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We Chased the Sirens

We chased the sirens for the seaspray, for the slick tang of salt on our tongues when we stood at the prow of the ship. We each christened her a different name, and the carving on the hull twisted and reshaped depending on who took the helm. Anna for young Rose; Hera when Molly gripped the splintered handles; Fabris’ Revenge under my watch, and no one ever asked me why. The captain commanded us not to look, whenever she marched the decks, her heeled boots soft against the damp wood. But once atop the mast, the whole ship tilted sideways by a crashing wave, I glanced down through my storm-soaked hair and saw Salvation dancing in the oak.

We chased the sirens for the struggle, to prove the fight had not gone out in us. We did not ask each other where we came from or how the captain found us; we older ones cared for the new girls who shivered belowdecks, too frightened to be put to work. We brewed them tea and rubbed their backs and tried to make them laugh. Slowly their fingers uncurled from wary fists; in time they would clench again around rapiers or pistols. Even those who could not face violence outright found their own ways to channel their rage, a knife in the galley or a needle through sailcloth. The captain saved her smiles for them, and we who buckled under her harsh words understood she loved us still.

We chased the sirens for the starlight, for the nights we lay atop the decks and made new constellations between our intertwined arms and fragments of old memory. The north star faded above us, and we kept Altair as our guiding light, the star that drew us towards our goal. The captain hoped it would be home: a place the ship could lay to rest. For us, home lay between the cracks of wood and whispers on warm skin, chapped lips discovering what it meant to be safe. The stars watched on and sent their blessings down atop the changing waves.

They say we chased the sirens for revenge, but they shouted their curses from the docks and never stepped with us to sea. The blood that stained the decks dripped down between our legs from when the moon pulled up the tides. The crew quarters reeked of iron and our skin stuck fast to loose linen shirts. Revenge? I killed the man who drove me from my land, knelt atop his chest and plunged a knife between his ribs. My heart still keened with the rise and fall of waves; my soul still cried and shouted sorrows to the wind. The sirens would not quiet that.

We chased the sirens through the storms that tossed us in the night and drove us up the mast, rope wet and rough against our fingers as we lashed the sails to the yard. The forgotten quiet girls would stand against the rain and make their voices heard above the howling wind. Lightning brought us out of darkness before we plunged below once more, and the sea sang high before its frothing surf fell crashing to the deck. We choked on brine and bruised our hips against the rails, but we staggered to our feet and gasped alive, alive, alive.

We chased the sirens through the silence, through the thick grey fog that sat heavy on our tongues. Our hair fell limp around our shoulders, torn loose by wind and work, and we stood on weary legs to face the pale abyss on the horizon. The captain took the helm at dawn and planted herself starboard; I looked back only once to see her dark eyes glinting fierce, a fire against the shrouded mists. We counted on the sun to burn away uncertainty, but when the ink faded from the maps we lost our faith in the unknown. Our lungs swelled with shallow, trembling breath; each of us knew death but did not think to meet it here. The bow cut through silver glass while we gripped each other’s hands, as if to find some courage in the crushing of our bones.

And when we found the sirens—oh, when we found the sirens, their songs hung sweet around our ears and we flew weightless to the light. Their wings skimmed the water before they delivered our salvation, droplets splattering our awed and tired faces. Coral threaded through their hair and talons scratched the wood soaked through. The tallest faced the captain and ran a hand across her face, thin lines of blood blooming on her weather-beaten cheek. She brought her fingers to her face, held them forth with dripping red, and the sirens tasted remnants of our pain. They could not take it as their own but starlight glinted in their eyes, and we—we the sirens left to live—we saw our dying hopes take shape as songs above the sky.

Where the Sky Is Silver and the Earth Is Brass

She held her breath as the demon struck the match, but nothing stranger than the smell of sulfur rose to meet her; it lit the candles like anyone, left to right, and placed the shammes in the center of the small brass menorah when it was done.

They glowed quietly and a little ironically on top of the varnish-scratched dresser, the creamy points of their flames limning the mirror as if it gave back the image of a star’s dressing room, not the empty drawers and hanger-bare closet of a transient hotel. Two weeks and she was still living out of one suitcase, packed and unpacked as meticulously as it had been aboard the St. Clair, on the train to Bremerhaven, behind the DP wires of the American Zone. Boston beyond the rolled-up window blind was photographic with snowfall and streetlight silvering faintly into the darkest blue sky; she had turned her back deliberately on the black zigzag of the fire escape. The radiator hissed too softly to drown out the jazz record in the next room. As matter-of-factly as she had told the translator from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society that she needed no help finding her own lodgings, with the same hard beat in her throat, Chaye said to the demon, “I was wondering if you could do that.”

In reflected candlelight, it looked very little like a denizen of the other world, more like the youngest and skinniest of her uncles, the one her mother had always said could get lost in a pickle barrel, so long as she kept her eyes off the wall where its shadow stirred and fretted to itself. “What did you expect, I’d disappear in a puff of smoke? Melt? You’ve been around goyim too long.” For that matter, it sounded like her uncle, the same airy aimlessness that had charmed creditors all through her childhood and even in the ghetto never paid for its own drinks and not stopped a bullet any more than her father’s pragmatism or her mother’s steel. Even the gesture with which it tossed the book of matches back onto the dresser was familiar, but it set the demon’s shadow rippling through the darkened room as through deep, chill water and she closed her eyes; there was something of soft wings in the movement, something of smoke, nothing of family. “Ah,” the demon said then, so awkwardly that it did not sound like any of her uncles. She heard it moving around the narrow space, a crunch of mattress springs when it finally settled; when she opened her eyes, it was sitting at the foot of the bed with its arms around its angular knees, holding itself as compactly within the ordinary shadows as it could. Its dark coat still trailed too far over the dusty, starchy coverlet, but she could tell herself that it was only that she could not see the hem. Its face was a candleflame, bright and drawn. “Sorry.”

In her partisan years, she might have taken even an apologetic demon in stride. The world had burned then and she had burned with it, with fear and anger, with fever and cold, with short nights in pine forests and long days on dusty roads, and in the end she had been no more surprised to hear of her parents’ deaths than she had been to take the lives of men who might have ordered it, men who might have known nothing about it, men who had done little more than wear the uniform that said she was for killing and Chaye Roznatovsky responded in kind. She dreamed of good rifles and thick soup and slept with the wintergreen bitters of birch bark under her tongue; she sang never say that you walk the last road and through valleys and over hills and named her bullets after her brothers, the older and the younger who had always looked more like strangely split twins than the undisguisable dark girl dropped between them, the last of her family of whom even the tunnel escapees had never been able to bring her certain word. From the mirrors of cloud-grey streams and black alder swamps, she would have believed a demon looking back at her with their raw fair hair, their wide grey eyes. In America it seemed as absurd as a burning bush on the tracks of Scollay Under. She had accustomed herself to skirts, to carrying a purse over her shoulder instead of an M91/30; where no one spoke Polish, Niewiem looked like a last name. If she had been going to bring home anyone from the bar of the Hotel St. Moritz, they should at least have been a woman and alive. But she had seen the barman’s reflection a beat behind the brisk rhythm of the cocktail shaker, his shoulders in the brassy light as restless as feathers beneath his pastel-blue shirt; she had watched her own hands move like a stranger’s within the dusk-shadowed glass, setting each pale stick of wax upright in the reverse order of the Other Side. She had not even screamed when they reached for the same book of matches. She had always assumed, if she ever went grief-crazy, she would shoot herself without starting to see things first.

At least she could talk to her craziness like a sane person, or maybe that was worse: “I suppose you light them the other way, in your country? Do you daven backward, too? Do you name the nights for sins?”

“My country.” The demon’s voice was wry, as if it had something to say on that subject; then, as if thinking better of it, “You know sin is as holy as anything else of God’s.”

“I didn’t know you had An-sky on the other side of the mirror.”

She had not meant to sound so interested. The demon returned gravely, “Oh, we have everything. Only organized a little differently,” and she could not tell if it was mocking her. So carefully collected, it looked more like the sketch of a person than a person themselves, a few narrow lines for shoulders and knees, its face tipped back to her like an empty inkwell. She kept seeing claws in its linked fingers, spurs at its heels; then it shifted its weight and she thought that all it needed was a paper label on its lapel to pass for any of the displaced persons she had taken ship with, all in hats and scarves and overcoats, all their worldly possessions in a suitcase or two. She had not even noticed it was speaking Yiddish until she heard, like a little gulp of surprised breath, its accent on medine. She wondered if she were crazy enough to invent, not a demon that spoke Yiddish, but a demon that spoke Yiddish like they had in Lodz and Warsaw, not Vilna or Novaredok.

The sky beyond the fire escape was pearl-black now, the hundreds-and-thousands light striped icily across the bed so that the demon’s shadow, despite its best efforts, shivered a little in her sight. New and low among the rooftops, the moon looked as bright and flimsy as a leftover strand of New Year’s tinsel. The candles were burning down in time with their reflections. Chaye shivered, all at once unable not to think of other candles, other moons, other windows half-sequined with frost; it was the same stifled movement as the shadow and she asked before she could be sorry for the answer, “What are you doing here?”

For a long moment she thought the demon was not going to answer her: she had broken the rules of the game, or offended it, or in some reflex of sanity ceased to imagine it at all. When she heard its voice at last, it was as steady as her own had been, three years ago in the transit camp: “We live in your mirrors. Where else would we go?”

“Palestine,” Chaye said automatically, and then remembered, “Israel,” but the look the demon gave her would have been reproachful by any name.

“They have their own . . .” She could not imagine it was bad luck for one of its own kind to say sheydim, mazzikim, but it finished the sentence, “Troubles,” and shrugged a little irritably, hitching itself up against the end-rail of the bed. “Did you go for a soldier in a desert you’d never seen—or even to drive a tractor and plant trees? So, neither did I. I lived where I was born, like all of us, between your dreams and your nightmares, in the land where the sky is silver and the earth is brass and all windows are mirrors, all mirrors are doors. It turned to broken glass, like yours did. Where you don’t stay, we can’t, either.”

Once in the forest where demons would have made as much sense as neighbors turned executioners, occupiers turned allies, she had dreamed of something she had thought must be Ashmedai, blond as an officer with wolf-blue eyes: he had laughed at her, crisp and casual in his field greys as a portrait of the new Germany, and she had woken sick with the sound of it. Surely Lilith who feasted on children was growing fat and fussy, Ketev Mriri who treasured lies had been surfeited long ago. What smoke-stains of shtetl yetser-hora could have called out these fire-ridden days? In the West End of Boston, Chaye shut her mouth on the grinding words—why didn’t you fight?—but she was standing away from the wall before she realized it, arms uncrossed to leave her hands free, watching the demon at her bedfoot as narrowly as she might have her youngest uncle with his absentminded excuses, his bones bullet-cracked in a green and sun-washed field.

She said, because it was more important than any other question, “Did you know?”

A thin and burning figure in a coat of black wings, the demon said, “Did you?”

The sharp dry smell of smoke startled them both. The candles were small and cheaply bought, the first lit already puddling into clear wax; she watched its reflection unplaiting, the fingernails of white fire eating at the dark. With their afterimages across her eyes, Chaye thought of shattered storefronts and smashed spectacles, of breaking cat-ice to wash in water as sharp as a slap, of soldiers marching through the market square, first Russian, then German, then Russian again.

“We don’t daven backward.” The demon said it irrelevantly, as if they had not said anything worth remarking in between her question and its answer. It had stretched out its legs on her bed, its arms over the back of the rail; it looked like one of her brothers, a little self-conscious and harmless, not at all like them. “We’re not—not-you. We’re, on God’s Other Side, your other side, you see? We mourn our dead. We celebrate our survival. And yours.”

“Ours.”

“Oh, yes.” In the face of her half-skepticism, it looked for the first time as she would imagine a demon, brows arched in mischief, shadow curling and flickering like a thousand bad ideas. She knew then that she would not ask it to leave, shroud her mirror as if she mourned, take her craziness to the shul on North Russell Street and demand an exorcism even in America of neon advertisements and elevated trains: “Who would we tease and torment without you? The Seleucids were no fun, believe me.”

Perhaps there had been demons in the wet places of the forest after all, in the winter marshes and the crackling fields—brass cartridges, tin plates, the portholes of a troopship on the tide. Anywhere a reflection glinted, until the right door opened on safety at last. It was not the same thing as home, but then where was? Her neighbor’s jazz record was going round again. By the lights of the last night of Hanukkah, Chaye said equably to her demon, “I give as good as I get.”

 

for Jeannelle M. Ferreira

Harvest

Never fall in love with a deer woman. Deer women are wild and without reason. Their lips are soft as evensong, their skin dark as the mysteries of a moonless forest. A deer woman will make you do terrible things for a chance to dip your fingers inside her, to have her taste linger on your tongue. You will weep before it is over, the cries of one who has no relatives. But you will do whatever she asks.

“Tansi, Tansi,” my lover whispers my name. “Is it time to harvest the hearts?”

The horror of her question is always fresh, always a shock. I suppose in the daylight hours when she is not here, I am able to tell myself that it never happened. That her words are other than what I know them to be. As long as I don’t look at what we keep in the old cooler on the fire escape, as long as I ignore her bloody breath.

The hand she rests against my cheek is still damp and smells faintly of rot. The air clots my nose with a coppery sweetness that has become familiar. Her eyes meet mine, vast and luminous. They say that if you gaze into someone’s eyes, you can see their soul, but my lover has no soul. Her eyes are mirrors, showing me only myself, and I turn away from what I see. I reach for her instead, my hands compelled by something primal. If desire were a thing made physical, it would be the curve of my lover’s neck, the slope of her shoulders. It would taste like the salt of her skin. It would sound like the susurrus of her breath. So, of course I say what I always say, every time she asks me to kill for her:

“Yes.”

“We only need a few more hearts now,” she says. “Two? Three? I’ve lost count. Are you counting?”

“Three.” Last week when she asked, it was five. The fifth we harvested on a Monday night in the empty parking lot of a deserted travel stop off I-95, a blonde-haired clerk whose steps were heavy with minimum wage and payday loan debt. Fourth was a grey-eyed mother of two, the backbone of her family. She fought hard, a strong heart, a worthy sacrifice, something to break the best of her people.

“They were monsters,” my lover says to me. “And it does no good to have mercy on a monster. They will not have mercy on you.” She tucks herself against my ribs and rests her head on my shoulder. The silver moonlight through the open window snags in her hair, the light of distant stars caresses her skin. She tilts her face up for a kiss. I lean in, eager, but she moves away, laughing. She rolls to her feet, drags at my hand. “Let’s go!”

I go, stumbling out of bed, barefoot across peeling and cold plastic tiles, ignoring the residue of filth that sticks to my soles. I pull on my jeans, an old stained hoodie. Grab the black leather roll of chef knives from the console by the door. Hesitate at the feel of the leather in my hands, the blades of sharp steel unrevealed. And for a moment, I remember. A life before. Before I met my lover.

“It only has one knife right now,” my fiancé Jeffery explains as I open the brightly wrapped box. It’s a warm day in early September, the heat of summer still idling over upstate New York. He has obviously taken care in the wrapping of this gift, and my usually deft fingers fumble awkwardly with the green ribbon. When I finally crack open the box, I grin. The chef roll is the one I’ve always wanted, aged leather, smooth and supple with enough compartments to hold a whole catalogue of knives. Butcher and chop and paring.

“I could only afford one knife right now” he repeats, watching my face for disappointment. “But maybe after school, when you come back home. And we get married…” He pauses, waits for my reaction. When I offer him nothing but silence, he goes on. “I know one is not enough, but it’s a start, right?”

“One knife is a start,” I agree. I don’t mention the other thing. “Thank you.”

We sit a little longer in this impossible place. A bench on a sprawling leafy campus like something out of a movie about bright college years, a wonderland of green sloping hills on the banks of the Hudson. It is more water, and more things that need water to grow, than I have ever seen in my entire life.

“When will you come home?” he asks.

Home. A tiny reservation town that I outgrew the day I won a local cooking contest, then a statewide competition, and then it was a Food Network culinary cook-off show for teen chefs. The red-haired celebrity chef who hosted it took an interest in my talent. Then an interest in other things. Enough that when I demanded more of his time, he found me a scholarship to a culinary school on the other side of the country, far away from his wife and child.

I unfold the leather bag. Draw the solitary butcher knife from its sheath and run my hands across the silver shine of the blade. I press the tip of the knife into the pad of my thumb until blood rises to the surface. I suck the redness from my skin, eyes closed.

“I thought you weren’t doing that anymore,” Jeffery says, alarm in his voice and eyes on the bloody thumb in my mouth.

“I’m not.”

“I mean, it’s okay if you are. I just think maybe you should see someone about it? Especially up here. I bet they have great doctors in a place like this.” Jefferey babbles on some more about the superior health care available in the Mid-Hudson Valley, but I’ve already stopped listening. When he finally tapers off I give him a smile.

“I’m not trying to change you,” he insists. “I already told you that.”

The smile stays firmly in place. “Let me walk you to your car,” I say. “It’s a long drive back to New Mexico.”

Never fall in love with a deer woman. Deer women are cunning and can see the past and the future all at once. Their eyes are deep and still as well water, their legs as long and slender as the high aspens. A deer woman will make you do terrible things for a chance to stroke the back of her knees, to hear her whisper your name. She will promise you home.

We did not meet in a chance encounter in a moonlit wood, in the way of fairytales. I did not chase her fleeing shadow through a dappled grove of ancient trees to the banks of an enchanted pool. I was not lured away, as is the way of hunters who have, on a solstice eve, somehow become the prey themselves.

I met my lover in a bar on a weekend trip to Manhattan, an impetuous late train from my upstate culinary school down to the city, a solo escape from a mind-numbing week spent on gastronomy etiquette. Spirit dulled by the proper way to sit at a table, the hand to use for the seafood fork, the ordering of stemware. I am lost in this white man’s world, drowning in a sea of their buttery sauces and unfamiliar histories, wishing for something known, something to remind me of home. I overhear a boy in class mention a food truck somewhere on the Lower East Side that serves oven bread and prune pastelitos. It feels like a sign.

New York City is big, noisy, a foreign place. But I am not afraid of it. It beckons, asking me to let go, to become someone else. I wander, looking fruitlessly for that truck, until I hear a deep drum beat, a high wailing through the open door of a corner bar.

She is there, wearing white. A dress that leaves her brown shoulders bare, a skirt that gambols lovingly around her long legs to brush the floor. Another Native woman. In New York City? What are the chances?

She dances the kind of dance that draws stares. The dance that reminds you of the whirl of the starry heavens, of places that exist far away from concrete canyons. She is graceful and undisciplined all at once, an invitation to question one’s life choices.

When she stops, she falls into the high-backed chair next to me at the bar, laughing and flushed. She ignores the others, men and women, who crowd around her offering to buy her a drink. She looks at me.

And I make the mistake of looking back.

We drink St. Germain. Her, neat, in a shot glass, because she says it’s like a shot of summer straight to the vein. I take mine with gin and ice and lemon, and agree. We drink, and then we dance, until the night moves on without us until the bartender calls last call. And laughing, dizzy, reckless, we share a nectar-tinged kiss. I should have known then, but in the way of new lust, all I could know was the slip of her hips and the flirt of her long fingers. The flavor of white flowers staining her lips.

Now I understand, in the way of those doomed, that I was being seduced. But like all fools whose desires leave them dashed upon rocks or lost in a faerie’s lair, knowledge comes too late for salvation.

I never find that food truck that tasted like home.

The first time she convinces me to kill for her, it is a hot June evening. The sun has already set, but the oppressive humidity refuses to allow the day to cool, so we idle, naked, in my bed, eating ice chips and huddling in front of the fan. The first year of school is done; instead of going back to New Mexico and Jeffery, I’m working an internship at a prestigious midtown restaurant. Long hours of backbreaking work for almost nothing. I sleep days and spend my nights in the fury of the kitchen or, on my rare nights off, in her arms. I am in love. I am naïve.

 “Why do you only visit me at night?” I ask her. I trace the delicate lines of her back with a finger, brush her hair away from her face. I keep my voice light, teasing. “Maybe we should try to do something during the day.”

She rolls over on her side. “Like what?”

“Go to Central Park. Catch a movie.”

She groans and flops on her back.

“It’s just a thought.”

She waves a hand weakly in the air, clearing away my “just a thought.” “Tell me about your people, Tansi.”

“What do you mean?” We haven’t spoken of our families, either of us. A strange thing for two Natives to do, but it seemed an understood condition of her attention. Until now.

“Your people back home in New Mexico,” she repeats. “Your family.”

“We don’t talk. They wouldn’t approve. If they knew about us—”

“My family is gone,” she says, her face focused on the ceiling. She pulls a hair from her head, stretches it out above her. “They were murdered. A long time ago. But sometimes, it feels like only yesterday.”

“I-I’m sorry,” I stutter out, shocked at her confession.

She drops the strand of hair and rolls to face me, her dark eyes intent. “Tell me. What would you do if people murdered your family?”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you do? Justice? Revenge?”

“Justice, I guess.” I’m still reeling, trying to find my way through the sudden thorns of this conversation. “Revenge sounds scary,” I add airily, a poor attempt to laugh off her black mood.

“Whatever you call it, you would make it right, wouldn’t you? If it was in your power, you would make it right?”

A trickle of fear now. Deep down I know that this is not a question lightly asked. That what I say now, it is an oath.

I should run. I should not answer. But I am frozen in the bright headlights.

“Yes.”

Her nod is grim, satisfied. “Where are those knives, Tansi?”

“What?”

“The ones you always carry. Your chef knives.”

“Here. Well, over there. By the door.”

“Tansi,” she says my name like an invocation. “I want you to do something for me.”

I don’t say anything, breath stuck in my throat.

“I want you to help me make it right.”

My hands up to the elbow are covered in blood. My heart is thumping wildly in my chest, but perhaps not as wildly or desperately as it should be for what I have done. Shouldn’t I be vomiting? Crying? Shouldn’t I feel more than a desire for her blessing?

She smiles and my spirit soars, giddy. She leans forward to catch the drip of blood in her small hands, brings it to her mouth and drinks. Her eyes are bright, dancing flames of wildfire. Her long hair catches the light.

“Did you know the Aztecs could remove a beating heart in less than two minutes? But that took a team. Two men to hold the body still and prone, at just the right angle. Two men to hold the legs.”

“I didn’t. Know, I mean.”

“But you and I, we only need each other.” She laughs and twirls, her long white skirt flaring around her, blood soaking the hem. She licks her fingers clean.

“What do we do now?” I ask. At least my voice has the sense to shake, to sound too high with fear. “Will the police come? Will I go to jail?”

“We leave the body here in the forest,” she says. “You’d be surprised what deer will eat.”

“And this?” I hold up the heart, still warm and pulsing in my hand. Just another piece of meat. Not so different from preparing coeur de boeuf. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

“We’ll collect them, Tansi. For my family. For…justice.”

I look at the dead white woman at my feet.

“Are you sure this is justice?”

She puts a finger to my lips, then her lips to mine. “I certainly feel better. Don’t you?”

After that I don’t see my lover for days. I start to forget the screams, the smell, the horror. I go to the movies alone. I wander through Central Park. At night, I am thrown back into the insanity of the kitchen, taught to master fire and sharp steel and the incessant demands of perfectionists. After two weeks without her, I can almost believe it never happened. When the chef invites us all out for after-work drinks, I go. But I am lonely in the company of my co-workers, a foreigner unable to follow their words, their jokes all spoken in a language unfamiliar. I make excuses to leave early.

She is waiting for me when I get home. She steps out of her white dress and parts her legs. Runs trembling hands over her breasts. “Please don’t leave me, Tansi,” she whispers, tears wetting her cheeks. “Please don’t leave me.”

I miss work the next day. And then the next. A terse voicemail from the restaurant manager, and terser message from the chef de cuisine. I delete them both. Finally, a concerned email from school about my internship status. I don’t answer.

We don’t leave my bed for a week.

“You’re ruined, Tansi,” she says, laughing. “Now all you have is me.”

Her face dips down between my legs and I shudder. She is enough. She is my work. She is my home.

After, she asks. “Is it time to harvest the hearts?”

We’re in a parking lot of a Quikmart. We have stopped to wash the blood from my hands, to clean my knives in the anonymous restrooms. The cooler in the back of the car is heavy and sated.

“Are we done?” I ask.

She nods. Somewhere in the distance, the sound of a police car streaks down the parkway. The summer has become one for the record books. The internet is splashed with the sensational story. Thirteen women missing between the City and upstate New York. All matching a description.

The streetlights flicker, casting shadows across her heart-shaped face. She sighs and runs a hand across my hair, tucks a strand behind my ear. I shudder down to the marrow of my bones. Even now, after all she has made me do for her, I want her.

“Let’s go home now,” I beg.

“And where is that, Tansi?”

“Wherever. Just…somewhere. We don’t have to do this anymore, right?”

She leaves her hand but turns her head away from me, eyes toward the dark night, the myriad trails that vivisect the forest beyond the parking lot. The call of the wind through the thick trees that line the parkway.

“Home,” she says, her voice breaking with sorrow. “I want my home back, too.”

Our last night together, while we’re still in my little Brooklyn walkup and whatever comes next is still a sunrise and sunset away, she pulls something from her bag. A notebook, its velvet cover the deep green of secrets.

“I’ve been keeping a list,” she says. “Of my family that were murdered.”

She thrusts it towards me. The pages are full of tiny practiced handwriting. Name after name. Wessagusset. Pamunky. Massapequa. Pound Ridge. Susquehannock. Great Swamp. Occoneechee. I flip the page, and then another. Another. Skull Valley. Sand Creek. Wounded Knee.

The roar in my head is grief, wide and vast enough to drown whole new worlds. I know it is not mine, but hers. The book tumbles from my shaking hand. “I’m so sorry…”

“I felt them all when they died,” she whispers, a hand to her heart, her eyes lined with tears. “Every one.”

Her dark eyes find mine and she whispers the truth.

“Revenge.”

I lug the full cooler across the National Mall, past the band playing the Star-Spangled, the screaming children with their Rainbow Rocket pops, the picnics and laughter and shouting masses waiting for sunset and the promised fireworks.

“What if this doesn’t work?” I ask, nerves making my voice rattle. “What if doesn’t bring your home back? What if it doesn’t quiet the dead?”

I watch her ponder my question and for a moment, the night holds its breath. On its exhale she laughs, as free and enchanting as a rushing mountain stream.

“But, Tansi, what if it does?”

I place the last heart on the grass. Turn to where she lies sprawled in the middle of the circle. Some curious tourists are already starting to come closer, to see what ancient conjuration I am working with blood and muscle and grief on this most American of holidays. It is only a matter of time now.

I stretch out beside her. Gather her close to me, breathe in her scent for the last time.

“Are you sad?” she asks.

“No,” I whisper, and it’s true, but not. “Only that I will miss you,” I say, picking words so inadequate they rise to the level of a lie. “Do I have to go?”

She draws a finger across my mouth and I taste the salt of my own tears.

I close my eyes and the children are gone, their melting popsicles only memories discarded on the lawn. The fireworks, reduced to suggestions of smoky trails in a blackening sky. The curious tourists, the monuments, the city. All vanished.

Time, rolled back to silence.

“Are they all gone?” I ask.

“Keep your eyes closed and they are gone.”

“And your family?”

“They cannot come back, but their children are still here.”

“Then we’re home?”

When she doesn’t answer, I open my eyes.

I am alone on the lawn. The crowd rushes back in, the noise, the children, the tourists, the smoke, the screams of horror, the sound of sirens.

Love a deer woman. Deer women are wild and without reason. A deer woman will make you do terrible things for a chance to raise up nations, to lie down with a dream. You will weep before it is over, the tears of the blessed, the cries of one who has found lost relatives. And if they ever let you out of your cell, tell them that you will do it again.

Georgie in the Sun

2448

He’s thinking of changing his name again.

His name was first Vlad, but he’s been going by George since the early 22nd century. He would have changed it to something else a long time ago—that’s what he’d been doing every twenty years or so, for centuries—but Eliza liked it, so he kept it.

In two years, she will come out of stasis again. Maybe he’ll bring it up then. Maybe they can come up with a name she likes together.

He fixes himself a drink (one part synthetic blood powder, two parts water) and puts on some music. Turns the volume right up. The Țepeș echoes with the sounds of the Beatles for days.

Outside, Alpha Pegasi rotates rapidly, its light nothing like the Sun.

2449

One year to go until Eliza wakes up. He performs maintenance on the ship, the way she taught him. He misses her, thinks of her eyes, her voice, her blood. His teeth hurt.

He sits at his gaming console and boots up his favorite retro parser. 8-bit graphics, green-on-black text, bad writing. In the game, he is a knight in shining armor. A prince.

George knew how to be a prince, once.

The cursor blinks at him.

You traverse the dark forest. In the distance, you see the fabled castle where the Princess sleeps, its turrets gleaming in the light of the full moon.

The moon is always full, George knows.

Riding your mighty white stallion, you come to a fork in the path. You can only see a few meters in either direction. The path to your left seems well-trodden. The one to your right is overgrown with thorny branches.

George has played this game a thousand times already. Maybe more times.

>Go left.

You go left. You are attacked by a pack of wolves.

You die a horrible death.

He imagines the wolves’ canines until he can remember the taste of fresh blood. Hunger desiccates his veins.

He thinks of names to distract himself.

Philotheos. Too old-fashioned. Mark. Too apostle. Larry. No. Just no.

Andreas?

He plays the name around in his mouth, rolling his R’s.

Maybe Andreas. Andreas is a good name.

Very slowly, he traverses the span of the Țepeș, wondering how to bring it up.

2450

He sets the controls to REVIVE and lets Eliza’s stasis machine do the rest. He never understood exactly how the machine works, no matter how many times she explained, so he makes sure to follow her instructions to the letter.

He puts on her favorite shirt, the black button-down with the mandarin collar. He spent a month ironing out every crease, then ironing it again. He always thought it made his bloodless skin look bloodless-er, but she said it brought out his eyes. Besides, she liked him pale.

When she emerges from the chamber, George feels the way he felt the first time they met, when she tripped on her way out of that club in Soho and he smelled her from two blocks away and reached out and caught her so fast that car alarms went off in a two-mile radius.

“Georgie,” she says. She walks over to him and grabs him by the back of his neck. She kisses his forehead, his eyes, the bridge of his nose, his cheekbones, his lips, his teeth. She cuts her tongue on his incisors. Her blood, metallic and flowery, fills his mouth, and, for a moment, the monster—Vlad, not Georgie—rears his head, but then she takes his hand and pulls him to bed and spoons him, repeating his name, again and again, like a prayer: GeorgieGeorgieGeorgieGeorgieGeorgie.

He doesn’t bring up the name change after all.

When they’re done, she takes his hand again and leads him to the bathroom so they can shower together. She glances at the sheet draped over the mirror.

“Did you cover all the mirrors again?” she asks, scolding, smiling.

He lowers his eyes. She always makes him feel like a child. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“Was it the bats or the crows this time?”

Both.

He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter.”

She bares her neck for him. “They’ll stay away now. For a little while.” She uncovers the mirror to ruffle her black curls.

“Yes,” he says. He comes up behind her, sinks his fangs into her very carefully, and drinks, her warmth spreading through him like life. He catches a glimpse of his face in the mirror, the eyes that history books have described as “large, deep-set, dark green, and penetrating.” He’s always hated his eyes.

When they’re both satisfied, she checks the logs of the Țepeș. It’s too early for suitable planets, but she says she wishes she could live through this journey with him. The logs are a way for her to experience it, even if vicariously. “The things you must have seen,” she says. “My Georgie. I envy you.”

“And I envy you your sleep,” he replies, tucking a wayward curl behind her ear.

Then, she goes back into stasis.

He can hear her heart slow to a halt as the process completes. The echo of her last heartbeat reverberates through the hull of the ship for days. He puts on music to drown out the sound.

“Here comes the Sun,” the Beatles sing.

2455

He remembers what it was like to sleep, that compelling exhaustion that washed over him every time the Sun peeked over the horizon, back on Earth. He spent the first hundred years of the journey in a coffin, until they were far enough from Earth’s star that it was unrecognizable as the Sun.

He was mildly worried about what would happen when they came across another yellow star. Nothing, it turned out. That’s how Georgie realized that his urge to burst into flames when faced with the Sun was mostly in his head. He was burned by his own psychology.

The only downside is that, without the Sun, he can’t sleep. George hasn’t slept in over a hundred years. His eyelids sting, every blink like sandpaper scraping against his eyes.

So he boots up his game.

It’s a full moon again.

You traverse the dark forest. In the distance, you see the fabled castle where the Princess sleeps, its turrets gleaming in the light of Earth’s satellite.

Riding your mighty black stallion, you come to a fork in the path.

>Go right.

You go right, cutting through the brambles with your sword.

The forest gets thicker and thicker, until you can no longer proceed. Your arms are bleeding from a million cuts.

What do you do?

>Burn it.

You burn the entire forest to the ground. All around you, the cries of small forest animals echo through the night.

A colony of bats takes flight overhead.

George exits the game.

He covers the mirrors again, but his reflection haunts him from every shiny surface of the ship.

He closes his eyes, listening to the silence of the universe, pretending to sleep.

2500

Georgie’s veins grow thinner, Eliza’s blood all gone from his body by now. He fixes himself a drink that sustains but does not nourish. He wonders if they’ll ever find a place where they can watch the sunset together, the way they dreamt back on Earth, before Eliza came up with the idea and asked him to fund it, before she built the stasis machine, before they set out on this journey, her short life spaced out into slivers.

His teeth hurt. His head pounds. There are shadows playing in the corners of his eyes.

He chalks it up to lack of sleep and anemia.

2510

Georgie plays his game. He goes right. He burns the forest again but, disturbed by the charred corpses of small animals, he hits restart.

The forest gets thicker and thicker, until you can no longer proceed. What do you do?

>Fly over it.

He transforms into a bat.

2530

The Țepeș flies by a planet with a methane atmosphere. Not one where they could live together, but it brings back memories of the sewers where George—then William—spent most of the early 20th century, banished there by the sudden popularity of vampire fiction.

2550

Eliza wakes up again. There is none of the hungry kissing this time. Dark circles nestle under her eyes. They make her look a little like the haunted women Georgie—Vlad—used to know, way back.

“I think I dreamt this time,” she says.

“That’s impossible,” he replies. He looks at her for confirmation. “Isn’t it? Impossible?” He wishes he could turn her, the way vampires do in books. Forget about the sunset; live forever on this ship.

She pours a glass of water and downs it, parched. “I think there’s something wrong with the stasis machine.” She pauses. “I think I made a mistake.”

She gives him a drink from her wrist and he takes it, silent and grateful. He wipes the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and then licks it clean. The shadows in the corners of his eyes retreat.

He can smell her everywhere on the ship for an entire year after she goes back to sleep.

2552

You turn yourself into a bat and fly over the dark forest until you arrive at the dark castle and its glistening turrets.

The castle is guarded by a terrible dragon. It lies sleeping outside the Princess’s bedroom.

>Approach the dragon.

The dragon detects your presence and opens its eyes. It takes one look at you and huffs, preparing to breathe fire on you.

Georgie knows he should slay the dragon, but he finds himself reluctant to. It reminds him of the nights he spent barricaded in a castle of his own, a mob of peasants waving torches and pikes at his door, back when he was a monster.

>What is your name?

The dragon does not understand the question. It breathes fire on you.

You are dead.

2610

He walks into the observatory and finds her standing there by the cupola, staring out at space.

“You’re up,” he says, and he imagines his dead heart fluttering in his chest, his non-breath quickening.

She turns around, and her face is made of bats.

2612

The Țepeș meets a sulfur planet. George takes one of the pods down to the surface and bathes in an ocean of acid while the ship orbits above. His flesh melts.

2613-2615

George lets his body reconstruct itself.

The Țepeș is haunted by bats.

You turn yourself into a crow and fly over the dark forest until you arrive at the dark castle and its glistening turrets.

The castle is guarded by a terrible dragon named Vlad. Your enemies present you with your brother Mircea’s dead body, returned to you in a sheet stained with blood.

In the distance, the screams of the impaled fill the night.

2650

He wakes her up again. There is a mad sheen to her eyes. This time, her blood tastes different—cold and acidic and nothing like flowers.

“Maybe I shouldn’t wake up as often,” she says. “Maybe the problem is my body, not the machine.” She takes to the computer, pores over calculations and charts that Georgie doesn’t understand. He was never very good with numbers.

In the end, exhausted, she gives up.

“Is this killing you?” he asks, but she’s already asleep.

The cursor blinks.

With the dragon slain at your feet, you bring your sword down on the door that leads to the room of the sleeping Princess.

Behind you, there is the sound of wings rustling.

2720

The Princess is the most beautiful woman you have ever seen.

Dust has settled on her cheeks.

A long time passes.

More time passes.

You’ve heard the rumors that you can wake her up with a kiss.

You must decide what to do.

What do you do?

You have spent too long in the Princess’s room. You have grown into an old man.

You die.

2750

Georgie does not bring Eliza out of stasis.

He performs maintenance, and then he sits next to the stasis machine, watching her. A crow perches on his shoulder. They listen to the Beatles together.

2810

Georgie is still sitting next to the machine, watching the Princess sleep, trying to decide what to do.

If he plays the game as a love story, he always loses, because how can it be love if she doesn’t have a choice?

The cursor blinks.

Stardust settles on her cheekbones.

What else can he play the game as?

He thinks of a Sun that doesn’t set. He wishes he could sleep forever.

2850

His veins shrivel to nothing. His skin starts to peel. The ghosts of bats hang from the ceiling of the Țepeș, their mouths smelling of small, rotting animals.

2851-3849

He lets Eliza rest for a thousand years, thinking of rivers of blood.

3850

The Princess will never grow old, but you will.

How long are you going to stand there by her bed?

You’re being kinda creepy, Georgie boy.

>Who’s George?

Vlad. I meant Vlad.

What are you going to do, Vlad?

He thinks he hears the wings of crows rustling, whispering about the Prince of Darkness.

One of his teeth falls out.

3852

He cannot make a decision.

He shuts down the gaming console, then boots it up again, on repeat.

The cursor blinks.

3853

Your indecision creates a quantum event that splits the universe into infinite variations of itself.

>He finally brings Eliza out of stasis, only to find that she no longer remembers him.

She says she never met anyone named Vlad. She says she feels like she’s a thousand years old and asks him for death.

The monster sinks his single tooth in her carotid artery and—his dead heart broken—drains her of blood.

>He lets Eliza sleep forever and he keeps going, the Țepeș slowly crowding with bats.

In the end, the Prince of Darkness is consumed by his own shadow.

>The Țepeș finally finds the perfect planet where Eliza and Georgie can live together, happy. They sit on the beach, the foam lapping at their feet, and watch the sunset side by side. George finds that this Sun reminds him so much of home that he bursts into flames.

>The Țepeș finally finds the perfect planet where Eliza and Georgie can live together. When he tries to bring Eliza out of stasis, he discovers that the machine has malfunctioned and has caused Eliza’s death.

Vlad lives alone, forever, under an alien sun.

>Convinced that he will never find a suitable planet for both of them, he turns around and goes back to Earth. They arrive a millennium and a half later, only to realize that humanity has disappeared. The Earth is now populated by bats.

>He wakes Eliza up, but she says she’s had a good long think and decided that she doesn’t love him anymore.

“This was a mistake,” she says.

Vlad dies from a metaphorical stake through the heart.

>Vlad schedules the stasis machine to revive Eliza in another thousand years. He steps out of the ship and lets his body float in space while the Țepeș continues on its journey.

A millennium later, he forgets his name. His frozen eyes glimpse the light of a distant star and a half-remembered Beatles song gets stuck in his head.

It goes something like this:

Here comes the Sun

(na na na na)

>

>

<<<<>>>>

Braid of Days and Wake of Nights

The seat beneath her was glossy plastic and not interested in prolonging their acquaintance. Shifting from thigh to thigh, Julia Popova flipped through newspapers in search of the logo and slogans for bourbon that she had labored over for weeks.

New York Times, March 3, 2005—ESCAPED CARRIAGE HORSE. Reports to the Parks Department of a stray white horse in Central Park puzzled the Horse and Carriage Association and the Teamsters alike. “No one’s unaccounted for,” said spokesman Mark Houdlin. “Both the Clinton Park and Hell’s Kitchen stables are full at the end of the day.”

New York Daily News, March 3, 2005—LOST OPERA HORSE? Recent sightings of a white horse on the lam in Central Park have perplexed locals and police. A spokesman from the Metropolitan Opera was unable to confirm rumors that their production of “Aida” is short one four-legged cast member.

New York Post, March 3, 2005—MYSTERIOUS VOLUNTEER BEAUTIFICATION EFFORTS IN PARK. Seen Central Park lately? You might not recognize it. Over the last two weeks the Lake was raked for plastic cups, the Turtle Pond’s thick algae was skimmed off, and the Kennedy Reservoir is now clear as a freshly Windexed mirror. No one has owned up to seeing or being one of the unknown do-gooders, but park staff are thankful.

Julia found her quarter-page ads in Business and Travel. Orange silk and opalized ammonites. Blissful extinction. The amber bottle gleaming like sunken treasure in the middle of it all. But the colors that were arresting on the office computers were watery in newsprint, diluted by the fluorescent lights of the clinic.

“How’d they turn out?” Vivian asked. The soft leatherette armchair seemed to swallow both her and the taxane drip feeding into her left arm.

Julia shook her head.

“Okay, how was your date with whatshername, Ellen?”

Julia sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it. But look at this. They’re still writing about the horse.”

“For Chrissake, Julia.”

“Soup. It looks like they’re selling fancy soup. Beef, butter, onions. I told them to use less color. Save it for the slicks. Client’s going to yell at me tomorrow.”

“You should quit.”

“I wish.”

With an immaculate thumbnail, Julia peeled open the ziplock bag in her lap. The coil of hair inside, wide as her thumb and nine feet long, was woven throughout with black and gold strands in equal proportion. When Vivian began chemo last May, her hair had skimmed the lower edge of her scapulae. Three weeks later, her purple stripes had rinsed to blonde, and she had not dyed them again. Vivian had smiled at Julia in the bathroom mirror, eyebrows high and brave, but after the first handful slithered to the floor, she handed the humming razor to Julia and covered her eyes.

“You do it,” she said.

The braid was almost finished. Julia had added some of her own hair as needed, taking surreptitious snips behind her ears and bleaching her brown waves in a bowl. Vivian’s false gold was easier to match than her black. The braid felt both coarse and silky, crackling softly when she ran her fingers along it. Only a few loose locks remained at the bottom of the bag.

Vivian kept glancing at the braid, then away, shivering.

“The hell are you doing with my hair?”

“The Victorians made jewelry out of their relatives’ hair,” Julia said.

“Sure, but in front of them?” Vivian screwed up her mouth. “I’m not dead yet.”

“It’s not a mourning piece.”

“So what is it?”

“A gift.”

“For who?”

Julia hesitated. “Maybe you?”

“Nope. No way.” Vivian scratched the down on her skull. She couldn’t stand wigs and wore brilliant silk scarves printed with birds and stars instead. “Weird, isn’t it? Doesn’t bother me when it’s growing on my head, but I can’t stand it when it’s cut. Slopped around the salon floor—ugh. Like seeing a severed hand.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay, I won’t look.”

Vivian opened Applied and Environmental Biology and held it up to her face while Julia overlapped yellow strand and black, tugging, straightening, smoothing. When, after half an hour, she noticed Vivian hadn’t turned the page, she pinned the end of the braid and dropped everything into her purse.

Eventually a nurse in pink scrubs sailed over and slid the cannula out of Vivian’s arm. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

Vivian pushed herself upright without speaking, her face pale, and lurched toward the bathroom. Julia followed. Over the retching and splashing, she made soothing noises and rubbed circles in Vivian’s back.

“Pharmacy stop?”

“Thanks.”

Julia had bought her indestructible orange Beetle as a ticket out of rusting Paterson with three summers waitressing in an Italian restaurant and five illustrations for two evanescent magazines. She called it the Lady. When the art school letter came, Julia had fought all day with her parents and cried all night for a month before stuffing the Lady to the roof and driving to Providence. She had not looked back.

Although parking took a large bite out of her budget, the odometer clocked 170,000, and the odors of frying oil, mint gum, nail polish, and drive-through coffee had painted a thin and indelible layer over the interior, Julia kept the Lady when she moved to Queens. Even thinking about selling the Lady struck her as disloyal. Vivian’s sudden need was in many ways welcome, and Julia told herself that she had kept the car for times like these.

She left Vivian hunched in the car and ducked into the hard bright aisles of the corner drugstore. At the counter she collected a battery of pharmaceuticals in orange canisters: yolk-yellow Zofran, pentagons of Ativan, dented white Percocet, and smooth white Lomotil. The paper bags crinkled as she thrust them into Vivian’s hands.

“You doing okay?”

Vivian was breathing through her teeth, and a bitter, stinging smell drifted from her skin. She wouldn’t meet Julia’s eyes. “Swell.”

Julia double-parked on 119th and watched Vivian until she vanished into her walkup.

Although Central Park at night featured often in her mother’s monthly litany of New York horrors, and Julia could not walk there after dark without twitching and jumping at shadows, in all the newspaper accounts she had read, the horse had never been observed before twilight. She went at dusk on a Friday with the braid snaking through the belt loops of her jeans and a jackknife jammed into a pocket to compensate for the judo classes she had never taken. Hawkers of ice cream and soda were shuttering their silver carts. Couples pushed strollers through the orange puddles of park lights, leaning into each other. The air began blue and dimmed and filled with bats.

“Come out,” she whispered. “I’m here.”

The fine gray gravel of the Bridle Path crunched under her canvas shoes. She walked to Riftstone Bridge, now a pool of darkness, and peered underneath. The smell of urine scraped her nose but bothered her less than it once had. There was a faint, bubbling snore.

“Hello?”

Plastic rustled. Something moved.

“What do you want?” The voice was whiskey and dry leaves.

Squinting into the gloom, Julia distinguished two dim eyes and a glint of teeth. “I’m looking for a white horse.”

“Fresh out of horses, sorry. All I got is UFOs and Elvis.” The chuckle was low but female, and Julia unlocked her shoulders. “Why?”

“For a friend. She’s sick.” She tried a smile. “My name’s Julia.”

The woman who shuffled out was tall and swaddled in stained clothes. “Lorrie.”

“So have you seen a horse? No halter, no bridle. Just running loose.”

“How’s a pony ride help?”

“It might be a unicorn.” She bit the inside of her cheek, anticipating laughter. None was forthcoming. Lorrie only folded her arms and tilted her head. “Saint Hildegard wrote that unicorn liver healed leprosy. That unicorn leather cured fevers. The horn was good against poison. No one says anything about cancer, but I figure—”

“Why you askin me?”

“You live here. You might have seen it.”

“I don’t live here.” She coughed thickly. “I been crashin with my uncle when I can, but his house is fulla kids. New wife can’t stand me. Sometimes I hit the drop-in center, but those are bad nights.”

“Oh.”

“March is too cold to sleep outside. You hafta be desperate.”

Julia pulled a rumpled bill from her back pocket and held it out, but her hand was swatted aside.

“My problems they bigger than a dollar, unicorn girl.”

Julia said, “You must think I’m nuts.”

“Of course you is. You carryin a fruit knife shorter than my pinky. You think that’s gonna keep you safe from folks like me.” She wheezed with laughter as Julia’s hand went to her hip. “Your fingers smell like metal. You keep dippin in that pocket. You leanin backwards like you wanna run.”

“I’m sorry.” Her face went hot.

“It’s A-okay. You crazy. And whiter than Wonder Bread. Lots of you come joggin scared around here at night, like you think we bite.”

“You didn’t laugh when I started talking about unicorns.”

“Don’t nobody in this city think I exist either. Used to work at the Aqueduct before I hurt my back. Thought I was invisible then. Now? Bam! Gone. What’ve I got against unicorns?”

“Have you seen one?”

Lorrie shook her head. “Go home.”

“Please. Tell me.”

“You got ten dollars? I’d use it better than you.”

When the money was safely concealed in her clothes, Lorrie straightened and stared. “Think, babygirl. If there a unicorn here? All of us be sleepin sweeter. With no pain. We be smellin honey, fresh bread, lilacs, good days. The wild ones they settle. The angry ones they calm down. If we got a unicorn, why would I tell you? With that knife in your pocket? Leather? Livers? A sick friend? What’s that knife for?”

Julia heard bodies stirring sleepily under the bridge.

“Nowhere in this city is safe for me,” Lorrie said. “I do what I can to get by. You smell safe and selfish. Hunger and pain and need, you don’t know. Go home.”

Julia took two steps backward, then turned and hurried up the path. She could feel Lorrie’s eyes on her. Not until she emerged from the chained green tangle of the park into the traffic of Central Park West did she exhale her double lungful of fear.

“I have to talk to you—”

“If there’s a unicorn,” Julia said, “I’ll bring you its horn. I promise. Abracadabra, Australopithecus, poof, tumors gone. Like that.”

“No. Listen to me.” Vivian shut the cabinet and set two mugs on the scarred table. A chocolate cake slumped half-eaten on scalloped gold paper. WE’LL MISS YOU VIV in green jelly icing. A cardboard box of her notebooks and rubberbanded pens had been shoved under a chair, and Julia kept kicking it by accident.

Her last day at the lab, Vivian said. Everyone had pretended the departure was happy.

“But that’s not what you want to tell me.”

“Ginger? Chamomile? Black?” Vivian fanned out the teabags. “We’re stopping chemo. I’m done.”

“You can’t.”

“Three fresh lesions on my liver. You want to argue? It’s right here, you can talk to it if you want.” She tipped a kettle, and hot water chortled into the mugs. “Be real persuasive, cuz they say two months, best case.”

Julia raised a cup, the steam blurring her vision. The right words were somewhere, buried under jingles, loud typefaces, the shotgun poetry of advertising. Never again would she smell bergamot without the sting of tears.

“Give me some time. Let me try.”

“Spend my last days vomiting, you mean?”

“There’s a unicorn, Vivian.”

Vivian’s laugh was hard and tired. “People stopped believing in unicorns in middle school.”

“So I have a rich imaginative life. Sue me.”

“You couldn’t imagine your way out of a cubicle.” Vivian rubbed her eyes. “I remember when you talked grants, galleries, art shows, MoMA. Where are you now? Selling watches and vacations to people who don’t want them. Cold calling. Retouching portraits of steak.”

Julia pushed away from the table. “I have to live, Viv.”

“And I have to die. Well, we all do. But I’m going to do it the way I want. With friends. With dignity. More water?”

“No.”

Vivian refilled both mugs. “Anyway, Asian girls never get unicorns.”

“How do you know that?”

“Beagle. L’Engle. Lewis. Coville and Gaiman, even though I was too old. I looked anyway, just in case. When I was a kid it was Laurence Yep, take it or leave it. Lots of dragons, no unicorns. None for you either, right? Aren’t you more likely to find a domovoi or a leshy? When did Russia get unicorns?”

“Late fifteenth century.”

“You checked.”

“Of course I checked.”

Vivian grabbed Julia’s hand across the table. “It’s sweet of you, but you’ve got better things to do.”

“Fine. No unicorns for you.” Julia picked up a pen and one of the insurance forms on the table. “Say you’re giving up. What’s next?”

“Hospice. Starting next week.”

Hospice meant nurses, Julia discovered, and the sweetish smell of Roxanol. Clutching a sheaf of filled-out forms, she let herself in with the spare key, then stood in the hallway, bewildered, as brisk strangers squeezed past her. A silver IV tree had sprouted in the kitchen. Vivian’s aunt, who drove up from Queens on the weekends with cooked food in foil pans, fussed at Julia, plucking off her coat and bag.

“Nothing serious,” she said to the expression on Julia’s face. “It’s the rules. Someone has to be here every day. One of her cousins, or me.”

Vivian was lying in bed, her eyes closed, a transparent loop of oxygen around her head. The tall windows she loved were ajar and clattered softly as the warm, astringent air inside mixed with the damp breath of March.

Loneliness gusted through Julia, sudden as rain.

“What am I going to do without you?” she asked, hating herself for the question.

Vivian opened one eye. “Watch it. I’m not dead yet.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I can still beat your ass. Tremble in fear.”

Julia sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, careful not to bounce. Nine years ago they had washed up in New York together, both of them certain that success lay around the corner, or behind the next door, even as the gum-glazed sidewalk ate blisters into their heels and the rent came due again and again and again. The thought of living without Vivian’s rude jokes and good taste, her crayon annotations of newspapers and leaflets, her abrupt phone calls—“You free at eight? Nice dress? Good!”—hollowed her chest. “What will I do?”

“Cry. Breathe. Live. Fall in love. You’ll be better at that when I’m gone, really you will. Skydive. Have children, if you want them. Play tennis. Snorkel. Visit Morocco. All the things I can’t do anymore. Next question.”

“It’s not fair.”

“Fair?” Vivian smacked the mattress. “I wanted kids. I got Gregory and cancer. I wanted a career in microbiology. I got two postdocs and Gregory and a layoff and cancer.”

“And six second-author papers in first-tier journals.”

“I’m thirty-three, Julia. Thirty-three! I’ll never ride a horse or learn how to snowboard, I’ll never drive to the Grand Canyon and order coffee in every diner on the way, I’ll never see Moscow, I’ll never have a houseboat, I won’t win any Nobels, I won’t see any more meteor showers, I won’t pick any more apples, and I’ll never, ever have a daughter. Don’t talk to me about fair. Don’t even think about fair when you’re in the same room as me. I’ll rip it out of your head and crush it into a ball and eat it.”

Vivian’s aunt stuck her head into the room. “Everything all right?”

“Yup.”

“Doing great.”

The aunt retreated. Vivian bit her lip and crushed the edge of the quilt in her hands. In a quiet voice, she said, “He’ll be here Saturday. Can you pick him up from JFK?”

“Who?”

“Gregory.”

Julia blinked. “He’s coming?”

“He heard I was going off chemo.”

“How thoughtful. I’m shocked.”

“I may have called him.” Vivian put her hands over her face. “I may have asked him to come.”

“So I meet him at the airport and make him disappear? I don’t do murder, normally, but for you—”

“Just bring him here.”

“Vivian—”

“Loose ends,” she said, not meeting her eyes.

The marriage had not been a long one. Vivian had disappeared for a year, a deeper and more profound absence than when she was dating Gregory, while she tried on wife as if it were a winter coat, turning and stretching and looking at herself in it, testing its warmth. She smiled less and less, the few times Julia caught her, and a little gutter of worry dug itself into her brow.

One month after the separation, Vivian had called and let the room around her fill with silence.

“I’m coming over,” Julia said, after waiting in vain for a word.

In a voice small and sticky with grief, Vivian said: “Okay.”

Julia had barged into the apartment with two bottles of cheap chardonnay and a handful of black-and-white movies. Vivian scrubbed her eyes with the back of one hand.

“I’m such a mess—”

“It’s fine.”

Vivian’s third glass was almost empty when she snatched the remote and jabbed down the sound.

“He said he never wanted children. Three years into our marriage! He only told me he did because he thought I might change his mind. Or that he might change mine. ‘I wanted to give us a chance,’ ” she said, imitating his sweeping gestures, and laughed with a catch in her throat. “ ‘Too many cultural differences,’ he said. ‘I don’t want my kids speaking a language I don’t know. How would that look to everyone?’ He said it was hard enough listening to me jabbering with my relatives, not knowing when we were laughing at him. He said the kids wouldn’t resemble either of us—how was he supposed to handle that—”

Julia splashed out another half-glass for her. “He loved you, though.”

“Never. Never ever.” Vivian shuddered.

“I was at your wedding. I saw how he stared at you.” Vivian had glowed and glimmered, her dress a waterfall, her hair black wings. “No one could see you and not love you.”

“Except him.”

“All right. He’s a jackass. Why am I defending him?” Julia slung an arm around Vivian’s shoulders. “I barely saw you while you were together. He’s a jerk of the first water, just for that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re back now, so honestly, I owe him.”

After a long silence, Julia glanced sideways. Vivian had fallen asleep, legs drawn up to her chest, beginning to snore. Julia tossed a blanket over her before turning off the TV and the lights.

It was rare for Vivian to ask for anything, and although Julia disapproved so strongly her stomach hurt, she could not say no. On Saturday, she drove into the arteriosclerotic snarl of the airport to retrieve Gregory. She found him, punctual as a banker, planted at the prearranged section of curbside pickup: his hair as curly as ever, houndstooth jacket and trousers slightly mellowed from the straight line, a pair of tortoiseshell glasses weighing down his face. One suitcase, sized for the overhead bin, sat at his feet. He blinked rapidly at the Lady as Julia pulled alongside and beeped.

“You’re—Jean—”

“Julia Popova. You haven’t changed at all.”

He had to duck his head climbing into the car. “That’s right. Vivian’s friend.”

“Admit it, you don’t remember me.”

“I do, I do.” He grinned at her. “Her best friend. The artist. Took me a second.”

“Where are you staying?”

“I’ve got a hotel on the East Side. Vivian first, though.”

They inched out of the airport under a pewter sky, the churn of jet engines trembling the little car. Odd, how airports diffused an industrial grayness across the landscape, washing out yellows and reds, leaching warmth from complexions.

“How long has Viv been sick?” Gregory said. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“She’s been very mysterious about the whole thing. I didn’t know until two weeks ago. ‘Hey Gregory,’ she says. ‘I’m dying. Stage Four ovarian, isn’t that funny? Want to swing by one last time?’ Like she hadn’t pitched me out the door.”

Julia snorted.

“So how long?”

“Chemo off and on for the last eleven months.”

Gregory chewed his lower lip, gazing at the pawnshops and discount clothing stores that glided by. “Did everyone know?”

“Her friends. Her family.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Did they take out her ovaries?”

“Excuse me?” Julia almost missed a stoplight flicking from yellow to red. She stomped on the brakes, and they both choked against their seatbelts. “What’s that to you?”

“She’s my wife,” Gregory said. And that, however regrettable, was true.

It was night when they arrived. A half moon hung in the strip of sky between buildings. Gregory wavered on the sidewalk, looking up.

“You can go home now,” he told her through the car window.

“All right.”

“I’ll get a taxi. I appreciate it, Julia.”

She sat in the car, watching windows blink awake in his path. For forty-five minutes she listened inattentively to the radio station she had flicked on to forestall conversation, and to the light breeze that rattled paper cups and cans down the street. Black and brown people walked by, chattering, smoking, hefting groceries. The moon fell behind a roof. Gregory did not come outside.

At last she turned the key in the ignition and drove home.

The next day thickened into a soup of meetings in conference rooms sharp with the smell of whiteboard markers and phone calls that locked in zero new clients. Julia stopped at a café for a roast beef sandwich with too much mustard before heading to the park. She was looking forward to grass and greenness and the sight of water, even stagnant and sulfurous water. As she sucked threads of onion from between her teeth, her cell phone hummed.

“Are you going to Central Park?”

“Gregory?”

“Which entrance?”

“I’m taking the A.”

“Okay, which stop?”

“The Museum. Look, I’d rather not—”

“See you there.”

Julia huffed and stomped down the steps into the station. She was busy, urgently busy, and not about to wait for him. But as she walked to Naturalists’ Gate, she heard her name.

Gregory, pressed and polished, waved at her from a bench. Her own hair had blown every which way. Her irritation deepened.

“I thought this was it. Vivian said you used to meet here after work and walk to Conservatory Garden.”

The humid summer evenings she and Vivian had spent wandering through the park, pausing for ice cream éclairs and the occasional concert, appeared at an impossible distance. It had been centuries, surely. Kingdoms had risen and crumbled in the interim. She was obscurely hurt that Gregory knew about those days.

“What else did she say?”

“You’re hunting a unicorn.”

Julia compressed her lips. “She’s told you a lot, then.”

“Vivian’s very fond of you. Thank you for taking care of her.”

“Someone had to.”

“Do you mind if I come? I’ve never gone on a unicorn hunt.”

I do mind, Julia wanted to say, but the words stuck in her throat. Her silence did not discourage him. They walked together into the darkening park, Gregory glancing at her, tipping his head toward her, as attentive as if they were a couple.

“What are you planning to do?”

“I have some ideas.”

“Isn’t there a procedure? You need a virgin—”

“How do you know?”

“I read,” he said. “Or I used to. Viv fell for my bookshelf before she fell for me. Ask her about it sometime. So, you borrowing a kid for this?”

“No.”

“It’s just, if you don’t mind my saying so, you look past the age—also too beautiful—”

“Fuck off,” she said.

He stared at her. “You are?”

“I said fuck off.”

“Do you mean technically? Are you a lesbian? Or have you never—”

“I mean get lost. Catch a cab, go home. What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Look, I didn’t mean to—” He raised his palms in apology. “How do I say it? There’s no imagination in my job. No imagination outside of it, either. No time to read, no time to socialize, and no nice girl dates a married man. Work, sleep, work. Dull as hell. I got excited when I heard about your unicorn.”

“You’re laughing at me.”

“I’m not.”

Julia strode off, Gregory trailing behind her. At the eastern edge of the Ramble, she bent over two hoof-shaped patches of verbena and goldenseal. The clusters ran in double lines across the grass.

“What’s that?”

“The flowers of old New York,” she said. “They grow where it goes.”

Gregory pinched off a purple blossom and sniffed it. “This is amazing,” he said.

From what she had seen, she figured that the age of the plants corresponded to the freshness of the trail. She ignored luxurious, knee-high tracks of bee balm and wild ginger in favor of a younger trail of asters, following it until it vanished at an outcrop of schist.

“Damn,” she said, slapping the rock. “This one, I thought—”

“Keep going,” Gregory said.

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

They were descending Cedar Hill when Gregory dropped to a crouch.

“Here,” he said. The print was damp, as long as her hand, an impression of teardrops curving toward each other. It was speckled with seedlings.

Julia knelt, bending until her nose was on a level with the sprouts. Their cotyledons were spread, the tips of the first true leaves beginning to unfurl. It was not clear what they would become.

“I’m not making this up,” she said.

“No.”

“They’re growing, look.”

There was a faint metallic scrape behind them, like a hobnail on rock. Julia’s neck prickled. She pushed herself upright, brushing her hands on her jeans, and dug in her purse for the knife. The night was thick around them, and she could not see much.

On the crest of the hill, a flash of silver.

“Oh,” she said, transfixed.

Tree trunks divided and obscured the white form, but as it picked its way through them, she glimpsed a feathering mane, a silver wisp of beard, a horn like a slant of light. It shone pearl and silver in the darkness.

“You are,” she said. “You exist.”

As if it had heard, the unicorn swung its head toward them. The point of its horn traced a bright curl in the air. In that long, frozen moment, Julia observed the fine pulse of one vein in its neck, the mud on its forelocks, the leaves tangled in its mane. Vapor fogged its nostrils. It regarded them with an opaque intelligence, considering.

Then it wheeled and trotted in their direction.

Gregory stayed still. Moving slowly, Julia slid the coil of black and golden hair from her purse and weighed it in one hand. Would the unicorn let her wrap her arms around its neck? Or would she have to lasso it? Any horse could snap the braid with a toss of its head, but according to her research, a unicorn would not. A gilt watch chain would do the trick. An embroidered girdle. A necklace. If her books were correct, all she needed was the horn.

Ten steps separated them, and still the unicorn advanced. Julia held her breath. Five steps. Three. Two.

Gregory snatched the knife from her left hand and lunged.

“Wait!”

The knife was cheap and small, but she had spent half an hour rubbing it over a whetstone, wincing, as her parents had taught her to do.

A dark, dripping line opened along the pale neck. With a cry like bells, the unicorn shied away. It ran faster and fleeter than any horse, a shimmer in the trees, a glint, then gone.

Gregory sprawled on the grass, the knife wet and black in his hand. She prodded each of his arms and legs, checking for injury, then yanked him to his feet. Tears burned her eyes, and she mopped at her face, frustrated.

“Asshole. How could you?” she said. The unicorn—Vivian—the question rang with accusations.

“What else was the knife for? What were you going to do?”

She opened and shut her mouth and could not speak.

They headed out of the park in silence. Here and there, on a bench, under the dark arc of a bridge, Julia spotted a huddled body husbanding its warmth. Those who needed unicorns as much as she did. Shoving her hands in her pockets, she walked faster, too weak and foolish, she knew, to ask forgiveness.

“Why waste your time with someone like him?” Julia said. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching Vivian eat breakfast, and offered mug and spoon at appropriate intervals.

“He’s helping with the bills,” Vivian said reasonably. “And it’s his health insurance.”

“He could write a check from anywhere.”

“It’s not just that.” Vivian dipped her spoon into each of the dishes that crowded her tray—zhou, strawberry jello, bone soup with slices of winter melon, chocolate pudding—without raising it to her lips. Her skin was soft and loose against her bones. She was not eating, the aunt had whispered to Julia. “I’m trying to remember what was beautiful about him.”

“Him? Nothing.”

“You’re angry at him?”

“Yes.”

“So am I. And I don’t want to die with that much anger. It’s the size of a house, roof, floors, porch, everything.”

“So you have him over every day to yell at him?”

“We talk.”

“For hours.”

“Don’t be silly. I talk to you too.”

Julia tightened her lips. “Not every day.”

“You have work.”

“It doesn’t seem healthy to me.”

Vivian sighed. “Didn’t you see the flowers?” The kitchen table was flooded with lilies and chrysanthemums, more than Vivian had vases for, and she made Julia haul home an armful every visit. “Know who they’re from? Classmates. Roommates. Colleagues. Friends. Cousins. He has to wait outside when anyone else is here.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy that.”

“Oh, I do. I do.” She smiled. “You’ve taken good care of me. I know. I notice. But when you’re looking death in the face at thirty-three—”

“You’re not. Don’t say that.”

“Cut the crap, Julia.”

“But Gregory—”

“He’s figured out something you haven’t. I’m dying. He knows it. He doesn’t waste words. We don’t waste time.”

“Tell me how.”

“How what?”

“How to not waste your time.”

“That’s your job.”

In the quiet that followed, they heard the long, bright song of the doorbell, then the snick and thunk of Vivian’s aunt unbolting the door. Muffled voices reached them, one a familiar baritone.

“Is Gregory here? Give us a minute—”

Julia returned to Central Park alone. The damp wind numbed her fingers and wormed its way up her sleeves. She clutched her thin coat, wishing for a scarf.

As she walked the twenty blocks from Sheep Meadow to the Reservoir, she could find no unexpected flowers, no tracks, no magic. Where hoofprints of columbine and wake robin had flourished the week before, there were now only bare and indistinct spots of earth. Few people remained in the park. The one or two she saw ducked their heads against the wind and never looked up.

It grew colder as the night deepened. Dew soaked her canvas shoes and cotton socks, prickling her toes. She wished for company, anyone at all, even Gregory. After an hour of searching, she had seen no sign that the unicorn ever existed.

“Well,” she said aloud, “that’s that,” and turned toward 86th Street and the subway.

“Nice bag there, lady.”

In the dark, Julia could make out only a pale grin, a paler shock of hair, and the switchblade presented by way of introduction. She had not noticed his approach, preoccupied as she was with her hunt. The calm of perfect terror settled over her.

“My wallet, right?” she said, fishing it out of her purse.

“Why not your whole bag?”

“There’s nothing you want in there.” She riffled the bills in her wallet and tossed it at his feet.

His eyes never left hers. He stepped forward and wrenched the purse from her arm. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Every nerve shrilled at her to run. She locked her knees. “Please,” she said. “My friend’s hair. She’s dying.”

“You’ll shut up, if you know what’s good for you.” He upended her bag and shook it. Pens, tampons, fliers, and tissues scattered across the grass. The detritus of an insignificant life, she thought, starting to shake.

“Run.”

She didn’t.

He grabbed a fistful of her jacket and held the braid under her nose. “Or come get it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Let me go, please—”

“Too bad you’re not prettier.”

He hooked his arm around her neck, cutting off her air. Her lungs burned as he tightened his chokehold. Her knees buckled. The unspoken fears of nights and days coalesced into a fine point. So this is it. My turn. This. Now.

A hundred carillon bells clanged together. Over the wet, dark grass, a white shape tilted at them, indistinct at first, but growing brighter and clearer every moment.

The man swore and dropped her. She fell on her face, grateful for the dew that seeped into her clothes, the distinct sensation of each blade of grass against her skin. When she had caught her breath, she pushed herself to her knees.

He was running, his jacket flapping around him. The unicorn crashed past her in a glorious arc of white, the whorled horn pointed at his fleeing back. For an instant she imagined it spearing his back, the stutter of blood, him stumbling, sinking, deserving it—

“No!”

The pale body pivoted, pawing the air. When it landed, snorting steam, it was facing her. The gash on its neck had scabbed over into a rough crust of garnets. Julia glanced down, ashamed.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. She picked up the braid of black and golden hair and offered it to the unicorn. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. Not this time.”

The unicorn approached her, formal and slow, and sniffed the braid. Her fingers tangled in its beard, which was silk and cobweb and gossamer. Its breath burned her skin with cold.

“I need you,” Julia said. “Will you come with me?”

She made herself meet its eyes, which were as old and secret as fossils, and felt very small. After a long, careful look, the unicorn sighed and bowed its head.

Julia looped the braid loosely around the broad neck and fumbled with a knot. She was close enough to smell the odors of cinnamon, tamarind, and cardamom rising from its skin. When that was done, she bent and shoveled the pieces of her life back into her purse, heedless of the wet leaves stuck to her keys, the mud on her wallet. The unicorn waited for her to rise and grasp the braid, and then it set out after her.

They left through Hunters’ Gate and went north on Central Park West. The streets were hushed and empty of cars. A few pedestrians hurried along on the far side of the road, none of them looking in her direction, though as they passed, Julia noticed, they slowed and straightened, brows smoothing, hands falling to their sides.

She was shivering with cold and shock. Every now and then she leaned against the unicorn’s side, and its breath was a deep rumble in her ear. The long, spiraling horn wrote eights in the air as they walked.

At intersections, the traffic lights flared green in all directions. Above them, one by one, lit windows snapped out. A shouted argument that had spilled onto a fire escape subsided to a murmur, and the high, inconsolable wail of an infant faded. Soon they were enveloped in quiet.

“Will you help her?” Julia said. “I can’t lose her. She’s the best thing in my life.”

The unicorn did not answer. As if it knew the way, it went up Seventh Ave and turned onto 119th. Its hooves printed moist, silvered daguerreotypes on the sidewalk behind them.

Vivian’s building was dark. Julia led the unicorn up the stoop and through the narrow doorway, watching anxiously as its flanks twitched and shuddered between the jambs. She had not planned for the two flights of stairs to Vivian’s apartment. But the unicorn placed one foot, then the next, on the threadbare runner, each step making a muffled chime. Less graceful, Julia groped hand over hand along the railing. Though she left the light switch alone, the unicorn gave off a fragile, glowworm light.

A neighbor’s tabby sat on the second-floor landing, its eyes two small bright moons. As the unicorn passed, it tucked in its paws and purred.

On the third-floor landing, Julia unlocked the door, and she and the unicorn entered Vivian’s apartment. Moonlight cut black paper silhouettes out of the flowers on the kitchen table. Everything was stark and sharp, but Julia still stumbled over a single shoe and skidded on a magazine before she grasped the loose brass doorknob and let them both into the bedroom.

Vivian was sitting in bed, resting against Gregory. His arms were around her, his cheek against her bare head. When he saw them, his face softened with wonder.

“Julia?”

Vivian opened her arms to them. Their arrival might have been the most ordinary thing in the world.

“You did find a unicorn.”

“I did.”

It went to her. Vivian cradled the long white head, touching their foreheads together. “How lovely you are. You’re so much more than I imagined.”

“You can cure her, right?” Julia said. Her shoes were icy puddles, and she was swaying on her feet. The unicorn paid no attention to her. With a pang, she saw that the story was no longer hers. It had slipped through her fingers as easily as the end of the braid, leaving her a witness at its periphery.

“Of course,” Vivian said, to a question no one else had heard. “Yes.”

The unicorn lowered its horn and nudged up the hem of Vivian’s oversized T-shirt, exposing the pale skin of her belly. Julia gritted her teeth, afraid to watch, unable to look away.

The tip of the horn plunged through the skin and withdrew.

Moonlight spilled out of the hole, an icy light that made the room swim. Vivian convulsed, whimpering. Gregory stroked her face, her hands, her arms, whispering to her, soothing, pleading. Julia ached to see them.

When the spasms had passed, and Vivian lay exhausted among the tangled quilts, there was no sign of the wound. But a glimmering light suffused her skin.

“Is it over?” Julia said. “Are you okay?”

“It hurts, but it will be all right.” Vivian clasped Gregory’s hand. “Help me.”

Gregory gathered her up, one arm around her shoulders, another under her knees. As the unicorn knelt, he settled her onto its back. She wrapped a fistful of its mane around each hand and smiled at Julia, through Julia, her eyes fixed somewhere else now.

“You shouldn’t be afraid,” Vivian said.

The unicorn clambered to its feet and tensed. Then the two of them leapt out of the open window—but the window had not been open, Julia thought—and landed with a sound like church bells on the pavement two stories below. Ringing and pealing, the unicorn’s hooves sang down the sidewalk, fading with distance.

Julia blinked, and the room was as dim as before, the window shut and locked against the night. Vivian was motionless in bed, Gregory feeling along her wrist with clumsy, desperate fingers, listening, waiting. Then he raised his head, loss naked in his eyes. On either side of the cold white bed they stood, unable, for a very long time, to say the impossible thing that had occurred.

The Spirit of the Leech

Fifteen-year-old Miles Blackwell slapped the mosquito that landed on his neck, squashing it against his skin before it could bite him. So much for the expensive, mail-order “blessed” bug spray that his mother insisted he use. He was starting to wonder if the Lord really had favorite brands.

He needs to know, Miles repeated in his head, mustering his courage. He needs to know, and I have to tell him.

This informal mantra didn’t help much against the heebie-jeebies brought on by the Cades Bottom, however. Thirty square miles of west Tennessee swamp, marshland and old flood-control levees built by the WPA almost a century earlier, the Bottom was owned piecemeal by farmers and speculators, none of whom had any idea what the hell to do with it. Locals fished and hunted throughout it, a few good ole boys tried raising their marijuana in it, but mostly it was left alone and uninhabited.

Except for old Enoch.

And that was who Miles intended to visit. To share the good news.

“It’s the most important thing we can do,” Brother Megront told the teen class after church on Sunday night. “Sharing the good news will bring glory to God, and to you in his sight. It could be the difference between heaven and damnation on the last day. So whenever you see the chance, take it. And look for it.”

When Miles asked his Uncle Cletus who in town needed to hear the good news most, without hesitation he’d said, “Old Enoch out in the Cades Bottom.” Uncle Cletus told him how to find the old hermit, but also warned him, “That old man’s been there since I was your age. He’s the last one of ’em. Nobody’s seen him in years, not since the Red Scare, but I reckon he’s still there.”

“You really think he needs the good news?”

“More’n anyone else you’re likely to run across.” Then he seemed to suddenly comprehend why Miles wanted to know. “Lord, son, you ain’t thinking of going out there yourself, are you? Not alone?”

“No, sir,” Miles said promptly, secure in his belief that a lie that led to a soul being saved would certainly be forgiven.

Now Miles rode his bicycle along the top of a levee. The mosquitoes were thick in the air, but at least the useless bug spray did overpower some of the swamp’s mildewy odor. Except for the levee itself, he was far enough from town that he saw no sign of civilization in any direction.

Then suddenly, the skeeters were gone. It was as if they knew they’d find no blood to drink here.

Miles spotted the ramshackle building on a tiny island, connected to the levee by a short wooden walkway. A half-sunken rowboat was tied to a tree stump, and oddest of all, an emaciated cow stood placidly inside a tiny corral.

The trees in the swampy water around the little island looked strange, too. Gnarled and stunted, it was almost as if they lacked the energy to grow normally. They sported dead and rotted limbs, and no birds sang from their branches.

The word that came to mind from his Sunday school lessons was blighted.

Miles put his bike’s kickstand down, dismounted and checked the small volume of New Testament and Psalms in his back pocket. There was no KEEP OUT sign on the end of the walkway, but the atmosphere made one unnecessary. If the Lord were not his shield and buckler, as it said in Psalm 91, Miles would most definitely ‘keep out.’

His white button-down shirt was plastered to his back, and perspiration trickled from under his arms. Worse, he felt as if the rank waters of the swamp were soaking him, leaving him with a slimy feel he couldn’t wait to shower off.

He cleared his throat. “Uh… Mr. Enoch? Hello? I don’t want to scare you. Do you mind if I come over?”

Only silence replied. Even the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds, though present, came from a distance. Near the shack, except for the cow, he saw no other animal life.

Miles started across the walkway. At the center, his weight pressed the slats beneath the water. Although he could swim, and doubted it was more than three feet deep anyway, the thought of falling into that water nauseated him. When he reached the little island, he called again, “Mr. Enoch?” Again there was no answer.

He knocked on the shack’s door. His knuckles made a wet, damp smack against the soggy wood, and he reflexively wiped his hand on his jeans. He fluttered the front of his shirt, took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

Stepping across that threshold was like going back in time. There was no television or computer; in fact, no sign of any modern appliances at all. The floor was well-trod bare dirt, cluttered with items he couldn’t see well enough to identify. Through the tattered curtains over one window, he saw the remains of an old outhouse, which meant there was no indoor plumbing. The air was curiously dry within, as if something kept the humidity at bay.

And then, when his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, he saw the coffin.

It lay on the floor, unmistakable in its lines and curves, the pallbearers’ brass handles tarnished with time. The hodgepodge that filled the rest of the shack was cleared around it, although whether from respect or practicality, he couldn’t say. Miles knew little about coffins, despite all the funerals his family forced him to attend, so he couldn’t accurately estimate its age. But the corners were crunched and crumbling, and the wood was weathered gray with age.

His heart rattled against his ribs, joining the rest of him in the urge to flee. But he reminded himself, I’ve been chosen to bring the message. I must have strength. Bravery is being afraid but going ahead anyway, and I’m brave in Christ.

Besides, there was no proof that the coffin was anything more than a prop, or something found and used for some other purpose. The only way to tell was to check.

He cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Enoch? Are you, uhm… in there?” When there was no reply, he knocked on the lid. Unlike the door, it felt dry and solid.

He straightened up again. The air in the little hut suddenly felt still, and close, and he found it hard to breathe. His vision dulled, and for an instant he thought he was passing out. With a start of sheer terror, he realized it was now dusk outside.

How long had he been standing there?

And then the coffin’s lid opened, and old Enoch sat up.

He appeared to be in his sixties, with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail and clad in an ancient, crumbling tie-dyed shirt. And yet his sunken cheeks and papery gray skin implied someone even more ancient. He flat, dry eyes looked at Miles in confusion and said, “Who the hell are you, kid?”

“I, uh… I’m Miles Blackwell, Judge Blackwell’s boy,” Miles said, using the time-honored tradition of identifying oneself via parentage.

“Good for you. Hand my that cane, will ya?”

Miles took the cane from its place against the wall and passed it to Enoch, who stood with a groan, revealing cargo shorts and sandals. He stepped out of the coffin and closed the lid. It hit with a loud bang that made Miles jump, and also snapped him out of his semi-trance.

“Now, Judge Blackwell’s son,” Enoch said, “what are you doing here in my living room?”

Miles had to clear his dry throat before speaking. “I, uh…I wanted to share the good news with you.”

“What news is that?”

“The good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

For a moment Enoch just stared at him. Then he threw back his head and emitted a long, loud wheeze that Miles finally understood was a laugh. “You have got to be shitting me, Judge Blackwell’s son.”

“No,” Miles said, forcing himself to stay calm despite the fact that he swore, even in the growing darkness, that he’d seen the glint of fangs in the old man’s mouth. “No, sir, I’m completely serious. Jesus died for our sins. Mine, and yours. Have you been saved?”

Enoch pushed past him and went outside. Miles followed, continuing his evangelical spiel. “It’s a known fact that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, sir.”

“I think you’ve got the definition of ‘fact’ wrong,” Enoch said over his shoulder.

Miles had never seen so much foxfire; it grew everywhere, outlining the shack, the pen, and many of the nearby trees, in a blue glow almost bright enough to read by. The luminous fungus also created strange shapes, like faces and grasping hands, out of the wood.

Enoch went into the cow’s pen and took a metal goblet from a nearby hook. In the faint light Miles saw that a small spigot protruded from the side of the placid cow’s neck. When Enoch saw him staring at it, he laughed again.

“You like that? It’s usually used for tapping syrup from maple trees, but you make do with what you have, right?” He removed a rubber cap from the spigot and let a narrow, heavy stream of blood drip into the cup. The cow gave no sign she even noticed.

Miles thought he was going to vomit. “I-I-I came here to tell you that God… God… Oh, God,” he finished, as Enoch drained the cup and smacked his lips. “You are a vampire, aren’t you?”

“Is that a surprise? I figured everyone knew about me.”

“They do, it’s just…”

“You didn’t believe it,” Enoch said with a knowing smile. In the foxfire light, the blood on his lips looked black.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“Why would I hurt you, boy? I can’t drink your blood, and if I kill you just on general principles, they’ll just come and stake me like they did all the others. Out here, I don’t bother anyone, and until you showed up, no one bothers me.”

“B-but you need to know—”

Enoch’s eyes seemed to glow with a dim, internal red light. “I don’t need to know nothing, Judge Blackwell’s son. You’ve destroyed every single one of my kind. You chased us down, hounded us, put us on trial. Remember old McCarthy on TV, with his lists of people who were vampires? They teach you that in history class?”

When Miles didn’t reply, Enoch knelt and stuck his hand into the water at the island’s edge. He lifted a palmful of mud, and gently shook his hand until it sieved out and left a pair of black inch-long shapes slowly wriggling against his skin.

“This is all the family I have left,” Enoch said. “Not much to look at, are they? Not very good at conversation, either. But at least we have the same spirit.” He gently put the leeches back into the water.

Miles felt his gorge rise, and forced it down. “God can… can f-forgive you, and save your soul, if you—”

“He didn’t save us from the Red Scare, did he?” Enoch said said as he stood. “And then they came up with that damned vaccine, and it made human blood so we couldn’t stomach it. I was turned when I was twenty-two years old, did you know that? But look at me. Living on cow’s blood has me so weak and worn out I can barely function. But even so, I’ll keep my own soul as long as I can, thank you, and you can just traipse on back to town before somebody misses you.”

Enoch gestured toward the walkway, but as Miles passed, he suddenly blocked his way with his cane. “Wait a minute,” he said. He leaned close, sniffing. “You smell funny.”

“I’m sorry,” Miles almost cried.

“I can smell your blood, you know. Yours doesn’t smell right. Doesn’t smell like the poison blood of everyone else.” He leaned close, so that Miles could, in turn, smell Enoch’s own dry, dusty breath. “Now why is that, Judge Blackwell’s son?”

“My family doesn’t vaccinate,” Miles blurted. “My daddy says that since the vaccines are made with cells from aborted fetuses, it’s against the word of God. And God also wants you to know—”

Enoch’s eyes narrowed. “Say what?”

“God can save you from the curse of vampirism, if you—”

“Not that. The vaccinations. I thought it was a law.”

“It was, but not anymore. Now it’s up to the parents. Even the president says vaccinations shouldn’t be mandatory.”

Enoch’s voice was a low, raspy rumble. “Is that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Enoch put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “How old are you, Judge Blackwell’s son?”

The hand was thin, wiry, impossibly strong, and Miles couldn’t pull away. “F-fifteen, sir.”

“Fifteen. And you never had the MMRV shot?”

“N-no, sir.” And then, far too late, he understood. “Oh, God.”

“God,” Enoch said, “had nothing to do with you coming here tonight, Judge Blackwell’s son. Nothing at all.”

Miles managed to get the New Testament from his back pocket and held it up between them, its gold-embossed cross facing Enoch.

Enoch chuckled, a sound like dry leaves swirling against a mausoleum. “Oh, you dumb kid. This is the real world, not the Late Show.” Then he slapped the book from the boy’s hands and pulled Miles into his arms.

Miles tried to recite the 23rd Psalm in his mind as Enoch drained his blood, but he died just as he reached the line about “the valley of death.” He had no opportunity to appreciate the irony.

 

A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy

The day you arrive at the academy, you spend just three minutes outside the car before begging your mom to drive you back home. There are too many girls. They’re too loud. They’re laughing. Some of them are flying. Even if you weren’t a mindreader, you’d be overwhelmed.

Your mother, who took a day off work and has driven eleven hours straight to get you here, refuses. She is the worst mother ever.

A girl approaches, her eyes so sharp you expect her codename to be DAZZLE or CHARISMA or SINGULARITY. You can’t stop yourself from reading her mind: she calls herself Meg.

You refuse to shake Meg’s hand and demand that she leave you alone. You tell her your superpower and that nothing she thinks is safe from you. You tell her you don’t want or need friends.

You’re grateful she’s not a mindreader, too.

Meg shrugs and tells you she can blow things up with a thought. She offers to show you to your dorm. Bewildered, you hug your mother goodbye, grab your duffel, and follow Meg, whose hair is brown and whose eyes are lighter brown and whose codename should be TEMPEST or HURRICANE or AVALANCHE based on how she’s making you feel.

For the next three weeks, the days are a blur of headaches and other girls’ anxieties.

I’m not strong enough to stop a train.

I’m too slow to defuse the bomb.

My witty rejoinders are not actually witty.

That creepy mindreader is probably reading my mind.

But there’s also girls kissing each other. So much kissing. Eavesdropping makes you feel more connected and more alone, both at once, like a tsunami that excitedly tumbles you to shore, while at the same time trying to drown you and smash your head on the rocks. You wish you could block out all their make-out sessions. And yet… if you could, you don’t know if you would.

You learn to get by, as you always have. You study in the stacks, which are almost always empty. You eat lunch in your dorm room when your roommate is making out with someone in the stacks. You do not attend parties or join clubs, and you do not participate in the Save-the-City simulations… not that anyone asked you to join their team. Don’t they realize you could read the other team members’ minds as well?

One day you’re walking to class along the path that maximizes your chances to see Meg walking to her class, and you run into her. She’s crying. You’ve been acing Controlling Your Powers class and do not immediately read her mind. Which is frustrating, because it forces you to actually ask her what’s wrong, and speaking to other humans as if you’re not a freak is a skill you’ve yet to master.

Meg doesn’t notice how you mumble, how the words come out in the wrong order, how you keep glancing at the trees and the sky and the ground instead of looking in her light-brown eyes. Or if she notices, it doesn’t seem to matter.

She tells you that her three older brothers have just signed on as henchpeople for a supervillain. Meg is afraid that deep down, she’s evil, too. Why else is her power about blowing things up?

You attempt to comfort her and could not be more awkward if awkward was your superpower. But for a second, her sharp eyes soften and she takes your hand. She asks you to read her mind. To tell her if she’s evil. She’s going to let down her barriers, just this once.

Just for you.

You pull away and shake your head. You don’t care if she’s evil. Most days you think you are, too. But if you go into her mind, you’ll see everything: what she really thinks about you, or if she thinks about you at all. You’ve been down this road so many times, and it always ends in a great fiery crash and your heart bleeding out on the pavement.

Meg says please again and suddenly your A+ in Resisting Torture is absolutely meaningless. You crumble.

Her mind is chaotic and messy, and you sift through it carefully, trying to respect her privacy while at the same time rooting through her most secret thoughts and feelings. You find her asshole brothers and her disinterested parents and, surprisingly, many images of yourself.

You sitting in the stacks studying, a pen dangling from your mouth.

You standing near the bleachers, pretending not to watch Save-the-City while obviously actually watching it.

And you on that first day of school, standing by your mother’s car and wearing a scowl, as if anger could somehow protect you. But there’s sun dappling your hair and cheeks and nose and the way you’re wringing your hands betrays exactly how nervous and excited you are to be there.

When you’re done reading Meg’s mind, you tell her she’s not evil. At least, not any more evil than you are, or your classmates, or your headmistress. You tell her that evil isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. She won’t end up a villain like her brothers unless she wants to.

When Meg kisses you, you kiss her back. Her lips taste like her memory of summers at the ocean, sundrenched and salty, and kissing her in person is so much better than when you were just reading about kissing in other girls’ minds. You think that if Meg decides to become a supervillain, you will be her most loyal henchwoman.

You are once again grateful that Meg is not a mindreader.

And that she knows what to do with her tongue.

A few months later, when you and Meg are holding hands in the stacks, when you’re late for Extreme Physics and she’s late for Hostage Negotiations and neither of you cares, not even a little, you’ll call her BLAZE and VOLCANO and SUPERNOVA, because it makes her blush when you imply that she’s hot.

Your mom was right not to drive you home, back on that first day. She is not, in retrospect, the worst mother ever. The academy still overwhelms you, but you want to stay. Not just for Meg, but because you like who you’re starting to be here. Because last week you got invited to play Save-the-City. And because if evil is a verb, so is hero.

(Editors’ Note: Jenn Reese is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

The Tailor and the Beast

A beast dwelt in the castle on the hill.

There was nothing so very strange or unusual in this circumstance; recently it had been tremendously in fashion. A witch couldn’t really hope to make her debut in society without imprisoning at least one troublesome young man behind stone walls.

Lucia Bellomi knew all of this, and therefore she should have known to steer clear of the enclosed garden full of roses even in the dead of winter. It was enchanting, and she should have known that meant it was enchanted. But she and her father were new to the region, repairing here after his business had shuttered in the city, and she wasn’t feeling particularly clear-headed or cautious. 

So when she plucked a blossom and the air around her thickened to swirling grey smoke that encircled her arms and held her fast, she could barely summon the will to resist. 

No matter, she thought. Father will come for me. 

And so he did. Andrea Bellomi was of a similar disposition to his daughter: level-headed and generally unshakeable. And ever since his creditors had finally closed in on him, he was bordering on outright nihilism. They took issue with Andrea’s troublesome habit of ignoring debts and leaving projects half-finished. No rich man appreciated paying a great deal for a coat only to have it come back with one sleeve and no buttons. They also didn’t want to hear that Andrea could only work when he was inspired. That defense might work for a painter or epic poet, but not a man who made most of his living off slacks. 

When his daughter failed to return from her trip to the village, Andrea lit a lantern and retraced her steps. He found her basket a few meters into a garden full of unseasonable roses. It held the piquante hint of magic he recognized from years of watching magicians in traveling shows. 

Lucia, he thought wearily. You are far too much like your father. 

He squared his shoulders and walked up the crumbling stone steps, knocking on the heavy castle doors. They opened of their own accord. With a weight settling in his stomach, Andrea entered. Torches burst into life, leading him down a murky corridor to a tall room with a leaping fire at one end and curtains drawn against the night outside. Once it would have been grand, but now it was drained of life and color, of everything that made it worth looking at. Andrea sympathized with it deeply. 

Seated in a carved wooden chair before the fire was the Beast. He was decked in curling horns and cloven hooves and a great deal of matted fur. He spoke in a grating whisper that nevertheless carried across the expanse of the hall and shook Andrea to his foundations. There was menace in that voice, but also grief. 

The Beast wrapped clawed fingers around the arms of his chair. “How dare you venture into my castle, traveler?”

Andrea bowed low. “My most fervent apologies, Lord. But I am afraid my daughter may have blundered into your garden by mistake. I beg you release her, for she is all that I have.” 

“Come closer,” the Beast growled, and Andrea did. Dust rose from the carpet under his feet, and from the corner of his eye he thought he saw figures flanking him. He dared not turn his gaze from the Beast to look. 

Up close the Beast was even more fearsome. He had fangs that jutted over his muzzle, ears that pricked up whenever Andrea began to speak, and a deep animal smell. Fear trembled in Andrea’s stomach and he felt considerably less blasé about his fate than before. As dark as his life was of late, he very much did not want to be eaten.

The Beast took hold of his jaw, claws threatening at his throat. Andrea’s pulse pounded and he stood very still as the Beast examined him like a horse at market. 

“And what will you give me for the safe return of your daughter? Riches? Lands? Livestock? I have all of those and no need of more. What I truly desire…” Here his voice dropped to a snickering purr. “Is companionship.” 

Andrea’s fear was briefly overwritten with a pulse of dismay. It was the tempering that his flagging resolve required. “Then I offer myself in exchange for my daughter’s freedom. I have no lands or riches or livestock. All I have is my own life.” He attempted to put some strength behind his words. “Please don’t take my daughter from me.” 

Shock bloomed in the Beast’s eyes. They were, Andrea noted, surprisingly clear and human. In good light he thought they might be green. Obviously the Beast did not expect this offer, and Andrea had a feeling he was playing a role as surely as Andrea himself. How many times had this happened? How many young women had he imprisoned? 

Andrea imagined how he must look to the Beast—graying hair tied back from a weathered face and a forehead etched with a lifetime of worry. Years spent bent over drafting tables had left his shoulders decidedly uneven. He was hardly a prize by any stretch of the imagination. 

The Beast released him and said, “Very well. Your daughter’s freedom for your own.” Andrea stumbled back, heart pounding hard up into his throat. I’m too old for this, he thought with a grimace. “Follow the torches to your rooms. Keep out of my way and don’t break anything.” 

Andrea found this commandment slightly rich, as the Beast was draped entirely in rags and much of the furniture in the castle was in pieces or close to it.

The torches led him to a set of rooms as luxurious as he could imagine, more so even than those of the rich men he’d attended at home to take their measurements. Many of them had considered themselves too busy or too important to be seen in a common tailor’s shop. 

Instead of admiring its finery, Andrea stood at the window. He watched the shadows lengthening until one of them broke away from the rest and made haste toward the outer gate. Lucia’s hair was loose and her skirt was dirty, but otherwise she seemed unharmed. Andrea watched until she vanished through the castle gates and out into the night. His chest turned to marble, lungs thickening until he could barely draw breath. The feeling of abandonment settled inside him, even as he understood that he was her father and it was his job to keep her safe. 

Andrea had made the deal willingly, and the Beast had kept his word. 

Later he explored his prison: the wide bed, the rich paintings on the wall, the scrolled legs of the furniture. He pulled open the wardrobe to find a row of women’s gowns, dozens of them, in every hue imaginable. Andrea let them flow across his fingers like water, relishing the touch of fabric so fine he’d never felt its like, not even when he filled orders for the wealthiest men in town. 

“Lovely colors,” Andrea said out loud to himself. “But I don’t think any of these will fit me.” 

The air around him thrummed and the door to his chamber creaked open. He followed the torches to another wing of the castle and into a room almost as large as his bedchamber. It was filled with clothes: men’s clothes this time, and equally as grand as the gowns. Waistcoats, overcoats, cloaks trimmed with fox fur, and boots of shining leather as soft as butter. Like his room, the wardrobe was miraculously free of dust, but the ground was awash in a tatter of torn garments, many ripped to absolute shreds. 

Andrea memorized the way to the wardrobe so he could find it without the assistance of the torches, but when he returned to his room he discovered there had been no need. The closet was no longer full of gowns, but with the very finest of the things from the dressing room. Enchanted castle indeed. 

The next morning dawned bright and chill. Andrea woke to find himself still hale and uneaten, and thus spent the day walking the grounds, pacing between the ranks of roses and along an ivy-clad wall, testing the compulsion that kept him from venturing outside the gates. Maybe a stronger man could fight it, but he couldn’t. 

Perhaps this is better, he thought as light gleamed off the distant hills, where his sister-in-law’s house lay nestled in a field of heather. At least now his daughter would be free of him, the debtor living off the charity of his dead wife’s family. Lucia had a beau in the village; she probably wouldn’t miss her father. She shouldn’t. Andrea knew she only remained in her aunt’s house for his sake. 

He wandered the castle’s lifeless rooms and scenes of thoughtless destruction. The enchantment did not appear to repair broken things, only keep them free of dust. On one end—tucked away down a narrow, sloping corridor—Andrea found a small chamber that made his head spin giddily, illuminating a spark of excitement inside him he thought gone for good. 

He saw nothing of the Beast that first day, but that night a wavering light appeared beneath one of the many closed doors and burned until morning. 

The days slipped quietly by, and with them Andrea’s constant vigilance. Every night that the Beast did not eat him it seemed less likely that he would. He even felt some small measure of relief to not be underfoot in his family’s house, inept when he offered help, drawing scorn when he did not. He spent the daylight hours in the little room at the end of the sloped corridor, the one full of needles and threads and bolts of fine cloth, a table marked with grooves to get measurements just right. It must have been the royal outfitter’s workshop, or just another whim of the enchanted castle, giving him exactly what he longed for. 

And it was what he longed for, he realized with no little surprise. Back in the village his chest crowded with bitterness when he saw the tailor’s shop, or when he saw a man in a coat stitched with particular elegance. But it seemed the rules in this enchanted castle were different, even the rules that governed his own heart. 

Regardless, at night the isolation still crept in on him like the shades creeping past the castle walls, and Andrea shuddered to imagine what it must have been like for the Beast. Years, perhaps even decades spent here with nothing to do but pace and devour the occasional maiden. 

One evening a few weeks after his sequester in the castle, he found the door to the Beast’s chambers left open a crack, gold light spilling out into the corridor. He walked by several times, trying to nerve himself up to peer inside, when a gruff voice called out, “For the love of all things good, in or out. You’re making me nervous.” 

Andrea’s skin went icy-hot all over, the back of his neck prickling. He pushed the door open to find a wide, surprisingly comfortable study with large armchairs and an impressive number of books. The Beast was seated on the widest armchair, one great foot up on a stool, a book held delicately in one clawed hand. A few shreds of pages decorated the carpet like snow. 

“I… don’t want to disturb you.” 

“You’re disturbing me right now,” the Beast said. “If you must be here, be silent.” 

Andrea paused with one hand on the door. “You… don’t mind if I stay?” 

A monocle perched against one the Beast’s eyes. Andrea couldn’t look at it for too long without wanting to smile. 

“I care not a whit what you do, as long as you do it quietly.” The Beast turned another page, ever so delicately. Regardless, the page tore. He let out a wuffling breath of resignation. 

Andrea almost commented but managed to hold his tongue. When the Beast truly seemed intent on his book and not likely to leap up and ride Andrea to the ground, he sidled over to the bookshelves and chose one for himself: a book of historical anecdotes. Dull, but he didn’t want to risk drawing attention by shuffling things around. He sat as far away from the Beast as he could without leaving the light of the lamp. 

He managed to focus on the words until a particularly loud rip was followed by a muffled curse. “Does that always happen?” 

A thrumming growl rumbled up from the Beast’s chest and Andrea was halfway out of his seat before the Beast said disconsolately, “Constantly. One would think that after years with these—” He flexed his claws and gave Andrea a swift look like he was worried he’d given something away, before he went back to his slightly mangled book. 

Andrea went back to his as well, and eventually his racing heartbeat steadied and the knots around his spine unwound. 

Andrea began to join the Beast in his study nightly, and although he continued to let out a great many sighs and groans over Andrea’s presence, he never told him to leave. 

Andrea wasn’t much of a reader, however, so he took to examining the craftsmanship of the books rather than reading them, their gold-stamped covers and delicately printed pages. He explored the library from one edge to the other, trailing his hands across the damask wallpaper and noting that the smudges his fingertips left immediately faded to nothing. 

He also watched the Beast, as covertly as he could manage. He marveled at the elegant way his limbs fit together, not human but not entirely animal either. His expressions defied the bestial features, as if he were contorting his face in ways it wasn’t meant to go. 

Andrea often paused to think on the nefarious cruelty of a curse like this: leaving this man a castle that would grant him anything he wanted, but rendering him in a form completely unsuited for any of it. 

After a week or so he grew bold enough to begin opening up cabinets and shuffling things about. He was sure it was only a matter of time before the Beast decided he’d had enough and took his head off. But instead of staying cautious, he began to play a game with himself, seeing just how disruptive he could be without the Beast reacting. The game persisted until one evening Andrea opened a cabinet that had been previously locked and let out a noise of delight at the gleaming rows of cut-glass bottles. 

“You’ve been holding out on me,” he said without thinking, as if he were a guest instead of a prisoner. 

The Beast looked up from another mauled book. “Please, go ahead. They’re just sitting there gathering dust.” 

Andrea pulled out one bottle, then another. “You don’t partake?” 

“Doesn’t agree with me.” 

Andrea uncorked a squat, square flask, breathing in the deep woody smell of whisky. “Sounds like a miserable existence.” 

The Beast turned a page. “It was drink that got me into this situation in the first place.” 

Andrea poured himself a glass and sat down, wanting to keep the Beast talking. He missed conversation more than he’d known. “It is true what they say, then?” 

“That I spurned a witch and she cursed me?” The Beast shrugged, an ungainly gesture for his massive shoulders. “I don’t remember much of it.” 

Time passed. Andrea settled into an easy rhythm, not thinking too much one way or the other about his imprisonment. 

But then one evening he heard merrymaking and drums in the distance, felt the hint of warmth in the breeze, and realized it was Field Day, the equinox. The full implications of his captivity hit him for the very first time. He’d been here since mid-winter, and he shouldn’t be. He should be in the village with his daughter, watching his nieces and nephews braid ribbons into each other’s hair, eating the sweet, flakey cakes baked on warm rocks in the town market, dancing as the light faded from the first true day of spring. 

He thought of all the other things he would miss being locked behind these walls—all the birthdays, the summer feasts, yuletides, his daughter’s eventual marriage to that young man of hers. All of it happening within an afternoon’s walk, but an eternity away. 

He pushed his way into the Beast’s study early that day, staggering through the dusty bars of sunlight. He brought a whole bottle with him, and the day slipped through his fingers after that, welling to an unbearable grief deep in his belly that seemed to tighten even as he drank it away. Spring it may have been, but this far north it was still cold, especially when the sun set. Andrea found himself laid out in the rose garden, too dizzy to stand. He found, as the chill crept in, that he didn’t much care. 

Darkness pricked at his vision and he felt himself rising. Toward heaven, perhaps? But then he was surrounded by that wet animal smell and a thrumming sigh.

“Fool,” said the Beast. Andrea murmured agreement, then surrendered to the warmth. 

In the weak light of morning he was glad to be alive, at least until he tried to move. Then he wished the Beast had left him to perish among the roses. “I’m too old for this,” he said aloud, surprised when a voice rumbled back, “I won’t argue with that.” 

He was not in his bed, which meant he must be in the Beast’s. He started to get up, but the agony in his head spiked and he fell back to the pillow. A heavy, velvety paw touched the side of his face, a cup of something sweet pressed to his lips. “Sleep.” 

He didn’t even try to resist. He drank and he slept. 

When next he woke the sun was higher in the sky and his head didn’t feel screwed on quite so tightly. 

He found a dressing gown at the foot of the bed. He slipped it on, the hem trailing on the ground and sleeves flopping down past his fingertips. He felt like a child playing fancy dress. 

He found the Beast in a small sitting room, adjusting papers with the air of someone attempting to look busy. Andrea smiled. Then he saw the pot of tea steaming on the sideboard and he smiled even wider. The Beast did not take tea, but he knew Andrea did. 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up in a bed not my own.” He picked up a cup and poured carefully, hearing the Beast’s gruff laugh. 

“I would have brought you to your own chamber, but I was… concerned.” 

“Concerned?” 

The Beast lifted a shoulder. “About your welfare. Humans are so fragile. I thought you might have taken your death out there.” 

Andrea slurped his tea. Perfect temperature, as always. The castle’s disembodied servants were impeccable. “I’ve been on far worse benders in my day.” 

“You miss the world,” the Beast said, looking away. 

Andrea thought that if he asked for his freedom just then, he would be granted it. 

Instead he said, “So do you.” 

It was a warm day nearly two weeks gone that Andrea finally declared himself satisfied with his work. Declared it out loud, as he found himself doing here. Partly because he was so often alone, and partly because the castle contained an unusual sentience. 

The Beast had to bend nearly double to get through the door to Andrea’s workshop. 

“Has this always been here?” 

“It’s your castle. Haven’t you explored?” 

“I thought I had. What is…” He trailed off as he caught sight of exactly what Andrea had been doing in the room for weeks. 

“You are gravely in need of proper vestments, my lord,” Andrea said, hurrying to the table. His words crowded up fast; he was filled with a sudden need to explain himself. “Obviously I made them large enough for you, and shaped them so they don’t have to go over your claws or your horns, and the parts that do, I made sure to reinforce…” The Beast stood by the door and said nothing, his silence pushing in on Andrea. He found his cheeks heating, worried that the Beast would find his offering too forward or silly, frivolous. What use did he have for clothes, with no one around to see him besides Andrea? 

“You don’t have to wear them, of course,” he said fleetingly. 

The Beast brought his clawed hands together and dropped them, more than once. He fidgeted with his ragged cloak. He stepped forward and reached for the table, stopping an inch from a rich scarlet jacket trimmed with white fur. “May I?” 

“Of course. They’re yours. I—I’ll have to make adjustments, of course,” Andrea added hastily. “Because I was estimating your measurements, but—oh, here, try the gloves first!” 

He held them out for the Beast to slip on. Looking dubious, he did. They fit. Andrea hadn’t lost his eye for shapes. 

The Beast smoothed his hands down the front of his coat. His claws, encased in reinforced leather, didn’t catch. “It’s perfect,” he said wonderingly. “It’s magnificent.” His bestial features could not quite pull off a grin, but they were trying. “If only you had a less hideous form to work with.” 

“You aren’t hideous at all,” Andrea said, and meant it.  

The Beast cleared his throat and looked back down at the coat. “I didn’t know you could do this.” 

“I was a tailor, before.” It felt like a previous life. “In the capital. I made fine things. I once made a belt for a foreign prince.” Acrid regret welled up inside him. He swallowed it down before it could escape through his eyes. “After Lucia’s mother died I sort of… let things get away from me. Projects. Bills.” The will to get out of bed in the morning. “It wasn’t even heartbreak, truly. It was more like—life-break. The certainty that I was destined to lose everything I had. That when you say farewell to someone it could be the last time you ever see them. They could die. Or you could.” 

He’d never even got to tell his daughter goodbye. 

“I’ve never spoken to anyone about this,” he admitted. There’d never seemed to be much point to dredging up history.

“I’m glad you—” The Beast’s warm eyes went suddenly sharp, and his whole body stiffened. The fur of his ruff stood up.  

“Are you well?” Andrea asked, before the Beast swept from the room, new coat billowing behind him, and Andrea answered the question for himself. 

He did not catch up until they reached the battlements looking out across the countryside, purple hills in the verdant spring evening. There was still enough light to make out the approaching mass, however, as their torches flared in the fading light. Andrea experienced a moment of disorientation, as he wondered at the parade coming so early this year. Then he realized this was not celebration. This was a mob. 

“What do they want?” Andrea asked, before the idiocy of the question hit him. What else did mobs do but assemble to defeat a threat? 

“They’re here to rescue you, no doubt.” The Beast’s voice was as affectless as the first time Andrea had bowed in front of his throne. 

“But I don’t want to be rescued.” He realized that it was true. He felt more rescued now than he had in a very long time. “Can the castle hold against a siege? It’s magical.” 

The Beast laughed. “The enchantment keeps things tidy. It doesn’t keep them from falling to rot. All they need do is knock on the gate and it will collapse.” The Beast stood there in his finery, gloved claws wrapped around the balustrade, as solemn as a statue. “You should go to them. They’re your people.” 

Andrea turned abruptly from the view. “How is it broken?” 

The Beast blinked. “What?” 

“The curse.” He figured it was the standard—a kiss from a lover. But as he hadn’t counted himself in the running, he hadn’t considered it. Now, though, watching the Beast stand there in the clothes Andrea had made for him, looking distraught at the thought of Andrea’s loss: well. 

“One way to find out.” 

The Beast stared at him for a few brittle moments, before lowering his head obligingly. Even then Andrea was forced to go up on his toes to come within range. He considered trying to climb up on the battlements, but he didn’t want to ruin the moment. Even if the moment was a depressed tailor with a bad knee pressing his mouth to a monster’s muzzle. Which he found to be surprisingly soft. Pressed this close, the Beast’s animal smell was more intense than ever, but Andrea found it didn’t bother him. It had simply become comfortable. 

He was hoping that the kiss would be enough to telegraph the requirements of the spell. Spells were not usually incredibly specific, especially not those designed to last for centuries. And the implications of the phrase “true love” were too complicated to really inject into a transformation spell. With any luck, a simple kiss would do the trick. 

But as the Beast cupped his neck with one cautious claw, as they traveled gently down Andrea’s back to get a firm hold and pick him up delicately from the ground, he wondered. He wondered about his kind, sad eyes and his prim swearing when he tore yet another page from a book, the amazement with which he examined the clothing Andrea had made for him. 

Andrea thought that perhaps he would not need to pretend at all. 

Love was a tumultuous and changeable thing, especially when one has made up their mind—out of heartache and cynical stubbornness—not to feel it anymore. 

The shouts from down below were louder. A terrific boom erupted and a flock of ducks took off from the lake. “Is there some further act that the witch requires us to perform?” Andrea asked. “Because this isn’t quite—” 

It was then that he realized that he was no longer speaking against a ruff of coarse fur, but a neck that smelled cleanly of sweat. The Beast staggered, struggling to take his weight. A man’s very ordinary hand squeezed Andrea’s backside, and a voice said in his ear, “Oh.” 

He let Andrea slide from his arms. Andrea found himself face to face with a fair-haired man with amber eyes and a rather large nose. He had two small dents in his lower lip that had—until just a moment ago—been a cushion for jagged fangs. But there was an issue of more immediate concern:

“I’m taller than you now.” 

“Barely.” The Beast touched fingers to his throat, as if he could not quite believe this voice was coming out of it. 

Andrea’s grin grew wider. “Somehow you’ve managed to become too young for this old man.” 

The Beast scowled. Without the animal features, his face was brutally expressive. “You aren’t old. I’ve lived for centuries, or something close to it. Time means very little when you’re alone.” 

Deep inside the castle, something boomed and echoed. 

“Well, you certainly aren’t alone now,” Andrea said. “And we’d best get our story straightened out, because—” 

“Father!” 

Andrea froze. “Lucia!” 

Of course his daughter would find a hidden way in before anyone else; that was just the sort of young woman she was. She took after her mother that way.

“Father!” cried Lucia again. “I knew you were still alive. Uncle said that by now you surely would have been eaten because you barely lift a finger and probably wouldn’t even to save your own skin—” 

“As you can see, Lucia, I’m fine,” Andrea said swiftly. 

“—And I told him he’d lose a finger if he didn’t scrape together what little familial pride he has and round up the village.” She only just seemed to notice that Andrea was still half-standing in the embrace of a blond young man in a new coat recently become far too large for him. “…Father, who is this? Another of the Beast’s prisoners?” 

“I—yes, I mean—” Andrea made several starts and stops, mind racing to come up with some explanation. 

“Yes, that is precisely who I am. I’m simply a—” The Beast put his arm on Andrea’s shoulder, then moved it to his waist, then stepped away. He tripped on his coat and Andrea had to catch him before he fell. 

“Yes, simple. Quite simple, I’m afraid. The Beast was keeping him for a midnight snack.” More shouts echoed up the tower stairs. It sounded like they’d brought the entire village with them. “But fortunately, the Beast ran for the hills as soon as he saw you on the horizon.” 

Lucia looked from her father to the Beast and back again. Andrea saw her eyes linger on the man’s oversized clothes and scruffy beard. But she crossed her arms and said, “I see. In that case, I suppose I can call off the hunters.”

“Yes, my dear, you certainly can.” 

Lucia had never been one for overt shows of affection, but she embraced Andrea swiftly before she left. “I’m glad you weren’t eaten.” 

“So am I, darling,” Andrea said. 

Lucia’s steps faded down the tower stairs. The Beast tapped his knuckles tentatively against Andrea’s back, like he was knocking to get in. “Must I take myself to the hills now?” A joke, but one that thrummed with real nervousness. 

“Whatever for?” Andrea really was quite a bit taller than him now, and he took the opportunity to loom. “Only monsters are banished to the hills. And I see no more of those, only a man in a badly-fitting coat. Good thing you know a decent tailor.” 

The Beast worried at his bottom lip, a habit that Andrea used to find threatening that was now simply adorable. “The curse may be broken, but I am still that monster. I held you here against your will. I kept you from your family.” 

“Most of my family is nightmarish,” Andrea assured him. He took one of the Beast’s hands in its overlarge gloves, slipping it out of the leather. A distant euphoria buzzed at the base of his neck. It felt a bit like waking up on his birthday when he was a child. Like getting everything he wanted. “And how many times did you harm me? How many did you devour me?” 

“Um.” The Beast blinked. “None? But I—” 

“Then I absolve you of your sins.” Andrea kissed the center of the Beast’s palm. A flush hit his cheeks. They really needed to figure out a new name for him.

“Now, I say we round up this lot Lucia’s brought and put them to work sprucing this place up.” Andrea felt the tasks ahead like a shot of smooth liquor. He wanted to do something, he wanted to perform tasks effectively. And he wanted to see what the Beast could do with his brand new human hands which, though no longer monstrous, were still quite strong. 

“They came here to kill me,” the Beast said. “They don’t want to clean.” 

Andrea kissed his fingers next. “You break out the rest of the wine in your study and they may be open to suggestion.” 

“I, that is—” The Beast’s eyes shone in the torchlight. They were the only part of him that hadn’t changed. “Why are you being so kind? You already saved me. You needn’t do more.” 

“Because kindness costs nothing, and you saved me just as thoroughly.” 

Andrea kissed him on the mouth again. This attempt was considerably more successful.

The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor

(Content Note: Use of racist slur.)

First Movement: Creation

The lights dotting the night sky filled the hunter with wonder and terror. He did not know what they meant, nor why they hid during the day. But each night he stared up at them, waiting. A fallow emptiness always settled on him after a hunt, so he rested here to appreciate the smell of the forest after a heavy rain or the smoke from the flames they had harnessed. His band depended on him, for he was their best hunter. If they knew of his habit of pausing at this site with his curiosity and questions, they would call him something else.

His band walked the land their ancestors walked and would be moving on soon, uprooting as the days grew shorter. The boundaries of his people ran from the great sands—endless and harsh where little grew—to a stretch of grassland with only a few scattered trees. In between, along the river, was fertile land full of game. His people would follow the river away from the coast. They were free, but he wanted more.

He wondered if the night lights were the spirits of his ancestors looking down on him. And about what came before. Perhaps…

…before life roamed across the earth, there was nothing except the vast black blanket of the night sky. Then the First Light appeared, carving out space in the darkness. Its light revealed something shapeless beneath it, vast and empty, formless like an endless stretch of water. The First Light ruled the sky, but was alone, so it split itself in order to have a companion. The Second Light—powerful and mysterious, with a deep understanding of all things—ruled the great below. Together, they birthed a son, mighty in form, to govern the shapeless in-between, the expanse of water separating the sky and the great below. Soon their band grew, the lights scattering seed into the sky to create more lights in the darkness, all bending to and living with the First Light.

One day the First Light pondered the grayness of the bleakness separating him from the great below. He wanted to go to his son to petition that there should be life. But as time passed their realms had grown distant. The Second Light, who understood the secrets of existence, created a deep tunnel, a hidden path, for him to reach their son. The First Light descended along the passage from his realm in the sky with only the whooshing, much like waves, to mark his passage.

Together, he and his son brought forth land. They planted a huge tree whose branches stretched across the entire land. At the base of the tree, the son dug a hole. Its roots ran deep into the earth, into the great below, and animals and people used them to climb out. With that, the world was finished, and the First Light returned to his band in the sky.

Feeling a melancholy relief from a story well crafted, the hunter foraged for a large stone. He wanted to one day gather his people, a mighty band, in one place. Where he could grow old and watch the young play. Though he had no word for it, he dreamt. And if he chose a name for himself, it would reflect that. He erected the stone on his remembrance site, to mark his people’s passage, to remind the spirits that they had been here, and to look favorably upon his people.

The hunter who dreamed of more returned to his band and for a time they were happy.

The billowy movement begins as a prelude in a major key with the tinkle of plaintive notes rising to create lush chords for an innocent tone poem full of hope and promise.

Second Movement: When We Were Kings

Mansa Dinga Cisse just wanted the right to be. Dinga Cisse was no mansa who sat on a throne growing fat while sending warriors out to do his bidding. He accompanied his men, leading from the front. The day he was unable to do so was the day his spirit would join his ancestors.

An ominous rumble echoed out as the roof of a stockade collapsed. A tumult of shrieks cut through the air. More buildings crashed to the earth, billowing dust into the air like so much brown fog. The gates of a byre of conquered peoples shuddered with their release.

The kraal heaved at the footfalls of the approaching warriors and stirred wrath of a vengeful father. Dreams of wealth filled the other tribe’s bellies. Dinga’s heart, however, burned at the thought of the loss of his firstborn son. The sun-dappled meadows around the kraal became killing fields. The constant thrum of bowstrings resounded in the trees like a swarm of bees deciding to learn a new song. Warriors flooded over the kraal, naked fury in their eyes; a fury which hadn’t spent itself. A hail of assegai cut down the warriors guarding the prisoners. The remaining ones were cut down and discarded like goatskin dolls tossed onto the cookfire. By the light of burning huts at the main gate, the smoke column rose like worship incense.

Night whispered as they neared their home in Wagadu. The group passed their own cattle byre, which had been moved outside the town to make room for more people. The commoners resided in the densely packed part of the great city. The outlying thick walls enclosed huts piled upon huts, all crammed along the base of the hill.

“What word do you bring?” Anasa the Forgotten asked. A Wise One rumored to have been born in Nok—a land of artisans, magic, and secrets—he was the griot of the village. A contingent of agoze trailed behind him, anxious to learn his mystic ways.

“Our neighbor deals with the Strange Ones,” Mansa Dinga said.

“Curse them for fools. The Strange Ones whisper in their ears like milk-skinned trickster spirits. Until their coming, that tribe measured their wealth in cattle and cowrie beads. Now they pan gold from the hills to the north and hoard ivory, glass beads, and cloth.”

“They trade in kinsmen.” Mansa Dinga sucked his teeth in disgust. “What kind of man sells his own kind for profit?”

Anasa the Forgotten held out his hand. Within it was a stone. “We all have our parts to play and journeys to take. You have a hard road ahead to maintain Wagadu. A delicate balance to remember who you are. Empires change forms and adapt based on who conquers them. However, even when a group frees themselves, they may take on the example taught them by their oppressors.”

One of Anasa’s agoze stepped forward, a young girl with her hair styled into two lobes—the “ears of the caracal”—held in place by combs of ivory. Wearing a short shirt of lion pelt with sacred cowrie shells around the hem, she raised her face to him, with soft brown eyes fit to capture men’s souls, and said, “Tell us of tomorrow.”

Anasa the Forgotten cleared his throat, allowing time for his agoze to gather around him. Dinga smirked at the performance. When he was ready, Anasa began in a hushed, reverent tone.

“‘Four times Wagadu stood there in all her splendor. Four times she turned her face.’ So the ancients always began the tales of old. The third time Wagadu will disappear will be through greed. Many believe Wagadu was built on the strength of its gates, one facing each direction, but her true strength, why she endured, did not matter if her foundations were stone, wood, or earth.

“There will be a mighty mansa, a teacher, and his two sons will disagree about who will succeed him. The oldest will make a pact with a serpent with seven heads and promise it a sacrifice once every year in return for victory over his brother. When the two brothers fight, the oldest will win.

“The serpent will make the country wealthy with gold and good rains. But one day, a man will rise up who was engaged to the woman selected to be the next sacrifice. The young man will cut off the serpent’s head. Seven years of drought will follow and Wagadu will begin its decline, its people abandoning it in the Great Dispersal. But it is said that Wagadu resides in the hearts of her people, always connected. Wherever they go, the people carry Wagadu in their hearts. The third time Wagadu will change her name it will be Ghana. Thus, the ancients always close with the reminder: ‘Four times Wagadu changed her name. Four times Wagadu disappeared and was lost.’”

Tomorrow would come for his people soon enough, Mansa Dinga knew.

The melody turns into something foreboding. A heavy backbeat as sweet voices rise over the melancholy movement, building rhythmic density. A broad sweeping melody tinged with regret, the song turns ominous. Sorrowful and slow, its tone melodies close as black bodies pressed together in cargo holds, depending on each other’s breath to survive their dark, harrowing passage.

Third Movement: Runaway Journeys

I believe all our journeys are to be celebrated, mourned, and remembered.

The cold night air brushed against my skin, slicing through my blouse. My eyes finally adjusted to the malefic darkness. Crouching behind a row of bushes, the brittle moonlight painted the shadow of the leafy bush onto my face like a shadow mask of war paint. I waited, waited, waited. Nervously I started to hum some tuneless melody that sounded more like a field rhyme than anything else. Salty sweat wetted my lips as it trickled along my face. Drawn by the heat, gnats swarmed uncomfortably close, buzzing about my ears. My muscles, sun-baked and worn, poised to spring. Even dressed as I was, people eyed me with suspicion. The Fugitive Slave Act made it illegal for anyone to help or harbor slaves. Any white person in any free city could accuse any black person of being a slave and drag them against their will—city officers could offer me no protection—back below the Mason-Dixon line. More restrictions to control movement and power.

The rustling of the underbrush signaled the moment of revelation. Exhilaration and trepidation convulsed my heart and unleashed a storm of thunderclaps in my chest. He emerged from the shadows and milled nonchalantly against the stolid cliff face, overgrown with its own vegetative mat. His threadbare shirt, little more than a burlap sack with arm and neck holes, hung over pants, frayed just past his knees, held up by a cord of hemp. His body was a contour map of blood-clotted patches and a series of bruises. Collecting their stories—and all our stories were too similar—I knew his feet were thick with calluses. His back throbbed with a dull ache. His shirt was glued to it by sweat and congealed wounds. Each step ripped open a partially-healed gash, causing him to suffer every tear of his long history of pain. A freshly cleared dirt road separated me from him.

“Moses,” I whispered.

“Jordan,” a hoarse voice replied.

Opening my lantern to further illuminate the furtive figure, the light revealed a body striped from lashings. I recognized the treatment, the wounds rubbed with salt, vinegar, and hot pepper. His weight collapsed into me. I helped him to a nearby clearing.

“What are you waiting for? Hurry up!” the man from the clearing whispered as loudly as discretion allowed. We bolted from the blind toward the entrance. The man grabbed him by the arm. “We risk everything to help you. Don’t betray us by your carelessness.”

The escaped slave wrenched free of the man’s grasp, expending what little strength he had left before collapsing onto the ground. My other compatriots tended him with food, drink, and treatment of his wounds. Scowling at the first man, I returned to my post to await any other strays I might find. I wasn’t expecting any others, but as my heart raced, I used the time to calm myself. To be reminded of being so desperate to leave behind a system which brutalized and exploited. To risk capture and punishment. Because all our stories were the same.

It was said that my mother was a conjure woman. She gave me this stone before I left, calling it a spirit stone. She placed it on a necklace within a small box shaped like a miniature coffin. The daughter of a previous plantation owner, my mother had often told me that her prior master had been mild until his first wife died. When he remarried, his second wife’s cruelty—borne of jealousy for she saw my mother as a threatening rival—knew no bounds. Without warning, my mother was ripped from her family and sold to another to “keep her in her place.”

Because of her beauty, the overseer’s whip rarely tasted her. Which was no comfort for her since she’d found the favor of her master’s amorous attentions instead. I was born so light complexioned that I was often confused for one of my master’s white family. Eventually, his wife became so troubled by my presence—I suspect because one too many times folks commented on how I favored her other daughters—that I continued my family tradition: on my eleventh birthday I was given as a wedding gift to their oldest daughter and her husband, a physician named Besamoon who also lived in Mississippi. That was their mistake.

They drilled “nigger” into me so thoroughly, they didn’t have to be around to keep me in my place. I’d stare at the hills and the master didn’t even have to be around for me to hear his voice remind me that I’d better not think about running off. I heard the whip crack in my sleep. I knew how to keep my eyes down and mouth shut when they were in the room. But selling me off only instilled a deeper fear: that one day I might have a child. All thoughts of running away were wrapped up with my attachment to friends and relatives. But out at the Besamoon’s, I had no attachments, one less chain entangling me. All I took with me was my mother’s spirit stone. I knew I was meant to be free.

Forming a resolution that I would escape, my planning began immediately. As a house slave, I knew I’d be called upon to make frequent trips out of the house. Having run errands for her mother—least ways til the whispers burned in my mistress’ ears—I knew how to interact with clerks, salespeople, and busybodies. On one occasion the most audacious idea burned my spirit. My preparation began by “accumulating” a little money either from my errands or their pocketbook. When I was ready, I slipped into my mistress’ bedroom and stole a floral dress with matching bonnet.

Wrapping my arm in a sling, I walked down to the station to purchase a train ticket. My clothes signified status; my sex—and I daresay my beauty—was my weapon. I became invisible. The idea that one of us could pretend to be one of them would be a threat none of them could begin to conceive. Still, I tempered my heart as I neared the counter.

“It is a very fine morning, sir,” I demurred.

“It is indeed. Where to, ma’am?” He tipped his cap to me.

“Parsons, Indiana to visit my ailing aunt.” That was the sort of detail they loved to hear from unaccompanied young ladies. I needed to head north, but not far so as to rouse suspicion. Southern Indiana was more south than free no matter what its state government said.

His eyes fixated at my bosom. “That’s an interesting necklace.”

“It’s a… reliquary. An antique passed down in our family. A way of remembering our stories.” I kept my eyes down and my mouth shut, but my ears were always open. I thrived on words. Always had to learn them.

“You are so articulate.” The way he pronounced “articulate” I feared he saw the colored girl masquerading in a bonnet. Then he smiled and he slid a piece of paper toward me. “Just sign here.”

“You flatter me, sir.” Echoes of my mistress’ timbre filled my voice. I took on her affect so completely it surprised me. I raised my bandaged arm. “But I fear that my writing arm was damaged. It was my own fault really. It was a poor day to go horseback riding.”

“It must be a very great deprivation. Can you make an X?”

“Yes.” I grasped the pen with my free hand. “I hope I am not too much trouble.”

“No, ma’am. Have a good day, ma’am.” He signaled for a porter to help me with my bag.

I made it as far as Kentucky and settled. Despite the dangers—believe me, I had no inclination to return to bondage—I became a conductor along Underground Railroad. I realize that slave narratives have become all the rage in the literary circles, but that wasn’t why I wrote. We fought to be recognized as human in a place that didn’t want us. So, despite the danger to myself and risks those I write about, I keep this diary of their passage. Thus, I subscribe these words myself, Esther Besamoon. For those left behind. For those who search. For those who hope. All our journeys are to be celebrated, mourned, and remembered.

The song slows into a broad sweeping melody with a languid tempo with furtive notes. Clashing with a mode of dissonance, a reconstruction, which adds a piquant quality to the melody. An intensely beautiful sonority with no steady beat, changing time and tempo freely, before shifting into 7/8 time, fast and breathless.

Fourth Movement: Northern Migration

The Negro presence has always been framed as a problem.

Politicians stumped for votes on their backs, scaring their white constituents with tales of The Negro Problem. The Crime Problem. The Welfare Problem. The Drug Problem. Endless codes to remind the Negro that they weren’t wanted… even though their culture was. But bribing them once they were elected, or their uniformed bag men they called police, were only a minor annoyance and simply another cost of doing business for Patra Besamon. Her entire life built toward this night: the opening the Besamon Café.

Her momma used to tell her that their name used to have two O’s—Besamoon—but they lost one due to a spelling error on a receipt when they were sold. She used to say, “They wouldn’t even let us keep an extra letter.” The reign of King Cotton had ended and world wars created job shortages. That was the thing about moving. It was always the folks best able to take advantage of the risks of leaving their communities for the unknown. Folks who had it so bad, they had little to lose. When their family moved up to Indiana from Kentucky, they thought the north would be the Promised Land. But southern Indiana was sympathetic to the South. Many families moved on to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or Newark. Anywhere others had gone, where they had clustered.

Patra’s mother used to work for A’Lelia Walker, Madame C.J. Walker’s daughter, first as her personal secretary, working her way up to become a corporate manager. Her mother followed Coltrane and Davis the way my father followed the Clowns, the Grays, and his other favorite baseball teams. Patra learned to play her mother’s piano.

At Crispus Attucks High School, Patra specialized in works of Negro piano composers. Harry Burleigh, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, William Grant Still, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. And she dreamt of being like them folks in Harlem, the ones who called themselves The Niggerati. Those cats were just about being their fabulous black selves. They knew what it meant to fight and struggle, not letting anyone define for them who they were and what they were to do. Which was why, after opening up her beauty shop, Patra became a policy woman, running numbers out the back room.

In Indianapolis, people lived on top of one another and out loud. Hung out on each other’s porches, walked the street, or congregated at a café like it was church and the pastor was serving up Kentucky oysters. And they loved their numbers.

Folks betting as little as three cents on a gig, playing the 200-to-1 odds, on betting slips designed to look like baseball score cards. Columns for runs, hits, and errors for them to place their gigs, while she used the daily report of the Indianapolis bank clearings and debits to determine the winners. The other thing her mother taught her was that property equaled power. Needing to do something with the bales of mazuma she made running numbers, she bought up several of the shanties on the north end. It seemed like every other house was one of her peashake houses. But her true goal was to open up a spot on Indiana Avenue.

Indiana Avenue. The Avenue. Black Man’s Downtown. The Street of Dreams. The eight blocks of the diagonal street that jutted from the heart of downtown Indianapolis, from the pawnshop to the hospital, that was theirs. In between were beauty parlors, barbershops, BBQ stands, cafés, soda fountains, taverns, and nightclubs. A gauntlet of the smells of fried fish, the cool plume of weed, backroom dice throws, and alleyway switchblades—from The Missile Room, the Red Keg, the Two-John’s Theater, George’s Bar. Patra’s real training came with the “cutting contests” after hours at those joints. Each player topping each other’s riffs and licks. Errol Grandy. Melvin Rhyne. Leroy Vinnegar. Everyone knew who those cats were, but there were no secrets in the jazz world, and no one would book her.

The Sunset Terrace over there on Indiana and Blake Avenue was the real spot. They had all the top acts: Basie, Fitzgerald, and some of her personal heroes like Louis Jordan and Roy Brown. But there were two problems. First, booking at the Sunset Terrace or even the Cotton Club over on Senate, Vermont, and Indiana Avenues meant dealing with Denver or Sea Ferguson, her rivals in policy-making. Besides, them Sunset Terrace crowds didn’t play. Rumor had it that when a fight broke out, they threw bottles at Duke Ellington, and he’d refused to ever come back. But, in the end, it all boiled down to the dreams a person wanted to carve out for themselves. Denver Ferguson lived too loud, driving his gold Cadillac around like his was Jack Johnson or Stagger Jackson. His brother Sea wasn’t any better, running around as the duly appointed mayor of Bronzeville. She had bigger dreams: wanting to take center stage.

Tonight was her night.

With its 75-foot neon sign, fluorescent pink lit up the night, a striped canvas awning shielded the bustling crowd, a brick façade, double bronze doors, and French windows, the Besamon Cafe Theater felt the way a church was supposed to feel. They entered hallowed ground, a sacred space. From the barroom with billiard tables, to the ballroom and bandstand, it spoke hope into their lives. The Indianapolis Recorder covered her opening, calling it “Bronzeville nightlife in parade.”

More nervous than she thought she’d be, her hand gripped the copper railing. The center stage rose three feet above the dancefloor. Tucking her dress under her, she controlled the room, building the anticipation by making a show of setting a book beside her. The Second Book of Negro Spirituals, published in 1926, signed by James Weldon Johnson himself. A treasure of her mother’s, inside it was a bookmark. A leather thong with a small box attached to it. When Patra was little, she couldn’t resist prying it open. Inside was a small stone. Her mother spent money they didn’t have repairing the heirloom.

Patra raised her left arm held sideways, a style she developed as a child since she couldn’t quite reach the keyboards. She started on the right side of the keyboard, cross-handing her way up the keys to her left. The music was a dream…

…built on treble variations over a repeated rhythmic figure, stirred along rising and falling chords. A rollicking pounding, furious and exuberant, blues in double tempo, a triumphant march taking a gospel flourish as it climbs to the mountaintop. But the dream is cut short, fading into an elegy, a patient simmer caught up in an undertow of resistance waiting on a chance for the harmonic sequence to soar.

Fifth Movement: Interstellar Migration

They say we were in the midst of the fifth great migration, but our family, our people, have always migrated. Sometimes by force, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. Our journeys shape our culture and our stories.

I clutched the handholds along the seat carapace securing me into place. I was never a good flyer under the best of circumstances. A trip to the moon, preparing to touch down, made me doubt my faith in…everything. To mark the 400th anniversary of when the first slaves arrived in America, Ghana designated 2019 a “Year of Return” for all African-Americans and the Diaspora. They also began pouring resources into their private interstellar shuttle conglomeration, Outer Spaceways Inc. It was almost like they knew what was coming.

Outer Spaceways Inc. ran extensive advertisements in key U.S. black markets. First to invite folks to Ghana, then to encourage them to embark on an adventure to travel to the abandoned lunar colony, First World. Some roads on the colony took the names of well-known streets back on Earth. Lennox Avenue. Indiana Avenue. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Everybody wanted to go.

A Liberation Investment Support Cooperative official awaited us at the gate. Anytime I saw a LISC agent in my community, I grew wary. They were a Trojan Horse. It wasn’t long from when they pre-enacted us out of our neighborhood to when they pre-enacted us off the planet. Like living tableaus, LISC staged performances of what a neighborhood “could” look like. “Celebrating” our history and presence while looking toward the future. Without us. It felt like “Thank you for your service, now get the fuck out.” Legislation moved through the city’s chambers. Developers zoned and rezoned areas. My neighborhood drifted into their crosshairs. Landowners and speculators seizing any opportunity. My family had already received several offers on our home. Several of the faces of my neighbors had changed in the last two years alone. What started off as a local initiative spread statewide. Everywhere our people lived was being gentrified, reclaimed for the great good and vision of the state. People were being systematically pushed out of their communities.

“Name?” the LISC representative asked without making eye contact.

“Keegan Besamon.”

“Anything to declare?”

“Only if you count a book.” I set the copy of my grandmother’s The Second Book of Negro Spirituals on the counter. The strange bookmark marked her favorite song. Our family’s reliquary, so the story went, a monument to mark and remember our passage. She often reminded me that while people may not always be with us in our journey, but we could carry the memories of them with us.

“Duration of visit?”

“I don’t know yet. Hopefully permanent.”

“Part of the clean-up crew, eh?” The man smirked.

“No.” Ice fueled my tones. A space flight from America and I was still only seen as janitorial staff. “I’m a professor at the Thmei Academy.”

“Then you’re heading the wrong way. If you’re going toward the disaster area, not away from it, you’re on clean up. That’s the only reason you’ve been allowed clearance to stay here.” He studied his monitor, no longer looking at me. “This is my last week and them I’m out of this shithole space.”

Allowed. Like they were unaware of the negotiation with the United Nations before its collapse. As the world’s banking structure, LISC had more pressing concerns that black people living in bombed out squalor. For them that was business as usual. Especially after the discovery that changed how humanity interacted with each other: the rumors of alien contact. Of course, the reaction to the reality of life being out there was a mix of religious fractioning (the aliens seen as the fulfillment of various apocalyptic narratives, led to America, the Middle East, and Europe becoming embroiled in wars over which dogma/traditions to hold on to in a rapidly changing world) and panic (as the 1% fled to Mars to start life anew in the wake of societal breakdown and uncertainty). The wars left people divided and scattered. The perfect opportunity for the national and international governing bodies to stage pre-enactments of what life could look like on the planet. Without us.

Collecting my things, I moved on without comment. My mother was a Maroon. The Maroon were always a free people, having never been colonized. An organized enclave of warriors and sometimes fugitives, who managed to always maintain their culture. And she was an obeah woman, so magic traveled with us. When she moved from the Caribbean to Indianapolis, she was one of the first black people to move into that neighborhood. Several of her immediate neighbors placed “For Sale” signs up within weeks, to flee the contagion, the decline in their neighborhood, she represented. And taking the perceived value of the community with them.

Now we clustered on the First World lunar colony. The unwanted were always free to settle abandoned places. From the founding of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose to now. Off-world and forgotten—no longer “their” problem—like interstellar Exodusters, with all the promise of trade agreements, taxes, and sovereignty. The moon harkened back to a recently opened Oklahoma Territory, with First World its Langston City. I feared its fate might one day mirror Greewood, Tulsa; our new Black Wall Street eventually razed to the ground in a tide of resentment.

I ran my hand through the regolith, seeing only the potential of what could be. First World was originally the pilot for what would become the Mars colony. Now it was largely abandoned after the Pence Incident. Though it signaled the end to the interfaith wars, people couldn’t flee fast enough. Mars’ terraforming ramped up as a more long-term viable option for a significant population after the failure of First World. I was curious how it was working out for the black 1%-ers who emigrated there. Founding another Bronzeville, optimistic about carving out their own space, but still functionally a black town in a white state. Not like here. First World would be all ours. Some people already dubbed it “Blacktopia.”

Maybe one day.

Right now, the Citadel had to be repaired. The place had a lot of history, but most of those folks left, leaving nothing but a memory. It marked the oldest section of First World, where early inhabitants preserved the original footprint from the inaugural moon landing. Like a multi-rayed temple, though I appreciated the length of its colonnades, its infrastructure mostly extended underground to protect its population from the bolide rain of micrometeoroids and the wild temperature swings of 123o C by day to -233o C at night. Perhaps carbon nanotube material could fashion domes around villages for protection, creating homes like cloister vaults. They’d house three to four families, intergenerational homes of a community living almost on top of each other. Messy and loud, like family.

“What do you think?” A small cadre of revolutionaries had gathered in the commons area of the Citadel. They turned to me. I ain’t never been in a space where I didn’t have voice.

“The dust could plant coconut trees, my mom would have said.” I ran my hand along the counter. “But I’m ready to spot up and do this shit.”

There were questions and arguing, but that would happen with a blank slate. That was what we had and who we were. We could do whatever we wanted and had a chance to start over. To dream about possibilities. We work from a vision, not from a plan. We had a responsibility in this moment to ask the hard questions: where did we want to be? Who were we meant to be? How were we to live with one another as we moved about in the world? This was our space to tell our own stories. We’d have a lot of failures within the next few years, which we’d need to embrace. This was our space, we were here. We might have lacked the power to secure it, but we could control it. Most importantly, we reclaimed the idea that we could dream. Live. Breathe.

The fourth time Wagadu changed its name…

“We’re free. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’re free. That’s the culture we create. We will make this place our own and rechristen it on our terms, adopting a name based on who we are, announcing to everyone else that here was who we were, here was what we stood for. I know I want to get rid of my slave name and select a name of my choosing to assume the power of the named.” I dipped my hands in my cup of water and sprinkled myself with it. “I want you all, my community, to bear witness. Surrounded by my brothers and sisters, as I leave old Earth behind me, I claim citizenship in this, First World. And henceforth, my name shall be Khamal Dimke.”

Our story began with creation. Our story didn’t end there. Magic travels with us.

The music reaches a quasi-psychedelic climax, a flourish of fluid bass accompanied by lush orchestral strings. A mix of hard boyish horn lines against an Afro-Latin polyrhythm. Then the coda winds down, returning to an elegant, crystalline melody above a gentle backbeat, with the echoes of a prelude.

(Editors’ Note: Maurice Broaddus is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

 

A Champion of Nigh-Space

1

Here’s how I found out my girlfriend was a champion of nigh-space.

2

Her name was Vivian and she went by Vivy. We met on a dating site, and the algorithm thought our interests were similar and/or complementary enough to make us a mathematically near-perfect match: zombie movies, live shows with local bands, favorite author (Iain Banks for me; Iain M. Banks for her), Friday nights spent with a good whiskey and a good book, a fondness for travel, grad student life, and congruent kinks.

I messaged her, and it turned out we were both studying at Cal (me in my second year for a PhD in psych, her newly arrived to pursue a doctorate in public policy), so we met at a café near upper Telegraph one afternoon and we just clicked. She was beautiful: short and curvy, short dark hair, big dark eyes, and though autumn was beginning to fall she wore a deep purple sundress covered in little yellow stars, with strappy sandals. We talked about life in Berkeley and books and music, then went for a walk and segued into personal philosophy and life goals, then went to a bar and delved into the depths of our pasts—we were both raised by single moms, though mine was alive and great, and hers had died years ago and had always done more drugs than parenting. At the end of the night, several drinks in, she pushed me up against a wall and stood on tiptoes and kissed me deep and I was lost.

We lived just a few streets apart, but she’d scored a studio apartment without housemates (family money, she said), so we spent most of our time at her place; it was private, and we could be loud. Those first weeks after meeting someone and really connecting are so good: it’s like you’ve just discovered this vast new world called “sex” and you’re determined to explore every archipelago and peninsula and secret grotto. When we weren’t having the best kinky sex of my life we slurped noodles and watched Train to Busan and worked on our laptops side-by-side and took walks in Tilden Park and weekended away in Sonoma and lay companionably reading books covered with bright yellow interlibrary loan stickers and we fell in love.

She left on short-notice trips twice in that first year together, and once, I saw a ghost that looked like her.

3

Four months into our relationship, I came over for our usual work-and-hang-out evening and found her shoving things into a black overnight bag. “My aunt died, my mom’s older sister. We weren’t close, but I have to go back and show the flag for my side of the family.”

I knew her mom was gone and her dad had vanished from her life when she was little, so I nodded. “How long will you be gone?”

“Two days? Three maybe, if my cousins guilt me into helping them clean out her place. Her house is way out in the country and last time I was there my phone service was non-existent, so don’t worry if you can’t reach me. I’ll text when I can.” She kissed my cheek and whooshed away.

That was the first time since our first date that we hadn’t spoken daily, and I was surprised how vast her absence felt. Two nights later, sleeping in my bed, something jolted me awake and I blinked in the darkness. Vivy was beside my bed, leaning over and looking down on me, but she was pale and translucent, like an image projected on a sheer curtain. “Vivy?” I blinked, and she was gone. I shivered in the dark and felt pathetic, missing my girlfriend so hard I hallucinated her phantom.

The next day she texted: “home, come over” and I was out the door before I’d even sent a reply. She opened the door and grabbed me and pulled me in and kissed me hard, and I happily followed her to bed. She pulled my clothes off and then her own and I stopped and looked at her body. I knew it well, having seen it naked basically every day for months, and it was leaner and tauter than before, her muscles more defined, her soft sweet stomach more firm, and there was a little scar on her hip I didn’t remember, but it looked long healed.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“I don’t know, you just seem different somehow, like…” I could tell I was moving into a minefield and trailed off.

She made a pfft sound. “Less podgy? I was just carrying a lot of water weight last week. I was bloaty. Plus I hauled a bunch of boxes at my aunt’s house.” She curled her arm and popped her bicep. “I got swole.”

“In three days?” I said.

“Are you supposed to be using your mouth for talking right now?” she said, putting her hand on top of my head and pushing me down. The nature of our sex life was that she told me what to do and I did it, and we were both quite satisfied with the arrangement, even if my satisfaction often took the form of delicious frustration. Sorry if that’s TMI. It might make some other things make more sense later.

4

“Six months,” she said on the morning of the day. “Quite a milestone. We should do something to celebrate it. It’s a demi-anniversary.”

“Like a half-birthday?” We’d celebrated her half-birthday the month before in a little bed-and-breakfast with a hot tub. It had been wonderful and exhausting and much more bed than breakfast and much more floor than bed.

“Any excuse to celebrate. How would you feel about getting matching tattoos?” She had a few tattoos already, abstract swirling things, on the small of her back and behind one ear and laced around an ankle. I didn’t have any but I’d been thinking about adding one. She liked ink and I liked what she liked.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Something that won’t be totally embarrassing if we end up breaking up someday,” she said.

“So not ‘Property of Vivy’ across my stomach then?”

She snorted a laugh, then opened up a little notebook she carried around. “I was thinking of this.” She showed me a little symbol, nothing I recognized, sinuous curves around a pointed star, a little like Celtic knotwork overlaying Moorish tile.

“It’s beautiful. What is it?”

“Something I saw in a dream. I was thinking, we could get them on our wrists…”

So we did, and when we held hands after, it felt like we were more connected than ever. A few days later she told me she had to go—her most no-account cousin had used his inheritance to start a serious drug habit and she was needed for an intervention and to help check him into rehab. I offered to go with her and she laughed and said, “This is not the way I want you to meet my family.”

“Speaking of,” I said. “My mom is dying to meet you.” Mom lived down in Santa Cruz, just ninety minutes away. I visited her every couple of months, but Vivy had never made the trip with me yet.

She made a face. “What if she hates me?”

“She’ll love you. All she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy.”

“Then we’ve got that in common. We’ll talk about it when I get back.” She kissed my cheek and left.

Two days later I was working in the library and my wrist suddenly pulsed with… not pain, exactly, but pressure, and a sensation of heat. I looked at my wrist and the black tattoo seemed to glitter, like it had gone from flat ink to onyx, but then the sparkle faded, and I blinked and rubbed my eyes. Maybe I’d been studying too hard.

My phone buzzed: “home, come.” I packed up and hurried over to Vivy’s place, and when I went inside at first I thought she had a visitor, because the woman with her back to me had long hair in a multitude of braids. Then she turned, and it was Vivy, and she swept across me and had her way.

Afterward I said, “Your hair?”

She laughed and touched a dangling strand. “Oh, yeah. My cousin—not junkie cousin, his sister—took us for a ‘girl’s day’ and we got these woven in. Ridiculous, huh?”

“It looks so totally real.”

“For what they cost, they’d better.” She snuggled up to me all sweet and told me she’d missed me, and started talking about a conference she hoped to attend in Helsinki next summer, and did I think I could get away to go with her. Then she suddenly sat up. “I forgot, I got you something!” She went to her bag and fished out a short length of silver chain. When I examined it, I saw it wasn’t a round chain but flattened, and twisted like a Möbius strip. I couldn’t even see a clasp. “I want you to wear this,” she said. “So even when we’re apart, you know you’re mine.” I held out my arm, and she shook her head. “No, it goes around your ankle.” She bent and fastened it around my left ankle, and I held up my leg to watch it glitter. A symbolic chain. Sweet and hot.

I still couldn’t see how the chain unclasped. “How do I get it off?”

“Now, now,” she said. “You should never take it off at all. If it ever needs to be removed, I’ll take care of it.”

“I love it when you talk to me like that.”

“I know you do.”

5

Two months later we were spending one of our rare nights apart, because I had a cold and with all the sniffling and coughing I wasn’t fit to share a bed with her. I was just dosing myself with heavy-duty cough medicine so I could get some ugly uneven sleep when my phone buzzed. Vivy, texting, “family emergency, back in a couple of days, love you, be good.”

Her cousins are such a shit-show, I thought, and went to sleep. I stayed home in my room the next day slurping soup and sipping tea and watching movies on my laptop, and the next day was much the same, though my throat was no longer ringed with fishhooks and my cough had gone from chronic to occasional and I could even breathe through one nostril reliably. I decided it would be a good idea to actually get dressed, and once I managed that, I was considering taking a walk around the block because I’d been cooped up for too long, when my wrist pulsed with heat.

I looked at the tattoo and it was definitely glittering, and then it seemed to lift off my skin and levitate above my wrist, and then the symbol expanded and grew wider and rotated in the air until it hung before me, a star at the center of sinuous swirls, easily six feet high and wide, and then the lines warped and curved and wrapped around me—

I stumbled and fell to my knees on a gray metal floor scattered with ashes, the ground tilted at a slight but noticeable angle, and I gurgled because I couldn’t breathe, because there was no air—I was sucking at nothing. Something cool touched the back of my neck, and I gasped, sucking in great gulps of the air that suddenly surrounded me. I struggled to my feet and stared. At Vivy.

She stood there dressed in a black outfit not unlike the ones she wore on stay-at-home date nights (strappy, shiny, body-hugging), but without the strategically bare areas those outfits usually sported—this looked like a garment you could do extreme sports in, shifted way to the right on the “fetish-wear-to-body-armor” scale. She held something like a telescoping baton, but with a ball of crackling blue electricity at one end; a scepter of lightning. She looked like an angel of death in a video game that had issues with too much male gaze.

“Oh, fuck,” she said.

6

Vivy looked around, and when I started to speak she shushed me, and stalked a few feet down the corridor (I think it was a corridor) and peered around the curving corner. She was tense for a moment, then slumped her shoulders.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was hoping I’d missed one, and that someone would try to kill us.”

“Why?”

Vivy turned to face me. “Because that would be less awkward than the conversation we’re about to have instead. And if I saved your life, maybe you’d be less mad at me.”

I nodded. I was paying a lot of attention to my own reactions, and they didn’t seem appropriate to me. I was angry because she’d clearly kept a huge secret from me, and that made sense, but considering I’d just been teleported by a magic tattoo, anger should have been, at best, number four on the intensity-of-emotions scale, after shock, terror, and confusion… none of which I was feeling.

Vivy seemed to understand. “It’s the patch.” She patted the back of her neck.

I reached back and felt something smooth and cool, about the size of a band-aid, right at the base of my neck. “What patch?”

“Emergency life support, providing you with breathable air, and also some mood-levelers. It’s battlefield tech, mostly meant for use on civilians who find themselves in bad situations.”

I sniffed, and then sniffed harder, through both nostrils. “I can breathe fine. My cold is gone.”

She nodded. “Right. The patch does some basic medical work too, mostly geared toward stabilizing trauma, but also killing off infectious agents.”

I sat down on the floor, leaning into the curve of the wall. “Vivy.”

“Yeah?” she said.

I gave her my blankest stare. “Vivy.”

“Okay,” she said.

She slid down the wall to sit beside me, her weird scepter across her knees. She sat close to me but didn’t touch me, which I appreciated. “So. Who what when where why?”

“That’s a start.”

“The where is, we’re in another world.”

“Is my tattoo a spaceship. Or is it a teleporter ray.” I could hear how flat my own voice was, but I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. I had a bad temper as a teenager and ever since then I’ve always put a wall between me and my anger, to keep that anger from spilling out like a flood of acid and dissolving everything in my life.

She looked at the tattoo on her wrist. “Neither. You could call it an anchor, but really it’s just one end of a thread. My matching tattoo is the other end. I… go places, to do things, and sometimes I go very far away, and it can be hard to find my way back. I need a beacon. Since I met you… you’ve been my beacon. My feelings for you alone are a sufficient anchor, if I don’t go too far, but a while back, I went farther than I ever had before, and I almost didn’t make it home again. You know how you saw that ghost?”

I nodded.

“That wasn’t a ghost. That was me, reaching for you, and not quite being able to connect. I was just too far off. I ended up snapping to… call it an adjacent place, closer to home than I was when I started. From there I was able to feel you strongly enough to come home. But nobody likes layovers, so I suggested the tattoo. That way, in the future I wouldn’t have that issue. No more ghosts. In addition to being romantic as hell, getting matching tattoos with entangled particles in the ink strengthens the connection between us for… it’s called a snap-trace. The process of traveling. I reach for you, and snap back to wherever you are.”

“But not this time?”

“Not this time,” she agreed. “I finished up my mission, and tried to snap home from here, but what I didn’t know was, the enemy hit me with a fixative, a weapon that interferes with the snap-trace. So when I grabbed that thread between us and pulled on it to reel me back to you, I became an immovable object, and the connection snapped you here, to this plane, instead.”

“We’re on a plane?” I looked around. The walls were metal, but the space was too big to be an airplane.

“We’re on the wreck of a starship, actually. I meant plane, like, plane of existence.”

I groaned. “We’re in outer space? But not even our outer space?”

She held out her hands, one on top of the other. “The way it was explained to me is, reality is like a ream of paper, okay? You live on top of one sheet of paper. Your planet, your stars, your galaxy, your universe. All on one side of one sheet. There’s another side to that sheet, and that side is a whole world of its own, too—a whole universe. There’s also another sheet underneath yours, and another sheet above you, and on and on. The sheets are very close together, but they’re all separate. Every one is a universe. The ream of paper might be infinite, too. We’re not sure. No one has ever reached an end, but when you go far enough, the physical constants of those universes start to change, and after a while, the basic physics get so bizarre that not even hardened probes can survive there. Infinity aside, there’s still a huge stack of universes that are, at least in terms of physics, basically like our own, and most of them are inhabited to some degree. We call that swath of inhabited universes nigh-space.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“That’s the who. I work with some other… let’s say people… to preserve and protect and improve life in nigh-space. That’s the what, and the why, I think.”

I stared at her for a while.

“Well?” she said.

“This is just a lot, Vivy. I thought you were studying public policy.”

“I am. Studying it, and enacting it. I work for a group called the Interventionists. We… nudge things in good directions.” She paused. “Does that cover all the basics?”

“Who what where and why, sure. What about when? How long have you been doing this?”

“The Interventionists recruited me in high school. I had certain aptitudes. Tendencies. They pretended they were a government agency for a while, until I was sufficiently prepared to understand what they really were.”

“So you’ve been lying to me for our whole relationship.”

She nodded. “I have. Not just to you. To everyone. I’m basically a spy. It’s not the kind of thing you bring up on a first date, or a tenth date. I wouldn’t get married or have kids or even move in together without disclosing it, but before that…” She shrugged. “I might have handled this all wrong. I’m really sorry. I didn’t want you to find out this way.”

I rolled my eyes. “How did you want me to find out?”

“For our anniversary. I was going to take you to the Realms of Spheres and Harmonies and expand your universe. In several ways.”

I looked at her closely. “Really? You were going to tell me?”

“I was. We’re starting to feel like… a forever thing, these last few months, and I’ve wanted to tell you a dozen times, but I was trying to be responsible. I had to get permission to tell you first, or risk upsetting people you don’t want to be upset with you. Do you hate me? Are we done?” She looked away. “I’ll get you home, I’ll keep you safe, but after that, if you… I hope you don’t, but… I’d understand.”

“I… this is a lot to think about, Vivy.”

She nodded, and tentatively put her hand on mine. I didn’t move my hand away, but I didn’t clasp hers back, either. That was the best I could do.

I decided to focus on the immediate issues. “So if I’m your anchor, your beacon or whatever that guides you back home… and I’m here with you… how do we get back to our plane, realm, planet, house?”

She sighed. “We go the long way around.”

7

The ship we were on was hopelessly broken—I gathered Vivy had done the breaking—but she had a smaller vessel in a nearby hangar that had brought her here. “You were just going to leave it on board when you snapped back to me?” I asked.

“Oh, that ship knows the way home,” she said.

Her vessel looked a little like a dragonfly crossed with a stealth jet, and was about the size of a van. When she opened the cockpit door there was only one seat inside, but then the interior flowed and changed and suddenly there were two seats, one with controls in front, one without. “Who’s this?” the ship said. “Doesn’t look like a local.”

“This is my boyfriend, Glenn.”

“We’re bringing Glenn to work now?” The ship sounded amused.

“Your ship is talking,” I said.

“He’s not mine. He’s his own. We’re partners. Glenn, meet The Wreck of the Edmund Pevensie. Call him Eddie.”

“Welcome aboard,” Eddie said. “You get hit with a fixative?”

“Apparently.” Vivy climbed in and I did the same, my seat shifting around to accommodate me. It felt like being held in a vast, gentle hand. “Can you shield us?”

“Mmm,” Eddie said. “Mostly. I’ll go real fast.”

“Shield us from what?” I said.

“Evil spirits that eat your bones,” Eddie said.

Vivy smacked the console. “Eddie. Don’t be like that.”

“What, the people on your home world are like level two, right?”

“They know what radiation is, Eddie.”

“Oh. Okay. Then I’m shielding us from radiation.”

The ship rose and spun—I couldn’t feel any motion, weirdly, but I could see the movement through the screen—and faced one of the dark metal walls, which flowed and rippled to make an oblong opening the ship darted through. Space. I was in space.

Then I frowned. “Eddie. Your name is a reference to a couple of things from my world. You must know enough about us to know we know about radiation.”

“Well spotted,” Eddie said. “I was just being a jerk. Vivy always said you were smart.”

The screens went black, hiding the view of stars before I could even properly appreciate it. “Shielding,” she said. “We were sent here to deal with a Hollower infestation. They’re solar parasites. Creatures that crawl inside a star and suck up its energy, hiding inside, until they’ve used all that energy up. The infested star still puts out the usual light and heat and radiation… but it starts to put out lots of other things, too. Mutagens. Teratogens. Just looking at the radiation that appears in visible wavelengths exposes you to poison.”

“Plus evil mind-control rays,” Eddie said.

“Sort of,” Vivy said. “Any creatures with organic brains in the vicinity start to behave very aggressively with anyone who approaches the star. Some kind of defense mechanism, probably. Fortunately, this infected star wasn’t in an inhabited system, but unfortunately, there was a ship nearby, and the crew was affected. We came to try to cure them, but…” She shook her head. “Too far gone. They tried to destroy us, so I had to board and stop them.”

“Wait… did you kill them?”

“Of course not! They’re sick, Glenn, not my enemies. I put them in stasis. I’m not saying I didn’t crimp a pseudopod or two in the process, but there were no casualties. A medical ship is on the way to pick up the crew, to see if they can be saved.”

“What about the parasite?” I was imagining a titanic space battle with some sort of stellar whale-kraken-worm.

“It’s a horrible giant energy being that lives inside a star,” Vivy said. “I punch aliens, but that’s not an alien on a punchable scale. All we can do with Hollowers is save the locals and put an interdict on the system to keep people away.”

“And our work is done,” Eddie said. “ I assume you two aren’t going to settle down on this plane, so where are we going? Local hub?”

“Best we can do,” Vivy said.

“There are going to be S-Cons there.”

“Oh, you think?”

I knew I should be interested in what they were talking about, space travel and mysterious threats and getting home, but now that I had time to sit and stare at a blank wall, all I could think about was me, and her, and us.

Vivy had been the axis of a beautiful world, and now that axis had shifted. I wanted to talk to her about what this revelation meant for us, about how everything we did was based on trust—even more so than a typical monogamous relationship, because of the nature of our kink, which required me to have faith in her absolutely, coming from a place of profound vulnerability—but I couldn’t say any of that with the ship listening in. So I just stared at the blankness where a view of space should have been, thinking how sad it was that even my one opportunity to voyage among the stars and see the wonders of the galaxy (or anyway a galaxy) was spoiled.

Vivy patted my leg. “We’re going to a transfer point on this plane, where we can move a few levels closer to our home universe. Once we’ve closed the gap a bit, we’ll try to do a snap-trace back home, with some other anchor.”

“What anchor?” I asked.

“Something else I love.”

“You’re saying interdimensional travel is literally powered by love?” I said.

Eddie chuckled. “An anchor needs to be something deeply imprinted in your memory, with a lot of specific associated glandular and electrochemical brain activity swirling around it, and yeah, it needs to be something you really, really wants to get back to. That level of devotion is what allows the snap-trace to work with any precision. Doesn’t have to be romantic love, or even love for a person, but it needs to be a deep attachment. Something you sorta-kinda-like isn’t good enough. Try to snap-trace to something like that, and either nothing will happen, or you’ll end up embedded in a wall next door to it, or as a ghostly projection watching it from three planes up or down.”

“Okay, so let’s think about anchors,” I said. “What else do you love?”

Vivy said hmm. “I like that one café we go to sometimes, with the good Americanos. What’s it called?”

“It you don’t even remember the place’s name, you can’t love it enough to use it for an anchor,” Eddie said. “You’ll end up a ghost smeared across the ceiling again.”

“Look, I haven’t been in town all that long.” Vivy scowled. “I haven’t, like, gotten attached.”

“I’d be happy to get to any town,” I said. “Isn’t there someone else you love? One of your cousins?”

Eddie chuckled again. I pushed the heel of my hand against my forehead. “Right. There are no cousins. They’re the cover story.”

“Sorry, babe.”

“Don’t babe me. What was your anchor before me?”

“I had a cat. Gummitch. He died just before I moved to Berkeley.”

“A cat. Did you tattoo your cat?”

She half-smiled. “No, there was a little charm on his collar, and I had a matching necklace.”

I shook my head. “You didn’t have a cat anymore, so you got me. I’m a replacement. For your cat.”

Vivy groaned. “No, you aren’t. I was going to get another cat and hope we bonded fast. Instead I met you and we bonded fast, faster than I ever have with another human being. I usually do a lot better with cats, to be honest.”

I wanted to be exothermically hurt some more but instead I took a breath. “Is there really nobody else? No close connections you can think of?”

She went icy, and not in the sexy way. “I’m going to call ahead to our contacts at the hub, and make sure the way is clear.” An opaque blue sphere suddenly enveloped her head, like a fishbowl helmet painted to match the sky, and she leaned back in her chair.

“Vivy,” I said. “Hey, Vivy, I’m sorry, I just—”

“She can’t hear you,” Eddie said. “Isolation field. Immersive communication.” He paused. “Look, your whole… thing… with Viv is not my business, but just so you know, the kind of people who get chosen to work for the Interventionists… they aren’t people who have a lot of close friends or family. Orphans and loners are the profile. When I met Viv, she was basically an impenetrable shell full of infinite rage, and over the past years I’ve watched her become someone who believes in the power of positive change, and over the past months, I’ve seen her become someone capable of love. You’re the first test case for that.”

“She’s had other boyfriends before, and girlfriends,” I said.

“People she had fun with, sure. People she played with, tied up and hit with things, played the goddess for—yeah, I know what you get up to, meat people are so strange. She liked them, or disliked them in enjoyable ways, but they were never her anchor. That’s you. She’s learning how to love, and she’s going to mess up sometimes. You can tell her to leave you alone after we get you home, and she’ll accept it. She’s good at cutting things off. Nobody compartmentalizes like our Viv. But if you leave her, I think she’ll vanish into that shell again. That part of her that reached out to you and sought a connection, she’ll chop it off and cauterize the end. If you decide what she’s done is unforgivable, she’ll believe you, and she’ll never forgive herself. We’ll be lucky if she even bonds cat again. We might be down to using a houseplant as her anchor. Or a really good sandwich.” He paused. “Also, she’s telling the truth. She did get permission to tell you. She’s been planning it for weeks. So, it’s your choice, but I’ve got my own opinions about it.”

I thought about that for a while. While I was thinking, Eddie said, “We’re clear of the radiation field,” and opened the windows. Stars hung in the dark, small and sharp and white and close and vast and blue, and glowing ribbons of dust shone and shimmered like aurorae, and far off something like lightning crackled and sparked among dark irregular forms that must have been asteroids or wrecked ships. I gasped and reached out unthinkingly for Vivy’s hand, and her isolation field flickered off.

“God, your face,” she said. “Seeing something like this for the first time is wonderful, but seeing your face as you see it for the first time is even better.”

“I love you, Vivy.” I squeezed her hand and looked at all that light in the darkness.

“Are you still mine?” I almost never heard anxiety in her voice, and the flutter I perceived there pierced my heart.

“I am,” I said. “If you’ll keep me.”

Then the ship was torn apart and her hand wrenched out of mine and we went spinning apart into the glittering dark.

8

I wasn’t sure what exactly happened to a human exposed to the vacuum of space. I’d seen some movies and stuff but they weren’t consistent. Did you freeze into a lump, or did your eyeballs burst, or did you just die of suffocation?

None of those things happened. Everything spun wildly around me, stars whirling, and I gasped and heaved and breathed just fine. As I spun, I saw something like a jellyfish made of black oil reach out dark tendrils and gather up Vivy into itself, then zip away through the dark. Fragments of the wreck of The Wreck of the Edmund Pevensie spun around me on their own random trajectories.

I held out my hands and saw they were enclosed in a shimmering, translucent blue field composed of millions of tiny diamond shapes.

A piece of the wrecked ship stopped spinning, changed its orientation, and then floated toward me. The fragment was silver, about the size of a baseball, with a triangular sort of shark fin on top. A beam of light shot out from its center, shining right at my head. I expected to be vaporized by some kind of laser but instead Eddie’s voice spoke like a whisper in my ear. “So, this is bad,” he said.

“What was that? What happened to Vivy? Why am I still alive?”

“That was an S-Con ship attacking us. They got some kind of new stealth tech. Very slick.”

“What is an S-Con?”

“Oh, right. Strict Constructionists. Enemies of the Interventionists. It’s complicated, but basically, they believe we should leave other regions of nigh-space the fuck alone. The Interventionists have better technology, but they have numbers. They tend to congregate around hubs to try to interfere with our operations. That’s not usually much of a problem—they guard the train stations, sure, but we have airplanes and buses and helicopters too, so who cares. But this time, the only viable local option was the train station, and they saw us coming. What happened to Vivy is, they took her prisoner. She’s a little bit famous, or infamous, as far as they’re concerned. As for you being alive… it looks like you have an adaptive emergency system on your ankle there.”

“What? My anklet? That was a gift from Vivy.”

“It’s a nice gift. It’ll keep you alive in all kinds of rough situations. It’s mostly defensive, but it has a little bite too. See, Vivy really was planning to bring you to nigh-space.”

“What now? How do we save her?”

“Well… they tore me up pretty bad. This lump is my only functioning component. It’s got my brains inside, but not much else for resources. I have enough reaction mass to get us moving, but slowly, and you’ll be dead before we get anywhere useful. The suit you’re in can recycle your waste water, but it’s a diminishing-returns thing, and you’d die of dehydration before we reached a place with a water fountain. On the bright side, you won’t have time to die of starvation.”

“Can’t you send out a distress call or something?”

“Nope. I’m only able to communicate with you because we’re line-of-sight.” The laser blinked off and then back on. “My shit is bashed.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’m open to suggestions.”

I looked at my glowing blue hands… and at the tattoo on my wrist. “This connection between me and Vivy… if she can snap-trace to me… can I snap-trace to her? I mean, obviously I can, because I did, but can I make it happen on purpose?”

“Hmm. You’ve got the right hardware. When you got the tattoo, you got the whole snap-trace system installed too. It’s really just a question of loading the right software so you can control the process consciously.”

“How do we do that?”

“Look into the light,” Eddie said.

“What?” I glanced up from my wrist and the beam of light shot straight into my eye and then—

9

I blinked, my eyes tearing up. “What was that?”

“Direct neural installation,” Eddie said. “I put some knowledge in your brain. A bit crude, sorry, but the best I could do in my current circumstances. Did it work? Do you know stuff?”

“I—huh. I think. If I want to get to her I just—”

“Wait! Grab me first!”

The sphere drifted closer to me, and I held it close to my chest. “Okay. It’s sort of like a meditation thing, right? I close my eyes and think of Vivy…”

I closed my eyes and thought of Vivy.

10

I opened my eyes and went “ow” because I’d landed on my back on something hard. Gravity again. I rolled over and there was Vivy, her head wrapped in an oily black isolation sphere, her arms and legs chained with actual chains to an actual wall, in a black metal room about three meters square and high. (She didn’t look right at all on that side of the chains.) Eddie rose up out of my arms and shot a beam of light at a spot on the ceiling. “I’ve got the surveillance baffled,” he said. “Poking into the ship from there. I’ll see what I can do. You try and wake her up.”

I moved toward Vivy, still shimmering in my silver suit, and found a sort of metal collar around her throat (that was also all wrong). I fiddled with the clasp, the collar came loose, and the sphere blinked out of existence.

Vivy’s hair was matted to her forehead with sweat, her eyes were puffy and red, and she was just as gorgeous as ever. “Glenn? How did you—you snap-traced to me?”

“I do love you,” I said.

She touched my face, tears welling in her eyes, then hugged me as best she could with her wrists chained. Then she looked up. “Eddie?”

“What’s left of me. I’m thinking I’ll take this ship as my new body, at least until I can find one that’s not a total piece of shit. There’s no AI, so taking over the vessel doesn’t even count as murder. It’s barely got expert systems, and those are just for navigation and combat. All the other ship’s functions are controlled by meat-people pushing buttons. If they hadn’t stolen such a good stealth generator they never would have stood a chance against me.” He sighed. “We’re still fucked, though. The local hub is crawling with S-Cons, and it’s literal years at this thing’s top speed to reach the next hub, and that one goes the wrong direction in nigh-space anyway.”

I sat beside Vivy. “I guess that means I’m not going to make the next meeting with my advisor.”

Eddie said, “Well, maybe. The flow of linear time isn’t constant in nigh-space—if you go in the direction we’ll arbitrarily call ‘up,’ time moves faster than it does on your plane, and if you go ‘down,’ it moves slower. So you can spend a long time on one plane, and when you return to yours, only a couple of days have passed. Or, alternately, you spend a day away, and come back to find months have passed. We’re downstream of your plane now, so time isn’t the real problem.”

“That’s why your body was different, and your hair,” I said to Vivy.

Vivy nodded. “I was gone weeks once, and months another time. God, I missed you so much.” She put her head on my shoulder.

“The real problem,” Eddie said, “is that we have to go a very long way, in a plane where we’re literally the only Interventionists, and we can’t even go pirate because the regions we have to pass through are empty, and this ship as I mentioned is a piece of shit, and the supplies on board aren’t compatible with your biology because these particular S-Cons are methane-aquatic congloms, and this cell is currently the only place that even has air you can breathe, so while I’ll be fine, you guys are going to die in a few weeks—”

“I love my mom,” I said.

“That’s… nice?” Eddie said. “The sort of thing meat-people think about when they’re confronting death, I suppose—oh. Oh.”

“Would it work?” I said.

“There’s nothing boosting the connection, like our tattoos,” Vivy said. “But you can probably get close. If you end up somewhere… weird… just refocus and try again.”

“And once I’m home… you can snap to me?”

“Eddie cleared the fixative out of my system before I got snatched,” she said. “Also… I’ve never loved you more. You saved me.”

“I am a pretty amazing space hero,” I said.

She kissed my cheek. “Say hi to your mom for me.”

I closed my eyes. Then I opened them. “Thank you, Eddie, for the… pep talk. Counseling session. Whatever.”

“Thanks for not leaving me floating in the wreckage of myself.” Something banged hard on the wall of the cell. “They’re trying to break in,” Eddie said. “I don’t have full control of the ship yet. Could get inimical to biological life here soon, so…”

I kissed Vivy, just in case, and closed my eyes, and thought of my mom’s face, and snapped away.

11

I opened my eyes, and I was not in my mom’s house in Santa Cruz. I was in a steaming jungle, but the leaves were all blue, and the vines began moving toward me like snakes. Something wrapped around my wrist and my shimmering suit suddenly burst out with spikes all over, shredding the vine, and the others drew back, undulating. I did not want to close my eyes in that place, but I did. I tried to focus, and concentrate more specifically, because specific was better: mom’s studio in the back of the house, mom there in her baggy denim shirt, painting one of her secret-creepy still-lifes with hidden skulls and teeth and knives among the flowers and fruit and books and goblets…

I opened my eyes in the darkness. My suit suddenly glowed, providing enough illumination to make out a cavern with walls of pulsing pink flesh. I stood in a pool of something that steamed and gurgled, and lumps of partially-dissolved meat and bones floated around me. I knew immediately that I was in the stomach of something vast, and my suit started blaring warnings about imminent loss of integrity.

Eyes squeezed shut. Mind’s eye open. Mom, in her backyard garden, yanking weeds alongside me and talking about her next gallery show, and her first show, and the group show she did with Louise Burgeois back in the 90s, and—

12

I opened my eyes in her backyard, and the soil at my feet sizzled as the last of the acid ran off my suit. The shimmering suit flickered and drew back into the anklet just as my mom turned around in the lawn chair where she was reading and sipping iced tea. “You didn’t tell me you were coming, hon. What’s the occasion?”

“I, ah…” My tattoo warmed up, and a moment later, Vivy came strolling around the side of the house, dressed not in her nigh-space warrior battle-leathers but in a white sundress. (Later, I found out her suit had a field projector that allowed for all sorts of camouflage, not just the social kind. We had… a lot of fun with that later.) She walked over and stood beside me.

“Mom, I’d like you to meet Vivy.”

“Well.” Mom rose and looked at us for a moment, then smiled. “Meeting the parent. Things must be getting pretty serious, then.”

I took Vivy’s hand. She squeezed tight. I squeezed right back.

“They must be,” Vivy said.

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