Beanstalk to the End of the World

Helix apologized for the end of the world first thing in the morning. Of course he knew something had to be done about it, and of course he felt badly about it, but also, he also wanted to watch the M*A*S*H* marathon on 227 without having to think about the imminent end of civilization as it was generally known. In the back of his head, he was aware that there was something pitiful about seven hours of M*A*S*H* on a Saturday night, a pitiful that was compounded by Helix’s tumbling black curls, his easy laugh, and his apocalyptic smile. There was no doubt that he could have been doing anything or anyone on any Saturday night, and instead: M*A*S*H*.

Mostly, he wanted to someone to ask him what he was doing, so that he could tell them. But no one called, and so he was left with M*A*S*H* and looming Armageddon until dawn.

Trillium didn’t accept his apology. (Trillium was not really her name. Actually, Helix was not really his name either. The names of gods are impossible for humans to spell, much less pronounce. Our lips and voice boxes aren’t made for it. Curiously enough, the lips and voice boxes of the Madagascar Aye-Aye, a specialized lemur that retrieves grubs from trees by means of an elongated middle finger, are made for it, but no one asks them). Trillium told Helix that she’d been thinking, and she had this theory that Helix had only triggered the end of the world to get attention.

“That’s ridiculous,” Helix replied. He was in his pajamas. Not pajamas like you or I wear, but the original paijama, from West Asia. He’d paired the trousers with a hideous bright blue calf-length sherwani that he liked because a mortal had once told him it brought out the blue in his eyes. His eyes were no longer blue, but the memory of the flattery remained.

Trillium, on the other end of the phone, said, “You’re like a puppy. Even negative attention will please you.” keep reading…

Giantkiller

We were standing on the corner of Grant and 23rd when this guy came sidling up to us. He had on a long skeezy coat and was talking out of the corner of his mouth in that mumble where you can’t tell if he wants to beg a ride or a dollar or sell you drugs or what. His had a lumpy scarf wrapped around most of his face and under it, he could have been twenty-eight or thirty-five or sixty.

My brother Jack said, “Is it sold out?” and after he said that, I could kind of backtrack the guy’s mumble and break it into words.

Tickets. The guy was holding a pair of show tickets. They glowed paper-white under the streetlights. You boys need tickets?

I shook my head, but Jack was already digging around in his pockets, searching for his wallet.

No!” I said, and I said it fast and loud, grabbing for his elbow like that might actually stop him from doing whatever the hell he wanted.

Jack only laughed and pulled his arm out of my hand. “Hey, what’s the problem? You love Giantkiller, right? And you’ve been yowling all day about your stupid guitar, so this makes us square.”

magic guitar

I just looked at him. Square would be my Fender back.

Square would be if I could have a new brother.

He looked right at me, smiling in the way that when we were little always meant he was about to hold me down in the swimming pool or take my candy bar or lock me in the basement. “Acting like a whiny little bitch isn’t going to get your guitar back.”

There was an empty Schlitz can lying in the middle of the sidewalk and I kicked it hard so it went bouncing along the gutter and down into the storm drain. “If you’d have just stuck to pawning your own shit, I wouldn’t need to get it back. And yeah, I liked Giantkiller in the eighth grade. ”

Jack shrugged and smiled like none of that even made a difference. He handed the guy a couple of twenties and punched me on the arm. “Stop moaning about the guitar. We’ll get you another one.”

He passed me a ticket. It was crumpled and worn soft from being held in the guy’s gloved hand all night.

Also, Jack is an asshole.

*****

Inside the club, the crowd was packed in all the way to the back bar. The whole place was dim and smelled like stale sweat and old beer and drying blood from the mosh pit.

Jack pushed straight through the swarms of people like they weren’t even there, and everyone just let him, even though two feet away, I saw a guy get punched in the face just for trying not to get crushed against the wall.

When Mason Tyler came onstage, the crowd screamed like they were being eaten alive. keep reading…

Beast

This is a story.

This is a story about two girls who lived alone with their mother on the end of a road at the edge of a forest. It was not a tame forest. The trees grew too close together for walking and by summer, the ground between the trunks was fast set with violent green thorns, rotted branches, and aborted saplings. It was not a pretty forest. There were too many trees in too small of space, all hedged in by foul-scented locust trees at the edges. The locusts were new. Tall and skinny, with leaves only at the top, like a broom, they grew ten and fifteen feet in a year and quickly hid anything the forest had to recommend it.

mouth suicide

But the two girls were lovely: Rose and Lark-Louise were their names. You wouldn’t have thought they were sisters to look at them. I thought they were merely friends when I first met them, or possibly cousins. Twice removed, if cousins. They were that different. People expected Lark-Louise to be the wild one by her name, but she was slow and quiet as ripples in a pond. Dark-haired Rose was the fiend. The thorns in the forest had nothing on her for sharpness. Both of the sisters lived alone with their mother — I said that, didn’t I? — in a rambler at the edge of the trees. The house had four beds in it. Two twin beds in a shared room for the girls, an air mattress in the basement, and a queen bed that used to hold two. I know all this because I’ve slept in two of those beds. There was no father because a beast ate him. The girls don’t know, but he was trying to cut down the locusts behind the house to make the forest less ugly. It was easy for the beast to reach him from the snarl of thorns. When Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother found him, their father had a twelve foot spear run through him long-wise, and one of the beast’s pronged feet buried into his chest. Their father had managed to cut it off, you see, but the foot was still alive and angry and digging.

The beast was the most frightening thing you could imagine. keep reading…

Blood Red Rose

Bianca, my sister says. She says it three times, like the charm in a story. Soft, deliberate.

“I’m awake,” I say, before I even really know if it’s the truth.

Her voice is careful in the dark, like she’s afraid she’ll startle me, breathing the words instead of speaking them. “There’s someone at the door.”

The way she leans over me is careful too, like she’s trying to keep me calm. It’s silly, though. Of the two of us, I’m the one who’s never loud. I’m the one who keeps still and doesn’t make a fuss.

Outside, the night is strangely pale. Snow has collected on all the window ledges and made its way up the glass, shutting us in like a tomb. In the clear space above the little drifts, it just keeps falling.

roses

Then, without warning, the pounding comes again, echoing from downstairs, booming through the front hall.

“Wait here,” she says, taking her cardigan from the back of the desk chair and after a second, the heavy wooden bat.

She leaves, and the whole house is as dark and still as the dead. The power’s been out since this afternoon. After a second, I reach for the Coleman lantern beside the bed and turn it on. Then I throw back the covers and follow her.

The lantern casts a dim circle of light, making shadows in all the corners. At the top of the stairs, I stand and listen.

Her feet are light, almost soundless on the floor runner. Then I hear her voice, loud and ferocious, speaking close to the door. “Who are you and what do you want?”

The answer is muffled, low. A man’s. “Please, my car went off the road. About a half a mile up Ashbury Drive. It’s stuck in the ditch and there’s nothing around. Please, if you don’t let me in, I’ll die out here.”

The door distorts most of the sound, but I can still hear the way his voice catches on the last part. Outside, the snow is falling in huge, silent washes, drifting up the sides of the house. It collects in deep hummocks, heavy, soundless, and by morning, we might be buried completely.

“Coral,” I say, because if we leave him there on the front steps, he’ll freeze. “You have to let him in.” keep reading…

The Emperor’s Son

“Is there even the grossest possibility this process could be more efficient?” I asked. “I’m supposed to be in about fourteen different places right now.”

The bearded tech assistant gave a little laugh. “Well,” he said, “If I don’t do this right, you will be in fourteen different places.”

It was the laugh that annoyed me, actually. It wasn’t a laugh that indicated any particular deference or uncertainty. It was a — dare I say it? — yes, chuckle. It was the sort of gentle chuckle that bearded young men tended to give when they were around other bearded young men of the same social status and educational background. It was a chuckle that said we all know what’s going on here, man, and it’s that we’re getting the shaft by fate, so let’s have a beer and let it work itself out.

Only I was not a similarly statused bearded young man. I was August Mowbray, son of Justice Mowbray, who, for all intents and purposes, was the closest thing to fate this assistant would ever touch. And I had, as I mentioned before, fourteen other places to be besides this gymnasium-sized greenhouse full of corn. The entire room smelled like chemicals, modified soil, and, beneath it all, possibly, plants.

“I would laugh,” I said, “But the intricacies of elevator humor escape me.”

“Elevator!” the assistant said. “If this was just an elevator, you’d be out of here and I’d be kicking back, man.”

Using every bit of my personal fortitude, I managed to avoid wincing at the word ‘man.’ “Enlighten me.” My father has an incredible fondness for technology and gadgets and, as County Principal, he was always looking for new ways to implement them in his benevolent rule. As his son, he’s exhorted me to show some interest.

This was me, showing interest.

The bearded tech assistant chuckled again. I could see it, the word, ‘chuckle.’ He said, “This greenhouse is forty-seven miles away from the building you came from. When you got into that ‘elevator’ back in the library, your molecules were dis-assembled, transmitted across the hi-4 wires your dad was so nice to lay out here to Meadville, and then put back together in the same configuration that you like ‘em in. Then the doors opened and you got out to look at some corn.”
keep reading…

New Villains

When I came back into the auditorium, Troy Brewster was sitting on the edge of the stage, looking like someone had just clipped him on the back of the head with a lacrosse stick.

It wasn’t that remarkable. In truth, Troy always looked kind of like someone had crowned him with something heavy and now all his thoughts and feelings and vague, unarticulated suspicions were spilling out of his cranium. It was kind of his default expression.

“On your feet, tiger,” I said, clapping my hands like I was Coach Klein, calling the C Team players in from the practice field.

thread

Troy raised his head, but didn’t change expression. “You said that they liked me. You said they’d be fighting over themselves to elect me. That I’d be an automatic.”

The way he looked at me was plaintive and the truth is, I did say that, but the other truth is that I lied. I invented this impossible, shining reality from purely imaginary cloth, and I take full responsibility for that. But honestly? It wasn’t even my story.

The real lie had started—oh, years ago—back when Troy was just a mean, ungainly eighth-grader with a growth-spurt, whose main hobbies were breaking people’s glasses and pinching girls in the halls. But he was good at sports and at knocking people down, and so everyone smiled because no one wanted to invite his wrath by not smiling. If fear is love, then yes, they loved him. Because the truth is, love under duress is complicated, and sometimes a lie is not a lie.

Sometimes, with enough attention and enough cultivation, a lie is just another name for that thing you always wished was true. keep reading…

Manhattan Swans

It was always the same in Manhattan. At sun-up, the traffic shuddered and the subways choked and the sidewalks seethed and everyone became animals.

My brothers were swans, because my step-mother said it was so, and no one disagrees with her, because she has all the money.

swan by FurLined

“You’ve ruined them,” I cried to her as soon as she had done it. When I said ‘them,’ really, I meant little Philip, the youngest of my seven older brothers. Even though he was a year older than me, I thought of him as my baby brother. He still collected insects from the back yard and chalked funny pictures on the old brick wall around the garden.

My cellophane stepmother had sighed and rolled her eyes from where one mahoghany-haired friend grew from a chair to where another friend in a brocade vest melted into a cushion. She said, “The dramatics are a bit much, aren’t they, Julie? There are worse things than swans.”

They didn’t have to be animals at all, though. They could’ve stayed boys forever. I knew she only preferred them as swans because she didn’t like them as boys, because all she’d ever known was swans, because my father was too dead to stop her. I screamed this at her while tiny lines appeared around the edge of her mouth, and then, the next morning, I ran away to New York. All my brothers flew after me. Julian, the eldest and most swan-like, every line of him an arc, found me crying in the subway on the first evening.

“Poor Julie,” he said, helping me up. He was wearing a tweed vest and looked very dapper with his frame of Broadway posters and graffiti. “This is where homeless people sleep.”

I tried not to sound pitiful, but I did anyway. “I am homeless.” keep reading…

Feathers

One of these days—soon—without word, without warning, I’m going to go up in smoke.

It won’t sputter or smolder. When the blaze finally comes, it will be a conflagration. I’ll explode into flame like a dynamite crate, blackened paper and broken boards going everywhere. One of these days, the weight of the feathers and the silk will be too much. My bones will break like matchsticks, splintering, striking sparks off the edges of my cold steel core.

swan princess

Two times since rehearsals started, the footlights have gone out during the Pas de trois. Back in November, it was raining all the time. The breakers kept shorting, crackling out in a shower of sparks. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but someone had to answer for it. The new director told the stage crew that if it happened again, heads would roll. We could hear her through the door of her office, screaming into her phone. The pitch of her voice was inhumane, and directors are all crazy. They’re supposed to be temperamental, dramatic. This is different. When Madame de Sevigne raises her voice, it’s like a struck bell that won’t stop ringing. You can almost hear the frequency of her stiff, violent rage, buzzing under her skin.

Three of the corps dancers quit in one week, less than a month into the season. The ones who stayed called it insane, leaving the best company in the state, but those three were done with it and even their little-girl dreams of being pretty ballerinas weren’t strong enough to keep them here in the glowering presence of the Madame. They gathered up their lace and ribbons and disappeared, leaving nothing but a few loose hairpins and sequins, a few scattered feathers. keep reading…

“Clean” by Swati Avasthi

It would not be enough.  For Andoria, every curl of her mother’s lips had to be paid for.  Andoria had woken up early, heated the iron in the fire until it glowed, and pressed each pleat of her dress.  She had even braided her hair all by herself.  Now, she stood perfectly still in a line of restless girls, ignoring the snow that seeped through her shoes and pierced her toes.  It ought to be enough.  She looked over her shoulder at the corner of the village square where parents and brothers were gathered, waiting for the inspections to end.  Her mother stood with remote eyes and a frown.  Maybe her father would reward her.  The bakery was so close, just across the street.  She inhaled deeply:  currant cakes.

Finally, Sere Phylos, the Royal Magus, stopped before Andoria.  Andoria had never seen anyone look so clean.  Though her blonde hair was loose, it was kempt and straight, giving her a dignity that Andoria had seen only in men.  The assistant following her had a thin face and puckered his lips frequently, no flaw too small for his disapproval.

Sere stared down at her, but Andoria held her gaze; revealing fear was just an invitation.

“Name,” Sere’s assistant said.

“Andoria Ioke,”

“Age?”

“Eleven.”

“Underage for mind consent alone,” he murmured.  “Will you submit to a mindlink?”  His voice was brisk and impersonal.  Just another girl in just another village.  Something about it irritated her.

“Do I have a choice?” she asked.

His lips tightened.  Sere held up her hand before he responded.  “Yes.  You do.”  She kneeled, looking at Andoria eye to eye.  “Do you know what a mind link is?”

“Where you get to hear my thoughts?”

“Something like that.  If you consent, our minds will be connected to each other, and I can see anything inside your head that I want.  But you can explore my mind, too.  I’m only looking for one thing so I will be fast.”

Andoria nodded.  “Will it hurt?”

“No.”  She did not sound like other adults, the lie hovering around the edge of their voices.  She sounded like she was telling the truth.  “Only if you want to.”

“All right.  I consent.”

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King Me and King Me Again

Ordinarily, the sorts of notices you get by mail these days are quite boring and non-urgent, easily ignored, so you’ll forgive me when I admit that we didn’t open up the letter about Edmund for a week. It had a county return address, which usually meant that we’d forgotten to pay a bit of property tax or that —surprise!— all dogs need to be registered or risk being put down if found wandering about or possibly something truly, incredibly riveting like our voter registration cards.

It does not usually mean that you have a relative being released from a high security prison in a few weeks and that you need to collect them, please, in order for the conditions of their parole to be maintained. The correspondence inside usually doesn’t go on, then, to explain that the said relative committed the crime several hundred years before and has only now become eligible for parole. And even if it does say that, it doesn’t go on to explain that eight-hundred-year-old criminals are only permitted to go free if lodging with direct family members for the duration of their parole.

But that was what the county return address meant on this letter. Inside the envelope bearing the country return address was another, slightly more battered envelope with a royal air mail stamp on it, and it was in this envelope that we learned that Edmund was meant to come stay with us for a year until his secondary hearing by the District Court of Secondary Instances.

I had never heard of the District Court of Secondary Instances, but I’d never been to England, either, so what did I know?

Eight hundred years.

The letter did not explain exactly how he was still alive. Also notably absent was a description of his crime.

It would not be convenient to take Edmund in. We were not a very rich family. My father sold some sort of imaging software to doctors’ offices, which meant that he was away from home as often as he was home. My mother was a manager for a Dollar Tree. My younger brother was in college, studying to be a drunk. And I was a useless daughter who still lived at home, dating only her journal entries and sleeping only with her masters in English.

But my mother —surprise!— was as unable to turn Edmund away as she’d been to tell me to move out. So Edmund got on a plane and Harry (rarely sober little brother) and I got sent to the airport to pick him up. I had said I could go myself, because my Mazda barely fits two people, much less three, but my mother said that Edmund was a criminal, after all, and she would hate for my first sexual experience, at age 26, to be rape by a 800-year-old man.

My mother is hilarious like that.

Edmund flew into BWI, in Baltimore, and after parking the Mazda in one of the seven spheres of hell available there, Harry and I headed into the terminal. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting Edmund to look like. I anticipated a beard, at the very least. We were all pretty foggy on what was happening in British history in the twelfth century, which was when Edmund supposedly committed his crime. Twelfth century. Was that . . . Anglo-Saxon England? Vikings? Beards seemed like a safe bet. Beards seemed historical.

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