Chalk

0396 - ChalktopusStephen loved to walk from his tiny garret apartment overlooking the river to the university where he taught. His first class was a geography section that met at ten minutes past seven every morning. Most of the year, that meant his walk was illuminated by the first, warming rays of the morning sun.

He would walk the first section along the river, where fog often diffused the colors of the sunrise, then he would turn toward the center of the city, stopping at his favorite newsstand for the daily paper – he reveled in the inky texture of newsprint against his fingers – a coffee, and a cheese Danish. His lunches and dinners were always healthy but having coffee and pastry in the morning had been a ritual since his student day, when eating on the go had been more important than balanced nutrition.

Besides, his daily walks, rain or shine, warm weather or cool, kept him trim. He could afford the ’empty’ calories.

The last section of Stephen’s walk brought him through the Chalk Alleys. These were narrow streets between great brick buildings, their external walls covered in layer upon layer of chalk drawings. He enjoyed the work of the different artists, and while he could never decipher the tags that represented their creators’ names, he recognized each distinct style.

There was one chalk artist who was obsessed with machine age cityscapes, and another who thought themself a contemporary Degas, covering walls with stylized dancers in modern club attire. There was the illustrator who memorialized local personalities on the bricks, and there was another who created trompe l’oeil windows onto other worlds.

More recently, however, a new artist had joined the extant crew. Stephen had glimpsed some of their work on warehouses along the waterfront and become intrigued by the monsters they depicted. A white shark with three-dimensional teeth swam on the wall of the old boathouse, and a dragon with scales that glittered like the stars was on the wall opposite the university gates. Creature-Feature’s (Stephen’s private nickname for the skilled creator) monsters were all based on real animals, but given heightened realism, and exaggerated danger.

As he turned the final corner, Stephen saw Creature-Feature’s most recent work: a giant squid that seemed to undulate along the wall, several of its tentacles even curling around the corner of the building. In the weak light that hit these bricks, it seemed as if the squid had was following him on his path. Indeed, when he turned the corner, the tentacles followed him, stretching off their flat surface to reach for…

No! This could not be happening!

Stephen quickened his pace in order to reach the next corner, and where he could cross the street and climb the stairs to the pedestrian bridge.

The great beast followed him.

It made no sound, but when Stephen had to step closer to the wall to side-step a puddle, he caught the scent of seawater and something faintly rubbery and slimy and sinister, and felt the sucker on the tentacle’s underside brush the back of his neck.

Dropping his coffee and pastry, Stephen broke into a run. Most of his brain was occupied with breathing and not tripping and wishing he’d thought to wear running shoes to work and change upon arrival, but another, smaller part, wondered if any of his students followed this route to school, and what would they think?

The sunlight grew brighter, bringing more of the brick expanse into its warming glow and Stephen cast aside his newspaper and ran faster. If he could reach that corner, he’d be out of the shadows. Surely sunlight would stop the thing, right?

Right?

But he’d forgotten: just before the corner one of the old building had been supplanted by a skyscraper, as was happening more and more often in the city. The tall structure blotted out the sunlight, and the squid reached for him again, and this time, the suckers caught him.

As the chalk creature dragged him into its dusty embrace (why had he thought it was slimy?), Stephen screamed.

But there was no one to hear him.

The seasons changed. Stephen’s class was reassigned to the bewilderment of students who had always enjoyed their original professor’s lectures. The landlord eventually emptied the apartment and leased it to someone new at twice the rent.

Rains erased the cityscapes and dancers, and new illustrators came to create new chalk picture, but the squid, on its sheltered bricks, remained. It wasn’t technically indelible, but no one was willing to touch it. It felt too weird, they said.

Still the image of the giant sea-monster had been altered. If asked, people would say the image changed around the time of Stephen’s disappearance.

And the alteration?

The figure of a man in khaki pants and a jacket with elbow-patches, a messenger bag slung across his body, was visible in the curl of one of the squid’s tentacles, his mouth open in a perpetual scream.

Stitches

0400 - StitchesJeiyiz stood in front of the looking glass in her room and surveyed her work. So far, one arm was completed, and work on her torso had begun. When the final stitch had been completed, she would be considered a woman in the eyes of her people and could leave their village and make her way in the universe.

The embroidered flowers and symbols that were sewn into her skin represented the people who had raised her, the friends who had supported her, the animals which had given themselves for her nourishment, and the Great Path that all her kind walked.

The Path was a spiritual one, that lead each of the Embroidered Ones to their personal fulfillment. For some, this resulted in marriage and children, while for others it led to a life of ministry or activism. Some found that their branches of the Path resulted in demanding careers that allowed them to give back to their communities, while others lived lives of creativity, adding to the collective Story in words, music, and visual art.

Jeiyiz was not yet certain where her journey would end, but she knew that she was anxious for it to begin. Her plan was to go to the City to the great University there, and study as broad a curriculum as possible.

After that, she wished to travel. On the newsfeeds, she’d seen the giant starships that sailed into orbit around her World and been dazzled by all the different kinds of People who came down to visit. Some were green-skinned, and some were pink. Some had horns, and some had hair. Some had art on their bodies – not thread like hers, but ink and scars.

Jeiyiz wanted to meet all these different People. She wanted to taste the diversity that existed in the universe and discover her true place in it. She’d been told she could write; maybe she would chronicle her experiences.

But first she had to complete her stitching.

She pulled her kit from the bottom drawer of her dresser, and threaded the needle with clean, white, thread. She’d filled each spool herself, first gathering the fluffy white fiber from the thread-plants, then cleaning it, carding it, stretching and spinning it until it was fine enough to be sewn into living skin.

With the first stick of the needle, blood ran down the fiber, staining it red-brown. It didn’t hurt much, but she would not have objected to a little pain. “Pain is what lets us know we are alive,” the elders said. “Pain is a signal that we are part of the Universe.”

The angle at which Jeiyiz was working was awkward, and she had not stenciled a design in chalk or marking pencil, but she was certain her imagination would lead her stitches in the correct direction.

She worked for an hour, finishing the first two of many water plants. Water was her element, and while she had heard that there are People who come from desert planets, she could not imagine living on one. The very thought left her parched.

At the end of her hour, she tied the knot, snipped the thread, washed her blood off the needle, and replaced her kit in her dresser drawer.

Standing in front of her mirror once more, Jeiyiz surveyed her work. The once-white stiches have absorbed her blood, and dried to almost the color of her skin. She runs the hand of her un-sewn arm over the earlier sewing of the opposite side, and smiles at her reflection.

Her torso was nearly half finished. By the end of the Hot Season she would be ready to claim her adult status and begin her Adventures on the Great Path.

Perhaps one day she would find a life partner and agree to a marriage. She lifted her unembroidered arm and studied the smooth flesh there. If that partner was not one of her People but another kind of Person, would they be willing to stich their story into her skin?

For the moment, Jeiyiz could only wonder.

The Camels of Mars

0398 - Camels of Mars

Their craft had finally set down on the ground that didn’t look all that different from any desert back home.

“Isn’t it supposed to be red?” Benjy asked glancing from the scenery outside to his father, who was also staring through the viewport.

Fahrid O’Reilly sympathized with his son. He’d wanted Mars to seem different, too. “That’s just because of the dust in the air when we look at Mars from Earth,” he explained. “Are you disappointed?”

“Who’s gonna believe we really came here if the dirt I send home is just… dirt?”

“Benjy, we’ve been through this before. You can’t send soil back to Earth. But you can send a photo of yourself at Curiosity Memorial.”

The ten-year-old was not impressed. “Anyone can photoshop that.”

“Well, we’ll have to figure out something else to prove to your friends where your new home is.” He was about to remind the boy that his mother had arrived on the previous lander, three months before, and that he’d get to be reunited with her shortly, but one of the officers – Morris – came to join them.

“The umbilical into the Habitrail will be attached any second now,” he said, gesturing to the series of interconnected domes and tunnels that provided a livable environment on the Red Planet. “Everyone’s anxious to get to their quarters and decompress from the trip, but we think it’d be best if you took the animals out first. Get them settled in their enclosure.”

Fahrid nodded, “A wise choice, Commander Morris. I’ve been checking on them and they seem to be alright, but large animals shouldn’t be cooped up for so long.”

“Do you mind if I ask… what made you pitch the idea of bringing them?”

“I was going through my father’s things after he died, an I found a picture of him with a camel, and a book about the Texas Camel Corps.”

“Is that a real thing?” Morris asked.

“Oh, very real. In the early twentieth century a rancher in Texas who’d been the camel caretaker at a zoo decided that camels would be fantastic herd animals.”

“O’Reilly, don’t you dare tell me they raised camels for food?”

“No… no they didn’t. They used them as pack animals and for transportation in the Chihuahuan Desert – there are places where it isn’t practical to use road transports, and it’s too dusty for flitters. He started doing tours for tourists, but eventually he was training camels to be used as riding beasts for ranchers throughout the southwest.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t. Anyway, I did some research, found out that he’d been experimenting with genetic mods, and his descendants had continued his work. Not only can our camels store liquid water, instead of just fat, they can actually create water out of what they eat and breathe.”

“They’re not dangerous, are they?” Morris asked.

“Benjy,” Fahrid said to his son, “why don’t you take this one?”

The ten-year-old uncurled his fingers from the rim of the viewport and pushed himself away from the bulkhead. Standing up straight, and speaking in rapid, but well-rehearsed sentences, he shared, “It’s a myth that camels are mean. Llamas have been known to spit at humans, and camels can do that too, but for the most part they’re docile creatures. Some people even describe them as giant hay-eating puppies.” He paused and grinned up at both men. “Lucy’s my favorite. She likes to give kisses.”

Morris seemed like he was about to ask a question, but there was a jolt followed by a hiss. “Sounds like the umbilical is linked. Can you two manage, or could you use a hand?”

“The more help we have, the faster we finish,” Fahrid said. He turned and led the officer down to the part of the hold where the livestock had been quartered on their long journey. “Coming, Benjy?”

“I wanna get Sophie first,” the boy said.  Part family pet, part herding animal, Sophie was their border collie.  “We’ll meet you there.”

“Okay, but don’t dawdle.”

“I won’t.”

It took the men, the boy, and the dog about an hour to offload the seven camels and five goats, and usher them into the umbilical tunnel that led into the main dome of Opportunity Village, where much of the extant community was waiting to greet the new arrivals, whether they had four feet, or only two.

From the center dome, there was another tunnel that led to a series of gates and beyond them to another dome, this one carved among pillars of stone that were part of the natural landscape. It had shaded stalls, water troughs, and pens full of hay. An older woman, dressed in a coverall, was waiting with a pitchfork, and several people using tablets to control camera drones were also gathered.

“Mr. O’Reilly! Welcome!” She greeted Fahrid first. “Benjy, it’s good to see you. And Commander Morris, welcome back. You staying, this time?”

“Looks like it,” the officer said. “Especially since Specialist Weaver finally agreed to marry me.”

“Did he! That’s wonderful. You two will have to join George and me for dinner soon.” But she turned back to the O’Reillys. “I’m Anna Meier, the governor. I’m so excited to have you and your charges with us. Join me, now, as we pitch the first hay into the feeding bins… folks back on Earth are dying for a photo op.” More softly, she added, “Penelope is waiting for you in quarters… she asked for a private reunion.”

“Penny’s always been camera shy,” Fahrid observed. He reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. “Okay Benjy, line’em up.”

And they cajoled the animals into a loose semicircle around the feeding bins and let Governor Meier toss the first loads of hay to each beast.

“I’m so excited. I know the dome won’t be their favorite place, but with rebreathers, we’ll be able to use your animals to explore the surface and hopefully find more access to the underground sea.”

Benjy and Sophie wandered away while the adults were talking, heading directly toward Lucy. The camel blinked at the boy and the dog, and then slurped the former. Benjy heard the whirr-click of the drone camera capturing his picture.

“Hey, kid!” A blonde reporter with a friendly grin called out. “Mind looking this way?” Benjy turned and flashed her a smile that was a dimpled echo of his father’s. “Awesome,” the reporter said. “That’s the money shot.”

And it was.

All the papers and news feeds on Earth, Luna, and Mars had the image of boy, dog, and camel, with the great stone pillars behind them, as their lead story. The caption? The Camels of Mars.

 

 

 

Storm Head

Zombie Attack by https://www.123rf.com/profile_ecadphoto

I know the storm is coming because our old dog, Fortinbras (named for the dog in my favorite childhood book, A Wrinkle in Time, and not directly after the Shakespeare character) is whimpering and pawing at me.

At his insistence, I wake up, and immediately I’m assaulted by a splitting headache and beg my husband to make it stop. “My head is going to explode, I say.” But the storm is already in full force – it crept up on us while we were sleeping. “Or implode,” I correct, because what I feel is immense pressure, as if someone is trying to crush me from above.

“Take your meds,” he says gently.

“They make me into a zombie,” I complain.

“Better zombie-wife than screaming-in-pain wife,” he counters. “Take. Your. Meds.”

I roll my eyes at him, but I sit up in the bed and twist, so I can reach the bottle of blue pills on the shelf of the headboard. They’re uncoated. They’re bitter. I hate the taste, the texture, the size. But I shake two of them into the palm of my hand and reach for the glass of lemon-water on my nightstand. It must be lemon water. Plain water makes me puke.

I screw my face into a horrible expression, but I swallow the pills.

Then I wait.

Outside our bedroom window, lightning sizzles and I can taste ozone. “That was close,” I observe.

“It’ll move away soon,” he says.

“Yeah.” The thunder rumbles, and I imagine it, embodied, as several cranky old men – traveling salesmen from the sixties – knocking on the door. “Sorry sirs,” I address the sound. “We’re not interested in vacuums or blenders today. Maybe next year. Or never.”

“You’re doing it again,” my husband says. He’s sitting up in bed now, too. “Talking to the thunder.”

“It’s trying to sell us stuff we don’t need,” I explain.

“O-kay.” His tone is half-way between merely dubious and maybe-my-wife-should-be-committed, but he puts his arm around me anyway.

“How long has it been?” I ask.

He has an almost supernatural sense of time.  He doesn’t even have to look at his phone to tell me, “Ten minutes.”

The pills take thirty to work. I rest my head against his shoulder, let my right hand fall to his thigh. I reach across my body with my left hand and place it over his heart. The steady beat, the darkened bedroom, his arm around me… these things ground me.

When the lightning flashes again, it’s less bright, further away.

“How long?” I ask again.

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I close my eyes and count to sixty once, twice, three, four, five times. And then I feel it: the bubble inside my head pops and the pain and tension are gone.

The thunder makes another attempt at rumbling, but it’s barely a murmur.

As the storm abates, so does my ability to be awake or lucid. I slide back into the bed, and turn on scoot backwards, into my husband’s embrace. “Sit in your chair,” he says, meaning that I’m supposed to nest myself within the curve of his arms and bend of his legs. “Sleep. I’ll keep you safe.”

But what he really means is, that he’ll keep the animals safe, because while the pills soothe my aching head and send the storms away, the zombie part isn’t entirely an exaggeration. The last time this happened, I ate the neighbor’s cat when it jumped our fence.

I was picking calico fur out of my teeth for days.

“Remember when I used to love storms?” I ask softly. “Remember when they happened because of normal climate patterns, and not because my brain is wonky?”

“You’re obsessing,” he says. “Clear your mind. Go to sleep.”

And I do, but my dreams are nightmare memories of the dengue fever I caught after our summer planting trees in Costa Rica. The doctors and chemists and virologists and entomologists had no idea what I’d eaten, what had bitten me. They only knew that when the fever left me, I’d been altered.

The symptoms developed slowly: the nausea-inducing migraines, the storms that always seemed to come whenever my head hurt, the craving for hot animal flesh and blood when the medication that stopped the pain and storms finally took hold.

Other people talked about their migraine medication as making them into zombies… but for me, it wasn’t an exaggeration. It was a harsh reality.

 

 

A Piece of Midnight

eidy-bambang-sunaryo-517370-unsplash“Don’t leave me,” he urges her. “Stay with me.” He opens the curtains to reveal the night sky, then lifts the window-sash to let in the cool breeze. Impulsively, he stretches both hands through the open space and draws them back, cupped. “Look,” he says, returning to her bedside. “I’ve brought you a piece of midnight. Share it with me.”

She puts her frigid hands in his. Her nails are blue, like her lips. “A piece of midnight. I like that.” Her voice is weak and thready, her smile watery, but her eyes shine like the stars. “When you look up from now on, you’ll see the missing piece, and know it’s with me until it’s time to be together again.”

It had been a – not really a joke – an act, he supposes. A bit. Something to make her last moments a little less awful.

When her eyes close, he climbs into the hospital bed with her, careful not to get caught in the IV tubes and the wires that connect the many discs affixed to her skin to the array of monitoring devices. He whispers loving words into her ear, long into the night.

The nurses peek in but no alarms are sounding, so they let him stay.

In the morning, she doesn’t wake, and it’s sad, yes, but it’s also a release from endless rounds of chemo, from radiation that never seemed to work, from pain and exhaustion.

He grieves alone, and with their children.

A week goes by. A month. A year.

On the anniversary of their mother’s death, he brings his children with him to the observatory where he works and sets the big telescope to the coordinates he’s long since committed to memory. Just at midnight, they each get to look at the starry sky.

“That star right there,” he says, “is the one we named for your mother. That’s her, looking down on us and wishing us well.”

The children accept his statement, his daughter because she wants it to be true, his son because he’s young enough to still possess unshakeable faith. But the boy startles them all, when he announces. “Dad? A piece of the sky is missing.”

“What? Let me see?” He thinks the instruments must be miscalibrated, but he looks through the ‘scope and sees that, just above Her star, there’s a tiny space where the night sky isn’t. It’s as if someone reached above it and scooped out a piece of the galaxy.

The years roll by. The annual trips to the observatory change. First his daughter stops coming, then his son, and finally, the great telescope is replaced by a new project, and he retires. Good thing, too, because his joints just can’t handle the effort of all the stairs anymore.

His daughter marries, has children, has grandchildren. She writes a cookbook of her mother’s recipes and hosts a cooking show on some channel you can’t get on the television without an expensive cable package, which he gladly pays for. He sees her on the screen more often than in person, but they talk for ten minutes every Sunday.

His son checks out of life for a while. He sends postcards and video messages. Surfing in Hawaii and Australia. Diving off Tahiti. Skiing in Switzerland. He has no clue how the young man pays for these excursions, but there’s something about a YouTube channel, and something else about teaching other people how to surf, and dive, and ski.

On his son’s thirtieth birthday, a photo he took graces the cover of National Geographic. It’s a close encounter with a grey whale, and it’s magnificent.

Eventually, time wins out and the children – no longer children, no longer young, just younger than he is – are hovering in his hospital room.

“Dad,” his son says, looking out the open window, “that piece of the sky… it’s missing again.”

“Not again,” the old man corrects, “still.”

They press the button to raise the glass pane and let in the cool breeze, and then they sit on his bed, one on each side. His voice is barely a whisper, but he’s certain they hear him.

“On your her last night, after you two said goodbye, I scooped a piece of midnight out of the sky and gave it to your mother. She said she’d return it when it was time for me to be with her again. I suspect the nighttime sky will be different after tonight.”

He expects them to scoff, but their mother had always seemed a little bit magical to them, and don’t all the magazines and Facebook posts say that it’s best to humor the elderly?

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren come in to say goodbye. His son-in-law pops in to sit a while, and his son’s partner too, but eventually they all relocate to the family suite next door.  A nurse will alert them to any changes.

The full moon casts a beam across his bed, and in the stillness of his hospital room, the only sounds the soft beeping of the monitor and the hiss-puff of the oxygen machine, She appears.

She looks the same as she had before she’d left him, before she got sick, when she was still a young mother and aspiring poet, but her eyes sparkle with the light a thousand stars, and her lip are burning hot against his cheek when she kisses him.

“I’ve come to return this,” she says, and lifts his hands. Then she cups her own hands together and pours a piece of midnight into them. “This allowed me to watch over you and the kids, and it kept us connected. But now it’s time to restore it to its rightful place, and since you took it, only you can put it back.”

She climbs onto the bed and curls herself around him, but while her voice is low, she doesn’t whisper words. Instead she sings songs of distant planets and spiraling galaxies. She shares ballads about the untold wonders of the universe, and anthems to the joys of space and time. Finally, as morning light begins to color the edges of the horizon, she sings a lullaby about putting stars to sleep.

His last breath comes as the final note is dying out.

The children and their partners, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all file into the room for a last look before his body is sent away. There will be a funeral later, and then they’ll mix his ashes with hers and cast them to the winds from the top of Observatory Hill.

But all that day and into the night, they keep a vigil in his living room. More distant relatives come and go. Food is served, forgotten, reheated, and finally eaten. They tell stories, laughing and crying and remembering all the details that get pushed aside by busy lives.

When it is midnight again, his son and daughter slip away to spend a quiet moment with the night sky.

“Look,” says his son, pointing to their mother’s star. “Look!”

In the place where a piece of midnight has always been missing, stars shine brightly down.

Duet for Two Young Superheroes

0395 - Halloween Carols

“Dashing through the streets,
Meeting goblins as we go,
Wearing contour sheets,
Wishing it would snow.”

Ethan marched down the street, singing the hood piece of his Amazing Spider-man costume dangling behind him like a cape. Well, more like a deflated balloon. He couldn’t help it though. The costume was a little bit too big for him, and when he wore the mask he couldn’t see properly.

Besides, it was hot for October. Nearly ninety degrees. He would melt into a puddle of red and blue goo if he had the hood on.

He launched into the chorus of the song, his favorite of the Halloween carols they’d been learning at school all week.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
Try to get the treats before the ghost takes us aw–”
Ethan trailed off, realizing he was singing alone.

“Zach, why aren’t you singing?”

“I’m Batman!” his friend answered, trying (and failing) to make his young voice sound deep and husky. “Batman doesn’t sing.”

“You wish you were Batman,” Ethan retorted. “I don’t wanna sing alone. You have to sing with me.”

“Halloween carols are lame,” Zach complained.

“You’re only saying that because people kept singing the other version of the song to you.”

“Don’t remind me,” the boy in the Batman costume groaned. This had been the day they’d all worn their Halloween costumes to school, and he’d been constantly assaulted with eight-to-ten-year-old boys – and some of the girls – singing at him: Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…. It had been funny the first time; now it made him want to puke. “Why’s it so important that we sing anyway?”

“Because,” Ethan said, his bravado and cheer fading somewhat, “we’re turning onto Willow Street when we get to the corner, and that means we have to pass that old white house, and Rebecca says it’s haunted.”

“You mean the house with the tower-thingy?” Zach hadn’t learned the word ‘turret’ yet. “It looks haunted. Like, when I’m riding my bike, I always cross the street so I’m on the other sidewalk.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“So, if we’re singing, won’t that make it easier for the ghosts and monsters to find us?”

“No, it’s like that movie. The with the widow and the bald king and the kid who played Draco Malfoy, except this was before he was Draco?” Ethan lived with his mother and older sister, who were both into musicals. He kinda liked them too, but he didn’t really tell people that. “In the movie, if you whistle something happy when you’re scared, you stop being scared.”

“So, if we sing while we walk past the Ghost House, we won’t be afraid of ghosts?”

“Either that or the noise of happy singing will make them afraid of us.” They’d reached the corner, by then, and Ethan stopped walking. “So… will you sing with me?”

“I’m a singing Batman,” Zach answered, in the same voice he’d used before.

Ethan didn’t twit him though. Instead, he launched into the chorus, grinning as his best friend joined in.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
Try to get the treats before the ghost takes us away! Hey!
Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
If you don’t have treats for us we’ll never go away!”

Lachesis

0388 - Fate

They’re had been three of them, once. The Moirai Sisters. Each of them controlling one of the three branches of Destiny.

Clotho, the spinner, had gone first. She’d woven herself into her own tapestry, preferring to end her days surrounded by a portrait of hope. As beings with immortal blood, she was technically still alive, and sometimes, it seemed, her voice could still be heard: Pluck that thread, Sister. Tweak that rune. That woman deserves some luck. That man is evil, make him feel the pain he caused to others.

Atropos, the immutable one, went next. She had been in charge of clipping the threads to end lives, and it had gone to her head and bruised her heart beyond repair. Too many children, she said, haven’t been allotted adulthood. Too many rapists and murderers were given long lives. She’d cut her own thread, in the end. Lachesis never even knew where she found the scissors.

But, just as her sisters had never blamed her for doing her job as the allotter, Lach (their father had given her the nickname) had never resented them for leaving her alone.

She’d had to change her methods, though. Doing the work of three with the skills of one necessitated the alteration. Where the Sisters had spun threads, woven lives, and snipped the ends as the colors faded, Lachesis had conjured a sort of runic tickertape machine.

Rolls of paper, made from Potential, inked with Hopes and Plans and Dreams, gave her updates on every life that came into being. She was no longer allotting, but allowing. She read the scrolling symbols and made decisions: this person would have a long life, with many meters of paper, and this one would have their scroll ripped off mid-word.

It was hard work. It was constant. It would never end, until she chose to let the ink of her own life run dry.

But for now, Lachesis let meter after meter of ink and paper run through her calloused fingers, and sent a prayer to the gods in memory of her sisters.

Lydia

0394 - BrideShe’d told them – the doctor, his wife, the sad creature they’d meant her to marry – she’d told them that she didn’t want this life.

“But we saved you,” they said. “You were in a box, in the ground, and we saved you.”

She remembered that, she thought.

Not the box. But… the before-time.

She remembered drunken nights with eager lovers. She remembered the pricking of the needles as the ink was injected into her skin, making her body into a living scrapbook. She remembered all the times she and her friends had left their dorms to hang out with the townies at the amusement pier.

And she remembered the calliope playing and the carousel spinning.

It hadn’t been an ordinary carousel.

No painted ponies and prancing unicorns. No pretty swan boats for those who weren’t interested in catching the brass ring.

That carousel had been populated by grotesques. Leering goblin faces, twisted features of nightmare horses.

She remembers the night the carousel spun out of control.

She remembers the faces whirling around and the screams that filled her ears.

Her own screams.

And then nothing.

And then a storm.

And then the doctor, and his wife, and that poor miserable creature.

It took her a while to regain herself. A lot of screaming in the mirror. Even more screaming at Them.

Her speech returned slowly, like her faculties.

But she was able, finally, to articulate her feelings.

“You brought me back without consent,” she said. “You gave me a new life I never wanted. But that doesn’t make me yours.”

Her arguments fell on deaf ears, so she resorted to the methods she’d used as a kid. She watched  – learned the codes for the doors, learned the pin for the atm card, learned the floorplan of the castle. (Why did these types always have a fetish for castles?)

And one night – during another storm – she went to the creature’s chamber. She was just going to give him the standard line – It’s not you; it’s me – but he was so lonely, and so sad, and she felt it as viscerally as if she were generating the emotions herself.

She hadn’t realized he was a projectile empath.

She’d slept with worse for less worthy causes.

So she gave him her body for one night, and corrected him when he tried to twist his tongue to shape her name.

“Eve is the name They gave me,” she told him. “My name is Lydia. Like the song.”

A tilt of his head, a stroke of his hand moving her hair back from her face – she’d washed out the fright-wig perm during her first shower, though the white streak remained. Maybe she’d dye it pink – curiosity flooded from his eyes.

She knew he responded to music.

So, she sang the words the calliope was playing the day she… she had to think it, if she couldn’t say it… the day she died.

Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia
Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady

Then she dressed again. She’d kept the gown they gave her but cut several feet off the bottom, so it skimmed her knees. She’d stolen a pair of boots from Them.

“I have to go,” she told the Creature. “Find your voice. Make them let you go. You’re not as scary as people tell you. And if you need me… find me at the carousel.”

She didn’t tell him which carousel.

She wasn’t even sure if her carousel still existed.

She practically danced out of the castle. She took maximum cash from five ATMs in town before she muffed the PIN intentionally, and let the card be taken.

Then she hopped the train out of town.

Years passed. She’d convinced the authorities it hadn’t been her in that grave. Told them the carousel accident had left her disoriented and she’d gone away with friends. Flashed them cleavage and cash, and presto-change-o, her new life and her old one had been reconnected.

She joined a band, went on tour, stopped at every carousel, checked every newsfeed for word of her Creature. (He’d become Hers, in her head, over the years.)

One rainy night, in a town between here and there, she stood outside the wrought iron gate of a carousel – this one also lacked the painted ponies and genteel swans – and watched the children riding the ostriches and elephants and giraffes, she felt him.

Not the same sadness and loneliness as before.

Contentment. And hope.

His presence loomed behind her.

His voice  – made of gravel, but musical even so – sang her song.

Their song.

Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia
Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady

By the Shore

0393 - By the Shore

Eleanor sprawled on the warm sand and popped open her parasol in order to keep her face from burning in the bright sun. “A creamy complexion is a sign of good breeding,” her mother would have reminded her. “As well, good grooming habits are a sign of a strong character.”

Well, her mother was right about one thing: she was a strong character. While the other girls were perfecting their skills with ink or learning the best way to serve crabs, she was typically off exploring.

She had the treasure-trove to prove it, too. A veritable hoard of pretty shells, wave-worn sea glass, and the occasional found object – her current favorite was a mirror set into a wooden frame so water-logged it had darkened to near-ebony in color.

And of course, there was her parasol. She’d found it in the remains of a ship-wreck, and it was perfectly intact, if slightly green on the fringe. No matter; she liked green.

She also liked solitude.

Here on the sand, she didn’t have to listen to the other girls gossiping about the boys they liked – oooh, Brian’s tentacles are so much thicker than Michael’s. And Benjamin does amazing things with ink.

Well, they had a point. Benjamin had skills with ink that were mind-blowing, but even so, squealing and swooning was not Eleanor’s style.

The sun continued its ascension and the temperature grew warmer. Recognizing the need to hydrate, Eleanor closed her parasol and staked it into the sand. Then she rolled down into the waiting ocean, where her strong arms and graceful tentacles propelled her into swimmable depths. For over an hour – maybe two or three –  she frolicked in the waves, giggling when the foamy crest tickled her nose, and diving deep to play chase with a pod of dolphins.

When she reached the point of being pleasantly tired, she emerged from the water and moved to collect her things.

“Come here often?” a voice asked.

Benjamin. Here. Did that mean the others were coming, too? Eleanor sincerely hoped not.

“When I can sneak away,” she answered. “Are you alone?” He nodded an affirmative, and she smiled. “Then you may stay.”

“Why thank you, gracious Lady.” He was teasing her, but it held no malice only… was that affection?

“I have some prawns here, if you’re hungry,” she offered, settling onto the warm sand once more.

“Thanks!”

They ate without talking until Eleanor had to know. “I thought Priscilla had her tentacles wrapped around you, these days.”

“She decided Ronald had more powerful propulsion.”

“She would,” Eleanor’s tone was hardly complimentary.

“Besides, I heard you knew about a shipwreck… is that where you found the parasol and jacket?”

Eleanor glanced down at herself. The school uniform she’d also found in the wreck had become sun-bleached during her time out of the water. “I could show you where it is, if you want.”

“I’d like that,” he said. “My family isn’t generations old, like yours. I’m only first-generation hybrid. My mother – she was fully human. Dad said she used to believe that mermaids had fish tails instead of being part squid. Can you believe that?”

“Fish are food,” Eleanor said. It was one of the first things they’d been taught in school.

“Exactly.”

The breeze changed directions and Eleanor shivered slightly. “It’s getting cold.”

“May I sit closer? Dad says I run warm because I’m closer to human. Did you know that if they stay in the water too long, their body temperatures can drop dangerously low? It’s amazing they’ve taken over the surface of the planet!”

“As long as they stay on the surface, it’s fine,” Eleanor said, shifting her position so Benjamin could sit right against her. He was right; he was noticeably warmer than she was – than anyone was. It was… nice. Comforting.

“But they don’t,” Benjamin said. “You’ve seen it. Out in the Middle. That swamp of used things. They call it ‘plastic.’ And you’ve seen the turtles and the sea-birds that get choked on those weird Circles of Six.

“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “Mother says we used to Take humans to keep our species alive. We can only interbreed for so long… But I keep thinking, maybe we should Take a few and show them what their wastefulness is doing to us. They won’t listen to the whales or the sharks or the turtles – ”

He cut her off. “Some of them try, but they don’t speak the same language. Literally.”

“… but we can speak like they do. So maybe if….”

“Maybe,” but Benjamin’s tone was dark. “Or maybe they’ll Take us and put us in their glass cages for people to point to and gawk at. Maybe it’s better if they think we’re part fish, or just mythical creatures.”

“Maybe they’ll change,” Eleanor said.

“We’ll figure something out. We both need a senior project. Want to be partners?”

“Meet here day after tomorrow to exchange ideas?” She suggested.

“Seal it with a kiss?” He wasn’t teasing… not exactly.

A conch shell rolled up to them just as their lips met. As they twined their longest tentacles together, it began to speak. “Eleanor and Benjamin, you are truant. Please return to school immediately, or your parents will be notified.”

Reluctantly, the pair broke apart. “We should go,” Benjamin said. “They’re going to give us a ton of demerits.”

Eleanor folded her parasol and collected the rest of her belongings. “Race you back!”

Both youngsters leapt for the water, but Benjamin changed the rules by grabbing her hand. “Together,” he said.

He was right: they did get a ton of demerits. But, Eleanor reflected, it was worth it for a day by the shore.

Like Clockwork

0392 - Ticking“It’s good to see you again,” he tells me. “I’m glad you’re home.” He leans close to give me a welcoming kiss – and I can’t deny I’ve missed his kisses – but something skitters up his arm to perch on his shoulder.

A spider. But not the typical kind. One of his creations.

“You’ve been tinkering again,” I observe, and back away.

“A bit,” he hedges. “More than a bit,” he amends, off my accusing glare. “A lot, actually. You were on tour for six months, love. I had to fill the nights somehow. Besides, it was a distraction from the pain.”

Before I’d left him to go on tour, he’d been diagnosed with the wasting disease that had decimated the human population of Earth. (The aliens and the hybrids, like me, were immune.) I’d offered to stay, but it had been my farewell tour – my last chance to dance the lead roles I’d loved so well – Giselle, of course, Aurora, and – somewhat appropriately – my very last performance had been Coppelia.

“Did you have to build spiders, though?” I’d always feared the creatures. They had too many legs, and too many eyes, and tended to appear in places where I was wearing too little clothing – the shower, the deck of the hot tub, our bed.

“I didn’t build him,” my partner said.

“But I can see the clockwork.”

“I enhanced him. Come, let me draw you a bath, and I’ll explain.”

I let him lead me through the bedroom, into the luxurious master bathroom that had been the selling feature for our house. He’d made sure the bed was freshly made for my arrival, and I smiled at that detail. I undressed as he lit candles and filled the tub with hot water and scented bubbles.

“Join me?” I invited.

“Not tonight,” he said. “Would you like wine or tea while you soak?”

“Not tonight,” I echoed his words, as I stepped into the tub I sighed as I sunk into the water. My forty-five-year-old body was pretty battered after six months of performances and travel, and I’d danced five years longer than many of the women I’d started with, ten years longer than some. I could easily have closed my eyes and fallen asleep, but the bubbles tickled my skin and reminded me… “So, the spider?”

“Ah, yes. The first month you were gone, I was a bit sore, but I managed, but as the disease worsened, I knew that there would be no medical marvel for me unless I created one. I started with spiders because – gods forgive me – I didn’t care so much if they didn’t survive the process. Then I moved to small mammals; don’t worry, they all survived.”

“So, what, you were making clockwork prosthetics?”

“At first, yes, but I learned to recreate entire joints, even organs. It was as if someone was directing my ideas, guiding my hands. When I woke one morning and couldn’t walk, I called Sam.”

Sam was my partner’s oldest friend, a fellow tinkerer, and a specialist in robotics. “There was a Doctor Who marathon, and we spent the weekend watching it.” He chuckled ruefully, “I’m afraid it only gave us more ideas. In any case, we needed to test our creations on humans, and Sam’s wife is a surgeon, so…”

He rolled up his sleeve and displayed his elbow, then pressed inside the joint, causing the skin to open and reveal more clockwork.

I gasped. I couldn’t help it.

My partner knelt by the side of my tub and began to unbutton his shirt. He didn’t speak, but the seam in his chest told me all I needed to know.

“Maybe don’t open that just now,” I said, managing to infuse my words with a tiny bit of humor. “Is that why you didn’t want to join me in the bath?”

“You mean, will I rust? No. Totally waterproof, or, as much as I ever was. I just wanted you to have room to stretch.”

“How much?” I asked. “How much of you is… still you?”

“My knees, elbows, and heart are clockwork. The rest… the rest of me is still very much organic. I haven’t cured myself, love. Just arrested the progression of the disease.” He lowered his head a bit, the way he always did when he was sheepish. “The patents made us a lot of money… if you ever want – ”

“NO! – ” I cut him off. “I mean… I’m sorry, but… no. It’s not for me. I’m glad you’re not in pain, though.”

“Not in pain,” he said, and then, waggling his eyebrows, he added, “and no longer impotent.”

I’d been gone for six months, but we hadn’t had sex for at least as long before my tour. “Prove it,” I challenged.

* * * * *

Later, sated and sleepy, I rested with my head on my lover’s chest, and listened to the ticking that came from deep within his chest. “Well, I said… that still works.”

“It does,” he agreed, “like clockwork.”