Interview: Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her series, The Road to Nowhere, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She was a James A. Tiptree Award Honoree in 2018. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, and many other places. Previously an essayist for Uncanny, this is Elison’s first fiction to appear in the magazine; “Dresses Like White Elephants” is a powerful story of drag queens, and wedding gowns, and memories of a painful past.


Uncanny Magazine: “Dresses Like White Elephants” is a powerful and emotional story where the cost of a wedding dress is memories and trauma from the former bride. Your novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife examines some similar themes, and in both cases you do not shy away from painful topics like abortion and abuse. How do you approach writing emotionally devastating topics? Does your approach vary in short vs. long form?

Meg Elison: The unadorned cruelty of the worst moments of my life is so hard to share. It’s easier to dress them up and make them dance to pay their rent. I often take my worst, most complicated feelings and try to work them out in fiction. It’s cathartic and it’s a way to repurpose the bright-burning hot coals in the psyche to do something useful, like bake a potato…instead of just sticking my hand in the fire over and over. A short story can do one thing really well, but that’s all it can do. It’s a flute solo, it’s an Edith Piaf ballad. A novel can do a hundred things, and you can sit with those feelings for a long time, let them sing in chorus and tell you the whole Ring Cycle. Either way, play on and make it hurt.

Uncanny Magazine: The protagonist of this story, Beni, is a drag queen searching for the perfect dress for one last attempt to win the Hymen Games. What drew you to Beni as a character? How did his perspective shape the story?

Meg Elison: I am fortunate to live in one of America’s best drag cities, and I have friends who are performers. I’m in their audience every chance I get, throwing dollar bills and buying up brunch. I’m moved by the work drag does with gender; the way it defies the cage of masculinity and explores the prettiness and pettiness of the cage of femininity. I’ve been through a whole range of reactions in drag shows: I’ve found them uplifting and emotional, as well as misogynist and quite cruel. I started thinking hard about the folks I know who do drag from an authentic, self-reflective place. I thought about the way people often perform highly emotional songs written by women about the pain they’ve suffered AS women, and the way the meaning changes in performance by someone whose experience is different. Beni was a way for me to get close to the kind of performers I love: the ones who know intimately what it costs to be coded feminine and want to do it anyway. The Hymen Games are not for the faint of heart.

Uncanny Magazine: “Dresses Like White Elephants” uses wonderful details to create vivid descriptions of wedding gowns—what kind of fashion research did you do for this story? If you could design a dress (wedding or otherwise) what would it look like?

Meg Elison: I have an unstoppable dresslust and a real problem buying red dresses in particular. I didn’t have to research—I just thought about the wedding dresses I’ve seen at thrift stores and reclamation centers (they all feel cursed) and the fabrics, cuts, and styles I’ve browsed in my many hours of shopping. My own wedding dress was designed and made by my sister-in-law: a pleated sheath dress of white bridal satin with a wide square neckline, worn under a frock dress of apple-red bridal satin and laced up the front through gold grommets. Slit bell sleeves and waist were trimmed with tiny red roses embedded in lace and my veil was white chiffon. If I had it to do over again, I’d always get married in red. I love that dress. These days, I’m feeling a floor-length red velvet with a train, scoop neck with long sleeves and a cape. I’m a sweetheart with the unshakeable aesthetics of a villain.

Uncanny Magazine: What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

Meg Elison: What every writer hopes for: compassion and empathy. I hope folks remember that every bit of labor you receive from another person is made of their hopes and pains and the terrible things they had to sacrifice to be who they are and get to where they wanted to be. I want everyone to look over hand-stitched hems and scars the same way: with love and understanding for someone who’s not like you but has felt what you feel. Surely a short story about drag magic can do that, right?

Uncanny Magazine: I love the description of wedding dresses as white elephants—costly possessions that are difficult to get rid of. But the context that people are most familiar with for white elephants is as gifts—what is the most interesting white elephant gift you have either given or received?

Meg Elison: I once received a criminally ugly statue, too big for any living room not occupied by the Pope. My friends and I passed it around—it was not identifiably figurative. It showed up every couple of years painted pink, covered in googly eyes, glittered, scratch and sniff. I think someone finally made a backyard shrine out of it. I hope it’s doing well out there.

Uncanny Magazine: What’s next for you?

Meg Elison: My short story collection, Big Girl, was just published in May by PM Press. PM is a local independent publisher that’s fighting for existence right now in the wake of the pandemic, so please buy it from them and keep hope alive. Also, my first young adult novel, Find Layla, comes out from Skyscape in September. It’s terribly personal and I feel naked when I think about it. So, buy my shame!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super

Episode 1: Burning Doubts

Watch Sam burn.

Or sort of burn. Well, more like light up, then burn. But only his head.


Sam’s trying not to focus on the things he can’t control. Like the twenty-four people sitting in front of him, watching him impassively. Or that he’s underdressed for his audition. Or that this old community center is impossibly stuffy, with a whiff of sour milk lingering in the air. Or that this might be a terrible idea.

What he can control is how he burns. Sort of. Maybe. He hopes.

Sam closes his eyes and imagines he’s back in his apartment. He’s been practicing, so he can almost see the furniture in his living room, the two metal folding chairs and wireframe table, and he can almost feel the cold cement floor beneath his feet. On the wall in front of him, where most people would’ve mounted their TVs, hangs the iron framed mirror he rescued from a dumpster. Sam pictures his reflection in it and gives himself a small smile.

Yes, this is just like home, just like he practiced. It’s as easy as lighting a match, as natural as breathing. These people want a demonstration? Sam will give them a show.

Watch Sam burn.

A second passes. Two. The audience is silent. Not that he expected them to shriek or run screaming. These people are professionals after all. But he was counting on a few gasps or soft wows to let him know that his “talent” worked.

Did it work?

Sam cracks open an eye and looks up. There, on the periphery of his vision, he sees flickers of flames dancing on the top of his head.

No, it definitely worked.

He opens both eyes and gives the audience a triumphant smile.

Nothing is reciprocated—no slight twists of the mouth, no polite applause. His head is on fire and there are twenty-four blank expressions staring back at him.

“Is that all?” says a man from the second row. He’s dressed in a gray blazer and gray slacks and has his Super badge clipped to his lapel.

“Sorry?” says Sam.

“Is that all you can do?”

At first, Sam thinks the man’s joking—some well-intentioned, misguided attempt to break the tension in the room as he’s standing there, burning. But the man holds his gaze and there is no humor in his eyes.

This was a terrible idea. Sam thinks as despair hooks its fingers in his ribcage. He probably should just thank the Supers for sending the application, for the chance to audition. Just go back to his apartment, pack up, and leave for a remote part of the country like everyone has been telling him to do.

Don’t give up yet, whispers his last sliver of hope.

So, Sam closes his eyes and breathes. Slowly, steadily, the flames on his head peter out.

“Um, sometimes I can make my hands burn,” Sam says running his fingers over his hairless scalp, “but they’re a bit touchy.” It’s a terrible joke, but it’s all Sam’s got left.

Twenty-four expressions remain stoic. It occurs to Sam then that Supers are liars. Sure they might grin and wave for the cameras and say “Look! Our extraordinary abilities aren’t something we should be afraid of!” But in flesh, they act like reluctant grim reapers.

“Anything else?” the man in gray asks.

“No,” Sam says, shoulders slumping. He has no job, no friends, no other options.

“Do you have any self-defense training?” asks a woman in the front row wearing a magenta blouse. He recognizes her from the news. “The Woman Who Conquered Gravity.” She’s slouching in her chair.

“No, I try to be a pacifist,” Sam answers. And it’s true. He does try.

“The video at the bar says otherwise.”

Sam’s shoulders tense. “That was an accident.”

“It always starts as an accident, doesn’t it?” she says and a few of the Supers smile bitter smiles. “Do you have any emergency services experience?”

“Um, not really.”

“Investigation training?”

Sam shakes his head. He probably should have signed up for a preliminary course or watched CSI or something. But until a month ago, he’d never even dreamed he’d be a Super.

“So what can you do, Mr. Wells?”

“Well, I have…had…a job in accounting.” Sam can also play jazz piano, but the last time he did that for a crowd, it didn’t go over so well.

“Oh,” says Gravity Woman.

The man in gray turns towards the audience. “Well,” he says, “should he join us?”

“His gifts aren’t very strong,” says a man wearing glasses and a faded blue t-shirt with writing that Sam can’t make out. He shouts this from the last row. “He doesn’t need to be stuck with us.”

“He’s too high-profile for other teams,” counters the man in gray. “And he’s shown some capacity for control.” What he doesn’t say because he doesn’t need to is: If we don’t take him, no one will.

I would really be grateful if I could join you,” Sam says, clasping his hands behind his back to stop them from shaking.

Twenty-four pairs of eyes turn to look at him again. But this time they aren’t empty stares. This time, they are filled with heartache and grief and despair.

“Okay,” says the man in gray, “I’ll go get the papers you need to sign.” He drops his gaze and in an afterthought adds, “Congratulations.”

And just like that, Sam’s a member of the Super Team. The hours of standing in front of the mirror, practicing control, paid off. Except there are no introductions or chocolate cake. No smiles or welcomes.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman in magenta tells him before heading to the exit.

Twenty-four pairs of eyes have found something else to look at. Twenty-four pairs of feet shuffle out. And soon all that’s left in the room are twenty-four empty chairs and Sam.

Watch Sam burn.


Episode 2: Sign Here on the Dotted Line

Fifty-six minutes later, the man in gray is reviewing the terms of membership from behind a stack of papers and a G&T in the only Super-friendly bar in town. “Call me Cyrus,” he says with a tired smile. Up close, he looks annoyingly familiar, but it’s been a long month and Sam’s brain has become an unreliable bastard.

The bar itself is crammed with furniture and eroded with use. There’s a sign on the door that says “No Smoking” yet the memory of stale cigarettes linger in the air and in the corner, a song from another decade plays on a modern-looking jukebox.

They are the only ones here. Except for the bartender. And the tall, built woman in a purple tank top, cradling a glass of water, refusing to meet Sam’s eyes.


Sam wishes he’d ordered a martini. Or something with a paper umbrella in it. It’s been a paper umbrella type of day. Instead, a lite beer grows tepid in his sweaty palm because he’s terrified to find out what happens when he mixes alcohol with his new “special ability.”

But Sam can’t complain. Being part of the Super Team is better than being exiled to a cabin in the woods.

“Okay,” says Cyrus, “this is what you need to know.”

To become a Super there are terms. Conditions. And a few rules. Cyrus explains everything carefully and in great detail. He points to the important information on the papers as a pen dances between the fingers of his other hand. His elbow is propped on the table, bent, casually exhibiting toned biceps. Sam is trying to pay attention, really, but in another life, Cyrus was probably a model. It doesn’t hurt when the people in the spotlight are gentle on the eyes.

Sam vows to start going to the gym.

“…and since your abilities are not particularly strong, it doesn’t really make sense for you to be part of the Main Team,” says Cyrus.

Sam straightens. “What? So what am I going to do?”

“Be our accountant.”

“Oh.” Sam takes a deep breath. He wouldn’t be living in a cabin in the woods, he reminds himself, it would be an igloo on an iceberg.

“Not what you were expecting, right?” says Cyrus gently.

“Well…” Well, no. It’s not that Sam has anything against his old financial analyst job. He just doesn’t want it back.

“Well, what do you want to do?” asks Cyrus.

Sam wants a martini and to go back to bed. He wants to have real furniture in his apartment and hair on his head and for people to stop being afraid of his “special ability.” He wants to stop being afraid of it himself. If Sam were narrating his own story he’d want it to start “Watch Sam save the day” like the Supers on the news. Or “Watch Sam use his ability for good.” Or even “Watch Sam the Super reconcile with his friends and loved ones.”

Anything would be better than just watching Sam burn.

“I want to save people,” Sam says.

From behind him, there’s a flash and a bang and the sound of something shattering. Sam spins around and finds the woman in the purple tank top clutching the shards of her glass in her hands, water dripping from her shaking fingers.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, her face brightening with embarrassment. “I’m trying to control the episodes, really.”

“That’s alright,” says the bartender, sweeping the broken glass into a dishtowel, “I order those glasses in bulk.”

Sam bites his lip and stares at his lukewarm beer. There’s a reason why most bars refuse to serve Supers. There’s a reason why there’s programs—and a whole lot of social pressure—that move “dangerous” Supers to remote communities. He should be grateful for any job he can get.

“I want to save people,” Sam says again, slowly, carefully, not meeting Cyrus’s eyes.

“You will.” Cyrus leans back in his chair. “Most people don’t realize how much background work goes into a successful team. You’ll be vital.” Something chimes cheerfully and Cyrus pulls out his phone, glancing at the message. His face darkens. “God knows we need all the help we can get. Toya, you seeing this?”

The woman in the purple tank top is staring at her phone, nodding, rising, the forgotten slivers of glass tumbling to the ground. “Yeah,” she says and heads towards the door.

“What happened?” Sam asks.

“Shit. Not again,” hisses Cyrus, reading, scrolling, definitely not listening to Sam. “Look, I’ve got to run. Go over the paperwork and if you have any questions, just ask Mac.”

Sam opens his mouth to ask “Who the hell is Mac?” But the man in gray is already up and moving, striding out of the bar into the darkening evening. Sam doesn’t notice at first how Cyrus’s skin starts to glow. No, not glow—radiate.

And suddenly it clicks. Sam realizes why Cyrus looks so familiar.

Mr. Sunshine.

He stands on the sidewalk corner—bright as the street lamps—pausing, as if contemplating his next move. Then Sam blinks, the world darkens, and Mr. Sunshine is gone, leaving only a bright stamp on his retinas behind.

And for the second time in two hours Sam is left behind and alone.


“They do that a lot,” says the bartender, after a moment. He beckons Sam over. “I’m Mac. Welcome to the Point of No Return.”


“What I call this little place of mine.”

“It’s kind of a, um, off-putting name.” Sam moves the stack of papers on the counter, taking a seat.

“I know. But where else are my customers going to go?” He grins. “Another?” He nods at Sam’s half-finished beer.

“No, I’m good.” Sam stares longing at the bottles of gin behind Mac. “One day I’ll be able to trust myself with a martini again.”

Mac gives him a sympathetic, knowing look. “Fair enough.” He fills two large glasses with water and slides one over to Sam.

Sam props his arms on the counter, suddenly exhausted. He glances at the stack of papers at his elbow and in one swift movement, signs his name on the form on top. Terms? Whatever. Being a Super is better than being a burning man in an igloo.

Mac raises an eyebrow. “So, what happened?”

“Well…” Sam hesitates, can’t quite meet Mac’s quiet gaze. “You get to hear my sob story because you’re behind the bar?”

“Usually.” Mac shrugs. “By the time the new recruits get here, they need to talk.”

Sam studies Mac, a bit suspicious. The bartender’s expression is genuine, though, his eyes kind. But there’s a weariness to his posture and a deep sadness too that has nothing to do with new Supers and broken glasses.

“Fuck that,” says Sam.

Mac’s grin illuminates his face. “Well, then. Welcome to the team, Sam.”

They clink their water glasses and drink in amiable silence.


Episode 3: Welcome to Information Purgatory

No, this isn’t a mistake. Sam is exactly where he’s supposed to be.

At least that’s what he keeps telling himself. His new office is really quite large and nice. Or would be if the floor wasn’t smothered by boxes and files. Or if the whole set up didn’t look like it never met a computer and didn’t reek of dust and disuse. Or if the office wasn’t in the basement of the old community center.

Under normal circumstances, Sam would’ve quit on the spot, walked to the nearest diner, and called Lev for breakfast. They’d have ordered black coffee, maybe some hash browns. They would laugh and Sam would be mock-offended when Lev made fun of his new mittens and hat. Yes, they’re homemade and hideous, but he has to try something. Still, Sam will never understand why fire blankets have to be so itchy.

But nothing about this situation is normal. Sam’s a Super now and Lev hasn’t returned his calls. As Sam stands there, among the piles and piles of combustibles, Sam feels like the unpredictable fireball that everyone thinks he is.

“Shit,” Sam says.

“Good morning to you too.”

Watch Sam jump.

Behind him, a woman in an emerald-colored blazer and a Super badge stands at the edge of the chaos holding a single file. Thin, angry scars crisscross the left side of her face and they ripple when she smiles and says: “You must be Sam the accountant.”

No, he’s Sam the Super. “Yes,” he says, not confident enough to argue the point yet.

“Great, I’m Miranda.” She holds out a hand. Sam shakes it.

“Are you the Team’s coordinator?” he asks.

“Team coordinator, PR person, HR person, office manager. Basically all the stuff that needs to get done with no one to do it. But not, thank god, the accountant anymore. By the way, this is your desk.” She points to the cleaner one.

“Um, look, I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Sam says as he tugs his ugly, itchy hat over his ears. Sure, he’s been practicing for a month now and he does have some control over his “special abilities”, but not enough to feel comfortable.

“Why? You’ve done financial planning and tax prep before, right?” Miranda asks.

“Yes, but—”

“Not up for the challenge?”

“It’s not that, I—” Sam bites his lip. He still doesn’t know how to broach the top of his new “talents.”

Miranda’s eyes narrow. “You have a problem with me then?”


“Then we don’t have an issue.”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m a hazard in a place like this.” Sam tries to keep his voice even. Sam fails.

Miranda smirks. “Hey, I promise not to dump beer on you if you promise not to burn the place down.”

He stiffens. “You know about that?”

“Well, it is a viral video,” she says. “And who the hell do you think sent you your Super application?”

Miranda smirks again and Sam feels himself blushing.

“Look, I saw your audition,” Miranda says, her smile fading into seriousness. “I know this scares you, but you’ve got the basics of control down and I really do need your help bringing this disaster,” she sweeps her arm around the room, “into the digital age. You’re not really a walking arsonist.”

Sam fidgets with his gloves, holding back the sudden, unexpected lump in his throat. This is the first time in a month someone’s believed in him. He just wishes he had that faith in himself. Or that his ex-boss did.

“So, I’m thinking we can spend the day sorting,” Miranda says, sweeping up her black hair into a ponytail. “It’ll be a good test for you and gives me an excuse to clean out some of this crap.” She gives the nearest box a ferocious kick. “Ready?”

“I should say no, but that won’t stop you, will it?” Sam says with a sigh.

Miranda grins. “You learn fast.”

As they sift through impossible amounts of paper, Miranda talks relentlessly. Explaining everything from picking your unofficial uniform with the Team (a.k.a your color scheme) to the Super Team’s inner drama to why there are so many papers. Apparently, Miranda’s predecessor emitted random electrical currents sometimes, so his computers never lasted long and he had to print out everything.

“Also, he was a hoarder,” she adds as she dumps stacks of Modern Dog magazines in the recycling bin.

Sometimes Sam asks questions, but mostly he listens and works and focuses on not losing control. There’s something comforting in Miranda’s confident, easygoing manner. Despite his relentless fear of burning, for the first time in almost a month, it’s nice not to be alone.

By the end of the day, they’ve only sifted through a fraction of the receipts, tax documents, and random menu collections, but the office feels roomier.

“So what do you think? Ready to be part of this bureaucratic hell?” Miranda asks, flopping into her desk chair.

Sam surveys the office: mountains of information. An infinite supply of invoices. Endless receipts. Job security at its finest.

“I think I want to get transferred to the Main Team,” he says.

Miranda rolls her eyes. “Trust me, you don’t.”

“Why? Everyone loves them. They’re on the news all the time.”

Her eyes narrow and she crosses her arms. “You’re trying to impress your family, aren’t you?”

“What? No!” Sam’s family is made up of one sister, who lives across the country. She at least still talks to him, though there’s a new strain to those conversations.

No, Sam’s here because of his friends and coworkers, who haven’t called since that night in the bar. Who didn’t stop by or write him an email during that entire month afterwards when he was too scared to leave his apartment. Sam joined the Super Team so he could look in the mirror again and see more than what he’s lost.

“I only want to save people,” he says. “Honest.”

Miranda gives Sam a long, calculating look.

“Bullshit.” She props her feet up on her desk. “We might be trying to change public opinion, but there’s really only one this we can change for sure.”

“What’s that?” Sam asks, sinking into his own chair.

“How we see ourselves.”

Someone coughs loudly behind him. Sam jumps, grabbing the rim of his hat. In the doorway, a small, wizened woman in faded clothes and work gloves studies Sam with a skeptical look.

“Um, hi, can I help you?” says Sam.

“Sam, meet Danielle. Building manager, repairwoman, and our sanity check,” Miranda says, and her hands move in a series of signs. “Danielle. This is Sam. The guy I was telling you about.”

Danielle arches an eyebrow. She signs back rapidly.

Quietly, Miranda says: “She asks if you’re going to start a fire.” She’s rubbing the scars on her face and doesn’t meet Sam’s eyes, but Sam appreciates her honesty.

He stares at the masses of files around him and for the hundredth time pictures the raging flames that would destroy everything if he screws up.

“Not today,” he says. Miranda gives him a reassuring smile, her hands signing again. But inwardly Sam thinks: it’s only a matter of time.


Episode 4: Plan B, Anyone?

This is Sam’s first time being a hero.

Or rather the first time he’s assisting the Main Team in action. Sort of. Really, he’s more of a spectator—there’s only so much he can do from the sidewalk.


“This better be good,” Miranda says as she pushes the last temporary barrier into place. Sam nods. For him, this is research.

They’re standing on the curb, trying to keep curious spectators at a safe distance, but most people have their phones out, leaning past the barriers, trying to get a better angle. Across the street, there’s a building four stories tall with a chic Italian restaurant on street level. It looks like there’s a light show happening on the roof, but according to the messages on the Team’s group text, it’s actually pieces of the building flashing in and out of existence. If he looks closely, Sam can just make out two figures standing near the lip of the roof. Even from his vantage point, Sam can see their fear, their rising panic.

“Is this just a random event or was it caused by a Super?” Sam asks.

Miranda shrugs. “Who the hell knows.”

Turns out that when people start developing strange, random powers in their mid-to-late twenties, other strange, random events start happening too. And while most Super teams are focused on volunteer work and public outreach, this Team is the only one in the city that handles the weird situations. The only one really making a difference.

That’s what Sam hopes to do soon. No, that’s what he will do.

“Don’t let anyone cross the barrier!” someone shouts.

There’s a half dozen Supers escorting people out of the building. Sam recognizes Toya, the woman in purple from Mac’s bar, carrying an unconscious waiter, cradling him like a small child. One by one, police cars and ambulances arrive at the scene, but they don’t cross the barrier.

The lights on the building are flashing brighter, nearer.

The two people on the roof shriek and in desperation, hop down to a narrow ledge just below them. Sam can see them clearly now, a youngish man in a waiter’s apron and a small woman in business casual, their backs pressed up against the building’s wall, utterly terrified.

“Please! Don’t move! I’ll be right there!” Cyrus’s voice cuts through the flashing lights, the confusion.

Sam blinks and suddenly Mr. Sunshine is standing on the lip of the roof, glowing brighter than the breaks in reality.

He pulls the woman up with one arm and slips her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “I’ll be back for you in a minute,” he tells the waiter he’s leaving behind. “Hang tight.” Then Cyrus is gone and the man left on the ledge looks stricken.

There is a blinding flash in the wall, inches from where the waiter’s leaning. The brick facade pops out of existence, leaving behind a perfectly round void. And that’s when Sam sees unreality for the first time.

It’s a fathomless well—where no light, no warmth, no time survives.

So this is what breaks in reality look like? Sam thinks. Now he wishes he didn’t know.

“Shit,” says the waiter on the ledge, eyes wide with terror. He pushes away from the hole, stumbles back.

And falls.

Sam read once that survivors of terrible car crashes say that right before impact, time slows down. You can see the deadly trajectory, the race towards destruction. The inevitability. And all you can do is watch helplessly.

Watch Sam watch. The waiter is falling and he knows what will happen. Still, he can’t look away.

But halfway down the four story drop, he stops falling downwards. And starts falling upwards instead. A few seconds later, he wafts to a stop, midair.

It takes Sam far too long to realize the waiter is not the only one floating. Everything that’s not tied down is suspended too, though not at the same heights. The cars, trash, people closer to the building have risen higher than the things farther away. It’s like looking at a circus’s big top tent or reverse gravity well. And at the very pinnacle, the woman in magenta hovers, her hair standing straight up.

Sam is surprised. But really, he shouldn’t be. The news did say she conquered gravity.

“Holy crap,” Miranda says, dropping her phone, but it doesn’t hit the concrete. That’s when Sam realizes they’re both floating an inch above the sidewalk.

They’re suspended for a good minute, maybe ten, or maybe fifteen seconds. Sam can’t tell. Time gets weird in stressful situations. But he hovers an inch above the ground until the flashing on the roof stops. Gradually, all instances of unreality disappear, leaving only reality behind.

“It’s over, Lana. Can you let us down now? Please?” someone calls. It sounds like Cyrus, but scared.

Slowly, everything sinks back to earth. Not all in the same order. Not always right side up. The waiter floats gently to the street, head first, but manages to do the world’s most awkward somersault as he touches the sidewalk. The whole process looks like an exhalation, a gentle moment in a timeline of chaos.

Relief floods Sam. Next to him, Miranda lets out a sigh.

Then someone near the building starts screaming.

That’s when Sam and everyone else realizes that a kid, no more than sixteen or seventeen is pinned under a car. His phone is lying cracked on the sidewalk a few feet away, but the video is still recording. He’s screaming, screaming, screaming.

It’s the Supers on the ground who recover first, who begin to herd people away, to call the paramedics over, to rush over to the kid. But Sam can’t move. Those screams, that pain, echo and echo in his stunned mind.

“Damn it, l said not to let anyone through the barrier.” Sam turns to see the man in the blue t-shirt and glasses standing next to him. The Super who didn’t want him to join at the audition. He’s close enough now for Sam to make out the faded words on his shirt. The Who.

Coherent thoughts elude Sam, but a fleeting Where the fuck did he come from? manages to break through the shock.

“Sometimes, I think we don’t lessen pain. We just redistribute it.” He sighs and pulls Sam a few feet away from the crowded barriers, the people gasping and murmuring. “His episode will be over in a minute,” he says to Miranda.

“What are you talking about?” she says.

But the man in blue is already rushing across the street to the kid as Sam stands and stares, clenching his hands into tight, painful balls.

We don’t lessen pain.

Dear God, is this how all rescues end? In pain, and horror, and a bigger disaster than when they started?

We redistribute it.

And suddenly Sam can see what type of Super he’d be. The one that tries and tries and tries.

And fails.

And makes things worse.

Screw it. Sam doesn’t want to be on the Main Team. Not anymore.

Sam doesn’t notice how quiet it’s gotten. Or how everyone around him is motionless and staring. Or that Miranda has stepped away from him.

“Sam,” she says quietly, “You’re on fire.”

He looks down. Sure enough, despite his fireproof mittens, his hands are smothered in flames. And he knows, without glancing up, his scalp is too.

On cue, a gaping spectator behind the barrier holds up their phone.

“Not again,” Sam whispers. But he can’t stop this. And being a Super doesn’t change that.

Watch Sam burn and hate himself for it.


Episode 5: Bad Takeout

No. Sam doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Sam, it’s all right. It happens. Almost everyone there was a Super anyway,” says Miranda.

They’re halfway down the street when a police car passes them, sirens wailing, heading towards the scene at the restaurant. Sam shivers and lengthens his stride.

“Jesus, slow down!”

But he doesn’t. Instead, Sam wonders if a video of him burning is online yet and if it’s called ‘Man Spontaneously Combusts…Again’. He wonders if Lev will see it and if he’ll be just as horrified even though, this time, he’s not in it.

“Where are we going?” Miranda asks, as Sam makes a sharp turn right.

Like hell if Sam knows, he’s just following his feet.

“Sam, it’s okay to be upset. Seriously, who wouldn’t be after that shitshow?” she says, and it’s true, Sam can hear the shaking in her voice. “But trust me on this one. The best thing to do right now is to go to the Point and drink with a dozen other shocked people.” She catches his shoulder and pulls him to a stop. “C’mon, first one’s on me.”

Maybe she’s right. Sam can almost hear a martini calling his name. Hell, there’s a chorus of cocktails beckoning him into oblivion, fuck the promises he made to himself, to his hard earned but insufficient control.

In the distance, another police siren cries out.

Panic clutches at his chest, his windpipe. No, he can’t go back, can’t face another person right now. Sam starts down the street again, quicker than before. Behind him, Miranda swears, but seconds later she’s matching his strides besides him.

They walk for a long time.

“You know, we all get lost in terrible situations,” Miranda says, eventually. “We all have episodes with our gifts. No one on the Team will think less of you.”

They’re wandering down some back alley, half lit by the early evening sky and half by dirty street lights flickering over back exits. The pavement is covered with trash and just the godawful stench wafting from the dumpster makes Sam want a shower.

“You stepped away from me back there,” Sam says.

“Yeah. You were on fire and my hair was too close for comfort.”

Sam runs a hand over his bald head. Hair. He misses having hair.

A door opens behind them. Sam and Miranda glance back to see a heavyset man in a dirty apron step out.

“Shit, out of all the alleys in this city,” Miranda hisses. “Let’s get out of here.”

Sam turns just enough to see the man crush an unlit cigarette between his fingers, his face tight with anger.

You,” the man snarls.

“Fuck,” Miranda says, “Seriously? What are the odds?”

You. You’re the Super that called the Health Department on me.

Miranda keeps walking, her gaze fixed straight ahead. “Asshole refused to serve me and my girlfriend the other night,” she says, arms crossed, voice low. “Said he didn’t want freaks in his upstanding establishment. So I filed a complaint.”

Hey you!

“You can’t just randomly file those,” Sam says.

“I didn’t. Akira was going to leave a nasty review online and found one by one of their former cooks. Turns out we just avoided getting food poisoning.”

Hey you! I’m talking to you!

“It shouldn’t be like this.” Sam glances back. The man is now trailing behind them. “It’s not like I asked to become a Super.”

“Look Sam, this is your life now. We didn’t choose it, and most people don’t get that, but we’re trying to teach people differently. That’s the point of the Team.”

I should kick the shit out of you and that slutty friend of yours. And your boyfriend too.

Miranda stops. “But sometimes it’s just one cruelty too many. Don’t move.”

Before Sam can reply, she spins around, clenching her hands. Somewhere in the distance a glass bottle or plate shatters.

“What? You think you scare me?” the man says. But he stops about twenty paces away.

“No. Not yet,” says Miranda, quietly, so quietly Sam barely makes out the words.

At first, the man fails to notice how the pieces of broken glass near his feet are scuttling towards him, closing the distance. Only when a dumpster bursts open and half a dozen broken, empty bottles come flying at him does he step back.

“Oh shit,” he says. But it’s too late.

Sam’s never seen a real tornado, but from TV documentaries he knows how they emerge from nothing—the swirling, darkening ringlets of wind that materialize in mere seconds, swallowing everything in their path.

There’s a tornado in the alley. But instead of wind and dust, it’s made of glass—from bottles to containers, from whole shards to specks. And with each passing second more comes flying out of the recycling bins and dumpsters, adding to the swirl. Above him, Sam can hear the window panels in the buildings thrum and rattle, begging to join.

Holy shit, she can control glass, he thinks.

“Miranda!” he yells, but she ignores him.

Watch Sam feel utterly powerless.

Then she unclenches her fists and slowly the glass tornado begins to decelerate, unwind. One by one, the shards clatter to the ground and shatter around the man on the pavement.

He doesn’t look hurt. He must have sat in the eye of the storm, watching the deadly swirl whip around him. Which is good. Sam doesn’t think he could’ve dealt with any more suffering today.

A handful of shards rise up and flank Miranda like wings as she closes the gap in three strides, grabbing the man’s collar. “Never. Threaten. My. Friends. Again. Understood?” She emphasizes each word with a shake. The glass around her quivers.

The man tries to nod but his whole body trembles instead.

“Go.” She gives him an unceremonious push. A look of unparalleled relief flashes across the man’s face as he stumbles away.

Miranda glares after him, balling and unballing her hands. But this time, the scattered glass around them doesn’t stir. “Seriously. Who the fuck thinks it’s a good idea to attack someone wearing a Super badge?”

“How…did you do that?”

“With perfect control,” she replies.

“Did it come naturally to you?” he asks, half teasing, half envious.

“How do you think I got these?” She points to the crisscrossed scars on her face.

“Oh. Sorry.” Watch Sam turn bright red.

Miranda shakes her head. “You have a good start, but I can teach you the rest.”

Sam opens his mouth. Closes it. Finally says, “I saw a void in reality today. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“Scream into it,” replies Miranda. “And keep going.”

Sam looks at the shards of glass sprinkled around his feet, then at his friend. There’s a small smile on her face.

“Okay,” he says. “When do lessons start?”


Episode 6: The Life of a Super – Part 1

Most days, being a Super isn’t so bad.

Sam wakes up promptly at 7:35 AM, sprints through showering, shaving, and dressing, so he can run down to the corner bakery for coffee and muffins. Because Miranda shows up at his apartment at 8 AM and he’s learned she’s a much more benevolent teacher when she’s had breakfast. They’ve agreed his apartment is the safest place to practice control in private; he still doesn’t have any real furniture in it. They run through breathing exercises, figure out Sam’s triggers and warning signs. Experiment with having only his hands burn, then only his left palm, then only his thumbs.

“Don’t be afraid of your abilities,” Miranda tells him over and over. “They’re part of you.”

Sam understands this intellectually, but the sight of his hands in flames still makes him nauseous.

They practice for an hour every morning before work and at first, there are so few successes that there’s a constant burnt smell in the apartment and Sam has to take out the batteries in the smoke detectors. Open the windows. Turn off the heat.

Sometimes Sam wonders if progress is happening at all.

Whatever. Sam isn’t interested in being in the spotlight anymore. Sure, there’s still a part of him—a big part, maybe—that dreams of being the hero. But that goes against his new personal rules. Like ignoring text messages concerning the Main Team. Avoiding rescue missions at all costs. And never asking about them later.

He can still hear that kid, trapped under that car, screaming.

But being a Super isn’t so bad. He’s decided on his unofficial Super uniform. It’s a black button up shirt paired with an orange and yellow umbrae scarf. When he pins his new Super badge to his breast pocket, he feels a small warmth of pride. He’s found the courage to reach out to a few of his friends from his pre-Super life and he’s been texting Cyrus too. They’ve been planning on going out for coffee, but it keeps getting rescheduled due to the miniature wormholes that have been popping up all over the city.

“Keep trying, Sam,” says Miranda as Sam attempts to make only his right pinky burn.

It’s the office work that Sam likes best. Sure the hours are long, the chaos is frustrating, and the pay is terrible, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about losing his job for having a “gift” he never wanted in the first place. He spends a few hours every morning sorting through another stack of papers, slowly constructing a narrative of numbers from the misfiled expense reports, unpaid invoices, and payrolls. He learns some interesting things too. Like the Super Team’s solvency has always been episodic, unpredictable, in direct correlation to public popularity, but always survived because the police and fire department are more than happy to let Supers handle the breaks in reality first. And auditions for the Team are just formalities.

“I don’t just send Super applications out at random, you know,” Miranda says. “Do you know how hard it is to find someone with an ability who is CPA-certified too?”

“But Cyrus—”

“Is smart enough not to argue with me.”

Then why, Sam wonders, had everyone tried to talk him out of joining?


He’s also managed to befriended almost everyone on the Team. Even Danielle, who turns off the office lights if she thinks Miranda and Sam are working too late. Though they started on rough terms, she and Sam have discovered a mutual love for jazz piano and have long, ongoing text conversations about technique and artists. Sam’s even picked up a few choice words in ASL.

“Yes, but can you do it with your hands on fire?” Miranda asks as they run through diaphragm exercises. Again.

But slowly, Sam begins to plan for the future. The Team’s future that is. At least financially. Setting up investment accounts and following up on those unpaid invoices. He even starts a blog with Miranda, offering a mixture of financial advice for Supers and interviewing people with less obvious “extraordinary abilities.” No matter how strange. They recently met a woman who could turn into a grasshopper, but only from the waist up.

It’s a ridiculous amount of work, but it’s all in the spirit of the Team’s ongoing mission to change the public’s perception of Supers.

“What if it’s not possible?” Sam asks during a practice session, after failing to burn in one second increments.

“Then we’ll die trying,” Miranda replies.

Such is the life of a Super.


Episode 7: Life of a Super – Part 2

Watch Sam not burn.

Miranda would be proud; their lessons are paying off. But Sam’s not thinking about Miranda. He’s too busy not reducing the grocery store to ashes.

All he wanted was some milk. And some protein bars. And some apples. But it looks like he won’t be getting any of those things. The entire store has come to a halt and the woman at the cash register is still ignoring him.

Sam clears his throat. “Excuse me, I would like to purchase these please.” But he might as well be talking to the milk.

A moment passes as his stares down the cashier and she glares at his umbrae scarf and Super badge.

“We don’t want your type here,” she spits out. “You should all be deported.”

Watch Sam stare. This—after all the hours of work Supers dedicate to saving people. To volunteering. Going through ridiculous news interviews, magazine profiles, so strangers at home can feel “inspired.” Just so people understand that this life is not a choice. Or something to be ashamed of.

He thought they were making progress.

For a moment, Sam debates the best ways to set off the fire alarm. He knows it’ll just make public relations worse, but sometimes when life hands you a useless power, you want to make it rain bitter lemonade.

No. Sam is in control. Watch Sam not burn.

Instead he says, “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. I hope you’re never in a situation where you need help.”

As he makes his way to the exit, Sam adds a new rule to his list: Only shop in places with self-checkout.

Outside, it’s raining and the city is various shades of gray. He attracts a few glances from pedestrians, but once they catch his eye, they quickly look away. Before Sam was on the Team, people never noticed him, he wasn’t much to look at, even with hair. But now that he’s forgotten to take off his badge on his way home from work, he’s getting double takes.

Thing is, Sam doesn’t mind being different. It’s all the bullshit he gets about it that bothers him.

He’s shaking, but not from the damp or the cold. His fingers and scalp begin to itch mercilessly, begging to ignite. No. Not here. Not yet, Sam thinks, and sprints back to his apartment. It’s only when he’s in the alleyway, alongside the reeking dumpsters, that Sam turns his face up to the remorseless sky. Only then does he exhale like Miranda taught him and let the fire consume him.

Watch Sam burn and burn and burn.


Episode 8: But It’s Better Than Drinking Alone

Sure, figuring out how to close the biggest wormhole humanity has ever seen might be cause for celebration. But not for Sam.

For him, today has been a nightmare. Taking out rogue tax returns. Deciphering cryptic financial information. Chasing slippery receipts. The time-space continuum might be back to normal, but what about the paper trail?

“You’re full of it,” Akira says, but she’s laughing. So is Mac from behind the bar.

The Point is full of Supers—laughing, drinking, arm-wrestling—despite the cuts and bruises and torn clothes. The place smells like sweat, cigarettes, and cheap beer and the sense of relief is thick and joyful.

“I don’t want to hear it.” Miranda pokes Sam in the chest, her bracelets jingling and her martini sloshing dangerously. “While your lazy ass was sitting there, I was on the phone for an hour with PD trying to explain the details. Then the reporters. And then another hour with the hospital until I talked to a nurse who actually knew something…”

Sam stares at his soda water as the smiles slip away around him. Because not everyone escaped with just cuts and bruises.

“How is Cyrus?” Mac asks quietly.

“Pretty banged up,” Miranda says with a sigh. “Lots of internal damage and broken bones. But he’ll heal. Eventually.”

Sam squeezes the glass in his hands. There’s been an ache in his chest ever since he heard the news. He always imagined Cyrus as indestructible. He’d called the hospital too and was crushed when he’d learned that it’d be a while before non-family members would be able to visit.

“Well as fantastic as you all are, I have work tomorrow.” Miranda finishes her martini in a swallow. She picks up her purse, fishing for her wallet.

“Don’t worry about it, M.” Sam pulls out a twenty. “I’ve got it. You too, Akira.”

Miranda puts a fist on her hip. “Look, your attempt at chivalry’s adorable—”

“But my lazy ass won’t be in the office until ten tomorrow.” Sam grins as Miranda makes a face, but she doesn’t argue. Which suits Sam fine. He’s been a Super for three months now and the thrill of having compatriots to buy drinks for hasn’t gotten old yet.

“Thanks, Sam.” Akira gives him a quick, tight hug. She flashes Miranda a knowing smile and hand in hand they leave The Point.

Sam’s grinning as he watches them go. It’s been a terrible day, but it would’ve been unbearable if he was alone.

“She works too much,” says a voice at Sam’s elbow. He turns to see that the man in the blue t-shirt with The Who on it has appeared on the bar stool beside him. Sam is friendly with everyone on the Super Team. But the man in blue has been the exception. In fact, the only time Sam sees him is when he turns up next to him out of nowhere.

At least this time Sam doesn’t jump.

“I know,” says Sam. He also knows from the payroll that the man’s name is Lance.

Lance’s brows furrow for a moment. Then his face relaxes. “Good, she needs more friends.” He catches Mac’s eye. “The usual, please.”

“Sure thing,” Mac says, startled, and hurries away.

“How do you sneak up like that?”

“It’s all about timing. You probably weren’t going to turn around for another minute.”

“So what? You see the future?” Sam jokes.

“Only the worst possible outcome,” says Lance. “Actually, it’s more like glancing at a snapshot.”

Watch Sam’s jaw drop.

“You see future snapshots?” Sam always thought prophetic abilities were fictions dished out by slimy financial advisors.

“Yeah well, it’s not the best gift to have for making friends,” Lance says, picking up the beer Mac puts in front of him. He takes a large swallow. “And the worst usually doesn’t happen, but you can prevent a lot by anticipating it.”

“Is that how you knew to keep the pedestrians away during that incident with unreality on the roof?” Sam asks.

Lance nods. “It’s my job on the Team to keep civilians safe.”

“That kid under the car—”

“Wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.”

“What was?”

Lance takes another swallow, staring straight ahead. His hand is in a white-knuckled fist on the counter. “You don’t want to know.”

Sam has no idea what to say to that. He sips his soda water and tries to focus on that warm feeling of friendship he had two minutes ago. It works. For about thirty seconds. But his traitor thoughts eventually wander back to Cyrus.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how we managed to close the wormhole?” Lance says, suddenly.

“No,” Sam says. “I’m happier not knowing, I think.”

For the first time, Lance gives him a small smile. “Good. What were you worrying about then?”


Lance’s small smile dies. “He’ll be fine.” Sam opens his mouth to ask ‘How?’ but he’s cut off with a glare. “I need to believe that, Sam. Despite what I see.”

Sam nods. He understands. Clinging to his own slivers of hope is how he survived these last three months.

“Did you know we started the team?” Lance asks. Sam shakes his head. “Me and Cyrus and Lana. We wanted to teach the world by example. Show we’re people and belong here too.” His shoulders slump. “Sometimes I wonder if we’re making any difference.”

“I think we are,” Sam says. “And if we aren’t, there’s nothing we can do about it now, right?” It’s what he tells Miranda when she’s stressing out. It’s what he tells himself when worry claws at him.

“No, but—”

“So, we might as well enjoy the evening.” Sam raises his glass, and after a moment’s hesitation, Lance lifts his beer and clinks.

They sit there and drink in almost comfortable silence for ten minutes or an hour or maybe two. Time becomes slippery when you’ve been stressed out and overworked for months. Before either of them realizes it, the mood in the bar has changed: the point in the evening where happy celebrators dissolve into melodramatic drunks.

Lance struggles to his feet. “Sam, get me out of here. Now,” he hisses. All around them, Supers’ faces are contorted with raw emotion, heralding poor decision-making.

Sam doesn’t need to be told twice. He puts an arm around Lance to steady him and together, they weave their way towards the door.

Outside, it’s cold, but liberating. Lance visibly relaxes a little and points down the street. “Home’s that way. Do you mind?”

“Nope.” Sam’s no Main Team hero, so basically, this is the least he can do.

They walk in silence for a while. Sometimes the street lights flicker off when they pass, sometimes they don’t.

“You still want to, don’t you? To prove everyone wrong,” Lance asks as they near his narrow house, wedged between other narrow houses.

The question startles Sam, because despite his best intentions, the promises to himself, the lies he tells to keep going, he still wants to be the hero he imagined when he joined the Super Team. Because the truth is, even after all this time, the video of the oblivious burning man in the middle of the jazz bar and his horrified boyfriend gaping at him still wanders into his thoughts. And the only thing that hurts more than the comment section is Lev’s expression.

“Do you read people’s minds too?” Sam tries to keep his voice light. Sam fails.

“I didn’t have to. The whole Team’s the same way. Even Mac.”

“But…but Mac’s not a Super…?”

“No, but his niece is. And she’s too afraid to leave her little trailer in the country. Mac’s hoping Teams like ours will one day change her mind.”

Sam stares at Lance. “But being on the Team must make things easier…after a while.”

“Look, man, I don’t think that’s possible.” Lance puts a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, at the audition, I tried to warn you.”

Sam hesitates. Hesitates. Then:

Watch Sam ask the question he’s been avoiding all night.

“If I…if I stay with the Super Team, what snapshot do you see of me?”

Lance stares at him, his expression becoming pained before he buries his face in his hands. “You don’t want to know, Sam.”

But Sam can hear it anyway. We don’t lessen anyone’s pain, just redistribute it.

And he sees it now. It’s the anguish on Lance’s face. The feeling that’s carved a space in Sam’s own chest cavity since that night at the jazz bar. The feeling that hasn’t gone away.

Screw it, Sam doesn’t want to be a Super. Not anymore.


Episode 9: If You Want to Reach Me, Call the North Pole

An hour later, Sam has packed his bags. His umbrae scarf and Super badge are piled neatly at the end of the bed. He feels odd without it; he’s come to love his unofficial uniform. But Sam reminds himself exile is the better choice. Nothing will ever change here.

He already has a list of relocation programs he’s going to call in the morning.

He can’t quite leave yet, though. He doesn’t quite have the courage to say goodbye in person, so Miranda will find a note in the office with an apology in the morning. He owes her that much. Probably more.

But being a Super won’t solve any of Sam’s problems.

He was an idiot to believe it ever could.


Episode 10: Everything Burns

From the outside, the old community center looks dead. But Sam is pretty sure Danielle is still in there, working late. She was trying to fix the windows today, so they could actually open them and air out the musty, stale office. The lights are still on inside.

From across the street, with Miranda’s note tucked in his pocket, Sam pulls out his phone.

U still at work? he texts Danielle.

Sam doesn’t think much of the faint rustling noise or the muffled thuds. City noises. Something that he’ll miss in his exile.

Except, a faint light catches his eye. A flicker. It comes from the entrance of the building. A moment later, a woman steps out of the community center.

Even from across the street, Sam can see the maniac look in her eyes, in her posture. She holds a phone at arm’s length, the camera trained on herself.

“This one’s for the Super Team,” she says, “The freaks who think they’re better than us.” She spots Sam and turns the phone around. Sam flinches.

“Will you tell the Supers if they don’t see this?” she calls.

“I am a Super,” he says, forgetting to use past tense. And that’s when Sam notices the empty gas can in her other hand. That’s when he smells the smoke.


Oh shit.

The woman’s laughter hounds him as he runs towards the community center.

Inside, the flames are already billowing. It’s as if the old community center had been waiting for a match. A spark. Naturally, the fire sprinklers don’t work.

Sam dashes towards the basement steps, painfully aware of how everything has become uncomfortably warm. The smell of smoke, thick and overpowering.

Watch Sam run.

He sprints through the rows of files, down the hallway, and around the corner to Danielle’s office. He pounds on the door, once, twice, then wrenches it open.

Only to find it empty.

The lights are off, her toolbox is in the corner, and her coat and hat and scarf are gone. As if on cue, the phone that Sam has forgotten he’s holding buzzes to life. The text from Danielle says No, Im home. Enjoying my life. Where r u?

Watch Sam run again. But he only makes it a few feet before he’s forced to drop to the floor for air. The smoke is unavoidable now with the smell of everything burning. The heat corralling him from all sides. The fire has finally found the multitude of invoices, billing, and random magazines. All around him, years of civil service records are being reduced to ash.

Watch Sam crawl as fast as he can.

He almost makes it too. But then a mountain of burning papers comes crashing down, trapping Sam in flames. Blinding, raging, ravenous flames. Flames that cannot be controlled. Flames that are hungry for more.

And yet…they’re not that bad.

Actually, they’re not even that hot.

Watch Sam not burn.


Episode 11: Final Decisions

Sam might not burn, but his clothes still do. Now, he’s cold without them, standing naked amid all the wailing sirens and grim-faced firefighters.

Eventually, one of them takes pity and gives him a fire blanket. The coarse wool never felt so good. He sits on the curb, the cement like sandpaper on his bare skin, but somehow, this feels good too.

This is how Miranda finds Sam. She doesn’t skimp on the expletives. She takes her time scolding him, repeatedly reminding him what a fucking stupid bastard he is and all the work he would have left her with if he burned to death. “Lance told me you’ll die of smoke inhalation!” she yells.

But Sam doesn’t mind, she’s the only steady point amidst the chaos—an anchor, a focus. And when she runs out of words, she’s shaking and Sam wishes he had another blanket to give her.

“If it makes you feel better, Lance hinted at the same thing to me,” he tells her.

“I forgot,” she says as she takes a seat next to him. “I forgot that you can’t always believe the Team’s Anxiety Man.” She slumps, puts her face in her hands. “I thought you gave up on rescuing people, Sam.”

Honestly, until an hour ago, Sam had planned on living out the rest of his selfish life not a hero. Rushing into that fire was the most reckless thing he’s ever done, but in the flames, he found something new.

“Friends are exceptions,” he says.

Miranda gives him a long, hard look. “Yeah,” she says finally. “They are.”

As they sit shoulder to shoulder, their attention drifts to a reporter and a cameraman talking to a fireman a few yards off. All three men are looking at Sam.

“Excuse me, are you the Super who ran into the building?” the reporter asks, approaching Sam, but speaking into his mike. Sam gives the camera trained on him an uncomfortable glance and pulls the blanket tighter.

“Yes,” Miranda answers, before Sam can respond. “He’s one of the most important members of our Team.”

I am? Sam starts to say. Then he catches Miranda’s expression. In it, he sees how truly afraid she was of losing him tonight.

Sam nods.

“So…is this just another episode in the Supers’ long and troubled history?”

Episodes, right. Sam wants to laugh. It’s clear to him now, sitting naked, reeking of ashes and smoke, that Super episodes are unavoidable. It’s how you pick yourself up afterwards that matters.

“Yup,” he says.

By now, most of the neighborhood is out watching the flames die down, clustering around the reporter, shooting video footage of their own.

“And what do you do for the Super Team exactly?the reporter asks.

“All the uncool work that keeps our photogenic Teammates going and you busy,” Sam replies. Besides him, Miranda laughs.

The ears of the reporter turn slightly pink. “Could you demonstrate your talents for us, then Mr…?”

“Sam Wells. A Super.”

All around them, the spectators lean in, hold their breath in anticipation.

Sam runs a hand over his tingling scalp. He knows that now is his moment in the spotlight. He knows that in a week, he’ll just be an accountant again with new episodes and problems. That he’ll be back fighting for the same things, the same rights.

So, for the first time in ages, Sam squares his shoulders and looks directly at the camera.

Watch Sam burn.

Or maybe not.

Either way, watch Sam smile for the audience.

And no longer care what they see.


(Editors’ Note: “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 34B.)

deep sleep

i’ve never seen the deep sleep of monarch butterflies

but I can imagine

the taste of their relief in the eucalyptus grove

the slow nectar of thawing winter,

a rare ice wine steeped with pine needles instead of champagne

at the end of passport control

the pollen is a confetti of stars


only ancestors know the exhaustion of butterflies

3,000 miles crossed to reach their winter bed

four generations lost, four generations of wings

coins of stained-glass

to mark the tolls, the border stops, the layovers in cold airports


there are always things lost in a move

the back of an earring, a creased recipe, a tiffin of spices you will later replace in a

supermarket aisle, the name slipped sideways, the spice soul-muted.


the new creatures never saw the recipe or tasted taja from the old bazaar

but the flavor lives behind their milkteeth

even with wings amniotic damp and crimped tight like a newborn’s fist

the butterflies remember to crave milkweed


deep in their thin bellies

the secret alchemy of ambrosia to poison

enough to ward off the jackdaws and square-pupiled lizards

their wings an orange caution:


I am not to be devoured, they say


Children of exile are used to this

We know to toss salt over our shoulders

To turn our pockets inside out in banana groves

To place kajal behind our ears to ward off evil eyes

To walk quietly or lose money

Alchemy remembered, superstition to sign

To ward off the police, the creditors, the children on the playground:


I am not to be devoured, we say


Newly wakened monarchs always know where home is


This is the secret of exoduses


sun compasses, azimuthal angles of light

the hidden sinew of butterfly clocks, set for spring

or, I think, inherited maps


On their wings, the language of immigrants


Many, but not all, things are lost in a move


Behind my eyes, landscapes I haven’t seen

Hooked in my jaw, the silhouettes of stories

Sewn to my dreams, the whirring of tongues

Jointing my bones, milk myths


There are tales I lap up on a curled tongue

Their flavors craved, from birth,

Like milkweed

Poison to jackdaws who shout — go home —


My mouth cannot hold more than one language

So they are lost

With the back of an earring and someone’s necklace clasp, the tiffin of spices, that old

photo taken by what’s-her-name, wing dust the color of saffron


But I remember a dialect I cannot speak,


Here, printed on the arches of my heart

Split like a monarch’s wings


Look close—

I will always know the way back home


(Editors’ Note: “deep sleep” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 34B.)

Censorship and Genre Fiction—Let’s Broaden our Broader Reality

I want to talk about genre fiction’s power to battle censorship and misinformation. I am, in my capacity as a historian, in the middle of a multi-year project on the history of censorship1, and in my capacity as a genre fiction reader and writer I keep coming back to two observations about genre fiction and censorship, one simple, one complex.

The simple one is that genre fiction has a great ability to bypass direct censorship and get away with representing things societies and governments don’t permit in realist fiction. When I presented the Campbell award in 20182 and 20193, I talked about Osamu Tezuka writing in post-WWII Japan, when American occupation censorship and domestic restrictions combined to make it nearly impossible to write about the war, or the racism that shaped it. While newspapers didn’t even have the blocks to print ‘atomic bomb4, censors paid little attention to science fiction, so Tezuka could publish stories where the atomic-powered robot Astro Boy battled the genocidal dictator ‘Hitlini’5, met with American civil rights activists6 to learn about hate groups7, helped robots run for office8 and campaign for equal rights9, and learned from aliens about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Similarly, in 1964, New Zealand10’s Indecent Publications Tribunal11, after banning Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch12, decided to allow his later novel Dead Fingers Talk13 because it was “the fantasy world of science fiction” so between that and its unusual pastiche structure, “the author’s manner of writing has so effectively restricted his potential reading public that in our opinion no further restriction seems called for.” These are just two of many examples when governments, or the executives who censor forthcoming books and films, have scrutinized genre fiction less rigidly than realist fiction, viewing it as less influential despite its vast audience. Genre fiction is not immune to censorship—there are many cases, from China’s 2011 ban on time travel fiction14 to the erasure of same-sex romances15 from 1990s translated anime—but the sense of unreality, of otherworlds which don’t quite count, has let innumerable works, from Astro Boy to Star Trek’s famous interracial kiss16, break barriers.

The more complex one, which has become clearer and clearer the more I study censorship in general, is that genre fiction exerts an enormous, even dominant influence on how people around the world understand censorship, and consequently on when people do or don’t organize to oppose it. Fictional depictions of censorship absolutely dominate the way we think about it. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopias spike every time a major government or leader does something which resembles Orwell. Journalists quote Orwell, activists slap his words on posters, advertisers borrow his imagery, and the demand for dystopian, grimdark, and apocalyptic fiction surges whenever public trust in government erodes.

One of the most fascinating works I have analyzed in my project is the script for the first episode of the new 2014 Cosmos TV series with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which depicts the Inquisition’s persecution of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. That the episode makes historical errors is not exceptional, but what is telling is that virtually every error stems from the writers’ assumption that the Inquisition must resemble Orwell. As an Inquisition specialist I’ll be the first to confirm that it was terrible and did terrible things, but three minutes on Wikipedia will show how multi-function an institution it was, yet Cosmos confidently characterizes it saying: “[the Inquisition’s] sole purpose was to investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs. It wasn’t long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police…” They describe his expulsion from the monastery as a kind of blacklisting, “the last steady job he ever had,” and depict his famous ‘years of wandering’ as Bruno shivering homeless by a campfire, when he was actually wandering from royal court appointment to royal court appointment. These and other false assumptions, consistently attributing Bruno’s troubles to his ideas and omitting the charges of plagiarism, spying, and political entanglements which really shaped his path, form a narrative which exactly matches Winston Smith’s rumination on the fate of unpersoned thoughtcriminals: “Sometimes they were released and allowed to remain at liberty for as much as a year or two years before being executed. Very occasionally some person whom you had believed dead long since would make a ghostly reappearance at some public trial…” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, part 1 ch. 4) These mistakes were not the result of a lazy writing team—this was an educational series which prided itself on the accuracy of its science, on up-to-date research—but when depicting history they were so confident that the Inquisition must resemble Orwell, that all major censorship regimes resemble Orwell, that writers who did meticulous research on science were content to fill in the skeleton of what they knew about the Inquisition with Orwell, confident that they were right. They didn’t doubt it, didn’t stop to check—even while celebrating Bruno’s willingness to question assumptions—they didn’t stop to check if real censorship might not resemble what science fiction showed them.

We teach people what censorship is. We craft the otherworlds, the failed futures, the surveillance states, the resistance fighters, the many archetypes which shape how people respond to real world events: what to look out for, what to resist, when to blow the whistle, and when to be silent. We propagate assumptions about what kinds of censorship are normal, ubiquitous, acceptable, inevitable, objectionable, or real. Likely some of you, like me, remember vividly the moment in The Martian when NASA is looking at the photo that proves they stranded a man on Mars, and they say: welp, we’re obliged to release the photos within 24 hours, so better prep the press conference. It was stunning. The government didn’t cover it up. It was surprising that they didn’t, even though that is the real world policy, but in a hundred other genre works, from X-Files episodes to high-tech thrillers, the government always covers it up, deletes the files, locks the Ark of the Covenant away in its infinite warehouse of secrets. We have normalized through repetition the expectation that government cover-ups are a constant reality, one we should accept, and cannot change. That resignation is a fruit of genre fiction. We need to understand this when we write about censorship and similar issues, that our depictions have enormous power, both to galvanize, and to excuse.

When I see people debate whether a particular action is or is not censorship, or is or is not justified, one very consistent attitude is that people today feel viscerally that things are censorship when they’re power-seeking, malevolent, centralized, top-down, when they feel like Orwell. And correspondingly, people often say things aren’t censorship, or that they’re acceptable, okay, not “bad censorship,” when they don’t resemble Orwell, and especially when they’re perceived as well-intentioned—when it’s the good guys doing the censoring. I encounter this attitude in newspaper columns, in editorial meetings, in everyday conversations, and several fellow scholars of censorship have told me they find the same. Once in a group discussion in our library I set side-by-side a copy of a Renaissance scientific treatise with condemned passages cut out by Inquisitors’ razors, and next to it a copy of Twilight: Breaking Dawn in which the mother of the under-aged owner had cut the sex scene out with scissors—the same physical act, cutting the pages, so why, I asked, did it feel so different? Part of the answer, of course, is that a YA vampire romance is in the genre fiction category of things we don’t feel are as important to defend as a weighty scientific tome, but one suggestion someone voiced in the discussion stunned me: unlike the Inquisitor, “the mother believes she’s doing something good.” As a historian I know the Inquisitor also thought he was doing something good, but this speaker, many people—like the Cosmos TV writers, the X-Files watchers, the Orwell readers—have learned over and over that the bad guy does bad censorship, for power, for himself, to feel his iron boot stomping humanity, that those we must resist resemble the O’Brien of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That when good guys do it it’s not the same.

We do depict good guys doing it. Mike the computer in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress who limits information to a small in-group even after the revolution succeeds; Pham in Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky who keeps a secret surveillance system to himself for centuries; the A.I. in Naomi Kritzer’s wonderful “Cat Pictures Please,” who no sooner becomes sentient than it starts to show people information it thinks they should have and conceal information it thinks they shouldn’t; even Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hundreds of similar action fantasies show secret heroes who know about the existence of magic, or gods, or vampires, or the afterlife, and hide it from the public—good guys who hide it from the public, often without discussing why. They hide it because hiding it keeps the world more normal, so we can tell stories about special people hidden within our world without diverging too much from reality, but that shortcut means we depict such secret-keeping as a normal good-guy action. Such stories teach us to assume that secret-keeping is normal, the way things naturally are. We depict positive, well-meaning concealment of facts, destruction of documents, manipulation of data, hacking, covert agencies, ancient societies which keep the secret scrolls away from the public and historians, geniuses who sagely judge that the world can’t handle the truth. We should depict a diversity of censors and motives, but we need to be careful when we do so. We need to remember that our otherworlds, far more than anything in this world, form people’s expectations about censorship: how it works, who does it, when it should be resisted, and when it should be tolerated or accepted. Such stories normalize silence, even condone it. Princess Leia on Women’s March posters and Orwell quotes in anti-fascist graffiti are immensely empowering, but correspondingly disempowering is the little giggle when someone browsing Facebook sees a headline about government corruption and posts an X-Files screencap of “Trust No One,” moving on with the assumption that such cover-ups are normal, constant, irresistible, or, if well-meaning ‘good guys’ are behind it, acceptable.

Dystopian fiction has made the public hyper-vigilant against censorship which resembles Orwell, but it has also made the public take less note of forms of censorship which do not resemble Orwell, which don’t come from the inexorable state but bottom-up, or ad hoc, or from people who feel like good guys. We need to remember how powerful genre depictions of censorship are, how much F&SF shapes expectations, activism, hope, acceptance, even legislation. Those who want to use genre fiction as a tool for liberty should depict a variety of censors, motives, and complexities. There is catharsis in revolutionary dystopias where we watch the rebels burn the tyrant’s tower to the ground, but there is a different power in complicating that narrative. We need to tell more stories where governments don’t cover up, where civilians do, where well-meaning censorship has bad consequences, where bad guys expose truth, where plucky rebels debate the ethics of using misinformation even against the evil empire, where the ancient secret society goes public for good or ill, where the vampire hunters try approaching the W.H.O., or where the genius who says the people can’t handle the truth is challenged on that assumption.

The discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic reveals even more clearly the stakes of the stories we tell about government, and about apocalypse. Rumors that the virus was a lab-developed bioweapon were so immediate, and so widespread that nearly every major global news agency has run multiple articles about the question. Separate conspiracy theories swirl around testing, aid distribution, mask hoarding, and supposed concealed cures, making it hard to see the deeds of real bad actors in the sea of paranoia. Of course, genre fiction is not responsible for the existence of conspiracy theories, nor for people’s vulnerability to them, and in 2020 real misinformation is a major factor, but conspiracy theories and misinformation both draw on fiction, and gain plausibility when they match familiar narratives. Most casual consumers of science fiction—people outside the fan community who watch a show here or a movie there—can remember five or ten narratives about bioweapon-wielding arch-villains or conspiratorial governments, and often very few narratives about natural pandemic.

MIT’s recent study17 of news moving on Twitter showed not only that false stories spread on average six times faster than true news, but that bots are not responsible, humans are. False stories are more interesting, more striking, appeal precisely because they are deliberately crafted using tropes and archetypes. Anyone who works with historical fiction knows the hardest part is often that real events are narratively unsatisfying. It’s hard to craft a climax when the conqueror dies by banging his head on a doorframe, and invented pseudo-historical events are often more plausible and satisfying than real history. Just so with news. A villainous conspirator is easier to understand than complex institutional failings. So long as bioweapons and conspiracies are so dominant in our narratives, they will remain familiar and satisfying, lending power to misinformation.

Changing the stories we tell is not a magic bullet that will defeat misinformation in the digital age, but I do think it can help. If we think carefully about our depictions of government, censorship, and silence, if we make a point of varying our stories, alternating villainous conspiracies with tales of honest whistleblowers, institutional goodwill, or community action, we can diminish the expectation that concealing the truth is a natural constant of government and good guy alike. These don’t have to be happy stories—tales of whistleblowing can be grimdark or dystopian too—but simply increasing the variety of claims we make about silence and conspiracy could in turn increase the plausibility of real news, and diminish the persuasive power of some of the most destructive misinformation.

Genre fiction is so powerful, especially with its ability to evade top-down censorship and shape audiences expectations about news, government, the world’s potential for change, and the possibility of positive action. I sometimes think that hearing it dismissed as escapism so often makes even us within the genre underestimate our power. We shouldn’t. The power to influence is not the same as the power to choose outcomes. I’ve never felt so powerful as September 2016 when I received fan e-mail from attachés of both Trump’s and Hillary’s campaigns, and realized copies of my freshly-released first novel were being passed around in the vans with both candidates. It didn’t give me the power to choose the outcome. That does not mean it wasn’t powerful, injecting new ideas into—in the case of young campaign staffers—the future campaigns, and policies, and actions which will shape outcomes for years to come.

I never fail to tear up when I revisit Ursula Le Guin’s 2014 National Book Awards speech18, where she speaks of the enormous power of authors of speculative fiction: “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” We lose part of that power if, by consensus, we confine that larger reality to usually be one where government conspiracies are normal, where resistance can’t change that, and where even sage mentors and plucky heroes don’t trust the public to handle the truth.

Narrative is not the power to choose outcomes, but it is often the power to tip the scales when someone is hovering between action and despair. You can find hundreds of images of protest signs with lines from Orwell, but a few years ago when Japan hosted a world peace summit, the organizers hung a very different sign in the main hall: “We Must Make a Future That Would Not Make Astro Boy Cry.” So many tools that galvanize resistance come from fantasy and science fiction. We who, with Tezuka and with Le Guin, explore imagined worlds, alternatives, and other ways of being must not narrow that larger reality, not when it has so much power to shape action, hope, or surrender. So let’s keep broadening our broader reality, so we can also broaden the possibilities of this one. 



[1] “Exploring How New Information Technologies Stimulate New Forms of Information Control.” Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions,

[2] ” 2018 Campbell Speech, How New Authors Expand Fields (+Censorship, Manga)”. Posted October 4, 2018.

[3] “2019 Campbell Speech + Refugee Charity Fundraiser”. Posted on August 19, 2019.

[4] Kenzaburō Ōe, Hiroshima Notes. Grove Press (1996). type for%22&f=false

[5] Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy Volume 4. Dark Horse Comics (2002). hitlini&f=false

[6] Frederik L. Schodt, The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution. Stone Bridge Press (2007). boy bailey&f=false.

[7] Oshima, Tana. “This is when Atom (Astro Boy) meets the KKK during his trip to the USA and is invited to join the dark side, which he refuses by saying: ‘I’m a robot. I can only do good’. What the KKK answers next is very revealing. (1951).”. Instagram, March 24, 2019.

[8] Panel from an Astro Boy manga by Osamu Tezuka.

[9]  Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy Omnibus, Volume 3 TPB. Dark Horse Comics (2016). Page 167.

[10] Christoffel, Paul . Censored: A Short History of Censorship in New Zealand. Produced by the Department of Internal Affairs’ Research Unit (1989).

[11] ” Indecent Publications Tribunal.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. Page last edited on 19 December 2019.

[12] “Banned Books Awareness: ‘Naked Lunch'” by R. Wolf Baldassarro. Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge. Posted November 9, 2014.

[13] “Dead Fingers Talk.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. Page last edited on 5 December 2017.

[14] “‘No more time-travel drama’, authority says it disrespects history”. April 3rd, 2011.

[15] “The ‘Americanisation’ of Cardcaptor Sakura”. May 28th, 2011.

[16] “Kirk and Uhura’s kiss”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. Page last edited on 18 February 2020.

[17] ” The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News”. The Atlantic. March 8, 2018.

[18] “Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities'”. The Guardian. November 20th, 2014.

Dresses Like White Elephants

(Content note: references to childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, pregnancy loss.)


Beni can always guess which ones are going to be the most expensive. If the girl had sprung for the keepsake rig—the plastic liner and the marbleized cardboard longbox to avoid creasing the bodice—that one was going to be pricey. It was also going to be ugly, in almost every case. Tacky keepsake box means tacky dress: beading, lace, those tiny cunting buttons all the way up the back. The bitch with that box is going to be bitter and tearful, saying something like “so much for my happy ending,” as she rips off the lid to show you. The dress will have come from David’s Bridal or some mall prom outlet with fake flowers on a plastic trellis masking stained acoustic tiles in the ceiling. Beni passes all those boxes right on by. He lifts his perfect brows and doesn’t even look.

The next section is the smallest and already overrun at the anus of dawn hour of seven AM: the couture dresses. There are only ever a dozen of these at most. Their original owners are slim, stylish women who wear sunglasses that cost a car payment and shoes that kill them but leave a good-looking corpse. Almost none of the queens who fight over one of these dresses could wear them. The original could only serve as bones for the seamstress to build something beautiful but much roomier around them. Still, they are good bones. These are universally hung, always in a garment bag and always in a fabric that makes you want to moan out loud when you touch it. Raw silk. Crepe de chine. Bridal satin so slippery it’s almost an obscenity to your fingers.

Beni looks these over, even considering inspecting one with marabou trim up closer. He is an absolute sucker for marabou; blame Alicia Silverstone in her iconic 1995 performance as the world’s most lovable rich little bubblehead. Who didn’t want to be Cher? But Beni knows better than that. No frivolous puffball is going to win this thing. Not this year.

It is the last year he can compete. Beni doesn’t need the calendar to remind him that he is about to age out of relevance; he has the crows’ feet and baby dewlap in the mirror to count that off more cruelly than plain old linear time ever could. He has one last shot at the title and he is going all-out this year. That means he has to stand out. So the David’s Bridal crowd is a no from him. The couture gowns are too predictable. He is headed to the outer reaches of the expo, where the weird stuff is kept.

There are dresses in the outer rim that are not white. Beni respects queens who pick other colors, and some of them had gotten away with it over the years. Ming DyNasty (2009) had sashayed to victory in a blood-red cheongsam with a mermaid cut and a face beat for the gods; her highlight was tiny golden scales when the photographers got up close. Before that, it had been Hildegard von Bangin’ (1967) in her medieval blue gown with bell sleeves and intricate crown braids. She was capitalizing on a nation still obsessed with Camelot. She had made it work.

Beni can picture every single winner of the Hymen Games in his mind, like a slideshow of snowstorms. Outside of those two, every single winner had worn white. He skips the colored tables and heads into the ethnic neighborhoods. There he finds the tulle and drama of the Roma dresses, the quinceañera contenders, the modest Mormon frocks with their high necks and long sleeves. He looks them over with a tailor’s eye. He’s about a size 16, and broad in the shoulders. He prefers sleeveless for obvious reasons.

He sweeps the room with his eyes, despairing of ever coming across something he could truly express himself in. And then he sees her.

She is sitting alone at a folding table. Hasn’t brought a tablecloth from home, just laid the dress out over the plastic tabletop and sat there staring at it, her chin in her hands.

Her face is oval, with high cheekbones barely showing in full cheeks. She wears glasses and keeps her lusterless dark hair long enough that she could do anything with it that she wanted. He knows at once that she puts it into the same low ponytail every day, nonetheless. She has a prominent keloid jutting out of her chin, and her skin is dark but sallow with darker spots under her small eyes. Beni itches to do her makeup and fuck with all that hair.

What he says is, “Hi.”

She looks up, a little startled. “Hi.”

He points at the dress she has laid there. “Mind if I take a look?”

She gives a little shrug and gestures at it with a few fingers. Beni picks it up.

The way a man holds a dress changes completely if he’s worn one. Watch a man handle a dress without knowing how one works, or how much power is in it. Watch him bunch it in his fist like its structure means nothing to him; see him treat it like laundry.

Beni holds the dress delicately and deftly, hands at the seams and examining the make of it. It’s homely as hell, he can see that right away. She’s not a great seamstress.

“Did you make this yourself?”

She nods, eyes already too shiny. “I didn’t have no money. I got a real nice pattern. And I saved up to buy the fabric.”

It is fine stuff. Beni’s fingers tell him that. It’s a high-grade silk, in a candlelit ivory shade of white that would flatter even his Midwestern pallor. On her deeper brown, it must have glowed.

Beni turns the dress over his forearm as gently as he would a burping baby. He notes the inexpertly concealed side zip and the low back. The bodice has a sweetheart neckline and spaghetti straps, but one of them has a twist in it. No liner. He steals a glance over at the girl, trying to guess her measurements.

“How long ago did you wear this?”

Her breath hitches a little when she inhales. “Just three years.”

“Mhmm.” He doesn’t want to get sucked into her sadness if he doesn’t have to. It’s tricky when you want someone’s wedding dress. Every single one of them has a story. “Are you about a fourteen?”

“About that, yeah. Small bust and wide hips. It’s why I learned to make my own clothes.”

Beni’s mouth softens a little at that. Nothing would have ever fit this girl right. Broad enough in the beam to need a plus-size store, but lacking the compensations that most big girls bring to the party. He guesses she’s a big band and a small cup. There is width in her hips, but he bets that when she stands up she’ll have a wide, square flat expanse of ass that will do her no favors.

He knows how that is. He is big but not hard; almost hairless and more suet than beef. He isn’t a bear or a daddy; just a big, soft man. He had taken to drag the way a toasted marshmallow takes to a graham cracker. He hardly needs to paint in his cleavage at all. This woman’s dress is going to fit him like a glove meant for a dimpled hand.

He looks back at the dress and sees that it’s better from the back than he could have guessed, given the substandard work of its construction. All down the back of the skirt and into the modest train, she had embroidered blue morpho butterflies and pink poppies. The work is excruciatingly fine; this is her real skill. He wonders if she wore glasses now after years of straining to see tiny stitches in a hoop. That compassionate thought is shoved aside as he begins to envision the magnificent headpiece and cowl he could make to match this, to elevate it. Blue butterflies to swirl around his face on tiny, stiff, nearly invisible wires. A cowl of pink poppies to wrap his traps and inch up his neck, making him look narrower, more feminine. He could make it seem as though butterflies were holding up his veil.

This has to be the dress. There is no other. It was made for her, but meant for him.

He lays it down with gentle hands and looks into her watery brown eyes.

“Ok. What’s the cost?”

She blows out hard, puffing her chapped lips and beginning to tear up. “A lot. You sure?”

Something tugs hard at his heart. This is going to cost him. He had heard sometimes that the couture dresses could be surprisingly cheap. These weird ones were either a steal or a stoning. He knows which way this will go. He thinks back to his first years in the Hymen, those unlucky David’s Bridal dresses that only ran up a bill of a little humiliation, a little indifference. How that had stung when he was a younger man.

He can afford more, now.

“I’m sure.”

She scoots her chair back a little bit. There is an empty one there, set for a buyer. Everybody has one. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a girl with a Roma rhinestone ballgown with hot pink accents make a face so sour that a lemon would be jealous. There is nobody else in the outer reaches during this morning rush. She might wait all day. She might have to tote her whole load home.

Beni looks at the girl levelly. “What’s your name?”

“Melissa,” she says, shaking her hands out. “You know what you’re in for?”

“Did you?”

She does spill then, tears rolling down her cheeks like rain over a hillside. “Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter, let’s do this.”

She puts her hands out in front of her. The shaking has not made a difference. She quivers like a greyhound. He puts his plump white hands in her plump brown ones. She has ragged, bitten-down nails. No wedding ring. He has a manicure, and a fat lapis lazuli set in white gold.

They breathe together.

It begins all at once, like a hot surge of reflux. He tastes her father’s name, feels it burn the back of his throat. Feels his hair pulled and the ghosts of broken bones in his pelvis. He feels his heart break and his sense of self recede and recede until he is nothing at all.

Melissa grips his hands tighter. There is more coming. Beni knows. He has done this enough times to know that the parts that came before puberty are intense and disorienting, but the worst probably still lays ahead.

Beni sucks in air as he feels the first stirrings of endometriosis, of cysts on his ovaries. He endures the scorch of shame as Melissa’s high school memories whip through him. He feels her desire burn through his body, not so different from his own. She had wanted to be seen differently, but she could only do so much. Like him, she had learned to costume herself and become somebody else. Unlike him, she hadn’t found a fairy dragmother to take her in. Loneliness was like a busted water main inside her, flowing and overflowing, washing almost everything else away.

The dress comes quick. She must have gotten married at seventeen or eighteen. Hell, she probably isn’t old enough to drink even now. He feels the resolute decision she had made to settle and accept what life had offered her. Her absolutely secure knowledge that this was probably her only chance to be cherished, even for a moment. The pains in his face and the soft joints of his elbows tell him about that cherishing. The withered soul inside Melissa turns away in shame. She had continued work on the dress anyway. She had accepted pain, so long as love claimed it.

Beni chokes out rough sobs as the dress takes shape inside them both. He feels every stitch in the hours of her embroidery, the toughness of her fingers and the heartbreak of mistakes that have to be pulled out and done over again.

And then, a cracked eggshell in the middle of those agonizing days. A sense of loss and soreness. Bleeding. Triumph. No shame at all, just a sense of good riddance. Of escape. Of safety.

He looks at her, his mouth open. “I’ve never felt one of those before.”

She smiles a little through her tears. “It’s nothing. They just let the air in.”

He rides it out, knowing they are near the end. He feels the fragile, brittle joy of leaving. The pride in poverty. The fear of sleeping in her car. The sense that it was worth it, all worth it, so long as she never had to go back. The last of it was the sadness that this morning had brought. The dress had been the best part of it. The best part of her. She knows that, but she had to make this sale.

“Had to,” she says, letting go of his hands and wiping away her tears. She is smiling broadly now, breathing almost level. She straightens up her posture. Her eyes look clear.

“Had to,” Beni says, hollowly. He won’t be right for a day or two. He is ready. He’s set up everything he knew he will need, with salts beside his bathtub and his laptop in bed. Friends to visit and bring soup. He will come through it, slower than when he was twenty-one. But just as well.

“Thank you,” she says to him. “I hope you find it was worth it.”

He looks at the dress. He had pulled it into his hands without knowing and holds it now as if it were a baby rabbit. He blinks and then jerks his head, not wanting to spatter the fabric with water spots.

He nods up at her. She stands up and walks away, jaunty and with a bounce in her step.

In the next few days, he knows she will have the time of her life. She’ll walk confidently into a place that will hire her, she’ll charm a friend into picking up the check for brunch and mimosas. She’ll cut her hair, probably have her first orgasm, feel like a new person altogether. She has passed on her dress, her white elephant, her burden. She is free.

And he is Beni Factor, the greatest drag queen on earth, who knows that the only way to win the game of weddings is to become a palimpsest of women’s pain and women’s labor. It settles into his belly as he lays the dress tenderly across his back seat. He drives himself home. He says his prayers to Hymen. And when Miss Factor walks out on the stage in Melissa’s wedding dress, surrounded by her cloud of butterflies, she smiles like a virgin newlywed and blows the world a kiss.

When she throws the bouquet, she sends a little of Melissa out with it. And the crowd eats it up like slices of cake.

The Assassination of Professor X: The Destruction of Marvel’s Most Famous Disabled Character

Professor X is one of the most famous disabled characters. Since his debut in 1963, he’s been known as the formidable mentor who turned his mansion into a safe space and school for marginalized people. Unlike superhero billionaires Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, Xavier used his fortune to shelter and organize other heroes who inevitably outshined him. That’s what he wanted.

To many people, the X-Men are a collection of cool characters. For myself as a disabled teen, it was hard not to notice how many characters with physical and mental disabilities gravitated towards the X-Men, as opposed to the Avengers and Justice League. Xavier’s found family welcomed them.

The Professor X of the comics is more complicated than Patrick Stewart’s lovable teacher in the films. While the Xavier of the comics wanted to change minds consensually, he hacked the minds of people who attacked his students. It was partially his failure to set moral boundaries for telepathy that influenced his student Jean Grey to become the world-destroying Dark Phoenix.

Some fans consider his greatest flaw to be his incrementalism. He gets passed off as not radical enough since he’d like humans and Mutants to coexist. But this is a character that taught Mutants to weaponize their powers and routinely sent them on missions around the globe to punch robots. It’s true that he wanted humans to lessen their bigotry against Mutants culturally, but he also fought anti-Mutant legislation. In stories like God Loves, Man Kills, his students fought religious bigots.

He was only an incrementalist in comparison to Magneto, a villain who started his career in Uncanny X-Men #1 by stealing nuclear missiles for an attempted genocide of humans. Where Xavier’s career is nitpicked, Magneto seldom gets second-guessed for frequently trying to ravage the planet so badly that it would be borderline uninhabitable. Magneto’s idea is that some Mutants will just survive because they are strong, ignoring that many vulnerable ones will die. There isn’t much room for disabled Mutants in Magneto’s utopia.

This is where Xavier is right. His main point is not that humans can grow and be less racist. It’s that the most vulnerable people matter. Xavier believed that you can build a community by helping people and teaching them the value of helping others. X-Mansion became the embodiment of an idea. It was a fantasy destination you could reach by bus where people wanted to accept you as you are.

There, the likes of Forge and Beast got the resources they needed to build assistive devices. Forge was an amputee who used these resources to build his own prosthetics, as well as ones for other Mutants. Beast used the same resources to design a bracelet that let Rogue touch people without drowning their life energy, and the ruby quartz visor that let Cyclops see. This brain trust even built several versions of Xavier’s mobility chair.

There, Storm built a greenhouse where her claustrophobia didn’t trigger. And in that space she let Wolverine shelter when his PTSD was too great to let him socialize.

There, superheroes played baseball together.

X-Mansion was also usually drawn without a wheelchair ramp. The fiction didn’t address why the place lacked wheelchair accessibility when its wealthy owner was a wheelchair user. It became a joke among disabled readers. The lack of a ramp was a microcosm for the problem of having well-meaning abled creators in control.

I sometimes recount Xavier’s retconned history to make disabled nerds laugh. Few of them believe this all happened. To them, he’s still the wise and kind Patrick Stewart.

The last sixty years of Xavier have changed a lot in the last twenty years. If that sounds confusing, consider retcons. Retcons, or retroactive continuity, are when a writer changes the established history of fiction. New writers who join long-running series often change the continuity to make it support what they want to write now. Superhero comics have a particularly controversial history with new writers contradicting past events.

You could say Xavier’s retcon problems started with Magneto. After some 90’s shenanigans, Xavier telepathically absorbed the darkest parts of Magneto’s mind. This absorbed portion fused with Xavier’s own repressed thoughts. In a retcon, it turned out Xavier had been psychically locking away his negative thoughts for thirty years in order to be a pure-hearted guide for his students. The fusion of Magneto’s megalomania and Xavier’s repression became a new entity, called Onslaught. Onslaught kidnapped Xavier and tried to take over the world with his own evil X-Men team.

It was one of those big crossover events Marvel loves. By the end of the story, the Fantastic Four and Avengers were all dead. And while they’d all be resurrected in a few years, and while Onslaught was destroyed, Xavier had a new problem. He faced a more dangerous enemy than ever before: a generation of cynical writers who saw the potential of subverting him into a bad guy.

Soon after, the X-Men discovered that Xavier had spent years figuring out how to kill them all and saved the information for future contingencies. Allegedly he’d worried about what to do if they ever went rogue. His students were left shaken and horrified.

This was odd to longtime readers. In the published comics, Xavier had never sought to kill Apocalypse or Juggernaut when they wreaked havoc. That he made plans to kill his own students seemed out of character. Further, you might ask how Xavier hid those files for decades inside a mansion that was thoroughly explored by basically omnipotent teenagers. That would be a good question. That’s the start of the problem with retcons.

Joss Whedon had a run on the X-Men. He retconned that the Danger Room, the X-Men’s high-tech training center, had gained self-awareness years ago. In the retcon, Xavier had lobotomized the Danger Room’s A.I. so his students could keep training. Apparently the Danger Room kept evolving intelligence, and Xavier had kept lobotomizing it, until it broke free and attacked everybody.

These retconned events had to have happened during the years when Xavier was publicly fighting for civil rights. It didn’t gel with any of the comics published during those years. The Xavier of those decades would’ve been more likely to make a deal with the A.I. and teach it. At worst, he could’ve consulted the dozens of engineer heroes and dozens of friendly A.I. characters in Marvel Comics before it became a problem.

In another story, Cyclops and Havok were retconned into having a third brother they’d never mentioned. This was Vulcan, a cosmically-powered abled guy who Xavier’s recklessness got killed. The retcon posed that Xavier had been so embarrassed about his mistake that he psychically erased Vulcan from everyone’s memories. Xavier was shamed for this old betrayal that a writer had just invented.

This became a pattern. Xavier was held up as a paragon and knocked down by retconned revelations in story after story for shock value. Rather than developing Xavier into a new phase of his life where he made bad choices or became corrupt, Marvel rewrote the history of a disabled icon into a disgrace.

One story went far enough back to say Xavier was a murderer before he was born. Xavier was rewritten to have had a fetal twin, who was apparently also an evil space demon. This was Cassandra Nova.

Despite Mutant powers not typically manifesting until puberty, both Xavier and Nova were amazingly powerful psychics in the womb.

Despite all medical science, both of them were conscious and self-aware in the womb.

Xavier’s fetus was scared of Nova’s “evil” fetus. He used his psychic powers to force their mother to miscarry and kill Nova. It is the only story I’ve ever read that insists upon personhood for fetuses and then blames them for miscarriages.

Even more ridiculous, Nova somehow survived without her doctors or parents noticing. She grew into a legendary space monster who was bent on revenge. Somehow she didn’t notice that Vulcan and the sentient Danger Room were also plotting revenge. The retcons now didn’t just contradict published comics history; they now contradicted each other.

Then the Illuminati came up. Despite decades of canon to the contrary, it turned out there was a secret order manipulating world events and controlling everything up to the Infinity Gems (the “Infinity Stones” in the MCU movies). This self-named Illuminati included Tony Stark, Mr. Fantastic, Namor of Atlantis, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt of the Inhumans, and…you guessed it: Xavier.

Xavier was retconned to be a founding member of the Illuminati, brought in to keep Mutants in check. The Illuminati plotted various unethical schemes that didn’t really fit their established characters, including shooting Hulk into space to get rid of him.

Only Black Panther of Wakanda turned down membership with the Illuminati. In an iconic and ironic panel, he told Xavier and the others, “Walk away now.”

You might ask why Xavier didn’t summon the help of all these world powers all those times that Mutants were nearly annihilated. Many classic X-Men stories don’t make sense if Xavier had the Illuminati on speed dial.

These nonsensical revelations coincided with a decline in disability rep in the X-Men. When these “revelations” cost Xavier his role as the head of the X-Men, he wasn’t replaced by another disabled person. In the 2010s, Marvel Comics mandated that no new Mutants be created, so new disabled Mutants couldn’t be introduced at all. Existing disabled Mutants, like the Forge and the literal brain-in-a-jar No-Girl, were not elevated in status. Following the Decimation storyline, many Mutants lost their powers entirely, including some disabled Mutants.

Thusly the pool of existing disabled Mutant characters shrank in the same period that Xavier fell from grace. The kinds of Mutants that made disabled readers like myself feel at home in X-Mansion were dwindling, and those that existed didn’t matter.

The X-Men were taken over by the increasingly violent Cyclops and Emma Frost. During this time, Cyclops’s analogy-to-disability eye beams were “cured.” Frost went on to do numerous unethical things with her role, including replacing Xavier in the Illuminati. She never faced similar consequences to Xavier. This new X-Men was more aggressive in the pro-Mutant cause, including assassinating anyone who concerned them.

The white disabled Xavier was replaced by white abled characters, making the X-Men’s upper hierarchy even less intersectional. Storm might have been expected to step up, but during this period she left the X-Men as she was paired off with Black Panther. For an introduction on the X-Men’s relationship with race, I recommend Phenderson Clark’s essay “On Malcolm, Martin and that X-Men Analogy Thing”.1

It matters that as the X-Men became more violent and radical, their leaders were cis, straight white people without disabilities. The tangible representation backslid as the metaphor of radicalized minorities escalated. Non-marginalized people were being centered in one of the few superhero spaces where they traditionally weren’t. Abled readers were being told they were the ones capable of doing what disabled ones were too afraid or corrupt to do. It was a betrayal of the idea of the X-Men as that place where people of various marginalizations supported each other.

When Xavier challenged Cyclops and Frost’s violent regime, he was humiliated with a new retcon. Frost psychically hacked into his mind, revealing that he had been editing the thoughts of his students whenever he wanted ever since the 1960’s. This managed to contradict both decades of published comics and to contradict previous retcons, as the Onslaught saga had already rewritten Xavier as locking away all of his own negative urges. It was downright silly that writers felt they needed to change even more of his history in order to discredit him.

Disgraced, Xavier walked away from his own school.

Oh yeah—the writers also made him walk again. It was done off-page; we never saw Xavier learning about it. Instead it was a shocking reveal for the abled characters. The Scarlet Witch used her reality-warping powers to steal Xavier’s telepathy and restore his legs. The writers actually made Xavier say, “I assume in some way Wanda Maximoff gave me back the use of my legs because she wanted to show me what being a cripple really was.”

Just as Marvel stripped away his history, they stripped away his identity as a disabled character. There had been other times in Marvel history when one “miracle” or another healed Xavier. He had never spoken like that, though. It didn’t sound like him. This time his becoming abled was deliberately paired with his fall from grace. They’d taken away everything that made Xavier meaningful to disabled audiences.

After you ruin a character that thoroughly, there’s only one thing bad writers can do to you.

Professor X was killed in 2012.

In Avengers Vs. X-Men, Cyclops threatened the entire world. Even Magneto begged Xavier for help, so Xavier faced Cyclops one last time. It was a few pages in the middle of an issue. Xavier died like a footnote, with no one to remark on the irony that he’d tried to stop Cyclops years prior. Characters buried him in an epilogue.

But it didn’t end. The Nazi supervillain Red Skull stole Xavier’s corpse for the next big Marvel crossover, called Axis. Red Skull mutilated Xavier’s remains, cutting out the part of his brain that had psychic powers, and grafted it to himself to steal them. Red Skull used his new psychic powers to turn all the world’s heroes into villains.

I began writing this essay when I realized a Nazi mutilating Xavier’s corpse didn’t bother me. It should have. But his character had already been so destroyed that this event was excessive and silly.

It’s still valuable for fiction to have disabled mentor characters who slip up, make mistakes, or even grow corrupt – so long as that fiction has many other disabled characters. In mainstream entertainment, there aren’t enough. Professor X was a rare gift to us from the American Canon.

The best thing about Professor X now is that the public still thinks of him as the smiling Patrick Stewart, cripping it up in theaters.

That Professor X was a creation of Fox. Marvel has the film rights back now, so the next time we see Xavier in a movie theater, it’ll be their vision. It’ll be the vision of the writers they decide to employ. You hope they do better going forward. The most optimistic thing one can say for the future of Professor X is that Marvel’s movies are notoriously unfaithful to their comics.


[1] “On Malcolm, Martin and that X-Men Analogy Thing”. Phenderson Clark. February 21, 2015.



This time you tell yourself you’ll stay put like you were told to. Sit with the engine idling and bide your fucking time. You won’t go running in there after them. Not this time. You know by now that you can’t stop them anyway. That all it’s going to gain you is a stitch in your side and a front-row seat while your whole crew gets shot to shit and you right along with them. All five of you went into this job with a certain level of assumed risk, and there’s no time to explain how someone went and raised the hell out of the bar when nobody was looking.

Your palms are sweating. You wipe them on your pants. Check the clock. Four. Three. Two.

You reach across the passenger seat to pop the door just as Janelle slams into the car, one bloodied hand outstretched comically for a door handle she expected to be shut. She slings the backpack to the footwell. It squelches when it lands. Against the black canvas, the blood might be water.

All dead. You mouth the words as she says them. Her voice sounds wet, like there’s a sponge caught in her throat. You’ve buried her eight times now and know better. Went bad. Just me. Go.

She bleeds out right on time, twelve-point-two miles north of New Liberty on the interstate. You ease the car off onto the shoulder and sigh. You nod the same stale apology to Janelle’s corpse as you fish the half-used roll of duct tape out of her left cargo pocket. Then, as carefully as you’ve ever done anything, you lift the bag out from between her boots.

The artifact is inside, as usual, glowing the same green in the weird pre-storm light. Same idiotic expression on your face mirrored back at you from all its facets. Same hairline crack on its obverse side.

Easy, you whisper, not sure whether you’re talking to the thing in the bag or yourself. Not daring to take your eyes off it as you peel a length of duct tape from the roll. Easy now.

This time you actually get the tape applied. You can’t believe your fucking eyes. It’s like you’re eight years old and it’s all your birthdays and Halloweens and first days of summer vacation all colliding together at once. You barely remember to breathe.

“Finally,” you say aloud, to the artifact or Janelle’s cooling corpse or yourself, you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. “Fucking finally.” You haven’t gotten this far before, so you don’t know yet whether you’re about to cry. Even odds, really. Flip a coin. You’re free.

It’s not three seconds before the duct tape detaches from the artifact’s gemlike face, just slips right off like a strip of wet paper. The artifact falls in neat halves, and that’s that.


So duct tape doesn’t work. Great. Superglue doesn’t work either—you know that from when you ditched the crew in the vault and sprinted three blocks to a convenience store to grab a tube. It took you four tries just to get back to the car in time for one of them—Janelle most times, but Mira once—to show up with the bag drop.

The artifact’s still in the vault for the moment, but you can see it in your mind like it’s been burned into the back wall of your skull. Mentally you turn it over and over, a puzzle without a solution. No duct tape, no superglue—then what? Packing tape? Zip ties? Where the fuck are you even supposed to get—

Janelle snaps her fingers in front of your face. “Ten minutes. Keep it running.”

Everyone else is adjusting their masks, checking their safeties. Josie’s crossing herself, like that’s going to keep her from getting her face shot off any more than it helped last time, or the time before that, or the time before that.

Don’t go, you want to tell them. It’s just a job. We’ll get another.

But you don’t, and it isn’t, and you won’t.

This time you’re still in the idling car when the artifact breaks, somewhere in the building. Maybe a stray bullet caught the backpack. Maybe they fumbled it before they even got it in. Maybe it dropped and broke. You’ll never know.

Like a black bag over the head, that sudden.


Here you are, drumming your hands on the steering wheel, thinking back on that first time. That first time, they’d all come tearing out of the front doors, Janelle in the lead with the backpack clutched in one hand, Priya dragging Josie, whose leg had been chewed up by sentry fire. Mira trailing behind, providing covering fire for the few shots she managed to get off before she dropped.

You’d been halfway out of the car, not sure what precisely the fuck you planned on doing to aid this situation, when Janelle spotted you. Still running, she’d raised the backpack arm and made this kind of shooing gesture: get the fuck back in the fucking car.

When the shots took her from behind, the backpack went sailing through the air to land not four feet from the toes of your sneakers, and the artifact slipped halfway out. Janelle hadn’t even had time to zip up the compartment. No matter. You scooped up the artifact and straightened, just in time for a bullet to plash into your guts with no more resistance than a boot into mud.

You didn’t even feel it at first. You just heard the light, almost musical cracking of the artifact as the bullet grazed its face. You looked down and had about half a second of dim awareness that you’d botched the job. Couldn’t even see where the break was through the blood and matter pouring out of you.

And then something blindsided you, vast and dark. You only realized later it was the street.

Here, now, you still don’t even know what the artifact is. A job. The less known about the better. So went your philosophy previous to this. You are beginning to vehemently reassess this decision.

Three of them make it back to the car this time: Janelle, Josie, Priya. All yelling go go go and pounding on the back of your seat. You almost tell them it doesn’t matter, none of you are making it back to the safe house, not now, not ever.

Instead you play along. Slam your foot down on the gas. The car squeals forward. Beside you, Janelle is inspecting the artifact. “Fuck,” you hear her say. “It’s busted.”

You shut your eyes. Take your hands off the wheel. Foot still gunning the car for all it’s worth. You know what comes next. “Hey,” Priya shouts behind you. “The fuck are you—”

The car never crashes. Or if it does, you’re no longer there to see.


You’ve seen enough movies to know this is supposed to go one of two ways.


The loop breaks when you realize you’re an asshole, you get your shit together, you find your best self. To do this, you almost definitely need to find the other person on this timeline who’s looping too, and then you help each other, cut each other loose, go home together best friends forever. Roll credits. Piece of cake.


You have to find the anomaly that’s causing the loop and fix it. But you’re about two hundred percent sure you’ve got the anomaly pretty well pegged, and nothing you can do does fix it. Dilemma.

Which brings you back to option 1.

Only thing is, you’re pretty sure you’re not any more of an asshole than everyone else, and you reckon that if every asshole got pulled out of the main timeline and slingshot into their own personal self-realization pocket universe or whatever, it might be something of a topic of conversation when they rejoined the collective reality.

That, and your loop seems to average, best you can tell, about fifteen minutes. Sometimes the artifact breaks in the vault due to some early fuckup, sometimes it holds on until you’re halfway to the hospital with Janelle shot to shit in the passenger seat.

Not a lot you can do to better yourself in fifteen minutes. Anyway you’re pretty sure sticking around and not driving off without them should go a long way toward making that quota. Not that you didn’t try that a few times. It worked about as well as you expected. The proximity of the artifact to you when it breaks doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.

You’re starting to wonder whether that first time, when it broke and got your blood inside it, it imprinted on you somehow. You’ve seen in some documentary that birds do this. Baby birds. Not that it gets you any closer to an answer. The artifact isn’t a baby anything. At least, as far as you know. It’s not like anyone even knows what the fucking thing actually is or where it came from. Originally, you mean, not when they dug it up out of the bottom of the sea those couple months ago. Whether it came from aliens, or some previous civilization, or another dimension, or whatever the fuck they’ve been saying on the news.

It’s a job. Find, get, sell to highest bidder, done. This kind of trivia doesn’t enter in.

At least, not usually.

Does running with thieves make you an asshole? Any more of an asshole than the assholes who put this thing in a vault without even knowing what it was? Does it matter?

Janelle bleeds out again, a little slower this time. “Hey,” she says as you speed down the interstate, party lights in the rear view, hospital sign coming up just two exits away. Her voice is bleary, like she’s falling asleep. Your whole self is clenched, hoping she’ll say something from which you can wring some significance. Something like this again? or this is getting real old or I’m getting pretty tired of dying in this shitty car. Something that assures you that you’re in this together.

You don’t care if it’s Janelle who says this. You’d take the same from anyone in the crew. Hell, some bystander you have yet to find. Someone. You feel this is the least you are owed.

But what Janelle eventually says is—nothing. Her heart stops before the thought escapes her mouth.


If this were a movie, you’re pretty sure you’d have more options. More than fifteen minutes between idling car and dead Janelle and broken artifact and reset. It’d just make for better filmmaking. You’d wake up in the morning and have this whole glorious fucking flowchart of choices arrayed out in front of you. None of this quarter-hour bullshit, which is your current and recurrent lifespan. You’ve got a long long list of big ideas in your head, ways you’d play this day different if you only got the chance. You would have stayed the fuck in bed, for starters.


You’re speeding away from the cops, Janelle drowning in her blood in the passenger seat, when the front bumper clips the median guardrail and goes airborne, skimming through the air like a skipped stone. Maybe the artifact breaks before your skull does. Maybe it doesn’t.


Josie drops the bag.


Mira drops the bag.


You drop the bag


A guard recovers the bag from Mira’s crumpled corpse. It’s not zipped this time either.


Priya doesn’t even put the artifact in the bag, just sprints out of there with it cradled in one arm like a football. She lobs it at you. It spirals toward your outstretched hands with mathematical precision. You catch it as if you were born to. It breaks anyway.


You flee, all five of you, without taking the artifact at all. Janelle is pissed, but you don’t care. This job is her shitshow, not yours. At least, not originally. You’re alive. You’re all alive. You indulge in seven exquisite seconds of hope before some fuckwit in the building moves the artifact wrong. Drops it. Breathes on it. Something.

All at once, the four of them wink out around you like birthday candles in the breath of every trickster god there is.


You tear ass into the building after them, not entirely sure what you plan to do, just that maybe if you get in there fast enough, you can reach the artifact before it breaks. Whatever it is, it’s fragile. Obviously. If it doesn’t break when they shoot you, it breaks when it drops, or it falls apart in your hands, or Janelle’s hands, or Priya’s hands, or whoever’s, or because somebody looked at it funny for all you know.

Of course this isn’t the first time you’ve tried this. You usually don’t make it as far as the lobby. The crew runs out past you and you catch a few of the bullets meant for them. Does this affect your asshole karmic balance? It appears that it does not.

This time you’re nearly to the elevators when a security goon comes out of nowhere and clotheslines you, snapping your neck like a twig.

You lie there and lie there and lie there, vaguely aware that you’ve pissed yourself, waiting for whatever’s going to happen to the artifact to do so.

Eventually it does.


Your duct tape retry doesn’t work any better than the first attempt. Neither does ripping off your shirtsleeve and tying it around the thing. You toss the whole car looking for zip ties, but of course there aren’t any, you should know, it’s your goddamn car. You’re beginning to think that the natural state of the artifact is broken, and it was only a matter of waiting for the trigger.

Wrong place, wrong time. Story of your miserable endless life, it’s turning out.


You try to bury Janelle again, but the cops catch up with you before you’ve so much as broken ground. You drop to your knees and let them retrieve the backpack. You’ve made sure to leave it out in the open just for them. Maybe if one of them breaks it, the artifact will change its mind, imprint on one of them instead. If this was a fairy-tale, it would one hundred percent go down that way. Sucks for you that it’s not.

Look at them. They’ve got to be bigger assholes than you. You’re just a middle-aged empty nester with a shit job. Wrong place, wrong time. An accident of fortune. These assholes won’t even let you bury a dead colleague in peace.

Come on, you fucker, you think, fingers laced behind your head, the very picture of compliance. Come on.

The cop slings the backpack into the trunk of her squad car. That single tinkling note, like crystal shattering, barely has time to reach your ear.


Maybe you died that first time. Maybe you’re dead now, right now, and everything that’s come after that first bullet to the spleen has been your purgatory or something. Your ghost’s unfinished business.

Do you have any unfinished business? Fuck if you know. Doesn’t everyone? The botched job, of course, but that doesn’t seem important enough to really count. That said, you don’t really have a better idea.

This time you’ve got the artifact wedged between your thighs, clamping it together while you speed away from New Liberty, hospital-bound. Cursing a constant stream under your breath. Janelle is fading in and out of consciousness, and Josie in the back has stopped crying a while ago and is probably dead.

A deer bolts across four lanes of highway in front of you. You slam the brakes. Out slides the artifact from its nest between your knees. So much for that.


You’re starting to get to know the crew a little better. It’s subtle, and it’s gradual. In your fifteen-minute lifespans you don’t really expect anything profound. It’s interesting, though, to notice things you didn’t pick up on during the first however many dozen iterations of this personal pocket hell you’ve blundered into.

There’s an uncomfortable intimacy to it, bearing witness to a death on repeat. Seeing a person realize, over and over, that their ride is about to be over, it’s their stop, time to get off. Nobody’s tough-guy demeanor seems to long withstand that staring contest with imminent inescapable doom. Yours maybe suffers slightly less than some. Then again, you’re the only one of them who knows you’re coming back.

None of this matters, you want to reassure them, bleeding out, going into shock in the backseat, dying almost instantly on the sidewalk not having made it to the car. None of this is real.

You go easy on them. It’s the only quantifiable reason you have for continuing to make that failed drive to the hospital every time. For steering one-handed, twisted around awkwardly, so you can let Josie hold the other one from the backseat as the light goes out of her eyes. For promising you’ll get them to safety. The doctor. The safehouse. Whatever it is they need to hear, you let them have it from both barrels. Let them die thinking there’s some hope of recovery. You get shot, crushed, mangled, more times than you can count. Sometimes, mercifully, the artifact breaks on impact. Sometimes not. Still, you peel away down the street and onto the interstate, like this is a race you can win.

Would an asshole do that? you ask the artifact.

It doesn’t answer.


It’s been a while since you’ve tried this, so you figure what the hell. Before any of them even leave the car, you hit the door locks and start driving as far and as fast away from that building as you can. A while back you amused yourself for five minutes by naming a few of your most memorable failed solutions. This one’s called The Only Way to Win is Not to Play.

You still can’t figure out why it doesn’t work. The crew doesn’t go in to steal the artifact, ergo it doesn’t leave its vault, it doesn’t get fucked with, it doesn’t break somehow and trap you here. Worth another try, you reckon.

You’re not halfway to the nearest traffic light when Janelle pulls a gun on you. “The fuck is this?” she demands. She’s the one who hired you, after all. You’re making her look bad.

You guess the relic breaks later, when they fuck up the heist somehow. You don’t know. Janelle’s bullet has already gone into your ear like a secret, and she and Priya will have stashed your body in the trunk.


“Quick,” you say. You’re going ninety-five down the freeway, which is all this beater car can handle. Beside you, Janelle quietly hemorrhages her way into a semiconscious fugue, mumbling something you can’t make out. You’ve just had what can only be described as an epiphany. You’ve seen the movies. You can’t believe you haven’t thought of this before. Heart pounding with preemptive victory, you shout at her: “Tell me something about yourself that nobody else knows.”

This brings her around a little. “The fuck?”

“Your favorite book.  Your favorite color. A secret childhood memory. Come on.”

You don’t bother explaining the time loop. It won’t work any better this time than it did the other seventeen times you tried. You know from long experience that she does still have just enough strength left in her gun-arm to render all your effort null and void. Yes, if she shoots you, at this speed the crash will pulp her where she sits. You’ve come to learn that at this stage of the game she’s half-delirious and has run comprehensively out of fucks to give. Odds are not in your favor.

But the ace up your sleeve is: you’re fucked either way.

“A scar from an injury when you were a kid. The name of your first dog. A constellation you always look for in the sky. An ice cream flavor you hate.”

“You,” she pronounces carefully in her slushy voice, “are out of your entire fucking mind.”

She doesn’t shoot you, though, which is the good news. The bad news is that she’s on the verge of blacking out, probably for keeps.

Whatever she says next, you can’t make it out. You lean in. You’re not paying anything like the required amount of attention to the road. “What?”

Nothing. You take a hand off the wheel to shake her. The car starts coasting eastward. “Janelle. Speak up.

Only about fifteen percent of the car is in its own lane anymore. You’re holding Janelle up by two fistfuls of jacket. You can barely hear her over the sound of her lungs, the wind slicing past, someone laying on a horn somewhere to your nine-o’-clock. Her head bobbles like a daisy on a broken stem. “Janelle?”

“Strawberry,” she mumbles to nobody, in the last four seconds before the semi smashes into the car, reducing both of you and the artifact into slurry. “Always tastes too…too fucking fake.”


“Strawberry,” you say to her. “You hate strawberry ice cream.”

Fingers curled around the door handle, she pauses just long enough to spare a long-suffering glance at you over one shoulder. “I’m not your friend,” she says, and is gone.


“Strawberry,” you say to her. “You hate strawberry ice cream.”

Fingers curled around the door handle, she pauses just long enough to spare a worried glance for Josie and Priya still performing last-second gun-checks in the backseat. I don’t fucking know, this look says. She came highly recommended. Let’s just get this done.

“Everybody hates strawberry ice cream,” Priya says from the back. “It tastes like plastic ass.”


“Strawberry,” you say to her. “You hate strawberry ice cream.”

She doesn’t even elect to dignify this with a response. She opens the door and steps out into the day. Someone must have tipped off the cops. They mow her down where she stands.


This isn’t working.


Nothing works.


You’re fucked. Nothing but fucked. Over and over and over.


They don’t trust you. Why should they? They don’t know the first fucking thing about you. You’re somebody Janelle’s cousin’s ex recommended. If they trusted you, they might have given you a gun. Some more info about the artifact they’re risking everything to steal. Some more info about the crew with which you’re locked into this endless hellish trust-fall. Something. They could all be agents with the Department of Defense for all you know, and the heist is a cover to keep dumbfucks like you off the trail of what’s really going on. They’ll put a bullet in the back of your skull when they’re done with you. Dump you at the side of the interstate. Back among those trees where you’ve buried Janelle so many times you’ve lost count. Raccoons will gnaw your bones.




Wait a fucking second.


They don’t know you. You could be anyone.


Times when you don’t fuck up the process by opening your mouth and causing one or more of them to break schedule, you could set a clock by how they deploy themselves from the car. First Priya, then Josie, followed closely by Mira, followed last by Janelle.

Priya reaches for the handle and you slam the locks. This has gotten you killed at least four times by your count already.

Outraged noises from the backseat. Somebody cocks a gun, way too close to your head. Now or never.

“It’s a setup,” you tell them. “You go in there, you die. All of you.”

“The fuck is this?” Mira demands. She’s not talking to you. She’s talking to Janelle. Janelle who vouched for you. Who bleeds out beside you every fifteen minutes on average until the heat death of the universe, best you can tell. Sorry, you think at her, like she hasn’t shot you herself upward of two dozen times already.

“Fuck if I know,” Janelle says. She prods you with the barrel of her pistol. “You heard her. Spit it out.”

Considering what you’ve been through already, it’s still surprisingly hard to play it cool with her gun against your neck.

Nine times out of ten, your dying words are mumbling about how you never should have taken this job, you think. And ten times out of ten, you die either way. “Don’t trust me, then,” you say instead. “Trust your instincts. You never liked the look of this job.”

Janelle blinks. The gun shifts a fraction of a millimeter. Her trigger finger doesn’t move.

“Shoot her,” Josie tells Janelle. “I’ll drive.”

This riles Janelle enough to shift her focus infinitesimally. “I take orders from you now?”

In the backseat, Josie shuts up fast.

“There are other jobs,” you say. You, for whom there is no other job, not now, not ever. “You know I’m right. This is not our fucking day, believe me.” You make yourself shrug. “Or, you know, don’t. Shoot me if you want. Thank my corpse later for the warning, when you walk into the ambush that’s waiting in there for your dumb asses to blunder in on it. I don’t care anymore.”

Janelle looks at you. Then she looks at the black glass spire of the building. Then back at you, eyes like lasers. Something in your face has her shaken. That, or the building spooks her. As well it should. It’s crawling with security. “You’re in on this?”

You shake your head. “Look, I just want to get the fuck out of here.”

“Yeah,” Janelle says under her breath. You’re not sure if she’s talking to you or the building or herself or what. Unconsciously she rubs the back of one wrist against her stomach, like her body remembers the deaths her mind cannot. “Fuck it. Drive.”

“No fucking way,” Priya shouts. “I came here to get my cut. Who’s going to make good on that? You?”

“There’s always another job,” Janelle says. Then, in a sharper voice: “I thought I told you to fucking drive.”

It’s a second before you realize this means you.

The artifact will break, of course, whether any of you touch it or not. Eventually it always will. You’re not getting out of this that easy. But—and you’re not sure if you’re hallucinating this entirely, it’s that subtle—the length of your lifetimes has been slowly, slowly, semi-steadily increasing. Sometimes, when your plan works, and nobody shoots you and nobody gets shot, the whole loop takes ten minutes, but sometimes it takes thirty. Occasionally, lately, it even pushes thirty-five.

Sometimes they won’t trust you. They’ll shoot you where you sit. Sometimes the artifact will break early. It’s impossible to predict.

But one day, if you’re very lucky, you’ll pass the exit to the hospital, and it’ll be the most beautiful fucking thing you’ve ever seen. One day, after more iterations than you can even begin to guess at, you might get a solid hour of lifetime in one stretch. You’ll drop the crew off as they direct you, one by one, at separate blocks. Nobody will thank you. You won’t care.

One day you’ll realize you’ve probably lived longer, in these little fifteen-to-thirty-to-sixty-minute bites, than you would have in your whole life on the collective timeline.

One day, much later, your lifetime might span two hours.

One day, past when everyone you left behind and all their children and all their children’s children are long since dead, it may even reach four.

One day the sky will change color, right there above you, and you’ll be convinced it’s your mind finally bowing and breaking under the strain. You’ll wait to die, really die, and fail to.

One day, another lifetime later, you’ll realize what you’re looking at.

The sun. Setting.

For now, you do what you came here a thousand thousand lifetimes to do.

You drive.


(Editors’ Note: “Getaway” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 33B.)

If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough

(Content note: mentions of genocide)



The Protector-General’s fat little dog disappears around the corner. Aida, cursing, digs her heels into the ground and runs.

Baobao likes to chase after anything that moves. Usually Aida indulges him—it’s fun to see Baobao’s fat bum wiggle as he hops after squirrels he’ll never catch—but the sun is about to set, which means Aida is mere minutes from missing curfew, but she’s still nowhere near the Academy gates because what should have been a short trip to take the dog out for a shit has turned into half an hour of hide-and-seek because this stupid dog won’t listen.


Aida glimpses a streak of white-and-orange in the dying light. Baobao’s headed to the forest. Aida runs faster, hoping she might catch him before he disappears into the trees. She’s too slow. She reaches the tree line just as Baobao darts into the forest. She skids to a halt. Her breath catches in her throat.

Fuck. She’s reached the miasma.

The violet fog lies waiting in the dense thicket of trees—a thick, roiling mist that seems to pulse in tune to her heartbeat. She can see tendrils of it reaching for her toes. It’s curious, probing, inviting her to come in to play. It nudges forward, straining against the boundary. Aida jumps back. Her heart hammers against her ribs.

She can see the tops of Baobao’s ears just feet behind the bushes. The miasma doesn’t hurt animals—they don’t even notice it—but it is deadly to humans. Aida knows this well. She’s seen the miasma kill many times. Every year, the Instructors bring the students of the Academy of the Protectorate down the hill to the forest and forces them to watch as Mainland guards march a prisoner on death row to the forest’s edge for a public execution.

The prisoners always try to delay the inevitable. They scream against the cloth rags jammed in their mouths. They strain so hard against their escorts that they often dislocate their shoulders. Some go limp to force the guards to drag them forward, inch by inch, into the waiting purple. They never escape. Soldiers wearing gas masks thrust them forward into the forest, hold their arms in place until their air runs out and they take their first breath. Then the miasma rushes down their throat, turns their veins in their cheeks blue and their limbs black, shrivels their skin like they’ve aged a hundred years in mere seconds, and pushes their bulging eyes out of their skulls.

Don’t fuck with the miasma. Every year, the Instructors remind the vomiting students. It’s a lesson well learned, and a lesson that keeps them enclosed within a mile of the school. Because the miasma is everywhere, lurking in all of the shadowy corners of Oramosi Island, shrouding its forests, ravines, and graveyards.

But it stays put. The miasma doesn’t harm you until you approach, and you’d have to be a fool to go anywhere near it.

Aida stands torn, trapped between her fear of the miasma and the Protector-General’s whip.

“Baobao.” Her voice cracks in terror. “Baobao, come back, please.”

She can just make out the dog’s pudgy shape disappearing further into the undergrowth. Ten paces away. How far can she run in one breath? Far enough to that tree and back?

Fuck this.

She sucks in a deep swallow of air, closes her mouth tight, and sprints.

The world turns purple. Aida pushes through a forest veiled in a thick cloth of thick noxious clouds that pulsate around her. She squints and makes a beeline for Baobao, trying to ignore how the clouds look like they are taking human shape.

Ghosts solidify before her.

Aida halts.

The closest ghost drifts towards her. The details of his face form by the second, like a sculptor is working at rapid speed to carve them out. A blur of mist becomes a young man’s face with arching eyebrows and a cruel smile; the smoke of his torso turns into a military uniform she doesn’t recognize, a jacket adorned with commander’s stripes.

“Hello.” The Commander smiles, baring teeth. “Don’t run. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Aida almost screams.

Almost. But she is a trained cadet of the Academy of the Protectorate-General. Her mind traces lessons etched there by ink and blood. Seek reason. Force clarity. Suppress your base impulses. And when faced with the natural human instinct, to fight or to flee, always choose to dominate.

She knows that she can fight anything. She knows that the unknown enemy always becomes weak when you strip away its mystery.

She speaks without a tremble. “What are you?”

An amused ripple passes through the miasma. Aida grips her dagger, anticipating in an attack, though she doesn’t know what steel would do to smoke.

She doesn’t expect the Commander to start singing.

Jinru la wuzhong

Sianwu la siwang

It’s a children’s lullaby, a silly and hauntingly nostalgic tune, and it incapacitates her more effectively than a blow to the head.

Guika bu siusi

Yongga bu siusi

Aida sways on her feet. She feels yanked out of her own body; she couldn’t move her legs if she tried. The forest spins to the rhythm of the song. They’re words she could almost say and almost understand, and she has the strangest feeling that she could almost sing along.

“I know that.” She can’t stop herself from murmuring. “Why do I know that?”

“Why do you think?” asks the Commander.

She lets herself look at him, to really look at him. She knows she has never seen his face but still she finds something familiar there—something in his long nose, deep-set eyes and long lashes, an assortment of features terrifyingly similar to what she sees in the mirror every day.

Then she realizes something else.

She has drawn breath. She has been breathing for some time now, and she stands within the miasma entirely unaffected.

The fundamental creed of the Academy of the Protectorate-General is transcendence.

The Academy’s Oramosi students are taught to recite this creed from youth. It runs in their blood. Transcend the base origins from whence you came. Transcend the guttural sounds of your native tongue and learn to speak proper Mainlander, smooth and sharp. Transcend the squalid habits of your birth family and daily cleanse yourself, daily dress in your starched Academy uniform no matter despite the sweltering hot beat of the noon sun.

They are orphans, all of them, the last vestiges of a race so wretchedly barbaric that it died quickly and horribly of plague, but the Academy of the Protectorate-General has delivered them from the future fate would have dealt them.

Their saviors from the Mainland charge them to transcend.

Become what the Empire has allowed you to be.

In this Aida excels. She is the pride of the Academy, head of her class, darling of her instructors, and an assumed favorite for entrance to the Commander’s School on the Mainland next year. Aida does not simply perform, she shines.

But not today.

At school she stumbles dazed through the squeaky-clean hallway corridors. Her mind is trapped in the memory of yesterday, dissecting incredulous details that still feel like vivid dreams—the friendly ghosts who called her little sister, who helped her find that stupid dog, who guided her through a shortcut in the forest so that she could dash through the Academy’s front gates only ten minutes after curfew.

She wonders if she hallucinated the entire encounter. But if so, then why does she still have the refrain of a melody she once knew stuck in her head.

What were the ghosts’ names? How did they die? Are they all Oramosi? The ghosts didn’t say; she’d had such little time that she never asked. Today, she is counting down the seconds until she can return to the forest, until she can get her answers.

Because of this she is still distracted when Instructor Sieuw calls upon her to lead a recitation. Instead of uttering the first catechism of the Mainland Emperor’s declarations she instead looks up and asks: “Why doesn’t the miasma affect the Oramosi?”

Instructor Sieuw stares at Aida as if she’s suddenly sprouted a third eye. “No one can survive the miasma.”

“The Oramosi can,” Aida says.

“That is nonsense.”

“They can. Everyone in this classroom can but you. They’ve just never tried.”

Instructor Sieuw crosses the room until she stands dangerously close above Aida’s desk. “What gave you that idea?”

I survived the miasma, Aida almost says, then stops herself. She can’t give an answer that doesn’t lead to further punishment. She was stupid, careless, and now she’s trapped.

Instructor Sieuw repeats her question.

“I don’t know,” Aida murmurs. Heat rises in her cheeks; titters sound across the room. “I just—I heard a story.”

“A story,” Instructor Sieuw repeats. “From whom?”

“I don’t—I don’t remember. It might have been a book. I might have dreamed it.”

Instructor Sieuw arches an eyebrow. “Whatever you heard is wrong.”

Aida dips her head. “Yes, Instructor.”

“And if you should remember who told this story, or where you formed this impression, you will report it to me.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

Too late Aida has realized her mistake: that probing is dangerous.

Her hand still stings from three unhealed lashes, the mildest punishment for breaking curfew. Instructor Sieuw adds three more, taking care to reopen the same wounds so that they  hurt double, and extracts a promise from Aida to never speak of the miasma again.

Aida cradles her bleeding hand and conceals her lingering doubt.

It’s a painful thing, questioning.

“You’re back,” says the Commander.

“It wasn’t easy,” Aida says. “They shut the gates after sundown and they keep dogs on the perimeter.”

“Then how did you get out?”

“I’m clever,” Aida says. “And I’m good at climbing.”

The Commander smiles. He looks so terribly young when he smiles, and Aida realizes with a start that he can’t have been much older than her when he died.

“I want to know who you are,” she says.

“But you know who we are,” he says.

She struggles to find the right way to phrase her question. How do you trace the contours of what you don’t know? “Then I want to know how you lived.”

His expression is curiously sad. “Haven’t you ever met any elders?”

“The only Oramosi I know are my age. We were all raised in the Academy. Our Instructors are all Mainlanders and they won’t tell us anything. They said it’s best that we forget.”

“So the erasure was complete,” says the Commander. “They stole everything from you.”

“Then tell me what they stole,” Aida says.

“I can do better than that.” He drifts towards her, so close that she can’t tell her breath in the evening chill from his smoke. “I can show you. If you’ll let me.”

“What do you mean?”

He surges forward. For a moment Aida thinks he’s attacking her but then she realizes he’s in her, superseded over her, a ghostly cloud surrounding her mortal body. She can feel the weight of his soul, can hear his thoughts like a voice in her own head.

And she sees memories too, little flickers of things—sights of the ocean unshrouded by purple miasma, of a blue and open sky, of a crowd full of people who look just like her.

“Can I show you?” he asks.

“Please,” she says.

A thousand different sensations hit her all at once. The Commander brings her into the memory of a busy night market under a starry sky. Fragrances waft and mix between noisy stalls, far louder and dirtier than the Mainland Government, with its endless health codes and license regulations, ever would have permitted. Aida hears hot oil sizzling beneath an assault of loud friendly chatter from every direction, phrases of a language that she doesn’t know and once knew, syllables that reverberate in her bones and leave her on her knees, gasping.

She can’t breathe.

The Commander recedes from her body. The memory fades to nothing.

“Too much?” he asks.

Aida sucks in a deep, desperate breath. “There were so many of you.”

“Of us,” the Commander says gently. “Yes. I see that might be hard for you to understand.”

“Can I see something else? Something—quieter?”

The Commander is silent for a moment. Then: “Try this one.”

The Commander’s miasma envelopes Aida again. She hears the sound of gurgling river water; she looks down and sees her feet—no, the Commander’s feet, dipping naked into the cool water. He’s sitting with a family of four. Lunch is spread out on the rocks—bright red fruits that Aida can’t name and stacks of egg and oyster pancakes, pungent and chewy.

“Are those your parents?” Aida asks. She can’t stop staring at their smiling faces. She can’t shake the feeling that she has seen this before, or at least something very like this.

“Yes,” says the Commander. “They died in the first year of the disasters.”

Something stirs inside Aida, a gut-wrenching feeling that she can’t recognize.

“Show me more,” she says.

The world spins and changes. A quiet night, still outside under the open sky save for the drone of crickets. The moon hangs fat and heavy, its soft light glinting off the edge of a blade that traces slow, elegant patterns through the night air. In this memory the Commander is only a child; sword hilt shaking in tiny fingers, sweat dripping from his temples as he performs under an old woman’s watchful eye.

“Faster,” says the woman.

The child obeys, grunting as he traces patterns that he still only barely understands, toiling to carve characters out of nothing.

“That’s the old sword form,” Aida says. “They showed us something like that in class.”

“What did they say?” asks the Commander.

“That your honored sword forms were no match for the weakest Mainlander soldier with a pistol in his hand.”

“But it wasn’t ever for fighting. We didn’t learn it for survival.”

“Then you should have,” Aida says. “You should have learned to defend yourself.”

The accusation in her voice surprises her.

The Commander is silent for a moment. Aida tenses, afraid that she’s lost him.

Then he murmurs, “We weren’t training to fight a war. Only the Mainlanders were.”

He draws her back out of the memory, slowly, so that she can gradually acclimate to the firm reality of the forest. Aida sits down on the cool grass; head spinning, heart aching. She doesn’t realize the tears are flowing at first, but then they’re surging out of her, salty and thick, and she lets herself weep for nostalgia for a future lost.

“It’s not fair,” she whispers. “The plague took away a whole world.”

“The plague?” the Commander repeats. “You think this was a plague?”

She stares at him blankly.

“Was this from a plague?” He points to his chest, where a blossoming stream of blood floods out from where his heart should be, suspended forever in the moment of impact.

“I didn’t see that,” Aida stammers.

“Then look harder,” he says. And she glances around the forest at the dead of the Commander’s regiment as old wounds reveal themselves; a crater in the side of one soldiers’ skull, a thick gash across another’s torso, a hole the size of a cannonball through the midriff of a third. They leer at her, the maimed faces of the war dead, and for the first time since meeting them she feels a proper, chilling fear.

“Plague victims can’t become miasma,” says the Commander. “Only soldiers. Only our warriors knew the art.”

“But miasma covers seventy percent of this island,” she says.

He gives her a long look, like a teacher appraising a very slow student. “Yes.”

Aida can’t stand the crawling minutes she’s forced to spend in class. She’s trapped with her thoughts, alone in a school full of Oramosi who don’t know what their life might have been like. When she passes her classmates in the halls she sees them at the night market, learning swordcraft under the full moon, fishing in the shallows with spears that only their mothers could make. And they look back with blank expressions, clutching their Mainlander textbooks to their chests, and she feels so terribly lonely.

She tolerates the day only so that she can return to her ghosts. Her worlds reverse. School becomes the dream-world, the hazy afterthought–and she lives for the moments she spends savoring the Commander’s memories.

She drifts like this for weeks, then months, until suddenly the term has ended and the Command School exams are looming in her face. She has been training for these since childhood. They are a grueling, five-day ordeal that tests knowledge of northern and southern Mainlander dialects, Imperial customs, Mainlander history, combat proficiency, stamina, pain tolerance, and endurance—everything that makes a fine Mainland Militia officer.

The exams are a public event, so two weeks before the Mainlander diplomats descend on Oramosi to see the graduating class in action, the Protectorate Instructors hold a series of mock trials to prepare their students.

Aida doesn’t know why she even tries. She comes dead last in every event. The Instructors post the scores on shiny white banners which hang over the staircase of the Great Room, and Aida has to cover her eyes with her hands every time she walks past for the sheer shame.

What’s wrong, ask her friends; what happened, asks her instructor. Aida offers mumbled excuses and hangs her head in contrition, but it’s hard to really care, to pull herself out of her daze until she receives a summons to the office of the Protector-General Lin Yu.

The entire school loves and fears Lin Yu. She is their mother and their guardian, their champion on the mainland. She founded and runs the school because she believes—has always believed—that the Oramosi can be saved from the circumstances of their birth. The students obey her every word because they want to prove her right.

The Protector-General is sitting behind her desk when Aida arrives to her office. “Hello, Aida. Please shut the door.”

Aida closes the door behind her and sits down across the Protector-General.

Lin Yu’s eyes linger on her face for a long time, as if searching for something. Then she sighs. “You understand the credo of this school, Aida.”

“Yes, General,” Aida says. “To transcend.”

“Which means what, precisely?”

Aida knows the answer by heart.  “To achieve beyond our strictures. To break the shackles of the handicaps we were born into. To prove that nurture may defy nature, to ascend to the ideals of the Emperor on the Mainland.”

Lin Yu nods. “Do you think transcendence is possible, child?”

“I do.”

Lin Yu leans forward. “Would it surprise you that this opinion is not widely shared?”

Aida hesitates. “General, I—”

The Protector-General cuts her off. “Many, if not most, on the mainland believe that your education is a hopeless endeavor. They believe that children from base origins cannot be made civilized, and that the funding for this academy is a waste of money. I have spent the last two decades of my life trying to prove them wrong.”

Lin Yu looks so disappointed. Aida feels a pang of guilt in her chest.

“I admit that I, too, had my doubts when I came to this island,” Lin Yu continues. “I saw the squalid conditions your ancestors lived in. There was a time when we doubted whether you could even learn our language. But you proved them wrong. Aida, you are marvelous. You have been marvelous for years. But you have just given your Mainland doubters the perfect ammunition to use against you.”

“General, I—”

Lin Yu cuts her off. “I understand quite well what you are going through. I know the last year can be difficult. I, too, was daunted by the prospect of Command School. It’s quite common for new officers to balk from the pressure, particularly when so many eyes are looking at you.”

Lin Yu rises from her seat, walks around her desk, and bends down towards Aida. She strokes her cheek; tucks a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. “But you don’t have the luxury of failure, my dear. The world’s opinion of your race hinges on your performance. Please do not disappoint.”

Aida resolves to study, to really try, but she cannot muster the will to stop frequenting the forest.

By now it has become an addiction. She needs the Commander’s memories like she needs air. By now, she knows his life now like she knows her own. She knows the beachside dwelling he grew up in; how he was raised amphibious, one foot always in the water, longing for the waves. She knows the explosion of flavor from his favorite spiced fruits, the warmth of his parents’ embrace, the pride he felt when he received his first spear.

In comparison her own life has been so sterile, so contained. She has been raised and educated within the confines of the Academy for a singular purpose. She has never known true excitement, true danger, true exhilaration—until she began inhaling freedom from a dead man’s memories.

She finds herself lingering over certain details. The cracking timbre of his voice.  The sheen of his muscles as he emerges from water. The way his face looks in a mirror, his practiced smile, trying to tease out the right combination of winning and genuine to flash later at the neighboring village’s girls.

She admits to herself that, for some time now, she’s been falling for the young Commander. He is so different from the boys at the Academy, in their nervous starched uniforms and uncooperative hair combed back with water and grease. She feels so distant now from all of her classmates; when she looks at them, all she can think about is how they’re trying to become something they’re not.

The Commander fully owns who he is. He refused to compromise who he was supposed to be and he died for it.

Her questions take a targeted pivot, and the Commander indulges.

“Did they court before the war?” she asked.


“How would they do it?”

She knows it should be impossible, that ghosts have no substance, but she can almost feel his breath tickle her ear. “I would have come to your home with flowers in my hands. I would give one to your mother and one to your father. If they didn’t throw them on the ground, then I’d know I had permission.”

Her breath hitches in her throat. “And then?”

“I would take you out as your companion. Somewhere public; our elders still care about virtue. A bonfire. A festival.”

She smiles. “But?”

“We’d escape into the woods the first chance we got.”

Her voice sounds like someone else’s; deeper, husky with want. It’s unfamiliar and exhilarating. “And what would we do there?”

“I’ll show you,” says the Commander.

Aida finds a hand drifting towards her breast. The other to the place between her legs. Blood rushes to her cheeks. She tries to stop. But her hand keeps moving.

“Are you doing this?” she whispers.

Shhh,” he murmurs. “Let me in. Can I?”

“Yes,” she says, hesitantly at first, then again. “Yes.

The Commander takes over.

She feels just a moment of sheer, desperate pleasure; the hand on her breast becomes his hand, the fingers between her legs are his fingers, and she arches towards them, flushed with anticipation.

But just as abruptly the Commander removes her hands, pulls down her shirt, and stands up.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer. He pats her body down, as if checking for weapons; he finds the hunting knife and grips it in his fingers.

“No,” she says; but her body doesn’t obey, the word doesn’t even come out of her mouth because she can’t control her lips. She can only think at him, and hope he hears. What are you doing?

“Give me an hour,” says the Commander. His voice is clipped, detached; utterly unlike how he sounded just seconds ago.

This is my body!

“You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

He strides towards the edge of the forest, towards the Academy. Aida bangs against the walls of her mind, fighting to wrestle back control. But nothing works, nothing responds, and she can only watch, dizzy and horrified, as her own hands search her body for a gun and, when they don’t find one, rip a branch from the nearest tree instead.

The thoughts flooding through her head, his mind, reek of bloodlust and fury and destruction and despair. She understands where he is going. The Commander intends to burn her world down.

She screams as loudly as she can without a voice. Get out of my body!

He ignores her.

She rails against his dead spirit. She can feel how badly he wants to be alive; how he relishes feeling her heartbeat, the scrape of bark against her skin, the dry rooftop of her mouth. But this is her body, her life, and he doesn’t have the right—

She surges against his essence, forces him into a battle of wills—

She wins. “Get out!”

He ejects in a burst of purple, a formless cloud that drifts several feet away and then rearranges itself into a body, a head, a face with features that look entirely unapologetic.

She wants to slap him, but the only way to make him feel it would be to slap herself.

Instead she spits with rage.

“That’s what you wanted,” she hisses. “You wanted a body again, so you brought me here, tried to seduce me–”

His left lip curls up. “Oh, you didn’t take much seducing, my dear.”

“What would you have done?”

“Strolled into your precious academy and put a bullet through your Protector-General’s face,” he says simply.

She gawks at him. “That’s madness.”

“Is it? Can you really look that woman in the face, knowing what you know now, and not want to crack her neck between your hands?”

Yes, Aida thinks. The Mainlanders took the islander and stole her past, yes, but Aida can live in a Mainlander’s world—she could thrive, even, she could go to Command School…

She wants to survive. She wants to have her legacy and her future. She wants to have both. Why can’t she have both?

“This is not your choice,” the Commander says. “You owe this to us. Something like this was our last hope. We learned our craft to turn our bodies to the miasma when we died. We lingered for decades in our rotting bodies, we watched the years ticking away, we tethered our souls to mortal earth instead of joining our loved ones in the Great Nothing because we knew that you children were still alive and someday you could come find us.”

“But I wasn’t looking for you!”

“And yet you found us. Now everything is in place. Everything hinges on you, Aida—”

“That’s not fair.”

“Nothing’s fair,” he snarls. “The war wasn’t fair. Duty isn’t fair.”

“I don’t have a duty to you.”

“Your only duty is to me. Or did you think you might become a cadet of the Mainlander Militia? Did you want to spend your life serving the people who slaughtered your parents because they pet you on the head and told you good job? They will never accept you into their ranks. They are lying to you. And you’re a fool if you think otherwise.”

He means for his words to cut. It almost works. But Aida is a trained cadet of the Academy of the Protectorate-General, and she knows how to close her heart to sentiment.

“You’re dead,” she says softly. “You’re gone. Stop trying to drag me down with you.”

He chases after her, rematerializes in front of her and tries to stop her, but she merely walks right through him until she’s reached the boundaries of the forest where his miasma is tethered. And he can’t do anything to pull her back because he is dead after all, and ghosts have no power except what they are given.

Aida fails the Command School exam.

Technically, she should have been sent straight to the labor camps, as are all academy graduates who disappoint. But all of her instructors feel that such a station is beneath someone like her, someone who is so talented and speaks such pitch-perfect Mainlander, and so the board decides to extend her education at the Academy another year so that she can try the exam again.

Aida understands she’s been offered a gift. And she desperately wants to blend back into life at the Academy, but she finds that she can’t.

Every word carries a weighty shadow; every lesson is sullied by the Commander’s admonition: they are lying to you.

The future she was crawling towards now seems so distant and irrelevant compared to a past that she cannot wipe from her memory.

So clever, the Command School’s veneer; its credo of transcendence to wipe away all memories of the past. Because transcendence demands a shedding like a cicada sheds its skin to fly away. But once the smallest crack has formed—and the crack in Aida’s mind is a gaping hole now—the whole thing crumbles, bit by bit, until the rotting foundations beneath scream to be discovered.

She waits until a night when the Protector-General will return to the mainland to make her report on the Academy. Aida is supposed to be on this trip—proof of the island’s best and brightest, touted about to the Mainland donors, but her rival will make the voyage instead.

Once Aida might have been bothered by this. Now it seems like the most trivial thing in the world.

That night she breaks into the Protector-General’s private library, where she knows the exhaustive archive of the Academy’s files are kept. This presents no trouble. Aida was once this school’s star student. She’s been trained for police service. She knows how to move silently in the dark and to pick a lock without looking.

Inside the library she rustles through shelves until she finds yellowed diaries dating back to just before the founding of the Academy–the Protector-General’s private notes. She holds a flickering candle to the page and starts to read.

It’s pages and pages of drivel on ore shipments, boat supplies, forest clearing techniques, and medical reports on the miasma. She flips faster, skimming as quickly as she can; she does not know when the Protector-General will return and the longer she stays, the slicker the sweat drips from her forehead.

Transcendence may be possible.

Aida stops. She returns to the top of the page and reads closely this time.

The doctors on the mainland state that children who have not passed their third birthday have not finished developing their neural pathways, so the opportunity exists to bring them up under a Mainlander curriculum. To rewire them, if you will. Under this advice our doctors have collected the children three or younger.

Aida tries to think back to her earliest memory of the Academy. Two. She can’t have been older than two.

So they took her from her parents. She knows this, she’s always known this. But what happens to the others? The children who weren’t younger than three?

She lowers the lamp to the page. The Protectorate-General’s scrawled handwriting burns into her eyes.

There is no hope for the elder children. They must die with their parents. Our virus weapons will weaken them. Our armies will take care of the rest.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” says the Commander.

“I didn’t either,” says Aida. She doesn’t know what to say next. She’s roiling inside; a dreadful mix of emotions, still sick from what she’s just read and what she now knows. She feels like a fool; a disgusted, deceived fool. “You should have told me what they did.”

“I did tell you.”

“But you didn’t tell me that they—that—”

“Oh,” says the Commander, “the children.”

“I had a brother,” Aida says. “A long time ago, so long I’d almost forgot, but—he was five, I think.”

“I’m very sorry,” the Commander says gently.

“You should have told me.”

“I thought you knew,” says the Commander. “You must have known. The evidence was all around you.”

Yes, Aida thinks, but there is a difference between knowing and wanting to believe.

“Was it a lie?” she asks.

He looks puzzled. “Was what a lie?”

She traces a finger over her cheeks. She needs this single indulgence; it will make the rest so much easier. “It felt for a moment like you really loved me.”

The Commander’s face falls. “I have been dead for fifteen years.”

“But did you love me?”

“You don’t have a future with me,” he said. “I can’t give you what you want.”

It’s not the answer she wanted, but it’s the only honest thing he can say. That’s all she needs to hear.

She opens his arms to him; an invitation. “I think you can.”

Dark falls across the Academy of the Protectorate on Oramosi. Sentries take their posts at its four towers and turn their eyes to the thick, misty forests.

Safely ensconced behind the school’s thick walls, half a mile’s elevation away from the nearest miasma zone, Protector-General Lin Yu sits at her desk and waits.

Aida’s file lays open on her desk.

How do you convince a crop of rescued children that they belong to your Empire? How do you prove to them, and to your own people, that they can assimilate?

You destroy every shard of their past. You wipe away any evidence of a world they might once have belonged to because the primary mission of nationalism is to convince all within it that the nation is all that was and all that ever will be.

Transcendence. The Academy of the Protectorate is founded on a wild optimism for this ideal. Lin Yu has spent her life fighting for that credo, and she has come so close.

But before she is finished, there is one thread she must tie away.

It’s a pity. The child was brilliant. Aida had startled the Instructors with her quick grasp of Mainlander, her rapid adaptation to rules of etiquette. She drank in the Academy’s teachings like she was parched; an empty vessel, primed for re-education. Aida should have passed the Command School test with flying colors.

She has been missing now for two days.

Protector-General Lin Yu knows what has happened. The child has escaped for the mist.

It happens once every year. They run away, thinking the wild island can give them something the Academy can’t. They inevitably end up dead, their bodies blue and bloated, thudding mindlessly against the rocks.

Usually it’s the helpless cases–the ones that rebel against the instructors, not the ones that thrive. That it was Aida is a tragedy. The girl could have been the Academy’s greatest achievement, but now she’s been tainted by the past.

Lin Yu feels a sting of disappointment she imagines must be similar to how mothers feel.

The door creaks open.

“Aida.” Lin Yu can’t conceal her surprise. “What are you doing here?”

The girl steps into the light. And then she is two people, not one.

Lin Yu sees past her; an apparition from another time, a face she last saw when she struck it down on the battlefield. She still remembers the pistol smoke, the crack echoing across the forest.

You,” she whispers.

“Me,” answers Commander Wong Jaisin.

Then Lin Yu understands. The trips to the forest, the constant questions. The girl has been trained in a graveyard. The girl is Commander Wong’s arrow shot through from the past.

But how?

Lin Yu scrambles for the pistol in her desk. But she knows she will not be fast enough. She knows a struggle will be pointless, because Aida was trained too well to enter a fight without a plan to win it within seconds.

Lin Yu taught her that. Lin Yu has forged her own axe of execution.

Aida and the Commander calmly raise their first. An orb of miasma swirls around their curled fingers. Lin Yu watches it, unable now to suppress her fear. How long can she hold her breath? Long enough to run to the door?

“I killed you,” Lin Yu breathes.

“You didn’t kill all of us,” Aida says. The cloud swirls faster, grows larger. “And if you want to erase us then you must be thorough.”

Monsters at the End of the Sewer: Buffy’s Sixth Season Is Now

Buffy the Vampire Slayer wrote the first pages of my adult personality. When I was in high school, my older sister passed down the DVDs as though they were life’s handbooks. I was hooked. The show’s quick and zany sense of humor got me, Buffy’s angst mirrored my own, and the three teenage characters were parsing the same issues I faced in school. As Buffy accepted a claddagh ring from Angel, I was falling for my first love. As I attended the school Homecoming dance, Buffy was fighting hellhounds at prom. When Willow questioned her sexuality, I was coming out too. In several ways, Buffy raised me.

Upon my latest rewatch, I issued a nervous warning to my partner at the beginning of season six, even knowing that he would connect more to the themes of burgeoning adulthood over the prior themes of adolescence. “This season is darker,” I said. I meant truer. The metaphors of the earlier seasons are still relevant—high school will always be hell—but more people today, including high schoolers, are having public conversations on consent and toxic masculinity that make the earlier seasons difficult to immerse myself in. Season six’s complex stories, the lessons it presents to the viewer, are uncannily similar to the issues that are cropping up in today’s world.

During my latest rewatch, I experienced a realization: Xander and Warren are two sides of the same toxic coin. Warren is straightforward in his toxicity; he knows he’s a shithead, and he is unapologetic about his desire to defeat any strong woman who crosses his path. Warren plants cameras to spy on Buffy. He uses a cerebral dampener to turn his ex-girlfriend into a sex slave. The other two members of the trio—Jonathan and Andrew—are excited about the prospect of a woman who cannot turn them down. But when Warren’s ex-girlfriend gains back her free will and tries to escape, Warren murders her and claims it was an accident. He and the trio pin the murder on Buffy, conjuring a demon who scrambles time in order to make Buffy question her reality. They make Buffy question her reality on several other occasions; they put her through a series of tests when she’s trying to find a job: trapping her in a time loop of retail hell, making her stand still in time while her fellow university students race around her, and summoning demons to attack her as she’s working a construction site. Finally, the trio summons a demon whose venom gives Buffy hallucinations that make her think she’s actually in an institution and that her friends and sister are part of a fictional universe she’s been living inside since she was a teenager. The hallucination leads Buffy to try to kill everyone she loves in order to break free of the illusion. Finally, Warren uses magic orbs to gain super strength and attacks Buffy. After his defeat, he trespasses into her backyard and shoots her with a gun, killing Tara instead.

Xander, on the other hand, believes himself to be a “great guy” whilst shirking emotional responsibility for his own life and issuing judgements about his friends’ lives. He summons a musical demon in order to find the truth about whether he and Anya are right for one another when he could have just opened a conversation with his fiancé. Even then, he leaves Anya at the altar, tries to convince her they should still be together, then judges her for choosing to return to her career as a vengeance demon and for her decision to take sexual solace in Spike. He constantly insults Spike. His hatred of Spike is part of a pattern of his deep interest in Buffy’s love life; in earlier seasons, he refuses to tell Buffy that Willow is attempting to restore Angel’s soul, ensuring that Buffy needs to kill her high school sweetheart, and he talks Buffy into chasing after Riley over letting him disappear after he lies to her. Xander disguises his need to control the women in his life as concern.

Xander and Warren are both villains. Warren may be like the gun he uses to kill Tara, but Xander is like the infectious singing spell in “Once More with Feeling.” As a teenager, I was less aware of the Xanders and Warrens of the world. The internet has made sure that few of us can now claim ignorance of entitled men who believe they’ve been wronged by difficult childhoods or bad luck with women. It’s the age of the incel, and Buffy’s sixth season predicted it.

In today’s world, righteous male nerds form their gangs online rather than in a Sunnydale basement, but their conversations are similar. They debate their favorite fandoms and yell when women and other marginalized people enter their space. They message death threats to those they deem enemies in the fictional narratives they’ve crafted. They don’t believe that they—and not the women around them—are the problem with their bad dating luck.

In the trio’s first episode, Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew scribble their evil plans onto a whiteboard: control the weather, miniaturize Fort Knox, conjure fake IDs, shrink ray, girls, girls, the gorilla, and…hypnotize Buffy to “make her our willing sex bunny.” Much like the men who dox and swat people who disagree with them, the trio plays with people’s lives as though they’re the action figures in their glass case.

Warren, Andrew, and Jonathan, Buffy’s only human Big Bads, feel like villains straight out of GamerGate. The biggest terror they bring to Sunnydale, and the central tenant of all their dumb plans, is their utter disregard for consent. How are the women of Buffy supposed to heal and adjust to adulthood, how are we as women in our current society supposed to adjust to the major curveballs life throws, when they’re (we’re) constantly battling threats to their (our) privacy?  Willow, Tara, Anya, Buffy—not a one of these women is able to make a decision regarding her own body, her own life, without it being weighed in on, or even spied upon. Even Willow uses mind-altering magic on Tara without her knowledge; it’s not just men who abuse, after all.

With all the constant battling for their autonomy, no wonder the characters in Buffy’s season six are depressed. Another striking aspect of season six is the lasting aptness of its metaphor for depression, that dark cloud that seems to follow more and more people with each passing year of our tumultuous world. Buffy comes back from the dead, and the world she returns to is harsher for the brief rest she experienced in a heavenly dimension. In some ways, ignorance is that bliss. We’re more aware than ever of the injustices of the world, tuned in 24/7 to the various ways people hurt one another, to the ways modern society and outdated, toxic viewpoints drag us down. Adding to Buffy’s depression are the prior season’s death of Buffy’s mother and a heap of bills that Buffy must deal with upon her resurrection. I feel certain Buffy would sport a Warren or Sanders 2020 hoodie, solely because of universal healthcare.

Buffy makes the same decisions many of us make in our modern desperation: she takes a shitty job out of deep financial need. She takes comfort in Spike, a sexual partner she views as wrong for her. Buffy’s relationship with Spike revolves around rough, passionate, often violent sex. Prior seasons suggest that Buffy’s sexuality and her slaying fight side-by-side. At first she denies that they are connected, but once she is away at college, she embraces the idea that fighting can serve as foreplay. With Spike, she embraces her kink but feels dirty about it. No wonder, with her sexually repressed friend Xander breathing down her back. It’s not just the roughness of the sex; it seems to me as though Buffy’s group of friends are unable to divorce love from sex. Buffy knows that they would shame her for having one without the other.

Buffy is unable to connect to anyone but one man, a man her friends believe is beneath her. This view is proven not by her rough treatment of him—that’s on her—but in Spike’s rough treatment of her, including an attempted rape that feels like a betrayal to the viewer as well as to the characters involved. The show has been redeeming Spike for a season and a half, and suddenly, we’re reminded that he is, in fact, the monster he has always claimed to be. None of our heroes—or antiheroes—are safe from a deeper dive into their actions. Redemption always carries a threat of relapse, and once an abuser, always an abuser. These narrative lessons feel cruel to the characters and to the viewers, but when examined critically, don’t they feel truer today than the easier narrative of a vampire whose soul encourages him to do good deeds?

Still, Buffy’s decision to sleep with Spike is her adult-ass decision to make and doesn’t need to be weighed in on by the men in her life. Because of the judgement of her friends, Buffy keeps her relationship with Spike a secret. At the beginning of the relationship, when Buffy realizes that Spike can hit her, she believes that she came back wrong, that she isn’t who she was before she died. She is almost relieved, and when Tara tells her that anything different about her is at the molecular level, a result of the spell slightly shifting her cells, Buffy breaks down: “Tell me I’m wrong,” she cries. I hurt the most for Buffy in this moment, because I understand her. People with depression wish for a reason, but depression offers no easy answers, no easy solutions. Buffy hopes that that she did in fact come back wrong, that she can be fixed. But it’s not that simple, and for someone who is used to slaying the monster at the end of the sewer, for a character who has won every battle she’s fought, this is a difficult thing to hear.

We’re living the lessons of season six. We’re facing the very villains Buffy faced: entitled men, people who disregard consent then try to convince us that we’re just too sensitive, and the depression that daily fighting in a rough world brings about. When I first watched season six, I laughed at the stupidity of the trio. They were funny. Now, I laugh less easily. I’ve come to view Buffy’s penultimate season through the lens of our modern toxic masculinity and the #metoo movement that held Joss Whedon himself accountable. The moments when I feel like the Scooby gang at the end of a Big Bad battle seem to multiply as the world becomes more frantic and frightening. For this fan, Buffy’s sixth season lives in me like Buffy lives: persistently, and with a strong stake to my heart.