Doña Paz

It is quiet when Elena Marín opens her eyes. Her head feels swimmy, untethered from her body, and her vision flashes blue and red in soft focus.

She blinks a few times and concentrates not on the warning lights around her or the deep blue out the window but instead on the message scrolling across her left eye screen. […SpaceCraft Doña Paz 01 update: System malfunction, o2 levels low, ILSA overload, pressure overload…]

Marín curses, but she doesn’t hear the words as she does so. She is certain there are sirens blaring, but they don’t sound either. She reaches her hands up to her ears, making sure they are still attached. They are, but her fingers come away slick with blood.

“Patch audio,” she says, although the words feel cottony in her mouth without the accompanying sounds.

The alarms hit her like a brick as the tinny audio captured by the microphone in her eye connects with her mech-brain interface.

“Calibrate levels,” she half-shouts, and the sirens fade to a quiet buzz as other sounds come to the fore—breathing, light cursing in a language she doesn’t speak.

She reaches down to unclasp her harness and takes a step away from the wall. It’s starting to come back to her. They strapped in once they realized they had steered too close to the wormhole to avoid it, and then they prayed to whatever they each believed in that they would come through fine on the other side.

It didn’t appear they had.

The cruiser is small, designed for two days travel, max. The controls are visible from the sleeper pods and the tiny reclamation bathroom is the only private space onboard. Next to where Marín has just emerged, Ndibe and Rhodes are still strapped in. Ndibe’s chest is falling and rising with regular rhythm, but Rhodes is quite limp and had a nasty gash above his forehead. A’nishi’a and the captive are nowhere to be seen.

Marín sticks her fingers to Rhodes’s neck, feeling for his pulse. His heartbeat is faint but definitely present. He is bleeding profusely—where the blood hits the stubble on his chin it has started to gel, but at the brow it is still flowing, liquid and hot. She unbuckles his harness and lifts him out of it. He is heavy and her muscles are weak from the force of their unexpected wormhole travel and the low oxygen levels, but she manages to lug him to an empty sleeper pod, which doubles as an infirmary bay for ILSA, the ship’s Intelligent Life Support Apparatus.

Once she shuts the pod door, it begins to scan. The swearing gets louder, and Marín finally turns her attention to the controls.

A’nishi’a has all four of her hands on the controls, pressing wildly and releasing a steady stream of filthy words in Olipse, which Marín gathers more from the tone of voice than from any real understanding of the extralunar language.

Outside the window something flashes past, a shark or a three-tailed eel. Marín doesn’t catch a good glimpse.

“Status, soldier,” Marín says as she approaches.

“Comms are down, and so is nav. I don’t know where we are but I do know we’re underwater and losing air fast.”

“Losing air?”

“To cope with the pressure. ILSA is a little overdrawn right now. I’m doing everything I can to stop the release of air and start with the ascent.”

“What’s the atmo like?”

“Unclear, but it’s a safer bet than trying to breathe water, ma’am.”

Marín laughs. The Olipse always sound like they’re being snarky, but once you get to know them you realize they’re just overly earnest. Or maybe it’s only A’nishi’a that’s earnest and the rest really are assholes.

“Do you think it’s doable?”

“It might be. But ILSA took a serious hit through the wormhole and even more when we crashed through the atmosphere.”

“Did you get a good look at the planet while we were descending?”

The Olipse don’t lose consciousness as easily as humans do, which is part of why nearly every ship in the Keppler Alliance keeps one on crew.

“No, General. Just blue.”

That could be anywhere. There are a million trillion water planets, and even more that have liquid oceans of different chemical makeups. Through the wormhole and without nav, they could be anywhere.

“Where’s the traitor?”

“Hiding under one of the sleeper pods. Praying, I think.”

It wouldn’t help her. Whether she died here or onstage as scheduled, Suki Watanabe was going to no one’s heaven. She had betrayed the Kepler Alliance and sold out to the Andromeda Republic. Her own family had been slaughtered on information she’d given, not to mention the plot that killed Marín’s mentor, General Padgett. Dishonored and distraught, she hadn’t even defended herself when Marín had captured her. Just before she delivered the killing blow, the Supreme Cariell of the Republic had surrendered. Watanabe had been taken alive, for later trial and execution.

That was the purpose of this trip in the first place, to deliver her to her public grave. That, and for Marín to be granted the title of General, inherited from and honoring Padgett. The council had sent Ndibe to inform her she had been chosen to succeed her mentor, and that she would have the honor of killing Watanabe publicly after her inevitable guilty conviction.

Marín creeps towards the sleeper pods anyway. It doesn’t seem right to allow Watanabe to take solace in faith. That has to be earned.

“Get out of there,” she barks. It sounds strange to feel her voice reverberating through her skull and hear it through a mic in her eye.

“I’m busy,” Watanabe says back, not turning her head. She lies beneath the lowest pod, her face staring directly up at it and her hands scrunched to her chest, fiddling with something on its underside.

“Sabotaging my ship? If we die you’ll only die quicker.”

“I’m trying to save your ship. Your tech-hands doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of it, and you’re the one trying to get us all killed.”

Marín feels the blood rising to her cheeks. Her abuela always used to tell her that her temper would abate with age, but even at forty-nine she still flushes like a child whenever she’s caught off-guard. It takes every inch of her military training to keep from yelling her response. “Me?”

“You plugged the goner into the system when it was already overtaxed.”

Marín blinks, then looked up at Rhodes’s prone form in the sleeper pod, wires and tubes already extending from his arms.

“What? Was I supposed to let him die?”

“Either he dies now and the rest of us get a fifty-fifty shot of surviving our ascent to the surface, or he dies later when we split the hull on the sea floor and get crushed beneath pressure and salt. Your choice.”

When Marín says nothing, Watanabe continues. “Come on, it’s basic cost-benefit analysis. I know they taught you that at mili school.”

She would know. Before she’d turned on them she had been a rising star at the Kepler Military Academy. Top human in her class.

“Commander! I mean, General! You have to see this,” A’nishi’a calls, with a rare tinge of panic in her voice.

“You’d better decide, and quick,” Watanabe says. Marín looks down and shakes her head. Then she makes her way to A’nishi’a’s place by the ship’s key window.

The ship’s outer lights have caught something. Another structure glints in front of them. It is larger than the cruiser, long and pointed, smooth metal with blooms of rust along the sides. As the cruiser continues to sink they pass more holes eaten into the metal, some irregular where the craft has worn through, some perfectly round as though punctured by cannon fire. Fish swim through it. A pair of eyes watch from one of the holes, she thinks, but they are sinking too quickly for her to tell.

As they near the bottom of the ship they pass the words USS Calvin Coolidge.

Text flashes across the bottom of Marín’s eye. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes…]

Earth. They are on Earth. No one will be able to rescue them.

There is a dimmed thud as the spacecraft lodges in the ocean floor. It does not seem to have burst. For the time being they are safe as they slowly suffocate to death.

“Do you know what colony this is?” A’nishi’a asks. The Olipse curriculum doesn’t go into distant human history, not to the point of explaining nautical naming conventions. She does not know yet.

Marín does not want to tell her.

This has always been the hardest part of having a position of authority. Marín has a level head in battle, can strategize and lead attacks. She is more than willing to put herself in the line of fire. But the parts of her duties that require her to deliver news of tragedies? She has never been comfortable telling painful truths.

Still, she steels herself. It will only be worse if they don’t know.

As she is about to speak, Ndibe approaches from behind, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. He gapes out the window at the ship, understanding what it means even without a fully functional cyberlink with thousands of terabytes of information downloaded onto it.

“Earth,” he breathes. “We’re on Earth.”

There is silence for a moment. Then A’nishi’a begins to hum a low string of words that might in equal likelihood be curses or prayers.

“We’re dead,” Ndibe says, his voice stony. He turns to Marín and looks her in the eyes, then repeats himself. “We’re dead.”

“Not yet we aren’t,” Watanabe calls from the back of the ship. “Ball’s in your court, Marín. You know what you have to do.”

“What is she talking about?” Ndibe asks.

“Rhodes. I put him in the sleeper pod for ILSA to fix. It’s diverting most of the ship’s power. We might be able to ascend if… if we unplug him.”

“And then what?” A’nishi’a asks. Her skin is flushing green with anger. “It isn’t as though we can breathe up there either.”

“We can,” Marín says. “For a few days. Long enough to fix the comms, to hope a stronger ship can pass through that wormhole and rescue us. It’s a chance.”

“It’s murder,” Ndibe says. “Murder for the tiniest chance that we live instead.”

“So you would have us all suffocate down here?” Watanabe asks.

“We’ll suffocate one way or another.”

Marín pinches the bridge of her nose. There is still blood on her fingers from her ears, from Rhodes’s gash. It’s impossible to think.

“I estimate we have twenty minutes to make the call,” Watanabe says. “Thirty, tops. And we don’t even know if we’re near land. If I were you I’d make up my mind, General.

“Audio off,” Marín says, and the strange closeness of silence returns. She can see the others yelling at her and one another, but her cyberlink doesn’t read lips. She has a moment to think.

She turns her gaze out the window again, and the text in her eye pops up as the camera registers the ship’s name again. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes, two miles off the coast of the Japanese-Hawaiian Islands…]

They are near land, if her link is right. Her link is always right.

The only question now is Rhodes. She has known him for a long time, but never very well. He was a few years behind her at the academy, not particularly exceptional at anything, but steady. He’d risen through the ranks fairly quickly as the war wound on, and by the time the Andromeda Republic surrendered he and Marín were both lieutenant generals, one step down from Padgett.

She hadn’t particularly liked or disliked him.

Even considering pulling the plug seems wrong. That could well have been her in that sleeper pod. But ILSA is overtaxed and they’d all suffocate if the life support ran out. She has some good carbon filter masks but even she can’t turn seawater to oxygen at an efficient enough rate to keep them all alive.

This is what it is to be a general. To make the hard choices.

Marín walks over to the sleeper. In the blue and red light, Rhodes looks even paler.

“ILSA,” she says, deaf to her own words. “Disconnect sleeper pods.”

The light in the pod goes dim, and the tubes and needles in Rhodes’s arms begin to recede. Marín turns around. A’nishi’a is hammering away at the controls with all four hands. Watanabe stands by, watching, making suggestions. When she feels Marín’s gaze on her she turns and gives a sad little smile. Ndibe is looking at Marín hard. She forces herself to look him in the eyes and nod, then turns back to Rhodes.

She feels it as they began to ascend, the thrusters pushing underneath, hot enough to set the water around them to boil. Rhodes’s breathing slows, becomes more labored. She still cannot hear, but she can see the shake to his chest. She would bet anything he is rasping. She takes his hand in her own, his skin so fair against her star-bronzed tan.

The waves churn as the USS Calvin Coolidge disappears beneath them, as the ship rises and rises. She turns her audio back on when Rhodes’s chest stills, when his hand goes limp in her own, then turns around.

At the window, A’nishi’a is frozen. Watanabe clutches the dash. Ndibe is still fixed on Marín, but when he sees her jaw go slack he turns around as well.

A creature, human in shape but piscine in appearance, has its webbed fingers pressed to the window. Marín shivers. She does not know what this creature is. She thinks rapidly at her mech-brain interface, but all it can come up with is […A Mermaid is a creature from many Earth cultural folktales, with the top half of a Human woman and the bottom half of a Fish…]

The creature presses its face to the window next, mashing its nose against the glass. Its eyes are wide like a human’s, but blank like those of a fish.

It slams its fingers forwards. The glass cracks, and water is gushing in. Marín thinks she sees the creature smile as the cruiser floods before water shorts out her visuals.

Her dying breath tastes like salt.

Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

Sometimes, I read a book that provokes such wonder in me I don’t know whether to put it down and marvel at the changed world around me or to keep it pressed tight to my face and never let it go. The dilemma between a desire to process thoughtfully and a burning hunger to consume more is overwhelming.

But eventually I finish the book, one way or another, and find myself in a strange haze afterwards, trying to reconcile the real world around me and the much realer world I’ve just left. Everything seems distant, and shiny. And then it all sharpens. The knowledge crystalizes. My worldview has changed.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is one such book. Shifting between science fiction and fantasy, traditional and wholly innovative, Liu focuses in on human concerns even as he leaps through space and time and species lines. I read The Paper Menagerie in a week last summer and it’s been turning over in my mind ever since. This week, after finishing another read, I decided to revisit Menagerie, this time as an audiobook.

Some books are thin. Not in size necessarily, but in content, in complexity. They may dazzle and astound at first, but become thin upon the closer scrutiny that comes with rereading. Menagerie is not thin. It instead unfolds, revealing ever more layers, striking the same chords and new ones. From its first tale, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” which chronicles the reading practices of alien races of Liu’s invention, to its last novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which zooms in on a future Earth and on the very real atrocities of our past, Liu manages to gather nostalgia, loss, shame, and love together in his fists, ball them up so as to make them indistinguishable, and release them, now commingled, into the world. His characters make sacrifices and make mistakes, explore the American frontier and the final frontier, but they are always reaching out to one another, always searching for connection. They are raw and complex and intricately human, distinct and compelling, and within the many worlds he casts they come to life, some timid and some bold, all more than what they seem at first.

It is for this reason that I found The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so difficult to put down the first time, and for this reason I revisited it again. It makes me feel the sort of connectedness that I only ever find through fiction. This book broadened my understanding of what short stories could do, and helped me to realize there’s more worth reading than just novels.

I can’t give this book five stars. That’s too simplistic. It’s worth a galaxy.

Fiction: Blanca the Beautiful

Don Carmelo had traveled the land from the arid sands of León to the seas of Cartagena. He was a very vain man, and believed he had seen all that Spain had to offer. He knew well the old mosques of Córdoba and the bustling squares of Madrid, had even ventured to the Galician countryside to look distrustfully at the Portuguese border. But he had never once ventured across the Pyrenees into France.

Don Carmelo was a man of great fashion, and the fashion in those days was to leave one’s homeland and never return, but instead to pine for it from the luxurious prison of Paris. And so, on a whim, he saddled up his strongest stallion and set forth from his estate towards the foothills, leaving behind all of his treasures, save the one he could not bear to part with: a lock of his beloved Blanca’s hair, cut the night she died.

Night fell over Don Carmelo when he was near the peak of the last foothill before the mountains began in earnest. He had just dismounted to tie his steed and make camp when he heard voices nearby. He held the reins steady and listened, but he couldn’t quite make out the words being muttered. It sounded like a gathering some little ways away, and so he remounted his horse and went on through the dark until suddenly the trees stopped growing.

He arrived in a clearing with three squat huts and seven women, all ugly, all identical but for the colors they wore. One was draped in a gown of bloody red, another in bright Valencian orange, the third in mustard yellow, the fourth in darkest green, the fifth in the blue of the seas, the sixth in the violet of distant mountains, and the final in a gown of purest white. As one, the wall of rainbow women looked up, their wrinkled faces pinching together as their yellowed eyes met his.

Buenas noches, damas. My name is Don Carmelo. I seek a place to rest for the night. Do you know where I might find the nearest village?”

“There is no village for miles and miles,” the women say in unison. “You are welcome to stay with us.”

Don Carmelo’s skin prickled at the very thought of it. But he couldn’t rest in the forest nearby knowing that these hags had all seen him. Who knew what they might do if he rejected their charity?

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said graciously, but he had already decided that he would rather stay the night here than alone. At least he could hear them this way.

“Stay with us,” said the women in red, orange, and yellow, “and we will ensure your safe passage through the mountains, for a price.”

“Stay with us,” said the women in green, blue, and purple, “and we will ensure your safe return home, for a price.”

“Stay with me,” said the woman in white, “and I will grant your heart’s truest desire, for a price.”

Each set of women looked expectantly at him. He looked back, unsure what to do, then looked down at the lock of Blanca’s hair in his hands, remembering her moon-bright skin, her laughing eyes, her full lips pink as the salmon she once loved to eat.

Dama, I will stay with you,” he said to the woman in white, then turned to the others. “Gracias por todo. Buenas noches, damas.

As he watched, the other women filed back into the first and second huts. The crone in white extended her shaking, gnarled hand to him and he took it, holding fast to Blanca’s hair and the reins of his stallion with the other.

He staked and tied his horse behind the third hut to pasture, and followed the woman inside. The hut was bare of furnishings, but for a small carpet in one corner and a shovel in another. A small fire blazed at the center of the room, held aloft in the air and spending no fuel that Don Carmelo could see.

“What price do you ask, Dama?” Don Carmelo asked once he was finished marveling at the flames. “I have gold and jewels aplenty at my estate.”

“I need nothing of your material wealth,” she said. “I can conjure gold and gems myself.” She pulled a coin from the air, and closed it in her fist. When she opened it again, it was a large, smooth ruby. She placed the gem in the fire, where it disappeared. Her hands came away unburnt. “I will ask you to do three tasks for me. Tell me what it is that your heart desires, that I might make it manifest for you.”

“My beloved Blanca, the beauty I was once betrothed to. She died the night before we were to wed. Bring her back to life and I will do anything you ask of me.”

The hag looked him up and down, evaluating his request, then nodded. “First you must dig a hole, as long and deep as you are tall, and as wide as you are broad.”

“Where?”

“Oh, anywhere outside will do. You must dig it tonight. Use that shovel there.”

And so he took the shovel and he dug a hole behind the house. His hands grew blisters, and splinters from the shovel popped them. He relished the pain, though. It was nothing compared to the joy of regaining Blanca.

When the hole was completed to the hag’s specifications, he returned inside. Hours had passed but the crone still stood waiting.

“Very well,” she said. “For your second task you must give me the lock of Blanca’s hair which you carry with you always.”

Don Carmelo was sad to part with the hair, but he knew it would be worth it to have Blanca back.

“It is yours, Dama, but please be careful with it.”

“I will treat it as though it is my own.” As she said this, the hair began to grow in her hands, upwards towards her scalp. It latched there, and the rest of her white, patchy hair became black and lustrous, just as Blanca’s once was.

Don Carmelo held back a grimace. But this must be to the witch’s plan. He could despise her all he wanted once Blanca was back.

“What is your third task, Dama? I would like to get it over with and see my beloved.”

She smiled, displaying three yellow teeth and many empty gums. “Come outside with me, and Blanca will live again.”

He followed her outside, heart leaping in anticipation. “Andale,” he exclaimed.

She stopped just next to the hole he had dug, and turned to him.

“For your final task, you must die.”

Don Carmelo blinked, certain he had misheard her. But she did not say anything, merely stared at him.

When he finally opened his mouth to protest, she put a haggard finger to his lips.

“It is a side effect of the magic, of sorts. For her to live, you must die.”

Don Carmelo braced himself, then leaned backwards and fell into the grave. As he watched, the witch above him transformed, her face smoothing and paling, her body straightening and filling.

And the last thing he saw was Blanca’s beautiful face, and her long fingers scattering a handful of dirt onto his corpse.

Fiction: Canary

When they told me they were getting a divorce, my parents took me to the pet store. I was thirteen by then, and had been waiting for them to figure out how to break the news for two years before they mustered up the nerve. I didn’t need a consolation. Practically none of my friends had married parents, so I knew what divorce really meant—two Christmases and fewer fights. I’d easily trade the mortgage for that. But if they were going to buy me a pet to make themselves feel better, I wasn’t going to stop them.

Dad was pushing the glow-in-the-dark fishes pretty heavily, because he didn’t want any animal that required him to scoop up shit. Mom wanted something cute and conventional that she could show off to her book club friends. I left them arguing by the poodles and went over to the cages where the hamsters and rats were kept.

I didn’t like the way they moved, the rodents, all jittery and anxious like they had coffee in their weird little straw-bottles instead of water. I wondered for a moment if that was something I could do, if I bought one. Get a rat hooked on caffeine and set it loose in the city.

Mom and Dad found me pretty quick, and Dad took one look at the rat and shot his eyebrows into his receding hairline. “What are you doing over here?” he asked, like he was begging me not to say I wanted a rat.

I didn’t, not really, so I made something up quick and pointed across the aisle at the chinchilla. “I think I might like one of those.”

Mom laughed. “That’s not a pet. That’s something you make coats out of.”

That stung a little, but I didn’t actually want a chinchilla so we moved on to the next aisle before they could start bickering again. We were surrounded now by birds, chirping and singing and cooing at one another, pecking at the bars. One was even hanging upside down from the top of its cage like a bat.

They all went quiet out of nowhere, except one. It was yellow, bright, singing at the top of its lungs. I looked at my parents. They looked at each other. We bought the canary.

I called her Calliope because I was deep in that Greek mythology phase you go through in middle school when everything you feel takes place in epic proportions that only old legends have the scope to encapsulate. I carried her cage back and forth every other weekend and cleaned it out myself. Her song sounded a little like a car alarm. Mary Yang told me that only boy birds sing, but I figured it was a bird and as long as it was caged up and alone it didn’t really care one way or another what I called it.

Sometimes I would talk to Calliope in my room at night because I couldn’t really tell Mom or Dad the things I was thinking. I had friends, but the one-layered middle school variety of friends who you knew from algebra or jazz band and you only ever talked to in algebra or jazz band. They didn’t know one another, and they didn’t know about the other facets of my life. I didn’t like my foods to touch.

With Calliope it was different. For one thing, I kept her in a cage so she couldn’t go anywhere. She was a bird, so she couldn’t tell anyone. And when she cocked her head and went quiet it felt like she was listening for real, like she was sympathizing and understanding.

I told her about how embarrassing it was when the teacher paired me and my crush Johnny Cochrane together for a science lab when I had a bad breakout, or how I got my first period in second period and I had to be sent home because I bled through my pants, or how Madison and Kayla were in a huge fight and I couldn’t even say anything about it because they’d accuse me of taking sides and then I’d be the bad guy to both of them somehow. I even told Calliope about how Mom got a new boyfriend she thought I didn’t know about, but how sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her with him doing it in her room. I wondered if Dad knew she had moved on so fast. I wondered if he would, too.

It was pretty easy to talk to Calliope, and after a while she started kind of cheeping back at me when I spoke like she was commiserating. I tried to show Dad, once, and dragged him to my bedroom to show that Calliope would talk to me, but she didn’t do it with him around. He said something like, “If you wanted a bird that could talk, you should’ve bought a parrot.”

When he left I turned to Calliope and gave her my meanest scowl. “Traitor.”

I flopped onto my bed—less comfortable than the one at Mom’s but with a prettier comforter—and shut my eyes for a few minutes, breathing slow and deep to control myself. I felt like crying suddenly, even though there was no reason to. I didn’t want to cry, and that made it even harder not to.

Suddenly Calliope spoke, but this time it wasn’t just chattering.

“Don’t cry,” she said, and she said it with my voice.

I sat up straight, my eyes suddenly dry, and I opened my mouth to respond, but all that came out was a meek little peep.

“It’s going to be alright,” Calliope said.

I tried to cry out and found myself singing her usual whistling call.

“Open up my cage.”

And I did.

“Now open up your window.”

It was unnerving to watch her talk. She just slightly opened her beak, and didn’t move it at all when the sounds of her speech changed. The words flew out like they’d been recorded, and as I opened my window I cheeped something to that effect.

“It won’t be for long, love,” she said, and suddenly I felt my arms go cold and goose-pimpled.

“I’m going to fly away now,” she said. “And you’ll never see me again. But you’ll have your voice back, and you should really use it to talk to someone other than a bird.”

I twittered indignantly, and she cocked her head to the side a little. “Really. You’re thirteen years old. Have some agency.”

And with that she took flight.

I twittered and cheeped and sang and called until my voice became my own again, yelling, “Wait!”

But she was already out of my sight by then and there was nothing else to do. My father burst in after a moment and took in the scene—the open window, the empty birdcage, the wild, raw look in my eyes—and said, “Oh, honey,” and I ran into his arms and cried.

Fiction: Black Cat

We had a cat. She was oil-gushing, midnight-piercing, charcoal-crumbling black, so we called her Black Cat. It was simple, really—no debate or anything.

Sometimes we’d set fires in the backyard. We’d gather up all the twigs in a pile, away from the uncut grass. Black Cat would sit and stare at the fire all glassy-eyed, like she was waiting. Even when the ashes stopped glowing, she’d stay there, watching.

That was how we found her in the first place. It was summer and the sky was stark and starless, and the grass was brown from weeks without a storm. They told us there was a wildfire advisory, so of course we had to set something ablaze. Everything caught just like we’d hoped, and after the smoke and the flare and the fizzle, we saw Black Cat just out of the reach of the light, with her eyes gleaming steady.

We watched her back, playing chicken to see who could go longest without blinking. She won by mere seconds—once we both cracked, she shut her eyes all slow and opened them back up real lazy-like. She followed us into the house when our yawns told us it was curfew, and that was that.

We never saw her eat, but we knew she did. She was lithe, all fur and bones, but when we’d leave out saucers of milk and little dishes of chopped up meat, they’d be empty by morning—licked clean, even. She didn’t seem to like to do a whole lot while we were watching, really. Anytime we were in the room she’d just sort of stop whatever she was doing and curl up. She didn’t even really meow.

She could purr something mighty, though, like a motorcycle engine rumbling in her chest. Sometimes she’d sit in a little patch of sun on the carpet and kind of buzz. Her eyes would always be open, looking right into the light even though we told her it was bad for her vision. She wasn’t much of a listener, that Black Cat.

She definitely didn’t like strangers. One time about a month after she showed up, Mrs. Davenport from next door came over to check on us and was asking all about where our parents had gone. We didn’t really want to tell her the whole thing because we didn’t want her to call Child Services, but lucky for us Black Cat was there and she jumped up and bit Mrs. Davenport right on that wrinkly, flappy skin beneath her arms. We had to say all kinds of sorry and pretend we were mad at Black Cat for show, but it got Mrs. Davenport to leave and stop asking all her nosy questions pretty quick.

The fire we set that night was extra big. We even went out in the woods behind Kevin Rothschild’s house and got some sassafras twigs because he told us sassafras makes real nice-smelling smoke. We made a kind of monster pile of twigs and grass and a few bigger sticks that had fallen down the last time it had stormed—we weren’t so sure about cutting down trees ourselves and anyway our axe was all busted off the handle so it wasn’t much good for anything. We stacked it real tall until it kind of looked like it was gonna fall over, and then we lit a match and threw it in. We didn’t realize Black Cat was outside with us until she bounded over and hunched down real close to the fire like she was gonna pounce on it. The flames were dancing in her eyes, and she looked a little scary right then, real powerful, like a piece of the night sky torn down and brought here to the earth.

The fire started to pop and hiss when the sassafras caught, and Black Cat started her little buzz-purr-rumble so it was competing with the fire. The wind started howling too and it was a kind of eerie little orchestra. We both got goosebumps even with the fire crackling right there in front of us.

We remembered that one time before Mom left when she told us that the night was not a thing to be trifled with. She always liked big words like that, trifled. We knew she was dead serious because her breath smelled like tequila. She only told the truth when she was wasted.

Black Cat kept rumbling something awful, and we didn’t realize it but we’d started shrinking together until our arms were wrapped around each other tight. Black Cat was a feral creature and we couldn’t really own her, we knew that now. She opened her mouth all wide and we could see the little red stains on her teeth where they’d sunk into Mrs. Davenport’s arm earlier. The fire made her tongue look orange.

The wind picked up some more and the fire got real tall all of a sudden, and we wanted to move but were too scared to try it. Next door Mrs. Davenport’s porch light flickered on.

The fire got bigger and bigger and Black Cat got louder and louder and then there was a knock at the gate and everything all stopped. The fire was just embers, and Black Cat was sitting there purring all quiet-like and normal, with her mouth closed and her eyes just yellow-gold again.

We got up after a moment and went to the gate. It was Mrs. Davenport and she insisted on coming into the yard because of course she did. She was always kind of pesky, used to gossip to all the neighbors until they realized she was talking about them behind their backs. Now she was kind of lonely and sad, but still a real busybody with no sense of what was her business and what wasn’t. She came right over to our fire pit and looked right at it with a strange sort of grown-up contempt, the look they get when they think they’re too good for fun things, and we felt something kind of like pity until she opened up her thin little mouth.

“You kids have got to get yourselves under control. Where are your parents? Where’s that deadbeat mother of yours, that trucker father? What kind of people leave two rowdy boys alone in a house like that?”

Those were exactly the kinds of questions we’d been asking ourselves lately but it hit differently to hear her say them out loud. One of us started crying. The other got all jumpy-nerved and tense.

We didn’t have anything to say and she wouldn’t soften just looking at us. Kept muttering to herself as she started to stamp out our fire with her big pink slippers.

“Stupid kids, bastard parents, what do you expect? You can’t have a neighborhood with this kind of riff-raff running around all the time setting fires, of all things.”

She was going and going and we were stuck still in place and Black Cat started rumbling again, loud like before. The wind joined her like they were duet partners and suddenly the fire caught up again. The tops of Mrs. Davenport’s slippers caught, and instead of kicking them off she just sort of yelped and bent down to beat at the flames with her hands. Black Cat leapt up and bit her again, right there in the face, purring all the while, and the fire grew and grew. Now we were both wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but we didn’t say a word as her blood dripped onto the twigs and the orange flames climbed her stupid bathrobe, her ridiculous papery skin. She might have been screaming but the wind carried it away.

The moon emerged from behind a cloud and the trees looked like they were dancing in the gale. We could hear the cicada hum now, and when the fire dipped down again Mrs. Davenport was nowhere to be seen, not even her bones. Black Cat sat licking her bloodied claws and an owl hooted somewhere close by. We pulled apart, looked at one another, looked at Mrs. Davenport’s flickering porch light, gaped at the sky full of stars. When we looked back down, Black Cat was gone, and she had taken the smell of the sassafras with her, leaving only green grass scent and the pines on the breeze.

Fiction: Cheshire

I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.

You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped showing up to parent functions.

So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door. I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.

Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You were always stubborn like that.

Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all that was left of you.

They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals, and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.

You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would, because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped. Sometimes I wonder if…

But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla. I couldn’t cry.

But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the drawer.

Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.

It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it, though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that squirrel had your teeth.

I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and now you are only a smile.

Fiction: Red-Handed

Daisy died in front of my house on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon. Her arms were wrapped tight around the bloodiest bible you’ve ever seen. The sun was beating down nearly as hard as the car had, and I, in my wool coat and gloves, was sweating hard. I thought it was the heat, but in retrospect, seeing something like that took just as big a toll, maybe bigger.

I probably should’ve called the cops straight away, or at least taken down the number on the plate, but frankly I was so caught off guard by her and that book that I forgot to look. I thought it was red, but when I got over to where she was lying with her chest moving up and down in an uneven rhythm, I realized it’d been bloody all this time, soaked through from front to back. The craziest thing was that she herself didn’t have a speck of red on her, except where she was clutching it with white-knuckled fervor. I guess it was the impact that did it, shocked the beat out of her heart or something, but she wasn’t bleeding anywhere that I could see.

I’ll admit I let curiosity get the better of me. It always does, and I always let it, and then when I wind up in these sorts of jams I guess there’s no one to blame but myself, but anyhow I don’t believe in guilt so it all kind of works out. So I took off my gloves so they wouldn’t stain and I pried the book from her hands, but they were getting real tight, and even with the blood making the leather all slippery I couldn’t really get a good hold on it because my fingers were sliding more than hers, but I kept on. When I heard a few snapping sounds I looked down at her, and her chest had stopped moving and I said a little apology in case her spirit was still nearby and listening and yanked the book good and tight and left her fingers there at a bit of an angle.

Now I was all slick with it, and really I should’ve showered and called the cops or something but I figured she was dead and wasn’t going anywhere and I had missed the license number anyway and so I might as well take a look at this thing before the pages all fused shut.

There wasn’t much ink I could make out anymore. If you’ve ever seen paper all saturated with iron and gore then you understand it’s a whole lot darker than you’d think, and fragile. I didn’t want to rip the pages and they made this awful squelching sound when you tried to pull them apart anyway. It wasn’t hard to tell, though, from the care in the binding and the embossed golden cross on the front, that this was a bible, King James if I had to guess from the heft of it.

I was wondering where she’d gone to get such a book and how it had come to be so thoroughly drenched in blood, almost like the words themselves were dripping, when I noticed something else odd. It started with a whisper of salt, like sweat or tears, and then I saw the color fading from the bottom of the page, diluting as water began running from it instead. The ink was taken with it, just leaving paper with the memory of pinkness at the edges, and when I pried open more pages to figure it out I saw a hole there, right in the center, oozing blood from one side and water from the other.

And I said to myself, well, would you look at that, and then remembered that in the heat of the day Daisy would start to smell soon if someone didn’t come take care of her so I shut the bible and stuck it in the kitchen sink so it wouldn’t keep leaking on my floor, then I went and got a mop and after that took a shower, and when I called they didn’t take long at all to show up and block off the road while they took pictures of her lying there with her skin unruptured and her fingers all broken up and bloody.

Later they found the guy that did it based on the approximate size and shape of the dent on his bonnet, and he didn’t say a word throughout the whole trial even when his own lawyer questioned him. He’s still locked up, but the book disappeared from my kitchen sink by Sunday even though my doors and windows were sealed. A lot of folks have come by lately, cops and reporters and curious folks asking questions I don’t have answers to, and I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t’ve touched it at all because they just keep coming like rats.