Fiction


by Patricia Russo

Mother doesn’t trust us anymore. She won’t let us leave the house. You just stay there where I can keep an eye on you, she says. No, you can’t go play in the yard. Don’t you move.

We’d noticed her starting to change a while ago. It worried us. When had she become different?

Bicky said she hadn’t. He said Mother had always been spiny-skinned, and the rest of us had just grown old enough to notice, was all. Besides which, she was teeter-wobble in the head. Anybody with so many kids had to be, Bicky said. It was just a fact. We thought Bicky was full of kak, and Verrie told him so to his face. Mother had always been hug-again, until recently. Verrie said he remembered tickles and kisses. He looked at us, and we nodded. And what about the squeezie-dolls, and the blankets crocheted out of for-real unraveled sweaters? Only a few of us nodded that time. Verrie still had his blanket. It was yellow partway and a bluey-gray the rest. Hill had one, too, but he had cut a hole in the middle and used it as a poncho now. It looked stupid, because it didn’t even reach down to his belly-button. Squeezie-dolls were harder to remember. Maybe Coy had had one. Maybe Nardo had broken it.

You can’t be sentimental, Bicky said. We’re doing something important. If Mother tries to stop us, we’re going to have to be hard.

Maybe if we explained it to her, Hill said.

She won’t listen, Bicky said. She’ll be scared. She’ll lock us in the house. Maybe do something worse.

We held this meeting under the sourbark trees, where Mother’s eye couldn’t reach, back when she was first starting to get suspicious. It was after the fourth or fifth time we’d met with the gray kiddies. We knew we weren’t supposed to go near them. We were supposed to run away if we saw even one. It wasn’t because they were gray, Mother explained. It wasn’t because they had six fingers, or eyes that were too big and too round. It was because they weren’t really people, and real people needed to stay away from things that looked almost like people but weren’t.

The gray kiddies didn’t talk. Not like us. They made sounds, but the sounds were only whistles and a chit-chit-chitter. And sometimes they tried to bite us. And they smelled like carrots that had gone black and oozy. And they kept running off to grub up these little plants with fat, ovalish leaves, and when they started chewing the leaves they wouldn’t listen to anything Bicky said. They can’t understand us even when they’re not chewing those leaves, Hill said, but Bicky said that wasn’t true. It was the gray kiddies who’d showed Bicky what he’d been doing wrong, when he was trying to scrape out the new light. One of them had just run out of the trees and poked a finger right into the hole and chit-chit-chittered and then run off again, but for a second the light came through really clear. Only for a second, and Bicky hadn’t been able to see what that gray kiddie had done, but after that Bicky was on fire. He was flying in the clouds. He couldn’t shut up, even after we were all supposed to be in bed and asleep. We got to get them on our side, he said. We got to train them, you know? To help us. Because I think the only way we’re going to do this is together.

The new light was a little scary. Verrie said that was only because anything new was scary. But the new light was very silver, and hot. And it was in the ground. We all knew from the stories that light was supposed to be in the sky. That was the old days, Hill said, before the clouds changed. And everything on the other side of the clouds, too, for all we knew. This is a different light, he said. Wouldn’t it be good to have a different light, a new light? There was only so much wood we could burn. There were only so many candles we could make. There were only so many batteries we could charge up with pedal power and endless cranking.

We can’t let Mother know, Bicky said. Believe me, all of you. She wouldn’t understand. Old people are like that. It’s just a fact.

So we tried to be careful, but Mother grew mistrustful anyway. We didn’t think she knew exactly what we were up to. She would’ve been a lot more spiny-skinned if that had been true. Locked us up, like Bicky said. At least yelled and switched our legs with sliver grass. Cried. It was so bad when she cried. But all she did was watch us, and watch us, and watch us. And then, today, she tells us not to leave the house.

You stay right there, she says. Don’t you move. No, you can’t go out to play. I want you where I can keep an eye on you.

And she takes off her eye, the one she wears around her neck on a yellow-metal chain, and hangs it on the big hook in the center of the wall, and goes outside. Maybe she’s going to the market, and will be gone for hours. Maybe she’s only going to pace around the yard, and slam back into the room in a few minutes.

That eye doesn’t work, Bicky says. Look at it. It’s all dull and rusty. I bet it hasn’t worked for years. I bet it never worked, and Mother just made pretend that it did.

We all look at the eye. It doesn’t wink, it doesn’t twitch, it doesn’t make any clicky sound. It just hangs there.

It used to work, Verrie says.

Bicky shakes his head.

Coy says, It does. Mother saw me take some red-dog jerky from the bin under the counter. So she made me kneel in the corner with my hands on my head for ever and ever.

She smelled the jerky on your breath, Bicky says, and you were in the corner for ten minutes, tops.

Good thing she doesn’t have an ear, too, Nardo mutters. The rest of us hold our breaths, wondering, What if she does? What if she does and she never told us? We don’t say anything, though. The older boys don’t like it if we interrupt.

Bicky stands up. He’s not allowed to do that. Mother said Don’t move. Bicky’s face is hard. Not spiny, but like the kind of glass that’s hard to break. The kind you have to hit over and over again with a rock to crack it. We found a piece of glass like that once, about as big as Nardo’s foot. Mother took it away from us before we hit it more than a couple of times.

The rest of us stay where we are, sitting on the floor of the big room. The littler ones quit shoving each other and play-wrestling.

What we’re doing is important, and, and, good, he says. We can’t let anybody stop us. The gray kiddies are going to be waiting. If we don’t show up, you think they’re going to hang around?

Nobody says anything, because we all know the gray kiddies are unpredictable. Sometimes they act like they understand everything Bicky says. Other times they throw rocks at us, or worse, and whistle really loud until we have to slap our hands over our ears. Sometimes the gray kiddies are at the place where Bicky started scratching in the dirt, and sometimes they’re not. Could be it wouldn’t matter at all if we missed today. Could be, if we missed today, the gray kiddies wouldn’t ever go back there again.

We’ve been working with the gray kiddies for weeks and weeks. We’d scraped up a lot of dirt. And now we get the new light for two or three seconds at a time, when everything comes together perfectly. It’s better when there were more of us than there are of them. Then the gray kiddies are calmer, mostly. Less biting and whistling and throwing muck.

Bicky stands up, right in front of the eye, and says, Come on. We’re going to the place.

We can’t, says Hill. Mother’ll know. We can’t march out right under her eye.

I’m going, Bicky says, and looks at us, all of us, one at a time. Quickly, though. Glance, glance, glance. He doesn’t linger on any of us, not even Verrie. Who’s coming with me? he asks.

We’re all frozen.

Can’t you see, Bicky says, and his glass-hard face takes on a glow. We’ve come so far. We’re really starting to work together. The grey kiddies are learning. And we’re learning, too. I’m learning.

He is swaying us. Even though the new light is a little bit scary, we want more of it. More than two or three seconds worth. Even Nardo, who was curious to see how hot it really was and ducked under Bicky’s arm and stuck his face right up against it, and got a blister on the tip of his nose, never said he thought we should quit.

We’re not scared of the grey kiddies anymore, despite how they like to jump on us. Grab hold of our shoulders, wrap their arms around our necks, make us give them piggy-back rides. That’s when they’re not rushing off to find the fat-leafed plant they like to chew. When the new light shines, they make a sound that’s not a whistle or a chit-chit-chitter. It’s more like a hoot. We think they like the new light. It can’t be because they like Bicky so much that they keep coming back to the place.

Gray kiddies, Mother says, and she’s standing right behind Bicky, she hasn’t come slamming it at all, but slipping in, a wind-shadow, barefooted and dark and swift, and we all know, know, know in our bones that however old and rusty and dead-looking her eye is, it for damn sure works, and she probably does have an ear, too, maybe hidden in the back part of the eye.

She’s not carrying anything, no sliver-grass switch, no axe handle, not even the Big Spoon, but she’s the farthest thing from hug-again that we have ever seen. If Bicky’s face is hard glass, then hers is stone, craggy and weathered, like the side of a mountain. I used to have daughters, she says. Before all of you. I used to have daughters, but they died. And now all I have are stupid, stupid boys.

We have heard this before, but never in the daytime. Before today, she only said it at night, when we’re all meant to be asleep. Sometimes she says lovely, lovely boys, but not often.

Bicky is still standing up. He is almost as tall as Mother.

We think the new light is important, is good, the way Bicky says, and now Mother will take that away. We can’t jump up and run out of the house. She’s standing right there. We can’t push her down. We can’t hit her. But we don’t want the new light to be lost. We don’t know what to do. Some of us start to cry.

Bicky hasn’t moved. He doesn’t want Mother to see his face. The hard glass is starting to crack. Mother, we found something, he says.

You’ve been playing with wild things, she says. Dirty things. Dangerous things. Her voice is thin and dry, as if she has not had a drink of water for a whole day.

We found something, Bicky says again. His voice is breaking, like his hard glass face. Something good. The gray kiddies are helping us learn how to make it – how to keep it – how to use it.

They’re not people, Mother says. How many times do I have to tell you? You can’t play with not-people. Not-people can’t be your friends. Even if they look like children. Even if they look like little girls.

Some of us glance at each other, surprised. We hadn’t thought the gray kiddies looked like little girls. They didn’t have penises, but that didn’t make them girls, did it? They were gray. Their skin was gray, and their hair was gray, and they had a lot of hair, on their arms and legs and backs and fronts and faces, too. And they bit. And they smelled like rotten carrots. And they whistled and chit-chit-chittered. And hooted sometimes.

We’re not playing, Bicky says. We’re working together. We’re teaching them –

You can’t teach them anything. They’re not people.

Why does that matter so much? Bicky’s shaking now. You don’t know what we’ve found.

I don’t care what you’ve found.

You don’t know what we’re doing –

What you’re doing is dangerous! Mother shouts. If you play with not-people, they will make you not-people, too!

Everybody goes very still. This is the first time we’ve heard that.

Suddenly Verrie speaks, surprising us all. Are they not-people, Mother, or new people?

Like the new light, Bicky whispers. His back is to Mother. Only we see his lips move.

Mother answers Verrie. Not people, she says, her voice gritty, stones rubbing together. People live in houses. People plant gardens. People crank batteries. People make clothes. People trade their goods. People have schools, even if some children don’t want to go. People talk.

People cut wood and build fires, Bicky says, to us. People boil fat and strain it and boil it again and strain it again to make candles. In the daytime, people walk and sit and talk and eat in a grayness twice as gray as the gray kiddies’ skins. At night there is only blackness, and little flickers of flame.

That’s the world, Mother says. If you’re going to cry about the world, you won’t stop until you’ve turned to dust. Now I’m going to send you to bed without any supper, and if there’s any backchat, there won’t be breakfast, either.

We look at each other. Bedtime isn’t for hours and hours yet. It would be awful to have to lie still and do nothing for all that time. And what if the gray kiddies are waiting for us, at the place? Maybe Bicky is right and if we let the gray kiddies down, they won’t trust us again. Maybe all the biting and the jumping and the hair-pulling and the kak-throwing is the gray kiddies’ way of being friendly. They bite and jump on each other, too. And they’re always throwing things, when they aren’t chewing those leaves. Or it could be that the biting and the jumping and all of that is the gray kiddies trying to drive us away, and if we don’t come back to the place, they’ll take the new light for themselves.

We found something, Verrie says. Can we tell you what we found?

No. I don’t care what you’ve found.

It’s something good, Verrie says.

There are no good things left. We used them all up. Now go to bed, all of you.

It’s something new.

New things are never good.

That’s when we’re sure Mother is wrong. Some of us are crying, because we love Mother, we really do. We remember tickles and kisses. We remember hot soup and long stories on cold winter nights. We remember lullabies and laughing in the garden, Mother making funnies about how the vegetables used to be big, and all different colors. We don’t all remember squeezie-toys, but there were many times she came back from the market with old, torn sweaters. It’s not her fault we wore out the blankets, or lost them. Bicky is wrong about Mother always being spiny. She’s spiny now, but that’s because she doesn’t understand.

Bicky doesn’t glance behind him. Who’s coming with me? he asks again.

Don’t you take a step, Mother says. Don’t you leave this house.

Can’t you trust us? Verrie says. Can’t you trust us a little bit?

And he stands up.

And Coy. And Nardo.

And some more, and then some more.

There are so many of us. She cannot stop us all. She can grab some. She can knock some of us down, drag us to the sleeping room, lock us in. But not all of us.

She doesn’t answer Verrie’s question.

Her stone face is cracking, like Bicky’s hard glass face cracked. Most of us have stood up, but Bicky is still trembling, though he’s trying to hide it.

He turns a little, but not so much that he can meet her eyes. We have to go, he says. We’ll be back.

Do I have to lose my boys, too, Mother says, and her voice is sand. All my lovely boys.

And we say No, no, no. Not all of us say it. Not Bicky, not Verrie. But almost everybody else. More of us are crying, and Bicky glares at the weepers.

Then Bicky says something very mean. You can have a couple more litters, can’t you, Mother? Maybe you’ll have girls again. Lovely girls.

We can see her face, though Bicky can’t. He’s looking at the door.
There is dust in her wrinkles. There is sand on her lips. The time for girls is over, she says. Can it be true? we wonder. Sometimes Mother says things just because she’s sad, or mad. Some of us have been to Underpass Settlement. There were girls there.

There must have been girls there.

Bicky walks around Mother and heads for the door. We follow him. Mother doesn’t try to snatch up any of us.

The gray kiddies are waiting at the place. They are not jumping around, or chewing leaves, or chit-chit-chittering. Some of them are sitting around in a loose circle. They whistle when they see us. A few of them are scraping away at the ground, but not where Bicky has been scratching, not where he first found the new light. The gray kiddies are scratching a short distance from there. They don’t whistle. One of them hoots, twice.

They don’t look like girls. But they don’t look like not-people, either. They used to look like not-people. The first time, when one helped Bicky, we were all scared. We knew we were supposed to run away.

Maybe they are new people, like Verrie said. Maybe they’re not not-people, and not new people either. Maybe they’re just what they are. But we’re not afraid of them anymore. We come closer, slowly. There are more of them than there are of us, this time. That’s usually trouble, but the gray kiddies seem calm. The ones sitting down whistle softly. Some of us say Hi, and wave.

What are you doing? Bicky asks the ones who are scraping and scratching in the different place. He looks at the excavation we’ve been working on for weeks. It is long, and wide, and shallow, because we have to move the dirt very carefully. The four or five gray kiddies digging a short distance away are digging faster, and deeper. They hoot. All of them this time, not just one.

Bicky takes a step toward them.

Wait, Hill says. Wait till we know what they’re up to. It could be anything. It could be a trick. A trap. He goes over to our excavation, and peers into it with a worried expression. He crouches, and puts a hand in, moves it the way we’ve seen Bicky move his, but there’s no new light, not even a teeny flash.

The gray kiddies sitting and waiting jump up. The ones digging hoot, and half of them sit down again. But the other half race to our excavation.

Don’t move, Bicky tells Hill. Don’t be scared. They’re not going to hurt you.

The gray kiddies jump on Hill, and jump over him, and pat his back, and bop-bop him on the head, and they’re chit-chit-chittering now, but not too loud, and they don’t pull his hair. One of them jumps on his back again and clings there, and three of them wrap their six-fingered hands around his left arm, and two more lower their hands into the hole we’ve been making for weeks, and they nudge Hill’s shoulder, and the new light suddenly bursts alive. Hill lets out a cry and squeezes his eyes shut. The gray kiddies whistle, very very loud, but for the first time ever, the sound doesn’t hurt. Our ears must’ve gotten used to it.

The new light is silver. That’s all right. It’s always been silver.

The new light is hot. We can feel its warmth from the little rise, where we’ve all been hanging back, all of us except Bicky and Hill. That’s all right. The new light has always been hot.

The new light doesn’t fade out in two seconds, or three seconds, or five seconds. We are counting our breaths; we are counting our heartbeats. The light glows steadily. The gray kiddies drag Hill away from the edge of the wound we have made in the ground; he has to scuttle sideways, on his knees and palms, because they won’t let him stand up.

The silver light continues to shine. We look around, at each other, at Bicky, at the world. We can see more colors than we have ever seen before.

The gray kiddies pile on Hill and hug him tight. He doesn’t protest; he doesn’t try to push them off; he doesn’t call for help. His eyes are still shut.

Hill, Bicky says. Hill. Did you see what they did? Do you understand how they made it work?

The silver light keeps on shining. The world is so full of colors. We hardly know what wonder to look at next.

The gray kiddies are still gray, though. The ones digging in the new space, the space they picked out, hoot at Bicky.

Verrie says, Mother said no new things are good. But she was wrong, wasn’t she? This is good.

Bicky’s face is not hard glass, but it is not peaceful, either. His cheek muscles twitch. He is not smiling. He is breathing hard, though all the rest of us have caught our breaths, after the long run from the house.

I think so, he says. I think this is good. Hill, are you all right?

Yes, Hill says, after a moment. Just a little…shaky.

The gray kiddies hoot at Bicky.

My turn, Bicky says quietly, and we see that he is scared. This is good, he said that it was good, but this new thing is newer than even the new light, and all of us are scared, too.

Bicky walks to the new place where the gray kiddies are scratching and scraping. They do not touch him. He kneels down among them, but does not put his hands into the hole. He stares down into it for a long time. What’s this, he says, but he isn’t talking to anyone, not the gray kiddies, not us. Maybe himself.

The gray kiddies make their six-fingered hands into fists, and thrust them down through the air. Miming hitting? Striking? One puts its hands together, as if holding something big and round. The others keep swinging their fists down through the empty air.

Hit it? Bicky says. Hit it with a rock?

They all hoot. They all hoot loud.

Me? Bicky asks. I should hit it?

They hoot louder. Two of them start jumping.

Verrie, Bicky calls. Get me a rock. A big one. A heavy one. Coy, you help him.

Bicky doesn’t tell the rest of us to do anything. Should we be standing guard? Should we find rocks of our own? Sticks? The only sort of wood we can’t burn is the wood from the sourbark trees, but we’re not allowed to play with any branches that drop off, even if they fall by themselves. But we worry that we are going to need weapons.

Because people are going to come. The silver light keeps pouring out of the hole. People are going to notice that. They are going to come to see what it is. Maybe they’ll be scared of it. Maybe they’d try to cover it up again, throw all the dirt we’d scraped out and piled up back in the hole. For sure they’ll chase the gray kiddies away.

The gray kiddies who are still sitting down slap the ground with their six-fingered hands and chit-chit-chitter like crazy. The ones all on and over Hill are hugging him like he’s the most hug-again thing ever. They’re pulling his hair, but not really pulling it. More like stroking it. They’re biting at his legs and arms and back and face, but not really biting. Play-biting.

Hill pats some of the gray kiddies on their backs. We don’t blame him for keeping his hands away from their faces. Even if the gray kiddies are only play-biting, their teeth are sharp.

The new light is so bright now we can see the dirt under our own fingernails, the petals of the little white flowers (they are white, really white) that grow close to the ground, the scars on our knees, each other’s eyelashes. We look up, and let out gasps. The new light not only spreads across the land, but rises, too. It rises so high it hits the clouds, and is reflected back down again.

The gray kiddies who are still sitting down wave at us who are standing where Bicky and Hill and Verrie and Coy left us. They have never waved before. But we waved first. Did they learn it from us? We wave back. They whistle, and point at the sky.

We don’t whistle. We nod, and point at the sky, too.

Hill is hunting around for a big rock, with Coy at his heels. Bicky hasn’t yelled at him to hurry up once. Bicky’s still staring into the hole the other gray kiddies have dug. Some of us can’t stand it any longer, and call to him. What is it? What do you see?

Something different, Bicky says. Something new.

Like the new light?

Like it, but not like it.

The gray kiddies with Bicky tug at his shoulder, point to us, then point to themselves, then the gray kiddies with Hill, then the ones sitting down. They bend over to look down into the hole, the way Bicky was doing. They look at him again. All these weeks and weeks, when we tried to talk to them, to teach them easy words like stop and get off and dirt, they made like words were no more than the sounds of water lapping against a boulder. Now they are acting like it was summer feast, the day when there was no trading or working, only dancing and singing and games, and clowns rushing around pulling faces and pretending they couldn’t speak, only pointing and gesturing and making shapes with their hands. The gray kiddies can’t have learned that from our people. They have to have thought it up all by themselves. Not-people, or new people, or whatever they are, they aren’t stupid.

We have to share, Bicky says. Us and the gray kiddies.

We understand that. It sounds fair.

There’s not going to be enough for everybody, Bicky says. We’re going to break it into little pieces, but some of us are not going to get a piece. Some of them, too.

That doesn’t sound so good. For sure the older ones are going to get all of the share that’s coming to us.

Verrie finally comes panting up, lugging a rock twice as big as his own head. Coy’s following him. We bet Coy hasn’t done anything other than tag along, but he’s going to get a piece of whatever the new new thing is, just because he’s there.

We look at the gray kiddies who are sitting down. They’re probably thinking the same thing we are.

Bicky looks at the gray kiddies with him, and says, All right? He means the rock. The gray kiddies pat it all over, and hoot softly. Then two of them take one side of it, and Bicky takes the other. Back away, Bicky tells Verrie and Coy. They’re not happy, but they do it, though they don’t come all the way to where the rest of us are.

The other gray kiddies at the new spot reach into the hole and lift out something that we can’t see. It must be small, despite the fact that it takes four of the gray kiddies to bring it out of the hole and set it on a flat bit of ground. Whatever it is, it’s heavy, but we figure that because it’s so small, when Bicky hits it with the rock, he’ll break it into two piece, or four at the most. We ready ourselves for disappointment.

Bicky and the two gray kiddies holding the other end of the rock look at each other, and they all nod at the same time, and they bring the rock down with all their might on the small thing we can’t see. Then they do it again. And again.

Meanwhile, some of us notice that there are more gray kiddies, many more, more than we’ve ever seen before, hiding in the trees at the bottom of the hill. Maybe they’ve been attracted by the new light, which is shining and shining, like it’s never going to stop. We hope it’s never going to stop. We look behind us, to see if any people are coming, too. Yes. We can’t see them yet, but we can hear a rumble, the rumble of angry olders, scared olders, excited olders.

Is Mother with them?

The light is so bright we can see the sweat on Bicky’s face. The gray kiddies don’t sweat. Or if they do, it’s hidden by all their hair.

Bicky and the two gray kiddies lift the rock and bash it down. We don’t know if they’ve noticed we’re going to have company soon.

Suddenly there’s a flash, not like when the new silver light shot out of the excavation we had scraped and scratched over for weeks, but a soft yellow flash, that doesn’t dazzle our eyes or make us flinch. Don’t be scared, Bicky says, but he doesn’t have to. We’re not scared. We haven’t been scared for a while, except maybe of what the olders are going to do when they see the new light. They’re going to be mad. Most of them think like Mother, that nothing new is good.

We want to know what this other new thing is, the small thing that Bicky and the gray kiddies have broken.

Remember we have to share, Bicky says, and everybody nods. He and the gray kiddies set the big rock aside. He’s sweating, but he’s smiling, too. If you don’t get a piece, don’t cry about it.

We are too far away to see how many pieces there are, but we can see the soft yellow light.

Are they hot? Verrie asks.

No, Bicky says. They’re not hot. Don’t be scared.

He lets the gray kiddies go first. One of them scoops up two handfuls of the pieces of not-hot yellow light, and races to the gray kiddies who are sitting down. Were sitting down. They instantly jump up and whistle and chit-chit-chitter and climb on each other and pull each other’s hair and act like they’re about to leap out of their skins.

Two handfuls, we think. That gray kiddie took two handfuls. There’ll be nothing left for us.

Then Bicky bends down and fills both his hands, too.

Then he walks over to us. He doesn’t go to Verrie, or Hill, or Coy. He comes to us, and says, Now behave like people. No jumping or shoving or punching, all right?

We stare at him. We are so surprised we don’t know what to say. He waits until we all nod, then begins giving out tiny, tiny pieces of soft yellow light. He puts one in the middle of each of our palms, until there are none left. He’s right, the pieces are not hot. They are all about the same size, like a pinky fingernail, and just as thin. Some of us don’t get one, but nobody cries.

Those who didn’t get one can’t help asking, Will there be more?

I don’t know, Bicky says.

The rest of us can’t help asking, How long will the little lights last?

I don’t know.

What about the big light?

I don’t know. But it’s good, isn’t it? And the gray kiddies aren’t scared of us anymore, and we’re not scared of them.

It’s good, we agree.

Verrie and Hill don’t look happy, and Coy kicks the ground, but they keep their lips closed.

The olders are coming, we tell Bicky.

Yes, he says. Come on.

We all go down and hide in the trees. The gray kiddies have disappeared, all of them. We never noticed them go. We can still smell them, the ones who were hiding in the trees before us, but that’s all right.

Close your hands, Bicky tells those of us who have a tiny piece of yellow light. We do, but some light leaks out. We’re in the trees, though, far at the bottom of the hill, and when the olders arrive, they all stare and point at the big silver light, and shout at each other.

They do that for a long time.

We look for Mother, but we don’t see her.

The olders argue and make loud about the new hot silver light, but we can see some of them looking around in wonder, too. At the colors, so clear and rich now. At the grains of dirt and blades of grass. At each other’s faces. At their own skins. Even far down the hill, hiding in the trees, the new silver light reaches us.

Bicky, Verrie says. Bicky.

Bicky is lying on his stomach, propped up on his elbows. He looks like he’s dreaming with his eyes open.

Bicky.

What, he says.

What do we do now?

Wait here until night.

I mean after that. Bicky, I mean what are we going to do next?

Bicky doesn’t answer. Maybe he doesn’t know. We all understand what Verrie means. The new silver light illuminates the whole hillside, but the hillside is not very close to where people live. The olders must have seen the reflection in the clouds and come to investigate, but even if they all finally decide that this new thing is a good thing, they can’t take it back with them. The little pieces of soft yellow light some of us are holding tight in our closed fists are good, too, beautiful little lights that we can carry around. Some of us whisper that we need to make little boxes to put the pieces of yellow light in, so we won’t lose them, and some think they can get hold of wire, good wire, and make frames or something like little cages, and then wear the pieces of light around their necks. But not everybody got a piece of yellow light. We want more.

We want more hot silver light, and we want more soft yellow lights. There might even be other kinds of new light that we can find. Us and the gray kiddies.

We want more.

Wait, Bicky says. Just be quiet and wait. He sounds tired.

More olders come, and some olders leave, and some more come, and some others leave, and all the time we watch for Mother, but she doesn’t come.

Night comes. The new silver light shines even more brightly in the blackness. A few of the olders have stayed. They sit together, not talking, just watching. We sneak around them, quietly, carefully. Keep your hands closed, Bicky tells those of us who have pieces of the yellow light, so we make our way home only by the glow that seeps through our fingers.

Mother hasn’t locked the door. She hasn’t put out any food for us, and we haven’t eaten since breakfast, but at least she hasn’t locked the door. She’s in her own room, with the door closed. We hear her in there, crying.

Go to bed now, Bicky says. Come on, all of you. We’ll talk to her tomorrow. And if any of you lose your pieces of light, I’m going to kick the living crap out of you.

We do what Bicky says. We all go to the sleeping room, and lie down. Some of us with pieces of yellow light open our hands. The light is beautiful, golden, wonderful.

Put those in your pockets, or your pouches, Bicky says. It’s all right to sleep in the dark. Come on, we’re all tired.

We obey. And we are all tired, and most of us fall asleep right away.

I wait until I’m sure everybody else is asleep. Absolutely, one hundred percent sure. Then I creep out of the sleeping room, slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully.

I go to Mother’s room. I open the door. She never locks her door, no matter how spiny she gets. She’s not sleeping. She’s sitting on the floor, with one candle burning beside her.

Mother, I say. Mother.

She doesn’t answer, but I come into the room anyway.

Her head is down. She doesn’t look at me.

I take her hand, and turn it, so her palm is facing up. Mother, I say, this is for you. I put my little piece of soft yellow light in her hand. I wait, while she looks at it, and looks at it. I say, It’s a new thing, and a good thing. It’s yours, Mother.

She doesn’t say anything.

I kiss her, and she raises her other hand, and touches me lightly on the cheek. But she still doesn’t say anything. I want her to say something, but she doesn’t. She keeps looking at the little piece of light.

I go out, and close the door. I hear something. I think she’s crying again.

I didn’t want to make her cry, and I almost cry, too, but then I think that maybe Mother needs to cry tonight. Some of the olders on the hillside cried, too. Tomorrow will be different, I think. Tomorrow will be new. And some new things are good.

Tomorrow will be new and good, I tell myself, and the almost-crying feeling goes away. I tip-toe back to the sleeping room.

That was nice of you, Bicky whispers.

I’m scared for a second, but only a second. Bicky’s not mad. He sounds hug-again, and Bicky never sounds like that.

She’s crying, I whisper back.

It’s all right. Go to bed now.

I go to my place, carefully, so I don’t wake anybody up, and I lie down. I wait for sleep. When I wake up, it will be tomorrow.

New.
___
Copyright 2012 Patricia Russo

Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.

by Zen Cho

To the women of my family.

The house stood back from the road in an orchard. In the orchard, monitor lizards the length of a man’s arm stalked the branches of rambutan trees like tigers on the hunt. Behind the house was an abandoned rubber tree plantation, so proliferant with monkeys and leeches and spirits that it might as well have been a forest.

Inside the house lived the dead.

The first time she saw the boy across the classroom, Ah Lee knew she was in love because she tasted durian on her tongue. That was what happened–no poetry about it. She looked at a human boy one day and the creamy rank richness of durian filled her mouth. For a moment the ghost of its stench staggered on the edge of her teeth, and then it vanished.

She had not tasted fruit since before the baby came. Since before she was dead.

After school she went home and asked the aunts about it.

“Ah Ma,” she said, “can you taste anything besides people?”

It was evening–Ah Lee had had to stay late at school for marching drills–and the aunts were already cooking dinner. The scent of fried liver came from the wok wielded by Aunty Girl. It smelt exquisite, but where before the smell of fried garlic would have filled her mouth with saliva, now it was the liver that made Ah Lee’s post-death nose sit up and take interest. It would have smelt even better raw.

“Har?” said Ah Ma, who was busy chopping ginger.

“I mean,” said Ah Lee. “When you eat the ginger, can you taste it? Because I can’t. I can only taste people. Everything else got no taste. Like drinking water only.”

Disapproval rose from the aunts and floated just above their heads like a mist. The aunts avoided discussing their undeceased state. It was felt to be an indelicate subject. It was like talking about your bowel movements, or other people’s adultery.

“Why do you ask this kind of question?” said Ah Ma.

“Better focus on your homework,” said Tua Kim.

“I finished it already,” said Ah Lee. “But why do you put in all the spices when you cook, then? If it doesn’t make any difference?”

“It makes a difference,” said Aunty Girl.

“Why do you even cook the people?” said Ah Lee. “They’re nicest when they’re raw.”

“Ah girl,” said Ah Ma, “you don’t talk like that, please. We are not animals. Even if we are not alive, we are still human. As long as we are human we will eat like civilised people, not dogs in the forest. If you want to know why, that is why.”

There was a silence. The liver sizzled on the pan. Ah Ma diced more ginger than anyone would need, even if they could taste it.

“Is that why Sa Ee Poh chops intestines and fries them in batter to make them look like yu char kuay?” asked Ah Lee.

“I ate fried bread sticks for breakfast every morning in my life,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Just because I am like this, doesn’t mean I have to stop.”

“Enough, enough,” said Ah Chor. As the oldest of the aunts, she had the most authority. “No need to talk about this kind of thing. Ah Lee, come pick the roots off these tauge and don’t talk so much.”

The aunts had a horror of talking about death. In life this had been an understandable superstition, but it seemed peculiar to dislike the mention of death when you were dead.

Ah Lee kept running into the wall of the aunts’ disapproval head first. They were a family who believed that there was a right way to do things, and consequently a right way to think. Ah Lee always seemed to be thinking wrong.

She could see that as her caretakers the aunts had a right to determine where she went and what she did. But she objected to their attempts to change what she thought. After all, none of them had died before the age of fifty-five, while she was stuck at sixteen.

“It’s okay if I don’t follow you a hundred percent,” she told them one day in exasperation. “It’s called a generation gap.”

This came after Sa Ee Poh had spent half an hour marvelling over her capacity for disagreement. In Sa Ee Poh’s day, girls did not answer back. They listened to their elders, did their homework, came top in class, bought the groceries, washed the floor, and had enough time left over to learn to play the guzheng and volunteer for charity. When Sa Ee Poh had been a girl, she had positively delighted in submission. But children these days ….

Once an aunt got hold of an observation she did not let go of it until she had crunched its bones and sucked the marrow out, and saved the bones to make soup with later.

“Gap? What gap?” Sa Ee Poh said.

“It’s a branded clothing,” said Aunty Girl. She was the cool aunt. “American shop. They sell jeans, very expensive.”

The aunts surveyed Ah Lee with gentle disappointment.

“Why do you care so much about brands?” said Ah Ma. “If you want clothes, Ah Ma can make clothes for you. Better than the clothes in the shop also.”

So Ah Lee did not tell them about the boy. If the aunts could not handle her having thoughts, imagine how much worse they would be about her having feelings. Especially love–love, stealing into her life like a thief in the night, filling her dried out heart and plumping it out.

Being a vampire was not so bad. It was like eating steak every day, but when steak was your favourite food in the world. It wasn’t anything like the books and movies, though. In books and movies it seemed quite romantic to be a vampire, but Ah Lee and her aunts were clearly the wrong sort of people for the ruffled shirt and velvet jacket style of vampirism.

Undeath had not lent Ah Lee any mystical glamour. It had not imbued her with magical powers, gained her exotic new friends, or even done anything for her acne.

In fact Ah Lee’s life had become more boring post-death than it had been pre-, because at least when she was alive she had had friends. Now she just had aunts. She still went to school, but she was advised against fraternising with her schoolfellows for obvious reasons.

“Anyway, what is friends?” said the aunts. “Won’t last one. Only family will be there for you at the end of the day.”

The sayings of aunts filled her head till they poked out of her ears and nostrils.

Yet here came this boy one fine day, and suddenly her ears and nostrils were cleared. Her head was blown open. The sayings of the aunts fluttered away in the wind and dissolved with nothing to hold on to. Love was like swallowing a cili padi whole.

A classmate caught her staring at the boy the next day.

“Eh, see something very nice, is it?” said the classmate, her voice heavy with innuendo. She might as well have added, “Hur hur hur.”

Fortunately Ah Lee did not have quick social reflexes. Her face remained expressionless. She said contemplatively,

“I can’t remember whether today is my turn to clean the window or not. Sorry, you say what ah? You think that guy looks very nice, is it?”

The classmate retreated, embarrassed.

“No lah, just joking only,” she said.

“Who is that guy?” said Ah Lee, maintaining the facade of detachment. “Is he in our class? I never see him before.”

“Blur lah you,” said the classmate. “That one is Ridzual. He’s new. He just move here from KL.”

“He came to Lubuk Udang from KL?” said Ah Lee.

“I know, right,” said the classmate. This seemed an eccentric move to them both. Everyone had uncles and aunts, cousins, older brothers and sisters who lived in KL. Only grandparents stayed in Lubuk Udang. In three years, Ah Lee knew, none of the people sitting around her in the classroom would still be living there. Lubuk Udang was a place you moved away from when you were still young enough to have something to move for.

Fresh surprises awaited. The first time the boy opened his mouth in class, a strong Western accent came out. It said, “I don’t know” in answer to the obvious question the Add Maths teacher had posed him, but it made even that confession of ignorance sound glamorous.

People said Ridzual had been at an international school in KL. The nearest international school to Lubuk Udang was in Penang, a whole state and Strait away.

“He sounds like TV hor,” said the classmate. “Apparently he was born in US.”

Ridzual called natrium “sodium” and kalium “potassium”. For the duration of his first week at school he wore dazzlingly white hi-top leather sneakers instead of the whitewashed canvas shoes everyone else wore. The shoes didn’t last long–they were really too cool to be regulation. But it didn’t matter that Ridzual had to give them up to the discipline teacher a week after he had started. The aroma of leather hung around him forever after, even when he was only wearing Bata like the rest of the class.

Ah Lee had never been in love but she took to it like a natural despite her lack of practice. She spun secret fantasies about him: the things they would say to each other, the adventures they would have. She would reel off dazzling one-liners; he would gaze at her with intrigued longan seed eyes. She saw them sitting in a cafe unlike any kopitiam to be found in Lubuk Udang, with flowered wallpaper, tiny glossy mahogany tables, and brisk friendly waitresses who took your orders down in a little notebook and did not shout in the direction of the kitchen, “Milo O satu!”

They would sit together at a table, Ridzual’s curly head bent close to her smooth one. They would speak of serious things, but she would also make him laugh. Through this love she would be renewed, brilliant, special.

However lurid her fantasies got, her imagination never stretched beyond conversation. You could not imagine kissing a boy when you were never more than a room’s width away from an aunt. Ah Lee’s favourite time to dream was in that precious space of quiet between getting in bed and falling asleep. She could construct a pretty good Parisian cafe as she lay underneath her Donald Duck blanket. But cafes were one thing: kisses were another. No kiss could survive Ji Ee’s snores from the mattress across the room.

It was no big deal. There was time enough to imagine the later stages of her romance–after all, she had not even got to the overtures. Ah Lee came from a family that believed in being prepared. While staring at the back of Ridzual’s lovely head in class, she wove conversation openers, from the casual to the calculatedly cool.

She then made the fatal mistake of writing them down.

The aunts would have pulled it off if they had left everything to Ji Ee. In life Ji Ee had played the violin. She could have been a professional if her husband had not become envious and depressed, so that she had had to stop playing to keep him happy. She had not touched a violin since, but she still had the soul of an artist. It gave her sensibility.

She sat down next to Ah Lee one day and asked her what she was doing.

Ah Lee was trying to think of nonchalant ways to ask Ridzual what life meant to him.

“Bio homework,” she said. She snapped her exercise book shut.

“Good, good,” said Ji Ee. She looked dreamily into the distance.

They were sitting on the step outside the kitchen door. Behind them came the hiss and clang of Ah Chor making human stomach soup with bucketloads of pepper and coriander. In front of them stood the orchard.

It was one of those blindingly sunny days: the leaves of the trees shone with reflected sunlight, so bright that if you looked at them purple-green shapes remained imprinted on your eyes after you looked away. The heat was relieved by an occasional breeze that lifted the leaves and touched their faces like a caress.

A monitor lizard paused on the branch of a tree to look at them. It blinked and ran up the branch, out of sight.

“When you are young, you must focus,” said Ji Ee. “You must pay attention at school, study hard and become clever. When you are young, that is when you have the best chance. And you are young now, in this modern day, when women can do everything. Can be doctor, can be lawyer. You know none of us went to university. Your Ah Chor wasn’t allowed and when Ah Ma and Sa Ee Poh were young, during the war, everything was too kelam-kabut. I wasn’t clever enough. Aunty Girl’s family couldn’t afford it, so she could only get a diploma.

“But you, Ah Lee, you have all the opportunities. We have lived so long, we have saved enough money. Maybe if you study hard, if you get a scholarship, you could even go to England like my uncle the doctor, your Tua Tiao Kong. Your English is so good. You have a good chance.”

Ah Lee was used to such pep talks. The aunts never scolded; they did not believe in raising their voice. They only “told”. The benefits of only ever being told and not scolded were obvious, but the disadvantage of it was that while people only scolded when you had done something wrong, aunts got to tell all the time.

“I know, Ji Ee,” Ah Lee said. “You all have told me before.” In her daydream Ridzual had been on the point of tucking her hair behind her ear. She was impatient to return to it.

“You must not get distracted by anything,” said Ji Ee. “There will be time for other things when you are older. There is so much time ahead of you. Right now you must focus on your studies. Then we can tell all the neighbours about our clever girl.”

She put her soft hand on Ah Lee’s arm and stroked it. Love came up the arm and melted Ah Lee’s thorny teenaged heart. When Ji Ee said,

“You’ll listen to Ji Ee, ya?”

Ah Lee said pliantly, “Yes, Ji Ee.”

So she never heard the rest of the talk, planned if Ah Lee had proved intransigent, which went into alarming detail about the inadvisability of youthful romance.

The way Ji Ee had two-stepped around the subject matter, Ah Lee would never have known what she was talking about if not for everyone else. All the other aunts believed in the forthright approach, and not one of them could keep a secret.

When Ah Lee came home from school the day after Ji Ee had given her little talk, Ah Chor looked up from the dining table and said,

“Ah girl! Who is this Malay boy? What is he called already?” She turned to Ah Ma. “Ri–Li–Liwat or what?”

Ah Ma did not know any dirty words, and could not have told you what sodomy was if you’d asked her. She said unconcernedly, “Ridzwan, Ma. He is called Ridzwan. Isn’t that right, Ah Lee?”

“Cannot marry a Malay,” Ah Chor told Ah Lee. “They don’t know how to treat their women.”

Ah Lee was surfing the waves of outrage. She started to say, “You all read my diary?” Then she clamped her mouth shut in fury. Of course they had. She could just picture Ji Ee and Aunty Girl reading it out, translating the English and Malay to Hokkien as they went along for the benefit of Ah Chor and Ah Ma and Sa Ee Poh, who could not read. The aunts’ conception of the right to privacy went far enough to allow you to close the toilet door when you were peeing, but no further.

“Ah Ma saw you when you were being born,” Ah Ma said. No further explanation was required.

“Even if you think you will be so happy and the man is so good, you don’t know what can happen,” said Ah Chor. “Do you know or not, they can marry four wives? Malay men …. ”

“Si Gu had four wives. He wasn’t even Muslim,” said Aunty Girl.

Ah Chor said repressively, “Your uncle was a very naughty boy.”

“It wasn’t four wives, not four wives,” said Ah Ma. “Only one wife. The others were girlfriends only.”

“The laksa lady cannot even count as girlfriend,” sniffed Sa Ee Poh. “Remember how she threw a bowl of laksa in his face when he told her he wasn’t going to marry her. Even a laksa lady can put on airs like that.”

“She asked him to pay for it some more!” said Ah Ma. She realised they were enjoying reminiscing about her naughty brother’s adventures rather too much, and changed her face to look serious. “Ah Lee, this is what men are like.”

“Not all men,” said Ji Ee.

“Yes, all men,” said Sa Ee Poh.

“Only bad men,” said Ah Ma. “But when you are young you cannot tell whether a man is a good man or a bad man yet. You are too small. Now you must focus on your studies. Don’t think about this Ridzwan.”

“His name,” said Ah Lee, “is Ridzual.”

She stormed out of the kitchen.

From that day there was no respite for her. The aunts abounded in stories of bad men and the bad things they had done to good women.

“Look at your great-grandfather,” said Aunty Girl.

“Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” said Ah Ma piously. “He was your grandfather, Ah Girl. You should show respect.”

“No need to respect That Man,” said Ah Chor, who had been That Man’s wife.

“This is what happens when you marry too young,” she told Ah Lee. “That Man didn’t even deserve to be called husband. I was only 19 when I had my third child, your Sa Ee Poh, and already he had a second wife.”

“She lived in Ipoh,” Sa Ee Poh confirmed.

“When I found out, I told him, if you don’t stop seeing her, I will take my children and go,” said Ah Chor. “He promised he wouldn’t see her again. But all along after that, little did I know he was going back and forth between me and that other woman! My fourth child is the same age as her second child. He didn’t know how to feel shame! Never mind my heart. At least if she didn’t have children nobody would know. But he didn’t even care enough to save my face.”

Ah Ma was uncomfortable. “Ma, so long ago … it’s not good to speak bad of other people.”

“Ah Lee must know so she won’t make the same mistake,” said Ah Chor. “He didn’t even support the second wife properly, so she came to me asking for money. When I saw her with the baby, I packed up and brought all my children here. Don’t think this was your grandfather’s house! He was rich before he lost it all in gambling, but this was my parents’ home. His creditors couldn’t touch this. All this was my land. If That Man came on it without my permission, I could call the police on him.”

Ah Lee was interested despite herself. “Did you ever see him again?”

“Of course,” said Ah Chor. “Where do you think your four other great-uncles and great-aunts came from?”

“Ma says too much. Shouldn’t talk about such things,” said Ah Ma to Sa Ee Poh, but Sa Ee Poh only laughed.

“We all know this story already,” she said. “Let Ah Lee listen. Maybe she will learn something also.”

“But you said if he came on your land you would call the police,” Ah Lee said to Ah Chor.

“Oh, he was my husband, after all,” said Ah Chor. “I didn’t let him live here. Only visit. I told him, you can come and stay for good only after you get rid of that woman. But he didn’t, so even after he asked and asked, I never went back to him.

“It wasn’t easy, you know or not? Raising eight children with no husband. Lucky my mother was there to help me. That’s why you cannot think about this kind of thing at your age–men, romance. It’s too early.”

“But Ah Ma married Ah Kong when she was 16,” Ah Lee objected. “I am 17 already.”

“That’s not the same,” said Sa Ee Poh.

Ah Ma stared at her hands on the table.

“You forget, girl,” said Ji Ee gently. “There was a war then.”

Ji Ee’s husband wouldn’t let her play the violin, an iniquity long known to Ah Lee. Curiously, if anything was going to stop Ah Lee’s wayward heart from loving Ridzual, it was Ji Ee’s patience when she talked about Ji Tiao.

“He was a good husband. Men have their little ways. They have their likes and dislikes. As long as they are responsible, as long as they look after you and the children, there’s no harm in letting them have their way.”

Ah Lee was less impressed by the wickedness of Sa Ee Poh’s husband. Sa Ee Poh was the only one who spoke about her husband with the complacency of someone who had asked more of love and always received it. But she still complained about her husband’s vegetarianism.

“Sa Tiao Kong being a vegetarian doesn’t sound so bad,” Ah Lee objected. “How was that suffering for you?”

“You think what? I had to be vegetarian also!” Sa Ee Poh retorted. “You think he cooked for himself? I cooked for the two of us. Vegetarian a few times a year or for a few months, I don’t mind. Vegetarian all the time … for the rest of my life I never tasted garlic or onion!”

Ah Ma kept the story about her marriage for the right time. One night Ah Lee’s evening hunt had taken longer than usual, so she got home late and only managed to finish her Add Maths homework after 11. She was feeling creaky-jointed and lonely as she got ready for bed in a house full of night sounds. The beam of light under Ah Ma’s door came as a pleasant surprise.

She poked her head into Ah Ma’s room. “Not sleeping yet, Ah Ma?”

Ah Ma was lying propped up on the pillows, her eyes half-closed, but when Ah Lee spoke she sat bolt upright.

“No! Cannot sleep,” she said in a blatant lie. “Brushed your teeth already? Come sit down next to Ah Ma.”

Ah Lee climbed into bed to the soft melody of Ah Ma’s fussing: “Come under the blanket, you’ll get cold. Let Ah Ma feel your hands. Ah, see lah, so cold! Next time you mustn’t go out until so late. Not good to work so late at night. Why don’t you want to eat dinner with us?”

“I like to have fresh meat sometimes,” said Ah Lee.

“Then don’t be so picky. Ah Ma always tells you, eat the first man you see.”

“I did, Ah Ma,” Ah Lee protested. Now that she was under the blanket with Ah Ma’s bony arm around her and Ah Ma’s warm chest against her cheek, she felt drowsy, protected. “The guy had a motorbike. Didn’t know how to get rid of it.”

“So how? Did you manage to get rid of it in the end?”

“Yes. Flew out of town and dumped it in the middle of an oil palm plantation. No blood stains, and I took off the licence plate.” Ah Ma tsked.

“So difficult,” she said. “Next time just eat with us. We all have hunted for you already. And we are older than you so we know which people are the nicest to eat.”

“OK, OK,” mumbled Ah Lee.

They sat in silence for a while. Ah Lee half-shut her eyes to keep out the light from the lamp on the bedside table. Through the slits of her eyes she could see Ah Ma’s reading glasses and the container in which she kept her false teeth. The teeth floated in cloudy water, yellowed by coffee and blood.

The cicadas screeched. The ceiling fan hummed to itself. The air was cool enough that the breeze it created was a pleasure rather than the necessity it usually was. Ah Lee forgot the persistent sense of irritation she had had since the aunts had found her diary, which had felt as if she had sand in her underwear. She was almost asleep when Ah Ma spoke.

“Do you know why I married your Ah Kong?” she said.

Embarrassment woke Ah Lee up.

“Don’t know,” said Ah Lee. An expectant pause ensued. Ah Ma was waiting for a better attempt at an answer. “Er … you loved him?”

“Where got?” said Ah Ma. “I was 16, a little girl only. How to know what is love yet? Ah Ma washed your backside when you were a baby. Now that is love.”

“That’s different,” said Ah Lee. “You wouldn’t marry someone just because they didn’t mind washing your backside.”

“Don’t answer back to your elders,” said Ah Ma. “No, I married him because of the war. The Japanese soldiers used to come to everyone’s houses looking for young girls. So Ah Chor cut our hair and put us in our brothers’ clothes. It worked with Sa Ee Poh because she was younger and skinny, but you know when Ah Ma was young Ah Ma was so chubby-chubby. Even wearing boys’ clothes, I still looked like a girl.

“When the soldiers came Ah Chor would tell us to run to the forest behind the house and hide there until the soldiers went away. So horrible! Must lie in the mud. Cannot move even with mosquitoes biting your body. When I came back to the house my face looked like it had pimples all over it because of the mosquito bites, and my legs were covered with leeches. I had to sit down in the kitchen and Ah Chor would put salt on them, but you cannot take them off with your hand, you know? Must wait until they drop off. Then when they came off, my legs would bleed everywhere. So horrible.”

“That’s why you never let me play in the forest,” said Ah Lee. “Because you don’t like leeches.”

Ah Ma nodded.

“One day some soldiers came without warning to our house. I was in the kitchen cutting ubi kayu. Those days we had nothing much to eat, only tapioca that we grew ourselves. There was no time to run out to the forest, so I just tried to make myself look small, bent my head over the chopping board. Your Ah Chor was so scared, she offered them all the food: do you want Nescafe, do you want biscuit, this lah, that lah. And she talked. Usually when the soldiers came we didn’t talk so much. Scared they think we asked questions because we were spies or what. But Ah Chor didn’t want them to look at me, so she kept talking. Did they like Malaya? How was Japan like, not so hot? Her Japanese was not so good but she used every word she knew. When she ran out of words she knew, she repeated everything she’d already said.

“But the soldiers kept looking over at me. I was so scared I cut my finger instead of the ubi and the blood went all over the tapioca. And I didn’t even make a sound. The soldiers drank coffee. They talked to Ah Chor, very friendly. Then they finally got up to go. Suddenly their captain turned around and pointed at me. He said,

“‘Can we have that tapioca?’

“All along they were looking at the ubi kayu on the shelf above my head! We gave them all the ubi we harvested from our own plants, even though we went hungry for the next few days. Your great-grandfather said Ah Chor should have given me away instead.”

“That wasn’t very nice of him,” said Ah Lee.

“Men cannot stand having empty stomachs,” said Ah Ma. “After that your great-grandparents were very anxious to see me married. When your Ah Kong came to lodge with us he was already quite old–38 years old–and we only knew him a few weeks before he asked to marry me. But he was a teacher and an educated man and the Japanese respected him, so my mother and father said yes.”

A hush. Ah Lee said into it, “He wasn’t so bad, was he?” She remembered her grandfather as a benign figure, distant, but kindly enough when he was reminded of your existence.

“Your Ah Kong was a good father,” said Ah Ma. “All his students at his school looked up to him. Even the Japanese could see that he had a good character. And he knew how to be polite. He never said a bad word to me.

“But when a girl marries so young, to someone so much older … and he was educated, and I couldn’t even read. I could hold a pen but I could only draw pictures with it. Ah girl, you must never tell anybody this. But your Ah Kong did not respect me. Without love you can live a happy life. Love is something that will come after you live together with your husband, after you have children together. But a woman should not marry where there is no respect. Respect is the most important thing.

“So you must study hard and go to university. Now, at your age, is not the time to look at boys. Understand or not?”

“Yes,” said Ah Lee. But the mutinous thought rumbled to the surface of her mind: They’re the ones who don’t understand.

When she was a child Ah Lee had often wondered whether adults could read her mind. They seemed to have an uncanny ability to tell what she was thinking at any given moment. Ah Ma evinced this telepathy now:

“Ah, you’re angry already,” she said. “Don’t think so much. Listen to Ah Ma and do what you’re told. Now give me a kiss and go to bed.”

In the end it was not even Ah Lee’s doing. Suddenly, easily, without any need for imaginary cafes or prepared lines scribbled in exercise books, Ah Lee became friends with Ridzual.

It was because of Thursdays. Ji Ee and Aunty Girl were the only two of the aunts who could drive, so it was their job to pick Ah Lee up from school. But they had line dancing every Thursday and so they were an hour late.

Ah Lee usually waited for them in the canteen, doing homework if she felt like it and daydreaming if she didn’t. In the middle of the day there weren’t many people around, and it was pleasant, even quiet. It smelled of grease, heated metal from the car park, and the freshly-washed flesh of the afternoon session kids waiting for school to start.

The background hum of talk and the hiss of oil in frying pans made Ah Lee feel secure. She liked the feeling of being idle while others were busy, alone when others were talking.

It was at this peaceful moment, while Ah Lee was following a drop of condensation on her glass of iced soy bean milk with a finger and thinking about nothing much, that Ridzual tapped her on the shoulder. He said,

“Tamadun Awal, right?”

And that was how she met him. The boy who gave her back her sense of taste.

He dropped his schoolbag on the floor and sat on the bench next to her with an admirable lack of self-consciousness.

“Your name is Eng Ah Lee? Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker. I know ‘cos I was checking out all our team members in class. I’m using this project as an exercise to get to know people. My name’s Ridzual, I’m new. So what do you think of early civilisations? I don’t know shit about them.”

Despite her many fantasies, Ah Lee had not seriously considered ever actually talking to Ridzual. She waited for her throat to close and her muscles to freeze. But she found herself speaking naturally, as if to a friend whom she had known forever.

“It’s OK. I like this kind of thing,” she said. “Anyway, at least it’s not Persatuan Penulis or whatever.”

“Hah! Don’t even say that,” said Ridzual. “No, that’s true. At least with Tamadun Awal maybe we can dress up like Ancient Egyptians or something. I think I’d look good in eyeliner.”

“Nanti kena rotan by the discipline teacher then you know,” said Ah Lee. “You know Puan Aminah doesn’t even let us wear coloured watches. Must be black, plain black strap.” She showed him the watch she was wearing. “Metal watch also cannot. Too gaya konon.”

“Wah lau,” said Ridzual. He said it in a toneless accent Ah Lee found peculiarly charming. “I think that woman is just jealous. Like when she confiscated my shoes. She couldn’t stand looking at them, just got too jealous of my style.”

It would have been obnoxious if he had been serious. But Ridzual wore a perpetual embarrassed smile, an uncertainty around the eyes, that made it obvious that the hot air was just joking. Ah Lee liked vulnerability in a human, and she warmed to this.

“She took your shoes?” she said. They both looked down at his feet, now encased in boring white canvas. “Never give back meh?”

“I never saw them again,” said Ridzual. “I think she’s wearing them now. Sometimes if you look closely you can see the white flash under the hem of her baju ….

“Discipline teachers cannot stand me,” he said mournfully. “I remind them of what they can never achieve. At my last school there was one teacher like that. Encik Velu. He used to chase me around the school with a rotan. He said it’s because I ponteng or I made rude signs at the teacher or I kencing in the beaker or some garbage like that. But he couldn’t fool me. I knew it was because he wished he was like me when he was young, one million years ago.”

“You peed in the beaker?” said Ah Lee.

“Only once,” said Ridzual modestly. “It was for science. I wanted to titrat it but the kimia teacher stop me before I can do it.”

“International school got discipline teacher meh?” said Ah Lee.

“What makes you think I went to international school?” said Ridzual. Ah Lee went pink.

“Your slang,” she said. “You talk like Mat Salleh.”

“Oh, that,” said Ridzual. It was his turn to look embarrassed. “That’s called a Bangsar accent. But don’t hold it against me. I’m trying to be a Lubuk Udangite. A good prawn.”

“I’ve live in Lubuk Udang my whole life,” said Ah Lee.

“Right? What should I do to become a good Lubuk Udangite?”

“Don’t call us prawns,” said Ah Lee.

Ah Lee had not had a friend to spend break with since she’d started at that school. She did not eat during break. It had seemed simpler to avoid the crowd at the canteen, and find some out-of-the-way spot on the school grounds where she could read.

Of course, it had been different before she was dead. But that was before, in another life–and more importantly, at a different school.

Now that she and Ridzual were friends, Ah Lee bought a bag of keropok lekor in the canteen every day and ate them while Ridzual wolfed down a bowl of tomyam noodles.

She had loved the chewy fried fish sticks in life. Now she was dead they tasted of nothing. She ate slowly and threw the remaining keropok away when break was over. She felt bad about the waste of it–heart-pain, the aunts would have said. Ah Lee’s upbringing had trained her to a mindful parsimoniousness, so that it did almost feel like a physical pain to see the fish sticks tumbling into the bin.

She asked Tua Kim if she would disguise some innards for her to take to school.

Tua Kim considered her a moment in silence. Then she said,

“I’ll deep-fry them. They’ll look like chicken nugget.”

She turned back to her washing.

“Er, Tua Kim,” said Ah Lee. “Um, don’t tell the others, OK or not? Ah Chor and Ah Ma and all of them. Ah Ma will scold me for eating fried things. She’ll say I’ll get pimples.”

When Ah Lee saw Tua Kim’s face she felt foolish for the lie.

“This is because of your friend,” Tua Kim said, in the tone of one pointing out an obvious fact to a dim person.

Ah Lee looked down at her feet. Her smallest toes curled in embarrassment.

“I’m shy to be the one not eating,” she mumbled. “People like to eat together.”

“You need your own friends,” said Tua Kim. When Ah Lee peeked up she saw that Tua Kim’s face had not softened. She spoke almost sternly. It was not kindness in her face, but understanding.

“You need your own thing,” said Tua Kim. “Something that’s nothing to do with your family. You feel this especially when you’re young, but even for old people it’s important. Some people don’t understand this kind of thing. So it’s better not to talk so much about it.”

She wiped her hand on a dishcloth and started putting the clean dishes back in the cupboard. “I’ll put your snack in your backpack in the morning. Other people don’t need to see.”

“Thank you, Tua Kim,” said Ah Lee.

She had never thanked an aunt for anything before. It was understood that they would do things for her, that that was the way the world worked. She did not need to thank them any more than trees thanked the sun for shining or the earth thanked the clouds for rain. Ah Lee was not sure the aunts would have understood or even registered any attempt on her part to express gratitude for the many ways in which they cared for her.

It made her feel funny to say the words–stripped, somehow. Skinless and shy. To say it was to contemplate a world in which the aunts did not look after her.

Tua Kim only inclined her head slightly to show she had heard. She made no other response. That was one thing you could rely on Tua Kim for. She had a sense of the appropriateness of things.

The next day at school Ah Lee opened her plastic container and almost felt normal, eating fried kidney nuggets as if she were any ordinary kid at school. Ridzual sneaked looks at the nuggets as he was eating his tomyam noodles. When he had finished his noodles, he said casually,

“What’s that?”

Ah Lee had expected this. Food was for sharing. If she had been human she would have responded to his interest by offering him a nugget.

This simple unthinking generosity had been put beyond her power after her death–one reason why she had not bothered with friends until Ridzual. Fortunately there was a simple way of avoiding awkwardness.

“Pork,” she said. She ate another nugget.

“I’ve always wondered what pork tastes like,” said Ridzual to the air.

“I’ve always thought it’s very important to respect other people’s religion,” said Ah Lee to the nuggets.

“What is life if you don’t taste everything that the world has to offer?” said Ridzual.

“In this country we must accept other people’s customs,” said Ah Lee. “Not just tolerate, but respect. That is how to live together.”

Ridzual laughed and gave up.

“If you don’t want to share your nugget, say lah,” he said. “Why so shy to admit you’re greedy?”

“Who’s greedy now?” said Ah Lee. “One bowl of tomyam, how many otak-otak–tak cukup ke? Your mother and father don’t feed you?”

“I’m a man! Men need nutrition, OK,” said Ridzual with dignity. Ah Lee made jeering noises through a mouthful of nugget.

Of course perfect happiness could not be allowed to continue without an aunt stepping in to intervene. If anyone had ever dared to suggest to the aunts that children should be allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from them, it would have horrified the aunts.

Ah Lee was doing her Chemistry homework in the kitchen one afternoon when Aunty Girl said,

“Wah, studies so funny meh? Why are you smiling?”

Ah Lee started. She had been thinking about her conversation with Ridzual about nuggets, but she hadn’t realised she was smiling.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Must be that small boy,” said Ji Ee.

“No!” said Ah Lee a little too loudly. “Everything is Ridzual this, Ridzual that. You think that’s the only thing I think about, is it?”

Before this outburst, the aunts had been absorbed in their usual afternoon task of preparing dinner and had only been making chat for the sake of it. They squatted over their buckets of viscera, sorting the nice bits of the human innards (the intestines, the liver, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs) from the less nice bits (the spleen, the gallbladder, the oesophagus).

Now the aunts were all interested. Aunty Girl even washed her bloody hands and came to sit at the table with Ah Lee.

“Who’s this Ridzual?” said Ah Chor.

“She’s talking about that Malay boy, ma,” said Ah Ma. “What’s his name again–Ridzwan.”

“Oh, Ridzwan,” said Ah Chor. “Why, Ah Lee still likes this Ridzwan? I thought that was all finished already!”

“Ah Lee doesn’t so easily forget,” Ji Ee chided.

“That’s right,” said Aunty Girl. “She doesn’t stop liking things so fast. Remember when she was small, she liked that English show, what was it called–” she switched to English for the title: “‘My Little Horsie’. She had all those horse toys, with the long hair and the stars on the backside. She liked it for two years! From four until six.”

“It’s because she has a good memory,” said Ji Ee.

“Children usually don’t remember things for so long,” Ah Ma agreed. “Ah Lee only. Never forgets anything!”

“Men are not like My Little Heh Bee,” said Ah Chor reprovingly. “There’s no problem with liking little heh bee for a long time. But Ah Chor has already told you, so many problems come if you like a man.”

“You should use your good memory to remember what is in your textbooks, not for remembering your boyfriend,” said Sa Ee Poh.

“He is not my boyfriend,” said Ah Lee. “We are just friends. Can’t I have friends?”

“Ah Lee, friends are not a problem,” said Ji Ee.

“No, you cannot have friends,” said Ah Ma.

“Ma,” Ji Ee protested. “You let me have friends when I was Ah Lee’s age. There’s nothing wrong with boy friends–not sweethearts, not at this age, but boy friends are OK. That’s normal.”

“Your time was different,” said Ah Ma. “Ah Lee is not like you. Ah Lee is not normal.”

She looked up at Ah Lee.

“Ah Lee, you are not like any of us,” she said. “When we were young we could have boy friends.”

We couldn’t,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Not you and me. Never mind sweethearts. Ma didn’t even allow us just to be friends with boys.”

“Yes, I never let you,” Ah Chor agreed. “After a certain age, it doesn’t look nice for a good girl to be around boys too much.”

Ah Ma ignored them.

“When we were older we could get married, and everybody could come to our wedding,” she said. “There was nothing to hide. It’s not the same for you.

“Ah Ma wants you to get married some day. Ah Ma wants you to graduate from university. Maybe you will never have children, but you can be a good scholar and have a good job. Other people will admire you. Your husband will respect you.

“But for this to happen, people cannot know. You must be very careful. You have to go to school so you can study, but you must make sure people don’t remember you. No friends. Don’t talk too much to teachers. You remember we all told you this before you started school again.”

Ah Lee remembered. She stared at her exercise book. Ridzual had written “what does any of it MEAN” at the bottom of the page. She had whited it out with liquid eraser, but the words showed through after the white fluid had dried.

“If you are friends with Ridzual that is even worse than if you like him,” said Ah Ma tenderly. “You must not go around with him anymore.”

“Don’t do it suddenly,” said Ji Ee. “Slowly just become more distant. Don’t drop him immediately, but don’t need to talk to him so much. He will get the hint.”

“Things will change in the future,” said Aunty Girl. “When you are older, at university, it’ll be easier to hide. You can have friends there. But this place is too small. Everybody knows everybody’s business. It’s better to keep to yourself.”

“There’s no need to be so sad, girl,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Even if you hurt his feelings, he won’t remember you after a while. Young people recover very fast.”

I will remember, thought Ah Lee. She did not want to cry because the aunts made such a fuss when you cried. She gulped and squeezed her pen and looked at Tua Kim.

Tua Kim was sorting through the slippery organs, listening to the conversation but not part of it. She said, eyes still on the bucket, “Every woman has secrets.”

“Hah! Very true,” said Aunty Girl. “When you get married, you won’t be the only bride who knows something the groom doesn’t know. Cousin Kah Hoe didn’t even know his wife was pregnant until she had the baby six months after the wedding.”

“He never found out who the father was also,” said Sa Ee Poh.

“Shh! Eh, enough!” said Ah Chor, scandalised. “Shouldn’t talk about such things.”

“Don’t listen to your naughty aunties,” Ah Ma told Ah Lee.

How could you die and not be old enough to hear about premarital sex? How could you die and still not be allowed to fall in love or be honest? Surely not everything had to wait for university and a good job. Passion and truth had to trump even those things.

Still, it wasn’t a conscious decision on Ah Lee’s part to rebel. She was not even thinking about the many-aunted lecture when the urge to candour came to her.

It was a Thursday again, Ji Ee and Aunty Girl’s line dancing day, and Ah Lee and Ridzual were hanging around waiting for their respective rides home. They had found the perfect width of concrete ledge to sit on next to the monsoon drain outside their school. From here they had an unobstructed view of the road, and a big leafy flame-of-the-forest provided dappled shade.

It was so sunny the whole world gave off a metallic glare. Ah Lee and Ridzual sat on their ledge, squinting at the road.

Ah Lee surprised herself when she said,

“Ridzual, do you have any secrets?”

Once it was out she felt a great sense of relief. She knew she wanted to tell him. She was sick of keeping everything important to herself, hidden away from the piercing gaze of the aunts.

“Yah,” said Ridzual slowly. “Yes. Funny you should say that. I’ve been thinking I should tell you one of them.”

Ah Lee was nonplussed.

“Oh, but I was going to tell you–” she said. “Um, never mind.”

“Oh, if you were going to say something, then you should say first,” said Ridzual.

“No, it’s OK, you go first,” said Ah Lee.

“My secret isn’t very interesting,” said Ridzual. “You say first lah.”

“My one is very interesting,” said Ah Lee firmly. “It’ll take long time to tell. You go first.”

“Cannot,” said Ridzual. He got up off the ledge, fell into a squat, bent his head and put his hands in his hair.

Ah Lee started to feel worried. She had never seen Ridzual act like this before. Something seemed really wrong. Maybe something bad had happened at home. She got up and touched his shoulder.

“Eh, why like this? What’s wrong?”

“My life,” moaned Ridzual.

Ah Lee felt relieved. If Ridzual was in a good enough mood to whine then he was manageable.

“Eh! Merajuk already,” she said. “Don’t need to sulk like that. How old are you?”

When Ridzual lifted his head she saw his eyes were wet.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s nothing to you. There’s nothing wrong. I just like you, that’s all. That’s my big secret. Probably you know already, probably it is very obvious. You want you laugh lah. But it’s the first time I’ve ever been in l-love, so sorry if I want to make a big fuss about it.”

He shoved his head under his arm and sniffed.

Ah Lee did not know what face to make.

“Oh,” she said foolishly. “Oh–but–”

Ridzual threw up his hand.

“It’s OK!” he said. “Don’t say! I know the answer. I’ve embarrassed myself enough. Just out of the kindness of your heart, can you please don’t say anything?”

“But I–”

“For five minutes!” said Ridzual. “In five minutes my dignity will return. Just leave me in peace to enjoy my misery for five minutes, OK?”

Ah Lee began to frown.

“Don’t need to be so drama,” she said. “You think this is Cantonese serial or what? I had something to tell you too, remember?”

There was a pause in which Ridzual did not move or even show that he had heard. Then he rubbed his eyes. He rearranged his limbs, sat down on the ledge, and looked at her.

“Sorry,” he said. “That wasn’t so gallant of me.”

“No,” Ah Lee agreed. “Not gallant langsung.”

“I’m not so good at this love declaration stuff,” said Ridzual.

“Yeah, true.”

“You don’t have to agree when I kutuk myself!” said Ridzual. He gave her the sweetest half-smile. His eyes were red and his lashes were still wet.

“What did you want to tell me?” he said.

“I–” said Ah Lee.

She found she could not do it. It was absurd. She had promised herself that she would tell him that she liked him, and not just as a friend. She liked him liked him.

It had seemed so easy five minutes ago. It ought to be even easier now. She had only to say, “I like you back.” But what if Ridzual didn’t believe her? What if he thought she was just saying it to comfort him? What if, once she said it, he revealed that he had just been joking about liking her? Could she stand to give so much of herself away?

The words stuck in her throat. She said:

“I–”

Through a process of thought even she did not understand, she swerved and went for what felt like the less difficult truth. She said:

“I’m a vampire.”

It was not the most intelligent thing she had ever done.

“What?” said Ridzual.

“That’s why you can’t share my nuggets,” Ah Lee said wildly. “They’re not not-halal because they’re made of pork. They’re not halal because they’re made of human.”

At first Ridzual looked as if he might believe her. He looked at her for a long time, his mouth grim. His eyebrows knitted, his mouth twisted–then his face cleared and he laughed.

“You’re such a freak,” said Ridzual. “You’re the weirdest person I know. Is that how you always try to change the subject in an awkward situation? ”Scuse me, sir, your fly is undone. But don’t worry about it, I’m a werewolf!'”
He rubbed his eyes.

“Sorry ya,” he said. “I’ll be normal again soon.”

Ah Lee should have been relieved, or maybe touched, or any one of a number of benign emotions. Instead she felt vexed. You told someone the biggest secret you had and they didn’t even take you seriously!

“You know, everything is not about you,” she snapped. “I don’t say things just because of you. Men!”

She changed to show him. It was always too easy to change when she was angry.

What was she thinking? she asked herself later. She knew that love was supposed to make you act funny, but she did not know that it could actually deprive you of all common sense. Or kindness. It was not kind to show that to a human.

What Ridzual saw was a cold grey face, a face incontrovertibly dead. The features were Ah Lee’s own everyday features, but the skin did not have the comforting human glow–the flush in the cheek, the sweat on the upper lip. The texture of it was such that it did not even look like skin. Her face looked like it was made out of plastic.

The long black hair hung around the face lankly. The eyes were white. When her mouth opened, a musty inorganic smell gusted out. The tongue was bright red, the colour of fresh arterial blood, and it was too long.

The teeth were perfectly ordinary.

Maybe a part of her was hoping that he wouldn’t be horrified, that he would still like her. Most of her was the sensible Ah Lee she had always been, however, so it was with resignation that she watched Ridzual step back, drop his schoolbag, whimper and turn and run.

She watched him run down the road, his limbs flailing and growing smaller. When he reached the junction at the end of the road, he stopped and doubled over. He would be bathed in sweat–the sun was unforgiving today, and Ridzual always skipped PE classes. He paused and Ah Lee could almost see him wonder whether he should scrape up his dignity and come back to the forgiving shade, or keep jogging and probably have sunstroke.

She felt her tragedy crust over with awkwardness.

“Why this kind of thing always happen to me?” said Ah Lee miserably.

But then, thank all the gods that ever were, Ji Ee’s small brown Proton turned into the road. In five minutes Ah Lee would be able to get into the car and pretend she didn’t see Ridzual walking back to their spot next to the monsoon drain, his hand shielding his eyes, his eyes not looking in her direction.

Ah Lee could not bear to ask Ah Kim to stop making her fried human nuggets. The first day after her confession she took them to the canteen as usual.

But then it was an agony to be sitting alone. It took so long to chew each nugget when she wasn’t using her mouth for talking. She caught glimpses of Ridzual through the crowd, queueing up for his tomyam and awkwardly not looking at anyone because he didn’t have any friends except her. The nuggets tasted like paper. It was as if she was eating human food.

After that she avoided the canteen. Behind one of the school blocks there was a narrow channel that ran between the building and the wall that surrounded the school grounds. It had become a repository for unwanted things: buckets of dried paint were lined up along the wall, and broken old furniture came here to die. Ah Lee fit right in. Here she could sit and read in peace, just as she had done before she’d ever become friends with Ridzual.

A week after her life was ruined–five long, dreary days during which she and Ridzual carefully ignored each other at school–she had only got seven pages into her book. She was reading the eighth page at break, the words flying out of her mind the minute they entered through her eyes, when Ridzual said,

“Good book?”

Ah Lee jumped and punched Ridzual in the chin.

“Ow!” said Ridzual.

“What lah you, coming out of nowhere like that,” Ah Lee snapped, to cover her relief.

“Sorry lah,” said Ridzual in a mild complaining tone. He rubbed his jaw. “What is this, WWF? Man, you have a strong right hook.”

Awkwardness rose like a wall between them.

“It’s because I did taekwando since I was small,” said Ah Lee flatly. “Not because I died.”

Ridzual looked around for a chair, but failed to locate one. In a government school chairs only got rejected from classroom duty for a real fault, such as having a hole in the middle of the seat, or being in several pieces. He sat down on the ground instead.

“I didn’t even know such things were real,” he whispered. He did not look up at her. “How did you become a–a–”

“Vampire?” said Ah Lee.

“Is that what you call it?” said Ridzual. “Isn’t that a bit different?”

Ah Lee said, “You want to say it? You want to tell me what am I?”

Ah Lee never said her real name herself.

‘Vampire’ was safe. ‘Vampire’ was like Dracula, like goofy old black and white films, like pale ang moh boys who swooned over long-haired girls. Vampire was funny, or sexy, depending on which movie you watched.

The right word was not funny. It was not sexy. Most of all, it was not safe.

Ridzual had a boyish disregard for subtextual cues. He did not seem to notice how wound up Ah Lee was. He said, softly, as if he were speaking to himself,

“You know, I like you. I really like you.”

“Har,” said Ah Lee noncommittally.

“I’ve really never liked anyone as much as I like you,” said Ridzual. “In my life. Not even as a, a girl. I’ve never even had a friend I liked as much as you.

“When I’m with you I feel like life is exciting. Like everything has an interesting secret behind it, like nothing is normal or boring. That’s how you make me feel. Not even by doing anything. Just when I’m hanging out with you.”

Ah Lee said in a stifled voice, “That’s how I feel when I’m with you too.”

Ridzual reached down to into his pocket.

“That’s why you deserve this,” he said.

Ah Lee had just enough time to register that he had a long, rusty nail in his hand when Ridzual flung himself at her, aiming the nail at her throat.

When you are dead, certain things stop mattering as much as they do to the living. Time, weight, pain all lose some of their meaning.

The protein-high diet and frequent exercise in chasing down prey are also excellent for the muscles.

Ah Lee caught Ridzual’s lunging body and threw him with no trouble. While he lay on the ground, stunned, she slipped the nail out from between his fingers.

“What’s this?” she shouted. “What’s this? You trying to play the fool, is it?”

She felt as if the top of her head had come off.

Ridzual looked terrified.

“I was–I was–”

“What?” roared Ah Lee.

“I just–” Then Ridzual said, in one breath, “I googled and it said if I put a nail in your neck you would stop being a hantu and become a beautiful woman, and I thought maybe then we could be together, but turn out I wasn’t fast enough, I’m sorry–”

“How dare you?” gasped Ah Lee.

“I just wanted to save you, OK!” Ridzual rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it in time.”

“Who you think you’re talking to?” said Ah Lee. “There is no Ah Lee the vampire and Ah Lee your friend–the girl who use to be your friend. I am just one person. If you make not a vampire anymore, doesn’t mean we can be–be dating. If you make me not a vampire anymore, means there is no me anymore. You understand?”

She threw the nail on the ground. She wasn’t quite angry enough to aim it at Ridzual, but it pleased her in a horrible way when he flinched.

“And one more thing,” said Ah Lee. “I am already a beautiful woman, dungu!”

She stomped off without looking back.

Ah Lee felt strong and brave all day, big with her righteous anger like a balloon full of air. It took her through the rest of the school day and the ride home.

When she took off her shoes at the front door the air hit her nose, crowded with homey smells: coriander and hong yu and the stale scent of clean blankets. The balloon popped. Ah Lee drew in a huge breath and expelled it as a sob.

She sat down on the sofa in the living room and wept for half an hour.

“Girl, what’s the matter?” said Ji Ee.

“What’s happening?” said Ah Chor.

“Hao ah,” said Ah Ma. “Crying!”

“Crying?” said Ah Chor. “Ah Lee is crying?”

“You’re crying, is it?” said Sa Ee Poh.

The diagnosis bounced from aunt to aunt, each aunt repeating it to another for certainty.

“So old already still crying!” said Ah Chor.

“Nobody has died. Your stomach is not empty. What is there to cry about?” said Sa Ee Poh.

“Ah girl, don’t cry lah, ah girl,” said Ji Ee.

“Teacher scolded you, is it?” said Ah Ma. “Or is it because Ji Ee and Aunty Girl were late when they picked you up from school?”

“Ah, that’s it, late!” said Ah Chor sternly. “Always late! What’s the use of all this line-dancing? Now you are late to pick Ah Lee up and you have made her cry.”

“She is so big already. I thought she can look after herself for an hour,” said Aunty Girl, but she spoke with contrition, conscious that she was in the wrong.

“Ah girl, don’t cry,” said Ji Ee. “Ji Ee won’t be late anymore. We don’t need to go dancing. Ah, so old already, we won’t miss it!”

Ah Lee loved that Ji Ee and Aunty Girl danced. Her voice pushed through the terrible loneliness that locked her throat and said,

“It’s not that!”

“What is it?” said Aunty Girl.

“I never believed in all this dancing thing,” said Ah Chor. “In my time girls didn’t put themselves up there on the stage for people to look at it. It’s not so nice.”

“Ma, their dancing is not like cabaret,” said Sa Ee Poh. “It is exercise, like taichi or aerobic. Anyway the girls are so big already. Why not let them do it?”

“Ah Lee says it’s not that anyway,” said Ah Ma. “What is it, girl?”

But Ah Lee couldn’t say.

Tua Kim was the only one who had stayed in the kitchen when Ah Lee started crying. Now the sound of the tap running stopped and she came into the room, wiping her hands on a rag. A momentary lull had fallen as the aunts waited for Ah Lee to reply, so everyone heard Tua Kim when she spoke, even though her voice was as quiet as it always was.

“What did the boy do?” said Tua Kim.

The silence flattened out and grew solid.

In the hush, Tua Kim sat down on the sofa next to Ah Lee and put her arm around her. The aunts were not from a generation that hugged. Tua Kim did it in a detached, almost a clinical way. In the same way the aunts had picked Ah Lee up and carried her when she was too exhausted to walk, those first few hours after she died.

“Tell Tua Kim,” said Tua Kim.

So she did.

Ah Lee went to bed feeling pleasantly hollow and tired from crying so much. Her eyes were red and the skin around her nostrils was rough, but she felt clean and quiet inside. Aunt after aunt came into her room on some pretext, to lay their soft wrinkled hands on her head and make sure her blanket was tucked around her properly. She slept like the virtuous dead, dreamless and innocent.

The next morning she felt newly-minted, born again. She walked past Ridzual’s desk without a tremor, and went home feeling almost happy, feeling like maybe she could get over him and it would be OK some day.

It would start hurting again soon. The sense of invulnerability wouldn’t last forever. The aunts would stop spoiling her and start chiding her for still being upset about it. But some day she’d stop being upset, stop missing Ridzual at all, and when she was done with school she would go to university far away from Lubuk Udang, and maybe there she’d meet someone nicer than Ridzual.

She needed quiet to study Add Maths, so instead of working in the kitchen as usual, she sat down in her room and buried herself in exercises until the light turned. She switched on her desk lamp, and the action made her aware of a quietness in the house.

She got up and walked through the silent dark house, wondering. There was no one in the kitchen. The living room was empty. It was six thirty, past the hour when Sa Ee Poh’s favourite Cantonese serial would have begun–and yet the house was auntless.

They must have gone out hunting, though it was late for that. Ah Lee herself preferred to hunt at night, under the cover of darkness, but the aunts did not even think you should laugh loudly before going to bed, or it would give you nightmares. Hunting was considered far too stimulating an activity to engage in so close to bedtime. They preferred to hunt in the afternoon, when the household chores were done and the humans were dozy.

It was strange that they had all gone out at the same time. Even on the rare occasion that the aunts went out hunting in a body, one of them usually stayed at home–often Tua Kim, because Tua Kim disliked the mess and exertion of hunting. Somebody had to make sure Ah Lee had fed herself and did her homework. Somebody had to look after her.

With that thought, Ah Lee knew where the aunts had gone.

She didn’t bother going back to her room to turn off the lights, or changing out of her pasar malam T-shirt and faded grey shorts, or putting on shoes. She burst through the back door and leapt straight out in the evening sky.

Most of the time Ah Lee was a girl. Her body and her mind were more used to it. Being in vampire mode made her uncomfortable. She avoided it as much as she could.

But whenever she slipped into it, it was like putting on a pair of slippers after a long day of standing in high heels, like stepping out of a ferociously air-conditioned room into the welcoming warmth of the outside world.

Her whole self relaxed. Her body became a weapon: smells grew sharp, her vision cleared. Ordinary thoughts were big vague clouds, too complicated and light to bother about, and through the clouds thrust the one vital thing, red and pulsing like a fresh bruise–hunger.

Hovering above Lubuk Udang, she became invisible. The dying sunlight shone through her bones. The scents of the town floated up to her: a woman’s jasmine-scented hair, the stink of the underarms of a tired hawker stallholder, the smell of someone’s earwax. Anything else, anything not human, smelt pale in comparison, like water, but she could distinguish those scents if she concentrated hard enough, pulling them up from beneath the textured smells of humans.

The aunts would smell of nothing. But she knew Ridzual’s scent. She sorted through the scents coming to her on the wind; his wasn’t there. It might be too late already. How long had it been since they’d left? And once Ridzual was meat she wouldn’t be able to find him–he wouldn’t smell of himself anymore. He would just smell of food.

She dove through the sky, following her nose.

The sky was going grey and the sunlight was fading when Ridzual left school. His dad would be busy getting dinner ready and his mom was outstation, so he’d told his dad he would cycle home. It would take half an hour, but the air was soft and humid in the evening, cool enough to cycle.

He hated koku, but he’d stayed for the extra few hours of marching in his Scouts uniform, sweating under the blistering sun in a desperate attempt to fit in. It was probably worth it. If he didn’t go, he would probably fit in even less, whereas at least now people knew who he was. Last week one guy had even thwacked him on the back in a friendly way, yelling, “Oi! What’s up, Mohsein?”

Of course, he had then had to explain that he wasn’t Mohsein, which had dampened the atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie slightly. But they had recognised the name when he said, “I’m Ridzual,” or at least they had said, “Oh, Ridzwan, is it?”

Maybe he wasn’t friends the way the other guys were with each other. Maybe they didn’t shout, “Oi, macha!” when they saw him, or request that he “relaklah, brother!”, or imply heartily that he was gay in some sort of macho bonding ritual.

But Ridzual had never been the kind of guy who attracted that response from his fellow guys, and he was OK with that. He flew under the radar enough that he’d never been bullied. People let him do his own thing, and that was all he wanted. He hadn’t even really noticed not having friends. In KL he’d hung out with his cousins, who were used to him being the weird one and didn’t hold it against him, and here in Lubuk Udang there was Ah Lee.

Had been. There had been Ah Lee.

His brain had successfully been avoiding the subject of her for all of ten minutes, but now it slid back down the old path. He kept forgetting and thinking of her as his friend, as the girl he’d fallen in love with. And if you thought of her as a human being, it was horrific what he had done to her. He had been a prize asshole, an unmitigated jerk.

But before he could begin beating himself up for messing up the best thing that had ever happened to him, he’d remember that face she’d turned to him. And that made him not know how to feel again. That face had not been human. Kindness wasn’t a thing that lived in the same world as that face.

He’d been having nightmares ever since he saw it. The teeth, he’d think in the dream, struggling in the grip of terror, the teeth.

That was the scariest thing. The one mad, inexplicable thing in the whole mad, inexplicable situation that got to him.

How come there wasn’t anything wrong with her teeth?

They had been perfectly human teeth. Even, rounded at the edges, slightly yellow.

He had to stop thinking about this. There was nothing he could do about it. Maybe she wasn’t a vampire. Maybe she was deluded and he’d been hallucinating. Or maybe she was a vampire, but she wouldn’t kill and eat him as long as he left her alone. She knew he wouldn’t tell anyone. Who could he tell? Who believed in vampires anyway?

“Stupid,” said Ridzual aloud. The word wasn’t ‘vampire’. ‘Vampire’ wasn’t scary enough to describe the thing he’d seen. It was like calling a toyol a pixie.

“Not vampire,” said Ridzual. “The word is ‘pontianak’.”

The problem with Ridzual was that he was a city boy. He’d grown up watching Japanese superhero TV shows and reading Archie comics. He hadn’t really known his grandparents–they’d died when he was too little to hold conversations, much less be told scary stories.

So he knew nothing.

He didn’t recognise the scent that sprang out of the evening then, though he registered it as something floral. It reminded him of Ah Lee: it smelled of her. It was funny that it had never occurred to him that Ah Lee might use perfume.

He’d cycled on a little further when he heard the baby crying. A long wail, followed by a piteous sob-sob-sob that pierced the heart. It was startling how close it was–practically next to his ear. He braked by the side of the road and got off his bike.

It was an odd place for a baby to be. He was standing on the edge of a car park. Across the road was a row of shoplots, their signs still lit up, but the entrances were a line of closed grey faces.

The car park was an expanse of orange earth, dusty and crumbling and covered with weeds. It was fenced with rusting wire, and shrubs ran along its periphery. There weren’t many cars parked there, and the booth at the entrance was dark.

The falling light turned the place eerie. It was the kind of place where you could get done for khalwat, or be murdered, depending on who else was around.

It was the kind of place where you could dump a baby, if you needed to.

He’d read about baby-dumping in the newspapers. But you never thought you’d encounter such things yourself. And not in such a place as this, surely–a nice small town? This wasn’t KL.

Who would dump a baby? said a voice in Ridzual’s head. Someone young, who wasn’t supposed to be doing anything that would lead to a baby in the first place. Someone scared.

He parked his bike on the pavement and walked into the car park. The floral scent grew stronger, though there weren’t any flowers around that he could see–only the bushes, strung out around the car park like a salad God had started eating and left forgotten on His plate.

The baby would be somewhere in there, probably. But he couldn’t seem to work out where. The farther he walked in what he thought was the direction of the sound, the softer the baby’s cries got.

It was getting darker. The world was a pale purply-blue, and the moon showed clear in the sky. The car park was full of dark shapes–empty cars, rustling bushes. The cicadas were screaming their heads off, and the baby was getting so soft he could hardly hear it through the insects–but it was still crying, a long drawn-out wail, trailing off in a hopeless series of hiccups.

He was terrified, but if he was scared, how would an abandoned baby feel?

He found something behind the next bush. It wasn’t a baby, though. It was an old lady, lying crumpled on the ground in a pathetic heap of batik and grey hair.

“Shit,” said Ridzual without thinking. He bent down and reached out to touch the lady’s shoulder: “Sorry, mak cik. Are you OK?”

The face the mak cik turned to him was a normal mak cik face. She was a Chinese lady with fluffy white hair and a mole on her left cheek. She looked like any other auntie you might see at the pasar basah. Her teeth were perfectly ordinary. She was dead.

Ridzual stumbled back. He was shaking so hard his teeth rattled in his head.

Teeth! Of course there was nothing wrong with the teeth. Teeth was vampires. Pontianak didn’t pierce the neck with fangs. They didn’t drink your blood.

The mak cik held her hands out to Ridzual, as if she was going to hug him, pet his hair. Her hands were small and delicate. The fingernails were long, curving and yellow–and blunt.

It would take a long time for those fingernails to pierce his belly, for them to scoop out the intestines. It would hurt.

The others came out of the bushes one by one. They were all little old ladies–little old Chinese ladies in those Chinese old lady clothes that looked like pajamas. All with long, blunt fingernails. All dead.

All hungry.

“No,” someone whimpered. Ridzual thought of the baby before realising it was his own voice. “No, no, please, no–”

He turned and went running, crashing through the bushes. Somewhere in the distance a baby was screaming breathlessly, but he knew the wail was issuing from six dry old dead mouths, and it grew softer and softer the closer they were.

His chest was a great flame of pain. He banged his hand against the side-mirror of a car and knew it would hurt later (if there was a later), but it felt like nothing now. He couldn’t hear the baby anymore.

A weight hit him in the back and he went down, sobbing. The fingernails dug into his side. Cold musty breath gusted on his ear. He was going to die. He was sorry for everything. The fingernails cut into his skin, raising welts, and he opened his mouth to scream.

The next minute his mouth was full of earth and pebbles. Something had hit the creature on his back a full-body blow, the impact driving Ridzual’s face into the ground. The pontianak rolled off his back, ripping his T-shirt in the process.

They must be fighting over him. There wasn’t enough of him to go around, even if they were small. Old ladies didn’t usually have much of an appetite, but pontianak were probably different. He had a second while they were distracted, but no more. He struggled to his feet, willing his limbs to move.

It came as something of a surprise to hear one of the pontianak saying, in an angry mak cik croak,

“Ah girl, what you doing here? You go home right now! So late already!”

He should run.

He turned around slowly.

It was Ah Lee, glaring at the old lady who had been about to eat him.

“Who ask you to eat my schoolmate?” she said shrilly. “How’m I suppose to go back to school now? So lose face!”

The pontianak crowded around. Weirdly, they had lost all their eldritch horror: they looked like ordinary mak cik now. They were definitely talking like aunties, in indignant high-pitched Hokkien.

“And what are you doing?” snapped Ah Lee.

“Me? What am I doing? What are you doing?” said Ridzual.

“Standing around like this! You want to be eaten, is it?” said Ah Lee.

“No!” said Ridzual.

“Go away,” said Ah Lee.

Ridzual had one last chance. He didn’t understand everything that had just happened–in fact, it would be more accurate to say that he didn’t understand anything that had just happened. But she’d saved his life, and not, it appeared, because she wanted to eat him herself.

You wouldn’t save someone’s life if you were a monster, would you?

You wouldn’t save someone if you thought they were a monster.

“Ah Lee,” said Ridzual. “We need to talk.”

“Not now,” said Ah Lee. Her voice was a door closing. “I need to talk to my family.”

The last he saw of her, in that dwindling light, was her gallant back moving away from him, and the cloud of aunts drawing in around her.

Ah Lee decided to try something new.

In the morning she waited outside the school gate until Ridzual arrived. When his parents’ car had driven off, she said,

“Let’s go.”

They couldn’t go to a kopitiam or mamak restaurant in their school uniforms, so they went to a nearby park. It was early, cool enough to walk. They didn’t talk much on the way.

There were a couple of people in the park–an uncle and an auntie, walking in circles with serious intent looks on their faces. But the kids’ playground was empty and they settled down on the swings there. Ridzual broke the silence first.

“What happened last night, after I went?”

“Oh. Nothing much,” said Ah Lee.

“Was it–” Ridzual hesitated. “Did they–?”

Ah Lee stared at him mutely.

Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it was a half-hearted telling off. The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate. Ah Lee had listened without saying a word to their unconvinced lectures as they flew home.

At the door, she had turned and said to the aunts:

“We are not dogs in the forest.”

She had gone straight to bed without speaking to anybody.

She felt guilty about it in the morning–she had said too much. The aunts had already known that they’d overstepped the line, broken the rules by which they operated. The aunts seemed to feel equally ashamed, tiptoeing around her at breakfast.

She had kissed Ah Ma with special tenderness before leaving for school, particularly as she was already planning to ponteng and knew how shocked the aunts would be at that. Non-attendance at school would probably seem a worse crime to them than eating humans.

She didn’t know how to explain any of this to Ridzual. It all seemed too complicated.

“Did you have to fight, or–I don’t know–something,” said Ridzual. Ah Lee could tell that he was already feeling foolish about having asked. “I mean–never mind.”

He paused.

“Do you really eat people?”

“Not really people,” said Ah Lee. “Only their, you know, their usus all that. Their entrails.” She tapped her belly. “We don’t like all the other part.”

Ridzual screwed up his mouth. But he only said:

“Thanks for not eating me. And not letting those others eat me.”

Ah Lee shrugged. “Usually they won’t eat you anyway. We don’t eat people we know. They all were just angry only.”

Ridzual looked down at his feet. He was scratching shapes in the sand with the toe of one shoe.

“You guys can’t eat anything else?” he said. “Like, animal intestines?”

“No.”

“Do you eat good people as well, or only bad people, or–?”

“We don’t eat women,” said Ah Lee. “And we don’t eat people we know. That’s all. I don’t pick and choose, depending if I like your face or I don’t like your face so much.”

“Not women?” said Ridzual. “I didn’t realise vampires did affirmative action.”

“It’s already suffering enough to be a woman,” Ah Lee recited. “Don’t need people to eat you some more.”

This was Ah Chor’s line, but the aunts were unanimous on this. Hadn’t Ah Ma told Ah Lee how she had cried whenever she gave birth to a daughter, because she knew what sorrow lay in her future?

“After all there’s enough men around,” added Ah Lee.

Ridzual grinned, but he looked a little sick.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” he said. “At all?”

Ah Lee stared into the distance. It was hard to explain. She had felt differently about these things when she was living.

“I know what you are trying to say,” she said. “But it’s like animals.”

“You feel it’s like eating animals?”

“No!” said Ah Lee. “It’s like I’m the animal now. After I die I kind of became an animal. When I’m hungry, when I eat, there’s no feeling. Afterwards maybe some feeling, I feel a bit bad. But that’s why we don’t simply just eat people. We process them first. My aunties like to make pepper soup. You know too thor t’ng? Pig stomach soup? Like that, but not with pig stomach.”

“Oh,” said Ridzual faintly. “Wait, all those old ladies last night–they’re your aunties?”

“One is my grandma and one is my great-grandma,” said Ah Lee. “The others are my aunties. But don’t you think it’s a bit weird if there’s so many vampire in a small town like this and they don’t know each other?”

Ridzual opened his mouth. Then he closed it, his throat working.

“That’s definitely weird,” he said in a strangled voice.

“Anyway, don’t worry about my aunties. They won’t eat you,” said Ah Lee. “I told them already. And I won’t eat you. Never never.”

“I know,” said Ridzual.

Ah Lee looked at the ground. She felt her eyes start to prickle, so she said it quickly.

“Are you going to try to nail me?”

She was startled and not a little offended when Ridzual started chortling.

“What’s so funny?” Ah Lee demanded.

“Er,” said Ridzual. “It’s an American thing. Maybe I’ll tell you some day.”

“This is suppose to be serious!” said Ah Lee.

“Sorry, sorry.” Ridzual wiped his eyes. “I’m not going to nail you. No.”

Saying it seemed to sober him up.

“I’m sorry I tried it,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Ah Lee. Now the next thing. “You don’t have to be friend with me anymore. I won’t be offended. I’ll understand.”

She had to say it. Then it would be done, finished, and they could both go back to their respective lives with all of this behind them.

“It was kind of worth it.” Ah Lee kept her eyes on the ground. She would be too shy to say it if she looked at Ridzual. “Ever since I became like this, I didn’t really have friends. It was a bit lonely. So it was nice having you.”

“I don’t want to be friends with you,” said Ridzual.

Ah Lee had expected this answer, but she was still taken aback by how much it hurt to hear it. She had been sad about him enough, she told herself sternly. All the aunts had said that.

“Don’t waste so many tears on one man,” they had scolded, as if it would have been all right to spread the tears over several men, but not to allocate so many to only one person.

Ah Lee, having been brought up to hate waste, agreed with them. She locked her hands together and blinked furiously. Her chest ached.

“OK,” she said.

Ridzual touched her hand. Ah Lee clenched it into a fist so he couldn’t take it, but then he tried to pry her fingers apart one by one. Of course it didn’t work. Ah Lee started giggling.

“Ah, I give up,” said Ridzual, exasperated. “I’m a moron to try to fight a pontianak. But look, ‘I don’t want to be your friend’ doesn’t mean ‘I don’t want to hang out with you’. There can be another meaning.”

“What another meaning?” said Ah Lee. She looked up when he didn’t answer.

Ridzual was looking at her with a kind of glow in his eyes. It was the way her mother and father used to look at her, back when she was alive, before all the bad things had happened–as if she was something special. Something precious. Ah Lee’s ex-boyfriend had never looked at her like that.

Ridzual had always had this look, Ah Lee realised. He had always looked at her as if she was the sunrise after a long dark night.

“Oh,” said Ah Lee.

“You don’t have to not want to be my friend back,” said Ridzual.

Ah Lee hesitated. But there was a perfect way to say yes and still sound cool.

“I don’t mind,” she said.

Ridzual turned his face away, but he was too slow. Ah Lee already knew he was beaming. She reached out and took his hand, encountering less trouble than he had done.

“OK,” said Ridzual. “That works.”

They smiled stupidly for a while, shedding radiance on the slide and sandbox, showering incidental romance on the speed-walking uncle and auntie.

“Only one thing,” said Ah Lee.

“Oh, there’s something else on top of the vampire mak cik and the human pig stomach soup?” said Ridzual. “What more is there? I have to fight a werewolf first before I can date you, is it?”

“No lah, there’s no such thing as werewolf,” said Ah Lee. “It’s a small thing only. But–‘vampire’ is OK. The other word, please don’t use. Is that OK?”

“Why?” said Ridzual.

“It’s not such a nice word,” said Ah Lee.

“OK,” said Ridzual. “OK.”

Then he said, “Can I use it one last time?”

Ah Lee nodded. She knew what was coming.

“Will you tell me how you became a pontianak?”

Sitting there with him in the park, Ah Lee told him. She had not told anyone else the story before. He didn’t let go of her hand.

Her grandmother watched her being born. Her grandmother watched her die.

Who died of childbirth in the twenty-first century? It didn’t happen, not if you were middle class in Malaysia, not if you’d followed the rules and paid attention at school and listened to your parents.

Not if you’d been a good girl.

By the time her parents had suspected, it hadn’t been too late. That was the thing. The worst thing–worse than being dumped by the boy who’d given her the baby, though that had felt terrible when it’d happened.

But it was nowhere near as bad as her parents’ carefully expressionless faces, as they had gone from day to day pretending nothing was happening. The day she fainted because she’d thrown up all her breakfast and had hidden in her room and refused to eat–they hadn’t said anything. When she choked on her food because things tasted different now she was pregnant, they didn’t say anything. She stopped going to school. Her parents stopped talking to her. Her world contracted.

It was like being invisible. It was as if she had died and no one had noticed.

Months of it, months of feeling sad and ashamed, but now that it had become serious enough that even her parents could not ignore it, now that she was in the hospital and somebody was looking after her, Ah Lee did not feel free, or relieved.

She felt angry. She resented her parents wildly for breaking their promise that they would protect her, for failing to love her no matter what.

And still she was sorry that the secret had to come out–the baby had to come out–and they would lose face. She wished she could be dying in some less embarrassing way. She could have drowned in a monsoon drain. She could have been run over by a car.

She felt bad for them. But she wished they would stop hanging over her bed and crying.

“I’m sorry, girl. Mummy’s so sorry, girl.”

Sorry no cure, Ah Lee wanted to say.

After a while it stopped. Somebody took her parents away. Ah Lee regretted her silent fury. She missed them. Somebody was doing something pointless down there. She was bleeding.

When she died someone was holding her hand. Not a mother or a father, with their enormous burden of expectation. Someone calmer, their hands softer, wrinklier-skinned. At the very last moment Ah Lee opened her eyes and saw her grandmother, waiting for her.

After death:

The scent of frangipani–the stench of decay–revenge a red flame at the heart–

Her hair whipped against her face, smelling of the mulch in a graveyard. Her nails were long and yellow. Her body was free. She got up on the bed and nothing hurt.

She had lost all sense of the disgusting. She had bled so much that she would never flinch from blood again. She was made for tearing out kidneys, feasting on livers, pulling out strings of intestines. It would never again be her own blood that was spilt, her insides that were pulled inside out.

She flew down the corridors of the hospital and there was no pain, or everything was pain, but it spun outwards, knocking people over, ripping heads off. Blood sprayed on the walls. People were screaming.

Someone grabbed the wrists of the hurricane. Someone slapped the face of the typhoon.

“Enough! Stop now!” The voice was as familiar to her as her mother’s. She would have killed anyone else, but the voice brought her down.

“Angry already, har,” said the voice.

“Just because you’re angry doesn’t mean everybody else must suffer,” scolded another voice.

Blood was rolling down from her eyes. She blinked, but her eyes stung. The world was a smear. She couldn’t see a thing.

“Quieting down already.”

“Can listen now.”

“Can see now.”

“Close your eyes, Ah Lee.”

“Close your eyes, girl.”

Someone brushed a damp cloth over her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, she saw who it was.

“No need to cry,” said Ah Ma. “No need for all this. Come, we are going somewhere else. Then you can lie down, rest first. You’ll feel nicer after that.”

“Where are we going?” said Ah Lee. Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper, scraping her throat. It was sore from the screaming. “Where’s Mummy and Daddy?”

“Mummy and Daddy have to look after your brothers and sister,” said an old lady in a baju kebaya. Ah Lee had never seen her before, but she leant her head trustingly against the old lady’s chest when the old lady picked her up.

She felt as tired as if she had just been born.

“What about the baby?” she whispered.

“The baby’s gone,” said Ah Chor. It was the first time they met. “Don’t worry. We’ll look after you now.”

“Ji Ee?” said Ah Lee blearily, as her eyes began to pick out familiar faces. “Tua Kim? Aunty Girl?”

“I don’t have children,” said Ji Ee.

“My children are all grown up,” said Tua Kim.

“How to let you go alone?” said Aunty Girl. “Now you don’t need to worry. We’ll be with you.”

There was something to tell them.

“Ah Ma,” said Ah Lee.

“Yes, girl?”

Shame washed over her. It had been bad enough with her parents. How could you tell your grandmother something like this?

“The baby,” she said. “The father. I didn’t purposely–at the start, I wasn’t thinking about all that. I just liked him. We were dating, and it just happened. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared to tell anybody. And then, Mummy and Daddy–”

She didn’t know what to say about that worst betrayal. She still felt sorry. She had not had the chance to apologise, to explain.

“Can you tell them?” she said. “Tell them it was an accident. I didn’t purposely–I just didn’t think. I didn’t think this would happen. Tell them I’m sorry.”

They were walking down the hospital corridor. Ah Chor cradled Ah Lee to her chest, stepping over the bodies.

“Ah Ma already said there’s no need to cry,” said Ah Ma. “It’s not your fault. Your Mummy and Daddy should have looked after you. Ah Ma tried to teach your Mummy to bring up her children right, but there’s no need to be so strict. You are her daughter, whether you are good or naughty. Ah Ma should have explained.”

“We all should be saying sorry,” said Sa Ee Poh. She didn’t mean just the aunts. “You are only a child.”

“Never mind. It’s over already,” said Ah Chor. “Don’t worry about it anymore.”

When they had reached the stairwell at the end of the corridor, Ah Lee was already half-asleep. When they smashed through the glass and jumped out the window, seven floors up, she was sleeping. She didn’t feel the night wind on her skin, or see the starlight on the aunts’ faces.

When she woke up she was a new person. She was dead, but she wasn’t alone. There was nothing to be scared of in this new life. With six aunts behind you, you can be anything.

____
Copyright Zen Cho 2011

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer.

by Ferrett Steinmetz

“The sauerkraut is what makes us special,” Lizzie explained as she opened up the plastic door to show Themba the hydroponic units.  She scooped a pale green head of cabbage from the moist sand and placed it gently into Themba’s cupped hands.

She held her breath as Themba cradled it in his palm, hoping: Please.  Please don’t tell me that stuff grows everywhere at home.

Themba ran a dark brown finger along the cabbage’s veins, then let loose a sigh of wonder.  “That’s marvelous,” he said.

Lizzie puffed out her chest.  Themba had passed her final test.  At ten years old, Themba was two years younger, six inches shorter, and eight shades darker than Lizzie was, and she’d known him for a record three days and nine hours.  That made him her best friend ever.

Themba leaned in through the access hatch to grab for another cabbage, but one of his escorts hauled him back out by the scruff of his red-and-gold kaftan.  Lizzie was sure Themba would protest this time, but he ignored them as always.  “You grow that stuff in here?” he asked her.  “In space?”

“Yup,” Lizzie said proudly, watching the escorts inspect the hydroponic basin for traps.  “Momma says there are thousands of refill stations across the Western Spiral, but only we have genuine, home-made sauerkraut — one jar for ten indo-dollars, four for thirty.  I know captains who chart an extra point on their jump-charts just to take some of our kim-chi home with ‘em, yessiree.”

“You gotta tell me how to make this stuff!”  Themba stuck a thumb inside the jar of sauerkraut – the escorts had already tested it – and licked the juice off.  “I mean, if it’s not a trade secret or anything.”

“It’s pretty simple,” Lizzie said – though secretly, she wondered if Momma would mind her sharing.  “I can show you now, if the stoops don’t get in my way.”

“Aw, they’re good eggs.  Come on, fellas, give us some room.  It’s been three days, it’s not like she’s going to go all homi on me now.”

The escorts squeezed reluctantly back out of the station kitchen, a convenience nook just large enough to allow two people to defrost prefabbed meals for the daily guests.  Lizzie could see their muscles flex as they squatted on the aluminum cafeteria benches outside, glaring at Lizzie through the serving window.

Themba’s escorts creeped Lizzie out; they had wrinkle-free faces that never smiled.  They were utterly unlike Themba, whose broad, flat-nosed face was so expressive it flickered from mischievous grins to repentant sadness in the twinkle of an eye.  Themba wore colorful, flowing robes, his cornrowed hair dotted with beads; his guards wore crisp, gunmetal-gray uniforms.

“I’ve never cooked!” said Themba, rubbing his hands together at the unexpected freedom.  “All my food gets brought to me.  So when I’m staying with the Gineer heads of state, I’ll make sauerkraut for them.  They’ll all ask, ‘Where did you learn this amazing recipe?’ and I’ll say, ‘In space.’”

“That’ll impress them?”

“You kidding?  To hear that actual, grown food came from an outpost?  In a system with no habitable planets?  When I’m done, they’ll all be begging to live in space stations.”

“Themba, you are awesome,” laughed Lizzie.  “I hope your ship’s busted forever.”

Themba blushed.  “I love it here, but I need to get to my reward.”

“What’s your reward?”

“I’m gonna be – “

One of the guards stood up, so fast he banged his knee against the cafeteria tables.  Themba glanced over nervously.

“It’s a secret,” he whispered.  “A state secret.  But it’s gonna be awesome.”

If Themba said it was awesome, Lizzie believed him.  Themba was the only visitor to Sauerkraut Station who’d ever understood just how awesome her home was.

It was one of Lizzie’s duties to show their guests’ children around for the handful of hours it took Gemma and Momma to resupply their ships.  Space travel was both expensive and time-consuming, so the kids were spoiled and cranky.  Most wrinkled their noses and told her it stank in here, which it most certainly did not – Lizzie had lived her all her life, and she was sure she would have noticed any funny smells.

Determined to prove how glorious life in space was, she always took them on the full tour, displaying all the miracles that kept her family alive in the void.

Lizzie took them for a walk all the way around the main hallway, explaining how the central, cigar-like axis rotated to give Sauerkraut Station its artificial gravity.  She told them why the station looked like a big umbrella –Lizzie didn’t know what an umbrella was, but the dirters always nodded – it was because the axis had a great, solar-paneled thermal hood on the end that shielded them from the sun.  That hood simultaneously kept the heat off so they weren’t boiled alive and generated electricity to keep their servers running – a clever design that her great-great-Gemma had pioneered.

To finish, she showed them the cabbages, which took a lot of time and precious energy to grow.

“We have cabbages at home,” they yawned.  “Can’t we go for a spacewalk?  Or watch the ships dock?”

Of course they couldn’t go outside.  Lizzie only got her first spacewalk after months of training – and considering Sauerkraut Station only entertained five ships a week during the busy season, they weren’t likely to see any other ships.

So her guests inevitably went down to press their noses against the observation deck window – the only window on the station looking outside.  That baffled her; why would anyone want to look at a boring old dust belt?  They didn’t even know the constellations.

Themba hadn’t wrinkled his nose.

Momma had towed Themba’s crippled ship down off the edge of the system’s gravity well.  He’d entered the station with a cautious wonder bordering on reverence.  And when Lizzie had showed Themba the banks of magnets that kept the worst of the radiation off, he’d asked all sorts of questions.

When she’d offered to show him the EVAC suits, which Lizzie had never done before, Themba held up his hand to stop her.

“My Dad says tourist stuff’s all the same,” he’d said.  “Ships are ships.  What’s important is the people who run it.  What do you do for fun?”

So she’d taken him to the observation deck to point out her Daddy’s body.  She told him how he orbited by once every forty-seven days, and they always held up a candle for him.

Themba saluted Lizzie’s father, real solemn and sad, like a soldier.  He didn’t tell her it was creepy; instead, he asked what Daddy had been like.

So Lizzie showed him Daddy’s constellation.  She traced the family shapes on the narrow, scratched porthole of the observation deck:  Daddy’s bear-constellation, Gemma’s turbine-constellation, Momma’s battleship.  Themba started making up his own constellations until Lizzie explained that you only got to pick your own constellation when you turned thirteen.

He stopped.  She’d liked that.

So Lizzie showed him how to make wishes off the microshields, where you said a question out loud three times and if a meteoroid got zapped before you could count to thirty, your wish would come true.  And by the time Themba and Lizzie were done, Lizzie’s last wish was that Themba would stay here forever.

Even though he was two years younger, he seemed older, because his Dad hauled him around the galaxy on diplomatic trips.  He had lots of crazy stories.  And though Lizzie wasn’t too clear on how life actually worked on a planet, Themba never got tired of answering her questions.

Which was why Lizzie would show Themba how to make sauerkraut.  Maybe Momma didn’t want Themba to know; maybe it was a secret.  But Themba was worth Momma’s anger.

“Okay,” Lizzie said.  She put Themba’s cabbage head down on the cutting surface and reached for a knife.  “You – “

One of Themba’s escorts grabbed her wrist.  Lizzie cried out, dropping the knife.  She looked at the cafeteria – how could they have gotten through the kitchen door that fast?

“Fellas, fellas!” Themba shouted, waving them off.  “Come on, it’s a kitchen, there’s knives, what’s the problem?”

The escort kicked the knife over to the other, who examined it closely.

“You okay, Lizzie?” Themba rubbed her hand.  His fingers were pleasantly warm.

“It’s fine,” Lizzie said.  And really, it was.  If his escorts weren’t so stupidly paranoid, they’d have let Gemma repair their ship in the mechbay instead of waiting for their own customized mechanics to arrive.  And then Themba would have been gone in seven hours, not ninety-one.

“Come on,” Themba begged them.  “Give me the knife.”

The escorts exchanged flat glances.  Then they shoved her back into a corner, interposing themselves between Lizzie and Themba, then handed him the knife handle-first.

“I guess that’s okay,” Themba shrugged.  “What do I do with this?”

“Take the cabbage,” Lizzie said, craning her head to look out from underneath the escort’s armpit.  “Cut it in thirds…”

Lizzie had never taught anyone before, but even so she thought Themba was a little clumsy.  He would have cut himself twice — but his escorts reached out, quick as a meteoroid, to grab the blade before it cut him.

“You’re doing well,” Lizzie said.  Themba smiled.  Even with the escorts in between them, it felt – well, special.  It was simple work, chopping and canning, but making sauerkraut was like the metal beams that framed the station, fundamental and strong; she’d never shared that part of herself before.

“This is fun,” Themba said.  “Now I put in, what?  Carrots?”

Themba dumped the last of the ingredients into a plastic tub, then proudly hoisted his special sauerkraut.

“What now?”

“Well,” she said.  “It’s gotta ferment.”

Themba bit his lip.  “How long’s that take?”  And when Lizzie hesitated, knowing that it was longer than they had, Themba grabbed her arm.

“Promise me you’ll keep it,” he said, looking absurdly serious.  “Keep it here until I come back.  Please?”

“I’ll have to hide it,” Lizzie said.  “Otherwise, Momma will sell it.”

“Show me where.”

They squeezed past the escorts and darted into the tiny airlock to the fermenting chambers, which were kept on a separate circulation vent.  As it was, the damp, yogurty-vinegar sour smell almost made Themba topple over.

The chambers were small and cool, stacked with giant plastic tubs that bubbled over with foam-flecked sauerkraut.  Lizzie hunted for the perfect space to store Themba’s batch.  His escorts bumped heads, fighting to peer through the tiny porthole.

“Come with me when I leave, Lizzie,” Themba whispered.  “They don’t want you along, but I bet if I begged they’d bring you.”

Lizzie froze; it had never occurred to her that she could go anywhere else.  She was going to grow up and die on Sauerkraut Station, just like five generations of Denahues before her.

“Where – where are you going?”

“I’m gonna be a hostage,” Themba said, and from the dreamy way he said it Lizzie just knew it was the best thing in the whole ‘verse.  “They’ll give me the softest beds and the nicest food and all the games I want while Daddy talks to the Gineer.  He says I’ll be treated like a king while he’s gone, but it could be years.  It’ll be lonely.  With you, we could cook, we could play VR hockey…”

Lizzie fumbled for a marker and scrawled a big “T” on the top of Themba’s tub.

“You like me that much?”

“Everyone’s all stiff where I live,” Themba said.  “Grab the wrong fork at dinner, they talk for months.  But you, you’re just… cool.”

Lizzie blushed as she shoved Themba’s tub underneath a pile of well-aged kraut containers.  No one had ever called her cool.  But now all she could think of was Momma and Gemma, and how they’d just gotten Lizzie up to speed to take her slot on this three-man station.  Momma should have hired someone new to take Daddy’s place when he’d died five years back.  Gemma had harangued Momma enough to get someone new, but Momma was firm: the family would get by without outsiders.

Fortunately, that was when Themba’s escorts forced their way through the airlock, running a med-scanner over Themba’s body.

For the rest of the day, Themba acted like he hadn’t said anything, but Lizzie felt like she’d eaten a sugar bar.  By the time she went to bed, she was vibrating with the secret.

Momma combed Lizzie’s hair, as she always did before bedtime.

“What’s gotten into you, Elizabeth?” Momma asked.  “You’re all snarls and tangles, and not just in your hair.”

Gemma had tried combing once, and even though Gemma was great with engines and cuddles, she was terrible with hair.  But Momma was coolly methodical, softly tugging each snarl, and when she was done she left Lizzie with the cleanest, freest hair you could imagine.  It was the most soothing feeling, being in Momma’s hands.

But ever since Daddy had launched himself into orbit, Momma had gotten brittle.  Daddy’s death wasn’t Momma’s fault, Lizzie had understood that even when she was six – Daddy was just a cook, and should never have been out on the hull.  But Momma had been dreadful ill thanks to a flu she’d caught from some inbound flight; Daddy had been dumb enough to try and do a woman’s job repairing air leaks, and in his haste he’d forgotten to tether himself.

Back then, Momma had hugged; now, she gave orders.  The only sign of the old, loving Momma was in that careful combing, and Lizzie was afraid that if she left – or even mentioned leaving – Momma might stop combing her hair.

“You lose someone dear to you, you start making distance,” Gemma had told her.  “She still loves you, but she’s terrible afraid of losing you.  You gotta approach her just right, or she’ll shut down on you like a crashed server.”

Lizzie tried to think of a nice way to put it, but nothing came to mind.  So she blurted it out: “Themba wants me to be a hostage.”

Momma’s brush stopped in mid-stroke.  “Does he.”

Lizzie leaned back into her Momma, hoping to restart the brushing, but nothing came.  So she turned around and said, “He says he wants the company.”  That didn’t seem like enough reason to leave the station, so she added: “He’s my best friend, Momma.”

“I’m sure he is, Lizzie.”  Momma was looking at the dented metal of the bedroom wall, like she often did these days.

“I’ll need you here,” Momma concluded.  Lizzie’s heart sank — but the brush started moving through her hair again, comforting and careful.  “I’ll be ordering some hydroponic prefab farms tomorrow morning; you’ll need to help install them.  And it’s time you learned how to pilot.”

That was an expected bonus; she’d been bugging Mom to let her learn to fly for years, but Momma said that girls under fourteen shouldn’t fly unassisted near a dust belt.  It was about as close as the new Momma came to an apology.

“That’s real nice of you, Momma,” Lizzie said politely.

“Changes are coming,” Momma replied, and kissed her on the cheek.  Lizzie nearly forgotten what that felt like.

The next afternoon, Themba’s special-ordered mechanics docked at the station in a big mil-spec ship that bristled with gun ports.  Lizzie had hoped that maybe it would take the techs weeks to fix Themba’s ship, but Gemma had already told her it was a simple repair; they just wouldn’t let Gemma touch it without a Level IV Gineer security clearance.

Sure enough, six hours after the mechanics arrived, Themba came to say his goodbyes.  She squeezed him tight, trying to store the memory away for future nights.

“So you gonna come?” he whispered.

“I can’t.  My family needs me.”

He nodded.  “I thought so,” he said.  “But it’s good, I guess.  I’m helping my Daddy forge friendships, you’re helping your Momma stay in business.  Our parents need us.  That’s good, isn’t it?”

Lizzie tried to say yes, but she burst out in tears instead, and then Themba buried his face in her neck.  “Come back when you’re done?”

Themba put his hand on the bright breast of his kaftan and promised that he would.  And then Lizzie watched her best friend of four whole days, eighteen hours, and twenty-three minutes leave.

She hoped she’d see him again, but she doubted it.  Things had a way of disappearing in space.

The guests at Sauerkraut Station told Lizzie stories of a world without maintenance.  It seemed incomprehensible to Lizzie.  How could a garden just spring up when you weren’t looking?

When she was younger, she’d asked the customers about these worlds, expecting that if she asked enough people then one would eventually relent and admit that yeah, it was all a lie, just like the Vacuum Vipers that Dad had told her nestled inside incautious little girls’ spacesuits, waiting to bite anyone who didn’t check their EVA suits carefully.

But no; somber businessmen and travelling artists alike assured her that yes, water dripped freely down from the air, and helper faerie-bees flew seeds into every crevice.  Gemma had even taken Lizzie down to the rec room, where customers paid money to kick their feet up on one of eight overstuffed footrests and pull a rented screenmask down over their heads, to show Lizzie the videos she’d taken of her planetside adventures.  It had taken some convincing before Lizzie had believed that it wasn’t a special effects trick.

What would it be like to live in a world that could get by without you?  Lizzie’s world was held together by checklists of chores and maintenance.  Lizzie’s world needed her.

For the first time, though, her needful world didn’t feel like enough.

In every room, she found something she’d forgotten to tell Themba.  Her daily tasklist became a litany of things she should have said to Themba, a constant ache of wondering what he would have thought.

When she straightened the cramped sliding-cabinet beds of the twelve guest chambers, she would have told Themba of all the crazy things people left behind — ansibles, encrypted veindrives, even a needler-rifle once.  When she re-tightened the U-bends of the shower stalls, which provided luke-warm dribbles of water to customers for a nominal fee, she thought about how Themba would have wanted to see the central heating system, would have squirmed into the central axis to look at the boiler.  And her worst chore of all would have been a joy with Themba there; normally, Lizzie hated pushing all the spare part bins away from the walls of Gemma’s repair bay so she could scan the walls for metal fatigue.

But with Themba, she would have tugged up the heavy metal plate in the floor to expose the hidden compartment full of emergency supplies.  Then she would have whispered about the hidden hidden compartment below that they never dared open, lest they disturb the dust at the bottom.

Then, afterwards, she and Themba and Gemma would have all clambered into the punctured ship that was crammed edgewise into the beams of the dockbay’s ceiling – that contentious collection of parts that Momma called a junker, and that Gemma insisted was a classic waiting to be restored.  And Gemma would have hugged them both as she told Themba the story of Great-Gemma and the Pirates.

But that was stupid.  Themba’s father had brought him to hundreds of planets.  Why would he be impressed by a secret compartment?  Sauerkraut was a novelty to Themba the first time — but when his hands stung from chopping a hundred heads of cabbage, would he still smile?  When his shoulders ached from serving defrosted sausages and Insta-Ryz buns to six-hour guests, would he still want to stay?

Of course he wouldn’t.  He had chefs now.

And when Momma’s voice boomed down from the conning tower to alert her that a new collection of guests was on its way, Lizzie took her place by the station’s airlock with new vision.  Momma always told her that the guests were weary from nearly a month in the transit-ships — they wanted a happy smile, a home-cooked meal, a touch on the shoulder.  Lizzie had seen them as just another chore.

Now, when the airlock hissed and let in that first blast of body-odor-and-ganja laced air, Lizzie sniffed deep.  As the guests emerged, stretching their arms and looking around in blink-eyed wonder, Lizzie saw them not as chores, but as people.  Where had they come from?  Where they were headed to, and what would it be like to stand in those strange and beautiful places?

As she drifted off to sleep, Lizzie pressed her face against the air vent, imagining a breeze – a wind stirred by no fan, only the goodness of the world itself.  And she longed, burned, to feel that wind on her skin, to feel sunshine unfiltered by glassteel faceplates.

She needed to talk to Gemma.

Gemma was busy reducing the leakage on the junker’s engine.  Still, she dropped down the knotted chain ladder to invite her up into the cramped cockpit — their private talking-to space.  Gemma took off her protective facemask, shook out her long gray hair, and patted the lap of her oily coveralls.

Lizzie curled up into Gemma’s hug, resting her boots on the curve of the junker’s dashboard.  Momma was practical, giving Lizzie the biology-talk of why you never played doctor with the customers – but Gemma was the one who told her how Momma and Daddy had fallen in love and made Lizzie.

“Gemma,” she asked, “What was it like, when you ran away?”

“Sounds like someone has a case of Station Fever,” said Gemma.  “You counted the walls yet, girl?”

“228,” said Lizzie.

“Only 228 walls in Sauerkraut Station,” Gemma nodded, clucking her tongue in sympathy.  “All the walls you’ve ever seen.  And each of those walls feels like it’s squeezing you.  There’s gotta be someplace bigger out there, and you’re gonna die if you don’t step into it.  That it?”

Lizzie nodded eagerly, feeling like Gemma had just opened an airlock inside her.

“Perfectly normal at your age,” Gemma concluded.  “Is it that kid you liked?”

“Themba.”

Gemma waved her hand in the air, like she was trying to clear away smoke.  “Themba, whatever.  He’s not important in the specific — for me, it was a merchant marine.  Sea-green hair, storm-gray eyes, all adventure and spitfire.  The important thing is that he made me think of someplace else.  And then I had to go.”

“Daddy said you made your Momma furious,” Lizzie said.

“Oh, how I did!” Gemma’s titanium-gray eyes twinkled.  “Left her with just my brother — a two-man crew for a three-man station.  It was years before they forgave me.”

“I guess it would be mean to leave you with all that work,” Lizzie said.  But Gemma planted her finger right in the center of Lizzie’s chest.

“My happiness shouldn’t enter into it, Lizzie,” she said firmly.  “Only you know what’s gonna make you happy.  That’s why you should go if you need to, Lizzie — you have to follow your own dreams.”

Lizzie felt absurdly grateful.

But planets are big and careless,” Gemma continued.  “I’ll tell you what I told your Momma: You get swallowed up there.  There’s so much room to spare that people just wander away.  They don’t need you like station folk do.

“And us spacers are fools down there, Lizzie; you’ve seen how they make us look in the VDRs.  They laughed at me for recycling waste urine, for refusing to bathe more’n once a month, for jumping when the wind whistled.  Eventually the loneliness ate me up inside, and I crept back home to take my licks.  My family forgave me — that’s what families do — but I never forgave myself.”

Lizzie thought how easy Themba had made it seem.  Gemma pursed her lips thoughtfully, then added:

“I hate to say it, Lizzie, but Themba’s probably forgotten you by now.”

“Themba would never forget me!”

Lizzie hadn’t meant to yell.  Gemma just nodded wearily.

“That’s exactly what I thought about my merchant marine, ‘Lizabeth.”

Lizzie knew Gemma didn’t really mean that.  Whenever Gemma talked about the nameless merchant marine who was her Momma’s pa, it was always with such a regretful fondness.  It was a hurt, Lizzie could tell, but a useful hurt, like the way your muscles ached after a long day of wiping off solar panels.

But Momma must have noticed her loneliness, because within a few days the chores started racking up.  Shipments of wiring and water tanks arrived, and Lizzie spent whole days in her EVA-suit tethering vacuum-safe cargo packs to the surface storage hooks.

Then one day she saw a gigantic construct-tug blotting out the stars, a ship big enough to hold whole stations inside its belly, and soon after that a ferry-trawler dragged two huge shiny new rooms towards them, gleaming in the sun.  Momma explained that the new hydroponics modules were here, two new rooms and twelve new walls for Lizzie to check.

It was exciting and dangerous work, since adding any new chambers to the station’s architecture could cause any number of dangers; hull breaches, orbit eccentricity, brownouts.  The last time they’d added a room was well before Lizzie was born.

“Why do we need more hydroponics, Momma?”

“We’re gonna need more independence,” Momma said.  “This’ll give us extra oxygen and more food once the shortages start coming.”

“What shortages?” But Momma refused to talk about it.  Gemma nodded grimly in agreement.

Prepping for the addition was a lot of work: Lizzie and Momma had to go over the hull with electrostatic rags to clear it of grit, and then pushed a layer of fresh sealant over everything so the surface was smooth and ready.  Then, all three of them maneuvered the bulky units to the hull carefully so the new units almost touched — one bump might cause it to fuse in the wrong place — then clamped and vacuum-welded the metal.

Then the real welding started, which Momma wouldn’t let Lizzie do because the torches could burn through the sleeve of an EVAC suit.

Next, they filled the chambers with cheap test helium to see whether there was any leakage, which of course there was, leading to tedious sealant application.  And then there was the big danger when they closed down the station for a day; they air-locked off the rest of the station, broke the vacuum-seal on the new rooms, then carefully opened up the old rooms one by one until they were sure the bond would hold and they wouldn’t lose any expensive oxygen.  Lizzie’s ears popped until they pumped in enough fresh O2 to regain equilibrium.

Lizzie was exhausted, because it wasn’t like her other chores had stopped.  She still had to greet the incoming guests and fill the sauerkraut vats and serve meals.  At one point Lizzie fell asleep on the counter, right in the middle of serving dinner.  She woke to find Momma, smiling as if she hadn’t just put in a twenty-hour day, handing plates of thawed bratwurst to grateful travelers… And Lizzie felt shamed for being so weak, even though Momma never mentioned it, that she worked triple-shifts.

When that was done, they had to prime the hydroponics — filling the circulation system with nutrient water, lining the trays with diahydro grit, planting the seedlets.  They even installed locks, which was weird; the old chamber never had locks.

On the day of the new hydroponics opening, Lizzie was thrilled to find that Momma had splurged for a sugar-cake.  Everyone wore the celebration hats from storage, and Momma gave Lizzie some wonderful news: Lizzie was in charge of all the hydroponics.

“You grew those cabbages better than I could,” Momma said proudly.  “You got your Daddy’s native thumb.” That made Lizzie beam with pride, and she stayed up after shutdown cycle tending to the tender shoots of soybeans and oxyvines.

When she harvested her first ear of corn, she went to the observation deck and duct-taped it to the window so Daddy would see it on his next orbit.

Yet every day, she wondered what Themba was doing.  She asked Momma about sending him a text, but Momma said intra-planet textbursts were expensive.  All their money was tied up in the new hydroponics, anyway.

That was when the Gineer arrived.

Lizzie went to greet the incoming customers, but when the airlocks cycled, it didn’t smell of BO and pot; it stank of ozone and WD-40.  She started to say, “Welcome to Sauerkraut Station, the homiest place in the stars,” like always, but as she did there was a “HUP!” from the inside and ten soldiers came tramping out in a neat line.

It was almost like a dance, the way they came out; each soldier had the same bulging foreheads of Themba’s escorts, a sure sign of vat-grown folks.  And like Themba’s escorts, they wore reflective jet-blue uniforms with plastic gold piping on the shoulders, though these uniforms had a dullness to them; some of them had tiny, ragged holes.

Unlike Themba’s escorts, they clasped black needlers.  They fanned out before the airlock in a triangle pattern, and when their eyes moved the tip of their rifles followed their gaze, ready to spray death at whatever they saw.  Lizzie trembled as those rifle-barrels swept across her, but she locked her knees, determined not to show disrespect to a paying guest.

When they were done, they yelled “CLEAR!”  The commander came striding out of the back, as calm as her troops were nervous.  She was flat-foreheaded, tight-skinned as a drum, with a long rope of braided red hair tied neatly around her waist.  Her suit was spotless, which could have meant she’d never seen combat, but to Lizzie that seemed unthinkable; she was thin, sharp, attendant.

The commander bowed deeply, palms touching.

“Hold no fear, little one,” said the commander.  “Your reinforcements have arrived, free of charge and ready to sacrifice health for safety.  Would you escort me to your mother, Elizabeth, so I might formally inform her of the transfer?”

Lizzie matched the commander’s stern politeness.  But when Lizzie ushered the commander into the comm room, Momma stiffened.  She stood up to her full height to greet the commander — though the top of her head barely reached the commander’s neck.

“I thank you for your assistance, commander,” Momma said.  “But I also regret to tell you that we shan’t need it.”

“I think you’ll find that you will have great need of our aid in the months to come.  I have tales of the depredations the Intraconnected Web have inflicted upon defenseless locales.  But could I share these cautionary warnings in private, without…?”  And the commander jerked her chin towards Lizzie.

“My daughter is my tertiary command structure, and is privy to all conversations,” Momma snapped back, which surprised Lizzie.  “And while I appreciate what you’re trying to do, it’ll only tear us apart.”

“You know war’s been declared, Mrs. Denahue,” said the commander.  “You chose your position well; you’re one of three stations that stand between the Gineer empire and the Trifold Manifest.  That’s been beneficial for tourism, but when war comes – well, do you really think the Intraconnected Web will respect your home-grown capitalism?”

“Actually, it was my great-gramma chose the location,” Momma said tightly.  “And you know we support the Gineer.  But if you surround us with gunships, then you make us not a waypoint, but a target.  The Web might respect our neutrality, they might not, but they sure as hell will shoot if you contest us.  You might win that battle, but we’ll lose everything.”

“We have a new line of ships specially designed to defend stations such as this,” the commander said.  “And if something happens, we’ll reimburse you for any combat losses…”

Momma barked out a laugh.  “And then we’ll be known as a Gineer station, and be drawn into every war after that.  No offense, commander, but you think short-term.  My family’s been here for five generations; I want it here for five more.  I’m not getting drawn in.”

The commander pursed her lips.  “And if we decide to garrison this station?”

Lizzie didn’t know what garrisoning meant, but the intent was clear enough  Lizzie froze.  But Momma simply looked sad, like she did when they caught customers trying to hack free time from the VDR machines.

“It’s that desperate?” she asked.  “This soon?”

“We’re confident in our chances.  But it would help to take this place.”

Momma eased her hand down into her pocket, gripping something.

“My faith is in the Gineer,” she said.  “But my hand is always on the self-destruct switch.”

The commander frowned, pulling new creases into pristine skin.

“Look,” Momma added quickly, thumping her left breast.  “I support you folks, my heart to God.  As long as you don’t go bandying it about, I’ll give you folks six percent off of any refueling costs I have, to give you an edge on that Web menace.”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty’s a lot in wartime.  We could – Elizabeth, would you mind fetching the commander some sauerkraut?”

The negotiations took several hours.  Momma called Gemma up to help set the terms, leaving Lizzie to serve hot dogs and kraut to the soldiers.  But the soldiers didn’t relax; they ate like they expected someone to snatch it away from them at any moment, then asked for seconds.

By the time they took off, everyone was exhausted.  Momma still took the time to comb Lizzie’s hair.

“I hate them,” Lizzie said.  “They’re mean.”

“Who?” Momma asked, surprised.  “The Gineer?”

“They were mean to you, and mean to Themba.  They tried to take our home.”

“Actually, sweetie, I meant it when I said the Web are bad news.  Themba’s people are no better…”

Themba wouldn’t try to rule our station.”

Momma shrugged.  “We don’t choose allies,” she said.  “That’s how we weather storms.  Some day you’ll understand.”

Still, Lizzie felt her hatred of the Gineer burning in her.  They were cruel, cruel people, and suddenly she feared for Themba.

Over the next few weeks, traffic picked up and ships docked every day, carrying harried-looking people away from the upcoming war.  Momma had to start rationing fuel.

Predictably, the Gineer started shouting when Momma said she could only spare enough fissionable material to get them to Swayback Station, a mere five systems over.  And when they stopped shouting they started begging, thrusting handfuls of cash at Momma, certain that everything was for sale.  But Momma couldn’t afford to stock up too heavily on any one currency.

The Web folks were disappointed, but took the news with a grim resignation.  They were used to shortages.

Web or Gineer, though, every guest was desperate for food – especially when Lizzie explained that sauerkraut didn’t go bad.  They bought huge jars, so Lizzie had to stay up late at night chopping more cabbage.

But the Web folks seemed disheartened at having to spend money for food; they’d sigh, their pockmarked faces faded to a pale, overmilked coffee color thanks to weeks locked inside darkened ships.

“The Intraconnected used to provide for its citizens,” they said, gesturing to their families huddled miserably behind them.  “I’m a stamp-press mechanic, not a soldier!  They tried to make me switch tasks.  They said my children would be provided for in the unlikely event of my sacrifice – but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t risk it…”

They were so polite, so peaceful, so like Themba, that Lizzie gave them extra dollops of sauerkraut.

The Gineer were pushier.  Their smooth faces were plastered with makeup, men and women alike, pancaking their cheeks to hide the blemishes that had cropped up once they couldn’t get their weekly gene-treatments.  Lizzie didn’t see anything wrong with a pimple, but tell that to the Gineer.  They held up suitcases packed with useless stuff — gameboxes and electric hair-curlers — and lamented that this was all they could carry.

Yet in their suitcases they carried photos of their families.  They were eager to tell Lizzie stories about the  beautiful house they’d saved for, the beloved husband they’d negotiated so cleverly for to get their marriage authorization.  They stroked the pictures with their fingers when they talked about the past, as if they were rubbing a genie’s lamp for a wish – and then told Lizzie how the house had been bombed to splinters, the husband crunched under rubble.

Lizzie tried to tell herself that the Gineer had it coming.  But then she imagined losing her home, seeing her Momma dead, and her anger dissolved into pity.

“You can’t listen to their stories, Lizzie,” said Momma.  “It takes too much time.  We need to get them out of the station as soon as possible.”

Then there were the soldiers.  Whether they were Web or Gineer, they were all lean-limbed, clean-cut, eager; they each told Lizzie how the other side had started it, and they pumped their fists at the idea of dispensing proper justice.

Lizzie bit her lip when the Gineer soldiers trash-talked the Web.  Smart-mouthing was bad for business.

After a few months, a sour-looking Gineer with a bushy white mustache limped out of the airlock.  His patched white suit hung in unflattering rags off his stick-thin frame.  He chomped at a ganja cigar with malice, his wrinkled cheeks pulling in and out like a pump.

He sniffed the air and scowled.

“Smells like ass in here,” he said.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Lizzie shot back, forgetting to be polite.  “And if there was a smell, I would have noticed.”

The man chuckled, bemused; it set Lizzie’s hackles on edge.  “You vacuum rats are so superbly cute,” he said, ruffling her hair.  “I’m Doc Ventrager.  You must be my apprentice, Elizabeth.  Inform your Momma of my presence, and update her that I shan’t physic anyone in this sauerkraut fart of a place until I get a fresh deodorizer in my quarters.”

Momma was slumped over her comm unit, half asleep.  “That’s right,” she said, gulping a cup of tea.  “I forgot he was arriving.  It’s time you learned medicine, Lizzie; in these times, it’s good to have a sawbones handy.  From now on, your spare time will be spent with Doc Ventrager.”

Lizzie nearly suffocated from the unfairness of it all.  “But I was supposed to learn how to fly!”

“Circumstances have changed, and so must you, Elizabeth.  Instead of paying us rent, the doc is earning his keep teaching you to set bones – and you’ll both do good business here, sadly enough.  Now show him to the medbay.”

Though Lizzie had dutifully run their syscheck routines once a month, she had no idea what all of the headsets and plastic wands in the medbay actually did — but judging from the harrumphing noises Doc Ventrager made as he picked them up and slapped them back down, he wasn’t impressed.  Momma stood behind him anxiously, chewing her lip.  The Doc had Lizzie unlock the doors to the medicine cabinet, then peered in at the neat rows of antibiotics, opiates, and sutures.

“Well, at least that’s well-stocked,” he said.

“My great-grandma installed all this herself, after the pirates came,” Lizzie protested.  “It all works.”

He flicked ash on the floor.  “Thank the stars that despite their predilection for genegineering, the Gineer haven’t altered the core organs of the human body in the past century.”  He turned to Momma.  “Install that deodorizer and give me a free hand over pricing, and I’ll educate your offspring with these antiques.”

“Sold,” said Momma.  Lizzie said nothing.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be under Doc Ventrager’s tutelage.

As it turned out, Doc Ventrager had brought his own equipment, and he expected Lizzie to carry it all for him.  He pointed out where the leather satchels and tanks should go as Lizzie struggled under their weight.  As she ferried them out from the ship, Doc Ventrager seemed to sum up everything that was wrong about Gineer folks — even if Ventrager’s pockmarked face meant he wasn’t exactly a normal Gineer.

The next morning, she checked the hydroponics and then went to the medlab.  “Right,” the Doc said.  He pointed to a tank, where child-sized things with gray, wrinkled flesh floated in a stinking green fluid.  “Let’s see what you’re made of.  Fish one out, deposit it ‘pon the table.”

They were so small that at first Lizzie thought they were children – and then she realized their ears and noses were funny.  Lizzie ran her palm across the stiffened flesh, feeling its hard, horned hands, its antenna-like ears, the little snippet of flesh on its butt that looked like a leftover from a bad vaccuforming job.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Pigs,” said the Doc.  “A lot cheaper than anatomy clones, that’s for damn sure.”

She frowned.  “I thought you were supposed to teach me about humans.”

“Pig bones and organs are close enough to hum-spec for the rudiments of injury repair,” the Doc said, absent-mindedly cleaning a sharp knife on his gown.  “You know how to stitch a wound?  To set a bone?”

“No.”

He handed her the knife.  “Time you learned.  Now cut.”

Doc Ventrager was a hard but efficient taskmaster; Lizzie learned that he’d spent years training girls and boys at stations all around the ‘verse.

“You’re damn lucky,” he said, after a long day treating simulated decompression injuries.  “Most kids have to learn this all in theory.  They can’t call me when someone’s EVA suit rips; it’d take three weeks to get there.  So their first major field operation is on their dying Momma – holding her down while she’s thrashing, shrieking, soaked crimson in blood…”

Lizzie sensed the test buried in the Doc’s words; he was trying to frighten her with thoughts of her Momma.  She said nothing.

The Doc nodded and took a long drag off of his reefer cigarette, blowing the sweet smoke into the room to overwhelm the “gangrenous reek” he smelled.

“But you, missy,” he said, tipping his cigar at her, “Will acquire a chance to watch the real show.  By the time this conflict’s ebbed its course, you shall be qualified to teach.”

She found out what he meant when the first Gineer warship arrived, one engine nearly shot to splinters.

Gemma immediately started working up an repair estimate, but the sergeant was more interested in cornering Doc.  “We received some specially withering fire in a rear-guard action,” he explained.  “We had to escape before resupplying, and so several soldiers have severe infections.  What’s the charge to cleanse gangrene?”

“Allow me a gander,” the Doc said, looking satisfied for the first time since Lizzie had known him.  Doc walked, preening, into the ship, but Lizzie almost threw up from the smell.

Twenty soldiers rested on pallets against the wall, most with broken limbs that had healed in horrid ways.  They bit down on pieces of plastic, trying not to shriek; the last of the painkillers had been used up weeks ago.

“Oh, that’s a fine mess,” the Doc said, rubbing his hands together.  “The quote is one-ninety per head.”

One-ninety?” the sergeant said.  “That’s three times normal rate.”

“You possess superior alternatives?” the Doc said.  “No.  You do not.  You can sew ‘em up now and have ‘em heal en route to the next battle… or you can keep your funds walleted and remove them from your roster.  Either way’s acceptable to me.”

“One-ninety’s blackmail.”

“Excuse me,” Lizzie said politely, ostensibly to Doc Ventrager but speaking loud enough that the sergeant could overhear her, “Don’t forget that Momma said the Gineer get eight percent off at Sauerkraut Station.”

“I never heard of that.  Even if I had, it wouldn’t apply to me.”

“You’re on the station, aren’t you?”

“Goddammit,” he said.  “I will speak with your Momma.”  But didn’t; instead, he went down to one-seventy.  Lizzie felt a malicious price at seeing the Doc’s greed quashed.

And she felt pride when she cleaned her first batch of wounds.  Though she’d drained pus on the dead pigs, Lizzie hadn’t been sure how she’d take to it once she was working on live men.  Judging from the sergeant’s pleased reactions, she did a fine job.

The Doc grumbled at having to work for such low rates, snarling at everyone like their injuries were their own damn fault.  “You went to war,” he snapped.  Lizzie, on the other hand, tried to be nicer, even if they were stupid, Themba-hating soldiers.

More ships came in, Web and Gineer alike, each carrying loads of injured people, so fast that Lizzie almost forgot to tend to the hydroponics.  She diagnosed complications arising from welding burns, set broken legs from failed rig-drops, irrigated chemical lung-burns, treated vacuum explosions.  When she rinsed off the cabbages, flecks of blood washed off her hands.

She wanted to take pleasure in the Gineer soldiers’ agony, telling herself that it was just punishment for picking on the Web.  But all soldiers screamed when they were hurt, and when they were dying they all wanted to talk to their Momma or their brother or their husband.  They all wanted to see their families one last time.

Lizzie cried so much, she felt like her whole body was drying up.  But never in front of the soldiers.

Momma combed her hair, told Lizzie how proud she was.  “But you have to get the Doc to work faster, Lizzie,” she said.  “They have to be out the next day.”

Lizzie hated letting down Momma, but if she rushed Doc Ventrager then people died.  When she was alone, she squeezed her fists tightly enough to leave half-moon cuts in the palms of her hands.

After a few months of surgical assistance, the Doc handed off the minor operations to Lizzie.  The Doc made it clear that even though she was doing doctor duties now, any profits from her surgeries went to him.  That was better; surgery was like any other repair work.  You took care, and measured twice before cutting once.  The fact that she’d spent four hours a day in surgery for the past five months helped – and now she could go at her own speed.

Still, the soldiers always panicked when the twelve-year-old girl hooked them up to the anesthetizer.  She reassured them that this was nothing, just removing a slug buried next to a lung, she’d done it twenty times before.  And if they struggled against the straps, their fellow soldiers laughed and said, hey, man, haven’t you heard about the Angel of Sauerkraut Station?  Settle down, man, she makes miracles.

But no matter how busy things got, every night Momma brushed Lizzie’s hair.

“Those ships are deathtraps, Momma,” she complained, anguished.  “There’s no supplies; they get cooped up in there, stew in their own disease.  Why don’t they just build one big ship with a medlab?”

“One atomic bomb would take it out,” she said.  “Or heck, one kamikaze run.  Spaceships are fragile, interconnected — like bodies, really.  The more chambers you add, the more possibility that one hit ripples across all of them.”

“But…”

Momma pursed her lips in disapproval.  “Little ships are easy to churn out, Lizzie.  They let you land soldiers across a wider area.  They’re built cheap and disposable, to carry cheap and disposable cargo.”

A thought occurred to Lizzie.  “We’ve had ships full of Web soldiers,” she said.  “And ships full of Gineer.”

Momma smiled in approval.  “You noticed.”

“But never at the same time.”

“Interstellar ships are very slow,” she said.  “The chances of two enemy fleets showing up on the same day are slim.”

“But if they did?”

Momma kissed Lizzie on the head.  “Why do you think I’ve been riding you so hard to get everyone out of the station?”

That thought kept Lizzie up at nights.  But not for too long, because between the surgeries and the sauerkraut and the hydroponics, Lizzie was working eighteen-hour days.  She slept deep.

She couldn’t sleep long, though; the station was so packed with folks that their groans kept her awake.  They slept fitfully in the hallways, with their heads on their backpacks, and when they woke it was always with a scream.  And when she woke, startled, Lizzie smelt the fresh stench of infected wounds, body odor, and – yes, there it was – sauerkraut wafting through the vents.  Its briny scent was stark against all the other recycled smells.

The Doc was right.  Sauerkraut Station did smell.  She hated him for revealing that.  And she hated the way he kept raising his prices.

“I possess a mere two hands,” he said after sending another Web soldier back to her doom.  “As such, my time’s at a premium.”

“It’d take you one hand and three minutes,” Lizzie shot back.  “All that girl needed was a proper implantation of bowel sealant.”

Lizzie was surprised at how blunt she was with Doc – but she was doing half the work these days, and most of the trickier stuff.

Doc just looked irritated.  “Why shouldn’t I make it worth my while?” he asked.  “I’m an old man.  War’s the only time I can fill my coffers.”

“I have to tend to the hydroponics,” Lizzie said, snapping off her surgical gloves.  She made her way down to the lounge where the wounded Web soldiers keened.  Their sergeants fed them watered-down painkillers – which wouldn’t stop their ruptured bowels from flooding their bodies with infection.

They were all bald, dark-skinned.  It was like seeing a row of Thembas, sweating in agony.

“Hush,” she said, kneeling down, taking the stolen hypodermic of sealant out from under her shirt.  “I’ll fix you.”

The look in their eyes was so pathetically grateful that it would be worth Momma’s anger.

The Doc had dragged Lizzie to the comm tower by her ear.

“The girl’s undercutting me!” he cried to Momma.  “She’s working for free!  The Web soldiers are waiting for her to treat them!”

Lizzie stood tall, ready for the slap.  Momma had only hit her twice in her life, both times for being careless around vacuum — but she’d never disobeyed anyone so flagrantly before.

Instead, a curl of a smile edged around Momma’s mouth.

“It’s free work,” she said.  “She’s an apprentice, no?”

Doc’s face flushed.  “Yeah – but…”

“She’s getting extra medical practice in.  That’s why I brought you on board, you remember – to teach her?”

“Not at my expense!  I didn’t come here to get into competition, goddammit – I arrived with the intent of a monopoly!”

“I never promised you’d be the only doctor here,” Momma said coolly.  “I promised you free room and board as long as you served as a doctor.  Check your contract.”

“That’s letter of the law,” the Doc snapped.  “That’s planetary talk.  I deserve better than – “

“I’ve been quite happy with your service here, Mister Ventrager,” Momma said, cutting him off.  “But if you’re not satisfied, there’s no time frame to your contract.”

Doc Ventrager’s hands twitched, as though he was thinking of taking a swing at Momma.  Momma’s hand dropped to her taser.

“Fine,” he said, biting down so hard on his cigar that it snapped in half.  “I hereby proffer you my summary resignation.”

“Best wishes, Mister Ventrager,” Momma said pleasantly to the Doc as he stormed out of the comm room.

Lizzie stepped forward to wrap her arms around Momma, but Momma looked suddenly solemn.  “Well, Lizzie,” she said.  “You’re the ship’s doctor, now.  Are you ready?”

Lizzie wasn’t sure.  But she realized she hadn’t left herself another choice.

The irony was that within weeks, Lizzie was charging prices as bad as Doc Ventrager’s.  But that wasn’t her fault; there just wasn’t the medicine.

The trade routes had dried up.  The freighters told her that pirates and privateers were running rampant.   Both Web and Gineer officials complained bitterly whenever the pirates struck — but everyone knew that the pirates were only allowed to operate if they gave a cut to their sponsoring government, and the privateers carried brands authorizing them to steal.

Thankfully, after what Great-Gemma had done to them long ago, the pirates wouldn’t touch Sauerkraut Station.  But Momma wondered how long that age-old story would keep the pirates at bay – especially now that things were getting desperate.

Meanwhile, Lizzie bargained hard on the rare occasions she found a merchant with a case of Baxitrin or Rosleep.  She got it for what passed for a good price these days.  Lizzie hated sending poverty-stricken soldiers off with untreated wounds, but Lizzie found it was easier to set a price and refuse anyone who couldn’t pay.  When Lizzie chose who to subsidize that week, it made her responsible for the dead.

Food was scarce, too.  The Web soldiers told rumors of other refill stations staffed by skeletal families, reduced to trading away fissionable materials in exchange for a case of protein bars.  Lizzie tended to the vegetables in the hydroponics chambers with extra-special care, grateful for Momma’s planning.

Occasionally, Lizzie stun-tagged hungry soldiers who pried at the food chamber locks – mostly Gineer scoundrels, as she’d expected.  She lectured the Web troopers, though, sending them back thoroughly ashamed.

Fortunately, there were fewer ships.  The war seemed to be spreading out.  But the soldiers were getting meaner.

In the beginning, they’d all been fresh-faced and kind, talking about home with a wistful attitude; these new soldiers’ faces were hidden under grizzled beards and puckered scars.  All they talked about was war.

The Gineer soldiers shouted at her because this God-damned dry waste of a station had no alcohol to buy.  The Web yelled because where had the Angel of Sauerkraut Station been when Ghalyela took a bullet to the head?

Lizzie tried to be nice, but “nice” just seemed to slide right off of them.  They’d lost something vital out there.

Both sides threatened her when Lizzie tried to explain that she they had to pay for the Baxitrin.  The Web grumbled, but the veterans were quick to explain that this was the Angel of Sauerkraut Station; Lizzie had done work for free, back when she could.  They pulled their friends away with an apology.

The Gineer soldiers, however, had only known her as Doc’s assistant.  And Doc Ventrager’s cruelty had become legendary.

“I can give you a six percent discount,” she always explained, looking as wide-eyed and kid-startled as she could.  “But there’s just not enough to go around.  You understand, don’t you?”

That worked until a soldier with a head wound took a swing at her.

Fortunately, Momma taught her how to use a stun gun back when she was six.  Lizzie pressed her back against the wall as the other eight wounded soldiers looked dully at the twitching man on the ground, then looked at Lizzie as she frantically tried to reload her stunner –

Finally they laughed, a scornful mirthless cough of a thing.

“Punked by a kid,” they chuckled, helping their friend up.  “No wonder this asshole needs medical attention.”

They joked about how maybe Freddie could get beaten up by a teddy bear for an encore.  But not a one of them seemed to think there was anything wrong with trying to beat up Lizzie.

Shaken, Lizzie worked on that whole troop for free, handing out precious supplies like they were sauerkraut.

She’d apologized to Momma for using up so much medicine at a net loss.  Momma just hugged her.  Lizzie froze with the newness of it all; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d smelled Momma’s hair.

“It’s getting bad,” Momma agreed.  “If I could, I’d install a deadman’s switch to dump knockout gas into the chambers to keep you safe, but…”

“Nobody has any,” Lizzie finished.

“It could be worse,” Momma said, putting the best face on it.  “Imagine what would have happened if Doc Ventrager had stayed.”

Still, Lizzie alternately hated herself for being paranoid, then hated the station for requiring paranoia.  Lizzie counted the people in the hallways now, moved quickly from room to room so she’d never be too outnumbered; she squeezed her taser’s rubberized grip until the bare metal poked through.  She sighed with relief every time they got the latest batch of ships out beyond the Oort cloud.

She was trying to catch up on sleep before the next patrolship of soldiers arrived, when she woke to a sizzling pop.  Her hair rippled; a soft current buzzed through her.  The vent next to her bed puffed stale ozone and wheezed to a halt.

When she opened her eyes, there was nothing to see.  Did that current blindme?

Then she heard the awful silence, a void so utterly complete it took a moment to put a name to it:

The motors had stopped.

There were no creaks from the gyros, no hiss of water through the pipes, no hum from the meteoroid shields.  It was the sound of space, a horrid nothing, dead and empty in a place that should have a million parts moving to keep her alive.

“Momma?” She tried to yell, but her mouth had gone dry.

Lizzie fumbled at the latches of her emergency supply case to get a flashlight, banging her knees.  This is a mechanical failure, she told herself; we’ll get this fixed, and everything will be fine.  Except there was no light reflected down the hallways.  The walls were shiny metal, each room normally ablaze with control panels and LEDs; she saw not a glimmer.

She clicked the flashlight on.  The LED stayed dark.

Momma!”  This time, it was a shriek.

“Circuit-friers!” came Gemma’s voice, echoing from down the hall.  “Gotta be pirates – goddammit, nobody’s supposed to use those on civilian targets!”

“Our systems are toast, Lizzie,” Momma yelled from the control tower.  “Even the self-destruct’s dead.  I’m going for the box.”

“What box?” Gemma asked, her voice sharp.  “Oh – no, love, too soon.  Don’t show your hand before we hear what they have to say.”

Lizzie swallowed back bile.  She reached out and wandered forward, hoping to hug Gemma, but without light the echoes in the hallways went every which way.

There was the dull clank of hull bashing hull.  Lizzie was flung into the opposite wall.  That wasn’t a gentle docking, when computers guided you in with micromovements; this was manual dock, a hard impact that crushed airlock collars and risked depressurization.  The central gyros creaked in protest.

Lizzie tried to make her way to the conn tower, but everything was jumping around in the dark.  She followed the walls as best she could, but the distances seemed infinitely large.  All the while Gemma yelled stay calm, we can talk…

More clanking.  A hiss.  She wasn’t by the conn tower, she’d blundered to the airlock.  She turned and ran, but a set of white-hot flashlight beams skittered along the walls, targeting her.  Something exploded against the wall, sending slivers of shrapnel into her legs –

“It’s a kid!” someone yelled.  “No fire!  No fire!”

Someone grabbed her shoulders, wrenched her arms behind her back.  Just before they pulled the hood over her head, she saw the camo-green uniform of a Web soldier.

The Web searched the halls with IR detectors, looking for other guests.  Gemma, Momma, and Lizzie sat in the cafeteria with their hands crossed primly on their laps, pointedly not looking at the soldiers who aimed needle-jets at their hearts.

When the soldiers smashed the locks off the kitchen cabinets, it hurt Lizzie like a blow; she’d installed those locks.  Momma winced, too.  Lizzie wanted to protest as the gaunt soldiers reached in with skeletal hands and chomped the raw cabbages with glee, but she didn’t dare.  In the harsh glare of the portable spotlights, the soldiers assigned to guard them looked envious and angry; they couldn’t keep their eyes off of the dancing shadows in the next room, where food was being wolfed down.  And when they looked at Lizzie and Gemma and Momma, who were skinny but not emaciated like they were, their dark brows narrowed.

The commander, a leonine black woman with gray streaks in her hair, walked in.  “Place is clear,” she said to the guards.  “Get in there and get your bellies full.  I’ll talk to our newest citizens.”

The commander had the ketone-scented breath of a starving woman, yet she pulled up a chair as though she had all the time in the world.

“Muh – maybe you should eat first,” Lizzie said.

The commander smiled and stroked Lizzie’s hair.  Her touch was light, delicate, comforting; a mother’s touch.

“Bless you, child,” she said.  “I’m afraid that yes, we will be eating your food.  That’s a philosophy you’re going to have to learn.”

Momma scowled.  “I take it the war’s not going well.”

“We’re staging a tactical retreat.  This way-station has been useful, but at this stage we can’t afford it to benefit our enemy.  If we just leave you here, you’ll give our enemy fissionables, food – we can’t have that.”

Behind her, her soldiers looted the kitchen.  The new arrivals dug into the tubs of sauerkraut with both hands, shoving their mouths full of shredded cabbage with a fierce and frightening satisfaction.  The ones with full bellies had begun toting the remaining food supplies back to the airlock, moving quickly.

“We won’t give them anything,” Lizzie begged.  “We’ve been rooting for you, we don’t want to help those awful Gineer…”

The commander smiled wearily.  “I know you mean that, child, but you can’t enforce it.  Refuse to sell it, and they’ll take it.  They’re as desperate as we are.  We can’t afford to leave you here.”

“So you’re going to kill us?” Momma asked, putting her arm around Lizzie.

“Despite the Gineer propaganda, we’re not barbarians,” the commander snapped.  “My troops will strip this outpost to bare metal – but we’ll take you with us.  We’ll escort you to the nearest free Web holding where you’ll be safe.”

“In between combat missions?  That could take years,” Gemma said.

“The Web’s more efficient than you give us credit for.  The good news is that we’ll consider your ship’s materiel your entry fee to the Intraconnected Collective – you’re citizens now.  It’ll be a better life, child; no more worrying about air, food, or clothing.”  She ruffled Lizzie’s hair, as though to prove what a wonderful world it would be.  “Just as you provided for us today, we will provide for you.  I’ll personally recommend you for a surgeon’s career when you hit planetfall.”

Lizzie felt like she’d been punched in the chest.  She’d had dreams about leaving, yes — but that left Sauerkraut Station where she could come back to it.  The commander was talking about forced relocation, putting her in a place full of strangers, and taking everything she’d loved as payment.

The soldiers smashed in the door to the fermentation chamber.  Momma and Gemma blinked back tears.  Lizzie knew why; Momma had installed that airlock when she was Lizzie’s age, the first time Gemma had trusted her with the welder.

Everything in this station was her birthright, purchased by one Denahue and installed by another.  The Web would take away this history to give her someone else’s hand-me-downs.  And everything that five generations of Denahues had built would be so much floating debris.

Choking back tears, Lizzie watched as the soldiers hauled the tubs of sauerkraut out – and then she saw it.

A small container with a scrawled “T.”

“NOT THAT ONE!” Lizzie yelled, leaping off the bench before anyone could stop her.

She tackled the soldier, sending a stack of tubs clattering to the floor; she clutched Themba’s sauerkraut and to her chest.

The commander bent her wrists back to make her let go; another soldier took it away.  “THAT’S THEMBA’S!” she yelled.  “YOU CAN’T HAVE THAT ONE!  I HAVE TO SAVE IT FOR HIM FOR WHEN HE – HE COMES BACK – ”

Lizzie was already sobbing as the commander carried her back to the table, dropping her into Momma’s arms.

“I understand the challenges of parenting,” the commander said stiffly to Momma.  “And your daughter’s proven herself an ally.  But you will settle her down, or it’s the cuffs.”  She unholstered a pair of handcuffs, swung them lightly off the end of one finger.

Momma stroked Lizzie’s hair, hugging her tight.  Lizzie cried until Themba’s container was out of sight – and then a thought occurred to her.

“Could you at least relocate us to Themba’s house?” she asked.  “He’s my best friend.”

The commander hesitated.  “A Web citizen was your best friend?  Is that why… why you were the Angel?”

“Oh yes,” Lizzie gushed.  “We played together for four whole days.  He asked me to come with him — he’ll be glad to show me around his home, I just know it.”

“It’s – an unusual request…”

Please,” she begged.  She looked to Momma for support, but Momma and Gemma were studying the tops of their boots.  “If I can be with Themba again, it’s… okay.”

“I can’t promise.  But… Themba’s a common name.  If Can you give me more details?”

“He was a hostage.”

The commander flinched.  The handcuffs fell to the floor.

Gemma let loose a choked cry.  Momma reached over, and both Momma and Gemma were crying now, and that scared Lizzie worse than anything.

“Sweetie…” The commander reached out to take Lizzie’s hands. “We gave our innocent sons to the Gineer as a token of our good will.  We thought showing them our beautiful children would help them deal in good faith.

“And… when the Gineer broke the treaties, they probably shot the hostages.  That’s how hostages work.”

Betrayed, Lizzie looked to Gemma and Momma.  “You knew?”

“She said ‘probably,’ love,” Gemma said, sniffling.  “We did news-scans, but never found his name…”

Lizzie felt the tears on her cheeks before she realized she was crying again, huge whoops of pain that seemed to erupt from her like air squirting into vacuum.  She’d been holding everything in, all the anguish of the war, and now that everything was lost she was flying apart into nothing, nothing at all.

“We’ll find someplace good for you,” the commander promised.  Lizzie slapped her.

“You killed everything!” she shrieked.  “You made everything dead!”

The commander touched her fingers to her swelling cheek in disbelief.  Behind her, her soldiers froze; they cradled the sauerkraut containers awkwardly, not sure whether to keep moving or go for their guns.

Momma, her arms protectively around Lizzie, glared them all down.

“You’ve taken everything from her, now,” she said.  “Every last illusion.  Will you take her home from her, too? Is that who you are?”

“You’d die!” the commander shot back, exasperated.  “Your circuits are blown.  And the Gineer are hot on our heels — so we can’t leave you with fissionables, or food, or medical supplies.  We have to leave now, and all you’ll have left is a metal tube with a puff of air.  Would you rather die in space than live in the Intraconnected Commonwealth?”

Lizzie turned to Momma, wondering what she’d say – but was surprised to find Momma was waiting for her answer.  And even though Momma’s face was patient and kind, Lizzie could see it in Momma’s eyes:

Momma would rather die here.

She had spent forty-three years in Sauerkraut Station.  Here, she was a commander; in the collective, she’d be a quirky neighbor.  Brought to dirt, Momma would become the stereotypical planetfaller that was the butt of every VDR comedy’s joke: terrified of the outdoors, obsessively closing every door behind her, frozen by the overwhelming choices at supermarkets.  Laughed at by everyone.

Yet Momma’s gaze told the truth: I would endure all of that.  For you.

Lizzie thought about that, then gripped her mother’s hand.  Her Momma gripped Gemma’s hand.  Three generations of Denahues turned to face the commander.

“This is our home,” said Lizzie.

The Web troops left, burying them in black.  In the darkness, Momma and Gemma hugged her tight.

“You’re a true Denahue,” Momma said, wetting Lizzie’s neck with tears.

“You did us proud, Lizzie,” Gemma assured her, enfolding them both inside her strong, stringy arms.

“But I’m gonna die a Denahue,” Lizzie said.  “We’re gonna suffocate inside a tin can…”

Momma sighed, a warm stream of breath that rustled Lizzie’s hair.  “We got hope, Lizzie.  Not a lot, but some.”

“What do you mean?”

Gemma took Lizzie by the hand and they fumbled their way carefully to the mech-bay.  She placed Lizzie’s palms at the back of the now-empty hidden storage crèche.

“Tell me, Lizzie,” Gemma said, her voice wavering.  “I know they found the hidden compartment.  But did they find the double-blind?”

The hidden hidden compartment!  Lizzie had forgotten.  And as she ran her hands along it, she whooped in happiness as she realized it was unopened.

“I guess it’s still there,” Momma said.  “Now we’ll see if the shielding held.”

“It’s shielded,” Gemma said firmly.  “My Momma made sure of that.”

“She couldn’t test it, though,” Momma replied.  “How could she, without frying the station?  And we haven’t checked the integrity of the backup hardware – well, since Lizzie was born, at least.”

Gemma was unconcerned.  “Momma stored stuff to last.”

Lizzie’s sweaty hands unbolted the last of the secret latches.  She tossed the panel aside with a clatter.  Come on, she thought, running fingertips around the edge of what felt like an emergency supply box.  She grabbed at what felt like a flashlight.

A blue flicker illuminated the mechbay.

“Goddammit, yes!” Lizzie cried, and Momma didn’t even cluck her tongue at the swearing.

The light was thin, barely enough to pierce the gloom, but Lizzie aimed it into the cramped cabinet.  Fit neatly like a puzzle was a set of oxygen tanks, two backup servers, a case of shielded fissionables, a set of power tools, a month’s supply of food, and a full meteoroid shielding kit.  Lizzie let out another whoop and turned to hug Momma.

Momma pushed her away, looking grim.

“Sweetie,” she whispered.  “We’re still probably gonna die.”

Lizzie shivered.  It was the truth.

The worst part about Momma and Gemma leaving was that Lizzie couldn’t even wave goodbye.  She stood on the other side of the welded door, doing the math one last time.  Math was all she’d been doing for the last ninety-four hours, and the end results were merciless.

As a rough guideline, Lizzie knew the average human exhausts the oxygen in about 500 cubic feet of air per day.  There were three of them.  The station had 99,360 cubic feet of air, not counting airlock losses.  Since the oxyscrubbers were fried along with everything else, that gave them two months before they suffocated on CO2.

They did not have two months’ worth of food.

Lizzie had begged hard, and the commander had left them with two weeks’ worth of rations.  There had been a year’s supply of protein bars stored in the double-blind, but mold had crept in and gnawed most of it into a dry, inedible fuzz.  Their water supplies were even worse: a mere thirty gallons.

And even that didn’t matter unless they could get the meteoroid shield back up and running.  Without that, as Gemma so colorfully put it, this place would be a tin shack on a firing range.  Their first order of business was to get that running — which took twenty sleepless hours.  (Thankfully, as Gemma pointed out, great-great-Gemma was wise indeed, spending the extra money for a shield that could be completely swapped out without ever leaving the ship’s confines.)

When they were done, Momma and Gemma collapsed into a four-hour nap that had to keep them awake for thirty, but Lizzie had an idea.  She felt her way out in darkness, conserving the power on her flashlight.

As she stepped out of the bunk room, she bonked her head against the door frame.

The station’s gravity was artificial, created by a near-frictionless rotating drum; judging from the new creaks the station had acquired and then lessening gravity, Lizzie judged the impact of the Web ship must have crushed something inside, creating drag.  A few days, and there would be no gravity at all.

Yet another deadline.

Lizzie carefully bobbed like a balloon down to the hydroponics room, then dunked her hands in the growing chambers.

Her wrists were engulfed in cold, moist sand.

She sighed with relief.  The Web had drained the water tanks, but they hadn’tremoved the water in the diatomaceous earth.  Lizzie didn’t know how much water was there precisely, but it was enough to feed the roots of seven hundred square feet of plants.  All she had to do was filter the silt out with a bedsheet and a bucket before the gravity stopped.

The next day, they looked at Gemma’s salvage ship, stuck so high in the rafters and looking so damaged that the Web had left it behind.  Gemma ran a quick test; a lot of it was fried, but the junker’s older circuits weren’t as finicky as the newer installs.

“Say it,” Gemma crowed.

Momma lowered her head. “It was a good idea to keep the junker, Momma.”

The junker had been designed for short hops out to the edge of the solar system, but in a pinch Gemma could rig it for cross-system travel… Assuming that there were enough supplies in the double-blind.  Assuming that a jury-rigged drive wouldn’t conk out in mid-jump, leaving them drifting through empty space – Lizzie knew the junker was already a hot zone, leaking scandalous amounts of waste energy.

Then Lizzie thought about how crowded it was in there when it was just her and Gemma cuddled inside the spaceship.  She pictured all three of them there crammed in there, plus the food and water to feed them, the oxyscrubbers straining under a triple load –

Even if, as Momma pointed out – if – they successfully made the jump to Swayback Station, there was no guarantee the Web hadn’t stripped Swayback as well.  Lizzie pointed out it was a leap hubward, away from Web territories – but Momma retorted that fissionable material had already been scarce.  There was no guarantee the Swaybacks, rumored to be a particularly mercenary family, would lend them fissionables for the week-long jump to Mekrong planetfall.

And Mekrong?  Did Mekrong have the supplies to refit Sauerkraut Station?  If they did, could Momma afford to buy it?

A single missed link meant either death or bankruptcy. Out here, the two were pretty much one and the same.

“And even if we could all squeeze in there,” Momma agonized, putting her face into her hands, “We couldn’t.  The Web were fleeing a pursuing force.  That means the Gineer will probably be here soon – we already know they wanted our station.  If we all stay here and wait for help, the Gineer aren’t any more likely to help us out than the Web was.  But if all three of us leave, the Gineer can jump our claim and refurbish our station for their needs.”

“That’s not a bad thing, staying behind,” Gemma mused.  “The station’s not comfortable, but it’s stable.  We got a working distress beacon in the closet.  They’ll hear it.”

“No guarantee they’ll stop, though,” Momma said.  “Not in war.  Not for a dead station.”

“True,” Lizzie said.  “But I bet they’d stop for a little girl.”

The silence was punctuated only by the groans of the ship’s axis slowing.

“Don’t say that, Lizzie.” Momma’s voice was hoarse.

“I have to, Momma,” Lizzie replied, feeling light-headed but oddly sure.  “You can take two weeks’ supplies on the ship with you – that gets you to Swayback.  And two people have to go to Swayback – without our usual bankfeed to draw from, one of you might have to stay behind at the station as insurance.  And someone has to stay here, or we might just as well have traded our station to the Web.  The math says one person stays.”

“That’s me,” she said, her voice only trembling a little bit.  “I’m smaller than you.  I eat less, I breathe less.  Leave me with all the protein bars and the water in the sand, and I bet I could last for – for three, maybe four months.  Someone’s sure to come before then.”

Lizzie tried to sound more certain than she was.  Her plan assumed that nothing further went wrong with the station.  That Lizzie didn’t go crazy from being cooped up in a lightless ship.  That the soldiers who answered her distress call weren’t soldiers who thought it was okay to beat up a little girl.  But Lizzie’s future was a teetering stack of uncertainties; this plan was the best of a bad batch.

Momma argued fiercely for a time – so furiously that Lizzie realized that Momma had already considered this plan.  She just hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it.  And when Momma was forced to admit there was no other way, Momma squeezed her tight and wept.  It was only the second time Lizzie had seen Momma weep since Daddy had died, and both times in the same day, and that scared her to the core.

Momma took Lizzie in her lap and combed her hair one last time while Gemma finished soldering the junker into shape.  “You know I love you, right?”

Lizzie did, but it was good to hear it now.  She buried her face in her mother’s chest, trying to inhale Momma’s scent so deeply it would carry her through blackness and terror.  All her life, Momma had always been just a couple of rooms away; now, Momma was going to be systems away, crossing the void in a half-dead ship, and Lizzie would have no way of knowing what happened.

“Maybe I should have gone to planetfall,” Momma muttered, rubbing her hands on her pants.  “Maybe I should have – ”

That questioning was the most terrible thing of all.  Momma never doubted.

“It’s okay,” Lizzie said.  “Daddy’s out there.  He’ll protect me.”

Momma looked sad, and then desperate, and then she floated with Lizzie to the observation window — the only native source of light in the whole station now — and spread her fingers across the scratched window.

Momma said other things before she left, but that was what Lizzie remembered: the terrifying fear and love as Momma said a silent prayer to Daddy, the stars reflected her eyes.

Without electricity, the airlocks didn’t work.  So Lizzie said her goodbyes, and then pressed her ear to the wall as Momma and Gemma welded themselves behind a door, then started up the ship, then rammed through a weakened hatch and into space.  The only confirmation she had of their leaving was the hollow metal thoom that resounded through the station walls.

She prayed they’d make it.  But whether they were alive or dead, for the first time in her life, Lizzie was alone.

Back when they’d had guests, Lizzie had bragged how even if all the servers crashed irrevocably, Sauerkraut Station would still remain a livable environment until rescue could arrive.  The thermal hood that covered the axis like a great, trembling umbrella was the brilliant part of Great-Great Gemma’s design.  It intercepted all the solar emanations that might otherwise cook the axis, transmitting both heat and electricity back into the station.  It was an elegant design that required little monitoring, and no complicated circuitry; the core of the station’s axis served as a boiler room, keeping the station heated to human-habitable temperatures even in the deep cold of space.

But, Lizzie thought after the first day, it made for lousy viewing.

She pressed her nose against the observation deck window, looking for signs of Momma and Gemma.  It was suffocatingly black; the thermal hood blocked all the sunlight, leaving Lizzie to strain her eyes to the faint illumination of reflected starlight.  The only real light came from the sporadic purple bursts of the meteoroid shields zapping another microparticle.

Yet that was the only place that had any light.  The rest of the ship, quite sanely, had no weak points to expose to the sucking vacuum outside.  Every corridor was a lightless prison.

On the first day, Lizzie had to dare herself not to turn on her flashlight.

She hugged the hard plastic to her chest, shivering.  For the first time in her life, nobody would answer if she called out for help.  The emptiness of the station seemed to have its own personality – a mocking smirk, hidden in darkness.

By the time Lizzie half-skipped, half-floated up to the observation deck on the second day – at least she thought it was the second day, it was hard to tell without the usual lightcycles – the observation deck was tinged with a strange glow.  It was her eyes adjusting, she knew that, but the deck felt like the ship’s lights during a brownout.

Part of Lizzie wanted to stay at the observation deck all the time.  A wiser part understood that if she stayed there in the light, eventually she’d be too terrified to venture back down into the chill void of Sauerkraut Station’s hallways – and so she forced herself, trembling, back to where the water supplies and her bed and the repair kits were.

On the fifth maybe-day, Lizzie almost died.

The gravity had finally dropped to near-zero, and she’d let go of the doorway to push herself off the wall.   But in the darkness, she’d misjudged her foot position, and instead of kicking off into space, she just stomped on empty air.

Lizzie tried to whirl around, to get ahold of something — but flailed and touched nothing but air.  She knew she must be drifting, slowly, down the middle of the main corridor, towards the observation deck.  But she could see nothing; this deep into the station, there was no difference between having her eyes open and her eyes shut.

From here, the observation deck was an eighth of a mile away.

How fast had she been going when she let go?  It couldn’t have been more than a couple of inches a minute.  She was drifting, slowly, like a speck of dust, down the middle of a long and empty hallway.

Lizzie shrieked.  Her voice echoed back, colder and shriller, as if the station itself was throwing her words back at her.  She punched, she clapped, she frog-kicked, hoping to feel the pain of her hands smashing against metal.  Her hands only slapped the globs of water hanging in the air.

There was nothing to push off of.  There was no way to get free.

“MOMMA!” she shrieked.  “GEMMA!”

Lizzie saw it all in her mind; she was drifting down the dead center of the hallway, slow as syrup.  She’d eventually brush up against the gentle curve of the western wall — but that might take weeks.

She might starve before her body bumped metal.

She pictured her dead body ragdolling slackly against the wall and rebounding, just another dead thing floating in a dead ship.  The doc had told her what happened to dead men when they rotted…

She was still screaming, but now she was shrieking at the stupid Web.  “I ROOTED FOR YOU!” she said.  “I TRUSTED YOU!  AND NOW YOU LEFT ME TO DIE, YOU STUPID… STUPID IDIOTS!  I HOPE YOU ALL DIE LIKE ME IN YOUR HORRIBLE WAR!”

Then she realized it was only five days maybe five days and Momma hadn’t thought the Gineer would show for weeks and she was going to die and bounce around this ship.

Lizzie didn’t know how long she hung there, yelling like a madwoman; it felt like hours.  But after too long a time it finally occurred to her: silly, just take off your clothes.  And once she flung her shoes away, that gave her enough motion to thump against a doorway a minute or two later.

It was a childish mistake, the kind of thing Daddy would have laughed at her for.  But the panic of that moment never left her.  From then on, she strapped herself to the bed when she slept, and she always carried a small canister of oxygen so she could jet herself to safety.

Without gravity, going to the bathroom was an abominable chore, a filthy thing that contaminated the very air.  The air stank of human waste and rotting sauerkraut.  That made eating a precursor to horror, so she ate only when she grew faint from hunger.  She stopped going to the observation deck because floating through the hallway’s splatters made her sick.

All she wanted to do was stay in bed.  But what would happen to her muscles?

Things started to coalesce from the blackness.

At first it was little sparkles here and there, but the sparkles turned into constellations, and then firespark-white lines connected the dots to turn them into great silver airlocks.  The airlocks hissed open.  And as Lizzie pushed her way past the glowing doorways, she glided into a vast hydroponics chambers, the skies ribbed with water-pipes hissing down clean cool rain.

She looked down, and her fingertips brushed across waxy, familiar goodness; rows of cabbages floated below her.  The cabbages danced joyfully, a strange and careful motion like two ships docking.  Thousands of pale green heads bobbed beneath her fingers, like little men bowing.

She saw a flash of braided brown hair.

Themba!” she cried.

“Play,” said Themba, his voice just as full of joy and life as always, and as his cornrowed skull dipped under the dancing cabbages, she realized that Themba was playing hide and seek with her.  She launched after him, laughing — and rammed into a cabinet.

As she shook off the sting of it, the blackness swallowed her up.

She tried to tether herself to the bed, but in the darkness she heard scuttlingthings coming for her.  She felt fine hairs brushing against her skin, hoping to find an anchor on her flesh to drill deep.

She shrieked, and the walls of the station fell away, and she was walking on the panels of the outside hull.

Daddy walked with her.

His desiccated hand was all rattly inside his punctured spacesuit, but he held her wrist like they were going for a walk around the corridors back in the good old days.  Lizzie didn’t have a suit, but that didn’t matter; it was a beautiful day.  She closed her eyes, felt warmth of the sun on her face.

“You’re dying, Lizzie,” Dad said.

“I know,” Lizzie shrugged.

“It’s only been two weeks.”  His face was smashed in like a crushed cabbage – but still kind.  “You gotta be strong.  Trust me, Lizziebutt, I know what you’re going through.”  He gestured up to point at himself, a dot far out in space.

“Aw, Daddy,” Lizzie said, hugging him tight.  Her squeeze sent a puff of dry, dead air shooting out through his cracked faceplate.

“It’s no good hugging you any more, Daddy,” she said.

He nodded.  “Only the living can give comfort,” he said.  “That’s why you gotta stay alive, Lizziebutt.”

“But you came for me,” she protested.

“That’s cause I know how empty things are.  You’ve been doing this for just fourteen days; I’ve been out here five years.  But I wouldn’t be out here drifting if I hadn’t screwed up.  I lost my footing, and drifted out, and wham – I was gone.  You know how hard it is to get a glimpse of you only once every seven weeks?”

“I miss you, Daddy,” she said, laying down on the panels and closing her eyes.  “It’s nice here.”

“You gotta do stuff, Lizzie.  Or you’re gonna go crazier than you already have.  So I’m gonna make things worse to give you something to do.  It might kill you, too.  But what wouldn’t, these days?”

Daddy knelt down and swept her up in an embrace, then he leapt off like a ballet dancer to launch himself into space.  He whirled around like a gyro and flung Lizzie back into the station.

She busted through the hull with a horrible pong noise, and there was a hiss as all the air came whooshing out, and Lizzie realized that she was struggling against her bedstraps.

There was new light in here.  A sliver of stars, shimmering behind a fluttering stream of purple.

Something had broken through the hull.

A very real hissing came from a finger-sized hole on the wall.  A meteoroid had punctured the alloyed metal like a bullet fired from space.  If that meteor had gone three feet to the right, it would have punctured Lizzie’s stomach.

She reached down for the emergency sealer-patch under her bed with the familiarity of practice of years of hull breach drills.  She turned on the flashlight, and her head exploded; the light made her just as blind with white as she’d been blind with black.

As she slapped the sealer on, she peered out the gap; the plasma hummed.  The shields were holding.

So why had a meteoroid made it through?

When she was done, she floated back to the observation deck.  It was almost too bright to see now, a strobing purple.

How could she have ever thought it was dark?  It was radiant in here.

But looking out the window, she saw meteoroids sizzling against the shields.  There was maybe one a minute – way more than usual.  She pressed her face to the window, trying to see what looked different.

Sure enough, Daddy’s bear-constellation had slipped off the side of the window, and she could only make out the top three stars of Great-Gemma’s turbine-constellation.  If the stars were changing position, then the station was drifting off-course – through the fringe of the dust belt and into the nearby asteroid belt.  The shields were designed to burn off small inbound particles… But large ones would still penetrate.  Without thrusters to prevent her from drifting into the denser part of the belt, the shields would fail.

Lizzie tried to get the thrusters back on-line, but it was no use; even if she’d had enough fissionables to start a reaction, the reactor itself was laced with yards of blown-out circuitry.  She’d thought about controlled hull breaches, maybe jetting her way to safety with air, but some calculations scrawled on a filthy whiteboard showed her that the displaced air wouldn’t be enough to significantly affect the station’s mass.  And even if she could have moved the station, she didn’t have a clear idea which way the ship was drifting.  She might knock it deeper into the field.

All her life, Momma had taught her that everything came down to guts and brains, but this put the lie to it: she was dice rattling around in a cup, her life determined by sheer randomness.  Nothing she had could prevent the larger meteoroids from breaking through.  Every punk! meant that a rock had blown through the hull, and by sheer dumb luck it hadn’t blown through her.

It was like trying to drift off to sleep with a gun pressed against your stomach.

Lizzie pulled herself around the station in an exhausted haze, her arms aching, trying to make herself a moving target.  The station seemed to expand and contract at will, the sign of some malicious intelligence; at times it felt like a vast dock and she was a bat, fluttering madly around inside emptiness.  Other times it was all walls, and the space outside compressed in.  Sometimes she’d fall asleep in mid-pull and not even realize it until the next ponk woke her up.

Ponk.  She’d survived.  Again.

She had 99,000 cubic feet of lightless air to protect.  Her universe was reduced to patching.  Her universe had always been patching.

There was no time for sleep; everything was a coma-fugue.  She had nightmares about patching horrible, howling holes, then realized she was awake.  Once, she fell asleep mid-weld and woke up with her hair on fire.

The station hissed like a boiling kettle.

All the while Daddy and Momma and Themba and Gemma and all the Web and Gineer commanders floated behind her like balloons on a string, babbling in languages that made no sense.  They told her the war was over, and everyone went home.  They told her to give up, the station was dying and so was she.  They told her that all her memories were dreams – there was just her in these stripped-out hallways, blind and numb, forever and ever.

Lizzie was dust.  She was air.  She was the taste of cabbages.

A flare of light came from the observation deck, so bright it filled the station.  She floated over to see, her eyes tearing up; Dad was there, pressing his collapsed face against the window, telling her that it was okay, a meteor was coming to end her misery…

…And it was the catastrophic clang, the big one, a huge sound like a hammer smashing all the metal in the world.  Lizzie was flung into the wall, bathed in light, enveloped in such pain and terror that she shrieked and shrieked and kept screaming until Daddy split in four and hauled her down to hell.

She opened her eyes.  It took an effort.

She was blinded by the soft glare of fluorescent lights.  A repetitive beep changed pitches, keeping time with her heart.

Turning her head to peer at the monitors raised a sweat underneath the stiff blue robe she was wearing.  She tried to slide her hand up off the starched bedsheets, but only managed to make her heart monitor spike. Gravity held her tight to the bed.

At least her vitals looked good.

“It’s my ship,” Lizzie protested, using all her strength to lift her head off the pillow.  “My home.”

“We know that.”

Lizzie jumped.  A nurse was dressed in a close-fit Gineer uniform with a blood-red cross-and-sickle emblazoned on the front, his long hair slicked back under a nurse’s cap.  He had a friendly smile.

“’My ship, my ship,” he said, placing a cool hand on her forehead.  “That’s all you’d said when we pulled you from the wreckage.  And after everything you went through to secure that glorious lifestyle of yours, Elizabeth, our most profound generals decided that we couldn’t remove it from you.  You are a hero.”

Hero? Lizzie thought.  She hadn’t done anything but survive.

But the nurse called in a couple of Web commanders, older women with sad eyes, and they told her that she’d been in an induced coma for almost two months while they restimulated bone growth and removed excess radiation from her body.  In that time, her story had been transmitted to all corners of the galaxy — the discovery of a small girl working diligently to keep her home alive for her family.  Elizabeth “Lizzie” Denahue, they said, was now known as an example of the tenacity that only family loyalty could generate.

“But I’m not Gineer,” Lizzie protested.

“Doesn’t matter,” said the nurse.  “It’s a nice story.  After all the consternation, people ache for a comforting tale.”

She thought about the word “nice,” and logically there was only one reason they could possibly think this was nice.

“So where’s Momma?”

“Smart girl,” one of the commanders said affectionately.  “She’s back on the station, refitting it with donated equipment.  We almost snuffed you out in towing it back, you know; we thought no one could be alive inside that, it had drifted so badly out of orbit.  We were just looking to refurbish it… But you were in there, Elizabeth.  There was barely any air left, but you were there.”

Lizzie nodded weakly.  “Can I see Momma?”

“Of course, sweetie,” said the nurse.  “We just have to fly her in from the station.”

Momma came about an hour later, looking haggard and scared and more beautiful than Lizzie could have imagined.  They hugged, though Momma had to help lift Lizzie’s arms around her waist.

“They told me what happened, Lizzie,” Momma said.  “We were on our way back, I swear – Gemma had to take a down-planet contract to pay for emergency supplies.  But the folks at Swayback were real helpful once I explained what happened.  We owe them a big one, Lizzie.”

Lizzie flipped her wrist at the room around them.  “So why are the Gineer…?”

“The war’s over, Lizzie.  The Web was using some real unconventional weaponry, and the Gineer did something… Well, equally unconventional to end it.  Something so big they’ve had to restructure the whole jumpweb around it.  On the bright side, that means there’s lots of contracting work building stations.  What you’re in right now is a rescue and refit ship designed to find stragglers like us.”

“The war’s over?”

Momma smiled and put a cool cloth on Lizzie’s head.  “Yep.”

“Who won?”

Her Momma sighed.  “Does it matter?”

Lizzie thought about it.  It didn’t.  She squeezed Momma’s hand, happy to have what counted.

There was a lot of cleanup to be done.

Lizzie was still weak from being weightless for almost two months, but the Gineer had muscle treatments – so as soon as Lizzie could walk within a day or two, Momma put her to work.  Internal circuitry had to be replaced, the hull had to be reinforced, the hydroponics rebuilt, the air scrubbed.  Thankfully, Momma and the charity mechanics had done the real work of getting the central gyros up and running; rebalancing a station was a job for ten people, not two.

It was hard.  The starvation and weightlessness had marked her permanently; her eyes now had deep hollows underneath them, and her arms sometimes went numb, especially when she was using a wrench.  Her legs swelled up fierce for no reason.

But now, when she went to bed, Momma combed her hair.  That was the only luxury she needed.

Gemma was stuck back on Mekrong for the time being.  Until the station was fully functional again, they needed cash.  Gemma was doing her part for the family by taking contract work and sending the money back home.  Lizzie wrote emails every day, and the charity ship tightbeamed them back for free.

But eventually the charity ship left and the ships started docking again.  The folks travelling now were odd mixes that Lizzie had never seen before; gladhanding carpetbaggers looking for new opportunities, grieving families on their way back to homes they weren’t sure still existed, scarred soldiers-turned-adrenaline junkies.

Gineer and Web folks mixed uneasily in the waiting rooms.  Sometimes shouting matches broke out.  And when voices were raised, Lizzie would limp in, and every person would go fall silent as the Angel of Sauerkraut Station glared at them.

“Your war’s done enough to me,” she said.

They stopped.

Some folks wanted to meet the little girl who’d survived in vacuum for nine weeks, and seemed disappointed when she wasn’t more visibly scarred.  Lizzie asked about that, and Momma got out the filthy gray coveralls they’d found Lizzie in.

“If you wear these,” Momma said, her face unreadable, “People will hand you their money.”

Lizzie looked at the rags.  They stank of memories.

“Not for all the money in the world,” she said.

Momma hugged her proudly.  “Good girl.”  And she tossed the rags into the incinerator and pushed the “on” button.

But Lizzie did notice that Sauerkraut Station was now being called Survivor Station.  Momma left up a few of the sturdier hull-patches Lizzie had made, and put plaques over them that noted where Elizabeth Denahue had made these patches to survive during her nine-week ordeal in the asteroid belt.  She also put donation boxes below them “To help rebuild the station.”  They filled up nicely.

A few weeks later, the prisoner exchanges started up, and station was once again filled with soldiers – this time miserable-looking wretches who barely spoke.  The handful of survivors had been kept in POW camps, and now they were being shipped back like embarrassing refuse.

They were suffering from scurvy, lice, malnutrition.  Most were too weak to move.  Lizzie wished she could have done more, but mostly what they needed was clean quarters and a steady supply of food.  Neither looked likely in their futures, sadly enough.

She was in one of the prisoner ships, wearing a newly-bought HAZMAT suit and using a viral scanner to double-check the POWs for communicable diseases, when she saw Themba.

He was curled up underneath a pile of bigger kids.  She was surprised to find him older – but where Lizzie had grown, Themba had shrunk.  His neat cornrows were crusted with sores, his fine robes replaced by a gray prisoner’s suit.

She pressed her hand against his forehead; she could feel his heat through the suit.

Themba was delirious, muttering something unintelligible over and over as though it was the only thing keeping him sane.

She hugged him, then turned angrily to the Web captain.  “What’s he doing here?” she demanded.  “He was a hostage!  You were supposed to take care of him!”

The captain shuffled uncomfortably.  “Of that, I know nothing,” he said, consulting the records.  “This says he’s an orphan.  We’re shipping him back to the collective.  They’ll find him a good home.”

“They most certainly will not,” Lizzie said, and thumbed open the airlock.  She took Themba in her arms, terrified by how easily she could lift him, and carried him off the ship.  She brought him to the single cot that passed for a medbay these days, got a cold water rag for his forehead.

Momma stormed in.  “Lizzie, what in blazes are you doing?  After everything we’ve been through to stay neutral, we’re not getting involved in politics now!”

“Momma,” she said, “It’s Themba.”

“Think I didn’t know that?  We’re not a charity ship, Lizzie.  We’re barely making enough to refit the station as it is.  Another mouth might put us under.”

“His dad’s dead!  Where’s he gonna go?”

“Back to the Web.  That’s where he belongs.”

“With strangers?”

Think, Lizzie.  The boy is – was – a diplomat’s son.  Outsiders are trouble on space stations.  They’re used to having endless space, used to having endless air.  They have all sorts of problem with a life like ours.  If they don’t make – make some dumb mistake that gets their ass killed, then they spend the entire time feeling cooped up and desperate.  I know you think you’re doing him a favor, Elizabeth, but trust me.  He’ll hate it.”

“He loved it here.”

“For a day.  A few months and he’ll beg us to leave.  And even if he doesn’t, we’d have to train him from scratch to teach him to survive – and even then he’ll never be as good as us…”

“He’s not that way, Momma – he – “

They were shouting – but somehow Themba’s high, whistling voice cut through the air, desperately repeating what he’d been muttering since he’d been put on the POW ship:

two heads sliced cabbage, fennel, salt water… two heads sliced cabbage, fennel, salt water….

Momma stopped, and her face scrunched up with a strange mixture of sorrow and happiness.  Then she turned to stare at the undecorated metal wall of the medbay – but Lizzie finally realized that Momma was staring past the walls, past the station, stroking her wedding band as she looked to the stars for an answer.

Momma swallowed, hard.

“I suppose this is the way of things,” she said, her voice so soft Lizzie could barely hear her.  “All right.  He’s crew.”

Momma knelt down, kissed Themba on his forehead.  Then she walked out of the room to bribe the captain, which would deplete their meager savings further — but Lizzie didn’t care.  She hugged her best friend, feeling the warmth of his skin on hers.

His eyes refocused, looked at her — and he laughed.

“Welcome home, Themba,” Lizzie whispered, not letting go.  “Welcome home.”

____
Copyright 2011 Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz wrote for twenty years, but wasn’t much good at it. Then he attended the 2008 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and was reborn. Since then he’s published seventeen stories in places ranging from Asimov’s to Beneath Ceaseless Skies to this extremely fine joint right here – a feat of which he’s especially proud, since a novella with the pitch of “Little House on the Prairie meets Space Stations” was a hard sell to begin with, and who woulda thought it would see print in a place he liked so much? He lives in Cleveland with his wife, a well-worn copy of Rock Band, and a friendly ghost. Visit his site atwww.theferrett.com (two Rs, two Ts) to see his latest blatherings on politics, polyamory, and puns.

by Eljay Daly

I don’t need a name, a past, a history, to draw a crowd. I’m nobody, and they watch to see me fail–but I don’t, and I laugh from the joy of it. I flash the bottles from hand to hand in the hot dawn, flash and catch, throw. Street jinks aren’t allowed to work the plaza since we lost the witch war all those years ago, and it’s mostly swells out here watching–waiting on the cobbles for the morning wagons. Later on, the carts and foot traffic will jam up like logs on a river, but at dawn the guards haven’t yet come out the big gate that separates the city into them and us. Catch, toss, catch; no coins in my hat, but soon, I hope. I try to entertain. I’ve had a lot of practice, and the bottles are full (which ought to impress them), good wine I snitched right from a swell vintner’s wagon before the drought started back in the spring. Flash, flash, hand to hand, catch the weight, drumbeat rhythm–smooth going ’til I spot the ghost.

He’s hovering on the shoulders of the crowd near the wall: a misty skin-male swell in a black robe, and I don’t need magic to see the hate in his icy eyes.

I fumble the catch, and smash! Green glass flies everywhere, slicing up my legs, and my pilfered wine splashes all over the cobbles like a great bucketful of blood. A good piece of thievery, wasted!

Ghosts are old time, history, gone with the rest of the magic the old brights used to do back before the witch war. A hundred years now, and who sees ghosts anymore?

Not the swells in the plaza. They smirk at my mess and wander off–except for one of them, skin-female and sorrowful, looking like a crow in her swell black robe and black boots and tight bun of black hair. She comes over, dragging a little boy, a baby crow, behind her. She gives me a handkerchief, and she tosses coins at my hat on the ground.

“Young man,” she says to me, even though she’s only middle thirties, maybe ten years older than me, “young man, surely even a Brute can find steadier work which doesn’t disturb the public peace.”

She’s looking at my hands, counting fingers probably, all twelve of them. Curious about us brights–or Brutes I think to myself, mocking her stilted swell accent, just like we say swells and they say Souls. Them, and us.

I crouch to pluck the coins from the wine-soggy hat. “Food’s dear with the drought and all, dama,” says I. “So I brought my act where the coin is.”

That ghost is blowing closer like a storm cloud, close enough that I can see the badge over his heart–a rune strangled in gold vines, the same rune from my broken bottles. Marro, the richest name in the city. An old, tragic name. Whichever Marro this is, he’s got only a few gray strands in his thick brown hair; it wasn’t old age that killed him. His ten fingers are squeezing a string of counting beads. The way he’s glaring at the swell woman I’m thinking he’s going to choke her with them.

She doesn’t see the murder gusting closer. A little smile tips the corners of her mouth, like it’s a nice surprise to find a resourceful Brute who doesn’t want to starve.

“I’ve started a bread kitchen,” she says. She gives me the address in Bright-town. “Tell your friends.”

“It’s free?”

“Certainly. I’ll look for you there. What’s your name?”

“Folks call me Nix.”

“A pleasure, Nix. I’m Terez.” The friendliness from a swell surprises me.

Terez pulls the little boy back across the plaza. He watches me over his shoulder the whole time.

The ghost follows them right until the gate closes in his face. Then he pivots and bares his teeth at me like it’s my fault they got away. My bowels turn to ice.

I bolt.

From the plaza, Wide Street is the cobbled spine of Bright-town. Left and right the alleys are ribs sloping down through mountains of blasted rock that used to be a city, a hundred years ago. Brights get only one lifetime since the witch war; that was our punishment for losing. Nobody wants to waste it on fixing up old rubble.

I find a crevice between two listing houses that touch shoulder to shoulder. Panting in the urine-stinking shadow, I peek around the corner.

There’s the damn ghost coming straight down the hill.

Don’t find me, I beg, and run all the way to the back of the alley. I squeeze my eyes hard, trying to disappear.

“What did she say?” comes the ghost’s growl in my ear.

I open my eyes. He’s right there. I jump. I try to back up but there’s nothing behind me but rock, hard and cold and final.

“Damo, it was nothing, just directions to a bread kitchen. Don’t eat me! I’m half-used anyway, and dirty for sure.”

He comes so close our faces nearly touch; it’s like nosing up to a slab of winter, so cold it sucks my breath away.

“That was my wife,” he says. “A month ago she murdered me. And you’re going to fix it.”

Murder? Murder? And a murdered swell, no less? If I help this ghost, if I interfere, I could end up in front of a judge–and when murder, swells, and a bright come together in a law court, guess who never wins?

“Find somebody else, damo!” I charge right through him. The cold’s like a punch to the gut. I get two steps before it seizes me up, and I smash onto the cobbles, teeth chattering and limbs twitching.

The ghost floats over to me, scowling. “Need convincing? All right, then. We’ll ask the next Brute that walks past this alley.”

I try to stop shuddering, but my muscles don’t listen. After a minute or so, the ghost smiles. I manage to arch my neck to look. A street bright, eight or nine, walking jauntier than somebody in rags ought to. “Run,” I try to tell her, but my frozen mouth just grunts.

“Ehhh?” She spots me on the ground and takes a step into the alley. “You all right, mistro?”

The ghost pounces, a fast-moving shadow, and squeezes her throat. I can see through his fingers, and there’s no sign of pressure; he’s not really choking her, not with his hands. Still, her eyes bulge and her hands jump up to her throat. Stop, I try to say, but I can’t, and he doesn’t. The girl fish-mouths, frantic for breath. Her head jerks side to side. She drops to her knees. Her eyes plead with me.

The ghost gloats as he brings his mouth close, as he swallows her soul. When he’s done, she collapses right through him to the cobbles. Her dead eyes accuse me.

I’m unfrozen enough to roll to the wall. The ghost waits. I haul myself to my feet, but I can’t look at the dead girl.

I need to get this bastard out of town, away from the rest of my people.

“You win, damo. I’ll hear you out. But not here. Out toward my place. This way.” I’m happy to see he looks startled that a bright would dare give him orders. I lurch out of the alley.

I’ll come back for the girl later. Unless, of course, I end up as dead as her.

My squat’s in the Comb part of Bright-town, tucked between the Bats and the meat-gardens. The Comb’s not as crowded as the Bats, but still there are brights hanging clothes on windowsills to bake out the stink in the summer heat, brights racked out on piles of rubble like sunning lizards, a bright chasing a rib-skinny dog away from a rocking cradle.

I take him right through to the meat-gardens. Those’ll be deserted for sure.

Brights have been planting their dead for a hundred years. It was part of the surrender. Those old brights told the swells, You win, but you keep your burnings and your temple; we’re taking all the hills north of the city and we’re burying our dead. Some brights, mostly old ones, still sneak off to burn their corpses and say temple-ish prayers. Most of us, though, even temple brats like me, can’t be bothered. Too much work when you’re scrambling for food. Easier to give the bodies to the clayhands and let them take care of things.

Folks mutter about the meat-gardens–curses and bad luck and witchery. Me? I kind of like the aloneness.

Birds scatter when I wade through the drought-brown grass. It reeks of neglect here: a hot dirt smell like a dusty attic. The place is full of whispers. The grass rustles, but you never see a mouse. The air drones with bugs. Even the trees are rotting and squat, trailing dead moss that tickles the death-heads on their stumps and spikes–crumbling busts poking up among the weeds, leaning close together, gossiping. There are thousands and thousands of death-heads in that maze of hills and forest.

Under every one of those busts is a bright buried on his feet. I’m walking on the heads of the dead.

When I stop, the ghost perches on one of the pedestals, next to a death-head. Now that we’re safe out of town I’m a little less panicked. If he wanted me dead, I’d be dead already, right?

“So how does a swell end up a ghost, damo? Shouldn’t you be having yourself a new body somewhere?” It’s what swells do; they get reborn–just like brights used to, back before the witch war. But not this swell.

“Don’t be disrespectful.” Under the snappishness I hear uncertainty. He doesn’t know the answer. He doesn’t know why he’s still around, after the dying and all.

“You want my help? I need someplace to start. So. It’s been a month, you said?”

“Yes, a month. These are death-heads, correct?” He rattles his beads at the busts all around us.

I nod. “Clayhands make ’em.”

“Terez gave me one the day she killed me.”

That’s surprising to hear. “Not a real one. Not from a clayhands, damo. Sorry.” Clayhands make the death-heads to honor the memory of our souls. Swells don’t need to honor their souls, ’cause they just keep getting born. No clayhands would waste time or talent on a dead swell.

“But this was more than simple artwork. A bust would have been chiseled marble, and this was whitewashed clay. It had the same shimmer to it as these have.” Clayhands put sparkle in the clay, part of their craft. On a sunny day the meat-gardens glitter. “It was crude, just like these. Ugly thing. Rough. She brought it into the house, then that very night I woke up feeling like I was stabbed in the chest. I couldn’t get my breath to scream, and all of a sudden I was looking down at my own eyes staring up at me. Terez just snored away until dawn.” He sounds bitter about it. I might have been, too.

He could have died from anything. The death-head thing, though–that’s odd. “Did she say why she brought a death-head?”

“For luck, she said, and she smiled at me like a simpleton. I was at the accounts. I’d been working around the clock; the vineyards are dying from the drought. Terez came into my study and held out the thing. ‘Get out,’ I told her, ‘I don’t have time for your nonsense.'”

“It was a fake, damo.” I’m thinking a jinx like me hammered together a lump of nothing and took Terez’s coin. If I’d known there was a market for it, I’d have done it myself.

“It was from a real clayhands. Terez knew one. He was teaching her magic.”

I’m shocked speechless for a half-dozen heartbeats. Swells can’t do magic. If they could, they wouldn’t have brought us brights here in the first place, and they certainly wouldn’t have had to set fire to Bright-town to win the war. Besides, there’s not a bright witch left to teach anybody anything: the war used up the magic. “Somebody was just stealing your wife’s coin.”

“Terez is certainly gullible, and she loves to waste Marro money on Brutes. But what if this Brute knew some old curse or other? What if it was an accident? Clearly something’s afoot, because I’m stuck here. This has to be looked into, and nobody can see me but you.”

“You’re sure she said magic?”

“Aurel said so. Our son. Yesterday he asked her if she was still learning magic from the clayhands. She hushed him and said she was done with such wickedness.”

“So she thought it was magic. Still, I don’t see what I can do for you, damo. I’m as magic as dirt.” Except, of course, for the suddenly seeing ghosts. “Anyways nobody can get unkilled.”

“No, but perhaps they can get unstuck. Look, this clayhands doesn’t have to unstick me for free. I’ll pay him more than Terez did, and I’ll pay you, as well.”

“Ghost coin doesn’t spend.”

“I’m a Marro, Eed Marro, richest Soul in the city. Terez has Marro jewels. I’ll show you where she keeps them. Sell them, and you can buy yourself the biggest house in Bright-town. Or you can refuse.” He smiles slow, his mouth a crack in the white ice of his face. I think of the dead girl, and I shiver.

Eed Marro. The Marro tragedy. Eed’s older brother, Bur, killed by some bright before I was born. The old brights still talk dark about it; the swells tore the town apart looking for the killer. Eed inherited the Marro fortune, so he’s not lying about being able to pay. “All right, damo. I’ll ask around. How do I reach you?”

“Come to the plaza,” he says, and he floats over, close enough to kiss me, although thankfully he doesn’t. His eyes are hungry black, and I shudder with the winter of him. “Dawn tomorrow,” he says. “You’ll have something by then, or I’ll come find you, Nix.” My name’s a frigid wind on his lips.

It’s too much. I scram, thrashing through the meat-gardens like a terror-blind deer.

By the time my steps slow I’m back in the Comb, panting like a dog and thinking about that dead girl. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t.

I can’t leave her there for the rats to chew. I ought to at least get her out in the open, out of the dark and the foul, where the swell guards can find her.

When I get to the alley, the guards have found her already.

A clayhands is loading the blanket-wrapped body onto a ramshackle cart. Of course the guards aren’t helping; instead, the pair of them lean against the wall, sullen and watchful in the morning heat.

The clayhands is young, maybe twenty. I wouldn’t have taken him for a clayhands at all, except for the clay disk on the cord around his neck. He looks good–cotton trous and vest that leaves his smooth arms bare, tea-colored hair corralled by a twist of rag. He appeals to me like nobody, skin-male or skin-female, has appealed since before the drought. Staying fed and watered doesn’t leave time or energy for touching.

When he glances at me there’s a spark of attraction. He flushes then quick goes back to his business.

I step over to the cart where he’s tying her down with crisscrossed rope. I like that he shows respect–that he tucks the blanket in around her body, that he pats her shoulder. “You need some help over the cobbles?” I ask.

“I’m used to them,” he says.

One of the guards interrupts us. “Body’s secured? Good.” He comes over and gives the clayhands a few coins. “Now get out of here, Brute.” They always make it an insult. The clayhands looks hurt. I wonder how he could have got to his age without realizing he’s scum.

He scurries to the front of the cart and grabs the poles. “I need a clayhands,” I say. He looks over his shoulder at me. When I step to the rear of the cart, between the wheels, he doesn’t order me away.

Grunting, we get the cart rolling up the hill. It’s not bad work with two of us, and the girl being slight, but it’s awkward and hot. We don’t say a word through the hills of the Comb, then we’re south of Wide Street, in the Bats.

The Bats is way worse than the Comb. Older, more desperate–more people, and more rubble. More shadows. Before the war, there were nice houses here, big mansions, and theaters and shops and a temple. Now the mansions are rotted, collapsed to their knees or fallen sideways–hulks of ancient monsters, burned and listing and dangerous. Stone pillars rest half-buried in the weeds like giants’ bones. Rats watch us, bold as day. Brights squint out from crooked windows, through the kudzu claiming the roofs and the gutters and choking the mountains of rock.

The clayhands’s squat used to be a little stable. Made of stone, it’s tucked between the carcass of a mansion and a crumbling wall. In the courtyard he sets down the cart handles then unties the girl and carries her behind the cottage. I follow. There’s a wood shack back there. After we put her inside, next to his shovels, he nudges his hair out of his eyes then offers me a clay-stained hand. “I’m Rine.”

“Nix. From the Comb.” His hand’s warm and a little damp. I like the strength in his fingers.

He gives me a little smile, a relaxed one. It feels like we’ve known each other a long time. “You need a clayhands, Nix?”

“I’m looking for one. Somebody who made a head of a swell, maybe a month, two months ago.”

The smile fades and he takes his hand away. “A clayhands did that?”

“So I’m told.”

“Who was the swell?”

“A vintner. Eed Marro?”

His fingers curl into fists. “It figures.”

“You know something?”

“The clayhands you’re looking for is Sojourn. Has to be. She’s got a shack way out past the old end of the meat-gardens, in a cleft between two hills. But you don’t want anything to do with her, Nix from the Comb. That bright, she dabbles in history.”

Sojourn’s shack looks accidental, a misshapen tumble of rocks. I tell myself she happened on that little glade among the trees, just a lucky accident, that she didn’t dig up the death-heads to carve herself a space–that there aren’t bright graves under the dead grass and the rotten trellis with its load of brown vines. But when I get closer to the shack, some of the stones look suspiciously round, and they’re weathered smooth.

What’s standing in the doorway must be Sojourn. The years have baked her to bone, all knobby through her rag of shirt and tattered trous. Her cheekbones are sharp, her chin pointed. Her skin’s sun-leathery and spotted, even the bald skull. She examines me, then she squints her hard black eyes. “At last, a bright who can see,” she says. She grabs my hand and jerks me inside. I’m too startled to resist, and it’s only as I’m looking around that it occurs to me how strong she is for an old bone.

The shack has one room. It smells like clay and goat and old shoes. There’s a nest of blankets by the hearth. To the right, under the window, sit a clay-stained table with a couple of stools, a bucket, and a head-shaped lump under a cloth. To the left a crooked shelf holds twigs, feathers, a chipped cup, a brass coin. Dangling from the wood beam over the shelf, like onions drying, are dozens of crystals, drops of color that catch the sunlight and toss it onto the mud-plastered walls. This place shivers with witchery. I’m suddenly as fear-chilled as if Eed Marro was breathing on my neck.

“You’re here to learn magic?” she rasps.

“There’s no such thing, mistra.” I say it hard.

“It’s growing back, like a burned forest. The right bright can learn it.”

“That’s not me.” I step toward the door.

“It is. You can see. It beams out of you.”

“Nothing’s beaming, mistra, trust me. I only came with a question. This swell named Terez Marro, she got a death-head of her husband, Eed, then he died. You know anything about that?”

“Depends who told you.”

“Somebody who thinks that head’s got more to it than clay. Maybe something murderish, or cursish.”

“And what if there was?”

“Then I need it uncursed.”

She laughs. “Unmagicking? Not me, no. You could, though. A bright who can see.”

“You’d show me how?” I ask her cautiously.

“I would, if you bring me that head. But first, you need your eyes opened.” She puts her hand on the covered lump on the table. “It has to be dawn. That’s when he speaks.”

“He?”

“Come back at dawn,” she says. “For your first lesson.”

My gut’s a knot when I get back to Bright-town. It’s getting on suppertime, too, and this morning’s dried meat and sour apple are long gone. There aren’t many places a bright can eat for free. I decide to visit Terez’s bread kitchen in the South Neat. There’s a public well there, too, so I stop at the squat for my empty bladders.

The crowd’s so thick by the well that there’s hardly air to breathe. Everybody stinks; there’s no spare water for washing. The swell guards nudge the brights along the street in a ragged queue. Exhausted, the people shuffle. I spot a commotion over by the wall: an old skin-female arguing with somebody I recognize: Rine, the clayhands. I jog over to them.

Rine looks up. He gives me a nod, but his attention’s mostly on the old bright, and he’s frowning. “Nix, this is Iyo. From the Bats. She won’t go to the new kitchen, and the old ones are already out of food.”

Iyo’s wearing crazy layers of cotton and lace and beads. Despite the filth and her age and her rat’s nest of gray hair, she’s got high cheekbones and a full mouth. She must have been pretty before street life ground her up and starved her down to just plain old and skinny. The hungry angles of her face seem familiar as she nods me a regal hello. “Pleased to acquaint,” she says, then turns back to Rine. “The temple doesn’t run the new place,” she whispers. “Swells run it. Swells want to kill me.”

“Kill you?” I’m surprised. “You’re just a bright! They won’t even notice you, mistra.”

She purses her lips and shakes her head, then clutches her water skins in front of her like a shield. Rine sighs. I wonder if she’s a relative. It would explain the worry clouding his face.

“What if we both take you?” I hear myself saying. “Me and Rine. We’ll walk either side of you, like a wall. They won’t see you tucked down between us.”

Iyo considers. “Well, I am hungry….” It’s a surrender.

Rine mouths me a thank-you. Iyo lets us split her full water skins between us to share out the weight, then we make our way to the food queue a quarter mile away.

The sun sinks. Terez’s place used to be a theater, once upon a time. Now the brick face is pocked with holes, the windows are boarded, and the roof’s sprouted weeds among the shingles. The queue inches. When we get close, Iyo stiffens like she changed her mind; before she can grind her heels in, me and Rine drag her through the door into the cool shadow.

Empty benches form half-circle rows. The chandelier’s fallen down on them–just rusty bones, no crystals, a great dead spider. Down in front, on the stage, are barrels and crates and a mountain of bread loaves. There’s a yeasty, wonderful food smell wafting up to me, and my mouth starts to water. Marro guards with their viney-rune badges scowl from the edge of the stage, making a fence with upright spears. Terez is there with her little crow–Aurel–and some other swells, doling out food and charitable smiles to the brights passing in front of the guards.

Rine stops in his tracks. The brights behind us mutter and shove. “Keep moving!” somebody shouts, and Terez glances up. She looks right at Rine. The loaf she’s holding hits the stage and bounces into the benches, and a half-dozen brights scurry for it.

“I should have known,” Rine growls. He turns and flails back upstream through the disgruntled crowd. Iyo wades after him without a glance at me.

It’s a dilemma. Follow, or stay? Stay, says my stomach; I don’t owe them a thing. I’m still debating when a guard grabs my arm. Despite my protests, he hauls me out of line, drags me down the aisle, and pushes me through a side door and up a dozen stairs.

The corridor’s black and tight. The guard shoves me into a tiny room with a mirror and a rocking chair, and he shuts the door. When I jerk it back open, here’s Terez coming down the tunnel with bread in her hand.

She follows me back into the room, looking at me, intense. “That Brute with you in line. I need to find him.”

“I don’t really know him, dama.”

“He’s not in any trouble.”

“I don’t think he wants to see you.”

“So you know him well enough to know what he wants?” She hands me the bread, then squints at me. “Aren’t you Nix, from the plaza this morning?”

I tear into the loaf. It’s bliss. I find myself suddenly inclined to like her. “What do you want with Rine?”

She kneads the base of her thumb and gives an embarrassed little shrug. “I owe him an apology.”

“Just that?”

“Just that.”

“What’s in it for me if I talk him into seeing you?”

“How about food any time you want?” She watches me chew, and I’m suddenly aware of how desperate I must look–like a starving dog. It makes me defensive and a little blustery.

“Bread, I can find for free, dama. But how’s this instead? Be my patron. Hire me for a year, let me jinks swell-side. On a stage, in the plaza, bit of garden, wherever. Pay me regular, introduce me around, set me up with a hole to live in, clothes, good food, clean water. One year, if I convince Rine to talk to you.”

It’s a bold request. She takes a long time to answer.

“Agreed,” she says finally. “But only if you bring him within the next day or two. After that, I may as well trust my guards to sniff him out.”

Tomorrow? That’s tricky. Still, it’s win-win for me, so I take the deal and we shake on it. She gives me a token to get us through the gate to swell-side, then she has one of her people stuff me a sack of food. “For three,” I tell him.

Win-win. As I leave the theater I wonder why, with my sudden prosperity, my conscience nags. She just wants to talk to him. Talk, that’s all. Nothing wrong with talk, nothing sinister. But my instincts keep on twitching.

Rine sure looked angry when he stormed out of the theater. What did Terez do, I wonder, that she needs to apologize? What if she wants to do it again?

Well, no matter. Since I’m the one getting Rine into this, I’m aiming to get him out, too. Whatever happens with Terez, I’ll be right there with him. She never said he had to talk to her alone.

The Bats menaces, in the hot night, so I keep alert. Predatory brights loiter. I spot them on the street corners, sitting on piles of rubble, hanging over balconies, looking down–escaping the heat inside their squats, ready to pounce. They’re pale in the dark, like backward shadows. Little embers and flames flicker: pipes, candles, the occasional bob of a torch in an alley.

The moonlight paints Rine’s courtyard silver. When I knock on his cottage door, there’s a rustling inside, then comes a wary “Who is it?”

“It’s Nix. I have food.”

He cracks the door and peeks, then opens it wide.

The cottage is pretty big: one room and a high ceiling. Only the window farthest from the street is open, which tells me Rine’s cautious. He’s got reason to be; his stuff is worn but rich, and he’s got a lot of it. Along with his clayhands tools on their wood shelves, there’s a bed, not a mat on the floor but an actual bed with bolsters and a frame. It’s draped in blue-green silk that flows down to a rug. Near the bed sits a basket of children’s toys–dolls and a bundle of jackstraws; juggling balls; a skip-rope. A copper lamp perches on a mosaic table, swell work. The most impressive thing, though, is what’s next to the lamp: a book, an actual book, laying open to show colored drawings and words like ants. I haven’t seen a book since I was a brat, eight or nine, in the temple waif-house. “You can read?” I ask him in surprise.

“Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate.

I put the bag on the table and hand him the waterskins. “Iyo’s water.”

“Iyo said you’d steal it. I told her you wouldn’t.” He loops the skins over the back of a chair and sits, then opens the bag and peeks inside. “Is this from Terez”

“For you and Iyo. How do you know her?”

“Iyo? We’re sort of family.” He deliberately misunderstands. I can tell by the way he stalls, pulling out the food and making careful piles. Bread here, bread there. Cheese here, cheese there.

“Not Iyo. Terez Marro.”

Instead of answering, he grabs a loaf of bread in both hands. They’re shaking. I let him eat for a minute before I go on. “She said she wants to apologize. She sounded sincere.”

“Oh, she’s sincere, all right. She throws herself into things with her whole heart. But she jumps out again just as quick.”

The way he says it, a little bitter, I realize one of the things she jumped into was him. I stare at him. “You were her lover? A swell?”

“It happens.” He flushes.

“It’s illegal! Castration and the work farms? Not worth the risk. Not to me, anyway.”

“We didn’t get caught. It was five years ago, anyway.”

I don’t know why I’m angry about it. It’s not my life. If he wants to cross the wall, it’s no matter to me. Then I realize it’s not that he hip-danced with a swell, although that’s rare enough.

It’s that it’s Rine.

I’m jealous over somebody I’ve known for a day.

I don’t like it. It’s dangerous and intimate and sudden, like lightning. It’s inexplicable and random. It’s unbalancing. I try to shift back to business–my Eed problem–but jealousy squeezes itself into that, too. “Was it Sojourn who introduced you to Terez?”

“Other way around. I met Terez in the temple. Her husband was a cold bastard, in love with his money. She used to volunteer in the waif-house just to get away from him. I was doing the same thing–working in the waif-house, to get away from Sojourn.”

“How’d you know Sojourn?”

“I was her apprentice. Clayhands. Although what she really wanted to teach me was magic.”

I nearly fall out of my chair. “Rine, are you out of your head, admitting that? Let ’em burn Sojourn if they want, but you can’t be blabbering about magic to strangers!”

“So that’s two secrets I told you.” There’s no guile in Rine. He smiles a little at me, not regretful, just…aware. He knows I’m worried. He knows I’m jealous. This thing between us, it resonates. His smile warms, becomes an invitation. I lean across the table and cover his fingers with mine; he rolls his hand over and brushes my thumb with his.

For a while I don’t think about the Marros at all.

The touching is good; it’s been a long time. Afterward we head to Iyo’s in the moonlight, me with my arm around Rine’s shoulders, and Rine carrying Iyo’s food and water. I’m feeling so relaxed that I don’t notice where we’re going until suddenly we’re in the worst part of the Bats: the west-end hill where the fallen mansions make a honeycomb of caves. We thread our way through ravines in the rubble to a curtain of ivy–a cave mouth that used to be a doorway. Rine calls through the ivy. “Iyo? Its Rine.”

After a minute she pokes her head out like an old turtle. She frowns at the water skins. “I gave up wine. Too dangerous.”

“It’s water,” Rine says.

“Water?”

Your water, from the well. And Nix brought food.”

“You should have said! Come on in.” She turns and scurries back inside.

That hole gives me the jitters. The caves around here are none too sturdy, and I’m not anxious to be buried. “I don’t want to go in,” I tell Rine.

“It’s bigger inside. Or are you worried about people? She lives by herself.”

That takes me aback, though I hadn’t been thinking in that direction. “A bright like her, squatting alone? Feeble-headed? That’s dangerous.”

“I told you, we’re in sort of a family. We look after one another.”

“Bats people.”

“No, wall-crossers. Brights who had swell lovers.”

“You’re kidding me. Iyo? With a swell?”

“Not now. When she was young.”

Now I want details, so I quash my nerves and follow Rine inside.

The mansion’s fallen into itself, and Iyo lives up in what used to be the ceiling. The floor’s made of rubble tamped down to gravel flatness. Tops of archways lead from room to room; bug-chewed crown moldings hang at eye level. With my head brushing the roof, I feel like a giant.

Iyo’s down the tunnel, holding aside a ratty curtain. “Hurry,” she whispers. “Before they see the light.”

We duck under the curtain. Iyo’s got one room, filled with rubbish: broken mirrors, stained cushions, the frame of an old window, a busted wagon wheel. The light comes from a tarnished candelabra as out of place as pearls on a pig. It’s dripping wax on the wood crate it’s resting on.

Rine drops the bag on the crate then sits cross-legged on the ground. The cushions look none too savory, so I join him on the bare floor.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be awake,” he tells Iyo.

She sits on a little stool and drags the bag into her lap. Her gnarled fingers unwork the knot. “Too hot for sleep. Besides, I was reading. It’s a good one. History of the war.” She toes a book out from behind the crate. On the cover is a painted peacock, copper and green. “Take it, when you’re done the one you’ve got now.”

I’m flabbergasted. Bizarre enough that a clayhands can read, but this old beggar, too? “Where are you even getting books?” I blurt.

She pats the wooden crate.

A whole chest full of books? “But from where?”

Iyo looks at Rine. “Does he know?” she asks.

“He knows.”

She looks at me. “Then you know.”

From her swell lover, that’s what her answer means. She had her trysts, and the lover gave her books. It occurs to me that that’s where Rine’s things came from, too–his silks and his table and his lamp. Gifts from swell-side, from Terez.

“I should get myself a swell,” I say.

“No. You shouldn’t.” Clutching her bag, Iyo gives me a grim, intense stare. “They’re murdering bastards.”

“Believe me, I know.” Before she or Rine can ask me why I’m so sure, I quick change the subject. “So what does your book say, anyway? About the war?”

The distraction works. Iyo peeks inside her bag and starts stacking food on the crate. “Says it was about inheritance.”

Rine picks up the book. He fingers the peacock on the cover. “It was. Sojourn told me. Swells brought the brights to the city to cast magic for soul-finding. A swell would hire a bright witch to do a soul-seeing after his death; the witch would bespell newborns until she found the dead swell’s soul, and that’s who’d inherit his money, instead of his sons and daughters. And other swells were always going to the witches and getting their newborns looked at, in case the baby turned out to be somebody rich.”

“So the sons and daughters started the fighting?” Makes sense to me. If somebody gave my fortune to some stranger’s baby, I’d fight.

But Iyo, nibbling at her bread, shakes her head. “The book says the brights got greedy. Offered to see things that weren’t there, if the price was right.”

“Sojourn said it wasn’t the brights,” Rine argues. “She said it was the swells. They started paying brights to make up lies, and other swells caught on, and it turned into a big mess. Instead of fighting each other the swells ended up trying to wipe out the brights. They would’ve, too, except that when the swells started setting fire to Bright-town, the brights tried one big magic to seal off the city. It took all the magic with it, and all the brights’ souls, and then after a while the spell failed anyway, and Bright-town burned.”

“If it took all the magic, how can Sojourn be teaching it?” I ask.

“I didn’t say she really teaches it; I said she claims to. Either way, I didn’t want anything to do with it, so she taught me clayhands instead. I dug the graves, and she showed me the craft stuff–how to mix the clay, how to make the likeness, how to fire it special–everything.”

“Would Terez have tried to learn magic from her?”

Iyo looks up from her bread and frowns. “Swells can’t do magic.”

I’m watching Rine. He doesn’t seem surprised by the idea of Terez studying magic, or believing she was. “Terez was taking lessons,” he says finally. “She loved brights, so I introduced her to Sojourn, who’s older than dirt and knows everything there is to know about us. After a while, a few months maybe, Sojourn started shooing me away when Terez came to the shack. I peeked in on them once and caught them at that creepy altar of Sojourn’s.”

“Sojourn was stealing from her.”

“I know! I was going to talk to Terez about it, but before I could, she told me we were finished. Sojourn and I had a huge fight over it, and that very day I left the shack and came to the Bats to live.”

“Terez seems to feel pretty guilty.”

His mouth sets, and he looks stubborn. “She made her bed.”

“You should let her apologize, Rine.”

“Why? It’s long over.”

I can’t think of any lie that’ll work better than the truth, so I tell him what she promised: to be my patron for a year, in return for a few minutes of Rine’s time.

He looks surprised. “She agreed to that?”

“I’m telling you, she feels bad. I’ll split the coin with you. And you can live swell-side with me, if you want.”

“I’m not for sale, Nix.”

“You are, for the right price,” Iyo says.

“And what’s that?” I ask her.

She whispers, like she’s sharing a secret. “Rine wants a child.”

That startles me, then I remember the toy chest in his squat. “You’d raise a kid in the Bats?” I ask him.

Rine blushes scarlet and looks away. “Hopefully I’ll save enough coin to get into the Comb,  maybe even the Neat. I work hard, Nix. I even bury bodies for the guards.” There’s determination in his voice. Iyo’s right. Rine’s ready for a child, and he wants one bad.

“Well, what’s the holdup?” Jealousy bubbles in my words a little, like a pot coming to boil.  “You got a mother picked out?”

“I haven’t met anybody I’d settle with, ’til….” He looks at me, then looks away again.

“What about the waif-house? There’s always orphans.”

“The temple swells want a bribe. I don’t have that kind of coin.”

“So here’s your answer, Rine. Marro money.”

Iyo screeches. She throws her nub of bread at me. It smacks me in the temple and bounces away. Still shrieking, she jumps to her feet, knocking the stool over behind her.

Rine scrambles up and grabs my arm. He pulls me toward the door. “She doesn’t like that name,” he says.

“You don’t say.”

Iyo’s swearing, her face twisted in rage, and purple, and I’m starting to worry that she’ll give herself a fit. Then she throws the candelabra. It thuds against the crown molding right by my head. In the sudden darkness, Rine and I stumble out of there.

“She’ll be all right,” he tells me. Still, it’s a silent walk back to his place. I’m thinking about Marros: my ghost, the cold bastard in love with his money. I don’t know what Rine’s thinking about. Maybe Iyo. Maybe Terez. Maybe the child he wants so bad. Maybe the dead girl in his shed; he’ll have to bury her tomorrow.

When we get to Rine’s cottage we share a drink of his precious water, then we lay on his bed. It’s too hot to touch more than fingers. After a while, Rine starts snoring. I can’t fall asleep, though. A couple of hours before dawn, I slip out of bed, wiggle into my clothes, and sneak out of the cottage.

I have a date with Sojourn. It’s growing back, she said. The magic. The right bright can learn it. I can’t help but wonder if her right bright really is me–and if it isn’t, then what am I going to do about Eed?

In the dark, Sojourn’s window is a square of flickering candlelight. The shack might look cozy if the trees weren’t looming like gnarled trolls and the death-heads weren’t watching from the shadows.

Sojourn yanks open the door. “It’s almost dawn,” she snaps. “There’s no time to waste.”

She drags me not to the altar shelf but to her clayhands table under the window. Smoke ribbons up from a nub of incense smoldering in a clay dish; it burns my nose. There’s twenty or more candles sitting in a pool of tallow, and in front of them is that cloth-covered head-shaped lump. The hair on my arms quivers like my skin’s trying to crawl away. Sojourn pushes me down to a stool, then she swishes the cloth away.

It’s the strangest death-head I’ve ever seen: not glittery white but black-streaked pink, fissured and bruised and eroded. In the candlelight it glistens and throbs. It lacks clear features–just a pinch for a nose, thumb pokes for eyes and mouth; still, I swear those eyeholes twinkle. That head’s watching me. “What’s it made of?” I ask. Somewhere between curious and disgusted and terrified, I stick a finger out to touch it.

She grabs my hand and presses it on top of the thing. I brace for a shock, expecting something maggoty-squirmy or soft like warm clay, but it doesn’t move. It’s unexpectedly cool, surprisingly dry. “He’ll show you how to see a soul. For starters, I’ll let him show you mine.”

“You’re a bright. You don’t have a soul.”

“Well, I have half a one. My father was a swell.”

Sojourn? Half-souled? It’s jarring to hear her admit the stigma so readily, even to a bright. The half-souled have one foot on either side of the wall–half-swell, half-bright, with the blessings of neither: they don’t get reborn, and they don’t get remembered. The swells don’t acknowledge them, the brights don’t trust them. They live, they die, they’re forgotten.

I try to tug my hand away but she’s pressing it down with that impossible strength in her bony fingers. She starts swaying and muttering a word over and over, a strange word that makes me dizzy just hearing it, like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff. The smoke’s burning my eyes, and the curtains are breathing in and out, and I feel a scream building in me when all of a sudden the head yields an image.

It rises between Sojourn and me like a ghost–an old swell in an old-fashioned hat, wrinkled skin, white winter breath. He’s glaring past my shoulder at something he sees in his ghost world. After two, three seconds the vision scatters. Sojourn slumps, panting, and she lets go of my hand. I check my fingers. They’re shaking and tingling, but they don’t look damaged. “Was it your father?” I ask Sojourn.

She shakes her head. “It was me, or a piece of me, a rag of soul-memory from back in history. That’s what a half-soul looks like. When you do a full swell, it’s like he’s in the room with you. They talk, even.”

Like he’s in the room with you? “You did something like that for Eed Marro?”

“No. No! Terez came looking for magic, it’s true. She wanted Eed’s vineyards to prosper. She thought he’d be happy.”

“You made the death-head for her. Since swells can’t do magic, if there’s anything cursish on it, you’re the one who did it.”

“It was a harmless charm, a nothing. Look, our friend here saw it all. Put your hand on his head and ask him to show you.”

She seems a little sly. I don’t trust her, but if all this thing does is show memories, I’ve got nothing to lose except ignorance. I touch the head gingerly.

“Say the word,” Sojourn orders. She means that slippery word, that cliff-edge, dizzy word. It takes me a few tries to wrap my tongue around it, then the head spits out another image.

This time it’s a younger swell. He’s bare-shouldered and looking down, at a lover I think because he’s smiling gently while he mouths words I can’t hear, while his black hair falls like a curtain from behind his ear. He pauses, listening maybe, then he laughs. He touches something below him–his lover’s face, I’m guessing. He’s the very image of Eed, if Eed were young and strong and happy. Then the image scatters like so much smoke, and I’m left panting for breath. My heart’s pounding like I ran up a hill. I guess I expected that, after seeing how it drained Sojourn, but what I don’t expect is the outraged glare on her face.

“That wasn’t me!” she says. “That was you.”

“I made the picture?”

“No, I mean that soul there, that was yours, Nix. You should have said you’re half-souled.”

I’m horrified. “I’m not! I’m a full bright, a temple brat.” But that image touched a truth, didn’t it, Nix, some deep piece of rightness, and suddenly my past, my history, my self is quaking underneath me.

“It looked like Eed Marro,” I argue. Maybe it’s not a soul-memory. Maybe it’s an Eed memory, something stuck in my head cause I’m fretting about him.

“It couldn’t have been. Eed was still using his soul when you were born. You’re twenty-four, twenty-five?”

“Give or take.”

She considers for an instant, then her eyes narrow. “The brother.”

“What?”

“Eed’s older brother, Bur.”

My heart starts hammering. I think I’d puke, if there was anything in me to come up. “What about him?”

Dawn claws through the window. The light brushes the pink clay and renders it dull, just another lump of rock. Sojourn retrieves the cloth from the floor and covers the head. “Eed didn’t die until a month ago, but the brother was killed twenty-five years back, just around when you were born. And no, don’t argue–I know a soul-memory when I see one. You know what this means? It means half your soul used to be Bur Marro. The heir to Marro. The one who was murdered all those years ago.”

“She lied,” Rine says. “It’s what she does.” He was awake when I ran into his courtyard, panting and gibbering and sobbing; now we’re sitting on the edge of his bed and he’s trying to calm me down.

“She’s not lying. I feel it. What she said, it’s true. I don’t know what to do.”

“Why do you have to do anything?”

He tucks my hair behind my ear and looks at me with exasperated worry. Before I know it, I’m spilling it all: the ghost, Terez and the death-head, the bright who Eed strangled. “I’m thinking the reason I can see Eed is ’cause I used to be his brother.”

Rine’s gone pale, shaken up. He’s drumming his fingers on his knee. “You can’t go back there.”

“I just want to get free of Eed–which means I need to take that death-head to Sojourn. Please, Rine. Come with me, let Terez speak her piece, I’ll grab the bust, and we’ll leave. Sojourn unmagics Eed’s soul, and you and I take Terez’s money, and that’s the end of it.”

He draws away a little and chides me with his eyes. “But it’s not. If I talk to her, then you’re hers for a full year. You’ll see her every day. I want nothing to do with that.” Nothing to do with me, he means. He’s making me choose: Terez’s money, or him.

He’s the first friend I’ve had in a long time, so long. When I look at his face I know I can’t lose him; already, he’s become that dear. But how do I say no to all that coin? A chance like this doesn’t come but once in a bright’s one lifetime.

Damn him for making me choose. Cruel or not, I loose the only arrow I’ve got. “It’s the only way you’ll have money for a child.”

He stares at me like I punched him. It’s done, I’m thinking. I’ve lost him. Then he looks away and blushes like he does, and I realize he doesn’t want to dump me, either.

He can be angry, though. “Five minutes,” he says, coolly. “I’ll give her five minutes. And Nix, you’ll work out some other deal. You hear me?”

It’s midmorning when Rine and I get to the plaza. Farmers are unloading their rickety wagons–bushel baskets only half-filled with wizened beans, bony pale carrots, stunted apples. Eed’s glaring at the farmers while he hovers by the wall twisting his beads. I eye Eed with my knew knowledge, but he still looks like a stranger. I’m happy about it, but oddly a little sad, too.

When we approach, Eed turns the glower on Rine. “Who’s this?”

“My friend Rine,” I say, and Rine jumps a little when I start talking to nothing. “A clayhands. Rine, this is damo Eed–no, not over there. Right here, by the wall.”

“Pleasure,” Rine says in the direction of Eed’s left shoulder. He doesn’t sound pleased, though. He sounds tight and nervous, talking to the ghost of his old lover’s husband. I give his fingers a squeeze.

“Is this the one who made the death-head?” Eed asks.

“No. His teacher did, though. If I take her the bust, she’ll be able to free you.”

“Good,” Eed says. “Let’s finish it, then.”

The guards at the gate scrutinize Terez’s token. I’m thinking they aren’t going to let us through, but after some discussion, they do. I walk through the tower tunnel and get my first glimpse of swell-side.

The cobbled plaza’s a half-circle mirror of ours, but what strikes me is what’s missing. Rubble, for one: no houses burnt to bones, because no soldiers came here to fire out the witches. No weeds, no broken glassy. Instead, clean cobbles, neat curbs. The wall and the guardhouses are whitewashed. There are trees. I smell flowers and, from an open window, baking bread.

No jinks or beggars. No rats. No crowds. There are people, sure, but a whole lot less of them, and all swells. Around the plaza, they saunter in and out of the shops, unhurried shadows in their black robes. They nod to one another–gracious, not desperate.

No dirt. Horses pull the wagons through the gate tunnel then head north and south on the cobbled roads. When a horse lifts a braided tail, a guard rushes over to whisk up the dung before it can offend.

From the half-moon plaza radiate streets like sunbeams, gentle lanes flanked by trees. The narrower ones are paved in tiles: mosaics, pictures of history–the old city, dead people in old-fashioned clothes. Marro guides us down one of those. We pass odd-shaped buildings with stained-glass windows; walled gardens, brown with the drought; iron statues; dry fountains; a library (“A place full of books,” Marro says). Useless, the lot of it; then I realize: if you know you’ll be born again, you make sure to leave yourself a place full of pretty.

Rine’s eyes aim straight ahead; his mouth is a tight line, his shoulders stone-stiff. I realize why when I see the trio of swells coming down the street from the other direction. They meet my eyes, then their expressions reorganize. In half a second, they’re looking right through us like we don’t exist. They’ve swept us away before we can offend.

Marro’s estate is a walled country all its own: brown rolling hills, a distant stone castle, and a ribbon of road alongside a lake. The lake’s nothing but a bowl of sludge crusted with mosquito eggs and fringed with dead cattails–then I start remembering.

The little boat bobbing under me, honeysuckle summer; all around me, blue water; by the distant shore a crowd of lily pads, and willows that finger the water’s surface, lazy in the breeze. I pull the oars then drift; pull, then drift.

The memory’s interrupted by ice stabbing through my ribs. It’s Eed charging past me at a run, although his boots don’t kick up any gravel. Teeth chattering, I collapse against Rine, and we follow Eed slowly.

Up at the house a couple of swell servants are unloading bottles from a cart while the harnessed horses swish their tails. I’m surprised we don’t see more servants; Eed answers, like he knows what I’m thinking. “Terez let the servants go, to save money. The vineyards are dying.” His voice accuses, like the drought’s Terez’s fault.

The two swells straighten up and frown at us, but I hold up Terez’s token. “The dama asked us here,” I say. They don’t look pleased, but they don’t challenge us, either, and we march right through the front door.

My feet know where they’re going. It’s disorienting. With Eed right there beside me and Rine a step behind, I head down a long marble hallway to a flight of stairs wider than my squat. The rug is red. On each step a gold bar traps it in place. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of empty birdcages. I remember.

The hall echoes with the chatter of birds. It’s redolent with the damp earthy smell from the watered plants on the landing, the waxy tang of polish. I hear distant mangled music–little brother Eed on his pianoforte…

I slam the door on the memories. The thought of Eed as a boy disarms me, and I can’t afford to be disarmed when he’s right here with me, at the top of the stairs, glaring murder.

“Dama?” I call.

Terez comes out of a doorway down the hall. Her hair’s a wispy mess and her black robe’s wrinkled. She’s holding a pen in ink-stained fingers.

“My ledgers!” Eed gusts past her into the room.

Terez is staring at Rine. The pen in her hand starts to shake. She grabs it with the other hand.

“I’ll give you and Rine a minute, dama,” I say. “Listen…you made a bust of your husband. Or Sojourn did.”

Distracted from Rine, she looks at me in surprise. “You know Sojourn?”

“She’d like the head back, dama, if you don’t mind.”

“Take it if you want it–down the hall, third door. It brought nothing but bad luck.”

Rine goes to her, slowly. She reaches for his hands. He lets her take them. The look on their faces twists me: it’s the same look, a questioning look, painful and vulnerable and childlike. So Rine never did get over her. All that anger of his was just posturing, just hiding from the truth.

It’s unexpected. It’s devastating. I walk away.

The third door leads to a dusty closet of a room with a window in a sloping bit of ceiling. On the windowsill are living plants in clay pots, well watered; a little jungle that hasn’t heard that brights are dying of thirst. The only other things in the room are a wood-paneled screen and an altar. The altar’s like Sojourn’s, but richer: a marble shelf, a crystal cup, a gold dish for the incense. Staring at me from the middle of that altar is Eed’s death-head, glittery gray, its mouth a sour slash.

A shape unfolds from behind the painted screen, a little boy shape, a baby crow. Aurel. He’s looking at my hands. “A Brute!” he says with surprise.

I wince. “Halfish.”

“Can I ask you something?” He’s polite, Aurel, with a dignity that’s old for a little boy. One hand grips the edge of the screen like a chubby crab, the other hangs at his side. There’s no fidget to him, no shuffling. He should be wiping his nose on the back of his hand, stealing apples from wagons, chasing around with other kids. Instead he stands there unsmiling, like his joy’s been trained away.

“I did something wrong,” he says.

His expression is so distressed that I find myself kneeling to meet him eye to eye. “It can’t be that wrong.”

“It is. It was magic.”

“Tell me.”

He starts with this: Hiding behind his screen, he saw Terez do magic.

“Well she can’t, you know. Not really. Swells–Souls–they can’t.”

“She did! She said a word that made my ears hurt, then she asked Papa to love her, but she wasn’t talking to Papa, she was talking to her altar. She wiped her eyes with a napkin and burned it and said ‘Take away my tears.’ That’s just what she said. I heard her. I didn’t want her to cry, so I did what she did, only I used raindrops instead ’cause I wasn’t crying. I caught them in a napkin and I burned it with a candle and I said ‘Take away her tears.’ Then I said the ear-hurting word.”

My belly twists with the rightness of it, that same lurch I got when Sojourn mentioned Bur. It’s a sickening sensation. “Aurel, has it rained since then?”

He shakes his head, then bites his knuckle. I pull his hand away from his mouth before he can chew right through it.

Aurel started the drought.

I’m shocked bone deep that a little boy could cause this kind of damage. But how? Swells can’t work magic.

But half-swells can.

The timing’s right. Five years ago, Terez crossed the wall. She crossed it with Rine. Eed isn’t Aurel’s father; Rine is.

Eed will be furious. He’ll go berserk. I think of the dead girl in the alley, and her accusing eyes. Aurel, Terez, Rine–they’re all at risk. I’m at risk. Every bright in the city’s at risk, because that’s what angry swells do: they burn us down.

“I’ll handle it, Aurel. Don’t say anything to anybody else, not even your mother. All right?”

I grab the bust. The best chance for all of us is to get Eed taken care of. There’ll be plenty of time after that to fix the drought, and to tell Rine he’s got his child after all.

Down the stairs, through the door, I run with the Eed-head tucked on my hip like a baby, past the startled swells with their wagon, down the gravel road.

I’m all the way to the lake when I hear footsteps pounding after me:. Rine, red-faced and coming fast. “Nix! Wait!” He doesn’t see Eed blowing after him, glowering murder, with his black robe flapping like wings.

“How dare you!” Eed howls. He’s howling at Rine.

Not good. Eed must have figured it out, watching Rine and Terez together–not about Aurel, maybe, but that Terez crossed the wall. If Eed catches up to Rine, Rine’s dead. If Eed gets time to think, he might work it out about Aurel, and then Aurel’s dead, too. I have to distract Eed.

I stop and wave the bust in the air. “I’m taking this to the clayhands,” I shout. “You’re finished!”

It gets Eed’s attention. He passes Rine and swoops over to me. Face to face with me, he bares his teeth; his ghost breath is cold as snow. “Put it down. I’ve decided it can stay here a while.”

With that soul-memory, that part of me that sees, I know what he’s thinking. Defiler, he’s thinking, and I understand that clear enough: Rine defiled the Marro name. Punish, he’s thinking, and it’s easy to see he means punish everybody concerned.

Brother, he’s thinking–and that one brings me up cold. He knows?

Eed enfolds me in darkness, swallows the world with his cloak until there’s nothing left but night and his icy voice. “Souls who couple with animals need putting down.”

I’m remembering.

The sound of gentle laughter, my laughter, me. Bur. I’m looking down at a face, a bright woman’s beautiful face on the pillows, and she smiles up at me but only for an instant before her expression changes to horror, then something grabs my throat, squeezes, drags me off her, chokes, crushes. I feel the cutting force of the counting beads garroting me, then darkness.

The pain of Bur’s death drives me to my knees, and all of a sudden I’m back in the world, kneeling in the gravel and looking up at Eed’s face. “A bright didn’t kill your brother. You did.”

I thought he was angry before, but now he hurricanes down, savage. The wind of him whips me, and his eyes come closer ’til all the world’s nothing but the black of his pupils, bloodshot lightning streaking outward, and I feel the brush of bones on my throat. Here it comes, I think. Death.

Then the neighing of horses cracks the shadow, scatters it, and I’m kneeling under lashing hooves while a horse’s body rears against the dry noon sky.

It’s Terez, driving the cart from the front of the house. I scream the word, the magic word, and Eed jumps back away like it burns him. Rine jumps down and tosses me into the back of the cart; then he crawls up in front with Terez, she snaps the reins, and Aurel and I have to hold on for our lives.

Eed recovers. He swoops behind us, shrieking. I curl around the death-head and try not to listen as we bump along. “As fast as you can, to Sojourn’s!” I shout.

The horses are as scared of Eed as I am. They charge through the gate and gallop up the road. Eed plunges after us.

Kill. The murder’s pouring off Eed like fever heat as he dives behind us. Punish. His rage slips under my skin, coursing through me like poison, pulsing. When I don’t respond, when I press my hands against my ears and pull my knees up to clutch the bust against my waist, he changes tack.

“Kill Terez,” he bellows. I grit my teeth and bounce. None of the others see Eed, but Aurel pats my shoulder, trying to comfort. Maybe he senses Eed somehow, with that bright magic part of him.

I scream the word at Eed to keep him at bay, again, again, but every time it’s harder, like I’m lifting a weight that’s just this side of too heavy. Every time, I need a few minutes longer to catch my breath.

By the time we get to the north edge of the meat-gardens, the horses are stumbling. They’re still terrified, looking back at Eed with rolling eyes.

I tumble out of the wagon. Kill her, Eed urges, sweeping down. My fingers are tightening on the bust. Terez is jumping down from the wagon, and how did I get so close to her? When did my hands lift the bust over my  head?

I scream at Eed again, then I take off through the trees. I hear the others thrashing after me, but Eed’s not going for them. He wants the death-head I’m clutching. He chases (Kill!), harries, and I holler back at him, trying to drown him out, until my voice is gravelly and I’m tasting blood. Roiling ink, a billowing cloud of poison intention, he goads me to slaughter, to kill Terez, to kill Rine. All the way to Sojourn’s, he besieges me.

Sojourn’s waiting by her shack, scowling down the ravine, and never was I so happy to see a decrepit old bone of a bright. All around the shack she’s planted hundreds of death-heads, some weathered and cracked, some clear-featured and new, all of them yanked right off their graves. It’s an army of heads, all staring outward. I try to negotiate through them at a run, but my feet catch. Eed’s head goes flying. I fall on the heads and a sharp crack in my ribs takes away what’s left of my breath. I roll to a stop, hugging my chest, and here comes Eed flying toward us, coming to swallow me.

Sojourn steps past me into the center of her army, and she points at Eed and hisses the alien word, then “Stop right there, Eed Marro!”

Shockingly, he does. Sojourn can see him. Eed looks as surprised as I am.

He growls and gathers himself, then launches at Sojourn, but her army of heads make a wall he can’t penetrate. He crashes against it and bounces back. Magic.

I try to stand up but I’m shaking too hard, and I dry-retch a little. I’m heaving into the dirt, clutching my ribs, when the rest of them show up behind Eed. Rine’s carrying Aurel.

Sojourn chants words that twist in the air like snakes, that snap and cut and hurt my ears. Eed freezes a minute, glowering, and in that instant Rine grabs Terez’s hand and hauls her in among the heads.

Sojourn looks at Rine then at Terez. Her eyes are narrowed, her back is stiff, and both of them look guilty. I feel the tension of their history, the three of them, like three jackstraws in a pile and you can’t draw one without touching the others: Terez learning magic, Rine learning clay, the two of them picking what piece of Sojourn they want, what piece of her brightness.

She turns her back on them. Without a word she retrieves Eed’s death-head and kneels next to me in the dry dirt.

“You can see him because you made the head?” I ask her.

She nods. She screws the bust into the ground. Right next to it is the tongue-pink head that showed me Bur’s image.

“I trapped his soul,” she says. “I gave him a taste of not being reborn. Let them feel it, the swells; let them feel what the brights feel.” Obstinate old bone. I know it then: she killed him. She killed Eed with her curse.

Eed’s still scowling at her, bared teeth and fury, but he’s stopped battering the invisible wall. Now he starts to circle, prowling, testing for weakness.

“Lay your hands on the clay like so,” Sojourn tells me, “and I’ll show you how to send him on.”

I start to, but Rine shouts out. He rushes over and pulls my hands away. “Make her do it herself, Nix. Or ask her the price.”

“There’s a price?”

Sojourn answers quick. “Nothing you’ll miss.” She grabs my hand.

For a second it’s tug-of-war between Rine and Sojourn with me in the middle, and in the struggle I realize what the price is. The seeing part of me knows.

It’s the same price as always, for doing magic. It’s why the swells can’t do magic themselves. It’s Bur’s afterlives, that’s the price. His rebirth. His soul. “My soul. You can do magic or you can get reborn, but you can’t do both.”

“What soul?” Terez asks. “You’re a Brute!”

Aurel corrects her. “Halfish.”

I yank my hand out of Sojourn’s.

She looks at me and pleads. “You’ll have one life only, but a long, long life, Nix.”

A long, long life like hers–until time sucks me dry, leaves nothing but an old bone and magic, a hairless skull, eyes as deep and black and used up as an ancient well.

Rine still has my other hand. He squeezes it hard, and I feel his fingers shaking. “And what’s he supposed to do with all those years after everybody who loves him is dead?”

“He’ll have me,” Sojourn says. She says it with stiff dignity, even though her knees are grinding into the dirt, even though she’s dressed in rags and filthy.

“Your apprentice?” I ask her.

Terez runs over and crouches right in front of Sojourn; she grabs both Sojourn’s shoulders. “Half-Souls have afterlives?” she asks fiercely. She glances at Aurel, over by the shack.

At Aurel, who’s Rine’s son, which makes him half-souled, like me. Like Sojourn.

“They do, dama,” I tell her. “My half-soul’s Bur Marro.”

If shock has a sound, it’s the rustling of mice in the grass, of a breeze through dead weeds.

Snarling like a rabid dog, Eed renews the attack, diving for me, pounding at the wall like a hammering shadow. He’d kill Bur again for the sin of loving across the wall. He’d kill again, to inherit all that money. Eed would kill again, just to kill. His soul is stone, hardened and unchangeable; the best thing I could do for him is send him to rebirth. Make him clean. Give him another chance.

Is one soul, even a brother’s soul, worth all my forevers?

Sojourn’s watching me watch Eed. “Don’t do it for him,” she says. “Do it for this.”

She spits in her palms and reaches for one of the death-heads–not Eed’s, but one of the old ones from her time-scarred army. She sings her alien word, then she cups the back of that stone head, and she hunches down and kisses it.

That kiss charges the air. I vibrate with the power of it–like lightning on its way to striking, like a dropped bowl right before it shatters. Then, smash!–the death-head explodes in her hands, knifing us both with shards.

It yields up a soul.

It’s an old bright, nudging his lank hair out of his eyes. I see deep wrinkles, age freckles, a stained white cap. I smell flour on him, and the tang of sweat. It’s just his shoulders and head, but he looks at me and gasps. I hear it. This bright, this old soul, is no vision.

Sojourn’s cut palms stream blood; she cups them beneath her chin and breathes the word into her hands. The old soul shivers. He looks at Sojourn, and he smiles a brown-toothed smile, and he keeps smiling, and while he’s watching her, he starts to fade.

It’s not a scattering like the memories in Sojourn’s shack, but a dissipation, like a smoke ring–expanding, stretching, thinning until finally you can’t see the smoke anymore. But the air still smells like smoke, and maybe where it used to be there’s a ghost of warmth.

The seeing part of me knows what happened: that old bright, he’s gone to someplace new.  Not to be reborn, like the swells are, but to something beyond bright, beyond soul, beyond graves and names and birthrights. That soul–Sojourn freed him. She unstuck him, so he could move on.

The heavy weight of my new understanding presses down on me, but it doesn’t crush me. Instead I push back up against it, and I find myself feeling lighter. Catch and throw. Balance. I know what I have to do.

The death heads are prisons. They hold trapped souls.

Thousands of them, nailed on their posts, driven into the dirt. Those heads are anchors pinning our souls to the ground. “There’s a bright in every bust,” I say. The wonder of it dizzies me.

“It’s where your long life will come from.” Sojourn sounds annoyed. She didn’t want to share the secret; she must have known for a hundred years. “Clayhands have been doing soul magic since the war. They never knew it. If they had, the swells would have killed them, so the old witches lied. They hid the teachings, disguised them in clayhands tricks, taught them, master to apprentice for a hundred years. They knew the magic would grow back, if they buried it. If they waited.”

“And I can free them? The brights?”

“A few every day.” It takes me a second or two to figure out why the words are so bitter, then I get it. Sojourn’s long life comes from that buried power, the dead brights; every one I free will steal some of the magic away, will make her life a little shorter. That’s how bad Sojourn wants a disciple: so bad that she’s willing to let her life be whittled down.

How lonely she must be. Am I willing to be so alone?

I spit in my hands.

I press them against Eed’s skull.

While Rine shouts next to me, begging me not to do it, I sing Sojourn’s word, over and over until I quiver with the force of it. Eed shrieks, not in rage, but in sudden terror. I grit my teeth. I send my screaming brother to his new skin, and my futures to the sun.

Eed shatters like stone into wind-borne dust.

Silence.

Sojourn stands up and reaches a hand to me, but I don’t take it. Instead, I stand up and walk over to Rine. He’s looking at me, shiny-eyed with unshed tears as he wraps his fingers in mine, and I realize Terez chased him down because he told her no. He told her no.

He’s mine, until his short bright life comes to its end.

The sudden joy makes it easier to say what I have to say to Sojourn, the lonely old bone. “The clayhands and me, we’ll figure it out without you.”

The brights. Rine and me. Us. Not Sojourn, not ever. Not somebody who knew all this but kept it secret ’til she could use it to get an apprentice.

She stares at me in shock. It never occurred to her, I guess, that I’d take her teaching and not take her, that I wouldn’t settle for whatever bits of craft and half-truths she decided to spoon me in the coming centuries.

Maybe she figures she’ll wait me out. I guess we’ll see. Forever’s a long time. Either way, she watches us, eyes full of sorrowful secrets, while me and Rine and Terez and Aurel pick our way through the death-heads and out into the meat-gardens.

While we trudge through the weeds Rine squeezes my hand as though our forevers would be the same size. “You’ll free them?” he asks. He’s peering around at all the death-heads guiltily, even though he had no idea he was trapping those souls away.

“As fast as I can, Rine. As many as I can.”

“You’ll be famous,” he says.

That’s the punishment. Not the reward.

The first thing we figure out, me and the clayhands, is how to make it rain again. Flooding’s a big problem now, but we’ll work it out. It distracts the swells, anyway, so they don’t see what we’re doing, we brights. Getting stronger. Getting witchier.

I’m guessing Sojourn’s still out there, searching for her posterity. I hear her shack’s gone empty. Maybe she bought a real house with all those crystals hanging over her altar–Terez’s gems, taken in payment for teaching. Ironic, that what Eed promised me was something Terez had already given away.

We live in the old theater. I juggle on stage now, catching, tossing, flashing my bottles, and offstage I juggle our odd little family: Terez with her charities, and me and Rine, and Aurel, who did magic of his own when he made the drought and will live as long as me. He helps me in the meat-gardens. Me and Aurel, we’re freeing brights together, as fast as we can, trying to shorten our forevers.

In the meantime, I throw, catch, flash, and I learn. Clayhands come from everywhere, with snippets of old wisdom to share, and This word, Nix, my father taught me it, is it magic? Or they beg me to free their dead: the souls of their lovers, their fathers, their mothers, their sons. They ask for me by name.

Iyo’s with us in the theater, because it turns out the swell she crossed the wall with was Bur Marro. But that’s another tale, just one more stick in our pile of jackstraws, our bright jumbled lives.

___

Copyright 2011 Eljay Daly

Eljay Daly lives and works somewhat northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She’s an alumna of the Viable Paradise workshop and the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She likes big dogs, full moons, and sleeping in tents, but generally not all at the same time. You can find her on the web at www.eljaydaly.com.

by Maria Deira

I

While everyone else in the school van chatted or sang along to the radio, Mac stared out the window, thinking about a girl who’d said hello to him during the academic bowl. In the darkness, he studied his faint reflection in the glass. How did he look to girls? he wondered. He pressed his forehead against the glass pane, his mind thick with fatigue and loneliness, when the van took a sudden sharp curve and bounced violently up and down. Mac’s teeth clenched together as he was thrown against the window.

And then the van was suspended in air. Time stood still. Everyone fell silent and when Mac tried to turn his head, away from the window, he couldn’t. Frozen in place, he saw the van’s headlights flood a field, revealing a lush valley with winding roads and little houses that unfolded from within the desert as would a picture from a pop-up book. Soft lights twinkled inside the diminutive homes and he could make out small animals, thick and sturdy, miniature bulls charging through a meadow, charging and storming on until they abruptly vanished into the shadows, as though they’d fallen into some deep pit.

Look,” Mac tried to say, but the word stuck in his throat. For a moment, he felt weightless, and then everything sped up again. The van hit the ground, a hard and loud landing that caused everyone to scream. Mac struck his head a second time and blacked out.

II

Ricky wasn’t listening to music as he drove home that night. It was nearly midnight and the flatness of the high desert surrounded him in an unwavering darkness. The truck’s windows were rolled down; the cool wind dried his sweaty face. The highway took him past onion and alfalfa fields. During the day, these fields were harvested by migrant workers, men and women dressed in white linen shirts and slacks and large floppy hats, shimmering ghosts in the unforgiving heat. Tonight, Ricky hadn’t seen anyone or any other vehicle for miles and the fields were full of nothing but an empty blackness.

The truck shook and sputtered as he rounded a corner. As dilapidated as his old man, he thought. Well, he wasn’t going to end up like that. Once he saved enough money, he was getting the hell out of Malheur. He wanted to live where it rained, where the grass was green and the dry dust didn’t make your eyes water. He’d get a small place in some coastal town. Like Newport or maybe Astoria. He’d only seen the ocean once, but the waves, the thick sound of water rushing toward the beach, the enormity of the ocean itself had moved Ricky, had given him, in a way, a dream.

Yolanda, or Blondie as he called her, didn’t know anything about his dreams, but she promised to join him as soon as he found a job and a decent place to live. Ricky smiled to himself. Her sharp scent still clung to his beard. He pursed his upper lip, breathing in so hard that the stiff hairs of his mustache pricked his nostrils. Just as he started to think about the fun they’d had earlier that night, a bright and unexpected stream of headlights distracted him.

“Some drunken idiot’s run off the road again.”

Ricky pulled over to help. Cell phone in hand, he decided to get a closer look at the white van parked in the field before calling a tow truck. He jumped over a narrow irrigation ditch that separated road and field, his boots cutting into the hard dirt.

“Anybody hurt?” he called out, knocking a fist against the hood of the vehicle. Across the side of the minivan, stenciled in blue, were the words MALHEUR SCHOOL DISTRICT. Ricky peered through the windows and counted six silhouettes, but when he rapped his knuckles against the glass no one responded. He was able to slide open the side door, which had been left unlocked, and the cabin light came on. A choppy mix of rock music and static drifted from the radio.

The driver, a man, was passed out over the steering wheel. Two women, their heads bowed down, slept in the middle seat, while three boys were asleep in the back.

“Hey,” Ricky said, afraid to touch any of them. Were they all dead? Or just wasted? “Hey,” he said again.

The woman’s head turned slightly, the light catching her soft features. Ricky recognized her brown, heart-shaped face immediately. “Lydia?” he said. “Lydia, are you okay?”

She winced in response.

III

Lydia had been a student-teacher at MHS for only a month when Mr. Christensen, the high school librarian, invited her to accompany him to an academic bowl, or “geek-meet” as the kids called it. Only four students from the small high school were asked to compete, three boys and one girl. The girl, Graciela, happened to be Ricky’s cousin. Lydia got along well with the boys, but Graciela hated her and called her “Mangos” every chance she got.

That had been Ricky’s nickname for Lydia during the short time they dated. Because Lydia was as sweet as a mango, he’d explained. Later, she learned from one of his friends that he was actually referring to her breasts as “Mangos.” When she confronted him about it, asked him to stop referring to her as some exotic oblong fruit, he wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close.

“But they’re so juicy and perfect and good for me,” he laughed, nuzzling her ear. “Don’t be mad.”

What could she do? At the time, she thought she was in love. So, with her head against his chest, the scent of his cologne a gentle tranquilizer, she forgave him.

“Just don’t call me that around my students,” she told him.

Tonight, Ricky wasn’t so smooth. He was yelling into his cell phone like it was the end of the world. “Something’s wrong with them,” he said, his voice pinched and panicked. “They’re all drugged or something and their arms are burned.”

Lydia’s eyelids felt sticky and her throat was dry. She looked around the van, saw that the others were asleep. Mr. Christensen’s head rested against the steering wheel. When she tried to move, a terrible pain shot through her lower abdomen. The baby, she thought to herself. Damn it, the baby. She hadn’t told anyone. Not yet. It seemed too early to her. Too complicated. She sank back against the seat, placing a hand protectively against her stomach.

She suddenly had the urge to tell Ricky about the baby. It wasn’t his, of course. She just wanted to see his face when she told him that the child was Mr. Christensen’s.

Mr. Christensen.

Why couldn’t she ever call him by his first name? Even when they were alone together, she found herself calling him Mr. Christensen. She wasn’t afraid of him and he didn’t demand her submissiveness. In fact, he was very kind, extremely respectful, but he made her nervous. He was so different from everyone else: so odd and seemingly without a past, so serious –- as though he’d never been called by his first name in his entire life. As though he’d been born Mr. Christensen.

Another pain shot through her belly.

Was Ricky right? Had something bad happened to them? Her wrists had red marks around them, like rope burn. Her nails were dirty and ragged. Had they been drugged? And then what? Had they climbed out of something, pulled themselves up by their fingertips? Maybe they had tried to push the van out of the field. Her shoulders and arms ached and her clothes were damp and soiled.

They’d left McDonald’s in high spirits, talking and laughing as they pulled out of the parking lot, singing along to the radio, all of them in a hurry to get home. And then what? She just couldn’t remember.

“Mr. Christensen?” she said, but he didn’t reply. “Ricky?” she said, suddenly frightened.

As the sound of sirens neared, the others began to awaken. The kids looked at each other silently, rubbed their eyes and wiped the drool from their faces. Mr. Christensen shifted in his seat, and she watched as he came to, his long fingers pushing his hair away from his face. She wanted to grab his hand, to comfort him and be comforted in return, but she was too tired and in too much pain to do anything at all.

He turned toward her, as though he had felt her watching him. His face was pale, the skin around his mouth slightly green. She tried to smile but he stared at her strangely, without any sign of recognition.

“It’s okay,” Lydia said.

His mouth tightened, his eyes widened in fear as she spoke.

“Mr. Christensen,” she said. “It’s me, Lydia.” Didn’t he recognize her now? And if he did, why was he looking at her as though her mere presence caused him excruciating pain?

IV

To: Mina <xxxxxx@xxxxx.xxx>

From: Graciela <xxxxxxxx@xxxxx.xxx>

Subject: Missing you

I’m supposed to be in study hall right now, but screw that. If you get this email, text me back. Haven’t heard from you in a while. Remember how we used to always call each other in the morning and tell each other our dreams? Don’t you miss that? Well, since I can’t get a hold of you lately, I figured I’d just write you about it. Here it is —

It starts out with me walking my bike down Main Street. Yeah, you’re probably thinking, “Pinche, Graciela! That’s what you do every day when you walk home from school.” Well, just listen. Because in my dream I never make it home.

When I turn into the alley behind the grocery store I’m transported to a village in the middle of some green fields. The houses are shit, kind of like that shack the cat lady lives in. You know, with all the cardboard and aluminum foil covering the windows and cat fur sticking to the sidewalk? So I’m standing there in this village and everything feels real. REAL, like it’s not a dream and I can’t wake myself up or anything because it’s my REALITY.

Then some short, old gabacho — un cachetón — comes up to me. His big cheeks remind me of a football, pointy at the ends and bumpy. But his skin’s white, like really white, almost translucent, and his eyes are bloodshot and gray and watery. “Why are you standing there, girl? You’re here to work,” he says, pointing at me. “I got you special order.”

I’m like, “Don’t fucking call me GIRL. Don’t you fucking touch me, pendejo.” I jump on my bike and try to ride away, but every road I take leads me back to that asshole and every time I come back he says, “I got you special order, girl.”

“Get in the well,” he says at one point. “You belong to us now.” He pulls me off the bike, even though I’m fighting and biting and kicking, he’s stronger than me and he drags me to this stone well that’s just off the main road. As we get closer to it, I can hear people talking inside. And crying. They sound so sad. There was a voice that sounded like Ricky’s ex. She’s crying, asking over and over, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?”

My heart is beating like crazy. The closer I get to the well, the more I think I’m going to die. And when the old guy pushes me toward it, I’m shaking a lot.

My hand touches the edge of the well and it burns, hot and cold at the same time, like someone is peeling off my skin. I scream — I’m trying to wake myself up, trying to change the dream, but I can’t. Then, out of NOWHERE, a white-haired woman wearing an old dress that looks like a quilt shows up next to me.

That’s when the Viejo backs away from us. He’s scared of her. Maybe it’s because there’s a bull standing next to her. The animal is huge, and I’m scared too. But I’m more scared of the well. “You must leave this place,” the woman tells me, her voice is soft but cracked, like her vocal cords have dried out. “You have to leave now.”

“I can’t,” I say. “I’ve tried.”

“You only have half an hour. Then you’re stuck here forever.”

“Please,” I’m begging her. “I need to get home, but I don’t know how.”

She scrunches up her nose, like something smells bad. “Very well,” she says. “I’ll help you. Now stand still. Don’t move an inch. I’m going to pull your ear.”

And she pinches my earlobe, tugging it hard. There’s a loud hissing sound, like rushing water surrounding my head, and both of us fly straight up into the air. WHOOSH!

The next thing I know, I wake up in a school van, parked in the middle of a fucking onion field. I’m soaking wet with sweat, my left ear is bleeding because my earring got caught in the seat belt, and there’s an EMT asking me what my name is. Everyone else in the van is half-asleep or stoned or something. And all of us have marks on our wrists like we were tied up. What. The. Fuck.

I have no idea what’s going on or what happened to us and I hate not knowing. I hate it. I HATE IT. God, I just hate it here so much and I need to get out. My parents are asking me a million questions, but I don’t know what to tell them. I had to interpret for them in the hospital and I kept telling them that the doctor said I was fine, that I could go home, but they didn’t believe me. I got mad and said, “Well, learn English! You’ve been here since before I was born, Fucking learn the language.” My mom started crying and my dad’s face turned bright red. I feel terrible about it but what else could I do?

FUCK! This town sucks even more now that you’re gone. I miss you so much. I miss you calling me “Smarty Pants.” I miss having you cheer me on at math tournaments and geek meets. I miss everything, like seeing you in the hallways and us skipping class together so we could get ice cream cones and make out behind the A&W.

MINA! I just want things to be normal again. Please believe me when I say that what happened that night at the party, I didn’t mean it to happen. TE AMO! Just write to me. Tell me when I can see you again.

XOXO,

Graciela

V

Mr. Christensen didn’t care if he was fired. He just wanted to stay home and watch TV and never sleep again.

Those dreams, those images: he’s on top of her, thrusting and pushing. He can’t stop. She’s asleep, but sometimes she comes to, sometimes screaming, sometimes as turned on as he is. His hands are bound, as are hers. They aren’t allowed to touch each other, but he can feel her breasts under his chest, her legs around his body. And someone is watching them.

“Mr. Christensen,” Principal Wright said, interrupting his thoughts.

“What?” Mr. Christensen tried to focus on the aging administrator’s face. The principal’s short neck and beaked nose reminded him of a turtle.

Principal Wright rapped his knuckles on the desk. “Were you drinking last night?”

“They don’t serve booze at McDonald’s,” Mr. Christensen said. “You know, I heard that coaches get to eat for free there. It’s not true for academic coaches.”

The principal took off his glasses. “That’s enough,” he said. “You’re on paid leave while the school board’s investigation continues.”

“Paid leave?”

“Superintendent’s decision.” Principal Wright shrugged. “I wouldn’t give your sorry ass a second chance.”

Paid leave meant Mr. Christensen would get to stay home for a couple of weeks. Maybe. But even a few days would be good. He wouldn’t have to see her then, wouldn’t have to feel like he did something wrong. “So, are we done?” he asked, standing up. The principal snorted and waved him out of the office.

Mr. Christensen hurried to the library. It was early morning, and students wouldn’t be arriving for another hour. He wrote a note for the substitute. “They can check out whatever they want. Even the magazines. Some of the loners like to eat lunch here – that’s OK.” Then he grabbed a few personal items from his desk: an MP3 player, a box of Imodium AD caplets, and his weekly planner.

“Hello.”

He looked up, quickly hiding the items in his backpack. “Lydia,” he said. “Hi.”

“Are you okay?” she asked. “You don’t look too good.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, I know I look like crap too,” she said. “And I feel like it.” Her steady black eyes studied him. She added, “I want you to know that I don’t blame you.”

Mr. Christensen’s stomach gurgled.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she continued. “No one knows how we got in that field, but I know you weren’t drunk. Maybe it was exhaust fumes from the van that knocked us out or maybe someone put something in our sodas.”

“Maybe,” he said. He pinched the top of his nose to stop his eyes from watering. Life had been fine, acceptable, until she showed up. He was happy working at the school, happy until he first saw her, smelled her, touched her, needed her. So this is love, he’d think to himself when he invited her to his house for dinner, when he’d bake her some fresh bread or when they’d go to the farmer’s market together, walking the dusty paths from booth to booth, hand in hand. He knew it was love, even when she asked him all the difficult questions about his life. Questions he would never be able to answer. Where was he born? Who were his parents? What was he like in high school? Had he been in love before?

He explained to her, opened up to her in a way he had never done with anyone else. He told her about his amnesia, about the day he showed up in Boise eight years ago, naked and without any idea who he was or where he came from. He shared with her how every night he dreamed he was doing terrible things, that he was a monster feeding on the humans he most cared about, dreams that made him feel as though he wasn’t a part of this world.

Disconnected. That’s how he’d felt until she came along. And he had been content in his detachment.

She was always so talkative when they were alone together. But here, in school, she only called him Mr. Christensen, hardly acknowledging him in class or the hallways, only cracking silly jokes or making small talk in the teachers’ lounge.

Was she ashamed of him? How could he even ask her that without embarrassing himself?

The whole situation made him feel very awkward and juvenile and a little bit ill.

So this was love.

“Well, I guess it’s my turn to meet with Principal Wrong,” Lydia said, smiling. When he didn’t laugh at her little joke, she walked toward the door. She stopped for a moment, rubbing her left wrist. “I think I had an allergic reaction to something.” She held out her hands to him. Red, crusty welts encircled her slim wrists.

“It’ll go away,” he said, his own hands trembling. Hadn’t she noticed the others had the same marks as well? Couldn’t she see that what caused those marks was nothing as innocent as a simple allergy?

“I hope so.” She made a face. “I’ll see you later?”

He nodded and she left. Not even a kiss.

Mr. Christensen sank into his chair. He placed his head on his desk. “God help me,” he said, even though he could never remember whether he believed in God or not.

VI

Mr. Wright had asked Mac only two questions:

“Do you think Mr. Christensen was driving drunk?” Mac had answered with a shake of the head.

“How did you do at the academic bowl?”

The boy shrugged.

“Okay then,” the principal said, “you can go back to class.”

And that was it.

Mac rarely spoke because of his stutter. He had attended eight years of private sessions with the school district’s speech pathologist, but it hadn’t helped. When it came to talking, he couldn’t get past the first word, sometimes not even past the first letter. He had failed where other students had overcome their impediments. And so Mac chose to remain silent and, eventually, his teachers and classmates no longer expected him to speak. The only downside to this was that he was rarely spoken to.

On the way home from the academic bowl, while everyone else in the van chatted away, Mac daydreamed about a particular girl with long brown hair he’d seen at the bowl. She’d smiled at him during their first break, and at the second break, she’d cheerfully said, “Hullo!” as they stood in line at the concessions stand. Idiot, he thought to himself. Just talk to her! Say something! But all he managed to say was something between a “hi” and a “hey.” “Hi-ay.” Hi-ay! What was that? He grimaced, which probably looked like he was making a face at her, and then ran to the bathroom as though he were about to piss his pants.

Face flushed and palms sweaty, he stared angrily at himself in the mirror. Another guy leaving a stall said, “Dude, you dropped something on the floor.” Mac looked. And there it was, on the boys’ bathroom floor, next to a broken urinal: the note. A delicately, precisely folded piece of pink notebook paper. Normally, he’d never, ever pick up anything off a bathroom floor, but the note was so tiny, so pink, so neatly folded that Mac couldn’t help himself. He snatched it up and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

Later, when he awoke in the van, stiff and sick to his stomach, the first thing that entered his mind was not the girl but a number. Nine, three, seven, point, zero, five. With what little strength he had, his wrists scratched and sore, he grabbed a pen from his backpack, wrote the number on a corner of the pink notebook paper, and promptly forgot about it.

It was only after he got home and his parents had told him goodnight, after he had taken a shower and washed away the day’s sweat, washed away the stench of exhaust and French fries from his hair, that he remembered the note.

Locked in his bedroom, safe and sound and alone, he sniffed it, thinking that maybe the note smelled a little bit like roses, pretending that it had been written to him, not just something that had fallen out of another boy’s pocket. When he finally opened it, he had to unfold the half-sheet of paper five times to read what it said. Written in bubbly print were the words: Do you like me? Check yes or check no. Beneath that were drawn two tiny squares, one for yes, the other for no. With a chewed up pencil, Mac checked the tiny box for “yes.” He checked it three times.

VII

Graciela thought talking to the principal was rough — the men who pulled her out of her trig class were even more repulsive. The first question they asked: “Can you speak English?”

At first she didn’t respond. The question was stupid and she didn’t want to answer it. But the men stared at her and she felt herself blush. She shifted in her seat. “Yes,” she said, quietly.

“Well, she was part of the academic bowl,” one of the men shared with the others. “She’s no dummy.” They laughed.

The men, there were three of them, introduced themselves as “special” members of the school board. The principal had described them to Graciela as detectives, savvy and perceptive, explaining that they were there to investigate Mr. Christensen, not just because of the recent incident but because of parental complaints and other similarly strange events that had occurred whenever he chaperoned students.

“Then why don’t you call the police?” she’d asked Principal Wright.

“You could say these school board members are sort of like the police.” He had smiled. “It’s complicated.”

Whoever they were, Graciela didn’t like them. They dressed too casually, in jeans and flannel shirts, like they were trying to be down to earth, unintimidating. One of the men wore Wranglers, gray cowboy boots, and a button-down shirt. His belly hung over the waist of his jeans. Graciela called him “the fat cowboy” to herself.

They were mostly civil, but annoying, and worst of all, Graciela couldn’t help but think the most awful things about them. She wanted to hit herself every time she thought about what it would be like to have sex with one of them. This was a bad habit, a horrible habit, she’d picked up from her friend Mina, who had once mentioned in passing that she imagined having sex with every person she saw on the street. The comment was so random, so like Mina, that Graciela couldn’t get it out of her mind. It was a game they shared: who could come up with the most disgusting scenario?

And now here she was. Playing the game without Mina. “Nasty,” Graciela couldn’t help saying out loud. The men glanced at each other, then asked her if Mr. Christensen ever seemed to behave oddly or as though he were intoxicated.

“No,” she said. But now Graciela’s mind was on sex and she couldn’t think of anything else. Not that she liked sex or was promiscuous. She wasn’t a slut, she told herself. It was Mina who would disagree.

“You didn’t even know him,” Mina had told her, accusing her of letting some guy named Jesse “pop her cherry.” Graciela didn’t want to remember that night, that party, but the memory crept into her thoughts when she least expected it or whenever Mina brought it up.

Sometimes at home or in the middle of class, Graciela thought she could smell Jesse’s liquored up breath and cheap cologne, and then she’d remember the feel of his sticky, rough skin on her own. Her heart would race. She’d hold her breath, a crushing pain pressing against her sternum, and she’d have to stab her leg with a pen or safety-pin just to get that awful sensation to pass.

Mina hated her for that night, even though Graciela hadn’t meant for it to happen, even though she’d been alone and scared.

“So if Mr. Christensen wasn’t drunk,” the fat cowboy was asking her now, leaning in close to her face. “Then how did the van end up in the field? What happened on your drive home?” His breath smelled of French fries and coffee and Graciela felt the nausea building up in her throat, burning at the back of her mouth.

“I don’t know.”

“Can’t we just hypnotize them or something?” one of the other men muttered.

“Already tried that with the boys,” the fat cowboy said. “None of them remembers anything. Waste of time.” He frowned. “Well, Graciela, something happened last night. You should remember some little detail. Something about that man must have seemed strange to you. It’s not right what happened, not right that you didn’t get home safely. Who was watching out for you?” He dropped his voice, placed a hand on her shoulder. “We’re just here to help. So, tell us Graciela, tell us what you’ve told your friends and family about that night.”

“Not much,” she said, starting to cry. “Nothing. Because nothing happened. Nothing at all.”

VIII

Lydia’s meeting with Mr. Wright didn’t go well, and she couldn’t believe he was suggesting that Mr. Christensen had been driving drunk and had drugged everyone in the van. It was ridiculous. Mr. Christensen had never hurt anyone, would never hurt anyone.

“I’ve had a feeling about him since he started working here. We all have. There’s something wrong with him,” the principal said. “I get calls from people once in a while –- even at home, asking about him, worried.”

“That sounds nuts.”

“I know. I mean, everything checks out. His story about the amnesia and all that. But it’s like he’s pretending to be someone he’s not. Like he’s hiding from someone. You’ve had to have noticed the slurred speech, the odd eating habits. Does he even eat? And he’s just a little too friendly with the kids.”

“So?”

“Be careful with him Lydia.” Principal Wright took off his glasses. “I know you two are involved – “

“That’s none of your business.”

“Just be careful.”

Lydia stormed out of his office and the school building and headed straight for her car.

She drove around for a while, passing Malheur’s only grocery store three times, before heading out of town.

She went to Mr. Christensen’s house knowing he’d be there, not bothering to call him first. The front door was open and she let herself inside. In the living room, she found him sitting cross-legged, a set of oversized, old-fashioned headphones covering his ears. She crouched down beside him and put her head next to his. He removed the headphones without saying a word and held one of the earpieces up to her ear. The music, instrumental and foreign, was difficult to listen to; its rhythm and tone reminded Lydia of the women from her childhood church who fell to the floor speaking in tongues.

“Do you understand what they’re saying?” he asked.

“No.”

“I used to understand,” he said. “I think I did.” He touched a finger to her cheek, and then brought his hand in front of his face.

She wanted him to touch her again, but he didn’t.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

“That’s the plan,” he said, the words coming out slowly. “Pregnant.” He placed the headphones on the floor, pulled his legs up to his chest and rested his chin on his knees. “I don’t remember what that means anymore.”

Lydia felt warm. Too warm. I should go outside and get some fresh air, she thought to herself. I should leave. But the heat shot down her spine to her pelvis and radiated throughout her legs. She needed to move. She pushed Mr. Christensen onto his back and climbed on top of him.

“I love you.”

She kissed him, and he said, “Lydia,” in a way that let her know he didn’t want her to stop.

IX

Ricky was sitting in his truck outside the A&W, eating a burger, when Lydia drove by. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her all night. When he found her passed out in that school van, asleep and helpless, he realized that he still had feelings for her. Now, he followed her, keeping his distance as they drove out of town.

She parked in front of a small blue house, but he continued on and parked about a quarter of a mile down the road. She hadn’t even noticed him. He watched her knock on the door, and then enter. He waited a full thirty minutes before leaving his truck.

The door was open, as were all the windows. He walked to the rear of the house, where he could hear the sound of running water coming from the bathroom. He dragged a cinder block under the window and used it as a stepping stool. What he saw surprised him: Lydia, naked, sitting in the bathtub, her head hung forward as though she were asleep. A man, also naked except for a pair of black slippers, knelt next to the tub and was gently washing her body. He rubbed the yellow sponge over her dark skin in quick, circular motions.

Ricky couldn’t look away. A mix of anger, shock, and, to his disgust, arousal kept him immobile.

The man stopped what he was doing and turned toward Ricky. His eyes were a bright blue. “She won’t stop bleeding,” he said.

Ricky jumped from the cinder block and ran into the house. “Lydia!” he called out, moving quickly through the hallway. When he entered the bathroom, the smell of burnt meat filled his nostrils. He gagged, pulling the man away from Lydia.

“Don’t touch her,” he said. The stench in the room was so strong he could barely breathe. “Get back!” Ricky yelled as the man stepped toward him. He checked Lydia’s body, but she wasn’t bleeding at all. A seam of red skin, like a thickened welt, stretched down her back: a scar she hadn’t had before.

“What the hell did you do to her?”

“She followed me,” the man said. “But I didn’t know — ”

Ricky swung a closed fist at him just as a thunderous crash shook the house. The light bulbs above the sink exploded. The mirror cracked. Ricky fell against the toilet. Broken tiles crashed to the ground around him. The man flew up, pulled halfway through the bathroom ceiling so that only his body from the waist down was visible. His slippers clung to his feet, and blood, black and thick, dripped from between his buttocks.

“Ricky,” Lydia said, her voice surprising him. Her hands fluttered before her chest as though she couldn’t control them. “You need to get out,” she said. “You’ll be stuck here forever.” She crumpled into herself.

Ricky cried out, not knowing what to do, not understanding what was happening. A drop of hot blood splattered onto his forearm and his fear turned to panic. He ran from the bathroom, pushed his way through the house. Jumping into the cab of his truck, shaking and retching, he said, “I need to get Lydia out. I need to help her.” But he couldn’t make himself go back inside. He punched himself in the leg. “This isn’t real,” he said before vomiting onto the seat next to him.

An orange grasshopper hit the truck’s windshield. A bee buzzed next to the side view mirror. No, this was real, Ricky thought. More real than anything he’d ever experienced. The blood had hardened on his arm, creating a cyst-like shell. He flicked it off, started his truck and peeled out of the driveway, gravel and dust shooting out behind the vehicle as he sped down the road.

For the second time in twenty-four hours, he called the paramedics, but this time he wasn’t sticking around.

When he got to Blondie’s place, he asked her, “How much money you got?”

Ricky left town that night.

X

Six months had passed since Mac had awakened to find himself in a van in the middle of a field. Mr. Christensen had disappeared the day after the academic bowl. Everyone, of course, assumed he’d been fired, accepting as fact the rumors that he was an alcoholic. But Mac believed that Mr. Christensen was innocent and the real crime was that no one could figure out what was the truth.

Two days after the teacher disappeared, Graciela vanished. Worried, Mac had called her at home. Her mother answered. “Yes?” she said.

But he didn’t know what to say.

A few seconds into the silence, just before he finally hung up, her mother whispered, “Graciela? M’ija? Por favor, dime donde estás.”

Maybe Graciela ran away, Mac reasoned. She had mentioned once a friend in Seattle whom she wanted to move in with so she could get away from her parents. But all that Mac had heard since her disappearance was that she’d been deported. Which didn’t even make sense. He’d never heard of kids being deported. And what about her parents? Wouldn’t they have been deported too?

Lydia, the student-teacher, had disappeared around the same time as Graciela, but returned — quite pregnant — in January. She walked differently, and not just because of her full belly. She hobbled as though her legs had been broken. Some of the girls said they’d seen a thick scar that ran from the nape of her neck down her back. When questioned about it, Lydia claimed she’d been struck by lightning. When asked who the father of the baby was, she replied, “You don’t know him.” When asked why she was found naked, her feet covered in mud and blood, stumbling down the alley behind the grocery store, she calmly said, “That never happened.”

In February, Lydia disappeared again, this time for good, and everyone just stopped talking about her. No one even mentioned the disappearances of Graciela or Mr. Christensen anymore. From the way people in school acted, it was as though they’d never existed. Mac checked the yearbook, making sure their pictures were still there. And sure enough, there they were, captured in listless two-dimensional snapshots, their gray faces staring back at him.

Something else no one ever mentioned again was the night the school van had mysteriously ended up in an onion field. No strange men or school board members came around asking to interview student. Not even Jeff and Bill, the two other boys in the van, talked about it. Not that they ever had. They remembered nothing, felt nothing. “We fell asleep,” was their easy explanation. But for Mac, he always felt as though that night had just happened, as though he were forever waking up.

One day, while eating lunch alone in the school library, he flipped through his day planner and a wrinkled slip of pink paper fell out. The number jumped out at him from the page: 937.05. And then it happened the way a few measures from a popular song or television jingle might get stuck in your head: he kept hearing and thinking, “Nine, three, seven, point, zero, five,” over and over. He wrote the number down on a fresh sheet of paper, copying it over at least a dozen times.

Perhaps he’d never have guessed it if he hadn’t been eating in the library. He pushed his chair away from the table, the chair legs scraping loudly against the floor. The substitute librarian looked at him and smiled. “Yes?” she asked.

“N-n-nothing,” Mac said. “Just look-looking for a b-b-book.” He was trying to talk more often, even if it embarrassed him. He was more afraid of being forgotten now.

Mac walked over to the non-fiction section of the library, dragging his finger across the stacks of 900s. When he finally found the section he was searching for, his shoulders hunched over in disappointment. “Julius Caesar?” he asked himself. What did Julius Caesar have to do with anything?

He grabbed one of the books, a heavy one about the Tenth Legion, and flipped through the pages, skim-reading a section describing how the veterans were given farmland once the legion had disbanded. But non-fiction subjects like armies and wars had never interested Mac. He didn’t like to think about violence, preferring instead to be carried away by poetry and prose and romance. He slid the book back onto the shelf.

Mac wandered through the stacks of books. Maybe he was wrong, maybe the number meant something else or maybe nothing at all. But he had first thought about it that night, and it was one of the few details he clearly remembered.

There was one other thing that Mac recalled very well about that long drive home. It had happened just after they left McDonald’s, when Lydia moved to the front passenger seat. Something Mr. Christensen had said made her laugh. It was a good laugh, Mac thought at the time. Strong and unaffected. She moved closer to the librarian, leaning toward him, tucking a lock of his hair behind his ear, as though she wanted to whisper a secret to him.

Mac found it impressive, that tiny act of intimacy. What would it be like to have a girl touch his hair? Or his cheek? Or his hand?

This was all that he could remember, and yet he felt guilty. After everything that had happened, that one image, that mysterious bond between two people was what he focused on late at night when he couldn’t sleep, as he lay safely in bed, curled up under layers of blankets so thick that they formed a stuffy cave around him. When he should have been praying for those who were missing, he was instead reflecting on love and sex and the mystery of what he believed he could never have. He didn’t want to think about anything else. Everything else frightened him.

And so, with his eyes shut tight, his face hot and his hands clammy, he’d let himself forget for a moment about those who had disappeared. Beneath the weighty shelter of the bed covers, hidden by the dark, he wished instead that he could fall asleep quickly and dream of the girl he had yet to meet.

____

Copyright 2011 Maria Deira

Maria Deira has been published in Strange HorizonsKaleidotrope, Pseudopod, and A cappella Zoo. She grew up in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, but now resides in the cozy gloom of the Willamette Valley. Currently, Maria is working on a novel, which she hopes will scare the pants off readers. You can read more of her fiction by visiting her website: http://www.mariadeira.com/

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

1

Georgina met Death when she was ten. The first time she saw him she was reading by her grandmother’s bedside. As Georgina tried to pronounce a difficult word, she heard her grandmother groan and looked up. There was a bearded man in a top hat standing by the bed. He wore an orange flower in his buttonhole, the kind Georgina put on the altars on the Day of the Dead.

The man smiled at Georgina with eyes made of coal.

Her grandmother had warned Georgina about Death and asked her to stand guard and chase it away with a pair of scissors. But Georgina had lost the scissors the day before when she made paper animals with her brother Nuncio.

“Please, please don’t take my grandmother,” she said. “She’ll be so angry at me if I let her die.”

“We all die,” Death said and smiled. “Do not be sad.”

He leaned down, his long fingers close to grandmother’s face.

“Wait! What can I do? What should I do?”

“There’s not much you can do.”

“But I don’t want grandmother do die yet.”

“Mmmm,” said Death tapping his foot and taking out a tiny black notebook. “Very well. I’ll spare your grandmother. Seven years in exchange of a promise.”

“What kind of promise?”

“Any promise. Promises are like cats. A cat may have stripes, or it may be white and have blue eyes and then it is a deaf cat, or it could be a Siamese cat, but it’ll always be a cat.”

Georgina looked at Death and Death looked back at her, unblinking.

“I suppose … yes,” she mumbled.

“Then this is a deal,” he said, “Now, have a flower.”

He offered her the bright, orange cempoalxochitl.

That first encounter with Death had a profound effect on Georgina. Fearing Death’s reappearance, and thinking he awaited her behind every corner, Georgina took no risks. While Nuncio broke his left arm and scraped his knees Georgina sat in the darkened salon. When Nuncio rode wildly on his horse or jumped into an automobile, Georgina waited for him by the road. Finally, when other girls started swooning over young men and wished one of them would sign his name on a dance card, Georgina refused to partner up and join the revelry.

What was the point? She was going to die any day soon, why should she fall in love? Death would come to collect her tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow.

She selected the dress that she would be buried in and asked her mother for white lilies at the funeral. She walked around the mausoleum and inspected her final resting place. Morbid scenarios of murder assaulted her. She wondered if she might die struck by a carriage or by lightning, or in some other more remarkable fashion.

This is how seven years passed.

On the seventh year grandmother died and they took her to the cemetery in the great black hearse, then gathered in the salon to drink and mourn. Georgina was standing by the piano, considering death and its many possibilities, from a bullet to an earthquake, when Catalina came over with a satisfied grin on her face.

“You’ll never guess what I heard,” she said. “Ignacio Navarrete is going to marry you.”

“What?”

“I heard him speaking to Miguel. He’s going to ask for your hand in marriage.”

“But he can’t.”

Georgina craned her neck, trying to spot Ignacio across the room and saw him in his double breasted-suit, hands covered in white silk gloves. Reptilian. Disgusting.

“I wish I would die,” she whispered, angrily, like a bride that has been left at the altar and only now reads the clock and realizes the groom is late.

When Georgina woke up it was dark. A rustle of fabric made her sit up and a man stepped out from behind the thick velvet curtains. He wore a long coat, a burgundy vest and sported a little moustache. Though different in attire, and looking younger than she recalled, she recognized him as Death.

“I didn’t really mean it,” she said at once, all the scenarios of her own demise suddenly pieced together in her brain.

“Mean what?”

“Today, during the party. I didn’t mean I really wanted to die.”

“You sounded rather honest.”

“But I wasn’t.”

“Then you want to marry that man?”

“No,” she scoffed. “I don’t want to die either.”

“Good. I don’t want you to die or marry him.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You sound disappointed.”

“What do you want then? I mean, if you haven’t come to kill me.”

He produced a bouquet of orange cempoalxochitls, his arm stretched out towards her.

“I’ve come to collect a promise. Any promise, do you recall?”

“Yes,” she muttered, uncertain.

“It’s a promise of marriage.”

Georgina stared at Death. It was the only thing she could do. She was not sure if she should laugh or cry. Probably cry and start yelling for her father. Wouldn’t that be the natural reaction?

She pushed her long pigtail behind her shoulder and pressed both hands against the bed.

“I don’t think I can marry you,” she said cautiously.

“Why not?” he asked.

“You’re Death.”

“I’m one death.”

“Pardon me?”

He grabbed the lilies that were next to her bed and tossed them to the floor, then placed his cempoalxochitls in the flower vase.

“A few hours ago you were calling for me and now you refuse me.”

“I was not … even if I was … it’s late,” she said, reaching towards her embroidered robe. In her white cotton nightgown with the ruffles and lace trim Georgina was practically naked and she didn’t think this was the best way to confront Death, or anyone else for that matter.

“Just past midnight.”

“Please go,” she said, quickly closing the robe, a hand at her neck.

“I can not leave without the promise of marriage.”

“I will not marry you!”

Had she yelled? Georgina pressed a hand against her mouth and immediately feared the maids would come poking their head inside her room. And what would she say if they found a man in there?

“We have a problem. We made a deal and now I must head out empty-handed, which is impossible in my line of business.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry,” he said and smiled, white teeth flashing, “Sorry does not suffice. No, dear girl. You are indebted to me. You exchanged seven years of life for a promise”

“It isn’t fair! I didn’t now what I promised.”

“A promise is a promise,” he said and pulled out his black notebook. “What do you have that you can give? A cat. That is no good. A parrot. Well, they do get to live for a century but I don’t think I can stand …”

“I don’t want to marry a dead man.”

“I’m not dead. I am Death. Particularities, details,” he said scribbling in the notepad. “As you can clearly see your hand in marriage should solve this debt of ours.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Let us be reasonable. Would you like to discuss this tomorrow? Shall I meet you around noon?”

Georgina was sure she could hear her mother’s sure footsteps approaching her door. Terror greater than death seized her. She wanted the stranger out of her room, out the house before anyone realized there was a man there.

“Yes, just go,” she whispered.

Georgina went to the door, her ear pressed against it. She waited for the door to burst open. It did not. The house was quiet. Her mother slept soundly. She let out a sigh.

Georgina looked around the room. He was gone. The flowers remained but in the morning they turned into orange dust.

Georgina’s pigtail was carefully undone and her hair just as carefully swept up and decorated with jeweled pins. She descended the stairs in a tight-waisted blue dress and sat quiet at breakfast, fearing Death would knock at the door and ask to be invited in.

“Will you look at this?” her father said, brandishing the morning newspaper up. “It’s deplorable. Who does this Orozco think he is? I am telling you Natalia, it is simply deplorable to see such people causing a fuss.”

Georgina’s mother did not reply. Her father was not asking a question, merely stating his opinion and he expected no replies. He had been a Porfirista before, now he was a Maderista and God knew what he might become the day after. At the table his wife and his two children were supposed to nod their heads and agree in polite silence: father was always right.

“So then, what are your plans for today?” her father asked as he tossed the paper aside.

“I want to get some new dresses made,” Georgina said.

“Nuncio, will you be accompanying your sister?”

“Father, I’m heading to the Jockey Club today,” Nuncio said, slipping into his childish, thin voice even though he was a year older than Georgina.

“I want to go alone. I don’t need him with me,” Georgina said curtly.

Everyone turned to look at her, frowning at the tone she had just used.

“Young ladies do not go out of their houses without proper escorts,” her mother reminded her, each word carefully enunciated; a velvet threat.

“This is hardly going out,” Georgina countered, knowing well her mother would scold her later for using such a tone with her.

But it would be worse, much worse, if Death were to show up at her home. Perhaps if he found her outside of the house she might speak to him quickly and get rid of him for good, her family never the wiser.

“I’ll meet you at El Fenix in the afternoon,” Georgina said. It wouldn’t do at all if Nuncio kept an eye on her all day. “Rosario can accompany me to the seamstress.”

Rosario chaperoned Georgina, but she was old and tired. Most of the time she would just stay inside the carriage with the coachman, Nicanor, while Georgina hurried into a store. That day was no exception and Georgina went alone up the narrow steps that led to the seamstress. Death, his dark coat spilling behind him, appeared at her elbow.

“Good day,” he said, tipping an imaginary hat towards her. “Is today a better time to talk?”

“A little better,” she muttered and quickly hurried to the ground floor, where they stood beneath the stairs, hiding in the shadows.

He reached into his pocket and took out a dead dove, trying to hand it to her. Georgina shoved it away. The dove fell on the floor.

“What are you doing?” she asked, staring at the mangled corpse of the bird.

“I thought you’d like a proper engagement present.”

“Engagement? You’re Death. I’m alive. Isn’t that a problem?”

“Of no particular importance,” he shrugged.

“Wouldn’t you like to marry someone who was dead?”

“Who do you take me for? Do you think I want to go dancing with a cadaver?”

“You don’t know me.”

“Easily solved. Let us go to a bar and …”

“A bar?!”

“Let us get to know each other somewhere, anywhere.”

“Nowhere,” she whispered, scandalized by the suggestion.

“Well, then it is back to the beginning,” he said and took out of his notebook and a pencil. “I guess I’ll have to take fourteen years of your life then…”

The pencil dangled in mid-air.

“Fourteen?”

“Compound interest.”

“Wait,” she said. “We can negotiate this.”

“Marriage.”

“What would you do with a wife? Have little skeletons and make me cook your meals?”

“Do you like to cook?”

“No!”

“Look, it’s a simple matter. Balance and algebra. Duality and all that. Lord and lady. Do you know what I mean?”

She didn’t know what to say. She had to talk to the seamstress, had to meet her brother afterwards and maybe Rosario would wake up and wander into the building.

“It would be beautiful,” he told her.

Death wove a silver necklace around her neck with vines and birds. The dove fluttered back to life and landing on her hands transformed into a hundred black pearls which spilled onto the floor.

It was all wonderful.

He leaned forward, smelling faintly of incense and copal, of candles burning on the altars. His eyes were so very black, so very deep, and she thought she’d never seen eyes like that; eyes that were dark and quiet as the grave.

She wondered if his lips might taste like sugar skulls.

It was terrifying.

Georgina wept. She tried to hide her face, mortified.

“What is wrong?” Death asked.

“I don’t want to,” she said.

He frowned. With a wave of his hand the pearls melted away.

“I see. Very well Georgina, perhaps we can revisit our agreement.”

Georgina rubbed her eyes and looked up at him.

“I want a day of your life. One day of your heart.”

“Just one day?”

“Only one. Tomorrow morning tell everyone you are sick and do not leave your room. I will visit you.”

“Yes,” she said.

And then he was gone, gone into the shadows, and she ran up the stairs to the dressmaker.

Georgina told the maids that she felt sick and locked the door. She went behind her painted screen and changed into a simple skirt and blouse. Death appeared early and Georgina sat down in a chair, not knowing what was supposed to happen.

“Perfect. A phonograph,” he said, and ran to the other side of the room. “What kind of music do you like?”

“I don’t like music. My father bought it for me.”

“What about films?” Death asked as he fiddled with her recordings, picking one.

“I don’t watch films. I wouldn’t be going to a carpa.”

“Why not?”

“People are rowdy and my mother … oh, she would go insane if she heard I’d gone anywhere near that sort of place.”

“I love films. I love anything that is new and exciting. The automobile, for example, is a wonderful method of transportation.”

Music began to play and Georgina frowned.

“What is that?” she asked.

“You like it? It’s ragtime. Come on, dance with me.”

She wondered what she would do if her mother came peeking through the keyhole and saw her dancing with a stranger. What her mother would do to her.

“I don’t dance.”

“I’ll show you.”

He took her hand and pulled her up, two steps in the same direction onto the same feet, then a closing step with the other foot. It seemed simple but Georgina kept getting it wrong.

“What?” he asked.

“I didn’t think Death would dance. I thought you’d be more … gloomy. And thin.”

“So I’m fat, am I?”

“I mean skeleton thin and yellow.”

“Why yellow?”

“I don’t know. Or maybe red. Like in Poe’s story.”

“My sister likes red.”

“You have siblings?”

“Lots and lots of them.”

Georgina, busy watching her feet, finally got it right and laughed.

Georgina observed the glass of wine, the grapes and cheese and wondered if she should drink and eat. She recalled how Persephone had been trapped with only six grains of pomegranate. What would happen to her if she ate one whole cheese?

“You’re not hungry?” Death said and lay down on the Persian rug as comfortably and nonchalantly as if he were having a picnic in a field of daisies instead of her room. “What are you thinking about?” Georgina sat very neatly at his side, smoothing her skirt and trying to keep an air of decorum.

“What is your sister like?” she asked, not wanting to talk about Persephone.

“Which one?”

“The one that wears red.”

“Oh, her. She’s trouble, that one. Hot-headed and angry and crimson. She’s definitely not a lady. Or maybe a lady of iron. Tough girl.”

“And your brothers?”

“Well, there’s one who is like water. He slips in and out of houses, liquid and shimmering and leaves a trail of stars behind.”

Georgina tried to picture this and frowned. But she couldn’t really see his sister or his brother as anything but skeletons in papel picado, pretty decorations for November’s altars.

The clock struck midnight, chiming and groaning. The twenty-four hours he had asked for would come to an end soon. Georgina wouldn’t see him again. Well, hopefully not until she was a very old and wrinkled lady. Probably a married lady; Mrs. Navarrete with five children and sixteen grandchildren, bent over a cane and unable to dance to any kind of music.

“And then I’ll die,” she muttered.

“Pardon me?” Death asked, his hands laced behind his head.

“Nothing.”

But now that the idea of old age had taken hold of her, now that she could picture herself in wedding and baptismal and anniversary pictures, grey-haired with time stamped on her face, suddenly she wasn’t afraid of death. She wasn’t afraid of death for the first time in years: she was afraid of life. Or at least, the life she was able to neatly see, the cards laid out with no surprises.

It was horrible.

“I hate my hair,” she said and she got up, standing before the full-length mirror and she had no idea why she said this or why the silly chignon made her so furious all of a sudden.

Her fingers tangled in the curls at the nape of her neck and she pulled them, several pins bouncing on the rug.

“I like it,” he said, looking over her shoulder and at her reflection.

He smelt of flowers and incense. She thought Death would smell of damp earth and catacombs and be ice cold to the touch. But she’d been wrong about many details concerning Death. Curiously she slipped a hand up, brushing his cheek.

No, he wasn’t cold at all but warm and human to the touch.

In the mirror their eyes locked.

“Don’t touch me,” he warned her. “Or something in you will die.”

“I don’t believe it,” she replied and kissed him on the lips, even if she half-believed it.

He tasted sweet.

Death is sweet, she thought and giggled at the thought. He smiled at her, teeth white and perfect and then his smile ebbed and he was serious. He looked at her and she thought he was seeing through the layers of skin and muscle, looking at her naked skeleton and her naked self.

“If you touch me again I’ll take your heart,” he whispered.

“Then take it,” she said with a defiance she hadn’t thought she possessed, wishing to die a little.

She slept in death’s arms, naked over a rug of orange petals.


2

Georgina had spent the last seven years of her life thinking every day about Death. But now she did not think about him, not even for an instant. This does not mean she thought about life either. In fact, she thought and said very little.

Like a clockwork figurine she rose from her bed, ate her meals and went to mass. But she wasn’t really there, instead, she lay suspended in a sleepy haze, resembling a somnambulist walking the tightrope.

Sometimes Georgina would stir, the vague sensation that she’d forgotten something of importance coursing through her body, and then she shook her head. The feeling was insignificant, a phantom limb stretching out.

Georgina rode in her carriage down Plateros. Rosario snored while Georgina observed the men in top hats walking on the sidewalks and the cargadores shoving their way through the crowds. She’d gone to her fitting with the seamstress that morning. Her wedding gown. Now she thought about that day almost a year ago when she’d met Death underneath the stairs.

There was something she was forgetting.

There was something else.

But who cared? Wedding gown. Marriage. Life pre-written.

She was getting married in a month’s time. Ignacio had bought her a necklace crammed with diamonds from La Esmeralda and her mother had cooed over the extravagant purchase. It would be a good marriage, her father said.

Georgina did not care.

And now she sat so very quietly, so very still, like a living-dead doll staring out the window.

Something caught her eye: a woman in scarlet, her dress so gaudy it burned even among the other prostitutes who were now starting to sneak into the streets as night fell.

Red.

Georgina had been in a trance for twelve months and she had not even realized it. In a little coffin of her own making, Georgina dreamed pleasant dreams. Now she awoke. Apple dislodged, glass crashing.

“Stop!” she ordered Nicanor and the carriage gave a little jolt.

Georgina climbed out and went towards the woman.

“I know your brother,” Georgina said when she reached her.

The prostitute smiled a crimson smile, a hand on her hips.

“Do you? Bastard son of a bitch-mother. Run along.”

“No. I mean … I thought … do you know me?”

“He’s got a babe on you, has he? Go bother someone else dear, I’ve got to work.”

Georgina was confused. For a moment she thought she had the wrong woman. How could she be mistaken? What could she do? What could she say?

Georgina took a deep breath.

“He is like flowers made of blackness and when he kissed me he tasted like the night.”

The prostitute’s face did not change. She was still grinning with her ample mouth but her eyes burrowed deeper into Georgina, measuring her.

“What do you want?” asked the red woman.

“Where is he?”

“He’s not here. Not now.”

“Where is he?”

“What does it matter? You don’t want anything with him.”

“I said, where is he?”

The woman, taller than Georgina, looked down at her as though she were a small dog yelping at her feet.

“You should head home and marry your rich man, little girl. Forgetting is easy and it doesn’t hurt.”

“I have already been forgetting.”

“Forget some more.”

“He has something of mine.”

The red death, the woman-death, sneered.

“He’ll be at Palacio Nacional in ten days but then he heads north. Catch him then or you’ll never catch him at all.”

She walked away leaving Georgina standing by the window of a café. Nicanor squinted and gave her a weird look.

“What are you doing talking to that lady, miss Georgina?”

“I’m doing nothing,” she replied and rushing back into the carriage slammed the door shut.

When Georgina returned home, her father was very happy and her mother sat on the couch, pale with watery eyes.

“What is it?” she asked.

“The cadets at Tacubaya are up in arms,” her father said.

“They’re fighting at the Zócalo,” her brother said. “They’re shooting with machine guns from Palacio National.”

And then she thought Death would be at Palacio Nacional in ten days. He had arrived early.

“We’ll get Don Porfirio back,” her father said, and as usual he was already changing his allegiances, Madero completely forgotten.

It was like a party. A small and insane party. Her father talked animatedly about the events of the day, foretelling the brilliant return to the good old days, to Don Porfirio. But then the chattering grew sparse.

They said several newspaper offices had been set on fire. They said many people were dead. The roar of the cannons echoed non-stop. It got underneath their skin as they sat in the salon. Very quietly, very carefully, the doors were closed, locked with strong wooden beams from the inside.

The electricity had gone out and Georgina lay in the dark listening to the machine guns. They seemed very near.

She pressed a hand against her lips and thought Death must be there, outside, walking through the darkened city.

Her father had the carriage packed with everything he could think to carry. Even a mattress was tied to the roof.

“We’re going to Veracruz in the morning,” her father repeated. “We’re going to Veracruz on the train.”

Was there even a train left? The streets were teeming with prisoners that had escaped from Belén and they said the Imperial had been destroyed. Would there be any trains for them?

“We’re going to Veracruz in the morning.”

“Your hair, pull your hair up girl,” her mother ordered, but Georgina did not obey her. It seemed ridiculous to worry about hair pins.

Her mother turned around to scream at the maids. Something or the other needed to be taken. Something or the other was valuable and they would have to pack it.

It was the tenth day.

On the tenth night Georgina tiptoed down the great staircase and stood at the large front door with the heavy wooden beam in place. Nicanor was sitting with his back to the door.

“What is it, miss?” he asked.

“I need to go out tonight,” she said.

“You can’t do that. They’re fighting.”

“I’ve got to go meet someone. And he won’t wait for me,” she took out the necklace. “I’ll trade you this for a horse and a gun.”

The necklace was worth a small fortune. That was what her father had said when he held it up and it shimmered under the chandeliers. Nicanor looked down, staring long and quiet at the jewels.

“I’ll be back by dawn,” she said.

“No, you won’t.”

“The fighting has ceased for the night. There’s no noise from the cannons.”

“What would you be looking for …”

“A man,” she said.

“Does he really mean that much to you?”

What a question. What did she know? How dare he ask it? How could she answer it? But there were so many things she never thought she might be able to do, and she’d done them.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I think he does.”

Nicanor took out a pistol.

3

The streets had transformed. The buildings had strange new shadows. It was a different city. Georgina rode through the night and the night had no stars. Only the barking of dogs. She turned a street and a horse came her way, galloping with no rider on its back. The air smelled of iron and there was also another more unpleasant smell: somewhere nearby they were burning the dead.

Closer to the Zócalo she began to meet people, wounded men tottering by, and women. So many women. Tending to their wounded, with cananas across their chest and a gun at their hip. She wondered where they came from and who they were fighting for. They might be with Felipe Ángeles, called over to help Madero stall the wave of attackers. They might be anyone.

But he wasn’t there and his very absence struck her as unnatural. He must be hiding.

“I am not leaving,” she whispered, gripping the reins.

She rushed through streets that snaked and split and went up a hill. The city and the night had no end. She rode through them, not knowing where she was. Georgina believed she might be near Lecumberri or maybe going down Moneda. She saw a car pass her, shinning black, and kept riding.

She stumbled onto a wide street with a horse, its entrails on the ground, laying in the middle of it. A group of rurales were walking her way. Georgina hid in the shadows, held her pistol and watched them go by.

She thought of death; a bullet lodged in her skull. She wanted to go back home.

“I’m not leaving. Show yourself, coward,” she muttered.

And then she saw him, or at last he allowed her to see him, standing in an alley. He had a straw hat that shadowed his face but she recognized Death.

“What are you doing Georgina?” he asked. “You’re far from home tonight. Why are you looking for me? We’ve made our trade.”

She dismounted, staring at his face of grey and shadows.

“It was not a fair trade.”

“I was more than generous.”

“You didn’t warn me,” she said and she shoved him against the wall. “I’ve died.”

“Love is dying. Or maybe it’s not. It is the opposite. I forget.”

“Give me my heart. It’s of no use to you.”

“On the contrary. It’s of no use to you, my dear. For what will you do with this heart except let it grow stale and musty in a box?”

“It’s mine.”

“You couldn’t have missed it that much. It’s been a year and you haven’t remembered it at all.”

“It was not yours for the taking!”

“But you didn’t want it. You wanted to die and you didn’t want it anymore.”

“That was before.”

“Before what?”

He looked up, the shadows retreating from his face. He had shaved his moustache. He looked younger. A boy, and she a girl.

“I said a day and it was a day. What’s fair is fair. You had no right to sneak out with it.”

“I warned you,” he replied.

“You didn’t explain anything at all.”

“It was given freely.”

“For a day!”

“Sometimes one day is forever.”

“You are a sneaky liar, a fraud …”

“Go home Georgina,” he said. “My brothers are headed here. Madero dies soon and it’ll be very dangerous.”

“You’re killing him?”

“No. Not I. I’m killing an era. But one of my siblings will. Either way, you’ll want to go.”

The sound of bullets hitting a wall broke the quiet of the night. Then it faded. Georgina trembled. She wanted to run but she stayed still, her eyes fixed on Death and he looked back at her with his inky gaze. It was he who blinked and turned his head away.

“Persistent, as usual. What then? Oh, fine. Here, take your heart. Bury it in the garden like some radish and see what sprouts.”

He opened his hand and a flower fell upon her palm, a bright orange cempoalxochitl. She cupped it very carefully, afraid it might break as easily as an egg. She thought it would be difficult to walk all the way home with her hands outstretched, yet she was ready to do it. She’d put it in a box and ship it to Veracruz.

And then, unthinking, driven by impulse or instinct, Georgina crushed the flower against her mouth and it turned to dust upon her lips.

“I hate you,” she whispered. “You’ve changed the world.”

“They’ll build new palaces, Georgina.”

“I don’t mean the palaces.”

She kissed him, yellow-orange dust still clinging to her mouth. She felt a tear streak her cheek as the heart beat inside her chest once more.

The shadows shifted, turning golden and then swirling black. He rested his forehead against hers, quiet, eyes closed.

“I’m going to Chihuahua. I’m meeting with Villa after this,” he said. “It’ll be long. It’ll be seven years.”

“You’ll need me.”

He opened his eyes and these were golden, like the dawn.

“I do.”

He motioned to her horse, which went to them quietly. He offered her a hand and she climbed in front of him, both now clad in the ink of night.

Such is the way of death.

Such is the way of love.

____
Copyright 2011 Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. She also co-edited Historical Lovecraft, an anthology of historical stories inspired by the tales of cult writer H.P.Lovecraft. She is currently trying to find an agent for her Mexican historical fantasy novel. Invisible fans can follow her adventures at silviamoreno-garcia.com and Tweets @silviamg.

by Katherine Sparrow

The inexorable pull to move south grows. The sun hums to me all day long that it’s time to go, go, go. The night sky is even more persistent–every constellation in the big Montana sky makes arrows pointing south. My appetite increases and I develop a layer of fat on my belly. My senses grow more intricate–smells carry layers of meaning, gnats and mosquitoes become visible everywhere I look, and the normal sounds of human civilization hurt my ears with all their chaos.

And now my eyes have changed. The cornea and pupil widen so that the white is barely visible. A mercy that the genetic modifications left me normal eyes for summer and winter, but when it changes, it is unsettling for everyone. My vision increases three-fold. It is the last sign that it is time.

“Your eyes look funny,” Marion says. My wife drops her fork onto her plate and starts to cry.

This is another sign, as real and inevitable as all the others.

“Josiah, don’t go this time. Stay here. Stay safe. We’ll manage, somehow.” She cries harder. Marion is beautiful when she cries. She breaks my heart every time. “Why won’t they ever leave you alone?”

We’ve been avoiding this for the last month as though time was not passing–as though summer was not heading toward fall. I don’t know what to say to her. I never know what to say.

“I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.” I reach out for her hand, but she pulls away from me. She doesn’t want to touch me, to be any more vulnerable than I have already made her. Later there will be an intensity burning in her as she takes me into our room and undresses me, touches every part of my body as though there will be a test later and she must memorize it all. This too is another one of the signs.

Marion drives our old griesel out to a lonely stretch of road in Glacier National Park. She doesn’t say goodbye to me, but holds me tight and then lets me go. Despite her words, she and I both know what I will do, if I have to. There are three other men waiting on the road.

“Good summer?” Scotty asks.

“Yep,” I say. “Hot enough for you?”

“Yep.”

There’s Keith who’s twenty-eight, the youngest and darkest skinned of us–he’s mixed; Scotty, gay, thirty-seven, and a beast of a rider; and Hector, forty-four, Mexican but from the US. He doesn’t speak Spanish but his wife and kids do. We’re a strange migrating flock, not much in common, nothing like the huge numbers of wild birds who used to travel across the US and wore a monotony of feathers on their bodies. But once you see us dance, then you know we belong together.

“How you been, Josiah?” Hector asks. I feel his eyes looking me over, wondering about me now that I’m the oldest: now that Siv’s dead.

“Ready to ride.” Christ, I’m only fifty-six.

“Any one seen the new guy yet?” Keith asks.

Silence. It had been a good seven years without any casualties. Fourteen migrations without any big accidents: a stretch so long I think we all forgot what could happen. No one noticed Siv getting older. He didn’t show any weakness, not up until the very end. And now we had a new guy coming on.

Our Sponsor arrives in a long black four door car spewing enough exhaust to make my eyes water. He steps out wearing sunglasses and skin stretched so tight over his face that he looks like he might pop. All the immortals look like that. Even though they have enough money to buy life, they have that look to them like it’s been a long time since they’ve lived at all. We smile at him, each of us thinking, I reckon, about the last time we saw him.

He was yelling and calling us murderers as we all stood around the broken body of Siv. He threatened us with life in prison, even though we all knew he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

Now he’s showing off his white-as-paint teeth and looking at us like we are racing horses: profitable flesh. He frowns as he looks at me. Other doors on his car open and men that look like him, but with cheaper clothing, get out. You can’t get them to talk to you, I’ve tried.

The new rider comes out of the car and blinks like he’s just waking up. It takes a while to get used to the eyes. He’s too skinny–someone should have told him to fatten up–but otherwise he looks tough enough. He has thick black hair, olive skin, and a five o’clock shadow even though it’s only noon. He looks us over. He smiles at Keith, who must be the leader, I can see him thinking, because he’s the youngest and strongest. Keith smiles back enigmatically.

“This is Theo Anders, boys, and he’s going to make me proud!” The Sponsor tries to act like one of the good old boys, but there’s a billion dollars and ownership issues between us.

A trailer pulls up with our bicycles, and Scotty runs over to them. He’s our resident gearhound. Our Sponsor chats him up about all the new components on his bike.

“No way! Awesome!” he says.

The new guy stands near us nervously. For him it’s the most important day of his life so far. The first day of the migration. For the rest of us, it’s not so special.

“Hey Theo, I’m Josiah,” I say. “Welcome to the migration.” I introduce him to Keith and Hector. “A man’s first migration is the most dangerous,” I say. “Just like with real birds. You won’t know the route, the dances, or how to pace yourself. All kinds of changes will be coming on inside of you all the while you’re expected to keep pedaling. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

“I had the operation three months ago. I’ve adjusted to the changes. The Sponsor told me everything I need to know,” he says.

“That’s what he’ll have told you,” I point my thumb at our owner, “but it’s not true. It takes awhile for it all to settle in. They never know when they’ll need a new rider, so there’s never enough time to change.”

“He said–”

Hector steps toward the fledgling and says quiet enough that only we can hear, “He only cares about getting you migrating as soon as possible. He doesn’t care about you.” Hector shakes his head and gives Keith and me a look like can you believe this kid? Nevermind that he was just as ignorant when he came on.

Theo’s face turns a dirty pink. “You saying something bad about our Sponsor? That’s against contract clause twelve B.” His voice is too loud.

“Calm down,” I tell him. “We’re all friends here.” But his words make me uneasy. Our owner has tried to get a man on the inside for years. Someone who will tell the truth of what actually happens on our migration. Maybe he’s finally found one.

Theo eyes me again, and I can see he thinks I’m worthless. America never had any use for the old. I could tell him I’m going to be more useful to him than he can know, but I don’t. Let him learn.

We grab our bikes with fat panniers loaded up with MRE’s, protein bars, and watergel. The first day of our ride we’re not riding hard: we’re just getting onto our bikes, checking out the upgrades, and learning to ride again. It’s a relief to get on the road and get moving. Tonight will be the first time in a week any of us will be able to sleep. When the change comes there’s nothing for it but to start moving. That’s what birds always did, and with how they modified us, we’re no different. The bikes are custom made for each of us, and we get a new bike every migration.

Hector takes the lead and we ride slipstream on both sides of him on the two lane road. We look like a flock of geese flying in V formation. People say part of our augmentation is to copy the geese, but that’s crap. We ride like them for the same reason they do: it’s the best way to cut the wind. And with two thousand miles and twenty-two performances to hit in the next month, we’ll need it. No matter how slick our bikes are, when it comes down to it they are still one-hundred-percent powered by our legs and nothing else. So we’ll do anything we can to make it easier. We’re lazy like that.

The Going-to-the-Sun-Road is smooth and lined with trees turning pretty colors in front of deep blue mountains that look like the ocean in rock form.

Keith races ahead then slams on his regenerative brakes. He races forward again, brakes, then pops the hover gear and his bike floats up three inches off the ground for about five feet. Bless the mechanics who figured that one out twenty-one migrations ago. It makes our ride almost manageable through the lower states. We won’t need to hover in Montana where roads are still all right–cowboys will never give up the dream of driving, even if no one can afford the gas.

Scotty pops wheelies and bounces up and down on his bike. He’s got all kinds of boing-boing with twice the shocks and gearing of any of us. He carries the extra weight and drag of them. He likes the challenge.

I bike elbows to the grooves of my handlebars, laying my forearms against the warm metal. The curve of my back likes being here with my neck craned toward the horizon. My helmet feels like something I’ve been missing, a part of my head returned. It feels easy, like I could sit here all day and pedal, which is good, because that’s what I’ll be doing. I straighten up and warm my hands under my armpits, reminding myself of all the ways to ride, all the muscle sets I can use.

Something big skitters across the upper edge of my vision and I turn my head, excited. But it must have been a bug, because there’s nothing there. There aren’t many wild birds left, but sometimes, out in the middle of nowhere, a little miracle will fly through the sky. I like to imagine them living out here and surviving, despite everything.

We reach our first campsite–an old RV campground with a sign up to welcome us. Hector twists around to confer with me, then takes us another ten miles so we can stretch our legs a little bit more.

“Aren’t we supposed to stop there?” Theo asks.

I turn my head around and see he looks peeved.

None of the others answer him, so I say, “It’s good to not be predictable. You never know when the Sponsor might try to show up with his cameras and get into our business.”

“What do you have against him? That’s his right. It’s part of the contract,” Theo says. “And what’s our route? The Sponsor says we could add in a couple more dances if we rode faster.”

Theo can’t help talking stupid. He’s like a baby eagle who’s half pin feathers, half fluff. Even so, the other guys glare at him.

“Missoula to Stevensville, then Darby, then over to Wisdom,” I say. “As soon as you’ve ridden it once, it’ll imprint into you. Easy as riding a bike.”

“What happens if our bikes break and we’re not at the right spot?”

“Never happens.”

“Never?” he asks.

“All the components are internalized. The wheels are braided tungsten-rubber. The frames are torture tested carbon-fiber. We’ll break before these bikes do.”

That gives him a moment’s pause, then he asks, “You like being a migrator? You ever get tired of it and think of retiring?” There’s something sly and mean to his words.

I don’t answer him. There’s no way to express the combination of love, rage, fear, hate, joy, and sorrow I feel about migrating. Most humans never have to know about that feeling.

“Back when I started,” I say, and then grin at my grandpa words, “there used to be trackers on our bikes. They were real useful to our owner for planning our performances and getting the crowds ready. Except they always fell off or got broken somehow. That’s what happens when he tries to spy on our migration: things get broken.” I give him a knowing look.

He pauses for a moment, but then he starts in on me again. “He’s made you all rich. You talk like it wasn’t your choice, like he made you migrate.”

The young are always under the illusion that they are free. “He owns enough of us as is. Two migrations every year. When a bird migrates his flock follow the same route every year, but where they stop and rest–every year is a little different.”

“You study birds?” Theo asks.

“I’ve read some books, thought I should, since I am part bird.”

Theo nods his head. “What else do you know about them?”

“They’re quiet when they fly.”

The sun is a cold sliver on the horizon by the time we stop. We set up camp–five orange tents staked down in one corner of a fallow field. Scotty lets into the fledgling about uniforms.

“The more flow to our costumes the better, but you have to be careful about tripping. What do you think, Theo?”

The fledgling doesn’t know what to think, but Scotty doesn’t mind. All he needs is a sounding post. We all have our tricks for getting through the migration–Scotty’s is uniforms and gadgets. Hector’s is his tattoos, one for every migration. Maybe mine is thinking about birds. Theo stays up late talking with him, getting in a couple of ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘I guess sos’ in between Scotty’s monologue.

I zip into my tent and open up the sky window. It’s a big sky in Montana, everyone knows that, but the way it makes me feel lonely is all my own. I miss Marion and our two girls, all grown up now. In a day or so I won’t think much about them–everything will get focused down to the tunnel vision of migrating. I’m a man who lives dual lives with little overlap. But for the moment, I like to think about my family. I’d do just about anything for my wife and girls, like turn myself part way into a bird and migrate across the continent.

Three hundred and fifty miles later, give or take a dozen miles on my sore ass, we reach Yellowstone.

A huge banner stretches over the park’s north entrance reading, “See the Dance of the Sandhill Crane!” We sit back on our bikes as we coast into the park. Keith has been singing an old camp song to himself, over and over.

“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes–that’s why they call me Tarzan of the apes! I like bananas…”

No one would blame me if I strangled him. Too bad I like Keith.

Theo is full of all kinds of talk again, playing the role of the good little stooge. He’s riding behind Hector, who treats him like a mosquito just out of slapping range.

“What can we do to make the dance more exciting and draw in more people? It’s great how the Sponsor is meeting us with more provisions, isn’t it? He really takes care of us.”

I bike steadily and let my leg muscles do the work. My left Achilles aches, but the rest of me feels strong. Yellowstone has crap roads that twist and turn on themselves like they were drunk when they laid the concrete. I pop and coast into hover a couple of times. Until the day I’m dead, I’ll always love hovering.

There are whiffs of sulfur and foul minerals on the air. Yellowstone is nature’s fartlands, but it’s the most popular American park. Go figure. Cars pull over and line the roads, waving and honking at us as we pass.

Hector increases our pace and we turn down a long stretch of road that’s less crowded. Even though it’s not the first stop in the park, we go to Old Faithful first. It puts an extra fifty miles on our ride, but that’s what the contract orders. We bike along the Madison River then down to the Upper Geyser Basin. The road loops back and around to where we start our performance, so we won’t be seen ahead of time. We dismount just out of sight of the Anemone, Beehive, and Plume geysers.

Our Sponsor is there with the costumes and body paint that Scotty radioed to him after talking us all to death about what we should wear. It’s not so different from last time. There’s cloth sewn along the arms and attached to our shoulder blades with a long skeletal frame to approximate the sandhill crane wingspan. The rest is sleek gray material so tight it shows off every line and muscle of our bodies, save for the modesty crotch-cups. This is a family event, after all.

“And now, what you’ve all been waiting for….” A tinny sounding drum roll pounds through the park. “Once thought to be extinct, the sandhill cranes have been resurrected for one day only! The oldest birds known to man! Closest in kin to dinosaurs! The sandhill cranes’ mysterious movements might be how the dinosaurs danced! Please welcome the Western Migrators!”

The applause of five thousand people is a little unnerving. Theo takes a step backwards. We’ve painted our skin gray, except for our eyes, which are blackened, and our foreheads, which are a shocking red like the actual birds. Scotty leads the way forward, and we follow him, picking our legs along the ground carefully, straining our necks upward and moving them from side to side. Three of us move in unison for a couple steps then fall out of it, as though any uniformity were random. My legs are sore and my neck’s stiff, but never mind that, a crane doesn’t know about that. A thousand cameras click and follow our motions. As many people as they can fit into the bleachers lean forward and stare at us. A screen twenty feet above us projects our dance to everyone else. A kid starts crying.

We walk toward them slowly, until we are centered just right in front of the bleachers. Theo walks behind us, mimicking, not yet on the inside of what we are doing, not yet trusting the instincts within him. A force builds in my throat, and I raise my head to let out a loud, ugly “Augaroo-a-a-a‚ au!” The other birds… men sway away from me. Keith raises his arms and with it the long stretch of wings unfold behind him. He hops once, twice, up into the air. I cry out again.

Scotty echoes my cry, and Hector hops up into the air and moves his neck from side to side. He lands. A vent of steam hisses up from the ground, and we crouch down and spread our wings, except for Theo who’s a beat off. He crouches down as quick as he can.

Don’t think, be. Let it come, I’d tell him, but the bird within me takes hold. Grafted DNA and bird memory pulses through my muscles and limbs. My neck moves from side to side, tasting the air, feeling the wind against my cheek and the warm air blowing at us from beehive geyser. Anemone geyser starts gurgling and filling up with water, building pressure at the same time pressure builds in me. Everything is syncopated and my wings move with the rotation of the planet and sun.

Two birds start hopping up and down with their wings beating. Jumping toward each other, then popping back, testing their strength and virility. I crouch lower to the ground and sweep forward with my wings outstretched. Two hop over my wings. Another screams “Augaroo-a-a-a, garoo-a-a-a‚ au–a challenge and a promise. The cry passes to me, and I rise up tall and proud. I crouch down and jump up, my wings spread high above me as I twist upwards and fall back to the earth in a spiral. Beating my wings aggressively, I turn and face Theo–stare him in the eyes and lunge toward him twice, my body hinging at the waist. Still uncertain, he mimics my motions. I back away, feeling the heat of his movement, even if he can’t feel it yet.

“Garoo-a-a-a!” he yells at me, moving closer to the bird inside of him. I step away and bend toward him. Keith joins our circle and spreads his wings, his gray and red face blank as a bird’s. In unison, we run toward Plume geyser and, one by one, we jump across. The pit in the earth gurgles with boiling water below us. A dare, a challenge to the mother, and she lets us pass by, unburned. We turn and dance mirroring each other, facing the crowd of ragged Americans chewing on soya-dogs and deep-fried kelp bars.

Keith jumps up and does a somersault in the air. Theo does the same and I bend toward them, challenging, receding, moving. With a gurgle and suck, Plume geyser spews up and we run around it, our dance becoming more urgent as the hot mist hits us and stings.

People scream and clap their hands. Keith uses Theo’s shoulders to launch himself up higher. Theo watches him, then does the same with me, his weight pushing off me as he twists into the air. We are birds and we are magnificent. We get lost in the movement that goes on and on, ebbs and flows, reinvents itself and repeats. Garoo-a-a-a. We end by sweeping our wings along the ground.

People clap and kids jump up and down on the flimsy metal seating. I smile up at them. There’s few enough things the people of this country look forward to anymore, and I’m glad to be one of them. Young women with a hungry look to them check us out, as do a few men. Not that it will do them any good–none of us can be sexual on the migration. Just like birds, we have other fixations. Still, no one minds the appreciative stares.

We turn and walk away from them, back to the fake log cabins they put us up at.

Theo walks beside me, deciding, I guess, that I’m not so useless. You learn things about a man when you dance with him.

“That was… tell me about those birds.”

“Sandhill cranes danced for courtship, hierarchy, territories, and maybe, sometimes just because they wanted to. At least that’s what I think. They went extinct in May of 2012. Word went out that there was one surviving flock, and everyone shot at them, wanting to be the one to cause the extinction. We’ve got some of them in us. We’ve got every bird that we dance in us. They tell you that?”

Theo nods. “I didn’t all the way believe it. But then, the dance… it was magical.”

“Yep.”

“What’s your favorite bird dance?”

“California Condor. Huge, ugly, awkward vultures. We dance it in the Narrows of Zion. There’s something about that bird. Some say it’s the little sister to the Thunderbird.”

“What’s that?”

“A big old vengeful bird that stirred up storms with the beat of his wings. A birds that carries lightning bolts in his beak, at least that’s what the Lakota Indians say.” I pat Theo on the back. He’s okay. Sometimes you dance with a man, and you know you don’t like him, plain and simple. But Theo’s all right.

Yellowstone has fixed us up a huge dinner set up at one of their picnic tables, and we eat like starving men. Like birds a long time between meals. There are platters of fat burgers with all the condiments; three kinds of slaws–red, white and green; potato salad with plenty of hard boiled eggs; and my favorite, this kind of chocolate cake that is gooey in the middle like they put the frosting on the inside.

We eat and eat and there is a light that shines out from each of us. They’ve genmodded us into gods, and here at American Valhalla, they feed us well.

Our Sponsor pops up out of nowhere, and his men follow behind him like a long dark shadow. He yanks everything good out of the day as he looks us over proudly. He plunks down different products on the table–sparkle ketchup, muscle-grow lotion, and bird-men model kits. One of his men sets up lights over the table and starts taking pictures. I look over at Theo in the washed out light and it hurts. I see all his pride turning into shame. For the first time he’s realizing how the bird parts embedded into him exists to make money. Tie-ins, tell-alls, television, action figures, and that’s not to mention all the tax write-offs our owner gets for having us dance at national parks. I lose my appetite as the Sponsor sits down at our table.

“How’s the ride, boys? Any problems?” His men check our bikes and start resupplying them with provisions. “I brought you a surprise.” The way he says it, I just know it’s gonna be nasty.

One of his men brings old Ray to the table. Cruel. Being here and seeing us reminds Ray of all the things he’s lost. It’s been ten years since he last rode with us, and the years have not been kind. His red face is weather-burned and even though he wears a big smile, I can see it’s all uneasy sleep and hardship underneath. All ache inside to migrate, even though his body can’t make it anymore.

“Hi boys.” His southern drawl reminds me of all the good rides and dances we had. It makes me uneasy. I liked Ray. Hell, we all did.

“Hi Ray, have a seat. Have some food. Plenty of it,” I say.

He sits down next to me. I glare at the Sponsor until he leaves our table. He stays within earshot, of course.

“How you been?” I ask.

Bleak eyes with a migrator’s wide pupils meet mine, then dart away. Behind us I hear one of the geysers–probably Old Faithful–explode upwards as people clap and yell.

Ray takes a burger and studies it like maybe the answer is written on it. He sighs and says, “Couldn’t be better. Best thing I ever did was quit the ride.”

“Yeah, you look happy. You heard about Siv? That’s why you’re here, right?” I ask.

“Shame, that. Should have stopped while he could.”

Everyone’s looking at me and stuffing food into their mouths so they won’t have to talk. Thanks, boys.

“He died well,” I say, easy as I can. “I visited Jenny and his three kids. They’re doing just fine, set up in Texas on an old sheep ranch.”

“It’s not worth it to die for the pension,” Ray says loudly. Behind him the Sponsor looks smug. “A man should get to live after all that providing. He shouldn’t have to die just to get his family taken care of. Hell, they give me plenty of money to live on.”

“You call what you’re doing living, Ray?” I say real quiet, just between him and me.

“The operation worked fine. They were able to reverse all the changes. I live like a normal man, Josiah. You should try it.”

As clear as the bird eyes on his face, I know he’s lying. I forgive him, because it’s probably one of the things the Sponsor wants him to say.

“You want to give it all away? You want to die just so your wife can have nice things?” Ray asks.

It’s a good thing he’s old and ragged. I remember that he never got on so well with his wife. The woman was always angry at him for migrating, and could never forgive him for it during the months in between.

“That’s why you’re being paid to talk to us, Ray, because you don’t need money? Where’re you living?”

He looks down at his old man hands with dirt in the creases. “Here and there.”

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, Ray, but don’t come around here questioning any migrator’s decision, and don’t ever talk bad about Siv again. He was a great rider.”

“He was a fool.”

“Leave. Now.”

The Sponsor follows Ray, then calls back to us, “See you in Utah, boys.”

That night, sitting around a good smelling cedar campfire, we talk about Siv. Theo sits next to me and does a good job of listening, for once. Maybe too good, like he’s trying to memorize it to tell the Sponsor.

“Remember when Siv talked us into a detour up into the Rockies where he heard some raptors were nesting?” Scotty asks.

Chuckles all around.

“Four migrations back. We lost four days chasing those imagined birds,” Hector explains for Theo’s sake. “Everyday uphill on crap roads, too. Siv was crazy for nature.”

“One time he talked us all into doing peyote so we could really know what it felt like to fly,” I say. “Three of us almost jumped off a cliff.”

“Josiah got so paranoid he tried to set our bikes on fire. And we all saw these huge birds, big as cars, circling over us in the sky, black as midnight, spookiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Hector adds.

“Two days of headaches and diarrhea after that, and Siv wanted us to trip again, this time with mushrooms.” Scotty laughs.

“He was a good man to have on the ride,” I say.

“The best.”

We get all quiet, maybe remembering the last time we were with him and what we had to do.

“What was Ray like?” Theo asks.

“Good enough.” Damn fine, truth be told, but hell if any of us were going to reminisce about him.

“He doesn’t look good,” Scotty says. “I bet he regrets his decision.”

“What decision?” Theo asks.

Silence all around.

It falls on me to talk to him, although he probably knows damn well what we are hinting at. Hector and Scotty make a fire and everyone is real quiet as I talk.

“Why’d you join us, Theo?”

“I’ve always wanted to dance. No money for dance anywhere else.”

“No, not the reason you told the Sponsor. The real reason. You’ve got a big family, lots of siblings, probably, and maybe a girlfriend who wants to get married and have kids soon. That about right?”

He nods.

“All of us do, and the contract states that we’ll get our fat paychecks so long as we migrate. Hell, in this economy, it’s impossible to turn it down. But when we quit, our pension is set at five percent, nothing more. Maybe one man can live on that, but not well.”

He nods again vaguely. He’s young and will stay that way forever right?

“So long as we ride everyone is happy and you get to be the man that brings them security. You quit and your bird parts are telling you to go, only your body’s crap and you’re too poor to own a decent bike. What do they give you? Five percent of your wage, for the rest of your life. But under Federal law, if you are genetically modified and die on the job, they have to pay a lump sum of ten year’s wages. Simple as that.”

“Are you saying Siv killed himself and made it look like an accident?” Theo asks softly.

“I’m saying there are four men on this migration who will swear to every police investigator that it was an accident. I’m also saying that the Sponsor would pay a man, let’s say a new migrator, good money to prove dancers don’t die on accident. Then he wouldn’t have to pay out one red cent when we died. Wouldn’t you agree, Theo?”

The fledgling had the decency to blush.

We make a loop in Yellowstone and double back to Mammoth, then Tower Falls, and Yellowstone lake. We dance as Tundra Swans, American Kestrels, and Black Terns before we leave the park and cut through Wyoming into Idaho and the City of Rocks. The crowd there is small and some elderly hippie chicks try to join in our dance. Scotty comes close to breaking a leg. We haul ass the rest of the way through Idaho. Pretty country full of bright yellows and pink rock-face sticking out underneath rolling green hills. I’m feeling my body more than I would like, more than I have in the past.

Just before we hit the Utah border, black clouds hover all morning on the edge of the sky and grow as we bike toward them. We feel the electricity in that storm–migrating birds have metal in their heads to follow the magnetic poles, and so do we. It makes me feel buzzed. The temperature drops ten degrees and a mean wind kicks up. Bless the makers of our smart cloth that knows when to keep us warm.

We ride down a busted up highway that smells like grass and petrochemicals. There’s no sign of anything human in sight. There’s less and less on this stretch of highway every year. They bulldoze the old barns and farmhouses because the dirt is contaminated and they don’t want anyone coming here to squat and then suing later for cancer.

Something big and dark flits across the sky. I look up, but there is nothing. A wall of rain rushes toward. When we hit it, there’s so much rain it’s three inches deep on the road.

Hector lets out a ululating cry and raises both of his hands in the air as he raises his head toward the sky. We all do the same. As I stare up at the whirling flecks of rain coming down, everything stops and is made eternal. Then we hunch over our bikes and peddle on.

My belly starts to feel shaky and two protein bars don’t do anything to help it. It grows darker and colder. My arms feel rubbery and numb. Scotty sets a good pace to keep us warm, but not so fast that we keel over. He looks back at me, worried. I grin at him. Mind yourself, Scotty, I’ll keep up. There have been other migrations where we’ve ridden all night just to stay warm, and we’ll do that, if we have to.

Then a sway-backed barn as beautiful as a mansion comes into view, and Hector lets out another loud bird cry.

It’s not that dry inside, and the moldy hay makes my nose itch, but it’ll do. We climb up into the loft where it’s drier and settle in to sleep, except for Theo. He sits in a corner near an open window and stares outside. I’m exhausted and need sleep more than the rest of them, but I go sit next to him anyway.

“Big storm,” I say.

He nods.

“What’re you thinking?”

A lightning strike illuminates his face. He looks worried. “I’m changing… more than I thought I would. More than he said I would,” he says, not looking up from the hay his hands play with.

I wait for him to explain.

He holds out his arm. “Touch it.”

I do. It feels smooth one way, prickly the other.

“Feathers,” he says. “Real small ones.”

I try not to, but it’s been a long day. I laugh.

“It’s not funny,” he says.

“Yes it is. We all have weird side effects. Hell, that one might even be intentional. They don’t exactly know what they are doing with our augmentations.” I hold up one of my hands. The tan polish on one of my nails had chipped off to show the black. “I’ve got talons on my fingers and toes. Have to keep them trimmed real close or else they cut my wife. Keith, though he hates to admit it, loves to eat worms. Ask him about it. And don’t ask Hector and Scotty about their tail feathers.”

Theo laughs.

“You’re doing fine, Theo. You’re riding well and dancing well. That’s what this life’s about.”

“It’s just… I can’t go back, can I?”

“Nope.”

“There’s something… he offered me five years pay for every migrator I ratted on,” Theo whispers.

“That’s a mighty fine offer.” And half of what the bastard would pay out otherwise, I think. “A man could get rich real quick, but there’s a price for all that money.”

There’s an awkwardness between us. “Do you want to die, Josiah? Don’t you want to keep living?”

“Did the Sponsor tell you migrators don’t live as long as normal people, even without accidents?”

Silence.

“Course he didn’t. It’s true though. It’s a heavy strain on the body.”

“But don’t you want to live?”

“Of course. No one wants to die, but we all do, don’t we? You set your mind on getting through this migration. Leave the macabre thoughts to old men like me.” I put my hand on his shoulder and let it rest there.

Lightning pulses outside, and I see what looks like a huge bird flying up in the middle of the storm.

When the morning sun wakes us up the world has been washed clean and pretty. We ride on and pop into hover over huge gashes in the road. We discover a diner that serves up pieces of peanut-butter chocolate pie that we eat as townspeople gawk at us.

In Colorado we run into some angry types. They catch up to us on a gut-busting climb out of Steamboat Springs up to Rabbit Ears Pass. They chug passed us spewing griesel fumes that smell like burnt french fries. The environmentalists have joined up with the local dance troupe and picked up some anti-genmod types by the looks of their bumper stickers. They stop their van about a quarter mile away from us. Ten of them all pile out to make a human line across the road. There’s forest on both sides of us that we could run into, but we’d have to leave the bikes. We could ride back down the hill, but hell if we’re going to.

“What should we do, Josiah?” Hector asks quietly.

One reason birds have died out, beyond all the toxins, is that they just couldn’t find hospitable places to live.

“Let’s just talk to them,” I say.

We grind on up the hill and stop ten feet away. I’m bonked enough by the ride to be glad for the unscheduled stop, come what may, and squeeze some watergel into my mouth. I keep an eye on them and on my migrators. Usually protesters show up at performances and try to mess us up, but there’s nothing but us and them out here.

“Morning,” I call out.

Hatred thick as cream on each of their faces.

“Hacks,” one of them says. She’s a dancer, by the thin, ropy look to her. “You’re not dancers. You’re monkeys!”

“Freaks,” a man says.

A bird streaks across the air above me, but when I look up, nothing’s there.

Keith takes a step forward. I put a hand on his shoulder and he stays put. Ten to five ratio is not good odds, and we’ve got a dance to make by nightfall.

“Your owner destroys all the wildlife, and then gets tax breaks for sending you out to the parks and make people forget all the animals are gone,” a hungry looking man says.

Anger grows among us. A tensing of bodies. A shifting of feet and stances. Like a dance. I feel my hands curl into fists and the desire to hit something grows in me. “We’re just getting by, same as everyone,” I say, calmly as I can. “Your beef’s with our Sponsor. Go harass him.” But they won’t. He’s too heavily guarded. “We’re just men doing our jobs.”

A woman spits on the ground, and I can see the time to talk is over. When they run at us, we do the same and start beating at each other in the middle of the road. Only it’s not a fair fight. They pull out the kind of cheap sticky-tasers you can buy at any 7-11. They aim and fire and we wriggle on the ground and gasp for breath as they put collars around our necks and spray paint the panniers of our bike. They drive off.

“Fuck!” Scotty yells. He’s the first one to get his legs back and stand up. He’s wearing an inch thick collar that says “Bird Killer.”

We sit up and look at each other. Keith is “Genefreak,” Hector is “Corporate Slave,” Theo is “Dance Whore, and mine says, “Earth Raper.”

“Well, boys,” I say, “looks like we got ourselves some new nicknames.” We bike all the way to Echo Park with our new logos, too proud, I guess, to call our Sponsor for help. We bike through small one road towns and get laughed at by shiny clean Mormon kids lining the street to watch us. The collars rub our necks raw until we meet up with the Sponsor who hires a welder to cut them off.

From Echo Park we change out our tires for heavier treads and bike into the middle of Utah down old cattle roads along the Green river. We swim in the hot water every day and try to avoid the dead fish floating around. The only people out here are long-bearded men living in little blow away shacks. They glare at us even though they see us twice a year, every year. We stay up late and watch bats catch mosquitoes. We tell stories. I tell more than anyone else, which is unusual for me, but somehow I want to tell all of them about me and make sure they remember. When I talk it feels to me like the other riders no longer with us are listening in too.

When a goose dies on a migration, the other geese leave a spot for him in their slipstream, an empty space of air where he used to be. I wish we had something like that.

The migration drags on through Arches, Canyonlands, Rainbow Bridge, and Bryce Canyon. Everyone is still riding well and dancing well. I’m the only one who’s feeling it, but I hide my aches and pains. Every night I’m so exhausted I don’t ever want to move again. Every day brings us closer to the end: I remind myself of that daily.

“Josiah, we can ride slower,” Keith says.

I glare at him. “You tired, Genefreak?”

I see birds all morning on the ride. They keep playing around the edge of my vision, then disappearing. They got a fancy word for that–heat-induced-hallucinations–but I could just swear they were real.

I bike alongside Theo. He keeps getting stuck in the sand drifts that cover the road into Zion. I show him how to peddle into them with just enough momentum to coast through. I lean over to point to Theo where he needs to stop pedaling, which is why I don’t see the hole in the road that sends me end-o off my bike.

End-over-end-over-end, and then I hit the hard-rock ground with my legs, and something in my left leg snaps. Like a painful rubber band ricocheting up my calf and thigh, then biting into my ass. The pain’s like getting a tooth pulled out, awful for a moment, then a kind of relief. Until I try to stand up, that is. I scream so loud tears pop out of my eyes.

“Don’t move, Josiah,” Scotty says.

I try to get up again, then I curl up on the ground and yell some more.

A torn Achilles takes six months to heal, and it’s never very strong after that. Every migrators knows about leg injuries, and which ones are recoverable. This one isn’t.

It gets real quiet between us all. There’s a question that they don’t want to ask, and I don’t want to answer. I’d made my decision years ago, but it’s different being here, having finally arrived where I always knew I’d end up. Finally, I say, “This’ll be my last dance. As long as that’s okay with you, Theo?”

We all look at him, but he won’t look back at any of us. I can see the struggle going on inside of him, deciding what kind of man he is going to be. Finally, he nods his head and says, “I’m a migrator, aren’t I?”

I ride tied up behind Theo and he uses up all his hover on me, riding gentle over all the rough spots. Scotty rides with my bike strapped onto his back. We take a trail through desert back-country so no one will catch sight of us. We’re only thirty miles out from Zion, but it’s the longest ride of my life. Funny how time stretches out at the least convenient times.

“Hey Theo,” I say, just as the ridge of the Narrows comes into sight.

He looks sick. I remember the first time I was part of something like this on a migration. I tell him the same thing I was told. “This is nothing. Don’t let it worry you. Okay?”

Theo hits a bump, and I hold back a groan. As soon as we get to the top of the canyon where the ropes are all set out, Hector radios in that we are starting the dance in four minutes. I hear the Sponsor start to complain and ask why, real anxious like, but Hector cuts him off.

They make a circle around me, and dress and harness me as gently and quickly as they can. The Sponsor will be on his way up the old canyon road. If he makes it here….

Hector radios in again and says they better cue the music because we’re starting right now. Scotty and Keith cut both the ropes that will hold me up. Not all the way through, but enough so they will snap. Later on the police will examine the ropes and suspect foul play, but there’ll be four men swearing nothing happened. We walk to the edge of the canyon. Theo and Hector hold me up, and, as one, we all jump out into the Narrows Canyon, arcing and spinning around in the air, holding up our arms that are the wings of the California Condor.

The ropes are tethered to both sides of the canyon, and one rope pulls taut as I hit one side of the canyon, then kick out from it with my good leg. The harness pushes on the bulge of my snapped muscles. I hiss and grunt with the effort: the California condor has no vocal cords. Around me others hiss and flap. I spread my midnight wings out to their full length and look down at the canyon, at all the people looking up at me. I flow towards Keith, who grabs my hands, midair, and spins me around. I hit the other side of the canyon and swoop out from it. The other dancers fly around me. Their wings and hands touch me, saying goodbye. I see them with a clarity I don’t think I’ve ever had before. I see the birds in them, and the men. I wish I could tell them this–that it is something more, not less–but there are only hisses and pain.

One of my ropes snaps and I fall hard, hitting one side of the canyon. Hard rock smashes across my head, back, and legs. People scream, though of course this is one of the reasons so many come to see us perform. The other rope holds me above the Narrows, above the silvery Virgin river that wants me to come home, and I kick out into the canyon. A sixth bird joins us, and I know that I don’t want to die, am not ready to die yet. It is huge with twice the wingspan of any of us, and I feel the uplift from its wings as it flies beneath me. I recognize it is the bird I’ve been seeing the whole ride. I reach out to touch it. Its feathers are hot as fire. A Thunderbird. It fills my vision and there is nothing else. My body slams against the side of the canyon again, and the other rope snaps. My body falls, and it is all feathers and flight.

_____
Copyright 2011 Katherine Sparrow

Katherine Sparrow lives in a commune in Seattle with a bunch of strange and lovely birds. She likes to bike and has the calf muscles to prove it. She’s currently working on a book about monsters and the teenagers who love them. She blogs at ktsparrow.livejournal.com and has a website at katherinesparrow.net.

By Ben Burgis

The Tsar abdicates in February. The Provisional Government gets around to letting Fyodor out of prison in March. In April, he meets his Uncle Grigor at a Petrograd cafe. They talk about magic, death and revolution.

“I don’t care, Fyodka. Romans or Visagoths, Christians or Mohammedans, Tsars or…” The old man waves his hand, making a show of remembering the word. “…Bolsheviks… They’re all just different acts in the same circus.”

Fyodor and Grigor sit at a table by the window. They drink their tea in the Ukranian style, with apple slices.

Most of Grigor’s little sermon is familiar from the letters they exchanged while Fyodor was in prison, but one line rankles. “Politics change. What we do doesn’t. You should remember that.”

Fyodor wants very badly to correct that ‘we,’ to tell his uncle that there’s a reason he hasn’t so much as looked at his magic books since he was fourteen years of age. Instead, he blows on his tea and watches the steam rise up and disappear. When he does speak, his voice is subdued.

“In ancient Rome, who did the work?”

(more…)

by Angela Ambroz

What were we doing here? Traveling hundreds or thousands of light-years, to break our hearts? -Gateway, Frederick Pohl

All spacers are incurably sentimental. -The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison

I. GHADA AND ASAD

“Oh, Ghada, Ghada, Ghada.”

“If you say my name one more time, I swear to Jesus, I will kill you.”

Asadullah Khan scowled. Ghada Nabulaale rolled her eyes.

Was this going to be their new relationship? Had time dilation really turned her former lover into someone with gnarled joints and arthritis? She examined Asadullah’s hair, what had once been a source of such comfort and delight for her. Back in London, she had loved to run her fingers through the thick, dark curls, to tease him for his Muslimfro. Now it was all thinning and white, less virile youth, more aging Gene Wilder. Ghada sighed.

Of course, things were better than she had imagined them, back so many years ago. When she had signed her name crookedly along the dotted line, signing her life away to Big Drop adventures, she had imagined that time dilation would mean an end to all of her Earthly relationships. She had said tearful goodbyes to family and friends, she had gotten drunk in Soho and spent days in the pre-Drop group therapy sessions. Asadullah Khan, her lover, her friend, had already gone three months before. And what was London without Asad?

“Ghada my child!” Mum exclaimed in her Londonized Swahili. Rare city sunlight streamed in through the kitchen windows. “Mwanangu, what kichaa crazy are you going after? Your Asadullah had to go, and now you want to follow him?”

Ghada tucked her knees under her chin and cried.

“Oh, don’t do that,” Mum said. “There was nothing either of you could do.”

“I just don’t want to stay here, Mum. I can’t!” Every lane, every bend and arch in the skyline was full of memories. “Jesus, I hate the Empire!”

“Doesn’t everybody? But it is the way it is, angel. Just be happy they didn’t draft you, too!”

Her family didn’t want her to leave, she didn’t want to go, but she couldn’t stay. It would have felt like a betrayal to Asad. How could she keep living in comfort on Earth when he would be hurtling across the night sky? The draft letter had said he would be working on civilian colonization, Drop site maintenance, non-military stuff. But didn’t they also say no colony was safe in a time of war?

On the day of her departure, she pressed her face against the tram windows and watched the glowing city pass her: the steam from the Thames, the glistening, oily smoke from the Eye, the crowds of happy people with their feet on the ground.

Who would have thought that only five years later, Ghada would be sitting with Asad again, on a new space ship (the Rahu Ketu), in a new galaxy (unknown), lost to the Drop network and heading back to Earth. And who would have thought that Asadullah would be (1) so much older, (2) an alcoholic, and (3) keen.

But he was. He was all Allah has given me a precious gift this and When you smile, I swear I can hear the Afrigo Band that, and he dared to squeeze her hand between his arthritic fingers. Ghada had, at first, been disgusted and appalled. But then, as the weeks passed aboard the Rahu Ketu, she had grown used to him, even fond of him in a weird, grandfatherly way. It was a time dilation soap opera, a Hindi film of improbabilities and space.

Anyway, her ex-teetotaler ex-boyfriend was a wonderful drinking buddy.

How had the Big Drop changed Ghada? Prolonged youth, shortened patience, a dependence on therapy (curer of all ills! benefactor of the universe!) and crude language. She had left Earth at the age of twenty and now she was twenty-five.

“Ayurvedic, cognitive behavioral, acupuncture, old school Tibetan, Freudian, anti-Freudian, rational energy focus…” Ghada counted on her fingers. “If we just fucking dragged the Imperial leaders to therapy once in a while–any kind!–we would never have had this stupid war.”

How had all those smaller Drops changed Asadullah? Alcoholism, age, cynicism, chronic anxiety, poor short term memory. He had left Earth at twenty and now he was sixty-something.

“Chinese baijiu, vodka, whiskey, Italian grappa is nice…” Asadullah trailed off. “I started drinking after my first Drop, nearly forty years ago. So long ago.”

Asadullah of London had been one of those semi-devout Muslims–no alcohol, no pork, sneaking snacks during Ramadan but then feeling guilty during Eid al-Fitr. Asadullah of the Rahu Ketu had morphed into someone less strict, more Sufi. Asadullah of the Rahu Ketu had lived through the forced transcendence of Drops–again and again, almost two per year. He was well-acquainted with the disorienting Droplag, the preliminary fear, the sickening relief afterwards. He had started developing poetic and forgiving attitudes towards God, because it was his only way of coping.

The first Droplag crept in, as expected, a few months before the Rahu Ketu was to hit the Drop. It was a decent Drop, with an optimistic survival probability of eighty percent. Ghada was floating through a zero-gravity corridor, arms behind her head and thinking about when her next therapy session was supposed to happen. How was she supposed to learn and grow as a human being if Doctor Rai kept falling asleep during their meetings? It was Asad’s fault for overworking him.

Ghada’s head had just bumped gently against someone’s forgotten sandal. They were playing an old Hindi film song on the speakers: Love, love, love, oh, what does the world kno-o-ow? And then Ghada started feeling that mixed-up sensation in her stomach, that feeling that Buckingham Palace was taking shape over the view of upside-down Krishna posters.

“Come on, come on!”

London, rain, a thousand years ago.

She and Asadullah were protesting the Hindustani Empire and the Chinese Empire and the stupid awful narrow-minded skirmishes that happened between them in far-off galaxies. Ghada dragged Asadullah out of the Tube station, through the rain (pausing only to get some tea and samosas from the chaiwallah stand), and then they were outside of Big Ben, placards in hand. BUILD SCHOOLS NOT DROPS! TERRAFORM THE GHETTO FIRST! BRITISH FIRST HINDUSTANI SECOND!

When Prime Minister Indira Allison Desai or any of the other colonial governors came walking out of Big Ben’s parking lot, Ghada, Asadullah and a hundred other protesters erupted in jeers, shrill heckles, and a shower of eggs.

Afterwards, Ghada and Asad retreated to the pub down the road–The Head and Elbow–and had a curry before crashing the National Gallery. Ghada loved to jump through the holograms when the museum guides weren’t looking. Once she was caught and banned from the National Gallery “for nine hundred ninety-nine years.” The museum guides had scanned Ghada’s DNA and logged her into the main desk computer. Asadullah had found it all very funny. The ban had probably expired by now.

Ghada drifted back to the reality of the Rahu Ketu. She immediately decided: Droplag. Post-traumatic flashbacks were quick, violent things, like a punch to the stomach. Droplags felt more like a massage on the shoulders from someone creepy and unattractive.

She looked around: some of the other floaters had confused expressions on their faces. Yes, definitely a Droplag.

II. GHADA AND LUCREZIA

One year out of the Big Drop, and Ghada decided that she was a pacifist, but this time, she meant it. Who the hell cared if the Chinese Empire dropped a million atomic bombs on some planet in the middle of nowhere? Ghada would have no more to do with it. She was Londonese, Ugandan, part-Kenyan–she was about as Hindustani as the Hindustanis had been British thousands of years ago. And if the Hindustani Empire needed someone to go stop the Chinese missiles, or needed someone to unload a retaliation strike against some poor old planet before it was even named, they would have to find someone else.

Ghada, in the meanwhile, would be a pirate.

Modeling herself on the mythical heroes of her youth–Lady Fading Parekh, Ian Lonely–and combining their action-adventure spirit with the money-making schemes of the Shreemati Lakshmi Bachchan-Tata-Rockfellji, Moon-Buyer, Ghada fell out of the Big Drop and became a pirate. She wasn’t going to play the Imperial games anymore, she was going to jump through holographic Mona Lisas and sell drugs and do whatever she could to avoid the Empire and the Big Drop.

She fell back into civilization in the system of New Andhra Pradesh. She found a junky space ship called Hanuman’s Mace and used her military pension to buy it. Its corridors were narrow like a submarine’s, with exposed piping and rusty doors. Someone had tried to renovate the cockpit and given up halfway, so that outdated dials and screens huddled next to modern Dropware. The controls were sticky. The door frame to the cockpit was decorated with hundreds of pink heart stickers.

Now, Ghada needed to pick up her partner from the post-Big Drop therapy groups.

Her partner was the pretty, funny, demented Lucrezia. Lucrezia had been in Ghada’s matriculation class. They had taken the Big Drop together and they knew what it felt like to have your temporal reality detach like a tooth gone moldy.

Ghada loved Lu. Lu was short and plump, with wavy brown hair and sharp Sicilian features. No one knew historical minutiae about the Florentine Renaissance like Lu did. She could tell you for how many minutes Savonarola the crazy monk burned, and how much a kilo of Parmesan cheese cost in 1492. It was a weird fetish, but very useful for pub quizzes. Apart from knowing all the details of fifteenth century Florentine history, Lu was good with mock alfresco painting and artificial intelligence.

One day, Lu built a semi-organic butler-bot for the two of them: he turned out to be four feet tall, with a stiff smile and a lurching gait. They called him Vinci.

“Aoh, Vinci! Cazzo, what are you doing?” Lu demanded, stepping from behind an energy interface. Her face had streaks of grease on it from where she had rubbed her eyes with her fists. “Make yourself useful and cook us something!”

“Ew, Lu, you made his skin too squishy,” Ghada said, squeezing his small bicep in her hand.

Lu was terrible with money, so Ghada took over finances and navigation. Lu instead managed Vinci (“Aoh! Ah-move, bello!”) and managed all face-to-face deals. They never mentioned it aloud, but Lu was their walking fairness cream advertisement.

As thick-skinned as she considered herself to be, it still hurt Ghada that the colonial bumpkins had taken old Earthly racism with them, painting the universe with it. Over a thousand years since the caste system had been officially thrown out and products like Fair and Handsome had been banned from Earthly supermarkets, the far-off colonies had regressed into pre-modern conservative societies. Or, as Ghada called them, Bumpkinia.

When Lu was negotiating, deals went through and money was made. When Ghada negotiated, the colonists usually said things like, Can I touch your hair? Is that Earth hair?

“Don’t worry so much about it,” Lu said one evening, styling Vinci’s hair into a fauxhawk. “These space people, eh? They don’t know cazzo.”

“Easy for you to say! You’ve never had to live it like I have.”

“True. But I know a little, eh–back on Earth, yes, I was in Chinese Fiji when Italy was ormai Hindustani. That was a bad time. Oh, the looks I was getting there! People yelled things: ‘Hey, albino! Hey, white Moghul!’ So embarrassing, you know?”

“Bad time,” Vinci repeated mechanically. “Bad looks.” His hair stood up, stiff with wax.

Ghada rolled her eyes, but silently thanked Lu for trying. Another thing about Lu: she cared, but wasn’t very good at transmitting sympathy. Like Ghada, the Big Drop had kept Lu young but given accent to her faults.

“I don’t know, Lu. You’re talking colonial politics, I’m talking ethnic heritage. It’s a bit more fucking complicated.” Ghada sighed. “I have so much to work on in therapy.”

Lu laughed. “You mental health junkie!”

It was a tourist barge, floating out of the New Uttar Pradesh Drop. Its license tag read Georgetown Chennai X. Ghada and Lu watched it from the Mace’s cockpit, miles away, with three monitors tracking its progress in green and pink smears. The barge’s path was adjusting itself so that it pointed to the Super Taj. Everything was right on schedule.

A note about the Super Taj: Back in the day, the pioneers had gone crazy with all the space, and so–fueled partly by homesickness and partly by architectural orgasms at the sight of such a big canvas–they built enormous copies of Earth’s cheesiest tourist attractions. Bigger, they cried, bigger! And now the Hindustani Empire was populated with Red Forts the size of small countries, with Gates of India sitting atop planetary poles, and with many, many Taj Mahals. The New UP moon had one such Taj Mahal, a man-made structure so big it had to stretch around the moon’s surface, bending with the curve. When they held functions at the Super Taj (as Ghada called it), it glowed fierce and bright in the night sky. It was very fancy and impressive and, yes, worth a visit. But not that many people would take a Drop just to see a tourist attraction. Dropping was too scary.

“Big whale ahead,” Vinci said. His voice had that eerie, artificial cadence: Big whale ahead.

“Sure enough, son,” Ghada whispered.

“That is big–eh,” Lu said. “Big like Moby Dick.”

Ghada picked up the navigation booklet–For the Eternal Glory of the Empire (Hindustan zindabad!): Official Key, Hindustani Drops (Green)–and threw it, spine-first, at Lu. Lu dodged it with a squawk.

“Aoh!”

“Bad luck, idiot!”

“Moby–” Vinci began.

“Hush!” Ghada leapt back and cuffed him on the head. He staggered forward with an, “Oh!”

“Sorry, Vinci,” Ghada steadied him. “But shut the fuck up. That’s an order.”

A whole new system of superstitions had started with the Drop network. It was so easy to die in one–the force of Dropping, if you hit it at the wrong angle, could spaghettify the strongest materials–and even though the pioneers had long ago provided accurate survival probabilities to each Drop, the human mind didn’t cope well with probabilistic survival. So apart from obsessive checking of Drop probs–fifty percent, eighty percent, ten percent–a number of arbitrary magical thinking rules had sprung up as well: Three prostrations before entering any Drop, for good luck. Never, ever mention Hawking Paradoxes, or you will die. When whaling, never refer to your mark as “Moby Dick” or the police will get you.

Three hours later, Ghada, Lu and Vinci stood on board the not-Moby Dick, guns in hand. The barge’s systems had still been scrambled with post-Drop residue, and it had been easy to dismantle their entire security system, block transmissions and lock all the doors. Then the Mace had swooped in, docked against the barge’s enormous side, and they had boarded.

A few passengers had been caught in the corridors when all the doors had slid shut. Sometimes this could be a problem, as Ghada and Lu were not in the business of hostages. So Vinci had blasted the kneecaps off one old man, and that had convinced everyone else to just sit quietly on the ground, avoiding the nozzle of Vinci’s gun.

Ghada found Lu in the barge’s command deck, downloading Imperial credits to her jump drive.

“That Vinci is a violent little bastard, what the hell did you do to his programming?” Ghada asked.

“Aoh, I know,” Lu said, tired. “I will change it when we are back home. The kneecap thing–what a bad figura, eh! Big mistake. Is the old guy okay?”

“He’s fine now,” Ghada said. “But I had to load him with half our meds. Shit, Lu, I think he was a priest.”

Lu shrieked. “Catholic?!”

“Hindu.”

“Porca puttana, cazzo,” Lu swore. “That Vinci–he becomes a microwave tomorrow!”

“Amen.”

“And after this, eh, we go to Delhi? I’m tired of Bumpkinia.”

“One hundred percent, Lu.” Ghada tucked her gun into her jeans. “How much did we make?”

Lu smiled devilishly. “Enough to buy our own celeb clone, ha ha.”

Welcome to Delhi dystopia, center of the human universe!

So the businesspeople said, clucking into their million-dollar hookah pipes and plotting new Drops and colonies. The advertisements that flickered over the floating Super Gate of India, miles above orbit, instead read, “Welcome to His and Her Imperial Majesties’ Home, the Kohinoor Diamond of the Universe, DELHI PRIME. Hindustan zindabad! Hindustan zindabad! Hindustan zindabad!”

The military headquarters were here, the commercial center was here, the palaces, mahals, super-temples, super-mosques, monuments and vast tracts of beehive residential homes and everything were here. It was the center of the Hindustani Empire–the big fat black heart that pumped people to the new planets. It was called the Jewel Near Mimosa and Star City. No one mentioned the equally brilliant Beijing 3, located just a thousand light-years away in the direction of the Horsehead Nebula. And no one except the yogis mentioned Mother Earth, the real center of everything. Earth was shared sacred space between Hindustani and Chinese alike, and it would not do to remind the brilliant Empire of its humble human origins.

Delhi Prime was a ball of pure, pulsing city. Its orbit was cluttered with satellites, docking ports and yacht moorings. Streams of incoming ships floated out into space like prayer flags cut loose in low gravity. Zero-gee slums had sprung up around the ports and any abandoned vessels. Coming through the holographic image of His and Her Imperial Majesties’ smiling faces and namaste-ing hands, Ghada and Lucrezia could see only black glitter and metal from the cockpit window.

The chatter from several docking port workers streamed through their audio, along with rousing choral renditions of the Imperial anthem.

“Reading two passengers aboard ship registration key…”

“…requesting DNA certificates, transmission channel five-five-beta-Lakshmi…”

“Check, check. Accha, right.”

Sa-are jahan se ach-cha!” Vinci started singing and pumping his fist into the air, eyes glazed over with remote control patriotism, “Hindusta-an hamara!

Better than everywhere, our Hindustan!

“Oh Jesus, turn him off,” Ghada groaned.

“And make a bad figura?” Lucrezia said. She waved her hands towards the nearest docking port. “They see everything! Every-thing! Leave the little man to sing.”

She stuffed a pair of false DNA IDs into the communication link. A blip appeared on one of the monitors: the outline of Ganesh, and four small swastikas–the old symbol of profit and good luck–in each corner. The swastikas started spinning like windmills while the Ganesh faded from red to green as the information uploaded. Once the image was fully green, everything dissolved into, WELCOME TO DELHI, SHREE AND SHREEMATI CHANDRA! Super-saturated ads flooded all the monitors, targeted to the tastes of the the old, deceased Mister and Missus Chandra. Lu busily clicked OFF on each ad, while Ghada glided the Mace into the nearest docking port.

One ad burst through, filling the entire cockpit window with holographic rainbows. A little girl sat in a field, playing mournfully. Woe, she announced, I am so alone. If only I had some brothers and sisters! A stern-looking mother appeared and wagged her finger, I need a career first. A distracted father entered from the other side of the window frame: And we should wait until we’ve bought a home.

But, no! The ad’s voice over cried, tinny. Why wait? Children are (insert appropriate deity)’s gift, and a big family is a happy family. Remember, kids, tell your parents! A big family is a happy family! For the eternal glory of the Empire, Hindustan zindabad!

They were sitting in Tamarind’s Chutney House, owned by Tamarind, self-described God of Chutney. Freshly finished with their saag paneer curry and sweet coconut naans, Ghada and Lucrezia leaned back. Lucrezia nursed a red cider in a tall steel mug, while Ghada puffed pensively on a green tea beedi. Tamarind’s Chutney House was located right on the edge of the Parsee district, where it merged into the riotous blend of Old Pioneer Town. Arching into the foggy, orange-black sky was one of the earliest monuments to space pioneering history: the oversized replica of Earthly Delhi’s Jama Masjid. The mosque’s minarets reached up past the traffic, disappearing into smog.

Amid the roar and whine of air rickshaws and taxis, Ghada could hear someone tapping a microphone. Then, the call to prayer began–a roaring, vibrant adhan that rattled the steel platters and chairs of the Chutney House. It was so loud, Ghada could feel the decibels stressing her eardrums, the rattling bass in her teeth. She was reminded of something one of the Imperial officers had said about the stress of Dropping: “It’s like forced transcendence, Ghada. You can’t push people into the sublime before they’re ready.” The muezzin in his minaret continued, bellowing.

When it was finished, Lucrezia made a show of cleaning her ears and said, “I dated a taqwacore punk once. He was very funny, good with–cazzo, how do you say?–imitations.”

“You mean impressions.”

“Yes, yes. His name was Mustafa. Singer in a Sufi band, too, very sexy.”

“My last boyfriend on Earth loved Sufi stuff,” Ghada smiled, remembering.

“What was his name?”

“Asadullah. Asad.”

“Oh yes! You have mentioned him.”

Ghada nodded. “Asad and I owned every Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan album every released.”

“Eh, Nusrat? He was so-so.”

“If Asad heard you say that, he would probably faint.”

“Cazzo, my music opinions are always unpopular.”

They laughed at a shared memory–pre-Big Drop training school, silly parties, arguments over bad hair bands.

“Arrey! What’s this?” A man’s voice.

From the crowds of Old Pioneer Town’s main road, a large man emerged. He was bearded and wearing the Sikh dastaar turban, but he looked too light to be pure Hindustani. And his sword was samurai style.

“Is that a green tea beedi, my friend?” the man asked, addressing Ghada.

“Ji, it is,” she said. “Want one?”

“Oh, no, please, my body is a gurdwara. I was just surprised to find such a familiar smell in a Parsee neighborhood. Sat Sri Akal, my name is Toshiro Singh.” He put his palms together and bowed.

“Sat Sri Akal,” Ghada and Lu returned the greeting.

“So where are you two from? And what brings you to this little hill station of the universe?”

“Well, she’s from Italy,” Ghada said. “And I’m from London, by way of Kampala.”

“Italy… London…” Toshiro Singh murmured. “Surely you don’t mean the Earthly ones?”

“Sure do, bhai, Earth-born one hundred percent.”

“Well! Well, well!” Toshiro Singh boomed. “That’s very impressive! And I thought I was impressive–mother was second-generation Kyoto, father third-generation Amritsar. Eh, a little impressive, na? Accha, maybe not. Come, let me buy you some real green tea and we can reminisce over the motherland. I’ve never met real Earth people before!”

They let themselves be cajoled–it was something to do, anyway–by this strange, friendly Japanese-Sikh man. He took them to the Green Tea Bonanza stall (green tea ice cream, green tea tofu, green tea toothpaste) down the road and ordered the fanciest tea for all three, the tea that came with a sparkler in it and twirled the Hindustani anthem. Toshiro had a quirky Punjabi accent, interspersed with the odd Japanese word, and he was bulky in an appealing way, making Ghada think of the green tea condoms hanging above the register.

Over the tea, Ghada and Lucrezia relaxed in his company and chatted easily, exploring each other’s histories as the hours went on. They lied about the Big Drop to him, and painted themselves as fresh-faced Imperial minions currently employed in the shipping division of Food Corps, New Faridabad. Toshiro admitted that they didn’t look very colonist-ish–Not like the yokels out there, eh? he said, waving his hand towards the sky–and this pleased Ghada.

At one point, Toshiro leaned forward and asked, “So tell me, Lucrezia-chan, you sometimes make civilian deliveries on your food travels, eh?”

“We’re not running a postal service,” Lu said. She had a jasmine chai mustache. “But if we like you, we can deliver some stuff, sure.”

“Ah. Because, you see, I have a small business on the side…skyrock, jump, you know what I mean? Only top quality,” Toshiro continued. “All my stock guarantees an ad-free trip, seven hours minimum.”

“Well, I’m not interested,” Lu said. “My body is a gurdwara too, bhaiyya. But maybe Ghada?”

“No way,” Ghada said. “Beedis are it for me.” They had probably given themselves away as post-Big Drop right there. Drop vets hated hallucinogenic drugs, the lag memories were enough.

“No, I don’t mean to sell, I need only some mules,” Toshiro whispered. “My business is small down on New Faridabad, I don’t make enough trips to keep up with demand. You wouldn’t have to sell it. I have a contact there to handle sales.”

“Wait, you want us to run drugs for you?” Ghada asked.

Toshiro just smiled.

Well, it was money. Well, it was a sexy employer. Well, it was sticking it to the Empire.

“Well…” Lu said.

“Well…” Ghada said.

0. DROPLAG

What was funny about Drops is that they killed religion. Not all religion, just the old ones that preached free will. Because Droplag showed pretty definitely that free will was an illusion, and once you were on a course, you would probably end up finishing it. The rule of karma prevailed, suddenly cause and effect were taken much more seriously–it was an iron-clad rule, not a bendy philosophy. (It was a good time to be a Buddhist.)

To everything there was a cause, and to every cause, an effect. Choices you had made years ago fermented over time and came to fruition, exploding like over-ripe mangoes. One minute, you were having a green tea beedi at Tamarind’s Chutney House, the next, you were falling down an unexpected Drop in a single-person escape pod. In hindsight, it all made perfect sense and the chain of reactions seemed clear. But living it, who knew! Ghada would never have predicted that she would end up smuggling skyrock for a Japanese-Sikh man named Toshiro Singh. For his part, Toshiro was probably just as surprised. But that was because neither of them had ever stopped to consider the eternally long chain of events that had led to this point. Neither of them realized that they had written their own destinies a very long time ago.

But back to the Droplag. As soon you set your coordinates for a Drop–whether it was a week or a year before taking it–the Droplag started. The strange thing about Droplag was that it only worked in reverse, as you came up to a Drop, never as you left it. Droplag could best be described as flashbacks and flashforwards, memories of time. It was like seeing a film trailer of your own life, smudged, saturated and incomplete. Going insane with Droplag was not uncommon. Some people tried to avoid the nasty things they had seen and turned into modern-day Oedipa (without the incest, usually). Many people claimed that what they had seen never came true, that the Droplag lied, but who could believe them? Everyone was living in their own private paradox. And everyone experienced the same reality: Droplag never lies.

Ghada, for her part, had taken the Big Drop, renowned as having the worst lag. Strange things happened in the Big one. Going through it meant having everything scrambled, every strand snapped loose. It even had its own psychiatric disorder: the Big Drop shakes. And all for the eternal glory of the Empire (Hindustan zindabad!), all for the eternal search for new sites, new resources, new colonies.

Smart people knew how to play Droplag. If they started feeling the tentacles of time crawling towards them, they welcomed them, studied them. Pre-Drop anxiety was a related issue. There were pre-Drop meditation sessions, pre-Drop drinking sessions. There were tarot card readers who claimed to interpret Droplag. There were sacred cows and holy parrots who could decipher the mystical images for you. I saw myself with a girl, but I like men.

Oh-oh, the parrot would squawk. Great change coming. Time to adapt. Invest in the creative!

Buddhism wasn’t the only religion to benefit from Droplag, suddenly all the dharmic religions flourished – Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism. Because Droplag signified cosmic predetermination which signified humanity’s helplessness, and all this signified dharma. And dharma meant duty, it meant purpose, it meant roles. Dharma meant castes, hence the village empire of Bumpkinia.

Ghada was no parrot, but she knew enough to recognize Droplag when she saw it.

“Lu.”

Lucrezia looked up from where she was organizing their shipment of skyrock. The rainbow crystals glowed dimly in their boxes. The interiors of the Mace were dark. They were waiting for Toshiro-san to come deliver their pay. He had said to wait near the edge of the New Faridabad system, far from the system’s lonely colony, drifting in the nothing-zone. He had said to wait with the lights off.

“Eh? What?” Lucrezia’s palms were glittering from skyrock residue, like she had the galaxy in her hand.

“Lu, I think I just had Droplag.”

“What? Eh? Impossible. We’re not moving from here for months, and we’re taking the slow lane.”

“It was definitely lag. I saw… pink.”

Lucrezia sniffed her hands. “Probably this stuff, eh? Sometimes I see blue.”

But Ghada was right, her destiny had suddenly been altered and the Droplag was trying to give her advance warning.

Six hours later, Toshiro Singh’s cruiser had crashed into the Hanuman’s Mace. His hologram flickered on the screen, and they could see that his Hokusai-embroidered robes were drenched in blood. Imperial police were coming up fast on the radar. The emergency alarms were screaming, Vinci the butler was reported as having been sucked out into the vacuum of space. Without speaking, Ghada and Lucrezia ran to the escape pods, climbed in and launched.

The universe was full of unmarked, illegal Drops. Dangerous stuff. When Ghada felt her face begin to stretch, she suddenly understood why Toshiro-san had told them to wait in that particular spot. A perfect getaway. In retrospect, it all made sense.

III. GHADA

There had been times when Ghada found herself on the bottom bunk of a three-bunk bed, stuffed into the engine room of an overcrowded ship, times when she would walk into a bathroom Lucrezia had quickly evacuated, warning, Don’t go in there, times when she was jostled by idiot colonists while waiting in line for something. Those were the times that Ghada dreamed of being alone. She wanted her Me time, her cave against reality. Those were the times she would have given anything to be floating in the middle of nothing, with no people, no talk, no interruptions or stupid ideas.

Now that Ghada found herself in that idyll of loneliness–the escape pod–she despaired.

Or she would have despaired, if the pod juices let her feel anything other than detached, intellectual contentment.

Pods were built to last, and to keep whatever was inside happy and alive. For that reasons, much like a womb, they held lone passengers in their gooey pod placenta, stuffing the person with nutrients and mood stabilizers. It was said a healthy human being could live out their entire natural lifespan in a well-functioning escape pod.

The last time Ghada had checked, this was a well-functioning escape pod.

So here she was, facing the possibility of another fifty, sixty years of contented, lonely nothingness. A fetus that would never be born. When she had fallen down the unmarked Drop, she had left the maps forever and entered into uncharted regions of space. The chance of her ever being rescued had now dwindled from Unlikely to Never Ever. The probabilities were so spectacular, they scraped the limits of a Hindi film’s suspension of disbelief.

Ah, but life was a Hindi film sometimes. Except in a good masala potboiler, Ghada would probably go crashing into Earth to be rescued by her mother. Who knew? She was probably in the home star system right now.

Actually, if we were talking real, pure Puranic masala filmi goodness, Ghada’s mother would have been rendered blind from the grief of losing her daughter, and there would follow three hours of impossible irony and extravagant naach-gaana music before the blindness revealed itself to be temporary and all were reunited, happy and healthy and well-informed.

Come on, laugh, Ghada’s intellect insisted. That was a good one! Remember how you loved those things? Remember how you watched them huddled under your blankets, embarrassed to be caught with them? Come on, feel something!

But Ghada’s gut sent no signal. The mood stabilizers were working.

Oh, dammit, Ghada subvocalized.

The pod’s monitor picked up the movement in her throat and repeated, OH DAMMIT

You’re going to die here, away from everyone, alone, abandoned. Lucrezia is probably dead. Toshiro-san is almost definitely dead. Mom and Dad are dead. A genocide of loved ones. All gone! Come on. Come on! Fee-eel!

Nothing.

Her non-emoting emotions replied pragmatically: ITS NOT SO BAD OTHER PEOPLE EXIST

MAKE NEW FRIENDS

Damn synthetic serotonin!

You know, this didn’t make sense on a purely evolutionary level, Ghada’s intellect reasoned. If pod passengers didn’t despair at their condition, how would they ever make any effort to get out of it? What if the entire human race took separate escape pods? How would they survive?

PODS WIRED TO TRAVEL TO NEAREST KNOWN DESTINATION SAFE SPOT

NO NEED FOR DRAMA QUEENS AT CONTROLS

JUST TAKE IT EASY YOU

Ghada’s intellect railed at Ghada’s gut. It thrashed, it gnawed, it tried to get a response: Those arguments only worked if you took a pod in a known system. What if you lost the Drop network altogether?

PEOPLE THAT STUPID NO GOOD FOR HUMAN RACE ANYWAY

GOOD RIDDANCE

Okay, now she was insulting herself. And she was having two-sided arguments with her vocal chords, which was a diagnostic criterion for Crazy.

A new tactic: the mundane, the moral, the epicurean. Wasn’t it sad that she would be doomed to a lifetime of pills and pink goo instead of a nice tamarind-papaya curry once in a while? Surely that was not only tragic, it was unnatural.

UNNATURAL RELATIVE TERM

VERY RELATIVE

TIMES THEY ARE ACHANGIN

ALL THE TIME

Ghada cursed her intellect, cursed all those times she had ever mused on something philosophical or listened to folk music.

But the pod just chugged along its merry way, loading her down with pleasant feelings and keeping her healthy and clean, even when every part of her intellect screamed that this could not be so. She deserved to feel at least a little horrible about what had happened.

The pod said it was time to sleep, so Ghada slept.

She was awoken by a rush of ALARM hormones, almost a headache of them. When she opened her eyes, she saw a pink light above one of the monitors. Her health read-outs were a Himalayan range of emotional turmoil. Something must have gone wrong, very wrong. Had she had nightmares? Why was the pink light blinking?

She sub-vocalized, REPORT LAST TWELVE HOURS

The natural up-down cycle of hormones, synaptic charges, breathing patterns and heartbeats unfolded in an undulating curve on the main screen. At hour nine, all of Ghada’s physiological reactions had spiked into an Everest of anxiety, and then the serotonin transporters had been stuffed with happy chemicals. Now all was calm again, excepting that pink light.

LIGHT DEFINE YOURSELF

A woman’s voice filled the placenta. Ghada noted with alarm that it matched, tone for tone, her mother’s voice. Speaking her mother’s Swahili-English, it sang, “Ghada mwanangu, life detected. Escape pod preparing to dock.”

“Holy shit!” Ghada said, out loud. “Life, here?”

“Language, my child.”

“Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit! All walls: fall away! Space view, now!”

The escape pod obliged and all its walls disappeared so that Ghada had a three-hundred-sixty view of space surrounding her. It was like swimming in a black sea. For one awful moment, vertigo overwhelmed her and she nearly panicked. But the pod quickly loaded her down with its artificial Zen, and Ghada was able to muse, detachedly, on the looming barge above her. It didn’t look like some exotic alien spaceship (her initial reaction). It looked drab and old and anticlimactic, like every other whale Ghada had ever boarded.

FRIEND OR FOE

“Not known, angel,” the fake Mum voice purred. “Hindustani signature, but wrong time zone.”

That was to be expected: the Drops screwed everything up, especially time.

“Detecting human life… and counting, sweets.”

Ghada watched the numbers tally ever higher – breaching five hundred, seven hundred, one thousand – but then the pod was already bumping up against the barge’s side and a docking bay was coming into view. All systems started switching off, leaving the total number of barge passengers mysterious, and the gel began to warm, preparing Ghada for her reentry in the low-pressure atmosphere of a bay.

“Goodbye, and I hope you enjoyed the journey, my child. Much love from Mum.”

I. GHADA AND ASAD

When he said who he was, she didn’t believe him.

He kept it up for an hour, and finally the realization that maybe he really was who he said he was began to creep into Ghada’s reality. Things swam away from her, panic flared alive, and she puked pod juice onto the Med Ward bed.

My name is Captain Asadullah Khan. We knew each other in London, Ghada.

More like, we loved each other in London.

Ghada tried to recognize him, but failed. Had his nose gotten larger? They said those things never stopped growing: nose, ears, hair. They said fingernails kept growing after death, even.

Asadullah’s fingernails were bitten down to the cuticle, a lifetime of nervous chewing. Check. He had a scar on his shoulder from where his sister had stabbed him with a stray wire when they were five and seven. Check. He knew the names of Ghada’s brothers, and he told her about the first time he had met her parents, in Lemington Spa. Check, check.

My name is Asadullah. Really, really. You used to call me Asad.

“Asad.”

It was like speaking to a memory. For a long time, Ghada thought she had really snapped in the escape pod, that she had really lost her grip on reality. All those inner dialogs about Hindi film coincidences, and now she was living one.

“Arrey,” Asadullah dragged out each syllable, the slow Asadullahy way of talking. “It’s not so improbable. Space is not so large yet, dear. There are not many ways to get lost out here.”

So they had been made for each other after all. Only soul mates could be the first two people in the history of humanity to accidentally fall out of the official Drop network. Soul mates in idiocy.

“But please to worry not, eh,” Asad said. “Our Chinese guests know the way back to Eden, and off we go. Only one short Drop away.”

“Explain to me again why you have prisoners of war on your ship.”

“Did I say that? I said they’re our guests. After so many Drops, there are no wars. How can we be at war when we don’t even know where or when we are? For all we know, the war probably ended a thousand light-years ago.”

So Asadullah had become a real pacifist too.

Several months later, and Ghada was thinking: Maybe this new Asad wasn’t so bad. The music was throbbing through the big room’s audio system. People had gathered for boozy socializing; it was an edgy, pre-Drop party aboard the Rahu Ketu. Asadullah Khan, her gentle, elderly ex-boyfriend, was drunk and singing along to the female vocals, dancing with Rani, the Navigator, and Nurse Patel from Med Ward, making them laugh with his antics. Ghada smiled. In three weeks, they would be Dropping. Ghada was having the usual lags: these days, she saw green.

Asadullah had let his fear show one morning. He had asked her if she saw him anywhere in her lags.

“I can’t see anything anymore,” he mumbled, touching a bottle of Chinese liquor. “Not after all this.”

Honestly, Ghada hadn’t seen Asadullah in her saturated glimpses of the future. But no one deserved to live in fear, especially one of her former loved ones, so she shrugged and said, “Sure, I see green and I see my idiot ex, Asadullah Khan.”

Asadullah had exhaled shakily, “Masha’Allah.” And he had kissed her on the cheek.

The absence of Asadullah in Ghada’s Droplags, however, started to weigh. One night she twitched in the bed sheets and came awake, screaming, “Lu!” And then she thought of Asad’s tired good-humor and easy laughter and she breathed panic and grief. Come on, Droplag! Show me what I want to see! Help me help him! But when the lag came, it was all hasty blurs of London’s National Gallery and the Horsehead Nebula and then green, forever green. She started wishing they had a parrot or horoscope cow on this overcrowded ship.

When Asadullah appeared at her door, the morning after the pre-Drop party, he stumbled and slurred. He knocked incessantly, bellowing, “Ghada! Ghada! Hello? Ghada!”

Ghada was in her room, shaking off a nightmare. She saw him on the monitor and called through the wall, “What the fuck? Go away, you!”

“Oh, there you are, Ghada!” Asadullah sang. “Oh, Ghada, Ghada, Ghada.”

“If you say my name one more time,” she shouted, “I swear to Jesus, I will kill you.”

But instead she opened the door and he came tumbling in. He reeked of baijiu liquor and seemed intent on giving Ghada a hug. She disentangled herself and forced him to sit at the desk, away from her.

She wanted to say: Look, don’t think just because back in the day, we used to, you know…

She wanted to say: We can talk but we are definitely not going to “share.” Emotional space needed to be maintained, reviving the past was impossible in an age of Drops.

She didn’t want to say: Please don’t die or disappear or go crazy in the Drop. I love you, you’re great. You’ve always been great.

What was the point of finding him again if it was all going to end a second time? Ghada pretended not to care, and she scowled at him. But then Asadullah joined her, sitting beside her on the bed, leaning against the wall and definitely entering her bubble of personal space. It was a clash of present and past: the familiar presence beside her, the unfamiliar face with unfamiliar habits. Ghada was sure that her self-help manuals didn’t allow this sort of behavior. Not that they covered this exact situation, either.

Asadullah sighed, a long, theatrical exhalation. “Ghada, my jaan, you are perfect. It’s true what they say about the Big Drop. You are preserved, young and healthy. I am so… envious of your good health.”

“Asad,” she interrupted him.

He looked at her, waiting. He had always been a good listener, he had always known her moods.

“I–just–look, speaking of health,” she stammered, “how are you? How’s the old heart and liver and…things?”

He understood immediately. “I’m not in your lags, am I?”

Ghada tried to sound nonchalant. “It’s just green. All green, all the time. Nothing else. I mean, I’m not there either.”

“Not much green in space. Or on board.” Asad chewed his lip. “That’s a good sign. Green sounds,” he wiggled his fingers, “Earthy.”

“How long have you been trying to get back?”

Another elaborate sigh. “Oh, years and years. Ten years. More!”

Ghada said nothing. For her, it had been five years since her first day in Big Drop training. Five years ago, she had been living with the Asad of the past in London, and their life together had been planned and perfect. Five years ago, present Asad had been on this same ship, worrying about the same things, drinking the same baijiu liquor. The paradox made her head hurt.

The frustration turned to anger. “What the fuck is the point? What is the point of us meeting again, if you’re just going to–”

“Arrey!” Asad exclaimed, shrill. “Don’t say it!”

“And why aren’t you in my lag?” She felt like crying. “Why don’t you have any?”

“Oh-ho, please to worry not, my little bird.” Asad retrieved a hip flask from his jacket and unscrewed. “Breathe in, breathe out. It will all be as Allah wishes.”

“How can you say that?” Ghada asked. He had never been so flamboyantly contradictory.

But Asad just passed her the flask. Reluctantly, she drank. It tasted metallic, old. Time passed, no Droplag materialized, there were noises in the corridor as the rest of the ship started waking up.

They had finished the flask when Ghada spoke again. “I’m sorry. Are you scared?”

“Of course I am,” Asad said. He sounded desperate, and tired. Without thinking, Ghada reached over and ruffled his hair. A familiar motion, a physical memory. She caught herself and then quickly crossed her arms.

It was the day of the Drop. Most of the other people on board had that self-involved glaze of intense Droplag; some looked disgusted. There was nothing a person could do to make Dropping comfortable. No emergency sitting position, no belts. Some people were hanging around in the corridors by the windows. The sight of a Drop–whirling, sucking space, distant stars melting like wet ink–was a terrible beauty. Most people were hiding from the view, though. The cafeteria was full. The bars, baijiuwallah stand, temples and mosque were full.

Ghada went up to the command deck where Asadullah and his other officers were waiting.

Five years ago, Ghada would have taken his hand and squeezed it. Today she just nudged him with her shoulder and forced a smile.

“Drop approaching,” Rani the Navigator was announcing, “Countdown to Drop at ten seconds.”

Asadullah was unscrewing his hip flask.

“Arrey, don’t do that, Captain sahib, you’ll get it everywhere in the Drop,” Uday, the second in command, chided. His voice sounded strange: trembling, thin.

“Seven.”

Ghada could hear the people in the corridor: talking, mumbling, worrying aloud. Someone was chanting a prayer: “Om shanti, shanti, shanti…”

“Six.”

The Drop could be seen now with the naked eye. From the command deck’s windows, it yawned like an open mouth, impossibly large. Stars streamed into it. The sensation of cold and compression along the spine–they were already stretching towards it. Ghada stared, thought of Nietzsche’s warning against looking into abysses, and closed her eyes. She saw green.

“Five seconds.”

“You know,” Asad muttered, “after this Drop, we’ll be in the home star system. We’ll be there.”

Ghada squeezed her eyes tightly. Marine green–tree green.

“Three.”

The feeling of compression spread everywhere: intestines, lungs, bladder. Ghada heard someone behind her inhale sharply with pain. Dropping hurt. She had to pee.

“Two.”

She thought she heard Asad swallow. The Droplag was intense now. Green of the jungle–green of the fungus–and then a flash of familiar faces: Lucrezia in police custody, Toshiro-san with a cup of tea, Asadullah spilling liquor all over the command deck controls. A green and vibrant future, something wild and entangled. What did the Droplag mean? She wasn’t sure, but she knew that she had seen his face and that was enough. She inhaled–did she have time to say it?

“One–”

“Asad, wait, I think I just saw–”

“I totally saw that coming.”

Asadullah Khan scuffs his shoes against the pavement, staring downwards, hands in pockets. Ghada Nabulaale throws her arm around his shoulders. They still carry the pubby smells on their clothes and in their hair: fried food, cigarettes, yeast. Ghada’s ears ring; those are the ear cells dying.

“And that’s what you get for playing against me.” She smiles. Her voice sounds muted. Asadullah shimmers in the night.

“I don’t know why you are so delighted to win at these things.”

“Because it proves I’m better than you.”

Asad snorts. He pulls Ghada around to face him, kisses her once. “You hardly need proof for that.”

“Oh, you.” She kisses him back, someone bumps into them on the busy sidewalk.

She thinks: I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you so, so much. I love you. I’ll never stop saying it. I’ll say it forever, for a million years, everywhere in the universe. I love you.

A thrill passes through her, she jerks with an involuntary shiver. Laughing, she pulls at his jacket lapels. “Getting old, getting slow!”

“Hey. Age is a relative term. And anyway, aren’t you two months older than me?”

“I can’t remember. Maybe you’re right. A pair of geezers! Oh God, can you imagine us at sixty?”

“Well, I’ll probably resemble a dashing Shashi Kapoor…”

“So you’ll get a nose job? And didn’t he gain all that weight?”

“…And you will, no doubt, look identical, thanks to Botox.”

“Yes!”

“And then the universe will contract, and time will reverse, and we’ll just be back here again, youthful and brilliant.”

“Repeating my victory over you? Sounds good.”

“Not a bad cycle to be in,” Asad agrees. He smiles–and there’s a flash, when Ghada sees him old, dilapidated, white ear hair and fragile teeth. The Buddha’s last words were, All is subject to decay. “Even if I do lose.”

____
Copyright 2011 Angela Ambroz

Angela Ambroz has lived in Italy, Fiji, India, the UK and, most recently, Boston. Other stories in the Dropverse series can be found in Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons and Reflection’s Edge. When not writing, she works on international development and reviews movies at The Post-Punk Cinema Club.

by Patricia Russo

The elders claim life is better now.

Since the ascension of the young dukes, the landholders no longer carry swords, and we are no longer obliged to kneel in their presence. Taxes have been lowered; we can keep more of our grain, our olives, our limes. Obligatory civic work days have been decreased to five per month. Smile, the elders say. Raise up your heads. The sun has emerged after long, long years of rain.

Raise up your heads. That is the way they speak, on warm nights when work is over, and dinner has been plentiful, and a wineskin is moving from hand to hand. They laugh, and boast, so proud of themselves for having survived to old age. But let a landholder walk through the square, or ride to the fields to inspect the crops, or make an appearance at a wedding or a festival, jovial and swordless, and the elders duck their heads and mumble, the same as the rest of us.

You see? the Younger Son-in-Law says. They themselves do not believe that all is well.

The Younger Son-in-Law knows I do not like him. He has a hairy face, and he has been the Middle Daughter’s husband for more than three years, and still there is no child. Plus I never did get along with his mother. But who else will offer him a bit of comfort when he wakes from a nightmare, sweating and shaking? Not the Middle Daughter, with her sharp tongue and sour heart. So some nights he and I sit together in the cookshed. I spin, and he tends the tiny fire, so we each have a reason not to look at the other, as he tells me his bad dreams.
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