by Joshua James Jordan
My mother chased after some alley cat purring like a little slut. She abandoned me in a parking lot. I walked around mewing like the little idiot I was. A Humvee rolled in and over. That’s when I learned what I looked like inside out.
In the Old Lady’s living room, I pawed at the little plastic ball filled with my catnip. The nip inside had dried into crisp, shriveled, brown leaves. Probably not even a split second of a high in there. I swatted at the ball again and it rolled a few inches.
The leather couch was covered in scratches. Not my fault the Old Lady never got me a scratching post. I had needs.
“Oh, Roger is trying to play with his ball. Poor Roger. Go to heaven already.” The Old Lady picked up the ball and put it on a shelf.
“No, no, no. Give that back,” I said.
“She can’t hear you, moron. You’re dead,” said Bird from his perch on top of the lampshade. He shook his plumage and squawked. His head was lined up wrong, like the hand of a clock pointed to 7 instead of 12. Bird looked delicious.
“You’re dead too,” I said.
The Old Lady started cleaning out the refrigerator, throwing away rotten leftovers. She shoved a whole chicken carcass into the trash can.
“Love birds never truly die. We just wait to be reunited with our other half,” Bird said.
“I know where you can find her,” I said. “In here.” I put a paw on my belly.
“I hate you,” Bird said.
The Old Lady went into her bedroom, probably for a nap.
Dog, who was still living, knocked over the trash can and began scrummaging through its contents.
“Don’t do it. You just can’t help yourself, can you?” I asked Dog. His ears perked up and he looked around for a moment before continuing his forage. He chomped on a chicken leg, splintering the bones into dozens of tiny pieces.
I thought I was tough shit. Pieces of my ear got torn off in multiple fights to establish my dominance. I reigned over the whole universe, a vast space stretching from Fourth Street to Sixth Avenue. That’s when the dogs came. The biggest had me in its jaws, shaking me from side to side. A calm washed over me.
So this is how those birds felt.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” Dog asked. I liked him better when he couldn’t talk to me.
“You choked on chicken bones,” I said. “I told you not to do it.”
“I COULDN’T HEAR YOU,” Dog said.
“Now you’re both dead,” Bird said.
“I’m not really dead. I still have lives left.”
“Then why aren’t you alive?” Bird asked.
“Paperwork issue. Cat heaven bureaucracy. They’ll get around to me eventually.”
“Whatever,” Bird said.
“Once I figure out how to climb, I’m going to go up there and eat you a second time.”
“I CAN GET UP THERE,” Dog jumped and paddled through the air. He swam up to the lampshade and circled it.
“No, that’s impossible, how can you—”
“He’s a ghost. Ghosts can fly,” Bird said.
“WATCH ME, CAT.”
“But...why can’t I?” I leapt into the air several times. No flight. No levitation. Just falling. “Must be because I still have lives left.”
“Whatever,” Bird said again.
If Dog can fly, I thought, looking over at my ball. Then I looked at the dead bolt on the front door.
It’s time to find some more nip.
This rat didn’t have the energy to skitter away from me, which took most of the fun out of it, but the Old Lady had gone on vacation and left me outside without enough food. Hunger gnawed at me.
Rat rolled over and looked up. I pinned him to the street. “Don’t do it,” Rat said. “You’ll regret it.”
“Regret and remorse are not for cats, but there’s another word that starts with ‘R’ that is quite fine for us. Do you know what that word is?”
“Screw you,” Rat said.
“Nope, that doesn’t start with ‘R’."
I ate him. My stomach purred on its own but not in the nice way. It hurt. A lot.
“Just bite it, Dog,” I said.
He swam in circles in the air near the door and tried to latch on to the dead bolt with his mouth but missed every time.
“IT’S HARD,” Dog said.
“Just stop moving around. Float up to it. Why do you keep going in circles?”
“I CAN’T SWIM STILL. I MUST MOVE.”
I shoved my face into my paws. Dear sweet mother of cats, Bastet, please help me. I am surrounded by stupid animals. I need nip.
Humans drew Bastet as a human with a cat head. Humans are so dumb. Why would the cat god have a human body?
“I GOT IT.”
Dog latched on to the handle with his teeth and spun in a circle, unlocking the door.
“Good. Great! Now the knob. Open the door knob,” I said.
Dog swam in small circles down to the knob and repeated his trick. The door swung open just enough for me to squeeze through.
Cars zipped by on the street, a lot busier than the last time I had been alive. How many years had it been, anyway?
Dog walked right through the door. “WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST WALK THR—”
“Why are you always barking at me? I told you already, I can’t walk through things. I’m not really dead. This is some kind of feline purgatory.”
Four lanes of fast moving metal crates of death stood between me and the other side where a shopping complex had a pet store.
“COME, CAT.” Dog had already crossed half the street, with cars moving right through him.
I tried waiting for a lull in traffic but it seemed to never end. Pretty soon, I dodged back and forth through the cars.
When you’re alive, humans usually try to avoid you. When they can’t see you, well...
I had almost crossed when I heard the tiny whirring of an engine. A motorcycle headed straight for me.
I remember floating in the air. Then, darkness.
I’ve played with my food. I admit it. Sometimes I’ve caught a little mouse in my paws and kept it there alive for hours, letting it escape and think it had a chance to live only to pounce on it again.
Am I psychotic? I don’t think so. Sure, I’ve left some of my victims for the Old Lady. She explained them away as presents. They weren’t.
They were threats.
Anyway, I think some humans are more like cats. Once on a rooftop, a boy had me cornered at the edge. He laughed, holding a pair of scissors. Last time, he lured me with catnip. I wouldn’t fall for it this time.
I backed up and stood on the ledge. “Here kitty, kitty,” he said.
I meowed and hissed. Bastet, curse you. I will have out your eyes.
He moved closer, a smile on his face. I jumped off the roof several stories up.
You know how they say cats always land on all fours? That time, I didn’t.
“YOU ALIVE?” Dog asked. His voice did not usher me back to the realm of consciousness the way I preferred. I slowly woke up on the concrete sidewalk.
“No,” I said.
I put a paw to my head. I hadn’t felt this bad since the Old Lady’s friend put brown water in my bowl. Tasted like crap but worked something like nip.
“Let’s go,” I said and strutted my way over to the store. “This is it.” Dog walked through the glass door but I waited until a human opened the door before I scooted through.
“Let’s be quiet, we don’t want to spook these idiots.”
Cages and aquariums lined the walls. Most of the animals waited for their next masters in silent sedation.
“OKAY,” Dog barked. The living animals growled, yipped, chirped, and made every other noise they were capable of.
I hissed at Dog. “Quick, to the back.”
The door to the office and storage area was open a smidge. I went in there to search for a catnip toy. I found a pile of them.
Oh, sweet bliss.
“HEY CAT, LOOK,” Dog said.
Buzzed, I hardly cared, but I still managed to look over. A ghost human, a girl you might say, sat at a computer. Just sitting there.
She was at that not-quite-kitten stage but not yet mateable. It’s only a few months in a cat’s life but seems to last forever in humans. The human god must be cruel.
Dog sat in her lap and she petted him with a smile.
I stumbled over and rubbed against her leg, purring. Hey, I was in a good mood for once.
“How’d you die, human pup?” I asked her.
“Got sick,” she said. She kept petting Dog and never looked up. I died from an illness once.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said.
Then a loud chirp. I looked up to see another lovebird. Bird Two.
“Oh, Bird Two. What are you doing here?”
“What do you care, monster?” she asked. After a moment, she couldn’t keep it to herself anymore. “I’m waiting for my love.”
“Oh, he’s back with the Old Lady.”
“That idiot. I told him to meet me here after we died. How could he forget something like that?”
I shrugged. “Males.”
“MALES,” said Dog.
Girl shrugged. “Boys.”
“Well, thanks for telling me,” Bird Two flew away.
“Sorry for eating you,” I said. I wasn’t really.
I opened up the rest of the catnip toys and had a wonderful time but the stuff wears off so fast.
“Hey, human. Know where I can get more nip?” I asked.
“Sure, there’s a warehouse just outside of town,” she said.
“How do you know that?” I didn’t want to waste my time on a wild nip chase.
“This is my Mom’s store,” she gestured toward some pictures. In one, the girl posed with a woman. In another, she was lying in bed without any hair.
I peeked into the front room. The same woman stood behind a cash register, her face drooping with a frown.
I thought about Girl. Such a shame for her to die before the prime of her life. No kittens of her own. I had kittens once.
I rubbed against the girl’s leg again and purred. “Say, take us to the warehouse, eh?”
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
It took awhile to get there but there was one perk to unlife: time didn’t matter.
The warehouse had a single door with nobody coming in or out. No open windows. It had a large white garage door for trucks to load and unload. Dog floated into the warehouse and told me, “THERE’S A BIG BOX OF NIP.” Thanks Dog.
I had to get in. A delivery truck pulled up and a man got out but left the engine running. Thank you, Bastet, for this battering ram.
Girl moved the gear shift from park into drive. Dog sat below on the break. I held the wheel. This would work.
“Ready?” I asked.
“How do you know how to drive,” Girl asked.
“Old Lady likes TV,” I said.
“READY,” Dog said.
“Now,” I said.
Dog hopped onto the gas pedal. I swerved the wheel and turned toward the garage door. We crashed through, sending the door and boxes everywhere.
One of the crates contained bags and bags of catnip. I almost dove right in, but somehow I managed to control myself. I had to do this right. It might be my only opportunity to have this much nip in one sitting.
“Alright, Girl. Open all those bags and pour it into the crate. Let me know when you’re done.”
“Um, okay,” Girl said.
I was glad to have a new slave.
“Are you sure you can’t overdose on this?” Girl asked.
“I’m willing to find out.”
I climbed up some nearby crates and looked down into the beautiful green mound of nip, and then... I jumped.
Something you need to know about nip. It works just by smelling it. As I neared the catnip, time slowed to a halt. I froze in midair while Girl and Dog just stared at me, unmoving. Oh, I was higher than I’d ever been. I couldn’t feel my paws anymore, but I knew they’d quintupled in size. I wasn’t a cat. I was a lion, king of all animals. My prey offered their young to me, but no, I demanded a chase.
I hunted them through the tall grasses and forests, my paws moving silently even through dry, crunchy leaves. I pounced on them in the snow and laughed, their flesh staining the wintry landscape crimson. I feasted on a thousand animals before I met Bastet herself. She stood in front of me on the plains, a giant black panther with a mane of fire. The sun set behind her in a glorious explosion.
“I’m dead aren’t I? I overdosed,” I said.
“You can’t overdose on catnip,” Bestat said. She licked her whiskers as if preparing for a meal. “I’m here about that 9th life of yours.”
“I’ve decided to grant it to you, even though you didn’t land on your feet that one time.”
“That’s...good...great,” I said.
But I looked around. I looked at my thousands of prey. I looked at my own huge paws. I felt myself roar instead of meow. “Is this heaven?”
“For cats, yes,” Bestat said.
I thought about Girl and her mother. I thought about how much life she had left to live and how many lives I already had.
“Suppose...suppose that I could transfer a life. Could you give my life to the human girl I was with?”
“Yes,” Bestat said. “I can do that.”
“Sure, what is the life of a dog compared to a cat?”
“Good point. I agree. Can I just go back and say goodbye?”
“CAT,” Dog said. Again, probably the worst voice to wake up to. I lay outside of the crate.
“Guys, I just got so high that I saw a god.”
“CAT, YOU’RE ALIVE,” Dog said.
I looked at my paws. Instead of ethereal black and white, my fur had returned to its normal shades. The color began to drain out of me slowly while Dog and Girl solidified.
“You’ve got a second chance, Dog. Don’t waste it on another dumpster dive.”
Girl looked at her hands in awe. “How?”
“Don’t thank me yet. You’ve got life problems now,” I said.
The delivery truck driver walked into the warehouse. “You! What the hell happened?”
I laughed and then began floating into the air, higher and higher.
“So long, mutt.”
Now I spend my time in tree branches, stalking birds. I chase down water buffalo with my pride. My kittens surround me and tug at my ears but leave me alone when it’s time to nap.
Oh and there’s catnip.
Never-ending fields of catnip.
by Richard King Perkins II
The sun glows chrómatos portokalí;
its light— pink coral and glassite,
flickerings among phosphorescent schist
and veins of agate.
Beneath hills of poplar
and fog pearled by ternary daybreak,
I’ve given you virtual realities resembling love,
sliding forward irrepressibly,
delivered with lips of oxygen and iridescence.
Seeing us in many places at once—
a skyway hypnosis, an armada of dirigibles,
pigments subtly drained,
denatured clouds without orient or horizon—
together, fading, crying out, restored;
we’re incorporeal and ignored,
broken and shunned creatures
hanging from an apex of gold
and even deeper gold.
I recognize your fingertip beyond its print
and compelling point—
proof that a shadow is never exactly like
the distant body which cast it.
A New Creature on Plereton
by John Grey
For all its initial mystery and wonder,
the dead version merely smells
of burnt flesh and singed feathers.
But knowledge must have its wellspring.
So bright, tight-hinged, science-powered wunderkinds
set about pecking at the brain
or splicing and dicing innards.
A creature in flight is for dreamers.
Doers prefer the essentially of design.
I was there when
it crashed to the ground,
face in the dust, wings spread side
like a fallen angel.
couldn’t wait to have at it.
What made it what it was—
its majesty in that lightning-ringed sky—
is now what makes it what it is—
nothing but form and function.
So maybe it’s not the last of its kind.
But it’s the last to fly
free of the killer’s name we gave it.
by Stephen Scott Whitaker
They’ll find you. And you’ll be meat.
Don’t say that.
You were careless today.
Maybe it won’t matter.
It always does.
Don’t say that.
It’s only the truth.
With snow nearly up to her knees, Terry grunted and pulled the tarp behind her. Her tracks wound back and behind like a slug’s trail, so wide and sweeping had she been moving. The wind blew hard down the eastern street, and even in the snowstorm the brine of the ocean just blocks to her left swirled in the wind and the flake. Twice she stopped to cough. Two deep hacking punches that brought blood to her lips and threatened to empty her stomach. Twice she fought back vomit. Hard aches rippled in her gut, her thighs, her feet as she finally reached the shade of the old tree. Too tired to panic, she adjusted her walk to keep watch for the markers she had memorized. Little blue house, turn left up Strawberry Street. Decrepit bed and breakfast, turn left. The cottage was two houses down from old man tree; the knotted and twisted elm that had long ago destroyed the sidewalk, and that now grew black and inward; its black bark and stripped limbs made her think the tree was frozen in a silent scream.
Behind, her tracks already filled with snow. She hoped wolves couldn’t smell her through the weather. But she knew better. Then, the first howl echoed up from the back alleys.
She saw the pack days ago. They’d circled back from the wastes into town, teasing out her scent; curious of meat walking the ruins. Deer ran ahead of her some days ago, and following, smaller beasts and fowl. At first she marveled at the deer and rabbit tracks, then realized they were far ahead of her, run out of the wastes.
The wolves would meet her. The beasts were mixed, true wolf and wild dog; the pack stretched thin like an old rubber band. She bent down and chose a sturdy log, an axe-handle length of cherry, and left the tarp of firewood by the old man elm.
So close, she could always dig it out later.
The run between the tree and the cottage would have taken a healthy woman nearly a full minute to bound through the snow and up the steps to the front door. But Terry was not healthy, and as malnourished as she was, it took her three times as long, enough for one of the wolves to appear behind her, its growl low and deep. Its teeth were a jagged blade against black lips. The beast advanced. One foot at a time.
As if it expected a fight.
She inched backward, facing her attacker. When it didn’t charge, she spun around and ran. But her wool blanket caught on something, or the first hard ice of night caused her to slip. She didn’t know which. She fell, fear spiking. The animal shot from the snowy drifts.
* * *
The ice slowed the beast long enough for Terry to raise the log and strike as it snapped at her face and neck. She hit it squarely in the jaw and heard a crack. But it wasn’t the animal’s skull, it was her log. She had grabbed a half-rotted weapon.
The beast was undaunted.
As Terry scrambled to her feet, the animal struck her in the side, ripping a hole in the wool blanket she wore, tearing it from her body. Cold rushed over her skin. She dove for a rock and hit the animal, merely stunning it.
The wooden door swung open easily but the dog, some long-haired breed gone wild in the wastes, rushed her and snapped at her face. She stared down its long and narrow muzzle, felt its hot breath. Claws scraped her forearm, blood rose. She fell backward into the cottage, the dog on top of her.
Howls echoed up the street.
She pushed her fingers into the dog’s mouth and forced it back.
Teeth cut into her fingers, but she refused to relent. She made a fist with her other hand and beat the dog’s left eye. It shuddered and yelped. As it retreated, she sprung to her feet and grabbed a vase from the battered console table. She raised it high above her head and flung it at the injured eye. The dog yelped again. It snapped and snarled but retreated onto the porch and into the snow.
Terry slammed the heavy oak door and locked it fast.
Darkness. Him. The wastes.
The Dun-in-man, that ragged foil and frocking man with one eye who had tracked her. Tracked her because he could. Because it was simple.
The Dun-in-man and his long pig rifle, fashioned with pieces from the northern wastes. No one knew how many slugs he slung in his rucksack, nor how many teethy stakes and knives hung under his worn wrappings.
The Dun-in-man. Because twice he left the wastes to return a shade from his own slow bones. Twice he fattened on god-knows-what. People. It had to be people. Everyone knew the only way you got around in the wastes was to eat people. When you saw him you knew you were either dun-in or he was.
By then the constable of the colony had demanded those who couldn’t breed, or who were too sick to work, rest and feed on grain and fat so those who could hunt, track, or breed could be ensured of nourishment in hard times. Dun-in man would take you walking, but you wouldn’t come back alive.
So Terry left. Middle of the night, days after the slow girl from Maine was slaughtered. Best time to avoid the bear is when he is full.
Two weeks on the road. No sign of anyone. Old campfires, offal along the brown weeds. She stuck to cutbacks, avoided state roads. That’s where the pirates were, on the state roads. Not the interstates, mind you, but the broad four lane business routes that promised shelter and junk picking.
Two weeks on the road and she saw the Dun-in-man in her spyglass miles behind on a snakeback dry river bed.
At first she panicked. He was coming for her, but then she realized, after days of watching, that he was delirious and weakened by the trek. His gestures always attentive to the right side, as if a muscle pulled, or a wound festered. He didn’t seem to see the signs she left for him on purpose. And he moved so slow. It didn’t make sense for him to track her and then bring her meat all the way back to the colony. But then again, maybe he would keep her for himself.
At her most compassionate and weakest Terry dared to backtrack towards him, altering her signs to point for multiple travelers.
He, so bare, like he had mange.
He’s near death, he’s lonely, the voice had teased. But that’s his ruse isn’t?
Isn’t that all we have left?
Terry wanted to leave tin cans of olives and packages of bouillon but did not, for the Dun-in man would pick up her scent and dash her before his long pig rifle.
Still, the thought tugged her heart.
The trek from the northern wastes along the county roads did not bear more food than nuts and pine cones, and the occasional long bone of an animal that could be sucked on when hunger grew too much; that marrow, lapping the rough break, tasted like steak and far away dinners.
Occasionally a farmhouse, a gas station, usually stripped bare, offered a scrap of metal, or bit of meal. Shelter.
The week before, she took a rural route, an old crowned road that led to a seaside town, after miles of dusted fields; tractors and combines rusted at the edge of tree break. It seemed impossible, after so much nothing, a ghost town that showed little signs of plunder.
You’ve lost your mind now, not sticking to the roads. You could get lost in your state, lost in that trap of a skull. Remember back before when the snakes coiled around your feet? Do you?
It wasn’t my feet, it was my neck.
And the voice continued and she continued on down the road, ignoring it. When she found the old kingsnake crossing the road she knew she was either crossing beyond this world or being born again.
No, it’s like me. Not again.
It should be in hibernation. It’s dying, or stupid. You’d be doing evolution a favor.
Snake tastes like chicken. Remember chicken?
Terry did not answer. She stepped over the snake and continued further down the way, and by sundown she had found the cut road into town, along a marsh that had been tended back to the townhouses and old Victorian streets.
What struck her first was all the vehicles. So little trash fluttering at the edge of yards. And when she found so few of the front doors smashed, she knew she could find heat and food and rest.
She didn’t think of the Dun-in man when she gathered firewood, or when she sprayed her tracks with urine and bile from squirrel or buzzard.
Snow gathered in the sky, and wherever the Dun-in man lay he would be covered in snow soon.
Shivering woke her.
Build a fire or die.
Tend her wounds or die.
She had chosen the cottage because of its size. Most of the houses in this coastal town were stately, but this sturdy renovated carriage house was easily defended. Terry crawled across the floor, stopping to catch her breath. A pale dark settled outside the windows. The scrape shad scabbed over, but behind her, like dark lines of ink, her blood trailed.
The pack will lick it up.
Crawling to the stove left her gasping, spent. She had filled the firebox with table legs, hoping that their dryness would leave hard hot coals, but she opened the stove and found a gray dark face staring back at her.
She collapsed into the hearth.
“Steady,” she said aloud, swooning forward like a drunk.
She used the poker to brace herself, to stir the coals.
Please let there be something.
At first there was only ash, but toward the back, cinders winked and glowed orange with life.
She used the poker to pull a basket of torn paper and newsprint toward her. She gingerly placed them on the cinders. Blowing the flame took more out of her than she could have imagined, leaning into the stove, coughing, but it was coughing that caught the flame, her lungs clutching and gasping from the ash and fever.
She leaned against the stove as she reached in and relished the heat which refreshed her enough to eat. She ate the remaining plug of dried apricot and a strip of venison jerky. She did not drink.
When Terry had been Terrence and Terry, for other reasons than she was now, Terry worked as a snake specialist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. Part of Terry’s job had been marking the mating rituals of twelve varieties of snake that lived in the bounds of the Conservancy grounds, which encompassed some thirty-eight miles.
She had learned over the years to treat bites and wounds with hot water, salt, vinegar, red wine, hard liquor, and if nothing else was available, urine. And at the end of the world, she kept several mason jars of urine, which evaporation had boiled down to a thick viscous yellow paste, serving two purposes, a heavy cleanser for hard stains, and an antibiotic ointment. She carried the urine with her herbs in a suitcase cushioned with scarves.
The oldest of the urine was almost gone, evaporated down to a half inch of paste. The plastic spoon she used as a spreader was jammed into the jar under the lid. The pungent odor was enough to sharpen her vision. She used pine broth to clean the wound before smearing the salve across her skin.
Back in the northern colony they had begun preparing everyone for starvation. For death. And now were there any left?
The Dun-in man man lived.
The Dun-in man could stumble upon her.
She almost wished he would. Two against a pack meant blood, flesh, skin, and bones to nurse for the winter.
Would he take her too?
She did not know.
The colony; the constable swinging his weight around the gated property to keep everyone on their toes. As food supplies grew short so did patience. Paranoia began. She was the first to leave.
“The colony,” she whispered. She placed the pot on the stove, pulling her blankets close. Fever sweat rolled off her forehead.
For a while she had been safe there. But in the end, they would have figured out that she couldn’t reproduce.
This is what you are, you know? Nothing. A sterile joke.
To think you’d be one of the last people left on the planet, and you’re a transsexual. A zero. You can’t add anything to zero.
You’re always left with what you started with.
You’re not going to make it unless you find some food. You’re that much closer to darkness.
Why I am listening to you?
Because there is no one else left to believe you.
I don’t want to talk anymore.
It started out like any old day. Remember?
No, she murmured back, I don’t.
Kelly came downstairs for her afternoon workout and she was so precise, quiet, and efficient. Her clothing, her makeup, crisp. You always marveled at how clean she looked, polished. It was always like that with her, don’t you remember?
Remember how she said it so plainly?
“You don’t even touch me anymore. You avoid kissing me on the mouth.”
And you went on staring like you weren’t hearing her. All she wanted was a reaction. A twitch, some sign that you still loved her.
That’s not true. It didn’t happen quite like that.
She left without any drama, like she had thought it over and decided it was best to just leave. Like shooting you in the head. Leaving you for dead.
Now you’re being mean.
No, I’m not.
The coughing tore through her spent frame, the muscle mass she had once taken for granted having long ago receded into feminine shape and curve, and now into bones.
When the spasm left her, she stirred the fire and was warm for awhile.
In the deep afternoon she woke for good and cleaned her scrape with urine paste and washed her face. The light was already fading when she opened the door. She listened for dogs, wolves, any sound other than her own tiny noises. Only wind and the far off breathlessness of the tide coming in.
She closed the door and scoured the old vacation cottage for mystery paperbacks and moldy romances and stacked them by the fire. Sort the chattel and incinerate the rest. Gets hot fast, and burns out quick.
The owners had favored Glamour, Harpers, and People. Pop mystery books, and Oprah Book Club selections, trendy memoirs. By dark she had sorted the books. In the broom closets she found an aluminum baseball bat and a plastic broom. She dozed and watched for animals. Only once did she spy something. A dark shape at the corner. It had something in its mouth. From where she stood, it looked like a rabbit, or more likely a rat. It squinted in her direction with one eye. It had gore smeared on its face, and its posture suggested menace.
He’s looking for you.
The beast did not think about its eye. Its throbbing dull horn. And as if to urge itself onward, it swiped the side of a snowy bush with its black dead overturned cup, and kept moving forward, not even aware of the snow still clinging to the shut lid, the bloody remains from Terry’s attack having formed a solid seal around what once had been green and blue, and white and black, but was now only raw tissue.
To its right the sound of paws on wood.
The animal froze, raised its back, still, alert, ready to spring or strike.
The sound continued, and then perhaps ten feet away, from around a small house came a large wolf, coat thin, back leg limping. Its right ear was freshly torn and it moved with a determined thrust, its legs too weak to push it through the snow. It did not see the dog, and if it had, it probably wouldn’t have cared. The rogue wolf was old and tired, and wanted to find a nice hole before the next storm came.
The dog did not move. When the rogue had moved out of its sight, it moved opposite of the wolf’s trajectory, to hunt alone.
An hour later, slowly nearing the strip of houses near the water, the big dog decided to stop. There had been no sign of the other, the meat, the prey. But scents mingled here, pack scratchings, something meat-like. Something different. It did not recognize the scent, but the smell reminded it of the other, of the meat, of the prey, so it made a burrow in a snow pile next to a weather beaten shack and curled up to sleep.
The weak winter sun warmed Terry’s face and gave her strides length. The snow didn’t feel as deep, even though it was to her knees in most places, but it was dry, and she kicked it forth in dervishes and swirls, almost giggling. She went on in this manner for some yards before turning west for no reason. She’d almost forgotten what she had come out here for. To kill a wolf, she giggled, to kill the reaper. To eat. Without the voice, the echoes in her head were somehow thinner. At times her sight would wink into bright points of light, and she had the feeling that she couldn’t remember a time when her view of the world did not look like the ends of dying stars.
When she had come out of surgery, so many lives ago, the lights of her room winked like greasy halos. She couldn’t see Dr. Bowers face, but she could see her lips, like wings floating to take her away; the world had once looked like this. She stared at Dr. Bowers’ perfectly shaped lips, which seemed even more beautiful transposed upon the frozen wastes of the coastal town and the bloody frame of the wolf staring at her from the middle of the next intersection.
Her body shot straight stock. Her ears burned and heart pumped. A sour taste rose in the back of her throat. The sun was at three o’clock. The wolf snarled. It had both of its eyes. This was no pack animal, she could tell from the scars and the broken bones.
Which made the animal dangerous.
Just let it come to you, she thought, why waste all the energy.
The wolf’s limp straightened as it began to stride toward her.
She held onto the bat as tightly as she could and bent her legs for the strike.
The animal’s speed surprised her. She wondered if it had been feigning a limp, even as the beast was in the air, ripping towards her. She waited as long as she dared and swung at the beast, knocking it to the side. She wasted no time and struck the beast, aiming for the head.
She missed, glancing the bat off the animal’s shoulder. Before she could get her footing, she went backward in the snow, the animal on top of her. She kicked and flailed her arms; the bat under the wolf’s jaw kept the snapping teeth beyond her throat. Aiming for the groin she kicked the wolf squarely, forcing it back to the side, just enough for her to get out from under the animal.
She raised the bat against her attacker and fired off three quick hits to the wolf’s neck and skull. She aimed for the eye, and the animal squirmed away and swatted her with its tail.
The blow surprised her, as she fell backward into the drift.
“That can’t be good,” she grunted as she struggled to rise. The animal had already turned and Terry could only hack at the snout as she dodged the brunt of the animal’s weight.
Still, she could not get to her feet.
And the wolf was upon her.
Its breath smelled of the dead, and dry moss, sour like cheap mash. She pushed back against the dark mouth, the throat that wanted to swallow her a bit at a time. Her attacks were restrained to defensive hacks, and if it weren’t for the other rogue, the dog she had injured in battle, she would have died sooner. It had been watching from the periphery when the attack came, and when it seemed its rival might kill what it had marked as its own, the dog decided that two kills were better than one.
Terry couldn’t believe it, luck, fate, or irony, she wasn’t sure, nor cared, and took the moment to measure up and to ready herself to strike.
Part of her wanted to flee, but she had no strength and she would either die or eat her fill of her enemy and move forward.
The fight between the rogue animals lasted minutes. The healthier dog ripped the neck of the larger, sicker wolf, bleeding the beast into the snow. Terry did not waste her time and as the rogue dog stretched out, its scarred eye staring straight ahead, she advanced, the bat high in her hand. And the beast, in rage, wild with the scent of blood, the hum of a fresh kill in its bones, tore at her.
They collapsed in a fury. Terry punched and kicked when she couldn’t swing the bat, but her strength was not enough to deal a blow, only enough to annoy. The animal bit into her shoulder and shook her. She swung the bat into the animals lower jaw, knocking it back. Her instincts took over and she ran away, and it took all her will to stop and turn to face the dog which pounded the snow behind her. She drew her knife.
The dog did not expect the meat to turn and face it, and when it did, it paused.
The two emptied their lungs and clashed in the snow, nearly at high noon. Terry’s arcing blade cut the dog across the lips, but she lost the blade in the snow. The dog knocked her back before she could attack. Her swings with the baseball bat rang in the air, but did little damage, glancing off the animal’s thick hide. They came at each other again, Terry with her hands, the beast with its teeth. Terry’s shoulder broke under the animal’s jaw. She screamed as her bones splintered. She jammed her fingers into the beast’s singular eye, screwing two of them into the animal’s bleeding face.
The shot clapped the air and the impact of the slug knocked the big dog off Terry and into the snow. It whimpered and died.
He came out of the street, from some snow shelter blind, his long pig rifle smoking from its heat in the wet cold air.
He neither cried out or whispered as he approached and stood over Terry.
When he picked her up, she passed into darkness.
The Dun-in man built a small fire in Terry’s woodstove, and once he had stitched her wounds, he left to dress the rogues for meat and fur.
The work took him deep into the afternoon. By the end of it, his outer wraps were blood soaked. He used them to carry the meat, having wrapped the flesh in the dog’s hide, leaving the guts. The bones he would return to gather.
When he returned, Terry had not moved. He reloaded the stove with wet birch and a stack of hardback romances, and then laid his outer wraps around the stove to dry. He would scrape off the blood and gore and boil it into a broth.
From his backpack he withdrew a small iron skillet, a small kettle, two tin plates and set them on the stove to heat. From Terry’s stores he boiled pine needle broth and hot water to clean wounds and wash away freshly scabbed blood. From the meat he selected the thickest cuts and placed them in the skillet. Then, he selected a western from the stack of paperbacks and waited.
Her gasping shook the Dun-in man from his resting state. He jerked, hand moving to his long pig rifle.
For Terry the world ripped across her sight, like a horror movie claw on some dark drive in screen, the cicadas buzzing in the high night air. And then a crispness. A coldness. She knew at once it was the waters of death freezing her lungs and her mouth.
She saw the Dun-in man and coughed.
He didn’t move.
When Terry finished coughing, she croaked a single question, gasping and whispering with each hitch.
“Are you going to eat me?”
The Dun-in man stepped back, surprised, looked at his long pig rifle in his hand, and then placed it down on the floor.
Terry shook her head and coughed again.
After awhile she nodded into sleep.
By nightfall the Dun-in man had a small fire in the woodstove. Shadows flickered on the floor. The walls pulsed.
The Dun-in man whistled, but did not speak. Occasionally, he touched the long worm of a scar running across his throat.
Terry pulled herself up, feeling already the future enclosures of the heavy winter, their bare stomachs, their thinning clothes like dehydrated muscle, unable to flex, to pull, to lie.
In the flicker the Dun-in man carved at a piece of meat, his long knife working against the grain of flesh, and Terry lay still, her breath coming in hitches. He looked wolfish as he drew the steel through the dog’s flesh.
For a moment a wild fear tore through her, and she gasped suddenly.
She wondered how long the night would bend for her.
The Dun-in man only nodded at her. His scarred throat caught the light, and for a hot second it snarled back to reveal teeth. As Terry pitched forward into sleep, she knew his throat wasn’t a hideous mouth, and that if she could live through the night, she could serve as his voice. And then she thought no more.
by Wesley D. Gray
Burning on Re-entry
In a moment slipped from time,
I was Everything;
I was the gravity of a black hole
the icy shards of a comet;
I was the Oculus of Jupiter,
the Concentricities of Saturn;
I was the Morphology of Mars—
the Breath of the Universe.
Now, once again, I am flesh, and I am falling.
I am burning.
I'm not so far from the chasm
of lonely people, getting closer.
Earth is but a speck in the void, growing exponentially
like a mushroom mouth widening itself for the swallow.
I hit the blue-domed atmosphere,
ready to split, ready to shatter.
Velocity surpasses the overdrive,
heat leaps into flame, flesh drips from bone.
Burning on re-entry,
ignition sputters, out of fuel.
Gravity takes its hold, sliced by the dying light,
my searing flesh dissolves into rays of the Sun.
With marrow boiling marrow, these tattered remains
breach the shell to the surface—touchdown.
In a moment slipped from time, I was the culling of the cosmos,
the dust of nebulae, the Breath of the Universe,
but in this moment, I am ash,
a char upon the glass desert.
Children of Sporemind
When the Children of Sporemind first wake, they will blink
to lubricate their eyelets, feeling at odds with the way the human host
receives rays through minuscule portals, mourning the rapid absorption of old skins.
They may find need to gasp for that first breath through the mucus-coated holes
of fibrous lungs, choking a bit on the first tethered expansions of sticky and straining elastic sacs.
As they gaze about the morphing landscape, the Children will be in awe
of the puffy-pink canopy that floats along the wavy amber skies above,
fully flushed from the way it filters the Earth’s sun through dense particles
suspended in the cloud, ever falling from the rippling gills of the First Stalk.
They may stumble in sea-green crystal patches, engaging synaptic relays
to clench their muscles, stretching awkward limbs and put off-balance
by the weight of the pylon pileus and stipe, protruding from their host’s split-open skulls.
They may jump with raw and itchy nerves, jittery from the pops
and boils and sputters of the host’s decaying digestive processes
still trying to nurture itself from within, feeding on the fat from its shriveling body.
They will be admonished, of course, not to consume the host’s young too early,
for the offspring of those not yet within The Mind must grow in number, must grow in strength,
until at last they are ready to join as one, and bleed for our next generation.
Born in the Wake of Reaping, the dwellers of tomorrow’s sky are the banished sons of yesterday’s scorched Earth, faded to the floating islands, in the aftermath of shattered ground.
The belching tides of forests swept their encampments, the encroaching swarms swallowing their masses, drinking them in the swift and sinking gulp of a cracked and croaking throat.
A reversal of gravity emulsified surface into air, hurling shards of crust into the blood-soaked atmosphere in a fray of flesh, slivered rock, and granulations of teeth and bone.
The few who lingered, who clung to the shreds of their broken lands, were forced to adapt to the graveyards of cataclysm, or else be doomed to fade.
Entering shadow cocoons with little hope strung between their tainted fingers, they grasped at the madness of their darkest arts, and the folly of taboo science.
When the chrysalis peeled away, the being still dripping in pupal adolescence, scapula wings extended, piercing out from the confinement of old skins.
The risen children soared high, casting the breath of their shadows upon the splintered earth, metamorphosis seeding new hungers within the bowels of their wet and waning hearts.
Swallow and Beyond
by Rebecca LuElla Miller
As the egg-shaped ship drifted toward Swallow’s shore, Rhei jostled to get a better view—past a mother with her baby nestled in a sling, past four or five tradesmen clustered in front of the tinker’s stand, past a mason repairing the rocky wharf.
Near the water, she scrunched between barrels of smelly fish parts, instinctively pressing the back of her hand against her nose to impede the briny odor of decay. To think, the unfortunates ate this refuse. Hunger must drive a person to tolerate the intolerable.
Tolerate the intolerable. Didn’t that describe what Rhei was doing this very minute? To satiate the yearning that intensified every day, she would endure just about any unpleasantness.
Pressure built within her chest. In moments she could be feasting on the knowledge she longed for. Why had these travelers come to Hol? Were they friendly? Intelligent? Wise? Handsome? What language did they speak? And more importantly, what did they know about The Beyond?
Questions. As always, her questions stoked the fire within her soul—the fire she lived with every day despite what others said or did to her.
In childish naiveté, her first word had been a question. Of course her mother, rather than praising her achievement, scolded her for her unnatural curiosity.
As Rhei grew, she realized her questions inevitably brought chastisement, but how could she quench the burning desire to know? How could she look at the trivial bits of life without asking why they were? How could she study living things and not ask what brought them to be? And most especially, how could she look at the charcoal-gray clouds that sealed the sky and not ask what existed beyond?
Certainly someone in Hol had to know. She asked her father, but he beat her. She asked the youth instructor. He excluded her from tutelage. She asked Hol’s Founder, and the governance passed a resolution banning speculation about The Beyond.
When Rhei asked why, the city elders threatened her with exile. The local matriarchs ignored her as they would a crazy person and kept their sons and daughters far from her. Her own father had disowned her, forcing her to move to a storehouse near the docks, but it was there she had first heard the rumor.
The strange ship bobbed past Rhei toward the far berth, not the near one as she expected. If she stayed here between the barrels she wouldn’t be able to overhear the strangers or watch them as they came ashore. Bursting from her useless vantage point, she collided with the Founder, righted herself, then rushed for a spot near the water.
“See here, young woman.” The Founder’s voice followed her over the stone wharf to the pulley draw where yardmen worked to secure the strange ship to the port clamps.
Rhei glanced over her shoulder at Hol’s leader, hoping the gathering crowd would distract him.
He straightened his spectacles before shouldering past the vegetable venders, his hardwood boot-heels banging on the stone. “Young woman, I will not have you upsetting our visitors with your questions.” He held up a hand, stopping her from responding. “If I so much as hear you ask a question of any kind, I will bar you from the welcoming ceremonies. Should the arbiter declare your action to be willful, I’ll ban you from the city.” Without waiting for a reply, he swung toward the disembarkation plank. Situating himself in front, he fingered the collar of his tawny shirt, then each of his vest’s shiny brass-leaf buttons.
Rhei collapsed onto a fisherman’s bench. Not ask questions? Not ask strangers about their strange clothing, speech, gestures, habits? Not ask what they knew about the rumored fire beyond the clouds? Here, about to step off this odd ship, was someone who could ease this incessant pressure inside her, and she was not allowed to ask questions?
As Rhei stared at the bobbing vessel, a weathered seaman, spry for someone so wrinkled and gray, bounded from the cabin and hoisted himself to the disembarkation plank. He raised both hands, pivoting in a slow circle. When he again faced the crowd assembled on the wharf, he smiled. “Greetings from Tonum.” His voice was steady, though his deliberate pronunciation carried a slight accent. “I bring the good people of Swallow a present.” He gestured toward a pile of boxes stacked near the plank. “May our two nations live in harmony.”
The Founder squinted through his spectacles. “Harmony! Nothing has changed that I am aware of to alter Swallow’s age-old harmony with all our neighbors.”
Rhei snorted. “Because we have no contact with our neighbors.”
Glaring at her, the Founder addressed the seasoned seaman still perched on the disembarkation plank. “Dismiss whatever this one says to you, traveler. She borders on becoming an unfortunate, and I’m sure you know how unconventional that lot is.”
The traveler strode down the plank, but instead of stopping in front of the Founder, looking him up and down, and telling him what a distinguished figure he was and how privileged Hol was to have him guide the city into the future, he angled toward Rhei.
“I’m sorry,” he said, at last shifting his gaze to the Founder, “what are the unfortunates?”
The fishermen, venders, matriarchs, and elders lingering within earshot gasped.
The traveler scanned their faces. “Have I said something to offend you?”
Puffing up like a blowfish, the Founder smoothed down the front of his shirt. “Your first visit to Swallow. Of course, our ways and customs and people are all new to you. The unfortunates are of no consequence. What a finely tailored suit of clothing you’re wearing. I’ve long admired linen.”
The traveler studied his long-sleeved shirt, then his trousers as if he’d forgotten what he was wearing. “If you like, I’ll have one of the lads fetch my spare uniform. You’re welcome to it.” He turned toward his ship and beckoned. “I would not have thought successful merchants such as yourselves had a lack of goods.”
“Certainly, sir, we do not.” The Founder’s resemblance to a blowfish was more pronounced than before.
Rhei hid a smile with a wide yawn, covering that with her hand.
A buoyant youth appeared at the traveler’s side, listened to a muffled command, and scurried back to the ship.
“He’ll have that spare uniform here for you in no time.”
“Why, I…the idea. Sir, I assure you, I am not an unfortunate and have no need of any of your clothing. Keep your spare uniform. Or you may wish to wear it yourself at your welcoming ceremony.”
“A ceremony. What an honor.” One corner of the older man’s mouth turned up.
“What time will this welcoming take place?”
Eyeing the traveler as he would a pile of dung he needed to step around, the Founder massaged the loose skin beneath his chin. “All gatherings begin at the lighting of the lamps.”
The traveler glanced at the low cloud cover. “Might turn dark soon, with a sky like this.”
The Founder stepped back. “At the lighting of the lamps, sir. And I trust your vessel will be underway on the morrow at the earliest hour.” He spun from the traveler and marched toward town, his nose high enough to test the wind.
The crowd—the few people who didn’t bolt at the stranger’s first question—dwindled into the gathering shadows.
With a shrug, the traveler flashed a bewildered grin in Rhei’s direction. “Was it something I said?”
“Most Swallowites don’t like questions.” With a finger, she traced a minuscule fissure in the fisherman’s bench.
The creases between the traveler’s graying eyebrows deepened, and he sidled in front of her. “No questions? How can anyone learn if they don’t ask questions?”
Rhei scooted to the edge of her seat. “That’s what I think, too.”
“Ah, a harmonious spirit.” The aging seaman’s grin widened. He glanced past her toward the center of town. “Too bad, since I’ll be leaving on the morrow. I could have learned a great deal about Swallow from you.”
“There’s not much to learn. What you see here in Hol is a picture of the entire nation.”
Reaching for the railing that marked the edge of the wharf, the traveler leaned back. “But there’s the problem. I won’t be in Hol long enough to see much of anything.”
Rhei’s fingers drummed a steady rhythm beneath the bench. The Founder had forbidden her to ask questions, and he had an uncanny way of discovering noncompliance, but maybe, just maybe she could still learn about these Tonumians without asking questions. “Perhaps I can help you learn what you want to know.”
His gaze shifted toward her frayed shawl. “For a fee?”
“Of sorts. You ask me what you want to know. After I answer, you give me the same information about Tonum.”
“That’s all you wish?”
“That’s more than I could dream.”
“Then I agree.” With a nimble spring, he perched on the rail, his back to the sea. “Is it true Swallow has always been at peace with its neighbors?”
“We cannot quarrel with people we never contact.” She leaned forward. “Your turn.”
“Tonum has been in many wars, mostly with Cadreel in the south.” He peered into Rhei’s eyes as if reading her unspoken question, then added, “They attack us because they wish to appropriate the tableland bordering their country. Now my next question. Why don’t you have contact with your neighbors?”
Rhei straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. “Unfair. That question has no equivalent for Tonum.”
“Ah, but I already told you why we have wars.”
She nodded, relaxing her arms and resting her hands in her lap. “I’ll give you that. Swallow’s overseer—all the governance really—is afraid of…controversy.”
“It’s sure to come. Generations past, Swallow nearly destroyed itself with a civil war. Contact with other peoples is certain to stir up the disagreement again.”
In the deepening gloom, Rhei glanced over her shoulder. A shadowy figure moved toward the nearest lamp, and a flame flickered, then flared inside the bulbous globe atop the post. “You should go. The welcoming celebration is about to begin.”
“So soon? But you still haven’t told me what caused Swallow’s civil war.”
“I’ll need some information from you in return.”
“Not now. The Founder will not tolerate you being late, especially if he learns you were talking to me.”
The traveler brushed a hand over the gray stubble on his chin. “I thought I’d have more time to ready myself. It seems your cloud cover has brought an early night.”
Rhei clutched her hands together. “I’ve waited all my life to speak of these matters.”
“The cause of your civil war?”
She snickered. “In a way. One faction—the defeated faction—claimed unknowable knowledge.”
“Ah!” He slipped from his perch. “Knowledge about…”
“Beyond the clouds.”
“You mean, knowledge about the sun?”
Rhei gasped. “Then it’s true!”
“Your people don’t know about the sun?”
“Some of us—maybe most of us—have heard the rumors.”
He rested his elbows on the rail and leaned back. “But you don’t believe them.”
“You’re saying you do.”
“They aren’t rumors. The sun exists.”
“And you have a reason to believe such a wild claim.”
“I’ve seen it. All Tonumians have.”
“You’ve seen the fiery ball hanging over your heads! You must be terrified.”
He chuckled. “When you say it like that, I suppose we should be, but no, we’re not. When you see it every day, I guess you take it for granted.”
Once again crossing her arms, Rhei studied the traveler’s face for any hint of deception. “You see beyond the clouds every day. That couldn’t be possible.”
“Most days Tonum is above the clouds.”
“Above! So you see…”
“The sun dancing across a sky the color of the mountain iris.”
“A blue sky. And this sun, this ball of fire. You say it sways above your towns, but you’re not afraid.”
The traveler shook his head. “I don’t think of it as a ball of fire.”
“Then this ‘sun’ is not what we’ve heard it to be.”
“Not exactly. It’s hard to explain. It’s just so bright you can’t actually look at it.”
“You said you’ve seen it.” Disappointment pinched her tone.
“I have.” The traveler straightened. “Sometimes cloud wisps veil its brightness so you can look right at it. It’s more like…a bright, round disk.”
Rhei repositioned her shawl over her shoulders. “Then it’s possible you’re seeing an illusion, as the disbelievers say.”
“People actually say that?”
“Our eyes can play tricks. If you’ve only seen this disk when it’s veiled…”
“But when the sun is unveiled, its brightness fills the sky. It outshines every candle and chases away the dark.”
“Dark!” Rhei looked around at the night gloom. “You shouldn’t keep the Founder waiting.”
“I need to change into my spare shirt at least.” With a wink and a chuckle, he headed toward his ship. At the top of the embarkation plank, he glanced back. “Meet me here after the ceremony so we can finish this conversation.”
Acknowledging his invitation with a raise of her hand, she swiveled about to see who might have overheard their exchange. With a wavering flame, the lamp lighter stretched to the top of the last post at the far end of the lane, his shadow blending into the dusk. No one else appeared along the walkway—no one she could see, at least.
Keeping to the darkest side of the passageway, she headed for the Founder’s palace in the center of town. The citizens of Hol would don their finery and bring their fanciest fare for the lavish feast. She had no finery and nothing to contribute to the meal. Still, she could watch the festivities from the fringe—though her presence there would give credence to the Founder’s belief that she would soon become an unfortunate. But how could she pass up the enjoyment of watching the strangers?
When she arrived at the gate, she lingered off to one side until a party of elders and their families piled out of a carriage. As the servants maneuvered the vehicle away from the entrance, the gatekeeper shouted directions and stepped away from his post.
Rhei eased through the gateway. Not that she didn’t belong at the welcoming ceremony—unless the Founder assessed her demeanor to be rebellious…or her clothing disreputable…or her stance aloof or… Better if she entered the common without calling attention to herself.
She trailed the others until they approached the table laden with stuffed pumpkin, curried shellfish, broiled shark, fried peppers and barley, and a dozen other tantalizing dishes. As the spicy aromas reached her, her stomach rumbled.
Slipping around a column, she edged upwind toward the palace grove. No need to torture herself. Watching the others eat would be hard enough without smelling the savory food all night.
“When does he want it done?” The gruff voice was so low, at first Rhei wasn’t sure she heard correctly. Someone else in Hol asking a question?
She melted into the shadows of a side portico, scrunching between a stairway and another pillar. Half sitting, half kneeling, she peered toward the sound of the voice near the tree line.
“It should be done already.” This voice was a mere whisper, maybe another man’s, but maybe a woman’s.
The gruff voice rumbled, like thunder foreshadowing a storm. “Not my fault. He stayed on shore instead of returning to his ship.”
Rhei clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle the gasp rising in her throat. This furtive conversation was about the traveler.
The whisperer snorted. “So a girl scared you off.”
Metal grated on metal, and the tip of a sword showed from behind the trunk of a tree. The gruff voice hardened. “If you’re challenging my courage…”
“Put that away. If you still hope to be paid, put it away now.”
“I better be paid.” Once again metal slid across metal, more slowly this time.
“Then finish the job.”
A dark figure slunk toward the gateway.
“I don’t trust him.” That comment from a surly voice Rhei hadn’t heard before.
The whisperer murmured something too soft to catch, then added, “He cares nothing about the rumors.”
“We cannot afford to fail.”
“You have a plan.”
A note of satisfaction crept into the surly voice. “A surprise, shall we say. A special drink, handed to the traveler by the Founder’s daughter. He dare not refuse.”
The whisperer sniggered. “That should silence his tongue.”
Grass swished, and the hum of conversation grew fainter.
Rhei sagged against the pillar. Had she really heard a plot to kill the traveler from Tonum? But why? To keep him from talking about what was beyond the clouds? That had to be the rumor they alluded to. After all, the dispute about The Beyond nearly destroyed Swallow before, and beneath the veneer of meticulous adherence to protocol, strong feelings still raged.
But the traveler could bring an end to the disquiet by revealing to all of Swallow what existed beyond the clouds. With his crew to verify what he said, with all of Tonum, if need be, who could doubt the existence of the fiery ball beyond?
Unless whoever wanted to kill him aimed to prevent revelation of the truth. Then, killing the traveler was only the first step in a greater scheme.
One way or the other, she had to warn him.
As Rhei vaulted for the main gate, the chief steward stepped out onto the portico and blew the horn announcing the Founder. The servants stopped bustling about. The citizenry rose to their feet. Rhei slowed, then stopped. She couldn’t contemptuously ignore protocol without drawing attention to herself. If they threw her out of the ceremony, she’d never have a chance to warn the traveler.
The Founder raised a hand to direct the citizenry back to their seats, but paused, scanning the crowd. “The Tonumians are not among us.”
The steward shifted from one foot to the other. “They have yet to arrive, sir.”
The Founder sniffed. “We won’t wait.”
“Wait for what?” The traveler stood just inside the seldom-used eastern gate, his voice booming across the common.
Pivoting toward him, the Founder clutched his hands behind his back. “Sir, your incessant questions are rude and tiresome. If it were not for the fact that the governance of Swallow requires a welcoming ceremony for all travelers, we would have no more of your company.”
As the traveler moved toward the portico, his crew filed through the gate behind him. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Founder. I mean no disrespect. In Tonum questions are not considered impolite.”
With a wave of dismissal, the Founder turned to the steward. “Have them dine someplace out of my sight.”
The steward scurried down the steps, the lone tuft of hair on the back of his otherwise bald head flapping behind him. “If you’ll follow me.” He ushered the Tonumians to a long table near the grove, away from the others. “Sit here. I’ll see to your meals.”
A chill, like a gust of foggy air, swept over Rhei. With the meal would come the Founder’s daughter to attend to the guests, the most likely occasion for her to serve a deadly drink. Rhei had to alert the traveler.
She navigated around family clusters sprawled on the grass and dodged servants rushing back and forth to the food table until she reached the isolated strip of the common. A watchman stepped in front of her. “No one allowed to bother the Tonumians, child.”
With an abrupt nod, Rhei backed away, pulling her shawl tighter. She glanced around the common. Servants bustled about the food table, two plates in one hand, ladling out generous helpings of each dish. Except for the steward. The plates he prepared held skimpy portions and little meat. When he finished, he picked his way toward the traveler’s table.
Rhei eased in behind a female servant spooning out curry. She grabbed up two plates from the stack and ladled out small portions on each. As she made her way around the end of the table, the steward caught hold of her arm.
“So you’ve resorted to filching an extra plate of food. Just like the unfortunates. The Founder was right about you all along.”
“I’m not filching it. I…I thought I could help serve.”
“Serve yourself, no doubt.” He pried the plates from her grip. “Be off. We don’t need the likes of you.”
Rhei started at his surly tone. As she backed away, she glanced toward the traveler’s table. A servant set down a jug of wine at the head, another in the middle.
Still no sign of the Founder’s daughter, though protocol called for her to make her appearance before the meal was over. There still might be enough time to warn the traveler, if Rhei could get close.
A gust of wind swept over the common, raining leaves onto the Tonumians’ table—the table stuck off to the side by the grove. She scrambled back toward the gate and circled around behind the stand of trees. She reached a spot where she could see snatches of the diners between the branches, then headed toward them. Twigs scratched her cheeks and snagged her shawl, but she shook free and stepped up her pace.
Suddenly a hand caught her by the arm. “Hello, Rhei. I thought we were meeting after the celebration.” The traveler smiled down at her.
“You’re in danger. The steward…they’re planning to poison your drink.”
He released her and stepped back. “Why would anyone in Swallow want to harm me?”
She gazed into his bewildered eyes. “You know the truth about The Beyond.”
“So do all Tonumians.”
“They will never let you tell the citizens of Hol. Unless you leave now, you and your crew may not escape alive.”
“But if we don’t drink the wine…”
She shook her head. “There’s an armed man, too. Someone for hire.”
The traveler glanced toward the table near the tree line. “If my men and I leave together, the Founder is sure to take offense.”
The steward’s horn sounded, and a hush fell over the common.
Rhei stretched on tiptoe and whispered, “He’s about to announce the Founder’s daughter, assigned by protocol to attend you. The drink she will offer is meant to silence your tongue.”
He nodded, then mouthed the words, “The armed man?”
She pointed in the direction of the main gate.
Conversations once again hummed around the common.
“Then we’ll leave the way we came. You’ll need to come with us, Rhei.” The traveler reached for the thin branch blocking their path and pushed it back.
Instead of passing through the opening, she retreated a step.
He motioned her toward the table. “You can’t stay here, you’ll be at risk.”
“No one knows that I heard their plans.”
Letting the branch snap back in place, he faced her. “You could see the sun for yourself.”
She shook a finger at him. “You really don’t compete fairly.”
From the common, the steward’s voice boomed. “The Founder’s daughter must not be kept waiting. Such an insult. You may as well declare war on our entire nation.”
“Thank you,” Rhei said. “I will forever picture brightness dancing in a field of blue.” She sprang through the grove to the Tonumian’s table and snatched up a jug of wine. Spotting the Founder’s daughter, she sprinted toward her, knocked the cup from her hand, then veered toward the main gate.
“Stop that girl!” The steward’s voice again turned surly.
Rhei weaved away from the first man to lunge at her, then ducked behind a food table and tipped it toward the steward. Dishes clattered together, and food splattered over the grass. She stole a glance beyond her pursuers. The traveler’s table was empty.
The Founder’s voice boomed over the chaos. “Bring her to me.”
She backed away. From behind, a provost clamped her arms to her sides. The steward reached for her. She whipped her foot toward him, catching the meat of his calf.
He staggered. “Why you…”
“Bring her now.”
The provost hauled her up the steps to the portico overlooking the sea.
With the back of his hand, the Founder slapped her across the cheek. “You dissident, disrupting all protocol.” He turned to the steward stumbling up behind them. “I suppose she was trying to steal food.”
“A jug of wine,” he said, in that same surly voice.
“You’ll pay for embarrassing us like this in front of the Tonumians.” The Founder’s fingers wandered over the buttons on his vest. “Take her to the cavern.”
As the provost dragged her away, she strained to look past the Founder to the sea. In the distance, a line of sailors filed up the embarkation plank while one released the ropes tied to the port clamps.
“Find the darkest pit to throw her in,” the Founder shouted. “May she rot there.”
Rhei smiled. She’d start with the provost first, then the guard and the servant that would deliver her food. If there were other prisoners, she’d tell them, too, then the arbiter when he reviewed her case. They’d listen, and some might even believe her. But even if they didn’t, she would always possess the image of the ball of brightness dancing across the sky, and that was enough.
Wesley D. Gray is a writer, an author of fiction, and a poet. He is the author of the chapbook Come Fly with Death: Poems Inspired by the Artwork of Zdzislaw Beksinski, among other things. When he isn’t writing, Wesley enjoys a wide variety of geeky activities, but mostly, tabletop gaming with family and friends. He resides in Florida with his wife and two children. Learn more at: WesDGray.com.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in New Plains Review, South Carolina Review, Gargoyle, and Big Muddy Review with work upcoming in Louisiana Review, Cape Rock, and Spoon River Poetry Review.
Joshua James Jordan studied fiction, forgot everything he learned, and now slams words together until his wife declares it’s a story. He’s recently published in Jersey Devil Press and a few humor anthologies. Follow him on Twitter, @_JJ_Jordan, or visit www.JoshuaJamesJordan.com to find his other work.
Richard King Perkins II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He has a wife, Vickie and a daughter, Sage. His work has appeared in hundreds of publications including Prime Mincer, Sheepshead Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Fox Cry, Prairie Winds, and The Red Cedar Review.
Rebecca LuElla Miller: Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of National Book Critics Circle, and the literary review editor for The Broadkill Review. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in dozens of publications. Punks Writes Poems published his newest chapbook, All My Rowdy Friends in 2016. His previous chapbooks include the steampunk inspired The Black Narrows, the award winning Field Recordings, and The Barleyhouse Letters. Whitaker teaches theater, literature, and psychology in rural Maryland. He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his family. He blogs on occasion at fieldrecord.blogspot.com. Find him also at:
Issue 7 Autumn 2016
COMMON ODDITIES SPECULATIVE FICTION SIDESHOW
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