tear and the fact that she was a gasoline-hybrid, Betsy had to be at least 20 years old.

Once he scrounged enough dry tinder to be hopeful, he lit the fire with one of his precious matches. He didn’t breathe until the fire caught then he let the breath out slowly. 19 left. “I’m Oliver.”

“That’s nice,” she replied, settling in, her back against one of Betsy’s wheels, legs stretched out. The soles of her boots were as worn as Oliver’s trainers.

He took his shoes off, checking them for new cracks or extra wear, pulling the inserts out to air. “Yours?”

She watched his shoe administrations with curiosity. “How long? Before you set out?”

“Almost six months,” he replied, his voice dull. “We had plans for four months of work, and supplies for six, and we were isolated enough that we didn’t—we weren’t expecting anyone to contact us. It was only after that the scientists were supposed to be rotated out that we came looking.”

She nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Same as the nutbars, I guess. You were filming a series?”

“Yeah, more like a documentary—” Oliver stopped, staring. “You know who I am?” Another sly smile. “You do. That’s… oh. That’s why you stopped for me.”

“I bet you never thought a YouTube channel would save your life one day,” she said, her grin bright in the encroaching gloom. She leaned forward, hand outstretched. “Name’s Isla Zhang but you can call me Gunny. I’d rather you call me Gunny. Not only was I a subscriber, back in the day, but I had one of the t-shirts.”

He shook her hand, grinning back, the absurdity of the situation adding cheer to the campsite. “Always nice to meet a fan.”

* * *

The days had been monotonous since Oliver had decided to split from the main group, preferring to walk. He’d hike for a long morning, then break for rest and a meagre dinner of whatever he could scrounge from Scotland’s ruined landscape. He’d set traps in the rest of the daylight, or fish, or wash; sometimes he read from his one battered copy of a dire Richard Sturgeon novel, Ten to One, that one of the scientists had given him. Sometimes he’d take his dead mobile out from the bottom of his backpack, checking to see if the crack was any bigger, or if it would turn on. It never did. He’d wrap it in his spare t-shirt and place it back with care.

Oliver’s mother used to say, “A change is as good as a rest.” He’d never understood that, back when his days were each as different from each other as his meals or his clothing or his social media feed. But meeting up with Gunny had given him insight into the expression.

Now he was literally riding shotgun on the back of a mechanical mule, keeping an antique Winchester long-barrel at hand. Just in case they spotted a rabbit or flushed out a partridge or pheasant or whatever those horrible things were that burst out of the grass like feathery atomic blasts, usually right underfoot when he wasn’t paying attention, scaring himself half to death.

Gunny assured him that they were good eatin’—the g dropped for emphasis—while giving him a cursory lesson with the long gun.

“Why didn’t you threaten those arseholes with this one?” he had asked her, trying to get used to the feel of the shotgun stock against his shoulder. He was concerned about his accuracy but Gunny laughed and assured him that accuracy less of a concern with shot. “It’s more threatening looking than the short ones.”

“Not when you’re standing five feet away from someone and you want to look like you’re the front man with lots of backup,” Gunny had explained, adjusting his hold. “You want to look like someone else is holding the big guns.”

“But then you’re left holding the small one.”

“Right.”

“So what makes them think you’ve got anything bigger?”

Shrug. “Body language. Confidence. A heavy cowboy accent.”

“A cowboy accent?”

“Sure.” She’d switched on her drawl, sticking a blade of yellowed grass in her teeth, her eyes narrowing, sizing him up with a slow tilt of her head. She flipped the flap of her green plastic poncho back to reveal her fingers pointed like a pistol. “You feelin’ lucky? Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”

Oliver stared at her in incomprehension.

She dropped the act, disappointed. “Like Clint Eastwood? Fist Full of Dollars? No? Well, you’re the exception. It’s been working so far.” She adjusted her poncho back, scanning the gray clouds. Still with the grass in her teeth, she said: “Act bigger than you are, people smell the weakness. Look like you don’t care that they know how small you are, they wonder what you have hidden.”

“If you say so.” Oliver went back to playing with the unloaded Winchester, getting a feel for the trigger. He was just over six feet, and relatively robust, at least back when he’d had a good diet and the chance to lift weights. No one had bothered him since his growth spurt in first-year uni. Not until he’d taken the road south, that was.

And now he was bouncing on the back of an ATV, watching for game, wondering where the rest of the world was.

The mule slowed to a stop. He twisted in the seat. “What’s happening?”

“Smoke.” To the south-east a thin line of black-gray stood against the slate-blue sky, like a flag waving in the breeze.

“A chimney.” He grinned. “A house. People.”

He thought she’d grin back but she continued to stare at the line like it was spelling something only she could read. Without saying anything, she restarted the mule, swerving to the right.

* * *

So far he’d mostly come across ruins: long-abandoned buildings that hadn’t held up to the onslaught of the mid-21st century. People lived in the shadows of their old lives as long as they’d had the strength to; he’d learned to trust his nose to avoid opening one door too many. Usually that door lead to the bedroom. Lucky for him if it did: the kitchen was free for the scavenge, if animals hadn’t got to the cupboards first.

Usually the bedroom but not always. He never wanted to experience discoveries like that again.

He’d grown hungry enough in living memory to risk it.

This house wasn’t just ‘still occupied,’ it was whole. A tidy farmhouse on the edge of a rocky field. No crops sown, of course, too early in the year. There was a small garden with straggly vegetables, yellow-green and sickly but staked and tied with care.

Gunny made the engine growl as they crested the low hill. Over the empty landscape the noise carried with nothing to muffle it. She continued until they both spotted movement, darting into the shelter of the little stone house.

“Should I put the gun away?” Oliver asked.

Gunny stared at him. “What for?”

“To do that thing you were saying. Look small but imply you’re carrying a big stick or whatever.”

She smirked. “Hon, you are my big stick.”

“Maybe I should talk to them. Fellow inhabitant of the British Isles and all that.”

“Yeah?” She swung off the mule, stretching, keeping her focus on the house. “Does that usually go well?” When he didn’t answer, she patted his arm. “Stay here and think confident, possibly menacing thoughts. And for Christ’s sake don’t daydream on me.”

He shifted, insulted. “I wouldn’t—”

“I would hope not but anyone scared by a fucking grouse is not someone paying a whole lot of attention.”

“You’re not going to let me live that down, are you?”

“Nope.” She finished her stretches and tucked one of the short guns under her poncho. “Wish me luck.”

* * *

Oliver groaned as he woke, pain flooding his consciousness. Grey light filtered through the stunted leaves of the copse. It could be any time of day, but it was day. The pounding against the party wall of his temples subsided enough to sit up, carefully testing his jaw. It moved, if gingerly: bruised then, not broken. He guessed from the tender pulpiness of his face that he’d have a spectacular shiner under his left eye but he could open the eyelid. Not bad, all things considered. MacGreggor had a right hook like a hammer and Oliver wouldn’t be surprised if he’d dropped a few IQ points while gaining the headache. “Gunny?”

A rustle of the bushes. Gunny parted them to step into the tiny clearing. “You’re awake.”

“Tea,” Oliver croaked. Then: “You all right?”

“No tea, my friend. But there’s hot water.” She didn’t look any better than he felt, with generous bruising and swelling around her jaw. The cut across her eyebrow looked like it stung. A tear in her poncho had been fixed with a precious piece of duct tape.

He checked his own anorak but it was fine; after all Mrs. MacGreggor hadn’t gone after him with the broken glass.

“How’s your ribs?”

“Hurts, but not broken. Your arm?”

“Same.”

Wincing, she sat next to him, using the side of the mule as a brace. She swore, less as a series of coherent words than as an exhale voicing all her complaints. “I’m cooking the last bit of the rabbit.”

Oliver groaned. “Hopefully nowhere near.”

“Over the next ridge. It’s small and smokeless but even still.” She tilted her head back. “As much as I would love a day to lie on the ground and groan, we should probably move on once we’ve eaten some.”

He tried to nod in agreement but gave up. Everything that wasn’t immediately on fire was a slow unbending groan. “We might need to take it slow the next few days. Let ourselves heal.”

Gunny frowned, uncomprehending, then gave a slow nod of agreement. “We’ll get some more klicks between us and them first. They’re on foot, as far as I can see, not counting the tractor. Doubt they’ll waste gasoline on us but who knows. Once we’ve done at least twenty-kay we can stop for a couple of days. Maybe hunt or fish, and I can brew us a bag of fuel if we fix up the converter.” Scowling, she hauled herself up using the ATV, only to pause once standing, fighting the spins. “Meat’ll help.” She started back towards the bushes.

“Gunny?” Oliver pulled the camping blanket around his shoulders. She stopped, expectant. “Was it worth it?”

She swayed, blinking. “You’re asking that now?”

He stared at the ground, gathering his thoughts. “I meant what I said back there. Civilization is what happens now.”

“And we asked them nicely, which is the definition of civilization.”

“And when they said no, we attacked them.”

She braced herself against one of the scrawny trees, her face darkening. “He wanted my fuel converter.”

“Maybe he was just starting with an unreachable bargain. That’s how people bargain, sometimes, go high, settle low with what they really want.”

Gunny stared at him. “He wasn’t doing that. He wanted my—our fuel converter.”

“You don’t know—”

“I do know. You heard what he called me. He wasn’t bluffing. He was going to take our fuel converter from the second he found out we had one. It’s the single most valuable item we have.” She paused, her knuckles white against the dark mossy tree branch. “I should have been more subtle about it, not just asked for the compost-refill. I’ll know for next time.”

Oliver shook his head. “We could have talked our way out of it.” Her response was to scoff and turn her back, heading out into the trees. He struggled to his feet, fighting the urge to vomit, and raised his voice. “We didn’t have to turn it into a fist fight.”

“We absolutely did,” returned the voice from the bushes. Wrapping his camping blanket tighter around his shoulders, he followed, winding through the copse, the dead twigs pulling at his hair and scratching at tenderized skin.

“No, we didn’t. We could have found a way to trade.”

“We did trade.” Her breath was heavy and winded. “I left them a piece of rope and a pack of lady razors. Those’ll be useful on a farm, if that meathead has any brains.”

“We left them tied up!”

“And if you don’t think they had themselves untied 10 minutes after we left—” She stopped, turning to look up and face him, wincing with each inhale. “If you think there was any way that we were getting out of there without a fight of some kind: you’re an idiot. He had a gun.”

“We had guns. We also lied to them.”

“They didn’t buy the cowboy routine. We had to give them a better story.”

“No. We lied to them, Gunny, and it’s not right.”

“What’s not right, Oliver,” she replied, mercilessly skewing his accent and seriousness, “is that we have to fight for scraps just to survive. But that’s where we are.” She allowed herself a demonstrative and expansive shrug. “Middle of nowhere, home on the other side of a very big ocean, and everyone between here and there just trying to do the same as we are.” She took long moments to recover then added: “Christ. We didn’t kill them. We traded—”

He cut her off. “This was theft.”

“Theft is just a shitty kind of trade: something for nothing. And we left them something.”

He threw up his arms, then scrabbled to catch the blanket. “You’ve always got an answer, don’t you! Jesus. This isn’t a game! Let’s make one thing clear right here: we’re not thieves. I’m not a thief. Do we have an understanding?”

“Fuck you.” Gunny spat back. “Look, Lily, I—” She stopped herself, her face colouring dark pink.

She was shaking.

“Lily?”

She gave him a hateful stare in response, then turned and continued picking her way down the side of the hill. “Let me make something clear to you: I am getting home by whatever means I need. And the sooner you realize the same is true for yourself, the easier time we’ll both have.”

“You don’t even know if North America’s habitable,” he shouted after her, at a loss for anything else to say.

“Neither is this godforsaken rock! And yet here we are,” she said, without turning around. “Go keep Betsy company. Someone should stay by the guns. I’ll bring back the meat. Then we go.”

It wasn’t how he wanted to end the conversation, but she was right, and they both knew it. “Fine. But we’re talking about this later.”

She gave a dismissive wave of agreement and disappeared through a strand of stunted conifers. Oliver stood for a moment longer, peering around him at the harsh landscape.

Whatever Gunny may think, he was determined to hold on to civility. There were other alternatives besides running with gangs or lying on the bed with a shared jug of antifreeze.

There had to be.

He pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, before turning to climb back up the rocky ridge.

* * *

Gunny drove. Oliver rode shotgun. Each bump and rut and loose chunk of asphalt rattled their bruises, no matter the speed. After one particular jolt shot pain through his jaw Oliver rooted around in his mouth; sure enough a sizable shard of enamel lay on the end of his finger.

His first broken tooth. In a fight, no less. No dentists in a hundred miles, maybe even a million. His mind flitted through disapproving mothers, misplaced masculinity, graphic descriptions of scurvy gleaned from encyclopedias before resting on a story from his uni days about a friend of a friend with an abscess that burst in the middle of an exam. Another bump and the shard was gone, lost in an endless ribbon of gravel.

Usually Oliver’s mind went blank during the rides, staring off the back of the mule while retreating into a bored-but-alert animal observation. Instead, he probed the newly-unfamiliar molar with his tongue.

Anger clutched at his mind at the thought of what they’d—what he’d done: he’d laid down something personal to take the first step on a slippery slope of morality. It had to be someone’s fault and it was his, but it was also Gunny’s, and his upper decks made excuses while his lower decks demanded retribution.

And yet.

He’d been tempted to yell “who’s Lily?” in Gunny’s ear more than once but what would it accomplish? Lily was no more tangible than that shard of enamel: once a part of him, now vanished. Perhaps she waited somewhere. Perhaps she lay behind them, gone forever, leaving a rough edge and a weakness.

It didn’t matter, either way.

* * *

At first Gunny swerved to avoid the pack of dogs, but Oliver spotted something in the tangle. He fired the shotgun into the air—the heads of the wild mongrels whipped up, ears pricked. Another blast, combined with a sudden roar of mechanical engine, startled them enough to flee.

Oliver hopped off with a speed that he didn’t know he possessed, assessing. The ewe was already dead, but not yet too badly savaged. “It was alive a few minutes ago, so that’s okay,” he said to Gunny as she approached. She stared at him from out of her bruised face, and he explained: “You never eat any animal you find dead. Just ones you know how they died.”

“Oh. Where’d you learn that?” she asked, taking the gun from him so he had both hands free. The dogs watched from the edge of the gully, angry and growling, debating whether to return and reclaim their kill.

“Scouting,” he replied. “That’s also where I learned to skin a rabbit and build a fire and all that.”

She grunted an assent and raised the shotgun at the dogs inching closer. “I don’t know about wasting more ammo for the sake of a loud noise.”

“I’ve got this,” he said. Half-dragging the bedraggled carcass, he hauled it to Betsy, lashing it to the back seat. “I’ll stand on the trailer hitch. If we don’t go too fast it should be fine.”

Gunny eyed the arrangement with doubt, and the dogs with dismay, but slid back into her seating, handing the shotgun back. “Maybe we should camp on high ground tonight.”

“No argument.” He scanned the dusky sky. “Let’s get moving. We’ve got a lot of work to do before night.”

She nodded, surreptiously trying to wipe her face. “I’ll keep the motor—”

“Don’t waste the fuel.” He noted the eyes in the bushes reflecting Betsy’s headlights. “We’ll deal with the dogs only if they become a problem. I’m not ready to kill a dog yet either.”

* * *

The wild pack chased for a while, barking and snarling, but a final shotgun report and a cloud of whizzing pellets over their head convinced them it wasn’t worth it.

Balancing on the ATV was next to impossible, so once the dogs weren’t visible Oliver decided to run along side instead. He fell behind, but he could follow the tracks and he had the gun. He’d walked on his own for those first few weeks, with no weapon, and though loneliness had driven him into the remains of Ullapool, he’d never felt this afraid for himself.

Perhaps it was the dogs. Perhaps it was the wild edges of the ravine, the scarecrow remains of trees and the dark clouds sweeping in from the north. Either way, adrenaline kept his profound weariness at bay, and he jogged when he could and walked the rest of the way, between the twin tire trails until he reached the stopped ATV.

* * *

Between his scouting days—a smear of outdoorsy woes inflicted on Oliver by his parents, determined to get their weedy son off the Internet and outside during the summer—and what Gunny had learned from “the nutbars”, they managed to butcher the sheep.

Skinning the ewe was a filthy, repulsive job that was nothing like cleaning a rabbit, and although Oliver had to stop to dry-heave, part of him was pleased that he dealing better than Gunny, twice-sick in the bushes.

The smell was evil, and the gore attracted an assortment of flying miseries. Gunny took a break from her protesting stomach to build two smokey fires, on either side, while Oliver hacked the legs into more manageable pieces with the hunting knife.

“We’ll need to dispose of the rest of the carcass,” he said, and just the mention of it made her sick again.

* * *

Even though the moon was high when they finished, Oliver went to wash in the nearby burn. The stream was a trickle through the rocks but water is water. Desperate to clean himself, he scrubbed his hands, face, and forearms with a bit of moss ripped from the embankment, preferring the smell of compost to damp wool and offal. When he returned, Gunny was wrapping the skin in the tarp from her tiny one-person tent. Most of the usable meat was skewered near the fire, or in the wafting smoke, and the rest lay down the hill for the vermin to carry off.

He nodded towards the fleece while he rooted in his pack for his one spare t-shirt. The wet one lay draped over rocks to dry. “You think it’s worth keeping? Even uncured?”

“Either we’ll meet someone who can tan it for us, or we’ll trade it.” She sat back from the gruesome package, wiping her face with the crook of a less dirty elbow. Her features drawn from exhaustion, her bruises livid in the firelight.

“Have you eaten?”

“No.” She shook her head just a fraction, too tired for anything else. “If it didn’t smell so bad I’d be too tired to wash.” She stumbled towards the direction of the water.

Neither of them ate that night.

The odour of the butchering combined with sheer exhaustion robbed Oliver of any appetite. Truth be told he’d never been a fan of mutton, even well-spiced in a curry or kebab. It always had an undertone of what his youngest brother dubbed ‘wet dog taste’.

Gunny sat across from him, wrapped in her blanket, staring into the smoky fire with eyes red-rimmed and hollow. Occasionally she would glance at the meat they were trying to cure, shudder, and look away.

“My gran would make lamb for special occasions,” Oliver said, breaking the silence. He grimaced at the skewers of meat, rotating them so that they cured evenly. “It was my mum’s favourite. She looked forward to it on holidays. We—my brothers and me—never ate it without being badgered into it.”

“Yeah?” Gunny looked up through her swollen eyelids, her shoulders hunched around her ears. “I never had it before I came to Britain.”

He frowned. “Really?”

“Too expensive. Only ever ate beef. Or chicken or pork, I guess.”

“What, never even had a shepherd’s pie?”

“Sure, but that’s made with beef, right? And potato and corn and peas.”

“…then that’s not a shepherd’s pie, is it? If it’s made with beef. And who puts corn in a shepherd’s pie?”

She frowned. “Yeah, I guess. I guess it would be a cowherd’s pie? Is cowherd a word?”

He ought to know this but he was too tired. “Sure. It is now.”

She chuckled without noise, a slow blink and an opening of the mouth, a miming of laughter.

Oliver had nearly drifted asleep, still sitting up, when Gunny said,

“The nutbars would know. About cowherd pie, I mean.” She stirred herself awake, rubbing her face. “Everything about farming they could just rattle off like baseball stats. None of them had grown up on a farm, right? They had to teach themselves. Taught themselves from YouTube tutorials, actually. They could recite the videos.” She retreated into the bundle of blanket, watching the fire like it was a rotisserie chicken. “The landlord came out every once and a while and he’d stare at them like he knew, like he knew they’d fail and he was just waiting for the spectacle.” The fire danced in her dark eyes, sparks flying upward into the night. “Last laugh on him. The day after the internet died, his stocks in ruins, he went into that big fancy manor dining room of his and blew his brains out. Lily found him. She was the one that had to give him the rent money every week. It was his property for miles around.”

Oliver said nothing, his insides falling like he was in an elevator.

“Lily always knew what she wanted,” Gunny continued, through closed eyes, tears streaking. She sighed and wiped her face with a damp cuff. “Not like me. She was the one that signed up with the nutbars. I only went there to convince her to come back. I’d never left home before. Never needed to. But we didn’t hear from her for months and my parents were worried.” She blew her nose. “The day I showed up was butchering day. I got out of the rental jeep, still in my travel clothes, and they were all out, all the nutbars, helping catch and kill this lamb while it cried and cried. Lily came to greet me, all smiles. She said that if they’d known I was coming they’d have killed a pig.” She lifted her eyes from the fire to stare into Oliver’s. “Last laugh on us, huh. Lily was looking forward to the end of the world and she’s the one that died.”

He didn’t know how to respond. It was the most personal thing she’d said to him since they’d met, and he hadn’t even asked. “It wasn’t your fault. None of this is your fault.”

“If I’d been able to convince her to come home…”

“But… then you would have just died at home.” As soon as he said them he would have done anything to pull the words back.

Her eyes scrunched closed, and she curled herself on the ground, like a ball, her back to him.

He let his outstretched hand drop, useless. All of it was unfair and unfixable and he didn’t know what to say.

Out in the darkness came yips and snarls from down the ridge, wildlife fighting over scraps.

Sick with guilt, Oliver wordlessly banked the fires and lay down, exhausted enough to find the rocky ground comfortable. Sleep wrapped him in a tight grip in moments, his last thought a half-recalled scent memory of a Sunday dinner, in a different world.

* * *

Gunny swatted at the flies buzzing around her, shifting her weight so that the bloody tarp-turned-sack rested more easily against her back. “Gonna need to hose myself down after this. You sure you don’t need anything?”

“Nothing that we don’t both need. Ammo, food, cup of tea, WiFi connection.”

She gave a smirk. “I’m sure if the locals are worth talking to at all, they’ll share whatever news they have. If there is any.” She squinted at the featureless sky. “Don’t know how long I’ll be. Come looking for me if I’m not back by tomorrow morning, will you?”

“Of course. Oh! Proper firewood, if there’s any going. We can hang it off Betsy.” Oliver stared around the immediate area. The low bushes and conifers had already yielded as much dry fuel as they could without an axe. No one was going to trade them something as valuable as an axe.

“Good idea.” Gunny tapped her nose, then winced at the smell. “I swear to god, I want nothing to do with sheep ever again.” Muttering and swearing a litany of odour-based complaints, she picked her way around the larger rocks down to the broken road. A broken sign, invisible in the previous night’s arrival, proclaimed the nearest village only 5 miles away.

Oliver turned his attention to repairing the fuel converter, enjoying the chance to solve a simple problem with his hands. Years spent tinkering with electronics for fun and some trial and error with the multitool in his backpack got the machine up and running.

Once done, he settled near the fires, long since burned down to charcoal, still covered with moss. The smoke stung and made him cough but it was better than the flies. Even with the meat packed away, the bugs knew something the humans did not and they were winged revenge for all the world’s wrongs.

He stood and stretched, coughing and staring off at the low mountains in the distance. The sky was the same flat grey that it had been forever, but whether the weather was normal for the time of year or a symptom of the Crash he didn’t know. Daylight was light grey; night time was dark grey.

The fuel converter, its clear plastic belly loaded with stolen compost, bubbled away. Automated and silent.

On the ravine’s floor a mangy fox worried at the sheep carcass.

It was still only early morning. The day stretched out as far as the horizon.

“Fuck it,” said Oliver, to no one, and went to start up Betsy. Maybe he’d find something useful to bring back to camp.

* * *

With most of the gear unhooked from the panniers and only the one passenger, Betsy felt sprightly. At greater velocities she bounced with sincere violence, and Oliver finally understood why his companion drove as slowly as she did. Even at Gunny’s pokey rate it was faster than walking, especially burdened, but far gentler on the spine and tailbone. Opening up the throttle left him giddy, even as it left him bruised.

The landscape flew by. He checked the charge meter; barely dented. Visions of reaching home in days rather than weeks danced through his mind—if only the mule could sustain the speed while doubly laden. Even eight months prior, he’d gone from his apartment in London to the studios in Edinburgh in hours. Long hours, uncomfortable at times, but never truly hungry and with plenty of signal. God, what he’d give for his mobile to work.

Maybe he could rig up a charger to the engine. The fuel cell was astoundingly efficient; once the fuel cell was done they’d have plenty. They could spare a bit to charge some small electronics. The tricky part would be rigging up a safe adapter and finding the components.

He hadn’t had a such purely intellectual problem to solve in weeks. Months. That part of his mind was slow to wake, stretching leisurely as though it was Sunday morning. Having a full stomach for once, even if plain mutton and tinned lentils, helped spur his imagination. For the first time since filming at Skara Brae he hadn’t had to worry about anything larger than an inconvenience—

—the deer bounded across the road in an immense blur of dun brown.

In his panic, Oliver reacted like he was a kid on a bicycle. He gripped the handlebars and yanked away from the obstacle. Only he wasn’t riding a bicycle but an ATV with much more mass, momentum, and a throttle in the grips.

There was a lurching and sudden weightlessness.

The mental fog cleared. He was in the dirt; bushes had broken his fall. He tried to stand, fell over, and instead waited for the spinning to stop. Broken his fall but he’d still hit his head; there was a pounding pain just above his right ear. At least his fingers came away clean. More luck.

He lay back, closing his eyes, enjoying being still, his breath the loudest thing left in the world, until the crack of thunder.

* * *

Betsy lay on an angle against the remains of a cracked and rotted tree trunk. The silhouette was badly wrong: yes, there. The front wheel was no longer parallel to the others but jutting out. He let out a low groan. His stupid muscle-memory manoeuvre had forced too much weight against the hub of the front left wheel; bolts had sheared off and now the whole assembly dangled, barely held on.

He sat on the fallen tree, staring at the broken mule, fighting against the mutton-and-lentils that pressed against the back of his throat. He didn’t know how bad the damage was, if there was more, where he was, or how far from the campsite. What he did know was that he was miles and miles from help.

Deep breaths, forced through his nose, helped some to quell both the panic and the nausea. He had no way to contact Gunny. He had to do this on his own. He carefully stood, his hand against the slate sky, willing the rain to hold off just a little longer.

He wondered how the other members of his team were, the archaeologists and scientists. They’d had some crazy notion of taking the small boat to Denmark, rather than traverse all of Scotland. They were probably at the bottom of the sea by now. And he was still alive. He was still alive because he’d focused on each problem at hand to avoid letting himself drift into despair.

Just break the problem down and solve one step at a time. Find bolts and a socket wrench. Fix Betsy. Go home.

After stuffing one of the broken bolts in his pocket, Oliver stepped on to the gravel road trying to recall anything that might help. There had been a noticeable gap in a toppling stone fence. A closed gate that hung off hinges. He’d made a mental note to tell Gunny about it because it was the sort of thing that led to a farm—perhaps a farmhouse worth investigating.

His pace quickened, his legs wobbly but certain, as the sky opened and the rain began to fall in earnest.

Barely a hint of moisture for weeks. Lots of fog in the mornings, then nothing. And now the heavens opened with sheets of rain and ominous rumblings and flashes of light.

Because, of course.

Oliver’s clothes were sodden by the time he half-stepped, half-slid down the steep muddy drive, the tracks well-worn and still clear. At the bottom lay a dark huddled shape, mostly right-angles, with a long overhang. A shed. A farmer’s shed. He could already imagine its interior: the spiderwebs, the rusty nails, the equipment hanging low enough to bang a head on. There’d be a bare lightbulb that worked via a filthy string, if there was any electricity.

But there wasn’t.

He wiped a hand across his face, forgetting that he’d used it to steady himself only moments earlier. It didn’t displace any water but did smear mud across half his face and beard. He swore and grumbled as he picked his way down the mudslide, before tripping, losing his balance, and skidding the few final feet.

All the bruises and sore muscles from the fight with the MacGreggors and the endless hours of jostling re-activated with vengeance, and for a moment it was all he could do, to lie in the pouring rain, covered in mud, only yards from shelter.

Thunder cracked and rolled through the hills.

Oliver pulled himself upright. A farmer’s shed, even long abandoned, would be full of spare parts. Something he could bodge together to get the mule working. Trying to keep the panic at bay, he recited what he most wanted in the world: bolts to match the one in his pocket. A socket wrench. A bath. A cup of tea. A full proper English breakfast, with extra streaky bacon and toast. 17 hours consecutive sleep in his own bed.

The shed door was ajar and easily opened on free-swinging hinges. Enough watery daylight came in from the large windows to show a well-ordered repair underway. A hulking mass in the centre was a tractor, the pieces lying on a tarp on the concrete floor. Oliver whooped. Bolts! A cracked plastic tub full of them. He crouched, picking through the various sizes, relying on his fingers to match the dimensions against the broken specimen. Once he had four he turned his attention to the open tool kit, fumbling through the wrenches. Lightning blasted outside the windows, reflecting off clean chrome, wincingly bright.

He found the wrench that fit the bolts. He stood, excited. Running a hand through filthy hair he peered around to see what else could be useful. Once Gunny was back from trading they could both ransack—

There was a square of light outside the window. He hadn’t seen it from his approach but it was unmistakable from the shed, once he moved past the tractor. Not the blue-white of lightning but yellow and flickering. He wiped the edge of his sleeve against the pane of glass, peering through the rain. Beyond lay a trim, tidy farmhouse, with an old-fashioned antique lamp in the window between curtains. “Shit.”

Fear shot through him, his fingers clenching around the socket wrench. He’d thought—he hadn’t thought—this wasn’t salvage any more. This was theft.

MacGreggor’s leering face as he’d announced he’d take the fuel converter and anything else worth having danced in front of Oliver’s eyes. He didn’t remember who lashed out first, the farmers or them; there had just been sickly herb tea in china cups and then a declaration of intent.

He’d smashed a picture frame with his elbow and Mrs. MacGreggor had keened like an animal and then slashed at Gunny with the pieces. He’d never hit a woman before—never purposefully struck a man, either—but he’d lashed out then. Using glass wasn’t fair; he still believed in fairness.

His heart beating in time with the pain from his head, he backed away from the window and hit the edge of the tractor with his shoulder. He whirled, his fists up, still clenching the socket wrench. Deep breaths.

Footsteps, loud and sucking in the mud. “Someone in there?”

Oliver ducked behind the bulk of the tractor.

Wet wellies on concrete, each step careful. A man’s voice, deep. Older. “Someone in here? Hullo?” Then: “Ach, Sasha, did ye no clean up after yerself?”

His swallow loud in his throat, his heart hammering in his ears, Oliver crouched, peering around the edge of the giant tire. Lightning illuminated the outside world, the figure a black silhouette against the open door. Coming closer.

He closed his eyes, struggling to breathe normally through his nose. Civilization. He had to remember.

But what if—

MacGreggor’s leering face.

—What if Gunny was right?

“Sasha?” the man asked, gently. “I’m no’ in the mood for this, lad. Come out now.” Squeaks of soggy rubber against the concrete floor. Oliver shifted, trying to put the broken vehicle between them. He’d make a run for it through the door. He’d return the socket wrench after; he couldn’t chance that the farmer’d say no. They needed the bolts. He’d return with the socket wrench and mutton and whatever else they could spare after he fixed Betsy. The ATV was too important.

A shitty trade is nothing for something.

He was so focused on the door, on the mental escape route, that the hand on his shoulder was a jolt like pain.

“There you are—”

Something in Oliver broke loose and he reacted, swinging the socket wrench with his entire weight behind it. It connected to something first hard then yielding. And the man dropped.

Oliver backed away. The adrenaline receded for a moment, like a wave pulling back to expose shore. Lightning burned bright, showing another man in the shed: red jacket streaked with mud under a filthy, ragged beard and unkempt birdsnest of hair. Dark eyes in a gaunt, hollow face, white with terror.

Oliver’s eyes readjusted to the return to gloom. Facing him, leaning on one of the work benches, was a rusting mirror. He stared at it, then down to the concrete floor, at the featureless silhouette, now a bundle.

He ran.

H must have climbed the hill. How, he didn’t remember. He was standing in front of the gate which drooped, hanging on its hinges: he was back on the road. Betsy lay to the left of him. The campsite was to the right. He lifted his hand to close the gate, but clutched tightly in his fingers was a socket wrench that he didn’t remember carrying.

“I’ll bring it back,” he said to himself, as though remembering something someone had once told him. He shifted the tool to a pocket and then closed and latched the gate behind him.

* * *

His own fingers were half-numb, his hands shaky; he dropped the bolts more often than he cared to admit. But there were no clocks in this new world, despite the metronome of rainfall. It would simply take as long as it would take.

Another bolt slipped into the mud. He sighed, leaning against the seat of the mule, watching water trickle along the fake leather. Betsy still lay at an angle, braced against the log; at some point he was going to have to heave her upright but for now it made repairs easier. He shifted his weight to his other leg and the mule shifted, the seat giving way. He cursed loudly, spitting in fury at yet another problem to solve only to realize that the seat was on runners. Supposed to slide out, probably to allow access to the ATV’s innards. He replaced it, sighing heavily but relieved, returning his attention to the bolts and the slippery hub.

* * *

“Wakey wakey.” The flap of the pup tent opened and Gunny’s face, crinkled in amusement, peered in. “You’re sleeping in my tent. That’s very forward of you.”

“Sorry,” Oliver said, hand up against the sudden brightness. Sunshine? He pulled himself out, stretching. “You took the tarp with you. It was raining.”

“I did and it was.” Gunny acknowledged the tarp with a wave her hand; it lay nearby, spread to dry and weighted with rocks. “I washed it in the river on my way back this morning.”

“Successful trip?”

“Very.” She gave a tilt of her head to the fire. Their billy-cans boiled, mutton-frying on hot rocks. At the look of his face she laughed. “Sorry, Ollie! No tea. No one has any and if they did I bet it would be worth more than we have. I just meant, let’s have breakfast, is all.”

“Oh.” He yawned, and pulled his sleeping mat out of the tiny pup-tent. He’d used his jacket as a blanket. At the smell of both he spread them on the stony ground. Then he sniffed his t-shirt and recoiled.

Gunny laughed, helping herself to some of the mutton. “I got cans, though, and some salt and pepper. Oh! And soap!”

“Fantastic.” He meant it. They drank their hot water in silence, chewing the fried sheepsteak with perfunctory motions, but salt did improve the flavour. “I could wash and try fishing this afternoon.”

“Lovely day for it. For once.” She lifted her face sunward. “I stayed in the village when the storm broke out. Too far to go on foot. I hope you were all right.”

The mutton caught in his throat and bile burned as he choked it down. “Fine. I was fine. You? Good time?” He washed the strain from his voice with a gulp of water.

“Very. Friendly people, for once. Got caught up on the latest rumours; Americans in helicopters due any day now, apparently.”

“Oh, that one again.”

“They seemed to think I was a forerunner. Bit disappointed when they realized I was—anyway.” She dug in her jeans pocket. “Chatty barmaid turned trade broker. Gave me a room for the night when the storm hit, introduced me to people who might want a raw sheepskin. That sort of thing. She mentioned that it’s better to skip Iverness. Something about wide-spread fires and very few making their way back. She gave me a bunch of random numbers for highways and told me to follow them.”

Oliver gave a heavy sigh. “Do you remember the random numbers?”

“Course not, they’re random. But I had her write ‘em down.” She flashed him a grin, producing a scrap of a grocery chain flyer, with directions scrawled in black marker.

He took the scrap to study and commit the numbers to memory. “These are smaller highways.”

“Yep. Round the bay of something or other. Far away from Iverness, is the main point. Then straight on until morning.”

“So nothing’s changed.”

“Not in the grand scheme, no.” She cocked her head at him. “You all right?”

He swallowed the last of his boiled water. “Yeah. Just didn’t sleep well.”

Gunny gave a grunt of assent and pulled off her poncho, dumping it beside her, then the thin fleece top. She stretched out, enjoying the rare and sensational sunshine on her arms and face. “I had planned we’d leave today, but maybe one more day’s rest won’t hurt us.”

“We could use it,” he agreed, settling back. In the daylight, well-washed from the storms, the landscape seemed to sparkle silver and green, like his grandmother’s brooch. He started to enumerate things he do with such a bright day: wash clothing; fish; air out his bedroll and maybe the tent—

“What happened to Betsy?” Gunny said, propping herself up on her elbows, squinting.

His mouth went dry. “What?”

Gunny got to her feet. “The mirror’s cracked.”

He blinked. Yes. He had noticed that on the ride back, but with the storm he’d had bigger worries. “Stone. Dogs.”

She looked over her shoulder at him, tucking a strand of graying hair behind her ear. “What?”

Part of his mind saw again the lightning-brief glimpse of himself in the mirror on the repair table. He swallowed, then picked at another piece of mutton. “There were dogs in the camp last night. No fire, right? I threw rocks. To drive them off. One of them hit the mirror.”

“Jesus.” Gunny straightened. “You all right?”

“Fine. They didn’t get anything, the meat’s safe. I meant to tell you about the mirror but I forgot.” He tore a bit free with his teeth but didn’t chew. His stomach recoiled.

Gunny stared at him for a long moment then gave a slight shrug. “A cracked rear-view isn’t the worst problem we’ve had.” She sauntered back over to her side of the fire. “Oh, that reminds me. My new best friend the barmaid told me about a man on the edge of town that’s the local mechanic. Apparently he’s been helping anyone passing through, tuning up their bikes or patching boats or whatever.”

He held his breath for a second and then carefully exhaled, aware of Gunny watching him. “Do we have enough to trade for it, though?”

“Oh, is that’s what’s worrying you? Whatever! We’ll make it work. I try to keep the old girl happy but I’ve been learning on the road, so even if I can just get a lesson or two it’ll be worth the detour, I think.”

“Absolutely,” Oliver agreed.

She grinned, pleased, and gave him a slap on the knee. “Cheer up. Sun’s shining. I bet the river might even be less than frigid today. Gotta take our luck where we can find it, eh?”

* * *

Gunny’s night breathing was a wheeze through one nostril that would have been comical at any other time. Under the sweep of stars and decaying satellites, so far from home, the noise served to make her smaller somehow. More human. She’d said over and over again that she’d do anything to survive, but Oliver hadn’t believed her. Now he didn’t know what to believe; he’d laid his own morals down, why not her? They didn’t know anything about each other, besides what he’d carefully crafted to share online and what she’d revealed one night over a campfire.

Too restless to sleep, he decided to check on Betsy. After giving the ATV a friendly pat on the rump, he checked for scratches, tightened her straps and panniers, all while ignoring the mirrors. The seat was askew from when he’d hastily replaced it in the rain. He carefully slid it off, revealing the fuel-cell access hatch in a shallow depression. And papers.

A carelessly-folded printout of a photo: two young women, smiling at the camera, one intense and one nervous. The bold staring face was circled in black marker, and the nervous one was a much younger Gunny. Back when she was Isla, he supposed. That’s who the navy-blue passport was for, after all; Isla Zhang. The third item was the label from the tin of mandarin oranges in syrup—his peace offering that first night. It too was folded over, the crease sharp.

He replaced each item, and then the seat, making sure it sat secure and straight. That wasn’t his cache to find. Better to pretend he hadn’t seen it.

His reflection stared at him out of the cracked rear-view.

Better to pretend to sleep.

* * *

The Scottish landscape was much improved by a second day of sun. Even the stunted, climate-broken trees that they passed seemed straighter. Oliver sat on the back of Betsy, but instead of holding shotguns, he carried a forked stick with two fresh trout. A third had been eaten for breakfast; these two were for barter.

The road curled like a cat’s tongue between two ravines and then opened into a wide valley, carpeted with well-worked farms.

“What are we going to do if they won’t trade with us?” Oliver shouted, over the noise of the crunching gravel.

“You mean after we ask nicely?” Gunny replied. She gave a shrug that he felt through his own shoulder blades. “Do what we always do, I suppose. Make something up on the spot.”

They stopped at the edge of a long driveway that continued through fields guarded by a well-tended stone fence. By the peeling-paint gate was a brass bell tethered on a long rope. Gunny rang it with large swooping motions, one hand against her ear, grinning at Oliver like an overexcited child. “Want a go?” she yelled.

“No thank you,” he shouted back, over the echoing in his ears. The whole valley must have heard the clanging. “Guns?”

“Nah,” she replied. She pointed at the farm house in the distance, trim and white. “We’re going to ask nicely, remember?”

“What if they decline?”

“This time we’ll leave. Can’t really ask someone to teach a mechanic’s lesson at gun point, can we.”

“I guess not.”

A young man walked the length of the drive to the road. His clothing was patched and worn, but clean. Practical. He stopped just out of shotgun range. “Can we help you?” He didn’t sound Scottish.

“I hope so,” Gunny yelled back, grinning. “Heard that you do repairs for folks who need ‘em.” She’d put on her Clint Eastwood accent.

“Not today. Come back some other day.” The young man crossed his arms.

“Sorry to hear that. We’re not from around here, as you might’ve guessed—just passing through.”

“I gathered.”

Gunny leaned on the stone fence, resting her arms on the top. “You’ve got the face of someone with troubles. Is there something we can help with? Maybe we can help each other.”

The young man scowled at her, but he did come closer. Younger than Oliver expected, his face weathered by the outdoors but still well-rounded by baby fat. “My granddad was hurt. Someone broke into our shed, no doubt to steal something, and when Granddad went looking they near broke his skull in. Didn’t even steal nothing.”

“That’s awful.” Gunny’s jaw dropped and she looked to Oliver for agreement, taking his too-white face as confirmation. “Jesus, what is the world coming to?”

“Aye.” The young man considered the pair. “Granddad is the mechanic, not me, I’m only learning. Came up here with my dad after the war. Learning what I can. So you’ll have to come back another day.” His speech was measured, as though thinking took effort.

“Is he going to pull through?” Oliver asked.

The young man sized them up with wary eyes. “Aye, we hope so. Cracked his skull but he’s a tough one, Granddad. If the Crash didn’t kill him…” He stopped, taking a deep breath. “There’s gangs out from Iverness on the roads. Best to stay out of their way.”

“So we’ve been told,” Gunny answered, dryly.

“You’ll be the American that Marion talked about then.” His eyes flicked to Oliver. “America’s a long way from here.”

“Tell me about it.” She agreed with a shake of her head. “But at least we’ve still got our health.”

“Aye.” The young man sighed and scratched at his head. “If it’s just a tune-up you’re wanting, I can probably help. You’re at least welcome to use the shed and tools for your own repairs.”

“That’s very generous of you,” Gunny replied instantly. “Isn’t it, Oliver?”

He nodded, sliding off the back of the mule, and thrust the catch over the fence.

The young man stared, confused.

“For you. As a thank you,” Oliver said.

The young man stepped forward to take the trout. “Ah. Thanks.” He twitched, uncomfortable, holding the fish with an outstretched arm. “Granddad always insisted that it was caring about folk that made us different from animals. Normally I believe him, but…” He shook his head. “Maybe he’s right. Maybe the Crash hasn’t taken it all from us yet.”

“That’s what Oliver’s always telling me,” Gunny said, playfully swatting her companion’s arm. “One of these days he’ll prove me right.”

* * *

Gunny made fast friends with the grandson, overwhelming him with a one-two of North American cheerfulness and fluttery eyelashes; she was probably the first person of Asian background he’d ever met, likely to be the last, and one of the few women in the area he wasn’t related to. His confused stuttering and blushing while he helped them bring the ATV into the garage only confirmed the lad’s youth.

Oliver stayed silent and to the sides. He mentioned how the metallic stink of petroleum and rust made him dizzy so he stayed near the door. Gunny gave him an acknowledging wave, already engrossed over Betsy.

He crouched over the tool kit still spread over the tarp, pretending to examine the bits of tractor awaiting repairs. When positive they weren’t paying him any attention, he slid the socket wrench from his coat and replaced it silently in the tray before moving on to pretend to study other odds and ends.

“Good news,” said a voice in his ear. He jumped, and Gunny laughed. “Sorry! Didn’t realize you were so into tractors.” He shook his head, gesturing for her to continue. “Betsy looks to be in good shape. Doesn’t need more than a good cleaning.”

“Aye, you’re taking good care of her,” the grandson agreed from behind the ATV, wiping his hands on a rag. “Don’t know if I can teach you anything else useful. Granddad might’ve, but… She should last you a long while. Don’t know about getting across the Atlantic, though.”

Gunny laughed and slapped Oliver against the shoulder blades. He forced a grin.

“Going to wait outside,” he said, indicating his head. “Not feeling… so hot.”

“Fresh air’ll cure that,” the grandson agreed, though he frowned, and Gunny gave Oliver a second, gentler pat.

“Go on. I won’t be much longer. We’re just going to rotate the ATV’s tires and then we can head out. Sasha and I can handle that on our own, no worries.”

“Good idea,” Oliver agreed, stumbling from the shed. The dizziness wasn’t faked; his head was spinning.

He lost the fight against his breakfast by the fence and sat down in the grass, leaning against the cool stone.

He must have dozed off.

He awoke with a start at the sound of the approaching motor. Gunny grinned ear to ear. “Feel any better?”

“Not really,” Oliver admitted. She pulled up beside him and he hopped into his seat. “Tune-up all done?”

“Yep,” Gunny agreed, putting Betsy into gear. “He’s a weird one, Sasha, but friendly enough. Bit slow. Stopped talking half-way through the tire rotation like he couldn’t think and move at the same time. Poor kid’s got enough on his plate, I guess. I mean we all do, but he really looked up to his grandfather. You okay? You look a bit pale. Hope you’re not getting sick.”

“Yeah, me too,” Oliver agreed, feeling a tightness in his chest. As they approached the gate he hopped off and ran ahead to open it. Behind them, Sasha emerged from the shed. Gunny seemed to take an eternity to drive Betsy through the gate so that he could latch it after her. He clambered into his seat. “Time to go.”

“You got it, partner.” She exaggerated the accent into a growl. Her grin returned she twisted in her seat to wave at Sasha. “Thanks again! Hope your grandfather’s all right! Good luck!” She only saw him for two brief moments: once in the rear-view mirror and once when she turned to wave. They picked up speed easily over the flat dirt road.

But Oliver sat backward, facing the receding farmhouse and the shed. He knew that Sasha wasn’t waving goodbye. The young man gestured in outrage, the socket-wrench clutched in his hand.

* * *

Two months. Two months of rain and angry locals; wild animals and rationed food. Dust and storms and washed-out bridges and possible cannibals. The innumerous dead they encountered blended into one another, the situations too similar to be remembered separately. They stopped trying. Conversation around the campfire was often little more than proposed plans and grunted agreements. Occasionally Gunny told a story about her sister and life with the nutbars, how they’d solved such-and-such an issue. Rarely, Oliver told an anecdote about filming and adventures chasing a story. Those days seemed like they’d belonged to someone else, and he surprised himself in the telling. He was numb, through and through, as though his soul had fallen asleep and an android rode on the back of the ATV, holding a shotgun and watching with empty eyes.

And yet, when they crested that last hill and the spires of York cathedral stood visible among the wrecks and ruins of concrete, he surprised them both by choking up.

Perhaps something human inside him had survived after all.

* * *

Gunny wasn’t hard to find. She still wore her poncho and her camping hat, and the tattered locals of downtown York flowed around her and Betsy, as though the mule was a rock in a fast-flowing stream. She glanced up from her ministrations as Oliver approached, giving a wave with her screwdriver. “There you are.”

“There I am? I’m the one looking for you.” Oliver stuffed his hands in his pockets. The jeans were a little loose, but they fit well-enough, as opposed to the ragged pair he’d worn since Skara Brae. “I was just talking to David—”

“Who?”

“David. You met him. Called him Dave until you pissed him off, remember?”

“Oh. Him. How is Dave? Still an officious little prick?” She returned to her tune-up.

Oliver sighed and crouched down. “Gunny.”

She didn’t stop working but her eyebrow twitched a response.

“David’s got a lot of work to do. He’s helping organize all the relief supplies. He’s got me a job, actually.”

She did stop, frowning. “For money?”

“No, of course not. But I’m going to take it.”

“Doing what?” She wiped her hands on a rag that had been a t-shirt, once upon a time.

“They’ve just found one of the old BBC emergency radio rooms. It was buried during one of the earlier hurricanes, but we can get it up and working again, I’m sure of it. They’re even going to find a generator for me.” He grinned, waiting. “Radio, Gunny!”

She nodded, impressed, then sat back on her heels, peering at him. “How far’s the reception?”

He sighed. “Local. It’s…” he gestured with empty hands. “It’s supposed to be one of a series. From maybe the second world war? Jesus, a whole century ago. But that’s good, right? It’s mechanical. Provided we can rig up any replacements we might need, it should still work.”

“So no internet yet.”

He knew she wasn’t talking about checking her email. “Maybe there’s other beacons already working. Maybe… we’ll have communication faster than walking speed again.” He let himself trail off and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s a start.”

“It is.” She agreed, her voice light and pleasant but with something strange written across her face, in a way he’d never seen before. It worried him.

“But in order for me to take the job, I’ve got to register. And you do too, otherwise—”

“It doesn’t matter.” She gave a dismissive wave and stared down at Betsy.

“Of course it matters. You can’t keep sleeping in a tent in the square. We need to find you something more permanent.”

“No you don’t.”

He rubbed his eyes with his hands, then his face, enjoying being clean-shaven for the first time in months. His cheek was still tender from where they’d pulled the broken tooth. “Gunny. Please. Not this again.”

She stood, ignoring him.

“You don’t even know what’s there. It might be—” He watched as she put away the toolkit into one of Betsy’s flopping panniers. “Where’s all your stuff?”

“Gave it away.” Gunny took off her hat to wipe her forehead with her forearm and stared up at the bright sky with a faint smile, then back down at him. “Weight limit on the boat. I’m leaving tomorrow, Ollie.”

He stepped backwards. “What?”

“Found someone who’s taking the same journey. We leave for Scarborough tomorrow, bound for France.” She tidied the ATV as she spoke, her tone matter-of-fact.

What?”

“From there he said that there are some ships still crossing the Atlantic.”

“Gunny—” She didn’t look up from her adjusting of straps and checking of hatches. “You don’t know what’s out there.”

She stopped, her hands pressed flat against the peeling pleather seat cover. She peered over her shoulder at him. “Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Did you know this—” She gestured around them, “was still going to be here? When you set out on your own from North of Nowhere, Scotland?”

“No, but—” He stopped. “It’s different.”

“How is it different?” She straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. “How?”

“Well, for one thing, if England was crawling with radioactive mutants, even the Scots would have heard about it.”

She frowned, rubbing her temple.

“All right, maybe a bad example. But you don’t know what’s there, Gunny. Isla.” At the use of her real name she twitched. “No one’s barely hears a peep out of Europe and you can practically swim there. North America might as well be the moon. And it’s hurricane season soon.”

“That’s why I’m leaving now, to give myself a head start.”

“To do what?” His voice was raised and he lowered it, aware of all the eyes on him. “To hitchhike across the bloody continent until you find someone stupid enough to risk a ocean crossing with no working GPS? What if you land in, I don’t know, Greenland or Newfoundland or something? What will you do then?”

“I’ll do what I did here, Oliver.” Her own voice rose without embarrassment. “I will do what I did across Scotland.”

“And what was that exactly? Lie your way past a bunch of… shitkickers at gunpoint with an antique? How long do you think that will work when you’re not in the fucking Highlands?” She stared at him, her mouth an angry straight line, as weeks of repressed comments continued to flow out of him. “Everything about you is a lie: you’re not even American, you’re a fucking Canadian.” She blinked, startled, her mouth dropping open. “Everyone knows Canada didn’t even have cowboys, they had Mounties. So who the fuck are you fooling, besides yourself?”

Gunny recovered enough to spit out: “Fooled you.”

“Not for long!”

“For long enough.”

They stared at each other, both furious, before Gunny abruptly turned, wrenching the seat off its track. She scooped up the collection of papers and pressed one of them against Oliver with a flat palm.

“It’s done.” Her voice dropped, low and firm as she replaced the seat cover. “I’m going home tomorrow. You can either come say goodbye or you can continue to be an ass. It’s your choice.” She swung her leg over the mule and revved the motor, startling a nearby family, all clutching their belongings. “Get the fuck out of my way!” At her shout the family hustled the small wide-eyed children out of the ATV’s path.

He watched her leave, then opened the water-stained print of Gunny and her sister: Lily forever circled in black marker, Isla forever frowning, just behind her big sister’s shoulder.

* * *

One last trip on the mule, following old roads east to the coast. Scarborough had been even more badly ravaged by the decades of hurricanes than York; much of the city lay underwater. What remained focused on fishing.

The landscape had altered even since Oliver was a small boy. Not just the wreckage; even the plants and trees seemed different from his childhood. But who could trust their own memories? Maybe he recalled an idyllic and pastoral England from the 20th century, preserved in film and books. Maybe it had always been like this.

Over and over as he met people in York, the refugees wanted to swap stories, share memories. Rarely did those memories match. Instead, he realized, they were rebuilding a past even as they learned to discard it. Better not to remember the 20s and 30s as they were: full of warning signs and despair. Hope was a better foundation for the future.

He twisted around to regard Gunny while she drove; she caught him looking in her mirror and gave a wink. Nothing had been said about their argument; she’d driven up to his lodgings with a grin and a wave. He’d offered her half of his breakfast. And just like that, they’d set out.

* * *

The small skiff was more fishing boat than cargo, but big enough to carry passengers. The skipper greeted Gunny with a nod, and Oliver with a squint—a silent question.

“No, I’m staying.”

The captain gave a grunt and turned away to address his first mate.

“You don’t have to, you know,” Gunny said, suddenly. She undid the straps of the closer pannier; with a few adjustments it made a serviceable rucksack. “You could come with me.”

Oliver pulled off his own empty backpack, a well-made Gregory that had literally gone through hell and back. “Here.” He thrust it at her.

She stared at it for a moment, then nodded, swallowing. She started transferring her few belongings. “It’s true though. You could come with me.”

He sighed, considering for an honest moment, running hands through his hair. “…I can’t. You know that.”

“I know. But I had to ask.” The pack was too big for her, since she was shorter by a head than its original owner, but it was far more comfortable than the makeshift alternative. She adjusted the straps tight and stared up at him. “I want you to take Betsy.”

He glanced down. “But—”

“I can’t take her with me, obviously,” Gunny continued, breezily, tilting her head towards the small skiff. “And she’s as much your mule as she is mine.”

“I… can’t.”

She pressed the pannier into his hands. “Think of all the hauling you could do with her! All the parts you need for that radio station of yours. Not to mention, it’ll save you the walk back to York.”

He nodded slowly, agreeing. “You never told me how you got Betsy, you know.”

“No?” Gunny answered, brightly. “Huh. Well, I took her from the nutbars, of course. Along with the fuel converter and all the camping gear.”

“I figured as much.” He was at a loss. The makeshift harbour smelled of old fish and rotten seaweed, but the wind that blew off the ocean came clean and crisp. “But… Peppa and George were from the old landlord. Who owned the land.”

Gunny tilted her head confused, then burst out laughing. “You named the guns?”

He gave a shrug.

“Speaking of, you might as well take the long shotgun too,” she said. Then: “George?”

“Peppa,” Oliver corrected. “You take George with you.”

She winked as she patted her poncho and drawled out: “Way ahead of you, partner.”

They both smiled at that.

* * *

He parked the ATV on the beach, staring out over the sea. Low clouds blew along the dark line of the horizon, fast and puffy, like sheep bolting. He’d watched until the boat was over the horizon, destined for Normandy.

From there, a few of the other passengers—Gunny included—were bound for Paris. One of others was an electrical engineer by trade; she was very excited to hear about the potential beacon. They’d swapped frequencies, and she’d promised to try and get in touch once she got her own repeater station working. France was farther away than it had been when his grandparents were children, but with a bit of hard work and some luck they’d get the radio working and bring the rest of the world closer.

All he could do was hope that Gunny would arrive back in her own Scarborough (“sometimes life is ironic like that”) safe and sound. It would be months of hard journeying and her fake cowboy routine wouldn’t impress anyone back in North America. He still couldn’t believe it had impressed anyone in Britain. But maybe she’d be all right just talking to other people, Canadian to Canadian.

He wasn’t sure whether that would work. But Betsy and her three newer bolts reminded him that there were still good people left in the world, even if he wasn’t among them any more, and that would have to be enough.

Oliver dusted the settling sand from his bartered jeans. He should head home before the approaching rain blew inland.

There were still good people in the world; that’s what that mattered.

Better to pretend that was enough.

____

Copyright 2018  Victoria Feistner

Victoria Feistner is a writer, a graphic designer, and an artisan in equal parts, although some of those parts are more equal than others. She resides in Toronto with her partner and their two cats. Read more of her writing at www.victoriafeistner.com

The Shepherd

By José Cruz

The cross is bigger than he remembers. Its tumescent beams stand atop the church’s peaked steeple, their size symbolic of great sacrifice, the ruptured cement below roasting in the fire of a four o’clock sun.

Carlos sits in the crumbling Chevy, windows rolled up, desperate to feel every inch of the heat. Blood-warm apprehension pools in the small of his back. The iron head of the hammer tucked behind his belt clings to his skin, eyes of the Virgin Mary glistening wet from the prayer card that hangs from a noose of rosary beads on the rearview. His own eyes move up to the mirror’s crusted glass; the face of his father stares back at him from behind a piecemeal beard.

It’s the second time he’s come back to the truck since his arrival; he resumes watch of the church’s wide mahogany doors as if expecting them to open through force of will.

He knows that the stage is waiting for him.

The hammer suddenly feels brittle in the bony cradle of his pelvis, desperately unfit for the task that’s called him here. Inside the blazing truck, Carlos wonders if any of it is possible–if memories could really shatter under the swing of a mallet.

Worrying the spiral scar on his right arm, he charges from the pickup in a sudden burst of bravado. His courage melts quickly in the sun; he makes it just outside the church’s entrance.

The neighborhood to his back rustles with activity. Children stumble thankfully from choking bus to minivan and old men water hedges one last time before cold snaps and Florida migrations set in, all of them doing whatever they can to keep from looking at the church. The pavement thrums with the mild buzzing of yellow jackets stirring from their nests. Even with the noise, Carlos can still make out the whispers crawling from beneath the doors though the exact words remain unclear. They stop who is innocent as soon as his fingers graze the metal handle, only to resume when he turns and considers letting this place burn in the back of his mind forever. Inside the cab, the Virgin Mary swings gently from her noose.

Turning around, he rips the tattered X of yellow tape screaming CAUTION from the doors and, slipping the hammer from his belt, starts going to work on the padlock clasping the links of chain to the handle. The sound ratchets through the air, smiles wiped from mothers’ faces as they ignore their children’s questions and drive away, old men shaking blistered heads as they drown their violets in sulfur water.

The smashed padlock clatters to the ground. He waits for the bones in his hand to stop ringing before finally pushing through. A bated whoosh from inside matches his own panting breath. He breaches the threshold, lets the cavernous darkness settle over him as the doors slowly seal shut.

This is a reunion. The two parties receive each other.

* * *

It’s a story the boy has heard before, the one about the dogs. His father tells it to him some nights before bed, the two of them propped up against the Power Ranger pillows. The boy closes his eyes at intervals to conjure the scenes in his mind, his father weaving the tale in a soft, lilting tenor. The tattoo on his father’s arm—a Max Fleischer cherub fitted with boxing gloves, the boy’s name rolling in cursive beneath—appears as a ripening bruise in the approaching dusk.

One day near a village in San Salvador, a boy found himself walking down a road. His father points to the window. The sun was just beginning to set. The sky was bloody under threads of skin.

The boy was all alone. The road he followed ran next to a great volcano. He could feel the mountain groan beneath his hardened feet, and for a moment he was frightened that it might erupt before his return. But when the boy looked up, what he saw instead was a flock of sheep running down the mountain’s side, as if something had frightened them. He realized soon enough what it was.

The boy digs his toes into the chilly sheets, anticipating the next movement.

Two dogs stood in the distance: one black, one white. Each had eyes of fire and long, thin faces like old men. The dogs stared at the boy who did not move. The boy stared at the dogs who did not move. But the boy knew who they were, even before the dogs finally began climbing down the mountain rock on their hooved feet. They were El Cadejo.

The boy grins, for he loves the smoky taste of this haunted word.

El Cadejo were the spirit-dogs of the mountains. One was good, the other evil. The good cadejo was sent by God to protect travelers in need. The evil cadejo was sent by the Devil to steal souls for his Master. They lived on the great volcano and ate the purple flowers that hung from their stems like bells when they weren’t hunting for sheep.

The boy interrupts: The black dog was the bad one. Right?

His father stops, considers this, and then shrugs. Sometimes. Sometimes the white cadejo is the bad one. It depends on who’s telling the story.

Silence. Then, the son: So, what happened next?

His father flashes a toothy grin. You’ve heard this one before. You tell me.

The boy compares the small, smooth hands resting in his own lap to his father’s callused fists. The dogs fight for the boy’s soul.

The father twines an arm around the boy and hugs him close. That’s right, Charlie.

It’s a lie Carlos has told himself before, the one about his father.

He never heard bedtime stories as a child. Even if his father had been there to tell them to him, in reality his English was only mildly intelligible, at best. When the man from his fantasy speaks, Carlos can always understand him perfectly. He can’t even remember the last time it was he and his father had touched. Did they embrace? Did they shake hands? Did they say they loved each other?

As for the dogs, he thinks he must have recalled them from a book of ghostly legends he borrowed from the library as a kid; now it was all appropriated material he’d use to construct this false childhood for himself in the hollowing hours of night, piecing together his past like a patchwork suit. Each time he would stand back and see how it fit him, but no matter how many versions of the scene Carlos envisioned he would end up rolling onto his side as Jessie slept soundly next to him, closing his smoldering eyes against the pathetic need that throbbed coldly within him, a beggar in stolen clothes.

The tattoo was real, though. This Carlos knows, but even now as he tries to recall its finer details they, like everything else about his father, begin to dissolve like a negative exposed to the light.

* * *

His mother told him his father was taken away by angels.

Carlos realized early on that this was not true; as a teenager he became formally acquainted with terms like “border-jumping,” “green cards,” and “ICE.” It was one of the many soft lies she told him throughout his life, but these days he found himself wondering about that. About a lot of things.

For eighteen years Carlos had stood at his mother’s side through a procession of men who she went through as if to wash the mistake of his father off her skin, but each and every one of them was abandoned as soon as there was enough beef in the fridge and sufficient repairs had been made to their home. His mother nursed whatever guilt she felt with Long Island iced teas and disability checks. Carlos recounted the faces of his surrogate fathers in between the veiled hostilities that soon became the vocabulary of his home life.

His rare visits to the house were still peppered with the awkwardness borne of those eighteen years; the last time he dropped in his mother began to reminisce on his toddlerhood, a time she had no doubt enjoyed because he hadn’t yet learned to question her motives. She had recently dyed her dirty blonde hair some hideous shade of platinum, and though there weren’t any glasses in evidence Carlos could detect the fog of booze. At one point in the conversation, she smiled dreamily at him, freckles crinkling, and said, “Did you know back then I used to call you my little spiclet?”

He had never really been revolted by her whiteness until that moment, but later Carlos couldn’t decide what bothered him the most: the genuine blush of affection in her voice or the fact that his inherited whiteness made him uncertain if he had any real right to be bothered by it at all. He was, in the end, only a mutt, and it seemed hypocritical to feel outrage for a heritage to which he was always a stranger.

“She’s unbelievable.” Jessie sighed. “But what are you gonna do? You only get one mother.”

Carlos shook his head as he walked through the front door of his house. “Yeah, but don’t they have exchange programs for something like this? Can’t I get a return on a broken parent?”

Jessie’s laughter purred through the phone’s earpiece. Settling down onto the couch, Carlos allowed himself a smile and let the sound lift him for a moment. Visits to his mother’s were usually followed by calls to his wife, mostly to vent incredulous anger. A few minutes chatting with Jessie during her lunch breaks had the power to quiet his humming blood. He was replaying the sound of her laugh when he heard her speak again. “Sorry, hon,” he mumbled. “Caught me daydreaming. What was that?”

She paused. “Do you ever think about trying to find your dad again?”

For a few seconds Carlos sat with the phone pressed hard against his ear, trying to remember how his mouth worked. “Dad” was such a small word, but it had sharp edges. Like his mother, he had fallen into the pattern of referring to his father by his first name, as if he was the neighbor, or the dog. Aside from memories and resemblance, that name was Carlos’ only inheritance from his father, a name he had only begun to use in the last few years. As if that could somehow make up for everything.

But his mother insisted on calling him Charlie.

Well, Carlos is what it says on my birth certificate, he reasoned, which was immediately followed by the thought, well, where was that loyalty twenty years ago?

Shame drew Carlos’ throat tight as he shifted on the couch and heard the snicker of rosary beads sliding to the floor. He leaned over the stack of half-finished job applications and plucked up the fallen prayer card. Midday migraine light turned the Virgin Mary’s throat into a white-hot slit. Carlos flipped the card over and saw his own name and date of birth written in his father’s wobbling, childish scrawl. The only birthday card he ever got.   

“No,” he whispered into the phone. “I really don’t.”

* * *

The lambs shuffle into the church’s nursery on wrinkled feet. They do not touch or bump together as they file into the room, not even accidentally. Their naked skin, still fiery from the bleach and the hoses, is partly the reason for this, but mainly it is because at this point they have all learned to mistrust physical contact. Whatever curiosity they might have possessed towards each other’s bodies was broken the second they were herded into the nursery on that first day, a whole other lifetime away.

The matron calls out to them. Her voice sparkles champagne-rich from the silent rocking chair where she sits. The only other furnishing in the room is a puppet stage, scabbed and bent, leaning to the side like a slumbering animal behind her.

The matron invites the flock to sit. The lambs obey. They all picked their spots on that first day in the nursery, and now they’ve kept them.

The matron smiles down at the lambs, reaches out, and grazes the cotton ball whorls that puff out from their handmade masks. The masks are the only article they wear, the skull-buzzing odor of Elmer’s Glue still thick in their lungs. They all sit completely still as the matron rises from her chair and walks among them, caressing their new papier mâché skin.

Such pretty faces, she says. Such clean, white wool.

* * *

The church’s interior slowly comes into focus. There’s enough drowsy light leaking in from the front windows for Carlos to discern that the building is an intact relic, a ghostly coating of dust the only visible concession to neglect. The lobby is Spartan in decoration and design: a few depleted armchairs ringing the wall, anemic plants fainting across cracked pots, a small podium standing at attention like an upright coffin.

Taking a breath, Carlos begins walking towards the doors of the sanctuary when a dark blot forms in the tail of his eye. He turns, slowly. A large, framed photograph stands in a nest of ratty garland on a shelf behind the podium. Its subject resolves itself as he draws nearer.

A chilly stream of memory rushes through him, and he feels his fingers curl around the hammer. In the photo, a bearded man stands inside a room made of meaty logs; it could be a beach house or a camp bunk. His gangly arms are held aloft. Whip-scars swarm across his body. The exposed slashes seem to cover every inch of skin–from a distance he appears as a single raw, angry wound. Eyes of blue stone peer up through a thorned crown with a look of appeal or blame.

Sunday mornings, pale knuckles around his mother’s hand, staring at the picture from behind her legs, telling her that he was afraid

The two first-born sons appraise each other. Carlos wonders who the model in the picture was in real life, and what happened to him afterwards.

His grip begins to loosen on the hammer. This isn’t what he’s come for. His purpose lies elsewhere. He switches the hammer to his left hand, slams the photograph face down on the shelf, and continues towards the sanctuary.

A gentle tinkling forces him to stop. Carlos turns and casts a final backward glance.

The picture has been righted. Behind him, Christ weeps tears of broken glass.

* * *

About twenty minutes into the job interview, the office manager dropped the other shoe and asked Carlos if he spoke Spanish. It was a familiar question. He answered the same as always. He met her query with a small, guilty smile. “No,” he told her. “I really don’t.”

“Really? Why not?” She tilted her head, playfully disheartened, but there had still been the expectancy of an answer in there.  This was the part he always had trouble with.

In the past he had opted for the honest approach—“Oh, my dad just wasn’t around to teach me,”—tagged with a shrug, but all this accomplished was bringing the mood down and making him look the orphan hard up for sympathy. More recently he’d taken an equally playful, ambiguous route.

“Just never got around to it, I guess.”

The office manager nodded; her tight-lipped frown told him that she’d gotten the message despite his best efforts. “It’s not a problem,” she added quickly. “We just got kind of excited cause we thought you might be bilingual. Usually, you see someone with a name like that and…” She didn’t need to finish. It was a story Carlos had heard before.

Then it was his turn to tilt his head. He’d said that he hoped he hadn’t disappointed them. She assured him that no, of course he hadn’t, but by then Carlos had already drawn back into the cave of himself and all he could hear was the endless whisper of his own voice quietly calling himself a fraud.

After the interview, he sat in his parked Chevy with the radio tuned to a Spanish station. Two commentators bantered at the speed of machine guns. He closed his eyes at intervals, his forehead straining as he focused on snatches of conversation in the hopes that they’d awaken in him buried talents and a keen understanding. He locked in on a phrase that one of the commentators drew out in slow relish, batted it back and forth in his mind before attempting to speak it aloud. The rolled ‘r’ sound stumped him; his tongue flapped helplessly in his mouth. The two commentators burst out in laughter.

After five minutes of thinking about this, Carlos started the truck and pulled out onto the highway, the alien chants of the music that commenced following him all the way home. At the start of each new song, his mouth grew a little drier.

Three weeks later he started his new job at the same office, the service coordinator of a national water company. The phone calls he received begged and demanded him for help, and whenever he gave his name and the customers returned his calls later, they asked the operator if they could speak to Juan or Diaz or Luis again, please.

* * *

The black goat looks upon the lambs from on high.

The puppet rears its galloping head towards the audience, hair ragged with mange, lidded marbles peering out from under a set of massive, curved horns. The lambs subconsciously trace the spiral of the horn’s twin along their arms as the matron weaves her tale in the dark.

The black goat is not to be followed, they are told. The black goat is Untrue Father, sworn enemy of the Shepherd and all whom he keeps. The black goat is Illusion, for there is none in the field but the Shepherd and his flock. To leave the flock and follow the black goat is to be eternally damned, to soil their souls with the grime of false promises and give themselves over to the care of the invisible.

This is The Show, the lambs’ nightly Sabbath and sole lesson.

The atmosphere of The Show is ruined, as it is every evening, when the puppeteer controlling the black goat slowly rises from beneath the stage, his corpulent face all but hidden under jaundiced spectacles and a drooping mustache. The lambs draw their breath in at the sight of the hammer in his left hand.

The black goat is the Great Enemy of the Shepherd, the matron says.

Gently, the puppeteer places his right hand upon the stage.

The matron’s eyes shine like distant candlelight. The black goat must be punished, she tells them.

Slowly, the puppeteer raises the hammer and starts to go to work.

All but one lamb turns away. The boy in back watches the scene from behind his breath-warmed mask, tracks the steady swing, feels each blow grind against his ribs. The curtains are soon speckled, the puppet reduced to rags. The slick hammer drops to the stage, and the puppeteer draws back into the shadows from where he was born without a sound. The watchful lamb traces the scar on his arm and dimly recalls another branded man from his past.

A rusty squeak scissors the air. The lambs turn just as the slumped, hissing figure in the wheelchair crawls towards their circle. The matron beams through a sheen of tears that glint amber in the nursery’s polar light. Six arcs of shadow trail from her fingers as she reaches out to the lambs, her voice marmalade-sweet.

Rejoice, she tells them. Your Shepherd is here at last.

* * *

His footsteps shouldn’t be echoing.

The church’s sanctuary still has all of its nicked wooden pews, its snowy tapestries hanging above the pulpit like battlement flags. Even the parchment hymnals remain, tucked behind benches, waiting for chanting resurrection. Underneath the reverberating stomp of his boots Carlos hears who is innocent the soft whispers from before, the dry susurrus of voices offering up prayer. He reasons the draft from his passing is rifling the pages of the hymnals, but it doesn’t explain the muffled sobs trickling from the pooled shadows beneath the pews.

The sanctuary is colder than the lobby in spite of the towering stained glass windows streaming Technicolor sunlight into the room. The windows snare the heat in their refracted patterns, robed saints with flowing-locked heads bent in obfuscation, palms open in acceptance, perfectly rendered in tired compositions. The room’s frigid air makes Carlos’ damp skin awaken to second life.

The last window on the right depicts a scene different from the rest. A Doré-esque figure in purple garments hurtles from the sky on wings made chitinous by the glass. An upraised arm covers the face as if in agony or shame. A hole has been punched through the window’s tapestry, shattering the rolling green hills of the pasture below the figure into a mouth of jagged teeth.

Carlos stops and peers through the aperture. In the church’s parking lot he spies a girl hunched over a mountain bike, squinting at him through the bronze dusk, her dirt-caked face immovable as rock. She seems to regard him as an invader. Carlos reaches through the hole, spreads his hand out in a gesture of acceptance. With uncanny swiftness, the girl whips her bike around and begins pedaling furiously away from the church. Carlos draws back slowly, but the broken window still manages to trace a stinging river down his forearm. The cut is not deep, but it is enough. He looks back. A scarlet bead winks from a jade fang; the parking lot is empty. He knew the church would not allow him entry without a token payment. One wound for another.

Arm clamped to his chest, Carlos slowly moves past the sighing pulpit and begins the long trek down the hallway to the church’s nursery.

* * *

Carlos had seen the Shepherd a few times before those numberless days in the nursery. It was mostly around the church, like in the craft classes the sweaty youth pastor would host after Sunday services, or in the dark mirror of the boys’ restroom. But sometimes Carlos could spot his silhouette passing beneath a storm drain or hanging from the branches of the moaning pine that overlooked the playground at school. Sometimes, he would be in the wheelchair.

The Shepherd was old, though Carlos never did find out what his exact age was, a crumpled white man in an equally crumpled and white suit whose single note of color was a shimmering purple tie that trailed down his front like a dead trout. In spite of his wasted appearance, Carlos found the old man’s presence assuring in its own way, a figure that could be relied on to be there at all times, even when he wasn’t.

Carlos was heading out of the nursery one afternoon when he felt a firm grip upon his shoulder. He turned, surprised to find the Shepherd kneeling next to him when he had been certain the old man had been standing at the other end of the room only a moment before. The Shepherd smiled, his face a dried riverbed. When he spoke Carlos thought he could see his jaw work as a solitary unit, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The old man pointed. “Charlie, was it?” His rasping drawl tickled Carlos’ ears. He felt himself nod.

“I’ve taken notice of you. You’re an exceptionally intelligent boy. Quite an aptitude with words.” The Shepherd’s polished lips curved slyly. “But it seems to me that you rarely speak them aloud. You’re not really the shy type though, are you Charlie?”

“No,” Carlos replied easily. “I guess I just feel like what I have to say doesn’t really matter to anyone.” He stopped, suddenly confused.

The Shepherd chuckled. “Fear of looking foolish is a legitimate concern. But those people who would laugh at you aren’t the people who matter, Charlie. I would never dream of laughing at you. I believe you have some very important things to tell the world, and I want to be the one to hear them first.”

Carlos looked up at the Shepherd, saw the skin of his face bulge out softly in spots, heard the dried snap of tiny fluttering legs, and he was suddenly overcome by an intense desire to please this man. His eyes began to water, and in their warm murkiness he thought he could see parts of the Shepherd’s face begin to run together.

“Who are you?” Carlos asked.

Flesh creaking and tugging, the Shepherd flashed a toothy grin in the dark.

“Who is it that you need?”

Something sharp began to move inside Carlos’ chest. He heard his voice under a low ringing that turned the rest of the world silent. “Will you stay?” he asked. “Will you stay if I’m good?”

The doll’s mouth clacked, and oaken fingers brushed his skin. The Shepherd nodded, drew him into an embrace. Carlos had the impression of glass wings settling over his face.

“That’s right, Charlie.”

In the next second, Carlos was running from the nursery, gasping to keep the cries from breaking free. He turned and cast a final backward glance. Through a haze of tears, he saw the Shepherd quietly watch him go from the opposite end of the room.

* * *

Carlos didn’t own any photographs of his father. (“Can’t you see the resemblance?” he’d ask Jessie, fingers framing an invisible portrait.) The only physical evidence he had of the man’s existence was two mug shots accompanying their respective arrest reports on the county sheriff’s online portal. One charge for marijuana possession; the other, one he preferred not to study.

Googling his father’s name one night, he combed through the infinite results. “Carlos Humberto Dominguez” wasn’t exactly exclusive, and it didn’t help that his father had regularly altered his name in order to daunt the law. Carlos tried looking up distant cousins and aunts from half-remembered conversations. He found possible accounts on Facebook but didn’t know how to proceed, or if these people even spoke English, or if they’d even want to help him if they did. His grandmother in El Salvador had presumably been bilingual, but she had been beaten to death by her second husband. (The elderly  murderer  was released from prison and remarried several months later.)

Carlos began to consider hiring a private detective before abandoning the idea for fear of cost and ignorance of where even to start. There was the other fear, too, of what such a course might uncover—his father leading a happier life with a second, more faithful family, a shallow grave, nothing at all.

In lieu of accomplishing anything or giving further thought to his apprehensions, Carlos stared into the laptop’s blurry screen for the next hour, back to the scraps he started with: two mug shots, and a life full of ghosts.

* * *

None of the lambs move at first. Fear and exhaustion anchor them to the ground.

Come now, step forward, the matron says. They see her look out across the room and then they hear the same question that they hear every night, the question that none of them can answer in words.

Who is innocent, she asks.

The matron’s voice betrays no emotion, yet they can all feel the promise of punishment coiling in the air about them. The only response to her invitation is the rattling breath from the figure in the wheelchair. Guilty eyes dip towards the floor. Some weaker lambs begin to cry. Their companions do not comfort them. They are children, and they know only of private despair.

A brittle voice sounds from the front of the flock. One of the lambs asks for her nana.

The matron suddenly appears over her, a shadow,  a spider. She asks the lamb if she knows how she came to be in the nursery in the first place. In her grief, the lamb does not know how to respond, so she buries her head in her hands instead. The matron explains that the lamb’s grandmother only wanted to help her and that now, having received her consent, the Shepherd can give the lamb everything that her nana could not.

The lamb can only repeat the word, “please.”

Kneeling down, the matron sweeps the lamb’s mask away, exposing the tear-stained skin beneath, the red hair glossy with sweat. The matron holds the lamb’s head in place so that she can see nothing but the figure in the wheelchair and asks her to look and to see: her mother has come back to her.

The lamb whispers “please,” a few more times before her cries stutter to a stop. She stares at the figure as if seeing it for the first time. Recognition dawns in her eyes. The matron pulls the lamb to her feet and bids her on.

The lamb takes an unsteady step forward, glances back for the validation of her flock and, seeing only the lumpen expressions of their masks, moves on. She calls to the figure, testing the word “mommy” on her tongue, unsure if it can be trusted. The sound of her voice stirs the figure in its seat, and for the first time since its arrival it looks fully into the nursery’s light.

Hunger steals into the heart of every lamb in that moment, and the nursery soon burbles then echoes with the sound of their cries. The unmasked lamb’s face breaks into a delirious grin and she falls, laughing, into the figure’s lap, cradled in the crook of its skeletal arms as she paws at the wattles of flesh hanging from its throat. Mommy, she squeals. You’re home!

The other lambs pound the floor with bony hands, their voices cracking as they watch the figure’s face shimmer and take on the reflection of all their treasured memories of sisters and uncles and best friends lost to the edges of the universe, each memory now turning to them and whispering only to them, You are my one and truest love.

An incandescent, violet glow begins to throb within the figure’s chest. The unmasked lamb hugs her mother close, drawn to the glow’s warmth. None of the others in the flock notice the boy in back rise up and walk over to the stage. They are too distracted in their devotion to see the red hammer gripped in his hand, too enraptured in the heat of His love to stop him before the twin claws sail down and sink deep into the figure’s mummified chest. The unmasked lamb falls to the ground screaming, her loose hair snared in grasping fingers. The figure’s wooden jaws snap open, wide and wider, and all that anyone can make out in the blinding light that follows is the ferocious hum of yellow jackets taking flight.

The One and Only Father. His scream is the wind; His mouth is the sun.

* * *

Carlos didn’t hear his father’s last phone call from the penitentiary himself, only got it secondhand from his mother later on. His imagination weaved in the rest. He wondered what his last words were. Did his father curse them? Beg for forgiveness? Tell them he loved them? They were all preferable to the frantic call his mother told him about, the way his father had shouted, “Kathy, they’re sending me back—” before the line clicked dead. And that’s when the angels came.

Angels. No—that wasn’t right. She’d said something else—“agents.” Wasn’t that it? It must have been. Perhaps he’d misheard her. Perhaps he’d only wanted to hear her say something else.

Perhaps she hadn’t told him anything at all.

* * *

Earlier that day on his drive over to the house, Carlos suddenly recalled the date and pulled into the nearest Walgreen’s, purchased a Mother’s Day card decorated with too much glitter, considered grabbing the box of Queen Anne’s that he knew she liked before finally resolving to just leave it at the card. He’d done enough.

The card later laid splayed open on the kitchen table, a crippled dove. She’d taken it with an automatic smile and told him that gifts weren’t necessary, but Carlos knew that it would’ve been a different kind of visit had he arrived empty-handed. They sat across from each other now in silence, milky fog steaming from his mother’s vapor cigarette in languid curls.

David, her latest acquisition, was busy clearing the yard of branches felled by the last thunderstorm. The two of them were engaged, had been for just over a year with no wedding on the near horizon. Every time the subject was broached Carlos could still feel the resentment crawl across his skin. Both had neglected coming to Carlos’ own wedding three years earlier, the mailed invitation going unreturned, and the notion that Carlos might now have to watch this surly little redneck step up to the abandoned throne made him almost sick with rage.

He wished he could just give up his father like she had.

“I’ve been thinking about the church again,” he said.

His mother’s face registered no reaction, but he saw the muscles in her neck stand out in starker relief. “What about it?”

A knot in him began to unwind. “I have dreams about it, sometimes. They get so real that it starts to feel like they’re actually happening. Like I’m there, but I’m not. Like this is happening to someone else, but I’m stuck here anyway, so what’s the difference? It’s been hard for me to tell the difference between lots of things lately.”

He looked at his hands. “In the dreams, I’m sitting in the pews and I can feel someone sitting next to me, just in the corner of my eye. My head turns slow, really slow, but every time I finally look over he’s gone, back in the corner of my eye again. And when I wake up it feels like he’s still there, and it takes me a while to get rid of him, before I don’t see him anymore. Sometimes it feels like he’s with me wherever I go.” He looked up at his mother, and the tears in her eyes mirrored his own. “God, Mom,” he said. “What did you do?”

A hardness set in her then, and she sat up straighter to face the attack head-on. “I raised you by myself for eighteen years. No help from anyone and in pain every day of my life. You think that was easy?”

“I seem to remember a lot of guys spending time around here. I don’t think you worked as hard as you imagine.”

“Imagine nothing. Food in your stomach says I worked hard. Presents every year under the Christmas tree says I worked my ass off for you.”

“I didn’t need presents, I needed my fucking father!” His outburst caught him off-guard, and he blanched at finding himself gripping the arms of his chair.

His mother’s eyes sparkled with black mirth. “You never wanted a fucking father, Charlie. You never wanted any man coming into this house. Not even Carlos.” She paused, weighing the next cut. “Or have you forgotten about that too?”

His hands ached to hold her, to shake her until he heard the delicious snap of her neck. How could she bare him like this?

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said, but there were no teeth to it, the words falling to the ground stillborn.

She shook her head slowly. The absolute worst thing was that she looked like she truly pitied him. “You goddamn idiot. I did everything for you. I gave you a chance.”

Carlos struggled to hold her gaze. “No, you didn’t. You left me to die.”

They regarded each other through the scentless haze of smoke before his mother looked off into a distant corner of the room. “Then I guess that makes us even,” she said.

He wished they could love each other like they were supposed to.

His mother never rose, not even when the front door punctured the inner wall as he stormed out of the house. David was stationed at his worktable in the garage, stowing away tools, his sweaty beer belly exposed. Carlos was halfway down the driveway when he heard the smirking voice ask, “Well, what the hell is it this time?”

Stopping, Carlos turned, walked into the garage, and strode back to the truck all without saying a word, the roar of the gunning engine and the sounds of his own screams drowning out the blows on the windshield and David’s voice shouting for Carlos to give him back his fucking hammer.

* * *

The nursery is smaller than he remembers. As he enters, he’s struck by the way the settings of life’s defining moments later assume a scale symbolic of their importance. The pain in his arm has turned down to a low, steady ache. He spots the light panel on the wall and flicks a switch. A single rack of fluorescents glimmers to life. The rest are extinguished, leaving most of the windowless room in murk. Carlos weaves between the little wooden chairs and tables, his steps muted along the alphabet rug. Crayon portraits of families standing outside their too-small houses hang from clothespins on copper wire.

The air is stuffy, suffused with the bite and tang of construction paper and permanent markers. They accent the darker odor that hovers below them, the flat metallic scent from the large bloodstain starting to crust into the carpet. The smell from the stain is stronger than Carlos’ own wound. He swallows, trying to wash the taste of it from his tongue. There isn’t any tape marking where the body had been.

The face on the 8 o’clock news had been flayed by drug abuse, but her red hair had lost none of its luster. The reporter said that she had broken into the church through the front doors, and a trail of broken glass had led from the sanctuary directly to the nursery. Her suicide, the price for returning to the past, had awakened too many dormant rumors in the community, and so the church had been closed for good this time.

Carlos can still see her face from that last day in the nursery. She had looked so happy in the arms of the Shepherd. He had recognized her on the news despite the changes, just as he could recognize the girl who was unmistakably her daughter as she turned from him and pedaled away into the sunset.

He forces the thought from his mind. Culpability lurks, ever eager to claim him, but he can’t stop now. He’s not responsible for any life but his own. It’s just a stain on the ground.

His heart grows sluggish as he scans the nursery. He almost misses the puppet stage squatting in a far corner of the room. The tarp that he rips from its frame kicks up a wistful cloud of dust. Like the nursery, it’s smaller than his memory allowed, the crude castle spires flanking the stage barely reaching the top of his head. The boards, he notes, are surprisingly spotless.

The hammer in his hand seems to radiate a physical heat. He envisions the stage’s boards buckling under its crashing fall, dreams of feeling the crack of timber sing through his muscles, and for a brief moment he knows peace.

He reaches out and runs the flat of his hand against the grain. A great swooping sounds overhead. Carlos turns and catches a glimpse of sepulchral wings spreading wide, covering the nursery in darkness. A lone, cold light shines from above upon a bent figure sitting in one of the wooden chairs. The figure’s face remains hidden, but the light allows Carlos to make out the faded form of a child boxer tattooed on a muscular arm.

Speech abandons Carlos first, then his legs.

The man looks upon him from on high. His face never moves towards the light.

There was a time–maybe you don’t remember–when your mother brought you to see me. We went to Jones Beach that afternoon. The sand was gray. It’s not supposed to be that color, I think. Do you remember any of this, Charlie?

Carlos’ feet spasm from the tide’s frozen kiss. “I remember,” he says.

We walked along the water and we talked. I think that was the first time we ever really did that, alone, together.

Carlos keeps his eyes on the ceiling. “Mom was watching us from the blanket down the shore.”

That’s right, she was. Do you remember what I asked you that day?

He nods. “You… you asked me if I would let you be my dad. You said that you would really like it if I said yes.”

She wanted you to say yes too, Charlie. More than you know. Did you let me be your dad that day?

“Yes.” Carlos pauses. “I thought I did.”

What happened then? After I came back home?

If he doesn’t run to this man now and hold him fast he’ll be lost forever. “Please. I don’t want–”

The man fills the nursery with his voice. What. Happened.

Sunday morning, pale knuckles against the open back door, watching his parents struggle in the switchgrass, telling himself that he was afraid

“You drank too much. Got in a fight with Mom. There were cops.”

Why?

Carlos stares at the faceless man. The words feel too immense, too dangerous. He cannot trust them. Or what they’ll do to him if he says them. But he feels his lips peeling away from each other and he hears it, he hears it all: “You hurt her. You broke her rib.”

How can he bare their lives like this?

The man nods. What did you think of me then, Charlie?

“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know who you were.”

The man holds his hands up. Shafts of light pour through ragged holes in the palms like the sun reclaiming the land from a storm. Do you know who I am now?

Carlos stares until his eyes begin to smart and his vision swims. “Yes. You’re my father.”

If I’m your father, then don’t you want to find me? Don’t you love me?

An orbit of silence passes between them before Carlos can answer. “I do, and I don’t,” he says.

The man’s fingers close over the wounds. Why now, Charlie? Why the stage?

Carlos looks up to the unblemished boards. They seem to swell and grow as he rests his head against the floor.

“It’s where they told their lies. Where they taught us how to hate ourselves properly for everything that had to happened to us. I thought I could forget about that, what they did to me. To us.”

Forget about it, like me?

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “Like you.”

Carlos watches the man rise up from the corner of his eye. You don’t have to destroy it.

Tears scrape winding trails towards his scalp. “I don’t have any other choice.”

The man steps across the room and hovers before him. His face remains hidden, but Carlos can feel the darkness of his eyes settle upon him. Don’t you?

The cold nursery light begins to flicker. Memories churn and swirl before Carlos as the man lies down next to him, and now he smells the hot beer on his face and feels the sinking weight against the Power Ranger pillows, his father wrapping an arm around him and pulling him into the hard shelter of his chest as his mother screams for help from the backyard. She can’t stop screaming. Carlos would bite down on his fist to silence her but the man holds him too firmly.

What is that you want, Carlos?

Somewhere, a little boy is listening to a bedtime story about the dogs in his heart, smiling up at the best friend he never had.

The earth tilts, and Carlos feels the man slide forward until he answers the question through his son’s lips. “I want to be whole.”

When he reawakens, the nursery is empty. A wooden chair lies on its side but, aside from this, all is as before. Carlos climbs to his feet and stares into the abandoned room for a full minute. Before he makes his way from the nursery, he turns and places the hammer upon the stage. The stuttering fluorescent light finally surrenders to the shadows as he passes through the door. Nothing calls to him or stops him.

And he never looks back.

* * *

Curls of heavy mist pour into the lobby through the church’s yawning mahogany doors. Carlos swats them away, clearing a line of sight as he walks out to the parking lot. The sun peers balefully through a pearl ocean, shedding enough light to  reveal that the street has been emptied of both houses and denizens. The horizon is now studded with rolling green hills made almost black in the settling dusk. Topping these hills are the crumpled forms of hundreds of sheep, rivers of blood gleaming in twilight as they flow earthward.

The mist parts up ahead. Carlos can see the two dogs assessing him from the dirt road that twines through the hills. They watch him as he takes a final glance over his shoulder. The church remains, tall and looming, an immovable fixture of the landscape. The lightest of smiles touches his lips though its cause eludes him.

The dogs rise on weakened haunches as Carlos approaches. Their muzzles are damp and matted from their feastings, their flanks a constellation of battle scars. The sun has set but their lantern-eyes show the way as they turn and lead him through the mist. Their loping movements are submerged, balletic in the smoky air.

As they run on, Carlos discerns the scarred profile of a volcano rising in the distance, feels its groaning in his feet. In a sudden charge the volcano paints the sky with molten brushstrokes, each blast reverberating through his ribs. The heat is pleasant on Carlos’ skin, and the glow of the eruption lights his face in heartbeat time. He listens to the fiery music of the dogs’ panting breath, to the gentle trickling of the hills keeping time with the throbbing blasts from above as his monstrous flock bare bone and flash fang over the fate of his soul, and though Carlos knows the road ahead will split and each dog will follow its own course, he looks ahead to the bleeding mountain and decides that now he will let his own feet take him wherever they want him to go.

____

Copyright 2018 José Cruz

Jose Cruz is the author of two (now three) published stories; his fiction has previously appeared in Nightscript and The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. His nonfiction work has appeared in print and online venues such as Rue Morgue, Diabolique, bare•bones e-zine, and Paracinema Magazine, among others. He lives in Southwest Florida with his wife, daughter, and pupper. Find out more at The Haunted Omnibus.

The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, As Told by Rosemary Bonebreak

By Sarah McGill

On April 10, 1893, a Monday, Beth Leather shot the moon.

The moon came down like a medicine cabinet. It came down with broken hinges and the bottles spilling miracle tonic. The corks popped out and the cherry cough syrup sloshed into the laudanum and only the thick-glass bottoms were left unbroken. When the moon came down, the salt flats went dark.

* * *

In 1886, Beth Leather lassoed the Milky Way and rode its width from Minnesota to California. Upon arriving in California, she and her horse Sunny Jim were hired as traveling librarians.

First time Beth came to White Horn, I was sitting on the post box eating bell peppers out of my apron. Beth came up the road looking at the horizon like it was forever. I think she would have ridden out where the salt crust was thin and sent Sunny Jim right into the deep mud if Darleen hadn’t run off the porch, bare-feet kicking up salt, raw with it, and grabbed hold of her reins.

“Uh-uh,” she said, “I’m not setting no horse’s leg today. Half the kids in town got scarlet fever and they’re sick as rats. What you doing out here without a map? Did the government send you? What’s in your bags? Why’re they so big?”

Sometimes I wished it’d been me. But only at night, after I’d finished a book and I was closing up, alone but for the smell of lemon cough drops and hydrogen peroxide.

For seven years, Beth Leather rode into town every April with cow-leather boots and a felt hat sporting yellow flowers and her saddlebags full of romance chapbooks. Used to be I watched her from the window, packing salt into tin boxes with my thumb. I’d watch my sister pull thickets of hair up with a resin pulp comb and saunter onto the salt flats like she wasn’t mad in love with Beth. Beth always had a book for her, patched with Christmas cards and horse glue gone yellow.

I could hear them talking, with the window cracked. “How’s the trip?” my sister said.

Beth patted Sunny Jim’s neck. “Ah, peach. Went left at Sartin-Down and took a bison trail through the zodiacs. It was so hot up there, the chickens were laying hard-boiled eggs. All anyone could cook was solar flares because everything else burned to the bottom of the pan. So I thought to myself I’d go up north a tick for a block of ice.” Beth rubbed her chin and winked at Darleen. “Problem is, Great Bear didn’t like me cutting his ice.”

“How’d you get it, Beth?” It was the only time I got to hear my older sister sound like the littlest girl, with silk bows down her back and jam on her face.

“Well,” Beth drawled it out long, like she wasn’t going to tell. She folded her hands over her chaps, leather stains on her palms and knuckles scarred like cauliflower. I used to imagine her smelling like pages, before I knew she smelled like gun oil. “Great Bear, he’s snarling, stretching his jaw so wide I hear his jaw popping. Looks like he’s got a mind to swallow me down. ‘Hold on, Mister Bear,’ I said. ‘You can’t eat me. I’m bitter as wormwood and salty as the sea. But if you let me go, I’ll eat a jar of honey and comb my hair with molasses and then I’ll be sweet as a honeybee hive.’ He thought that sounded pretty fine, so I came back down to the bison trail with my ice in my bag. I rather think he’s still waiting.”

Darleen grinned, her book held careful as dandelion seeds between her hands. “One of these days you’re gonna end up like Stingy Jack, Beth Leather; lost between here and there with nothing but a Jack-o’-lantern.”

Beth stayed two weeks, sitting on an old schoolroom writing desk out front of her shack, taking back last year’s books and loaning out new ones. She had a whole page for just us—Nevada on the right, White Horn on the left, and the library address in the middle. She wrote names and book titles with a fountain pen and it came out ugly because of the shakes in her hands. She didn’t like us looking at her poor writing, but we still gathered around the page like it was magic.

I never thought it’d be me greeting Beth Leather, holding up my hands for the slim novel and the salt burning my heels.

* * *

In 1888, Beth Leather was one week late on her route on account of a starry girl who took her riding down a lute string road between the North Star and the Southern Cross.

Beth and Darleen fought a lot. They fought about anything; if violets or geraniums suited the kitchen table, how come Darleen wouldn’t fix up fennel tea for Beth’s headaches, why Beth arrived this year on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday. The year Beth came late and left early, the fights would have put a tornado to shame.

“Ought we go riding or something?” Darleen said. “You’re not getting a better day for it and you’re leaving tomorrow.”

“You can’t ride so well, Darleen.”

I watched them through the door, spooning opium through funnels into the glass bottles lined down the counter. Beth leaned on the kitchen table, sorting through maps and star charts. She was leaving a day before my birthday this year. I’d be eighteen.

“Well you can’t hardly do something as simple as making tea.”

“You make enough tea for the both of us,” Beth said.

Darleen stood behind, her arms crossed and her shoulders up. “Then we’ll go slow. Sunny Jim’s an old horse.”

“Sunny Jim’s the finest horse you’ll ever seen, Darleen. Not every horse has the iron-cap knees needed to jump far enough to get to the sky.”

“It’s all about that damn horse.”

The maps scattered on the floor when Beth turned, her lip slipped straight and angry. But she only hooked one arm around Darleen’s neck and closed her eyes. Darleen curse into Beth’s collar until her shoulders shook.

At the end of April, Darleen put on button-up boots and my straw hat with the bluebird on the band and walked seven miles to church rather than wish Beth good-bye. The next year, Beth pretended she’d not brought Darleen a book and only gave it to her after four days of sore eyes and enough yelling that Pa came to Beth’s shack turning his hat round and round in his hands and offering to mediate a discussion between the two over breakfast.

But I’d still find them in the evening perched precariously on the roof of Beth’s shack with Darleen’s book spread across their laps and Beth’s arms tight around Darleen’s waist. Darleen read aloud very slowly so she’d not read more than a chapter by the time Beth left. I wondered sometimes if I could stitch them to the fabric of the sky, suspended so just their toes touched the gabled roof. Then they’d stop fighting.

Instead I maintained the roof beams, year to year, so it wouldn’t fall in. It’s a wonder that house lasted as long as it did; though in the end it was swept away during an autumn flood in 1893.

Beth used to eat dinner at our house. I’d see her come in as I swept up the front room, locked up the cabinets, and put away the surgical knives. It was a good thing Beth lived out west because noplace else would have enough space. She had a way of being big as a bison, filling up so much space there didn’t seem room for a pat of butter. It made me shy and I didn’t consider myself shy. But when she came in, I took longer cleaning up, too nervous to go in and sit at the kitchen table, smelling her onion sweat over the steamed cauliflower.

Ma and Pa didn’t notice Beth knocking knees with Darleen under the table. They probably thought it was just Beth being so big, moving like she was on horseback and no one for ten miles. Besides, Pa’d never have a suspicious or evil thought about anyone who liked his pumpkin soup. But sometimes Beth bumped me too and my heart went into my mouth.

Darleen never helped Beth pack up. She hated it. After she stormed off when I asked about it, I ran to the shack so fast I near broke my neck just to spend a half hour alone with Beth.

Beth laughed the first time I came to her door, panting and my ankles all over salt, “I was expecting someone else.” Said it the second and third time, too. Then just said, “Afternoon.”

I packed all the returned books so they were snug, like medicine bottles wrapped in paper for long travel. I’d started thinking I understood Beth, looking for the vestigial blue between the storm clouds like the sky could cure her headaches as good as any medicine. It was uncharitable, but I thought I knew her better than Darleen, on account of noticing things like that.

“Us two should go riding some time. As thanks for helping me pack up.” Beth rubbed her knuckles where they swelled in the heat.

“To go on one of your adventures?”

“Mayhap.” Beth smiled. I smiled back because I wanted that bad as anything and I was afraid she’d never take me.

She didn’t that year.

Darleen watched Beth go from the road, a kerchief mangled against her chest. Beth wasn’t one for looking back, though she always waved. White Horn got quiet when she left, Sunny Jim’s hoof prints left like torn pages before the wind whipped them away.

“I’ve got soup for daughters,” Ma’d say the next week when us two went moody and slow.

Darleen spent the whole year fixing Beth Leather up in her head as a high-flying adventurer with as much charm as a horseshoe nailed above a door, more tall tale than skin and bones. Sitting on the post box, I watched her stuff herself with stories: Beth the Wanderer, wearing the Milky Way on her hat brim, birds black as black swinging off her saddle; Beth the Flirt, sweet as cherries, who always swept Darleen up when she came back and kissed her neck where it was hidden by butterscotch hair.

I wondered if that was why she loved Beth. Not because she knew where Beth was when she left White Horn or had been on a single adventure with her even once. Just because she’d made that Beth from the stories the real thing. I thought about telling Darleen she was fooling herself, but I figured Darleen wouldn’t appreciate it. Every year she thrilled to the high heavens at seeing her darling appear on the salt road. But Beth never was quite what Darleen had made her to be. No wonder they fought so much.

And then Darleen told Beth she didn’t want to have anything to do with her anymore. She sat on the porch swing with her arms crossed and said, “I don’t love you, Beth Leather.” Kept her eye on Beth until Beth went down the steps and walked away over the salt. Darleen never borrowed a book again. Her hands stopped smelling like inked paperbacks and went back to smelling like poppies and acetylsalicylic acid.

In 1890, I stood on the only street into town with a pickleweed bouquet, waiting for Beth Leather to come up the road with four dozen paperbacks in her bags.

She flicked back her hat when she saw me and her smile was so big it nearly knocked me over. “You’re too chipper, Rose. What am I going to do with you?”

* * *

In 1890, it rained so hard the Milky Way ran backwards. Beth Leather got washed out of the sky, hooting and hollering all the way down.

It seemed like Beth rode into town already telling stories, the gab spilling behind her like hoof prints. Darleen was right when she told me Beth always was talking about going to the sky, which was so perfect it hurt, filled up as it was with white bison and cinnamon trees and velveteen rabbits mashing up moon cakes. If she wasn’t chasing a reindeer under the Sky Nail, she was eating dried olives and sheep cheese with Capricorn, who she affectionately called old sea-goat. Sometimes it seemed like she didn’t know how to talk about anything else.

But we liked those stories. Because every year the basin flooded and we sat on the beds with our feet up while the floor turned to mud and the salt marsh snails crawled up the doors. We told each other the salt was bad. Pink in the spring, blue in the winter, and made half of sand. It was accepted wisdom that there wasn’t a sorrier sight in the world than the children selling salt to travelers who came rattling by in their black carriages, the wheel rims eaten up by our very own salty road.

I went riding on Sunny Jim for the first time in 1890.

We went out in the dark, Ma calling behind me not to fall into the lake. It was her way of saying ‘good evening.’ I held my knees so tight around Sunny Jim’s belly that in an hour I was shaking. He fidgeted like a rabbit and even though it didn’t look it, his hooves came down so hard my coccyx seemed to bounce into my spine. He had such strange gait about him, I kept thinking he was going to jump. Beth led him around, her head against his, murmuring into his cheekbone. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, on account of how hard I was concentrating on not falling off. I’d be mortified if I fell off in front of Beth.

We rode west out of town, where the bottle stoppers bloomed yellow against the foothills. Went so far it got dark and the little lamps in the windows were just small orange stars fallen to the ground. “This what it’s like in the sky?” I asked, trying not to shift even though I felt small and awkward in the saddle, marked with Beth’s fingers and smelling like eucalyptus.

She looked around and rubbed my knee with her knuckles. I went all jittery. “A little. The air’s sweeter, like a whole cup of sugar in lemonade. And when the wind blows, oh it blows. Once it was so strong, it took me to the other side of the world and then back again. And there’s always some news going on. Always something happening.” She pulled the heel of her hand in a circle against her swollen knuckles. I started thinking about scraping out an egg membrane for her to eat so her joints wouldn’t be so red. “It’s the sort of place you don’t want to come back from.”

“I’d like to see it.”

Maybe she nodded, or maybe her head was just bouncing with her walk. It was hard to tell.

“Too bad you can’t stay longer in White Horn.”

She kept on just the same and I still couldn’t tell if she was nodding or just tilting her chin in to whisper something to Sunny Jim. I bit my tongue so I didn’t say anything else foolish.

When I couldn’t hold on any longer, Beth held up her arms. “Don’t worry, Sunny Jim won’t let you come down bad.” She caught me when I snagged my foot in the stirrup. “Hold on, hold on.” She chuckled as I gripped her neck, her arm tight around my waist while she untangled my ankle and set me down gentle.

It took us an hour getting back and I couldn’t stop sighing, I was so happy.

I spent the April of 1891 flighty and jittery as a wet cat.

“Calm down, Rosie, there isn’t a thing to be so excited for,” Darleen said.

I thought she was being jealous, all frowning and hunched with her belt cinched too tight over her waist. That day I just wanted to be bright and pink as a rose, colorful and shining as Mars next to the moon. I’d even worn the only dress I had with some pink in it.

“You’ll tell me about the constellations, won’t you? I’ll be so embarrassed if I don’t know them when she comes.” My teeth chittered and I had to sit my chin down into my hands and my elbows down on the windowsill to keep from my shivering.

“She won’t even bring it up. How much can you talk about in two weeks? I spend more time with the cows.” She humphed and hawed and I heard her cursing out in the garden, but that night she taught me about the constellations anyway.

“She really been to all of them?” I asked.

Darleen settled back in her porch seat, sagging like she’d fall asleep. “You know the North Star, right? That one’s important. Can’t go anywhere without it up there or you’ll be lost as soon as you arrive.”

She said it like it was something she knew, and not something she’d been told. But I wasn’t going to be mean about it. I just wanted Beth to come so we could sit together on her roof and she’d tell me stories.

Beth came late in the day that year. It was already dark when I saw her, my whole body heavy with waiting. I tried to smile, even though I’d expected her hours ago. She came down with a thump beside me and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Evening, Rose.”

That was all she said before she went off to her shack and went to bed.

I understood. She was tired.

We didn’t go riding that year. She’d had some fever that winter and sometimes she was dizzy in the morning. I hated hearing about it. I hated thinking about her lying up in bed all day, Sunny Jim wandering aimlessly around the yard, eating rotten apples off the ground and nickering at the sky.

“Beth, you couldn’t have been that sick.”

“Sure was.” She leaned up against the shack, the sun coming down so bright it seemed like even the salt would dry up.

I thought I probably should have scooched over so our hips were touching, but I just stayed still, my hands balled up in my lap. “Then you ought to have come out here. We’ve got feverfew.”

She smiled and rubbed the back of my shoulder. “They’ve got doctors elsewhere too, you know.”

“Couldn’t you have gone up and found some miracle cure in the Milky Way? Moon poppy milk or something?”

“That’s not the sort of thing the sky goes into. Not a lot of sick people that side of the horizon.”

I looked down at my fingernails full of sand and wished I’d been there to fix her up. “You weren’t really that sick, right? I can’t imagine you sick.”

Beth shrugged and pulled her brim down over her eyes. “Guess then maybe I wasn’t.”

“Didn’t you do something interesting on the way here this year? You haven’t told a lot of stories.”

“Stayed on the ground this year. Admired the roses. Put together a few books too.” She flicked closed the book in my lap with her thumb. “I made up that one I gave you, you know.”

“Thank you, it’s very nice.” It was nice, a whole lot of recipes pasted together. I guess it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

* * *

In 1892, Beth Leather rode around the moon with a pistol in each hand. She came back with a bison tail white as limestone and two scrapes on her knees.

Beth Leather told me about the moon.

Beth and Darleen weren’t talking in 1892. Beth came in the front instead of knocking on the window on the side of the house, catching the bell on the door so Darleen wouldn’t come out from pounding up peppermint. I mixed Beth chickweed and fennel tea for her headaches and if I was nearly closed up, I’d call for Pa and take the tea out in a clay pot. We’d go as far as we could before the salt crust broke, right until the salt peeled up like carpet. I thought myself nearly as good a surgeon as Pa in those days and I was drunk on fixing everything. It was all mashed pumpkin poultices and stitching up scythe wounds with catgut and giving women celery leaves for menstrual pains. Beth looked at me so indulgent I blushed. It wasn’t until years later I thought she probably hadn’t been listening much.

“You love all the things no one else can,” Beth said, “anatomy bloodying up surgical table, the salt, those lemon-green sinkholes where the children drown.” She chewed on her tongue and kicked boot-loads of salt at the horizon. “Never understood it, Rose, you being so sweet when you were raised on opium and gin and knowing how half the people in town scream.”

“It’s the paperbacks,” I said, putting my tongue through the gap on the left where I lost my teeth when I set Widow Pearl’s leg and she kicked me in the jaw. “You know I keep thinking about how some of the people in those stories could do just about anything. All riding from one end of the country to the other and catching coyotes and chasing buzzards. It seems like the best thing in the whole world. That how you got into it?”

She raised an eyebrow and I swallowed hard. I’d never asked what she’d done before a comet caught her bootstrap and took her up so far she had to grab the North Star so’s it wouldn’t take her any further. But asking it, I wanted to know. I couldn’t even imagine what she might have been doing before.

Beth put her thumb on her chin and turned her face up towards the dark blue. “No. That what you want to do? Riding and stuff like that?”

I waited, hoping she’d say more, but she didn’t. “Sure,” I said. “Or maybe I’d just set a ladder against the moon and live with corn silk window frames and a tea parlor clean as peroxide.” I locked my fingers together and held them against the sky. “I’ll cook sun spots in big silver pots and the kettle’ll always be boiling.” I laughed because it was sort of embarrassing, and then louder because Beth was looking at me kind of funny.

Beth pulled her thumb over the moon. “There’s no windows on the moon. Moon’s a white bison. Black hooves like tar and a snort like sulfur.” She pulled the yellow flowers forward on her hat band and lay back on the flats. “Someday, I’m gonna shoot the moon.” She glanced at me and even in the shadows it was hard to hold her eye. “I’ll shoot it for you. If you want.”

I must have flushed even darker, like cranberry honey. I shook my head, kinda slow, while Beth set her jaw as grim as I’ve ever seen. “Nah-uh. You think you will, Beth Leather, but you never will.”

In 1893, the state went broke and stopped paying the traveling librarians. Beth Leather went out on her route one last time.

A week after Beth Leather arrived in town, she rode up in front of our house two hours before dinner. Darleen pretended like she didn’t notice and went back to crushing parsley and ergot. When I came out the front door, Beth said, “I’m going to shoot the moon.”

I could see the moon from where I stood. It was thin as a suture needle, a pale wash against the thumbnail of blue beneath the veranda roof. It looked like milk spilled on the floor, and all the cream skimmed off.

I looked at Beth. Her hands shook against the reins and her knees were too tight on Sunny Jim’s flanks. She’d put fresh flowers in her hat. I’d watched her all week, glancing at the sky, her eyes filling up and draining out. She kept touching the pistol on her belt.

I went inside and came back with a straw hat tied over my hair with a white cotton scarf and a carpet bag.

“You think I won’t do it,” Beth said when I hung the bag on the back of the saddle.

“You’re real sweet.” I smiled, big and nice as I could.

When I mounted up, Darleen threw open the window so loud the frame shook. The sun cut over her neck and she looked like she’d boil.

“Rosemary.” The air caught in her throat. Her eyes welled up and I wanted to tell her not to look at me like that. Like I was too young to know what I was doing. “The rains are coming.”

Then Beth leaned forward and the Bonebreak home vanished behind us.

We rode out toward the sink in the scablands, the horse hooves tearing up what little soil there was on the rock. Beth said we were going to the lowest point in the whole country, the last place to dry up in the summer.

“I’ve been looking for this place, Rose, ever since I came here.”

I thought about her, the first time she rode into town, so starry-eyed. It scared me a little that she’d been thinking about shooting the moon this long, even before she met me and my sister.

“You looking to go on an adventure then?” Beth said past the wind.

“Yes, ma’am, I am.” I tried to say it like I was older than I was.

“You’re not just coming to make sure I’m not lying to you?”

“Beth,” I said, affronted.

I wanted to go on an adventure with her. I wanted to so bad.

That night, we camped up the mountain in the bristlecone pine trees, laying out needles under our blankets. Some people still lived up the mountain, off the bighorn sheep and jackrabbits. They wore corks on their hats and one of them kept a mouse in his pocket, feeding it dried corn and pine nuts.

We traded some of my opium for dried meat and water. Beth told them we were going to shoot the moon.

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” the man with the pocket mouse said. “It’s like catching a coyote, seems like a good idea until you do it.”

That night I lay on the needles on my side with my hands under my chin. I fell asleep watching Beth stare at the sky and her eyes so big, big as full moons.

In April, Beth Leather took her oldest pistol to shoot the moon. It was made out of boot nails and painted the color of a buttermilk sky.

In the morning I asked if we’d ride up on the Milky Way to shoot the moon. I’d heard stories about her riding around the moon before, though not close enough to get it between the eyes. Beth didn’t answer right away and I went squeamish and embarrassed.

“Only, it’d be a real adventure then. Like one of your stories. The sky’s something else, right?”

Beth looked over her shoulder and she looked distracted even when she smiled. She looked like the idea of the moon had filled her all the way up, poured into her belly liked spilt cream, the whole Milky Way draining down her throat and not leaving any room for anything else. “Sure, Rose, if you want.”

“No.” I scrunched up my skirt on my knees. “That’s alright.”

It was quiet a long while after that, but when we came down to eat lunch, I asked, “You really shooting the moon for me?”

“Yeah.” She smiled weird and gentle and put her arm over my shoulder, holding me up against her side so I broke out in a nervous sweat. “Just for you.”

I turned one of Beth’s knives over in my hand. “What’m I gonna do with it?”

“Whatever you want.” She stood and left me feeling small.

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “You could skin it. You’ll have the finest tanned hide this side of Texas. Then you can do anything you want. If you like, you can cut it into strips and make a rope bridge up to the sky.”

“Won’t it be awfully dark up there without the moon? It’s like the stars’ sun, isn’t it?”

“They’re bright enough on their own.”

I wondered why Beth was always going off on her adventures, other than it seemed a lot more fun than watching the floods roll in your front door. Maybe it was just the kind of thing she did. Shooting the moon was just the next thing.

“Ok.”

“You know.” She pulled herself up straight, turning her chin a little to talk past the wind. “The program, it’s been defunded. They’re not sending people out with books anymore.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” I shifted away as Sunny Jim stomped. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know. There’s still a lot of places I haven’t seen.”

“Maybe you can come by more often, now that you don’t have to go to all those other towns. You could stay a whole three weeks. Or longer even. We’d find you a job, I promise.” I laughed at how impossible and grand the idea seemed.

“I guess Sunny Jim might appreciate not carrying around such heavy books anymore. They do wear on his withers.” She patted his neck and wrapped up her fingers in his mane. “He’s been real good about it. Didn’t complain once. Maybe we’ll go to the east coast. Haven’t been there before.”

I stood and Beth helped me mount back up. “Bet there are lots of adventures out there.”

Beth crossed her hands on the saddle’s horn, her fingers shaking just enough to see, just enough to make her writing sort of twisted. “My mother always said I loved too easy. Easy as a star falling.” She sucked in a breath and pulled herself up in front of me.

That night, the moon hung above us bright and round like the bottom of a tonic bottle. I didn’t think it looked like a bison at all. It looked like our medicine cabinets, where all the cures in the world were kept, even the fake ones. Colored syrup and sugar pills between boneset and borage and poultices.

Sunny Jim galloped toward the sink, kicking up dust and salt while I held Beth around the waist and my hair stuck to my neck with sweat. Sunny Jim’s hoof beats rattled through my ribs but the quiet was as wide as the whole basin.

Beth held up her pistol, her body like a gallows, and I could feel her breathing under my arms. She shot once.

* * *

On Monday, when the moon went out, it started to rain.

We waited in the dark, Beth and I. I didn’t let go of her waist, not when her arm rocked with the shot, not when the moon went out, not when it started raining down my neck. Beth’s hands twisted on the reins. The salt crust cracked. The ground turned to mud. The wind picked up and blew rain into our faces, down our necks until we were wet even between Beth’s back and my chest. It smelled like the ocean. Ma’d told me about the ocean. I’d never been there.

I looked at the sky through Beth’s hair. I’d never been so scared, looking at that gap in the sky. My chest knew something ought to be there and it wasn’t, not even a little bit. I held Beth tighter. My breath went fast. I pushed my face into Beth’s shoulder. I wanted her to say something, about how it’d be alright.

Sunny Jim turned of his own accord when his hooves started to sink into the flats. Beth’s legs tightened on his flanks. I couldn’t see a thing, not even the mountains against the horizon. We could have been in the sky, in the middle of a rain cloud, and I wouldn’t have known it.

“Beth.” I said it into her shoulder, my mouth moving over the bone.

“I’ll find the moon.”

I remember Sunny Jim stumbling as it got muddy. I remember thinking I saw the moon standing on the horizon like a scythe, caught in the pine trees. I remember letting go to point to it as the water came up to my ankles and the waves broke on my calves. When Beth put her knees into Sunny Jim’s side, following the motion of my arm, he leapt. He leapt and my grip broke and the water tumbled us away.

I lost Beth. I lost her quick, quick as a bone breaking. I took her hand, slick with salty water and she slid away. It was so dark. I didn’t even get to see her face as she went. I screamed after her, the moon slipping away so I wasn’t sure I’d seen it at all. The noise of the waves mixed up with my shouts and I could hardly hear myself. Couldn’t find the ground with my feet. Everything tumbled. The water went up and I went down and I never saw Beth Leather again.

I came out onto the scabland long, long into the night, slick with mud and my nose burning like death with salt. I could hear the waves crashing over the rain and the wind moaning through the pines. I shivered and screamed for Beth through the storm, but no one came. I stood in the surf and slipped and ran back and tried to throw pine needles, which stuck to my hands. Up and down the banks, up and down and no idea where I was going or if I was about to fall into that current again. Beth, Beth, where did you go?

It was a long time in the dark.

In the morning, I stood shaking on the banks. I watched the lake, bright and new as a penny. I waited for a book to wash up, or a yellow flower. I expected to see her hat floating on the water. Or one of her blackbirds. Nothing came. The lake looked so big and empty. Like the ocean. Like there’d been so much rain the whole world drowned. Salt crusted on my ankles and I could hardly walk for the mud. My hat was gone too though the scarf had plastered itself to my shoulders. There was so much salt, I felt like it had filled up my blood, filled up my lungs.

I walked north, along the shore, shivering and not expecting the walking would do any good. Seemed like if I was going to find her, it would have happened already. I went so far I came back around south again and walked toward home.

I slept that night out on the salt and the sky was dark as anything. No moon and all the stars dim like they were in mourning.

When I got home, I told everyone Beth was gone. They didn’t much listen. They were all mucking out their houses, rebuilding the walls and roofs that had come down in the flood. Beth’s house was slick with mud, but it’d held against the water. Darleen came out with her sleeves rolled up and her hem wet. Said one of the medicine cabinets broke. Covered the floor in honey and chalk.

“Beth’s gone,” I said, and I nearly choked.

She squeezed me tight and didn’t let go so long as I was holding her back. Made me caraway tea when we went inside.

It kept raining for a week, the lake swelling up through the flats. Pa came home with his boots caked in white mud. My toes wrinkled up with the wet. Ma couldn’t keep anything dry, even when she hung it in the rafters over the stove. I spent a lot of time sitting on the counter, holding bottles while Darleen sorted through the cabinets. I couldn’t help leaning forward every few minutes to look out the window, see if anyone was coming up the road. Darleen finally put me in the back room, I made myself so nervous looking. The same people got colds as did every year and we ran out of lemon. It stayed dark at night and we walked around with shuttered lanterns, leaving ruts with our heels.

A week after Beth vanished in the flood, it stopped raining. The lake settled out and the ground started to dry, all the places we’d walked crystalizing into the ground, until people started filling them up with sand and salt. Darleen pulled back her shoulders and went to scrub out Beth’s shack. She hauled out the schoolroom desk and buffed it ‘til it looked like new and then left it out to dry. The shack’d wash away five months later. Darleen came back so tired she stayed out all night on the porch.

I sat out at the side of the house while she scrubbed, away from the road, looking at the primrose and gravel ghost flowers. Didn’t think about much of anything until it started getting dark and I went to see if the garden had lasted the flood. The garden was a little thing, all the soil pulled in from miles away, and even that only wanted to grow radishes. Had to keep up a little fence, so the salt wouldn’t kill the green tufts.

And it was the funniest thing, what I found leaning up against the back of the house like a mill wheel. If it wasn’t the moon. There between the water tin and the eggshells like it’d rolled in off the flats and sat down to rest awhile. Sunken and washed up as an old bull. So I picked the moon up. Popped it back in the sky.

That night, the moon rose just like anything. Just a sliver, a whisper of hair blowing in the wind, yellow like it was at the other end of a fever, but there all the same.

* * *

A note from Rosemary Bonebreak

There are lots of legends on the flats, preserved in salt and growing crystals. People tell stories about shooting the moon. We start sober and someone says they took every trick in a hand of Hearts, like they were pulling games on the flats to impress a girl with calloused fingers and a face like wheat stalks. But by midnight we’re all drunk and suddenly someone took down the whole moon. Lassoed it, caught it by the horns, dragged it down. Wrestled it for seven days while it rained and the sink flooded. Until finally the moon galloped away, back up into the sky, panting and lolling its tongue.

Out here where the tumbleweed knocks for a cup of water and the floods are like the end of the world twice a year that’s the sort of story I tell. Someone with a pistol made out of the soles of their boots was so big she galloped onto the salt and shot the moon right out of the sky. Sometimes, when it’s late and the parlor’s nearly I empty, I tell the story like she really did do it for me.

____

Copyright 2018  Sarah McGill

Sarah McGill lives in New York and has been published on Lyonesse and in Crazy 8 Press’s anthology, Altered States of the Union.

Dear Readers,

We have removed the story “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang (November, 2017) from this website and archives after concerns were raised about the work’s originality.
We examined “Hungry Demigods” and its alleged source side-by-side, and found that the story did not meet our requirements as an original work.
We thank the reader who brought this matter to our attention, and we profoundly apologize to the other author, whom we have unknowingly harmed.
Ms. Tang denies any wrongdoing in this matter.

Sincerely,

Rashida J. Smith, editor

and

Ann Leckie, owner

Next Page »