The Devil Squid Apocalypse

by

Alex Acks

  

Countdown:

Because in a universe of infinite possibilities unlikely coincidences happen constantly, the end of the world and the Devil Squid pre-show staging start at the same time.

5: The pirate battle cruiser Eminence of Yatii-et and Their Infinite Mercy of Blood enters high Earth orbit, completely undetected due to its advanced spectral reflectance field. Devil Squid frontman Cameron Jarlace, in the green room at the Blue Bird Theater, checks the time on his cell phone and gives his band the ten-minute warning. Drummer Lang Stephens starts another round of Candy Crush. Bass player Darnel Mattise, newest member of the band, nervously checks the set order again. Lead guitarist Marcy Ramos takes another long drag off her joint and wishes that her sciatica would stop fucking acting up already.

4: The Eminence sends out a volley of thousands of neutron-plasma seekers, targeting everything in Earth orbit that shows any EM-spectrum activity. At the Blue Bird Theater, the stage manager, someone screaming unintelligibly in his earbud, pokes his head in and says apologetically, “Sorry, five more minutes.” Marcy doesn’t so much as twitch. At least thirty years older than everyone else in the band, she’s long since learned that no matter what job you’re doing, it’s always five more minutes. She can ride the hum of anticipation a little longer.

3:  The neutron-plasma seekers find their marks, clamping on like limpets—or rather a limpet-like lifeform known on the Eminence’s home world, whose name translates out to burning ass-sucker—then explode simultaneously. Humanity’s satellites go dark. In the Blue Bird Theater green room, Marcy finishes her joint. “You got another one?” Lang, in fine drummer form, asks. Marcy grins and says, “Not for you, mijo.”

2: The Eminence sinks into the atmosphere proper, deploying a near-invisible net of metalloid filaments, like the gossamer parachute of a newly hatched spider. The high winds of the upper atmosphere whip the filaments away, distributing them across the globe. The Supreme Battle Commander of the Eminence, Txiwal Crym Hyyul-et, drums his manipulating appendage on the control panel, watching the countdown for full global coverage. And in the Blue Bird Theater, the stage manager pokes his head into the green room again and flaps his hand frantically. “Come on, come on!” The band shuffles out the door, tugging down t-shirts, tugging up torn jeans.

1: After two more songs and an encore that no one but the band onstage wanted, Devil Squid takes the stage to a round of drunken, enthusiastic screaming. The lights blaze, fists come up throughout the auditorium, and it’s finally go time. The guys are about losing their minds with excitement and Marcy feels like she’s thirty again, all those aches and pains disappearing under the tide of adrenalin. Cameron throws back his head, Marcy and Darnel hit the first chord, and it’s perfect, the kind of thing Cameron claims is better than sex and Marcy thinks is somewhere beyond the first hill of a roller coaster since she’s never given a shit about sex. Overhead, the silver filaments shudder, boil, and explode to generate wave after wave of technology-murdering electromagnetic pulses.

0: Below the Eminence, darkness wreathes the planet. Txiwal Crym Hyyul-et emits a scent of satisfaction and orders the next step of the standard invasion plan—business as usual. At the Blue Bird Theater, the lights go out. There are a few screams, some of mock-fright, some of real fear, as the audience slowly realizes that this is not part of the show. Lighters—but no cell phones, suddenly those are so many little glass and metal bricks—come on like the dots of stars in darkness. Unbeknownst to any of them—for the next few minutes, and then it will be too late—an airplane overhead begins a terminal dive.  And for humanity, but especially for the humans of Devil Squid, everything changes.

~

You work your fingers to the bone your entire goddamn life and this is what you get. First you help your mother (God rest her soul) clean apartments in gated complexes, places nicer than you’ll ever be able to afford, for cash in white envelopes. Then you clean homes without her, because she’s in the hospital with cancer and the family needs the money; after all the times Papá got arrested during protests in the sixties and seventies, no one will give him work worthy of his literature degree. Then you scrub toilets at the university for a couple of years as a late-blooming student until you graduate to swabbing out bottom-burned filter flasks for the chemistry department, because the life insurance money (your mother, always so long-sighted) covered tuition but nothing else. And when it’s done and you have that shiny degree in your hand, the one that everyone swore would change your life forever, you’re cleaning up spilled rice while you stock shelves at nights, because good high school science teachers don’t get paid jack shit in the districts that really need them the most.

Until you’re sixty-seven and those assholes in all levels of government think the best way to teach kids is to punish teachers, and then you have no job and a pitiful excuse for severance pay, though you know you’re lucky to have even that much. Retirement is a dream for people who could save money instead of spending every penny on keeping your extended family and your less fortunate students going, so you fling job application after job application uselessly into the void. You’re well past your expiration date, the last bruised, brown banana that no one wants to pick up on the job market, your lower back is shot to hell after so many years of cleaning up other people’s messes, and it’s just you alone in your tiny, two-bedroom ranch-style house, the last thing you have left of your parents. No kids because you never wanted any, no husband or wife because you weren’t interested in sex or romance or any of that shit, no church because you always ignored Papá’s stale jokes about becoming a nun. And you’re counting the days until you have to slide into your cousin’s landscaping business, because carrying a leaf blower sounds like agony, but it’s still easier on the back than sleeping on someone’s floor because you can’t afford property tax on the house Papá killed himself over paying off.

The logical follow up: buy weed from one of your neighbors and smoke it out on the porch, because who gives a shit about drug tests any more, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than whatever experimental back surgery your doctor keeps mentioning with a gleam in his eye.

Then one day that same damn neighbor sounds like he’s torturing some innocent musical instruments to death in his backyard, and it’s so bad you can’t suck the THC into your bloodstream fast enough to not care. So you limp over to his house, kick open the rusty back gate, and tell him and his little friend who is actually holding the guitar to quiet the hell down.

“Can’t, Marcy,” Cameron—your neighbor—says. You tell all the Anglos to call you Marcy, because it’s orders of magnitude less painful than hearing them butcher the name your parents gave you: Marcia. At your you’ve got to be shitting me, kid stare, he continues, “David left the band. We need a new guitar or we’re sunk.”

“I didn’t know you had a band,” you say. “And if you sound like this, you’re still sunk.”

The other kid—still clutching the electric guitar with his hips all canted forward like he thinks music emanates directly from the nuts—sneers at you. “Like you’d know punk if it fucking bit you.”

He might be right. You’ve always more been into the rock and folk greats of the sixties and seventies, just like Papá, and music since then has passed you by. But life is shit and all the social contracts were lies, so maybe it’s time to try something new. You take a drag off your joint and smile. The nice thing about being unemployed is you don’t have to take shit off anyone. “And you wouldn’t know a major chord if it bit you in the ass, pendejo. Give me the fucking guitar.”

The kid flips you off. But the guitar belongs to Cameron, and he pries the guitar out of greaseball’s hands and offers it over, though he’s got one of those condescending white boy smiles on his face as he does it.

It’s been years since you touched a guitar, and you probably wouldn’t even try if you weren’t stoned off your ass. The fingers remember even if the callouses are decades gone, all those long hours in a hot, close garage with Papá, playing along with a radio because two shitty, cracked, thrift store guitars were the same price as a shitty thrift store TV and more fun.

You give the guitar an experimental strum and jump at the noise it makes. Cameron and the kid smirk at each other. You take another drag off your joint, adjust the tuning slightly, and make that guitar scream.

You fuck up the riff pretty bad. But the real point is you can recognize it as music, and so can Cameron. He grins, clapping his hands. “I never woulda fucking guessed,” he says. “You like punk rock?”

“Always been more into igneous, myself, but I like trying new things.” No one laughs. No one ever gets your goddamn jokes.

“No way,” the other kid says. “She’s fucking old Cameron. You think grandma can shred?”

“You gonna fucking stop me?” you say.

“She’s already more punk than you,” Cameron says. “Audition over.” Then he turns back to you. “You want the gig?”

“It pay?”

“Like shit.”

You’re not doing anything else right now. “Sure.”

And that’s how you end up standing on stage in that one perfect moment when the world ends.

~

Everyone from the concert and the surrounding city block who survived the plane’s impact gets herded toward the foothills by floating gun platforms that look more sophisticated than any drone that’s ever appeared on the evening news. There are no loudspeakers; the gun platforms keep things moving by shooting anyone who isn’t walking fast enough or in the right direction.

They can talk quietly as they walk. Cameron’s of the opinion that it has to be the Russians, since they have the best military out there of the people that don’t like the United States. No one else is convinced that they’d invade like this, and as Lang points out, he can’t believe that “Vlady” would invade the US without stroking one off in public.

Cameron offers up North Korea, which no one takes seriously considering they can’t even shoot a missile straight. From there he pivots to China, at which point Marcy asks him if he’s just shopping around for brown people to blame and Cameron fires back that last time he checked, Russians are pretty damn white, and Marcy starts up about actually in the western cultural climate, Eastern Europeans have traditionally been—

At which point Lang interrupts to offer the suggestion that it’s a right-wing coup. Darnel waves that off under the theory that there are way too many white people getting shot right now. Lang scratches the scraggly little bulldog beard and shrugs. “Yeah, but they’re white punks.”

Darnel chews thoughtfully on his lip. “And all of this is missing the point. If it’s just that someone decided to drop the shit on Denver, why the hell haven’t we seen the army yet? We haven’t even seen a jet or a drone or whatever.”

“Maybe there were multiple attacks?” Lang says.

“So many that there’s been jack shit done for a major metropolitan center?” Darnel asks.

Cameron stares at him, long and hard. Then says, “You think this is some fucking Independence Day shit, don’t you.”

“Well, look at the writing on the platforms,” Darnel says.

Cameron frowns. “What writing?”

“Regular marks on the side. It’s got the patterns you’d expect in some kind of alphabet, like nothing on Earth. You get me?” Darnel says.

“You’re saying it’s fucking aliens?” Cameron says. “I wasn’t serious when I said Independence Day. Jesus fuck.”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Darnel says.

“Never known any humans who had their shit together enough to take over the whole world,” Marcy says dryly.

“Whoa, whoa,” Lang says. “We’re missing the bigger point. When did you turn into some kind of language-ologist, Darnel?”

“Linguist,” Darnel says, as if it pains him. “And Marcy’s not the only one who’s got expensive wallpaper in her shitter.”

Marcy laughs, and holds out her fist for Darnel to dap. Shit feels almost normal for about five seconds. Then one of the platforms floats closer and they get their heads down and keep walking. To one side, there’s a chatter of gunfire that’s too bright to be regular bullets, even tracers, and a body hits the mud in a spray of chains and leather.

~

“What the fuck is going on right now? We’re being herded like fucking sheep. What happened to all the blood and sweat and music? If society is dead and the government’s in ruins, why aren’t we celebrating? Why are we still doing what we’re told? Let’s fucking go!” Cameron the mellow dealer and laid-back band leader is gone as he hefts a rock and slings it at one of the gun platforms.

Marcy changes course—it can’t end this way—but she can’t move fast enough and she body checks Darnel instead. Lang’s already eating dirt, because he remembers his self-preservative instinct at the damnedest times.

The expected hail of gunfire doesn’t happen. Marcy and Darnel lift their heads from the mud. There’s a huge dent in the gray metal platform, and it looks like it’s flying a little crooked.

Cameron grins like the sun coming out in the spring, and Marcy remembers why sometimes she loves that precious idiot like the son she never wanted to have or the little brother her mother brought into the world stillborn. She feels it like a knife through her heart, because she fucking knows what comes next.

As Cameron picks up another rock, as the kids he’s got at his back start chanting his name, there’s a BOOM in the sky. A shockwave slams the brave and the smart alike back down into the mud.

A teardrop of scorched metal floats in front of them for a moment, bigger than the platforms. Then it opens and oh fuck, Darnel was right. What steps—slides—squishes—whatevers—out has never been on the surface of Earth before. It’s more fucked than anything Giger could have come up with after dropping acid and looking through pictures of deep-sea vent creatures, like a jellyfish and a hagfish had a demonic hatefuck and this popped out six-hundred and sixty-six months later.

For one perfect, horrifying moment, Cameron and the thing square off. It’s impossible to tell if the monster—alien—is looking at Cameron, but that’s how it feels. Silence except for the rattle of the breeze, the thud and rush of over-labored heartbeats.

Cameron lifts the rock over his head. “I’ve got something for your fucking lea—”

The alien gestures with a wave of lashing tentacles, too fast to discern. There’s a pop, a spray of bright red, and then Cameron isn’t there anymore. Everyone for a twenty-foot radius is wearing him.

Darnel screams. So does Marcy. Lang vomits into the mud.

Then the gun platforms start cycling up, a high-pitched whine they all know too damn well. Marcy and Darnel drag Lang up out of the muck, and there’s nothing left to do but run toward the foothills.

~

You work your fingers to the bone getting the impromptu forced labor camp organized, sending the kids out to scavenge for building materials, making sure no one digs the latrine too close to either the stream or where the Jellyfuckers toss out the rations, a million other little things, and this is what you get: a motherfucking election. Except you don’t really get it, because no one bothers to fucking tell you, or Lang, or Darnel until it’s already happening. The only reason you find out is because Lang blows out the sole of one of his Chucks and you head to the rickety communal storage shelter to see if there are any spare shoes.

And the shelter—biggest space in the camp that isn’t swarming with Jellyfuckers or drones—is packed with people. It’s mostly upper middle classers who got driven in about a week and a half ago, some subdivision that weathered the initial carnage and had been hunkering down to wait things out. There’s a few of the punks scattered here and there, looking small and sheepish.

“—and if chosen to stand, I’m in the best position to negotiate with the invaders,” the man at the front, wearing a wrinkled polo shirt and smudged khakis, says. You find it irritating that he’s not a hell of a lot dirtier. “They’ve already spoken to me, as most of you know. They do speak English. We’ll be all right if we don’t make trouble.”

You’ve watched enough scifi movies that you’re not surprised. Earth’s been shitting out signals all over the electromagnetic spectrum for years, though now you have to wonder if the Jellyfuckers talk more like Real Housewives or football announcers.

“Negotiate?” Lang bursts out. “Are you fucking serious?” In the weird quiet of the shelter, his voice is impossible to miss. Which is fine, because you were sure thinking the same thing. Lang’s young enough that he thinks saying it’s going to make a goddamn difference, and you love him for it most days.

The crowd turns to look at him, uncomprehendingly.

“Young… man,” Khaki Guy begins, “we’re in a bad position here.”

“No shit,” Lang says. “What the fuck is this?”

“We have to face the facts. Thanks to Frank saving his ham radio equipment—” Khaki Guy points toward an elderly white guy in a dirty flannel shirt who goes even more hunch-shouldered at the attention “—we now know that this truly is world-wide. Our military has been all but destroyed. Help isn’t coming. We have to look out for ourselves.”

“We have been looking out for ourselves,” Lang protests. “We’ve been working our asses off getting shit organized, especially Marcy! And you’re not going to say shit to us? That’s fucked up, man.”

You don’t know if it’s that you’re a woman, or old, or brown, or the perfect nexus of all three, but everyone suddenly looks at you like you appeared out of nowhere. You cross your arms and glare like, yeah, that’s right, I’m sure standing here. Breathing.

“It’s democracy,” Khaki Guy says stiffly.

“Not if some of us are shut out,” Lang growls.

If Cameron was here, you’re sure he’d have a thing or two to say. But Cameron’s not here—because he already had a thing or two to say. You’re too old, too tired, your back fucking hurts, and nothing Khaki Guy can do to you is worse than standing here and watching him reshuffle the same old deck while a shooting pain keeps spiking your right heel. “Vote all you want,” you say, and turn to go.

Lang does a little bunny hop of sheer, boiling rage and completes the thought in a way you definitely weren’t bending toward with a shout of: “Yeah! We don’t recognize your authority!” He punctuates it by pumping his fist in the air.

But you? You keep walking, Lang gets caught in your wake. He always sticks with the band, and thank God because it lets you and Darnel keep him in one piece when he starts writing checks with his mouth that the rest of him can’t cash.

Khaki Guy shouts behind you: “There will be consequences if you interfere!”

You flip the bird over your shoulder. You’re never too old to do that.

~

They’re hiding out together behind one of the little plastic lean-tos that the aliens dropped down a couple days into the mining operation. Marcy rolls a joint with the same kind of care a priest would handle the fingerbone of a saint.

“And here, I figured you’d run out of MJ before I ran out of T,” Lang remarks.

Marcy laughs. “This rations a little easier.” She used to smoke daily. She doesn’t have to. The grinding pain in her back and hip is the old frenemy that overstays its welcome. “You gonna be okay?”

Lang shrugs. “Depression, anxiety, weight loss, and headaches.”

“Other than the headaches, sounds like an average day,” Darnel remarks.

“Headaches are just gonna magnify the suck when I’m in the shed.” Lang means the machinist shed, banging around with his makeshift tools. It’s him and this girl that Marcy’s pretty sure he’s fucking on the sly, and good for them both if that keeps them going.

“I’ll ask around. People got to be hoarding painkillers,” Darnel says.

“What’d you want to talk about, Marcy?” Lang asks after the silence stretches and Marcy keeps rolling that joint between her fingers.

“If we want to take the bastards down, we’ve got to do it ourselves.” Marcy does her work and doesn’t complain, watching all the while. She knows that Khaki Guy and his friends have their eyes on her and doesn’t care. She was sneaking around regulations in the public education system before most of them were out of diapers.

“Best way to do anything,” Lang answers promptly.

“I wanted you both to see something.” Marcy points finger in the general direction of the Jellyfucker Palace. The blackened metal projections of the ship—because it’s the ship, not really a palace, but you have to have a sense of humor these days if you want to survive—overshadow the little shack and the whole camp, but the action is going to happen low to the ground.

Lang and Darnel exchange a look and shrug, then lean out. They peer toward the palace, to see the hollow of a door open midway up the ship’s edifice. Then the biggest Jellyfucker of them all squidges out, shining greasily in the sunlight. As one, the overseer Jellyfuckers turn and move toward it, leaving their gun platforms behind to keep the humans in line.

“Inspection time?” Darnel asks.

“Maybe,” Marcy agrees. “It’s every day, at this time.” All the electronics are dead except for Frank’s treasured ham radio set, but she engineered a pretty accurate hourglass for herself with some nice sugar sand from part of the mine pit. “I’m thinking—”

“They drag someone out every day?” Lang asks.

“What?” Marcy tucks the joint into an empty cigarette box, slides off her wobbly crate and inserts herself in the height lineup between Lang and Darnel.

It sure does look like the Jellyfuckers are dragging one of their own to the front. It’s definitely not their normal weirdly smooth style of movement when the Jellyfucker in the middle gets tossed to the ground. It whips its tentacles frantically around.

She fishes around in her pockets until she comes out with the makeshift spyglass she rigged from lenses out of eyeglasses that people didn’t need any more because they were dead. It gives her a decent if slightly wavy close-up on the action. Lang makes a grab for it and she slaps his hand away.

The big Jellyfucker on the balcony raises a tentacle that’s got some kind of bracelet wrap on it. Gestures again. All the other Jellyfuckers back away from the one on the ground, forming a ring around it.

And then the Jellyfucker explodes in a shower of goo. Like Cameron exploded.

“What the fuck,” Darnel says, more like a prayer than a statement.

“Fuck me,” Lang whispers. This time, Marcy doesn’t resist when he takes the spyglass to get an eyeful of the distant, oily sheen of Jellyfucker guts splattered all over the ground.

Marcy makes herself breathe slowly. She sees a plan forming, a path to strike at the heart of Jellyfucker Central. “This is it.”

“What?” Darnel and Lang chorus.

“We’re going to get the band back together,” Marcy says. “We’re going to play one final fucking blowout show… for the Jellyfuckers.”

She looks at the boys, urging them to understand or at least believe. She knows they’re being watched. She doesn’t want to lay the whole plan out.

“We’ve got no instruments,” Lang says.

“We’ve got someone on the inside at the machine shop.” And she’ll have a few design specifications for Lang, she decides. As soon as she gets a sample of all the goop that the Jellyfuckers have just walked away from.

Darnel suddenly grins. “And we’ve got someone who can figure out the linguistic cues to get these Jellyfuckers to pay attention to us. To get them to let us inside.”

Marcy grabs their hands and squeezes. “It’ll take time. But we—”

“So much for being the hardest working person in the camp,” a familiar, extremely annoying voice drawls behind them. They all turn around to see Marcy’s nemesis: Khaki Guy. Somehow, he looks even cleaner than he did at the bullshit election meeting. Maybe cuddling up to Jellyfuckers comes with a bleaching effect.

“Smoke break,” Marcy says. She doesn’t believe in letting people think they’ve rattled her.

“We have a quota if we want to keep our privileges,” Khaki Guy says. “Get back to work.” A drone platform floats up behind him.

Privileges negotiated by the benevolent Khaki Guy: eleven-hour work days under the gun instead of twelve. No one in this goddamn camp seems to remember the word collaborator while they’re enjoying their flavorless lunch protein bricks.

Marcy sees Lang clench one hand into a fist. She glances at Darnel, and in a moment of non-telepathy they silently agree that running is the smart thing to do. They each grab one of Lang’s arms and drag him away, back toward the mine pit.

~

You work your fingers to the bone for three goddamn months, and it feels like three decades between the constant, grinding pain and the Jellyfuckers and Khaki Guy always breathing down your neck. But this is where it gets you: the dark, oval chamber deep inside the Jellyfucker Palace, with El Jellyfucker Grande sitting on what has to be its version of a throne, burbling at you. You can feel Lang practically vibrating with the urge to run or barf or both at the same time, even as he clutches his buckets and sticks right behind you. Darnel’s quiet, but Darnel’s been doing his dead man walking impression for the last twenty-four hours since he managed to convince the Jellyfuckers to bring them in for a concert “celebrating” the total subjugation of the earth, using a lot of flattery and weird bodily contortions.

Fuck, you’re tired. You’re tired, and every muscle in your back is screaming, and there’s a shooting pain down your left leg, and you really wish Cameron was here for this so you could punch him in his stupid, watched-too-many-white-savior-action-movies face and then hug him.

But that comes later.

Shooting pain aside, you bend down to do one of those low, twisty bows Darnel taught you. Because it’s going to help you to get this close, so close that the stench of ammonia like a thousand cat-piss-soaked rugs makes your eyes water. But that stench is also important, and you knew it the moment you snuck onto the killing field three months ago and put samples of dead Jellyfucker into a mason jar. That stench spells chemistry to you.

“Get on with it,” the head Jellyfucker says, sounding like it’s talking through a throat gargling phlegm.

You glance at the Jellyfucker guards. “You are very gracious to share the glory of this victory ballad with your servants!”

This is the moment that matters most, the answer to if you’ve read everything right, learned the best approach. You’ve noticed, how the big Jellyfucker only shows up when it’s way above all the others, acting like it’s untouchable.

The big Jellyfucker makes a horrible screeching noise. It lashes its tentacles around, and the guards exit. The door shuts behind them and it’s just you humans, a single gun platform, and the big Jellyfucker. You keep your sag of relief purely internal. The big Jellyfucker screeches again and says, “Proceed before I am bored.”

So you give it a decent little recital, some Moody Blues and Simon & Garfunkel and a few of your favorites from the Stones—the Jellyfuckers had responded best to oldies. Lang drums on one bucket while sitting on the other, and it sounds surprisingly good. Darnel’s even less of a singer than you, but at least he remembers the words and that’s all you can ask for in these circumstances. Weirdly, it’s actually nice to get a little music in, though you can’t lose yourself, can’t think back to that oven-like garage with Papá tapping his foot or the stage with Devil Squid melding into some greater angel that can sing and play three instruments at once, not when you’re smelling cat piss and sweatsocks instead of oil and dust. You finish up with Sympathy for the Devil—and you glance back at Darnel and Lang, but as usual, no one gets your fucking jokes—and then do another, even lower bow that makes your left foot cramp with the pain.

“This is not what I was told it would be,” the Jellyfucker screeches. It waves a tentacle and one of the doors opens… to reveal Khaki Guy. (He’s got a name, Darnel’s told you several times, and you just don’t give a shit. He’s always Khaki Guy with his smug Khaki Guy smile.)

Khaki Guy crosses his arms. “They’re just trying to get close to you so they can cause trouble.”

You cannot fucking believe it—except that you can. Especially with Khaki Guy looking down his nose at you. You can practically hear him thinking, I’m doing the right thing, this will keep us safe.

You make yourself shrug. “Don’t know what he thinks I’m going to do with a guitar other than play it.” This guitar that Lang built, which sounds shockingly good despite the primitive circumstances… and all of the modifications you had him add. You just have to hope no one can hear your stomach cramping. And that you can still pull this off, somehow. Because otherwise, you’re dead. All of you are dead, and the last thing you’re going to see is some flatfish in pleated khaki pants.

There’s a soft hum behind you: the gun platform. The hair on the back of your neck stands on end. You can hear Lang’s teeth chattering.

“The guitar isn’t what I’m worried about,” Khaki Guy says. “With your permission, Supreme Battle Commander?”

The Jellyfucker waves a tentacle languidly in response. And then you stand still as Khaki Guy pats you down, even checking your pants cuffs. Ignore the guitar, you whisper in your head. Ignore it.

He starts reaching for the guitar. You look him square in the eye and say loudly, “Oh, I get it. You just want it for yourself. We made this for the Supreme Battle Commander as a gift, and you just try to take everything.”

“Yeah,” Lang says, voice squeaking slightly. “Landon always tries to steal the good shit for himself. Takes credit for everything.”

Khaki Guy’s eyes narrow. He reaches out to grab the guitar and you tighten your grip. You think about headbutting him. But then the Jellyfucker screeches, and you’ve never thought such a horrible sound could be beautiful. “It is my trophy. Do not touch it.”

“But—” Khaki Guy starts.

“Shut the fuck up, Landon,” Lang hisses.

“Now,” the Jellyfucker demands. It’s impossible to read any kind of human emotion from its tone. Not that it sounding overtly smug would make things easier or harder; it’d just piss you off, and you’re already as pissed off as you’ve ever been in your life, continuously.

You shoulder Landon out of the way and come close, still crouched over, closer still, until the Jellyfucker reaches out for the guitar you hold outstretched. Then you reverse your grip on the neck, hit the button that Lang swore would work and you’ve tested a hundred times—it’s about 95%, but what can you do—and the acid you’ve been cooking up for weeks in salvaged glass jars and plastic tubing sprays out all over the Jellyfucker. It screams and steams and falls over writhing. You’d been hoping for an explosion, but it’s never that simple, even if the Jellyfucker seems to be immobilized for the moment. And maybe the lack of explosion is for the best, considering you’re standing right next to it.

“Watch out!” Darnel shouts. You hear the hum of the gun platforms and hit the ground as a spray of fire whirs over your head.

“What did you do?” Landon screams. He lunges at you, and Lang lunges at him, and there’s a sound like a bag of wet cement being dropped on concrete, and Landon staggers back. Lang gives him another shove, right into the gun platform. The guns cycle up, but it doesn’t fire—maybe Khaki Guy is in deep enough that the platforms don’t automatically shoot at him. That’s fine, he makes a great shield.

You drag yourself up to your feet, leaning on the guitar, and hit the second button, the one Lang came up with and you said sure to because you can laugh at his jokes at least. An ax blade springs out of the body of the guitar with a definitive, metallic WHUNK.

“Darnel!” You toss the guitar to him. He catches it, like he’s been practicing this move all his life, and swings the ax baseball-bat-style into the gun platform, sheering off barrels and burying the blade deep in the metal. Darnel swings the ax again, screaming with the effort, and the platform rains down onto the floor as parts. He turns toward you, eyes going wide, and shouts: “No! Don’t let it touch anything!”

You turn to see that yes, even though the Jellyfucker is writhing on the floor and gurgling in a way that sounds pleasantly like it’s about to fucking die, it is trying to reach for its throne.

“Marcy!” You have one second to react before Darnel tosses the ax back to you. You catch it, one foot skidding in acid and oozing fluids, fumble, and get a firm grip just before the blade can bury itself in your shin. No time for relief. You turn, too much adrenalin coursing through you to really feel the way your back is grinding, and bring the ax down straight through the Jellyfucker’s head.

Flesh flies. Clear, stinking blood spurts. And the Jellyfucker keeps moving, tentacles lashing everywhere, too coordinated to be just death throes. So you keep chopping. Sticky fluid sprays you. Chunks of floppy meat fly everywhere. Severed, twitching tentacles roll across the floor. And the Jellyfucker gives before your rapidly numbing hands and aching back do. It stops twitching.

Then there’s just the quiet plop, plop, plop of Jellyfucker blood dripping from the throne onto the floor. Lang staggers away from the worst of the mess and retches.

“Darnel,” you snap. He’s the most important one here. Without him, what you’ve done is just a gesture.

Darnel scrambles over the mess, his overly-worn combat boot soles squeaking on the goop. Then Khaki Guy shoves him aside. Darnel’s arms windmill as almost falls. “What the hell did you do?” Khaki Guy screams into your face.

You stare at him. You thought it would be pretty fucking obvious.

“No, no, no… you’ve ruined everything!” Khaki Guy looks wildly round. “They’re going to blame all of us. You stupid bitch, you killed us all!” Like a counterpoint, there’s loud banging on first one door, then another. And another. They’re locked, maybe. You have no faith in them holding.

For a minute, you think Khaki Guy is going to try to hit you, which would be unbelievably stupid on his part, considering you’re still holding an ax that drips with alien gore, and then he rushes to sit in the big Jellyfucker’s throne. “I’ll open the doors,” he mutters. “I’ll tell them you did it, and let them punish you, and—”

“Don’t you fucking—” Lang shouts hoarsely.

“Don’t—” Darnel starts as well, though he looks more scared than angry.

Khaki Guy stabs a finger down at a random pressure plate. And then he explodes. Just FWOOM, there one moment and crimson mist the next.

There’s silence, except for the dripping of even more blood, now layered with human red. You wipe your eyes to clear away this new coating. Amazingly, Lang seems too stunned to throw up again. “Now, Darnel,” you say. You can worry about having Khaki Guy’s guts in your hair later, when there aren’t Jellyfuckers trying to kick in the doors.

“Are you kidding?” Darnel says. “You saw what happened!”

“Don’t touch it yet. But look at it. Hurry!”

Darnel skids forward and catches himself on the throne, half-climbs onto it, and looks over the panel, lips moving as he sounds things out. “Okay, okay, I think—I got this.”

“Do you got this, or do you think you got this?” you shout at Darnel. You’re shouting not because you’re angry, but because it’s the only way he can hear you over the slamming sound of tentacles against the doors. You don’t have time for this.

“I got it! But you saw what happened to him.”

Fine. You’ll do it yourself. You’ve had a good life. “Then show me.”

“Wait!” Lang shouts. “It might be some—some like bio-lock thing!” His voice is raw, frantic. “Try using one of the pieces!”

You glance back to see Lang, a little vomit on his shirt, scoop up one of the flaccid tentacle bits and toss it to Darnel, who catches it. He glances at you, gives you this smile that seems to say, it’s been good, and then slaps it down on the pressure plate.

~

Countup:

Because highly unlikely coincidences happen with distressing regularity in an infinite universe, the beginning of the world is shepherded into existence by the same punk band that witnessed its end.

0: Nothing happens. Bass player Darnel Matisse slaps the severed tentacle onto the pressure plate again. Drummer Lang Stephens screams into his hands. And lead guitarist Marcy Ramos sinks slowly down onto the steps and pulls a squashed cigarette box out of her pocket. A single joint rattles around in its otherwise empty confines.

1: The banging on the door to the throne stops. There’s a sound that can only be described later as

FWOOM

Followed by

FWOOM

FWOOM

FWOOM

FWOOM
FWOOM

getting further and further away, and then a muffled pattering as one by one the aliens known to the Earthlings as “Jellyfuckers” explode. Unbeknownst to the surviving three-fourths of Devil Squid, the chain reaction continues far past their hearing range, rocketing around the globe at a speed only slightly slower than light.

2: Lang goes out into the bewildered camp to search out Frank MacKenna and his ham radio set and bring them back to the throne room. Marcy’s made it clear that she’s not moving. She and Darnel sit on the steps of Txiwal Crym Hyyul-et’s throne, not caring that his effluvia soaks into their ragged, dirt-stiff jeans, and lean against each other. Darnel cries quietly, and Marcy rubs his back in small circles.

3: Lang returns with Frank and armfuls of ham radio equipment in tow. Lang and Darnel take turns winding the crank as Frank makes call after call across the frequencies. It’s a hit-or-miss crapshoot of luck, who he finds out there on the airwaves. But every voice the band hears, thin and staticky with distance, is filled with wonder and a little fear, because the aliens have all exploded. What the hell is going on, over? Frank, bless him, can’t really give an answer because all Lang had yelled at him over and over as they raced toward the ship was, “Ding dong the Jellyfucker’s dead!”

4: Marcy, her back an endless spasm of agony that says she may never be able to stand again, lights that final filthy, ragged joint, the last weed that Cameron ever sold on this Earth, and lights it up. She inhales an Ave Maria and exhales a Padre Nuestro. And Darnel finally takes the microphone from Frank’s fumbling hands and says, “We killed the alien battle commander and used his ultimate weapon against his own people.” Great, the guy on the other end answers, who the fuck is we?

5: Darnel looks at Marcy and grins, like it’s old times, like he’s about to get her in a world of trouble. And he says: “Empress Marcy of the Anarcho-Socialist Republic of Earth. And she’s got a message for everyone, so listen up.”

Marcy exhales another long Gloria and grins like, you little fucker, I’ll get you for this. Because it’s a cosmic fucking joke, and there’s no one to stop her. The Jellyfuckers tore everything down, and now she—now the band tore them down in turn and the pieces are theirs to make of what they can. They’re the dogs who caught the car, but one thing she knows for sure—their teeth are made of sharpened steel guitar strings and starlight and iron will. So maybe she does have a message for any terrestrial assholes that remain, and any intergalactic ones that might be listening in as this signal starts its long march out into the void. Marcy takes the microphone and sings: “Nada cambia—hasta que lo hagamos cambiar.” She laughs, then relents and switches to something sort of equivalent in English—for Lang’s benefit, because Darnel’s eyes already shine like fire. “And the times, they are a-changing.”

___

Copyright 2019 Alex Acks

Alex Acks is a sharp-dressed geologist. They’ve written labor unions and space witches in Hunger Makes the Wolf (2017 Kitschies Golden Tentacle winner) and Blood Binds the Pack; and steampunk in Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures (2019 Colorado Book Award finalist) and Wireless and Other Steam-Powered Adventures.

The Etiquette of Mythique Fine Dining

by

Carolyn Rahaman

 

The protestors are the same crew as yesterday and the day before. Ava doesn’t know any of their names, of course. She doesn’t know what happened in their pasts to make them so energized about keeping people from eating the food at Mythique, so wound up with vengeance as to embarrass people every single morning as they walk to work. She knows them by face, by their outerwear that doesn’t change. The signs they hold don’t change day in and day out. There’s the “MAGICAL BLOOD DOESN’T WASH OFF” sign and the “THERE’S SO LITTLE MAGIC IN THE WORLD” sign held by a pair who Ava imagines are married and retired and have a couple cats. There’s the picture of the unicorn leg, which is supposed to be grisly, but Ava can’t get over the fine marbling of the meat. There’s the “MEAT IS MURDER” sign, which seems slightly off-message, but the other protestors don’t seem to mind.

They aren’t in full protest mode when Ava arrives. Their signs are lowered. Someone has brought two carriers of coffee, and they’re passing them around. Although they’ll shout at anyone who uses the front door, the protestors don’t start chanting until either Chef Augustine or Hampton, the general manager, arrive, and they disband shortly thereafter. Chef Augustine spends his early mornings at the fish and produce markets and won’t arrive for another hour or so. The protestors don’t dare bother the customers. They don’t seem to realize that there’s a back entrance that the rest of the chefs and the wait staff use. Maybe they don’t realize there’s more staff.

One of the protestors smiles at her and offers a mitten-clad wave. They see Ava every day, after all. They must think she works in the next building over.

She smiles back as she passes and turns into the alley. She’s not afraid of the protestors.

She won’t admit she’s afraid of the kitchen.

In the break room, she strips off her coat and closes her eyes for a series of deep breaths before tying on her apron. Once she knots it, she’ll be on. She’ll be a cog in a machine, a tool that follows orders and cooks and sweats and does not talk back and takes it and takes it, Yes, chef, because she’s learning, by God, one day she’ll learn. Once she knots her apron, she has to be stone, she has to be rock, because rocks don’t cry. Chefs don’t cry.

She pulls her apron tight. Knots it in front, in back, and folds the top over the strings.

She lifts her chin. She has to be stone.

~

At Ava’s interview, Chef Augustine asked her to make an omelet. She made it perfectly, deftly cracking and whisking eggs and milk in a glass bowl, whisk whisk whisk whisk. She slid butter around a pan and poured in the eggs before the butter pat finished melting. A couple quick nudges with a spatula, pulling the eggs towards center, forming little wrinkles through which runny yolks flowed. A sprinkle of salt, a line of cheese, a flip with the spatula, a twist of the pan, and the omelet flipped onto the plate. Her heart swelled at the sight of it fluffy, golden, and perfectly wrapped. Chef Augustine had nodded, taken a bite, and nodded again as he chewed with sharp, quick bites.

Still chewing, he said, “Good.” He swallowed. “You start tomorrow.”

“Yes, chef.”

He pointed a finger at her, tossing the plate back onto the counter. “You’re gonna hate it.”

“No, chef.”

“That’s the last time you get to say that.”

“Yes, chef.”

She didn’t hate it. She didn’t hate it. She didn’t hate it.

But that was a chicken egg omelet. That was before. Now she’s in a whole new world.

Dennis, the sous chef, organizes the unpacking of a delivery truck, laughing with one of the supplier guys as he signs off on a clipboard, and barking at the commis chefs as they heft bags of flour over their shoulders. Zach, the other greenhorn and only friend she has here, grabs her by the shoulders and herds her towards the truck as if he’s a sheepdog. “Today’s the day,” he says. He nods at a violently blue crate of eggs, as if she doesn’t know what he means. He lifts a foot onto the truck’s running board to balance the crate on his bent knee, bouncing the crate once in his grip.

“Let’s hope so,” Ava says, tugging forward a crate of olive oil.

They hand everything off to Jade, the garde manager, in a tizzy with a clipboard, moving back and forth, back and forth in the small space of the pantry, checking off a list and shifting crates a few inches to either side for reasons only fathomable to her. She has a pencil behind her ear and one in her hand.

Zach bounces on his toes. His T-shirt is as thin as it can possibly be and still qualify as a shirt.

“You ready?” he asks.

Ava rolls her shoulders. She doesn’t feel ready but says, “Always.”

Zach shouts, “Dennis!”

Dennis looks up from his clipboard and his discussion with the saucier, annoyed for a second, then waving Zach and Ava on and going back to his business.

Ava and Zach dig into the blue crate, not yet put away, and select three eggs each. Golden eggs from golden geese in Wisconsin, eggs that remind Ava of crafty Easter displays. Mythique doesn’t use chicken eggs, and Ava doesn’t use any magical ingredients at all until she can prove herself by making a golden omelet just as perfect as she can make with a chicken egg. Until they prove their worth, the new people, she and Zach, are stuck peeling potatoes and washing lettuce.

She’s been trying for two weeks. Zach’s been trying for three.

The burner flares. She cracks the eggs. At first glance, they’re normal, the yolks a deep orange, but as she whisks (always counter-clockwise or it would froth into messy, lacy bubbles) the bowl begins to glow, light blooming from the glass bowl. She whisks to a specific tempo, with a specific beat that stutters, trips on every fifth beat. She bounces to the rhythm, and strictly does not look at Zach, who is also bouncing but doing his stutter-step off-time with her. Golden flecks pop in the mixture, rising then whisked away, startling her every time into thinking she’s cracked some shell into it, but she doesn’t falter, whisk whisk whi-isk whisk whisk. It’s a light touch with the whisk, too hard and the golden sheen dulls. Butter in the pan, pour in the eggs, again in a counter-clockwise motion that feels wrong to her wrist. The eggs cook too fast, spitting and sizzling, tiny flecks of gold spewing up to singe her hands, the sight of which can be distracting. The spatula movements have to come faster, but gentler, rippling the eggs, counter-clockwise again, and she’s so close, she’s almost got it, it’s supposed to be runny, it’s fine, it’s fine. She grabs for the cheese and her hand smacks against the side of the bowl and wobbles and she panics, losing her cool for just a moment, but long enough. The omelet’s burnt before she spreads the line of cheese, and she flips it onto the plate too fast, trying to make it before the golden hue vanishes in one final sputter.

It comes unfolded, and–as if the egg molecules can’t exist in an imperfect state–they separate. The omelet reverts to a runny splat on a plate. There is no glowing.

Ava swears, wipes her hands on her apron. Five minutes in the kitchen and she’s already sweating.

A second later Zach groans. He claws fingers through his short hair and then covers his face as if he can hide from his shame. His omelet isn’t liquid, but it looks like burnt toast in an awkward trapezoid shape.

Dennis leans over Zach’s plate with a curve to his lip, then dumps the contents into the trash and tosses the plate back to the counter with a clatter. He makes a derisive, wet sound in the back of his throat at Ava’s attempt. She knows what is coming and he does not disappoint. “Where did you apprentice?”

“Savant, chef.”

He moves into her space, and she holds firm and does not scuttle backward no matter how much the back of her neck tinges. She has to be rock. She has to be stone.

“If I call the Savant right now, would Chef Triallis answer or would I get your best friend Chrissy?”

“Chef Triallis, chef.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, chef.”

“Because Chef Triallis wouldn’t put up with this shit. And that makes me think that the only explanation is that you lied on your resume. That you’re a fraud. Are you a fraud?”

“No, chef.”

He picks up the plate, pressing it right under her nose. “I wouldn’t ask the rats in the dumpster to eat this. Would you eat this?”

“No, chef.”

“You will if I tell you to,” he says. He presses closer. “Eat it.”

She won’t. She can’t. She won’t be humiliated.

She has to.

“Eat. It. This is what you’re offering me. Eat it.”

She doesn’t know how to eat it. They had a fork ready, shining on the counter in hopes that it would get used for at least one of their omelets. But the fork won’t work. A spatula might, but Dennis presses the plate in closer, and she realizes he wants her to lick it, like a dog, and she won’t, she won’t, she won’t, she doesn’t know how to not.

She grabs the plate, runs a finger through the orange splat, and presses the finger into her mouth. The flavor pops like sweet and sour sauce with a sparkling fizzle of an aftertaste like Champagne and the golden embers that flew up to burn her hands. It tastes perfect. It’s just the consistency that’s wrong. She closes her eyes and savors it, hiding in the moment.

Dennis tsks. “Clean that up. Get out of my sight.”

“Yes, chef.”

He stomps off and Ava lets herself slump.

Zach frowns after him. He has his arms crossed over his chest–to hug and comfort himself or to look bigger, it’s hard to tell. “He’s way harsher to you than to me.”

“You have a week on me,” she says, scraping her plate into the trash. The egg has developed a film over the top. “Congrats on your omelet. That’s three days in a row it’s held its shape.”

“Just doesn’t seem fair, is all.”

“Life’s not fair,” she says. “Come on. That parsley isn’t going to pluck itself.”

His posture changes, his smile coming back out like the moon from behind a cloud. “That would be something: magical parsley that prepares itself.”

“We’d be out of a job,” she jokes.

“We wouldn’t have to tell anyone.”

“And if it was magic parsley, we wouldn’t be allowed to work with it.”

“Again,” he says, “we don’t tell anyone. Secret magic parsley. And it’s not like we’d be touching it anyway, so it’s not breaking rules.”

“We’d just be hiding in the back and playing cards while it rips itself apart.”

He grins. “I see no problem with that.”

~

On Fridays and Saturdays, Mythique is solely table d’hôte, meaning there is one service of seven courses predetermined by Chef Augustine. They alternate between magical courses and those that are merely exquisite. The exquisite courses work as palate cleansers, or as an interlude during which customers can come down from their highs.

Ava has come to love these services since she gets to cook actual dishes eaten by real customers. It’s the only time when she’s treated like a full commis chef and not a kitchen porter. It’s a chance for her to show off, to prove to herself and the other kitchen staff that she’s competent. Honestly, it’s to herself mostly, because the rest of the chefs view the non-magical courses as a necessary evil, as a task well beneath their status. They’re not impressed with Ava’s work, but they’re glad they don’t have to do it, not that their relief or appreciation is voiced or enacted in any way.

Ava’s trying not to think about it too hard.

The rest of the kitchen loves these services because Chef Augustine will on occasion showcase one of the Chef de Partie’s creations. A few of these have made it onto the dinner al a carte menu: the kraken calamari with lemon aioli, the hazelnut-crusted salmon that brings wisdom, and the salt-fried ants that bring messages from the gods. Tonight, it’s the entemetier’s big night, with the debut of his pea flourish: Avignon thrive peas marinated in the pod for weeks, soaking in the flavor of four different sauces, and served as a single pea on a plate. The diner places the pea on their tongue, and it blooms in their mouth, a shoot, roots, sprout leaves. Flavors mature one after another against the tongue as the pea grows, as it fills your mouth. It stops growing when you bite the pea, and then you chew the best salad you’ve ever had already in your mouth–all with unimpeachable table manners. There’s something invigorating in the way you never see the pea’s growth, you only track its changing form with your senses of touch and taste. There’s something thrilling in the way it could choke you, and the most refined of their customers know to wait to bite the pea until the roots tickle the back of their throats in order to get the full effect, in order to catch that last little change in taste.

The junior chefs’ future signature dishes are a frequent topic of discussion. Evan’s had it stuck in his head that he can do four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie that will burst out when you pierce the crust, and the rest of the junior chefs debate the viability of the concept at least once a day. Ava fantasizes about the feathered design she’d mark into her own version of a four-and-twenty pie crust, perforating it so it would split open to look like a nest.

“My dish is going to be billdad,” Zach says. He’s assisting the saucier, whisking up a cream sauce for the first course scallops. He’s back to back with Ava, who squeezes blood oranges into a strainer at the patissier station.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“It’s like if you took a turkey and a kangaroo and smooshed them together. Powerful back legs. Kind of a gamey meat, I’ve heard.”

“You’ve heard? You want something you haven’t tasted to be your signature dish?”

“Ah! But that’s the thing: if you eat billdad, you turn into a billdad.”

She twists around in disbelief. “You want to turn all the diners into kangaroo-turkeys?”

“See, I bet if I paired it with some phoenix tears in like a full-bodied red wine, it’d counteract the effect. And people would be titillated. They get to eat something dangerous. It’ll be like fugu.”

Ava cuts another orange in half and squeezes both sides before speaking again. “Were all billdads, at one point, people?”

He doesn’t answer as he tosses the sauce in his pan, but she can feel his smirk through his back.

“That’s weird.”

He shrugs and nods over towards the pantry, where four people in elbow-length rubber gloves are coaxing basilisk venom from fangs as long as forearms into shot glasses filled with custard. In small doses, basilisk venom gives people visions. In large quantities, it gives people seizures and paralysis.

Zach has a valid point: weird is part of the job.

“What about you? What are you going to cook for me and change my life? What’s going to make Ava Mikhail famous?”

If she’s honest, a pomegranate sorbet has been percolating in the back of her mind. It’s been done, and pomegranate has fallen out of style lately, but there would be something lovely in its simplicity, in the lightness of the flavor. There’s something magical in a well-known dish served to perfection. The bursting tang of pomegranate is one of God’s gifts to Earth. The splash of red wakes her tongue, reminding her that it’s a good day to be alive.

She knows better than to say this aloud.

“Golden egg in the hole,” she says.

He laughs, “Oh, screw you.”

“If you ladies are done gossiping,” Mario, the saucier, shouts, “I’m thirty seconds out on these scallops.”

“Thirty seconds heard,” Zach sings.

Ava hands the strained blood orange juice to Christos, the patissier, who converts them faster than she can follow into a filling and spreads it across the freshly cut triangles of croissant dough that Ava’s prepared over the past few days using the only bag of regular old flour they have, which she found hiding under a shelving unit in the pantry. As he shifts to the candied topping that will sit on the venom shot to give it a nice crunch, Ava takes his place to shape the croissants, her fingers flaring to lengthen the legs. She proofs them, brushing on a golden egg wash, which she was allowed to make, since Christos is too busy to remember she shouldn’t.

At the butcher station, a small crowd has gathered as one Ibong Adarna after another is carved and transferred to the rotisseur. The bird is served for its healing qualities. It’s said to be particularly curative for old-rich-guy disorders, but whether that’s a quirk of the bird or a quirk of the people who tended to eat the bird is an easily solved mystery that no one cares to look into. It’s much more fun for the junior chefs to hypothesize. Tonight, it’s the fourth course, served roasted over a bed of gold leaves with lemon sauce.

“You are going to be so juicy,” the boucher coos, holding up a plucked bird for inspection, then laying it on the block and removing its head with a chop. “Yes, you are.”

A commis chef hums along at the newly severed head, “Look at the fat on you. Stunning. Oh, you’re gonna make good broth.”

“For an albatross and wild rice soup maybe. Nice and subtle,” says another, touching the Ibong Adarna’s head the way he’d take a child’s face by the chin and bending to look into its eyes.

Ava catches the eye of the garde manager, Jade, who is preparing the gold leaf salad on the other side of their shared counter. Ava rolls her eyes with a smile. Why don’t they just make out with the bird and get it over with? But Jade doesn’t return the smile. Instead, she stares blankly at Ava for a moment. Then sneers, “What?”

Ava realizes there’s no shared joke. “Nothing. Just—”

“Just you think because we both have ovaries, I’m your new BFF?”

“What? No.”

“That’s ‘No, chef.'”

There’s something blocking Ava’s throat, as if she’s swallowed one of the magic peas by mistake. “No, chef.”

“Good. Unlike, some people I could name, I don’t talk to fresh meat. Get back to work.”

“Yes, chef.”

Jade goes back to her rapid prep, ignoring Ava completely, and Ava ducks her head back to her work. She has to be stone, she reminds herself. She isn’t here to make friends. What does she care if people don’t like her? She’s here to do a job. She sets the pastries aside to rise just as the scallop first course goes out, a stream of wait staff gliding from the counter out into the dining room.

Ava has point for the third course: impeccable French onion soup with crusty baguette due out of the oven halfway through the second course, made again with the bag of boring old flour that might be Ava’s actual new BFF. She’ll serve the soup with pear and apple slices simmered in brown sugar as a sweet dipping option for the bread, and sundried tomatoes with salty anchovies and capers as a savory option. Her mouth waters and her cheeks flush just thinking about it. She checks the soup before sliding over to the sauté station to start the apples and pears caramelizing on two burners, simmering the anchovies on two more. Mario checks over her shoulder, gives one of the pans a flip, and nods before shifting back to his bigger project of the lemon sauce for the Ibong Adarna. When the venom shots go out, he sets his lemon sauce to simmer and takes over the anchovies, tossing in strips of sundried tomato mumbling, “Pick it up, Ava. Pick it up.”

She doesn’t think she’s being particularly slow, but she tests a pear with a fork and, finding it tender and oozing juice, and she starts plating the fruit into square dip bowls. Mario appears next to her half way through, spooning the savory option into matching bowls. “Pick it up,” he says, more urgently than before. He’s finished before she is, although her pears are much neater.

“Ava! Oven!” Christos shouts, and she’s slicing baguette, which is whisked away even as she slices. She turns to ladle the soup, but it’s already being done, and she follows behind, placing baguette into the soup bowls and grating cheese over the top.

“Let’s go, people!”

Ava’s cheeks burn from the heat of the burners and the dawning realization that she’s late. Late, late, late, moving as quickly as she can even as Zach swoops in and takes the bread from her, dropping pieces into place, bam bam bam. The wait staff is already lined up at the pass, the plates set with two square dipping bowls each and a gaping space where the soup should go. Dennis grabs bowls out from under her, then grabs the cheese block from her hand, chops in in half and hands it back, moving down the row of soup bowls and grating along with her, faster than her. The soups are not getting enough cheese.

“Ava! Now!” Augustine. His face is as red as hers.

She gasps, “Ten seconds, chef!” and grates as quickly as she can without shredding herself, without serrating the cheese edges, without the long slivers breaking into a short mess, trying to go faster, faster, steady, faster.

“Now!”

“There!” She jumps back as the last bowl is swept out from under her and delivered to the counter for plating. Augustine, Dennis, and Jade swarm the counter, wiping spilled soup from the sides of bowls, the edges of plates fast, fast, fast, steady, fast. Jade gets in Dennis’s way, colliding an elbow with a hip, and they explode in swears, and Chef Augustine barks at both of them and sweeps in to wipe away the mess they made. “If we’d had these bowls two minutes ago…” “…Dicking around…” “…can’t hack it in a real kitchen.” The wait staff is already leaving, the finished plates already entering the dining room, even as Dennis and Augustine plate the last few. Dennis steps back, lifting both hands in the air as the last plate is shifted onto a tray and the last server leaves only two steps out of place.

Ava presses her hands to her hot cheeks. Embarrassment tastes bitter on her tongue.

The second the door to the front of the house stops swinging, Chef Augustine rounds on her. “The hell was that?”

“I was too slow, chef.”

“Damn right you were too slow. The cheese only melts if it’s hot. It’s not hot if you let it sit. It cools, Ava. It’s useless.”

“Yes, chef.”

“You nearly ruined a whole course.”

“I’m sorry, chef.”

“Where do you think you are right now? Does this look like some leisurely lunch in a Tuscan olive orchard? Is everyone here siting around a table, watching you cut a baguette in slow motion. Are you hallucinating right now? Does this look like an olive grove to you?”

“No, chef.”

“Where are you?”

“Your kitchen, chef.”

My kitchen, and no one here is drinking and enjoying witty conversation while you plate like a little priss. Who’s the only person here that gets to plate like a little priss?”

“You, chef.”

“Me. And when the saucier says to pick it up, you pick it up.”

As she says, “Yes, chef,” Zach says, “She just wanted it to be perfect.”

There isn’t enough air in the room. Chef Augustine’s anger narrows along with his eyes and lips. It focuses. He turns with painful slowness towards Zach, and says in a deadly quiet voice, “Excuse me?”

Every single chef stills, poised for fight or flight, waiting for the land mine Zach just stepped on to erupt, not daring to breathe the air that tastes so strongly of smoke. Every single chef but Zach, who is too big an idiot to read the room. “She was being careful. She’s trying her best to make everything she does perfect.”

Ava may be having an aneurysm, because this is surely what it feels like when a blood vessel pops in your brain.

“Was I talking to you?” Augustine says.

Zach looks befuddled, like he’s genuinely confused to hear he wasn’t part of this conversation, like he only just realized that Augustine is ticked.

“Let me make this real clear,” Augustine says, his voice still too quiet and too measured, “since it seems no one has told you this simple, basic fact. You too,” he points at Ava without looking away from Zach, “and any of you other screw-ups who may not realize how food works. If the food is not all ready at the same time, it is not perfect. One part is cold. One part is hot. The cheese doesn’t melt. They don’t go together. If you’re taking too long, worrying about not being perfect, you’re not just an idiot, but a coward. You hear that?” He swerved to face Ava again. “A coward too afraid to cook in the big leagues. A coward who lets other people fight her battles.”

She opens her mouth to argue, to say she never wanted Zach to butt in. She never asked for that. She doesn’t want his help. She doesn’t need his help. But a sharp look from Augustine reminds her not to talk back, not to defend herself.

Her mouth snaps closed, reopening to say, “Yes, chef.”

Chef Augustine shouts to the kitchen, “Four more courses! Get back to work!” And life jerks into motion again.

She ducks her head to hide her face as she pulls down the croissants to proof them a second time. Christos doesn’t make eye contact. Somewhere off to the side, she can hear Jade snort.

She can’t defend herself, and no one can stand up for her.

~

Ava strips off her white coat and is twenty degrees cooler, the air against her bare arms shocking and almost unpleasant. She slumps against her locker in the break room and wipes her face with a towel. Her hair is a mass of flyaway stands, all sticking out from her flushed face, and the sweat against her scalp doesn’t even help to slick them back. She’s a disaster. A disaster that screwed up French onion soup and can’t make an omelet.

She’s debating taking a long hot bath with a hard cider balanced on the tub rim against plopping straight into her bed without taking off her shoes. It’s after midnight and her arms are sore, she’s asleep on her feet, and she’s so punchy she feels drunk.

So, of course, Zach picks that moment to make his entrance. He opens the locker next to her, sighing a few times more than necessary.

When she doesn’t speak or even open her eyes, he takes the plunge. “If they’d been helping with the soup course instead of focusing so much on the Ibong Adrna, it would have gone fine. No one should expect you to get that full course ready by yourself. I should have stepped up and helped out sooner.”

Ava’s felt a whole slew of emotions in this kitchen. Embarrassment. Disappointment. Fear. Anxiety. But never before has she felt rage. It’s a rage that spikes and flashes and suddenly she’s yelling. “I don’t need your help! I don’t need anyone’s help. I can plate a damn soup course. Back off.”

His eyes get all sympathetic, which just fans the rage. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did your best.”

“You really think that’s my best? That’s my peak? That? That’s who you think I am and what I can do?”

“What—”

“Screw you and your infantilizing bullshit. I’m sick of it. I don’t need you protecting me or standing up for me or fighting my battles. I’m a grown woman, and I’m a professional chef in a professional kitchen, so Back. Off.”

He stares at her, his mouth hanging limp. He looks so injured, so betrayed that she would say something harsh, that she possesses sharp edges that it makes her want to punch him.

“Do you not get what it looks like when you pull stunts like that?” she says.

“When I pull stunts?”

“Yes. You. You are at fault here.”

“Chef Augustine’s the one that got in your face. He and Dennis are the ones who are supposed to manage the work load.”

“I messed up, Zach. That happens. I deserved to get chewed out, because I messed up. I don’t deserve you treating me like a baby in front of everybody. That makes me look weak, like I’m waiting for some white knight to come rescue me. It’s hard enough in there without looking any weaker than I already look.”

“I don’t think you look weak,” he says.

She takes a breath, the tiredness crashing over her. “I’m a woman,” she says. “That doesn’t make me weak, but it sure as hell makes those people see me that way.”

She grabs her coat and bag from her locker and stomps out, leaving him standing, speechless, slumped, and alone.

~

In the fresh light of the next day, after a sleep and a cool down, Ava picks up a bag of Swedish fish as an apology. Zach has an unnatural love for Swedish fish. She gets into work to find him waiting for her with his head ducked like a bashful puppy, and a cheese Danish in a paper bag for her. They laugh and trade peace offerings, slipping into the alley and ducking their heads together to whisper and snack before the deliveries start rolling in.

“I thought about it, and you’re right,” he says. “It wasn’t my place. It’s just…” His eyes dart around. “It feels like there are traps everywhere around here. Everything’s a test of my cooking or of my character, and the character tests are like the opposite of everything my mama taught me.”  He twists the Swedish Fish bag closed with a loud crinkle.  He twists and twists to the point where he’s squeezing the candy into a mass.  “With failing at the cooking too…it’s impossible not to fall into those traps.”

“I know what you mean,” she murmurs. “And I was wrong, too. You’re right, anywhere but here, standing up for me would have been a nice thing.”

He nods with enthusiasm and leans in closer. “I get that they’re trying to make us better chefs, and we need to toughen up–I mean, I need to toughen up. You’re tough already.”

She shoves him with her shoulder.

“But sometimes I wonder if what I’m turning into is something I really want to be. You know?”

“Secrets, secrets are no fun,” Mario sings. They jump up when they see him coming down the alley. “Gossiping about cute boys?” He snatches Zach’s Swedish fish away and dumps a pile into his palm. “It’s me, right?” He winks at Zach and shoves the handful into his mouth, grinning through reddened teeth. Zach makes a swipe for his candy, but Mario holds it out of reach like a bully on a playground, then tosses it back so Zach nearly fumbles it, and heads inside laughing.

They both take a moment to stare at the door, both thinking the same thing: this is where I work.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Ava reminds him, reminding herself out loud. Remember the smells, she reminds herself. Remember the way people roll their eyes into the back of their heads after their first glorious bites. Remember the love.

Remember the love.

A delivery truck rolls up and they don’t speak of it again.

On a Tuesday morning a week later, Ava makes a perfect golden omelet. Something clicks, and her every move is assured, controlled, her muscles relaxed and her hands deft, and she knows she has it before she plates. She’s got this. She gets this. She’s leveled up, and she can do anything.

Dennis tilts the plate back and forth, assessing the golden sparkles that catch in the light. For the first time in all the days she and Zach have had the fork sitting ready, Dennis reaches for it, cuts off a piece, inspects the fluffiness, the consistency, then pops the bite in his mouth and chews, eyes on the plate. He nods once. “Good,” he says, and Ava punches a fist in the air.

Zach shrieks and grabs her around the waist, lifting her in the air and spinning her around, shouting, “You did it! You did it! You did it!” She can’t help but laugh.

“Jesus Christ, did that noise come from you?” Jade sneers. “Grow a pair.”

There’s a round of imitating squawks, like rowdy penguins. A few of the junior chefs do little twirls, their arms held out to their sides. To Ava, their display is entertaining in how much they don’t realize they should be embarrassed, and she peeks over at Zach in hopes they can both snicker about it. Instead, she finds that Zach doesn’t agree. He’s rubbing the back of his ducked head, shifting uncomfortably.

As they disperse, Mario looks Zach up and down, reassessing. He pointedly turns toward Zach’s burnt omelet, then back to Zach. “Huh,” he says. A hum of agreement comes from the group.

Zach’s ears turn red when he’s emotional, something the rest of the group picked up on only a touch slower than Ava.

Her joy fades. She isn’t going to let everyone ruin her moment. She isn’t.

Christos, the Greek patissier with fingers that seem too thick to do the delicate work she’s seen him do, slaps a hand on her shoulder and steers her toward the pastry station. “Congrats,” he says. “Now the real hell starts.”

Zach makes his perfect omelet the next day. Ava rushes in for a high-five, but he shakes his head in a subtle motion and avoids eye contact. He heads off to the rotisseur station without any fanfare. It dawns on Ava that his victory over the omelet is null and void. He got beat by a girl.

~

The learning curve at the patissier station hits Ava like a wall. They use golden eggs in everything, and while she can now whisk them up and make an omelet in her sleep, she has to learn brand new procedures for quiche and cookie dough and cake batter. The bronze wheat flour, the amaranth flour, the almond flour, and the rye touched by a Roggenmuhme all interact with the eggs in unintuitive ways. The ritual of removing flour from its bag involves opening the bags as quietly as possible and singing specific songs or reciting specific prayers or ringing certain bells as you scoop and measure and pour into mixing bowls. The kitchen has sets of gold, onyx, and porcelain measuring cups and spoons, and memorizing which ingredient can touch which measuring spoon has Ava’s head spinning. Every time she thinks she finds a pattern, an exception pops up and flour explodes into a puff of black ash into her face. The cooking times are determined by smell rather than sight or pesky digital timers, and Christos tells her the bread is almost done when it smells like burnt plastic and then suddenly turns over and smells like garlic and honey and he has it out of the oven before it starts to smell like strawberries, which means it’s ruined. The kneading of dough involves elaborate dances of protective charms done with snapping fingers and twitching crosses drawn in the air with pinkies while her hands are already filled with a rolling pin. She has to roll some doughs with bottles of two-hundred-year-old honey mead, which Christos then splashes over the pastry in a way that stops Ava’s heart every time.

It’s such that she has to ask Christos to check her before she uses any tool at all, and it’s wearing on both their patience. Christos doesn’t already have a commis chef working under him, because he keeps dismissing them, sending them to the pantry or the entremetier when he decides they can’t hack it in magical pastries. The amount of time he gives his potential assistants varies from a couple months to a couple days, and Ava feels the pressure to perform building inside her with each hour she continues to be dead weight. Without additional help, Christos covers the patissier station mostly alone, and with the added burden of teaching her, their situation lumbers along at an ever more frantic pace.

At first, she tries to make notes, but there’s just not enough time for that and at the end of the day, she finds the pages of her notebook appallingly incomplete with words cut off halfway through when she was called away and large spaces left blank for her to fill in later, but once she has time, once she’s collapsed at her kitchen table at night to study, she has no memory of what she’d meant to write, and just stares at the notebook, straining her brain to remember twenty seconds of instructions snapped somewhere in her twelve-hour shift somewhere between the white lightning cake batter and the crust for the salamander pot pie.

“You’re a pastry chef,” Christos tells her, in what comes so close to a pep talk that she almost cries with gratitude. “It’s hard.”

The only thing that saves her is that pastry involves so much prep work that she’s not constantly rushing to make dishes as orders come in during service and screwing up in real time like everyone else. Like Zach. Her schedule changes so she comes in before the protesters gather, before the sun breaks through the front windows, and she and Christos bake bread and croissants and rolls and crusts and English muffins and cupcakes and ice cream and icing and fondant and chocolate sauce and candies and truffles and spun-sugar accent pieces. They prep, and when an order comes in during service, all she has to do is pause what she’s prepping (because even during services she’s constantly prepping for the next day, for the day after), slice a piece of cake or fry up some dough real fast, throw hot fudge over it, send it out, wash her hands, and go back to her prep work. The bread they make is handed over to the pantry so other chefs can use it for sandwiches at lunch service and they never have to look at it again.

“One roast beef sandwich, one baked salmon, two soup du jours,” Chef Augustine calls from the pass.

“One roast beef heard.”

“One baked salmon heard.”

“Two soup du jours heard.”

It’s Friday lunch service and Ava’s working on the leviathan milk cake, the seventh course of that night’s table d’hôte. Christos made the cake, a serpentine log like a cinnamon roll of white cake that melts in your mouth, swirled with blue leviathan milk that makes those who eat it fearless for about twelve hours. He’s left the decorating to her, as it’s easily inside her current skill set and he has phyllo dough to make because she botched her last attempt. She pulls out fondant that she made earlier, covers the cake, which is about three feet long and takes up a big swath of their counter space, trims, and on another sheet of fondant airbrushes color and machines out scale shapes with a cookie cutter that Christos made himself. Place the scales overlapping on the cake, never losing her rhythm, chick chick chick chick, another sheet of fondant, airbrush color, cut out scales, place, repeat. She can imagine a YouTube video of herself doing this, a camera set over her head and then the video sped up to super-speed as four rows of scales appear, then a pause, then four more rows, then another pause. When the repetitive motion starts to cramp her hands, she pulls out the world’s tiniest paintbrush and dabs shadows, details onto the scales she’s put down. She gives herself three minutes to do that, before she forces herself back, another sheet of fondant, chick chick chick chick.

“How far out on the ants?”

“Two out on ants.”

“Two soup du jours on deck.”

“One vanilla ice cream, one brownie.”

“One vanilla ice cream, one brownie heard,” Ava calls. Christos is still working the phyllo dough and doesn’t lose his rhythm. She sets down her airbrush and grabs a devil’s brownie from its tray on a cooling shelf. The servers tell all the customers when the brownies come fresh out of the oven, so they never last long. She moves to the freezer, scoops vanilla prickly pear ice cream. Chocolate sauce, vanilla bean decoration, and they’re ready to go. “Ice cream and brownie up.” She washes her hands and gets back to her leviathan.

“Man, Ava,” one of the commis from the roast station calls, “it must be nice to not have a real job.”

Half the kitchen hoots. Ava ignores them. Chick chick chick chick.

The offender is slicing roast sun cow slices for a sandwich, which will use bread Ava more or less successfully made this morning more or less on her own.

“Naw, dude, it looks good,” another guy says. “Ignore them, Ava. Hey! You know how I’ve got this Dodge B-series van. You think you could paint a mural on the side of it for me?”

More hoots, and the guys pick that one up and carry it.

“Like a T-rex fighting a wizard.”

“And some spiraling galaxies in the background.”

“And a sexy minotaur.”

“Whoa! Whaaat?”

“What? Minotaur ladies can be sexy!”

They fall upon each other and thankfully move on from Ava.

The guys all act like beautiful plating is superfluous to the manly art of butchering magical animal meats and getting stoned on deadly venoms, like their delicate, pink bites of veal on beds of finely sliced poached pears are the manliest things ever to be invented. They act like the customers couldn’t get leviathan milk off the street for twenty dollars a hit, and they ignore that the customers come here and spend $30 on dessert instead. They come for the safety and cultural endorsement in which consuming it is wrapped, for the elitism of not having to call it a “hit.”

“Hey, Ava,” one of the guys calls, unfortunately bringing things back around to her. “Since you’re not doing anything, could you find me a left-handed spatula?”

She flips him off over her shoulder.

“Hey, hey. What do you call a cake decorator without parents?”

“Homeless.”

Ava’s rhythm stutters. That punchline was provided by none other than Zach.

She’s cold inside the oven of her white jacket, disloyalty jolting her system.

Christos appears at her elbow with impeccable timing, pressing a cold bowl of baklava filling covered in saran wrap into her hands. “Fill these.” He takes over the leviathan scales.

No one mocks Christos for his profession.

As she spreads baklava filling over phyllo dough, she peeks over her shoulder to where Zach jumps back from a flare from a burner, barely keeping hold of the pan in his hand. The rotisseur calls him a sissy and snatches it from him, pulling the salmon from the pan. Zach has already moved on to rotate a unicorn leg on a spit, and without something immediate that needs doing, he looks up to catch Ava watching him in disapproval. Ava curses herself. She wishes he hadn’t seen her.

He checks that the rotisseur is busy but not too busy and sneaks over. She wishes he wouldn’t.

“Hey,” he says.

“Go back to work,” she says, spreading crushed nuts and Manuka honey. They’re both going to get in trouble when Mario notices him away from his station: him for wandering off, her for distracting him or luring him away or something.

He takes a breath, maybe to apologize, but the way she’s ignoring him keeps him quiet.

Instead, he says, “You need to lay it on thicker than that,” and takes the filling from her hands, spreading a thicker layer. He grins at her, like this is a peace offering.

It is so far from a peace offering. She stares at him, unable to control what her face is doing. This is her station. She’s the assistant pastry chef. She knows what she’s doing, and while, yeah, in a typical baklava you’d want it thicker to get the flavor, here the strong honey will overwhelm it and the phyllo dough won’t cook. Where the hell does he get off telling her how to do her job? They’re the same freaking level.

Christos makes a noise that will require he wash his hands afterward. “Get away from my baklava, idiot.” He scrapes off the layer of filling.

Zach doesn’t care. He slaps her shoulder and heads back to the unicorn, where he snatches a brush and a jar of marinade from another assistant who wasn’t laying it on thick enough and does it himself.

“Idiots,” Christos repeats. “Marinating in their own stupidity.”

And that’s what Zach’s doing: marinating in it.

~

She ties on her apron one morning and realizes that two months have passed and she’s still at the pastry station. She scoops amaranth flour with the porcelain measuring cup without checking and hums the bronze wheat’s favorite song without worrying herself into a sweat over it. She stirs the dough for rye bread clockwise and devil’s brownies batter in a seven-pointed star. Christos mentions that he likes her sourdough better than his own, and then tells her to stop smiling.

It’s hard to tell how Zach is faring. Like everyone, he shivers when he comes into the break room and takes off his coat, air conditioned as it is and dressed as they all are for the heat of the kitchen, which only increases when they put on their white coats at service. They are as scantily clad as they can get away with without violating health codes. Zach has a full-body shudder every single morning that he covers with over-exaggeration: bouncing on his toes and flapping his arms and motor-boating his lips. He covers discomfort with jokes and enthusiasm.

It carries into the kitchen with his constant talk about the billdad, which has only grown worse when Chef Augustine caught wind of it and interrogated him about every nitty-gritty aspect of his vision. Should they smoke the meat? Should they marinate it in the antidote or have it be the customer’s responsibility to drink with every bite? Then he announced that they would do a test run of the antidote wine.

Then he announced that they would cook a billdad.

Not for the Friday night diner, but for themselves. A proof of concept. None of them have tried it before, and he doesn’t care how hot an idea it is, if it ends up tasting like budget deer meat, he isn’t serving it.

Zach and Ava and everyone peer over Chef Augustine’s shoulders as he cuts open the Styrofoam cooler from the truck and lifts the lid. The billdad hasn’t been plucked, but its plumage has been folded and crammed into the cooler. It’s surrounded by bags of dry ice and its oversized back legs rear up well over its back, folded in on itself to fit. Zach tsks and reaches in to gently unpack it. After some careful extensions of its neck, some checks of the meat and malleability, the beast is stretched out on the counter like a Thanksgiving turkey with neck too long and legs too big. Its plumage is dull and drab, brown with only a hint of red. Zach and Augustine run their hands over it again and again, smoothing feathers, rearranging. “Nothing to be done for the plumage,” Zach says.

Some turkeys have layers on layers of beautiful, iridescent plumage, which you wouldn’t know from construction paper hand-turkeys made in elementary school, or the images of the emancipated and the force-fed turkeys that come out of turkey farms. Free-range birds are glorious and terrifying, and pictures Ava has seen of billdads in the wild attest to this.

Chef Augustine agrees, “We’ll need a better supplier,” and then slaps Zach on the back and leaves him to the plucking.

Ava leaves him to it as well. With him working on that, she and the other junior chefs have to take on some of his prep work, and she doesn’t want to think about billdad suppliers. She imagines billdad farms that bred them in their billdad form, which she’s not sure is possible. She imagines sinister men offering “turkey burgers” to homeless people, to kids in group homes, to guys in jail, to people in retirement homes. She thinks about who this billdad used to be, how they came to be this way, if they chose it or if it was chosen for them, if their family knows what happened to them. She thinks of the protesters outside and their reaction to the creature lying on the counter. She shivers and starts making bread, bread made with bronze wheat that when it rests on your tongue, you–and only you–can hear angels singing. Ava’s always heard it more like a damp finger circling the rim of a wine glass, but maybe that’s what angels sound like, and maybe everyone hears something slightly different and the experience is not only life-changing but personal.

She thinks about how all her favorite magical foods are vegetarian. Bronze wheat. Honeysuckle nectar. Fire honey. Pomegranates.

Zach finishes plucking the billdad after the action in the kitchen has reached cruising altitude. Another group clumps around him as he turns to butchering. He has the idea to just cook the legs. They’re the meatiest part and the real draw of the creature, since the wings are small and the breast uninspiring. But there’s a push to use every piece of it, and although Ava knows deep down is fueled by respect for the life given so they could have this meat, the push is voiced in terms of occupational integrity and pragmatism. “It’s expensive. You’re not throwing out half the bird.” “Use the breast in billdad Kiev?” “Use the giblets in a gravy?” “At least freeze the head and neck for broth.” “One whole bird could work for a tasting menu. Everyone should only eat one bite anyway. Don’t trust people to eat a whole leg. They’ll get complacent halfway through.” “So what? Some people get dark meat and some get light?” “Sure. Individualized!” “Consistency!”

With the bird carved, Zach turns to the antidote wine. He mixes up a glass, a concoction of Merlot, phoenix tears, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and orange zest, but he stirs “like a lady making a daiquiri,” and the roast master takes over with his unsung mixology skills. He practically struts as he mixes, puffing out his chest like he’s flexing his muscles on a beach rather than peacocking for his coworkers. They pull a dragon crest sauce from the fridge, pull back the plastic wrap. Zach eats a spoonful and then chokes down a swig of wine through his coughing that he tries to keep locked in his mouth with his lips pressed together, but the coughs slip out in billowing clouds of smoke and spluttered wine. After the first sip, he starts chugging it as if it will quench his fiery belches, and five people shout at him to cut it out. He sets down the glass, twists his face like he’s sucked a lemon, and shudders. He opens his mouth to another round of fireworks, and the mixing duties are taken from the roast master and given over to Dennis, who’s unusually friendly today. They’re like sharks in the water, gleeful for spectacle and violence. They claim to be there to help Zach succeed, but it feels like they’re there to watch him fail, ready to kick him to the curb if he turns into a bird or catch him and embrace him for days and days of more trials.

Dennis’s batch dulls the flames from Zach’s mouth, and one whole side of the kitchen applauds. There are much less explosive magical ingredients they could have used for a test.

Maybe it’s her own tension she feels, but Christos seems to get more and more agitated as the day goes on. They do their work in silence, barely looking up at the showboating distraction on the other side of the kitchen, barely speaking to anyone as no one bothers to speak to them.

She juices some light lemons and fog mint, some pomegranates and black apples for the juices. Christos makes devil’s brownies. She makes fondant and pre-makes candy wings and stars. She fills piping bags with chocolate sauce laced with moon dust and preps pastry dough. She mixes up batter for cookies with honey and silk strings and catches Christos watching her.

When she pauses, he nods and goes back to his candied blood oranges. “Someday I’m going to open a bakery.”

He says it so quietly that at first she’s not sure she heard him right. Then the group behind them explodes again. The billdad is on the grill.

No one seems to be working, watching Zach watch the bird. There was excitement and distraction when the entremetier first tried his peas, an excitement that kept going each time they were brought back out for a new test, but that was nothing. It’s like they’re all eager to watch Zach put his life in danger, ready to watch him become a kangaroo before their eyes.

Ava whips up meringue, taking her frustration out on the poor egg mixture, which collapses, reverting back into golden egg goop. Thankfully no one is watching but Christos, who says nothing and takes the bowl from her after she’s cleaned up her mess. He hands her a saucepan of heated caramel for the decorative cages he’s been making and does the meringue himself. The acceptance of emotion is not lost on her, and she sets to drizzling the caramel with exceptional care.

When the billdad is ready, Ava’s work stops as if a force has halted her hands for her. She’s frozen, watching the plating. She lifts her eyes to watch Zach’s face, the way the sweat has run from his temples, the glitter of his eyes like he’s got the best quip ready to go and it’s going to make her spit her drink across the table at family meal, the way his T-shirt rides up his human arms. She can’t watch. She can’t look away. Everyone is frozen or chanting, “Zach! Zach! Zach! Zach!”

She lowers her saucepan. She can’t watch this. She has to leave. She has to throw up.

Christos grabs both her arms, holds her there. Her heart is beating too hard to tell if the hold is restraining or grounding. “You want to be a chef?” he says, right next to her ear. “Then you stay, and you watch.” He shakes her, and she sucks in a breath for the first time in minutes. “Watch.”

The billdad is arranged, and the plate’s turned a quarter turn for effect.

“This is what you’re in for. This is what it’s like. It’s not going to get better.”

Chef Augustine nods.

“You can break now, but then you’re through.”

And he was right. This is what it’s like, what it will be like. If she can’t bear it another second, if she can’t fathom a life of this, day after day after day until she dies or quits or pushes her way through to some safe and friendly place more mythical than the food they serve, then she can walk away. And if she walks away, she’ll give up on a dream.

She has to be stone.

Zach picks up a fork and knife. Grinning, he cuts off a bite, checks the color, wipes it through the sauce, and pops it in his mouth.

Ava becomes stone. Zach becomes a monster.

 

____

Copyright 2019 Carolyn Rahaman

Carolyn Rahaman writes and produces the Twenty Percent True Podcast: short stories about modern monsters and hosts NaNo-It-All: a podcast about National Novel Writing Month.  She’s working on a novel about a cursed magician, live oaks, and breakfast tacos.  You can find her online at twentypercenttrue.blogspot.com and on Twitter at @CaryAndTheHits.

Touchstone

by

Mette Ivie Harrison

 

I remember when Jessie Martin came down the mountain. She was two years younger than me, only twelve. But she’d been called by the touchstone. Her whole life was set out for her now, one long straight line.

And mine was still spinning around in tight, little circles.

Mama handed me the plates to pass around the table. Jessie’s whole family was there at the restaurant, her older sister Erica, her mama, her daddy, her aunts and uncles, her grandma and grandpa.

“What was it like?” I whispered to her. I always liked to hear about other people’s touchstone days. Since I hadn’t been called, it was my only way to share the feeling.

Even if I couldn’t really share it at all.

Jessie looked crossways at me. “What was what like?” she asked.

“When it called to you—what did it sound like?”

She shrugged, as if she couldn’t explain it.

But I was persistent. “Mama said it’s like a bell,” I said. If I knew what it sounded like, exactly, then maybe I could make it come.

“Yes,” said Jessie, biting her lip. “It was like that.”

I pushed. “But Mr. Johnson said it’s like thunder.” And there were other descriptions, too. A distant voice, the call of wolves, a trumpet, a trembling, a screech. It had to be all those things at once, but how? How?

“I heard it,” Jessie said. “Why does it matter what it was like? It was like its own thing, like nothing else.” She looked as though she were daring me to call her wrong.

Me? I didn’t know anything about the touchstone except what I’d heard. And she’d just been to it. Which was why I had to get everything she remembered right now, before it faded away.

“And then what happened?” I demanded. “After you heard the call?”

Jessie sighed. “I got out of bed and went up the mountain,” she said, as if she’d already said this a hundred times that day.

She probably had. But not to me.

“Was it cold?” Everyone knew you had to go right when it called you, day or night. No wasting time getting dressed for the day or bringing water or food for the journey. It took hours, but I’d never heard anyone complain.

“Not so cold,” said Jessie.

“Were you hot with worry? Sweating? Stumbling? Or sure?” I asked.

“I was sure,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be sure?”

Right. Why wouldn’t she?

“What did the touchstone look like?”

Jessie took a breath for a moment and I thought that maybe she’d just say a word or two, a quick answer like before. But for the first time, she really thought about it. And when she answered, her voice was hushed and almost afraid.

“There were thorn bushes all around it that I had to push through, and it was lying on its side, not standing up like I thought. It didn’t gleam in the sun like the river. Not to me. It was dark and grim—like Papa when he wants something fierce.” She was trembling across her lips, and biting them to keep from showing.

I looked over to Mr. Martin, with his strong, thick arms, and paunch around the middle. He looked happy as a bear in blueberries. But tight, too. You didn’t cross Mr. Martin if you were careful, that was certain.

“And?” I asked Jessie.

“I put my hand out to touch it.”

“So then you knew?” I asked her, the same way I asked everyone.

But Jessie looked up at me, startled, like she hadn’t realized she was back here already, from her journey up the mountain.

“What?”

“So then you knew what you were going to be?” I said. Maybe that should have been the first question instead of the last. But it was the hardest part to hear, because this was the part where I couldn’t pretend anymore. Jessie’s calling was for Jessie alone. It could never be for me.

“I knew,” said Jessie softly. “I knew—I was going to be a farmer.”

I stared. Somehow I hadn’t known this before. And I certainly hadn’t guessed it.

A farmer? Jessie? She was so slight. And she was always happier indoors than out. I’d always thought she’d be a seamstress, like her mother. And Erica.

I didn’t know what to say. Could she have misunderstood the touchstone somehow? Could she have gone up on the wrong day and gotten someone else’s calling by mistake?

“Yes, a farmer,” Jessie hissed at my surprise. “What’s wrong with that? My papa’s a farmer.”

I didn’t argue with her there. Everyone said Mr. Martin was one of the best farmers around. But Mama always traded with Jacob Wright, and not just because he was my special friend.

“Well, congratulations,” I said stiffly. “You’ll make a good farmer.” I hoped.

“Thank you, Lissa,” said Jessie. There was a long pause, like she meant to say something else, but she couldn’t think what. Then she turned to ask her mama what was it Doris Reit had been called to last week. As if she forgot.

I thought about how it used to be that Jessie would do anything to get me to talk to her. Now it was all changed.

Because she was called. And I wasn’t.

Why?

It wasn’t fair. Why not me?

Mama told me over and over again that everyone was called sooner or later, so long as they were born in Zicker, where the touchstone marked their birth and planned for them. She said sometimes it wasn’t the right time for the touchstone to call you. Maybe you weren’t ready. Or maybe the calling wasn’t ready. Or maybe something else that we could never know about and only the touchstone could.

But what if I was never ready? What if the calling was never ready for me? What if the touchstone, for once in its long life, couldn’t see anything I would ever be good at? Not with all the time and effort in the world?

Mama came back out of the kitchen, her eyes searching around for me. I didn’t wait for her to say my name. I hurried over and took one side of the big pot she always used to make the special touchstone day stew.

Mama’s stew was too thick for bowls or spoons. I said she ought to come up with a whole new word for it. But she said making words wasn’t part of her calling. And who’d argue with that, once they had a forkful of Mama’s stew in their mouths?

Together Mama and I carried the pot to the table together and set it down.

“Smells mighty fine,” said Mr. Martin, patting his belly.

“Not that we expected any different,” added Mrs. Martin meekly.

The truth about Mama’s touchstone day stew was that it was always different. It depended on whose day it was, because Mama would make sure it had all their favorite ingredients in it. How she remembered that for everyone in Zicker I don’t know. Must have been part of her calling.

This time it was corn, tomatoes, beans and peas, sweet potatoes and okra—for Jessie. A rich brown sauce, a hint of sour cream, and Mama’s secret blend of spices.

Secret even to me. Mama said she’d tell me about them if I got called by the touchstone to be a cook, like her. That was something I wanted so bad sometimes I didn’t dare even say it silently to myself.

But for now I only helped with the cleaning and chopping. And the serving.

“Excuse me, Erica,” I said, nudging past Jessie’s older sister’s elbow to reach her plate. Sometimes it seemed a long time ago that we were friends. She’d been called when she was nine, and her mother had fairly glowed with it. That was five years ago.

Now Erica was already making dresses and shirts to trade on her own. Her hands were a bit rough and her eyes always looked red, but I was so jealous of her it was just as well we never spoke anymore. I couldn’t have held it back.

I’d tried mending some old things of Mama’s, years ago. I thought after watching Erica one afternoon that I could do whatever she could. It didn’t look hard. After all, she talked all the way through every stitch. But I made a mess of the threads and even when I started over, the fabric was so frayed that it broke apart under my hands.

I cried and cried, but Mama said it didn’t mean anything if I showed no natural talent for sewing. That was part of the magic of the touchstone. The touchstone called you to whatever Zicker needed. And then you became good at it.

But that wasn’t the way it seemed to me.

Everyone I knew got called to what they were already good at. Or to what their parents did. Look at Jessie and Erica. And Richard Schnitzler, called to be a butcher. Or Willie Jones, called to be a hunter.

If only Mama would let me do more than serve food. Maybe the touchstone would call me to cook, just like her. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than that.

So why was she so adamant against it?

“Do you know which farm she’ll get, once she’s done with her apprenticeship?” Mama asked, when she came to Mr. Martin’s plate.

A newly called farmer worked as an apprentice for a parent or a family friend until old land was ready to be given up. But I couldn’t think of any farmers who were ready to retire. And that was strange, because usually it was obvious how the switchover would happen.

“We think maybe the boundaries will expand. It’s been years since that happened, but why not now?” said Mr. Martin.

“Of course,” said Mama quickly. But there was something odd about the way she looked at Jessie. Then she said with a voice a little too high, “I’ve got a cake in back, chocolate and orange marmalade. Your favorite, isn’t it, Jessie?”

But she knew already it was.

Jessie just nodded, the first smile I’d seen on her face all day. Didn’t she understand how wonderful it was being called, being sure? If it was my day, I knew I’d be splitting with joy.

“Excuse me,” said Mama.

Mr. Martin went on about the boundaries of Zicker, asking Jessie now and again what she thought, or if the touchstone had said anything to her.

But she just kept shaking her head until Mama brought the cake out, complete with Jessie’s name and a little hoe and shovel.

I picked at it, though it was as good as anything Mama ever made.

Mr. Martin looked up. “There’s something missing,” he said.

Mrs. Martin fluttered next to him. “No, no,” she said. “Nothing’s missing. This is a perfect touchstone day for Jessie. It couldn’t be better.”

“Not the food,” agreed Mr. Martin. “But—something else.” His gaze turned to me. It was unrelenting.

“But—what?” asked Mrs. Martin.

“I’m sure that I can make things better if you just tell me what it is,” offered Mama politely. But she was watching him carefully.

I started to stand, but Mr. Martin pointed at me.

“Lissa here,” he said. “That’s what’s missing.”

I froze.

“What about Lissa? She’s been polite and helpful, as far as I’ve seen,” said Mama. Was that a challenge in her voice? Didn’t she know better than to challenge Mr. Martin? “Just as she always is.”

“She doesn’t have a calling, though,” said Mr. Martin.

As though everyone hadn’t known that already.

I wanted to look away. I wanted to be away. But still I crouched there, above my chair.

“Papa, she’s just not old enough yet,” said Erica.

“Older than our Jessie, isn’t she?” asked Mr. Martin.

“Two years older,” Jessie offered.

“So, why hasn’t she been called?”

The question waved in front of us like a flag in a high wind.

“It’s not her time,” said Mama simply.

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Martin, nodding to her. As though he was giving in. But then he turned back to me. “But she’s so like her father. Those dark eyes. That dark hair. And what was his calling again?”

“He was a singer,” murmured Mrs. Martin.

Mama was mute. Any talk of Daddy did that to her.

“Well, maybe she’s a singer, too,” said Mr. Martin.

My eyes were burning.

Everyone knew I wasn’t a singer. They had to remember that much about Daddy, how upset he’d been when I hadn’t shown his talent. How he’d tried and tried. And tried some more.

Until people said they couldn’t come to Mama’s restaurant anymore, because of the sound of my voice. And Mama had to talk to him, tell him he should give up. Didn’t he see how frantic he made me over it? It wasn’t the only thing that mattered in the world.

“I’m not a singer,” I said through clenched teeth.

“Are you sure?” asked Mr. Martin. “I mean, we all remember when you were younger.” He made a face, his fleshy cheeks tightly rounded with pressure. “But Jessie was no hand at farming when she was younger, either. Don’t you remember, Jessie, how you weeded that patch? And there wasn’t nothing left but dandelions?”

“I remember, Papa,” said Jessie, lips quivering.

Couldn’t he see he was hurting her, too, as well as me? Why would he do that to his own daughter? On her touchstone day?

“I kept you out of the farm for a good long while after that. But now the touchstone has called you, I won’t have to worry about it, will I? You’ll do it all right now, because it’s what you’re called to do.”

“Yes—Papa,” Jessie got out.

There was something going on between them, but I couldn’t tell what it was. And it didn’t make any sense.

He turned back to me. He hadn’t given up yet.

“So, sing for us, Lissa.”

I shook my head.

“Try, at least. You’re a wonder at trying, from what I hear. Isn’t she, Mrs. Martin?” He smiled over at Mrs. Martin, but she didn’t look pleased to be brought in again to the conversation.

I said nothing.

“Let’s clean up your plates, if you’re done with dessert, Mr. Martin,” Mama suggested. She nodded to me.

I moved at last, reaching for the plate.

But Mr. Martin’s hand came down on it fast. “No. I’m not done,” he said loudly. “Not until I hear Lissa sing. Or try to sing.” He looked at Mama. “Don’t you want to see if your daughter has something to offer the touchstone?”

“I’ll wait for the touchstone to call her, Mr. Martin,” said Mama, a hard edge to her voice that I’d never heard before.

“Of course, of course. We all wait until then. But it won’t hurt if she nudges a little.”

I did not want to sing. But I didn’t want Jessie’s touchstone day to be ruined any more than it already was. And I didn’t want Mama’s restaurant to be pushed into upheaval. She’d had enough to deal with since Daddy died.

“I’ll sing,” I said quietly.

Mr. Martin clapped his hands loudly and deliberately, as though he had already heard my performance.

A sour part of me thought that this was all the applause I’d ever get for my singing, so I might as well enjoy it while it lasted.

“Lissa, you don’t have to do this,” said Mama.

“I know,” I said. “But I will.” The truth was, Mr. Martin had touched on something, even if he’d done it to bother me instead of help me. I hadn’t sung for a very long time. It had been so bad last time, or at least I remember it being so bad, that I hadn’t dared.

But if I was trying sewing and blacksmithing, hunting, farming, and everything else that was a calling in Zicker, I might as well try singing again, too. I might have changed, after all. Daddy said that once to me. That voices change, that I might find I wasn’t so bad, after all, when I was grown.

I stepped back from the table, the way I’d seen Daddy do when he was ready to sing. He wanted to make sure they heard all of his sounds mingled together, and the restaurant with its high ceilings did that for him if only he allowed it the space.

Then I searched my mind for the right song. I remembered Daddy’s lullaby, the one he sang only for me. He said no one else had ever heard it, it was my private love song from him and he promised he would never share it with anyone else as long as he lived.

I couldn’t share it, either.

No, it would have to be one of the public songs I remembered from Daddy. But which did I know well enough that I didn’t miss a word here and there?

I chose a round in the end, because it was one of those songs you couldn’t forget. Only a word or two changed on each verse and the round could go on nearly forever.

I sang the first line badly, telling myself that I would get used to it, that I would get better. No need to panic yet.

I could hear the chairs shifting back and forth. I told myself they’d stop fidgeting once the song had drawn them in.

But it never did. I sang the second line and the third, just as I had the first. My voice had changed since Daddy had died, but it hadn’t gotten better. It was a different tone, lower than when I was little, but scratchy still, and wobbling about wildly even on notes I should have been sure of.

Worst of all, there was no power in my music. That’s what I noticed most. When Daddy sang, it was as if the whole world sang with him. He seemed to be able to make his voice full enough for me to hear a harmony or even two, in higher tones than his deep bass.

I sang the fourth line in a whisper, because I had to get through that. But I didn’t go into the refrain. I didn’t continue the round.

And in the end, I stood there, staring back at Mr. Martin as his mouth slid wider and wider.

“Why, Lissa,” said Mr. Martin. “I suppose that wasn’t such a good idea, after all. I apologize. It wasn’t fair to make you do that. You haven’t had your father here to work with you all these years, or to keep working with you in years to come. If he were, I’m sure there would be no need for concern. I’m sure you would grow into the calling that was right for you.”

There was a long silence after that.

I didn’t know where to look so I looked at my feet, at the wooden floor beneath them, at the crumbs of cake that Mama would ask me to sweep clean when the Martins were gone.

“I have a bit of fabric,” Mrs. Martin said in a voice almost a whisper. “It’s just the color for Lissa,” she said to Mama.

This was her offer for trade, for Mama’s meal.

“No, thank you,” I said, my voice returned to its normal tone. I didn’t want anything from her.

“I could make it for you, then, Mrs. Fremd?” said Mrs. Martin. “Or find something else, if you prefer.”

“I’m sure whatever you choose will be wonderful,” said Mama. “I know your judgment is certainly better than mine when it comes to fabrics and patterns.”

“Well, she is the seamstress,” said Mr. Martin, patting his wife on the shoulder.

“Indeed,” said Mama. The smile on her face seemed fixed, but it didn’t break until she closed the door behind the Martins.

“I’m sorry, Lissa,” she said then, her shoulders sagging.

“I’m not,” I said, which was at least partly true.

“Why?”

“Because I needed to know the truth, that I will never sing like Daddy.” I was surprised I could talk without crying, but I felt as dry as wood waiting for a fire. “I needed to know that before I can go on to something else and be happy. I just never knew it before now.”

“I suppose,” said Mama slowly.

I went on, thinking out loud. “And maybe that’s why the touchstone hasn’t called me all this time. Because I was hanging onto a dream of something that couldn’t be mine.” I found myself actually cheering myself up. “Now that I’ve put it behind me, I’m sure the touchstone will call me soon.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” said Mama after a moment.

I helped her clean up, not saying anything about how much more mess the Martins made from the others who came to the restaurant. Especially Mr. Martin.

“Lissa,” said Mama, when we were done with the last dish.

“Yes?”

“Promise me something, will you?”

I nodded. I would promise Mama anything.

“Promise me you won’t think yourself beneath anyone, whatever calling you get.  No one’s better than anyone else here. That’s part of what makes Zicker so special.”

I knew this already. But I guess she was telling me again because of Mr. Martin.

Mama waved a hand towards the back of the restaurant, towards the path that led to the outside. “There it’s always a ladder. You’re higher or lower than someone else. And it’s money that decides it. But here in Zicker, no one gets more than their fair share. Everyone works for what they have, but there’s no temptation to get more than that. There’s only what we all do for each other. You see?”

I nodded. “I just want a calling of my own.”

Mama let out a deep breath. “I know,” she said. “I know.”

#

The touchstone didn’t call me that night. I waited for it long in the dark, then slept badly, with bits and pieces of dreams that made no sense.

Not the bad dream, though, the one about Daddy drowning. I had that one less now than I did before, but when I did, I had to keep it quiet. To tell Mama about it only made her think of him, and she cried.

Just before dawn I heard Mama creep down the stairs to the kitchen for bread making. I followed her down. I figured I might as well be of some use to someone.

The dough was already kneaded and ready to rise by the time I slipped in to sit on a stool next to Mama. She handed me a knob of it—a tradition between us since just after Daddy died. I didn’t stay with Mama in the kitchen much before that. It seems a long time ago, six years now.

“Did you sleep well?” Mama asked, staring at me with narrowed eyes.

“Fine,” I lied. Mama didn’t have dreams the way I did. She thought that when you woke, they would go away, but they always felt as real to me as anything and I could never see how I could know for certain they weren’t.

“No dreams?”

I shrugged. “No bad ones.”

I focused on the dough, rubbing it into a perfect ball shape, then poking at it with a finger. It bounced back, just like it always did, dreams or not. Mama never made bad bread.

Of course, other people in Zicker knew how to make bread. And other simple things. Soup. Hot cakes on a griddle or bacon and ham. They couldn’t come to Mama’s restaurant for every meal. They’d never have time for their own callings if they did. But they came as often as they could, because no matter how good their bread was, it was nothing compared to Mama’s.

How can you compare with perfection?

“So, what should I make you for breakfast?” asked Mama. Breakfast was the one meal Mama didn’t serve at the restaurant. It was time for just me and Mama. We ate sitting on stools in the kitchen, faces hot from the heat of the wood stove, and I always got to choose the menu.

“Biscuits,” I said, deciding suddenly. If I was going to do it, it had to be now. This very morning.

“Just biscuits? No gravy? No butter and jam? No eggs to fit inside with salted ham?” Mama asked.

She didn’t understand what I meant.

“Mama,” I said, then took a deep breath. I wasn’t going to let her tell me no. “I want to make the biscuits myself.”

Mama’s mouth opened, and it took some time before she found the words to fill it. They weren’t anything like the words I was afraid of, though. “Are you sure, Lissa?” she asked.

My hands shook, but I nodded to her. I had to try it. I had to know if I would ever do more than serving here.

“Well—” said Mama, hesitating.

“Please,” I said. “I know you don’t think it matters if I practice for my calling first. But what if it does?”

Mama said nothing for a long minute. Then suddenly, she was talking as fast as one of those trains we hear about, on the outside. “I’ll get out all the ingredients for you. And the recipe. And you’ll need an apron. And a good-sized bowl. And a fork for the shortening. And a sifter. And—”

“Mama,” I interrupted her. Because it was no good having her do everything for me. That would be no test. “Mama, how many times do you think I’ve watched you make biscuits?”

“Oh,” she said, and her mouth twisted a bit.

“You think I never paid any attention?”

“I suppose you did,” said Mama.

“I’m the one who usually gets all the ingredients together for you. And I sift. And cut the shortening into the flour. I can do it, Mama. Really, I can.” The more I thought about it, the more sure I was I was right. There was no reason for me to be afraid.

I focused on finding the things I needed and setting them out in a row in front of me. I was more careful than I ever was for Mama. I made sure all the labels were facing front, that the jars went from smallest to biggest. Then I got out the shortening in the can and the milk from the cold box.

Not noticing if Mama was by me anymore, or even if she was watching me, I measured the flour and the salt and the baking soda into the sifter. My teeth were clenched so tight it seemed hard to breathe. I sifted three times anyway, though every time my arms ached. I knew that no matter how much of a hurry Mama was in, she never skipped steps and sifting was one of the most important ones.

When it was all sifted, I dipped my finger in and tasted it. It tasted just like Mama’s did. My heart started to thump so loud my ears got hot. Now it was time for the shortening.

I got out a knife and fork and cut into the can of shortening. I filled a cup, then smoothed off the top and scraped the sides. Then I slid my knife around the edge of the cup and slid the round of shortening into the flour. A little mist puffed onto my face and I could feel the smooth silt on my skin. I probably looked more like Mama then than I ever had before.

And it was that thought that turned the terror in my heart to thrill. What if I was like Mama? What if the touchstone had just been waiting for me to prove it? I could just imagine the call tonight. I would wake up, and start up the mountain. I’d make sure I wore my thickest pajamas to bed, because it was still cold as winter through the night, though the trees were starting to sing spring.

I’d climb and I’d climb, while the sun grew hotter and higher. Then I’d get to the touchstone, reach through the thorn bushes, hardly feeling the pinch that drew blood. I’d put my hands down on the cold, smooth stone of the magical touchstone that had been directing lives in Zicker for more than two hundred years.

And then—

“Lissa? Is there anything wrong?”

I looked up. Mama was staring at me, a concerned expression on her face. “Maybe this is too much,” she suggested. “It was a good start, but why don’t you let me finish it?”

I swallowed hard. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I even make a batch of biscuits without drifting off inside my own head? I was sure Mama would never do that.

Mama was already moving in to the bowl and I almost gave up the fork to her. I almost gave up right then and there.

But I wanted to know the truth.

“Mama,” I said softly.

She looked down at me. Then she let go of the fork and took a step backward.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

She nodded.

And I went back to the biscuits, telling myself I wasn’t going to think about anything but cutting and mixing and shaping and cooking. I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself, either, and imagine what they’d be like out of the oven, how they’d taste, good or bad. I was going to do things one at a time, and make sure they were done one hundred percent right.

Digging my elbows in to my sides, I worked the shortening in. I knew not to overdo it. But even if I hadn’t, Mama’s anxious looks over my shoulder would have told me something. I stopped as soon as the flour started to look like little pebbles on the edge of the river.

It was ready for milk now.

I poured without measuring, just like Mama did. A little bit in the middle. Stir. A little on the side. Stir again. Then a little on the other side. Stirring until it was all just perfectly wet.

I knew I’d done it right. But if I had any doubt, Mama said it out loud.

“Exactly right, Lissa. Exactly right.”

I took one breath of happiness, then went back to work. I greased up a pan good, then dropped the biscuits one by one. I used a spoon and knife like Mama did, and I put them in neat little rows of fours.  One dozen in all.

The oven was already hot because Mama had stoked it when she started mixing bread dough.

“The bread’s not high enough yet,” said Mama.

Which I could have told her myself. I knew that much about bread making, after all these years.

So I put the biscuits in the oven, closed the door behind them, and sat back, waiting for the smell to hit me. I was sick with wondering and so hot I could have been cooking right in that oven along with my biscuits.

Mama came over and handed me a towel from the cold box. It felt wonderful on my face. Then she put her hands to my shoulders. She smoothed down the round joints to the elbow over and over again.

My head bowed forward on my chest and I thought of Daddy. How I missed his singing. Sometime it was worse than other times. It wasn’t so bad now, just a wish, something that would have been nice to have.

Daddy died while I was asleep, out fishing in the river. That’s what Mama told me. There was no body ever found. I woke up and found he was gone. And now the only place I could hear Daddy sing was in memories. And in my dreams.

When I dreamed of him, he was always dying in the river, and I had to save him.

I never could. No matter how deep I dived or how long I searched for him in the cold water. He never came back, not a sign of him.

“Did Daddy ever tell you about his touchstone day?” I asked Mama then. You’d think I’d have asked him that, along with all the other things. But I wasn’t so worried about the touchstone then.

“I don’t recall that he did,” said Mama. The lines around her eyes got longer and deeper when she talked about him, which wasn’t often.

“I suppose he was called when he was eight,” I said bitterly.

“No, I don’t think he was,” Mama put in quickly. “I’m sure he wasn’t, in fact.”

“Then when?” Did she remember any of the details I would want to know?

“I don’t remember exactly,” said Mama.

I sighed, disappointed.

“How would you like to hear about my touchstone day again?” she offered.

I’d heard it lots of times before, but I guess it’s never enough. “You were thirteen, weren’t you?” I started.

It was hard thinking of Mama as that young. She had never seemed to change to me. She’d always been just—Mama.

“I remember how frustrated I was,” she said. “Because all the other girls my age had already been called, and all the boys, too.”

“And everyone knows the boys are called later than girls,” I put in. There was one other boy in town my age who hadn’t been called. Joseph Karrie. He put up with almost as much teasing as I did about it.

Mama nodded. “Even all of the girls a year younger than me had been called. One two years younger than me,” she added.

“Like Jessie,” I said.

“Like Jessie,” said Mama. “I was ready to give up. I thought I’d never have a calling.”

“But you always cooked,” I said. “That’s what you told me before.”

“Well,” said Mama. “That’s one of the tricks of being called. Once you’re called, you look back and you see everything differently. I could cook, but I thought—that wasn’t a calling.”

Not a calling? How could she think that? “Weren’t there any other cooks called before you?” I asked.

Mama tilted her head to the side. “There might have been. There aren’t any others now, though. I’m the only cook in all of Zicker with a calling for it.”

Which only made me more nervous than before. “It sounded like a bell,” I encouraged her.

“A big brass bell that shakes you inside,” she said. “I woke up in the night with that feeling inside me. And I knew that what I had been afraid would never happen—had happened.”

“Then you walked up the mountain,” I said. Because I couldn’t hear it fast enough.

“Right,” said Mama, smiling. “And the touchstone was just where everyone else had said it would be. An ordinary stone behind some ordinary thorn bushes. But it seemed to glow for me, and when I touched it—”

“—You saw the biscuits you’d always cooked and the roasts, and the people eating them. And the questions in your heart were gone.”

“Gone,” echoed Mama. But there was something wrong.

It took me a moment to realize what it was. There was a smell coming from the oven, the smell of burned biscuits.

“Oh, Lissa,” said Mama. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have got talking like that. I distracted you from your cooking.”

I bent over and opened the oven door with one of Mama’s mitts. Sure enough, the biscuits were inside, all black as tar and about as appetizing. I tried not to cry over them. It wasn’t as if Mama couldn’t make new ones, good ones. We had plenty of flour.

“Have you ever been distracted from your cooking?” I asked Mama as I put the trays carefully down on top of the stove, making sure they didn’t bang.

“Well,” was all Mama would say.

“Even before you were called?” I asked.

Mama took a moment to answer, but I don’t think it was because she had to think about it. “No,” she admitted.

“Then I know I won’t be a cook like you,” I said. I told myself I wasn’t supposed to be sad about this. It was just one of many callings I knew I wasn’t going to get. That didn’t mean my calling would be a bad one, that it wouldn’t make my happy.

What had Mama said about Mrs. Martin? In Zicker, no calling is better than another. And I had to believe that.

“Lissa, I’ve got to put the bread in now,” said Mama. “Look at that, it’s almost over-risen.”

Almost, I thought, but not quite.

Mama put the loaves in the oven, in the same pattern she always used. In twenty minutes, she’d turn them so they got cooked on all sides evenly.

When she turned back, I took the trays of burned biscuits off the stove and moved to the sink to clean them off.

“Lissa, why don’t you let me do that?” asked Mama.

“Because,” I said. “I can do this just as well as you can.” About the only thing I did better than Mama was going off in my own head. What a fine calling that would be.

#

The touchstone didn’t call me the next night, either. It wasn’t as if I’d expected it, not really. I had one long dream, of biscuits. A mountain of them, burned, piled all around Mama’s restaurant so no one could come in. I tried to climb over them, but I fell and the biscuits started to smother me.

When I woke up at dawn, I discovered it was only my blanket smothering me. I pulled it away from my face, let the air hit my sweaty face, and panted. It helped a little, but my mouth was dry and cracked, my tongue thick as paste. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went out to the well for water.

I didn’t use a bucket, just the ladle for drinking. Then I leaned back against the old red maple tree, just starting to bud, and enjoyed the cool, fresh air and the full smell of spring in the air. At least I wasn’t in a kitchen, I thought. And let myself doze, half-awake, half-asleep.

I didn’t mean to hide. I was in plain sight, if anyone had looked, but it’s true I didn’t move except to breathe. I suppose that’s why when Erica Martin and her friend Susan Seal came by, they didn’t see me.

Susan was carrying two empty five-gallon buckets across her shoulders on a yoke. She’d been called to be a blacksmith and you could see the mark of the fire on her face. Where it wasn’t black with soot, it was red with heat. She was two years older than I was, but I’d never liked her much, even before she’d been called. I couldn’t see how Erica and she turned out to be friends, but I suppose they had one thing in common, at least.

They were both called.

Susan put the buckets down, then leaned over and drank deep of the ladle. Then Erica helped her lower the buckets down and pull them back up full.

“I’ve been up for three hours already,” said Susan. “And no breakfast yet. Mr. Gregory is working me hard because he wants to retire. Some days I think I’m going to be the one to retire first.” She took another drink of the ladle, then poured the remainder over her face.

“I know what you mean,” said Erica. “I thought my mother would be gentler with me because I’m her own daughter. But she’s not. I’m sure I unstitch twice as much as I stitch, and my hands are raw from it. Whenever a boy comes by, I have to put them behind my back because I’m so ashamed.”

I couldn’t see Erica’s hands from the distance, but I hadn’t noticed them when she was at the restaurant. Most likely, she was exaggerating. My hands got plenty sore from washing dishes for Mama and cutting and peeling vegetables. But if it were my calling, what would I care?

And if I had boys coming around for me—

Well, maybe that would never happen, even if I did get a calling. Mama said she was glad I had Daddy’s dark hair and eyes, so that she could look at my face and see him looking back at her. But it was strange coloring in Zicker. Jessie and Erica had beautiful blonde hair that went almost white in the summer. Mama had the red hair that was less common, but still seemed to belong. And they all had blue or blue-green eyes so that mine looked like night staring back at them.

I did remember Daddy looking at me with those eyes, and I couldn’t regret having the same ones stare back at me when I looked in a mirror. But it would have been nice to fit in, too.

And in more than just my face.

Susan put her hands on her hips and stared at the buckets, as if she could make them move with her eyes. “How is Jessie?” she asked.

Erica hesitated a moment, then said, “I suppose she’s happy. Daddy already has her started in the fields this morning.”

“Does she understand what it means if there isn’t any new land?” asked Susan.

I felt numb on one side, but I didn’t dare move. This was what Mama had wondered about last night, only she’d stopped just short of saying it out loud.

“I’m not sure,” said Erica. “If she does, she’s not thinking about it too much yet. I’m glad I never had that problem.”

“Mrs. Tierny died before you were even called,” said Susan. “I remember because I was so close to rags I nearly wished I was the one called to be a seamstress.”

Erica snorted. “I can just imagine the dresses you would have sewn.”

The two laughed together.

My throat twisted and I wished again I wasn’t stuck in this spot. I should have moved earlier, but now if I did anything they would think I was spying on them. They could take me to judgment for that, if they were in a bad mood. But it would be even worse if they didn’t, if they felt sorry for me instead.

“I’m glad for Jessie, though, that she wasn’t the very last of her age to be called. I remember what my brother was like when that happened to him. He moped around for months.”

There was a small pause, and I tried to remember Erica’s brother, but it must have been before I thought much about callings.

Then Erica put in, “Like Lissa.”

And suddenly, my head was so hot I thought it would rise up off the rest of me and start floating away. But the rest of me was cold as ice, still tied to the ground.

“Poor Lissa,” said Susan, shaking her head.

“But what can you expect?” said Erica, lowering her voice and looking over towards the restaurant and then around the well. “With a father from the outside?”

What?

What was she talking about?

I was confused for a moment. Then my head and shoulders bounced back together so fast I could hardly see straight.

“I didn’t know he was from the outside,” whispered Susan.

“A singer?” asked Erica.

“Well.” Susan shrugged.

I wanted to hold on to this and shout at them that they had to be wrong. It was a calling! It was Daddy’s calling! And how could he have been from the outside if he had a calling?

“No one’s ever been called to be a singer. Not before him. Not after. What do you think of that?”

“It’s not a calling,” said Susan.

“Not the way the touchstone calls,” said Erica.

My ears rang with her words. I put my hands to them and pushed as hard as I could, but still the sound would not go away.

It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. I chanted the words at myself.

Then I remembered—Mama had said she hadn’t known being a cook was a calling, either, before.

Besides, Mama would have told me if Daddy had been an outsider.

Wouldn’t she?

I could feel the tears starting down my face. Mama wouldn’t have lied to me. Mama had never lied to me, not about anything.

Frantically, I put my memories through a sieve, trying to catch one clear image of Mama telling me Daddy was from Zicker, anything about when he was a little boy. I didn’t find anything. Even last night, when I’d asked her straight out about Daddy’s touchstone day, she’d said she didn’t remember. Was that a lie, too?

Sick and empty, I kept listening to the two older girls.

“She’s the spitting image of him, or at least that’s what my mama says,” said Erica.  “The touchstone probably doesn’t even think of her as one of us.”

I didn’t think about what I did next. It just happened.

The next thing I knew, I was by Erica’s side and there was a quick, startled expression on her face the moment before my fists slammed into it. Then it was flowing blood, ruining the perfect lines of her yellow gingham dress.

But I didn’t have a chance against a blacksmith, even one not fully grown. She pushed me back with one hand and kicked me hard in the stomach with the other. I could hardly see through the cloud of pain over my eyes.

The anger drained out of me as the humiliation grew.

“Come on, Erica. I’ll walk you home,” said Susan, offering a hand to her friend.

“I’m going to tell her mama,” said Erica. “She’ll be sorry she ever touched me.”

Another time I might have been worried about what Mama’s punishment would be. But compared to what I’d just found out, it didn’t matter a bit.

“You think the touchstone hasn’t punished her enough?” Susan’s voice carried from the other side of the path. Maybe she meant it to.

But I don’t think she meant for me to do what I did next.

It was the touchstone that was at the root of all of this. The touchstone that hadn’t called me, for its own reasons. Well, the time had passed for me to wait for it. I’d waited plenty long. I wasn’t waiting any longer. I was going up to that touchstone myself and demand a calling.

It had to give me one. It just had to.

I didn’t go back home to change out of my nightdress and I didn’t go back for a jar to fill at the well. As much as I could, I followed the rules of being called.

The way up the mountain I knew best was over on the other side of Jacob Wright’s farm. And I knew he wouldn’t mind it if I cut through his new-turned fields. My feet would be filthy, but who would think about that on my touchstone day?

“Lissa? Is that you?”

Startled, I turned around and saw Jacob Wright himself, staring deep into the soil with a handful of seeds held close to his chest.

Though he was a grown man, I considered him a good friend. Maybe my only friend these days. He always spoke to me as an equal.

“It’s me,” I said, my shoulders falling. I should have known he would be here. This time of year, this time of day—a farmer would have to be out. But I didn’t want to talk to him.

Not yet.

“What are you doing out here? Did you come looking for me?” he asked, tilting up his straw hat and climbing to his feet. His face was brown as the soil he tilled, but his eyes were bright and his smile as big as a watermelon.

“I came to ask if you’d heard about Jessie Martin,” I said, surprised at how easy the lie came.

“No,” said Jacob. “I haven’t.” He waited, showing no sign of impatience, though I wasn’t sure he had any idea who Jessie Martin was.

“She’s been called to be a farmer,” I said.

The smile on Jacob’s face slipped off and I had a glimpse of brown skin gone pale under the dirt. Then the smile got pasted back on, but it didn’t seem to fit quite.

“Is her daddy going to give up farming already?” asked Jacob.

“I don’t think so.”

“So where will she make her farm—when she’s done working out her years for her daddy? The land is supposed to lie fallow for a few years between farmers.” He looked worried. I thought maybe he was worried about the land. Or maybe he just felt sorry that Jessie had to work for her daddy.

“Mr. Martin says he thinks the touchstone is going to give her a new plot of land. You know, expand the boundaries of Zicker. What do you think? Could that happen?” It seemed better to think that then that someone I knew was about to die, and soon.

Jacob looked up to the mountain. “We never know what the touchstone will do, do we? It’s a grand mystery.”

That was true. No one knew where the touchstone had come from or why it only worked here in Zicker. It just did.

Jacob leaned on his shovel and his face seemed to change. Not sad or happy now—it was in a different place entirely. “You ever think about the outside, Lissa? About what the people there do, without a calling? You think about whether it’s good or bad for them?”

How could it be good to have no calling?

“You think about the different choices they have there, with so many people around? Not just farmers and furriers, seamstresses and hunters and–” His eye caught mine. “And well, cooks.”

“What else is there?” I asked quietly. To myself, I thought—what else that matters?

Then he grabbed hold of my arm and his eyes were so bright they scared me. I’d never been scared of Jacob before. But this person looking out at me from his eyes seemed like a stranger. An outsider, and one who hadn’t come for Mama’s cooking.

“Do you want to know a secret, Lissa?” he demanded, pinching my arm tighter and tighter. “A very important, deep secret? One you could never tell anyone, ever—not even your own mama?”

But before I could answer, he had let me go. He turned his back to me, began muttering to himself and paced back and forth, ruining the nice long seed trough he’d likely spent all morning making. And the seeds in his hands were long strewn to the winds.

I was afraid to walk away from him. Afraid to walk any closer to him. I stayed where I was, and spoke softly. “Jacob, you said you had a secret.” He was my friend, I thought. If he had a secret, I should let him tell it to me.

“Hmm?” He stopped pacing. “Oh, yes.” His mouth trembled on one side as he tried to hold a grin. “The secret is that I think you’re the most beautiful girl in Zicker.” He reached with a hand to tweak my cheek, but he only brushed against it.

A moment longer, and he simply turned back to his work.

I didn’t press him. Maybe I didn’t really want to know. I had my own secret, after all. You don’t always want to share.

I walked down the field, the mountain shadow cooling me as it darkened all else around me. I kept on walking until I hit the first little rocky hill. Then I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl across it. The stones were damp with dew, and I slipped and cut my knees, then my lip.

Soon I was over the top and headed up the long, slow slope.

I tried not to think of Daddy, not to spoil my memories of him. It didn’t matter what Erica and Susan had said. I could still hear his songs. And that was proof that he had been called.

I took a rest after the clover meadows were past, before I went into the pine trees. Those trees were so thick you couldn’t see more than an inch or two ahead until you came out on the other side, at the bluff. And that was where the touchstone was.

Letting my breath come easy, I looked back to Jacob’s field. It seemed as small as an anthill from this height. Unimportant. But maybe everything looked that way from up here. It might explain some things about the touchstone. Compared to the mountain, we were all no more than seeds to be put in the ground.

I went on. It was a long, dark journey through the trees. When I came out at the other end, I expected it would be midnight or later, but the sun was high in the sky and I guessed it was close to noon.

Down the mountain would be faster, I thought. So when I had my calling, I’d be home at much the same time as anyone who claimed to have heard the touchstone’s voice at night.

With that in mind, I looked for the touchstone. It had be somewhere close.

Thinking carefully, I began to walk in ever-growing half-circles around the cliff edge. The first time I passed the thorn bush I only thought about the scrape it left on my arm. The second time I nearly went around it.

Then Jessie’s voice came back to me.

The thorn bush.

Mama’s voice.

The thorn bush.

I stopped. It was huge. Could I see the touchstone if it was hidden behind it? No, the cover was too thick. If it had called to me, maybe I’d have some idea. But since it hadn’t, I started in the middle and worked my way to one side.

Of course, I didn’t find it until I’d searched twice and started a third time, pushing myself through the thorn bush so that I couldn’t move an inch without giving myself another cut. I wished I’d thought to wear something sturdier. My long johns would have helped. And since I wasn’t following the rules anyway . . .

But I found it. The flat, black rock had to be the touchstone.

I pushed the branches away. They twanged back at me. I yanked one off, but I couldn’t force myself to do another. My hands were the worst, hardly an inch that wasn’t bleeding. So I let the bush crowd around me, ignored the pain in my back and neck, and I wiped the right one off on my gown.

I leaned forward, hesitating. The touchstone seemed to glare up at me, as if it had a face, eyes winking at me, taunting me.

“I want my calling,” I said boldly. Then I closed my eyes and put my hand out.

The stone caught it. It was cold and smooth, but there was nothing more than that. I waited for a long moment. Still nothing.

I tried again, with both hands.

I counted to one thousand.

There was no response.

“Say something!” I shouted at it. “Give me my calling!”

But it was just a stone.

A stupid stone that didn’t have any more power than the sun or the rain. And people thought they got their callings from it? They let their whole lives depend on what they thought it said to them?

I pounded my hand on the stone until it was bruised and bleeding.

I hated it.

All my life, I’d thought the day I looked on the touchstone would be a magical day, that I’d be able to see myself better than ever before. Because the touchstone knew me.

But it didn’t.

And I didn’t know it.

We were strangers.

Maybe I didn’t belong in Zicker, after all.

I couldn’t bear the thought, but it wouldn’t go out of my head.

I stood up from the touchstone, crying, shaking, and half-blind with fury.

And then I ran. Ran and ran and ran.

I thought I’d never see again, never take an easy breath again, but then my foot caught on a tree root and I fell forward to the ground.

For a moment, the world went black.

Then when it came back to color, I leaned back and let myself rest.

No calling today.

What was the rush of getting back home, then? Might as well go as slow as I could, so I didn’t have to face the look on Mama’s face again.

The sympathetic, sad look.

I’d have disappointed her again, and she’d try to tell me it wasn’t so.

Once past the trees, I stopped at the vantage place once more. The sun was still high in the sky, but it felt cold to me. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself, then took a moment to stare down at Zicker below. It did not seem insignificant now. It seemed the whole world. Everything I’d ever known.

But I didn’t belong. I never would.

So I forced myself to keep moving. Down. Down. Down again.

Straight into Jacob.

He caught me and stared back at the mounds of dirt I’d trampled through.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

But that’s not what I really felt. I was angry. At everyone in Zicker, because they all had callings, and I didn’t.

I never would.

“So, you went to the touchstone.” He guessed—somehow.

Too numb to care anymore, I nodded.

“You weren’t called.”

“No.” My head hung low. I couldn’t even bear to look at him.

Now what would happen? Would he tell what I’d done? Would he call a judgment for me? I didn’t know what the penalty would be for trying to force the touchstone, but if they banished me, what did I care? Maybe it would be better to be away from here.

“Lissa?” he asked again.

When I didn’t look up at him, he came and held me by the shoulders.

“Let me go. Please, please, let me go,” I begged.

“Lissa, listen to me,” said Jacob in a low voice.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you trust me. Don’t you, Lissa? As much as I trust you?”

I thought.

And I thought.

Finally, I said, “I trust you.” It seemed to take all my strength. I slipped out of his hands and down to the ground. All that wonderful, terrible strength that had led me up to the touchstone and then back down again in anger—it was all gone now.

Jacob bent down, lifted my face to his. “Lissa, let me ask you this. What do you want most to be? If you had your choice of callings, what would it be? Think hard!”

I didn’t want to think of that. I didn’t want to think of anything to do with the touchstone.

But his eyes would not let me turn away. “What is it, Lissa? You want to raise cattle? Chickens? Build houses? Bridges?”

“I—I—” I stuttered. What did I want to be?

“I don’t know,” I finished lamely. “What does it matter, anyway? I’ll never be called. Never.” I held in my breath for fear I would cry. And once I started with that, I’d never be able to stop.

Jacob sighed. “Lissa, you’ve been up the mountain. If people know that, they’ll expect to know your calling. And if you were to tell them what it was, who would know if you were truly called or not?”

I had to let the words simmer in my mind for a moment before I understood them. Lie? Was that what he was suggesting? Lie about my calling?

“Lissa, who knows if all the rest of them are lying or not? Does the touchstone tell one person what another is called? No. Does the touchstone ever speak to us but the once? Have you ever heard the touchstone complain that someone misunderstood?”

It seemed a long time since I had stared into the touchstone’s blackness. “Maybe no one has ever misunderstood,” I said faintly.

“Or,” said Jacob, “maybe they all have.”

I couldn’t speak. I had moved from utter depression to possibility, hope. And it burned. How it burned!

“Lissa, choose whatever you wish. No one will doubt you. How can they, unless they doubt themselves?” His eyes looked sharply into mine.

It was a temptation unlike any other. If I had known what I had wanted to do, if I had not been terrified by the thought of choosing something once and for all, finally, for all of my life, I might have decided to do what he asked.

But then again, if there had been anything that suited me, no doubt the touchstone would have called me already.

I was about to tell him no when Jacob said, “Lissa, before you decide, I have something to show you. Something I’ve never dared to show to anyone else.” He stared at me. “Not even my brother.”

“Why?” I whispered. I was frozen.

“Because you’re the only person in this town I truly think of as my friend,” he said. “You’re like me.”

“What do you mean?”

He looked behind him, up the long stretch of road that led to the other side of Zicker, then forward towards the trees and Mama’s restaurant. Then he looked back again.

“Do you remember I told you I had a secret?”

I nodded, my lips numb. I didn’t have to say that we both knew he had lied before, about my beauty.

“The touchstone,” said Jacob. “It never called me.”

I gaped at him. If I had not already been so close to the ground, I would have fallen. Slowly, I grasped at bits and pieces here and there, in my memory. I tried to put them together, into one picture, but it was like trying to guess at the size of an oak tree from looking at an acorn.

“I pretended it had,” Jacob went on. “I heard my brother wake in the night. I saw him leave. I knew it must be to go up the mountain. He was a sound sleeper. There could be no other reason. So I followed him.

“He walked with no awareness of the path. His hands were at his sides. His feet shuffled. And yet, he never stumbled. He never lost his way, though it was not yet dawn through the worst of it. By the time we reached the touchstone, it was light enough. I tried to be quiet, but I fell twice and he never noticed. He could only hear the voice of the touchstone, I think.”

I felt as though he had dragged me along with him up the mountain a second time. His words made me live with him, agonize at his choice.

“He pushed away the thorns, not feeling the pricks of pain, not bothering to wipe at the drops of blood. They must have fallen to the touchstone as he leaned forward and put his hands on it.

“When he came out again, I saw his face. It was like looking into the face of an angel. He knew perfect joy. And I did not. You can’t blame me for going through the bush after he was gone. Can you?” asked Jacob.

A long moment passed. “No,” I said at last.

“No,” he echoed. “I went forward and touched it. That cold, bright stone. You know what it’s like, Lissa. To touch it and feel nothing, see nothing. To know that you have not been called. It was unbearable. John had always been the perfect older brother. There had never been any doubt that he would be called as a farmer. I could not go home to be the younger brother, not anymore.

“I told myself there was no reason I shouldn’t have the same calling that he did. I knew I could do it as well, if not better.” Jacob lifted his arms out and gestured around the farmhouse. “Come. See it. Tell me where you see any difference in my work and John’s. Tell me that I was not meant to be a farmer.”

I felt how hard the ground was around me. I looked at Jacob’s fields and saw the straight lines, the rich color of the new plants poking through the ground. I had never looked closely at his brother’s farm, though. And what did I know about farming?

But perhaps he was right. Perhaps there was no difference in the two of them, no need to be called.

Jacob offered me a hand.

I took it, steadied myself.

“You’ll come? You’ll see what I have hidden, the other half of my secret?”

I nodded and stepped forward. He was more a friend than I had known. “What is it?”

“It’s what I’ve given up, to be a farmer,” said Jacob.

What he’d given up? What did that mean?

But he said no more until we had walked to the door of the farmhouse and stepped in, gone past the silent kitchen and up the rope ladder, to the hot and stifling attic. It was dark there, despite the bright sun outside. There were no windows, so Jacob lit a lantern he had left on a hook by the door.

It seemed suddenly as if it were night and the stars shone all around me. I turned slowly to take them in. And slowly, I realized they were not stars, but paintings filled with light and brilliance.

Many were of the mountains or the woods or the river in Zicker. Others were of the people of Zicker. I could see one of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, their wary expressions captured perfectly, as they glanced away from each other while they walked together, he struggling with his size and she taking slow steps to keep at his side.

Another showed Mama’s face, very close up, so that the mole on her left cheek was plain, and the longing in her eyes for my daddy.

Then I saw the one of me. Jacob had painted me a year or two ago in Mama’s kitchen. I was watching the stove carefully, and there was longing in my eyes, just like in Mama’s. But it wasn’t longing for a person. It was for myself.

“This was the last one I did,” said Jacob, tapping the painting of me.

“But why did you stop?” Why shouldn’t this be his calling? Surely this was something that should have been out in the light, where all could see. Not hidden up here. Not made into a secret.

“I was afraid. If I did more of these, eventually I would have to show them. And then—”

And then everyone would know that farming was not his true calling.

“Also, I knew that I couldn’t keep spending the time painting and be as good as—” he gulped as if he were trying to drink an entire bucket of water in one draught. “John,” he finished at last.

“The painting wanted all of me, not just the time I gave it at night. I thought that if I stopped, it would bother me less and less each year. I thought that I might someday have a family, as John does, to share my life, to cut my pain. I thought maybe even your mother, when your daddy—” He stopped.

“But that isn’t what happened,” I finished for him.

He shook his head and stared at his paintings.

I did the same, taking small steps here and there so that I could see from different angles. I got close enough to a painting of the woods to see the texture on the canvas. It begged to be felt, to be compared with the real thing. Were those real twigs? Would I feel the smoothness of the stone if I ripped it from the paint? I was in awe.

“Jessie,” I said suddenly, as if the thought had been popped out of my head. The place it came from swelled with fear.

Jacob’s hands twisted. “No,” he said. “No—that doesn’t matter.”

But what if it did matter? What if the farm he had taken was the one that should have been lying fallow all these years—for her?

I said nothing. There was no need.

Jacob put down the lantern and sat with his hands wrapped around his knees. His shoulders began to shake and I knew he was weeping.

“No one knows. They’ll never guess. And what is Jessie to me, that I should give up everything I am for her?”

But he wouldn’t give up everything, I thought. He would only give up the farming. Not his paintings. And his paintings mattered most.

He had had two callings, I thought. A real one and a false one. Two more than I had had.

I couldn’t help but be even more angry at him than I was at the others.

And he thought he should tell me what to do?

“It’s time to go,” said Jacob. He blew out the lantern and we were in pitch black again. “Can you feel the rope?” His hands passed it to mine.

I went down, rung over rung. My feet hit the floor at bottom with a thunk and I stifled a moan at the sting that ran up my legs into my back, reverberating all the way up to my neck.

Jacob came down after me.

Together we walked back down to the front room where the sun nearly blinded us.

Without a word, I left him.

My head pounding dully, I went back to the restaurant that afternoon and told Mama only that I had been to visit Jacob for the morning. She took my scrapes as evidence of helping him in the barn.

I helped her serve dinner to the Donalds, celebrating an anniversary together. And then we went to sleep.

I had terrible dreams, of blood streaking canvases.

#

Jessie came and woke us up far too early the next morning. I heard her calling out at the door and I stayed in bed. I thought of Jacob, who was giving up his farm for her, and I couldn’t face her.

When Mama came to get me, she looked gray around the mouth and her eyes were old. I’d never seen Mama look old before.

“What is it?”

“It’s Jacob Wright,” she said.

“No,” I whispered. There was something wrong and I couldn’t help but think it must be my fault. I shouldn’t have told him about Jessie. I shouldn’t have left him like that, without a word yesterday. I shouldn’t have been angry with the one person who knew the truth and could still be my friend.

But I had.

I was crying even before Mama started telling me the rest.

“Lissa,” said Mama. Then she took a breath. “Jessie came to say that John Wright was found dead. In Jacob’s house.”

I choked.

It wasn’t what I had thought it would be. It was worse.

Jacob? Kill his brother John?

Impossible.

But before yesterday I would have said it was impossible for anyone to lie about a calling.

Impossible for someone to have two callings instead of one.

“Jacob is to be judged today for the crime,” Mama went on. “We all have to go.”

“No,” I said. “It can’t be.”

“Lissa, it is,” said Mama.

I shook my head.

She went on.

“You were with him yesterday morning. Did he say anything—odd—to you? Did you see anything?”

I wanted to think of something that would help, some proof that Jacob couldn’t have done it.

“Does anyone know when John was killed?” I asked hoarsely.

“Jessie might,” said Mama. “Do you want to come down and see her?”

I did.

So I went down and saw Jessie sitting at one of Mama’s tables, at the only chair that had been put up. She was sipping Mama’s coffee and picking at fresh biscuits. I thought about her on Jacob’s farm. Had the touchstone told her it would be hers?

“Lissa wanted to hear it from you herself,” said Mama. “She’s terrible broken up over it.”

Jessie nodded eagerly, proving she didn’t care. “Of course she is. Everyone knows she was friends with him.”

She told me what she knew. It wasn’t much. John Wright’s body had been found in Jacob Wright’s house, after his wife had been searching for him through the night.

“Where in the house?” I asked.

Jessie looked at me with her head tilted to one side. “Why does it matter?”

“It does,” I insisted.

“In the kitchen,” she said.

I breathed. Not in the attic, then. Not with the paintings.

“He was stabbed through the heart with one of Jacob’s knives. It’s still there, on the floor. He didn’t even try to hide it.” Jessie’s mouth twisted and I thought there was something wrong with what she said, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

“And then?” I said.

“And then his wife called for a judgment.”

“What about Jacob?” I asked. “What does he say?”

“That he’s innocent,” said Jessie.

And if he said that, it was good enough for me. “When is the judgment to be?”

“Today,” said Jessie. “At the house. John Wright’s body is still there. You’re all called to see it, to make your own judgment.”

I nodded. I was going, I knew that much. Even if I wasn’t allowed to vote yet. I was going to make sure Jacob had justice. Somehow.

“That will make two farms that will need working on,” said Mama. Her voice sounded far away, but I felt as though the force of them were pressing me back, back.

I clenched my fists hard. How nice for Jessie, I thought.

“Will there be sharing afterwards?” asked Mama. She was thinking ahead, to the end of the day. To people needing to eat, and wanting something good after a day of bitter judgment.

I didn’t want to think ahead.

“Can you bring some more orange marmalade chocolate cake?” Jessie asked.

“I will,” said Mama. “If I don’t have too much to do.”

“I’ll help,” I said heavily.

Jessie jumped to her feet. “Thank you, thank you!” She kissed me on the cheek and for one moment, we were back to where we had been before she was called. But the moment faded and slowly the knowledge of her calling seeped back into Jessie’s eyes.

“I’ll see you then,” she said with a nod.

“Yes,” I said simply.

Then Mama held the door open for Jessie to leave.

“Lissa, I’m sorry. I know he was your particular friend,” said Mama softly.

“He didn’t do it,” I insisted.

Mama didn’t say anymore then, but went directly to the kitchen. She started on an enormous batch of dough first.

“You’re going to whip those eggs to froth and let them float away,” Mama said, taking the fork away from me.

I handed the bowl to Mama and she poured them into the batter.

Then it was time to cut up chicken for filling. I brought her celery and onions and pickles to add in, but Mama didn’t ask me to chop and I didn’t offer. I’d probably have chopped straight through her best cutting board and broke her best knife in two.

“Do you remember Jessie on her touchstone day? She was happier about your cake than being a farmer. It’s not right for her. Anyone can see that,” I burst out.

But Mama wouldn’t agree with me so easily. “You can’t say what is right for other people, Lissa. That’s for the touchstone alone.”

#

That afternoon, the Johnsons came to get me and Mama and her food. As we drove on through the woods, I kept expecting to hear the noise of people ahead of us. But it came all at once, like opening a door. One moment we were still in the forest and the next, we were twenty feet from Jacob’s front door. What had been Jacob’s front door.

No one was called to be judge in Zicker. It was a task we all had to do together, everyone who was called, that is. Children were exempt from the duty, and all around they were playing, running and chasing each other. Except for me.

Mr. Steel stood beckoning us up the porch steps.

“You don’t have to come,” said Mama to me. “No one will think anything if you don’t.”

“Because I’m still a child,” I said. “Uncalled.”

Mama shrugged and walked forward. I did, too. I was not a child, even if I had no calling, and I was going to be part of this judgment.

The smell once inside was overpowering. It was like a piece of wood hitting you in the head. Hot and fetid. I breathed through my mouth and still it was there, clutching at my throat.

The kitchen was only steps ahead.

Mama was waiting for me.

Then there he was. The smell was worse, but it wasn’t that I gasped at. It was the sight of John Wright lying on his side, tumbled onto the floor in the corner, a hand over his stomach as if trying to keep away the knife. It hadn’t worked. The knife was still in his chest, gored in black blood that spilled over his neatly ironed plaid shirt.

“What a shame,” said Mama. “He was a handsome man.”

Perhaps, but he looked so little like his brother that it was hard for me to believe it was true. And Jacob was the only one I had ever cared about. John was so stern, so unforgiving. He had never spoken to me that I recall and his relationship with Jacob had always seemed strained.

“Where’s Jacob?” I asked.

We walked around the kitchen to the sitting room and found him on a sofa by the back window. He wasn’t moving. I couldn’t even see his chest rising and falling to breathe. He could have been one of his own paintings.

“Jacob?” asked Mama.

It was Jacob’s chance to say anything he wanted to in his own defense. But I could see he was so upset over his brother’s death, he wasn’t going to say anything at all. He seemed so trapped inside his own grief I didn’t know if he even saw us there.

I went over closer to him. I didn’t touch him or try to get him to talk to me, just stood there at his side so he’d know I wasn’t afraid of him even if others were.

While I was there, I heard him muttering to himself so softly I didn’t think anyone else would hear. “Got to burn the paintings,” was what he said.

Burn the paintings? The thought made me sick inside. All that work, all that beauty—destroyed? I had to think of a way to save them.

“Lissa, you ready to go now?” Mama asked.

I nodded and stepped back from Jacob. He still didn’t look at me.

Outside, the sun glared into my eyes and made them sting.

“Are you all right?” Mama asked. She put an arm around me and patted my shoulder. It felt good, and I took in her baking smell. It took away some of the smell of death.

“I’m all right,” I said.

“What do you think?”

“I think I’ve never seen someone so close to being broken.”

Mama nodded, and bit her lower lip. “But—did he do it?”

I didn’t believe it any more now than I did before. But it did not look good. Who else would have wanted to kill John Wright? And why would they do it in Jacob’s house?

The paintings, I repeated in my mind. Focus on the paintings and getting them to safety.

Mama’s restaurant was big enough that I was sure I could find some place to store them where Mama wouldn’t look, at least for a while. And by then, maybe it wouldn’t matter anymore that I had them.

It wasn’t long until the last of the town had come through the house where John Wright lay dead. Then came time for judgment. There was a long, uncomfortable moment as we all waited for someone else to begin.

Mama looked at me. I had always been the one to talk when no one else would. Mama said I liked words as much as anyone else liked apple pie and whipped cream. But I wasn’t going to talk first. Not here.

Finally a hand was raised, and Mrs. Wallace said she’d always liked Jacob Wright, but that he’d had a temper, even as a boy.

Then one of the other farmers, Mr. Stephens, raised his hand. “He was always fair when it came to farming. Never tried to cheat anyone out of a good price. And he worked hard.”

That was the best any of them could say of him, I suppose. Would Jacob be ashamed to know that this was what was remembered of him?

Not one of them knew about his paintings.

I did.

It was my turn now. I stood up and waited until I felt all eyes on me.

“Jacob is my friend,” I said. I was tired of hearing him talked about in the past tense. John was the one dead, not Jacob.

People turned to stare at me. It seemed that I’d become the center of a circle, everyone jostling in their positions to find a better spot.

“I can’t believe that the Jacob I knew would do this to his brother. Not unprovoked, at least. But I have no proof of it. And Jacob will not give us any of his own.”

I spoke calmly, and I could see heads nod around me. Far better to speak this way than to point an accusing finger and scream threats. All around me, I could feel a shifting of more than bodies.

I remembered suddenly the way that Daddy could change the atmosphere of a room from joy to sadness or from horror to love with just a few notes.

Maybe I had inherited something of Daddy’s, after all.

I went on, more fluidly.

“What all of us should remember is that Jacob has lived with us all these years and he has been one of us. We know him and we cannot believe he would do this. It could just as easily have been a passing stranger, an outsider, who came into the house. Perhaps John was there defending it in Jacob’s stead, and he paid the price for his loyalty with his life.”

My audience was listening, rapt.

And I dared to go on.

“Once there were two brothers,” I said. “And they were as different as sheep and dog. As different as salt and pepper. As different as called and uncalled.”

I was dripping sweat already.

I didn’t know how I would finish this thing I’d started. And what was I doing telling a story at a judgment? It didn’t make sense. I didn’t know where this story would go. I did not feel as though I were leading it. Is this the way Daddy had felt when he began a new song?

“The older brother liked to spend time in the sun, feeling the sweat trickle down his brow, hearing the sound of the world around him. The younger brother spent his time in the cellar, preferring thinking to doing. He ate well, and liked to let his food sit. His brother called him lazy, but he said he was joyful in the quiet moments of life.”

This was like Jacob and John Wright in a way. We had all known that the two did not get along well.

“As the two brothers grew to be men, the older complained more and more that he was doing the lion’s share of the work, that his brother did nothing but eat the proceeds of another’s labor. What did he produce? Nothing but the butterfly’s wings of his thoughts, and no one could eat those.”

Now I was telling of myself as much as of Jacob. But I was also the older brother, too. I could be both at once, and I wanted the same of my audience. Even of John’s wife, who stood at the edge of the audience, trying with her hard face not to listen to my story, not to feel what I meant her to feel.

“The younger brother, on the other hand,” I said, “complained that the older brother knew nothing of satisfaction. For all he worked, the older brother did not spend a moment taking in the beauty of his creations. He simply moved on to another task, and then another. Nothing was enough for him, and so it was that the younger brother excused his weaknesses.

“But at last the day came when the older brother would have no more of the situation. He threw the younger brother out of his home and refused him even a loaf of bread to make his journey to another town. The younger brother had only the shirt on his back and the fork in his hand to bring with him.”

There was a bit of laughter at this, which I did not understand until I looked over at Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson stared at her stout husband and poked his stomach with every description of the younger brother.

It was working, I thought. She thought I was speaking to her and her husband. The story was about them, too. About us all.

The words came more quickly now, like a waterfall that I was not meant to hold. They sprayed out, beauty shared with all.

“The younger brother moved slowly at first, surprised at how difficult it was to make the mass of his body take steps. He had not realized how long it had been since he had walked more than the distance from his cool hideaway under the house, where it was easy to access his food and easier still to think lofty thoughts without ever trying them in action.

“After only a dozen steps, he had to find a tree to rest under. He walked a dozen more, and found a berry bush to eat from. Then a dozen more, to a stream to drink from. On and on he went, offering himself tiny rewards for his efforts. But it was dark before he reached the end of town and he had no interest in asking for lodging other than at home. So he stayed where he was, slumped next to a tree, and let the night pass.

“In the morning, he woke stiff and sore, and kept moving. His pride demanded that he not ask for help. And so he left the town where he had been born and he did not look back. He followed the path of the stream so that he would always have water to slake his thirst and trees to shade him when he needed to rest body and mind. And there were always berries to be picked and roots to be dug near the stream.

“Days went by, and then weeks. Then summer was gone and even autumn was waning. The stream had turned into a river. The river into a sea. And the younger brother had grown thin and strong. His face was tan, his eyes bright. He had met many other travelers on his way. But he found that he still liked a cool, quiet place where he could think his thoughts.”

There was a gentle breeze that blew down the mountain, as if the touchstone, too, were asking for more of the story.

“Sometimes the younger brother shared his thoughts with others. More often, he did not. The stream took care of his needs. He wandered back up the stream and years later, found himself home once more. He was not recognized by any who knew him, however. His own brother greeted him warmly and invited him to come home and sup with his family, never once uttering the younger brother’s name.

“The older brother had grown old and gray with his worry. His hands were gnarled; his knees ached; his skin sagged. But it was true that his home was larger and better than ever. His lands were rich with bounty and all who spoke of him knew of his wealth.”

John’s wife looked satisfied at least with this description in the story. Her husband had done well by her and their son. But I had the feeling her satisfaction would not last long.

“The younger brother stayed many days. He ate as he had not eaten in years. He began to grow fat once more. And it was not many weeks before his brother stared at him from a distance and knew him once more. The older brother raced towards the younger then, ready to embrace him.

“But the younger brother was afraid. He was certain his brother would set him out once more. And though he was glad he had gone on his first journey, glad that he had learned what he had, still he remembered how difficult it had been. He did not yearn for it to begin again.

“But the older brother only wept and said that he was sorry, that he had missed his brother all these years and was glad he was back. He could have all he wished, could think his thoughts and do no more than remain where he was. The older brother would be happy with that.

“Astonished the younger brother agreed to this offer, and stayed. In time, he grew fatter than ever he had been before.”

I stared at Mr. Johnson, and felt suddenly as though I understood him now. I had been Mr. Johnson, just as I had been the younger brother.

“He thought he was happy. He and his brother spoke at night, when it was cool. The younger brother shared his deepest thoughts. The older brother considered them carefully and with great thanks. But one day, the younger brother asked if the older brother had in fact done as the younger brother suggested.

“The older brother admitted he had not. And when asked why, he said that it was a fine thought, but it wasn’t a useful one.”

There was a cough from John Wright’s wife, and her son began to weep.

The attention of the crowd was split, then drawn entirely away from me.

I tried to wrest it back, but suddenly I found that the story wasn’t coming out of me freely as it had been before. I hesitated, then saw the faces around me waiting, and knew I had to continue. There had to be an ending, but I did not know what it was.

I pushed towards it, working hard as I hadn’t before, the words coming slowly and with my feeling that they could not be right.

“The younger brother was angry with this, and told the older brother that he was only pretending to listen. He said that the older brother had never wished him to come back and that he still thought of him as lazy and useless.

“The older brother couldn’t deny this. He enjoyed his brother’s company and he had enough that he did not mind sharing it. But he did not value his brother’s thoughts.”

Still there were eyes that drifted away from me, towards the widow and her poor son. But I could not give up.

What could happen next? It seemed there were only a few choices. I struggled with them, then went with the one that had come to my mind first. Did that mean it was right?

I had no more time to wait. I had to go forward, right or not. Any end was better than none at all, I thought.

“This time, the younger brother set himself out of the house. The older brother followed him to the other side of town, begging him to rest, to take some food, to stay. But the younger brother kept on, his heart leaping in his chest until he thought it would leap right out his throat.

“At last, the older brother gave up and the younger brother did as he had done before. He followed the stream to the ocean, eating berries, and growing thinner and stronger with each step of the way. When he stopped to rest at last, he sat and watched the shore licking at the sand for a long time. His deepest thoughts focused on that simple repeated action and gradually, he understood what it meant.”

I had to end with a moral, and I had to show that this story was connected to Jacob and John Wright, for it was a judgment we were at. So the story that had grown to mean many things had to be pressed back to one. I felt as though I had been running a race and was coming to the end, my heart pounding in my chest as my feet throbbed.

“He could never go back. For he and his brother were as the water and the shore. Where the one increased, the other decreased.”

It was too brief, too bold. What did it mean? Everything and nothing.

I looked around at my audience. Did they know, too, that the story was lacking? It was not entirely useless, but I could see people looking at each other in confusion. And I felt the same. Whatever I had hoped to achieve with my words, I had failed.

Failed again.

“Lissa,” I heard Mama say from the side.

I turned to her. Her face was pale and shining. “That was a beautiful story. Your daddy would be so proud of you, if he had been here to see this day.”

But he wouldn’t be proud, I thought. He couldn’t be, not when I’d ended the story so badly. Daddy would never have done that. He had always known the ending of a song before he started.

Now Anne, John Wright’s wife stepped forward with her little boy clinging to her skirts as she moved. “Maybe it isn’t my place to talk yet,” she said. But there was steel in her voice that said it was. And something else—something that sneered at the story I’d just told. I was just a little girl, not even called yet. What did I have to say that mattered?

And besides, she was the one who’d been hurt. It was her loss. They had to be on her side for that, if for nothing else.

“I want you all to remember me and my son and what we’ll be missing the rest of our lives because of what Jacob Wright done to my John. And for what reason? Sure, they might have fought plenty, but it wasn’t ever meant bad by John. He tried to help his brother time and again, and did Jacob show a bit of gratitude for it? No.

“He was always surly, never taking advice if he could help it, and complaining afterwards. As if it were my John’s fault. But if Jacob didn’t want to hear him, he could have just turned away. There was no reason for my John to be killed. No reason at all.”

And my story had said nothing about a death at the end, given no explanation for it. It was only about two brothers who did not get along, and as she said, if Jacob had not wanted to listen, there were other things he could have done.

I had not once in my story offered another explanation for the death. I had not once mentioned another who might have done it. But there was one person who had a reason to wish John dead, and Jacob accused of the murder. More than one person, really. A whole family.

I looked around for Jessie and the Martins. They were here somewhere. I’d seen them during my story, but now they’d moved. Away from me and towards Anne Wright.

Jessie was looking the farmhouse up and down, but her mother pulled her face back to the front. Erica didn’t look my way at all. I waited for one of them to speak, to support Anne Wright and her anger. It would have made me more sure that they were part of this.

But they didn’t say a word.

In the end, it was Mr. Steel who stood up for Anne’s side. “I don’t see any doubt in this,” he said, rubbing a hand over his chin. He looked towards me, apologetically, but without any guilt in his eyes. He was being kind to a young girl, no more than that.

“Brother killing brother, that’s what it is. We all saw the anger before now between them. We all know what the judgment should be. Who says Jacob is a murderer who will be banished from Zicker til the end of his days?”

Jacob could be buried here, but that would be his only chance to come back. It was the worst punishment that could be given at a judgment. Outside it might be different, but here in Zicker, that’s the way it was.

People started raising their hands to vote.

Then I remembered the paintings. It was the only thing left I could do for Jacob. I had to get to them.

I ran from Mama.  I heard her calling for me from behind, but I headed towards the woods, back to the restaurant, so she’d think she would find me there when it was all over.

Then I doubled back and went back inside Jacob’s house. The smell seemed ten times worse than before. I breathed through my mouth and it felt like John’s thick blood had filled my throat and I could not get it out.

I passed right by Jacob, stood in front of him for a long moment, thinking that now at the very end, he would have to say something. And when he did, I’d tell him what I was there for, and he’d tell me the paintings were mine if I wanted them.

But as the silence drew on, I was afraid that he would tell me to destroy them instead. And I couldn’t do that.

So I hurried to the attic and the rope ladder. I think I half-expected the paintings to be gone. But they were still there. I stared at the one of Mama, then touched the canvas gingerly, as if it would burn my fingers as they rolled it up. The others I did the same with, rolling as tightly as I could, then putting on roll inside another until I had all of them. Together, they were about the size around of one of Mama’s buckets, but they were a lot taller. Could I put them in the wagon without anyone noticing?

I looked around and saw a big burlap sack that looked like it had come from the barn. But it didn’t smell of the barn when I got close to it. It smelled of paint and sweat and dust.

Jacob must have left it here long ago.

I tugged the paintings into it one by one. In the end, it was bigger than I was and I doubted how easily I would be able to get it to the wagon alone. My heart beat in my throat as I considered what I would say if I was caught.

I just couldn’t be caught.

I dragged the burlap sack down the ladder with me, a cloud of dust accompanying us both. We went past Jacob once more, but this time I did not even look at him.

I went out the front door, because the judgment had been around back. But the judgment was over and already there were half a dozen people coming towards wagons to bring out the food for the sharing.

What difference did it make? I asked myself. They didn’t know what was in the burlap sack. They couldn’t guess, either. And if anyone were going to steal from this farmhouse, it would be something valuable.

So, pushing and pulling, I got it to the wagon. Then I lay on top of it, panting, feeling Jacob’s dreams surround me.

I’d done it. I’d saved his paintings. Mama would let them come out later, one by one. And if people asked what they were, maybe she’d even tell them the truth.

“Lissa, what’s that you’ve got there?”

It was Jessie.

“Nothing,” I said.

She climbed up on the wagon. “Nothing?” she said.

I moved away from the rolled-up paintings and brushed my hands from the dust. “Did you see the chocolate-marmalade cake?” I asked.

She nodded. “Had two pieces already. Daddy said I could eat whatever I wanted, now I’ve been called.”

“Lucky you,” I said. I eased away from the paintings, to the edge of the wagon bed. “Mama will probably make me eat my vegetables first.”

Jessie climbed off the wagon bed with me.

I almost thought I’d done it.

“Those aren’t yours,” said Jessie, pointing to the sack. “They should be Anne Wright’s, you know.”

“No,” I said. “They’re Jacob’s, and he said I could have them.”

“He’s been banished,” said Jessie. “Nothing is his no more.”

I closed my eyes. They really had banished him, then.

My mouth twisted hard. “You keep quiet about those or else,” I threatened her.

“Or else what?” asked Jessie, eyes wide.

I had no idea what I was saying. I spewed out the worst thing I could think of. I wanted to hurt her, because it was her fault this had begun. All her fault, and the touchstone’s. “Or else I’ll tell that you never were called. You just said you were, so you could be a farmer like your daddy. You pretended the touchstone came to you at night, and then you went up the mountain—”

“No!” shouted Jessie, catapulting towards me, throwing me back in the wagon. She pummeled me. I kicked at her.

Mama came and pulled us apart. “What’s this all about?” she demanded of me.

“It’s not hers,” said Jessie, pointing to the sack. “It’s Anne Wright’s. She was trying to take it away.”

Mama looked to me, giving me a chance to explain. Her own private judgment, but it was no more fair than Jacob’s had been.

I sagged. “They’re Jacob’s,” I said. “He wanted me to have them.” I hoped she would not ask him personally. I doubted he would confirm my words.

Somehow things had fallen apart since my story. The power of my words had faded, falling out of my hands like water.

“If they are, we’ll ask Anne if we may have them,” said Mama, her arm steel on my neck, leading me forward on what seemed the longest walk of my life. At the end, there was Anne Wright with her son at her side.

“What is it, Lissa?” Mama pinched me for the truth. “What’s in the wagon?”

I lowered my head, conscious of my defeat. “Paintings,” I said. “Jacob’s paintings.”

But that wasn’t enough for Anne. She had to go to the wagon and see them. She had to take them out one by one and let everyone view them.

No wonder Jacob had wanted them destroyed, I thought. Far better that than to let this happen to them.

Each one was displayed and snickered at. The colors were made fun of, and Jacob’s eyes. Did he see that red in the mountain? No wonder he’d killed his brother then. He was crazy as an outsider who stayed too long in Zicker.

It was Mama who ended it. I will be forever grateful to her for that much, at least.

“I think they are lovely,” she said. “They are just like us, in a way. In Jacob’s way.”

“I thought he was a farmer,” said someone else.

“What did he waste time on all these for?” asked another.

But there was no answer for it, no more than the story they’d already heard.

“They’re mine anyway,” said Anne Wright, taking hold of the burlap sack and dragging it to the end of the wagon so she could jam the paintings back in.

“What are you going to do with them?” I asked, my stomach churning.

“That’s not your business,” said Anne, a gleam in her eyes like the fire that I knew she would throw them to.

“Wait,” said Mama.

Everyone looked to her. Except for me. I did not imagine she could do more than she already had.

“You could trade them,” she said.

“Trade them to who?” asked Anne dismissively.

Mama lifted an arm out to take us all in. “To the ones in them. We don’t have much chance to get portraits painted, now, do we?” She stared around. “I want mine, at least.”

“What will you offer for it?” asked Anne.

“A dozen meals, perhaps?” asked Mama. She clutched my hand and pulled me closer to her. “And a dozen for Lissa’s?”

“Make it two dozen for each painting,” said Anne, bargaining shrewdly. “Four dozen in all.”

I did not expect Mama to agree to it.

Neither, apparently, did Anne Wright.

“Done,” said Mama.

And Anne Wright gaped.

But Mama nodded to me and I bent to pick up those two paintings. How desperately I wanted to touch the others, but my fingers were ice-stiff. I could not even roll the two up that I had. I put them in the wagon open.

A few others volunteered to take the paintings they recognized, at prices John’s wife agreed to. The rest were bundled up, put back in the burlap sack and handed into her own wagon.

It was all that could be done.

“Now I will be on my way,” said Anne Wright angrily. And she left us all behind.

There was no point in pretending anymore then. I wept bitter tears. I could feel the people shift around me. No one had the heart to remain any longer, not even to finish Mama’s food. It was packed back in the wagon, Mama’s first leftovers, because of me.

“Get in the wagon,” said Mama then. “I will sit back with you.”

We waited for the Johnsons to climb in front and then we were off, feeling the jolt of every bump along the way. When we were back at the restaurant once more, Mama took the paintings inside and laid them out on two tables.

“I don’t know quite what to do with them, Lissa,” she said.

I didn’t argue with her.

All I had to do was remember the look on Anne Wright’s face, and the fact that no one else had offered anything for their paintings.

#

The next morning, I went back up the mountain the way I had gone the first time, passing through Jacob Wright’s fields, seeing his farmhouse in the distance, now empty and dark. His cattle had been spread out to other herds. His fields would be harvested by another, but not cared for as he would have done.

I’m doing this for him, I told myself. To make sure that what he went through will never happen again.

It was a long climb. I thought that it would be easier the second time, but I stumbled more and the rocks seemed steeper than ever. Even the sky seemed to be against me. Instead of a clear blue sky and a sharp sun shining down on me, the sky was dark and moody, the wind gusting up roughly now and again, when I was least expecting it. And despite my sweating, I shivered and wished I had thought to bring my coat.

Finally, I reached the top. My heart was beating so fast that I nearly fell over with light-headedness. But I stood still for a long while, thinking of the other touchstones I had heard. I couldn’t expect this one to speak to me so clearly. But I would hear something, I was sure of it.

And yet I trembled as I pushed through the thorns, my hands stretching out to reach the cold black I knew was there. I could not find it—could not find it—half-wondered if somehow Mr. Martin had moved it to a different location, or destroyed it altogether.

Then it was there, under my fingertips. I breathed, and felt a sudden calm.

Not my own calm.

“I came back,” I said out loud. I did not expect to hear an answer, but I did.

“You need no calling,” said the touchstone. “None of you, and you least of all.”

My ears seemed to ring.

“You know already who you are and what you are meant to be.”

“What are you talking about? I have no idea.”

“You are the storyteller. You have been from the day you were born and you discovered it yesterday”

I lifted my hand from the stone, trying to gather my swirling thoughts back to myself.

“You will know what you must do. When the time comes,” said the touchstone.

“When what time comes? What do you mean—what am I supposed to do?”

But the touchstone would not answer me.

I stepped away from the thorns.

I could still hear a buzzing sound in my head, but it was indistinct. I grasped for the meaning of it, but caught only a hint of a word. It might have been, “Return,” but that could have meant so many things that I did not trust it.

I went back down the mountain as heavily as I had gone down the first time. My hopes were as crushed as before, and they had been larger hopes.

#

At the restaurant that night Mama had more leftovers than she knew what to do with. I felt guilty that it was my fault, for what I’d said about Jacob. Finally, as she looked around at the cooked food, she suggested that I go out and around Zicker and knock on doors, offering the bread she’d baked that day, along with some of the barbecued pork.

“Please,” she said. “I don’t want it to go to waste.”

I couldn’t say no to her. I went up past the Wright farms, where things were still and dark, across to the valley where most of the houses lay at the mouth of the river. It felt chilly enough that I wished I’d brought a sweater, but I tried to walk as fast as I could from house to house.

The first door I went to was Mr. Dour, the blacksmith. Susan opened the door. It was the first time we’d met since she’d hit me by the well, the morning I’d gone to demand a calling from the touchstone. She seemed smaller somehow. Wiry, but not as big as I remembered.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, fists tight. When she saw Tristan, though, she lowered them.

“I came to bring some of Mama’s food,” I said.

“I can’t spare anything to trade today.” Susan reached for the door, but I put my foot in to catch the door.

“There’s no trading for this. It’s a gift from my mama.” I put it down on the porch and walked away, so that if she refused it, she would have to know I wasn’t taking it back.

She stared at me, then held out her hands and I put the bread and pork into them.

I went to the next house, and the next, and on down to the river. Only one person took the bread gladly and said thank you. The others were furtive in their acceptance. Mr. Lin, the wheelwright, refused the bread altogether. And when I left it on his doorstep anyway, he kicked it into the dirt, then went out and stamped on it with his foot as well, and spat at me for the trouble when he passed back by me.

As I turned back home, the sun was falling behind the mountain where the touchstone rested. The sky went from purple to gray to black in a matter of moments. It was the most beautiful thing I could imagine, and I wondered if Jacob had tried to capture that on one of his canvases.

Then the stars came out one by one, blinking to us.

Jessie Martin was waiting at the door to the restaurant when I came back.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, because she was shivering and rubbing her shoulders with her hands, up and down, up and down.

She shook her head and I could see a faint stain of blood on her lower lip, where she’d been biting is so hard. Was she trying not to talk? What was it she didn’t want me to know?

I ushered her inside and told Mama that she was here, and in a bad way.

Mama was cleaning in the kitchen, but she came out to see Jessie for herself. Then she glanced at me, her eyes shadowed in worry.

“Jessie, would you like to come in the kitchen and wait while I make some hot chocolate?” she asked. “After you drink it, maybe you could go to sleep, at least for a little while. And in the morning, we might all be able to think with clearer heads.”

Jessie nodded and led where Mama gently took her. I followed them and helped with the hot chocolate. It was soothing, though, doing the simple steps that led to hot chocolate. Hot milk on the stove. A spoon of cocoa, a dash of cinnamon and salt, then lots of sugar. Jessie’s face went from cool to a normal shade of pink to almost rosy when she held the cup of steaming cocoa under her nose.

She tagged after me up to the spared bedroom overhead, but I could hear her tossing and turning all night long. She woke early enough to catch Mama making bread the next morning in the kitchen.

After Mama turned back to the stove to get out the next batch of bread, I moved to start with the dishes. Jessie stopped me with a touch to the arm.

“I did pretend to be called,” she said simply to me. “I didn’t know how you knew, and I couldn’t admit it then.” She waited, looking at me.

I nodded.

She licked at her lips, then closed her eyes briefly and went on, as if she was forcing herself to do something that she’d thought about many times before. “I was too terrified of what he would do if I wasn’t called to be a farmer. But I didn’t know he would go that far—” she stopped.

I desperately wanted to hound her to finish. Instead, I held my tongue and bided my time.

“He was the one who killed John Wright,” she finally got out, half in a whisper, half in a rush.

I sighed.

I should have been more surprised, but I wasn’t.

I knew Jacob Wright hadn’t done it, after all. And Jessie’s family had benefited from it.

“When did you find out?” I asked.

“Last night,” said Jessie, swallowing hard. “I told him that you knew the truth, that I hadn’t been called to be a farmer. I said I should wait until my real calling came, that there wasn’t any shame in waiting a few more years.”

“But he didn’t agree?”

Jessie shook her head violently. “He asked me how I thought Zicker would get along, now that it was missing two farmers. He said there was no way of knowing if the touchstone would ever call anyone to take over those plots. And then what would become of us? He made it all sound like it was my fault.”

He would, I thought. He was good at that.

“But when I wouldn’t promise him to stop talking about the touchstone’s real calling for me, he told me about John Wright. He told me every detail of it. How he planned it, to make sure that Jacob Wright would be blamed for it. How he sent a note to John Wright to ask him to meet there with all the other farmers, to discuss my calling. Only there weren’t any other farmers there. Only him and John. And the knife from the kitchen.”

It was like she was in a trance, telling a story that had nothing to do with her. Her voice was monotone, but the words were chilling. I could see it all happen in my head.

“And Jacob?” I got out.

“Papa made sure he wasn’t there, at the time. But that he’d come back and see his brother on his own kitchen floor, killed with his own knife, surrounded in blood. Papa said he was sure he wouldn’t flee, that he would be too stunned to try to cover up the crime. He said he knew Jacob Wright too well.”

But he hadn’t known Jacob at all. That was part of what made me so angry, that none of us had. Only the bits and pieces he let us know.

I tried to get Jessie to come outside with me after that, to play by the river or climb the trees, but she was too afraid.

Finally, Mama offered to show her some cooking skills and Jessie brightened up immediately. I watched for a little while, but then it was too painful. It seemed that they moved so well together, as though Jessie had been the one at Mama’s side for all these years, instead of me.

Why had I never guessed that Jessie’s calling ought to have been Mama’s? Jealousy?

I left them talking about the perfect pie crust shape, kept cool and little-touched, and went outside to gather berries.

There was no sign that Mr. Martin knew where Jessie had gone or even cared. No one came to the restaurant asking after her. No one came at all, to get even a glimpse of her.

Jessie seemed calmer the next day, or perhaps she was only distracted by her happiness to be working with Mama. She woke up, hands stained with berry juice and went straight to the kitchen without a word. There was even a smile on her face and she did not touch the purpling marks on her neck as she had constantly at first.

It was the next morning, just before dawn, when they came, Mr. Martin and the others.

I could hear the noise of them from some distance away, and sat upright in the room that Jessie and I were sharing, wondering if I should wake her or let her sleep. Was there any hope that Mr. Martin would go away without her?

“Lissa?” Jessie was awake, after all.

“Shhh,” I said, straining my ears to hear any hint of what would come next.

“He’s come for me, hasn’t he?” Jessie whimpered, hugging her knees to her chest. The little girl again. She seemed to have lost years since her touchstone day.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said immediately. “He’s not going to hurt you. I promise you that.”

There was a sudden cracking sound downstairs, and Tristan’s voice crying out. They’d forced open the door. We had to get away!

Then Mama came in, closing the door behind her.

I got up and Mama came in, closing the door behind her.

“Can you go out the window?” she asked.

“And then where?” Was there no place in all of Zicker where Jessie would be safe?

“Outside,” said Mama. “You go with her, Lissa. Make sure she gets across the river safe. Then stay with her.”

I didn’t take Jessie across the river, though I had promised Mama I would. I took her to the cover of trees nearby, helped her climb to the top and made sure no one could see her. Then I ran back to the restaurant.

It was already burning.

The flames shot up out of the roof like dancers to some song I could not hear. I ran for the door, which was still open. I don’t know if I thought I could save Mama and or if I wanted to die with her, but a strong arm pulled me back.

I struggled, kicking and scratching, then felt a sharp pain to my head. I blacked out after that, and woke again to the smell of smoldering ruins. I could see the restaurant in the distance, but the silhouette had changed entirely. The roof had fallen in the middle and there was only a skeleton of beams left.

Except for the kitchen. Mama’s kitchen with its huge iron stove and ice box, had been unwrapped from its wooden packaging, but seemed unharmed.

Jessie, I thought. Had Mama known she would die? Had she left this for Jessie? What about for me?

“You’re lucky I didn’t strangle you.” It was Mr. Martin, standing over me.

I could not get to my feet. I felt blood in my mouth, spat it out at him, and missed him by a long way.

He laughed.

Then he came closer, within arm’s reach. “Try it again,” he threatened me.

But I had lost my taste for revenge. It did not matter. He did not matter.

Mama was dead. There was nothing left to fight for.

“Where is she?” demanded Mr. Martin, coming close enough now that I could smell the alcohol on his breath. Bought from the outside, for it couldn’t have come from Zicker.

“Where is my daughter?” Mr. Martin asked, again, as if I hadn’t understood the first time.

I shook my head.

He hit me again, in nearly the same place he had caught me before. I teetered on the edge of falling unconscious again. I wished that I had. Instead he pulled me up sharp against his chest and began to twist my arm back.

The pain was more than I could have imagined, and I had always thought my imagination was immense. No dream could hurt like this.

“Tell me where she is and I will let you go.”

“No,” I said through clenched teeth.

He twisted harder. I couldn’t hear if he said anything then, but I kept shaking my head to make it clear I would not give him what he wanted, what he had already killed for, three times over.

It wasn’t until he let go of me, disgusted, that I fell with my face to the dirt.

When Mr. Martin went away, and I saw a few other men cross between me and the restaurant with him, I dared to crawl towards the fire once more. I just had to go there, see what it was. Something about knowing the truth so that I could tell it.

The roof was still falling in flakes with the light wind. It felt like fall as I walked through the door. The sunlight streamed through overhead, as though I were in a clearing in a forest.

Mama’s body was in the doorway, on her back, her eyes up to the sky.

“No!” I cried out. “No!” I fell over her and wept. Her body was still warm, but warm from the fire, not from her own life.

I thought of all the moments that I would never share again with Mama. Seeing her in the kitchen with her hair askew, and oblivious because she was with her bread. Mama in her beekeeper’s outfit, with honey dripping from the combs. Mama picking crabapples, and peaches, covered with fruit and sugar from the jam.

Mama holding me in bed when I was sick, giving me drinks though I threw them back up. Mama telling me of her touchstone day, and assuring me that I would have mine, one day.

Well, it had come. Mama knew what I was, and the touchstone day stew hadn’t mattered then.

Mama would have wanted to hear my stories the rest of my life. I knew that. She would have been proud of me. She would not have understood me anymore than she understood Tristan and his songs, but she would have stepped back and applauded for me. She would have—

But she would not.

I felt the sobs rising up in my chest. My throat ached and my head felt heavy and as filled with fire as the restaurant had been that morning. I let one sob go, but I held the rest. I saved them. For the story.

Mama’s story.

Then I turned and went back the way I had come.

The stairs crumbled beneath my feet as I moved down them. I went outside to the river, to drink and cool my face. Then I went back to the tree where I had left Jessie and told her to come down.

“It’s time for a judgment,” I said. And together we walked towards the other end of town, knocking on doors and calling for a judgment. I was afraid of the outcome, but it was our way. And Mr. Martin was only one man. He had not had so many with him as I had imagined. Only a few. The rest were just afraid.

But they came when we called. They came because of what they saw in our faces, and because of what many of them had seen that morning, the streak of fire above the restaurant. And they came for Mama.

#

 

I found Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and made sure Jessie was safe with them. Then I moved through the rest of the crowd, answering questions if they were asked, and assuring people that the judgment would soon begin. No one had had time to bring food to this judgment. It seemed to me a kind of memorial to Mama, that we would all go hungry. But it was also a reminder that this was not like any other judgment.

It was close to noon when I saw Mr. Martin being pushed forward, towards the now cold and lifeless restaurant. One of the men who held him had been here this morning. He had changed sides quickly, I thought. Perhaps there would be a judgment for him later, and the others. But not now.

Mr. Martin sneered at me, pretending he did not care about the judgment. “The accused speaks first,” he reminded me.

“Speak, then,” I said. I did not let myself feel fear. I had not told the story well at Jacob Wright’s judgment, but I had learned since then. I knew who I was. And I knew who he was.

It would be different this time. This time my story would win.

Mr. Martin spoke loudly, as if to me, though I knew he was speaking to everyone gathered. Those who were trying to pull him closer to the restaurant stopped. We were by Mama’s shed. If I opened the door, I thought, and let the bees come out—but no, that would not be punishment enough for him.

“Your mother took my daughter away from me,” said Mr. Martin. “I knew she wouldn’t let me speak to her. I was terrified for her and for the lies that your mother poured into her ears. Everyone knew what she was saying, but they didn’t believe it. They know me too well.”

I nodded, not bothering to interrupt. He would have his chance and I would have mine.

Mr. Martin’s face was very dark and he wiped frequently at the trickles of sweat running down his face. “I came this morning to ask once more if I could see her, but she met me at the door and began to shout at me. She threw herself at me.” He gestured at a scar on his face.

This was his story, I thought. It was not a poor one, as far as stories go. There was emotion in it, and he tried to make his listeners feel for him. But Mr. Martin did not understand that the story might have had more power if it had its own life. He tried to keep it too firmly attached to himself.

I thought again about the story I had told at Jacob’s judgment. It was when I had been afraid and tried to force the words that it had gone so wrong. I had wanted it to say what I wanted it to say, and you had to trust the story to do that, to come out of yourself and be part of you. If you did not, then it never could do what it was meant to do. It could not change anyone.

“Then we went up the stairs because I could hear sounds up there. I was sure Jessie was there. I knew she would want to see me, her own father. But the door was locked against me.” He looked around, his eyes trying to find another pair to anchor on. But they kept slipping away. Too light for the load.

“I kicked the door down at last, and I saw two beds inside. Jessie had been there, but she was gone. I asked the woman where my daughter was, but she would not answer me. I asked her again. I shook her.” Now he was the one shaking. “But she would not say.

“Then I thought I saw movement outside, on the ground. I moved to the window. I meant only to smash out the glass. But she stepped in my way. The hammer struck her in the face.” He winced at this, but I had seen my mother’s body already. I knew where he had hit her.

“I did not mean to kill her. I swear it. I will give whatever reparations are judged necessary, to her daughter.” He swallowed, as if he really cared. “But I did it all for my daughter’s sake.” His voice had drifted away.

He did not know that endings are the most important of all. Or perhaps he did, and found no way to twist it the way he wanted, in the end.

Perhaps there was no way to twist a lie to sound like truth for long.

I waited until he had given up, and then I took my place, feet firmly apart, directly below the window where my mother had been killed. I looked out into the faces that I had known every day of my life, and they waited for me to tell my story.

They knew it, too, I thought. They knew I was a storyteller. It did not matter what the touchstone said. They could see it in me, a calling as sure as any other.

I told about Mama, about her cooking. Her bread. Her barbecued pork. Her hot chocolate and berry pies. Her biscuits dripping with hot butter. Her sugared tea with cream. Her fried okra and her greens with bacon. Her twice baked potatoes and gingerbread.

Then I told about her and my daddy, about how much she’d loved him and he’d loved her. How he’d died in the river and she’d had to come home to tell me. And to go on with her life, because she believed that it was still worth living. Because she loved me, yes, but also because she loved herself. And the restaurant. And the two of Zicker itself.

I told about how I asked her often about her calling by the touchstone, and why I hadn’t been called yet. I tried to make my voice sound like hers when she spoke gently to me, reassuringly. “There’s time yet for that.”

I pointed at Jessie and said that Mama hadn’t known taking her in would end in her death. “But if she had, she’d have done it just the same. Because she was always the kind of person who knew what was right. She didn’t need anyone to tell her what was right. Just like she didn’t need the touchstone to tell me I wasn’t meant to be a cook, or that I wasn’t meant to be a singer like Daddy.”

Only I was like Daddy, more than I’d ever understood. I didn’t have the music he had, or at least not the pleasantness of it. But there was music in my story, in the rhythm of the flow and the way that my voice changed and grew louder or softer, more strident, or more harsh.

“She wasn’t the one who told me that there are too many people who go to the touchstone and call themselves to what they want, but I think she knew it. She loved Zicker more than she loved that stone up on the hill. She loved all of you. As much as she loved me, I think.” That was what helped accept her death, the idea that she had died to make Zicker live on.

“We don’t need a stone to tell us who we are. We should be telling the stone, all of us, and not pretending about it. In the end, don’t we all call ourselves? If we didn’t, we’d be miserable. It’s time for us to choose our own futures, and not make excuses anymore.”

I knew there was a danger in this. Jessie’s father wasn’t the only one who’d try to force his child to accept a calling that wasn’t in their heart. But it was time for us to stop assuming that we only ever received one call, or that we couldn’t have two calls at once, as Jacob had. One that was for others, for Zicker, and one that was for ourselves.

“Do you understand?” I asked.

I looked into their eyes, and I knew. I’d found my own calling. I’d given it to myself. This was it. I spoke, and others listened. Call it storytelling. Call it music. Call it changing people’s hearts or inventing a new future. This was who I was.

“Come with me!” I cried, and led them up the mountain to the touchstone, to return our callings to it. It would never have power over us again, if we all stood before it and took our power back.

 

___

Copyright 2019 Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison writes The Bishop’s Wife mystery series for Soho Press and has written many YA fantasies, including The Princess and the Hound. She holds a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University, is an All-American triathlete, and is working on several autism positive books.

The Mortal Shackles

by

Christopher A. Jos

Quillen crouched at the cliff’s edge, the barrel of his rifle protruding over the remnants of a jagged stone slab. His elbow rested upon the flesh above one knee, stock pressed into the crook of his opposite shoulder.

It was almost time.

Three horse-drawn wagons rushed along the dirt road across an endless expanse of parched and dusty plain. Despite looking nearly identical to other such drab vehicles found across the Wilds, these covered transports hid something far more valuable within. Gold and silver coins of various denominations. Firearms, ammunition, precious stones, even raw emptherra ore.

But armed men would be hiding inside as well. The gang’s sources had confirmed it.

“What’s taking so long, marksman?”

Quillen glanced sideways at Fleur Augustine from under his wide-brimmed hat. The woman’s left eye peered through an extended metal spyglass at the scene below, her right concealed beneath a faded gray bandage.

“About time these merchants got wise to our presence,” Augustine’s words betrayed the hint of a Lamarian accent. A subtle inflection―the lengthening of every vowelled syllable. “Not that hiring those Coltons will do them much good. Bunch of glorified bounty hunters.”

Her other arm was wrapped around the shoulders of a mousy looking girl pressed against her chest. The child looked about ten or so, posture stiff, matted brown hair obscuring her downcast eyes and freckled face.

Quillen repositioned the rifle barrel, but didn’t take aim yet. The men in the wagons would be armed with the same lever-action Wexlers as him, a weapon that still felt extremely foreign. If only he’d had his Vicrosse rifle instead with its -longer reach and far more familiar weight. But it had been too great a risk to carry about, especially if someone out here recognized it.

“Well? What’re you waiting for?” Augustine collapsed the spyglass and glared at him. Breaking daylight reflected off the hilts of two combat knives and a holstered revolver at her waist. Dark red tattoos in a freefall blood splatter pattern adorned the joints of her elbows.

“Patience, Miss Augustine,” Quillen said.

Augustine grabbed the girl’s chin and raised it toward the passing wagons. “Dear One, you mustn’t look away now. The show’s about to start.”

But the girl’s eyes remained fixed to the ground. Augustine had forced her to watch every one of these waylays ever since Quillen first joined them all those months ago.

“No more slip-ups, marksman.” Augustine stroked the girl’s hair and hummed a soft tune, a series of long notes ascending and descending in a simple yet wistful melody.

Quillen ignored the crooning and aligned the rifle’s sight. The wagon drivers were almost in range―a trio of men in dust-caked traveler’s clothes.

He took a deep breath. Held, exhaled, paused. Three counts.

An empty shell casing flew free of the ejection chamber with each successive shot, a fresh round taking its place.

Blood sprayed. The two drivers in the lead wagons tumbled from the benches onto the rocky ground. The third driver clutched his upper arm, but didn’t fall.

A miss.

Quillen tugged at the thin steel collar wrapped around his neck. Oblivion take him―he should’ve made that shot. A misjudgment of the distance? Competing crosswinds? Augustine’s cursed singing? He readied to fire again.

But there was no need. The first two wagons veered off the narrow dirt road, the third driver releasing the reins before slumping forward. Several of the Coltons poked their heads out from the transports’ coverings and scrambled into the empty front benches.

Quillen lowered his rifle.

“Wonderful!” Augustine’s lips parted in a wide grin. “Splendid work!”

She placed two fingers into her mouth and whistled. Sixteen long-coated riders appeared at the base of the cliff, their exposed elbows revealing the same blood splatter tattoos as she had. They charged ahead with rifles raised.

The Coltons pointed and shouted, a tangle of legs and turquoise armbands scrambling for their own weapons. Augustine’s riders surrounded the wagons in a circle formation, one Quillen had seen them use many times before.

The shootout was over in minutes―and the plains returned to silence.

Though Quillen was well over a hundred marks out from the slaughter, the scents of blood and explosive powder drifted toward him upon the breeze. Four of Augustine’s men lay motionless in the dust, the three wagon drivers scattered among nine other Colton corpses.

Which was nothing out of the usual. Augustine had never been one for taking captives.

“Did you enjoy the show, Dear One?” Augustine squeezed the girl’s shoulder, but the child recoiled from her touch. “Someday, you’ll appreciate my work as much as I do. There’s no greater pleasure in this world than the art of a well-executed waylay.”

The girl kept her eyes lowered, same as always. Quillen shook his head.

Two of the wagons were still intact. The third lolled off to one side, its spoked wheels crooked beyond saving. A dozen of Augustine’s men searched the bodies for coins and keepsakes, the rest grappling with the reins atop the now vacant drivers’ benches.

A man’s phlegm-filled cough and subsequent spit caused Quillen to glance behind him. A pair of clean-shaved ruffians in dark coats lounged among the rocks, a line of four charcoal Slatedancer horses stationed beside them. Calloused hands gripped the gun belts at their hips, eyes darting between Quillen and the scene below.

“What’re you still doing here, marksman?” Augustine wrapped her arms tighter around the girl. “Go and join the others.”

Quillen rose to his feet. He slung his rifle over one shoulder and crossed toward a restless Slatedancer at the edge of the line, Augustine’s gaze following him the entire way. He mounted up and angled the beast down the steep slope leading into the rocky plain.

The mousy girl flashed him a shy smile on the way past and Quillen returned a nod. Fleur Augustine had no idea just how valuable that ‘Dear One’ of hers truly was.

#

Quillen stood on picket duty near the perimeter of a shallow rock formation. The stolen wagons lay parked near the center of the gang’s makeshift camp, encircling the embers of a dying bonfire and the bedrolls of Augustine’s snoring men.

Though he tried to keep vigil upon the surrounding open plains, Quillen’s gaze continued to wander toward the faint inkling of stars shimmering in a darkened sky. Auralia and Argentius were in their waxing phases tonight, wide crescents of gold and silver gleaming in solemn prominence.

Quillen adjusted the shoulder strap on his rifle. Four hours in and there’d been nothing of note save for a lone string cricket resting atop the lowest branch of a spindled nettle tree. The transparent creature perched in full view of the moonlight, back legs rubbing together, antennae extended in a mournful courting call. A dozen other crickets responded in kind, hidden among the jagged rocks and stocky thornshrubs. Their symphony had long since been his favorite part of these forays into the Wilds, the only place in the known world he’d ever heard such a song.

Boots scraped upon the slated stone. The insects went silent. Several familiar figures approached the distant camp perimeter. Quillen made an instinctual reach for the revolver at his side.

Three men and one woman, though his eyes were drawn only to the last. Emilia Warrick, Imperial Court Magistrate of the Delmiran Empire, proceeded forward alone. She was just shy of middle age, dressed in a tight woven collared shirt and a vermilion cloak.

Quillen gave her a stiff bow.

“So, gunner,” Warrick said. “Did the incident this afternoon go as planned?”

Quillen nodded. Never mind he failed to kill a target with what should’ve been a simple shot.

“I trust you’re not drawing too much attention to yourself,” Warrick said.

His fingers brushed against the Wexler rifle barrel slung over his shoulder. “Most of the gang doesn’t like what I do.”

“Nor should they. What of this Fleur?”

“She’s happy to make use of me.” And in more ways than one―especially in recent weeks.

“Approach.”

The paired moons cast Warrick’s impassive expression in a clash of discordant light, though he could barely sense the magistrate’s heartbeat despite how close she was. Their shared link should’ve made her presence impossible to ignore.

Warrick reached for the steel collar about his throat, but Quillen’s gaze settled instead upon the Imperial Signet ring wrapped around the fourth finger of her left hand. The gold band bore the official seal of the Delmiran Empire―an alabaster swan in flight. Warrick’s most dangerous weapon.

A long line of silver emptherra bracelets fastened about her wrists emitted a harsh ashen light, as did the collar about Quillen’s own neck. The metal felt warm against his skin.

“Are you enjoying the mortal experience so far, gunner?” she asked. “You probably don’t remember much of what it was like.”

Quillen remained mute. There was no reason to answer her, not unless she Compelled him to. His eyes lingered upon both Warrick’s ring and her bracelets. An Imperial Court magistrate with her own unique talents.

But Warrick seemed unconcerned with his silence. She ran her nails across the collar’s surface―a remnant artifact of a civilization long since gone.

“That added charge should be enough to keep it functional,” she said, “but the device will need another replenishing soon.”

She withdrew her hands, and Quillen prodded at the steel clasp. He’d glimpsed his own strange reflection in the windows of countless settlements Augustine and her Blood Splatter Gang had passed through. Ashen hair turned blond, mismatching irises of crimson and violet now a uniform brown. An intended side effect of the collar. Without it, his features would be far too recognizable, even out here.

“How much longer am I to remain in these outlaws’ company?” he asked.

“Until I say so,” Warrick smirked at him. “Stay close to the girl, keep her safe. Continue doing whatever’s necessary to endear yourself to her and to Fleur’s gang. Our work here’s almost finished.”

Quillen shook his head. All this trouble for just one child. “There must be a hundred others like her in this region of the Desolate Plains alone and thousands more across the Wilds.”

Warrick removed a small hourglass from her coat pocket, a thick metallic frame surrounding the artifact’s bulbous glass tubes. Coarse emptherra shavings bubbled up from its lower chamber into the one above.

“The Horologe shows the girl to be an ideal candidate to brave the Cairns.” Warrick held the strange hourglass up to the moonlight. Another of the ancient Zir’s wondrous artifacts. “As do my instincts.”

An Horologe never made a mistake in its selection, and in all the years Quillen had known the magistrate, Warrick’s purported instincts had seldom been wrong, either. The girl couldn’t possibly know what fate awaited her now.

“I’ll have more instructions for you soon,” Warrick said. “In the meantime―stay here with Fleur and the girl.”

She returned the hourglass to her cloak and strode back toward the three awaiting figures. Lawmen from the nearby fortified town of Aurora Gulch, if their dust-laden coats were any indication. Quillen recognized the tall, bald one in the middle as Constable Jerome Hendry. Seemed like Magistra Warrick had been making some powerful friends out here. No doubt the lawmen had their own reasons for wanting Augustine and her Blood Splatter Gang caught or killed.

Hopefully his time among them would be over soon enough.

#

The stolen wagons trundled on through the main street of the Pebblemouth settlement. A dozen of Augustine’s men rode ahead to secure the area, rifles and revolvers brandished on full display. Quillen angled his hat against the shifting daylight. This was the third such community they’d visited in as many weeks.

Only a single constable and his two deputies were on watch, all too easy to herd into the local lawman’s office and keep under guard. They offered little protest, especially when outnumbered ten to one.

As for the rest of the settlers―they knew what to do.

Doors were shut tight, window curtains pulled. A Wexler muzzle and a few rough shoves helped along a pair of elderly women who moved slower than they should’ve. With the streets clear, several of Augustine’s men shared a cackle before heading for the nearby saloon.

Augustine surveyed the settlement from the driver’s bench of the lead wagon, one hand on the reins, the other about the girl. Quillen brought his Slatedancer to a halt beside her, though the beast seemed eager to continue on. The two dark-coated ruffians waited on her other side.

“Go and join the others,” she said.

Quillen clucked to his mount and the horse edged forward.

“Not you.” Augustine pointed to the darkcoats. “Them.”

“Fleur.” The first one spoke with a heavy settler’s drawl. “Then who’s gonna watch you?”

“Him.” Augustine jabbed a finger at Quillen.

“What?” the second darkcoat said. “But he’s―”

“I told you to join the others,” Augustine said. “Why’re you still here?”

The darkcoats exchanged a long look before urging their mounts down the street. The first gave Quillen a passing glare; the second spat at his feet.

Quillen maintained his impassive facade. If things continued on like this, a darkcoat’s knife in the night might be coming for him soon.

“Yesterday’s waylay went well, marksman.” Augustine hopped off the driver’s bench and lifted the girl down with her. “Guarding me and my Dear One will be your reward today.” The glint in her eye was all too familiar. The rest of his ‘reward’ would come later, under the light of the moons.

Quillen left his Slatedancer beside the wagon and followed Augustine and the girl into the settlement on foot. Pebblemouth wasn’t much to look at. Little more than a single street with a line of box-shaped mincewood buildings. Quick to build, quick to burn, and at the mercy of the Desolate Plains’s occasional but violent dust storms.

“Today’s a very special day.” Augustine wrapped her arm tighter around the girl, her head tilted skyward. “It’s been exactly a year since my beloved Dear One and I found each other, and the first of what’ll be many more spent together.”

They passed the brightly painted signs noting the land office, the blacksmith, and the stables. A dozen of Augustine’s men lingered about the main street on patrol, every shop door closed and window curtain drawn.

Though Quillen trailed behind, the girl’s fingers made an occasional reach for his hand. Accidental? Deliberate? He tucked his arms behind his back, his patchy leather coat creaking with each step. Either way―best not to let Augustine see it.

Their final stop was the general store near the settlement’s center. A tiny copper bell tied to the framed glass door chimed upon their entry. The drab shelves on Quillen’s right were lined with a sparse offering of clay plates, wooden dolls, and ceramic teapots. Sachets of dried herbs, murky liquor, and colorful jars of candy cluttered the remaining shelves on his left.

The shopkeeper―a bald man with a graying beard and a black bow tie―dusted the countertop with a soiled rag, though the surface didn’t look as if it needed any more polish.

“Dear One,” Augustine said, “to celebrate this wonderful day, you’re free to pick out whatever you want.” She pointed to the candy-laden shelves, a wide smile on her lips.

The girl hesitated a moment before straying toward the sweets―an item the store seemed to have in odd abundance. Chocolate flakes, bright sugar ribbons, cubed toffee, even chewing gum. But she didn’t stay there for long.

Quillen watched her wander to the store’s opposite side. The girl ran her fingers over a matching set of porcelain dishes before settling upon a small wooden rack of labeled spice jars. She unscrewed the lids and inhaled their scents, one after the other.

Augustine’s smile faded. The girl returned to her with two of the glass containers. Quillen recognized the pale green needles and coarse amber grains―shimmering ivy and dry safflower.

“Why in Oblivion’s name would you want those, Dear One?” Augustine made a puckered face. “Girls are supposed to like dolls and sweet things.”

But the girl didn’t move. She continued to hold out the spices for Augustine.

“No,” Augustine said. “Put them back.”

The girl clutched the jars to her chest. Augustine took a step forward, and the girl retreated.

“Dear One.” A smile creased Augustine’s lips again, but the sides of her mouth twitched. “Don’t make me angry.”

She took another step forward and the girl recoiled further. Augustine glared at the shopkeeper, who continued to polish his immaculate countertop.

“You did mention she could pick out whatever she wanted, Miss Augustine,” Quillen said.

Augustine rounded on him, fingers flexing, jaw clenched tight. Quillen stood his ground, but fought the urge to make his own retreat. Perhaps siding with the girl had been a mistake.

Augustine’s piercing gaze lingered on him a moment longer before she crossed toward the counter. “I’ll be taking those.” She made a jabbing motion at the spice jars in the girl’s arms.

The shopkeeper ignored her, continuing to wipe the soiled rag back and forth across the glossy surface. He must’ve known who Augustine was. No doubt the entire region did by now.

“Did you hear me?” Augustine said again.

Still no response.

A flick of her wrist. Augustine jammed a knife blade into the counter―right between the cleaning rag and the shopkeeper’s outstretched fingers.

Now the man looked up.

“It’s very impolite to ignore a lady―especially when she’s a paying customer.” Augustine drew a second knife, peering at her distorted reflection in the flat of the blade. “Got any news to share?”

The shopkeeper pointed to his mouth and ears, then shook his head.

“How curious.” Augustine leaned forward, the tops of her breasts peeking through the open neck of her collared shirt. “Can you read lips, then? I’ve heard lots of you deaf-mutes do that.”

The shopkeeper nodded.

“I hope you know your letters too, or you won’t be of much use to me.” She raised her knife and ran the blade’s edge along the man’s bald scalp. He flinched at its touch. “And I like useful things.”

Quillen turned away from the shopkeeper’s widening eyes. No reason to interfere unless the girl was in danger, and she definitely wasn’t anymore with Augustine’s attention now elsewhere. The child stood off to one side and continued to inhale from those jars. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Crying, over a bunch of spices? Not that there was much he could do for her with Augustine so close.

The shopkeeper swallowed, beckoning for Augustine to come closer. He reached for a nearby pocketbook and fountain pen.

“Wait for me out front, marksman,” Augustine said. “And take my Dear One with you. This shopkeeper and I need to talk.”

Quillen’s fingers closed about the door latch. He was about to call for the girl, but she was already at his side. She gripped a fistful of his coat in one hand, her jars of spices tucked into the crook of her other elbow.

The shop bell chimed but once on their way out.

#

Quillen and Augustine’s men arrived at the refuge the following evening.

Despite the sun rising above a cloudless sky, the area remained in perpetual shade. Nestled between the conjoined shadows of two enormous rock plateaus, a line of partially buried steel glowlanterns illuminated a worn path along the uneven ground. During Quillen’s time with them, Augustine kept the gang on constant rotation throughout several such hideouts, and they never remained in one for long.

Riders dismounted and hitched their horses; others unloaded the backs of the wagons. Crates full of canned beans, dried meat, and stale biscuits. Spare bundles of bedrolls, sets of traveler’s clothes, and boots from Pebblemouth’s general store. Items not always easy to acquire in a waylay.

Quillen sat on the driver’s bench next to Augustine and the girl. It made for a cramped fit, but Augustine had insisted on it after leaving the settlement two days past. His continued reward had been her exact words.

The girl yawned, rubbing a hand over her eyes. She seemed barely able to keep them open.

“Let’s get you to bed, Dear One,” Augustine said, “before you pass out and accidentally hurt your―”

Augustine’s two darkcoats approached the wagon.

“Fleur,” the first man said. “We need a word.”

Augustine’s face twitched before squeezing the girl’s shoulder. “I’ll just be a moment, Dear One. This won’t take long.”

She stepped down from the driver’s bench and left Quillen to mind the girl. The darkcoats led Augustine off several dozen paces, pausing only once they were out of earshot.

Quillen’s facade cracked in  slight grin. His hearing might be blunted, but it was still sharper than any mortal’s should be. He leaned forward.

“Fleur,” the first darkcoat said. “You’re spoiling that there marksman.”

“He’s only been with us a few months,” the second darkcoat said, “and he’s already done got you wrapped up around his tiny…finger.”

Quillen tilted his head. The voices were muffled but audible. It took a moment to piece together their speech, as if they were conversing on the other side of a wall.

“We’ve pulled off more successful waylays these past few months than we ever have before, all because of him.” A smile formed on Augustine’s lips. “It’s wonderful.”

A passing group of Augustine’s gang paused to watch, though none dared venture too close.

“Yeah, but ain’t it strange?” the first darkcoat said.

“I’ve never met a marksman as good as him in these parts.” Augustine extended her arms and did a full twirl. “I’ve finally found someone who understands the art of a well-executed waylay. The planning, the preparation, the elegance. He and my Dear One are like my own little family…”

“Fleur,” the second darkcoat said. “You ain’t listening. That damn marksman might be a bit too good, you know what I mean? And what’s with that collar of his―”

“Here’s what I think.” Augustine lowered her arms. The smile vanished. “He’s better with a rifle than either of you will ever be, and that frightens the shit out of you.” She spat a wad of phlegm at their feet. “It’s pathetic, really. Even my Dear One isn’t scared of him.”

“But―”

“We’re done,” Augustine said. “Don’t bring this up again. Not until you’ve proved yourselves useful for more than whining.”

The darkcoats exchanged another look. Augustine started back toward the wagon.

The first darkcoat grabbed her arm. “Fleur―”

Augustine bared her teeth. She twisted her wrist and rammed a blade into his throat.

The darkcoat’s eyes widened. She withdrew the knife, bright blood spurting from the wound, but Augustine didn’t let him fall. Instead, she brought him in closer, red droplets staining her hair and clothes. Quillen caught another smile on her lips.

“I said we’re done.” The blood slowed to a trickle, and only then did she release him. The darkcoat collapsed to the ground face down in a darkening puddle. “Must I repeat myself a third time?”

The second darkcoat grimaced, one hand jerking toward the revolver at his hip. He stopped just short of touching it.

Quillen nodded. A wise choice.

Instead, the second darkcoat lowered his eyes and retreated. The gathering crowd dispersed at the sight of Augustine straddling the corpse. She wiped the knife blade on the dead man’s shirt, the only part of her not covered in blood.

The girl’s fingers dug deep into Quillen’s sleeve. Her teeth chattered.

“It’s all right.” He gave her a stiff pat on the hand. Probably not the most appropriate thing he’d ever said. His work for the Imperial Court rarely involved caring for children.

Augustine returned to wagon’s side, her one good eye settling upon the girl―and her grip on Quillen’s leather coat. A passing shadow marred her features.

“Come along, Dear One.” The look was gone, as if it had never been there at all. Augustine didn’t bother wiping the blood from her hands or her face. “I’ll need your help to change.”

The girl released Quillen’s arm. Augustine slipped a reddened sleeve around her neck, the hum of that wistful melody already on her lips. She led the girl past the darkcoat’s body, deeper into the waiting refuge.

Quillen crooked his hat, waited for them to disappear before squatting next to the paling corpse. The unfortunate darkcoat hadn’t been the first of the Blood Splatter Gang to feel the wrong end of Augustine’s blades, and wouldn’t be the last.

He needed to get the girl out of here―and soon.

#

Quillen blinked away the last remnants of sleep and squinted at the overhanging canopy of stars. The moons mirrored each other in their slow skim across a clear night sky.

The refuge was silent. No one else seemed to be on vigil at the moment, and that probably meant it was his turn. None of Augustine’s men ever bothered to wake him for it anyway. Such petty fools. If something happened during his watch, there’d be far bigger problems than him neglecting his duties.

He lurched out of the bedroll containing Augustine’s dozing form, threw on his clothes and gun belt. A throbbing pain pounded at his temples, and he quashed the urge to double over and retch. These spells were happening more and more often upon waking. Best to get some air. Take up his post.

The familiar string crickets’ calls were an irritant rather than a pleasure this time and did nothing but intensify his headache. He ambled on as though in a daze, movements slow and uncoordinated.

His body still couldn’t grow used to that state of consciousness called slumber. He must’ve done it often as a child before passing through the gnarled stones of the Vicrosse Cairns, but the recollection was murky. Some of those old memories were so vivid, like the endless days of his youth spent laboring in the shafts of that underground emptherra mine. Most were nothing but a scatter of frayed threads.

And he’d been considered a lucky one.

The first time he’d collapsed from exhaustion had been months ago. Shortly after Warrick had fastened the collar around his neck and not long before being sent off to work himself into Augustine’s gang. His world had gone black, a descent into Oblivion until his eyes had opened many hours later to the glare of daylight. The complete shutdown of his senses had been an unsettling experience. Danger could come from anywhere and he’d never even know it.

After all―Vicrosse Gunners were never meant to sleep.

His solitary patrol took him far from the camp and away from the looming plateaus of the plains. The chorus of string crickets rose in pitch, the notes overlapping one another in a longing crescendo. Both Auralia and Argentius were near full, and the ground was easy enough to navigate without the need of a glowlantern. A welcome relief, given his current condition.

Boots crunched upon the stone, and Quillen reached for his revolver. A rifle would’ve served him far better, but he’d left the damn Wexler back at camp. If it was one of Augustine’s men intent on causing him harm―

“At ease.” Magistra Warrick stepped forward, dressed in her usual well-cut vermilion cloak.

Oblivion take him for a fool―Quillen hadn’t sensed Warrick at all this time. He pulled at the steel collar. A man of his experience should’ve been far more careful than this. The girl’s safety depended on it.

“You look tired, gunner.” Warrick’s polished teeth glinted under the moonlight. “Been getting enough rest?”

Quillen returned a glare.

“I have news you’ll want to hear.” She gestured over her shoulder at the trio of riders beyond the camp’s perimeter. “Constable Hendry planted some information in that settlement you and those criminals visited the other day. There’s a four-wagon shipment of raw emptherra ore bound for Aurora Gulch from one of the nearby mines. Or at least that’s what Fleur’s gang was led to believe.”

Quillen crossed his arms. A prize like that would be difficult to ignore. Finding a buyer would be no trouble, stolen or no. Fuel to power the ancient Zir’s remnant artifacts was an invaluable commodity.

“The crates will contain a surface layer of emptherra ore to legitimize the deception,” Warrick said, “but the rest is nothing but gravel dust. By the time the Blood Splatter Gang realizes what’s happened, Constable Hendry and his deputies will be waiting in ambush, along with two dozen Colton mercenaries.”

Quillen shook his head. More likely all fodder for Augustine’s men.

Warrick spread a map of the Desolate Plains across a flattened boulder and motioned for Quillen to join her. “The emptherra wagons will spend the next few days passing through a nearby ridge. The large rocks and narrow path are the perfect spot to lay a trap.” She pointed to a marked line in one section. “I assume Fleur usually keeps you with her up in a sniping perch?”

Quillen nodded.

“Then while the battle’s taking place, that’ll be your opportunity to seize the girl. If everything goes as planned, there won’t be enough of those outlaws left breathing to stop you.”

“And what about Fleur?”

Warrick shrugged. “Leave her alive, if possible. Constable Hendry would like to see her properly hanged for her crimes, but it’s of secondary importance to us.” She refolded the map. “Anything you wish to add?”

“There’ll be some casualties, as usual.” Quillen’s gaze flicked toward the waiting lawmen. “I assume that won’t be a problem?”

“You have permission to do whatever’s necessary to get the girl…”

The corners of his mouth formed the beginnings of a grin. Under such orders, he could always chance taking her now, while the rest of the camp was still asleep―

“…and bring her safely to me.” Warrick leveled a finger in his direction. “Don’t get any strange ideas, gunner. The girl’s far too valuable a candidate to risk losing in some foolish abduction attempt.”

Quillen’s grin disappeared. Of course. Why should it be any different this time? Whatever his current master required to complete yet another task, all in the name of the illustrious Delmiran Empire.

Warrick and her escorts vanished once more into the moonlit plains. Quillen tugged at the collar. He’d been forced to wear this thing for far too long, but soon he’d be free of―

Lingering footsteps echoed in the darkness.

Quillen drew his revolver and strode toward the sound. The groan of leather soles grinding against stone hadn’t belonged to either Warrick or the departing lawmen.

He held his breath, gaze sweeping the shadows. The surrounding rocks resumed their silence.

But someone had been listening.

#

Augustine set a grueling pace for Quillen and the others to reach the ridge line. Upon first glance, the open plains yielded nothing, but a massive rock formation soon tore itself free of the surrounding dust. A great maw of jagged teeth stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, so vast it devoured the sun’s rays within its depths.

Augustine signaled a halt in the formation’s looming shadow. She was on horseback this time, arms wrapped in usual protective fashion around the girl sharing her Slatedancer’s saddle. Quillen halted his mount behind her alongside two dozen more of her armed riders.

“You all heard the rumors in Pebblemouth,” she said. “Four wagons hauling a shipment of raw emptherra ore are about to pass this way. They won’t be as well guarded as our usual targets, given the route’s remote location.” Her eyes settled on Quillen. “It’s also the perfect place for an ambush, so be ready for anything.”

Two more of Augustine’s men appeared on horseback from the distant ridge line. She beckoned them forward, all three speaking in whispers.

Quillen tilted his head, trying to catch pieces of the conversation, but only silence greeted him this time. His hearing had been fine, even a couple of days ago, but now…

The pair of riders veered back the way they came, and Augustine turned toward the remaining men. “The wagons will be here soon. Snare formation. You all know what to do.”

Quillen pursed his lips. He’d never heard her use that term before―at least not in his company.

But the rest of her men seemed unperturbed. Several nodded, others muttered. They kicked their mounts into a canter.

Quillen adjusted his position in the saddle amid a rising cloud of dirt and dust. Augustine kept back, along with her remaining darkcoat bodyguard. She cut her horse in front of Quillen’s, the girl giving him a shy but familiar smile.

Augustine wasn’t smiling though. Far from it.

“Marksman,” she said. “You’ll be joining the attack this time.”

Quillen tightened his grip on the reins. “Is there a reason for that, Miss Augustine?”

She didn’t reply, only glowered at him.

“My skills would be far better used elsewhere,” he said. “It’s worked out well these past few months―”

“We’re using a different tactic today. Your services aren’t needed. Just stay close to the others, they’ll know what to do.”

Augustine veered her Slatedancer about. The girl craned her head in his direction, a frown replacing her earlier smile.

“Hurry up, marksman,” Augustine said. “Don’t fall behind.”

Quillen urged his own horse forward. Augustine knew. The Aurora Gulch lawmen had to be told, but he had no way of alerting them or Magistra Warrick. Not without separating himself from the gang.

And not without arousing even further suspicion.

#

A gray fog settled over the rough contours of the ridge line. Quillen maintained a tight grip on his Slatedancer’s reins, but its hooves continued their relentless shuffle across the exposed stone. The rest of Augustine’s mounted men fanned out in a loose formation beside and behind, rifles at the ready.

He hadn’t been forced to ride on the front lines with the Blood Splatter Gang in many months, but this would be far different from those earlier skirmishes with hapless merchants and their hired guards.

This time―he was riding into a trap.

Quillen straightened himself in the saddle. At least his senses were still acute enough to feel the eyes of Augustine’s men burrowing into his back. One rider brought his horse next to Quillen’s. The sneer creasing the bearded man’s face was one of the widest he’d ever seen.

“Don’t you worry, marksman,” the rider said. “Fleur goes through her favorites like she goes through her bloody rags. You’re not the first.”

Snickers and jeers erupted among the others. Someone slapped Quillen’s arm. A second rider sauntered up alongside him.

“Careful out in them mists.” The rider revealed a gap-toothed grin. “Easy to mix up who’s who out there.”

More hoots, more laughter.

They waited. One minute became ten, then twenty. Quillen clenched the stock of his rifle. What were the wagons doing? And what was taking Augustine so long?

A piercing whistle cut through the haze. Finally. The men took off at a gallop. Quillen rode at the edge of the crude arrowhead formation, his Slatedancer near the vanguard. A little longer. Breaking too soon might get him shot―from either ahead or behind.

The fog and dust thickened. Quillen counted backward from thirty before veering his mount hard to the right, far off the road’s narrow course and into the jagged rocks. No signs of pursuit. Yet. He squinted toward the high cliffs. Augustine would be up there somewhere with the girl, but it was difficult to pinpoint the whistle’s origin with the ridge echo. If not for this haze and his collar―

Voices up ahead. A bullet grazed his coat sleeve.

Quillen raised his Wexler and squeezed the trigger. A man with a revolver collapsed to the ground at his feet and Quillen rode right over top of him. One of Augustine’s men? He caught a glimpse of a turquoise armband. A Colton.

More voices. The wagons were close. Two more bullets whipped past his head. The second scratched the tip of his ear, blood dribbling down the side of his neck.

Quillen angled his Slatedancer in a zigzagging motion about the stones. It would be all too easy for the beast to break a leg, and he was far too exposed on horseback, even in this haze. Better to find cover, collect his bearings and―

A stinging pain erupted in his left shoulder. The Slatedancer reared up and tossed him from the saddle. Quillen rolled among the pebbles, breath knocked free of his lungs. The horse crashed down beside him and shuddered.

No time to check it. Quillen retrieved his fallen hat and rifle before scrambling into the rocks. Gunfire erupted from everywhere. Men shouted, horses shrieked. He peered up again at the surrounding cliffs. Augustine would never position herself far from the battle. She’d require a proper sight line to see everything unfold, especially under such a heavy fog.

He continued weaving forward. Corpses piled around him, one with a silver star on its coat, another with a blood splatter tattoo on its elbow. He must be getting close…

A metal spyglass glimmered under the muted daylight, high above the rocks on the other side of the road.

Right where the gunfire was loudest.

Quillen inhaled a deep breath. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d run into the middle of a pitched battle, not since his days serving as a sharpshooter in the trenches of the Orbin Rebellion. But never like this.

The collar pressed itself tighter about his neck. There wasn’t much choice but to chance it. He had his orders.

He slung the Wexler rifle over his uninjured shoulder and dashed across the uneven stones. Bullets ripped past in all directions. He leaped over the bodies of fallen horses and dead men. Bloodstained hands with broken fingers tried latching onto the fringes of his coat, but he shook himself free of their grip.

The first wagon appeared. Two well-dressed men blocked his path, a pair of rifles leveled at his head. But Quillen’s revolver was already in hand. He fanned the hammer, one shot into each of their chests. The men crumpled in a heap against the wagon’s side, dark stains soaking the paneled wood. Aurora Gulch lawmen, based on the glint of the silver stars pinned to their coats. A shame that―

Something sharp bit into Quillen’s lower back, and his revolver skittered to the ground. He staggered forward, blood trickling down his shirt, the world slipping into a momentary blur. Oblivion take him―he’d just be another ordinary mortal soon. The power of the Vicrosse Cairns continued to slip away.

But there was no time to get into a shootout down here. He had to keep moving.

A sharp cliff face came into view. Quillen adjusted the strap of his rifle and searched the rocks for any usable footholds.

The first dozen lengths of ascent were easy, but it didn’t take long for his muscles to begin trembling from the strain, palms coated with sweat. His injuries rebelled against him in rolling waves of agony. First one outstretched hand lost its grip on the stone, then the other. But never both at once. Hopefully it would stay that way.

He chanced a look back down, but there wasn’t much to see aside from the wafting tendrils of smoke and fog. Quillen gritted his teeth and resumed the climb. Bursts of gunfire and screams of dying men continued to drift upward from the murky haze.

His fingers grappled for the ledge. He pulled himself over the threshold onto firm ground, collapsed and stared up into a dull gray sky. Thousands of phantom needles lanced up his arms and legs, but if he stopped now―he might not ever get up.

Quillen dragged himself to his feet, shoulder and back burning from the exertion. More blood soaked into his shirt and the lining of his coat. He drew a knife from his belt and hobbled between the protruding stones.

Augustine’s remaining darkcoat appeared at the fog’s edge, one palm resting on his revolver handle. The man’s attention was on the battle below rather than the ledge. Perhaps enjoying the spectacle a little too much. A foolish mistake.

The echo of screams and gunfire was more than enough to mask Quillen’s faltering footsteps, despite his condition. He pushed the darkcoat’s head forward and ran the knife across the man’s exposed throat, waiting until the gurgle of blood ceased before lowering the body into the dirt.

A familiar hum mingled with the cries of dying men and their guns. Augustine stood near the cliff’s edge, the extended spyglass in one hand, the girl held in a protective cocoon with the other. She rocked the child back and forth while singing that same wistful melody.

Quillen raised his knife. Every step forward was one closer to completing this task and having the Oblivion-cursed collar removed. But Warrick and Constable Hendry were mistaken if they thought Augustine could be taken alive. The only way she’d ever give up the girl was in death.

A pebble ground beneath his boot. The singing stopped, and Quillen dove behind a nearby rock. Two bullets knocked his hat loose. Another buried itself into the dirt at his feet, the remaining three ricocheting off the coarse slab.

“I know it’s you, marksman.” The metallic clink of empty shells struck the stone. “I figured you’d be dead by now, but I should’ve known better.” A pause. “You’re here for my Dear One, aren’t you?”

Quillen adjusted the grip on the knife hilt, his other hand reaching for the rifle. Not that it would do much good in his current state. He couldn’t risk hitting the girl.

“I’ve seen the way you look at her,” Augustine said, “and the way she looks at you. You want her for yourself, you and whoever you’ve been conspiring with.”

Pain radiated up Quillen’s left side, his breath coming in shallow gasps. He had to stall for time. Perhaps he could catch Augustine off guard, and if not―better to die on his feet than cowering like a worm beneath a rock.

“I won’t let you take her,” Augustine said. “She’s family, like you were supposed to be.” The cock of a hammer. “Now come out.”

Quillen sheathed his knife and limped forward. Augustine smiled. Her revolver was aimed at his chest.

“Your rifle.” She pressed the girl tighter against her. “Drop it.”

Quillen unslung the weapon from his shoulder.

“Now kick it here.”

The Wexler halted at Augustine’s feet. She eyed his bloody clothes a moment before shaking her head―then tossed her own revolver to the ground.

“Shooting you now would be too easy, marksman.” Augustine brushed the girl aside and reached for the combat knives at her belt. “You were never worthy of my Dear One’s affections.”

Quillen drew his own blade. He extended his left arm for balance, but the limb tingled, forearm already dripping with blood. It wouldn’t be of much use to him here.

Augustine lunged forward. Quillen reversed with a spin, but her knife sliced into his injured arm before his body could obey. Twist and swing, feint and cut. Augustine caught him again on the upper right thigh. He countered with a backhanded slash, but she danced out of his reach. Quillen took another nick across the shoulder, too slow to dodge or block in time.

“I thought you were different from the rest of these fools. That you truly understood my art, appreciated a waylay’s beauty.” Augustine’s lips curled back in a snarl. “I don’t like being wrong.”

Quillen spat a wad of blood at his feet. He wouldn’t last much longer like this, though what happened to him now didn’t really matter. The girl’s fate had already been decided. Warrick would make sure of that, whether it was through him or others like him. Unless the child could somehow get away from here, far enough beyond the Empire’s reach…

Perhaps he could give her that sliver of a chance.

They continued circling. Quillen’s muscles tensed. The wounds he’d take would be fatal, but that was of little concern. If he charged Augustine from this height―a fall guaranteed both of their deaths. It would be a welcome release from it all. From Warrick’s servitude, the Imperial Court’s demands, his endless tasks and labors…

Augustine smirked at him. “You might be divine with a rifle, marksman, but your knife skills are pathetic.”

The blade slipped from Quillen’s fingers, rivulets of sweat and blood dripping down along with it. He lunged at Augustine and propelled her forward. Something sharp plunged into his side, the tip of a second knife edge cutting into the skin of his right cheek.

A loud crack rang out across the empty cliffs.

Quillen skidded to a halt. Blood dribbled down his chest. The sulfuric smell of explosive powder filled the air.

He stepped back from Augustine. She wavered a moment before dropping her knives, one hand going to the bullet wound between her breasts. Her wide eye fell upon the girl standing behind her―the little mousy girl holding Augustine’s revolver in a double grip. The hammer was down, a thin wisp of gun smoke rising from the barrel.

“D…Dear One…?”

Augustine reached toward the girl with a trembling hand, but the child recoiled from her outstretched fingers. Augustine crumpled to the stone.

Blood soaked the sides of Quillen’s face and what was left of his clothes. He slumped to his knees alongside Augustine. The girl stared at him and lowered the revolver.

“Run,” Quillen said. “Get away from this place. If you stay…”

The world tumbled about in a spinning blur. The last thing he saw before the darkness took him were the girl’s boots shuffling past.

#

Quillen’s eyes snapped open.

He lay on a pile of blankets in the back of a moving wagon, its wheels grinding upon the dirt and stone of an uneven road. Something pressed against his cheek. A piece of rough fabric. A bandage? It wasn’t the only place. More were wrapped around his arms, legs, and chest. He tried to sit up, but a vicious pain in his side forced him down.

Oblivion take him. He was still alive.

“Easy, gunner.” Warrick peered at him from the driver’s bench. “I bound your injuries as best I could, but I’m no surgeon. We have a ways to go until the Aurora Gulch physician can have a look at you.”

A tear in the top of the wagon’s cover yielded streaks of sunlight peeking through a layer of white clouds. Quillen inhaled a sharp gasp. Warrick wasn’t alone. The mousy girl sat next to her.

“The Blood Splatter Gang is no more,” Warrick said. “Constable Hendry and his deputies will round up the stragglers soon enough, though there were more losses than expected. It’s fortunate I secured that contract with the Coltons, or else the day might’ve ended far different. Fleur’s men seemed to know we were coming.” Her tone went flat. “You didn’t let it slip to anyone what we were planning, did you?”

Quillen shook his head. No doubt they’d had an eavesdropper on their earlier conversation. The second darkcoat would’ve been eager to earn his way back into Augustine’s favor, or perhaps it had been Augustine herself. Irrelevant details, now.

He leaned down and blinked. Something had changed. His vision was sharper, his hearing crisper. There was a pounding in his head that had nothing to do with the rush of his own blood.

The magistrate’s heartbeat.

Upon habit, Quillen placed a stiff hand to the collar at his throat―and instead found only bare skin.

“I had to remove the artifact,” Warrick said. “You would’ve died from your injuries otherwise. Besides, with our task complete―there’s no more need for you to wear it.”

It was as if a lingering illness these past few long months had finally begun to lift. And his appearance…

The girl craned her neck toward him and pointed at his face. “I like you better this way.” Her voice was soft, barely above a whisper. “It looks…right.”

Quillen stared. Those were the first words he’d ever heard her speak.

With the steel collar gone, the colors had probably returned to his eyes and retreated from his hair. Mismatched irises of crimson and violet. A scalp full of ashen strands.

He peered closer at the girl. She still held the two spice jars in her hands, the ones bought from the general store in Pebblemouth.

“A memory of home.” The girl tapped the lids of shimmering ivy and dry safflower. She gave him a weak smile. “My real one, anyway. Before Fleur came, and…”

Her lower lip trembled. Augustine had never told him how the girl ended up with her gang. Captured during a farm raid, or so Quillen had heard. Augustine had claimed the child for herself and killed the rest.

“I’m Cerys,” the girl said. “Cerys Talvere. If not for you and Miss Warrick―”

“Cerys has much to look forward to once we arrive in Mirren.” Warrick placed an arm around the child’s shoulders. The girl tensed, but she didn’t shy away from the magistrate’s touch. “I’ve told her what to expect at the Imperial Court, and she’s eager to join the Vicrosse Gunners’ ranks. She wants to be just like you.”

The girl smiled at him, but Quillen couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze. Had Warrick explained to her how unlikely she was to cross through the Cairns? Not even an Horologe could know that fate for certain. And if the girl somehow survived, she might not remember much of this―or any of her current life. She might not remember much of anything at all.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the words refused to form. All that came forth was a dry rasp.

Warrick flashed a grin and raised her left hand. The Imperial Signet ring glowed a dull ashen.

Quillen’s jaw tightened. Of course. Warrick had already gone to a lot of trouble of retrieving the girl, had even Compelled him to do so. She wouldn’t want him spoiling it all by revealing the truth now.

He settled back into the pile of blankets. The girl would’ve been better off with Fleur Augustine. All that was left for her now was a quick death among the Cairns―or a slow one in servitude to the Imperial Court and the Empire’s endless labors.

Like him. And all the other Vicrosse Gunners.

____

Copyright 2019 Christopher A. Jos

Christopher A. Jos is a teacher currently living in Alberta, Canada, and is a self-professed fantasy and science-fiction junkie. His speculative fiction has appeared in publications such as The Arcanist, Theme of Absence, and The Colored Lens.

Visit him at https://christopherajos.com/ or find him on Twitter @ChristopheAJos.

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, and let’s start it with Daisy Slots today!

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

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