The Brief Aeronauts

~ Charles Wilkinson

The haunted lawn: not be photographed; its full condition only half-glimpsed, even by the imagination; a hint of mist; what rises from the bone-broth; a ghost in the ground; some things eat the grass.

At the end of a dirt track, always muddy, except for three days at the height of summer, it’s the house you see first; grey stucco over pale red brickwork that shows through in patches: grazed flesh and sickening skin. A wooden door pillaged four centuries ago from a slighted castle three miles up the road. The curved arch over the lintel, a later addition, and a pitched roof, slates missing, the worst holes patched with blue tarpaulin. Diamond-paned windows, a few smashed. On the far side, the lawn stretching out beneath the hill is frayed. Hogweed and ferns thrive in the flowerbeds.

All who live in the parish know the house is Hexter Hall, the name too grandiose for a yeoman’s cottage hiding beneath a late Victorian facade. You will not be invited inside, and neither will I. So let’s enter with the fumes from the log fire. A tall thin man who comes from a long line of tall thin men lies on a sofa. He is coughing, possibly because of the smoke that hangs across the room like lace; but his chest is congenitally weak. Conceivably he was wheezing and spluttering before the match was lit.

On the far side of the room, next to the only window, not so dirty as to exclude rather than admit light, a middle-aged man in a blue blazer sits on a Windsor chair. He brings with him a whiff of sea salt and polished brass. A member of a yacht club, this is what you imagine. I’m unconvinced, for Hexter Hall is far from the coast. The man opens a brown leather briefcase and produces two glossy magazines devoted to aviation and aeronautical matters.

“With our compliments,” says the man, whose name you are now told is Justin Buckey. “We’re so grateful you’ve agreed to be interviewed. In addition to your fee you’ll be given three complimentary copies of the issue in which our conversation appears.”

As he moves to place the magazines on a low table next to the sofa, something invisible touches his face. A soft irritation over the eyes. A spider’s web? He brushes it away; then looks at his hand. No silk on the palm.

“You’ll stay the night, of course,” replies Ned Hexter, not reaching out for a magazine “We’re very quiet here as a rule. Imogen will be delighted to have company at supper. Our son’s coming back from London. But not till tomorrow.”

Hexter is dressed in a dung-beetle-brown corduroy suit and a moleskin waistcoat. His sandals, worn over thick green socks, are propped on the armrest at the far end of the sofa. His head is supported by a threadbare velvet cushion; his long thin face, crowned by white hair that might once have been red, is pale and dominated by the kind of straight nose seen in paintings of medieval monarchs. The mouth beneath: pale rose pink and pursed. I wonder if you’ve met anyone like Hexter? Justin Buckey has not.

 

It’s humid outside. How many degrees warmer than Hexter Hall, which has no central heating? Not an inkling this afternoon that the lawn is inhabited. We cannot hear the worms underneath or the moan of the trapped ghost. The hedge at the bottom of the garden is rust-brown; killed three years ago by frost. I have a good view of the back of Hexter Hall, one I’m willing to share with you. Most of the stucco has long since fallen off, exposing shoddy brickwork and beams that no one has bothered to paint black. On the ground floor, there is a sash window with several clean panes. The roof tiles are no longer visible beneath the moss. An unstable chimney stack is pointed with nothing stronger than grass. You ask when we can make our way over the weed-riddled lawn and then peer through the window. If we can no longer listen in, at least we can watch them. You follow me as I drift over to the window. The dark brown furniture is too large for the room; the pictures in sumptuously carved and gilded frames must once have hung on far higher walls. They have the merit of concealing the damp. Ned Hexter has risen from the sofa and is warming the back of his long legs by the log fire, which has ceased smoking. Justin Buckey still sits in the Windsor chair. He has been writing in a notebook. What are they talking about? you ask. It is time to inveigle ourselves through a crack in the glass.

Ned Hexter has been speaking mainly of his family history and helicopters, I reply; I thought to spare you the former; much of it is tedious. Now we will hear them plainly.

“I dream of it every night, falling out of the sky in flames,” says Hexter.

“There were no survivors.”

How could there have been? On impact, it crumpled like an insect. Anyone who hadn’t already been asphyxiated or burnt to death would have died as soon as it hit the ground.”

“And the helicopter’s design?” Buckey begins carefully. “Do you feel . . . well, later some your ideas were adapted with great success.”

For a long time, Hexter stares straight ahead. Is he thinking of the men who died or his failure to take out a patent?  It is hard to tell, but from our position just inside the room all we can see is the harrowing grief that has condensed his flesh till the skin is taut across his bones. He nods and replies so softly as to be barely audible: “It was a beautiful machine. Beautiful things are often dangerous.” He moves away from the fire. “But you must be hungry. I eat very little these days. But there is cake . . . or something . . . in the kitchen. You’ll take a cup of tea, at the very least?”

“Yes, tea will be welcome. And whatever else is most convenient.”

“I’m afraid that Imogen won’t be able to join us. I still have hopes that she may be up to a little supper.”

“Your wife. Is she ill?”

Hexter pauses for a moment, as if considering a fine point of law. “Let us say she has changed greatly during these past few months.”

“Nor herself?”

“Quite! Now if you’ll excuse me.”

What you cannot know, and neither Ned nor Justin could be aware of, is that Adrian Hexter, heir to Hexter Hall, its damp rooms, the half-dead lawn and colony of spiders, is at this moment making his way along the road. It will be minutes before he reaches the dirt track. There is no interest in seeing Ned search the cupboards for a cake tin or watching him brew tea in a chipped brown pot; neither is observing Buckey turning the pages of his leather- bound notebook of any significance. From a window over the porch we will witness Adrian’s approach.

 

What should we discuss while we wait? You wish to learn more about Ned Hexter. Why is he living in a ruinous house with no central heating? First, you must understand that none of the Hexters last for long. Note their portraits on the staircase; the line of lineage-proud, short-lived men ascending to the second floor, complete with pictures of their willowy, swan-faced wives. A Hexter would never marry anyone who was not thin and tall. Throughout history most Hexters have, on reaching the age of majority, started well, but few survived long enough to consolidate their achievements. During the infancy and childhood of every succeeding heir, ground was lost: socially, financially – and often literally. The estate has dwindled to the Hall, with its legacy of a haunted lawn.

Ned Hexter talks mostly of helicopters. His family history is a subsidiary interest; he is the longest lived of all the Hexters. He trained as an aeronautical engineer. His ambition, fulfilled with fateful consequences, was to create the most elegant machine ever to take to the air. Whilst capable of carrying a sufficient complement of men to make it a commercial and military proposition, it proved slender, no ungainly pot-bellied troop carrier. Its blades were narrow; almost invisible once airborne. It was perhaps the most silent of helicopters ever designed, rising without undue disturbance, though its thrust and lift were evident as a flattening of grass. I have a photograph of one here. The early model was painted sky blue. Hexter hoped that once sufficient height was gained they would be imperceptible; even on cloudy days seeming no more than a patch of the blue breaking through. He saw them as combining grace, stealth and resilience, as secret as anything made of metal could be in the sky. 

But now Adrian Hexter is at the end of the dirt track. Though it is drier than usual, it is still sticky beneath the overhanging beech trees. He moves fluently and at great speed, as if there were not a ridge of dried mud or a pothole beneath him; his progress is preternaturally linear. Like his forebears, he is long-limbed. Is he taller than any of them? This is surely not unlikely. You say he seems less substantial. He is wearing a transparent overcoat, somewhat shimmering. An odd way to dress on a balmy afternoon.

We must go downstairs now. The tea has brewed. Ned has found a walnut cake; it sits igneous and dangerously brown in the center of the table. Will the knife be sharp enough to cut it?

 

The first cup has been poured when the front door is opened and then banged shut. Ned stands heron-like, tea pot in hand. No visitors are expected.

“Who can that be? We are so seldom disturbed at the Hall.”

“You mentioned your son . . . earlier,” Justin reminds him.

“Not expected until tomorrow. It would be most unlike . . .”

  Then Adrian is in the living-room: a rush of thrashing arms and legs. He’s taller than seems strictly conceivably and appears confused.  After striking his head on a beam, he sinks into an armchair. His upper body is clad in some kind of waterproof, although the arms are covered by a different material, almost translucent and made of a delicate fabric.

“Well, this is unexpected,” Ned remarks. “I’m sure you’d like to see your mother. Unfortunately she’s indisposed. We had hopes she would join us for supper, but I suspect that will not now be the case.”

“Sorry . . . I’m early. I need to change. That’s the problem,” said Adrian. His voice is high-pitched yet dry; almost nothing more than a faint squeaking and scraping at a window pane.

“There is nothing to prevent you from changing upstairs. But first I should introduce  Justin Buckey. From Aviation and Aeronautical News. He’s interviewing me.”

“Really? I expect to fly soon.”

The expression on Buckey’s face is one of comprehensive perplexity. He is at a loss to know who or what is addressing him: in English to be sure and the content ordinary enough. But he has never been spoken to in such unfamiliar tones. Finally he manages: “Where to?”

But Adrian has already lost interest. Now it’s the orange glow of a lampshade that attracts him.

“Cake, Adrian?” asks Ned. If he is in any way discomfited by his son’s appearance and manner, he is disguising it.

“No, thank you, Father. I’m . . . hardly eating at the moment.”

“Very well. Perhaps it would be best if you change now. I hope you’ll manage a little something for supper.”

Adrian has risen unsteadily to his feet; his thin legs look as if they are on the verge of crumpling beneath him. For a moment, he is unsure where to go next. He seems incapable of anything more than imbecilic arm-fluttering. Then he regains control of his body and flickers across the room to the foot of the staircase.

“Now you were asking about the Hexter A6 Helicopter.”

“Ah yes,” says Buckey, floundering.

“You’ll have heard it said that it was a flimsy machine. But the problems were less to do with the design than the materials. The crash was most regrettable, of course.”

When Buckey next looks towards the staircase, there’s no sign of Adrian. The sounds from above seem almost indefinable, although they could be the old beams settling or a disturbance in the water pipes.

 

You’ve seen the photographs and the footage, the machine slowing for a few seconds, suddenly losing height, clipping the top of the canopy on the way down. Then from a different camera, some way off: a view of open fields, the wood in the middle distance. The grey-black smoke rising. Afterwards, the spidery wreckage: the blades twisted, the rest a blackened abdomen. Of course, Hexter refused to accept the blame, although that didn’t prevent recriminations and the court case.

In his study, you’ll see the designs for the Hexter A6 framed on the wall. And here’s an oil painting he commissioned of the A7, flying over the Oxfordshire countryside: as close to being airborne as a machine that never got off the drawing board can be. Hexter believes that his plans were stolen. These box files contain letters from solicitors and counsel. The case went against him. Some thought him unlucky. There hasn’t been much to spend on the Hall since then. Lawsuits alleging his intellectual property had been stolen added to the debt. He had to sell what little farmland there was on the estate. He was left with the house and the lawn. 

Here’s his desk and on the top of it a photograph of Imogen, taken at an air show in the years before the crash. It must have been a cold day for her to wrap up like that. It’s only her face that tells you how thin she was. See how the wind has caught her long yellow hair; for a moment, a bright flare on a grey lusterless day. She’s in her room now and Adrian’s asleep in his. If you listen carefully you can hear Ned cooking supper in the kitchen below. Now it is evening the house is colder. In the living room, Buckey is pacing up and down, plotting tomorrow’s early departure. When we slip downstairs, I’m sure that, with Ned out of the room, we’ll see him place another log on the fire.

Ned’s serving some anonymous meat and thick grey gravy from an orange casserole dish. There’s bread in a basket in the middle of the table. Buckey must wonder whether it’s warmer in the kitchen. Then he starts. Something small, a moth perhaps, is nibbling at the nape of his neck.

“I’m afraid Imogen is indisposed,” says Ned, once he’s sitting down. He offers Justin a glass of water. “A pity. She was such an enchanting conversationalist and a great deal better informed about helicopters than one might imagine.”

“And your son. What is he reading at university?”

“Aeronautical engineering. Now you may think that is perfectly predictable. But it’s become clear that in important respects he takes after his mother.”

“Oh!”

“He’s started to lose his appetite. I do think it’s so important to eat something, don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” Justin replies, pushing the meat to one side of his plate and toying with the gravy.

“Of course, these days Imogen eats practically nothing. A little honey perhaps.”

“What does her doctor say?” asks Justin, as he examines a bread roll.

“Nothing. She hasn’t got one.”

“Mightn’t it be a good idea to . . .”

“No, they’re hopeless when it comes to people with Imogen’s condition. I’ve done what I can. Made certain modifications.”

“To help her get around the room.”

“Yes, I suppose you could say that. She lost a leg the other day.”

Hexter speaks of helicopters till late in the evening. Justin is tired by the time they climb the staircase. His host stops to listen at Imogen’s door, but there is no sound apart from a noise that might be two of the softest, most fragile things in the world being rubbed together.

From his bed Justin cannot hear Alex in the next room, alighting for a moment on objects, knocking against the walls and then pressing his face to the window pane; for now it is dark, his only desire is to reach the moon.

 

It’s past seven in the morning when Justin makes his way down the staircase. The house is silent. Every piece of furniture seems less itself, as if hiding the potential for use: the table not designed for anything to rest on it, flowers in a vase or a book, but simply an object constructed from wood. He imagines he’s first to get up; then through the one good window he spots Ned Hexter on the lawn. He goes out of the back door to join him. It’s a fine day, all the more to be valued for being in late summer. The blue above them has the high gloss of a finished product.

A stretch of lawn closest to the pavement is rife with wild flowers and weeds: yarrow, sheep’s sorrel, speedwell and coltsfoot. Further on it’s studded with plantains smothering the grass. Hexter’s standing towards the back, where little flourishes. In spite of the recent rain there are dry, yellowish-brown patches.

“I’ll be off soon,” says Justin. “I might beat the worst of the rush hour in town.”

“Have you seen Adrian?”

“No, not since last night.”

“I hope he’s up soon. That boy needs to mate.”

“Well . . . I think I’d better . . .”

  “You’re not going yet . . . surely. There’s a lot to tell you. After the crash, I went abroad for a year. One of the mothers kept on coming round here. She was quite mad. Making all kinds of accusations. When I returned, the people in the village told me that she’d buried her son’s bones right here in the lawn. I’ve never found them. He was the pilot.”

“Do you think he’s here . . . beneath us?”

“Not directly. They’ll rise soon, but the pilot’s ghost won’t be with them Although there are days when I know there has been some kind of . . . anyway, you must meet Imogen before you go.”

“That’s very good of you, but if you don’t mind . . .”

“Come on, she’ll be most upset if you leave without saying a word.”

Hexter’s shepherding him back into the house, past the suitcase, which is packed and waiting in the living-room, and up the staircase.

“I’ll give Adrian a call first if you don’t mind. The window of opportunity is limited. They don’t live for very long, the original species.”  Ned raps on his son’s door three times: no reply. “It could happen any time soon. You don’t want to miss it.” Then turning to Justin: “Incredible! The lassitude of late adolescence.”

“Yes, I’ve one of my own.”

Hexter moves on down the corridor and without knocking enters Imogen’s room.

“She doesn’t seem at her best this morning,” he says, signaling to his guest to come in. It takes Justin more than a moment to comprehend precisely what is in front him. The room is empty, apart from a life form he is initially unable to identify. Later he will attribute this to the fact that even the most commonplace creature will be difficult to recognize if magnified perhaps a million times or more. It is evidently an insect of some sort. It has six long legs that appear pencil-line thin in comparison to the mass of the segmented abdomen. The head has compound eyes and antennae, but also a mop of what looks like yellowish-grey human hair. The lips, supple and feminine, are larger than expected, still capable of kissing. The wings are intricate and translucent.

“She lost two of her legs recently. I’ve replaced them with very fine steel prosthetics. The slightly shinier ones. Do you see? They seem to be holding up well, but one of her own might break off at any minute. So very fragile, alas!”

“I’d better . . . or I’ll miss . . .”

“Hold on! Imogen, this is a Mr Buckey. He’s something of an authority on helicopters.”

The dry sound of a wing brushing against the wall; a metal leg flexing; a pink tongue protrudes—a response?

“Simply must dash. It’s been wonderful to . . .”

Then down the stairs and into the living-room.  As Justin picks up his suitcase and makes for the front door, he spots Adrian bumping softly against a window pane. Although his waterproof has turned into two wings, his face, refined by inbreeding, is still recognizable. His hair has gone. A full transition appears imminent.

As Justin runs down the drive, his suitcase swinging beside him, a crane fly, its movements marvelously co-ordinated, is swimming through the liquid gleam of late summer air; not clumsy, as it would be inside, but an athlete of the insect world. Within seconds, another has passed him, and then a third. The aeronauts are out to play. Rapturous and long-legged, the crane flies have risen from the lawn. Look how they make love on the wing!

Black eggs in the soil. I have been Hexter, Buckey, Adrian, Imogen, the table, a staircase, a teapot and more besides. I thank you for your time. Let’s not wait for winter under the lawn: the pilot’s ghost, the leatherjackets feeding on roots. In a dark corner of a room, a ten-day- old crane fly will die, withered by the quest for light, its last flight ending away from the beautiful, dangerous sun.

Eight of Wands

 

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have been in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton, USA), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Confingo, London Magazine and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Black Static, The Dark Lane Anthology, Supernatural Tales, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada), Nightscript (USA) and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). His anthologies of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in the Eye (2016), Splendid in Ash (2018) and Mills of Silence (2021) appeared from Egaeus Press.  2019. Eibonvale Press published his chapbook of weird stories, The January Estate, in 2022. He lives in Wales.

More information can be found at his website: charleswilkinsonauthor.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]

The Mayor of Marzipan

~ Kimberly Moore

Tea & Tarot inspires fear in some people. Some condemn us. Some of them are fascinated by us. Most of them think we’re full of shit, but a source of entertainment. However they may feel, the citizens of Oak Village end up in the back room with Madame Bresa eventually, full of doubt but wanting to believe so strongly that they lay an offering on her table and watch her place the mysterious cards and solve their problems. We even ushered the pastor’s wife through the basement door for a reading the day after her judgmental husband fired up a mob to protest our existence. We are a forgiving business.

I’m the baker.  If anyone exists in this town who has not yet allowed Bresa to read their cards, they have still eaten my work. They say my talent is wasted here, but I have no culinary degrees. I learned from my father and YouTube. I confess my lack of qualifications every time I am complimented and told I belong in a fancy hotel or a French patisserie. Years ago, before Madame Bresa arrived and invited herself to an interview with Tilly, the owner, I considered leaving for a possible pay increase. Somehow, that idea lost appeal after she arrived. Before Bresa, the fortune-tellers were only actors.

On my cutting board this morning is our mayor, George Williams, made of marzipan. Before Bresa arrived, I used store-bought, but Bresa’s recipe is slightly different and she insists that I use her recipe for this ceremony. It includes honey from her bees and almonds from her source, whatever that may be. Bresa has secrets, as a tarot reader is expected, I suppose. She claims to have ancient gypsy blood, a multitude of ex-husbands, ex-wives, and ex-lovers, and now in the golden years of her life, she only wants to assist fellow humans instead of breaking hearts. I’ve always wanted details, but even drunk, she’ll only wink and grin. “Oh, my darling Penelope, I was trouble,” she’ll say with her slowly enunciated words and thick Slavic accent.

Bresa appears in the kitchen just as I am admiring my Mayor Williams doll.

“Lovely,” she says, looking at the photo his wife sent and then at my handiwork.

“I didn’t need the photo. He’s been mayor for as long as I can remember. He watched me grow up.” I enjoyed adding the pigment to darken his skin, rounding his belly, forcing his belt buckle to face his feet. As plump as he has always been in my memory, he was always elegant. I fretted for hours last night with a razor designing his wrinkle-free blue suit.

“A man with a good reputation,” she says as if it’s extinct. Now she’s frowning at the doll.

“This isn’t like voodoo, is it?”

“No, no, no. You know me better than that.” Bresa is petite, barely five feet tall. Her affection is always meant to be motherly, but I feel like the mother during an embrace with her head at the level of my chest. “Is he complete? His wife will be here in an hour.”

I watch Bresa glide away with my masterpiece. What she does with the dolls before the client arrives is one of her many secrets. Her clients refuse to reveal the details of the ceremony, no matter how much Tilly and I have begged. “Just give us a hint,” we’ve whispered later when we’ve run into them in the village. They always, without fail, happily decline.

Tilly closes the kitchen door. It must be almost time to open and I have more to do this morning than worry about my marzipan man. The Oak Village book club meets today in the main dining room, and due to Tilly’s misremembering dates, the fifth birthday party for the bank president’s daughter has been scheduled at the same time in the playhouse.

Tilly glances over the spread for the book club. “I thought we were going to give them more sweet than savory.”

“The opposite. Remember last month when they hardly touched the sweets and ran out of savory?”

“I trust you,” she chuckles. “I’ve been screwing up everything lately. It looks fantastic. Are we all set for the birthday party?”

“Take a look.” I point her in the direction of the second kitchen island, where my purple sloth-themed cupcakes await the birthday guests.

Tilly smiles and applauds for a moment. “I love sloths!” We hear a car crunching the gravel behind the building. “That will be Cheryl.” Tilly descends to the basement to open the door for Cheryl, the mayor’s wife, who requested a discreet arrival.

Cheryl keeps her sunglasses on when she greets me, making her appear more like an insect than usual. She and the mayor are visually incompatible. They are the same race, which is all they seem to have in common. He is short, fat, manic with the need to socialize, and immediately in control of every situation. Cheryl is half a foot taller than her husband and fragile in build. Her friendliness has been rehearsed, but not perfected. Although Cheryl has never been unkind to me, I always feel she would prefer to be ignored.

“Hello, Penelope,” she says without smiling. She surveys my work.

“Bresa’s waiting for you,” Tilly says, leading her to the back hallway.

Cheryl moves quickly to the door. I can’t help wondering what problem she might have with her husband, who at least in my eyes, has the personality of a teddy bear and leaves happy faces wherever he goes. Most customers who have asked for this ceremony have been more transparent. Everyone knew the high school basketball coach was cheating on his wife, and I was asked to create his doll as a nude. I didn’t ask questions, but Tilly shook her head when she saw my work, followed by a frown for his long-suffering wife. The coach has spent more time at home since the ceremony. Others seemed to be fidelity-related, too, but I can’t imagine that to be the problem with the mayor.

Tilly joins me in the kitchen again. “You think you know someone. How could they have problems? He’s the sweetest man I’ve ever known. Including my dad. And yours.”

“I agree. Guess we’ll never know.”

Once the birthday party begins, we forget the mayor. Tilly’s nephews and nieces serve the book club, the auxiliary dining room, and the playhouse. There are only four of them, so Tilly and I join the chaos. Word travels between us as we burst through the kitchen door of requests and needs, mistakes, and skinned knees in the playhouse.

It is only when I see Bresa at the door to the basement that I take a moment to breathe. Bresa’s expression is unfamiliar. Nothing fazes her usually, but she stares out the front windows, then turns back to the dining room, where the book club continues their debates. Seeing her uncomfortable makes me uncomfortable.

“Bresa,” I whisper when the register line is empty and I can cross the room, “what’s going on?”

She doesn’t answer as quickly as I’d like. She looks up at me and sighs. “Cheryl changed her mind.”

“So?”

“I don’t know what to do with him now.”

“Who?”

“The mayor!”

“George is here?”

“The mayor you made.”

“Throw him away.”

“You don’t understand.” She takes my hand and pulls me to the door of her room. “Penelope, you have to swear you’ll never tell what I’m about to show you.”

I shouldn’t leave the register, but Bresa’s message seems urgent. “I swear.”

She opens the door and I see nothing at first. Then, there is motion on the floor. The wire trashcan inverted with a stack of books on top is scooting closer to me. I have to bend to see the little marzipan mayor pushing the trashcan with all the strength honey and almonds will give him.

 

No sleep tonight. I pretend to sleep so Mike won’t stay awake and worry about me. He freaked out when I fainted at work today. He wasn’t alone. I have never fainted before and it freaked me out, too. I wanted to tell him. As my husband, he needed more of an explanation than low blood sugar, which I’ve never suffered as a baker. I should feel worse for concocting that lie. However, the truth would have been more unbelievable.

His back is to me now, expanding and deflating with his deep sleep breath. I imagine how I would confess. I may be a criminal, although I can’t imagine what the indictment would be. It’s a moral dilemma I never thought I would confront—creating a type of life for the sole purpose of a ceremony. However, Bresa whispered to me while I was regaining consciousness that my creation was not a living individual.

“He’s a form of thought like a memory,” she said as she sprinkled a flowery liquid over my shirt and crossed my forehead with a feather. “He has no soul or will. He only knows what Cheryl communicated to him in the ceremony.”

At that moment, I glanced at the moving trash can again. He seemed to have desires, and what he wanted was to get out of the trashcan. Bresa scooted him to a closet and closed the door just as Mike arrived. I found myself answering questions about pregnancy, and although I swore I wasn’t, Mike insisted on a visit to my doctor.

I’m not pregnant, but that would be less troubling. I trace my finger down Mike’s shoulder blade, both wanting him to wake up and not wanting to wake him. I only wake our Siamese cat who is curled behind Mike’s bent knees. It’s three-thirty. If I go to work now, I will have some time to observe the tiny mayor and perhaps make sense of it.

 

I hear the little mayor bumping into the walls of the closet while I enter the security code. How can Bresa say he’s not alive? Perhaps she is minimizing his existence, the way vegetarians will kill a mosquito and rationalize it because of its size and bothersome personality. In Bresa’s room, my hand shakes when I open the closet door. The trash can moves into the room and I squat to watch the miniature mayor in his continued effort to push.

To my surprise, removing the trash can does not change his activity. He pushes at air, punching and lunging forward at nothing in front of him. Bresa told me the mayor knows nothing but what Cheryl communicated to him. All he seems to know is low-effort fighting. Is this what Cheryl told him? Is he the memory of a physical fight?

He doesn’t respond to my voice, nor does he see me. I observe, trying to become comfortable with my creation as he reaches a wall and pushes against it. Fifteen minutes later, I touch him. No reaction. When I lift him, he continues his pushing motions in my hands. He is as warm as when I first molded him. He appears to breathe, but I feel nothing when I place my hand in front of his tiny face, his unblinking eyes I created yesterday with a needle.

In the kitchen, I place him on the floor and watch him continue the only motion he knows, wandering under the table. I begin measuring almond flour and sugar for macarons. The routine is soothing and it seems kinder to keep him with me than to leave him in a trashcan in a dark closet. I suspect he doesn’t care. If Bresa is correct, he isn’t sentient. While I begin beating egg whites, I try to imagine Bresa’s explanation of being a thought form or a memory. I have too many questions.

When I hear the kitchen door swing open, I expect to see Tilly or Bresa. Mike is unexpected. He stands in the doorway with his arms and mouth open, questioning me with his eyes.

“You didn’t leave a note?” he asked when I turn off the mixer. “I thought you went to the ER!”

“Sorry, babe. I have lots of macarons to make today.” I’ve lost the mayor. I’m surveying the tiled floors when Mike yells and stomps his foot.

“What the hell was this?” He leans on the table and lifts his sneakered foot, attempting to shake it free of what he has just stomped. I’m afraid to look. I recognize the flattened blue suit.

“The mayor. You stepped on the mayor.”

 

Bresa struggles with English sometimes, but she has no words in any language now. Mike is no help. I scooted a barstool into the back of his legs while I scraped the mayor from his foot and he has sat there catatonic ever since. He should have been at work ten minutes ago.

“Tell me what to do,” I say to Bresa. She is studying the flattened mayor, now motionless on the kitchen island with a size twelve footprint etched into his squashed body.

“Can you redo him?” Bresa finally asks.

“I doubt it. I could make another.”

“A new one won’t remember.”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. This has never happened before. I need Cheryl to come back and finish what she started.”

“Did I kill the mayor?” Mike interrupts, still focusing on the opposite wall, his face drained of color.

“It’s not voodoo,” Bresa says.

I have to wave to get Mike’s attention. “If you’re not going to work, I need you to call my dad and the two of you need to finish the macarons. I’ll try to reshape the mayor.”

Mike takes his phone from his pocket and texts. I assume he’s taking a day off. I hold the warm remains of the mayor, clear a place on my cluttered counter and begin squeezing the body into something recognizable again.

 

Bresa can’t find Cheryl or George. Meanwhile, the ever-cackling quilting club arrives and my father and husband argue about the neatness Mike lacks patience for. “I hate this fiddly shit,” he mumbles while dotting cupcakes with buttercream and applying butterflies with tweezers.

My father follows Mike, correcting his mistakes. “You’re not saving us any time with your impatience.”

I would reprimand both of them, but my focus must remain on the mayor. I’ve added nothing to what was scraped from Mike’s shoe, but George the marzipan mayor seems larger than before. I put on Tilly’s reading glasses to correct his face.

“The sausage rolls smell done, guys,” I remind my helpers. “Cheddar puffs should go in next. You should have the sandwiches on the trays already.”

“How much do quilters eat?” Mike complains as he put on oven mitts.

“They’ll stay at least two hours, non-stop snacking.” I’m the calm center of the storm. Tilly’s nieces breeze past me with fresh, steaming teapots and orders for more, and my father and husband continue baking, decorating, and arranging. When the door swings open every few minutes, the laughter from the quilters reminds me of how much I am needed to do other things.

Tilly’s eyes question me from the door.

“Bresa will have to explain,” is all I can say. Many days we are overwhelmed, but Tilly treats each occurrence as the first.

The mayor begins to look like the mayor, slowly, although I can’t shake the feeling that he has grown. I question why this has happened. The mayor is part of so many of my memories—all the school events he attended, smiling and cheering. He bought from all my fundraisers. I have countless certificates he signed with pride from the city of Oak Village when I competed in sports or academics. A photo of Mike and the mayor hangs in my home from the day Mike opened his landscaping business. Whatever complaint Cheryl has against him can’t outweigh the good he has done. I shouldn’t judge, not knowing. I know this, yet I can’t stop.

I remember his replica fighting his way across the floor. Maybe he wasn’t fighting. He could have been defending himself. If Cheryl attacked him, his constant pushing is logical. If he attacked Cheryl, a single punch would suffice. Once more, I tell myself not to speculate, not to judge. I wasn’t there. I can’t know.

Bresa returns, shaking her head. She has not found Cheryl or George. “I’ve left messages. I’ve told her it’s interrogative that she comes back as soon as possible.”

“Didn’t you mean ‘imperative’?”

Bresa sighs. “I can’t believe I said that.”

“She’ll figure it out.” She leans against my arm, the remade body of the mayor on the cutting board in front of us. “He looks bigger. Don’t you think so?”

Bresa raises her eyebrows. “You’re right. Maybe the marzipan expanded?”

“Bresa, please tell me you know what you’re doing.”

“This has never happened before. I don’t know if I can reanimate him after he was stepped on. I’ve never had one stay animated so long, either. We’re in virgin territory, Penelope.”

I follow her as she takes the mayor into her room. She locks us in and places him on her card table. I watch her at her cabinet of mysterious bottles next, measuring and mixing until she brings out a syringe full of a blue, chalky liquid.

“If this doesn’t work, maybe Cheryl can still finish her part. I don’t know what else to try.” Bresa seems to have no expectations when she injects the liquid into the doll.

The mayor sits up, staring at Bresa for a moment while she holds her breath. His neck turns and now he focuses on me. I feel faint again, but I sit on an end table before I fall. He is different now, just sitting instead of pushing against whatever is before him. He seems conscious. I know it’s not my imagination—he is larger than before.

“His memory has changed,” Bresa says. “What were you thinking when you redid him?”

“I was recalling all the good things he did for our town and people in general. Why? What was the memory Cheryl gave him?”

“She wouldn’t tell me. She only thought it during our ceremony and then she changed her mind when it came time to put an end to him.”

“Bresa, you have to tell me what the point of this is. I’m too involved now.”

She stands the mayor on his feet and watches him wobble for a moment before sitting again. “I thought I told you. He’s like a memory sponge. When he is de-animated, the memory is gone forever.”

“From the real mayor?”

“Yes. Only Cheryl didn’t de-animate him. Your husband did, and a day late. Now he doesn’t seem to remember what he remembered before. He’s not pushing and fighting.”

“I can’t imagine him ever fighting with Cheryl like that. It wasn’t his personality.”

“Penelope, you can’t know what people are like unless you live with them. Is Mike exactly the way you thought he would be before you married him?”

“No, but he’s not violent. The surprises have been small and inconsequential.”

Bresa starts to say something but she checks her phone instead. “It’s Cheryl, finally. She’s sorry. She’s at her brother’s house but she can come first thing tomorrow morning.”

I’m relieved, although after reviewing everything Bresa has told me, I’m not sure I should be. “Maybe no damage has been done at all. Right? Nobody knows anything.”

She shrugs and pulls a cardboard box from the closet. The mayor is still content to sit and do nothing. He doesn’t fight when Bresa places him in the box, interlocks the flaps, and puts the box in the closet. “We’ll find out tomorrow. I’d feel better if I knew where the real mayor was and what he remembered.”

 

In bed, Mike analyzes his involvement in an attempt to absolve himself from murder charges. It’s simple enough. I remind him numerous times that the mayor was not a voodoo doll, and all Mike had done was step on a cookie. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe the mayor is dead.

The thought of the marzipan mayor trapped in a box all night tortures me. Mike reminds me the doll doesn’t need to breathe, or use a toilet, or eat or drink. If Bresa is right, it isn’t alive at all, and its ability to move is only a reflex.

“Tomorrow, it will all be over, one way or another,” Mike says as he picks up his phone. “It’s late. We should sleep.”

I kiss him again.

“One more thing. Promise me you’ll never make a version of me in marzipan.”

 

It was unlike Tilly to leave a door unlocked. “Hello?” I announce, leaning in. The interior looks normal, maybe slightly untidy by Tilly’s standards. Yesterday was a busy day, though. Sometimes there are mistakes and in this small town, locks are rarely necessary. No one answers, and no other cars are here. I proceed to the safe, which is undisturbed. The register contains some cash, satisfying me that the open door means nothing.

Bresa’s door is also open. Whoever cleaned last night must have forgotten that Bresa’s cash drawer is separate. Turning into Bresa’s room, my eyes are drawn to the open closet. The cardboard box appears to have burst open, torn, and unfolded on the floor.

I knew leaving him in a box was wrong.

I search now, corners and under tables, every dining room. I don’t want to believe the obvious. The marzipan mayor has wandered away somewhere. My creation, easily traced to this business and me, is loose in Oak Village. Bresa and I will have to move.

“Penelope?” It’s Cheryl, still wearing sunglasses, leaning in the open front door. “I am supposed to see Bresa?”

“Come in. She’s not here yet, but you can wait in her room.”

She moves slowly. I doubt she has slept, like the rest of us who are involved. “Did you lose something?”

I stop searching. “It’s gone, I guess. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

I don’t know who to call. Instead, I stand for a moment at the refrigerators, picturing the little mayor being run over by a truck and also realizing I need to make puff pastry. The thoughts are incompatible. I feel paralyzed.

The knock at the back door startles me.

“Penelope? Is that you?” It’s the real mayor, George Williams, his face against the small window in the door. “I’m looking for Cheryl!”

At least the mayor is alive. Mike will be relieved, as will Bresa. I unlock the door. “Forgive my slow reaction, Mr. Williams. I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Is everything alright? How is Mike?”

“No problems, really.” It’s good to see his smiling face. Like the rest of us, though, he seems tired. I’ve never seen him in a jogging suit, either. He seems a little lopsided. “Cheryl is in Bresa’s room.”

“Good to see you, Penelope.”

Seeing the real mayor has alerted me to reality, at least. I gather blocks of butter for the pastry and take the rolling pin from the island cabinet.

Cheryl screams before I can begin pounding the butter. Peeking into the dining room, I see them—Cheryl walking backward, her face petrified in terror. “But you’re dead!” she screeches.

He reaches forward and pushes her several times, making her stumble toward the door to the basement. One final push and she falls back through the door, thumping and thudding to the basement. What I’m thinking can’t be—just because the mayor was pushing her the way the marzipan mayor was—it has to be a coincidence. What had she meant when she said he was dead?

I hear nothing. Again, I peek into the dining room.

The mayor turns his head in my direction, then his uneven body. It’s his familiar grin, but when his lips part, honey streams from the corners of his mouth.

Ace of Cups

 

Kimberly Moore is a writer and educator. Her short works are published in Typehouse Literary Magazine, MacroMicroCosm, Fleas on the Dog, Word Poppy Press, and 34 Orchard. She lives in a haunted house where she indulges the whims of cats.

For more information, visit kimberlymooreblog.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]

Willoughbuoy

~ Hermester Barrington

I suppose the phrase “imaginary friend” will work as well as any other. My uncertainty arises because he’s not imaginary to me—but if you look over my left shoulder, close one eye and squint the other, you might be able to see him, or think that you do.

People have seen a lot of strange things when they do that—a thin tall figure with long fingers in a pale jumpsuit and bat’s wings, a girl with rabbit ears in a frock, Dame Helen Mirren, my favorite actress—but most of them see a man in his thirties to fifties at a desk, leaning over a keyboard, scanning through books, scribbling notes, frowning all the while. He stands next to a window through which one can see the tops of trees—pines, most people say—on a golf course. He often supports himself with one hand on a desk—a Craftsman, I think, like my own, but not as well cared for. The light comes in as in a Vermeer painting, at an angle, and, reflected from the papers scattered on his desk, illuminating his face from beneath. Based on descriptions by those who have seen him over the years, he has aged since first he was spotted.

Mind, he’s not exactly anyone I would have imagined as my imaginary friend—I would have expected some version of Prometheus, or Coyote, or that girl at the supermarket who shyly flirts with me, but we don’t always get to pick our friends, do we? At least not imaginary ones.

He has only appeared directly to me once. At 3:12 AM, precisely—I don’t know how I know that, because we don’t have any clocks in the house—he opened the door to the bedchamber, and, frowning, stood at the end of the bed and recited that Robert Frost poem about a cord of maple logs burning slowly in the swamp. While I was figuring out how to respond, he knocked over a glass of water on the bedstand and disappeared. Getting out of bed to clean it up, I glanced out the window, and saw the lawn and the lake littered with loose pages, on which I had been writing my poetry, and which I had left on the deck . . . I went out and fetched them, the ones on the lawn I mean. When I looked up, Willoughbuoy was standing in the window, looking down at me, but he was gone by the time I got back upstairs.

I’ve also seen him in dreams late in the morning, when my bladder awakens me. As I debate whether I want to arise, I recall him before the memory fades—it’s 5 AM, but he’s already at work on his book, on ideas of progress in the Atlantic world in the 19th century, before he goes off to his day job (he’s an archivist at a law firm). He mutters to himself in any number of European languages as he searches through the pages of a book, sometimes more than one at a time. He takes a sip of some soft drink, some knock off version of a much more popular heavily caffeinated citrus soda, the original being my own preferred beverage—and winces as it hits a bad tooth. I sometimes get back to sleep afterwards, but never dream of him again, if I do.

Sometimes he is writing fiction, viewers say, a novel shaped like a Klein bottle about an amateur protozoologist/haiku poet. I’ve heard this from people who don’t know that this description fits me pretty nicely, so perhaps there’s something to it.

I first learned about him some thirty years ago. My wife Fayaway and her friend, Mistress Dionaea, were discussing the best way to use magnets, a Leyden jar, and a gyroscope to figure out the exact shape of the earth, when Dionaea stopped, stared past me, and said, “Hermester, there’s someone standing behind you, over your left shoulder.” Our questions to Dionaea elicited the following information: he was tall and slender, with a full head of thin chestnut hair, a t shirt and jeans, and Birkenstocks. He was holding a chapbook edition of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” with illustrations by Barry Moser—our copy, as it turned out, which was missing the next time I looked for it. He was standing in front of a window—the window, in fact, that I have already described. “He wants to tell you that his name is ‘Willoughbuoy,’” Dionaea said then, and spelled it out and told me how to pronounce it, which brought to my mind the image of a tall slender lad bending in a breeze I could not feel. Somebody’s car alarm went off then, and the vision or whatever it was disappeared.

He has borrowed or stolen a number of our books since then—usually works that would interest him, I suppose. Occasionally I find works on our bookshelves that no one remembers acquiring—Alice in Wonderland in the language of the Voynich manuscript; a dismembered copy of Hopscotch with the “chapters arranged,” a handwritten note reads, “for ease of reading;” a rough draft of The Da Vinci Code autographed by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. If he is trying to tell me something by stealing my books, or leaving others, I’m not sure what it is.

I’ve thought about writing his book, tentatively titled The Millennium is on the Horizon, for him—he seems to rewrite the same chapters over and over—but maybe a book about time and fugitive progress should be impossible to finish. Someone once said that in order to be happy, you should find a project that you enjoy and which is too big to complete in your lifetime. That being said, it doesn’t seem to be working for him.

I can only imagine why he might have been appearing to me over the years. Is he the dross of my realized desires? A reminder of the decades in which I lived a life of drudgery, moving through my life as if befogged? Might he be a sort of memento mori, or an admonition to be true to my own self? I had hoped that by writing about him, I would exorcise him, but I having drafted and revised this piece for three nights in a row, he has nonetheless appeared in my dreams on the past three mornings, and has been the focus of my mind’s eye as I stumble out of bed and fumble my slippers onto my feet. As has been the case in the past, his image remained in my thoughts until I turned my hand to my pursuits—my haiku, my protozoology, my ficciones—and then, at about the same time that the dew evaporated from the leaves of the sycamores outside the windows, my memory of him faded as I turned to greet the morning sun.

Page of Coins

 

Hermester Barrington is a retired archivist, a haiku poet, and a deliberately genre-ignorant artist whose most recently published ficciones have appeared in Fate Magazine, Mythaxis and Tales from the Moonlit Path. For over four decades, he and his impossibly beautiful wife Fayaway have traveled the round earth’s imagined corners in search of lake monsters, spelunking sites, and geomagnetic anomalies.

His latest project is a short film celebrating the protozoans of artificial ponds and streams he collected from miniature golf courses in the United States.

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]

Filtration Systems

~ Mary Berman

On the day Jimmy Tomlinson murdered 98.96% of the population of Garbersdale, the sky was bright and cloudless.

It happened at eleven o’clock in the morning. He should have been in school with the other teenagers, but he was the sort of boy who was always trying to wrangle his way out of school, and his parents were the sort of parents who let him. So, at ten fifty-eight on the day he killed everybody, he was sitting in his room with a pair of earbuds in, playing with a computer program he had developed.

The program was designed to synthesize the most unpleasant sounds possible. While developing it Jimmy had also been modifying an industrial speaker system he’d bought off Craigslist. The Craigslist ad had said that when the speakers were turned up to full volume, their sound could be heard across three city blocks. Jimmy was trying to modify them so they could be heard across the whole town.

He’d explained this two weeks ago to Orla Harrisburg, who had come over insisting that she only wanted to work on their group calculus project—but when she agreed to come up to his room, he knew she was into him. He played her a little of his sound sequence—only a little, because it wasn’t yet half as offensive as he knew it could be—and described, while his blood throbbed, his plan use both in conjunction to terrorize the town.

Orla eyed the speaker, which occupied an entire wall of Jimmy’s room. It hulked like a slab of volcanic rock. “That’s it?”

“. . . Yeah.” What did she mean, That’s it? He was a genius.

“Why would you do something like that?” Orla asked.

“Come on. I hate this place. Don’t you?”

“No,” said Orla matter-of-factly. “And it seems like an awful lot of work. Why d’you hate everything so much?”

The compact seed of anger that had been rooted in Jimmy’s guts for as long as he could remember put forth another sprout. Its tendrils crawled up his stomach wall and knotted about his trachea. “Fuck you,” he said. “Let’s work on the project.”

Orla had stiffened. Then she’d informed him that she would prefer to work on the project herself, and she’d removed her smooth slim limbs from his bedroom.

Two weeks later Jimmy was still brooding over the incident, simmering away in front of his computer, thinking: How could Orla ask him something like that? He was just angry, that was all. And that day, the way Orla had looked at him as though he were malformed—she was the one who’d made him angry. It was her fault. His parents and his teachers and everyone else who insisted that he do things he didn’t want to do, it was their fault. Even strangers he encountered in the grocery store or at the coffee shop or the movie theater, strangers who persisted in being idiots or assholes or ugly or rude: their fault. In response to such a high volume of fucking people, it was perfectly normal to be angry.

So thick vines of anger had kept strangling Jimmy’s organs, and he had kept on working on his synthesizer.

And now, at ten fifty-nine on Wednesday morning, he yanked his earbuds out, leaned over and vomited into the wastebasket.

Jimmy caught his breath. His heart juddered arrhythmically. In fact, he was pretty sure it had actually stopped for a second. The noise had been so ugly, so dissonant, so wrong that it had made him physically ill. But even as he sat there, his stomach still twisted, wiping a string of vomit and saliva from his chin, he felt a bold flicker of grim joy. He grinned. This would mess everyone up all right. This would show Orla. He unplugged his earbuds, plugged in the speaker, and hit Play.

The sound slammed into his eardrums like a sledgehammer; like an undersea volcano, cracking the planet and displacing unfathomable tons of ocean; like an asteroid smacking off a hunk of the moon.

Jimmy keeled over instantly. So did his father, who was working from home, and his mother, at a deli half a mile away. So did virtually everyone else within a three-quarter-mile radius, including almost the full population of Garbersdale, plus a hundred or so people in the neighboring towns of Peterborough, Mixton, and Shell’s Way.

But this story isn’t about Jimmy Tomlinson.

 

At eleven o’clock exactly, everyone else in Jisoo Kim’s eighth grade algebra class toppled out of their desks and hit the linoleum.

Jisoo blinked. Her chest tightened. This was another one of those jokes no one had thought to let her in on, because it had spread by whisper and Jisoo, being deaf, could not hear whispers. This sort of thing happened all the time, and Jisoo tried not to let on how much it hurt her. She knew her friends and peers meant nothing by it, they just forgot, but, well. She smiled weakly, trying to seem cool and casual and happy, wondering if it was too late for her to fall out of her chair and participate as well. Then she realized that the teacher was also prostrate, and that Ricky Carlsson, who had been leaning over precariously to pass Paul Tiny a note, had crumpled and landed on the crown of his head, and his neck was now twisted at a brutal angle, and no one was doing anything about it. And then she noticed that no one’s chest was moving.

A dull rhythmic vibration pulsed beatlike through the soles of her shoes.

“Guys?” she said. No one reacted. Her own chest tightened further; her heart began to hammer in a way it had never done before, her blood becoming more tangible beat by beat against the inside of her skin. She stood up, hesitated, and then, convinced that this was a joke on her but too anxious to care, touched Kelly Martin’s neck. There was no pulse.

“Oh my god,” Jisoo said. She staggered back and whammed her hip into a desk. “Oh my god oh my g–”

She fled the classroom, her hands over her mouth, careening through the halls to the nurse’s office. She burst in, already babbling, “I think everyone’s dead, I really think everyone’s dead,” and then stopped. A noise that wanted to be a scream clawed halfway up her throat and lodged there. The student aide had collapsed face-down on his keyboard. The two kids who’d been sitting in the waiting room lolled in the pea-green chairs, their eyes vacant and their mouths open.

Jisoo ran into one of the little private rooms with bunk beds and jugs of water, still searching for the nurse. She didn’t find him, but she did find Allie Petrovsky from world history class. Allie was lying on her back with a pair of noise-canceling headphones on and her eyes shut. She hadn’t responded to Jisoo barreling in, but she did appear to be breathing. Jisoo said her name. Allie didn’t move. Jisoo went over and shook her.

Allie jumped and opened her eyes. “Jisoo?” she said, which was easy to read. “What?”

Jisoo was so relieved she burst into tears.

She flung her arms around Allie, squeezing her so tightly that Allie couldn’t even reach up to take her headphones off. Jisoo could feel the vibrations of Allie talking, but she couldn’t bring herself to let go long enough to look at Allie’s mouth. She became conscious of movement behind her and turned. Two girls were standing in the doorway: Carla White, looking even blanker than usual, and Laila Siddique, wearing her sensitivity suit and shaking her head like she was trying to get rid of a mosquito.

Jisoo screamed, mostly from delight, and cried harder.

“Hey, chill out,” Laila said. “What’s going on?” She rubbed her ears, crinkling the cellophane-like fabric of her suit. Laila had a hypersensitivity disorder, and experiencing the world unfiltered frequently sent her into convulsions, so she wore a full-body sensitivity suit, which stretched over her skin and nostrils and ears and eye sockets and mouth, letting her breathe but dulling all sensory stimuli. Jisoo had used to wonder how she ate lunch, and then she’d watched Laila in the cafeteria one day and realized that Laila did not eat lunch. Eventually she learned that Laila only ate two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, and that she ate them at home in a special room, gray-painted and dimly lit and silent. This made Jisoo sad, and as a consequence seeing Laila usually made her sad, but now Jisoo had never been so happy to see anyone.

“Everyone in Mr. Russo’s class just—fell over dead,” Jisoo said. She was aware of how absurd she sounded, but her body was too hysterical for her to disbelieve herself. She was still clutching Allie, which was ridiculous. She and Allie weren’t even friends. “They’re dead out there in the nurse’s office, too. Look.”

“It’s that sound,” said Carla dully.

“What sound?”

Allie said something too and reached up to take her headphones off.

“Don’t do that,” Carla said.

Allie said something else, which Jisoo missed as she turned to her, and removed her headphones. Immediately her eyes rolled back in her head, her mouth fell open, and she flopped sideways into Jisoo’s lap. Jisoo screamed again.

Carla ignored her and said to Laila, “Don’t take that off.”

 

Laila rubbed her ears again. She’d been sitting in one of the private bunk rooms with Carla, who’d escorted her here for period cramps, when five minutes ago a loud ugly noise had started buzzing its way through her suit. Between that and her knotted stomach and Carla’s weird trademark brand of silence, she was feeling irritable. “Why would I take it off?” she snapped. “And what’s wrong with Allie? Where’s the nurse?” She shook her head hard. “Ugh! What is that!”

“You can hear it?”

“That horrible buzzing? Yes. You’re lucky,” said Laila to Jisoo, who did not notice.

“Hmm. Your suit must be filtering out whatever frequency is killing people,” Carla said. “That’s why you’re not dead.”

“Yeah?” said Laila, humoring her. “Then why aren’t you dead? Seriously, what’s going on? Allie, get up. You’re freaking me out.”

“She can’t get up. She’s dead. Come on.” Carla tugged Jisoo out from under Allie Petrovsky. Allie slid off Jisoo and thunked to the floor like a rag doll. “Come on,” Carla said, with, for the first time, a touch of real feeling. But Jisoo only drew a deep, shattered breath, and Carla, evidently fed up now, dragged Jisoo out of the room. Laila followed them as far as the nurse’s office and then paused to gawk at the two limp, unblinking sixth-graders in the pea-green chairs. She hadn’t really noticed them when following Carla to Allie’s bunk room. She’d glimpsed them out of the corner of her eye, but the suit tended to blur her peripheral vision, and she’d just assumed they were asleep. But their eyes were open.

It couldn’t be true that everyone was dead.

The sixth-graders sure looked dead.

“Carla?” Laila said uncomfortably. There was no answer. Laila felt a burst of quiet panic, looked out the door and realized Carla and Jisoo were already halfway down the corridor. She hurried to catch up. “Hey! Wait! What are you doing?”

“We’ve got to figure out where the sound is coming from and turn it off.”

“Shouldn’t we call the police? Or our parents?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well, if they’re within range of the sound, they’re probably dead like everyone else.” A bolt of horror shot through Laila’s solar plexus. “And if they’re not, you don’t want them to hear it, do you?”

Laila’s parents both worked in the city, twenty miles away. How far away could the sound be heard? Surely not that far; Laila couldn’t even hear it properly. But she had her suit, and her parents…. Her mind wrenched away from the mental image of her parents lolling in their desk chairs with the sixth-graders’ limp necks and dead eyes, flitted frantically around her skull for something else to attach to, and latched squidlike onto the police. Laila would call the police. It was what you were supposed to do.

She informed Carla of this. Carla said nothing.

Stubbornly Laila got out her cell phone and called 9-1-1, but when she was halfway through telling the operator their location (they were walking through the cafeteria now, and the kids who’d been eating had collapsed into their trays and lunchboxes, and the cafeteria monitors were prone on the ground, and something in the kitchen was smoking badly), the operator interrupted, sounding first vexed and then nauseous,

“You’re not at school. I can hear something in the background. Are you at a concert? Oh, excuse m–” The operator’s voice cut off abruptly. Laila heard retching.

The girls entered the empty gym. Briefly, blessedly, the vibrations and buzzing softened, and the echoes of their footsteps against the rubber floor and steel bleachers sounded, muffled, in Laila’s ears. Of course, the gym was soundproofed. But it was a lunch period. No one had P.E. during lunch periods, because of recess.

“Hello?” Laila said to the operator. “Hello?” No answer. More retching, then dead air, and then a busy signal that never ended.

Carla pushed open the exit door behind the gym, which led to the street-facing schoolyard. In the same flat tone as always, she asked, “How did that go?”

Laila’s thoughts detached from the police and suctioned back onto her parents. Her father’s jaw open, his tongue swelling and blackening, her mother’s shriveling skin and eyeballs being gnawed away by maggots. “Shut up,” she said. She wanted nothing more than to call her mother; she wanted it in her liver, in her fingertips, in the space behind her eyes where she sometimes got migraines. Instead she hung up and, swallowing hard, followed Carla and Jisoo outside.

There was a vicious pile-up in the street. Ten, fifteen, twenty cars had all slammed into each other. Some had spilled over onto the wide flat grassy schoolyard. The day was cloudless and warm, the sky a deep impenetrable blue, and for a split second, as Laila looked at the wreckage and her two classmates and the hot yellow sunlight on the grass, she felt keenly and simultaneously the horror of the death and violence before her, her sick suppressed anxiety, and the pure unfiltered delight of skipping fourth period and sneaking outside on a beautiful day. Then she felt confused, and then she saw a severed head in the middle of the street, and then, much to her own surprise, her legs gave out from under her and she landed in a sitting position on the grass.

Jisoo did not fall. Indeed she looked too paralyzed to fall or throw up or do any of the things Laila’s body was insisting ought to be done, too paralyzed to do anything but cling to Carla, who, for her part, had stopped moving. Carla squinted at the wreckage for a second, glanced left toward Main Street, and then turned her attention the other way toward Hopkins Avenue, which marked the start of a residential neighborhood.

Laila asked, “What are you looking for?”

“The source of the sound. I think it has to be close, but I can’t tell . . .”

Laila considered. In just six hours her parents would be on their way back to Garbersdale. The fingers of her left hand drifted to those of her right; she hesitated, gulping; then in one swoop she peeled off the right-hand glove of her sensitivity suit and pressed her palm to the ground. The sound’s vibrations thudded through her like ocean waves, like honeybee swarms. They were coming from some place past Hopkins. Her body hummed violently. Laila shuddered once, already feeling unglued, and ripped her hand away.

Carla and Jisoo were looking at her. Laila managed to say, “That way.”

“Oh,” said Carla, respectfully. “That’s neat. Come on, then.” She took Jisoo’s hand and started walking. Laila stayed on the ground for a few more seconds, focusing on the soft, distant sensation of her suit’s fabric against her palms, her cheeks and forehead, the insides of her thighs. Then she took a deep, helpless breath, got to her wobbly feet and followed.

They walked toward Hopkins Avenue and turned right on Estaugh Street: Carla marching, Jisoo stumbling, Laila just kind of drifting. They saw two more car accidents, but these weren’t as bad, just a pair of crumpled skewed cars with unbroken seatbelted bodies drooping behind their steering wheels. They passed seventeen dead squirrels, at least thirty-two dead songbirds (Laila lost count), two dogs, and a single housecat on its side, fluffy and unmoving. The birds were mostly robins and blue jays and goldfinches and looked like jewels. A man in camouflage-green clothes lay next to a still-running lawnmower, which chewed away placidly at his left foot, slowly turning the fresh-chopped grass a soft rust color. From one house floated the sweet strains of a recorded Bach prelude.

Then, at the same time, Laila and Jisoo stopped. Both girls clapped their hands over their ears and fell back. Jisoo looked astonished. She exclaimed, “I can hear it!”

Carla looked stricken. “I thought you were deaf.”

“I am. I mean, I can only hear sounds if they’re really intense, which, you know, they’re not, usually. But…” Cautiously, she lowered her hands and stepped forward again, an expression of dim wonder on her face.

“No,” Carla shouted, but it was too late. Jisoo’s eyeballs jittered in her head. She sucked in a strangled breath and fell. Laila lunged forward to grab her and heard, as she had a split second ago, the not-too-muffled strains of a hideous cacophony; she felt her own heart cease to beat and leapt back, out of range, with a gasp. Carla hauled Jisoo over her shoulders and dumped her next to Laila, and Laila crouched over her, stunned and hopeless, feeling for a pulse.

Miraculously, she found one. Jisoo had been moved out of range of the sound before her body had had time to fully shut down. Laila pounded on Jisoo’s chest, more so she could feel useful than anything else, and Jisoo inhaled a shallow breath.

Carla covered her face. “That was my fault.”

“What?”

“I should’ve known your filter wouldn’t work if you got close enough. And Jisoo . . . Just stay here, okay? I’ll find the noise and make it stop. Maybe everyone else will wake up, too, if it stops.”

Hysteria bubbled in Laila’s chest. “They’re not asleep! There’s a guy back there missing his head!”

Carla took one step away from her, two, three, then turned on her heel and speedwalked down the street.

“Carla!” Laila bellowed. “Why aren’t you dead!”

Carla did not respond, did not even indicate that she’d heard. She broke into a jog, then a run, getting farther and farther away. When she was almost at the end of the street, she slowed down and cocked her head. Then she turned, marched up the porch of a two-story mint-green colonial, hesitated for the briefest second, opened the screen door and walked in.

 

Carla had spent her entire life screaming.

She didn’t remember her first scream or her birth, but she knew from stories that it had involved an emergency C-section. She’d come into the world three months early, horrified by the loud sounds and the bright lights and the big ugly faces. She’d started screaming right away.

She’d screamed incessantly. She would not stop until she fell asleep or ran out of air, and even in the latter case her mouth would stay open, a tiny void, her little throat bobbing in an attempt to scream without breath. She refused to stop screaming long enough to eat or drink. For years she received her nutrition through IV supplements and a gastrointestinal tube. Her parents had not known what to do. She’d kept it up through toddlerhood and young childhood, despite doctors and therapies. She had not been able to go to school or day care; she had been kept home as much as possible, and when it was necessary to bring her somewhere—to run an errand, or to visit relatives—her parents hustled through the task as quickly as possible or left her in the car. Sometimes her father yelled at her to shut up, and sometimes he hit her, but neither act had any noticeable effect.

Her memories of this early screaming were tied up in her other childhood memories, like when the family had visited Carla’s aunt in New York and they’d ridden the subway, and a big man with a cane had tripped and fallen and smashed his face open on the subway floor, and Carla had watched his blood, dotted with little grains of broken teeth, slosh up and down with the movement of the train. Her second memory was of watching a mailman on a bicycle get hit by a truck and flattened, spread out over the blacktop like peanut butter. Her third memory was a cloudy one of her family being forced out of their house, sleeping under a bridge in the city for two days, immersed in cold and wet and anxiety before finally moving in with her maternal grandmother in Garbersdale. Then came a series of disjointed memories of her parents fighting, not the way people fight when they’re exhausted and frustrated but the way they fight when they hate each other, until eventually her mother got a job and then a promotion and then started making some real money. Carla’s next isolated memory, a little later, from age four maybe, was of watching a gas station explode. The fire had consumed six cars, an attached convenience store, and all of the human beings in the vicinity. It had smelled of gasoline and blackened marshmallows. And Carla had screamed right through all of it.

Then, at age five, she’d stopped.

Her parents and doctors never knew why, but the answer was simple: Carla had realized that it did not matter whether she screamed out loud, as long as she was doing it in her head.

In this way she had drowned out every ugly stimulus, every harsh noise, every unwelcome thought. She was now thirteen years old and capable of blocking out anything. In fact, she was incapable of ceasing to block things out. When she and Laila and Jisoo had stepped from the school into the sunlight, she had not experienced Laila’s flash of bewildered joy, because she had not noticed the lovely silence and the sun.

She had learned to function through the screaming. She layered it on top of the rest of the world, filtered everything through it. Indeed, if she thought about it, her screaming functioned not unlike Laila’s sensitivity suit. The difference, of course, was that if Carla faced the world unfiltered she would not have a seizure. She just didn’t think she’d be able to bear it.

When she had heard the noise start up, she’d instantly known that it was an evil thing, a dangerous thing. But it hadn’t touched her, because her screaming had drowned it. And as she’d walked through town, through car crashes and corpses, through Jisoo’s heart-stopping collapse, the screaming had gotten louder and louder. Now she could hardly hear the sound at all anymore.

She walked through the front door of the mint-green colonial.

There was a dead man in the living room. He was white and middle-aged, wearing a Hanes T-shirt and plaid boxers. Drool crusted the stubble on his chin. Carla ignored him and went upstairs. She opened every door until she found what she wanted: a mountainous speaker set and a humming computer monitor. A white boy sat in a giant black plush desk chair, the sort of desk chair Carla could picture in a law firm or a fancy bank, with a pair of expensive headphones still dangling from his limp fingers. Carla stepped over him, moved the computer mouse to wake the screen and found some kind of music synthesizer. She clicked the pause button.

The sound disappeared. The sudden and total silence rang in Carla’s ears behind the screaming.

She found the file the synthesizer was playing and moved it to the trash, which she emptied. Then she stood back and rubbed her ears. Experimentally she prodded the kid’s calf with her foot. He didn’t move. She kicked him again, harder. He slipped from the chair but otherwise did not react. She put her foot on his neck and applied pressure until something crunched. Nothing.

Carla, a strange heat bubbling in her throat, glanced out the window. She spotted Laila and Jisoo down the street where she’d left them, Jisoo sitting up and looking disoriented, Laila cocking her head hopefully into the silence and then fumbling for her phone. Carla did not bother to reach for her own phone. Her parents both worked on Main Street. She knew she ought to return to Jisoo and Laila, but instead she went to the boy’s closet, pushed his clothes to the side, shut herself in and sat on the dusty floor. In the pitch-quiet blackness she closed her eyes and screamed.

 

Mary Berman is a Philadelphia, PA, USA-based writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Mississippi, and her work has been published in Fireside, PseudoPod, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. In her spare time she takes fitness classes and antagonizes her cat.

Find her online at www.mtgberman.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 06 ]

I See You

~ Gerri Leen

I look, tasting the moment, the hesitation—even perhaps the fear—as you take me in with a sideways “I might not have seen you” glance. Will you run? Leave the bar and go find your girl of the moment in some other place? I know you won’t look me straight in the eye.

Even that night you didn’t. When we touched, the lights were out, my hair whipping around your face but our features hazy at best.

That was great.

I could have been anyone.

You’re great.

I am. Not that you’d know it.

I have an early meeting. I know this is . . . awkward. But I really need to get my rest and I sleep best alone.

So cold. You could have been made of stone.

I left, like a dutiful doormat. Used and discarded. Hurting because I thought you liked me.

I make my way to where you are. I don’t look directly at you, either, but I’m like a hunting cat, keeping you in my sights even as I pretend to have other prey in mind.

God, you’re beautiful.

But how did you know? You never even saw me there. Not the woman I am. All you wanted was the body that you took fast and hard, not seeming to think you should make it good for me too.

You edge toward the bar, and I move to block your way to the door, just in case you lose your nerve and try to flee. But you don’t.

I should give you credit for that. You stride forth to a stool like some mythical hero. Your phone your shield, your wallet full of cash your sword. Women will fall before you like soldiers to a superior force.

The one you’ve picked for the night is already yielding—you have a type, don’t you? Those of us who want but can’t have, who sit and wait as our fairer sisters are taken to the dance floor, offered drinks, seduced onto balconies and decks and into grimy bathroom stalls.

We are the left behinds, the uncomfortable, the fidgeters, the ones who wonder why we picked this dress, these shoes, this purse that’s too big to put on the bar and too little to put at our feet.

I came without a purse this time. I came not in a slinky dress but jeans and a leather jacket. My boots are flat and sensible and could kick you to shit.

My hair is curly tonight. I didn’t spend hours trying to tame the whirls and serpentine bits that refuse to give in to the flat iron and blow dryer without a fight.

Under my jacket, I have on a plain white t-shirt. In my pocket I have my phone, my keys, my lip balm, and enough money to buy my own damn drinks.

I am not here to catch. I am here to set free.

The woman you’ve latched onto looks at me. She’s annoyed. This is her moment—possibly the only one that will come—and I’m ruining it.

I nod to you, noticing you still won’t turn to face me fully. I call you by the wrong name. It’s petty but it amuses me, and your face twists in what looks like irritation.

She doesn’t frown. You haven’t gotten to the introduction stage yet. For all she knows, that is your name.

I lean in and smell her perfume. Desperate and exactly what I wore the other night. We are all twins, in our sleek outfits with our self-tanned legs and straight hair and spicy floral scent.

Tonight, I wear lemon. It reminds me of youth, of a time when men did not slay me after I gave them everything.

I tip her chin up, turning gently, making her look from you to me. Her skin is soft—too soft for the likes of you. “He’s selfish and he won’t make you come. He’ll send you home once he’s finished with you. Come find me when it’s done. We’ll be a gang, sisters tarnished by this man’s blade.” I make a sneering noise. “Well, not that large a blade, if we’re being honest—just between us girls.”

You try to pull her away.

You’re special. I could see that right away.

You weren’t wrong. You also weren’t sincere. Special to you means victim, means prey, means strike fast then leave. Means cut out my heart. Why not take my hands too? My head?

You can take what you want—no matter how deep the cut, you won’t kill what’s real inside me. You won’t slay the monster you’ve awakened.

“He hurt you,” the woman says.

I nod. “He’ll hurt you, too. But if you need to go down that road, do it. Sometime pain is liberating.”

She looks rebellious. Like she doesn’t believe me—or doesn’t want to. For women like us, those are often the same thing.

And you want her. It’s a powerful thing for a girl who’s usually left sitting, guarding the drinks.

“She’s just pissed it didn’t work out for us.” Your voice is soft, reasonable even. Using logic in the face of my bitterness. Mister Rational.

I can see immediately that it’s the wrong tack to take. She looks at you, her head cocked, her eyes almost fiery in the low light. “How long were you together?”

How long did you give it?  That’s what she’s asking and she already knows the answer—she’s figured it out.  She’s smarter than I was.  But then I didn’t have me telling me hard truths.

I smirk. You stare into the mirror over the bar and our eyes finally meet.

You’re not as handsome as I remember. Not now that I see you fully, with eyes not blinded by relief, by gratitude, by loneliness. You have a weak chin. Shifty eyes.  And you’re sweating.

I let one side of my mouth go up slowly, the universal sign of contempt. I know my eyes are dead.

She’s the one who responds. She laughs and slides off the barstool. “You look so cool,” she says to me. “Wild. Sexy.”

Everything I thought you were.

I don’t take my eyes from yours. You stand frozen, your mouth grim.

“I am. You can be, too.” I finally break the gaze and take her hand, pulling her onto the dance floor. Our dance isn’t sexual. It’s defiance. It’s victory.

Men stop to watch, frozen. As if they’ve never seen two women dance for themselves, not for them.

“My friends are freaking,” she says with a laugh. “They always leave me behind but now I’m getting all the attention.”

“No one leaves us behind anymore.”

Her smile falters. Her “that’s right” is shaky. There’s something lost about her, as if suddenly she’s doubting our path.

I slip my jacket off and put it around her. It’s heavy and warm and broken in perfectly. She’s smaller than I am so it swallows her a little. I tell her it suits her and it does. I’m not going to lie about things like that. We don’t need that.

Then a new woman comes into the bar. She sees you, her face broken—but her back straight.

“Sister,” I whisper, recognizing another former lost soul, and take the hand of my new friend.

We follow the girl as she strides to the bar—to you.

She’s in black jeans. A gray tank top. Sneakers and a bracelet of skulls around her wrist.

You see her in the mirror, then you see us. You don’t move except to motion for the bartender as if we’re nothing to you. Just three women happening to stand behind you—not a threat, not a reminder, not revenge waiting to happen.

You can pretend all you want, but the way your hand shakes as you lift the glass to your mouth lets us know what you’re really feeling.

I reach the new woman just before she gets to you. “There’s no satisfaction there.”

She turns to face me. She’s prettier than my new friend and I are. You threw her away too? Do none of us measure up for you?

“This is our bar now,” I say. My new friend nods. This pretty girl turns and stares at you in the mirror.

You glance up, frozen, not a single forgivable excuse coming from you. Not a lie, either. Or an insult. You say nothing.

Stone cold silent.

But men like you always are. Even when you never shut up.

Me? I feel like anything but stone. It’s as if there’s a fire inside me. I grab my girls’ hands and lead them to the other side of the bar. We’re proud, even if we’re just learning to be. We’re beautiful, even if we aren’t. We’re not seat-holders. We’re not the girls who wait.

We soon have men hovering. We don’t have to pay for our own drinks.

We do anyway.

Queen of Swords

 

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, and collecting encaustic art and raku pottery. She has work appearing or accepted by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nature, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing some longer projects, and is a member of SFWA and HWA.

See more at gerrileen.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022  ]

Del Mar

~ Katherine L. P. King

You emerge from the sea with a gasp: your first in the vast expanse of space above the water. Salt stings your nose, and the light stings your eyes. It’s white, not yellow as you imagined when you were still beneath the surface of the waves. The blue sky looks impossibly large and empty. You kick and splash and splutter your way to shore, where you lie in the soft dry sand. It clings to your brown skin. There are tiny hairs all over you where there never were before. You laugh; it is the first time you have heard your own voice. You lie eagle-spread, staring up into the blue.

You teach yourself to stand, and then to walk. You are thoroughly unprepared for how hard it is to move, how the air around you resists your movements rather than propels them. Your body is heavy. Your manhood swings freely and your feet are a marvel. You look back at the water and imagine them there, wishing you luck. Eventually you leave the sand and begin to walk on the hot dirt of the road, heading into the bright city in the valley below.

As instructed, you go to Morado. Morado is old, skinny, twenty years on land, and quiet. He gives you what was promised: papers, clothing, some local currency, and a slip of paper on which is a handwritten address. Still stumbling occasionally, you don the clothes and follow Morado’s garbled instructions to the address. As you go, the colors, smells, and sounds of the city assault you. You realize you have been living with a blanket over these senses and though you are anxious and sweating, which is entirely new, you pause to smell meat frying at a street cart, or to listen to a woman leaning out a window and strumming a small wooden instrument you cannot name.

Morado’s directions lead you to a red building, low, smelling of some strong spice. You knock at the door. There is no response. You knock again, louder, the wood splintering into your fist, and someone shouts before the door flies open and a tiny old woman lets you in. She leads you to a hot kitchen where several pots boil on the stove and men sit on over-turned buckets or crates, some peeling potatoes, others slicing onions, still others splitting open and removing seeds from chilies, their eyes red and their noses running.

The woman makes you sit on the last empty crate, hands you a dirty potato and a dull knife, and scurries away. You do not look at the other men, who are all looking at you. Instead you watch to see where your peeled potatoes should go—into a large pot of salted water on the table. You have never eaten potatoes before. When you feel their eyes are no longer on you, you examine the other men in turn. Their skins have been cracked and dried by the sun, like the flesh of dead clams. Their eyes are far away; most are brown, some are blue. Some men shake with exhaustion. One, a friendlier looking youth, turns to you.

¿Cómo te llamas?

You have prepared for this question, but the word still sticks in your throat.

T-trullo.

¿De dónde?

You stare. He speaks so fast. You are not even sure he asked a question. His eyes are crystalline. When you don’t answer, he nods.

¿Del mar?

You hesitate again; the young man holds his hand parallel to the floor and lets it rise and fall in a rolling motion. His hand is like the waves, swelling and crashing. Suddenly, you want only to be back there, under the surf, in the blue. You blink away tears and nod. The man points to the others in the group with blue eyes and repeats: Del mar. Del mar. Y yo, del mar.

The next morning, you wake before the sun. You follow the others, keeping your head down, wanting to give no indication that you dreamed of home all night.

You all climb into the back of a roaring old truck and ride away from the rising sun. The tiny old woman hands out food—hot beans in a warm corn tortilla. You eat slowly. The warmth is so unexpected and so welcome.

When the truck stops, you are in a large green field. Each of you takes a wooden bucket and you walk into the field, stoop, and begin picking. When your bucket is full of shiny red peppers you trade it for an empty one. When the sun is hot and sweat drips down your back you are allowed to sit in the minimal shade of the truck, sipping lukewarm water and eating rice and beans. You listen to the others and try to learn their language. You begin to recognize some words: papas. Arroz con habichuelas. Concha. Trabajo. Soon you are back in the fields.

On the ride back, the truck scales a mountain and you can see, for only a moment, a strip of blue that is the sea.

At the end of the day, a large man with thick hair on his chest hands out paper to each of you. You stuff it in your shoe and sleep with the shoes next to your pillow. It is nowhere near enough.

On the rare evening when there is no kitchen work to do, you go out. The sky darkens to black impregnated with bright stars in a spray, like sea foam. The cobblestone streets are warm from baking in the sun all afternoon, and lanterns and candles cast pools of flickering light down the winding roads. Huge crowds mill around buildings, hanging out of windows, stumbling in the streets reeking of tequila. You join a crowd around a hot grill that smells like cumin and animal fat and when you push your way to the front and finally capture the attention of the cook, you order a tripleta. Soon enough he hands you a huge greasy sandwich which you devour as you walk. As you reach the last bit of bread and pork someone bumps your arm, hard, and you drop it. Turning, you catch a fist with the side of your face and lash out, but miss. When your vision clears you see a drunken man reeling in front of you with fists raised, his eyes rolling and unfocused. You turn away and hear him curse you, spit at you. Sirena.

It is six months before you can leave the little red house. You get a new job washing dishes at a restaurant. It is much better money and though the work is still grueling, at least you are not drying in the sun like a stranded starfish. Your apartment is hot, empty but for the cockroaches, and a long walk from work, but you are grateful, especially since now that it is winter, there are fewer fields to be picked. You work late every night. In the day you walk the streets, smelling the sea mist, singing along to songs, and sampling food. Your favorite is tostones, with rice and beans. The hot crunch and garlic aftertaste send a thrill down your spine.

You make your way to the sea at least once a week. It is so big and bright. You cannot remember exactly what it was like there. But you miss it—and them.

You send all the money you can. Sometimes your boss at the restaurant lets you work doubles and you send it all save enough to pay your rent and feed you.

After a year, you’ve sent enough to bring your oldest son. You meet him at the shore on a cool, crisp morning. His body is now brown and hairy like yours. You greet him with a soft towel, welcoming him as you were not. His hair is now a curly mop of black. He smells of salt and gets white sand all over him as he stumbles around, trying to get used to his feet, already learning to live without the embracing swell of the sea.

You show him all you have learned and seen so far: café con leche, the colorful streets, the clubs at night. He is amazed but he misses home. He gets a job as a server in the restaurant where you wash dishes, since he picks up the language faster. He makes lots of tips, being a beautiful boy, and sends it all home. You cannot convince him to save some for himself or to come out with you and drink away the exhaustion and the homesick.

It is on a night like this you meet Ascención. Ascención is twelve years your junior, small but supple, dark haired, dark skinned, quiet but confident. It is not long before she comes to your place, her heels clunking up the stairs, her compact body hidden by a sparkling black dress.

Your son ignores you both. You do not speak to him as you and Ascención leave the kitchen, chilled beers in hand, and close your bedroom door behind you. The beers are abandoned as you fight each other out of your clothes. Then she is there, and hot, wet, sweet. You’ve never known it like this, these warm flushes of pleasure circling through you.

Later, Ascención falls asleep in your twin bed so you go check on your son. He is curled up so tight on his mattress in the front room of your apartment. The only thing you can see is his face, constricted even in sleep.

He looks like his mother. You try not to think of her while you are with Ascención.

Ascención likes dates: seaside restaurants, overnight stays in nearby hotels, trips up the coast. You have to send less money back or you will not be able to make rent. Your son notices and you shout at him. Your hard earned money sent away, and it is still not enough?

Ascención will not move in with you. She has a place, she says. You wonder if you are the only one she is seeing. Still, she spends most nights at your apartment, which you furnish to her liking: a stereo system, a large television with all the channels, cabinets full of food and a bathroom full of soaps, towels, cleaning supplies. You search for a two-bedroom so your son can have his own room. You get a second job bagging groceries at a small store nearby, and ask for more nights off from your dish-washing job so you can take Ascensción out. The money is never enough. You send home less and less.

One day, Ascensción comes to you at the grocery store on your break. Her dark eyes are red around the edges. ¿Que pasa? you ask, taking her cool hands in your own, blistered from work.

Estoy embarazada. Pregnant.

You stare. Then you grin. You hug her tight to you and shout scrambled words of joy in two languages. When you release her, she smiles and kisses you. The rest of your shift flies by in a brightly-colored whirl of faces and lights.

You walk home along white cobblestones. The sun sets on the ocean, glints of light catching your eye. A part of you wonders how it ever meant more to you than scenery.

When you reach the top of the stairs and open the door to your apartment, your son is there, with a bag. He is leaving.

Hijo, no. Por favor.

He does not speak to you in that language, and pretends not to hear. Forget about me, he says, grabbing his bag and pushing past you. Forget about us.

Ascención is in the hallway, a hand pressed to her throat.

You watch your son descend the stairs, sling his bag over his shoulder, and walk off into the darkening streets.

Later that month, you have a choice to make. There are sixty-eight dollars left over from your last paycheck, after the bills, and the money you spent on Ascención, and your food. You can send it home. But why? You think of Ascención, here and now, a little baby—your baby—growing inside her. Silently, you tuck the money away.

You and Ascención do not go out so much anymore, since she cannot drink. You drink at home instead, and miss the days when you could go out alone, eating mofongo on the street, engulfed in the clear, bright light, smelling the salt water. One evening you do go out and stay drunk until the sun begins to rise. You walk around the island until you find the shore. You climb the rocks and explore the tide pools. You find the creatures which were once your neighbors. You poke at them with stubby fingers. Then you sit with your feet in the water and cry. You cannot go back.

When you get home, Ascención sits at the table with her head down. You enter and she gets up.

Me voy. Voy a hacerme un aborto.

You do not answer her. You do not breathe as she walks around you, gathers a bag, and shuts the door behind her. You do not move as the apartment settles in its emptiness.

Suddenly you have more money than you can spend, but you do not send it. You are no longer sure if they would take it. You quit your job at the restaurant and soon become a cashier at the grocery store. You spend as much time out, with friends or women, as you can. The thought of the sea burns enough that you stop thinking of it, and those you left behind, entirely, for years.

One sunny morning, you follow the sound of a crowd to a street full of tents, some kind of arts fair. You shuffle down the aisle of starched white tents where hopeful, wide-eyed creators peddle their wares: beaded bracelets, crucifixes on long silver chains, homemade soaps and bars of lotion, leather pouches and belts, small knives, braided ropes and flowers arranged in glass vases. The colors are so bright, the shapes so clean and clear.

One tent has paintings hung up on the exterior walls. You see one that gives a view of the sky from under deep, deep water. It is the kind of perspective only one of your kind could possibly know; it is far too detailed to have been imagined. The sun in the painting is a shimmery blur, obscured by the layers of aquamarine and turquoise and azure. You stare at the picture for so long that your body is stiff when you finally move. You circle the tent to look at each painting, all as beautiful as the first, each unique. Some have faces in them—faces you recognize. When you come to the front, you see a teenage boy sitting at a card table. He looks at you, bored. Your voice is thick when you speak.

¿Este tu arte?

The boy, his expression unchanged, taps a little paper sign taped to the front of the table he sits at. On the paper is a woman’s name. You know it better than you know your own, though it has been years since you’ve spoken it.

¿Dónde está?

She’s not here, the boy says. No está aquí. En su galería de arte.

You look deep into his eyes. They are your own, not only because you have come from the same place. He stares back.

Do I know you? ¿Quién eres?

You shake your head. No. Soy un extraño para ti. You walk away with the words pulsing in your ears like waves: I am a stranger.

Six of Cups

 

Katherine L.P. King is a horror writer from California. In 2016, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. Her short fiction has been published in HelloHorror, Coffin Bell, Exoplanet Magazine, Aphotic Realm, and The Sirens Call. When not writing or working at her day job, she can be found whispering secrets to tree blossoms or making candles in her kitchen.

You can find her on Facebook (@katherinelpking).

 [ issue 6: spring 2022 ]

Dinner Time

~ Erica Sage

Every day was dinner for Janice Godspeed.

Every damn day.

“John,” she called.

“Mary,” she called.

And the children raced to the table, insatiable.

The plates lay ready at their places. Her husband, fork poised in the air, waited at his seat.

The children grabbed their forks, hands in fists, prongs to the ceiling. All eyes were on Janice, heads tipped back and ready. Their eyes big and ready. Lips moist and ready. Tip of the tongue, ready.

Janice went to the garage for the tool box. She carried it to the dining room and set it on the floor next to the table.

“How was school today?” she asked as she lay her napkin across her lap.

“Stupid,” John said.

“Boring,” Mary said.

The children leaned toward their mother, eager for dinner.

“And how was work?” Janice asked her husband Gary.

“Marty said he’ll stop by,” he answered instead. Janice’s brother always stopped by for dinner.

Janice leaned down to the toolbox next to her chair, unclicked the hinged, and took out the heavy sheers. She held her hair taut with her left hand, and positioned the sheers against her scalp with her right hand. The blades cut through in one effort. She placed the chunk of hair on John’s plate. His fork dove in, lifted the strands, and he spun the strands around the prongs. He didn’t wait for his sister before he took it into his mouth. Janice did the same with the hair on the right side of her head. This went to Mary. The hair at the back, which she held taut above her head in order to reach it with the sheers, went to her husband.

Dinner was a bit later tonight. Her family was famished. They shoved strands into their mouths.

“You need to chew your food,” Janice said.

The children looked up.

“Oh, gawd,” they said, disgusted.

This got her husband’s attention. “Jan, baby. It makes it really hard to eat when we’ve got to look at you.”

She’d heard this before. She set the sheers on the table, went to the closet, and grabbed a scarf to put over her nearly bald scalp.

Scarf tied under her chin, she picked up the sheers. She used them to cut her fingernails, and she put the nails in three teacups. She added her toenails too. She gave them each a cup.

“That’s not so bad,” her husband said, looking at the nails, not her hands.

The doorbell rang.

The door opened before she had a chance to stand.

Marty. He nodded brusquely and shut the door behind him. He dragged a chair from the kitchen, took a place between the children.

“Uncle Marty!” they cheered.

Janice sighed. She leaned over the tool box, replacing the sheers. She took out a butcher knife.

She leaned back in her chair and placed her foot in front of her brother. He was too busy sneaking her nails out of the children’s teacups to notice.

“Can you help at least?” Janice said.

Marty took the knife. “Can you hold still at least?”

“I haven’t moved an inch.”

Marty lifted his arm up above his head and came down hard. Her foot rolled on its side and fell off the table.

“Gawd, mom,” the children said.

“Do you have to do that at the table?” her husband asked, mouth open in disgust, a fingernail stuck in the gap between his front teeth.

“There isn’t any silverware,” Marty said.

Janice stood. She hopped on her one foot toward the kitchen, lost her balance, grabbed hold of the wall. She hopped again, rested on the back of a couch. Hopped again toward the silverware drawer, caught herself on the counter.

“Mom!” John called.

“Mom!” Mary called.

Of course they were still hungry. Janice knew that hair and nails would never be enough. “One moment, please.”

The telephone rang.

Janice hopped toward the phone, silverware in hand.

The phone rang again.

Janice hopped.

“Jeezus Christ,” her husband said. “I’ll get it.” He shoved his chair back, stood, and snatched the phone off the receiver. “Hello?” he barked. “Oh. Hey, Sherry,” said Gary, ever so sweet.

Janice, finally returned to the table, handed the silverware and napkin to her brother.

Her husband continued, “Yeah. Always. Of course.” He placed the phone on the receiver. “Your mom is on her way.”

“Grandma!” The children cheered.

“You better get something on the table before she gets here,” Marty said, as he used his steak knife to cut off the big toe.

“Is my father coming?” Janice asked Gary.

“She didn’t mention it, but you know he always shows up sooner or later.”

That was true.

Janice stood and made her ungainly way back to the kitchen for more silverware and plates.

“Kids, help your mom,” Gary said.

But no one moved. They nibbled at the nails and watched Uncle Marty cut each toe off and pop them into his mouth. Janice brought the silverware in one trip, the plates in a second.

“Can you just give me one piece, Uncle Marty?” John asked. “You never share.”

That was also true. So, by the time Janice fell back into her seat at the table, the kids were glaring at her.

She kept the butcher knife on the table. She’d need it later, and probably Marty would too when he had eaten all the toes.

Janice took out the bone saw. She lifted her dress to her hips and tucked it under her rump.  She positioned the saw at a diagonal below her pubic bone. She started sawing. The blade dragged across the skin, pulled at the tendons. The bone was unyielding. She adjusted her angle. She was sweating with the effort. Perhaps the blade wasn’t sharp enough.

Her husband coughed. “You’re gonna need the electric saw,” he said, not looking at her, but at one of her hairs he’d pulled out of his throat.

She placed her one foot on the floor, away from the blood that would no doubt send her slipping to the floor, and braced herself against the table. Once up, she hopped back to the kitchen, using the same route as before. Her leg, not fully attached now, swung awkwardly with each bounce. Finally in the garage, she found the electric saw. She was slow returning to the table. Though, with mouths full for the moment, her family hadn’t seemed to notice her absence.

Janice plugged the saw into the outlet nearest her chair. She clicked the switch, and it roared to life. The kids started and plugged their ears.

“Do you have to be so loud?” they shouted at her.

Janice put the saw in the wound, pressed it against the bone. It shifted and bounced. “I think the blade is pinched,” she said. The family shook their heads at her. “I think it’s pinched!” she shouted.

Her husband shrugged and leaned back, picking at his teeth. With her left hand, she pushed on her knee to bend back the bone, to give the blade some room to cut through. Her leg, finally loose, lobbed to its side and hit the floor with a thud.

A spatter of blood hit her daughter’s shoe. Indignant, Mary gaped at her mother. Her brother handed her a napkin.

Janice bent down and picked up the leg, set it on the table. She stood, leaned against the table with her right hip, and positioned the saw just above the knee. As the saw whirred, she pushed until the leg fell in two large parts. She lay the thigh on her son’s plate, her calf on her daughter’s.

“I don’t want the part by her butt,” John said.

“I don’t want the part by her foot,” Mary said.

The doorbell rang, and the door opened. Her mother came in. “You didn’t bother to wait?” she said to her daughter.

“I’ll get you a chair, Ma,” Marty offered, his mouth full of meat, Janice’s heal in his hand.

“I’d appreciate that,” she said, glaring at Janice.

Janice picked up the butcher knife. She placed her left hand, palm flat on the table where her plate should be. She chopped off her left hand, and set it on Mary’s plate. She moved her calf to her mother.

“I’ll share this with your father when he gets here,” her mother said, reaching for a knife and fork.

The doorbell rang again.

Gary looked to Janice.

Janice shrugged. She simply couldn’t get up at this point.

Gary resigned to opening the door himself. But it wasn’t Janice’s father, as expected. It was their neighbor, Mrs. Greely, who lost her husband the year before to cancer.

“I don’t mean to be a bother, but I saw you were hosting others, so I just thought I’d stop by for a family meal.”

Janice steadied her elbow on the table and chopped her left arm just below the joint. She wrapped the freshly bleeding nub in a paper towel, and handed it to Mrs. Greely. The elderly woman took a bite without hesitation, wiping the blood off her mouth with the back of her hand.

“There’s a lot of blood on that one,” John said.

“Gross,” Mary said.

The front door opened, no doorbell or knock, and Janice’s father came in. He didn’t shut the door behind him. He carried a chair from the kitchen and sat down next to his wife. Janice eyed her mother’s plate. She had in fact not saved anything for her father. Janice cut her arm off at the shoulder, picked it up off the floor where it had landed, and passed it to her father, who took it in two hands. Her father looked around for a larger plate and sighed when there wasn’t one to be found.

Janice leaned back in her seat for a moment, wiping her one hand on her dress.

Everyone at the table chewed their meat, smiled at each other, shared bites of the sweet parts, traded favorites for favorites.

Footsteps coming up the porch caught Janice’s attention. Her father hadn’t shut the door, and she’d forgotten to do it (even if she could). She needed to remember to shut it. Really, to lock it.

A man stood at the threshold. Janice recognized him as the homeless man that lingered at the gas station. Behind him came Marty’s ex-wife. Behind her was John’s best friend’s mother. The three walked in, and no one shut the door behind them.

Gary chewed his food, unconcerned about the door.

Janice cut off her right foot.

The conversation at the table was lively. Where was the homeless man from originally? Marty’s ex-wife had gotten a new job. John’s best friend’s mother was reading a delightful book for her book club.

She started the saw, and she couldn’t hear if the discussion continued.

Janice’s right leg rolled to the floor. She sawed it at the knee, and put the hunks on the table. Gary stood and carved the leg chunks into smaller pieces, serving each of them in kind. John held the thigh to his mouth, plenty of meat left, so held up his hand when his dad offered him a slice of calf.

The pastor of their church knocked on the door frame as he made his way in and to the table. “You have some of that to go, I imagine.”

A woman had followed him in and now stood by his side.

Noticing her, he said, “Welcome, I’m Pastor Hayden.” He reached out his hand.

“Crystal,” the woman said, politely enough, keeping her own hands on her purse strap. She turned to Janice. “Truly, you’re the most selfish woman I know. Here I am again, and you’ve got nothing left.” She swept her hands through the air. “Nothing.”

Janice looked down at her pelvis, legs gone. Left arm gone.

“Jan,” Gary said, mouth full. “You gonna say something to this broad?”

Janice only had her right hand and arm. She needed those to serve dinner.

“You always have an excuse,” Crystal continued. “No one can count on you.”

Janice eyed her family. They didn’t nod or agree, but neither did they protest. They just ate.

Janice opened the toolbox drawer and took out the filet knife her husband used to clean the trout. Both of her ears came off in one slice each.

Her friend snagged an ear from Janice and marched out of the house. The pastor watched her go, then turned back to wait for Janice, his hands on his hips.

Janice put the second ear on the table and used the sheers for her tongue. She scooped out her left eye with a spoon.

Gary took the tongue and eye, picked up the ear, and put them on a paper towel. He grabbed the three left-over toes from the homeless man’s plate for good measure. He balled up the paper towel and handed it to the pastor. The pastor walked out the door and down the porch steps, brushing by another man.

“Knock, knock,” the man said. “Should I leave this here?” He held out a package.

“What’s that?” Gary asked, marching toward the door. “Do I need to sign for this or something?”

“Nope.”

“You wanna stay for dinner?” Gary asked.

Janice tried to catch his eye. There wasn’t enough of her to go around as it was. But thankfully, the delivery man said, “I see you’ve got a house full. Thanks though.” He waved to the guests around the table and headed down the porch steps.

“I wonder what the hell this is,” Gary said as he returned to the table. He grabbed his steak knife and stabbed through the packaging tape, slicing it cleanly from one side of the box to the next. “I don’t remember ordering anything.” He ripped open the cardboard flaps and peered inside. “Well, I’ll be damned, I’d forgotten about this.” He laughed and pulled out a small, white box. He tossed it across the table to Janice. “I got it for your birthday!” He laughed again.

Her birthday had been nine weeks ago.

“What’d you get, Mom?” John asked.

“Yeah, what’d we get you?” Mary asked.

Her family and the other guests waited, grinning.

Janice passed around her gift with the blue print. Scalpels. Disposable, Sterile. #10.

Gary stood up and held the package on his lap wide open for everyone to see. “And I got you ten of ‘em.”

Indeed, Janice saw nine more boxes. One hundred disposable scalpels.

She opened her mouth to speak, but then remembered. She’d already cut out her tongue.

Six of Coins

 

Erica Sage is the author of young adult novel Jacked Up, published by Sky Pony Press. Her adult short stories have been published by Underland Press and Indie It Press. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s spending time with her family, hiking, and gardening.

You can find her in the trees or on Instagram (@erica_sage), Twitter (@erica_sage) , and Facebook (@ericasageauthor).

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]

These Waters

~ M. Shedric Simpson

The hands that drew me up were not the hands that had pushed me down.

“It’s okay,” she said. Her eyes were brown, and her skin was dark, and her fingers wrapped tight around my wrists. “I’ve got you.” She pulled, and I fell onto the rocky shore beside her.

A dull and listless light accosted me, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Anything seemed searingly bright after those silt-clouded depths.

“I’m Asha,” the girl said. “Can you talk?”

I drew a breath and forced out the word. “Yes,” I said, surprised to find it was true. I still felt the memory of water flooding my lungs, like a clenched fist inside my breast. “I think so.” I looked up and she smiled at me.

It was a warm smile, but sad too. It was the smile I’d seen on my mother’s face when she was reminiscing. “Do you remember how you got here?”

A beer bottle skating across the ground. The bright stab of pain on the back of my skull. The world spun before I even understood it was the bottle that had struck me. “I was walking by the river,” I said. “But something happened.”

Hey! Fucker! The words rang in my head. The pickup truck skidded to a halt, and four boys piled out of the bed in the back. A boot crashed into my ribs, and my body curled up like a pillbug’s. Go back to where you came from!

“It’s okay if you don’t remember,” Asha said. She tucked a twist of unruly brown hair behind her ear. “A lot of people don’t.”

But I remembered it too well. The flurry of words and blows that rained down. Shit, look at him bleed! the boy said, but I couldn’t see it, all I could see was the muddy brown sky. I ain’t going to jail for no chink. You better finish what you started.

I felt my hands twisting, and I looked away from Asha, not wanting her to see what was written on my face. Humiliation, rage, and hate formed a knot inside my heart; their threads cut through me like burning steel. “I drowned,” I told her.

“We all did.”

I tried to struggle when they dragged me into the river. I was still fighting when the blonde boy pushed my head beneath the water. But I was too weak. I’d always been smaller than the other boys. Whorls of silt blotted out the sky, and I couldn’t hold my breath any longer.

“All?” I glanced around. We weren’t alone on the shore. Other figures huddled beneath the murky sky. Children, all of them. A few were barely more than infants.

“About a hundred of us, now. There weren’t so many when I came here.” She placed her hand over mine. “If you’re ready, I’ll show you around.”

“I’d like that,” I said. Anything was better than reliving those moments over and over again. I pulled off my right shoe and placed it on the rock. I’d lost the other in the river, and I didn’t think I’d see it again.

I shoved my socks into my pockets as Asha led me away from the shore. The soil was warm beneath my bare feet, as if heated by the sun, though I couldn’t tell if it was night or day. A persistent breeze swept in from the water, cold and metallic and tasting of stone.

“Let’s go up the hill,” she said. “There’s a fire, and you can get a view of the whole island.”

I looked beyond her shoulder at the landscape above. Figures nestled amidst the pale grass that covered the slope. Some slept, curled into tight balls, while others stared out across the water in some long and silent vigil. Few seemed to notice our passage.

The grass was waist-deep and silken to the touch. I found myself yearning to lie down in it as well, but I followed Asha up the well-worn footpath instead. We passed a dwarf tree, leafless and skeletal. Dark bulbous fruit hung from its branches.

Asha grasped one. The tree shivered in protest, but relented. She pressed the fruit into my hand. “You can eat these,” she said. “Actually, there isn’t much else to eat. I tried catching fish once, but they smelled wrong.”

“Wrong?”

She shrugged. “Like they’d died days ago, even though they were still moving. So I just let them go.”

I nodded and held onto the fruit as she turned back to the trail. It felt warm in my hand. “What’s wrong with the children? Why aren’t they playing, or doing anything?”

“They’re waiting,” she said. “Some leave as soon as they get here, but for others . . . It’s been a long time.”

“How long have you been here?”

She glanced down at her feet. I couldn’t see the look on her face, but her voice was ragged when she answered. “I don’t really know anymore.”

I didn’t push her any further. We turned at the switchback and headed up along the ridge. The view opened up around us. The island was made of three low hills, all dressed in the same pale fields, and fringed with jagged black rocks. Across the water to my left and right lay the distant banks of the great river, though I could see nothing of what waited there. Faint points of light drifted across the span between them, crossing always toward my left, against the course of the wind.

The trail cut away from the ridge and into a small hollow near the top of the hill. A group of children huddled around a campfire there. Asha caught my hand and drew me towards them. A boy in a faded tank top stared at me with bright blue eyes. His skin was white and his hair was the color of dust.

“You’re new,” he said.

“My name’s Lee.” My father had spelled my name with the hanzi, but I always pictured it the way my mother had written it.

“I’m Toby,” he said. He looked up at Asha. “One of them is leaving.”

“Where?”

He stood and pointed down the slope. “Over there. He just started walking. Should we do anything?”

“It’s his time,” Asha said. “He has to go.”

She let go of my hand and moved beside Toby. I stepped next to her and gazed down the hill until I saw it too. A boy walking through the waxen field below. He might have been twelve at most; the grass came up halfway up his chest. None of the other children moved to stop him as he walked toward the shore.

“Where is he going?”

“Out there,” Asha said. “One of those boats.”

When she said it, I could see them for what they were. The tiny drifting lights were lanterns, hung from the prows of boats that crossed between the two banks. A lone figure sat in each. “They’re crossing over,” I said. “The souls of the dead.”

“I think so.”

It didn’t surprise me the way I thought it should have. I had died. It stood to reason that the others here had died as well. Some part of me had known it ever since I’d climbed back out of the water. “What about the boy?”

“Watch.”

The boy pulled off his shirt as he reached the shoreline, then waded waist-deep into the water. He dropped the shirt, and the current pulled it downstream. His shoulders trembled, and then he dove. The river devoured him with barely a ripple. A few seconds later it was as if he’d never existed.

“I see him,” Toby said.

I strained against the uneasy light. A flicker of movement pierced the surface—an iridescent shimmer where there should have been a boy. It slid further out into the depths. A jagged fin. The serpentine twist of a coiling tail. Out, and deeper, until I could no longer track it.

We stood in silence for a long minute. The wind that wrapped around the island sent waves through the fields beneath us and painted whitecaps on the water. Toby sucked in a deep breath, and I felt myself do the same, tensing in anticipation.

One of the drifting lights flickered out. The silhouette of the boat vanished.

“He made it,” Toby said. His voice was sad.

“Of course he did,” Asha answered. “You will too, one day. I promise.”

“Mmhmm.”

Asha turned back to the fire, and I did too. We sat down on rocks. The other three children never glanced up, only stared into the flames with the ruminative gaze of ancient pyromancers.

“What happened out there?” I asked. “What was that boat?”

“He found the person who’d drowned him,” Asha said. “And carried them to the depths, so now they’ll never cross over. He’ll feast on their flesh for eternity.”

My chest tightened. “Is that all we’re here for? Just waiting—just waiting for that?”

“To set things right. To punish the ones who murdered us,” she said. “That’s what we’re waiting for.”

I still held the fruit in my hands, and I tore it open to focus on something else. The flesh inside was white, and filled with pockets of glistening black seeds. Like a pomegranate in monochrome. I slid one of the seeds past my lips and held it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth until it disintegrated. It was sweet, almost too sweet at first, but it drew my mind away from the taut wires inside my breast.

“Can I get some wood for the fire?” I asked Asha at last.

“It just burns,” she said. “It always has. I think it’s not really a fire. Just—the memory of a fire.”

I nodded, though I didn’t understand. I itched for something to do. I was like my father in that way. His hands had never been idle. I still remembered the grass stains on his fingers when he’d grabbed me and lifted me up to the sky.

My father had come with the factory, but when the factory moved away, he’d stayed for me and my mother. There were no jobs for a foreign engineer in town, so he took what work he could find. He trimmed hedges and fixed motors. He made sure there was always food on the table and new shirts in my closet. If there was ever any despair inside his heart, he channeled it into his work and never let it show. Not even on the day he died. I still remember Mrs. Siegel shouting at him from her porch when he collapsed in the middle of her yard. He kept trying to stand up and push the mower, even after his heart had stopped.

I swallowed another pomegranate seed and looked at Asha. “So there’s nothing to do? No work?”

Her eyes burned. “This is our work. Keeping watch. Waiting for our time.”

“Who are you waiting for, then?”

Her mouth twisted. “I don’t know. I don’t remember much of what came before this. Just glimpses here and there. Flames and darkness. Water, like ice inside my lungs. Someone calling my name.”

I shook my head. “If you don’t know who you’re waiting for, how will you know when they cross?”

“Everyone knows. They always do,” she said. “Whoever did this—” She pulled the collar of her dress to the side, and I saw the puckered scar beneath her clavicle. “I’ll know when they come.”

I knew I was asking the wrong questions, but it was too late to stop. “If you don’t even know who it was, then why not let it go? Just walk away?”

“Don’t you think people have tried? We can’t just leave.” She glared at me. “There’s a reason that we’re here.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but she stood up and turned away. “I’m going for a walk.”

“I’m sorry,” I called after her, but she didn’t respond. There was only the faint rustling as her figure parted the pale grasses, and then the cold wind stole even that.

“It’s okay,” Toby said. “She’ll be back.”

The flames whirled. I held out my hands and caught a whisper of warmth, or maybe it was only the memory of warmth.

“I think she’s been here a long time,” he said. “I think it’s hard for her to keep waiting.”

He didn’t look more than six, but I wondered how long he’d lingered here. “I shouldn’t have pushed her.”

Toby wrapped his arms around his knees and shivered. “It’s not really you that she’s mad at. It’s me.”

“Why would she be mad at you?”

He frowned. “Because I’m leaving soon, and she’ll still be here.”

I saw the way his legs shook, just like the shoulders of the boy who’d walked into the river. I saw his eyes, wide and darting. “You can feel it,” I said.

“But I don’t want to.”

“It’s nothing to be scared of. Asha said it’s what we’re here for.”

“But she didn’t mean to do it. I know she didn’t. She was just upset.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mom. She would have come back for me, if the car hadn’t fallen in the river. I know she would have.” He looked up at me with eyes that shone desperately. “I don’t want to hurt her.”

“Then don’t,” I said. “Don’t go.” I felt sick to my stomach.

“But you said it too. It’s why we’re here. We have to go.”

“I was wrong. Go somewhere else. Anywhere but here.”

He shook his head. “I can feel it pulling me already.”

“I’m sorry.” The words weren’t enough, but they were all I had.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s just what happens, right? Maybe I don’t have to hurt her. Maybe I can just hold her, like I used to before the river.” He turned his eyes back to the flames. “She was always nice to me, even when she was sad.”

My hands curled into fists and my thoughts twisted against each other. I didn’t know who I hated more. The mother who’d drowned him in the river, or the world that had cast him up on these shores just to torture her. I saw the face of the blonde boy, shoving me beneath the water. The ripples distorted his face. My jaw ached from clenching, or maybe it was just the memory of pain. I forced myself to eat another pomegranate seed, chewing it mechanically. “I’m sure she loved you,” I said.

The flames were silent, without any of the crackle and roar of the school bonfire last month. The quiet made the sky above us feel enormous and heavy. I leaned closer to the fire, watching the embers spiral skyward. I don’t know if I dreamt, or even if I slept, but I know that time passed in that timeless place, and it was only Toby’s restless stirring that brought me back to myself.

His face was taut with worry. I wished I could believe the story he’d told himself, but I knew Asha was right. All of us here had been murdered. There was a reason we were here. “Can’t sleep?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “You?”

I shook my head.

“The fruit helps sometimes. Make it easier to rest.” He glanced over his shoulder at the river. “But Asha won’t eat it anymore.”

“I don’t think I need it either.” I understood her anger; I was wrong to have denied it to her. I wanted to let mine burn, but I hated the feeling that I was being used by this place.

“I wanted to wait until she came back,” Toby said. He hugged his legs against his chest. “Will you come with me instead?”

“Is it time?”

His breaths were quick and shallow. He nodded.

I stood and took his hand. He climbed shakily to his feet. “I’m scared.”

“Everything’s going to be okay,” I said. My mother had told me the same thing, with sad dark eyes, before my father’s funeral. But when we’d gotten home, she’d held me when I cried for hours.

We followed the winding path through the fields of pale grass, until we came to the river’s edge. Toby stepped onto the bare rock and looked up at me. “I don’t want to go.”

I knelt, so that we were eye to eye. “Then stay,” I told him.

He shivered and pulled away from me, but I caught his other hand and held him. He craned his head to look over his shoulder. “It won’t let me.” Panic tugged at his voice. “Help me. Please.”

I pulled him close and wrapped my arms around him. “Of course.” I didn’t have any choice. My mother would have done the same in a heartbeat.

Every muscle in his body pulled taut, and he froze like a panicked deer, until his body erupted in tremors. His flesh turned to ice, so cold that it burned my arms. He uttered a choked sob. “Don’t let me go. Please. Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” I said. “I promise.”

I kept hold of him, but the trembling didn’t pass. He cried out, and his skin peeled away. Glittering scales rippled along his shoulder. Bones twisted unnaturally beneath his tank top. I clutched him against my chest, desperate to stop the change. Spined fins erupted from his shoulder blades. I gasped as they tore through my arms, but I didn’t let go. There were no fins. I felt no pain. It was just the memory of pain.

There were no words to his cries, just a plaintive whimper that went on and on. The uneasy sky whirled overhead. The pale shoulder beneath my cheek was sometimes skin, sometimes scales, and sometimes both at once. His tears soaked the back of my shirt.

I pulled him against me, rocking gently. His breath came in ragged gulps. Slits flared along his neck, then sealed shut again. My mother would have sung to him, but I had my father’s voice, so I just held him until the shaking stopped.

The scales crumbled into shimmering dust, and the wind carried them away. The boy sucked in a lungful of air, then let it out slowly. “She’s gone,” he said. “She’s gone.”

I released him, and he took a timid step back. “She’s gonna be okay,” I said. “You are too.”

Toby slipped his hand inside mine as I stood back up, and we stood and watched the boats crossing in silence. I knew that one of them would call to me, one day. My flesh would writhe, and I would go out to meet the boy that had pressed me under the water. But I remembered my father too, lifting me up as if he were returning a constellation to the sky.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” Asha’s voice rang out behind me.

I realized that my hand was empty. I turned, but there was no sign of Toby. I hoped that wherever he’d gone was somewhere better than what this place had meant for him. “It was what he wanted,” I said.

Asha stood at the edge of the field, her mouth drawn into an angry slash. There were other children too. Some looked on with horror, others wide-eyed with wonder.

She shook her head. “That wasn’t right.”

I took a deep breath. I held the air inside of me, dark and metallic and tasting of stone. “Maybe that’s for each of us to decide.” I peeled off my shirt and dropped it on the black rocks. The cold wind wrapped around my body. “Maybe there’s a reason we’re here, but I have to believe that there’s something more.” I turned away, feeling Asha’s accusing eyes upon me. “I don’t know what’s waiting over there, but I’m going to find out.”

I waded out into the river. Gravel shifted beneath my feet, and I fought for balance. Waves crashed around my waist, pushing me toward the shore. For every step I took, the river only cast me further back. There was a weight inside of me—a knot that hung like an anchor from my heart. The image of the boy who’d held me under. Like a sickly jewel, it gleamed in my mind. Full of hate and heavier than anything. But I didn’t need it anymore. It belonged to this place, and I did not. I cut the threads that bound it one at a time, all the shame and hurt and bitterness, until the current carried it away.

I felt my father’s hands lifting me up. My mother’s hands wrapped around me. Those were the hands that mattered. Boats drifted like fireflies in the distance, drawn always toward that distant shore. Like the promise of daybreak, I would reach it too.

The water embraced me, and I swam.

 

M. Shedric Simpson is the familiar of a small black cat. They studied art in Baltimore, MD, before moving to Seattle to live between the mountains and the sea. They spend their free time crafting stories and other small things.

They can be found online at shedric.com or on Twitter (@inkspiral).

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]

As Big as a Whale

~ Avra Margariti

1

The astronomer’s second wife called her husband Darling and Dearest. Their boy—three and a half vibrant years, two dimples, one missing front tooth—called him Father. The gargantuan whale circling their galactic observation tower expels echolocation groans across starlit dark matter, splashing with languid intent over the astronomer’s sonogram sensors. Through the lens of his telescope, her sight etches itself in silver thread onto his retinas. The whale doesn’t acknowledge the astronomer. He is but a cosmic speck on her back that has borne millennia of creation and destruction.

Ever since the marble orrery which contained the astronomer’s second wife and son was swallowed by the whale, nobody calls the astronomer anything in his empty tower amidst the half-known universe.

He’s called the whale his nemesis long before that.

2

The whale isn’t gray or black or even white. She swims through deep space and shadow matter, a rainbowed shimmer clinging to her thick skin, like nacre or the underside of Jupiter’s rings.

The astronomer holes himself up in his highest tower, surrounded by astrolabes and vellum scrolls. The observatory—resembling a black-stone keep—is held aloft through an esoteric blend of science and alchemy. His old laboratory in the west wing lies in shambles, the reinforced glass shattered, half of his instruments obliterated under the whale’s menace. Delirious, he contorts his spine over his new journals, scribbles of squid ink only he can read, while his tea grows death-cold and gibbous moons of mold sprout from his toast.

Hypothesis: The whale is the keeper of all the secrets of the universe.

He turns a page and watches his pen wobble. It’s a wicked world in all meridians. He doesn’t remember writing this.

A bellow sounds from outside, deep and velvet matte, high-pitched and silky silver. The bellow encompasses everything the universe has to offer. The whale does, too. The astronomer often wonders about what he’d find if he could dissect her. Just a tiny, tender piece. He bruises his eyes against his telescope, catching flicks of the whale’s dorsal fin, her flippers, her tail flukes. They leave comet trails of stardust behind them. Tainting the sky, taunting him forevermore.

Blindly, the astronomer extends a hand to his left, expecting the orrery’s smooth planets within easy reach, to stroke and whisper to them, soon, soon the whale will be captured and you shall be free.

But the marble orrery is gone, last he saw it caught between the needle-sharp, turret-sized teeth of the whale. The astronomer’s hand knocks his tea over.

– 3

The astronomer is also an astrophant: someone who reveals the sacred secrets of stars. He shoots tridents and harpoons from his observation deck. Sixth-magnitude stars are the dimmest, therefore easiest to catch. He reels them in, spreads them out under his scalpel and microscope. His harpoon gun, however, is far too small and flimsy for his great, cosmic archenemy. He attempts to order a bigger weapon from the space pirates that roam this part of the galaxy. When he cannot strike a deal—when even the back-stabbing mercenaries blanch at the thought of crossing the whale—the astronomer decides to build his own device.

Yet his meticulous notes and designs, his formulas and measurements, always end up ink-smudged or vanished altogether come morning. Sometimes he suspects his wife and son, although he’s never caught them in the act. Other times, he thinks they’d never disobey him. Not like his first, wilful wife, eaten by the whale some years ago. Perhaps this floating observatory is haunted by ghosts after all.

– 2

The whale dances, but sings also. He’s recorded the frequency of the wavelengths but has had no luck decoding them. At least not when the song is directed toward the abstract vastness of the cosmos. When the astronomer’s wife brings his lunch to his laboratory, the whale’s song shifts, the sonogram spiking. The second wife pauses, plate-laden tray held aloft, as the echolocation music morphs into a sea shanty. Certain passages almost resemble a mating call. When the astronomer’s son visits his father for a goodnight kiss on his sweaty, salty forehead, the song mellows into a lullaby.

The second wife often sleeps in the boy’s bed, cradling him in dreams, nautili in their shells. Alone in his tower, the astronomer sends recordings of himself, like harpoons, out into the universe. He tries to communicate with the whale that stole his first wife, but her response resounds with flat apathy rather than its customary polyphony. If there are traces of anger woven through the rumbling notes, it’s the type of anger a person experiences toward an incessantly buzzing mosquito.

The astronomer detests this. He can take being hated, but he cannot abide being ignored.

3

Dust gathers over every surface. The astronomer places it under his microscope to ascertain it’s not made of the stars swirling outside his window, or ghosts. Then again, everything is stars. Everywhere he looks are ghosts.

Dishes pile in the sink. The stone dulls, the tower falls into disrepair. When not a single crumb remains, the astronomer is forced to call the intergalactic delivery company for supplies. He stands in the doorway, oxygen mask secured haphazardly over his face, when his order arrives. He prefers when it’s a little robot bringing the groceries. The flesh-and-bone delivery boy cannot hide his surprise at the sight of the astronomer: his ink-stained robe and weeks-old facial hair, the dark circles and glazed over eyes.

“Doctor,” the boy says, collecting himself. “I trust your wife and son are well?”

“Hmm?” The astronomer peers over the boy’s shoulders, but the whale is gone. Only the boy’s enchanted velocipede hovers obediently behind him. “Oh, them. The whale got them.”

Unlike the last times anyone inquired after his wife and son, the astronomer doesn’t have to lie.

The delivery boy’s eyes widen to the size of moons behind his mask. “Doctor! Should I talk to the men at the fuel station? Arrange a hunt?”

The astronomer shuts the door in the boy’s slack face. “No need. The whale is mine.”

-1

The second wife isn’t as young or pretty as the first, but she’s good at what she does. As she cleans the observatory to a black-diamond shine and washes their clothes and linens, she sings sea shanties of old. While hearty stews simmer on the stove, she recites poetry, likening the observatory to a lighthouse and, more and more lately, a floating prison. She walks through the halls like an echo, wielding her feather duster as a maestro’s baton. Sometimes she pauses, head tilted, listening to strains of ghosts. She always picks the sweetest songs and saddest poems when the ghosts are listening.

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet.

The astronomer bristles and blazes like an imploding star. This was his first wife’s favorite poem. “Where did you find it?” he demands, but his second wife only blinks. The astronomer tears the tower apart but finds no book of poetry. From then on, he prohibits songs and poems of any kind.

The astronomer’s son has never seen the sunlight. Day and night, the world outside remains unchanging in its blackness. It might be cruel raising him here, but the astronomer believes you cannot miss what you’ve never known. The boy sprints up and down the spiral staircases, banging sticks and toys against frigid stone. When his toys are taken away, he takes to slamming himself against the walls. His arms and legs at first, then his head. Each heavy thud, each string of toddler talk, drives migrainous holes deeper into the astronomer’s skull as he hunches over his formulas. He needs to know things, and to know things he needs to study the whale, and to study the whale he needs to capture it, and his first wife with it. But to do all that, he needs silence above all.

“I’m working,” he shouts. “Make him stop, or I’ll do it.”

But even when the wife and son fall quiet, a paranoid part of him thinks they’re still communicating. It’s the way stars talk to one another, on nearly untraceable wavelengths. Echolocation, the whale’s cosmic language he has yet to decipher.

The astronomer leaves his laboratory in a flurry of white robes. Throbbing headache and unfurling fury, he searches the tower for his wife and their undisciplined son. He finds her at their bedroom’s window, body locked in a swaying dance, eyes fogged over. Her hands roam hypnotic over her own body, mouth opening and closing in soundless motifs. The whale is outside, swimming tight circles, opening and closing her great maws.

“Do you talk to her?” the astronomer asks, clutching his wife’s upper arms with bruising strength. “What lies is she spewing?”

“Let me go,” his second wife says.

He doesn’t.

Somewhere in the distance, his son wails and bellows.

-4

The astronomer’s first wife was young and beautiful, and eaten by the whale. That’s what he told his second wife, and what she in turn told their son.

The astronomer lies, yet the astronomer remembers.

How the first wife walked out of the the tower and into the universe without an oxygen mask, her unshod feet barely touching the floor, her pearly mouth shaping the familiar lines of an old poem.

I have sworn, like Tycho Brahe, that a greater man may reap.

The astronomer watched from his laboratory, too late to run, too curious to stop her.

The first wife—so young, so beautiful—moved like a ghost in her white, gauzy gown woven with starlight. It billowed out around her calves, stretching taut over her half-moon belly growing fuller by the day. She walked down the boardwalk of the floating keep, while the whale’s perennial dance changed from a solo to a pas-de-deux. At the end of the boardwalk the whale awaited; its mouth wide open, teeth glittering with secrets. The first wife curtsied before stepping so gracefully, so eagerly, into the mouth of the whale.

0

The astronomer’s second wife cried Darling, no, Dearest, please when he discovered the alchemy that would trap her inside the marble orrery. His son wailed fatherfatherfather when he joined his mother in their own miniature Venus, set like a a paperweight upon the astronomer’s desk.

“You’ll be safe here,” the astronomer tells them, stroking the curved glass as they pound against it from the inside. “Away from the whale.”

They’ll be safe and protected, and he will be free of nuisance and distraction, left to do his sacred work undisturbed.

When the whale swims to his laboratory’s window like a silent, hulking ship, the astronomer is too absorbed in his research to notice. He looks up in time to see her giant tail slam against the glass magicked to withstand the pressure of outer space. It smashes into a thousand tiny pieces. The astronomer doesn’t have time to reach for a mask or a harpoon. He’s never seen the whale without glass separating them. Her eye is bigger than a black hole. It brings all the fears of humanity to the surface. I’ve been here before you, it says, and I will remain after you’re nothing but stardust, and after the dust eats itself, regurgitating a new universe.

The astronomer gasps from the lack of oxygen and the plethora of knowledge. When the whale opens her mouth to snatch the marble Venus containing the astronomer’s wife and son, he can do nothing but scream. The whale cradles the marble carefully between her rictus smile. Then, she’s gone.

The astronomer remains in the glass wreckage for a long while, puffing into an oxygen mask, intoxicated by the eldritch encounter and his own fury.

4

The astronomer sits at his desk, writing, despairing. All his experiments fail, all his hypotheses prove weak and foolish. The view is dim through his magnifying glass, the ink bleeds illegible through his parchments. He’s heard of planets where people’s sins manifest as demons, stuck like humps on their owners’ backs, bending them in half with the weight of guilt. A poet might have claimed the whale is one such manifestation. The astronomer never did like poetry.

Even stronger than the guilt is the righteous anger. Anger that his wife and son will learn everything the whale hid—all the secrets of the universe revealed from the inside out—and he won’t. He pictures his first and second wife meeting in the belly of the beast. They orbit each other in mistrust at first, then gravitate closer and closer together. They fall in love, familiar ghosts engaged in a long-awaited dance. They paint constellations against the whale’s walls, figures and formulas the astronomer can never dream of. The two former wives raise his children together, all four of them speaking in echolocation, the language of whales and stars.

Celestial bodies dance outside his window, and the whale does too. The astronomer sleeps in his dusty bed, with his dirty clothes and empty stomach. He sleeps, and he fears the starlit night.

Two of Wands

 

Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Baffling Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fictions.

You can find Avra on Twitter @avramargariti.

 [ issue 5 : winter 2022 ]

New Caldwell Metropolitan Guard Cold Case Files on the Disappearance of Oliver Wolsey

~ John Klima

Item List

• Hand-copied pages from Constable Marcus Gurney’s journal

• Transcriptions of interviews conducted by Metropolitan Guard with various individuals:

– Graham Douglas

– Edgar Shipman

– Roger Blokeman

– [REDACTED]

– Ignatius Howlett

• Meeting minutes from New Caldwell Tarot and Magic Guilds wherein discussion of Oliver Wolsey occurred:

– Redhands (Health and Medicine Tarot Guild)

– Speakers for the Decayed (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

• Partial tarot deck of mixed provenance

• Longshoreman’s hook, bloody (stored in paper as per instruction from the Blood Mage branch of the Metropolitan Guard)

*

Health and Medicine Tarot Guild Meeting
Monday, August 3rd, 1874

Members in Attendance
[REDACTED] Chair
[REDACTED] Vice-Chair
[REDACTED] Secretary
[REDACTED] Treasurer
[REDACTED] Chair-Elect
[REDACTED] Past Chair
[REDACTED] Director
[REDACTED] Director
[REDACTED] Director

Members Not in Attendance

[REDACTED] Director
[REDACTED] Director
[REDACTED] Director
[REDACTED] Director

Guests in Attendance

Oliver Wolsey

Staff in Attendance

Nym Vernon
Reynaldo Stafford
Edgar Cromwell

1. Call to Order

Chair called meeting to order at six o’clock in the evening of the third of August, 1874.

2. Approval of Agenda

ON A MOTION MADE by [REDACTED], SECONDED by [REDACTED] and CARRIED, the agenda was approved as circulated.

3. Conflict of Interest

Director [REDACTED] recuses himself from discussion of NEW BUSINESS due to a CONFLICT OF INTEREST.

4. Approval of Previous Minutes

ON A MOTION DULY MADE by [REDACTED]SECONDED by [REDACTED] and CARRIED the draft minutes of the Guild’s meeting of the second of July were approved as presented.

5. Old Business

a. Redhands Name

[REDACTED] opened discussion on the colloquial name of the Guild—‘Redhands’—which he disdains. [REDACTED] asked the attending board for ideas of how to stop the pernicious name from the public’s tongues.

[REDACTED] stated that there was no way to control the public and since ‘Redhands’ was spoken often under auspices of fear, that the Guild should embrace it.

Followed a moment of shouting by several Guild members including [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and [REDACTED] among others. Chair banged the gavel until the shouting wore down. He declared this business closed.

Chair noted this was the sixteenth consecutive meeting that [REDACTED] had brought this item to the agenda with no solution and no movement towards change. It was declared to be un-agendable in the future.

b. Membership

[REDACTED] reported that after reviewing membership files after last meeting there was no need to seek out new members. [REDACTED] apologized for wasting Oliver Wolsey’s time as his petition for membership would not be brought to the Guild at this time.

6. New Business

a. Printing Press

[REDACTED] MADE A MOTION to stop using The Elementary Pot printing house and purchase a printing press for the Guild to create tarot cards in private. The MOTION was SECONDED by [REDACTED] and CARRIED via ROLL CALL VOTE.

b. Card Manufacture

[REDACTED] made a subsequent MOTION that [REDACTED], while recused from discussion, be put in charge of purchasing the printing press and then card manufacture given his experience in the field. SECONDED by [REDACTED] and CARRIED via ROLL CALL VOTE.

7. Committee Reports

None

8. Staff Reports

Nym Vernon reported that the staff had found a solution for the rat problem in the Guild’s kitchens, namely obtaining several cats. Vernon also reported that construction had finished on the upstairs residences and after a coat of paint the Guild officers could move in.

Edgar Cromwell reported that their current launderer had switched soaps and was causing their robes to become pink rather than retaining their deep scarlet. The Chair gave permission to seek a new launderer.

9. Adjournment

ON A MOTION MADE by [REDACTED], SECONDED by [REDACTED] and CARRIED, the meeting was adjourned at nine o’clock.

*

Hand-copied transcript of Constable Marcus Gurney’s journal, entry dated August 6th

Thinking back on last night I will endeavor to put my thoughts into a reasonable facsimile of sense and order.

Not long into my beat around the Nine Points a pair of youths caught my attention and brought me down to the nearby docks. The young men directed me to where a crowd gathered near Pier Four. My constable’s badge and dragon’s ash truncheon opened a path for me to the center of the assembled mass of humanity.

I could immediately see what had transformed their curiosity into general unruliness. A dark-skinned man lay on the pier in a growing pool of blood, a bloody longshoreman’s hook on the wooden pier beside him.

The crowd seemed both fearful and disdainful of this man. I recognized him as a soldier under my commend from my days in the Royal Navy and moved in close to see what I could do.

I called him by name, James, and cradled his head in my lap, shocking many in the crowd. My memory was of a good sailor, strong swimmer, and fearless soldier.

James recognized me and grabbed my coat forcibly. He told me I had to find the boy, had to avenge this terrible act of bodily harm. I assured James that I would do everything in my power to bring about justice. There was little that could be done to save his life. The most I could do was make him comfortable.

James said that the scurrilous scamp stole from him. That they had agreed upon a price for the scrimshaw and the young man did not have enough money. The scrimshaw had not been easy to obtain and James wanted true value for his efforts.

James was attacked from behind by the honorless youth and gutted like some bottom feeder. Then the youth took the scrimshaw from him and ran.

James repeated this story several times as the Metropolitan Guard Crime Investigation Squad arrived with their arcane leather portmanteaus to gather evidence and do what they could to solve the crime.

James went still in my arms. He had expired.

Upon seeing James dead, the MGCIS stopped and conferred with each other. Then, they picked up the hook from the pier, stored it in one of their evidence bags, and left the scene.

I found it disgraceful that the MGCIS did nothing more than collect a single piece of evidence and leave without interviewing any of the crowd. All the same, with James expired, the crowd dispersed and went back to their everyday business.

I spent the remainder of my shift finding someone who would take James’ body and ensure that it was interred properly. There was little to no hope of finding family but the least I could do was make sure his body wasn’t left on the piers for the rats.

Upon returning to the station, my sergeant berated me for a full half hour for wasting time on dark scum when I could have been helping good citizens. I disagreed with the assessment of wasted time, but I kept my mouth shut.

*

Partial tarot deck of mixed provenance

Major Arcana 0 – The Fool – missing

Major Arcana I – The Magician – missing

Major Arcana II – Fire (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana III – Water (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana IV – Air (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana V – Earth (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana VI – The Lovers – missing

Major Arcana VII – The Chariot – missing

Major Arcana VIII – Equity (Health and Medicine Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana IX – Philosopher (Health and Medicine Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana X – Wheel of Fortune – cast in bronze and image etched deeply into its surface

Major Arcana XI – Strength – missing

Major Arcana XII – The Hanged Man – missing

Major Arcana XIII – Death – missing

Major Arcana XIV – Temperance – missing

Major Arcana XV – Illness (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana XVI – The Tower – missing

Major Arcana XVII – Blood (Health and Medicine Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana XVIII – The Moon – carved from scrimshaw. When held one can hear crashing waves from the ocean.

Major Arcana XIX – Misery (Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild)

Major Arcana XX – Judgment – image tattooed on skin of unknown mammal, perhaps human, attached to card-sized piece of dragon’s ash.

Major Arcana XXI – The World – missing

Minor Arcana from Communication with the Dead Tarot (Pentacles and Cups; with exceptions noted below, only the Two, Five, Six, and Nine of Pentacles, and the Three, Six, and Eight of Cups were found with this deck)

• Minor Arcana from Battle Guild Tarot (Swords; with exceptions noted below, only the Two of Swords was found with the deck)

• Minor Arcana from Health and Medicine Guild (Wands; with exceptions noted below, only the Three, Five, and Six of Wands were found with this deck)

Noted Exceptions:

• Ace of Pentacles, Ace of Cups, Ace of Swords, and Ace of Wands – cards made of thin marble sheets with mother-of-pearl inlay. The card backs are blank.

•Three of Cups, Six of Wands, Nine of Pentacles, and Nine of Swords – cards made of dried sheets of seaweed with simple ink designs drawn on the front.

• Knave of Pentacles – card made of glass with exquisitely painted card front. The card back has repeating designs of pentacles etched into the glass surface.

• Knave of Cups – card is made of a delicate, thin piece of black shale; one of its corners is slightly crumbled. The card front looks blank. The card is identifiable due to its back having der Schurke der Tassen written on it in chalk.

• Knave of Swords – card scorched as if set aflame; front and back damaged to the point where it is unable to determine the image on the front nor the design on the back.

• Knave of Wands – card is made of dragon’s ash with design burned into the card front. The card back is blank.

*

Interview of Graham Douglas, Captain of The Walpole
(conducted by Inspector Chauncey Gibb)
Friday August 7th, 1874

Chauncey Gibb: Can you tell me how you knew James Gough?

Graham Douglas: Guff? Is that how you pronounce it?

CG: [pause] I believe so.

GD: Well, I learn something new every day. That’s how I stay so young! Always learning!

CG: And how did you know him?

GD: James was a sailor on The Walpole. Good sailor. Had Naval experience.

CG: Was it a problem that the man was dark skinned?

GD: Not for me, sir. Now, I don’t like what you’re implying, that he was mistreated just because of the color of his—

CG: Did his shipmates have issue with his skin color?

GD: No sir. If any did, I’d have them overboard before you can say spit. He was a Navy man! Lots of folks don’t have that type of muster but James did. And I’ll let you know, if he was good enough for His Majesty’s Navy, he’s more than good enough for me!

CG: Was it possible that someone on the crew resented his Naval past, maybe a crew member that couldn’t pass the Naval exams?

[The record states that Graham Douglas paused before shaking his head.]

GD: Look, I’m not as much a fool as I appear. I’m sure there were men on the ship that had never worked with someone like James, but I tell you, he worked for me for two, three years. If there was problems with the crew, there’s no way he would last that long.

CG: What kind of cargo does The Walpole carry?

GD: Nothing unusual. We start up the coast to the north, picking up lumber, whales, furs . . . the type of things you can’t get down here. We head south, drop some cargo off, pick some up—textiles, wheat, corn, and the like—and then head further south. At the end we drop off the last of cargo from the north, some from around here, and pick up cotton, sugar, and such. Then we head back up coast making stops along the way. By the time we’re back north again The Walpole is empty and sitting high in the water.

CG: No slaves or firearms?

GD: No sir. No illegal cargo. There’s too much money to make with legitimate work.

CG: What do you know about Oliver Wolsey?

GD: That bastard. Killed one of my best sailors. I’d put a hook to him were he in front of me! Is he a big bloke?

CG: What? No, Wolsey is a youth. Barely over five feet tall.

GD: Huh. James was a big man. Tall for sure, I’m surprised Wolsey got the best of him.

CG: From what we can tell, Wolsey surprised him from behind. So you say you never met Wolsey?

GD: No. I wouldn’t know the man if he was you.

CG: Any idea what Gough and he would have in common?

GD: James was a friend to the whalers up north. Did a tidy side business selling carved whale bone . . . scrimshaw? I suspect that bastard wanted some of that and James stood his ground on his price.

CG: You didn’t care that one of your employees worked on the side?

GD: I don’t allow sailors to do trade on The Walpole and they can’t be looking to make an extra coin if there’s still work to do. If their work is done, their time is their business. They know my work is good so they’ll be back in the morning.

CG: If you think of anything else, please contact us.

GD: I will but don’t sit up waiting for me.

*

Interview of Edgar Shipman, longshoreman in New Caldwell Seaport, member of The Hive union
(conducted by Inspector Chauncey Gibb)
Friday August 7th, 1874

Chauncey Gibb: Can you tell me how you knew James Gough?

Edgar Shipman: He’s that darkskin that got killed the other night?

CG: He was. Yes.

ES: I knew of him. We didn’t trade words.

CG: What about scrimshaw?

ES: I wouldn’t touch anything from him if it came with a year’s supply of golden pussy.

CG: Are you saying you did not like the man?

ES: I’m saying I don’t know him. And I have no time for his type. The only way we’d talk is if he was in my way to the pub.

CG: So you wouldn’t quarrel with the man?

ES: I don’t start stuff. If he came at me, he should be prepared for a fight.

CG: From what I hear, the Hive is barely more than a gang of thugs ready to fight at the merest provocation. You’re telling me someone like you who has a severe dislike of darkskinned people and is a proud member of the Hive wouldn’t go out of your way to create problems for James Gough?

ES: [silent for a long time] We’ve been told to leave The Walpole and its crew alone. I won’t say no more about it and that’s more than you should hear.

CG: Did you know Oliver Wolsey?

ES: Agh. That little blighter was under everyone’s feet. Always with the questions about the seaport and cargo and how we unload cargo. If you want to know about someone I would go out of my way to fuck with? That Wolsey is one.

CG: Where were you on the night of August 5th?

ES: Don’t know. Drinking or fucking. That’s all I do at night. Eventually I blackout and someone wakes me to come empty some cargo.

CG: So you weren’t in the seaport when Wolsey attacked Gough?

ES: I wasn’t on that pier, but I never really leave the seaport. To be honest inspector? I would’ve been just like the rest of the crowd if I was there. Standing and watching. Not helping. There’s no money to be made in being kind to people.

CG: If you think of anything else, please contact us.

ES: Oh, no thank you, inspector.

[The record notes that shipman tore Inspector Gibb’s card in half before departing.]

*

Interview – David Blokeman, proprietor of The Beautiful Lamp
(conducted by Inspector Chauncey Gibb)
Tuesday August 11th, 1874

David Blokeman: Are you here to help me with my claim of insurance?

Chauncey Gibb: Um, no. I’m with the Metropolitan Guard. Can you tell me how you knew Oliver Wolsey?

DB: Is that the name of the asshole that started a fucking fire and swung a fucking giant sword around? I’ve got notches in my joist work deep enough that I’m afraid to sleep upstairs!

CG: So you never met Wolsey before he entered your bar the other morning?

DB: No. Never saw the kid before. I thought about not letting him in but he had coin for a drink and coin wins over better judgment I guess.

CG: He hardly seems old enough to drink.

DB: As far as I know inspector there’s no limit to how young you can be to taste a pint of ale. I’ve made the choice to not have kids of my own and then have to worry about bad choices they make, I’m certainly not going to worry about someone else’s kids’ bad choices.

CG: Did you notice anything unusual about Wolsey?

DB: Like I said, he was young and that always makes me suspicious. Then he kept fiddling with his damn tarot. They always make me nervous. I don’t like Guild folk in my tavern and flashing cards around is one way to get the Guilds sniffing about.

CG: Why not ask him to leave?

DB: He had coin and was taking his sweet damn time finishing his beer. Probably the first time he ever tasted it and couldn’t understand why everyone loves it so much.

CG: When did Constable Gurney arrive?

DB: Probably a few hours after Wolsey. I don’t keep track of everyone but I suspect Gurney comes into The Lamp around eleven every day. He has lunch.

CG: Does he drink on the job?

DB: He has lunch.

CG: Did Gurney mention anything about Wolsey?

DB: Oh aye. We made a deep conversation about the lad. Wondering where his mother was and if we should take him in like a stray cat.

CG: There’s no need for cheek my good man.

DB: Probably not, but that’s what I have to give. Gurney saw him and asked a question or two about him. Unlike me, Gurney always needs to know why.

CG: When did you notice the Redhands?

DB: To be fair, I didn’t. But in a bit, when Gurney heads over to Wolsey’s table, he motions for a round of drinks. I see him looking toward the corner of the room, and that’s when I saw ‘em, but only because I felt like they wanted to be seen. Does that make sense?

CG: Some. What happened next?

DB: You see, my memory is a little fuzzy about that. I’m in back a lot because I’m preparing for the dock workers to come in after the ships are emptied and restocked. I was coming out front when it felt like the whole place is spinning like after the war when we all had too much drink.

CG: The floor was spinning?

DB: Not for real. It just felt like it was. As quickly as I feel it, it stops. I get out front to see what’s happening and before I can round the corner of the bar, I hear shouting.

One of the Redhands is partway out the door but he’s laying on the ground on fire. Wolsey has a great big sword in his hands. Gurney has his truncheon out, but he isn’t getting too close to that blade. The other Redhands is peeling cards off a deck and speaking quietly.

I think about heading right back into the kitchen when there’s a bright flash of light. So bright it near blinded me. I can’t really speak to what happened.

I heard Gurney shouting that Wolsey should put down his sword and back up against the wall. Wolsey was shouting something about not letting the Redhands take him alive. There was a lot of other noise but nothing I could make out.

By the time my eyes cleared up, there was just Gurney in the bar talking to some inspectors. The Redhands were gone. Wolsey was gone.

CG: Thank you. You’ve been very helpful. If you think of anything else, please contact us.

DB: I will. If you see an insurer out and about, send them here.

*

Hand-copied transcript of Constable Marcus Gurney’s journal, entry dated August 11th

I met Oliver Wolsey yesterday, murderer of former Lance Corporal James Gough, and more importantly, someone I considered a friend. At first, I did not know who he was or I would have worked to apprehend him on the spot.

The Sergeant had shared his name out before the constables were released to their beats. I had a name and the vaguest description. He could have been any number of youths I pass on a daily basis.

As it was, I entered The Beautiful Lamp yesterday midday for my standard meal and pint. I noted a youth sitting a table with a mostly full pint glass playing with an unusual deck of cards. Initially I was not aware that they were tarot.

David, the proprietor, already had my pint on the bar and I knew the food would be coming shortly. I liked to get in before the dock workers finished up unloading and loading ships at the seaport. The Lamp got loud and disorderly and I liked a bit of quiet. It also didn’t make sense to spend a lot of time breaking up fights and arguments when it was just men blowing off steam. If I was there as a member of the Metropolitan Guard, it would behoove me to uphold the law which would not endear me to anyone.

I asked James about the young man and he mentioned that the youth was at the front door when he opened up for the day. The youth had coin and the bar was empty. James would chase him out when the dock workers arrived.

I ate my meal—some delicious fried fish and potatoes—but kept an eye on the young man. At that moment it was clear to me that he was working with a tarot deck and not one of the gambling decks James kept behind the bar for the workers.

The young man played a few cards from a Diviners tarot, which was odd as he was not dressed in the Diviners Guild vestments. It varied from guild to guild, but in general the guilds did not like outsiders using their cards.

I went to put more fish in my mouth and almost missed when the next card he placed was from the Battle Tarot Guild. I had never heard of someone blending decks. I decided to have a word with the young man.

I was finishing my pint when he laid out a card carved from scrimshaw. When the card hit the table, it glowed softly. There was no chance that was a coincidence. He fit the description from the Sergeant and the scrimshaw settled it for me: this was my suspect.

I set down my empty glass and readied myself to walk over when he pulled a cream-colored card with a single red handprint on its back and set it into his tableau. What I had taken for a nervous tick of looking towards the door was now clearly the young man keeping an eye on the pair sitting in a dark corner of the tavern.

Their red vestments were so dark I hadn’t noticed them at first, but there were two members of the Health and Medicine Tarot Guild watching the young man.

Known as Redhands, the Health and Medicine Tarot Guild definitely did not allow their cards to be handled by anyone outside their guild. How Oliver came to possess such cards was beyond my imagination.

I knew it was imperative to apprehend Oliver, not just to hold him accountable for the murder of James Gough, but to protect him from the Health and Medicine Tarot Guild. If they got their hands on him, James’ killer would never see justice.

I moved to Oliver’s table and he tried to get me to leave him alone. I appealed to his wellbeing and good judgment to get him out of the tavern safely. Oliver scoffed and said that he could take care of himself.

I took a different tack and said that I didn’t want my favorite tavern getting busted up in whatever was going to happen between him and the guild members in the corner.

Oliver didn’t answer; he just pulled an over-sized card from his deck whose back was covered in elephants and crocodiles. I wasn’t sure which guild those cards were from. Then he smiled at me—the cheek of this youth!—and drew a card that looked like polished bronze and set it in the center of his tableau. A Wheel of Fortune was etched delicately into the card’s front.

When he placed it, it appeared that the cards were floating above, beneath, and in the table. As I watched, the table appeared to revolve slowly and I had to grip its sides to keep from falling out of my chair.

I tried to speak, but my mind was busy trying to keep from sliding away. The entire floor felt like it was tipping slowly and that I was certain to crash down into it before too long.

Oliver swept the cards up and shuffled his deck with a giggle and the room stopped moving.

I had to get this situation under control.

I called him kid and Oliver corrected me with his full name. One of the two Redhands stood and left the tavern quickly. I shouted for him to stop but he kept going.

Oliver shuffled the deck rapidly but I could tell his attention was on the remaining Redhands. I looked over and saw the guild member was shuffling his own deck.

He moved rapidly.

He stood and swung his right hand forward in one motion. A huge flash of light nearly blinded me. I could see indistinct shapes, but nothing more.

As my eyes cleared up, I saw Oliver push himself back from the table, put his hands together, and pulled a long glowing sword from somewhere. A smoldering card fell to the table.

The guild member threw another card at Oliver and he blocked it with his sword and rushed the guild member who stood stock still, clearly not expecting Oliver to be able to fight back.

Neither had been trained to fight as I had. I was between them before either knew I was moving. I met Oliver’s sword with my truncheon which stopped the sword, but it bit into the wood which should not have been possible.

The Redhands threw another card but this one exploded into a thick cloud of smoke when it struck the floor. I was trying to wrest the sword from Oliver’s hands and therefore wasn’t able to stop this guild member either. I could smell burning as the smoke did not clear.

Oliver’s sword hit my truncheon a second time but turned into mist. Because I was pressing so hard against the sword, when it disappeared I toppled to the floor. Before I could regain my feet, Oliver was over me and out the door.

I worked with Blokeman to get the fire out.

My superior insisted that Oliver must have had the sword on him and that I merely missed it. I agreed that he was correct. But we both knew that magic was a thing that happened in New Caldwell even if the official Metropolitan Guard line was to deny its existence. That was absurd as members of all the Mage Unions worked within the Metropolitan Guard departments.

*

Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild Board Meeting
August 13th, 1874

Board Members in Attendance

Ford Xavier (President)
Gregory Fullmore (Vice-President)
Sid Fawns (Secretary)
Roscoe Matson (Treasurer)
Gerald Collins
Ignatius Howlett
Emmet Norman
Richard Purcell
Bryan Potter
Percival Xavier

Board Members Not in Attendance

Elder Cook
Virgil Gleeson
Benedict Smith
Orrin Skidd.

1. Call to Order

Chair called meeting to order at eight o’clock in the evening of the thirteenth of August, 1874.

2. Approval of Agenda

ON A MOTION MADE by Howlett, SECONDED by Potter and CARRIED, the agenda was approved as circulated.

3. Conflict of Interest

None.

4. Approval of Previous Minutes

ON A MOTION DULY MADE by Collins SECONDED by Howlett and CARRIED the draft minutes of the Guild’s meeting of the seventeenth of July were approved as presented.

5. Old Business

a. Membership Dues

Treasurer Matson read off a list of members who still needed to pay their dues. He reminded all those present that the Guild could not run itself as a business and be considered a serious Guild if they did not have the funds owed from members. All members of the Guild were vetted prior to being allowed and as such, the Guild knew that everyone could afford the dues.

President Xavier MADE A MOTION that dues needed to be paid before the next meeting or membership would be revoked. MOTION SECONDED by Howlett and CARRIED in a unanimous vote.

b. Vestments

Treasurer Matson reported that new vestments had arrived from the tailor and were available for all fully paid members.

6. New Business

a. Oliver Wolsey

Ignatius Howlett wanted to bring to the Guild’s attention that there was a young man going about New Caldwell brazenly using cards from multiple Guilds. Howlett had it on good authority that this Wolsey character held multiple Communication with the Dead Tarot cards and thought the board should launch an investigation into how Wolsey obtained the cards.

Purcell MOVED that the board form an investigatory committee which was SECONDED by Howlett and CARRIED in a unanimous vote.

b. Membership Dues Increase

Treasurer Matson indicated that the board should consider raising dues if it was going to continue its push for new members. The Guildhall was a historical building in a prime area, and those costs were not going to go down in the future.

Additionally, the tarot cards were quite expensive to manufacture and since the board was unwilling to change the materials used in card manufacture, those costs had to be covered somewhere.

President Xavier clarified that board was not going to move the Guildhall to a new location as it was a major reason that attracted new members and members of the public looking for its services. President Xavier further explained that it wasn’t just merely being unwilling to change the cards structure, but that they were unable to because changing the materials used to manufacture the cards would render them unusable for the Guild’s activities in communicating with the dead.

President Xavier TABLED discussion on this matter for the next meeting.

7. Committee Reports

MEMBERSHIP COMMITTEE reported that they had ten new members ready for vetting. Treasurer Matson questioned if it was sensible to be increasing membership numbers so rapidly.

President Xavier explained that if the Guild wanted to compete with the Prophets of the Unknown, then increasing its numbers was the only way.

Howlett MADE A MOTION to have the potential candidates vetted and invited to the next meeting. MOTION SECONDED by President Xavier and CARRIED unanimously.

No other committees met since the last meeting.

8. Staff Reports

None.

9. Adjournment

ON A MOTION MADE by Howlett, SECONDED by Purcell and CARRIED, the meeting was adjourned at nine o’clock.

*

Interview of [NAME REDACTED], member of Health and Medicine Tarot Guild
(Conducted by Inspector Chauncey Gibb)
Friday August 14th, 1874

Chauncey Gibb, Inspector: How did the Health and Medicine Tarot Guild become aware of Oliver Wolsey?

[NAME REDACTED]: He was invited to a board meeting by [REDACTED]. I understand he was to petition to become a member.

CG: Does your Guild take on a lot of new members?

[NR]: [REDACTED]

CG: So it was unusual for Wolsey to actually attend a meeting to request becoming a member?

[NR]: Yes, very much so.

CG: Was there ever any serious thought given to listening to his plea?

[NR]: No.

CG: How did Wolsey appear at the meeting? Was he nervous? Excited?

[NR]: [REDACTED]

CG: One could surmise that Wolsey would be disappointed to give up his time to attend a purposeless meeting. He could even reasonably be angry at his treatment.

[NR]: The Health and Medicine Tarot Guild is not a social club. If Wolsey did the research he purported to have done, he would know before attending the meeting that the chance of him successfully becoming a member was essentially zero.

CG: So why bother?

[NR]: You would have to ask him that.

CG: We will.

[NR]: So the Metropolitan Guard has him in custody?

CG: I cannot comment on the status of our investigation. What was the Guild’s reaction when you learned that Wolsey was using tarot from your Guild without permission?

[NR]: [REDACTED]

CG: I’m surprised you would admit that to a member of the Metropolitan Guard.

[NR]: [REDACTED]

CG: Sir, I’m confident in our investigation. The Guild should step aside and let the proper authorities handle this matter.

[NR]: [REDACTED]

CG: Thank you sir. You have my card should you need to reach me.

*

Interview of Ignatius Howlett, member of Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild
(Conducted by Inspector Chauncey Gibb)
Friday August 14th, 1874

Chauncey Gibb: How did the Communication with the Dead Tarot Guild become aware of Oliver Wolsey?

Ignatius Howlett: Some of our agents, Guild staff you know, reported to us that there was a young man, recently arrived to New Caldwell, that was flashing an unusual tarot deck to anyone who wanted to see. It was Wolsey, and he had cards from our tarot, which isn’t allowed.

CG: Does the Guild do anything to enforce who has access to your tarot?

IH: We have very strict ordinances in place to regulate who can enter and exit the facilities where our tarot are made. At least I thought we had strict ordinances in place. We are an exclusive Guild, not for just any member of society. No, we are made up of the best, the highest members of society. It irks me to no end that this wastrel was able to steal Tarot from us.

CG: So how would Wolsey have gone about obtaining your Tarot?

IH: I honestly have no idea. I suspect some member of our staff feels underpaid or some such nonsense and took money from this ragamuffin for a handful of tarot. You see, to most people I suspect their understanding is so lacking that the tarot appear as nothing more than glorified playing cards, but they are much more than that.

CG: Your staff understands the tarot? Understands the power of the cards?

IH: Under my oversight, staff was fully vetted prior to hiring. Background checks, references, sponsorship by members . . .

But now that my talents are needed elsewhere in the Guild I suspect that all is lacking now and Potter and Xavier—Percival Xavier, not President Xavier—are doing a right shoddy job of hiring staff.

CG: Is it possible that Wolsey stole the cards?

IH: I’d actually prefer to learn that he stole them rather than obtaining them through some malfeasance by staff. We’ve created an investigatory committee to look into the matter.

CG: Excellent. I’ll give you my card so you can provide us with any new information you feel is relevant.

IH: Of course. And here is my card in case you need to ask any more questions. I’m always more than happy to talk about the Guild.

*

Hand-copied transcript of Constable Marcus Gurney’s journal, entry dated Sunday August 16th

The Nine Points is a difficult place to investigate crime. Gang activity makes residents reluctant to talk in the best of times. Now I needed to find someone in the Nine Points who was playing with fire as far as the Tarot Guilds were concerned and I doubted whether I could find anyone willing to talk.

I left word for my typical informants that I was trying to locate Wolsey. Normally they needed a day or two to gather information and that was time I did not have. It was a long shot to ask them for help, but I had to try everything I could.

I wandered in and out of the typical places criminals went to when trying to lay low, but there was no sign of Wolsey and everyone refused to talk to me.

I was too well known and it was too well known what I wanted.

I stood at an empty street corner thinking about my next move. Any other night I would have to watch out for fast-moving carriages, street toughs, magicians, street walkers, and even the occasionally higher-class person looking for something out of the ordinary.

The fact that the streets were empty was a bad sign. I figured my best hope would be to find Wolsey’s body.

Something prodded me in the back and a rough voice told me not to turn around. The voice gave me a recent location of Wolsey and encouraged me to hurry.

Wolsey’s room at the New Caldwell Youth Association was essentially bare. There were few affects and little in the way of belongings.

Wolsey was gone. I held little hope of getting another tip to his whereabouts. But sometimes luck is on your side.

On a side table was a stack of tarot cards. I picked them up and put them in my pocket. There was a scrap of paper on the table and when I picked it up it was an attempt at forgery for a ticket on a ship heading south.

I headed to the seaport as fast as I could. I doubted I would find Wolsey on the ship scrawled on the fake ticket now in my pocket, but again, I had to follow what leads I had.

When I arrived at the dock in question, the ship was already away from the pier and heading out to sea.

It was too far to be certain, but I would swear an oath that standing at the stern of the boat was Wolsey. He was waving to me. If I squinted, I could imagine a smile on his face.

He had gotten away but he could never return. New Caldwell was now closed to him. If he ever came back, I would likely only learn about it because he was in the morgue.

Knight of Swords

 

John Klima previously worked in New York’s publishing jungle before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library Science. He now works full time as the Technology Manager of a large public library. John edited and published the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede from 2001 to 2013.

When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John writes short stories and novels. He and his family live in the Midwest.

 [ issue 5 : winter 2022 ]