মুখ্য Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 97

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 97

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ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
সাল:
2014
প্রকাশক:
Wyrm Publishing
ভাষা:
english
ISBN:
7e5337a0-f78a-424d-876b-83b239e7c6c1
ফাইল:
MOBI , 533 KB
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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
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Burke, James Lee - Robicheaux 10

সাল:
2011
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english
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EPUB, 459 KB
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Burke, James Lee - Robicheaux 11

সাল:
2011
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Clarkesworld Magazine

Issue 97


Table of Contents


Taxidermist in the Underworld

by Maria Dahvana Headley

Lovecraft

by Helena Bell

Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)

by Rahul Kanakia

Pithing Needle

by E. Catherine Tobler

A Rich, Full Week

by K.J. Parker

Wizard’s Six

by Alex Irvine

I Sing the Lady Electric

by Brian Francis Slattery

Science Fiction Writers Wear Disguises: A Conversation with Robert Reed

by Alvaro Zino-Amaro

Another Word: What You Know

by Daniel Abraham

Editor's Desk: Eight Is a Good Number

by Neil Clarke

The Haunting

Art by Sandeep Karunakaran



© Clarkesworld Magazine, 2014

www.clarkesworldmagazine.com





Taxidermist in the Underworld


Maria Dahvana Headley


Louis is working in the basement of the museum when the Devil takes him.

“Boy,” says the Devil, and Louis looks up from his diorama. A normal-seeming man with a disturbingly full head of hair, and very red lips, neither young nor old.

“Surely you’re not speaking to me,” Louis says. He’s on the Nile, crafting a landscape out of papier-mâché and paint. Each blade of grass is lined in bronze, and each scale of the crocodile’s back is polished to a gleam.

“Boy-O,” says the Devil, more formally. “I need a stuffer.”

“A stuffer?” Louis shudders. He’s busy positioning the tiny legs of an extinct lizard.

“A stuffer,” says the Devil. “A veritable stuffer.”

Louis looks up, exasperated. “That won’t be me. I’m the head taxidermist here at the museum. I’m employed. You should place an advertisement,” he says. “You might find someone new to the art, a student. Try the hat shops. There ought to be someone with experience in avians. If you’ll excuse me, sir.”

The Devil leans forward. “It’s you I want, Boy-O,” he insists. “You’re coming with me to hell.”

Louis makes a sound, but they’re in the basement where no one can hear him. Though the table’s covered with toxic powders, arsenical soap, and small blades, none of them are of any use. The Devil simply l; eans forward, pries open Louis’ mouth, and climbs into his skin. The Devil becomes an armature for the flesh that has belonged to Louis his entire life, and then Louis is stuck, pinched against his own ribcage.

“Here we go now,” says the Devil, using Louis’ voice. “Pack up a nice valise, there, there. I’ll return you to life among the living once we’ve gotten this sorted, Boy-O, but hell’s chock-full of pretty little ghosts, and they’re going to waste.”

“But, what about Carl?” Louis cries, from deep within himself. He’s being forced to share his vocal cords with the Devil, and the Devil’s voice booms.

“You can leave Carl a note,” says the Devil, and so Louis cribs out a message to his lover: Wait for me, I had to leave town, I won’t be gone long, I’ll explain, it’s something about my soul.

But it isn’t about Louis’ soul. It’s about the Devil’s whimsy.


Discovery:

One cannot fill a ghost with sawdust and stuff it until it stands. It will sag and bulge, and after a short time, one will have not a proper mount, but an abomination akin to Frederick’s Lion, eyes incorrectly aligned, teeth pushed out like falling fences.

Ghosts are the prettiest things in hell, and in that way, they’re like songbirds, but when it comes to skinning and reassembling them, they’re invertebrates. Louis knows that truth, here in his frenzy, attempting to stretch and gentle ghosts onto their forms. No. They refuse him. They collapse, puncture, snag, and tear.

It’s nothing Louis could have known coming in, but they’re boneless and as such, impossible. Were he allowed to embalm them, or to wet mount, yes, but not traditional taxidermy. The specimens refuse.

He tries clay, a heavy, old-fashioned mounting method, but the skin of ghosts is weightless and the clay shows through. He tries a wire armature, wrapped in wads of cotton, but the structure of the ghost, being rhetorical, refuses to commit to the wire, and just as he gets it stitched into position, it shudders and dissolves, leaving him covered in dust, a needle stabbed into his own thumb and out again the other side.

He sits for a moment, head in his hands, trying to calm himself, counting the hours in the waking world. How many years are passing above him as he sits here, trying to stuff spirits with sawdust? There will be Carl, and Carl will be missing him. Carl will be trimming his mustache shorter, and Carl will find someone new to love. Carl will walk with a swagger and then with a stick, and then Carl will die, and Louis will still be down here in hell, trying to preserve ghosts.

“I simply don’t know what to do with this,” he says to the curator, and the Devil’s eyes glow a sickly greenish-orange.

“I want a collection for my trophy room,” says the Devil. “Stuff my ghosts. That’s what you’re here for, and you’re not going back until you’ve done it, Boy-O.”

“I could stuff a demon,” says Louis, but it’s a faint hope. The Devil will not give him a demon. The Devil only wants ghosts. The Devil has a roomful of tattered old things, and these are the things he wants mounted, properly and in a dignified fashion.

“Lifelike poses,” says the Devil, and Louis moans.


Discovery:

One cannot stretch the skin of a ghost over a papier-mâché armature, unless one wishes the ghost to dissolve into the Sunday funnies, or whatever the equivalent is here. The ghost will become one with the paper, and the taxidermist will be left raking his own skin with his fingernails, attempting to disengage the ghost from the machine.

There have, of course, been taxidermists in hell before. The ceiling of hell is decorated with a frozen flock of dodos, and when Louis mentions that dodos notably lacked the power of flight, the Devil says, “The taxidermists here are low rent. As you can see, I needed someone of a higher caliber.”

“Where are the good dead taxidermists?” asks Louis.

“The other place,” says the Devil bitterly. “Or so I imagine. There’s a collector up there too, who claims them, no matter their sins.”

Louis considers for a moment the taxidermy of angels, and feels some relief that at least he doesn’t have to do that. Though that would be like birds, and he started his career as a milliner. At least birds have skeletons. Presumably angels do too.

“What exactly is in that collection?” he asks the Devil.

“Old souls, mostly,” says the Devil, and shrugs. “There’s a trophy room up there full of curiosities. I saw it once. Too brightly lit. You could see the seams, for all they pretend that art gets one closer to god. They have a couple of nicely done cherubim, though. I wouldn’t mind a cherub, Boy-O, but they never come down here. Best I can get is a hecatoncheir, and you’ve seen what a mess my previous stuffer made with that.”

Louis looks at the hundred-handed man and feels deep pity for the poor taxidermist who had to skin him. Still, even a hecatoncheir has bones. Louis feels more pity for himself.

Before him, a ghost collapses into a globule, and Louis puts his head down on the desk.


Discovery:

One may stitch up the skin of a ghost and then, using a paper straw, gently, gently inflate the ghost with helium.

“That is not stuffed,” says the Devil. “That is a balloon.”

The ghost in question, sad-eyed and buoyant, bobs over the heads of hell, tied to a string, before eventually leaking and drooping, bent at the waist, a pitiful excuse for a trophy.

Louis sits on the floor of hell, and hugs his knees. Carl will be at supper in white tie. Carl will be drinking champagne with Oscar Wilde. Carl will be happy to be rid of a troublesome lover whose fingernails smell of formalin. He will eat soft-poached eggs and open his beautiful eyes every morning upon the face of someone other than Louis.

Above Louis, the ghost wobbles and shrivels, emitting a hiss of escaping air. None of these ghosts are pretty. This ghost has bulging eyes and pinned-back ears. It was employed scaring vulnerable people to death, but some spiritualist eventually delivered a message to a murderer for it, and then it was appeased, exhausted and able to fade. There’s a small metal plaque still to be affixed beneath it. The Devil’s collection is diverse, but the ghosts are all like limp pieces of bridal veil left among moths.

Louis looks enviously at the workings of hell, at the way the bony demons move, their spines and chitins, their tusks. He miserably fills a ghost with cotton balls, and watches it soak them. He fills another with smoke, carefully sealing its entrances and exits, but the smoke trickles out through the ghost’s tear ducts, and the ghost looks mournfully at Louis.

Louis looks back. “You’re not alive,” he says. “You haven’t been in centuries.”

He adjusts the goo of the eyeball, trying to stabilize it with wheat paste. He thinks of Carl’s blue eyes, and of what Carl will look like when Carl is dead.


Discovery:

One may attempt to wet mount a ghost in a fashion wherein the ghost is encased in a vat, and the liquid suspending the ghost is tears. One cannot predict the behavior of the ghost once mounted in such a fashion, however, vatted in the liquid of the vale. One can predict that one will continue to cry. One is, after all, in hell.

The ghost’s fingers drift against the glass, pressing and then releasing. The ghost somersaults, disintegrating in the saline, falling to pieces and filtering down to the bottom of the vessel. The Devil shakes his head.

“That’s not what I’m looking for,” says the Devil. “That looks like algae. I want a whimsy. I want my collection to look playful, Boy-O.”

Louis looks at the Devil. The Devil smiles at him.

“Whimsies?” says Louis.

This has now become the personal hell of Louis. Of course it has. Personal hells are the Devil’s specialty. Louis is a builder of precise dioramas for museum displays. He’d never put a mouse in a hat, nor a lizard in a gown. He would not force a bird to wear a breastplate. All he wants is to make the natural world unnaturally precious. His time in millinery was horrible, watching women leave the shop with birds perched out of context above their eyebrows. Now things are worse. Ghosts do not belong on walls.

He misses Carl. He funnels another tear from his eye and drains it into the vessel, where the remains of the dismal ghost sift downward like coffee grounds.

He pins a ribbon on the head of a ghost, and attempts to hold it up in an excitable pose. This ghost was a Roman senator. It looks wan, and when Louis picks it up, the ghost makes him sneeze. He tries to fill it with hot air, but it catches fire, and floats up toward the dodos. Things end in conflagration, and Louis prostrates himself on the floor of hell and weeps. All around him, demons douse dodos in kerosene. He prays for salvation, pitifully and without hope, as he tries to go to sleep.

When Louis opens his eyes, his toes burning at some infernal flame, his skin parched, Carl is kneeling beside him, all blue-eyed calm, white suit, and lilac corsage.

“Louis,” says Carl, and shakes him. “Step lively. I’ve come to take you home.”

Louis sits halfway up, panicked with relief, and then becomes convinced that Carl is a ghost. Louis grabs Carl’s hand, and feels it in its glove, the softness of the moleskin. He looks around for The Devil. The Devil isn’t visible.

“Carl?” he says.

“Of course,” says Carl. “Did you think I’d let you sell your soul?”

“I didn’t sell my soul,” says Louis, despairing. “I don’t believe in souls. I don’t believe in Satan. I don’t believe in God. Carl, you know who I am. I believe in science. How did I end up in the underworld? How did you?”

“It was a fuss to get here,” Carl says. “There’s no train to this part of hell anymore.”

Louis looks at him, bewildered. When has Carl ever been to hell? To Louis’ knowledge, he’s never even been to church.

“The Devil has a pneumatic tube,” Louis says. “Not that that helps me. I have to taxidermy all these ghosts, and you don’t know what I’m going through.”

Carl picks up a limp ghost, and dandles it on his arm. The ghost unfurls like a shirt.

“What’s the difficulty, here, Louis?” says Carl. “This seems like it could be posed.”

Louis looks at the ghost, unrumpled, smooth and peaceful. The ghost seems soothed by Carl. Carl runs a hand over Louis’ forehead and Louis feels the same. His mind twinges with suspicion, however.

“How’d you get here, Carl?” says Louis. “How’d you know where I was?”

“I took a carriage with some white horses,” says Carl, and shrugs. “It came to my building.”

Louis touches Carl’s cheek and it feels cool. He looks into Carl’s eyes and Carl looks like his love. Carl moves to kiss him, and Louis finds himself lurching forward with a desperate hunger, and then wonders if he has become the Devil, if he is trying to dive into the divine, to become the armature that makes Carl move. He leans back.

Carl kisses him anyway. He tastes like mint. “Don’t worry, Louis,” Carl says. “I’m here now.”

Louis lets Carl help him to his feet, feeling their burnt bottoms crisp. His fingers are like claws and they snag on Carl’s suit. He nearly sobs.

“What did you sell to get here, Carl?”

“Try to calm down, Louis, dear. They just let me in,” says Carl, and Louis looks at him for a moment, trying not to wonder.


Discovery:

One must ask a ghost’s permission before one uses the knives and flenses. One must inquire as to the ghost’s preferred method. If one does not, a ghost may convert into a pool of impossible ideas, or mutate into a lady’s chiffon burnoose. One must steam and press the ghost, and then pat the ghost into position. One must pet the ghost and pose it, and one must not disregard the ghost’s opinions, or one will risk ghost venom dribbled from tentacles, as well as luminous toxins, barbs, and boneless slither. No one wants to insult a ghost. One should have known that much.

Carl strokes the cheek of the newly mounted ghost, the papier-mâché invisible beneath its skin. Louis hammers in the plaque. “Fever Haint,” it reads. “Virginia.” The ghost raises a hand to its mouth, and screams a pale yellow silence, its body dissolving into tendrils.

“This is lovely work,” says Carl, as Louis assesses the heap of half-skinned ghosts before him. Carl has a glow about him, a hygiene that is the antithesis of hell.

Carl may be something other than Carl.

Louis mounts the ghost of a wooly mammoth. He cannot fathom why there was ever a wooly mammoth in hell, but it is a wooly mammoth hybridized to an amoeba, and as such, it drifts about the room, its fur and temper turned to plasma, and it has to be coaxed by Carl to allow sawdust into its seams. Elsewhere, Louis has taxidermied a jellyfish ghost ship found unanchored in the Atlantic and filled with bodies. Each of these bodies required its own negotiation. He has taxidermied the ghost remains of the goddess Echidna, though he was unable to tell what exactly she was until Carl shook out the moths from her folds. Part snake, part woman, a flesh eater and mother of gods, until thousands of years of underworld took her from amongst the cannibals and drew her into a hunger strike.

“A perfectly stunning drakaina, yes you are,” says Carl, stroking Echidna’s dragon tail, and Louis looks up at him, and feels anxious. Carl has not historically possessed knowledge of mythology, nor of anything, in truth, beyond cocktails and cravats. Carl has always been beautiful beyond his other skills. Louis, he now realizes, has underestimated his beloved.

It is Carl who has touched up the paint on the faces of the ghosts, Carl who has sculpted the ghost dioramas, Carl who has patiently leaned in and dabbed at sagging specters. It is Carl who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the levels of hell, Carl who periodically takes a sip of a fizzing drink a demon brought him.

It is Carl who is an honored guest in the underworld.

It is Carl who now makes Louis anxious. His beauty has long seemed unholy, but at home there was no reason to wonder.

“Have you been here before, Carl?”

“To hell?” asks Carl, and smiles. “Of course, Louis. Everyone who’s anyone has been to hell.”

Louis hesitates. “Do you happen to be from here?”

“Not at all,” says Carl, and Louis thinks of how he’s never met Carl’s family. He hadn’t expected to meet them, of course. He knew one day Carl would marry, and then, perhaps, at a tremendous Southern wedding, he might sit beside Carl’s mother and toast her with a julep. Does Carl have parents at all?

“You’ve spent time here, then? Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Louis has a piece of a tremendous lizard in his hands now, just the foot, as he attempts fruitlessly to position its tiny forearms and gigantic haunches. Draped over one shoulder, he’s got a limp philosopher, and over the other a three-headed dog.

“I didn’t think you needed to know,” says Carl, calmly. “Hell was my Thursday evening for a time.”

“Was this Oscar?” asks Louis, forlorn. “Did Oscar introduce you to him?”

“Oscar doesn’t know the Devil,” says Carl. “Oscar goes the other way. The Devil and I go way back, Louis. We’ve known each other for years.”

The Devil strolls into the room, looking pleasant, despite the bat wings that flutter about his shoulders.

“Carl!” he says, and opens his arms. “We’ve missed you down here. You’re looking well.”

“As are you,” says Carl, and they embrace with the certainty of every set of old lovers since the beginning of time.

Louis watches, despair rising like water in a basement, covering over his memorabilia, drowning the steamer trunks of his ancestors, moldering his heirlooms. He silently laments as the Devil and Carl hold one another, leaning back to look into each other’s faces. He thinks about how the Devil always calls him Boy-O.

“I can’t believe you never told me,” he says to Carl, and Carl shrugs.

“Almost no one knows everything about anyone else,” he says. “Even the people they love. There are lacunae, and there are lies: these are the basic ones.”

The Devil nods in solidarity.

But Louis imagined he knew Carl. He’s spent his career removing the inner workings of animals, and filling them up with other things. If anyone knows everything about a creature, it is Louis. He now knows the soft machinery of all the ghosts in hell, and yet Carl is a mystery.

“I’m sure you understand why I had to bring you down here,” says the Devil. “Carl stopped returning my telegrams.”

“We didn’t end well, the Devil and I,” says Carl.

“No one does with me,” says the Devil, with some regret. “I tried to apologize, but I’d gone too far.”

Louis stitches up the belly of the last ghost with fierce, tugging stitches. He looks up at Carl, who is petting the Devil’s cheek.

“Who are you?” Louis asks his lover. “Who even are you?”

The ghost Louis is holding begins to disintegrate, and Louis strokes its seams. “Stay,” he says. He hammers its plaque in. “Swamp Nightmare,” it reads. “Louisiana.”

Carl is glowing more brilliantly. He’s a blue-eyed carnival. A variety of demons come to observe. Louis can see their little pitchers of accelerants. He readies himself to defend Carl, though all he has is a needle and thread.

“No,” the Devil intercedes with his minions. “Not Carl. Carl isn’t for the flames today.”

“I don’t mind, if it makes you feel better,” says Carl. “Flames have never bothered me.”

“I needn’t see you burn again, dear one,” says the Devil, and sighs. “Once was enough.” The demons back away, disappointed. The air smells of burnt feathers.

“How is your collection coming?” the Devil asks Carl, tentatively. “I think of it sometimes. I think of your seraph and your little flock of ophanim in particular. All those beautiful eyes spinning on their wheels.”


Discovery:

One may, when falling in with God, miss the point. God, after all, would not, by common reckoning, be comfortable reclined across a bed in a small and tidy flat, drinking strong tea. God may not possess a navel, but that would be less than troubling, if one were a taxidermist and used to the beautiful oddities of nature. God may make love like an angel. God may make a man scream in disbelief. God may startle the Devil into saying ‘darling’ and ‘dearest.’

The Devil and Carl go off into one of the back rooms of hell, and Louis waits. When Carl emerges, he’s wiping tears from his face, and when the Devil emerges, he is smiling bravely, abandoned again in the Underworld.

“Boy-O,” says the Devil. “Looks like Carl wants you up there.”

Louis looks around at the perfectly mounted hydra ghost, at the jellied mold of Dante, labeled simply “Cartographer,” at the feathered phoenix ignitus interruptus.

“Does this mean I’m dying?” asks Louis. He’s only 28. At the museum he was in the middle of the Nile, and next, it would have been wild game, a particularly nice and nearly intact lion skin acquired from a dowager.

“Dying isn’t such an awful thing,” says Carl, comforting him.

“Dying is just a pneumatic tube,” says the Devil. “One goes up, one down.”

“Does this mean I’m dead?” asks Louis.

“You’re in demand,” says Carl. “Look at your work.”

Louis looks down at his stomach instead, checking for a seam. There is none. “Am I an angel?”

“You’ll be the official taxidermist. There are privileges to your position,” says Carl. “I’m offering you your dream job, Louis.”


Discovery:

Job Description: All things bright and beautiful may be the aim of the collection, but one may, when falling in with God, never realize that one is being interviewed. God, all Alpha and Omega, all open-armed and bare-chested in one’s bed, may never be discovered to be a collector on hiatus from his curation. Nature contains the tentacle and the thorn, the tusk, the membrane, the perfect dusty fish scales of butterfly wings. Nature contains the kissed, the loved and the employed, the insects. Heaven’s inhabitants may only be examples of everything that has ever existed on Earth. A taxidermist in heaven must stitch and stuff, smooth and arrange. Sometimes he may return to the bed of the curator, and stay there a century, drifting in a sea of feathered reckoning. Then will he return to the eternal skinning and sewing of souls. Compensation commensurate to experience.

Louis takes a moment.

“What if you die?” Louis says, and then points at the Devil. “What if he does?”

“Then you preserve Carl and put Carl in the collection,” says the Devil. “Or me, for that matter. One day. You never know. I prefer a barbed wire armature.”

“I like papier-mâché,” says Carl, “though if it’s available you might be better served by making an armature of spun glass.”

“If you’re kind, you’ll bring me up to the higher place for display, Boy-O, when I go,” says the Devil, and then he passes Louis his valise, and kisses him on the cheek in the prickly way one kisses the lover of one’s love.

A little scrap of ghost hangs out of the bag, and Louis tucks it in. If it is so ambitious, it deserves to ascend. He follows Carl into the pneumatic capsule, and then, with shocking speed, the great winds of heaven pull them up, and up, from beneath the skin of the Earth and into the vault of the sky.



About the Author

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the upcoming young adult skyship novel Magonia from HarperCollins, the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared on Tor.com, and in The Toast, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead, and will soon appear in Uncanny, Shimmer, and more. It’s anthologized in the 2013 and 2014 editions of Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, in The Year’s Best Weird Volume 1, ed. Laird Barron, and in Wastelands, Vol 2, among others. She grew up in rural Idaho on a survivalist sled-dog ranch, spent part of her 20’s as a pirate negotiator and ship marketer in the maritime industry, and now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile.





Lovecraft


Helena Bell


First, a mouth appears. It is four centimeters long, curved along the ridge of the old woman’s collarbone. It is lined with small nubs of flesh, which is why Ann calls it a mouth and not a slit, a laceration, a suppurative wound.

From the mouth emerges a baby cthulhu: head, tentacles, wings, short arms covered with a soft, pink fuzz. Then another. And another. The number of them does not matter. The old woman does not move as they move. She does not seem to notice their slithering, nor does she acknowledge the quiet, quick barks in rapid succession as they tumble over each other, biting and scrabbling at their siblings while Ann picks them up with a pair of tongs and drops them, one by one, into the garbage disposal and then turns it on.

When it is over, the mouth closes, the old woman goes about her day, and Ann washes her hands.

Such is the way of things.

Ann met the woman, a middle-aged socialite, while she was studying at the university. She had been asked by a professor to transcribe the oral history of the descendent of one of the school’s founders and Ann dutifully recorded the names and dates, the occupations. She included the story of the surgeon who had been accused of practicing his marksmanship on the cadavers in the basement of Charity Hospital. Others she left out:

Well, everyone knows that slavery was awful, but there were some good relationships scattered here and there. My great-grandfather and his manservant were so close; they died within a week of each other.

Ann smiled as the woman showed her the Proteus flag she hung every Mardi Gras from the second floor balcony: a cotton sea of red and white centered by a seahorse wearing a five pronged crown. She nodded as the woman described the dress she had worn (the capped sleeves, the thousands of hand-sewn Swarovski crystals, her furred cape), and the menu at Antoine’s for her Queen’s Supper.

Somewhere between the description of the main course and the bananas Foster, a small animal fell onto the center of the flag. It spread its wings wide, and hopped once, then twice until the woman folded it up in the thin cloth and bashed it with her balled fists.

Ann did not tell her about the second: the one she spied crawling up the sides of the armoire. How it sat, perched in the left hand corner like a gargoyle, watching as its brother (or sister, Ann was never able to tell) was reduced beneath the woman’s hands. How it watched her, pitifully and somehow pityingly, and how Ann felt a tightening in her gut and a tingling in her skin. She felt a kinship with this creature she could not describe; it was beautiful and precious and should be treasured. She did not love it. It was not human and could not be loved, but Ann knew in the marrow of her bones that the creature staring at her was hers to protect. As for the other, she could do nothing.

“Oh,” the woman said after. “I do hope I can get the stain out.”

Ann helped the woman carefully pour bone and membrane into a plastic bag, tie it, and place it outside next to the recyclables. She agreed to finish the interview the next day, even though there was nothing else Ann needed to know. After the front door closed behind her, she quickly went to the window, following the line of the curtains up and up until she spied the tiny cthulhu hanging upside down like a bat, swaddled in the deep blue silk.

Over the next few days, Ann found many things to examine and catalog for an archive she claimed the university was interested in creating for the family. She pored over photos, letters, the document of formal censure from the New Orleans Surgery Society expelling Dr. C.A. Luzenberg from its ranks. She arrived day after day, at 9 a.m. on the woman’s front steps, her notebook in hand, eager to begin the day’s work.

Sometimes she glimpsed the cthulhu spying on her from a particularly high perch. But no matter what she did, it never came near enough for Ann to examine it further: to pet it, to make friends with it, to comfort it in its obvious terror. It did not trust Ann, and Ann did not know how to gain its trust. The only thing she could do was wait, and hope.

After they finished with the archive, Ann offered to help the woman organize her other papers and books, and later to help her with her social calendar or event planning. One day, as the two women polished the silver, they spotted the cthulhu hanging from the ceiling medallion, its claws (it had some claws, though their number and location seemed constantly to shift) digging into the white wood, turning its head this way and that to watch them with wide yellow eyes.

“Damn thing won’t let me get near,” the woman said.

“It must know what you did with the other one,” Ann said.

“Other ones,” the woman corrected. “Have to get them when they first come out. One or two isn’t bad, but a few years ago I woke up in the morning to find a room full of them. Tearing up clothes, eating the flowers and artwork, making nests out of the good linens. Three maids quit on me in one week. Finally had to tent the house; told them it was termites.”

“Surely not,” Ann said, as she walked to the center of the room and cooed, lifting her hand up and offering it as a perch.

“You’re not scared of it?” the woman asked.

Ann shook her head. “Why should I be?”

“Because it’s monstrous,” the woman said. “Evil.”

Suddenly, and without warning, the woman’s neck opened and three more emerged: each identical to the one above Ann’s head. The old woman managed to spear two with salad forks, and yelled at Ann to get the third before it got away. Ann ran to the hearth and picked up a heavy iron poker, and as the woman screamed at her to get it, get it, she finally managed to land a blow directly between the creature’s wings as it ran across the floor. Later, as she scrubbed the carpet with soap and water, she thought she could feel the other one staring down at her and whispering, “You’re just like her, aren’t you.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Ann whispered back.

The woman has never been married. She dated a few boys in college, had been escorted to Le Debut and the Debutante Club by a law student from Connecticut who first gave her a ring from Tiffany’s, and then revealed that it had been worn first by someone else.

“My mother said never to wear another girl’s engagement ring. It’s bad luck.”

On Mondays and Thursdays, Ann and the woman drove first to the grocery store on Magazine Street where they had the sandwiches that the woman liked to serve for her bridge club, and then to the smaller store on Prytania, the name of which Ann was never quite sure if she was pronouncing correctly. They filled the basket with fresh fruit and vegetables, one bag of blue runner beans which Ann had never seen the woman cook, and supposed it was just one of those things that southern women liked to store in their pantries. The woman selected her meat and seafood, her preferred juices. After a few weeks Ann realized that the woman bought the same foods, in the same amounts each time, and offered to do the shopping herself, but the woman refused. She liked to walk the aisles, to think about what else she might buy. And sometimes she did buy something new: such as a box of strange, sugary cereal which, had the cashier peered closely, had already been opened and reclosed with the small, lifeless body of a dark-skinned creature hastily stuffed inside.

Ann filled out the checks: date, payee, amount, and the woman signed them in a clear, fluid script:

Mrs. C. A. Luzenberg.

Ann was paid in cash. They had never discussed a salary, or hours, or even the job itself, but on the second Sunday that Ann showed up at the woman’s house, she was handed a white envelope with seven crisp hundred dollar bills tucked inside. Later, when Ann was refused admission to the graduate school, the steady employment with Mrs. Luzenberg allowed her to stay another year to better her application. And again the next year, and so on, as each time she told herself that if it was not meant to be, she would move on to something else.

The cthulhu didn’t grow very fast. When Ann had been working for the woman for more than three years, it appeared no bigger than the day she’d first seen it.

“Trick of the light,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “You have to learn to learn to measure it differently. It used to like to sleep in the bottom drawer of my secretary, curled up like a snake. It always disappeared before I could catch it there, but yesterday I found him spilling out the sides and his head was stuck.” Mrs. Luzenberg always referred to the cthulhus as male; Ann wasn’t convinced.

“What did you do?”

“I got some bacon grease and a shoehorn and wedged him out. He cried the whole time of course.”

“You just let him out?” Though Ann never helped, she knew Mrs. Luzenberg was still trying to catch or kill him: sticky traps, bug bombs, other forms of poison. Ann had been warned not to eat any food, which was uncovered or unwrapped or open in any way. Ann told herself that she continued to work for Mrs. Luzenberg only to ensure that her cthulhu managed to survive another day.

“I suppose I’ve gotten used to him,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Much like you.”

The other cthulhus never came out in a predictable or regimented fashion. Sometimes the mouth appeared in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. There would be three in one day, or a complete absence for a month. Ann asked how Mrs. Luzenberg managed to live with the unpredictability; what steps she had taken in her life to manage such inconveniences.

“I avoid airplanes and submarines,” she said. “Almost everything else is workable.”

Ann learned to watch for small signs: a twitch beneath the skin, a shift in the woman’s mood or the tilt of her head. Sometimes she thought she could detect the slightest change in smell: a sudden burst of citrus against the crisp, sterile air. Sometimes she was correct, pulling back the collar of the woman’s shirt as the first indentation appeared, darkening to a bruise before it pulled open and the first smooth, tubular appendage appeared.

More often, she was wrong.

When the cthulhu had grown (to Ann’s eyes) to the size of a small dog, it finally allowed Ann to come near. It would sit at Ann’s feet and allow her to rub its belly. Eventually Ann decided to fashion a harness and leash out of old bridle leather she’d found in the attic so that she might take it outside for walks in the fresh air. Mrs. Luzenberg helped Ann measure the cthulhu’s girth and the space between its wings. She showed Ann how to use the punch and awl, how to braid and stich. She found an old sheepskin rug to pad the pieces, which rubbed near the creature’s wings.

“Not perfect, but it will do,” they declared when the creature stood before them, the freshly oiled leather pieces falling this way and that.

“If he flies off,” Mrs. Luzenberg said, “I’m not sure you won’t be carried off with him.”

“If he does, he does. If I am, I am.”

Ann took him to the cemetery across the street. Though the cthulhu had shown no aggression towards others (not the bridge club, the occasional maid or caterer, the man who had to shoo the cthulhu off the 19th-century French dressing table in the upstairs guest bedroom when he came to appraise it for the insurance company when Mrs. Luzenberg decided she needed a brand new policy), Ann did not feel comfortable taking him around moving cars or the huge groups of tourists who bloated the sidewalks. They wandered among the tombs, Ann reading the names and dates and the cthulhu picking his way carefully among the shifting oak roots, sitting back occasionally on his haunches and rustling his wings when she did not move quickly enough for his liking.

“What’s his name?” a man asked.

“Luzenberg,” Ann said.

“Strange name for a dog,” he said.

Ann nodded. “It would be.”

Ann and Luzenberg (for now that he had been named, Ann could think of him as nothing else) continued on their path, and the man followed.

“Would you like a tour?” the man asked, and placed his hand near Ann’s elbow as if to guide her.

Luzenberg growled low in his throat, low enough that Ann thought perhaps she had imagined it.

“No thank you,” Ann said. “I’m local.”

“You don’t sound like it,” he said.

“Nor do you.”

He nodded, smiling. “Rhode Island. Just arrived in the city a few days ago.”

Luzenberg slowed his pace, eventually working his way between Ann and the stranger.

“Not sure you’d be a good tour guide,” Ann said.

“Probably not.”

“Then why did you ask?”

She turned to look at him. He had a long face, like an overstretched egg, and his eyes were set too far apart for her liking. The one thing she admired about him was that he had pulled his hands away, clasping them behind his back so as not to invade her personal space. Or perhaps he feared Luzenberg would bite him. Would Luzenberg bite him? Ann wasn’t sure.

He shrugged. “I just wanted to talk to you.”

“Mission accomplished,” she said. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” and she turned on her heels and walked away. He didn’t follow. Another point in his favor.

When she told Mrs. Luzenberg, the latter chided her for being impolite to a stranger in their city.

“He was just hoping to make friends,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Don’t want him to go home with a bad impression of our hospitality.” Mrs. Luzenberg then told her a story of how when she was a young girl at Sacred Heart, she and her friends were asked by the nuns to go down to the Quarter where the French Naval Officers were visiting. “It’s our responsibility, as hosts,” she said.

Ann wasn’t so sure, but Luzenberg liked the cemetery so every day for a week she took him. Sometimes they saw the egg-faced man, and he waved at them, respectfully, from a distance. The third time he waved, she noticed he was following behind a tour group, listening as the guide spoke of water tables and storms and caskets floating down the avenue. The stories were all a bit overdramatic for Ann’s tastes. A body dies; it is moved to a location suited for a long internment suited to the geological and geographical complexities of the area. To ogle, to take pictures and ask questions about such a private time in a body’s life, felt like an invasion.

On the eighth day, the man came up to Ann as she sat reading a book in the shade of one of the crypts. Luzenberg scrambled up the walls to better sun himself, or perhaps to give her some privacy.

“Should he be up there?” the man asked.

Ann ignored him.

“I mean, wouldn’t the family mind?”

Ann looked around at other tombs: cracks in the walls and weeds. Bird shit dried and caked into the cement. Some were cleaner than others, owned by families who took more care to preserve their dead. “It’s his tomb, in a way,” she said, and pointed at the neatly carved names on the marble slab above her head.

Clement.

King.

Luzenberg.

“Oh,” he said. “You really are local.”

Ann shrugged. “More or less.”

“Would you mind giving me a tour, then?”

Ann closed her book and looked up at him. From below, his head no longer looked long and stretched. His eyes, she thought, were not so small and beady as before. Above her a shadow loomed and there was a moment of cold silence before Luzenberg jumped down beside her. He didn’t growl; he didn’t bite. He merely turned his head, tentacles quivering in a questioning manner.

“Why not,” she said.

“I’m Howard,” he said, extending his hand to help her up.

“Ann,” she said.

Howard’s vacation extended a week, then a month, then two. Ann gave him Mrs. Luzenberg’s address and phone number as her own, and later moved in to the large house to make it easier when Howard came to pick her up. Mrs. Luzenberg insisted that he come in each time to have a drink (no matter the hour) and talk about the weather while Ann finished dressing or fixing her hair or face. Howard assumed Ann was Mrs. Luzenberg’s daughter, and neither corrected him.

“It’s true enough,” Mrs. Luzenberg said later.

Ann and Howard went to the zoo, the aquarium, and the opera. He took her to dinner at a different restaurant each week, claiming he wanted to experience as much of the city as possible before returning home.

Mrs. Luzenberg did not press for details, but gave knowing looks when Ann decided to fix her hair differently, or came home with a new dress to replace the faded and frayed one.

“It’s not for him,” Ann said. “It’s for me. I’m not sure I even like him that much, besides.”

“Neither of us is getting any younger,” Mrs. Luzenberg said.

Ultimately, Ann believed, Howard preferred her company when they could bring Luzenberg. And truthfully, so did she. With Luzenberg, there was a friend between them, someone they could both discuss and revel in the familiarity. They took him on long walks along the levy, and drove out to the bayou. As winter approached, he even asked her what Mardi Gras costume she had planned for him.

“Cerberus perhaps,” she said.

“Isn’t that a bit easy? I think we should—” he continued, but Ann wasn’t listening.

We, he had said. Mardi Gras would be nine months from their first date. Did that mean something? Did she want it to?

Mrs. Luzenberg insisted it did, insisted that it had gone on long enough for her liking without a kind of understanding. Again Ann mused aloud that perhaps she didn’t want it to go on any more. Perhaps she should apply again for grad school.

“Oh Ann, but it’s been years since you stopped talking about that. You’ve been so happy; don’t spoil it,” and Mrs. Luzenberg poked and prodded Ann’s stomach to get her to twirl and show off the new dress that had been bought for her. “You look gorgeous,” she said, stressing the word as if surprised to find it so.

Ann and Howard continued on. Ann tried to speak only of easy things: books, movies, plays. Ann cared little for politics, but enough to know that she and Howard disagreed on almost every point. He made her cross the street whenever they were approached by certain people and encouraged Luzenberg to growl at anyone unfamiliar.

When Ann again expressed her intention to finally end things to Mrs. Luzenberg, she was encouraged to give it a few more days as Mrs. Luzenberg had already arranged for them to be invited to the Proteus ball. Ann told herself that it would be an unusual experience, one worth examining from a historical and sociological perspective, something she could discuss in a graduate school application essay, and agreed.

And when Howard arrived to pick them up, even Ann agreed that he looked marvelous in tails.

“This is what this city is about,” Howard said, waving his hand at the red and gold silks which hung from the walls, the men in masks and supple leather boots, the girls in their long white dresses and gloves. “This is civilization.”

As they danced, Howard’s hand held her firm at the small of her back. Her feet ached, and her head swam from the whiskey sours they had given her. Yet all she could think about was how lovely Luzenberg would look nestled in the giant seashell, his wings spread high and wide, eclipsing Proteus with his young debutante queen. Then she thought of Luzenberg’s first brother, the crushed entrails smeared between the seahorse and the crown, the redness of her hands whenever she needed to clean the garbage disposal, and her head swam too much for her to bear.

The next day Howard arrived with a large bundle: a rich wool suit expertly tailored (it appeared) for a creature of indeterminate size and wingspan. When he shook it out, Ann realized the pockets had been stuffed with $100 bills. It even came with a cream silk tie covered in small, outstretched hands.

“Do you get it?” Howard said. “He’s Ray Nagin. Or Bill Jefferson. They’re all the same anyway.”

Who is all the same, Ann wanted to ask, but her head pounded, and she thought she felt sick. She couldn’t remember drinking as much as she apparently had.

“I don’t think—” she started, and then she had to sprint for the powder room.

“Perhaps you should take Luzenberg yourself, Howie. I don’t think our Ann is up for it.”

When Ann opened her eyes again, she was leaning against the toilet, the old woman’s hand in her hair, pulling it back.

“I think I made a mistake,” she said.

“We all do, from time to time,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Next time you’ll know better how to control yourself.”

“That’s not—”

“Shh now, don’t exert yourself.”

There was a burst of citrus on her tongue, and she looked up at the old woman’s neck but it was white and pale and smooth.

Howard didn’t come back that afternoon, nor the next day. He had made a dinner reservation for Thursday, a date Ann began to look forward to as a way to break up with him once and for all, but he canceled at the last minute. A man delivered a bottle of expensive bourbon to the house addressed to both Ann and Mrs. Luzenberg. Attached was a note: “With my apologies for missing you tonight. I thought of sending flowers, but thought this was more appropriate. —H”

“He didn’t say anything about Luzenberg,” Ann said.

“I’m sure he’s alright.”

Ann called him, but there was no answer. She tried again and again but still was unable to reach him. At night she let the window open in case Luzenberg found his way back to her, and twice she went down to the police station to report a theft, or kidnapping, but whenever they asked her to describe her missing pet (which, they reminded her, was not a police concern), she could tell them nothing. The words would not come. “Try the shelters,” they said, and ushered her out the door.

By week three she knew that Luzenberg was gone for good. Mrs. Luzenberg patted her back and said that men were only ever after one thing, and Ann was better off without them. “In a few more years, you can change your name. Everyone will assume you’re simply a widow. No one will be the wiser.”

Mrs. Luzenberg’s neck moved with her lips and Ann held out her hand, letting the small, weak creature fall onto her palm with a slick plopping sound. Both of its eyes were open and it stared at her, unblinking and unafraid. Ann grasped it by the legs, and with a deft snap of her wrist, cracked its head open against the white porcelain sink.

“You never told me why it happens,” Ann said.

“Just as my mother never told me,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Some things are not for us to understand, but to accept, and deal with, and clean up after.”

“Doesn’t seem fair.”

The next Sunday, Ann joined the bridge club in the living room. She was introduced as Mrs. Luzenberg and everyone assumed that she was the widow of Mrs. Luzenberg Senior’s son, the one who died in a war. They told Ann how lovely it was that she decided to stay in New Orleans, despite the sad memories, just to care for her mother-in-law. Ann nodded and poured tea from the silver service, crinkling her nose at the faint smell of polish.

After, as they scrubbed the plates and put away the leftover sandwiches in glass containers, poured out the remaining Champagne (it doesn’t keep) and folded up the linens, Ann asked why the women hadn’t recognized her as Mrs. Luzenberg’s assistant.

“We’ve all been there, dear,” she said. “Some women don’t get married, and isn’t it a shame when their time runs out.”

“So they all know the truth,” Ann said. “And pretend otherwise.”

“Such is the way of things.”

“I could still leave,” Ann said.

Mrs. Luzenberg turned. The skin of her face was caked thick with makeup, and her neck sagged and jiggled as she moved. Ann could see the definition of her bones and veins as she pulled a dishcloth across a plate. The skin at her neck was pale and translucent and Ann marveled that Mrs. Luzenberg did not die each time a new baby cthulhu pierced through her neck. “You could,” she said.

A few years later as Ann finalized the arrangements for Mrs. Luzenberg’s funeral, she received a card in the mail. At first she assumed it was yet another note expressing sincere and heartfelt condolences and she set it aside with the others. But when she sorted through them again, she noticed it was unsigned with no return address. Yet the postmark of Providence told her enough. She didn’t know which of them had sent it. She didn’t think it mattered.

She set the card on the table and considered it for a long time. She could burn it. Or simply throw it away. But when she reached for it, she found her hands folding it into a paper airplane, a shape she hadn’t made since she was a small girl. First in half, then triangles in the corners, and long, straight edges for balance. She folded and folded again as she walked up the stairs to the second floor, then the third, then through the hatch which led to the roof. From there she could see the cemetery, and the top of the Luzenberg crypt where the old woman would soon be buried, and for the first time she wondered if Luzenberg was even the woman’s real name. She raised her hand to flick the postcard in the air, to let it sail through the heat and humidity until it landed someplace alone in the dark. It would be a petty revenge, but hers.

She pulled her hand back and then thrust it forward, before back again with the plane still in her hand. She could not let go.

Howard wouldn’t have sent a card. He got what he wanted; he was done with her. This was from the other one: her Luzenberg. To let her know that he was all right, and alive, and out there in the world somewhere. As she thought it, the skin at her neck tingled she inhaled the rich scent of citrus.

Smiling, she brought the pointed nose of the cardboard airplane to the skin at her collarbone, digging at the small indentation she knew was beginning to form. She pulled and sawed at it until she could feel her blood pour out of her and a tiny, delicate wing extend. Ann helped the creature out, setting her on the ledge where her wings might dry before reaching for another. She pulled and she tore until the skin at her chest was as loose as a cape and still they kept coming. They rolled out of her, sliding down her legs and summersaulting over their siblings. They barked and they cawed and they butted their heads and entangled their tentacles.

Finally, with the postcard still clutched in her fingers she clambered onto the roof with them, crawling on all fours and leading her parade of cthulhus towards the precipice.

She stood, and the crowd of them, a single organism, leaned against her legs, steadying her as she pulled her arm as far back as it would reach. They flapped their wings in encouragement as she flung the cardboard plane high into the air.

And then they leapt after it.

She watched as they soared over the cemetery, past the dead and the treetops and all the houses where all the Mrs. Luzenbergs of the world lay sleeping. Her chest heaved and flushed and tingled as her skin desperately tried to reknit itself. She pulled it free again and again, reaching into her chest and her liver and her kidneys and the dark spaces in between to pull the last of them free: the timid and the shy and the half-formed and set them upon the air.

Blood and death and life and brutal, hard desire streamed out of her, and still the cardboard airplane sailed. It rose and it rose and it pulled hundreds of cthulhus behind it, to make of the world what they would.



About the Author

Helena Bell is an occasional poet, writer, and international traveler which means that over half of what she says is completely made up, the other half is probably made up, and the third half is about the condition of the roads. She has a BA, an MFA, a JD, and a Tax LLM which fulfills her life long dream of having more letters follow her name than are actually in it. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shimmer Magazine, Brain Harvest, and Rattle.





Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom,

must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)


Rahul Kanakia


First Listing

I’m looking for a roommate, preferably a gay male, non-drinker, non-drug user, to share a comfortable Craftsman-style, three-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow in Berkeley. Owner-occupied home has hardwood floors, skylights, fireplace, built-in bar-b-q, nice garden, washer and dryer. Clean and well maintained. Room is approximately one hundred eighty sq. ft and includes attached bathroom.

This is a quiet residential neighborhood, full of children and dogs. You must have your own telephone, but all other utilities shared. Place is wired for DSL. I want to build a comfortable home based on communication and shared responsibility. Share with owner (me), a sixty-one-year-old gay male and small business owner who works in the ectoplasmic removal / storage sector and has lived in the home for thirteen years.

Sole caveat: The living room, garage, basement, and third bedroom are used primarily for ectoplasmic storage. Don’t know if you’ve ever seen them, but ghost flasks are small, unobtrusive, and thoroughly safe. However, mine do emit a slight noise. The previous boarder, a twenty-seven-year-old medical student, is leaving due to excessive emotional involvement with the ghosts, and I’d prefer if my next boarder attempted to leave them alone as much as possible.

The rent is $500.00 per month with a $725.00 deposit.

It’s available immediately!

Please reply back to this ad or call 555-658-5109. Leave a message if I’m not at home.

Thanks!


Second Listing

First of all, I’d suggest that potential boarders read this ad in its entirety before responding, because I’m a little bit tired of the look on peoples’ faces when they walk in here. I’m completely happy to talk to any and all prospective tenants who wish to come by. I love meeting people and I love shooting the shit. It’s just that, well, it’s not really very pleasant when a stranger takes one look at your home and then does their best to try to escape.

And I am really tired of people trying to bargain me down by acting like they’d be doing me a favor if they took the room. You know, I understand its somewhat inconvenient to live with ghosts and that’s why the rent is already fairly low for this area.

But the inconvenience is not huge. If you’ve never seen a bottled ghost, please be aware that it’s nothing like a free-range ghost (which are usually as big as a person, can run a hundred miles per hour, shatter glass with a scream, chill skin with touch, etc). No, during the bottling process, the compression vac solidifies and sluggifies the ghost. Most squash down to a nugget that is only 2” tall and 0.5” thick, and they’re kept soaking in a solution that prevents expansion. They can move, and even speak, but only very slowly.

Most ghosts in my home were removed ages ago. They were haunting someone who did not want to be haunted (though you’d be surprised by how many people actually don’t mind being haunted). And although I mostly don’t go on calls anymore (except for old, trusted clients), I am able to live very well on the small storage fee paid by various hauntees to keep their poltergeists bottled. They say that all ghosts have to do just one last thing before passing on . . . but sometimes that thing is awful inconvenient for those who are left.

Some tenants have asked me whether the ghosts need to emit so much noise, or if they can’t be silenced somehow. The bottles are high-quality and rated to last for a hundred years. Sometimes they can be a bit noisy, I know. That’s because the last tenant riled them up a bit.

However, when I say noisy, I am talking about more of a whisper than a shout. The bottles are thick. When they scream their loudest, they can just barely be heard. I just don’t want to be like those big, soulless, ectoplasmic storage companies with their desert warehouses: I would never deprive any person—even a dead person—of his or her voice.

The ghosts are not ordinarily this loud. My last boarder, a medical student who I’ll call “Chris,” paid perhaps a bit more attention to the ghosts than was merited. After another few months of benign neglect, I believe they will quiet down somewhat.

The problem was that he became too attached to one little fat girl—maybe twelve—who killed herself after being invited to a Facebook group called the ‘I Think Cynthia S_____ Is an Ugly B*tch’ Society. Her name happened to be Cynthia S____ and she just joined for a moment, in order to see how many other people were part of it (seems half the school was enrolled). But after joining, a picture was taken of the notification and, by the next day, everyone in school knew Cynthia S_____ had joined her own hate-club.

Chris would go down into the basement with a folding chair and sit in front of the girl’s bottle. It was only as tall as the last joint of his thumb, but Chris didn’t mind bending down very close in order to hear her shrieks. He’d sit there and not even try to wipe away the tears flowing down his face like lava. I really do think that he enjoyed being sad.

Sometimes he would come upstairs and ask me how we could get the little bastards who’d tormented CS.

Now, I am not a hard man, but after the umpteenth repetition of this scene, I had to tell Chris, “Let’s not pretend like we don’t both understand the pleasure of destroying another person.”

“What does that mean?” he said.

“It’s not a judgment on you,” I said. “I just know that I’ve been in my share of various different sorts of ‘I Think Cynthia S_____ Is an Ugly B*tch’ Societies. And I’m sure the same is true of you.”

He got silent, as if I had said something startling and cruel. And then he retreated to his room.

I don’t go out of my way to speak to the ghosts, myself. It wouldn’t be fair or right to ask them to tolerate me. I am not their friend and I’m not their avenging angel. I’m their jailer.

I know this is not an appetizing story. I’m not trying to appetize you. All I am telling you is that, contrary to the insinuations of certain rights groups, some function is served by locking away these ghosts. They do have a certain presence to them that, to the wrong person, can be upsetting. However, if you simply leave them be, then you will be completely fine.

If this seems like a livable situation, please call or email. The home is a beautiful, well-maintained three-bedroom Craftsman. The neighborhood is wonderful and safe. The proffered room is large and has an attached bathroom. I’d prefer a gay male, but I’m open to others.


Third Listing

From the recent drop-off in the number of phone calls, I’ve intuited that many of you have seen a certain libelous listing for my address on the RentrBWare cellphone application. I considered hiring a lawyer to respond to that listing, but I decided against that, because I really do believe that if a person simply expresses himself cogently and clearly, then, if his listeners are right-minded people, they’ll sense the truth pouring out of him.

Do I have a certain reserve? Yes. But I would not say that I am “flat of affect” or that I have “a pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships.”

I do not collect ghosts in order to feed “a narcissistic desire for a perpetually captive audience.” I do not collect them at all. I store them. And I do so because that is my livelihood.

But I am not pleased by them, and I do not enjoy their company.

In life, I’m sure I would have loved many of my ghosts. They’re often fascinating individuals, and they contain much potential for fascinating interaction. For instance, I have a whole shelf of men collected in ’84 from SF General’s AIDS ward. Chris once interviewed them for a well-received academic paper on patient attitudes re: experimental treatment.

As ghosts, they’ve been restored to their prime, with their slim moustaches and long bronzed legs. When they were alive, I would’ve hung around awkwardly at the edge of their orbits and tried to attract a glance from them. In fact, when they were alive, that’s what I did do. I came to SF out of Rapid City in ’67, as soon as I learned that there was a place for people like me. But even when I was eighteen and slim and smooth-skinned, those guys never really liked me. I don’t know why. I hung around in the same bars, the same bathhouses. But I never figured out how it was done.

I guess there’s just some strangeness coiled up inside of me. There’ve been times in my life when I would’ve reached down through my throat and yanked that strangeness right out, if I’d only known what it was.

Still, I suppose that thing is why I am alive, and they are dead.

But I don’t cry about it. I’m not lonely. I get out there. That reviewer would have you think I’m some John Wayne Gacy with a crawlspace full of bodies. Far from it! I belong to a vacation club: my choice of forty-six locations—plus reciprocal benefits at other clubs. Almost every month, I’m off somewhere. Every February, it’s Tahoe. Every March, it’s Hawaii. In August, I usually go to Mexico and see a guy who kind of acts as my boyfriend, when I’m around.

If those men down in my basement could see how that awkward kid turned out, I think they’d be proud of how I’ve put a life together.

If you live here, you won’t be bothered. Honestly, I hardly need a boarder. It’s just . . . I have so much in my life. I want to pass things along and help others. That’s why the rent is so low, really.

The neighborhood is good. The room is large. The house is airy and clean. Utilities (including Internet) are included. Please call or email. If I don’t answer, please leave a message.


Fourth Listing

It’s just as I feared. The poster on RentrBWare is none other than my former boarder, “Chris.” I had suspected that it might be him. But I had hoped that perhaps it was some business competitor or other less-than-gruntled individual.

Still, this does not in any way alter my position as to the lack of veracity behind Chris’ reviews. It is false to its core, and I don’t care how much documentary evidence there might be. Those pictures of cockroaches perhaps might’ve been taken in my house. But the context is entirely missing.

I know that I’m no saint. In my life, I’ve sometimes succumbed to hatred. But I do my best to hate things that deserve hatred. Like termites. I hate termites. I can understand hating termites. Termites damn near hollowed out my ceiling. Termites will bankrupt you and then bring your house down on top of you. But I don’t understand hating cockroaches. Do cockroaches come out at night and nibble your face off or something? Because I tell you, I don’t think a cockroach has ever killed a man. Or a woman, either. Cockroaches are harmless. They just wanna eat your garbage. You don’t want cockroaches? Don’t be like Chris and let the soy sauce dry out in the black stack of plastic take-out sushi bowls that rises higher and higher on your desk—just cause it’s hidden behind your computer monitor doesn’t mean the cockroaches can’t see it.

Not that I am bothered by mess. I believe you can do whatever you want, so long as you are strong enough to bear up under the consequences of doing that thing. But if you leave out garbage and cockroaches come and eat it, then don’t act like they are the disgusting menace. And don’t act like I’m some monster because I won’t let you spray pesticide around like it’s perfume. That poison drains into our Bay!

Sometimes I think that the more harmless and defenseless something is, the more people want to destroy it. I swear to God, once I went into someone’s house while they were gone and I could not find the fucking ghost. I checked between the folds of every evening dress in their walk-in closet and clawed my way down to the bottom of the huge wooden chest full of Legos in their basement rumpus room.

Finally, I gave up and called the homeowners and they said to look in the pool. And there she was, right down at the bottom: almost invisible, because her skin was blue as the water. Only the shimmering of her blonde hair gave her away. When I dived down to get her, she put a finger to her mouth and said, “Don’t tell. I need to stay hidden.”

When I told this story to Chris, he became agitated. He started pacing back and forth in the kitchen and then he said, “Did you ask what she was hiding from?”

I said, “I was underwater, son.’

“But you vacuumed her into your machine.”

“Of course I did,” I said. “I had to. That’s how I pay my mortgage. That’s how I live.”

He shook his head from side to side, and then he went into his room and slammed the door and put on his headphones and avoided me for ten or fifteen days. Chris was perpetually avoiding me. And if he wasn’t avoiding me, he was talking to me about borderline personality disorder or some such nonsense.

Chris never understood that you might be able to pull that crap out of a textbook, but none of it has anything to do with real life. Chris doesn’t know shit about the world and how hard it is to find your place in it. That’s fine, though. I’m sure I was the same way when I was his age.


Fifth Listing

Room for rent. Room has hardwood floors, plenty of light, and attached bathroom. Utilities (including cable and Internet) are included. House is a wonderful Craftsman-style, three-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow in Berkeley. $400. Neighborhood is exceedingly safe. Close to Pixar headquarters and a number of fine eating and shopping establishments. Wonderful deal!!! Owner is fifty-seven-year-old professional w/ small business. Stores selected (very safe) ectoplasmic individuals on behalf of families / friends of deceased. Totally up to code. Never had any issues. If interested, please call or email any time! If I don’t answer, please leave a message!!!


Sixth Listing

I’ve had boarders for more than a decade. No complaints. Never. I treat people fairly and I expect that they’ll treat me fairly. Some of you . . . I guess I can’t blame you. The Internet isn’t like the real world. On the net, people aren’t honest. But with the emails and calls I got . . . you’d think my last ad was an invitation to come over and get murdered, rather than an honest attempt to inform the public of a perfectly good living situation.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m done. Maybe I just won’t rent out that room anymore. I don’t need the money. I’ll move the bottles from the living room into the extra bedroom. I’ll be able to watch TV in there again. The ghosts react oddly to TV: they bubble and bulge and press themselves to the edges of their bottles when they see the screen. It agitates them. Normally, they pass their lives in a sort of timeless state. But the flickering of that image shows them that time is passing, and their loves and hates are slowly leaving this world.

There’s one in particular that I would like to remove from my living room: it’s a baby. I actually have a number of babies on site. For awhile, I specialized in them. They bother most ectoplasmic storage specialists. But not me.

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

But this particular baby is worse than usual. This baby was—is—all turned inside out. Yeah. It’s all mottled and red and bloody, with the intestines poking out, and the skin all thick and lumpy on the outside. Looks a bit like a lizard. In the hospital, it cried and cried and cried and cried. I softened it up in a bath of silver nitrate and sucked it right into my holding tank. No problem. It’s on my living room mantle.

This baby. I don’t know. It was haunting that there neo-natal ward. If I hadn’t a taken it out, it’d still be there.

Most of the time, it lays, gasping quietly, on the bottom of its bottle. But when the TV turns on, the baby’s misshapen head lolls back and it lets out that shriek from beyond the grave. And I turn and I look at it and listen. And you know why? Because I don’t flinch. That’s not who I am.

Why did this baby stay behind? What was it supposed to do? What is a little lizard-baby even capable of doing? And what will happen to it if it stays on my mantle? The scientists say that ghosts slowly boil away: if they don’t accomplish their aim, they lose half their substance every few hundred years. But when does half times half times half equal nothing? We still don’t know. We’ve only been bottling ghosts for fifty years or so. None have yet dwindled away to nothing.

All I know is that I came to this place as a boy. And I had no friends. No lovers. Nothing. No means of surviving. Most of the people who came here at the same time are now dead, but I did not die.

I found a trade. And I practiced it. I built a business, and I bought a house. I took in boarders and I treated them well, and they treated me well. And years passed

I liked Chris. And I think he liked me.

He moved out over such a tiny, simple thing. One morning, we were both in the kitchen. I was making an omelet, and he was brewing coffee. He had his favorite ghost—it was that little girl—sitting on the mantelpiece, and he was smiling at her and telling her about his day. And then I noticed him looking at me with a guilty, furtive look. And I stood up.

He yanked his hand away from the bottle. One quick glance showed that the bottle had been unscrewed a tiny little bit more. Not much. Not enough to let her go. But a few more turns and she’d have been free.

And that’s when I decided.

“It’s been good having you here,” I said.

“The same,” he said.

“You . . . you care about the ghosts, don’t you? I mean . . . that’s why you’ve stayed so long.”

He was clutching one of his hands with the other one. His eyes flickered back and forth, like I’d just bottled him.

“I’ll leave them to you,” I blurted out. “When I die. I’ll leave them to you. In my will. My sister’s kids won’t want them. You can come here and let them go. It’ll take a day or so, but you can let them go. Maybe you could take them out into the woods or something, so they’d have more time to disperse. But you could let them go. I don’t know when I’ll die. But in twenty years, some of them, maybe, will still be able to do their thing.”

“No, don’t do that,” he said.

“I’ll give you the house, too,” I said. “By then, it’ll be completely paid off.”

He looked at the girl. She was beating against the walls of her bottle. And then he looked at his hand. “N—No,” he said. “I don’t . . . ”

“By then, you’ll be making a lot of money,” I said. “You won’t need the storage fees. Right now I need them here. I live off them. Can you imagine what it’d be like for me if I were to let them go? Their next of kin would sue me. I’d go bankrupt. I’d lose my house. But you could do it. I’ll work the legal angle so that you’re not liable. You won’t own them or anything. You won’t be legally or morally culpable. All you need to do is come back here. Someday. Maybe twenty or thirty years from now, when you’re married and you’ve adopted three children. It’ll just take one day. And I think that after I’m dead, I’d really enjoy knowing that they were free.”

He shook his head and told me that he would think about it. Then he went off to his room, leaving the little girl there on the sill.

Three days later, he emailed me his notice. His boyfriend came to move him out.

It was four weeks before I moved that little girl back into the basement.

I don’t know why he left. I don’t know why he didn’t accept the offer. I thought I was giving him everything that he wanted. But I guess I was wrong.

It’s true that Chris wasn’t the first person to insinuate that there’s something wrong with me . . . I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I do know that I don’t deserve to be alone.

That makes me sound awful needy, but it’s the truth. You’ve gotta sense that. I haven’t done anything that merits this kind of exile from humanity. I don’t want anything special from you. I don’t want you to be my friend or my confidante. I just want to occasionally come home to the sight of another living being.

The room’s $400. It’s big. It’s clean. It’s got a bathroom. You won’t find a better deal.

Please call (or email). Leave a message if I’m not at home. The reason for that is that the phone’s a landline, see? It doesn’t register missed calls, like a cellphone does. And if you don’t leave a message, I’ll never know that you ever even called in the first place.



About the Author

Rahul Kanakia’s first book, a young adult novel entitled Enter Title Here is coming out from Disney-Hyperion in Fall ‘15. Additionally, he has stories appearing or forthcoming in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and used to work in the field of international development. Currently, he lives in Oakland, CA and makes his living as a freelance writer and content creation consultant.





Pithing Needle


E. Catherine Tobler


We have run toward enough danger to understand this is unique, this conflict will change everything we know. It will change the Nessik, too, but we don’t care about them in this moment, because hundreds of thousands of their young are—

Are eating our—

Blackout.

We came together, armed, prepared, and yet not. They sent an entire division, but it will never be enough. We can see that the moment our cargo ship touches down; everything stands in ruin: charred and smoking trees, satellites drawn down from orbit, the alien ship itself, a crumpled tin-can spire rising six fucking miles into the clouded sky. The rain is ash and not water, not washing clean, but sticking, to our armor, our weapons, to the coiled Nessik bodies that lash out of absolutely nowhere to engulf us.

Swallowed by a thousand tongues, yanked into a quivering mouth with a sharp beak that bites and bites, digested even before the creature even swallows. A hard boot against a soft throat, those thousand tongues pull back, but only for a breath, and then they’re back, hauling me deeper until I pull the slick trigger, turn the tongues into mash that streams violet across my goggles, mash that doesn’t move until I scrape my fingers through it. The alien (later, the word Nessik comes later) erupts dead at my feet, looking like a vicious neon orange hermit crab turned inside out over its shell.

There’s no time to admire—there’s another one, tentacles and arms coiling around my boots. This one is hot, nearly steaming in the jungle humidity. The heat bleeds straight through armor, causing me to think my boots are melting. I look and it’s time enough for the Nessik to yank me off my feet entirely and haul me in. Back into a mouth that looks like the first mouth that looks like a yawning cavern of death. But I’m not going down that way. I could pull this trigger all day.

So I do.

They never stop. I can’t count how many there are; the crashed ship, rising six miles into the clouded sky, seems as though it will never empty. I can’t count the numbers, but I do notice the differences among them. There are larger aliens and smaller aliens—it’s the smaller ones that give me pause—not because they’re potentially juveniles (children have ceased to matter in this world—who would bring a child into this ruined world? Who?), but because they outnumber the larger aliens. I see how some of the smaller aliens are marked; deep grooves raked into their shells, like someone cut them with a blade; sooty streaks where they were scorched with fire.

This thing that rises in me might have a name; someone might call it sympathy. I call it bullshit. Curiosity if anything else, because when a thing falls from the stars—they called it the Arecibo Event, having no idea what the ship held, what it was doing as it plummeted from the sky and into the ground at Arecibo—I wonder what the fuck it is, what the fuck it contains. I wonder because I know I’m about to be in the middle of it.

They never stop, these monsters. The ground is alive with them; incessant, a kind of black-oil ocean dredged from deepest space to swallow the land as we once knew it. They are like nothing I have seen—maybe in childhood, for I remember hermit crabs, legs protruding from a stolen shell, but these aliens are more perfect than that; their shells are not stolen, they are absolutely part of their shells, flesh and shell as one thing. Writhing arms and tentacles emerge from these shells—there is the impression of a face, but there are no eyes and I wonder how they see, how they find me every single time I escape. I climb a tree—it’s on me. I round a boulder, there’s another. I crouch under a busted arc of the old Arecibo dish, there’s half a dozen of them on me inside thirty seconds. They are relentless, merciless, alien.

I don’t try to talk to them—they have mouths but use them only to eat. I will not be eaten—slick trigger in slick glove, I fire the way they eat: constant. Sometimes I get there before they do; sometimes I’m firing and a soldier is already inside that shell, digesting. A thousand tongues inside one hungry, angry mouth.

I never wonder what this is; I know all too well. This is what I signed up for, because there was nothing else. The world changed long before I was born, swallowed by water and scorched by sun—and this will only change it more. This is all there is now. Writhing ground, falling sky, and I love it.

I’m also good at it. I’ve been spliced twice at this point—twice or more, everything fades under continued augmentation (but for you, you never fade). I suppose I am not entirely human anymore. I can see better, move better, but no one down here cares (until they discover it, until they do). The tentacles that wrap me up and haul me into a mouth don’t care (until they do).

We reach the ship days later. The sky tells us it has been only hours, but surely it’s days we’ve been hacking and shooting and sliding through the muck of exploded alien bodies. They litter the landscape; the dead outnumber the living here, the living aliens moving on, spreading through the jungle as they devour. More divisions arrive to greet them, while we lumber toward the ship.

It’s the strangest thing we’ve never seen; it looks like a hive, which is what we come to call it. You never kick a hive because of what may come boiling out, but when the troops place the explosives in an effort to bring the upper levels of the thing down, they only succeed in busting open all the levels that weren’t broken open upon landing. This ship explodes with life; aliens everywhere.

Slick and click, I could do this all day, until one of the smaller aliens gets the jump on me. I see it in your face a second before it happens; the widening of your eyes before the alien snatches me. It hauls me backward hard, so hard I’m wedged inside its mouth with my rifle parallel to its beak. I can’t reach the trigger, so spin the rifle like I’m performing a drill, in a perfect line before a review committee. The rifle doesn’t spin, is clocked by a thick tentacle that wraps it, flings it. You catch my spit-slick rifle and then I’m gone—swallowed by a black mouth.

There is no direction here; I can say down is down because I’ve been swallowed, but there’s absolutely no light, no sense of motion outside the muscle that contracts around me as it swallows, draws me in. Warm, slick muscle ripples around me with such strength I can’t move against it. I try, but I can’t turn. I can’t wriggle my way up or down. The scream that rips out of me is silenced by the slither of wet muscle across my neck, my mouth. This alien tastes like salt.

And then—

Violent light as I am spat from the maw, into a room that has no corners, no edges. I slide across what feels like half-warm wax, unable to gain any purchase. The room terminates in a soft cup; this cradles me and is strangely comforting after the black suck of muscle. The alien that swallowed me perches on the rim of this room, screaming. Eventually, this alien begins to calm and the scream turns into a chitter turns into a pattern, a pattern that my brain begins to dissect.

Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar. The alien repeats itself, clicking, and then there are two aliens, and three, and more. They have no eyes, but they absolutely watch me as I drip saliva and mud into the cup of this room.

There are no edges in the room and I cannot stand up on the flexible, waxy floor; I can only sprawl, watching them as they watch me. The alien who swallowed me becomes indistinct from the others on the lip of the room; they all swallowed me, they all scream at me, over and over, fucking—

One slides into the room with me, all mouth and fury, still screaming. The fury is familiar if not the words, and I scream back, refusing to draw myself into a ball as the alien nears me; I should, should make myself as small as possible. But I lash out.

The strange thing is—the strangest amid a tableau of strange—is that the alien allows it. It takes my punch as my fist strikes its leading tentacle. Endures the way I kick its shell as it slides toward me. The alien spins under the impact, also unable to hold onto anything in this room. This cell.

It’s a cell—me a prisoner, but if the alien can’t move here, was the alien also held here? Its shell is marked, five long scratches near what I take for its mouth. But as it spins, I see more. Five becomes fifteen becomes twenty and more. Were it human, I would take the marks for years, but it’s not and I don’t.

It lets me beat on it, until I realize I’m not getting anywhere; the weight of the alien pulls the flexible cup on which we fight down and down. It provides no support, no surface from which to attack, so at long last we can only both sprawl there, heaving with exhausted breath. I stare at the thing: black-oil ocean waiting to flood over me. It is never still, tentacles and arms rippling even as it does not reach for me. The weight of its shell presses the waxy cell flatter than my body did on its own; I stretch, meaning to find a way up and out, but the cell gives every time I move, and there won’t be any walking up these walls.

Bees could live here, I think, but even bees have straight-edged walls.

I do not sleep and if the alien does, I am unaware of it. It never stops moving.

At some point, it begins chirping at me again. Slow, precise. It chirps a sequence of four sounds. And again. When it comes again, I think I might go mad from it, but I’ve been spliced, am part machine.

I open my mouth and repeat the sequence as given; it is only mimicry. The alien flinches, scrambles and tries to get away, but there is nowhere to go. The panicked action leaves us rolling together, the flexible wax cell moving with us. It is like being trapped on a boat with a very large animal, only unable to jump overboard into cleansing waters. I dig my hands into the floor-wall, but cannot break through the material. It is impossibly strong.

The aliens on the lip of the room screech at the alien nearer to me. The alien calms and chitters at me again. I don’t know the words, but my augmented throat appears able to make these sounds, so I repeat them again. Again, the alien seems to panic—screaming like comets across the black sky—and this time, the lashing is so forceful, I am swept back into tentacles, pulled into its dripping mouth.

Beyond.

The pithing needle, born deep inside the alien, pierces the base of my brain, splicing through bone and tissue. There should be only black—only death—but it’s a riot of colors and scents that I have never seen or smelled before. It’s not green and it’s not grass, but it’s alive and writhing and under my feet, sliding up my calves with a texture like knives, coiling around me like it knows me. It’s not blue or orange; it’s not lemon or onyx; it’s deeper than any of these things as humans know them. It’s a flexible floor, never moving because in space in there is no up or down. It’s bodies forced into breeding cells until none can move without stirring the entire cell to chaos. It is eating one’s way to the bottom until one is at the bottom and is slowly eaten in turn. Endless mouths, teeth all the way down, needle rattled in skull.

Confinement. A hundred thousand bodies pressed together; I understand this in a way that comes without words. The sensation of being there floods through me; no longer remotely human, me, but alien. Coiled into shell, tentacles whipping to gain space, but there is never space, not even when another cell manages to burst loose, eating their own kind, stacking shells mortared with the dead so they may slither out, to spark an engine overload, to toss this prison ship from the stars. No words; I smell every second of confinement, taste it in the back of my throat, until it gags me, until—

The solid crunch of the alien’s shell as it shatters. Gray slop, and razor-sharp jackknife shell pieces carving into my armor. We are hauled from the cell by the other aliens with impossibly long tentacles that have broken through the juvenile’s shell, have shattered it to retrieve me, wet and dripping as a newborn. New eyes, new fingers, new everything.

They fling me from the ship, into the chaos beyond. I land gracelessly in the mud—full on rain now, always rain, pulling ash from the sky above the burning city. The landscape moves; it isn’t the storm, but the aliens as they move ever away from the crash site, as they explore Earth as invader, colonist, glutton. They do not slow, even as military divisions drop from the sky, even as drones circle from above. The coastal water writhes with their black-oil bodies, but light fractures my view; human soldiers drop around me. Some stay to haul me to what they perceive as safety.

The rain feels like blood running out of me. I lift a hand to the back of my neck—there should be a hole, evidence of the violation, but there is nothing. Nothing. They cradle me (flexible wax, cannot gain purchase), fingers probing, seeking. What was done, can I see them, am I here? So many questions, but every answer comes out in the alien’s own tongue. I chitter, I warble, I send streams of echolocation up and into the storm.

This is alien sight—I am looking at my commander’s face, framed by the burning tree above us, but I see the far distant aliens. They move like a tsunami of black water; they do not pause, they overrun every city they encounter. The sky is full of military—I ping these sounds so that I might see off the helicopters, off the rappel lines, off every rifle and every weapon I know will not matter. Small stands will be made, but these aliens are hungry—they have been held (sagging cell, flexible, too much weight and too many mouths and oh eat me so this will cease) and will be held no more. They revel under these rainy skies; every droplet of rain echoes back to me, flooding like the aliens—the Nessik! A name, a people, a place they have come from. I reach into the collective—so many, I still cannot count them—and I see a black world, a world that never stops moving, because they are the ground, are the water, are the sky.

What did they do to me?

Unknown?

Too many—factors.

Too many Nessik.

I chitter. They stare. I cannot form the proper words to tell them, about the ship and the cells, and then you are there, cradling my head, asking if I can see you.

I see you, in more colors than ever before. The color that glosses your rain-wet face has no word; the taste of the rain that slides from your nose and into my chittering mouth has no name on this world. What world—this world, but I cannot say where I am. I could reach into the drone that passes over us, could crack open the housing and show you the spill of wires, connective pathways; I could turn these colors and tastepaths into a map, could pull you inside this space and show you, but you would only ever know a fraction—a fragment, a—

The drone slows above us; its red-slit eye oscillates over me, Cyclops pondering. My breath stutters in my throat—rain still feels like blood and you ask if I can see you, if I can feel you, and your fingers are like burning brands against my neck. There should be a print, a mark to make your passage evident, but these marks are better buried. Your goggles light up in drone-red, in Cyclops-fury, and then fades into rain as the drone moves on.

What did they do, you want to know and I cannot say. Cannot form the words; there is rain, and there is the color of your face and the taste of the rain, sliding off of you and into me.

Blackout tastes like sunlight.

Later, in the tent, the rain furious on the meager roof. It will punch through, and this reminds me of something, but I do not know what. Your fingers comb through my wet hair, my eyes slit shut, and you still want to know—you don’t even have to ask, because I can hear the unspoken thought—what they did, what did they do, did they—

No. It wasn’t—

But I suppose in a way it was. Pithing.

You are more than a needle inside of me. As quick as they were—nothing and then there, there where I need you to be. The rain on the tent roof, your fingers on my hips—flexible, pressing, but you can’t tear through. My fingers sliding up your neck, into your hair. Pithing. Let me tell you. Jack in. Deeper.

They took me, spliced me so I could understand—but it’s not just that because as the echolocation pours out of me even as we two are joined, you can see what I see. I can show you, take you down these pathways as if they are my veins. Information rolls beneath our closed eyes. Sightless, but not; we can see the ruined land beyond the tent, the bodies, the fighting that continues just beyond the debris field of the crashed ship. We can watch as alien body pierces human; you thrust into me hard, roll me over on the cot, and everything vanishes in a dark-water flood. You scream into my mouth and there is no word for the taste of you when you realize what they made of me. They took this not-human body and made it something more not-human. But ever yours as you fingerprint me, deeper, pithing.

They determine the ship is empty, but send me to its crater-lip to confirm. I scan the way the Nessik have taught me to scan. There are only dead here, on the plain and within the depth of the ship. Dead and more dead. Dead and almost dead. Nothing here is alive, save for us, you and me, and I could tell them this, but they would never believe they are already dead. They on their mountain cannot see that they are in the valley, that they will be consumed.

The division plans to move out. We pack our gear, because we go where they tell us to go; it doesn’t matter what happened in the depth of that ship. It matters that we came out. We, I, me, whatever. I cannot speak the words—that I do not wish to go—but you know this as though it is your own thought as the ships lift us into the sky. We run north through the low clouds, tracing the line of destruction the aliens have left. There is one break in their path, the swath of ocean that stretches between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. When the land resumes, so does their path of gluttony; we can see troops engaging them on the ground. I can feel the troops being eaten, can feel the way those muscles work to envelope, swallow, devour.

There is no accord. The press is, however, awash in such opinions—the Earth embarks upon a brand new day! Fortune favors both races! Hope was born from destruction and war!

In the trenches, we know the truth. There is no hope and no one is favored. I can speak to the Nessik and sometimes the Nessik reply, but mostly they are as angry as we are, and common ground does nothing to remedy the war. Has it ever? They hate this, we hate this, and yet, they will eat us if given the opportunity because for so long they were starving and this is all they know—swallowing a thing before they are swallowed. We do not wish to be eaten because for so long life is all we have known, and so.

Impasse.

Surely there is something, my commanders press me. I tell them of the alien war, the shipboard captivity, the eating, every mouth so impossibly hungry. But this changes nothing. Aliens, they say to explain it away; we cannot understand them, and though I can, I tell my commanders there is nothing. Nothing they will hear.

When I am deemed uncooperative, they try to make more of me, try to splice this ability into other soldiers, and under your hands, they do so. You spread this ability into other chimera like me in an effort for soldiers to understand the alien. Does anyone? Ever?

With a hundred thousand soldiers modified, surely there will come an answer. A pleasing answer. There does not. No matter where we travel, there is no answer that pleases. No matter the connection between you and me and the Nessik, they remain slippery, elusive—alien.

The Nessik will not conform, will not be remade to fit this world they crashed upon, and in the dark, when we two move as one, this delights us as it should not. Our own kind will not listen—they deserve the flood if they would not heed the warning. I reach ever out, streaming echolocation into the black where only drone eyes can see. In the dark, the Nessik endure. Thrive. They will not be eaten as they eat.

Surely there is something, officials press me. I was the first, surely there was a reason. A thread of logic they can follow to get out of this nightmare labyrinth.

And you press me, deeper, deeper, pithing into me.

We can feel the hive move.

Slippery, elusive, alien.



About the Author

E. Catherine Tobler is a Sturgeon Award finalist and editor at Shimmer Magazine.





A Rich, Full Week


K.J. Parker


He looked at me the way they all do. “You’re him, then.”

“Yes,” I said.

“This way.”

Across the square. A cart, tied up to a hitching-post. One thin horse. Not so very long ago, he’d used the cart for shifting dung. I sat next to him, my bag on my knees, tucking my feet in close, and laid a bet with myself as to what he’d say next.

“You don’t look like a wizard,” he said.

I owed myself two nomismata. “I’m not a wizard,” I said.

I always say that.

“But we sent to the Fathers for a—”

”I’m not a wizard,” I repeated, “I’m a philosopher. There’s no such thing as wizards.”

He frowned. “We sent to the Fathers for a wizard,” he said.

I have this little speech. I can say it with my eyes shut, or thinking about something else. It comes out better if I’m not thinking about what I’m saying. I tell them, we’re not wizards, we don’t do magic, there’s no such thing as magic. Rather, we’re students of natural philosophy, specializing in mental energies, telepathy, telekinesis, indirect vision. Not magic; just science where we haven’t quite figured out how it works yet. I looked at him. His hood and coat were homespun, that open, rather scratchy weave you get with moorland wool. The patches were a slightly different color; I guessed they’d been salvaged from an even older coat that had finally reached the point where there was nothing left to sew onto. The boots had a military look. There had been battles in these parts, thirty years ago, in the civil war. The boots looked to be about that sort of vintage. Waste not, want not.

“I’m kidding,” I said. “I’m a wizard.”

He looked at me, then back at the road. I hadn’t risen in his estimation, but I hadn’t sunk any lower, probably because that wasn’t possible. I waited for him to broach the subject.

By my estimation, three miles out of town; I said; “So, tell me what’s been happening.”

He had big hands; too big for his wrists, which looked like bones painted color “The Brother wrote you a letter,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied brightly. “But I want you to tell me.”

The silence that followed was thought rather than rudeness or sulking. Then he said, “No good asking me. I don’t know about that stuff.”

They never want to talk to me. I have to conclude that it’s my fault. I’ve tried all sorts of different approaches. I’ve tried being friendly, which gets you nowhere. I’ve tried keeping my face shut until someone volunteers information, which gets you peace and quiet. I’ve read books about agriculture, so I can talk intelligently about the state of the crops, milk yields, prices at market and the weather. When I do that, of course, I end up talking to myself. Actually, I have no problem about talking to myself. In the country, it’s the only way I ever get an intelligent conversation.

“The dead man,” I prompted him. I never say the deceased.

He shrugged. “Died about three months ago. Never had any bother till just after lambing.”

“I see. And then?”

“It was sheep to begin with,” he said. “The old ram, with its neck broke, and then four ewes. They all reckoned it was wolves, but I said to them, wolves don’t break necks, it was something with hands did that.”

I nodded. I knew all this. “And then?”

“More sheep,” he said, “and the dog, and then an old man, used to go round all the farms selling stuff, buttons and needles and things he made out of old bones; and when we found him, we reckoned we’d best tell the boss up at the grange, and he sent down two of his men to look out at night, and then the same thing happened to them. I said, that’s no wolf. Knew all along, see. Seen it before.”

That hadn’t been in the letter. “Is that right?” I said.

“When I was a kid,” the man said (and now I knew the problem would be getting him to shut up.) “Same thing exactly; sheep, then travelers, then three of the duke’s men. My granddad, he knew what it was, but they wouldn’t listen. He knew a lot of stuff, granddad.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Him and me and my cousin from out over, we got a couple of shovels and a pick and an axe, and we went and dug up this old boy who’d died. And he was all swelled up, like he’d got the gout all over, and he was purple, like a grape. So we cut off his head and shoveled all the dirt back, and we dropped the head down an old well, and that was the end of that. No more bother. Didn’t say what we’d done, mind. The Brother wouldn’t have liked it. Funny bugger, he was.”

Well, I thought. “You did the right thing,” he said. “Your grandfather was a clever man, obviously.”

“That’s right,” he said. “He knew a lot of stuff.”

I was doing my mental arithmetic. When I was a kid; so, anything from fifty-five to sixty years ago. Rather a long interval, but not unheard of. I was about to ask if anything like it had happened before then, but I figured it out just in time. If wise old Grandfather had known exactly what to do, it stood to reason he’d learned it the old-fashioned way, watching or helping; quite possibly more than once.

“The man who died,” I said.

“Him.” A cartload of significance crammed into that word. “Offcomer,” he explained.

“Ah,” I said.

“Schoolteacher, he called himself,” he went on. “Dunno about that. Him and the Brother, they tried to get a school going, to teach the boys their letters and figuring and all, but I told them, waste of time in these parts, you can’t spare a boy in summer, and winter, it’s too dark and cold to be walking five miles there and five miles back, just to learn stuff out of a book. And they wanted paying, two pence twice a year. People round here can’t afford that for a parcel of old nonsense.”

I thought of my own childhood, and said nothing. “Where did he come from?”

“Down south.” Well, of course he did. “I said to him, you’re a long way from home. He didn’t deny it. Said it was his calling, whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

It was dark by the time we reached the farm. It was exactly what I’d been expecting; long and low, with turf eaves a foot off the ground, turf walls over a light timber frame. No trees this high up, so lumber had to come up the coast on a big shallow-draught freighter as far as Holy Trinity, then road haulage the rest of the way. I spent the first fifteen years of my life sleeping under turf, and I still get nightmares.

Mercifully, the Brother was there waiting for me. He was younger than I’d anticipated—you always think of village Brothers as craggy old fat men, or thin and brittle, like dried twigs with papery bark. Brother Stauracius couldn’t have been much over thirty; a tall, broad-shouldered man with an almost perfectly square head, hair cropped short like winter pasture and pale blue eyes. Even without the habit, nobody could have taken him for a farmer.

“I’m so glad you could come,” he said, town voice, educated, rather high for such a big man. He sounded like he meant it. “Such a very long way. I hope the journey wasn’t too dreadful.”

I wondered what he’d done wrong, to have ended up here. “Thank you for your letter,” I said.

He nodded, genuinely pleased. “I was worried, I didn’t know what to put in and leave out. I’m afraid I’ve had no experience with this sort of thing, none at all. I’m sure there must be a great deal more you need to know.”

I shook my head. “It sounds like a textbook case,” I said.

“Really.” He nodded several times, quickly. “I looked it up in Statutes and Procedures, naturally, but the information was very sparse, very sparse indeed. Well, of course. Obviously, this sort of thing has to be left to the experts. Further detail would only encourage the ignorant to meddle.”

I thought about Grandfather; two shovels and an axe, job done. But not quite, or else I wouldn’t be here. “Quite,” I said. “Now, you’re sure there were no other deaths within six months of the first attack.”

“Quite sure,” he said, as though his life depended on it. “Nobody but poor Anthemius.”

Nobody had asked me to sit down, let alone take my wet boots off. The hell with it. I sat down on the end of a bench. “You didn’t say what he died of.”

“Exposure.” Brother Stauracius looked very sad. “He was caught out in a snowstorm and froze to death, poor man.”

“Near here?”

“Actually, no.” A slight frown, like a crack in a wall. “We found him about two mi