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The Sisters’ Line

My sister is posting me a train, piece by piece. She hides minute cogs in the adhesive between stamp and envelope; she traps switches in the envelope’s seal. Every letter is a game, a puzzle, a thing to be dissected. I spend hours unfolding and refolding the letters and the little origami cranes she slips in as companions. You never know which folding or unfolding action will release a coupling–bolt the width of my arm, tangle my fingers in a grid or make me stagger under the sudden weight of an entire door panel.

My nextdoor neighbor, Stacy, single mum, keeper of bees, works in robotics, thinks I’m crazy.

“Why are you wasting your time on this clunky, half–built, outdated piece of junk? It’s taking up most of your front yard. This half–thing is consuming you! Just buy a train from medusa.com. You can buy a kit. You’ll still be able to build it with your own hands. You want to be a craftsman? What kind of craftsman builds when they have only half their materials? She’s not even sending you them in order! You need to let it go.”

Before I can reply, she’s clambered into her share car (60 cents a minute) and is off to pick up Becky from baseball or ballet or something starting with B. Becky only does things that start with the letter B. She failed maths until she was able to reconceptualize it as business basics.

Stacy drives off with a cheery wave. I am alone with my unspoken replies.

This train, this train I’m building is my sister’s train. I have to believe that all the pieces will fit. One day this train will be built, the magnets will be activated, and they will find the right tracks, the tracks that lead to my sister and the hidden country that has taken her.

My sister writes to me most days: letters smelling of lilac and brimstone, jasmine and toasted cumin seeds. I try to write back, but I have no postal address. I float letters on rivers, burn them in grimy back alleys that smell of stale oil and fish heads. I leave them for squirrels and rabbits to carry. I write letters on maple leaves and give them to the breeze.

I do not know if they get through. I do not know if there are censors peering over her shoulder.

My sister’s letters are full of self–centred inanities. She does not ask me questions about my life. She does not express sadness that I do not write, nor does she express delight upon the receipt of a letter. I must assume there is a level or surveillance, real or implied. She must have some privacy, however: she is slowly posting me a train.

The postman, a woman in khaki shorts and a fluorescent motorcycle jacket, rides her motorcycle up onto the footpath and hands today’s letter directly to me rather than putting it in the letterbox.

“Thanks.”

She smiles and guns the engine, swooping to the next letterbox. I wonder if the strain around her eyes is from the glare or because she thinks I’m odd and doesn’t like me. My letterbox is a faded old thing made out of a cut–up plastic milk bottle bolted to a stake. I look around my ramshackle yard, yellow grass dying in the summer heat where it hasn’t been squashed flat by my precious junk. The skeletal train, its roof patched with tarpaulins, lists to one side; weeds grow through some of the heavier, more difficult parts to place. Fearful of rust, I used to try to take pieces inside, but away from the open air they ooze viscous black oil that stains the floorboards.

I raise the envelope to my nose; it smells of toasted cocoa and roasting macadamias. I ease the flap open, careful to keep the opening away from my feet. In winter, my left ankle still aches where a falling axel broke it; it took me a year to repay Stacy for the medical care I couldn’t afford myself. I think she took out a loan to help me, but never charged me interest. I try not to think about her kindness too much; it makes me feel ashamed.

My sister has written to me on blue paper almost as thin as tissue, crinkling under my fingers. She writes to me about the color of the sky and what it feels like to be completely submerged under water. I rub the rough stubble on my head, remember when we’d pretend to be mermaids, diving deep and swimming towards each other, stopping fast so our heads could be enveloped in strands of hair.

I catch an edge in the folded paper and, wriggling it back and forth, I find several thin sheets of metal that could be roof panels and the top half of a passenger seat. The upholstery is velveteen and matches the paper it came in. I haul the seat up the stairs to the passenger car to where I’ve bolted the bottom half of a passenger seat upholstered in gold. I slot the top half into the bottom half. The colors don’t match, but they do marry. The blue has a warmth that connects to the gold and looking at it, I can imagine I am in a place very far from here.

Next I secure the curved sections of roof panel, ripping away tarps to provide more effective weather protection. I’m standing on the roof, sweating heavily, when Stacy and Becky return from Becky’s badminton lesson. Becky’s lost in her own world, readjusting the strings on her racket until she looks up and sees me. Becky ditches her racket on the side of the path, the wooden frame bouncing in a way that makes me wince, and runs over.

“Careful!” says Stacy, retrieving the racket and crossing her arms.

Becky leaps up the stairs of the passenger car in one exaggerated bound and peers around before shouting up at me through a hole in the ceiling.

“You got a seat!”

“The rest of a seat, maybe. It’s a pity they don’t match.”

“I wonder why that is? It looks nice anyway,” says Becky, flumphing down onto the seat with a satisfying whoomph.

It occurs to me: what if the order in which my sister sends parts is the message? What if it’s a code, and if I put the first letters of all the parts in sequence it will spell out her location or directions to get there or names of her captors or that she loves me and misses me and can’t wait until we can be together again? What if the letters of the parts she sends me is a code, and she’s screaming in pain and I can’t hear her, and how will I remember which piece came first? And maybe I could remember and record it, but how will I remember all of it, and for a time I kept log books, yes, and journals, but as the years drew on I forgot and became inconsistent and is my sister screaming in pain and I can’t hear her all because I was stupid and dumb and don’t have the records to read what she’s been telling me even though all the pieces are here? What if she’s screaming?

“Are you ok?” I see Becky’s face staring up at me, frightened by the clouds that have been chasing my own expressions.

“I’m ok.” I clamber down from the roof, my legs shaking as my thoughts swirl in on themselves. I press my face against the warm metal, close my eyes, and try to gather myself.

There is a shriek from inside the passenger car. Adrenaline spikes through my throat as I run to the steps.

“Come see!” I hear Becky shout and giggle. Laughter, not screams.

I leap up the stairs and find Becky curled up on the new seat, her feet pushed into the join between top and bottom. “I’m burrowing!”

Of course she is. I smile with relief, use the smile to force down the rage. How could she scare me like that?

Becky plays on, oblivious to my distress. I force myself to breathe. Becky on the seat looks like she’s some passenger on the Orient Express. She’s travelling across Europe with frequent stops for sightseeing and sticky sweet drinks in the dining car. Does this train have a dining car? I’ve mapped out its potentials so many times it’s hard to tell what I’ve built and what I’ve dreamed. Sometimes I imagine the skeleton of the train growing and burrowing deep into the ground, half–rotten carriages that will be sucked out of the earth like a tap root, should the engine ever roar into life.

Becky stands on the seat, her feet making dainty divots. She grabs the overhead baggage rack and yanks it hard.

“Hey!”

Becky ignores me, sharply puts all her weight into it, and hauls the rack out of the wall. I raise my arm, ready to scream. I expect to see my beautiful wall torn ragged by the bolts and Becky’s face battered by metal, but instead the wall is smooth, as if the rack had never been there at all. I lower my arm, embarrassed, ashamed, glad she didn’t see.

The rack is almost as big as Becky; she doesn’t seem to mind and marches down the stairs with it, almost tripping on the way.

As we exit the carriage I glance over to Becky’s mum, who’s leaning against her car, doing something with her smartphone.

Becky pushes the rack up into the half–built engine room and clambers up the stairs after it.

I follow her.

“You think too much,” observes Becky. She’s right, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with her defacing my train.

Becky squats and gets both her hands underneath the overhead rack in a perfect weight lifter position. She frowns, her tiny biceps bulge (I feel a moment of envy at how ripped she is) and she lifts the rack to the height of her armpits and pushes it up against the driver’s controls. The rack shifts and bends under her pressure and then slides easily, perfectly marrying to the control panel and turning into a series of buttons and one long lever.

“How…”

“I’m building,” says Becky, primly.

I press my hand against my head. If the parts are malleable and contain as many hidden pockets as the letters, the variables are infinite. How will I piece it together if even the pieces lie to me? I brace myself against the console and try not to throw up. How much of my train is a lie?

“Bulgaria,” says Becky. “Belarus. Beirut. Boston. Beijing. Birmingham. Berlin.”

“Do you know what this train is for, Becky?” My voice is unpleasantly shrill. “Are you guessing at the places my sister might be?”

“Bora–Bora,” she continues, oblivious. “Bristol, but that’s an extra twenty dollars.”

“Can you take me to my sister?”

Becky’s patter suddenly stops. “Take?”

“Drive? Transport? Navigate? Operate this train?”

Becky shakes her head, bewildered.

“Becky! Are you bothering your friend?” Stacy’s playtime–is–over voice winds up through the metal housing.

“No, mummy,” pipes up Becky. “I’m boggling her.”

I squeeze my head between both hands, trying to think of a B word that means travel.

“It’s all right, Stacy.” I say, “Becky’s just showing me where she thinks some of the parts go.”

“She’s not breaking anything, is she?”

“No, it’s perfectly fine.” What can I do to buy more time, what do parents like? “Would you like to come up and see? I think you’d enjoy some of the new additions. Could I get you some tea?”

“Thanks, but we have to get dinner ready. Becky! Come down. I need you to help me with the beef and broccoli.”

“Broccoli?” says Becky. “Yay!

“Can you bus the train, Becky?” I whisper urgently as she twirls around in preparation to leave. “Broom, broom?”

Becky jumps down the ladder, ignoring me.

“Broccoli is a brassica!” she chants as she bounces into the house.

Once she is gone, the engine room feels empty and drained of color. I wonder what sort of kids my sister would have had if she’d had the chance. I would have made a good auntie. I wonder if I will ever get the chance.

I sit hunched against the wall of the engine room for a long time, trying to see what Becky saw. How, how, how did Becky unfold half a control panel from a luggage rack? I push and prod each part of the engine room. I run my fingernails along every surface and inside the furnace, hoping upholstery and pistons will unfold from them and I will have more pieces to rebuild with.

It’s dark when I climb down from the train, and I am hungry and filthy. I fumble through the cupboards in my kitchen, but I am too hungry to eat. Instead I pull down my primary school thesaurus from the shelf and curl up on the only couch in the house. I look up drive, but the synonyms are useless. I play synonym tag, jumping from word to word. I doze off for an hour or two, rouse myself long enough to eat a can of cold baked beans, and fall back to sleep on the couch, the springs digging into my sides are like old friends.

My sister and I moved out of home and in here together, though I am the only one who had the chance to live here, if you call it living. The walls are still bare. She was, is the one with an eye for design. Boxes of posters and ornaments are still stacked on the ground in her room. The dust and cobwebs get thicker every year.

In the morning I shrug out the all–too–familiar cricks in my back and take a spit bath using boiled water from the kettle, an enamel bowl and a cracked bar of soap that was once the color of emeralds.

Thesaurus in hand, I head out to my sister’s train and wait for Becky. I tinker with the engine and move bent pieces of steel from one part of the lawn to another. I graze my shin and set my hand to bleeding as I stumble around, one eye distracted and leaning towards Becky’s house, my ears straining for the sounds of breakfast and the chance the Becky will come outside.

The morning is awful. What kind of person stakes out a little girl’s house?

I can feel my skin desiccating in the sun. I daren’t go inside, not even for a moment: what if I miss her?

“You could always ask.” I whisper to myself. “What, and come across as a weirdo?”

“As opposed to the sort of person that lingers in their yard, gazing at their neighbor’s house with increasing desperation?” I reply.

“Fine, you have a point.” I whisper through clenched teeth. “It’s all terrible.”

I march up Becky’s front lawn and bang on the door before I can let myself think. Stacy opens the door instantly, the surprise sending me a step backwards. Stacy’s arms are folded, lips pursed, eying me critically.

Creep creep, you’re a creep, whispers my internal monologue.

“You’re spending too much time in the sun,” she says. “Too much time working on that hobby has addled your brain.”

I look down at the ground and reflexively count the number of cracks in the tile next to the door frame.

“Come in and have a glass of homemade lemonade,” she says.

I follow her into a white, white kitchen. White walls, white tiles, white stove, a painted white wood table with matching white chairs. I half–expect the fruit in the white bowl to be white as well. I wrinkle my nose at the faint smell of bleach.

“Sit.”

I sit. Stacy drops four ice cubes in the shape of hearts into a tall, thin glass. The last cube chips when it hits the others. The lemonade is a pale yellow, almost white. She gives me a chocolate chip biscuit and watches me indulgently while I eat and drink. My sister used to give me sweets and drinks just on a whim. She didn’t know how to bake, but that didn’t stop her. Whenever I eat a burnt ANZAC biscuit I think of her.

“Do you feel better now?”

I nod, not trusting my words. Stacy’s arms are crossed, leaning on the polished white table.

“Are you ready to ask for what you want?”

I feel very little. I am taller than Stacy, but it doesn’t feel like that right now. It is hard to speak.

“Can Becky come down and play?” I flinch as I blurt out the question, anticipating a blow that does not come. My voice is high and tremulous. I look down at my body, half surprised that I haven’t turned into a toddler.

“Becky doesn’t play,” says Stacy, arms still crossed, not at all surprised.

“Can she… can she… be working on the train with me? Can she brighten my day?”

Stacy gives me a half–smile, “Close enough.” She turns her head to holler up the stairs “Becky! Bounce your good self down here!”

Becky barges into the room and smiles when she sees me. I smile nervously in reply, sitting very small, feeling very young.

“How’s the train?” says Becky.

“I don’t know.” It’s hard to speak above a whisper. It’s hard to acknowledge that after all I’ve done, I still don’t know where I’m going. “But I think you do.”

“Outside, girls,” says Stacy, clapping her hands. “But wear hats and don’t stay out too long.” She smears sunscreen on my cheeks, arms, and the back of my neck. She plonks a straw boater onto my head; the straw itches through my stubble. She kisses me on the cheek and gives me an affectionate swat on the bum to get me out the door.

Becky walks slowly up to pieces of junk scattered around my yard, like a big cat stalking its prey “We have to build!

She pulls pieces of sheet metal out of the ground, hauls bumpers and axles three times her size as if they were Lego pieces, and slides them into place on the train.

“What can I do?” I ask as she carries a stack of wheels to the passenger car.

“Bring me that lever,” she says, pointing to a metal lever the size of a crowbar. I pick it up and, yep, it’s just as heavy as a crowbar. When I hand it to her she carries it one hand like it was a well–balanced javelin.

She props it into a window frame of the passenger car and it melts into a glass pane and a set of curtains.

Becky moves fast and relentlessly, and within twenty minutes we have disassembled and reassembled all of the parts of the train that are visible. The passenger seat cushions have shifted from yellow and blue to a lush velvet green. The train is whole and practically thrums with life.

“Beautiful,” breathes Becky. She has the widest grin I have ever seen. I try to smile in return, but embarrassment and shame make it wobble.

“What’s wrong?”

“I just feel stupid, that’s all. I’ve spent years on this and you understand it, you fix it in twenty minutes.”

“Don’t be silly,” Becky crosses her arms and for a moment looks exactly like her mother. “These are just decorations. You built the skeleton.”

I open my mouth to reply, but before I can speak she has jumped through the engine room window. I scramble up the stairs and by the time I enter the engine room, she’s buffing the shiny controls with her sleeve, humming a tune to herself and snorting with amusement.

I want to say something, but Becky’s serenity scares me. I feel like I’m on an empty ocean liner, far out to sea and vulnerable in the Captain’s hands.

“Ask me.” Becky turns to face me. “Ask me to be your best friend forever. Ask me to give up my favourite pair of trainers. Ask me to cradle you in my heart. Ask me anything.”

My heart speaks for me. “Bring me my sister.”

“She can’t be brought.”

“Bring me to my sister.”

She looks into the distance, her eyes are old. “It is a long ride. And you won’t like parts of it.” Then she laughs and claps her hands, her voice returning to a more child–like timbre. “We’ll need coats and jackets and woolly underwear and string and candles and something to eat, and something to eat that isn’t beetroots.”

Becky sticks her head out of the window. “Mum!” she shouts.

“Yes, sweetie?” Stacy’s voice is muffled through two windows and several rooms.

“Can we borrow some big coats and food bars and bottles of juice and bound into an adventure?”

“ofwhofcwhohfrohwoh,” is all I can make out, Stacy’s voice is so far away. I lean my head out of the window and can just make out on the breeze, “Take good care of them and don’t spill anything on your clean clothes and only spill on the ground what the ground will take.”

“I promise! It’s a bargain!” shouts Becky. Clothing appears in a neat pile at our feet and we pull it on as if dressing for a day of sledding and snowball fights. Outside the sun is a baleful yellow orb.

“Ready?” asks Becky.

“R… wait.” My eye catches on my letterbox, the faded old thing that my sister and I made together.

“If we leave, how will my sister’s letters get to me?”

Becky rolls her eyes. “What makes you think I’d know?”

“I…”

Becky shakes her head and laughs.

“Just a minute,” I wheeze. I go into the house and grab a stack of clean printer paper.

Dear Sis,

I am leaving this house now. I have stayed here for so long, but now I have to go. I have to leave if I am to find you and I don’t know if I’ll be able to return.

I’m frightened and happy and have a friend who can help me. I don’t know what I’m stepping into, but I do know it’s time. I will write to you, keep writing to you and hope that my letters reach you. I don’t know if your letters will reach me, I have a feeling they won’t. Becky says it’s a long journey and a cold one, but I will come for you, I promise.

With all my love.

I kiss the envelope and slip the letter into my own letterbox.

“Ready?” asks Becky, her voice a squeal of excitement.

I nod and climb up into the engine room.

“This is your control panel,” says Becky in cross faux–grownup tones. “You should know how to operate it.”

I gaze at the vast array of switches and levers. I push a big red button. I feel the thrum of pistons engaging, the crackle of magnets switching on and seeking. The train roars into life and pulls itself from the ground.

Becky puts her small hand in mine and I do not flinch. The train hums and snarls and I do not know if it will hurl us into the sky or plunge us into the ground. The train surges forward and shatters the letterbox. Pain ravages my chest and I hold Becky’s hand tighter. The last letter spirals up and away, and we follow.

And Never Mind the Watching Ones

Aaron

He is lying on the splintered, faded–gray wood of the dock, the fingers of one hand dangling in the slough and glitter frogs in his hair. His breath catches and he cups the back of Christian’s head. An airplane is flying far, far overhead. It sounds like the purring exhale of the frogs. Aaron wonders where it’s going.

When he comes, his abdominal muscles tense, pulling his shoulders off the planking. The frogs in his hair go tumbling nubbly ass over nose, their creaking noises gone silent. The orgasm is an adrenaline rush that outlines his body in nervous fire before fading, leaving a ringing in his ears.

Aaron stares up at the broadening remains of the jet contrail, sucking air like he’s been running rather than getting head. He thinks, like every time, that he should have liked it more. He wonders if there’s something wrong with his dick. Christian crawls across the dock and flops beside him, one arm draped carelessly over the baseball logo on Aaron’s T–shirt.

One of the frogs has come back. It puts a clammy little hand on Aaron’s cheek before letting out a croak. The others are scattered across the dock and they answer in identical voices.

“God, they’re so creepy,” Christian says. He picks up the frog. It kicks out its back legs and inflates its neck. It doesn’t ribbit; it freezes as though holding its breath. The two boys can see the delicate iridescent shading on the frog’s belly, the flecks of “glitter”—sensors of some kind, probably alien nanotech. They can see circuitry, visible under thin layers of skin.

“I like them,” Aaron says, reaching out to touch the frog’s nose with a fingertip. It opens its mouth slightly.

Christian holds the frog closer to his face, eyes narrowed in mock anger. “If you’re going to watch, the least you could do is pay us, frogface.”

“We still don’t know if they’re individuals, or like a hive mind or something,” Aaron offers.

Christian drops the frog into the slough and it hits the muddy water with a disconsolate plunk. “Holy shit, I hope not.”

“Is there really a difference between one super smart alien frog brain or a thousand of them, if they’re always watching?”

“Is that like, if a tree falls in the forest?”

Aaron doesn’t answer. The contrail overhead is starting to dissipate. The clouds around it have turned pink at the edges.

Christian rolls onto his side, propping his head up on one elbow. “Well, I’ve got something to tell you,” he says.

“Yeah?”

Christian brushes hair out of Aaron’s face, and then tucks his own long, dark brown hair behind his left ear. It falls forward over his shoulder and across his neck. There’s a mole near where his clavicle peeks out from the collar of his yellow–and–green shirt. Aaron watches his lips as he says, “I got into Dartmouth.”

He says something else, but Aaron doesn’t hear it. And then Christian is looking at him expectantly. And Aaron knows that what he’s supposed to say is, “Congratulations,” or “Oh wow,” or “I knew you’d get in.”

But what comes out is, “I thought we were going to U of O!”

Christian puts his head down on his arm and sighs. “You’re going to U of O. I told you I was applying to better schools.”

Aaron only vaguely remembers those conversations, whispered to him in the back of the band room while waiting for the conductor to drill the flute section on a difficult part of the song. He does remember hiding in Christian’s attic room, with stolen bottles of hard lemonade, talking about how they could be roommates. Was that all bullshit then?

“I didn’t think you’d actually apply to them,” Aaron says. “We had plans.”

Aaron thinks he can sense Christian rolling his eyes. “You had plans.”

“But you can’t just… I mean, what about…”

Christian picks his head up to look at Aaron, and then all he says is, “Well, I guess either we’ll spend a lot of time on Skype or you’ll get over it.”

“Fine.” Aaron says, and he gets up. Once he’s standing, his head is above the shadow of the slough’s bank, and he has to shade his eyes to look down at Christian. But he doesn’t. His huffy attempt to stomp off is made less dramatic and more comical by his need to tuck his underwhelmed penis back into his pants and zip his fly. So he’s already less angry and more embarrassed, cheeks burning, as he hunts around the grass for his sneakers. But it would be worse to back down and face Christian now, so he musters what anger he can and storms off.

“Whatever,” Christian shouts after him, as he struggles through the tall grass at the edge of the field, glitter frogs hopping up and away from his stomping feet, their bulging eyes watching him. “Text me when you feel like talking about this like an adult!”

Aaron rides home, stuffs his bike in the garage, heads for his room. There are frogs all up and down the stairs. Even though he likes the stupid aliens, he wants to kick them out of spite. He wonders if he drop–kicked one down the hall if it’d bounce off the back wall or splat horribly. The frogs hop away from him, as if they can tell what he’s thinking, and he feels awful. “Sorry,” he whispers, a roiling sickness in his guts. He can’t get the image of a splatted glitter frog dripping off the wall out of his head.

There are about a hundred of them in his bedroom when he gets the door open. Unlike the glitter frogs in the hall, these ones don’t scatter when they see him. He wonders how they get through closed doors and what they’ve been doing in here alone all day.

He swipes his tablet on and tries to distract himself with Facebook, which mostly works. Well, until Christian’s status changes to single.

Aaron stares at the notification. The thick feeling in his throat is the same one he gets right before he cries. “I didn’t mean that,” he says to nobody in particular, though of course the frogs are listening.

One of the glitter frogs jumps up onto Aaron’s shoulder. Its back is such a dark and stormy blue, speckled with metallic flecks, that it looks like the night sky. Aaron picks it up and holds it in his hands, feeling the cold fluttering of its heart and breath. It smells odd, like a spice barely remembered from childhood. He wonders if the frogs are alive, or if they’re robots, or if it’s just a grand, mass hallucination. “Well, you were there, some of you.” Aaron says, “Tell me why he did it.”

The frog doesn’t say anything, even after Aaron lifts its face to the screen, showing it his Twitter feed. The feed is full of tweets by Christian that are definitely about him, though they don’t mention him by name. The glitter frogs never say anything.

Aaron puts the frog down on his desk. He lowers his face so their eyes are on the same level. Another frog, this one striped red and black, jumps onto his computer tower without displacing the rejection letters piled on top. From underneath, looking up, Aaron can see the Harvard crest. That response? No. Princeton: no. Yale: no, not even. Don’t even think about it. And Dartmouth? Ha.

The night sky frog ribbits. It sounds disgruntled. Aaron sighs; the puff of his breath makes the frog blink. Here is the pain of his future collapsing on itself and the realization that no, he’s not that great. He’s not great at all. He’s completely, devastatingly average. Seventeen years of denial couldn’t change that.

“I wish for once I could be the one leaving, not the one being left behind,” he says.

The frog stares at him; its wet eyes reflect the cloud–studded sky out the window.

Tumblr gif set, eight images: Rescue Dog “Saves” Frog. Taken from a YouTube video of the same name, filmed on a smartphone in portrait mode.

One: A mottled green and purple glitter frog swimming in someone’s backyard pool.

Two: A golden retriever paces left on the pool deck. Barking.

Three: Glitter frog is still swimming, minding its own business.

Four: Retriever leaps into the pool, and the splash repeats incessantly in the browser window until you tap over to the next gif.

Five: Retriever paddling toward the pool stairs, glitter frog held in its soft jaws.

Six: Retriever puts down frog and backs two steps away. The frog blinks and its throat expands with a mighty, pissed off croak.

Seven: Retriever lying next to the frog on the pool deck, wagging its wet tail.

Eight: Retriever licks frog. Frog retracts its eyes to escape the overeager tongue.

Christian

The last time he ever sees Aaron is when he watches the other boy walk away from their fight. He’ll come to think of it as the stupidest fight that he’s ever had. He’ll spend years wondering if Aaron would have still run away if they hadn’t broken up with each other on Facebook.

Aaron’s parents come to Christian’s house two days later, looking as though they’ve been crying, or not sleeping, or both.

“Have you seen him?” “Did he say anything about where he was going?” “If you hear anything, will you tell us?” “Does he have any other accounts online that we don’t know about?” “Did he say he was meeting anyone you don’t know?”

And Christian has no answers for them, sitting in the dining room with his own parents nearby, their faces also drawn and worried, as though running away might be contagious.

He’s still no help later, when it’s the cops come to ask almost the exact same questions, or when the school counselor asks him how he feels about it, or when mutual friends, voices low and quavering with awe, ask what exactly he said to Aaron?

“Nothing. I told him I got into Dartmouth, that’s all. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I don’t know where he went, he didn’t say anything about leaving. I don’t know why he left. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Christian isn’t sure what he expects, but he knows that people can’t vanish without a trace, especially if they don’t have that much money and extra especially if they still expect to graduate from high school.

Everyone is so nice to him.

Except that the frogs are starting to avoid him, a scattering cloud of various colors every time he steps into a room. They’re still watching him, the way they watch everyone, but from a distance now. From under the bed, not from his desk. From the shower curtain rod, not from beside the sink. From behind the Xbox, not from the arm of the couch. When he can catch them out, hiding behind a cup of pencils or a pillow or the venetian blinds, Christian thinks they look strangely content. Like they know something.

There’s a SoundCloud user who records the glitter frog songs almost nightly and puts them up raw. This is unusual, as most users remix their recordings into songs. On one track, a flurry of comments at the four minute mark:

Whoa, is it just me or does this sound like a code?

FROG CODE!!!!1

Dont b fukin stupid

No, it kinda does.

Y WOULD ALIENS USE MORSE CODE!?

its just u

Tristan

He’s looking for somewhere to sleep that doesn’t smell like pee. Before he left home, he wouldn’t have thought it’d be this hard, but he learned better pretty quickly. Timing is also important. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late, because then all the really good places to sleep are taken. You don’t want to go too early, though, because if you’re too early, there’s a much higher chance that a janitor or someone will notice and kick you out.

So far, every place that he’s checked smells like pee. Usually he can smell it before he even gets under the awning. It’s the spots that don’t get rained on that smell the worst. They get pissed on and then forgotten, and the piss bakes into the concrete when the weather gets hotter, drier.

It’s not hot or dry right now. The air has that heavy, waiting feel. It’s cold enough to make people complain about May being too late in the year for chill, northern winds. Occasionally a single raindrop falls.

The frogs don’t seem to mind. When the rain falls to the stained concrete, the frogs rush to it, a wave of glittering color that bunches and scatters. Tristan used to like the frogs, when he was younger. He used to fall asleep listening to them outside his window, in the house, sitting on the edge of his pillow, their voices not–quite harmonizing. That was before stepfather number three dragged the family into the kind of turmoil Tristan thought was restricted to TV movies until it happened to him. But after Tristan ran away, nobody paid much attention to him, including, and perhaps especially, the frogs.

Past the abandoned theater, there’s an awning for a stage door. There’s a half–wall that blocks view of the door from the alley. Great. Three walls and a crappy roof. Tristan pulls his sleeping bag and backpack down the stairs, lays out the sleeping bag. He rips open a half–melted granola bar for dinner as the sky opens up and rain pounds the awning overhead. There’s a leak near the door, but Tristan finds an old coffee can, a few long–dead cigarette butts in the bottom of it, and uses that to catch the water.

While he eats, some of the glitter frogs, slick with rain, seem to grow tired of the weather. They come down the stairs in butt–bumping hops, surrounding him. One climbs up onto his knee.

He pulls out his old cell phone, the SIM card deactivated long ago. He’s still got some juice, but there’s no WIFI near enough, so he saves the power. He thinks about offering the frog on his knee some of the granola bar, but he isn’t sure if the frogs eat.

He remembers a news article that went the social media rounds a few months ago:

Question: Alien “Glitter” Frogs: CO2–Eating Terraforming Technology?

Answer: Nobody knows, but they do seem to exhale oxygen, despite looking like animals. However, it’s not enough oxygen to reliably light them on fire.

Tristan is putting the phone away when another boy comes around the corner of the half–wall, drenched from the rainstorm, his hair plastered to his face and his T–shirt stuck to his torso.

The boy stops, staring, his hand on the half–wall. His fingers leave little damp marks on the painted concrete. He picks at the edges, dislodging crumbling bits of stone. There are glitter frogs all over him, of all sizes. Large ones sit on his shoulders, cling to the wet fabric of his clothing. His hair seems to move of its own accord, but it’s just small frogs climbing between the strands.

Tristan has never seen anyone with that many frogs on them before.

“It’s raining,” the boy says.

“Yeah,” Tristan answers. He wonders if the boy is high. If he is, that’s fine unless it’s meth or something and he’s going to flip out. Tristan wonders what the frogs would do if the boy flipped out. Probably leave.

Tristan shifts his sleeping bag, crumpling it up so that there’s bare concrete for the boy to stand or sit on. He doesn’t want his bed to get wet. “Come in,” he says. “What’s your name?”

The boy steps out of the rain, dripping on the dusty concrete. Tracks of rainwater run down his face and arms. “Aaron,” he says. He crouches, his back against the wall, watching Tristan. The frogs also follow him in, too many.

Tristan tries to keep them off the sleeping bag, but eventually gives up. Most of them don’t climb on him, but the entire space is quickly covered in a shifting mass of the glitter frogs, all colors and sizes hopping, shifting, trying to stay close to Aaron. This makes Tristan nervous.

“Do you have somewhere to stay?”

Aaron blinks rapidly, wipes the rainwater off his face. “No,” he says, and then he laughs. “I didn’t plan this very well, I guess.” He pulls off his T–shirt, scattering the frogs. He shakes it out gently to make sure there are no frogs inside, and then he leans over the wall to wring it out into the rain.

He must have run away recently, Tristan thinks. Or been kicked out in the past few days. But it’s strange for him to be so calm about it. Maybe this isn’t the first time. “I can help you find somewhere to go tomorrow,” he says. “If you need it.”

Aaron drapes the shirt over the wall, and even though he got a lot of the water out, it trickles down to pool on the floor. “I don’t,” he says. “I’m not planning on sticking around very long. I’ve decided to go away with the frogs.”

He looks slightly surprised when he says it. Like he’s just now put the thought into words. But he doesn’t take it back.

They are glitter frogs, and they are aliens, but nobody has ever gone away with them. There are so many frogs that Tristan has to be careful if he shifts his legs, otherwise he’ll squish them.

“Running away to join the alien circus,” Tristan says.

Aaron shrugs.

A YouTube video that persisted for six months before someone reported it for terms of service violations:

The camera is fixed on the ground, bouncing with every step. Glitter frogs dive out of the way. The person behind the camera knows better than to tilt the camera back and show their face.

There’s a clearing in the tall grass, glistening where it’s been wetted down with a hose. Just in case. There’s a flat piece of particle board on the ground, dented, scratched, splattered with paint of various colors. The camera gets especially haphazard as something is put on the wet piece of particle board. It’s one of the glitter frogs, but it doesn’t look quite right. Something is wrong with its legs.

And there are fire crackers next to it.

You can guess the rest. You don’t need to see it. Don’t go looking. The video was taken down. There are no torrents.

Nickie

Nickie’s high school doesn’t do dissections any more. It hasn’t for years. Her parents once asked if she was going to be dissecting worms in biology class and then looked dismayed when she said, “Uh, no. Duh.”

Duh. You can’t cut up unassuming animals for fun. And there’s no way that the school would want to court more controversy after firing their biology teacher for being too aggressive in his teaching of evolutionary theory.

Nickie saw him in the grocery store afterward. He looked drunk, or like he’d been drunk, or maybe he wanted to be drunk. She waved at him, after shifting the box of Coke to her left arm. He stared through her like she wasn’t even there, picking up glitter frogs from where they sat among the kumquats. In retrospect, Nickie didn’t think that she’d want to be reminded she’d been fired, either.

Even though the equipment never gets used anymore, the school never throws anything out. After class, Nickie steals one dissecting tray, two scalpels (in case the first one isn’t sharp enough), ten pins, and a pair of rusty surgical scissors. She has her own scissors, but the idea of using them on dead animal guts and then putting them back in her desk drawer is gross.

At home, the frogs are everywhere, so they’re not hard to catch. Nickie holds the frog while others hop around her feet in the living room. Her parents have tried to keep the frogs out, but they always get back in.

Whenever Nickie types a question into a search engine that starts with “How,” the autofill gives her variations on “How do I keep frogs out of my house?” She clicked a link once, and the suggestions horrified her. But that was then. Now, she’s watched an old instructional video about Earth frog dissections, taken careful notes. All of the Google results for dissections of the glitter frogs come up broken. Her other searches weren’t much better.

What are the frogs?

What are they doing here?

What are they made of?

Nickie carries the frog into the kitchen and puts it down on the counter. There are so many others—almost as though they know what she’s about to do and are coming to watch. She hopes not. Psychic alien frogs are even worse than regular alien frogs.

She drops the frog into a canning jar. It puts its brilliant green hands up against the side of the glass, its purple–blue throat pulsing more rapidly than the frogs on the counter. Nickie drops in three cotton balls covered in acetone and tightens the lid.

She watches the glitter frog suffocate.

Nickie takes the frog and supplies into the garage and sets up on the concrete floor. There are more frogs in the garage than she expected, hundreds of them sitting on every surface. Nickie has to nudge them out of the way with her sneakers.

The frog doesn’t move when she takes it out of the jar. She hopes it’s completely dead. To make sure, she waits a few minutes, the frog resting motionless in the center of the dissecting tray. She cautiously pokes it in the back with her set of tweezers. Then she flips it over onto its back like she saw in the video. She uses the pins to stick it to the pad underneath, trying not to gag at how hard it is to push pins through the stringy flesh of its legs.

She makes the cuts with the stolen scalpel, wishing it was sharper, trying not to break anything that could be interesting. The skin of the glitter frog parts easily, though it rips in places and she has trouble cutting through the sections that appear to be circuits.

The dissection video hasn’t prepared her for the blood. It wells out of every cut; it oozes from the pinholes. This is nothing like the nice, neat dissection she had planned. It’s worse. Messier. There is so much blood. She pulls back the layer of skin from the torso, pins it to the side, and looks down at the smooth, peeled wall of the glitter frog’s abdominal cavity. There’s a thin circuit embedded in the muscle. Nickie takes her tweezers and carefully, gently, extracts it from the bloody mess. The thin metal wire keeps coming until she pulls it free. There’s a square bit at the end that looks more like an RF chip than anything else. She holds it up to the light, frowning because it doesn’t look all that alien.

Next, Nickie cuts through the muscle itself even though her scalpel slides around on the wet tissue. She can see the glitter frog’s organs, and she realizes that they look nothing like the ones she saw on the video. These organs are shaped differently and of course, they’re not dyed.

The other glitter frogs around her are staring; their eyes are huge in the dim light of the garage. The frogs crowd so close that she can feel them pressing up against her legs, against her arms. There’s an army of them, a nation of them, and she thinks she can feel them climbing up her back.

The cold, wet sensation of a frog on the back of her neck jars her into motion. Nickie stands suddenly, accidentally kicking the dissection tray so that it clatters across the concrete floor. The frogs fall from her, and she hears soft thuds as they hit the ground.

She bags the dead glitter frog in a Ziploc sandwich bag to carry it out to the woods behind her house—a stand of tragic cedars and vine maples between her house and the neighbors. She hides the body under a rotting log and hopes something out here will eat it.

She hoses off the dissection tray in the backyard, her golden retriever snuffling around the sullen red puddle at her feet, the bloody water flecked with tufts of shed hair and tiny bits of frog guts. When the dog laps up the bloodied water, she turns the hose on him, and he dances away. He stares at her from a few feet away, head cocked to the side, pink tongue dripping.

Nickie washes the RF chip in the sink, dries it on a paper towel, and brings it with her to school the next morning.

She finds her chem lab partner before class. Christian has been doing the same thing every morning since his boyfriend—ex–boyfriend—ran away from home. He’s sitting out on the picnic table that nobody ever uses, picking at flecks of lichen and peeling paint, moping. Nickie had a crush on him, once, in like elementary school. She’d held out hope he was bi until sophomore year, when they had the most awkward conversation ever.

Nickie brushes some frogs off the table and sits next to him. “Hey,” she says.

He frowns at her through that missing–someone–plus–senioritis haze. “We don’t have anything due today, do we?”

“No. Remember how I was telling you that I couldn’t find anything online about what the glitter frogs are made of?” She pulls off her backpack and swings it around onto her lap. It’s warm for being so early. There are other students out, though most of them are walking to the lunchroom or heading toward class.

“Yeah?”

She pulls out the plastic baggie, hands it to him. “This was under its skin.”

Christian frowns at the piece of metal, frowns at her, holds it up to the light. He slides the plastic baggie around with his fingers, as though the clear plastic is obstructing his view. Nickie’s about to tell him that he can take it out of the bag if he wants when he asks, “Are you sure?”

“What do you mean, ‘am I sure?’” Nickie takes the RF chip back, stuffs it in her backpack. “I took it out of the frog myself.”

Christian looks at the glitter frogs surrounding them on the grass. They are watching. He pitches his voice low, almost a whisper. “You cut one of them up?”

Nickie zips her bag with more force than she intended. “Yes. I did. I thought that it was weird that they’re apparently such a big fucking secret. But look at that. It doesn’t look very alien, does it?”

Christian closes his eyes and exhales, but before she can ask him what he thinks about it, he says, “I didn’t see anything. You didn’t show me anything, I don’t know anything.”

“What?”

When he opens his eyes, all she can see is fear. “I don’t want to know,” he says, as a glitter frog lands between them.

Of course, if someone were systematically scrubbing the Internet of all references to the glitter frogs, then how do you explain the Tumblr gif sets? The audio recordings? The videos that don’t involve illegal firecrackers and animal cruelty?

Surely someone would have taken down the space frog conspiracy theory site designed by a person with only a very cursory understanding of HTML?

The site has a star field background with red, white, and blue text. The only thing less systematic than the wildly varying font size is the capitalization, which seems to occur at random.

tHe FRogS ArE NOT alIeNS, ThEY are GOveRnmENT sPiES!

DO NoT leT TheM FOOL yOU!

i HaVE THE uLTiMatE PrOoF thAt THE sHIp iN oRbIT iS FAkE

tHeRE ARE NO aLiENs

tHAt iS whAt THEY WanT YOu tO BeLiEVE

cIA and FbI haVE bEEN tRYinG tO ShUT Me uP FoR YEARS

NsA iS UsInG FROGs tO ImPLAnt TheIR InSTRUctiOnS In YoUR ChilDRenS MInDS

We MuST RISE UP BeFoRE iT iS TOo LaTE!!!

And so on…

This site has been up for at least a year now. If these sites were under surveillance, don’t you think it’d be down already?

Karen

She is really surprised how easy it is to get drinks at this show. She’s got three years to go before she can drink legally, but the show is 21+ and the bartender is assuming the door guys did their job. The door guys checked out her boobs with about ten times more attention than they did her fake ID.

Her friends, Trisha and Moira, are drinking whatever they want, ordering drinks that sound funny and then snickering behind their hands when the bartender, harried and over–busy with the number of drink orders during the shitty opener’s set, just nods. It seems that he’s completely lost the ability to find “sex on the beach” funny. Karen doesn’t blame him.

She orders her fourth rum and coke and wonders if she should be feeling drunk yet.

Trisha has ordered a drink that is a horrifying shade of blue, and she’s trying to get Moira to bet on whether or not it’s going to make her tongue change colors. Karen is still watching them when one of the glitter frogs on the counter walks over with its halting, I–should–be–jumping frog walk. She thinks that it might be planning to climb up the side of her glass —yuck. The last thing she wants is a frog in her drink.

The frog stops a few inches short, staring at her with its incomprehensible gaze. Then it crawls to the other side of the bar, where it stares at a fallen slice of lime in a puddle of tepid water.

“I guess there’s so much heavy breathing going on that there’s enough CO2 for you all,” Karen says, flicking a piece of ice at the frog. She misses, and the ice skitters away over the bar. The alien turns its long–suffering eyes on her again. She sips her rum and coke and stares back until she starts to feel distinctly uncomfortable. She leans left, and the frog’s eyes follow her. Then she leeeaaans left, and the frog is still staring. She leans so far that she loses balance and falls against Trisha.

Trisha laughs and pushes her back upright on her barstool. “Hoo boy, Karen’s smashed already.”

“No, I’m not,” Karen says, hoping that the bartender didn’t see her fall. Luckily, he’s busy, slinging limp white napkins and pouring cheap beer.

It’s easier to hear now, and it takes a moment for Karen to step outside of her drink–tunneled attention and realize that the opener has stopped playing. In the silence between sets, the bar gets so busy that she can feel the press of people against her back as they crowd forward to order drinks over her head. A guy stumbles against her, grabbing her boob for balance, and then he slides away down the bar before she can respond. Trisha and Moira either didn’t see or don’t care. Karen bites her lip, hunches her shoulders, and wishes she’d stayed home. She doesn’t even like the headliner much, it’s Moira’s favorite. She wishes she’d responded faster and punched the guy in the kidney, or something.

The glitter frog is gone. Karen wonders if they can walk on the floor in this crush of people, and then she imagines the floor coated with the remains of glitter frogs like stomped grapes.

The benefit of going to a show in another city is that it means the chances of running into someone you know, or worse, someone who knows your parents, are much slimmer. Still, Karen thinks she recognizes one of the young men on the other side of the bar. She squints in the dim light and can make out his features.

It’s the missing boy from her high school, she realizes. He has glitter frogs on both his shoulders and he’s buying a drink for the boy next to him. People thought he was dead. He’s been gone for months.

She’s about to go over to him and tell him that he should call his parents and at least tell them that he’s alive when Trisha says, “Oh my god, can we dance already?”

Karen realizes that she hadn’t noticed the headliner beginning to play.

Moira throws back the rest of her drink, and then she grabs Trisha by the arm, pulling her off the stool. “Come on,” she says, “I love this song!”

Karen chugs the rum and coke, which is a mistake because she realizes that she isn’t quite sure how many drinks she’s had so far.

She follows her friends out into the mass of people, shoving her way past sweaty arms and glowsticks, past people dancing so close that she wants to scream, “Get a room!” but doesn’t because she figures they wouldn’t hear her anyway. Moira is extremely good at working the crowd, and it doesn’t take long before they’re only a few people from the front. And then they are in the crush of humanity, everything smelling hot and damp–slick with sweat.

Karen feels like she should be repulsed by the warm sweat of strangers, but instead she lifts her arms over her head, lets the stage lights strobe between her fingers and the thrumming bass fill her head.

For the first two songs, she hopes that the night lasts forever, that the set will go on and on until she dies of old age here in this dark room. There are no frogs on the floor, but there are some on the stage. One is even clinging to the microphone stand.

But then the first few songs turn into a few more, and a few more, and suddenly Karen realizes four things:

a) She isn’t sure where her friends even are anymore.

b) She would rather the show be over sooner rather than later because she’s not sure she can keep up with this pace much longer.

c) Most of the guys on the floor seem to have the same balance problems as that one man did by the bar.

d) She’s going to need to puke soon.

Her feeling of malaise turns into an even stronger need to puke as the slower song she’d been swaying to segues into something faster, hotter, and with more thumping in it. And then she’s dodging elbows on her way to the edge of the crowd. The world consists of nothing anymore but the sour smell of other humans, the bruising force of their bodies against hers every single time she misjudges the tempo of their terrible fucking dancing.

Karen thinks she’s going to start screaming, crying, or maybe just pass out, but then she’s miraculously outside the crowd, stumbling toward the can. There’s a man near the door checking her out, and she barely manages to flip him off before stumbling through the bathroom door.

The women’s restroom is full of glitter frogs. They’re everywhere—on the floor, clinging to the stalls, on the sinks, in the sinks, by the sinks. On the paper towel dispenser.

She stumbles into one of the stalls—of course none of them have doors —and hovers over the painted–black toilet with the cracked seat, trying to puke so that the bathroom will stop spinning. She tries to stick her finger down her throat as if that might help. It should have, since her finger tasted grosser than anything, but it didn’t.

After a few minutes of fighting to give in to the nausea, she gives up, sits on the toilet with her pants still up, breathing heavily and trying not to cry. The sickness encompasses everything. She is in a building with several hundred people, here with friends, and she’s alone.

The glitter frogs are watching her.

Air, she thinks, and even though the room is still spinning, she climbs to her feet and stumbles out of the bathroom, following the wall to the front door, and then she’s out on the street.

It’s raining, cold fat drops are landing on her hair, soaking through her shirt. The door guys watch her like the glitter frogs as she stumbles around the corner and leans back against the jagged bricks of the wall. The street keeps tilting clockwise.

“Are you okay?”

Karen blinks. Standing at the corner is the boy she recognized earlier. He is covered in frogs. He doesn’t seem to mind the rain.

“Are you Aaron?” she asks. Missing Aaron.

He smiles. “Kind of.”

She squeezes her eyes shut to make the spinning stop. This makes her more dizzy, so she opens them again.

He asks, “Do you need help getting back inside?”

“Not yet.” Karen can hear the music. She can feel it against her back, the vibrations working their way through the wall.

“I’ll wait with you,” he says. He doesn’t add, “Because you’re way too drunk.”

Minutes pass. Karen asks, “Why’d you run away?”

Aaron’s voice is so soft that she almost can’t hear him over the music and the sound of rain. “The frogs,” he says. “I want to go away with them. Me and Tristan are going away with them.”

Karen laughs. “Oh my god,” she says. “Are you serious?”

He lifts a glitter frog off his left shoulder. This one is dark blue, and it glistens in the streetlight. She can’t tell if that’s from the metallic flecks in its skin, or from rainwater. Aaron holds it out to her. “Haven’t you ever felt like you didn’t belong here?”

Karen takes the glitter frog, holds it in the palm of her hand.

Aaron says, “Neither do they.”

For Sale Listing: GLITTER FROG CLOTHING—COTTON—SHIRTS, PANTS, SUITS, SUN DRESSES—$20–$75

All glitter frog clothing hand sewn by ME! Are there alien frogs in your life that you’re starting to get attached to? Are you having trouble telling them apart? Price varies depending on the amount of fabric needed! When you order, send a photo of the frog next to a ruler or something so I can figure out the measurements.

Avery

She’s sitting on a bench outside the bus station in Baker City, feeling the dust and the heat seep through her skin. Regrets are crawling around her veins like one hit too many of a cheap upper. It’s already late afternoon, but the next bus won’t be leaving for hours. She watches the cars pass on the interstate to the east. The rolling foothills to the west bake golden in the hundred and ten degree air.

It’s probably too hot for the glitter frogs and she’s glad. She doesn’t think she could handle their disappointment on top of her own.

“Should’ve just stayed in the car,” she tells herself, but when she thinks about Aaron’s wide eyes and mumbling, of wandering the western states without a single fucking clue where they’re going, feeling less and less connected to the world… she doesn’t really regret leaving them.

There’s no shame in getting scared and buying a ticket back to Centralia, she tells herself. Her mom cried on the phone when she said she was coming home. It’s been more than a year.

A car pulls into the parking lot, kicking up a plume of orange dust that obscures the semis behind it. It’s red, an old, kinda boxy car, probably one from the ’90s or something. The windows are up, so it’s got air conditioning.

The man who gets out of the car is tall, and he’s got long brown hair that he hasn’t bothered to tie back. He’s wearing tight jeans and a green Dartmouth T–shirt. His sneakers look new, even from half–way across the lot. He leans on the driver’s side door, looking at the building, at her. He’s frowning like he’s looking for someone. He checks his iPhone before slipping it into the pocket of his jeans.

The only sounds are the thud of the car door shutting, the interstate beside them, and the scuff of his feet on the faded asphalt. Avery puts a hand on her ratty old backpack, but she doesn’t move it off the bench. He comes so close that she can see her wind–burnt, sun–scorched face reflected in his shades. Strands of his hair drift in the breeze like spider silk.

“Hey,” he says. “You wouldn’t have happened to see a car or a van or something here recently? Maybe an older one. There’s probably be a couple people in it about our age.”

“You got a cigarette?” Avery asks. There’s this sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, because she already knows who he’s asking about. And she doesn’t know if she should play stupid or what.

He glances over his shoulder at the car and then shakes his head. “I don’t have any tobacco, sorry.”

“Weed’s fine,” she says, but she already knows he’s not going to give her any.

He puts his sunglasses on his forehead and digs his phone back out of his pocket. He swipes past some screens and then holds it out to her. Avery has a brief impulse to grab the phone and run, but there’s really nowhere to go from here and it’s too fucking hot for that kind of shit.

“I’m looking for this guy,” he says. “I was supposed to meet him here, but my flight home from school was late and I couldn’t get here any earlier.”

Of course it’s a picture of Aaron. It’s Aaron and the boy standing in front of her. They’re sitting on the edge of a fountain, holding hands, heads bent, foreheads touching.

Avery feels something rising inside. Fear, anger, self–loathing. She’d be down that road already, in a car full of frogs, going to meet the aliens, finally, if she hadn’t been so fucking afraid. Because what if they turn us inside out, and what if they get tired of us and shove us out the airlock, and what if it means leaving everyone we know behind, coming back in four hundred years. She wants to scream at this guy to fuck off and leave her alone, and she almost does.

But there’s such a sad look on his face. She pulls her backpack off the bench to the ground next to her feet. “You just missed them,” she says.

“You know him? Oh, god, how long ago did they leave?”

Avery shrugs, “Like an hour ago.”

“Do you have his number? I mean, to whatever phone he’s got now? I tried to call him back but the number didn’t work. Maybe if I can call him…”

Avery hates him a little bit for his assumption that he can show up at the last minute in all his Ivy League glory and be welcomed. “He’s not going to come back, you know,” she says. She flips the phone to his address book and puts the newest number in under Aaron’s name. There are four old numbers there, all defunct.

“Thanks,” he says, and he dials immediately, pacing in the dust, in and out of the shade. When he says, “Fuck,” Avery knows that the phone has gone to voice mail. If this surprises him, it makes Avery think that he must not have known Aaron all that well.

“Aaron,” he says, and then there’s a pause before he continues. “It’s Christian. I made it to Baker City and there’s a guy here who says I just missed you, but I meant to be here, really. I want to see you. Your parents have been crazy for the past year and a half, absolutely batshit. I’ll be waiting here. Call me back.”

Then he sends a text, and another, and finally slumps on the bench beside her.

“He’s not coming back,” she says. “And I’m not a dude.”

“Oh, oh, I’m so—”

“Don’t worry about it,” she says, waving his apology away like a cloud of gnats.

They sit together on that bench while the sun crosses the sky and slips behind the hills, barely talking. Christian’s got questions, of course. He wants to know where they’ve been, where they were going, how Aaron’s been doing. Avery shuts him down. She’s marking time until she can get on the bus and head back to the real world. It kills her that he doesn’t seem to have figured out that they’ve both missed their chance. Some people you can’t explain this shit to. They’ve got to figure it out on their own.

When the bus comes, she flips her hair out of her face and says good–bye to Christian, who’s checking his phone again. She slides into a stained fabric bus seat that smells a lot like spilled coffee and a little like piss. He’s sitting alone when the bus drives off, waiting in the night for a phone call that’s never going to come.

Alien Babies

The car is full of four teenagers and too many glitter frogs, sitting on laps, on feet, on the floor, in the back window. The car rattles down a dirt road somewhere in Utah, a ranch exit fifty or eighty or a hundred miles from civilization.

They’re driving with no lights, leaving the freeway far behind. It’s a full moon so they can see the road anyway, their eyes adjusted to night. Tristan is driving. Aaron is drumming his hands on the dashboard, making up for the radio that he turned off once I–84 turned south, way back in Idaho.

In the back seat, J is staring out the window at nothing. Karen’s sitting on the driver’s side, head pressed against the back of Tristan’s seat. She keeps thinking that she should have stayed in Baker City with Avery, but she doesn’t say a single word.

The car hits a bump so hard that their asses all leave the seats. Aaron stops drumming. “Here,” he says. “STOP HERE.”

Tristan stomps the brakes, and there’s an exhalation of breath from slamming into the chest straps of their seatbelts, and then Tristan kills the motor. Silence.

Aaron climbs out of the car first, the dust of the road under his boots soft and dry. The air has gone cold, but he imagines he can still feel the warmth of the rocks underfoot. The others, human and glitter frog, follow him out of the car.

“Now what?” Tristan asks, the words strange in a place so quiet. Behind them is the buzzing rattle of someone’s phone left in the car.

Aaron skids down the embankment, dislodging dirt and gravel in a rush, and he starts walking away from the road. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen so many stars.

At first he thinks that the glitter frogs are catching up with him as he walks, but then he realizes that these are new frogs. More frogs. He can’t see where they’re coming from, but there are more, and more, until the ground is a shifting mass of glittering sparks.

He stops, waits for the others to catch up with him, waits for Tristan to be close so he can grip the other boy’s hand tight in his. They are barely breathing for the anticipation. Karen takes Aaron’s other hand, and J takes Tristan’s. Together, they wonder what the ship will be like, the stars, the swiftly receding earth.

All around them, spread out for miles as dense as carpet, the glitter frogs begin to sing.

A Year and a Day In Old Theradane

1. Wizard Weather
It was raining when Amarelle Parathis went out just after sunset to find a drink, and there was strange magic in the rain. It came down in pale lavenders and coppers and reds, soft lines like liquid dusk that turned to luminescent mist on the warm pavement. The air itself felt like champagne bubbles breaking against the skin. Over the dark shapes of distant rooftops, blue–white lightning blazed, and stuttering thunder chased it. Amarelle would have sworn she heard screams mixed in with the thunder.

The gods–damned wizards were at it again.

Well, she had a thirst, and an appointment, and odd rain wasn’t even close to the worst thing that had ever fallen on her from the skies over Theradane. As she walked, Amarelle dripped flickering colors that had no names. She cut a ghostly trail through fog that drifted like the murk beneath a pink and orange sea. As usual when the wizards were particularly bad, she didn’t have much company. The Street of Pale Savants was deserted. Shopkeepers stared forlornly from behind their windows on the Avenue of Seven Angles.

This had been her favorite sort of night, once. Heavy weather to drive witnesses from the streets. Thunder to cover the noise of feet creeping over rooftops. These days it was just lonely, unpredictable, and dangerous.   

A double arc of silvery lights marked the Tanglewing Canal Bridge, the last between her and her destination. The lights burned within lamps held by rain–stained white marble statues of shackled, hooded figures. Amarelle kept her eyes fixed on her feet as she crossed the bridge. She knew the plaques beneath the statues by heart. The first two on the left, for example:   

BOLAR KUSS
TRAITOR
NOW I SERVE THERADANE ALWAYS

CAMIRA THOLAR
MURDERESS
NOW I SERVE THERADANE ALWAYS

The statues themselves didn’t trouble her, or even the lights. So what if the city lit some of its streets and bridges with the unshriven souls of convicts, bound forever into melodramatic sculptures with fatuous plaques? No, the trouble was how those unquiet spirits whispered to passers–by.   

Look upon me, beating heart, and witness the price of my broken oaths.

“Fuck off, Bolar,” muttered Amarelle. “I’m not plotting to overthrow the Parliament of Strife.”

Take warning, while your blood is still warm, and behold the eternal price of my greed and slaughter!

“I don’t have a family to poison, Camira.”

Amarelle, whispered the last statue on the left. It ought to be you up here, you faithless bitch.

Amarelle stared at that last inscription, just as she promised herself she wouldn’t every time she came this way.

SCAVIUS OF SHADOW STREET
THIEF
NOW I SERVE THERADANE ALWAYS

“I never turned my back on you,” Amarelle whispered. “I paid for sanctuary. We all did. We begged you to get out of the game with us, but you didn’t listen. You blew it.”

You bent your knees to my killers before my flesh was even cold.

“We all bought ourselves a little piece of the city, Scav. That was the plan. You just did it the hard way.”

Some day you will share this vigil with me.

“I’m done with all that now. Light your bridge and leave me alone.”

There was no having a reasonable conversation with the dead. Amarelle kept moving. She only came this way when she wanted a drink, and by the time she got off the bridge she always needed at least two.

Thunder rolled through the canyons of the streets. A building was on fire somewhere to the east, smoldering unnatural purple. Flights of screeching bat–winged beasts filled the sky between the flames and the low, glowing clouds. Some of them tangled and fought, with naked claws and barbed spears and clay jars of explosive fog. The objectives the creatures contended for were known only to gods and sorcerers.

Gods–damned wizards and their stupid feuds. Too bad they ran the city. Too bad Amarelle needed their protection.

2. The Furnished Belly of the Beast
The Sign of the Fallen Fire lay on the west side of Tanglewing Street. Was, more accurately, the entire west side of Tanglewing Street. No room for anything else beside the cathedral of coiled bones knocked down fifteen centuries before, back when wild dragons occasionally took offense at the growing size of Theradane and paid it a visit. This one had settled so artistically in death, some long–forgotten entrepreneur had scraped out flesh and scales and roofed the steel–hard bones right where they lay.

Amarelle went in through the dragon’s mouth, shook burnt orange rain from her hair and watched wisps of luminous steam curl up from the carpet where the droplets landed. The bouncers lounging against eight–foot serrated fangs all nodded to her.

The tavern had doors where the dragon had once had tonsils. Those doors smelled good credit and opened smoothly.

The Neck was for dining and the Tail was for gambling. The Arms offered rooms for sleeping or not sleeping, as the renters preferred. Amarelle’s business was in the Gullet, the drinking cavern under the dead beast’s ribs and spine, where one hundred thousand bottles gleamed on racks and shelves behind the central bar.

Goldclaw Grask, the floor manager, was an ebony–scaled goblin in a dapper suit woven from actual Bank of Theradane notes. He had one in a different denomination for every night of the week; tonight he wore fifties.

“Amarelle Parathis, the Duchess Unseen,” he cried. “I see you just fine!”

“That one certainly never gets old, Grask.”

“I’m counting glasses and silverware after you leave tonight.”

“I’m retired and loving it,” said Amarelle. She’d pulled three jobs at the Sign of the Fallen Fire in her working days. Certainly none for silverware. “Is Sophara on bar tonight?”

“Of course,” said Grask. “It’s the seventeenth. Same night of the month your little crew always gets together and pretends it’s just an accident. Those of you that aren’t lighting the streets, that is.”

Amarelle glared. The goblin rustled over, reached up, took her left hand, and flicked his tongue contritely against her knuckles.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be an asshole. I know, you paid the tithe, you’re an honest sheep living under the bombardment like the rest of us. Look, Sophara’s waving. Have one on me.”

Sophara Miris had mismatched eyes and skin the color of rosewood, fine aquamarine hair and the hands of a streetside card sharp. When she’d paid her sanctuary tithe to the Parliament of Strife, she’d been wanted on three hundred and twelve distinct felony charges in eighteen cities. These days she was senior mage–mixologist at the Sign of the Fallen Fire, and she already had Amarelle’s first drink half–finished.

“Evening, stranger.” Sophara scrawled orders on a slate and handed it to one of the libationarians, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the contents and locations of all the bottles kept the bar running. “Do you remember when we used to be interesting people?”

“I think being alive and at liberty is pretty damn interesting,” said Amarelle. “Your wife planning on dropping in tonight?”

“Any minute now,” said Sophara, stirring equal parts liquor and illusion into a multi–layered concoction. “The self–made man’s holding a booth for us. I’m mixing you a Rise and Fall of Empires, but I heard Grask. You want two of these? Or something else?”

“You feel like making me a Peril on the Sea?” said Amarelle.

“Yours to command. Why don’t you take a seat? I’ll be over when the drinks are ready.”

Ten dozen booths and suspended balconies filled the Gullet, each carefully spaced and curtained to allow a sense of intimate privacy in the midst of grand spectacle. Lightning, visible through skylights between the ribs, crackled overhead as Amarelle crossed the floor. Her people had a usual place for their usual night, and Shraplin was holding the table.

Shraplin Self–Made, softly whirring concatenation of wires and gears, wore a tattered vermilion cloak embroidered with silver threads. His sculpted brass face had black gemstone eyes and a permanent ghost of a smile. A former foundry drudge, he’d taken advantage of the old Theradane law that a sentient automaton owned its own head and the thoughts therein. Over the course of fifteen years, he’d carefully stolen cogs and screws and bolts and wires and gradually replaced every inch of himself from the neck down until not a speck of his original body remained, and he was able to walk away from the perpetual magical indenture attached to it. Not long after that he’d found klepto–kindred spirits in Amarelle Parathis’ crew.

“Looking wet, boss,” he said. “What’s coming down out there?”

“Weird water,” said Amarelle, taking a place beside him. “Pretty, actually. And don’t call me boss.”

“Certain patterns engrave themselves on my ruminatory discs, boss.” Shraplin poured a touch of viscous black slime from a glass into a port on his neck. “Parliament’s really going at it tonight. When I got here purple fire was falling on the High Barrens.”

“That’s one advantage of living in our prosperous thaumatocracy,” sighed Amarelle. “Always something interesting exploding nearby. Hey, here’s our girls.”

Sophara Miris had one hand under a tray of drinks and the other around Brandwin Miris’ waist. Brandwin had frosted lavender skin that was no magical affectation and thick amber spectacles over golden eyes. Brandwin, armorer, artificer, and physician to automatons, had the death sentence in three principalities for supplying the devices that had so frequently allowed the Duchess Unseen’s crew to evade boring entanglements in local judicial systems. The only object she’d ever personally stolen in her life was the heart of the crew’s magician.

“Shraplin, my toy,” said Brandwin. She touched fingertips with the automaton before sitting down. “Valves valving and pipes piping?”

“Fighting fit and free of rust,” said Shraplin. “And your own metabolic processes and needs?”

“Well attended to,” said Sophara with a smirk. “Shall we get this meeting of the Retired Folks’ Commiseration and Inebriation Society rolling? Here’s something phlegmatic and sanguine for you, Shraplin.”

She handed over another tumbler of black ooze. The artificial man had no use for alcohol, so he kept a private reserve of human temperaments magically distilled into asphaltum lacquer behind the bar.

“A Black Lamps of Her Eyes for me,” said Sophara. “A Tower of the Elephant for the gorgeous artificer. And for you, Your Grace, a Peril on the Sea and a Rise and Fall of Empires.”

Amarelle hefted the latter, a thick glass containing nine horizontal layers of rose–tinted liquors, each layer inhabited by a moving landscape. These varied from fallow hills and fields at the bottom to great cities in the middle layers to a ruin–dotted waste on high, topped by clouds of foam.

“Anyone heard from Jade?” she said.

“Same as always,” said Shraplin. “Regards, and don’t wait up.”

“Regards and don’t wait up,” muttered Amarelle. She looked around the table, saw mismatched eyes and shaded eyes and cold black stones fixed on her in expectation. As always. So be it. She raised her glass, and they did likewise.

“Here’s a toast,” she said. “We did it and lived. We put ourselves in prison to stay out of prison. To absent friends, gone where no words nor treasure of ours can restore amends. We did it and lived. To the chains we refused and the ones that snared us anyway. We did it and lived.”

She slammed the drink back, poured layers of foaming history down her throat. She didn’t usually do this sort of thing to herself without dinner to cushion the impact, but hell, it seemed that kind of night. Lightning flashed above the skylights.

“Did you have a few on your way over here, boss?” said Shraplin.

“The Duchess is dead.” Amarelle set her empty glass down firmly. “Long live the Duchess. Now, do I have to go through the sham of pulling my cards out and dealing them, or would you all prefer to just pile your money neatly in the center of the table for me?”

“Oh, honey,” said Brandwin. “We’re not using your deck. It knows more tricks than a show dog.”

“I’ll handicap myself,” said Amarelle. She lifted the Peril on the Sea, admired the aquamarine waves topped with vanilla whitecaps, and in two gulps added it to the ball of fast–spreading warmth in her stomach. “There’s some magic I can appreciate. So, are we playing cards or having a staring contest? Next round’s on me!”

3. Cheating Hands
“Next round’s on me,” said Amarelle an hour and a half later. The table was a mess of cards, bank notes, and empty glasses.

“Next round’s IN you, boss,” said Shraplin. “You’re three ahead of the rest of us.”

“Seems fair. What the hell did I just drink, anyway?”

“A little something I call the Amoral Instrument,” said Sophara. Her eyes were shining. “I’m not allowed to make it for customers. Kind of curious to see what happens to you, in fact.”

“Water off a duck’s back,” said Amarelle, though the room had more soft edges than she remembered and her cards were not entirely cooperating with her plan to hold them steady. “This is a mess. A mess! Shraplin, you’re probably sober–esque. How many cards in a standard deck?”

“Sixty, boss.”

“How many cards presently visible in our hands or on the table?”

“Seventy–eight.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Amarelle. “Who’s not cheating? We should be pushing ninety. Who’s not cheating?”

“I solemnly affirm that I haven’t had an honest hand since we started,” said Brandwin. 

“Magician,” said Sophara, tapping her cards against her breast. “Enough said.”

“I’m wearing my cheating hands, boss,” said Shraplin. He wiggled his fingers in blurry silver arcs.

“This is sad.” Amarelle reached behind her left ear, conjured a seventy–ninth card out of her black ringlets, and added it to the pattern on the table. “We really are getting old and decrepit.”

Fresh lightning tore the sky, painting the room in gray–white pulses. Thunder exploded just overhead; the skylights rattled in their frames and even the great bone–rafters seemed to shake. Some of the other drinkers stirred and muttered.

“Fucking wizards,” said Amarelle. “Present company excepted, of course.”

“Why would I except present company?” said Brandwin, tangling the fingers of one hand in Sophara’s hair and gracefully palming an eightieth card onto the table with her other.

“It’s been terrible all week,” said Sophara. “I think it’s Ivovandas, over in the High Barrens. Her and some rival I haven’t identified, spitting fire and rain and flying things all over the damn place. The parasol sellers have been making a killing with those new leather and chainmail models.”

“Someone ought to stroll up there and politely ask them to give it a rest.” Shraplin’s gleaming head rotated slowly until he was peering at Amarelle. “Someone famous, maybe. Someone colorful and respected. Someone with a dangerous reputation.”

“Better to say nothing and be thought a fool,” said Amarelle, “than to interfere in the business of wizards and remove all doubt. Who needs a fresh round? Next one’s still on me. I plan on having all your money when we call it a night, anyway.”

4. The Trouble With Glass Ceilings
The thunder and lightning were continuous for the next hour. Flapping, howling things bounced off the roof at regular intervals. Half the patrons in the Gullet cleared out, pursued by the cajoling of Goldclaw Grask.

“The Sign of the Fallen Fire has stood for fifteen centuries!” he cried. “This is the safest place in all of Theradane! You really want to be out in the streets on a night like this? Have you considered our fine rooms in the Arms?”

There was a high–pitched sound of shattering glass. Something large and wet and dead hit the floor next to the bar, followed by a shower of skylight fragments and glowing rain. Grask squawked for a house magician to unmake the mess while the exodus quickened around him.

“Ahhh, nice to be off duty.” Sophara sipped unsteadily from a tumbler of something blue and uncomplicated. The bar had cut her off from casting her own spells into drinks. 

“You know,” said Amarelle, slowly, “maybe someone really should go up there to the High Barrens and tell that old witchy bitch to put a leash on her pets.”

The room, through her eyes, had grown softer and softer as the noisy night wore on, and had now moved into a decidedly impressionist phase. Goldclaw Grask was a bright smear chasing other bright smears across the floor, and even the cards on the table were no longer holding still long enough for Amarelle to track their value.

“Hey,” she said, “Sophara, you’re a citizen in good standing. Why don’t we get you made a member of Parliament so you can make these idiots stop?”

“Oh, brilliant! Well, first I’d need to steal or invent a really good youth–binding,” said the magician, “something better than the three–in–five I’m working now, so I can ripen my practice for a century or two. You might find this timeline inconvenient for your purposes.”

“Then you’d need to find an external power locus to kick up your juice,” said Brandwin.

“Yes,” said Sophara, “and harness it without any other hazard–class sorcerers noticing. Oh, and I’d also need to go completely out of my ever–fucking head! You have to be a dead–eyed dirty–souled maniac to want to spend your extended life trading punches with other maniacs. Once you’ve seized that power, there’s no getting off the merry–go–round. You fight like hell just to hold on or you get shoved off.”

“Splat!” said Brandwin.

“Not my idea of a playground,” said Sophara, finishing her drink and slamming the empty glass down emphatically.

An instant later there was a horrendous shattering crash. A half–ton of dark winged something, its matted fur rain–wet and reeking, plunged through the skylight directly overhead and obliterated their table. A confused blur of motion and noise attended the crash, and Amarelle found herself on the floor with a dull ache between her breasts.

Some dutiful, stubborn fraction of her awareness kicked its way to the surface of the alcoholic ocean in her mind, and there clutched at straws until it had pieced together the true sequence of events. Shraplin, of course—the nimble automaton had shoved her aside before diving across the table to get Sophara and Brandwin clear.

“Hey,” said Amarelle, sitting up, “you’re not drunk at all!”

“That was part of my cheating, boss.” The automaton had been very nearly fast enough, very nearly. Sophara and Brandwin were safe, but his left leg was pinned under the fallen creature and the table.

“Oh, you best of all possible automatons! Your poor foot!” Brandwin crawled over to him and kissed the top of his brass head. 

“I’ve got three spares at home,” said Shraplin.

“That tears it,” muttered Amarelle, wobbling and weaving back to her feet. “Nobody drops a gods–damned gargoyle on my friends!”

“I think it’s a byakhee,” said Brandwin, poking at the beast. It had membranous wings and a spear protruding from what might have been its neck. It smelled like old cheese washed in gangrene and graveyard dew.

“I think it’s a vorpilax, love,” said Sophara. She drunkenly assisted her wife in pulling Shraplin out from under the thing. “Consider the bilateral symmetry.”

“I don’t care what it is,” said Amarelle, fumbling into her long black coat. “Nobody drops one on my card game or my crew. I’m going to find out where this Ivovandas lives and give her a piece of my mind.”

“Haste makes corpses, boss,” said Shraplin, shaking coils and widgets from the wreckage of his foot. “I was just having fun with you earlier.”

“Stupid damn commerce–murdering wizards!” Goldclaw Grask arrived at last, with a gaggle of bartenders and waiters in train. “Sophara! Are you hurt? What about the rest of you? Shraplin! That looks expensive. Tell me it’s not expensive!”

“I can soon be restored to prime functionality,” said Shraplin. “But what if I suggested that tonight is an excellent night for you to tear up our bill?”

“I, uh, well, if that wouldn’t get you in trouble,” said the goblin, directing waiters with mops toward the growing puddle of pastel–colored rainwater and gray ichor under the beast.

“If you give it to us freely,” said Sophara, “it’s not theft, and none of us break our terms of sanctuary. And Shraplin is right, Amarelle. You can’t just go berate a member of the Parliament of Strife! Even if you could safely cross the High Barrens in the middle of this mess—“

“Of course I can.” Amarelle stood up nearly straight and, after a few false starts, approximately squared her shoulders. “I’m not some marshmallow–muscled tourist, I’m the Duchess Unseen! I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE—”

“I know,” said Sophara. “I was there.”

“… and then I went back and stole all the Death Spiders!”

“That was ten years and an awful lot of strong drinks ago,” said Sophara. “Come on, darling, I mixed most of the drinks myself. Don’t scare us like this, Amarelle. You’re drunk and retired. Go home.” 

“This smelly thing could have killed all of us,” said Amarelle.

“Well, thanks to a little luck and a lot of Shraplin, it didn’t. Come on, Amarelle. Promise us you won’t do anything stupid tonight. Will you promise us?”    

5. Removing All Doubt
The High Barrens, east of Tanglewing Street, were empty of inhabitants and full of nasty surprises from the battle in progress. Amarelle kept out of the open, moving from shadowed arch to garden wall to darkened doorway, stumbling frequently. The world had a fragile liquid quality, running at the edges and spinning on previously unrevealed axes. She was not drunk enough to forget that she had to take extra care and still far too drunk to realize that she ought to be fleeing the way she’d come.

The High Barrens had once been a neighborhood of mansions and topiary wonders and public fountains, but the coming of the wizard Ivovandas has sent the former inhabitants packing. The arguments of the Parliament of Strife had blasted holes in the cobblestones, cracked and dried the fountains, and sundered the mansions like unloved toy houses. The purple fire from before was still smoldering in a tall ruined shell of wood and brick. Amarelle sidestepped the street–rivers of melted lead that had once been the building’s roof. 

It wasn’t difficult to find the manse of Ivovandas, the only lit and tended structure in the neighborhood, guarded by smooth walls, glowing ideograms, and rustling red–green hedges with the skeletons of many birds and small animals scattered in their undergrowth. A path of interlocked alabaster stones, gleaming with internal light, led forty curving yards to a golden front door.

Convenient. That guaranteed a security gauntlet.    

The screams of terrible flying things high above made concentration even more difficult, but Amarelle applied three decades of experience to the path and was not disappointed. Four trapped stones she avoided by intuition, two by dumb drunken luck. The gravity–orientation reversal was a trick she’d seen before; she cartwheeled (sloppily) over the dangerous patch and the magic pushed her headfirst back to the ground rather than helplessly into the sky. She never even felt the silvery call of the tasteful hypnotic toad sculptures on the lawn, as she was too inebriated to meet their eyes and trigger the effect.

When she reached the front door, the golden surface rippled like a molten pool and a sculpted arm emerged clutching a knocker ring. Amarelle flicked a collapsible baton out of her coat and used it to tap the ring against the door while she stood aside. There was a brief pause after the darts had hissed through empty air, and then a voice boomed:

“WHO COMES UNBIDDEN TO THE DOOR OF THE SUPREME SPELLWRIGHT  IVOVANDAS OF THE HONORABLE PARLIAMENT OF THERADANE? SPEAK, WORM!”

“I don’t take shit from doors,” said Amarelle. “I’m flattering your mistress by knocking. Tell her a citizen of Theradane is here to give her a frank and unexpurgated opinion on how terrible her aim is.”

“YOUR ATTITUDE IS UNDERSTANDABLE AND NONETHELESS THOROUGHLY OFFENSIVE. ARCS OF ELECTRODYNAMIC FORCE WILL NOW BE APPLIED TO THE LOBES OF YOUR BRAIN UNTIL THEY ARE SCALDED PULP. TO RECEIVE THIS PRONOUNCEMENT IN THE FORM OF UNIVERSAL PICTOGRAMS, SCREAM ONCE. TO REQUEST MORE RAPID SENSORY OBLIVION, SCREAM TWICE AND WAIT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS.”

“The name is Amarelle Parathis, also known as the Duchess Unseen. Your mistress’ stupid feuds are turning a fine old town into a shitsack misery farm and ruining my card games. Are you going to open up, or do I find a window?”

“AMARELLE PARATHIS,” said the door. A moment passed. “YOUR NAME IS NOT UNKNOWN. YOU PURCHASED SANCTUARY FROM THE PARLIAMENT OF THERADANE TWO YEARS AND FOUR MONTHS AGO.”

“Attadoor,” said Amarelle.

“THE MISTRESS WILL RECEIVE YOU.”

The sculpted hand holding the knocker withdrew into the liquid surface of the door. A dozen others burst forth, grabbing Amarelle by the throat, arms, legs, and hair. They pulled her off her feet and into the rippling golden surface, which solidified an instant later and retained no trace of her passage.

6. The Cabinet of Golden Hands
Amarelle awoke, thoroughly comfortable but stripped of all her weapons and wearing someone else’s silk nightgown.

She was in a doorless chamber, in a feather bed floating gently on a pool of liquid gold that covered the entire floor, or perhaps was the entire floor. Ruby shafts of illumination fell from etched glass skylights, and when Amarelle threw back her covers they dissolved into wisps of aromatic steam.

Something bubbled and churned beneath the golden pool. A small hemisphere rose from the surface, continued rising, became a tall, narrow, humanoid shape. The liquid drained away smoothly, revealing a dove–pale albino woman with flawless auric eyes and hair composed of a thousand golden butterflies, all fluttering elegantly at random.

“Good afternoon, Amarelle,” said the wizard Ivovandas. Her feet didn’t quite touch the surface of the pool as she drifted toward the bed. “I trust you slept well. You were magnificent last night!”

“Was I? I don’t remember… uh, that is, I remember some of it… am I wearing your clothes?”

“Yes.”

“Shouldn’t I have a hangover?”

“I took it while you slept,” said Ivovandas. “I have a collection of bottled maladies. Your hangover was due to be the stuff of legends. Here be dragons! And by ‘here,’ I mean directly behind your eyeballs, probably for the rest of the week. I’ll find another head to slip it into, someday. Possibly I’ll let you have it back if you fail me.”

“Fail you? What?” Amarelle leapt to her feet, which sank awkwardly into the mattress. “You have me confused with someone who knows what’s going on. Start with how I was magnificent.”

“I’ve never been so extensively insulted! In my own foyer, no less, before we even adjourned to the study. You offered penetratingly savage elucidation of all my character flaws, most of them imaginary, and then you gave me the firmest possible directions on how I and my peers were to order our affairs henceforth, for the convenience of you and your friends.”

“I, uh, recall some of that, I think.”

“I am curious about a crucial point, citizen Parathis. When you purchased sanctuary from the Parliament of Theradane, you were instructed that personal threats against the members of said parliament could be grounds for summary revocation of sanctuary privileges, were you not?”

“I… recall something with that flavor… in the paperwork… possibly on the back somewhere… maybe in the margins?”

“You will agree that your statements last night certainly qualified as personal threats?”

“My statements?”

Smiling, Ivovandas produced a humming blue crystal and used it to project a crisp, solid image into the air beside the bed. It was Amarelle, black–coated and soaked with steaming magic rain, gesturing with clutching hands as she raved:

“And another thing, you venomous milk–faced thundercunt! NOBODY drops a dead vorpilax on my friends, NOBODY! What you fling at the other members of your pointy–hatted circle jerk is your business, but the next time you trifle with the lives of uninvolved citizens, you’d better lock your doors, put on your thickest steel corset, and hire a food taster, you catch my meaning?”

The image vanished.

“Damn,” said Amarelle. “I’ve always thought of myself as basically a happy drunk.”

“I’m three hundred and ten years old,” said Ivovandas, “and I learned some new words last night! Oh, we were having such fun, until I found myself personally threatened.”

“Yes. So it would seem. And how were you thinking we might, ah, proceed in this matter?”

“Ordinarily,” said Ivovandas, “I’d magically redirect the outflow of your lower intestine into your lungs, which would be my little way of saying that your sanctuary privileges had been revoked. However, those skills of yours, and that reputation… I have a contract suited to such a contractor. Why don’t you get dressed and meet me in the study?”

A powerful force struck Amarelle from behind, knocking her off the bed, headfirst into the golden pool. Rather than swimming down she found herself floating up, rising directly through the floor of Ivovandas’ study, a large room full of bookshelves, scrollcases, and lacquered basilisk–skin paneling. Amarelle was suddenly wearing her own clothes again.

On the wall was an oil painting of the bedroom Amarelle had just left, complete with a masterful rendering of Ivovandas floating above the golden pool. As Amarelle watched, the painted figure grew larger and larger within the frame, then pushed her arms and head out of it, and with a twist and a jump at last floated free in the middle of the study.

“Now,” said Ivovandas. “To put it simply, there is an object within Theradane I expect you to secure. Whether or not your friends help you is of no concern to me. As an added incentive, if you deliver this thing to me quietly and successfully, you will calm a great deal of the, ah, public disagreement between myself and a certain parliamentary peer.”

“But the terms of my sanctuary!” said Amarelle. “You got part of my tithe! You know how it works. I can’t steal within the boundaries of Theradane.”

“Well, you can’t threaten me either,” said Ivovandas. “And that’s a moot point now, so what have you got to lose?”

“An eternity not spent as a street lamp.”

“Admirable long–term thinking,” said Ivovandas. “But I do believe if you scrutinize your situation you’ll see that you’re up a certain proverbial creek, and I am the only provisioner of paddles willing to sell you one.”

Amarelle paced, hands shoved sullenly into her coat pockets. She and her crew needed the security of Theradane; they had grown too famous, blown too much cover, taken too many interesting keepsakes from the rich and powerful in too many other places. Theradane’s system was simplicity itself. Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.

“Have some heart, Amarelle. It’s not precisely illegal for me to coax a master criminal back into operations within the city limits, but I can’t imagine my peers would let the matter pass unremarked if they ever found out about it. Do as I ask and I’ll gladly smash my little blue crystal. We’ll both walk away smiling, in harmonious equipoise.”

“What do you want me to secure for you?”

Ivovandas opened a tall cabinet set against the right–hand wall. Inside was a blank tapestry surrounded on all sides by disembodied golden hands not unlike the ones that had hauled Amarelle across the threshold. The hands leapt to life, flicking across the tapestry with golden needles and black thread. Lines appeared on the surface, lines that rapidly became clear to Amarelle as the districts of Theradane and their landmarks: the High Barrens, the Sign of the Fallen Fire, the Deadlight Downs, and a hundred others, stitch by stitch.

When the map was complete, one hand stitched in a final thread of summer–fire crimson, glowing somewhere in the northeastern part of the city. 

“Prosperity Street,” said Ivovandas. “In Fortune’s Gate, near the Old Parliament.”

“I’ve been there,” said Amarelle. “What do you want?”

“Prosperity Street. In Fortune’s Gate. Near the Old Parliament.”

“I heard you the first time,” said Amarelle. “But what do you… oh, no. You did not. You did not just imply that implication!”

“I want you to steal Prosperity Street,” said Ivovandas. “The whole street. The entire length of it. Every last brick and stone. It must cease to exist. It must be removed from Theradane.”

“That street is three hundred yards long, at the heart of a district so important and money–soaked that even you lunatics don’t blast it in your little wars, and it’s trafficked at every hour of every day!”

“It would therefore be to your advantage to remove it without attracting notice,” said Ivovandas. “But that’s your business, one way or the other, and I won’t presume to give you instruction in your own narrow specialty.”

“It. Is. A. STREET.”

“And you’re Amarelle Parathis. Weren’t you shouting something last night about how you’d stolen the sound of the sunrise?”

“On the right day of the year,” said Amarelle, “on the peak of the proper mountain, and with a great deal of help from some dwarves and more copper pipe than I can—damn it, it was very complicated!”

“You stole tears from a shark.”

“If you can figure out how to identify a melancholy shark, you’re halfway home in that business.”

“Incidentally, what did you do with the Death Spiders of Moraska once you’d taken them?”

“I mailed them back to the various temples of the spider–priests who’d been annoying me. Let’s just say that confinement left the spiders agitated and hungry, and that the cult now has very firm rules concerning shipping crates with ventilation holes. Also, I mailed the crates postage due.”

“Charming!” cried Ivovandas. “Well, you strike me as just the sort of woman to steal a street.”

“I suppose my only other alternative is a pedestal engraved ‘Now I Serve Theradane Always.’”

“That, or some more private and personal doom,” said Ivovandas. “But you have, in the main, apprehended the salient features of your choices.”

“Why a street?” said Amarelle. “Before I proceed, let’s be candid, or something resembling it. Why do you want this street removed, and how will doing so calm down the fighting between you and your… oh. Oh, hell, it’s a locus, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Ivovandas. Her predatory grin revealed teeth engraved with hair–fine lines of gold in arcane patterns. “Prosperity Street is the external power locus of the wizard Jarrow, my most unbeloved colleague. It’s how he finds the wherewithal to prolong this tedious contest of summoned creatures and weather. Without it, I could flatten him in an afternoon and be home in time for tea.”

“Forgive me if this is a touchy subject, but I thought the nature of these loci was about the most closely–guarded secret you and your… colleagues possess.”

“Jarrow has been indiscreet,” said Ivovandas. “But then, he understands the knowledge alone is useless if it can’t be coupled to a course of action. A street is quite a thing to dispose of, and the question of how to do so absolutely stymied me until you came calling with your devious head so full of drunken outrage. Shall we go to contract?” 

The cabinet of golden hands unstitched the map of Theradane, and in its place embroidered a number of paragraphs in neat, even script. Amarelle peered closely at them. They were surprisingly straightforward, describing a trade of one (1) street for one (1) blue crystal to be smashed, but then…

“What the hell’s this?” she said. “A deadline? A year and a day?”

“It’s the traditional span for this sort of arrangement,” said Ivovandas. “And surely you can see the sense in it. I prefer Jarrow de–fanged fairly soon, not five or ten or some nebulous and ever–changing number of years from now. I require you working with determination and focus. And you require some incentive other than simple destruction for failure, so there it all is.”

“A year and a day,” said Amarelle, “and I deliver the street, or surrender my citizenship and worldly wealth to permanent indenture in your service.”

“It would be a comfortable and exciting life,” said Ivovandas. “But you can avoid it if you’re as clever as I hope you are.”

“And what if I were to quietly report this arrangement to the wizard Jarrow and see if he could do better for me?”

“A worthwhile contemplation of treacherous entanglement symmetrical to my own! I salute your spirit, but must remind you that Jarrow possesses no blue crystal, nor do you or he possess the faintest notion of where my external locus resides. You must decide for yourself which of us would make the easier target. If you wish to be ruled by wisdom, you’ll reach into your pockets now.”

Amarelle did, and found that a quill and an ink bottle had somehow appeared therein.

“One street,” she said. “For one crystal. One year and one day.”

“It’s all there in plain black thread,” said Ivovandas. “Will you sign?”

Amarelle stared at the contract and ground her teeth, a habit her mother had always sternly cautioned her against. At last, she uncapped the bottle of ink and wet the quill.

7. Another Unexpected Change of Clothing
The usual tumult of wizardly contention had abated. Even Ivovandas and Jarrow seemed to be taking a rest from their labors when Amarelle walked out of the High Barrens under a peach–colored afternoon haze. All the clocks in the city sounded three, refuting and echoing and interrupting one another, the actual ringing of the hour taking somewhere north of two and a half minutes due to the fact that clocks in Theradane were traditionally mis–synchronized to confuse malicious spirits.

Amarelle’s thoughts were an electric whirl of anxiety and calculation. She hailed a mechanavipede and was soon speeding over the rooftops of the city in a swaying chair tethered beneath the straining wings of a flock of mechanical sparrows. There was simply nowhere else to go for help; she would have to heave herself before her friends like jetsam washed up on a beach.

Sophara and Brandwin lived in a narrow, crooked house on Shankvile Street, a house they’d secured at an excellent price due to the fact that it sometimes had five stories and sometimes six. Where the sixth occasionally wandered off to was unknown, but while it politely declined their questions about its business it also had the courtesy to ask none concerning theirs. Amarelle had the mechanavipede heave her off into a certain third–floor window which served as a friends–only portal for urgent business.

The ladies of the house were in, and by a welcome stroke of luck so was Shraplin. Brandwin was fussing with the pistons of his replacement left foot, while Sophara sprawled full–length on a velvet hammock wearing smoked glasses and an ice–white beret that exuded analgesic mist in a halo about her head.

“How is it that you’re not covered in vomit and begging for death?” said Sophara. “How is it that you consumed three times your own weight in liquor and I’ve got sole custody of the hangover?”

“I had an unexpected benefactor, Soph. Can you secure this chamber for sensitive conversation?”

“The whole house is reasonably safe,” groaned the magician, rolling off the hammock with minimal grace and dignity. “Now, if you want me to weave a deeper silence, give me a minute to gather my marbles. Wait…”

She pulled her smoked glasses off and peered coldly at Amarelle. Stepping carefully around the mess of specialized tools and mechanical gewgaws littering the carpet, she approached, sniffing the air.

“Something wrong, dearest?” said Brandwin.

“Shhhh,” said Sophara. She rubbed her eyes in the manner of the freshly–awake, then reached out, moved Amarelle’s left coat lapel aside, and pulled a gleaming gold thread out of the black wool.

“You,” she said, arching her aquamarine eyebrows at Amarelle, “have been seeing another wizard.”

Sophara clapped her hands and an eerie hush fell upon the room. The faint sounds of the city outside were utterly banished.

“Ivovandas,” said Amarelle. “I ran off and did something stupid last night. In my defense, I would just like to say that I was angry, and you were the one mixing the drinks.”

“You unfailingly omni–bothersome bitch,” said Sophara. “Well, this little thread would allow Ivovandas to eavesdrop, if not for my counterspell and certain fundamental confusions worked into the stones of this house. And where there’s obvious chicanery, there’s something lurking behind it. Take the rest of your clothes off.”

“What?”

“Do it now, Amarelle!” Sophara retrieved a silver–engraved casket from a far corner of the room, clicked it open, and made urgent motions while Amarelle shed her coat. 

“You see how direct she is?” Brandwin squeezed a tiny bellows to pressurize a tube of glowing green oil within Shraplin’s leg. “We’d never have gotten anywhere if she’d waited for me to make the first move.”     

“You keep your eyes on your work,” said Sophara. “I’ll do the looking for both of us and give you details later.”

“I sometimes think that ‘friend’ is just a word I use for all the people I haven’t murdered yet,” said Amarelle, hopping and twirling out of her boots, leggings, belts, vest, blouse, sharp implements, silk ropes, smoke capsules, and smallclothes. When the last stitch was discarded, Sophara slammed the casket shut and muttered spells over the lock.

As a decided afterthought, smiling and taking her time, she eventually fetched Amarelle a black silk dressing robe embroidered with blue–white astronomical charts.

“It seems to be my day to try on everyone else’s clothes,” she muttered.

“I’m sorry about your things,” said Sophara. “I should be able to sweep them for further tricks, but Ivovandas is so far outside my weight class, it might take days.” 

“Never let a wizard get their hands on your clothes,” said Brandwin. “At least not until she promises to move in with you. It ought to be safe to talk now.”

“I’m not entirely sure how to say this,” said Amarelle, “but the concise version is that I’m temporarily unretired.”

She told the whole story, pausing only to answer Sophara’s excited questions about the defenses and décor of Ivovandas’ manse.

“That’s a hell of a thing, boss,” said Shraplin when Amarelle finished. The clocks within the house started chiming five, and didn’t finish for some time. The city clocks were still sealed beyond Sophara’s silence. “I thought we were up against it when that shark tears job landed on us. But a street!”

“I wonder how Jarrow figured out it was a locus.” Sophara adjusted the analgesic hat, which had done her much good over the long course of Amarelle’s story. ”I wonder how he harnessed it without anyone interfering!”

“Keep it relevant, dreamer.” Brandwin massaged her wife’s legs. “The pertinent question is, how are we going to pull it off?”

“I only came for advice,” said Amarelle hastily. “This is all my fault, and nobody else needs to risk their sanctuary because I got drunk and sassed a wizard.”

“Let me enlighten you, boss,” said Shraplin. “If you don’t want me to follow you around being helpful, you must be planning to smash my head right now.”

“Amarelle, you can’t keep us out in the cold now! This mischief is too delicious,” said Sophara. “And it’s clearly not prudent to let you wander off on your own.”

“I’m grateful,” said Amarelle, “but I feel responsible for your safety.” 

“The Parliament of Strife craps destruction on its own city at random, boss.” Shraplin spread his hands. “How much more unsafe can we get? Frankly, two and a half quiet years is adequate to my taste.”

“Yes,” said Sophara. “Hang your delicate feelings, Amarelle, you know we won’t let you… oh, wait. You foxy bag of tits and sugar! You didn’t come here just for advice! You put your noble face on so we’d pledge ourselves without the pleasure of seeing you beg!”

“And you fell for it.” Amarelle grinned. “So it’s agreed, we’re all out of retirement and we’re stealing a street. If anyone cares to let me know how the hell that’s supposed to work, the suggestion box is open.”

8. The Cheap Shot
They spent the first two days in measurement and surveillance. Prosperity Street was three hundred and seventeen yards long running north–south, an average of ten yards wide. Nine major avenues and fifteen alleys bisected it. One hundred and six businesses and residences opened onto it, one of which was a wine bar serving distillations of such quality that a third day was lost to hangovers and remonstrations.

They struck on the evening of the fourth day, as warm mist curled lazily from the sewers and streetlamps gleamed like pearls in folds of gray gauze. The clocks began chiming eleven, a process that often lasted until it was nearly time for them to begin striking twelve.

A purple–skinned woman in the coveralls of a municipal functionary calmly tinkered with the sign post at the intersection of Prosperity and Magdamar. She placed the wooden shingle marked PROSPERITY S in a sack and tipped her hat to a drunk, semi–curious goblin. Brandwin emptied three intersections of PROSPERITY S signs before the clocks settled down.

At the intersection of Prosperity and Ninefingers, a polite brass–headed drudge painted over every visible PROSPERITY S with an opaque black varnish. Two blocks north, a mechanavipede flying unusually low with a cargo of one dark–haired woman crashed into a signpost, an accident that would be repeated six times. At the legendarily confusing seven–way intersection where the various Goblin Markets joined Prosperity, a sorceress disguised as a cat’s shadow muttered quiet spells of alphabetic nullification, wiping every relevant signpost like a slate.

They had to remove forty–six shingles or signposts and deface the placards of sixteen businesses that happened to be named after the street. Lastly, they arranged to tip a carboy of strong vitriol over a ceremonial spot in the pavement where PROSPERITY STREET was set in iron letters. When those had become PRCLGILV SLGFLL, they gave the mess a quick splash of water and hurried away to dispose of their coveralls, paints, and stolen city property. 

The next day, Ivovandas was less than impressed.

“Nothing happened.” Her gold eyes gleamed dangerously and her butterflies were still. “Not one femto–scintilla of deviation or dampening in the potency of Jarrow’s locus. Though there were quite a few confused travelers and tourists. You need to steal the street, Amarelle, not vandalize its ornaments.”

“I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” said Amarelle. “I just thought we ought to eliminate the simplest approach first. Never lay an Archduke on the table when a two will do.”

“The map is not the territory.” Ivovandas gestured and transported Amarelle to the front lawn of her manse, where the hypnotic toad sculptures nearly cost her even more lost time.

9. Brute Force
Their next approach took eleven days to plan and arrange, including two days lost to a battle between parliament wizards in the western sectors that collapsed the Temple–Bridge of the God of Hidden Names.

The street signs had been restored at the intersection of Prosperity and Languinar, the southernmost limit of Prosperity Street. The sunrise sky was just creeping over the edge of the city in orange and scarlet striations, and the clocks were or were not chiming seven. A caravan of reinforced cargo coaches drawn by armored horses halted on Languinar, preparing to turn north. The signs hanging from the coaches read:

NUSBARQ DESISKO AND SONS
HAZARDOUS ANIMAL TRANSPORT

As the caravan moved into traffic, a woman in a flaming red dress riding a mecharabbit hopped rudely into the path of the lead carriage, triggering an unlikely but picturesque chain of disasters. Carriage after carriage toppled, wheel after wheel flew from its hub, horse team after horse team ran neighing into traffic as their emergency releases snapped. The side of the first toppled carriage exploded outward, and a furry, snarling beast came bounding out of the wreckage.

“RUN,” cried someone, who happened to be the woman in the red dress. “IT’S A SPRING–HEELED WEREJACKAL!”

A heartbeat later her damaged mecharabbit exploded, enveloping her in a cloud of steam and sparks. The red dress was reversible and Amarelle had practiced swapping it around by touch. Three seconds later she ran from the cloud of steam dressed in a black hooded robe. Shraplin, not at all encumbered by seventy–five pounds of fur, leather, and wooden claws, merrily activated the reinforced shock–absorbing leg coils Brandwin had cobbled together for him. He went leaping and howling across the crowd, turning alarm into panic and flight.   

Twenty–two unplanned carriage or mechanavipede collisions took place in the next half–minute, locking traffic up for two blocks north of the initial accident. Amarelle didn’t have time to count them as she hurried north in Shraplin’s wake.

Another curiously defective carriage in the Nusbarq Desisko caravan cracked open, exposing its cargo of man–sized hives to the open air and noise. Thousands of Polychromatic Reek–Bees, scintillating in every color of the rainbow and fearful for the safety of their queens, flew forth to spew defensive stink–nectar on everything within buzzing distance. The faintest edge of that scent followed Amarelle north, and she regretted having eaten breakfast. Hundreds of people would be burning their clothes before the day was through.   

All along the length of Prosperity Street, aural spells prepared in advance by Sophara began to erupt. Bold, authoritative voices ordered traffic to halt, passers–by to run, shops to close, citizens to pray for deliverance. They screamed about werejackals, basilisks, reek–bees, Cradlerobber Wasps, rabid vorpilax, and the plague. They ordered constables and able–bodied citizens to use barrels and carriages as makeshift riot–barricades at the major intersections, which some of them did.

Amarelle reached the alley after Ninefingers Way and found the package she’d stashed behind a rotten crate the night before. Soon she emerged from the alley in the uniform of a Theradane constable, captain’s bars shining on her collar, steel truncheon gleaming. She issued useless and contradictory orders, fomented panic, pushed shopkeepers into their stores and ordered them to bar their doors. When she met actual constables, she jabbed them with the narcotic prong concealed on the end of her truncheon. Their unconscious bodies, easily mistaken for dead, added a piquant verisimilitude to the raging disquiet.

At the northern end of Prosperity Street, a constabulary riot wagon commanded by a pair of uniformed women experienced another improbable accident when it came into contact with the open fire of a careless street fondue vendor. Brandwin and Sophara threw their helmets aside and ran screaming, infecting dozens of citizens with disoriented panic even before the rockets and canisters inside the wagon began to explode. For nearly half an hour pinkish–white arcs of sneezing powder, soporific smoke, and eye–scalding pepper dust rained on Prosperity Street.

Eventually, two parliament wizards had to grudgingly intervene to help the constables and bucket brigades restore order. The offices of Nusbarq Desisko and Sons were found to be empty and their records missing, presumably carried with them when they fled the city. The spring–heeled werejackal was never located and was assumed taken as a pet by some wizard or another.

“What do you mean, nothing happened?” Amarelle paced furiously in Ivovandas’ study the following day, having explained herself to the wizard, who had half–listened while consulting a grimoire that occasionally moaned and laughed to itself. “We closed the full length of Prosperity Street down for more than three hours! We stole the street from everyone on it in a very meaningful sense! The traffic didn’t flow, the riot barriers were up, not a scrap of commerce took place anywhere—”

“Amarelle,” said the wizard, not taking her eyes from her book, “I applaud your adoption of a more dynamic approach to the problem, but I’m afraid it simply didn’t do anything. Not the merest hint of any diminishment to Jarrow’s arcane resources. I do wish it were otherwise. Mind the hypnotic toads, as I’ve strengthened their enchantments substantially.” She snapped her fingers, and Amarelle was back on the lawn.

10. The Typographic Method
Sophara directed the next phase of their operations, resigning her place as mage–mixologist indefinitely.

“It was mostly for easy access to the bar anyway,” she said. “And they’d kiss my heels to have me back anytime.”

A studious, eye–straining month and a half followed. Sophara labored over spell–board, abacus, grimoire, and journal, working in four languages and several forms of thaumaturgical notation that made Amarelle’s eyes burn.

“I keep telling you not to look at them!” said Sophara as she adjusted the analgesic beret on Amarelle’s head. “You haven’t got the proper optical geometry! You and Brandwin! You’re worse than cats.”   

Brandwin prowled libraries and civic archives. Amarelle broke into seventeen major private collections. Shraplin applied his tireless mechanical perception to the task of rapidly sifting thousands of pages in thousands of books. A vast pile of notes grew in Brandwin and Sophara’s house, along with an inelegant but thorough master list of scrolls, pamphlets, tomes, and records.

“Any guide to the city,” chanted Amarelle, for the formula had become a sort of mantra. “Any notes of any traveler, any records of tax or residence, any mentions of repairs, any journals or recollections. Have we ever done anything less sane? How can we possibly expect to locate every single written reference to Prosperity Street in every single document in existence?”

“We can’t,” said Sophara. “But if my calculations are anywhere near correct, and if this can work at all, we only need to change a certain critical percentage of those records, especially in the official municipal archives.”

Shraplin and Brandwin cut panels of wood down to precise replicas of the forty–six street signs and the sixteen business placards they had previously tried to steal. They scraped, sanded, varnished, and engraved, making only one small change to each facsimile.

“I have the key,” said Brandwin, emerging from her incense–filled workroom one night, bleary–eyed and cooing at a small white moth perched atop her left index finger. “I call it the Adjustment Moth. It’s a very complex and efficient little spell I can cast on anything about this size.”

“And what will they do?” said Amarelle.

“They’ll become iterating work–enhancers,” said Sophara. “It’d take us years to manually adjust all the records we’re after. Enchanted with my spell to guide and empower them, we can send these little darlings out to do almost all of the work for us in one night.”

“How many do we need?” said Shraplin.

Nine nights later, from carefully–selected points around the city, they loosed 3,449 of Sophara’s Adjustment Moths, each of which fluttered into the darkness and thence into libraries, archives, shop cupboards, private studies, and bedside cabinets. The 2,625 Adjustment Moths that were not eaten by bats or appropriated as cat toys located a total of 617,451 references to the name ‘Prosperity Street’ and made one crucial change to each physical text. By sunrise they were all dead of exhaustion.

Amarelle and her crew replaced the forty–six street signs and sixteen business placards under cover of darkness, then pried up one of the (restored) ceremonial iron letters sunk into the pavement. PROSPERIT STREET, the survivors said. PROSPERIT, read the signs and placards. PROSPERIT STREET read the name of the place in every guidebook, private journal, lease, assize, and tax record in the city, save for a few in magically–guarded sanctums of the Parliament of Strife.

Overnight, Prosperity Street had been replaced by its very close cousin, Prosperit Street. 

“Amarelle,” said Ivovandas, sipping daintily at a cup of molten gold she’d heated in a desk–side crucible, “I sympathize with your agitation at the failure of so original and far–ranging a scheme, but I really must stress the necessity of abandoning these fruitlessly metaphysical approaches. Don’t steal the street’s name, or its business, or its final ‘Y.’ Steal the street, wholly and physically!”

Amarelle groaned. “Back to the lawn?”

“Back to the lawn, my dear!” 

11. After Amarelle, the Deluge
Twenty–seven days later, one of the natural storms of summer blew in from the west, a churning shroud of dark clouds looking for a brawl. As usual, the wizards of parliament preserved their individual territories and let the rest of Theradane fend for itself. It was therefore theoretically plausible that the elevated aqueduct that crossed Prosperity Street just north of Limping Matron Lane would choose that night to break under the strain.

Prosperity Street was already contending with plugs of debris clogging its sewer grates (these plugs granted unusual thickness and persistence by the spells of Sophara Miris) and with its own valley–like position at the foot of several more elevated neighborhoods. The foaming rush from the broken aqueduct turned a boot–soaking stream into a rather more alarming waist–high river.

Amarelle and her crew lurked in artificial shadows on a high rooftop, dutifully watching to ensure that no one, particularly children and goblins, suffered more than a soaking from the flood. The city hydromancers would eventually show up to set things right, but they were no doubt having a busy night.

“This is still a touch metaphysical, if you ask me,” said Sophara.

“It’s something of a hybrid approach,” said Amarelle. “After all, how can it be a street if it’s been physically turned into a canal?” 

12. No
“No,” said Ivovandas. Amarelle was returned to the lawn.

13. Instructive Measures
Half a year gone. Despite vandalism, riot, werejackals, clerical errors, and flood, Prosperity Street was more worthy of its name than ever. Amarelle strolled the pavement, feeling the autumn sun on her face, admiring the pale bronze leaves of Prayer–trees as they tumbled about in little clouds, inscribed with calligraphic benedictions for anyone whose path they crossed.

There was a stir in the crowds around her, a new cacophony of shouting and muttering and horse–hooves and creaking wheels. Traffic parted to the north, making way for a rumbling coach, half again as high and wide as anything on the street. It was black as death’s asshole, windowless, trimmed with engraved silver and inlaid nacre. It had no horses and no driver; each of its four wheels was a circular steel cage in which a slavering red–eyed ghoul ran on four limbs, creating a forward impetus.

The singular coach moaned on its suspension as it swerved and lurched to a halt beside Amarelle. The ghouls leered at her, unbreathing, their flesh crisply necrotic like rice paper pressed over old oozing wounds. The black door flew open and a footstep fell into place. A velvet curtain still fluttered in the entrance to the coach, concealing whatever lay inside. A voice called out, cold as chloroform and old shame.   

“Don’t you know an invitation when you see one, citizen Parathis?”

Running from wizards in broad daylight without preparation was not a skill Amarelle had ever cultivated, so she stepped boldly into the carriage, ducking her head.

She was startled to find herself in a warm gray space at least forty yards on a side, with a gently curving ceiling lit by floating silver lights. A vast mechanical apparatus was ticking and pulsing and shifting in the middle of the room, something along the lines of an orrery, but in place of moons and planets the thin arms held likenesses of men and women, likenesses carved with exaggerated features and comical flaws. Amarelle recognized one of them as Ivovandas by the gold eyes and butterfly hair.

There were thirteen figures, and they moved in complex interlocking patterns around a model of the city of Theradane.

The carriage door slammed shut behind her. There was no sensation of motion, other than the almost–hypnotic sway and swing of the wizard–orrery.

“My peers,” said the cold voice, coming now from behind her. “Like celestial bodies, transiting in their orbits, exerting their influences. Like celestial bodies, not particularly difficult to track or predict in their motions.”

Amarelle turned and gasped. The man was short and lithe, his skin like ebony, his hair scrapped down to a reddish stubble. There was a scar on his chin and another on his jawline, each of them familiar to her fingers and lips. Only the eyes were wrong; they were poisoner’s eyes, dead as glass.

“You have no fucking right to that face,” said Amarelle, fighting not to shout.

“Scavius of Shadow Street, isn’t it? Or more like ‘wasn’t it?’ Came with you to Theradane, but we never got his sanctuary money. Blew it in some dramatic gesture, I recall.”

“He got drunk and lost it all on a dice throw,” she said, wetting her lips and forcing herself to say: “Jarrow.”

“Pleased to meet you, Amarelle Parathis.” The man wore a simple black jacket and breeches. He extended a hand, which she didn’t take. “Lost it all on one throw? That was stupid.”

“I’m not unacquainted with drunken mistakes myself,” said Amarelle.

“And then he went and did something even more stupid,” said Jarrow. “Earned a criminal’s apotheosis. Transfigured into a street lamp.”

“Please… take some other form.”

“No.” Jarrow scratched his head, shook a finger at her. “That’s a fine starting point for the discussion I really brought you here for, Amarelle. Let’s talk about behavior that might get someone transfigured into a street decoration.”

“I’m retired.”

“Sure, kid. Look, there’s a very old saying in my family: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is another wizard fucking with you.’ You never spent much time near Prosperity Street before, did you? Your apartments are on Hellendal. South of Tanglewing Street. Right?”

“About the location of my apartments, of course.”

“You’ve got iron in your spine, Amarelle, and I’m not here to prolong this or embarrass you. I’m just suggesting, to the room, if you like, that it would be a shame if any more unusual phenomena befell a part of Theradane that is of particular sentimental value to me. This is what your sanctuary money gets you. This is me being kind. Are you pretending to listen, or are you listening?”

“I’m listening.”

“Here’s a little something to further sharpen your hearing.” A burlap sack appeared in Jarrow’s hands and he threw it to her. It weighed about ten pounds, and the contents rattled. “The usual verification that I’m serious. You know how it works. Anyhow, in the best of all possible worlds, we never have to have a conversation like this again. What world do you want to live in, Amarelle Parathis?”

The air grew cold. The lights dimmed and receded into the corners of the room, vanishing like stars behind clouds. Amarelle’s stomach tumbled, and then her boots were on pavement, the sound of traffic was all around her, and Prayer–tree leaves brushed her face.

The sun was high and warm, and the black coach was nowhere in sight.    

Amarelle shook the sack open and cursed as Shraplin’s head tumbled out. The edges of the pipes running out of his neck were burnt and bent.

“I don’t know what to say, boss.” His voice was steady but weak. “I’m embarrassed. I got jumped last night.”

“What the hell did they do?”

“Nothing technically illegal, boss. They left my head and the contents intact. As for the rest, let’s just say I don’t expect to see it again.”

“I’m sorry, Shraplin. I’ll get you to Brandwin. I’m so sorry.”

“Quit apologizing, boss.” Something whirred and clunked behind the automaton’s eyes, and he gave a garbled moan. “But I have to say, my reverence for these high–level wizard types is speeding in what you might call a southerly direction.”

“We need more help,” whispered Amarelle. “If we’re going to put the boot to this mess, I think it’s high time we got the whole band back together.”   

14. The Unretirement of Jadetongue Squirn
She was tall for a goblin, not that that meant anything to most other species. Her scales were like black glass, her eyes like the sudden plunge to blue depths beyond a continental shelf. Her pointed ears were pierced with silver rings, some of which held writing quills she could reach up and seize at leisure.

They all went together to see her in her shadowed cloister at the Theradane Ministry of Finance and Provision, a place that stank of steady habits, respectability, and workers who’d died at their desks with empty in–boxes. She was not best pleased to receive them.

“We’re not what we were!” Jade hissed when Amarelle had finished telling most of the story, safely inside the goblin’s office and Sophara’s sound–proof bubble. “Look at you! Look at the messes you’ve made! And look at me. How can I possibly help you? I’m an ink–stained functionary these days. I scribe ordinances and design engravings for bank notes.”

Amarelle stared at her, biting her lip. Jadetongue Squirn had been jailed six times and escaped six times. You could walk nearly around the world by setting foot only in nations that still sought her for trial. Smuggler, negotiator, procurer of bizarre supplies, she was also the finest forger Amarelle had ever met, capable of memorizing signatures at a glance and reproducing them with either hand.

“We’ve missed you at our drinking nights,” said Brandwin. “You were always welcome. You were always wanted.”

“I don’t belong anymore.” Jade’s voice was flat and she clung to her desk as though it could be a wall between herself and her old comrades. “I’m like a hermit crab that’s pulled an office over itself. Maybe the rest of you were only kidding yourselves about retiring, but I’m the real thing. I haven’t been coming out to see you because you’d expect Jadetongue Squirn, not this timid little person who wears her clothes.”

“We’re like a hand with a missing finger,” said Amarelle. “We’ve got half a year to make three hundred yards of street vanish and we need that slick green brain of yours. You said it yourself—look at what a mess we’ve made so far! Look what Jarrow did to Shraplin.”

Amarelle reached into a leather satchel. The automaton’s head bounced on Jadetongue’s desk a moment later, and she made a rattling noise in her throat.

“Ha ha! The look on your face!” said Shraplin.

“How about the look on yours, duncebucket?” she growled. “I ought to stuff you in a drawer for scaring me like that!”

“You see now why we have to have you back,” said Amarelle. “Shraplin’s the warning. Our next shot has to be for keeps.”

“Three funny bitches and a smart–ass automaton sans ass,” said Jade. “You think you can just walk in here, tug on my heartstrings, and snatch me out of my sad retirement.”

“Yes,” said Amarelle.

“We’re still not what we were.” She put a scaly hand on Shraplin’s face, then spun him like a top. “I’m definitely not what I was. But what the hell. Maybe you’re right, about needing help, at least.” 

“So, are you going to take a leave of absence or something?” said Shraplin, when he’d stopped saying “Whaaaaargabaarrrrrgggh!”

“A leave of absence? Are you sure you didn’t damage the contents of your head?” Jadetongue glanced around at all the members of the crew. “Sweethearts, softskins, thimblewits, if you’re determined to see this thing through, the municipal bureaucracy of Theradane is the last asset you want to toss carelessly over your shoulder!”

15. Honest Business
“I haven’t asked you for anything to assist us in this whole affair,” said Amarelle. “Not once. Now that needs to change.”

“I’m not averse in theory to small favors,” said Ivovandas, “given that the potential reward for your ultimate success is so personally tantalizing. But do understand, most of my magical resources are currently committed. Nor will I do anything overt enough to harden Jarrow’s suspicions. He has the same authority to kill you outright that I do, if he can prove your violation of your sanctuary terms to our peers.”

“We’re starting a business,” Said Amarelle. “The High Barrens Reclamation Consortium. We need you to sign on as the principal stakeholder.”

“Why?”

“Because nobody can sue you.” Amarelle pulled a packet of paper out of her coat and set them on Ivovandas’ desk. “We need a couple of wagons and about a dozen workers. We’ll provide those. We’re going to excavate wrecked mansions in the High Barrens on days when you and Jarrow aren’t blasting at each other.”

“Again, why?”

“There’s some things we need to take,” said Amarelle with a smile, “and some things we need to hide. If we do it in our names, the heirs of all the families that ran like hell when you settled here and started shooting at other wizards will line up in court to stop us. If you’re the one in charge, they can’t do a damned thing.”

“I will examine these papers,” said Ivovandas. “I will have them returned to you if I deem the arrangement suitable.”

Amarelle found herself on the lawn. But three days later, the papers appeared in her apartments, signed and notarized. The High Barrens Reclamation Consortium went to work.

The Parliament of Strife ruled Theradane absolutely but were profoundly disinterested in the mundane business of cleaning the streets and sorting the paperwork. That much they left to their city’s strangely feudal and secretive bureaucracy, who were essentially free to do as they pleased so long as the hedges were trimmed and the damage from the continual wizard feuding was repaired. Jade worked efficiently from within this edifice. She pushed through all the requisite paperwork, forged or purchased the essential permits, swept all the mandated delays and hearings under the rug, and then stepped on the rug.   

Brandwin hired their crew, a dozen stout men and women. They were paid the going wage for their work, that much again for the occasional danger of proximity to Ivovandas’ battles, and a triple portion for keeping their mouths shut. For a week or two they excavated carefully in the wreckage of once–mighty houses, concealing whatever they took from the ruins beneath tarps on their wagons.     

Next, Brandwin and Shraplin spent a week refurbishing a trio of wagons as mobile vending carts. They extended wooden skirts around them to the ground, installed folding awnings and sturdy roofs, carved signs and painted them attractively. One of the wagons was kitted out as a book stall, the other two as food carts.

The labyrinth of bribes and permits needed to launch this sort of venture was even more daunting than the one that had preceded the excavation company. Jade outdid herself, weaving blackmail and intimidation into a tapestry of efficient palm–greasing. Whether the permit placards that hung from the vending carts were genuine articles or perfect copies was ultimately irrelevant. No procedural complication survived first contact with Jade’s attention.

With four months remaining, Amarelle and Sophara went into legitimate business for themselves. Amarelle peddled books on Prosperity Street until noon, while Sophara plied her precision sorcery for appreciative breakfast crowds on Galban Street. She cooked frosted walnut cakes into the shape of unicorns and cockatrices, caused fresh fruit to squeeze itself into juice glasses, and made her figs and dates give rude speeches while her customers tried to eat them and laugh at the same time. In the afternoon, she and Amarelle switched places.

Some days, Brandwin would operate the third vending cart, offering sweets and beer, but for some time she was absorbed in a number of demanding modifications to Shraplin’s body and limbs. These modifications remained hidden in the darkness of her workshop; Shraplin never went out in public wearing anything but one of his ordinary bodies.

One bright day on Prosperity Street, a stray breeze blew one of Amarelle’s books open and fluttered its pages. She moved to close it and was startled to find a detailed grayscale engraving of Scavius’ face staring up at her from the top page.

“Amarelle,” said the illustration. “You seem to have an unexpected literary sideline.”

“Can’t practice my former trade,” she said through gritted teeth. “Money’s getting tight.”

“So you’re exploring new avenues, eh? New avenues? Not even a smile? Well, fine, have it your way. I ought to snuff you, you realize. I don’t know who or what prompted the weirdness of the previous few months—”

Amarelle fanned the pages of the book vindictively. The illustration flashed past on each one, and continued talking smoothly when Amarelle gave up.

“…but the wisest and cleverest thing would be to turn your bones to molten glass and take no chances. Alas, I need evidence of wrongdoing. Can’t just blast sanctuary tithers. People might stop giving us large piles of treasure for the privilege.”

“My business partners and I are engaged in boring, legitimate commerce,” said Amarelle.

“I know. I’ve been peeking up your skirts, as it were. Very boring. I thought we ought to have a final word, though. A little reminder that you should stay boring, or I can think of one story that won’t have a happy ending.”

The book slammed itself shut. Amarelle exhaled slowly, rubbed her eyes, and went back to work. 

On the days wore, on the legitimate business went. The women began to move their vending carts more frequently, investing some of their profits in small mechanical equines to make this work easier.

With three months left in the contract, the carts that moved up and down Prosperity Street began to cross paths with carts from elsewhere in the city in a complicated dance that always ended with an unmarked High Barrens Reclamation Consortium wagon paying a quiet evening visit to one of the mansions they were excavating.

Another two months passed, and there was no spot on Prosperity Street that Amarelle or Sophara or Brandwin had not staked out at least temporarily, no merchant they hadn’t come to know by name, no constable they hadn’t thoroughly pacified with free food, good beer, and occasional gifts of books.

Three days before the contract was due to expire, a loud explosion shook the north end of Prosperity Street, breaking windows and knocking pedestrians to the curb. A mansion in a private court was found burning, already collapsing into itself. A huge black coach lay wrecked in the drive, its ghoul–cage wheels torn open, its roof smashed, its insides revealing nothing but well–upholstered seats and a carpeted floor.   

The next day, Amarelle Parathis was politely summoned to the manse of the wizard Ivovandas.

16. Bottled Malady
“Am I satisfied? Satisfaction is a palliative,” said Ivovandas, gold–threaded teeth blazing with reflected light, butterflies fluttering furiously. “Satisfaction is mild wine. Satisfaction is a tiny fraction of what I feel. Delight and fulfillment pounding in my breast like triumphant chords! Seventy years of unprofitable disdain from this face–changing reprobate, and now his misery is mine to contemplate at leisure.”

“I’m so pleased you were able to crush him,” said Amarelle. “Did you manage to get home in time for your tea afterward?”

The golden wizard ignored her and kept staring at the glass cylinder on her desk. It was six inches tall and half as wide, capped with a ground–glass stopper and sealed with wax the color of dried blood. Inside it was wretched Jarrow, shrunken to a suitable proportion and clad in rags. He had reverted (or been forced into) the shape of a cadaverous pale man with a silver–black beard. 

“Jarrow,” she sighed. “Jarrow. Oh, the laws of proportion and symmetry are restored to operation between us; my sustained pleasure balanced accurately against your lingering discomfort and demise.”

“So obviously,” said Amarelle, “you consider me to have stolen Prosperity Street in accordance with the contract?”

Jarrow pounded furiously against the glass.

“Oh, obviously, dear Amarelle, you’ve acquitted yourself splendidly! Yet the street is still there, is it not? Still carrying traffic, still hosting commerce. Before I retrieve your blue crystal, are you of a mind to indulge my former colleague and I with an explanation?”

“Delighted,” said Amarelle. “After all our other approaches failed, we decided to try the painstakingly literal. Prosperity Street is roughly three thousand, one hundred and seventy square yards of brick and stone surface. The question we asked ourselves was: who really looks at each brick and each stone?”

“Certainly not poor Jarrow,” said Ivovandas, “else he’d not find his bottle about to join my collection.”    

“We resolved to physically steal every single square yard of Prosperity Street, every brick and stone,” said Amarelle. “Which yielded three problems. First, how to do so without anyone noticing the noise and tumult of our work? Second, how to do so without anyone objecting to the stripped and uneven mess made of the street in our wake? Third, how to provide the physical labor to handle the sheer volume and tedium of the task?”

“To answer the second point first, we used the High Barrens Restoration Consortium. They carefully fished through the mansions you two have destroyed in your feud to provide us with all the bricks and stones we could ever need.

“A large hollow space was constructed beneath each of our vending carts, which we first plied up and down assorted city streets, not just Prosperity, for an interminable length of time to allay suspicion that they were directly aimed at Jarrow’s locus.”

Jarrow banged his head repeatedly against the inside of his prison.

“Eventually we felt it was safe to proceed with our real business. The rest you must surely have guessed by now. The labor was provided by Shraplin, an automaton, whose meeting with Jarrow left him very eager to bear any trouble or tedium in the cause of his revenge. Shraplin utilized tool–arms custom–forged for him by Brandwin Miris to dig up the bricks and stones of the actual street, and to lay in their place the bricks and stones taken from the High Barrens mansions. At night, the detritus he’d scraped up by day was dumped into the ruins of those same mansions. As for why nobody ever heard Shraplin scraping or pounding away beneath our carts, all I can say is that our magician is highly adept at the production of sound–proof barriers to fit any space or need.

“All that was left to do,” said Amarelle, stretching and yawning, “was to spend the months necessary to carefully position our carts over every square foot of Prosperity Street. Nobody ever noticed that when we moved on, the patches of street beneath us had changed subtly from the hour or two before. Eventually, we pried up the last brick that was genuinely important, and Jarrow’s locus became just another city lane.”

“Help me!” Jarrow cried, his voice high and faint as a whisper in the wind. “Get me away from her! I can be him for you! I can be Scavius! I can be anyone you want!”

“Enough from you, I think.” Ivovandas slid his prison lovingly into a desk drawer, still smiling. She curled her fingers, and a familiar blue crystal appeared within them.

“You have suffered quite tenaciously for this,” said Ivovandas. “I give it to you now as my half of our bargain, fairly begun and fairly concluded.”

Amarelle took the glowing crystal and crushed it beneath her heel.

“Is that the end of it?” she said. “All restored to harmonious equipoise? I go on my way and leave you to your next few years of conversation with Jarrow?”

“In a manner of speaking,” said Ivovandas. “While I have dutifully disposed of the crystal recording from last year’s intemperate drunken visitation, I have just now secured an even more entertaining one in which you confess at length to crimes carried out in Theradane and implicate several of your friends by name.”

“Yes,” said Amarelle. “I did rather expect something like this. I figured that since I was likely to eat more treachery, I might as well have an appreciative audience first.”

“I am the most appreciative audience! Oh, we could be so good for one another! Consider, Amarelle, the very reasonable bounds of my desires and expectations. I fancy myself fairly adept at identifying the loci in use by my colleagues. With Jarrow removed, there will be a rebalancing of the alliances in our parliament. There will be new testing and new struggles. I shall be watching very, very carefully, and inevitably I expect to have another target for you and your friends to secure on my behalf.”

“You want to use us to knock off the Parliament of Strife, locus by locus” said Amarelle. “Until it’s something more like the Parliament of Ivovandas.”

“It might not happen in your lifetime,” said the wizard. “But substantial progress could be at hand! In the meantime, I’ll be quite content to let you remain at liberty in the city, enjoying your sanctuary, doing as you please. So long as you and your friends come when I call. Doubt not that I shall call.”     

17. The Work Ahead
Amarelle met them afterward on the Tanglewing Bridge, in the pleasant purple light of fading sunset. The city was quiet, the High Barrens peaceful, no fires falling from the clouds or screeching things sinking claws into one another.

They gathered in an arc in front of Scavius’ statue. Sophara muttered and gestured with her fingers.

“We’re in the bubble,” she said. “Nobody can hear us, or even see us unless I… shut up, Scavius, I know you can hear us. You’re a special case. How did it go down, Amarelle?”

“It went down like we expected,” said Amarelle. “Exactly like we expected.”

“I told you those kinds of sorcerers are all reflexively treacherous bags of nuts,” said Sophara. “What’s her game?”

“She wants us on an unpaid retainer so she can dig up the loci of more of her colleagues and send us after them.”

“Sounds like a good way to kill some time, boss.” Shraplin wound a crank on his chest, re–synchronizing some mechanism that had picked up a slight rattle. “I could stand to knock over a few more of those assholes. She’d save us a lot of work if she identified the loci for us.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” said Sophara. “Now hold still.”

She ran her fingers through Amarelle’s hair, and after a few moments of searching carefully plucked out a single curling black strand. 

“There’s my little spy,” said Sophara. “I’m glad you brought me that one Ivovandas planted on you, Am. I never would have learned how to make these things so subtle if I hadn’t been able to pry that one apart.”

“Do you think it will tell you enough?” said Brandwin.

“I honestly doubt it.” Sophara slipped the hair into a wallet and smiled. “But it’ll give me a good look at everything Amarelle was allowed to see, and that’s much better than nothing. If we can identify her patterns and her habits, the bitch will eventually start painting clues for us as to the location of her own locus.”

“Splat!” said Brandwin.

“Yeah,” said Sophara. “And that’s definitely my idea of a playground.”

“I should be able to get some messages out of the city,” said Jadetongue. “Some of the people we’ve got howling for our blood hate the Parliament of Strife even more. If we could make arrangements with them before we knock those wizards down, I’d bet we could buy our way back into the world. Theradane sanctuary in reverse, at least in a few places.”

“I like the way you people think,” said Amarelle. “Ivovandas as a stalking horse, and once we’ve got the goods on her we dump her ass in the river. Her and all her friends. Who’s got the wine?”

Jade held out the bottle, something carnelian and bioluminescent and expensive. They passed it around, and even Shraplin dashed a ceremonial swig against his chin. Amarelle turned with the half–empty bottle and faced Scavius’ statue.

“Here it is, you asshole. I guess we’re not as retired as we might have thought. Five thieves going to war against the Parliament of Strife. Insane. The kind of odds you always loved best. Will you try to think better of us? And if you can’t, will you at least keep a few pedestals warm? We might have a future as street lamps after all. Have one on us.”

She smashed the bottle against his plaque, and they watched the glowing, fizzing wine run down the marble. After a few moments, Sophara and Brandwin walked away arm in arm, north toward Tanglewing Street. Shraplin followed, then Jade.   

Amarelle alone remained in the white light of whatever was left of Scavius. What he whispered to her then, she kept to herself.

She ran to catch up with the others.

“Hey,” said Jade. “Glad you’re back! You coming to the Sign of the Fallen Fire with us? We’re going to have a game.”

“Yeah,” said Amarelle, and the air of Theradane tasted better than it had in months. “Hell yeah we’re going to have a game!”

The Half-Life of Angels

Disasters spawn angels upon the earth.

The angel of New Orleans bears wings of rain and howling wind. The angels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bear wings like flash–burned silhouettes. The angel of San Francisco bears wings of smoke. The angels of London stand together, wing brushing wing, fire, plague, the concussion of bombs. The Valdivia angel, the Wenchuan angel spread their wings of shuddering rock. Angels with wings of floodwater stride across continents, the mud of rivers, the salt of tsunamis.

They are not angels of god, and no one knows how long their memory will last.

Young Woman in a Garden

Beauvoisin (1839–1898)

Edouard Beauvoisin was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a provincial doctor. When he demonstrated a talent for drawing, however, his mother saw to it that he was provided with formal training. In 1856, Beauvoisin went to Paris, where he worked at the Académie Suisse and associated with the young artists disputing Romanticism and Classicism at the Brasserie des Martyrs. In 1868, he married the artist Céleste Rohan. He exhibited in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, and was a member of the 1874 Salon of Impressionists. In 1875 he moved to Brittany where he lived and painted until his death in 1898. He is best known for the figure–studies Young Woman in a Garden and Reclining Nude.

Impressions of the Impressionists
Oxford University Press, 1970

M. Herri Tanguy
Director
Musée La Roseraie
Portrieux, Brittany
France

January 6, 1990

Monsieur:

I write to you at the suggestion of M. Rouart of the Musée d’Orsay to request permission to visit the house of M. Edouard Beauvoisin and to consult those of his personal papers that are kept there.

In pursuit of a Ph.D. degree in the History of Art, I am preparing a thesis on the life and work of M. Beauvoisin, who, in my opinion, has been unfairly neglected in the history of Impressionism.

Enclosed is a letter of introduction from my adviser, Professor Boodman of the Department of Art History at the University of Massachusetts. She has advised me to tell you that I also have a personal interest in M. Beauvoisin’s life, for his brother was my great–great–grandfather.

I expect to be in France from May 1 of this year, and to stay for at least two months. My visit to La Roseraie may be scheduled according to your convenience. Awaiting your answer, I have the honor to be

Your servant, Theresa Stanton

When Theresa finally found La Roseraie at the end of an unpaved, narrow road, she was tired and dusty and on the verge of being annoyed. Edouard Beauvoisin had been an Impressionist, even if only a minor Impressionist, and his house was a museum, open by appointment to the public. At home in Massachusetts, that would mean signs, postcards in the nearest village, certainly a brochure in the local tourist office with color pictures of the garden and the master’s studio and a good clear map showing how to get there.

France wasn’t Massachusetts, not by a long shot.

M. Tanguy hadn’t met Theresa at the Portrieux station as he had promised, the local tourist office had been sketchy in its directions, and the driver of the local bus had been depressingly uncertain about where to let her off. Her feet were sore, her backpack heavy, and even after asking at the last two farmhouses she’d passed, Theresa still wasn’t sure she’d found the right place. The house didn’t look like a museum: gray stone, low–browed and secretive, its front door unequivocally barred, its low windows blinded with heavy white lace curtains. The gate was stiff and loud with rust. Still, there was a neat stone path leading around to the back of the house and a white sign with the word “Jardin” printed on it over a faded black hand pointing down the path. Under the scent of dust and greenery, was a clean, sharp scent of salt–water.

Theresa hitched up her backpack, heaved open the gate, and followed the hand’s gesture.

“Monet,” was her first thought when she saw the garden, and then, more accurately, “Beauvoisin.” Impressionist, certainly—an incandescent, carefully balanced dazzle of yellow light, clear green grass, and carmine flowers against a celestial background. Enchanted, Theresa unslung her camera and captured a couple of faintly familiar views of flower beds and sequined water before turning to the house itself.

The back door was marginally more welcoming than the front, for at least it boasted a visible bell–pull and an aged, hand–lettered sign directing the visitor to “Sonnez,” which Theresa did, once hopefully, once impatiently, and once again for luck. She was just thinking that she’d have to walk back to Portrieux and call M. Tanguy when the heavy door opened inward, revealing a Goyaesque old woman. Against the flat shadows of a stone passage, she was a study in black and white: long wool skirt and linen blouse, sharp eyes and finely crinkled skin.

The woman looked Theresa up and down, then made as if to shut the door in her face.

“Wait,” cried Theresa, putting her hand on the warm planks. “Arretez. S’il vous plait. Un moment. Please!”

The woman’s gaze travelled to Theresa’s face. Theresa smiled charmingly.

Eh, bien?” asked the woman impatiently.

Pulling her French around her, Theresa explained that she was making researches into the life and work of the famous M. Beauvoisin, that she had written in the winter for permission to see the museum, that seeing it was of the first importance to completing her work. She had received a letter from M. le Directeur, setting an appointment for today.

The woman raised her chin suspiciously. Her smile growing rigid, Theresa juggled camera and bag, dug out the letter, and handed it over. The woman examined it front and back, then returned it with an eloquent gesture of shoulders, head, and neck that conveyed her utter indifference to Theresa’s work, her interest in Edouard Beauvoisin, and her charm.

Fermé,” she said, and suited the action to the word.

Parent,” said Theresa rather desperately. “Je suis de la famille de M. Beauvoisin.”

From the far end of the shadowy passage, a soft, deep voice spoke in accented English. “Of course you are, my dear. A great–grand niece, I believe. Luna,” she shifted to French, “surely you remember the letter from M. le Directeur about our little American relative?” And in English again. “Please to come through. I am Madame Beauvoisin.”

In 1874, Céleste’s mother died, leaving La Roseraie to her only child. There was some talk of selling the house to satisfy the couple’s immediate financial embarrassments, but the elder Mme Beauvoisin came to the rescue once again with a gift of 20,000 francs. After paying off his debts, Beauvoisin decided that Paris was just too expensive, and moved with Céleste to Portrieux in the spring of 1875.

“I have taken some of my mother’s gift and put it towards transforming the ancient dairy of La Roseraie into a studio,” he wrote Manet. “Ah, solitude! You cannot imagine how I crave it, after the constant sociability of Paris. I realize now that the cafés affected me like absinthe: stimulating and full of visions, but death to the body and damnation to the soul.”

In the early years of what his letters to Manet humorously refer to as his “exile,” Beauvoisin travelled often to Paris, and begged his old friends to come and stay with him. After 1879, however, he became something of a recluse, terminating his trips to Paris and discouraging visits, even from the Manets. He spent the last twenty years of his life a virtual hermit, painting the subjects that were dearest to him: the sea, his garden, the fleets of fishing–boats that sailed daily out and back from the harbor of Portrieux.

The argument has been made that Beauvoisin had never been as clannish as others among the Impressionists—Renoir and Monet, for example, who regularly set up their easels and painted the same scene side by side. Certainly Beauvoisin seemed unusually reluctant to paint his friends and family. His single portrait of his wife, executed not long after their marriage, is one of his poorest canvases: stiff, awkwardly posed, and uncharacteristically muddy in color. “Mme Beauvoisin takes exception to my treatment of her dress,” he complained in a letter to Manet, “or the shadow of the chair, or the balance of the composition. God save me from the notions of women who think themselves artists!”

In 1877, the Beauvoisins took a holiday in Spain, and there met a young woman named Luz Gascó, who became Edouard’s favorite—indeed his only—model. The several nude studies of her, together with the affectionate intimacy of Young Woman in a Garden leaves little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, even in the absence of documentary evidence. Luz came to live with the Beauvoisins at La Roseraie in 1878, and remained there even after Beauvoisin’s death in 1898. She inherited the house and land from Mme Beauvoisin and died in 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War.

Lydia Chopin. Lives Lived in Shadow: Edouard and Céleste Beauvoisin.
Apollo. Winter, 1989.

The garden of La Roseraie extended through a series of terraced beds down to the water’s edge and up into the house itself by way of a bank of uncurtained French doors in the parlor. When Theresa first followed her hostess into the room, her impression was of blinding light and color and of flowers everywhere—scattered on the chairs and sofas, strewn underfoot, heaped on every flat surface, vining across the walls. The air was somnolent with peonies and roses and bee–song.

“A lovely room.”

“It has been kept just as it was in the time of Beauvoisin, though I fear the fabrics have faded sadly. You may recognize the sofa from Young Woman Reading and Reclining Nude, also the view down the terrace.”

The flowers on the sofa were pillows, printed or needlepointed with huge, blowsy, ambiguous blooms. Those pillows had formed a textural contrast to the model’s flat black gown in Young Woman Reading and sounded a sensual, almost erotic note in Reclining Nude. As Theresa touched one almost reverently—it had supported the model’s head—the unquiet colors of the room settled in place around it, and she saw that there were indeed flowers everywhere. Real petals had blown in from the terrace to brighten the faded woven flowers of the carpet, and the walls and chairs were covered in competing chintzes to provide a background for the plain burgundy velvet sofa, the wooden easel, and the portrait over the mantel of a child dressed in white.

“Céleste,” said Mme Beauvoisin. “Céleste Yvonne Léna Rohan, painted at the age of six by some Academician—I cannot at the moment recollect his name, although M. Rohan was as proud of securing his services as if he’d been Ingres himself. She hated it.”

“How could you possibly…” Theresa’s question trailed off at the amusement in Mme Beauvoisin’s face.

“Family legend. The portrait is certainly very stiff and finished, and Céleste grew to be a disciple of Morisot and Manet. Taste in aesthetic matters develops very young, do you not agree?”

“I do,” said Theresa. “At any rate, I’ve loved the Impressionists since I was a child. I wouldn’t blame her for hating the portrait. It’s technically accomplished, yes, but it says nothing about its subject except that she was blonde and played the violin.”

“That violin!” Mme Beauvoisin shook her head, ruefully amused. “Mme Rohan’s castle in Spain. The very sight of it was a torture to Céleste. And her hair darkened as she grew older, so you see the portrait tells you nothing. This, on the other hand, tells all.”

She led Theresa to a small painting hung by the door. “Luz Gascó,” she said. “Painted in 1879.”

Liquid, animal eyes gleamed at Theresa from the canvas, their gaze at once inviting and promising, intimate as a kiss. Theresa glanced aside at Mme Beauvoisin, who was studying the portrait, her head tilted to one side, her wrinkled lips smoothed by a slight smile. Feeling unaccountably embarrassed, Theresa frowned at the painting with self–conscious professionalism. It was, she thought, an oil study of the model’s head for Beauvoisin’s most famous painting, Young Woman in a Garden. The face was tilted up to the observer and partially shadowed. The brushwork was loose and free, the boundaries between the model’s hair and the background blurred, the molding of her features suggested rather than represented.

“A remarkable portrait,” Theresa said. “She seems very… alive.”

“Indeed,” said Mme Beauvoisin. “And very beautiful.” She turned abruptly and, gesturing Theresa to a chair, arranged herself on the sofa opposite. The afternoon light fell across her shoulder, highlighting her white hair, the pale rose pinned in the bosom of her high–necked dress, her hands folded on her lap. Her fingers were knotted and swollen with arthritis. Theresa wondered how old she was and why M. Tanguy had said nothing of a caretaker in his letter to her.

“Your work?” prompted Mme Beauvoisin gently.

Theresa pulled herself up and launched into what she thought of as her dissertation spiel: neglected artist, brilliant technique, relatively small ouvre, social isolation, mysterious ménage. “What I keep coming back to,” she said, “is his isolation. He hardly ever went to Paris after 1879, and even before that he didn’t go on those group painting trips the other Impressionists loved so much. He never shared a studio even though he was so short of money, or let anyone watch him paint. And yet his letters to Manet suggest that he wasn’t a natural recluse—anything but.”

“Thus Luz Gascó?” asked Mme Beauvoisin.

“I’m sorry?”

“Luz Gascó. Perhaps you think she was the cause of Beauvoisin’s—how shall I say?—Beauvoisin’s retreat from society?”

Theresa gave a little bounce in her chair. “That’s just it, you see. No one really knows. There are a lot of assumptions, especially by male historians, but no one really knows. What I’m looking for is evidence one way or the other. At first I thought she couldn’t have been…” She hesitated, suddenly self–conscious.

“Yes?” The low voice was blandly polite, yet Theresa felt herself teased, or perhaps tested. It annoyed her, and her answer came a little more sharply than necessary.

“Beauvoisin’s mistress.” Mme Beauvoisin raised her brows and Theresa shrugged apologetically. “There’s not much known about Céleste, but nothing suggests that she was particularly meek or downtrodden. I don’t think she’d have allowed Luz to live here all those years, much less left the house to her, if she knew she was…involved with her husband.”

“Perhaps she knew and did not concern herself.” Mme Beauvoisin offered this consideringly.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Theresa. “I’d need proof, though. I’m not interested in speculation, theory, or even in a juicy story. I’m interested in the truth.”

Mme Beauvoisin’s smile said that she found Theresa very young, very charming. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I believe you are.” Her voice grew brisker. “Beauvoisin’s papers are in some disorder, you understand. Your search may take you some weeks, and Portrieux is far to travel twice a day. It would please me if you would accept the hospitality of La Roseraie.”

Theresa closed her eyes. It was a graduate student’s dream come true, to be invited into her subject’s home, to touch and use his things, to live his life. Mme Beauvoisin, misinterpreting the gesture, said, “Please stay. This project—Beauvoisin’s papers—it is of great importance to us, to Luna and to me. We feel that you are well suited to the task.”

To emphasize her words, she laid her twisted hand on Theresa’s arm. The gesture brought her face into the sun, which leached her eyes and skin to transparency and made a glory of her silvered hair. Theresa stared at her, entranced.

“Thank you,” she said. “I would be honored.”

Young Woman in a Garden (Luz at La Roseraie) 1879

Edouard Beauvoisin’s artistic reputation rests on this portrait of his Spanish mistress, Luz Gascó, seated in the garden of La Roseraie. As in Reclining Nude, the composition is arranged around a figure that seems to be the painting’s source of light as well as its visual focus. Luz sits with her face and body in shade and her feet and hands in bright sunlight. Yet the precision with which her shadowy figure is rendered, the delicate modeling of the face, and the suggestion of light shining down through the leaves onto the dark hair draw the viewer’s eye up and away from the brightly–lit foreground. The brushwork of the white blouse is especially masterly, the coarse texture of the linen suggested with a scumble of pale pink, violet, and gray.

“The Unknown Impressionists,” exhibition catalogue,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

“This is the studio.”

Mme Beauvoisin laid her hand on the blue–painted door, hesitated, then stepped aside. “Please,” she said, and gave Theresa a courteous nod.

Heart tripping over itself with excitement, Theresa pushed open the door and stepped into Beauvoisin’s studio. The room was shuttered, black as midnight; she knocked over a chair, which fell with an echoing clatter.

“I fear the trustees have hardly troubled themselves to unlock the door since they came into possession of the property,” said Mme Beauvoisin apologetically. “And Luna and I have little occasion to come here.” Theresa heard her shoe heels tapping across the flagstone floor. A creak, a bang, and weak sunlight struggled over a clutter of easels, canvases, trunks and boxes, chairs, stools, and small tables disposed around a round stove and a shabby sofa. The French sure are peculiar, Theresa thought. What a way to run a museum!

Mme Beauvoisin had taken up a brush and was standing before one of the easels in the attitude of a painter interrupted at work. For a moment, Theresa thought she saw a canvas on the easel, an oil sketch of a seated figure. An unknown Beauvoisin? As she stepped forward to look, an ancient swag of cobweb broke and showered her head with flies and powdery dust. She sneezed convulsively.

“God bless you,” said Mme Beauvoisin, laying the brush on the empty easel. “Luna brings a broom. Pah! What filth! Beauvoisin must quiver in his tomb, such an orderly man as he was!”

Soon, the old woman arrived with the promised broom, a pail of water, and a settled expression of grim disapproval. She poked at the cobwebs with the broom, glared at Theresa, then began to sweep with concentrated ferocity, raising little puffs of dust as she went and muttering to herself, witch–like.

“So young,” she said. “Too young. Too full of ideas. Too much like Edouard, enfin.”

Theresa bit her lip, caught between curiosity and irritation. Curiosity won. “How am I like him, Luna?” she asked. “And how can you know? He’s been dead almost a hundred years.”

The old woman straightened and turned, her face creased deep with fury. “Luna!” she snarled. “Who has given you the right to call me Luna? I am not a servant, to be addressed without respect.”

“You’re not? I mean, of course not. I beg your pardon, Mlle…?” And Theresa looked a wild appeal to Mme Beauvoisin, who said, “The fault is entirely mine, Mlle Stanton, for not introducing you sooner. Mlle Gascó is my companion.”

Theresa laughed nervously, as at an incomprehensible joke. “You’re kidding,” she said. “Mlle Gascó? But that was the model’s name, Luz’s name. I don’t understand. Who are you, anyway?”

Mme Beauvoisin shrugged dismissively. “There is nothing to understand. We are Beauvoisin’s heirs. And the contents of this studio are our inheritance, which is yours also. Come and look.” With a theatrical flourish, she indicated a cabinet built along the back wall. “Open it,” she said. “The doors are beyond my strength.”

Theresa looked from Mme Beauvoisin to Mlle Gascó and back again. Every scholar knows that coincidences happen, that people leave things to their relatives, that reality is sometimes unbelievably strange. And this was what she had come for, after all, to open the cabinet, to recover all the mysteries and illuminate the shadows of Beauvoisin’s life. Perhaps this Mlle Gascó was his illegitimate granddaughter. Perhaps both women were playing some elaborate and obscure game. In any case, it wasn’t any of her business. Her business was with the cabinet and its contents.

The door was warped, and Theresa had to struggle with it for a good while before it creaked stiffly open on a cold stench of mildew and the shadowy forms of dispatch boxes neatly arranged on long shelves. Theresa sighed happily. Here they were, Beauvoisin’s papers, a scholar’s treasure trove, her ticket to a degree, a career, a profession. And they were all hers. She reached out both hands and gathered in the nearest box. As the damp cardboard yielded to her fingers, she felt a sudden panic that the papers would be mildewed into illegibility. But the papers were wrapped in oilcloth and perfectly dry.

Reverently, Theresa lifted out a packet of letters, tied with black tape. The top one was folded so that some of the text showed. Having just spent a month working with Beauvoisin’s letters to Manet at the Bibliothèque National, she immediately recognized his hand, tiny and angular and blessedly legible. Theresa slipped the letter free from the packet and opened it. I have met, she read, a dozen other young artists in the identical state of fearful ecstasy as I, feeling great things about Art and Beauty which we are half–shy of expressing, yet must express or die.

“Thérèse.” Mme Beauvoisin sounded amused. “First we must clean this place. Then you may read Beauvoisin’s words with more comfort and less danger of covering them with smuts.”

Theresa became aware that she was holding the precious letter in an unforgivably dirty hand. “Oh,” she said, chagrined. “I’m so sorry. I know better than this.”

“It is the excitement of discovery.” Mme Beauvoisin took the letter from her and rubbed lightly at the corner with her apron. “See, it comes clean, all save a little shadow that may easily be overlooked.” She folded the letter, slipped it back into the packet, returned it to the box, and tucked the oilcloth over it.

“Today, the preparation of the canvas,” she said. “Tomorrow, you may begin the sketch.”

Edouard Beauvoisin had indeed been an orderly man. The letters were parceled up by year, in order of receipt, and labeled. Turning over Manet’s half of their long correspondence, Theresa briefly regretted her choice of research topic. Manet’s was a magic name, a name to conjure up publishers and job offers, fame and what passed for fortune among art historians. But Manet, who had been documented, described, and analyzed by every art historian worth his pince–nez, could never be hers. Beauvoisin was hers.

Theresa sorted out all the business papers, the bills for paint and canvas, the notes from obscure friends. What was left was what she gleefully called the good stuff: a handful of love–notes written by Céleste Rohan over the two years Beauvoisin had courted her, three boxes of letters from his mother, and two boxes of his answers, which must have been returned to him at her death.

It took Theresa a week to work through the letters, a week of long hours reading in the studio and short, awkward meals eaten in the kitchen with Mme Beauvoisin and Luna. It was odd. In the house and garden, they were everywhere, present as the sea–smell, forever on the way to some domestic task or other, yet never too busy to inquire politely and extensively after her progress. Or at least Mme Beauvoisin was never too busy. Luna mostly glared at her, hoped she wasn’t wasting her time, warned her not to go picking the flowers or walking on the grass. It didn’t take long for Theresa to decide that she didn’t like Luna.

She did, however, like Edouard Beauvoisin. In the studio, Theresa could lose herself in Beauvoisin’s world of artists and models. The letters to his mother from his early years in Paris painted an intriguing portrait of an intelligent, passionate, and above all, naive young man whose most profound desire was to capture and define Beauty in charcoal and oils. He wrote of poses and technical problems and what his teacher M. Couture had said about his life studies, reaffirming in each letter his intention to draw and draw and draw until every line breathes the essence of the thing itself. A little over a year later, he was speaking less of line and more of color; the name Couture disappeared from his letters, to be replaced by Manet, Degas, Duranty, and the brothers Goncourt. By 1860, he had quit the Ecole des Beaux Arts and registered to copy the Old Masters at the Louvre. A year later, he met Céleste Rohan at the house of Berthe Morisot’s sister Edma Pontillon:

She is like a Raphael Madonna, tall and slender and pale, and divinely unconscious of her own beauty. She said very little at dinner, but afterwards in the garden with Morisot conversed with me an hour or more. I learned then that she is thoughtful and full of spirit, loves Art and Nature, and is herself something of an artist, with a number of watercolors and oil sketches to her credit that, according to Morisot, show considerable promise.

Three months later, he announced to his mother that Mlle Rohan had accepted his offer of hand and heart. Mme Beauvoisin the elder said everything that was proper, although a note of worry did creep through in her final lines:

I am a little concerned about her painting. To be sure, painting is an amiable accomplishment in a young girl, but you must be careful, in your joy at finding a soul–mate, not to foster useless ambitions in her breast. I’m sure you both agree that a wife must have no other profession than seeing to the comfort of her husband, particularly when her husband is an artist and entirely unable to see to his own.

When she read this, Theresa snorted. Perhaps her mother–in–law was why Céleste, like Edma Morisot and dozens of other lady artists, had laid down her brush when she married. Judging from her few surviving canvases, she’d been a talented painter, if too indebted to the style of Berthe Morisot. Now, if Céleste had just written to her future husband about painting or ambition or women’s role in marriage, Theresa would have an easy chapter on the repression of women artists in nineteenth–century France.

It was with high hopes that Theresa opened the small bundle of Céleste’s correspondence. She soon discovered that, however full of wit and spirit Céleste may have been in conversation, on paper she was terse and dull. Her letters were limited to a few scrawled lines of family news, expressions of gratitude for books her fiancé had recommended, and a few, shy declarations of maidenly affection. The only signs of her personality were the occasional vivid sketches with which she illustrated her notes: a seal pup sunning itself on the rocks at the mouth of the bay; a cow peering thoughtfully in through the dairy window.

Theresa folded Céleste’s letters away, tied the tape neatly around them, and sighed. She was beginning to feel discouraged. No wonder there’d been so little written on Edouard Beauvoisin. No wonder his studio was neglected, his museum unmarked, his only curators an eccentric pair of elderly women. There had been dozens of competent but uninspired followers of the Impressionists who once or twice in the course of their lives had managed to paint great pictures. The only thing that set Edouard Beauvoisin apart from them was the mystery of Luz Gascó, and as Theresa read his dutiful letters to his mother, she found that she just could not believe that the man who had written them could bring his mistress to live with his wife. More importantly, she found herself disbelieving that he could ever have painted Young Woman in a Garden. Yet there it incontrovertibly was, hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, signed “Edouard Beauvoisin, 1879,” clear as print and authenticated five ways from Sunday.

A breeze stirred the papers scattered across the worktable. Under the ever–present tang of the sea, Theresa smelled lilies of the valley. She propped her hands on her chin and looked out into the garden. A pretty day, she thought, and a pretty view. It might make a picture, were there anything to balance the window–frame and the mass of the linden tree in the left foreground. Oh, there was the rose–bed, but it wasn’t enough. Then a figure stepped into the scene, bent to the roses, clipped a bloom, laid it in the basket dangling from her elbow: Gascó, a red shawl tied Spaniard–wise aross her white morning gown, her wild black hair escaping from its pins and springing around her face as she stooped. Her presence focused the composition, turned it into an interesting statement of light and tension.

Don’t move, Theresa thought. For God’s sake, Gascó, don’t move. Squinting at the scene, she opened a drawer with a practiced jerk and felt for the sketchbook, which was not on top, where it should be, where it always was. Irritated, she tore her eyes from Gascó to look for it. Lying in the drawer was a child’s cahier, marbled black and white, with a plain white label pasted on its cover and marked “May–June 1898” in a tiny, angular, blessedly legible hand.

“Out of place,” she murmured angrily, then, “This is it,” without any clear idea of what she meant by either statement.

Theresa swallowed, aware that something unimaginably significant had happened, was happening, that she was trembling and sweating with painful excitement. Carefully, she wiped her hands on her jeans, lifted the cahier from its wooden tomb, opened it to its last entry: June 5, 1898. The hand was scratchier, more sprawled than in his letters, the effect, perhaps, of the wasting disease that would kill him in July.

The Arrangement. A pity my death must void it. How well it has served us over the years, and how happily! At least, C. has seemed happy; for L.’s discontents, there has never been any answer, except to leave and make other arrangements of her own. Twenty years of flying into rages, sinking into sulks, refusing to stand thus and so or to hold a pose not to her liking, hating Brittany, the cold, the damp, the gray sea. And still she stays. Is it the Arrangement that binds her, or her beloved garden? Young Woman in a Garden: Luz at La Roseraie. If I have a fear of dying, it is that I must be remembered for that painting. God’s judgment on our Arrangement, Maman would have said, had she known of it. When I come to make my last Confession, soon, oh, very soon now, I will beg forgiveness for deceiving her. It is my only regret.

By dusk, Theresa had read the notebook through and begun to search for its fellows. That there had to be more notebooks was as clear as Monet’s palette: the first entry began in mid–sentence, for one thing, and no man talks to himself so fluently without years of practice. They wouldn’t be hidden; Beauvoisin hadn’t been a secretive man. Tidy–minded. Self–contained. Conservative. He stored them somewhere, Theresa thought. Somewhere here. She looked around the darkening studio. Maybe it would be clearer to her in the morning. It would certainly be lighter.

Out in the garden, Theresa felt the depression of the past weeks release her like a hand opening. A discovery! A real discovery! What difference did it make whether Beauvoisin had painted two good paintings or a dozen? There was a mystery about him, and she, Theresa Stanton, was on the verge of uncovering it. She wanted to babble and sing and go out drinking to celebrate. But her friends were three thousand miles away, and all she had was Mme Beauvoisin. And Luna. Always Luna.

Theresa’s quick steps slowed. What was her hurry, after all? Her news would keep, and the garden was so lovely in the failing light, with the white pebble path luminous under her feet, the evening air blue and warm and scented with lilies.

In the parlor, an oil lamp laid its golden hand upon the two women sitting companionably together on the velvet sofa, their heads bent to their invisible tasks. The soft play of light and shadow varnished their hair and skin with youth. Theresa struggled with a momentary and inexplicable sense of déjà vu, then, suddenly embarrassed, cleared her throat. “I found a notebook today,” she announced into the silence. “Beauvoisin’s private journal.”

Luna’s head came up, startled and alert. Theresa caught a liquid flash as she glanced at her, then at Mme Beauvoisin.

“A journal?” asked Mme Beauvoisin blandly. “Ah. I might have guessed he would have kept a journal. You must be very pleased—such documents are important to scholars. Come. Pour yourself a brandy to celebrate—the bottle is on the sideboard—and sit and tell us of your great discovery.”

As Theresa obediently crossed the room and unstopped the decanter, she heard a furious whisper. “Mierda!

“Hush, Luna.” Mme Beauvoisin’s tone was happy, almost gleeful. “We agreed. Whatever she finds, she may use. It is her right.”

“I withdraw my agreement. I know nothing of these journals. Who can tell what he may have written?”

A deep and affectionate sigh. “Oh, Luna. Still so suspicious?”

“Not suspicious. Wise. The little American, she is of Edouard’s blood and also Edouard’s soul. I have seen him in her eyes.”

Theresa set down the decanter and came back into the lamplight. “Wait a minute. I don’t understand. Of course I have the right to use the journals. M. Tanguy promised me full access to all Beauvoisin’s papers. And he didn’t say anything about you. Where is he anyway?”

Mme Beauvoisin’s dark, faded eyes held hers for a moment. “Please, do not discommode yourself,” she said. “Sit and tell us what you have found.”

Hesitant under Luna’s hot and disapproving gaze, Theresa perched herself on the edge of a chair and did as she was told.

“I’d no idea he was so passionate,” she said at last. “In his letters, although he speaks of passion, he’s always so moderate about expressing it.”

“Moderate!” Luna’s laugh was a scornful snort. “Hear the girl! Madre de Dios!

“Hush, Luna. Please continue.”

“That’s all. I didn’t really learn much, except that he knew in June that he was dying. One interesting thing was his references to an Arrangement—that’s with a capital A—and how he’d never told his maman about it.” Excitement rose in her again. “I have to find the rest of the journals!”

Mme Beauvoisin smiled at her. “Tomorrow. You will find them, I’m sure of it.”

“Céleste,” said Luna warningly.

“Hush, my dear.”

Theresa retired, as always, before her elderly companions. As polite as Mme Beauvoisin was, she always felt uncomfortable in the parlor, as if her presence there were an intrusion, a threat, a necessary evil. Which, she told herself firmly, in a way, it was. The two women had been living here alone for Heaven only knew how long. It was only natural that they’d feel put out by her being there. It was silly of her to resent her exclusion from their charmed circle. And yet, tonight especially, she did.

Theresa curled up in a chair by the window, tucked the duvet around her legs, and considered the problem of Edouard’s notebooks. A full moon washed the pale roses and the white paths with silver. In her mind, Theresa followed Edouard down one of those luminous paths to the studio, sitting at his desk, pulling his current notebook from the right–hand drawer and re–read his last entry only to discover that he’d barely one page left. He shook his head, rose, went to the cabinet, opened one of the long drawers where he kept his paints and pigments neatly arranged in shallow wooden trays. Carefully, he lifted one tray, slipped a new marbled cahier from under it, returned to his desk, and began to write.

When Teresa opened her eyes, the garden was cool in a pale golden dawn. Her neck was in agony, her legs were hopelessly cramped, but she was elated. The notebooks were in the cabinet under the paint trays—they just had to be!

Twenty minutes later, she was in the studio herself, with the paint trays stacked on the floor, gloating over layers of black–and–white marbled cahiers.

There were more than a hundred of them, she discovered, distributed over four drawers and forty–two years, from Beauvoisin’s first trip to Paris in 1856 to his death in 1898. Theresa took out five or six of them at random and paged through them as she had paged through books as a child, stopping to read passages that caught her eye. Not entirely professional, perhaps. But thoroughly satisfying.

April 20, 1875
Paris is so full of bad paintings, I can’t begin to describe them. I know C.’s would enjoy some modest success, but she will not agree. One of Mlle Morisot’s canvases has sold for a thousand francs—a seascape not so half as pretty as the one C. painted at La Roseraie last month. I compliment her often on her work, and am somewhat distressed that she does not return the courtesy, from love of the artist if not from admiration of his work. But then C. has never understood my theory of light and evanescence, and will not agree with my principles of composition.

Theresa closed the notebook with a snap, unreasonably disappointed with Beauvoisin for his blindness to the structures of his society. Surely he must have known, as Céleste obviously knew, that men were professionals and women were amateurs, unless they were honorary men like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt? Poor Céleste, Theresa thought, and poor Edouard. What had they seen in one another?

Over the next few days, Theresa chased the answer to that question through the pages of Edouard’s journals, skipping from one C. to the next, composing a sketch–portrait of a very strange marriage. That Beauvoisin had loved Céleste was clear. That he had loved her as a wife was less so. He spoke of her as a travelling companion, a hostess, a housekeeper. A sister, Theresa thought suddenly, reading how Céleste had arranged the details of their trip to Spain in the winter of 1877. She’s like the maiden sister keeping house for her brilliant brother. And Edouard, he was a man who saved all his passion for his art, at any rate until he went to Spain and met Luz Gascó.

I have made some sketches of a woman we met in the Prado—a respectable woman and tolerably educated, although fallen on evil times. She has quite the most beautiful skin I have seen—white as new cream and so fine that she seems to glow of her own light, like a lamp draped with heavy silk. Such bones! And her hair and eyes, like black marble polished and by some miracle brought to life and made supple. C. saw her first, and effected an introduction. She is a joy to paint, and not expensive…

Eagerly, Theresa skimmed through the next months for further references to the beautiful señorita. Had Edouard fallen in love at last? He certainly wrote as if he had—long, poetic descriptions of her skin, her hair, her form, her luminous, living presence. At the same time, he spoke fearfully of her temper, her unaccountable moods, her uncontrollable “gypsy nature.” In the end, however, simple painterly covetousness won out and he invited Gascó to spend the summer at La Roseraie.

May 6, 1878
Luz Gascó expected tomorrow. C., having vacated the blue chamber for her, complains of having nowhere to paint. Perhaps I’ll build an extension to my studio. Gascó is a great deal to ask of a wife, after all, even though C. knows better than any other how unlikely my admiration is to overstep propriety. As a model, Gascó is perfection. As a woman, she is like a wild cat, ready to hiss and scratch for no reason. Yet that skin! Those eyes! I despair of capturing them and ache to make the attempt.

Fishing Boats not going well. The boats are wooden and the water also. I shall try Gascó in the foreground to unbalance the composition…

How violently the presence of Luz Gascó unbalanced the nicely calculated composition of Edouard Beauvoisin’s life became clearer to Theresa the more she read. She hardly felt excluded now from her hostesses’ circle, eager as she was to get back to the studio and to Edouard, for whom she was feeling more and more sympathy. Pre–Gascó, his days had unfolded methodically: work, walks with Céleste, drives to the village, letter–writing, notebook–keeping, sketching—each allotted its proper time and space, regular as mealtimes. G. rises at noon, he mourned a week into her visit. She breaks pose because she has seen a bird in the garden or wants to smell a flower. She is utterly impossible. Yet she transforms the world around her.

Imperceptibly, the summer visit extended into autumn and the autumn into winter as Beauvoisin planned and painted canvas after canvas, experimenting with composition, technique, pigment. By the spring of 1879, there was talk of Gascó’s staying. By summer, she was a fixture, and Beauvoisin was beside himself with huge, indefinite emotions and ambitions, all of them arranged, like his canvases, around the dynamic figure of Luz Gascó. Then came July, and a page blank save for one line:

July 6, 1879
Luz in the parlor. Ah, Céleste!

A puzzling entry, marked as if for easy reference with a scrap of cheap paper folded in four. Theresa picked it up and carefully smoothed it open—not carefully enough, however, to keep the brittle paper from tearing along its creases. She saw dark lines—a charcoal sketch—and her heart went cold in panic. What have I done? she thought. What have I destroyed?

With a trembling hand, she arranged the four pieces on the table. The image was a reclining woman, her face turned away under an upflung arm, her bodice unbuttoned to the waist and her chemise loosened and folded open. A scarf of dark curls draped her throat and breast, veiling and exposing her nakedness. The sketch was intimate, more tender than erotic, a lover’s mirror.

Theresa put her hands over her eyes. She’d torn the sketch; she didn’t need to cry over it too. Spilt milk, she told herself severely. M. Rouart would know how to restore it. And she should be happy she’d found it, overjoyed to have such dramatic proof of Beauvoisin’s carnal passion for his Spanish model. So why did she feel regretful, sad, disappointed and so terribly, overwhelmingly angry?

A shadow fell across the page. A gnarled, nail–bitten forefinger traced the charcoaled line of the subject’s hair.

“Ah,” said Luna softly. “I wondered what had become of this.”

Theresa clenched her own hands in her lap, appalled by the emotion that rose in her at the sound of that hoarse, slightly lisping voice. Luna was certainly irritating. But this was not irritation Theresa felt. It was rage.

“A beautiful piece, is it not?” The four torn pieces were not perfectly aligned: the woman seemed broken at the waist; her left arm, lying across her hips, was dismembered at the elbow. Luna coaxed her back together with delicate touches. “A pity that my own beauty may not be so easily repaired.”

Surprised, Theresa looked up at Luna’s turtle face. She’d never imagined Luna young, let alone beautiful. Yet now she saw that her bones were finely turned under her leathery skin and her eyes were unfaded and bright black as a mouse’s. A vaguely familiar face, and an interesting one, now that Theresa came to study it. Something might be made of it, against a background of flowers, or the garden wall.

Luna straightened, regarding Theresa with profound disgust. “You’re his to the bone,” she said. “You see what you need to see, not what is there. I told her a stranger would have been better.”

Theresa’s fury had subsided, leaving only bewilderment behind. She rubbed her eyes wearily. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t understand. Do you know something about this sketch?”

The old woman’s mouth quirked angrily. “What I know of this sketch,” she spat, “is that it was not meant for your eyes.” And with a haughty lift of her chin, she turned and left the studio.

Was Mlle Gascó crazy, or senile, or just incredibly mean? Theresa wondered, watching her hobble across the bright prospect of the garden like an arthritic crow. Surely she couldn’t actually know anything about that sketch—why, it had been hidden for over a hundred years. For a moment, the garden dimmed, as though a cloud had come over the sun, and then Theresa’s eyes strayed to the notebook open before her. A sunbeam dazzled the single sentence to blankness. She moved the notebook out of the glare and turned the page.

The next entry was dated the 14th of July and spoke of Bastille Day celebrations in Lorient and a family outing with Céleste and Gascó, all very ordinary except that Beauvoisin’s prose was less colorful than usual. Something was going on. But Theresa had already known that. Beauvoisin had grown immensely as a painter over the summer of 1879, and had also cut himself off from the men who had been his closest friends. She was already familiar with the sharp note he’d written Manet denying that he had grown reclusive, only very hard at work and somewhat distracted, he hinted, by domestic tension: “For two women to reside under one roof is far from restful,” he had written, and “Céleste and I have both begun paintings of Gascó—not, alas, the same pose.”

Theresa flipped back to July 6. Luz in the parlor. Ah, Céleste! Such melodrama was not like Beauvoisin, nor was a week’s silence, nor the brief, lifeless chronicles of daily events that occupied him during the month of August. Theresa sighed. Real life is often melodramatic, and extreme emotion mute. Something had happened on July 6, something that had changed Beauvoisin’s life and art.

In any case, late in 1879 Beauvoisin had begun to develop a new style, a lighter, more brilliant palette, a more painterly technique that broke definitively from the line–obsessed training of his youth. Reading the entries for the fall of ‘79 and the winter of ‘80, Theresa learned that he had developed his prose style as well, in long disquisitions on light and composition, life and art. He gave up all accounts of ordinary events in favor of long essays on the beauty of the ephemeral: a young girl, a budding flower, a spring morning, a perfect understanding between man and woman. He became obsessed with a need to capture even the most abstract of emotions on canvas: betrayal, joy, contentment, estrangement.

I have set G. a pose I flatter myself expresses most perfectly that moment of suspension between betrayal and remorse. She is to the left of the central plane, a little higher than is comfortable, crowded into a box defined by the straight back of her chair and the arm of the sofa. Her body twists left, her face is without expression, her eyes are fixed on the viewer. The conceit pleases G. more than C., of course, G. being the greater cynic. But C. agrees that the composition is out of the ordinary way and we all have great hopes of it at the next Salon. Our Arrangement will answer very well, I think.

Reading such entries—which often ran to ten or fifteen closely–written pages—Theresa began to wonder when Beauvoisin found time to paint the pictures he had so lovingly and thoughtfully planned. It was no wonder, she thought, that Interior and Woman at a Window seemed so theoretical, so contrived. She was not surprised to read that they had not brought as much as Young Woman in a Garden or Reclining Nude, painted two years later and described briefly as a figure study of G. on the parlor sofa, oddly lighted. Pure whim, and not an idea anywhere in it. C. likes it, though, and so does G.; have allowed myself to be overborne.

June had laid out its palette in days of Prussian blue, clear green, and yellow. In the early part of the month, when Theresa had been reading the letters, the clouds flooded the sky with a gray and white wash that suppressed shadow and compressed perspective like a Japanese print. After she found the notebooks, however, all the days seemed saturated with light and static as a still life.

Theresa spent her time reading Beauvoisin’s journals, leaving the studio only to eat a silent meal alone in the kitchen, to wander through the garden or, in the evenings, to go down to the seawall where she would watch the sun set in Turneresque glories of carmine and gold. Once, seeing the light, like Danae’s shower, spilling its golden seed into the sea, Theresa felt her hand twitch with the desire to paint the scene, to capture the evanescent moment in oil and make it immortal.

What am I thinking of? she wondered briefly. I can’t paint. It must be Edouard rubbing off on me. Or the isolation. I need to get out of here for a couple days, go back to Paris, see M. Rouart about the sketch, maybe let him take me out to dinner, talk to someone real for a change. But the next day found her in the studio and the next evening by the seawall, weeping with the beauty of the light and her own inadequate abilities.

As June shaded into July, Theresa abandoned the notebooks and began to sketch the pictures she saw around her in the studio and garden. Insensible of sacrilege, she took up Beauvoisin’s pastel chalks and charcoal pencils and applied herself to the problem of reproducing her impressions of the way the flowers shimmered under the noon–day sun and how the filtered light reflected from the studio’s whitewashed walls.

At first, she’d look at the untrained scrawls and blotches she’d produced and tear them to confetti in an ecstasy of disgust. But as the clear still days unfolded, she paid less and less attention to what she’d done, focusing only on the need of the moment, to balance mass and shape, light and shade. She hardly saw Mme Beauvoisin and Luna, though she was dimly aware that they were about—in the parlor, in the garden, walking arm in arm across her field of vision: figures in the landscape, motifs in the composition. Day bled into day with scarcely a signpost to mark the end of one or the beginning of the next, so that she sketched and read in a timeless, seamless present, without past, without future, without real purpose.

So it was with no clear sense of time or place that Theresa walked into the studio one day and realized that she had left her sketchbook in the parlor. Tiresome, she thought to herself. But there was that study she’d been working on, the one of the stone wall. She’d just have to go back to the house and get it.

The transition from hall to parlor was always blinding, particularly in the afternoon, when the sun slanted through the French doors straight into entering eyes. That is perhaps why Theresa thought at first that the room was empty, and then that someone had left a large canvas propped against the sofa, a painting of two women in an interior.

It was an interesting composition, the details blurred by the bright back–light, the white dress of the figure on the sofa glimmering against the deep burgundy cushions, the full black skirts of the figure curled on the floor beside her like a pool of ink spilled on the flowery carpet. Both figures were intent on a paper the woman on the sofa held on her up–drawn knees. Her companion’s torso was turned into the sofa, her arms wreathed loosely around her waist.

What a lovely picture they make together, Theresa thought. I wonder I never thought of posing them so. It’s a pity Céleste will not let me paint her.

Céleste laid the sketch aside, took Gascó’s hand, and carried it to her lips. Her gaze met Theresa’s.

“Edouard,” she said.

Theresa’s cheeks heated; her heart began a slow, deep, painful beating that turned her dizzy. She put her hand on the doorframe to steady herself just as Gascó surged up from floor and turned, magnificent in her rage and beauty, to confront the intruder. Her face shone from the thundercloud of her hair, its graceful planes sharpened and defined by the contemptuous curve of her red mouth, and the wide, proud defiance of her onyx eyes. Edouard released the doorframe and helplessly reached out his hand to her.

“Be a man, Edouard!” Gascó all but spat. “Don’t look like that. I knew this must come. It would have come sooner had you been less blind. No,” as Edouard winced, “I beg your pardon. It was not necessary to say that. Or the other. But you must not weep.”

Céleste had swung her legs to the floor and laid the sketch on the sofa–back on top of the piled cushions. She looked composed, if a little pale, and her voice was even when she said, “Sit down, Luna. He has no intention of weeping. No, get us some brandy. We must talk, and we’d all be the better for something to steady us.”

“Talk?” said Edouard. “What is there for us to say to one another?”

Gascó swept to the sideboard, poured brandy into three snifters, and handed them around, meeting Edouard’s eyes defiantly when she put his into his hand.

“Drink, Edouard,” said Céleste gently. “And why don’t you sit down?”

He shook his head, but took a careful sip of his brandy. The liquor burned his throat.

“Doubtless you want us to leave La Roseraie,” said Céleste into a long silence.

“Oh, no, my heart,” said Gascó. “I’ll not run away like some criminal. This house is yours. If anyone is to leave, it must be Beauvoisin.”

“In law,” said Edouard mildly, “the house is mine. I will not leave it. Nor will you, Céleste. You are my wife.” His voice faltered. “I don’t want you to leave. I want things as they were before.”

“With your model your wife’s lover, and you as blind as a mole?”

Edouard set down his half–finished brandy and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That was not kind, Gascó. But then, I have always known that you are not kind.”

“No. I am honest. And I see what is there to be seen. It is you who must leave, Edouard.”

“And ruin us all?” Céleste sounded both annoyed and amused. “You cannot be thinking, my love. We may find some compromise, some way of saving Edouard’s face and our reputations, some way of living together.”

“Never!” said Gascó. “I will not. You cannot ask it of me.”

“My Claire de Lune. My Luna.” Céleste reached for Gascó’s hand and pulled her down on the sofa. “You do love me, do you not? Then you will help me. Edouard loves me too: we all love one another, do we not? Edouard. Come sit with us.”

Edouard set down his brandy snifter. Céleste was holding her hand to him, smiling affectionately. He stepped forward, took the hand, allowed it and the smile to draw him down beside her. At the edge of his vision, he saw the paper slide behind the cushions and turned to retrieve it. Céleste’s grip tightened on his hand.

“Never mind, my dear,” she said. “Now. Surely we can come to some agreement, some arrangement that will satisfy all of us?”

The taste in Theresa’s mouth said she’d been asleep. The tickle in her throat said the sofa was terribly dusty, and her nose said there had been mice in it, perhaps still were. The cushions were threadbare, the needlework pillows moth–eaten into woolen lace.

Without thinking what she was doing, Theresa scattered them broadcast and burrowed her hand down between sofa–back and seat, grimacing a bit as she thought of the mice, grinning triumphantly as she touched a piece of paper. Carefully, she drew it out, creased and mildewed as it was, and smoothed it on her knees.

A few scrawled lines of text with a sketch beneath them. The hand was not Edouard’s. Nor was the sketch, though a dozen art historians would have staked their government grants that the style was his. The image was an early version of Young Woman in a Garden, a sketch of Gascó sitting against a tree with her hands around her knees, her pointed chin raised to display the long curve of her neck. Her hair was loose on her shoulders. Her blouse was open at the throat. She was laughing.

Trembling, Theresa read the note:

My Claire de Lune:

How wicked I feel, how abandoned, writing you like this, where anyone could read how I love you, my maja. I want to write about your neck and breasts and hair—oh, your hair like black silk across my body. But the only words that come to my mind are stale when they are not comic, and I’d not have you laugh at me. So here is my memory of yesterday afternoon, and your place in it, and in my heart always.

Céleste

Theresa closed her eyes, opened them again. The room she sat in was gloomy, musty, and falling into ruin, very different from the bright, comfortably shabby parlor she remembered. One of the French doors was ajar; afternoon sun spilled through it, reflecting from a thousand swirling dust–motes, raising the ghosts of flowers from the faded carpet. Out in the garden, a bird whistled. Theresa went to the door, looked out over a wilderness of weedy paths and rosebushes grown into a thorny, woody tangle.

Céleste’s letter to Luz Gascó crackled in her hand, reassuringly solid. There was clearly a lot of work to be done.

(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Delia Sherman is interviewed by Deborah Stanish)

You Are Two Point Three Meters from Your Destination

Commencing Route for Orpheus of Thrace.

Proceed from Ciconian Coast meadow south–southwest to mouth of Eurotas River in Laconia, approximately eight hundred kilometers. Travel time to waypoint: seven days at your current speed.

Head ninety–two kilometers south to Cape Taenarus, also known as Matapan. Find Taenarus Gate.

Recalculating. Find Taenarus Gate. Proceed to route.

Pass into Taenarus Gate and proceed to River Styx.

A toll is required. Exact change is required.

Proceed to route. Descend five thousand kilometers to throne room. Time to destination: unknown.

Arriving at throne room. Proceed five point two meters to throne. Avoid abyss. Make your request.

Receiving new information from satellites. Calculating return trip.

Exit throne room, follow northern path to Vale of Avernus, Cicero, Italy. Approximately six thousand kilometers.

Proceed up incline. No turns are permitted on this route.

Proceed up incline. You are five hundred meters from your destination.

No turns are permitted on this route. You are one hundred meters from your destination.

You are two point three meters from your destination. Proceed up…recalculating.

Recalculating. Proceed to route.

Proceed to… No crossing of the River Styx is possible at this time.

Proceed to route. Recalculating. Proceed ahead from River Styx, approximately five thousand kilometers to mouth of Acheron River.

Calculating new destination. Proceed six hundred kilometers north–northeast through forest to Rhodope Mountains. Time to destination, five days to three years. Several drinking establishments ahead on left.

New route selected.

In the House of the Seven Librarians

Once upon a time, the Carnegie Library sat on a wooded bluff on the east side of town: red brick and fieldstone, with turrets and broad windows facing the trees. Inside, green glass–shaded lamps cast warm yellow light onto oak tables ringed with spindle–backed chairs.

The floors were wood, except in the foyer, where they were pale beige marble. The loudest sounds were the ticking of the clock and the quiet, rhythmic thwack of a rubber stamp on a pasteboard card.

It was a cozy, orderly place.

Through twelve presidents and two world wars, the elms and maples grew tall outside the deep bay windows. Children leapt from Peter Pan to Oliver Twist and off to college, replaced at Story Hour by their younger brothers, cousins, daughters.

Then the library board—men in suits, serious men, men of money—met and cast their votes for progress. A new library, with fluorescent lights, much better for the children’s eyes. Picture windows, automated systems, ergonomic plastic chairs. The town approved the levy, and the new library was built across town, convenient to the community center and the mall.

Some books were boxed and trundled down Broad Street, many others stamped DISCARD and left where they were, for a book sale in the fall. Interns from the university used the latest technology to transfer the cumbersome old card file and all the records onto floppy disks and microfiche. Progress, progress, progress.

The Ralph P. Mossberger Library (named after the local philanthropist and car dealer who had written the largest check) opened on a drizzly morning in late April. Everyone attended the ribbon–cutting ceremony and stayed for the speeches, because there would be cake after.

Everyone except the seven librarians from the Carnegie Library on the bluff across town.

Quietly, without a fuss (they were librarians, after all), while the town looked toward the future, they bought supplies: loose tea and English biscuits, packets of Bird’s pudding and cans of beef barley soup. They rearranged some of the shelves, brought in a few comfortable armchairs, nice china and teapots, a couch, towels for the shower, and some small braided rugs.

Then they locked the door behind them.

Each morning they woke and went about their chores. They shelved and stamped and catalogued, and in the evenings, every night, they read by lamplight.

Perhaps, for a while, some citizens remembered the old library, with the warm nostalgia of a favorite childhood toy that had disappeared one summer, never seen again. Others assumed it had been torn down long ago.

And so a year went by, then two, or perhaps a great many more. Inside, time had ceased to matter. Grass and brambles grew thick and tall around the fieldstone steps, and trees arched overhead as the forest folded itself around them like a cloak.

Inside, the seven librarians lived, quiet and content.

Until the day they found the baby.

Librarians are guardians of books. They help others along their paths, offering keys to help unlock the doors of knowledge. But these seven had become a closed circle, no one to guide, no new minds to open onto worlds of possibility. They kept busy, tidying orderly shelves and mending barely frayed bindings with stiff netting and glue, and began to bicker among themselves.

Ruth and Edith had been up half the night, arguing about whether or not subway tokens (of which there were half a dozen in the Lost and Found box) could be used to cast the I Ching. And so Blythe was on the stepstool in the 299s, reshelving the volume of hexagrams, when she heard the knock.

Odd, she thought. It’s been some time since we’ve had visitors.

She tugged futilely at her shapeless cardigan as she clambered off the stool and trotted to the front door, where she stopped abruptly, her hand to her mouth in surprise.

A wicker basket, its contents covered with a red–checked cloth, as if for a picnic, lay in the wooden box beneath the Book Return chute. A small, cream–colored envelope poked out from one side.

“How nice!” Blythe said aloud, clapping her hands. She thought of fried chicken and potato salad—of which she was awfully fond—a mason jar of lemonade, perhaps even a cherry pie? She lifted the basket by its round–arched handle. Heavy, for a picnic. But then, there were seven of them. Although Olive just ate like a bird, these days.

She turned and set it on top of the Circulation Desk, pulling the envelope free.

“What’s that?” Marian asked, her lips in their accustomed moue of displeasure, as if the basket were an agent of chaos, existing solely to disrupt the tidy array of rubber stamps and file boxes that were her domain.

“A present,” said Blythe. “I think it might be lunch.”

Marian frowned. “For you?”

“I don’t know yet. There’s a note…” Blythe held up the envelope and peered at it. “No,” she said. “It’s addressed to ‘The Librarians. Overdue Books Department.’ ”

“Well, that would be me,” Marian said curtly. She was the youngest, and wore trouser suits with silk t–shirts. She had once been blond. She reached across the counter, plucked the envelope from Blythe’s plump fingers, and sliced it open it with a filigreed brass stiletto.

“Hmph,” she said after she’d scanned the contents.

“It is lunch, isn’t it?” asked Blythe.

“Hardly.” Marian began to read aloud:

This is overdue. Quite a bit, I’m afraid. I apologize. We moved to Topeka when I was very small, and Mother accidentally packed it up with the linens. I have traveled a long way to return it, and I know the fine must be large, but I have no money. As it is a book of fairy tales, I thought payment of a first–born child would be acceptable. I always loved the library. I’m sure she’ll be happy there.

Blythe lifted the edge of the cloth. “Oh my stars!”

A baby girl with a shock of wire–stiff black hair stared up at her, green eyes wide and curious. She was contentedly chewing on the corner of a blue book, half as big as she was. Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

“The Rackham illustrations,” Blythe said as she eased the book away from the baby. “That’s a lovely edition.”

“But when was it checked out?” Marian demanded.

Blythe opened the cover and pulled the ruled card from the inside pocket. “October 17, 1938,” she said, shaking her head. “Goodness, at two cents a day, that’s…” She shook her head again. Blythe had never been good with figures.

They made a crib for her in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet, displacing acquisition orders, zoning permits, and the instructions for the mimeograph, which they rarely used.

Ruth consulted Dr. Spock. Edith read Piaget. The two of them peered from text to infant and back again for a good long while before deciding that she was probably about nine months old. They sighed. Too young to read.

So they fed her cream and let her gum on biscuits, and each of the seven cooed and clucked and tickled her pink toes when they thought the others weren’t looking. Harriet had been the oldest of nine girls, and knew more about babies than she really cared to. She washed and changed the diapers that had been tucked into the basket, and read Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny to the little girl, whom she called Polly—short for Polyhymnia, the muse of oratory and sacred song.

Blythe called her Bitsy, and Li’l Precious.

Marian called her “the foundling,” or “That Child You Took In,” but did her share of cooing and clucking, just the same.

When the child began to walk, Dorothy blocked the staircase with stacks of Comptons, which she felt was an inferior encyclopedia, and let her pull herself up on the bottom drawers of the card catalog. Anyone looking up Zithers or Zippers (see “Slide Fasteners”) soon found many of the cards fused together with grape jam. When she began to talk, they made a little bed nook next to the fireplace in the Children’s Room.

It was high time for Olive to begin the child’s education.

Olive had been the children’s librarian since before recorded time, or so it seemed. No one knew how old she was, but she vaguely remembered waving to President Coolidge. She still had all of her marbles, though every one of them was a bit odd and rolled asymmetrically.

She slept on a daybed behind a reference shelf that held My First Encyclopedia and The Wonder Book of Trees, among others. Across the room, the child’s first “big–girl bed” was yellow, with decals of a fairy and a horse on the headboard, and a rocket ship at the foot, because they weren’t sure about her preferences.

At the beginning of her career, Olive had been an ordinary–sized librarian, but by the time she began the child’s lessons, she was not much taller than her toddling charge. Not from osteoporosis or dowager’s hump or other old–lady maladies, but because she had tired of stooping over tiny chairs and bending to knee–high shelves. She had been a grown–up for so long that when the library closed she had decided it was time to grow down again, and was finding that much more comfortable.

She had a remarkably cozy lap for a woman her size.

The child quickly learned her alphabet, all the shapes and colors, the names of zoo animals, and fourteen different kinds of dinosaurs, all of whom were dead.

By the time she was four, or thereabouts, she could sound out the letters for simple words—CUP and LAMP and STAIRS. And that’s how she came to name herself.

Olive had fallen asleep over Make Way for Ducklings, and all the other librarians were busy somewhere else. The child was bored. She tiptoed out of the Children’s Room, hugging the shadows of the walls and shelves, crawling by the base of the Circulation Desk so that Marian wouldn’t see her, and made her way to the alcove that held the Card Catalog. The heart of the library. Her favorite, most forbidden place to play.

Usually she crawled underneath and tucked herself into the corner formed of oak cabinet, marble floor, and plaster walls. It was a fine place to play Hide and Seek, even if it was mostly just Hide. The corner was a cave, a bunk on a pirate ship, a cupboard in a magic wardrobe.

But that afternoon she looked at the white cards on the fronts of the drawers, and her eyes widened in recognition. Letters! In her very own alphabet. Did they spell words? Maybe the drawers were all full of words, a huge wooden box of words. The idea almost made her dizzy.

She walked to the other end of the cabinet and looked up, tilting her neck back until it crackled. Four drawers from top to bottom. Five drawers across. She sighed. She was only tall enough to reach the bottom row of drawers. She traced a gentle finger around the little brass frames, then very carefully pulled out the white cards inside, and laid them on the floor in a neat row:

She squatted over them, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth in concentration, and tried to read.

“Sound it out.” She could almost hear Olive’s voice, soft and patient. She took a deep breath.

“Duh–in–s—” and then she stopped, because the last card had too many letters, and she didn’t know any words that had Xs in them. Well, xylophone. But the X was in the front, and that wasn’t the same. She tried anyway. “Duh–ins–zzzigh,” and frowned.

She squatted lower, so low she could feel cold marble under her cotton pants, and put her hand on top of the last card. One finger covered the X and her pinky covered the Z (another letter that was useless for spelling ordinary things). That left Y. Y at the end was good. funnY. happY.

“Duh–ins–see,” she said slowly. “Dinsy.”

That felt very good to say, hard and soft sounds and hissing Ss mixing in her mouth, so she said it again, louder, which made her laugh so she said it again, very loud: “DINSY!”

There is nothing quite like a loud voice in a library to get a lot of attention very fast. Within a minute, all seven of the librarians stood in the doorway of the alcove.

“What on earth?” said Harriet.

Now what have you…” said Marian.

“What have you spelled, dear?” asked Olive in her soft little voice.

“I made it myself,” the girl replied.

“Just gibberish,” murmured Edith, though not unkindly. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

The child shook her head. “Does so. Olive,” she said pointing to Olive. “Do’thy, Edith, Harwiet, Bithe, Ruth.” She paused and rolled her eyes. “Mawian,” she added, a little less cheerfully. Then she pointed to herself. “And Dinsy.”

“Oh, now Polly,” said Harriet.

“Dinsy,” said Dinsy.

“Bitsy?” Blythe tried hopefully.

Dinsy,” said Dinsy.

And that was that.

At three every afternoon, Dinsy and Olive made a two–person circle on the braided rug in front of the bay window, and had Story Time. Sometimes Olive read aloud from Beezus and Ramona and Half Magic, and sometimes Dinsy read to Olive, The King’s Stilts, and In the Night Kitchen and Winnie–the–Pooh. Dinsy liked that one especially, and took it to bed with her so many times that Edith had to repair the binding. Twice.

That was when Dinsy first wished upon the Library.

And so it was, one night when she was six–ish, that Dinsy first asked the Library for a boon. Lying in her tiny yellow bed, the fraying Pooh under her pillow, she wished for a bear to cuddle. Books were small comfort once the lights were out, and their hard, sharp corners made them awkward companions under the covers. She lay with one arm crooked around a soft, imaginary bear, and wished and wished until her eyelids fluttered into sleep.

The next morning, while they were all having tea and toast with jam, Blythe came into the Common Room with a quizzical look on her face and her hands behind her back.

“The strangest thing,” she said. “On my way up here I glanced over at the Lost and Found. Couldn’t tell you why. Nothing lost in ages. But this must have caught my eye.”

She held out a small brown bear, one shoebutton eye missing, bits of fur gone from its belly, as if it had been loved almost to pieces.

“It seems to be yours,” she said with a smile, turning up one padded foot, where DINSY was written in faded laundry–marker black.

Dinsy wrapped her whole self around the cotton–stuffed body and skipped for the rest of the morning. Later, after Olive gave her a snack—cocoa and a Lorna Doone—Dinsy cupped her hand and blew a kiss to the oak woodwork.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and put half her cookie in a crack between two tiles on the Children’s Room fireplace when Olive wasn’t looking.

Dinsy and Olive had a lovely time. One week they were pirates, raiding the Common Room for booty (and raisins). The next they were princesses, trapped in the turret with At the Back of the North Wind, and the week after that they were knights in shining armor, rescuing damsels in distress, a game Dinsy especially savored because it annoyed Marian to be rescued.

But the year she turned seven–and–a–half, Dinsy stopped reading stories. Quite abruptly, on an afternoon that Olive said later had really felt like a Thursday.

“Stories are for babies,” Dinsy said. “I want to read about real people.” Olive smiled a sad smile and pointed toward the far wall, because Dinsy was not the first child to make that same pronouncement, and she had known this phase would come.

After that, Dinsy devoured biographies, starting with the orange ones, the Childhoods of Famous Americans: Thomas Edison, Young Inventor. She worked her way from Abigail Adams to John Peter Zenger, all along the west side of the Children’s Room, until one day she went around the corner, where Science and History began.

She stood in the doorway, looking at the rows of grown–up books, when she felt Olive’s hand on her shoulder.

“Do you think maybe it’s time you moved across the hall?” Olive asked softly.

Dinsy bit her lip, then nodded. “I can come back to visit, can’t I? When I want to read stories again?”

“For as long as you like, dear. Anytime at all.”

So Dorothy came and gathered up the bear and the pillow and the yellow toothbrush. Dinsy kissed Olive on her papery cheek and, holding Blythe’s hand, moved across the hall, to the room where all the books had numbers.

Blythe was plump and freckled and frizzled. She always looked a little flushed, as if she had just that moment dropped what she was doing to rush over and greet you. She wore rumpled tweed skirts and a shapeless cardigan whose original color was impossible to guess. She had bright, dark eyes like a spaniel’s, which Dinsy thought was appropriate, because Blythe lived to fetch books. She wore a locket with a small rotogravure picture of Melvil Dewey and kept a variety of sweets—sour balls and mints and Necco wafers—in her desk drawer.

Dinsy had always liked her.

She was not as sure about Dorothy.

Over her desk, Dorothy had a small, framed medal on a royal–blue ribbon, won for “Excellence in Classification Studies.” She could operate the ancient black Remington typewriter with brisk efficiency, and even, on occasion, coax chalky gray prints out of the wheezing old copy machine.

She was a tall, raw–boned woman with steely blue eyes, good posture, and even better penmanship. Dinsy was a little frightened of her, at first, because she seemed so stern, and because she looked like magazine pictures of the Wicked Witch of the West, or at least Margaret Hamilton.

But that didn’t last long.

“You should be very careful not to slip on the floor in here,” Dorothy said on their first morning. “Do you know why?”

Dinsy shook her head.

“Because now you’re in the non–friction room!” Dorothy’s angular face cracked into a wide grin.

Dinsy groaned. “Okay,” she said after a minute. “How do you file marshmallows?”

Dorothy cocked her head. “Shoot.”

“By the Gooey Decimal System!”

Dinsy heard Blythe tsk–tsk, but Dorothy laughed out loud, and from then on they were fast friends.

The three of them used the large, sunny room as an arena for endless games of I Spy and Twenty Questions as Dinsy learned her way around the shelves. In the evenings, after supper, they played Authors and Scrabble, and (once) tried to keep a running rummy score in Base Eight.

Dinsy sat at the court of Napoleon, roamed the jungles near Timbuktu, and was a frequent guest at the Round Table. She knew all the kings of England and the difference between a pergola and a folly. She knew the names of 112 breeds of sheep, and loved to say “Barbados Blackbelly” over and over, although it was difficult to work into conversations. When she affectionately, if misguidedly, referred to Blythe as a “Persian Fat–Rumped,” she was sent to bed without supper.

One afternoon, on a visit to Olive and the Children’s Room, Dinsy looked up from Little Town on the Prairie and said, “When’s my birthday?”

Olive thought for a moment.  Because of the irregularities of time, holidays were celebrated a bit haphazardly. “I’m not sure, dear. Why do you ask?”

“Laura’s going to a birthday party, in this book,” she said, holding it up. “And it’s fun. So I thought maybe I could have one.”

“I think that would be lovely,” Olive agreed. “We’ll talk to the others at supper.”

“Your birthday?” said Harriet as she set the table a few hours later. “Let me see.” She began to count on her fingers. “You arrived in April, according to Marian’s stamp, and you were about nine months old, so —” She pursed her lips as she ticked off the months. “You must have been born in July!”

“But when’s my birthday?” Dinsy asked impatiently.

“Not sure,” said Edith, as she ladled out the soup.

“No way to tell,” Olive agreed.

“How does July 5th sound?” offered Blythe, as if it were a point of order to be voted on. Blythe counted best by fives.

“Fourth,” said Dorothy. “Independence Day. Easy to remember?”

Dinsy shrugged. “Okay.” It hadn’t seemed so complicated in the Little House book. “When is that? Is it soon?”

“Probably,” Ruth nodded.

So a few weeks later, the librarians threw her a birthday party.

Harriet baked a spice cake with pink frosting, and wrote DINSY on top in red licorice laces, dotting the I with a lemon drop (which was rather stale). The others gave her gifts that were thoughtful and mostly handmade:

A set of Dewey Decimal flash cards from Blythe.

A book of logic puzzles (stamped DISCARD more than a dozen times, so Dinsy could write in it) from Dorothy.

A lumpy orange–and–green cardigan Ruth knitted for her.

A sno-globe from the 1939 World’s Fair from Olive.

A flashlight from Edith, so that Dinsy could find her way around at night and not knock over the wastebasket again.

A set of paper finger–puppets, made from blank card pockets, hand–painted by Marian. (They were literary figures, of course, all of them necessarily stout and squarish—Nero Wolfe and Friar Tuck, Santa Claus and Gertrude Stein.)

But her favorite gift was the second boon she’d wished upon the Library: a box of crayons. (She had grown very tired of drawing gray pictures with the little pencils.) It had produced Crayola crayons, in the familiar yellow–and–green box, labeled LIBRARY PACK. Inside were the colors of Dinsy’s world: Reference Maroon, Brown Leather, Peplum Beige, Reader’s Guide Green, World Book Red, Card Catalog Cream, Date Stamp Purple, and Palatino Black.

It was a very special birthday, that fourth of July. Although Dinsy wondered about Marian’s calculations. As Harriet cut the first piece of cake that evening, she remarked that it was snowing rather heavily outside, which everyone agreed was lovely, but quite unusual for that time of year.

Dinsy soon learned all the planets, and many of their moons. (She referred to herself as Umbriel for an entire month.) She puffed up her cheeks and blew onto stacks of scrap paper. “Sirocco,” she’d whisper. “Chinook. Mistral. Willy–Willy,” and rated her attempts on the Beaufort Scale. Dorothy put a halt to it after Hurricane Dinsy reshuffled a rather elaborate game of Patience.

She dipped into fractals here, double dactyls there. When she tired of a subject—or found it just didn’t suit her—Blythe or Dorothy would smile and proffer the hat. It was a deep green felt that held 1000 slips of paper, numbered 001 to 999. Dinsy’d scrunch her eyes closed, pick one and, like a scavenger hunt, spend the morning (or the next three weeks) at the shelves indicated.

Pangolins lived at 599 (point 31), and Pancakes at 641. Pencils were at 674 but Pens were a shelf away at 681, and Ink was across the aisle at 667. (Dinsy thought that was stupid, because you had to use them together.) Pluto the planet was at 523, but Pluto the Disney dog was at 791 (point 453), near “Rock and Roll” and Kazoos.

It was all very useful information. But in Dinsy’s opinion, things could be a little too organized.

The first time she straightened up the Common Room without anyone asking, she was very pleased with herself. She had lined up everyone’s teacup in a neat row on the shelf, with all the handles curving the same way, and arranged the spices in the little wooden rack: ANISE, BAY LEAVES, CHIVES, DILL WEED, PEPPERCORNS, SALT, SESAME SEEDS, SUGAR.

“Look,” she said when Blythe came in to refresh her tea, “Order out of chaos.” It was one of Blythe’s favorite mottoes.

Blythe smiled and looked over at the spice rack. Then her smile faded and she shook her head.

“Is something wrong?” Dinsy asked. She had hoped for a compliment.

“Well, you used the alphabet,” said Blythe, sighing. “I suppose it’s not your fault. You were with Olive for a good many years. But you’re a big girl now. You should learn the proper order.” She picked up the salt container. “We’ll start with Salt.” She wrote the word on the little chalkboard hanging by the icebox, followed by the number 553.632. “Five–five–three–point–six–three–two. Because—?”

Dinsy thought for a moment. “Earth Sciences.”

“Ex–actly.” Blythe beamed. “Because salt is a mineral. But, now, chives. Chives are a garden crop, so they’re…”

Dinsy bit her lip in concentration. “Six–thirty–something.”

“Very good.” Blythe smiled again and chalked CHIVES 635.26 on the board. “So you see, Chives should always be shelved after Salt, dear. A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Blythe turned and began to rearrange the eight ceramic jars. Behind her back, Dinsy silently rolled her eyes.

Edith appeared in the doorway.

“Oh, not again,” she said. “No wonder I can’t find a thing in this kitchen. If I’ve told you once, Blythe, I’ve told you a thousand times. Bay Leaf comes first. QK–four–nine—” She had worked at the university when she was younger.

“Library of Congress, my fanny,” said Blythe, not quite under her breath. “We’re not that kind of library.”

“That’s no excuse for imprecision,” Edith replied. They each grabbed a jar and stared at each other.

Dinsy tiptoed away and hid in the 814s, where she read “Jabberwocky” until the others came in for supper and the coast was clear.

But the kitchen remained a taxonomic battleground. At least once a week, Dinsy was amused by the indignant sputtering of someone who had just spooned dill weed, not sugar, into a cup of Earl Grey tea.

Once she knew her way around, Dinsy was free to roam the library as she chose.

“Anywhere?” she asked Blythe.

“Anywhere you like, my sweet. Except the Stacks. You’re not quite old enough for the Stacks.”

Dinsy frowned. “I am so,” she muttered. But the Stacks were locked, and there wasn’t much she could do.

Some days she sat with Olive in the Children’s Room, revisiting old friends, or explored the maze of the Main Room. Other days she spent in the Reference Room, where Ruth and Harriet guarded the big important books that no one could ever, ever check out—not even when the library had been open.

Ruth and Harriet were like a set of salt and pepper shakers from two different yard sales. Harriet had faded orange hair and a sharp, kind face. Small and pinched and pointed, a decade or two away from wizened. She had violet eyes and a mischievous, conspiratorial smile and wore rimless octagonal glasses, like stop signs. Dinsy had never seen an actual stop sign, but she’d looked at pictures.

Ruth was Chinese. She wore wool jumpers in neon plaids and had cat’s–eye glasses on a beaded chain around her neck. She never put them all the way on, just lifted them to her eyes and peered through them without opening the bows.

“Life is a treasure hunt,” said Harriet.

“Knowledge is power,” said Ruth. “Knowing where to look is half the battle.”

“Half the fun,” added Harriet. Ruth almost never got the last word.

They introduced Dinsy to dictionaries and almanacs, encyclopedias and compendiums. They had been native guides through the country of the Dry Tomes for many years, but they agreed that Dinsy delved unusually deep.

“Would you like to take a break, love?” Ruth asked one afternoon. “It’s nearly time for tea.”

“I am fatigued,” Dinsy replied, looking up from Roget. “Fagged out, weary, a bit spent. Tea would be pleasant, agreeable—”

“I’ll put the kettle on,” sighed Ruth.

Dinsy read Bartlett’s as if it were a catalog of conversations, spouting lines from Tennyson, Mark Twain, and Dale Carnegie until even Harriet put her hands over her ears and began to hum “Stairway to Heaven.”

One or two evenings a month, usually after Blythe had remarked “Well, she’s a spirited girl,” for the third time, they all took the night off, “For Library business.” Olive or Dorothy would tuck Dinsy in early and read from one of her favorites while Ruth made her a bedtime treat—a cup of spiced tea that tasted a little like cherries and a little like varnish, and which Dinsy somehow never remembered finishing.

Basic RGB

They were an odd, but contented family. There were rules, to be sure, but Dinsy never lacked for attention. With seven mothers, there was always someone to talk with, a hankie for tears, a lap or a shoulder to share a story.

Most evenings, when Dorothy had made a fire in the Reading Room and the wooden shelves gleamed in the flickering light, they would all sit in companionable silence. Ruth knitted, Harriet muttered over an acrostic, Edith stirred the cocoa so it wouldn’t get a skin. Dinsy sat on the rug, her back against the knees of whoever was her favorite that week, and felt safe and warm and loved. “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,” as Blythe would say.

But as she watched the moon peep in and out of the clouds through the leaded–glass panes of the tall windows, Dinsy often wondered what it would be like to see the whole sky, all around her.

First Olive and then Dorothy had been in charge of Dinsy’s thick dark hair, trimming it with the mending shears every few weeks when it began to obscure her eyes. But a few years into her second decade at the library, Dinsy began cutting it herself, leaving it as wild and spiky as the brambles outside the front door.

That was not the only change.

“We haven’t seen her at breakfast in weeks,” Harriet said as she buttered a scone one morning.

“Months. And all she reads is Salinger. Or Sylvia Plath,” complained Dorothy. “I wouldn’t mind that so much, but she just leaves them on the table for me to reshelve.”

“It’s not as bad as what she did to Olive,” Marian said. “The Golden Compass appeared last week, and she thought Dinsy would enjoy it. But not only did she turn up her nose, she had the gall to say to Olive, ‘Leave me alone. I can find my own books.’ Imagine. Poor Olive was beside herself.”

“She used to be such a sweet child,” Blythe sighed. “What are we going to do?”

“Now, now. She’s just at that age,” Edith said calmly. “She’s not really a child anymore. She needs some privacy, and some responsibility. I have an idea.”

And so it was that Dinsy got her own room—with a door that shut—in a corner of the second floor. It had been a tiny cubbyhole of an office, but it had a set of slender curved stairs, wrought iron worked with lilies and twigs, which led up to the turret between the red–tiled eaves.

The round tower was just wide enough for Dinsy’s bed, with windows all around. There had once been a view of the town, but now trees and ivy allowed only jigsaw puzzle–shaped puddles of light to dapple the wooden floor. At night the puddles were luminous blue splotches of moonlight that hinted of magic beyond her reach.

On the desk in the room below, centered in a pool of yellow lamplight, Edith had left a note: “Come visit me. There’s mending to be done,” and a worn brass key on a wooden paddle, stenciled with the single word: STACKS.

The Stacks were in the basement, behind a locked gate at the foot of the metal spiral staircase that descended from the 600s. They had always reminded Dinsy of the steps down to the dungeon in The King’s Stilts. Darkness below hinted at danger, but adventure. Terra Incognita.

Dinsy didn’t use her key the first day, or the second. Mending? Boring. But the afternoon of the third day, she ventured down the spiral stairs. She had been as far as the gate before, many times, because it was forbidden, to peer through the metal mesh at the dimly lighted shelves and imagine what treasures might be hidden there.

She had thought that the Stacks would be damp and cold, strewn with odd bits of discarded library flotsam. Instead they were cool and dry, and smelled very different from upstairs. Dustier, with hints of mold and the tang of vintage leather, an undertone of vinegar stored in an old shoe.

Unlike the main floor, with its polished wood and airy high ceilings, the Stacks were a low, cramped warren of gunmetal gray shelves that ran floor–to–ceiling in narrow aisles. Seven levels twisted behind the west wall of the library like a secret labyrinth that ran from below the ground to up under the eaves of the roof. Floor and steps were translucent glass brick and six–foot ceilings strung with pipes and ducts were lit by single–caged bulbs, two to an aisle.

It was a windowless fortress of books. Upstairs the shelves were mosaics of all colors and sizes, but the Stacks were filled with geometric monochrome blocks of subdued colors: eight dozen forest–green bound volumes of Ladies Home Journal filled five rows of shelves, followed by an equally large block of identical dark red LIFEs.

Dinsy felt like she was in another world. She was not lost, but for the first time in her life, she was not easily found, and that suited her. She could sit, invisible, and listen to the sounds of library life going on around her. From Level Three she could hear Ruth humming in the Reference Room on the other side of the wall. Four feet away, and it felt like miles. She wandered and browsed for a month before she presented herself at Edith’s office.

A frosted glass pane in the dark wood door said MENDING ROOM in chipping gold letters. The door was open a few inches, and Dinsy could see a long workbench strewn with sewn folios and bits of leather bindings, spools of thread and bottles of thick beige glue.

“I gather you’re finding your way around,” Edith said without turning in her chair. “I haven’t had to send out a search party.”

“Pretty much,” Dinsy replied. “I’ve been reading old magazines.” She flopped into a chair to the left of the door.

“One of my favorite things,” Edith agreed. “It’s like time travel.”  Edith was a tall, solid woman with long graying hair that she wove into elaborate buns and twisted braids, secured with number–two pencils and a single tortoiseshell comb. She wore blue jeans and vests in brightly muted colors—pale teal and lavender and dusky rose—and a strand of lapis lazuli beads cut in rough ovals.

Edith repaired damaged books, a job that was less demanding now that nothing left the building. But some of the bound volumes of journals and abstracts and magazines went back as far as 1870, and their leather bindings were crumbling into dust. The first year, Dinsy’s job was to go through the aisles, level by level, and find the volumes that needed the most help. Edith gave her a clipboard and told her to check in now and then.

Dinsy learned how to take apart old books and put them back together again. Her first mending project was the tattered 1877 volume of American Naturalist, with its articles on “Educated Fleas” and “Barnacles” and “The Cricket as Thermometer.” She sewed pages into signatures, trimmed leather and marbleized paper. Edith let her make whatever she wanted out of the scraps, and that year Dinsy gave everyone miniature replicas of their favorite volumes for Christmas.

She liked the craft, liked doing something with her hands. It took patience and concentration, and that was oddly soothing. After supper, she and Edith often sat and talked for hours, late into the night, mugs of cocoa on their workbenches, the rest of the library dark and silent above them.

“What’s it like outside?” Dinsy asked one night, while she was waiting for some glue to dry.

Edith was silent for a long time, long enough that Dinsy wondered if she’d spoken too softly, and was about to repeat the question, when Edith replied.

“Chaos.”

That was not anything Dinsy had expected. “What do you mean?”

“It’s noisy. It’s crowded. Everything’s always changing, and not in any way you can predict.”

“That sounds kind of exciting,” Dinsy said.

“Hmm.” Edith thought for a moment. “Yes, I suppose it could be.”

Dinsy mulled that over and fiddled with a scrap of leather, twisting it in her fingers before she spoke again. “Do you ever miss it?”

Edith turned on her stool and looked at Dinsy. “Not often,” she said slowly. “Not as often as I’d thought. But then I’m awfully fond of order. Fonder than most, I suppose. This is a better fit.”

Dinsy nodded and took a sip of her cocoa.

A few months later, she asked the Library for a third and final boon.

The evening that everything changed, Dinsy sat in the armchair in her room, reading Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (for the third time), imagining what it would be like to talk to Glencora, when a tentative knock sounded at the door.

“Dinsy? Dinsy?” said a tiny familiar voice. “It’s Olive, dear.”

Dinsy slid her READ! bookmark into chapter 14 and closed the book. “It’s open,” she called.

Olive padded in wearing a red flannel robe, her feet in worn carpet slippers. Dinsy expected her to proffer a book, but instead Olive said, “I’d like you to come with me, dear.” Her blue eyes shone with excitement.

“What for?” They had all done a nice reading of As You Like It a few days before, but Dinsy didn’t remember any plans for that night. Maybe Olive just wanted company. Dinsy had been meaning to spend an evening in the Children’s Room, but hadn’t made it down there in months.

But Olive surprised her. “It’s Library business,” she said, waggling her finger and smiling.

Now, that was intriguing. For years, whenever the Librarians wanted an evening to themselves, they’d disappear down into the Stacks after supper, and would never tell her why. “It’s Library business,” was all they ever said. When she was younger, Dinsy had tried to follow them, but it’s hard to sneak in a quiet place. She was always caught and given that awful cherry tea. The next thing she knew it was morning.

“Library business?” Dinsy said slowly. “And I’m invited?”

“Yes, dear. You’re practically all grown up now. It’s high time you joined us.”

“Great.” Dinsy shrugged, as if it were no big deal, trying to hide her excitement. And maybe it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe it was a meeting of the rules committee, or plans for moving the 340s to the other side of the window again. But what if it was something special…? That was both exciting and a little scary.

She wiggled her feet into her own slippers and stood up. Olive barely came to her knees. Dinsy touched the old woman’s white hair affectionately, remembering when she used to snuggle into that soft lap. Such a long time ago.

A library at night is a still but resonant place. The only lights were the sconces along the walls, and Dinsy could hear the faint echo of each footfall on the stairs down to the foyer. They walked through the shadows of the shelves in the Main Room, back to the 600s, and down the metal stairs to the Stacks, footsteps ringing hollowly.

The lower level was dark except for a single caged bulb above the rows of National Geographics, their yellow bindings pale against the gloom. Olive turned to the left.

“Where are we going?” Dinsy asked. It was so odd to be down there with Olive.

“You’ll see,” Olive said. Dinsy could practically feel her smiling in the dark. “You’ll see.”

She led Dinsy down an aisle of boring municipal reports and stopped at the far end, in front of the door to the janitorial closet set into the stone wall. She pulled a long, old–fashioned brass key from the pocket of her robe and handed it to Dinsy.

“You open it, dear. The keyhole’s a bit high for me.”

Dinsy stared at the key, at the door, back at the key. She’d been fantasizing about “Library Business” since she was little, imagining all sorts of scenarios, none of them involving cleaning supplies. A monthly poker game. A secret tunnel into town, where they all went dancing, like the twelve princesses. Or a book group, reading forbidden texts. And now they were inviting her in? What a letdown if it was just maintenance.

She put the key in the lock. “Funny,” she said as she turned it. “I’ve always wondered what went on when you —” Her voice caught in her throat. The door opened, not onto the closet of mops and pails and bottles of Pine–Sol she expected, but onto a small room, paneled in wood the color of ancient honey. An Oriental rug in rich, deep reds lay on the parquet floor, and the room shone with the light of dozens of candles. There were no shelves, no books, just a small fireplace at one end where a log crackled in the hearth.

“Surprise,” said Olive softly. She gently tugged Dinsy inside.

All the others were waiting, dressed in flowing robes of different colors. Each of them stood in front of a Craftsman rocker, dark wood covered in soft brown leather.

Edith stepped forward and took Dinsy’s hand. She gave it a gentle squeeze and said, under her breath, “Don’t worry.” Then she winked and led Dinsy to an empty rocker. “Stand here,” she said, and returned to her own seat.

Stunned, Dinsy stood, her mouth open, her feelings a kaleidoscope.

“Welcome, dear one,” said Dorothy. “We’d like you to join us.” Her face was serious, but her eyes were bright, as if she was about to tell a really awful riddle and couldn’t wait for the reaction.

Dinsy started. That was almost word–for–word what Olive had said, and it made her nervous. She wasn’t sure what was coming, and was even less sure that she was ready.

“Introductions first.” Dorothy closed her eyes and intoned, “I am Lexica. I serve the Library.” She bowed her head once and sat down.

Dinsy stared, her eyes wide and her mind reeling as each of the Librarians repeated what was obviously a familiar rite.

“I am Juvenilia,” said Olive with a twinkle. “I serve the Library.”

“Incunabula,” said Edith.

“Sapientia,” said Harriet.

“Ephemera,” said Marian.

“Marginalia,” said Ruth.

“Melvilia,” said Blythe, smiling at Dinsy. “And I too serve the Library.”

And then they were all seated, and all looking up at Dinsy.

“How old are you now, my sweet?” asked Harriet.

Dinsy frowned. It wasn’t as easy a question as it sounded. “Seventeen,” she said after a few seconds. “Or close enough.”

“No longer a child,” Harriet nodded. There was a touch of sadness in her voice. “That is why we are here tonight. To ask you to join us.”

There was something so solemn in Harriet’s voice that it made Dinsy’s stomach knot up. “I don’t understand,” she said slowly. “What do you mean? I’ve been here my whole life. Practically.”

Dorothy shook her head. “You have been in the Library, but not of the Library. Think of it as an apprenticeship. We have nothing more to teach you. So we’re asking if you’ll take a Library name and truly become one of us. There have always been seven to serve the Library.”

Dinsy looked around the room. “Won’t I be the eighth?” she asked. She was curious, but she was also stalling for time.

“No, dear,” said Olive. “You’ll be taking my place. I’m retiring. I can barely reach the second shelves these days, and soon I’ll be no bigger than the dictionary. I’m going to put my feet up and sit by the fire and take it easy. I’ve earned it,” she said with a decisive nod.

“Here, here,” said Blythe. “And well done, too.”

There was a murmur of assent around the room.

Dinsy took a deep breath, and then another. She looked around the room at the eager faces of the seven Librarians, the only mothers she had ever known. She loved them all, and was about to disappoint them, because she had a secret of her own. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see their faces, not at first.

“I can’t take your place, Olive,” she said quietly, and heard the tremor in her own voice as she fought back tears.

All around her the librarians clucked in surprise. Ruth recovered first. “Well, of course not. No one’s asking you to replace Olive, we’re merely —”

“I can’t join you,” Dinsy repeated. Her voice was just as quiet, but it was stronger. “Not now.”

“But why not, sweetie?” That was Blythe, who sounded as if she were about to cry herself.

“Fireworks,” said Dinsy after a moment. She opened her eyes. “Six–sixty–two–point–one.” She smiled at Blythe. “I know everything about them. But I’ve never seen any.” She looked from face to face again.

“I’ve never petted a dog or ridden a bicycle or watched the sun rise over the ocean,” she said, her voice gaining courage. “I want to feel the wind and eat an ice cream cone at a carnival. I want to smell jasmine on a spring night and hear an orchestra. I want—” she faltered, and then continued, “I want the chance to dance with a boy.”

She turned to Dorothy. “You said you have nothing left to teach me. Maybe that’s true. I’ve learned from each of you that there’s nothing in the world I can’t discover and explore for myself in these books. Except the world,” she added in a whisper. She felt her eyes fill with tears. “You chose the Library. I can’t do that without knowing what else there might be.”

“You’re leaving?” Ruth asked in a choked voice.

Dinsy bit her lip and nodded. “I’m, well, I’ve—” She’d been practicing these words for days, but they were so much harder than she’d thought. She looked down at her hands.

And then Marian rescued her.

“Dinsy’s going to college,” she said. “Just like I did. And you, and you, and you.” She pointed a finger at each of the women in the room. “We were girls before we were librarians, remember? It’s her turn now.”

“But how—?” asked Edith.

“Where did—?” stammered Harriet.

“I wished on the Library,” said Dinsy. “And it left an application in the unabridged. Marian helped me fill it out.”

“I am in charge of circulation,” said Marian. “What comes in, what goes out. We found her acceptance letter in the Book Return last week.”

“But you had no transcripts,” said Dorothy practically. “Where did you tell them you’d gone to school?”

Dinsy smiled. “That was Marian’s idea. We told them I was home–schooled, raised by feral librarians.”

And so it was that on a bright September morning, for the first time in ages, the heavy oak door of the Carnegie Library swung open. Everyone stood in the doorway, blinking in the sunlight.

“Promise you’ll write,” said Blythe, tucking a packet of sweets into the basket on Dinsy’s arm. The others nodded. “Yes, do.”

“I’ll try,” she said. “But you never know how long anything will take around here.” She tried to make a joke of it, but she was holding back tears and her heart was hammering a mile a minute.

“You will come back, won’t you? I can’t put off my retirement forever.” Olive was perched on top of the Circulation Desk.

“To visit, yes.” Dinsy leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I promise. But to serve? I don’t know. I have no idea what I’m going to find out there.” She looked out into the forest that surrounded the library. “I don’t even know if I’ll be able to get back in, through all that.”

“Take this. It will always get you in,” said Marian. She handed Dinsy a small stiff pasteboard card with a metal plate in one corner, embossed with her name: DINSY CARNEGIE.

“What is it?” asked Dinsy.

“Your library card.”

There were hugs all around, and tears and goodbyes. But in the end, the seven librarians stood back and watched her go.

Dinsy stepped out into the world as she had come—with a wicker basket and a book of fairy tales, full of hopes and dreams.

Author’s Note:

This story came bubbling up in the Well of Ideas from a couple of different sources.

During a psychic reading several years ago (a birthday gift from my sister), I was told that my spirit guides were seven librarians, who would help me find the answers to the questions in my life. I’m not sure I believed that, but I liked it, because the library was always my favorite refuge, and there have been many significant librarians in my life.

I have always lived with and around books. There was a battered, blue buckram–bound copy of Heidi on the bookshelf in the upstairs hall of the house I grew up in. Old book, with nice colored plates, dating back to my mother’s childhood.

When I was about eight, I discovered that it had a library–card pocket inside the cover. Overdue library books were a capital crime in my family, and this one had been checked out in 1933, when my mother would have been eight herself. I asked her about it, and to my surprise, she looked very embarrassed and said, in an apologetic but determined voice, “I am going to return it.”

She’d checked it out of the Bristow, Oklahoma, library and her family had moved out of the state two weeks later. It had gotten packed by mistake. She’d been carting it around, from house to house, to college, into her marriage, feeling guilty about it for thirty years.

Sometime in the mid–1970s, she and a friend were planning a road trip, and Mom looked at the map and realized that if they made a 150–mile detour (each way), they could stop in Bristow. So that summer, my mother marched up the steps of the Bristow Public Library, plunked Heidi down on the Circulation Desk, and said, “This is overdue.” An understatement. It was more than forty years overdue.

The librarian looked at the book, looked at my mother.

“I’ll pay the fine, whatever it is,” Mom said, pulling out her checkbook.

“That won’t be necessary,” the librarian said. Then she got her DISCARD stamp and whacked Heidi and handed the book back.

It’s sitting on my desk as I type this.

When I started thinking about a story for Firebirds Rising, the anthology where this story was first published, my guiding librarians picked up Heidi and wandered into my brain again. They puttered around in there for months before the story began to gel. I wrote most of the first draft in a little cottage in the desert outside Tucson, with downloaded photos of the insides of old libraries on my laptop. When I got home, the manuscript and I visited a dozen Carnegie libraries in northern Ohio, where I sat and wrote and looked at old wooden wainscoting and Craftsman–tiled fireplaces and pebbled–glass office doors. I spent a week sitting on the floor of the Stacks in the oldest library on the Case Western University campus, making notes about the smells and the textures so that I could give them to Dinsy.

“In the House of the Seven Librarians” copyright 2006 by Ellen Klages. Originally appeared in Firebirds Rising: An Anthology of Original Science Fiction and Fantasy (Firebird 2006), edited by Sharyn November.

(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Ellen Klages is interviewed by Deborah Stanish)

Anyone With a Care for Their Image

Today, without trepidation, I send my beloved Marquette out in the city, checking her hair (ringlets still perfect). Her gown, (modeled on that worn by the Princess de Polignac at the crowning of Napoleon the Third) remained flawless.

I murmur, “Old age is ripe with memories that should have taught me not to do the foolish things that I know I will always do.”

“Should I use that,” she asks in that charming voice, with just the hint of huskiness.

“Only once, so make it count,” I say. And she winks a dark eye, which still delights me despite the fact that I programmed that voice and wink. Then off she goes to the early autumn opening of the shamefully extravagant and wildly popular Flower Exchange.

Marquette, with her bright smile and bon mots amid the mad money, would be carried on my site by late afternoon.

These days, in the New York we call The Big Arena, anyone with a care for their public image has an automaton they can dispatch to fulfill tiresome social obligations. If they have taste and a concern for the aesthetics of the other attendees, a doll in full costume (mid–19th century French is now the rage) is the only reasonable choice.

Alternatives exist. Harriet Hallways, whose blog–site is at best a gossip sheet, has the Frog Footman. My dear friend Rupert LaRupert has the tiresome Bicycle Messenger (with bike). But most often, it’s a life-size doll arrayed in an uncomfortable fashion, which no human would now suffer.

It’s best not to skimp. Some Hell Dolls from a few years back, with their silver fangs and red eyes, are still with us. But they no longer evoke the excitement their owners felt when they thought they were making a subversive statement.

They pretend otherwise, but they’ve paid a price. The horrible Grebnetz, whose ego dwarfs the size of his website’s viewer base, is an example. At this summer’s Perfume Night, his Hell Doll attacked a security bot and got itself arrested. Grebnetz had to spend that evening and lots of money springing her. He had somehow managed to forget that legally our dolls are our dependents and we are responsible for them.

Today, in my live blog, I played films and commented on famous old fashion shows. Like “Trans! Formation! At Giant’s Stadium!” with even the defensive ends in evening gowns. And the time when Lorimar, last of the Billionaire Mayors, froze Central Park Lake in mid-summer and the models skated. I don’t draw the highest density crowds. But 100K hits for a blog site on a weekday afternoon is quite nice and I achieve it often.

Sadly, I find that today the media is jammed with news of another failed coup attempt. Rage permeates the net. Grebnetz is a ravening beast and takes this latest attempt to overthrow the President as proof positive the nation is in collapse and that we should rise up.

He doesn’t understand that in a public dispute not of one’s own choosing and beyond one’s control, it’s best to find some aspect that’s transient and a bit silly. Politics, normally, provides plenty of opportunities of this kind. A posture of amused despair is a more durable commodity than rage. And it makes the inevitable backing down an occasion for amused smiles rather than gunfire.

One’s personal feelings are intrusive. We are all bystanders, especially since the government was moved to the West. (Colorado, is it? Not Nevada I know. Not Utah, I think). Was the coup, in fact, just a form of attention grabbing? I think most people would like to believe so. Wanting often makes it true. And tomorrow is another world on the net.

So what I say on the blog, perhaps not entirely wisely, is, “Truth is too precious to spread around and in any case is not widely appreciated. Lies on the other hand are cheap, easily manufactured, and generally a delight to all.”

It seems to me the kind of saucy wickedness my audience has come to expect. But immediately I have that feeling of being a fool which comes when one chooses the wrong moment to tell the truth!

“Luck,” I tell the audience, “is God’s little compensation for those of us born without brains.”

But my audience is under 25K and falling fast. It’s the moment when I want desperately to switch to the Flower Exchange. But what appears, seemingly everywhere, is footage of blood on a city street and the Vice President (What’s Her Name?) being rushed somewhere in an ambulance.

When the Flower Exchange finally appears, one sees the board with Snow Orchid futures and Black Tulips at prices that would support entire towns through eternity. But these numbers are not rising. The usual mobs of bidders and bettors seem to have faded away.

My Marquette is on camera speaking to a reporter. She gives my name and tells the world, “He believes one has a blog–site first and is a human being somewhere down the list.”

I have described myself thusly, but it’s not what the moment demands. The interviewer is offended. I notice a Hell Doll in the background and then another and another. I try to contact Marquette but they surround her, tear her clothes, and rip out her hair. There seems to be no Security. Then a tinkling bell sounds and Rupert LaRupert’s Bicycle Messenger, backed up by several formidable bots, peddles into the picture, snatches Marquette up, and rides away.

The messenger brings her to me with her clothes and body in tatters. Marquette’s hair has been slashed, chunks have been ripped off. Her eyes are shut but her head is intact, which is what counts. Even in my distress, I envision new strategies for the two of us.

The dark comes early in late September. On the net, mobs battle the police and National Guard in a dozen cities. Something is on fire up the Avenue from my building.

Rupert’s messenger also carried a note naming a street and a pier on the Hudson. A power boat will take a few of us away for a while. More than ever, I am amazed at how worthwhile it was to secure a helicopter seat for young Rupert back when the Water Riots broke out and we all had to escape.

I prepare quickly. Cards and cash are always on hand. I pack a very fine old brandy for Rupert and slip into a black jacket bought in a long ago clearance sale for its very anonymity.

I wrap a silk scarf over Marquette’s battered face and zip her head up in a well padded shoulder bag. Her data and systems are intact. She’ll be tougher in her next incarnation. The aesthetics of combat wear will be new to us both.

I apply every lock and safety device and walk down all the flights of stairs because power will fail at some point and elevators are traps.

The lobby is dark. The doormen have fled. They and electricity are untrustworthy servants. I whisper for Marquette not to worry and that with a new body and wig she’ll be brighter than ever.

We slip out the back door and down the service alley. Fire trucks with a police escort scream by as we emerge onto the side street. Smoke hangs in the air. Upsetting, but not in a class with the Water Riots!

The river is but a few blocks away. Now I flee, but soon I’ll be back and spitting out epigrams on the net. Other formats could attract more attention than my blog. I could go totally live and have a blood–thirsty audience watch Marquette and me scuttle down dark streets in search of safety. But even thinking about that produces shortness of breath and scary ripples in my heart.

Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained

I need you.

This is a confessional moment. It’s been three weeks with you fitted against me, flush against the place where I now abruptly end. They cleaned me up, neatened and straightened, gave you to me, but it was a while before I could look at you and longer before I was willing to allow what’s left of myself to be present when you were in use.

You’re not me. They made you to look like me; you have skin, you have what feels like bone, and I can see the shift and flow and extension of muscles inside you, but all of these things are comforting lies that don’t comfort me in the slightest. I don’t like you. We’re stuck with each other, but I don’t like you and I don’t like that everyone is expecting me to. Like you’re a favor that was done for me. Done to me—I never asked. I knew that was the policy now, because why not do everything you can do for someone, do no harm via the neglect of good that might be done, but I never thought about it in connection with anything that might happen to me. They assumed. You know what they say about assuming.

I don’t like you. But I do need you.

Keep that between us.

It itches. That’s the first thing I’m really aware of, besides the burning and the ghostly pins and needles that come to me in the twilight hours between sleep and waking and sleep again. Drugs used to prolong those hours, but now they’re mercifully short, and for the most part the ghosts don’t come. So the itch I feel is a real itch, my itch, and separate from the tight pull of the new skin that covers my face and neck and half of my chest.

They replaced my breast. They didn’t ask me about that either, but I did want that, at least.

It itches, and I look down at the seam where you end and I begin. The flesh tone is an almost perfect match. Unless you look close, you can’t see it at all; it looks like a T–shirt tan, like something anyone might pick up after a summer outside. I even had one, before I lost what you’re meant to replace. It’s on the other side, too. Not really the same, but close enough.

This near–perfection is meant to protect me from the stares of others. It’s meant to hide me. It’s meant to lie to them as well.

It’s not a great foot to get off on.

I lift you—I send the signals that would move those muscles if I still had those muscles to move, and you move exactly as they would. I turn you in the sunlight and I imagine our joined neural net, yours and mine, the way they now interlace. You’re not just against me, you’re inside me, and when my skin starts to crawl, I see goosebumps prickle into being all over you.

And that just makes me start to cry. That stupid little detail. It infuriates me that they got that much right. That they were so careful when they made you, just for me. They’re probably so proud of the job they did.

That night I dream about cutting you off with a meat cleaver. I don’t just stop at cutting you off; I chop you to pieces, watching clear fluid well around the cuts and drip slowly out of you, out of the things that look like veins and do the same job as veins but aren’t veins at all. I look at the delicate carbon fiber core. I pick you up and throw you away from myself, and it feels like the right thing to do.

Then I look at the part of me that’s missing, where I used to displace the air, the very atoms that make up everything around me, and I don’t feel whole. I don’t feel better. I’m just broken, and now you’re broken too.

Even in the dream, I know I shouldn’t feel broken. I know I’m not broken. That’s a poisonous way to think. It seeps into everything like bad groundwater and it makes a person feel wrong and bad forever. But I can’t help it. Another, weaker part of me knows that I am broken. And so are you, and nothing is ever going to fix either of us.

I wake up in the dark and I can’t even feel the ghost of that limb anymore. All that’s left is you.

I have to learn how to touch things again. Or rather, you have to learn, and I have to be patient while you do.

In physical therapy, they hand me different objects and I let you explore the texture, file it away. Your software is meant to grow and develop with me, as opposed to coming pre–programmed, so we’ll be a perfect fit. It’s also meant to help me learn about you by using you, but of course I’m being resistant, as the therapist says. She hands me a rubber ball covered in flexible spikes, a piece of sandpaper, a chunk of wood, a strip of silk. You’re not very strong yet but I’ve been told that in time, if I work with you, you’ll be double the strength of the arm I had. Your grip will be able to crush someone’s hand.

You know, if I wanted to.

But right now you’re not very strong, and while I want more than anything to hurl the ball against the side of the therapist’s head, to tear the silk, to break the wood into chips, I’m good and I do what I’m told, and so do you. After about an hour, I start to feel those rubber nubs bending under the soft pressure of your fingers, the grains of the sandpaper, the rough bark of the wood, how slick the silk is, like it’s been oiled. Very faint but there. Like being numb, except I can move. More like a sleeping limb waking up.

I’m doing very well.

We’re supposed to think of each other as a team, while we integrate. You already think of us that way, to the extent that you think at all, so most of the work there is on me. I’m told that it’s not uncommon for that to be a somewhat bumpy road. I’m told all sorts of reassuring things.

Eventually, they say, I’ll think of you as just another part of me.

Okay. Sure.

My first day at home, I move around the apartment just picking things up and putting them back down again. You’d be amazed at how much time I can fill doing this.

Well. Not you. You already know.

It’s not that I can’t do it. It’s not that we didn’t cover that in therapy, and we’ll be covering it for a while to come, and there are all kinds of strengthening exercises that I’m supposed to be doing. It’s more that this was my space, my space from before, and this is now my space after, and what demarcates and defines the difference is what isn’t there anymore and the new thing that is.

I am picking up pieces of my life and putting them back down again, because now they’re in slightly different places than they were before. I need to rearrange everything. I need to do it with you, otherwise I don’t know how you can fit here.

A coffee mug, chipped on the edge in two places, because I had it in my very first place out of college and I’ve moved twice since then.

A tube of lotion, mostly empty.

My tablet, charging on the side table.

A book that I was in the middle of, that I’ve been in the middle of for a month now, because I never came home from work to finish it.

I can almost feel them. But something about them still isn’t quite real. Everything is… Well. At arm’s length.

There are all kinds of bad jokes that are available to be made, and I make them to myself, because I suppose that I’m hoping that humor might break the ice a little, like at a party where you don’t know anyone. But I’m not laughing.

I make dinner. A couple of friends have offered to bring something over, but I’ve made it clear that I don’t really care to be social right now, and anyway, I’m supposed to be using you more. But as I cook—mac and cheese out of a box—I mostly stick with my left hand.

That night, lying in the dark, I start talking out loud to you.

Here are the things I say to you.

I tell you why I have you—the car, the crash, the fire, and my arm trapped between two warped pieces of metal, cut and burned and shattered into a tube of bone gravel. I think it’s important to know about one’s origins.

Like a stream of compliments, I tell you about how advanced you are, about what’s come before you, hooks and awkward movement and no sensitivity at all. I know these things because I looked them up while I was still in the hospital, because during downtime things could become crushingly dull, and anyway, I wanted a better sense of what I had been thrown into.

I tell you about what all the brochures say, that now I can be normal, that I can lead a normal life, that in fact I’ll be better than before, and isn’t it uplifting, isn’t it an inspiring thing to see, and aren’t we a great society that now we can help broken people do such great things.

I tell you about how I’m really, really pissed off at the fucking doctors, and by extension how pissed off I am at you.

I tell you that I’m really not sure that things are going to work out between us.

And I tell you that I need you.

I say this last in a barely audible whisper but I hear it echoing against the walls. I feel ashamed and I’m not even sure why.

I’m glad people can’t easily tell just by looking at you. They don’t stare and then look intently away, like I’ve heard people used to. I don’t get awkward non–questions, the first few times I go out to the store or to get coffee or just to walk. But I still feel like I’m getting stares when I’m not looking, and I wonder what people would say if they could see you for what you are.

What I am. Part machine, part not real. We talk about it like that. Still, even with everyone walking around with their phones slotted into their ears and their glasses on. Turn all that shit off and go to the wilderness or something, reconnect with real life. Leave it at home and have real contact with real people. This is a generation that grew up with this stuff, and we still talk about getting rid of it like it’s something admirable. People are very proud of themselves, getting back from vacation and excited to talk about how much better they feel long after everyone else stopped being interested.

That’s always sort of bugged me. Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time now, because I’ve heard that a lot of people with your kind of artificial limb are perfectly happy.

Artificial, though. There it is again.

I want you to be real. I want to be real. But I just wish the choice had been mine, and it wasn’t, any more than the crash was. I’m not out for a run this afternoon, but I do start running out of nowhere, not in my track suit and wearing the wrong shoes, but suddenly in a panic, tearing through the park with my arms pumping—my one arm and you. You do the job. Maybe I’m running from you but you’re helping me do it.

I run until my lungs burn and every part of me aches, and finally I stop because I have to, breathing hard, braced over my knees. I hurt, but for the moment I don’t care who’s watching me.

After a few moments, I realize that you hurt too, in perfect concert with the rest of me, allowing me to feel complete pain. Gratitude flushes through me and I don’t even entirely hate it when it does.

Something changes after that. Pain has a way of reordering the world. I know that, because pain and I are on intimate terms by now, but maybe you can still teach me something new.

I go home and I read more about you. I’ve done that already, but now I’m giving a new kind of attention to the project, like I’ve just met someone fabulously interesting and I’m tracking down everything on the net that I can find about them.

About how they use nanotech to create you from the ground up, growing you according to the specs provided by my own flesh and blood and bone structure. How they synthesize compounds in a fabulously complex process in order to build a covering that feels like skin but is a hundred times more durable. How they use quantum computing to give you a kind of brain, learning and sensing and reacting in ways that a born limb can’t.

And at the end of it, I feel like you’re so close and at the same time even further away.

I put the tablet down. I sit in the lamplight—low, I like it low—and I look at you. Lift my other hand and run my fingertips along your skin–that–isn’t–skin. I feel it prickle in response. Sensory input is still a work in progress but I feel it well enough, feather–soft caressing down to the slight knob of your wrist.

My wrist?

God, I just don’t know anymore.

I need help, maybe.

I need you.

I direct you to touch me, next. It’s a very strange experience. I feel it from both ends, subject and object, active and passive. I run you down my throat, up and over my lips. Breasts, covered by thin cloth; I’m dressed for bed.

Then I’m not dressed anymore.

It happens quick. I don’t stop to think. I don’t bother to drag myself off the couch; it happens right there. You make your way down over my belly—soft and always bigger than I really liked—over the tops of my thighs, up their insides and between them. It’s like I’m not even controlling you anymore. You learn, so maybe you already know what I need.

I bite my lips against a little cry when you push into me and it pretty much goes downhill from there.

But later I don’t dream of hacking you off. That’s something.

What I do dream is that I have three arms. I have the one remaining that’s fully me, I have you, and then I have what I lost. Somehow we all fit together and we’re all perfect, one big happy family. I’m happy. I’m not hurting anywhere. I don’t feel wrong or broken and I don’t feel deformed; I’m not bothered by having more than most people because I’m whole again.

I’m whole with you.

I wake up crying. You wipe away my tears.

After the loss of a limb, some people experience bereavement. Some people are angry. Some people adjust perfectly well. Some people have a hard time working with your particular family of prosthetics. Fewer than there used to be. The majority of people are fine with you, grateful for the advances that have produced you.

But I read the testimonials and I don’t see all that many people talking about it like it’s them. Theirs, yes. But not them.

A very few people experience a curious crisis of identity, falling into a kind of internalized uncanny valley. They start believing that they aren’t human anymore. They have panic attacks, nightmares. They claim that not only are you not part of them but you’re a separate mind trying to take them over. A tiny minority actually engage in what’s being called re–amputation.

Footage of a man who hacked off his new leg with a meat cleaver. It took him fifteen minutes to get it all the way off. The pain was immense until he rendered the sensory apparatus inoperative. He has permanent nerve damage. The other leg doesn’t work now. He says he doesn’t regret it. He says incomplete but real human is better than the alternative.

So because I can’t bear to remove you, because I’m not sure I want to anymore, because I’m not sure what else to do, I work with you. I strengthen you. I do my prescribed exercises and I do them again. I get used to the feeling of you flexing and contracting and extending. I can feel you learning, feel you thinking—in your way—about everything we do together. At night when I sleep, you become meditative. Rather than grow to think of you as part of me, more and more I think of you as something separate. But I don’t think that you’re trying to take me over. We’re trying to understand each other. We’re trying to create a smooth working relationship.

I’m not sure that I like you yet. But it no longer seems outside the realm of possibility.

When I go to physical therapy, my therapist talks about how well I’m doing. She watches in admiration as I crush an aluminum container. Superhuman, she says, and I don’t think she’s entirely joking.

I don’t want to be superhuman. But I’m not sure I can be human, either.

But I’m also not even sure what human is anymore.

They contact me a week later.

It’s just a phone call. It’s not a long one. They don’t speak to me personally; they leave a message that I listen to later at night by myself, sitting in front of a glass of white wine and nothing else, listening with my whole self because none of me wants to be thinking about what I’m hearing.

About what I’m feeling and whether I should be feeling it.

You hold the phone. So I know you know.

The gist of it is simple. You’re very new; this is newer. This is so experimental that before they’ll let me take part in it I’ll have to sign at least one non–disclosure agreement, and more than one waiver. But they got to me early enough, they say. They can take you away and regrow me. They can give me back to myself.

It’ll be slow and painful and it might not work, but if it does, at the end of it, I’ll be whole again.

Fully human.

It might not work, but if it does, it’ll be the first step toward phasing all of you out entirely.

I should give them a call if I’m interested and they’ll set up a time for me to come in for an evaluation. Who? Them. It’s a cliché, but they really are faceless in this moment, a force of nature rather than anything recognizably human. The intelligent, all–powerful entity that gave me to you. Now they’ve changed their minds.

At least this time they’re asking for my permission.

I don’t drink my wine. I put the phone on the table. I put you on the table and I look at you for a while.

This is what I wanted. No learning. No sharing. Just having. No one ever has to know.

Later I go for a run. I jog down the steps of my building and onto the sidewalk, running between pools of light, feeling all of me pumping myself forward. A smoothly–running machine. You working in tandem with the rest of me, so much a piece and a part that there might be no difference at all. But if I feel exhilaration, I can feel that you have your own. My companion. You’re coming along with me, and I have no idea if what’s inside you is complex enough to make its own decisions or whether I’m engaging in a kind of delusional anthropomorphization, the opposite of the man who removed one leg and ruined another, or if this is really real.

All of it, real. There might be no difference. There might be none.

I don’t know if I can do this again. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

A mile in, you start to hurt me, and I recognize that it’s not strain or malfunction but a gentle prodding in the form of an aching throb, you letting me know that you’re here. I listen and it’s like you’re speaking, you’re putting in your two cents, whatever they are.

And I think that you didn’t choose to be here any more than I did.

And I think that maybe you’re just doing the best you can.

And I think maybe all those people who are spending all that time and energy and lying awake nights and writing and writing and talking and worrying and making claims about what’s really human are sort of full of shit.

I stop and I breathe hard. I lean against a lamp post and you hold me up.

It’s their problem. I’m tired of letting them make it mine.

“Let’s go home,” I say, and I think I can feel you agreeing.

And yeah, maybe this is the wrong decision. Maybe I’ll regret it later. Maybe it’s my problem after all. Maybe I’m betraying something, maybe I’m not even qualified to make these kinds of choices. Maybe I’m sliding down a slippery slope and maybe I’m shallow. Maybe it’s all a delusion, but hey, whatever gets you through the day.

I’m real. So are you. I need you, but I’m not sure I need to be human. I’m not sure any of us is equipped to make that call.

So this is life, now. This is what life is.

I think I can be okay with that.

The Boy Who Grew Up

It was in the park I met him, one summer day when my Dad and I were fighting (again) and I left (again), slamming the door behind me after realizing I wouldn’t be winning (again), and took the tube to Kensington Gardens, where sometimes you can meet interesting people if the timing and other magical aspects of the world are right. When I was angry, which is what I’d been most of the time since my mum left a couple of years ago, I’d always go to the gardens. Back when I was little, she used to tell me that fairies lived there, that the flowers in the beds were actually their disguises. I never believed her, really—and after she left I thought of that as just another example of her tendency to lie—but by the time the sun went down that day, I’d see hundreds of them. Fairies, that is. And him too. Peter.

He wasn’t what I expected, though I hadn’t really gone to the gardens expecting to see him in the first place. And anyway, what can you truly expect from someone you thought was a character out of a story adults read to children?

That’s what my mum used to do. She’d read to me from this one book about Peter. Not the famous one with Wendy and Neverland, but the one where Peter was first introduced, The Little White Bird. That was back when she still wanted to be part of our family. That was back before she met Marcus the Carcass Splitter, owner of the absurdly posh butcher shop called Chop Chop over in Camden Town. That was back before she left my dad and me behind for bloody fat–marbled sides of beef.

In the stories my mum used to read, Peter always seemed like a perpetual ten–year–old, but the Peter who stood in front of me that day, admiring his own statue (which looked like the little kid version of him) seemed more round my age. Fifteen or sixteen. Reddish–brown hair sticking up like he’d just pulled his head off a pillow. Wearing this costume of a leaf–covered vest and soft leather pants. And boots, too, up to the tops of his calves.

I didn’t realize who he was right away. I thought he was just another nutter, or someone really into cosplay, or maybe just this huge fan of Peter Pan who’d gotten a bit carried away. But none of that put me off him. He was exactly the sort of person I’d hoped I’d come across. Someone lost, someone looking for something that might Change Things.

I’d been there for about twenty minutes before he showed up, but no one really interesting had come by. Just mums and dads with kids, tourists clicking the camera buttons on their phones. So I’d kept my hands in my pockets and kept walking, hoping someone right would eventually meet my eyes. The world seemed to conspire against me that day, though, and I began to worry I’d end up back at our flat feeling the same way I had when I left.

Then suddenly he was just there, standing next to the Peter statue like he’d been beamed down to earth from his alien world past the first star on the left and straight on until morning. And for the first full minute after he materialized, all he did was stand there and stare at that statue of himself like he was looking up at Christ on the cross or something.

“You like him?” I finally said, grinning as I interrupted him pondering the statue like someone absorbed in one of their own selfies. I lifted my chin in the direction of the statue and chuckled a little, trying to put him at ease, but he only turned to me with this squint in his eye and said, “It’s been so long since I’ve been that little.”

I couldn’t stop myself from snorting. Clearly the kid was messing with me. But when his face didn’t budge, I squinted back and said, “You lose your way from the hospital or something?”

“This was the spot,” he said, utterly serious, and pointed at the stump–like pedestal the bronze Peter statue stood on, which had these stone fairies etched into its base, fanning their wings as they looked up at him like some kind of god. “This was the spot where I landed after I flew out my window and the bird Solomon told me I was more human than I thought, and that humans can’t fly. And because he said that, I fell and landed. Right here.”

“Are you for real?” I asked, and he just blinked and nodded like, of course. I nodded back, just once, thinking, Right, this is going to be interesting. Even if the kid was a complete liar or just out of his mind in general, or maybe doing performance art of some kind, I liked that he believed in what he was trying to sell me.

“I had a boat too,” he said, “right over there,” and he pointed toward a group of trees that lined the river. “I used to stash it there when I came across the Serpentine from the island where Solomon’s bird friends built me the boat from mud and twigs.”

“Come on,” I said, “Let’s have a look then.”

“At the boat?” he said, raising his eyebrows.

I nodded and smiled, encouraging him to keep the game going. Of course he’d back down after I pushed for proof, I figured, because there really wasn’t any. “Yeah,” I said. “The boat. Let’s go for a sail in it, why don’t we?”

“It’s probably fallen apart by now,” he said, shaking his head in resignation. And I thought, Here it comes. “But if it’s anywhere,” he said as he turned again toward the copse of trees by the river, “it would be there.” He looked over his shoulder at me then and said, “You do believe me, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said, shrugging. “Why wouldn’t I?” And hearing that, he seemed to brighten a bit, to stand up straighter, and then he grinned like a fool.

“Let’s go then!” he said, suddenly sounding like a little kid calling out the start of a surprise race, and then he turned to sprint in the direction of the tree line. “Beat you there!”

Nutter, I thought, shaking my head as I watched him go. Utter nutter. But I ran off a second later, laughing a little because I’d gone this far with him already, running to look for a non–existent boat made out of twigs and mud. I figured it was better than being at home pretending like my dad and I weren’t ready to commit acts of immense violence upon each other.

When I caught up to him down by the banks of the Serpentine, he was standing half–bent over, looking at something. And when I came to a stop beside him, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

A nest. A big nest. A human–sized nest, really, had been pulled up on the bank of the river. It was covered with moss and some fallen branches and a few vines that had grown around it over time, camouflaging it from ordinary passersby. Peter looked up with a glint in his eye. “I told you,” he said. “I told you it’d be here if it was anywhere. Get in.”

“Are you mad?” I said. “That boat’s not big enough for both of us. We’ll go down like the bloody Titanic.”

He laughed like he thought I’d told a joke, slapped one of his thighs like he was doing a pantomime play of Peter Pan, and suddenly I started to wonder if maybe one of those was actually going on in the park that day and he’d somehow escaped from the venue, gone off the rails, threw the script over his shoulder, and this group of children were just then sitting in a semi–circle somewhere asking their mums when Peter was going to come back and finish the story.

“You’re funny,” he said. “I like that. Not everyone can tell a proper joke.” Then he cleared away the branches and vines and pushed the boat out into the water, wading next to it. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “Come on already.”

I waited for him to get in the boat, which bobbed on top of the water even after it held his weight inside it. There was barely room in there for me, but he held his hand out anyway, curled his fingers inward a couple of times. I thought about those fingers for a second, the way they might feel on my skin, and shivered.

“It isn’t going to work with both of us in there,” I said. I put my hands in my pockets and looked back toward the Peter statue, ready to run. The light was starting to turn this greyish–purple color, as if whole hours had burned away in the last five minutes, and the grounds looked incredibly empty where just seconds before hordes of people had been milling.

Then I heard a clang, clang, clang sound coming from all sides of the park, and Peter whispered in the most alarmed way, “It’s Lock–out Time. We must hurry.”

“Are you saying we’ve been locked in?”

“No,” said Peter. “I’m saying humans have been locked out. Hurry. The fairies will be coming soon, and you’re not a baby. They like human babies, but not grown–ups.”

“I have a mobile with me,” I said, and fished my phone out. But when I started tapping on the keypad, I got nothing. No numbers. No bars. No anything. ”What the?” I said, tapping and tapping.

“There’s no time for whatever that is,” said Peter. “Hurry. Get in.”

So I stashed my phone in my pocket and waded out into the water—because what else could I do, really—and climbed into that nest of a boat to squeeze in beside him.

It was a pretty messed up idea, but my life was pretty messed up right then. I didn’t want to go home to my dad and have to apologize for the argument we’d had earlier, during which I’d called him the biggest wanker in the world, and then proceeded to tell him how I wished he and my mum had never had me. Sitting in a nest–like boat seemed somehow more preferable.

Peter didn’t say much as we floated down the Serpentine. He just slipped a small garden spade from between two branches in the nest and held it up in the air, where it gleamed under the moonlight. I blinked a few times, then gasped as I realized the moon was already out and shining down on the spade and on the rippling water. “My old paddle,” said Peter, waving it around like a sword.

“It’s a garden spade,” I pointed out.

“I know that,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I just didn’t know it back then, when I was only seven days old.”

“You paddled down the Serpentine in this nest with a garden implement when you were seven days old?” I said, blinking over and over. I couldn’t manage to keep the scorn out of my voice, or the roll out of my eyes.

Peter nodded. “I also used it to bury the children.”

My throat constricted, hearing that, and the sudden urge to throw myself overboard came on me. “You buried children?”

“The ones who got lost,” Peter replied like this was quite normal.

“Lost?” I said, thinking maybe I should have just gone back home and apologized after all.

“Yes,” said Peter. “They’d either get lost on their way to their mothers after hatching, or on their way back when they decided they wanted to be birds again instead of humans.”

“Okay, this has gone on long enough,” I said, and tried to wriggle away from him, to put some space between our bodies. But the nest–boat was too small. Our shoulders were pressed together, his right knee knocked against my left, and he rested one elbow on my chest as he held the spade up over my head like it was bloody Excalibur. If he hadn’t been acting like such a little kid, which was a huge turn–off, I might have slid my hand under his tunic to see if he were up for it.

“No,” he said. “We haven’t gone far enough to reach the island yet.” Then he turned to the side and dipped the spade into the dark water and began to paddle.

I didn’t know what to do other than sit there and grill myself for being so flipping stupid. What had I been thinking? My dad would be wondering where I was. He might have even called my mum to ask if I’d shown up there, which would never happen, but if he was worried enough, he’d phone her. When I got home—if Peter didn’t turn out to be a bloody serial killer and I did get to go home—my dad would annihilate me for running off again, which is something I’d been doing for the past year, whenever we had a row. I hated this idea I had right then, as I drifted in the nest–boat, this idea that the last thing I might ever hear my dad say was, “Colin, I’m sorry, but shouting at me and running off to who knows where isn’t going to bring your mum home. She has a new home now, much as you don’t like it.”

She’d left when I was thirteen, right after she gave my dad her parting words. Jonathan Crowe, she had told him, you are all mouth and no trousers. Then she picked up the bags she’d packed before my dad got home from cabbying and walked out the door. Didn’t look back, not even to catch my eye. She’d already been seeing Marcus the Carcass Splitter behind our backs for several months already. Had kept it a secret. She went to stay with Marcus then, and after the divorce, she got remarried within a few weeks, like we’d never meant anything.

I wanted to hate her. A lot. I did hate her, actually. But I couldn’t keep hating her so hard forever, my dad kept saying. So I tried to forgive her instead. And sometimes I’d get to this place where I’d want to be around her again, because I missed her voice as she talked back to the wankers who populated her favorite talk shows on the telly, and I missed the sound of her whistling as she made us tea. And then, when she’d call or email to see how I was doing, I’d be decent enough to her, which was a mistake because then she got the idea that it was time to have me over for dinner with her and Marcus. I tried that a few times, but it never worked out. As soon as I’d knock on their door and she answered, saying, “Colin, my love!” and Marcus would come to stand behind her, all smarmy and grinning over her shoulder, I’d start hating her all over again.

It was because of what she’d said before she left—not to my dad, but to me, even though she didn’t mean for me to hear—it was because of what she said that I couldn’t forgive her.

The boat knocked against land and Peter rolled against me, which was perfect timing, actually, because I’d been getting worked up thinking about my mum. His body rolling against mine was a good remedy for anger, and I put my hands around his waist and winked. “We’re here,” he said, his stupidly smiling face so close to my own I could have kissed him. Instead I asked where here was. “Home,” said Peter. “The place we all come from.”

“Let’s make it quick then,” I said, losing interest since he wasn’t showing any in my hands being on him. “I really need to be going.”

Peter furrowed his brow. “You won’t be going anywhere until morning when they open the gates,” he said. When I gave him a look to pierce that stupid smile of his, he pulled back and said, “Well, maybe Solomon can help you. Maybe you can fly out. If you can remember how to fly, that is.”

“I can’t remember how to fly,” I said, “because I’ve never flown before.”

“Oh, but you have,” said Peter. “Back when you were a bird.”

I sighed instead of cursing. It was useless trying to reason with him. He was a character from a children’s story. He was a child himself, trapped in a teenager’s body.

We pulled the boat ashore to the cries of what sounded like a million night birds being disturbed, honking and chirping and cheeping or shrieking at our sudden presence. But when Peter lifted his hands and spread his fingers, they all fell silent. “Hello again!” he shouted into the blackness.

And all of the birds in unison said, “Peter!”

There was a great flurry of activity then, and I tried to stand behind him and not call attention to myself because honestly, I wanted to pretend this was all a dream, that I was really asleep at the base of the Peter Pan statue in the park. But the birds, unfortunately, wouldn’t let me be. They kept circling round and landing, cocking their heads at me and asking Peter things like, “Who’s this then, Peter? Another of your lost boys?”

“I’m not lost,” I said, getting a bit tetchy. “I’ve just been locked in.”

“Lost,” one of the birds said. A thrush, I think. I shot it a look and it ruffled its feathers.

“Where’s Solomon?” Peter asked once they’d all quieted.

“With the eggs, of course,” said one of the birds. “He’s got a very long list of expectations to fill, as usual.”

“Come on, then,” said Peter, looking at me. “Solomon will know what to do with you.”

“I don’t need anything done with me,” I said.

“You need to get out, you said, right now, you said. Right?”

I nodded.

“Well, then,” said Peter. “Solomon will know if that’s possible.”

We walked to the center of the island, where one particular tree grew taller than the others, and underneath it were rows of nests where birds sat on top of their eggs. Some of the birds grew startled at our approach and sent up a flurry of caws, then flew off into the night, leaving their eggs behind, some of which began to tremble. Cracks ran through several of them, beaks pierced through the openings, and suddenly there were these baby birds shrugging off flakes of shell like dogs shake off water. The baby birds looked back and forth between Peter and me as if one of us must be their mother. Then a gravelly voice boomed down from the canopy of the tallest tree. The voice shouted a series of numbers and street names, some of which I recognized, one in particular an address just round the corner from my mum and Marcus’s flat. As the addresses were listed, the baby birds stretched out their wings, one after the other, and flew into the night sky like sparks from a bonfire.

“What—“ I said. But I didn’t really know how to follow through with that question.

“They’re going to their mothers,” said Peter.

“Their mothers are here,” I said, looking at the empty nests where they’d been before we’d scared them. “Well, they were here, at any rate.”

“They’re going to their human mothers,” said Peter. “You did it once, too. Don’t look so horrified!”

Just then a stiff wind blew our hair back and a large crow circled the air above. After it landed between our feet, the crow looked up and said, “Peter, my Betwixt and Between, you’ve returned to us. And you’ve brought a friend, I see.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Peter said. “I meant it to just be me, Solomon. Why are you still in charge here anyway? Last time I saw you, you said you had your eye on a tree over in the figs and planned to retire.”

“My stocking of savings was stolen!” cried Solomon. “A hundred and eighty crumbs! Thirty–four nuts! Sixteen crusts! A pen–wiper and a bootlace! Everything gone! Everything! I couldn’t retire after that. I’ve had to stay on!”

“That’s terrible,” said Peter, shaking his head in commiseration.

“It is,” said Solomon, nodding. “Such is the way of the world, these days. A bird must work until his life expires. All of the mothers encourage their hatchlings to become human babies because of it, of course. Now for you, then. Why are you here?”

“I just came to see if everything was still the same,” said Peter. “I suppose I was missing the place a bit.”

“Caught in the webs of nostalgia?” Solomon said, chuckling. He flew up and landed on Peter’s shoulder, so that he could look him straight in the eye. Peter crooked his head to the side to make room for him. “You’ve grown quite a bit since last we saw you. I didn’t think you’d ever be able to grow up like a normal human child.”

“Up there,” said Peter as he looked up at the sky, “it’s possible. Not like a normal human would grow, of course. Much slower. But at least I’m not a baby any longer.”

Solomon turned to look where Peter was looking. So did I. And just then a star winked at us as if it had noticed us staring. “Even I haven’t flown that far before,” said Solomon. “It’s quite wonderful to think of it, it is.”

“It is a wonderful thought, isn’t it?” said Peter. Then he turned back to Solomon and said, “My friend here needs to get out tonight. Can you help him?”

“Can he fly?” Solomon asked, looking at me past the bridge of Peter’s slightly freckled nose.

“Of course not,” said Peter. “Have you lost your marbles? He’s human.”

Quite human,” said Solomon, as if that were something you wouldn’t want to be, really. “Quite human, indeed. But you relearned how to fly despite being part human, Peter.”

“I can’t fly,” I said, interrupting them. “Really, I can’t. And I don’t think I’m going to be able to learn how to as early as tomorrow morning.”

“You’ll have to stay overnight then,” said Solomon. “Peter can take care of you, I trust. He always took good care of the lost children he found in the park if they hadn’t already died before he found them.”

“Brilliant,” I said, and sighed as I turned to start trudging back down the path we’d taken. “Just brilliant.”

“What’s the matter with you?” Peter asked as he slid his garden spade through the water again, paddling us back up the Serpentine a bit later.

“I just want to go home,” I said. I was looking up at the stars, trying to not be angry and trying to not feel stupid for feeling like a kid about to cry because everything seemed so futile. Getting out of here seemed futile. My family seemed futile. I felt futile. I just wanted someone to hold onto, and Peter wasn’t the someone I’d hoped to find that evening.

“I know what it means to want to go home,” said Peter. “I flew out of my mother’s window when I was seven days old and when I tried to go back she’d already had another child. And even now, after making a home up there, I know what it feels like to miss other homes. Kensington Gardens was my first, you know, not up there. But you’ve been steam–out–the–ears and arms–folded like you’re a statue since I met you.” He paddled a couple more strokes, then looked at me, very shocked, as if he’d been startled. “Are you a statue from the gardens come to life?” he asked, as if that would explain my stiffness.

“What are you on about?” I said, snorting at the idea. “I’m not a bloody statue. Your head is broken.”

“No it’s not,” said Peter. “I’d know if I had a broken head. I lost my shadow once and I knew it when that happened, so I’d know if my head were broken as well.”

I rolled my eyes. “Enough,” I said, and slid a cupped hand into the water to help him paddle faster.

When we approached the spot we’d set off from though, Peter pulled his spade up and stopped paddling. “What’s wrong?” I asked, still scooping handfuls of water on my side of the nest–boat. I wasn’t giving up so easily.

“The fairies will be waiting for us,” Peter said gravely. “And they haven’t seen me in a long while. They may not recognize me. I’m not a child any longer. They may want to kill us.”

“Kill us?”

“Well, you more so than me. I should be okay if they do recognize me. They’re very adamant about keeping humans out of the gardens after Lock–out Time,” said Peter. “The only thing that saved me from them the first time I rowed up to their shore was that I was still a baby and all the women–fairies wanted to take care of me once they saw that. Even fairy women love human babies.”

I wanted to tell him love for babies is far too easy. My mum proved that. I wanted to tell him about how my mum didn’t give a shit about me after I wasn’t a baby and took off when she didn’t like who I was becoming. I wanted to say, “You know what? While my mum was telling off my dad in the next room, right before she left us, she told him it was probably because my dad was such a weakling wanker that his son had become a poof.” A poof. A bleeding poof is what she’d called me that day.

Thanks, Mum. Thanks a lot.

Being abandoned as a baby like Peter might have been easier than growing up with a mum who didn’t like who her baby boy grew up to be, like I did. But I didn’t put that thought to Peter. We didn’t need to compete about who’d had it worse, I figured. We could both feel like our early lives sucked and maybe we’d both gotten stuck in those places precisely because of how sucky they were.

Despite the fact that we’d stopped paddling, the boat continued to drift toward the riverbank, and as we grew closer, I began to see them. Little people with pointed ears and fanciful clothes of so many different colors came out of the shadows. Seeing that, I realized why my mum used to say they hid themselves away dressed as flowers. I smiled at that thought, then frowned in the next instant. I was thinking of her again, and thinking of her made me mad all over.

When the boat landed, bumping up against the bank and jolting me out of my thoughts, it turned out that the fairies didn’t try to kill us after all. Instead they sent up a great cheer as Peter leapt from the boat into their waiting arms, surrounding him like fireflies, their many wings all aflutter, covering him with kisses like a hero returned home from war.

After all the pomp and circumstance, though, it was mostly a disappointment, to be honest. Peter seemed to forget about me, and the fairies were so caught up in his return that they didn’t notice me in the slightest. They all moved off from the banks of the Serpentine together, back into the gardens, where they began to play music and pass tiny cups of wine down the lines of their tiny tables and dance and sing like it were a holiday party. One of them—their queen, I figured from all of the lining up and bowing that went on around her—gave Peter a set of pipes, which he started to play at her request, and then they all twirled along the garden paths together, drunk and laughing like idiots.

I kept my distance. To be honest, I was relieved they had no interest in me, and I was also starting to get tired of dealing with Peter. There was something off about him. I mean, he was exactly as described in the books about him—always stoked for endless adventure—but I wasn’t so charmed as I’d been when I was little and his storybook life seemed like a thing I would have given anything to have. Now, being so close to him, I felt more like, I don’t know, like he had something wrong with him. He unnerved me.

I sat down at the base of the Peter statue instead of following after. Rested my back against the bronze stump, gathered my knees into my arms, checked my phone again. When it still showed nothing but a grey screen, dead as dead can be, I tilted my head back to look up at the stars wheeling above.

There it was, the first star on the right, winking at me, as if it were giving me an invitation to move there. I looked down though, stared at my untied shoelaces and thought about other things. Mum, mostly, even though I didn’t want to. She would have a good laugh if I ever told her about this evening.

Time passed. The color of the sky changed, lightening ever so slightly as morning made its way back. I didn’t sleep. I just sat there and tried to think about what I’d say to my dad when I was able to go home again. He’d murder me, for sure. I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. Curfew would be reinstated. I’d be living in my own personal dystopia. He’d probably even threaten to send me off to live with Mum and Marcus if I didn’t settle down.

A shadow fell over me at some point, and I looked up to find Peter standing above me, blocking out the stars, which were beginning to fade as the sky lightened. “You’ve made it,” he said. “You’ve spent a whole night in the gardens. Not many can say that. How do you feel?”

“How do I feel?” I said, and looked away. “I feel like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” said Peter. He knelt on his haunches then, so he could look at me straight on.

“I’m so fucked up,” I said, shaking my head.

“No,” said Peter, “you’re not.”

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

“How do you figure?”

“I think too much. Mum always said so. Her and my aunt Donna. My aunt Donna once said that my personality would ruin me. It was at some kind of family thing, I forget which one, and my mum was still around, so I wasn’t able to say anything in return without getting a clout on the head by my dad for talking back. When we got home though, I asked my mum what aunt Donna had meant, and she said Donna didn’t have a way with words, that was for certain, but that she thought she meant I thought too much. And that it would do me no good in life to give things that kind of attention.”

“What do you think about that now?” Peter asked.

“I dunno,” I said, shaking my head. “I guess she was right. My aunt Donna, I mean. I think about things too much. I think about my mum more than I should. I think about her more than she deserves. I wonder sometimes, is she thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about her? And then I think, To hell with her. Stop caring, like she stopped caring about you.

Peter stood again, put his hands on his hips and said, “I tried to go back to my mother once, but she’d already had another child and she’d forgotten about me mostly. I know how you feel.” He held his hand out then, and I looked at it for a moment, not sure what he wanted. It was far past the time to be looking for a rub. “You can come with me,” he said, and I blinked a little before asking where.

“Back to where I’ll be going,” was his answer.

I looked up into his eyes and knew where he was talking about. I knew from the books my mum had read where he’d be going, where I could go if I just took his hand and let him fly me away from all my problems. Mermaids and pirates and eternal childhood. All of that and some fairy dust lingering in the air like snowflakes after.

“No, thanks,” I said and sighed. I couldn’t leave my dad, no matter how hard we were fighting, and for better or for worse, I couldn’t leave my mum, even though what she’d said had flayed me and kept flaying me for these past two years. “I’ve got…I’ve got to get things right here, somehow,” I said, thinking I would probably go over to my mum’s place after the gates opened in a while, and I’d act really strange most likely, showing up out of the blue like that. But hopefully she’d make breakfast and maybe we could try to figure out how to talk to each other a little. “Maybe some other time though?” I offered.

Peter stared at me with those blank eyes of his—those eyes that could never get what human eyes understand as ours grow older and see more of the world, the good and the bad of it—and I shivered. No words passed between us after that, though we kept staring at each other like we were mirror images, or one of us a shadow come undone from the other, and we couldn’t or at least didn’t want to let go.

I almost reached out to him, but before I could, Peter turned away and transformed into a little white bird, which all of us are before we become human beings. And then he flew away, up into the pale morning sky studded with fading diamonds.

(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Deborah Stanish also interviews Christopher Barzak.)

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