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Cast of Wonders 261: Twice

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Twice

by Imaani Cain

In the beginning, there was a world and the world was Marya.

In every photograph littering my parents’ mantle, there are the two of us, smiling tightly under the heavy gaze of the camera. I am always standing just behind her, my hand cupping her shoulder. She is looking up at me, her own tiny hand reaching up to grasp at mine. Each of us is holding tight enough to be painful: afterwards, when we are finally allowed outside to play, we compare battle wounds. They faded almost instantly but we spent the night recreating them, stifling any winces we might’ve ordinarily made. We created a game out of it, racking up points for endurance and creativity. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 260: Contractual Obligations

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Contractual Obligations

by Jaime O. Mayer

 

Jiasi gripped the heavy skate, her eyes flicking first to the rust-spotted blade attached to the sole, then back to Emmaline, who watched her with a mischievous smile. “Maybe this is a bad idea.”

Emmaline rolled her eyes, a chuckle escaping her lips.

They sat on a lakeside bench while dozens of Valorie City’s citizens enjoyed the wintry morning. Children raced each other across the frozen surface, giving a wide berth to a pair of young men working on a broken down steamhorse midway through a sleigh ride. Jiasi recognized the Drayden coach by sound rather than sight; there was no mistaking the shrill, nasal whine of Lady Drayden as she barked orders at the men and criticized her daughter in the same breath. “Work faster! Allianne, stop waving your arms like a drunkard.”

Allianne’s response, voice light as her straw-colored hair, was inaudible as she wobbled around in a circle, arms held out for balance.

Emmaline’s lips quirked up in a smile. “A dance routine on ice? It’s an excellent idea.” She plucked the skate from Jiasi’s hands. “We just shouldn’t have said it where the Drayden Dragon could hear.”

“What if I fall?”

“Then you’ll get up and keep going,” Emmaline said, lacing the skates. She shook her head. “Two years in this kingdom and you’ve never been skating.”

Jiasi clambered upright. “How do you move in these things?”

Emmaline led her toward the ice with tiny steps. “You’ll get used to it. Doesn’t it snow in Tunsha?”

“It doesn’t freeze like this! You’re sure it’s safe?”

“See all the lovely people not drowning?”

How comforting, Jiasi thought.

“Just enjoy yourself. Promise?”

“Promise. Unless I fall.”

“Fair enough.”

They trundled around the lake, and with each subsequent lap Jiasi gained confidence. She even managed a quick wave at the Draydens, but feigned losing her balance to avoid stopping to chat.

“Time for your moment of bravery,” Emmaline said. “Leave the nest, my duckling.”

Jiasi pecked Emmaline on her wind-pinked cheek before skating away, miming flapping wings with her arms.

A performance on the ice with her dramatic long sleeves, perhaps it would be innovative enough to merit an invitation from Valorie’s Royal Theater at a mere eighteen years old. Perhaps.

A scream pierced the air, jerking her from the reverie, and throwing Jiasi off balance. Knees locking in panic, her feet slid out from underneath her. She smacked against the ice, grunting as an arc of pain shot up her backside and elbow.

“Jiasi!”

Emmaline rushed toward her, pointing to the side.

To Jiasi’s right, a metallic clunk and hiss of steam grew louder. The steamhorse, freed of its sleigh, rumbled toward her. It lacked one front hoof, and without the aid of its ice-studded shoe the mechanical beast careened across the lake.

Jiasi shoved against the ice, but her hands couldn’t gain traction. She tried to regain her feet, but her inexperience with the skates coupled with growing terror left her floundering.

She cringed, eyes frozen on the erratic hulk of metal. One moment it appeared as if the horse would strike her head, but a stride away its crippled leg skidded on the ice. The still-hooved foreleg smashed down on her right knee. She screamed, arms rising in futile defense. The steamhorse collapsed on her, and her head thudded against the ground.

 


 

The sharp, jarring pain from her legs being straightened roused her from unconsciousness. Emmaline’s teary face hovered in view, and Jiasi instinctively tried to comfort her, don’t cry, Emmy love, but she couldn’t make a sound aside from an awful moan.

Someone had placed her on a sled. It began to move, the grating motion bringing a fresh wave of pain. She didn’t try to fight the buzz of unconsciousness. Through closing eyes, Jiasi saw Lady Drayden standing several feet back, the only face in the crowd lacking any shock or grief.

 


 

Jiasi awoke in a room lit by a single turned-down lamp and filtered moonlight. Pillows cushioned her legs, and a floral-patterned quilt covered them. She recognized the hand-stitched flowers; Emmaline’s bedroom in House Tembury.

Reaching to remove the quilt, Jiasi cried out; it felt like she was being stabbed by a hundred small knives along her torso. She clutched her sides, attempting to lessen the pain, whimpering in between gasps.

A loud click sounded, like a large key turning in a lock, but a glance to the bedroom door confirmed no one had entered.

“Broken ribs, dearie,” an unctuous male voice said. “Allow me.”

Jiasi blinked in surprise as a child-sized man came out of the darkness. He pulled the quilt back with care, and Jiasi saw a glint of metal around his neck.

“Are you-”

“A Contractor, yes. A little light, I think, so you can understand why I’m here.” He went to the lamp and turned it up.

Her growing wakefulness also heightened the bright, harsh pain throbbing in her legs. Though her mind was processing at a sluggish pace, her memory returned. The lake. The broken steamhorse. The accident.

“My legs,” she whispered. Her legs burned not with the ache of fatigued muscles after a long routine, but with the fire of trauma, of breaking and tearing.

“Hence my arrival.” The Contractor gave a small bow. “The advent of steam machinery has given us quite the choice in work.”

Jiasi stared. Someone had tried to splint her bones, but noble doctors of the Major houses were too costly for the likes of her. The Tembury’s bearing as a Minor house must’ve earned Jiasi treatment, but she could see the harsh angles in her legs, feel how they remained wrong. Dried blood traced thick suture lines across her thighs, down both knees, and along her calves.

Tears welled in her eyes, and she began to sniffle, choking back sobs.

“Enough of that,” the Contractor huffed. “If you’re going to blubber then I’ll be on my way. Silly me, I thought,” he lingered on the word, “you might be interested in a contract.”

They locked eyes. She took in his long gray coat over pin-striped trousers. A silver-handled cane dangled from one hand, while the other fidgeted with one of the three dip pens hanging from a gold chain around his neck; the mark of a Contractor. Jiasi had heard of the strange deal-makers with their secret, magically binding contracts. In Tunsha they were called life gamblers, god-like creatures that appeared out of thin air with offers to change your life.

If you were desperate.

She gave her mangled legs a gentle caress with one finger, then glanced at the Contractor. “You can fix them? Make me whole again?”

You can fix them, dearie. As for permanency, well, that depends on if you fulfill your end of the bargain.” The Contractor sidled up to the bed, drawing back the left front of his coat to reveal an assortment of inkwells and curled rolls of parchment sewn inside. “Shall I draft us a contract?”

“I don’t have any money.”

“We don’t deal in money, dearie,” he scoffed.

“Then what do you get?” Sixteen lean years in rural Tunsha pierced the hope bubbling in her chest.

“We Contractors do love a gamble. Oh, and we take whatever is at stake in the contract should you fail. A contract must have its risks.”

Jiasi knew of only one successful contract, a kite-maker from her village. His daughter had been deathly ill, and no doctor in any of the surrounding villages able to cure her. The kite-maker had taken his strongest kite and flown with his daughter strapped to his back to a nearby mountain. He retur ned alone. Jiasi had been young herself, but she remembered the serene look on the kite-maker’s face as he’d landed. Days later left the village and she didn’t know what became of him, but his look remained. A worthwhile contract, whatever the cost.

“If I do my end I get my legs? No tricks?”

“Sure,” the Contractor said as he withdrew an inkwell and a roll of parchment. “Let’s see, ah!” The middle pen with a gold nib began to glow. The Contractor unclipped it from his neck, stubby fingers giving it a happy squeeze before he spread the parchment open across the foot of her bed.

Jiasi watched in fascination as the nib seemed to glide across the parchment. Though the Contractor held the pen, it appeared to move of its own volition.

“Here we are.” The Contractor straightened, wiping the nib on his sleeve before returning his writing tools to their respective places. “Concerning the dancer Jiasi, an offer of impermanent use of repaired legs in return for twenty-five performances sponsored by a noble house, to be completed within eighteen months. Fulfillment of the contract will result in restoration of the aforementioned legs. Subject to conditions of impermanency.”

“What does that last mean?”

“That would be the gamble. I can’t show you until the contract is sealed, but I will say that the legs have limitations. But! fulfill the contract and you will have earned your perfect legs. Fail, and they’ll be reclaimed.”

“Twenty-five dances?”

Sponsored by a member of the noble houses, no less. She’d started to make a name for herself before the accident, surely she had some goodwill built. But the cost–could she afford to lose her legs completely if she failed? Weren’t damaged ones better than none at all?

“Sponsorship by a Major noble house is worth five performances.” The Contractor gave her a wide smile, revealing pointed teeth.

She looked down at the ugly, thick sutures and thought of the scars they would become, indelible reminders of what she’d have lost without even trying. She remembered the kite-maker’s smile.

“Where do I sign?”

 


 

If one didn’t look closely, her legs appeared real. Jiasi gazed down at them, fingers running along their length, feeling the smooth, unblemished skin. They were real, yet they weren’t. Her “legs,” with gears for joints and metal-enhanced bone, felt stronger. When she danced, she felt powerful but controlled in a way her previous form never had. She couldn’t lose them.

“It feels wrong not to care for them,” Jiasi remarked as she unwrapped her dance slippers’ ribbon binding.

“So you keep saying,” Emmaline said. She sat at the small writing desk in their shared room at the local inn, the book of Jiasi’s commitments open in front of her.

“Should get used to it,” Jiasi whispered.

Emmaline heard. “You will not.” She snapped the book shut and went to sit next to Jiasi on the floor. “We’re so close, Jia. Five more-”

“In a week!” Jiasi threw the shoe across the room. “We’re out of sponsors.”

“There are plenty of nobles left in Valorie.” Emmaline frowned. “People love you, and they love parties.”

“The people may love my dancing, but the nobles don’t like sponsoring a ghost!”

A numbing sensation in her legs ended Jiasi’s tirade. “It’s time.”

Emmaline helped her up onto their narrow bed. She retrieved a tiny golden key scarcely larger than a sewing needle from inside her coat and handed it to Jiasi before returning to the desk and opening the scheduling book.

Jiasi turned the key over in her fingers, a weary sigh on her lips. “Impermanence.” I should’ve known. Tricky bastard.

When the Contractor had mentioned the term, she hadn’t anticipated her legs turning to metal from the knees down. Every night an hour before midnight without fail, the numbness preceded her transmutation.

Jiasi inserted the key into the keyhole that had appeared on her knee. The nightly maintenance nearly drove her to quit: fifty turns to reset the gears in each ankle, each knee. I should be grateful the contract doesn’t require toes. She didn’t understand how the legs came back to life every morning an hour before dawn, but she dared not risk breaking the frustratingly vague conditions of the contract.

It had made her return to dancing–and fulfilling the contract–unforeseeably difficult. With the support of Lord and Lady Tembury, they’d moved outside of Valorie City on the pretense of a need to recover, but lied about the severity of Jiasi’s injuries. Months were spent learning the enhanced strength and precision of her new legs, and a few more wasted performing in the background while lesser dancers had the spotlight. But her ability had garnered attention, and her appearances served to remind the nobility that she had returned to dancing with equal passion and grace.

She teetered on the cusp of earning the notice of the Theater, but the wretched impermanence of her legs threatened to ruin those aspirations.

“If I don’t make it,” she began, but Emmaline groaned.

“We’re not going over this again.”

“Promise me you’ll go on with your life.”

Emmaline’s hands clenched into fists, her head turning slightly to the side as if she was steeling herself to shout. But, Emmaline never shouted. The tension drained away as she exhaled and turned in her chair to fix Jiasi with a look.

“We’re operating a bit oddly, but it’ll be fine. Do you trust me?”

Jiasi sighed, but she gave a grim nod. If not for Emmaline’s loyalty and her brilliance at maneuvering through the social complexities of noble society, Jiasi’s return to performing would’ve guttered out like the promising stars who had flashed and died before her. Only Emmaline and her infectious good spirits could placate the bevy of displeased nobles Jiasi left in her wake when she disappeared after any evening performance. Instead of socializing with her sponsors into the wee hours, Jiasi fled to whatever private space they’d rented for the night to wind her legs.

I don’t deserve you. Jiasi no longer voiced the words. But so long as you have faith in me, I won’t–can’t–give up.

“Good, because I’ve promised at least a year’s worth of free dances with several houses once you’ve got your legs.”

“Whatever it takes.”

“I hear the Drayden Dragon is in town,” Emmaline said.

“Here to buy more appearances for her daughter, I presume?”

“Probably.” Emmaline made a note in the book. “I’ve a luncheon with the ladies of House Graf tomorrow. They should be good for at least two performances, and there’s talk of Lady Graf’s niece holding an impromptu summer party. The Dragon wouldn’t deign to dine with such lowly nobles as we, so I should avoid competing with her completely.”

“Lucky.” Jiasi ran a finger along the firm line of her metal foot. Being honest, from the few times Jiasi had performed with her, Allianne appeared to be developing into a capable dancer. The girl was timid, but having the Drayden Dragon for a mother probably had that effect.

Jiasi settled under the bed’s thin covers, the windings complete. Sliding a pillow under her metal legs, Jiasi tried to banish the nasal whine of Lady Drayden ringing in her head.

 


 

Leaping through the air, Jiasi landed with surety on one foot. She let her other leg unfurl in a steady line up and away from her body, the augmented joints of her Contracted limbs more fluid than when she was mere flesh and bone. She completed a pirouette, letting her ribbon-like sleeves flutter and drape around her body until they reached the floor.

Slow, deliberate applause sounded through the practice room, startling Jiasi so that she dropped to her feet with a thud.

“Court gossip is true, for once,” Lady Drayden said. She stood in the doorway, imperious in a burgundy velvet coatdress, her gray-streaked brown curls perfectly arranged beneath a fitted hat that matched her outfit. She tapped the closed tip of an ivory cloth parasol against her palm.

“I beg your pardon?” Jiasi dipped in a curtsy, acutely aware of her shabby practice wrap and threadbare tights.

“I’ve heard rumors of how wonderful your solos have been. Quite a surprise after such a horrible accident.” Lady Drayden stepped into the room, dark eyes intent on Jiasi’s legs.

“Truly, it wasn’t so serious,” Jiasi said in a rush. “Inconvenient, but I’ve been blessed to have generous patrons-”

“And a marvelous doctor.” Lady Drayden pointed at Jiasi’s legs with her parasol. “Why, it’s like magic.

Jiasi froze. What could the Drayden Dragon know? No one knows except Emmaline. Don’t act flustered.

“I’m grateful the Tembury’s know a lovely doctor in outer Valorie. Would you like his name?” Jiasi said, hoping her voice didn’t quaver.

“No,” Lady Drayden sniffed. “Unfortunately, a doctor can’t help my daughter. She isn’t broken, but lacking in talent.”

“Miss Allianne appeared well at the spring festival.”

Lady Drayden made a disgruntled noise. “She could do better. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to find you in this,” she glanced around the drab practice room, “charming place.”

Unsure of how to respond, Jiasi said nothing.

“I have a proposal for you, and let us be frank; my daughter is no beauty and she won’t secure a favorable husband with her face. She needs dance but her performances lack confidence. She’s not receiving many invitations, and we can hold only so many balls before it appears desperate.”

“Allianne isn’t ugly-”

“She’s plain, which might as well be the same thing in our circles.” Lady Drayden gave Jiasi a challenging look. “Don’t play coy with me.”

Jiasi stared, unsure of the proper response.

“House Drayden would like to sponsor you for a dance. My only request is that you allow my daughter to co-lead with you. Your performance of Ascension features two leads, does it not?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“I’ve had Allianne practicing the roles for a month.”

“I-I must say,” Jiasi stammered. She felt heat flood her cheeks as Lady Drayden gave her an expectant stare. “This is unusual.”

“Nonsense. You are a rising star and I won’t deny that I want my daughter to benefit by association. Do you accept?”

Jiasi hesitated. Emmaline wouldn’t approve, and the prospect of having the Drayden Dragon watching over her every move left a sour taste in her mouth.

“I plan on holding the dance in five days. The invitations have already been sent. Be a dear and don’t cause me embarrassment,” Lady Drayden said.

Jiasi perked up; her contract would be complete! It was silent over the number of leads so long as she was one.

“I would be honored to accept.”

“Be at the manor tomorrow.” Lady Drayden swept from the room.

 


 

Peeking out the window of the steamcoach, Jiasi surveyed the Drayden estate. There was a cold aura to its elegance. Though her experience of Major houses was limited, Jiasi had been to several of the Minor estates for her dances, and what they lacked in overt wealth they made up for in character. House Drayden stood three stories high, with a trio of towers spaced along the rooftop. The main building was larger than many of the Minor houses Jiasi had seen, and House Drayden had two wings flanking each side connected by long passageways.

”They do seem to like their threes,” Emmaline said.

Rows of rose gardens spread out from the road leading up to the house, with a segment of manicured lawn separating each bed of flowers. The perfect symmetry struck Jiasi as imposing rather than beautiful. Nothing appeared out of place.

“I’m going to regret this,” Jiasi said, resting her head against the padded interior of their steamcoach. She would never enjoy coach rides, but their practicality had won out over her fear.

“Nonsense. Five dances for one performance, and paid for by the Dragon! We’ll make a businesswoman of you yet,” Emmaline said with a roguish wink.

“You probably shouldn’t call her that while we’re on her lands.”

Emmaline stuck out her tongue.

The coach came to a halt a few feet away from the main building. The door opened from the outside, revealing the steward and Lady Drayden herself.

“Miss Jiasi. Miss Emmaline,” the steward intoned as he helped them from the coach. “Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“It’s a lovely ride out here. Lady Drayden, your estate is stunning,” Emmaline said.

“Yes, stunning,” Jiasi echoed, nodding vigorously.

“Indeed. How kind of you to say,” Lady Drayden said. She wore a blue gown, and tapped the same ivory parasol Jiasi had seen earlier against her leg. “Come, I will show you to your rooms before we convene for dinner.”

“That’s generous of you, my lady, but surely you have more important duties to attend to,” Emmaline said, shooting Jiasi a questioning look.

“You are my honored guests. My steward will see to your things.”

Lady Drayden strode off toward the house, leaving no doubt that she expected to be obeyed. Jiasi shrugged at Emmaline, and the pair set off a few steps behind their hostess.

They entered through the main building’s wide doors, then followed Lady Drayden through a grand entrance hall. Servants hurried about the manor, cleaning artwork, polishing silverware, or carrying decorations of silk ribbons and vases of flowers. Whenever Lady Drayden approached, the serving people ceased in their tasks to bow or curtsy as she swept past. Jiasi thought the staff looked weary. Apparently, the sponsorship had been decided on more of a whim than Lady Drayden had let on.

Jiasi’s eyes lingered on the row of geared magnesium lamps that lined the walls. No simple candle flames in House Drayden. She couldn’t imagine the cost of such luxuries. The staff resumed their work, and given the sheer amount of decorations being toted past it appeared like they were preparing for a larger gathering than Jiasi had thought.

Lady Drayden paused as the hall split into multiple directions. Using her parasol for emphasis, she pointed at each hallway in turn.

“If you go left you’ll reach the dining hall. Forward, past the staircase to the guest towers, is the passageway that leads to the practice room and the performance hall. Your rooms will be this way.” Lady Drayden motioned for them to follow her through the open doors of the right-hand passageway. “I’ve heard you appreciate your privacy, Jiasi. This wing used to be our servants’ quarters before we moved them to separate housing near the rose garden. I’m afraid it’s a bit outdated, but you won’t be disturbed.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, my lady,” Jiasi said.

A set of wooden doors edged in tarnished silver barred their way. Lady Drayden withdrew a ring of keys from her pocket. “We lock the doors every evening. Here,” she handed Jiasi a single brass key. “This will enable you to reach the practice room at night if you wish.”

“Your estate is very secure,” Emmaline said, raising her eyebrows at Jiasi as they followed Lady Drayden into the former servants’ wing.

“Lord Drayden’s passing last winter upset me greatly. I was advised to take greater control over my affairs if I wished to ensure their outcomes.”

Jiasi and Emmaline exchanged bemused looks behind Lady Drayden’s back. Fortunately, she didn’t appear to expect a response.

When Lady Drayden opened the door to the attached building, Jiasi gasped in delight. A simple, one-level cottage opened out before them, furnished in a manner over a decade behind in fashion, and covered in a thick layer of dust. Jiasi saw only delicious privacy and more comfort than several inns she’d frequented.

“It’s lovely, Lady Drayden! You are too kind.”

“Not at all dear,” Lady Drayden said. “Dinner is within the hour. I’ll send a maid for you when it’s time.” She gave them a curt nod before walking back up the passageway.

 


 

Three days should’ve been an impossibly short amount of time to prepare Allianne for the dance, but Lady Drayden had been true to her word.

“You know Ascension well,” Jiasi commented after one morning practice session. They sat on a bench inside the large practice room, Jiasi trying not to covet the space with its line of wall-sized mirrors and magnesium lamps.

Allianne blushed, her fair skin going tomato red in a heartbeat. “Mother had my last teacher drill me on it.”

“How many teachers have you had?”

“You’re my sixth.”

Jiasi rushed to fill the awkward silence left by Allianne’s words. “Do you like this? I don’t mean to sound rude; you’re a good dancer-”

“I understand, people wonder, you know, because of Mother.” Allianne shrugged, a dreamy look stealing across her face. “But I do love to dance. To be the star, to hear all those people clapping just for you.”

Jiasi bit back a smile and nodded agreeably.

Allianne grinned at her. “It’s the best feeling ever.”

 


 

I’m almost going to miss this place. Jiasi mused as she prepared herself for the performance. Then she remembered Lady Drayden sitting in for most of the practice sessions, loudly tut-tutting at her daughter’s every move.

Almost.

“Maybe I should become a mentor,” Jiasi said as she adjusted a pin to secure the braid coiled around her head. “I’ve had fun here. Allianne’s shy, but she’s willing to learn. Her mother, however, urgh.”

“Hard to have much spirit with the Dragon around,” Emmaline said.

“I think Allianne’s nerves may get the better of her tonight. Lady Drayden hinted at lunch that she’d be counting the errors.”

“Dancing alongside you isn’t going to do much for her nerves, my starlet.” Emmaline shook her head. “I’m off to work the nobles. Just think, after tonight, we’re free!” Emmaline clasped Jiasi’s face and kissed her.

“Go on before you make me cry,” Jiasi said with a laugh.

Emmaline sashayed to the door and blew another kiss before disappearing down the passageway.

Jiasi watched her go, a warm feeling glowing in her chest. The weight of it all; the contract, the legs, Emmaline’s sacrifice, was lifting.

 


 

Jiasi finished applying her performance makeup, then went to the space she’d cleared at the front of the cottage. She could hear the random hiss and metallic clank of steamcoaches, and the sounds of arriving nobility made her jittery with nerves and excitement. Breathing in a steady rhythm, she focused on her warmup routine, banishing her anxiety. She tested the snap and flutter of her costume’s emerald sleeves, rising up on silken shoes dyed to match her flowing dress. Absorbed in her moves, she didn’t realize the lateness of the hour until the magnesium lamps outside the window flared to life.

Frowning, Jiasi lowered from her pose on one leg. Lady Drayden had said she’d send someone to usher her into the performance hall. It wasn’t a standard practice, but nothing about the impromptu show had been ordinary.

Jiasi glanced out the window, then to the cracked longcase clock by the door. The performance was set to begin in a quarter hour.

Apologies, Lady Dragon. Jiasi tossed her coat over her shoulders. “Rude” didn’t begin to cover arriving late to her own performance, and the contract was vague with regard to punctuality.

She rushed down the passageway, thankful to see the connecting doors closed to hide her flustered approach.

Seizing one handle, Jiasi was thrown off balance when she tried to yank it open and the door remained firmly shut. She pulled Lady Drayden’s key from her coat pocket and jammed it into the keyhole. But, the key would turn only a fraction, plaintive metal clicks sounding as its teeth slipped against the pins.

“No,” Jiasi moaned. Did she give me the wrong damned key? The doors had never been locked early before, and shouldn’t be now. Not on the performance night.

Sweat broke out across Jiasi’s palms, and she dashed it away on the front of her coat.

I will not be late.

Throwing the useless key away, Jiasi dashed back toward the servants’ wing, intent on the path through the garden.

The sight of the door ajar brought her to a halt. Her heart sank. The silvery scarf Emmaline had been wearing lay draped across the handle.

Jiasi peeked around the door.

“You certainly took your time, stupid girl.” Lady Drayden stood in the center of the warmup area. “Come in and close the door.”

Jiasi complied. “What is go-”

Lady Drayden stepped to the side. Slumped in one of the rickety wooden chairs from the small dining room, sat Emmaline’s motionless form, arms bound and a cloth stuffed in her mouth. A trickle of blood ran down the side of her face.

Jiasi leapt forward. “You horrid bitch! You’ve killed her!”

Lady Drayden brayed a disdainful laugh. “Don’t be foolish. She’s just unconscious.” She lifted her parasol, withdrawing a thin dueling blade from the handle. Brandishing it with a flourish, she poked at Jiasi, forcing her back.

“I’ll wake her for you.” Lady Drayden reached out and slapped Emmaline across the face with her parasol.

Jiasi screamed, fingernails biting into her palms as Lady Drayden’s blade held her at bay. She breathed the slightest sigh of relief when she saw Emmaline twitch.

“Why? Why invite all those people only to hold us hostage?”

“Contractual obligations,” Lady Drayden said, a malicious gleam in her eyes. “A Contractor did advise me to take more control of the things that I wanted. I want my daughter to join the Royal Theater and win herself a husband, but a commoner from a rural backwater has been stealing all the attention. My Contractor whispered of the details for your bought legs.”

“You’d sacrifice my legs for a supposed husband?”

“Yes. I already sacrificed my husband and his financial security,” Lady Drayden said, her lip curling with disgust. “What was left of it. I want a son-in-law with the means to take care of the both of us, but wishing got me nowhere. A contract gave me control.”

Faint music drifted through the walls as the orchestra began to warm-up in the performance hall. Without her.

Jiasi tensed, legs quivering at the sound.

Lady Drayden made a tsk-tsk noise. “If you try to leave, I’ll skewer Miss Tembury.”

You wouldn’t dare. Would you? The Major houses got away with much in Valorie, but surely not murder.

Emmaline wriggled against the ropes, but another slap from Lady Drayden’s parasol quieted her.

“They won’t go on without me. Allianne won’t.”

“Hear the music? My steward has orders to direct them to perform without you, and my daughter will dance. She does love applause.” Lady Drayden chuckled to herself.

The dreamy look on Allianne’s face burned in Jiasi’s memory.

Ascension is a duet.”

“I’ve hired a wonderfully deplorable understudy,” Lady Drayden said. “All those noble houses here to see you, but my daughter will steal the show and you’ll have spited everyone. Not that it will matter after tonight.”

Jiasi could feel the onset of the numbness that preceded her legs turning to metal, but this time it bore a cold edge of finality.

No! she thought with ferocity, picturing the Contractor. I haven’t failed yet.

She took a step toward Lady Drayden, letting the blade’s tip prick her chest. “Why me? We both could’ve gotten into the Theater. You have the influence. What did I do that you’d get a contract against me?”

Lady Drayden smiled. “You got in my way. The contract ensures my daughter’s future if I remove her competition. That I get to remove a commoner from mingling with the nobility is a bonus.”

“Go!” Emmaline’s muffled voice sounded around the gag.

Lady Drayden scoffed. “Run along, trade her life for a contract.”

My contract.

Jiasi froze, mind racing over her memory of the parchment signed long ago with a nib that glowed gold. The key to her legs, given with precise terms. The numbing sensation paused, and she could hear the Contractor’s slippery voice in her head make an inquiring noise. The tingling in her legs didn’t retreat, but rather felt like it was waiting.

She met Emmaline’s eyes. “Do you trust me?”

Lady Drayden waggled the dueling blade. “What are you-”

Emmaline nodded.

Winding a fistful of material from each sleeve in her hands, Jiasi sprang at Lady Drayden, blocking the blade with her hands. The sharp metal tore at the fabric, but couldn’t prevent Jiasi from grabbing onto the blade, and Lady Drayden was no fencer.

With only her arms bound, Emmaline made an awkward lunge at Lady Drayden, sending them both and the chair tumbling to the ground with a crack as the wood splintered apart beneath them.

Jiasi loosened her grip as Lady Drayden went down, letting the sword slip free. She took a clumsy step forward, her partially numb legs jarring against the floor. She stamped on Lady Drayden’s hand and kicked the blade away as Emmaline pulled free of the weakened remnants of the chair. Together they pounced on Lady Drayden, pinning the woman to the ground, and trussed her.

“Have you any idea the trouble you’ll be in for this?” Lady Drayden snarled, a mess of once perfectly coiffed hair around her face. “If you kill me-”

“No one’s dying today. We’re not like you,” Jiasi said. “And don’t threaten us; you kidnapped a member of the nobility.”

“A Minor house.” Lady Drayden spat at them. “I’ll have the constable after you. How far do you think you’ll get dragging those metal legs?”

“My contract was specific,” Jiasi said, clearing a space in front of Lady Drayden. “And vague. Twenty-five sponsored dances. You’re my sponsor. The size of the audience is immaterial.”

Lady Drayden paled. “No, that can’t be.”

Jiasi backed up and swept one leg out in front of her. Arching her feet, she rose onto her toes. Shrugging out of her coat and handing it to Emmaline, Jiasi let her ribbon-like sleeves drape across her body. Springing lightly into the air, she began to dance for her legs.

Genres: ,

Episode 259: Seer’s Salad by Barbara A. Barnett

Show Notes

 

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Seer’s Salad

by Barbara A. Barnett

 

There would be no snatching my laptop back from Diya. She slapped my hand every time I reached across the café table for it. I had been a keystroke away from deleting the amateur-hour comic panels cluttering up my hard drive–months of wasted effort that Diya was now inexplicably determined to keep reading. Her gaze remained glued to the screen as she shoveled forkfuls of salad from bowl to mouth.

“Tam, these are awesome,” she said, voice pitched at a chirpy, bird-like frequency. “It’s like George Romero meets Dostoyevsky meets Thelma and Louise meets an alien invasion flick.”

I shrugged. As much as I wanted to believe I had enough talent to create a successful webcomic, it was hard to take Diya’s encouragement seriously. I had seen her get equally excited over blueberry pancakes, after all.

“They’re nothing special,” I said, ninja-seizing my laptop before she could dribble dressing all over the keyboard. “Just drafts, really.”

Diya responded with a chiding wave of her fork. “You need to publish this shit,” she said–at least that’s what it sounded like through her mouthful of salad. Another bite, and she erupted into a violent coughing fit that sent bits of lettuce and tomato spraying across the table.

“Are you all right?” I asked, half standing. “Do I need to Heimlich you or something?”

Diya grabbed her water bottle and chugged. “I’m fine,” she said between gulps. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”

“Expecting what?” I studied her meal for possible culprits, only to end up with a case of lunch-buyer’s remorse instead. The scent of mango vinaigrette made me wish I hadn’t opted for the same chicken noodle soup I always bought. “Is there something wrong with your salad?”

“No, the salad’s great. But the guy who made it? Total scumbag. We’re talking shoots-stray-cats-with-a-BB-gun levels of scumbaggery.”

Out-of-the-blue segues like that were why I loved hanging out with Diya. She was random. Unpredictable. One of those people who seemed to walk on fairy dust with her big flowered hats and the sparkly nose ring that set off her brown skin. The one time I tried dressing like Diya, people looked at me like I was a Christmas tree on display in July. So I accepted my lot in life: I was doomed to remain boring old Tamsin, trailing one step behind in Diya’s glittery wake.

Diya stared toward the café counter, neck craned. “I should find out where this guy lives and report him.”

“How do you know he shoots cats?”

Diya’s eyes went wide, like a sparkly deer caught in headlights. “Oh crap, I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just that the cat thing caught me off guard and–“

“What are you talking about?”

Diya cringed. “If I tell you something, you have to promise not to make fun of me.”

Diya self-conscious? That was a first worth hearing more about. “I promise.”

“It was the salad. The romaine didn’t show me much–bad pickup lines at the bar, jerking off at the movies, that kind of crap.” With her fork, Diya pointed from one tomato to another, as if their positioning spelled out a secret code. “The really twisted stuff is in the tomatoes.”

She had to be messing with me. I had only known Diya for a couple months; we both belonged to the army of underemployed twenty-somethings slinging lattes down the street at the Bean There, Drank That Café. But it had been long enough for me to know that psychic salad visions were over the top, even for Diya.

“You know he shoots cats because of the tomatoes?” I said.

“I’m afraid to even touch the artichokes.” Diya downed more water. “Anyway, so I was telling my brother about that awesome ginger beer you made and–“

“Whoa, back up, I’m still on the salad and the cat shooting.”

Diya let out a dramatic sigh. “I see things about people, okay?”

“When you eat food?”

“Not just any food. Salad. Salad the person made.”

Definitely messing with me. But I decided to play along and see how far she was willing to take this new addition to her manic pixie dream girl routine. “So you knew seeing something awful about this guy was a risk, yet you ordered salad anyway?”

“He was hot. I wanted to find out if he was a decent guy.”

“Isn’t that kind of creepy stalker territory?”

Diya started to object, but snapped her mouth shut. Her face took on that pinched, tight-lipped look she got in the rare moments when someone got the upper hand on her. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s creepy. Lesson learned. But he’s a psycho, so in this case, I think it all evens out.”

I could have dropped the whole salad thing at that point; I had just scored a Diya concession, after all. How often did that happen? But no, I wasn’t going to let her off the hook that easily. “And you developed this power how? Exposure to a radioactive crouton?”

Diya shook her head in annoyance. “It’s a family thing, okay? Some people inherit blue eyes or curly hair. I got the psychic crap.”

“So does this family gift of yours work with pasta salad? Fruit salad? Or is this strictly a lettuce-based thing?”

“Great,” Diya snapped. “First I get the psycho cat-shooter salad, and now you’re making fun of me after promising not to. Thanks, Tam. Way to be a friend.”

Diya sank back in her chair. Instead of commanding the room with that larger-than-life way of hers, she looked deflated, her traffic-cone-orange jacket suddenly two sizes too big, her polka dotted scarf two feet too long. A sulky, Diya-style overreaction, sure, but she was right: I had broken my promise.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But most people would have prefaced this whole salad thing with something like, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…'”

Diya sniffed, shifted in her chair, glanced at everything but me. The café chatter became deafening in her silence, conversations about workplace drama and the latest episode of some hot new sitcom amplified beyond tolerance. But as I listened to those conversations–those normal­­ conversations–my pity for Diya turned to annoyance. How did she expect me to react when everything she said and did was as outrageously kooky as possible? And this salad thing–play along with it, and I’d end up the butt of the joke, silly Tamsin blushing furiously as Diya burst into a fit of giggles. But call Diya on her bullshit, and she’d assault me with those wide, watery eyes, like she was a child and I had just taken her favorite toy away.

“Bring on the eyes,” I said.

Diya cocked her head to one side, on the receiving end of confusion for once. “What?”

“That puppy-dog eye thing you do. You’ll pout and give me that face until I say I believe you, and then you’ll be the one laughing at me.” I hated how harsh my tone sounded, yet the words kept spilling out. “I love you, Diya, but there’s only so much randomness you get to drop on a person before you lose the right to get snippy when they don’t believe you. I’m tired of playing the boring, gullible sidekick to your Princess Whimsy Pants.”

Diya straightened in her chair, mouth agape. “Princess Whimsy Pants?”

“Salad, for Christ’s sake. You’re making me mad at you over salad.”

Diya gathered up her vintage purse and the duck-shaped notebook she doodled in when she was bored. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you mad. But if you feel boring next to me? That’s not my fault. That one’s on you.”

Diya stood and strode from the café.

This isn’t about me, I wanted to shout after her. You don’t get to be the righteous angry one! But then my gaze fell on my plain old soup sitting next to her half-eaten, cat-torture salad. The drab vs. the colorful. The perfect metaphor for our friendship.

Yet I still ordered the soup. Every. Damn. Time.

“Crap,” I said, burying my head in my hands. Coolest person I knew, and I had just driven her away with my own snarky insecurity. How the hell do I fix this?

 


 

When I showed up at her apartment the next morning, Diya promptly slammed the door in my face.

“That went well,” I muttered, then set to knocking again, another monotonous round of knuckles-to-wood.

Nothing.

“Please, Diya, just hear me out.”

More nothing. I pressed my ear against the door. Not a breath, not a rustle. Just lots and lots of nothing. Time for Phase 2.

I reached into my oversized messenger bag, pulled out a covered bowl, and held it up to the door’s peephole. I just had to hope Diya was still on the other side and not climbing out the fire escape–it wouldn’t be the first time she had avoided an unwanted visitor that way.

“I brought you a peace offering,” I said.

Still no response. Just a long, uncomfortable stretch of non-reaction that had me peering under the door for signs of movement, then looking up and down the hall out of fear that a neighbor would emerge and think me some kind of creepazoid stalker. Which I was kind of starting to feel like.

I could tell them about my cat-shooting habit and my BB gun named Diya. Yeah, that would smooth things over real nice.

Finally, the door opened. Diya regarded the bowl in my hands with narrowed eyes. “It’s salad, isn’t it?”

“I made it. Because I’m sorry I upset you, and I’m willing to believe you about the salad thing, but you have to cut me some slack and prove it.”

“Been there, done that. No one ever likes what they hear.”

“Well, there is absolutely nothing scandalous or even remotely interesting about my life to see, so bon appétit, girlfriend.”

Diya waved me inside, where I immediately felt like a dark splotch of normalcy intruding upon her magical world of pink beanbag chairs and cinnamon-scented incense. But that was my problem; Diya had been right about that. The only thing stopping me from wearing nose rings and sparkly feathered boas was my own self-consciousness.

I peeled the lid off the salad and handed the bowl to Diya. She didn’t bother getting a fork. Just grabbed a clump of lettuce and popped it into her mouth.

“You didn’t make this,” she said, chewing.

“You sure?”

Diya barely finished swallowing before following up the lettuce with a slice of cucumber. “Yeah, this is from the deli on the corner. The chick with the bird tattoo made it. I just really wish she had washed her hands first.”

“Eeew,” I said, though a jolt of anticipatory excitement overshadowed the gross factor. I couldn’t verify the lack of hand washing, but the girl at the deli did have a mean-looking blue jay stamped on her right bicep. Still, Diya could have seen me in the deli earlier. Or it could have been a lucky guess.

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out another container. “This one I really did make.”

“You sneaky little . . .”

I’m sure Diya was aiming for mad with the look she gave me, but there was no hiding the half-smile that snuck onto her lips. Perhaps I could salvage this friendship, after all.

Diya traded me the bowl for the new container. Apprehension quickly sent my brief moment of hope packing. If she wasn’t faking the psychic thing, then forget about whatever embarrassing slips of hygiene she might see. My dread stemmed from the vast amounts of boring restraint that had been my life to date. One leaf of lettuce might prove coma-inducing.

Diya frowned at the container’s contents. “No dressing?”

“Dry salad seemed about right to sum me up.”

Diya rolled her eyes. She plucked a cherry tomato from the salad and studied it as if it were a crystal ball. “Oooooo,” she intoned.

“Oh, would you just eat it already?”

Diya snickered, then slipped the tomato into her mouth. Instead of chewing, she pushed it from side to side with her tongue, making each cheek puff out in turn.

I glared; she smirked.

At last, Diya started to eat. First the tomato, then a sliver of carrot, next a clump of avocado. My stomach engaged in a series of somersaults as more and more bits of salad passed between Diya’s lips. Cucumbers, onions, olives, croutons. Her jaw moved up and down with careful, excruciating slowness, as if mastication were a sacred rite that had to be performed ever just so. Diya could have been dragging it out just to screw with me, yet with each swallow, I grew more certain and fearful that she simply hadn’t found anything of interest in her visions, for her expression remained an unchanging, blank-eyed look of veggie-inspired ennui.

“For the record,” Diya said, “it’s kind of insulting that you think I’d have spent all this time hanging out with a boring person. Granted, your social comfort zone is this teeny-tiny microscopic little thing that could use expanding, but boring people don’t teach themselves how to brew their own beer out of every random ingredient under the sun. They certainly don’t create comics about a badass lesbian couple fighting alien zombies in Russia.”

A slight smile found its way onto my lips. I didn’t sound nearly so dull when she put it like that. “So is that what you got from the salad?” I asked. “That I’m cool but insecure?”

“Screw the salad; this is me talking. I love you, Tam, and I don’t want you to be anyone but you. But sometimes I get the feeling that you won’t let you be you. Like you think you have to be me or something.”

Bam. Salad visions or not, Diya had nailed it. My obsessive coveting of her flashy style had sucked away every last bit of confidence I had in my own. But I didn’t need to wear sparkly clothes to be interesting. Hell, I didn’t even like sparkly clothes. What I did like was the would-be webcomic wasting away on my computer. I had the domain and the hosting secured, the site designed, at least six months’ worth of strips ready to publish–all I had to do was launch the damn site. But nope, I kept chickening out, convinced no one would be interested.

Diya chomped on a withered shred of iceberg lettuce. Her eyes widened and she squealed, pointing at the salad as if it held the cure for cancer. “Oh my god, this is exactly what I’m talking about!”

“What?”

“Your comic! You’ve had the whole site ready to go for like months now. And Siberian Genome? You told me you didn’t even have a decent title, you liar. What the hell are you waiting for?”

“Whoa.” I gaped at Diya. I hadn’t shared those details with anyone, making me suddenly certain of two things: my friend really did have psychic salad powers, and I didn’t have a damn thing to lose. Because seriously, psychic salad powers? That was kind of mind blowing. That was the kind of thing that spends hours sinking in before the full impact of it slugs you like a brick-loaded boxing glove in the middle of the night. So if I could hold the interest of a person who received salad-based visions, then I sure as hell could get some eyeballs on my comic on a regular basis.

“What the hell am I waiting for?” With a little squeal of my own, I plopped onto a beanbag chair and whipped out my laptop. “Let’s get this puppy online already.”

“About damn time, girlfriend.” Diya squeezed onto the beanbag with me. “One suggestion, though?”

“I’m all ears.”

“Sparklier background on the web page. As in, it currently has no sparkles. Just purpleness.”

“You’re the sparkly one, salad girl.” I knocked Diya off the beanbag with a playful shove. “This is gonna be my thing, and my thing doesn’t include sparkles.”

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 258: Victory Music

Show Notes

Mermaid UK: http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk
The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/

Theme music “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Victory Music

by Daniel José Older

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 257: Little Wonders 13 – Death

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Chrysalis

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

The love of my life died on July third, 1983, at the respectable age of one hundred and nineteen. Oldest man on Earth, according to the good Doctor Hippen.

I can’t say his death came as a shock; when a man reaches that advanced an age, only the absolutely delusional would suggest he buy denture paste in bulk. Still, I hadn’t expected it to happen so suddenly.

We had just begun a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle (always the optimist, my Edgar). One moment, he was looking for a piece of the sky, and the next, he found a piece of his very own. How convenient that his death would coincide with Lasagna Sunday, the bane of his existence.

(Continue Reading…)

Genres: ,

Episode 256: Phalium Arium Ssp, Amans by Victoria Sandbrook

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Phalium arium ssp. anams

By Victoria Sandbrook

 

Nora tugged her gloves down further over her freckled wrists. Every other couple in line had linked arms, but John Reidy had not so much as inched his elbow towards her. She wasn’t sure what pained her more: the ache in her hands screaming that this parish carnival sideshow hid more magic than most or her inept suitor. The line could not move fast enough.

But nothing about this show was fast. Patrons shuffled between intricate, though fraudulent, displays: palm-sized peacocks with visible clockwork, chicken-sized dragon eggs wiggling as a hidden steam boiler hissed, monkeys that might as well have still had their old organ-grinder parts attached. Nora struggled not to roll her eyes. Dull, boring, badly engineered. And not a true cryptid to be seen. Everyone else had sighed, pointed, marveled. Only John Reidy seemed as disappointed as Nora. He’d polished his glasses, refolded his handkerchief in his pale fingers, and said “hmm,” three times.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 255: Doors

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Doors

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

It had been three months since I’d taken my brother anywhere. The last place we’d gone together was our mother’s funeral. Since then Zack had been difficult, more so than usual, refusing to put on his shoes, shushing me when I asked him to do his chores, even screaming and pounding his fists when it was time to drive him to the recycling facility where he sorted paper as part of a program for developmentally disabled adults.

But he had agreed to visit the county fair, though in the car on the way he had bruised his knuckles knocking on the window glass, an old habit Mom and I thought we’d broken him of.

At the fair, we walked down aisles of blue-and-white striped tents that sold fried Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, Texas turkey legs and popcorn balls. Zack demanded it all; the whole night he’d been signing the first letters of every food item we passed. I remembered why I’d put off an outing. Fun was exhausting, especially with a brother who wanted so much and didn’t understand that he couldn’t have it. Between school and the stack of bills at home, I could barely afford the fair tickets. The income from Zack’s job only paid enough to cover gas to get him to work and back.

The word “no” always sets Zack off, so I didn’t say it when he asked for giant sugar cookies and lemonade and funnel cake. Instead I walked in front of him, leading him through throngs of people, searching out booths with those magical words on display: complimentary, FREE. Thus far I’d found a magnet for a car rental agency, a blue balloon, a plastic water bottle which featured the portrait of a cartoon cowboy, four pens and a dozen flyers, all of which Zack would cherish as much as his photo collection.

In the background, the midway’s steel roller coasters quaked like giants. The musk of barn animals drifted from the livestock pens near the rodeo hall. These were two places I wouldn’t take him. If I did – as he begged me to, his non-signing hand pointed permanently toward them – we would never leave. I also avoided any booths which might remind me of what I could no longer accomplish, with Zack to take care of; the local travel agent’s booth was hardest to avoid, with its posters depicting far off places, monuments and museums I would never visit.

Instead I followed a series of arrowed signposts with a word nearly as good as FREE: $1 Tours, in bold orange marker. They guided us to a circular purple building which seemed to be a modified Starship 2000, a ride that Zack and I had ridden often as children, when I was just his sister and not his caretaker; the UFO-shaped structure contained about two dozen pads, each as tall as a person, which everyone would lie against. The conductor in the middle would fiddle with his levers, start the carnival music, and the ride would spin around his command station. The centrifugal force would push us up to the ceiling and pin us to the walls, pull our grins wide like grotesque masks. The tour building was the same eggplant purple, but the lighted sign that stretched across its roof proclaimed a different name: The Bender. A ramp led to a door which led inside. At the gate stood a woman all in black despite the atrocious heat, one of the handmade signs in her manicured grip. Sweat shone on her bare arms, and the curve of her long fingers folded around the sharp of the sign’s edges made my stomach flutter. Two more women in black leaned against the wall.

“What is this?” I asked, an excuse to hear her speak. Zack waved to the woman. He’d always been a bit of a ladies’ man.

“This is the Super Spectacular Space Bender,” she said. She had a strange accent, unlike any I had ever heard. “The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond!”

I smiled. My palms were sweating. It had been a while since I’d spoken to a beautiful girl. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Zack made his way to one of the other women and stuck out his hand. She shook it.

“Oh really?” I said. “How do you manage that?”

“Tours are only a dollar. Questions will be answered at the end, though we make no guarantee as to truths, or satisfactions, or even that the questions answered will be the questions you requested.”

In my wallet I had exactly five dollar bills. I handed her two – her fingers brushed mine as she took them – and called to Zack. When he wouldn’t come, the woman he’d shaken hands with took his arm. People were always doing that, helping. Sometimes they asked if I needed it first. Always, I wanted to say, I need more help than you can give. Zack followed the woman up the ramp and into the Super Spectacular Space Bender. I could think of nothing else to say, so I followed him.

Inside, the Bender was shaped like a giant donut, a thin hall stretched around what must have once been the circular control room in the middle, now closed off with a wall of its own. I only knew it was still there because of the single arched door to my right. The size of the hall was impossible. It seemed to stretch farther inward than the outside suggested, but I chalked the optical illusion up to the red-and-white striped circus tent wallpaper, which made me dizzy. The pads that lined the Starship 2000 were gone. Instead, rectangular steel doors obscured the wall to my left, no more than two feet between each, the door we’d come through lost in the repetition. The Bender smelled like sugar and sweaty children. I glanced down at the floor. It was transparent, though the only thing visible through it was the concrete platform on which The Bender stood. Kernels of popcorn had been smashed into the glass.

“Look up,” the woman who’d been holding the sign whispered into my ear, her breath hot. I did as she asked. The ceiling too was glass, and through it stars gleamed as if the light pollution of the fair didn’t exist.

“I know, right?” the woman said. She maneuvered her way to the front of the small crowd of five, my brother and I included, and began to shout. “Ladies and gents, welcome! I would like to entreat all of you to wander these halls. Please do look in the windows of any doors you find, for as you see there are many doors, and please feel free to speculate on the nature of what you see, though I can assure you, you will be wrong. But you must not open any door, no matter what you see inside. Many have been lost to the doors.” Her words echoed through the vast hallway.

I didn’t see Zack or the woman he had been talking to; they’d managed to slip away down the hall.

My sneakers squeaked against the glass floor as I searched for them. When I still could see only darkness ahead, no sign of my brother, I leaned over to peer through a round porthole window in one of the doors that should have led back outside. I couldn’t quite believe what was behind it. Men and women in suits stood around with cocktails in their hands. Off to the only corner of the room I could see, ravenous party guests surrounded a table of hors d’oeuvres.

But the room couldn’t exist. There wasn’t enough space for a large party room; there wasn’t space for any room.

“What the?” I said out loud. But before my question could be answered, I spotted Zack walking through the crowd behind the window, holding a plate of cakes. Damn it, I thought. That’s what I get for being distracted. I tried the knob. To my surprise, it turned. I entered the room and shut the door behind me.

I shuffled through the crowd. I thought I saw Zack’s shoulder, but when I touched it, the man who turned to face me wasn’t him. I darted about, searching, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Have you seen my brother?” I asked people. “Have you seen a guy with Down’s Syndrome? Doesn’t talk?”

One woman nodded, pointed. I followed her lead. The room was too big, and I didn’t understand how Zack could move so quickly; normally he was slow, always glancing back as he walked, double- then triple-checking, like a tic. A glitch in the Matrix, our father once called it, before he packed up and left one day, at mom’s request, promising to return once she had changed her mind. We were younger. His leaving didn’t mean I would be saddled with all the responsibility of a parent. We still had Mom back then.

For a moment, and I swear it was brief, I stopped. I didn’t want to find him. I thought about what the woman had said – lost through the doors – and it sounded like a way out. I could save all my money, see the world like I’d always planned.

But then I remembered my brother, how no one here would know his name. I kept on.

Finally I glimpsed what appeared to be the back of his dark mop of hair near the far wall. I hurried to him and placed my hand on his shoulder. As I did I realized it was too high to be Zack’s shoulder, and then the man turned.

It was our father.

Wrinkles bordered his eyes, and his hair was white and grey. We had never gotten to see him that way. The couple he’d been talking to went on talking, so he and I were left staring at one another. My father’s lips pursed tight. In his hand he held a glass of amber liquor.

“What are you doing here, Nikki?” he asked.

“Why are you here?” I said, stumbling over words.

He rolled his eyes. “That’s a stupid question if ever I heard one. I’m not allowed to have a party in my own apartment? Are you the party police now?”

“You’re not gone,” I said.

“Oh, for God’s sake. You really are your mother’s daughter. So dramatic.” He shrugged my hand off his shoulder. “Did you come to apologize?”

Suddenly I didn’t care why or how he was back, or what this life was behind the door. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him tight. The liquor sloshed in the glass and wet a spot on my shirt, cold through the cotton.

“It’s been so long,” I said.

“Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry. You don’t have to say it,” he said.

“Zack!” I said. “Where is he?”

My father scowled. “In his room, I hope. I asked him to stay there. He was getting belligerent, upset at all these people, I suspect.”

“You did? But wasn’t he happy to see you?”

“For God’s sake. If you want to raise him, go right ahead.”

As if it had all been solved – all questions answered, all apologies for invented crimes assuaged – our father stormed into the crowd. I decided to seek out Zack. At least I could judge the situation by Zack’s reaction.

I went down the first hall I reached, trying each door I passed. The first was a bathroom, occupied. The second a closet. Zack’s was the third. I found him on the bed with his plate of cake beside him, though he wasn’t eating. Instead he peered down at the floor, shaking his head, one finger twisting in the air as if he were trying to point but couldn’t quite make the fingers work right. His common expression of anger.

“Hey buddy,” I said as I sat beside him. “How’s that cake?”

He didn’t look up right away, but when he did, I realized that the area around his eye was bruised black. Immediately my hands went to touch it, to make sure it was real, but he jerked away.

“Who did this to you?” I asked.

He grunted. He wouldn’t know how to answer; descriptions of people beyond girl and boy and hat were difficult for him.

“Did you see Dad?” I asked, hoping to calm him. As soon as Dad escaped my mouth, he was off, screaming, shrill and violent, as he slapped his hands against his thighs. At first I chalked this reaction up to Dad’s being back, which was confusing even for me.

Then I remembered that I’d passed beyond the door. The words had been right there, in that woman’s mouth. The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond! If that meant what I thought it could mean – I’d read about the multiverse once, freshman year, a time of mind-altering trips down strange ideas lane – then Zack and I might have gone through a door into a place where our father had never disappeared. Or maybe I was crazy. It could also be a dream, but one glance at Zack and his black eye told me it wasn’t. It was too real for that.

“Listen to me, Zack. Did Dad do that to you?” I asked. “Your eye?”

Zack stared at me, but he didn’t respond.

“Yes or no?” I said.

He shook his fist up and down: yes. A cold wave spread through my body.
I grabbed Zack’s hand and tried to pull him from the bed, but he was heavy and unwilling to follow me. “Be right back,” I told him. “I’m going to get help.”

To get him to move, I would need the help of a beautiful woman. I moved through the party, trying to avoid the eyes of guests whose unknown intentions now frightened me. I didn’t trust anyone here.

I ran, searching for the door. When I finally found it, I jerked it open and tumbled back into The Bender’s rank hall.

It was empty, and the circus tent wallpaper seemed to pulse in the light which flickered from elephant-shaped wall sconces. I hadn’t seen them earlier, but they were dust-covered and faded, as if they’d been there for years. I bent down to rest my hands on my knees. The floor no longer revealed the industrial platform it had before. Instead, black went on forever, dotted with stars. Dizziness forced me to press my hand onto the door, which was cool and slick beneath my palm. When I was once more able to stand, I looked again in the door’s window. Our father was clomping toward the hall, a taller, darker drink in his hand.


I ran the length of the hallway until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I wasn’t sure how far I’d come, but one of the many windows to my left showed me another place, a beach in winter, covered with snow. I peered into the window of the command center door, which seemed to have followed me as I ran; it was the same arched door I’d seen before, when I first entered the Bender. As I’d run, I could always see it to my right, in the corner of my eye. Through the window, the three women in black and a man in a purple fedora lounged in chairs shaped like high heels.

I opened the door. None of them stirred. Two of the women were touching heads, giggling. The third woman, the one from before, the whisperer, chewed her nails and peered at a black-rimmed flat-screen television – it even had the SAMSUNG logo below it – on the far wall above a huge wooden wheel like those you’d find on a ship. On the screen a mess of colored dots and arrows and blue lines like the streets on a GPS shifted and changed. I thought for a moment I saw the outline of a fox disappear off the screen. The man in the fedora was speaking too loudly for the size of the room: “Damn it all, the bloody foxbusters! Can you believe we made it out of there, all intact? Or mostly, anyway. Holy key limes, crewsters!”

“Excuse me,” I said. “I need your assistance. My brother went into one of the rooms, and he won’t come out. Please, it’s urgent. I need a woman.”

The man whistled. “I’ll say,” he said. “I would drink to that.”

The three women turned their heads. The one from earlier stood. “I remember you,” she said. “My name is Belinda. Your brother is fine. I led him to the midway myself. I suspected you may have gone through.”

“But I just saw him. He was at my father’s party. He had a black eye. I need to get him out of there.”

“Impossible!” said the man. “You can’t take him out with you.”

“Why not?”

“You’re here only because you haven’t chosen,” Belinda said. “Your reality. That brother is not yours for the taking.”

“We have a plan for people like you,” said the man.

“People like me? Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Captain, of course. And I’m telling you, I know you. You’re unhappy with the way things are, back at home. You’re exhausted. You wake up every day on the wrong side of the road and wish you had a choice in it all. I’m here to tell you that you do. You have four choices, in fact.”

“Why won’t anyone help me get my brother?” I said.

Belinda reached out and squeezed my hand. “Please,” she said. “I’ll explain everything.” She turned to the man. “Captain, don’t you have some piloting to do? I’m afraid we’re quite off course.”

Belinda led me from the room so we could speak without distracting Captain, she said. She asked me to sit with her on the glass floor. I did, though I tried my hardest not to glance down.

“Don’t you worry,” she said. “You get used to feeling like you’re falling all the time.”

This is what she told me then: The Bender was indeed the hub for the Multiverse. I was smart, she said, to figure that out, never mind that she had flat out told me; no one ever believed the words of a state fair vendor, though they were often more true than a scientist’s. Each outer door led to a new reality. The brother I’d seen wasn’t mine, not really. Rather he belonged to the Nikki in his own world, a Nikki whose father had not left when she was young.

Then she told me that I was here, in the Primalverse with them, because I had not chosen a future. I had seen a world behind a door, and it had raised a question. I was asking myself if one of these realities might hold a happier me. This was a question she said she could not answer. This was the reason I would be given a choice.

Three doors. I had gone through my first and found it wanting. I could go through two more, experience those realities, see if they held an ideal world. After the third, I would be forced to choose. Any of the three I’d visited, or my own, which waited frozen for me, though it would not wait forever. I had twenty-four hours, and that was all. Already I had used a quarter of that time.

I didn’t say to her what it was flashed through my head; would there be a world where my brother could take of himself, where he could speak? Or where our mother had not left me with a man-sized burden?

I set the timer on my watch.


I searched the windows for a scene that called to me. Vibrant landscapes, dull white rooms I passed on, until I came to a window which revealed my mother’s house as it had appeared that morning. Only here, the light shone through the living room as it no longer did. Rarely did we open the curtains anymore; it would be like a betrayal of our grief.

As soon as I felt the brown shag beneath my feet, I smelled the sugar scent of chocolate chip cookies just browned enough to take from the oven. Mom always burned them; she couldn’t smell them being done as I could. I rushed into the kitchen, slipped the potholders onto my hands, and pulled the sheet from the oven.

“Oh, I forgot about them again,” said my mother’s voice from the hall.

“Thanks, dear. I guess you came just in time.”

Mom wore her ratty blue robe, a staple in her dying days, but she seemed different in it now. Her face glowed with life. Her hair was combed and wet, her cheeks free of the pillow marks that had taken over like wrinkles when she’d been confined to bed for weeks at a time. Her skin was smooth, and when I hugged her, hard, it smelled of soap and powder.

She hugged me just as hard back – always she had understood that sometimes, without explanation, people just need to feel the pressure of love – but she whispered into my ear: “Is everything okay? You seem frazzled.”

“It’s just you, Mom. You’re here. You look so good.”

“Why, thank you.” Mom pulled back, held her arms out to her side. “I gussied up just for you.” I was aware of tears in my eyes. Mom noticed them too, pulled me back into the hug. “Nikki, what happened?”

“You’re okay,” I said. “I had a dream, that you were dead.”

“I’m fine. I’m going to live a long time yet. You don’t have to worry about me.” She kissed the top of my hair like she used to do when I was a little girl. “What we do have to worry about is these cookies sticking to the pan. You want to help me?”

I began slipping the spatula under the cookies and moving them to the cooling rack. “Is Zack still asleep?” I asked. The clock told me it was noon, but he’d been known to sleep all day if we let him.

“Who?” Mom picked up a cookie and blew on it.

“Very funny.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mom popped the cookie in her mouth, held her hand to my forehead.

“I’m fine.” I arranged three cookies on a plate. “I’m going to go wake him up.”

“Wake who up?”

“Zack, Mom. You know, your other child?”

“I don’t get the joke.”

That familiar wave of cold again. Without answering, I walked through the house to the hall, moved down it, checking doors as I went, light-headed. Deja fucking vu, I thought. All the rooms were the same, except for his. Where before his door had led to a dark den with a bed, a shelf of stuffed animals, a CD rack and a Djembe drum abandoned in the corner, now the room was filled with craft supplies: a sewing machine, several boxes of buttons, a few plastic containers full of beads and string. On the table by the far window a pair of pants dangled, empty of a body. Just like the room.

Mom appeared in the doorframe. “What’s going on with you?”

“I don’t have a brother?” I asked.

She shook her head, slowly.

“Sorry,” I said. “I must have dreamt that too. I’m tired. I’m just not feeling like myself is all.”

“You should lie down. I worry about you. Are you sleeping enough? You can’t let school stress you out, okay? You need an outlet. Do you have an outlet?”

My smile broke through. It was nice to have someone who worried. I’d forgotten how much it meant, how much I missed it.

“I do yoga,” I lied. “I’m fine. Stress is in line.”

I couldn’t lie down, not with Mom there, the scene so ordinary with the plate of cookies, her mug of cold coffee. I joined her at the table, closing my eyes as I slid into the seat. Every part of this I wanted to remember completely. We talked about school and romance, and I repeated every word she said in my head, hoping to commit them to memory. I told her I’d been so busy I didn’t have time for love. She said that was okay, that I would make time when I was ready, when I found the right man…or woman, she added. I didn’t say I doubted that was true, that there was no time to make, what with all my responsibilities. I could tell from the way her head tilted far to the side when she spoke to me that in this reality, I didn’t have responsibilities. She mentioned my father in a way that told me he had abandoned us here, too. I tried not to think of the father I’d met earlier.

Despite the warmth my mother radiated, our conversation felt hollow. I couldn’t tell her what I wanted to, couldn’t speak to her about grief, about Zack. I had to edit myself to keep from slipping Zack into the conversation, had to skirt around his existence. Without being able to confide everything in my mother, I felt as if I could confide nothing.

I couldn’t choose her at the expense of Zack.

I asked her for an old picture book I knew it would take a long time to find. Once she left the room, I went through the front door. There are some things you don’t want to have to do twice, and saying goodbye to a mother is one of them.


This time when I reentered The Bender, miniature stuffed animals were suspended from strings attached to the glass ceiling with duct tape. A llama brushed the top of my head as I ducked into the hall. They had been sewn from colored felt, deep reds and blues, beige, none of the usual flashy colors. I lifted my hand and let my fingers brush them: a lion, a bat, an earthworm. I held my breath and stared up at them until I could no longer see them as separate entities, just one colored blur above, blocking out the stars. I felt as if they were mine to see alone, and for a moment the choke in my throat from seeing my mother lessened.

From the control room, I heard music, what sounded like a synthesized polka. Also, voices. When I opened the door, the control room was different. Strips of silver hung from this ceiling and sparkled in the light of paper lanterns. The shoe-shaped chairs in which the crew had previously sat were now the shape of red lips, and I couldn’t see the crew, though I could hear them laughing.
As I crept further into the room, they came gradually into focus. Each of them wore a jumpsuit which matched the decorations so perfectly they had blended in. Captain came toward me, and as he did the colors of his clothes shifted with the objects he passed.

“Back so soon?” he said. “Still haven’t found your bread crumbs, then?”

“Not quite,” I said. “What’s the occasion?”

“For the party? What isn’t the occasion?” Here he leaned in so close I could feel his hot breath. Unlike Belinda’s, his churned my stomach. “I don’t know how you got here, you know. Usually people get stuck in the doors. Once they leave, they don’t ever come back. But you, Ms. Nikki, you found us here in the void. You must be a special kind of woman.”

“I’m not,” I said, backing away. “At least not in the way you would like.”

“If you say so,” he said. “Would you like a wink of wing juice? The bottle says toxic, but we think that just means enjoy in moderation!”

“No thanks,” I said. From the screen against the wall I heard a frantic beeping. A huge red dot was moving toward the smaller green, both of them traveling the length of a blue line. “Shouldn’t you be controlling the ship?”
“He doesn’t,” Belinda said, “control the ship.”

Captain mumbled his way back to one of the chairs.

“Why is he called Captain then?”

Belinda leaned in. “He likes to think he controls things. Really it’s us – me mostly – does the controlling.” She smiled. “He’s more like our entertainment. He likes you, though. We all do.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “Those other two haven’t really talked to me.”

Belinda shrugged.

“Those animals,” I said. “Who made them?”

“Do you like them?” She beamed. “I won them for you. I thought they might make you feel more at ease.”

“They did. Thank you.”

“Have you made your decision?”

“No,” I said. “I still have one door to go.”

She placed her hand on my shoulder. It seemed everyone was doing that these days. I’d forgotten how she had first made my stomach jump.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Go.”


Choosing the third door was more difficult. No obvious choice presented itself, and so I rushed from door to door and pressed my hand against each, trying to let my skin decide. Most of them were cool, the same temperature as the hall, but then I came to one where the cold of the steel bit into my hand, startling in its variance from the others. I looked through the window and knew my choice had been made.

The other side of the door left me feeling immediately as if my choice had been wrong. I’d felt drawn from the window to its stark whiteness – how boring it seemed – as I used to be drawn to smaller Christmas presents, sure that they would hold the best treasure, as they so often did. But once the smell came at me – bleach and laundry detergent – I felt overwhelmed by the decision I would soon be forced to make. Still, I walked on.

I was in some sort of laundry facility. Washers thumped on one side of the room, dryers on the other. There were no people around. I found another door which led to a hallway that reeked of antiseptic. Down the hall, with closed doors to either side, I found a check-in desk like those at doctor’s offices. Behind the desk sat a woman. Her attention was occupied by a sheet of paper before her.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She looked up. Her eyes brightened. “Ms. Nikki,” she said. “We haven’t seen you in quite some time.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’ve been busy.”

“I know,” she said. “How was the Czech Republic? I’ve seen some of your show.”

“My show?”

“You know, Zack’s very proud of you.” She leaned across the desk, as if she were going to tell me a secret. “Some of the nurses don’t think Zack understands very much, but I think he understands more than he lets on. He sees you on the TV sometimes, and he points, he laughs.” The television caught her eye, and she pointed upwards. “Speak of the devil,” she said.

On the TV, I stood before the backdrop of Prague’s Old Town Square, which was teeming with people and stalls selling colored eggs and beer in plastic cups. A logo in the corner read, TravelTimes with Nikki Nolan. The last name wasn’t mine; I was a Lyle, not a Nolan. Sure enough, as I held a fat soft pretzel up to the camera, a solid silver band glinted on my finger.

I wondered who she or he was, if she traveled with me. If I’d seen all of the world. What was it like out there, an almost infinite number of doors to choose from? Was I in love, with the world and with a someone and with the life I’d been able to live?

“Can I see my brother?” I asked.

“Of course,” said the woman. After I stood there a minute too long, she frowned. “Did you forget? Room 216,” she said.

I found 216, a wood and rough-grained door with a shiny gold knob. Inside Zack slept face down atop the blankets. I’d seen him sleep like that before, and it made me laugh. I said his name. His head jerked up. He looked older, much older than me, which he was – ten years older, in fact – but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I might be older too. To be out there seeing the world as I was, I must have already completed college.

I gawked at the mirror hung on the backside on his door. I looked the same. Of course, people with Down’s syndrome often age more quickly, but Zack had always seemed so youthful in our reality, like a child. Perhaps, I thought, looking around at his dull white room, he’d matured. Or the home was to blame. I’d read that homes could do that to a person, worsen a condition. Being in a strange place would certainly stress Zack out, make him less comfortable than our own home. He wouldn’t like the bare walls, the absence of faces he had known since childhood.

He didn’t smile when I said hello, but he had never done that. I rushed to his bedside and hugged him close.

“I’ve missed you.” I didn’t know if it meant anything to him, but I had to say it. “How have you been?”

Zack swung his legs over the side of the bed. His eyes were trying to close against the light, still lazy with sleep.

“How have you been, Zack? Good, bad, okay?” I held my thumb up, down, to the side.

He gave me a thumbs up.

“Good? You’ve been good?”

He held two fingers in the center of his palm.

“Hot dog? You want a hot dog? I’m sure we could arrange that.”

I held out my hand, and he took it. I asked him to lead me to the cafeteria, but he kept falling back, so I followed the signs and led him there instead. The cafeteria was located in a large room with a serving line at the front, where a handful of patients moseyed with trays in hand. Round orange tables were scattered across the black-and-white tile, few of them filled. Zack and I waited through the line, and though there were no hot dogs, there were hamburgers, which we both ordered plain with ketchup only. I always used to forget that he didn’t like vegetables on his sandwiches, but it seemed important that I remember, at least this once.

We sat at a table near the back and ate. He repeated the hot dog sign a couple of times, so I had to point at his burger, sweep my hand down in an L – later. Later was another one of the words Zack hated. He shook his head, uttered his guttural no!

“It’s okay, Zack. Be happy, okay?”

And it was true, it was okay. There I was, watching him eat his burger, and it had only been less than twenty-four hours – I glanced at my watch, twenty-two hours, in fact – but it felt like weeks. “How long have I left you here?” I asked, voice shaking.

He didn’t answer, and I didn’t want him to. I knew it had been a long time, regardless that I still looked the same age, and he so much older. But, despite the graying hair, he still had the same tics, the same contempt for words, the same demands for the same foods. It was me who was really different. It was the smallest of changes, but it was significant; I couldn’t live in a world where my life hadn’t included my brother, despite him being happy, despite my own apparent happiness. There had to be some way to see the world and take care of my brother, some way to make it work.

I kissed the top of his hair; it smelled of oil and eucalyptus shampoo, his favorite back at home, too. I couldn’t say I was sorry. That word too was forbidden. Instead I thought it, tried to make him know it from the way my eyes met his. He kept eating his fries.

I backed out of the cafeteria, and once hidden from his view I ran through the halls, back to the laundry room door, slipping on the white tile. I burst through the door back into The Bender.


Belinda was waiting in the hall. Her jumpsuit shone purple in the light. She looked at her watch as I emerged.

“Cutting it close,” she said. “Forty minutes left. Have you decided?”

I nodded.

“Well, hold it in a bit longer. I have a proposition for you.” She took my hand. Together we entered the control room through the arched door. Captain was in a corner of the room, which now displayed the same striped wallpaper as the hall. The other women weren’t around. Without music or Captain blaring, I could make out the intermittent whir of an engine in the walls.

“Does Captain do anything but goof off?”

“He makes a mad orange scone,” Belinda said. “And his party tricks are to die for. He does this thing with an apple and a mouse. Absolutely brilliant. Though it does take some doing to find a suitable rodent.”

She stopped before the screen, pointed upward. Her other hand, soft and sweaty, squeezed mine. I tilted my head, and a giant ball of blue-green pulsated before me, waves of light snaking like tentacles from its center. It was so beautiful my breath left me. I raised my hands to the top of my head.

“I want you,” she said, “to stay with us.”

I looked back to her. She too was beautiful, though I hadn’t really noticed just how beautiful. I had trained myself not to fully notice things like that – too little time to stop and consider faces, lips; hers were right there in front of me, as if she was daring me to notice them, full and pink, curved up at the ends in a mysterious smile. I kissed her because I could.

“Is that a yes?” she asked when we parted. “Wait, don’t answer.” She turned to the screen, keyed in some letters and numbers, hit the red button. “Look at this, first. A complete map of this place, the Primalverse. We can show you so much.”

On the screen new dots winked and rotated. Upon closer inspection, I saw that five of the dots were shaped like ships. They drifted about in the void.

“What are those other ships?” I asked.

“Other hubs, for other universes. Where you don’t exist, where you don’t have to worry at all about family. About any of it. The craziest stuff you’ve ever seen lurks behind the doors in those ships. I can take you there. We can travel them together. I’m due for a vacation, after all.”

“How many?”

“Hundreds. This map is just the edge.”

The desert was nothing compared to this. Belinda’s hand was still in mine, and her lips had left the taste of salt. It made me thirsty. The intersecting colors on the screen resembled a piece of modern art you might see in a famous gallery, obscure and inspiring. Just watching it made my mind race. There is a difference between imagining love from a ring on a finger and feeling it right in front of you, an arm’s reach away. But there was no way to tear myself in two, to be both the people I wanted to be. I shook my head, slowly at first, then faster.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think I can.”

“He’s safe,” Belinda said. “We can make him safe for you. But you can’t ever go back there. You can’t enter any of these doors again, not in this hub.”

“You want me to give up my home?”

“Trade your home, for hundreds of others.”

There was a woman’s hand in mine, the soft warmth of skin I hadn’t felt in two years now, ever since Mom got sick. What would it be like, I wondered, to have someone to hold onto?

I looked down at our clasped hands. The timer blinked on my wrist. Twenty minutes, it read. I felt my heart speed. What if I just stayed here, right until the end? Made my decision at the last minute? Waited until my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t stand it anymore?

But I couldn’t. I would regret even this hesitation. I let go of her hand. I glanced around the control room once more, but I didn’t look at the screen. I didn’t look at the floor or the ceiling. I looked at the dizzying walls, at the sleeping Captain. I didn’t look at Belinda.

As I turned, I felt her hand, for a moment, enter my pocket, like she was trying to hold me back. I jerked myself away and continued through the door. Walked down the hall. All the doors appeared the same, and for a panicked moment I wondered how I would be able to recognize it; there wasn’t time to peer through each and every window.

But then I felt it, the sweltering heat of Texas drifting through the air-conditioned building. I looked through the window at fairgoers paused, frozen, as they pushed toward promises of life-changing visions and best value makeovers. A woman stood before The Bender, brows pinched in confusion, her mouth open, as if she’d been speaking to the invisible space where, an instant before, Belinda had stood. I exited.

Down the ramp I ran, across the paths, kicking dirt up into my mouth, zigzagging through the immobile mob. The bright lights of the midway arched before me, until I stood beneath them. The timer on my watch told me I had five minutes to go. I didn’t want Zack to be without me any longer. I didn’t want to be without him.

I knew where he would have gone: the roller coaster.

The line was long, but I spotted him toward the back. I ducked under the queue rope and stood beside him. His hands straight down by his sides, the fanny pack he always wore loose around his waist, his bright green shoes tied tight. He was half-smiling. That would change once he realized I’d returned. He’d be even angrier when he realized he needed ten tickets to ride the coaster.

But right now, he was the brother he’d been when we were little and we played Uno together or camped in our backyard, pretending our parents were a distant memory. We didn’t have to pretend anymore, and it wasn’t like we’d thought it would be then, endless cookies and late nights.

When we get home, I thought, I’ll make you cookies.

I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. He would never let me do that. With two minutes left, I put my hands into my pocket, felt something there, and pulled out a sheet of bright red tickets. I recalled the weight of Belinda’s hand. I grinned.

I reached down and slipped the tickets into Zack’s open palm, closed his fist around them. Then I ducked back under the rope, looked him over one more time, and went around to the exit. There I would wait for him, to rouse, to ride, to go home.

Episode 254: A Complex Filament of Light by S. Qiouyi Lu


• Content Warning: Grief
• Narrated by S. Qiouyi Lu
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Anathema Magazine (April 2017)
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Show Notes

S. Qiouyi Lu is a writer, editor, and translator who has also narrated for PodCastle, GlitterShip, and Acacia Moon Productions. You can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

 

 

 

 


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

 

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Episode 253: Single Parent by Sarah Gailey

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Single Parent

By Sarah Gailey

 

The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.

Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.

I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay?

Anyway, he screamed like he’s screamed every night since we watched Denise go into the ground. I came running like I’ve come running every night since we threw dirt at her coffin, which seems like it’s supposed to be important and respectful but really just felt like throwing dirt at my wife’s corpse. He was sitting up in bed, sweating and crying and smelling like little-kid-piss and I remember thinking that this was the last straw — that tonight I would be Tough Dad and tell him I wasn’t going to put up with the screaming anymore.

I didn’t end up doing that, though. I’ve never been a tough guy. Denise was always the tough guy, but she’s being tough on Abraham up in heaven somewhere and I’m down here sitting on my kid’s wet bedsheets.

Anyway, I burst into his room and put my arms around him. I kissed his sweaty head and told him that everything would be okay. I asked which nightmare had woken him up this time. Usually they’re nightmares about his mom coming back, which breaks my heart to hear, but the therapist said I have to listen. So I braced myself, and tried to be ready to hear him talk about how Denise’s face is melting off in his subconscious.

Only this time, he shook his head. Not a nightmare. A monster.

I am a bad father because I was relieved. That’s how you know you’re a bad father: your kid is trembling and terrified and you breathe a sigh of relief because it’s only his worst fear and not yours.

The thing is, I thought I knew how to handle the monster situation. From experience. For six months or so before Denise died, Jack had this thing about a monster in his closet. The therapist said that he was processing her sickness through a proxy – that he couldn’t quite understand what was coming, that he couldn’t know what “terminal” meant, so his little-boy brain just decided “there’s scary shit on the way” and invented a monster that was always getting ready to eat him. That’s how I felt for the entire time she was dying. And sure enough, once she died, he stopped having the thing about the monster.

So I did what I had done every other time that Jack had woken up screaming about the monster: I checked the closet. That’s what you do, right? Your kid says “oh god there’s something scary” and you say “I’ll go look at it for you” and then you look, and there’s nothing there, and you tell the kid that nothing is there, and everyone goes back to bed.

Except that’s not what happened.

Look, there’s never been a monster in there before. I can deal with a lot of stuff. I’m a bedtime champion and a dang master at after-school-talks about feelings. I can re-shingle a roof and I’m even okay at plumbing, if the water’s shut off right. I can handle myself, is what I’m saying. But a monster? I had no game plan for there actually being a monster. My game plan was oriented towards getting the kid back to sleep. It’s a fifteen-minute plan at the most. The point is, who prepares for the eventuality that a six-year-old is right about something at two in the morning?

Not me, I guess.

So I told Jack-o I would look in the closet, and I did. I opened the closet door, and then I shut it again very quickly, because guess what? There was a monster in there.

You’ll want to know what the monster looked like. I was too busy clenching to retain details, but here was my general impression: teeth, claws, tentacles. I didn’t know that tentacles could have claws, but apparently the limits of my imagination do not encompass the fullness of God’s creation, so what do you want? Also, eyes — so many eyes, like a spider with a lot of little spiders on top of it. All of them were looking at me.

It was without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever seen in my ever-loving life, and I’ve seen a doctor’s face when he’s about to say the phrase “six months left”, so I know from scary.

I opened the closet door again. The monster made a noise like a percolating coffee maker. I shut the door.

And now I’m sitting in my son’s bed, not minding the piss smell so much, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell him that the monster in the closet is real.

 


 

It’s not fair to Jack, is the thing. It’s not fair that he already had to find out that moms can die and dads can’t stop it – now monsters? In his closet? And I can’t spin this as maybe it’s a nice monster because it’s a monster and monsters are by definition not nice, and something with that many eyes eats little boys. It’s just a fact.

He’s looking at me and his little pink lip is quivering and he’s shaking like he runs on batteries, but he’s setting his jaw like his mom used to. Christ. He’s being brave.

He rubs the back of his head, foofing out his duckling hair, and I realize that it’s a motion he’s learned from me. I do that all the time. I’m doing it right now.

“Well, buddy. What are we gonna do about that thing?”

He shrugs in that little-kid way. When a teenager shrugs, it means “I don’t give a crap, what do you know? Leave me alone, I’ll never get old, I’ll always like this kind of music.” When a little kid shrugs, it’s so honest — a little-kid shrug just means “I got no goddamn idea, pops.” I love the hell out of him when he shrugs at me.

“When did the monster come out?”

The kiddo looks at me like I’m an idiot. “When I let my feet stick out from under the covers.” Of course. His feet are well and fully tucked in now. I lift the corner of one of the blankets just an inch, and sure enough, the doorknob on the closet starts turning. I put the corner of the blanket back down fast and the door stays shut.

“Well, we can’t have it coming out of there.” He agrees with me, nodding gravely. “‘Cause kiddo, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I’m, like, one hundred and ten percent certain that it’ll eat us.” He nods again, Duh, Dad. Kid already knows this stuff, I don’t need to tell him. He doesn’t look so scared anymore, and I realize that it’s because I’m here. His work is done — he called in the big guns, and now, the situation in the closet will be resolved by someone who knows what to do about situations in closets.

He thinks I can fix it. He thinks I can fix anything. Even after I couldn’t fix the one thing that mattered most, he still thinks I know all the answers.

We sit on the bed, talking over our options. We could nail the door shut, but then he wouldn’t be able to get any of his shoes or his pants, and he needs those for school on Monday and all. Plus the monster can probably dissolve nails with acid or something. From our combined understanding of monsters, it’s probably allergic to something dumb like mustard or broccoli or spider-man band-aids, but we don’t have time to experiment. I don’t have a gun, because I live in a house with a six-year-old. I’m proud to say that the idea of a gun doesn’t even occur to him until I mention it. What a guy.

We sit in his rocketship bed, trying to figure out what to do about the monster. He doesn’t want to kill it, because he’s six and he’s the best person in the world. I want more than anything to kill it, but I’m pretty aware of my own limitations and frankly, I don’t think I could take that thing on. I take Jack out for ice cream if there’s a spider in the kitchen, okay? Denise was always the one who dealt with those, and I never saw her take out a spider the size of my kid’s closet. This thing — it’s big. And it’s a monster. And did I tell you about the tentacles already?

After a long time spent discussing the merits of just burning the house down – and let me tell  you, spend an hour trying to explain fire insurance to a six-year-old and you’ll feel eager to face a monster – we notice that it’s getting light out. When it’s definitely morning – birds are chirping, sun is shining, the whole magilla – we decide to see if the monster is still there. Maybe it’s only there at night, you know?

My son lifts up a corner of the bedsheets.

Nothing happens.

He pushes the bedsheets down until they’re just covering his feet to the ankles.

Nothing happens.

He takes a deep breath, my brave boy, and whips his feet out from under the covers like the he’s fastest gun in the West winning a shootout. We watch the closet door, eyes wide, hearts pounding.

Nothing.

He looks at me and I look at him and we both know that one of us has to look in the closet. He whispers, “Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s nocturnal.”

I squint at him. “When did you learn ‘nocturnal’?”

He rolls his eyes and I realize that someday this kid is going to be a teenager, and I look at the closet door, hoping the monster will come out and eat us both before that happens.

“Okay. Okay, buddy, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna go shut yourself in Daddy’s bedroom, okay? You’re gonna lock the door-”

“I’m not supposed to lock the door.”

“I know, but just this once, you’re gonna lock the door and -”

“But I’m not supposed to lock the door because -”

I rest a hand on his head and deploy the Dad Stare, which is basically the only weapon in my arsenal. He’s polite enough to pretend it’s intimidating.

“You’re gonna lock the door. And then I’ll take a look and see if the monster is sleeping, and then we’ll figure out what to do, alright?”

He nods. His eyes are huge, but his jaw is still set in that Denise kind of way. I put my arms around him and I hug him, I hug my son so tight that I’m sure I’m hurting him, but he hugs me back anyway because he’s the best damned kid there ever was.

“If anything happens to me, you take my cell phone from my nightstand and you call Grandma Irene, okay?” His answer is muffled because I’m jamming his face into my chest. I pull back to let him breathe. His face looks like he has a lot of objections to this plan, but he just says “I love you, Dad,” and I don’t know if I can keep it together much longer so I push him out the door.

I sit on his rocket bed and listen to his little feet pad down the hallway. I hear him go into my bedroom with the one empty nightstand, and I hear him close the door, and God bless his six-year-old heart, I hear him turn the lock.

I don’t want to waste any time, because my son is probably terrified in there. He’s scared and alone, wondering if his dad is about to get eaten by a monster.

I have to open the closet door.

I can’t just sit here and wait – it’ll be the same thing in there no matter when I do it. I have to get up and walk across the room and open the door to my boy’s closet.

I wish Denise were here. I always wish she was here – that hasn’t stopped, not once since she died – but right now I really, really wish she was here, because she would be the one to look in the closet. She would get right up and march on over and yank the closet door open. She would grab the monster by one of those frilly things around its primary eyeballs and she’d drag it out to the front yard and make it feel ashamed of itself.

But I’m not Denise, and I’m just sitting on the rocket bed with my head in my hands because I can’t take on a monster. It’s too hard, and it’s not fair, and I don’t know how. I’m not her. Looking in the closet to confirm that there’s no monster is right in my wheelhouse, but dealing with the monster when it’s real — that’s Denise stuff.

Something tickles between my ears.

Denise stuff. This is a Denise job.

The tickle fades, but then returns again, brighter. Denise stuff. Denise stuff. Why does this feel so important?

And then I remember.

I was six. My ma came into my bedroom because I was screaming at the top of my lungs. She looked in my closet and then she said ‘oh no, no sir. This is Reggie Stuff,’ and then my pop came in and he looked in my closet, and then he sent me out of my own room. I remember I sat in my parent’s bedroom with my ma. We shut the door and put a chair in front of it and then she taught me how to play poker for a few hours.

Of course. Of course it was him.

I run down the hall to my bedroom. The door is shut – locked, of course, damn it, Jack locked it because I told him to. I’m about to pound on the door, about to yell for him to let me in, but then I think better of it. I tap on the door with the pad of my index finger.

“Hey buddy, can you let me in? It’s your dad.”

There’s a long pause, so long I almost tap again, before I he answers. I can barely hear him.

“How do I know you’re not the monster?”

Oh, Jesus, how do I answer that one?

“Kiddo, it’s really me. I… huh. How would you know if I was the monster?”

Another long pause. The sound of the lock clicking open. He eases the door open a crack, peeks out at me with one eyeball. I kneel down to look through the crack at him.

“Buddy, it’s me, I promise. But if you’re scared, you can just grab my phone from my nightstand and slide it through to me, okay? I have to make a really important phone call.”

The door shuts, locks again. Smart kid. A minute later, my phone slides under the door.

“Thanks, Jack-o. I promise I’m not mad at you for not letting me in, okay?”

No response. I tap on the door with with my pinky finger, soft as I can, wishing I could rest my hand on his fine blond hair; wishing I could give my frightened little boy a hug.

“I mean it. I’m not mad at you. You’re a smart guy, and you did the right thing. I love you.”

There’s a sniffle from the other side of the door. “I love you too, Dad.”

There’s a sniffle from my side of the door. I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my t-shirt, and head back to the bedroom before he can hear me crying, because what’s scarier to a six-year-old boy than hearing his dad cry?

I make the phone call, and after that, it’s only ten minutes or so before Grandma Irene arrives.

I’m not supposed to call her Grandma Irene – I’m supposed to call her Irene, or Mrs. Hart if she’s mad at me about something. But to Jack, she’s Grandma Irene, so it’s in my head now. You know how that goes. She’s the only grandparent the kid has, what with my ma and pop dead and Denise’s dad having run off way back when. Jack loves her.

“So, what’s the big emergency?”

I don’t know how to tell her, so I just point upstairs. We go into Jack’s room. Her eyes fall on the empty rocket bed.

“Where’s Jack? Is he alright?” Her face is white and she’s gripping my arm with such incredible strength that I know I was right to call her.

“Jack’s fine, Irene. He’s in my bedroom. I – I need your help.”

She’s searching my face, and just like that, she knows. Her head swivels until she’s looking at the closet door. She definitely knows. But she asks me anyway.

“Why did you call me?”

I clear my throat. I’m embarrassed. Wouldn’t you be? Calling Grandma to come help out? Admitting that since your wife died there are some things you just don’t know how to do? Some things you just aren’t ready to take on yet, because you can’t accept that she’s not there to help with them anymore?

“There’s a monster.”

“What? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”

I clear my throat again. I try to make eye contact with her but I can’t, so I settle on looking at her chin.

“There’s a monster. In the closet.”

She ducks her head to look in my eyes, and the way she does it is so Denise that I well up.

She nods. “What kind of monster?”

I am at a loss. What kind? How should I know?

“Uh, tentacles? Teeth, claws, eyes. Frilly things.” I wiggle my fingers around my temples like that’ll clear up the meaning of ‘frilly things.’

Irene looks at the closet, and it looks like she’s doing math in her head. She nods again.

“That’s Irene stuff, alright. Take Jack to the park and play catch. Don’t just look at me with your mouth open, Donovan, do as I say. Go to the park with him and play catch and then come back.” She calls me Donovan instead of Donny and that’s how I know she means business. And I want to take Jack to the park. But even this I can’t do on my own.

“…He won’t come out of my room. He wants me to prove that I’m not the monster, and I – I don’t really know how to do that.”

She stares at me for a long moment, then smiles. “He’s such a smart boy.”

She strides down the hall to my bedroom, raps on the door, and calls to Jack. “Jack, you come out of here right this instant. It’s Grandma Irene. I’m taking care of the monster; you and your father are going to go play catch in your pajamas.” She sounds so much like Denise that I want to curl up on the floor and bite my knees. Her tone is one hundred percent Irene, and I feel a pang of sympathy for what the monster is about to go through. Jack comes out of my bedroom. His eyes are all puffy. Grandma Irene gives him a quick hug and then pushes him towards me.

We go to the park and we play catch. Actually, we’ve never played catch before, so it’s kind of weird – us in our bare feet in the dewy grass, me teaching my kid how to throw a baseball. He’s good at it. I’m good at teaching him.

When we get home a few hours later, there are three big garbage bags piled up on the curbside for pickup. I set Jack up in the kitchen with a bagel and some peanut butter, then head upstairs. Irene’s jacket is draped across the fin of Jack’s rocketship bed, and the water is running in the hall bathroom. I knock on the door.

“Irene? Is everything okay?”

She cracks the door and peers out at me, exactly the way that Jack did when he wanted me to prove I wasn’t the monster.

“Everything is fine, Donovan. I’m taking a shower. Would you be a dear and throw this out for me?” She passes out what remains of her smart pantsuit – it is a wad of pastel shreds, held together by green ooze. “And would you loan me something to wear?”

I haven’t thrown out any of Denise’s clothes yet, and in her side of the dresser I find a set of her pajamas that look like they’ll fit Irene. I pull them out, run a thumb over the penguins on the pajama bottoms. They’re surfing. The penguins, not the pajama bottoms.

How do I do any of this without her? How do I do it alone?

But then, I’m not alone, I guess. I’ve got Irene. And I’ve got Jack. And I know that eventually, I’ll learn to do the Denise stuff. When I’m done looking at the empty places where she should be. When the fact that they’re empty stops being something I need to stare at in order to understand the contours of my loss.

I hear the water in the hall bathroom turn off, and I know Irene’ll be needing these surfing penguins in a minute. I crack the door open just enough to slide the pajamas through, then close it again as quietly as I can.

I walk downstairs, bracing myself for the peanut butter explosion that inevitably awaits me in the breakfast nook – but when I get down there, there’s no peanut butter explosion. My boy has pulled his chair up to the sink, and he’s standing on it so he can reach to wash his own plate. Getting soap everywhere, but still. He’s trying to pull his weight.

What a guy.

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Episode 252: The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey by Aimee Ogden


The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey

By Aimee Ogden

 

In her fourth-floor apartment on Wrightwood Avenue, Calliope Grey kept forty gardens of varying size and composition. She had gardens in drawers, in old hat-boxes and mixing bowls. In the drawer that pulled out from beneath her stove, she had a desert garden of cactuses and sagebrush; in the plastic freezer box that was meant to store ice cubes, she grew bearberries and arctic moss.

Real gardens, in miniature, not models or mere toys. Calliope didn’t go out looking for them, but they’d found their way to her one by one. It had been some years since she’d discovered a new one, but she still harbored hopes every time she opened a cupboard or peered beneath the furniture. Once, she’d opened a box of cereal only to have a jumble of dirt and tangled roots go spilling into her bowl. Another time, she’d left a coffee cup out on the end table overnight and found it overflowing with a tiny raspberry bramble the next morning. It didn’t matter where they come from, only that they found their way to her. She had room in her heart for all of them, and plenty more to spare.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 251: Little Wonders 12 – The Unexpected

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Why They’re Never About The Good Ones

By Evan Dicken

 

Once upon a time, in a valley in Lower Saxony just south of Meppen town, there lived an old woman and her two grandchildren.

Helene had been a weaver in her younger days, but over the years the damp of the fens had stolen into her joints, twisting her fingers until they grew as gnarled and useless as the roots of the scrubby trees that crowded the river bank.

Katarin and Klaus had come north with the Spring floods, refugees from the labor pains that accompanied the birth of French democracy. Their father had gone off to fight Napoleon, and their mother, always sickly and lovelorn, wasted away for want of him.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 250: Blood and Water by Jason Kimble


Blood and Water

by Jason Kimble

The year we turned nineteen, the boy I loved disappeared under the waves of Lake Michigan, but he didn’t die. I never told anyone. That he was alive. That I loved him. That he

My fingertip goes white as I smash down on the delete key and the cursor devours my words.

The broken swimming trophy lies sideways on the kitchen table. I stare at it as I dial, ignore the cat mewling, exiled, on the other side of the door. I count the rings of the phone at my ear. Seven rings (for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone) before Mr. Gravere picks up.

“Why are you calling, Mike?” Gravere says.

“It’s about a book,” I say. “I … think that I loaned it to Andy, before–”

“That wasn’t his name.” I can’t decide if the ice sheathing Mr. Gravere’s voice is better or worse than his scalding anger at the funeral.

“It’s special. A first edition. Return of the King. My mother–”

“So special it took you five years to notice it missing?”

“It’s just … ” I turn the gilded swimmer in my hand.

“I told you when he died, Michael: you’re not welcome here. Live without the book. I’m living without a whole lot more.” Mr. Gravere hangs up. (Continue Reading…)